Sunday, February 28, 2010

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK EIGHT

Week 8: What A Day That Was

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It's a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Talking Heads

Album: Stop Making Sense

1984

Sire Records


The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song.

They play it once again, play it all night long.

-"Heaven"


1984 was a good year for music. The Smiths recorded its album debut, Prince unleashed Purple Rain, Bruce made a splash with Born in the U.S.A., The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was released, as was Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, and Let it Be by The Replacements, to name a few. Then there was the Stop Making Sense soundtrack.


One month before I was born, Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense” was released. Its soundtrack, released the same year, was one of a handful of records my parents so wisely schooled my sister and me with. It was played at home, in the car; through headphones and speakers, and eventually out of the shoddy mono speakers of my household’s vintage Sony Trinitron when I finally saw the actual film.


For the record, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack was my gateway to Talking Heads’ music and to the film. But really, one couldn’t ask for a better introduction.


What else can be said about Stop Making Sense that hasn’t already been written before. It’s one of the most beloved concert films and albums of all times. It captures the Heads in its prime, serving as a retrospective of sorts of the band’s musical evolution up to that point. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, taken from one of the greatest films of all time.


Need one more bold statement? How about this: Talking Heads is the greatest American rock and roll band. Don’t you think?


Think about Heads' transformation from stripped down, quirky new-wave punk outfit (as seen on '77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food) to the experimental, genre bending band it ceaselessly morphed into (from Fear of Music onwards). At only eight studio albums released, the band’s discography is concise, but one could say that the players said what they wanted to say, played what they wanted to play and then cleared the stage, ahead, ultimately paving the way for equally rewarding solo careers from each band member.


The music has influenced so many of its contemporaries and future acts, and “Stop Making Sense” the film changed the way filmmakers and viewers viewed the concert film genre–one will notice early on that the audience is hardly seen during the film and the stage is bare-boned, going against the flashy trends of bigger bands of the time.


David Byrne is one of rock’s true geniuses. An ambitious, almost mad visionary who has never slowed down in his quest to change how we experience music, which he’s long seen as platform best suited for all of the senses, not simply the ears.


Heads’ rhythm section is one of the great collaborations in music, with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (real-life married couple) bringing an almost mathematically calculated sense of timing to the band. The bass line in the band’s mega hit, “Once in a Lifetime” alone is one of the great moments in musical rhythm. One bass line, played in repetition like a metronome, but capable of bringing the groove.


Keyboardist and rhythm guitar player, Jerry Harrison, had already come out of the equally influential Modern Lovers outfit before joining Byrne and gang, adding the final essential piece to the band.


Production wiz, and possibly the only other musician at the time with the brains and visions to keep up with Byrne, Brian Eno, would later play a key role in the band’s progression. And the backing musicians on Stop Making Sense, most of them spawns from George Clinton’s funk factory, managed the remarkable feat of taking beloved songs and not only shedding brand new light on them but at times improving on them (the non-Heads track, “What a Day That Was,” originally drawn from an obscure Byrne solo effort, being the perfect example).


I currently have three copies of Stop Making Sense on CD: one “borrowed” early on from my parents, another expanded Special Edition version bought later, and yet another rescued from a garbage bin my college roommate had put together, the latter thus becoming a permanent fixture in my car's glove compartment. I own its LP and have long dreamed of pulling off the film’s signature “Big Suit” for Halloween. The film is the one DVD I own which I watch on a monthly basis and it has traveled with me to Spain and here in Taiwan.


It’s hard to pick a favorite track on the album, or in Heads’ catalogue for that matter.


The aforementioned “What A Day That Was” is pretty terrific. But so is “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Heaven,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and of course the album’s tried and true mission statement of an anthem, “Burning Down the House.” When Byrne shouts to the seen but not seen audience at the end of “Life During Wartime,” “Does anyone have any questions?” The answer is always an unanimous: no, no we don’t.


I remember not really understanding what Stop Making Sense was all about when I first heard the album. Having not seen the film yet and being only slightly familiar with Talking Heads, made the experience all the better. For me, like my introduction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the music just sounded great and it pulled me in.


The African percussion was flawless, bringing on the dance grooves. The rhythm guitar was tight and polished, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell’s sparingly executed synthesizer notes sounded futuristic in a surprisingly interesting way. As a budding drumming growing up, the tom-tom fills on “Burning Down the House” inspired many a table/chest drumming fits. Once I finally had a drum kit of my own I often reenacted these moments, much to the neighbors' dismay.


Really, what else can be said about Stop Making Sense. I’ve listened to this album over a hundred times and it only improves with age. The world is a better place because of this film, this album and Talking Heads contribution to music. When you realize how much is going on within each song–the sonic complexities, nuances and how much of the attention to detail was undoubtedly calculated down to every individual note and beat–reverence is the only proper response. Rock/dance/funk/pop nirvana.


Does anyone have any questions?








Sunday, February 14, 2010

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SEVEN

Week 7: When Joni Met Jaco

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It's a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Hejira”

Joni Mitchell

Album: Hejira

1976

Asylum Records


“Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Victor Hugo


During my senior year of high school my budding interest in jazz music had come full circle. I played drums alongside two electric violinists in, dare I say, an eclectic seven-piece jazz combo. I was enrolled in a full-year jazz studies course (something of a rarity for a high school), and I regularly raided the public library’s respectable jazz CD collection. With the limit set at ten albums per visit, I could walk away with more than enough to soak up in a week, and I ultimately pieced together a fairly comprehensive collection of “burned” albums.


It was in my senior year that I first gave hip-hop a chance. It was the year I seriously dove into Bob Dylan’s catalogue and it was the year I discovered Jaco Pastorius. For most, Jaco is hardly a household name, but rather his is a tragic tale in the music world–a master of his craft, a musicians musician, cut short in his prime by a tragedy that still puzzles his admirers.


Arguably one of the greatest electric bass players to have ever picked up the instrument, period, Jaco got his start in the light jazz fusion ensemble, Weather Report, but quickly established himself as a leading force, releasing two solo studio albums and collaborating with a number of artists in and outside of the jazz world. That this legend would die from injuries contracted in a mysterious bar brawl in Southern Florida, makes the story all the more tragic.


I first became privy to Jaco’s self-titled debut album one day when I entered the jazz practice room of my high school’s music department to find a number of my peers hovered around a stereo blasting Jaco’s rendition/mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Kuru/Speak Like a Child” through the room’s significant sound system. Awe was understood.


That afternoon I picked up the CD version of Jaco Pastorius at the bookstore and spent the evening listening as Jaco turned the fretless electric bass guitar into a lead instrument.


His ability of combining traditional bass lines with melodic, tender harmonic chords to create entire, unaccompanied compositions on the bass changed the game for bass players everywhere. Not to go overkill on the praise, but it’s fair to say that without Jaco’s contribution to music, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Vic Wooten, and other prolific masters of the instrument may have never found their way. He’s that important.


In 1976, as Pastorius unleashed his debut masterpiece, he also started what would end up being a four-record collaboration with folk singer Joni Mitchell, starting with her underrated album, Hejira.


I had grown up with Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark, easily the siren’s two greatest achievements, but was unfamiliar with her forays into the jazz world until I stumbled upon copies of Hejira and 1979’s Mingus at the aforementioned library’s audio/visual department.


I didn’t link the two artists until I actually played the album and instantly heard what had to be Jaco’s tender bass harmonics coupled with Mitchell’s equally tender vocals. The four tracks that Jaco played on–”Coyote,” “Hejira,” “Black Crow” and “Refuge of the Roads”–are in my opinion four of the greatest musical parings out there.


Two masters of their individual crafts producing music of such beauty; it was enough to leave me wide-eyed. While Joni can make her pipes weep with melancholy, Jaco figured out how to do the same on the fretless bass.


It makes sense that Mitchell sought out Jaco (or vice versa). Both have extremely distinct sounds, and Mitchell has always walked the fine line between folk and jazz with her music, eventually devoting whole records to the genre she adores (she name checks “strains of Benny Goodman” on Hejira’s title-track and would later pay her respects to Charles Mingus on Mingus).


While slightly flawed as a whole album, Hejira is definitely one of the Mitchell’s most fascinating efforts. Written almost entirely on the road as Mitchell drove from Maine to Southern California, the album, which gets its name from the Arabic word for ‘journey,’ invokes images of traveling alone by car through America, a spiritual journey documented by so many artists over the years.


She paints pictures of desert landscapes, old highway motels, and on one of the album’s great standout tracks, “Amelia,” airplane vapor trails which she tags as “a hexagram of the heavens.” She’s always had a way with words.

While music journalist Ron Rosenbaum gives a strong argument for “Amelia” being Mitchell’s strongest and most intriguing song to date at
Slate.com, I’ve always been moved by “Hejira,” that epic title-track that makes the best use of the Jaco/Joni marriage of sound.


On “Hejira,” Mitchell sings of “comfort in melancholy” while Jaco meanders in and out of her verses fingering his six string with the same warmth that Mitchell calls upon with her vocals and lyrics.


The beauty of jazz music has always been its language of improvisation. Most jazz standards are based around a series of simple notes. The players muse on the bridge and then each go off into their worlds playing off each other the way people share thoughts in a conversation. It’s a musical art-form that finds its finest moments in the surprises that can arise. Put a group of masters in a room and listen to the magic unfold.


On “Hejira” Mitchell sings, “I see something of myself in everyone / Just at this moment in the world.” When listening to “Hejira,” and the other three Jaco/Joni tracks on the album, it’s hard not to deny that the two artists found an instant connection in the studio. The fruit of this pairing is, in my mind, the heart of what makes Hejira such an incredible album to return to again and again. Lyrically, I still favor Blue and Court and Spark for giving the world lines like,


Oh I could drink a case of you darling

Still I’d be on my feet

–“Case of You”


I used to count lovers like railroad cars

I counted them on my side

Lately I don’t count on nothing

I just let things slide


–“Just Like This Train”


I stumbled upon Hejira shortly after diving into Jaco, (not to mention Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson) and found the connection between both geniuses to be serendipitous (this was before I relied on the Internet for musical fact checking to aid my listening habits). Liner notes would confirm that what I was hearing was, in fact, Jaco, but I had no doubt in my mind.


Later on that year I stumbled upon a forgotten Herbie Hancock homage record to George and Ira Gershwin,
Gershwin’s World (1998), which features, among a number of beautiful collaborations, a Mitchell guest vocal spot on “The Man I Love.” I played it for my father who I knew was a longtime Joni fan, and he knew the minute her lush pipes poured into the microphone who it was.

Jaco and Joni have musical voices that are completely their own. While you can hear Joni’s influences on countless modern day singer songwriters, not to mention her contemporaries, Jaco’s presence still carries strong in and out of the jazz world. Both are unmistakable to ear.


Later that year I discovered Martin Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, a moving swan song performance from Bob Dylan’s great backing band,The Band and was pleasantly surprised to find Joni performing Hejira’s opener “Coyote.” It was eerie how Hejira linked together a number of my musical explorations of the time. While now I credit resources like Allmusic.com or Wikipedia as terribly informative fact-checking sites for exploring musical range, their absence that year provided me with countless surprises of collaborations that changed my perception of the music world. Suddenly jazz wasn’t just some side genre that only the hip or the old dug, but rather a music that was without genre boundaries.


Miles Davis’ foray into funk and rock, Steely Dan’s fusion of jazz instrumentation, and Joni’s pining to walk the line between folk/rock/pop/jazz were all part of a musical awakening that year. It cemented the notion that music is a universal language and while we can typecast and catalogue it into genres and sub-genres, its ultimately a form of expression that is completely unpredictable.






Thursday, February 4, 2010

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SIX

Week Six
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It's a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

"Station to Station"
David Bowie
Album: Station to Station
1976
RCA Records

The title track to David Bowie’s 1976 album, Station to Station begins with the sounds of train bursting into motion. The hush of the locomotion, presumably pulling away from a its station of origin, pans from the right to left channel and is eventually coupled with a restrained frenzy of distorted guitar and synthesizer sonic waves and a menacing clang of heavily-fingered piano keys. The thumping bass line enters, as does the echoed thunder of sparsely-played tom tom drums and a twangy rhythm guitar. A simple organ riff joins the fold and a shortly after the song’s third minute we are introduced to the ring leader of this slow-burning melee of sound.


The return of the Thin White Duke

Throwing darts in lovers' eyes

Here are we one magical moment

Such is the stuff from

Where dreams are woven


Station to Station is one of the great milestone records in the history of rock and roll. For David Bowie it was the record that bridged two of the artist’s most vibrant creative periods during the 1970s; for rock music as a whole it was the spark needed to merge a polished sound from America’s respectively growing soul and disco scene with the ambitious budding art rock scene happening in Europe. For me, it was an album that instantly changed all my pre-conceived notions about Bowie the lavishly-costumed performer and musician and granted me a portal into a side of the artist’s canon that literally shook my perceptions of music.


At six tracks, Station is one of Bowie’s more concise efforts to date, but it still manages to pack the punches. Its title track remains his longest song to date, clocking in at over 10 minutes, and is one of those songs that I never tire from listening to. It unfolds like a symphony, rising from dark and mysterious to groovy, eventually culminating in a amalgamation of disco, funk, soul, Krautrock, early techno, glam and pretty much anything other sound Bowie had lying dormant in his inner-psyche. It’s a track that I’ve listened to in too many different settings to count, under various mental states and it remains one of the most fascinating offerings Bowie has ever released.


Recorded during Bowie’s coke-fueled soirée in Los Angeles from 1975-1976 while Bowie was filming Nicolas Roeg’s great science-fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Station to Station is an album that both excuses drug use for the sake of art while also affirming the notion that drug use can rip apart the inner psyche. Summed up: Bowie almost died making this album but it was this waltz to a dark place that helped produce this masterpiece and was the catalyst the artist needed to flee hellish L.A. for Western and Eastern Europe to start his much-lauded “Berlin Trilogy” of records. In an interview Bowie once said of Los Angeles during the mid-70s: "The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth"


It’s safe to say my fascination with Bowie’s late 1970s period–beginning with 76’s Station to Station, spanning the “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, ‘heroes’ & Lodger, and finishing with 1980s spectacular Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)–is unending. Bowie has often said in interviews that he seldom recollects anything from the Station sessions (most musicians involved are also fuzzy when it comes to memories from the studio). The rock and roll rumor mill spins out yarns painting Bowie as a skeleton of a man, living off various dairy products and copious amounts of easy to get L.A. coke. There are notes of paranoia fueling the recording of the album. Magic and the black arts were both weighing heavily on Bowie’s mind and soul, as was an unhealthy interest in the occult and German philosophy. Still despite everything pulling Bowie deeper and deeper into madness (and a likely “rock and roll” demise) he managed to gather some of the finest musicians of the time, including a number of his previous musical peers (most notably dueling guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, the latter playing extensively on Bowie’s “Berlin” albums) and assembled an unprecedented shortlist of songs that to this day remain gems in Bowie’s extensive repertoire.


My true gateway to Bowie’s music came during my junior year of university. Before departing for a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, I coaxed a high-school friend into swapping music with me, most notably his digital Bowie discography. I already had a piquing interest in Bowie before this chance meeting of digital piracy/musical exploration. For those who still doubt the benefits of music downloading in the digital age understand this: there are some musicians or artists out there who should be explored in lumps, preferably through a chronologcial survey of their canon. Bowie, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Prince, to name a few giants that come to mind, evolved over their musical evolution in a way that was often unexpected, not always without its flaws but always fascinating. To listen to these transformations from early to late is such a rewarding gift for a music enthusiast.


If you go through Bowie’s catalogue of records during the 1970s, Station to Station seems like a natural way to divide his most lucrative decade.


Following closely on the heels of Bowie’s foray into Philly soul and disco sounds, the flawed but catchy Young Americans, Station seems to develop partially on the sound that Bowie was cultivating on Americans, while also adding enough needed experimentation to prove that he, in fact, had a lot more up his sleeve. The big musical jolt would follow with 1977s Low, an album so dear to my heart that I will eventually get around to adding it to this project.


“Station to Station” as a track has taken on many incarnations in my life. There was a seldom a time the track didn’t manage to make it onto a series of car mix CDs circulating the stereo in my Toyota. Like so many of Bowie’s tunes, I am always brought back to Salamanca, Spain. As I walked the streets my soundtrack was often set to Bowie, as my Iberian stint somehow became the environment where I fully-discovered his music. “Station to Station” was (and still is) a favorite track to run to as its slow-building crescendo coincides perfectly with the gradual ascension to full-on sprinting that runners plan during routes.


Lyrically the track is a window into the intrigue surrounding Bowie’s mental state of mind at the time. There are references to the Jewish Kabbalah, read as the crown and base of the tree of life:


Here are we

One magical movement

from Kether to Malkuth


Bowie references love and loss, possibly a sign of the times, most notably his separation from his wife and disconnection with his son while also referencing is physical and mental state:


It's not the side-effects of the cocaine

I'm thinking that it must be love


Towards the end he finally gets to the point of the song and the album of its origin when he croons: “It’s too late / The European canon is here.”


It is widely known that Europe was beckoning Bowie, particularly through the music and art coming out of the East. His retreat to Europe, leaving behind L.A. was ultimately his saving grace. He has often said that he would have died in L.A. had he continued his lifestyle. That he also coaxed friend and musical influence Iggy Pop to join him in Europe, only moistens the intrigue of this period of musical exploration. Whether or not Bowie predicted or really knew what would ensue, musically, in the coming years of his career is up for debate, however, he knew that the art and changing tides in Eastern Europe would play an important role in the future of rock and roll. He, of course, wanted to be along for the ride.


My interest in this period of Bowie’s life would later lead to the reading of various accounts of the recording of this album, most notably Thomas Seabrook’s detailed book, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in Town. I still listen to Station to Station on a semi-regular basis. It’s title tracks is one of the truly great epic songs in rock and roll. As for the rest of the album, Bowie’s at his finest.


“Golden Years” took everything that was good about Young Americans and fused it together with the twisted grooves that would find their way to “Station to Station.” “Word on a Wing” is a heartbreaking ballad of sorts that tests Bowie’s vocal prowess and ultimately showcases a range seldom heard. “TVC-15” feels like a Warren Zevon song was blasted into space and collided with disco tunes that time forgot. “Wild is the Wind” is a noteworthy cover that is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier days. Then there’s “Stay,” which, besides featuring one of the truly great guitar riffs in rock and roll, is a sly number that would make Maggot Brain era Funkadelic envious.


Station to Station will always be a favorite in Bowie’s rich catalogue. Other venture and efforts would do more with this new found sound, most notably Low, however, it was Station that served as the jumping off point for Bowie’s major changes in the latter half of the century. Bowie released eleven near-flawless records in the 1970s, a feat that few artists working today could accomplish, especially when you consider that along the way he changed the sound and vision from album to album, station to station. After discovering Station to Station and the subsequent “Berlin Trilogy” I was officially hooked on Bowie, an unhealthy musical obsession that holds strong even today. Friends often scoff and wonder where this interest came from. They clearly haven’t listened to “Station to Station,” from its mesmerizing train whistle prelude to its coda, funk/disco/rock nirvana.




"Stay" featuring Adrian Belew