You, me, the music, and me.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Warner Bros. 2HS 3350 (1979)

Let's say you're a member of a band who just released the biggest-selling album of all time. What do you do for a follow-up? If you're Fleetwood Mac, you put out Tusk, a moody, wandering double album with little of the immediate commercial appeal of its predecessor (Rumours). Oh yeah, and make sure that the first single you release to radio is the strangest sounding track on the album.

I remember hearing the song "Tusk" on the radio soon after the release of this album and being both intrigued and impressed that a band that was on top of the world at the time would so willingly risk commercial suicide by putting out a muffled-sounding live recording featuring a marching band as the lead single from their hotly anticipated new album. I later learned that the madman behind the method was Lindsey Buckingham, the singer-songwriter responsible for the stranger songs on this album ("The Ledge", "Not That Funny"). In it's own nose-thumbing way, it's possible that Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" may have been my first taste of "alternative" music.

Not every song on the album flaunts commercial convention so wildly; Stevie Nicks' songs sound like they would fit comfortably on Rumours ("Sara", "Angel"), as do Christine McVie's ("Over & Over", "Never Forget"), yet even these songs have a dreamier, airier quality than the tightly focused writing of that album. Perhaps they are meant to counter the angry bite of most of Buckingham's songs like "What Makes You Think You're the One?" with its barrelhouse piano and rage-filled vocal, or the muffled yelps of the title track. Either way, the album is Buckingham's show.

Tusk went on to sell about 2 million copies at the time and was considered a flop compared to Rumours' sales of 15+ million, but time has been kind to the album, and it's generally considered to be one of the group's stronger and most influential efforts (in 1986, Camper Van Beethoven recorded their own song-for-song cover of the album) and has developed something of a cult following. If Tusk was an attempt at commercial suicide, then it would appear that the experiment ultimately proved a failure.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Warner Bros. P-11070W (1981)

For a band that released only a handful of albums, the band known as Television has garnered a legendary reputation as one of the earliest and most important post-punk groups ever (think of them as the Terrence Malick or J.D. Salinger of music). After their (first) breakup, singer/guitarist Tom Verlaine went on to release several well-received solo albums that developed Television's unique sound with copying it outright.

Dreamtime was Verlaine's second album under his own name and is notable for the way it showcases his ability to compress Television's trademark guitar assault into tight, compact pop songs such as "There's a Reason" and "Fragile". Verlaine gets valuable assistance from gutiarist Ritchie Fliegler and former Television bassist Fred Smith, but its his own voice and guitar that take centre stage throughout the album. Verlaine was and is widely considered to be the best, most virtuosic guitarist to emerge from the New York punk scene of the seventies, and he gets off several soaring solos on tunes like "Always" and "Without a Word", while "The Blue Robe" is an instrumental that features Verlaine stabbing away with sharp, crisp guitar lines.

Television reunited briefly in 1992, after which little was heard from Verlaine until this year, when he released two albums simultaneously on the Thrill Jockey label. Hopefully this will spark a renewed interest in Verlaine's earlier, hard-to-find works like Dreamtime.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

WYNTON MARSALIS The Wynton Marsalis Quartet Live at Blues Alley

Columbia PC2 40675 (1988)

Recorded near the end of Wynton Marsalis' ascendancy to keeper of the traditional jazz flame, Live at Blues Alley is quite a bit looser, even rowdier, than his studio albums of the same period. The live setting of a small club with an appreciative audience seems to inspire the musicians into some of their freest (and, occasionally, most frenzied) playing on record.

Take the opening tune, "Knozz-Moe-King". Marsalis leads his quartet through the manic free-bop changes like Miles Davis and his sixties quintet, careening recklessly around the implied harmonies, soloing freely off little more than drummer Jeff Watts' pounding rhythms, yet able to stop and start together on a dime. Or pianist Marcus Roberts' solo on "Juan", where he gets deep into a riff, repeating it over and over with different rhythmic inflections until it threatens to shake itself loose from the beat altogether. The highlight of the album is probably the fifteen-minute "Chambers of Tain", a showcase for Watts' prodigious percussion chops in which his solo seems arranged into chapters that resolve into a recurring theme.

Things calm down a bit on side three, with a fairly straightforward reading of Charlie Parker's "Au Privave" and a touching rendition of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans", but, for the most part, Live at Blues Alley is fierce, virtuosic hard bop that crackles with energy and invention and shows an unexpected (but welcome) side of Wynton Marsalis.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

TODD RUNDGREN Hermit of Mink Hollow

Bearsville BRK 6981 (1978)

Todd Rundgren's name might not be immediately recognizable to the ear, but his music may be, especially if you grew up in the seventies anywhere near the rock album phenomenon that was Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, which Rundgren produced and played guitar on. He's remained prolific since then, releasing albums on his own and producing bands such as The Pursuit of Happiness and XTC.

Rundgren was and is the kind of fellow who likes to do things his own way (during the recording of XTC's Skylarking, he butted heads with bandleader Andy Partridge so many times that Partridge quit the band not once, but twice), and if that means doing everything himself, then so much the better. Therefore, the invention of the synthesizer was like a godsend to Rundgren, who was already a multi-instrumentalist but was now able to record nearly everything himself. Unfortunately, this sometimes gives his albums a tinny, insular feel, and many of the sounds and textures on Hermit of Mink Hollow sound like they would have been out of date even during the seventies.

What saves the day is Rundgren's undeniable gift for a catchy hook, regardless of subject matter. The album is divided into "the easy side" and "the difficult side", but both are full of instantly hummable melodies, whether it's the first side's relationship tales "Can We Still Be Friends" and "Hurting for You" or the second side's "Bread", "Bag Lady", and "Lucky Guy", which deal with weightier topics like homelessness and depression. Even a throwaway novelty like "Onomatopoeia" would be a highlight on most other singer-songwriter's albums.

Rundgren continues to record, tour, and embrace technology as it suits his purposes; he maintains his website himself and is a pioneer in music multimedia. On Hermit of Mink Hollow, though, the focus is on the songwriter and his songs.

Monday, May 15, 2006

ANTHONY BRAXTON Seven Standards 1985, Volumes I & II

Magenta MA-0203 & MA-0205 (1985, 1986)

The debate rages on concerning whether or not Anthony Braxton's peculiarly personal music can legitimately be called "jazz", or if Braxton can even play jazz at all. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in the matter of the second argument, we submit exhibits "A" and "B", the Seven Standards albums recorded by Braxton in the mid-eighties, on which he plays popular tunes by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and others in a more or less straightahead style accompanied by a crackshot traditional jazz rhythm section. Though Braxton has never cared much for popular opinion of his music, these albums feel like the work of someone with just a little bit to prove.

Compared to Braxton's other recordings, these may be some of his strangest performances simply due to the fact that they sound so normal. The angular themes and formless improvisations associated with the artist have been replaced by the lush melodies of "You Go to My Head" and the sprightly post-bop of "Moment's Notice". It's not as if Braxton hasn't been down this road before (or since), though; in the mid-seventies he recorded another pair of albums entitled In the Tradition composed mainly of standards, (though those albums had more of an experimantal, "out" feel than these) and he's recorded entire albums of material by Monk, Charlie Parker, and Lennie Tristano.

Non-fans of Braxton probably won't be won over by these recordings, but acolytes and neophytes may be pleased by what's on display here. Braxton's trademark grainy alto sound is cushioned by the top-notch team of pianist Hank Jones, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Victor Lewis; they support and follow their leader unfalteringly, even when the excitement of the performances causes the tempo to rush or Braxton takes off on an atonal flight of fancy here or there.

Fans of older standards may prefer the first volume, with its renditions of "Spring Is Here" and "I Remember You", while those with slightly more modern tastes may prefer the second, which concentrates on tunes by Monk, Coltrane, and Miles Davis. Open-eared music-lovers with a taste for energetic, tonal hard-bop and ballads are advised to grab 'em both!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Videos added

I've sprinkled about a half-dozen more videos throughout the blog; I'm too lazy to link to each one, so please have a look through the monthly archives for some moving pictures (and visit YouTube!)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

THE MOTHERS Fillmore East, June 1971

Bizarre/Reprise MS 2042 (1971)

The story goes that, at an early age, Frank Zappa decided he wanted to become a serious classical composer when he grew up, but in order to raise the money that would allow him to work at the type of music he loved, he would first start a band and become a rock star. That band was the Mothers of Invention, and on this live album one can hear traces of Zappa's ambitions in its operetta-like structure (even though most "serious" composers would probably never write about groupies or mud sharks).

The album's "overture", "Little House I Used to Live In", gives the listener a crash course in Zappa's compositional style: using the traditional rock group instrumentation of guitars, bass, keybaords and drums, he creates linear themes over jazzy harmonic changes and bluesy rhythms, then deflates any self-importance in the music by layering silly scat-singing on top. Zappa uses the Wagnerian technique of the leitmotif, which involves assigning each character in a musical drama their own identifying melodic fragment, and introduces us to the "mud-shark arpeggio" and "the mating call of the adult male mud shark". What follows is a rather sordid (but apparently true) tale involving groupies, a video camera, fish, and the rock bands Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge (you can read about it here, but it's not suitable for all ages or dispositions, so don't say I didn't warn you).

Zappa's catalogue never seems to go out of print, so this and many other albums of the period are readily available on CD (thanks in large part to Zappa having the prescience to buy up the rights to his own music from the record companies so he could control its release (he even went so far as to seek out illegal bootleg recordings of his music and rerelease them on his own label)). Get it and hear how, even in his rock band/groupie/mud shark days, Zappa was developing his "serious" style while never taking himself too seriously.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

More video added...

... here, here, and here. Enjoy!

Friday, May 05, 2006


Arista-Freedom AL 1038 (1977)

Although Cecil Taylor has performed and recorded with a wide variety of performers and in various sizes of ensembles (from duets and trios all the way up to orchestras), I've always enjoyed his playing most by itself. Like Duke Ellington and Art Tatum before him, Taylor has the ability to utilise the eighty-eight keys of the piano as his own orchestra, and his percussive, rhythmic attack eliminates any real need for a rhythm section.

Indent is a live recording of a solo Taylor concert from 1973 at Antioch College in Ohio and is a typically fiery performance from the master. Taylor's style owes as much to modern classical or "art" music as to jazz, and parts of "Indent: first layer" sound like baroque arpeggios sped up and warped beyond recognition. The blues can still be heard in his fractured swing rhythms, but most casual jazz listeners may find Taylor's rejection of traditional (or just about any) harmony a bit much for the ears. In addition, the piano sounds ready to break apart at any minute under the strain of his thunderous attack. Yet there is an "ugly beauty" in even the most sonically extreme of Taylor's inventions, and he is just as capable of sublime subtlety as he is of overt excitement. "Indent: second layer, part two" builds gradually, through the use of Taylor's trademark "mirror-image" fingering (in which the fingers of each hand play opposing but equidistant melodies), into the brutal note-cascades of "Indent: third layer".

Since words (or even audio) alone cannot convey the intensity of a Cecil Taylor performance, below is a clip of Taylor performing before the cameras of Ron Mann for his documentary Imagine the Sound in 1980. It's irrefuteable evidence that, love it or hate it, there is nothing quite like the music of Cecil Taylor.

(Imagine the Sound is currently being restored for HD DVD/Dolby Digital, available Fall 2006. To pre-order, visit Ron Mann's website My thanks to Ron Mann for the use of the clip.)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Video updates

Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, I've been adding some videos to my blog. You can check them out here, here, here, and here, and I'll be letting you know when I add others. To try it out, click on the arrow on the screen below and watch the John Coltrane Quartet play "Naima" at around the time that this album was recorded.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Deutsche Grammophon 2543 007 (1973)

'1898' was composed by Mauricio Kagel to comemmorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Deutsche Grammophon, a prominent German record label specializing in classical music. It is unique in several ways, not the least of which is its instrumentation. Kagel was inspired by a photograph from 1910 of an ensemble led by Bruno Seidler-Winkler in which the musicians played instruments that appeared to be violins with horns protruding from them (actually trumpet bells). These strange hybrids were called Stroh-violins, named for their inventor, Charles Stroh, who wished to create an instrument loud enough to be recorded on the phonographs of the day. Kagel was unable to find any existing Stroh-violins, so he created his own for the purpose of this recording.

Stroh-violins sound almost as strange as they look, with the amplified quality of an electric violin but more woody resonance. The composition itself lends to the unique sound of the record; Kagel avoids harmonic complexity by using no more than two notes at once in the string parts, producing a haunting, homophonic quality. Add to that a choir of untrained children's voices who alternate trills and open vowels with bursts of laughter and the end result is a rather spooky sounding composition, even for the time in which it was written.

'1898' is a difficult but rewarding listen; while recommended to adventurous music lovers and historians, it is not for everyone, as evinced in Kagel's self-effacing liner notes: "Right from the start I had declined to select children distinguished by the quality of their voices, and had invited a class of schoolchildren I didn't know to come to the recording studio. True to my view that there are no unmusical people, only those whose musicality is damaged by wanting or defective education, I now tried... to awaken the childrens' interest... After two sittings I was content with the outcome. On the other hand, one child told me: 'Write that nothing was achieved.'" Listeners are invited to track down a copy of '1898' and decide for themselves.