Monday, March 30, 2020

MUDDLED SYNTH FUSION



This is the one of the few of the many McLaughlin albums I have no use for. It seems a case that JM had a bunch of new guitar synth toys and had not yet figured out a way to make them remotely attractive in their modulations, and that he had to put a band together pronto with little rehearsal time. Especially the compositions, which recycle riffs from the previous two studio albums or spend time abruptly moving from tonal muddle-headedness, ersatz classicism, or the dreariest of vocal chorusing . The band was not ready for prime time, distressing considering the talent in the band, with Stu Goldberg (keyboards), Ralph Armstrong (bass) and Narada Michael Walden (drums); all these players are superb in executing the roles the sessions require of them, but no one shines here, which is a shame. I saw this line up of musicians in 1974 for the tour supporting the orchestral Apocalypse album (another least-played disc in my JM collection) with the addition of Jean Luc Ponty (violin) and Gayle Moran (keyboards), and experienced a wholesale blitzkrieg of fusion brilliance. It was a refreshing reminder how often the musicians achieve  those levels of adlib brilliance in live settings, especially from a studio effort that collapsed under it’s own portentious weight. This is a note that McLaughlin is a worth composer of small ensemble composition, but lacked, at least at the time, the where with all to score a piece for full orchestra.   None of that was evident on the 1976 release Inner World, and even JM seemed overwhelmed by all the noise that resulted. Fortunately for the world, McLaughlin is one who liked to move from style to style has remained an inspiring artist. To this day, decades after he first rattled my tooth fillings, it still takes one of his guitar solos to put me in touch with that instinct that wants to transform rage and fury into a heady, fast thinking lyricism. He has been that brilliant.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Rolling the stone uphill

78283Greil Marcus has made his name as rock critic by insisting that the tide of History is directly mirrored by the pop music of the period. This can make for exhilarating reading, because Marcus is, if nothing else, an elegant stylist given to lyric evocation, but it is the same elegance that disguises the fact that he comes across a middling Hegelian; the author, amid the declarations about Dylan, The Stones, The Band and their importance to the spontaneous mass revolts of the Sixties, never solidifies his points. He has argued , with occasional lucidity, that the intuitive metaphors of the artist/poet/musician diagnose the ills of the culture better than any bus full of sociologists or philosophers, and has intimated further that history is a progression toward a greater day.

But what has been aggravating with Marcus since he left the employ of Rolling Stone and began writing full length books and essays for cultural journals is that he chokes when there's a point to be made--he defers, he sidesteps, he distracts, he rather gracelessly changes the subject. Again, this can be enthralling, especially in a book like his massive Lipstick Traces The Secret History of the 20th Century" where he assumes some of Guy DeBord's assertions in Society of the Spectacle and situates rock and roll musicians in a counter-tradition of groups that spontaneously develop in resistance to a society's centralized ossification and mounts an attack, through art, on the perceptual filters that blind the masses to their latent genius.

He never quite comes to the part where he satisfyingly resolves all the mounting, swelling, grandly played generalizations that link Elvis, The Sex Pistols and Cabaret Voltaire as sources of insight geared to undermine an oppressive regime, but the reader has fun along the way. Marcus wants to be a combination of Marcuse and Harold Bloom, and he rarely accomplishes anything the singular criticism either of them produced in their respective disciplines, political philosophy and literary criticism, but he does hit the mark often enough to make him a thinker worth coming back to.

One would wonder about the value of coming back to this man's store front, though, if his book Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Marcus is one who has written so much about Dylan, or has absorbed so much material about him, that he can produce a reed-thin on one song and pretends that it is much, much more than what it really is. The problem is a lack of thesis, a conceit Marcus at least pretend to have with his prior volumes; depending entirely on third-hand anecdotes, half-recollected memories and a flurry of details gleaned from any one of the several hundred books about Dylan published in the last 30 years, this amounts to little more than what you'd have if you transcribed a recording of the singer's more intense fans speaking wildly, broadly, intensely amongst themselves, by passing coherence for Sturm and Drang. For the rest of us with a saner appreciation of Dylan's importance , Like A Rolling Stone is messily assembled jumble of notes, press clips and over-told stories; Marcus , obvious enough, attempts an impressionist take on the song, but the smell of rehash doesn't recede, ever.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Bob Seger before Night Moves

SEVEN
Bob Seger
Palladium/Reprise


Image result for seven Bob Seger Bob Seger's SEVEN album is  are rare item, a mature rock and roll statement at a time when rock stars, the megastars that is, were becoming a species of Professional Celebrities in their late careers. It seemed the rock stars one admired for verve, passion and invention had lost the talent for redefining themselves and reassessing what they could create with their gifts as they aged and instead issued mediocre albums, bad volumes of poetry and starred in elaborately awful movies as they lived off the remains of a what was once charisma. Now many were merely famous, better suited for Hollywood Squares. Our friend Seger didn't get that summary of middle aged duties though; a deep if not profound thinker, the singer here reflects on what he's done so far, seems the length he still needs to go to achieve his career goals, and with the songs on Seven, lets his audience know he's more than a bit burned out, more than a little cynical, just a little pissed off to have toured, recorded and endured so much grief in the search for American success for so little gain. The songs reflect it, and this is ,I believe, a fine bit of wit and honesty gere. He's a bit of an asshole, a jerk, a heart of gold that can sometimes go cold and become brutish in spirit , not kind, giving, not a hippie ethic in sight. He is not Lou Reed nor Dylan , but rather more like Chuck Berry or John Fogarty if they dropped the crowd pleasing grins and shared some of their culminated aggrevation with their respective crowds of fans.  Seger doesn't wear funny hats, tight pants showing the width of his rig, or bandy about the stage gasping and wheezing, acting like the power of the music has possessed his soul. No, Seger is content to sing his hard rock straight forward, letting the rough-edges supply its own excitement. 

And Seger is a singer of such manic power as to lay to rest forever all the inept rabble-rousing Slade, Foghat and Humble Pie indulge in. Seger has his finger on the rock and roll pulse—beat. "Get Out of Denver “opens the album, a Chuck Berry chop done the way Berry meant it—fast, intense and over with, quick. The truck driver as dope smuggler theme makes a believable image of a Semi hauling ass down a Midwest highway from a slew of county sheriff’s cars. "Need Ya" is a great lift from the Faces' "It's All Over Now." Seger's voice is breathless and hoarse, laden with an obvious base desire while some slippery slide guitar from Jim McCarty riffs under it. "School Teacher" is the weak link in the album's progression. Neither the rapid redundancy nor Seger's all stops pulled grate manage to salvage this nothing exercise. Fortunately, this fluke is one of a kind, and everything that follows is an ecstatic upward climb. "UMC (Upper Middle Class)" smacks of brilliance. Brandishing a mocking Mel Torme blues scamper while fine-tuning a witty, Mose Allison outlay of mid-century consumerism, Seger announces that he wants All the Money and everything it can buy.Why not? One can sing the blues convincingly if one's led a wretched life to back up bragging about hard times. But who sings about wanting to be poor? Seger at once lampoons his white culture and expresses a universal aspiration anyone with an eye for better things can identify with. 

"Seen A Lot Floors" is a great rock and roll touring song, a terse blues grunt whose matter of fact lyrical sparseness amplifies its meaning. "Seen a lot of flooooors....Seen a lot of dooooors " shouts Seger, letting the words drop into an oblivion of existential negation. The details of toad life—the motels, the groupies, the larger than humanly tolerable concert halls— all become an amorphous drug drenched blur. A Jim McCarty guitar solo starting with a ruthlessly stretched harmonic enters, followed by  drawling, rasping sax solo, returning bluntly to Seger's bone-tired voice. Indicative maybe that after a while even the music ceases to have meaning, that it becomes part of the systematized routine that earns the artist a living. "Floors" is great. "20 Years from Now" is the only let up in the up tempo phases of SEVEN, a mawkish love song crammed to the gills with Van Morrison phrasing. But the song is worth the listening effort, if only to hear Seger squeeze his words in an affected (but effective) Otis Reddingisms. 

The last song, "All Your Love," again cops from the Faces. The guitar chords are chunky, metallic without approaching heavy metal, and Seger's phrasing cleanly takes from Rod Stewart without once suggesting imitation. Bob Seger is his own man, able to take from any number of mainstream rock sources and use them to his own best advantage SEVEN fires no innovating trails in the history of rock and roll, but at least it's honest, which is more than you have a right to expect from a scene dominated with disposable personas.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

sometimes the good music finds you

Image result for Miles Davis and Sonny StittIn the seventies, while a young man appropriately bored with the slamming two-dimensional dynamics of late-period jazz-rock (which had morphed into a stylized arena of tick-rock riffing termed "fusion" that was monotony incarnate), I ventured forth into older jazz forms, bop, swing, big and, Ellington, Davis, Mingus, people who swung over unpredictable tempos and fantastic chords. It was a love affair that never hasn't stopped yet. Curiously, though, I formed jazzbo attitudes about artists I hadn't heard, a phenomenon not uncommon among some of us desperate for a hip reputation. 

You followed the herd-thinking. What I heard was that alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt was nothing but a low down Charlie Parker imitator, technically adept and adroit in extemporizing over a 6/8 time breakdown of a popular tune, but he was a technician only, without a soul. I went with that for years and dug into my Miles Davis phase, binging over a the late eighties and nineties on as Much MD as I could afford, everything from what he'd done as a sideman with Bird and through his various labels as band leader, from the hard bop session he'd done, through the modal experiments and into the blistering jazz-rock he created., noting , as well, the history of his saxophone players, a fine fettle of reed geniuses: George Coleman,Cannonball Adderley,Gerry Mulligan,John Coletrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Dave Leibman. Nothing but the best for Miles. I was one of those who scoured the used CD bins, looking for my preferred artists and one day, lo! I came across a record titled "Walkin':A Jazz Hour With Miles Davis" on released on the now-defunct economy label Laserlight. Featuring a previously unavailable live performance in Europe in the Fifties, this was not the classic earlier studio album "Walkin'" (a one of MDs many masterpieces) , but so what, it was Davis live and on sale. Reading the personal, all seemed worth the purchase despite the misdirection of the title, as it highlighted, worthies like pianist Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers on drums, Jimmy Cobb on drums, on saxophone...Sonny Stitt?? The plagiarist , the rip off artist, the Parker wannabe? The man I relegated to the minor leagues without endeavoring to hear what he played like? With Miles? 

This wasn't so earth shaking a revelation as I might want to make it sound and , of course, I didn't ask myself that sequence of disbelieving questions presented in incomplete sentences. I was curious and bough the record. I was more than pleasantly pleased with the hard bop brilliance of the band--Miles Davis of this period is essentially flawless as he applies to his muted, modulated, middle register approach to the hard charging changes this fine band challenges him with--and came to the conclusion that Sonny Stiff had been given the short shrift as a musician. The resemblance to Parker are there, undeniable, and it's understandable how jazz snobs of the time, wanting to consecrate jazz as America's art music in opposition to the tradition of European classicism and establish both canon and criteria for our best gift to the world, would deride particular players, diminish them in stature without fair estimation in an effort to create standards for an emerging aesthetics. Understandable and unfair, because what I discovered was a musician of envious fluidity and lyric invention within his scope as an improviser who could negotiate steeple-chase tempos and obstacle course chord progressions with precision and yet never, or at least rarely lose a song's melodic nuance ; for all the high-velocity bravura bop-related jazz musicians are known for, Stitt had a ribbony, sweetly undulating method of teasing notes and shading their sounded presence with variations within the pitch, a legacy from the blues that maintains a vocal quality, a sharp note of surprise as the solo unfolds. Stitt, in any regard, was not a soulless technician.Whatever debt he owed to Charlie Parker is nearly besides the point; the style is something Stitt took possession and made it his means to express something that, in itself, was beyond race, economics and the general ugliness mere existence weights us with; it is simply beautiful and exciting music made by a musician who deserves to be reexamined for his best recorded moments.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

ALT-ish ROCK


The Grand Trine -Color You





Image result for color you-- the grand trineColor You, an alt-rock unit residing in the sparky interiors of Los Angeles , awards its new album the heady appellation The Grand TrineStepping beyond the title’s intent to perplex and bewilder, we learn through a swift Google search that the phrase indicates “ …a planetary pattern composed of three or more planets in a chart located at the vertices of an imaginary equilateral triangle. Usually all three planets are in the same element (fire, earth, air or water)…”
 The attraction to the phrase and the concept it allusively describes is understandable, as it’s been an unwritten rule since rock and roll became abbreviated to the more serious brevity of “rock” in the Sixties and young bands , taking after the cowpoke existentialism of Dylan and the elegant gentrification of the Beatles’ music and lyric approaches, need to conceptualize on a more ambitious scale: esoteric thematics, abstruse lyrics, bits of incidental noise and anything else that saves the 4/4 from being mere dance music decorated with moon/June cliches. As with most bands trying to get across something more between-the-lines than curb-side specific, the Color You’s idea to suggest something metaphysical is afoot separate from what’s happening in the street is a tad pretentious , and the band’s decision to include what sounds like spoken word snippets to bookend the start and finish of this album underscores the impulse to seem profound .

It’s an empty gesture, and unneeded, but we’re fortunate that as alt-rockers fashioning themselves after power chord savants like the Pixies, Nirvana or Modest Mouse at their most engaged, Color You has the flair,the panache, the raining megaton guitar grit to move the reluctant listener quickly past their objections and land them in a hook-heavy stream of fine, riffing teenage angst, confusion, ire and irony. 


There are no bold innovations in the form here, no musical adventures geared to dismantle and reconstruct rock and roll as we know, and that is an aspect that is the band’s strength. Members Ben Ross (vocals/guitar), Brian Han (bass/vocals), Drew Stutz (drums) and Theo Eckhardt (guitar/vocals), above all else, put together first-rate rockers, propulsive guitar riffage that propels, sweeps along and drapes over the material , major , minor and diminished keys highlighted as the materials’ simple but effective demand, with a solid thump and push of bass and busy drums making this wall of sound tilt, swerve and rock in turns of emphasis that are unexpected and wonderful. Superb lead vocals from Ben Ross make the difference as well, the array of approaches being convincingly servile, nervous, raging, or crooning romantic as need be, often times in the same song.


Ross’s singing provides a focal point through this album's sweetly distorted chord variations, apply a tangibly human expression to the constant grind of a hard rock tirelessly replicating the dynamics of a world that will not stop because you’re confused, angry, hurt, or even in love to the bone. Ross is the voice of a young man making sense of his life through whatever paces daily life can put him through. Down to it, Color You is credible mainstream rock, unpretentious, riveting, varied, packing a wallop. I am hoping their penchant to package themselves as deep thinkers pass. For rock and roll, whatever the pedigree, it’s best to keep it real than to make it profound.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Banking on The Beatles

Banking on The Beatles

The marketing of the Beatles continues with undelayed urgency, with the advent of Beatles Rock Band video game, and now the remastering of many Fab Four recordings in a flashy, bulky, expensive package. I cannot see myself having my history sold to me yet again; my memories ought not be what breaks the bank account.I was born in 1952 and was , more or less, a perfect wwitness to the Beatle phenomenon as it happened. From here , I'll the dulling recollection of what they meant to me and my generation and will not wax on their dually over rated and under appreciated qualities--few popular bands have ever been subject to the kind of exaggerated elevations and damnations than these guys have--and instead cut to the quick; the subject of the Beatles bores me stiff. We gone through an endless series of repackagings of their music since their 1970, none of which has made their great tunes sound any greater, nor made their slightest songs gain any more credibility. I refuse to live up to Tommy Lee Jones' groaning admission in Men In Black ; I will not buy the White Album songs again, no matter how crisp and clear the new versions are promised to be. I'm fine with my copies of Yesterday and Today, Revolver, The White Album and Abbey Road ; this was their finest string of albums, brimming with new melodies, wonderfully elliptical lyrics and wholesale genius in the vocals. To get these albums again would make me a mere fetishists, not a fan. But a fan I remain, and in the time since the rise of the Beatles and my tour of duty as a working music critic for several Southern California publications, my tastes have changed. Not "matured", not "improved" or "gotten more sophisticated", just changed. I remain a rock and roll fan, a Beatle fan, an encourager of loud guitars and passion, but the point of being interested in arts , as the cliche goes, is to broaden one's world, not to continually spend cash money on refurbished tunes in an attempt to relive what is past. I don't want to shut the door on the past, of course. I'm just annoyed that someone my age is expected to go out and buy again the music that I already own.

Exile on Main Street

“Happy", included on the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street is one of their great songs, and Keith Richards does a superb job singing. Richards, in fact, is very much the credible singer, having a hoarse, whispering croak of a voice that marries his blues and country influences. There is a measure of palpable emotion as the guitarist’s haggard voice stretches for a note that might not be his to possess,something like the battered working stiff who finds new reserves of inspiration when inspiration makes him forget the weight of his day and declare what there is in his life that’s worth standing up for. This is a singer whose talents would have blended to excellent effect with the rustic tones of the Bands' Levon Helm and Richard Manual. I've been listening to Exile on Main Street lately, and it's amazing how this albums just seems to deepen with the years: it's one of those great releases whose basic roots-music emphasis places it in the considerable company such the early Band records or Moby Grape

It's a tough call because both Exile and The White Album have strengths that are unique. Preference, though, falls with The Beatles, since it's an unusually strong double disc of songs, featuring Lennon, McCartney and Harrison at their zenith. The variety and quality clenches it. Exile has the appeal of mood, atmosphere, the ennui that the bands’ world-weariness had caught up with them, to which the response is an inspired re-investigation of their roots in American southern music. I believe that this as honest a music Jagger and Richards have ever made together (or as honest as Jagger has ever been), but whether the two discs are real emotion or skilled posing, the tone and mood of the album can't be denied. It is their last great album. I'd say Electric Ladyland needs to be in the top five best double-albums ever released (rock/pop division) for the consistent genius in all areas, start to finish: Hendrix was hitting what might have been a long stride as a major songwriter, his guitar work had never been more inventive and searing than it was here, and the production is near-flawless, with the guitars and such adding something of a grand religiosity to the proceedings

The point , though compressed, isn't mysterious, nor coded in arcane jargon: after the wide ranging and successful experimentation with sundry styles that reached a slick , professional peak with Sticky Fingers, Exile was a re-examination of some of the forms that were the basis of their own music, namely rhythm and blues, straight up blues, gospel, country. It's all there, I do believe. The mix was muddy, not clear, creating what one perceptive writer called an air of "audio noir", and the band sounded tired but fully invigorated by some spark of energy, some keen sense of mission that made their grooves and beats sound fateful. The additional layer on Exiles' re-imagining of the foundations of the bands' sounds was the experience and cogency they applied to the subject matter, the splintery, inane and unchanging truths that fairly inform the lyrics.

Beggar’s Banquet, the album which was their best expression of how drugs and other excesses might lead to worldly wisdom (or at least an artful cynicism) was l in line with the general hedonism that was the hallmark of the hippie-movement, wherein one trusted the resilience of youth to bring them back from the edge they danced very close to: gross consumption and gratification of ones' senses was the by-word, and Banquet handily defined the period, albeit its dark, mean-humored side. Exile had the sound of a band whose high-living had caught up with them. This feeling, this sound, is a large part of what distinguishes this album from the albums that came before it. You might try actually listening to the album.” Torn and Frayed", "Stop Breaking Down", "Sweet Virginia", "Ventilator Blues", "Shine a Light", "Soul Survivor", even the bouncy and rocking "Happy" all, in their own manner, reflect a sense of pausing, getting a breath, contemplating the ache at the end of long cycle of over-extension. These are not the same kinds of songs as earlier ones, ala "Satisfaction”,” Get off My Cloud", "Play With Fire", "Stupid Girl" or "Street Fighting' Man", potent rock and roll numbers that match a younger, more impatient and more arrogant psychology: the songs on Exile work so well precisely because the mood of the band was more somber, reflective, wizened with wear. Jagger and Richards were at the peak of their craft on this set, and the songs have a tangible moodiness, a real set of expressions that add up to a more cautious, and increasingly wised-up world view that tacitly, and explicitly comprehends the fleeting quality of mortal life.

It’s not far to suggest that this album is the best album regarding the extended effect of decadence on a bohemian community , along with Lou Reed’s blisteringly and cluster phobic Berlin. The production of Berlin fits the ideas: the characters are decadent, the city and the period were decadent over all, and the production is, I think, suitable for the terrain Reed covers here. A big, thick wall-of-sound, Phil Spector filtered through Bertolt Brecht. Reed was writing about his own popular culture indirectly in the way he wrote of his fictional wastrels on Berlin, but the music and lyrics are etched from what he's done and witnessed. The production works, and this album is an underrated masterpiece from the Seventies.