Saturday, February 27, 2010

The 1-2 Punch (and Laura)

The month of March opens with two of my personal faves at The Cedar. On Monday the first, those Punch Brothers return (in fact, they will be blanketing the region, with shows after us in La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, Platteville and Chicago). You may recall I previously posted about these guys when I saw them in New York last month. And I would put them up with my good friends Väsen among the very best acoustic ensembles in the world today. What sets the Punch boys apart is the full breadth of the music they play. Their original compositions defy categorization, and they've been know to play arrangements of J.S. Bach to Radiohead, even in the same set.

This is one of those bands that is so good- where all of the individual musicians are virtuosic talents, yet the whole is still greater than the rather large sum of the parts, that no music lover should ever miss an opportunity to see them. Mandolinist (and singer) extraordinaire Chris Thile, still best known as a founding member of Nickel Creek, is high in demand as a session player and general great guy to work with. So while this is this band's fourth Cedar appearance in three years (the first time as "Chris Thile's How To Build A Band"), don't take seeing them for granted!

Here's a brand new YouTube video of a new song we're likely to here on Monday:
(To see the full screen you'll have to go to this link).

We can reasonably call the following night's show Laura Veirs "Plus"... "plus" being the two opening acts, also Northwest-based acoustic folks worth hearing, The Old Believers and Cataldo. "Plus" also being Laura's own band, Hall of Flames, and although this is Laura's third visit to The Cedar, it will be her first with a band. And finally, "plus" because Laura is about 7.5 months pregnant!

Her new album, July Flame has already been called "the best album of 2010" by The Decemberists' Colin Meloy, which when I think about it, is hard to argue with (although it is only the end of February, after all...

* * * *

I've finished my first complete pass through the enormous SXSW A through Z Showcase List and I'm now down to a more manageable list of about 300 bands to choose from. Next step: a more detailed and discriminating pass, plus filtering by venue and logistics. But I'm very much taking suggestions, and eagerly awaiting the annual All Songs Considered program where their staff goes through their own SXSW picks. Maybe next week I'll start posting promising discoveries that I hope to check out in Austin. But please, anyone out there, check the list yourself and send along your suggestions!

Friday, February 26, 2010

What my doesn't know

I have some secrets to share with you. You are familiar with It does thing called "scrobbling." It keeps track of all the music you listen to on your computer or mp3 listening device. This is so that you can look at similar artists and find people with similar tastes in music. I am new to the site, so there may be more to it than that. But there are some things it doesn't know.

1) I have been listening to tapes in a very specific way. I have instated Out of Time mornings and Soul Tune Saturdays. These have been good decisions.

2) Paul Westerberg's Come Feel Me Tremble has been on repeat in my CD player.

3) Within the last 24 hours I got to hear live renditions of both Elliott Smith and Margot And The Nuclear So and So's in my living room.

4) By the end of this weekend I will have listened through to all of the artists playing at SXSW whose names begin with "R."

5) Somehow, after all this, at the coop yesterday this was the song stuck in my head.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Plain Oatmeal Opinions

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in an article for Rolling Stone that shlock was difficult to intelligibly define, but 'I know it when I hear it.' (Admittedly, I may not have this 100% correct, but it is now committed to the internet archives and therefore potentially as accurate as any other 'historical document.')

Main Figurehead knows shlock. It's in the arrangements of Peter Gabriel's latest, Nelson Riddle's (and, presumably, Gordon Jenkins's) work with Frank Sinatra (and, presumably, Nat King Cole), and Phil Spector's over-dubbing work on 'Let it Be.'

The self-same Mr. Fig then devoted an entire blog post to extolling the boundless virtues of Yes's 'Tales from Topographic Oceans,' an album that many consider the poster-child for mid-70s cultural claptrap. I was a huge Yes fan, but they lost me right there, right then. Heck, even one of the band's members, Rick Wakeman, couldn't tolerate it. (But he was a meat-eater and therefore given to irrational judgments on a wide range of issues.)

I've had 'shlock' percolating on my back-burner for two weeks. The kitchen has lost its homey Rachael Ray ambience and now reeks of something remotely sulphuric. So here: try some.

First of all, I couldn't pick shlock out of a lineup if it bitch-slapped me while wearing a laminated name-tag. F'rinstance...I can draw a straight line from Roy Orbison to Chris Isaak to Raul Malo to Andrea Bocelli, and ain't no one gonna tell me Roy's operettas lack artistic merit. I had a military / farmer dad with whom I did battle throughout much of the 70s, but I still love his favorites like Henry Mancini and Julie London. (My residual 'dad protest' is hating the SF 49ers, by the way). I believe 'Strangers in the Night' is one of the greatest 45s ever waxed.

I get it, though. Strong opinions are what make music blogs (and cable news shows and so much of our daily discourse) go. We gotta pick a side and bloviate lest we come off all grey and mealy. But honestly, what's a girl to do?:

The more music I hear, the less I find to dismiss as inferior. I find that most negatives I ascribe are simply contrarian. Such as...The Avett Brothers: Lauded by critics, slobbered over by otherwise dignified friends...yet I find the vocals unlistenable. Or present day Top 40: boring, all signs of life focus-grouped away. Or American Idol: Give me chickens cackling in a barn.

Yet these moments of bravado are fleeting, for I know the truth: the music I dislike was intended for other ears. My overt opining is simply transparent provocation. So while I would like to grab a pitchfork the next time a beloved indie band is thrashed for signing a major-label contract and hopping a hot rail to Shlockville, my id will keep my tongue in my head. For I know that this particular argument has been fatuous from its inception.

Oh, and Tales from Topographic Oceans? I haven't heard it for 35 years, but I am now compelled to try it with new ears. For I do believe this about music and the test of time: if you can listen to a favorite album from your youth decades later and hear musical merit even when stripped of nostalgia value, then maybe you really are hearing a masterpiece.


More mash, anyone? While I tend to deduct points for tempo alterations to make the pieces fit, this one is an exception that makes the rule:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

But Is It Music Misuse?

An emergency phone call came in Sunday evening as I was peacefully enjoying a night off from the household Olympics obsession.

"Quick! Run to the TV! You have to see these horrible ice dancing costumes!" urged DJ Blanche. So run to the living room I did, just in time to catch the multicolored rags the Russian ice dancing team called the "Aboriginal Original" as Blanche accused them of blatant misuse of Hungarian gypsy music. Hopefully, she'll write in with more of her misgivings about the whole multi-culti ice dancing mash up mish mash and I can present that to you in this space.

Yikes! so many ways.

For this reporter...there's a reason I ignore the ice dancing. Hate the costumes and cheesy moves and big fake smiles. Yech! Where is the class of Shen and Zhou when we need it?

But the incident has caused me to muse on that whole big issue of (TAH-tum) cultural appropriation. When is it stealing? When is it sampling? What's respectful and what's not? Is it better to give credit where credit is due or is that insulting the intelligence of your audience? Or maybe it's the job of those websites that list all the songs sampled in various tunes.

Here's DJ Blanche on round 2.
I can't believe more wasn't made of the inappropriate music accompanying the Fauxborigine costumes last night. I'd have liked to have seen the looks on the faces of various Hungarian musicians. Hey, hey! Wait a minute! That music's not from Australia, it's from Hungary!

Things were of a higher caliber tonight, but oh, that tired, tired music. If rules are going to be enacted, how about outlawing any more use of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Ave Maria" for the next century?

Setting aside the "tired, tired music" issue for the time being, I do have to wonder about how Russian ice dancers represent traditional folk culture with Hungarian Gypsy music mashed over a didgeridoo sample and pseudo Aboriginal costumes? I mean, really. What were they thinking? "Oh here, this is primitive sounding/looking?" Aboriginal artists and leaders weren't so into the look. People were pissed! More people were more pissed!

It's supposed to represent "a melange of ethnicities."


So. Is that your cultural appropriation then? Who gets to decide? It's my culture and you're copying me and I don't like it? You're "stealing" our stuff because you're too educated/not educated enough/ not from here/have more power/blah blah blah.

Can any cultural anything be off limits in the age of You Tube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter?

Did De La Soul rip off Steely Dan's culture on "Eye Know" from Three Feet High and Rising?

Just for some throwback fun, here's a De La Soul "Three is the Magic Number" vid. What does it all mean?

As a consumer mostly of this thing we're calling global music, I don't care where it comes from and what's mixed into it, as long as it rocks. The best music often comes from the culture clashes. French/North African. German/Turkish. Polish/reggae. Brazilian/Techno.

Now, obviously there are well done mixes and there's half-assed crap. There's slapping an unimaginative beat over samples of something "primitive" or "ethnic." Then there's the high powered techno of Recycler (not just because they have the best remix sampling a Jew's harp EVER! 1998's "Khomuzedric") or the classy remixes of DJ Click.

Are DJ Delores' remixes intrinsically better because he's a Brazilian remixing Brazilian rhythms and Click is a French guy using South Asian and Gypsy music? M.I.A. rips off everybody's culture - - and everybody respects her.

Would Dengue Fever's music be cultural appropriation if singer Chhom Nimol wasn't Southeast Asian? Is Chicha Libre not respectful because none of the guys are from Peru? Is Antibalas ripping off Fela? Is it OK for Pistolera or Grupo Fantasma to play cumbias because there are Latino musicians in the bands but not OK for Brave Combo to work some cumbias in with their polkas? Are musicians from countries other than Poland appropriating the polska?

Enough already.

How could I take sides in the cultural appropriation wars? It's too late. Everything is out there for everyone to see and hear and taste. The best all of us can do is learn from and respect each other. Cross pollinate. Keep the tunes coming.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources,
Chased amid fusions of wonder, in moments hardly seen forgotten
Coloured in pastures of chance dancing leaves cast spells of challenge,
Amused but real in thought, we fled from the sea whole.
Dawn of thought transfered through moments of days undersearching earth
Revealing corridors of time provoking memories, disjointed but with
Craving penetrations offer links with the self instructor's sharp
and tender love as we took to the air, a picture of distance.
Dawn of our power we amuse redescending as fast as misused
Expression, as only to teach love as to reveal passion chasing
Late into corners, and we danced from the ocean.
Dawn of love sent within us colours of awakening among the many
Won't to follow, only tunes of a different age, as the links span
Our endless caresses for the freedom of life everlasting.

Thus begins one of, if no the most, ambitious rock albums ever recorded, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes, their sixth studio album, originally released at the very end of 1973, over 36 years ago. It's easy to read those opening lines, which are sung as a chant over what feels like a sonic acceleration, as pure gibberish, which is the easy way to open the door to how many critics panned this record (as well as much of the band's work during that period). In fact, Tales is often cited as one of the great excesses of progressive rock, which ultimately helped give birth to the backlash in the mid-70's which came to be known as punk.

I'm hear to tell you that this record is a masterpiece. The key to its genius is compositional sophistication, at a level that is almost never heard in rock. A casual listen can get the impression that the band is involved in nothing more than "psychedelic doodling," as the critic from Rolling Stone charged in the original record review there. But repeated listening reveals a brilliant use of repeated motifs, both thematic and melodic, often subtly embedded in seemingly disjointed sections, which often tie the whole thing together quite brilliantly. A melodic line is repeated later as a bass line. A guitar lick in one movement quotes a section from another, or even a previous Yes composition entirely. With the exception of the third movement ("The Ancient," better known to the aficionados simply as "Side Three"), which is a more open composition designed for more improvisation (and yes, noodling), the four parts, each spreading across one side of the original vinyl 2 LP set, are symphonic in their musical intentions.

As for the lyrics, the initial chant quoted above is a good example of what you're in for. It's important to know that Yes lyrics are often more about the sound and timbre of the words themselves- just another voice, along with the instruments, to paint a musical picture, than they are about meaning. The opening bit? You get that it's dawn, right? That's pretty much all you really need to conjure a beginning.

Yes, there is a large concept to the record... inspired by the teachings of an Indian Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, and wrapped around a reference to four Shastric scriptures referenced in a footnote in his famous book, Autobiography of a Yogi. But the concept is very loose, and the four sections are more generally referencing the much wider ideals of Truth, Knowledge, Culture, and Freedom (in that order). You can find references to these conceits if you really search for them in the lyrics, but the beauty of both the bigger concept and the specific lyrics is that they can be widely interpreted to fit the needs (and current emotional state) of the listener.

For example, I've often seen the entire work as a metaphor to a great journey. The first side represents the departure, with the energy and excitement of new discovery along with the foundation of what you think you know. The second side represents a longing for home, conjuring memories of your own life, unlocking intense emotions. The third side is the journey to deep space, or parts unknown, which conjures thoughts of our ancestors and the ancient past. And the fourth side brings you back home, with the freedom that comes from greater understanding.

But I almost never listen to the entire work all the way through, and each movement and its lyrics have meant very different things to me at different times through the years. That, my friends, is what distinguishes good art from great art.

And yes, that's me, right around 1974...

* * * *

Veronica asks how I define shlock? In music, perhaps the most succinct way would be to point to the infamous Phil Spector overdubbing of "The Long and Winding Road" from Let It Be. That overwrought orchestral arrangement can easily stand as my definition of shlock.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Record of the week: inBOIL




Reno 911

car accidents


The Iraq War

Q: What do all of these things have in common?
A: They're all subjects covered on the new inBOIL record

Probably my favorite local release at the moment. I should probably stop listening and save it for my next break up but I'm not sure that I can. Hopefully that event is a long ways off and this record is too dang good.

Simple lyrics, simple song structure, and what sounds like simple recording. You're left with just heart, humor and honesty.

Some sample lyrics from "Axis and Allies:"

You were the bookmark in my book/

You were the lamp on my desk/

I used to read before going to sleep/

But now I'm too depressed

I dunno. I just like it.

And in the vein of great local music: The Brass Kings, No Bird Sing, Lookbook and Kill The Vultures all playing at The Cedar this week. Also really looking forward to El Perro Del Mar/Taken By Trees double bill on Tuesday. "Change of Heart" has been stuck in my head at least once a day since I first heard it, and I can't say I mind at all. Not exactly sure what to make of the video though... so I'll post this one instead.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Yes, You in the Apricot Scarf

As I always carry a live wireless microphone in my Prada bag, let's convene a press conference:

Q. Veronica, what media delights have you been grooving to lately?

A. Favorite album? Right now, it might be the new one by Citay, 'Dream Get Together.' They fit somewhere in the psych-folk category: campfire strums punctuated with electrics and a dash of metal, and light on vocals. A fine accompaniment for next time you're sniffing out truffles in a medieval forest. Or your rented pig is.

On other fronts...just finished the second of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander trilogy, and the third is on the way via Royal Mail. My reading habits are so sporadic that I am utterly grateful to an author who can keep me turning pages. As one reviewer wrote, the reader can plainly tell that Larsson loved his heroine.

On TV, the top of my pops is '30 Rock' (as usual) and a long-overdue 'Arrested Development' DVD run-through. A scream.

Q. On these pages recently, the new Peter Gabriel release was dismissed as 'shlock.' What's your take on the term and its definition?

A. To start, I'd like to engage my fellow bloggers in further dialog (as Mama E Dub referred to Gabriel's more recent work as 'wifty-wafty'). I'd be curious as to their definitions as well.

'Shlock' is a subjective term, of course. I suppose it often means material that is both not to the listener's taste and inferior in quality (as opposed to that which the reviewer can respect but not enjoy). However, inferiority is also subjective, and this is where I often part ways with users of the term.

I'll flesh out my answer in a future post, as my thoughts and words would far exceed the limitations of this Q&A format. But for now, I would cite the deathless words of Tom Cruise, who famously said, 'Respect the shlock.'

At least, that's what I think he said.

Q. Whose is your all-time favorite gospel voice?

A. I'm pretty mainstream here. Although I'm tempted to go with Mahalia Jackson or Sam Cooke, I'd opt for Mavis Staples. But if I could have witnessed any one such performer, I reckon I would have most wanted to see Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Click here for a sterling example of the good sister's work.

Q. Some time back you wrote about the price and format wars roiling the music and video worlds. Now the book world is aflame. Any thoughts from a former music industry titan?

A. Well, as the Cedar hasn't yet been able to secure the exclusive rights to Bob Lefsetz's musings, I'll have a go:

You're referring to the e-book pricing war between MacMillan and Amazon. Obviously the publisher is trying to protect the $25 hardcover business, and understandably, as such a book's placement in high-traffic consumer areas is, at the very least, a fine marketing visual. Barnes & Noble must be quite pleased with Amazon's capitulation on this issue.

But the reality is this: the hardcover business is cut-throat and dying. Consider the costs in materials, manufacturing, and warehouse-to-store-to-warehouse shipping of these two-pound beasts, which can often be had for $15-$17. Propping an e-book's price up to nearly that level is artificial and downright silly. Further, such a strategy can blow up.

Amazon has gotten much mileage out of the user-oriented community they have established. Reader/listener reviews and recommendations have a big impact on sales. These days readers are pummeling overpriced e-books (as well as titles that have not yet appeared as e-books) with one-star ratings.

MacMillan won a battle in a war they are destined to lose.

Q. Which musician have you ever wanted to be?

A. John Entwistle. I'da been quite happy to go unnoticed so lucratively.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together...

Like chocolate and peanut butter? (Who's old enough to remember those millions of Reese's commercials that used the same joke over and over?)

Like Shen and Zhou - - or Pang Qing and Tong Jian for that matter. As an aside, DAMN people, why do they even let the Americans and Canadians on the same ice as these guys? They are SO not in the same league. What a thing of beauty; I feel very privileged to have caught Cheng & Zhou's short program and Pang & Tong's free skate. Extremely fine. Especially considering I am always the one going "Figure skating?! BOR-ing! When is the snow board cross coming back on?"

When people have worked so hard for years and they get it EXACTLY RIGHT at the moment it counts and you can see that little bit of swagger creep in when they know they've stuck it which makes it even better...sounds a lot like a great music show. Hmmmmmm.

Enough Olympic name dropping, though. I really wanted to talk about the tastiness that happens when you combine Martin Perna and Adrian Quesada. That would be the bari sax player from Antibalas (Afrobeat Orchestra) and the main composer from Tex-Mex funk brass big band Grupo Fantasma. A match made in heaven? This ultra-yummy combo plate is Ocote Soul Sounds.

I was doing the Veronica Fever system and just threw 330 new tracks into a pile and left it on random for several days running. I am really getting to like that method. Sure, you can't help playing the guessing game, but it's also a way to just see what catches the ear without prejudgement. I find myself listening to individual tracks more intensely because they are not mixed well or slickly segued.

In such a random pile you run the gamut from "skip ahead to the next track within sixty seconds" to "pull the pod out of your pocket to check who this is when I'm supposed to be working" to "I need to Google this band ASAP!"

When two tracks from Coconut Rock caused the pod to be dug out of the pocket before lunch time it was a sign. Especially considering this is rather mid tempo stuff with lots of flute solos and doesn't feature the big band sound of either of the collaborator's main bands. What it does feature is grooves for days. That, and percussion tracks a mile deep, so thick and chewy. (Fever alert: occasional cowbell.)

There are tracks that would sound at home on a Budos Band disc ("Revolt of the Cockroach People") or a Curumin album ("Vendendo Saude e Fel" featuring sultry vocals from Brazilian singer Tito lima.) Fine company, I'd say.

"Tu Fin, Mi Gomienzo" hints at a reggae sound with the first few organ licks, then a big fat cumbia rhythm kicks in, led by a juicy organ line. I would love to see this tune live; they could ride that riff for a week! (There is a seven-piece live version of the project. Wouldn't that be fine?) Another one I'd so love to see live for about 20 minutes is "El Diablo y El Nau Nau." I don't know what the devil and the boogyman are talking about in this song, but I've been humming it all week.

If you'd told me two weeks ago that a midtempo Latin funk disc with flute solos would be in heavy rotation now, I would've seriously doubted you. Now it's the middle of winter and the warm sounds of Ocote Soul are making me a believer.

* * * * * * *
Cruised through the SXSW list to see what Main Fig. and Angel of Rock have before them next month. Sure are a lot of smart-ass band names. Nice to see a little metal and bluegrass in there with all that indie stuff.

Would love to see my favorite Balkan surf & tuba band from Tel Aviv tear it up down there...go get 'em, Boom Pam!

So does The Unthanks at SXSW sound like a weird idea? On the surface, yes.

You know what, I'll bet those Geordie girls in their best frocks will have a legion of new fans by the end of the week. I expect they'll take in some bands and down a few pints themselves as well.

* * * * * * *
Strange image #2. The Bill T. Jones-choreographed Fela musical on Broadway. Reviews say the guy who plays Fela is a really good dancer... So is he wearing the jumpsuit -- or the purple Speedos? (Anybody else remember Fela's First Ave. show in the late '80's? It was a purple Speedos night.)

And how often do Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith team up to present a musical?

Seriously though, if more people get turned on to Fela's music and his legacy, that can only be good thing.

* * * * * * *

Regarding Main Fig.'s recent earworm comments, what about the classic Nordic earworm: the nonsense section of Loituma's Ievan Polka that was made into the leek spin viral vid?

Just because we can, why not watch Loituma dance and sing to one of the techno versions of the tunes. Plus the comments on the video are really funny if you follow it back to You Tube.

And that's all for me this week; half pipe's coming up!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Shlock Value

A new Peter Gabriel album drops Tuesday, called Scratch My Back. It's an interesting project: all covers, and the artists he has covered will be reciprocating by covering Gabriel tunes, to be packaged in the follow-up, I'll Scratch Yours. Included are tunes by David Bowie, Bon Iver, The Magnetic Fields and Radiohead, among others.

I've been a Gabriel fan since I was a teenager, when he was the front-man in Genesis. There is almost no other musician that has consistently maintained such a high level of my respect. I've enjoyed every one of this solo records, been an avid follower of his Real World Records label, and admired his other work in human rights and activism. So, naturally, I was pretty pumped when old my friend Dr. Tom (we worked together at Boogie Records, Toledo way back in 1977, and have been to a couple of Gabriel concerts together) tipped me that KCRW was streaming the entire record (here).

My verdict: it's great to hear that voice again, and refreshing to hear it in the context of some old favorites. I also appreciate that these tunes are all significantly deconstructed, down to Gabriel and piano as the starting point. It's what happens after that where I run into problems. Serious problems.

Gabriel enlisted John Metcalfe (ex-Durutti Column member, who has been enlisted as a string arranger for artists such as Morrissey, Simple Minds, The Pretenders, Catatonia and Blur) to arrange all but one song for a full orchestra. Now, I think the possibilities of Peter Gabriel with full orchestral arrangements are quite interesting. Gabriel's work, after all, has always been marked by adventurous instrumentation and sonic experimentation. So it's all the more disappointing to listen to him here with what amounts to a full-on Hollywood Shlock orchestra treatment. Imagine the Boston Pops playing Lou Reed with Peter Gabriel as the singer and you've got an idea of what "The Power of the Heart" sounds like here. I almost didn't make it through that track...

By far the highlight of the album for me is his take on Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." That one is just Gabriel and piano...

When I told Dr. Tom about my reaction, he did not disagree, but felt that the album still had great merit based on the "Jackie Gleason (or Nelson Riddle, for that matter) perspective." He maintains that "a schmaltz approach never hurt anyone" and, in fact, just makes the moments with just voice and piano all the more powerful. He approached the album like "a Friday night home from work, with Frank Sinatra on the CD player" (and I assume a cocktail in hand?). This might explain why I don't own any Frank Sinatra CDs: while I'm on board with the genius of his singing (especially the uncanny swing he had with his phrasing), I could just never get over that Nelson Riddle shlock. Considering that the Sinatra/Riddle catalog is so de rigueur in hipster circles I'm probably in a minority on this.

Which leads me to believe that we are all either just destined to become just like our parents (which would also explain the recent rash of postings about Herb Alpert on this here blog of late), or we are destined to miss out on some really great stuff because we are so busy fighting like hell to resist becoming just like our parents. Which, actually, would also explain why I still refuse to join Dr. Tom and an alarmingly increasing number of my other male friends on the golf course!

Friday, February 12, 2010

trudging through

Working on listening to SXSW artists whose names start with letters A-E. Looking forward to listening to a full album, listening for pure enjoyment, etc. again soon.

Until then,


P.S. Just got tickets to see this.

Can't. freaking. wait.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Un, Deux, Trois...

If your link-in to the Cedar Blog has dumped you onto this post, be sure to take a moment and read Mama E Dub's contribution just below. I mean it. Scoot. I'll wait.

I loved seeing the Herb Alpert cover shot. His records were the bridge from my family's musical influences to my own path. I owned the first eight TJB albums, and their theme to the original 'Casino Royale' movie remains my favorite track of theirs. One day last summer I purchased a nice clean copy of the 'Whipped Cream and Other Delights' mono LP at a garage sale for fifty cents. I'll try to refrain from playing 'scratch-off and win' with this one.

'World music that rocks.' That was a bell-ringer. I don't seek much in the 'hard trad' category, and I am definitely not a 'field recordings' type. But there is a global music itch that I can never seem to adequately scratch: call it 'worldbeat that rocks.' So many hybrids frustrate me, none more so than the Buddha Bar types. The first disc is always chill stuff, which I do like in moderation but is so pervasive. The second disc is dance-floor worldbeat, generally bathed in technotics. Meh.

What I'm after can be embodied in the best works by, say, Transglobal Underground, Garmarna, or Rachid Taha. Obviously I'm no purist, but give me some edge that doesn't rely on BPM. For all my explorations, I find this the single most difficult micro-culture to crack.


One more response to Ms. Dub's post: I was going back-and-forth with whether it was time to get off the nostalgia train for awhile, but she gave me my answer: one more ride won't hurt.

The Beatles have often turned up on these pages as a touchstone in the writers' music appreciation development. In the first two years of their popularity I actively disliked them; I thought of them as superficial teen sensations. It would be another two years before I became an active fan. But one interstital event jolted me into realizing that they and other popular culture icons might have something going on after all.

When I was in 6th grade, our little rural school's faculty was blessed with one Sandra Kurtzig, who taught our class French for an hour a day. I didn't pick up much and her face was lost to memory until the other day, when a friend sent me a class picture with her in it. The sight triggered a remembrance: one day in early 1966, she built an hour around 'Michelle,' a song from the recently-released 'Rubber Soul.' And toward the end of the class, the record was flipped over and we heard 'It's Only Love,' 'Girl,' and 'I'm Looking Through You' in succession. In those moments, I was forced to reassess.

Merci, Mlle Kurtzig. Bonne chance.

(Hmmm...I wonder what she would have made of Fabienne Delsol?)


Got thinking about the albums I most wish had made it onto CD when the format was in its heyday and labels were raiding their vaults. Here are my 10 (OK, 11) in alpha order:

1. The Brains -- 'Electronic Eden'
2. Durocs S/T
3. Johnny Hodges -- 'Sandy's Gone'
4. Reggie Knighton -- S/T (hearing 'VD Got to Idi' inspired this)
5. Kirsty MacColl -- 'Desperate Character'
6. Peter Miller & the Wildcats -- 'Pre-CBS'
7. Swimming Pool Q's -- S/T
8. David Werner -- S/T
9. Barrence Whitfield & the Savages -- S/T and 'Dig Yourself'
10. Scott Wilk & the Walls -- S/T


Next week: we set the Wayback Machine for a return trip to the 21st century. Cheers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Shallot Sambar

I woke in the middle of the night Friday craving shallot sambar. The almost-too-hot to eat feeling, the sweet onion flavor of the shallots melting in the dal, the curry leaves, the coriander... so I set out to make a batch Sunday morning,with my copy of Mangoes and Curry Leaves open nearby. (Yes, I love the Alford/Duguid cookbooks.)

This means peeling a bunch of shallots, like almost a pound. So as I settled in with my brown bag of shallots from the root cellar, my first thought was, I should put on some music for this rather boring task. Which started me thinking about the whole "music as wallpaper" topic we've all been kicking around lately. I pondered as I peeled, and came to the conclusion that I would only want to listen to something familiar, really tried and true, no rude surprises on Sunday mornings. Feeling like I have rather a backlog of new stuff I "should" be checking out, I opted for "silence is golden" and kept the knife going to the sound of "Hey mama! Look at the features I built on this spaceship!".

Don't know if that makes me lazy or indecisive or just too darn old to rock first thing on Sunday morning, but hey. My Sunday morning faves are stuff like Ralph Vaughan Williams' Norfolk Rhapsody #1 or Gilles Apap's Music for Solo Violin." I know. Extremely chill.

But that's what I grew up on. My parents had records when we were little kids; they were just too darn busy or tired to play them. My mom has a great pile of show tunes, and my dad had the requisite Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary stuff. Hardly ever remember hearing any of it. The only thing I have a clear memory of was Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass' "The Magic Trumpet," to which we would march around the living room on the green shag carpet.

But of course, everybody was in band, all five of us kids. We had a tuba, an oboe, a flute, a trumpet and a French horn in the family. Everybody stayed in band all the way through high school; that was just expected in our family. None of us were stellar players, by any means, but there is something to be said for longevity. Just don't ask about the embarrassing photo of the five of us holding our instruments at the all city band festival circa 1981.

When we moved, Mom went back to finish her degree in music, then went on for a masters in music history. It was Schubert and Chopin on the piano, Mozart and Bach on the stereo, and KHKE (the classical public radio station down there in Iowa) from that time forward.

Cedar Falls had a really good high school orchestra in those years which would tour all over the state and win large ensemble competitions left and right. It was great fun to get to play stuff like "March to the Scaffold" from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in high school. It was acoustic music that rocked. Uh oh, the antecedents are becoming clear.

Something somehow must've soaked in somewhere along the line; my big brother played bass in several rock bands over the years, my little brother sang lead and played rhythm in a glam metal band that toured around the upper midwest for years (lotsa bad hair!) and I played bass in several punk noise bands that shall remain nameless. It was the mid '80's. College radio was fresh, lots of great dark and heavy stuff was out there and nobody used the word "Goth" yet for all of us who wore black raincoats from Goodwill.

Then I graduated, moved to the big city and had a job cooking breakfast in Uptown. The dishwasher was a sweet Kenyan guy named Kennedy, with a great smile and an endearing fresh-off-the-boat geekiness. He liked me. He used to give me records. I had to explain to him one day standing by the time clock why I didn't like him "that way." We became pals who called each other "my brother" and "my sister" and he still gave me music. One of those tapes was one of the Indestructable Beat of Soweto compilations. The first listen was a watershed moment, a what the...., a where have you been all my life, you know. Much mbaquanga and Afrobeat and high life quickly followed. You could buy the stuff on vinyl at Northern Lights and OarFolk in those days.

A few years later, I was working at a food co-op, pulling lots of early morning shifts with former longtime Cedar artistic director, Bill Kubescko. His constant stream of tapes picked up at European festivals turned me on to rockin' Celtic, eastern Euro, Nordic, Middle Eastern and everything in between.

Thus, the die was cast. I was enough of a classical head to really notice and be offended by mis-tunings or hack playing , not to mention becoming quickly bored by straight major keys and common time. (Call it snobby, but I so avoid the cabaret scene.) But I craved the energy and the fire from the punk years.

World music that rocks. Hard trad. It's not just Omnium records' slogan, it's a way of life.

I ran into Kennedy at an Afro-reggae show at First Avenue a few years after we worked together. He had his hair in stylin' nubbies and a pretty girl smiling on his arm. I gave him a big hug and a big thank you.

I lift a glass to you, my brother, and one to Bill K. and one to my high school orchestra teacher as well as one to the late night alternative radio dj in my college years.

And one to my mom, although hers might be a cup of half- caf.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Stuck in Your Head

It seems like there's always a tune going in my head. Oliver Sacks talks about this phenomenon in his book, Musicophilia, referring to these particularly "sticky" tunes as earworms. Often it seems like they are tunes we don't even really like, and it afflicts everyone, from Young Folks to Old Man (see what I did there? I just two named two tunes that have been earworms for me that I don't actually like).

Sacks talks about the science behind this in the book (or you can read a nice little interview with him here), but there's really no explanation as to why certain tunes become earworms for no apparent reason. For years now, one of my most recurring earworms has been an old Grateful Dead tune, Here Comes Sunshine. Understand that I was never a Deadhead, and I never even owned the album this song is on, Wake of the Flood. In fact, I didn't even know the name of the tune until I sat down to write this and tracked it down by trial and error on the internets. And yet that ten-note guitar phrase has probably been my most haunting earworm for the past few years. WTF? Do other people have these seemingly random, unexplainable earworms?

* * * *

Angel of Rock and I are starting to prepare for our SXSW sojourn next month by hitting the complete official showcase listing and going through five letters per week. This week is 'A' through 'E.' Anyone is welcome to join us and send your suggestions, whether it's bands you already know and want us to check out, or something that sounds worthy of further exploration to you. There are thousands of artists at this thing, so I welcome all the help we can get!

* * * *

The good folks at NPR Music ran a piece about the Malian ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate this past week, which you can check out here. The piece ran on All Things Considered on Tuesday, which was also the release date of his new album, I Speak Fula. It's a great record, and Bassekou is well on his way to legend status. Not only are we presenting him with our friends at Walker Art Center on April 10 at The Cedar, we'll have the band for a few extra days for some special programs with schools and the community. It's a rare and wonderful opportunity that speaks to the core of The Cedar's mission. Here's what to look forward to:

Bassekou Kouyaté & N Goni Ba concert au Womex 2008
Uploaded by mondomix. - Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A good day...


1) Having only one class
2) Lunch with a wonderful friend
3) A lovely bike ride in the snow
4) Plans to go ice skating and
5) listening to this.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Series of Tubings

Were Grammy awards distributed this year?


Lots of inspiring writings from friends on the intertubes in the week past, starting with our own Angel of Rock. Her mention of concert etiquette made me think of the movies. Not of moviegoers talking through films (although one wonders why they paid money to attend a presentation they were intending to yak through; that ten bucks would provide the foundation for a dandy buzz at the local watering hole and no one would want to shush them).

No, the thought was of cinematic dissonance: contradictory imagery presented simultaneously. For instance: two people speeding along in a top-down convertible, yet their hair remains perfectly in place (while blowing wildly in the distant wide-angle shots).

My favorite example is the club scene, where two show-goers are able to have a normal conversation in spite of the din issuing forth from the stage. One instance that comes to mind: in 'Some Kind of Wonderful,' The March Violets are wailing away while down front Keith and Watts are conversing practically sotto voce.

OK, I'll admit it: that was just my excuse for mentioning Mary Stuart Masterson and the screen character on whom I had my biggest crush ever.


A Facebook friend posted a link to this article about the comeback of vinyl, and commented:

'I love to keep hearing this kind of report. It speaks of the often hidden masses who still want to sit down and LISTEN to music rather than just use it as wallpaper. Digital is convenient and versatile, yes--but for the active listener there's nothing like vinyl.'

My response was a respectful demurral. It is nice to see any format do well if it means more people buy and listen to more music. But as much as I love widescreen cover art and the tactile sensation of handling a record and its sleeve, I have never bought into the whole 'vinyl is better' argument.

Perhaps my ear isn't sophisticated enough to detect added warmth or depth. I never seem to get that far, as other issues distract. After the first play, you have a used record. And with that, over time, come the inevitable surface noise and stylus tracking distortion. And oh, if that spindle hole isn't cut perfectly dead center, drug me before I am subjected to turntable wow.

The belief in the superiority of vinyl sound quality can bring one perilously close to the cliff of audiophilia. It's so easy to get caught up in the search for that elusive piece of sound reproduction hardware offering incremental (and often psychological) clarity and authenticity.

Not that I was always immune. In the late 70s I owned a digital delay ambience synthesizer, a component designed to process and transmit audio signals to rear speakers with a delay time that varied in milliseconds according to the time it would take for live music to reach from a stage to the walls of, say, a concert hall.

The thing about that gizmo was I often found myself so interested in what it was doing to fool me that I would lose sight of the music. And that's been the point for me ever since: the song's the thing. It doesn't matter if it's coming through the AM radio speakers in a 1971 Dodge Dart or through a Vibratone 9000.

If you are open to aural immersion, it's the music, not the medium.


This morning another Facebook friend posted a link to this blog piece on Blender's website. The subject was 'The 5 Most Awesomely Ridiculous Mashups Ever.'

For me, the gold standard is still Party Ben's 'Boulevard of Broken Songs.' But many of these five come close. My favorite is the Beatles/Nine Inch Nails mash, but the R-Rated lyrics have me thinking I'll post this one instead, and you can decide whether you want to delve deeper. Cheers!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Really Fun /Not so Fun

First in the "That Was Really Fun" category was last Saturday's turntable set from Kid Koala at the Cedar. He mixed everything from "Moon River" to M.I.A with stops at every station in between. Loved the jazz trumpet solos carefully picked out by dropping the needle over and over just a few grooves apart.

Nary a laptop or set of headphones in site, please note. His gear consisted of three turntables and a tableful of vinyl. It was fun to see how marked up some of the records were with bits of tape. According the KFAI turntablist nerds standing behind me, (enjoying the heck out of his set) the tape can be to simply to mark one's spot or it can be to set up a slightly random skip back loop. It was also great to watch somebody smile the whole time he was spinning. No hipster attitude at all.

Somebody pointed out to me the next day that the audience was almost totally men. Huh. Guess I was too busy watching his moves on our big screen to look around me.

A week previous, a benefit for Haiti at the Cedar raised something like $13k for Doctors Without Borders. What a fun night. Of course it's a truism, one I've repeated in past posts, that it's always fun to party with the Brazilians (and their fans.) When the Carribean island musicians are added to the mix, well, you can only imagine. My favorites were the loud punk-samba combo early in the evening and the big dance orchestra Charanga Tropical (with three fiddles!) who closed things down. A good time was had by all, and I was too busy pouring beer to even get close to the green room!

Gotta put in a plug for my local neighborhood weird and wonderful winter event, the Art Sled Rally. Rally year three was last Saturday, and while slightly better organized that last year, it was no less fun. The hill was slightly less steep, so there were fewer fantastic crack-ups. Favorite sleds just for design alone would have to go the the Packman contingent, the Alien Sled dogs( My neighbor's dog was so curious that she sniffed their...well, you know what dogs do) and the slinky. (Good thing the slinky driver was wearing a crash helmet. That was fast!)

The Packman group was led by a yellow round packman, obviously, which trailed a long string of yellow balloons. (The dots on the screen, y'know.) This was followed in quick succession by blue ghosts and all the various fruit one could capture to obtain points, each on their own sled. Loud applause by a certain age demographic followed.

Not so fun? Coming home from a long day at work only to rush out the door to treach a class only to return home around 9:30 to find the bathroom sink refusing to drain. "Why do these things happen at the worst possible times?" she whined, rooting around for a pipe wrench.

It wasn't just the trap.

I explore the plumbing behind the wall after work tonight, probably instead of finishing this post. Wish me luck.

Wed 10:37 p.m. Snaking three feet into the wall had absolutely no effect. Neither did taking apart the trap under the tub. Calling plumber in a.m. All creativity spent on plumbing; none left for blog.

Tune in next week as, following the trend of recent posts, I will reveal my mysterious childhood music history.