Wednesday, 23 February 2011

You may recognize yourself, or someone you know, in this this infrequent field resource and spotting guide on concert sociology – the Taxonomy of Rock.

Medicinae Saltator — Dance of Drugs (Acid Dancer)

Medicinae Saltator, or acid dancer, is that guy — and 99% of the time it is a guy — whose dancing, while without hint of self-consciousness (and I do have to give him credit for that part) is a mix between drunken stumbling and the flailing of a person drowning. Even with careful observation it is difficult to discern the rhythm, or even the song, to which he is grooving.

It should be noted that, despite the pharmaceutical base to the genus name, not all acid dancers are drug users. Encountered in the wild, most are harmless, even those under the influence of chemical enhancements. However, close proximity to the medicinae saltator is difficult as most exude a pungent oder, commonly a mix of patchouli, body oder, and clove cigarettes or marijuana.

Given the medicinae saltator’s extemporaneous and unpredictable movements, their lack of awareness for their own surroundings, and limited personal space found in a typical concert environment, the greatest danger in MS encounters comes from the occasional trodden foot or other minor jostling. Examples of normal MS habits can be found in film/video footage from The Woodstock Encounter of 1969 or Grateful Dead shows from 1966-present.

The greatest risk from the medicinae saltator does not stem from a normal concert environment, but rather uncontrolled social gatherings that can quickly degenerate into a tympana circulo, or a hippie drum circle.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A new installment of my infrequent series on concert sociology — a spotting guide for the concert-going public. It’s possible you will recognize someone you know, or perhaps yourself, in this field resource.

Altus Quinque – High-Five Guy

When a performer so much as approaches the edge of the stage, Altus Quinque — high-five guy — is right there, arm aloft, hoping for a handshake, fist-bump, or other minor acknowledgement from the band.

Altus Quinque shows little concern for the personal space or discomfort of other concert-goers and will reach through any available gap to attain his goal. Fledgeling AQs may exhibit more reserved tendencies, but they are quickly outgrown and easily overcome through regular use of intoxicants or other mood-altering substances.

While stage proximity is important for proper completion of a high-five, the AQ’s sense of distance grows less accurate over time. Field research shows that Altus Quinque will extend their fore-limbs from lengths in excess of 50 feet in a quest for even the slightest contact with someone in the band.

There is a particular sub-species that is driven to reach out during the performance, usually between songs, but occasionally during them. Gentle admonitions may prevent them from becoming an annoyance, however their short-term memory is lacking and they will quickly resume their gadfly-like behavior.

AQs are presumed to be asexual as there is no known female of the species, although actual reproductive habits are unknown. In its natural concert habitat, high-five multiplies spontaneously, much like wire coat-hangers on a closet floor.

Not known to be immediately dangerous, small injuries may result from repeated contact with Altus Quinque. The back of the skull, upper shoulders, and head coverings are most at-risk as the AQ’s sense of space and situational awareness are not typically attuned to their surroundings.

Spotting Altus Quinque in the wild is more difficult at sit-down concerts; club shows offering easier stage-front access than more more formal venues, however you will find high-five guy any time there is live music.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

So far we’ve discussed cover songs that are loving recreations, near tributes, of their originals, and total renovations, veritable gut and rebuilds, of their counterparts. But I believe there’s more to consider.

Of Standards, Revivalists, and Composers

In any conversation about music, I will usually find a way to bring it around to this next band: Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. (See. It took three installments, but I still got it there.) Ms. Smith and company have three albums that I listen to so often the CDs may very well wear out yet they blow me away every time. The band does splendid versions of old Jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s. Does that mean they do cover albums or have the songs themselves grown beyond cover status?

These are no mere knock-offs. Even if the songs themselves are classics, there’s a huge amount of work that goes into creating a new arrangement. Having a certain appreciation for big-band Jazz, it’s easy for me to see that. On the other hand, they hold a certain place in my life that makes me think of them as more than mere standards either.

Another example would be “Mack the Knife.” It was originally written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for the 1928 Berlin premier of their music drama Die Dreigroschenoper. Mark Blitzstein translated it to English in 1954 for The Threepenny Opera. Louis Armstrong introduced the 1954 translation to the hit parade in 1956. Bobby Darin recorded his own version in 1959 and it is this recording that most people know. Since that time it has charted more than 100 times, so which, if any, are covers? Did Darin do a cover of the Armstrong version? Was Armstrong’s version a cover Brecht/Weill original? What if I recorded my own rendition and released it today? Would it be a cover? Of whose version? If not, where in the intervening 55+ years did they stop being covers and what are they now?

So when do new renditions of a song grow, perhaps even graduate, from being a cover into standard? What makes something like “Mack the Knife” a standard where “Hallelujah” is not? It may have something to do with copyright, but I think a bigger factor is longevity.

These days we have more music being released than ever before. That’s not saying there’s a wider variety, just larger quantities. Much of it won’t be with us in 50 or 100 years. Heck, even 20 years will be pushing it. This issue isn’t limited to songs from the last 5-10 years either. I graduated high school in 1985 and listened to a lot of 80’s music. While I’ll always have a certain fondness, not all of it has held up that well. For every New Order, there’s at least 5 Flock of Seagulls.

So you can see that, like much in present-day society, modern music isn’t built to last. It’s largely disposable; meant to be consumed rather than savored and enjoyed. Many current-era bands, and ever their songs, sound the same. It’s more about selling, not the next big thing, just the next thing. Most of the songs mentioned in parts one and two would have to be included in “modern music” and who knows how long they’ll be around either. Will I still care about them as anything other that curiosities 5 years from now?

Rod Stewart, has had a minor resurgence in his career recording four albums straight from the American Songbook. He’s continued along those same lines with two more albums of covers, one of rock classics and one containing soul and Motown classics. One of his early hits, “Downtown Train,“ was a cover song, the original having been done by Tom Waits.

That just goes to show that you can’t take any old song, create a new version, and have people identify with it. The original has to bring some juice of it’s own. There must have been some base popularity in the original song, something that makes it recognizable years later. Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin all created songs that are timeless. These are the songs that Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughn, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat “King” Cole, and Tony Bennet (to this day) made their living from.

You don’t even need to go back that far to find songs and bands that have that same kind of staying power. Just look at acts such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and many many more.

What about bands that are best thought of as revivalists? There have been others, but two stand-outs would have to be Sha Na Na and the Blues Brothers.

Sha Na Na formed in 1969 and brought back 1950s doo-wop through concerts, an appearance in the movie Grease, and their own TV show (1977-1981). The lineup has changed, but they’re still performing today with three of the original members. I remember them best from the TV show and, for a time, hoped to grow up to be Bowser. I don’t know that they did any original songs, but they made a career out of nostalgia, drawing from songs that are near and dear to most Baby Boomers.

The Blues Brothers began their “mission from God” in a 1976 Saturday Night Live skit and turned into a glorious, loving tribute to the blues, soul, and R&B music from the 1950s and 1960s. Not to be missed (and really, is anyone not familiar with these?) are their versions of “Soul Man” and “Rubber Biscuit.” Whether you consider their work an homage or mere send-up, there are many people who wouldn’t have explored the music of Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, and many, many, others.

What if a songwriter pens the tune for someone else, then later does it themselves? Take the glam rock anthem “All the Young Dudes,” arguably a classic. It was originally written by David Bowie and recorded by Mott the Hoople on their 1972 album of the same name. In 1973 Bowie started doing the song on tour, and his studio recording was finally, although unofficially, released in 1994. ( See note below.)

Are any of these groups cover artists? The answer isn’t so easy for me. Surely, at some point, songs go from originals and covers and evolve into standards. That brings us back to the longevity question I touched on earlier. If your grandparents listened to it, there’s a good chance it’s a standard. If the original performer, the one who made it famous, is dead, it’s probably a standard. If Frank, Tony, Sarah, Sammy, or Nat did the song, it’s practically guaranteed to be a standard.

Ultimately does it really matter? Probably not. But, once in a while, give me a good cover, if it’s all the same to you. Something that is new and, at the same time, a old familiar friend.

† My original example was going to be Barry Manilow instead of Bowie/Mott the Hoople. It should have been easy. Here’s a guy that has written hundreds of songs for other musicians and has a thriving career of his own spanning more than 30 years and over 21 albums – and that’s not counting the live albums and his series of Greatest Songs of the… releases. I couldn’t find a single instance where he a) wrote the song, b) for someone else, c) and later recorded it himself. That was a huge surprise. In fact, most of his hits as a performer were written by someone else and his hits as a songwriter were almost exclusively performed by others.

‡ Some reference/research information for this series from Wikipedia, allmusic, and several friends.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Last time we talked about cover songs that were loving reproductions of the originals. Whether you see them as tributes or knock-offs, the power of a good cover is undeniable. In this part we’ll delve into covers that are total renovations, for better or worse, of the versions done by their original artists. Second in my three part series on cover songs.

Total Renovations

As the name implies, total renovations are when the coverer makes the song completely their own. It’s possible you may recognize the song but only just barely, often because the melody is the only thing left in tact with everything else having been reworked. The typical reaction is “Hey, isn’t this…?”

My first offering is quite possibly the weirdest cover in the renovation class: New York electro/glam group Scissor Sisters’ disco version of “Comfortably Numb” (original by Pink Floyd.) You might say that Pink Floyd covered one or two of their own songs. Not that the radio version of “Another Brick In the Wall” is a happy-go-lucky little tune, but it’s decidedly more upbeat than what was in the movie (The Wall). However they never went disco and the Scissor Sisters rendition is every bit as bizarre as you might think, hence the special fondness for it.

There’s an amazing version of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” done by Nina Gordon. It bears but a passing resemblance to the original, and that’s only because they’re the same words. But that’s where the similarity ends. Gordon turns it into a totally different song. The lead-in gives it a pretty, almost sing-song vibe; then she lays into the first line “Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf*!#er named Ice Cube.” Not at all what you’d expect. There was a time when I could recite the lyrics, learned exclusively from her version.

Two songs come to mind as the epitome of the total renovation type of cover. They are both stunning, practically hallowed in their ability to transform the originals into something new, into things of beauty.

First would have to be Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” from his album American IV: The Man Comes Around (the original was released as a single by Nine Inch Nails.) Overall Cash’s rendition uses the lyrics straight-up from the radio version with one notable exception: “crown of shit” is changed to “crown of thorns,” but otherwise it’s right on.

Where the Nine In Nails original comes across as somewhat angry about the state of the world and frustrated , Cash’s is more remorseful about where his life has been and the video for the song only seems to reinforce the feeling of regret and sorrow. NIN’s front-man Trent Reznor has said “…that song isn’t mine any more…” in reaction to Cash’s remake and the corresponding video.

You wouldn’t normally consider a song of heartache and regret in the cover, or of outrage and fury in the original, to be things of beauty. Listen to both versions back to back. Compare them for yourself. Knowing what we do of Cash’s life, just listening to it, concentrating on the words, is enough to make you cry. May we never know such sorrow in our own lives.

American IV also has a remake of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” that’s pretty spectacular too, although it’s closer to the original than “Hurt.” That’s mostly due to the twang guitar in Depeche Mode’s version that Cash replicates, to a degree, in his.

My second example that embodies the total renovation cover is “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley. The Leonard Cohen original was less sung and performed more in a murmur; hebetudinous, somewhat dispassionate, almost impersonal. Conversely Buckley created what many consider the definitive version. He took the song to new heights, creating a rendition that was at the same time sorrowful and a celebration of sexual release.

“Hallelujah” has been covered by more than 200 artists including Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake, John Cale, k. d. lang, and Bob Dylan. Cohen himself has said that there are many different hallelujahs depending upon the performer. But out of all those versions, by all of those artists, it is still the Jeff Buckley interpretation that stands out. His cover is, in my mind, the perfect song. It may as well have been the entire reason the music business came into existence.

Long time favorite band Tears for Fears released the song “Mad World” in 1982. It was originally intended as a B-side for their second single, “Pale Shelter,” but was held back to release on it’s own. It proved to be their first international single, although it didn’t really chart in the U.S.

Some 20 years later Gary Jules and Michael Andrews recorded a version for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. Their recording gained a cult following that prompted them to release it as a proper single in 2003 that became a runaway hit. Where the Tears for Fears original was a steady-moving synth-pop song that expresses a certain frustration with a world as seen through teenage eyes, the Jules/Andrews remake was rendered bare with just piano, cello, and the vocals comes off as somewhat languid, almost despondent. The song received a second or third wind when it was featured during the 2008 season of American Idol.

I am somewhat torn between the two seemingly disparate versions of “Mad World,” never quite knowing what to make of either of them. It seems that whenever one version comes on, I feel as though the other is what I’d rather listen to at the time.

Some cover songs can come from the most surprising places.

Take, for example, “Blinded by the Light.” Originally written in 1973 by Bruce Springsteen, it appeared on his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. Unfortunately, the song pretty much went nowhere. The Boss’s version is a pretty straight up rock-n-roll tune that sounds exactly like you’d expect an early Bruce Springsteen song.

That’s right – the Manfred Mann version that everyone knows is actually a cover. The 1977 remake starts with the chorus, then goes pretty much straight through the song, but is augmented by a lengthy bridge and significant keyboard part. Listening to them both, side by side, I’ll take the Manfred Mann version any day – sorry Boss.

Special mention goes to the Puppini Sisters, whom are best described as a modern-day Andrews Sisters. They even do a spot-on rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Their first album contains versions of “Jeepers Creepers,” “Mr. Sandman,” and “Sisters;” all of which are practically required for a close-harmony group. You would think that puts them solidly in the loving reproduction class, but that’s not what draws me to them. Their retro arrangements of more modern songs such as “Panic” (The Smiths), “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor – wow!), and, my favorite, “Heart of Glass” (Blondie) are truly amazing.

In the third and final installment we’ll dig into songwriters and composers, standards, a couple revivalists, and what makes a good cover song.

Wednesday, 07 April 2010

I’m about to confess a dirty little secret that may damage my credibility as a semi-professional music appreciator — self-proclaimed though it may be — but I’m tired of hiding it. I love a good cover song. Heck, who am I kidding? They don’t even have to be good. As long as they are unique or interesting in some way, I can’t resist them.

What is a cover song? A cover song, or cover version, is a new recording or performance of a song that was released previously recorded and commercially released by someone else. Simply put, a cover song is a remake.

The term cover song was originally coined, likely as a pejorative, in reaction to record label practices at the time. In an attempt to cash in on another label’s success, some companies would hire their own band to create a sound-alike version. They would even resort to deceptive packaging to make people think they were getting the real thing and not some cheap knock-off.

But I believe that cover songs have grown beyond their questionable, even seedy, beginnings. Judge not a cover song simply because it mimics another, but give it room to grow, to come into its own. Modern covers should be looked upon as tributes to the original songs or artists, worthy of consideration in their own right.

Fundamentally there are two varieties of cover songs: loving reproductions and total renovations. Each type has it’s own appeal and I have several favorites in both groups. In this series I’ll cover those two types and offer some observations on what makes a good cover song, as well as songs that have arguably become standards.

Loving Reproductions

In the realm of cover songs, loving reproductions are where the coverer (the band doing the new rendition) makes their version sound as much like the original (the coveree’s) as they can.

Obviously there are allowances for male vs. female singers and slight changes in instrumentation, but the point in loving reproductions is that the new version identifies strongly with the original. You’re meant to immediately recognize it. You may even think you’re listening to the original until you finally decide that it doesn’t sound quite right.

First up is Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which was covered by José González. The two versions are nearly identical. Same beat. Same tempo. Same words. Even González’s voice seems to mimic Elizabeth Frasier’s (formerly with Cocteau Twins) from the Massive Attack original. It’s as though González did a stripped down, acoustic rendition of the song. Something thing I find interesting: other artists have done covers of the José González version, notably Newton Faulkner – sparse yet quite lovely – and pop/jazz-pop singer Jamie Cullum, who sometimes does the song at his concerts. So are these covers of covers, or are they just similarly styled remakes of the original?

These next two are a bit interconnected. First is Shawn Colvin’s rendition of “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and the second is Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” reworked by Gnarls Barkley. Both stick fairly close to the original, overall, however they don’t hold equal appeal to me. Colvin’s stunning remake comes off as folksy, while the Gnarls Barkley cover is slightly tigher, but nearly note compared with the Femmes’ original. Colvin did something with the song, where Gnarls Barkley phoned it in. Now, this could be that I listened to the Femmes’ in high-school and somehow identify with it more and am resistant to seeing it messed with. I also have a thing for female singers in general and Shaun Colvin in particular.

At the risk of going a bit obscure, one my favorite female voices, Sia Furler, does a version of “Under the Milky Way” by The Church. It’s nearly identical to the original, but with Sia’s voice in place of Steve Kilby’s. I like The Church. I like Sia. I love this cover. It could easily be another thing about voices, but I don’t care. Next time she’s in town I hope she’ll do this song.

But why would anyone bother doing a cover if they’re just going to copy the original? Why would anyone care to listen?

I think that sometimes we just want something different, but not too different. Like a fresh coat of paint that’s the same color as before. A change of voice, a tweak in the arrangement, a new outlook on an old favorite.

Next time we’ll make a break for it with total renovations.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

I’m going to get this out of the way early: Abbey Road is not my choice for 1969. While it has some good songs (“Octopus’s Garden,” “Come Together,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer;” it just doesn’t strike me as strong of an album as some of their others. If you ask me, their best albums came out before I was born. 1968’s the The White Album was great, with many memorable songs, but 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night has some of the sweetest, most touching tracks; “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her,” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” being personal favorites.

It was also the last year they performed together in public.

But I’m not here to talk about the Beatles illustrious career, nor years past. I’m here to delve into the music of 1969 and my favorite album for the year.

Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album was released; Vickie Jones was arrested after a concert performance where she did a spot-on impersonation of Aretha Franklin (DO NOT mess with the Queen); The Who’s rock opera, Tommy made its debut; Chicago released their first album; Eric Burdon & War formed; Brian Jones died; Elvis Presley returns to live performance with shows in Vegas; the Jackson 5 make their album debut; Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, The Doobie Brothers, and Judas Priest all form. And if that isn’t enough, we can’t forget those three little days in August: Woodstock.

1969 gave us what was quite possibly the first super-group: Blind Faith. While you can’t deny the potential in bringing Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Ginger Baker together, their singular, self-titled album just doesn’t have anything that truly stuck with me after hearing it. There’s nothing there that I look back and think “I’ve got to hear that again.”

Genesis released their first album, “From Genesis to Revelation” in 1969. Many regard their early work, while Peter Gabriel was in the band, their best work. However I think my favorite of theirs came later, in the Phil Collins years, even though I think Collins ruined the band in the end. Peter Gabriel did better work as a solo act, so Genesis doesn’t get the nod this year.

The Jackson 5 released their first album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. It’s got a couple good songs, but it was largely cover songs and was kind of a disappointment for me. ABC is a much better album, so I’ll hold out for that.

I have to note Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone, if only for the songs “Everyday People” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” Both classics and that I can never get enough of.

For me the best album of the year is In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. It was their debut album, and is probably the strongest album ever to come out of the progressive rock genre. My favorite rock guitarist, Adrian Belew, didn’t join King Crimson until later, but I won’t hold that against the album.

All of that said, how can I pick a mere album, a single recording, as the most influential music event of 1969. Clearly that honor must go to Woodstock.

Surprised? Really?

Woodstock was, quite possibly, the single greatest concert event ever. With a lineup including Janis Joplin, CNSY, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Johnny Winter (with Edgar!), Richie Havens, and the Grateful Dead, how can you go wrong? And that’s only half of the bands that were there. Even Sha-Na-Na was there!

OK, so the Sha-Na-Na thing might be pushing it a tiny bit. <grin>

Even the list of who didn’t show up is big: Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson didn’t like hippies), The Doors (Jim Morrison didn’t like large outdoor venues), Led Zeppelin (they didn’t want to be “just another band” on the bill), Bob Dylan (his son was sick – and there were too many hippies outside his house), among others.

There was rain, skinny dipping, mud, storms, more nakedness, free love, and a couple songs thrown in for good measure.

The original plan was for 50,000 people on 300 acres, but the Wallkill town board declined to issue the necessary permits. A little finagling and they were able to rent 600 acres from Mr. Yasgur. Somewhere along the line it grew to nearly 200,000 people, but some 500,000 showed up. Half a million people!

For its time, the engineering requirements were off the charts. 16 loudspeaker arrays, some of which were over 6 feet tall and weighed more than a half-ton. 2000 amps coming from 3 generators behind the stage to power it all.

I could go on, but so many before me have done so much better. I don’t know that anything will ever come close to those 3 days of peace, love, and music in the summer of ’69.

Tuesday, 06 January 2009

It’s been a while since I posted an installment of My Life In Music. Since I’ve been writing a lot of new stuff lately, and finishing up some old ones, I thought it was high time for the next chapter: 1968.

1968 brought us the formation of Yes, Rush, The Carpenters, Led Zeppelin. Warren Zevon also started his musical career that year, and we saw Janis Joplin start her solo career after parting ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company. The Monkees ended their TV run after 58 episodes, the Beatles formed their record company, Apple Corps, Ltd., Gibson Guitar patented the Flying V design,and the musical Hair launched on Broadway.

But we’re here to talk about the music itself, not the comings and goings. And there’s quite a bit to talk about.

Let’s start with The Transformed Man by William Shatner. Yes, Capt. Kirk put out an album. It was a terrible mix of Shakespeare and pop lyrics. George Cloony once cited the album as a Desert Island Album — for its motivational qualities — “If you listen to [this song], you will hollow out your own leg and make a canoe out of it to get off this island.”

1968 also brought Bookends by Simon and Garfunkle. Notable for the songs “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and the unforgettable “Mrs. Robinson.”

Generally regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, The White Album from the Beatles was released that year. And who could argue? Beatles classics like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Dear Prudence,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Martha My Dear, “ “Blackbird,” “Julia,” “Birthday,” and “Helter Skelter” were all on this one. That’s a ton of great songs, many of which are my favorite Beatles tunes. Yet it’s still not my top pick for 1968.

Now, you might think I’m about to call out Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison as my choice for 1968 Album of the Year, and with good reason. The album, recorded at Folsom Prison (funny how that works), is quite possibly the best of Cash’s career. The title song, although recorded for an earlier release, leads off this one, and the album includes Cash’s well known renditions of a couple songs “Jackson” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

But, alas, no.

For me it’s Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos (Walter, at the time). S-OB, as the title implies, contains a selection of J. S. Bach compositions performed entirely on a Moog synthesizer. While they are fairly common by today’s standards, it was a pretty rare thing in 1968. Even for one song. Even as a background instrument for a single song. To record a whole album, where it’s the only instrument, it was completely unheard of. Yet there it is.

S-OB was reviled by some, but others were excited by the virtuosity in the work and recognized it for how groundbreaking it was. The album sold far better than anyone expected, and spawned a rash of synth albums — many just copycat renditions of redone classical works.

You have to give Switched-On Bach, and Wendy Carlos, a lot of credit. If it hadn’t been for Carlos and this single album, I don’t know that we’d have any electronic music today. You simply can’t deny the influence of a single work from which an entire musical genre is born.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Other than my Aunt Cheryl (a Lutheran pastor) and my Dad’s folks, mine are not a particularly religious people. We don’t go to church or practice any religion – at least not formally. Yet we say grace at holiday gatherings, mainly Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

It’s as if begging alone will guarantee a good spot in the hereafter.

At Grandpa Armstrong’s it was usually up to either my brother or me to say grace. I was terrible at ad-libbing prayers since we didn’t get much practice at home, so I always stuck with an old, childhood favorite:

God is great, God is good Let us thank Him for this food, Amen.

One time I accidentally – ACCIDENTALLY – flipped the middle line “Let Him thank us for this food” and got away with it, but that was rare. Grandma Armstrong had a great sense of humor except when it came to The Almighty. Prayer was to be taken seriously. You played it straight and didn’t take chances if you knew what was good for you.

At Grandma Bertula’s it was a different matter entirely. Grandma herself was pretty dour, but the rest of us were a fun-loving bunch. Jocularity and good-natured ribbing were de rigeur and pretty much nothing was off limits.

That extended all the way to saying grace; a task normally reserved for “the kids.” My Mother and Brother were spared, which meant it was up to Uncle Ray, Aunt Mary, and me. Ray did the honors when he was in town, and I’d pick up the slack when he wasn’t.

We had two classics, I’m not sure where Ray came up with them, but they were like well-worn friends. The first beautiful in and almost artfully minimalist:

Grace.

That was it. After that he’d dig right in and you’d miss the stuffing if you weren’t paying attention. The other, extravagant by comparison, was probably my favorite:

Rub a dub dub Thanks for the grub Yay God!

Every year Grandma Bertula acted annoyed, but I think it was all an act. Truthfully, I think she secretly enjoyed it. She’d smile, kind of sheepishly, and exclaim “Oh, Ray!”

My Uncle Ray and Aunt Cindy were visiting her family one year, so I was asked to do the honors. I didn’t dare look at Grandma because, she had this face she’d make. The disapproval face. In spite of our family’s long-running, if irreverent, tradition, she expected something more traditional. Somehow I just knew. So I just bowed my head, took a slight pause for dramatic effect, and said:

Clap your hands and stamp your feet Praise the Lord! Good God, let’s eat!

I remember getting a “Michael!” from someone, possibly Mom. I couldn’t tell if Grandma was more shocked or amused, although I did catch her stifling a smile. Either way I just beamed; I hadn’t chickened out and had pulled it off.

After all, if you can’t have fun with your family, you’re taking life far too seriously.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I’ve been a long time fan of Tom Waits. Huge fan. When he comes out with a new album, I have to get it on release day. He’s got a stunning vision that gives each song a life of its own.

And, because I’m a guy, I have a certain appreciation for Scarlett Johansson too. She’s a beautiful, talented actress. And her voice! I could listen to her speak all day.

Combine the two: Johansson doing covers of Tom Waits songs, and it should be a winning combination. How could I resist?

I wish I would have, because mere words cannot convey how disturbing this album turned out to be. The hackish cover-art should have been a clue, but I failed to heed its warning.

First, I should give her a bit of credit – due anyone who appreciates Waits’ sometimes quirky and challenging work. But that’s where it ends.

I don’t know who should get most of the blame for this, Johansson or the producer. The whole album has this vocoder/harmonizer quality to it. Kind of an auto-chorus thing, but not very well done.

On every song.

I’m not sure if it’s because they thought her voice wouldn’t stand up on its own, or for some stylistic reason, but it turned out to be a distraction.

Anywhere I Lay My Head opens with an instrumental piece, “Fawn” from (Alice, 2002), which takes the simple, almost weepy original and turns it into something akin to a song from an old-time revival meeting crossed with a noise band.

The album also has one original track “Song for Jo,” in which I can see the inspiration. The song isn’t bad, aside from the auto-chorus, and it’s one of the only high-points on the album.

She does put her own touch on “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” (Small Change, 1976), and largely pulls it off. With sparse instrumentation, it has a certain lilting quality to it that actually works with the production style. In fact, it’s exactly what you would expect given her persona and the album concept. Unfortunately the song comes too late in the album (#8) to overcome the bad taste left by the songs leading up to it.

The next track, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” (Bone Machine, 2002), takes on a Blondie-esque, almost disco quality, but not in a good way. Debbie Harry can pull off the sultry, sexy, husky thing, but Scarlett has a few years to go and needs some material that might lend itself to the task.

The title track, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” comes from 1985’s Rain Dogs, and the album contains a smattering of songs from all over Waits’ work. Alice (2002), Big Time (1988), Orphans (2006), Swordfishtrombones (1983), Small Change (1976), Real Gone (2004), and the previously mentioned Rain Dogs are all represented.

I wanted to like it. I really did. But in the end, this one goes on the list of albums I’m mildly ashamed to own. Scarlett Johansson fans will be disappointed; Tom Waits fans will be pissed off.

Wednesday, 01 October 2008

As I suspect will happen every year through this project, 1967 saw some big milestones in music. It was an important year in psychedelic rock with releases by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and more.

Several bands formed in 1967, among them Ted Nugent, George Clinton, Sly & the Family Stone, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Chicago, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Genesis.

1967 was the year of one of the most important concerts in music history – The Monterey Pop Festival – with the first major performances by Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, plus the first big American appearances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The concert was huge and became a template for future music festivals, including the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

As if those firsts weren’t enough, Monterey included performances by groups like Simon & Garfunkle, The Animals, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & the Papas, Ravi Shankar, and Grateful Dead. Truly a mix of international acts and a variety of music styles.

The Beatles didn’t do too bad in 1967, releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out as part of a double A-side single (“Penny Lane” was the other half) that year as well. The song raised the bar for what a pop record should be and it’s quite possibly the single-most influential songs they ever did.

Believe it or not the Bee Gees’, widely regarded as a Disco-era act, released their first album in 1967, called Bee Gees’ 1st, a decidedly psychedelic record.

Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow came out in 1967, with the Top 40 hits “Sombody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” I’ll admit, I prefer a cover version of “White Rabbit” that Blue Man Group did many years later. It’s probably the most often cited band and album when San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury counterculture comes up in discussion.

Lest we forget genres other than rock, we’ve got a couple each by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, plus releases from Taj Majal, Willie Bobo, Howlin’ Wolf, and B. B. King.

1967 also brought us The Doors self-titled, debut album, with classic-rock staples “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” and “Light My Fire.” This may be heresy, but I’ve never been a huge Doors fan. Still, I can’t argue with their influence on rock-n-roll and The Doors is an album every well-rounded collection should include.

It’s tempting to pick Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but it’s hard to know which version to choose. The US/Mexico release has several differences from the original UK version. “Red House” is on the UK release, but “Hey Joe” replaced it in the US. “Purple Haze” appears on the US version, as does “The Wind Cries Mary,” my favorite song from the album.

I’m going to have to go with The Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album is a hallmark for its experimental performance sensibilities, but was largely ignored when it was released. That may have been due, in part, to it’s controversial subject matter. Open discussion of things like sexual deviancy, S&M, prostitution, and drug abuse are hard to take now, let alone in 1967.

Today it’s one of the most influential and critically lauded albums in history.

To me it’s the those very same controversial subjects that make the The Velvet Underground and Nico such an important album too. Lou Reed wrote most of the lyrics on the album, but didn’t pick the topics for shock value. Instead, they were just a logical marriage of gritty subject matter and music.

The Velvet Underground is one of the few bands that I have consciously gone back to find as my musical interests grew more varied. I’ve always thought of them as an early punk group, but no matter how you slice it the importance of this album and it’s influence on so many to come along later is cannot be denied.