Thursday, March 14, 2013

Music that Matters, Pt 9

83) Roxy Music, Remake Re-model: The first Roxy album was something special. Back then Ferry's croon contained some actual spit and wasn't the pomaded warble we'd later come to love. Eno and Andy Mackay added layers of uniquely fruitful tension––Eno with his Dada science fiction (his flourishes are particularly brilliant here) and Mackay with a touch of a-yob-goes-to-Cotton-Club lacquer (and no one, NO ONE, brought the oboe like Mackay)––after the first two LPs and Eno's departure things got smoother: more great records would follow but thicker polish replacing raggedier edges. And then smoother still for the 80s output. Still, every corner of their sound was uniquely theirs all the way down to the fabulous beats of Paul Thompson and their take on girly record covers. This is what sexy eccentricity should sound like.

Re-Make/Re-Model by Roxy Music on Grooveshark

84) Can, Mother Sky: A salty German sound experiment beginning in the late 60s that'd turn hipster namecheck by the 80s (don't hold it against them): Yoo Doo Right e.g. providing hipster cred to a number of alt bands wanting to prove the coolness of their record collections. I stumbled on Can as their record blared from one of those now long gone Sunset Boulevard elephantine record outlets. I was hooked immediately. Their cool-bordering-on-cold sound is like a breeze coming down the German Alps. Their improvised ditties drip with a healthy serving of psychedelic barbecue sauce and a hint of jazzy phrasing but not too much. It's a formula that other bands, like ELP, could clone into bloated run-throughs of self-indulgent bombast but Can manages with self-restraint. Mother Sky may be long but it earns every second of its length (probably owing to their German efficiency) and may also contain the epitome of cool psychedelic melody lines. Their lyrics sometimes read like movie dialogue in Chinese-English translations but that's OK, it only makes their brand more Dadaesque. My nine year-old daughter heard this playing in the car recently and remarked that it sounded like old time music––1970, actually, which for her may as well be the ice age. Yeah, well call me a neanderthal. I dig it.

Mother Sky (from Deep End) by Can on Grooveshark

Here's a "blistering" live version from German television in 1970.

85) The Geraldine Fibbers, Toybox: The Fibbers were described as a fusion of "American roots music and blues influenced punk" and "alt country," which is probably correct in some cases but not here. Nels Cline's guitar takes the wheel and strapped in for the ride is Carla Bozulich's hairy vocal rendering and a few well sculpted screams that together turn this glittering nugget into a rage of fearsome power. I love this song––love love love it––and the album Butch from whence it came is as classic as it was unnoticed. The jittery lyrics tell of a pubescent girl torn between the new obligations of a changing body and a daddy falling apart. (Listen to the whole album here and ask why didn't I know about this before?) And I can't say enough about the phaser-set-to-kill of Nels Cline's guitar. There could never be a Butch II. This was an unique moment in time, un-reenactable, kind of like that angry sex you had with your ex-girlfriend when you're really hating each other and yet somehow yields a tantric-length orgasm. Just be glad it happened once and move on.

Toybox by The Geraldine Fibbers on Grooveshark

86) Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Hang 'em High: The M.G.'s were always smooth, suave, succinct, not too spicy but always right to the point. They were the model of unpretentiousness. This song, though, is a little out of their usual range. The melody is more narrative and Booker T.'s organ is like a zen calliope running Wagner rolls. No one massages the Leslie speaker better. The melody is short but the band makes every refrain count. The Hammond has too often been the instrumental vector of musical misdeeds but I can promise you that Booker T. will make you love it again.

87) Earth, Wind and Fire, Mighty Mighty: My memories of this song begin the day my best friend and his two brothers jumped up from the floor when this came on the radio and proceeded to dance their fool asses off. (I didn't join in.) My friend and his brothers were black. I mention this only because I tried to imagine anyone else and their brothers jumping up to dance so ecstatically together and I couldn't. Even if they were preparing for an audition for the revival of Oh! Calcutta!, it still wouldn't happen. Cultural proclivities aside, it's easy to imagine how this song might inspire otherwise manly men to dance like fools: it's one nasty groove. Plus, Philip Bailey's voice goes into some mad whistle tones that could crack Mariah Carey's ovaries––I kid you not. In its pre-disco days, EWF's marriage of ecstatic funk lite and R&B juiced up with horn and rhythm sections tighter than Cee Lo's cummerbund was the sh*t. It didn't get anymore ecstatic than Mighty Mighty. I've seen its potency firsthand and it can shoot some serious dilly voodoo straight into your onion.

Mighty Mighty by Earth, Wind & Fire on Grooveshark

88) Billy Preston, Outa Space: Always loved the language of a cool instrumental and sadly the instrumental golden age is now way behind us. Only very rarely does one ever sneak into our pop music consciousness anymore (La Valse D'Amelie probably being the only recent example). Preston is arguably the grandmaster of the Clavinet and legend has it that Outa Space was an improv that he was calling out the changes to the band on the fly. One of those rare moments where the thumbnail is the masterpiece. For its full effect the Clavinet demanded a plucky kind of technique which gets a turbocharge with a wah-wah and it's a technique that Billy nails with a railroad spike. Still as fresh and space age as it ever was.

Outa-Space by Billy Preston on Grooveshark

89) Eno, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy): Eno may've been a forefather of electronica but his 70s output was comparatively organic and live. His process, utilitzing a philosophical trick bag he called Oblique Strategies, involved chance and random conceits to force creative solutions, something completely foreign in the age of Pro-Tools. For his greatest glories, Eno's electronics only added color and texture and maybe some vibe but were usually part of a larger collaboration. To wit: Third Uncle is gizmo free and the vibe is all real time and carbon space; Back in Judy's Jungle is also loaded with ingenious analog layers in a completely different way. The strategy paid dividends in his lyric writing too. The whole album is an explosion of subtle brilliance. Eno's output includes much greatness but it was never so concentrated as it was on Tiger Mountain.

Back in Judy's Jungle by Brian Eno on Grooveshark

Third Uncle by Brian Eno on Grooveshark

90) The Lounge Lizards, Do the Wrong Thing; Big Heart, Stink (from the Get Shorty soundtrack): This is jazz played by cats who grew up with rock and roll, or more precisely No Wave, movie soundtracks, various avant garde scronk, and probably some Can and Beefheart. Fake jazz is what the maestro John Lurie called it which is close enough: more jazzy than jazz. Whatever it is, it's a downtown Dagwood sandwich chock full of strange meat of unknown provenance. Lurie's sax isn't technical but his astute ear always finds some little pocket of wonder that holds a few golden coins. A currency that carries through all his work, be it the Lizards or his soundtracks. If such magic requires an outsized personality––of which this article makes an exhaustive case (if it's to be believed, Lurie and his friends say don't), as does his quirky and short lived show Fishing with John––then Lurie has got it in spades.

The Lizards never got their due. That's a shame.

Do The Wrong Thing by The Lounge Lizards on Grooveshark

Big Heart by The Lounge Lizards on Grooveshark

Stink by John Lurie on Grooveshark

91) Santana, Everything's Coming Our Way: Hippy dippy latin uplift from 1971 with ladlefuls of conga grease and deep fried together in a batter of smooth organ and Santana's long-tone guitar. Here the band eschews the Tito Puente and goes for a kind of paisley Hendrix with the maestro singing (and, surprisingly, his falsetto kills). Sure, Santana's sound is so much a part of the furniture of industrial rock radio its practically archetypal, but archetypal like a burrito––you could eat it a thousand times and still want another one tomorrow. And this one is just so damn full of optimism––the musical equivalent of a couple of uncut lines.

Everything's Coming Our Way by Santana on Grooveshark

92) Dizzy Gillespie, Night in Tunisia: Sure, it's like the "Stairway to Heaven" of jazz for popularity, written in 1942 in kind of pasteurized milky version of bebop with a little Afro-Cuban pepperiness––simple and safe but colorful jazzers might say, as if there's something wrong with that. Let the geeks quibble, this tune is so cool it's almost impossible to mess up, even through countless reworkings. No matter who does it, it seems to bring out the best in everyone. It's a democratizer and that's pretty cool if you ask me.

Jazz Masters by Dizzy Gillespie on Grooveshark

93) Artie Shaw and his orchestra, One Foot in the Groove: This is what rawked the bobby-soxers ca. 1939. My dad was a Shaw fanboy until his dying day, having dropped the needle on Shaw's records since the time they were 78s (about 60 years). As for this song, I'm a sucker for repeated phrases spread out over chord changes. It's an elemental vibrational buzz that probably goes back to our cave dwelling days––one dude carves eight holes in his flute while the other guy's mud god told him it was more righteous with one and, voilà, jazz was born.

The song also may also be the essential showcase on what was best about the big band era: Listen as each reiteration of the song gets a different color treatment along the way––trombones one time, saxes the next, some sexy low grooving followed next by some growling love-call brass. They could blow 100 choruses and change it up every time.

And then there's the cat of Shaw himself. He must've oozed some kind of cool because this guy who looked like an insurance salesman managed to marry two of the butteriest omega babes of the swing era, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. (His bedpost was notched with "an array of America's best sexual trophies.") This eight-time married swinger could also be an abusive a**hole. (He allegedly drove Lana Turner to a nervous breakdown. Babes love their bastards, don't they?) And he treated his audience no better, famously calling them a "bunch of morons."And just to prove that old age could soften no edge on this rough diamond, he'd accuse clarinet colleague Benny Goodman of basically being retarded. Along the way this middle school dropout studied advanced mathematics, became the #4 ranked marksmen in the US, hung with the communists during the McCarthy years, wrote three novels (Terry Southern was a fan), fronted one of the first small combos with electric guitar, was said to be "one of the greatest musicians that has ever lived" by no less than Ray Charles, was one of the first to bring latin sounds north (FrenesiCarioca), and just generally freebased on his own stubborn awesomeness. As a bandleader and player he's considered one of the best of the era––and most erratic which may explain why he abruptly stopped playing forever in 1954: He was an inveterate perfectionist, a self-described "difficult man," as much Axel Rose as da Vinci. His claimed reason for giving up music was because that after attaining mastery, what could he do but slide downhill? (Goodman for his part died with a clarinet in his mouth.)

Like so many who're abandoned by their fathers at an early age, Shaw would return the favor by walking out on his own kids and everything else he loved. Fortunately, he blew the clarinet long enough to bring my dad some happy.

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