Tag Archives: music review

I want to like bluegrass. I have failed.

I want to like folkie bluegrass music.  I really do.  I love the artistry, love the sound of the mandolin.  I’m impressed by virtuoso playing.  I like the melancholia.  I love Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, the old farts.  I like old country, The Carter Family, even Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn.  I want to like what’s coming out now.  I keep trying, I do.  But I keep getting bored.

I feel like I’m betraying my roots to say so.  But I can rarely get past a second listen of most bluegrass albums.  They’re so damned repetitious.  They emphasize the playing over the songwriting, over the words, and I ultimately can’t stand the way the same riffs come up over and over again.  And they bring to mind the folk clubs where I’ve seen these musicians.   They are staid, respectful places, full of intense listening, ponytails, very few whoops and hollers, and no dancing.  This isn’t what it was supposed to be about.

I was curious about what some women bluegrass players were up to, and I received in the mail some CDs to review.  Man, I wanted to like them, I really did try.  And I did, first listen.  Sometimes, I was blown away at the sheer energy and technique.  But as I played them again, I was just left sort of empty and even vaguely depressed by the fact that I wanted just…more. 

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Corinne West is a bluegrass player whose CD Second Sight left me neutral. Her musicianship–her picking–impressed me; her lyrics and the repetitious nature of the songs kind of…bored me on later listens. She seems sweet and sincere, likely kind, and this abundance of honey ultimately disinterested me.  Maybe I have too much punk in my background, but if I’m going to listen to bluegrassy folk, I want the smart, mean edge of Richard Thompson or the sheer transcendent voice of Sandy Denny.  I’ll want something truly melancholic, angry like Lila Downs.  (The contrast was apparent on West’s Spanish language song “La Macorina,” which seemed to be nearly recited, without feeling.  I kept thinking what that song would be with Lila’s sad silk tones).  A bluegrass purist would say, “Well, clearly you’ve just cited musicians that are hardly real bluegrass.”  That’s the problem, folks.  Bluegrass isn’t pure, ought not to be pure–it’s always been a big hodgepodge of the down and out backwoods rural culture.  It ought not to be held into artificial boundaries.  Corinne West is beautifully accurate, controlled, positive, and I wanted something to slip.

All that said, if you like extremely energetic banjo picking, she’s got it in a song like “Gandy Dancer,” where the notes scatter all over up and down; I just blocked out her voice and paid attention to the pickin’.  That’s the best way to approach music like this.  If you like pretty, check out “Second Sight,” with its “needle and its eye—yi–yi–“ refrain.  Each individual song demonstrates intricate prettiness, and is best played in a mix of more adventurous tones by other people.  As a whole, her CD becomes monotonous.Second Sight

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Shifting into a more country vein, let’s talk Rhonda Vincent.  Wow.  Now here’s a chick that scares me.  She is an “All American Bluegrass Girl,” with all that this may mean–she’s the real thing.  She’s patriotic as hell, she’s “proud of where she’s been,” which is Missouri.  She’s immersed in the Grand Ol’ Opry tradition, which is kind of cool, given the way country music seems to have let go of its bluegrass/true twang roots.  There’s a lot of Southern kick-ass defensiveness, and, as I said, people like this scare the hell out of me.  I have the same background, and they always seem to be pissed off at me.  I think that Rhonda would be, too–somehow I don’t think this is a lady who’d move to Denver and drink espresso in the chrome coffeehouses the way I like to do.  So….I respect Rhonda Vincent.  She’s a true believer–she’s not saying this All American crap to get over–she really, and I mean really, supports the servicemen while picking like a madwoman.  There’s also the occasional gospel, as on “Jesus Built a Bridge to Heaven,” a pleasant, rocking song that is nice but unexceptional.  But she never loses her  energy–a song like “Ashes of St. Augustine” on All American Bluegrass Girl skips along all of the hard-driving spectrum.  In fact, many of her songs on this CD hit this breakneck pace–so much so that it’s exhausting.  Rhonda, calm down once in awhile, hon, we know you can play.   So I was thinking.

            Rhonda takes a more melancholic tone in Good Thing Going, her new CD on the trad folkie label Rounder Records.  Her voice and its slippery twang take off on “I’m Leaving,” even getting into a little yodel.  The song “I Give All My Love to You” is a country ballad, but pretty boring (“it’s you and me together/but today I’ll make you mine”–yuck!).  “Just One of Kind” starts out with the line “within the prison of my soul/locked within my troubled mind” and goes on to talk about the “plain old fashioned boy.”  Okay, I’m thinking that this is a bid for big Nashville success, and as good as all that vocal work and fingerwork I have to say, er, please no.  Give me that old style mania.

I’ve found myself wanting to hear a simpler kind of country music.  And as much as I like Gillian Welch, I don’t mean her.  She’s too sophisticated, urban.  I’m meaning the gritty, pissy stuff.  Gretchen Wilson, sometimes Shelby Lynne when she’s not getting all slick on us.  Sure, the technique might not be crazy good and in your face.  But at least the girls got some balls. 

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Atlantic Records, Ahmet, Aretha, that thang

images-2.jpeg     images-11.jpegLast night, on one of my insomniac binges, I put on my latest Netflix movie, Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built.   Turned out to be one of those PBS American Masters series, so it had that standard sincere TV documentary structure that almost means that the music clips get cut right before they hit the high point.  That said, the clips that are here–those moments–are exciting, at least in the first half of the show.  If you know the story of those early Atlantic years–and most people do, a little at least, from the movie Ray– you know that these are the best years of mainstream R & B: Aretha, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Lieber & Stoller, doo-wop groups getting on platters, Otis Redding, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, the early genius nutjob Phil Spector….Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler recorded black blues artists and sold them to a white audience & to a larger extent than Motown let them play and sing what they  wanted.  These guys loved, breathed, R & B and for awhile there they didn’t water it down.  The hired terrific session players; there was a real excitement of people doing, for a time, exactly what it was they loved, and getting it out to the public because it was the right thing to do–they it did despite the fact that they weren’t making any money. Before this documentary I always had the sense that Ahmet Ertegun was the guiding force behind all of this, and in the beginning he was.  images-5.jpegAhmet was the wealthy son of the Turkish embassador, lived in many different countries, absorbed the culture and music, and when he and his brother lived in the States as teenager he went crazy for jazz.  Did whatever he could to go to the clubs, hung out.  And he had the money and the time to be able to do something completely insane: start a record company.  He had the cash to back up his obsession.  He knew enough about music to embrace what mattered to him. And he was aware that black performers were doing the most creative American music & getting no (white) play.   And thus the beginnings of Atlantic Records.    I suppose there was a little part of me that was irritated by Ahmet’s wealth and contacts.  It made it not quite as starry a story for me.  Entirely unfair on my part.  And surely the documentary doesn’t present it in any kind of negative light; this was a hero worship doc.   He was able to recognize the people to sign, like Ray & Aretha; he even wrote R & B songs himself, and they’re pretty good, too.  The documentary shows him as a talky old man, full of attitude and ego and brightness, and (in his eyes) quick to assess human behavior.  The doc is structured around having famous people tell stories with him–people like Robert Plant, Aretha, Mick, Phil Collins, Ben E. King.  Clearly, it’s one of those career retrospective, “better get this done before the old fart dies” tributes–which turns out to be the right idea, as Ahmet died shortly thereafter by falling at a Rolling Stones concert.  For me, the structure got in the way.  I hate Phil Collins.  As for Mick, Atlantic signed the Stones after they’d done their best work.  Don’t applaud those later years.  I read another story, spun very positively in the documentary:When Atlantic began to struggle financially, Ahmet started signing white acts.  The company also waited until there was a monumental lawsuit to begin paying proper royalties to its original black performers.   In the 70’s, Atlantic went disco.    I remember some of those images-11.jpegcheesy records, which are loveable in their cheesiness, but look, they’re really not Aretha & Ray.  And certainly this was a survival move, and it all happened when they sold Atlantic to Warner Brothers (which became Time Warner).  And while Ahmet was still running things, it just wasn’t the same.Here’s the moment in the story that struck me: the turning point in the company came when Jerry Wexler went to Stax/Volt.  Jerry Wexler’s in Ray, too; it was really Jerry Wexler who had the soul, images-3.jpegespecially as times passed;  Stax/Volt with its Southern roots really had the balls; Ahmet became more of a businessman who frequented the New York discos and screwed around with beautiful women while married (made clear in the movie) while Jerry Wexler went to Memphis and hung out with the blues people.  The documentary made it look like the move of Atlantic to Warners was Wexler’s fault.  It seemed to me, more, that Wexler kept loving R & B and would rather work with the music than be successful.  The movie spun the move to Warner’s as a savvy one, and continued toimages-4.jpeg applaud Ehtegun’s discoveries, but for me: well, the documentary made me respect Ahmet Ehrtegun a little less.  Not its intention. It also made me haul out by Atlantic Records box set and play that amazing music from the 1950’s and 60’s.  The stuff that I taped off of my transistor radio as a kid, and the stuff that never made its way over the white Midwestern airwaves.  Without Aretha, I would not be me.  Without soul,  I’d have understood and felt so much less.  Less soul, less possibility for heaven.  This little blog entry could applaud all of the lost records labels, the little ones that did the same thing as Atlantic and passed into oblivion with the monopolization of the industry.  But there’s no time for that story right now.   **a note: I wish that this DVD had included full clips of the original performances by the key Atlantic players.  This is just the straight-up documentary, nothing else. 

why so Eastern European? part one

DeVotchKa, Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box, Little Cow and even a quirky coffeeshop–they’re all enticing me into some melancholy funky string-laden mystical-goofy trance.  But you know: this is the United States, this is Denver, Colorado, what’s the deal? Oh, I’d like to say it’s some genetic homesickness, but I’m afraid that would have to be handed to the Celts.  The only friend I’ve ever had with a hint of Eastern European-ness disavowed any link and listened to Brian Eno.  This need for the roots connection, the folkiness of diverse instrumentation nearly lost, has nothing to do with some blood link.  For  about simple boredom.When every commercial song, even the indie stuff, starts sounding the same, the sudden appearance of a sousaphone or theremin, or even a singer who is willing to look like an insane half naked goofball while backed by accordion players–well, that is refreshing.images-12.jpegimages-112.jpeg–Anyway, I like the accordion. These bands throw it all into the stew, cook it up, toss it out there less to be consumed as to create a pop art splatter.  How multidimensional, how spicy, even chunky–okay, it’s to be seen and experienced, creating (for a change) a “wow” response, even a respectful “they can actually play their instruments!”   The most popular of these bands aren’t really Eastern European, by the way–they are the children of immigrants, or came to the States as young children, perhaps with a few “authentic” side players.  They’re popular because, yes, they know the folk tradition, but they also mix it up with the music of the American neighborhood.To explain, let me delve briefly into the music of DeVotchKa, a mighty four-piece band that between them plays twenty instruments, and does it well. (These include not only the usual guitar, but an upright bass, a theremin, a sousaphone, the trumpet, the sax, something called a bouzouki, the piano, and, of course, the accordion.)    images-13.jpegAfter providing accompaniment to Denver burlesque shows and playing the clubs and promoting themselves on the road (sans contract), they got heard on some NPR show and were picked up to provide the soundtrack for the movie Little Miss Sunshine.  At the time, that was just a little indie movie, remember?–and this unknown banddevotchka_12_30_0603.jpg gets heard by all the kids who are obsessed with that film (you know who you are).  Moody (but not pretentious), lonely, rhythmic, pict0210-small-1preview.jpgevocative, ever so slightly spooky and ghetto-ish (there are reasons that people fled Russia to America)–this was not the usual teen cute crap that usually serves as the film backdrop.  What makes DeVotchKa particularly weird, though, is the way they throw in the Mexican mariachi, that rockin’-style mariachi, and then you throw in that freaky sousaphone (played by a woman, thank you) and the theramin and it works….It isn’t a hodgepodge, it’s more of a instinctive realization that these cultures are connected.  (And when you listen to all of this “world music” enough, you begin to recognize the crosscultural sounds, even when the language and instruments are different).  Something almost sad is created here, in DeVotchKa’s tone.    DeVotchKa: “I Cried Like a Silly Boy” “This Place is Haunted”  DeVotchKa’s name does a pretty clever double-meaning thing, coming out of both A Clockwork Orange (punk!), which came from the Russian word meaning “young girl” (folk!).  While no one in the band is directly from Eastern Europe, songwriter Nick Urata’s parents have their gypsy roots.  (Urata grew up in Chicago, on Cicero, in an Eastern European and Hispanic neighborhood, and moved to Denver later to meet up with his bandmates and their own Hispanic musical influences.)  While the band clearly emphasizes the Russian folk sound, it’s really more accurately an American immigrant music, a jumble of street inflections, media influences, and spices. Right before New Year’s, my daughter Paige, stepson Andrew and I saw DeVotchKa perform at a small club/restaurant, The Mercury Cafe, in downtown Denver.   For a change, I wasn’t the only old-ish (over 35-aged) person in the room–I was, in fact, outflanked by an array of who I suspect were relatives, friends, and teachers of the band members.  It was an intimate hometown scene, a kind of band-goes-on-world-tour-then-comes-back-for-a-special-visit affair, and so created an odd blend of the usual pain in the ass drunken people who talk throughout the concert, and the kids hugging the stage edges, and people trying to sit seriously in the  back and listen.  We were in this latter group, except we were standing, craning, and occasionally catching a glimpse of the Christmas-lighted sousaphone and the elegant bow arm of the violinist.  The music was immersive, impressive, and peculiarly more suitable for a quiet space.  Even my stepson the cello performance major looked faintly stunned at the ability of the band members to play multiple instruments (and not necessarily complementary ones: the string players could  haul out horns and vice versa).  My daughter, a far more serious DeVotchKa fan than I, was not in the least surprised.   (Here are a few clips from performances they’ve done elsewhere:) The show was consistently striking, although not exactly filled with the kind of frivolous and loud “fun” that usually comes with the rock concerts I’ve seen  in Denver.  (I’m not talking about the somber shows at the folk clubs–that’s another matter entirely.)  It’s a complement to the band to say I wanted to truly listen without a drunken and large jackass swerving  and bobbing in my way.But that’s all right.  It was all good natured and the band was clearly happy to be playing there.  The t-shirt table did quick business (“Hey, man, I saw ’em back when Nick was in the other band–they crashed on my couch, man–I’ll take that one”) and the women at the bar let me loiter up there on the risers where the view was clear–downstairs at the cafe, they served up coffee and pie and beer, and it was all as if DeVotchKa never made a soundtrack at all.The band’s still trying to get on a major label, by the way.  They’re signed with an indy label (Ace Records) and getting by doing performances, like so many bands do.  They’re probably too weird, a little too melancholy and not in a teenaged kind of way, to ever make it really big.  But they can get by in part by sailing in on the Eastern European/not wave.  And more about that in the next post. 

The Nomi Song

The Nomi Song, a film about the avant garde performer Klaus Nomi, is currently playing on cable TV’s On Demand.  Although the documentary was made in 2004, I’m giving it a little review here, since it’s likely that far more people will see it on cable than they ever could in the movie theaters.  I certainly didn’t have an opportunity when I lived in Normal, Illinois. To be honest, I’d missed the whole Klaus Nomi thing, even while it was happening.  Certainly I’d run across pieces about him in the music press–he has that kind of weird underground following that lets true popular music aficionados feel all warm and superior inside.   He’s a late 70’s/mid 80’s new wave performer who was on the edge of a type of music called to mind by David Bowie as alien-Kraftwerk-Devo-and a bit of the New York Dolls–heavily costumed, theatrical, and deeply indebted to Berlin cabaret.  Some would say that those who got over (Bowie et al.)  got it from Nomi.  Hard to say.  The effect of Nomi on Bowie was direct enough that he had Nomi back him on a Saturday Night Live performance in 1979. (Nomi and Bowie, The Man Who the World)  And who was this odd little German?: Nomi was an operatic falsetto.  He was serious.  He was trained, but mostly he was obsessed with opera.  While he briefly performed in a professional company, he left it (whether because he couldn’t make money with classical singing or because he was bored or both, we’ll never know).  After moving to New York, he scrounged around cleaning offices and the like until his need for a following led him to create Nomteenklaus2.jpgi.  images-10.jpegUsing the Nomi persona, he found an audience while performing in experimental cabaret in New York City.  The documentary The Nomi Song has much moving footage; one of my favorite clips is one of the first in the film, an ethereal, truly heart stopping song.  It comes early and then it’s lost.  (I’d love to show you a clip from that, but I couldn’t find it–instead, here’s Nomi singing that great old song Lightning Strikes.  And here’s another: And here’s another of Nomi singing Puccini shortly before his death: After gaining a small arty following, Klaus Nomi split from his band and the New York theatrical scene to, well, try to become famous.  It’s at this point that his work begins to lose some of its strange beauty and turns into something closer to the cross-dressing costumed spacey send-ups of Devo.  And just as it seems he might “make it” he becomes one of the earliest casualties of AIDS.The film does a nice job of making his sexuality and death NOT the point.  While certainly Klaus Nomi does have a gay following (the Internet Movie Database tags the movie as “gay theme” and “AIDS”), director Andrew Horn keeps the focus straight on the performances.  I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more about Klaus himself, though, as a person: we find that he was “lonely” and we see that his aunt adored him and that he was a “sweet guy,” yet I never truly understood what was driving him, what he thought and dreamt about.  My suspicion is that the Nomi alien persona was adopted mainly as a means of getting over, and that his passion was truly opera itself–but really, I’m not sure.  They discuss the costumes, but I never really understood if the man was trying to actually say something in the performance itself, beyond the music (as in: we are all aliens?  he is an alien and we are not?  there is beauty in the strange?–it’s never discussed).  More interviews with Klaus himself would have been welcomed–I got a little bit tired of seeing the same old bitter bandmates trotted out time and again.  Even some fans, some lovers, some friends, some family–anybody–.  While the point may have been that Nomi had no one, I still would’ve liked to have known a little more about this man, and a little less about how so-and-so got shoved out of the band.That said, how lovely that this footage is out there, getting attention, getting scattered about on youtube.  I particularly liked the clips from the New York days–the cabaret, the humor, and the peculiar sincerity of that particular time and place.  (The clips from New York cable TV reminded me of that year I spent there in grad school–I’ve seen nothing like those shows again.)   The people in this clips are so excited about being young outsiders, and so in love with themselves and with their songs.  I found the film to be quite sweet. 

the shuffle, the old vinyl

My music is nearly always “all,” always shuffle.  It’s a happy mixtape.  I’ve got the newly arrived, the old standbys, and the medium range, the ones played maybe only ten times rather than a thousand.  I’m a junkie with more music than I’ve played; I find no shame in the used, no need to have 2007 over 2002 or 1958–it’s all the same to me.  I’ll play the cheesiest balladic C & W next to dancehall techno next to rap next to mariachi next to French air next to African jazz and if I play it any other way I get a little bored.  Certain moods demand full albums, but I rarely make my way through them now.  It has to be great, really great, to sustain the sustained play.  And look, I’m fifty years old, and I’m obsessed with the sheer opportunity, the explosion of sound.  You have no idea how limited it once was, unless you are as old as I.I have my vinyl.  I love my vinyl.  I pull out the album covers, stare at Patti Smith in her boy pose,images-1.jpegimages-1.jpeg at Elvis Costello all joint-splayed like album in yellow and black, images-2.jpegimages-2.jpegI love the tone of vinyl, I even love the scratch.  But since I moved a year ago, I have not set up my stereo.  My turntable went the way of old things, into the sad trash.  I miss it, but not enough to actually find a place for it. Oh, those old days of playing Wall of Voodoo or Blondie or the Sex Pistols over and over, catching every note, absorbing the very inflection of the words, then going out to hear cover versions done by angry bands who would’ve stuck pins in their noses if they hadn’t thought it would hurt too much.  I knew the music then.images-3.jpegNow I let it wash over, occasionally slipping in to catch me up and show me some new span.  The spikey bango and guitar interplay of Jake Schepps on “Todo Buenos Aires” is what’s on right now,images-5.jpeg a sound that’s like hillbilly sucked through salsa hesitations.   I never knew it until I pulled up a compilation CD that came with an issue of, I think, Songlines magazine.  Turns out this guy Jake Schepps is a singular composer that lives in Boulder, Colorado, only 30 minutes away.  So here’s the amazing interplay that leads me to go out and find the group’s new CD Ten Thousand Leaves.  In my album days, when I was more broke and with less access (Springfield, Illinois and an Appletree record store), this most likely would never have happened–I would never have found it–it would be lost to me.  Now what’s playing? — The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Societyimages-4.jpeg–music that completely escaped me when it first came out–so sweet, going “I miss the village green, all the simple people….”  This is truly a concept album, one best played in whole, but I’ve now gone on to Silvio Rodriguez singing in a language I don’t understand and don’t really worry about not understanding…. I swap CDs on lala.com or swapacd.com, eschewing the random downloading of Limewire and such, which are truly samplings, usually flawed ones, buggy and distorted and, for me anyway, anxiety-producing.  I’m too paranoid to allow myself that much access, which always feels like it lets in the malevolent outside world that can fuck up my computer if it wishes or even arrest me….Anyway, I like the artifact of the CD itself, and I like giving away the CDs after I use them–it’s a bargaining, an exchange, that seems a little cleaner than the file swapping of the virtual world.  Yet without the internet I would not be able to find all of that music off the CD swap programs, and I would not be able to post this post.  So my final thought here: hooray for the swap, hooray for the shuffle, the World belongs to me. mexican radio