Thursday, January 30, 2014

...then there's everything else

It'd be my observation that if you're an active music fan/consumer and you rely on the mass media for information on current goings on in contemporary music such as new releases you're likely being exposed to a a fairly narrow range of info. If you monitor national print publications devoted to music (an easy task as that's now just a handful) and the most prominent online outlets you'll note that the same acts are getting covered across the board. And that's for a number of reasons (including the impact of folks in my particular line of work) that include, occasionally, the overwhelming creativity, technique (or ability to transcend considerations of conventional skills), power to excite, inspire and connect with listeners; but quite often, it's down to expert and well funded marketing. And music, finally, is a pleasure -- and if what you're exposing yourself to is pleasant to you -- all well and good.

If it's not working for you...

A couple years ago, I started subscribing to Offbeat, which is a monthly music magazine published in New Orleans. It's printed on slick paper, full color. About the length of Entertainment Weekly. This was a part of my efforts ala Huysmans' "A Rebours," to recreate a bit of the ambience and spirit of that city in my current hometown of Morrisville, PA. (please see my FB page for pix of the Mardi Gras beads festooning the front porch railing and Carnival tree set up in a back room). Yes, it's a silly affectation - but no sillier that furnishing your house in expensive, neo-Colonial or mid-Century antiques 'cause in the end that's just stuff you sit or lay on or stash stuff in - and it's pleasures me. Whatever.

Back to Offbeat -- on reading it month after month, then year after year, what emerges as most striking is that it is devoted primarily to local artists - all the cover stories, most of the inside features and the grand bulk of the record reviews (and the reviews section rivals Rolling Stone's in the number of releases covered). More than enough to warrant there being a monthly magazine devoted to covering. Stop and ponder that for a second - a regularly published music magazine that doesn't cover much if any nationally popular music and still finds plenty to fill its pages. Practically NONE of these ever show up in national coverage and a fair amount are vital, entertaining, enlivening listening experiences, many of them bearing little or no relationship to anything you've likely been exposed to watching the Grammy's or other TV awards shows, reading national media, listening to the radio etc.

One is thus confronted with the possibility of having an active, ongoing relationship with a delightful and in fact stylistically diverse body of contemporary music that is largely uncurated, unfiltered and unfettered by the many aesthetic/economic constraints that fence in the arenas of "pop," and mainstream "alternative" music (nothing against Miss Lorde but how she's the "alternative" to anything other than Rihanna etc. is obscure to me).

Of course, while the New Orleans music scene is especially large and diverse and notable for been extraordinarily supportive of its own (outside of the skirmishes between bourgeoise homesteader and folks looking to preserve and expand on the city's LONG tradition for street music and widespread live music in clubs), the same sort of thing happens around the country -- almost entirely under the radar of media "tastemakers," and "trendsetters" (read "power brokers").

If you're a fan of current pop trends - bless ya! Whatever brings some innocent joy into your heart is a good thing, finally. But if you find yourself dissatisfied (maybe you're addicted to novelty and exotica like me perhaps) - there's a WEALTH of amazing music out there waiting for your discovery. To paraphrase Dr. Leary: "Power down, Unplug, Move On." Trust your ears and your heart.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Finding Shallow Joys in Consumerism

Last weekend had a long overdue round of record store visits. I hit Positively Records in Levittown, PA and Princeton Record Exchange.

At Positively Records picked up: used copy of "Doo Wop Box" Volume 1 - 4 CD set I doubt anyone needs me to give a history lesson on what this stuff is, it's place in the evolution of popular music internationally, etc. The things that caught my attention were -- that the Beach Boys covered a couple classic Doo Wop numbers - The Regents' "Barbara Ann" and The Students' "I'm So Young." Meanwhile, bits of The Crows' "Gee" pop up in the long versions of "Heroes and Villains." Dave Edmunds, of course, did a great, very faithful recreation of The Chantells "Maybe." Yeah, a good amount of being redone by rock and pop acts into the 1980's and being a large influence in various ways on a wide range of artists notably Lou Reed who wrote "I Found A Reason" in this style for the Velvets "Loaded" and later took The Excellents' "Coney Island Baby" for the title of one of his early solo albums. I must admit -- most of Doo Wop's impact on white rock and pop has faded since the 80's and hard to discern much in those styles nowadays.

used "Elvis Presley" $2.99 Elvis is what my older cousins listened to and ever since I've filed him in my head with other pre-Beatles pop performers like Sinatra, Perry Como, etc. I REALIZE that's wrong and periodically try to experience him as paradigm shifter that he did function as. And this -- his debut for RCA has some great rockers on it...and a buncha maudlin ballads that testify to his willingness, perhaps intent to become and be accepted as a legitimate pop singer. Yet, it's hard to deny the force and fire in "Blue Suede Shoes," "I Got A Woman" and "Tutti Frutti"...but, honestly, I think that Ray Charles and Little Richards originals totally kick ass on Presley's renditions.

Steve Wonder "Talking Book" and "Innervisions" both used for $2.99 each "Music From My Mind" and these two form a stunning trilogy of a world class artist taking control of his career, his art and exceeding the already lofty heights he'd achieved under the closer direction of the mighty Motown brain trust. There is some fluff on these but even that's charming. The high points like "I Believe" "You Are the Sunshine Of My Life," "Living For The City" -- are catchy, ambitious and sophisticated in ways that severely challenged the conventions of soul-based Black pop and contributed to an explosion of creative innovation in the field that has yet to be equalled.

Big Joe Turner "The Definitive Blues Collection" NEW $2.99 Man, the packaging and marketing of this SUCKS. Generic, misleading packaging, no detailed session notes...but man this music rocks! Turner was a powerhouse vocalist, connecting with great material, backed by inspired musicians (wish it was spelled out who that had been!) And while it IS bluesy, it's clearly Rhythm & Blues with a strong undercurrent of beat and motive force of that R&B sub-genre that'd eventually be labelled "Rock N Roll." Indeed, Turner cut the original version of "Shake Rattle & Roll" that Western Swing bandleader Bill Haley would appropriate and have one of the early national rock 'n' roll hits with.

Ruth Brown "The Definitive Soul Collection" NEW $2.99 Basically, ditto to all my comments re the Turner collection - bad packaging; a ton of smokin' early R&B.

Fergie "The Duchess" used $2.99 Haven't listened much yet. But I likes to peep current pop after the brouhaha around it has died down.

Princeton Record Exchange:

Velvet Underground "White Light/White Heat" 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2 CD) version - new, full price Not too much to add to what other folks have said about this. This is music I've cherished since I picked up my first copy in 1975 in some record shop on "K" Street in DC (one of the clerks was a dude named Olsen who went on to found the Olsens' Records chain)(and my copy came with the black on black embossed artwork - good score for the $3-4 I spent on a new copy). I think I still have 3 vinyl copies, all with different artwork and one autographed by John Cale one night I and some friends opened for him. It's a total mind blow. Really took the most forward looking elements the Velvets expressed on their debut album ten steps further. Among its many achievements, demonstrating the high art that repetitive rhythm guitar could aspire to. Songs like "Heard Her Call My Name" and "Sister Ray" might initially seem like monolithic onslaughts of noise but close listening reveals intricate rhythmic motifs being laid out, one after another. Frankly, you could write a full album or two just out of the unique rhythm guitar figures on display in "Sister Ray" alone.

As per the bonus tracks on disc one -- I think this is the third time most of these have been trotted out. Perhaps mixed and mastered better, perhaps not.

Disc two - "Live At the Gymnasium" - I haven't collected the bootlegs so I'm glad to have this stuff, tho most of the repertoire that didn't make it on to their studio output...shows that there was some savvy A&R at work. I'd imagine that this is only important to fans that didn't already buy the bootlegs.

Incidentally, Kudos to UMG for releasing the live material as part of the Deluxe package rather than making it exclusive to the SUPER DELUXE package (as with the 45th Anniversary of "The Velvet Underground And Nico."

the new M.I.A. - for Amy - new, full price I mainly hear M.I.A. when Amy plays it in whilst we're driving around. Of all the current crop of dance pop performers out there she's the only one I really dig and who appears to be an artist rather than merely a performer. Cheeky, experimental AND infectious. Killah!

William Onyeabor "Who is William Onyeabor?" - new, full price I'll admit I bought this because of the fullsome media hype - NY Times, Time Magazine, etc. And I DO have a long standing penchant for non-American/Brit musical stylings (used to pick up the cheap Nonesuch Explorer titles at Sam Goody's back in the day). And this cat's good, and certainly unique, but... I'm not utterly sold. What IS cool is that Onyeabor hybridized African musical vocabulary with electro pop's. That's actually a good fit since both styles made use of lengthy repetition of simple, very beat-conscious melodic figures. What's not as cool ultimately comes off as a bit one-dimensional, kinda simplistic. The arrangements woulda benefited by a couple added layers of rhythm patterns and a whole lot more swing. Still, I do dig the audaciousness of the cross-pollination being undertaken.

Eddie Floyd "Greatest Hits" $1.99 Most of these songs written and produced by Steve Cropper and/or Booker T Jones. Nuff said. On first listen "I've Never Found A Girl" perplexed me -- the opening sounds like a lift from the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" (I'll need to study release dates and see who lifted from who), but, hey, some folks imitate, artists steal (right, Keef?); but the chorus...damn I KNOW THIS SONG! But from where? Rascals? Dells? Spinners? And finally I realize that Alex Chilton (a Memphis lad after all) did this in the set documented on the live "Electricity By Candlelight" set. Man, had excellent taste!

Bobby Womack "The Poet" used $4.99 Haven't listened yet - but this thing and "The Poet II" used to BLOW OUT THE DOOR of Melody Records on Dupont Circle in DC back in the early 80's. Now I'll find out why.

"punk" of course refers to the guy in prison that gets butt-effed. Here in the U.S. taking on this tag was the classic inversion of social value, basically saying "the thing you despise us for is the very thing we're proudest of." The early punk scene (let's say '74 - '76 was mainly peopled by geeks, geeks who decided to capitalize on all the things that made them relative pariahs - passion for unpopular music, disdain for mass produced style and public displays of affluence. It's not for nothing that early punks often evoked disdain and wrath from members of mainstream society since this was an open, visually obvious rejection of its values. Of course in the UK it functioned differently because of their economic system, but before you dismiss American punk as a middle class affectation -- this was the beginning of the disintegration of the middle class -- the original punk generation had a lot of folks who had finished college and gotten their degrees AND THEN found out that there was already a dearth of good jobs to be had and wound up working retail, in food service etc...gigs you'd expect that a college education would allow you to do better than - WAKEY WAKEY!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Pun dit pun dat

This is a bit of pure punditry.

As I observe acts like Mumford & Sons and the like being hailed as the vanguard of "Alternative Folk" I must take issue...

10 years ago or so I was working with artists like Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Akron/Family, Larkin Grimm, Feathers, Fern Knight, Fire On Fire and hung around the Philly psych-folk crowd (Espers, Fern Knight, etc.) a bit. Naturally I became familiar with the past musical histories of the performers I worked with and talked musical likes and dislikes at backyard parties and between sets at local shows. What came up on a regular basis was that most of these people had had backgrounds in the avant garde underground, had played in noise-bands, been skronk-rockers, done performance art, purely experimental music, etc; and most of them continued to follow the work being done in those genres. Then tt some point, they'd collided with the aesthetic corpus that Greil Marcus dubbed "Old Wierd America," a prime example being the music Harry Smith had anthologized on "The Anthology of American Folk Music." This was authentic folk music that was noticeably eccentric in lyric content, musical composition and performance - both instrumental and performance -- just the natural outcome of individuals expressing themselves as best they could with resources (educational, cultural, etc.)at their disposal. The work "The Anthology..." documented was singular and the visionary as the best efforts of someone with Guggenheim grant working for years in state of the art studio. This body of work proved highly seductive and influential to artists who might have felt that they'd exhausted the possibilities of amplified post-rock and would consequently begin examining the possibilities of creating avant-music using acoustic, often arcane, antiquarian instrumentation

The results(avant folk, psych folk, freak folk - whatever bin divider tag you prefer), were pretty marvelous. Subtle, low-key, sophisticated, catchy and consistently off-kilter in the most delightful ways. A decade, later most of it holds up fine and in fact continues to sound fresh and prescient -- and out of joint with the current crop of "Alternative Folk" front-runners.

I'd suggest that's because artists like Mumford and Sons are "Alternative" only in terms of being relatively young and marketed to "alternative" consumers (which I assume means anyone who's not a fan of One Direction, Kate Perry et al). They're "folk" only in terms of using acoustic instrumentation. But the grounding in avant-garde/experimental music and in the actual "folk" canon (the repertoire that people like Bob Dylan were inspired by) just isn't there.

So the point...well, if ya dig things like Mumford and Sons, that's all well and good. Music is divertissment first and foremost. If it eases the stress and strain of living, lifts your spirits, etc. that's what it's for and whatever does that for you...all well and good. But pass this stuff off as new and improved, innovative etc...not so much.