Sunday, November 30, 2014

City Noir, composed by John Adams and performed by the St. Louis Symphony

Last week it was sex and violence, but this week it’s sax and violins.  Yes, it was Robin’s turn to pick a music selection, and she went with City Noir, an album delivering a symphony called “City Noir”, and a Saxophone Concerto called “Saxophone Concerto.”  Classical music.

Robin enjoyed her choice, and latched onto the jazz elements as a guide into a work without words.  Like me, she finds it a bit beyond her conversational skills, but also like me, she finds value in the work.

If you’re looking for an informed and informative review of an important piece of music, look elsewhere.  I don’t know enough about classical music to talk about andantes or sempre or sonic references to prior artists.  At a couple points, I had to ask my more-musically-educated wife “What instrument is that?”  I’m honestly not qualified to review this CD.

But, that’s part of the challenge we took on at the beginning of the year – listen to music we don’t know and react to it.  My reactions are honest, though personal to my own level of knowledge.  If you don’t know classical music, you’re probably in my same boat, and I’ll try to describe what you’ll like and dislike if you listen to this CD.  If you do know classical music, you will bear witness to a swine contemplating pearls, for whatever that’s worth. 

Either way, you probably ought to go read the digitalbooklet that comes with the album.  John Adams, the composer, isn’t bashful about talking about his work.  He claims stuff like, “A moody trumpet solo lingers over delicate shards of harmony.“  Personally, when I read a composer waxing eloquent over his own work, it kind of cracks me up.  Go and read the entire piece, and you’ll find plenty of gems like that.  Here’s another – “In ‘The Song Is for You,’ long, languid, sometimes bluesy melodies arise out of a haze of luminous sonorities, with rippling figurations in the harps, keyboards, and vibraphone floating to the surface like smoke rings in a dark room.”

Well, alrighty then.

The composer claims that he was aiming for a movie score effect, and I really do think he achieves it.  Unfortunately, at times, I had vivid mental images of Jerry tip-toing with a mallet to clobber Tom – I’m not sure Hanna-Barbera was what he was aiming to evoke with his delicate shards of harmony, but that’s what he delivers at around 2:30 in his final track.  Other places, though, are more in tune with his effort to conjure a “film noir” feeling.

Without words to guide us, we are forced to rely on our internal references and cues to assimilate this music into our own experience.  The truth is, for me, my knowledge of classical music is limited to a few of the very basics, which I listen to mostly as background music when I’m working.  I am, I fear, a bit of an ignoramus.

That said this is enjoyable music for the most part.  John Adams writes music designed to bring pleasure, not to baffle you with discord and battling melodies.  I sincerely enjoyed listening to this album, and will listen to it from time to time in the future. 

Next up:  Ryan Adams, by Ryan Adams

Friday, November 28, 2014

Run the Jewels 2, by Run the Jewels (Album of the Week)

Robin and I had opposite problems with my selection this week, Run the Jewels 2.  Robin overcameher initial discomfort with the sex, violence, misogyny and rude language, and wound up appreciating the humor and the music.  My problem is that I too-easily enjoy the more negative aspects of the album, and, as a 54 year-old middle class white man who spends his time trying to end violence against women, I feel like I ought to be more repulsed than I truly am. 

Robin needs to engage her critical open-mindedness to enjoy the music.  I need to engage my better self to dislike it.

The first song is pure swagger, boasting about how other rappers are “vaginas”, and toting two guns, and claiming that they are the “closest representation to God that you might see”.  By the way, I didn’t know that “llamas” is a term for guns – my grasp of slang is highly dependent on services like Rap Genius.

The second song starts with “Fuck the law, they can eat my dick” and proceeds to glorify violence, to the point of saying “fuck that bitch” while referring to a mother crying over the casket of a child that the rapper killed.  It’s not nice stuff.

The third song sums it all up – “This Run the Jewels is murder, mayhem, melodic music.”  There’s no getting around it – this music is intentionally provocative and violent.  It objectifies women, though, in a puerile form of equality, Gangsta Boo returns the favor in “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”. 

I won’t cop out and claim some high-minded intellectual interest in the anthropology of “urban youth”, as if “they” are some tribe to be studied.  I won’t claim to see some sophisticated satire going on here, in which the strutting and posting is really a poignant social commentary secretly calling for peace, love and understanding. 

I won’t even claim that I like the music despite the lyrics – that the complicated rhythms and inventive sounds somehow overcome my high-minded distaste for the vulgar words.  “If they would just remix it so they used the 23rd Psalm as their lyrics, that would be divine.” 

No.  The reason I like this music is that, absurd as it obviously is, it searches out and liberates the tiny little youthful ghetto thug that exists in this generally kind, well-adjusted, upper-middle-aged, privileged, peace-loving, corpulent white man who would never in a million years participate in the things these guys talk about doing. 

There’s an atavistic impulse that understands the fantasy of being the toughest muthafucka walking down the middle of the street intimidating everyone and flipping off the cops.  Not just understands it, but shares it.  Wrap those thoughts in a thumping bass line and percussion that rattles like gunfire, and you wind up with a meek and mild guy like me feeling like there’s a badass still alive somewhere. 

I shouldn’t like it.  It’s embarrassing to even admit that it’s true.  That’s not a side of anybody’s character that needs or deserves nourishment.  Worse, I believe that this music could, in fact, sharpen the edge of someone less dull than I have become.  If a younger, tougher me listened to a steady stream of it, and someone bumped into me in a bar, I think I’d be more inclined to react aggressively than I was back in those days, when I was listening to the Cars and Elvis Costello.

Yes, I think this music fosters aggression and misogyny.  But I like it.  How awful is that?  

Next up: City Noir, composed by John Adams and performed by the St. Louis Symphony 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What I Mean When I Say I’m Not Really a Beatles Fan

Yet another Beatle’s fan has exploded in indignation because someone, somewhere, has dared to doubt the absolute preeminence of the mop tops.  A certain tender nerve can be found near the surface of dedicated Beatles fans, making them overly sensitive and even a bit dramatic when the memory of their band catches anything less than breathless adulation. 

Because they’re so touchy, let me be crystal clear in addressing my Beatles-loving friends.  I do not particularly like the Beatles.  I believe that they are over-rated when they are called “the best”, “the most important”, or “the most influential” band in rock history.

As you drop to your fainting couches out there, and before you respond in the full froth of righteous indignation, please reread the last two sentences of the prior paragraph.  I am not saying that they suck, that they are awful, or even that any particular band is demonstrably better than they are.  I’m not even really claiming that they are always over-rated, since the “over-rated” label depends on what rating we’re talking about. 

A lot of this is a matter of taste.  The fact that you love the Beatles is fine with me, and it’s okay if you don’t particularly like my favorite bands.  I won’t insist that you kowtow to the supremacy of the Rolling Stones, Kanye, or even the Supremes.  Fans of other bands generally don’t share your insistence on fealty. 

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm is rooted in my particular experience - I grew up surrounded by the Beatles.  When I was a kid, anyone with a guitar strummed the life out of their catalog, and songs like “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” bored the hell out of me by the thousandth listen over speakers in doctors’ waiting rooms, fabric stores, and, yes, elevators.  Perhaps you have more positive associations with your introduction to the Beatles, but, truly, honestly, literally, many of those songs are elevator music to me.  That doesn’t mean that I’m somehow correct when my stomach lurches a bit when I hear the first clunky strains of “Yellow Submarine”, but the thrill you apparently manage to feel is not contagious.  At all. 

I prefer other music.  I can happily tap my foot along to several Beatles songs, but I prefer other music.  I don’t say that to hurt your feelings, nor do I think that I have thus proven that your love of the Beatles is therefore a sham

“But, but, but,” I can hear you start to stammer.  And then you follow it with some superlative, delivered with all the authority of John Houseman playing Professor Kingsfield.  Let’s take some of the more popular superlatives and address them singly.  If you have others that you would like to discuss, please email them to me.

“They are the most influential rock band ever.”  How, exactly, would one define “influential” in this context?  It seems to me that Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were influential, too.  I’m not going to name names, but it wasn’t me who claimed “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'.”  Influence is a pretty slippery concept to make into a superlative.  I might step back to Muddy Waters if I were forced at gunpoint to assign “most influential” to anyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the trigger got pulled, because Bob Dylan was pretty influential, too, and hundreds of others.   If you want to grant that title to the Beatles, I suppose you’re free to do so, but don’t expect anyone to be convinced, okay?

“They are the most important rock band ever.”  Umm, not to me.  How do you even mean that?  If you mean that they are the most influential, see above.  If you mean that they took music in directions it never would have ventured, I think you’re just wrong about that.  Some poor schmuck was going to bring a sitar back from India, unfortunately enough.  If you mean that, back in their prime, they could fill stadiums, you’re correct, but that’s pretty weak tea, I think. 

I guess that does lead me to an area where I can agree with a superlative about the Beatles.  It is true that they sold more records than anyone else.  That’s truly impressive, but let’s not go too far with extrapolating that atatistic into broader claims of supremacy.   Celine Dion has sold a lot more records than Neil Young, and Abba’s top album has sold more than the Beatles’ top album – in the UK!  I’m with you in rolling my eyes at that fact, but there you go. 

By all means, the Beatles were a popular band, and I’ll even agree that they were a very good band in terms of merit.  I’d certainly put them somewhere in my top 25 band of all time, but I won’t be bullied by those who get strident and hysterical in their insistence that they are the preeminent band of all time. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

1989, by Taylor Swift (Album of the Week)

This week, Robin and I listened to Taylor Swift’s “1989”, an album that represents a whole pop universe that is parallel to our own.  1989 was 25 years ago, a quarter century to me, but the entire lifetime to Taylor Swift.  That’s right – Taylor Swift is younger than our children, and by 1989 we were already living at our current address. 

I started off by rolling my eyes at this pretty pop confection produced by a slick marketing team featuring a starlet who has been pushing herself forward for a spot on the stage since before she was 14.  How is someone who won’t celebrate her 25th birthday for a few more weeks (12/13) supposed to win over a 54 year-old man who doesn’t even read the tabloids she lives in?

After a week of listening to this slickly produced, expertly marketed pop, I’m here to tell you, the kids are better than just alright, they’re pretty amazing.  Taylor Swift has a fantastic voice with great range, and the songs are clever, catchy, and enjoyable. 

I expected this album to be shallow, gossipy and absolutely without grit.  I just didn’t expect it to be so darned enjoyable.

In looking at some of the other reviews of this album, I see how utterly out-of-it I am.  Apparently, a more knowledgeable critic would have picked up on the Lana Del Ray influences in “Wildest Dreams”, but, to do so, I would need to know who s/he is.  Similarly, the references to Harry Styles (a new name to me, but I’m amused) in “Out of the Woods” flew right over my head.  Did you know that “Bad Blood” exists between Taylor Swift and Katie Perry, and, now apparently, Katie Perry’s boyfriend “Diplo”?

Listening to 1989 without a thorough knowledge of tabloid news is analogous to reading T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” without a working knowledge of classical literature.

Am I working toward a sneer here?  Am I comparing one T. S. to another in an attempt to belittle the latter?  Perhaps, just a tiny bit, because that is what grumpy middle-aged English majors do, but not entirely.  The point is a legitimate one – both works of art occur in a specific context, and your appreciation of the work can expand if the references buried in the work resonate. 

You don’t need to know whom Harry Styles is to enjoy “Out of the Woods”.  You don’t need to make sense of every line of the lyrics to bob your head to the catchy sound or the fun vocal embellishments.  This is fun music, and it’s easy to enjoy, whether you catch the references or not.

I'm not quite sure how to take Robin's review of the album. She enjoys the music, but she's not sure she could pick Taylor Swift out of the Top 40 line-up. 

Here are some tips for people of my generation trying to listen to Taylor Swift’s 1989.  Don’t look for grit – this album is high-gloss.  Don’t try to understand all the lyrics – some of them require cultural knowledge you most likely don’t have.  Finally, don’t fight the electronic drums, or the synthesized sounds, or the highly processed vocals – relax and let technology take you for the ride.  1989 is a truly excellent album by a talented musician working in the pop mode.  Enjoy it.

Next up: RTJ2, by Run the Jewels

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Everything Will be Alright in the End, by Weezer (Album of the Week)

           Despite all the smart-aleck lyrics, the nerdy image, the high-flying concepts, and even the not-quite-punk posing, Weezer is truly about the music.  Thumping bass, anthematic guitars, drums – this is just solid rock with bass-driven rhythm that hooks the ear.  Only in Dreams” is perhaps the song that best captures what I loved about the old Weezer, and this album brings something similar.  After listening to the new jolt of old Weezer intently for a week, that’s what I keep coming back to – the music is just so damned appealing, I could live off that bass and rhythm guitar. 

            Like me, Robin pens her satisfaction with the album’s new/old direction over at Deliberate Obfuscation.  We try not to talk much about our impressions of the albums during the week, so it was fun to read how much we both appreciated coming back to a group we had ignored during some apparently rough patches.

            This album serves as a welcome back to a band that kind of disappeared for a while.  They burst onto the scene back in 1994 with the catchy and clever “Sweater Song” and came out with a few really good albums, but, at least for me, they faded from consciousness.  In researching this review, I see that they came out with a few albums that appear to be aimed at a more commercial sound, but they didn’t work. 

            I’m not a professional music reviewer.  Nobody pays me to listen to albums that don’t work.  I’m also not such a huge fan of anyone that I will reflexively go out and buy their next album if I don’t hear something good about it from a trusted voice.  So bad albums from good bands pretty much don’t exist for me. 

            Despite my inherent forgiveness borne of ignorance, Weezer starts off this album with hand-wringing nightmares about guitars being dead, and the second song, “Back to the Shack” is a full-out apology for straying from their audience and promises to be “More hardcore/Rockin’ out like it’s ‘94”. 

            All this would be as annoying as hell if it weren’t for the great, power-pop music.  The guitars are ringing, the bass is thumping out the direction, and shut up about the excuses and don’t bore me with the explanations – just catch me up in the beat and all is forgiven.  Even better than forgiven, it’s forgotten.  Even better than forgotten, I never even listened to your apparently misguided “Raditude” album, so we’re fine.  What’s the next bass line?

            If you’re wanting to be a bit more intellectual than I am about this album, you will find material to mine.  Lead singer Rivers Cuomo gives us a brief update on his life in “Back to the Shack”: “finally settled down with my girl and I made up with my dad/I had to go and make a few mistakes so I could find out who I am.”  Nice to know, River – how’s the weather?  “The British are Coming,” track 6, warns of yet another British invasion, and promises to greet the “Punk ass redcoats” with force. 

DaVinci, track 7, is more trademark Weezer cleverness, finding Cuomo “at a loss for words” trying to describe his mysterious girlfriend, whom he can’t find even on
Even Da Vinci couldn't paint you
Stephen Hawking can't explain you
Rosetta Stone could not translate you
You have to give Cuomo credit – he is a clever lyricist.

            For me, though, the key is the music, and two of the last three tracks are instrumentals that, to me, seem like a satisfying scratch to the “put up or shut up” itch that Weezer triggered in its earlier promises to return to its roots.  Here, for your listening pleasure, is the final track of the album, full of the guitar, bass and drums that make me love Weezer.

Next up: 1989, by Taylor Swift