Wednesday, October 23, 2019

HARD STORM IS GONNA BLOW

Image result for strange storm darrin james band
Strange Storm--The Darrin James Band
Strange Storm, the third album from the Detroit based Darrin James Band, is truth-telling of the bitterest sort, ten tracks naming the slights we do each other, intended and otherwise.  Following suit, Darrin James, principle songwriter and singer, growls, rasps, sneers and bellows through the trouble-minded lyrics. James, of course, hasn’t the market cornered in outrage, but he’s not one to wring hands and resign himself to regret and rumination.

The album isn’t a mere scolding for the sins society commits against fellow citizens, but also a grand and roiling work out by an instrumental troupe that cuts a rapid and confident path through a heady number of approaches, be it traditional folk/protest, hard rock and polyrhythmic , through a grainy brand of fusion and wrenching excursions in dissonant free-jazz wailing. It’s refreshing, it’s bracing, it’s a welcome relief from the prepackaged reflexes that dominate the chatter in the major music media. These guys get your attention and don’t waste your time once they have it. 

The band is adroit, with mastery of varied grooves and rhythms. Generous chunks of hard rock guitar balance against the quick reflexes of a funk and fusion-honed rhythm section underpins the James’ snarled ire. Hardly a droning list of the evils of wealth, power and status seeking; the songs are varied, the rhythms are sharply executed, venturing from more traditional folk protest style as in the opening “Walking in the Footsteps”, through the hammering downbeats and stuttering Meters-style funk of the title track.Suitably, it’s not just lyrics that characterize the outrage, but also the music, especially in two instrumental tracks, “Downdrafts Cold Fronts” and “Covert Mission Anthem”. With nods to P-Funk, Zappa’s more crowded orchestrations and the anguished improvisations of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, this a swerving ride between over lapping modes and moods, subdued textures and light embellishments morphing into angular, off-center progressions , with sharp guitar riffs and arguing horn and reed solos traipsing through the coarse density. The abrasive layering of trumpet and sax effectively match James’ excoriations. Strange Storm has impressive brilliance in their harnessing anger and railing against injustice.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Image result for you can't go home again chet baker
YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN--Chet Baker
Trumpet player Baker has a cool, lyrical, muted style not similar that of Miles Davis from his Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain period. One ought not stop with the maybe too obvious comparison , as Baker is fairly much his own man when it comes to speaking in the hushed , muted tone that Davis also preferred in his best period. Baker's riffs are his own,personalized medals and scars of good looks and good loving gone bad due to women, whiskey and heroin. Baker did eventually succumb to a drug related death, a repeating tragedy among artists as it is among the rest of us , but his particular album was made during one of his periods of getting clean and commencing to make music again. It's a good one, seductive, alluring, not perfect and a bit frayed around the edges of Baker's improvising; some notes are harsher than you know he intends, some ideas are a little clammy in this mood  inclined project. But it works, soulful, intuitive, honest.   You Can't Go Home Again (released in 1977) , applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could, Freddie Hubbard (Liquid Love ) included. The music is generally lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white faced, mass market commodity) , but Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of a superb group of sidemen, including drummer Tony Williams, saxist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, along with other famous names like Hubert Laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson. The group playing is infectious and allows for a number of sparkling moments, particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and , Brecker. The lyricism here is terribly handled, without  sentimentality. Emotionally, this music is tougher stuff. Baker's power seems to come from a deeper; each note, even when he quickens his phrases as the rhythm section doubles and triples the time, seems like a hard won victory of expression. Today, pain , heart ache and the series of self inflicted wounds that constitute Baker's non-music playing life, cannot quiet this man's need and ability to create a terse and jarring poetry.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A HERO AIN'T NOTHING BUT a BUTT RUB


Image result for AEROSMITH
I used to like Aerosmith quite a bit and still get an adrenaline rush when I hear their best tunes. Guitar-centric rock was my preference in the Sports Arena days, but where other bands of the era now bore me and dated themselves badly, AS were pretty much the best at catchy riffs, savage, terse guitar solos and absurdly clever double -signifying lyrics. The words “hero” and “jerk” meant pretty much the same thing, a person, usually male, who lacked social grace and /awareness and would subject the community around him to eruptive demonstrations of a personality that  was the breathing variety of spray-can graffiti, bold, smeared, runny, jagged and stupid as a bag of wood chips. Luckily, yes, luckily, I survived the  best I could do in those days and learned that there were more interesting ways to make art, to have a conversation and woo a potential lover, subtler forms of conversation and chatter, smarter ways of making your presence known. But we all must start somewhere; I was lucky enough to have wanted to aspire to being somewhat more than a farm-league lout.

The combination of riff -craft and professed cocksmanship was made to order for any frustrated 20-year-old genius yearning to abandon his book learning' and take up the microphone, center stage, instead.  As you know, my tastes have gravitated, gratefully, towards mainstream jazz and blues over the last thirty five years--classic Miles, Coltrane, Mel Lewis, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, lots of Blue Note, Atlantic, ECM, Pacific Jazz, Verve, Impulse, Fantasy record releases--and rock and roll no longer interests me in large measure. But I still get a charge when a good AS is played--I rather like Tyler's rusty drain pipe screaming and I believe Joe Perry is one heck of a good chunk-chording guitarist. It helps, I guess, that these guys never got far from some rhythm and blues roots, even if those roots come from the Stones and not Motown or Stax. This may be damning with faint praise, but they were a brilliant expression of a young glandular confusion. What makes this art is this band's skill at sounding like they never learned anything fifty feet past the school yard and not much else beyond the age of 25. As we age and suffer the sprains  , creaks and cancer symptoms, inherited and self-inflicted,  our past gets more gloriously delinquent more we talk about it and we find ourselves gravitating to those acts of yore who seemed to maintain a genuine scowl and foul attitude.  Nearly any rock band based on rebellion and extreme bouts of immaturity just seems ridiculous after awhile--Peter Townsend is lucky enough to have had more ambition in his songwriting with Tommy and Who's Next to have lived down the dubious distinction of having written the lyric that exclaimed that he would rather die before he got old.  Aerosmith, in turn, still sounds good and rocking as often as not simply because they have mastered their formula. The sound a generation of us newly minted seniors occasionally pined for  remains the audio clue to an idea of integrity and idealism; what is disheartening, if only for a moment, is that this band's skill at sounding 21 and collectively wasted is a matter of professionalism and not an impulse to smash The State.

Rock and roll is all about professionalism , which is to say that some of the alienated and consequently alienating species trying to make their way in the world subsisting on the seeming authenticity of their anger, ire and anxiety has to make sure that they take care of their talent, respect their audiences expectations even as they try to make the curdled masses learn something new, and to makes sure that what they are writing about /singing about/yammering about is framed in choice riffs and frenzied backbeat. It is always about professionalism; the MC5 used to have manager John Sinclair, story goes, turn off the power in middle of one of their teen club gigs in Detroit to make it seem that the Man was trying to shut down their revolutionary oomph. The 5 would get the crowd into a frenzy, making noise on the dark stage until the crowd was in enough ranting lather. At that point Sinclair would switch the power back on and the band would continue, praising the crowd for sticking it to the Pigs. This was pure show business, not actual revolutionary fervor inspired by acne scars and blue balls; I would dare say that it had its own bizarre integrity and was legitimate on terms we are too embarrassed to discuss. In a way, one needs to admire bands like the Stones or Aerosmith for remembering what it was that excited them when they were younger , and what kept their fan base loyal .


 All I would say is that it's not a matter of rock and roll ceasing to be an authentic trumpet of the troubled young soul once it became a brand; rather, rock and roll has always been a brand once white producers, record company owners and music publishers got a hold of it early on and geared a greatly tamed version of it to a wide and profitable audience of white teenagers. In any event, whether most of the music being made by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others was a weaker version of what was done originally by Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters et al is beside the point. It coalesced, all the same, into a style that perfectly framed an attitude of restlessness among mostly middle class white teenagers who were excited by the sheer exotica, daring and the sense of the verboten the music radiated. It got named, it got classified, the conventions of its style were defined, and over time , through both record company hype and the endless stream of Consciousness that most white rock critics produced, rock and roll became a brand.

It was always a brand once it was removed from the the black communities and poor Southern white districts from which it originated. I have no doubt that the artist's intention , in the intervening years, was to produce a revolution in the conscious of their time with the music they wrote and performed, but the decision to be a musician was a career choice at the most rudimentary level, a means to make a living or, better yet , to get rich. It is that rare to non-existent musician who prefers to remain true to whatever vaporous sense of integrity and poor.

Even Chuck Berry, in my opinion the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll--Berry, I believe , created the template with which all other rock and rollers made their careers in muisic--has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington and Louie Jardin, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one; he created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing and narratives that wittily, cleverly , indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. Critics and historians have been correct in callings this music Revolutionary, in that it changed the course of music , but it was also a Career change. All this, though, does not make what the power of Berry's music--or the music of Dylan, Beatles , Stones, MC5, Bruce or The High Fiving White Guys --false , dishonest, sans value altogether. What I concern myself with is how well the musicians are writing, playing, singing on their albums, with whether they are inspired , being fair to middlin', or seem out of ideas, out of breath; it is a useless and vain activity to judge musicians, or whole genres of music by how well they/it align themselves with a metaphysical standard of genuine , real, vital art making. That standard is unknowable and those putting themselves of pretending they know what it is are improvising at best. 

What matters are the products--sorry, even art pieces, visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, are "product" in the strictest sense of the word--from the artists successful in what they set out to do. The results are subjective, of course, but art is nothing else than means to provoke a response, gentle or strongly and all grades in between, and critics are useful in that they can make the discussion of artistic efforts interesting. The only criticism that interests are responses from reviewers that are more than consumer guides--criticism , on its own terms in within its limits, can be as brilliant and enthralling as the art itself. And like the art itself , it can also be dull, boring, stupid, pedestrian. The quality of the critics vary; their function in relation to art, however, is valid. It is a legitimate enterprise. Otherwise we'd be treating artists like they were priests

Saturday, October 5, 2019

notes about Neil Young's ON THE BEACH


ON THE BEACH--
Neil Young
Well yes, to answer a question no one’s yet asked me, I was one of those guys in high school, in the very early the Seventies, who had found their Reason to Be through a sheer immersion into the contemporary grind of rock and roll. Leonard Bernstein declared it an art form, Ralph Gleason informed us that rock and roll lyrics were the new poetry, and the larger media, Life and Time magazine specifically, uniformly declared rock music a vision of the world to come. I was all in, to be sure, 16, 17, even 18 years old, a would-be poet, a record review for school newspapers and cheaply produced undergrounds. Dylan, Mitchell, Ochs, Simon, Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, poets, prophets, philosophers all, would the models who’d be useful to gauge my own experience. Their effusions would make my evolution. It seemed like the best idea in the world. Gradually, relying on millionaire rock stars made less sense as I got even just a little bit older. My young frustrations grew faster than my admiration of the songwriters. Rather irrationally, I felt betrayed. Dylan turned to Jesus, Ochs hanged himself in alcoholic depression, The Beatles and Stones seemed distracted and distant from those of us working minimum wage day jobs to buy their records.  The Rock elite seemed addled all at once, bereft of a good lyric couplet, a chorus that could unlock emotions and private. Heroes fell from the pedestals I put them, and I took a cheap pleasure wallow in shallow cynicism. It seemed increasingly the case that pop stars, wallowing in ennui and wealth couldn’t speak clearly or convincingly about a life that confounds them. It’s a trauma that confuses many who’ve obsessed over the music and the musicians:  I no longer cared what befell them either in their lyrics or real life. At the time it didn’t take much to make me a despairing sad- sack. I was a self-made made a Grim Gus for a time, of sorts, a premature cynic in my early twenties who wanted to now speak of everything as being false. There was no one to relate to, no one speaking to the persistent chattering anxiety firing along with my synaptic patterns. Or was there? The Revolution hadn’t happened, and the promises of Woodstock were a stale joke. There was no garden to get back to.


But there was Neil Young. It was Young’s songs on the Buffalo Springfield albums I returned to over and over again, it was Young’s worrisome vocals and sparsely filled cadences I related to, it was Young’s ongoing sense of feeling overwhelmed, dumbstruck, stunned into a psychic motionlessness in the face of a  feckless reality that overturned one utopian ideal after another. If Dylan had spoken to the youthful urge to explore, challenge and derange the senses in “Mr. Tambourine Man” , Paul Simon sought authenticity  against a materialism in “Sounds of Silence”, and Joni Mitchell entreated listeners to embrace all their travels and affairs with an openness that would transform the world, Young never lost sight of himself in a world that he might not be able to transform through good intentions or a collective Good Vibe. Says Polonius to an anxious Hamlet “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…”   This above all, Neil Young remembers his mortality and remembers dreams of a perfect world are not facts, and that he will show himself to be anything other another fellow who’s been bashed, bandied and bounced about by the unschooled churn of the world As-Is. This is what I’ve always liked about Young in contrast to his admittedly worthy compatriots, that he’s seldom if ever, sang as though speaking from On High.He was in the trenches with us, rolling with the punches. As early as his song  “Helpless” on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young release Déjà Vu  , a time when the puppy-hug conceits were giving way in a time of post-Altamont , Young admits that his life is too crowded with the stress and consequences of other people’s expectations, and that he needs to return to something simpler, finer of mind before he grew his hair and ventured from his hometown in Ontario.


 There is a town in north Ontario

With dream comfort memory to spare

And in my mind

I still need a place to go
All my changes were there


 It’s a lovely, three-chord song, and the lyrics, delivered in Young’s fragile whistle of a voice,The lyrics have a plain-spoken plainness that brings to mind the idiomatic precision of William Carlos Williams. Nothing especially poetic in effort, but certainly poetic in effect, the plain and clear admission of needing to get away to a time that no exist, if it ever did. The appeals less for the message, which is one of escape from the world—clearly, no one ought to rely on lyrics as solutions to real problems—but in the way, it simply crystalizes the yearning, the fleeting thought. There is no thesis, no lesson, just an intimate revelation as the problems of the universe continue apace. There was a flurry of junkie laments and tales of ecological disaster that found their way onto the albums of politically timely artists. Young, a man concerned with the environment and the survival of the species and someone who has had experience, we assume, with the fatal travails of heroin addiction, combined both these themes in the title song of his 1969 solo album After the Gold Rush. The song is a science fiction eco-disaster fantasy akin to what Paul Kanter and Grace Slick offered up with their Jefferson Starship Blows Against the Empire album. But where Kanter, Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane entourage offered an album’s worth of Sturm and Drang about angry hippies high jacking a starship and leaving a wasted and wretched planet, Young remains the effective minimalist.  Three spare, elliptical verses vividly outlining a world that can no longer be fruitful inhabited, a ceremony sounded off, a revelation that our narrator is among the debris of a dying planet, that there is a new hope arising as spaceship arrives and the selected ones board the vessel. They are off to find a new home for Mother Nature, our narrator reveals, but he won’t be among the citizens of a New Earth.

I was lyin' in a burned out basement

With the full moon in my eyes

I was hopin' for replacement

When the sun burst though the sky
There was a band playin' in my head
And I felt like getting high…



The facts are is that Young knows that he is a man who, though blessed with the capacity to learn and imagine, lacks a clear channel to the future, that his senses are as fallible and that he is a mere mortal among the herd.  Jefferson Starship harmonizes cleverly for a skewed utopia where all our friends will be, and croon and cruise for two album sides about setting up camp on another heavenly body. Even in a fantasy, a reverie, Young embraces the simpler tale and the pitiless outcome: although his song suggests the possibility that the species will go on, the narrator is left behind, never to see the new sun.  While I find much to enjoy in Starship’s grandiosity, Young’s fatalism is all that much more powerful. Cogent, reserved, simply stated, with an ending uplifting and tragic at once.   It’s that fatalism, the lack of heroic pretense in Young’s writing that has been a major draw to his music. This isn’t to reduce the singer to a single -topic Worry Wart who can only give grim tidings to the largeness of life. Hardly a guy to roll over and go back to sleep when the stress is too much, Young’s long career has been fascinating for reasons quite a part of his admittedly occasional persona as a small voice describing the dying of the light. He has been a restless intelligence musically, as observable through his proto-grunge rock, collaborations with Crazy Horse, the earnest balladeering of love songs from deep in the heart, or his fruitful side trips into the areas of country and western, blues and soul, and digital boogie. He is not going quietly to any impending good night.

Still, though, I return to something that intrigues me still, a 1974 album called On the Beach, which I consider a landmark disc from the period, a confession as profound and unavoidable as John and Yoko's "Primal Scream" album Plastic Ono Band or the outsized confessions of poet Robert Lowell, Though lacking the anger of Lennon or the particular detail and depth of Lowell's incessantly detailed and personal verse, Young's work is nothing less than a stark declaration that was perhaps at the end of the line as an artist and that his interest in remaining with the rest us on this side of the dirt perhaps hung in the balance. Returning to the idea that Young is an artist aware  limits in a perilous existence, On the Beach is lament that old ideas aren’t working. By constant tone, theme and implication, this is a chronicle of someone feeling powerless over his life. Even his artistry, performing, writing, singing, becomes the millstone he must wear around his neck. The title song, doleful, a chunky strum of the guitar, is a straightforward admission of his love-hate relationship with his dedicated audience.

I need a crowd of people

But I can't face them day-to-day

I need a crowd of people

But I can't face 'em day-to-day
Though my problems are meaningless
That don't make them go away…



This is the ultimate mind-screw, being an artist who has reaped handsome reward from fans and corporation for the good work he’s done who is alienated from the gift that provided his life with purpose. He needs his audience to feel whole but loses himself in the bargain, he has achieved riches from doing exactly what he wanted to do, but feels a prisoner obliged to respond to the demands on his time, talent and soul. It’s less of a bold admission than it is one of those fantastic blurts of truth, that unguarded moment when you find yourself thinking out loud, unfiltered.

The mood remains downbeat with “Vampire Blues”, an extension of the festering resentment addressed in the title song. Young is no longer the fatally alienated superstar, but now instead of a blood-sucking creep, a user, a liar, a low grade demon who will steal your vitality, your love, your passion, who will feed upon your good graces and leave you a  charred chunk of humanity. It’s nothing personal, you understand, it’s planetary: I'm a vampire, babe,/ suckin' blood

from the earth/I'm a vampire, baby, /suckin' blood/from the earth./Well, I'm a vampire, babe, sell you twenty barrels worth…”   Young effectively reflects the world he has seen too often and too long up to this point, an existence of full of takers, exploiting resources and replenishing nothing in their wake. Implicit here is Young's idea that he is like the earth, a resource being used up and exploited to fulfill the emotional and material needs of others, with nothing left, no fertile soil, no soul, as a result. Only burnt-out husks remain of formerly glorious beauty.


The songs are a string of sharp, acute glimpses of life that has been stripped down to routine, drained of joy, passion. “For the Turnstiles” is a terse sinister conflation of sailors, pimps, touring bands and hometown heroes revolving around each other both as contrasting metaphors and real-life figures locked in a deadpan dance of entertaining the paying customer while offering mirthless smiles revealing grim clenched teeth. Everyone is paid for what they do, everyone gets what they want, everyone feels like they’ve been robbed. “Revolution Blues” outlines a diorama of survivalist paranoia, every neighborhood is a camp, no one believes a word anyone says: this is an America where whatever is going to happen will happen soon and without warning. The narrator is ready, his gun is handy, he has plenty of ammo, he has no idea what he’s defending or who he’ll be fighting. 
On the Beach is powerful revelation of sorts, both an admission from Young and his generation are no longer in the figurative Kansas anymore. In his mind, he may still need some place to be, but the record might be considered as a journal of a moment when the existence became too big and , that the dreams of utopia, peace free and justice were destroyed by assassinations, a bad-faith war that would not end and a death-trip rock festival that all but gave a lie to Ralph J. Gleason’s insistence the music would set us free if we believed long and hard enough. Young became woke, in a manner of speaking was stunned and for a while conquered by anxiety at the loss of his naivete, But with On the Beach he confronts his fear, the despair and depression and writes his way through the dilemma. No philosophizing, no rationalization, just the blunt admission that he was having a hard time of it, coupled with a coarse imagining of an America without hope or love.  In a Hollywood scenario, this would have been the point where the disillusioned artist bids farewell to all that and lapses into silence, but Young refused to become cynical; through his career he has shown himself to be one of the most interesting artists remaining of the Golden Age of California sound, a man willing to experiment, try new things, switch up styles and attitudes, explore the furthest and most resonating reaches of emotion . What I believe we have in Neil Young is one of the worthiest bodies of work any rock singer-songwriter has created over time. There is much to discuss in other essays yet to be written. He is oeuvre rivals Dylan’s. (That would be a debate worth having). But it is worth it to consider, again, On the Beach. Without this significant record, Young’s work could well have been much less endearing.

(This originally appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission)


THE WHO FOUR SIDED DOLDRUM

File:Quadrophenia (album).jpg
Quadrophenia--The Who
The Who's Quadrophenia is one of the dullest albums ever released by a major rock band; it marks the spot where songwriter and guitarist Peter Townsend's abandoned (or lost) his genius for composing witty rock and roll and wicked power chords that were the cornerstone of all things anthemic in the grinding morass that largely was rock and roll when bands sought no longer to be fun or entertaining, but significant. There is nothing wrong with significance on the face of it, but that quality is generally the result of inspired work and an unmediated commitment to a creative surge that cannot, truthfully, be duplicated by force of will.
Townsend, in my view, opted to make significant states in his lyrics at the sacrifice of the light touch he could frame in the context of a four-chord song. Where the previous double album, the rock-opera Tommy was buoyant, rocking and didn't want for guitar hooks or the riffs, Quadrophenia got as serious as a ditch with songs that were bloated, wooden, humorless, positively no fun. It merits a mention that the theme was incomprehensible and that this is where Daltry's voice finally gave out. The guitar chords, once crashing, smashing and slashing in all the old descriptions of youth rebellion, were now leaden, robotic, rusty.
All that was left was a cracking bellow that made you think of nothing except an old building collapsing under its own heft. Ambition is fine, but not without an idea of what you're doing. Someone told songwriter Peter Townsend that the modernist tradition demands a narrative that is diffuse, broken up in sharp pieces, and lacking resolution, techniques I fancy myself, given my devotion to the poetry of Eliot, Stein, and Silliman, but there is a knack to doing things that way, an "ear", if you will. Sentences and ideas that don't necessarily follow one another inconveniently logical, causal order require arrangement, a sense of what doesn't go together the right way: there is a reason why Bob Dylan's surrealism remains powerful five decades later and the more recent writings of Springsteen, someone clearly influenced by Dylan's turn to obscurity, are hardly quoted at all. Another problem as well might have been an inferiority complex; he stopped being an artist, writing and recording wonderful, brilliant, ingenious rock and roll songs the moment he started to try to be an artist on other people's terms. It's a self-conscious artiness that has made his music frightfully didactic, incomplete and a chore to bear.