Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Master

Comment: Ornette's Pulitzer

When I was ten years old I received a prize for passing my school examinations. As I proudly stepped forward to accept my award, someone in the audience gave out a loud "Booo!"

I knew the identity of the culprit. It was a spotty classmate with whom I had had an altercation some days prior. For some reason he had taken a dislike to me. Strutting and cocksure in the company of his 'gang' members, the fool demanded 'satisfaction' in the form of fisticuffs after school.

I was no scrapper, but knowing him to be a cowardly moron I dutifully showed up at the school gates at 4PM, knees shaking and fists at the ready.

My adversary, however, failed to appear, and you can be sure that I was quite vocal in publishing this fact to my pals the next day. It became a cause of embarrassment for the spotty moron - and a juicy piece of school gossip - that I had called his bluff in front of his cronies.

I suppose there's no recognition without suffering, and my boyhood mini-drama came to mind while I was reading today about an altogether more elevated prize-giving.

Ornette Coleman was dissed every which way while reinventing modern jazz, but the master has finally received official recognition in the form of this year's Pulitzer Prize for music for his 2006 masterpiece Sound Grammar.

I was astonished to discover that this is the first jazz work to be bestowed with a Pulitzer.

Despite his gigantic contributions to swing music and American composition, Duke Ellington was nominated but - gasp! - turned down in 1965. His posthumous citation in 1999 was followed by Thelonius Monk's in 2006, but until now those awards have represented the Pulitzer committee's stingy acknowledgment of America's greatest art form. What of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's harmonic reinvention of jazz through bebop? Miles Davis' modal and fusion innovations? The spiritual sway of John Coltrane? What about, ladies and gentlemen, Louis Armstrong, the genius who invented modern music?

looo....Pulitzer people?

It's sobering to realize that such titans of jazz have been thus ignored for almost a century. Not that they coveted or pursued such honors - they were far too busy expanding the boundaries of a musical form which enriched the lives of millions, striving against a background of unspeakable racial bigotry.

In any case, I am sure their spiritual heirs and admirers will be watching with benign 'satisfaction' when Mr. Coleman steps forward to accept his gong. There will be no catcalls on this occasion, only cheers of appreciation.

For my thoughts on this superb recording please read here

News item here

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sex, drugs, cars, money

AC/DC (Hard Rock)
iPod Choice: Down Payment Blues (1978)

To clear away this morning's cobwebs I cranked up AC/DC‘s Down Payment Blues, my fave track from their Powerage LP. Then I hit the Rewind button. Six times.

Despite my pretentious prattling about ambient minimalism, spooky pop and free-jazz, when it comes right down to it I’m a rocker at heart. I’ll take boogie and brown ale over symphonies and chardonnay any day.

Contemporary wisdom states that Powerage isn't one of AC/DC's classics, but for me it outdoes peaks like Highway to Hell or Back in Black, containing some of their most stripped-down, headbanging riffage. Perhaps the fact it hasn't received the acclaim of other AC/DC albums makes it all the more appealing.

Whatever the reason, Down Payment Blues is a highlight of the album and one of the band’s most underrated rockers. It starts with a lurching intro which gives way to a delicious rumbling bass before the lads unleash one of their trademark piledriver riffs.

These Aussie rock gods reduce the concept of the riff to its purest essence as the song motors from one ecstatic climax to another. There’s nothing as exhilarating as the sound of an overdriven amplifier pushing air, especially when Angus Young’s Gibson SG is firing on all cylinders through a Marshall stack. He tears off one incredible lick after another, and I love that moment in the song’s breakdown where guitar feedback creates a breathtaking feeling of anticipation.

Meanwhile the late Bon Scott’s raw, impassioned vocal - the poor guy's been driven into debt while trying to impress his girl - strikes just the right balance between desperation and rock ‘n’ roll abandon.

Like all the great entertainers, AC/DC play to their strengths, singing about what they know: that’s sex, drugs, cars, money and having or not having any of ‘em. There’s no poncing about with symphony orchestras or minor chords, just dirty, brash rock 'n' roll. Never has being pummeled into submission by five ugly Australians made such perfect sense.

I have this mutha cranked on the 'phones, and boy, it rocks. AC/DC's bad boy boogie muscles on over, seizes you by the lapels, pinning you against the wall before shoving its sweaty, wild-eyed kisser into yours and sneering, “NOW do you get it, punk? THIS...IS...ROCK 'N' ROLL!”

And when you do get it, I guarantee, you will feel SO much better.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Do You Realize?

Fun with iTunes Playlist

A fellow blogger at The Scandalest Bag has alerted me to a fun activity using iTunes' Smart Playlist. Here's watcha do:

First open a new Smart Playlist then enter Name>Contains>?
By ticking "Limit to", and entering "5 items", you'll get 5 self-generated questions to answer.

1. Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl? - The Barbarians
Well, in the sixties they said I was either a girl or I came from Liverpool. The great rock 'n' roll poofs - Little Richard, David Bowie, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Suede - understood the ambivalence of sexuality and reassured many a teen they were neither freaks of nature nor alone in their confusion. I’m not about to answer this question either way, but it all became clear to me one hot summer night on a patch of grass between the canal and the football ground.

2. What Good Am I? - Bob Dylan
As John Lennon expressed it, sometimes I think I’m god’s gift and sometimes I think I’m a Loser. A friend once memorably assured me that "Everyone's faking it," even those who seem supremely self-confident. Perhaps he's right. Since I just cooked some delicious whole grain bread, right now I’m feeling rather pleased with myself.

3. Ever Fallen in Love with Someone (You Shouldn’t Have Fallen in Love With)? - Buzzcocks
I was fifteen and mad for her. Every fibre of my being cried out for her touch. One day in the playground she drifted into my orbit and for ten glorious minutes she was in my arms. She kissed like an angel and it was the most perfect moment of my life. Then we let go and, oh, it hurt so good.

Since then I don't think a month has passed without my thinking of her. Sometimes I feel I've spent the whole of my life trying to reclaim the befuddled rapture of that instant.

4. Do You Realize? - Flaming Lips
Yes I do realize, Wayne, though it’s nice to be reminded, that we are floating in space, life is a train that goes too fast and, in the words of the inimitable Steve Marriot, "it’s all too beautiful."

5. Why Don't You Kill Yourself? - The Only Ones
Whoever sang "suicide is painless" got it dead wrong. Too much collateral damage.

Maybe the more pain we feel, the more gods we need. For a while there I turned to Zen meditation. Sitting zazen produces excruciating cramps in the knees. I asked my teacher "When will the pain go away?" He laughed and said, "It won't, but your relationship to the pain will change." Life is suffering, little bar hopper.

When that realization hit home, the glass suddenly seemed half-full rather than half-empty, and the following week I experienced an epiphany on the freeway. So when the going gets tough, I try not to forget the 'islands of ecstasy': they really do make everything worthwhile.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Parallel Dimension

Burial (Dubstep)
LP: Burial (2006)

The eponymously titled album by British 'dubstep' artist Burial is a superb record which seems to exist in its own parallel dimension.

Burial impresses immediately with his immaculate programming and production, but where he really scores big – and raises himself leagues above dubstep peers like Digital Mystikz and Kode9 - is with his expressive emotionalism, especially in his inspired sampling and manipulation of the human voice. He creates a vibe which is at the same time edgy and sad, and which satisfies the melodic/expressive/emotional criteria I just mentioned.

The many terrific tracks on this LP include the menacing Gutted, with its eerie “My love" refrain and Ghost Dog sample - not altogether ironically insisting that we “stick with the ancient ways”. The yearning Pirates is an homage to the spirit of dub and pirate radio which sounds like King Tubby on Prozac. My favorite track is perhaps You Hurt Me, where a haunting female voice intones the title over an lush sonic landscape of Arabic drones.

This exciting LP is perhaps the first landmark electronic release since Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children. Like that recording, it inhabits its own sub-genre, defying easy classification. Yet despite its uniqueness Burial feels like a natural progession from all that's gone before. It invokes feelings of loss and sadness, but also a compelling sense of exploration and pursuit which proves that, if there are boundaries to electronic music, they exist only to be bust wide open by the imaginations of our most talented artists.

Compulsive Urge

Essential Electronica

My own interest in electronic music started when I was a young boy. Being terrified by the spooky, atmospheric Doctor Who TV theme was my first awareness of electronica's ability to evoke a visceral response. In a lighter vein, chart-toppers Telstar by The Tornadoes then Popcorn by Hot Butter showed what could be done without ‘real’ instruments.

Those hits were popular manifestations of a revolution in electronic sound experiment instigated by controversial innovators like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Sir Thomas Beecham's famous observation - asked whether he had conducted any Stockhausen - "No, but I once trod in some," provides early evidence of musical snobbery directed at electronic music.

Unlistenable he may be, but Stockhausen’s influence on electronic and experimental artists is crucial: Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt of my beloved Can as well as futuristic trumpeter and Eno acolyte Jon Hassell (check out his Power Spot LP, it’s a classic) all studied with Stockhausen.

As electronic music threw off the shackles of its novelty status, the seventies saw great innovation, especially on the German scene. Can for instance pre-date trance by twenty years, while Kraftwerk explored the interplay between technology and culture and exerted a gigantic influence.

My record collection of the late 70s and early 80s was filled with electro classics as new technology redefined what was possible - Brian Eno changed everything with his ambient experiments; Cabaret Voltaire’s albums were groovy and chaotic; in the new wave arena Pere Ubu scattered weird electro squiggles all over their early masterpieces.

On the poppier side, British bands like Human League, New Order and Happy Mondays incorporated electronics in both production and form, in the process inspiring rave culture and a golden age of electronica. There was an explosion of post-rave fusion including trip-hop, downtempo and ‘chill’.

The downside was that easy access to techno gadgetry naturally led to an abundance of inferior product. Those who knock electronica say it often lacks a certain lack of human-ness and 'feel'. It’s easy to see how this has come about.

In the sixties and seventies, most music was recorded live. A real sense of excitement and urgency could thus be created by musicians composing then performing songs collectively, live in the studio. By contrast, modern electro recordings tend to be built up in the studio with each aspect of the recording process digitized and automated. Compositions tend to begin with a rhythm track rather than a harmonic or melodic idea.

This ‘slave to the rhythm’ approach is both the strength and the weakness of electronica, and the reason for the aimlessness of most dance music. I occasionally get the compulsive urge to shake my booty, but only if the tune distinguishes itself through a particular melodic/expressive/emotional spark of inspiration.

Electronic Essentials: 5 or 6 worth having

1. Kraftwerk - Computer World (1981)
Perhaps their most fully-realized album, anticipating the rise of computer technology. Sonically, rhythmically and conceptually, years ahead of their rivals. The word 'genius' truly applies.

2. Underworld - Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)
The acceptable face of commercial electronica.

3. Plug - Drum 'n' Bass for Papa (1997)
Experimental yet accessible DnB masterpiece.

4. Plastikman - Artifakts (1994) / Musik (1998)
Stripped down minimalist beats. Tense, funky and hypnotic.

5. Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
A meditation on childhood, nature and confusion. Unique and essential.