Friday, March 25, 2011

The FMDP: Aspen-Serenade

The FMDP's back!

This time around, Frances and I are exploring the composition Aspen-Serenade by Darius Milhaud. It's performed on this Everest LP by a group called the Milhaud Ensemble, under the direction of the composer.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

P2P1: Double Live

I present the debut this week of an exciting, backlog-clearing new feature of the FPE: the P2P Series! That's "Platter-to-Platter". Frances picks albums at ten times the rate I write about them, so I'm doubling up. P2P: it's head-to-head as brother contends with brother, rock goes mano a mano with folk, and judgments are continually spared in the spirit of "yeah, whatever man" that you've come to know and love. The FPE tolerates and respects all records, no matter how odious.

This week: P2P1. Donovan goes up against Lou Reed in an entry that shares its name with an awesome Butthole Surfers album: Double Live*. I'll let the unnamed announcer from the beginning of the Donovan album set the stage...

If I can wend my way through the flowers here... Welcome to the phenomenon of Donovan. (Applause) I say phenomenon for various reasons which you'll see tonight. Uh, in particular a few weeks ago KRLA was proud to present Donovan in his first concert at the Hollywood Bowl - some of you were probably there, right? (Enthusiastic applause) If you were there, you're well aware of this story, for those of you who weren't there I think you'll find it interesting. Donovan came out on stage, and it started to rain. And he said if everybody claps their hands it'll stop raining. So everybody applauded and it stopped raining. When he left the stage it rained again. Call him what you will, he is a phenomenon.

If you needed further proof, there it is folks:


Donovan came to America in 1967 and it blew his mind. He had already blown America's mind cause he was the grooviest, magicalest cat out there. The overlay of Scot on his accent fed the dreams of millions of teens, especially girls, as his tales of life in the eternally now, mystical forever age shaped the love-drunk tone of the pop culture. The documents escaping his native UK for three years had begun an evolution from faery Dylanite to singular prophet of the age. Once the early, super-Dylany recordings had been thoroughly disseminated throughout the land, and joined by two domestic albums (Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow) showing a rocket to maturity and artistic independence, it was time to tour the States. The album Donovan in Concert was recorded in a huge venue in California - a convention center, actually - during this tour.

(Incidentally, the recording date is just 38 days after the birth of his son Donovan Jr. I wonder when he left for the tour? (The announcer at the beginning of the album places him in LA "a few weeks ago".) I wonder if he was thinking about his little baby boy. He probably was, a lot. Also incidentally, Donovan's dad, Donald Leitch, was on tour with him - the new grandpa comes out on stage at the beginning of the show to introduce his son, the groovy cosmic love prophet who was himself a new dad. Family.)

How do I know America blew Donovan's mind? You can tell from the liner notes, rendered in his charming scrawl:

And though I am back in the green land of Celt where Dame Spring sings I think upon the beautiful concerts. Swimming in silence of our making me and you shared.

I mostly saw airports hotels and concerts. I did spend a pleasant time in Malibu on the beach. Whilst flying I saw the vast deserts of your land and when I saw the painting "Desert Journey" by Fleur Cowles I was reminded. The painting is on the front. The music on the record is the concerts in the cities. The desert is over which I flew...

The painting is two birds on a rock, suspended in a blue sky over a desert plain. Ok now my mind is starting to get blown. So tripped out!

The music is great. It's the sound of this guy just discovering the limitless vistas that have opened for his creative potential, once he's opened his mind to different kinds of sounds, and the public has acclaimed his genius and caused the money to start flowing freely. Using a small backing combo of flute, sax, piano, bass, percussion, and his own guitar and harmonica (and a string quartet on one song), he experiments with genres (including most obviously and jarringly, jazz) and brand-new songs (including lots of stuff from his album A Gift from a Flower to a Garden which hadn't been released at the time of the concert). The pop hits are limited to two: a pretty lame version of "There Is a Mountain" (he just chugs away at this repetitive, boring figure on the guitar for the whole song - this never was my favorite Donovan jam anyway) and a rocking closer of "Mellow Yellow" (in which he augments the lyrics: "I'm just mad about fourteen year-old girls and they're mad about me". I know, this skirts close to ickyland - but you gotta remember, it was the 60s, practically the whole decade was icky, and really I think it's just Donovan throwing a bone, as it were, to a demographic that was really, demonstrably mad about him). Mounting a high-profile concert tour at the height of your pop-star breakthrough that's filled with non-hits, unfamiliar songs and marginally cool stylistic experiments is ballsy.

Some of the experiments don't produce good results. The fuck-the-man old-timey number "Rules and Regulations" is too lame for words - don't even get me started on hippies and vaudeville - and the jazz song doesn't do it for me, but even with the bad moments I think this album is great. I love how it opens, after Mr. Square Announcer-man and Donovan's Dad say their little bits, with one of his deepest of deep cuts, "Isle of Islay", and just thrusts you into dark, intimate, mystic fingers on strings for thousands of miles expanding water through time and seagulls. I love how it's a concert so you're that one step closer to the guy, you hear the sounds that went through the air in Anaheim that day forty-four years ago, there's no studio to mediate the music and give it the overdubs. I'm a musical perfectionist myself, so I know how it is to be the one behind the music, the urge to insulate yourself with the perfection of a slaved-over Document. There's a candor to the Live Album that sets it out from the canon of the Artist, that renders it incapable of being a fully realized statement of the music; rather it's an alternate version, a sub-optimal realization, a live "version" of the Artist's pure, studio-crafted vision. Like I said, I'm in the perfect-vision camp myself, so I don't go for the live records so much, but I really enjoy it when I find one that augments the way I understand the artist, and gives me the Thousand-Mile Fingers and the Seagulls.

The other Live Album in my Frances Picked It pile, Donovan in Concert's contender in P2P1, is Rock n Roll Animal by Lou Reed, a 1974 release, and if I'm not mistaken, the first Lou Reed album I ever got. (When I was a kid, I was actually really into live albums - something about extended guitar solos maybe? 10-minute jams to lose your mind?) It was definitely the first time I had heard any of these five songs, four of which are by his old band, who of course are like, the best band, totally seriously, great band man. Really awesome. So the VU jams on here are "White Light/White Heat", "Heroin", "Rock 'n' Roll" and "Sweet Jane" - the last two of these I wouldn't get around to hearing the VU versions of till I was a total grownup, like maybe only about ten years ago or less. But it's funny, knowing these songs as I do now in their pure, studio-mediated forms, the forms in which they were first presented to the world and which most who care about such things would consider definitive, to hear these thick slabs of explosions of arena-rock monstrosities and experience them the way I did twenty-five years ago when I first heard them: "Sweet Jane is an AWESOME ROCK SONG!!!"

It kinda is, I mean it's got a mean hook and stuff but you'd never know it until the sick rock combo Lou put together to tour with after his thinky band broke up teased out the riffs and tricked out the jams and amped it up to eleven. This record is all crunch and riffs and guitar solos. I hate guitar solos. I think it's a little bit of jazz that escaped into rock in the 60s to dress up the three chords that Chuck Berry had bequeathed, emphasizing instrumental technique without adding any interest. That's right. "To rock" is actually "to jazz", where "to jazz" means "to noodle". (It's also "to poet", which makes me wonder why I even bother with rock music. I don't these days, as much as I used to, at least not if it's got a lot of poetry and guitar solos in it.) But this record kinda rules anyway, cause even though I hate the idea of guitar solos, and poetry, I don't always hate them in practice, depending on the context, you know, and these songs are all great in the riff/chord/harmony/anthem department. The Lou Reed deadpan is nice too cause it doesn't let the poetry get out of control.

Rock n Roll Animal crunches up the gnarl, and smooths the rough by crunching - you dig? "Rock and Roll", the VU chestnut from Loaded, rocks on this record, jamming out its ten minutes with a manic, simplistic figure that's got the primal simplicity to erase your mind and your ass will follow (maybe this is what Donovan was trying to tap into with that boring arrangement of "There Is a Mountain" - good thing Donovan knew enough to steer clear of the bonehead mostly and leave the rocking to the rockers). I think Lou always had this desire inside him to rock super hard and wicked long, but you can tell he's a creative guy who wants to think a lot too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those desires oppose each other. "To rock" is "to riff" and "to bonehead" - the "to jazz" that the guitar solos added to the meaning of rock is really just a way of extending length and bombast without generating new musical material. It takes a special kind of creativity to draw inspiration from the rigidity that is rock, merge it with a desire to perpetrate art, and use that dialectic to forge an oeuvre that brings something new to the table, even as it moves units.

In conclusion, then, the results of P2P1:

Reed crunches up the gnarl, while Leitch lays down the mystic trips. Reed makes a big crunchy rock album to kick start a career in the mopes, while Leitch shrinks an arena to fit the intimacy of his far-reaching vision, riding the crest of his stardom. Reed uses the concert to give the people what they are desperate for, and so does Leitch. Rock n roll, the phenomenon that is Donovan. Welcome!

*There's a song on Double Live called "Lou Reed". Also, the Butthole Surfers do a Donovan cover on one of their other albums. They are the missing link between Donovan and Lou Reed, apparently.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

It Is Not What It Is Not

I met this guy on an airplane a few hours ago. He was carrying an instrument case that I guessed contained a clarinet, so I asked him, "Is that a clarinet?". Turns out it was a trumpet. He was returning to New York City from Fort Worth, Texas, where he had been invited to preach. This guy was a Seventh Day Adventist pastor (I was like "Oh, so you must be vegetarian then." After that, my store of knowledgeable things to say about the Seventh Day Adventists was pretty much tapped). He was carrying the trumpet because he uses it in his ministry - he said he usually starts out the sermon with some solo trumpet stuff.

We exchanged a lot of ideas about music, what with him being a musical pastor and me being a music theorist / composer / recommender / archivist / whatever it is that I do. I got the sense that for him, music was a sacred space, a touchpoint between the physical and spiritual, between the earthly and divine. It inhabits both spheres simultaneously. It is a time out of time. Or maybe that's what it is for me, and talking to this man just helped me to define it in those terms.

I was in awe of this man. He explained to me that he had grown up Presbyterian, but had attended some Seventh Day Adventist (do they call it SDA? I'm gonna call it that, if it keeps coming up) meetings when he was on a spiritual search in his early 20s, and one thing that particularly attracted him to this faith was its emphasis on health and the body.

It seems to me that seeing music as a sacred space between worlds provides an insight into the health/body aspect of SDA. Like, the body is the essence of the physical, yet too it is our spirit's manifestation in this world, the seat of our consciousness, and as such can be seen as another gateway to the divine. If the divine has chosen to manifest itself in this body, then we in turn can honor that nature by choosing to nurture and sustain it, using the knowledge we have of its working to maximize the realization of good work that it can do while it moves in the physical plane under our stewardship.

I explained a little about my job. I work for a company that develops search and recommendations technology for content providers in music, TV and video. I enjoy this because I'm fascinated to explore the individual relationships that people have with music. I'm happy with it because, in a small way, I am helping to make people happy, and enhance their lives.

He said, this is a ministry.

Well gosh! I guess I'm blessed then. Creating music recommendations is a ministry, and I get to do it. That means my daughter Frances has a ministry, too - the FPE. She recommends music for me. This week, I continue the work I began last time of clearing out the L's and M's that she selected at the FPE's inception, with this winner:


Frances isn't the only person who has recommended this CD to me. I received it in the mail some years ago from a friend who said, "I am sending this with the thought that you might crack yourself up with this thing... track 2 is the one".

Track 2 is "Messiah", and these are the lyrics:

I have broken the seal
I can no longer think, I can only feel
I can ride to a blinding night
There is something going on here

I am the sigh that makes you cry
Hold on
I am the one that makes you numb
Hold on

I have broken the seal
I can no longer touch, only feel
I can leave this world when I may
Let the star guide you

Chorus a few times

Messiah... messiah... messiah... messiah

I'm trying to find something to grab onto in there, but it's all just vague Collective Soul-y-ness. I think I'll try to write a 90s alterna-rock song now. Here goes:

If it is what it is
Then it's not what it's not, then, too
I long for it too
She is a mad monk

Grab me!
Put your head in a vice
Drag me!
Don't make me say it twice

It is not what I am not
And you are not there too
We long for it too
Her hair entwines the grass

Chorus a few times

Lama... lama... lama... lama

So there we go - I cracked myself up, and all because of the Lufa CD! Mission accomplished.

(The musical vagueness beautifully complements the lyrical vagueness. Bland post-grunge un-hooks meander, punctuated by an occasional uplifting guitar solo. When those solos kick in they could almost be Dinosaur Jr. for a minute - and then when the solo's over and it's time for the next song, I hear a lingering Mascis tang in the gray guitar rock, and I'm struck by how much Dinosaur Jr. actually sounds like Collective Soul, except with way better vocals.)

Lufa. Why these guys? Why now? Why ever? Their complete unremarkableness is the inevitable reality with which I must contend. These goofy, slouchy teens from an affluent Massachusetts town are tonight's manifestation of a deluge of boring guitar rock. I know it's out there, so many people spent the 90s and the 00s documenting its existence and blasting it from their dorms that no one can deny the reality of post-grunge. Lufa are the thing you mean when you say, post-grunge, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. I try to write around them, to describe with categorizations and comparisons, but with each name I drop and bucket I invoke I only push myself further and further away from their particular flavor of lame, uplifting vagueness. Can I reach into this music and pull something out? Why must they be what they are? Why can't they be Dinosaur Jr.? If they were Dinosaur Jr., I would not listen to them ever, but I would enjoy them when I did. What if they were Collective Soul? Well then, I would hear them now and again on the radio, and think to myself how lame they sounded, and then congratulate myself for liking Dinosaur Jr. They are Lufa, and I'm listening to them now, and I don't like their music very much. How silly all this is. We like what affirms our own reality.

So my friend sent me this CD and in doing so he ministered to me. He pulled a little bit of flotsam from the stream and blessed me with it. It didn't matter what it was, of course, any missive would be such a blessing, but the paradox is that it was Lufa and it couldn't have mattered more what it was, because that's all that it was, and that's all that it is.

Peace on earth...