June 26, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday


Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL 9-08-74 (AUD CDR)

The Arkestra was apparently quite active in the fall of 1974, including a two-week stand at the “new” Five Spot in New York. Four-hour sets were the norm and, according to witnesses, “the band books carried by the musicians were thick as two phone books; except for a few numbers like ‘Watusi,’ many otherwise unknown compositions were played along with some 1950s pieces and few were repeated” (Campbell & Trent p.215). Sadly, there are no known tapes from this legendary engagement. However, we do have this sixty-minute audience recording from Chicago’s Jazz Showcase on September 8, which hints at the Arkestra’s expanding repertoire during this period. The (mono) sound quality is typically awful—but it is by no means the worst sounding tape we’ve had to suffer through during this project. Despite the obvious sonic flaws, it’s a terrific performance well worth hearing.

“Images” dates back to 1958 and Sun Ra’s first Saturn LP, Jazz In Silhouette, and is here given an extended reading, including a dramatic piano intro which moves from ominous rumblings to skittering dissonances before settling into the slightly old-fashioned swing rhythms and chord changes of the piece itself. The Arkestra enters with the subtly off-center big-band arrangement, the saxes and trumpets filled out with flutes and piccolo. Kwame Hadi solos first, but John Gilmore steals the show with a series of increasingly expressionistic choruses, demonstrating his mastery of both pre- and post-bop tenor stylings. Just gorgeous. Then Ra takes a weirdly “inside-out” solo before the band returns with the oblong coda.

“Somewhere Else” is similarly structured, with another lengthy piano introduction before the band comes out and struts its stuff. Besides Akh Tal Ebah and Hadi, a mysterious third trumpet player can be heard. Chicagoan Phil Cohran seems a likely candidate, but Prof. Campbell says it’s not him (Id. p.213). There’s also a bassist present—his big tone and fleet soloing almost brings to mind the inimitable Ronnie Boykins, but it’s obviously someone else, whose identity is unknown (Id.). At almost twenty minutes, just about everyone gets a chance in the spotlight on this medium groover, including all three trumpeters, Marshall Allen and Danny Davis on alto sax, Gilmore on tenor, our unidentified bassist (who earns a nice ovation) and, of course, Ra himself.

“Discipline 27” is given a focused reading – with some jazzy electric guitar audible (possibly Dale Williams). Ebah acquits himself admirably, but again, Gilmore upstages him with another incredibly inventive and precisely articulated tenor outing. Ra moves to organ for “Outer Spaceways Incorporated,” almost drowning out June Tyson and the Space Ethnic Voices with its electronic roar. But he eventually drops back and the sound clears up considerably. Of course, it’s the usual thing, if a little restrained—until Allen (or is it Davis? I have a hard time telling them apart sometimes) steps up with a blistering solo on alto sax before the reprise. Ra’s groaning organ chords also threaten to overwhelm the delicate “Lights on a Satellite,” mostly obscuring the intricate counterpoint of flutes, trumpets and saxophones. Regardless, you can tell the Arkestra is tight and well-rehearsed: it’s a note-perfect performance, short and to the point; beautiful, in spite of the dreadful sound quality.

Sonny introduces “Barbizon” as an original piece he wrote “in France, near Fontainbleau, an artists’ colony” and it’s another brief but elaborately orchestrated, through-composed work, devoid of any opportunity for improvisation. The dirgey, sweet’n’sour harmonies and tense voicings remind me of the early “Discipline” numbers and, like those works, “Barbizon” was only sporadically performed. That seems a shame, as it is another fascinating composition demonstrating Ra’s mastery of unusual forms and creative arrangement. Then again, the audience doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Is this “jazz?” No—it’s something else altogether.

Ra again steps up to the microphone to introduce “The Shadow World,” offering a clue to its meaning:

The next song is entitled, ‘Shadow World.’ To me, the Earth is a place of shadows and dreams and not the reality of the cosmos. This ‘shadow world’ concerns the potential of humanity and not the reality, which I have to reject.


He hammers out the organ ostinato at a fast clip and the horns rip through the complexly hocketed melodies with fearsome intensity. Hadi solos over boiling percussion but quickly drops out. Then Gilmore takes over and—well, yes, it’s another a cappella blowout, but a particularly inspired one. Ra attempts to steer him back to the head, but Gilmore will have nothing of it. He continues to blow his brains out, ranging across the entire register of the horn (and beyond), capping it off with an astonishing display of multiphonic pyrotechnics. Wow! Gilmore is on fire! This elicits several outbursts of whooping and hollering and stunned applause when he finally finishes. Not even five minutes long, this is probably one of the shortest performances of “The Shadow World” ever, but boy is it ever potent! “Space Is The Place” follows, but, unfortunately, the tape cuts off after only a minute and a half. Oh well.

Aside from Gilmore’s outstanding soloing (will he ever get the credit he deserves?), what’s interesting about this set is how tightly controlled it is. Foregoing the usual long, open improvisations, freewheeling medleys and cosmic pageantry, the Arkestra is on a fairly short leash. Sonny's straight-faced spoken intros are also highly unusual. Whether it was the venue’s posh ambience or simply a measure of Sun Ra’s developing professionalism, these discrete performances are taut, lean and immediately appealing. Of course, it’s quite possible the rest of the set was completely off the hook. But it is clear Sun Ra was continuing to refine his vision and, next time, we’ll listen in on a lengthy rehearsal session from later in the year, which provides some insight into his peculiarly effective working methods.

+++

UPDATE: This was written out of order. Two nights before this gig, the Arkestra performed at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in Exile, documented on It Is Forbidden. John Sinclair identifies the bass player as Reginald "Shooby-Doo" Fields and the guitarist is definitely Williams. I apologize for the confusion.

June 25, 2011

Playlist Week of 6-25-11

"All Summer In A Day"

* Buxtehude: Seven Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* Purcell: Fantasias For The Viols, 1680 (Hespèrion XX/Savall) (Alia Vox SACD)
* Marais: Suitte d’un Goût Etranger: Pièces de Viole du IV Livre, 1717 (Savall) (Alia Vox 2SACD)
* Marais: Sonnerie de Saint-Geneviève du Mont: Suites pour Violes (Harnoncourt) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Bruckner: Symphony No.7 (Orch. des Champs-Élysées/Herreweghe) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew: Legacy Edition (Columbia/Legacy 2CD+DVD)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Legacy CD)
* John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse! CD)
* Ornette Coleman: Town Hall 1962 (ESP-Disk’ CD)
* Ornette Coleman: Chappaqua Suite (Columbia—France 2CD)
* Sun Ra: Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL 9-08-74 (AUD CDR)
* Andrew Hill: Judgment! (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Point Of Departure (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Eternal Spirit (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Time Lines (Blue Note CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Derek Bailey: Moment Précieux (Victo LP)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Toward The Margin (ECM CD)†
* John Abercrombie : Cat And Mouse (ECM CD)†
* MAP (Halvorson/Nakatani/Radding): Fever Dream (Taiga 2LP)
* Guillermo E. Brown: Soul At The Hands Of The Machine (Thirsty Ear CD)†/‡
* Bahia Black: Ritual Beating System (Axiom/Island CD)
* Nicky Skopelitis: Ekstasis (Axiom/Island CD)
* King Crimson: In The Court Of The Crimson King (Island/DGM CD)†
* King Crimson: In The Wake Of Poseidon (Island/DGM CD)†
* King Crimson: Lizard (Island/DGM CD)†
* King Crimson: Islands (Island/DGM CD)†
* King Crimson: ProjeKct Two: Space Groove (d.1) (DGM 2CD)
* Chicago: Chicago Transit Authority (Columbia/Rhino 2LP)
* Chicago: Chicago [II] (Columbia/Rhino 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings (d.8-9) (GDP/Rhino 9CD)
* Grateful Dead: Delta Center, Salt Lake City, UT 2-21-95 (SBD 2CDR)‡
* David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name… (Atlantic DVD-A)
* Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Weld (Reprise 2CD)
* Sonic Youth: EVOL (SST LP)
* Sonic Youth: Sister (SST LP)
* Aphex Twin: I Care Because You Do (Sire CD)
* Aphex Twin: Richard D. James Album (Sire CD)
* Pete Namlook & Bill Laswell: Psychonavigation (Subharmonic CD)†
* Radiohead: The King Of Limbs (TBD/Ticker Tape CD)
* Robert Pollard: Robert Pollard Is Off To Business (GBV, Inc. CD)†/‡
* Robert Pollard: Lord Of The Birdcage (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Circus Devils: Mother Skinny (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop 2LP)


†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

It’s summertime. It’s hot. I don’t feel like writing. Instead, I’m having fun playing with the camera (and listening to music, of course). The playlist speaks for itself this week.

June 19, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday


THE OTHER SIDE OF MUSIC

Some music is of specialized interpretation.
Some music is of synchronization precision.
Every light is a vibrational sight and sound:
It is rhythm in harmony with beam/rays/intensification
and projection visibility.
Music is light and darkness . . . precedent
of vitality . . . stimulation extraordinary
Equational harmonic differential pause prelude
to the sound that is on its way . . .
EVERY PLACE THERE IS, IS MUSIC, CHAOS
IS MUSIC AND HARMONIOUS PEACE IS MUSIC
What direction does it: decides the way until . . .

Silence is music.
There are different kinds of silences:
each silence is
A world all its own.
In a lesser but not least important sense,
Silence is an integral part of all music:
in a fractional sense,
When judged metrically.

We must not forget transposition.
Transposition always results in a
change of color.
Behold the vastness of music,
It is as vast as the greater allness
and the greater neverness . . .
And too music in its meta-phases
must not be ignored.

Are you thinking of metaphysics
alone? Well, don’t.
In the future (and even as of Now),
you will have to contend with and
recognize METAMENTAL and METASPIRIT:
also you will come face to face with
oblique METATHESIS.

--Sun Ra (1972)

June 18, 2011

Playlist Week of 6-18-11

EC on MoFi

* Josquin Desprez (Collegium Vocale Gent/Herreweghe): Église de Minimes, Brussels, 3-17-11 (FM CDR)
* J.S. Bach/Chopin (Hewitt): Wigmore Hall, London 6-06-11 (FM CDR)
* J.S. Bach: Violin Concertos (AAM/Manze/Podger) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)†
* J.S. Bach: 7 Harpsichord Concertos (AAM/Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Handel: Trio Sonatas, Op.2 & Op.5 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue (Columbia SACD)
* Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else (Blue Note CD)
* Bill Evans: Everybody Digs Bills Evans (Riverside/JVC XRCD)
* Sun Ra: Sub-Underground (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: Jazz Showcase, Chicago, IL 9-08-74 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: 12+1tet (Victoriaville) 2007 (Victo CD)
* Andrew Raffo Dewar: Six Lines Of Transformation (Porter CD)
* Bob Marley & The Wailers: Babylon By Bus (Island 2LP)
* Jimi Hendrix: West Coast Seattle Boy: The Anthology (Experience Hendrix/Columbia 4CD+DVD)
* Rolling Stones: Singles Collection: The London Years (d.1-2) (London/Abkco 3SACD)
* Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones/Virgin LP)
* Rolling Stones: Some Girls Sessions (fan/boot 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings (d.4-5) (GDP/Rhino 9CD)
* King Crimson: Beat (DGM CD)†
* Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels (Reprise 2LP)
* Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Broken Arrow (Reprise 2LP)
* Emmylou Harris: Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch CD)†/‡
* Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia/Universal/MoFi LP)
* Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia/Universal/MoFi LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Armed Forces (Columbia/Universal/MoFi LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia/Universal/MoFi 2-45RPM LP)
* Los Lobos: Colossal Head (Warner Bros. CD)†/‡
* Los Lobos: This Time (Hollywood/MoFi SACD)
* Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador CD)
* Guided By Voices: Do the Collapse (TVT CD)†
* Tortoise: Standards (Thrill Jockey CD)†/‡
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey CD)†/‡
* Tool: Lateralus (Volcano CD)†
* A Perfect Circle: Mer de Noms (Virgin CD)†/‡
* A Perfect Circle: Thirteenth Step (Virgin CD)†/‡
* A Perfect Circle: eMOTIVe (Virgin CD)†/‡
* Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars CD)
* Deerhoof: Offend Maggie (Kill Rock Stars CD)
* Deerhoof: Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl CD)

†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

With his old-fashioned, angular eyeglasses, thrift store chic and a snarling vocal delivery, Elvis Costello (nee Declan MacManus) epitomized the rise of British “punk rock” with the release of his debut album, My Aim Was True, in 1977. And, at the time, the menacing tone and manic tempo of the opening song, “Welcome To The Working Week,” certainly seemed to drive the final nail in the hippie’s coffin and signaled something truly new, grim and exciting in pop music. In retrospect, it’s obvious Costello was always just another singer/songwriter at heart, with deep roots in Tin Pan Alley, music hall and American soul music. This was already apparent on the title track and on his first hit single, “Allison,” both enduring ballads full of tricky chord modulations, elaborate melodies, and jazzy lead guitar—a far cry from the amateurish minimalism of, say, the Sex Pistols. Yet, however good the songs are, My Aim Is True is weighed down by the pedestrian accompaniment of the San Francisco-based Clover, who was hired by producer Nick Lowe to rush record the album in a mere twenty-four hours. This deficit was immediately remedied on the following albums, which featured Costello’s working band, The Attractions, and with their muscular and sophisticated musical support, his songwriting flourished, unleashing a string of near-perfect albums which transcend the now-dated “new wave” label. This Year’s Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979) and Get Happy!! (1980) showed remarkable growth and consistency, establishing Costello as a bona fide rock star—and the preeminent singer/songwriter of the era. These records sound as fresh today as when they were originally released, even if they’re not really “punk rock.”

Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs has recently reissued these first four albums on ultra-high-quality vinyl and they are nothing less than spectacular in every possible way. Admittedly, they are not audiophile recordings to begin with, but MoFi has extracted every bit of detail from the analog master tapes, making them sound better than ever. And, as usual, the packaging is super-deluxe: oversize, heavy-duty gatefolds with old-style, pasted-on artwork—going so far as to recreate the original British covers with their intentional “mistakes” (the deliberately off-center front on This Year’s Model and Get Happy!!’s artificial “ring-wear”) which were “corrected” by Costello’s U.S. label, Columbia, who was afraid customers would return them en masse as “defective.” However, MoFi retains the Columbia track-listings so as to include the familiar singles which were omitted on the British editions—a happy tradeoff for this Yank. Also note that rather than stuffing all twenty-one of Get Happy!!’s songs onto a single LP, MoFi recreates the original promo-only version, stretching them across two forty-five-RPM discs for vastly improved sound quality. Excellent! If you love these records and have access to a turntable, you owe yourself these outstanding reissues. Yeah, they’re a little pricey, but worth every penny, in my opinion—they are just so exquisitely well done. It’s unclear whether MoFi will continue on with this series of definitive vinyl editions. I, for one, would love to see Imperial Bedroom given this kind of treatment, given that it is one of my favorite records of all time. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, these will continue to provide lots of listening pleasure. All four are most highly recommended.

June 12, 2011

Sun Ra Sunday


Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Sub-Underground (Saturn LP>CDR)

The appropriately titled Sub-Underground (also known as Cosmo-Earth Fantasy and Temple U.) is another super-rare artifact, badly in need of upgrade and reissue. Originally released as Saturn 92074 in late 1974, Prof. Campbell posits side one was recorded at Variety Recorders in New York City sometime in September while side two was recorded live at Temple University in Philadelphia, possibly on September 20 (Campbell & Trent p.214-215). Yet, as usual with Sun Ra, there is much confusion and uncertainty regarding the details of this recording and, after careful listening, I’m not sure I agree with our discographer in all respects. Unfortunately, the sound quality is somewhat murky and my less-than-perfect transfer of the original LP does not help to clarify much. Despite (or perhaps because of) its difficulties, Sub-Underground a fascinating record.

Side one is taken up with “Cosmo-Earth Fantasy,” an epic, twenty-two minute improvisation, obviously recorded in the studio. It begins with Arkestra scrubbing, scraping and plucking a variety of zithers, harps, guitars and other “Strange Strings” while Ra strums the interior of a piano. I love it! Enervated bass octaves come and go. Is this electric bass? (Prof. Campbell thinks so.) Or is it Ra on some sort of keyboard? Maybe—it’s hard to tell. Anyway, the spacey exotica goes on for about seven minutes before Ra fingers an ominous chord sequence on Clavinet, signaling Marshall Allen to pick up the oboe and echo Ra’s insistently repeated figures. Sonny continues to hold down a pedal point and outline upper-register harmonies while Allen keenly elaborates on the simple theme. Just lovely. Then the oboe drops out and there’s more “bass,” with what sounds like a melodica wheezing around the corner. At the half-way mark, a high-pitched marimba (Ra?) starts clattering away, Chinese-style, eventually joined by Allen on flute. Then the texture starts to thicken (possibly through the use of overdubbing) as multiple flutes, “bass,” Clavinet and percussion build up a spiky, Messiaenic din. Wild! After some slow, held chords, the piece comes to a definite, satisfying conclusion. Prof. Campbell lists additional instrumentalists, including John Gilmore on tenor sax, Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet and (possibly) Dale Williams on guitar (Id.), but I just don’t hear them on this track. Regardless, “Cosmo-Earth Fantasy” is a classic.

Side two begins with “Love Is For Always,” another impossibly romantic piano ballad featuring Gilmore’s creamy and delicious tenor saxophone—yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo! This beautiful Ra composition was, apparently, only performed one time. What a shame! The distant and boomy drums indicate it was indeed recorded live, although, curiously, any applause has been deftly edited from the end of the track. “The Song of The Drums” shares the same reverberant acoustic, and the eponymous drums are almost impossible to hear. Eddie Thomas [Thomas Thaddeus] vocalizes in an absurdly eccentric patois, later joined by another male vocalist (possibly Akh Tal Ebah—but it doesn’t really sound like him) while Ra alternates between bright, major-key comping and ominous Morse code messaging on Rocksichord. It’s sort of interesting, but ends inconclusively. Finally, the album concludes with “The World Of Africa,” which sounds to me like it was recorded in studio (possibly at the same session as “Cosmo-Earth Fantasy”), with its comparatively clear and dry ambience (but who knows?). June Tyson and Cheryl Banks wordlessly intone a repeating melody over a two-chord Clavinet vamp and percussion and while the hypnotic 6/8 groove is suitably enchanting, it fades out after only a few minutes, breaking the spell too soon. Oh well.

Sub-Underground is a weird and wonderful record. Certainly, “Cosmo Earth Fantasy” is one of the great long-form improvs, notable for its unusual instrumentation and “Love Is For Always” is also beautiful and unique. While the other tracks are perhaps less essential, they are interesting vocal experiments well worth hearing. Let’s hope Art Yard or some other intrepid label will rescue Sub-Underground from its willful obscurity.

June 11, 2011

Playlist Week of 6-11-11

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues LP

* J.S. Bach: Trio Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Handel: 12 Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op.3 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.7 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Veneziano (Archiv Produktion CD)†
* John Coltrane: Live In Japan (d.1-2) (Impulse!/GRP 4CD)
* Sun Ra: Sub-Underground (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Septet (Pittsburgh) 2008 (New Braxton House MP3)†
* Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus: Too Much Sugar For A Dime (Axiom/Island CD)
* George Benson: Breezin’ (Warner Bros./MoFi LP)
* Stanley Clarke: School Days (Epic/Friday Music LP)
* Chaka Khan: I Feel For You (Warner Bros. LP)
* Bob Marley & The Wailers: Rastaman Vibration (Island LP)
* The Who: Who’s Next (Deluxe Edition) (MCA/Universal 2CD)†/‡
* Grateful Dead: Go To Nassau (GDP/Arista 2CD)†
* Grateful Dead: Truckin’ Up To Buffalo: July 4, 1989 (GDP/Rhino 2CD)†
* Grateful Dead: Crimson, White & Indigo: Philadelphia, July 7, 1989 (GDP/Rhino 3CD+DVD)†
* Grateful Dead: Buckeye Lake Music Center, Hebron, OH 6-11-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles: Live! (Columbia/Sony—Japan CD)
* The Band: Music From Big Pink (Capitol/MoFi SACD)
* Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Déjà vu (Atlantic/MoFi LP)
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Reprise/Warner Bros. 2-45RPM LP)
* King Crimson: Discipline (DGM CD)
* Sonic Youth: Bad Moon Rising (Homestead LP)
* Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador CD)†
* Thurston Moore & Tom Surgal: “Not Me”/”Lydia’s Moth” (Fourth Dimension CDEP)
* Christian Marclay/Thurston Moore/Lee Ranaldo: Fuck Shit Up: Victoriaville Mai 1999 (Victo CD)
* Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (Matador CD)
* Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out… (Matador CD)
* Yo la Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador CD)†
* Yo La Tengo: “Today Is The Day” (Matador CDEP)
* Yo La Tengo: “Danelectro” (Matador CDEP)
* Tool: Undertow (Volcano CD)†/‡
* Tool: Ænima (Volcano CD)†/‡
* Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol CD)†
* Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol CD)†
* Radiohead: Hail To The Thief (Capitol CD)†
* Robert Pollard: Lord Of The Birdcage (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Mars Classroom: The New Theory Of Everything (Happy Jack Rock Records MP3)†/‡
* Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia CD/LP)
* Broken Bells: Meyrin Fields EP (Columbia EP)
* Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant (Sub Pop CDEP)†
* Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP (Sub Pop LP/EP)
* Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop 2LP)

†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

I didn’t really get Fleet Foxes when they burst on the scene back in 2008. The hype was inescapable, which sort of put me off from the get go. But I was intrigued by the album’s cover, a detail from Bruegel’s bizarre masterpiece, Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)—a bold move, flirting with pretention and cliché. On a whim, I bought a copy. But the music didn’t really grab me. Sure, the elaborate multi-part harmonies and gently strumming acoustic guitars evoke such folkie icons as Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills & Nash and the nouveau-hippie, faux-rural vibe was pleasant enough—but the songs just didn’t stick with me. Restless and diffuse, a song might begin one way only to wander off into baroque instrumental passages and a big, catchy chorus might occasionally erupt, only to disappear, replaced with an incongruous coda. The singing was nice enough, but the whole thing sounded like a folk-rock pastiche, a twenty-something’s dream of the ‘60s, drenched in reverb and patchouli oil. Frankly, I wondered what the big deal was.

But I persevered. I picked up their previous EP, Sun Giant, because, well, again, I liked the cover (yes, I do things like that). And I liked this one a bit better. “Drops in the River” pits a catchy tune against atmospheric sitar and fingerpicked guitars while “English House” yields another one of those surprisingly gorgeous choruses. But “Mykonos” stood out immediately: a relatively straightforward song with strong melodies, propulsive rhythms, and carefully layered instrumental textures. Yet it's a quintessential Fleet Foxes construction, eschewing a regular AABA form and taking a left turn about half-way through—yet, somehow, it works, building up momentum and releasing tension via an oblique shift in meter, dynamics and theme. Nevertheless, despite my fondness for that one song, I didn’t really think much of the Fleet Foxes. Occasionally, I would pull these records out and give them another try but my ambivalence persisted.

So, I had sort of forgotten about them by the time their new album, Helplessness Blues, appeared in the record store a couple of weeks ago. The reviews were, once again, rapturous and since the cover art is, once again, stunningly beautiful, I decided to give them another shot (I am a sucker for snazzy packaging—what can I say?). And at first, it seemed like more of the same but the sprawling double-LP reveals more cohesive, introspective songwriting and increasingly ambitious musical settings. The lush vocal harmonizing and cavernous reverb remain intact, but the songs are less self-consciously derivative, less meanderingly episodic—and the band stretches its wings, orchestrating delicate, ethereal arrangements utilizing a variety of instruments, from fiddles, dulcimer, harp, and pedal steel to woodwinds, harpsichord, and harmonium to analog synthesizers to Tibetan singing bowls. The Foxes’ signature sound—a windswept Americana—is retained and refined but also expanded and developed, culminating in an outrageously skronky bass-clarinet freakout (with swooning violins) on the penultimate epic, “The Shrine/An Argument.” Very impressive. Two years in the making, Fleet Foxes obviously put a lot of effort into crafting Helpless Blues and have managed to fulfill the promise of their previous records. Now I “get” it—and those earlier efforts are starting to make more sense.

It took a while to get over my skepticism about this band. I have become so jaded, I was unable to believe the Fleet Foxes’ earnest demeanor was truly sincere. Where was the winking irony? Where was the post-punk malaise? Where was the rawk? How could music so pretty and precious exist in this day and age—much less be so popular? In the liner notes to the Sun Giant EP, lead Fox, Robin Pecknold (hiding behind a pseudonym), writes:

A very smart and gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world. That, before civilization or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder and confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive and majestic and that that feeling of mystery and amazement is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped and conquered, that mystery left our common mind and we needed something to replace it with and then along came music. I think she’s right. Music is magic to me, transportative and full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music….Music to me is just as awe-bringing as the world maybe once [was]. And I just love it a lot.


I think I have to take him at his word and accept the fact that the Fleet Foxes are not “cool” and they are not “hip.” They are simply musicians trying to bring awe to a commonplace world. Helplessness Blues succeeds—so long as I can abandon my world-weary cynicism. That’s probably a good thing.

June 4, 2011

Playlist Week of 6-04-11

Monster Turbines

* De Filharmonie (Herreweghe/Peckova): Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 9-16-10 (FM 2CDR)
* Poulenc: Concerto For Organ, etc. (ORTF/Martinon, et al.) (Erato LP)
* Poulenc: Aubade/Piano Concerto (Paris Conservatoire Orch./Prêtre/Tacchino) (Angel LP)
* Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers: Mosaic (Blue Note LP)
* Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder (Blue Note LP)
* Sun Ra: The Antique Blacks (Saturn/Art Yard CD)
* Sun Ra: Sub-Underground (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Andrew Hill Trio: Promenade Hall, Pori, Finland 7-20-02 (FM CDR)
* Archie Shepp: Four For Trane (Impulse! CD)
* Marion Brown: Three For Shepp (Impulse! CD)
* Herbie Hancock: Secrets (Columbia LP)
* Miles Davis: We Want Miles (Columbia 2LP)
* Bill Laswell: Points Of Order (Innerhythmic CD)†/‡
* Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain (Nonesuch CD)‡
* Rolling Stones: Saitama Super Arena, Saitama, Japan 4-02-06 (CATV>2CDR)
* Paul McCartney & Wings: Wingspan: Hits & History (Capitol 2CD)†/‡
* Grateful Dead: Formerly The Warlocks: Hampton, VA 10-89 (d.5-6) (GDP/Rhino 6CD)
* King Crimson: Heavy ConstruKction (DGM 3CD)†/(‡)
* Yes: Close To The Edge (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic/Rhino 2CD)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Going For The One (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Tormato (Elektra/Rhino CD)
* Latin Playboys: Latin Playboys (Slash/Warner Bros. CD)
* Latin Playboys: Dose (Atlantic CD)
* Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador CD)†
* Dinosaur (Jr.): Dinosaur (Homestead LP)
* Boredoms: Vision Creation Newsun (Birdman CD)
* Robert Pollard: Lord Of The Birdcage (GBV, Inc. LP/FLAC>CDR)
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD CD)†
* Radiohead: The King Of Limbs (XL/TBD CD)†
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)†
* Panda Bear: Young Prayer (Paw Tracks CD)
* Panda Bear: Live At Governors Island (Paw Tracks bonus MP3) †/‡
* Deerhoof: The Runners Four (Kill Rock Stars CD)
* Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars CD)
* Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia LP)
* Broken Bells: Meyrin Fields EP (Columbia EP)
* Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop 2LP)

†=iPod
‡=car

Commentary:

As you all know, I like to listen to music—a lot. And while I am allowed to listen to music at work, it must be via headphones—but I am not a big fan of headphones. I don’t like the sensation of music appearing to come from inside my head, rather than as vibrations of air in an acoustic space. Further degrading were the cheapo earbuds I used with my iPod which were extremely uncomfortable and, moreover, sounded like crap. After a few minutes, my ears would start to hurt. Eventually, I pretty much stopped listening to music at work and this made me very sad.

Of course, I have a very nice pair of over-the-ear headphones I use in my home studio, but I’m not going to lug them back and forth and, worse, look like a total geek wearing them at the office. Besides, I have to be at least somewhat aware of my surroundings while at work and the complete isolation they provide would be totally inappropriate. That means earbuds are my only practical choice. Ugh.

So I did a little research. Surely there must be good sounding, comfortable earbuds out there! After reading several enthusiastic reviews, I finally sprung for the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition, which boast an all-metal construction for low resonance and high durability, Monster’s usual superlative cabling and, conveniently, a multitude of ear-tips in various sizes to ensure a proper fit. They promised audiophile sound quality and non-fatiguing, long-term wearability. It seemed too good to be true, but according to users, they deliver. I had to give them a try.

They arrived this week and I had an opportunity to check them out yesterday. Wow! What a difference! They deliver deep bass, sparkling highs and have a surprisingly open, uncongested midrange—very much unlike my old earbuds, which always sounded compressed and tinny. I’m still experimenting with various eartips, but with a proper seal, these things sound amazing. In fact, they sound so good, lossy MP3 artifacts are brought to the fore, revealing the sonic compromises of listening to music on an iPod. Sure, it’s great for the car, where road noise masks the flaws inherent to the format, but MP3s simply do not stand up to close listening. I think I have an old Sony Discman somewhere that still works—maybe I’ll bring it to work so I can listen to CDs. Gosh, it almost makes me look forward to Monday. Well, almost…

Expect even longer playlists in the coming weeks!