Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pizzicato Five

 Something or other happened in Tokyo in the late 80's/early 90’s that inspired musicians to evoke and emulate the latter period of the mid-60’s, a trend that began as a form of anti-pop but ended up being the signature sound of Japanese pop by the late 90’s.

As Momus said in an article in the Guardian, probably over 10 years ago (or more):
“The epicenter of global retro culture is Shibuya, the trendy shopping district of west Tokyo which gave Shibuya-kei (literally 'Shibuya style') its name. Here the record shops are the best stocked in the world. Fashions change every five minutes, and the moment a style is invented it's also revived and parodied. Shops and museums are the same thing, and shopping and curating are creative activities on a par with making art.”

A couple dozen bands could have been filed under Shibuya-kei by the end of the 90’s, but my favorite was Pizzicato Five.  P5 was a prolific and long-lived band, beginning back in 1979, and they released over two dozen records during their career.  The band sustained a number of personnel changes, which eventually left only the duo of mastermind Yasuharu Konishi and the profoundly chic Maki Nomiya.  Together, they produced the classic P5 sound before breaking up at the dawn of the millennium.  

Almost unfathomably stylish, they adopted references to mid-60’s British and American pop, some French yé-yé, and lounge, mixing in occasional touches of drum ‘n’ bass, house, and elements of sampling from DJ culture.  This kind of thing was repeated later by non-Japanese bands such as Mono, The Postmarks, and Bittersweet, but with one important distinction: P5’s wit and whimsy puts a smile on your face instead of a shadow over your heart.  They have inspired a second generation of Japanese musicians, such as Hideki Kaji, The Aprils , and The Lady Spade.  

Their sense of humor was visually extended to their videos, some of which are joyously goofy:

Twiggy Twiggy (1994)

It may require a certain taste to appreciate P5’s aesthetisized pastiches.  However, their songwriting skills were strong enough to offset the archness of their presentation:

Baby Portable Rock (1996)

Some of the earlier stuff reminds me of the gentle jazz ballads of later period Swing Out Sister (who are enormously popular in Japan), but by the late 90’s P5 seemed to embrace a pop sound full of infectious energy:

La Règle Du Jeu (1999)

Yasuharu Konishi seems to be still involved with his Readymade Entertainment label, and he wrote the score for a musical, Talk Like Singing, that ran in New York in 2009.

Maki is still recording, performing as a solo artist, and blogs about culture and fashion.  Here’s a recent picture of Maki with Yasuharu from her blog.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I heart Jeff Beck.

I love Jeff Beck. Renowned since the 1960’s for his paint-peeling lead guitar work, combined with his tough guy stance, and avocation as a hot rod enthusiast, his image is ripe for rock star parody. In fact, the characterization of Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap owes at least some of its inspiration to Beck. But I believe his legacy will endure as a player in possession of one of the most refined senses of nuance and sensitivity. Since his 1975 album, Blow By Blow, Beck has populated his albums with slow ballads that demonstrate a level of taste that is almost indescribable. 

Clearly a master of his instrument, Beck transcends the category of “great rock guitar player.” He is, rather, an artist in possession of a talent on the highest plane of refinement. Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, Diamond Dust, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Angels (Footsteps), and Where Were You, are a few of the tunes where the our jaw-dropping is not in relation to the number of notes Beck can play, but in the exquisite finesse with which he is able to express melodic ideas:  

Beck has mentioned as long ago as the mid 80’s that he wanted to work with a symphony orchestra, saying how he listens to lots of classical music and would love to work within that context. He finally fulfilled that ambition on Emotion & Commotion (2010), which includes a rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Trish Keenan / Broadcast

I’m fairly late in eulogizing Trish Keenan, but there is no reason to omit my own brief tribute to her and her band, Broadcast.  I always liked Broadcast, but I didn’t really “get” them until recently when I connected them to their influences in mid-sixties psychedelia and early electronic music.  This would have been, of course, obvious to any of their fans, but it just clicked for me since lately I’ve been interested in why the mid-sixties holds a profoundly mysterious and unshakable attraction for me.  According to Simon Reynolds, in his new book, Retromania, it was around 1966 that the last really new thing appeared in Pop culture, and we’ve been recycling ever since.  It was also about that time, at age 10, I think I started to become aware that culture could be something beyond mere entertainment.  At that time, culture was represented primarily for me by The Beatles and The Avengers (you have to start somewhere).

Broadcast's beguiling sound combined almost folksy, lullaby melodies, with layers of experimental effects evoking vintage electronic music, wrapped in an atmosphere of creepy darkness.  Their first full length album, Noise Made By People (2000), was reminiscent of mid-60’s pop.  HaHa Sound (2003) delved into a more swirling, psychedelic style, and Tender Buttons (2005) was reduced to minimal arrangements, à la Young Marble Giants.  Their compilations of rarities and B-sides are treasured for their more experimental work, some of it sounding very much like Julian House’s project, The Focus Group.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been playing Broadcast’s 3 full-length albums over and over and over, along with their collaboration with The Focus Group, Witch Cults of the Radio Age (2009), which, I suppose, must stand as their last release.  The first track from their first album, " Come On Let’s Go," has continued to have some kind of haunted hold on me.  I’ve been going to sleep with it running in my head, and then waking up to it still looping in my mental ear.  There’s something about the beginning that is so unsettling.  At first it sounds as if it’s in the Lydian mode, until the second chord, which is the tonic, and you realize that it all started on the IV chord instead of the I.  The B section is quite sophisticated too, it’s a stream of lovely modulations.  The bones of Broadcast was great songwriting, the results of which evoke, for me, what could have been hits by 60’s British girl singers, like Petula Clark, Lulu, or Cilla Black, if they had collaborated with Delia Derbyshire.

Here’s the official video for Come One Let’s Go, from 2000.

Broadcast performing "Come On Let's Go" live on Jools Holland's Later show in May 2000, two months after the release of their first full-length, The Noise Made By People.

Trish died in January of this year from complications with pneumonia after battling the illness for two weeks in intensive care, having contracted H1N1 following the band's December 2010 tour in Australia.

Broadcast performing "Lunch Hour Pops" live at the HiFi bar, Melbourne, Australia, only 4 weeks before Trish’s passing:

One more video, this one directed by Trish for the song, "Black Cat," from the album Tender Buttons (2005).  It appears Trish had an eerie and beautiful eye for visual art as well:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Genesis / Motown

Back when Peter Gabriel was still with Genesis, the band was quoted as saying one of their big influences was Motown.  Right.

However, when Watcher of the Skies recently popped up on my iPod during a shuffle, I noticed how tight the rhythm section of Michael Rutherford and Phil Collins sounded.  Not exactly the Funk Brothers, you know, but still, I thought, maybe there is something to that...

Now, almost 40 years later, Phil Collins has recorded an album with the surviving members of the original Funk Brothers.  OK, so maybe they were serious about the Motown thing after all.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Who’s Greatest Hits (2009).

Not being a fan of The Who I, however, readily admit to absolutely loving their early singles.  I must say, I prefer these guys in shirts adorned with targets and arrows, rather than fringe.  The first 8 cuts of the latest version of their greatest hits (there are about 5 compilations) have lots of chiming Rickenbacker guitar pushed through brilliant Vox and Marshall amps  It’s pure mid-sixties, and Pete Townshend primarily invented that sound.  Even though The Beatles also made use of the Rickenbacker 6, and 12 string guitars, George Harrison’s approach was more “composerly,” and studied, than Pete’s extroverted strumming.  One might assume his thrashing was to make up for lack of technique as a soloist.  Maybe so, but his sense of time is impressive.  Check out his playing in I Can’t Explain, The Who’s first single, released way back in ‘64.  The guitar solos are mostly rhythmic, with a few licks thrown in.  In the second solo, Pete works in a quarter note triplet riff that is pretty startling as a device for that time.

The video is quite stunning as a depiction of what looked cool in the clubs in London, 1964.  But there are so many creepy boys doing freakish dance moves, it leaves me rather speechless.  Where are all the girls?  Unspeakably odd. Halfway through the video the band is in another club, and Roger looks exactly like David J from Bauhaus.

The Kids Are Alright, from their 1965 album, was released as a single in 1966, reaching #41 in the UK and #85 in the US.  Townsend said their “greatest hits” should be more properly be called their “greatest flops.”  The video is priceless, showing the band in très chic mod styles, and a somewhat awkward lack of stage presence.  Note Roger’s shirt, buttoned down, and buttoned up to the throat.  And check out his mod hairdo: that little puffed up bouffant where the hair is brushed back from the crown of his head is so very au courant.  Keith has his Union Jack shirt on, and Pete is in that long Edwardian jacket. These boys really knew how to dress.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Amelia Fletcher

With degrees from Oxford University (DPhil, MPhil and BA with honors), Dr Amelia Fletcher is the Chief Economist and Senior Director of Mergers for the UK’s Office of Fair Trading, which is a non-ministerial government department set up to protect consumer rights.  
Oh, and  yes, she’s also that girl from Talulah Gosh/Heavenly/Marine Research, and currently, Tender Trap.  While Amelia shows no sign of leaving her day job, she has earned the status of true legend as a leading light in the world of alternative British Pop.  Tender Trap’s last album, Dansette Dansette, came out just last year, and Fletcher still makes quality music 25 years after her debut. In fact, Amelia seems blessed with an unending stream of melodic ideas, always sounding effortless, full of cheer and wit. Her music stays inventive and fresh while dwelling inside the stylistic confines of jangly Indie Pop.

Talulah Gosh (the band and the song) from way back in 1987:
Talulah Gosh   Talulah Gosh
 Vezi  mai multe  video    din   muzica

Here’s Amelia’s band, Heavenly, as seen in 1990:

At the age of 45, a respected professional, wife and mother, Amelia is still able to pull off being as twee as she wants to be.  This is good news for all of us of a certain age; that is, you can grow up, be an adult, and still be a nerdy dweeb with loads of cuteness:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Rolling Stones. Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967).

You have to be of a certain age (okay, you have to be old) to remember that before being the “world’s greatest rock and roll band,” the Rolling Stones were for a time restlessly looking for an identity, going broke, and repeatedly facing ridiculously harsh penalties for possession of pot. And then they lost the leader of the band. (Sadly, who today remembers that musical genius and multi-instrumentalist, Brian Jones, actually started the Stones?). The Rolling Stones began as an R&B cover band forced into writing their own material by their manager, who actually quit during the making of Their Satanic Majesties Request because the band insisted on producing themselves.

Viewed at the time as the Beatles’ only competitors, in reality, Lennon and McCartney barely took a look over their shoulders to see what the Glimmer Twins were up to. Rather, they were taking notes on Brian Wilson’s latest vocal miracles with the Beach Boys.

So, in 1967, as The Beatles were dropping Sgt. Pepper, Jimi was unleashing Are You Experienced, and we saw the debut albums by The Doors, and The Velvet Underground, the Stones released their contribution to 1967, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Long thought to be the nadir of execrable self indulgence, few admit to having any regard for this most anomalous of Stones releases.

But is it really all that bad? Let’s talk about "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)." No, we really can’t talk about that one. Mick said, “Anyone let loose in the studio will produce stuff like that.” Maybe, but no one would release it. As Keith put it, in an absurdly obvious understatement, "There is a change between material on Satanic Majesties and Beggars Banquet.” Oh, you think?

However, we do have "She’s A Rainbow." Ingeniously arranged, it features prominent piano work by Nicky Hopkins, who plays beautifully articulated sections of swirly, filigreed Baroque figures. The silly but stylish lyric is about a girl arrayed in lots of different colors. They nailed the zeitgeist on that one. And who can forget the fractured string quartet at the end playing like some parody of a Ligeti nightmare? The strings were arranged by John Paul Jones, who would become the bass player for Led Zeppelin the following year. Great stuff.

Then there’s "2,000 Light Years From Home." A palpable description of alienation with the sound of a rocket engine slowing down and some of the best creepy Mellotron ever recorded, as played by Brian Jones.

So, Their Satanic Majesties has some classic highlights, among a few missteps symptomatic of the times.  One would have thought Jagger was responsible for the experimentation here, as he often admitted to being bored by sticking only to rock & roll.  But, oddly enough, accounts have suggested Keith leading these sessions, most often aided by close collaboration with Brian Jones, who apparently was able to play any instrument he could lay his hands on. 

The truth is, the badass Stones never fit into the hippy dippy flower power era of the 60’s. Just look at the cover of Satanic Majesties.  They seem to be saying, "Yeah, we're down with all this groovy psychedelic stuff.  Well, actually, no, we're not."

The Stones didn’t really come into their period of greatness until the brackish dawn of the sleazy, disenchanted 70’s, after the disillusionment of the Altamont tragedy. Suddenly, with the Beatles disbanded, and the death of 60’s idealism, it seemed nobody did naughty better than the Stones, and they found their niche just by being themselves.

Every Stones fan and rock critic will tell you Exile On Main Street is their masterpiece and pinnacle. Seeing things differently, I would call Exile the beginning of the end. For me, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers were the unbeatable trio of albums from conception to execution that they would never surpass. On Exile, I can hear them start to imitate themselves, which is usually the first glimpse of creative downturn. But I’m probably alone there.

I love their now more neglected work from 1966, like "Mother’s Little Helper", "Paint It Black," and "Lady Jane," all from Aftermath, as well as "Ruby Tuesday," from Between The Buttons. These were baroque, chamber pop songs based in social commentary on the hip, new middle class trends in London. It was the pithy and unflinching criticism and fashionable depictions of the latest empty fads in these tunes that made the Stones seem like enlightened and intelligent observers.

But would anyone, I wonder, agree that perhaps their greatest achievement was "Gimme Shelter?" It’s a portrayal of desperation overcome at the very last moment by redemption (“Love, sister, is just a kiss away”). Here, the Stones pull off a brilliant and heartfelt balance between the dark and the light that remains remarkably mature and untouchable. It summarizes for me what the Stones, at their best, were really all about. The studio recording features the harrowing vocal by Merry Clayton, which takes the performance into a realm of profound spiritual terror.

"Gimme Shelter" live (live vocal anyway, but a fine performance nonetheless by Mick):

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Bird and The Bee. Diamond Dave (2009).

Here's a band I never give a thought to, which is unfair because every time they show up in a shuffle play on my iPod I remember how much I like them.  They epitomize much of what I esteem in music I most cherish: beauty and style, humor, and skillfully meticulous arrangements.  Greg Kurstin has worked with some of my most favorite artists, such as Kylie, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor.  Inara George's voice is rare; utterly relaxed but precise as a laser.

The duo wrote an implausible tribute to David Lee Roth, which is hilarious:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


After the Punk movement reduced popular music to its essential building blocks, bands were free to design their new sounds from scratch.  They could be post-punk, new wave, new Romantic, whatever, as long as they weren't Prog (of course).  

One of the bands ahead of that curve was Japan.  They were already glamming it up during the Punk explosion, so they were not initially successful, except in, well, Japan!  Luckily, they stuck with it until everyone else caught up with them.  It didn’t hurt that the band was full of musical geniuses.  The lovely David Sylvian stole the show, looking like a wax mannequin of Warhol, and sounding like Bowie with seasonal allergies.  But one cannot possibly speak of Japan without acknowledging the fluid and idiosyncratic fretless bass work of Mick Karn.  Karn was a self-taught bassoon player who actually won an audition to a symphony orchestra without knowing how to read music. He made his own fretless bass in the 1970’s simply by removing the frets.

Here’s the band performing The Art of Parties (the groove here is absolutely wicked, and it’s live!):

From the same concert, Still Life In Mobile Homes:

Sadly, Karn lost a battle with cancer in January of this year at the age of 53, having only been diagnosed about six months earlier.  Safe journeys, Mick.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Beaumont. this is... Beaumont (2000).

Keith Girdler, who had recorded originally with the band Blueboy, on Sarah Records, and subsequently in Arabesque, Snowdrops, and Lovejoy, put together Beaumont in 2000, with Lorraine Carrol (vocals), Dick Preece (keyboards), Leigh Saunders (trumpet, keyboards), and two former members of Blueboy: Martin Rose (drums, percussion) and Cath Close (vocals).

Unspeakably twee, the songs refer to plimsolls, tank tops, teardrops, and sipping cherry soda through straws.  Brief instrumentals punctuate the disc, sounding like outtakes from the soundtrack of some lost Julie Christie film.  It evokes, but does not directly imitate, the mid-1960’s, and it drips with wistful charm and beauty.  

Keith Girdler was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and died three years later, at the age of 46.

For those of you who feel even Belle and Sebastian is too testosterone-fueled and macho for your delicate sensitivities, Beaumont might be just what you’re looking for.

Girls and Maths:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Caramel Snow. Laboratory Glassware (2011).

Shoegazey pop with lyrics from a Spam email.  More info on Myspace.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bryan Ferry. Olympia (2010) ...and why it’s not the second coming of Avalon (1982).

Ex-Roxy members convened this past year for Bryan Ferry’s new album, Olympia.  The official press release states, “Bryan Ferry reunited on record with members of Roxy Music, including Brian Eno.”   But don’t expect an updated version of For Your Pleasure, or Avalon.  The press release doesn’t even mention Manzanera, Mackay, or Thompson by name and, try as you will, it’s pretty challenging to identify what Eno is doing on the record.  As Mackay says on his Web site, “I have read that I played on Bryan's upcoming record Olympia.  Just for the record I may have done but I am not sure!”  It seems Olympia started as a Roxy reunion, but got bogged down in Steely Dan proportions of perfectionism, and eventually became another Ferry solo outing.   

For those of us that have Avalon burned in our memory, the first track of Olympia starts with a shock of recognition: it’s the same pulsating string sound from “True To Life.”  That seems to tease us with the idea that Roxy is now reformed, picking up where Avalon left off.  But this is not the case.  In fact, the opening is a red herring.  Olympia has, to my ears, nothing to do with Avalon.  Olympia is more burnished wood than polished pearl.  It’s smooth, but you can see the grain underneath.  Avalon was many shades of sleek cool. Olympia has some brightness, but it’s mostly darker and tougher.

Without the co-writing contributions of Mackay and Manzanera, Olympia forgoes harmonic complexity in favor of groove and texture, which is typical of Ferry’s solo work. The core band, supplemented, as usual, with lots of guest players, creates under, one would assume, Ferry’s direction, a weighty bed of swirling layers for Bryan’s observant ruminations.  Practically every track has that now definitive Ferry ending: no fade, no chord, just a single unison note, a device we first heard at the end of “While My Heart Is Still Beating,” from, of course, Avalon.

The collaboration with Groove Armada on “Shameless” provides Ferry with a newer, updated and welcome context, but the track is marred by the distracting borrowing of the bleeping synth from Annie’s “Greatest Hit” (1999).  On Annie’s original it has a bit more filtering, more of a “wah” sound on the attack, and it’s a semitone higher, but it’s essentially the same motif.  Otherwise, the tunes are layered with guitar parts that creep like the roots of trees looking for water.  Ferry is able to orchestrate atmospheric yet muscular arrangements that generate heft without overpowering the etchings of his vocals.

At 65, Bryan’s voice is now fragile and frayed.  With Avalon, Ferry completely dropped the artifice of weird vocal mannerisms that had made his voice so distinctive and strange, and oddly appealing.  Since then he has crooned to us, close to our ear, with something just more than a whisper.

Roxy fanatics tend to express disappointment over Avalon because it’s perceived as less experimental, too safe and soft compared to their idiosyncratic earlier work.  True, it is pretty easy on the ears.  But it’s the work of an adult who had been through some hurt and heartbreak (Bryan was in his late 30’s when he recorded it), and Avalon is all about reflection of the past, or even the present as it fades right in front of us.  It’s a monument to beauty, nuance, and poignancy.  From moment to moment, Avalon presents itself as an elegant flow of meticulous detail; there’s not a single jarring event, or questionable note.  In that regard, it’s the first of the Bryan Ferry solo albums to come, and indeed there are the minimum of co-writing credits on Avalon.

But on stage at least, Roxy Music has reunited, as Ferry is touring with Manzanera and Mackay as a group (original Roxy drummer Paul Thompson having fallen out due to poor health), visiting Europe, Japan, and Australia.  And they sound (and look) pretty darn good doing the old stuff: