Some fluff, some info
28 January 04. Rants about nothing |
My brain is filling with crap, and I don't know what to do about it.
We can begin, as all discussion of modern pop must, with the Beach Boys's Pet Sounds: ``I know so many people who think they can go it alone./ They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zone. But what can you tell them? What can you say that won't make them defensive? Hang on to your ego! Hang on, `cause I know that you're gonna lose the fight.''(0) This is entirely clear and direct---and interesting, un-dumb lyrics.
But that was just before 1964, the year that pop decided to give up on coherence. Before: ``(Help!) I need somebody. (Help!) Not just anybody. (Help!) I need someone like you.'' After: ``I read the news today oh boy / Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire / And though the holes were rather small / They had to count them all.''(1)
Simon and Garfunkel, a decade later, tried to hold out: ``When you're down and out; when you're on the street; when evening falls so hard, I will comfort you.'' (2) But there were hints of disaster coming. E.g., they decided to omit the key line ``Love requires impossible tasks'' from Scarborough Fair. A few decades later, Paul Simon had lost it entirely: ``song dogs barking at the break of dawn/ lightning pushes at the edges of a thunderstorm/ and these streets, quiet as a sleeping army, send their battered dreams to heaven.''(3) Paul, what happened?
I think somewhere in there, the collective music authors of the world arrived at the system of equations: `clear=ditzy pop'; `obtuse=deep'. And people stick to it: the bands that are fun and poppy give very simple lyrics, with maybe a few tricks thrown in (e.g., Britney's ubiquitous eager battered wife song, `Hit me baby one more time') while the bands shooting for the fringe or the more adult market throw out a series of lines that sound related and hint at something the listener can't fathom E.g., anything by Smashing Pumpkins: ``I used to be a little boy/ so old in my shoes/ what i choose is my choice/ What's a boy supposed to do?/ The killer in me is the killer in you/ I send this smile over to you.''(4) At least it rhymes (boy/choice, you/you).
What I feel was lost was that there's an idea which drives the words, and not the other way `round. When Ginsburg wrote Howl, he had a specific person in mind and a specific story about hipsters going crazy (``Carl, while you are not safe, I am not safe/ And now you're really in the total animal soup of time.''). The words were not strict and digressed at times, but flowed from that central idea. I'm incredulous that Billy Corrigan---hipster gone crazy---had any one thing in mind when he was writing Smashing Pumpkins lyrics (especially having read his commentary in the Pisces Iscariot liner notes).
I imagine the marketing guys saying, `Kids these days, they want bands that sound like Ginsberg. They want music that makes them think. Stella, get me Ginsberg on the line .... Is he really? .... Well, OK, then how about Billy Corrigan? ... Well I can't tell the difference, and I have a Master's in marketing. How are they gonna know?'
There are certainly any of a number of bands or individual songs that strike a balance---good lyrics that are about something. Maybe the Flaming Lips or REM on a good day. [`Losing my religion' was about having a secret crush. Why was this so hard for people to work out?] My personal favorite has to be Los Planetas, Spain's answer to the alternatyve scene---notably their track `Si esta bien', a song whose lyrics basically boil down to: `If it's so easy/ If everything's going so well/ then why does it hurt like this?' They fail to describe exactly what `it' is, but in so doing, made a song which succinctly and clearly summarizes all of teen angst, relationship angst, and gallstone treatment procedure. And the guitar part rocks.
My main personal problem with that nether-region, where I can understand the words but not the meaning, is that the words become memorable enough that I find myself absentmindendly singing along to the tunes in my head: ``Alligator shoes, tarantula breath, all look good on paper, but they're scaring me to death.''(5) In other words, modern pop music has induced symptoms of schizophrenia in me.
(0) `Hang on to your ego.' The non-Brian Wilson beach boys thought it was too cynical and made him change this line to `I know there's an answer'.
22 April 04. RSS and objects |
public This guy makes a brilliant point about magazine articles: "I had begun to notice that people refer to a magazine article by mentioning the magazine, not the author, but with a book they typically don't remember the publisher, but only the author[...]." In this context (but another post) the guy explains why RSS saves us: it lets us pick authors that we like and design a nameless, virtual newspaper/magazine which is entirely by the people we are most interested in. Our virtual magazine can even have lots of comics (see the links page) and Dave Barry. It gives me that 90's optimism that yes, the Web really can revolutionize publishing and information dissemination.
Remember the `zine revolution, where a collection of a few people printed stuff up and made their pals read it and also left it at the bookstore hoping that a few strangers would also read a few pages? There's blogging with RSS for ya.
private So I myself have now been using an RSS reader for a little over a week. The results? My apartment is much cleaner, and I have no dishes lingering in the sink. I think I'm like a lot of people in that I guide my life based on the item on my `to do' list that is the least onerous at the moment. This had meant hitting <F5> on Paul's blog and seeing if he's said anything in the last five minutes, but now that's entirely obsolete, since the RSS reader does that automatically. As much as I love chycks in eyeliner, even that site from a few days ago has become onerous.
In fact, generally, looking for new content is among the most onerous things I can think of. As much as I may give the impression otherwise, I hate clicking on things and hoping they'll turn up something good; I really do think 90% of the content online is crap; and buying stuff online is so painful at this point that I'd rather go without than suffer the requisite half an hour of aimless clicking that goes into buying anything with plastic or silicon parts.
And so, having barred the joy of <F5>-ing the sites I really do like, I'm down to sweeping my floor and doing dishes. I guess it's sort of a geek thing to do, to automate and make efficient your downtime (here's a great example).
Oh, and I also read the NYT and the Economist more, since they now push themselves to me rather than requiring that I click on a link. I am thus notified within half an hour any time a U.S. serviceman dies in Iraq.
virtual I bought a big pile of records the other day. I'm increasingly feeling what the luddites of old said about CDs: they're just not fun compared to records. There's no tactile joy, nothing to do with your hands or your eyes. The little CD booklet really doesn't compare to the big square sleeve that hipsters have lately taken to framing and hanging on the wall. There's no ritual to putting a CD in the little motorized tray. As previously noted, if you have to get up every twenty minutes to flip the darn record, you're more likely to listen compared to just putting on a playlist in the background.
To go even further, walking through Chinatown in Manhattan a month or two ago, I happened upon a pile of 78 RPM records, from circa 1915-1925. They do indeed put the records of the 80s to shame: these things don't wobble or bend, and they weigh something substantial. They feel good to hold. These 78s are vaguely Jewish in nature, like Cohen calls his tailor on the 'Phone (comedy monologue, it says) and the Yiddisher klezmer orchestra. I wish I coud hear them.
I was raised more on CDs, though, so the step from CDs to MP3s on a hard drive was a trivial one, since pushing little plastic buttons and clicking on the picture of a button are about the same experience. Now I've got an efficient, streamlined system for playing music that involves absolutely no tactile involvement at all. Perhaps this is why I'm so into good computer keyboards---but compare the keys on your keyboard with the keys on a piano (not to be confused with a MIDI keyboard). In the end, convenience and cheapness will always win out over tactile fun. That's why CDs made records basically disappear, and why MP3s threaten to make the entire concept of music purchased with a tangible physical medium obsolote.
For me, this brings up two questions: first, how far will the virtualization of things go? Will all our media be on screens and speakers; our cars, tools, and other assorted things with buttons replaced with little touch-screens and voice commands; the soft parts replaced by pictures of soft parts; and once-heavy things like glass jars, wood furniture, and telephones replaced with cheap, light, and fully functional plastic counterparts? What'll be left? Which brings us to the central question:
The visitors from the future are always drawn as having gigantic heads and tiny hands. I wonder if the future really is in not touching things. I guess it can go one of two ways. We may not care at all, since our heads are getting bigger, or we may start to care much more about the things that are basically impossible to replace with non-tactile substitutes: clothing, food, people.
Which is how my RSS feed has made my life better: by streamlining the way I waste time online, I'm forced to read physical books, put my hands under running water, play records, and live more in the tactile world.
16 September 04. Cohen calls his tailor on the `phone |
I'd just gotten off the Chinatown bus in Nueva York, and had an hour or two to kick around before meeting my pal at the best named restaurant in the universe: House of Vegetarian [68B Mott St (between Canal & Bayard)]. So I'm walking around, and what do I see in a gigantic heap of trash, but a big pile of 78s. More than I could carry, even. It ran the usual gamut of foxtrot records and now-kitschy orchestras, but there was a heavy Yiddish slant to it all; I picked up the Yiddish subset, hoping I could do something with it later.
I have a record player, but despite the vague similarity, the old and new formats are incompatible. 78s don't compare to records from the 1980s. They're heavy, and don't give the slightest indication of bending. One is a pleasing orangish color, giving the impression that it's made of clay, like a flat bowl pulled from an archaeological dig in Chinatown.
I spent a month with them in my apartment before giving up. Either you have something that can play 78s, or you're completely and totally out of luck. CDs will be like this some day, I guess. So I sold the records on ebay, with the additional note that if the person put them on MP3 for me, then I'd give back a few bucks. [These discs are from the 1920s and before, so this is even legal. Take that, RIAA!]
After a month of not hearing from her, I'd assumed the buyer didn't feel like taking me up on that part of the deal, which I was basically expecting. And then, much to my amazement, one day I got an MP3 in the mail—followed by eleven more. Ms SM came through and sent me all six records.
Oh, but I would be a tease if I told you a story about music but didn't let you hear it. These records from the trash heap of history are now up at gmail.com. Log in as some.files , password caring (like sharing is --). The records are there as email attachments.
If you have any files that you think may be interesting to me or whoever reads this (a slowly growing group of people I still really can't identify), feel free to email them to the account. Maybe this can be fun.
28 January 05. Music I'm not embarassed to like |
Here's some music that I like and play reasonably often but which other human beings have given me flack for listening to. There's lots of other stuff which I like but which is just uncool, which I won't bore you with (Stevie Wonder, Faure, Concrete Blonde, &c).
Jimmy Buffet, Margaritaville. It percolated in my head for a while, just the mis-remembered phrase, `One more day/ in Margaritaville' which I would mumble to myself from time to time. [The correct line is actually more despondent: `wasting away again/ in Margaritaville'] It was emblematic of life in LA and a few other choice locations I have lived in: tourists pay lots of money to come here; when they draw pictures of paradise, they look like this; I have lots of pals and am paid to think about things that interest me; and yet it's all covered in a patina of ennui anyway. The song asks: when everything is perfect and you're still not happy, what do you do? Somebody once told me it's just about an alcoholic, which is a valid interpretation (`That frozen concoction that helps me hang on') but to me passes up the more important existential issues raised by the song.
Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. Sitting in the dorm room in London, my roommate's clubber pals were all playing tapes of the usual repetitive club music, and I said, `oh, that reminds me of Philip Glass' and I put this on. To me it was incredibly similar: repetitive keyboards, lots of layers, but they gave it this confused look, since they knew in a way I'll never understand that this is artsy weirdo music, whereas their stuff is properly hipster club music. If you backed me to the wall, I could list the differences for you, but I don't care. Glass rocks, and had an immense influence on modern music. E.g., go listen to the keyboards on your Grandaddy CD again. If you're still scared of him, find some of his stuff post-1998 or so. [How about the Fog of War soundtrack?]
Coldplay. My idea of tempo is somehow slower than everybody else's; fast for me is is everybody else's mid-tempo. So Coldplay, which is cursed with the insult-title of `mid-tempo rockers', is OK by me. I think they're great at writing music to set mood. Of course, the music ain't rocket science, and you get it on the first listen, and they play it at fast food restaurants, but they definitely know how to play their instruments. Last time I used a McBathroom, they were playing Pete Yorn on the McPA, but `On your side' still makes me happy in a cozy kind of way (despite lyrics which make zero sense).
The Bossa Nova. I've written a personal ad on this before, how I think it's the most misunderstood genre out there. In the section on rhythm exercises in the music textbook, the bossa nova rhythm is always the difficult one that stops you up and keeps you from thinking it's all easy. It's wonderful and counterintuitive. It's sad that all the people who cover the Girl from Ipanema just give up and play it in 4/4 time.
Radiohead, Pablo Honey. I really think it's their best album. I got tired of Kid A pretty quick (except the Pyramid Song and How to Disappear Completely; are those on there or on Amnesiac?), and always skipped tracks on The Bends even though I had a tape copy so skipping tracks involved lots of effort, but I play all of Pablo Honey over and over again. There is nothing innovative in the instrumentation or the song structure, but the songs are all really fun nonetheless, and Mr. TY of Oxford, UK still shows himself to be an emotive badass. Mr. GK of San Diego, CA, calls them `The band that did Creep,' and I still agree, even though they've gone through all their reinventions and changes since then.
Should I mention the Beach Boys? They've become the hipsters' darling, so one doesn't have to defend liking them anymore. But it's a chance to mention a dumb trick that I saw online somewhere: try looking at Amazon reviews of the Great Works of Our Time sorted by lowest rating first (Go to the end of customer reviews on the main item page, click on See All N Reviews, then you get the little Sort By box on the review page). Here are the reviews for Pet Sounds. Or, here's Lolita.
So that's my list of things that make me happy despite persecution. Please leave your own in the comment box below.
30 January 05. Desert island singles |
Y'know, there's nothing wrong with being a one-hit wonder if your one hit is a real contribution to the musical canon. Not that all of these guys are one-hit folks, but if this were their sole contribution to music, they'd be doing OK. If you add up the time I've spent listening to these songs, it'd be well over a month.
As everybody ever has noted, music reviews are dumb if you can't hear the song, so I've put samples up at the gmail.com account (user: some.files, password: caring). Again, I'm sorry that gmail forces me to put each item in a separate file, meaning that you'll need to do more clicking than you really should.
Silo, Scud Mountain Boys. The version on Pine Box; somehow the one on Dance the Night Away doesn't do it so much for me. It's a guy on the guitar, with somebody harmonizing here and there; when I hear it I think about the guy at the guitar composing it, and deciding at some point that he should stop noodling on the guitar and just call it done. At first the lyrics sound kinda dumb and overalternatyve, but once you pass on that they're heartfelt. The song is very much in my range, so I sing along comfortably.
Brand New Love, Sebadoh. A song about the endogeneity of social relations. `Any thought could be the beginning/a brand new tangled web you're spinning./ Anyone could be a brand new love./ Follow what you feel,/ `cause you alone decide what's real./ Anyone could be a brand new love.' As with the numbers below, the noise at the end fits perfectly.
Ana Ng, They Might be Giants. OK, I just felt obliged to include at least one vaguely perky/bounceable song. I put this one on repeat every time it comes up if only to hear that opening guitar lick over and over. Somewhere on their web site, the duo explain that the line `I don't want the world, I just want your half' came up in an argument over money. I wish the people I argue with were so well-humored.
Miss Sarajevo, The Passengers (which consists of U2 and Brian Eno), featuring Luciano Pavarotti. This in no way makes up for anything Bono does as a human being, but it shows that these guys really are good musicians and can produce something which is more than just well-formed pop. I somehow keep losing the album, but I don't care `cause I still have this track and Your Blue Room. It was used at the end of the documentary Miss Sarajevo, about hipsters living in Sarajevo during war time. The movie all seems so normal until you realize that those popping noises are snipers firing at people.
Collected songs where every verse is filled with grief, Alfred Schnittke (only version I've seen performed by the Kronos Quartet). The Kronos Quartet is famous in my mind for picking good pieces. I guess they play them OK and all too, but it's really their selection of repertoire which is off the beaten path but which is not just annoying atonal weirdness which causes me to buy lots of stuff with the Kronos name attached. Anyway, I don't have much to put to words about this track. Um, it's emotive and fun to listen to over and over again.
Resemblances, Arto Lindsay. Oh, what a synthesis of everything. Arto had this period playing skronk guitar, in which he treated the strings in the style of treated piano (i.e., made noise), and he had a long string of bossa nova numbers which were all beautiful and heartfelt. Then this track here is the synthesis of it all: it starts all calm and quiet, then by my count a dozen instruments come in, culminating in this blob of noise which completely and totally fits in with the song, except that it's noise. Or, for example, I saw this one painter (whose name I've forgotten; perhaps Ms ZK of Canberra, Australa can help) whose backgrounds were abstract art pieces in the standard abstract tradition, but by painting a few characters in here and there, he made them into perfectly concrete, normal-seeming paintings. You have to look at it for a while before it hits you, `Oh, if that background were by itself, I'd be dismissing it as too-abstract art for art's sake.'
Now and then, somebody will tell me something like `I never get much into music; it's nice in the background but generally all a blur.' I play them Resemblances and try to get subject to follow one of the dozen instruments and work out its specific role in the song. Subject is usually impressed with how much there is to be found. Of course, such an exercise is standard music appreciation advice, but I think it works especially well for Resemblances.
Sunken Treasure, Wilco. It's fun to see Wilco get more offbeat with every album. They started off with AM as pretty much straight country. There are a few subtleties that made them hip country, like underuse of pedal steels and details of the lyrics; then on Being There they started to add some noise to the mix; then Warner Brothers kicked them off the label for not making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot e-z enough. [Haven't heard A Ghost is Born yet, but I hear it follows the trend.] So Sunken Treasure is a crossover song of sorts, where they were still doing straight songs but indicated that something was going on in the background. They go for the same effect of noise-as-composition-element as Arto did with Resemblances (or even Radiohead did with How to Disappear Completely; it'd be on the list but there's a fluke in the editing which I can not f.ing stand. Maybe they meant to do it, but it still takes me out of their world.).
Magnetic Fields, The Death of Ferdinand de Sassure. In contrast, this is entirely stripped down. Bass, synth, vocals, period. See, Ferdinand de Sassure was a linguist, so the chorus conjugates verbs (except it's English, so there's no conjugation to speak of). I like to sing along pronouncing everything as if it rhymed with the exaggerated French pronounciation of Sassure. By the way, if you're gonna buy an entire Magnetic Fields album, get The Charm of the Highway Strip. It's about vampires.
Quiet American, Antarctica. I can't plug this guy enough. For the story to this piece, search this page for Antarctica. Then listen to everything else on the page. This is what I'd expected Modest Mouse's `A life of arctic sounds' to sound like; was disappointed when their arctic sounds were so far from it. [Was also disappointed when I found out the band's name isn't really any sort of reference to Modest Moussorgsky.]
Some runners up, any one of which I'd be happy to put on repeat for an hour. Most of them are slower songs, because I'm clinically depressed, and because it's easier for a composer to create a new world if he/she isn't worrying about being danceable.
David Bowie: Space oddity. So when did you first work out that Major Tom's a junkie?
18 February 05. Desert island singles II |
The reader may have noticed that all but one of the tracks in my last listing of desert island singles was from the 90s-00s. [The exception being Schnittke, from the 80s, plus some of the afterthoughts tacked on at the end.] How's that for being myopic. So, here are some more fabulous tracks well worth putting on repeat, all from before 1990.
20 March 06. Dating music |
Picked up a copy of Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" the other day. The reader will recall the song as the one with the a capella "ooga chaka ooga chaka" opening.
LetrasThe other method of dating yourself is by opening your mouth. In Wish you were here, the lines "did you exchange/ A walk-on part in the war/ for a lead role in a cage" seem a pretty clear reference to Vietnam War protest. There are still wars to be protested, but the line always sets me back a few decades anyway. I love The Goats' Tricks of the Shade, a well-written hip hop album from 1992 which frequently complains about President Bush. I know they weren't happy about it, but Bush protest songs have scored an extra eight years of relevance. Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927", about a flood and an apathetic president ("Louisiana./ They're trying to wash us away."), should have been playing on a continuous loop after Hurricane Katrina. But hey, political music is an aural newspaper; it's supposed to get dated.
The 70s also had that unfortunate dungeons and dragons-style balladry thing going, not-unrelated to 60s self-conscious psychedelia. In the 80s, there was a whole host of songs about how you're a creature of the night, as a soundtrack for the clubbing yuppie ("You belong to the city/ you belong to the night/ living in a river of darkness/ beneath the neon light.") The second person has been underused in pop ever since.
Lyrics matter because they do indeed affect the emotional setting of a song. If the singer is attempting whisk the listener away to a YMCA in the 70s or a rave in the 90s, then you'll go, feeling dated through the whole ride. That means that club music is very likely to become dated even though the instrumentation is usually uncontroversial and the lyrics fundamentally universal ("Dear Listener: Please shake your booty").
80s gothdom is an interesting case study. Primarily, the stuff from the 80s that survives today and does not play solely for kitsch value is the gothy stuff: I know one or two places that has Cure vs Smiths nights. The instrumentation tends to be generally synthless. The lyrics don't really stand out in any direction---not even the sullenness that these guys are famous for. I mean, the Cure wrote Friday, I'm in Love, and most of the guitar work on the Smiths' albums is the jangliest stuff this side of The Edge at Joshua Tree. I picked up a few Love and Rockets albums (OK, all of them), and kept having to cut danceable tracks from the playlist. I read that all of these guys had a look that was decidedly 80s, but I wouldn't know, since I never look at the album covers. But, in the end, these guys got it right: they didn't overuse cutting-edge technology, and they made some effort to sing about universal themes like love and rocket design.
So pop music doesn't have to wind up dated, but you can see that it's easy for it to do so. Pop is simple music, because it's oriented toward children and dancers, and the easiest way to make a love song in 4/4 time sound original is to use the newest effects and talk about the latest fashions. Nor does this make it bad music. Half of my playlist is songs with instrumentation that followed new technology or lyrics that followed cultural trends too closely, and in a day of headphone-wearing I do wander from sock hops to raves. But the desert island discs, the ones that I keep spare copies of in case of emergency, like Davis & Evans's Sketches of Spain, Arto Lindsay's Corpo Sutil, or R.E.M.'s Reckoning, didn't bother with being cutting-edge.
16 July 06. Toward a musical division of labor |
So few classical composers play an instrument at the virtuoso level. It seems obvious to all that there should be a division of labor where some people devote all their time to writing good music, and others put their all into playing their instruments. Most pop doesn't have this division of labor, which is sort of silly, especially since the instrument in question is the human voice, and the number of people endowed with both a lovely voice and great songwriting abilities are few indeed. So, take this column as a list of examples of why a songwriter/singer division of labor makes sense.
Or just take it as a list of tracks that are fab. By the way, my personal means of carrying pop songs around so I have them when I want them is to put them on my gmail account; user: some.files ; pass: caring . It's pretty convenient.
Johnny Cash covering Trent Reznor: Hurt [on American IV]. As you can see, I'm starting with the obvious picks. Mr. Cash comes from a tradition of performing songs by others, and he is none the poorer for it. Since Mr. Cash doesn't have to contend with Mr. Reznor's angry-for-angry's-sake market, he's also able to remove an annoying blemish from the lyrics (“I wear this crown of thorns...”).
Jeff Buckley covering Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah [on Grace]. Sigh. This one's also an obvious pick, to the point that many people don't even know that it's a cover. Leonard Cohen is a bit like Bob “Dylan” Zimmerman, in that pretty much any cover will be better performed than the original. To tell you the truth, I didn't even know that Guns `n' Roses's “Knocking on Heaven's Door” is actually by Bob Dylan until Ms AS of San Diego, CA, pointed it out to me. [Click through on that link: she has her own list of covers that improve on the original.]
The Bangles covering Simon and Garfunkel: Hazy Shade of Winter [on the Less than Zero soundtrack and pretty much any Bangles Best of ]. In the continuing tradition of Jewish folk singers like the above, Paul Simon can write, but his singing is not very exciting. His best stuff always involved collaboration with others who have instrumental and vocal talent (Art Garfunkel, asst Africans and Brazilians).
Living Colour covering Al Green: Love and Happiness [on the Biscuits EP]. You get to pick: Al Green's Hammond organ, or Living Colour's over-the-top lead singer and electric guitars.
Concrete Blonde covering Roxy Music: End of the line [on Mexican Moon]. Johnette Napolitano has a voice to die for, and has a Roxy Music fetish, as she explains in the song “Roxy” (on Group Therapy). C.B. has done many a cover, such as Mr. Cohen's Everybody Knows, or J Hendrix's Castles made of sand. Castles is notable for Johnette's modification of the girl in the wheelchair's line from `and she smiled to her legs and said you won't hurt me no more.' to `and she looked up and she said you'll never hurt me no more.'
Prince covering Joan Osborne: One of us [on Emancipation, disc 3]. Joan wrote a brilliant piece, but just doesn't belt it in performance. Prince, meanwhile, has that fire 'n' brimstone preacher thing going, as per “The Cross”.
You know that song “Georgia on my mind”, a semi-standard that everybody associates with Ray Charles? Check out the Maceo Parker version, on Life on Planet Groove. I'm trying to steer clear of songs that were written by songwriters who have no singing career of any sort, but since this one is so closely associated with Ray Charles, I thought it deserved a place on the list. If I didn't follow this rule, the list would be ten times longer, due to tracks like If your girl only knew, by Missy Elliot but made popular by Aaliyah and made amazing by Rahzel (Make the Music 2000), or Wichita Lineman by Jimmy Webb, typically sung by Glen Campbell, wonderfully covered by the Scud Mountain boys on Pine Box.
Ambitions Lovers covering Gilberto Gil: O Preciso Perdoar [on Lust]. Have I said enough about how wonderful this little piano piece is. The rest of the album is standard 80s synth, but this little throw-away at the end of the album makes it well worth the $0.01 plus shipping and handling. And hey, while we're talking Arto Lindsay, what about his cover of Prince's Erotic city, on Mundo Civilizado. Prince's version is kitschy, but at risk of sounding un-economist, Arto's version, with its battery of samba drums, is hot.
Which reminds me of Caetano Veloso's album of covers, A Foreign Sound (if only because the Ambitious Lovers produced Caetano's Estrangeiro). It's mostly lite to the point of dullness--I picture Caetano telling the executives `I'm Caetano Veloso and I'll record what I darn well please to!'--but here and there, his chillness has that effect that good Bossa Nova has, confusing you as to whether you should be rocking out or sinking into the couch and going `aahh'. I think the ending to Come as you are, with its off-kilter bass would be OK by Kurt, giving the right accent to a song that is supposed to be on-edge and creepy. Caetano is never too heavy with the battery, which makes it all that much more effective as the outro of his cover of “Blue Skies (shining on me)”.
Caetano's cover album leads us to Guns 'n' Roses's Spaghetti Incident?. It's mostly what you'd expect from G'n'R, but track one, Since I don't have you, reveals that in an alternate universe, Axl Rose is a carnival barker by day and a torch singer by night. The song is another standard, by Beaumont & Rock and originally performed by The Skyliners.
Seu George covering David Bowie: Life on Mars. Dude, you've seen one Wes Anderson movie about Bill Murray in a mid-life crisis, you've seen `em all, but at least The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou had Seu George on guitar. Though I've sung its praises before, we should also mention David Lynch's use of Roy Orbison's Crying in Mulholland Drive, covered a capella1 and in Spanish to moving effect.
Willie Nelson and Sinead O'Conner covering Peter Gabriel: Don't Give up,
from Willie's cover album, Across the
This is a semi-self-indulgent album where Willie flew around the planet and
did duets with other famous people. The guitar solo in the break of
every last one of `em consists of Willie repeating the melody--yawn. But
this is a country song, and though the original is heartfelt, Mr. Gabriel
doesn't do country. Oh, and while we're on Ms O'Connor, we all know that
Nothing Compares 2 U is by Prince, but check out The Artist himself
doing this song on his Warner Brothers contractual
You get to decide which is the cover in that pair.
28 August 06. The hot new sound of Classical|
`Classical' is a terrible term for music. It implies that everything in the classical bin was written somewhere in the 1700s, which is so very far from true. There's so much there that is more influenced by modern pop sensibilities than by the church music of the Renaissance.
So, here are some albums that are technically classical in that they are works by symphonies or small collections of symphonic instruments, but which are decidedly modern in leanings. You'll notice that the list barrels clear through from the early 1800s to the present without much of a break--there's classical from the 1970s and from two weeks ago, that I wouldn't feel bad classing as Classical, but which is decidedly not about powdered wigs.
The disclaimer, once and only once: this is entirely my opinion. Please read every sentence below to begin with `I feel that'.
To give you my first opinion, I don't really like music from back in the 1700s. Much Bach-era music is written toward the harpsichord, which is like a piano except that it is incapable of dynamics (which is why the name pianoforte stresses the quiet-loud capabilities of the new instrument). That means that building tension in the music often requires speeding up or trilling or otherwise throwing in too many notes. Even the non-harpsichord music, like Bach's very listenable cello concertos, are also advised by the overtrilling.
No, music began for me around 1800, when this guy Beethoven started composing. To many, he is the precursor to the romantic movement, which is characterized by less focus on form and more on the emotional content. That is, Beethoven invented indie, and is thus the first composer to really appeal to somebody like me, who was raised on radio pop and dubs of Velvet Underground cassettes.
The romantic period included a few other notables. I continue to (heart) Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, for example. But there's a massive risk that less-structured music takes: without caution, it winds up sounding like background music for a movie. Since movie music times itself to screen action rather than musical logic, it tends to have a certain stop-start feel that is unfun by itself. Thus, when I hear the stop-start stylings of many romantic composers (Debussy), I start to wonder what movie I should watch for the music to make sense.
Chronologically, George Gershwin fits in right here (we've jumped to 1920), but you already know his classical works, between the United Air Theme and his operatic aria, “Summertime/ and the livin' is easy.” He's notable for working hard on folding popular music into a classical framework, and you'll see that just about every composer from here on in does the same. In fact, he was so good at it that some people think that Summertime is a folk song that Gershwin adapted or otherwise stole. But nope, he wrote it; Wikipedia says so. Gershwin is not the inventor of the concept of folk adaptation; Modest Moussorgsky was doing this a decade or two before him, and somebody better versed than me can surely give still earlier examples.
Now skip forward to the 1950s, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, where Communist-era composers were paid well to appeal to the proletariat. We can start with Shostakovitch himself, who fell in and out with the Party, but wrote some rollicking good music in the process. The ending to his Fifth Symphony might as well have an MC on stage going `Everybody now pump your fists!'
Béla Bartók also knew how to rock out, as demonstrated by his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and his Concerto for Orchestra. [Amazon link] At this point (the early 1940s), music is already starting to look pretty experimental. There are crashes and bells that are intended to surprise the audience, Bartók wrote in absurdly complex time signatures for novel combinations of instruments, and he is once again often pulling from Hungarian folk music.
Antonín Dvorák also demonstrates the basic rule that if a composer has an accent in his name that doesn't appear in English, he's probably from Eastern Europe and works for modern listeners. His Ninth Symphony (From the New World) leans on American Folk songs like Gershwin did, and rocks out like Shostakovitch rousing the masses.
What are we up to here, the 1970s? I've only got one composer for ya from 1970, Philip Glass. To show his folk influence, he wrote two symphonies, Low and Heroes, based on themes from the same-named David Bowie/Brian Eno albums. But the stuff he wrote in the 1970s is often intolerable to most folks, because it is harshly, decidedly repetitive. [Low and Heroes are OK.] The idea is to repeat a phrase several times, and then make minor changes to a single element of the phrase, so that the minor shift stands out. Since most of pop music is based on repetition, you wind up hearing it everywhere when you look for it. But by itself, in its starkest form, it's a bit intolerable. However, he's still alive, and is right now somewhere composing something. After, oh, 1985, his music started to mellow out, and he began to get into a groove that is decidedly informed by his minimalist drones, but is also more recognizable as an orchestral work.
So, OK, to tide you over through the 1970s, how about Alfred Schnittke? He was often off the deep end with the stop-starts, but how can you not love a guy with a Symphony Number 0? Due to a few strokes, Schnittke composed a number of his finer works after he was pronounced legally dead. I'm not sure how a musician could be more badass than that. I've recommended Schnittke before in this list, and brought up a few more composers above this list.
We immediately recognize a group like Rasputina to be not-Classical. They're three cellists, who dress in period-type costumes. But there's vocals all the way through, the songs are about four minutes long, they ride the cellos hard to produce very uncello sounds, and the audience is all goth kids. Every one of these elements appears in formal Classical. There's cellos, bad costumes, short Leiden, treated pianos, and always at least a couple of goths in the audience. The point being that distinguishing the New Classical from pop is going to be hard.
Did you know David Byrne has a blog? It's a good read, since he's a smart guy who gets to go to places we don't. That link there is about a deserted factory in Germany, which he proposes is a good set for his symphonic piece about industrialization, The Forest. There are vocalists, including soloists, but more in the style of Mozart's and Verdi's Requiem than Rasputina's songs about vampires.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The name just reeks of hipsterdom, right down to the creative typography. But let's let that aside, and stick with the music itself. Most of their stuff has a build-and-release form; I've seen one or two curmudgeons who characterized this as monotonous, and one or two other curmudgeons who characterized their music as inaccessible noise. With half the world thinking it's obvious and half the world thinking it's impossible, I think they're doing fine. If you have to get just one, get the Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP. Could a title be more of a turn-off? But the storyline told by the music, including a lengthy rant by a standard off-the-street nut, is moving. The cover is the Biblical Hebrew word for the chaos that existed before the universe was created. No idea what it has to do with the music, but dude, it's deep. [Amazon link]
Tarantula A.D. show that yes, the cover art can get worse--and the name, oh, I'm embarrassed to mention them. But they do good stuff. I saw these guys live a few weeks ago, and it was wonderful to see a guy play a cello like a rock star, throwing it up while playing, headbanging, and otherwise having a good time. The music is like that too. The pieces are shorter than GY!BE's but longer than Rasputina's, and are more about the standard rock drum kit interacting with cello and violin.
Both of the above overpretentious bands are shooting for Post-rock, an genre made famous by Chicagoans like Tortoise and non-Chicagoans like Sigur Rós. But since the post-rock bands aren't playing orchestral instruments and are often more interested in interesting sound than musical narrative, few would be willing to give them a slot in the Classical chronology.
Rachel's, evidently named for a group member's old car, is more on the chamber music side. But there's a reason why the indie kids like it.
Then there's Tzadik, a label founded by John Zorn, whose solo horn playing on stuff like Naked City is just annoying. Tzadik is a pun referring to both the Hebrew letter that is their logo and to the word meaning Righteous. Thus, it is a half-step away from Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label.
Tzadik CDs tend to be really expensive and a total crap shoot. The bad stuff is as annoying as John Zorn experimenting on sax; the good stuff is stunning. As you can tell by the name, there's a Jewish leaning in the music selections, but there's a lot to avant garde Jewish music, let me tell you. Since I've already given you over a dozen hours of music to run out and listen to, I'll just keep the rest of the Tzadik section down to a short list: The Cracow Klezmer band (From Eastern Europe ⇒ Awesome), Roberto Juan Rodriguez (Cuban Klezmer ⇒ Righteous), Zakarya Yves Weyh, maybe Steven Bernstein (more straight-up jazz klezmer) and some of John Zorn's stuff like The Circle Maker. [I want to mention Tim Sparks, who plays Sephardic-influenced music, but he's disqualified from the list for being only solo guitar.]
And finally, they have no cellos, but this list would not be complete without mention of the First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.