Archive for the ‘spoken word’ Category

Album Review: John and Yoko w/ Harry Smith: I’m Not the Beatles

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Way back in 1990, author John Robertson published a provocative book called The Art & Music of John Lennon. The title might lead one to think it’s a coffee table book or somesuch; in fact it’s something much more weighty (metaphorically speaking, that is). Robertson’s central thesis – consistent with a largely unspoken viewpoint espoused by John Lennon and wife/partner/collaborator Yoko Ono – is that everything John and Yoko did was essentially part of one big work of art. Yes: not only music, but written pieces (such as Yoko’s Grapefruit), public appearances (like the 1969 Amsterdam and Toronto bed-ins), films (Apotheosis, Erection, and so on) and interviews.

If one buys that argument (and I do), it points out John and Yoko’s commonality with Frank Zappa: Zappa’s entire body of work somehow fits together, puzzle-like, into something aficionados call the Project-Object.

Robertson doesn’t make explicit mention of the series of interviews the couple held with Village Voice journalist Howard Smith, but passing mention is made to those interviews in the larger context of the bed-ins and other milestones in their timeline. As it happens, John and Yoko sat (occasionally over the phone, more often in person) with Smith for no less than a half dozen interviews between May 1969 an January 1972. Totaling more than four hours of audio, these previously unreleased conversations have now been released as an eight-CD set called I’m Not the Beatles.

Of course the Lennons gave many interviews in that period; before John’s self-imposed retirement (1975-79), he was one of the most accessible artists in the pop world. And as the couple lent their high profiles to a dazzlingly varied assortment of causes, there was nearly always a timely and relevant reason to sit down with them for a chat.

A few things are especially remarkable about these interviews. One, John and Yoko are nearly always patient and respectful of their interviewer. One must realize that they had answered these very same questions – or slight variations on them — dozens of other times; especially in the case of the bed-ins: how many ways are there to respectfully respond to a question that basically asks, “What the hell is it you’re doing?” the flip-side remarkable quality of the interviews is that Smith seems unafraid to ask tough questions. He pushes Lennon hard (and repeatedly) on the efficacy of sitting in bed, planting acorns, posting billboards and the like, all “for peace.” And when he doesn’t get an answer that satisfies him, he asks again, from a slightly different angle.

All of the big events that John and Yoko were involved with in the period get discussed in these interviews. The Toronto Peace Festival and the couple’s involvement with Greenwich Village leftists are explored in some detail.

The booklet enclosed with the CDs sketches the arc of Smith’s getting to know the couple, and places the series of interviews into historical context. Liner notes writer (and Beatles expert) Chip Madinger credits Smith with introducing John and Yoko to the nearly talentless John Peel, but listeners shouldn’t hold that sin against Smith; just appreciate his skills as an interviewer and delight in this fascinating box set of conversations wit John and Yoko.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

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Hundred Word Reviews: February 2014, Part Two

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

As part of my continuing effort to thin the pile of to-be-reviewed CDs on my desk – and that’s after culling all the ones I’ve decided not to cover – I present the second in this month’s series of 100-word capsule reviews. This batch will feature new music by artists with whom most readers will be unfamiliar, though a few established names will pop up. All these are worth seeking out, especially for those more adventurously-minded readers/listeners.

Felsen – I Don’t Know How to Talk Anymore
Imagine a slightly more laid-back Fountains of Wayne, and you’ll have a rough idea of the sound of this Oakland-area band. The Venn diagram of Americana fans and powerpop fans doesn’t feature a large common area, but this self-released effort aims for that sweet spot. They go all anthemic on “Rock and Roll’s Not Dead,” and then wait ’till nearly the song’s end to actually, y’know, rock, but it’s worth the wait. Elsewhere they serve up a breezy, straight-ahead sound that evokes memories of The Cars, crossed with Gin Blossoms. The self-produced album sports a fully-developed glossy production finish.

Dan Miraldi – Devil at our Heels EP
Miraldi doles out his music in EP rather than album form, but the truth is that he delivers the goods. That is, if the goods are 80s-styled new wave influenced rock. It’s Miraldi on vocals, guitars and keys here, joined by guitarist, bassist and drummer. The melodies and arrangements all have a vaguely familiar feel to them, which might send more ambitious (read: less lazy) listeners back to their 80s vinyl in search of the answer to the where-have-I-heard-that-before questions. But as throwbacks go, Devil at our Heels is fun stuff. This EP is an improvement over Miraldi’s 2011 effort.

The Claudettes – Infernal Piano Plot…Hatched!
This is a strange one, and wholly out of step with pretty much anything else that’s going on in music in 2014. A piano and drums duo that plays barrelhouse instrumentals? There’s more to them than that one style, of course, but Johnny Iguana (piano) and Michael Caskey (drums) seem intent to stay well outside the mainstream. On “Hammer and Tickle” (yes, they have a sense of humor) they sound more like a swinging Vince Guaraldi than anything else, but the blues figures mightily in their approach as well. Might this catch on as the hipsters’ Next Big Thing?

Gun Club Cemetery – s/t
Yeah, the band name makes no sense to me either. Leader Alex Lowe is an Australian (sorry) a Scottish troubador/pub-rocking sort of fellow, and his songs – performed here with little filigree, hewing to the guitar/bass/drums format with a spot of keyboard – are appealing and straightforward. In places he’s reminiscent of Rockpile; in others (specifically “Sunset Shadows”) he’s a dead ringer for Michael Penn. And the acoustic-leaning cuts here call to mind Together Alone-era Crowded House. Lowe’s warm voice and heartfelt lyrics mean that time spent with this album yields rewards, as its virtues reveal themselves on repeated spins. A winner.

Peter MacLeod – Rolling Stone
Released (like Gun Club Cemetery above) on Alan McGhee‘s new 359 Music, this is highly worth seeking out. With a breezy vibe applied to soaring, big-chord anthems, MacLeod sounds a bit like prime-era Gin Blossoms. The electric guitars chime, the acoustic guitars shimmer, and the uplifting vocal harmonies are the cherry on top. The song titles might seem a bit by-the-numbers (“Let it shine,” “Give a Little Love,” “Hold Me Now”) but the tunes themselves are ear candy of the most addictive sort. MacLeod crafts songs that will stay with you, and move you to hit “repeat.”

Mick Farren and Andy Colquhoun – Black Vinyl Dress
Truthfully, the late Mick Farren was one of those artists I’ve tended to admire but not listen to. His late 60s work with The Deviants is no doubt influential, and his Stiff Records-era stuff reinforced his relevance. And he was an expert on many topics, from (radical) politics to (equally radical) music. This album will go down in history as his final statement. It’s spoken word with instrumental backing. Yeah, poetry, right down to what sound like bongo drums. How you feel about the genre in general will probably determine whether you dig this. Again: relevant, yes. Enjoyable? You decide.

Laurie Biagini – Sanctuary of Sound
It seems perverse to label Vancouver-based Biagini an underground artist: her music is so infectious, chirpy and friendly that the tag seems to confer a vaguely mysterious, sinister vibe that the music simply doesn’t warrant. Trafficking in a style that might almost be termed neo-Brill Building, Laurie Biagini crafts poppy songs that call to mind Lesley Gore more than anyone else. Her sunny and bright musical disposition keeps her out of the singer/songwriter ditch; even on contemplative material, the listener gets the sense that she’s a glass-half-full kinda gal. Production is professional but clearly on the DIY side of things.

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Album Review: Woody Guthrie — American Radical Patriot

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Most Americans know the name Woody Guthrie. What they know of him beyond that – and/or their opinion on what he means to popular culture and music – varies widely. He’s an often misunderstood character, and as so often happens, human tendency toward a sort of reductionist thought tends to try and simplify him, to distill his essence down to a short wiki entry.

His body of work is an inconvenient presence to that sort of approach. The man wrote at least 3001 songs (that’s how many that have been officially catalogued by his official foundation) and there were certainly more. He recorded extensively, as well. And a new compilation brings together a thematically linked set of recordings dating mostly from the 1940s and 50s. Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot collects for the first time in one place all of the Library of Congress recordings Guthrie did with historian Alan Lomax, his Bonneville Power Administration songs; demos he did in hopes of supporting public health initiatives to combat venereal disease; and songs to support the WWII war effort. Six CD document that material, and a detailed annotation guides the listener along.

The sessions with Lomax are a rich combination of stories, songs and story-songs. In a small studio, the two men sit (with occasional sips of liquor), and Lomax – employing the polite fiction that the two had only just met – asks Guthrie to reminisce about his life as a youth in dust bowl Oklahoma, his move to California, and myriad other topics. For his part, Guthrie recounts jokes, tells heart-rending stories of death, and regales Lomax with vivid slice-of-life tales.

And quite often – sometimes without prompting, sometimes with encouragement from Lomax — Gurthrie sings and plays songs. His own tunes occasionally, but as often as not, songs he learned from others. Traditional songs adapted to his style, these tunes include “Greenback Dollar” and “The Midnight Special” (the latter written and popularized by Guthrie’s friend and another of Lomax’s session subjects, Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly).

Guthrie sings of love, of his god (“Jesus Christ,”) of American folk heroes and antiheroes (“Billy the Kid.” “Pretty Boy Floyd”), and of the struggles between the haves and have nots (“The Jolly Banker”).

The last of these leads toward a discussion of a question given deep coverage in the pages of American Radical Patriot‘s stunning book: was Woody Guthrie a Communist? Evidence is presented, and in the end the reader/listener is encouraged to make his/her own decision, but the liner essay author (Bill Nowlin, though one has to look hard to find the modest author’s name or credit) clearly believes – and argues convincingly – that Guthrie was in fact a “commonist” rather than a member of any sort of organized school of thought. Guthrie’s own half-jesting words on the subject: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.” Nowlin suggests Guthrie was a sort of quasi-Christian socialist, and the songs in general support that view. More than anything else, he was a champion of the common man, of the downtrodden, the voiceless.

Though amazingly plain-spoken and a voice who articulated the persona of the American common man, Guthrie was indeed complicated. His views often changed. Early on he used the N-word, until taken to task by a radio listener. (He immediately stopped using the offensive term.) His views on the glories of American frontier expansionism led him to paint a negative portrait of Native Americans in one of the songs he cut for the BPA (“Roll On Columbia,”) though Nowlin suggests — again, convincingly so — that had Guthrie been called out on this, he likely would have rethought and rewritten the lytic.

Too, he was decidedly anti-war until the sinking of the USS Reuben James by the Germans in 1941. Guthrie went on to serve in the quasi-governmental Merchant Marines, and later the US Army. He recorded many anti-fascist songs including “Reuben James” and “Whoopy Ti-yi, Get Along, Mr. Hitler.” American Radical Patriot collects those tunes as well. While at first glance Guthrie’s populist sentiments might seem at odds with the idea of recording in the employ of the Federal government, closer inspection shows that it’s not at all inconsistent. Guthrie saw the federal government as a counterweight to some of the more anti-populist tendencies of state governance; in many ways he’s the polar opposite of the misguided, mean-spirited and short-sighted 21st century so-called “tea party” mentality.

The new set also includes innumerable goodies, but here’s a rundown of the most significant among these. First, there’s a DVD including a 99-minute documentary film Roll On Columbia; eleven of Guthrie’s songs are included. The liner notes – in a chapter entitled “The Bonneville Power Administration Recordings” — tell the story of one man’s heroic stewardship of films (including Guthrie’s music) that were ordered destroyed during the dark days of McCarthyism.

Though it’s of practical use to very few people, the set also includes a 10” 78rpm disc. The record includes an alternate recording of “The Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done” (originally cut for the BPA) and a flip-side recording of Bob Dylan covering Guthrie’s “VD Blues.”

The physical package itself is beyond amazing. Housed in a hardcover package designed to look and feel like an old-time “record album,” American Radical Patriot may well be the – from a visual/tactile aesthetic point of view – one of the most impressive box sets ever put together. The 60pp book (not a booklet!) bound inside is essential reading, though readers are advised against attempting to do so while listening ot the CDs. And if all that three-dimensional stuff isn’t enough, an e-book (also available on Disc One as a PDF, and in hard copy form for a nominal additional charge of about $13.50) presents a much longer and more in-depth version of the book included in the physical set.

As a cultural icon, Woody Guthrie, his oral histories and his music are all exemplars of the best qualities of the American experience. That a package such as American Radical Patriot is created to honor him is one of those why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-before things. But here it is. Simply essential.

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Album Review: Phil Manzanera and Anna Le – Nth Entities

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

I’m the first to admit it: I generally don’t “get” poetry. I appreciate good lyrics, but as often as not my attention is drawn more to the sound and texture of vocals in music than to what’s being sung about. So it was with some trepidation that I received an advance of Nth Entities. True, I’ve long been a fan of Phil Manzanera‘s work. As a member of Roxy Music, as a collaborator (most notably with David Gilmour) and as a solo artist, his work has never been less than compelling. So I figured I’d give Nth Entities a listen.

This work is a collaboration in the truest sense. Spoken-word performances of original poetry by UK-based Anna Le are embellished by Manzanera’s music. Because I am generally suspicious (at worst) and skeptical (at best) of poetry, the billing on Nth Entities gave me some initial pause; the poet bills herself as Anna LeDoesPoetry. Well, okay. Manzanera gamely plays along, co-billing himself as Phil ManzaneraDoesMusic. Well, all-righty then. (Imagine me rolling my eyes here.)

The black poet is possessed of a very “street” British accent, an instrument well designed to deliver her poetry. Her articulate vocabulary serves her well. What makes the project intriguing – well, one of things that does that – is its initial premise/genesis. Le was asked to create a poem about Jimi Hendrix. As she admits, she wasn’t well-versed in the man’s history or his music. So her impressions are, to a degree, context-free. The other poems are variously about love, life and such things.

My original plan here was to do a collaboration of my own: I reached out to a poet friend with an idea: we would both – individually – listen to Nth Entities, and pen separate reviews. The poet would deal with the poetry, and I would address the music. Due to schedules, commitments, priorities and the vagaries of modern life, that plan never became a reality. So in the end I’m left to reflect briefly on both the words and the music.

My summary judgment is that it’s…pretty good. The poetry is, well, poetry. It’s what I think they call blank verse; the meter and rhyme have little in common with Shakespearean sonnets or (thank goodness) greeting cards. Le’s sometimes declamatory “slam” style is what someone not all that into poetry would expect: there’s a stagey feel to a lot of her delivery that sort of insists you pay attention. Sometimes the words go by in a rush; one can’t turn away, or the thread (assuming it’s even been caught) will be lost.

Manzanera’s music – mostly himself on guitar, Kaoss Pad effects pedal and keyboards with rock accompaniment from a short list of sidemen – varies to complement the declamations. The Hendrix piece (“Jimi”) doesn’t try to sound like Hendrix at all (at least not to these ears). Instead Manzanera’s music is very reminiscent of Pete Townshend‘s “English Boy,” from his unjustly-maligned (but also equally pretentious) Psychoderelict.

In the end I suppose I would enjoy Nth Entities more were it reconfigured in a way completely unfaithful to its goals: with the poetry removed. At times, I couldn’t help feeling that I had attended a recital of Manzanera’s music in a small, intimate hall, only to be seated next to a very loud, insistent and pretentious fellow audience member intent on speaking through the entire instrumental concert. “Scratch” brings together two of my least-loved musical forms – stiff, drum machine pop and reggae – and then puts poetry on top of it. The result is, to these ears, gruesome. But occasionally, Nth Entities works better: “Lego Limbs” sounds like early 70s Bob Dylan (specifically “Lay Lady Lay”), and Le’s poetry is delivered in a subtler, softer fashion. Two of the bonus tracks feature no poetry; those are my favorite pieces on the disc. And Le’s bonus “SOS” – which features no music – is her best thing on the album, too. So I’m left thinking that the collaboration overall is of dubious merit. But that’s just me, with all the baggage I bring.

The packaging is worthy of mention; it’s quite impressive. A hardcover booklet houses the CD and a very art-house design. Foldout pages provide printed versions of Le’s poetry plus a few short essays on the work. For those inclined toward a musical/poetry work such as Nth Entities, it’s hard to imagine a more pleasingly-put-together package than this. With the caveats and reservations I’ve noted, Nth Entities is guardedly recommended.

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Album Review: Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Critics and other observers of pop culture have a number of labels to which they (and by “they” I mean “we”) turn when attempting to classify works of entertainment. One of these is Incredibly Strange. And that epithet is as apt a label to apply to a new release, a long-lost unreleased comedy record by Ernie Kovacs.

Kovacs is rightly heralded as a “televisionary,” and his particular outré brand of comedy was barrier-pushing when he was on TV in the late 50s and early 60s. He’s now regarded as a major influence on the style of television personalities including David Letterman. His style was odd, often seemingly-ad-libbed (even when it wasn’t), and, really, just – for its time – incredibly strange.

One of the recurring characters into which Kovacs would slip during his program was that of Percy Dovetonsils. And there’s really no way to describe Percy without admitting the obvious: he’s a broad parody of the late 50s stereotype of what they used to call a “confirmed bachelor.” Yep, like Liberace. Get what I’m gettin’ at?

So on one level, it’s hard to understand why in 2012 a record label would release an album of mock-poetry by Kovacs in his mincing, fey and hopelessly dated (and politically oh-so-horribly-incorrect) persona. But two facts argue in favor of Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks getting this modern-day release. The first is simply that Kovacs is such an important figure in both television and comedy. The second is that, well, this album is pretty rare. Kovacs recorded it 1961, but it never got released, and the tapes of the unfinished album went missing until they were unearthed recently by archivist Ben Model. Content aside, Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks is too historically important to remain unreleased. I’m convinced.

But what of the content? Well, it’s certainly dated, and it’s not among the most rip-roaringly hysterical comedy material you’ve ever heard. But it is clever. If one can – at least in part – set aside any bristling, squirming or other negative reactions to the presentation, what remains is a collection of poems that, well, make fun of poetry. Kovacs recites his ditties – many of which are titled “Ode to…” this or that – and does so with relish. Most of the pieces seem to fall into fairly standard poetic meter (the sort familiar to lovers of limericks and detractors of Helen Steiner Rice‘s maudlin greeting-card “poetry”), but nearly every one suffers – intentionally, I’m guessing – from a breakdown of that meter. “Too many” words stuffed into a line, or an odd rhyme that uses an inappropriate word simply because it fits someone’s idea of a rhyme scheme.

Put simply, in his Percy Dovetonsils guise, Kovacs takes the piss out of poetry. He introduces every poem by telling us its title, and reminding us that it’s “by Percy Dovetonsils.” Henry Gibson would pick up this approach and reuse it with nearly no modification during his stint on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a show that bears the influence of Kovacs’ style.

Interestingly enough – I’ll invite you to read the full details in the liner notes – the archivist who discovered the long-lost unfinished album is also a fine pianist. Kovacs left behind some important supporting documents for the album, including a suggested running order and notes that made it clear he hoped to have some solo piano backing on some tracks. So – in keeping with the spirit of Kovacs’ vision for Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks, Ben Model recorded those “underscore” pieces. The results are remarkably well-fitting for Kovacs’ recitations. Not quite jazz, they’re more of a parlor-room Vince Guaraldi style, and Model’s sense of phrasing uncannily follows Kovacs’ speech and spoken phrasing.

My advice is to approach this album – which is well worth your time – with an open mind. Think, if it helps, of the wide appeal Paul Lynde and/or Rip Taylor had in years gone by. Remind yourself that 1961 was more than a half-century ago. Taken with that approach, Ernie Kovacs Presents Percy Dovetonsils…thpeaks is a historical treasure, and one of the most incredibly strange ones at that.

Note: The album is available on 180-gram vinyl rendered in a lovely lavender-splatter motif. It has to be seen to be believed. The LP version comes with a digital download card, and the download features a clutch of bonus tracks, mostly taken from audio recordings of Kovacs’ television shows in which “Percy” appeared.

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