Saturday, January 30, 2010

Partner Collaborations

High on my current rotation at the moment is the new Laura Veirs CD, July Flame. Yes, I've been listening partly in preparation for her March 2 Cedar appearance, but Veirs has been a favorite of mine since her 2005 Year of Meteors. It's not just her skills as a singer and songwriter that make her recordings compelling... these are taken to a whole other level with the arrangements and production by her partner Tucker Martine, who has worked with her on every one of her seven official recordings except her self-titled debut. And when she's here in March she'll be very pregnant with their first child, due April 15.

(Martine also happens to be the producer of my top albums of both 2009 and 2008: The Decemberists The Hazards of Love and Musée Mécanique's Hold This Ghost).

This combination of a talented female singer/songwriter and partner male musician/producer has yielded a number of my favorite records over the years. The best Shawn Colvin records: Steady On and A Few Small Repairs, when John Levanthal co-wrote and produced (before he moved on with, and eventually married, Roseanne Cash). And the greatest Suzanne Vega record, IMHO, is Nine Objects of Desire, her last with then-husband, musician and producer Mitchell Froom (now married to Vonda Shepard... wow, a roadmap might be helpful about now!).

There is something special about these collaborations, when the whole seems to become greater than the parts. While I can't say yet whether July Flame is a great record, it's definitely a keeper, and one requiring a greater listening commitment before its real value is revealed. That's always a good sign in my book.

* * * *

Another discovery of the week: the second record by the Swedish band Fredrik, called Trilogi. I really enjoyed their first one, Na Na Ni. This is atmospheric pop, full of adventure, with just the right amount of hooks. Unfortunately, a short U.S. tour in February only hits the eastern seaboard. Maybe we'll get them further west in the fall. In the mean time, here's a spooky video from the new one:

Fredrik - Viskra from The Kora Records on Vimeo.

* * * *

I want to take this opportunity to thank my fellow bloggers for some really great work over the past few weeks. I really look forward to every new posting here these days. And I have a couple of responses to the most recent ones:

To Angel of Rock: I respectfully disagree with your friend that "going to a show doesn't really count as hanging out." There are few more profound bonding experiences than seeing a particularly inspirational concert with another person. I have old friends with whom I still talk about shows we saw over thirty years ago. Our mutual concert experiences are far more memorable than most of the other things we did together. It may not be obvious at the time that "the company" is important, but especially when the concert is particularly memorable, doesn't it provide a particulary rich and deep experience to share?

And to Veronica Fever: my parents were big music lovers. Some of my earliest childhood memories are infused with music, whether it be family picnics on the lawn at Tanglewood, or my dad's passion for Oscar Peterson. My three older siblings all had their own musical identities. It was my sister Susan who first brought The Beatles into the house, and they quickly became my favorite. And I joyfully remember all of us in the car at the drive-in in Cape Cod, summer of 1964 (I was seven), watching A Hard Day's Night, which converted my dad into a Beatles fan, too.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Concert etiquette

Musically, I'm feeling very scattered this week. So I'll try something a little different and get your opinions on something that has been bothering me.

A conversation that transpired yesterday:

"It's been a while!"
"Yeah! Well, I saw you on Monday. But going to a show doesn't really count as hanging out."

I think what they meant is that we were not able to have any real conversations. But this touches on a question that I spend a lot of time thinking about. As someone who sees as much live music at The Cedar as possible, I've become accustomed to the idea of "the listening room." Basically, wherein the music takes priority over the drinks, the conversation, and (apparently) the company. Am I a bad friend? Socially awkward? Inconsiderate?

Oh dear.

So, what's the deal? Is this acceptable behavior? Do you act this way or have friends who do? Should this be an item on my self-improvement project?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Took 99 Stitches in His Yas-Yas-Yas

If you're a blues nut you must own this book, 'Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary' by Stephen Calt. Mr. Calt takes a scholarly approach to defining the words and terms common in the blues lexicon. If you have pondered the true meaning of 'rounder' or 'goofer dust' in the lyrics of old blues standards, this book is for you. A couple of examples:

"Canned Heat e.g. 'I gave my woman a dollar, to get herself somethin' to eat / She spent a dime for neckbones an' ninety cents for that old canned heat' -- Will Shade, 'You Better Let That Stuff Alone'

"A trade name for Sterno, a commercial product introduced around 1900 that retails as a heating or cooking gel. Desperate or derelict alcoholics would squeeze and strain the gel through a cloth to extract its denatured alcohol base, and mix the latter with water or some other liquid to create a toxic confection known simply as 'canned heat.' "

Toxic confection. Gotta love a dryly humorous euphemism. Or how about:

"Shim-Sham-Shimmy" e.g. 'Check all your razors and your guns / Do the Shim-Sham-Shimmy till the risin' sun' -- Bessie Smith, 'Gimme a Pigfoot'

"A variant of the 'Shimmy-She-Wobble,' recorded by Cab Calloway as a dance introduced at the Cotton Club in 1930. It probably remarked on the light complexion of Cotton Club dancers, shim shams having been a black idiom dating to slavery for 'Negroes of mixed blood.' "

Until I owned this book I didn't know what 'keyhole' meant. Now I do. You can too.


I enjoyed Main Figurehead's post of the 23rd, specifically his points about our formative years of music appreciation. He got me thinking about my own such evolution, and his theory held up well. Try it yourself.

(One question to MF: Why did the Beatles reach you when they did? Had your musical seeds been sown prior to that, or was this totally out of the blue?)

My family members were a big influence early on. Mom liked classics and soundtracks, so before I started kindergarten I had already heard lots of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, and Brahms and Sibelius. Dad enjoyed easy listening, so there were doses of Henry Mancini and Jackie Gleason. I liked 'em all, and still do. ('Some Enchanted Evening' came on the box the other night, and all activity ceased until Ezio had had his way with us.)

The wild card was Aunt Martha, the bohemian of the family. Her tastes ran to folk and jazz, and she got me going big-time on The Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, and Odetta, as well as Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, and Cannonball Adderley. I won't go as far as to say that at age eight I was understanding what all those latter explorers were saying, but I was interested. (I am reminded that in my college years, one hazy night I was listening to 'Birds of Fire' by The Mahavishnu Orchestra and thinking what a fine Christmas present the album would be for Martha, who was by then in her 60s and retired. I slept that one off and, as I wasn't a 'wake-and-bake' sort, talked myself out of it in the cold light of the following dawn.)

The mid-60s were a latency period, though. As a rather isolated country kid I missed the cultural revolution fomented by The Beatles and their contemporaries. On occasion my half-sister would come to visit, always wanting to know who I thought the cutest Beatle was. I hated 'em just for my having been subjected to such an exercise. (To my credit, I always chose John.)

It wasn't until the fall of '68 and my entry into high school that the early cultivation paid off. Top 40 radio was at an absolute peak at the time, a cross-genre panoply of ear candy. One could hear Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, The Doors, Jeannie C Riley, Hugo Montenegro, and Jimi Hendrix back to back to back. Those were the key years, really...1968-9, when some real building was done atop the musical foundation of my childhood. After that, it was off to the races...album rock radio in 1972-3, and KSAN (and the last gasps of free-form radio) in 1974-5...age 20. By then I was ready for anything...ECM, reggae, Afrobeat, space drones (Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze remain big influences), avant-garde...for a time in the 70s I owned several Sun Ra albums although I'll be damned if I was ever able to make heads or tails out of 'em.

Oh, and Dad? I still play Henry Mancini and Engelbert Humperdinck records and think of you.


My latest round of needle-drops yielded the typical quota of major and minor pleasures. Top o' the charts this time around: The Gilded Palace of Sin's album, 'You Break Our Hearts, We'll Tear Yours Out.' This one is hard to categorize; call it a mutant strain of dark Americana. I'll fall in line with other listeners who reckon this would appeal to fans of Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

So go here, read the encomiums, and mash on the player. If you like what you hear, I can certify that the rest of the album is equally worth your time. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thinking about Afro-Diaspora Techno and then some

The Very Best's collaboration The Warm Heart of Africa made plenty of Best of the Year lists. Maybe this represents a changing in how people define "world music" or "global roots" or whatever we're calling it now, which is a good thing. While I find Esau Mwamwaya's multi tracked vocals appealing, if not downright uplifting, the disc as a whole is so sterile. It sounds as if it were recorded in a sanitary white operating room, which is the studio, I guess. I realize that is the sound the RadioClit guys were going for, the juxtaposition of the warm vocals and the very obviously artificial (and may I say rather dated sounding - or is that supposed to be retro?) beats.

Most of the tunes, I find the beats so cheesy and annoying that I can't really enjoy the sweet vocals. It's as if they were trying for a lo-fi M.I.A. sound but took a wrong turn somewhere into Flock of Seagulls territory. Where is that guy with the hair doing the two note keyboard solo? Ms. Arulpragasam does contribute vocals on one track and while it's nice to hear her voice, the track doesn't do it for me. Maybe I want to hear Mwamwaya get down and dirty. Maybe it's all just too pop for this old punk. Maybe I should I should lighten up, quit trying to get "Julia" out of my head and just sing along and enjoy it.

Taking a break from this the other day, I turned to Buraka Som Systema's Black Diamond from 2008. Yeah, I know they are Portuguese, but kuduro is an Angolan genre and at least one of the guys is from Angola, so I'm counting it here. OK, now! Those are some beats. This is nice hard techno, yet it is definitely feels African. Without knowing thing one about the music, my first thought was Brazilian. After a few tunes, I decided no, it's from Angola, so I was feeling fairly sassy when I actually found out who this band was. The kickin' track is their collaboration with badass (some would say "potty-mouth") Brazilian baile-funk/funk-carioca MC Deize Tigrona, "Aqui Para Vocês." Just to set things straight, M.I.A. sampled Tigrona for "Bucky Done Gun", who sampled the Rocky theme trumpet blast. In that order. This is so very not pop. Or do the three million views of their "Yah" video make it pop? Can you sit still once I-19 gets rolling? I can't. Lo-tek techno as it should be.

I then took on the solo project from Gogol Bordello bassist Tommy T. (Thomas T Gobena) , The Prester John Sessions. He's put together a sort of concept album, trying to turn newbies on to Ethiopian sounds. My first thought was "Ethiopiques lite," but decided to give the guy the benefit of the doubt (except that horrible dub remix featuring Eugene Hutz- that's just embarassing to everyone involved) and read a couple of interviews. He says he's trying to turn people on to the diversity of Ethiopian music outside the Ethiopiques jazz stylings. Good intentions, but he loses his way in execution.

The tracks with Gigi (Ejigayehu Shibabaw) on vocals are the high points; the woman couldn't sing a wrong note if she tried and her voice is always smooth as buttah. Nice older interview with Gigi here in which she talks with Afro Pop Worldwide about the Addis scene, the instruments used on her more trad tracks and her vocal influences.

But back to Tommy T. Well, the Prester John disc could certainly serve as an introduction to the Horn of Africa sound for the Gogol Bordello crowd. But to anyone who's the least bit familiar with Gigi's work or any of the Ethiopiques stuff, it's going to sound a little dumbed (not dubbed!) down.

I'm working on Burkina Electric's Paspanga and Rêem Tekré now, seeing as how they were going to play the Cedar this spring. After a couple listens, I am finding their stuff a little thin. Leaning towards the sterile category. But I do like some of the vocals, so I'll give it another go. Wonder what the live show will be?
* * * * * * *
OUCH! Switching around between Lala, YouTube, MySpace, ITunes here and there is some extreme variation in volume presets. Love my new earbuds, but I need some kind of early warning system... or should I take Ms. Fever's advice and go all Rhapsody?

* * * * * * *

Heading off to another continent altogether, I've been checking out the stash that Main Fig. brought back from Global Fest at APAP. This is just too much fun.

Somewhere between Yat-Kha and Dengue Fever you'll find the latest offering from Mongolian/ Buryat singer Namgar and her current band. They used to do a Huun Huur Tu acoustic kind of thing, but amped it up a few notches for Nomad (2008). The result varies from what the New York Times called "a hard-rock band that at times suggested a Russian Jethro Tull", to a piece ("Whisper Rain") featuring a symphonic interlude (I was waiting for the soliloquy from the extended version of "Nights in White Satin"), while some of the vocals in the "Lake Bunting and Yokhor" medley that sounds like Varttina's hardest stuff. (Tune in at about 2:50) Tracks like "Whisper Rain" and "Aspiration"are way out there in cheesy fusion land, but simple ones like "Orphan Camel Colt" really show off Namgar's pipes. (I could not make up those titles!)

I made Lisa come in to check out Namgar's hairstyle (hat? wig? Bjork rip-off?) and she said the music sounded like "bad Hedningarna."


First of all, there is no such thing as "bad Hedningarna." Hmmph. OK, "Yundengogo" does sound a little like Hippjokk. That's a good thing. But hey, I think this is pretty fun, if very over the top. And you do need to check out the hair. Or whatever it is.

Last week I promised to track down the vocalists on Shantel's latest project, Planet Paprika. Here goes.

Toronto native and Turkish-Bulgarian song interpreter Brenna MacCrimmon is here. I'm guessing that's her on "Usti Usti Baba" and "Eyes of Mine." Loved her interview and vocals in Fatih Akin's Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul!

German Mantiz says "RUDEGYALZ RULE" on her MySpace. Would you translate that at "Rude Girls Rule?" I would. I'm guessing that's her on "Wandering Stars."

Greek singer Jannis Karis did "Immigrant Child" on Shantels's Disko Partizani and sings something here.

Greek classic era rembetika musician Anestis Delias is sampled.

Yuriy Gurzhy from Russendisko also contributes some vocals, somewhere.

Do we know who's singing what? No, we do not. I tried. Why are musicians credited for all the tracks on which they appear but so often singers are not?

Here's Brenna MacCrimmon and Turkish psychedelic band Baba Zula floating on the Bosporus at sunset in the closing section of Crossing the Bridge. Aaaah. A very sweet couple of minutes. Just perfect. That's my cue for bedtime. Thanks again for loaning me the vid, Main Fig!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Music Theory

I have a theory that our main musical preferences are set, to a great extent, before we are through our teenage years. If you think about the music that had the most impact in your life through the age of 18, for example, it's often pretty easy to draw at least a dotted line (and sometimes a more direct, bold one) to your favorite music now, even when you're an old fart like me.

For me, The Beatles entered my life at in 1963 when I was six years old, and dominated (obsessed?) my musical interests until they broke up seven years later. When I think about what it was about the career path of The Beatles which kept them so compelling for me, I can distill the following qualities: a high level of craft, the embracing and integration of seemingly disparate sounds and other cultures (both musical and geo-political), and an unwillingness to simply repeat successful formulas. Now take these qualities and apply it to the things that most attract me today in music, bands and even musical genres, and you have a pretty succinct description of what I most look for.

So you could posit that my basic filtering system for music was set by the age of 13. Of course, many believe that our sexual proclivities are established long before even that, so maybe this is not such an outlandish theory! It also follows that folks who have not established a deep, emotional connection with music before the age of 20 struggle to do so after.

Try this on yourself... think about the music/bands that meant the most of you before the age of 20, then consider the qualities of that music you found most compelling, and see if those cannot be found in the music that you are listening to today?

* * * *

I've barely recovered from my APAP Weekend and it's already time to start preparing for the South By Southwest music conference in mid-March. I try to prepare by going through their list of showcasing artists one-by-one to determine what I should try to check out. It's quite a daunting list, many hundreds of bands here. So please, I invite you to peruse it, and if there are any artists on there that you recommend I check out, leave a comment here. I'm glad to say that I'll have some help this time in the form of fellow blogger Angel of Rock!

I also notice that there will be a SXSW iPhone App this time, which may prove quite useful to have on my iPod Touch.

And speaking of iPhone Apps, if you have not already heard, The Cedar has one now available for free from the iTunes Store. You can watch YouTube videos of upcoming artists (and classic videos from The Cedar archived by users), get all of our latest news, even buy tickets. The first version is now up... and an improved update should be up shortly.

* * * *

Next Saturday night (the 30th), Montreal turntablist Kid Koala comes to The Cedar. He's quite amazing... I urge you to check this guy out. He's truly a virtuoso. I'll leave you with this clip (and yes, we'll have our projection system fired up, so you'll get a good view of what he's doing. Now whether you can actually see exactly what that is will be another matter!):

Friday, January 22, 2010

live music: still more fun than homework

Weekend schedule:

Thursday: Kitty Cat Klub (It's the first week of school so Thursday is part of the weekend, right?)
Friday: Turf Club
Sunday: The Cedar

During which I plan to see friends perform gothic pop and jazz, see some favorites and some unknowns play heavy rock music, and a quiet Sunday night with a sweet couple. There will also be biking involved.

Shaping up to be another doozy.

In other news, I made some discoveries this week.

1) I have in my possession a B.R.M.C. album that is unbeknownst to Wikipedia
2) There are at least two B.R.M.C. albums listed on Wikipedia that are unbeknownst to me.


And in non-music related news,

Mike and Ikes with Blueberry Green Tea fix a bad day. Really.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Three Books

For Christmas this year I received as a gift a book titled, 'The Coffeehouse Investor.' It is a primer for investors looking to simplify their portfolio-management tactics. The book is thin, 168 pages, with large print and a lot of white space.

The author's entire message can be boiled down to three points:

1. Allocate your assets (stocks, bonds, cash) according to your age and risk tolerance.
2. Approximate the stock market average.
3. Save.

The above is intended as the author's rejoinder to those who believe that, with enough research and gut instinct, the market can be consistently beaten which, according to historical statistical analysis, is a longshot. So: buy into a couple of index funds and let 'em ride. Done.

How boring is that? Yet, the author makes a compelling case...essentially saying that unless you are an alpha-type who is sure you can make a living beating the casino, dumb it down and find less-stressful ways to fill your free time.

The book reminded me of another I once read, called 'The Shangri-La Diet.' This one is 224 pages, and the author achieved this with anecdotes and even more white space than the aforementioned investment primer.

The author's entire message can be boiled down to three points:

1. Eat less.
2. Enable this by ingesting two strategically-timed tablespoons of extra light olive oil every day.
3. Exercise more.

The basic idea here is that by taking in a portion of your daily calories with a flavorless substance (another suggestion is sugar water, which is a downright bad idea), you effectively stunt your hunger cravings and, over time, shrink your 'need' for unnecessary food.

Boring. But simple and effective. For the record, it is the only diet choreography with which I have ever had real success. The effect is likely psychological, but who cares? It worked for me.

If by some hideous twist of fate you have read this far, some variation of this question has arisen in your mind: Is this not a music blog?


As you well know (and as has been expounded upon in these very pages), the world of music commerce and exploration is almost unrecognizable from that of the turn of the millennium. Preferences, media, and tastemaking have split into fractions. The possibilities are ever-more rich yet complex. Some folks find the handles difficult to grasp.

If I were to write a book about the subject, I'd just do what I do: go on and on with the usual bloviation, shaggy-dog stories, and non sequiturs. Somewhere in all this I would bury my message, which can be boiled down to three points:

1. Read reviews.
2. Subscribe to an on-demand streaming service.
3. Listen.

The subjects of investment, dieting, and music exploration, all have something in common: These worlds are well-populated with entrepreneurs who want to sell you something. Such salespeople include T. Rowe Price, Valerie Bertinelli, Jimmy Iovine, and thousands more.

Music exploration needn't be about directionless and day-killing exercises in site hopping. I, for one, have no interest in or patience for lurching among artist pages, YouTube, MySpace, LaLa, and blog aggregators just to run smack-dab into poor functionality, amateurish navigational tools, and worst of all, the infuriating 30-second sample.

The streaming, on-demand music service (e.g. Rhapsody) is a simple solution: a one-stop shopping center. Read your reviews, develop your wish list, then take it to your subscription service and listen to your heart's content. This way you can buy what you know you like rather than gamble on the unknown.

I'll admit to being amazed that more people don't do this. But to be fair, there are two shortcomings: many folks balk at spending money to stream music they do not then own. Also, there are gaps in the streaming services' catalog offerings.

To the former concern: Think of it as spending the price of one CD per month so that you can approach the buying of music with laser-like accuracy and efficiency. Gambling on the unknown is a thing of the past.

To the latter: Yes, some music won't be there. Some older obscure stuff is lying dormant in dusty storage rooms, not deemed worthy of reissue in any form. Other music is held captive by gatekeepers who like to keep their moats filled and stocked with predators.

My favorite such commerce inhibitor is Drag City. Fine label, talented roster. However, their music can only be heard by purchasing CDs or 99-cent individual tracks at a handful of outlets. I know of no way of hearing the entirety of any of their albums before committing to buy, other than piracy, of course. As Drag City has essentially established my choice as a) pay before hearing, or b) steal, I choose c) neither.

My poster boy in this ongoing struggle is Drag City artist Bill Callahan, aka Smog. I own the one song of his I have heard, 'Dirty Pants,' which I procured from a music magazine sampler CD. I've read a lot of good things about him, and that one song tells me he is someone I want to listen to further.

But the man has put out over a dozen albums (not to mention ep's and one-offs) as Smog and, more recently, several more under his own name. Instinct tells me he would be an artist whose output I would want to distill into, say, a couple dozen favorite tracks. The only way I can do that is to spend, what, $200? Or steal? Sorry, Bill. But hey, I'm just one honest but tight-wadded music-hungry consumer. I am sure there are no others like me.

(To be fair, it's their content. They are well within their rights to play keep-away with their potential audience.)

To those of you who can now imagine how my book on music exploration would read, you've probably already figured out the ending: there is way more good music out there than we can discover in a lifetime. So go with on-demand, read some reviews, and be happy with the wide swaths of choices before you. There has never been a better time to be a music-lover.

PS...I tried out Spotify, the UK-based on-demand service not yet available in this country. I think I understand some of the hype. There are holes in their catalog, too, but the functionality is way ahead of Rhapsody's. I encountered a much cleaner, more elegant interface, and the delivery speed was outstanding. Sounded great, too. Terrific product.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Give the Singer Some

I see some of this post as a public service, putting info out there that somebody, somewhere just might need to know. Then I see part of it as just satisfaction for my own curiosity, tracking down some history and some buried recognition.

See, I was mixing up a "Sultry Sirens" kind of thing the other day featuring lots of amazing female vocals in various genres from various regions that fit the above billing. Lining up all these tunes, it was a little shocking to realize that more than a few of them had no listing of the vocalist's name. They were listed under the name of the remix dj, or the arranger or the bazouki player! So I took it upon myself to track some of these gals down, and get their names and faces out there.

First asignment, Imam Baildi. Who's doing the amazing clear high notes of "Den Thelo Pia Na Xanarthis"? Then who's that with the throaty tones on "O Pasatempos"? I Googled around for a rather embarrasing amount of time, refining search terms, attempting to transliterate Greek and listening to song samples on a number of different site to double check my research. It doesn't help that there are any number of ways to spell some of these Greek names in English. [In the last week - literally- the site has risen to the top of this search and it actually lists the original artists for the entire album. Wish I'd found that last week!]

The amazing and elusive Meri Lida (or Mary Linda) does the version of "Den Thelo Pia" from which the Falerias brothers sample so heavily. Meri's looking a little Breakfast at Tiffany's here, isn't she?

A crooked trail finally led me to a download; I Tunes had the song mislabeled, if you can believe that! I just happened to click on some of the other track samples once I found a disc featuring Lida and one of them was actually "Den Thelo Pia." The lyrics weren't Greek to me, and wouldn't be to anyone who listened with half an ear. The various European Amazons(.uk, .de, .fr etc) have more of her stuff, which is where I found these images.

Ioanna Georgakopoulou (or
Ioánna Yeorgakopoúlou) is sampled on a couple of tracks on their disc; her 1946 version of "O Pasatembos"("The Seeds") is a killer track. But how to find out who she was? These women's voices are all over dozens of compilations of rembetika, but they are usually listed under the name of the bouzouki player. Ioanna does have a Lala page with a few samples. I have to say I am more than a little tempted to order the four disc set "Rembetika Gia Panta" from!

In an aside, both tracks are anchored by the bouzouki of Manis Hiotis; he composed "O Pasatempos." . Here's an interesting bit of history on the instrument and rembetika genre.

The history of the bouzouki is forever entwined with rembetika, the highly improvised Greek music often compared with American blues. The rembetik culture bloomed in the underworld of prisons and hashish dens in the port cities of the Aegean Sea and western Asia Minor in the early 1900s, reaching its zenith in the years between the world wars. A typical early ensemble might have included a singer, two or more bouzoukis playing melody and simple chords, and a tiny version of the bouzouki called the baglama providing a staccato rhythm accompaniment. The songs, with lyrics about drugs, hookers, money, love, and death, were based on a variety of ancient modes and traditional dance rhythms, and they were characterized by expressive improvised introductions called taxims, impassioned singing, and bouzouki breaks between verses. Among the most influential of early players--or rembetes--were Márkos Vamvakáris and Ioannis Papaioannou.

Eventually rembetika’s roughneck reputation softened and the bouzouki entered the mainstream--partly due to a fine player and prolific composer named Vassilis Tsitsánis. Tsitsánis fused the old dance rhythms with more elaborate chord progressions and a westernized harmonic sensibility, and his lyrics had a more conventional appeal than the rough-hewn tales of the earlier artists. Tsitsánis became the first national star of the bouzouki and made the instrument socially acceptable. When he died in 1983, 200,000 mourners brandishing bouzoukis and baglamas filled the streets of Athens. Among the many virtuosos who followed in his wake was Manis Hiotis, who added a fourth course of strings to the bouzouki and changed its tuning to C F A D (like the first four strings of a guitar tuned down a step). The new arrangement allowed a greater range and flexibility and fostered the evolution of a showier style.

Here's another, more in depth history of the genre.

And if you can't get enough, the Wiki article has a nice long list of Rembetiko compilations with English liner notes. Well, and look at the things one can learn surfing around. Shantel's "I'll Smash Glasses" is an old rembetika song. He's on my list for next time; I've got to figure out who those sexy singers of his are!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Lost Weekend in New York

33 bands in 5 nights. That was my APAP Conference showcase weekend tally. Now before you start calculating how much time I spent just traveling through Manhattan and the boroughs to see all of that, keep in mind that a number of showcases bundled a lot of bands (GlobalFest alone is 12 bands). And some of those showcases lasted less than 5 minutes for me, with either another obligation, or feeling that I'd seen enough. So, I'll start with my favorites:

1. CARAVAN PALACE at GlobalFest I blogged about these guys last summer. For many presenters, this was the high point of this year's GlobalFest (see below), despite being completely dissed by Jon Pareles of the NY Times. Fun music video now up too:

2. ANDY STATMAN at the Charles Street Synagogue. Not only is Statman a double-threat (clarinet and mandolin), equally adept at straight jazz, klezmer and bluegrass, his weekly Thursday night concert in the heart of Greenwich Village is an experience you can only have in New York:

3. RED BARAAT at Joe's Pub "Bangin' Bhangra & Brass Funk," a unique blending of cultures that works so well. Brass sections seem to be the big thing in global music these days, which is OK by me. The Bollywood dance videos in the background only add to the experience:

4. PUNCH BROTHERS at The Living Room. I know, I cheated. I'm really supposed to go see things I've never seen before, and we've had Chris Thile & Co. at The Cedar many times before (and they return on March 1). But this is probably their "home venue," small and intimate, where they like to experiment. They played lots of new things from their upcoming record, but the highlights were the covers of Little Feat, Radiohead and Pavement. Awesome.

5. HAZMAT MODINE at the Mercury Lounge. More brass, this time with two harmonicas playing American R&B. Pretty hard to sit still with these guys on the stage. Even I was dancing.

GLOBALFEST is the Main Event for global music in the U.S. Staged for the past seven years during the APAP Conference, and masterfully curated by Shanta Thake of Joe's Pub, Isabel Soffer of the World Music Institute, and Bill Bragin of Lincoln Center, featuring 12 bands on the 3 stages of Webster Hall, the evening provides a glimpse of what's likely to come, seeing that almost every major global music programmer in North American is likely to be in attendance.

As is often the case with these kinds of showcases, it can be very hit-or-miss. But this year's offering was largely to my liking. Besides CARAVAN PALACE, I particularly enjoyed the sets by Alif Naaba of Burkina Faso, Nguyên Lê & Saiyuku (cross-cultural), and La Cumbiamba eNeYé (Columbia).

As usual, the folks at NPR Music posted an complete blog report the morning after, so if you're curious and want to hear song samples, check that out. They will be posting full performances there shortly as well. And keep your eyes open for video blog postings at Link TV.

Finally, a personal story: on the last night of the event, I taxi'd over to Joe's Pub for a reception for North American presenters. Once inside, I realized that I left my iPod Touch in the back seat of the taxi. This had been my supplemental brain all weekend, tracking my schedule, providing me with subway directions, and keeping notes from my meetings. All gone. This being New York City, I figured there was little chance of seeing it again. I went about the rest of the evening with that uncomfortable feeling inside, crashing in my hotel bad at just before 1 am, when my cell phone buzzed.

It was a couple in Long Island who had found my iPod and wanted to know how to return it to me. My name and cell number were etched on the back, so they called it. Not only did these good Samaritans meet me at Jamaica Station the next morning on my way to my flight at JFK, and return my iPod to me, they actually charged it up!

Kind of restores your faith in human kindness...

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hello again

I have been avoiding this blog for the last couple weeks. I haven't been feeling like a good musichead. But here's a little update on my attempts.

-Behind on mix-making again. Finished one this week. E Dub, yours is next.

-Finally sent Veronica Fever a CD I made her months ago.

-Joined While this site seems suspiciously like social networking, in a constant search for new music, I think this is the next step.

-Favorite new artists:

1) James Husband (especially the song "Little Thrills")

2) Strange Boys

-It is the slow season for shows in Minnesota. Case in point: I've been going to free shows at a bowling alley on Monday nights. This week will be above average for concert-going though:

Monday: free show at Memory Lanes

Tuesday: nuthin'

Wednesday: free show at Sisters Camelot

Thursday: punk show in Iowa City

Friday: Low at The Varsity Theater

Saturday: maybe see a show in New York, maybe not

Sunday: see Saturday

Not bad for the slow season. The only thing missing is some Cedar shows. Soon to be resolved.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dimensionally Challenged

Count me as another movie-lover with a tall 'Avatar' hurdle to overcome. Took me a dozen years before I got around to 'Titanic' (and for those still on that fence, the last hour *is* pretty impressive). Plus, there have been so many other worthy pictures released just lately...'Up in the Air' and 'Young Victoria,' to name two.

Here's the real stumbling block, though: your Veronica cannot detect 3D. On every checkup with my optometrist, it's always the, the moose and his impressive rack do NOT stand out from the surrounding scenery. (So how does one without 3D vision or depth perception become a world-class parallel-parker? Feel.)

Speaking of 'Young Victoria,' within 48 hours of that I saw 'Sunshine Cleaning,' a bookend to Emily Blunt's impressive range. Over the closing credits was played the immortal 'Spirit in the Sky' by Norman Greenbaum. Forty years on I am still not tired of it. Funny, the time I first heard it I thought he had done a Canned Heat rip-off. Later, of course, I reckoned ZZ Top had plagiarized poor Norman with 'La Grange.' Seems my adolescent ears had not yet been exposed to John Lee Hooker.

(I even remember buying the 45. I was in Simonds' Music Shop in Fairfield, CA. When I found the single I told that empire's matriarch that 'Spirit in the Sky' was going to be a big hit. Whereupon the elderly Mrs. Simonds smiled sweetly and said, 'Well then, dear, we'll order a box.')


The closing credits in 'Young Victoria' feature a lovely new song by Sinead O'Connor. Naturally, it is the only track in the digital soundtrack album not available a la carte. C'mon guys...why must it be a binary choice between piracy (with its attendant stigma) and feeling ripped off?...

Man. Taken by Trees and El Perro del Mar on the same Cedar bill on February 23rd, and me without a single Delta frequent-flyer mile to my name. Who says we Westerners don't understand suffering?...

Personal to Angel of Rock: Thank you for the Winter Jams. I'm on it...lots of stuff on that disc not yet in my library. Will report back...

Have learned of a geeky way to try out Spotify (the spiffy UK-based on-demand music streaming service not yet available here) on my very own desktop. Results next week...


Far too many unhappy surprises in the obituary pages lately. Vic Chesnutt. Amy Farris. Jay Reatard. Another jolt was Lhasa de Sela, who died of cancer on January 1 at age 37.

Lhasa lived an unconventional life, the first several years of which were spent criss-crossing the US and Mexico with her family in a converted school bus. The multiple cultures she was exposed to in her travels and by her mother (an avid lover of Latin, Arab, Eastern European and Asian music) informed her own art, which defied easy categorization.

My best one-word description of Lhasa's music: mysterious. The following is an example, one of her earliest-recorded English-language songs.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Revealed at last: Vasen Rock Band on South Park!

There are times when you run across things surfing around that a self respecting Cedar music blogger simply cannot let pass. The following image of Väsen as South Park characters with RockBand instruments is one of those things.

It's so wrong, and right.

If they can make Väsen go South Park, and build a Lego version of the Serenity crew, (SO shiny!!) what can be next? Yeah, I just looked for Lego Avatar, but nobody has made anything yet. Better stock up on blue bricks... but I did find the South Park Avatar parody right here. In the best tradition of instant cultural commentary, the parody aired before the film was released.
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Whew! Having reasonable speed internet back is such a relief. Almost two weeks at snigelfart (as Bu and Ba say) was making blogging really difficult, but it's all good now thanks to the new NanoStation suction-cupped to our front window. Now I can check up on important things like the above.

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Lännen-Jukka String Band finally loaded up a few live tracks that feature the three piece version of the band that rocked us at Nordic Roots 9. Was it 9 or 8? Actually their sound check jamming with fiddler Sammy Lind from Foghorn String band while the sound guy (who shall remain nameless) overslept was one of the high points of the weekend. Any previous recordings I could find are just of J.Karjalainen solo. Sure wish they'd put out a disc of the trio. Something like this, perhaps.

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Boy, this record company thing can really work it for you. Look at this nice little promo video Nonesuch made to promote the new Carolina Chocolate Drops disc. The best part is that "Snowden's Jig" is the background music for the first 1:20. Golly, they recorded their cover of "Hit'em Up Style." Thought that would always be a live only type of deal what with copyrights and all. Free promo tracks from a recent live set for the pre-orderers, too.

And why is this disc coming out a month later over here than it is in the U.K.? Euro-bands, I get. But the Chocolate Drops? Why? Well, I expect we'll see them again in our town soon enough.
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Wow. The boys from Brighton at Soundway just don't stop. Hot on the heels of their great Nigeria Special series comes a Ghana Special set. Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-1981 comes as a chubby two disc set - or a 5 lp box. Looks like there are a couple of others in the series, too.

Anybody want to roadtrip to the UK to see Oumou Sangare and Orchestre Poly-Rythmo tour together? Man! Gimme some of that!

With that wonderful thought, I'll leave you. I've got a long shopping list of downloads now that my holiday ITunes gift card and a faster internet connection are in the same place at the same time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Conference Call

I enter this new year (decade, etc.) posting from the APAP Conference in New York City (just like I pitch'ud it, etc.). "Industry" conferences are always a bit sobering, as you are forced to be with your "peers," which does not always provide comfort. In the record industry, I remember the uneasy feeling that always came with that first entrance to the conference hotel, immediately spying the group of rather unattractive middle-aged men at the bar wearing track suits, chests and gold chains flashing. In the world of "arts presenters," it's frumpy gray hairs wearing the same clothes that they bought in 1972...

But in both cases there is also the group of true peers, inevitably people who are in the "business" for much the same reason you are, which is to say, basically, the music addicts. And every year there are a few more that have crossed over from the other side- colleagues once involved with records, that re-emerge in some aspect of the live music realm. Ah, survival.

The APAP conference is structured thus: "special interest" groups generally have their meetings on the periphery, mostly mornings. I tend to skip all but the most critical of those in favor of at least trying to sleep in. One-to-one meetings start late morning or lunch and run all afternoon. For me, that's mostly with booking agents. Sometimes real work gets done, dates of touring bands are at least held (rarely actually booked here), or you get pitched on additions to their rosters. Other times it's just a schmooze.

Then the good stuff happens in the evening, where literally thousands of bands showcase all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. If you'd like a taste of what's offered, check out this spreadsheet compiled by world music publicist Dmitri Vietz of Rock Paper Scissors. And this is only the world music showcases!

I'll wait to post a more detailed review of my favorite showcases, but so far, after two nights, my favorite moments have come courtesy Punch Brothers and Red Baraat.

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It appears that 2010 will be the year of the Tablet. Apple is set to announce their version, speculated to be called iSlate, later this month.

What's all the fuss about? With the growth of cloud computing (which I talked about in my previous post), and the explosion in popularity of smart phones such as iPhone and their widespread applications, the speculation is that the next generation of computers will be dominated by paired down, slim color displays with advanced interactive capacity that mostly access media remotely. Kind of like a blown-up iPod Touch. Expected to finally deliver the promise of an e-reader that also allows you to use all of your smartphone apps, computer manufacturers from all sectors are rushing to get products to market lest Apple pull their third major product coup in five years and dominate this market as well. Which I suspect is exactly what is about to happen.

For music, some have speculated that this could help restore the album to its former glory, with a device that can accommodate somewhat portable but visually expanded graphics, allowing for a wider experience than listening to songs on a tiny mp3 player. I suspect that the horse has already left that stable (or insert a better animal metaphor here), but if Tablets do become popular, inevitably some new trend of graphics-with-music which takes advantage of their specific capabilities will follow in its wake. And YouTube videos will have to increase their march towards high-rez.

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I'll leave you with some film musings (I know, it's a music blog, but cut me a little slack here). I always look forward to the arrive of a new film by Terry Gilliam, so that's next on my list of must-sees. But I have to say a few words about the pop culture phenomenon called Avatar. If you can get over the ridiculous storyline, one dimensional characters, predictable war/action scenes, awful soundtrack, and over-indulgent length (whew, that's a lot to get over, isn't it?), go see the 3D version of this movie just to experience the most incredible visuals your eyes have ever seen. Believe it or not, it's worth it!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Pocketful of Pflug

This reporter's final post in the noughties included a Top 10 list for 2009. Ever more, this seems a ridiculous exercise, mostly for its timing. So much of music appreciation has to do with full absorption and staying power. If one happens upon a perhaps game-changing album during the Thanksgiving holidays, how best to rank it in a year-end compendium?

The same holds true for end-of-decade retrospectives. How does one know where to rank 2009 musics among the prior nine years' releases?

(And let's not get started on what constitutes a decade. We already know that December 2000 marked the end of two thousand years in the Gregorian calendar and, therefore, the end of a millennium. To compensate, we'll agree that there was no year zero and that the 'first' decade had only nine years. Prolly muted the Times Square celebration leading into year X, but I can't be sure as Google Images has little commemorative evidence of the event.)

My suggestion? A year-end retrospective at the end of the *following* year, and a decade-end overview at the end of the *following* decade. This way passing fancies are weeded out and the music with real gravitas remains.

So. Best of 2008? Fleet Foxes. Best of the 90s? Toss-up between James 'Laid' and Massive Attack 'Mezzanine.'


Much has been made lately of the cable TV wars and the fees paid to the content producers...the latest flashpoint being the just-concluded battle between Time Warner and The News Corporation (Fox). An interesting overwiew article (which I won't link to from here, as it is rather off-topic) appeared in the Times the other day. It went on about the power of the consumer to resist relentless rate increases. Here is Alex Dudley, spokesman for Time Warner:

'They're the ones who are going to resist these price increases that the programmers are trying to push. One need look no further than the music industry for an example of what happens when consumers feel taken advantage of by an entire industry.'

Lots of pot-shots have been (and are) taken at the music biz, some fair, others not so much. The music consumer has gotten 'revenge' due to tools and choices simply unavailable to them ten years ago. Piracy might be lauded by its exponents as a stick in the eye of The Man, but it's also stealing (which would still merit a police visit at Target, say).

That said, as a former industry type I can cite one avenue via which the consumer has gotten sweet, justifiable, retaliation: the rebirth of the one-song-at-a-time model.

Remember the 45? Or even the cassingle or the CD single? I sure do. My hundreds of 45s eventually translated into hundreds and thousands of LP purchases. It was a cheap gateway into Candyland, and it made me a habitué for life.

Somewhere along the line some bean counters and their overlords decided that singles (as a standalone product class) were evil: they were unprofitable and worse, Donner Partyesque. And so, the push intensified to coerce the consumer into spending fifteen bucks to procure the one or two songs he wanted. Dopes.

Mmmm. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and a la carte.


Going back to EOD overviews, here is a dandy Sunday Times article about the prior ten years' changes in music consumption and production:

Lots of grist for commentary, but the bit I zeroed in on was the author's first mp3 player, the Diamond Rio PMP300. 32 megabytes of storage, capable of holding 12 songs ripped at 128kbps. That woulda been a toy for the quintessential early adopter.

My first such player was a 2001 model, the Archos 6000 6GB 'jukebox.' Bought it in anticipation of an autumn European vacation. All that summer I cherry-picked songs to fill the player's advertised 1500-song capacity...while knowing nothing of bit rates and their respective sound quality.

After painstakingly choosing and ripping the perfect 1500, I was in for three disappointments. First, the capacity turned out to be closer to 1200, given some of the longer tunes and classical pieces I favored. Second, the sound quality was crap. And third, crucially...I had no knowledge at the time of noise-reduction headphones. My 12-hour flight featured perfectly vetted music that had been reduced to vaguely tuneful white noise.

Much of this was forgotten about during the course of the trip, which took place in early October of 2001, a noteworthy time for air travel and overseas attitudes about Americans. Two snapshots: descending into a Paris Métro station and seeing a just-disembarked passenger aim a laser pointer squarely at my forehead, and walking alone on a quiet London street while three people directly across applauded me. Until then I had no idea I looked so 'American.'

And my first ripping misadventure? Written off (and subsequently not restarted for three years). I assuaged my disappointment with an armload purchase at Tower Records Piccadilly, the finest record store I ever visited.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Grupo Fantasma "comes alive"

As the Main Fig. explains our current booking policy, much of our "world music" is coming from places like Brooklyn, because many European bands can't or don't want to do U.S. tours. In the spirit of that idea (which I have to say works out pretty damn well on a lot of these acts), I'd like to propose a southern hemisphere version.

A few of us have been groovin' to a disc by Chilean cumbia + horns big band Chico Trujillo. Very fun stuff laid on the Cedar staff by one of the road managers at Global Roots 2009. Now, although Chico T. has done a European tour or two and is rather big in Germany, Chile is a long, long way away from Minnesota, isn't it?

As the chances of them coming to play for us seem at tad remote at this juncture, I have a suggestion for the next best thing, and as residents of Austin, Texas, the airfare'd be so much cheaper. I'm talking about those wild men in Grupo Fantasma. Lots of horns, lots of funk/mambo/merengue/cumbia, lot of fun. Let's get them up our way before they get any more famous; 2008's Sonidos Gold was nominated for a Grammy!

They backed up Prince at Cochella a year or two ago and apparently have played a private party for the former symbol as well. Word on the net is that they tore up Bonaroo and have ruled at home at SXSW, too. I also get the feeling that this is one of those bands with a crazy live show that is difficult to replicate digitally. Guess I need to check out their 2007 live disc "Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive."

P.S. They're smart asses,too. Check out the Grupo Fan Telethon on "Gimme Some."

Well, my connection is slower than molasses in January tonight...hey wait, it is January, and I have some molasses in the kitchen...oh, never mind. This is all I can do for now.