Thursday, January 3, 2019

"The Great Learning" - The Scratch Orchestra

This blog has reviewed many works by avant-garde composers, including the usual suspects (Cage, Stockhausen, Philip Glass), as well as more obscure figures (Luciano Berio, La Monte Young, et al). One of the least known innovators in the field was England’s Cornelius Cardew.

What separated Cardew from his peers was his embrace of improvisation. Even in the randomly generated music of Cage, the score itself remained inviolate. Cardew, however, saw improvisation as an opportunity to play in the “pure present”.

Cardew embraced a kind of “musical socialism””, in which music was not only accessible to amateurs, but able to be performed by large groups of people. This was the principle behind the Scratch Orchestra, a loose confederation of musicians which existed from 1969 – 74.

Because much of the Scratch Orchestra’s music was improvised, very little of it was recorded. A notable exception is The Great Learning – the work we are reviewing today. Based upon Confucius’ treatise of the same name, Cardew’s work consists of seven movements, or “paragraphs” (in keeping with the structure of Confucius’ work).

The 1971 LP consists of Paragraphs 2 and 7. (The CD version has Paragraph 1 as well.) Cardew’s “score” provides some insight of his working methods. Paragraph 7, for example, is a purely vocal piece scored for an indeterminate number of singers. Cardew’s “rules” are as follows:

1) For the first line, you may sing any note you like.
2) For the second line, you must sing a different note that you heard another vocalist sing during Line 1.

And so on.

Eventually, Cardew’s socialist beliefs led him away from avant-garde music; he felt it wasn’t accessible to the masses. By the late 70’s, he was writing Maoist folk songs. Tragically, he was killed in 1981 by a hit-and-run driver at the age of 45.

What direction would avant-garde music have taken if Cardew had lived longer? We’ll never know. At any rate, Cornelius Cardew deserves a prominent place in the history of experimental music. But in order for that to happen, it’s not enough to just talk about Cardew’s music. It must be listened to:

**** (out of four)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Mike Keneally - "Wooden Smoke"

Guitarist Mike Keneally got his start playing for Frank Zappa’s band – no mean feat considering the vastness and complexity of Zappa’s repertoire. Since then, he has worked with such diverse figures as Steve Vai, Prairie Prince (The Tubes), and Andy Partridge (XTC).

Given the eclectic list of Keneally’s collaborators, it’s not surprising that his solo catalog also covers a lot of ground. Keneally is a musical chameleon, with each album differing from all of the others. An excellent starting point is Keneally’s tenth solo album Wooden Smoke (2002).

Wooden Smoke is mainly an abstract instrumental affair, but don’t let that scare you away. “Abstract” need not mean difficult or unapproachable. The few lyrics are largely incoherent (“Nanny-ass crow, you won't see comet crepe tonight”), with even Keneally admitting he doesn’t fully understand them. But in addition to the more abstract pieces, there are some very pleasant pop songs. “2001” and “Boom” sound like the early 70’s Beach Boys (when Carl Wilson led the band). I suppose it’s not really fair to name-check other artists when reviewing a work this original. But even though one can detect outside influences (Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan), there’s no mistaking Wooden Smoke as the work of any other artist.

Special credit must be given to recording engineer Mike Harris; Keneally’s acoustic guitar sounds like the tree it was cut from. But there’s also less orthodox instrumentation. The percussion on “Machupicchu” consists of the latch on an anvil case, with heavy reverb applied (reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”). Keneally (who plays most of the instruments on Wooden Smoke himself) bounces around between electric, acoustic, and bass guitar, percussion, and keyboards - including some avant-garde jazz piano playing (“Haugseth”).

If you don’t “get” these songs during your first go-around, don’t worry. Wooden Smoke demands – but greatly rewards – repeated listenings.

**** (out of four)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Platinum Weird - "Make Believe"

By the time Dave Stewart and Kara DioGuardi formed Platinum Weird, they each had impressive resumes. Stewart achieved chart-topping success as a member of the Eurythmics. Afterwards he produced albums for Tom Petty, Ringo Starr, and Mick Jagger. DioGuardi penned Top Ten hits for Cobra Starship, Christina Aguilera, and Carrie Underwood.

In spite of this, Stewart and DioGuardi didn’t think that a collaboration between an older artist and a songwriter for younger artists stood much of a chance. To this end, they concocted an elaborate backstory involving a 1970’s duo involving Stewart and a fictitious singer named Erin Grace. To perpetuate the joke, Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, and others recorded video vignettes citing Grace’s influence.

Distraught by the death of musician Nick Drake, Grace suddenly and mysteriously vanishes from public view. Years later, a young DioGuardi encounters an older hippie woman who teaches DioGuardi some of her songs. Meeting Stewart in 2004, DioGuardi explains that she already knows a song Stewart is playing on the guitar. Stewart and DioGuardi conclude that the hippie woman is, in fact, the legendary Erin Grace. The two are then inspired to rerecord Grace’s songs in a modern setting.

Platinum Weird’s 2006 debut album (appropriately titled Make Believe) is typical “girl pop” (e.g. Pink, Kelly Clarkson), but without the crass commercialism normally present on such records. While not matching the vocal richness of Annie Lennox (Stewart’s partner in the Eurythmics), DioGuardi has a fine voice. It’s a wonder she didn’t save some of those Top 40 songs for herself. Stewart’s guitar work, as always, is impeccable.

There is a bizarre postscript to this story. In addition to the album itself, Stewart and DioGuardi recorded 1970’s-sounding “demos” of the songs. The record label mistook the demo collection for the real album; the album Platinum Weird intended to be released is now only available as a bonus disc in the deluxe edition.

All in all, a worthwhile album, despite the botched marketing.

*** (out of four)

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Ian McLagan - "Troublemaker"

During the 1960’s, Ian McLagan played keyboards and guitar in the Small Faces, an innovative and influential British band who never achieved the worldwide fame of their better-known peers (probably because they didn’t make one trip across the Atlantic). After Steve Marriot was replaced with Rod Stewart, the Small Faces became the Faces. (Check out McLagan’s excellent playing on “Stay With Me”.)

In addition to his membership in those bands, McLagan played keyboards for the Rolling Stones from 1978 – 82, and guested on records by Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, to name just a few.

Given McLagan’s impressive resume, it’s therefore surprising that his solo records aren’t better known. Today we review McLagan’s first solo album Troublemaker (1979).

Troublemaker is a star-studded affair (featuring guest appearances by Ron Wood and Ringo Starr, among others), and a good-time, party atmosphere permeates the disc. While no Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, McLagan is nonetheless a fine singer. It’s surprising he didn’t do more lead vocals on the Small Faces’ records. He’s also a strong lyricist; it’s hard not to smile at lines like, "I got a new girl yesterday / She ain't good-looking so I know she's gonna stay."

There’s no one standout track that could elevate this disc to the ranks of classic albums, but Troublemaker has its moments. Highlights include the zydeco/Chuck Berry hybrid “Hold On”, a superb Ron Wood cover (“Mystifies Me”) – equal parts gospel and reggae, and the scrappy “If It’s Alright”. The best track on the album is “Truly”, a reggae number featuring Keith Richards and Stanley Clarke.

Troublemaker was released on CD as Here Comes Trouble (2005), with seven bonus tracks. The additional tracks (including an 12-minute “Truly” and a cover of the Who’s “Pictures of Lily” with Ron Wood as “Dad”) are better produced and more suited to McLagan’s voice.

Sadly, McLagan died of a stroke in 2014. But Troublemaker is one album that will “stay with me”.

*** (out of four)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Ui - "Lifelike"

Flaubert once opined that, “an artist becomes a critic the same way a soldier becomes an informer.”

For Sasha Frere-Jones, it was the other way around. While working as a music critic, Frere-Jones was called out by a reader for giving too many negative reviews, then challenged to come up with something better. The result was Ui, an instrumental trio consisting of two bass guitars and drums.

Ui’s two bass-guitar approach was not unprecedented in post-rock. (The Chicago band Tortoise comes to mind.) But Ui’s second album Lifelike (1998) demonstrates that Ui were much more than just “Tortoise Jr.”

Lifelike kicks off with the hip-hop funk of “Drive Until He Sleeps” and closes with the ambient soundscape of “Exeunt”. In between, Ui tackles a commendably wide variety of styles, including breakbeat (“Laceria”), free jazz (“Undersided”), and electronic noise (“Blood in the Air”).

Most intriguing of all is “The Fortunate One Knows No Anxiety”, a “bottleneck bass guitar” piece that evolved from a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. (Any guesses?)

However, this is not to say that Lifelike is flawless. As technically proficient as these musicians are, the music itself is often easy to ignore. “Drive Until He Sleeps”, with its catchy hook and funky groove, seems to be a fluke. The cubist song structures and shifting time signatures of the remaining tracks all suggest music that hits you on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one. An album which is “lifelike”, rather than alive.

It is one of life’s most bittersweet ironies that most bands under the “indie rock” umbrella sound the same. Lifelike is frequently rough listening, perhaps intentionally so… but it’s unlike any other band you’ve heard.

*** (out of four)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Youth and Ben Watkins - "Empty Quarter"

Bad news first… Ben Watkins produced the first album by adult film star Traci Lords. However, he’s responsible for a lot of great music, too. Today, we review Empty Quarter, a collaboration with Martin “Youth” Glover.

Youth first rose to fame as bassist for the punk band Killing Joke, a role he held until 1982. Watkins was lead vocalist for the British New Wave band the Hitmen. In 1983 Watkins (now proficient on guitar, drums, and keyboards) teamed up with Youth to record this album as the soundtrack to the play Street Captives by Jonathan Moore.

Being a soundtrack album, Empty Quarter is an entirely instrumental affair. The music here is dark and sparse, an ambient/industrial hybrid, best listened to by oneself late at night in total darkness.

Despite its short running time of 35 minutes, Empty Quarter covers a lot of ground. The opening track "Incompressible Megalasaurians" features some tasty funk bass playing (already a staple of Youth’s post-Killing Joke band Brilliant). “Gizzy Headed Buzzards” is distinguished by some beautifully gloomy oboe and cello, the latter played by Adam Peters (who pitched in when not busy with Echo and the Bunnymen). Best of all is “Repulsion” – even though it bears more than a passing resemblance to the soundtrack of Dawn of the Dead.

Watkins would go on to form Juno Reactor, a project which continues to this day. Youth would become a highly sought-after producer and remix artist, collaborating with the likes of U2, Marilyn Manson, and Paul McCartney. (He should consider writing a memoir!)

As far as I know, Empty Quarter is unavailable on CD, so you’re not depriving the artists of any royalties by listening to it on YouTube:

It only lasts about 35 minutes, but the music will remain in your head long afterwards.

*** (out of four)

Allen Ginsberg - "Holy Soul Jelly Roll"

It is not an exaggeration to say that Allen Ginsberg brought American poetry out of the dark ages. His influence on post-WWII culture is incalculable. For one thing, he was a major influence on Bob Dylan, and what would the 60’s counterculture have been without Bob Dylan?

Ginsberg was part of a group of poets (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, et al) who called themselves the Beat Generation, the name suggesting spiritual exhaustion with the conformity, materialism, and repression of contemporary society (although, as the saying goes, they ain’t seen nothing yet). The “Beats” drew from an ancient tradition (before modern typesetting) in which poetry was spoken rather than written. They cared less about how words looked on a printed page than how they sounded.

During the Beats’ heyday, spoken-word poetry remained an underground phenomenon. However, when rap music – with its emphasis on meter and rhyme  over melody – ascended to the mainstream in the 80’s, a resurgence in spoken-word poetry followed. The 90’s music festival Lollapalooza featured a poetry tent. “MTV Unplugged” devoted one of its episodes to poetry. “Poetry slams” began springing up in big city coffeehouses.

The time was right, therefore, for Holy Soul Jelly Roll (1994), a 4-CD retrospective of Ginsberg’s career. The first disc includes the first public reading of Ginsberg’s most famous poem “Howl”. Disc 2 features the 63-minute “Kaddish”, dedicated to Ginsberg’s mother. The real gold is on Disc 4, which includes unreleased collaborations with the Clash (“Capitol Air”) and Dylan (“Airplane Blues”).

The production of Holy Soul was overseen by Hal Willner, who went through hundreds of hours of tapes. Willner, to his credit, resisted the producer’s urge to choose the best sounding recordings. Instead, he chose the recordings which had the most passion, and cleaned them up as best as he could. Best of all, Holy Soul is accompanied by a 64-page booklet, in which Ginsberg comments on every track.

To read Ginsberg’s poetry is magic. To hear it read by Ginsberg is divine.

**** (out of four)