Dancing in the Streets (or: How To Not Be Bored)

Balani

Balani Show Super Hits : Various Artists

 

Most bands bore me.

I don’t mean that categorically. I mean that even when I like a band, at some point during their live set, I get a little bored. It might just be an age thing. I don’t have the patience I once had, especially for guitar-driven rock. If a band isn’t doing something really interesting with it, I’m liable to get antsy, go grab a drink, bum a smoke, anything to escape the onslaught of amps for a moment.

I feel similarly about music in general these days. For the last several years, most of the music I seek out has been from other countries, if only to bust through the predictable sounds of Western Imperialism. Now I gravitate towards the “international” section of record stores, as well as blogs featuring music not from America or Britain (though of course, my freedom to so easily dip into other cultures speaks of imperialism as well, but that’s another story…)

A recent search at my local record store (Euclid Records) turned up this delightful album. I knew nothing about modern “Super Shows” and “Electronic Street Parties from Mali,” but, as soon as I put in on at their listening station, I knew I had to buy it. Though it has some familiar elements, overall it sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. Plus I just like the idea of music created on and for the streets.

I have no idea exactly how this music is made, but it seems to be a blend of traditional, acoustic instruments with modern electronics (keyboards, samples, a mix of real and electronic drums, or they might all just be samples – so hard to tell these days!). Some of it has an almost techno-beat, while other tracks employ more of a reggaeton-feel. Several songs feature a xylophone/marimba sounding instrument, which, from googling, I discovered is called a balafon. The balani from the title is the smaller version of the instrument, one with less keys that players can wear strapped around their chests (like the “keytar” version of a standard keyboard, I imagine).

The more music has become internationalized in general, the more musicians are drawing from other cultures for inspiration. Rap has clearly influenced these musicians, as many of these tracks feature MCs. A lot of the singing also contains a healthy dose of auto-tune. I was reminded of M.I.A. while listening to several of these tracks, and am fairly certain she’s utilized a lot of these sounds and rhythmic ideas on some of her own recordings.

While it’s music made to dance to, it’s also effective for cleaning or really any energetic activity. My favorite track varies depending on my mood, but right now I’m really taken by the second song, “Furu Djogou” by Kaba Blon. It features several singers (male and female I believe), and a sick, multi-pitched drum beat that plays in lock-step with the balani, driving the entire song. You honestly won’t be able to stay still while this album is playing… but then again, why would you?

You can preview and purchase the album here

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Really don’t mind if you sit this one out…

Thicklow

Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick

Ah, prog rock: Much maligned, and often rightly so, when the complexity gets in the way of the soul. But was progressive music ever supposed to be soulful? What does soulful mean, anyway? The very nature of it is something difficult to nail down and put into words, since thoughts themselves are inherently not very soulful.

Which leads to a deeper question: what is music for? Context, while not everything, counts for a lot. If music is made for dancing, then it’s got to move, it’s got to have a beat, and the steadier the better. When it’s not for dancing, then the tempo and meter no long matter as much. It can speed up, slow down, change time signatures completely, and veer in and out of different genres at will.

I’m only an amateur music historian, and have limited knowledge of how exactly music made the unlikely leap from ritual drumming to classical composition to hip- hop in the span of the last dozen-or-so centuries. Clearly, it was a complicated process of cross-cultural co-mingling, where sounds, traditions, forms, and technology all met to create and spread new forms to the masses.

Sometime in the early 1970s, a form emerged that became known as progressive rock, an extension of rock n’ roll that stripped away a lot of its dancier elements (the “roll”) and borrowed from classical and jazz by valuing composition and virtuosic playing above most everything else. As a result, the songs got longer and thematically linked, creating what became known as the “concept album.”

Thick as a Brick was one of the first to employ one continuous track for the entire duration of the album. And, ironically enough, it was meant to be a parody of the concept album. The cover itself was a satirical jab at tabloids that folded out and read like a newspaper, and even included a mixed review of itself. The album is supposed to be based on a vulgar poem by an eight-year old genius. The whole packaging is very Monty Python-esque, clever and ambitious and fun, but adds little to the actual music. And how the album parodies progressive music by exemplifying it is beyond me.

Though I can understand and sometimes even agree with the common critiques of progr rock (it’s long, boring noodling – it’s pretentious and indulgent – etc.), this particular album still resonates for me. It’s the first Tull album to truly divorce itself from the blues, which also means few blues progressions, and few amped-up, bluesy solos. It’s not really one song, but a series of them expertly woven together, and they veer from acoustic folk to heavy rock. Each section is full of so many great melodies that I don’t even mind the more abrupt changes. And there’s little wanking because everything is so tightly composed. Even a drum solo sounds less showy than most, utilizing a kind of Elvin Jones-like urgency. Not only do the players play well, but the albums sounds great: the layers build, the acoustic strings rattle and hum, the organ wails, the electric guitar blazes, and the flute swoops in and fucks shit up.

Oh yeah, that’s the other common Tull-complaint: that damned flute. Here, I find it mostly delightful, especially when laced with delay and other effects. Overall, as I listen now, the words that spring most to mind are “damn entertaining.” Part of this is the channel-surfing quality of the music: before you can get bored with one passage, another comes in and takes the song to a new, unexpected place.

Is it a classical music album made by a rock band, or a folk album using classical composition in a rock setting, or… who knows?!? It’s all of the above, and, more than that, it’s fun, at least for me.

Yet I’ll admit I never think to put this album on, or most progressive rock albums, especially when other, non-prog rock fans are around. It’s far from background music, because it kind of demands your attention. And I’m really not sure how much my liking of it still has to do with nostalgia for a time in high school when this music meant something to me. And why exactly did it speak to me? Was it partially a testosterone filled desire to hear complicated music performed by professionals at their peak? Was it the same as sports fans thrilling at the Michael Jordans or Venus/Serena Williams of the world? Gearheads love of muscle cars? I can’t say…

A year after this was released, Jethro Tull put out another concept album, A Passion Play (which makes me wonder how sincere their “parody” intentions were). It’s an album I never got into, as a teenager or otherwise. Listening to it now, its sounds like a pale comparison to Brick, with weaker melodies and less impassioned playing. Despite some decent sections, the overall effect does feel pretentious, marrying classical and rock in ways that lessen both.

But, perhaps someone would say the same hearing Thick as a Brick for the first time. I have no clue. All I know is, I’ll probably still enjoy it the next time I listen to it, ten or so years from now…

Dearly Beloved

PurpleRainLo

Purple Rain – Prince

Setting out to review Purple Rain reminds me why I never wanted to be a critic. What do a critic’s words matter against a masterpiece? If I found myself in that unfortunate position in 1984, I can imagine the review I’d be tempted to write: “Just listen to it. Loud. Preferably with enough room to dance.”

In fact, that’s all I really want to say now. But I guess I’ll say a little more.

In earlier blogs, I mentioned how hard it was to open up to music that I’ve heard thousands of times. This is less difficult with Prince. I’m still discovering new, thrilling aspects to Purple Rain, one of the first albums I can remember asking my parents to buy me. There’s the immense, dynamic range of Prince’s voice throughout, especially on the somewhat-lesser played “The Beautiful Ones,” where he goes from a whisper to a truly jaw-dropping scream that rivals any punk or metal band I’ve ever heard, while still remaining somehow soulful.

There’s not a dud on here, something I can’t really say about any Michael Jackson album, or possibly any other Prince album, either. The songwriting is stellar, the band smokes, and the singing is truly out-of-this-world good. It’s an album that makes me wonder if modern, computer-driven music can ever match the raw emotion, swagger, and sex that infuse every single damn song.

Of course, it’s a top-notch recording using what was probably the finest technology of the time, but it still manages to sound like a band performing live. Miraculously, three of the songs were recorded live, with overdubs and edits added later, including the title song, putting it in what must be a short list of definitive recordings done (mostly) live (offhand, I can only think of that one Peter Frampton album, Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” and a bunch of those Johnny Cash songs from prison).

1984 sure was an interesting year. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was #1 for nearly the first half of the year, and Purple Rain stayed on top for the second. The passing of the torch seemed symbolic of what was happening with music. Jackson’s songs set the playing field, and Prince’s unhinged sexuality took it to the next level. For living proof of this, if you haven’t already, watch the infamous video in which James Brown calls Michael Jackson to the stage:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHaFj7gOWh4

MJ sings a touching little “I Love You,” ditty, and then shakes his skinny hips, moonwalks, etc, basic Michael-shtick, entertaining, but safe. Then he convinces the Godfather to call up Prince, who rides in on the shoulders of a beefy white guy, presumably his bodyguard. He then plays a few licks on the guitar, uses it as a cock-substitute, takes off his top, makes some kind of animal wail into the mic, and then swings back into the crowd, knocking over a fake lamp post as he goes.

This was pretty much the kind of havoc Prince reeked on polite society at the time. The song “Darling Nikki” and its mention of “masturbating with a magazine” was a primary factor in the “adult-content” labeling of records. Personally, when the album came out, I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the lyric, imagining that she’d have to roll the magazine up to use it properly. Nor did I know (until I just read it now) that the concept behind “Purple Rain” was apocalyptic: blood (red) in the sky (blue) makes purple rain. Duh. This makes me love the album even more.

The only critical thing I can really say is that the movie hasn’t aged quite as well. As much as Prince championed female musicians, his character in the movie doesn’t treat them too well. And his acting was never great. But the performances, including Morris Day and the Time… those are still pretty amazing.

A few years before he died, I finally got to see Prince live. He was playing a series of shows at the Forum in Inglewood, CA in order to help save it from bankruptcy. He played at least four shows a week for a month or more, twenty bucks for the majority of tickets. Word was he’d play multiple encores, then leave for up to an hour or more, and possibly come back to jam more. Sure enough, he did just that. The energy he put into every facet of performing for those three-plus hours was truly remarkable.

And he did it all in platform heels. God bless Prince.

Good evening, this is your captain

LAnderson2

Big Science – Laurie Anderson

I could probably write a book about all the ways that Laurie Anderson has affected my life, but, as this is only a blog and I own at least two more of her albums, I’ll try to focus on Big Science for now.

I was twelve or thirteen and away at summer camp when I first heard “O Superman.” Dwight was my teen counselor and a secret punk-rocker with an extensive and eclectic music library on cassette. At night just before bedtime, all the boys in my cabin would gather in our bunks as Dwight would play some of his favorite tracks to us on a small, handheld tape player. Thus began my introduction and lifelong interest in underground music.

I can’t remember all the songs he played for us now, but I’ll never forget Laurie Anderson and “O Superman.” I would lie in my top bunk, eyes closed, feeling simultaneously moved, amused, and creeped-out. The song is deceptively simple, led mostly by an infinitely repeated “Ha” vocal sound as the melody and spoken-word-through a-vocoder parts dance around it. It was one of the few songs I asked him to play repeatedly, falling asleep to its strangely soothing repetition.

Years later, I was brought back to the album in the oddest way. Not long after 9/11, I the answering machine message part of the song came to me, especially the lines: “Here come the planes. So you better get ready,” and, later, “They’re American planes, made in America.”

The song is like a message from the past that we picked up two decades too late. The first track, “From the Air,” hits similar apocalypse-by-way-of-aviation themes. The lyrics all consist of a pilot speaking to the cabin as the plane goes down, often repeating the phrases “This is your captain,” and “We are all going down.” In my dream DJ gig, I get a crowd to dance to this song.

There’s also humor in the hopelessness. The pilot busts into a game of Simon Says. In “Example = 22” the love song chorus about the sun and the birds and the “one and only” ends with the line: “So pay me what you owe me.” In “O Superman,” when everything – love, justice, force – has vanished from the earth, there’s still always: “Mom… Hi Mom!” And then there’s the chorus of the title song, essentially a religious hymn in which God is Science.

All over, there are those quintessential Laurie Anderson pearls of wisdom, these mini-Zen parables, which always leave me amazed no one thought of this before. Like the entirety of “Walking and Falling,” which defines the act of walking as constantly catching yourself from falling, true on a literal level, but also in a poetic kind of way, too.

I haven’t even really gotten to the music part, its cool vintage keyboard sounds, random bits of percussion, handclaps, droning violin, and even bagpipes! What struck me most on a recent listen was its minimalism and the blend of acoustic & electronic instruments that both carried melodies and added textures and sound effects when needed (not to mention a perfectly placed bird sample here and there).

Perhaps it’s only her later partnership with a certain rock star, but, listening now, I was struck with what, musically, the album had in common with early Velvet Undergrund. In a way, its like what might’ve happened if, instead of John Cale, Lou Reed had left the band and took the rock and roll with him, leaving only the arty parts.

There’s another element at play here that’s always been a part of her work even by its absence: gender. Here was a woman who cut her own hair, who wore suits (sometimes with piano-ties that she could play like an actual keyboard), who defined gender on her own terms, who was artsy and weird and subversive, and yet still managed widespread appeal. She was never “pop” enough for mainstream success, but also never too-cool or obtuse for non-artsy types to appreciate. She was an artist on her own terms. Her music was feminist, in that it didn’t always have to address gender, but, when it did, it was slyly observant. The last song on Big Science, “It Tango,” is essentially a dialogue between a man and a woman, in which every response of the man goes: “Isn’t it just like a woman?”

I’m proud to say: my early love of Laurie Anderson is what helped make me not only a freaky performance artist, but a feminist for life.

 

It was twenty years ago today…

SgtPeppers

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – The Beatles

Not the first album I ever owned (that would more likely be something Sesame Street related – the one I recall most now is their Sesame Street Fever disco album), but one of the first, grownup (mostly) collection of songs I ever obsessed over. I doubtless discovered the Beatles via my older sister, a confirmed Beatlemaniac a full decade or so after they’d broken up, which shows their wide-spanning influence over youth culture. I can even recall going as a family to see a double-feature of Yellow Submarine (which I loved), and Let it Be (which bored me to tears, although I did get a kick out of the audience hissing every time Yoko was onscreen, a fact I now view as troublesome).

I’m sure I was first drawn in by their more toddler-friendly fare (“Yellow Submarine,” and, on this album, “When I’m Sixty-Four”). Only later did I learn to fully appreciate the acid-tinged eclecticism of their later recordings. But even their most sophisticated material spoke to my child-mind with its candy-colored innocence (e.g. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds “tangerine trees and marmalade skies…).  Later in life, I never fully bought John Lennon’s statement that the “Lucy” title was just the name of a picture his son drew. That may be true, but did they really never think of the parallels with LSD…? When they were apparently taking loads of it? And writing lines like “kaleidoscope eyes…!?” “so incredibly high?” (Though I admit I always thought the full line was “the girl so incredibly high,” while the actual line connects it to the flowers that “grow so incredibly high.”)

Over the years, the album’s relevance waned for me, while its critical reception also seems to have also wavered, from initial accolades to later accusations of being “overrated,” and eventually earning more nuanced, discerning reviews. Today, I see it as a pioneering recording of uneven material.

I’m honestly not sure if the album I now possess is the same one I had as a kid (the one that I probably inherited from my sister), or one I bought later in life. It’s definitely well-worn. It’s got someone else’s name written on the cover, but that could mean a lot of things. I do recall the prominent skip in “Lovely Rita” almost as if it were a permanent part of the song, so I’ve probably had this one for a while, anyway.

All the songs are so embedded in my psyche that I find it difficult to feel moved by any of the material now. Even its masterpiece, “A Day in the Life,” fails to rouse me the way it once did. I’m most struck by how compact the songs are: the title song is less than two minutes, its more rocking reprise clocking in at a mere 1:29. The first few bars of that second version might be one of my few new discoveries on a recent listen. The chugging guitars and pounding drums might be the earliest example of a metal riff, and actually has a lot in common with the opening to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Seriously, do the Robert Plant wailing part over the intro and you’ll see what I mean.

Besides the brevity of the material, the other surprising aspect is the depth of Ringo’s drumming. Often shat upon by public and press, musicians in-the-know are aware that he’s really the band’s secret weapon. His drumming style manages to be intricate, precise, and un-showy, full of fills that fit in the right pockets and never sound flashy or excessive. On this album and others, it sounds as though he’s tuned each drum to tonally match the other instruments being played. And those cymbal crashes on songs like “Good Morning”– they swell loudly and evaporate quickly, probably more the result of George Martin’s production than anything else, but still… RINGO.

As far as the songs themselves go, it’s hardly a showcase for all their best material. Paul had better ballads on nearly every other Beatles album, and George only contributed one song, the Ravi Shankar rip-off “Within You, Without You,” a fine tune, but not his best. Actually, the most preposterous moment on the album is going from that very spiritual raga directly into the toe-tappin’, “grandma-music” sound of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It’s like you’re listening to a compilation more than a cohesive band.

Yet none of that used to matter to me. In a way, my appreciation for the Beatles evolved in direct accordance with my growing up as a person. As a child, I was aware that there were Beatles and that they were a band, but which one was singing and which one was playing guitar, all of that went over my head. They all sounded like the same singer to me, and I frankly didn’t care who was singing, I just sang and bounced along and enjoyed the music. As I got older, I learned to appreciate the different talents they brought to the group, and began to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses: Ringo wasn’t much of a songwriter. George was the most improved over time. Lennon was the deep one and McCartney was the fluff, though both were capable of switching sides. By high school, I’d mostly stopped listening to them altogether as I discovered soul, jazz, new-wave, metal, prog, punk, and just about every other genre besides the Beatles. I’d return every so often, for nostalgia’s sake, but by then I’d pick and choose from my favorite material, most of which was not found on Sgt. Pepper’s.

A few interesting factoids: originally, Sgt. Pepper’s was meant to be a concept album, following the fictional band of the title, along with Billy Shears, and all that other stuff, but then they dropped it after one song. Also, both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were recorded for the album, but in the rush to get new material out, they released them as a single instead. In those days, record companies wanted people to feel they were getting their monies worth, so they opted not to put the recent releases on the final album. Now, I could easily see replacing some of the inferior songs (“When I’m Sixty-Four” and “She’s Leaving Home” perhaps…?), and edging Sgt. Pepper’s closer to the masterpiece it wants to be.

Allow me to indulge one more memory: In junior high, I made a friend who was from a much more “bohemian” family than mine: his step-dad played jazz and his mother was an artist and was rarely seen without a wine glass in her hand (including, I believe, in the car). They invited my parents and I to a “reading party” in the Haight-Ashbury (oh yeah, I grew up in San Francisco in the 70s & 80s). Everyone was to bring a short piece of something to read. My friend and I chose to read Beatles lyrics, selecting the songs “Taxman,” and “A Day in the Life.” I knew little about taxes at the time and doubt I understood the song was more or less about a wealthy man wailing about all the money the government took from him. To me, it just read as “railing against the MAN,” a concept I was already all-in for even at that ripe young age. Although I didn’t fully understand the lyrics to “A Day in the Life,” I could tell they were kind of poetic, symbolic of something, enigmatic and open to interpretation. I knew the most-repeated line, “I’d love to turn you on,” was kind of dirty and kind of druggy, and that was fine by me.

My friend and I arrived to the party early, before my parents and most of the guests had shown. As the hostess prepared, she did lines of coke off her bureau right in front of us. It was that kind of party. As the other hippies and artists began showing up, I realized my parents were going to be way too square for this event. Hell, even The Beatles were a little too edgy for them. But once they arrived and took their place in the circle, they didn’t seem too uncomfortable, even when a joint was passed around the room. None of the Layers partook, but just to have the drug in our collective presence was a milestone in and of itself.

Our reading was a hit. We’d partitioned the song off in parts: he read a line, then I did, and so on, and occasionally we’d say them together. For example:

   Me: I read the news today

            Both: Oh boy

We got a lot of laughs, especially when we spoke all the oohs and ahhs in monotone. But, in addition to our delivery, I think the lyrics reminded the room of its roots, the flawed album that nevertheless provided a bridge from the innocent adolescence of the 50s to the mature experimentalism of the 60s. And there we were, two examples of the next wave, riding our shared history into the unknown future.

And you know what? I’d still love to turn you on.

A Crazy Idea

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The plan: To review every record in my collection.

The reason: Why the hell not?

I’ve had this idea rolling around in my head for a while now, but it seemed too ambitious, too unnecessary, and, quite possibly, too impossible. Ambitious because I own a lot of records, and my collection only multiplies year by year, so much so that the shelf in my cabinet recently collapsed (see photo above).

Unnecessary because, with all that’s going on in the world these days, with every awful thing that Trump and his terrible administration do on a daily basis, with cops and terrorists and madmen with guns killing innocent people, with the climate rapidly changing and heating us towards extinction while we don’t do enough to stop it, with continued, systemic problems like racism, sexism, prejudice, toxic masculinity, and the under-and-over-reactions from all sides, with all of our minute-by-minute social media updates keeping everyone on the cutting edge of every controversy that breaks out somewhere in the world, with all of this, who cares about my own little personal opinions and reflections on a collections of songs by other artists, many of whom are dead or forgotten about?

Impossible because, frankly, it seems like a project I may never finish.

And yet for all these reasons, for the utter audacious uselessness of such an endeavor, I’ve decided to do it. Maybe it’s for some of the same reasons I still like vinyl. It forces you to take your time, pay attention, listen song by song, and then flip the record halfway through. And the covers themselves, the front, back, sleeves, and inserts, are all little works of art you can ponder and ruminate on.

I fell in love with music at an early age, and the love affair continues to grow. It’s the closest way I know how to connect memories with emotions and vice-versa. They say that even people with senility or Alzheimer’s who’ve completely lost their power of recollection can have memories triggered by listening to old songs. While I’m a ways away from that state, I still don’t mind basking in nostalgia every now and then, and finding out what the music will bring up this time.

So, without further preamble, here goes: the first of what will be as close to a daily blog as I can muster. Enjoy.