Monthly Archives: December 2008

“You pray for rain, I pray for blindness.”

waltzlanstraus1

Arcade Fire – “Crown of Love” from Funeral (2004)

Arcade Fire’s Funeral is the kind of album I want my not-yet-born kids to find on my shelves in like 30 years and realize that their dad used to be a pretty cool guy.

This song is so damned beautiful.  It screams with angst and then redemption.  It breaks my heart in that good way that you save for those special occasions when you want your heart broken.

Merry Christmas to all.

Buy the Arcade Fire

Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 2000s, Rock

Robert Johnson, the Rolling Stones, and burning out

King of the Delta Blues Singers

King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson – “Love In Vain Blues” and “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” from The Complete Recordings (1990) [originally recorded 1936]

The Rolling Stones – “Love In Vain” from Let It Bleed (1969) and “Stop Breaking Down” from Exile On Main Street (1972)

Most serious fans of classic rock surely know the myth of Robert Johnson–another musician whose premature death seems to give his music the flavor of the unknown. I’ve returned to his music lately and I’m struck by the sheer tunefulness of his songs–something that the Rolling Stones recognized and capitalized on, as evidenced in these classic covers.

But the Robert Johnson originals are where the real power is. Imagine Keith Richards sitting around in late ’60s Swinging London, taking pills, wrapping himself up in frilly scarves, surrounding himself with beautiful plasticine women–and these cuts, off the King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, come on over the hi-fi. It must have been a shock to hear that kind of power–it’s still a shock today, and I would be willing to bet that these songs would retain their power and mystery if Johnson had lived to open for the likes of Blueshammer.

Here’s a fascinating article on Johnson’s myth, and the possible discovery of a new photograph of the King of the Delta Blues Singers. If you’re new to Robert Johnson, start there.

Buy Robert Johnson

Buy the Stones

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, Acoustic, Americana, Blues, Folk, Rock, Roots rock

“I am not one half of the problem”

Pavement – “Zurich Is Stained” from Slanted & Enchanted (1992)

I bought a lap steel guitar a while back and was discouraged in learning it.

However, I was encouraged in listening to this kick-ass Pavement tune with its utterly lost but somehow beautiful slide line.

I know there are Pavement re-issues coming out of the woodwork these days, but if you’re gonna get S&E, I say go for the original release. It’s so appropriately lo-fi.

Buy it here

Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 1990s, Rock

On John Coltrane and “Burning Out”

Coltrane on soprano sax, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.

Coltrane on soprano sax, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.

John Coltrane -“India” from The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1997)

John Coltrane – “Jupiter” from Interstellar Space (1972)

I’ve wanted to do a post on John Coltrane for a while now, and given our recent discussions of “Burning out vs. fading away,” I figured now was as good a time as any (Coltrane died at age 40 of liver cancer). I’ll start by talking about Coltrane’s music.

The first track is “India,” recorded in 1961 at New York City’s Village Vanguard jazz club. I love the instrumentation here — Coltrane on soprano sax, Eric Dolphy (another premature death, 1964 at age 36) on bass clarinet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on oud, and Gavin Bushnell on oboe. Now, until hearing Dolphy’s bass clarinet solo here, I thought bass clarinet was the domain of unpopular girls in high school bands, but I now know better. The liner notes to The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings say that the oud is providing the drone heard throughout the piece, but I don’t know much about the oud, and don’t know how it can create a drone (the liner notes also mention that there is indeed some confusion as to exactly what instrument is being played here). Any string players care to enlighten me? Also I have a hard time telling the soprano sax and oboe apart, but I think the first solo is Coltrane, and the third is Bushnell, but I’m not sure. Both sound equally squeaky to me. They both could be Coltrane. The second solo is the bass clarinet.

This music was revolutionary in 1961, a mere two years after Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (which featured Coltrane) was released. Compared to this, Kind of Blue, which is a great bop album, sounds relentlessly structured. These Vanguard concerts, recorded over four nights in November of 1961, showed Coltrane already moving away from the hard bop style and into the free jazz exhibited on his later albums.

The second track is “Jupiter,” from Interstellar Space. This is a particularly interesting album, as it consists entirely of duets between Coltrane on tenor sax (and sleigh bells, as heard at the beginning and end of this track) and Rashied Ali on drums. This was the result of one of Coltrane’s final studio sessions, recorded in February 1967 (he died in August of that year). The album was released posthumously. I like this album quite a bit. It is as “free” as Coltrane ever got in his soloing, and yet it is never overwhelming like Ascension (Coltrane’s msot famous and most ambitious free jazz album) can sometimes be with its eleven musicians.

The Coltrane myth, as most every early-death-of-a-musician-myth does, centers on the question of what he would have done had he not died when he did. And the answer, plain and simple,  is that we will never know.

Now, on the question of burning out versus fading away, which Jordy’s recent post raised. I have been thinking about it in terms of why we tend to give artists who die prematurely more notoriety than those whose lives are not cut short. Glenn mentioned in a comment to Jordy’s post that premature death is good for the myth of an artist. I think that is true, but I’d like to take the discussion a bit further. The reason artists (not just musicians) oftentimes get more attention if they die prematurely is due to our society’s attitudes about death. We are afraid of death, in part because it is the great unknown. I think that we look to the work of artists who have died prematurely for insight into the big black hole of death. We think that maybe, because they died “before their time” (whatever that means), their art holds they key to understanding the one thing that no living person can truly understand. Of course, when these artists were alive they were just as clueless as we are, but we listen to their music or study their books or paintings in hopes that they will have some kind of  insight into this whole death thing.

I’m speaking entirely about Western traditions here — I know next to nothing about Eastern traditions regarding these matters. Can anyone out there shed some light on how these things are viewed in the non-Western world?

Buy the Trane

Posted by Adam

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Filed under 1960s, Americana, Experimental, Instrumental, Jazz, Live

“If you had your way, I’d have a lobotomy”

The Exploding Hearts – “Sleeping Aides & Razorblades” from Guitar Romantic [2003]

Next up in the “Burned Out, Didn’t Fade Away” series is Portland power-pop punk band, the Exploding Hearts. After releasing a 28-minute debut album that sounded like a lost classic from London, circa 1977, the Hearts quickly gained notoriety and garnered notices from taste-making rags like Maximum Rocknroll and Pitchfork. On their way home from a show — where pop-punk powerhouse Lookout! Records reportedly scouted the band — the band’s van flipped over and three of the members were killed. Learn more here.

Only an odds-n-sods collection survives — and so the band’s reputation rests on Guitar Romantic, a few stray singles, and the thought of what might have been. And that’s one of the hallmarks of “Better To Burn Out” artists: the weird tragedy of never being able to hear the songs that might have been written. But of course, as Keats shows us in “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” the most beautiful thing is what we cannot grasp, that forever eludes us. Therein lies part of the charm of the Burned-Out.

What would you like to buy? Sleeping aids? Razorblades?

Posted by Glenn

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Filed under 2000s, Pop, Punk, Rock

“You and me, baby”

Harry Nilsson – “Love Story” from Nilsson Sings Newman (1970) and “Gotta Get Up” from Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

Harry Nilsson was one of the greatest songwriters of the 1970s.  Moreover, he was, in my opinion, one of the finest vocalists in the last half decade of popular music.  He was melodically innovative and always precise.  His dynamic control and range were as impressive as any contemporary performer I can think of including John Lennon and Paul McCartney who both, incidentally, crushed on Nilsson big time.

His style and humor are displayed in this impressive bit of A/V:

Be still and know Nilsson

Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 1970s, Pop

“She made me feel unwanted”

Gram Parsons and the International Submarine Band – “Millers Cave” from Safe at Home [1968]

If you need proof that Gram Parsons invented country rock, look no further than this Cowboy Jack Clement cover from GP’s one and only LP with the ISB. Indeed, the whole album has a killer shuffle that never breaks down and, more importantly, never betrays its roots (love that twinkling piano). Special credit is due drummer Jon Corneal and future Parsons collaborator Chris Ethridge on bass.

While GP’s songwriting and vocal performances aren’t nearly as pained or expressive as later recordings with the Byrds, Burritos, and by himself, Safe at Home confirms that his winning streak began very early on.

Parsons lived only five years after the release of this album.  I have been thinking about how premature deaths in music (and art generally) add to the myth of greatness.  Is it truly “better to burn out than to fade away” as my man Neil Young puts it?  Please weigh in.

Stay Safe at Home

also, check out the excellent Parsons documentary

Posted by Jordy

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Filed under 1960s, Country, Rock