You, me, the music, and me.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

VARIOUS ARTISTS Amarcord Nino Rota

Hannibal HNBL 9301 (1981)

Amarcord Nino Rota (which translates as "I Remember Nino Rota") is a tribute to the Italian composer/film scorer who provided the music for every single one of Federico Fellini's films (including 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, and Amarcord). It was produced by Hal Willner (whose That's the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk was reviewed by yours truly here) and features a stellar cast of jazz players.

Listening to Rota's music, it's not hard to understand why he and Fellini had such a lengthy (29 years!) and harmonious working relationship; Rota captures perfectly the blend of whimsy and longing found in most of Fellini's films, and his music mirrors the carnival-like atmosphere of these stories. The Carla Bley Band's take on "8 1/2" is a perfect example of this; the piece shifts rapidly through several moods and textures and is able to tell a story without the aid of visuals. Guitarist Bill Frisell contributes a hauntingly evocative "Juliet of the Spirits", and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy's solo reading of "Roma" is sublimely lyrical. The David Amram Quintet's version of "Satyricon" captures the fevered, primal nature of the film in its poundingly insistent rhythms, and "Medley: The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, Il Bidone, The Nights of Cabiria" collects several of Rota's themes in a cool-jazz setting featuring Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Rounding out the album are Jaki Byard's calm but subtly emotional readings of "Amarcord" and "La Strada", which open and close the record, respectively.

Considered by many to be the first "modern" "tribute" album, Amarcord Nino Rota is a generously-sized LP (nearly 57 minutes on a single record) and is worth searching for in any format (it's available on CD, but appears to be out of print (and pricey... I feel very lucky to have secured my copy for $1.99!)).

Thursday, June 22, 2006

THE PRETENDERS Learning to Crawl

Sire 92 39801 (1983)

Though it was only their third full-length album, by the time Learning to Crawl was released in 1983 it felt like the Pretenders had been around a lot longer than they actually had. Since the release of their critically-acclaimed first album in 1980, the band had suffered numerous hardships, including a poorly-received second album, a career-threatening injury for drummer Martin Chambers, and the deaths of two founding members. Amazingly, the group not only survived, but managed to put out one of the best albums of their career, and one of the most poignant and heartfelt rock albums ever.

"Middle of the Road" sets the tone for the rest of the album; it's a rollicking paean to aging and normalcy, with head Pretender Chrissie Hynde both celebrating and railing against her newfound domesticity ("I'm not the cat I used to be/I got a kid, I'm thirty-three"). "Back on the Chain Gang" and "Time the Avenger" develop this theme further with their tales of past lovers and lost youth ("Thought that time was on your side/Now it's time the avenger"). The beautiful "Show Me" is a love song to love itself and features dreamy ascending guitar patterns courtesy of Hynde and guitarist Robbie McIntosh. Finally, "2000 Miles" might be the best modern Christmas song ever written (it came on the radio last December 25 as I was pulling into my parents' driveway. Yeah, it brought a tear to my eye... so what? Okay, maybe a couple of tears... )

I bought this album when it came out (I was 14) and it keeps getting better and more resonant with each passing year. In the end, Learning to Crawl proves that growing up doesn't necessarily equal growing old, and becoming maturer and wiser doesn't always equal getting boring.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

MEKONS Retreat from Memphis

Quarterstick QS26 (1994)

Why, oh why, aren't the Mekons more famous? Why isn't their picture on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine instead of Britney Spears or the cast of The O.C.? Could one ever hope to find a more loveable band of aging anarchist punks who just happen to play some of the most life-affirming rock and roll you'll ever hear in this lifetime? Maybe it's just as well... do we really want the rest of the world to find out about good music? Huh?

Retreat from Memphis was recorded soon after the Mekons' brief major label dalliance with A & M and found the group continuing to develop the classic rock and roll sound of "The Mekons Rock n' Roll" from five years before. It was released on the band's own Quarterstick label on CD, cassette, and a limited vinyl edition of one thousand copies. It was pressed as a sort of double album, with one disc containing only five songs and mastered at 45 rpm; this way, the band was able to include all of the music from the 61-minute CD without leaving any songs off or trying to cram everything onto one record (which can sometimes result in a decrease in sound quality).

Retreat is definitely a rock record, but it contains the usual elements of country and folk that give the Mekons' music its unique flavour. "Ice Rink in Memphis" is a haunting uptempo ballad that mixes a lilting twang beat with blasts of metallic guitar, and "The Flame that Killed John Wayne" is a flat-out rocker that recalls The Clash at their most strident. In fact, the Mekons seem to pick up where the Clash left off, both musically and philosophically; they share the ability to effortlessly mix leftist politics with hard-hitting yet tuneful punk rock. "Our Bad Dream" recalls the Sandinista!-era dub experiments of the Clash (especially if you play it at the wrong speed, which I just did).

Retreat from Memphis and the music of the Mekons will appeal to anyone with an ear for heartfelt, ambitious rock and roll. If you don't own at least one Mekons album, you're missing out on one of punk's best kept secrets.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

BOB DYLAN Infidels

Columbia QC 38819 (1983)

Musically, the eighties were an up-and-down kind of decade, especially for established artists like Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan, who were faced with the choice of either updating their sound for a youthful audience or staying the course. As a result, many of their albums from this period went underappreciated for one reason or another; fortunately, a few have resurfaced in people's memories as underrated gems that time forgot. Bob Dylan's Infidels is one such album.

Infidels was recorded before the eighties got going in full swing, and is a tight yet relaxed collection of Dylan tunes, thanks largely to the famed dub rhythm section of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. They prove themselves able to adapt to any style on the album, be it the gentle reggae lilt of "Jokerman", the hard-driving rock of "Neighborhood Bully", or ballads such as "License to Kill" and "Sweetheart Like You", which was a minor radio hit for Dylan. Keyboardist Alan Clark gives solid support throughout the album (his Hammond B-3 organ provides stirring swells in all the right places), as do guitarists Mick Taylor (formaerly of the Rolling Stones) and Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits). Knopfler co-produced the album with Dylan, resulting in a warm, gimmick-free sound not unlike that of Dire Straits' early albums.

Lyrically, Dylan is in full "preacher" mode for most of the album, whether warning us that sometimes Satan comes as a "Man of Peace" or declaiming "false-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin" in "Jokerman". Love it or hate it, Dylan's judgmental fire works extremely well with the mostly laid-back musical settings, giving them an intensity that may never have materialised with a more forgiving lyricist at the helm. In turn, the music softens the edge of the words (but, thankfully, only a little).

Here's the video for "Jokerman", one of the better visual efforts made by a sixties icon during the video-crazy eighties. Only Dylan's Miami Vice jacket (mostly obscured) gives the decade away!

Friday, June 02, 2006

ORNETTE COLEMAN Dancing in Your Head

A&M SP-722 (1977)

Dancing in Your Head was an important step in the evolution of Ornette Coleman's music. Just as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew marked Miles Davis' stylistic transition from jazz into rock-oriented fusion, this album was Ornette's first foray into his now trademark blend of jazz, funk, and harmolodics.

The album is brief but seems to contain a lot of music in its thirty-one minutes. The bulk of the record is occupied by two takes of "Theme from a Symphony", listed as "Variation One" and "Variation Two" (the tune has appeared on other albums by Ornette as "The Good Life"). The group consists of Ornette on alto sax, Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass (credited here as "Rudy MacDaniel"), Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums (credited as "Shannon Jackson"), and Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbee on "1st and 2nd lead guitar", respectively. After several unison statements of the main theme, the group improvises freely, with no apparent chord progression to guide them. Things get quite frantic, and even the most resilient of ears may have trouble listening to the squealing, childlike interplay of the instruments (it doesn't help that the recording makes Jackson sound as if he's playing large boxes of cereal instead of drums!), but repeated listenings prove rewarding as different elements of the sound come to the front with each spin.

The final track, "Midnight Sunrise", was recorded with the Master Musicians of Joujouka and clarinetist/author Robert Palmer in Morocco in 1973 and is an oddly fitting postscript to the album. Coleman's sax and Palmer's clarinet fit perfectly with the beautiful squall conjured by the MMJ (the track can be heard in the David Cronenberg film Naked Lunch). Listen to Dancing in Your Head and you'll hear the exciting sound of an innovator reinventing himself.