Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sugar Rush

Having grown tired of whatever feeble algorithm is at work in the shuffle function in my Windows Media Player at work, I’ve taken to reconfiguring my playlist either by songlength or alphabetically by title. Listening to a whole hour’s worth off 3:14-long songs gives you insight into the wisdom and shortcomings of the classic popsong format. But that too has its limitations. But organizing a playlist alphabetically by song titles yields some interesting results. Just yesterday I was cruising through the "S’s and I got to a set of songs with "Sugar" in the title. I was rocking Tommy James and the Shondell’s "Sugar on Sunday" and Jerry Garcia’s "Sugaree" and somewhere in there I came across a semi-forgotten gem by Half Japanese called "Sugarcane." (All Music Guide says they were "quite possibly the most amateurish rock band to make a record since the Shaggs" – that’s what I call praise.)

I’ll leave it to you to ponder what it might mean to be "deep down in the sugarcane." This song reminded me of a Charles D’Ambrosio story, with some grifters wandering around the midwest. Something’s definitely wrong here, but, as Captain Beefheart says, "at the same time it’s right."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My Heretical Bee Gees Judgment

As I was listening to Feist's version of the Bee Gee's disco hit "Love You Inside Out," I had to marvel at the exquisite production quality, how beautifully it fulfills the mandates of late 70s laser-carved disco polish. It's funky, sleek and breezy, a kind of hologram of depth (listen here). It inspired me to revisit the late 70s Gees, the stuff you're not supposed to like as much as Odessa. It's when I got inside the headphones for the second side of Spirits Have Flown, the 1979 LP, that I finally arrived at a ghastly and heretical judgment: Late 70s Bee Gees is actually better than late 60s Bee Bees!

The song "Too Much Heaven" (which I had to hear once a day for about a month) was the gateway drug. But the acutely-arranged, super-tight, deep dish R&B of "Stop (Think Again)" single-handedly shifted my consciousness. The center of gravity here is Dennis Byron's drumming, which is amazingly supple and spacious. The song has the most soulful fugel horn I've ever heard. The David Letterman sax solo is respectably curt and the cascading harmonies come in like diamonds + MDMA + Pellegrino on ice. Barry's searching helium croon is basically an Australian outsider artist's rendition of Al Green. At one point, you nearly get confused about which is the saxophone and which is Gibb.

Gibb really absorbed Philly soul and the whole Thom Bell production sound down to the atomic level. The minimalist drum'n'bass, the sneaky now-you-see'em-now-you-don't guitar riffs, the overall arid audio tableau where every instrument seems to have a velvet shadow stretching across a mystical sunburst desert at dusk, the aura of an 8 ball gliding gracefully for the corner pocket. The falsetto soul singing and airtight choruses are fully in the Philly soul tradition, descended from the great Bell-produced Delfonics (listen to "Break Your Promise" below and see what I mean).

The whole "disco" hex isn't fair. When you eliminate the filters of Saturday Night Fever and every wedding you've ever danced to "Stayin' Alive" at, when you get inside the headphones and listen close, you realize the hooks here are as good if not better than the 60s stuff, but also more sophisticated and actually closer to the white R&B dream that Barry Gibb was always trying to achieve. Compare the tempos and arrangements to the mid-70s Al Green records, they're very similar. Black radio stations played the 70s Bee Gees hits, which says something. Gibb was advanced, too: "I'm Satisfied" has a brittle hip-hop beat in it that R. Kelly could lift without anyone the wiser. I love that Gibb sings it as "makin' my love to you." It's his love he's making to you. Which brings me to my final observation: Barry Gibb's satin'n'gold oversexed apeman look doesn't hurt the equation, you know?

Love You Inside Out - Feist

Stop (Think Again) - Bee Gees

Too Much Heaven - Bee Gees

I'm Satisfied - Bee Gees

Break Your Promise - The Delfonics

Monday, June 25, 2007

What Travel Does

JP and Bernice and I just got back the other day from a week in Ireland. Still all messed up from the time switchyness. Our first trip to the Emerald Isle and our first travel abroad with a toddler. It was restive and beautiful and it made us want to travel more and eat more and make more money and basically be Irish, which is what travel is for. But, god, those damn Euros. It’s like an alternate, worser universe of commerce and finance. Just basically imagine everything being twice as expensive, and you get the idea. I learned a few things: you (I) can’t trust your (my) map-reading skills; always order the black pudding (blood sausage); always take more pictures than you think you want; the weather is frighteningly changeable; water-repellent isn’t the same as water-proof; and a week away from the Internet is good.

So I was basically away from music, too, though I did hear the tail end of a Joanna Newsom tune on the radio, after which the announcer described the harpist/singer as sounding “slightly deranged,” which seemed about right. If you’ve never been to Ireland, I’ll say that some of the many things to love about the place are the lovely people – they’re all so Irish -- and everything they say is pretty much better than the equivalent of what we’d say. For instance, instead of asking if a cup of coffee is “for here or to go?” – the person behind the counter will say something like “take-way, yeah?,” or if the waitress is bringing you a pint to your table, instead of asking “Would anyone else like a drink?” she might say “Just the one then?” See, better. And there’s the greyish rainy breezy weather, which is better than the full-on East Coast humidor. We actually saw people wearing parkas in Galway, which seemed only a tad excessive. Other highlights: righteous fish and chips and curry fries (McDonaugh’s), first-rate playgrounds for the toddler, and the mix of Neolithic, Celtic and early Christian ruins/archeology was pretty spectacular. We got to see incredible dolmens, wedge tombs, circular forts, ritual wells, beehive huts, cairns, etc. The endless networks of stone walls are amazing in themselves.

Though Galway is actually known as a music town, we didn’t get to hear any live music, in fact, though we did almost see a famous boudrain-maker’s studio in Roundstone, we got there shortly after it closed. Without any iPod or stereo or anything, I found myself singing this Richard Thompson song over and over again. It was sort of musical shorthand for the general rocky, windblown, hardscrabble British Isles vibe (don’t get mad). I know it’s way too Legend of Roan Inish for some people, but it’s really beautiful.

A guy named Joel turned me on to this. He was a neighbor one year in Asheville, NC. He was maybe 10 years older than me and my housemates, much more of a grown-up. and he took bemused interest in us when we moved in, calling us “the bohemians.” He had a show on public radio, and he’d come over sometimes to chat music. He gave me a painting that I still have. The painting had a great story behind it. Joel said that he’d gotten it from his uncle. Joel’s uncle evidently had a secretary who had a thing for her boss. She painted this soft-porn paint-by-numbers topless lady out in the woods, with her hands in her hair and her eyes shut in a kind of rapturous look, and called it a self-portrait. Well, Joel’s aunt didn’t like Joel’s uncle having this painting around. So Joel’s uncle gave it to his nephew, Joel. I was touched by the story (plus I like old paint-by-numbers pieces), and Joel gave it to me. The painting has come to be known as "The Nurse Lady" in our house, because that's what Bernice calls it, since it's an image featuring breasts. Though I’d been into Fairport Convention, Joel is also the one who got me into solo Richard Thompson, turning me onto Pour Down Like Silver, and Henry the Human Fly.

This was back in like 1990, and I’d just gotten my first CD player, and I was slowly amassing a collection. I think I bought that sort of hair-metal late-era Bad Brains record “Quickness” at the time, which I’ve regrettably since gotten rid of. I also went through an awful lot of trouble to by “Voice of Chunk” by the Lounge Lizards. Jon Lurie had split with his record label and he was marketing the thing my mail-order or something. And I had to send off for the record, which was the last Lounge Lizards record with Marc Ribot. I got way into the title track, and Joel ended up using it as the theme music for his radio show. That was my second-hand brush with public radio something or other. I always loved Ribot’s solo, the drum groove, and the layering of the horns. You hear this sometimes as between-story music on NPR.

“The Poor Ditching Boy” - Richard Thompson

“Voice of Chunk” - The Lounge Lizards

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bear Songs

Ever tussle with alcohol? Well for those who have here's a couple of songs, "Here I am" and "Back in Blue," from the upcoming release by Lucinda Black Bear – Bear Songs, featuring singer/songwriter Christian Gibbs. These are two hefty songs, which serve as the album’s finale. "Here I am" broods with slow jangling guitar, hope blown harmonica, and alluring lyricism. The song stomps triumphant in the end and then sinks into the dark, deep waters of the final cut, "Back in Blue." Check it out:

Here I am

Back in Blue

Lucinda Black Bear is based in Brooklyn, NY.
For more info, click: L.B.B.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

There's Too Many Poets, There's Too Many Songs, No Voice Can Erase the Wrongs

If for some miraculous reason you're a religious reader of this blog, you know we've long touted the wonders of the shamefully obscure folk-pop master Bill Fox, of Cleveland, Ohio. I've been coy about this until now, out of misguided humility, but here goes nothing: my Bruce Banner alter-ego (i.e., my actual identity when I'm not a hulking green blogger) has written a long essay about my quest to find out what happened to Fox after he dropped off the musical map a decade ago. It's in the current issue of THE BELIEVER magazine, which is published by the highly reputable McSweeney's Publishing, LLC, begun by a certain literary fellow named Dave Eggers. The article is entitled "Transit Byzantium," after Fox's 1998 album on spinArt. Here's the editor's copy in the magazine:

Why is Bill Fox — one of America’s greatest contemporary songwriters — working in self-imposed exile as a telemarketer in Cleveland?

The leader of power pop act The Mice in the late 1980s, Fox recorded two solo albums in the 1990s, which happen to be two of the best recorded in that particular decade and maybe any decade. Hear for yourself:

Over and Away She Goes - Bill Fox

Song of a Drunken Nightingale - Bill Fox

Please run swiftly to your local independent bookstore and purchase the June/July issue of THE BELIEVER magazine. It comes with a CD of music which has on it a Bill Fox song called "My Baby Crying," which is beautiful.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Swaddler's Delight

There’s a new member of the Driftwood clan. In honor of Dewey Dell and Lefty’s brand new little baby, here’s some driftable infant music. Along with Colleen, Bach, Eno and Woody Guthrie, these were some of the jams that made JP’s and my first weeks home with baby Bernice such a cocoon of sleepy sonic pleasure. These tracks come from the first of Raymond Scott’s three-disc Soothing Sounds for Baby series. These recordings were made in 1963, with the approval and marketing muscle of the Gesell Institute of Child Development. The idea was that parents could nurse, change, bathe, swaddle, rock and otherwise take care of their babies with these edifying percolating rings in the background. Not exactly Baby Mozart, more like Baby Kraftwerk.

“Sleepy Time” - Raymond Scott

“Music Box” - Raymond Scott

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ephemeral Tardo

Ulual Yyy
Fonal Finland

I put this disc on and thought the lead singer, Merja Kokkenon, might be retarded. That's a good thing, a real good thing. In fact, it's so good that I killed the lights in my room and lit a candle and watched the flame while Islaja continued to wheel out the melodies of ephemeral tardo. Islaja is music for the third eye, and it works that shit like bees to the pistil. My pineal gland felt duly stroked by end way of Islaja Ulual Yyy and I hope yours will too.

Kutsukaa Sydanta
Pysahtyneet Planeetat
Pete P.