Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (1991)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Before the release of the Glider EP in 1990, My Bloody Valentine seemed like an above-average noise pop band whose major claim to fame was inspiring, along with Cocteau Twins and the Jesus and Mary Chain, what British rock journos dubbed "shoegaze," encompassing bands like Lush, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel and Ride whose common approach to guitars was typified by distortion, heavy on effects. Most of the shoegaze bands sprang from England and revolved around a scene in London that tended to be derided by critics as detached and cultish. My Bloody Valentine, led by the supposedly mad scientist-like guitarist Kevin Shields, were a Dublin group, a distinction that meant a great deal, and were much older, which meant more. The band had its genesis in the late '70s, when Shields and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig were teenagers. Their story progressed slowly, painstakingly, in keeping with what would become their reputation.

Shields is an interesting case, as rock musicians go. He lived around New York until he was ten, at which point his family returned to their home in Ireland and he became entrenched in the pop music world of the '70s as explicated by Melody Maker and Top of the Pops; in other words, despite an untimely departure from what was about to become the nucleus of one of the most fertile periods in popular music, he found his home. Nevertheless, he and Ó Cíosóig were seduced by punk along with everyone else and were aping their heroes as early as 1978 under the name The Complex. My Bloody Valentine itself began in 1983 when lead singer Dave Conway joined up. You can hear Conway on the band's first album (some say it's a "mini-album," but "album" and "EP" are exhausting enough distinctions), This Is Your Bloody Valentine, and several poorly received EPs including Geek and Sunny Sundae Smile. At this stage, thanks to Conway's swaggering melodrama, they were a shadow of the Cure, Joy Division and Nick Cave and all the goth-tinged seriousness thereby implied (although This Is Your... qualifies as a sort of protection against the later accusations that the band liberally lifted their sound from the Jesus and Mary Chain, since its recording in late 1984 predates the other band's explosion by nearly a year; similar charges in regard to the Birthday Party are harder to contest).

Once Conway was extracted from the lineup (he now writes sci-fi novels), the band recruited bassist Debbie Googe and, most crucially, Bilinda Butcher. Butcher plays guitar and keyboards on MBV's records but she also joins Shields in taking over for Conway on vocals. The impact on the band's sound and future by this development would qualify as immeasurable if one of the most fascinating back catalogs in alt-rock didn't make it perfectly easy to chart. Shields and Butcher don't trust themselves nearly as much as Conway; they fuss over their vocals, they almost whisper at times, and they tend to let their voices recede into the background of songs that increasingly tower with dreamy noise and buzz. Almost instantly, My Bloody Valentine gain a sound as a result of this evident shortcoming -- one distinctive enough to inspire a movement but also to never quite be duplicated in the nearly thirty years since.

My Bloody Valentine developed gradually, on a series of increasingly intriguing extended-plays, with each release presenting something that its predecessor had lacked. The feedback was always there, if muddied up by the cliches of post-punk and (on songs like "Don't Cramp My Style") thrash. Geek! added a layer of almost constant white noise. The New Record by My Bloody Valentine dispensed with a little of the gloomy machismo and acquired pop, melody, you name it, though you could still barely hear it; what do you want!? Sunny Sundae Smile is downright twee -- the title cut could be an Ian Broudie song -- though still heavy and traditional in a manner that would be discarded as soon as Conway departed.

The next two EPs, Ecstasy and Strawberry Wine later collected as the excellent full length Ecstasy and Wine, are the turning point. Dream pop becomes the framework, but with more sophistication than is typical of the genre, derived from psychedelia and underground heroes like Love and the Velvet Underground. The songs are swoony -- and the two singers coo and aah at length -- but they also breathe, they take time to explore grooves and rhythms, and they aspire to live in memory as songs as much as sounds. Shields finds a way by this point (1987) to make his feedback experimentation not just alienating but beautiful, and at best both as on "Clair." Strawberry Wine marks what sounds like the end of conventional folk-rock riffs in Shields' songwriting, but he at this point would have had a fully formed enough band conceptually and musically to be on his way.

But then came a legendary signing with Creation Records, and everything changed. My Bloody Valentine's breakthrough release was the EP You Made Me Realise, whose trebly and barely-stereo sound serve mostly to hide from the ingenuity and variance in its songwriting, and in the band's sudden confidence as a unit. More than goth rockers or mere twee romantics at this point, they are playing and singing music that discovers new, strange ways to be not just intellectually interesting but resonant and sexy. Everything tentative is suddenly gone. The proper LP Isn't Anything goes further -- the songs are weirder, less complete, almost disembodied; it's a complete anomaly and quite an invention unto itself. It was this album that gave way to MBV being labeled no longer a Mary Chain cover band but the originators of an entire scene. It also displayed Shields' savviness with concept; for instance, he left the noisier and punkier songs off and released them on a separate 12" (Feed Me with Your Kiss) so that the odd, surreal mood of the album was perfectly sustained. This indicator of the auteur's perfectionism, of course, carried foreboding indications for the band's future.

You can hear a lot of what the singers sing reasonably well on Isn't Anything. There are traces of discordance, like on "Lose My Breath," and the record inherits Realise's eroticism while also -- with a greater recording budget -- adding greatly to the band's warmth and dynamics. And the album's biggest innovation comes in the moments when the feedback, accompanied at times by keyboards, multitracked guitars and the vocals that Shields and Butcher were beginning to think of as just another instrument, doesn't just hiss or squeal but roars, discovering something musical and invigorating in the cacophony. Shields was dissatisfied. But in a sense, this would again have been enough.

A lot of money was expended on recording the follow-up to Isn't Anything; it famously bankrupted Creation Records and got Shields in all sorts of trouble with excessive studio time, the other members of the band feeling alienated, the press impatient, the label terrified. An EP, Glider, slipped out in 1990 with a proposed album song, an instrumental and two cuts that sounded like a logical progression from Isn't Anything. The album song, "Soon," was telling, though; it resembled none of the band's earlier work, save for the layered vocals by Butcher -- another absolute turnaround, but also an obvious progression. Brian Eno would memorably label it "the vaguest piece of music ever to have been a hit," quite a remark from that source. One thing for sure: it indicated that the band had already left the shoegazers behind. Another advance EP, Tremolo, followed. Then, after any number of studio changes, financial crises and panic attacks from Creation's top brass Alan McGee, at last came the evocatively titled Loveless in November 1991 -- more than two years after work on it began.

If you want an afternoon to go by very quickly, search for My Bloody Valentine on Youtube sometime. Not only can you watch them progress in various badly-shot but fascinating live shows starting as early as 1987, you can see the obviously shy and withdrawn Kevin Shields suffer through interviews, sometimes along side the even shyer Bilinda Butcher, from around the time Loveless was released. Shields, not even twenty-nine yet then, comes across as you'd expect: like a young cocky rock musician, the bane of whose existence is "assholes" in recording studios telling him what to do. He's forthcoming about how vital the creative freedom provided by the by-a-thread label is to MBV's continued existence, but rebuffs questions about the dilemma he put them in; and there's a cringe-inducing moment when one interviewer attempts to ask the two of them, who were then in a romantic relationship, about the "sexual balance" in the group.

It's a badly phrased line of thought -- not nearly as embarrassing as the idiot who, in a 2014 interview, informs the infinitely patient Debbie Googe that he had crushes on her as well as Butcher, "especially back in the '80s" -- but it gets at something that is one of the key sonic developments on Loveless. In bands with a male-female dynamic in the singing like the Go-Betweens, Belle & Sebastian or My Bloody Valentine, it alters the band's sound, makes it something different. Already on older MBV records, Butcher and Shields had often sung on the same track, sometimes in duets and at times with one backing up the other. On Loveless, their roles become more complicated. Buried as the vocal tracks are, they are unexpectedly intricate, with the two of them sometimes in perfect unison, one high (typically Shields) and one low; sometimes harmonizing but never conventionally; often tracked many times over; and very, very often singing in such a way that it's difficult to tell them apart. Their work here attains an androgyny that contributes to the album's horizon of weightless mystery but also its utility as a universal, sensory experience: obviously human but free of any forced meaning.

The other major evolution here is in Shields' guitar playing; by this time, as well as the band played together live, My Bloody Valentine in the studio essentially was Shields, a dynamic that's been treated with cheerful acceptance by Googe and eye-rolling frustration by Butcher. Since the early '80s, Shields had been toying with the bending of notes, with alternative tuning, with the tremolo arm -- an incredibly simple trick, but an aurally striking one that had never been incorporated into a rock band's music quite like it was on Loveless, including on the prior MBV releases that began to experiment with it. On this album, entire songs are built around the concept of this specific brand of disorientation.

It sounds like a lot of things that it isn't: corroded or malfunctioning tape, perhaps, or a flanger or some sort of elaborate distortion pedal. In fact, Shields wasn't using reverb, modulators, chorus or flanging at this point in his career and used only standard pedals, those sparingly. What you're hearing on Loveless is done primarily with just the guitars and amps. Nevertheless there are some tricks with tape and, of course, extensive overdubbing; he uses the studio, tries to use it more intimately than most engineers would let him, and does whatever is needed to get the sound in his head onto a record, including mostly mono sound. Brian Wilson circa Pet Sounds is a good frame of reference. Like Wilson, Shields' goal is hard to articulate but its emotional and sonic impact on the listener speaks for itself. You don't know, intuitively, if the sound of Loveless is accomplished by means that are simple or complicated. If you have no experience as a musician or around musicians, you have little reason to particularly care. But you know that the sound is different in a basic, primal way that can't really be described or pared down, and Shields could likely not have gotten us to that unfussy realization if he'd done this with a cloud of studio dust. The magic lasts across the literal decades too, since no one has appropriated the record's sound with complete success.

That is part of why Loveless is so unique, but not necessarily why it's great. In the cacophony, the grinding, the metallic bed of sound and the roar of it all, Shields discovers something so simple as catchy pop music that is resonant and addictive. The chosen medium of loudness matters, because it makes this a non-literal experience and puts us all floating and dizzy into a wonderful trance, especially played at top volume. It's druggy music insofar as it becomes the drug itself. Loveless starts exactly the same way as Isn't Anything, with an opening drumbeat marking time until throwing us off the cliff. This time we're diving into "Only Shallow," a scream of multitracked guitars that hiss and growl, a chaos broken eventually by Butcher's murmurs. We can guess at what she's saying if we want. We don't have to. It sounds like the hard parts of passion regardless, and the wildly expressive dynamic of soft melody and howling, transportive noise tells the whole story. "Loomer" is even prettier and more grotesque, Butcher humming over some barren landscape of all-but-tuneless feedback squall where time has stopped. The strange thing is not that it sounds completely wrong at first, but that it very quickly starts to seem where-have-you-been-all-my-life perfect.

"To Here Knows When" may be the defining track of Loveless. Again it prominently features Butcher's defiantly pretty vocals, now over a sonic soundstage of loop-pedaled feedback that is nothing short of enchanting as it seems to expand and contract organically, with more droning, so-very-wrong roaring guitar behind all of this. Loveless isn't prog; it has no such flighty ambitions for itself, its sounds are visceral rather than intellectual, and from what little we can make out of the lyrics (which, in a testament to the band's attention to detail, were nonetheless endlessly debated and revised), they are about the groggy thoughts we have just after waking up with someone and the troubles and joys entailed by that, following up an album filled with imagery of sex, violence and death. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the splendidly suggestive title implies an enforced distance between people. Maybe we are meant to hear just enough of the words to vaguely understand. It's poetry to match a complex musical idea achieved simply. "When You Sleep" can be described as nothing but pure pop despite its maximized volume; here Butcher and Shields sing together, multitracked about a dozen times and basking in a parade of hooks with guitars that would sound almost normal if the sheer number of them didn't create such a strange, alien effect. There are riffs and solos here, used the same way they are in any rock song, but the strange way they are played and recorded reshuffles the witness, makes us hear the way we respond to all pleasurable music in a distinctly new way, as though we're being rebuilt from scratch.

Both that song and "I Only Said" are built on looped riffs that barely sound like guitars, more like synthesiers or flutes (and indeed, MBV hired a flautist for live shows after Loveless; shades of Jethro Tull!?). To the band's arsenal of deceptively simple effects "I Only Said" adds repetition; the resulting hypnotic state matters less than the lingering, unresolved tension thereby created. The vocal melody, here centered upon Shields as far as we can tell, is equally impressive with its clipped verses that seem to finish a line halfway before starting what would feel like a different song if not for the consistent instrumentation; that means more than just that it's a shapeshifter. Loveless is the perfect nonverbal elaboration of tentative breakdowns in communication. It's like jazz, specifically free jazz -- dealing strictly with reactions to instruments, Shields and MBV find the emotional in the abstract.

The hypnosis effect reaches a peak in the album's midsection. After "I Only Said" lingers on its central trill for about six minutes, one of the album's darkest, slowest songs continues the spell. "Come in Alone" is almost a plod of sorts, hitting an implied romance with careful rhythm that would cast it as something very different from the rest of Loveless if the detailed production weren't so careful to incorporate the sound of the record at large in service to this track's specific beauty. Here more than ever the vocals are ambiguously gendered; you might think you know who's singing when, but you really don't. That astonishing, fevered sensuality -- a big part of what keeps one returning so often to this album -- carries forward to the famously gorgeous "Sometimes," a song that all but literalizes the feeling of being picked up and carried around by this music. Heard properly on good speakers or headphones, it's rapturously beautiful and absorbing. And while the powerful guitars, overdubbed on top of one another off into the impossible distance, are searing with love and pain, Shields' vocal is the elegiac vessel that glides through the changes and surrounds us. The less widely appreciated "Blown a Wish" is nearly as striking, another strange and clipped melody, here by Butcher, blown out into infinity by distortion but retaining its confessional, gut-level appeal as songcraft.

By 1991, over the better part of a decade, My Bloody Valentine had evolved from multiple incarnations and aspirations into a deservedly legendary guitar band, led (some say dominated) by a true visionary. Listening to their catalog now, it's astounding how linear the sense is that everything seems to have been slowly leading up to Loveless, a record that impresses and galvanizes to the extent that you can fool yourself into thinking it was a miracle that came from nowhere. But no, not only because Isn't Anything is a bright and complete artifact itself, but because Loveless simply synthesizes and pays off everything that Shields had learned. The last two songs on Loveless are as perfect, confident and restlessly creative as any rock band ever gets. The Shields-led "What You Want" seems divorced from any sense of time, a yearning pop song with a miraculously enveloping sound, the kind of recording so solidly brilliant that you could look at any element of it and be impressed. On one layer it's towering power pop, on another a stunning feedback exploration, on another something that manages surprising depth in its distant, wailed lyricism. He seems to be putting every bit of himself into it, and by the end of the song the exhaustion is palpable. Then a remaining loop rests for a time, one of many beautiful interludes that sound almost like accidents, and segues abruptly into "Soon."

More than any other Loveless track -- which is saying a lot -- "Soon" sounds new. It had already been released on Glider in 1989, but its positioning as the climax of this album still makes sense. Driven on a drum machine and the album's clearest riff, then another of Shields' oddball loops, the song sounds like a different band altogether. It sounds like something on the radio, really. Then suddenly, it explodes with guitar and without sparing us a second to process that, Butcher starts singing the group's strongest melody yet; the beat continues, so do the guitars, and it's almost as if the sun seems to come up after a long, bleary night. Several things remain surprising about "Soon" -- first that it does not sound like a relic of the shoegaze era. Second, that it's so easy to recognize but so indescribable. Third, that Butcher's vocal is so atypically confident, especially stacked against the rest of this album. All that makes this towering production sounds simultaneously like the beginning and end of something. Even though it was the first song released from Loveless, "Soon" seems to look toward the future with its suggestions of trip hop and club music fused with violently engaging guitar and its warping of what jamming out to the edge of the runout groove means in the context of rock music and disco. It's the kind of thing you hear and wonder what the hell we've been doing for the last twenty-five years.

But it also sounds oddly resigned, in a splendid and cathartic sense. Capturing the mood in the UK at the tail end of the Creation era, which Googe and probably the others would readily tell you was a very special time and place to be in a band, MBV seem aware on "Soon" that this is their moment and they are making the best of it. In a strange way, it already sounds nostalgic, like a million lost things inarticulately captured on wax. The flood of the years since seems to somehow be burned into it. It's a monumentally pretty and sad song, but it's also beat-driven and celebratory. Those contradictions, not least of them being pop pleasure burned out by overdriven sound and self-imposed enigma, are what made My Bloody Valentine and Loveless, which is the moment they were entitled to and their gift to us.

Loveless was released within two months of Nevermind, the album the music press chose as the heralded new faith of future rock music. It took many years, but Loveless is as widely celebrated as a classic now as Nirvana's album was almost immediately, and it's obvious now whose work had the more lasting effect on alternative rock if not the mainstream. My Bloody Valentine went on a widely remembered and mythologized tour in the year after the album's release. Shields might have been the extent of the band in the studio, but on stage they were a unit that played together brilliantly, whose modesty of appearance (Googe's wildly enthusiastic, manic movements excluded) belied the hugeness of the noise they generated. When you saw MBV live then (and if you see one of their reunion gigs now), the key moment is what's called "the holocaust," an interlude in "You Made Me Realise" that only goes on for a few seconds on the record but is expanded to ten or more minutes in live performances. Shields and Butcher stand still on opposite ends of the stage in front of their amps and, rapidly strumming the same chord for what seems like ages, generate a wall of feedback that's said to make people gradually lose their heads as it goes louder and louder. Eventually, at a certain decibel level, they go into a blissed-out trance state and maybe start laughing hysterically or just feeling high, so to speak, if they last long enough. Then, when the band is satisfied that their work is done, the song finishes. It's dangerous. Maybe irresponsible. (Signs always instruct audiences that earplugs are a requirement for an MBV gig.) But it says a lot about what the band was always looking to accomplish with sound -- yet again, as with their lyrics and bizarre use of conventional instrumentation, it's the quest for a feeling that can't really be pared down with words. But the idealized result is a kind of joy, a transcendent experience.

After Loveless, Creation was practically busted. (Sire released the album Stateside but it didn't do much here for a long time.) On the strength of the excitement generated in the press, especially the British press, about the album, My Bloody Valentine signed with Island and -- as an antidote to the head-butting from the 1989-91 period -- built their own home studio. But the well quickly ran dry. Recording on a follow-up started and stopped numerous times until everyone except Shields and Butcher gave up. Finally, in 1997, Butcher threw in the towel and the band essentially ended. Shields worked with Yo La Tengo, Primal Scream and Sofia Coppola. As time stretched on infinitely post-Loveless, increasingly sounding like the ethereal sendoff for a brilliant band whose star shone only briefly, he got a reputation as an eccentric perfectionist a la Terrence Malick. Interviews don't really bear this out. He admits to taking a long time to do things, but the air of arrogance surrounding a twentysomething who knows what he wants has faded. Shown these days with long gray hair (has that much time really passed already?) and a boyish enthusiasm for the elaborate effects pedals he once shunned, he seems more philosophical and lighthearted, which is what happens to people. Googe, who worked as a cab driver for a while then toured with Primal Scream and (currently) Thurston Moore, goes to gigs with him. Butcher has three children. The world moves on from thrashy kinds pogoing around in the front row of London shows in the '80s that still survive on fanmade video in curious perpetuity.

My Bloody Valentine reconvened in 2008 and eventually -- quickly, by Shields' standards -- released an album five years later. Mostly recorded in the '90s, it sounds like what it is: a solid follow-up from a band that wasn't quite sure where to go next. By Shields' own admission, it doesn't have the Loveless quality of "looking into another world." Recorded mostly in the mid-'90s during the Island period, when the band members were all in the same place waiting for something to happen, it doesn't radicalize My Bloody Valentine's position -- with the expectations attached, that would have been very difficult -- and doesn't necessarily "evolve," a concession made even by its champions. Its biggest contribution to the band's legacy, besides a well-deserved victory lap and some good songs, is that it places less emphasis on song structure and melody but is also less attuned to an ideal of mystery. As an entity, My Bloody Valentine was never really as mysterious as critics made them out to be anyway, but their music was.

It may be that Loveless is a hard act to follow, made harder by the long silence afterward, because it essentially says and does everything MBV could have done. It's a nearly immaculate creation, timeless and ghostly, and it demands to be heard in sequence and without distraction like few other albums. A consistent drone and roar accompany the entire album, its mood established beautifully and confrontationally then elaborated upon on a series of romantically charged pop songs that nevertheless put one face to face with the unknown in their endlessly weird, sensual sound. Not only does it do something genuinely different with rock music, it expands the idea of the album for the CD era (though I have no doubt it would be something to hear on analogue vinyl, I've never had the pleasure) -- on top of crafting an ambiance that's never disrupted (even by the relative throwaway "Touched," which serves mostly as a tape-looped intro to "To Here Knows When" and prelude to "I Only Said"), like Pet Sounds it offers songs that comment on one another musically if not conceptually and, unlike Pet Sounds, provies an impetus for both massively loud shared catharsis and intensely private indulgence in sound and song.

We're moving into the subjective here but I think it's the greatest, most beautiful rock album recorded in my lifetime -- borne out by the sensation that it never seems to age, like the band and I have, and still sounds newly revealing and richer yet each time it surrounds me yet again. I'm not alone in this assertion. Follow-up or no follow-up, we're lucky the unique moment in which Loveless could be made existed. Because as a piece of music, its moment won't ever pass. I think that's enough.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Dreaming like a fool: September 2014 albums

The rare month in which something old I discovered -- the Art Blakey album -- eclipsed everything new or kind of new that came to my attention.


My Krazy Life (2014)

(Def Jam)

RECOMMENDED * The chief takeaway here is how incredibly influential Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city already is, just two years after its release -- this is a considerably lighter take on the same basic idea, of a reformed young petty criminal autobiography framed as a cautionary tale and apology, replete with Mom as a framing device. But Y.G., while quite talented, is way way waaay more impressed with himself than Lamar is, and the record lingers a lot more on the fun, just-wanna-party aspects of the "before" picture rather than the one-song-and-change of the redemption. It's a whole record of "Backseat Freestyle"s. And you know, that's really fine, especially if you're nostalgic for a time when hip hop could be this full of guilt-free boy problems and bravado; parts go farther back than even gkmc, with old-fashioned scratching and vocoders and what-have-you. The sad-gangsta finale "Sorry Momma" borrows from the Nas playbook quite well, and there are some good bangers ("Left Right" is the best) and a kinda funky home invasion narration ("Meet the Flockers") to counteract Lamar's harrowing one. But it's telling that the record's most impressive moment by a longshot is Kendrick L.'s own jaw-dropping verse on "Really Be." Skip that song if you intend to actually listen to My Krazy Life and not just pause it and go pull out gkmc.

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers
Moanin' (1958)

(Blue Note)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * Archetypal hard bop reaches six titanic heights under the intelligent leadership of Blakey, who in addition to his steady pulse will change an outsider's mind about how much there can be to a drum solo. The breathtaking moment to write about among many is probably Lee Morgan's trumpet solo in the title cut, which is over just a couple of minutes after you lay down the needle on side one, but everything else is priceless. Personal favorite full selection is "Are You Real": what a song, what a performance, like a romantic chase scene. Blakey's great talent was in letting good but underused soloists explore their voices. Morgan, saxophonist Benny Golson, pianist Bobby Timmons -- their names might mean little to you, but their sounds won't once you've heard this.

Future Islands
Singles (2014)


RECOMMENDED * Without going into specifics, I know firsthand that this is a band that has really, really paid their dues and I'm quite excited for them that they've started to reach their current level of success and attention. They're basically a synth-drenched revision of grandiose pop in the vein of the Alarm, U2 and OMD, and they write some lovely songs ("Spirit"; "A Dream of You and Me") but there's a but. (For many, it won't be a but.) Singer Samuel Herring has a, well, very unique vocal style, like if Peter Gabriel, Peter Murphy and Peter Garrett were all the same Peter. Pairing that eccentric, lower-register croak with this sort of expansive music is a textbook example of "not for all tastes," but it'll inspire endless passion in certain quarters. I dig it, personally, but I can only take so much at a time before I have to listen to somebody who will calm the hell down. Herring sends songs in directions that seem to have nothing to do with what his band is doing -- "A Song for Our Grandfathers" defines this dichotomy. Maybe it works. Maybe they will eclipse Sandra Bullock as the most famous ECU alumni.

Fatboy Slim
Better Living Through Chemistry (1996)


!!!!! AVOID !!!!! * My late-'90s instinct to stay away from this gimmicky, crude charlatan was correct -- this is a guy who thinks you need drugs to truly enjoy music, and with his own work this repetitive and pandering it's no wonder he'd consider that a prerequisite. All of these songs sound like the generic instrumentals and bad jokes they play behind morning DJ patter. Worse than Jock Jams; if you don't believe me, try all six minutes of "First Down."

Under Color of Official Right (2014)

(Hardly Art)

Generic indie rockin' that sounds like a post-punk band trying it all again straight outta 2004. Nice work if you can get it; sorry you missed 120 Minutes. "It was somethin' that I read in a book," yeah, What Color Is Your Parachute? amirite?

The Future's Void (2014)


RECOMMENDED * Erika Anderson's third album and follow-up to blogosphere smash Past Life Martyred Saints is even more raw and complex, if ultimately a bit generic in its "the '90s live again!" conceit -- "So Blonde" really, really sounds like something from Live Through This or Bricks Are Heavy, and that's just one among many. It's also more substantive than a lot of other singer-songwriter records, including Martyred, and a lot of Clinton administration throwbacks like Speedy Ortiz and Yuck. Anderson reads Lovecraft apparently, and on a semi-related note builds a hook on "my Lucifer, my Lucifer" which some will find a welcome antidote to another current act with similar taste's "my nightingale, my nightingale." When I listen to "When She Comes" I feel like I'm hearing a great cover of a Velvet Underground song I somehow didn't know. When I listen to "100 Years" I feel like taking a nap. Anderson holds back a lot under cover of coy abstraction, like St. Vincent and Spoon, which makes her easy to digest, a little hard to enjoy, and very much an artiste.

The Avalanches
At Last Alone EP (2001)

(Toy's Factory)

RECOMMENDED * Fourteen years and counting since their now-legendary album was released, this odd stopgap has now gained more attention than it's meant to carry. Five remixes of songs that don't really make proper sense outside their original context. One masterpiece of a flawless, unbelievably euphoric dance song in the form of "Everyday" -- if you love Since I Left You and haven't heard it, get thee to Youtube or whatever. All else in its shadow: the three other songs reprise it and/or undercut it and/or noodle, though "Undersea Community" is a mildly amusing fragment. But if it's the only way you can get to "Everyday"...

With Light and With Love (2014)


RECOMMENDED * "You call it sleep but it feels like dead." Well, I dunno. First of all, one of those is a noun and one isn't. Second, I hear the Byrds more than the Dead, though I guess some of the guitar solos do wander off. Have you heard Woods before? Then you know what you're getting -- respectable, nostalgic folk rock with one kinda ludicrous, kinda fun interpolation of "My Sweet Lord." Tune in, turn on, etc.

The Walkmen
A Hundred Miles Off (2006)

(Record Collection)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED * It's never made sense to me personally that this wasn't a widely loved record. The Walkmen were the only new rock band I really listened to much in the mid-2000s, a time when I was thoroughly concerned with movies, '50s rock & roll and Yo La Tengo. I greeted this album with enthusiasm and wasn't even aware until years later that it was seen as a disappointment. Admittedly, it's a transition -- it can now be heard as the tipping point between the Walkmen's more aggressive early work that produced their immortal Bows + Arrows and the later, possibly even more effective gentle riffage upon Van Morrison, Sun Records and doo wop. The band is always a solid foundation, with Hamilton Leithauser loud but seldom asserting himself as the center of attention, and in a way maybe this is the ideal introduction to them -- old-fashioned, straight ahead rock & roll with sensitivity, propulsion and charm. Two admissions: though no cut is noticeably weak, there are really only three songs that rise above everything and assert themselves, and all three look ahead to You and Me and Lisbon: the horn-drenched road song "Louisiana," the bitter but strangely romantic road song "Lost in Boston" and the elegiac "Another One Goes By," one of their very best. Second caveat is that I do indeed listen to this less often than the other five, but checking in again I am not entirely sure why. I continue to miss the Walkmen -- they went on "hiatus" just after I realized they were probably the most consistent young-ish band of the last decade.

Rodney Crowell
Tarpaper Sky (2014)

(New West)

Stripped down to nothing compared to most mainstream country, which is why it gets positive attention, but Crowell retains a generic Texas twang that covers up the virtues of his writing. He does sound a lot younger and newer than he is.

Sam Cooke
Cooke's Tour (1960)

(RCA Victor)

Cooke's dual personalities are interesting: the old-fashioned crooner recording "theme" albums for RCA and coming on like Dean Martin or Nat King Cole versus the sweated-out R&B singer whose hit ballads carried an undercurrent of sensuality even when they were going on and on about Cupid. His voice was, of course, undeniable -- but this phony travelogue (a lot of coffee in Brazil, all that shit) is tedious beyond comprehension. This is Disc One in a box of this true luminary's RCA albums. I hope I'm wrong and that my curiosity about his more obscure work is justified, but this doesn't bode well for his consistency as a sustainer of thirty-minute pop records. Which is really not a surprise or even a particularly fair critique, except that of course you wanted it to be different.

The Both (2014)

Album of drinking songs from a sort of cross-generational collaboration: Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. (There's only ten years' age difference between them but 'Til Tuesday and the Pharmacists are at least two decades apart in their cultural moments.) Run the Jewels it's not, but Mann's blandness seems to be offset by the sprightlier efforts of Leo, though there's really no trick to having more presence than Michael Penn. One's response to this is very strongly dependent on one's fondness for what A&R types call "adult alternative." Not my thing, but good luck to all.

Art Brut
Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005)

(Fierce Panda)

RECOMMENDED * Funny, smarmy, whatever. Blunt. Just like their name! Power riffs! Garage rock that doesn't serve any redeeming social purpose -- the punk of pettiness. "Look at us, we formed a band." "Every girl that I've seen since looks just like you when I squint." It's all so smug and dumb it's almost funnier when it tries to get subtle. Credit "18,000 Lira" for defining a sound in less than two minutes like we did in the old days, "Fight" for making fun of alpha males.

The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett (2014)


!! CAUTION !! * It sounds like E, who hasn't had an easy time of it, is working on his demons while wailing out his latest tunes as he wanders off into that good night. So what else is new. Only problem is, unless you're some kind of an auteurist, there's just no really compelling reason to listen to him doing so.

Earl Bostic Blows a Fuse (1946-58)

RECOMMENDED * According to Art Blakey, who knew his shit, alto sax player Earl Bostic was a primary influence upon Coltrane, something that you can't necessarily detect from this well-mastered hodgepodge of R&B-tinged jazz and novelty pop. But it is tremendously fun to listen to anyway; his version of the standards "Night Train" and "Harlem Nocturne" are among the best and punchiest I've heard, and no one can grow up in the Carolinas without some affection for "Flamingo," as much a signature beach music touchstone as Maurice Williams' "Stay," My personal favorite Bostic single is the wickedly funny "Who Snuck the Wine in the Gravy?", a probing mystery with a twist ending. Bostic's playing is joyous and inspired throughout the collection, which is available digitally from Amazon -- but the material is uneven. I have a feeling there's a more convincing introduction out there somewhere. If you're a jazz freak and don't know Bostic, try the great, ahead-of-its-time (1948) party record "That's the Groovy Thing" on for size, followed up with the terrific, manic soloing on "Don't You Do It."

Food (2014)

(Ninja Tune)

RECOMMENDED * Half of a terrific album -- stylish beyond your expectations, and delightful to anybody reared on raspy-voiced Mary Wells, Stax/Volt, A Tribe Called Quest and Sesame Street. Main caveat is that while Kelis has excellent taste and cultivates ideas well from disparate sources, she doesn't have much skill at curating them, so as is sometimes the case with Erykah Badu's earlier albums and most of Beck's, it's genius with no filter. This manifests partially in the record just being a bit too long, but more specifically on misjudgments like the godawful Blueshammer-like "Friday Fish Fry." Almost everything on the first two thirds is good to great; being too easily seduced by concept doesn't change the fact an album with weird food metaphors sure beats one that strings together creaky standards that happen to have names of cities in their titles (see Mr. Cooke above); and opener "Breakfast" is the best Jackson 5 rip since Bibio's "K Is for Kelson." Despite the problems, don't miss.


The October post is a short one, which should be ready around the sixth of next month, and then a huge rush of new releases, mostly capsules with a few longer pieces interspersed. Right now we seem on track to have a Best of 2014 post before the calendar year actually ends, but don't hold me to that please! Try to pretend it's true despite the overload. (Ahem. Two big A+ titans getting their due here first anyway.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (2014)



Because Merrill Garbus' previous tUnE-yArDs album, w h o k i l l, has played a large role in shaping the musical landscape of these last few years for me, it is difficult to look at her, or her band, or her follow-up record, with any kind of objectivity. My personal feeling of loyalty and attachment to everything about her work is on a level that has, as I've gotten older, become something of a rarity for me. Perhaps these ties became stronger when we saw Garbus live days after the death of my father and I felt, honestly, more alive in that crowd than I ever had in my life. Perhaps my immense respect, verging on fawning, betrayed me when I interviewed her in 2012 and did my best to write a coherent article about it -- in the end, the piece was so heavily edited as to become unrecognizable, and I haven't been paid for a piece of writing since. Maybe, in other words, I'm a g.d. fanboy. All the same, I have to swallow all such questions and stand by every claim I've made that Garbus is a major artist, among the most major currently visible, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I went back and read what I wrote here just a week after discovering her and had already detected that the key to her immediacy and charm was that her bottomless exuberance was undercut by a healthy, probing maturity.

To put all this another way: a lot has happened since what might be the finest record of the last ten years was released. The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll unexpectedly lent victory to w h o k i l l instead of Bon Iver's Bon Iver (which I heard half a dozen times, and about which I remember nothing). Chuck Klosterman plastered his ignorance about everything that lay outside of Chuck Klosterman's own cushioned skull in the blather he wrote about her "asexuality" in response to the P&J victory, which is often cited as a fluke in a year without a clear favorite a la Arrested Development. Garbus has performed with Yoko Ono and the Roots, has opened for Arcade Fire in stadiums and quarries, burned herself out on her songs and her old touring arrangement that featured her plus bassist Nate Brenner plus a pair of saxophonists, has toured and experimented and gotten weirder and friendlier, and has released her third album. We've had the better part of a year now to explore it, and much like w h o k i l l, it reveals the danger of saying too much too soon. That album continues to reveal previously unheard nuances (lately, for me, in "Bizness" and "You Yes You") after three years. This one now sounds vastly different to me than it did on the week of its release.

When you come to the sequel to a record that you adored unequivocally and that changed your perception of modern pop, it's part of the game to temper yourself: you know this can't possibly strike you in quite the same violent, earth-shattering way the last one did, and in this case I knew that because almost no other record released in this century does that. Truthfully, these twelve songs (plus spoken interlude) don't strike and bite and purr nearly as directly as their 2011 predecessors. Disregarding its prowess as a piece of pop production, engineering and technical mastery (we'll come to that), it's far more like BiRd-BrAiNs than w h o k i l l. The songs saunter and strike and wander much as they did on Garbus' earlier recordings, only now with a more unwavering sense of purpose; they don't really go for the jugular like "Riotriot," "Gangsta" and "Powa." It's strange to call a record as bombastic as Nikki Nack subtle, but in writing and impact if not sound, it surely takes more time asserting itself than we might have expected. As it turns out, this is deliberate -- and really, we never doubted that, but some trace of initial disappointment was inevitable anyway.

What changed? What made this not one of the best records of the year just by default but a formidable evolution of a truly gigantic artist and band? Part of it was the obvious and instant desire to get to know it better; informed as this impulse is by Garbus' previous work, it's valid -- she demands to be heard again and again. And the songs that stood out stood out profoundly, and I wanted to know why. The advance single "Water Fountain," good as it is, was unavoidably and surely intentionally similar to the general sound of that record with just a hint of new direction -- it is very much like "Gangsta" and "Bizness" placed into the same song. It's even political in precisely the same way that the previous album was political. So for me, "Wait for a Minute" and "Manchild" were on first listen and now on sixteenth or seventeeth remain the highlights of Nikki Nack. And it was readily apparent that they were distinctive and grand for reasons that did not seem to comply specifically with what I heard in w h o k i l l.

Gradually when exploring these two songs, which truly knocked me out emotionally, and the bits and pieces that sort of reminded me of them elsewhere on the LP, it became clear what Garbus had done and why I was looking at it the wrong way. Garbus and Nate Brenner aren't reaching for the same goals anymore, and they've essentially moved the stage and started over. Some contextual factors help to see all this. Spending a lot of time with the album, the way we all used to when we were kids, helped. Hearing it on vinyl was a revelation -- the immaculate mastering of the LP preserves vast reservoirs of aural information in the lower registers it doesn't even occur to you to look for digitally; parts of "Stop That Man" and "Left Behind" sound like they are poised to physically lift you. And seeing the new songs performed live, where they unfurl in the new extended lineup (Garbus, Brenner, extra percussionist, two backing singers and dancers), would have rendered the album dangerously irrelevant if it didn't cause me to suddenly realize I knew every word, chorus, bridge, vocal tic or stick click by heart without even knowing I'd memorized them -- and indeed, if it didn't take a veil off the emotional depth of these songs.

w h o k i l l was an assaultive record. That's what made it so vital. It was a firebrand that came from a woman on unfamiliar ground, anxious to learn about herself and the world around her -- it was outraged, passionate, powerful. Nothing about it seemed careful or immaculately constructed. Nikki Nack, on the other hand, is a precariously shaped tower of ideas. The songs often wander into unexpected (and usually delightful) tangents. The ukulele has all but disappeared. The drums are no longer paramount; it's never about whatever's handy anymore, it's about what works in the moment. There is endless variance of style, theme and mood across the album, all of it worked out with audible precision; such variance also exists within the songs themselves, as witness an example like "Left Behind" that is wholly unburdened by even a few minutes' work of expectation.

After two albums of self-production, the first of them famously put together on an easily downloadable piece of freeware almost everyone with a PC has used at some point, tUnE-yArDs (now pretty much officially a duo, Garbus and Brenner) for the first time looked to an outsider to change things up. That is the Grammy-winning producer Malay, known for work with Fantasia, Big Boi, Alicia Keys, John Legend, and most famously the bulk of Frank Ocean's P&J winner Channel Orange. The new colors this brings to tUnE-yArDs' routine are quickly evident. There are cons -- professionalism in the studio mutes Garbus' personality just a tad, and has the effect of making her seem like just one more sound in a spectrum. The slickness that befits a fine performer like Fantasia or that gives Ocean's record such special resonance in its best moments isn't necessarily ideal for the person who gave us "Hatari" and "Es-So." For the most part, thankfully, Malay tempers nothing about Garbus' personality -- and he finds an unexpectedly maximized life in the underbelly of her songs that gives them new life of a very different sort.

The bass-heavy sonics are a shift, to say the least -- more so than you realize before you hear the album on a good system and compare it to older t-Y albums. This is most apparent on the massive "Left Behind," which in and of itself is middle-tier tUnE-yArDs but comes more alive the louder you let it, because so much of its wildly enveloping unease and drama is dependent on volume, which is hardly a criticism -- a huge recommendation with instructions, more like. The trend is equally pronounced if less assertive elsewhere. It might not have the bite of "My Country," but those synths on "Time of Dark" and the "see me over the mountain" primal-scream chant come off like the apocalypse once you listen properly. Despite the Burt Bacharach interpolation ("Always Something There to Remind Me" -- hey, she quoted Elvis on "Fiya"), the slow burning "Look Around" has all sorts of life buried in its mix that require your close examination. Despite the New Order interpolation (the opening drums on "Blue Monday"), "Sink-O" has rhythms too nutty, basslines too melodic and compulsive, to call one's mind to anything except Garbus set unexpectedly free in her new surroundings.

When I wrote about w h o k i l l, one point I was very insistent on was that it was "body music." I was right, but it now seems like a silly thing to have belabored then; in retrospect I was hearing an aspect of tUnE-yArDs that had only just begun to develop. More clearly now, w h o k i l l was a punk rock record -- turned upon the world to sing out and demand. Nikki Nack is R&B, often very straightforwardly. Despite being outrageously menacing and "big," "Stop That Man" and "Left Behind" both subsist wholly on rhythms and vocals driven directly from American soul music of various periods, particularly the '70s and late '90s. Playful as it is, "Manchild" is unambiguously groove-driven dance music, and there are no caveats to speak of in "Wait for a Minute" -- it is an R&B ballad, in writing, arrangement, and synth-heavy production.

A further peculiarity to Nikki Nack that seems obvious in retrospect, so seamless does it evolve from a sound Garbus already established, is its use of schoolyard-chant elements to bring forward often complex, usually incendiary ideas. From BiRd-BrAiNs onward, a sense of innocence in Garbus' lyrical dissections of class disturbance and social alienation was well matched by both her periodic attachment to simple, shouted phrases (see "What's that about? What's that about?" on "You Yes You") and her frequent use of recordings of children speaking, yelling or even eating. Like few recordings outside of hip hop, "Water Fountain," a sharp three-minute pop song about contaminated city water that varies and elevates itself freely without ever losing focus, sounds like a busy city street in the middle of the day: kids playing, adults dicking around and going places, families scattering and reforming, good and bad shit going down, and the occasional loud car or burst of music. But the chorus at the center of it suggests nothing -- nothing western, nothing African, nothing rock & roll -- so much as children shouting their taunting, time-tested rhymes while jumping rope.

The use of chant, of quick and sharp phrasing as a means of communication, recalls Bob Marley's best-known songs for their deceptive simplicity putting across large and sometimes uncomfortable truths; the heaviest, most difficult lyrics on Nikki Nack tend to be paired up with the starkest, most clipped melodies and choruses. The relentless call-and-response "Real Thing" is a challenge to appropriation accusations and yet its target seems largely to be Garbus herself, though "I come from the land of slaves / let's go Redskins, let's go Braves" is pointed in another direction, and so cutting and well-placed it incited a spontaneous cheer at the show I saw. "Hey Life" describes (with a Coasters reference!) exhaustion, mortal burnout and a panic attack with a weird joy that renders it confoundingly tense: "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock / Walk and walk and talk and talk and walk and talk," spewed out in rapid monotone, in so few words eloquently convey the feeling of not being in control of one's own life. It says all this musically too, and masterfully so, tinkering then tapping then exploding. Similiar anxiety permeates the darkly worldly "Sink-O": in the bridge, Garbus eats Pop Tarts and watches The Voice; she "cannot fall asleep but cannot face the day."

And it's more than the day -- kind of a satire of empty liberalism, "Sink-O" prompts a quick-witted investigation of oblivious folk literally swallowed up by a world of limply protested racial profiling and drone strikes, but lays little blame at their feet, since Garbus charges herself with being just as guilty of looking the other way as the rest of us. This is a recurring point in her interviews, that part of her art is that she has no superiority, no answers. They seem as frustratingly out of reach to her as to us. That was true on w h o k i l l as well, which hinged on the tortured "when they have nothing, why do you have something?" question, but that was an album that participated in fist-in-air celebration and fighting back, or at least self-consciously pushing back against one's inability to do so. Nikki Nack prevents any true release like that of the "freedom in violence" climax on "Riotriot," the joyously apathetic capitalism of "You Yes You," and the unabashedly beautiful classic-soul bridge on "Doorstep." On Nikki Nack, the kids just keep skipping over the rope, which keeps turning and turning.

That sounds fatalistic, I suppose, and maybe it is -- but it's also poetic. Because tUnE-yArDs have become increasingly sophisticated as a band even as the music seems to become compositionally ever more primal and stripped back, they are able to waver uncomfortably on these ideas for long stretches and make large points without preaching or "bringing them home," so to speak. In some places they call that jamming. The band intends to make us uncomfortable, and it's commendable. We can't confirm if Garbus is vegetarian (or vegan), but the Swiftian spoken interlude "Why Do We Dine on the Tots?" -- performed in the style of Nicki Minaj's opening readthrough of an excerpt from Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes in the Kanye West song "Dark Fantasy" -- is certainly designed to make us question ourselves if we're not, and on that evidence and the lyrical sway of the album toward self-criticism, either conclusion is equally likely.

BiRd-BrAiNs fans are bound to be somewhat relieved after all this by the simple, spiritual-like "Rocking Chair," which sees Garbus exercising her more familiar vocal tricks again. w h o k i l l fans will be relieved by "Manchild," which gives us at last a chance to participate in a real shouted-along triumph: a righteous, brilliant anti-rape, anti-slut-shaming, anti-MRA anthem. Garbus has performed with Yoko Ono a few times in recent years, including helping out on her 2013 album Take Me to the Land of Hell, and the barbed, witty "Manchild" ably takes up the mantle of Ono's best music -- it's elegant and specific in its rhythmically expressed anger. "Oh little manchild, look at your pants / an accident happens each time we dance," great, "I mean it / don't beat up on my body," greater, but the singalong hook of the year? Here: "Not gonna say yes when what I really mean is no / Not gonna say no unless you know I mean it." It's the anti-"Blurred Lines," and a wondrously moving rebuke to the wrong side of a culture, the only time on Nikki Nack wherein the premise seems to be that there is such a thing.

Garbus' vocals, the center of everything on her first two albums, are sometimes backgrounded on this LP, but once you overcome that obstacle it's easy to hear that her voice has gotten steadily better and still more adaptable. "Look Around" might be the best exposure here; it begins with a coo then slowly bristles and seethes. "Real Thing" grabs a little of the Mahotella Queens / Andrews Sisters stuff from "News" but her control is obviously greater now. She her live for proof -- how her movements vary according to whether what she's singing is in a spirit of sarcasm or sincerity; when it's the former, she moves with the clipped robotics of David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. And when she's doing a highly personal song like "Find a New Way," the opening cut that almost directly narrates the composition and creation of the album itself (a notion that owes at least a little to Leonard Cohen), she is looser, freer. These are both skills of a different sort and she knows when and how to employ them, with greater exactitude than ever before.

The voice is still what drives the hooks, though. One element of this record that's difficult to get used to is how frequently the various parts of these songs seem almost disconnected from one another. It takes a long time to intuitively understand that each verse, chorus and bridge of "Sink-O" and "Real Thing" (which also wanders into the album's craziest musical interlude) all belong under the same title. It says a lot, still, that these fragments make their way so snugly into one's head so quickly. And if side two of Abbey Road has taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't fault pleasing little moments for not leading us anywhere in particular. Quick -- which song has the "peace / peace and love / love is waiting" bit? What about "holiday! holiday! let's go crazy!"? Maybe you know, maybe you don't, but I bet you remembered both melody lines instantly.

Out of all the advancements on Nikki Nack, and there are plenty even if it doesn't rise to the heights of its predecessor, Garbus' lyrics stand out as the prime achievement. Already capable and compelling, here she proves herself one of those rare artists whose words truly reward as much of our attention as the music. Her first record consisted mostly of personal songs about the sort of aches we all know well. Her second, like so many second albums for generations before her, expanded outward to try and understand the larger world; she did it better than most. She still does: that blood-soaked dollar on "Water Fountain" is something else. But Nikki Nack fuses self-narrative with politics in an often striking, incisive manner. On "Manchild," "Hey Life" and "Real Thing" the line thins -- it was impressive that Garbus seldom seemed to be speaking from her own voice on w h o k i l l. It's impossible to know for sure if she is now, but that she seems to be and is so sincere and witty in doing so (like Tracey Thorn or Josephine Olausson, and trust me when I say I do hate comparing her in this sense strictly to other female singer-songwriters, but the pickings are slim for men who write about themselves and don't sound like total assholes -- see: masculine self-pity charlatan Mark Kozelek) is disarming enough. She's funnier and sadder now, when her points are obvious and when they aren't. She even talks about finding this new voice and describes it to us while we're hearing it, like Win Butler telling us what we're feeling on The Suburbs only more exciting.

Way back in 2009, Garbus wrote and sang this in what was probably her first truly perfect song:

I am not beautiful
I am in bloom as the world goes underground
And I am not beautiful
And I am not magic yet
But I am in bloom at the end of the world

That was "Fiya," the one about how she should have just stayed at home, the one about her own skin making her skin crawl. And in the wake of five years of ever-increasing success, of playing and being adored by the people who come to her shows and buy her records, of being taken seriously as an artist and having occasion to be challenged and to collaborate, and to form what seems to be a creatively fulfilling relationship with her partner and bandmate, what does she now have to say about what goes on in her inner world?

Monday, I wake up with disgust in my head
Could not forgive myself another moment spent in the bed
Monday, the mirror always disappoints
I pinch my skin until I see the joints

Today I'm feeling like I live on the ledge
Any moment I just know I'm gonna fall off the edge
They say, "hang on"
I promised them I will but I don't know for how long

Why do I spend the soul of my day
Looking for any way to waste away?
The pain is in the empty time
Just twiddling my thumbs and hoping for the words to rise

Today I couldn't stand to be all alone
And sick of hearing my voice on the telephone
A thousand roads to injury
Most of them so smooth it doesn't feel like they're hurting me

Not knowing what the future will bring
Is always wrecking my day
I guess I'll drown my fear and seal my fate
A haze of cravings
Easier to do it than just sit here and wait

That is "Wait for a Minute," apparently another song about Merrill Garbus loafing around between albums feeling disillusioned with her entire process, herself, her work. None of us know what it is like to be Garbus. Lord, if I did, maybe I'd be capable of writing a once-in-a-lifetime line like "A thousand rodes to injury / most of them so smooth it doesn't feel like they're hurting me." But this song, the sincerity and selflessness of which produces a lump in the throat without exception, gets across beautifully and utterly free of pretension how much her struggles mirror our own. It's because of the lovingly unassuming way she sings it just as much the way it's written. And in a career that has been largely about the act of questioning privilege, especially one's own, it is major that the most open-hearted and unguarded song she has written since her earliest days on this project appeals to a common humanity. I need to stress here that in the sphere of influence she has among the people who care about these things, Garbus is a Big Deal. She means a lot to people, me among them, who are ordinary and live ordinary lives and do their best with sometimes lonely, throttling struggles. It is not a small thing to know that someone who is a hero to a lot of us not only deals with the mirror, the thumb-twiddling, the binging on Pop Tarts and the being sick of oneself, but is willing to go out into this huge world and talk about it. That is a major, colossal, unspeakably touching thing. Maybe this kinship I'm suggesting is the mark of a bias but I doubt it. As the song goes, "Even in silence there are voices who will sing."


You can now read my complete (though short) 2012-vintage interview with Merrill Garbus here, dug up from the gmail archives for the first time eva! More tUnE-yArDs reading from me (if you want): Essays about BiRd-BrAinS and w h o k i l l, writeups of the shows I saw in 2011 and 2014, and the (very abbreviated and clumsy) profile for Metro Times Detroit.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hank Williams: 40 Greatest Hits (1947-53)



The music of Hank Williams has a sound that well befits its creator's legendary, almost sacred reputation -- distant, lonely and sparse yet uncommonly lively, designed to be heard vividly on banged-up 78s and one-speaker car radios rather than any higher-fidelity setup. The songs sound well-traveled and antique but also soulful and true, and their immediacy has been untamed by the years since Williams' sad, rapid, sickly burnout before he reached age 30. The level of achievement in his catalog sharply belies any assumption about how quickly he came and went as a creative force. Between learning to solo inventively on his guitar at the age of six thanks to a generous street performer named Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne and dying on a permanently mythologized New Year's Day in 1953 even as his latest singles were rising up the C&W charts, Williams laid a large portion of the groundwork for perhaps not rock & roll and popular music themselves in the decades to come, but certainly the broadness of the audience for it. Fusing his young education in the blues with the folk and country that surrounded him, he played as large a role as anyone in eradicating the racial and genre-based boundaries whose dissipation would allow rock & roll to reach its zenith in the decade after his death.

Like so many tragic life histories associated with the roadmap of beautiful 20th Century music, Williams' story is fascinating but largely academic, a barrier to appreciation of his work. And it cries out to be appreciated, which requires little work on the part of the listener -- by and large, Williams' output is simply wonderful, communicative at a base level, intensely pleasurable and cathartic, and easily as accessible as that of any country performer to rise up in his wake. His is one of the finest canons of American songwriting, ever, and that sets aside his possibly even more relevant gifts as a singer and guitarist. The most thorough way to hear his canon is on an enormous ten-disc set called The Complete Hank Williams released by Mercury in 1998, but as an introduction it is of course overwhelming, which brings us to this 1978 compilation. 40 Greatest Hits is not only the definitive method of coming to know, appreciate and love Hank Williams and to continually revisit his music for pleasure, it is among the best collections of music one can purchase with one's hard-earned dough. A library without it -- even if the curator is generally unimpressed with country music -- is all but pointless.

40 Greatest Hits predates the CD era, but runs about 106 minutes and is still spread across two discs if you buy it physically. Its sources vary; some of the original tapes were unavailable (some still are), so several major songs are mastered from shellac 78rpm records. You won't be able to tell the difference; a number of songs mastered from original sources sound harsher or display their age more than some of those that had to use copies of discs. At the time the set was issued, it had been for nearly two decades somewhat difficult to come by Williams' hits in their original form -- that is, without overdubs or artificial string accompaniment or rechanneled stereo. Obviously that's less of an issue now that the artist's work is treated with a bit more respect in general, but it bears mentioning. What's now remarkable about the collection is its consistency. It's sequenced well: not quite in chronological order but usually fairly close, with everything from the '40s on the first disc save the hallowed "I Saw the Light" (a zestful spiritual that has passed into the collective subconscious so seamlessly it's sometimes hard to remember that Hank Williams wrote it), understandably used to end the collection. Despite the varying condition of the recordings, the songs lead spectacularly into one another and manage to give a sense of the breadth of Williams' talent while also boasting an engagingly consistent sound. This is thanks in part to one aspect of his singles that was criticized at times by purists -- Williams' famous backing band was nearly always replaced on record by session musicians, but their relative anonymity does make the bandleader invariably the central leader of these cuts. Everything revolves around him as it properly should.

All of the songs Mercury chose to include here are remarkable (the only weak selection is "Mind Your Own Business," a clone of the sharper "Move It on Over," but even it has a good lyric), which is admittedly made easier by the routine strength of Williams' singles and b-sides. All of the major hits he released under his own name are here except "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" (the sole truly objectionable omission), "Never Again" and the posthumous "Please Don't Let Me Love You." The statements of purpose -- "Moanin' the Blues" (proto-rockabilly) and "Ramblin' Man" -- come marching out of speakers now much as they did (and do) when emanating from scratchy old records. The message is that Williams was a rebel, a celebrator of his own depressive flaws and thus of those in all of his millions of listeners. But the reason those two songs come across now as slightly superficial retellings of future legend is that he's so much more.

Musically, Williams' innovations are mostly still readily apparent. Heard with the modernist pop sensibility that shall inevitably color most new listeners' perceptions of these sides, rockabilly lords over one's mind. It's forecast throughout fully developed songs Williams was writing and recording in the primordial postwar years. He died before his ideas would be picked up and brought to further -- if no more inspired -- fruition by the following generation of performers in and outside of country. The rock & roll sensibility rings clearest and loudest on his first hit, "Move It on Over," which stomps, swings and engages in almost guttural call-and-response. The sound of this song and several others to follow on this collection, particularly the novel "Howlin' at the Moon" (which features actual howling) and the covers of "Settin' the Woods on Fire" and Tex Ritter's "Dear John," was clearly studied by the principal Sun Records performers in the near future, particularly Johnny Cash on "Get Rhythm" (1956). Meanwhile, the enthusiastic, even masochistic despair of the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino and even Bo Diddley ("Crackin' Up") gets predicted on "Nobody's Lonesome for Me." The specter of influence needn't even distract us on "You're Gonna Change," "Why Don't You Love Me" and "Honky Tonk Blues," immortals all, but rock & roll they remain.

Still, to view Williams strictly in this light does a disservice both to him and to country music more generally. As a traditional country singer, despite his innovations and unique talents, Williams was formidable. His most reverently approached material was generally written by others -- "Take These Chains from My Heart" (nevertheless best known now in Williams' rendition), Bill Carlisle's "Wedding Bells," Curley Williams' "Half as Much," the great Leon Payne's mystical neo-bluegrass "Lost Highway" -- and all are rendered classic here, even though except for Payne's contribution they pale next to Williams' own work. "A Mansion on the Hill" is the most mournful of his early hits and blends well with the tearful country balladry in vogue in the late '40s, but Williams' stronger, more sincere and broken spin in "Cold Cold Heart" is more humane -- that cold heart sounds truly barren here, and the song cries out for a sad landscape of nowhere emanating from some petrol station speaker off the interstate -- and a key difference between the great man and his influences comes out on "Why Don't You Love Me," a flawless honky tonk vamp that renders the same aches and pains curiously joyful and endearing.

Cover material did seem to liberate Williams to experiment, a tendency more in evidence on the larger boxed set, but you can sense his refinement of a still-distinctive style of guitar playing on now-standard "Crazy Heart" and the showtune "Lovesick Blues." The latter also features some of the first released evidence of Williams' unusual vocal style, which some cite as a kind of yodeling. He doesn't yodel in the manner of Jimmie Rodgers or early Hank Snow or, for god's sake, Slim Whitman, but the things he does on "Lovesick Blues" -- imitating Emmett Miller -- come out like an intriguing extension of his voice. His rapidly changing pitch when he reaches the peak of a song like this or "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" or "Honky Tonk Blues," taking himself in and out of falsetto and woeful lower tones, reflects the importance of a sense of emotional depth in his records -- and also permits a realization of just how intensely he controlled his own singing.

The sound of Hank Williams' voice plays as large a role in the defining of its genre as any singer ever has; even long after most of his peers have passed into cultural memory, he retains his primal appeal across generations. There's rhythm in that voice ("I Won't Be Home No More," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues"), wild exuberance and nuance ("Weary Blues from Waitin'," "Moanin' the Blues"), loneliness and heartbreak so real they hurt like this guy wasn't dead and it was us he was singing about ("You Win Again," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Wedding Bells," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Cold Cold Heart"), regret and empathy and charm ("They'll Never Take Her Love from Me," "I'm Sorry for You My Friend"). Mostly these performances are simply stunning; Williams is so compelling as a singer in records that need his backing musicians in a crucial sense because they get out of his way. "Lost Highway" was already a brilliant song before he sang it, but he locates the song in himself, finds its function to him, and brings it to life. He does that every time he opens his mouth on this compilation.

Yet the songwriter's legacy ultimately outweighs the singer's. As musically engaging as his own songs are -- the bridge on "Why Don't You Love Me" is next to godliness, "A Mansion on the Hill" boasts as fine a melody as country's ever had -- he is remembered as a great lyricist because that's where his most obvious gifts were. This isn't always fair. No musician armed with Williams' witty and profound but deceptively simple skills as a wordsmith could've gotten far if s/he couldn't tell a story with music. Great as the lyric on "You're Gonna Change" is, the music is the narrative. But we must accept this portion of Williams' legacy because he is such an impressive figure as a writer, and specifically as a writer of lyrics.

Part of what makes Williams stand out against the better part of a century of country music (and blues, to a lesser extent) is his open resistance, maybe deliberate and maybe not, to false machismo. We've been raised on an image of "outlaw" country and rock & roll, and certainly Williams did little to counter such imagery by going on benders, drinking himself stupid and dying young in somewhat pathetic circumstances in a truck in the middle of nowhere. Nobody as smart as this guy could've been unaware that rebellion has its limits as a lifestyle choice, but even the best male rock and country stars of the years to come would pass the years by on toughness, hindered adolescence and snarling confrontation as major currency. Forget Williams' own son -- a truly uninteresting musician, and a violent bigot to boot -- and take a luminary like Johnny Cash instead. Cash had as many elements of the sacred and the romantic in his music as did Williams, one of his key influences, but Cash would always primarily partake in an ideal of baritone-voiced, Humphrey Bogart-like quiet strength: the myth of unerring dignity. When his heart was broken, he generally bellowed defiantly in response. Or take Elvis Presley's appropriation of the James Dean image; again, Dean as an actor was more complicated than sixty years of gauche bedroom posters suggest, but image informs perception, which in turn informs the culture.

Williams' music, on the other hand, is almost wholly lacking in any kind of a macho posture. Certainly his singing is absent of it. These songs are almost routinely an evocation of the act of crying, of self-pity and solitude, frequently of heartbreak and grief -- and none of these are things that the singer seems to take lying down, instead indulging in fantasies of suicide, jail time, binges and vagrancy. Often he can't even succeed at these vices -- he jumped into the river, but the doggone river was dry. All this comes without the typical mawkishness of pop in the period; it makes a difference that the recordings tend to be rougher than usual, but far more repeatedly evident is that Williams just doesn't lapse into such things lyrically, at least not on his hits. (He did record some sentimental claptrap; the only example here is "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy," which all the same is quite effective for what it is.) C&W balladeers were a dime a dozen in the '40s and '50s, before the genre underwent a makeover of sorts largely prompted by Williams' own success, but an important distinction is that when faced with pain and regret, Williams' response is an unusual feature in popular American music of any period: sardonic black humor. Not comedy in the sense of something overly novel like Phil Harris' "The Thing," but gallows humor of a sort as a means of protecting oneself against unbearable pain.

Humor is a defense mechanism that further outlines Hank Williams' sensitivity and the empathetic drama of his discontent and angst. The abusive relationship in "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Living" commands less bleak treatment than a simple breakup on "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," but the latter is far more humane and funny -- yet it's hard to explain on paper why its fatalism is simultaneously familar to anyone who's been through such a situation and amusing in its exaggerated desperation. Lamenting the loss of a woman he brands his "leaning post," he immediately takes the direst possible tactic. "When I find me that river, Lord I'm gonna pay the price / I'm goin' down in it three times, but Lord, I'm only comin' up twice." Williams sounds far less burdened on "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," somewhat ironically the last single he released in his own lifetime, but the words go even farther over the top:

A distant uncle passed away and left me quite a batch
And I was livin' high until that fatal day
A lawyer proved I wasn't born, I was only hatched.

Everything's against me and it's got me down
If I jumped in the river I would prob'ly drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

It gets more hopeless from there, and Williams delivers it with a strange thrill in his voice, very much getting a kick out of saying all this morbid shit: "I'm not gonna worry wrinkles in my brow / 'Cause nothin's ever gonna be alright nohow," well, that's a kind of optimism; "If it was rainin' gold I wouldn't stand a chance / I wouldn't have a pocket in my patched up pants" comically brings up class discontent only sporadically mentioned so directly (significantly in "Mansion on the Hill"). Throughout, it's important to note that Williams celebrates his weakness -- the fact that nothing will ever be all right is his theme, the focal point of his craft, and he isn't bothered by what it suggests about his constant mindset.

Aside from their undercurrent of such sharp self-deprecation, the lyrics vary wildly here. Except for "I Saw the Light," Williams' interest in the sacred is absent, but otherwise these forty songs are a remarkable sample of his fixations. Some of the words are just straightforwardly brilliant, like the reverence-inspiring "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," even if they are seldom literary like the lyricists we most often praise (Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, etc.) as being exceptions to the rule of pop lyrics apart from rap and folk being disposable outside of context. When they are, it's fleeting -- the use of the word "loveless" on "Mansion on the Hill" is incredibly evocative, for example -- but the emotional depth of something like "Long Gone" amply compensates. On the face of it, there's nothing terribly interesting about the third-person perspective in "I'm Sorry for You My Friend," which challenges another man on his treatment of a lover (kind of a reverse-"She Loves You") except when you consider how it overturns the typical use of stubborn male pride as a subject of tear-in-your-beer anthems -- like at least three included here, though two of those ("Half as Much" and "Window Shopping") weren't Williams' own work. Similarly, "You Win Again" takes a harder look at the sullen heartache of Williams' own work -- and Johnny Cash's early records to come -- and comes out with a surprisingly complex, amoral take on the relationship it describes.

But wounded masculine pride is inevitably here in ample supply; one needs mere familiarity with one of the best-known (and finest) Hank singles, "Your Cheatin' Heart," to know his skill at articulating such base pain lyrically and vocally. I would counter, however, that in most cases this is in fact human pain, gendered only by Williams' own voice. One almost need only read the titles of "Why Don't You Love Me" and "Why Should We Try Anymore" to understand the disappointment that they document. Such dispirited relationship difficulties are hardly sock-hop hot topics -- these are songs for adults, much like "You Win Again," and they talk of emotions that can easily appear nebulous and incomprehensible to one who has not experienced them. Once one has, they seem like messages down from on high; it feels like you're being understood. Or manipulated, if you're cynical; such a bitter instinct led cartoonist Charles Schulz, getting wrapped up through Hank Williams' songs in nostalgia and bitterness after his first marriage dissolved, to permanently turn off the radio in his studio. Most of this, nevertheless, comes from the heart. It's hardly necessary to pay mind to the lyric of "(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle" to sense the gravity of its depression. That said, once you do read the lyric, its melancholic poetry is nearly as striking as the song itself.

We should mention that despite Schulz's reaction, 40 Greatest Hits is no endless festival of dread. Several of Williams' best and most famous numbers are downright jubilant: "Jambalaya," for example, and "Baby We're Really in Love." Indeed, the very best of his many masterpieces might very well be the Cole Porter-inspired "Hey Good Lookin'," which is significant because of its skipping rhythm, its coy hint of sexual equality (note that it's not, as some covers and tupperware commercials would have it, "how's about cookin' something up for me", it's "with me"), and most of all the sheer poetic grace of its lyric. Williams is quick on his feet as always with a good rhythm and arrangement and a great vocal line, but he outdoes himself on these words, rhymes, stanzas, which evoke a singular world all of their own that still resonates as a romantic ideal:

I'm free and ready so we can go steady
How's about saving all your time for me
No more lookin' I know I been cookin'
How's about keepin' steady company?

I'm gonna throw my datebook over the fence
And find me one for five or ten cents
I'm keepin' it till it's covered with age
'Cause I'm writin' your name down on every page.

Before even getting that far, he puts two dollars in his pocket and invites his woman to take a ride in his Ford to a "spot right over the hill / there's soda pop and the dancing's free." Chuck Berry would remember this swingin' little joint where we can jump and shout on "Carol." In both cases, the possibility of liberation through music is implicit -- casting the darkness that brews under most of Williams' work in its own light. This is how the world often is, and this is how we escape it.

Even on a best-of that merely scratches at the surface of his rewarding discography, Williams comes across as more eclectic than almost any other solo performer. It seems next to impossible that the charmingly off the cuff "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" could have the same entity performing it as the starkly arranged "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me." So many of these tracks are perfect, but they're perfect in wildly divergent, seemingly incompatible ways: the hungover "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" alongside the skipping, jumping "Why Don't You Love Me." When stepping completely outside the familiar on "Kaw-Liga," he expands country music with percussive, passionate exotica; it may be antiquated and racially insensitive now, but it remains distinctive and powerfully performed. And then there is something like "I Won't Be Home No More," the very first song the radio played when Rhett Miller was born in the back seat of a Mustang. The pain goes from ear to ear, to be inherited evermore. And despite that pain, it swings. It's agony you can dance to. 29 may be far too short a life for a creative master, but that's quite an idea for him to have managed in that time to get across.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Billie Holiday: Lady Day - The Master Takes and Singles (1935-42)


!!! A+ BOXED SET !!!

Tackling Billie Holiday as not just a musician but a complete entity is more than a lot of people can bear -- tragedy beyond what most of us can imagine lurks at every corner of that story. It's unavoidable, though, to anyone with a more than passing interest in American music or popular music in general. In a greater sense than almost any other series of recordings, Holiday's work is in our blood; divorced from the horrific childhood, adult disappointments and crushing downfalls of her private life, we're left with an unceasingly moving body of work. Knowing the frayed, dejected heart behind that strange, brilliantly imaginative voice only elevates the discography. My point is, it's crucial to read what you can about Billie Holiday to properly understand the miracle of her existence and her output, and you'll want to anyway when its enigmatic beauty and sadness strike at your heart -- even the liner notes (by historian Gary Giddins) in a set like this will help -- but in the end, the music communicates everything one truly needs to know. It's perhaps the most revealing, intimate body of work ever laid down on tape.

Presumably most everyone has heard a fair bit of Holiday's work; it would be hard, frankly, to avoid it. In contrast to what some may instinctively believe, this music isn't simply made for the background -- it rewards close attention, and in fact the more one listens to the tics and winding roads and unexpected moments of elation and despair in Holiday's performances, the more sumptuous and even addictive the music becomes. For the newcomer, Holiday's discography can seem overwhelming and confusing -- especially to one unfamiliar with popular jazz of the period in question, in this case from the middle of the Depression through the early years of World War II. That's unfortunate because the appeal of Holiday's best material vastly transcends the sometimes intimidating world of jazz scholarship. Born in 1915, Eleanora Fagan suffered various kinds of abuse from others that shouldn't overshadow what we're here to talk about: that she began singing professionally in Harlem when she was fourteen and first recorded as a sort of cash-in jukebox swing performer for Brunswick in 1935. As so often, this music that was meant as disposable that happened to be given a laissez-faire blank slate by the label turned out as a result to stand as a creative triumph for the singer, who took the professional name Billie Holiday, and the pianist Teddy Wilson.

She would later record -- with greater control over her material -- for Commodore, Decca and finally Verve. The Commodore and Decca records encompassed some of her biggest commercial hits, including the legendary "Strange Fruit," and inheriting the sometimes ghostly, sometimes sugary string arrangements from Decca, Verve documented her loss of her former vibrant control and enthusiasm. The grimness into which she was born and that seemingly always cursed her finally caught up to her performances; some find the frayed, exhausted singing of those later Verve records to be Holiday's most transcendent and moving work. But the early material, gathered here under the Columbia umbrella (though it was issued on various labels, including Brunswick and OKeh), captures an American master at her zenith and, unlike the Verve works, requires no setup or explication. Under the Lady Day title, you can buy it as a two-, four- or ten-disc set, the two-discer an introduction and the ten-discer a diving into every bit of minutiae from 1933 to 1944. There's no way two discs will be enough for even the greenest of admirers. Ten discs might be a lot to take in, but even with these generously packaged four, you feel as if you could keep going all day and night.

Holiday's work in what we'll conveniently call the Columbia years wasn't "accidentally" brilliant, as is sometimes argued; the accident, at least, was strictly on the part of the labels that were feeding her material that often disinterested or even irritated her. She wasn't the primary artist or bandleader in those early days, though even when her peers are at their best -- particularly Lester Young and Roy Eldridge, though the personnel revolves liberally -- she dominates these recordings artistically. Given carte blanche to virtually invent an improvisational style that resonates and is (usually poorly) imitated to this day, she turned juke-joint 78s designed as flimsy musical wallpaper into statements of profound purpose that often crossed over into the sublime. One instinctively knows this without, as Giddins mentions in the liners, studying the sheet music of staid little numbers like "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" and "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" -- but indeed, Holiday spins these strands of bare, sweet-nothing inspiration into a virtuoso harnessing of, more often that not, awe-inspiringly deep and complex emotional catharsis. Holiday's Columbia sides might be the quickest way available to us to explain why and how recordings can transcend mere songs: these performances vastly supersede the trifling little numbers from which they're launching. At times, as with "LIfe Begins When You're in Love," "On the Sentimental Side" and "I Must Have That Man," Holiday doesn't merely spin mediocrity into splendid entertainment but into a masterpiece.

Not all of the songs Holiday performed in the '30s were poor. She got several chances to wring beauty and charm from the works of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, chief playful stalwarts of the Great American Songbook, while her own "Billie's Blues" would be a keen selection even if it wasn't helped along by Bunny Berigan and Artie Shaw, but what's impressive is how frequently the quality of the material doesn't particularly matter as much as Holiday's interpretation of its mood, her subverting and expanding its essence. Something as minute as the placement of the vocals on "Did I Remember" can create delight and drama, and the records are made more vital and engaging by their brevity. With almost no exceptions, each and every performance ends so quickly as to leave you wishing it could continue, that we could expand that swinging groove just a little longer. Holiday doesn't always sound like she's enjoying herself -- indeed, a hint of playful sarcasm is crucial to the way she approaches fluff like "He's Funny That Way" and "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart" -- but she does always sound as if she is open-hearted and willing to go where the song and the band deign to take her. Some tracks here are stronger than others (though remarkably, across all four discs there is not a single remotely poor cut), inevitably, but one cannot claim that there is a false note to any of Holiday's vocal choices, which have the feel of incisive purpose and miraculous spontaneity at once.

It's natural to assume that context matters when listening to a grand boxed set like Lady Day in either of its expanded, luxurious formats, and one needn't be strongly literate in jazz to know that this music does reflect the mood and the sound of a strange, uncertain time in American (and world) history. My own feeling, though, is that in the same manner that knowledge of Holiday's personal life and its ups and downs can enhance one's appreciation of the mastery in her professional work, keeping yourself entrenched in this music's give-and-take with the culture of its time is little more than a petty distraction. The emotive reality of Holiday's performances, taking the bands she worked with into account or not (though you really should; "When You're Smiling," for instance, is great for reasons almost wholly separate from Holiday's presence), is something that doesn't change with passing years. In the specific case of her Columbia recordings, she is a sad figure behind a facade, but she's fully aware of that facade and it's an essential part of her vocalizing. When taking on "A Fine Romance" from Swing Time or the gloriously ironic "Things Are Looking Up," you get a sense of a complete, three-dimensional personality, and one probably familiar to any introspective or insecure listener: Billie Holiday is the person trying and failing to have a good time at a social gathering, anything to distract from the halting pain of late nights alone. What about the intervening decades has changed that feeling? Thought so.

If Lady Day isn't a perfect introduction to Billie Holiday and indeed to jazz (and to her importance in it, which is inextricably tied with these recordings from the first half of her career), then surely the fourth disc qualifies. There are masterpieces spread throughout the set, in fact almost more than we've got time to talk about in this review (they are listed below), but the final volume is almost freewheeling with them: the stubbornly powerful "God Bless the Child," the worn-down wounds and reluctant joy of "All of Me," the ethereal "I Cover the Waterfront," and the stunning previews of the shades of gray so prevalent in Holiday's later work on "Gloomy Sunday" and "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." We could go on, of course -- the disc peaks with my personal favorite Holiday recording (though the oddly underappreciated "You Let Me Down" isn't far behind), the bleak, cynical, gorgeous "Am I Blue?", the most perfect evocation of heartbreak and its many uncertainities in a discography with many examples. There's a kind of tearful selflessness to the song, to the scope of Holiday's output; her heartbreak eclipsed mine and probably yours. She had more reason to laugh and cry and feel the depths of "Am I Blue?" than almost anybody else, but she gave us that recording of it, allowed us to share in that sense of loss and the comfort of expressing it. That's the glory of not just music but art in a nutshell. That's why it seems reductive to just talk about melancholy, vitality, sensuality, even if "Moanin' Low" is the sexiest thing you've ever heard on a record.

Elsewhere, the layers and dimensions are harrowing to presumably even the general listener, even when she's giving stuff like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" (now most famous as the song Katharine Hepburn sings to her pet leopard in Bringing Up Baby) a far kinder and more raggedly wise treatment than it deserves. You don't have to understand timing and timbre (or care that she doesn't bother switching the gender on "These Foolish Things") to be riveted and heartstruck by how high and low she gets, how she cracks, how you can feel like you're inside her voice on these remastered recordings. As the years go by and we listen to Billie Holiday becoming famous, becoming an icon, you can marvel at her blossoming skill as a bandleader on "A Sailboat in the Moonlight" or at how her style continues to develop with the voice finding new expressions as late as 1938's "I Can't Get Started," but there's nothing quite like the feeling when you hear Holiday take on a vast, world-altering song like "Night and Day" or "St. Louis Blues." That's when all this stuff about what it was she did on record, what motivated her to do it, What It Really Meant just washes away -- your impulse, very correctly, is to shut up, close your eyes and listen.


For anyone new to Billie Holiday's Columbia recordings -- and in a sense, I am too; I've listened to this set for quite a few years but only this year have really sat down and explored it in depth -- this is a list of the songs that seem to me at least like the essence of this period. These jazz standards or songs that were made standards by this specific performer capture either Holiday as a young master of her craft, are gobsmackingly impressive in their improvisational acrobats or emotional depth, or feature extremely engaging band interplay. Mostly they're just great fun or greatly affecting to listen to.

What a Little Moonlight Can Do (1935)
Miss Brown to You (1935)
You Let Me Down (1935)
Life Begins When You're in Love (1936)
These Foolish Things (1936)
Summertime (1936) [astoundingly, the first version of this Gershwin masterwork to hit the pop charts]
Billie's Blues (1936)
A Fine Romance (1936)
The Way You Look Tonght (1936)
I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (1937)
He Ain't Got Rhythm (1937)
Why Was I Born? (1937)
I Must Have That Man (1937)
My Last Affair (1937)
Moanin' Low (1937)
They Can't Take That Away from Me (1937)
I'll Get By (1937)
Mean to Me (1937)
A Sailboat in the Moonlight (1937)
Things Are Looking Up (1937)
My Man (1937)
When You're Smiling (1938)
On the Sentimental Side (1938)
You Go to My Head (1938)
I Can't Get Started (1938)
Long Gone Blues (1939)
Them There Eyes (1939)
Night and Day (1939)
The Man I Love (1939)
Body and Soul (1940)
St. Louis Blues (1940)
All of Me (1941)
God Bless the Child (1941)
Am I Blue? (1941)
I Cover the Waterfront (1941)
Love Me or Leave Me (1941)
Gloomy Sunday (1941)
Until the Real Thing Comes Along (1942)

It's not far from likely that these songs would scarcely be remembered if not for Holiday's performances of them -- these phenomenal recordings define how much Holiday as a performer could make something of just about anything she was given. Even if she hated it. Even if she audibly hated it. The results are usually stunning, regardless.

If You Were Mine (1935)
Spreadin' Rhythm Around (1935)
Life Begins When You're in Love (1936)
It's Like Reaching for the Moon (1936)
Did I Remember (1936)
One, Two Button Your Shoe (1936)
I Must Have That Man (1937)
The Mood That I'm In (1937)
Where Is the Sun? (1937)
Don't Know If I'm Comin' or Goin' (1937)
A Sailboat in the Moonlight (1937)
Without Your Love (1937)
He's Funny That way (1937)
On the Sentimental Side (1938)
I'm Gonna Lock My Heart (1938)