Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sing me back home

I have not forgotten about this blog, I assure you, or about my New Year's-ish resolution to post something on some blog of mine somewhere every single day. Got a bit distracted from that mission, though, several months ago when my father died, a simple fact of life that has haunted my summer. In fact, I just got back from a return trip to my hometown to clear out his house--which, in the process, meant clearing out the last traces of myself from it, too. And that meant one final glimpse at the slowly decaying 8 track tapes that accompanied me (and the rest of the St. Louis High debate team) on many a car trip in the mid70s:

The last Ehmke family Oldsmobile with an 8-track deck died a decade and a half ago, but I can still tell you the contents of each and every one of these: America's Holiday album, Volume TWO of Gordon Lightfoot's pre-"Sundown" hits, Volume TWO of Walter/Wendy Carlos's pioneering Switched-On Bach, Don McLean's version of the obligatory contract-fulfilling covers album, the soundtrack album to the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow Great Gatsby, and so on. (All of these except Holiday and the Oldsmobile demonstration tape were purchased from the dollar bin at my local Musicland, which explains the high percentage of sequels and releases by artists rising up from or heading back to obscurity.) I don't see the live Jonathan Richman album here, which is a pity, for it is the one of which I have the fondest memories, since there was a problem with it and it kept playing the same "program" over and over again, making his epic eight-minute "Ice Cream Man" even longer than he intended. This is what the 1970s sounded like to me before Joe Strummer changed the game. I regret none of it.

More musical memories to come, plus several months' worth of postponed observations. I'm just trying to get back in the blogging groove again with an easy one.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Last of the famous international playboys

Thoughts immediately after leaving tonight's Morrissey concert at UB's Center for the Arts, which I've decided is one of my favorite places to see events in town:

1. In keeping with its stated theme, I try to focus this blog on music/musicians I'm currently or formerly obsessed with, and I've actually managed to escape the siren song of Mr. Suedehead for the length of his career. Oh, sure, I loved the Smiths in their day, but you'd have to be an idiot not to appreciate that band, would you not? I'm just saying I always took the oh-lonesome-me lyrics with a major chunk of salt (easy, since many of the best are so salty to begin with) and never once contemplated hurling gladiolas at the Heir of Oscar Wilde's feet.

2. That said, I realized the minute he walked out on stage that the guy is a World Class Rock Star, with a pretty brilliant sense of how to make a concert into a highly theatrical event. He is very big on whipping the mic cord around (this explains the immense space between his mic stand and the rest of the band) and pressing the flesh with fans (this does not explain the bizarre passive-aggressive vibe, in which he seems to encourage audience members to jump onstage and touch him, only to see them dragged away by very large security guards).

3. As for the solo songs? All perfectly fine, mostly interchangeable. I'm one of those people who won't give up the feeling that he really needed Johnny Marr as a songwriting foil.

4. LIghting: great. Big cut-out backdrop of sailor: loved it. Backing band: excellent. Band outfitted in matching t-shirts of entire band naked: genius. (Sadly, the adorable looking keyboard player does not seem to be on the shirt. It must feel odd for him to be obliged to wear a photo of his predecessor night after night, naked or not.)

5. Speaking of shirts, I imagine they are a line item in the tour budget, as two of the Rock Star's were tossed out into the audience during the show, each soaked with sweat. I actually prayed they would not be thrown anywhere near me, for I am Just Not Into That.

6. Speaking of sweat, I was quite impressed with the fact that it formed a heart shape on the back of shirt #2. This made me wonder if perhaps he has had his sweat glands sculpted to create this effect.

7. Morrissey the man: Boy, does he look old! And yet, he is my age, I think. My neck looks better than his. And yet, he is in far better shape than me, and can pull off that shirt without embarrassment. Also, he always looked old. And I find old people very handsome. Well, some old people. He qualifies.

8. A gong?! Awesome! Having messed the chance to see Led Zep or any number of 70s bands in their prime, I am happy to see them making a comeback.

9. Opening act = The Courteeners = first I'd ever heard of them = their first-ever show in the States = most pleasant surprise in this thankless slot since the Magic Numbers opened for Bright Eyes at the same venue. HIgh 80s revivalism; lotsa echoes of the Jam and, you guessed it, the Smiths. We even bought the CD; a cursory listen to the first four songs confirms that they are catchy, although I'm not sure the recorded versions capture what is so delightful about the band in performance. (Value added: Song 4, aka "What Took You So Long?," actually includes the lines "Sometimes I am bad and sometimes I am rotten / Sometimes I say things that probably should have been forgotten / about people and things, but do you know who I am? I'm like a Morrissey with some strings." Did not catch this during the show.)

10. Between the Courteeners and Moz, vintage music videos, dancehall novelty songs, nightclub routines, and snippets of British films were projected on a large screen. These were clearly curated by the Rock Star himself, as every single one was a perfect gem. Biggest surprise: Who knew he was such a fan of Shocking Blue? Three songs--and who knew they did anything besides "Venus"? (The other two were "Inkpot," which sounds like some sort of raunchy Dutch double entendre, and "Mighty Joe.") Suddenly I find myself wanting to know more about them.

In fact, what say we wrap this up with (a different but similar clip of) "Inkpot"? Note the band's groovy/shimmery black-metallic outfits, and how much the song resembles Abba doing glam:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

We begin bombing in 10 minutes

That Steve Reich box I picked up a few weeks ago has provided many hours of enjoyment; there's nothing like driving around at night with one of his marimba-driven compositions providing an ambiguous soundtrack of anticipation. Still, I'm a little sad the box houses only one of Reich's two landmark found-audio loops from the 1960s, namely this one:

Because, as trippy as that one is, I've always preferred the gospel-sermon energy of the other one (not on the box):

In both cases, it's interesting to listen to the pieces 40 years (holy crap!) down the line, after Byrne/Eno and Negativland, after a couple decades of hiphop and electronic dance music turning appropriation into a cliché. They feel slower, more sedate, and way too long, to be sure, but they also possess a depth and singularity of focus that later experiments/ripoffs/cash-ins don't. They also sound awesome when you crank them up.

I bring up Reich mainly as an excuse to share two far more recent finds:

1)The Freesound Project, described as
a huge collaborative database of audio snippets, samples, recordings, bleeps, ... released under the Creative Commons Sampling Plus License. The Freesound Project provides new and interesting ways of accessing these samples, allowing users to ...
•browse the sounds in new ways using keywords, a "sounds-like" type of browsing and more
•up and download sounds to and from the database, under the same creative commons license
•interact with fellow sound-artists!

A virtuous goal, to be sure, but to hell with virtue. Let's get to the juicy stuff:

2)Handy audio clips of Bill O'Reilly reading the naughty bits of his 2001 audiobook version of Those Who Trespass: A Novel of Television and Murder. (First came to my attention here.) Trust me, you'll have Bill's unforgettable voice ringing in your ears for weeks, ordering you to "Cup your hands under your breasts and hold them for ten seconds" in a tone that suggests a workout instructor.

For added fun, play all of the above simultaneously. While cupping your hands under your breasts and holding them for ten seconds, of course.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Oh, Dannnny Boyyyyyyyy ...

So there we are, the husband and I, enjoying a lovely walk alongside the mighty Niagara on a sunny St. Patrick's Day, preparing for our collective future as an elderly suburban couple, when suddenly both of us think the same thing:

Are those bagpipes I hear?

And sure enough:

Happy Paddy Day.

PS. In the spirit of the holiday, allow me to recommend this wonderful album:

The bad news is, it's been discontinued by its manufacturer. The good news is, you can pick up a copy via Amazon for as low as 80 cents and enjoy some lovely and rare covers of traditional Irish tunes by the likes of Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Sinead O'Connor, and Vince Gill for under a buck. That beats a green beer any day in my book.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sign o' the Times

Now, more than ever. Take it away, boys ...

Update, 3/17/09
The Gang's refrain "Comrades, let us seize the time" finds a 21st-century echo in the closing lines of this recent essay by Douglas Rushkoff about how the collapse of the stock market may not be such a bad thing, as found on Arthur's ever-provocative blog:

The current financial crisis is the best opportunity we have had in a very long time for a bloodless revolution against the faceless fascism under which we have been living, unaware, for much too long. Let us seize the day.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

I'm all lost in the supermarket; I can no longer shop happily

I've got much more to say about Dutch art/design collective Platform 21 and its "Hacking IKEA" project on my gardening blog, but here's one of the more conceptual pranks on view on the P21 site:

MUSIC FOR IKEAS is an attempt to musically hack the entire emporium of IKEA through the release of a CD. Music is an effective invisible method to radically manipulate the atmosphere of a space. The CD is presented via an especially developed sound system, which can be integrated into every IKEA interior.
With thanks to Mia Adrésen and Hans Wessels.

Wish there was some way to hear the album itself, unlistenable though I suspect it probably is . Maybe I'll just have to wander into a store where some enterprising audio anarchist has installed one of those specially modified lamp/CD players. Rock on, hackers! Hack on, rockers!

PS. Thanks to Arthur for bringing P21 to my attention.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Long live Pere Ubu!

I dunno if it was a Freudian slip or simply because I'm tired, but the post below was originally intended for--and is now posted at--the multi-author blog associated with an incredibly elaborate, 2 1/2-years-in-the-making production I am involved with next month in collaboration with my pals in the Real Dream Cabaret, these hi-tech folks here, other robot designers, and musician-about-town David Kane. For some reason, I almost posted it here instead. But what the hell--why not crosspost? The more people who hear about the project, the better! Plus, I'm really loving the ongoing blog we're maintaining as we put the show together--a rare chance to watch a show take shape before your very eyes--and this makes a convenient excuse to encourage you to check it out. I'm also a big Pere Ubu fan from way back, which makes the following all the more relevant in a different context ...

Like a lot of people my age--easing from high school to college as Pistols-era punk rock evolved into post-punk--I first became aware of Ubu Roi through the legendary avant-noise rock of Pere Ubu. The band is still around, more than 30 years later, albeit with an ever-changing lineup, and it's kinda surprising that it took them until 2008 to get around to actually staging Jarry's play.

The production, described here, sounds pretty interesting--and quite far from our own handling of the same material. Visual elements are by the Brothers Quay, and lead singer/songwriter/play adapter David Thomas performs as Pa Ubu himself--the role he was obviously born to play. Here's a sample:

(You can download a free MP3 of the same song here, or buy the whole album shortly.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Phases and stages

Yes, yes, we all know Best Buy and its ilk are evil, but now that they have driven most of my favorite indie record stores out of business, sometimes I am driven to visit a big box. Well, actually, it was the SnapTell app on my iPhone that sent me to BB in search of a lower price on a Nara Leão album I found at Borders recently. (Fun fact: "Nara Leão" sounds to me like someone trying to say "Laura Nyro" and getting tongue tied.) BB allegedly had the album for two bucks cheaper, but after searching every conceivable bin in the (surprisingly tiny) music section of a specific store in the hinterlands of suburbia--World Music, Latin, Jazz, Female Vocalists, Bargains, even Pop/Rock--I found no Leão whatsoever.

What I did find instead was quite possibly the best deal I've ever stumbled upon in my many decades of bargain-hunting:

this five-CD box set of classic Steve Reich works on Nonesuch. When I saw the $14.99 price tag, I thought at first it might be a typo for $149.99, but then vaguely remembered reading about this rock-bottom-priced set when it first came out in conjunction with Reich's 70th birthday. (There is, in fact, a $100 Reich box, but even that one seems reasonably priced, given that it contains a whoppin' TEN discs.)

The scanner at the cash register wanted to charge me $35, but I pointed to the sticker and sure enough, $15 is what I paid. Or would have been, had I not had 7 bucks remaining on a BB gift card a niece gave me for Christmas two years ago--meaning I just paid 8 bucks and change for 5 albums' worth of minimalist masterworks, including the pioneering early spoken-word tape loop piece "Come Out," the lovely song cycle Tehillim, all of Drumming, and the one and only Music for 18 Musicians, which I will forever associate with the foyer of a New Wave dance club back in the early 80s. I already have a lot of this stuff on vinyl, and my Reich/Glass "phase" ended a couple of decades ago, but something like this is too good to pass up. And for the record, "Come Out" sounds just as mind-blowing today as it did when I first heard it (let alone what it must have sounded like in 1966, long before Bush of Ghosts or before the sampled and looped human voice became ubiquitous on hordes of electronica and hiphop releases).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Come up to the Lab and see what's on the slab

There's something annoyingly cutesy about the science-themed public radio show Radiolab, but naturally I had to listen to the episode on "Musical Language." Missed a few sections on the air this afternoon, but I can catch up via the online version sometime. Here's the basic premise:

What is music? How does it work? Why does it move us? Why are some people better at it than others? In this hour, we examine the line between language and music, how the brain processes sound, and we meet a composer who uses computers to capture the musical DNA of dead composers in order to create new work. We also re-imagine the disastrous 1913 debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring…through the lens of modern neurology.

Alas, this is yet another reminder that I haven't yet read either Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia or Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music, which (I assume) provide further explorations of the above.

(Note: Groovy psychedelic album cover art above found at the always-enjoyable LP Cover Lover.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

That's the way (uh huh, uh huh) I like it

As my oft-documented affection for Don Lennon, Jens Lekman, and Stephen Merritt (to say nothing of their precursors, Messers Morrissey and Richman) establishes, I am a sucker for this sort of thing:

If you're digging Mr. Dent May (an Animal Collective protege, of all things!) as much as I seem to be liking him, you may also enjoy ...
*another, even catchier, video clip on my other (gardening-related) blog (WARNING! SELF-PROMOTION IN EFFECT!)
*the AllMusic Blog entry that first alerted me to Mr. May
eMusic's handy page of audio and video clips and other DM goodies

I consider it a good day when someone I've never heard of when I wake up is ringing in my ears by the time I head back to bed at night.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Eat to the beat

Courtesy of a heads-up on Boing Boing, news of a book sale from the folks at PictureBox Press (which ends Feb 8, btw). I admit I've got my eye on this volume saluting the work of the album design company Hipgnosis, who were behind many an iconic LP sleeve from the 70s, from Pink Floyd to 10CC to Wings. I've leafed through this particular coffee-table book and it's a beaut, with visual and verbal accounts of the thought processes behind those witty, often surreal covers, including rejected concepts. I was a teenager during the heyday of Hipgnosis, and I remember finding their distinctive company name in the liner notes of album after album--the first designers I was ever aware of. Sometimes their aesthetic seemed great, other times really appalling (just like the music!), but it always set the tone of the contents. They were also masters of using every square inch of "real estate"--gatefold sleeves, sleeve jackets, the label on the disc itself--to extend the look and theme of the cover. (People often lamented the death of album design in the era of the CD, but I never bought it, because many a designer was smart enough to adjust to the smaller canvas. What was missing in CD packaging was all the ephemera--inner sleeves, poster inserts, etc.) (History in the making! The preceding parenthetical comment marks the first time I've referred to CDs in the past tense. And alas, there truly is NO packaging involved in the average MP3 download.)

There's a lot more here, too, including beautifully packaged works by Gary Panter, Michel Gondry, and others. But act fast, because at full price, most of 'em will cost you major coin, and you'll be reduced to eating vinyl like the gentleman on the book cover.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Life is a carnival

Just caught another interesting episode of Austin City Limits (one of many lately, after a longish dry run) featuring Gnarls Barkley and Thievery Corporation: a perfect double bill in many ways, not least of which was my suspicion that it would all be a lot more fun if I saw it in person. Not that the two sets weren't plenty of fun on the tube, mind you, but both of them were so clearly focused on the live experience: participatory, energetic, unexpected.

Watching GB in action, it dawned on me that they are the Was (Not Was) of the Aughts--wacky lyrics, juxtapositions that shouldn't work but mostly do, surprise mainstream smash hit, general sense that they're smart folks who think about what they're up to. Maybe in 20 years DangerMouse will end up doing commentaries on NPR, like David Was does now.

I'd seen Gnarls on TV before and knew what to expect, but TC was a revelation as a live act. I've enjoyed their recordings, both the mix compilations they curate and their own album projects, but their concert incarnation is a circus, complete with seven vocalists, a sitar player, a horn section, a dancer, and miscellaneous other folks filling the stage at various points. I learned from the end credits that that was Frank Orrall from Poi Dog Pondering on ukulele and percussion, and it was a treat to see and hear Seu Jorge join the ensemble for a cover of Jorge Ben (Jor)'s super-catchy "Umbabaraumba."

The most striking aspect of the TC spectacle was the fact that its two ostensible frontmen, DJs Rob Garza and Eric Hilton (the latter can look kinda cute when they're wearing formal attire, which they weren't doing this time, alas), were way back in the mix, both sonically and visually, occupying center stage only when they took their final bows. Fleshing out what began as a two-man operation with 14--count 'em, FOURTEEN--guest performers is a gutsy and, to my way of thinking, very smart move. Shy guys in electronic music is all but a given; I watched the two men who make up Autechre hide behind laptops several years back, and DangerMouse spoke in his post-concert ACL interview about not particularly relishing the live aspect of his job (no problem in his case, since Cee-Lo is such a forceful figure onstage). The Thievery solution not only allows them to share the stage with folks who are much more at home on one, it also gives a human form to the political themes in their lyrics and the dazzling range of genres (bossa, lounge, dance, hiphop, Indian pop, and so much more).

Here is but a tease. Judicious searching on YouTube will surely yield you longer examples of both acts in concert.

Friday, January 23, 2009

It's a beautiful morning

Two more songs that ran through my head on Inauguration Day. You may think they couldn't be farther apart from each other, but America's first biracial prez (after the one foreseen here, that is) is all about the union of opposites, is he not?

1. Shortly after I evoked another George Clinton masterwork, I came across an Inaug Day post on Arthur's blog that reminded me of an incredibly obvious praise song for the day:

2. And, from the other side of the universe, this anthem from the-end-which-is-really-the-beginning of Stephen Sondheim's score for the beloved flop (which I've only heard recently and totally love) Merrily We Roll Along.

True, I'm taking it out of its original context, but I won't tell if you won't. And I truly couldn't get it out of my head when I thought about the colossal changes our culture is undergoing at the moment, and the way the Obama family has connected with a new generation. In the musical, whose plot unfolds backward from the early 1980s to the mid-50s, this hopeful song is undercut by the fact that we already know what will come of all this youthful optimism. In real life, we have no need yet to be so cynical, which is pretty damn exciting.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tear the roof off the sucker

Couldn't help but think of this classic as the First Lady of Soul took the dais today:

Once a psychedelic dream, now a reality.

Here's to a brighter future, CC.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Up, up, and away

In the car on this MLK Day I caught fragments of the morning news and the talk show that follows it. Somewhere in there, snippets of two songs caught my ear.

1. Bruce Springsteen, during Sunday's inauguration kickoff concert in DC, doing a powerful acoustic version of "The Rising" supported by a full gospel choir. Here it is, at least until HBO inevitably yanks the clip:

2. A studio recording of a song Mahalia Jackson performed during the 1963 March on Washington. (I can't remember which one, but it was gorgeous.) This was almost certainly not the song, but it works so beautifully with the title, theme, and tone of Bruce's--to say nothing of the zeitgeist at this particular moment--that I can't resist sharing it:

#2 inspired me to pull out my copy of ...

... this compilation of Jackson's recordings for Columbia as a way of honoring the present confluence of anniversaries, inaugurations, and such.

I'm actually not the biggest fan of either the Boss or the Queen of Gospel, but of course I recognize their places in popular culture and music history, and each has created many moments that speak directly to me. Today I heard two more, and the day--24 short hours before we officially welcome a president who can actually form complete, coherent, and even thought-provoking sentences!--was all the more inspiring as a result.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Song for the New Depression

This song has been on my mind a lot lately:

For the record, I have a huge backlog of subjects to write about here, but just moments ago I learned about GrooveShark and I'm learning how to use it. If it's as easy as it appears to be, I may at last be able to incorporate music on this blog. New depression? Not here!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Two tickets to Paradise

I was sad to read here that the delightful free music/culture tabloid Arthur is ceasing print publication unless and until a publishing partner materializes. (And just a few moments later, I learned about a gardening magazine also biting the dust.)

On the bright side, Arthur still has an online presence, including a fine blog, where at the moment you can pay tribute to the late Ron Asheton with some bootlegs and hear/read Brian Eno's thoughts on Gaza. And this might just be the time for me to shell out for this 2004 Devendra Banhart-curated compilation CD

featuring folks like Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan, Six Organs of Admittance, Antony, and Iron and Wine. Even more enticing is the DVD of archival footage of the Living Theater's Paradise Now and other landmarks of experimental/political theater circa 1968-69. I've read about these plays since I was a teenager, and it's wild to finally find out what they looked and sounded like. Judging from this promo trailer, they were very, very shrill:

Not the kind of thing I'm going to want to watch on a regular basis, but as an artifact of a crucial yet bygone era, there's no way I'm going to pass it up. Meanwhile, here's hoping Arthur returns to print ASAP.

PS. In brighter news from the publishing world, according to Boing Boing you can now find every incarnation of the Whole Earth Catalog/Review online. Like the Living Theater, this was a staple of my adolescence, even though I was about 10 years too late to the party. Check it out, right here!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Breakdown (go ahead, give it to me)

OK, OK, so it's been a while since my last confession. Forgive me, Father. I never intended to abandon this blog, for I certainly haven't abandoned my obsession with music. Perish the thought! I"ve just been otherwise engaged--and I never move that fast even in the best of circumstances.

Call it a New Year's resolution if you must, but I'm vowing to devote at least a few minutes every day (starting, uh, yesterday) to working on one of the many blogs I have a hand in. By my count, there are eight or nine that are going concerns, including this one. I'm way overdue on announcing this year's--oops, i mean last year's--Ehmke(e) Award winners, updating that new "Shuffle Off" feature I'd started a while back, and sharing lots of thoughts on lots of music. And it's all coming, folks. It's all coming. But not right now, for I've spent much of the evening prepping this entry on a sort-of-brand-new, sort-of-long-gestating blog instead. All things in time.

PS. Oh, yeah--about that photo up there. Little snafu involving some cleanser from DeltaSonic making its way into the radio/CD player and remaining there for weeks. (They were very good about paying for the repair, btw.) You'll be happy to learn that the situation has long since been rectified. My original plan was to use the image to re-introduce the "Shuffle Off" series, but then weeks/months went by, as they always do. Now it seems like an equally apt metaphor for the hole in all our lives left by my not posting anything here in nine long months.

Stay tuned. While you wait for a new entry, enjoy that new playlist feature over on the right. I just set that up tonight, after reading about it here. Nice addition, because I haven't yet figured out how to add audio clips to my posts like everybody else without getting hauled off to jail with that guy who leaked Chinese Democracy.