Feburary 26, 2002 (link)
Last month I wrote a bit about (and was impressed by) a track on the Electronic Toys 2 compilation taken from the Song of the Second Moon LP by Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan. It turns out that this disc is not from the late 1950s, alas (it's from 1968 or so, as I recall), so it's not as impossibly prescient as I thought. But, in an interesting coincidence, Kid Baltan is apparently a pseudonym for Dick Raaijmakers, whose music I was checking out back in June. I suspect it was an open secret: the third track on Song of the Second Moon is named "The Ray Makers".
Feburary 23, 2002 (link)
There are at least three well-known songs -- "Martha" by Jefferson Airplane, "Roxanne" by the Police, and "The Great Gig in the Sky" by Pink Floyd -- in which the tape speed clearly changes during the course of the song. In "Martha" it's particularly apparent -- right before the end of the song, it suddenly drops by nearly a quarter-tone! I've never been sure whether it was intentional, but I've always liked it and am so used to hearing it that I hear it as structurally part of the song. The tape wobble at the very end of "Great Gig" is well-documented, but I've never read anything about the speed-up at the start of "Roxanne" -- you can hear Andy Summers' guitar slowly climb in pitch, as though the reels were getting up to full speed (presumably on the bounce to the final master, since if they'd had the problem when they were initially tracking, his guitar would have actually dropped in pitch).
I mean, I listen to the Rogé -- the second disc, now -- and I think to myself, "This is how a piano is supposed to sound." The tone-color he gets is so impossibly beautiful. Perhaps the engineer deserves a fair part of the credit; perhaps what I'm hearing is, in part, the sound of analog tape and good microphone placement. Whatever it is, it's nothing like the crystalline, percussive, larger-than-life sound that so many piano recordings have. I love it.
Actually, now that I think about it, my purchases today -- this particular Debussy recording, the Clientele, Boards of Canada -- all three tend to favor atmosphere over fidelity, if that equation isn't too simplistic. The Debussy is beautiful in part because it isn't hi-fi (it wouldn't work if it were), and both the Clientele and Boards of Canada use vintage equipment (is that a spring reverb?) to conjure their particular sound-world -- in the Clientele's case, what one person called something like "the feeling of falling in love in the rain". (I trust I don't need to rehash the whole Boards of Canada / nostalgia thing.) When I listen to the output of most contemporary recording studios, I hear a massive failure to realize that verisimilitude isn't always a good thing. Perhaps in classical music, it would seem more likely to be an asset, and yet this Debussy is proof to the contrary. Sometimes we don't want our music to feel real, or "just like being there", or big, or crystal clear: there's a reason that I, and so many others, are fascinated by distant AM radio signals, or the otherworldly sound of super-lo-fi bootlegs, or the crackles and hiss of old 78s. The ability of the medium to transfigure sound in unexpected and elusive ways isn't just a byproduct, and for some music, it has a genuinely structural function. It's just the old argument again, really -- the definition of a good recording (or production) is "whatever's right for the music" -- and chances are that what I'm reacting to has a lot more to do with the limitations of the CD format, and with the heavy use of compression and "finalizing" in contemporary music production, than my argument would seem to suggest. Still, why can't anyone seem to make a record that sounds as good as Pink Floyd's Meddle, or even More?
Feburary 22, 2002 (link)
My wonderful and intelligent (she's dictating this to me as I write, but it's true anyway) girlfriend Holly has succeeded where I could not: that line in "Barefoot in Baltimore" is not "E-Lentil", but rather, "heel and toe with you". Makes sense. I probably wouldn't have gotten that one on my own -- i.e. without the help of my [insert complimentary adjective here] girlfriend.
For the first time in ages, I went CD shopping today at an actual record store (as opposed to buying discs over the Internet, or right from the band at a show, or getting the occasional promo copy for review). I can't remember the last time I did that, and it's a nice change, particularly since South Street (in Philadelphia) has a pretty strong array of new and used CD stores which seem to complement each other rather well (the Philadelphia Record Exchange has a great classical section, Repo Records had a good selection of indie stuff, and so on). So I picked up the following:
Lots of C's there.
I'd been meaning to get the Debussy for ages -- I've known and loved the first disc (which was originally released on its own, under the same title) for a decade now, but have never had my own copy. It's far and away my favorite recording of Debussy's piano music, with a great lineup of pieces (Suite Bergamasque, Children's Corner, both books of Images, and Deux Arabesques) and magnificent playing by Rogé. This reissue combines that CD with a second CD of more Debussy piano music, including the first book of the Préludes and the Estampes; I haven't listened to the second disc yet, but I hope it's on the same high level. I paid $11.98, which would be a reasonable price for the first disc on its own, let alone for both!
It's also nice to get my own copy of the Boards of Canada album. I still prefer Hi Scores, but I'm definitely looking forward to spending some more time with this one.
The Thomas Chapin albums I bought on a combination of whim and good luck -- they were both in the clearance pile at Tower Records for $4.99 each, which is a steal. I've only listened to a couple tracks from the Borah Bergman disc, which so far is a bit more "out" than I'd hoped. I'm a big fan of Chapin's compositions, which I've played live and enjoyed very much, so an album of totally free improvisation isn't quite what I was most looking forward to hearing from him. If the other disc has more of his compositions, then I'll probably be in a better position to be fully receptive to this one.
At first listen, the Clientele album is unfortunately not what I'd hoped -- it's enjoyable, but it doesn't have that elusive quality that made the "We Could Walk Together" single so magical. (That song is here, but again, it's going at a slower speed than the MP3 I downloaded from the Clientele website way back when. That MP3 was probably just going at the wrong speed, but I like it better that way!) Perhaps it'll grow on me.
I haven't listened to the Ives, and am a bit worried that it's a disc I've listened to before (five or six years ago) and wasn't particularly engaged by. I'll have to check my notes.
Things I tried to find today and either couldn't find at all, or couldn't find at a reasonable price: Movietone, Fela Kuti, the import version of Pinback's This is a Pinback Album.
Feburary 17, 2002 (link)
Well, that hiatus lasted far longer than I'd intended! I had all sorts of things I'd wanted to write about (while not having the time to write about them), but as usual I can't remember most of them now. One was Miles Davis' soundtrack to Jack Johnson, and the way in which the music really does project what it's more or less "about": being a boxer, being tough and proud and powerful and aggressive. Listening to it on my Discman while walking through town at night, making the 20-minute trip to Staples to send off a shipment, I found myself slipping into a different gait -- loose and quick (like the rolling 12/8 beat), yet at the same time, martial and heavy. Before long, I found myself nearly wanting to get into a brawl, which is a ridiculous proposition but which says quite a lot about Miles' ability to evoke the spirit of boxing with his music. (He was an avid amateur boxer, and as I recall possessed some talent for the sport.)
I'd always associated Strawberry Alarm Clock with A&R-concocted, jump-on-the-bandwagon fakery, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps some offhand comment by a reviewer biased me, which if true certainly doesn't do me credit. Anyway, I was basically right, both in spirit and somewhat in fact. (In this interview, a former member acknowledges, "Mark Weitz and I wrote the music track to 'Incense...' - then our manager took it to a publisher in town who, in turn, sent it off to some lyricists in Denver." It'd be silly to blame SAC for any of that, but it does correlate with a certain lack of credibility in their music.) And some of the lyrics are just priceless -- "Sit with the guru / Meditation, oooh". On the other hand, I rather like "Barefoot in Baltimore", with its unusual chord progression and appealing arrangement (shakers, marimba, multi-part vocal harmonies, and so forth). Strange concept, though -- has Baltimore ever been a place in which one could safely go barefoot? Who exactly was the intended audience of this song (released as a single, no less -- I think it peaked at 50-something at the charts!) and why would they be bewitched by the notion of going barefoot in Baltimore? (The title seems arbitrary, as though it were one of a series of answers in a party game -- "Shoeless in Sheboygan", "Sock-clad in Coxsackie", and that sort of thing.) I still can't quite make out the chorus, which goes something like "Barefoot in Baltimore / E-Lentil with you-oooooooh". What an E-Lentil is, I'm not sure; no doubt it'll have an IPO any day now.
There are definitely worse ways to spend an evening than relaxing with your girlfriend in her apartment, drinking hazelnut schnapps and listening to MP3s on random play while watching the iTunes visual. It's a bit like watching some alternate-universe version of MTV -- one that only plays songs you like (or at least are interested in) and, what's more, accompanies them with some pretty cool abstract animation. (Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were especially nice.) The old cliché about simultaneous stimulation of different senses being a good idea is, in fact, true: it's just that it's hard enough to come up with good stimuli for one sense, let alone for two or three at a time.
If you're reading this and I owe you email: it will come.
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
The Once and Future King, T.H. White
Richard II, Shakespeare
Sophocles II (Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes), Sophocles, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore