Friday, August 7, 2020

GREAT: THE GREATNESS AND PERFECTION OF LOVE/JULIAN COPE

So much of what is deemed is great just grates. At least to my ears. I have always had a taste eccentric to the vox populi, preferring and tending to seek out the less well served by collective opinion. I guess as in the same way my favourite dog breed is under. Luckily, courtesy this mouthpiece, my clarion call to the masses, this allows me free rein to inveigle my audience, that's me and my sockpuppets btw, into submission.

The Greatness and Perfection of Love

I bloody loved this album when it came out, World Shut Your Mouth, the first record by Julian Cope after the demise of The Teardrop Explodes. Always prone to overtly english vocals: Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers, Ray Davies, Cope was another who rejected the standard transatlantic twang most UK singers have always tended to adopt, knowing, I guess, the bigger market. Mind you, I had always been pretty keen on the Teardrops, especially the standout single, below.

Reward

Cope was never going to be conventional. Coming from Tamworth, a desultory town slightly north of Birmingham, it was never going to be his provider, that taking a move to Merseyside where his accent would always have been a sore thumb amongst those around him. And perhaps why and how a young Courtney Love took such a shine to him? When the record came out, in 1984, I really thought he would be a big star. Hell, he was even on Top of the Pops with the title track, confusingly not included on the album, it coming out two years later, sporting his own design microphone stand.

World Shut Your Mouth

In the years since he has built a name for eccentricity, inconsistency and a weird sort of reliability to avoid entirely any kind of pigeon holing, with this not the place to celebrate his increasingly bizarre stylistic ricochets. Well, not entirely and not now. But, should his musical meanderings not prove easy enough on your ear, consider the fact that he is a celebrated author on subjects as unrelated as (am I still allowed to call it, even if he does?) krautrock and ancient monuments.

Elegant Chaos

Lunatic and Fire Pistol

Back to the o.p. and why it is so great. One reason is always within the lyrics; is he really singing "the greatness and perfection of love"? Sounds mighty like the "greatest imperfection" to me, so much so I am not going to check, preferring the incongruity. But it isn't by any stretch the only good track on the album, I being drawn also to the oboe led majesties of Elegant Chaos and Lunatic and Fire Pistol, peculiar whimsies of uncertain provenance. This pair stand out, along with Head Hang Low, at full arms length from the poppier, Teardroppier other songs, betraying his then state of mind.


Head Hang Low

Fast forward and Cope is still around, with somewhere around 20 albums under his own name, more if you include ones his many and varied labels have suppressed or rejected, often sneaking out years later under some arcane imprint. Some are good, very very good, some frankly unlistenable, but always interesting and seldom classifiable alongside his peers. Somehow I think I need to return to his muse another day.

World!

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Great: "Someone Great", By LCD Soundsystem


Purchase LCD Soundsystem's "Someone Great" from the 2007 full-length Sound of Silver

In life--in our understanding of truths, or our philosophizing a way to a discovery--simple doesn't necessarily mean simple--the most profound truths are the most relatable and easiest to understand. The same goes for songs: sometimes the simplest melody can be the most addictive. “Three chords and the truth” ( I think Bono said that, though the phrase itself has a long history—perhaps in another post?). Think of some of the great rock songs: the power is in the simple structure, repeated over and over again ("Wild Thing", "Baba O'Riley", "Bad Moon Rising"). Things need not be overly complex to be enjoyable. The groove gets cut into your mind, and the song has a nurturing sense. There’s a science to why pop music is so addictive, and so pleasing to listen to--it feeds into pleasure sensors in the mind, which produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the same chemical reaction one gets from good food, alcohol, illicit drugs--it creates a physical pleasure, and in the car of music, joyfulness. Music is a language that speaks on multiple levels, and while music can be complex, there is no denying that a simple melody, or a fun, jumpy pop song, is addictive. And the understanding of what a guilty pleasure is comes in to play--it's usually the silly, cheesy--simple--songs that get the most play, get stuck in our heads. The songs we keep rewinding when no one else is in the car. I fully admit to having put some serious strain on the speakers to a few Ke$ha songs, and the Black Eye'd Pea's "I Gotta Feeling." Music's power to uplift and raise the spirit is a certainty of our human nature, as real as breathing, engrained right into our DNA. 

LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy's now cult-status musical collective, is an endlessly fascinating band with a wildly interesting catalog of music. LCD Soundsystem are a modern, definition-and genre-defying musical experience. Are they rock, are they electronica? Post-punk, art-rock, indie, or dance? Dance rock? The soundscapes are large, looming, immersive. At their best, LCD Soundsystem are hypnotic and the idea of simple  as applied to their music comes not from a lack of technicality or multi-layered compositional complexity, but from an aural ethos and creative pattern that exists across their catalog. This is sound, built on a singular foundation, that is allowed to grow, and an LCD Soundsystem song is an organic experience that grows in a way that few songs do.

While not simple at all, the music often stems from the simplicity of construction: Electronic keyboards, sounds and beats mix with traditional instrumentation and tones, organic guitars, spoken mantras delivered prayer-like, noises and pulses, not so much mixed, but stacked upon one another to achieve a great big sound from what was simple to start.  How to best describe LCD Soundsystem, as filtered through my own listening experience: One instrument, one beat, repeated over and over, built upon, layered and rising into a complex, multi-faceted composition. LCD Soundsystem's songs are meant to be felt, and the layers of aural texture, while analog and seemingly made of brick and mortar rather than digital and electronic signal, are tangible and blocky, like an old video game blipping and bleeping on a small screen. But, that is to deny the complexity, and the often beautiful and addictive songscapes the band makes. The sound is rudimentary and unvarnished, old school console tech, beamed in from a spaceship from a 1960s sci-fi movie, blinking and pulsing, but still real and perceptible by touch. I know the music is not low-fi; it's probably more high tech than I could conceivably understand. But LCD's sound maintains the beautiful simplicity and masterly complexity of a basement Mozart sending new world symphonies into far outer space via a Radio Shack satellite dish. 

Of their extensive catalog--the songs are long, the albums true long players--"Someone Great" from 2007's Sound of Silver, resonates with me. The song is classic LCD--a simple build, that winds itself up into a full blown celebration of sound that lies somewhere within the realm of New Order at their brightest,  Joy Division risen from the dead, Kerouac talking though an old time radio, and a trip to someplace stellar and aglow, that requires a open-windowed roaring drive on the open, empty highway, and the kind of freeing abandon that comes from dancing in a sea of flashing neon and star light. The thing that makes LCD's music hard to describe is the evocations of sensation their soundscape creates. There is a reckless, yet tightly crafted abandon in their music, and it can feel like flying. No song has this kind of effect more so than "Someone Great" which is a deceptively sad song and a meditation on the process of grief. The sentiment might get lost in the throbbing grooves and ever-building beat if you’re only dancing to it. But that’s the beauty of LCD Soundsystem—you gotta listen to everything. It’s a demand, and Murphy’s music isn’t made for a mindless twirling listen. The kind of rockers who disdain dance music, or techno, want to get on the dance floor and move, but they can't miss the melancholy elegy of the song. The entirety of Sound of Silver is enigmatic in its refusal to fit into one mode, or to be classified as any one type of music. Like Murphy's poetic imagery and his pulsing rhythms and otherworld melodies, there are layers here which grow expansive with every listen. Rolling Stone said of Sound of Silver, "It was an album as raw and honest in emotion as it was clever and slick in execution, and the results appealed to fans from all over the musical map."* The lyrics of "Someone Great" are the most striking part of this brilliant composition, as they capture a concept familiar yet all together baffling: how the world can keep moving and continue on, even when we are wasted and laid prone by our grief. There is a moment in the song that resonates where the speaker marvels at the weather: it's beautiful outside, shouldn't the weather meet me in my pain? Murphy sings, :The worst is all the lovely weather/ I'm stunned, it's not raining."  And indeed the rise and emotional crest of the song itself resembles the strange ride through the ebb and flow of grief--lows and the bright highs that come as we grapple with acceptance and learn to navigate a new landscape. But even in that navigation, there is the endless sense that this sadness will never end. The most powerful moment in the song comes when Murphy repeats, over and over, "And it keeps coming", ending the refrain with a simple answer to his unasked question, "Till the day it stops."

A sad song set to a joyful, upbeat and danceable melody sometimes hits the hardest--but why shouldn't life's worst moments be set to something beautiful? Isn't life meant to be a celebration, most so at the end, as we go home?  A mediation on grief that doesn't shy away from the pain it is trying to convey, but still has the nerve to approach it through joyful, prayerful celebratory sound--that's an act of healing in itself. 

"Someone Great" strikes me as a particularly important song right now, in the strange, terrifying, awful year we are experiencing. I know that despite the terrible lows that keep coming at us--division, anger, fear, loss, separation and isolation--music has been a constant. A comfort and meaning maker when I have trouble making sense of much of what I hear and see, and worse, what I feel in my interior. And being isolated in the way we have been since March, the interior is more important than ever, as we seem compelled to spend a lot more time in our heads, with our anxieties and repetitive thoughts than seems fair. When I am at a loss with what to do with the turmoil this pandemic, social unrest and separation from family and the connections that make life meaningful has allowed, when the world ceases to work they way we've known it to work for so long, music helps me make sense. A beat, a lyric, a rising crescendo and an orchestral explosion of noise and melody is a healing force. Music makes sense when nothing else does. 

Space Voyage Rock 'n Roll 


* Harris, Sophie. “LCD Soundsystem's 'Sound of Silver': 10 Things You Didn't Know.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 22 Sept. 2019, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/lcd-soundsystems-sound-of-silver-10-things-you-didnt-know-110495/.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Great: The Great Pretender



purchase [ Platters version]
purchase [The Band version ]
purchase [ Freddy Mercury version ]

There are many notable version of The Great Pretender and it is no surprise that it was voted one of the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine back in 2004 (Yeah, OK, in @ #360, but still...) But the song also carries on our previous mask theme, where the protagonist puts on a public face/performance that just aint true. And it would appear that this is something you just about have to do when you get up on a stage, be you Dolly Parton, Elvis, Freddy Mercury, Roy Orbison or Sam Cooke.

Way  back in  the year I was born, the story goes, a music producer named Buck Ram wrote this song in 20 minutes in a Vegas hotel washroom. At the time, he was the manager for the Platters, who recorded the song as a follow up to their first hit, Only You. When Mercury records signed them in a two-fer deal on the coat-tails of The Penguins (who, unlike the mostly unknown Platters, had a charting hit called Earth Angel), it wasn't at all clear that The Platters would go down in history. But they did- for a number of reasons - and the Penguins mostly did not. They went on to have many hits (something like 40 of them in about a 10 year span), they were like the first cross-overs from doo wop R&B to rock, they included a female in the line-up, and then they rapidly fell out of favor after they were busted.

Sam Cooke did a  version on his 1960 album Hits of the 50's


Dolly Parton covered it in 1984. Now there's someone who was well aware of the need for pretense as part of her show/pesona. Says Michelle Lindsey [link], "‘The Great Pretender’ is what she set out to be as a poor kid playing dress up, writing songs and hoping to become a star. ...  [Parton] admitted, ‘I do it because I’m a show person.’ To drop the pretence, the persona and age like a normal human being is not an option. You see this now in almost every famous person, trickling right down even to the average person in the street."



The most familiar to me is the version from the Band. I guess by that time I was consuming most of the music that was being produced and The Band, as J David recently noted was [link] hot. J David references the Stage Fright album. How appropriate! The best way to get over your stage fright? Pretend.



The version by Freddy Mercury in 1987 has a certain poignance to it in that it immediately predates his HIV public announcement, and most research indicates that he must have been aware of his health issues well before the song came out. That said, there isnt much debate about his sexual orientation at that time, and that, too, could certainly entail an element of pretense. These factors may be part of the strength of his commanding performance of the song. About Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddy's lover, Jim Hutton said "Freddie was never going to admit it publicly, because he had to carry on the charade about being straight, for his family. But we discussed it many times."



Old and In the Way also cover the song in a wonderful country style, this recording without Garcia unfortunately.



None of the above will be confused with the Foo Fighters' song similarly named The Pretender, which is a great song but doesn't pass our theme test for "great" unless you force a match like this :


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Great: Not Great Men


Gang of Four: Not Great Men
[purchase]

There’s an old theory of history called the “Great Man” theory, which, not surprisingly, looks at the historical record by focusing on a series of “Great Men,” like kings, generals and presidents. I suspect that this is still the way that many children are taught history in school, despite the fact that most modern historians believe that so many other factors shape history, including people who aren’t men, or aren’t “great.” And as a former history major, I’m happy to see that broader inquiry into the lives of all people, no matter what gender, or what level of “greatness,” has in many ways changed the shape of the historical narrative. I do believe that while there’s still a reliance on teaching history through focusing on prominent individuals, many schools are widening their curricula to take into account the lives and influence of “ordinary” people. Although as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday, there are big problems about how American History is taught.  History teachers, feel free to comment. 

For example, one recent, high profile example of this was The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which investigated the profound influence that slavery had on the founding and development of the United States, from 1619 to the present. And although one of my favorite college professors, among others, have raised questions about some of the premises of the “1619 Project,” the disagreement didn’t dispute the essential conclusion that slavery was an enormous factor in our nation’s development. (And some of the disputed language has been revised.)

But, as I often have to remind myself when I go off on a tangent, this is a music blog, even though my musing was inspired by our featured song, Gang of Four’s “Not Great Men,” from their remarkable and influential debut album, Entertainment!.  Andy Gill, one of the band’s founders and its guitarist (who died in February, possibly as an early casualty of COVID-19) once said about the album,

I remember saying to Rob Warr, who was our friend and managing us at the time, and the others: ‘Do you realize how important this is? Do you realize that this is going to change the musical landscape? Do you realize that they’re going to teach this in schools?’ And they’re like, ‘You’re mad, you’re fucking mad,’ and just basically laughed at me.” As it turned out, “I kind of was right, but everybody else thought I was being stupid and crazy. 

Although I don’t remember the first time that I heard that album at WPRB, I do know that it became a regular part of my shows, and most of my fellow DJs loved it (and based on a quick look at some playlists, they still love it, decades later). The album was unlike anything I had ever heard before, with pounding beats, metallic guitars and political, Marxist influenced lyrics. From 1979’s Entertainment! through the Yellow EP, 1981’s Solid Gold and 1982’s slightly more accessible Songs of the Free, the Gang of Four was incredible. After that, I sort of lost interest, as they went through personnel and stylistic changes and a series of breakups and reformations. I interviewed drummer Hugo Burnham on the air at WPRB, and always assumed that it was in connection with a gig at City Gardens, but my research indicates they only played there at times that I wouldn’t have been on campus. So, maybe it was when they played in another club in the area. I remember being impressed by Burnham’s intelligence, and after leaving the band, he ultimately became a college professor. I think that I eventually did see them the summer after graduation at The Pier in NYC.

“Not Great Men” takes direct issue with the “Great Men” theory of history:

No weak men in the books at home
The strong men who have made the world
History lives on the books at home
The books at home

It's not made by great men [Repeat: x4]

The past lives on in your front room
The poor still weak the rich still rule
History lives in the books at home
The books at home

Political criticism that you can dance to.

Bonus cover: I came across this cover of “Not Great Men” by what appears to be an all-female Javanese gamelan ensemble, Sekar-Melati, which is both utterly unexpected and completely charming.


And, remarkably, there’s another gamelan cover of that gamelan cover, this time with vocals:


Saturday, August 1, 2020

Masks: This Masquerade




purchase [ Carney ]

Masquerade is directly/clearly implicated in the the <mask> theme:
a false show or appearance

Two weeks back, I was  going to write up Please Mr Postman as part of our Wait/Don't Wait theme, and toyed with at least mentioning the Carpenters' version. Which curiously came out with their version of This Masquerade as the B-side of the record. Funny how things come around.


You know the story line: it's a couple that is going through a masquerade, pretending they are still in love, when actually they are just too far away from being close together.

Despite the fact that George Benson made the best charting of the known versions, the song really belongs to Leon Russell: his voice is just right for it. It's the only song on Benson's Breezin' album that has vocals.



Russell's Carney was perhaps his best. I would choose Me and Baby Jane as my favorite - something like it's about Janis? But - the album cover, the pesona that Leon was projecting at that time - they seem to fit both the Carney and the Masquerade image.


No, that's not Baby Jane. This is:



Friday, July 31, 2020

MASKS: MASQUE/MANFRED MANN'S EARTHBAND

O, shame the poor wag who suggested the name of the album was a suggestion to the band. Cripes, they aren't that ugly, are they? Hardly Slipknot territory, or the Straitjackets, both those bands clearly victims to the horror of looks only their mothers could love.


(OK, I accept the above may not even be the same line-up as for Masque, and who would? But it is an awkward cantilever to my introduction of an anecdote. Back when my brother was at Uni in the late 60s, and Manfred Mann, as in the then incarnation of his eponymous band, was always riding high in the charts, he too employed on of those natty beard without 'tache numbers. And specs. One day, at Glasgow's Central station, he was shouted at by two girls: "ooo, look it's Manfred." And then they ran off. That's it.)


Manfred Mann, the band, had a pretty damn fine career, littering the charts with singles and getting a rare accolade from Bob Dylan, who had suggested they did the best versions of his songs. (To be fair, have you heard the original of Mighty Quinn?) Having exhausted initial vocalist Paul Jones, who moved onto worlds bluer, and then Mike D'Abo to songs poppier, Mann ditched the band, bar drummer Mike Hutt, for the singularly unsuccessful Manfred Mann Chapter Three. The rest of the band had meanwhile largely found a home in the brief burst of joy of McGuinness Flint. You would think that would be that for the South African piano player.


However, against the odds, Mann bounced back. Always more a jazz noodler than teen delight, prog rock was just the vista his vision required, and the Earthband plunged, fully formed, into the charts with a cover, this time of a 'new' Dylan, one Bruce Springsteen. The song? Blinded by the Light, that perhaps the only part of the lyric discernible to young boys intent on singing along.


Masque was astonishingly their thirteenth (!!) album, and the last ahead of a temporary hiatus, between 1987 and 1996. Unsurprisingly, as is the way of all all warhorses, he pulls a version of the band around to this day. But Masque was the first to really catch my ear. Having been a huge fan of the Nice and ELP, where Keith Emerson would fuse classical pomp with rock, Mann too liked to weld these opposites, his ambition having always been to put out a rock version of Gustav Holst's The Planets Suite. Annoyingly the executors of Holst's estate continued to put a block on this, as they had when the idea was first aired to them years earlier. So only one track, the opener and single, Joybringer, gets the direct lift and a composing credit for Gustav, with other tracks merely alluding to occasional planets, and hints of their musical inspiration. (In fact, Jupiter/Joybringer had had a first lick of paint back in 1973, when Mann first came up with the idea, released as a non album single.) Planets Schmanets, on side two, probably sums up Mann's opinion of the executors. Confusingly, interspersed there are songs with credits to sources as disparate as Horace Silver, Paul Weller and Michael Murphey. It makes for quite a milky way of influences, all in all. If you can keep up the canter between styles, it is well worth the ride, perhaps also explaining the title, each "masque" being applied as the band skip from the classics to 1940s big band jazz to synth pop to singer-songwriter staples. Phew!


Here are the two versions of Joybringer, 1973, above, and 1985, below, for comparison.


So now you know who the Masqued Mann really was!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Masks: Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets

[purchase The Quality Holiday Revue (Live)]
[purchase What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Los Straitjackets]
[purchase other Lowe/Los Straitjackets music]

A few years back, we did an “Unusual Collaborations” theme, and had Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets been working together back then, it would have seemed to fit right in. But what is more surprising is that their collaboration actually has worked so well and so seamlessly.

Lowe, of course, has proven to be an incredible musical chameleon. He’s done pub rock, punk, new wave, power pop, country, roots music, standards, holiday music and more. He’s a songwriter, a producer, a singer, a leader, a sideman, and instrumentalist. Los Straitjackets, since their formation in the late 1980s, have been an instrumental band playing rockabilly influenced surf-rock. But beyond the quality of their music, what most people know about Los Straitjackets, if they know anything about Lost Straitjackets, is that they perform in Mexican wrestling masks. Why, you ask? Apparently, they wore them at their first gig, and the crowd loved it, so they just kept doing it.

A few years back, Lowe was performing shows focusing on his more country crooner songs, but after the death of drummer Bobby Irwin in 2015, he broke up that band. When Lowe wanted to tour behind his holiday album, his record company suggested label mates Los Straitjackets as a touring band. Eventually, Lowe insisted that the band play his songs as if they were their own, and he’d just fit in. This collaboration allowed Lowe to pull out some of his old rockers again for subsequent tours, and they have released a bunch of songs together. And in 2017, Los Straitjackets released an instrumental album of Lowe covers, entitled, What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Los Straitjackets.

I got to see them perform together last year at the great Tarrytown Music Hall, and it was a great show. The video above, of the whole show was taken by someone in the audience (not me), and you can see how it was structured—A set with Lowe leading the masked Los Straitjackets, a set with just the band, ending with a Lowe cover, and another set together. For the encore, the band returned first, playing tribute to their fellow masked man, Batman, before Lowe rejoined, and then a final encore of a solo Lowe covering his friend Elvis Costello.