Monday, October 18, 2010

Albums of the Moment

I've purchased a lot of music lately, both online and on my trip to Chicago (Reckless Records!).  I haven't even listened to all of it yet, but here are some quick notes on the stuff I've been playing most in the last week or two:

Jakob Bro - Balladeering
This Danish guitarist's album is like the perfect blend of a Bill Frisell album and a Paul Motian album, both of whom, not coincidentally, appear on it along with Lee Konitz and bassist Ben Street.  There's some great footage on YouTube from a making-of documentary that was included in a deluxe edition of the album.  This 2009 record is kind of hard to find in physical form, but it is on iTunes.  Konitz is one of those major figures I haven't paid enough attention to, but he has some absolutely sublime moments here.  He doesn't play on the album's first track, but his entrance on the gentle, almost children's-song-like "Evening Song" is one of the finest, most memorable moments of music I've heard all year.

Tim Berne Sextet - The Ancestors
An Amazon MP3 Store find for under $3, this is a live album with just 3 long tracks (two of which are Parts 1 & 2 of the same tune, presumably split when the album came out on vinyl).  There's some great Paul Motian on this album, including what may be one of his best (and longest?) solos on record.  I was walking the other night on Houston St., from the quieter western reaches heading east.  The Jakob Bro album ended just as I reached Broadway and the opening track of this ("Sirius B") was the ideal soundtrack for the nighttime bustle of Manhattan.

The Bad Plus - Never Stop
I listened to this walking around Chicago and it seemed to be giving me energy, like a musical battery (I would recommend a loop of the title track to marathoners-in-training).  Never Stop, more than just about anything else, made me thankful for my new headphones (Koss PortaPros) and their nice bass response (an exponential improvement over my old earbuds).  I'm sure Ethan Iverson and Dave King would sound good as a duo, but if you can't properly hear what Reid Anderson is playing on this album, you're not really listening to it.

Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
When I first got this album, it didn't quite click with me for some reason.  I really liked "Metal Baby" and was lukewarm on the rest.  Now, after seeing them live and relistening to this for the first time in years, I get it.  How could "The Concept" have eluded me (I didn't intend that as a pun)?  It still pales in comparison to the Fanclub's obvious inspiration, Big Star, but it gets a lot of things right and not much wrong.  I hear TF's music as taking "The Ballad of El Goodo" as its starting point - the power ballad side of Big Star.  They don't have the funkier, Memphis soul-derived aspects, or the sense of half-willfully teetering on the edge of madness and collapse that was part of both Chilton and Bell's natures.

Marc-Andre Hamelin - Etudes
After seeing Hamelin for the first time recently at Le Poisson Rouge, where he played a program of pieces from this, his latest record (the bulk of which is devoted to Hamelin's set of 12 etudes in each of the minor keys), there was no question that I had to have this music.  As a person who still struggles to read music, a quick look through the scores for the etudes (which was for sale at LPR) made me feel like a third-grader trying to make sense of Infinite Jest, but this is far from mere virtuoso show-off material.  Hamelin's music is melodically and harmonically rich and as finely and intricately layered as a piece of Louis Sullivan ornament (see my previous post).  Hamelin's ability to render all of these layers and strands so that they can be heard individually as well as part of the total composition may be a more impressive, and, for the listener, probably more valuable, skill than the sheer, incredible volume of notes he's able to produce in a given measure.  The etude that first grabbed me was No.7 (for the left hand alone), a gorgeous piece of music and, for obvious reasons, a feat of technique, but 8 (a musical setting of a Goethe poem) and 11 (a minuet) have also become early favorites (I expect that many, many more listens will be required to get to the bottom of this music).

One album I'm looking forward to is Volume II of Henry Threadgill's This Brings Us To, which I mention because I was just checking out Studs Terkel's 2005 book And They All Sang, which features a chapter on Threadgill.  In 2005, Terkel was 93.  A 93 year old man, who was 16 when his favorite jazz record, Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues", came out, was into Henry Threadgill.  Can you get any hipper than that?  [A day or so after writing the above, but before posting, I thought I spotted Threadgill outside Jazz Standard.  Presumably, he was there, as I was, to check out Apex.  For some reason, I feel compelled to use profanity to describe just how good this group sounded, so I'll at least keep it brief.  Two word review: sh*t hot.  And to expand on that: really f*cking good.]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chicago Notes, Part One: Midwestern Mystics

The Selected Ballads has been away for a while, partly due to a trip to Chicago.  Some notes from the Great Metropolis on the Prairie:

For the first time in several years, I revisited Millennium Park and the adjacent Art Institute.  Last time I was there, the Cloud Gate was being buffed to remove the seams between the individual mirror squares that make up the surface of the "bean".  Now, there's not a seam in sight, and one could almost believe the whole thing had been poured into a mold.  Looking again at Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion, I was thinking what a thrill it would be to stand in front of a big audience and unleash a highly amplified open E chord into that space. Has anyone ever asked Jeff Tweedy or Steve Malkmus about that?

If it does nothing else, Renzo Piano's addition to the Art Institute, the Modern Wing, provides a much-needed connection between the museum and Millennium Park, both at ground level and via a bridge that rises from park level to the 2nd floor of the new wing.  Fortunately, it's also a pretty nice piece of architecture - well-detailed, restrained in its use of a limited palette of colors and materials, and in harmony with both the park to the north and the main Institute building to the south (apparently, there are some problems, though).  A lot of care was taken to make the new wing energy-efficient, including the admittance of quite a bit of natural light, which actually made me realize that I prefer to feel a little less connected to the outdoors when looking at art in a museum.  Maybe it was the beautiful day I visited on, but the natural light entering (from the less art-damaging northern direction, as per Piano's design) the Modern Wing started to make me wish I was back outside, a feeling that disappeared once I was back in the main body of the Institute.

On the other side of the Institute, Dan Kiley's '60s-era South Garden may now be overshadowed by all the design action to the north, but it has aged well and remains a high point of Modernist landscape architecture.  Kiley's design sets up a simple grid, gets the grades, materials, and proportions right, and basically gets out of the way to let a by-now-mature grove of cockspur hawthorns create an environment quite apart from the nearby Loop.

Visiting the exhibit, Looking After Louis Sullivan, was a bit like going to church for me, as I consider myself an initiate in the great master's dualistic-mystic cult of organic-geometric architecture.  The show featured the work of four photographers, including the heroic martyr to architectural preservation, Richard Nickel, as well as some of Sullivan's own drawings.  Among these drawings, I spent a long time studying the incredibly intricate, pencil-drawn plates from A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers, a commissioned work completed near the end of Sullivan's life.  A diagram (titled "Manipulation of the Organic") showing how a relatively simple natural form like a leaf or a seed pod could, by following nature's example, be elaborated and abstracted into a complex piece of ornament, reminded me of some of the ideas of Sullivan's approximate contemporary Gaudi (an adjacent drawing, showing a similar process of elaboration with geometric forms, also had some resonance with Gaudi's work).  Just because both men took inspiration from the forms of plants and obsessively elaborated geometric forms doesn't mean they were aware of, or in any way influenced by, one another's work, but it's an intriguing possibility.

I also visited the Garfield Park Conservatory, one of the masterworks of another of my heroes, Sullivan's fellow Midwestern mystic, landscape architect Jens Jensen. The conservatory, and specifically its fern room, were recommended to me as a must-see masterpiece, but I had a hard time believing than an interior landscape could be in the same class as Jensen's great parks and gardens.  It is, though.  The fern room is a complete landscape, a complete work of art even, as meticulously thought out and calibrated for various effects as a traditional Japanese garden, but with more of a concern for hiding the hand of man.  The fern room is both an immersive, mist-shrouded prehistoric fantasy and a landscape composition that would reward close study.  This story, which is also summarized on a plaque in the fern room, gives a sense of Jensen and the perhaps more genteel times in which he practiced (whether or not the story is 100% factual hardly matters).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Learn English The Malkmus Way

I never really got into Pavement, so I've been pretty immune to the excitement generated by their reunion, but it does give me an excuse to share my one and only Pavement-related anecdote, which takes place in Beijing a few years ago.  My Chinese friend, who was driving me to the airport, had the radio tuned to a station that played English language lessons.  The lesson that was playing as I arrived at the terminal, and that made me wish I didn't have to get out of the car, was using as its text the lyrics to Pavement's "Cut Your Hair".  So, Pavement fans can take pride in the fact that potentially millions of people in China have been learning English via Steve Malkmus lyrics.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Belle & Sebastian & "Second Singers"

So, I saw Belle & Sebastian the other night for the first time since (get ready for it) 1998.  Their transformation as a live act in that time is a well-known story, so I won't belabor the point, but it would be fun to go back in time and try to convince people who were at the 40 Watt Club that night 12 years ago that someday Stuart Murdoch would be throwing out autographed (American) footballs to kids in the crowd and inviting fans up on stage to clap and dance with him.  In that time travel scenario, I'd also try to convince people that in a few years B&S would have a popular song about a Mets-Giants series and that, a few years after that, we'd have a black president. 

There are many things that could be said about Thursday night's fine, rain-defying performance (and Teenage Fanclub was good too - midtempo jangles, hey-thatsa-nice-distortion-pedal solos and Chiltonesque harmonies beautifully intact after all these years), but I want to focus on a tangential topic that I found myself thinking about after the show: a category of musician that I'll call, for lack of a better term, the "second singer".  Usually a key instrumentalist in the band, the second singer maybe sings a song or two per album and is clearly inferior, vocally, to the lead singer.  Sometimes though, as in the case of Belle & Sebastian's lead guitarist Stevie Jackson, the second singer may be a fan favorite, their songs often highlights of an album or show.  There's something about Jackson's slightly wobbly vocals on songs like "Seymour Stein" and "Jonathan David" (love those "name" songs) that slices right through my defenses, although it may just be a case (and I forget who's written about this phenomenon) of less polished vocals being perceived as more direct, honest, or sincere.  In the case of a pop song, though, I suppose the listener's perception is the only "reality" that matters.  I'm not sure I know what that last sentence means, but I do know that Jody Stephens' vocal on Big Star's "Way Out West" has a similar unaffected, yearning thing going on.

Other good, canonical examples of "second singers" are Dave Davies ("Death of a Clown", "Strangers") and Keith Richards ("You Got The Silver", "Happy").  There must be some other good ones that I'm forgetting about.  Mick Jones of The Clash almost works, but I think he's too strong a singer, maybe not quite "secondary" enough to qualify.  Same goes for Pete Townsend.  Moving away from rock, Bob Wills is an interesting case.  Even though he was the bandleader and the name attraction of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, he only occasionally sang lead, mostly sticking to fiddle and his trademark interjections and band member shout-outs.  He had a great, truly one-of-a-kind singing style, though, that was perfectly of a piece with the band's "clean hat, dirty boots", urbane-yet-downhome approach to the blues.