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.