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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Erik Satie/Reinbert De Leeuw - "Vexations" Vinyl, LP, Album, 1983 (Philips)

Not the easiest piece of music by Erik Satie to find, especially on vinyl, still, this is one of the remarkable works that came out of the 19th-century.  Music historians think that Satie wrote"Vexations" in either 1893 or 1894, but no one knows for sure.  At times, seen as a joke, or at the least, exposing Satie's sense of humor.  The piece as it is written or notated is that the theme is played 840 times, which in theory, can last for 24-hours if one performed this work in a live setting.  John Cage did that and organized the first public performance of "Vexations" in 1963.

There are only a handful of recordings of "Vexations," and easier to find on CD. Perhaps that is the best medium because a CD can last for 80 minutes.  I have some of those recordings, but I'm a fan of Reinbert De Leeuw's recording of "Vexations" which lasts 26 minutes on each side of the album.  The music was recorded in 1975, and this edition of the LP was released in 1983.  I'm not sure about this, but I suspect that this may be the first recording of "Vexations."  It's a work of mystery, with no real notes from Satie, except that it should be played 840 times, and there is no mention or instructions beyond the score itself.

For me, "Vexations" is a haunting yet beautiful piece of music.  I love Satie's work, but I think "Vexations" is his masterpiece.   Simple, yes, but an exquisite melody that when played over and over again it puts me in a state where I can both think or concentrate on a work of writing (my main occupation) as well as drift off to the melody of "Vexations."   One can look at it as a Fluxus aesthetic, or a joke, but the truth is, this is remarkable music.   Sometimes a joke can expose the inner-beauty of a work of art.   

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bryan Ferry and his Orchestra - "Bitter-Sweet" Vinyl, LP, Album, 2018 (BMG)

This is the second album by Bryan Ferry where he goes through his song catalog and re-arranges his both, Roxy Music and solo songs into the era of early big band jazz. What sounds like a gimmick on paper, is actually one of Ferry's best album projects.  I would even argue that these recordings stand up, and even exceed some of his original recordings.   Half the album is instrumental, and once, Ferry's aging voice adds emotional overtures to the material.  It's beautifully sung and played by a large group of musicians.  Ferry has always been fascinated with the modern world, and that includes not only the present, future but also the past in such a 'moderne' mode or fashion.

On the surface, one can see this as a nostalgic love for an era that passes away, but for Ferry, I think it's a style of music that never left him.  He has always taken music as a historian, who tried to find new meaning within its framework.  "Bitter-Sweet" is an accurate title for the album (and also one of his great songs from Roxy Music) because the feeling of regret is very much felt. To say this album is romantic is like saying it's sunny in a cloudless day in Southern California.  Repeated listenings bring new rewards, and it is a gift that does keep on giving.   One, I always loved the sound of Roxy Music and most of Ferry's solo recordings, but now, I realize that he's a magnificent songwriter.  These arrangements are great because they are working from a great source, which of course are the songs themselves.

A big band but intimate music is coming from this group.  This is a sound where musicians are looking at each other eye-to-eye, with perhaps a conductor in the middle of the room.   As Ferry has one theme of his work, which is to locate the perfect romantic spot that is blissful and painful at the same time.   It's not about sexual conquest, but more of a situation where the pain of romance-lost is like a beautiful yet distant island.  Ferry is the one artist, who stands at the dock of the bay and looks out to this island, not that far off from a scene in F. Scott Fitzerald's 'The Last Gatsby."

Side one is more danceable or uptempo, but side two is a reflection that is sour, and three of its songs is from the debut Roxy Music album.  A classic, and which on the original recordings it is about the past as a concept, Ferry now re-frames these songs as actually a spirit from an era of the past.  It's similar to the last scene in "The Shining" where the caretaker Jack is placed in a photo of a party from the 1920s.  It's like the future is not really here.  Ferry's "Bitter-Sweet" is a brilliant album.   Just as great as the first Roxy album, and "For Your Pleasure."

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Good, The Bad & The Queen - "Merrie Land" Vinyl, LP, Album, 2018 (Studio 13)

Sad, but a very compelling work from Damon Albarn and the band 'The Good, The Bad & The Queen,' which also has the talents of Paul Simonon on strong bass, Simon Tong on guitar, and the extraordinary drummer Tony Allen.  "Merrie Land" is a very tight focus on the nature of England, and how it looks at its past but also dealing with a sense of loss with respect to Brexit.

 Albarn and company may be the first artist/band to comment on Brexit, and what it means to them as well as to British culture.  The song and title "Merrie Land" is ironic because it deals with the thought of nostalgia, but in fact, it's fantasy.   "Merrie Land" deals with England as a concept, as well as an illusion.  For some reason, whenever I hear or think of Brexit, I think of Jonathan Swift's book "Gulliver's Travels."  England is not only an island, but it thinks culturally like an island as well.  Part of the world, yet separated by water, and again in fantasy likes to think of itself as mental fort set aside by the thought of Britain first.  Nationalism is an ugly neighbor, and I suspect that Albarn and company are exploring the disillusion of a place and time.

Musically the album reminds me of Madness, who also sung of British characters, and maybe even a cousin to The Kinks' "Village Green Preservation Society."  "Merrie Land" and "Village Green" deal with the concept of England that's partly cinematic but also being thrust to the present, and the feeling of insecurity that goes with change.  Michael Redgrave on the cover of the album is a perfect visual for the sounds inside the jacket, which is theatrical in a British music hall manner.

The band itself is restrained and working together to make mood that's dread, with a touch of The Specials' "Ghost Town" thrown in the mix.  Tony Visconti co-produced the album, and there are traces of the vibe from David Bowie's "Blackstar."  "Merrie Land" has great beauty, like all things sad.  I feel that there should be a Criterion DVD added to the package, as if "Merrie Land" was already a film or book.   It feels like a classic work, and I think people will listen to this album thinking what was the beginning of the Brexit years were like?   Art is giving an impression of a feeling or writing something down on the sand before the tide takes it away.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Scott Walker - "Scott Walker Sings Songs From His T.V. Series" Vinyl, Album, Stereo, 1969 (Philips)

A phenomenal, great album on many levels.  Scott Walker is one of the handful greats in contemporary music.  Which sounds like an overblown statement, but the fact is that he has the combination of intelligence, vocals, compositional skills, and vision that doesn't seem possible in a mere human being.  From his career in The Walker Brothers to the classic Scott solo albums, (from "Scott 1" to "Scott 4") to the artful albums of his later career, including his work with Sunn O))) is a remarkable musical (and perhaps) life journey.   "Scott Sing Songs From His T.V. Series, an album that Walker doesn't admire much, is in fact, at least in my opinion, just as important as his renowned masterpieces.  

The thought of Scott Walker having his own TV music series in the UK is mind-boggling in itself, but if he was following the steps of crooners like Jack Jones (a singer he admired) his selection of these songs on this album are by no means hack work.   The core Scott orchestration is in place with the production of John Franz (who did the classic early Scott solo albums) and the arrangements of Peter Knight.  Both men worked with Scott at his solo height in the 60s, and this is not a minor project for any of those involved.

The album is a selection of songs that are from stage shows and film themes.  I'm not familiar with a lot of the songs, but I do know "The Look of Love by Bacharach and David, "The Impossible Dream," and "Lost in the Stars."  None of the songs on this album is Scott phoning in his vocals. I sense he is front and center with the recordings.  I don't know if he was ordered by his management or record company to make such an album, but to my ears, this is an extraordinary artist tackling not exactly the Great American Songbook, but covering some old and contemporary songs at that moment and time in his career.  Frank Sinatra comes to mind, especially the first track on side one, "Well You Still Be Mine" but perhaps his role model on this particular cut was Jack Jones.  Jones I feel was an underrated singer and was often thought of as a middle-of-the-road artist, but I suspect he had more depth than that.  And Scott recognized his talent, but I feel he took that inspiration and moved it into another plane or landscape. 

His version of the great Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson song "Lost in the Stars" is exquisite.  For me, I think of Scott as making sound sculptures.   The melodies are important, and maybe even the words are even more essential, but the way he performs his songs I can see it being a visual interpretation of his sounds.   I think his later work is very much in the sculpture mode, but I think he had this idea ever since The Walker Brothers and it just became more profound in his early solo albums.  Although "Scott Sings Songs" seems to be a work that is not part of his overall big picture, I feel it is part of the bridge between his early and later years.  To remove this album from his catalog is like removing "Rubber Soul" and not seeing the jump from "Beatles for Sale" to "Revolver."  This is an essential album by a major artist. It swings hard (in that Jack Jones/Sinatra mode) but also the ballads are crooned so perfectly that he puts others of his generation to shame.  At this time, Scott Walker was very much a songwriter.  So, in the sense of Bowie's "Pin-Ups" or Bryan Ferry's "These Foolish Things" this is a work that is commenting on the nature of popular music, and re-thinking it as not as a business plan, but more as of an artist.  Scott Walker rules. 

The Mandrake Memorial -"The Mandrake Memorial" Vinyl, LP, Album, Stereo, 1968 (Poppy)

For the past month or so, I have been reading the publication "Flashback" which comes out of the UK, and it's a magazine totally devoted to bands that fell through the cracks in the years 1968 through 1975.  Total music nerd material, and in one of the issues there is a 30-page article on a group called The Mandrake Memorial.   Failure has always been an attraction to me, especially when it comes to artists/bands that almost make it, yet fail.   I found a copy of their first album "The Mandrake Memorial" online and purchased it.  A gem of an album.

The music reminds me of Jack Bruce's work in Cream, with the vocals, but with the added touch of The Doors here and there.  A sitar comes in once in awhile in the mix, and of course, the album yells out 'it's 1968.'  One of the unique sounds that come out of The Mandrake Memorial is their keyboards.  Ofen a harpsichord, but their keyboardist, Michael Kac, was in electronics, and re-wired the instruments, in a manner of Brian Eno.  Their harpsichord sound is loud and aggressive, not played in a 'baroque' manner at all.  

The album is co-produced by Tony Bongiovi, and I gather this is his first production on an album.  He later produced Talking Heads and The Ramones.   The composition of all ten songs are by the band, and they have a dreamy approach, but the lyrics are very much of that era.  Still, I really like this record. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Gérard Manset - "Rien À Raconter" Vinyl, LP, Album, France, 1976 (EMI)

There is a thrill of discovering an artist that no one in the English language talks or knows about, and I suspect that Gérard Manset is such a songwriter/arranger/singer.   I can find very little information on Manset in English, and according to Discogs, he has at least 23 albums under his name.  From 1968 to this year, 2018.  I have heard his music I think through a drunk period on the Internet, and going through YouTube for music discoveries.   In my collection, I have two albums by Manset, including "Rein À Raconter" (Nothing to Tell).  

Generally speaking, and what I have heard, Manset's songs are all in French (duh!) and feature massive orchestrations, but usually with a loud electric guitar in the mix.  There's nothing pastoral about his sound, both his voice and instrumentation is forceful and not knowing what the songs are about, makes me (or the listener) get an emotional reaction.  I sense anger, and a typical album by him is at the very least eight songs.   So, there's room for the music to build up to tension or a release of some sort. In other words, his music is sexy.  

What impressed me the most is his melody writing, but also his arrangements which is masterful, and more intuned to classical than somewhat a 'wall of sound.'   Manset shares an intensity with Jack Nitzsche, but he doesn't work on a big canvas like Nitzsche.  The music or album sounds like a man alone dealing with a demon or two.  Manset does the production as well as the writing and arrangements, so he's very much a solo artist in that sense.   The sounds that stand out is his vocal delivery which reminds me a bit of Jacques Brel in its intensity, and the sound of his electric guitar against the grain of the lush strings.   A remarkable artist, who I gather is popular in France, due that his releases are on large record labels, and for sure needs to get more attention from the English speaking world.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Quick - "Mondo Deco" Vinyl, LP, Album, Reissue, 2009/1976 (Radio Heartbeat)

My introduction to The Quick came about due to the writer (and filmmaker, among other things) Dennis Cooper, who in his magazine of the 1970s, "Little Caeser," raved about this band and their debut album "Mondo Deco."   Whenever Dennis recommends a writer, film, or music, one should pay attention.  On the other hand, due to my nature, I pretty much ignored The Quick when they existed, and only became interested in them this past four weeks.  I tracked down their album, purchased it, and find myself loving the music.

Since I'm a lover of Sparks (the band, or Ron and Russell Mael), I was put off with the sound of The Quick being very close to the sound of the Mael brothers.  I remember feeling the same way about the band Japan sounding too much like Roxy Music.   Their similarities are there for sure, and obviously influenced by the parent bands, but both Japan and The Quick have their own vibe.  With respect to The Quick, and since I was semi-raised in the San Fernando Valley, I sense that region's aesthetic on the band.  Sparks are a hard band to pin down on the map, but The Quick is for sure are American, and there is nothing more American than a teenager in the Valley. 

The songwriter for the band is guitarist Steven Hufsteter, who on this album, has an understanding of what makes a song happen concerning melody and a catchy chorus.  I don't see how its possible for one not to hum "Hillary," or "No No Girl" while taking a shower or being moody in a bathtub.  The other highlight is "Anybody," which is catchy as heaven, and then it goes into this crazed Yardbirds-style rave-up that's magnificent.  Incredible drum sound, maracas, and chaos.  Yet contained in that catchy melody.   Hufsteter is also a great guitarist, and the arrangements tend to the sound of his guitars, the drums (Danny Benair) and voice of Danny Wilde.  And Billy Bizeau's Ron Mael like minimalism on the piano, and bassist Ian Ainsworth.  Also, I think there is a robust Cheap Trick influence on the band as well.   Earle Mankey produced the album, along with Kim Fowley (hmm) and Mankey who was a member of Halfnelson (Sparks) does give that early Sparks' sound to the mix.   An enjoyable album.