Monday, July 23, 2012

Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend (1951-64)



i have been thinking a great deal about love lately. love as a cultural force and an act of protest. perhaps it's my mood this summer, perhaps it's changes i don't necessarily want to be dealing with and i'm hanging on hard to what stands like a beacon among the dross, hanging on to words and pictures and emotions as if attempting to store them away for future use. perhaps it's this dark weekend full of dark thoughts and dark news, the point really being that i have lately felt this need to strip things away and find what's important to me. existence itself, i guess, privileged or not, is predicated on the constant peeling away of "business" that distracts us from our absolute nature and our absolute loves. i'm 28 and maybe i don't know what i'm talking about -- i can't even bother to use the shift key right now, apparently -- but gradually i've come to believe we are all, every one of us, too aware of ourselves to harness our deepest whims and stay true to them in any but the most achingly, lovingly fleeting moments. it's like something that we steal here and there. and i find myself looking everywhere in the art i digest for that action, that sudden -- for lack of a better, less chopra-ian term -- oneness with being loose and capable of surprise and joy. there's a moment in the film the lavender hill mob that's like this, when two men are running down the eiffel tower getting dizzy and their hats fall off. it's exhilarating, but even that is busy and cluttered compared to the music of sam cooke.

portrait of a legend, a sam cooke cd i bought in 2004, is maybe the best hour of music i know to exist. i'm not convinced it isn't the apex of everything i love about popular music; in fact, i'm almost positive it is. this is one of many reasons (chuck berry's the great twenty-eight and pet shop boys' discography are two others) why i roll my eyes all the way back behind my brain when some rockist informs me that albums, lps, whatever are the prime medium for all this stuff. this cooke collection is cobbled together from singles, b-sides, and rarities spanning much of the great artist, singer and soul innovator's career and there is simply no question that it's better than any album that could ever exist. indeed, there are two lengthy stretches on it that are rapturous like something immaculate or cosmic and i don't know of anything else like it, but the compilers at abkco were brilliant to do it like this: how the devastating "sad mood" spins out into "cupid" into "wonderful world" into "summertime," how "twistin' the night away" swells up into "shake" which sighs into "tennessee waltz" into "another saturday night" and into the peerless "good times." they also arranged two explicit climaxes in the hardened, cathartic "bring it on home to me" and the ghostly, almost unlistenably emotional "a change is gonna come." yeah, the tracklist is great and the pacing is crafty and all that. but this really all sam cooke -- he did the hard work. you never ache for him to have had the chance to do more of it like you will after spending 70-odd minutes with this unbelievably perfect, pure-heaven collection of songs.

the voice is everything -- what i mean is how he will operate on the basis of singing astonishingly well, technically: "you send me," his big breakthrough, is carefully phrased and sweet; he wraps around standards like "for sentimental reasons" and reinvents doo wop as this crazy large thing on "just for you"... but then he completely throws you off with this sudden interlude of absolute purity like the stunningly felt "i'm coming home one of these days" bridge on "chain gang" or the "la-tatatatata-tatata"s on "wonderful world," and there are variations on this everywhere. what sam cooke is doing when he is singing about how good the good times are and how happy he is and how he doesn't know if he'll feel this good again is not just giving vent to something unexpectedly guttural within himself but validating our own emotions, those we hear in the song itself and those spurred by the nuance in his angelic but tough singing, which goes so much beyond what could be explained merely as "smooth" or "soulful." words are inherently reductive when dealing with it; there is no way to contend with what cooke could do other than to listen and respond inwardly or bodily. to return to real life after hearing him is the strangest and harshest of transformations.

yet real life is what he enlivened. those aforementioned validated emotions, well, even in an innocuous thing like "cha cha cha" he's achieving pure release and joy to give comfort in the deepest hopes, sexual and emotional and every other way in the listener -- that's the reason he's often defined as having "invented" soul, which who knows if he did but it hardly matters. he's such an overpowering force, on originals and outside compositions both, rendering us barely able to notice how inventive the cha-cha-cha proto-'60s strum on a cut like "win your love for me" is when we're so fixated on how he so magically phrases that completely undiluted, relentless "whooaooaaa little girl, how happy i would be"... and all this is magnified, inevitably, on the songs that struggle mightily with loss and desire and need, "chain gang" to "cupid" to "another saturday night." but all the same, the consistency of his work as showcased here is remarkable. there's not a single weak cut. there are some you've never heard, some you haven't heard in a while, but he is compelling across all of it, making you feel like you're at home whether you know the tune or not. it's revealing to hear a shred of his sacred material like "hem of his garment" and "jesus gave me water," correcting the tendency of so many cooke compilations to ignore that early phase, and it speaks to how much his lilting phrases and wordless flights of ecstasy can mean anywhere. "lovable," the sad reflective hop "only sixteen," the archetypal chamber pop "you were made for me," the quiet "i'll come running back to you" are all songs that might be pleasant but utterly benign in some other context, but thanks to cooke's nuanced delivery, they feel like classics. the stomping "sugar dumpling," rhythmically diverse "good news," and wicked horn-filled "meet me at mary's place" deserve the status anyway, and the illusion of spontaneity he always presents is manifested impressively in the impressive blues "little red rooster."

but what courses through all this in its most inimitably powerful sequences is memory. you're a fucking master if you can manage "sad mood" without at least feeling
like shedding a tear or two, in part because cooke never wallows in his desperation -- he always sounds like he's just feeling it all and pulling his way through. same for "chain gang," which you know well of course but which you might not remember is absolutely heartbreaking and a moment of total release for singer and audience both. the voice is really so loud, calling out and yearning and echoing down through the years. i remember my dad turning the radio up when "cupid" inevitably came on the radio as he drove me to town, and it seemed present then as now as ever -- "wonderful world" was a mainstay too. you put it on and people dance, slow-dance usually. that's what the song's about. or someone asks you to dance and you say no and then wish you had said yes, and you stand alone for the rest of the song... and that's what it's about too. it's even about how i really did try to impress my best friend i had a crush on in high school by getting straight a's one semester. it didn't really work but it helped my gpa, and it adds to my trust of cooke, who never seems to try to elevate any of what he's saying. just meets it on its own level heroically, without talking down.

gershwin's "summertime" is here too. only sam cooke ever made it sound so vital, so far from a staid staple of a different era. every era is his. i remember SHOUTING along to "bring it on home to me" in a bar with my friend eric and not just believing but feeling every trace of the sentiment, smiling and thrilling at the sleazy drunkenness of the moment but also participating in the things cooke meant to illustrate. you might do the same thing with "another saturday night," do you realize what he's saying and how painful it is? he's got nobody... and there isn't a person alive who doesn't get it, who doesn't connect immediately with that and how directly and free of abstraction we find it expressed here. there's an infinite solace in that open expression of sorrow. there's time for joy too -- we don't talk enough about the pure dancing happiness in "twistin' the night away" and "shake," and those are masterpieces too.

but there's a way in which solitude is what i feel is really being celebrated on these records, a sense i don't get from as much rock & roll as i used to want to. on "tennessee waltz" -- the definitive version of what can be an either great or terrible song (see patti page for an instance of the latter) -- he sings about his brokenness and loss of his lover to his best friend with an almost admiring, resigned tone, as if he knows that such pratfalls are an essential element of romantic being: that loss and happiness only really compound one another. by the same token, it seems almost like "i'm havin' such a good time" is expressed with some regret on "having a party" -- as if he knows it can't last, a fear he directly contends with on the wondrous, overwhelming "good times" (covered equally beautifully by the rolling stones later). next to ben e. king's "stand by me," this might have the greatest lyric in pop music -- the temporary but rich lifting of a head above depression has never been so eloquently articulated anywhere:

the evening sun is sinking low
the clock on the wall says it's time to go
i got my plans, i don't know about you
i'll tell you exactly what i'm gonna do

get in the groove and let the good times roll
i'm gonna stay here till i soothe my soul
if it takes all night long

it might be 1:00 and it might be 3
time don't mean that much to me
i ain't felt this good since i don't know when
i might not feel this good again

the baseness of that, the simplicity of it. it means everything already, but even more so the way he sings it. again, it's indescribable, really. it's the loneliest kind of romance, the kind most helpful in a dark time.

and why does "a change is gonna come" sound like the song of a man who knew he would die soon? why did he die when there was so much left to give? his mark is rich, deep, wide, there is no one else in his category. only buddy holly was as innovative, no one would ever be quite as emotionally rich, and no one would seem to understand people and specifically the people who love rock & roll with such intimacy and care. there is still an instantaneousness to his appeal when one discovers him, a shockwave of recognition, comfort, and joy when his music is heard every time thereafter. these are feelings we need and they are here for us. we will always, always need sam cooke, because no artist in these annals can be pared down so simply and easily to just the word, the emotion, the need "love."

The Man Who Invented Soul (1957-61)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Spiritualized: Sweet Heart Sweet Light (2012)

(Fat Possum)


Read my Metro Times review.

Set a record for me on biggest turnaround of opinion from first listen to second. I was in some sort of amazing mood the first time I went through this and failed to notice how much time Jason Pierce has begun to spend time repeating himself. Still, the Britpoppiness of it all is a delight, and "Hey Jane" is an incredible song.

All Saints: All Hits (1997-2001)



Not trying to be funny here -- this is a hugely enjoyable collection. All Saints got tagged in the U.S. as just another Europop phenom riding on the Spice Girls' coattails, but in fact they'd existed in some form since 1993 and made their debut almost simultaneously with their peers, and their music existed on a fascinating threshold between adult contemporary-leaning dance-pop and traditional bubblegum. That's what makes this such a fun and bizarre time capsule: there is seriously no two-year window that could have fostered this music except the 1997-98 limbo between Spice and the full-on teen pop explosion.

Group leader Shaznay Lewis spent much of the group's brief career at loggerheads with cofounder Melanie Blatt, and singers, management, writers (Lewis included), and label never seem to have found a careerist tactic that really gelled, even briefly like the Spice Girls. That's the only reason I can think of for the preponderance of baffling covers of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (a turgid "Under the Bridge") and Labelle (a "Lady Marmalade" that predates the Moulin Rouge! deconstruction by several years).

Drop those and you're not left with many actual tunes, but the ones here are an intriguing snapshot of a moment in time, a decent nostalgia trip, and generally just a bit of silly fun. Check out the trip-hop inflection of "Pure Shores," the TV commercial insistence of "I Know Where It's At," the stupid-delightful bounciness on "Bootie Call." Inevitably, the cut that shows real depth and longevity is the massive crossover hit, the extraordinarily melodramatic breakup ballad "Never Ever," a brilliant single that borrows equally from "Amazing Grace" and the Shangri-Las; this is a language we all can understand.

Lewis herself, who composed most of "Never Ever" in response to a messy relationship, seems to have been the foremost talent of the group (a solo cut she did with Artful Dodger makes the cut here, and sounds pretty much at home with everything else, perhaps more because of the era than anything), and she and Blatt are also apparently hilarious, if we're to trust Wikipedia's harrowing documentation of their various falling-outs:

Shaznay Lewis later explained that the catalyst for the break-up was a disagreement over who would wear a certain jacket for a photoshoot: "I would never in a million years have put money on the group ending over a jacket incident. But when that incident happened, it fired up so strong, it had to be over. And the way I was then, the state we'd got into then, there was no way she was getting that stupid jacket."

In August 2009, Melanie Blatt told the London Lite: "All Saints are never getting back together again. I never want to sing again. I recently did the Brits with Nic and we just went round chatting to people and then got drunk. That's my goal—to get paid for chatting to people and getting drunk!"

Do you ever suddenly get this feeling that nothing about pop culture will ever be as fun to you as it was when you were a teenager? I dunno... just wondering.

Atlas Sound: Logos (2009)



Yow, that Bradford Cox sure is a cheery bloke, isn't he? I was a Cox skeptic -- not being all that enamored of the hybrid of proggy guitar meandering and jangle-pop that started to overtake indie rock in the late 2000s -- until Halcyon Digest changed my mind completely. I wasn't the only one; that masterfully emotive and accessible record is the sort of thing that, in the somewhat myopic world of "alternative" blogs and news sites, can be termed a game changer. For my money, though, Cox's project of the following year, his third album as Atlas Sound (Parallax), was better still, one of the most genuinely gripping and immersive collections of songs I've heard in a long time, with the artistic energy and restlessness of the best pop songwriters. Parallax inevitably made me want all the more to check back on Cox's earlier work to see what I maybe had missed.

One thing very noticeable about that record, however, was the crippling melancholy running underneath it. Going back to the Atlas Sound music I'd skipped before, I'm mostly just so glad that he discovered songs after this. The addiction to pure "sound" on the celebrated but deadly-serious Logos provides an unfortunate analogy to this year's much-hyped Deerhunter side project, Lockett Pundt's Lotus Plaza. Unlike his My Bloody Valentine-after-too-many-beers Spooky Action at a Distance, I'm willing to call Logos a good record -- but one I don't see myself returning to often. As in the worst bedroom pop music, the apathy and bleakness are just too much to take. Cox's artistry and musicianship are undeniable, but it's hard to listen to Logos, despite the ample beauty contained therein, without feeling pretty troubled.

There are professional moments that snap into focus, of course; the bouncy Panda Bear cameo "Walkabout" continues the trend of Noah Lennox being far more compelling on other people's records than his own; the beautiful "Criminals" continues the good vibes and gives some hint to the showmanship Cox would begin to develop the following year; the eight-minute "Quick Canal," with vocals by Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab, threatens to descend into a dirge but never does; and best of all, "Sheila" is a wakeup call, a pop song with manic energy that sheds much of Cox's bummed-out listlessness. Unfortunately, these bright spots serve to emphasize the drabness of cuts like "The Light That Failed," which manages to throw all sorts of noise out without achieving any kind of resonance.

You end up picking up on pleasing sounds and lyrical flourishes, but the sameness is paralyzing; Logos sticks to its strongly held ambiance so well that you can't find a way in. By the end, all the despair is exhausting, not least because it's so amicably yet abstractly expressed. I finish Parallax wanting to give Cox a hug; I listen to this and want to stay away from him, because he's ruined my day with one of the bleakest albums I've ever heard. In all seriousness, this is a fine record despite some vapid mood-music rabbit holes it falls down, but proceed with care, and do not for a moment expect something as winning as "Terra Incognita" or "Basement Scene," which may not be any more colorful but are certainly less resistant to ingratiating themselves with you, becoming a part of your own world rather than a vessel for accidentally beautiful boredom.

Parallax (2011)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (1973)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Innervisions, the best long-playing record by very nearly the best recording artist ever to live, is frequently deconstructed as Stevie Wonder's "accident" record, the undiluted celebration of a recovery from a serious brush with death. But of course, its recording and release precede that life-altering event and if the car crash merits a place in a contextual treatment of his music, that place is with Fulfillingness' First Finale and, to a lesser extent, Songs in the Key of Life. Those are Wonder's most mature accomplishments; Innervisions is the moment of fire and will, the furious coming together of everything to form the person, the artist, the cultural titan.

The context it requires has merely to do with the decade of music preceding it: you needn't know where Wonder came from or what Wonder did in the '60s and in Music of My Mind and Talking Book to enjoy and love Innervisions -- but its impact certainly owes something to that advance knowledge, of growing up in real-time under the spotlight. Because Stevie Wonder had recorded brilliant music before, had already asserted himself as a great and nuanced performer of blistering emotion and intelligence as far back as "Castles in the Sand" or earlier -- and there would have been absolutely no reason to think that anyone might feel much need to prove oneself or top oneself after radio classics like "Uptight" and "My Cherie Amour" and "I Was Made to Love Her" that reverberate with red-hot tension and joy even now. He did this on his exceptional LPs of the early '70s, but the two aforementioned might well have begged the same question. There aren't words, then, for what a landmark of individualism and creative transcendence Innervisions would turn out to be. It's without precedent, without peer, without subsequent duplication; the confidence is absolute, the level of artistry still startling.

We must flash forward for a moment, to the third cut on Innervisions, to define the meaning of this specific moment and where it lands. It's not as if the jazz-soul collision of "Too High" or the gloriously sustained "Visions" repeat well-trodden ground for Wonder or anyone else; if anything, they mark the equally pronounced establishment of a distinctive sound only slightly suggested before, manifested in the former's playfully atonal doo-doo-doos as much as the methodical sadness of the latter. But the trajectory of Stevie Wonder's entire career from this point is mapped out in a matter of ten seconds as "Visions" trails off and "Living for the City" picks up. The opening notes dramatically struck on the TONTO synth would be enough for the way they compress the sprawling, dreamlike brood of "Visions" into a sudden kicking in of momentum and rhythm that presses forward, outward, all like a door widening out into the open. But the vocal begins then, and across every song he'd ever laid down, he had never, ever sung like this before.

"A boy is born," he announces, empathy and rage dripping from his voice, "in hard-time Mississippi / Surrounded by a world that ain't so pretty." He's leading us into more than the assured triumph of a true artist and master of pop music; he is lifting the curtain on a ballad of America, a Civil Rights anthem, a keening in the face of darkness. The hot, full-bodied funk that follows features not a single note or sound that isn't played by Wonder himself. He seems to find himself in it, first bursting out vocally like never before and then, after a biting spoken-word vignette about racism and fear in New York, he sings even harder somehow, ragged and loose and violently angry. Across the seven minutes of this stunning single, he finds liberation in directness at last. He finds the same as we segue into the completely different world of "Golden Lady." The aesthetic rules don't correspond here but Wonder ignores that, devoting himself wholly to the gradual build of pure romance in the ballad, as free and in-control as before; his sophisticated, ingeniously modulated vocal achieves the illusion of spontaneity and real, human presence in a sense never achieved by the choirboy recitals in something like "My Cherie Amour," brilliant though he was on it. He has become another figure entirely now; in control of career and music both, he is no Motown idol here.

And what is sung is what matters to him, from the rocks under the feet of the children in "Living for the City," whose pride and sorrow he captures with the wisdom and unfussy reportage of a great journalist -- "her clothes are old, but never are they dirty" -- to the spiritual missive hidden in the outrageous funk "Higher Ground" or the choral, celebratory tones of the absolutely fierce "Jesus Children of America." His lyrics have never been stronger, either; he's at his wittiest, slyest, saddest on "All in Love Is Fair," his most introspective and poetic on "Visions," adding to the sense that what we have here is really simply one of the most extraordinary instances of the last century of a great popular work being a great personal work.

His control gets to you, too; that calm overlording of everything on the catchy sparkle-and-fade "He's Misstra Know It All" but especially "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," which I'm 90% sure is the greatest song ever each time it comes on, his hapless Woody Allen routine at the outset making it certainly the funniest and most charming. And so much, again, of this is him, purely. He is every note of "Worry" except some of the percussion, and everything including percussion on "Higher Ground," "Jesus Children," "Too High." Does it even register that all of these songs sprang from the same sessions? Is there any doubt that this is one of the greatest albums ever recorded? There is permitted to be slight doubt that it's Wonder's peak, as his next two records would present a formidable challenge, but for consistency I don't feel there's anything close in or out of his catalog. Every cut is a deserved classic, yet you somehow feel compelled to plug them and make people love them more.

If we're talking peaks, though, I somehow keep being sent back to that brief little trill that opens "Living for the City" -- maybe because it signals what's to come (which is certainly why I get goosebumps when "Golden Lady" starts), but I think because it gathers up every impulse of Wonder's prior career and hauls them all to a central, focused point and begins to run. And run he would for years to come.

Music of My Mind (1972)
Talking Book (1972)