You, me, the music, and me.

Friday, March 31, 2006

GLENN GOULD Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

CBS Masterworks IM 37779 (1982)

Legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations is stamped so indelibly with his own personal stylistic imprint that I can't help but think of this work as sounding undeniably Canadian, even though it was written by a German composer over 250 years ago.

Bach composed the set in the mid-eighteenth century for Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling, who suffered from insomnia and requested some soothing music to help him sleep. Bach produced this set of a theme and thirty variations on a bassline, in which the original line of notes is put through changes of tempo, dynamics, ornamentation, and rhythm in each successive variation. The piece was performed by the gifted harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, hence the title. The theme and variations form had its origins in the street minstrels of the time (today we would call them "buskers"); a musician would take a given song and vary the style of the accompaniment so as to get as much use and variety out of the material as possible before moving on to the next tune. In the Goldberg Variations, Bach took this form to what many consider its apotheosis.

Gould actually recorded the Variations twice; once, in 1955, near the beginning of his career as a performer, and again in 1981, not long before his untimely death the following year at the age of 50. (By some happy quirk of fate, my previously owned copy of this album contains both discs.) In the 1981 recording, he plays the aria and its thirty variations without pause, one leading directly into another on the beat, often with dramatic dynamic shifts between them (the ultra-quiet aria at the beginning leading abruptly into the loud first variation is a signature of Gould's rendition, as well as his overall style).

Gould recorded prolifically for CBS, and every album he made for the label is worthy of attention, but the Goldberg Variations are absolutely essential for any classical music collection (and for any Canadian music collection as well).

Sunday, March 26, 2006

THE ZULUS Down on the Floor

Slash 92 58281 (1989)

If only the Zulus had come along a little later than they did; listening to their sole LP release Down on the Floor, the group sounds like it would have made a perfect companion to bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam on the airwaves of only a few years later. The album's bluesy, hard-rock sound would prove to be a foreshadowing of the grunge nirvana to come.

I picked this up on a whim at a record sale at the Dalhousie University Student Union building in Halifax in the early nineties for one dollar (still sealed and brand new). As I played it, I experienced the joy of discovery that so many music collectors cherish, that of finding something new and unheard that the general populace had yet to experience (or would ever experience, in this unfortunate case).

The Zulus hailed from Boston and included former members of bands such as Human Sexual Response and Wild Kingdom. The album was produced by Bob Mould (of Husker Du and Sugar fame; he also wrote the theme to The Daily Show); that and the fact that it was on the super-cool Slash label were more than enough to convince me to give it a try.

Initially, the most striking things about the band's music are the virtuosic, bluesy guitar riffs by Rich Gilbert and Larry Bangor's yelping, impassioned vocals. Listen closer and you'll hear some of the strongest songwriting of any rock record of the eighties; there is literally not a bad song on the album. Songs like "Never Again" and "Skinny Dip" feature Gilbert's twisted blues-rock inversions and Bangor's howling tales of love gone wrong atop the rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Rich Cortese and drummer Malcolm Travis (who would go on to play with Mould in Sugar). "Big D" is a slow, smoldering blues that sounds like a great, lost Led Zeppelin outtake circa 1977, and "Gotta Have Faith" closes the record in a raging wash of feedback a la Husker Du.

In the music business, sometimes timing is everything. Time wasn't on the side of the Zulus, but their only record is well worth searching for. It's currently out of print on CD, so scour those yard sales and used record stores.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

NEIL YOUNG After the Gold Rush

Reprise RS 6383 (1970)

I'm doing this one because my girlfriend suggested it; she took one look at the cover and said, "Ew, that's a creepy cover. You should do that one next." It is kind of creepy; it's an overexposed shot of Young walking past an old lady, but the dark blacks in the photo mess with the perspective so that it looks like Young is either carrying the woman on his back or has an old lady growing out of him. Weird.

After the Gold Rush was the third album to be released solely under Young's name, coming after his work with Buffalo Springfield and during his tenure with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; though it hews closely to the folk-rock/country model of those groups, Young's signature hard-rock sound is beginning to take shape in such songs as "Southern Man" and "When You Dance I Can Really Love". "Southern Man" bravely tackles racism in the south (inspiring the famous "answer" song "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd), but for the most part Young's lyrics focus on love, age, and the passing of time, subjects with which he's stuck closely throughout his career. The overall mood of the album is downcast, yet hopeful; for every plodding piano chord or lonesome harmonica lick, there's a drum kick or wailing guitar lick to prod it out of its misery. The wary optimism in the lyrics of "Don't Let It Bring You Down" is mirrored in the music's harmonies, as the song struggles to wrestle itself free from its own minor chords.

Dismissed by some critics as "dull" at the time of its release, Gold Rush has stood the test of time and is one of Young's definitive albums; like Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced or the Beatles' Let It Be, it's one of those records that seems like a greatest hits collection even though (amazingly) it's not.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Celluloid CELL 5002 (1983)

I picked this up very recently at a new store in town called the Oryx; if you live in the Saint John area, it's located on Prince William Street just past Melvin's* or whatever that bar on the corner is called now. It's a nice, friendly little shop that specializes in used books, records, and CD's, and it seems to contain every album by every band I ever listened to in college. In other words, if the owners have kids, I'm the one who's going to be putting them through college.

The Golden Palominos are an ever-changing ensemble of musicians from all walks of musical life led by drummer Anton Fier. Though their later albums would skew toward the alt-pop and country-rock ends of genre classification, this, their debut, was firmly entrenched in the New York avant garde of the early eighties.

The most prominent players on the album include former DNA/Ambitious Lovers frontman Arto Lindsay on strangulated vocals and guitar, Fred Frith on guitar and violin, John Zorn on saxophone and duck calls, and Bill Laswell on bass. Its Fier's vision which dominates, though; his drums (both acoustic and electric) are what drive tracks like "Hot Seat", with its furious wails and disembodied vocals churning over Fier's DMX beats, or "Under the Cap", with Lindsay's yodels riding the churning percussion like a bucking bronco. "Cookout" features an early example of record-scratching (courtesy of Roger Trilling) and "I.D." rides along on Laswell's funky fretless bass, giving the album a "dance-party-on-Mars" vibe.

The Golden Palominos will appeal to fans of projects led by Zorn, Lindsay, and Laswell; it's avant-garde, it's got a good beat, and you can dance to it.

*UPDATE: the bar is called Elwood's. My bad.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

ANTHONY BRAXTON The Montreux/Berlin Concerts

Arista 5002 (1977)

This is it, ladies and gents; my desert island disc. The one album I would save from my burning apartment. The Montreux/Berlin Concerts showcases my favourite artist during one of his creative peaks with two of his best groups. I briefly owned this on CD before losing it, but the record is superior; it contains an orchestral piece not on the CD and the sound quality is not much different (the CD is currently out of print).

This may be the first Braxton recording under his own name and leadership that I owned (it was either this or For Alto); I remember buying it Taz Records in Halifax, N.S. The album contains two quartet performances; the first was recorded in 1975 at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland with Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, Dave Holland on bass, and Barry Altschul on drums and percussion. The second concert took place at the Berlin Jazz Days in Germany in 1976 with trombonist George Lewis taking Wheeler's place.

Side one opens in Montreux with the ominous "Composition 40N" (Braxton uses diagrams as titles on this record; the composition numbers are taken from here and here); over a bowed bass drone, the horns hold long tones which break up into short staccato bursts which in turn gradually form the theme of "Composition 23J", a swinging post-bop number which features a furious alto solo from Braxton that disintegrates into screams and squeals. On side two, "Composition 40(O)" is an atonally pointillistic piece that contains some thrilling interplay between Braxton and Wheeler.

"Compostion 6C", from the Berlin performance, is a goofy march that builds to a blustery squall of notes from Braxton and Lewis over Holland's bowed bass and Altschul's clacking percussion. The concert continues on side three with "Composition 6F", the one with the infamous "farting" contrabass saxophone noises (and a loud, smoking solo by Altschul, one of jazz's most underrated drummers), and concludes with "Composition 40K", another of Braxton's slyly swinging post-bop pieces that features a bold, propulsive solo from Lewis.

Side four contains "Composition 63", recorded at the Berlin Jazz Days two days after the quartet performance. It is one of Braxton's works for large orchestral ensemble (in this case, the Berlin New Music Group, conducted by Herr Hummel, featuring Braxton and Lewis as soloists); sonically, it has more in common with twentieth century classical or "new" music than the fractured jazz of most of the rest of the album. In my view, it's perhaps his most artistically successful larger work. The influence of twelve-tone serialism in the piece is obvious, but it moves and breathes with a life of its own and a voice that is undeniably Braxton's. The static, long-tone orchestral tuttis that back the soloists foreshadow Braxton's later orchestral works like Compositions 96 and 82 (for four orchestras!). Braxton has had difficulties with performances and recordings of his concert repertoire (due to indifference, racism, etc.), but here the ensemble sounds eager and totally involved in the music.

Of all the Arista-Freedom jazz recordings desperately needing proper CD representation, Montreux/Berlin is in a class of its own. It's an absolutely essential document of an artist who has always stressed the importance of documentation; it's also perhaps the best music of Braxton's career, which is saying a lot.

Friday, March 03, 2006

MEKONS "The Mekons Rock n' Roll"

Blast First BFFP 40 (1989)

The Mekons are a collective of socialist musicians hailing from Leeds, England. I say "collective" because that seems like a more fitting word to describe their ever-changing ensemble than "band". One of the first punk-rock groups who never achieved the household notoreity of the Sex Pistols or the Clash (but who outlasted them both combined), they shifted toward a "cowpunk" sound in the mid-eighties before being signed to A&M Records in the U.S. Perhaps stemming from possible record company pressure to make an album with a more "rock" sound, the group produced "The Mekons Rock n' Roll", a sort-of concept album about (you guessed it) rock and roll music that celebrates both its virtues and excesses.

Rock and roll music about rock and roll music usually tends toward the sentimental and/or nostalgic (think of Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll", Huey Lewis and the News' "The Heart of Rock and Roll", even Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music"); even an edgier, questioning lyric like the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)" resolves itself into the singalong comfort of its chorus. With the songs on Rock n' Roll, the Mekons take the Stones' uncertainties and tear them wide open. Rock and roll is presented as a slobbering, carniverous beast, devouring everything in its path.

"Memphis, Egypt" opens the album with a slashing, overdriven guitar, riffing over a pounding drumbeat. Another guitar enters from the side and mocks the first one with a clucking, countryish melody. A third guitar materializes, louder than the previous two combined, as if to silence their arguing, then the drums kick in really loud and the guitars all begin to play in unison, the mocking melody of the second guitar now the main riff of the song, only two or three times louder than before.

We know the Devil and we have shaken him by the hand, embraced him and thought his foul breath was fine perfume just like ROCK N' ROLL...

The amped-up country-and-western of their previous albums is still on display throughout Rn'R; Susie Honeyman's fiddle pokes its way through the distorted wash of Jon Langford's and Tom Greenhalgh's guitars on the waltz-time "Ring O' Roses" and the pretty "Learning to Live on Your Own" (sung by the band's secret weapon/MVP Sally Timms). "Empire of the Senseless" attacks McCarthyesque music censorship;

No-one's making any noise now,
SSHHH, we've been waiting for so long,

They took away our films and notebooks

But it's ok 'cos we've SELF-CENSORED this song.

"The Mekons Rock n' Roll" is an acid-tongued love letter to an abused and misused genre. The Mekons end up celebrating rock and roll while mocking "rock and roll" and leave behind an album which rocks (and rolls) harder than any previous song on the subject.