Monday, October 31, 2011

Gal Costa - Gal

A long way off from the last MPB I posted, Gal Costa's second eponymous 1969 album is firmly in the Tropicália camp with wild eclecticism, psychedelic production and bristling with the untamed energy that the Brazilian military government found so threatening at the time.  Worlds away from her more chanteuse-like debut, Gal even blows away a lot of the Tropicália competition in terms of craziness--I put it down to Gal's staggering vocal range and personality, which is self-evident on this album from the very get-go.  The syncopated beat and fuzz guitar opening of "Cinema Olympia" drops out almost immediately as Gal's seductive voice creates more of a lounge atmosphere, which soon disappears as well when the beat picks back up--by the time the chorus happens, Gal's hollering about matinee films at the Cinema Olympia over pounding snares and furious clean guitar riffing--heavy reverb and delay gradually accumulate on Gal's vocals as her wordless shouts and moans multiply before abruptly disappearing in a haze of strings...and then it's on to something completely different!  The detuned nylon string acoustic guitar and snake charmer reeds of "Tuareg" veer immediately left, and yet Costa seems to have no trouble keeping up when the bass grove kicks in and the chorus lifts the dark Eastern atmosphere back into pop territory.

It's easy to be impressed with both the stylistic breadth and quality of the songwriting on this album, and a glance at the credits confirms this gut reaction--there's three Gilberto Gil songs and two each from the pens of Caetano Veloso and Jorge Ben.  One of my favorite things about the late-60's Brazilian music scene is how communal and supportive it seems to be--all of these artists not only manage to co-exist, they also push each other into new directions and also manage to create a collective genre that's more than the sum of the bands that make it up.  The sky is the limit for the rest of the songs on this album--Gal ranges from ethnic Brazil flavor on Ben's "País Tropical," unexpectedly into sweeping string-arranged vocal pop (and a host of Tropicália artist name-dropping) on "Meu Nome É Gal" ("My Name is Gal") all the way to batshit crazy on the sound collage cut-up-cum-big band showcase for Costa's rapid delivery and upper-register bends on "Objeto Sim, Objeto Não."  Though I've got a feeling a lot of this can come across as too jumpy and frantic for a lot of listeners, the radical and immediate mood and texture shifts in this album are probably my favorite part--a song like "Com Médo, Com Pedro" snaps between quiet, jazzy strings and Hendrix-like hard rock, and Costa even trades between sexy and psychotic in the same lines!

The fact that these frenetic songs somehow hold together and make sense grouped on the same album has to be credited to both the songwriters and the backing band, who manage to not only keep up with the stylistic swings, but also to masterfully manage a chaotic atmosphere with deft control.  Listening to music like this, it almost feels like psychedelic music was created for the explicit purpose of being given to the already-able musicians of Brazil and mutated into something the British and Americans weren't even capable of imagining.  The eclectic mood, awesome power of Gal's voice, and simultaneous pop/avant garde atmosphere of this album make it probably my favorite Tropicália album, and it's also probably the most cohesively "listenable" (aside from the eccentricity) as well, since there's no obligatory six-minute tape manipulation freakout (though "Objeto Sim, Objeto Não" comes close).   If you check this out and enjoy it, good news--there's a whole lot more great music where this came from!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Keith Rowe - The Room

Now, back to something really weird.  Keith Rowe, formerly the guitarist for house favorites AMM, is probably one of the most influential underground guitarists of all time.  He was one of the first guitarists to pioneer a tabletop prepared guitar technique wherein the instrument is placed flat on a table and manipulated with various found objects to create unusual and unconventional timbres.  After quitting AMM for the second time in 2004 (a move of which he's apparently quite proud), Rowe's solo performance and album release schedule has picked up markedly, as has his further exploration of the possibilities of Electroacoustic Improvisation (EAI), a loosely-defined branch of free improvisation with an emphasis on live computer processing of improvised sound sources.  This, a 2007 solo release, is regarded by some as Rowe's best solo album and was released on Erstwhile Records, which courageously releases an impressive amount of good EAI to a generally apathetic public (awesomely enough, the label also eschews barcodes in their packaging).

While Rowe's contributions to AMM often seem intended to amplify the sounds of his unusual guitar approach into a space (i.e. a room or concert hall), The Room sounds to me much more inward, as if he is listening to the innards of the things producing the sound.  This impression is probably intensified by the fact that Rowe's improvisations sound like they're directly input to the recording device, rather than amplified and miked.  In any case, the result is a single 38:57 continuous track (though there are brief silences between sections) of droning guitar tone, amplified signals and electronic processors, some traces of Rowe's signature radio frequency manipulation, and some visceral textures produced by Rowe's physical manipulation of the guitar's strings.  If that description doesn't sound like much, please be aware that the actual sounds contained on this disc are very difficult to verbalize!  Though this album is much too indie to appear on YouTube, this video of Rowe playing prepared guitar will at least give you a better idea of what some of this sounds like (though I personally prefer not having these bizarre sounds attached to any visual explanations for their origins).  To me, the dominant timbres of the music are a sort of ambient hum (presumably the guitar), and a more rhythmically dynamic, twittering, upper-frequency sort of repetitive digital bleeping.  It's fascinating how the textures overlap in a sort of progressively sliding series of layers, with one tone source pulsing gently while another simultaneously rapidly dances on top, and before you know it one of the sounds has disappeared while your ears were transfixed by another, and a new one is just moving into the picture.

How does this music compare to free improvisation like AMM?  Well, for starters, I think it's not completely discrete--if there was some way to only hear what Rowe was doing during certain AMM performances (I'm thinking especially of the drone-heavy 2001 album Fine), I think it might sound a lot like parts of this album, despite Rowe's written assertions that it's an attempt to go somewhere completely new.  In other ways, though, it's much colder, more alien and less organic than AMM's albums, conjuring a claustrophobic atmosphere (perhaps there's a connection to the album's title and the feeling the music conveys) and a sort of digital industrial feel that never really occurs on AMM albums.  Not that it's a particularly bad thing--I vividly remember on my first listen feeling (perhaps around the 22:30 minute mark, when Rowe starts scraping the strings beneath a piercing electronic tone) a powerful sense of unease and a strange, alien emotion that no other music has ever made me feel before.  Though it's far from the warm-and-fuzzy elation that most listeners hope to achieve from an album, the experience remains ingrained in my memory as an inspirational example of music's unlimited emotional potential, and as a sort of revelation (how often do you feel a feeling you've never felt before, right?!).  Don't get me wrong--Rowe's sometimes laughably-strident views on musical aesthetics (which seem to come with the territory of free improvisation) inform this music with an uncommon level of academic seriousness--but attempting to deny the music's very real emotional power in the name of disagreeing with Rowe's artistic choices seems to unjustly disregard his contributions to the ever-growing palette of potential moods and emotions available to listeners and musicians alike. 

It's hard to really assess the quality of music like this--it's so fundamentally different structurally and in its aesthetic goals that even when talking in terms of elemental sound, it's hard to separate what's "good" from "bad," and the subjectivity of personal preference that's present with all music becomes a starting point rather than an ultimate conclusion.  Despite Rowe's professed anti-virtuosic method, though, he clearly (in my ears, at least) has a flair for space, flow and tone/timbre choice that few other improvisers do.  Though I think The Room occasionally suffers from the sort of repetitiousness and aimless structure that understandably pops up in a lot of free improv, the frigid atmosphere and occasional moments of revelation (like the digital explosion at about 24:25) make it a much-appreciated part of my collection (though I'm not sure I currently have the interest to sustain a lot more similar additions).  Support some fringe indie music facilitators and grab a copy from Erstwhile!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Spooky Tooth - Spooky Two

Spooky Two's 1969 sophomore effort definitely stands as one of those albums I've listened to so many times that it gets more difficult to back away and think analytically about it.  Revisiting it, though, I'm reminded just why I've listened to it so much--it's pretty awesome.  While late 60's hard rock isn't everybody's flavor of choice in 2011, for those who enjoy it I can think of few forgotten bands who do it as well as Spooky Tooth.

What I notice most re-listening to this is how well everything comes together to make the album comprehensively strong.  In the end, it's not really an album where the quality of the songs carries the music past the performances or the production masks a lack of passion or attention to detail in arranging.  Rather, all of these elements are paradoxically workmanlike yet outstanding in the way they complement each other and the overall cohesion of the album.  Take, for example, the lead-off "Waitin' for the Wind," (I love how musicians are never satisfied with just dropping the "g" when singing; they have to make sure the word ends in an apostrophe in the song title, even when the words aren't actually in the song).  It's the perfect opener--30 seconds of drum beat that gets some delay slapped on it around the 20 second mark, and finally a bass/organ riff that sounds like the heaviest thing you've ever heard.  Dual vocalists Mike Harrison and Gary Wright start singing about...well, nobody really knows what the hell they're singing about on most of these songs (something about the wind giving the narrator life advice), but it sounds awesome because they sing with such undeniable conviction.  For such a hard-rocking song, there's hardly any guitar--just on the chorus, where heavily-reverbed harmony vocals lift the energy above the already-driving main groove.  Such is the strength of this whole album--the band hits the sweet spot in all areas without really standing out in any one of them.  As far as I'm concerned, that's as worthy a musical goal as any, and a thoroughly excellent album is probably one of the hardest achievements to rack up.

Sound-wise, Spooky Tooth sets themselves apart from the rest of their UK contemporaries by slathering their sound with heavy gospel influences (the aforementioned reverb, female backing singers and a whole lot of keyboards) and maintaining a fine balance between eclectic songwriting and a cohesive, recognizable sound.  The gospel influence comes through strongest in "I've Got Enough Heartaches," where the backing vocalists share center stage as much as Harrison and Wright, and to a somewhat less classifiable extent on "Feelin' Bad," where the band wrings unbelievable heaviness out of the production and low piano keys.  Elsewhere, though, the band diverges quite successfully into poppy country rock, catchy hard riffing, anthemic folk rock, and heavier vestiges of the psychedelia of their nearly-as-formidable debut, It's All About Spooky Tooth.  Principal songwriter (and the band's only American member) Gary Wright (yes, that Gary Wright) certainly deserves credit for bridging so many styles, even if he now feels embarrassed by his falsetto singing.  On that subject, half the fun here comes from the juxtaposition of Wright's ridiculous head voice and Mike Harrison's awesomely thick, manly and soulful pipes (he's got one of the best rock voices I've ever heard, somehow able to out-Steve-Mariott Steve Mariott, at least in the vocal department).  On the subject of dual lead singers, nowhere is this more righteous than on "Evil Woman," (no, not that "Evil Woman"), probably the album's most epic cut.  The song also features what's really the only guitar solo on the album, which reminds me of my original summation of this album's balance--Grosvenor's solo is so wickedly grimy that it proves his chops in one fell swoop, yet the band as a whole acknowledges that the rest of the songs don't really call for solos and refrain from any excessive lead parts.  It's this restraint that I find most inspiring about this album--the ability to recognize what's actually best for the songs and the overall album isn't an easy one to acquire, and it elevates these guys from a second-tier group of rock journeymen to a level of judgment few big stars ever even reach.

Sadly--if predictably--the band's creative balance didn't last, with The Last Puff proving Harrison couldn't really hold up the whole band without Wright's vocal counterpoint and songwriting, and Witness showing that the duo's chemistry alone couldn't really make up for less-inspired writing from Wright and the absence of some original members.  As it stands, Spooky Two is a treasured example of everything coming together for a group, and--perhaps even more importantly--it's a glaring reminder that the conservative collection of mega hits packaged and branded by music and radio corporations as "classic rock" isn't doing us any favors when it comes to revealing the totality of good music that was produced during the period.  Shame on them for making us work so hard, but the effort is worth it when you find albums as good as this!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Michael Hedges - Aerial Boundaries

Now here's an artist who never fails to evoke conflicting reactions from me, both emotionally and intellectually.  Though it'd be easy to write Hedges off based purely on his record label (Windham Hill, epicenter of the dreaded New Age musical movement and all of its paradoxically limp-wristed perviness), to do so would be to ignore a guitar player who accomplished considerable innovation and influence in his field, as well as a composer of undeniable ability.

That Aerial Boundaries is still Hedges' most known album is undoubtedly due to the brooding title track, which is a well-realized representation of the uniqueness of his spin on the acoustic guitar and also a tight example of his trademarks as a composer.  Technically, Hedges' brilliance seems to lie in his exploration of producing sound by striking the strings not over the sound hole (the traditional location for flatpicking and fingerpicking) but on the fretboard itself--"Aerial Boundaries" combines traditional picking with a repeating figure on the fretting hand and a series of percussive interjections higher on the fretboard (on the lower strings, er) by Hedges' right hand.  The resulting sound (though it almost always necessitates unconventional open tunings tunings to make up for how busy the player's hands are) approximates three or more distinctive parts happening at the same time.  Though plenty of fingerpickers have achieved breathtaking counterpoint and polyphony by abandoning one pick for five, it would seem that no one did it in quite this way before Hedges came along.  While I probably wouldn't say Hedges has influenced me technically as a guitar player as strongly as he has other recent players like Andy McKee or Trace Bundy, I really love the way his style plays fundamentally with the incredible dynamic, tonal and harmonic range that's waiting to be discovered in the acoustic guitar.  It's amazing how many textures and sounds you can get out of a guitar by sounding it in a different way, or how much those alternate techniques can transform the way the instrument sounds when the recording or amplification volume is cranked up--this kind of fretting-as-note-striking shows that a note's decay is really a lengthy window even when the string isn't actually struck over the sound hole.  Hedges manages to avoid his innovation becoming novelty by supplementing it with more standard finger picking and even strumming on songs like "Bensusan."  Probably my favorite tracks are the more percussive, upbeat ones, like the brooding "Ragamuffin" and the funky jabbing of "Hot Type."  Also compelling is the more psychedelic "Spare Change," which uses reverse delay to further expand the interlocking nature of Hedges' playing.

While it's easy to applaud Hedges' technique and his ability as a composer to keep his pieces moving with distinctive sections and developing structures, I can't say that he's gifted or even proficient when it comes to melody--though some of the songs have memorable chord changes, the only one with a hummable melody is a cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," on which the melody is ironically carried by the fretless bass, not Hedges' guitar.  Perhaps it's my general distaste for the New Age "house flavor," but the gentle harmonic palette becomes cloying in my ears, especially on songs like the embarrassingly-titled flute/guitar/bass trio "Menage A Trois," which is so lacking in distinctive melody that it seems to beg to stay in the background at some New Age meditation party.  In fact, there are very few songs here that manage to break out of the tunefully tonal but indistinct haze that Hedges' composing generates.  While it's certainly "pretty," it seems that the pinnacle of pretty music--melody--is conspicuously absent, which to me almost defeats the purpose of trying to make pretty-sounding music.  From what (thankfully) little New Age music I've heard, this seems to be par for the course--it's as if the first goal of these artists is to make background lifestyle music that's unfocused enough that you can easily ignore it, which is horrifying to me as someone whose greatest joy comes from subsuming myself in complete attention to some beautiful music.  It seems like an unhappy coincidence that Hedges pioneered such a cool technique but used it to make New Age music--this kind of percussive attack just begs for more aggressive music, but it's also disappointing to see that most of the man's followers seem content to follow in his footsteps as a composer as well.  This music is worth hearing for the awesomeness of Hedges' guitar playing, but I suggest you crank the volume up when you do, so you can dive into the guitar playing, overcome the terribly quiet sound of the early CD issue, and avoid the vapid pseudo-emotion that many of these songs attempt to convey.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Eric Dolphy - Out to Lunch!

If I had to credit one album for inciting my recent obsession with jazz, it would have to be Eric Dolphy's 1964 crowning achievement, Out to Lunch!  Before then, I'd found something of a backward insertion point into jazz by moving into free jazz from the less idiomatic free improvisation realm.  After hearing this album, though, I realized that there's an entire movement within jazz (generally known as avant-garde jazz) that overlaps with free jazz in terms of soloist expression but also focuses heavily on expanding the compositional palette of bop and post-bop to a wide variety of places it'd never been before--undoubtedly, avant-garde jazz is the jazz for me!

By 1964 Eric Dolphy had had a storied career as both a sideman (supporting, among others, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus) and as a leader, recording several studio and live albums since his bandleader debut on 1960's Out There.  It's unsurprising that Dolphy was in great demand as a session and live ensemble member, as he could play alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet--the wider success of which in jazz music he can arguably credited--with comparable (but always idiosyncratic) virtuosity.  Though he was playing "out" for years before the date of this recording, Out to Lunch! is the first (and last, since he died within months of its recording) of Dolphy's albums to feature only his own compositions.  As I've increasingly found among successful avant-garde jazz albums, the combination between the adventurousness and innovation of the compositions and the freedom, creativity and chemistry of the performers creates a perfect storm of blissful, challenging sounds.

On the compositional side, Dolphy provides songs that run the gamut between dissonant odd-metered avant-garde ("Out to Lunch," "Straight Up and Down," "Hat and Beard," dedicated to Thelonious Monk, one of the only jazz composers who could be said to foreshadow Dolphy's style), early 1900's gospel jazz (the ballad "Something Sweet, Something Tender") and frantic, twisted bop riffing ("Gazzelloni").  On the more dominant weird stuff, Dolphy strikes a fascinating balance between abstractness (which often pleasingly extends typical jazz harmony to the brink of atonality) and Ornette Coleman's sinuous sense of head melody.  "Hat and Beard," with its constantly mutating descending scale and lurching unison non-melody, fits the former category, while the title track fits the latter with a seemingly never-ending head that winds around in spiraling circles, somehow never separating the tight unison between trumpet and alto sax.  The final track, "Straight Up and Down" is supposed to emulate a drunken stagger but, really, the same could be said of most of the rhythms here!  What I really love about Dolphy's compositions is that they travel well beyond the head-solo-head formula that sometimes hangs like an albatross from so much ultra-orthodox jazz; sure, the songs have recognizable and recapitulated heads, but there are innumerable pockets of group dynamic shifts, coordinated rhythmic interplay and near complete dropouts that you never get the sense that things are happening without a good reason.

As far as the playing goes, like I said earlier, this is an undeniable example of a perfect storm where a dream team of players come together over a set that pushes them all to places they've never been before.  The absence of piano means that vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson carries the mid-range chromatic accompaniment on his shoulders, which means a lot of the accompaniment is more spacious than the type of comping that piano usually provides.  I really enjoy how Hutcherson swaps between helping state the songs' melodies, comping with two or three-note chords over occasionally strange intervals, and spontaneously supporting solos with minor melodic excursions.  While Hutcherson's replacement of piano on this album is often lauded (as must be his ability to make one of the geekiest jazz instruments as cool as it could possibly be), I think some credit is also due to bassist Richard Davis, who often uses two-note chords (sometimes with a bow) in addition to a more standard walking style to emulate the piano's absent tonal cluster effect.  The tightness of Hutcherson and Davis allows Tony Williams free reign to play counter-rhythm to the vibes, alternate between blasting and delicate fills out of nowhere, and keep the ideas coming one after another without obsessing about blatantly stating the beat--sometimes it's just implied, and that space is one of the best parts about this music.  Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard could easily be labeled this set's least adventurous performer, but there's really no denying his chops; though he can't compete with Dolphy in terms of out-ness, he ably makes up for his relative conventionality with furious energy, which just might be considered out on its own.

Finally, Dolphy manages to consolidate his well-documented strengths on all three instruments by stealing his own show.  I can never get enough of his bass clarinet playing--the instrument's ear candy timbre is enjoyable on its own, but in the hands of someone like Dolphy, it becomes something else entirely.  Especially with the bass clarinet, his intuitive feel for the instrument's range and voicing allows him to employ it quite vocally, screeching through wide intervals just as often as he blurts out vaguely tonal (but always strangely melodic) fragments.  The beauty of this approach comes out even more on "Something Sweet, Something Tender," where the slow tempo and old-timey feel allow for some wide vibrato and compelling emotional expression.  Dolphy's alto saxophone chops are another thing entirely; his tone is so flagrant it sounds like he's blowing fire out of his horn and the mics can barely handle it.  "Gazzelloni" is the only flute showcase, which seems like a good ratio--the vibraphone seems to overlap in terms of timbre, so one example of Dolphy's rapid fire, often viscerally percussive flute style satisfies quite well.

It's a shame Dolphy wasn't able to follow up this masterpiece with a few more albums of his own compositions--he was clearly on a roll.  Fortunately, there are numerous great examples of his ability as a sideman (my picks for a balance between Dolphy's chops and adventurous composition are Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, George Russell's Ezz-thetics, and Ornette Coleman's iconic Free Jazz), and if you just want to hear the man play, his Wikipedia page comprehensively lists his discography as a leader and sideman--enjoy the trip.  It's disappointing that few contemporary jazz artists have attempted to push the genre forward in this way--there's clearly lots of space left to fill with audacious sounds, and it's hard to argue that these guys didn't have a great time making this music.

On a side note, here's what happens when you listen to too much Eric Dolphy...for use on my upcoming recording project.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Red Simpson - Roll, Truck, Roll

It's been far too long since I've done any country, so here's one of my favorites.  Though Red Simpson's not as well-known as the dual kings of Bakersfield (Buck Owens and Merle Haggard), you won't find an album that exemplifies the Bakersfield sound more than 1966's Roll, Truck, Roll.  In my mind, there's never been a novelty album that's been so thoroughly gimmicky and musically righteous in every way. 

Like the cover says, this album presents "exciting songs of the road" as sung by Simpson's "spirited voice"--each and every one of the 12 songs is about truck driving, and every time I listen to this album I'm astounded how comprehensively and realistically the subject is explored.  For starters, we get just as many songs detailing the loneliness and soulful isolation of the road (the title track, "Truck Driver's Blues," "My Baby's Waitin'") as we do about the joy and freedom of living life on the move ("Truck Drivin' Man," "Happy Go Lucky Truck Driver," "Motivatin' Man").  Elsewhere, there's colorful kernels of the truck driving life sprinkled like party favors--three songs about runaway trucks, a jackknife incident ("Give Me Forty Acres"), a truck stop ("Big Mack"), a run-in with the law ("Highway Man"), and even a reference to stimulants in "Six Days on the Road."  For what's ostensibly a novelty album, there's some real emotion behind some of these songs, like the traditional spoken monologue on "Roll, Truck, Roll" where we're sat right there in the passenger seat as the narrator talks about how his son hardly knows him and spends all of his time drawing pictures of trucks.  Dig the end of the monologue when Simpson says "I've got to keep my spirits up, so I guess I'll sing a little more" and launches back into the chorus--now that's great songwriting.  What really pulls it together is Simpson's everyman voice--he actually sounds like he could be a truck driver, delivering lines both heart-wrenching and hilarious in an unadorned and matter-of-fact style that fits the subject matter perfectly. 

In other places the band delivers plenty of other classic country tropes, like substituting a honk for the word "hell" on "Give Me Forty Acres," imitating a siren with steel guitar on "Highway Man," and founding choruses on cheesy jokes like in "My Baby's Waitin'" when Simpson croons "It won't be long till I get there, holding the one who's true/'cause old steering wheel, I'm getting mighty tired just holding on to you" and on "Big Mack" when a lovestruck truck driver mixes up the food items in his breakfast order.  Throughout the set the musicianship is top notch--both the six-string lead guitar and steel guitar are great, and there's even a bunch of great piano that accentuates the jazziness of songs like "My Baby's Waitin'" and especially the honky-tonk bounce of "Motivatin' Man," "Big Mack"  and "Truck Drivin' Man."  When it comes to addictive melodies and upbeat, catchy Bakersfield rockers, I can think of few better collections of foot-tappers.  For a branch of country that seems to have precious few real examples, Red Simpson's debut is a precious and worthy addition to the pantheon.  I suggest we follow his orders, put a quarter in the jukebox and play "The Truck Drivin' Man."

Friday, October 14, 2011

David Ackles - American Gothic

Continuing this week's re-re-refocus on singer/songwriters, here's something almost completely different.  Though he'd already released two full-length albums full of seedy, proto-Tom Waits character sketches by 1972, American Gothic is where David Ackles' unique and gritty vision reached full flower conceptually and musically.

As its title suggests, American Gothic is an attempt to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of American life (as he sees it) through a series of character narratives and internal monologues.  As sprawling a project as this may sound, Ackles manages to avoid the pitfall of overreaching in attempts to be all-inclusive by imagining himself quite snugly into extremely focused and well-drawn characters and situations.  From the title track's comically unhappy couple (a cuckolding wife who's true love is shoes and her porn-reading drunk of a husband) to the deliberate cheese of the traveling musician's "One Night Stand" to the choking malaise of Vietnam's effects on American society ("Ballad of the Ship of State") to a brilliantly succinct summation of the "Oh, California!" mentality with "Let's be happy until the sun goes out" to the blithe ignorance to the Native American experience on "Blues for Billy Whitecloud" to the touching rumination on the all-too-characteristically-American divorce rate in "Waiting for the Moving Van," Ackles proves his skills as an insightful and subtle songwriter again and again.  It seems at least part of his greatness rests in his ability to balance mordant wit and cutting appraisals with genuine heart, empathy and a constantly evident love for the totality of what he sees as American life, as especially evidenced on the desperate, cathartic redemption of "Another Friday Night" and a respectful exploration of communal religious music experience on "Family Band."

What unmistakably sets this apart from most of the singer/songwriter material I've shared is the music--there's barely a guitar in sight on American Gothic, with Ackles playing his own quite accomplished piano parts aided by a not inconsequential amount of orchestration--in comparison with the other two orchestrated albums I've discussed this week, Ackles' work reveals another distinct aspect of the practice--though his songs would easily stand alone with piano and voice arrangements, the style of the music almost necessitates a wealth of other instrumental textures.  Using a near-encyclopedic lexicon of musical styles, Ackles imbues his songs with jazz, rag, R&B, classical, gospel, folk and pop elements, occasionally within single songs ("Midnight Carousel").  As such, there are few other contemporary singer/songwriters to compare him with--while there's a similarity to Randy Newman and Ackles obviously paved the way for the tears-in-the-beer antics of early Tom Waits, his sincerity sets him apart from Newman and it's clear he isn't trying quite as hard to contrive a persona as Waits has.  In some ways, Ackles songs play more like musical theater--the American musical style blending of Rodgers and Hammerstein driven by some of the darkness of Brecht/Weill all funneled through Ackles' powerful, distinctive and closely-controlled (if often cigarette-husky) baritone.  I think the fact that Ackles' chosen style has little precedent in the pop music world (not to mention the fact that most people, on hearing it, associate it with musical theater and quickly dismiss it) obviously consigned this album to continued obscurity.  Even many of today's relic hunters seem quick to write off the album based purely on a lack of understanding of Ackles' stylistic choices--it's not like they're offering similarly-arranged music they think is better. 

Part of the reward of stretching to meet this album halfway is keeping in mind that not all artistic pop music has to fit the rock template that's dominated since the late 1950's--once you accept that Ackles' primary aesthetic compass is one that dates back to a time when the blaring horns and abrupt theatrical chord changes were actually a part of the public's conception of pop music, it's appreciable how well he manages to seamlessly update those building blocks to (1972) modern times and fill the spaces with a mature artistic vision.  This is probably best exemplified in the majestic and brilliant album-closing "Montana Song," which tells a multi-generational American family's story across Copland-influenced orchestral arrangements and a narrative that sums up the classic American life adventure against the starkness of nature, bound together only by the bonds of family, eventually complicated by the progress of time and children's new adventures, and finally resolved by the great-grandchild's connection with the distant context of his modern life.  Though it takes some effort to reset your ears' expectations to Ackles' willfully non-pop style, the effort is well worth it for a prolonged glimpse into the man's vision of American life past, future and his somehow even more diverse, limitless present.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Roy Harper - Valentine

You know you're in a good place artistically when you're pumping out massive, sweeping epics every couple of years and still find you have enough shorter, less ambitious songs coming out of your pen to collect another entire album without even having to try.  Roy Harper was in such a situation in 1974, coming off of a couple of conceptual beasts in 1971's Stormcock and 1973's Lifemask and realizing he'd amassed enough unrelated but equally strong material in the meantime to release an album of (mostly) love songs--1974's Valentine.

The fact that a spread of songs dating as far back as the mid-60's succeeds so well comes undoubtedly by the grace of the unstoppable roll Harper was on in the mid-70's.  Still in the continual process of honing his individualistic acoustic singer/songwriter-cum-absurdist rock experimenter style, it's clear on Valentine that there were plenty more song experiments and odd ideas yet to go before the well ran dry--indeed, with his move to a more rock centered style on 1975's HQ, Harper moved on before having to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

In Valentine we get the classic Harper blend of tenderness ("I'll See You Again," an update of his debut's "Forever,"), belligerence ("Male Chauvinist Pig Blues," "Che"), comic vulgarity ("Magic Woman Liberation Reshuffle") and spaciness ("Twelve Hours of Sunset," "Acapulco Gold"), all tied together by an ever-present sense of human searching in things both musical and lyrical.  While I know this schizophrenic aesthetic can be disorienting for Harper newcomers, it's the unflinching honesty that brings the converted back again and again.  In fact, it's often in the songs in which more than one of these contrasting moods are juxtaposed that Roy produces his most compelling tension--the lilting folk psychedelia of love song "Forbidden Fruit" belies the reality that, save some ambiguity regarding the narrator's age, it's about pedophilia (a fact the song's beauty makes fittingly all-to-easy to ignore).  The lush, well-paced "I'll See You Again" places the songwriter's compassion at odds with his stubborn pursuit of his own path, shading a hurtful move with obvious deep consideration.  The perennial live favorite "Commune" achieves this contrast perhaps best of all, with Harper exposing love's complexity through his own fickleness, gradually softening the chorus from "And love is my torment/And I'll take when I can/But I'll give in the moment/When you are my woman and I am your man" to "And love is no torment/For we'll give when we can/And we'll live in the moment/When you are my woman and I am your man" and finally altering the final line to "And we'll live for the moment/When she is my woman and I am her man," somehow using a few short words to subtly lay bare the simultaneously selfish and selfless act of reaching out that lies at the heart of love.  Oh, let's not forget that the same song also combines Harper's inclination for bodily imagery (enough to make many listeners squirm) with one of his most gloriously distinctive fingerstyle pull-off laden guitar riffs.

In light of my recent complaints against less refined attempts at adding orchestration to pop music, I want to make special note of the contributions of recently-deceased English composer and conductor David Bedford.  Appearing on a select handful of tracks, Bedford's arrangements are the quintessence of sympathetic--they swell with strings and blaring brass on the aforementioned "I'll See You Again," lending added drama but also harmonically enhancing Harper's vocal melody.  Repeating string figures rhythmically punctuate the guitar part on "Commune" without ever obscuring it, tonally enhancing the lyric's nature imagery and adding variation to the repeating guitar part.  Harper's version of "North Country" possesses a polish Dylan never matched, and the strings again swoop below, above and around the polytonality of his guitar line, their liquidity contrasting the more percussive sound of a fingerpicked guitar and at other times emphasizing Harper's naked guitar and vocals with judicious application of one of the most important (yet underutilized) tools in every musician's box--silence.  Finally, the arrangement collaboration between Harper and Bedford on the immortal "Twelve Hours of Sunset" produces some of the most spine-tinglingly beautiful moments I've ever heard, as Harper's multi-tracked vocal arrangement explores extended harmony while Bedford employs French horn and dissonance with more strings to funnel tension into the song's hair-raising dual crescendos.  Bedford's respect for Harper's songs and his crucial intuitive understanding of the colors his instrumentation contributes take these hallowed additions to the Harper songbook and elevate them even further.  In answer to the two orchestration-related questions from my last review, "yes," the songs work without the orchestration, and "yes," each and every added element enhances the song with distinctive character (there's virtually no excess in Bedford's instrumental choices or part writing), which seems to be the ideal outcome in all ways.

Aside from these canonical contributions, Harper also gives us a generous helping of his inimitable coarseness in "Male Chauvinist Pig Blues" and "Magic Woman Liberation Reshuffle," both of which experiment with electric guitars, rock arrangements, and what could politely be referred to as "contentious" attitudes toward monogamy and feminism (it wouldn't be a classic Harper album without some controversy).  "Acapulco Gold" combines Harper's love for dope with a rare vocal jazz piano arrangement, while mostly instrumental dedication "Che" successfully stretches Harper's formidable guitar skills into the Spanish realm with some of his best guitar playing on tape.  All in all, Valentine is often overshadowed by Harper's more ambitious 70's recordings, but its charms lie in the subtlety and quality of its somewhat more conventionally-constructed songs.  Once you've had a taste of singer/songwriter material that's this varied and deep, it's hard to settle for anything less.

Buy it from the artist.

More Roy Harper.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Perry Leopold - Christian Lucifer

The acid folk genre is a lonely and under-appreciated one in terms of mainstream recognition, especially when it comes to American artists.  Since there's never really been a commercial market for it, those of us who enjoy experimental, genre-bending singer/songwriter music often have to spend some time digging and take chances on obscure albums like this in order to locate some hidden gems.  Leopold's second (of two) album's, 1973's Christian Lucifer is a well-realized attempt at one of progressive folk's more popular facets--fusing acoustic singer/songwriter material with lush orchestral arrangements and classical composition techniques.

As the title more than suggests, Christian Lucifer is spiritually-focused. Thankfully, though, it's not that kind of explicit worship theme that verges on dreaded "Christian rock" and threatens to derail even the delightful period kitsch of artists like Judee Sill.  Rather, Leopold manages to provide depth to his personal spiritual conflict by using accessible imagery and evocative language that holds up well without attention to the subtle Christian underpinnings.  Throughout the set, Leopold frets over questions of love, despair, overcoming of adversity, and redemption, rarely invoking typical Christian lyrical tropes with the notable (and effective) exception of the valedictory "Lord I love you" refrain of "Vespers," the album's closing track.

Probably what this album has going for it most is a cohesive atmosphere.  Leopold's lyrical subjects are for the most part somber and reflective, moods that are exceedingly well-represented by the album's arrangements and songwriting.  Most of the songs are based on 12- or 6-string acoustic guitar parts, often strummed and occasionally fingerpicked.  Surrounding and layered on top of those guitar parts, though, are orchestral arrangements filled with both wind instruments and strings, electric keyboards, lead guitar, some subtle hand percussion, and an airplane hangar's worth of reverb, which is used a little for psychedelic ends in "Serpentine Lane," but more often for general atmosphere. 

Interestingly, I find the album's arrangements and production simultaneously subtly detailed and impenetrably dense.  While there are many moments where delicate wind lines (often oboe) rise above the other instruments or a keyboard riff sounds out audibly for a few seconds, equally as often there's so much instrumentation that it all blends into a homogeneous river of sound.  Though it's tempting to start using the music critic-favored "over-produced" criticism, it's actually one of my pet peeves, in part because it's most often used as a broad-brush dismissal and very rarely do critics develop the reasons why they think something is over-produced.  In my mind, the first question is "Would these songs succeed with only a guitar [in this case] and vocals?" and the second is "Does each added instrument or production element add something distinctive and justify itself on an ideological basis?"  If the answer to the first question is "no," then you've got music that either attempts to compensate for a lack of substance with production or simply needs all of the instruments and production to be properly conveyed--there's nothing wrong with that and, if true, it almost invariably means that the answer to the second question is "yes."  If the answer to the second question is a "no," then I think we're getting into the territory of unnecessary production and perhaps again into reasonable claims that the production is an attempt to mask songwriting inadequacies. 

In the case of Christian Lucifer, I think the songs' core arrangements could certainly stand alone, but when it comes to the orchestral part-writing, things are often a little muddy and parts do come across as unnecessary because they're in another instrument's register, doubling numerous other instruments rhythmically, or there's simply so much sound happening that things are lost.  Now, the "dense sound" school of thought has advantages when it comes to tonal color and the creation of a thick-yet-subtle sound monolith, but to achieve the proper balance is to toe a very thin line.  My criticism of this album's orchestrations is similar to the beef I have with a lot of arrangements I hear in new music--the heavy blanket of sound seems to be there because "it seemed like a good idea" and because strings etc. seem to add drama and class just by dint of being included.  Rather than imbuing each part with an individual sense of purpose and pursuing the potential for melodic enhancement, development, or counterpoint, the orchestrations float like a vague, noodly cloud above and around the guitar/vocal core, never really managing to achieve the sort of integration into the actual structure of the song that seems to me to be the ultimate ideal of including such lush instrumentation. 

What the production sacrifices in space and well-developed intent it gains partially back with a sense of gravitas and cohesiveness in mood.  It helps that Leopold wrote a few really good melodies for his songs and includes some memorable hooks, partially obscured as they may be at times.  "The Starewell" includes a surprising minor/major change with an almost Cat Stevens-like verse sound, also including some of the most rhythmic/energetic dynamism of the album, while "The Anunciation" boasts a great vocal arrangement that effectively juxtaposes double-tracked recordings of Leopold's thick baritone (which somehow reminds me a little of Tom Rush's).  While I generally prefer either a bit more instrumental verve (Pete Fine's On a Day of Crystalline Thought, in spite of its hippie-dippyness) or just a bit more sophistication in arrangement and integration of orchestration (Tudor Lodge), Christian Lucifer is always a pleasant and relaxing listen with a lot to discover with repeated spins--it's neither the most psychedelic lost acid folk gem nor the most instrumentally engaging, but it's popularity with other aficionados attests to the passion and authenticity of Leopold's personal expression.

Tune in next time for a contrasting example of singer/songwriter orchestral integration that I think is really well-done. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bert Jansch - Avocet

In observance of Bert Jansch's passing yesterday, I think it's fitting to feature what's probably my favorite Bert Jansch album, 1979's Avocet.  Though Bert had already flirted with pure instrumentals on his solo albums, as far as I know Avocet is his only all-instrumental album.  While it may not get the attention Bert's earlier solo records generated, I think it's a fine showcase for Bert's abilities as a guitarist as well as a composer, and a sort of detour I always wish he would have pursued further on other albums.

The lengthy title track occupies the first side of the album and is thus its centerpiece.  It's easy to realize right away that this is what music critics love to call a "pastoral" album (I wouldn't be surprised to hear the words "very British" either).  The focus, of course, is on Jansch's fingerpicked acoustic guitar, supported by all-around double bass badass Danny Thompson and English folk journeyman Martin Jenkins on violin, flute, mandolin and mandocello (don't get to hear that one very often), who often carries the songs' melodic burden.  Jansch's playing is typically beautiful, seamlessly superimposing arpeggios, single-note lines and multi-string leads on top of his characteristic Travis picking.  I'm always struck by how understated yet impressive Jansch's playing is when viewed close-up; it doesn't sound like he's showing off, but the amount of string bending, pattern-changing and fluid stylistic variation is constant and awesome in its scope.  "Avocet" meanders gently through its many parts, providing plenty of melody to anchor the musicianship--though it's not the most focused extended instrumental, it manages to weave a recurring melody across major/minor subsections that span folk, jazz and more of a renaissance flavor before gently coming to rest with Jansch's uniquely mellow-yet-somehow-violent plucking.

Call me a rogue, but the album's second side sounds even better to my ears--the shorter song lengths seem to lend themselves to more distinctive structures.  "Lapwing" transcends Jansch's rudimentary piano technique to deliver a pensive minor melody, while "Bittern" introduces a hypnotic, swaying waltz melody and showcases Thompson's righteous bass skills (I can't decide if he's simply an awesome bassist, or it's just that he's miked hotter than most, or [more likely] both).  Things get jazzy on the darker "Kingfisher," which features some of the album's more surprising chord changes.  The 5/4 time of "Osprey" and the lush lyricism and guitar/mandolin doubling "Kittewake" close the album at its most melodic, proving that, though the title and mood of the disc connote nature documentary background music, there's more than enough substance here to justify close listening.  After reacquainting my ears with these songs, I think Avocet is a fitting representation of Bert Jansch the musician--unassuming and humble, yet full of complex and effortless beauty--you just have to take the time to pay attention.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Band - Music From Big Pink

When it comes to The Band, Music From Big Pink is simultaneously the most obvious and most misleading place to start.  For a group that most writers describe with a heavy dose of historical context and mythology, it can be difficult to separate both the association with Bob Dylan that preceded this album and the widespread fame and musical accomplishments to come from the actual music contained herein.  After long years of fandom and complete subsumption into these sounds (The Band's first three albums still sit firmly atop my iTunes play count list) I find it a little easier to bracket the legendry and approach the music directly, which has in turn led to an odd sort of historical contextualization in my own mind.

Part of the reason I've chosen to review Music From Big Pink is that I've recently spent an inordinate number of keystrokes bitching about musicians not working hard enough to make music that is completely unprecedented when, in fact, I don't believe that that's the only valid approach to music-making.  Case in point, The Band--sure, they laid down some undeniably innovative songs and sounds (though it's arguable that it was a little easier to innovate within a roots rock context back in 1968), but really their genius lies in those pedestrian virtues of group interplay, emotional delivery and great songwriting.  Such is the individual instrumental idiosyncrasy and group chemistry of each band member that even their worst albums are at least pleasant listens, and at their best, hearing Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm rotate in between lead and backing vocals, and hearing everyone swap instruments with carefree abandon to serve each song becomes a dizzying and rapturous spectacle.  Naturally, it helps that the songs are uniformly great--Dylan/Manuel's "Tears of Rage" becomes a New Orleans dirge when Manuel's Canadian Ray Charles falsetto and Danko's aching harmony blends with a weepy horn arrangement, while Manuel's own "Lonesome Suzie" puts Manuel's pathos center stage but wryly winds into a pickup line by the song's end.

The group also betrays a budding interest and capable hand at country and folk on "I Shall Be Released," "The Weight," and a definitive version of "Long Black Veil," which the group immeasurably elevates with the addition of electric piano and the multi-textured combination of Rick Danko's mournful lead with Helm's twang and Manuel's ethereal top third.  This is exactly what I'm talking about--if you're this good at simple melody, harmony and straightforward songwriting, why would you even feel the need to subvert the basic principles of pop music-making?  The problem is, the vast pack of songwriters and performers (both past and present) attempting to achieve transcendence with these simple elements just don't have the knack, the ear, or the equipment to pull it off and end up blending genially but forgettably with the rest.  There are very good reasons why a song like "The Weight" never sounds as good note-for-note on The Band cover albums, without Danko's quivering, that thunderous Danko/Helm bottom and Garth Hudson's all-penetrating class on those honky-tonk octave piano runs (Hudson, by the way, just might be the group's musical linchpin, somehow molding his erudite classical and jazz chops with the rest of the group's self-trained abilities so effortlessly that it's easy to forget that most in his position can't overcome the rigidity of their academic training). 

The songs that really sustain my fascination these days, though, are the gnarled, weird ones--the pseudo-Baroque psychedelic dreamland of "In A Station," the reeling melancholy and bluesy escapism of "Caledonia Mission," and especially the lurching transitions between pounding rock and some some kind of drunken, swinging R&B or jazz on "We Can Talk" and "Chest Fever," the latter of which unites Hudson's icy classical Lowrey organ tones with some of the album's funkiest riffing before the aforementioned teetering interlude.  With all of the genre blending, strange musical cul-de-sacs and weirdness, I'm tempted to even refer to this music as progressive in a very literal sense.  Across the board, the group's (and Dylan's) lyrics perfectly match the album's off-kilter tendencies, combining religious and rural imagery with fragmented, hazy narratives--never quite telling a whole story, but choosing just the right words to evoke endless speculation and fascination--and somehow the skills of the three talented but discretely idiosyncratic vocalists overcome the sketchiness of the words to create authentic emotional depth, every single time.

As I mentioned earlier, I've personally come to view this album in a historical context different from the received narrative; for me, the most engaging progression between The Band's albums is the creative one, in which Music From Big Pink occupies a totally unique place.  While mid-career (and especially nowadays) The Band became known for reassembling an appealingly anachronistic vision of "Americana" in a rock music context, there was a time before the formula that would later limit the group was standardized and the songwriting and playing was considerably more impulsive.  If there's one endearing flaw to The Band's music, it's got to be Robbie Robertson's tendency toward a slightly academic, contrived feel when it comes to his attempts to imagine himself into old-timey America, which I think pops up quite often and became a songwriting crutch later in his time with The Band, especially as the songwriting workload became increasingly his responsibility.  With Music From Big Pink, though, there's a sense of innocence and freshness in the approach that arguably exists only on this album (and maybe on The Basement Tapes).  In spite of years of experience professionally touring, the group was on its maiden voyage as a project imbued with creative vision, and their lack of exposure and the album's long creative gestation made for a wholly eccentric debut.  I think it's this fact coupled with the bizarre mix of Dylan's influence, country, soul, folk, rock, beat poetry and searching that make Music From Big Pink The Band's least accessible album.  Before critics and the public consistently (if somewhat quietly) applauded the album's merits and the group decided to continue further down the nostalgic rural America avenue on their second album, there was just a group of musicians who realized that they could do anything they wanted with the songs they were writing and playing.  It really shows in the fact that the songs are uncompromisingly quirky, but the guys play them like they really mean it.  As the group's tenure progressed, this freshness and excitement was gradually replaced by a workmanlike attempt to recreate the elements about their most-loved songs, and while they repeatedly succeeded in creating deeply resonant, emotional music, they never again reached this album's peaks of unspoilt spontaneity of vision.