Album du jour: Deerhoof, “La Isla Bonita”

 

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Some day, hopefully not soon, this old orb or ours will stop spinning.  Then and perhaps only then will Deerhoof no longer keep putting out some of the most stimulating sounds in all of American music.  Come to think of it, maybe the two events wouldn’t be a coincidence…

In twenty years since their founding in San Francisco, with a few shifts in personnel and musical focus along the way, Deerhoof have self-produced and issued a baker’s dozen albums, finding their stride about half-way through.  Haven’t heard ‘em?  Well, imagine the piledriver beat of The Ramones, the skittery melodies of Frank Zappa, the infernal din of Sonic Youth, the rusty-knife guitars of Dinosaur, Jr., the polyrhythms or Stravinsky, the razor-sharpness of your favorite string quartet, mash ‘em all together — and you’re still missing the secret ingredients.

What gives Deerhoof their Deerhoofness comes right at you as soon as you hit “play” on their new album:  A bright beat is established by percussive, pitchless plucks from the guitarist on the right, then following an ultra-brief suspenseful silence, vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki introduces the first melodic and lyrical idea, a descending perfect fourth melisma on the word “girls.”  That’s the drummer’s cue to get into the action, adding an infectious beat to the guitar plucks.  But what about those girls?  Be patient.  After a few iterations of the rhythmic cycle, Matsuzaki is back to tell us more: “Girls,” this time on an extended melisma, “who are smart.”  She repeats the phrase with altered lyric and added cowbell (somewhere Christopher Walken is smiling): “Girls…who will test.”  Enter the left guitar and bass with their respective licks, enriching the rhythmic complexity, then once more with those girls and their tests…

At which point I will mercifully break off this potted analysis of “Paradise Girls,” the first track on the album “La Isla Bonita,” and leave the rest to you.  The point is not that we should always listen to this or any music this way  – what a dreadful thought.  The point is that behind the thudding drums, crunching guitars and Matsuzaki’s delightfully odd and childlike vocals, there’s lots of smart stuff going on.  These aren’t just songs, they’re compositions.

Can Deerhoof be too clever for their own good?  That’s the risk, one that they mitigate by keeping things brief, unpredictable and, best of all, rocking.  And the symbiosis of their visceral appeal and their intelligence — of brain and brawn — is why I love them.

As Deerhoof albums go, “La Isla Bonita” is pretty straightforward in its bare-bones instrumentation, moderately lo-fi production and (relatively) cogent compositions. While it’s a quality one normally wouldn’t associate with Deerhoof, a stream of lyricism runs through several numbers, though it’s only drawn from for occasional telling moments (e.g., the conclusion of “Black Pitch”).  If you have to start somewhere with Deerhoof, and please do, it might as well be here.

Album du jour: Mary Dullea, “Eric Craven: Piano Sonatas 7 • 8 • 9″

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In America, we have our “maverick” composers, such as those profiled by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas in a concert series that also spawned one of the best music programs ever done in public radio.  For the English, the equivalent composers fit in among their prized eccentrics, the dafter and dottier the better.  On either side of the ocean, these maverick eccentric composers are the classical cousins of the oddballs and misfits known in pop-music taxonomy as “outsider” musicians.

Whatever we call them, we love them, or at least some of them, in occasional doses and at arm’s length.  Who among us has not proudly touted our appreciation for some really weird stuff, and felt really good about ourselves for doing so?  I’m sure that’s how the late Frank Zappa felt when he said that the pathetically incompetent “outsider” pop band The Shaggs were “better than the Beatles,” while knowing that to be absolute nonsense.

So who are these classical classical mavericks/eccentrics/outsiders?  They’re the ones who hand-punch holes in piano rolls to compose music no hands could play.  They invent their own tuning systems and the instruments to play them.  They craft dozens of miniatures rarely exceeding two minutes’ duration, build their own American gamelans,  and turn out symphony after dense, impenetrable symphony,  14 of them after the age of 80 , with scant hope of performance .  Each uniquely, none like the other, they eschew the classical mainstream to create something the world has never heard before, whether the world wants it or not.

To be frank, sometimes the romantic ideal of these maverick composers is more appealing than their music.  One’s favorite maverick can be another’s nutcake, and vice versa.  And you know, there’s something to be said for such boring mainstream values as craft, balance, and knowing what you’re doing.  Am I being an old fuddy-duddy when I notice that these things are sometimes insufficiently present, to its detriment, in the music of the mavericks?

But I have my favorite maverick eccentric outsiders in classical music (Lou Harrison), pop (Kevin Barnes of “of Montreal”), jazz (Thelonious Monk, an outsider who became an insider) and other genres.  I bet you do too.  Here’s a new one for you to discover, as have I just this month.  And though I’m only beginning to get a handle on his music,  and perhaps never will, I’m glad to have made his acquaintance, and hope to hear more.

Eric Craven is a former math teacher in his native Manchester, England who, after surviving cancer, turned to music full-time.  A composer since his teens, he seldom sought or received performances until recent years.  As the brief bio in the notes to this new album puts it, “(Craven’s) preference is to work in isolation without reference to or connection with any other musicians.”  Spoken like a good maverick, or since he’s British, a good eccentric.

And of course, to be a good eccentric composer, you have to have your very own personal composing method.  From Craven’s blog:

I have over the last 15 years or so become increasingly focused on developing an experimental compositional technique which I refer to as Non-Prescriptive.

This, essentially, is a method of writing music which permits the performer to determine some or most of the musical parameters which normally constitute the bricks and mortar of a piece of music. Furthermore, the performer may opt to alter these parameters, the consequences of which result in the particular piece being open to any number of different interpretations. The performer thus becomes involved in the compositional process and, as a consequence, the historical relationship of the composer, the performer and the performance are realigned.

Maverick music fans will recognize Craven’s “non-prescriptive” technique (actually a set of techniques, as the dense album notes point out in exhaustive detail) as a descendant of the indeterminacy of John Cage, Earle Brown, et al., though to judge from what I hear, Craven’s music is usually nowhere near as random as his description makes it sound.  In two out of the three sonatas on the new album, “realized and performed” by Irish pianist Mary Dullea, there’s no missing the small melodic motives and other gestures that bind each work together and give each its own character.  You might describe the sonatas as — and I mean this as a compliment — modernism-lite.  Yes, they’re abstract, angular and dissonant.  But unlike in more severe modernism (e.g., Carter, Boulez), you can actually hear what the hell is going on.  There’s no way to predict what will happen next, but when it happens, you understand why it did.

Of the three sonatas presented on the new album under review, No. 7 is my favorite.  In five related but well-differentiated movements, arranged symmetrically, their moods ranging from jazzy to spectral, it’s a cogent, concise and worthy addition to the latter-day piano sonatas of Prokofiev, Copland, Tippett and Carter.  I could imagine other pianists taking it up, though according to “non-prescriptive” theory,  each would make a different work out of it.  How different?  It would be fun to know.

For reasons of timing, Sonata No. 7 is followed on the first of the album’s two CDs by Sonata No. 9, described in the notes (and plainly audible) as a “clear development of Sonata no.7.”  In three movements, the lyrical first (almost as long as the entire 7th Sonata) and probing, unsettled third movements surrounding a spiky and violent second, No. 9 casts material resembling No. 7′s in a dark, even tragic light.  Though the two composers in no way resemble each other, I got something of the same emotional tug from Craven’s 9th Sonata as I get from Franz Schubert’s final three works in the same genre.

Most problematic for me is Sonata No. 8, which comes in one movement of almost fifty-minutes’ duration.  Here, we have at least one foot (one hand?) in the world of Morton Feldman, the late American composer of pointillistic, half-silent works that  can go on literally for hours.  Isolated ideas pop up, are played with for a while, then disappear.  Perhaps, said I to myself while listening, there is some overall pattern or shape that I’m incapable of apprehending, or which will appear to me after maybe a dozen more hearings.  For now, while I don’t really mind the ride, I have no idea where I am most of the time.

Then by reading the program notes after a few listens, as is my usual procedure, I found that my disorientation was the intended effect, and that the works’s seeming randomness was built into its compositional method.  “Hints of Craven’s other works are always just below the surface,” writes annotator Scott McLaughlin of the 8th Sonata, “blending with Dullea’s inspiration into a Proustian journey that takes the listener everywhere and nowhere.”  Does knowing that make listening a more interesting or aesthetically pleasing experience?  I’m not so sure, but in general, prefer my music to take me not everywhere, not nowhere, but somewhere.

Speaking of pianist Mary Dullea, full marks to her for her advocacy and sympathy for Craven’s unique muse, as well as for complete keyboard mastery.  Would that every composer, mainstream or maverick, had such a friend.

So, if you have a quiet half-hour or so, and are intrigued by the idea of using the same notes and piano keys all the other composers have in a very personal, if not utterly new, way, I recommend you give Eric Craven’s Sonatas a try, starting with No. 7.  The Spotify playlist is below; you can also download the Sonatas, either piecemeal or all three, in high quality sound here.  Happy discovery!

 

Album du jour: Marianne Faithfull’s “Give My Love to London”

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“That was the worst NPR story I have heard in a long while. Hearing Faithfull’s music, especially her newer creations, made me want to jam a pair of rusty scissors into my eardrum. I have always appreciated NPR’s consideration for culture and artistic expression… but this story demonstrated negligence of discretion. Ugh. Terrible terrible music, weak story.”

So commented listener “Heather D” on NPR’s 2009 interview with singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull, conducted just after the release of Faithfull’s album “Easy Come, Easy Go: 12 Songs for Music Lovers.”  And Heather wasn’t the only one.  Other comments: “I am completely at a loss with this story.”  “Truly, it was almost cruel to air this story.”  “Like many others – no doubt – I was shocked to hear the dreadful caterwauling of Marianne Faithful on my beloved Weekend Edition Sunday.”  “OMG!”

The on-line verdict on the interview:  Yes 1, No 10.  A decisive defeat for NPR and Marianne Faithfull, yes?

No, or at least not necessarily.  As anyone in the public media should be able to tell you, haters are far more likely to respond to something — a program segment, a piece of music, a schedule change — than lovers or agnostics.  It’s human nature, and media pros have to learn to shrug it off.  If you can’t, the media isn’t the career to you.

But no doubt about it, Marianne Faithfull’s voice does not please everyone.  Dry, baritonal, the consistency of aged, cracked leather, it’s the voice of too much cocaine, too much booze and too many cigarettes, such as the one whose smoke encircles her face on the cover of her latest album, “Give My Love to London.”

And it’s the  voice which, for going on 35 years, Marianne Faithfull has employed to remake herself from the ingenue of 1964 who scored a hit with (ex-boyfriend) Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’s “As Time Goes By” into a wise, world-weary chanteuse, half-talking, half-singing her way through songs of love, loss, regret, deception, despair and other adult themes.  If you hear latter-day Lotte Lenya in Faithfull’s voice, it’s not a coincidence, given Faithfull’s oft-expressed admiration for her legendary predecessor, and her occasional forays into the Lenya-Kurt Weill songbook (one celebrated item from which, “Pirate Jenny” from “The Threepenny Opera” is referenced in the new album’s title song.)

As smart and sophisticated as it would make me sound, I’m not going to tell you that I love Marianne Faithfull’s music.  Even at it’s best, it’s not very lovable, nor it it suitable for everyday listening.  But I like and admire it very much, and think her new album is terrific.

Released to coincide with Faithfull’s 50th anniversary in the music business, “Give My Love to London” consists of nine good-to-excellent new songs by Steve Earle, Roger Waters, Nick Cave, Ed Harcourt, Tom McRae, Anna Calvi, Patrick Leonard and Faithfull herself, along with covers of the Everly Brothers, Leonard Cohen and Hoagy Carmichael.  No question, the songs primarily explore the darker hues of the emotional spectrum.  But this is no dispiriting wallow in monochrome misery.  And while Faithfull’s voice is by no means pretty, some of the tracks here, such as Cohen’s “Going Home,” achieve at least a fair level of beauty.

Unfortunately, the album saves its worst for last.  In a misguided version of Carmichael’s heartbreaking ballad “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” the arrangement changes the song’s mode from major to minor and backs Faithfull’s vocals with eerie guitar wails and harp plinks. Thus, the balance between the melody’s sweet uplift and the lyrics’ poignance is destroyed, turning an extremely moving song into a merely gloomy one.  This is not the first time in pop music that darkness and ugliness have been falsely equated with emotional depth (listen to Sonic Youth’s disastrous version of “Superstar” on the anthology album “If I Were a Carpenter“), but I wish that artists would knock it off.

Hey, no one or nothing’s perfect, and if you can overlook some flaws, as well as your own prejudices, there some very good music here.  Give a listen:

Album du jour: Vashti Bunyan’s “Heartleap”

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About a year apart, close to a half-century ago, two young women entered London studios to record their interpretations of words and music by one of the hot young songwriting teams of the day, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.  Here’s what came out:

In the last few months, the two women, Vashti Bunyan and Marianne Faithfull, both now in their late sixties, issued new albums — Bunyan’s fourth and last (or so she says), Faithfull’s twentieth.  How did they come out?  And what do they tell us about what the two women have been up to for the past fifty years?  Over the next two blog posts, we’ll have a chance to listen; first a little background on today’s album.

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If you don’t know Vashti Bunyan‘s name or music yet, don’t feel guilty.  Hers is the quintessential real-life fable of unappreciated brilliance, years of obscurity, an emerging cult following and belated recognition, similar to that I chronicled earlier of Californian singer-songwriter Linda Perhacs  (of whom I new nothing until I discovered her on the Vashti Bunyan channel on Pandora — score one for streaming!).  Each, in fact, issued her beautiful but neglected masterpiece of an album in 1970, Perhacs’s “Parallelograms” and Bunyan’s “Just Another Diamond Day.”

Ingenuous, whimsical, filled with cute critters (human and otherwise) and benevolent nature, “Diamond Day” speaks of the time and scene that also gave us Pentangle, Fairport Convention (whose Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick played on several tracks), the Incredible String Band (ditto Robin Williamson) and Nick Drake. With Bunyan’s breathy, soothing voice and catchy, compulsively sing-alongable songs, one might have predicted, if not a smash hit, then at least a middling success.

But it wasn’t even that.  Disillusioned, Bunyan quit the music business and, basically, spent the rest of the century in Ireland and Scotland, raising kids and animals.  Then, to complete the fable, came the reissue of “Diamond Day” in 2000, discovery by such young admirers as Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, a second album (“Lookaftering”) in 2005, tours, guest appearances, a documentary a new generation of fans…and they all lived happily ever after.

Judging from her new album, “Heartleap,” the years have treated Vashti Bunyan very well, both vocally and psychically.  Her singing retains its sweet softness, her melodies are as catchy as ever, and her lyrics, wise and mature, express not the slightest cynicism or bitterness.  It’s an intimate affair, with light and lovely string arrangements, discrete synth (mostly simulating harp and celeste) and, at the center, Bunyan’s piano and guitar.  Even if you normally find such music twee and overly precious, listen to the third track, “Mother.”  If you’re not drawn in, beguiled and finally, moved, let down your guard and try again.

 

Thirty years of Jazz à la Mode

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Tom Reney no doubt remembers to the second how long it took me to respond to his letter of introduction in 1983.  OK, so I dawdled — er, deliberated a little.  In retrospect, it was time well invested in probably the best decision I ever made during my 35 year radio tenure.

I was Music Director of WFCR (now part of the New England Public Radio media empire), while also programming and hosting classical and jazz shows.  Though my jazz radio chops were pretty solid, if I say so myself, it wasn’t as if I couldn’t have been improved upon.  So, when I received a letter offering services from someone with both abiding love of jazz and a decent amount of radio experience, I was intrigued.  A bit of flattery for my own work, indicating a potential kindred spirit who had done his homework, added to his attractions.  And hey, a little ego-stroking never hurts.

Long story short, we at WFCR got more, much more, than we bargained for when Tom joined the roster in 1984.  Three decades and thousands of swinging tunes later, Tom’s “Jazz à la Mode” remains not only essential listening for New England jazz lovers but a model program for How to Do Jazz Radio.

Would that all radio hosts brought Tom’s mix of impeccably high standards and joie de swing to their shows.  You can listen to JALM with complete confidence, knowing that if the music is great, Tom will play it, and if Tom plays it, the music is great.

That Tom knows whereof he speaks when it comes to jazz (and blues, I should add) hardly need be mentioned.  But his knowledge extends well beyond record dates and personnel.  Like all art forms, jazz emerged not from a vacuum but from a confluence of cultures.  You can’t really know the music unless you know where it came from.

And maybe that’s what separates Tom from other equally knowledgeable jazz hosts — the breadth and depth of literary, artistic and sociological understanding he can draw from, not for on-air disquisitions, but as a moral and ethical foundation for what he does and why it matters.  These aren’t just notes, folks — these are people’s lives.  And for the Tom Reneys among us, radio is not just a career, it’s a calling.  If you haven’t added Tom’s brilliant blog to your subscription feed, please do.

This Sunday afternoon from 3-6 at the Community Music School of Springfield, NEPR will throw Tom a “Jazz à la Mode” a 30th anniversary bash (click for tickets and other information).  One way to gauge the respect in which Tom is held by musicians is to take a gander at the roster of performers who’ll be “on the band,” as Tom would put it: Charles Neville, Karrin Allyson, Steve Davis, Avery Sharpe, Grant Stewart, Nat Reeves, Paul Arslanian, George Kaye and Jon Fisher.  That’s about as solid a lineup as will be making jazz anywhere in the world this Sunday — and they’re right here, contributing to a good cause.

So congrats, old colleague and friend.  And here’s to thirty more years of swinging that gone music!

 

Coming up: A violin for the angels

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This Sunday afternoon at Sweeney Concert Hall, Smith College, Northampton, violinist Rachel Barton Pine and pianist Matthew Hagle will perform a program of three great violin sonatas (Schubert’s in A Major, Prokofiev’s F Minor, Op. 80 and César Franck’s in A Major) and four selections from Rachel’s “Violin Lullabies” album.  The concert, co-presented by Music In Deerfield (click on link for ticket inf0) and the Smith College Music Department will start at 4:00 — though please come at 3:00 for “Concert Conversations” with Rachel and yours truly.  Yes, I’m Artistic Director (i.e., music picker-outer) for Music In Deerfield, but I hope that, considering the quality of the artists, you’ll forgive the obvious conflict of interest.

Here’s what I wrote for the program booklet:

Can you remember the moment you fell in love?  There you were, minding your own business, listening to the radio, enjoying a recording, or seated in a concert hall.  And then, out of the blue – wham!  A note.  A turn of phrase.  A magical moment, like the oboe entrance in Mozart’s “Gran Partita” that gave Salieri his great epiphany in “Amadeus.”  It could happen to yoooo….

Well, it happened to me, in a hotel conference room, one weekday morning during the annual gathering of public radio music folks.  There we were, buzzing on pastries and coffee, primed to be impressed (or not) by the latest classical hot shot flown in for our delectation by a record label, promoter, or some other handler.

Not that the musician on that particular morning was completely unknown to me, having played her debut recording of Sarasate violin showpieces once or twice on my radio show.  Nothing, however, prepared me for what happened when Rachel Barton (not yet Pine) put her bow down on a string and drew the first note.

Frankly, I don’t recall the selection, some lyrical romantic thing.  But I’ll never forget the bloom of Rachel’s tone – sweet, round, not loud, but wondrously rich, and ample enough to thwart the lousy acoustics of the carpeted, low-ceilinged conference room.  You can go many years and not hear a tone like that.

It was love at first note.  And it’s been a great pleasure since to follow Rachel Barton Pine’s brilliant career, to play her recordings many, many times on-air, and to present her today for her third Music In Deerfield concert.  So beware – it could happen to you!

The pianist vs. the critic

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And now for the latest bit of excitement to emerge from the ever-frothy world of classical music — a case of artistic integrity, critical judgment and free speech.  To which we might add the head-explodingly confusing differences between American and European law.

The parties are Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić (above), an uncommonly interesting artist I played many times on the radio, and had the pleasure of presenting in concert once with the equally intriguing cellist Pieter Wispelwey, and the Washington Post‘s Anne Midgette, one of America’s “must-read” classical music critics and writers.

As recently summed up by the Post‘s Caitlin Dewey, Midgette published a somewhat negative review of a Lazić recital in 2010.  Now, in the spirit of the European Union’s new “right to be forgotten” law, Lazić has sent the Post a request to have the review taken off the internet.  Before moving on, take some time to read the linked material, including Midgette’s offending review, her own take on “l’affaire Lazić,” and the pianist’s expansion on the reasons for his request (found at the top of his website.)

All set?  Good.  Let me give you my take.

As for Lazić’s “right to be forgotten,” fuhggetaboutit.  Not only is the law obviously unenforceable in this case, but his request represents an affront both to free speech and artistic judgment.  If he would have welcomed a positive review, the kind which musicians quote in their publicity materials, he should have put up with the negative review.  Praise is meaningless without the possibility of criticism.

But there are further issues here worth discussing, of which I will concentrate on one: accountability.

Musicians, of course, are subject to review by critics, including those few remaining critics will access to major publications — like Anne Midgette and the Washington Post.  And in all but the rarest of cases, of which this is one, the critics will get the last word.  If a musician wants to reply, he/she of course can request space in the same publication, with no guarantee that such access will be provided.  Or, the musician can publish a reply on his/her website, which reaches a small fraction of the major publication’s readership.  Few do either, basically conceding final judgment to the critic.

But who critiques the critics?  And to whom is the critic accountable?  “I write for the audience, not for the artist,” writes Midgette,  “and I always encourage artists to do their best not to read reviews at all, since even the most kindly-meant write-up may contain a line or two that can lodge in the subject’s brain and fester.”

As for the first part of that sentence, I would ask how Anne Midgette or any critic knows what the audience and her readership want from his/her reviews.  When I read the most prominent classical music critics still writing for the major papers, I’m impressed with their knowledge and writing skills, as well as their willingness to call ‘em as they hear ‘em.  I couldn’t do it nearly as well.

But to speak very generally, I don’t get the sense that classical critics are in very close touch with the general classical audience — the 99%, if you will — or that they value this audience’s perspective very highly.  Indeed, especially in the writings of the New York Times‘s Anthony Tommasini and Boston-based critic Lloyd Schwartz (most recently seen in the late, lamented Boston Phoenix), critics tend to view the audience’s perspective as one to rise above, or even to protect the art of music from being sullied by.

While poor would be the musician who panders to the audience (and the audience who wanted to be pandered to, which they generally don’t), poor also is the classical critic who looks upon audience approval and disapproval with snobbish disdain.  I’m afraid there’s still too much of that around, even from otherwise excellent critics who should know better.

As for the second part of Midgette’s sentence (“and I always encourage artists to do their best not to read reviews at all…”), who is she to recommend such a course of avoidance* to the artists?  I strikes me as a presumptuous request for undeserved last-word authority.

In past blogs, I’ve both praised and criticized Anne Midgette on the score of responsiveness to the classical audience and modesty about her critical judgments.  Not that she should care, or even read, what some obscure blogger up here in remote New England and with too much time on his hands has to say.  My perspective is no doubt shaped by my career in public radio, where we had to go directly to the listeners — the audience — to pay the bills, thus instilling a sense of accountability in us.  Since we ask them for so much money, at least we could be responsive to what the audience wants.  Not pandering — accountability.

I wish this sense of accountability were more widespread throughout classical music, including its critics.  The music would be in healthier shape for it.

*The original phrase read “who is she to thus instruct the artists?”  Thanks to volunteer copy editor Scott Belyea (see comment below) for this improvement.