Monday, December 31, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Eleven

5 Beirut, The Flying Club Cup

Where debut Gulag Orkestar was Baltic in flavour, The Flying Club Cup is Parisian, Beirut brains Zach Condon wandering the streets of the city of light, Berlitz guide in hand. Only he’s strolling the streets of Eugene Atget’s Paris, specifically Montparnasse, and he’s looking for Jacques Brel. Condon’s a dandy of the highest order, brash and cocksure and in the thrall of all things arty, and at 21 he’s also a true sophomore, reading poetry, getting drunk on lilac wine and spouting Rimbaud. It would be an unforgivable mess if it weren’t so charming.

It’s twice as mature as Gulag, truth be told, and displays a growing comfort with the complexities of song; rich, exotic, romantic, and easy to fall in love with. A whirlwind of diverse instrumentation, cabaret camp and lyrical flights, it makes you wonder what this precocious artist will be capable of once he’s actually lived a little.

4 Dave Douglas Quintet, Live at the Jazz Standard

From 1965 until 1968, Miles Davis led a stunningly good quintet, a band anchored by Herbie Hancock’s keyboards and characterized by the fire and water interplay of Wayne Shorter’s saxophone and Davis’ moody, spare trumpet. It was a unit which eschewed the primal scream approach of much of the contemporary avant-garde in favour of explorations of the outer limits of modal improvisation. The resulting music was dark and evocative, and thanks largely to the sound of Hancock’s electric piano, pointed the way toward the fusion style Davis would later pioneer.

It was, by the end, the tightest band in jazz (Coltrane’s quartet was active until his death in July of ’67), and among the best combos in history, but divergent aspirations and the usual forces of artistic creation pulled it apart. What’s intriguing to consider is what might have been had the band remained intact. Would Miles have gone all-electric? Or would the quintet’s sound have continued to develop on into the 1970s?

Hypotheticals are generally worth the paper they’re printed on, but for the sake or argument let’s posit that trumpeter Dave Douglas is the closest thing we have to Miles Davis in 2007 2008, and that his fine quintet are heirs to the mantle of that great mid-‘60s band. I’ve made the Davis band comparison before, and it is perhaps unfair to Douglas and co., but it is apt. If we can take all that as given, then the music Douglas, tenor Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Uri Caine, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn are currently making is nothing less than the sound of the Davis band dragged into the ‘70s, built upon the foundation of those ‘60s recordings but accented with more funk, more looseness, more electricity, and more open space.

Live at the Jazz Standard is the latest document of this group, an album meant initially for download only from the Greenleaf Records website (Douglas’ own label), but pressed to CD by popular demand. It follows last year’s Meaning and Mystery, and thanks to a number of new compositions, it qualifies as a new album and not just a live set of previously released work. It shows the quintet in trim fighting shape, lean and agile.

The Dave Douglas Quintet is among the best working bands in jazz today, a fun, loose, but dedicated, lyrical, in-and-out and absorbing musical machine, and one that, despite the content of this review, is ever progressive and forward-thinking. To say that they have taken a ‘60s sound and pushed it into the ‘70s leaves out half the story: this is music for the ‘00s, through and through.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday Interlude

Pardon us while we here at TiOM HQ enjoy a few days off for the holidays. Days Eleven and Twelve (albums 5-1) are still in the hopper, and will show up posthaste. In the meantime, we hope you and yours enjoy a very wonderful Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Ten (CanCon Day)

7 Feist, The Reminder

Leslie Feist is not to be faulted for the sudden ubiquity of “1-2-3-4,” in my experience the second-most inescapable song of 2007 (strangely, “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John was even more prevalent, the airborne soundtrack to an untold number of my retail expeditions); that's what happens when a musician, attempting to make a living, licenses a song (and video) to Apple.

But what's easy to overlook or forget in the face of that relative pop stardom is the skill underlying the catchiness; Feist is a hell of a songwriter, a pop songstress with a folkie's heart, a wonderful voice and the musicianly skill to match. She's also adept at subtlety, often eschewing the easy hook in favour of the slow grower, resulting in an album of such soft and warm comforts that you'd be excused for failing to separate the music from the memory of the sweet summer evening on which you first heard it.

What it all makes plain is that Feist's greatest trick wasn't in transcending the indie ghetto for greater notice, and it wasn't in writing and crafting such sophisticated pop, the perfect vehicle for her lovely voice; no, her greatest trick is in making it all sound so easy.

6 Arcade Fire, Neon Bible

How were the Arcade Fire to follow up Funeral, that nocturnal, epic, wistful paean to youth even as its passing was being acknowledged and mourned? The answer hinged on whether or not that album's success, its singular and sustained artistic vision, was simply a fluke or the product of unique talent and sensitivity. Neon Bible provides a wealth of answers, as well as raising no shortage of new ones.

None of it was accidental, of course, except in that manner of all artistic expression touched by fortune and timing. Neon Bible stares further into the themes of their debut, but comes up darker, more starkly dystopian. It also suggests, both sonically and thematically, the work of Bruce Springsteen in a way that was either absent or easily overlooked with Funeral (or maybe we were all busy playing up the Talking Heads comparisons). At a remove, the comparisons become more obvious; this duo of releases takes on the feel of the progression from Born to Run's heroism and bombast to Darkness on the Edge of Town's unbridled cynicism.

It's fitting, then, that the Arcade Fire toured with Springsteen this year, and videos circulating on the internet of the artists trading off each others' songs – Springsteen's “State Trooper” and AF's “Keep the Car Running” - suggest the synergy of this seemingly unlikely teaming.

It would have been easy, in the wake of their initial success, to write this band off as products of the indie hype machine. Listening to Neon Bible fairly puts the lie to that notion. Rather they are a significant presence on the wider rock stage, and figure to be around for some time yet, which is good news for all of us.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Nine

9 Burial, Untrue

Just look at what they've done to your triphop. It has fractured, fragmented, spawned offshoots, the names of which are new - Untrue is said to have sprung from the world of dubstep - but the genres have enough in common that we can speak of them as representatives of a common aesthetic, the antecedent and the offspring, linked across a decade by analogous worldviews and near-identical genome maps.

Regarding triphop, though select few examples of the form still sound fresh, it has been absorbed into the larger pop music cannon by virtue of its age and so, like all classic rock, it has sacrificed much of its relevance. After all, Massive Attack's genre-defining Blue Lines album came out 16 years ago now. It's a genre dusty enough to have earned the patina of nostalgia, a sound of weariness and disaffection that nonetheless seems innocent and naïve now, given everything that's transpired since (indeed, don't all cultural artifacts from the twentieth century now seem charmingly, even heartbreakingly bathed in the light of innocence?).

But from the bones of that forebear, an anonymous London producer called Burial has crafted a new and more desolate aural vision of urban alienation, loneliness and fear. Imagine Mezzanine stripped of all warmth or erotic undertone, the lines more askew, disconnected, broken. Instruments enter the mix, ricochet about, disappear. Harmonies lie half exposed, forgotten; melody takes a back seat to atmosphere. But the starkest element is the human voice, isolated and robbed of context, but human just the same, and so very desperate. Vocals stolen from club jamz, dropped into these barren surroundings, and made all the sadder for it. The reliance here is on an R&B accent perhaps a bit more than dub reggae (as was the case with Massive Attack), but that's splitting hairs. Ultimately, it all derives from the same root; it's like comparing a corpse and a skeleton, or a photo and an abstraction of the same subject.

One of modernity's defining characteristics is the breathless pace of change. The world has become, in the last decade or decade and a half, a darker, scarier, more divided place. We thought we knew what loneliness, alienation and disaffection were in 1994. Listening to Untrue suggests we didn't know a blessed thing.

8 Groundtruther, Altitude

Groundtruther is a project featuring the talents of guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer-percussionist-electronic fidgeter Bobby Previte, a planned trilogy of releases on Thirsty Ear, each to spotlight a different guest musician. On 2004's Latitude, that guest was saxophonist Greg Osby; 2005's Longitude saw the duo welcoming DJ Logic to the fold in a live setting. On the third-and-final Altitude, the special guest star is keyboardist John Medeski, one-third of Medeski Martin & Wood.

Altitude is a double album, split neatly between the electric first disc (with tracks named after the highest places and structures on Earth) and the acoustic second half (tracks named after the lowest points, i.e. undersea features such as the Mariana Trench), and generally speaking the first disc rollicks where the second is a more pensive affair. What's consistent is the trio's devotion to invention, seemingly intentionally painting themselves into corners just to see how they'll work their way out. It's a highwire act throughout, with Medeski happily avoiding the well-worn soul jazz phrases that tend to make up much of his musical dialect. Hunter also impresses for his willingness to play outside his comfort zone.

Improvisation entails accepting a certain degree of risk. On Altitude, this latest incarnation of Groundtruther takes that tenet to heart, flying high above what might be considered safe, staring down a tremendous fall, and ultimately thrilling with their ability to keep aloft.

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Eight

11 Iron & Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog

Sam Beam's records as Iron & Wine have, for the most part, been modestly recorded and buried beneath a comfortable blanket of lo-fi warmth, but with The Shepherd's Dog he finally embraces the full band sound that has been lurking in his stripped down tunes all along. It's a direction he first accepted as inevitable on 2005's Woman King EP, and now he doesn't simply expand the arrangements, he blows the format wide open and incorporates the gamut of sounds – varied percussion, brass, piano, organ, and even studio effects, notably the dubwise production on the improbably great “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog).” Elsewhere, Beam trades in afropop, funk, rock and, yes, the countryesque tunesmithery for which he's been known all along. It all results in the most listenable I&W album yet, as in a record you won't hesitate to put on even when you're not feeling insular and downcast (which is the only complaint I could levy against either of his two previous full lengths). Might be that Beam is applying the lessons gleaned from his collaboration with Calexico, a band known for its robustness of sound. Or maybe he's just tired of mumbling. Either way, he's throwing a hell of a coming out party.

10 Caribou, Andorra

Dan Snaith/Manitoba/Caribou has an impressive track record of creatively produced bedroom records, beginning in the electronic DJ mode, but moving gradually toward more traditional song structures. With Andorra, the transformation from DJ to pop star is complete, and in place of impersonal and calculated dance music, Snaith gives the world something that sounds warm, rich, personal, and very much as though it was recorded 40 years ago. Snaith has become a one man band and his own producer, and all in the service of real songs – bridges, choruses, the whole nine. And what songs – slices of British Invasion psychedelic pop that Sts. Argent and Blunstone would appreciate (if not write themselves), big and sunny four minute miracles that sound like nine perfect afternoons spent with kaleidoscopes taped to your RayBans.

It's simple, really. Like being happy? Enjoy pop music? Get this album yesterday.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Seven

13 Exploding Star Orchestra, We Are All From Somewhere Else

The aforementioned Rob Mazurek quit the Chicago scene for a while, heading to Brazil where he spent some time recording the sounds of electric eels. Seriously. Then he convened a big band featuring a ton of great players, including guitarist Jeff Parker, ex-Tortoise members John Herndon and John McEntire (in whose studio the album was recorded), trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Jason Ajemian, and others. He handed them a score for two extended suites (“Sting Ray and the Beginning of Time” and “Cosmic Tomes for Sleepwalking Lovers”) and one interlude (“Black Sun”), and together they cut a fantastic record.

It’s avant-big band music; think a less carnivalesque, less Ellington-obsessed version of Mingus Ah Um, or a not-quite-so academic-sounding Jazz in the Space Age. We Are All… overflows with vibes, synthesizers, strings, horns, and yes, electric eels (they sound like electronically tweaked strings). It is, frankly, hard to describe, but it is brash, joyous, exuberant, exciting, soothing, and redolent of salt and wind, waves and sun. It sounds like the Black & White Ball being held at the Shedd Aquarium. And what’s really surprising, given the roster of improv scenesters on hand, is that the standout performance is delivered by flutist Nicole Mitchell. And the eels, obviously.

12 Chromatics, Night Drive / In the City 12” / Various Artists, After Dark

Chilly, aloof and spare: this is Italo-Disco, an unlikely candidate for a resurgence, and yet here is New Jersey-based label Italians Do It Better doing just that. Chromatics hail from the Pacific Northwest, but they might as well have come up in the streets of Milan, these vacant-eyed glamour children with stunning wardrobes and empty souls. They are currently the poster children for the label and the sound (though Glass Candy, also on the After Dark compilation, are fixing to give them some competition), hitting a successive pair of high marks, first with the In the City single and then the Night Drive full length. Whether the late night travelogue of the title track, or the bang on cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” nobody did cool/cold, dance/dread and glamour/gloom as convincingly as did Chromatics in 2007. Detached vocals, banks of synth, canned strings, plucky guitar and vinyl-like effects all contributed to the illusion. Don’t go searching for the substance; it’s not there. Better just to get your fill of the style before the luster fades.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Six

15 Band of Horses, Cease to Begin

God bless Band of Horses and the horse they rode in on for naming a song after Detlef Schrempf.

As for Cease to Begin, it’s only further proof that BoH, with or without founding member Mat Brooke, are capable of spitting out the finest Neil Young-meets-college rock noise around, a stately clang & rattle worthy of your best hiking boots and ballcap. There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here, but the songs sound like they might’ve been long ago written up in Ray Gun, and for that I love ‘em.

14 Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake, From the River to the Ocean

Eighty-year old Chicago saxophonist (and club owner) Fred Anderson ought to be a household name. He never will be, alas, but he will in all likelihood continue to put out fantastic records as long as he has breath. His fruitful relationship with drummer Hamid Drake continues on From the River to the Ocean (Thrill Jockey), a wonderful, blues-soaked album that seems to get better with each listen. Guitarist Jeff Parker (yet another Chicago scene staple who will show up again on this list) is on hand, too, as are bassists Harrison Bankhead and Josh Abrams. Together they weave through a set of originals, kicked off by Anderson’s “Planet E,” a spacious platform for solos that he first performed on an Okka release that paired him with the DKV Trio.

There isn’t a lull on From the River…, just the warm, rich sound of gifted, like-minded musicians doing what they do best. It’s not too far out, and it’s not too safe; what it might be is a tidy summation of that thing we call jazz circa now, in that it’s a sound Charlie Parker and John Coltrane would recognize, and so could the new breed of noisemakers. What they’d all be recognizing, beyond the details, is what has always made jazz so great after all: the sound and sense of freedom.

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Five

17 Tigersmilk, Android Love Cry

Chicago trio Tigersmilk are cornetist/electronics wizard Rob Mazurek (who appeared on this list last year as part of the Chicago Underground Duo, and who will appear yet again this year), bassist Jason Roebke (see #22) and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. In typical Chicago fashion, each of these musicians has their fingers in several dozen other pies but, like a shockingly high percentage of Chicago improv stuff, Android Love Cry (Family Vineyard) sounds neither tossed off nor rushed.

Yes, the title references a cybernetic futurescape, but before alarm bells go off let me assure that electronics are merely the setting here, not the gimmick. Atop the sounds of glitchy, damaged circuitry, the trio weave deft patterns of improvised sound, led by Mazurek’s ghostly horn. The result is something like imaginary sound portraits of a dystopian tomorrowland where ancient jazz lingers, choking forth from discarded soundcards. Or something like that. Dismayed? Don’t be; just listen.

16 Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals

I don’t know who exactly kicked off the recent flurry of world music-crazed indie rock – maybe Man Man? – but I do know that it’s gaining enough momentum that it may well prove the dominant trend of 2008, lighting up a million music blogs and eating up space on your Zune. There are two aspects to this trend: genuine world music attracting the attention of curious hipsters and band members (think Konono No.1, Tinariwen or vintage afrobeat), and; those same Western kids turning those global sounds inside out. The above mentioned Man Man make sublimely weird and gravel-throated music with a strange afropop edge. In the wake of Antibalas’ success, a hundred Fela Kuti-copping collectives are formed each month. Beirut’s Zach Condon must own every Rough Guide CD ever released. Next Big Thing Vampire Weekend sound more Johnny Clegg than Johnny Rotten. It’s all getting so as ticketholders for the next Pitchfork Festival will be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled into a WOMAD tour stop.

Count Yeasayer among this probably unintentional groundswell, sounding like somebody blew their minds by slipping Peter Gabriel into their Modest Mouse sleeve. “Where’s the Real World logo?” I asked.

So why does All Hour Cymbals avoid sinking into the new rising morass? Because their harmonies are airtight, their choruses soar majestically, and sometimes, like on “Wait for the Wintertime,” they sound like Black Sabbath jamming on “Kashmir,” and whether you knew it or not, that’s something you’ve been waiting your whole life to hear.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Four

19 Matthew Shipp, Piano Vortex

Improvised music – or jazz, or creative music, or whatever you wish to call it – is by its nature forgiving of creative missteps. It retains the ‘throw it against the wall and see what sticks’ ethos of jazz, its deepest root, as well as permitting a far more frequent release schedule than its pop music brethren, where an album a year is a good clip. As a result improvising musicians are permitted to air their laundry in public, to try new things, to tinker slightly with their approach or to radically overhaul their modus operandi. Other musicians do these things too, of course, but they tend to bury the evidence, whereas improvised music’s adventurous spirit demands that the tapes be heard. It is largely concerned with the very act of creation and less worried about the finished product.

Pianist Matthew Shipp has never been afraid to try anything. His voluminous discography is a testament to his creative restlessness and an utter lack of fear. Electronics, radical structures, cut-and-paste reassemblage, collaborations with underground hip hop wonders Antipop Consortium, funk, classically-influenced improvisation, solos and a huge variety of group settings have all found their way into his work and onto his albums. Much of it works; some of it doesn’t. That is the logical result of his creative process.

His latest release, Piano Vortex (Thirsty Ear), is an experiment, like so much of his work; a document of Shipp’s willingness to ask himself what possibilities the traditional piano trio might still hold for him. It seems clear that his intention was to arrive at an answer honestly and nakedly, and to deliver the results to listeners, regardless of the success of the project. Joined by Joe Morris on bass (which makes him the first artist to appear twice on this list) and drummer Whit Dickey, Shipp gives us some of the most invigorated playing of his career, and some of the most obviously indebted to tradition.

While still allowing for the desolation and space that are characteristic of so much of Shipp’s work, these pieces also contain some of the most unabashedly pretty music we’ve ever heard from him. The title piece holds in its ten and a half minute length several moments of lyricism; meanwhile, the brief “Keyswing” actually rides on a piano riff that wouldn’t be out of place in a swing piece.

Shipp’s notes often sound like shards of glass; on Piano Vortex an equal or greater number feel as delicate as glass. Morris’s thick, round bass sound and Dickey’s tasteful accompaniment provide the perfect complements to the exercise. This is a piano trio in every locatable sense of the term, at once historical and evolutionary, and it serves as a fine confirmation of Shipp’s skill, musicality and sensitivity.

18 M.I.A, Kala

The globe has, in the person of M.I.A., the first truly international pop star of the new century, a Briton of Sri Lankan origins who gleefully pillages from the world’s musical forms, and laces it all together in a collage resembling American hip hop. The fact that she catches heat for repurposing rap’s lionization of neighbourhood thuggery to hatch thrills from London streetlife and international terrorism is equal parts sexism and xenophobia; it would be a political quandary that threatened to drown out the music if the whole thing weren’t so damned danceable and, yup, fun.

If there’s a highlight it must be “Paper Planes,” which co-opts a Clash sample and a chorus ripped from Wreckx-N-Effect (!) to build the head-nodding anthem of the year.

Where Arular, was insistent, Kala is declamatory, and among its messages is a very clear statement of M.I.A.’s claim for galactic stardom; it doesn’t take too many listens to realize that she deserves nothing short of it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Three

21 Joe Morris (w/ Ken Vandermark, Luther Gray), Rebus

Connecticut’s Joe Morris is among the most compelling guitarists in the world of free music. The fact that he’s self-taught is either inspiring or maddening, depending on your vantage.

His latest release for the Portuguese Clean Feed label teams him with tireless reedman Ken Vandermark (who gets my vote for musician of our age) and percussionist Luther Gray for six improvised pieces entitled “Rebus.” Just like Rebus, the blue ACD with whom I share a house, the results are exuberant, ill-behaved, challenging and, if only briefly, calm and restrained. Vandermark, who limits himself here to tenor saxophone, is in full throat, effectively leading this trio, while Morris’s contributions are contrastingly bop-like in their structures, relying as they tend to on single-note phrasing. He almost sounds like a modern Grant Green. Well, alright, not really, but you get my point.

The album - presumably named after a word puzzle, and not Ian Rankin’s most famous creation (or my dog) - offers no solutions, no simple melodies, no easy way of approaching these improvisations. In that sense, it’s true to its name. But close listening unlocks the rewards of the uncanny group interplay, and that makes this wordless word puzzle worth the time.

20 Okkervil River, The Stage Names

There is a moment on The Stage Names, very near the end, when a very good album suddenly becomes an overarching statement of maturity by a very good band. Depending on where you got the album, “John Allyn Smith Sails” is either the last or the second-to-last track (some downloads append “Love to a Monster” to the album’s usual 9 tracks), a song about Minnesotan poet John Berryman, whose life and subsequent swan dive suicide have proven popular subjects for songwriters (see also The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations”). What sounds initially like a bridge (ha!) soon becomes a springboard into a spirited rendition of “Sloop John B,” and Okkervil main man Will Sheff’s point is clear: We’re part of a tradition; follow us into history. Too often indie rock’s creation myth repeats a narrow and overly select lineage, canonical offerings which, we are told, contain the seeds of the modern connoisseur’s rock (i.e. not what you find on the radio). What that moment, and all of The Stage Names is trying to tell us is that such a view is shortsighted and limiting. Pop is pop, and excellent pop music - like this collection by one of the best sad bastard indie/jangle/rock bands around - is among the greatest pleasures we can still share.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day Two

23 David Murray Black Saint Quartet, Sacred Ground

As I mentioned earlier this year, David Murray had long constituted something of a blind spot in my view of free music, and so I decided to jump right in and educate myself. My decision to do so coincided with the release of the saxophonist’s latest for Montreal’s Justin Time label, a triumphant quartet outing with guest vocals by Cassandra Wilson. Wary as I usually am of jazz vocals, not only do Wilson’s manage to not mar the proceedings, they lend a genuine emotional resonance to the issues of race Murray has chosen to address here (the album is an outgrowth of the scoring Murray provided for Banished, a film about the post-Civil War expulsion of blacks from several US communities). Call it Murray’s Blood on the Fields (which also featured Wilson on vocals), only manageable in scope, and devoid of artistic hubris.

The music is suitably sombre, but far from oppressive. This band – Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, Lafayette Gilchrist on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drums – is too lithe to permit that to happen. Murray’s horn is muscular, tough but tender, and clearly invested in these songs. All in all, another highlight in a career (so I’ve recently learned) full of them.

22 Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio, Terminal Valentine

Avant cellist Lonberg-Holm writes, tours, collaborates and records with alarming regularity. It’s a devotion which normal humans like you and I reserve for activities such as blinking. The man is a force, having worked extensively in every corner of the improvised/free music universe, with some spillover into the rock world, as well. This leader date with his own trio, released on Chicago’s Atavistic imprint, is a prime setting for displaying his amazingly horn-like voice on the strings. What makes this record memorable is that, while Lonberg-Holm, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly are capable of hair-raising free playing, they never forget the undeniably pretty songs at the core of these pieces.

The Twelve Days of Listmas: Day One

25 Kevin Ryan, Dylan Hears a Who

Whoever he is, Kevin Ryan held the world – or at least the world of online music blogs – in his hand for a short time earlier this year. He painstakingly constructed a brilliant parody (homage? mash-up? commentary?) and floated it out onto the web, then stayed silent as the attention mounted. The perfectly constructed back story had a circa ’66 Bob Dylan paying tribute to the works of Dr. Seuss by recording seven Seuss stories as songs the way only Bob could play ‘em. Then, the story went, the album was scuttled by nervous label suits, and was thereby lost. Ryan’s Dylan impersonation is solid, but the real selling job comes from the music, which is nigh on indistinguishable from the real thing, with authentic sounding tape hiss and crackle, perfect instrumentation, and a mixing job that sounds like a studio floor recording from the period. Add to that wonderful (downloadable) cover art that looks eerily like something Columbia would have produced, with well photoshopped images of Dylan sporting the cat’s striped hat, and the whole thing seemed just plausible enough to make you wonder if it wasn’t legitimate. It helps, of course, that a million Dylan bootlegs are floating about, even “official” ones issued by Sony. There’s no shortage of hoaxes and user-generated parodies online, but few are noteworthy enough to attract the attention of the conventional press (i.e. Entertainment Weekly) and the ire of the estate of the late Dr. Seuss (the Dylan Hears a Who website shut down after receiving a cease and desist from a phalanx of lawyers representing the interests of arguably the world’s most famous children’s author). It’s an impressive musical accomplishment, as well as a fascinating example of the way in which fiction can trump reality.

24 John Coltrane, My Favorite Things: Live at Newport (reissue)

I already wrote about this here, so why repeat myself, right? I remember thinking that title – What a Difference Roy Haynes Makes – was pretty darned clever at the time.

The This is Our Music End-of-Year Form Letter

[Merry Listmas, children!]

Dear Reader,

Like the proverbial peas and mashed potatoes, I have tried in vain to keep them separate.

I have, in years past, done my best to segregate two aspects of my music consuming personality, treating rock/pop and jazz/improvised/whatever as wholly separate entities, affording each their own list, and generally endeavouring to keep each ignorant of the other’s existence. But as anyone who has ever attempted to corral the peas and keep them free of starchy goop knows, you can’t do it; you can’t keep them apart.

So this year’s This is Our Music master list – the albums list – marks my defeat, standing as the first time that I have relented and combined both sides in one unified whole. And the catalyst was Warren Defever.

Defever, headman of His Name is Alive, has made some interesting music over the years, incorporating a wide variety of sounds, and generally displaying a pleasingly restless approach to the conventions of musical genre. But it was still all stuff I would feel comfortable filing in the Rock/Pop section (or possibly the Alternative section, if the imaginary record store in question still had such a relic). But then HNIA went and did this, leaving me with the difficult decision of which list to put it on. And that got me to thinking…

Why not a unified list? Why not the 25 recordings I enjoyed most, regardless of genre, in one complete accounting of my year as a consumer of music? Solidarity!

So that’s what I’ve done, and beginning with the next TiOM post, I’ll dive into that list – a list of pop and indie rock and disco and electronic trickery alongside a Coltrane reissue (shock!), a couple of sets of modern jazz that won’t offend the non-jazz listener, and some downright woolly free improvisation. It’s a list that accurately represents – maybe for the first time – the entire range of my interests.

Merry Listmas.



PS - You feel a little guilty for laughing at that picture, don't you? You should. For more guilt-inducing hilarity, click here!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Now It's On

The CD is done. Those who usually receive a copy will again receive a copy, by mail or hand delivered, as circumstances warrant.

Beginning tomorrow, this space will once again serve as the lazy man's liner notes (less cutting and glueing that way) when I begin to spew the self-congratulatory purple prose that dozens of you have come to know, if not love. I'll start with my spiel on "2007: The Year That Was" (or something like that), and then move into the Best Albums list. Because I read somewhere that suspense is a great technique for capturing readers, I'll draw it out. "The Twelve Days of Listmas" will feature two albums a day, until the last entry which, for reasons of arithmetic, will feature three, and altogether they'll constitute list of 25. Then Best Songs (pocket critiques on the tracks on the above-pictured CD), then maybe the Honourable Mention thing, then any leftover random thoughts I might squeeze out.

This would have been done sooner, but you know, holidays etc. etc. Also, I've been hooked on a handful of Toronto Blue Jays blogs of late, so that eats up a lot of computer time. If anybody has thoughts on the still-possible Rios for Lincecum deal, I'm all ears.

Monday, December 3, 2007

That Nissan Commercial

At long last, the question burning a hole in my brain, keeping me up nights, making it so that I can't eat, can't concentrate on anything else - that question has been answered.

Ages ago, long before the snow fell, I asked in this post (see item IV) what the music was in a certain car commercial. I got no answer. Now I know.

The song is "Krusty" by Papa M. Yes, that Papa M: Dave Pajo, of Slint and Tortoise, etc. Makes perfect sense once you know, doesn't it? From the album Whatever, Mortal released waaaay back in '99 (does anyone even remember 1999?). All info on this website. There's a video, too, in the MEDIA section.

Now I can sleep at night.

[And thanks, CC, for doing the legwork, i.e. 30 seconds of googling.]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Enter the Dark Horse

As Listmas rapidly approaches, many recordings vie for position. There is much jockeying and shifting and trading of spots. And though I had previously posted, with great confidence, my nearly final picks for the best creative/improvised/jazz/whatever records of 2007, suddenly a new contender has emerged, and it changes everything.

If I said to you, "Remember His Name is Alive? Well, they're still around, and they have a new record, only it's free jazz," you'd say to me, "You're six different kinds of crazy." Hell, if you'd said to me "Remember His Name is Alive? Yada yada new album yada jazz etc." a few weeks ago, I'd have thought you were nuts. But they do (or HNIA founder Warren Defever does, anyway, using the HNIA name, and with help from a bunch of jazzheads, most of them from NOMO), and it is flat out good. Like, maybe Best of the Year good. And it's not on some wrinkly- t-shirt-wearing hipster-run basement label, either; it's on AUM Fidelity.

For real.

It doesn't sound like indie rockers faking it. It sounds like improvisers feeling it. It's called Sweet Earth Flower, and it's a tribute to Marion Brown. What's great is that it focuses on Brown's lesser-known '70s material instead of the higher profile (and I use that term very loosely) Impulse! music of the 1960s.

The jazz guys blow both sweet and fiery, and Defever's guitar contributions are riveting. There are grooves, and there is dissonance, in proportions suited to a band wishing to pay tribute to the free music of the era in question.

In short, I guess what I’m saying is that Groundtruther’s been bumped to number 2, Dave Douglas to 3, etc. And nobody’s more surprised than I am.

Friday, November 9, 2007

It's Begining to Look a Lot Like...

While sitting in the studio the other night, playing the new Groundtruther album, Infinite Ceiling host Marc said to me, “This sounds list-worthy.” And it hit me: it’s nearly list season. Which got me thinking, obviously…

The pop/rock list hasn’t yet begun to materialize for me yet, for whatever reason. Too many contenders? (Or maybe it’s just because there hasn’t yet been a Pernice release yet this year.) But the creative/improvised list is beginning to germinate in the fertile soil of my brain.

So, as it stands now, here’s a partial list:

01. (Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previtte as) Groundtruther featuring John Medeski, Altitude [Thirsty Ear]

02. Dave Douglas Quintet, Live at the Jazz Standard [Greanleaf]

03. Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake, From the River to the Ocean [Thrill Jockey]

04. Exploding Star Orchestra, We Are All From Somewhere Else [Thrill Jockey]

05. David Murray's Black Saint Quartet, Sacred Ground [Justin Time]

I started this post planning to go into great detail about this list, and the mind is willing, but the body is weak tonight, so I'll make a pledge here to devote future posts to each of these records. Right now I'm going to bed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Rotation: Dracula

What? Dracula by Philip Glass, performed by Kronos Quartet

Why this? Why today? Check the date.

I realize this is the first TiOM post about classical music, and I also realize that, as a topic, classical – even contemporary classical – might be off-putting for some. Well, fair warning: I’m listening to a lot more of this stuff these days, especially string quartets, so expect more like-themed posts. The good news is that I’m starting with what amounts to pop-classical. It’s a film score written by a popular (if not populist) composer, and performed by the rockstars of the string quartet world.

Philip Glass, frequent film composer and reputed “minimalist,” was approached to provide a new score to a deluxe DVD of the classic Browning-Lugosi Dracula film. He assented, thank goodness, and soon the Kronos Quartet released this stunning music.

With a level of theatricality appropriate to Halloween, Glass gives us high tension strings – bowed, plucked, strummed, pummeled, cajoled. Ranging from just 40 seconds to four-plus minutes, these 26 pieces are perfect in their brevity, Glass’s “repetitive elements” held in check as a result of the length of film scenes. They are snapshots representing a grab-bag of musical possibilities. “Journey to the Inn” is all forward energy, hellhounds on your tail. “Excellent, Mr. Renfield” is rigid restraint, a fright withheld. “Lucy’s Bitten” is suitably erotic.

I don’t have the DVD, and I’ve never seen it. The closest I came was watching F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu on while listening to this on my Sansa, and that was plenty creepy. But the strength of this music is independent of its filmic roots, ranging as it does from Romantic gusto to more characteristically Glassian subtlety; it stands alone. It conjures this season perfectly. You can see the gargoyles grimacing in the coming dusk, feel the cold wind, hear the bare trees knocking together like bones. You can feel the Count’s presence in the hair raised on the back of your neck. But this doesn’t just come out in October – it’s far too beautiful to relegate to seasonal duty.

Do yourself a favour: forgo the drugstore Scary Sound FX CD and locate a copy of this. Don a cape and fangs, turn the stereo up loud, and wait for the doorbell to ring. The kids might not get it, but you’ll have a ball.

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chromatics, "In the City"

The single of the year - so far - has a video. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Lateral Intelligence"

ON THE TWIN and not-so-coincidental occasions of, firstly, the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Thelonious Sphere Monk, and second, a radio program dedicated to the compositions of this musical giant which I had the good fortune to co-host (alongside fellow Improvised Music Collective members Ron and Jim), let’s spare a few meagre paragraphs to consider the man’s monumental import.

That phrase – “lateral intelligence” – is one applied to Monk by Gary Giddins, and it seems to me a tidy summation of what I’m grasping at here, namely Monk’s unique sense of tone and harmony, his innate take on a tune, which seems to approach it in the conventional manner, only a few degrees to the left.

His stamp: notes and tempi peculiarly askew, imbued with an angularity, a cockeyed but unmistakably authentic way of looking at the world. The tradition (blues / gospel / stride / barrelhouse/ swing / bop) refracted. Melodic narrative as image carved from negative space, leaving the listener to infer the line, a task which, once one is familiar with the pianist’s dialect, he or she never fails to do. It seems that once shown the method, the particular way of squinting into this light, it stays with you for life. You don’t simply hear Monk for the first time, you get initiated (indoctrinated?).

The question of whether or not the term “genius” truly applies is misdirected. First off, as a query it’s problematic at the best of times; we’re almost certainly not dealing with the same definition. I have no clue what the man’s IQ might have been. But whether Monk was vastly more intelligent than 99.9% of composers, or just a uniquely strange individual is a distinction not worth debating. The irrefutable answer lies in both his modestly sized but incredibly important songbook, and in his peerless piano technique. At one point in time, the accepted line on Monk was that he was a hell of a composer but a speciously equipped player. Horseshit. Listen to his recordings of “Blue Monk,” or “Epistrophy.” Listen to “Rhythm-a-ning.” Listen to the piano alone. Surely those examples are enough to squelch debate. Such personalized invention, such offhand beauty and unmistakable individuality are rare in this world. Monk is like no one else. No one is Monk. To hear a half a chorus by his hand, as well as by his pen, is to know right off who you’re listening to.

He straddled several epochs of jazz, by virtue of his age, and as a result he was subject to a harsh progression of criticism. When he debuted, he was too far out. As time wore and jazz changed, he wasn’t far enough out. But the truth is that he was ever in an orbit all his own.

This clip shows Monk and his quartet playing his “Evidence.” It was that tune which I chose to use to illustrate the point that, while many play Monk compositions, nobody plays ‘em like Monk. After airing a version by Monk and a quartet similar to the one pictured above (Rouse on tenor again, with Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums) from the ’64 Monterey Jazz Festival, I played three other versions of the same tune: one by Monk’s pal Bud Powell and trio from 1962; another by Steve Lacy and Don Cherry from an album of Monk tunes (Evidence, 1961), and; a take on the tune by ex-Police-man Andy Summers, from a Monk tribute album he cut after that "English reggae" band called it quits, but before the current reunion tour. Those artists pull off their versions with varying degrees of success, but they all speak to the same essential fact: Thelonious Monk graced the world with a singular and endlessly playable catalog of compositions, but he didn’t spawn a legion of sound-alike players. His style is simply too distinctive, too idiosyncratic, too signature. Anyone attempting to sound just like Monk would be (and should be) shouted off stage.

Was his a self-conscious modernism? Did his off-kilter rhythms and plink-plonky phrasings (his wife, Nellie, called him Melodious Thunk) speak his thoughts on life in the Atomic Age? Did he mean the weather beaten romance tucked behind each and every note to express his anxiety concerning (or indeed to combat) all that uncertainty and dread?

I tend to think not. I think Monk saw himself as a musician in the tradition of James P. Johnson and a composer in the vein of Ellington, or perhaps, more modestly, Count Basie. He wrote tunes, many of them based on the changes or melodies of other songs. And he played them, using a technique which blended many of the sounds which preceded him. But he had such an innate individuality, a downright delightful strangeness about him that couldn’t help but come out in his playing. His sound was all his, and it surfaced at a pivotal moment in jazz, at the half-lit early dawn of bop. He was celebrated by those whose opinions mattered most, and derided by others, both of which stoked the fire in his belly. And by the time anybody outside of Harlem knew his name, he was forged in stone, fully formed and never to change, the musician we now know from our backward-looking vantage. The incomparable. The individual. Monk.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It Was a Strange Time in My Life **UPDATE

In the continuing vein of grab-bag (read: lazy) posts, presenting this week’s five most-accessed files on the TioM Sansa:

1) Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala – New quirkpop longplayer from Swede who, I think, now scores Volvo commercials (isn’t that him singing “The Wheels on the Bus” in that commercial where the couple in the stationwagon pick up the hikers?**). You’ll be hearing him in Starbucks real soon, but don’t worry, you’ll like him. He’s good. Like Stephen Merritt, but straight, And, okay, not quite as brilliant as Stephen Merritt.

2)Beirut, The Flying Club Cup – I think I like Beirut for the same reason I like travel writing. Okay, yes, I can see getting tired of the schtick after a while. But not yet. So far it’s a love affair.

3)Archie Shepp and the New York Contemporary 5, s/t – Tunefully skronky. My wife hates this stuff.

4)Thelonious Monk, Live at Monterey 1964 – I’ve been listening to this in preparation for tomorrow night’s show (plug!) wherein several of us will play both Monk performances and others performing Monk compositions. To state the obvious: Monk’s own version of “Evidence” is vastly superior to the one by, say, Andy Summers.

5)Sam Cooke, Live at the Copa – An old standby that recently saw duty as background moodsetter to a Thanksgiving weekend brunch at the TioM HQ. Lovely.

(**UPDATE - It's not Lekman in that commercial; it's Stephen Merritt! I mistook the teacher for the student. How gauche.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Miscellany: Four Items


The author will attempt to expunge from his mind, clearinghouse-style, a variety of topics which have been circulating but which, for reasons ranging from sloth to genuine time-consuming industry, he has yet to address in posts on this blog.

i) Books on Tape
ii) Caribou, Andorra
iii) “Radio Nowhere”
iv) That Nissan Commercial

It is not expected that a coherent conclusion will be reached, but rather a series of observations leading inevitably to a sense of What was the point? being aroused in the reader. But the author will feel better for the effort.

i) Books on Tape

I suppose that without thinking much about it I had long harboured the belief that books on tape were the exclusive dominion of long-haul truck drivers and the elderly and poor-of-sight. My one shining moment of inclusiveness came a number of years ago when my local library had a well-loved copy of the audiocassette version of Don Delillo’s Underworld as read by estimable character actor Dennis Boutsikaris (you know him even if you don’t know you know him), and I fell into the pleasing routine of having Misters Delillo and Boutsikaris escort me to and from work (it was a 30 minute commute, but this being Underworld, the routine lasted several weeks). But that experience aside, I have tended to hew close to those original prejudices.

But a few weeks back, my wife discovered eAudioBooks made available through the website of that same library, and began to download some of her favourites. I was intrigued. And then an email arrived from eMusic. “We have audiobooks,” it said, “You should try them” (or words to that effect, with bright and flashing images to punch up the message). Unencumbered by a physical body, these digital readings are very appealing. Load them on the MP3 player and carry them everywhere. Perfect.

Mind you, I sampled a few before the appeal really took hold. I am wary of the experience in some cases because, for example, do I really want to hear Brad Pitt’s voice in my head every time I read Cormac McCarthy? The answer is no, no I don’t.

But Alan Cumming reading Michael Ondaatje? That I can get behind. And thus have I gone to bed for several days now with Anil’s Ghost in my ears.

ii) Caribou, Andorra

Caribou – formerly Manitoba, legally Dan Snaith – has made a great record. It’s a pop record, but pop with its prefixes (psych- and synth-) in perfect proportion. It’s like the first 25 seconds of “Caring is Creepy” crossbred with the Human League. Or the Zombies making eyes at Depeche Mode. Or the Strawberry Alarm Clock slipping something in Gary Numan’s drink. Give it the chance and it’ll provide the soundtrack to a childhood you never actually had, a perpetual Californian Saturday afternoon, the lawn pocked by warm shimmery bubbles of sunlight pouring through oak trees, your bike in perfect working order, Adidas shorts snug, hightops loosely laced, lying on your back and feeling the earth spin beneath you.

iii) “Radio Nowhere”

The former Miss Imperial describes Springsteen’s new single as “like Catherine Wheel, only, um, older,” and for that I blame Brendan O’Brien, whose production has made an unnecessarily crunchy and stringy mess of many of the Boss’s recent projects. Has he done the same for the as-yet unreleased Magic? Maybe so, but the song underlying the production is, in this case, prime third-act Bruce, catchy and solemn and yet life-affirming. Quick to remind you that, brother, it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

iv) That Nissan commercial

Finally: I really love that Nissan commercial (inasmuch as any person can truly love a television commercial for a car) with the time lapse shot of the boy staring in the window of the Datsun, which morphs into a Nissan as the boy grows and the city around him grows and changes (alas, youtube and iFilm couldn't help me provide the video). I’m particularly drawn to the music (which is kind of Caribou-like, now that I think about it). Anybody who can help me out and tell me what it is will be hereafter and in perpetuity considered my fact-checking cuz.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mysterious Traveller

Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

Keyboardist, composer and member of some incredibly important bands, including the Miles Davis group that recorded In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Oh, and Weather Report, of course.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In Rotation: The Elements

What? The Elements by Joe Henderson and a cast of luminaries, notably Alice Coltrane, Charlie Haden and Michael White (who also features prominently on what is possibly my favourite recording of all time).

Why this? Why today? The short answer? Because it was piled on the table of marked-down last-chance imports that the folks at CD Warehouse couldn’t otherwise sell, next to all the Manic Street Preachers maxi-singles and eurodance compilations. Best guess is that somebody had it special ordered, then balked at the price.

But this gets a second (and third, and…) listen thanks to its heady blend of earth and air and fire and water. I know that comes off a bit New Age-y, but I stand by it. Henderson’s always had a foot on the jukejoint’s earthen floor, and Alice Coltrane’s on hand to lend the proceedings a celestial vibe. Any one of these players has the chops to bring fire when it’s called for. And Haden’s bass is like deep water. You see, it’s elemental.

Like rock, The New Thing arrived in the ‘70s, looked around and asked, “Now what?” Thinking Miles had found the true way, a lot of good people fell victim to bad fusion. Others welcomed and worked toward assimilating the new European influence. A third stream pushed forward in the direction Coltrane had been leaning when he died. Count this among that lot. It’s a little bit Pharoah Sanders, a little Electric Byrd.

Everyone’s a critic, of course, and in this case the critics aren’t kind. My usual resources – namely All Music and Cook & Morton – have very little to say in favour of this record. “[H]ardly useful employment for one of the premier jazz improvisers,” says the Penguin. “Applesauce,” I say. Alright, maybe there’s a touch too much reverb on Henderson’s tenor during “Fire,” and closer “Earth” has some very dated moments. Consider Kenneth Nash’s narration: “Peace… love… hope… time… children of the soil rejoice, for tomorrow was… yesterday never is…” That sort of stuff. But then the drummer gets a little funky, and White starts to lay some shit down, and Joe starts squawking like he’s looking for a bar to walk on. It’s right about then that your mind makes the Earth, Wind & Fire connection.

It’s also worth listening for the crazy sounds on “Water.” Henderson makes his horn lick like some Sonny Sharrock guitar run and the discombobulated listener hunts in vain for the Tzadik logo on the liners.

The Elements wins my favour for some serious grooves, as well as some fine individual moments. But don’t misunderstand, it’s not my favourite work by Joe. No, that’s in an entirely different vein, one that probably comes more easily to mind when folks think about J.H. It’s a hard bop thing, and it comes on a record by the one and only Grant Green, entitled Idle Moments, a Blue Note side from 1963. On the somnambulant (and aptly titled) title track, the whole band - guitar and vibes included - shuffles along like an overpaid rhythm section for nearly eight minutes before Henderson enters, breathily, and suddenly you have the image in your mind of a group stalling for time until the horn drags his ass into the club and up onto the bandstand. But then he spends the next three minutes stealing your girl, and you can’t blame her for leaving.

But this? This is nothing like that.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Dedicated to You: Tom Sawyer

It comes as no surprise that it is now standard practice at ballparks across the land to bombard fans with music at every opportunity (I blame basketball and MTV), and this includes the moment a player is introduced before an at bat. Typically, players on the home team enjoy the pleasure of hearing music they themselves have chosen. I imagine that once the team arrives up north from spring training, the stadium sound guy or a team representative goes around and polls the players. Usually you hear the same song for a given player all year long, every at bat, April to September, and in many cases the choices are fairly predictable. Latin players are largely smitten with Latin music, while Americans, both black and white, tend to favour hip hop, with the occasional nod to metal for some of the white boys (Metallica is a favourite, perhaps inspired by the near-nightly sight of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera charging onto the field to the strains of “Enter Sandman”). There are exceptions of course, but they are few and far between.

That’s why I appreciate Ottawa Lynx first baseman Gary Burnham – besides his ability to knock in runs, his no nonsense, head-down style (he’s a throwback, like Jim Thome with fewer homeruns), I appreciate Burnham’s leftfield taste in music. All this season, Ottawa’s first year as the highest team in the Philadelphia Phillies chain, and probably their last season in Ottawa (read about that here), I have enjoyed the moment Burnham comes to bat, usually with runners on, and usually with the sense that he will deliver them home. Because as Burnham’s name is called, and he knocks the ring-weights off his bat, then strides toward the plate from the on-deck circle, swinging his great bat, looking at the head of it, loosening and tightening his grip, eyeing the pitcher, the music blaring over the stadium loudspeakers, music presumably chosen by him, is “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. I love that. So I'm dedicating "Tom Sawyer" to Burnham and every other guy who didn't get the September call-up.

A secondary joy, beyond getting a feel for your favourite players’ taste in music (or glaring lack thereof), is the fun the sound guys have with visiting players, who do not enjoy the luxury of their own theme music. Favourite recent example: when Syracuse’s John Schneider came to the plate, the music? The theme from the Dukes of Hazzard, of course.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

In Rotation: No Wave

What? No Wave by the Music Revelation Ensemble (James Blood Ulmer, guitar; David Murray, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Amin Ali (bass); Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums)).

Why this? Why today? I’ve got a great network of music lovers surrounding me. Together we travel the spaceways, listening, directing, suggesting, lending… When I announced a few months back that I wanted to spend the summer doing a series of programs on the estimable David Murray, whose work I recognized as significant but which nevertheless constituted something of a blind spot in my view of music history (and present), fellow IMCer Ron stepped right in and offered to lend me anything I might need. So after a long weekend I returned to work to find waiting for me a box containing no fewer than 25 CDs featuring Murray and a note that said, “Keep them all summer.”

No Wave was among them, an early recording by the MRE, a collective which eventually came under the de facto leadership of its longest standing member, James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer’s a rare cat, a free music staple who calls down Hendrix and long-dead bluesmen, then invokes their influence to produce a sound more horn-like than guitaresque. His discography is spotty, frankly, but there are some gems, and this is one of them. There’s a little bit of Fred Frith in his sound here, like Blood’s been playing bumper pool with him in the basement rec room, and maybe that’s Arto Lindsay peeking in the window. Could be that John Lurie’s gonna drop in later, too…

The point, if there is one, is that this record is perfectly titled. No Wave is a secret underground lair where the forces of skronk, blues, funk and R&B gather to plot their next move in the destruction of safe music. If DNA and The Contortions were provocative, this was all-out blasphemy. And no, you can’t dance to it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

My Favorite Things (or: What a Difference Roy Haynes Makes)

I don’t know just how many versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” John Coltrane recorded, but conservatively speaking it numbers in the dozens, the majority of them performed by the “classic quartet” of Coltrane on saxophone (soprano), McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, but several versions do feature different lineups, too. The song held a deep fascination for Coltrane; it was a measuring stick for his mastery of the soprano, for his bands’ cohesiveness and communication; and for listeners, it provides insight into the development of the sound John William Coltrane heard in his head. It varies from the buoyant near-pop hit originally recorded and released on the album of the same name (Atlantic, 1960) to the brutal and coarse assault of 1967’s The Olatunji Concert, recorded shortly before his death. In between, there are shorter versions, and marathon versions with lengthy bass solos. I probably have a dozen or more iterations in my collection, and it seems every time I buy another Coltrane release (which I do with alarming regularity), my wife jokingly asks, “Does he do ‘My Favorite Things?’” It’s an apt question, for what can be the appeal of hearing the same song over and over and over again by the same musician? The answer is that it is always and never the same.

The dervish-like sound of that soprano horn is a constant, as is the obvious commitment, skill and passion of the musicians involved. But in almost every other respect, they are unique. The sound, the feel - there is always some detail which differs in the telling. The 1960 Atlantic is joyful and breathless; the nearly hour-long Japanese performance is grueling but rewarding; the above-mentioned Olatunji version is harrowing and raw; the Half Note recording sounds more exotic than most others. Interestingly, there are two versions on the latest live Coltrane CD release (and I sincerely hope they keep uncovering/repackaging/recombining this stuff), fittingly titled My Favorite Things: Coltrane Live at Newport. The CD is a compilation of Trane’s performances at that revered Rhode Island festival in 1963 and ’65 with his quartet. What’s noteworthy is that the two performances feature slightly different lineups – the classic group in ’65, but with veteran drummer Roy Haynes filling in for the, um, “ill” Elvin Jones in 1963.

What the 1963 version makes plain is the exact nature and overall importance of Jones’ contribution to the quartet’s sound. There is no question that Coltrane’s horn is the lynchpin of the whole, this music machine which, even at it’s most unrestrained and out, retains an elegiac sound - the sonic embodiment of the leader’s spiritual quest. But Jones’ high-hat, his momentum, the series of mini-crescendos he produces, are a sizeable contributor to that brimstone-scented religiosity. Without them, the band is a different entity altogether.

The 1963 version with Haynes on drums is lighter, skippier, than most others. It has a snap generally not present with this group (and that is most certainly not a criticism, simply an observation), a hard-bop oomph as opposed to a church music bombast. Haynes leads the group down different paths, producing a sound which suggests this band might’ve had a career as a supremely professional club act, had they chosen to pursue that end.

Jones is irreplaceable. Without him, the Classic Quartet would’ve been a different band. Haynes is himself a consummately skilled drummer, a true great, but what would A Love Supreme have sounded like with him and not Jones in the chair? The 1963 Newport performance is stunning and wondrous, and singular in the panoply of Coltrane’s performances of the song. But its greater importance is in removing one of the legendary group’s key elements and, in doing so, confirming that element’s significance to the band’s astonishing body of work.

I will forever be transfixed by John Coltrane’s renderings of “My Favorite Things,” a warhorse of a standard that would prove the artist’s longstanding obsession. It was his Leaves of Grass, the thing to which he returned again and again, tweaking, further exploring, revising, plumbing, editing. This latest available version has added a new dimension to my appreciation of the song, and of the band which performed it so many times.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Freedom Now

R.I.P. Max Roach, 1924 - 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

In Praise of John McDonald

This post is in no way about music, unless I decide to reel off some purple prose about the rhythm and musicality of a baseball player’s defensive prowess, which I won’t do. It is rather a sincere appreciation for Toronto shortstop John McDonald, who routinely makes the impossible (or the highly unlikely) appear routine.

He’s not to be confused with the scores of other John M(a)cDonalds out there. Not Sir John A. MacDonald, reputed lush and first prime minister of Canada, and not John D. MacDonald, author of such colourful classics as Dress her in Indigo and The Turquoise Lament (which, by the way, would make a wonderful/terrible band name).

He’s John J. McDonald, a much-journeyed infielder who finally seems to have found a place on the left side of the Rogers Centre turf. Granted he doesn’t swing much of a stick, but he probably saves a run or two a game (maybe baseball needs the equivalent of hockey’s plus/minus stat?). And he’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Diving stops, throws from his knees, short flips to Aaron Hill at second, an effortless grace while racing to cover the bag, and all of it with an air of humility, a sort of blue collar, put-your-head-down-and-do-it work ethic. No flash, no boastfulness, no trash. Just good baseball.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In the Jingle-Jangle Morning

Magnet (“Real Music Alternatives”) magazine recently arrived via rural free delivery, featuring Spoon as cover boys, an article on the one of a kind Kramer, and one on jangle-pop legend Mitch Easter.

I love jangle, especially a couple of epochal albums produced by Easter, R.E.M.’s Murmur and Reckoning. I also love Magnet, and the Easter article is up to their usual high standards – informative, well-written, etc. But maybe the most entertaining part is the revelation of Easter’s first few, pre-Let’s Active bands’ names:

  • The Loyal Opposition
  • The Imperturbable Teutonic Gryphon
  • Sacred Irony

    In reading those band names, I am reminded of a high school friend who played bass while wearing a crown of thorns, and who named his band Bramble Shreve. It should be noted that BS were anything but jangle.

    My point is that, whether you play Swedish death metal, proggy jam stuff or pure jangle, there is perhaps a finite and dwindling supply of good band names.

  • Friday, August 10, 2007

    Dedicated to You: Take This Job and Shove It

    Dear CEO,

    I hope I never see you again. Here's a little Johnny Paycheck in your honour. Turn it up loud, okay?

    Yours, etc.


    Wednesday, August 8, 2007

    Dedicated to You: Atlanta Blues

    There are tears today in Atlanta, figuratively speaking, as Hank Aaron’s homer total slides to number two on the all-time list. I am, as many are, conflicted over this. No doubt, Bonds is a skilled player. There are few who can put wood on the ball the way he can, and there is as yet no smoking gun as regards his apparent steroid use. Even if there were, it would reflect a graver indictment on baseball itself then on a man who took advantage of MLB’s blind eye as it wooed fans back into the fold after the Great Robbery of 1994. But Bonds is unquestionably a far less classy man than Henry Aaron, and his ascendancy reflects something the game has lost.

    The question nags at me: how will I share this with my daughter?

    And poor Hank. What must they have had on him to make him record that message? So to Hammerin’ Hank, I dedicate Sara Martin’s “Atlanta Blues,” and with it a wish that time produces a new home run king, someone with Aaron’s carriage and good grace, someone I can admire alongside my daughter.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    Young Folks

    What a wonderful long weekend – sunny, warm, easy. I celebrated my 31st birthday with family, and it was good. My wife, my daughter and my parents celebrated with me, as did my niece and nephew and their mother, who were in town from the coast. We went to a ballgame, ate hotdogs and cotton candy, watched the home team win it in the bottom of the 9th, and then returned to the scene of my upbringing for food and fun. The kids played and laughed and fairly fawned over the babe while the adults looked on contentedly.

    And imagine my surprise when, in the middle of the proceedings, my sunny 15 year old niece began to hum a tune I recognized. I turned, flung an accusatory finger at her and said, “Peter Bjorn and John!”

    Friday, August 3, 2007


    Four a.m. thunderstorms don’t require pop music soundtracks to render them dramatic or emotion-stirring. Music would be redundant. Nevertheless, and in that indomitable spirit of unnecessary redundancy which tends to inspire scenarios wherein significant life moments, missed the first time around, are reenacted for the camera, this morning’s exuberant sound and light show had me thinking: if this were an album, it would be this one...

    Wednesday, August 1, 2007

    In Rotation: Scream, Dracula, Scream!

    What? Scream, Dracula, Scream! by Rocket From the Crypt.

    Why this? Why today? If you have to ask, you’ll never know. RFTC defined swagger – they owned it. RFTC were far cooler than you’ll ever be. RFTC sweat motor oil and tequila. Head RFTCer John Reis would remove the toothpick from his maw just long enough to growl and spit and claw his way through 14 sides of aural scorn.

    And yes, it depresses the hell out of me that this record came out 12 years ago. Just like last night when CC and I got a little weirded out by the fact that Daydream Nation is now TWENTY YEARS OLD.

    Monday, July 30, 2007

    Dedicated to You: Work Song

    In honour (or is that sombre acknowledgement?) of my wonderful wife CC’s return to work, after a year of raising our most perfect and beguiling daughter, I present a musical dedication to CC.

    Duke Ellington composed a “Work Song,” as did Nat Adderley. My personal favourite is the Charles Mingus tune by that name, which manages the not insignificant trick of sounding at once slinky and downtrodden. But I have a feeling that CC would prefer Adderley’s “Work Song” as performed by ex-Maniac Nathalie Merchant, so I’m sending that one out to her.

    It can’t be an easy thing, putting your life on hold and completely revamping the way you do things in order to give birth to and then raise to toddlerhood a lively little girl, and then to put all that aside and reenter the work force. Today, surely the cruelest Monday of all, I know that CC is feeling a little less “Whistle While You Work,” and a little more aligned with the work song tradition of field hollers and the quasi-musical chants of chain-gangs.

    If it means anything, CC, your efforts are greatly appreciated.