Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Welcome to the working week

I'm in the middle of a pretty action-packed week for music here in Buffalo--and, alas, a pretty action-packed one on the work front, which means I haven't had time to write much about any of it here, let alone the many albums I've acquired lately. A few quick notes must suffice:

1. Last Thursday was the annual John Lennon tribute show at Nietzsche's. I didn't see much of the actual concert since I was busy elsewhere in the room with the Real Dream Cabaret's re-enactment of John and Yoko's Montreal Bed-In for Peace. (Celia White has posted some images of the entire night on Flickr, and if all goes well we should be adding some to the Cabaret site soon, too.) Anyway, I could hear the main show over the PA, and there were many fine moments (along with the usual straightforward cover-band versions that never do much for me). Too sleepy now to be able to name names.

2. Last Saturday the same venue sounded completely different during a late show programmed by Pam Swarts. When we arrived, the front stage (site of the Bed-In two days earlier) was the setting for some nicely minimal glitchcore stuff by GregGreg, who'd rigged up something thereminlike on his keyboard which multiplied the effects he was able to get with a wave of his hand. (Sorry I lack the vocabulary to describe this accurately, but it was pretty impressive to watch.)

Next on the bill was Dimetrodon, who have played in Cabaret shows a couple of times over the years, although they've definitely evolved (in a really good way) since then. The flyer described their sound as "honest-to-goodness surf klezmer," and that seems about right to me. It's all-instrumental dance music, and they packed the floor. (The only cover I recognized was Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet's theme to Kids in the Hall, which I always liked more than the actual series.) I think my friends who loved the music in the film version of Everything is Illuminated would enjoy these guys. I also hope they tour someday, because I want more people to hear what they're up to. As always, pardon the super-crappy cell phone snapshot:

Pam herself ended the evening with her latest band, Weather Machine, a trio on the more accessible side of her aesthetic. I've always appreciated Pam's comfort with both weirdass experimentation and fairly straightforward rock--that's something you don't see very often, and she's got both the musicianship and the voice to pull it off. "Hey, Ron," you now ask, "Didja happen to take a crappy cell phone picture of Weather Machine?" Ah, but of course:

3. Earlier tonight, an outstanding triple bill at the UB Center for the Arts: the Magic Numbers, Feist, and Bright Eyes. I hope to say more about this one later, so let's plunge boldly into the future:

4. This coming Wednesday--Thanksgiving Eve--two of the most highly praised new(ish) Buffalo bands will be playing at Mohawk Place: the Old Sweethearts and Sleeping Kings of Iona. (The first people to arrive evidently get a newly minted CD of rareties, which is pretty exciting, given how great the two Sweethearts albums are.) Of the two, I've only seen the Sweethearts, though I continue to hear great stuff about the Sleeping Kings, and this one is high on my list. Alas, I missed the Sweethearts when they opened for Kathleen Edwards a month back, since they played way earlier than I expected--but, again, that's another evening I plan to write more about sometime when things calm down.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Monday, November 14, 2005

Ten Cents a Dance

One good thing--probably the only good thing--about the current phase of endless changes in playback technology is the fact that stuff in outmoded formats gets remaindered at rock-bottom prices. I made out like a bandit when record stores got rid of all their vinyl in the late eighties, and the buck cassette has been a mainstay in my car for years. So imagine my delight upon discovering a bin of ten cent--yes, ten cent--cassettes at my local Media Play this past weekend. There wasn't a whole lot to choose from: lots of cassingles (I just love that word), British rap of the 80s, generic punk, etc. But for two dimes I walked home with a couple of interesting wild cards.

One was Angelus, a 1994 album by Milton Nascimento.

I haven't really heard that much of Nascimento's music, but based on my limited exposure I tend to agree (as almost always) with Joe Sixpack's assessment of the guy in his Brazilian Music Guide, and his mini-review of this album is right on the mark: Plenty of Milton's trademark falsetto ululations, framed by predictably lite fusion-pop. Several big name guest stars, including jazzcats Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter (and others) as well as Peter Gabriel, James Taylor, etc. Some interesting arrangements, but nothing that he hadn't done before. Most pretty cheesy.

There's an offbeat cover of the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye," and the song that J.T. guests on ("Only a Dream in Rio") at least starts off pretty nicely. (I was heavily into Mr. Taylor in my youth, but lost interest around the time he and Carly Simon split up and I discovered punk rock.) Several of the songs on side one of the tape are pretty okay, and I'm sure I'll listen to them again, but the longer the album goes on, the more grating it becomes. Maybe it will grow on me. My friend Heather is a big Milton fan, along with much of the music world and the entire nation of Brazil, so I'm willing to keep an open mind, but so far I don't get it.

More appealing by far was/is Byron Lee and the Dragonaires & Friends, Vol. 1. (There seem to be three volumes in all.) This one's part of a series called "Jamaica's Golden Hits: The Best of Ska" on the Jamaican Gold label, focusing on the transition period between 50s R&B and early-60s ska.

I was pretty sure I recognized Lee's name from various compilations, and the cover art looked promising. Turns out, according to the All Music Guide entry on Lee, he was once the best-known Jamaican musician in the world, even making an appearance in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. When the first-wave ska craze died down, he fell out of favor (and probably never had that much street cred to begin with) and spent the rest of his career doing covers of popular tunes of the day, from ska to rocksteady to soca.

The compilation I picked up is slightly weird, in that it's a mix of originals, covers, and selections where the original instrumental track has been paired with a new recording of a soundalike vocalist. This explains the opening selection, a cover of Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" in which Small has been replaced by what sounds like the Chipmunks. But the oddness is not too distracting; in fact, it's part of the charm. I love the lo-fi quality of the recordings, the energy level is great (and I say this as a man with little or no interest in the great Ska Revival Revival of the mid90s), and it's packed with catchy tunes. Can't wait to take a road trip with this on the car stereo. I was not familiar with the song "Oh Carolina," but fell in love with it immediately, thanks to the innovative use of an aerosol spray can as a percussion instrument (at least that's what I think is going on). There's also an instrumental version of "Ring of Fire" with a different name (actually, only the chorus was "Ring of Fire;" the verses might have been something entirely new). This was particularly intriguing since I first heard it on the way home from watching Walk the Line--a movie I intend to write about here, and soon. But I digress.

All in all, the best expenditure of twenty cents since ... well, I can't really think of anything else that cost that little in years. (A comic book circa 1967? A call from a pay phone in 1979?) Every time I buy a pre-recorded cassette, I figure it may be the last. If that turns out to be the case, I'll have gone out on one high note and one falsetto ululation. Not bad, not bad.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Brother Love's Travelin' Salvation Show

(I just posted two fairly long entries, so here's a shortish one--timely info included.)

My friend Ed has a strict rule about not playing any Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, and I try to honor that, too. Lord knows the season will be here before we know it--but I just wrote a review of Brian Wilson's brand-new Christmas album, which is a beaut, and I feel compelled to pass along two hot BW tips to those of you who might appreciate them:

1. There's a really swell nineteen-minute making-of-the-album promo video available on Brian's site. Here's a link to the high-speed Quicktime version, and you can find several other high-and-low-speed configurations on the site if that one doesn't work for you. I'm pleased to say that Brian's touring band, one of the best live outfits I've ever heard, is prominently featured on the album and the video. (Confession: I have the hots for guitarist Jeffrey Foskett. But honest: the whole band is incredibly good, and they're such a perfect match for Wilson's talents that it's great to see them continuing to work together for a period of years.)

2. The always-handy and entertaining e-mail newsletter put out by my pals at New World Record here in Buffalo informs me that Brian and Neil Diamond will be joining forces on Jay Leno's show this Monday night, November 14. This seems like the kind of thing that could either be really, really good, or really, really not, but I'm watching either way.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Head Games

So there I was, a few days ago, raking leaves and listening on my Walkman to Gal Costa's 1969 album (one of two eponymous releases from that year, confusingly enough). Now, if you're not familiar with Ms. Costa, you need to know that she was one of the major forces in the Tropicalia movement (and has continued to release music of varying styles and quality ever since--as always, Joe Sixpack's Slipcue site has a great intro/discography). I've heard her described as the Janis Joplin of Brazil, which is only useful, as far as I can tell, as an indicator of her energy level and perhaps her standing in her home country during the sixties. But trust me, Janis never recorded anything anywhere near as wild as this album. I doubt that many people on any continent have: the songs shift from pop-py Burt Bacharach-style arrangements to ear-shattering screaming, guitar feedback, distortion, reverb, you name it, usually in midsong. I'd say the album art does a fairly good job of conveying the general atmosphere:

Take Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Yoko Ono, lock them in a room with a large amount of hallucinogens, and then soak the resulting master tapes in acid, and you've got the basic idea. You sort of have to be in the right mood to listen to this thing (and when you are, it's the perfect thing). Needless to say, I haven't been in that mood very often lately, but leaf-raking--a task I hate--felt like a good time to listen again. Plus I've been on a real Brazilian psychedelia kick, spurred on by my recent discovery of Secos & Molhados (more on them later), which also led to a closer listen to Os Mutantes (ditto), and Gal seemed like just the ticket.

I got to song three on the album, "Meu Nome É Gal" ("My Name is Gal"), and witnessed the moment where she starts wailing in this totally gutteral, Diamandas Galas-style voice over a fairly accessible pop-funk string and horn section; from there, it was on to track four, "Com Médo, Com Pedro," which brings in the echo chamber and more crazy shrieks. Then things started to get really bizarre--even farther out there than I remembered. Dear lord, I thought, she's doing all this amazing stuff with dub effects and changing the speed of the tape, even slowing it down to total inaudibility--it's incredible! And it just kept going and going and going, getting more metallic, almost painful even, as time went on.

After about fifteen minutes of this, it dawned on me that maybe there was something wrong with the Walkman. Lo and behold, that was exactly the case; even a Debbie Boone album would have sounded like Lee "Scratch" Perry had gotten his corrosive mitts on it under these conditions.

The scenario reminded me of the night I played a new Radiohead 45 (a bonus with my copy of Hail to the Thief) for the first time and marvelled at the utterly outrageous experimentation those boys were up to: the melody buried under layers of sonic fuzz, the pitch distorted wildly, and so on. A brilliant assault on bourgeois convention! It took me at least five minutes to realize that
a) there really was a layer of actual fuzz on the needle, and
b) I was playing the 45 at 33 rpm.
When I heard it the way it was recorded, it was a real letdown. I mean, how conventional can you get?

On another occasion, I walked into a hipster coworker's office to find out what cool underground noise band he was playing, only to find out he was vacuuming the carpet. (Even so, I would love to have a copy of that sound--it was fantastic!)

So, yes, it is possible that I have been ever so slightly damaged by art, and maybe I take John Cage just a wee bit too literally with that whole anything-goes aesthetic. If it's any consolation, I get misty when I think about Seals & Crofts and Loggins & Messina, and even though we all know John was the best Beatle, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Wings. So please, please, do not write me off as a total avant-garde aesthete. I just appreciate a well-tuned vacuum cleaner and/or broken tape player every now and then; what right-thinking person doesn't?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

To the teeth

I've been going to the dentist a lot lately--I'm up to my ninth visit for the same tooth. This time, it was a root canal (which will ultimately account for the final three trips, god willing). Needless to say, out came the MP3 player.

I can't conceive of dental work without music--and my choice of music, too, not the piped-in stuff. My dentist subscribes to some kind of muzak offshoot that changes genre every half hour, which explains how you can be listening to Billie Holiday one minute and "Kung Fu Fighting" the next. Evidently the idea is that everyone in the office will be happy some of the time and not-happy some of the time. Now, I can appreciate either of the two options I've just named, but the abrupt juxtaposition does sort of kill any sort of vibe one might be building in one's head. I say they need actual DJs on staff to rectify this situation. But in the meantime, I bring my own tunes.

For several years, all my dentistry was accompanied by a cassette of Everything But the Girl--their early, pre-dance-music-phase albums, which are perfect for calming the nerves without numbing the brain. But then the inevitable happened, and I began to associate EBTG with going to the dentist, which pretty much killed my fondness for this wonderful duo. (Well, that and the aforementioned dance-music phase, which is not so bad but just so much less interesting than what they used to do.)

Now that I can play MP3s on my superduperphone, a whole new world has opened up to me. I can't fit as many songs on it as you could an iPod, but then I don't actually need 4000 selections for a simple cleaning. I haven't reached the point of actually programming a dentistry-specific playlist; it's purely a matter of what's already on there, which is typically whatever odds and ends I've assembled in advance of a cross-country flight several months earlier. This tends to be a mix of stuff I already know I like and completely random songs off albums I haven't really listened to in much detail, plus podcasts of Coverville and On the Media (so far I have not turned to those in the dentist's office).

And I must say I've ended up with a pretty good root-canal-worthy mix this time: Bebel Gilberto, Vinicius Cantuaria, and the latest American Music Club all have a lush, languid quality perfectly suited to long periods of squirming while someone sticks a drill in your mouth. (Less effective: The Decemberists, whom I normally like a lot--the sound is just too thin and angular, both vocally and instrumentally, to do the trick.)

I also had a minor epiphany while listening to a track from Petra Haden's amazing a capella cover of the entire Who Sell Out album. I'd always assumed the song "I Can See for Miles" was your basic acid trip reference, or at least some variety of drug talk a la Puff, Lucy, and "Eight Miles High." But the root canal gave me a nice opportunity to focus on the lyrics--as a distraction from the drill, y'know--and I realized for the first time ever that the narrator (Mr. Townsend/Ms. Haden) is addressing a lover who has been cheating; it's basically a variation on the "Every breath you take, I"ll be watching you" threat. Whodathunkit?

It's not always a wise idea to pay attention to lyrics in the dentist's chair, however, as I discovered when a very gentle, soothing, otherwise ideal-for-dentistry song by Deadman popped up in the queue. I don't remember how I first heard of this band, several months ago; must have been through eMusic, or maybe some internet radio station. Anyway, I really like the one EP I've heard, In the Heart of Mankind. The band name might lead you to think goth or hardcore, but nothing could be farther from the truth; the general tone is very School of Daniel Lanois, and if you go for his dreamy, float-y sound, you should check these guys out.

But not under the influence of novocaine. I'm sitting there, trying not to think about what's going on inside my mouth, when I start listening to what singer/songwriter Steven Collins is singing over the mellowest of musical beds:

I try, but I can't move forward
My arms and legs are sticking down
I wanna scream, but I cannot use my voice
Just when I think I can't go on
All this blood
Moves within me
All this blood
Moves inside of me...

Pain can't last forever
And rivers always run to the sea
And just like a river
I can't hold
All this blood
That moves inside of me...

Now, I can't stress enough how gorgeous the song ("Blood Moves") sounds--or how little I want to be visualizing rivers of blood (the phrase is repeated about seventy times) while Dr. B is discovering a fourth root and reporting on a larger than usual amount of bleeding. I begin to find the irony perversely hilarious and start to giggle; later, when I try to explain what's so funny, I get that weird look you too will get should you ever report that you're listening to a band called Deadman.

Just a warning. Okay, anyone else care to name some favorite tunes for unpleasant situations?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

I Found That Essence Rare

With all due respect to my indie-store-owning/label-running friends, I confess that I have been known to duck into chain stores from time to time. If I'm jonesing for a little record shoppin' and there's a Barnes & Noble or Media Play in the vicinity, you'll find me there. It's not pretty, but it's true. And, much as I hate to say it, the Brazilian bins at some of these joints are actually bigger and/or more interestingly stocked than the ones at the hipper/cooler shops in my neck of the woods.

So there I was, browsing my local Borders outlet, when I came across

this bargain-priced 3-disc Essential Guide to Brazil on the British budget label Union Square Music. Normally I'm wary of cheapie compilations like this, but the lineup of artists looked really promising--a mix of some I know and like (Getz, Veloso, Gil, Celso Fonseca, Zuco 103, Trio Mocotó), a couple I've been wanting to check out in more detail (Chico Buarque, Seu Jorge), and a bunch I've never heard of (Grupo Cabana, Zeca Pagodinho, Bob Azzam, and many more). There are several familiar songs, mostly by Jobim (the obligatory "Girl from Ipanema" is done by Paula Santoro), but plenty that I've never heard of. Of those, a super-catchy cover of "16 Tons" by Funk Como Le Gusta ("16 Toneladas") jumped out right away, along with a 50s-sounding novelty called "Crickets Sing for Ana Maria" by Marcos Valle, and Monica Vasconcelos' electronica-influenced take on "Bananeira" (Bebel Gilberto also does a version of this, and I'm pretty sure lots of other people do, too, since the melody is one I'm certain I heard long before I started listening to all this Brazilian stuff). Come to think of it, other than a pretty straightforward jazz piece ("Dado" by Bruno E) and some slightly muzak-y bits on Disc 1, there's not much on here that I don't like. For the price of a single CD, you get three albums that serve as a handy little guide to a lot of interesting artists worthy of further investigation.

I wouldn't really call this an "Essential Guide," mind you. I don't get the sense that there's a strong curatorial voice here. Each disc has a scholarly-looking theme--"Bossa Nova: The 60s Revolution," "Samba and the Samba Legacy," and "New Routes, Old Roots: Brazil 2K"--but these seem a little contrived, especially since the packaging is otherwise so astonishingly minimal. The image you see above appears on each of the slender cases, and there's nothing else to distinguish them--not even a disc number. Liner notes? Dream on.

Actually, notes for each song do exist online, at the label's website. They're short, but informative. Again, if you want to get your feet wet in the music of the region, this seems like a good, low-cost place to start. (FYI, at the same site you'll find a list of the other albums and sets on their roster, many of which also have online liner notes. I'm guessing the volumes devotes to Arabic and African music demonstrate the same strengths and weaknesses as the Brazilian one. Maybe the next time I find myself at Borders, I'll seek 'em out.)