Thursday, November 24, 2011

HooDoo U Think U R?

I was recently reading Offbeat, the monthly arts & culture magazine outta New Orleans (yes! I've gotten that silly that I paid for a subscription to keep up with the goings on half a continent away!)and came upon an extended obituary for Wardell Quezerque. His is a name that I'd never encountered till I start regularly reading Offbeat but looking over the testimonials included here from the likes of Dr. John (who's musical career started as guitar player in Wardell's band), and seeing his various accomplishments over a long and distinguished career, it became immediately clear that he was a major player on the NOLA music scene -- apparently in a league with the likes of Allen Toussaint when it came to writing, arranging and producing amazing, distinctive and often highly successful tracks.

Going over his discography, one that stood out immediately was Jean Knight, who's "Mr. Big Stuff" was a national pop hit that I remember from my college days -- funky as shizzle! With it's cannily syncopated bass, chicken scratch guitar and high steppin' drums it registered as archetypal "funk" in my teenaged brain. Having attained some little grasp of its place in the overall context of Afro American musical stylings passed it's obviously rooted in New Orleans' unmistakable rhythmic traditions (I'd like to say "unique" but as those traditions have been so influential, elements of that sound in fact permeate American musical culture).

Doing a little searching I found a couple Jean Knight titles that covered this period, covering a wide range of prices - from $4.83 to $30+. On further study it turned out that this was the same repertoire issued at various times with various cover art in various countries. As usual I opted for the bargain price (leaving me with more money to buy more music with!)

A few weeks later my "Mr. Big Stuff" CD arrived and I eagerly popped it on, being instantly entranced by the title track - every bit as spikily beat-driven and stark as I remembered. As the album proceeded...well, I found a mixed bag, at least for my tastes. A fair amount of weepy soul ballads, a number of songs that basically were "Mr. Big Stuff" knock offs and...some more sharp and spicy stunners!

I do understand that this sorta programming makes perfect sense for long playing product of the time -- you wanna make an album that takes you on a trip and moves from style to style with plenty of variety, changing tempos and moods and this does that quite nicely. As per the soundalikes -- well, pop music and R&B was a very singles-driven business, most especially on the indie label level. An artist started by cutting tracks for singles, that'd be released in succession with the hope of achieving a national or at least regional hit by the 3rd or 4th, at which point the label would compile the singles sides and record enough additional tracks to fill out an album. In the pop world the policy of biting the style is a time honored business strategm, in fact major labels have made fortunes following such policy - witness Columbia cloning the Snap! sound via C + C Music Factory and Whitney Houston via Mariah Carey in quick succession... and so on. was established policy to follow up a hit with a nominal rewrite of same -- and usually with great success. This is a strategm that DOES work well in the single market, on mainstream radio (again, MANY a superstar career is predicated on copying a preceding star's successes) -- but as part of an album, not so much.

Ultimately, if you're a funk fan, "Mr. Big Stuff" is something you'd likely wanna cherry pick via iTunes or Amazon digital or whatever other download service you favor. If you just dig vintage soul and treat this as a compilation -- either "Mr. Big Stuff" you'll find is the original album with bonus tracks (but the initial release was in fact a couple singles collected and supplemented with tracks recorded to flesh out a full album) -- you'll prolly enjoy the mix of booty shakers and ballans and find the copycat numbers as amusing and instructive.

Once I'd listened to this it made me pull out "The Best of Ann Peebles" and "The Best of Betty Wright" and I must say -- while I do dig the high points of Ms. Knight's album -- both of the former make for far more consistent listening. Peebles stays with mid-tempo material pretty much throughout -- always staying at a slow boil rather than kicking into heavier jams. But this is super soul-stirring with grooves provided by the same incredible house band and producer that created Al Green's classic material. Betty Wright is much more high octane, dirty-assed and rambunctious. Betty, infamously, was little sister of "Little Beaver," guitarist for the Florida-based studio musicians who eventually started recording and touring in their own right as KC and The Sunshine band. I also pulled out my copy of Betty's debut album -- and must report that it's less consistently pleasing.

Earlier this week I was blabbing with my dear old pal Glenn Morrow (Bar/None Records) talking about "Treme" and NOLA music and wound up talking about Jean Knight and Wardell Quezerque, and he mentioned that he'd snagged some great vintage NOLA soul and funk jams from an indie label called Tuff City. And checking that site ( clicked on "New Orleans" and saw that the first item listed is "Various Artists / Wardell Quezerque: Sixty Smokin' Soul Senders" which appears to be filled with amazing tracks! So you KNOW what I'm picking up next!

Monday, November 7, 2011

They make me SMiLE

In my mind - saying anything about this official release of a substantial block of sessions for the legendary "lost" Beach Boys' album "SMiLE" is pure punditry. Fans already bought it, or DIDN'T buy this particular assemblage of "SMiLE" material, and it's simply not relevant to many other folks. And pop critics around the world have made their declarations, marked by varying degrees of critical acumen and historical perspective.

I've got at least 4 different bootleg verions of this material and I know that are MANY more extant. And then there's Brian Wilson's reconstruction of it, recorded with his regular touring ensemble.

Nonetheless, just before release date I was poking around online, and noticing write ups in print. I glanced at the Deluxe version - 5 CDs of session recordings, 2 vinyl LPs and 2 7" singles for about $140 and while I mighta ponied up a nice chunk of change for all the CDs -- to HAVE TO also pay for the various vinyl artifacts seemed like an egregious means of pumping up the price. I dig that this package was aimed as super service to the stone-fans and can respect its creation utterly; but I couldn't buy in.

So, day before in-store date I called my local record store to see if they'd be carrying the two CD package and was told that in fact they were selling it that very day already - so's I hopped in the wheels and whizzed out there and back and started listening on the drive home and then played it repeatedly for the next few days.

So...well the current recension of structure of "SMiLE" proper is familiar from Brian's recreation which the producers of this set admit to using as their basic template. Moreover, a significant number of these actual performances (or minor variations thereon) have been issued previously on "Smiley Smile" (a lot of "SMiLE" repertoire recast in minimalist settings, entirely apposite of the grand originals Brian had been working on so feverishly) "20/20" "Surf's Up" and as part of the "Good Vibrations" box set. So...

I was STILL thrilled to hear something akin to what the Beach Boy's "SMiLE" ought to have been trumpeting from my big old component speaker. The proper songs here are among the more sophisticated and melodically gorgeous Brian has ever written. The instrumental backing by the Wrecking Crew is confident, full blooded and a visionary recasting of the Wall of Sound they erected in so many Phil Spector sessions. The other Beach Boys' singing and harmonizing is intoxicatingly tuneful, emotive and determinedly ambitious -- which kinda gives the lie to the myth that they were in any way hestitant about their participation. No doubt they had SOME misgivings and Brian took those as rejection per se - but NO WAY could they have turned in the performances documented here unless they were committed to making this project work.

All that being said -- in some ways, to hear this is a bit of anti-climax. "SMiLE" of course was the follow up to the brilliant "Pet Sounds," but in one important respect they are entirely different projects. "PS" is a song cycle with each number being among the most brilliantly written pop-rock ever, all given lush yet restrained orchestral treatments. Famously, "SMiLE" was described by Brian as a "Teenage Symphony To God" and indeed a lot of its structuring follows the convention of symphonic composition rather than pop song writing.

"SMiLE" does have some incredible songs per se - but then there're a goodly amount passages that are instrumental, or with wordless vocals and many of these pick up melodic themes from the proper songs and develop/treat them in various ways. So to pop-trained ears, it seems at times that "SMiLE" is cluttered with filler - endlessly repeated restatements of different passages from "Heroes And Villains" -- because it IS constructed that way; in fact to ears who's basic vocabulary is the pop song that description would apply to the works of Beethoven, Bach, et al. Not being trained in this tradition, I did run my theory by a concert pianist pal and he concurred that the conventions Wilson applies here qualify as symphonic composition per se. And as Classical composers in turn did pinch melodic materials from the popular songs of their day, Brian's basic intent here would appear entirely plausible.

Whether you'll dig it or not, finally, will be a matter of individual taste, but hopefully the above makes it make SOME sense.

But this brings us to another issue -- why the project was shelved in the first place.

The liner-notes to the double CD set argue -- convincingly -- that it was, ultimately, down to shortcomings in recording technology at the time. Before undertaking "SMiLE" Brian had taken MONTHS to create "Good Vibrations" which yielded the Beach Boys' first (and I believe, only ) million selling single. First he recorded a wealth component parts - multi versions of each potential component. Then he had to piece it all together - literally. His writing and recording was conceived of as creating discrete modules which were then spliced together "exquisite corpse" making for some startling, artistically brilliant juxtapositions of timbre, tonal density and melodic themes. And it was done by slicing up 2" tape with hand held razors and then sticking it back together. The end results were, of course, phenomenal and encouraged him to attempt a whole album done in this pointillistic and painstaking manner.

The release of the Beach Boys' "SMiLE" sessions show that Brian had been entirely successful in completing phase one of the project - creating all the individual components, 'cause HERE THEY ARE and they sound incredible. But when it came to piecing it all together - conceptually, not to mention physically - the task proved too much for him. He was not merely arranging these compositions from this dizzying array of ingredients - he was actually WRITING the songs as he went along via his assemblages. Instead of banging out a series of ideas on, say, piano, and then developing them in a finished score and THEN working on the arrangements, he was banging out his ideas with a series of ensemble recordings and then developing song structure by sequencing those group recordings.

The history of these sessions is pretty infamous: Brian's mental state had never been entirely stable and his drug use during this period destabilized it further still. Meanwhile, when the rest of the band began their work on the sessions it'd appear that they were not entirely supportive -- that they at least questioned Brian's intents and motives ALL THOUGH they gave their all to turning in the best work they were capable of -- the proof is in this pudding!

The task that Brian was facing would have been daunting to someone under the best of conditions -- remember, he was not merely assembling these components according to pre-arranged plans - he was writing the overall songs through this process. And having to keep track of all the different versions of each different component he'd recorded! And his were NOT optimal conditions.

So it's only know with digital editing technology like Pro-Tools that it becomes feasible to first of all categorize all these components in a systematic manner and to be able to call up any one instantly - stick passage Q, after passage see - listen to how that sounds and then try passage M and so on. Imagine what it was like doing this by digging thru reels of 2" tape, duping the passage in question, making your splice, rolling tape -- and then to go back to piles of tapes searching for a different variation, duping that... Geez, that'd drive anyone batty!

Meanwhile as to the second disc of material included in this set -- honestly, with all the odds and ends and alternate takes from these sessions that have been issued over the years, I didn't really need 'em. Having a good attempt at "SMiLE" per se was more than enough and having listened thru the second disc a couple times, I doubt I'll return to it. This makes me especially glad I didn't plunk down the $140 for the BIG box -- not that I don't understand the fanatic doing just that.

One final note: I was overjoyed at Brian recording "SMiLE" himself some seven years ago. As an act of personal closure it was clearly a profound moment for Wilson. And it seemed in harmony with a society-wide tide reviving idealism and visionary culture of the 1960's that appeared on the brink of toppling the stony, entropic, poisonous edifice that the Republican Party and its confederates amongst the ultra rich had inexorably created from the Reagon administration onwards. Well, we all know how the latter turned out...

But as masterful a piece of work as the reconstructed "SMiLE" was, it was hard to ignore Brian's diminished capacities on several fronts. So this "SMiLE" was quite an an achievement, but somewhat bittersweet. Now, to hear him and the rest of the band performing this transcendent material of their youthful powers and just sorta prodigious.