Friday, December 18, 2009

Marky's song #20: The Smiths – “Handsome Devil”

If you rounded up all the fans of the Smiths together, you’d have a lot of pretentious people all in the same spot chances are “Handsome Devil” would not be listed often as a favorite song of many. I’m not one for making lists like that (he says as he numbers each song he writes about), but if I were to sit down and ponder it, it probably wouldn’t be mine, either. It was never released as a single, and the only studio version of it that exists is a 1983 Peel Session that has appeared on various compilations.

The Smiths, as you probably know, were Morrissey on vocals, Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums (oh, excuse me, on the bass and the drums). They were also dynamite writers of guitar-centric pop. Sadly, they were also highly skilled at relegating their best songs to the b-sides of low run singles. According to various sources, it took an earnest plea from a Rough Trade executive to get “This Charming Man” released as a single (over “Reel Around The Fountain”). And of course, “How Soon Is Now?” was initially the b-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing” and wasn’t released as a single of its own until over half a year later, where previous band saturation caused the single to fall short of expectations.

All of the above has nothing to do with the song in question, but it does give you an immediate rejoinder when someone opines how the Smiths should have been bigger than they were and how unfair it was that such strong songwriting could have charted so poorly. They truly were their own worst enemies at some of the most inopportune times.

Anyway, cry me a river while wearing a hearing aid. The Smiths still wrote kick-ass songs even if they did go underappreciated. Me personally, I tend to like their faster songs (this post was almost about “Nowhere Fast”) better than their maudlin crawlers, and this one bristles with spiky punk energy.

Most people know this track through the compilation Hatful of Hollow. It’s not the best recording in the world – careful listeners will notice a pair of slight drop-offs in the source tape – but the rawness of the sound helps give it the snarl it needs and is a nice alternate to the slick production values that mark most Smiths songs. When Morrissey is at his lyrical best, it’s not because he’s providing great narrative or inventive wordplay, it’s because he drops wonderful and memorable sloganeering couplets. “Handsome Devil” is chock-a-block with them:

“I crack the whip and you skip / but you deserve it” – for those of you who are into that sort of thing, a little bit of sadomasochism. (There’s certainly more thrilling eroticism there than in a bitter middle-aged Canadian woman asking if your new girlfriend would go down on you in a theater.)

"A boy in the bush / is worth two in the hand / I think I can help you / get through your exams" – the crassness disqualifies it as being a come on, but it is the most sexually aggressive lyrics Morrissey has ever given us.

“Let me get my hands / on your mammary glands” – a unexpected gender flip that flummoxes the implicit homosexuality in... well, in pretty much everything Morrissey does.

And the final line, “there’s more to life than books, you know / but not much more” is pure platinum. There’s no way to tell whether it’s the tutor talking to the pupil, the pupil taking to the tutor, or just a throwaway line from the Moz as he steps out of the storyline. I guess ambiguity has always been a calling card for the Smiths.

Here's a live version (in a lower key) that accentuates the vocal and guitar lines better.


I believe this concludes my posting for the year 2009. I don't expect to have another one of these ready until after the new year. Have a safe Whatever You're Celebrating and see you all in Twenty-Ten.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Transmission Intermission.

Hey everyone, Marky Narc here. This is not a regular 500 Songs blog post, but a special gift from me to you. Instead of writing a "best of 2009" list, I decided to make you a mix of my favorite stuff in 2009 instead. Below is a link to a zip file that I spent the past week putting together. It should play in your mp3 player of choice, and included in the folder is a text file of the track listing just in case.

Astute folks might notice that there are a few songs on the list that technically aren't 2009. I give myself a little bit of leeway when it comes to stuff like this, mainly because I'm not a music journalist and I don't get any free promos. I have to obtain my music as a regular consumer like everyone else. And sometimes it takes a while to listen to what you've got. So forgive my creative license if a song or two don't actually qualify as '2009.'

I realize this mix is a bit lengthy - over 9000 ninety minutes of music - but take it in chunks if you need to. You like music, right? OF COURSE YOU DO! So download and enjoy.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Marky's song #19: DJ Spooky – "Optometry"

Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) really ought to go through his discography and put together an anthology. A double-CD package would be a great way to introduce him to newcomers as well as give fans an affordable condensed string of highlights. Actually, scratch that. Someone else should go through his discography and put together an anthology; I wouldn’t have faith in the artist himself to do it. As much as I love Spooky, he has not learned the fine art of how to self-edit.

Mind you, I have no reservations against recommending seeing him live. I once saw him put on a show in Cambridge, MA where he spun for almost three hours until they (literally) pulled the plug on him and turned on the venue lights. Take him out of the live setting, however, and he feels compelled to make the Big Artistic Statement and tends to get a little aimless piecing it all together.

Another example: I went to see his Rebirth of a Nation project, where he takes the film Birth of a Nation, chops it up into pieces and “remixes” it live with computer music backing. The music was great, but over two hours (never mind the original film is 190 minutes long) of seeing the same scenes over and over eventually lost its impact and I spent the last thirty minutes or so sitting there with my eyes closed.

This lack of focus becomes all the more maddening when he makes it click like this. “Optometry” comes from the album of the same name; it’s part of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, an attempted merging of jazz and electronics. It’s kind of a typical Spooky-and-his-Rolodex affair, where the DJ brings in all sorts of musical guests to give him some raw material for him to remix and reshape. Unfortunately, sticking Daniel Bernard Roumain, Pauline Oliveros and William Parker in a room together to make music only winds up proving that Roumain, Oliveros and Parker don’t have enough common ground on which to make compelling music. But wait a minute – are they really in the room together? And does it matter? This isn’t meant to be a 'live in the studio' album, no matter how much they might try to market this as modern jazz. Perhaps I shouldn’t criticize based merely on preconceived notions of how certain types of music are supposed to be made. Spooky’s authenticity (whatever that’s worth) isn’t at risk here. Besides, when Spooky gives us tracks like this, it's easy to forgive all prior transgressions.

DJ Spooky - "Optometry"

So let’s get down with our analytical selves, shall we?

A funky opening bass line fades in and is greeted by a drum (Billy Martin) and violin (Roumain) improvisation. It sounds like they’re going to lose the groove right off the bat, but don’t worry, they stay on task. Martin shifts back into the beat and is joined by piano (Matthew Shipp) upright bass (Parker) and sax (Joe McPhee).

When Spooky drops the spoken sample: “We’re going to do, now, something that has nothing to do with an arranged piece of music,” he really begins to work his magic. Ambient effects and drum loops (played forwards and backwards) are the background for other members to solo over. Players weave in and out and Spooky even does a little record scratching here and there. But my favorite part is at the 8:43 mark – with everyone’s solo out of their system, a snare roll snaps it back to the opening beat and bass, which fades out almost as quickly as it was dropped in. I kind of wish he would let it play longer, but that simply ain’t the way DJ Spooky rolls. The last couple minutes are devoted to another Martin and Roumain improvisation.

Every DJ Spooky album is good for a handful of serendipitous moments like these. If you're willing to sift through them, any album is worth checking out. I don't ever expect him to have a moment of clarity and release a classic album with all the fat trimmed off; Spooky has his own M.O. and he's happy to plug away, testing his own theories. The rest of us are just spectators.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Marky's song #18: Voivod – "Missing Sequences"

My biggest complaint against metal music, regardless of the qualifying prefix (speed-, nu-, hair-, etc.), is that there have always been too many bands. It pains me to say that, because I am a fan. But seriously, go request a printed catalog from Metal Disc – you’ll get a monstrosity in the mail boasting triple-digit pages with an uncountable number of indistinguishable bands you’ve never heard of before.

So the story of metal has been since time immemorial. There’s always been a glut of bands and a dearth of innovation. Sure, metal has mass working class appeal, but it’s still ultimately a conservative-minded genre. Doing what’s expected and nothing greater is a perfectly acceptable way to ply the trade. And as soon as one band strikes an ore vein with a strong fresh idea, an endless amount of copycat bands almost instantly pop up.

It’s part of the reason why I love mid-career Voivod as much as I do. They started out as a fairly pedestrian thrash band, but their sci-fi obsessions and deep interest in progressive rock blended together to form a truly original hybrid of forward-thinking metal. It took them a while to find their stride (the first three albums are patchy) and losing key members late in their career saw a decline in quality (avoid the albums that don’t include Denis Bélanger), but when they were on, their music can stand the tests of time.

In the late 80s and early 90s the band released a quartet of amazing albums. This track comes from the second of the four, Nothingface (released in 1989). It’s my personal favorite both for being the height of their creativity and the height of their experimentalism. The album saw them incorporate more electronic drum triggers (handled by drummer Michel Langevin) and guitar effects as well as an increased ability to write memorable melodies. Voivod is probably the only band that could make a couplet like “bauxite double bind / forgetful retry” stick in your head.

This song is about, uh, sequences that are missing, I guess. It’s not the lyrics I care about here – it’s the song structure. Basically it's just two long verses, one of my favorite compositional devices in metal (“Excoriating Abdominal Emanation” by Carcass is another excellent example of this concept). This particular track is club-sandwiched between an intro, a coda and a killer middle break. The verse itself has four distinct segments before moving to the break that I love so much.

“I did, I didn’t know / I think I should go … GO!” The guitar solo is short and backed only by the bass – this was the album where Voivod decided to eschew rhythm guitar tracks and let bassist Jean-Yves Thériault handle holding the harmonic background down. The apex of the song is right smack in the middle: those four chords that follow the solo are amazing; go back and listen to them again. Then it jumps into the second verse. Going through the cycle again and on to the closing section, you can tell a lot has happened, but it's all easy to separate into bite-sized chunks.

Progressive metal that isn't navel-gazing nor a chore to listen to. What a novel idea, right? If only there had been more bands at the time willing to push themselves as hard as Voivod did. For those who don't already know, Voivod guitarist Denis D'Amour succumbed to cancer in 2005 and the rest of the band pieced together a farewell album from unused studio tracks that was released earlier this year. Thanks for the music, guys. What a long, strange trip it's been.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Marky's song #17: Dion McGregor – "Vulvina"

Dion McGregor (1922-1994) was a somniliquist.

Dion McGregor - "Vulvina"

Check your wife at the door. Check your child at the door with your wife. This is for men only. Come in and see Vulvina! Now, you must ask her all the questions you want. Vulvina will answer all your sex questions. Now ... step right up. Tickets are only five dollars apiece. It's your one and only time to see Vulvina. Check your wife and child at the door. Come back, ladies ... come back, ladies. In an hour or two, Vulvina will have answered all his questions. Now, if you have any questions you wanna ask Vulvina, write them out and hand them to him. He will give them to Vulvina!

Now, at the end of this show -- at the end of this show, Vulvina will do something that no one has ever done before. And don't ask your husband until you get home and in bed tonight, ladies. Maybe you can do it! Hee-hee-heeee.

Okay! Okay! Okay! Tickets going! Tickets going! Five dollars a head! Five dollars a head! Form a little line right there, form a little line right there. Okay! Okay! Okay! Vulvina! Vulvina! They're coming in!

Hmmm -- five dollars? Too much ... too much, too much. Now honey, we can't afford five dollars. You wanna know? You can't go in. You want me to go in and report? Come on now -- what does this Vulvina know that we don't know? It's perfectly silly, perfectly silly. I don't care.

Hmph, and if ... she looks ugly. Look at that picture. What? My boss is prettier than she is. Look at that. She's just got one eyebrow -- it goes from ear to ear. I ... Honey, five dollars -- that's a terrible waste, to look at her. Mmm, well it certainly is. Tell you what -- let's go home and I'll give you the five dollars. That's it. It ... it's worth it.

You've got ... no, now come on. You wanna know what she does there at the end? Oh, alright. Well, you wait there ... you wait there in the woman's waiting room. Honestly, I've never felt so ... seedy. Imagine joining that line to see Vulvina. Vulvina What?

Okay, okay. Bye, honey. Yes, here it is -- it's what? Nnnn, you didn't tell me it was five dollars and then tax. Alright, there it is. What a cheerless room. Hunh -- isn't she homely? Look at that face! Look at that face -- mmmm. Oh, yes! She looks like a wallaby bear. Ulff. Can you imagine this ... you can't even call her a woman. Imagine her, commanding that kind of ticket money.

Oh -- one zip and she's out of her dress. At least she's got a pretty body. Mmm -- but that face. Who could get near it, who could get near it? I don't know. Question: how many times a night, Vulvina? ... Any number? Humph -- old whore. I'll bet it too, I'll bet she does, I'll bet she does.

She wants a volunteer. She wants a volunteer. Umm -- oh -- alr ... I'll volunteer, I'll volunteer! Get up there on that stage -- the closer I get, the more like a walrus she looks. Oh, look at that. Unhn -- not even very young. I wonder why she doesn't sag.

Okay, now what do I do, kneel down? Oh, very well. Oh -- oh no, I don't want to do that! No. I don't wanna do that. You have pictures? What? Oh, no, no ... well, that's impossible. Put my head in there? My whole head?!

Uh ... uh. It's pitch black in here. It's pitch black in here. You know I'm not even touching the sides, or the back? That is incredible! Vul-vi-na! Let me out! Vulvina, let me out! Let me out, Vulvina!

I know this stretches the boundaries of what is considered a “song” for our purposes (do we have purposes here?), but McGregor’s story is interesting enough for inclusion.

So, yes – he talked in his sleep. I high recommend going here for the full story behind who he was and how his dreams got recorded. Long story very short, McGregor was living in New York City (note the traffic you hear in the background) when his roommate Michael Barr discovered his subconscious talent in the mid-1950s and started getting up early in the morning in order to commit them to tape. A record of these recordings was released in 1964; a book consisting of dream transcriptions shortly followed. In 1999 Tzadik Records released Dion McGregor Dreams Again, where this track comes from.

McGregor narrated his dreams in a way that was simultaneously funny and disturbing. Usually he would wake up with a start at the climax of the dream, but the tape cuts off this time. Listen to this track a second time and more things emerge; the phrases “five dollars a head” and “they’re coming in” have twisted double meanings once you realize what is happening in the dream. For a unique, surreal listen, I honestly can’t recommend hearing the full album enough. It’s not something you’ll listen to once and then file away. Hearing McGregor verbally paint his dream world is engaging enough to make one want to go back again and again to see if you missed any other plays on words. Too much, too much... indeed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Marky's song #16: Ornette Coleman – "Angel Voice"

Ornette Coleman did not invent free jazz; no one single person did. Free jazz was pushed forward by a collection of like-minded musicians willing to test acceptable boundaries. But Ornette did become the most visible proponent and spokesperson. More importantly, he was the first to be disseminated through the channel of a large label, beginning with his recording contract with Atlantic in 1959.

Paraphrasing from a small part of the liner notes from the Beauty Is A Rare Thing boxset: nowadays it’s hard to understand what was the fuss all about. What Coleman did reads simple enough: he ignored the chord changes. Whether this is a progression or a regression depends on whom you ask, but at the risk of sounding overly portentous, all will concede that jazz was changed forever.

By the time he took up his residence at Atlantic, Coleman already had a pair of albums out. The earlier of the two, Something Else (1958), was released on Contemporary (and eventually found its way to digital format through the Original Jazz Classics imprint.) In retrospect, his debut seems the least ambitious when held up next to My Name Is Albert Ayler (1963) and Jazz Advance (1956). But Coleman would eventually sail headlong into uncharted waters like the rest of them, with fascinating results. Coleman only recorded for Atlantic for three years, but released a walloping eight albums of material.

Like Ayler and Taylor, Coleman had to make his earliest records with musicians who weren’t always hip to what he wanted. And like those contemporaries, the music succeeds without sounding forced or like people unable to communicate with each other. Of the classic quartet, he had first mate Don Cherry in tow, but Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell were still giggin’ on the opposite coast.

Coleman wrote all the melodies for Something Else, which helps the cause; with all the attention his improvisation theories get, it’s easy to forget that he is a very good composer. Walter Norris deserves special mention, handling his piano role in the quintet admirably. Piano didn’t really fit into Coleman’s musical vision, and he would wait almost forty years before recording with a pianist again, but Norris’s keen ear and light touch suits the music well without inadvertently imposing excessive harmonic restriction on it.

Ornette Coleman - "Angel Voice"

The order of solos is as follows: Coleman, Cherry, Norris, bassist Don Payne, another brief solo from Coleman, and a quick solo by kit-man Billy Higgins after a return to the theme.

Although Coleman’s first solo is stronger, it’s his second, shorter solo that deserves attention. Notice how he pokes around the rhythm section, not really reacting to anything, just casually exploring – the sound of a guy both showing others what he’s looking for and working an idea out on the stand. Sure enough, he wedges the square peg into the round hole and directs the band back to the theme in a logical way.

If you've never heard Ornette before, this should be your springboard. Save the harder stuff for later, lest you dismiss the man as an insufferable avant-guardist. If all you know is The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz, you owe it to yourself to hear the early records, just to prove that his ideas didn't emerge fully formed. He earned his stripes the old-fashioned way: through dabbling and woodshedding. You know, like a jazz musician.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Marky's song #15: Aphex Twin – untitled track; disc 2, track 9 (“Lichen”)

Before I digitized and ipod-ified by music collection, I had a bulky stereo with a 3-disc tray. Never mind that the quality of the stereo was total crap; at the time, I was of the mind that bigger meant better and easily enticed by bells, whistles and flashing lights. Ahh, capitalism.

It took me about a year after leaving school to move out of my family’s house and take up my current residence in Massachusetts. For that year, I had a simple system for said stereo: CD slot one was whatever I was in the mood for at the time – keep it real and keep it rotating. Slots two and three, on the other hand, always held the same two CDs: Aphex Twin’s double disc – also available on triple vinyl – Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2.

Aphex Twin is the project of Richard D. James from Cornwall, England. A contrarian always more interested in the process of making and manipulating sound than in the promotion of product, James happily shuns trends and popular sentiment. His first Aphex album received plenty of positive reviews while the follow-up was divisive. I heard SAW 2 (Lynn Bousman, call your lawyer) before I heard the debut and couldn’t understand what the hubbub was about. It wasn’t until picking up the preceeding Selected Ambient Works 85-92 a couple years later that it made sense. While the first album is consonant and even danceable, SAW 2 is abstruse, standoffish and mostly beatless.

If you’re like me, my condolences you need a little music to get to sleep at night. Just climb into bed and start disc two on the CD tray; SAW 2 was the perfect late evening soundtrack after I got home from the late shift. The album progresses somnambulistically, one quiet claustrophobic track after another. It was a poke in the eye to those that raved – no pun intended – over SAW 85-92 while desiring to elevate James to some sort of superstar status within the world of electronic music.

Aphex Twin - untitled track

A generally acknowledged title for this track is “Lichen,” but officially it’s untitled. The insert booklet itself lists no song titles, but instead has close up photos of various commonplace objects taken by Mr. James himself. Further intentional difficultness from a man who loves to find out what the people want ... and then do the opposite. The word that pops into my head when trying to describe this track is ‘warm.’ As you listen, try to imagine the first moments of daylight in the Sonora, the sun just beginning to peek out from the horizon. Or, for those who have synthenesia, this track (much like most of the album) is a washed-out dusty orange. Even my mother, who is convinced everything I listen to is ‘weird,’ had to say, “this is beautiful.” Even when he’s confounding our expectations, Mr. James still knows how to deliver. Nighty-night.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ian Songs #8, In Praise of Bacchus

Inventive prose be damned, let's hit this like a fan: There are few litmus tests in metal like Type O Negative. Born from the ashes of underrated thrashers Carnivore and with enough balls to dive headfirst into a goth scene that had, and let's be honest now, peaked with the first few Christian Death albums, Type O gloriously lampooned their subject matter with a straight face, dedicating turgid doomers filled to the brim with ironic Beatlesque twists to high-school notebook fodder; death, sex, depression, death, Halloween, and death. On the surface, they exuded an ultra-serious vibe, but like all good metal, when you dug a little deeper, it played out like a nod and wink, a veiled punchline to be enjoyed by the discerning listener. So, like most Metal Mosi (Manowar, Darkthrone, and...well, shit, power metal and black metal in general), they parted the seas of listeners; those that believe in an oh-so sober intent and those that recognize the inherent ridiculousness of it all. Of course, there's a natural urge to push Type O into the realm of parody, and there's an awful lot of evidence that can be brought up as support (Almost all of it stemming from generously-dicked frontman Peter Steele), but the insanely well-written music pushes it past just a joke into Ween territory; loving pastiches. Case in point, In Praise of Bacchus.

From the band's most commercially viable album, October Rust, and one that features maybe their definitive song, Love You to Death, sits Praise. Melodic and with a wall-of-distortion guitar-sheen that is downright shoegazer-inspired, Bacchus couples Fab Four with Iommi, building to an insane climax that's surreal. It's moments like these that the band revels in, making you feel uncomfortable without the use of the grotesque, making you feel uneasy as a listener. But, then again, this ain't Wagner predilection for unresolved progressions, this is trading pop licks and then dropping back into metal at the turn of the dime. From either side of the spectrum, it just feels wrong. It's so seamless, though, that it gets lost underneath the waves of sound, burying in your subconscious the sense that we're dangerously off-kilter here. And then, there it is, an actual crescendo that is not frustratingly cut short, AND WITH LATIN NO LESS. To this day, and it's an album I've listened to every Halloween for a decade, I don't know whether to laugh or be blown away. That, in essence, is Type O Negative.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Marky's song #14: Hüsker Dü – “Somewhere”

(Hüsker Dü, part tü – read part one here.)

Though they would go on to bigger (if not necessarily better) things, the strongest music this Minnesota trio made occurred when they were still on independent label SST. Hüsker Dü is also notable for being the first ‘underground’ band to switch from an indie to a major label (Warner), flaring a debate concerning the appropriateness of such a move that still simmers to this day. Without getting deep into an indie versus major argument, let me present a counterfactual: if Hüsker Dü’s stint at a major label had been a thoroughly positive one – replete with improved albums and the lack of heartbreaking implosion, would certain segments of indie rock nation look upon major labels with as much derision as they justifiably do? Food for thought. Even those who talk about it disparagingly refer to the action of bands moving from smaller, independent labels to larger ones in an upward fashion. “They jumped to a major label” implies ascending, not downward or lateral, movement.

It seems that Hüsker Dü won me over despite bucking my preconceived notions at the time regarding supposed virtues and sins in music. Believe me, even though I loved the previous EP, I was very skeptical the first time I put Zen Arcade on. Think about what it is: a concept double album. Do they really expect to hold my attention that long? And what’s the deal with this last song being 14 minutes long? I still have some minor objections to the concept album claim. The story is about a boy who runs away from home in order to escape his tumultuous family life, only to discover the life outside of home is just as hard. This I cede, but where does “Standing By The Sea” (an earlier version of which was recorded during the Metal Circus sessions) or “Beyond The Threshold” fit into the narrative?

Oh well, no matter. Nowadays, the cult status of this album goes rightfully unchallenged a quarter of a century after its initial release. A legendary recording recorded in legendary fashion, Zen Arcade is an album that honestly does need to be listened in its entirety. The songs lose a little when plucked out of context. But this blog is called 500 Songs, not 500 Albums, so we have to stick to the game plan here.

Of the four sides of vinyl that comprise Zen Arcade, side two is my least favorite. (I realize this is sort of like complaining about what your least favorite way of winning the lottery is.) The first half of it comes across as senseless ruckus-making, the second half sounds like a collection of tunes that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. “What’s Going On” and “Masochism World” both conclude by devolving into noise; “Standing By The Sea” is a slow drift meant to mimic the soothing rhythm of ocean waves. I am being overly-critical here; don’t get me wrong – this is all great music I love dearly, but in hyper-analysis of the album it’s a bit of a lull, and I distinctly remember being in kind of a drowsy haze when I took side two off and replaced it with side three.

I was instantly snapped out of that haze with the bright and shiny attention-grabbing chords to “Somewhere.” The only song on the album written by one member of the band (Mould) but sung but another (Hart), this is the point where Hüsker Dü delivers on all their promise. Lyrically, this is classic Hüsker Dü emotional turmoil, contrasting desires with actuality. Furthermore, the songwriters make the concession that not only do they not know what they want, but that there might not be anything in particular that would satisfy them.

Searching for the truth but all I ever find is lies
Trying to find identity but I just find a disguise
Looking at the nightmare when I try to see the dream
Finding a reality as perfect as it seems

Somewhere the dirt is washed down with the rain
Somewhere there’s happiness instead of pain
Somewhere satisfaction has no name
Somewhere I can be the same

Looking down on everything it seems a total bore
Missing all the people that I’ve never met before
Trying to find an unknown something I consider best
Don’t know if I’ll find it but until then I’ll be depressed

The backwards guitar after the second chorus that continues through the rest of the song (and into the next) is gorgeous. And it’s worth pointing out that this song is just the beginning: the entire second disc of Zen Arcade is amazing song after amazing song, all the way to the final feedback whine of that aforementioned lengthy final instrumental.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the album, I hope all this chatter piques your curiosity and that the sound sample whets your appetite. You can find all the other songs on the album on YouTube as well, but it is not available as digital download. The band has not gone back and re-mastered any of their SST output. The only way to get it is by way of the hard copy. But that’s fine, it’s not hard to track down and you can pretend to be the indie diehard that still clings to vinyl CDs.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ian Songs #7. Mary Go Round

Let’s fire up all the clichés.

Lightnin’ in a bottle. Always loved that phrase. Backhanded compliment? Sure, but I’d rather catch lightning then catch shit for continually banging out mediocre records. Of course, mediocre is in the, ahem, eye of the beholder. Case in point, Victims has had a nice career, crustily maximizing this d-beat n’ roll that has been eyeing an audience for some time now. But, they never seem to rise above the authentically leather-clad and the be-studded to hit the ears of folks that only have a passing familiarity with Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing (odd how that title sums up the up-to-now proliferation of the genre).

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because Victims best work, the album of theirs' that is worth the time/effort to track down is a ridiculously hard to find demo EP. From the opening feedback to the final chug, Harder Than it Was Meant to Be is delightfully free of battleworn self-doubt, the kind of limitations that a band lumps upon their songwriting when they’ve done enough road testing to see what works and what doesn’t. Duders here are just plain pissed with phlegm covering every blown-out microphone, every amp reduced to rubble, and every drum head thoroughly smashed. And the production is endearingly shoddy, which, ultimately makes this recording. Instead of hiding the flaws behind a wall of sound, it presents them up front, bobbing on the waves of coursing adrenaline and without the anchor of self-control. You can only get a recording like this on the first go-’round, which is why most demos, for whatever reason, are music’s lightning rod atop the Empire State Building.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Marky's song #13: Hüsker Dü – “Diane”

(Hüsker Dü, part one)

Hardcore songs are supposed to be valued for their speed. A genre based on aggression naturally veers in that direction. So much so that when a song is presented that advances at a milder pace (like “Public Defender” by S.O.A. or the bridge in Minor Threat’s “Screaming at a Wall”), it immediately garners attention: the monotony of velocity is broken up. That’s the first thing I noticed about this song when I first heard it, but what happened about 1:10 in was much more jarring.

We already have one song tangentially related to the band in question, and I have a second one on the brain to follow this post up with eventually. That’s the amount of influence Messrs. Mould, Hart, and Norton had on the collective conscious of underground rock. Anyhoo, this track is from the Metal Circus EP, a 45-RPM slab of vinyl that chugs right along at the expected pace until this, the middle cut on the three-song B side.

I’ll try to describe the scene here: a shy kid by himself in his room on a late autumn afternoon. He notices that this one song clocks in at nearly twice the length of any other song on the record. His ears perk up a little at the opening mantra-like drumbeat, followed by a bass part played through a flanger pedal. And then he catches these opening verse lyrics:

“Hey little girl, do you need a ride?
I’ve got room in my wagon, why don’t you hop inside?
We can cruise down Roberts Street all night long
But I think I’ll just rape and kill you instead…”

OK, so you figured out that the kid in question was me. There’s no prize for that. The lyrics are printed right on the back of the album cover (those of you too young to have owned vinyl will have to simply trust me on this) and I still missed it. I was lying on my back on the bed with the album jacket on my chest and not looking at the lyric sheet. So I sat up and said to myself “wait…what? What the fuck did he just say? I picked up the needle and restarted the song, as if I was just not hearing right and he’d say something different the second time around.

This song is about the murder of Diane Edwards, which occurred in the Minneapolis area in 1980. It’s not the kind of topic I’d come to expect from a hardcore band. This was far too disturbing, far too vulnerable for hardcore – or was it? This EP is pointed to as the Great Leap Forward for Hüsker Dü, where they began to leave their hardcore sound (but not their ethos) behind and move towards a poppier approach. “Diane” is not the first truly classic Hüsker Dü song (that would be “In a Free Land”), but it’s the one that got them noticed outside hardcore circles and played on college radio stations back when getting played on college radio stations actually meant something. Yet, this song is not the one that clinched them for me. That song will be the topic for my next post. Suspense! (Sort of.)

Partially because it's such a good song and partially because it's a simple three chord pattern that repeats through the entire song, “Diane” is an oft-covered indie rock epic that keeps getting tinkered with re-imagined. For the story so far, a search of YouTube found the following versions:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Marky's song #12: Charles Ives - "The Unanswered Question"

In Poland, the 5000-zloty banknote has native composer Frédéric Chopin on the front. If the United States were to do something similar, Charles Ives would have to be included somewhere. (And not on the never-used $2 bill, dammit – though that gives new meaning to the phrase “two buck Chuck.” Ahem, anyway.)

Ives’s goal (insofar that he had a single ‘goal’) was to create a body of work that was distinctly ‘American.’ Ives was adamant that American musical culture could not advance if composers didn’t move beyond mere imitation of Germans. Lazy writers often slot him as a postmodernist, but in reality he had stopped composing long before the postmodernist movement began and he hardly considered himself part of the avant-garde.

His body of work sounds nothing like composers that preceded him and very little like the actual modernists that followed. Ives’s music distinguishes itself with its borrowing from other sources. His compositions are peppered with melodies referenced from folk tunes, church hymns and early ragtime melodies as well as Beethoven and his beloved Brahms. Motifs are swiped, altered and offered back with bristling and energetic polytonality. His compositions are emotional and earthy, a far cry from the academic steeliness of real postmodernism.

“The Unanswered Question” (written in 1906, revised in 1934) is a program piece scored for one trumpet, four flutes and a compliment of strings. The strings are supposed to represent silence (wrap your head around that) while a solitary man contemplates the meaning of life, the perennial question of existence, or some other weighty matter. The trumpet asks a five-note theme that is slowly answered by the flutes. Unsatisfied with the response, the trumpet repeats its plangent query. The flutes respond again, more frantic and dissonant than before. This process of question and increasingly discordant answer continues over and over until the flutes, exasperated, can do nothing more but blurt out incoherence. The trumpet concludes with the original theme that is not responded to; the question remains unanswered, The Unanswered Question.

Because of the simplified instrumentation and relatively digestible content, “The Unanswered Question” is one of Ives’s most often performed compositions. But a single piece is obviously not enough to give an accurate depiction of a composer. For the curious listener, I’ve uploaded some more performances into one convenient folder HERE for you to peruse at your own leisure. Included are the companion piece “Central Park in the Dark”, the Symphony of Holidays, Orchestral Sets #1 and #2, and for the really adventurous, his Fourth Symphony. Enjoy. It’s about time we got a little classical music into this blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Marky's song #11: Boredoms - "Super Going"

I’ve read that it takes courage to admit one’s mistakes. Not that I expect a Medal of Honor for this one, but truth be told, I gave up on the Boredoms too quickly. I wound up passing on giving their best album a chance for a few years simply because a small handful of earlier releases tried my patience too much. My bad.

A little background history. Back in the day (and by that I mean 1988), the Boredoms arrived from Saturn Japan to unleash incomprehensible music on unsuspecting audiences. Their albums were both aggressively flashy and violently hilarious. The best part about it all was that the uneasy chuckles their music provoked came from both those in the know as well as those who simply wrote the band off as adorable but clueless foreigners. Soul Discharge (1989) and Pop Tatari (1992) were masterpieces of fractured cultural blender-ism; its noise-making tantrums being both amusing and terrifying, yet a surprisingly large amount of the music sticks to the wall once all is said and done. The latter album in particular deserves additional mention; it was released on Warner’s Japanese imprint, which lead Spin magazine writer Mike Rubin to comment that it was probably the least commercially viable album released on a major label since Metal Machine Music.

But all winning streaks have to come to an end sometime. 1994 saw the release of Chocolate Synthesizer, which was only so-so, and then the Super Roots series began to see the light of day and that’s when things started to get tedious. #3 and especially the monolithic #5 were the hardest pills to swallow; the former being a half-hour hardcore stomp and the latter being over an hour of a cymbal wash and open guitar strings. The band called the music “ambient hardcore”, I called it a drag. More than anything, these albums left me sad: my beloved Boredoms had lost their way.

And so, it wasn’t until 2003 when I finally got around to picking up Super æ (pronounced ‘super eye.’) What a boo-boo I made. It’s an awesome album, but for reasons very different from what made Soul Discharge and Pop Tatari so awesome. The band traded thrashcore freak-outs for blissful sun-worshipping voyages.

In order to fully convey the impact of this song, I need to talk a bit about what leads up to it on the album. The opening track, “Super You”, is a pile-up of spliced chords; seven minutes of a band’s jam presented out of sequence with occasional modifications to the tape speed. A tiny beat finally pops up near the end, but it’s practically incidental to the confusing (and confused) instrumental track. If you’ve never heard the Boredoms before, this song is as worthy an introduction as any, but in the context of the album it makes perfect sense. It has to be the opening track – and only on this album.

From there, the album moves on to “Super Are.” It starts with a couple minutes of blocky chords played on what sounds like a Hammond organ. After a while, it gives way to some soft tribal drumming and – what’s this? Actual singing? With harmonies?! On a Boredoms album?!?! It’s true and it’s surprising how well they swing it. The band never gave us any inclination they had this stuff in them. When the first power chords come crashing into the song, it’s the most arena-rock moment the Boredoms have ever created. The track then busts into a sort of primitive stomp punctuated by trumpet runs. An ear-splitting screech brings it to a halt before slamming into our track in question.

Boredoms - "Super Going"

From here, the album soars into the stratosphere. “Super Going” is actually not all that complicated of a song: it mainly just seesaws back and forth between two chords; about eight-and-a-half minutes (!) in, a primal scream causes a few more chords to get tossed into the equation, eventually giving way to one final drumming climax and the word SHINE! Reading the description, you might thing it's the recipe for the most boring song ever. But in the hands of the Boredoms, it's a breathtaking magic carpet ride. “Super Going” does what all truly great songs should do – immediately demand you listen to it again once it has ended. It’s a challenge for me not to simply hit the previous track button when I’m playing the full album.

(Here's an edited version of the album with a cool video included.)

The rest of the album is just as fascinating, but it was this song that won me back over. Apparently, the only substantial difference between a spazz-rock band and a trance-rock band is how long they spend focusing on each idea! Subsequent releases have mined similar trance-like territory to lesser effect. Even the live Boadrum experiments didn’t capture my attention as much. I guess the main problem for a band that releases so many wonderful albums is that the bar gets set very high. But really, I should cut the Boredoms some slack – the vast majority of bands never release even one classic album. The Boredoms have blessed us with three.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Marky's song #10: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time soundtrack - "Gerudo Valley"

The spectre of Nintendo looms large over independent and underground culture. Ooooh, I made that sound much creepier than I needed to. Many a junior high school semi-outcast found some solace in video game systems. I know I did. We already have one song article related to video gaming, and I’m sure this one will not be the last.

It was only a matter of time before independent music started to incorporate video game music into their sound. Bands like The Minibosses and The Advantage (among many others) thrill audiences with rocked-out covers of 8-bit themes. On the flip side of that, Anamanaguchi and Menomena go about things in reverse – using outmoded technologies to construct modern melodies. In the realm of electronic music, you can mosey over to the OverClocked ReMix website and download for free all sorts of re-worked, updated versions of tunes from games both popular and obscure.

The point I’m trying to make here, which will most likely elicit a response of ‘duh’ from the readership here, is that access to the “situational music” of our youth is greater than it has ever been. It’s not just video game soundtracks or even orchestras playing the music of Koji Kondo, but imported soundtracks from Japanese animation series or a compiling of the music of Carl Stalling. Of course, the quality of music for video games has increased as well, as companies discovered that more and more people were paying attention to that sort of thing. In turn, the people these companies employed to compose the music spent more time crafting individual soundtracks.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. This particular track comes from the Nintendo 64 game Ocarina of Time. There’s no way to gauge a “play count” in the game à la iTunes, but it easily was the most oft-listened to part of the soundtrack, mainly because it was easy to restart the music while I was playing. I made sure to explore the area thoroughly just to keep it playing and would even go in and out of buildings just to hear the music restart from the beginning. I’m probably not the only one.
This track has been re-imagined many times over – a somewhat large sample of these follow below. I’ll let the music speak for itself. The popularity is with good reason: it’s gorgeous, it’s simple, and it fits the portion of the game’s scene perfectly. Good music can be found in unlikely sources – even in a tribal encampment near the desert across a bridge next to a waterfall.

Gerudo Valley (original)

Gerudo Valley (JV mix): from OverClocked

Gerudo Valley (Peeples mix): from OverClocked

[Question: is anybody having trouble seeing the media players? I’m not sure if they work in Safari.]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Marky's song #9: Wesley Willis - "Feel The Power Of Rock And Roll"

It was brought to my attention recently that we just passed the sixth anniversary of the passing of Wesley Willis. I remember reading about it the day after. My first thought after the initial grief was “there will never be another Wesley Willis.” My second thought after a little bit of reflection was “perhaps that’s a good thing.” As much as Wesley came across as larger than life, he was deeply troubled by demons that he was never able to fully exorcise.

In case you’re not familiar with the man, Wesley (for whatever reason, referring to him by his last name feels wrong) stood nearly six and a half feet tall and weighed over 300 pounds. He was also afflicted with chronic schizophrenia. He made his living on the streets of Chicago by selling drawings until he bought a Technics keyboard and began “writing” songs. When all was said and done, Wesley had recorded nearly fifty albums – the vast majority of which he did the artwork for. However, only the most obsessed collector needs to hear anything else besides the first two Greatest Hits albums. (Alternative Tentacles released a third volume that sadly, turned out to be an unfortunate let down.)

Critical opinion on Wesley will forever be divided. The man’s legacy left him both loved and reviled for the exact same reasons. Some relished the catch phrases and descriptions of live gigs, while others bemoaned the sheer repetitiveness and accused some musical cohorts of exploitation. But to say that all his songs sound the same is partially to miss the point. The formula was the reason his fans loved his music so much. It’s like eating your favorite food – you more or less know what you’re going to get and you still enjoy it every time. Yet, I’ll admit, it’s an acquired taste.

Look at it from the perspective of his fellow band members. How difficult do you think it would be to go out on tour and keep an eye on Wesley? No, The Wesley Willis Fiasco was not exploitative. But American Recordings certainly was. Amazingly, Wesley got to release an album on a major label. Even more amazingly, smelling potential profit, the label advanced a mere $10,000 for the album. To me, there’s no contest as to who is guilty of exploitation here.

Although Wesley lived a life plagued by mental illness, he wasn’t dumb. Stories abound about how he was able to recall singular events in his mind and make inkpen drawings of them with surprising accuracy – even down to things like license plate numbers on cars and buses. This is from the same guy who never bothered to memorize his song lyrics and would sit (or stand) on stage with a notebook for live sets.

Wesley Willis succumbed to leukemia on August 21, 2003, but rock & roll will never die.

Honorable mention/second favorite Wesley song: "Vampire Bat".

Monday, August 24, 2009

Marky's song #8: Napalm Death - "You Suffer"

No, I’m not kidding.

I seriously considered ending the post there; a ridiculously short post for a ridiculously short song. So, how short is this darn thing, anyway? Wikipedia gives an official length of 1.136 seconds. iTunes claims a length of 0:05, but that includes the dead time between it and the next song on the album. The label of the vinyl single reads a concise (0:01), which was probably the band’s initial intent. But it almost seems pointless to debate the issue.

“Intent” is an interesting word, when you consider how much of a throwaway this track is. In fact, the session that produced this was written off and tossed away by the majority of the participants. Stories about this song – and the album it’s culled from – are the stuff of legend. Albert Mudrian’s book: Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore does a good job collecting stories and documenting the era. (I found earlier chapters in that book far more interesting than later ones, which is an accurate way of describing death metal and grindcore in general.)

This track comes from Napalm Death’s first album, Scum, which is actually split into two separate recording sessions with two different lineups; the only common thread between the two sides is drummer Mick Harris. “You Suffer” is the final song from the first session, which, along with Harris, includes guitarist Justin Broadrick and bassist/vocalist Nik Bullen. The session was initially intended to be a demo, but internal friction caused this version of the band to break up before it could be shopped around. Not expecting Harris to re-form the band with a completely new lineup, Broadrick gave the demo tape away – for free – to Earache label owner Digby Pearson. The rest, as they say, is (improbable) history.

“You Suffer” became quite a curiosity at the time for outsiders. The band always saw the track as some kind of joke, and would often play it 30, 40, 50 times in a row at early live gigs. I guess it could be considered a (very) brief moment of levity among their more politically charged songs. John Peel’s early championing of the band garnered them some more attention from the British media, perhaps culminating bizarrely in the band winding up on the BBC educational television program What’s That Noise? (The show’s title sounds tailor-made for Napalm Death, doesn’t it?)

This is not meant to be a bio of the band; if you’re further interested in the history behind this song, I recommend the above-linked book as well as the band’s first two albums – Scum and From Enslavement To Obliteration. Sadly, at the time, neither of those were distributed in the United States; most Americans didn’t get their first taste of the band until Harmony Corruption – a decent album, but the band had re-vamped its lineup yet again, veered away from grindcore and transmuted into a far less interesting death metal outfit. The development of American underground metal would have been very different had those earlier albums had more widespread availability at the time. Oh well. C'est la vie. Just remember, by the time you finish reading this entry, you could have listened to the song approximately fifty times.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bobby's song #4: "King Medicine" by Jets to Brazil

Before I began writing this entry my general take on the word "emo" was that it was a fashion fad practiced by kids half my age that involved wearing black clothes, having mop-headed haircuts, and walking around with a scowl all the time. Which is kind of what I did when I was that age, only we called it other things back then like "being alternative" or "being a hood". Self-described "emo" music that I had heard in passing over the past few years always made me either laugh or grimace - I could never take it seriously. So I was shocked when I went to Wikipedia (and then to AllMusic) and they listed Jets To Brazil as an "emo" band. I just thought they were an Indie Rock band. And I hate the term "emo".

However, after doing a little more research I began to see how Jets To Brazil could fall under that classification. Especially with regards to lyrical content. From "Emo lyrics are deeply personal, usually either free-associative poetry or intimate confessionals."

This attention to lyrics is what ultimately made orange rhyming dictionary a permanent resident in my car for a number of years in my early-20s. The lyrics sound like they were written by a frustrated novelist. Because they were. For that, and for other reasons Blake Schwartzenbach's lyrics resonated with me. See, back then I was a generally unhappy guy who spent my evenings hanging out in bars getting plastered, trying to write a novel, reading existential philosophy books, and being pretty sure that my heart had been broken beyond repair. Hey, wait - I was so totally emo! It's all making sense now. All that was missing was a studded belt and some horn rimmed glasses.

Jets To Brazil was Schwartzenbach's second band. His first was Jawbreaker which had a decidedly more post-hardcore sound. Jets To Brazil, however, were less punkish and more geared towards the indie-rock crowd. orange rhyming dictionary was their first album and, unfortunately, their best. JTB released two other albums which were very weak (and dreadfully boring) by comparison and then broke up in 2003.

"King Medicine" is probably not the best song on the album, which is full of gems, but it is undoubtedly my favorite for its lyrical content. It spoke to me the loudest during that tumultuous time in my life and so I honor it here.

King Medicine by Jets to Brazil

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Marky's song #7: Friends of Dean Martinez - "Landfall"

I don’t drive, but if I did, Friends of Dean Martinez would be a mandatory portion of all road trip soundtracks. Their music conjures up images of endless journeys through flatlands where the lack of scenery is exactly what makes things so scenic. When I close my eyes I can imagine the constant hum of a solitary car engine as the vehicle rolls along a two-lane highway.

Hailing from Tucson, the band was originally named Friends of Dean Martin, but they were forced to change it at the behest of Mr. Martin’s estate. This turned out to actually be a prescient move; the sound they started with might invoke the image of a reveling, inebriated Martin enjoying the evening, but the sounds they ended up with most certainly did not.

When FoDM first hit the scene, “alternative” music was starting to move away from grunge bombast. Curious listeners had become saturated with fuzz box guitar and were looking for new sounds. “Lounge” music was one of the many styles to fill that gap. But a lot of the stuff was simply too cloying for me. FoDM wasn’t the most egregious offender, but the band didn’t really get interesting until they moved away from copping Martin Denny grooves.

By the time their potential swansong Lost Horizon dropped, the pandering towards the martini-and-tiki-lamp crowd had ended. In its place, they composed dirges to accompany staring out the car window at the continual late night flickering of lines and lights on the highway. (All my wanderlust fantasies inevitably have me sitting in the passenger seat.)

Lost Horizon is a very “dark”-sounding album and this track is the opener. For all the hubbub about moving away from the image of the self-aggrandizing guitar rocker, it’s ironic that their strongest song should “rock” as much as it does and that the focal point is a truly heroic guitar solo. The keyboards shift back and forth between two chords as the song swells up with fretboard runs, climaxing and having a big release several minutes in, only to go back and do it all a second time before closing.

Friends of Dean Martinez - "Landfall"

Listen to this song on headphones with the lights off. Technically, Friends of Dean Martinez still exists, but they haven’t released anything since Lost Horizon, which was put out in 2005. If they truly have split up, they smartly went out on a triumphant note.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ian Songs: #6, Got to Get Cha

"Maceo, I want you to blow." Truer words hath never been spoken (for the next three to five minutes, please believe that to be the case), especially when they leave the lips of Bootsy. But, Maceo and the Horny Horns were far away in the future when the J.B.'s had a mutiny, leaving The Hardest Working Man in Show-Biz to press some of their own wax. The result? Maceo and All the King's Men, a fairly typical offering of turn-of-the-'70s Southern funk, fried in the still-hot oils of Stax & Muscle Shoals. But, goddamn, when the J.B.'s wanted to let a groove simmer 'til a boil, there was next to no one better. Doing Their Own Thing has some burners on it, for sure; which is why Old Man Brown kept it down, suppressing the album's release and any singles from floating to the airwaves. Sad, because Got to Get Cha could've been a contender, a alternate-reality radio staple that could've rubbed elbows with R&B's guilty pleasures. The words are crap, there's no way getting around it, and they don't have a lick of the je ne sais quoi, soulful swing of the Godfather. Yet, the groove is tight and the bridge is transcendent; reaching 'dem heights through a crystal clear guitar that rings in the fact that, at this time, this was the band you wished could be backing you. Of course the snap/clap is as steady as a rock. Of course the four-string brilliantly bounces. Of course the horns punctuate every apostrophe and period. This is the fucking J.B.'s and while the cat was away, goddamn did these guys ever play. Enjoy. Big Daddy Kane did.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Marky's song #6: John Zorn - "Nefesh"

Those of us who are huge fans of John Zorn have a word to describe ourselves: “Zornthologists.” It’s meant as a term of endearment. There’s no codified process or minimum number of albums to purchase in order to cross the line into Zornthology, but those who are there usually don’t try to hide it. Between his solo albums, band projects, collaborations, one-offs and guest appearances, I have round 100 albums connected to him on one way or another. And that that’s only a minor dent into his discography, not to mention that there are certainly much more rabid Zorn fans than me.

Bar Kokhba is not one of his better-known albums. It is named after Simon Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire in the year 135. The revolt was crushed overwhelmingly by the Romans and led to the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Obviously a major event in Jewish history, the Bar Kokhba revolt is also cited as the first significant divergence between Christianity and Judaism.

As you might expect from an album named after an event of such grave emotional import, Bar Kokhba drips with somber spirituality. A double-CD released as part of the “Radical Jewish Culture” series on his own Tzadik label in 1996, the album features various small chamber ensembles. In fact, Zorn doesn’t play on the album at all, being credited solely as a composer. Those familiar with parts of the Masada catalog will recognize some of the themes and find it interesting to hear them out of a jazz context, but – and Zorn has emphatically stated this on many occasions – Masada was never meant to be strictly a “jazz” project.

The point behind the Masada project was for Zorn to write a “book” of melodies. He drew the inspiration for that from Duke Ellington. Duke had a book of songs – not full arrangements, but just main themes. Sometimes it would be nothing more than a couple lines on staff paper. He could then arrange those melodies into full-fledged compositions as the instrumentation dictated. If he needed to arrange it for a piano trio, he could do that. If he needed to arrange it for a 30-piece big band orchestra, he could do that as well. It was the same song, the same melody, but a different context.

Masada plays upon the same idea, but given Zorn’s breadth of musical interests, it doesn’t restrict itself to jazz. Melodies have been re-interpreted by string trios, techno artists and thrash bands. In the case of Bar Kokhba, it’s chamber music. But this track stands out from the rest of the album because it actually is a jazz piece.

John Zorn - "Nefesh"

The trio that plays on this track is John Medeski on piano, Mark Dresser on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. As far as I am aware, this is the only track anywhere that features this specific trio of musicians. A shame, because this song is one of the finest pieces of jazz I’ve heard anywhere, from any time period. The beautifully recorded track is balanced perfectly between the three instruments, each member getting a chance to stand out and shine without ever breaking the heavy mood. This track by itself may not be enough to recommend slogging through two full CDs of minor key chamber music, but it definitely deserves to be pulled out and placed on a pedestal.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Marky's song #5: Public Enemy - "Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man"

I’m sure I don’t need to give you the huge back-story about who Public Enemy is and their impact on the world of hip hop. A friend of mine once joked, “if Public Enemy are the Beatles of rap, then Flavor Flav is George Harrison.” I laughed, but it makes sense, even if there aren’t exact counterparts to each section of the analogy. Chuck D rightfully gets the lion’s share of the attention, being the nominal leader and frontman as well as the chief lyrical contributor, but Flav is more than just a hype-man riding someone else’s coattails; every P.E. album sports two or three solid Flav cuts – he’s never the central figure, but always dependable. Flav’s larger-than-life personality outside the groups has quite the reputation, but don’t take my word for it – let Chuck D tell you in his own words.

Fear of a Black Planet was released after the stellar It Take a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. However, before Fear… made it into stores, Professor Griff (Public Enemy’s Ringo Starr?) was released from the fold over allegations of anti-Semitic remarks in an interview with David Mills of the Washington Times. The veracity of that claim is not the subject here. The flap had the potential to damage P.E.’s rapidly increasing status, but unsurprisingly the group didn’t let the controversy slow them down one bit. The polemics are stronger than ever and the beats are just as solid as they were on Nation of Millions. In fact, Fear of a Black Planet is so strong, it made it into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.

Probably the best-known song off of Fear of a Black Planet is one of Flavor’s: “911 Is a Joke.” The only other Flavor-led track on the album is this one – a hard luck story mostly told from the second person in Flav’s loopy, instantly recognizable rasp. As always, production crew Bomb Squad finds the right backing for the song, sampling both the J.B.s and Bobby Byrd. It’s not coincidence that my interest in Public Enemy declined once Bomb Squad stopped producing their albums. The video is pretty low budget (Chuck D doesn’t even appear in it), but I dig it. This track is a perfect tonic to loosen up to between Chuck’s high strung raps.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Ian Songs: #5, Messin' With the Kid

It's unfair that I have to gaze at '77 through the hazy eye that is everyone else's collective retrospective. When rock exploded into a thousand pieces, it was the burgeoning punk curio that tried to piece everything back together with DIY crazyglue. And, of course, I missed it, born far too late to be caught in the riptide of any wave, barely treading water while being continuously inundated with the high-tides of yesterday. No first come, first served for this music neophyte, I had to creep and crawl my way through the unfamiliar subterrane, gorging myself on whatever thirty-year-old treat made my ears "O"; a blind cave fish just happy to have sustenance, happy to be feeding on something. Sometimes it was nothing but a hold over, something to keep the belly full enough so I could still hunt through the virtual bargain bins of the blogs, pouring over lost ruins looking for gems. Sometimes, though, what I found was gold. Enter Messin' With the Kid.

Amazingly not a cover of the blues near-standard, Messin' With the Kid happened to be the cream of Australia's best known entry to punk's second-wave. The Saints debut crackled with the high-energy, reckless and youthful abandon, and totally scummy sound that all great demos seem to be inherently blessed with. Yet, for all the spitfire aggression, slashed amp distortion, and bratty speedfests that colored the rest of the record, Messin' With the Kid bordered on being a tasteful rock ballad. It's weird. A goddamn anomaly, coming off like Dylan writing for The Damned or something. Underneath the snotty punk sheen is a lazy, summery pop song that gloriously waxes and wanes, building up tension in all the right spots and dropping a delicious and unforgettable hook as the outro. A band shouldn't be this good on a demo. Yet, The Saints were and Messin' provides the evidence that Brisbane's first punks shouldn't be taken at face value. One listen to the brilliant bass that fills in the negative space proves that. Sure, (I'm) Stranded received the glory, and rightfully so, but Messin' With the Kid is the secret crush, the one you wouldn't even divulge during the craziest Jolt-infused sleepovers. Ask, like, Thurston Moore or J. Mascis or something. Or me. I'm drunk.