Friday, 12 August 2011
Monday, 25 July 2011
If I played this album for someone I could never confidently expect an appreciative reaction. Even to a long-time convert like myself, the risibly cheesy lyrics and melodies still sound strange. It's appeal is difficult to describe to the skeptical... It certainly isn't anything to do with kitsch or irony. It might always be a puzzle to me why I revere it as highly as Pet Sounds or Surf's Up
Along with the stopgap release 15 Big Ones (1976) before it, this album bucks a trend of developing aesthetic maturity in the Beach Boys discography. Dennis and Carl had grown considerably in significance in the years 1968-1973, and new members Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplain, for their short time as Beach Boys on the consecutive albums 'Carl and The Passions: So Tough' and 'Holland', brought some refreshing hipness to the band's woefully unfunky sound. Owing more to Neil Young than Brian Wilson, 'Holland' (1973) stands as a true classic, but the public remained indifferent. Now that Brian was largely absent from their output, they were contemporaneously viewed as has-beens, even at the artistic height of their songwriting maturity.
Then came 15 Big Ones and Love You, which had the significant selling-point of boasting the words "produced by Brian Wilson" on the reverse; not seen on a Beach Boys album since Pet Sounds (1966). 15 Big Ones offered half an LP of 50s favourites, recreated with tongue affectionately lodged in cheek, and another half of original Beach Boys compositions. 'Had to Phone Ya' and 'It's OK' - the best of this category - also harked back, but instead to to the naive lyrics and carefree sounds of Wilson's own early songwriting career. One track, 'Just Once in My Life' (a cover), however, demonstrated the emotional punch the band was still fully capable of delivering, and that would be delivered with much greater sucess and concentration on Love You.
Love You's side one is utterly ridiculous. From the stomping synths opening 'Let Us Go On This Way' to the exuberant honky tonk of 'Mona', both the music and lyrics are best described as "well-oh-my-oh-gosh-oh-gee" ('Roller Skating Child'). With the heavy beat and bombastic synths/brass, it's resembles neither the barber shop surf-rock of their early days, the grandeur and sophistication of the Pet Sounds/ SMiLE era, nor the more mature musical developments on the Brother label. After years of searching for an image that would recapture the public, this album stands utterly naked of pretense. Without Tony Asher's philosophical elegance or Van Dyke Parks's inscrutable, verbose turns of phrase, Brian Wilson's lyrics honestly reflect an endearing simplicity in terms of subject. Whereas Carl Wilson's superb song of Imperialism, 'The Trader' (Holland) felt overcooked, lyrically, Brain here does not reach for poignancy at all. Instead he sticks to familiar topics of cars and girls. As he sings on 'Good Time': maybe it won't last but what do we care, my baby and I just want a good time
Side two is where things get interesting (it is a pity that this distinction is something lost on CD/media players). The opener, 'Solar System' is a strangely haunting one, and makes for a clear departure from side one, lyrically. With his quakey croon, Brian sings, in a wide-eyed tone, lines like "Saturn has rings all around it / I searched the skies and I found it" or "Solar system / Rings of wisdom". Combined with it's bright and carnivalesque instrumentation there is a child-like awe at these mysterious bodies. Similarly content are Mike Love and Carl Wilson's lead vocals on 'Airplane'. Both tracks share a sense of calm and hopeful wonder at the world.
'The Night Was So Young', following unexpectedly from the hilarious 'Ding Dang', is the strongest piece of songwriting on the album, and a shift from the naive contentment of its two preceding tracks. It's long, sustained chords and delicate vocals on the verses create a meditative, window-gazing mood ("Skies turning grey / There's clouds overhead / I'm still not asleep / In my bed") whilst the chorus breaks out in longing declarations like "is somebody going to tell me why she has to lie?". The arrangement is minimal and swampy, giving foreground to some simple but stirring harmonies on the chorus. The subtle mournfulness of the "doo doo doo doo doo"s and tasteful string-bends add much to the track with great economy. The following track, 'I'll Bet He's Nice' - sung by Dennis with a gravelly emotion verging on menace - is an unrequited love song for an ex, now with another guy. It shares the lovelorn mood of 'The Night Was So Young', but with a bitter edge that is only thinly veiled behind the playful electronic keys and nursery-rhyme melody. It features a gorgeous middle-eight sung by Carl.
The album ends hopefully with the tracks 'I Wanna Pick You Up', 'Airplane' and 'Love is a Woman'. The first features Dennis's gruff vocals on lead well-suited to the song's subject of father-infant love. 'Airplane' would have given a nice image of travelling and open-ended anticipation to end the album on, especially with its soothing, contented mood and sudden giddy coda of "can't wait to see her face", but the final track, 'Love is a Woman' ends the album on a big, brassy, sing-along send-off that is either cheesy or sarcastic - I'm not sure. It's enormously fun in the same way that the best tracks on 15 Big Ones are.
Saturday, 16 July 2011
Saturday, 28 May 2011
Miraculously, someone on the internet once went to the trouble of digitizing an old VHS home-recording of a 1987 Ry Cooder concert and uploading it some two decades after it was first broadcast on the UK's Channel 4. A fine human that person was. As a fan, I thought I'd do my small duty and help share the joy.
Tuesday, 29 March 2011
Amongst the many glimpsed images on the album are odd turns that might seem like diversions or dead ends alongside the central plot. This plot involves McCarthyist denunciation of local leaders in opposition to the proposed plans ('Don't Call Me Red'), the coming of the 'dozers ('It's Just Work For Me'), the soliloquy of the real estate contractor ('In My Town') and the eventual erection of the baseball stadium ('3rd Base Dodger Stadium') on the bulldozed grounds. This plotline grows surprisingly defined, the closer you listen, but so also it becomes apparent that the tangential asides are essential to the kind of big picture offered.
In the sublime cover art, a goofy, B-Movie UFO hovers alongside the real machine rolling over a real community. The image reflects something about the album's broadly human - not merely morbid - focus. On the album, mocking songs about the coinbox-carrying Chinese laundryman ('Chinito Chinito'); sailors battling Pachucos ('Onda Callejera'); honourable sportsmen denounced ('Corrido de Boxeo'); concerned mothers and reckless daughters ('Muy Fifif'); local heartbreakers ('3 Cool Cats'); the politics of dance trends ('Los Chucos Suaves'), and UFO sightings ('El UFO Cayó') all share equal importance in the portrayal of the town as the story of its destruction. Descriptions of the album's concept can sound sour and mournful, but this is a compeltely unfit description of the music.
Chavéz Ravine is a work of anger, but its overall impression is one of affecting humanity. Cooder, and the remaining Ravine musicians he could track down, rebuild and remodel the community the "'dozers" destroyed. Of Cooder's trilogy of historical concept albums, this first collection of songs is by far the most warm and moving. With less talented musicians, it would be a polemical history set to music, however the album is foremost a suite of living landscapes - with the sense of melancholy remaining an undertone, and not seeping anachronistically into the music. I mean to say, that this album is a tribute to the extinct community first, and a story of the town's destruction second.
That said, it's with a stingly undercurrent of bitterness that Cooder writes the lyrics to the album's most tender, yet most politically bold and unsettling song, 'In My Town'. Under the persona of the real estate contractor, the lyrics are a destainful monologue of an idealist visionary looking down upon "old town, crook town, wop town, and spic town / Black town, shack town, and hick town / From my room". However, he sees "the future going" his way: "Can’t you see a 50-story building / Where a palm tree used to be?". From this wistful opening (his racism curiously accompanied by delicate keys) the song shifts tone to his hatred of the obstacles to his vision - the community. The community is a pack of "commie rats"; a nuisance to be replaced by "cement mixers" and "50-story buildings": "a town that's flat", "a town that's clean". The narrator's conception is that land is not a place where people build lives, but create profits; that (with a few smart maneuvers) the outdated idea of land-ownership can be surpassed to make way for beautiful modernity, with no evidence of the ugliness that lay in the past.
The heartbreaking finalé of the narrative, '3rd Base, Dodger Stadium' gives the lie to this philosophy, in the form of the voice of an ex-Ravine resident; now "working nights, parking cars" at the stadium which sits on top the ground he grew up on. The concept of building atop a legally annexed community is expressed with a heartrendering, stark metaphor. As he watches the game, he sees the players running over where "Johnny Greeneyes had his shoeshine stall". He sees "grandma in her rocking chair", and "in the middle of the first base line", remembers the location of his "first kiss (Florencina was kind)" - "if the dozer hadn't taken my yard, you'd see the tree with our initials carved". Speaking to the famous "baseball man", whom is clearly "anxious to go", the man once from Chávez Ravine lets him know that "if you want to know where a local boy like me is coming from: 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium". @256
1. Poor Man's Shangri-La
2. Onda Callejera
3. Don’t Call Me Red
4. Corrido de Boxeo
5. Muy Fifí
6. Los Chucos Suaves
7. Chinito Chinito
8. 3 Cool Cats
9. El UFO Cayó
10. It’s Just Work for Me
11. In My Town
12. Ejercito Militar
13. Barrio Viejo
14. 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium
15. Soy Luz y Sombra
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
The sheer prolificness of the Jarrett oeuvre is an intimidating initial obstacle to first time listeners. Rather than the lounge-maestro stereotype that fairweather stoners take from listening to The Köln Concert, his discography is in fact chock full of intense free jazz experimentation downright hostile to identifiable melody - not to mention the sublime fusion of Expectations (1972); a far cry from Köln's inspirational lyricism. Shades (1975), Backhand (1974), Byablue (1977) and The Mourning of A Star (1971) all seem to actively resist Jarrett's greatest strengths, as both a composer and virtuoso pianist, using dominating chord vamps as the central source of movement, rather than the carefully phrased timbre of Jarrett's right hand. This, his most accomplished and satisfying single work, My Song, features his unique talent for mature, wistful melodic phrasing with prominence, but the more experimental and frenzied side of the man's work tastefully incorporated; if you want the laid-back you must also take the crazy.
I can't be sure whether the man himself thought of this project as a synthesis of two distinct styles, but the ordering of the tracklist is suspiciously binary in its unfolding. Opening the album is the slow-rolling 'Questar', whose interrogative opening sax melody steadily anchors the increasingly impatient and fractured piano accompaniment. As the piano interludes begin to dominate the track (tailed by the faint sound of Jarrett's hilarious scatting) the track's stream-of-consciousness style grows frantic yet determined. The sax eventually tames this unruly solo, returning to a variation on the opening melody. The second track, 'My Song' is a fine example of Jarrett at his most clear and melodious. There is a vocal quality to his playing which renders his playing so memorable, and this song is perhaps one of his most pre-meditated (and therefore accessible); evidenced in the Pop verse-chorus structure. The following track, 'Tabarka', has a similarly quizative personality to 'Questar', but the unresolved, frustrated chain of notes and off-beat tribal bongos build an atmosphere of unease and shifting balance.
With increasing predictability, now, the next track, 'Country', is a short and mellifluous tune. An unambiguous expression of summertime joy. The rich timbre of the sax is comforting and sincere, duetting in close harmony with the keys. For this song, the bass and drums stay strictly in check, but in the most challenging track, 'Mandala', they are freed to run stampede. When Garbarek finally re-enters he has a the fast-burning energy of a rambling hobo, yet the quartet seems as though each is locked into their own world; each ignoring the others' outbursts and competing to be paid due attention.
The album ends with my personal single favourite from the entirety of Jarrett's sprawling, five-decade career. 'The Journey Home', following the contented mood of 'Country', is an gorgeous, lyrical monologue, with each member of the quartet perfectly tuned to each of the others' strengths. The breezy, relaxed meter underscores the carefully structured and perfectly attuned layers of virtuosity, while the hopeful melody reaches out and sinks in comforting eloquence. The song's slow-descending finale is a meditative reflection in triumphant optimism. The final notes cling and lull with modest joy. @192
Sunday, 25 April 2010
Listening to Burt Bacharach's arrangements on his own-name releases always reminds me of what marks these recordings as a league above the ranks of singers he farmed his compositions out to. The Bacharach style of melody-driven pop is as ubiquitous and distinctly pastiched as whole genres of music, but even now, after his influence is perhaps finally waning, it's clear that Burt was still an absolute original.
Take one example of the sort here, in the form of a clip from 1970's 'The Phantom Tollbooth'. All elements are there; the flurries of strings, the infectious, sunny vocal melody, the walk-on solos, the woodwind, the call-and-response instrumentation... however you can always tell the well-intentioned imitators from the real deal. Where a melody like 'Milo's Song' strays; repeating its key melody with neat efficiency and soft glides, you're left wanting in Bacharach's own recordings. With fine tact, they avoid the caricatured tunes which drowned the charts in his wake. For an example (not from this album), the first time I heard Bacharach's '(They Long To Be) Close To You' was a revelation for how different the emphasis was when compared to the famous Carpenters version. With the latter you remember the sweet main refrain and its indelible lyrics. However, with the former, this bouncy, saccharine opening section is a slow horn section, with vocals as no more than a supporting instrument. The emphasis of the song is shifted completely to Bacharach's avuncular croon on the chorus - a gorgeous melody which is downplayed entirely in The Carpenter's rendition.