Albums du jour: The Flaming Lips & Winterpills

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Consider the cover album — you know, when musical artists record albums not of originals, but of previously recorded music associated with other artists.  This category, of course, includes the vast majority of classical albums, few of which have enough new to say about the music they contain to justify their existence, but that’s the subject for another post.

No, I’m talking today of the anthologies, homages, reinterpretations and other cover concepts emanating periodically from pop, rock and myriad sub, sub-sub and sub-sub-sub genres.  Here’s one music critic’s 2012 list of “10 of the Best Covers Albums in Music History,” to which I would add such personal favorites as “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy” (gotta get some Pops on the list) and Paul Anka’s “Rock Swings.”  What’s that — you’ve never heard Anka’s finger-popping cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit?”  Man, you haven’t lived!

Meanwhile, a pair of new cover albums have hogged my CD player this week, though only one of them provides much pleasure.  Goodness, what misery we critics and bloggers go through to keep you informed!  Between them, however, one can learn something about what makes one cover album or any artistic reinterpretation worthwhile, and another a waste of time.

First, the bad news.  On their new album “With a Little Help from My Fwends” (sic), veteran Oklahoma City psychedelic rockers The Flaming Lips, joined by a motley cast of guest artists (including J. Mascis and Miley Cyrus!), re-create, song for song, The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — an album that, if you’ll pardon a little baby-boom navel-gazing, changed my life after I, in 1967, at age 11, picked it out of the record bin at a Woolworth’s.  Is nothing sacred?

No reason it has to be, at least in this case.  I mean, if theater director Peter Sellars can devise a new staging for J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” arguably the greatest musical work ever composed, then “Sgt. Pepper” should be able to survive whatever is thrown at it.

Unfortunately, what The Flaming Lips and friends throw at “Sgt. Pepper” consists mostly of the aural equivalent of dirt and grime.  Of noise, distortion, lo-fi production, flattened dynamics, shouting, mumbling and all-around bad attitude, there’s a-plenty.  Of insight, imagination, tenderness, beauty or even basic musicality, very little.  Is this really what this amazing music says to the artists?   Oh, the album has its moments, but they’re far too few to make enduring the rest worth your while.  Look, I like the Flaming Lips’ original albums, don’t begrudge their concept, and applaud them for supporting a good cause with a portion of this album’s proceeds.  But I also insist that my cover albums at least evince love for the music they cover.  You decide:

One hears the love in every track on a far less ambitious but more meaningful cover album from some of the Pioneer Valley’s best — and if you think I’m just engaging in some home cooking here, listen for yourself to Winterpills‘ loving new album, “Echolalia.”

What’s so good about it?  Well, there’s the inspired, sensitive programming: Twelve pop songs by twelve songwriters as diverse as Sharon van Etten, Buddy Holly, Nick Drake, Lisa Germano, Beck and John Lennon.  Having admired the inspiration and craft of the Winterpills’ original songs on their last few albums, I can hear what drew Winterpills’ core duo, Philip Price and Flora Reed (who mostly go it alone this time) to the melodically rich, achingly expressive tunes presented here.  I’ll admit that a few of the dozen were happy discoveries that have since become fast friends.

Then there’s the sensitive treatment of the songs, which, by enhancing rather than distorting their essential qualities, Winterpills both make their own and offer as tributes to the originals.  Among the many felicities, let me mention the ethereal, elegiac take on Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game,” the overdubbed cellos (an effect I’m a sucker for) and gentle electronics that add depth to the Go-Betweens’ “Bye Bye Price,” the sweet vocal harmonies, the immaculate, imaginatively layered production, and the overall quality of unity-within-diversity that marks the best of such projects.  I could go on, but it’s better to break off here and give you time to listen.  I’ve put the Spotify version here for a preview, but if you like what you hear, please visit your local CD outlet.  The musicians would appreciate it, and you’ll get much better sound.

 

 

Album du jour: Scott Walker & Sunn O))), “Soused”

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Want some music to scare the bejesus out of the trick or treaters this Halloween?  Of course you do.  Well, do I ever have the album for the job.  And heck, you might even find it haunting your own nightmares.

It’s an artistic collaboration fated to take place, as no doubt foretold on an ancient scroll buried in some subterranean sarcophagus.  Providing the instrumental juice is Sunn O))) (pronouced “Sun”), a Seattle outfit specializing in a sub-sub-sub-genre known as “doom drone.”  As you could guess from its name, doom drone is not big on songs about bunny rabbits and butterflies.  Earthquake-producing bass drones, unearthly howls, cracking bull whips, yes.  Cute critters, not so much.

What vocalist could possibly stand up to such an onslaught?  Why, Scott Walker, of course.  Owner of one of pop music’s smoothest baritones, as well as one of pop’s oddest careers, the 71-year old Walker long ago metamorphosed from hit-maker (e.g., “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” with The Walker Brothers — who, it is obligatory to point out, were neither Walkers nor brothers) to auteur of, depending on one’s tolerance for such things, either profound explorations of the dark nights of the soul, or unendurable spewings of meaningless ooga-booga.  Remember the musical version of Faust that the Jack Buchanan character devises in the Fred Astaire film of “The Band Wagon?”  Walker’s music has about as much uplift.

I will admit to not having made it even one time through Walker’s latest couple of albums, “The Drift” and “Bish Bosch.”  I’m not getting paid for this, you know.  But this current album, “Soused,” has me in its grip and won’t let go.  Oh sure, one still has to endure Walker’s sober intoning of such deathless phrases as “Tonight…my assistant will hear the canals of Mars…His cap will be empty…Hey non-e non-e.”  And that’s in number called “Lullaby,” if you can imagine.

But don’t just imagine.  Try it.  If you hear what I hear, you’ll have an album that, if you lower your critical shields and don’t take it too seriously, is creepy, crawly, compulsively listenable fun!  A regular Vienna Philharmonic of metallic sludge (I mean that as  compliment), Sunn O))) provides the perfect backdrop to Walker’s histrionics.  And darned if he doesn’t sound like he believes every word, whether about Brando getting beat up, a modern King Herod or acne on a leper.  I’m not making this up.

So…go ahead, my dearies.  It won’t hurt a bit.  Happy Halloween!

The fall classic and classical music

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(QUIZ:  Which great classical composer is that on the left of the photo above?  Answer at the end of the blog entry.)

One of the Boston Globe‘s best-known columnists had a thought-provoking piece on a beloved institution in yesterday’s edition.  From his vantage point, the columnist saw an institution in decline, one that no longer occupies the central place in our culture that it once did.  Too slow for the kids and their short attention spans, inconveniently scheduled for working folks, watered-down by attempts to make it more popular, its market share plummeting, it just isn’t the same as in the good old days, i.e., when the columnist first fell in love with it fifty years ago.

Classical music, right?

Nope.  Baseball, in particular the World Series.  Oh, the game still pulls in high revenues, as Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy says in the column in question (“World Series isn’t what it used to be“).  But its biggest event, the “fall classic,” has earned record low TV ratings by some measures this year.  Alas, the National Pastime, as baseball has been known for a sesquicentury (which should be a word even if it isn’t), the sport of poets, professors and Ken Burns, has fallen far behind football  — loutish, violent football — in popularity.  What is the world coming to?

Then I got to thinking:  how would Shaughnessy’s column been different if it had been written by a classical music columnist?  The two institutions, baseball and classical, do share some of the same issues of aging audiences and inability to keep up with the times, though baseball’s travails are nowhere near as serious as classical’s.

For one thing, while Shaughnessy views the current state of the game without rancor (“I blame no one. It’s evolution.”), a classical columnist would more likely rail against the forces that led to its decline.  You could, for instance, see attempts to popularize the game as actually contributing to its downfall, as Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott did for classical music in a piece I took on in this old NEPR blog entry.  Frankly, baseball does have Kennicott’s counterpart in fusty traditionalists like NBC announcer Bob Costas, whom I recently heard praising National League baseball (which does not employ the designated hitter) as being more “textured” than its American League counterpart.  How many sports fans do you think like one sport more than another because of its “texture?”

Or perhaps the classical columnist would place the blame on the fans themselves, especially when a bunch of them leave the stadium in large numbers when the pace of the game decelerates to a slow drip — because of course, they’re not intellectual enough to appreciate such subtle aesthetic pleasures as the incredibly awesome double switch.  No doubt all these supposed “fans” want are cheap thrills like home runs and strikeouts — you know, the exciting parts of the game that appeal to crude American tastes.  Well, we superior connoisseurs of “inside” baseball know better, don’t we, Alex Ross? (My rebuttals here and here).

Hey, I know — how about our classical columnist issue a stirring call to teach baseball in the schools?  After all, since we smart people know that baseball is so much better than the crappy sports the kids are fed today by the corporate media, we should insist that even in times of budgetary austerity (not that we’ll ever tackle the systemic problems that make it so expensive to educate our kids), we prioritize and pay for school programs in the One True Sport.  That will make fans for life out of them, right?  Well, probably wrong in most cases, but not for want of trying.

What our classical columnist would be unlikely to do, based on what happens when classical critics and other scribes actually write about classical music, is to pull back, take Shaughnessy’s long view, and suggest ways that baseball can reform itself from the inside, rather than insisting that its fans get with the program.  Yes, this is changing, though too slowly.  Well, if classical media types want to make themselves even less relevant than they already are, in parallel with the music they’re attempting to shelter from reality, they should keep doing what they’re doing.  It’s working.

Meanwhile, for anyone who wonders why a music-loving guy like me should bother with the trivial pleasures of baseball or any other sport anyway, check out this piece, also from yesterday’s Boston Globe, by retired sports columnist Bob Ryan.  And for a further and (compared with yours truly) smarter comparison of classical and baseball, here’s an excellent piece from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.

(QUIZ ENTRY: None other than Charles Ives, star pitcher of the Hopkins Grammar School baseball team.  The teammate’s name is not known.)

 

Coming up: A Luminous Choral Mass

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In 1902, an 11-year old Swiss lad, the son of a Calvinist minister, attended a performance in his native Geneva of J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”  So overcome was the musically and religiously sensitive young Frank Martin (whose name is pronounced in the French manner) that he decided on the spot to make music his life’s work, and Bach his model.  Over the next 72 years, right up to the year of his death, 1974,  Martin produced a large and fine corpus of works in many genres that places him among Ernest Bloch and Arthur Honegger as Switzerland’s foremost 20th century composers.

As Switzerland is poised between France and Germany, so does Frank Martin’s mature music combine Gallic and Teutonic elements:  the sensuous colors and clear textures of Maurice Ravel and Albert Roussel, the counterpoint of Bach and, starting around 1930, the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg, albeit employed personally and without forsaking tonality.  In the taxonomy of 20th-century musical “isms,” Martin might be most easily classified as an exponent of neo-classicism, exemplified by his two masterpieces for chamber orchestra, the “Petite Symphonie Concertante for Harp, Harpsichord, Piano and Two String Orchestras” and the “Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra.”  If you want to hear what neo-classicism sounds like, you can’t do much better than these two great works:

Elegance, unflagging invention, piquant but palatable harmonies, delight in unusual color combinations, both gravity and uplift — I love this music and hope you do too.

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The chorus was a mainstay of Martin’s focus from first to last, and from shorter a cappella works to such large-scale oratorios as “Le vin herbé” (a 1940 telling of the “Tristan and Iseult” story for 12 voices and five-part chamber ensemble), “In terra pax” (a 1944 setting for large vocal and orchestral forces of Biblical passages on war and peace) and his valedictory 1972 “Requiem.”

Then there is the extraordinary choral work that Martin mostly composed in 1922, added the final section to in 1926 — then put in a drawer until finally allowing publication and performance in 1963.  What on earth would possess a composer to suppress for forty years as fine a piece as Martin’s “Mass for Eight Voices?”

Actually, the reason was not to be found on earth at all.  Rather, Martin considered the Mass to be a private matter between himself and his God, and did not want it to be judged on aesthetic rather than spiritual grounds.  Perhaps the shadow of Bach and his Passion also loomed over the young composer, still searching for his individual voice in his early thirties.

Whatever the motives, we can rejoice that Martin eventually relented, and allowed us to sing and hear one of the most beautiful a cappella Mass settings since the Renaissance.  Indeed, Renaissance touches abound, such as the modal melodies and ingenious writing for two choirs, sometimes combined, at other times separated and contrasted.  From simple melody to complex counterpoint (the weaving together of several musical line), Martin’s technical range is all-encompassing, but always, always, placed in the service of expression of the text.

To hear such a work from a recording (or a Spotify playlist), in the privacy of your own home, can be a deeply rewarding experience.  But to hear it sung by dozens of well-tuned voices, resounding in a beautiful sacred sanctuary, is something quite rare and special.  Allow me, then, to bring to your attention, a performance of Frank Martin’s “Mass for Eight Voices” and other works by the splendid Illuminati Vocal Ensemble, collaborating with the UMass Chamber Choir, conducted by Tony Thornton, Saturday evening in the sanctuary of the Newman Center at UMass Amherst.  It promises to be a lovely way to spend a fall evening engulfed in the warmth of the human voice and great music.

 

Albums du jour: Aphex Twin & Flying Lotus

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Look who’s got a new album out — the man who taught electronica how to energize the mind as much as the limbs.  Call it “Braindance” (a term he coined), IDM (“Intelligent Dance Music”) or whatever, the music of Aphex Twin long since escaped the boundaries of genre to take a prominent place in the wide, wonderful world of vital, relevant and, make no mistake about it, great music.

It’s been thirteen years between Aphex Twin full-lengths, making the release of “Syro” a cause for much rejoicing throughout the land.  So, what has this restless genius, one who exhausts the thesaurus for synonyms for “protean,” “chameleon” and the like, got for us after all this time?

Turns out to be neither reinvention nor regurgitation; instead, it’s a confident, mature artist putting his flag in the ground and reclaiming his kingdom, much as [PRETENTIOUS COMPARISON ALERT] the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, returning home after several years in Europe, did with his celebrated “Body and Soul.”  The Boss is back!

Back that is, with 65 mind-blowing, booty-shaking (did I just write that?) minutes of musical entertainment, good as he ever was.  There isn’t a thoughtless or uncared-for bleep in any of the dozen tracks; indeed, each of the approximately 200 (I stopped counting) electronic tools listed on the insert are all put to good use.  When you listen, for instance, to the funky riff that courses through track two, “XMAS_EVET10 (thanaton3 mix),” take note how many variations of line and tone are built in — and how much of a difference it makes.  The final track, “aisatsana,” makes for a surprising and touching epilogue, too.  Said it before, say it again:  This kind of artistry matters, and should be recognized and celebrated.

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So, who’s been at play while Aphex Twin has been away?  Oh, just such brilliant, ceaselessly creative electronica artists as (among many others) Burial, MatmosOneohtrix Point Never, Toro y Moi and, far from least, Flying Lotus, the artist behind a non-stop bullet train of an album called “You’re Dead!”

The music blends electronic sounds, samples, live instruments, singers, rappers and choirs into a cinema-of-the-mind narrative that, while never directly spelled out, seems to parallel the psychedelically violent guro manga (I had to look it up too) illustrations by Shintaro Kago that go along with each of the nineteen tracks.  Such notables in their fields as Herbie Hancock, Thundercat, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Jeff Lynne, Niki Randa and others whose names you may or may not recognize stop by for a track or two.  And as with the Apex Twin, the level of care taken with every element of the album is extraordinary — the tension doesn’t flag for a second.

So even, make that especially, if you’re new with this whole electronica thing, as I was until far too recently, take the time to find out what creative and very cool sounds have been happening while you were occupied elsewhere.  It’s what keeps us aging music lovers alert and alive, fully engaged with not just our beloved past but with the hopeful present.

Are live musicians always better?

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If you want to put a scowl on a musician’s face, bring up the issue of the increasingly frequent use of electronics to replace live musicians in music theater productions.  You’d better have your flame shields ready.

Who can blame them?  Playing music for pay is, to be tautological, the musician’s livelihood.  And to be no less obvious, decreased use of musicians means decreased opportunities for musicians.  No wonder that musicians have a bad attitude about this, and that their professional organizations speak out against it at every turn.

Just as obvious, of course, is why theater producers would consider such a practice: Costs.  Given the huge financial risks of live theater and already eye-popping ticket prices, who can blame them?  But oh, do they get paid back in ire and invective.  Sometimes, it gets so bad, with threats of ostracism and worse made against participating scabs — er, performers, that the whole production gets bagged.  That was the eventual outcome of a case I wrote about earlier this year.

So we know the position of the musicians, echoed by much of the musical press. After all, like the fans who demand that their favorite sports teams sign all the best free agent players, it’s not their money.  We know what the producers have on their mind, even if we don’t like it.  But how about we step out from the back of the house, take a seat in the audience, and listen with unprejudiced ears?  Sometimes, you might find, live musicians aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

One such instance was Lyric Stage Company of Boston‘s otherwise superb production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which The Wife and I attended on Sunday.  In his pre-curtain introduction, production director Spiro Veloudos made sure to congratulate his company for employing a real orchestra, and to invite the audience to applaud him, and themselves, for their enlightened stand on live musicians.  There was no question whose side the angels were on.  Then came the unseen conductor’s downbeat, and with it, a dose of reality.

For while the singing actors, all possessing fine, well-trained voices, performed with little or no amplification (what a treat!), they still overpowered the seven-piece instrumental ensemble, relegated to an offstage location due to Lyric’s very intimate performing space.  When you could hear the musicians, you heard some pretty scrawny and scrappy sounds, nowhere near weighty enough to provide the necessary oomph at climactic moments, of which the score has many.  And when the keyboards might have been expected to come to the rescue, as they often do in such situations, what we got was tinny, distorted and, frankly, unworthy of the professional level of the production.  I’m not assigning blame, I’m just describing what I heard.

Such an approach might barely have sufficed for a smaller-scale Sondheim show like “Company,” but for “Sweeney,” with its larger-than-life emotions and soaring, Puccini-esque vocal lines, it didn’t work at all.  (Remind me to tell you the story someday of how my late friend Fred Marks claimed to have introduced Puccini’s music to Sondheim, to whom Fred was distantly related.)

To my ears, some Plan B should have been considered, one that, while not busting the budget, would have done better justice to the show and to the paying audience.  Obviously, a full orchestra would have either broken the bank or launched ticket prices into the stratosphere — plus, there was nowhere to put it.  Maybe the seven-piece orchestration could have been better, but I don’t think that would made a decisive difference without additional instrumental firepower.  We were asked, practically commanded, to applaud Lyric Stage for its use of live musicians.  But in reality, the production did not make a very strong case for them.

So let me ask this modest question:  If at present, or in the future, a solution to the above dilemma could be found in better, smarter and cheaper electronic music technologies, and if it were to be found that they worked well and that audiences responded well to them, would musicians continue to stand in the way of such a solution?  That’s all I ask.

By the way, my next blog entry will probably be a review of new albums by electronic musicians Aphex Twin and Flying Lotus.  I hope I will not be besieged by angry emails from all the musicians put out of work by these brilliant artists’ use of electronics.