November 27, 2010

Playlist Week of 11-27-10

* Biber: The Rosary Sonatas (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Vivaldi: Concertos for the Emperor (English Concert/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Beethoven: Symphony No.1 (Academy of Ancient Music/Hogwood) (L’Oiseau-Lyre CD)
* Takemitsu: I Hear the Water Dreaming (BBC Symphony/Davis) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Takemitsu: Quotation of a Dream (London Sinfonietta/Knussen) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Impulse! CD)
* Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse! CD)
* Thelonious Monk: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (d.1-3) (Blue Note 4CD)
* Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners (Riverside/OJC CD)
* Thelonious Monk: Alone in San Francisco (Riverside/OJC CD)
* John Coltrane: Ballads (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane: Coltrane (Impulse! CD)
* John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse! CD)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note CD)†/‡
* Sun Ra: College Tour, Vol.1: The Complete Nothing Is… (ESP-Disk’ 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Singles (d.2) (selections) (Evidence 2CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Trio: Chiostro di Villa d’Este, Tivoli, Italy 7-02-08 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Falling River Quartet: Settlement Music School, Philadelphia, PA 10-10-08 (AUD CDR)
* Ches Smith & These Arches: Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl CD)
* Ches Smith & These Arches: Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT 11-19-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Pharoah Sanders: Message From Home (Verve CD)
* Ethiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969-1974 (BudaMusique—France CD)
* Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil (d.1) (Meta 2CD)
* David Torn: Clouds About Mercury (ECM CD)
* Tortoise: It’s All Around You (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Johnny Cash: The Original Sun Singles ‘55-‘58 (Sun/Sundazed 2LP)
* Johnny Cash: The Fabulous Johnny Cash (Columbia LP)
* Johnny Cash: The Sound of Johnny Cash (Columbia LP)
* Johnny Cash: Orange Blossom Special (Columbia LP)
* Willie Nelson: Phases and Stages (Atlantic LP)
* The Velvet Underground & Nico: The Velvet Underground & Nico (Verve CD)
* Van Morrison: The Healing Game (Polydor CD)
* Van Morrison: Back On Top (Pointblank CD)
* Grateful Dead: Civic Center, Hartford, CT 3-14-81 (AUD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Berkeley Community Theatre, CA 11-03-84 (SBD 3CDR)
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/Mobile Fidelity CD)
* Yes: Close To The Edge (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Tales of Topographic Oceans (Atlantic/Rhino 2CD)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Yes: Going For the One (Atlantic/Rhino 2CD)
* Genesis: Three Sides Live (Atlantic 2LP)
* Genesis: Invisible Touch (Atlantic LP)
* Peter Gabriel: So (Geffen LP)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On the Sky (d.1-2) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD) †/‡
* Robert Pollard: Moon: Robert Pollard Live (Merge promo-CD)



So what about Yes?

I was never all that big a fan. When I was a kid, I liked “Roundabout” enough to buy the Fragile album—but even then, there were things that bugged me. For instance, “Cans and Brahms,” is a twee synthesizer arrangement of the third movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony that sounded cheesy even then. Furthermore, Jon Anderson’s singing is an irritating, high-pitched whine (albeit leavened by meticulous multi-tracking). Even so, the soaring melodies are uplifting and the musicianship first rate. The fantastical, gatefold cover art by Roger Dean combined with all the mythical mystical mumbo jumbo of the lyrics definitely appealed to my pimply, adolescent self; I would doodle alien landscapes in my notebooks at school, scribble over-wrought lyrics to unwritten songs and lamely try to rock-out on the piano. As I got older, King Crimson prevailed as my favorite of all those British Art-Rock bands (Genesis probably comes in second—heck, I even still like to listen to their 80s pop stuff once in a while). Being a jazz snob (and budding Deadhead), I blithely dismissed Yes as purveyors of fey, populist pabulum while still only a teenager. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” didn’t help matters any.

As it turns out, my good friend (and drummer extraordinaire), Sam Byrd, was way into Yes in his younger days and saw the band many times during their ‘Seventies prime. I consider Sam of consummate good taste and erudition—he has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and popular music and a most discriminating palate. We don’t always agree, but I’m always interested in his perspective—and I am always open to having my mind changed. The last time I saw him, he revealed to me that Yes had meant as much to him as the Grateful Dead had meant to me in my youth. Now, that’s saying something! Later, while talking about all this with another friend whose aesthetic I admire, he informed me that Going for the One was one of his favorite albums and that he, too, had seen Yes in concert a bunch of times during that era. These admissions made me reconsider my long-held bias against these prog-rock titans whom I had blithely dismissed. So, over this past summer and fall I’ve gone back and listened with new ears.

They were nothing if not over-ambitious, at least in their heyday, attempting to fuse classical music’s technical processes and instrumental prowess with rock music’s brawn and beat. They were not always successful. While there are many moments of fleeting brilliance on the sprawling, Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973), it is, in the end, an overwrought, bloated mess, its handful of leitmotifs and quasi-cosmic libretto spread impossibly thin across the album’s ninety-plus minutes. No other rock band—not even the mighty Crimson—has attempted anything so outlandish: a work of truly symphonic breadth and scope. It was even too much for über-pretentious keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, who quit the band after the lengthy tour that followed. Nevertheless, the three preceding albums, The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), and Close To The Edge (1972), are imminently satisfying, despite an occasional misstep here and there (e.g. the aforementioned “Cans and Brahms” or Steve Howe’s incongruous ragtime-acoustic-guitar escapade, “The Clap,” which mars the otherwise impeccable Yes Album). The young Bill Bruford’s propulsive, polyrhythmic drumming buoys the sometimes ponderous material while Chris Squire’s monster-toned bass anchors the most wayward chord changes with a surprising melodic wit. They were quite a rhythm section, allowing Howe and Wakeman to take flight while giving weight and heft to Anderson’s most ludicrious lyrical conceits. Close To the Edge is their most fully-realized album consisting of two of their most musically coherent epics capped by the majestic tour de force, “Siberian Khatru.” But I still think “Roundabout” is the best thing they ever did: an FM-radio hit that combined the procedures and techniques of classical training with the muscular power of hard rock in a way that still sounds uniquely inventive and fresh. It hardly matters that Anderson’s lyrics make no sense; the overall effect is exhilarating, even all these years later. Nothing else they did ever achieved such heights of perfection.

Alan White replaced Bruford on Tales From Topographic Oceans, and he seemed an odd fit, coming from a more straight-ahead rock background (notably, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band); but he gamely jumps into the thicket of odd meters and criss-crossing themes, forcefully stepping out on side three’s “The Ancient/Giants Under the Sun,” probably my favorite of the four, side-long long suites. But I doubt even Bruford’s natural exuberance could have rescued this plodding beast of a record. Relayer (1974) was something else altogether: Wakeman is replaced by the flamboyant Patrick Moraz, who gives it a refreshing jazz-rock-fusion feel. “The Gates of Delirium” is another twenty-minute opus yet it benefits greatly from a looser, more improvisational approach and White sounds more at home on the less self-consciously convoluted material. Howe’s kaleidoscopic guitar tones are particularly impressive throughout the album, especially on the fusion-y workout, “Sound Chaser,” which sounds like Led Zeppelin covering the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Wakeman rejoined the band for Going for the One (1977) and it is viewed by some as a return to form, with a focus on shorter songs, tighter constructions, and big, catchy hooks. Certainly, “Wonderous Stories” is one of the prettiest things they ever recorded and the ethereal, fourteen-minute “Awaken” comes close to recapturing their old glory. Although Going For The One topped the album charts in 1977, over the intervening years the musical landscape had radically shifted. With punk rock and “New Wave” newly ascendant, Yes would, unfairly or not, come to epitomize the overblown pomposity of progressive rock. Things would never be the same. Various bandmembers came and went, and, in 1983, Trevor Rabin produced “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which, while an international hit, was Yes in name only.

Yes sold zillions of LPs back in the day, and they are fixtures of used bins everywhere. However, like Led Zeppelin records, finding one is good condition is almost impossible. People not only bought them, they listened to them, over and over and over, while fondling the jackets and scrutinizing the inner sleeves. By now they are almost always completely trashed—even clean-looking vinyl can sound noisy and distorted. I finally gave up looking and have settled on compact discs. Thankfully, Mobile Fidelity has worked their magic on The Yes Album and Fragile, proving once again that redbook CD can sound stupendous if done right. The 2003 Rhino editions feature related bonus tracks and nice packaging, but the sound quality is overly-compressed and flat by comparison. Friday Music’s recent reissue of Relayer is extremely disappointing: while the beautiful gatefold cover is lovingly reproduced and the 180-gram vinyl is flat and quiet, it sounds identical to the 2003 CD—that is to say, not so great. What a wasted opportunity! I wish Mobile Fidelity would continue with the series; Close to the Edge definitely deserves such deluxe treatment. And, who knows? Perhaps a MoFi edition of Tales From Topographic Oceans would change my mind on that one.


MilesOfTrane said...

What a fantastic summary by an honest if oft-bewildered listener of Yes. I grew up completely worshiping the band as they always struck a perfect chord in my mind -- at least through Going for the One and to a lesser extent Tormato, the last of semblance of the true Yes. Go figure taste, huh? I posted a remembrance on my blog at The other songs on your week's playlist are marvelous as well. Viva la the music of Coltrane. Regards.

ches said...

Was wondering how to gt a copy of the These Arches Firehouse 12 gig.

Sam said...

Rodger! Thanks again for the kind words, even though some people (that is, my wife) consider my credibility permanently tainted because of my past love for Yes. I'm glad you've been able to open up your ears enough to dig into this stuff--you are an excellent role model for tolerance and open-mindedness when it comes to music, a lesson I should take to heart. I could say a lot more than I have time for here, but just one thing: I still think "Tales" is the best Yes ever--Howe's guitar solos are at their wonkiest, and Alan White grooves!

Here's my list for last week:

Playlist 2010-11-29

*Air: 1979-06-25 Rome (CDR)
*Art Ensemble of Chicago: Urban Bushmen
*Art Ensemble of Chicago: 1980-08-31 Chicago Jazz Festival (CDR)
*Art Ensemble of Chicago: Live in Milano [Among the People]
*Anthony Braxton: 2006-06-10 Kerava, Finland (CDR)
*New Loft: 2010-11-18 Live at the Camel, Richmond VA (CDR)
*Animal Collective: 2007 NPR Live Concert Series (CDR)
*Animal Collective: 2009 Live on BBC 6 (CDR)
*Antlers: Hospice
*Beatles: Unsurpassed Broadcasts, 2nd ed. (CDR) Vol. 10
*Arthur Conley & the Sweaters: Recorded Live in Amsterdam
*Dark Carpet: CDR compilation (2010)
*Dark Carpet: CDR compilation 2 (2010)
*Fela: Everything Scatter
*Grateful Dead: Dick's Picks 28 (1973) discs 2 & 3
*Grateful Dead: misc. 1973 selections
*Music Tapes: Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes
*Laetitia Sadier: The Trip
*Sonny & the Sunsets: Tomorrow is Alright
*Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup
*Various artists: Sappy (CDR compilation)
*Neil Young: Le Noise

Reading log 2010-11-29

*Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen (started)
*Canniff, Milton. The Compete Color Terry & the Pirates Vol. 1 1934-1935 (finished)
*Canniff, Milton. Terry & the Pirates Color Sundays Vol. 1 1934-1935 (started/finished)
*Larsson, Steig. The Girl Who Played With Fire (started/finished)
*Larsson, Steig. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (finished)
*LaBossiere, Michael C. 42 Fallacies (For Free) (in progress)
*Moore, Steven. The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (in progress)

Rodger Coleman said...

@MilesOfTrane: Thank you for your comment! Many folks whose taste I admire also love the band. I kind of wish I'd gotten into them when I was young--my ears are old and jaded. I still enjoy much of it, though.

@Sam: I will keep trying with Tales. Maybe one day it will click? I think we have had a mutual influence on each other: you now listen to Bob Dylan with enjoyment, apparently. And I see the new Neil Young album on your list. How do you like it? I kinda gave up on Neil years ago.

@Ches (Smith, I presume?): let me know how, and I would be happy to send you a copy. I love the music, by the way!

MilesOfTrane said...

My last word but I agree with Sam on Tales. In this post I deemed it the greatest concept album of all time. (Since then post faded, so there's no listenability now).

Sam said...

There's definitely a mutual influence! The new Neil Young is OK, but less to my taste than the hard-rockin' guitar stuff you've turned me on to ("Weld", etc.).