Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fakebook...Fuckbook...Let's call the calling-off off.

Ella still prefers the old ways.

While it's true the internet is killing the art of composition--or maybe just redefining it, for guys like me that's kind of a blessing.  Short bursts have always tended to complement my imagination better than long-form statements.  I get bored trying to reconcile my way of analysis with the conventions of journalism--mainly music writing.  And yet, this lazy innovation doesn't feel quite right to me.  Maybe its a marginal awkwardness, and the art of brevity will mature.  Remains to be seen.

So what's it all about?  I been listening to Todd Rundgren records lately.  I heard "Hello, It's Me" in a Tums ad on tv and that started the ball rolling.  But even before that I've had Philadelphia on the brain, listening to Billy Paul and The O'Jays, as well as Mazarin and some of the terrific demos Alec Ounsworth made when I still lived there.

I don't want to turn my malaise into an apocalyptic thesis, but once again--and with increasing frequency, I am feeling that decline of modern music depression.  It owes, in part, to the fantastic Five Live Yardbirds record, as well as Michael Hurley's spooky good Armchair Boogie.  The two have little in common beyond only the most generic affinity for blues and folk music, and yet, given the seven short years that separated them--the former was released in 1964, the latter in 1971, there is a world of evolving sensibilities so rich and mind-blowing that a civilization could hardly be expected to duplicate it within a generation.  Most often when I discuss music with folks nowadays it is all about re-issues, crate-digging and artifacts.  It is about the past.  I don't mind that, but a little today would be nice.

I am pretty psyched about the Condo Fucks (a.k.a. Yo La Tengo) record--though it could be argued that it too is a progeny of backwards-looking...and is a re-issue to boot.  The covers--a sequence in the spirit of the band's excellent 1990 lp, Fakebook, offer a kind of turpentine-stink garage alter ego to the indie rock pastoralism of the former.   Them folks in Yo La Tengo have great taste so it never feels like they're working toward an idea of cool.  Needless to say Fuckbook rocks.  

Also, the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers-style push for the latest Neko Case has finally caught up with me.  I always felt she showed a fantastic set of musical assets--hard work, good voice, reasonably arch imagination, and yes, easiness on the eyes, but that she lacked some central fiber.  With these songs she comes out with a catchy and compelling vehicle for her Hollywood appeal--in a way that, say, Jennie Lewis or Zooey Dechanel has yet to do.  The neo-Laurel Canyon aesthetic is taking its time in seducing me.  I'm still not entirely sold on the first wave--though a little Graham Nash is always welcome music as the Earth thaws.  Still, it's promising.  I like to think Neko Case has been making these records all along hoping to get one that's right just for me.  Not me personally, but the me that has grown jaded, and has for quite some time needed something that can be loved without the resignation of looking back and wishing it was now.     

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Our theatrics, our imperfections.

Sometimes the detail supercedes the article, an anti-Gestalt is born: the whole is the beneficiary and dependant of any given part.

When I was in school we took a field trip to the Smithsonian. In the Freer Gallery I had myself a small breakthrough. Already inexplicably involved in the works Whistler made in the East I discovered one of his most abstract pieces, I loved it. It was one of those canvases the artist philosophically called a symphony. 'Symphony in Gray and Green', or 'Symphony in Green', or some similar configuration of damp, maudlin colors; Whistler made these representations from the sea, probably documented from the deck of a ship looking in on the land, often engulfed in a fog.

It was that one canvas--I tried to Google search it, but no result matched the one I remembered, depicting an impressionistic field, a dark, obscure foreground, with a convoluted middle- and background, whose characteristics were both inexact and thrillingly realistic. As it happens in these possessions I didn't want to look away, and in not wanting to look away looked for the unknown.

Why we choose to quantify the innumerable when the daunting prospect so rarely daunts us elsewhere is a thing for which I, in a nutshell, have no explanation. I just remember thinking this is incomplete.

What I was looking at had something else, and I had a duty, suddenly, to stay, look around and find what it was. The roots of purely abstract art, it turns out, are not really abstract at all, they merely indulge the extraordinary aspects of basic things. They draw the viewer to things he commonly assumes he does not understand, stands him there, and asks him, "What's so unusual about this, really?"

As I said there was the vaguest distinction drawn between the close and far-off elements of the picture, but for all my cursory searches no pictorial logic materialized. I enjoyed the colors. I imagined them stuck between the expression of an ageographical mood and the embodiment of primitive sense definition.

Eventually, and quite meagerly, I saw a house. It was perfectly geometrical and reminded me of the tiny plastic pieces in the Monopoly board game. The beach hut was small, and assuredly, it was barely visible in the batten of mist walling in the Japanese coastline. Needless to say, it was there, demonically changing the meaning, adding meaning, disrupting a great many possibilities. I remember thinking to myself, 'it's a romantic death', though today I have no idea what that means.

Growth, I guess, means learning the preventions of perfection, and learning that they are what separates us from perfection by the sheerness of their movement. And that indulging in them tells us, pretty closely I suspect, what others find when they indulge in our theatrics and our imperfections.

Here are ten sublime details in rock and roll.

1. LCD Soundsystem-'All My Friends'-piano error The inaugural piano, as Dan pointed out, might more easily have been sequenced. Instead it was manually performed. The suggestion is of a clipped, robotic pulsation. But there's a tiny error. The rhythm gets messed up for a split second. It reminds me of a painting I saw in a magazine about ten years ago, depicting the turret of a Victorian mansion. The artist was a young autistic woman, her senses of line. scale and perspective were certain, but her color scheme was really strange. It was the kind of thing that kids could do with Photoshop now without even thinking about it. One detail stuck with me. In the grecian-style ornamentation lining the eave was one ridiculously tiny anomaly: one squared corner of the borderwork showed a chipped edge. Certains errors are valuable in revealing how we correspond with the rapture, and how, in the enjoyment, we err.

2. Rob Base & D.J. E.Z. Rock-'It Takes Two'-the first break The Wire magazine named this song in its 'Primer' for James Brown, given that its break--arguably the most famous in all of hip hop, was taken from the Godfather-penned and produced 'Think (About It)', recorded by Lynn Collins. The killer is that first break, when Brown's voice pops out of a murky deistic pronouncement, a hip hop simulation of the Big Bang that not only birthed a song, but an encompassing universe with it.

3. Destroyer-'A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point'-the dangerous woman's pronouncement As if the Brautiganesque title weren't enough for us pop culture junkies!

Dan Bejar's wistful meditation concludes with his title heroine explaining, "People come/People go/People lie nameless in the snow". There is no concrete connection, but I can't shake the evocation of Tom Courtenay's death in Dr. Zhivago. Much like the sea, which acts as executioner and gravedigger in the same indifferent gestures, the snow is a recurring fatal element for Destroyer--the "tall ships made of snow, invading the sun" are a kind of image refrain on Destroyer's Rubies. They produce a phenomenal picture--part illusion, part natural wrath. In its abstract heritage are the bitter Russian front in WWII, Washington's solemn Valley Forge, and, the murmuring desperation of the sunken Kursk. But most directly it's Tom Courtenay dead--the little guy, his round intellectual's glasses strewn, his dismissal from the affairs of Russia comparable in scale and elementally erasable sacrfice.

4. Television-'Little Johnny Jewel'-live version-Verlaine's guitar solo I'm pretty much over the seriousness of rock. I don't get the pseudo-intellectual lyrics in a lot of metal and prog; the pretentious, vapid non-sequiturs of indie rock; the obscurantist showboating of free jazz; the opaque fake-classical build-and-crash of instrumental post rock. But I understand why they all happen. The impulses are strong and, I imagine, perfectly sincere. Verlaine's solo balances the improbable achievement of so many rock impossibles: the incendiary blast of Zepp-rock, the virtuosity of a great 60's Coltrane solo, and the aesthetic grandness of Gustav Mahler. Better still it is alive and irresistible, a fever-pitched outpouring from within a fever pitch.

5. Heptones-'Ting a Ling'-Leroy Sibbles sings the line: "I dont wanna cry" I won't belabor it. Dramatically convincing. He was just a kid. Like when folks marvel at Michael Jackson in his Jackson 5 days the question is always, "How does someone so young appear to know so much about love?"

6. The Clash-'London Calling'-the WAAAH squall in the bridge Does Joe Strummer squeal that, vocally, or is it a guitar?!

7. Madonna-'Material Girl'-the triangle Hopefully it's clear that this list isn't about precedents. I'm more interested the unquantifiable. The incomparable.

And yet, I can't help but think this one deserves the Guinness Book's recognition. A single triangle ting sound should be too generic to associate with any one artist or song, let alone embody the playful essence of either. Nevertheless that sound in 'Material Girl' is instantly recognizable and perfectly descriptive. as much a paean to the singer's flirtatious and demanding premise as it is to Nile Rodgers' efficiently evocative production. In 1985 was the last great blast of disco decadence!

8. R.E.M. 'Pilgrimmage'-the prefatory ghost chorus

I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged--the same house, the same people--and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.
-Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory, p.1

9. His Name Is Alive-'Why People Disappear'-Dylan fragment outro Kind of the reverse of number 8. Of this one I could never be sure. This album has long stood--by my reckoning anyway, as the great watershed of the 4AD Records label, as arduously embodied of the artsy gothic romanticism of the 80's as it was engaged in the label's emergent experimental pop sound of the 90's. As "Why People Disappear" ends a trace element of a song can be heard, one uncannily similar to the opening bars of "Like a Rolling Stone". The fragment is too brief and too gauzy to be certain. But its enough to plant a fantastic seed of a borderless world of pop sounds. His Name is Alive might very well have been caught between worlds, but in a promiscuous fashion augured in the sentiments of a speculative guy like Umberto Eco, the dialogue the Livonians carried out with the encompassing history of song, was as much the song as the song.

10. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong-'They All Laughed'-Ella's pathos Ella Fitzgerald, like coffee or juniper berries, is an adult taste: as opposed to, say, Billie Holiday, whose emotional intensity and heartache are something even a child could grasp. As I did. Ella Fitzgerald is much more playful, like Bing Crosby and Harpo Marx her craft is as much a comic one as it is musical. 'They All Laughed' offers a prime example of how expertly Fitzgerald was able to turn that humor on a dime into chilly pathos. She ambles through Ira Gershwin's laundry list of historical punchlines---inventions folks said would never work, but did, comparing each triumphant long shot to her love. It's light and cheery, with lines like:

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly...

We learn what fools have been made from the practice of underestimation, and how commensurate their foolishness is with the success of what they underestimated. The song was composed by the Brothers Gershwin twenty years before Ella and Louis nailed it for all times, for a decidedly lighter-skinned couple, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. So there could hardly have been any racial foresight--or could there have been?, on Ira Gershwin's part when he penned the line:

The all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now They're fighting to get in.
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin.

That one arbitrarily selected--seemingly arbitrarily selected, image seems to laugh from Ella Fitzgerald with a kind of instinctive and sublime dignity with which only ugly surprises can be met. It is the kind of humor that defies even the most colossal affronts, the most sordid history. With it Ella Fitzgerald not only renewed her status as a high and eloquent statesperson, she captured in an airy turn, the embers of our sins, the waters of incalculable spiritual progress.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Time machine.

Bo Bartlett-Young Life (American contemporary)

Say the money just ain't what it used to be
Man how we used to tear apart this town
Put a dollar into the machine and you'll remember how

-M, Ward, 'Post-War'

There have been good jukeboxes before in this civilization. Even a few comparably great ones--the Mom's jukeboxes in Philadelphia spring to mind--3 between two locations, each finely tuned to suit the room, each impossibly good. I like Grumpy's in Minneapolis, The Grog Shop's in Cleveland. But the Gooski's jukebox is something else. It feels like a tv show that's been on the air all my life, with characters coming and going. Some of them reappear after years of absence. A few were there when I first tuned in and have remained. What distinguishes it from so many others is how so many people have put their mark on it. Originally it was, I imagine, Marcus, who filled it. He's the one who changes it. But over time Bob and John put in. I got a few numbers in it myself--no one's particularly happy with my hidden Lil Wayne tracks. I imagine there are others as well who have found their way in.

An acrid book could be written on the subject of the tunes that should never again be played. They come up every fifteen minutes. People like em. They get to stay. Sadly, they get to stay. MGMT is the latest, but the list is as old as the jukebox itself: Johnny Cash, the Pixies and Black Sabbath...But why dwell on those.

At the risk of feigning impossible authority these are--if not the ten best, then ten tracks that make it what it is:

1. George McCrae-I Get Lifted
2. Clinic-The Return of Evil Bill
3. The Sonics-Have Love Will Travel
4. Nerves/ Blondie-Hangin' on the Phone (yes, both versions!)
5. Bo Diddley-Hey Bo Diddley

6. New Pornographers-Myriad Harbour
7. Love and Rockets-Kundalini Express
8. The Strokes-Someday

9. The Vibrators-Baby, Baby
10. Roy Orbison-Workin' for the Man