Sunday, May 19, 2024

LORI BELL plays JOE HENDERSON

It's ’more a case of slipping into a comfy, loose-fitting garment than it is studying Lori Bell’s latest release, Recorda Me: Remembering Joe Henderson. Kicking off with the late jazz saxophone great’s composition ‘Isotope,’” Bell nimbly states the spry signature theme, and one finds oneself unexpectedly wholly immersed in a delightful exchange between the flutist and pianist Josh Nelson. She and the keyboardist weave a delicate and swinging set of variations on it. Nelson’s touch on the keys is light, deft, and swinging, surely over the subdued but percolating tempo provided by bassist David Robaire and drummer Dan Schnelle. Bell is, as she has always been in her distinguished effort, a flutist with unlimited resources who brings her nuanced lines to the fabric that the others have created for her on the opening track. Her playing soars, bringing a different assortment of tonal color to her speedy bop-informed lines and the lyrical blues coloration she often provides in her slower passages.

The album continues in this pleasurable vein, a sagacious offering of deceptively easy grooves and meters. The Lori Bell Quartet has an odd combination in that the allure in this album’s worth of interpretation of Joe Henderson’s compositions lies in the kind of classical precision, yet full of the intricate twists and shifting chord voices that elevate the improvisational acumen of all the players. It’s apparent halfway through the disc that this does not come across as a routine “tribute” to a departed jazz giant as well as projects that—despite good intentions—too frequently seem lifeless or at least absent the grace and luxuriant finesse of whomever the tribute is geared toward.

Bell avoids stifling perfectionism that mars such efforts and lets Joe Henderson’s compositions breathe in a way; the ensemble allows itself to be playful with the music in front of them, undulating with a steady yet continually evolving succession of rhythmic invention. Henderson’s saxophone playing was rich and expressive, versatile and harmonically complex. He had at his disposal an armada of voices that would be brackish and groove, smooth and lyrical, excitingly precise as his compositions required. Deeply rooted in the blues, Henderson’s songwriting used Latin and Afro references, elements creating an insistent and flexible rhythmic basis that made his inventive use of unexpected chord progressions more provocative. His music was one of dynamic but unassuming brilliance.

Recorda Me: Remembering Joe Henderson is stellar work, with the collective readings of Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” “A Shade of Jade,” and the triumph workout on the title track, with its ascending and descending themes and shifting melody contrasts. It is a wondrous effort toward a breathtaking whole: Bell negotiates Henderson’s galloping changes with quicksilver improvisations over Nelson’s sympathetic chordings and counter melodies. His solo outing here in turn is a keen master class in uncluttered elegance. A shout-out as well for the very fine work by drummer Schnelle and bassist Robaire, a rhythm section pursuing a dialogue of their own as meters swerve and sway and swing. Recorda Me does exactly what Bell and her superlative quartet intended, reintroducing listeners to a resourceful and exciting musician and composer. This music moves fast on the uptake, is light on its feet, and is memorable and compelling, rendered with a fervent wholeheartedness by a superlative ensemble.

Monday, January 29, 2024

SOME NOTES ABOUT SOME THINGS: Greil Marcus, The Pretenders, The Rolling Stones, the Love of Music As We Age

Of great interest to readers of rock criticism is a recent an essay by Greil Marcus about why he writes criticism. Although the article mentions that Marcus is a cultural critic, one realizes he remains a rock critic fully invested in the thrill of first hearing the bold assertions of the Stones, Beatles, Dylan, always Dylan. Marcus mentions that he aspires to create something the equal to the music/art that inspires him, an interesting project that he's pursued for many decades. Towards the end he takes up where Mike Bloomfield leaves off after the guitarist's is quoted that something in music or otherwise has to move him in very visceral way; the author takes the same route , insisting that some element, any element, in a work of art has to grab him the seat of his pants and throw him down the stairs. In essence , Marcus has been intellectualizing his raw responses, his method of euphoric recall, and the results, I think, are always intriguing but decidedly mixed. At his best, Marcus performs a kind of Magic, a Ken Burns style that captures period, sound, origins, emotions, and their connection to an overarching American aesthetic and spirit. At worse, it's not that his books are sometimes unreadable, but more that they are unfinishable ; the lack of stated thesis makes his accumulation of data merely an anecdotal stream that do more to detour and distract than reveal. Anyway, Mr. Marcus in his own words:

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1984 brought us the monumental Learning to Crawl by the Pretenders, which, to my mind, established Chrissie Hinde as belonging in the upper echelons of rock singer-songwriters. The songwriting is guitar based and tough, easily matching the esteemed Tom Petty for keeping riffs simple, effective and memorable, and the persona Hinde sustains through the songs is someone looking back with equal measures of regret, fondness and disappointment, but curious about the road ahead , someone taking stock of what she's learned and willing, again, to make the most with the life she's yet to live. This makes her sound too much like The Boss, I suppose, so it's crucial to point out that her experiences, sung in that low, oddly inflected voice that effectively conveys drama, sadness, and a prevailing sense of irony, avoid Springsteen's impulse to make life on life's terms so operatically Spectorish. Hinde's writing is effectively terse, reflective but without wallowing, defiant sans without killing a mood or emotion with bathos and such effects. Not a little like the best of Hemingway, the songs retain an efficiently splintery edge--professional but hardly slick by any means--and the tales pour forth in lean, memorable lines . There is a grit here I find very fine, resilient and appealing through the decades that have past.

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At the height of the Blues Revival, spearheaded by young white artists like Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Clapton and of course John Mayall, there formed an obsession among a sizeable chunk of the audience, it seemed, about what guitarist had the best chops and most outstanding speed. Everything seemed stalemated at the presence of Alvin Lee who, it seemed, exhausted the speed gimmick and turned white blues guitar into a gross parody of the form. Then Johnny Winter's second album, a three sided set called Second Winter, rewrote the rules of the game. His first Columbia album met with mixed reviews and bland receptions from the many who were expecting the next Jimi Hendrix. It was a good blues album, not the best, but not bad. Winter seemed like a continuance of what could have been an Al Capp caricature, a Caucasian albino playing the music of black people. Well ,they all laughed but weren't laughing for long , since the three sides displayed a blues virtuosity unheard of til this time. Winter showed that he had full absorbed the styles of those he considered his guitar masters-all three Kings, Buddy Guy, T-
Bone Walker , Chuck Berry, Luther Allison, Hubert Sumlin--mixed his influences together and created something unique and brilliant in its own right from what he'd borrowed. It was a genuine triumph, a nearly overwhelming demonstration of slick technique, rhythmic invention and rawbone energy.

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There's a difference about caring less about music and no longer loving music that provided the soundtrack of your youth. You may be simply tired of songs and albums that have been overplayed for decades. In that sense, it matters little if I ever hear any Pink Floyd records again, love them thought I do. And half the Led Zeppelin songs can also be consigned to the dustbin. Well, maybe not half, but at least two album sides of tracks I no longer get a thrill from, or songs that were weak to begin with. When you get older, your heroes from yore are no longer bulletproof, considering that by the time I turned 71 I had experienced the situations, loves, traumas , celebrations and catastrophes our friends Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, Young et al adroitly crystallized in their tune craft. Many of us in the day sat around dark bedrooms and dens with the lights off, stoned or unstoned, listening to the heaviness of the message and thought we were really learning something about life. Aging, though, is the great equalizer , a very efficient means of changing the status and emotional attachments untested youth had on their record collections. Gauged against a few decades of actual lived experience, some songs still resonate , while others pale with revisiting. It helps if you've been a music writer and critic , a habit and occasional part-time job I've indulged myself in over six decades: the unreasonable standards I bring , standards hardly set in stone, has allowed me to have a private canon I can rely on when mood and manners require an unsullied equivalent of the prevailing zeitgeist. Also, it's not necessarily a matter of being uninterested in new music artists as such, as its simply an issue that new music striving for the love of the masses are written for young people and , damn it, I am no longer young. But I do have a considerable record collection. Let it be said that it's a wonderful thing when I can add a new and younger artist to my collection , though the instances are rare.

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The flip side of the Rolling Stones' bad-boy masterpiece 'Jumping Jack Flash" was a vexing yet alluring tune called "Child of the Moon". It was , if I recall , the band's final dalliance in a particular British Psychedellic Pop, an period they flung themselves headlong into with the Satanic Majesties Requests album, foremost of many a band's effort to produce their own Sgt. Pepper. Child of the Moon works perfectly well.A perfect paen to drug-addled mysticism, if you had to call it anything. Rather like that Charlie's drums are upfront and clamoring, maybe even a bit impatient, and the piano and organ work by Nicky Hopkins bob and weave between the hard strummed acoustic guitars. Jagger sounds like a wasted sage struggling to make a pronouncement to a room full of the equally wasted. The song is a perfect example of what the Rolling Stones have done effectively for decades, which was to accentuate their supposed instrumental deficiencies and cut tracks that couldn't imaginably have worked in more "professional" versions. This song has the feeling of you coming into the practice room just when a meandering jam hits its groove and everything gels splendidly for a bit--the tempo has the feeling that it could go astray at any minute and the instruments , while locked in simple themes that produce an attractive audio, don't sound locked into their parts. It could all just collapse , but yet it doesn't , and the result here demonstrates the band's ability to achieve a high aesthetic while never losing that element of being stoned-ruffians with too much cash.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

CARE LESS ABOUT MUSIC?




A recent New Republic article ponders if we are caring less about music than we had before, and goes on (and on) investigating possible reasons, causes of the maybe make-believe malaise in the culture. Still, it gets you thinking, and in due course I did a minor bit of autobiographical cogitation to find out why I have a nearly nonexistent relationship with most music by younger artists that's been  released in the last ten years. But lets stay away from the Bad Sociology of the issue and hardly mention , if at all, the intrusion of technology into the pleasure dome. Technology always intrudes into the pleasure dome. 

There’s a difference between caring less about music and no longer loving music that provided the soundtrack of your youth. It may be that you’re simply tired of songs and albums that have been overplayed for decades. In that sense, it matters little if I ever hear any Pink Floyd records again, love them though I do. And half of the Led Zeppelin songs can also be consigned to the dustbin. Well, maybe not half, but at least two album sides of tracks I no longer get a thrill from, or songs that were weak to begin with. When you get older, your heroes from yore are no longer bulletproof, considering that by the time I turned 71, I had experienced the situations, loves, traumas, celebrations, and catastrophes our friends Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, Young et al adroitly crystallized in their tune craft. Many of us in the day sat around dark bedrooms and dens with the lights off, stoned or unstoned, listening to the heaviness of the message and thought we were really learning something about life. Aging, though, is the great equalizer, a very efficient means of changing the status and emotional attachments untested youth had on their record collections. 

Gauged against a few decades of actual lived experience, some songs still resonate, while others pale with revisiting. It helps if you’ve been a music writer and critic, a habit and occasional part-time job I’ve indulged myself in over six decades: the unreasonable standards I bring, standards hardly set in stone, have allowed me to have a private canon I can rely on when mood and manners require an unsullied equivalent of the prevailing zeitgeist. Also, it’s not necessarily a matter of being uninterested in new music artists as such, as it’s simply an issue that new music striving for the love of the masses is written for young people and, damn it, I am no longer young. But I do have a considerable record collection. Let it be said that it’s a wonderful thing when I can add a new and young artist to my collection.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

SOME COOL OLD MUSIC

I'm Only Sleeping --The Beatles
 The best song about getting up at the crack of noon, only to go right back to sleep. Much is made of the backwards guitar break from Harrison, an accomplishment and innovation indeed, but it's the least interesting aspect of the tune, which as a suitably steady and toned down pulse of a rhythm, simulating, maybe, the measured breathing of someone in deep sleep. McCartney's basswork is superb here, and and at the half point , before the short Harrsion extravaganza, he takes while can be called a bass solo, his only one (unless I miss my guess). Lennon's singing of his lyrics is understated , again suitable in a song that praises laziness; he gets it right, I think, of the universal (?) experience of being awakened in the middle of a dream right before the dreamer gets to the anticipated payoff in the slumbering world. At that moment , in that instance, the world is raw, intrusive, an insane nest of busy body magpies. This is easily one of my favorite songs on a perfect studio release (Revolver),


Ramblin Gamblin Man / Tales of Lucy Blue --Bob Seger System



This is disc got constant play when I lived in Detroit and got even more play after I moved the comparatively edenic San Diego. This 1969 is an earnest and brilliant example of garage band genius, the kind of thrashing primitivism of musicians who definitely not virtuosos who all the same howled, jammed and slammed in minimalist fury all the pent up teen rage of his Michigan fan base. Black Eyed Girl is a gloriously lumbering blues with prime Seger shouting/screaming/bellow, his rasp achieving an appealingly frayed high note, "Ramblin Gamblin Man" is a hard charging rocker with a simple and killer drum beat, all sorts of weird psychedelia , feedback, wah wah pedal orgies, lots of Seger rasping his lungs out. Down Home is    a great companion to the home life portraits by the Stones ala Live with Me. Seger refined his approach over the years to mostly good occasionally great effect, but this album gave he idea that hard rock at ground level should sock you in the jaw and kick you in the head.



Eight Miles High--The Byrds

"Eight Miles High" by the Byrds, released in 1966, a brief and cogent combination of Imagist lyrics, unusual time signatures that alternate between 5/4 and 4/4, jazz and raga overtones and guitarist Roger (nee Jim) McGuinn's transcendent , Coltrane inspired solos. There was a lot of early experiments in mixing rock with other genres, specifically raga and jazz, and not a little hunt and peck improvisation happening during this period, the most succesful efforts being the extended Bloomfield excursions on East West, Larry Coryell's invention of fusion method in the Free Spirits band, and some others, but Eight Miles High was a radio hit of a sort, ranking at 14 in the Billboard 100. It was banned from some stations because of the (too) obvious association with drugs, but where I was in Detroit the tune was played an awful lot on our local AM and FM outlets. It was an unexpected surprise at the time, a song completely unique and ahead of its time that stands as one of the artistically succesful attempts at what would come to be termed fusion.

I Can't Make Love--Wall of Voodoo

 I witnessed Wall of Voodoo for the first time at the Urgh concerts in Santa Monica in 1980, sharing the bill with Pere Ubu, Dead Boys, Magazine,a wholly transformational encounter. The band applied the ticktock reductionist rhythms with a sense of apprehension. It was almost Hitchcockian, as in any scene when a nervous protagonist under duress hears an overly loud clock ticking away . "Ring of Fire" was masterfully drawn out, and Stan Ridgeway seemed to me the best talk-singer since Lou Reed , a flat, hardened monotone , leering and braced by a slight ironic tone, reflecting LA Noir no less than Marlowe. "I Can't Make Love" was my takeaway from the entire night, an underrated lament of A loser, battered on both sides by the lure and dispatch of the affection he craves. This is a lament of someone so saddled with self loathing that he can't complete a sentence. The pleading refrain of "I'm a nice guy" as the song fades is stark and stripped of illusion, it is Lear without the poetry. The abject despair and self-pity that's revealed is equal parts moving and repulsive, which is a remarkable accomplishment.

Saturday, November 4, 2023

DWIGHT TWILLEY

Dwight Twilley, underappreciated and (sigh) gone too soon, RIP. I reviewed his single “I’m On Fire” and his second album “Twilley Don’t Mind” in the 70s and always wondered at the time why he and his lifetime music partner Phil Seymour’s earnestly rhythmic and affectless convergence of Mersey Beat melodicism and rockabilly swivel jive, replete with lapel-grabbing hooks, joyously confused vocals and sharp, popping guitar sounds never found a larger audience beyond the first hit and consistently high praise from well-placed rock critics. Office politics at the record company that released his one true hit delayed the release of their debut album, and the time lag sapped the momentum the artists had, but some of it might be that writers didn’t quite get a handle on how to categorize the Twilley Band: they were hailed, sloppily, as members of the “Tulsa Sound”, praised as creators of “power pop”, hailed as fathers of the post-punk New Wave trend, and other times, and more accurately, just called rock and roll. 


As the obit indicates, Twilley was annoyed at the messy attempts to place his music in a category in which it might be made commercially appealing. Just the same, the descriptions of the band’s rock and roll originals were on the money. Perhaps they needed a Jon Landau to write about them and declare that he had seen the face of rock and roll’s future to inspire a major media push for a worthy set of musicians. More likely, the Dwight Twilley Band’s moment had come and gone, with label mismanagement and shifting audience tastes at particular times being blockades. There remains some fine, eternally fresh rock and roll.”


Friday, October 6, 2023

 Well, yes, here it is, another brief plug for the hesitant and the unfamiliar to listen jazz-rock guitar godhead Larry Coryell, a wonderful musician who passed away  in 2017. I've posted a fair number of articles, blurbs, and reviews on the musician's innovations and contributions to not have to go at length again on what makes him an essential addition to anyone's jazz library. Coryell is thought of as a jazz guitarist primarily, but he (and John McLaughlin, separately)  created what came to known as jazz rock (later) fusion guitar improvisation in the early to mid sixties. Coryell's work combined virtuoso jazz technique with a solid grounding in classical and Spanish traditions, which he melded with the raw power of rock, soul, and blues; his speed on the frets was incalculable, his energy unmatched, the course of his manic improvisations unpredictable. He raised the standard  for rock guitarists, again for generations to come, and , I insist, he laid the groundwork for fusion and shred guitarists yet to appear. No Coryell (or McLaughlin), no Van Halen, no Malmsteen, no Holdsworth. A simplistic equation, yes, but it makes the point that Larry Coryell changed the way jazz and rock guitar gets played: he pushed the style a couple of light years into the future. Here's a sample of his careening genius. This piece is from an audition tape he and some bandmates made in the 70s, featuring a bright, rapidly paced, nearly reckless rendition of one of Coryell's finest compositions, "Good Citizen Swallow", a tune he contributed to the Gary Burton Quartet who, who he played for in the mid-Sixties . Those albums, Duster, Lofty Fake Anagram, and Duster , are often argued to be among the important releases that forged a path toward the creation of a new musical genre, fusion. The tune is named for Burton bassist Steve Swallow, a very fine musician and composer in his own right. Coryell's work on this demo tape is lively, unpredictable, with his solo at different stages seeming to channel his inner Keith Richard with some deftly placed split chord chunks, and other times suggesting that he'd listened not a little to James Burton. 


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Saturday, September 9, 2023

THE ROLLING STONES ARE AND WERE GREAT AND AFTER SEVEN DECADES, SHUT THE FUCK UP AND ENJOY YOUR MONEY

 

A Bigger Bang was one of those efforts where a legendary but lagging remains of a great rock band pooled what was left of their ingenuity, verve, and grit to patient fans, what, I thought, was a grand and wonderful parting gift. Then, it seems, the Rolling Stones as a creative entity ceased to exist, re-thinking themselves to be a forever touring road show . The goal there seemed only to pack as many stadiums and auditoriums before another one of them bought the farm. It was a canny decision on their part never to announce that they were retiring or that any particular tour or concert was their last dance, as it gave them pause to enjoy their wealth before going back to work. So now the Rolling Stones are releasing a new album , Hackney Diamonds, and a new single, Angry. As a reintroduction to music buyers of the RS as musical force, the new single is all things rote--the famed crossfire guitar work of Richard and Wood neither motivates me to dance, strut, or admire a forever punk attitude--it sounds merely professional, stylistically over-studied, something from a better than average stadiums as possible band. And Jagger goes for the yell-talk-shout style he's made good use of in the past, but his delivery here is no dramatization of a bad scene we can find nuance in; here he has the appeal of someone talking too loud on their phone in a subway car. Not impressed with this, and I can only hope the forthcoming album redeems the last men standing.But now let us consider some of their songs that are great and remain vital and certainly magical through the decades, the days before they became a road show rummaging through a massive songbook.

Child of the Moon:A perfect paen to psychedelic mysticism, if you had to call it anything. Rather like that Charlie's drums are upfront and clamoring, maybe even a bit impatient, and the piano and organ work by Nicky Hopkins bob and weave between the hard strummed acoustic guitars. Jagger sounds like a wasted sage struggling to make a pronouncement to a room full of the equally wasted. The song is a perfect example of what the Rolling Stones have done effectively for decades, which was to accentuate their supposed instrumental deficiencies and cut tracks that couldn't imaginably have worked in more “professional” versions. This song has the feeling of you coming into the practice room just when a meandering jam hits its groove and everything gels splendidly for a bit--the tempo has the feeling that it could go astray at any minute and the instruments, while locked in simple themes that produce an attractive audio, don't sound locked into their parts. It could all just collapse, but it doesn't, and the result here demonstrates the band's ability to achieve a high aesthetic while never losing that element of being stoned-ruffians with too much cash.

Backstreet Girl:I've always been struck by the fascinating disconnect between the folksy, sweetly textured sound of this ballad and all its implications of sublimely expressed dedication and the cruel , misogynist and entitled demands of a man instructing his mistress to know her place, to not contact him for any reason , to be happy with any attention he gives her at all, on his terms only. This works subtly and with a lack of the usual sexist insults that occupy the Stones' more chauvinist material, and I suspect that it's an irony a canny Mick Jagger was working for and achieved. The music suggests Impressionist paintings of a Paris blvd. with the choice addition of accordions to the melody, likely reflects the narrator's attitude, his state of mind, that he's laying the law to a problematic "outside" woman in a manner that is gentle but firm, delicately laid out, even kind in his estimation. The lyrics tell a different story and have the effect of a perfect character sketch that might have been lifted from Dickens or Sterne.

Another lively character study comes to mind:There's no bondage or misogyny in Get Off My Cloud, just the complaints of an impatient young man intensely aware of his awkwardness in the world. The genius here is that Jagger doesn't frame it as a protest song but as an immature rant. That element keeps this song relevant to human experience. Honestly, these songs of scaled-down experience, wicked or melancholic or satiric, are the songs that are the genius of the Stones reputation--that they've been able to rise to new heights from periods of so-so releases is one of the marvels of 20th century music history. But the grand statements--Can't Always Get What You Want, Midnight Rambler, Sympathy for the Devil--have always seemed arch , role-playing and not a little phony and pretentious. In general, I go with what Mailer said about Sympathy for the Devil when it was played for him during a Rolling Stone interview. His view, to paraphrase, was that it was all build up with no pay off. Mailer did, however, go on to say great things about "Live With Me", which he found a funny situation of a daft upper class British household. The Stones, when they cared to work brilliantly withing their limits, had the wit and craft of Wodehouse and Waugh.


Wednesday, August 9, 2023

ROBBIE ROBERTSON , RIP

Robbie Robertson was a rare bird, and it’s not likely we’ll see a comparable talent again in most of our lifetimes. As a writer, he drew from a deep and flavorful stream of musical styles–field holler work songs, country blues, gospel, old-time jazz with hints of ragtime syncopation, country and western, classic rhythm and blues, and rock and roll–and shared with his splendid Band members the ability to cogently blend the styles into an unaffected, appealing organic sound.

It’s been said before, but his best songs seemed beyond era, as Robertson could have written them one hundred years ago or two weeks ago. They were timeless, evocative, and put one in the center of what was a vividly and deftly portrayed idea of the American South, no less so than Faulkner or Carson McCullers. His lyrics, as well, were dually colloquial and surreal, presented in different guises of melancholy, a yearning for an idealized past, or which displayed an absurdist wit. The Weight is the prize example of Robertson’s talents–a rolling piano figure never far from gospel roots, the narrative details the oddness of small-town life and provides details that suggest hallucinations of religious fervor, incest, hidden insanity. It has the power of a storyboard from which a great novel or grand motion picture can be made. One can set up a half dozen songs by the late songwriter and notice a sublime variety of situations and emotional conflict, and notice Robertson's sure-handed use of first-person narrative, in a tone where someone was speaking about the contradictory elements of their life and how, somehow, the same said narrator was applying their shoulder to the wheel all the same despite the crushing circumstances that present little likelihood of abating. Aspirations, love, better fortunes, happier and more fulfilling years past, Robertson's tales were of the people who fell between the cracks when good times turned ill; often enough it seemed the only reason anyone of the frequently tragic figures in the songs carry on in the grim landscape not through hope or the illusion thereof, but from memory, a nostalgia for days when existence had meaning and a personal refusal to finally die a cipher in the bleak landscape. Robertson was an artist of great and delicate talents that was a large part of why The Band is one of the greatest bands of the rock and roll era. An aspect of Robertson's years ago, that his interest was in characters who were from small towns but who had full lives and palpable experiences, speaking in their unique voices in unpretentious language that suggested full histories without an excess of grandstanding detail. 

His songs were monologues of a sort and were economical in the way people tend to be when recollecting the joys or heartbreaks of the lives they've lived. Robertson had a brilliance for a character sketch ; even his wordiest songs are spare, free of mood killing literary language. He could take himself out of the narrative and let his passion and concern for Southern lives come across in masterfully understated testimonials. His art is, of course, supplemented to no end by the superb contributions of his band mates--Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm-- and their astounding ability to incorporate so many hard-to-assimiliate genres in material that made a merging of gospel, old school blues, country music and ragtime into a natural and organic expression of musical emotion are the sort of things we can study for years to come, and there will likely remain debates as to the size of the contributions the other members made to the songwriting, but for the meantime I am content to acknowledge the profundity of Robertson's contributions.

Friday, August 4, 2023

STOP GOING TO FUNERALS FOR THINGS THAT HAVEN'T DIED

 The Spectator (Australia) has wondered out loud if rock criticism, an intriguing and snarking subcatagory of journalism is all but spent. They cite no less an authority than Ed Sheeran to suggest the waning days of music opinion mongering are in the late stages.  Even so, this is more a matter of wondering what the interest in announcing something as officially deceased and irrelevant? These are the sort of pieces that get written late at night because they can be very light on hard facts supporting the assertion, can be allowed to be vague and irritatinging in their collective inability to really take a stance. It's a race against deadline and the assured result is sloppy thinking. Now and then a writer decides to pad his required number of articles he has committed to submit to his editor by taking the pulse of a cultural expression and opining whether the activity is dead. Is theater dead? How about rock and roll? Or jazz, really, is that still a thing? And painting, Christ, painting is as dead as a boot, no? Cinema is dead, we know, and movie theaters are going away?..You get the idea. Some things do, of course, seem to vanish, such as vinyl records and eventually CDs, though they have not completely been eradicated: both have made a comeback among noticeable consumer subgroups. But both things were quickly supplanted when digital formats and the internet trampled the established ways of acquiring music. We know, however, that declarations that specific art forms, from literature to the visual arts, are dead seem more wishful thinking , a hot take of cultural trends that often enough begins with provocative headlines but towards the end of the various squibs that take this tack end up with no conclusion other than sighing “…we will see.” What we have are areas where newer ways of expression, getting news, advertising , expressing oneself poetically , et al, have new ways of coming into being, something that does not mean a death sentence for whatever came before. So this issue as to whether rock criticism is dead or dying? Death and dying are strong and sloppy terms to apply to anything that is ongoing, and I would think that as long as people buy music, they will want to read about it and talk about it and have disagreements about musical artists and the relative qualities involved in ones preferred measures of the Big Beat. Someone will write about a new album or a concert and someone else will read it and the dynamic continues anew. For the diminished role critics play in influencing consumers, well…we will see…

Thursday, August 3, 2023

QUICK RECOLLECTIONS OF TWO 1969 BOOTLEGS

The only two bootleg albums I ever bought were lIVEr that You'll Ever Be (1969) by the Rolling Stones and The Great White Hope by Bob Dylan (also released in  1969). The Rolling Stones one is entirely dispensable–there is a cult around their live albums that is pure fiction in my view. They have always been dicey in live performance, save for Jagger’s antics. Their legacy is their long line of studio albums. 

The Dylan, though, is genuinely historic, a batch of diverse and wonderfully crafted tunes melodically and lyrically. I still don’t think he is a poet, but the lyrics here-- TEARS OF RAGE, THE MIGHTY QUINN, THIS WHEEL’S ON FIRE, TOO MUCH OF NOTHING-- are some of the finest and most subtle of his career, and his selection of covers are choice and reveal that Dylan, in his prime, could reinvent traditional material and make them relevant to an audience that was starved for something more than cocktails, drunk romance and songs that were thick with cliché and platitude. The Great White Hope has only gotten richer with time. I subscribe to the idea that the best rock poetry are the ones that show the art of what was almost said, which was what Dylan could do when he had all his pistons firing, a mix of idiomatic diction, biblical allusion, a sort of bucolic surrealism , along with a host of other lyric influences that sift through blues, country and such for the sort of mash ups he specialized in. I think we’re on the same page, that his best lyrics work not because they make sense in literal terms but that they give a sense of mood, temperament, whatever the prevailing emotional tone might happen to be for the song, joy, or despair.

 He does this in any number of ways–odd juxtapositions of physical items (lace=knot), cunning use of nonsequiturs to undercut encroaching cliché and sentimentality and suggest there are deeper levels to explore–but the fun in Dylan’s strongest songs-as-poems is the sort of oh-wow factor where you can’t believe he came up with one catchy couplet after another, a sensation similar to (in my mind) to listening to a Coltrane or Dolphy solo where the runs , riffs, and full on phrases exhibit a serial genius. This is my Bob Dylan.”

BARRY ALFONSO:I certainly agree about GWW, Ted. Tackling the value and substance of Dylan's Basement Tapes songs is difficult because, I think, they involve a different standard that you might use for most song lyrics (or poetry, for that matter). There are lines in "The Mighty Quinn" and "This Wheel's On Fire" that are near-gibberish, akin to the silly wordplay in "Polly Wolly Doodle" or "Oh, Susanna." "If your memory serves you well/I was going to confiscate your lace/And wrap it up in a sailor's knot/and hide it in your case" -- this sort of thing has almost no conventional meaning worth treating seriously. It is almost the sort of nonsense you might write in a song if you are holding a place for what you might write later. (I did that in Nashville.) But the FEELING of it is clear -- it is sly and spooky and insinuating and begs you to try to untangle what it is saying. Add to this that the performance of these songs by Dylan and the Band is filled with wacky/ominous emotion. Scarcely any people can write and record stuff like that. I love those songs. Those are my favorite Dylan songs, in fact.

WILLIAM HAMILTON: Breet, chitter, grelb.


Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Oh yeah?

 


The harmonies of the fabled Tremeloes stood out in a crowded field of 60s Brit Pop bands who were notable for their vocal arrangements. As we see here, the harmonies decorate, embellish, and enhance the fetching melody with colors , textures and tones of of the tongue that could have been easily transposed, I would guess, to regular instruments. Solo voice subtly joined by a chorus, combined harmonies seamlessly sliding up the scale rather than abruptly switching keyes. I overstate the case, perhaps, but I've always found their performance of this tune stunning.

Brit-pop in the 60s was a wonderland of sterling harmonies and the Hollies, Graham Nash edition, were champions at musical hooks and vocal synchronization. This punchy little masterpiece grabbed me right away back when I was but a whelp, especially the chorus, a vocal traffic jam of different melody lines stacked atop one another, going in different directions, clashing and dissonant and structurally effective, the brief miasma brought together again with Nash's high note at the end.

Neil Young's sci-fi junkie lament 'After the Goldrush" gets a harmonized rendition in this 1974 release. The lead vocal by Irene Hume reveals a slightly husky voice that characterizes the solo and chorus arrangement, with an appealing result that makes you think of a choir of Melanies . A perfect radio hit for the time, pleasant melody, depressed lyrics, alluring vocal craft.

John Lennonhad a grudge against bandmate Paul , a resentment he dutifully burnished until it was shiny like an acrylic turd, a brown and gleeming chuck of ill will. Of course
he wrote a song about it , laying everything out except Sir McCartney's name. As an issue of disrespect, it's in a class by itself, but the howler of this whole enterprise centers around the most quoted lyric, "...the only thing you did was yesterday..." The longer view of the Beatles reveals PM's contributions to the creative surges was, in fact, profound, at which point it makes me consider the idea that McCartney would likely have been a pop star of some sort without Lennon. Lennon, always a raw dog who improved vastly as a tunesmith , singer and lyricist due to his association with McCartney, would likely have had a rougher go of it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

CRAWL OUT YOUR WINDOW


Irony isn’t dead. In fact, it’s a living yet intangible part of the odd vibes that abound after the disasters of the worst human assumptions being acted upon. It feels like some smirking ghost at the side of the road laughing at us while we scratch our heads wondering what happened to our best-laid plans. Occasionally, it takes decades for some ironies to become revealed, noticed, observed, as in what, I think, was some of a barely noted reversal of mainstream attitudes about the right and wrong ways of making music. In the early Sixties, around the time of the British Invasion, I remember all sorts of cartoons and jokes about citizens and music fans attempting to commit suicide when they were exposed to the vocal styles of Jagger, Dylan, or a good number of gruff, nasally singers in the pop world. I remember the Rolling Stones’ appearance on the old Hollywood Palace variety show on ABC in 1964.

Hosted by Dean Martin, who was either entirely drunk and on his fourth sheet to the wind or doing a brilliant impersonation of a stumbling sot, The Stones performed their songs for the first time to an American TV audience, an historic event enhanced by Martin’s slurred insults to the British band. There was a trampoline act at mid-show, I remember, a circus act that had a leotard-clad family doing impressive tricks of the bouncing variety. When they were done, Martin came on stage again and announced that the elder man in the troupe was the father of the Rolling Stones and had been trying to kill himself with this trampoline act for years. That was a real gasser. Why the hate? The answer was obvious. The Stones were reintroducing America to a native art, black music, that it had all but forgotten about and found the renditions by the Rolling Stones of classic blues and soul songs alien, offensive, immoral and dangerous. It wasn’t good singing and offensive to the idea of music! It wasn’t even music.

Somewhere along the line all the stoned hippies and rebellious teens grew up, got jobs, had families, and in effect became both their parents and THE MAN, and the same gag now substitutes MOR performers like Dionne Warwick, Michael Bolton, Michael McDonald, and some others for the old guard. These folks can certainly sing but the kind of music they make is antithetical to the true liberating and expressive poetry of what REAL music is. Authenticity as criteria for judgment (an ever-vague and elusive concept) has advanced over technical competence and romantically “pretty” offerings. I have had this debate on both sides over the decades: first with my parents, aunts, uncles, and school teachers defending Dylan’s music and especially his singing; and through the decades arguing with young people that boy bands, pop tunesters like Dionne Warwick and slow jam funk were criminally commercial junk that was without conviction or soul.



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Saturday, July 22, 2023

MUSIC I HEARD ON MY BIRTHDAY

 

Released in 1969, the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed is the centerpiece of my round up of favorite albums. It's a grand crescendo of the styles, personas, and attitudes they've been developing in the years before this, easily displaying less a fusion of acoustic folk and blues traditions than an early Americanish "blend" of the plugged in and unplugged traditions. It's fair to say that every element of sound we hear sounds as if it's always been there, perfectly formed, waiting to be discovered. Jagger is in peak form as a vocalist--there seems little in the way of traditional and more contemporary styles at the time he couldn't make his own--and his lyrics were never better, subtler, wittier, more British eccentric oddball. In an interview some time ago in Rolling Stone, Mailer found fine writing in the lyrics of "Live With Me" when the interviewer played him this record, praising the baroque and telling detail, the scene shifting line to line, the quick outlines of an upper class family's secret insanity fully exposed. The only track that doesn't work is "You Can't Always Get What You Want", intended seemingly as a grand , showstopping statement with just bit of philosophy delivered in the chorus. Overwrought, drawn out, very slow, anticlimatic, Jagger's singing uncharacteristically falls flat here--he sounds winded --and the not-quite surreal gibberish he usually excels at suffers in a determination to be "poetic".

Theoretically the Blind Faith super group, comprised of Eric Clapton,Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Rick Gretch, should have worked, as they brought a demonstrated array of talents to the fold around instrumental chops, vocal strength and in songwriting especially. Though commonly felt by many to be a failure at the time of release, the lone Blind Faith studio release yielded an impressive number of all time gems--"Can't Find My Way Home", "Presence of the Lord", 'Well All Right". Even lesser material such as the structurally awkward "Had to Cry Today" and Ginger Baker's everybody-gets-a-solo excursion "Dow What You Like" provide sufficient joy. The Baker tune especially is worthwhile for Clapton's guitar solo, which to myhears has him revealing , maybe, a bit of influence from Mike Bloomfield's solo on "East West". The reason for abandoning this project would seem to be the expected issues of drugs, egos, and most likely that their hearts just weren't into it. A shame, they could have been one of the best.

Miles Davis is known as a man with great taste in highlighting the work of great sax players in his bands--Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Sonny Rollins. Add Sonny Stitt. Often derided as a knock off Bird, a grossly unfair charge, Stitt is shown here as lyrically expressive, technically sublime and engagingly melodic improviser for establishes his ideas of bebop chromaticism to the music's superb body of energy. Davis, in fine form here with his brief statements, quick , surgically inserted note clusters and his pure, nearly vibratoless tone --not to mention his genius use of space between his solos--has made it working habit to pare his minimalist expressiviseness against busier second voices like Coltrane and later John McLaughlin. With his band, with peerless support from alto and tenor saxophones, Wynton Kelly, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Jimmy Cobb, drums--we have Stitt in that position. His choruses are choice, crowded but not crowding. Recorded sometime during the 1960s, according to some vague notes on the CD.

I went looking for a relevant live set by a great fusion band to post here and decided to post this very elegant and , yes, at times searing live set from the Gary Burton Quartet , IN CONCERT, featuring an early appearence by the late guitarist Larry Coryell, who man consider the man most responsible for laying a foundation for the jazz fusion to come. In any respect, this record hasn't aged at all since it's its release in 1968--that are no ugly fuzz tones , fake sitars or faux poetic-philosophical lyrics one needs to rationalize about--but is , rather, a vivid statement of what a innovative unit had been up to that moment and being able to reimagine their inventions yet again. The rhythm section of Steve Swallow on bass and Bob Moses on drums, navigate a variety of musical ideas and rhythms, buoying the remarkable contrasts between primary improvisers Coryell and Burton. LC's blues intonations seamlessly merge with rapid fire bebop complexity and an unfailing classicist precision, the same no less from Burton, who makes his percussive instrument reveal tones, undertones, and shades in a rapid flurry that might make you think of the dense fabric of an Art Tatum solo. A band remarkable that helped clear the ground for a stretch of great jazz rock.

Side two  of Mountain's 1971 release Flowers of Evil is live for nearly forty minutes and is pretty much the Leslie West Show. West wasn't the most fluid of blues rock guitarists--nearly anyone else could play circles around him in terms of speedy cliches and such--but what he had was phrase, taste and tone and a killer hand vibrato , featured here oh so brilliantly on the Dream Sequence segment of the side: "Dreams of Milk and Honey" by Leslie West and Mountain, from the second side of their album Flowers of Evil, recorded at the Fillmore East in NYC in 1971. It is one of the great moments of Hard Rock guitar, with a great, lumbering riff that distorts and buzzes on the low strings with crushing bends and harmonics squealing at some raging pitch that might make one think of natural calamity, a force that cannot be withstood. West, never the most fluid guitarist, had, all the same, a touch, a feel, a sense of how to mix the sweet obbligato figures he specialized in with the more brutal affront of power chords and critically nasty riffing. The smarter among us can theorize about the virtues of amplified instrumentation attaining a threshold of sweetness after the sheer volume wraps you in a numbing cacophony, but for purposes here it suffices to say, with a wink, that is a kind of music you get and accept on its own truncated terms, or ignore outright. There is an aesthetic at work here, but it might as well come to saying that you had to be me, at my age, in 1971 when I was struck by this performance to understand a little of why I haven't tossed the disc into the dustbin. He is in absolute control of his Les Paul Jr., and here he combines with bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in some theme and variation that accomplishes what critic Robert Christgau has suggested is the secret of great rock and roll music, repetition without tedium. There are no thousand-note blitzkriegs, no tricky time signatures, just tight playing, a riffy, catchy, power-chording wonder of rock guitar essential-ism. I've been listening to this track on and off since I graduated from high school, and it cracks me up that my obsession with this particular masterpiece of rock guitar minimalism caused a number of my friends to refer to me listening yet again to my personal "national anthem."