Wednesday, July 30, 2008

And, in the end, the love you take...

Ashley Gilbertson Fallujah (Australian 2005)

Give Me Love: Songs of the Broken Hearted-Baghdad 1925-29 (Honest Jon's 2008)

I considered posting this with the Tragic Magician, but he's been so prolific lately that I was sort of worried it might get lost in the shuffle. That and, incongruous with his statement of purpose, this doesn't really qualify as the "excavated, unheard history of music".

Well, strictly speaking, it is precisely that. But the deeper realty is that Give Me Love is a postcard of Hipsterville, 2008, first and foremost, and a reflection of early 20th century Iraqi folk music second.

It's hard to believe the folks at Honest Jon's have been playing fast, loose, and global with archival and neo-primitive music for nearly a decade now--might as well make that an anniversary for this boutique lost-sound phenomenon on the whole. Because though labels like Folkways, Rounder, Yazoo, and even Sublime Frequencies have been piping out the old long since (and as many newcomer homages) going back to the early 50's--probably well before, the naturalized indie cool of roots culture is a pretty recent refinement.

Labels like Honest Jon's, Numero, Bo Weevil, Soul Jazz, Buda, Light in the Attic, and Finders Keepers all traffic in a kind of second-pass commodity: music that was largely overlooked in its day, sometimes for good reasons. Not to say there aren't plenty of gems amid these crate-digger assortments; nor for that matter that some labels haven't even reconstituted certain garage/favela/refugee camp sounds into worthy, even classic pastiche. But the genre--if it can even be called one, is at its best cosmetic and lucky, and at worst, parasitic.

Don't get me wrong, there isn't a label in the paragraph above that I do not adore, or haven't at some time. And I'd have to say that--take away Soul Jazz's slightly longer, and as consistent, run, Honest Jon's does it best. Probably because, like co-owner, Damon Albarn's own second-act musical ventures (Gorillaz, Mali Music, Blur's Think Tank and The Good The Bad & The Queen) the label is compelled by a basically singular aesthetic, one that tenaciously grubs at the displaced past and distant, and reconfigures them into new weird things. Albarn has taken his new life with the patient mysticism of Jack Nicholson's David Locke in Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1975 movie, The Passenger. Nominally, Albarn walked away from Blur, keeping the wealth of his creative identity entact, moving, as it were, from country to country, encounter to encounter. He has made a kind of egocentric tour of getting lost in his surroundings, and a shopping spree of all he hopes to become.

Candi Staton, a self-titled singles compilation from the great Alabama gospel and soul singer, is most likely the defining document of this current pop music excavation, raising up something so integral to our western pop DNA, and yet so puzzlingly neglected. It belongs in the select company of Harry Smith's venerable Anthology of American Folk Music and Sam Cooke's The SAR Story. Likewise the ongoing British immigrant music series, which began with fantastic calypso comp(s) London is the Place for Me, captures a musical event so natural and exciting, and again so bafflingly obscure.

Give Me Love for obvious reasons is more like the latter of those two, as it reveals a distant culture as well as a different era. There are moments here that the diverse array of ballads, religious songs, and folk music resembles the chanson of Paris's cafes. That the cover features a patina-washed photo of violinist, Selim Daoud, himself a kind of well-played cross evocation of Stephane Grappelli's gypsy violin, and Harold Lloyd's silent era-type demure dandy appearance, further the very western sensibility being used to peddle the Arab product. It is cultural imperialist window-dressing for a musical platter that might otherwise inspire less enthusiasm. In truth, the entire packaging is lovely and reverent to a lost hour. That's an achievement of mixed merit.

I can't help but feeling sheepish romanticizing the peacetime beauty of Iraq, given the country's current tragic state of affairs and how complicit the West has been in directly producing it. If Give Me Love, with its meshing of religions, styles, and amorous motives, illustrates that Edenic lost world, one can't help but, from a listener's point of view, feeling like the Snake.

One affirming aspect of the recordings, made by traveling producers and record scavengers from the Gramophone label in the mid and late 1920's, is how it reflects a world momentarily connected (and interconnected) in a kind of jubilee: Djivan Gaspayan's reedy hypnotic pipe, Charley Patton's gothic croak, Asha Bhosle's nasal siren song, Ornette Coleman's squonk, Roscoe Holcomb's high lonesome whistle call, and on and on...They're all here. Folks of far-flung origins we know full well never passed this way in this particular magic hour, but whose influences and idiosyncracies seem to belong to it.

In that regard Give Me Love is both history and fantasy, neither to be taken too seriously as as an explanation of world ills, nor so so capricious that amid these antique tunes, one should lose touch with the universal hope. A nice souvenir, er, lesson.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On Updike, Joe Boruchow, and the unnavigatable light

Joe Boruchow-poster (2008 S. Phila.)

Special thanks to my good friend, and the estimable artist, Joe Boruchow. He rather intuitively, and quite graciously, linked me to a handful of New York Review of Books essays in an attempt to legitimize John Updike out of my ignorance and resistance. Quick work was made.

Joe and I had been discussing American artists as I was newly aware of Alsatian-American illustrator/artist, Tomi Ungerer. (I urge you to check the link, especially you graphic-period Warhol enthusiasts.) As is so often the case Joe steered us into the earnestness (or at least matte silverness) of America, tapping into, and sharing, my love of Ben Shahn, Max Fleischer, and George Herrimann. Eventually he alit on Updike, whom as I explained a moment ago, had never worked high in my regards. What he (Joe) really loved were these essays Updike wrote as art critic for The NYRoB. So he sent me a few. I had been drastic in my opinion of John Updike. He's always been too much of a golden calf to really enjoy, too expectedly loved; somewhere there's a back issue of Informed Audience Member Quarterly with him on the cover standing between Joni Mitchell and David Hockney smoking a Churchill. On the wall above the fireplace: Raphael.

The essay, which is sturdy as an Amish nightstand, is called "The Clarity of Things", and it concerns the definition of American Art: For such a presumptuous topic I totally enjoyed it.

I mentioned to Joe that I was moving back to Pittsburgh for a while. In his wrathful halcyon Andrew Carnegie had acquired himself a lion's share of the great American paintings of the 19th century. Certainly I gushed over John Singer Sargent's epiphanous Venetian Interior 1882, and how one of the maids depicted, in her diagonal journey across the canvas, meets with only the tip of her toe a cross-current of sunlight. And how the meeting is no less flagrant and stimulating than when Eve met the Snake. Hearts destroyed, boners attained, privileges lost, etc., etc.

And there were the neo-Classicals--categorical or by warp of history, like Ingres, Courbet, and David who practically fathered the American style (add Walt Whitman and a bay leaf and you're there). In their times they were inflammatory, and at least in Courbet's case, considered somewhat garish for his stylistic determination. I remembered hearing Elizabeth Schumann's sillysad Lieder when I discovered a book of David in a thrift shop years ago. My initial reaction, doubtless emphasized by the metered loveliness of the song--which is why I mention it, was how stealthily David had been an influence on Edward Hopper. The signs are not instantly met. But look in each, and you can find the shared light of abandonment on the figures. It is as if David had taught the American pastoralist a kind of vocational cruelty: you drive them out to the middle of nowhere, in your case Maine, and you leave them there to navigate the light. The results were ecstatic.

So I've made my peace with John Updike, occupation: essayist. My ambivalence for the novelist endures. But then, I don't seem to care for any novelists. Their demands go unrewarded; which of them knows how to finish something he started?! Not so many. Not even the greats. Joe has been reading Willa Cather, and I still tote around Speak, Memory returning to it like a grocery list: I don't want to be surprised, I'm practically 33. How do I feed myself? You'd be surprised how rapid and reliable an answer I get. Perhaps it's not a novel, though it satisfies the demands of one with out griping.

Maybe all style is griping; I still haven't settled on a way to write this thing in a way that satisfies me. A friend, and writer, whose work I respect very much recently said to me, "I enjoy your blog, though I'm not sure I always "get it"". You know, that film is on the insides of these windows too. You scrawl not because it makes sense, but because with your fingers you've, sloppily and with the last mechanical vestiges of being a child, found a way to invite a thing in.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Stink/Cheat/Torture-I Broke Penny Arcade (Western recent)

Episode Two is now ready for download. It's a smaller chunk, but between the problems discovered with Episode One, and time spent thinking on what discriminating palates really want, I figured cameos were the way to go. I'll be posting more often to make up for the brevity. Plus, because it's such an irresistible song, and was mulched on Episode One, I felt duty-bound to reinclude The Shirelles' "Soldier Boy". Dutch simplicity nothing, that song sounds downright Jamaican.

Here's the rest, with as few words as I can will myself to use:

1. Roy Orbison-Whirlwind So remarkable was Roy Orbison's voice in contrast to his watery and pallid-flesh villainous look, that MGM figured in front of a camera he was bound to take off. Exhibit A. 1967's The Fastest Guitar Alive, and B. everything you already know, coalesce around the truth of it: he did not. The movie sounds like a stinker (I don't lose sleep over not having seen it) and the soundtrack is middling to good. "Whirlwind", the opening cut, is fantastic, barring a lazy fire/desire rhyme, and a seriously fucked up Lolita-esque concept of women. It was the moment that dashed Orbison as a pin-up. Lately, listening to the fantastic second album by Antony and the Johnsons I can hear that bold, quivering sound Orbison invented, and relish knowing he was better off on the right side of the lens. I tend to think of Ella Fitzgerald as the great American singer, but Roy Orbison, I think is more the Grand Canyon. Not a metaphor.

2. John Coltrane w/Hank Mobley, Zoot Sims & Al Cohn-How Deep is the Ocean? Every time I kick my shoes and socks in a pile and lean back to ruminate on what a racist douchebag Irving Berlin was, I'm invariably, inconveniently brought to. The songs are superb. He was a savage motherfucker, and I guess one must forgive the weaknesses of old, when consecrating new hope. Despite the fact that I don't believe what I just said, let me vicariously flatter Berlin even further by adoring this fantastic round table tenor treatment of "How Deep is the Ocean?". This generation of listeners might best set it alongside Television's "Little Johnny Jewel" from the bootleg album, The Blow-Up. Where else might you find such competitive lyrical interplay without cover art involving a Boris Vallejo dominatrix on the spine of her dragon husband. A husband who, I might add, spits blue flames, and has a tattoo.

3. Donny Hathaway-Jealous Guy Hathaway captures all the selfish warmth of John Lennon which, I think, was always his best asset. It was released in '72, in that amber tube of belief that folks would continue to reinvent songs like this. And that slow-pump piano tune is so Bennie and the Jets...

4. Nikki Sudden & Dave Kusworth: Jacobites-Snow White I'm still not quite sure how it has worked out that Kusworth, who wrote this, has not been better rewarded by a grubby-fingers pop history machine that seems ever-poised to rediscover some lost thing. Be that as it may, I think Kusworth gave to the Jacobites fraternity much of the chipped pathos upon which its noble mantle rests. This song will be playing at my funeral, and at Ray's when I leave Philadelphia. A kind of silly funeral too.

5. Uncle Sam-Around the World Girls What an awesome convergence of dancehall and dubstep atoms. Somewhere, not here, the dorky guy is dancing with the nasty Canadian twins to this. Right now, I mean.

6. The Turbans-Let Me Show You Around My Heart Another great Philly doo wop act. That singer is Al Banks of South Philadelphia, a kindred spirit of Frankie Lymon; both modulated in ways that incorporated the feminine and masculine components of the song. I got it from a 78 I found in a box. We should all be so lucky as I am.

and of course The Shirelles.

Oh, and before I forget, I was banging around on the pipes at MagicisTragic's weblog last night, reminiscing over Arab Strap's luxurious 1999 downer, Elephant Shoe; the peanut shells, Rowhouse Red bottles and a brief essay can be found there now. At least I hope I remembered the essay.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No, it's an Enclave!

Marcel Duchamp-Fountain (French 1917)

Look for a long overdue corrected Episode One of the Enclave podcast later this evening, followed by Episode Two. Pardon the prolonged technical difficulties, I think the worst of it is in the past now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Pieter Brueghel the Elder-Luilekkerland (Dutch 1567)

A Few Final Words on Elgar, Godar, Bittova and the lot...

I always imagined myself being the kind of rich guy that brings that really nice berylline bottle of sherry to Millionaire Island where they smoke cigars and hunt human beings for sport. I have seen the sun rise through (the dirtier, emphysematic golden prism of) that very bottle on occasion, though sadly the vignette has not turned out to be the case of my life...

I do like to unwind though.

So imagine the feeling when I checked my mail, only to find some of the heartiest, most analytical and just plain old caring responses I ever got--to the tandem featurettes I logged last Saturday eve and Sunday morning, were submitted secretly.

To paraphrase, while shielding identity, one writer said my effusions over Ms. Iva Bittova went a little too far in certain places, not far enough in others. She pointed out that, contrary to the obvious inclination, the gross sexy parts were among the latter.

What she felt I overstated most were the ties to pop music, that Godar's cycle as it stands, and as spearheaded by Ms. Bittova, is a contemporary palimpsest owing more to early music, eastern European revivalist styles, folk music, Yiddish lullabies, etc..

I gotta say: eh.

I still hear Kate Bush the instant those strings blaze. I liked this person, whom I suspect I sorta know, but can't say for sure, at least not from the email address. She advocated a kind of listening and concentration technique that made earlier recapitulations of Mr. Alex Ross, by my amigo, Alford, seem downright Presbyterian by contrast. Perhaps hence the cloak and dagger. I am both disappointed and satisfied. You wear the aura like a mohawk.

Now one of the "Elgar" correspondents was not nearly as swelling. In fact he was too nice and easy for me to have taken any offense. I admire his economy, though, and his--I suspect, muzzled knowledge of the British composer. At any moment I felt the seam might've split on his opinion sac, and out would've sprayed things only a doting Elgar (great-?) grandchild would know, or worse, some custard-colored Oxonian scholar, whose own diminutive shadow resembles an inverted scallion. This in particular is how I explain the drab, too-knowing knell in his writing, and the total lack of cruelty as well... But without evidence I can't really find in my suspicions. One meaningful fingerprint remains, and it is in the form of a single paragraph, itself small enough to tack on lightly.

Forgive me:

You really overcompensate Elgar his compositional foresight: he did not, as you impress, invent those modern fantasmagoria, [ed. actually I came well short of saying he did!] missing his real contribution: that tightwinding of the craft's flame. He was a kind of noble conservative, if such mammals are to be believed in. In repressive authority you have your Anne Bradstreet, we have Sir Edward, late, hirsute Sir Edward.

I really like that bit about Anne Bradstreet. And the mammalian hairiness of the English, which I never knew. But what do I know?

Next time please use the comments option.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Silly Fool

Falstaff-Elgar/Boult/Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra (Westminster 1930's?)

The crude snap you see above was taken with my phone-camera. When Miss Kate left she not only took a wedge of my ticker with her but, no less sadly, her digital camera. I scanned in vain the Google image banks for a reproduction of either the Westminster Records (probably late 30's) album cover or the original etching, which I attributed to Gustav Dore, who famously set to image the works of Dante and Rabelais, learning later it was more likely the earlier, Michele Beneditte, a late 18th- early 19th century Italian etcher.

There is something purposefully off-center about Elgar's Falstaff, as if modelled ploddingly after the portly one's movement. I am largely resistant to any piece of music that tries too literally to tell as story better told, well, literally. And given the deep history of this character the feat is no less formidable. However, Sunday morning can cast a spell on the lesser things; this is, I suspect, why The New York Times remains in print.

Elgar's vision is dryly cartoonish, and well-colored at its best. I don't feel the sum of this story is imparted, not that that was ever the point anyway. Certain moments are so fully realized that it is hardly a bother. Falstaff's drunken reverie, "Eastcheap--Gadshill--The Boar's Head; revelry and sleep" as Elgar succinctly calls it, is a particular success. In its maneuvres Elgar lays groundwork for Warner Brothers' cartoon scorewriter, Carl W. Stalling, and the Soviet composer, Sergei Prokofiev, whose 1936 children's classic, Peter and the Wolf seems to borrow some of this dim wooziness. As the man's dream deepens, the music furthers a sad, comical hue that threatens to become serious in spite of its pink color. I am instantly reminded of a young, drunken Dumbo.

I suppose its fitting, that amid the music of a big man under the table, that I too should end up near a swaying elephant. Like I said, Sunday morning can cast a spell...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Someone Turned on the Lights...

Karl Mullen-Untitled

Mater-Godar/Bittova/Valent/Bratislava Conservatory Choir (ECM 2006)

Now it's dark.

Sure it's my predisposition to say so. It was, today, after all, 90-something degrees--an unkind 90-something degrees at that. Just--as was once bandied about in the gulags and other accelerative camps of human disambiguation, like yesterday. Ideal weather to vanish down the rabbit hole as freedom allows.

I say air conditioning is the poison of the modern age. Anything that could turn blue sky into a congestive cell, responsible for sneezes, muscular atrophy and a stiff monthly bill, that could keep the sun behind glass as if component to a museum for basic nouns, must be. I had the blinds down, and the dog slept. Restlessly looking at the mounds of household stuff, I ventured to reexamine cds I had once loved, though never quite as respectfully as I imagined was their due. The things I have loved. I'll say it again, the things I have verily loved.

Iva Bittova monopolizes Vladimir Godar's gut-punching Mater cycle the way all divas must: selfishly. Blood-drinkingly. With an incandescent dynamic not felt, nor feared so, since Fra Angelico ensconced the Virgin in flakes of gold. How apt that a single man, his dog and his now cable tv-free apartment should make the trappings for a delusion.

Just the other day I was discussing my potent milf affinity with a friend, who suggested I might give the opera a go. Lots of mature gals with athletic training. Might be just the thing. Iva Bittova sounds like love. Nightly curious fellows in dark burglar attire, not unlike myself I suppose, are arrested and led from the hind entrance of her home, for climbing a trellis, then through a window, then there, nearly beside her to catch the white petals with cross-running irisine blue lines inside them as they fall from her sleeping mouth, not to sell on eBay, mind you, but for covetous personal reasons, so strong is my milf affinity.

Which makes Mater all the trickier an undertaking; the Freudian snare is bigger than old Louisiana. Godar constructs this cycle as a kind of armchair tour of motherhood, heard in a string of ethnic contexts, set to multiple languages--I counted at least three, and with broadly arrayed emotional and religious premises. What is revealed, not so much contrarily, as secondarily, is the pulsating eroticism this endows Ms. Bittova, who inhabits these roles of the unfurling of womanhood, with a kind of pink multiplicity. Mind you, there's some anguish and grief expressed in the course of Mater, which I readily set aside with reverence and all due civility; I'm no wackjob.

Godar, in a composer's note, discusses the prison of narcissism into which we fall when we neglect either parent or child--that we are not only bound to duty, we are so bound against the perpetuity of all time, that if we can imagine, as is so helpful, the path stretches once to the dimming age we'll reach, and backward to the genesis gone by. So I have to agree with him, a fool would stray and not taste that sour magnificence each moment thereafter and be called a bad son of the Earth.

But wait, I wanted to address something, you know, sexy. Perhaps best that I said my peace about goodness first. For if there is any resonant lesson in Mater to be found it concerns the rich, reflective joy available between a selfish, and selfishly burning voice, and the more than nearly delusional thirst that waits, listens and consumes it like a wise and patient cactus in the sun.

Certain moments, the flamboyant "Regina Coeli" for example, a basic "he is risen" yarn Godar informs us originated in Slovakian early music revivalism (!!!), are magnetic. They open such brilliant vocal territory to Ms. Bittova that, ecclesiastical subject be damned, her irrepressibly sensuous sound flattens all secondary notions. Not that the godly and sexy are mutually exclusive. In Daniel Wolff's trenchant, You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, the author goes so far as to say lifelong spinsters actively sought sexual gratification in the tremulous fire of gospel music. The difference in this case being my happy inclination to fetishize the reward.

"Magnificat" dwells, with its plunging icy strings, near the earthly spiritualism (!!!) of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill"--even if, anachronistically, Ms. Bittova puts me in mind of Lisa Gerrard of the curiously maligned, Dead Can Dance. But it is that precise flirtation with pop music--not the exhaustive linguistic, archaeological and compositional density, which gives Mr. Godar's work such heft, and Ms. Bittova's performance such dimension. It has a wise timeliness--when's the last time that happened without the Kronos Quartet, the art department at Nonesuch, and a shoe horn?

I don't want to sell short the academic achievement of Mater, nor especially the thrilling execution--it, I confess, never feels a fraction of the haughtiness its erudition suggests. This grace and agility with heavy objects in pop music simply does not happen.

My current thoughts however remain with that woman flitting through this rigorous septych. One can hardly cast stones at a man in my position, whose mereness of gratitude sets after fresh air, rabbit's end, and fabulous women. That it might all find me too.

Am I right or am I right?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

O, the Ways to Read, w/notes on Podcast Episode One

A quick word:
Some readers have responded over the last few days, having found irregularities toward the end of Episode 1. The issue is being reviewed, and should be corrected shortly. Thanks for listening...

Episode 1

The first time I ever picked up a copy of the Torah I scratched my head like a monkey and wondered how one book so important to so many people could have suffered such an enduring publication blunder as to have been printed backwards. I always loved the Chinese alphabet, especially as a kid, with no bearings, thinking the characters were cryptically random arrangements of twigs and thorns. If I had been a Chinese kid I would've drifted away from the classroom each day in one of those little cages. Now Hebrew, on the other hand, always seemed to have a sense of humor in its shapes and proximity: lots of arched brows, hands on hips and pursing lips in those backwards-running figurines. Most erotic, though, is English in Stempel Garamond, into whose lowercase e I once momentarily withdrew from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights in a flash infatuation with the arched roof of the character's mouth. I wouldn't mention it, something so immaterial to our purposes together, but the way these blogs run in a straight shot down means you read the update or post-script or what have you before you've had a chance to read the mother article.

It is what it is. Here are but a few passing observations, some concern the music, others the records I used. I won't say there'll be zero cds used in the Enclave Podcast, but I'll certainly do my best to limit their presence. Nothing against the things--I'm no Steve Albini. I just love records and would sell my hands for more.

The Songs

1. Nat King Cole-Nature Boy (Capitol 1948) Depending how long a view you're willing to take of weird America, Cole's recording of Eden Ahbez' neo-pagan lyric came either several centuries too late or fifty some years too soon. I regard it as a kind of feral forebear to the Animal Collective/Vashti Bunyan "Prospect Hummer"--though to call this song feral is rather misleading. Still, the two share a kind of prehistoric magic. Cole's curious orchestral song must have been a great shock, so unlike everything of its time. It's so confidently homoerotic and nocturnal--it would make a fine opening song to a movie of The Secret Sharer, and was was the opening track to less homoerotic, yet equally nocturnal, The Boy with Green Hair. I have a 45 of this lying around, though this version was taken from a much more degraded 78. The accumulation of damage-induced noise only accentuates the paradox of its ancient notion and pristine rendition. Way essential, and a great way to kick things off, I say.

2. John Barry-Nobody and Nothing (United Artists 1967) From American mysticism to British. Soundtrack music peaked anew in mid to late 60's British mysteries (the intoxicating Hermann, Rosza, and Waxman themes of the 30's and 40's being the first great wave). There is little more than harpsichord and slow nylon string guitars, as if mere remnants of of an older living sound now gone. Even with the occasional embellishment from the orchestra these recordings epitomize the damp, meditative psychological tenor of the movies. Barry, famous for the exact opposite (the brash James Bond Theme for example) developed a rich, spooky sound that doesn't just mirror the pace of Brian Forbes' gothic drama, The Whisperers, it actually slows it down.

3. Margaret Greene-Learning to Talk-Two Years Old (Folkways 1963) Bought it for the cover, it turned out to have a great sound.

4. Berlioz/Sir Thos. Beecham/The Dulwich College Boys Choir/The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Columbia Masterworks 1955)-I mentioned this one in my first post. A terrific large ensemble piece, with wonderful sensitivity to space. Sounds like it was recorded in the Grand Canyon.

5. Colleen-The Golden Morning Breaks (Leaf 2005) So many folks nowadays make instrumental rock records and in doing so cheap out on some of the most important elements, the most obvious of which are the voice and lyrics. But what also too often happens is the whole song structure is lost. Blame Godspeed You Black Emperor (faithful readers by now must realize I blame them for a lot of things), or The Shipping News, or go back to the 70's wankers, the 45 minute drum solos, et al. It's hard to blame kids today, seeing as they're really second generation songless musicians and listeners. But whatever the era, history is rich with self-indulgent merrymakers who figure if I'm having a good time they must be having a good time too. Colleen appears to fit right into that lot. She records for the instrumental/new-house label, Leaf, she plays harp in a rock context, and her style is purely evocative. I excuse her entirely, though, from the accusations above. Like very few other of her generation she seems to have learned that valuable, if tricky, lesson from Satie's small, bone simple compositions: from note to note there must be some connective curiosity. It can't just be music for bubblebaths. Well, it can, but , you know, give people who take bubblebaths a little credit. They like the thoughtful, intelligent storyline too.

6. Hank Ballard & The Midnighters-Please Forgive Me (King 19??) Fine Bessemer, Alabama r&b. I love this late 50's/early 60's period of soul the best: the gospel fire was manifesting itself in new secular ways, and the crooner discipline still gave he music a kind of earnestness soon to be lost in the psychedelia of the mid-60's. I'd guess this was recorded sometime around 1960 or -61, owing a debt to the plaintive "Try Me", by James Brown--or perhaps the other way around.

7. Ivory Joe Hunter-Gimme a Pound o' Ground Round (MGM 19??) I found this curiosity in a cheapo milk crate at Beautiful World Syndicate. I bought it for the song title. The carnal euphemism is as disgusting, hilarious, and glorious as any I've heard in pop music--and that includes The Frogs. Somewhere a John Waters movie's doggy-style dryhumping scene is missing its tune...

8. Hubert Laws-Baila Cinderella (Atlantic 1963) I picked up this, Laws' 1965 lp, Flute By Laws and Byron Lee's 1967 Jump Up, within a week of one another. The former was a reccomendation of an esteemed Afro-Cuban listener/producer pal of mine--who in a reverent tone pointed out the name of Israel "Cachao" Lopes in the liner notes, the latter I just took a chance on. Over the course of Atlantic's 60+ year history they've not only made some of the quintessential American recordings (John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Ray Charles' What'd I Say to name but two off the top of my head) but they've help push the perimeters out into the realms of the undiscovered or just plain caricatured world musics. Laws' salsa is indistinguishable from straight dance music, probably because it is dance music. As notions of jazz split into camps of asses and brains there were dynamos like this who managed to appeal to both. It is tremendous fun.

9. Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer-Bob White (ATCO 1960) This spotless classy objet d'arte came from a recent excursion out west, to Jerry's Records in Pittsburgh, with old amigos Dan and Todd. The teamwork here is reminiscent of the Bing Crosby & Bob Hope road movies. Lots of arch repartee, indulgently bad jokes, and an outer sparkle missing not just from the music of our moment, but from the moment itself. A kind of laughing portent from the old long since.

10. Thelonious Monk-Tea for Two (Columbia 1963) From perhaps the most listenable record on my shelves, Criss Cross. Belongs in a museum.

11. Jo Stafford-Once to Every Heart (Columbia 1952) I can't hear songs like this without linking them to the sentimental vignettes they often filled in movies. So far though, I haven't found any sign of it having turned up in one. Check out this from an October 1952 issue of Time magazine for more dope.

*In a strange, sad coincidence, The Daily Telegraph announced yesterday Ms. Stafford, age 90, passed away. You can find that obituary, which is quite comprehensive of her life and career here.

12. ?-untranslated tune from lp, Russian Balalaika (label unknown 1977) The cardstock cover is printed in a long-lost shade of sage-honey orange, with greens that bled across the years from an old Maury Sendak storybook. The disc itself is sunny translucent gold. If I ever marry, it'll be to this record.

13. Alton Ellis-I'm Just a Guy (Studio One 1960s?) Familiar though no less superb rocksteady gem. Another fine example of the distressed condition of a record gilding the edges of its own classic aura.

14. Lee Andrews & the Hearts-Long Lonely Nights (Main Line Records 1957) Most young Philadelphians these days know Lee's son, Amir's band, The Roots, better than the doo wop father. The Roots are a formidable landbridge between old forms (jazz, doo wop, blues and such) and new hip hop. So count among their inheritance the DNA of great Philadelphia songcraft; this is one of the evocative greats, with a chorus etched on the imagination's night in long longs and loping lonelys. Pure euphony to match the pining, perfect harmony.

15. The Clash-The Card Cheat (Columbia 1979) Like Shane McGowan, Joe Strummer had an uncanny facility with bygone folk narratives. I haven't yet seen the Julian Temple movie, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, though having spent time at the store with the soundtrack it is clear the kind of juxtaposition that was made between the vast years and styles of music Strummer absorbed, and the kind he made. "The Card Cheat" tells a simple tale of the title character being caught in the act, in a way that somehow feels epic, universal, and tremendously meaningful. It's as though in this lowly cheat's moment of reckoning, when his life is blinking away before him, the weight of western sin and possibility somehow manages to squeeze into the mix. A mighty vision.

16. The Shirelles-Soldier Boy (Scepter 1962) It is tremendously difficult to address the girl groups of the early and mid-sixties without either plying the reader with copious fact-based downers, or frosting them with hackneyed approbations. So difficult, in fact, is it that I'll refrain.

17. Christian Fennesz Plays Charles Matthews (Touch 7 2008) Fennesz has managed to shape his post-halcyon career with the kind of restraint and calculation pretty much unparalleled among his generation. Sure Kevin Shields has stayed busy over the years, but the yield has been erratic, and tacking towards modest embarrassment. Fennesz, on the other hand has seized his moment as a kind of second generation new composition figure, to basically do what Brian Eno did with pianist, Harold Budd's diaphanous playing. Like Eno, Fennesz makes the production role a vital, inextricable event from the ultimate musical entity, first with the miraculously pliable Ryuichi Skamoto (Cendre, Sala Santa Cecilia) and most recently with this limited edition 7" from March. It reveals Christian Fennesz' Breughel-like capacity for wild detail in a natural panorama. The processing of Matthews playing [the grand organ at York Minster] so reverently nods to Eno's arrangements of Budd--and does so with such uncannily subtle texture. The refinement, and convergence of sound source and and receptive modifier, has given birth to a difficult new question about the boundaries of natural authorship, even as the listener snaps back from a primary musical hypnosis. Who says limited edition 7"es can't change the world?!

18. Roy Smeck & the Music Men-My Little Grass Shack (Sonora 194?) Roy Smeck, born Leroy Smeck, America's answer to Django; Reading, Pennsylvania's answer to Harpo Marx. The guy's head ought to be on the dime.

19. Beethoven/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau-Adelaide (Deutsche Grammophon 1965)

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Central Pennsport Listeners Enclave: Episode 1

It's a bulky name, but if you were my neighbor you too would seek phantasms of non-vehicular self-expression. Click the link below and download episode 1 of The Enclave podcast. You will find that over the next few days, if not weeks, I'll be doing a little fine-tuning in an attempt to format everything correctly, and add some sense of practical order. Kindly email me any problems you experience downloading. I'll address them as best I can.

A few quixotic listening notes will follow as well.

On an unrelated note, I reappeared on Magicistragic's weblog over the weekend, giving my opinion on the terrific 1985 Nikki Sudden and Dave Kusworth/Jacobites record, Robespierre's Velvet Basement. Special thanks to the head Magic man for helping me set this up...

Episode 1

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Rigid Swing

Last night at the old watering hole I got a response from my pal, Brian, on the Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder cd I fitted him with a few weeks back. From sitting next to the guy so many nights on the stools I picked up on a songwriter's empiricism--it's not so different than the crossword puzzler's variety actually. As such I pegged him a good fit for Gould--especially as other discussions revealed that, despite a seasoned education in music theory and a life in bands, he didn't have a lot interest in listening to classical music, rightly observing that much of it is boring.

Naturally I found the challenge appealing, seeing that few metaphysical concerns arise which Gould's recording cannot not assuage. Only mildly would I say that last is an overstatement, by which I mean it is a complete lie I believe with spiritual certainty. Not that you asked. That first recording of The Goldberg Variations in particular (1955; A State of Wonder also includes his 1981 recording of the same pieces) is made of such sturdy, confident strokes; in the pianists world, the Odd Couple might well have been a young, fastidious Gould, and a sweat-streaked piano-poking trickster, Thelonious Monk.

But back to Brian. I anticipated him making some incredible connections between Gould and the baser world the rest of us occupy, and he did not disappoint. He remarked that, played back to back with Van Halen's (eh) Fair Warning, Gould held up fine. It wasn't a "Devil Went Down to Georgia" showdown of chops and virtuosity; the guys in the guitar shop where he works, and where this listening took place, just figured there wasn't enough of a seam in the energies of the abutting forces (Gould vs Van Halen) to shift away from either. Brian was pleased that Gould's music produced hooks, just like in pop music. It's kind of a funny way of thinking about it, when you consider the conspicuous air of discipline and exactitude (not that pop music cannot have both as well). He's right, the idiosyncratic qualities of Gould's playing are unmistakable and magnetic.

Kevin Bazzana's excellent biography of Gould, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2005), commences with a litany of peculiar affections the Canadian pianist and producer garnered, the like of many of which might make the reader feel Bazzana had strayed into the life of John Lennon or Jimmy Page. He had groupies and nutjobs professing fear-striking love, the rapt attention of academics, headshrinkers, and fellow artists. His biographies and homages are virtually impossible to count. Once, after a few too many whiskeys I recounted the story of some Russian chess players demanding that Gould's playing chair be dismantled, and searched (while they watched) to prove no secreted devices were piping him in the incredulous answers he revealed. Suddenly I realized I was talking about the late chess champion, Bobby Fischer. Maybe it was that they were both reclusive genius Jews with rabid followings. Maybe it was the whiskey. I like to think it's that what made Gould so mystifying was, and is, the very sort of thing that would madden Russian chess players, maybe thereby elating the rest of us. A kind of laid bare impishness. It is cool and impossible to be that way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Places in New England (that don't suck).

After last nights readings at Brickbat, the subjects turned to ex-boyfriends who own quarries, and Danbury Connecticut. I thought about Charles Ives, born Danburian, and once called the greatest composer of the twentieth century. I say once because in the silliness of the last 40 years we seem to have replaced him with Ligeti. As if at Heaven's Gate we might get in faster if, to Peter's entrance question, "What's your favorite food?", we piously answer, "Why coal of course! Chilly rocks made of shit, centuries and old debris."

Peter: "Just go in already..."

Ives' Three Places in New England, alternately incandescent and dim--and referential in a spastic, forward-thinking way, owes at least part of the sublime quietude of "The "Saint Gaudens" in Boston Common " to Mahler.

The cosmic spirituality of Mahler's Ninth Symphony must be one of the most sophisticated and, at the same time, obvious (to us douchebags) signifiers in western music. I say that with the comfort of knowing that huge swaths of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven have been neutralized by contemporary, and constantly (re: mercilessly) renewed efforts to borrow on their familiar metaphors of historical or religious grandness; emotional exuberance; and intellectual pageantry. In the initial, startling swell of strings and horns sits, plain as the nose on your face, a sense of frightening, still perfectly calm, travel. It's pure death.

Now I'll admit I am partial to morbid expression, and that when lacking I'll find it anyway. But with Ives as my Rorschach test, I feel less like I'm fudging the facts than I am impressed with a thematic sense of finality that is very much active--if subtly. The green solemnity might mark different land than Mahler's Grand Canyon-esque death vistas, but the effect is comparable. That idea of returning to the earth isn't merely a reconciliation with the body's decay, it is a spiritual metaphor for the places from which we draw our most mortifying sensations of life.

Charles Ives, like the lot of twentieth century composers, always struck me as a kind of a hassle. Like Frank Zappa, or Flipper. One more thing I gotta sit through, just to say I sat though, in case, over cheese or a goddamned Malbec, it comes up again. I was pleased to find great range of color in Ives' Three Places, that its challenges were almost purely aesthetic, and employing none of that geeky twentieth century ugliness I'd come to distrust--and immediately disliked. Immediate are the nuanced natural elements, cast with symphonic size and proximity. But in the distance phantasmal piping of war fifes provide a supernatural touch, as if this place where long-gone soldiers gathered had somehow managed to hold that music in space as part of its natural identity.

Those war themes turn to bombast in the second part, "Putnam's Camp, Reading, Connecticut". In it the embedded battle themes overwhelm the "natural music", severing that rustic attractiveness, that quietude. It's not until that final part, the roiling "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" that the wild, Whitmanesque elements return to the center of the affair. I might argue that ghosts, more so than death, are the significant theme, that these three Places represent infinite variations of past lives, and inhabitations. Of course it's possible that Ives simply captured the basics of his subject, haunted as they were, without making so petty a distinction.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Silly things

On a Saturday evening about three months ago I picked up the lp, Person Pitch, by Animal Collective's Panda Bear, on my way out the door at the store. I'd only heard it once, and compared to the elegiac Young Prayer, which he composed for his late father, I found the new work a little tainted by more popular contrivances--especially those throwing back heedlessly to Brian Wilson's broad-swath sunshine sound. But the consensus was good.

I haven't opened it yet. And it's possible I only bought the record to feel better about the day--I may never open it.

I bring it up now because coming off a few days of creative dryness, following a horribly botched meditation on an old doo-wop record--a favorite, which only makes it worse, I considered swinging by the bins at Beautiful World Syndicate to see what $5 or less could buy.

This last week has proven psychologically challenging from a listening standpoint. As I continue to discover the rambunctious side of Schubert there is precious little resistance in the air; if we buy records to placate ourselves, we actualy listen to them to chafe ourselves, or at least chafe others that the friction might return to us.

Sadly many stores no longer carry classical music, or if they do they're worn out selections, picked over for strong recordings of popular titles. Popular, such as they are. All of this makes the process feel somewhat empty, certainly less exciting. You don't get that cagey feeling coming across a 78 of Alfred Cortot's Chopin performances that you might get from seeing a clean mono copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan--though the former in market terms might exceed the value of the latter. It's just not that cool. No one's going to call you a dick for finding it first; and in his head the owner is kissing Christ's sweet feet that that useless, dingy thing is finally leaving his store.

Last night, after walking the dog and seeing a peculiar barefooted man on the glassy sidewalks around 5th & Tasker, in the heat with hardly any streetlight to show the way, I had a flashback of something I'd read a few years back. Anthony Bourdain described his awkward college years in a single image, which I'd say speaks to the wilderness of social awkwardness out there. He was, as he wrote (and I paraphrase), that kid walking across campus with the samurai sword in his belt. Not, I should take the license to point out, on his way to a martial arts class, nor a weaponology seminar, nor even a trade show where such things are often bought and sold among minds liberal to those objects. He was likely going to the cafeteria, or maybe a parking lot wall to stand and spit. I was struck by the thought of Bourdain, as with this mysterious night creeper, how silly we must seem no matter what we do.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Mule

First, I must thank Alford--who if I'm not mistaken, is the gregarious music enthusiast, John Armstrong of old Third Street Jazz fame (please correct me if I'm wrong), with whom I've shared many a compelling food anecdote, favorite among which is the one I described in To Stink To Cheat To Torture, concerning him curing a ham in his apartment and drawing mice in the process; he fights the good fight. Alford's comments on my first entry, a self-conscious piece of opinion, constitute the first practical advice I've had in too long. I'll be picking up the promoted titles by Beethoven and Schubert, and listening in the prescribed fashion. Wild responses to follow. Gratitude sooner: thanks.

For now it is the lightless portion of the dawn of this singlehood. Miss Kate readies her apartment in the North, while I get my bearings and prepare to live without her. But the dim element of dawn has nothing to do with her; it is a self indulgent hue in me that adheres to the dark when it suits my whim. Furthermore I was referring to Chopin's Nocturnes, performed by Eugene Istomin, and released (yet another) by Columbia Masterworks in 1956.

The chief obstacle of this generation in connecting with composition would appear to be complexity-at-length. Succinct Jackson Pollock never hurt anyone--you take one look and decide at that moment. Is it beautiful; does it mean anything; am I a part of it?

But these musical things, they take time to absorb: first a fundamental notion of the work concerned, then God knows how many variations til death. Chopin, I'd always found just pleasant, but only because I wasn't really paying attention. In peeling back the onion of these works, one can detect a virtually endless interspersion of romantic pageantry, and abysmal psychological nuance. No pretty flourish runs so far without a kind of crumbling finish, a dulling turn, or some other musical device that, for my lack of erudition, I'll simply say disrupts the pleasantness. Perhaps Chopin's approach was clinical, seeking to uncover unpromising and unfulfilling, and indifferently unbeautiful aspects of a thing to which we too eagerly attach generalized notions of beauty and possibility, rather than knock off, one after another, a series of cliches on the subject.

Some of them border on the grotesque, or are outright unsettling. That they come in the guise of quasi-lullabies only advances the possibility that Chopin had a real misanthropic streak. Truthfully I wouldn't know, not in the historical sense anyway. The convenient--and lazy, core of what I'm doing forces me to react without research. I don't mind putting in research (which is a flat out lie), but it would defeat the purpose to look for scholarly answers. After all the feelings are anything but, so why should I get dressed and put on my glasses. Where am I going?

In fact if Chopin's practical magic can touch our lives at all--and it can!-- then it would do so as a kind of prescient experiment into, not the purpose of music so much as what we actually do with it. Music to exercise to, to dance to, to do the dishes to, to sleep to. Why the Nocturnes! They're perfect. If Three Men and a Baby is to be believed--and it is!--then its not what you tell a baby, its how you tell it. It couldn't possibly end when we're infants, though. Perhaps the magic wanes, but our susceptibility improves over time.

Thusly did Chopin invent, with his Nocturnes, the police scanner years ahead of its technological birth, that eerie device in the homes of curious people who drift away at night to the lull of their civilization in its relaxing back-and-forth of violence and response.

It makes me want to laugh; what I don't know about Chopin convinces me he laughed at it--the possibility of it, impressed as he must've been with the mule of the night.