Saturday, October 26, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, the Robert Moog of His Day

Ever run your wetted finger on the rim of a wine glass? It produces a sound. Cover a table with wine glasses tuned to various pitches and it's called a glass harp. Benjamin Franklin heard someone play a glass harp and, because he was Benjamin Franklin, invented the Armonica, a kind of 18th century Theremin or Georgian era synth. An explanation of the curiosity below:

Sounds like a pipe organ with a single high stop pulled. No matter what's played on it sounds like a funeral. In any event, it's curious.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Momma, can you hear me yell, Your baby boy's gone back to hell: Jacques Brel in Spirit and Word

I've made my case for Jacques Brel before (here and here). Brel ( 1929-1978) was the Belgian singer/songwriter capable of wringing more expression from his teeth than a legion of vocal contestants from The Voice/American Idol/etc. His performances were a masterful balance of black comedy and heart shattered pathos delivered like a meth-crashing Pagliacci. And if the vocal and facial intensity weren't enough, watch him sweat buckets enough for a menopausal squad of Tina Turners. Intensity was his meat.

But what of the songs? Even in their English "translations" his lyrics are the opposite of cloying and sentimental. He seemed incapable of seeing love as anything other than humiliating, doomed, or worse, cancerous; or, as in Mathilde, all three together. (Not ironically it was lung cancer that took Brel's life at 49.) Purists have argued that the only way to understand the true depths of Brel is to hear him in his original French. No doubt this might be the preferred vehicle for the French enabled but that's not to say that some of the third-party English reworkings don't have a power of their own. (The title of this post is a line from one such translation.) As representatives of the translations, both Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey make cases of their own, understatement in the former and eye-shifting displays of power in the latter.

See Brel in action with a series posted at Network Awesome.

Below, Scott Walker—who famously recorded a hefty number of Brel translations—takes a crack at a reworking of Mathilde.

It's been argued that Michigander creative writing professor Dr Arnold Johnston may be the best translator for locating the truest spirit of Brel. As he notes in the video below, after Ne me quitte pas was voted Love Song of the Century in Europe, Brel asserted that it was not a love song at all but a description of one man's humiliation. Vocally, Johnston's performance will never suspend beliefs that he's anything but a professor singing in a small town library, still, he manages to get his point across.

Below, two Brel chestnuts offered with a little perspective and translations that promise to be more in the maestro's spirit:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Music that Matters, Pt 18

178) Savages: From their website: "... music and words are aiming to strike like lightning, like a punch in the face, a determination to understand the WILL and DESIRES of the self."

Well, they're nothing if not ambitious. This London-based unit is a sound salad of Sonic Youth, MBV, Joy Division, and Siouxsie/Banshees with shades of shoegaze and a socio-political bite: They're post-punk all grown up. Unlike others who've worshipped at this altar—like vacuous posers She Wants Revenge—Savages have something to add to the legacy. With a presence that is surprisingly mature, they may just be one of the best girl bands that ever was—though, limiting to the status of a girl band is unfair; they're a powerful force regardless. If anything they beg the question, if this is what it sounds like when women pick up the (post-punk) weapons, why aren't their more bands like this? Their branding has been exquisite. Check their videos, they look like teched-up French New Wave. MTV's 120 Minutes could've used some of this. This is a band to watch.

Shut Up with a Fight Club style intro:

This is what they sound like live:

179) Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out, Everything: More great gynocentrism that transcends the novelty of gender. This is thoughtful female crotch rock from a crotch that makes best use of its cleft. Unlike their male counterparts, their guitars aren't just extensions of their phalli—or clitori, as the case may be—but are more like rocket effigies set to launch Corrin Tucker's impressive voice. Their fundamental, bass-free, low budget arrangements and cheap guitars only help to make their sound more pure and concise. The effect is one of deceptive simplicity, like a Picasso on a cocktail napkin. This is the power trio as it should be, without all the indulgence and instrumental wanking and just enough filigree to keep things interesting.

Everything by Sleater-Kinney on Grooveshark

180) Swans, Love of Life: Swans love repetition. Their grooves are industrially hypnotic, like the sound of the machines that smash cars into scrap. (It's a sound spiked with striking metal, be it a clanking hammers or scratched violins.) I prefer their peppier tempos as their slower ones can be numbingly plodding and Love of Life is peppy. This is music that drifts on a gray cloud and seeks the skull beneath the skin, dripping into your brain like a faucet leaking battery acid. Abrasive was one critic's description. If there's any way to wrench beauty from such mordant elements then Swans have done it. Its mechanicalness lends it a symmetry that feels urban but with undercurrents of a restless, caffeinated zen—groovy poetic noise that's always anchored with solid, basic thump, no flights of meter or syncopations. The howler monkey low registers of Michael Gira's voice come at you like the dark side of your conscience, or a horror movie announcer, even when he sings about the subject of (the ambiguous) Love of Life. This is hardcore dinner music.

Love of Life by Swans on Grooveshark

181) Jarboe, I've Got a Gun: Swans alumna and extreme eccentric: When Jarboe La Salle Devereaux wasn't adding idiosyncratic dimension to her former band, she proved she could stand well enough on her own. There's enough restrained torture in her voice that her songs should come with endnotes—when she sings I've got a gun, you want to believe her. It's a voice that's assertively intense, severe, vulnerable, and frightening all at once. She can bank from pretty to evil with equal adeptness and can swell her vibrato like Anthony Newley with palsy. Her music tends to linger in the dark territories (notice her album cover at left, of her 13 masks, none are smiling)—she was a Swan after all—but she's never comes off as shrill or inauthentic. Judging from her subject matter and execution (pun intended), I imagine she lives alone.

I Got A Gun by Jarboe on Grooveshark

182) Tower of PowerSo Very Hard to Go: A horn section that was pretty much the best in the business and frequently bursts into the orchestral like a horny supernova. Underneath, a rhythm section that could've anchored the Titanic while swindling out the funk proper. So Very Hard to Go is an Otis Redding scaled ballad with an epic arrangement to match: strings, horns, voices, and melody to push all into the classic with a singer up to the task. There's no zirconium in this bag; this is all finely polished jewel.

So Very Hard To Go by Tower of Power on Grooveshark

183)  Etta JamesSomething's Got a Hold on Me, Trust in Me: She's the singer Janis Joplin listened to, a voice raw and frayed in the right places. A voice raw enough to power through shouters and smooth enough to massage ballads into wedding staples (e.g. At Last): A bluesy singer who could slam dance and soft shoe with equal skill. Perhaps James never got her proper due for never having scored the big pop hit (though she does own I'd Rather Go Blind), nor was she as technical as some others (say, like Joplin or Franklin). More refined, she didn't overuse the histrionics either. Nobody could shred a scream like Joplin and by comparison James might even sound demure but don't mistake that for subdued. James was strapped with a chrome-plated raspy shout that could easily throw some knives when needed. And unlike Joplin, hers was a voice that demanded intimacy—not one to be lost in the cavernous arena: scaled down but still a killer.

Something's Got a Hold on Me by Etta James on Grooveshark

/>Trust in Me by Etta James on Grooveshark

184) Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection: There's a kind of desolate loneliness that permeates this album that makes Tumbleweed such a unique moment in John's and Taupin's careers. The kind of moment they'd never attempt to scratch at again. The characters drawn here are as sepia-toned as the album cover and its restless heart offers the kind of depth and authenticity that wasn't usually their gig. Even John's voice has warmth that would never be heard again. For both, their great commercial successes were still ahead of them (John would become the highest paid recording artist in history) and when it arrived these kinds of scaled-down gems would be forever lost. Taupin's lyrics here use the Amercian South as a metaphor for a shifting world that may've been a mirror to their own rising fame. As John's life became more diamond encrusted, so did his schtick. This is the Elton John album for people who don't like Elton John––raw and unvarnished. For me, it's easily the best work of both of their careers.

Where to Now St. Peter? by Elton John on Grooveshark

My Father's Gun by Elton John on Grooveshark

185) Eddie Heywood, Soft Summer Breeze: This is the kind of musical tryptophan your parents would've thrown on to give their dinner parties ambience. That is, if your parents were really old like mine. Heywood may be best known for backing Coleman Hawkins and Billy Holiday and as the composer of the catchy '50s confection Canadian Sunset. Soft Summer Breeze was hit in 1956 when your Swing Era parents were listening to radios as big as Buicks. Heywood was an able pianist as his earlier gigs would indicate, but left to his own he tended towards the lightweight and other catchy sentimental ooze. Breeze was all of that but still manages to hone right into to the squishier part of your brain's music receptors, like hummingbirds to a feeder. You may think it's piffle but I'd argue that all the notes are exactly the right ones. I lament the long gone era of the well tuned instrumental. All we can do now is dig the crates to seek the musty nuggets like this one.

Soft Summer Breeze by Eddie Heywood on Grooveshark

186) Siouxsie and the Banshees, Spellbound, Head Cut: Siouxsie had already impressed us with her throaty, dominitrix-like voice, and drummer Budgie was probably the best stickman to ever wear Kajagoogoo in his hair. Earlier, Join Hands was the album that made them post-punk players—but then John McGeoch came on board. Recently departed from the great Magazine, McGeoch was by Siouxsie's admission the best of the Banshees to strap on a guitar and this, Spellbound, was his showcase: It's a complete departure from his playing of the much more psychedelic middle-period Magazine. Here, his playing is riffier, tonier, more sophisticated and artfully restrained: his sound flying at you in buttery-thin sheets of fine pastry. Head Cut is Siouxsie taking her immaculate tone and mirroring McGeoch's effected guitar screech. This may be the moment when both the Banshees and McGeoch peaked.

Spellbound by Siouxsie and the Banshees on Grooveshark

Head Cut by Siouxsie and the Banshees on Grooveshark

187) The Quick, Hi Lo, Pretty Please: A criminally overlooked band to come out of Los Angeles's New Wave before there was one. Being very much of its time (1976) their sound had the vestiges of glam stuck all over it like pieces of toilet paper after an abusive shave. (Check their not quite post-Ziggy Stardust hair.) Quite likely the only band to integrate early Sparks as well as Ziggy so thoroughly and to such a great effect—well written songs with scope and lots of dynamics. They threw in some corny covers (Rag Doll, It Won't Be Long, Somewhere Over the Rainbow), and at times their sound pandered a mite too desperately to get on the radio, but all these many years later it still holds up. Two or three albums in and they might've been contenders had they gotten the chance.

Hi-Lo by The Quick on Grooveshark

Pretty Please by The Quick on Grooveshark

188) Steely Dan, Countdown to Ecstasy album: This album is a pure meat salad, no lettuce or croutons to get in the way of what you're really after—every bite juicy, every song a nugget. Before the Dan became an industrial showcase for the best musicians for hire, they were a band and very tight one at that. Two skilled guitar players and whatever Donald Fagen lacked in skills as a keyboardist he made up with taste and vision. And that voice—wry, whimsical, astringent, and utterly original. Throw in a batch of their best songs ever and a classic is made.

Your Gold Teeth by Steely Dan on Grooveshark

King of the World by Steely Dan on Grooveshark

Sunday, October 13, 2013

She Swallowed a Harmonica

Her name is Lalah (pronounced LAY-la) Hathaway and she sings a chord. Not like those Tibetan throat singers who work into it, she seems able to do it on the quick and at will. (Watch the band react.)

If you want to cut to the chase she does it at 6:10:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Fibonaccis: Purple Hazed

One of Los Angeles's first wave of new wave bands (1981-1987)—art punk is what Wiki calls them (I don't hear the punk)—prefiguring the lounge era's appetite for Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, Henry Mancini, John Barry, with the exotica of Martin Denny and Esquival (territory later explored by Combustible Edison, Oranj Symphonette among others). The Fibonaccis took their version of exotica and fed it through a Casiotone adding a few more spoonfuls of whimsy and retrophilia. Theirs was a post-war kind of psychedelia crossed with the spirit of Weill and Brecht on laughing gas. The quality of musicianship was high and inventive, and singer Magie Song, while of limited range, brought to the table the right amounts of theater and levity.

Their best expression of the concept may be in this version of Purple Haze, certainly worthy of a spot on your iPod:

Download: The Fibonaccis, Purple Haze

Much more of their catalog available for free download at their website,

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Does Jenny Rock? Oui.

I love the French. I mean, not the French so much as the idea of the French. They may not have invented kissing but they have as many words for it as Eskimos do for snow (bécot, baiser, bise, bisou, bouche-à-bouchecaresserembrassergalocher, patinrouler une pelle, etc.). The French word for penis? Bistouquette. Sounds delicious, no? Or this one: Chauve à col roulé. "The bald one with the turtleneck." (There's a lot more of those, too.) Masturbation? Branlage. Sounds like a dessert. And any culture that'd create a word like frottage earns my respect.

And then there's Jenny Rock reworking this Deep Purple version of a Joe South song. For this, words fail:

I've since been informed that Ms. Rock was Québécois and not French and that much of her work is a kind of banal pop in the mold of France Gall. Still...

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Yoko Still Loco

As far as I'm concerned that's a good thing. I've made my case for Yoko before but what's even more remarkable now is that she's still blowing her trademark electrocuted banshee wail at the crinkly age of 80!

With Sean in the band and her characteristic warble intact, Yoko continues to spread the hippie love and peace message 50 years later and, goddammit, bless her indefatigable spunk.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Define Yourself by What You Love

It was the mission of Jelly Roll for the Earhole to find praise and enthusiasm for those things deemed worthy of our love and to show reticence with the criticism for those not. On this point Australian comedian Tim Minchin agrees:

I see it online all of the time, people whose idea of being a part of a subculture is to hate Coldplay or football or feminists or the Liberal Party. We have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff. As a comedian I make my living out of it, but try also to express your passion for things you love. Be demonstrative and generous with your praise for those you admire. Send thank-you cards and give standing ovations. Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.