Sunday, November 16, 2014

Music That Matters, Pt 24

242) Dengue Fever, Sni Bong, Lost in LaosEthanopium: Two California brothers infatuated with '70s Cambodian rock, scour clubs in Long Beach's Little Phnem Penh for a vocalist to sing the music in its native Khmer. Serendipity brings them to the recently immigrated (and coincidently gorgeous) Chhom Nimoi.

Further down the road, the band would expand its sound and include English language originals into the mix but I prefer their take on the Khmer. Their sound is constructed from a spy movie small combo owing more to John Barry than Southeast Asia. While there are heavy dollops of surf guitar, sci-fi keyboards, and lounge-y saxophone, the sound is much more than cocktails and retrophilia. Listen to Sni Bong below and note how the sum can be much more than mere fawning tribute (though, they can do that too) and unsubtle irony – a characteristic that handicapped much of the '90s Lounge fad. They succeed because they approach their source material with the sincerity of dedicated musicologists rather than with the fatuousness of winking hipsters or cultural tourists: Global Lounge Music for the post-ironic.

Lost In Laos by Dengue Fever on Grooveshark Ethanopium by Dengue Fever on Grooveshark
243) Black Orpheus OST: Released in 1959 during the height of a global Bossa Nova craze, this soundtrack included what would become three iconic standards of the form. Whether you're familiar with the album or movie, you no doubt know the melodies. Once, I was smitten with a girl who had this album. She was an adorable little thing with a cool record collection, dark wavy hair, and a hot temper. She left her CD copy at my apartment after a visit and then broke up with me. I always thought I'd hear from her again, bleating plaintively over how much she missed me, but – alas, when she called it was only to get her disc back. She told me I could mail it to her. "Get yo' mama to mail it to you" was what I should of said. I thought of sending it to her with the disk broken in half. But, I didn't. In the end, even though my brain knew we could never work, my heart was left in the magician's blade box and forgot to duck. Needless to say, the music oozes memories for me. But you, you're fortunate: You can listen to it ooze-free.

 244) Tim Buckley, Starsailor: Buckley's recording career spanned nine studio albums. Recording his first album when he was 19, he offered a noir-ish take on modern folk, serviceable but unexceptional: By the time he reached six albums in, Buckley had become another creature entirely. Eschewing the generic folk for an avant jazziness, singing with more passion and improvisation, his songs taking flight over exotic meters, dissonant chords, and lycanthropic vocal sounds all set between stabs of eery beauty. But this Starsailor persona, which had evolved slowly through his previous albums, was all but abandoned by its follow-up. From there, his later albums would sound like he was more focused on chasing commercial prospects. Like a parabolic peak, Starsailor stands as his culmination and masterpiece. Other erstwhile folkies of the time also spawned their experiments with jazziness – Ellen McIlwaine, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison. But none of them took to their voice to the places that Buckley did: going hard bop and treating his voice like Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy would treat a saxophone, pitching wildly and going feral. Recorded in 1970, Starsailor still stands as a grand experiment and a unwithering classic.

245) Vivabeat, Working for William: A synth band with guitar and drums like the way they used to do ca. '79. Man from China was their moment of glory but I prefer Working for William for its more oblique and melancholy vibe. The band had Roxy Music, Bowie, and early Sparks running in its veins and Peter Gabriel at their back (he helped to get them signed) but it was their ability to hammer out deep hooks that have abided so well. The Caribbean accents were a nice touch.

246) Cream, Dance the Night Away, As You Said, Doing that Scrapyard Thing: It's said The Yardbirds weren't blues enough for Clapton and that may explain the short and illustrious life of Cream as well. While Cream owned a few blues covers, and produced an album's worth of great singles, the further the band got away from the blues is where the true radiance of their genius lived. Jack Bruce stands today as a woefully underrated composer and at least part of that success goes to his lyricist, poet Peter Brown. As these songs show, Cream was startlingly versatile, eclectic, and literate. Even with all of their legend and platinum sales its hard to overemphasize their golden "it"-ness. In Cream's aftermath, Jack Bruce would follow up with a couple of laudable solo albums but nothing that compared to his work here. I imagine the combined torsion of their three uneasy personalities had something to do with it. (Apparently, Ginger and Jack didn't get along so well.) Like lovers capable of great sex who only make each other unhappy, there was art in their dysfunction. Shame they couldn't find more tolerance for the tension once the boots were pulled back on. As You Said still amazes me every time.

 247) The Decemberists, The Wanting Comes in Waves – Repaid: The band claims influences from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Morrissey, and the 60s British folk revival. No mere nostalgists, The Decembrists bring some new meat to the musical abattoir. The arrangement adds blues riffery, punk noise, and spunky energy with generous vocal assistance from Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). Altogether it adds up to a sweet and jagged slice of pie.

248) Trilogue, Trilogue: Albert Mangelsdorff was a German trombonist who blew chords. And not just chords, but a polyphonic sound that churns like a church organ. In 1976 he recorded an album with the rhythm section from Hell in the persons of Alphonse Mouzon and Jaco Pastorious. The tunes are all Mangelsdorff's and the even though the rhythm makers are there for support, they can't help themselves: Mouzon's sticks strut like fairy flamenco dancers on nitromethane while "World's Greatest Bass Player" Pastorious inflicts calisthenic squiggling, bending and sliding sounds through treacherous angles, all held earthbound by his bass's lead-dense chords and tar-like harmonics. Like a pimp that just got paid, Pastorious's bass lines don't walk, they swag. Elsewhere, the trombone and bass bounce off of each other like choruses of brontosaurian farting, weaving grooves together with Celtic knots of intricacy. These cats can rage, taking Carl Stalling interludes and mewing like elephants and whales. Trilogue is a swinging kind of cosmic funk that sweeps jazz into new and transcendent triangulations.

249) Shirley Bassey, Goldfinger: The early Bond films were nearly as much about the theme song as they were the Ian Fleming's plots. The James Bond vamp is probably one of the best things to ever happen to pop music. In this iteration, a quintessential John Barry melody props up a classic Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse lyric, brassed up with those amazing horn blasts, and all given the proper cinematic push with the considerable capacity of Welsh-born Shirley Bassey's voice. With lungs like a leaf blower, Dame Bassey seems to sing only in 72-point exclamation points. Match this with the ecstatic pneumatics of a vibrato with the horsepower of four Judy Garlands in a paint shaker. A voice that provides the ultimate foil for a Bond villain squeezed here into the ultimate Bond theme song.

250) Wire, Pink Flag: For me, punk was a brilliant flash. Before it's value quickly disintegrated into a spewing sea of mediocrity, there were but a handful of towering classics: Never Mind the Bollocks, Ramones, Funhouse, New York Dolls and maybe a couple of others that escape me now. Add this one to the heap: Since its release in 1977, Pink Flag album has enjoyed drooling gallons of hyperbolic praise. Its sound is characterized by extraordinary confidence and an aesthetic so minimalist that it pushes toward asceticism. Pink Flag uses many of the sonics and tools of the first Ramones album yet adds much more color, tension, and subtlety. If there was such a thing as punk evangelism then the Ramones were its street corner preachers and Wire its temple monks. Much of the music of the '80s that followed would attempt to defy this type of taut minimalism and that may explain why so much of it is so hard to listen to now.

251) Flamin' Groovies, Shake Some Action: You'd have thought their sound came up from along the gray waters of the Mersey – just in case you missed it, they advertise their Anglophilia on the album cover – but no: they were from San Francisco. A critics darling band whose albums too quickly ended up in the cut-out bins (remember those?). I picked all of mine up for next to nothing. Didn't listen to them much as I remember. But then this: Shake Some Action. A beautifully sculpted monster.

252) Anthony Newley, The Man Who Makes You Laugh: Cabaret singer extraordinaire and seminal influence on young David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, Anthony Newley was the epitome of the "song stylist." Not one to simply gesticulate and mug for emphasis, Anthony Newley staged every beat of his performances and wrung every nuance out of a song from glee to pathos and and back again. You have to credit those fuzzy bustling hedgerows of his eyebrows for doing half the work. But the real magic is when he does that thing with his voice where he mouth gapes open wide, his pitch defenestrates like a greased bandit making an escape, and his vibrato breaks into storm-sized swells. Besides being a major pop singer in England in the late 50s and early 60s, Newley is the cowriter (mostly lyrics) of many a classic including What Kind of Fool Am I, GoldfingerThe Joker, the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack as well as writing a couple of successful musicals with partner Leslie Bricusse. While all of that is impressive enough, it's his genius as a stylist of his own songs that gives him immortality. The Man Who Makes You Laugh is the perfect Newley storm and a song that only he could sing.

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