Friday, July 2, 2010

On Music Appreciation, Part Two, Or, Records Only Have One Groove

It was just yesterday that we decided to take a day off from politics and talk about music, both familiar and not so much; the conversation ran a bit long, and when we got halfway through we decided to get together tomorrow.

It was pretty fun, what with sewers and male models and Gorillaz and all, and when we had put down the pen it was just after taking in Sarah Vaughan’s reworked dance version of the Peggy Lee classic, “Fever”.

They say tomorrow never comes...but now it has...and we have eight more songs to talk about before we can finish our multigenerational “Summer Music Appreciation Playlist”.

Today we’ll incorporate jazz and dance, the invention of modern musical recording, arguably the greatest saxophone player ever, and a shout out to “our man in Paris”.

If all that wasn’t enough, we also discover what happens when you graft a certain Pepper onto Jamaica’s musical tree.

You don’t want to stop now, so jump on board and let’s get this train rollin’.

When I asked Dangerfield how old he was he had to think for a minute. “I’m 22,” he said finally, “but I used to be much older.”

--From The “Hashbury” Is the Capital of the Hippies, Hunter S. Thompson

If you weren’t here yesterday, the premise is simple: I put together a playlist that combines music from across the past 50 years or so; the idea is to get you thinking about not just the song, but about that artist’s larger body of work.

In the process, the older reader learns about new music, the younger reader, vice versa.

We began with Grizzly Bear’s ”Knife”, then William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got”, Aretha Franklin’s super-bluesy “Night Life”, “Easy”, a song by Timbuk3, Talking Head’s “Mind”, a choral selection from Gorillaz, “Demon Days”, and then Meat Beat Manifesto’s “Super Soul Dub”.

Finally, Adam Freeland took that Sarah Vaughan version of “Fever” and turned it from an instant “lounge lizard” classic into an instant dance classic.

And with that, it’s time for us to visit Berlin.

Miss Kittin (and her collaborator, The Hacker) are widely known for their fantastic debut effort, “First Album” (all the work, clearly, going to the music), which contains the extremely naughty “dance club anthem” Frank Sinatra. A second album by the duo is just released; it includes a cover of the Elvis hit, “Suspicious Minds”.

In between: the “Batbox” album, a solo effort by Miss Kittin, from which we pluck the superb Pollution of the Mind. Let it wash over you, get lost in the sound...and let the beat carry you to a better place.

Unfortunately for us, Her Feline-ness is not likely to do a US tour anytime soon; this means our best bet is to live vicariously though “our man in Paris”, Alex Blaze.

As we discussed yesterday, I also post at The Bilerico Project, and it’s the only site upon which I post that actually assigns editors to try and wrangle some sort of sense out of these musings; Alex has had the task of having to deal with this problem the longest.

His consolation is living in Paris...not the Texas one...and that means he’s actually right in the middle of her concert bookings, which take her around Europe over and over go, Alex, and fill us in on what we really do miss.

They call that thing a “Les Paul” guitar because there really was a Les Paul, and, according to the Gibson Guitar Company, he was:

The world’s most influential, innovative guitar player and inventor

Paul nearly died, twice (ironically, or not, he was once electrocuted while busily developing the electric guitar); if pretty much inventing a musical instrument wasn’t enough, just for fun he pretty much invented the overdubbing method of recording in his spare time. He also purchased, custom-built from Ampex, the world’s very first 8-track tape recorder for his home recording studio.

About a decade later, the rest of the world discovered...stereo.

The culmination of all this effort was our next song, the decades-ahead-of-its-time How High the Moon, a 24-track recording (12 guitar tracks, 12 tracks of his wife’s vocals) released in 1953. Check out the level of all the other technology in the video and you’ll really understand just how groundbreaking Paul’s work was.

Two of the greatest recordings of the rock era have been remade as reggae albums by the same band, Easy Star All-Stars: “Dark Side of the Moon”, by Pink Floyd, and the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and here’s the thing: the arrangements are both so natural, so appropriate to the songs, that it’s almost as though these are the original versions. (There’s a reggae Radiohead album, too...)

Just to get the feel of it all, check out the remade version of Pink Floyd’s Time.

We’re going for the Beatles in our playlist; specifically the stunningly perfect When I’m Sixty-Four.

PierPolJak brings a crazy personal story to us as well. Born in France, imprisoned there and in the UK, it’s reported that he drifted from London and the punk scene to the Caribbean and reggae over several years. I love French language reggae, and he’s been at the top of that game with the “Kingston Karma” album.

The song we want today is Je Descends Le Bar (“I Descend the Bar”), and for some reason, when you click on that link, you hear the correct song, but see clips from the bar scene in “The Terminator”...and based on my limited French, that seems like a very strange take on where the song was going.

“Nothing Compares 2 You” is the song by which you probably know Sinéad O’Connor, but as it turns out the far-from-hirsute songstress has been spending the many years since then basically making one record of every kind of music possible, which means, among several, she has a big band album, and she has a reggae album (“Throw Down Your Arms”); it’s from there that we’ll be snooching up the dub classic Prophet Has Arise.

So it’s now the shank of the evening, and you’re with the one you love...or, at least, the one you’d like to be loving at the moment...and nothing sets the mood like a saxophone...and you can fairly make the argument that no one has ever played one with more feeling, more originality, and more skill than John Coltrane.

There are others, most notably Charlie Parker...but only one, so far as I can tell, actually has a religion based on what came out of their sax.

If you’re in San Francisco sometime, visit the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church—which, might I add, is indeed a real a good way: I know for a personal fact that forever and ever they’ve been a source of help for San Francisco’s poor, something I witnessed when I lived there more than three decades ago.

This, from the Church website:

Free food and clothing are given to the poor and needy. We are now entering our 37th year of service to the community and have been recognized by the California State Legislature for this work.

Referrals are received from various agencies such as the Department of Social Services, Traveler's Aid, The Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Low income families, senior citizens, the handicapped and people from all walks of life are served. There is no discrimination as to race, creed or religious affiliation.

To honor St. John, I’ve selected In A Sentimental Mood, truly one of the most iconic songs in the history of jazz, and a collaboration with the equally-legendary Duke Ellington.

It’s the piano you hear first, and then that weird little “wubba-wubba” noise, and then the guitar...and then the crash cymbals, and that piano (“doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo”), over and over, and it’s building, and it’s that piano, and all the other instruments are filling in behind it, and it grows...and then it peaks, and the drum does a little fill, and you realize it’s the perfect 70’s late night song...Steely Dan’s FM.

Those of you under the age of about 40 wouldn’t know this, but before the 1970s virtually all songs were either right around or less than three minutes long, and you heard them on AM radio.

Then FM radio came to town, with high-falutin’ stereo and a signal that doesn’t fade out with every underpass, and the concept of “long-form”, with songs that might run (gasp!) five minutes or more became “the way it was supposed to be”.

Steely Dan crystallized all of that into this song, along with possibly the greatest “sax fadeout” ever put to tape, which, they tell us, was influenced by their love of Charlie Parker and...wait for it...John Coltrane.

And with that, we come to the end.

It’s been quite a run, with a near-doo-wop experience morphing into Sinéad’s reggae and the Church of St. John; but by now you should have some arrows in your summer music quiver that you didn’t have before, some stories that will come in handy the next time you’re playing this stuff...and if we get really lucky, we may even get a “Miss Kittin Report” from our Continental representative.

Not bad, for a day off, and if you really want to know the much as I enjoy the serious work, I can’t wait to “take a day off” again.


  1. Les Paul was what ever is the step above a genius.

    I have to say the Pink Floyd covers were a pretty good example of why it's a bad idea to do Pink Floyd covers. Speeding up the intro to "Time" made it tedious - instead of dramatic. The rest of it was unimpressive.

    If you want to introduce newbies to Steely Dan, it's worth thinking about picking things that convey their true weirdness as well as their muscianship. How about "Don't Take Me Alive" and
    "Cousin Dupree"

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  4. Also, have folks check out my childhood schoolmate Christopher O'Riley, He does some seriously cool stuff on piano blending pop, blues, rock and classical. Think Ray Manzara (The Doors) or better.


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