If you’re looking for frightening music to play while kids come around to your door tonight trick-or-treating, you couldn’t do better than raiding the canon of 20th Century classical music. So much of this music is built on challenging and subverting our normal assumptions about harmony, rhythm and timbre that it can’t help sounding alien and foreboding.
"Lux Aeterna" is a good example. Ligeti’s piece for a 16-voice choir, written in 1966, is a canon, a musical form that dates back to the Renaissance. In its most basic form, such as in Pachelbel’s quite famous canon in D, it consists of a melody, followed by a repetition (or a variation) that starts at a different time, so that you wind up with multiple versions of the same melody playing in different rhythms and creating counterpoint. It’s basic polyphony—you may have done it with “Row Row Row Your Boat” in grade school.
So how does Ligeti get it to sound so otherwordly? Well, for starters, he’s not using tertian harmony, which is what we’re used to—this is where a basic chord is made of intervals of thirds, ie C, E and G (a C major chord). He’s using tone clusters, where the notes sounding simultaneously might be C, C# and D, for one example. So you get these dissonant smears—the term for it is micropolyphony, where sustained dissonant chords slowly shift over time.
What Ligeti was primarily interested in anyway was timbre—he wanted to explore the particular tones and textures of the voices. They are actually singing these words: “Lux aeterna luceat eis / Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum / quia pius es / Requiem aeternum dona eis / Domine / et lux perpetua luceat eis.” But you don’t really notice the words unless you’re listening for them. What you do notice is the disorienting effect of sixteen voices singing independent lines, many of them in extreme falsetto.
Kubrick famously used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey (without consent from the composer) specifically because of its alien quality (he also used Ligeti’s micropolyphonic “Requiem”). Ligeti’s creative restlessness and embrace of bleak, alien texture may stem somewhat from his rough early life: a Hungarian Jew born in Romanian Transylvania, he was sent to a forced labor camp by the Horthy regime when Hungary took Transylvania from Romania in 1943 (he was 21), during World War II. He lost much of his close family to the camps. After the war, he lived in Budapest and escaped to Vienna in 1956 after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution.
Ligeti was forced to re-evaluate his world more than once, and I speculate that this may have been among the factors that allowed him to so thoroughly re-think what music should sound like.
This version of “Lux Aeterna” was performed by the Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, conducted by Clytus Gottwald. I don’t know the year.
If you’d like to know what this sounds like played on string instruments, check out Ligeti’s “Ramifications for String Orchestra,” which uses a very similar approach but is scored for strings.
In Irish folklore, a banshee is a female spirit whose wailing foretells death. She is not herself malevolent, but her piercing cries quite naturally put a bit of fear into those that hear them. She’s used differently in different stories; sometimes, her wailing is the first notice that a family receives of the death of a distant loved one, other times, she is directly predicting the death of a person and speaks. She sometimes has a human form, sometimes an animal form, and sometimes no form at all. She’s sort of a personal mythological figure in that way—she varies a great deal based on the teller.
The myth is thought to arise from the Irish funeral tradition of the keener, a woman who would sing laments before the burial, the idea being that the banshee, who may be assigned to a specific family, does the keening before the death. Other post-Celtic mythologies, such as those of Scotland and Wales, have similar figures.
Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee” is named as sort of a cheeky joke, I think. It certainly sounds forbidding, like a distant groan or cry carried on the wind. It’s played on the innards of a piano, by striking, plucking, rubbing, and longitudinally stroking the undampened strings. This method of playing was very innovative in 1925, when the piece was composed, and Cowell, to his credit, seems to have realized not only the artistic potential of his developments, but also their dramatic and entertainment potential.
Because all that scraping and banging really does evoke a banshee. “The Banshee” also includes another of Cowell’s favorite compositional methods: tone clusters. In his early works, such as “Dynamic Motion,” the player was instructed to play piano with the forearms, and keys would be stuck down so that they would vibrate sympathetically as overtones when lower keys were struck. He wrote that at age 19, during World War I. In “the Banshee,” you can hear the clusters especially well in the lower octaves, where all the notes blur together in a horrifying whorl of sound.
This recording is from a 1963 LP made by Cowell for Smithsonian Folkways just two years before the composer’s death, and it’s a nice, compact performance that captures just how freaky “The Banshee” could be. Cowell, for his part, isn’t all that well-known today, and nor are most of his works—he was far enough ahead of the curve that I think people didn’t start to pick up on his contributions until others, such as Bartok and Cage (Cage was his student, and so was George Gershwin!), had already picked them up and run with them.
For instance, it was Cowell who commissioned the first-ever rhythm machine. In 1930. He asked Leon Theremin to make it for him, and while there aren’t any recordings of it that I’m aware of, they did make it and use it in concerts (it debuted at a concert that also featured quarter-tone piano music by Mildred Couper). It was keyboard-driven, and used spinning discs and photoreceptors to determine the rhythmic patterns it generated. Cowell conceived it to play the overtone series and polyrhythms he was using in his other music and even wrote a seldom-performed concerto for it. Each key repeated a single tone in a set rhythm, and the next key played the next tone in the overtone series twice as fast, the next played the next overtone three times as fast, etc.
The instrument never took off, mostly because it worked very poorly, but it’s the original in the long string of devices that led us to the drum machines and sequencers we have now. You can even fool around with a virtual Rhythmicon here: http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/rhythmicon/. And as with the Rhythmicon, Cowell’s innovations may not be directly known by many, but they are very much a part of the world we live in now—he was a musicologist, leader and teacher as well as composer, the founder of New Music magazine, a pioneer of aleatory and percussion music, and a generally hard-working, creative person. There are whole swathes of our musical vocabulary that he invented, helped invent or curated.
Louis & Bebe Barron: Forbidden Planet Main Title (Forbidden Planet OST, 1956)
A little more frightening music for the run-up to Halloween. Like yesterday’s post, this one is from a soundtrack, but one that’s less obviously horror-focused.
The score for MGM’s Forbidden Planet was as innovative as the film itself, and is generally recognized as the very first entirely electronic film score. Louis & Bebe Barron were electronic music innovators, thought to be the first Americans to compose music for magnetic tape (in 1950), and they were originally hired by MGM to do sound effects for the film. They landed the full scoring job after producers heard the results.
This is the main title theme, and it must have sounded like the future to moviegoers in 1956, though perhaps not a future they wanted to imagine for their children. It’s bleak and uncontoured, a misshapen sculpture that doesn’t fall back on the easy eeriness of the Theremin as Bernard Hermann’s (excellent) score for 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still did. Every sound you hear is meticulously sampled, cut up, speed-adjusted, and recorded, sound-by-sound, onto a second tape. It’s a precursor to the techniques used at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop starting in 1958.
It’s a captivating and creepy piece of music, disorienting in its own way. I love the way they open it with a mangled recording of the MGM lion—could that be a sly thank you to the producers of the film for sticking with the Barrons in the face of opposition from the musicians’ union? The union of course freaked out at the slightest hint that its members might be replaced by electronics, and the brilliant and widely praised score for Forbidden Planet was surely a sign of the coming end to its organizers.
Because the Barrons weren’t members of the union, they weren’t eligible for an Academy Award, and one of the greatest scores of the whole 20th Century went un-nominated. They were also credited with “electronic tonalities” in the main titles instead of music.
Still, any way you want to look at it, the score is an electronic music landmark, one that took the music out of the studios of musical intellectuals and put it in the ears of the public. And it’s pretty creepy, too. Enjoy.
Goblin: “Suspiria” Main Title (Suspiria OST, 1977)
I was debating last night whether to post any Halloween-appropriate music, and it took me a few seconds to get over myself and just admit that I’m predictable. Listening to freaky music this time of the year is fun, so why resist?
Let’s start with an all-timer. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is an odd horror film. If you’ve never seen it, I recommend it (the whole thing can be found on YouTube). Thing is, though, it’s not so much scary as it is intense. It’s highly stylized, to the point where even the characters’ suffering and brutal demises come off as oddly pretty, but it’s also capable of making you squirm and check your appendages (two non-spoiler words: razor wire). A still that gives you an idea of the movie’s visual aesthetic:
This was the last film to be processed at Technicolor’s Italian plant, and it makes me wish Technicolor was still a widely used processing method.
Like so many films I’ve seen over the years, I saw Suspiria long after I first heard the soundtrack (there are hundreds of movies whose soundtracks I own that I’ve never seen—many hundreds counting Bollywood). Goblin were an Italian prog band, and in my opinion they did a bang-up job setting the tone for the movie with this theme. The music box melody, the talking drum, the little squiggles of Moog and the menacing whisper come together to make the cab ride in the opening scene truly hair-raising.
But then there’s also the middle part of the track. I don’t remember how that fit into the movie (if it did at all), but it’s a pretty awesome little jam. Reminds me a little of Pink Floyd’s “Sheep,” which came out just a month before the movie (and which is to say it’s almost certainly a coincidence). I think it’s a little bit of the band reminding you that it has a personality outside the movie (they scored two other Argento films and released two albums of their own, one under the name Cherry Five).
I always found it amusing that the English-language credits for Suspiria credit Goblin as The Goblins.
Edit: Lone Pilgrim correctly notes that while Animals wasn’t released until January, 1977, “Sheep” has a much longer history, going back to 1974 (when it was called “Raving And Drooling”) It was introduced, along with “You Gotta Be Crazy” (which later became “Dogs”) during a 1974 tour, so I suppose it’s possible Goblin had seen them live or something and absorbed the influence of the song. Even on the earliest version of “Raving” I have, from a show in Bristol in December 1974, the song has the chorused bass and big sheets of synth that give it a similar character to “Suspiria,” so you never know.
I just found out today that Marion Brown died on October 18th. I’m dismayed but not shocked that it took so long for me to find out—Brown wasn’t a household name. He was a great musician, though. He’s probably best known for being in Coltrane’s band for the Ascension album, but he was a pathfinding bandleader in his own right.
Free jazz can be a hard sell, and I understand why. It’s intellectual music on a pretty fundamental level—listening and enjoying it requires you to think your way out of the musical structures that are around you every day. Verses and choruses and steady rhythms give us something to hold on to when we listen. In free music, though, it’s the musicians holding on to you, and the best performances move past the intellectual concept of free improv and reach an emotional, even cathartic place.
There are many, many ways to play free, and Brown tried many of them on his albums, starting with grooves and breaking them down, building off of melodic themes or establishing a mood for the band to explore. “Fortunato” comes from his third album, which was recorded for Bernard Stollman’s ESP-Disk label, which famously had the motto “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk.”
Though the label wasn’t able to last, during its time it was the perfect home for artists like Brown, who were driven to expand their art to its very breaking point. This particular song, for me, is an example of free music transcending its intellectual foundations and finding a rare kind of beauty in the spontaneous sculpture the musicians make together. Brown’s alto sax is especially poignant. The other musicians on the session (held on October 23rd, 1966) were Stanley Cowell on piano, Norris “Sirone” Jones on bass, and Rashied Ali on drums. Cowell is the only one still with us.
Brown had a small revival of interest outside the jazz world in 2007 when Warn Defever’s long-running His Name Is Alive project recorded a fine tribute to him called Sweet Earth Flower—at the time, he was in declining health, but he seemed pretty happy that someone was making a serious attempt to interpret his legacy. By virtue of the difficult medium he chose, his name may never be widely known, but he was truly one of a kind, and I’m sad to see him go.
After a few days talking about broadly ambient, introverted music, I think it’s time to change things up.
When it comes to electronic dance music, I am what is generally referred to as “not an expert,” or, less charitably, a dilettante. Which is fine. You can’t know everything. I am told that this is house music. Which is funny, because the last place I want to listen to it is my house. I want to listen to this is a big room full of people all moving to its beat. Or failing that, at least a rapidly moving automobile. Still, my house will do in a pinch.
One of the reasons this is one of my favorite house tracks (not that I’ve heard more than maybe a hundred or so tracks that fit the label) is that it works so well as a funky, moody pop song as well. In the interest of not kidding myself, I know I’ll never hear this in a club, because there’s a negligible chance I’ll find myself in one, but I can nod along anywhere else.
Azari & III are Canadian, and I don’t know much more about them than that. This is one of my favorite songs from last year, an opinion I know a few people share, but it got broadly overlooked. It is (and I’m going on what I’ve read here, not what I know) apparently a throwback to the sound of 80s house, so maybe that’s why? Whatever, it’s awesome. Enjoy.
Rachel’s: “Water From The Same Source” (Systems/Layers, 2003)
Years ago, when I reviewed this album, I did it while riding the train home from work in downtown Chicago. We lived way outside the city in an exurb called Mundelein. Nothing against the town, but I wouldn’t live there again. It was too far out, required too much driving to get anywhere and left us feeling cut off from the city, even though I went there every day.
But let me tell you, when you have an hour on the train and Systems/Layers on your headphones while the increasingly bare trees scroll by in late October and there are dead-eyed people all around you just waiting to be home, this music really hits the spot. It’s melancholy without being sad, warm and organic and gorgeous, and perfect for conjuring That Feeling I talked about yesterday.
There was this stop on the Metra called Grayland. And every morning on the way to work, the automated voice would cut in over whatever I was listening to and say “Now approaching… Grayland.” And by that point, I was almost at work (at a big insurance company in the Aon Center, which at the time was the 13th-tallest building in the world), and the announcement just seemed to describe my situation at that moment, every day. I was approaching grayland, where I’d wander around cubicles for eight hours, waiting for the day to end so I could run across the Loop, hop on a train seconds before it left, and take it to my car in a dollar-a-day lot and drive another half hour home to cook the same dinner I cooked almost every night.
And when I didn’t have something else to review, Rachel’s became a frequent soundtrack for this, and I’d listen as I rode home and think, “Hey, you know, life is really not that bad.”
I didn’t hear “All My Friends” until recently, when I clicked on a video on my Tumblr feed and watched a video that turned out to be the LCD Soundsystem song that above all others the young and not-so-young-anymore people I follow in various places on the Internet express love and desire and need about, often in terms that are more familiar to me from religion and liturgy. It’s become, as far as I understand these things, something of a generational touchstone, in the mino,r exclusive-club way that indie rock culture (or hipster culture, or young-educated-people-who-spend-a-lot-of-time-online culture) manages to find generational touchstones that can be more or less opaque to the broader culture. See also, for various generations of hipsters/educated-youth, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire, etc., etc.
I can understand why people would latch onto this song emotionally without at all latching onto it myself; maybe you had to be there in 2006 and 2007, or maybe, as I’m increasingly coming to believe, my life experience makes it impossible for me to grasp its emotional significance.
“All my friends” is, and has been for as long as I can remember, a phrase that doesn’t apply to me. I’ve had friends, of course, but always briefly. I move away or change jobs and don’t keep in touch and my resistance to emotional intimacy makes it hard for people who might want to keep in touch to even try. I have one or two close friends, but I rarely see them and I’m not sure I even have much in common with them any more. A song which is a celebration — or not even that, an examination, an acknowledgment, an
awareness — of friendship cannot find emotional purchase, only scrapes its tiny hooks against the sheer rock of my solitude. I know what friendship is; but like most of my knowledge, it’s abstract, filled in by memory and imagination. My organs of intercourse, as a seventeenth-century writer might say, are shriveled from disuse.
I get what Jonathan is saying in this post, about fear of intimacy, about losing touch—I’ve managed to get married and at certain times piece together something of a social life, but I have a similar way of interacting with the world, ultimately. (I think more than intimacy, I fear rejection, or more to the point that my presence isn’t wanted, only tolerated).
So I understand why he, or more correctly the person he describes himself as, because I don’t actually know him, doesn’t make a connection to “All My Friends.” It actually took me some time, too. But when I did finally get this song, it hit me very, very hard. And I don’t think it was necessarily the specifics of friendship or social interactions that Murphy describes in the song that drew me into it.
What I get from this song is more between the lines. There’s a real sense of things slipping away and time advancing beyond our control that I really feel every second of my life. And the friendships Murphy describes—what is their actual nature? “That’s how it starts/we go back to your house.” That, to me, is emotionally distant, almost more a transaction than intimacy.
There’s a lot of pretending and coming apart and bad films and dancing all night and stupidity and conversation “grinding away” in the song. I’ve never stayed out at a club all night—I’ve only ever been to maybe three parties that lasted till dawn, actually. To me—and I have no idea if this is what Murphy intended, but it’s what I hear—this is a painfully sad song about having your friends and dancing and running through the night, while never making a real connection to anything. The friends, after all, are absent at the end of the song.
I think that seeps into the brilliant arrangement, too. There is distance between every sound in this song, and every line seems calibrated to shout into that distance. It’s a song that reminds me how unconnected I am to people and how little I’ve accomplished so far and somehow makes me feel okay about it.
The Balanescu Quartet: “Waltz” (Angels & Insects OST, 1995)
I have an iTunes playlist called “That Feeling.” It’s called that because I have no word for the feeling that the music I put in the playlist instills in me. It’s a really specific thing, though, a kind of engaged lightness that I find especially charged when working at night. You see why it’s difficult to really give it a name.
Strings and piano are the instruments that dominate this playlist—it’s possible there’s just something about the timbre of those instruments when they’re recorded a certain way that appeals to a certain part of my brain and makes it easy to think. But the compositional style is important too—it can’t be too busy. Max Richter, Rachel’s, Dakota Suite and Philip Glass are all in there, as is some of Sharokh Yadegari & Keyevash Nourai’s minimal violin/electronics music, among other things.
Whatever it is, I like the feeling a lot, and the Balanescu Quartet’s “Waltz” was the first thing I ever put in the playlist. It’s a quick waltz, as the title implies, from a soundtrack to a movie I’ve never seen (sounds like an interesting period drama, though, with a lead character who’s kind of Darwin-ish). I don’t know what happens onscreen while this plays, but I also don’t care and can’t imagine it making the music any better.
The Balanescu Quartet are led by Romanian violinist Alexander Balanescu—their first recording was playing a Michael Nyman arrangement on a Kate Bush album, and their first album was a recording of some Nyman quartets. They’ve also paid tribute to the great Romanian singer Maria Tanase—on Angels & Insects, Balanescu employs full string sections and other instruments as needed, and winds up with a soundtrack that stands very well on its own.
Kronos Quartet with Hassan Hakmoun: “Saade” (Pieces of Africa, 1992)
Yesterday’s piece by a South African string quartet (which was a cover of a Sting instrumental) brings me to this. Kronos are an American string quartet, here working with Moroccan composer/performer Hassan Hakmoun—it’s kind of easy to wall off North African music from that of the sub-Sahara because of the cultural and racial differences and geographic separation, but this, too, is African music. “Saade” is Hakmoun’s development of an old song, composed in 1991.
The title translates a little ambiguously from Arabic, meaning “I’m Happy” or “My Luck.” Hakmoun sings on this and plays sintir (a three-stringed bass lute), and the quartet arrangement is fleshed out further by oud and a drum called a bander. This is essentially traditional music translated into art music, which is something the Kronos Quartet have shown an amazing knack for in almost 40 years as one of the most adventurous and musically progressive strings quartets going.
This recording features founder/violinist David Harrington, violinist John sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jean Jeanrenaud, the quartet’s longest-lasting lineup, and their talent was in matching the precise requirements of whatever style they were playing. Pieces of Africa (eyeroll at the pun in the title) features pieces from composers across the continent and as such skips through quite a range of approaches, all of which they handle with ease.
At over 40 albums, the Kronos discography is a little daunting, and it’s best to figure out where to start by looking at the collaborators or the theme of the disc. They’ve worked with Arvo Part, Henryck Gorecki, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Morton Feldman, Asha Bhosle, Bjork, Astor Piazzolla, Dawn Upshaw, Tom Waits, Dave Grisman, Steve Reich (they’re premiering a new work of his in a few months at Duke University) and dozens of others.
Unlike a lot of their classical-world contemporaries, they’re not afraid to work with pop artists or pay tribute to them. They’ve recorded tributes to jazz pianists Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, Celtic music, African music, minimalist works, experimental process and aleatory music, Mexican folk music, Sigur Ros songs and Bollywood music. They take risks. There’s almost certainly something for you somewhere in their catalog.
Soweto String Quartet: “St. Agnes And The Burning Train” (Zebra Crossing, 1994)
And now for something completely different. I don’t think string quartets are typically the first thing that come to mind when most people think of Africa—and honestly, there’s no reason they should be—but South Africa’s Soweto String Quartet, named for the township of their origin, are worth talking about.
They had the misfortune to record a few of their albums in the mid-90s, and as such there are a lot of the signifiers that gave world music a dirty name through much of the 80s and 90s, namely occasional and incongruous intrusions by slap bass and a just generally odd tendency to pile on a bunch of inessential, “modern” elements.
But even those albums produced occasional stunners, and “St. Agnes And The Burning Train” is the most stunning of them all. This is a plainly gorgeous piece of music, and the little bit of vibraphone nipping at the edges of the pizzicato rhythm playing and sinewy violin lead actually helps deepen the mood of the piece. It sounds a little like something Mark Mothersbaugh might have dreamed up for an early Wes Anderson movie—it has that same “heightened reality” effect as Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums.
I guess I could have chosen something else from this group—something more “African,” like one of their kwela-inspired pieces—but honestly, this is my favorite thing, and ultimately, I think it’s best to go with the thing you love.
Edit: I was unaware that this is a version of an instrumental by Sting from The Soul Cages. But it should be mentioned. thanks to bringmethejukeboxofalfredogarcia for pointing that out.
King Sunny Ade & His African Beats: “Ase” (Aura, 1984)
On my way home from the cat shelter tonight, I stopped for a quick dinner at Leo’s Coney Island (if you don’t know, “Coney Island” is Southeast Michigander for “diner”). I was re-reading an old David Foster Wallace essay about the adult film industry’s annual awards show, and in the next booth, two guys were engaged in a rather one-way conversation about religion. I couldn’t hear the occasional question asked by the quiet one, but the loud one seemed to be at that point in very early adulthood where one has—at last!—figured everything out.
Actually, he made a number of good points, as people who are willing to question themselves often do, and I couldn’t help liking the way he asserted that every religion is just a little piece of knowledge, and you only get anything close to a full picture when you look at all of them. That’s an interesting idea, though I’m not sure how clear the full picture would be.
I have my own views on religion, but it got me thinking about music in terms I’ve actively tried to avoid for quite a few years, namely the idea of music as a whole thing. I think the idea of music as a whole thing—something that could be explored to its edges—appealed to me when I was younger and in the first acquisitive flush of fandom. The notion that you can hear it all is absurd, of course, and it’s one that slowly falls away the more you hear.
It seems plausible at the start, though, when you only know a few bands and haven’t yet seen a mile-long list of new releases for the week, and how much music could possibly have come out of all those other countries out there anyway? But then you start peeking around corners and each one reveals a dozen new corners, and you also start to realize that a lot of music happens outside the range of recording devices. Like, Baka Pygmies have been singing their mushroom gathering songs in the middle of the forest for hundreds of years, and that’s really where the notion of music as a neat body of work you can explore systematically breaks down completely.
These days, I like knowing that I’ll never hear everything, not least because new music is being made all the time. It just means I’ll never run out of corners to look around, and I’m bound to keep finding things that interest me.
The idea that you can hear everything often happens in microcosm with new discoveries—it was definitely like that with me when I first heard Fela. I figured there was a limit to the amount of great music I could hear from Nigeria. But I was so wrong. There is no limit, and at the time I didn’t even realize that the country produced musicians who were a whole lot more popular than Fela himself, and just as distinctive.
King Sunny Ade was one of those artists, one of the great juju musicians of his era, and one of the few to manage a crossover into Western markets—his crossover success is only surprising if you don’t consider the fact that songs like “Ase” play quite easily next to the Talking Heads and other stuff that was popular in the West in the early 80s. It’s actually pretty likely that was because some of that music was influenced by his own 70s recordings, and his passing fame in the US was a rare and welcome instance of a shadow influence getting his due.
Rex Williams: “You Are My Heart” (Philips West Africa 45 PK 7-9220, 1975)
Songs like this are among the many, many reasons to branch out and give pop music from around the world a try. Aside from simply broadening your horizons and making a more direct emotional connection to people you might otherwise know from news reports or stereotypes, getting yourself into music outside the usual Anglo-American sphere we’re exposed to daily in the English-speaking West can lead you to amazing gems like this one.
"You Are My Heart" is basically a hybrid of guitar highlife and Western pop balladry, a style that apparently made Rex Williams quite popular in Anglophone West Africa. The cycling rhythm guitar parts give the song a solid center, but it’s the free-floating lead guitar and melodic bass line that give the song its gripping sense of drift. The unison vocals are pretty, and they’re almost accents. There are hardly any lyrics outside the refrain, but it took me many listens to realize that.
This is what a great pop song does, ultimately: it makes you think there’s more there than there actually is. It makes you feel things well outside the actual vibrations of the sound. To put it another way, would you not want to be the person this song was written for?
Sweet Talks: “Eyi Su Ngaangaa” (The Kusum Beat, 1974)
So another thing that I mentioned in that first post on African music a few days ago was Sound Way’s Ghana Soundz compilation. Hearing that disc was a life-changer for me. It threw open the doors to a whole world I never knew existed.
I played it constantly in a way I almost never get to do anymore—at this point, I’m suffering from too-much-ness, a condition where the amount of music in your life overwhelms the amount of time you have to listen to it (thank you, Internet and publicists). When my wife and I were painting in that first house we bought and grooving to Ghana Soundz, the music helped make it feel like the chore was worth doing. A few tracks jumped out at me right away as mind-blowers, and others took a little more simmering.
One song that took a bit of simmering was “Eyi Su Ngaangaa” by the Sweet Talks. The Sweet Talks were a highlife band led by A.B. Crentsil. They got their start as the official group of a glass company (and can I just say how awesome it is that a glass company had an official band?), but eventually broke out on their own. Their 1974 album, the Kusum Beat, included a couple of storming funk ragers, of which this is one (Sound Way ultimately reissued the whole album earlier this year—it is worth getting).
The groove in this song is so tense that it’s almost amazing they got any momentum out of it. Every time the horns manage one of their runs, it feels like they’re breaking through a wall. Or maybe it’s the other way around. The guitarist is holding back something unstoppable with that taut strumming, and occasionally, somebody breaks through. For pure psychedelic energy, it’s hard to beat the swirl of this song, and I think it’s become my favorite song from either of the two Ghana Soundz comps.
Girma Bèyènè: “Ené Nègn Bay Manèsh” (Ahma Records 45, 1969)
In my last post, I mentioned buying Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques 8 compilation. Subtitled Swinging Addis, this comp is note-for-note one of the best CDs I’ve ever bought. It includes music released on the Ethiopian independent label Ahma Records between 1969 and 1975, the year Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, was overthrown and Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime destroyed the nightlife of Addis Ababa with curfews.
I really can’t recommend it enough. Compiler Francis Falceto really went out of his way to include biographical information on all the performers, translate the songs and provide context. The creative burst that accompanied the final years of Selassie’s reign left behind a truly amazing body of work—the fidelity may not necessarily be high, but the music is funky, soulful, dark and very distinctly Ethiopian. The scales and vocal styles stamp it with a national identity.
Girma Beyene is a keyboardist, arranger and singer who was hugely responsible for the sound of Ethiopian pop music in the 60s and 70s. He played in the original Ras Band, one of Ethiopia’s first independent bands, and when the band was poached by another hotel, he stayed behind and founded a second Ras Band. He was the guy who hired Tesfa Maryam Kidane, one of the country’s greatest saxophonists, and Beyene actually was the most prolific arranger of the late imperial period, arranging more records than Mulatu Astatke, who he also worked with on occasion.
Beyene stuck with it after the rise of Mengistu, too, leading the Wallias Band until he left them during a 1981 tour of the US, deciding not to return home. His music career didn’t last long after his emigration, and he faded into the Ethiopian immigrant community of the American East Coast.
"Ene Negn Bay Manesh" is one of only four songs he ever recorded as a singer. He doesn’t have the powerful pipes of a Tlahoun Gessesse or Alemayehu Eshete, but his hushed vocals perfectly fit the smoky, dark vibe of his songs. His organ playing on this song is deftly funky and has a blues tinge to it, and those horns sound like an opening to another world, so it’s fitting that this was the first Ethiopian pop song I ever heard.
Tabu Ley Rochereau et l’African Fiesta: “N ‘daya Paradis” (1964)
I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to go to Africa. African music has been an obsession of mine for years. It started quite simply in college with a couple of Fela Kuti albums, and then started spiraling out of control with Sound Way’s 2002 compilation Ghana Soundz. I got that compilation in 2003 in Chicago right around the time my wife and I bought our first house. It was a duplex (well, half a duplex) in the exurb of Mundelein, and we bought it a month before our apartment lease was up so we could go in and make it our own before moving.
There was a bit of wallpaper to remove and a lot of painting to do, and Ghana Soundz was a big part of our soundtrack. A little later, I started working in downtown Chicago, and it didn’t take long to realize I could walk to Jazz Record Mart, Tower and Virgin—it wasn’t that long ago, but doesn’t that sound like a different world? Jazz Record Mart is the only survivor—may they live long. So I’d go to the African portion of their World Music sections and buy the most interesting looking thing. Ethiopiques 8 was the biggest and best blind score.
This left me with a scattershot picture of African popular music—back then, there weren’t nearly as many compilations, books and websites about this stuff, and you had to dig around to find the connections between these things. The lack of information often made it feel as though there was a limited amount of music to even find. Still, I built up enough confidence to write this article, which basically tried to make a meal out of crumbs. That ran in April 2005.
In the intervening years, there has been an explosion of interest in African music in the US. Some of it has to do with these guys and their colleagues. Granted, the interest has been there in different ways for a long time—Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra is a pretty good example of Americans living out their love of the music long before it was hip—but I think the difference after 2005 was the multitude of easy platforms from which to share that interest and love. And so American and European bloggers basically went to town, making available what had long been hidden, and a crop of record labels dove in with both feet to try and bring some archival order to the feeding frenzy.
Basically it’s a good time to love African music. Amadou & Mariam albums automatically get released everywhere now. Ali Farka Toure has been posthumously canonized, and his sometime collaborator Toumani Diabate can essentially make whatever path for himself he wants. Bembeya Jazz and Orchestra Baobab reunited, other old-guard artists are back making good-sounding records that aren’t hard to find, and the reissue bonanza is still giving generously. Go here, here, here, here, here, here, here or here, and you could lose a day digging through all the old music that hasn’t yet been officially resurrected.
All of this brings me to “N ‘Daya Paradis.” This is a beautiful mid-60s rumba tune from Congo, sung by the Voice of Lightness himself. That gorgeous Hawaiian guitar intro and the burbling rhythm guitar are beyond wonderful. This song is available on a Rochereau compilation issued by Sterns, which is wonderful and highly recommended, but I actually first heard it before it was reissued, from one of the sites mentioned above.
I think I chose to put this song in this post because of what it represents to me. It was one of the first songs that took me out of the Ethiopiques/Afrobeat/Afrorock/Afrofunk sphere and into a style that was much more common currency in a large part of Africa (Congolese rumba). It’s really easy to be blinded by all the kickass disco, funk and rock music that’s been dug up in Africa and forget about the highlife and the mbaqanga and the benga. And by now, it should be clear that the well that seemed so manageable to me back in 2002 is unfathomably deep.
So this cool little rumba tune opened a whole world for me. Gary Stewart’s amazing history Rumba On The River is the most authoritative book about the music scene of the two Congos in the 20th Century, and I read it as I delved deeper and deeper into Congolese music with the help of websites and comps. When approaching the music of Africa, I think it’s okay to skim a little Fela off the top and not worry about the rest, but I think it’s even better to take a real trip and look into the music produced across the continent. There’s a lot of amazing stuff to find.
Some songs just make you want to tell the person singing them that everything is going to be okay. In the case of “Cars And Parties,” I’d probably also give Edith Frost a blanket and a warm cup of tea or cocoa. She made this little gem when she was living in Chicago (Steve Albini recorded it, and the band includes Glenn Kotche, Rian Murphy, Mark Greenberg, Archer Prewitt, Ryan Hembrey, Amy Domingues and a bunch of other Chicago scene players), and as you can tell from the lyrics, she was feeling a little homesick for the much warmer place where she grew up.
Funny how, of all things, a party can be the thing that reminds you how far from home you are. I’ve always thought loneliness was exacerbated by crowds, and Frost seems to agree—this song gives me a very clear image of its protagonist, walking home earlier than everyone else she’s just been with, shivering a little while waiting to cross the street and reminding herself to call her mom.
Frost lives in the Bay Area now, so I imagine she’s at least warmer—no word on whether the traffic or party scene are more to her liking. But you have to admit that she did pining for another life really well on this song.
Belle & Sebastian: “Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie” (3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light EP, 1997)
Belle & Sebastian’s new album, Write About Love, is out this week. In my view, it’s fairly uneven, but still has a few killer songs, which I’d say is a fair description of everything they’ve released since If You’re Feeling Sinister. They’re a band clearly in love with pop music, and they’ve spent ten years now pulling more and more styles into their sound—sometimes it’s brilliant and sometimes it makes me long for their early days when Stuart Murdoch was always center stage, and they were terrible live, boycotting the press and making songs that all sounded basically the same.
Or well, most of them sounded the same. They perfected a very specific chamber pop sound on Tigermilk and Sinister that was versatile enough to give them a lot of mileage, but even back then, you could tell they were itching to try other things. “Electronic Renaissance” is the song that stands out from Tigermilk, though really, the songwriting fits pretty well with everything else on the album—the synths and programming sound more like a band playing dress-up and doing it well.
But “Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie,” hidden away on the second track of an EP, really was something different for them. Murdoch’s second-person lyrics, addressed to an awkward girl who feels out of place at church, at school and at home, are in his 90s wheelhouse (nobody did these outsider short stories as well as Murdoch), but the form is much more consciously rock than anything else he’d done to that point. It’s the only set of words that wouldn’t sound as good sung over a strummed acoustic.
And the band arranged it to match. Murdoch’s fey voice is swept up by this song, with its punchy organ intro, surf-y guitar and rushing drums—it’s the sore thumb of their pre-Boy With the Arab Strap output, and it’s great.
"Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie" is viewed as a pretty minor Belle & Sebastian song by most people, which isn’t odd given that the band themselves consigned it to its place on the EP, but I actually think it deserves some re-evaluation. It’s this song, more than any other, that pointed toward the band Belle & Sebastian would become in the 21st Century, the omnivorous stylists who are willing to jump into a genre exercise feet-first and adapt their stories to fit it.
Solomon Burke: We’re Almost Home (Cool Breeze OST, 1972) [with Gene Page & Jerry Styner]
Soul legend Solomon Burke passed away early today. He was 70.
Burke started his career in the 50s, when he was still a teenager. Like Sam Cooke before him, he started out singing gospel and made the move to secular r&b in pursuit of hits. Unlike Cooke, he never managed the big crossover, but he commanded the respect of his peers, and his contributions were enough to get him into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
He’s best known for his r&b records in the mid-60s and his late career resurgence, especially the widely (and deservedly) acclaimed 2002 LP Don’t Give Up On Me, but the man had a 50-year recording and performing career (he had an album scheduled to come out this month).
His 70s and 80s output is less talked about than his career bookends, but there’s a lot of good stuff to be found there, including his 1972 soundtrack for Cool Breeze, a blaxploitation reworking of The Asphalt Jungle that features a crew of guys robbing an institutional bank so they can use the money to set up their own bank for poor black people.
Burke worked with Gene Page (who also did the score for Blacula) and Jerry Styner on the soundtrack, but his vocal numbers dominate it, and “We’re Almost Home,” the final cut on the album, just feels like the right choice for a tribute post.
Neutral Milk Hotel: “Holland, 1945” (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998)
The segue from a gospel funk tune recorded in 1974 to this blast of fuzz from Athens, Georgia in 1998 isn’t quite as abrupt as it seems, at least in my mind. That’s because if there’s one thing Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum sang with, it was conviction. In fact, he seems to have felt his music so deeply that he’s been unable to keep making it—the last Neutral Milk Hotel studio effort was released in 1998, and his only releases since then have been live performances and field recordings. He plays on special occasions these days but has said in interviews that he’s not sure he’ll ever write another album.
Not that he needs to. Granted, there’s a selfish world outside his door that desperately wants him to, but you know, artists should be allowed to do what’s best for themselves, and I can’t even imagine the pressure a guy like Mangum would feel putting together another record.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes “Holland, 1945” so compelling, but that’s maybe because it’s not just one thing. You need a lot of fingers to get a hold of them all. A lot has been made of the opening verse, which is pretty obviously about Anne Frank and her sister Margot dying in Bergen-Belsen in March, 1945, “just weeks before the guns all came and rained on everyone” (the British liberated the camp on April 15, 1945).
A lot of people all over the world read Anne Frank’s diary in school, but Mangum apparently only read it as an adult, and in interviews over the years, he’s been pretty open about the devastating effect it had on him. Positioning Frank as the only girl he’s ever loved in the first line really personalizes his take on the story, and when he gets cryptic by implying that she’s been reincarnated as a little boy in Spain, it doesn’t seem odd—he seems to know that’s what happened with a great deal of certainty.
The rest of the song doesn’t get as much press, but the middle verse is just as dark and bursting with full-voiced emotion. I’ve read it’s about the suicide of a family friend, and while I don’t know that for sure, it follows, with the lines “he didn’t mean to make you cry” and the whole bit about riding the comet and never returning.
But for all that, it’s really the last verse that kills me.
And here’s where your mother sleeps And here is the room where your brothers were born Indentions in the sheets Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore
There’s nothing there that’s overtly moving, apart perhaps from the ambiguous “don’t move anymore,” which could imply death, but the way Mangum sings it, in these ascending phrases, with all the instruments bleeding together and the horns buzzing around him, gives it the huge weight of mortality. It makes you think about the frailty and temporariness of everyone you care about.
One of the things that bugs some people about Neutral Milk Hotel, particularly on Aeroplane, is Mangum’s tendency to sing at the top of his lungs without affecting much of a style—it’s his speaking voice turned up to eleven winding its way through a melody. But really, try to imagine this sung any other way. It wouldn’t be as powerful. It just wouldn’t. It’s what makes the album a courageous performance and a statement. And it’s what makes “Holland, 1945” undeniable even in its most obtuse moments.
The Ramada Singers: “Wade In the Water” (Simon Peter [Su-Ann SA-1742], 1974)
Yesterday, I wrote about Ben Fold Five’s “Lullabye” and posited that a major source of the song’s uplifting power was Folds’ use of chords and rhythms often associated with gospel music. It makes sense, right? The whole idea behind gospel music is the literal uplift of the soul to Heaven, so borrowing the music’s rolling cadence and harmonic structure ought to port over to a non-religious song.
But maybe I was being too general. I mean, gospel music is hardly a standardized thing—very broadly speaking, any music heavily tied in to Christian belief could qualify, though we tend to reserve the term for certain music and create new categories like Christian rock for stuff that doesn’t fall into the narrower frame.
In internet parlance, you could say my relationship with gospel music is “complicated.” I’ve written a couplereviews for Pitchfork where I’ve grappled with this a bit, but there is a certain distance I feel I’ll always have from the music simply because I’m not Christian, or religious at all, for that matter. I have Catholic roots, but have considered myself unaffiliated since I was about twelve. I did the teenager thing where you shop around for a religion that you feel fits better with your personal idea of spirituality, but all that did was put me off every religion.
So I don’t really believe much of anything I hear in gospel music, but I still find myself drawn to it for its fervor, for its soul. I have no idea what soul actually is—I am fairly convinced it’s not some actual entity, like another layer of you that steps out for a new destination when you die (could be wrong about that, though). But it exists of some level. Our intellect, our ability to feel and become emotionally involved, the invisible power of a song—that all adds up to something, surely.
It could just be neurons firing in a pattern that creates an unexplainable feeling, and I’m not bothered by it if that’s all it is. Anyway, my lack of religion (which is a different thing than soul—religion is a structure for belief) makes me hyper-sensitive to anything that feels like an attempt to tell me that I am on the wrong path and should seek a different one through a church or some other religious organization/building/congregation/dogma/etc. Partly, it’s that I don’t go around telling people that their religion is the wrong path and appreciate reciprocal treatment (none of us really know anyway, which is why I think evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are just as religious as anyone else).
In this version of the very old spiritual “Wade In the Water,” the Ramada Singers are very much telling me that I am wrong. While I could choose to simply believe that I’m not in the category of sinners they are chastising, I know that’s ridiculous—people like me are totally the target of this song. It’s a call to God for people who aren’t already running to Him, and a tough, vehement call at that. Most of these lyrics aren’t in any other version of this song—in fact, I’d say the band really just uses the chorus of “Wade In The Water” as a jumping off point for its own preaching.
And yet, this is one of my favorite tracks ever. These guys managed to make a recording powerful enough to make me love a song that accuses me as I listen to it. “Dropped in the water/the water was cold/chilled my body but not my soul.” Damn. I mean, that is powerful, especially delivered in that ragged soul shout over such a funky backdrop. In fact, the physicality of the music (huge props to the bass player), is probably the thing that draws me inescapably toward it. I love funk, and I’ll put up with a lot for a good groove—here, the contrast between the intensely physical music and the intense spiritual message sets up a tension I can’t deny. The song is like a battle between the corporeal and the ethereal.
And I mean, there’s a level on which I’m jealous of the kind of conviction that can lead a guy to sing like this. He is at the outer limits of his voice—he can’t sing any harder. Compare this to other versions of this song—Ramsey Lewis’ swinging instrumental, Marlena Shaw’s 1966 soul hit, the Soul Stirrers version, any number of gospel choir and vocal group versions, Califone’s weird junkyard cover, and it’s the end-all, an ironically definitive reading that doesn’t remotely stick to the more-than-century-old content of the song.
I don’t know anything about the Ramada Singers except that they were from South Carolina and apparently released a couple records on Su-Ann. I found this song here years ago and have never come across any more information about it. They just dropped this mega-bomb and vanished. And there’s the out-of-focus photo below. And even if I don’t ever hear another note by the band, that’s alright. A few mysteries in life are cool.
*by the way, and this is off-topic, but I’d love to know how I can get one of those “read more” links to show up in my posts so that the whole long thing doesn’t clutter people’s feeds when I do a longer entry.
Ben Folds Five: “Lullabye” (The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, 1999)
All that talking about Ben Folds and Weezer yesterday got this song rattling around in my head. I use my iPod like a jukebox in my car, just leaving it on shuffle and playing it everywhere I go. And it’s pretty much full of my favorite songs (needs an update, to be honest). Every once in a while, I’ll be on the road somewhere, and this song will pop up, and when it does, a couple things are guaranteed to happen: 1. If I’m alone, I will sing along (I do a ton of singing in the car); and 2. It’s pretty much guaranteed to lift my mood.
I think a lot of the song’s mood-elevating power stems from Folds’ use of chord progressions often found in gospel music. To a degree, it doesn’t matter what the lyrics say when you can inject a certain feeling into a song. I think everyone knows that. For instance, I’m unsure what James Earl Jones is doing in this song, boarding that plane with Folds and Uncle Richard. But it works.
I works, actually, because I think the song is about a dream—it opens with that “Goodnight, goodnight, sweet baby,” and I think rather than Folds saying that to a child, it’s someone saying it to Folds as a child. That’s what makes the most sense to me, anyway. I just get this woozy feeling from the imagery of the family, all inside and warm, and here’s this little kid getting on the plane to take a flight with two adults. Like, he’s probably really sleepy and scared, but he does it to prove to everyone he can.
The instrumental break is interesting, too—it’s ostensibly old-fashioned easy listening, with swirling strings (at least until the saxes come in, but it too has that dreamlike quality. Looking back through the album credits, I notice that Jane Scarpantoni is the cellist, which probably means very little to most people, but it sticks out to me because I’ve seen that name in the credits of what seems like dozens of albums. If you have a few dozen 1990s mainstream-ish alt-rock CDs, chances are she’s on at least one of them, kind of like the way you’ve undoubtedly heard the Kick Horns and Electra Strings if you have a lot of Britpop albums. Ween, Throwing Muses, REM and Blonde Redhead all hired her at one point, among many others.
But getting back to Ben Folds Five, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner really is a fantastic record, ambitious in the least egotistical way possible. The band touches on orchestral overload, Bacharach smoothness, Elton John grandeur, fuzzy rock, juke joint tack piano, answering machine soundscapes, chilly ballads and all manner of possibly biographical writing. Actually, the title of the album, which sounds like a throwaway, is a bit of autobiography, not for Folds, but for drummer Darren Jesse, who was one of many kids in Charlotte, NC, in the late 80s with the name Reinhold Messner on his fake ID. They didn’t even know it was the name of a famous mountaineer!
…but it’s also okay to let your favorite artists move on and do what they want to do, even if that means the world turns a little and leaves you behind.
This morning I suddenly had this urge to listen to Ben Folds, who is someone that, not only have I not listened to in a while, I haven’t even thought about in a while. And I’m not like the biggest Ben Folds fan, but I’ve had some enjoyable experiences listening to Ben Folds, and I remember how much I liked the first Ben Folds album I bought, which was Rockin’ the Suburbs. I got it because I had a cool, older friend who liked Ben Folds, and I thought it was clever and the songwriting was good. This was before I started reading much music criticism, and I remember being pretty crushed when I found out it had gotten, like, a 6.7 from Pitchfork, and I think this is a pretty good example of why people don’t like Pitchfork. But gradually I listened to a wider range of music and became more obnoxious, and, as a side effect, hipper, about it, and eventually I didn’t really listen to Ben Folds at all and came to acknowledge that, although Pitchfork was maybe a little harsh, Rockin’ The Suburbs probably would be about a 7 and that Ben Folds was not that cool. Which, of course, oversimplifies things because really the issue is that these days I’d rather listen to hip-hop or some really noisy guitar rock than some kind of twee, self-conscious indie pop. Also, that the whole 90s fetishism of awkward, ironic white dude slacking isn’t something that I find that interesting. But, when it comes down to it, I’m still glad Ben Folds is doing his thing and succeeding at it and that people enjoy it, and I’m happy that he can sell out shows in North Carolina in an hour, even though it means that I never saw him live, and I still thought it was cool this year when I met a girl who worked with him because her a cappella group was on that a cappella album he did. So best of luck to Ben Folds, and the moral of the story is that now I have an iTunes playlist with Ben Folds and Nicki Minaj on it, and the other moral of the story is don’t forget your roots, which, come to think of it, is the kind of thing Ben Folds would probably say semi-ironically in a song.
Funny that Kyle should mention that Ben Folds review here—I wrote that review. It was 2001 (and actually a 6.3—not a bad score, really. Especially back then anything in the 6s was really a qualified positive; we even had a published ratings scale to prove it), and that would’ve been maybe my 20th review for Pitchfork (I’m up to something like 800 now).
And you know, there are reviews I come across in the Pitchfork archives where I read them and I’m like, “wait, I wrote that?” You forget a lot of the foot soldier ones after a few years because the records didn’t leave a mark on you. That Folds review isn’t one I forgot, though. I was among my first headliners, and I remember I listened to the record about 20 times before I even started writing about it. I was a fan of Ben Folds Five (whose last album, which I love unequivocally, was savaged to the tune of a 3.3 by Brent DiCrescenzo) and I was struggling with what I liked less about the album.
So by hitting on Folds, Kyle has found a perfect example of an artist who falls in this category of bands and singers who are differently meaningful to people in different phases of their lives and depending on when in their careers you found them. Going back and reading this Folds review now, a few things come to mind: 1. Man, is it long! The length alone shows how much Pitchfork has changed since then. 2. It probably does too much track-by-track dissection. 3. It’s pretty accurate. 4. To this day, I feel the same way about Folds’ strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter—from 21 to 30 that’s remained constant.
It’s this last bit that amazes me. I hadn’t read that review in, well, probably nine years. If you’ll permit me the indulgence, here’s the most insightful-ish paragraph (it’s about the title track and hits on the single most frustrating thing about teh album, then and now):
"Folds obviously sees right through the false rage of bands like Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach, but he ends up leveling his guns on himself with lines like, "You better watch out because I’m gonna say fuck." Does anyone remember "Army?" Or how about the song that immediately follows, "Fired?" It ends with a big, harmonized choir of Ben Foldses shouting "Motherfucker!" It’s hard to understand why Folds still feels like he has to include this kind of thing on his albums, when most of his songwriting points to the fact that he could easily move beyond it. At any rate, the irony is thicker than cheesecake."
Like Kyle, I’ve not had the urge to listen to Folds in quite a while. Well, no that’s not quite true—I listened to him a fair amount while Pitchfork worked on its 90s list. I lobbied for a few of the band’s songs: “Underground,” “The Battle of Who Could Care Less,” “Army” and a couple others. Particularly The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner sounds great to me today. If you haven’t listened to “Lullabye” in a while, I suggest it. Back in the day, my friends found me a copy of that album that came paired with a VHS tape of live performances that I still have. There’s some good stuff on there.
And what about letting artists move on? Well, if you’re assigned to review a record, you don’t have the luxury, but I’ve kept in contact with Folds’ music over the years (the Shatner collaboration was the highlight for me, though I haven’t heard the thing with Nick Hornby yet). I wouldn’t say I love any of it, but I don’t begrudge him his right to go his own way. And honestly, for going his own way so thoroughly, he’ll always be a little cool to me.
Tom Ewing’s Popular blog is one of my favorites (if you’ve never read it, he’s reviewing every UK #1 single, one by one). He’s in 1989 right now, and I have to say, I’ve been getting a kick out of watching him grapple with not one, not two, but three #1 singles by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers (I apologize for being entertained by your pain, Tom). The latest post is here.
And if you for some reason wish to inflict this atrocity on yourself, you can hear it at this link (but do click with caution).
Jive bunny will eat your soul and ask for seconds.
Weezer: “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” (Weezer (Blue), 1994)
In this post earlier today, Matthew Perpetua linked to a site where someone is attempting to raise $10 million to get Weezer to break up, and he (correctly, in my view) identified it as mean-spirited bullshit.
I hadn’t listened to Weezer in a long time, so I took out the blue album and played it after reading his post and checking out the dumb fundraising site (hilariously, two out of the three comments excoriate the chief fundraiser for being a bad person).
I don’t know what your relationship to Weezer is, but mine goes back to 1994, when my friend Matt bought the blue album on cassette. I remember listening to it at his house and enjoying it just fine—I wasn’t listening to modern rock radio then, so I heard everything, including “Undone - The Sweater Song,” for the first time. Actually, that big hit was the one I remember somewhat bothering me. I liked the dialogue bubbling under the intro, and the piano-innards outro, but something about it was a little too overtly novel for me. I grew to like the song over the years, but still wouldn’t call it a favorite or anything.
The spry little blasts of fuzzy power pop that dot the album appealed to me more, especially the triple shot (“My Name Is Jonas,” “No One Else” and “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here”) that opened the album. I wouldn’t say the band meant anything to me, really. Certainly not in the way a lot of other bands did (honestly, it was my classic rock phase, and I’d consider Jethro Tull to be much more meaningful to my development as a music fan). I didn’t even buy Pinkerton until three years after it came out, when I started reading the revision of critical opinion on the album. Sorry, Rivers. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited.
Anyway, whenever the band releases a new album, there’s a lot of tooth-gnashing in the music writer community about the State of Weezer. Usually, we’re pretty united in not liking whatever the band’s done most recently, but what’s really funny is that every time we wind up having different permutations of the same argument over why we don’t like it.
I’ve never developed a comprehensive argument about it, perhaps because I don’t have a very strong opinion to begin with. I like the band’s first two albums a lot and most of their stuff since has left me non-plussed, though I don’t particularly hate it (there are exceptions—“Memories” and “Can’t Stop Partying” stunk), and I suppose it’s easier to cobble together some sort of theory if you have a really strong aversion to or preference for one or the other. I can rationalize why I don’t like it, what makes it different and in my mind less good, but I don’t have any need to prove that it’s bad.
The band is still really popular (moreso than in the 90s, actually), so one thing we talk about a lot is that perhaps it is we and not the band who have changed. The common point I hear made is that the blue album and Raditude are basically the same. Which is wrong, actually. The band has changed, if not in intent then in sound and execution. Their intent has always been to be a world-conquering rock band, or at least that’s how I read them. In the 90s, their approach to that was to make neat and shiny rock songs that have some remarkable flourishes of complexity (mostly in the vocal harmonies). There’s a fuzziness and a specificity to the band’s outsider persona on the blue album that’s still appealing to me.
On Pinkerton, Cuomo let the veil slip a bit and actually showed you a bit of himself. It’s a ragged record that’s exciting precisely because it’s ragged. It feels unpredictable, and not knowing where the band is going next makes following them interesting. It will always be the critical favorite for that reason, and I think it has an open honesty to it that’s made it a source of inspiration for a lot of subsequent bands.
At their worst in the past decade, they’ve displayed none of that unpredictability and certainly no vulnerability (honesty is trickier to disprove). The big choruses are precision-engineered, the cultural references seem less identifiable than shyly admitting to liking KISS in the age of Nirvana—the first moment I remember thinking something had gone wrong was when I heard “Hash Pipe.” It was all style, with a hook built around a winking drug reference (and here’s where I admit that, yes, those original listeners have changed just as the band has—they’ve honed in on a target audience that cassette-copy blue album buyers have aged out of. I might have nodded to a hash pipe reference when I was in high school).
But let’s be honest. Whatever disparities in quality my colleagues and I might perceive, late Weezer has its own power, and immunity to it isn’t some badge of honor. The big, dumb slam of “Beverly Hills” may not be the equal of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” in genuine passion for its subject matter, but it pretty much is its equal for singability and catchiness and it ultimately fills a similar space. We’re music critics because we like to really think about music, whereas most people just like to listen to music, and we can sometimes trick ourselves into believing that there’s something superior or more real about the former tendency (there’s not).
And in light of that, this “$10 million for Weezer to break up” thing just seems even further beyond stupid. Never mind that it’s an idle project that won’t amount to anything—the project talks about wanting to save its friends from disappointment every time the band releases a new album. To which I say: are your friends bed-ridden prisoners who are forced to listen to every new Weezer album? Because unless they are, there’s always this option called not listening. I’ve been doing it for years and it’s worked great. Meanwhile, the band is still making people happy, and if you’re not one of those people that doesn’t make the happiness less valid.
I’ve come to the conclusion after all these years of discussion that, yes, 90s Weezer and 21st Century Weezer are different. It’s possible to like both, especially if you have no formative moments tied to the 90s albums, but it’s also okay to let your favorite artists move on and do what they want to do, even if that means the world turns a little and leaves you behind.
*also, I realize this post amounts to lengthy, rather disorganized spitballing. Feel free to ignore me, challenge me, correct me, berate me, etc.
Yesterday, I mentioned the 70s Zagreb rock band Drugi Način in a post about the modern Croatian band Seven That Spells, and when I was not getting any sleep last night because of my sick cat, it occurred to me what a tease that was. So here’s the opening track from their self-titled debut, a nice crunchy rocker that they first recorded a version of when they were still called Zlatni Akordi.
Zlatni Akordi (the Golden Chords) was an important band in the development of Yugoslavia’s rock scene, forming in 1963 and cutting a fair clutch of good singles (I don’t honestly know what their album output was, if there was one). They played the very first Beat Festival in Zagreb in 1965, and they provided an early platform for singer Josipa Lisac, who went on to become quite popular on her own in the 70s and 80s.
Lisac left the band in (I think) 1968, but they kept on with a fair amount of lineup turnover, recording that original version of “Opet” in 1973. When the band looked around and found that not a single original member of Zlatni Akordi was still with them, they opted to change the name, switching to Drugi Način, which means The Other Way. By the time they recorded the self-titled album, they were still churning through members, but had picked up a key addition in guitarist/flutist/vocalist Ismet Kurtović, whose contributions gave their style a distinct prog infusion (keyboardist/vocalist Branko Požgajec also played flute). Andy Votel picked the flute-led instrumental “Zuti List” for his groundbreaking Prog Is Not A Four-Letter Word compilation.
Their drummer, Boris Toruna, wrote their lyrics (though I don’t know what any of them mean), and came to the band after quitting a career as a professional table tennis player. That opening vocal flourish aside, “Opet” is probably the least proggy thing from their debut, a concise three-and-a-half-minute rocker with a nice, churning riff.
The band, whose lineup never really stabilized, didn’t last long after this album, and wouldn’t release another until regrouping in 1982. A lot of members played in other bands, including Nepočin and Lisac’s backing band.
Yugoslavia had a thriving rock scene in the 60s, 70s and 80s that I’m sure I’ll revisit a lot on this blog—Tito’s skillful non-alignment, the country’s openness to the West and a series of 1963 reforms that liberalized speech and religious laws as well as making room for private enterprise in Yugoslavia’s communist system created an environment in which bands could form and perform openly. Festivals were common, record labels competed against each other (though Jugoton dominated the competition), and bands came from all six of the federation’s republics. There was even a local production of Hair in Belgrade.
My name is Niko - I'm the founder of Seven That Spells - i stumbled across your article while looking for some reviews of the latest album - glad you like the track - if you want some more albums - (every one is different because of different musicians participating in the creation of it) i can send you the download codes for it - you can preview all the stuff via the link posted in the end - some are really unlistenable but I'm not a pop musician ha ha ha! also on you tube i made a sts channel with lots of videos from japan tour, sardinia duna jam which is an amazing festival in even more amazing setting. anyway, thank you for your time and for checking STS out!
link for everything (audio previews, youtube etc.)
Good to hear from you! I heard that track on a Beta-Lactam sampler and was blown away—it’s so good. Since I heard it, I got The Men From Dystopia, which is really cool, too. I’d very much like to hear all of Retro Future Spasm, and I’ll check out your site.
Seven That Spells - Terminus Est (Future Retro Spasm, 2010)
When I started this blog, I specifically told myself that it wasn’t a blog about new music. There are a lot of those, someofthem really good (no slight to any I didn’t link to in that series of three—they popped to mind). I think I just didn’t want the pressure, you know? This is a release valve, a place I can come to blow out as many words as feels appropriate about whatever I feel like talking about. And I don’t want to have to constantly be searching for things to feature here. So yeah, not a new music blog.
But Every Great Song Ever is a big tent, and ever includes right now, so every once in a while I might toss out something new that I think might be in danger of being overlooked (by whom is a valid question—let’s not worry about it).
You know who tends to get overlooked? Bands like Seven That Spells. Hell, I’ve been guilty of overlooking them—I got a promo of theirs once, saw all the naked ladies on the cover and filed it in the out bin (When you get about 400 physical promos a year, you do this because you have to. You can’t listen to all of it.). I wish I’d given it a spin, because this, from an LP they released earlier this year, just about caved my skull in when I heard it.
Other reasons this band might get overlooked: they’re instrumental, they’re Croatian, and they’re on Beta-Lactam Ring Records, which is a great label with a really loyal clientele that gets very little notice outside that clientele, in spite of lavishing their releases with some truly great packaging.
Anyway, this sounds like some unholy but wholly awesome mix of Mahavishnu Orchestra, mid-70s King Crimson and a collapsing star, and deserves an airing outside its home in Zagreb. Which, now that I mention it, has produced a lot of good hard rock bands—during the Yugoslavia years, Croatia seems to have maintained a real creative identity for itself. It has a good indie rock scene now, too—the Bambi Molesters and My Buddy Moose come to mind. Check Drugi Nacin for some kick-ass old-school Croat rock.
And these guys. Apparently, this band has featured more than 50 different members in its time. They were a quartet of bass, drums, sax and guitar here, and their interplay is just freaking molten.They do such a good job of bottling the tension in the arrangement and then releasing it in torrents. It pulls you along like undertow.
This stuff scratches a really specific itch I get now and then. I don’t really listen to a ton of heavy music, which is part accident and part by design, but now and then I need a sick odd-metered groove and a bit of bone-pulverizing bass. The feeling usually passes after blasting a few tracks like this. But it’s fun while it lasts.
Cab Calloway & His Orchestra: “The Man From Harlem” (1932)
Just one last song before I pivot out of Harlem. This one’s not even really about the part of Manhattan we’ve been exploring lately—it’s more about the era in which is was made. Cab Calloway and his orchestra recorded this in 1932, the last full year of Prohibition. Not that people weren’t drinking, of course—they were, many of them copiously, and they were fueling a massive underground economy. But while alcohol was still strictly speaking illegal, marijuana wasn’t—possession and distribution wouldn’t be criminalized nationwide until 1937 (it was prohibited in nine states as of 1927, though).
New York state regulated it in 1914, but didn’t criminalize it. Still, in NYC in 1932, anyone looking to buy or sell a little bit of hash or weed for recreational purposes would have likely done it where the prying eyes of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics weren’t looking, and what better place than in a private club where people were already dropping a little cash for drinks?
Right from the beginning of this song, you don’t have to do a lot of hard guessing to figure out what the man from Harlem is selling. Still, in case you didn’t get it, Calloway kindly spells it out in the very last verse: “And he said, ‘I’ve got just what you need/Come on sisters, light up on these weeds and get high and forget about everything.’”
It wasn’t an isolated song, either. There’s a whole category of reefer songs from the 20s and 30s. Calloway himself did a version of the popular “Reefer Man,” and of course there’s always the insane cartoon video for “Minnie the Moocher” featuring Betty Boop frightened by a walrus monster doing dance moves rotoscoped from video of Calloway (watch the man walk in the intro!).
Calloway was at the beginning of a an amazingly long and successful career when he recorded this. He was in his early 20s and his band was hot—they’d recently secured a gig as the replacement for Duke Ellington & His Orchestra at the Cotton Club, and Calloway had elevated performances that would be schtick in most people’s hands to genuine art. Anyway, whether you’re a viper or not, give this stunning bit of spoken-word jazz a good listen.
Joe Cuba Sextet: “Do You Feel It? (Tu Lo Sientes)” (Busting Out, 1972)
Spanish Harlem is an informal name for the part of East Harlem that’s been dominated by Puerto Rican immigrants and their descendants since the 1950s. It’s also called El Barrio. Once upon a time, it was Italian Harlem (Fiorello LaGuardia even served as its congressman before becoming NYC mayor), but only a few traces of that past still exist. Spanish Harlem has had its ups and (to say the least) downs, but it’s been a cultural engine for decades, pumping out boogaloo, salsa and Nuyorican soul music—it was the crucible where much of this music developed.
Tito Puente cracked his timbales there and now has a street named for him, Ray Barretto smacked congas there, and Joe Cuba, one of the creators of Latin boogaloo, was born there (his parents called him Gilberto Miguel Calderon). “Do You Feel It?” is a tribute to his childhood in El Barrio, and much like the Bill Withers track I featured earlier this week, it salutes the full range of lived experience in the neighborhood, balancing the troubles against a coolly spoken remembrance of the beauty, grace and customs of the people.
"We had hard times, but we had good times, too." Even in the worst of circumstances, most people find a way to persevere and enjoy life—Cuba may give us plenty of material about social pressure, lack of opportunity and poverty in the sung portion of the song, but I get a much more vivid picture of both the good and bad of life from a simple line like, "our food was really together," than I do from a lot of wailing about a "place where poverty abounds." Together, though, they’re a sharp pair, and the little outbursts of guajira rhythm deepen the feel for Cuba’s world.
Also, doesn’t the way the narration stacks up on top of the vibes and that slow salsa progression sound absolutely badass? Dude’s just riffing on his childhood, but it sounds so confident and smooth. Hard to do.