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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Simon & Garfunkel - "Bookends" (Vinyl) Columbia Records

Although the design is not the same, but I believe the same label in the United States, Sparks had their photograph done by Richard Avedon for their "Big Beat" album, who also took this iconic image of Simon and Garfunkel for "Bookends."  After that, the comparisons end.  Still, I never heard this album till I bought it yesterday at my fave record shop, Mono, bordering on Silver Lake/Echo Park.   To be honest, the only reason why I bought it was for the song "A Hazy Shade of Winter," which has an incredible sense of energetic pop.  Still, I know so many people who had this album in their home, yet, I totally ignore it when it came out.   Either the music was too sophisticated for me, or their image was totally bland.  Now, I find it quite interesting.  And this is the only Paul Simon item in my collection as of now.

The beauty of the album is the arrangements but also the songwriting skills of Simon and the blending of both their voices.  They must have used the studio as a laboratory of sorts.  For sure, there is a Beatle influence that runs through the album, especially Sgt. Pepper.  Side one is very much a concept narrative of childhood to old age - but so fragmented one can miss it.  And I think it's rather a poor side of songs, except for their classic "America," which is awesome.  Not as great as Bowie's live version of this song, it is still a work of mystery and yearning, that is very romantic.  I find it very sincere in its mixture of early 1960s American fiction in that Richard Yates notion - everything is good till the disappointment which will happen shortly.  You can sense it in that song. 

Side two is the hits side. "Mrs. Robinson," my beloved "A Hazy Shade of Winter," and "At The Zoo."  To hate "Mrs. Robinson is not really possible.  Any songs that have 'hey hey' in it, are always good, if not classic pop songwriting.   As this album was being recorded, somewhere within the five miles radius, Velvet Underground were making their second ("White Light White Heat") or third album.  In theory, and for some odd reason, I think of the Velvets when I hear "Bookends."   Lou Reed and Paul Simon are both hardcore New Yorkers, and both are observant songwriters.  So the territory is the same, but perhaps the people are different in that landscape.  But the time is the same, and I find that intriguing.   Simon & Garfunkel, at least on this album, is not smooth, there are rough edges in their music.  The arrangements have a lot of space - not everything is filled with sound.  "At The Zoo" reminds me of a sad Lou Reed tune.   At one time, they did share a record producer, the legendary and quite mysterious Tom Wilson.   "Bookends" is very much a New York 'pop' album.  Lovin' Spoonful, the Velvets - they cover the same territory - and it's fascinating how an artist portray that location and time. 

- Tosh Berman 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band (Apple)

This sounds odd to read now, but I was 16 years old when this album came out. It was a Christmas gift from my parents.  It was clearly the end.  I pretty much grew up with The Beatles from one album to the other - then they broke up.  Which doesn't sound like a big deal in the 21st century, but I was depressed and at lost when I learned or read about the breakup of The Beatles.  When Paul announced that he was leaving it was in a sense like a divorce of one's parents.  It was quite painful.  What made the pain more realistic was John Lennon's first solo album "Plastic One Band." Minimal.  To the point. And it took no prisoners. And that's the horrible beauty of this album.

It wasn't intellectual, or profound sounding - it was John Lennon in December 1970.  Not only that, but it was the last album from a Beatle - even an ex-Beatle.  At least to me.  When I heard that album in 1970, it was the end.  Not only in Lennon's statement, but also the brutal sound of the album. It was not only the end of an era, but even more important, the end of John Lennon.

Yes, he had or made other albums, and yes, they were hits.  But "Plastic Ono Band" was the last Lennon album of great importance, and therefore the last great Beatle album.   There is not even a reason for Lennon to record another album.  That is how I felt when I heard this album, and I still feel that way when I hear it now. "Imagine" has it points, but a work of art, it's nothing compared to this album. Lennon was on a roll in the late 60s.  He really didn't write or perform a bad song- in fact they were all brilliant.  "Instant Karma" and "Cold Turkey" were fantastic 45 rpm singles.

The beauty of this album is that it was and is, total destruction.   The minimal Phil Spector/Lennon production is perfect.  Minimalism fits the Lennon aesthetic as it was the perfect crime weapon of the last eight years of Beatle era.  Because this album was a goodbye to that, and clearly it is about the end.  And in a sense it is the end, because Lennon never made another masterpiece. The moment, the time, and he and Yoko and Phil - it was the perfect storm.  Oddly enough, Spector also recorded the Harrison "All Things Must Pass" album, and that, although it had great moments, is really nothing compared to the Lennon album.   Spector's piano work on "Love" is superb.  Even that has a time-frame that this won't last forever.  "Plastic One Band" closed the Lennon world.  He became a public figure, but as an artist he never again reached this peak.  "Plastic One Band" like Bowie's "Blackstar" is his ultimate goodbye album.  As No. 6 would say "I'll be seeing you."

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Scratch Orchestra - "London, 1969" (Die Stadt) Limited Edition of 500, vinyl 10"

The first time I heard of "The Scratch Orchestra" was in a Brian Eno interview, around the time he was in Roxy Music.  I have always been intrigued by this project, which as legend has reported, was organized by the British composer Cornelius Cardew.   With a name like that, I knew he had to be fantastic.  The other co-founders were Howard Skempton and Michael Parsons.  "London, 1969" is the recording of the first concert they gave in '69 at Hampstead Town Hall.   

First of all, one doesn't know which side is one or two - so that obviously doesn't make a huge difference.  Nor do the two selections have titles.  Which probably fits the Scratch Orchestra motif of everything is equal.   The actual rules of the orchestra are that anyone can join, graphic scores were used instead of musical ones, and oddly enough, concerts are assigned in reverse seniority, so that means the newest member has a stronger say in the programming.  Which comes to this record.   Eighteen year old Christopher Hobbs (then a student of Cardew's) designed or headed this specific concert that took place on November 1, 1969.  

This album, in a particular style, is ground zero for British avant-garde music and its (non) musicians. Five or six years later, most of the composers/music makers became hooked up with Brian Eno's label, Obscure Records.   I have listened to it twice, and basically it resembles John Cage and David Tudor's "Variations IV."  A mixture of radio sounds, and what I presume is tape loopings.  It's a fantastic little record.  Someone should re-issue it again.   Love the pigeons on the front and back cover as well. 

Glenn Gould / Handel - "Suites for Harpsichord Nos. 1-4 (Columbia Masterworks, 1972) Vinyl LP

If I'm not mistaken, this is the only music recording of Glenn Gould playing he harpsichord.  Which oddly enough, sounds like his piano playing, including him singing softly with the music he's playing.  The recording is from 1972, and I found this album unopened with a plastic shrinkwrap around it. In other words, it has been untouched by human hands since '72.  

The composer is George Frideric Handel, who like Gould, was a keyboard virtuoso.  The music was written in 1720, and in the hands (and mind) of Gould, it sounds like a modern piece of music.  Well, I guess how one defines 'modern,' but Gould is not a historian in my opinion.  When we hear the word 'harpsichord' we have a sound in mind.  Gould plays the keyboard in a different manner.  At times very minimal and slow.  Then, he sounds like he has twenty fingers going at once.   I can hear an orchestration that is not in place, but only in my mind.  Truly elegant, and it's music that needs one's full attention.  By no means dinner music in a restaurant or at one's home.  Also, I don't think this recording ever made it onto CD.  Only vinyl. Unless there is a Japanese edition of this performance on CD.    Nevertheless, a great album. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

John Cage - "Cheap Imitation" (Cramps Records/nova musicha n. 17) Vinyl LP, Reissue

"Cheap Imitation" is a very beautiful listening experience, but it also has a witty or amusing side story attached to the work.  It's a solo piano piece composed, and here on this recording, played by John Cage.  It's based on Erik Satie's "Socrate."  Cage arranged a piano version of Satie's symphonic drama, for Merce Cunningham's dance company.   Satie's publisher refused permission for Cage and Cunningham to use the music, so Cage composed music that draws on Satie's "Socrate," and in a sense it's a knock-off.   Nevertheless, hearing the Cage music, one is immediately reminded of Satie's piano music.  Cage made use of I Ching to compose "Cheap Imitation" yet like Satie's work there is both something haunting and ambient at the same time.  Compared to Cage's other works, this one is very much a composed piece of music for piano.    It's rare to hear Cage on the piano, due to how his music changed in the coming years, but also he suffered from arthritis, and that made it more difficult for him to play the piano. 

The album, according to the liner notes, was recorded on a rainy day on March 7, 1976, in Oakland.  It does have that contemplative effect while listening.  On the other hand, it also shows Cage's obsession and interest in Erik Satie's music.  "Cheap Imitation" is a work of originality but very much a loving tribute to the source: Erik Satie. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center (Recorded in 1961, released in 1964) Columbia

Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening, Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City sometime in the early 1950s.   It is the oldest center to focus on composing and making electronic music in the United States.  For me, there is something wonderful and fresh hearing early electronic music in the combined eras 1950s and 1960s.  It was a time of wonderment and exploration of new sounds, done in new ways.  This particular album is a classic, which consisted of pieces and performances by Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky, Bülent Arel, Halim El-Dabh, and Mario Davidovsky. 

The main discovery for me is El-Dabh's "Leiyla and the Poet." My reference to this piece is David Bowie's "Lodger" album, which was one of the first works I heard that mixes ethnic melodies in an electronic-pop mode.   I don't know if Bowie was aware of El-Dabh's work, but what's marvelous is the mixture of musique concrète with what I think is Egyptian folk or ethnic music.  Based on the Arabic 11th century poem "Layla and Majnun, " the music is a combination of vocals, percussion and high-pitched electronic noise.  Tape manipulation of speed transposition filters the vocals into a unique and highly effective sound. It's a short intense piece of work, that also brings to mind the music that Paul Bowles recorded in Morocco.  To me, it's the perfect hybrid of styles, that is familiar, but in actuality, it's quite new - especially at the time of this recording in 1961.  

Ussachevsky's full chorus piece "Creation - Prologue" is a mixture of heavenly voices but then is joined by jolting electronic effects, including a short section using an early version of a synthesizer.  It's not surprising to know that Arel worked with Edgard Varèse - because the piece here, "Stereo Electronic Music No. 1" is very similar to the great French musique concrète composer's music.   Completely electronic, and controlled feedback, it's a remarkable piece of textures exploring mood and tension.   Rabbit's performance as the title says "Composition for Synthesizer" is an exploration of linear/total rhythms, volume, and pitches.  For me, the weakest piece on this album, but still interesting.  Davidovsky's "Electronic Study No. 1" is from three sources: sinusoidal and square wave generators, and white noise.   Chaos is contained in a box by the composer.  

The last piece on the album is by Luening, and it's a combination of synthesizer, then manipulated by taping techniques, with a live violin, played by Max Pollikoff.  "Gargoyles" is an intense piece of noise/music.   Besides the chorus used in Ussachevsky, and El-Dabh's mixture of vocals/electronics, this is very much more of a real stringed instrument bouncing off the electronics/tape manipulations.  The beauty of all six composers is that they have studied classical composition as well as worked with regular orchestrations, but here they take a huge step forward to a new world.  Yet, if one listens carefully, it is still has traces of the old classical world.  A remarkable anthology of sounds that one can hear later in 20th century pop music. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Miles Davis - “Get Up With It” (2 x Vinyl LP, CBS)

For the longest time, I avoided Miles Davis electric albums for reasons I truly don’t understand.   I think my mind-set was perhaps that his work was the best from the 1950s and the rest …was, not that important.  I’m clearly an idiot.  For example, just by chance, I purchased “Get Up With It, ” which seems by the packaging as an album of loose-ends and recordings.  Stuff that didn’t make it to the final album.  Therefore, probably not that interesting.  As I mentioned a few sentences ago, I’m an idiot.

“Get Up With It,” is in many ways, a wrong title for this collection of moody reflective and kind of down orientated music.  What it is, and clearly so, even after the first listening experience - a masterpiece.  “He Loved Him Madly” a song dedicated to Duke Ellington, is just like floating on a dark moist cloud.   Miles plays organ (pretty much through the album) with block minimal notes, that adds a certain intensity to the whole sound landscape.   As an homage, it’s a dark piece of music.   It’s an odd track to launch off an album.  The next track on the other side, “Maiysha” is more upbeat.  At this point and time, I don’t think Miles was thinking jazz, but just ‘music.' Or to be straight forward ‘funk.’  

I have read that Brian Eno’s favorite Miles album is this one - and I can clearly hear the Miles influence on some of Eno’s work as a solo artist as well as a producer - for instance Talking Heads.  For me, the track that makes me go ga-ga is “Calypso Frelimo.” Miles’ playing the organ on this one is such a sweet melody that comes in and out of the mix.  “Billy Preston” is another standout track for me.  The mixture of Miles’ version of funk, with the addition of sitar and Tabla is just the right combination.  Superb album.