Thursday, December 13, 2007
I am a big fan of Dusty however, the song she is most known for in the States, Son of the Preacher Man, has always made me cringe. Otherwise, the album Dusty in Memphis is deservedly considered by critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.
Nothing Has Been Proved is from her 1990 UK release, Reputation, re-released in the US with bonus tracks (and inferior cover art) in 1997 as Reputation and Rarities. Four of the tracks were written and produced by the Pet Shop Boys, and this track, the best on the disc, was used in the film Scandal. The Pet Shop Boys loved Dusty's legacy and they made an effort to create works worthy of her. I can't think of a more fortuitous partnering than Dusty and the team of Lowe and Tennant. This stunning tune highlights the gold-dusted upper register of Dusty's voice. Combined with the sophisticated and understated arrangement, and Neil Tennant's urbane lyrics, you have a recording that seduces with its subtle glamour and luxurious sheen. Dusty's vocal enhances the atmosphere of privilege and guilt that links the song to the movie, and lends a tint of regret to its unfolding.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Composer Neil Rolnick was celebrated on his 60th birthday at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, with a retrospective concert of works going back 30 years. His work is known for successfully linking technology to conventional instrumentation. He was born in Dallas, but studied at Harvard, Aspen, San Francisco, and Berkeley, Stanford and IRCAM, eventually landing a teaching post at RPI. His works have been increasingly performed in New York and the world over the last 5 or 6 years. His work is characterized by infectious rhythms, and melodies that are a pleasure to follow. All of the works performed this evening except one had an electronic ingredient.
Requiem Songs - for the Victims of Nationalism (1993), is a set of highly focused songs written while the composer was in Yugoslavia. The songs were influenced by the indigenous Central European musical idiom. The vocal parts, provided by silvery tones of Amy Fradon and Leslie Ritter, explored rustic counterpoint. The lyrics by Rolnick and Ed Sanders, based on folk songs, addressed the political turmoil of that part of Europe. Gently rocking meters like 4+3 contrasted with vigorous playing in the tragedy of ethnic cleansing and its victims. One piece addressed the role of the artist in war - the cellist who plays in the street despite the shells that fall around him.
Hammer and Hair (premiere) - During this piano and violin duo the pianist's hands muted strings emulating the pizzicato of the violinist. The 20 minute work shifted between brusque and percussive interplay with some lovely jazz inflected passages by violinist.
Ever-livin' Rhythm (1977). One percussionist with an arsenal of instruments played along with what would have been a taped part in 1977. The somewhat dated synthesizer sounds were not the composer's fault, the piece is 30 years old, after all. As a "student" work, it was quite impressive. It had a "modernist" tint (in other words, "old fashioned"), but hints at the infectious African rhythms that inspired the piece.
Shadow Quartet (2003). Cast in a more or less traditional form, and despite the influence of the death of his father, this quartet for strings rocked with a bluesy grittiness the players convincingly dug into.
Digits (2005), written for and performed by Kathleen Supove, was truly unreal as she interacted with a computer part generated in real time along with her playing. R. Luke DuBois's video, captured with cameras perched on either end of the keyboard, played with the building and disassembling of grid forms taken from images of Supove's performance. The video, while accomplished, seemed extraneous to Supove's unearthly command of this demanding work.
It was exciting to see every seat in the hall taken for this event. Rolnick's work deserves the attention it now receives. He has developed a style that comfortably integrates conventional instrumentation with electronics, and has fashioned a language that is both contemporary and accessible.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
When The Pipettes take the stage, they're brash and vivacious, flaunting a sense of humor, abundant polka dots, and sassy synchronized dance moves. They spiritually channel 60's girl-groups, exude an edgy punkishness, and they're not afraid to yell at boys and tell them to go stuff it...
Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me:
After a number of listens, it's evident that The Pipettes are not some novelty act, despite their calculated emphasis on presentation. Their songs are simply good pop, even classic pop, framed in girl-group stylings. The makeup is retro but the face has classic bone structure. Some of the tunes are quite simply superb indie pop dressed up in a nostalgic frame of reference. A great song like Tell Me What You Want could have been done by Saint Etienne, or Birdie. When they're not shouting like the B52's they can sing in bright harmony, as in A Winter's Sky, which would be a great tune done in any style.
There seems to be a trend in the UK for recycling vintage sounds (Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse), and there is an audience for that when it's done well. As with the others mentioned, there is the wink of nostalgia with an underlying heart and an earnest love for the sublime, yet succinct, pop moment musicale. For that authentic production sound, the guitars are set on the bridge pickup, there's a string section (a real one!), horns, as well as the occasional glockenspiel and Farfisa organ, and plenty of reverb on the drums. If these tunes were actually released in the 60's they couldn't help but be AM radio hits. The Pipettes were planning to come to a town near you, but their work visas got messed up and sadly, they had to cancel the first 18 of 24 dates on their US tour - que c'est tragique!! Buy the CD on Amazon for only $9.98 - at 16 tracks that's only 62 cents per track, a much better deal than downloading them on iTunes. Plus you'll be able to hold The Pipettes close to your heart, or put them under your pillow, as needed.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
David Lynch is now an enthusiastic fan of a trio of young women from Brooklyn, called Au Revoir Simone.
They even shared a stage with Lynch at the Barnes and Noble at Union Square last January for the "Upstairs At The Square" writers and artists series. They've played at fashion shows, had their songs placed on TV, and they're currently on tour with Air.
The girls all sing and play keyboards, but their new CD is filled out with 'cello, violin, trumpet and trombone. Wistful but not wimpy, their music is sweet and enchanting. Fallen Snow has a staccato organ part reminiscent of The Beach Boys, and the synths in I Couldn't Sleep interlock like medieval counterpoint. Even in tunes with titles as sombre as Sad Song, Dark Halls, and Night Majestic, the beats are bouncy and percolating.
They have a deft hand with harmony. The keyboard parts are composed with subtlety and they are able to shift time signatures with undistracting ease. The lyrics are personal, reflective and intimate. They sing in a straight, unemotive style.
Let's join the girls as they prepare for a fabulous dance party.
Even though their their music is a bit synthetic and chilly, their visual presentations emphasize a fragile, warm and organic quality.
Fallen Snow is actually about the cold of winter, but here the girls are meeting a friend to fish for some peculiar objects on a warm summer's day.
I can see how David Lynch would appreciate Au Revoir Simone. They present an innocence that is not simplistically naive but seems to be a premeditated construct, purposefully chosen to explore an angle of popular music that is personal and has nothing whatsoever to do with what is trendy or commercial. It's remarkable that the three individuals have worked together as a unit in creating this integrated, introspective world of delicate charm.
Friday, October 12, 2007
In August of this year, Alice Rawsthorn, the design critic of the International Herald Tribune, reviewed the "Nebula" chandelier, designed by Joris Laarman. The piece is a blown glass replica of a cluster of old lampshades that he found when browsing in local flea markets. Rawsthorn feels this chandelier expresses what is happening in design today. She goes on to delineate its defining qualities and how they are indicative of contemporary design trends.
The Go! Team. Thunder, Lightning, Strike (2005).
The Go! Team was originally a one-man, kitchen table electronica project by Ian Parton, which became a six-person collective of mixed race/gender for performing. The first time through this disc, the words that came to mind were "marginal," and "unlistenable." The nostalgic appeal of retro elements was not lost on me, but I thought it existed within too finite and narrow a niche to withstand anything other than novelty status. However, something undefinable about it continued to haunt my memory, making me want to revisit it again.
When I came across the article by Rawsthorn I tried to think of any music I had heard recently that fell in line with the qualities she discerned as definitive of cutting edge design. So, here is my side-by-side comparison of a chandelier and a pop band. Excerpts from Alice Rawsthorn's original article are in italics, my adaptation follows.
1. It looks familiar.
All of Laarman's designs are intended to forge an emotional bond between us and the object itself. By creating a new object from old ones Laarman triggers memories of things we remember from the past.
1. It sounds familiar.
The Go! Team does exactly this by sampling fragments of what appears to be soundtracks from tacky 1970's made-for-TV movies.
2. It looks cheap.
An equally important factor in the Nebula's fashionability is Laarman's choice of a coolly anonymous object - a cheap lampshade - as his starting point, rather than an expensive, "designerly" one. By doing so, he has created product design's equivalent of Miuccia Prada's fluffy take on the Crombie-style coats once beloved of skinheads, the 1970s British street gangs.
2. It sounds cheap.
Thunder, Lightning, Strike sounds like a mixtape salvaged from a landfill.
3. It looks like a mistake.
Asymmetrical, but harmonious though the result may be, it also looks fashionably haphazard.
3. It sounds like a mistake.
The impression is that it is an amateur's work, recorded in the red, compressed to the wall, and eq'd for the car radio of a 1971 Gremlin.
4. . . . but it isn't really.
The Nebula's idiosyncrasies give an initial impression of a naïve, almost accidental object, but if you look again, it's impossible not to notice the precision of the blown glass from which it is constructed.
Ian Parton intended for his work to sound "dirty." When the record company said it wasn't dirty enough, he went back and made it even more corroded.
5. It looks surreal.
Surrealism is huge in design today, partly because we're bored by seeing so many things that seem neatly nice, and partly because technology is enabling designers to replicate the weird images they see spiraling across their computers in three-dimensional objects.
5. It sounds surreal.
It's not just the melange of what might be background music from children's TV shows, afterschool specials, game shows, toy commercials, and radio ads. It's the, "is it supposed to sound like this?" factor. The sound is crappy, and the vocals sound like bratty cheerleaders recorded from a distance on a portable cassette player.
6. And it looks as if it will last.
Timely though the memories, everyday references, endearing details, edgy technology and surreal styling of the Nebula may be, Laarman hopes it will also be something that we will grow to love and choose to use for many years.
6. And it looks as if it will last.
The Go! Team is only getting bigger. The album I originally thought was "unlistenable," has sold over a quarter million copies worldwide, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize in the UK. Their eventual deal with SONY allowed them to quit their day jobs and tour the world, even playing in China, as well as the major summer festivals like Lollapalooza, Glastonbury and Coachella. Their gig at the Bowery Ballroom at the end of this month is sold out. Catch them the following night in Brooklyn, before they move on to Paris, Milan, Dublin, Tokyo, and Australia.
Ian Parton can't be as old as the garbage heap LPs he samples. But, in spectacular fashion, he has channeled the sound of media as I remember it as a young teen in the early seventies. The forced optimism of commercialized teen culture, as produced and performed by studio musicians and arrangers, was full of these types of sounds. In advertisements selling everything from action toys and Barbies to bubble gum, we were bombarded by this brassy style of uptempo jingles on Saturday mornings. Parton hasn't just replicated this tinny junk, he has refashioned it as a messy, gritty version of a memory he is too young to ever actually have had, while mixing it up with early hip hop. But it brings me right back to those days like a time machine.
The conscious effort put into a project this idiosyncratic strikes me as the motivation of an artist compelled to pursue a personal vision, rather than fit into any hip, pre-formatted genre. I think it would be difficult to do this kind of work without falling into a satirical mode, but The Go! Team sound earnest and full of fun. They bring the uplifting zest and goofy ecstasy that will make you feel like you are living in a TV ad from 1972, running through a field of daisies in slow motion with your hands up in air, cheering about a new deodorant or soft drink.
Even their videos are in classic 70's, fast-food red, yellow and orange.
The Go! Team. Bottle Rocket (a song which may be in its own unique category, however it is a masterpiece of its kind):
Their new album, Proof of Youth, is, for better or worse, more professional. It's still scratchy as mohair, but they had to keep the samples to a reasonable limit due to the royalties needed for them. Parton's love of noisy guitars shows up right away and verge into, at times, his own kiddie version of Loveless. And he's become a better composer. But these songs seem created to showcase a band that must be able to put on a live show and play to a crowd, where the first album felt more of an outsider art project. It's brief at only about 36 minutes, but it comes with a bonus disc of 4 songs that are just as tacky as the others. I don't think it will be long before The Go! Team is asked to score a film, maybe the sequel to Napoleon Dynamite. Ian Parton will design T shirts to be sold exclusively at Colette, and he will eventually be asked to create a signature scent for Coty. I think it will smell like French fries and Twizzlers.
Monday, October 1, 2007
If adults in the US had any appreciation for real pop music, Sophie Ellis Bextor would be heard and seen all over. She doesn't care that her CDs aren't even released in this country. She's content seeing herself as pretty much exclusively a UK artist, where she sells millions of albums, and is pleased with her dedicated following on the continent. That seems to be enough for her. She was brought up in a show business family and, at 19, she was performing and recording with theaudience, a well-dressed indie pop band that specialized in snarky social sarcasm, a la Black Box Recorder. They received eight offers of record deals after their first public gig.
theaudience. I Got The Wherewithal:
Sophie has a heart for causes, as well as a discerning head for marketing. She publicly pledged her celebrity support for "Lights Out London," a campaign to turn off appliances for an hour to raise awareness of global warming, and has also posed in a grisly ad for PETA ("Here's the rest of your fur coat"). She appeared nearly nude in an ad for the fashion chain Monsoon, but turned down a video ad for Agent Provocateur, deeming it too pornographic (Kylie ended up doing it instead). She also famously turned down an offer to tour with Robbie Williams when anyone else starting out would have jumped at the chance. She just felt he was too "Las Vegas cabaret."
Sophie is serious and sophisticated, stylish but not fussy, smart, full of exuberance, glamorous but not posh. Her voice does possess a certain snooty, blue blood, la-di-da quality, but that only adds another angle to her persona. And she's a hard worker. While being a full-time mom, she wrote about 80 songs in preparation for her third CD, Trip The Light Fantastic (truly a terrible title, but there it is). She specializes in simple, uplifting tunes that have a staying power past the first few listens. She has the talent for finding just the turn of phrase that feels comfortable but fresh, which is the trick behind every good pop song. Her most appealing work has a spunky energy that lifts it above and beyond the ordinary:
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The From Between Trio is a collaboration of three musicians from three continents: Michael Doneda (France), on soprano and sopranino sax, Tatsuya Nakatani (Japan) on percussion, and Jack Wright (US) on alto and soprano sax. The group demonstrates an extraordinary sense of three minds working as one.
Although I sat in the front row for the view, the moment they began their first set I lowered my eyes away from the performers. I diverted my gaze because I wanted to absorb only the sound and not get caught up in its production. What they do would inaccurately be described as "free jazz," from my experience of it. And I didn't get the sense either that they are playing to serve their own self expression. In the way that a field recordist can document small sounds and subsequently amplify the audio, magnifying the details beyond what is normally audible, the trio created a type of soundscape of layered events approximating a natural environment. They create an ambiance of hissing, fizzing, scraping and rattling. Appropriate to this immersive experience, no particular player is a featured soloist at any one time.
Their first set lasted an hour, although it felt half that long, and it was the one most resembling the forces of nature. The second short set, before the break was about 18 minutes, and was more celestial, leaving more space among the parts. The last set was only about 15 minutes and the only part of the evening when the playing was a bit more aggressive, and perhaps urban.
When I wanted to examine how it was all being done, they were fascinating to watch. Of course, drummers tend to dominate one's attention because of the variety of movement necessary just to make a noise. However, Nakatani is a different type of percussionist altogether. He specializes in resonating his instruments not always by striking, but often by bowing, rubbing and vibrating them. At one point, he placed a small cymbal on the surface of his snare and lowered his face to blow through the hole in its center, resulting in a rich alto sax-like tone. He even got more than one note from it. For Nakatani, a snare isn't just a drum, it's a resonating surface to place a cymbal, a wood block, and a small bowl - all at the same time. Nakatani has lots of bowls, at least a dozen, which he tapped with tiny metal sticks. As he performed, bowls, cymbals, and even his tom tom, fell over at one time or another, sounding not unlike the style of his playing, which seems to be a series of orchestrated wabi sabi accidents. Only rarely did he simply take a stick and strike a drum.
Doneda and Wright, the two wind players, have a repertoire of personal approaches toward their instruments. Doneda coaxed animal rasps from his sopranino, as well as modulated wind noise, and sometimes the sound of a broken tape player in fast-forward. Wright sat with his mouthpiece turned on its side so he could mute the bell of his alto with his leg. His soprano, when muted, emulated a bassoon, shortwave radio, or the chanting of the Koran. It would seem destined that these three would meet and match their talents as a trio. Each of them has played with dozens of others over the years, but together they have an extraordinary way of orchestrating intuitive sound-making.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
We have all had a moment alone, while looking out the window of a train, bus, or restaurant, caught in a state of in-between-ness, remembering the past, anticipating the future, but locked in a present where time has shut down, waiting, alone with one's memories, the only reality being the stagnant present.
At the center of every cherished moment is a kernel of failure. At the heart of every incidence of beauty is the reflection of death. Paul Buchanan is a master of recreating these liminal moments when submerged thoughts break the surface of consciousness. When he sings in "A Walk Across The Rooftops," "I am in love, I am in love with you," it's not banal, it's startling and uncomfortable.
These amazing tracks, now over 20 years old, still sound contemporary, with minimal drums, atmospheric field recordings, synthesizer, stark piano, and fretless bass. Although delicious, one should not overindulge on The Blue Nile. It's best to savor them when you have an interrupted span of time, and sink into their deep meditative spaces. You cannot immediately resume your normal pace after listening to this band. It will take a period of adjustment to come back. So, don't overdo it.
Here's an excerpt from Flags And Fences, a documentary featuring The Blue Nile's 1990 tour of the US. 1990 never looked so nostalgic. Don't miss the scenes of the WTC, and a billboard advertising Goodfellas.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Annie has been compared to early Madonna, Bananarama, as well as both of the Minogue sisters. Her vibratoless voice is as thin and transparent as an icicle, barely breaking above a whisper, but the intonation and rhythmic subtlety of her singing is marked by razor-like precision and accuracy. Again, in the song My Best Friend, the melody of the verse is rhythmically broken into irregular divisions that would present a challenge to transcribe even for a graduate student of music theory. Another surprise in the same song is how the verse modulates from the tonic to the supertonic for the chorus. It's unconventional, but not jarring.
On a purely sonic level, the CD is peppered with all manner of brittle, clicky, percussive claptrap, squirrelly synth parts, and slippery bass. The tracks are intruded by strange sci fi hits and accents, vocorder, pitchshifted voices, and cartoonish sound effects. Not too mention Annie's deadpan, Norwegian accented, spoken word sections. Layers of this cheerful noisemaking rush by at brisk tempos. Repeated listening almost always reveals at least a few more details missed the last time through. Headphone listening is not usually a requirement for pop music, but in this case it would be recommended.
It's fizzy and cute, no doubt. Chewing Gum, which reduces boyfriend turnover to the level of chewing fresh sticks of gum, is utterly addictive, and can hold the attention of a 4-year old. Daily. For months. (I know this as a fact). It starts with an unusual arrangement of beat phrases, a group of 6 beats, followed by a group of 8, then a group of 2. The lyrics are straight out of the Shangri-las' songbook. The sound combines a big buzzy bass, a percussion part that sounds like cowbells being spun in a frontloading washing machine, and a sputtery gated synth line.
A track like Heartbeat has a propulsive throb and a cycle of chords that refreshes itself by modulating to the subdominant, but because the last chord in the verse is the dominant, and the first chord in the chorus is the VI chord in the new key, the intervallic gap between the two sections is a tritone, and that harmonic shift is a surprise every time. The lyric to Heartbeat is about going out for a drink at a party on a Friday night and dancing with a guy for whom the girl has a growing attraction, although she doesn't know his name. That's about it. However, the song has the pull of a vortex and achieves the aching ecstasy of a Mahler symphony, in just 3 minutes. Skeptical? Let's have a look:
One last thing about Heartbeat: the drum track is identical to the one in Milk Bottle Symphony by Saint Etienne on Tales From Turnpike House, released the same year. Coincidence? I think not. It's evidence of a vast, world-wide indie pop conspiracy.
Every track has something notable, and unusually creative. The gritty sounds are the perfect foil to Annie's colorless soprano. The more introspective tunes like No Easy Love are never sappy, but have a boppy, funky groove that offset the heartbreaking lyrics.
Annie told Prefix Magazine last year, she would like to be remembered "as a songwriter and hopefully a good songwriter and just a woman that's making good music. As long as they think that, I'm happy." We already do, so you can be a happy little poplette! Annie will have a new album out by the end of this year.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
I felt very lucky to be included in one of free103point9's tenth anniversary events, the Tune (Out)))side 2007, held at the Wave Farm in Acra, NY. On this absolutely radiant summer day, the Wave Farm hosted live performances by over 30 sound artists. This was a headphone festival broadcast on 4 different frequencies. Each attendee received their own little FM transmitter and a printed program which listed all the performers and performance times. Performance stages were set up at various locations. One could wander the fields and paths through the woods to visit various stages or just camp out and switch between channels.
I was in a group of sound artists that I've become acquainted with from previous performances associated with Phonography. Think of "phonography" as being analogous to "photography." We capture sounds from the world around us and present them back as they are, unedited and "unretouched." Taken out of their original context and reproduced without a visual component, the recordings reward the listener with a rich auditory experience. Being primarily a visually oriented culture, we tend to focus our attention foremost on what can be seen, often actually "tuning out" what can be heard, let alone what can be listened to with attention. Purely listening, without the "picture," as it were, is still to many an unfamiliar way to experience the world, but we're trying to change that.
Our stage was set up on a hillside in a pine forest, fairly removed from the action down on the field, reachable only by a 10 minute walk over a winding pathway. A generator humming in the distance provided us with the power for our laptops and mixers. The ten of us took turns keeping our channel live for 6 hours, as we played raw field recordings, digitally processed field recordings, and a final, "anything goes" set. We finished in the dark, up on our mountain base camp, surrounded by the flames of tiki torches that gave us our only illumination and helped somewhat keep the mosquitoes away.
Because I was pretty intently focused on what I was doing, along with the others in my group I didn't hear too much of what was playing on the other channels. However I did spend time listening to Elliot Sharp and Shou Wang's guitar duo, which was as pretty as diamonds dropping on a glass floor. I also enjoyed seeing Edmund Mooney, Jonny Farrow and Andrea Williams do their sound experiments in clean suits. They were the only artists who brought a theatrical element to a performance. They went about taking notes on each other and measuring things in the weeds. I think one of them even checked me for radiation. They let me go.
I set up a flickr page of some photos of the event. Please visit here to learn more details about this particular event. free103point9 is an amazing resource for artists and listeners. Galen Joseph-Hunter and Tom Roe have an ever expanding and far reaching program for the promotion of transmission arts - read more about them here in Chronogram magazine.
Monday, July 16, 2007
"WORLD.UNIQLOCK was launched as an online campaign, UNIQLOCK, for Uniqlo's summer line-up on the theme of "Dry". This UNIQLOCK is the 2nd series of UNIQLO MIXPLAY, which was launched last autumn, this was somewhat the talk of the town. The theme of this campaign is to spread the approach of Uniqlo globally through communication in fashion, music and dance beyond the language barrier.
The blog parts feature dance movies, and 4 female dancers, who were selected out of 16 in an audition, dance along with the time signal. Special dance sequences featuring a dance unit, core of woomin, are also shown at certain times. The music was composed by Tomoyuki Tanaka of the Fantastic Plastic Machine, specially for this campaign."
OK, so it's an ingenious form of advertising, however it's coolness factor cannot be denied, and it's a creative way to foster a sense of connectedness among people with similar interests and tastes. Plus you've got the musical participation of Tanaka - what's not to love?
Friday, July 13, 2007
During her 10 year gig as half of the electronica duo Moloko, Roisin Murphy reached the UK top 40 four times, and the top 10 three times. The group hit the Billboard top 10 in the Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts a couple of times. Their spooky track, "Fun For Me," got some attention as part of the Batman soundtrack in 1997. When her solo release dropped I had no idea who she was but my musical life has been enormously enriched since finding out.
For this record, Roisin collaborated with producer Matthew Herbert in fusing together house-inflected pop with jazz and experimental sampling. It's not confusing to listen to, but the continually evolving layers of fine details cannot be absorbed in a quick listen. Even a more stripped down tune like "Sow Into You" will have you wondering, "What was that?" before something else catches your ear, taking you in a different direction.Roisin became noted through the 90's as an eccentric and wacky nutter, embodying quirky personas in outlandish costumes. The video for "Sow Into You" demonstrates she is still interested in offbeat visual representations. (Unfortunately, the video uses a less bristly edit of the audio track than the complete version on the CD, but you get the idea).
Moloko's songs could be humorous, but at times they were dark and eerily unhinged, or just bizarre, but always with a solidly swinging rhythmic underpinning. Ruby Blue is less cartoonish and more about the life of the heart. Roisin confessed that she didn't know how she could possibly do a record on her own. The songs she came up with by herself after the professional and personal heartache of Moloko's breakup are mature for someone under 30. Still, myth, metaphor and personal fantasy come into play on a number of tracks, as in "Night of the Dancing Flame."Roisin's palette of voices make up a fair amount of the musical details. Vocals jump between the speakers, they seem right in front of your face, then they jump back into the distance. They're processed, pitch shifted and EQ'd in a variety of ways as they dovetail and provide counterpoint to the main melody. She sings backup to herself in a style reminiscent of Motown in Dear Diary, or The Andrews Sisters in "Ramalama."The instrumentation is unusual, with what sounds like hammered dulcimer, harpsichord, alarm clocks, tupperware, cutlery, along with horn sections, electric piano, and a fuzzed out riff in the title track that sounds like a baritone rubber band. There is a definite jazz influence noticeable in the harmony and swing feel present throughout, which is fused with a house-pop beat. There are no programmed or acoustic drums on this CD. All percussion instruments are sampled from common household objects.Whether she is aware of it or not, Roisin is essentially a jazz singer. She stretches the melodies across implied rhythms and bends notes like a sax player. She even reminds me of Anita O'Day. In fact, I can imagine the final track being covered by another singer such as Cassandra Wilson. Accompanied only by piano and occasional flugelhorn, "The Closing of the Doors" captures the desire to renew a relationship in trouble, while realizing it is already too late to do so. It includes the haunting refrain, "Don't you remind me of someone," delivered in degrees of distance and intimacy that it is extraordinarily chilling.Obviously, Roisin's creative gifts are immense. What's wonderful about her is how inspired her vision is. Like Bjork, she is a lateral original, creating an oblique alternate world of her own, which is at once fractured and experimental while still being accessible, and "pop."
She has a new single out on iTunes, "Overpowered," and a new full length CD is on the way.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
On the night before the first day of this year's summer, Bill Frisell looked through the cracks of light coming from behind the stage at the Iron Horse Music Hall and commented, "It's still light out here, which is good because I'm afraid of the dark."
The Iron Horse, a rustic yet comfortable music venue, appeared to be sold out for this Wednesday night show with an enthusiastic crowd of diverse ages. "Tony just said this is a really nice place to play, and I have to agree," Bill said when the trio, completed by Tony Scherr (acoustic bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums), took the stage for their encores. Their uninterrupted two hour set included free improvs, Frisell originals (Strange Meeting), and classics of American music such as Monk's Mysterioso, Surfer Girl, Just Like A Woman, and When You Wish Upon A Star. Guitarists looking for technical inspiration were, as usual, disappointed, as Frisell's stance on stage is always sideways, facing in toward his band.
Musical inspiration was, however, in no short supply. Frisell is, of course, a repeat winner many times over in Downbeat's critic's and reader's polls for best guitarist. Although he shares the conventional jazz player's love of remaking popular songs, what Frisell does with them is not simply riff over a sequence of clever chord substitutions. A typical jazz take on a standard may come across as a legitimizing effort on the part of the player to nobly elevate a pop song into the realm of "Art." Frisell's choice of songs may be outside normal conventions, but he treats them with great respect and without irony. What he brings to his repertoire is a filtering of the material through a style that renders his choices more "American," yet somewhat more alien at the same time. Frisell's musical sensibility is informed by an attitude that combines a cerebral cool with hickster quirk. His lines are a bit squirmy, and fractured in time, with sudden pauses and acidic dissonances. When he plays a longer run, which is infrequent, the notes are evenly rounded, with smooth attacks, only hinting at what a master he is. I have never heard him show off, live or on record. He seems to play only to serve the musical idea underway. Likewise, his bandmates rarely take a solo. They work at things together and, in the long run, this approach is probably more satisfying for the players as well as the audience.
Frisell has for a long time been a fan of digital devices that augment his sound. Years ago he was setting up long delay lines that added ghostly, shadowy background echoes. For quite a while now, he has been integrating digital delays to sample his own playing during performances, playing back tinkling, repitched fragments octaves above the original, or in reverse; sometimes calling up a stored repetitive figure to play against. He is getting really good at tweaking the little sampling box that sits on a stool in front of him, essentially adding another instrument to the trio.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Back when the Cardigans mattered, their producer was Tore Johansson. Saint Etienne recorded Good Humor with him at Tambourine Studios in Malmo, Sweden. When this record was released in 1999, I was over 40 and the new millennium was approaching. I didn't give a rat's ass anymore what anyone thought of my musical tastes. I had always listened with pride to the most demanding music of whatever era I was existing in, because I enjoyed being challenged and I didn't want to left out of what was considered the cutting edge. But at this point in my life I was finally in the mood to relax and try something new, fun, and different. I had read a little bit about SE and thought, "I might enjoy this, and it might not kill me." At first I was struck by the sound of the instruments - crunchy, mid-rangey drums, thin, brittle piano, cheesy synths, rubbery bass, and guitars that sounded like they were purchased at a garage sale.
The songs and the stories started to seep into my unconscious, stimulating images and memories - Mrs. Emma Peel, Goddard, Antonioni, Pucci, Quant, the International Style, mods, foreign sports cars, Cannes, James Bond, and Austin Powers. The lyrics, when understandable, referenced films in split screen, a vixenish little sister, teen angst, Dutch hotel rooms, beauty queens from Idaho... I wasn't used to the subject matter - drum 'n' bass didn't have lyrics. The arrangements were fresh but retro, and "very groovy baby!" And there was Sarah Cracknell's voice - frosty, feathery, full of gold dust, but not at all innocent, and not without a certain adult glamour. These songs were short stories about people who might have been real, with ordinary problems, although they were still quite a bit cooler than me.
Who were these people? After eight years of research, I still have no idea how they come up with their tunes, and I don't know who's doing what, except Sarah is obviously singing. In 1990, Bob and Pete, boyhood friends and rugby enthusiasts, melded club beats, indie pop and girl group influences with Northern Soul. They covered a Neil Young song because they booked a studio and hadn't written anything yet. It was a hit. They worked with a couple of singers until they met the divine Sarah, and they were forevermore a trio. Pete is a complete mystery man, but we know he's married and has two small children. Bob has a more public presence because he writes music journalism, and DJ's in New York and London quite often. Sarah eventually got married after having a couple of kids, and produced two solo records of her own smart and estimable dance-pop. They seem like nice people, they're making films with a social conscience, and doing special cultural events at the London ICA. They even perform with orchestras now, all very mature and intellectual, but stimulating fun. Bob and Pete, now over 40 themselves, are still boyishly cute with floppy Beatles haircuts, and Sarah embodies the essence of, well...Sarah-ness, which can best be defined as a genial coolness so natural, that she would be sure to possess it whether she was worshipped by hordes of fans or was simply a stay-at-home mum.
I have seen them play twice, and I'm still not sure what it is they're actually "doing," even when they're with a band. Sarah is the obvious focus, Pete is always very busy behind a synth, Bob is also behind a synth, but doesn't seem too busy, except for smiling and looking into the audience. Bob, to himself on stage: "It's bloody cool being in a band. Oh yeah, and this is MY band, that's even cooler! I wonder who's here tonight. Is that Scarlett Johansson? I think the B part of this song is coming up. What is it I'm supposed to play again? Ah well, Pete will cover for me if I forget." Pete, to himself on stage: "Here comes that B section, Bob is spacing out, I'm going to have to cover his ass again. Why do I have to do everything?? I need a pint." Sarah to herself on stage, oblivious that the upcoming B section is in jeopardy: "The fans here are lovely. I do so enjoy being worshipped." (The preceding is not meant to mock them, it's just my fanciful imaginings.)
Mention should be made, I suppose, of their eccentric production techniques. They indulge themselves in dotting their records with obscure dialogue and audio from British TV and movie soundtracks, and abuse effects such reverb in the tune Avenue, which is interrupted by a thunderclap for no apparent reason. People Get Real has some kind of rubbery engine roar coming and going through the whole song. Like the Beatles, one gets the impression that SE thoroughly enjoy embedding personal references into their work as clues hinting at something the meaning of which continues to evade us. You'll catch some of them, but never all of them, and I think it helps to have grown up in the the UK during the sixties. They dropped the obscure in-jokes for a while, until they released Finisterre. That record features the British actor Michael Jayston dropping non sequitors between tracks that truly choice.
It's hard to imagine that in 1992, while Grunge was raging in the States, Saint Etienne was concocting candy-coated delights such as Nothing Can Stop Us:
Each of their records has a particular sound within its own context. From their original indie-dance-pop beginnings, to 70's-ish soft rock, to organic brittleness, to minimal German synth bleeps, to pumping electro, to whatever it is they're doing next. Plus, each record has its own diversions beyond the style they're working in. Art disguised as simplistic pop. Saint Etienne's output is no challenge to your ears like, let's say Stockhausen, but, more subversively, it will pleasantly haunt your mind for years.
Truly, were they only a duo? Percussionist Khalil El’ Zabar alone was at times responsible for up to three simultaneously independent musical parts. When he stood to keep time with ankle bells, play the kalimba, and sing, he was a trio. Add baritone sax player, Hamiett Bluiett, and you have a quartet. If you paid attention to El' Zabar's right foot as he accented the second and fourth beats of the bar, then you had five parts.
Apart from a witty rendition of Take the A Train, and the encore, sung by El' Zabar a capella, all the tunes, although unannounced, I suspect were El' Zabar's own. They were modal, and slightly tinged with a Middle Eastern, or African flavor. As El Z played drums and sang, Blueiett would double the melody before taking solos. Mr. B's solos at times evoked a violin's raspy upper register. Coincidentally, he was filling in for violinist Billy Bang who was ill. His bari was cradled in a stand as he played, so he could just walk up, lay his fingers on the keys, and blow. When finished, he would just sit down in an swivel chair, smile and visibly enjoy El Z's emotive performance. Bluiett took one extended solo by himself, wherein he employed all kinds of extended techniques: multiphonics, circular breathing, percussive key tapping, and vocalizing into the mouth piece.
A master at anything in the percussion family, El' Zabar is a performer who practically turns himself inside out when he performs. His head swung from side to side as if it were on a hinge while he played the kalimba, or thumb piano. His kalimba was amplified, and although you can only use your thumbs to play it, he managed to have a melody with chordal accompaniment emerge simultaneously. He expresses himself not only musically, but vocally, with impulsive exclamations, and his entire body is involved in the projection of his interior being. He acts possessed, but not by devils. This is a man controlled by beneficent spirits of positive force. At times it felt as if El Z. was leading a revival meeting, and he did have a message to deliver. He would stand, clap his hands, sway and extemporize on staying positive in these bleak times. He reminded us that although there have always been warmongers in history, those of us who want peace are in the majority. It's easier to be pessimistic, we have to work on finding the positive. "You have a responsibility to dream!" he called to us.
El' Zabar offered an amusing anecdote about when he, Bluiett, and Billy Bang played the Apollo theater as a trio. Wynton Marsalis thought El' Zabar was trying to sneak into the theater for free until he was informed that El' Zabar was actually performing that night. Bill Cosby was the MC, and when he saw El' Zabar's trio, he asked, "Where's your band?" After their set, Cosby asked them, "What do you call that kind of music?"
Monday, June 4, 2007
Swing Out Sister occupies a singular niche in the 21st century. Their somewhat outmoded style is reminiscent of the deliberate and carefully arranged pop songs of the early to mid 1960's taken from movie soundtracks of the time, songs that would have appealed to one's parents, who would have been otherwise annoyed by the clattery "noise" of the rock 'n' roll hits on the radio. SOS's experiments with odd meters and swing tempos, harpsichords, tympanies, string orchestras, and background choruses remind one of the work of composers such as Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and John Barry, with the hipness of Quincy Jones.
They started out as a trio 22 years ago with two ex-members of A Certain Ratio and a fashion student with a most distinctive throaty voice. They had a hit with the endearing "Breakout" in the States in 1986, a bright, propulsive and spunky jewel of a tune.
Attention in the States and the UK began to decline, until they reached a low-profile cult status. But they became so big in Japan they were signed to the Japanese division of Mercury for years, so some of their records were not even released in North America. Over time, their music has begun to slow down, turn moody and veer into cinematic storytelling. Corinne and Andy became a duo of mature hipsters rather than young pop icons, the kind of couple that doesn't stay at the most expensive hotel, but the coolest, most secluded one.
Somewhere Deep In The Night, their superb cd from 2001, is perhaps the best of their work released in this century. Neither blues nor groove oriented, the melodies arch and spin, with leaps and colorful non-chord tones. They have not abandoned rhythmic interest, but their songs mostly seduce with a rich harmonic language, the chord progressions continually refreshing themselves with surprising twists, displaying almost a Wagnerian delay of resolution.
So, what's the problem with SOS? Way too jazzy for pop, too pop for jazz, and too complex for even "smooth jazz." Last year, Saint Etienne signed with Savoy Jazz as their North American label. SE is an indisputably brilliant group, but have not a shred of jazz in their work. Savoy would be wise to pick up Swing Out Sister and do them, and us, the same favor.
Friday, June 1, 2007
On a warm and sunny July evening last year, Puffy rocked the Hudson River waterfront on lower Manhattan. They were celebrating 10 years as a duo and touring for their new cd, Splurge. The audience was predominantly college-aged Asians, probably not the demographic that was necessarily familiar with their popular cartoon. When Puffy started out in 1996 they were more on the pop side of rock, wearing matching t-shirts and attempting coordinated dance moves. But on this night they were really trying to work on their indie rock cred. The backdrop on the stage was in black and gold and looked as if it were designed by a Hell's Angel, reading, "Puffy AmiYumi - Rock Show From Tokyo, Japan." They seemed to be distancing themselves from the seven year old fans of their cartoon show. They tried out some songs that showed their new direction, co-written with Jon Spencer (Blues Explosion), Dexter Holland (Offspring), and Butch Walker. Ami and Yumi prowled the stage wearing Boho dresses over jeans. Between songs, they opened their little spiral-bound notebooks and read prepared anecdotes about long train trips on Amtrack, minor health problems, musical flubs and leaving a fly unzipped on stage, all delivered in polite but giggly, little-girl voices. They have to be given credit for attempting to speak in English.
Although they are both incredibly attractive, Ami and Yumi have never traded on their looks to achieve success. Their appeal lies more in their wacky senses of humor, their zany fashion style, their embodiment of whimsy, and buckets of charm. Puffy's career has been distinguished by their talented presentation of recycled forms of pop music, convincingly emulating the stylistic expressions of The Who, The Beatles, Elvis Costello, Abba, and ELO, as well as detailed pastiches of punk, country, jazz, and disco, and the varied niches of 1960's American bubblegum pop. On their latest cd they delve into ska and rockabilly. They combine a peculiar Japanese perfectionism along with a wide ranging approach to imitation while retaining a refreshing and idiosyncratic originality.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
If you are a fan of Kylie's well-known tunes, you will know most of these songs pretty well. But this is not a paint-by-numbers collage of greatest hits. Many of the familiar tunes are re-worked with new arrangements. Bono joins Kylie for "Kids," doing the Robbie Williams part, and he puts in a great performance. Kylie was to repay the favor and join Bono at a U2 gig the following night, but she was simply too fatigued after her own shows to perform with them. Her first hit, "The Locomotion," a bit of a novelty when it was released 20 years ago, has been rearranged as a campy, swinging big band tune. She has a go with a rendition of "Over The Rainbow," and does a fine job with it. There's a medley of Shocked, What Do I Have To Do?, and Spinning Around that's a nonstop disco delight (even if you absolutely hate disco, this is irresistibly uplifting).
The culturally significant hot pants that Kylie wore in this video were on exhibit at the V&A Museum this year:
Kylie doesn't register as much of a player in the US music scene, but to the rest of the world she is a mega superstar. When she was diagnosed, she never "cancelled" her tour, she insisted it was only "postponed," and she was true to her word. Besides being an irresistible, glittery pop star and stylish fashion icon, she is an inspiration, being a survivor of cancer, doomed relationships, and bouts of depression.
Over the decades of her non-stop career, she's earned the adulation of millions of fans, and she deserves it. She has just been named the first woman to ever win Britain's Music Industry Trust award. Kylie will attend a ceremony this October to accept it. David Munn, Chairman of the Awards Committee, said "Kylie deserves this award for her success over 20 years, staying at the top in one of the toughest professions and inspiring millions with her grace, dignity and humanity."
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Sean Lennon is clearly a gifted crafter of pop songs. He has his own voice, a deft hand at harmony, and is a talented guitarist. His band, decked out in suits and ties, was excellent. Yuka Honda, from the band Cibo Matto, was on keyboards, and is Sean's musical director and close friend. Sean focused on tracks from his newly released, "Friendly Fire" cd. There is a lingering tint of regret to his lyrics, inspired as they were by delicate relationship issues. He actually had a heckler, but he handled it with experienced aplomb. After one of several incoherent outbursts from the impaired audience member, Sean said "We're not really connecting here, but I love you anyway man." The atmosphere was a little tense until the guy was eventually escorted out. Sean's songs are considered compositions, and they bear the mark of deliberation and careful judgement. Here's hoping they bring him comfort, as much as they brought this audience to an appreciation of his abilities.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
In the early 90's my girlfriend played the tape, "The Angel In The House," by The Story in her car. I expressed my admiration, but she said I couldn't appreciate it because it was "women's music." I felt a bit awkward, as if I had stumbled by accident into some Mary Kay party and said, "hey that's a really cool lipstick," before realizing my comments were completely unwelcome.
Anyway, she was wrong. Fifteen years later, I am still a huge fan of Jonatha Brooke. All of her records with The Story and afterwards are on my iPod.
Jonatha played the Egg here once again without her band. Her records are filled out with the whole rock ensemble sound, drums, keys, electric guitars, backup vocals. I was thrilled to hear her again play solo, for two hours, no intermission. Solo, we can really focus on her vocal subtlety, especially the way she pushes and pulls the phrasing of songs we are familiar with from her recordings. Her guitar playing is especially fascinating to hear live. She uses different tunings for almost every song, so she interjects friendly and amusing patter between them, "you're so nice, can I take you to Madison?" Jonatha used two amplified acoustic guitars. She plugged them into a jam-packed effects pedal system that added distortion (so NOT folky!), and sometimes a rich chorus of delay signals that sounded like a synthesized string ensemble. Jonatha's guitar playing is filled with a variety of musical gestures, strumming, harmonics, little riffs, all in a vocabulary of open strings and acid tinged harmonies that Ravel would have admired. She has a new cd, Careful What You Wish For, but she played for the most part familiar favorites. Although her songs deal mostly with tragedy and disappointment, Jonatha smiles throughout her performances and flashes flirty looks into the audience, as if she really wants and needs to connect to us. She needn't worry about that.
Monday, May 21, 2007
I had no expectations of this triple bill, and I was pleasantly surprised by all three. By the end of the night I had found a new band to add to my list of favorites. Elizabeth Harper is a singer/songwriter with the acerbic wit of a Morrissey. She had an appealing and intriguingly quiet, yet edgy stage presence. The Silent League was anything but quiet. A large group, led by keyboardist Justin Russo, they blew through a set of impassioned and classic-sounding chamber pop compositions that were musically and lyrically exhilarating. There was much self-deprecating patter between songs, as when the guitarist said, "Soft rock is hard," at once putting a spin on the famous Barbie quote ("Math is hard!"), and satirizing the category they would most likely be lumped into by some default.
Headlining Scots, Trashcan Sinatras, had their merch being sold by a guy in a kilt up front near the door. The band looked like a bunch of ordinary guys that happened to walk out on stage by accident. After a few songs, I realized I was in the midst of a virtual fan club rally. It seemed most everyone in the room recognized each song from a single guitar strum, and they inevitably sang along to the choruses. I had never heard any of their music, but I was pulled in by the chiming, rolling and spiraling nature of their songcraft. They were in support of their new cd Weightlifting. The main focus of the band is Frank Reader (far left in the pic), a handsome poet in the sensitive/tragic style. If John Lennon and Bryan Ferry got married and had a baby boy, the little tyke would grow up to be Frank Reader - he's that compelling. What astonishes about the tunes on Weightlifting is how they begin with such cast-off nonchalance. After the first verse, you think, "it's not bad, should I fast-forward?" Following a couple of choruses, you think, "oh yeah, this is good." Then about three quarters into the song, you're completely swept away by the undertow of a swirling 3-minute masterpiece of songwriting. And this happens over and over on Weightlifting. By the end of their set I was a believer, and I walked up Broadway in the cold spring rain with a warm feeling for a new favorite.
Trashcan Sinatras. All The Dark Horses:
Friday, May 18, 2007
Hello I Love You was all over the radio that summer. That lyrical hook was later criticized for being inane - but, was it any more so than "Love Me Do?" I loved the orchestrated fuzz, similar in some ways to the Beatles' single, Revolution, which would come out later that year. Hello had quite a fractured rhythmic groove. The chorus didn't have a straight backbeat. The 2-bar phrase was cut up and divided into three distinct sequential ideas, with the keyboard and drums playing in sync. The verse balanced this with the snare being squarely smacked on all 4 beats. Then there was that ghostly slide guitar part out there on its own, just before the coda. It was very reminiscent of the slide part in Hendrix's version of All Along the Watchtower, also released the same year.
Hello I Love You:
Of course, Light My Fire was their first and biggest hit. Coming out in January of 1967, as I just turned 11, it didn't make much of an impression on me. It just seemed too mature for me to grasp. The mix of baroque, bossa nova, and jazz was beyond me. (My dad, at age 41, LOVED it!). As I listen to it now, the introduction, with its quickly modulating chord progression, is similar to Giant Steps, and that opening must have been a challenge to figure out for kids whose greatest ambition was only to be able to play the riff from Wipe Out, or Daytripper.
Light My Fire:
Coltrane's Giant Steps:
Morrison said nothing to the audience during the concert as I recall. Every song ended in a sudden blackout, and complete silence until the next song started. It was minimal, yet dramatically serious, and very, VERY loud.