Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stumping the Machine

Remember back in the ‘90s when chessmaster Gary Kasparov tied with the IBM monster chess computer Big Blue in a series of high-profile matches? I read an interview with Kasparov in which he explained his approach to stumping the super machine. Since Big Blue could map out some ridiculously huge number of possible future moves and scenario, Kasparov concluded that only way he could beat the supercomputer was to inject some nonsensical noise into his playing. He messed with Big Blue’s silicon mind by randomly doing a few moves that made no sense.

I was reminded of Kasparov’s strategy while messing around with the radio site. If you’ve not used the streaming radio intelligent jukebox, you should. No matter how encyclopedic your knowledge is, the machine is likely to come up with some interesting recommendations. Pandora was featured in a recent NYT story. The company has a staff of music experts listening to and notating thousands of songs. The way it works is you type in your favorite groups or songs and the computer searches Pandora’s "music genome project" to come up with similar material. If you like Music Machine, the computer might play some similarly noisy psych garage, or it might veer toward some blues boogie rock.

So I tried to blow the mind of the machine by entering the Louvin Brothers, Duke Ellington and Blue Cheer, curious to see if the software would locate some sort of happy middle ground between the three of them, maybe I’d get some Bob Wills or some Kinky Friedman. I didn’t know. Though I did get turned on to the worthy Canadian band Bent Wind, I realized that the Pandora software isn’t operating on a Big Blue level of artificial intelligence. For the most part the selections alternate between obvious bluegrass, country gospel influenced stuff and jazz with a focus on big bands. It wasn’t as advanced as I hoped, but Pandora does point towards a future in which nerdy hipster geeks will subversively point the masses away from pedestrian tastes and toward more interesting and obscure choices. It’s like the musical equivalent of the way that Starbucks, Pottery Barn, Target and Old Navy have, in their own little ways, chipped away at what was once the gloriously bad popular tastes in this country.

But in the meantime, here’s to obscurantism. I don’t expect you’ll find any of these tracks on Pandora. You might even have a hard time finding them on Amazon. But don’t be confused, just because it’s hard to find doesn’t mean it’s good. Brush!? is like one of the rarest records around, I’m told. It took a few years just for the folks who released this one to track down the vinyl, which was originally released on some obscure Japanese label. It’s sloppy and lumpy Japanese prog kraut psych weirdness, with dabbling detours into raga, country rock and free jazz. It reminds me some of this track, "I’m Hiding My Nightengale" by Margareta Juvan and Can. I found this on what I assume to be a bootleg Kraut sampler I bought at Kim’s Underground 10 years ago or so. And, while we’re wallowing in the obscure, here’s some early 80s Brazilian post-punk from the sampler Nao Wave, which came out last year.

"Grey Hound Bus" - Brush!?

"I’m Hiding My Nightengale" -- Margareta Juvan and Can

"La Fora Pode Ate Morrer" - Ira!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hall & Oates and the Damage Done

White soul. Some say it's an oxymoron. But don't get locked in a prison of attitude and cliche, my brothers and sisters. While British electronica white person Jamie Lidell has been accused of being a bad karaoke act, I think there's something serious here to be contended with, a real intimacy with funk nuance. The man's a lover, not a hater. His clearest antecedent is early Robert Palmer, before the mannequin videos and cut-out-bin hits, back when RP had a crack backup band made up of members of the Meters and Little Feat. Lidell is usually his own one-man band, pumping out the bleeps, blips and bloopity-blop from a deck of electro-gadgets, but here he's got real live people sampling the spirit of early Prince, Marvin Gay, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, all the classic stankonia, like a tastemaster who happens to have very, very passable pipes and an uncannily slinky groove. He's what Justin Timberlake might sound like if he was his own producer, had never set foot in LA and could also sing (as it stands, Timberlake is more like a hood ornament for Timbaland).

How to explain the umbrella, I have no idea.

What's the Use - Jamie Lidell

When I Come Back Around - Jamie Lidell

Multiply - Jamie Lidell

Game of Fools - Jamie Lidell

Some People Can Do What They Like - Robert Palmer

Postscript: Oh hell. I guess I gotta to raise the stakes with Robin Thicke, since the man's got a new album out in October. You can sample it here. I suggest you listen closely to the lyrics of his forthcoming hit "Wanna Love U Girl." Thicke is turning out to be the white man's R. Kelly. Hopefully he can catch a break with Timberlake dominating the tiny patch of popular real estate reserved for oxymoron music.

Postscript II: That this exists needs to be shouted from the rooftops: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Darryl Hall & John Oates, Part One.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Here Comes Pride Up the Back Stretch, Sweet Jesus

I’ve long had some kind of deep resentment toward Yo La Tengo. I never quite knew what it was. Throughout the 90s I was right there with your Pavement, your Guided By Voices, your Jesus Lizard, your Palace Brothers, your Stereolab, but I never could sign on for YLT. It’s not like I ever spent much time listening to them, but whenever I heard them I always found it bloodless. Well, if the 21st century is about anything, it’s about expanding our sympathetic capacities. And I’ve found myself recently having to accept that YLT’s new record is brilliant. For one thing, there’s the title – I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. That’s something Gordon Lish would probably be proud of. And then there’s this track, "The Race is On Again," with its beautiful murky vocal counterpoint. It reminds me a little of Teenage Fanclub’s "I Know the World'll Be Ok." (Doubtful, depends on the meaning of the word "world.")

And speaking of expanding our sympathetic capacity, consider "New Potato Caboose" as an exercise. This is from Anthem of the Sun, the Dead's trippy second album. It's funny, Dead heads like to dismiss the Dead's studio albums, and I always thought Anthem of the Sun was an impenatrable wank, but I heard some of it the other night on the ride home from a Chinese restaurant. I've really grown to love the Dead's bogus Medieval stuff -- "St. Stephen," "Rosemary" and "Dark Star." This fits right in. Arthur Magazine ran a piece about which of the Dead's records were acceptable. It was an interesting discussion. I've come to dig bits and pieces of all the studio albums through Blues for Allah, and if I'm feeling expansive I might even speak out in defense of that gay stoner disco shit on Shakedown Street. Well, while we're at it, "Althea" off Go to Heaven is pretty unimpeachable. So, I'm ruined, basically.

Which leads us to ... Brewer and Shipley. I don't know what came over me the other day at the record store. I just felt it. These were the guys who brought us "One Toke Over the Line, Sweet Jesus," so consider it an act of mercy that it's this track under consideration today. Finding the beauty in B&S reminds me of that scene in The Life of Milarepa where the before taking in Milarepa, the young aspirant, the wise old master first makes the acolyte built a stone castle on a distant hilltop. Then, when the construction is complete, the master orders Milarepa to tear it down and return the stones to their original place. The master then tells Milarepa to rebuild elsewhere. It's an endurance test. It may be a worthless exercise, but we're stronger when it's through. Think of the insipid flute as a boulder on your shoulder.

(I still can't seem to upload pictures on Blogger, so you'll just have to imagine the great shot of Brewer and Shipley, with too-tight pants, hippie-swirl combovers, lavish mustaches and a white fedora.) [Editor: I've done what I can. Black cowboy hat will have to do.]

"The Race is on Again" - Yo La Tengo

"New Potato Caboose" - Grateful Dead

"Ruby on the Morning" - Brewer and Shipley

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I'm OK/You're OK

Just about every British rocker of note has, at one time or another, fatally romanticized life in rural America, whether that means idealizing gritty blues joints or getting all cornpone bucolic about life in the country. That’s how you get Mick Jagger’s lame southern accent --"I’m down in Virginia with your cousin Lou" (though some suspect he was just trying to compete with Gram Parsons for Keef’s affection). Or Elton John’s "Country Comfort" (I cherish the thought of Elton and Bernie Taupin chipping in to help some Granny mending her barn.). As with most things, the Kinks had a little more sense. When they went country, they did it via London's bombed-out blue-collar outer fringes.

Muswell Hillbillies is generally pegged as either the beginning of a long slow decline for the Kinks, or maybe as the last gasp of semi-good stuff from the gang. From there it was more music hall nostalgia, brass-heavy silly concept albums and live filler. It wasn't long before Ray Davies was putting beer cans on his head on stage and announcing that he was fucking sick of it all. He'd had it up to there. People often cite "20th Century Man" and "Alcohol" as the songs of interest from Muswell, but I've always loved "Oklahoma USA." It's got a beautiful chorus, but what's great about it is the weird self-aware displaced longing for a Hollywood version of country life in America. It's all Rogers and Hammerstein-induced. It's got the dreamy tinsel town obsession that would show up in "Celluloid Heroes," but instead of getting maudlin about vanished fame, the pathos is soaked up by the sad sacks who trudge through life fantasizing about living in a movie. I've never really known what Ray Davies might mean by the line "If life's for living, what's living for?", but it strikes me as horribly sad all the same.

Ideally I'd be able to offer a version of the Sons of the Pioneers' majestic "The Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma" to go along with this and make it an official OK post.

"Oklahoma USA" -- The Kinks

Monday, September 04, 2006

Marie Provost Did Not Look Her Best

I've become a full-on convert to Nick Lowe's 1978 masterpiece Pure Pop For Now People, an LP that could just as well have been called Pure Pop for Future People. Lowe's ability to meld cheeky irony and effervescent melodies was well ahead of its time. The aim of his wit is true: When David Bowie came out with the album Low in 1977, Lowe put out an EP the same year called Bowi. He also sang a song making fun of the Bay City Rollers in the style of the Bay City Rollers. His friend Elvis Costello borrowed a lot from his sensibility, especially how he inhabits all kinds of pop forms mainly to tell jokes and spin literate yarns. But you can tell he just loves pop, too. It's a pre-Ween schematic.
All of which is to direct you to "Marie Provost," a song about a silent screen star gone to seed (see photo, left) who overdoses on quaaludes in her apartment and is later discovered half-eaten by her pet dachshund. Try turning that tale into a power pop hook! And yet just listen to the opening and feel the sensation. It never felt so good to chuckle so blackly.

Marie Provost - Nick Lowe

From the previous post, see also:

Tonight - Nick Lowe

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Ballad of Billy Parham

This summer, when I wasn't reading Cormac McCarthy novels, I was flipping through LPs in the musty records shops of upstate New York. What happened is I started dreaming up a soundtrack for some amalgamated film interpretation of Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and No Country For Old Men. The only real guiding thoughts were border-themed imagery, maybe some laconic, slow-drip mood music for the image of a horsebacked rider slumped on a blood-red horizon, crushed by the existential largeness of the sky, appearing and disappearing in the heat vapors. Tejas. Guns. Death. Blood oaths. Long, hot, empty travel and wandering weirdos in burnt-out adobe villages. And, of course, Mexico. As time went on, I developed more liberal interpretations of what exactly this Cormac-inspired film might be and what music I could use for it. You could consider them suggested tunes for whatever the Coen Brothers might be cooking up for No Country for Old Men. Or perhaps we play them like mini-music videos over lush and dramatic static shots between scenes, a la Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves.

For starters, I like the idea of coopting the theme music from a previous Western soundtrack. Cormac lifts Faulkner, we lift Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The tambourine gives us the opening shot of distant spurs on a widescreen desert.

Main Theme (Billy) - Bob Dylan

This is where our rangy 16-year-old protagonist is leaving his home in Tennessee, setting out on his Mexico quest. What's both great and stupid about Charlie Daniels is encapsulated in this line: We were both so happy just being together, like a possum in the woods. Think about that. "We" were a "possum." And, of course, a "possum in the woods" is "happy being together." Huh? (Wait, maybe he's the "possum" and she's the "woods"? Ew.)

Franklin Limestone - Charlie Daniels Band

Our protaganist--I like Billy Parham, from The Crossing--is already getting homesick. So he remembers his favorite Elton John song. Except, he hears it in his head as Rod Stewart. And Ron Wood starts singing this limey-sounding harmony at minute 2:38. Also, for some reason, it sounds like it was recorded on a wax cylinder. Maybe it's the heat.

"Country Comforts" - Rod Stewart

After a few days, he's out on the long, hot plains, heading across "Tejas," the name of this ZZ Top album, circa '76. What I love about this is the sloooow, tear-drop slide solo over the frantic riffage that just kind of gets at something true about Texas: mellow and easy on top, speed-freaky and fucked up under neath.

"Pan Am Highway Blues" - ZZ Top

The synth riff on this B.W. Stevenson song is shocking and misguided in many ways, but it's also perfect for when Billy finds himself in a funky 80s music-video-style retro-futuristic Star Wars cantina scene that our pomo director has conjured up. Kind of like Sophia Coppola using 80s New Wave music for a movie about Marie Antoinette. I love the line, I'll be down at the station sipping coffee at the book rack. The back of the "Lost Feeling" LP shows the pages of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," with a pocket watch lying on them. Like G.W., perhaps fellow Texan B.W. had recently read some "Shakespeares."

"Down to the Station" - B.W. Stevenson

Rick Danko. He's kind of what you become at the end of a McCarthy novel: all burnt out from killing and drinking, having spent too many long, freezing nights by a desert fire with some creepy ex-priest speaking in tongues while poking the embers under the stars. This is from his 1977 solo album. Danko decided to spell "New Mexicoe" with an E. I guess that's the mescalin talking (or spelling).

"New Mexicoe" - Rick Danko

I used to listen to the Cowboy Junkies "WHITES OFF EARTH NOW!!" back in high school, so I was delighted to find the album again this summer. (Remember when everyone in college hated white people?) Here, Billy is extremely paranoid that some corrupt Mexican coppers are on his trail. Having crossed the border, he just saved a young Mexican girl from some violent manhandling and now he's trying to escape with her into the darkness by being real. Real. Quiet. Listen. (Yeah, I know it's a Springsteen song, but don't think about New Jersey.)

"State Trooper" - Cowboy Junkies

Billy's repressed romantic feelings are intimated but never articulated. He's too laconic and gentlemanly for that. The next day, he drops the young Mexican girl off in an encampment of wash women, where he eats some beans on tortillas before heading out. He says some kind words to her in Spanish and rides into the valley, south and west.

"Baby Please Don't Go" - Cowboy Junkies

This next song plays immediately after a hideous, ultraviolent murder scene in which Billy has witnessed 19 Comanches get scalped and an unfortunate Mexican railroad worker get his eyeballs sucked out by a psychotic Civil War soldier gone AWOL. Now the band of mercenary killers wants to party. Imagine this song playing over slo-mo images of scary-ass dudes shooting guns in the air and puking. You only use Nick Lowe for irony.

"Tonight" - Nick Lowe

After a few more days on the desert, our Billy meets another white man (who hasn't yet left the earth). Dude named Filbert. He's headed down to get a divorce from his shrewish wife, who is on his trail. He sings a song by firelight and the shadows flicker around his pocked cheeks (he looks vaguely like Burt Bacharach). A little comic relief.

"Mexican Divorce" - Ry Cooder

A month later, our hero/anti-hero comes across a caravan of freaks and meets another woman, a fishnet-clad circus performer from Juarez who's down on her luck and suggests they tie one on with a jug of Mexican wine. "Live a little, buddy," she says. In Spanish.

"Sip the Wine" - Rick Danko

I've already posted this last song before, but I need it for the movie. Billy is feeling the existential dread of being so long alone and in such a grim land of drifters, killers, lost souls, goons, carnival geeks and whores. After a bunch of really grim, tragic shit has happened--Filbert got his assed handed to him by a band of Apache--Billy has seen too much. He's gone to the ends of the earth looking for solace in a cruel world, ever wondering what happened to that Mexican gal, who came back to nurse him back to health during a long fever dream after he was shot in the stomach by the corrupt sheriff (then she ran off with Rick Danko). He also had to kill the ex-priest, who had tried to scalp him for some ransom money for horses Billy stole that originally belonged to his dad back in Franklin Limestone. Now he's back on his horse. Alone. The sky is crushing his tiny, heat-exhausted figure on a widescreen desert. The credits roll. Cue Bonnie Raitt.

"Too Long at the Fair" - Bonnie Raitt