Monday, April 20, 2009

Listening Party, April '09

While I await Amazon's delivery of the new Pet Shop Boys album, here are some quickie reviews of what I've been listening to over the last few weeks thanks to a recent influx of new music CDs at the library...

Sound of KONK: Tales of the New York Underground 1981-88
Soul Jazz Records, 2005

KONK answer Wild Cherry's entreaty and the (mostly) white boys do indeed play that funky music. Though I loathe the much-lauded (underservedly for the most part except for James Chance) post-punk No Wave period in '80s New York City, I was pleasantly surprised by this compilation. Most of those No Wave guys were avant-garde (i.e., "bullshit") artists who made noise as opposed to music, but the tunes here are afrobeat dance-friendly instead of headache-inducing. Some interesting pop cultural tidbits via Wikepdia: KONK's Richard Edson (Lounge Lizards) played drums on the first Sonic Youth record and had acting roles in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, while trumpeter Shannon Dawson not only played in Jean-Michel Basquiat's band Gray but is the Uncle of uber-hottie Rosario Dawson. (Oh, and Konk is not to be confused with the sophomore album by The Kooks or with The Kinks' record label, though I made both those mistakes when I saw this on the New CDs rack!)

An Amazing Dream
Rainbox Quartz, 2006

Great star/shoe-gazer psychedelia for a rainy day by Philly-based indie rockers who sound like San Francisco's melodious Sneetches on chemical enhancement. Bonus points for covering a Church song ("To Be In Your Eyes," from 1982's dreamy The Blurred Crusade) and for a psychedelic rewrite of "Hey Joe" called "Into the Meadow." I think the name refers to Vesta 4, the biggest 'roid in the asteroid belt. If you like The Church, Brian Jonestown Massacre (they opened for BJM) or just mellow music to fall asleep to, this one's for you. I'd probably buy this if I did heroin. No I wouldn't - I'd steal it!

The Mande Variations
Nonesuch, 2008

My musicologist (and filmmaker) friend Michael Lawrence turned me on to this guy. Apparently, Mali's Kutta Toumani Diabate is the world's greatest player of the kora, a 21-string harp-lute that looks like a cross between a gourd and a sitar and is used extensively by peoples in West Africa. This is very relaxing background music, very zithery, like something you'd hear in a Mideastern restaurant, possibly while watching a belly dancer. Somehow it makes me yearn for grape leaves and hummus.

THE BAD PLUS joined by Wendy Lewis
For All I Care
Heads Up, 2009

The Bad Plus is a collective made up of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King that Rolling Stone has called "as badass as highbrow gets." Here they are joined by vocalist Wendy Lewis, a former bandmate of King's in The Happy Apples. Basically, the highbrow part of the band's description refers to the fact that they're classically trained musicians (smarties who can read music) and the badass part means they cover rock songs (typically written by dummies who can't read music), like Nirvana's "Lithium," Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," the Flaming Lips' "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," Heart's "Barracuda," Wilco's "Radio Cure," Mission of Burma's "Lock, Stock and Teardrops," Yes's "Long Distance Runaround," the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," and so on. Worth a listen as a curio (I have to admit I really like the dissonant bebop intro on "Long Distance Runaround" but Wendy Lewis' cocktail drone soon grates on the nerves), but this strikes me as strictly an academic exercise for the hipster crowd. Besides, this idea's been done to death. Didn't Tori Amos cover Nirvana like 17 years ago? (And the Bad Plus themselves covered "Teen Spirit" on their previous release!) That said, the best track on this CD is an Iggy cover - Iggy Stravinsky, that is (Igor's 1947 classic "Variation d'Apollon"). Personally, I think this album would have worked better as The Bad Plus Minus Wendy Lewis - For All I Care.

Years of Refusal
Attack Records, 2009

I haven't had listened deeply enough to deconstruct the lyrics in their entirety, but after a couple of run-throughs in the car CD player, I'm toasting this as the best Morrissey album since 1992's standard-bearer Your Arsenal (which was the best since Moz's fab 1988 debut Viva Hate) - and arguably his best ever. Morrissey certainly thinks his 9th solo record is his "strongest" work to date. One thing's beyond discussion: Mozzer's voice has never sounded better or more confident and his backing band (new guitarist Jesse Tobias - who replaced Alain Whyte, guitarist Boz Boorer, bassist Solomon Walker and drummer Matt Walker) totally rocks out from the opening anti-meds salvo "Something Is Squeezing My Skull" to the final chords of Moz's status update "I'm OK On My Own." There's not a bad song on the 12-track CD, this depite losing guitarist Alain Whyte who still contributes five the 12 songs here ("Something Is Squeezing My Skull," "Mama Lay Softly on the Riverbed," "When Last I Spoke To Carol," "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore," and "You Were Good In Your Time"). Fortunately, Boorer still supplies tunage ("Black Cloud," "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris," "That's How People Grow Up," and "One Day Will Be Farewell") and new boy Jesse Tobias pens three strong compositions in "All You Need Is Me," "Sorry Doesn't Help," and "I'm OK By Myself."

Once again produced by Jerry Finn (You Are the Quarry), Years of Refusal was recorded "live," which gives it a great, poppin' fresh energy to the sound, with "Black Cloud" especially lively thanks to guest guitarist Jeff Beck's licks.

Despite the usual aesthetic laments (no one loves him except "stone and steel" so he's "throwing his arms around Paris"), I suspect Morrissey is actually - dare I say it? - having fun. After years of refusal. Sure, he taunts his critics with "You don't like me but you love me/Either way you're wrong/You're gonna miss me when I'm gone" and "You hiss and groan and you constantly moan but you never go away/And that's because all you need is me" but he seems to be reveling in his arsenal of hiss, groan & moan rather than complaining about it. Good grief, the man even sings "Whoopee!" at one point.

Good times, all around.

Oh, and about the cover: the baby in Morrissey's arms is Sebastien Pesel-Browne, son of Morrissey's assistant tour manager Charlie Browne. At first I thought maybe Moz was going through a Madonna-Angelina Jollie baby adoption mid-life crisis phase. We can rest assured.

Oracular Spectacular

I'll probably hate these guys in a month or so, but for now I love the song "Time To Pretend"...maybe probably cuzz I've heard it a million times as the theme song of cable TV's Sundance Channel. I've read and seen band interviews that didn't wow me as far as them being geniuses (or fashion plates: one guy dresses all gypsy-rocker like Steven Tyler/Jimi Hendrix and the other is nondescript with non-commital facial hair and dumb hats) but the one singer sounds exactly like Marc Bolan (always a good thing) and they seem to have listened to a lot of T. Rex, Sparks and early Ultravox (never a bad thing) and to have watched some good movies (the "Time To Pretend" music video contains references to Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 cult film The Holy Mountain), and on this one song have captured the essence of the Rock Star Dream; along with the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star," this should be part of the Rock Star 101 curriculum for any aspiring musician:
"I'm feeling rough, I'm feeling raw, I'm in the prime of my life.
Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.
I'll move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars.
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.

This is our decision, to live fast and die young.
We've got the vision, now let's have some fun.
Yeah, it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?
Get jobs in offices, and wake up for the morning commute?"

I think these guys are a duo (I can't tell them apart - all these skinny young indie rock guys look the same to me with their funky fedoras and Aerosmith head bandanas and tight-fitting black jeans), but the band's real tight and I especially love the drum sound - good drummer whoever he is. The other standout tracks on the CD NME named Best New Album of 2008 include: "Weekend Wars," which starts off like Tyranorsuarus Rex before the middle eight morphs into a Sparks song...The funky "Electric Feel" sounds like it would fit in nicely on Beck's Midnight Vultures, which is to say it sounds just like early '70s Sly & The Family Stone...and "The Youth," which starts off like John Lennon circa the New York City years (guess it the other dude singing, the one who doesn't sound like all fey like Bolan), then goes into a dreamy chant...and "Kids" is an infectiously catchy singalong set to a simplistic Fischer-Price keyboard riff...whole CD kinda reminded me of Hot Chip if they listened to less Kraftwerk and more Sparks. Speaking of which, I read somewhere that since they're a duo, they studied the music of other famous duos, like Hall & Oates, early (pre-electric) T. Rex, Sparks and, well, Kraftwerk is basically Ralf and Florian. It all makes sense.

Seduction: Sinatra Sings of Love
Frank Sinatra Enterprises, 2009

As the BBC's Michael Quinn observed, "Few popular music catalogues have been re-worked so rapaciously as that belonging to Francis Albert Sinatra. His 50-odd albums – from 1946 Columbia debut, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, to the second volume of Duets on Capitol nearly five decades later – have spawned well over 2,200 compilations, with barely a handful of them worthy of serious attention." That last comment certainly applies to this compilation, which was compiled by Sinatra family archivist Charles Pignone for Rhino Records just in time for Valentine's Day 2009 and features glib liner notes by The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Living author Bill Zehme, one of those latter-day Frankie-Come-Lately hipsters who laud Sinatra for his surface bling (broads, booze, '60s Schwing) - everything, in fact, but his artistry. God I hate shallow too-cool-for-school drivel like it too much to put out a compilation with actual information about the music, like who what or where played the song and what album or session it was from?

Listening to this CD, I surmised that it's mostly from his '60s period at Reprise - though "It Had To Be You" dates from 1979's Trilogy LP - with the bulk of these versions available on the excellent 1963 release Sinatra's Sinatra ("Witchcraft," "All the Way," "Young At Heart," "The Second Time Around," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and "How Little We Know" - all keepers). 12 of the songs were arranged by Nelson Riddle, six by Don (father of pop star Nikki) Costa, three by Billy May and Neal Hefti, and two by Quincy Jones.

Of course, as a Sinatraphile, I fell for it and checked out this latest entry in the never-ending Sinatra reissues catalog from the library because it had some songs I was unfamiliar with, namely "Prisoner of Love," an alternate version of "My Funny Valentine" and "This Happy Madness." Well, "Prisoner of Love" is fantastic - I had never heard it before and it's the pick of the litter here...
"For one command I stand and wait now
From one who's master of my fate now . . .
She's in my dreams, awake or sleeping
Upon my knees to her I'm creeping,
My very life is in her keeping . . .
I'm just a prisoner of love."

Written by Leo Robin and Russ Columbo and originally recorded in 1932 by Russ Columbo, "Prisoner of Love" appeared on Sinatra's very underrated 1962 Reprise LP Sinatra and Strings (recorded with arranger Don Costa). It was a big hit for Perry Como in 1945 and later was covered by - of all people - James Brown and His Famous Flames in 1963 (The Godfather of Soul always had excellent taste; I recall an interview in which he cited Sinatra as one of his favorite singers). Though, like Sting's "Every Breath You Take" "Prisoner of Love" is kind of a scary sell as a "seduction" song as it's really a borderline stalking tale of obsessive love.

The lovely "This Happy Madness" is actually from the 1967 Sinatra album he did with the Brazilian Cole Porter, Antonio Carlos Jobim (which I should have picked up on by the song's parenthetical title Estrada Branca) and arranger Claus Olgerman - an album that proved he could handle legitimate bossa nova/jazz stylings just as comfortably as his popular singing and swinging.

The alternate "My Happy Valentine," features the bel canto singer's textbook glissando near the end whereby he shows off what he learned about breath control all those years ago watching Tommy Dorsey. Singing "Stay little valentine, stay - " he holds the note for what seems like an eternity before effortlessly gliding into the finale " - each day is Valentine's Day." He first recorded this song at a 1953 Capitol Records session with Nelson Riddle that was released on the album Songs for Young Lovers (1954), so I'm guessing this is from those sessions; given the lack of liner notes, we'll never know. It was a staple of Sinatra's live performances and can be heard in that context on 1962's excellent Sinatra & Sextet: Live in Paris album. But if you want a great alternate version of a Sinatra song, how about the lesser known "Night and Day" ballad version Sinatra cut with Don Costa from Sinatra and Strings? Though Frank recorded the Cole Porter gem five times, most famously as an uptempo number with Nelson Riddle on 1956's A Swingin' Affair, some consider this to be his best interpretation.

I guess this is a fine intro to Sinatra for the kind of people who buy these kind of compilations at the Starbucks checkout counter, but for Sinatra lovers, it's frustrating to encounter a release of songs with a tenuous connection to "seduction" (I mean, what else did Sinatra sing but love songs?) that seem rushed to market. And, as far as songs that seduce, how can you leave out Cole Porter's "You're Sensation" from the High Society soundtrack? ("Making love is quite an art/What you require is the perfect squire, to fire your heart!") I'd even drop trou for Old Blue Eyes if he serenaded me with that! Still, in these end times of soul-less, show-off-y American Idol singers, it's refreshing to hear what a singer with passion, command and respect for The Song can do when he borrows a tune from the songsmith and artistically interprets it. Sinatra was the best, even if this compilation isn't always.

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Blogger Ken said...

Tom, this is very cool, but where's the Pet Shop Boys review?
Great site, bro!


12:19 PM  
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