December always puts me in a pop music state of mind. Maybe it’s the spirit of the month, a time when everyone’s united by different ways of carrying out the same ideal. Maybe it’s the incessant making of year-end lists, with knee-jerks toward the obscure and reactionary moves against said jerks. December says, hey, the year’s almost over. You made it. Pull your head up and enjoy shit. Perhaps this inane Trey Songz track will help.
I watched the AMAs last month and wanted to shoot myself. I heard the words “Lady Gaga” 257 times in a three-hour span, because Lady Gaga likes fashion and awards shows love fashion. I watched as the West Coast feed very weirdly censored out Jennifer Lopez falling on her ass. And I saw Adam Lambert’s contrived cycle of crotch worship and man-kiss, a predictable career lifeboat which everyone kept afloat in discussion the next day.
No one seemed to be talking much about the fact that Lambert’s “song” was the worst-sounding piece of shit ever broadcast on television, and that nearly every other busied performance on the endless parade of unbearable spectacle after unbearable spectacle sounded essentially just like it, with no discernible melody, no hook, and no appeal. In short, no pop music. Just a bunch of drama, beats and high heels.
Then Jay-Z and Alicia Keys came out and took over for five short, wonderful minutes. “Empire State of Mind” was not only surprisingly good—Jay-Z not residing at the top of my list—but warmed me at 1) all those phony assholes in Los Angeles getting schooled and 2) an actual song I could get behind. Plus, enough time since 9/11 means I can handle songs about New York again. Lo and behold, it shot quickly to #1 on the Billboard charts. Today, in fact, I tuned in to NYC’s Hot 97, expecting to hear it within 30 minutes. They played it in 24.
“Empire State of Mind” is not a masterpiece of a song. Jay-Z’s continued claims that he’s the new Sinatra, at least, are offset by Alicia asking people to put their lighters in the air. Take that, iPhones! But it feels good to hear it in December. And feeling good is what pop music does best.
I have laughed out loud for protracted moments over rap lyrics twice in the last month, and you probably have, too, if you’ve seen this collection of ridiculous rap lyrics that’s been going around. My friend Brian, who tutors at a high school in San Francisco, sends something even better—a proper-English translation of Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance.” The attendant story is that an Oakland high school sponsored an English contest and this is the winning entry, although that’s apocryphal at best. Just read it and laugh.
Everyone who’s considering buying a live album has the same burning question:
“Does it have a bunch of cheering and clapping? I hate that.”
Kiss Alive, Frampton Comes Alive and other inexplicably cheer-heavy double LPs totally ruined live albums until around the 1990s, when record companies finally got wise and realized that the perceived greatness of their performers didn’t need to be inflated by putting a microphone out in the audience and turning it way the fuck up in the mix, thereby annoying the majority of listeners.
So why, oh why, is the crowd mixed so loud on Tom Waits’ new live album?
I was most effusive about the two shows on this tour that I saw—especially the tour’s final stand inside a huge circus tent in Dublin, which ranks as one of the best shows I’ve seen, ever. Obviously, nothing about a CD is going to replicate the experience of seeing Waits live, but unfortunately, instead of crafting a listenable live album, whoever mixed this thing decided to make it sound like the listener is “really” there. The result is a recording part soundboard, part ambient, with Waits’ voice echoing off the walls like a too-expensive St. Mark’s Place bootleg.
This could be saved by a good setlist, but that, too, falters. There are 63 great songs Waits played on this tour that could have been chosen. When you ask someone what their favorite Tom Waits song is, they won’t respond with “Metropolitan Glide.” Nor “The Part You Throw Away.” I guarantee it. Waits opportunistically throws in his own versions of songs recently covered by Scarlett Johanssen (“Falling Down”) and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (the wretched “Trampled Rose”). “I’ll Shoot the Moon” is distractable by the blathered bridge, which leaves album closer “Lucky Day” the farewell standout, and by that time it has hardly any impact at all.
Recommended: Save your money for Waits’ mammoth 7xLP box set Orphans, finally seeing the light of day on vinyl on Dec. 8.
Nomo – Invisible Cities: Dean played this for me on the way home from seeing Ornette Coleman in San Francisco, and it was one of those moments when everything made sense. Nomo take the Fela Kuti thing many steps further than most of Fela’s acolytes who frustratingly seem stuck in tribute mode, and use a funk-based template for exciting arrangements. A thoroughly enjoyable Moondog cover, “Bumbo,” is everything good about this group: thumb pianos, a steady groove, and a horn section that stretches out and snaps back like elastic.
Neurosis – Times of Grace: I swore off Neurosis in 1993 with Enemy of the Sun, and even slept through one of their shows at Gilman around the same time. It takes love to retract such shunning, and upon reconsideration, Enemy of the Sun, though no Souls at Zero, is a fine album. Better yet is this 1999 Steve Albini-produced record, which does away with the tribal drumming and whatever weird effect Dave Ed used to have on his bass, and sticks to the true live sound of a band unafraid to mentally fornicate with the dark side.
Girls – Album: I allowed myself to be hoodwinked into this crap by Rob, who stated thus: “It’s like early, angry Elvis Costello backed by some cheesy ’60s LA pop band. It sounds about as unhip as possible, yet it totally rules. I love it when someone does something so well, you just can’t deny it – even if it seems like the wrong thing at the wrong time.” I trusted him until yesterday, when upon the fifth listening I just got sick of it and took it off. People are into its simple songs, with melodies and choruses, because that stuff hasn’t been popular for a while. That doesn’t make it good.
Up Tight! – Soundtrack: Jules Dassin is famous for The Naked City and Never on Sunday, but I’ve gotta say, there’s nothing like Rififi, which I saw once at the Rialto while Tom Waits sat behind me. The local angle on Dassin gets deeper when you factor in Thieves’ Highway, partially filmed in rural Sebastopol and which features the most gripping tire-changing scene in the history of cinema. This film, written, produced and directed by Dassin, has never been available on VHS or DVD. I’m dying to see it. Booker T. & the MGs play a soulful score, with an interesting re-recording of “Time is Tight.”
Not to Reason Why – Would You Hug Fire?: I’ve heard that the title was suggested by a developmentally disabled person, so cut it some slack. I’ll write more about the amazing packaging later, for the paper, but for now just know that it’s finally out. It’s been an exciting few years watching this band get better and better, and everything good about them comes together on this album. It used to be easy to lump them in with Explosions in the Sky but that’s no longer appropriate, especially with the strings and horns on this densely produced outing.
Elvin Jones / Jimmy Garrison Sextet – Illumination!: The last time Elvin Jones played at Yoshi’s, he was accompanied by an oxygen tank. Played up until the end. When I talked to John Handy, he echoed a story going around—even told by Ted Curson (scroll to “July 21st”)—that Elvin Jones once pulled a gun on Charles Mingus. This record is essentially Coltrane’s Impulse quartet without Coltrane, plus clarinet, flute, English horn and baritone sax. On it, Elvin plays remarkably. This is a good time to let you know that McCoy Tyner is playing at Yoshi’s on New Year’s Eve and surrounding dates, with Esperanza Spalding, Francisco Mela and Ravi Coltrane. Go.
Richard Harris – Slides: So I guess there was this thing going on for a while in the 1970s where it was okay to be unemployed and wasted all day as long as you gave off the vibe that love and nature were the most important things in the world. Rod McKuen, embroidered denim shirts, EST, all that kinda Sausalito-y post-cocaine stuff. It really has been 37 years since this album came out. Harris is sometimes atrocious in the best way and sometimes great in the most atrocious way, and telling which from which depends on your mood / glasses of wine you’ve had. I appreciate the challenge.
D’Angelo – Voodoo: You ever see a vat of tar on those asphalt trucks that smell? I know you’ve smelled it, but if you look up close, it’s incredible to see. Huge, round bubbles that slowly rise to the surface and dissipate rather than pop. That’s what this record is like: steamy, yet incapable of a rolling boil. It took me years to realize that it was more than rhythm and blurts. Perhaps I gravitate to the chicken on the back cover, and the fact that it is most likely about to be killed. A sleeper-wave album.
Superchunk – No Pocky for Kitty: In 1993, I thought for sure I had to be the only person listening to this album everyday twice. As such, like a Superchunk ambassador, I told everyone about it. When I met Kid Dynamo, and they had heard of this album, I freaked. The new book about Merge Records called Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records is excellent, and is a good reminder of the days when indie rock had no internet presence. I love being blown away when someone else has heard of some wonderful discovery. It happens more infrequently these days.
Reggie Workman – The Works of Workman: When one thinks of exemplary double-bass albums, one often thinks of Dragonetti Lives!, a wonderful 1975 recording on John Fahey’s Takoma label by Bertram Turetzky. (Listen to some of it here.) Turetzky plays with a lone piano backing, but on The Works of Workman it’s just the master bassist, his bulbous tone, and some fantastic Japanese engineering. Workman throws in a little bit of his dominant bass line from Olé Coltrane here, and weaves through compositions by Paul Chambers, Duke Ellington, Stanley Cowell and Luiz Bonfa. Recommended.
Al Quint, publisher of Suburban Voice ‘zine and host of Sonic Overload Radio, posts this downloadable “Tribute” to Ronald Reagan. Originally aired in 2004 the week of Reagan’s death, the show undertakes the mammoth task of compiling definitive punk songs about how much Reagan sucks. There must have been two thousand. Quint picks 60 of them.
The show runs the gamut, from DRI’s hyperfast “Reaganomics” to the Violent Femmes’ “Old Mother Reagan,” and we even get Heaven 17′s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” near the end. It’s amazing to revisit all the methods used in the ’80s to talk shit about the president, like the sudden tacking on of the line “President Reagan can shove it” after a song about trying to get laid (“Superficial Love,” TSOL) or the ridiculous adding of the prefix “Mc-” to select words in the Dayglo Abortions’ “Ronald McRaygun.” Most bands, like NOFX (“Reagan Sucks”), go the simple route.
Sixty punk songs about how much Reagan sucks. Now please, help me out: Why weren’t punk bands this vociferous about W., who from the onset was far worse in the eyes of the punk community? Were they scared? Numb? Trying to sign to Victory? It’s always confused me. There was Fat Wreck Chords’ Rock Against Bush series, but the tracklisting—especially on Vol. 2—reveals bands repurposing older, non-Bush related songs. “Chesterfield King” never was political song, just like “Fucked Up Ronnie,” by D.O.A., isn’t much of a love song.
Ornette Coleman, a slow, frail-looking figure at age 79, shuffled onto the Davies Symphony Hall stage last night. Slowly making his way to the bandstand, he bowed, remarked that it was good to be able to get to know the audience, and picked up his alto saxophone. He and his band began to play.
Suddenly, Ornette Coleman wasn’t 79 anymore. He was 24, or 34, or any particular age in between. His saxophone came to life with his unmistakable butcher-paper tone, a singular voice in jazz that is ageless. During the next five minutes, he picked up and played a flugelhorn, then a violin. His band rumbled forth until the line between improvisation and composition blurred, and the whole propulsion came to a quick, sharp stop.
It was, in a word, miraculous.
While many jazz legends age ungracefully and move into smooth-jazz territory, Coleman through thick and thin has continued to follow his own path, a journey that is at the heart of jazz itself. In recent years, this journey has brought him to the Pulitzer committee and, in one of the funniest television moments of the last few years, the Grammy Awards. He has also time and again returned to the SFJAZZ festival, who presented last night’s concert. But he hasn’t rested on his laurels, playing at Davies from a chartbook full of new compositions and old classics with a stellar band featuring son Denardo on drums, Anthony Falanga on upright bass and Al McDowell on five-string electric bass.
In a mostly adventurous, tight set, there were admittedly moments when the men on stage weren’t entirely together. “Blues Connotation,” the opening track from This Is Our Music, was the first sign that age might be catching up with Coleman—he layed out for the lightning-fast head, and when it came around again as the outro, he struggled to keep up.
But any minor diminishments were more than overshadowed by the stellar, unpredictable vision of Coleman’s music. MacDowell provided swirling counterpoint to Coleman’s playing, like a spider doing the Charleston, while Denardo, playing more rock beats than usual, maintained a strange sense of control. Falanga, an excellent bassist, brought the house down by bowing Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1, more than capably handling the iconic theme arranged for jazz in a surprise twist.
Coleman himself, with his bizarre white saxophone, played remarkably. After a short, beautiful encore run-through of “Lonely Woman,” the applause was too great, and the band returned for “Song X.” Davies Symphony Hall resonated with Coleman’s bended notes, his falling glissandos, his jumping lines. It was clear that nowhere else in the entire world was music like this, full of humanity and love, being played at that same moment.
May Ornette Coleman live on, and may his music last a thousand years.
On a night when a single Republican voting for the House healthcare reform bill is hailed as “bipartisan,” I realize just how much there’s a gap in our lives. You’re either one thing or the other, especially around these parts. I spent part of my day yesterday at the St. Helena Skatepark, which just opened three weeks ago, hanging out with kids who can’t afford new skateboards. They were riding used boards, handed down to them, which also served as their transportation a couple miles back home. At the same time, just down the street, a winery hosted an upscale Napa Valley™ food & wine shindig with a half-mile line of shiny new cars parked outside and a $100 entry fee.
I drove home listening to Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears, an album with a lot in common with Q-Tip’s The Renaissance even though the two wouldn’t ever get played back-to-back on the same radio station. The divide. So it felt right to join in a coming together, and that was the Free Mind Media benefit last night at the Guyakí Mate Bar in Sebastopol.
I fully endorse Free Mind Media because in a climate where everyone asks why, they ask, why not? People go hungry on the street. We sit around and wonder why. Through Food Not Bombs, Free Mind Media says “Why not just feed them?” Police shoot unarmed citizens with mental problems. We sit around and wonder why. With Copwatch, Free Mind Media asks “Why not march together in the street in protest?” We wonder why we’re divided and they live out and promote small, simple acts that we often don’t consider because we assume the divide is too great.
Aside from the obvious coming together of people—and there were a lot of people packed into Guayakí’s back room, old and young, rich and poor, bob-cutted and afroed—more than half the lineup last night had both guys and girls in the band, another “why not?” that’s good to see being answered. During Not to Reason Why’s epic set, Goodriddler’s Nick Wolch and the New Trust’s Julia Lancer joined in for an insane three-drummer extravaganza together, erasing the multitudes of Napa Valley BMWs from my mind and sending me back to Santa Rosa with a lifted heart.
Cheers to Free Mind Media and all the bands, and especially to Guayakí, and David & Celeste, for providing a solid all-ages venue that’s been going off lately with positive vibes.
(Found today, on a pole downtown.)
When I talked to Reggie Workman on the phone last week, I asked him how it felt to go from playing large theaters in Europe to playing small coffee shops in America. “The music is not embraced enough in this country so that you can have an ideal situation every time you perform,” he said. “We are constantly trying to make our own situation.”
Last night at Flying Goat in Healdsburg, the café tables were cleared out and Workman’s group, Trio 3, made their own situation by setting up in the front corner near where that one guy is always scribbling in his notebook with a mocha. It may have seemed ersatz and thrown-together—until, that is, the group started playing.
I caught the 9pm show and dear reader, it was one of the most satisfying avant-garde jazz performances I’ve ever seen—this coming from a huge fan of the genre. Workman may be the big name, and certainly his bass playing was illustrious. Andrew Cyrille I equally admire, one of the few drummers confident enough to record a solo drum album, and he punched accents in all the unexpectedly right places.
Oliver Lake, though, stole the show. Never deploying too much from his trick bag, Lake was sparing in his use of bitten reeds, growled harmonies, wild scales and percussive short blasts. Instead, he incorporated them into thoughtful, searing solos with all the elements of a Hollywood movie, slowly building the tension while his rhythm section sped up and pushed him further and further. An inspired spoken-word about labels and division called “Separation” fit right in.
And Flying Goat? What a perfect venue—especially for a more avant-garde act that might not fill the Raven. Both shows were sold out, while the sound, with the café’s high ceilings and hardwood floors, was punchy and alive. It made me proud that so many people came out to a 9pm show on a Tuesday night in Healdsburg to honor three legends of a music so often misunderstood. As long as they don’t mind coffee shops, here’s to hopefully having them back in the future.