August 26, 2009
HOLY MUSICIAN, BATMAN…
“Okay swingers, now that we’ve ditched the squares, hang on, ’cause Jackie’s gonna do it to you like you’ve never been done before!”
-Jerry Lincoln, liner notes of Jackie Shane Live
I tend, in my writing about music, to focus on the vocalist and to delve into biography. I try to remind myself to conjure up the nuance of a drum brush or a chord struck on the Hammond organ at just the right moment, but it always comes back to the frontman. I like instrumental music, and a perfect hook or nasty bassline can drive me wild. It’s just that when someone has not only a unique sounding voice and interesting phrasing, but brings a wildly fascinating persona to their song, it becomes that much more relatable. It’s what I always loved about listening to cover after cover of the same old soul song, driven by the vocalists, each with their own inflection and character; each with their own lament. And it’s why I always figured that guts and attitude can translate into excellent musicianship: done right, they have the potential to push a piece of music or a whole body of work into the realm of mythology. And no one had guts and attitude like Jackie Shane.
More on Jackie Shane
August 19, 2009
HOLY MUSICIAN, BATMAN…
No, you aren’t reading a mislabeled edition of “Hate To Admit It, But…” This article is being written with absolutely no pleasurable guilt and not even a shred of ironic detachment. I’m here to discuss the drummer Phil Collins, who made his name playing and singing with the prog-rock-turned-pop group Genesis while selling boatloads of albums and singles as a solo artist. Not only am I a fan of Collins’s work (stretching back to when I was a kid, and therefore had no ability to “know better”), but I think he is the ultimate example of the rock drummer-as-auteur. Of course, considering his weakness for melodramatic ballads and longstanding willingness to use drum machines, many would say he’s more of a Michael Bay kind of auteur than a Wes Anderson. This is fair, especially since I haven’t been inspired to listen to anything Collins has put out since 1989 – apart from his hits compilation – due to the newer music’s generic blandness.
Nonetheless, Collins is undeniably a phenomenal drummer. His ‘70s work with Genesis and the jazz-rock group Brand X shows his ability to maneuver in weird-ass prog time signatures and still bring a groove to the proceedings.
More on Phil Collins
August 12, 2009
HOLY MUSICIAN, BATMAN…
My most enlightening, awe-struck moment of musical inspiration during my teenage years involved hearing “Psycho Killer” on the radio. Inarguably, the song is greatness at its purest. For me, Talking Heads’ abstract lyrics, minimal instrumental parts, and distinctive style changed my perspective on artistic intention, relaying the “less is more” mantra music teachers often preach. Pushing technical showmanship aside for a greater piece of music, drummer Chris Frantz was especially notable in taking this approach.
Talking Heads didn’t just have a rhythm section – they were a rhythm section. Their songs are like logical yet inventive collections of rhythmic cells played by each contributing instrument. Even David Byrne’s singing usually had a more rhythmic than melodic quality to it, often repeating the same note during verses. Their music was, however, especially enlivened by Frantz’s drum set. Frantz was the unwavering, steady backbone that fueled the Heads’ unrelenting energy. His beats were often basic, but quirky and a notable part of the band’s overall sound.
More on Chris Frantz, Talking Heads
August 5, 2009
HOLY MUSICIAN, BATMAN…
“Larry Williams, Johnny Watson, Sam Cooke, Joe Tex. All my good friends are gone. I guess I’ve been left behind to turn out the lights.”
- from the liner notes of Hannibalism
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the relevance of old school soul to today’s music and nightlife. Walk into a reeling spasmodic party where DJs Jonathan Toubin or Josh Styles are spinning wild soul 45s all night, or peruse the Norton reissue section at Academy Records, or listen to the banged-up remnants of doo-wop on your latest Black Lips or King Khan & BBQ Show album, and you might agree with Shirley Ellis: “Baby it’s time to soul time!”
You could argue that rock ’n rollers have always appreciated soul music, or that I’m just focused on folks with tastes similar to mine, but when you overhear a couple of young girls at the bar in Greenpoint bitching about being “sick of all this soul music everywhere,” you can assume there’s some sort of resurgence going on. And I ain’t talking about silky Aretha or buttery Sam Cooke songs, either. I’m talking about the real nitty gritty: hip huggin’, jerkin’ the dog, and shakin’ and vibe-a-ratin’ music. I’m talking about King Coleman, Andre Williams, and the Mighty Hannibal, baby.
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July 29, 2009
Willie Nelson is too complex a figure to break down satisfactorily in the limited space normally allotted here, so this week I am just going to attempt a brief tribute. After all, this is the man whose career has lasted around 50 years at this point, and who has produced a vast body of work as a songwriter (including Patsy Cline’s classic “Crazy”), a strong selection of offbeat concept albums (such as Yesterday’s Wine, Phases and Stages, and his breakthrough Red Headed Stranger), plus dozens of recordings of other people’s songs, either borne from his fascinations (the pop standards on Stardust; the reggae songs on Countryman) or indifferently included on albums by commercially calculating producers (pretty much half the stuff Willie has recorded since about 1980). This is the man whose jazzy approach to vocals, freely altering the rhythm of his vocal melodies, was famous for rankling some of Nashville’s bigwigs and made him country music’s answer to Frank Sinatra.
But there’s something to which only the most diehard of Willie Nelson fans pay much attention, and that is his awesome guitar playing. Not only can Willie whip up a finger-fracturing guitar run that would make even the most expert shredders break a sweat, he does it without seeming like a witless showoff or a soulless technician. His fingerwork has as much personality as his singing (being similarly influenced by jazz), as evidenced by Willie’s beautiful cover of Django Reinhardt’s “Où Es-Tu, Mon Amour?” on his stellar 1998 album Teatro. It is only in rare moments like this, or with the “Matador” and “Mariachi” tracks on his 1996 album Spirit, that he lets his guitar truly take center stage. It remains special pretty much everywhere else too – even in the way he emphatically plucks the notes of a classic ballad like “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” (from Red Headed Stranger) to give emotional punctuation to his quavering vocals.
Phosphorescent recently released a Willie Nelson covers album, To Willie, that highlights the depth and accessibility of Willie’s songwriting by putting those familiar words in a new mouth. But the album also ends up tipping its hat to his brilliance as a musician by choosing to set these vocals to arrangements not too different from the classic originals. Considering the musician in question, that seems like the smart thing to do.
by Justin Remer
July 22, 2009
The subtle yet explosively bare piano musings of Rune Mølgaard, keyboardist for the Danish electronic band Efterklang, grabbed my attention while I listened to the five-member group recently. Efterklang produces a large, experimental post-rock sound that possesses elements of classical music in its composition and instrumentation. Mølgaard’s minimalist approach to the piano, bred from modern classical roots, can come as a breathtaking surprise during Efterklang’s grand collages of sound, or serve as the sonic brilliance in their simpler songs.
I’m drawn to Efterklang’s music for its dramatic character. Dark masterpieces like “Maison de Réflexion” or “Horseback Tenors” resemble film music, evoking romantic images of battle or travel through remote landscapes. Throughout their most recent record, 2007’s Parades, it’s Mølgaard’s simple, organic piano that grounds the listener after dense passages of strings, brass, electronic sounds, synth, harmonizing voices, and heavy percussion. In the album’s opening track, “Polygyne,” a reverberating single-note piano part breaks an intensifying build of percussion, cacophonous saxophones, and atmospheric noise, replacing the saxophones’ melody while the noise scatters and harmonized vocals pierce through. As the vocals die out, the last several seconds of the song showcase a repeating arpeggiated piano chord. Similarly, “Mimeo” follows the complex “Horseback Tenors” and retains its dark mood, but it’s contrastingly simplistic with its two-note piano solo. In “Illuminant,” the organic sound of piano brings a nice contrast to the ambient effect created by the atmospheric vocals and sustaining synth sounds. And as “Maison de Réflexion” progresses from intensity to a subdued middle section, sparse, single notes in the piano emphasize the contrast.
More on Rune Mølgaard, Efterklang
July 15, 2009
I sometimes wonder what a composite of all my favorite musical moments would sound like: bent strings, blue notes, horns squonking at the chorus, vocals cracking at the bridge. I love that instant of shuddering tension, when a song teeters on the edge. I’m talking about that one note that you wait for, that one phrase that curls the toes and makes you screw your face up real tight. Would it be possible to sustain that tension for a whole song? Would you want to? Half the allure is that it’s fleeting, no? I’ve thought about this a lot lately while listening to The Seeds, because on “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine,” Sky Saxon somehow manages to walk that ledge. There is something in his voice that grabs hold of that blue note, man-on-the-brink tension and just keeps holding.
Sky “Sunlight” Saxon was born Richard Marsh on August 20 sometime in the last century – no one can seem to agree on the year – and he died on June 25, 2009. Though we’ll remember him for his work with L.A. garage rockers and psychedelic monsters The Seeds, in his lifetime Saxon fronted more than ten bands. In the early sixties, he made soda jerk doo-wop as the frontman for Richie March and the Hood, and with Sky Saxon and The Soul Rockers he sang pop that was so beach-party and square that he could’ve been the next Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon. But instead he formed The Seeds, who released their self-titled debut in 1966. Lester Bangs – ever the rain cloud on parade day – said that Saxon sang “moronic” lyrics in a “trashy” imitation of Mick Jagger. The Seeds only ever had one Top 40 hit with “Pushin’ Too Hard,” and the original lineup disbanded within a few short years. But if Saxon never snagged the general public with his nasal wail, he sure tapped into something in those Southern California kids, something bristling beneath that blanket of desert smog. They were on the brink too, ready to plunge into the Day-Glo swamp of psychedelia.
More on Sky Saxon
July 8, 2009
The first time I heard Joan Armatrading, it was last year while watching an old episode of Saturday Night Live on DVD. She performed a song called “Love and Affection” that I quite liked, so I decided to find out more. I got a two-CD anthology from the library called, appropriately, Love and Affection, that covers 1975-1983, which seems to be widely considered Armatrading’s prime period. From there, I’ve gone on to listen to about half of her recorded output.
Armatrading is hard to pin down exactly. The constant that ties her work together is the subject of love – about ninety percent of her songs are about the good and bad of male-female relationships – and the emotions she is able to wring from that topic. But rather than seeming like a one-note performer, Armatrading creates music that is undeniably eclectic. On her earliest recordings and also in her recent work, the music sounds very folky and jazzy, sometimes bluesy. Other times it’s unashamedly pop-rock. Usually it bears a Caribbean influence, and sometimes it’s straight-up reggae.
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