Sunday, September 30, 2012
2010's Teen Dream crystallized Beach House's music into a perfect morsel of drone and sweetness, so the natural reaction of many fans to the terrific followup, Bloom, will be an accusation that it's "more of the same." Admittedly, this is quite true. The duo's sound is carried no further aside from a slight emphasis upon rhythm and electronics over shoegazing dream-pop -- but if songs are your thing, you're likely to find this their most immersive, moving effort to date.
The warm, dramatic "Myth" and gorgeously twisting "Lazuli," just to start, further Beach House's long-festering noise into the stuff of disco dreams -- in the proud and towering tradition of Cocteau Twins, they redefine escapist synth-filled forms as moments to live in and savor atop a secluded dance floor. Victoria Legrand's uniquely lilting, heavy voice, more transcendent than ever on "Wishes" and "New Year," provides the reassuring groundwork for this absorbing popcraft. Perhaps Bloom is just homing in on big ideas until they're more broadly accessible, but it has a flavor of confident, engagingly effortless beauty.
[Submitted to MT but unpublished. This record is close to a masterpiece and one of only a handful of truly exciting albums out this year. But you probably knew that already.]
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
Movie stardom is nothing, and boiling radio fever was familiar by now, but it's unmistakable that something's changed in Prince during the opening moments of Purple Rain. In stark, funeral echo, he makes what at first seems a mildly subversive announcement about being gathered here today to get through this thing called life, an "electric word" -- but after a few moments of playing along with the schtik we realize he's on some sort of a cuckoo rant involving "the afterworld," the "shrink" in "Beverly Hills" ("you know the one"), and a "world of neverending happiness." Prince being Prince is a concept familiar to us now, but in 1984 the seductiveness of his purposeful but abstract lunacy was fresh as cold water; it's pure chutzpah as performer, entertainer, and outsized personality that brings the entire world into his corner during the course of the next-to-shapeless party anthem "Let's Go Crazy." Not that his band, the Revolution, aren't a big part of the success of his records from this period, but it was sheer audacity on his part that transformed a terrific R&B singer into a cult of personality, a force of nature. The only conceivable comparison is imagining the Beatles attempting to make "She Loves You" and "Revolution 9" the same song.
Let's be clear: Prince made better albums before and after Purple Rain -- at the very least, 1999 and Sign o' the Times have a sprawl and heft to which it never aspires. But the alarming self-assurance of "Let's Go Crazy" indicates that which is proven over the eight cuts that follow: this is the peak of Prince as a pop performer, specifically the man who can justify a claim to having owned popular music throughout the '80s. The biggest share of the universe's attention belonged quite deservedly to Michael Jackson and Madonna, sure, but you had to search far and wide to find people who were passionate about music and weren't excited about Prince. He was like the Beatles in the '60s, Neil Young and Stevie Wonder in the '70s, Kanye West in the '00s -- critically, commercially, artistically, there was no touching him. And if we can get behind any one of his records as a manifesto, it's this one, hampered initially by its relation to a turgid and silly rock & roll movie but now easily standing out as a shining beacon of the best and most forward-thinking pockets of its era.
One measure of Purple Rain's success is that it's not tied into its era at all -- if anything, it still feels ahead of our time. We discover a Prince who's mostly shed the Minneapolis sound he helped to invent, instead building from the more left-field, experimental music he delivered on Dirty Mind and parts of 1999. Whereas songs like "Automatic" and "Let's Pretend We're Married" married their funk to a brooding, deliberate pace as they gathered mood and energy, the songs of Purple Rain are bursts of (mostly) brief enthusiasm that deliver ideas and retract them with invisible rapidity. It's possible, of course, to draw a line from his earliest radio hits, "Soft and Wet" or "I Wanna Be Your Lover" or "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad," to something like "I Would Die 4 U," which has some shred of tradition in its grooves. And yet it perversely sounds like nothing that came before, shedding all but its ghostly electronic rhythm section and a lonely, frantic vocal, in addition to a clipped, awkward, repetitive verse/chorus that eventually explodes into an even more bizarrely frenzied instrumental bridge. It's all over before you know it, before you even have time to process it, but it's immensely pleasurable. It feels perfect, carved in stone, and immediately familiar. But who else but Prince could do it? Who could duplicate it now?
In sum total, this feels like the most innovative straight pop record since the '60s. Prince goes for broke on it, shooting for the broadest possible contingent and courting a mainstream rock audience by both simplifying and building atop the soul music principles that were once his foundation. It's a careful practice of shedding and growth, and we don't hear much of it now because the concept of "mainstream" has changed so much, but there was a time when it was possible to become stranger, more unique, while building a larger fanbase and in fact infiltrating the top tier of the Billboard 200. For the rest of the decade, Prince's singles would remain uncompromising, off-putting, surreal -- and intensely popular. We have no one capable of such madness now. It's a wonder we ever did.
Like those early Beatles singles, it all has the subliminally affecting energy of an alien missive of some sort, inspiring shrieking disbelief and pleasure that some could (and did, almost immediately) call sinister and vile. The urgency of "Take Me with U" is pure pop only slightly mussed up by its sly string gags and supernatural catchiness, but where Prince proves his prowess over the formation of abstract ideas into pop and over the pop audience itself is on the elaborate tangents that mark material like "Computer Blue," a truly otherworldly creation that captures all the spoken-word innuendo, oddball jamming, and sensual infectiousness into less than half the length of "Automatic," and caps it all off with backmasking a la "Rain." It then segues into "Darling Nikki," a witty and terrifying concoction that responds to no heretofore known standard of either R&B or pop but hasn't the shade of experimentation or noodling. Rather, it creates its own landscape and runs brazenly on top of it, Prince appropriately giddy and impassioned over the story of the girl "masturbating with a magazine" who had "so many devices" in her apartment and left a note in the morning about calling "whenever you wanna grind." It sent people into a tizzy, including Congress, who couldn't admit how it related to them so they started putting stickers on all our CDs instead.
The irony, of course, is that Purple Rain is now in the National Recording Registry; Tipper Gore and Prince in their present incarnations are absent of influence or importance, but these songs ring out and last. Their elevation of batshit songforms continues to provoke in wildly different ways, a few decades removed. "When Doves Cry" still soars on the radio and still sounds brand new, its bass-free, suspiciously invigorating anxiety and anguish continuing the capture the imagination of untold numbers daily, whether listeners get to hear the version that descends into sinister, chant-like bellowing and electronic mystery or not. The massive excellence of something that pushes forward as much as "The Beautiful Ones," a show-stopping showcase for this masterful writer and instrumentalist, displays the aptitude of Prince to mask his ingenuity with torch-song expertise. Like the whole record, it's the best of everything.
In the film Purple Rain, the title song serves as an emotional climax, meant to signify the Prince character's stripping away of disdain for the world beyond himself. On the record, it comes across as a deliberate outlier; it's every bit the standard ballad "The Beautiful Ones" is not, yet it became a signature and a classic because Prince's mannered appropriation of the conventions therein is marked by such disarming sincerity, in context at least, that it's akin to learning about the depths in the heart of an intellectual giant. This is the point when Prince strips away all of the business and surrealism and goofing around and he'll use that angelic, versatile voice of his and guitar-hero his heart out in an eight-minute potboiler made for radio, for making out, for every kind of international utility you can picture. And he recites his lyrics about regret and causing pain and, oh, all the same stuff singer-songwriter dudes always sing about regretting -- like it's just you and him. And, you know, a few million other people, all transfixed and adoring, all in the palm of his hand for several years to come. Not an infinite number of years, mind you, but enough.
Dirty Mind (1980)
Read my Metro Times review.
I like what Kristian Matsson is doing with his life. So far, past album number one, he has refused to go for broke with his obvious abilities; instead his records have become more deliberate, more subtle, and more brooding. That's my kind of singer-songwriter. His other records were ideal for long drives in the spring and summer. This one is designed for moping at home. Keep it in mind this autumn.
Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP (2010)
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Though he's outpaced in influence and long-lasting mass appeal by a hefty handful of his peers, Hank Williams down to Patsy Cline and beyond, this sweet-natured, melancholy tenor passionately embodied the pure heart of country music at its artistic peak. The genre's most rabid cultists regularly name his early RCA recordings as among the basest pleasures of the period, a zenith of stark and direct expression from a real entertainer of the old sort. His time playing before audiences ranged from the 1930s to the late '70s, though he'd spend his last few decades in seclusion before passing in 2003. As a result, he captures so much of a certain American dream, the ideal of the high school dropout chasing something for love and somehow succeeding, across transformative decades.
Lockin's voice is naturally chirpy and cheery, which can be off-putting at first for those used to spinning the AM dial to hear the barely-contained desperation of someone like Williams, or the deadpan misery and irony of a Johnny Cash, but the smallness and classical sweetness of the singing is what makes a tearful tune like "Livin' Alone" feel sincerely heartfelt rather than just generic, and what sets alight the tired musical and lyrical conceits of "Geisha Girl." Locklin tended to ignore trends, which is one reason his work has aged well (though perversely, also a reason it hasn't survived particularly well into subsequent generations), so the proto-rockabilly shades of "Why Baby Why" serve mostly to prove how much teenage music of the period owed to ideas that had floated around radio for at least a generation. The most brilliant of the rockabilly singers always went for the jugular, intending to bruise, a hit-and-run, and with the possible exception of Gene Vincent, you'll never find anything in their catalogs that offers up a vocal as sophisticated as that of Locklin on "Why Baby Why," on which he exercises the remarkable collision of the gentle and the operatic.
That knowing humanity was by design, however, and Locklin has a tightly controlled voice that suggests the Depression as his period of entrance into the performing world; as a result he seldom loses himself outright. When he soars, as on "It's a Little More Like Heaven," it's because he means to. On this entire, brief compilation, the pleasures are consistent; fans maintain that not only is this only the beginning, but that it's actually the bottom tier of Locklin's output -- it's often argued that he's never enjoyed the cachet of a true legend in America as he does overseas, particularly in England and Germany, where his most esoteric work is lovingly gathered and collected and studied. This disc only scratches the surface, presumably, of understanding Locklin -- but these are indeed the songs that brought him his greatest period of fame Stateside, so they must operate as a firm starting point.
Besides, even in just sixteen tracks, this collection exposes an excellent primer not just on Locklin's own vocal range but on the varied utility a singular voice, even an ostensibly limited if gifted one, can have in popular music -- the contrast on the two best tunes here, the mournful "Please Help Me, I'm Falling," a true country classic, and the jubliant and gigantic "We're Gonna Go Fishin'," one of the most unpretentiously joyous singles of the early '60s, is just as gratifying and fascinating as the more-than-competent read on the future standard "Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On," which paid the bills and sent Locklin into a permanent radio oblivion for years to come. Overseas importance notwithstanding, that's a fine enough legacy, isn't it? Turn your AM dial just the right way and you can still hear the late Locklin wailing out into the ether about his longing for you, livin' alone and wanting to dream on that pillow too. There's apparently far more to his legacy, but you know, even if there wasn't...
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Read my Metro Times review.
Read some more, less organized thoughts.
One of the biggest surprises of the year is that that's not a "highly recommended" tag up there.
Made in the Dark (2008)
One Life Stand (2010)
Eurythmics certainly had their moments, although in the grand scheme of boy-girl synthpop duos they were no Yaz, but there was always a nagging suspicion that the immensely talented Annie Lennox was being held back by keyboarding weirdo Dave Stewart. That seems to be confirmed by Diva, an album that -- hearing it today -- I really just want to hug. It's all here, all of the charms of early '90s adult contemporary pop: a buried worldbeat influence, numerous bows and bids for the then-thriving mainstream club music scene, all couched in the standard singer-songwriterly pastiches that here take on a strangely lovable gloss and glow. In much the same way that Leonard Cohen transcended the dated trappings of modern-day pop music by engaging with and burying himself in it, Lennox gains strength from the vagaries of lush soft-porn production: it emphasizes her voice, internalizes the emotion, makes it all somehow more intimate.
And the singing -- which she unmistakably designs as the reason to buy and hear the record -- is as technically staggering as ever, and here is given a red-carpet approach appropriate to the disc's title. After years of being in an alternative rock band that flirted yearningly with the mainstream, Lennox now approximates a grand lady coming out, a star among stars. The charming "Why" is merely a prelude for the kind of contained, urgent peak that the single "Walking on Broken Glass" is -- of course you remember it from the radio and MTV back then, but do you remember how maddening its articulated desires really are? In 1992, there was literally nothing quite like the manner in which the obliquely classicist arrangement builds up and explodes at the chorus, turning what in most songs would be an emotional climax to merely the beginning of a powerful, stirringly suggestive repetition of the title phrase. Lennox owns this moment, and the eccentricity and beauty of that single is unmatched by anything else, save a bonus track included with most copies of the CD: a simple and splendidly evocative version of Dubin-Warren's "Keep Young and Beautiful," the kind of selection that nearly justifies modern pop singers' odd fixation upon covering standards.
Generally, however, Lennox's compositions are powerful and accomplished, even if "Broken Glass" is clearly her best offering (which it remains today). Her songs mostly exist to give her an excuse to wind and wrap her soulful voice around something that will really exercise it, and the beautifully dated production (by, somehow inevitably, Steve Lipson) seems almost designed in advance to afford future nostalgia to the prospective consumer. These keep even the lackluster, or at least fairly ordinary tunes (roughly half) from growing tired. "Stay by Me," just to toss out an example, is a trite nothing on paper, but Lennox makes something out of it, and you end up having a fine time.
So does she, which helps and hurts; the sole shortcoming here in comparison to her work with Eurythmics is that there seemed more mystery then, more pain and more fear -- and clearly, although those records were often ambitious failures (even the group's Greatest Hits has too many duds; only three of their full-length albums offer real consistency), their songs were formed as songs more than showcases and therefore had a bit more sophistication, tempering Lennox's own impulse toward mere recitations of the R&B and soul vocabularies. But maybe reciting the R&B and soul vocabularies is a worthwhile endeavor, though it's hard to know why something as left-field as "Broken Glass" could splash out with nothing to match it.
But by the same token, a greater degree of comfort on the vocalist's part means her work is more assured than ever here, and I'd take "Money Can't Buy It" and the melodically resonant "Cold" over something like the blank-faced radio bid "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves." Lennox proves herself capable of rendering dunderheaded phrases ("I believe in the power of creation / I believe in the good vibration" and "I could die here in your arms") either unnoticeable or somehow powerful. The emotional peak, disregarding the aforementioned opening splash, is the international hit "Little Bird," and as much "of its time" as it is, it's a dance cut that still sounds incredibly strong, an utter triumph of hook-filled pop smarts, joyfully sung and married to a perfect beat. It also sounds like a Eurythmics song, more than anything else here, and I'm not sure what that says exactly.
Monday, September 10, 2012
Read my Metro Times review.
This sophomore record by one of our most charming current singer-songwriters is consistently catchy and danceable, but in the manner of Heartbeat City or a lot of power pop, it does get a bit sickly and old after a while, and for all the wide-eyed and sincere platitudes in the lyrics ("do things your own way," etc.), nothing here stands up to the fearless "Parents," which makes me want to dance and celebrate like nothing else this year.
Saturday, September 8, 2012
It seems an unwise decision to try and "explain" a song as immediate and joyous as "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," or one as self-explanatory and felt as "Georgia on My Mind"; Ray Charles' best songs are brilliant because they strike our emotional chords deftly and confidently, and they do this with expertise because that's what Charles, when paying his dues in the '40s, learned how to do. Even apart from his pop success, Charles is the single most important performer in the transitional period between the birth of rhythm & blues and the fruition of rock & roll; few singers, writers, musicians were ever more inventive, more stirringly devoted to an evolving, experimental sound -- all delivered with vocal immediacy anyone else in the world could envy. Charles resisted the "genius" tag, but in the context of 20th century pop music, he's a god among few others. The power of his best work has not diminished an iota over the decades.
Along with the Beatles, Charles embodies a certain conservative ideal of the way in which sheer worth ethic begats creativity; this awkwardly brushes up against the liberal ideal that allows an artist to develop over time, sometimes a great deal of time, which is necessary for a musician like him and is no longer possible in the business -- so if you wonder why we've never had another Ray Charles, that's one important reason. In his early days as a hard-working performer, he was remarkable only for his consistency, like the Beatles in their pre-Hamburg period; history records that he began his career as a remakably consistent and expressive jump blues singer, but not a unique one. He was one among many trying to earn a living.
You can hear a bit of the glimpse of the jump blues Ray Charles, sounding unbelievably young with his gravelly voice yet to be ravaged by aging and vice, on "Mess Around," which also embodies shades of boogie woogie. A smash hit on the R&B charts inaugurating a lucrative decade on Atlantic Records, the cut depicts both a man and a genre of music in transition. You can sense the landscape of soul music beginning to change and open up, but in contrast to so many records of the early '50s, the seams are only there if you try to find them; the music itself remains direct and affecting with no qualification. By the time of "A Fool for You," two years later, Charles is exhibiting pure soul in his playing and singing, his piano fills delicate and tricky, the dramatic spreading out of the arrangement all operating from a doctrine of honesty and vulnerability raised to a high art. That's soul music, right? And moreover, that's the work of a professional and exquisite creator of grand pop recordings, recordings that encapsulate a kind of miniature history of the American century -- jazz collides with blues collides with gospel collides with R&B -- and Charles' understanding of all of the above is nuanced and cool-headed, a teacher who uses his lessons to quietly (or loudly) deal with his personal agonies.
It could probably be argued that someone like Ray Charles is born with his gifts, and it's probably true that his patience, his gifts and his spirit were his from the beginning. But his unique abilities as a performer and his dogged ambition were an outgrowth of his years of experience working his ass off as a performer in night clubs in Florida and later Seattle. He began to record early, issuing a number of one-off sides on various labels before securing his Atlantic deal; he was constantly learning and empowering himself, and it was for this reason that he appeared from seemingly nowhere on Atlantic and managed to transform the framework in which he was operating. Even at his most conventional (the big band shades of "Greenbacks," the nocturnal melancholy on "Drown in my Own Tears") he was invariably exciting and enthusiastic, the consummate performer now performing for everyone.
Looking over charts and discographies, one finds that it's easy to make a case for any number of Charles' singles as a "breakthrough" moment, but the most frequent song to gather around is the #1 R&B hit "I Got a Woman" from 1955 -- a song whose down-on-its-knees adoration and affection is tempered oddly by both an unusual level of frank powerlessness ("she give me money") and misogyny; it's a placid enough song that subtly reveals ugly, violent ideas. Yet it's wonderful, of course, it just cries out to be followed by Etta James' "Tough Lover." For me, the key single of the first half of Charles' Atlantic deal is the feverish "Lonely Avenue," a gospel-suggestive raw soul, dramatically enunciated so that every word resonates, its rhythm otherworldly and unreal; Doc Pomus wrote the number, but Ray Charles transformed it and made some left-field madness of it that he then rode to the R&B top ten. A remarkable era this was indeed. Great as all the innovation is -- you can hear the virtual invention of the "Motown sound" on "Ain't That Love" -- there is today much to be gained from hearing a relaxed Charles charm his way through pure sleazy blues and beautiful sap, typically with incredibly nuanced vocals like that of "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'," and without any context necessary we can bask in his glow.
But innovation knocks on the door and won't leave -- who can say whether Charles' sexually charged magnum opus "What'd I Say" was intended to be as world-shaking as it turned out to be, a breathless rock & roll mission statement that renders irrelevant all memories of Bill Haley and, hell, some memories of Elvis. For six minutes (spread over two sides of a 45), after one of the most distinctive and beautiful intros in all recorded music, Charles travels farther afield from his conventional background than ever, leading his band and singers in a reenactment of -- alarmingly enough -- an on-stage improvisation that begins as a lively and half-formed blues then blasts off into some heaven of shapeless fury, periodically breaking the tension for a few moments of call-and-response orgasm noises (the ultimate fusion of secular and sacred) followed by, of course, "you made me feel so good." This is one of the first rock & roll records, along with Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," that can convincingly be called avant garde. It was also, bemusingly enough, his first crossover pop hit, reaching a remarkable #6. Such a strange record affecting such a wide swath of people seems surprising until you remember all those years Charles spent playing in clubs, learning what hit people hardest and in the greatest numbers. It was, indeed, the ecstatic response of the crowd to the set-closing improvisation that led "What'd I Say" to be recorded -- a true populist accomplishment.
Ray Charles jumped to a new label, ABC, in 1960 and took the lessons of "What'd I Say" with him. Putting aside for a moment that he managed a top ten hit with an instrumental as chaotic as "One Mint Julep" and a nightclub tune as bare and stark as "Them That Got," he scored a #1 hit with one of the most ruthless call-and-response tunes ever recorded, an enlivening of a 1960 obscurity called "Hit the Road Jack," brief and head-spinning -- Charles doesn't provide himself with the hook, only the enthusiastically embittered verses and brilliantly performed one-liners like "you don't mean that, and the record's power and brevity seem designed to leave destruction in their wake. The hits continued to spawn after that with increasingly unusual, adventurous material -- "Unchain My Heart," forecasting Marvin Gaye's late '60s singles, is a nearly atonal expression of pain, a refining of the pop-blues fusion. "At the Club," despite its frivolous plot, is nasty spoken-word noir that expertly irons out the kinks in the earlier wet-streets number "I've Got News for You"; both tunes are sumptuous yet disquieting, funny yet broken ("you phoned me you'd be late / cause you took the wrong express").
"Don't Set Me Free," a minor hit in 1963, encapsulates the high drama evident in so many of these records, but by this point Charles' greatest asset had become his increasingly expressive singing, which inflicts a faraway look in the listener's eyes on "No One," "Crying Time" and the soul deconstruction of "You Are My Sunshine." In the '60s, the great lesson of Ray Charles' work starting with the great Modern Sounds in Country & Western music was, indeed, the power in the straightforward -- just after he essentially proved the opposite. The schmaltz on his emotional later records is schmaltz indeed, but it's also undeniably affecting, direct, immersive. Sentimentality exists for a reason, after all, especially when it's tackled with the intelligence and grace of as brilliant a singer as Ray Charles. These songs mean to make you cry, and they're more than capable.
This compilation sinks toward the end into Charles' '70s and '80s work, mostly exercises in country nostalgia that don't really work unless your appreciation of his vocals far outpaces your resistance to bland, Huey Lewis-like arrangements that cop out by refusing to go all the way with their Beautiful Music persuasions or to let Charles sit unaccompanied; sadly, most of the records he made in the last three decades of his life have aged poorly and aren't much use now, which is a pity because as a singer and piano player he never really lost his grip. Luckily, Ultimate sticks to a few token selections (though their choices are so awful one wonders if there might have been better options lurking someplace), and it's handy to be reminded of Charles' now almost completely forgotten second career as a consistent minor hitmaker on country music stations.
Plus we don't get to that point before receiving not just an instance of Charles' raw power as a singer elevated to surprising patriotic effect on a version of "America the Beautiful" that doesn't overreach, but two of his absolute masterpieces from the '60s. First is "Let's Go Get Stoned," a huge R&B hit that did nothing on pop radio and was really the last hurrah of Ray Charles the ceaseless innovator. It's the point when his ability to put the full scope and magnitude of pain in his music is matched up at last with the spare, gut-wrenching arrangements of his '50s records, tremendous backup singing and all, and the pained wit of his crossover hits. Beautifully composed by Ashford & Simpson with Josephine Armstead, it's everything great, provocative, and forbidden about Ray Charles in one recording.
But best of all, I suppose, is the 1968 rendition of the Beatles' "Yesterday." The Paul McCartney composition is really quite brilliant, its melody and lyrics both striking, but the original recording is deeply flawed -- the string arrangement is poor and hollow, and McCartney's rote recitation of the vocal is absent of any convincing pain. That's what Ray Charles brings in, and his agonized revision runs circles around the Beatles', the way that the Beatles themselves so often redefined and reshaped the songs they covered. "Yesterday" is for the first time not just an intellectually impressive pop song but a raw and wrenching, believable document of the very sorrow its lyrics purport to express. Charles' frayed voice has the sort of impact any singer should long for -- and he knows the effect he's having. He also knows that he's making Paul Mccartney's day by doing this; it's a tip of the hat across an ocean, because each performer knew more than anyone in his audience how hard the other had worked, day and night, for his great success.
Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961)
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962)