1983-1990: Gene Clark - Gypsy Angel
Former British PM Maggie Thatcher supposedly said that any man who found himself sitting on the bus over the age of 26 years old could consider himself a failure. This may or may not be true, but it is classic Maggie to remain aloof to the possibility that some people feel quite affectionately about failures, right up to the spectacle of the puffing, panting, belching, and spewing bus itself. Most of the buses I ever had to take were meandering and unreliable. Although the rage builds up when you’re standing there checking the time, when the bus finally arrives you’re so happy to see it that you immediately fall in love with the sweet chariot, simply ‘cos it’s there to pick you up and take you where you need to go.
I think there are songs too that have that effect. Songs that work well on journeys taken through not particularly spectacular countrysides, or at the end of long hard days involving flight delays and hardship at the hands of low fare European airlines because of rumbling volcanoes that won’t stop passing smokes between northerly isles. Okay, perhaps the latter experience isn’t so universal after all, but instead, if it helps, think of your dad switching a cassette tape in the car when you were in the backseat on a long family trip, and then think of him playing Gypsy Angel: The Gene Clark demos.
Most of the demos were recorded in 1990, the last year of Clark’s life, when he was preparing to make his first album with Carla Olson since their successful 1987 record, So Rebellious a Lover. The remaining four were recorded at various times throughout the 1980s. Though the compilation is threadbare (if it was actually made of fabric it would smell a little like dog), each song has its torch-like moments which can be attributed to Clark’s melodic abilities. He was the main songwriter for The Byrds during his stint with them (from 1964 to 1966) and wrote hits like “Eight Miles High” and “Here Without You.”
The melodies on songs like “Dark of my Moon” and “Pledge to You” are real tear-jerkers, and without these standouts, the album would deteriorate into little more than the ramblings of a broken down old folkie. The songs are too long, often nodding off into extended dozes of steel string’d prevaricating. Even so, the occasionally soporific atmosphere actually adds something to the album. The lyrics genuinely sound as if they are delivered by an old timer who talks in clichés but means what he says. I’m also a fan of the relatively boring guitar background — it is simple and mostly unaccompanied steel strumming that’s far from virtuosic, but has a lovely, sincere tone.
If old man heartbreak is what you’re looking for, then you might consider Gene Clark over Johnny Cash when you’re feeling low but resigned about your mood. Crawling slowly overland in the back of trucks and buses is not everyone’s ideal way to travel these days, but it gets you there in the end. Likewise, if you listen to Gypsy Angel in a patient mood — and there is definitely some kind of kinship between patience and melancholy — you will find yourself transported in a ramshackle but trusty vehicle to a place where every romantic failure contains the seed of a new song.
Clark is happy to paint himself as the fool who keeps forgiving his woman no matter how many times she runs off on him. As a result, he looks less foolish and more sage when he advises the girl he loves to chill out and quit runnin’. This approach is not as patronizing as it sounds, because it’s cut with a fair dose of residual pain; however, it is grandfatherly enough to be soothing on those days when even a late bus is breaking your heart.
1963: Roy Orbison - “In Dreams”
It is undeniable that different songs elicit different emotional responses. That is, a melancholy song by Nick Drake feels sad in comparison to an uplifting song by The Beatles. Yet, if you reflect on your experiences with music, a given song is also capable of eliciting unique emotions, simply by altering the environment where it’s played. Film presents many examples of this phenomenon, a particularly notable instance being the chilling and surreal use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
Released in 1986, Blue Velvet is a dark drama, taking place in the seemingly pleasant logging town of Lumberton. The main character Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) becomes part detective, part voyeur as he is intertwined in a suspicious woman’s bizarre mystery. As Jeffrey takes greater risks to uncover the truth, he eventually crosses paths with Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of arguably the most disturbing villain in cinematic history. For the part of Frank, Hopper brings raw energy and steals virtually every scene he’s in. Of Frank’s many sadistic quirks, his deeply personal and complex attachment to music illustrates how a song acquires new meaning when juxtaposed with a reel of film.
The soundtrack of Blue Velvet, supervised by the American composer and frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, features a variety of vintage pop songs. Yet, while Crooner Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” is the film’s mantra and namesake, Orbison’s “In Dreams” is the catalyst for two of the films most unforgettable scenes, distinct in their visceral reactions.
The first time the viewer hears “In Dreams” is in the following scene:
Even without context, this clip conveys the scenes intended emotional content. At first, Hopper’s character, Booth, is deeply moved by his friend’s theatrical lip-synching of the benign lullaby. Yet, as the scene cuts from Booth to his friend to the back of the room, a festive atmosphere is altered by enigmatic and woeful expressions. Jeffrey, surrounded by two goons, looks intimidated and troubled. A downtrodden woman emerges from the back room and sulks toward the group. Though Booth seems wholly unaware of his surroundings, soon his mood sharply changes to anger and disgust. It feels as if the sentimental lyrics of the song are too much for Booth. In the moment his affect shifts, the song becomes unbearable and he abruptly turns it off, though he grabs the cassette for later.
Contrast that scene with the following clip:
After a very R-rated sequence of drugs, sex, and violence, Booth demands his crony named Paul play “Candy Colored Clown.” This term comes from the first line of “In Dreams” and seems strikingly disjointed amongst the rest of the lyrics. (The image of a “Candy Colored Clown” is out of place amidst otherwise straightforward clichés.) But, evidently, this phrase connects with Booth, and he identifies the song with “Candy Colored Clown.”
Additionally, over the opening lines, he delivers a chilling threat to Jeffrey, punctuated by the recitation, “In dreams… I walk with you. In dreams… I talk to you. In dreams… You’re mine. Forever in dreams.” Unlike the lip-synching in the previous scene, Booth’s intentions are far more sinister, and he even changes the last line in order to bolster the image of him haunting Jeffrey. The song becomes an unshakable threat rather than a sweet ode to perpetual love. And, in doing so, “In Dreams” shows both Lynch’s talent for perverting the banal and music’s shifty potential to transform in disparate contexts.
1994: Samuel - Lives of Insects
Samuel should’ve been a contender. Their recorded body of work encompasses all of seven songs: this EP, a second seven-inch, and a split with Texas Is The Reason. Sonically, they were a rock band where the less acrobatic “post-hardcore” was expected: streamlined and no-nonsense, guitars that roared, and a vocalist more than capable of issuing bitter denunciations and offhand lyrical putdowns in an instant.
Singer Vanessa Downing and Eric Astor had previously played in a State College, PA band called Junction, but where Junction stopped and started, Samuel simply moved. There is, perhaps, something of the East Bay punk sound in Dean Taormina’s guitar and a fondness for skirting the edge of dissonance both musically and lyrically. The title track opens the EP with unsettling imagery and ruminations on mortality; there’s a quieter interlude to be found inside, but by the song’s conclusion, that sense of home has been banished. Over relentless drums and a rumbling bass, Downing sings “You thought you were safe here/ You were wrong.”
“Held Over” features some of the EP’s moments of relative levity (and the closest thing to a breakdown you’ll hear here.) Downing’s lyrics about “Your starry eyes/ They’re staring in the twilight/ Up into a makeshift sky” are a quick side trip into moods more sentimental than the scorched-earth approach heard elsewhere.
“Sideways Looker” closes out the EP by essentially pushing one mood for two minutes and segueing from there into somewhere much more grim. Essentially, it’s the sound of a band teetering between blissful noise-pop and something distorted and implosive. As Downing instructs, “Look to your left now/ That’s right/ That’s fuckin’ pretty,” her words echo the music, darting back and forth between welcoming and sinister. It made for a hell of a balancing act, and the group’s ability to encompass so much without being easily pigeonholed is why these songs still sting, 16 years later.
1977-83: First Choice - “Let No Man Put Asunder” and remixes
In 1977, Philadelphia vocal trio First Choice dropped their fourth, highest-charting (at a modest #103) and arguably most revered full-length effort Delusions, which provided them with their last American pop chart entry, the catchy but slightly pedestrian disco number “Doctor Love.” Not nearly as successful as their 1973 proto-disco smash “Armed and Extremely Dangerous,” the single — which amounted more or less to a lyrical rewrite of Diana Ross’ 1976 hit “Love Hangover” — barely missed the US Top 40. Considering that a remix of the song hit the upper echelons of the dance charts in the late-1990s, it has not exactly been forgotten about. However, a semi-arcane and superior cut from the same full-length belatedly garnered quite a bit of unexpected club success, inspiring house music through being subject to countless reinventions. Let’s focus on some of the initial, more creative and less sterile reworkings of the song in question, “Let No Man Put Asunder.”
Inspired by the Biblical passage Matthew 19:6, “Let No Man Put Asunder” blended aspects of the ornate and sensuous Salsoul Records aesthetic — insistent mid-tempo grooves, lush synthesizers, polyrhythms and sultry vocals — with a lyric detailing incredulity over a husband’s impending departure. First Choice singer Rochelle Fleming defends her desire to stand by her man (“It’s not a perfect love, but I’ll defend it / ‘cause I believe that’s what God intended!”) and Annette Guest and Ursula Herring back her up by repeatedly protesting, “It’s not over between you and me!” Fleming spouts an assortment of pleas and promises: “I got to have you every day of my doggone life!/ […] Don’t leave me this way!/ […] Squeeze me tight, hold me right, all night!” She furthermore vamps, “I don’t wanna ever get married to anyone else but you, baby/ […] I’ll make your home a sweet paradise!” and makes additional concessions that (for many) could reek of such desperation that one might wonder why certain quarters misinterpret the song as an empowering anthem, or even more outlandishly, an empowering FEMINIST anthem. How does a pledge of devotion speciously truckling to a husband — penned by two MEN, no less — get misconstrued that badly? Such misguided reception to the song seems almost as infuriating as how women rallied around Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” without recognizing how unabashedly passive-aggressive and pouty it was. (And it was assumed to be over Dave Coulier, no less. Yeesh.)
So what if “Let No Man Put Asunder” is not empowering? Isn’t the wife in “Let No Man Put Asunder” just trying to be as sweet as treacle in order to maintain what she has, or did the authors actively intend to degrade her by describing her romantic fervor in a manner that could make her look overly clingy and desperate? The promises that songwriters Bruce Gray and Bruce Hawes make might be considered superficially attractive to some men, even despite having written the song in a post-Women’s Lib world where feather dusters are no longer a seemingly permanent fashion accessory. Maybe it’s what the writers themselves would really want to hear from a woman they plan to walk out on, or perhaps something more suspect could be at play underneath the song, like on some of the best Holland-Dozier-Holland cuts. (The adoration that amounts to unashamed obsession in “Bernadette” chiefly comes to mind.) However, there’s no telling line that hints at any contempt for the attempts at appeasement offered up by the spurned wife, nothing to reveal the true intent or real thoughts that could otherwise be obscured beneath the surface. Actually, it’s difficult to discern a deeper truth from “Let No Man Put Asunder” even in light of how the lyric vacillates between complete assuredness and insecurity, sometimes in the span of two lines. Is the wife really as certain as she claims to be that her husband will return? Is she trying to muster up resolve in order to be certain that her relationship means something or is she just being maudlin? Is she really that confident in astrology that her husband is hers to keep? Actually, how do we know that it’s her husband? She refers to her relationship as having been “joined by God,” so it’s implied that she’s married, right? Then why does she say, “I don’t wanna ever get married to anyone else but you, baby?” Doesn’t she mean to say, “I don’t wanna ever BE married to anyone else but you?” To say “get married” in that context makes her sound like she’s, well, unmarried! How scandalous is that? That’s a revelation worthy of The Real Housewives of New York! Who cares if it’s probably just a lyrical slip-up on Rochelle Fleming’s part? Even so, why should we care about that when we still have not covered how this song went on to influence a whole genre?
In March 1979, Salsoul Records issued Disco Madness, the first remix full-length to be commissioned by a label. The record featured six tracks reworked by the most forward-thinking DJ of the disco era, the semi-legendary Walter Gibbons, who mostly remodeled his own 12-inch remixes of songs like Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” and Loleatta Holloway’s “Catch Me on the Rebound” in abstract fashions on the aforementioned release. He additionally dug up First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” for the collection and gave it quite a radical and nigh-on ethereal treatment; Gibbons coated the vocals in reverb, omitted the cymbals from the first two minutes of the song, and completely stripped the bass line from the song up until the final 45 seconds of the remix. What kind of whackjob strips the bass line from a disco song? But it works! The result sounds nearly spectral — it could almost pass for dub if the tempo were slower and, again, had more bass. Not that it needs it, obviously. (Besides, it nearly anticipates what happened with Wayne Smith’s “(Under Me) Sleng Teng.” If you can successfully strip the bass from a style of music as groove-oriented as disco, then why not from reggae?)
In the early 1980s, DJ Frankie Knuckles started using the Walter Gibbons remix in his sets at the Chicago club The Warehouse, and it quickly became a club favorite among the dancers. Soon, the song came to epitomize the very essence of what was becoming known as “house music.” When the popularity of disco started to wane, Knuckles started to rework older songs, tinkering with tempos and blending in layers of drum machine percussion, until the demand for bootlegs of these live remixes likely prompted Salsoul to issue the 12-inch remix single of “Let No Man Put Asunder” in 1983. Frankie Knuckles’ extended remix brings up the buried elements in the song, like the barely audible ARP synthesizer chords underlining the background of the album version and the previously obscured saxophone in the chorus. Knuckles adds extra stomp to the drums by pushing them forward in the mix and aligning a heavily reverbed handclap to the snare. The Shep Pettibone remix from the same 12-inch takes the album version and makes it more spare and rhythm-oriented, infusing the song with stop-start rhythms, dubbed-out percussion, some re-recorded vocals in the monologue vamp, and lightly phasered cymbals that alternately bubble or seem to mimic a theremin.
Since 1983, “Let No Man Put Asunder” has been reissued numerous times in official and unofficial capacities with updated remixes meant to appeal to the prevailing trends of the period, mostly subject to far dodgier house and hi-NRG mixes. The song has been sampled or appropriated on several occasions, most notably in Steve “Silk” Hurley’s 1987 UK chart-topper “Jack Your Body” (seen above). No less a figure than Mary J. Blige actually covered the song, her version appearing as the album closer to 1999’s Mary. However, the extended shelf-life brought about by such reverence for the song would have been unlikely if Walter Gibbons, Frankie Knuckles, and Shep Pettibone had not taken a shine to it. Otherwise, “Let No Man Put Asunder” would probably be undeservedly out-of-print right now, just like most disco and soul records from the same period, and the course of modern music would be drastically different for it.
1983-2010: Elodie Lauten - Piano Works Revisited
Elodie Lauten’s first two albums have been repackaged with rarities as Piano Works Revisited. One review judges the tracks that originally made up Lauten’s debut unsophisticated and underdeveloped. But the mood conjured by Lauten’s juvenilia is interesting in itself, prompting the same reviewer to recall early-80s New York: its high crime rate, dirty streets, and scuzzy art movements. Lauten’s own website cites Village Voice from 1983 on Piano Works: “I was sitting somewhere in a dangerous world, wondering what would happen to the girl at the piano… She changed my mind with mantras that shifted slowly from one troubled mood to the next, the new one only slightly — but subtly — different from the last.”
Personally, I find Lauten’s “baby photos” — as the first reviewer called the short hypnotic tracks on Piano Works — pleasantly accessible and repetitive enough for any short attention span to handle. I defer to the learned commentaries of Lauten herself and her educated reviewers for technical detail on her full blown career. That she began composing in more humble circumstances is what I am most attracted to. In my opinion, her nascent post-minimalism forms its cyclical structures not on the basis of the looped whispering background tracks, but on the repetitive, percussive potentialities of the piano itself. In a live setting, the piano’s pleasantly authoritative tonal consistency can convince one that it’s a kind of ‘standard’ for all sound. But I’ve always found it interesting when recordings of the piano reveal that it does not possess a voice of its own in the same way as open string and wind instruments do. Arguably, it is an instrument that expresses emotion/change through a combination of melodic phrasing and a rhythm and harmonic section ruled by the left hand.
It is interesting then to consider Lauten’s career trajectory with this in mind — begin with a shot of the veiled girl at her piano (publicity for a performance of Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory) and trace it to the extreme sonic geekery of her blog for Sequenza21/. Lauten sometimes calls herself a microtonalist rather than a post-minimalist composer. It’s unclear whether this reflects a desire to break free of the minimalist legacy or whether Lauten considers the microtonal label a more fitting summary of musical developments influenced by minimalism. She trained with La Monte Young who taught her about Indian music, and she is interested in many of the facets of Eastern philosophy that fascinated minimalists. The range and depth of her interests and influences — assembled as a theoretical list of google tags — are an intimidating prospect. Alan Ginsberg was a friend when she came from Paris to New York, and she composed an opera, Waking in New York, based around fragments of his writing. She has also developed her own style of improvisation, Universal Mode Improvisation (UMI). Some of her more esoteric reference points include the mathematics of Kepler and Newton and Vedic cosmologies.
In general, Lauten’s intense study would suggest a reasoned response to the minimalism she encountered in her early career. Listening to Piano Works and knowing the limitations of the instrument, I wonder to what extent these parameters influenced her subsequent career. And I wonder how much more significant the microtonal movement was for pianists rather than for guitarists? Early-80s New York of course gave birth to a band called Sonic Youth. As an ignorant rock fan, I was always under the impression that their musical innovations could be summed up as ‘weird tunings.’ Obviously, before digital music technology, the process of re-tuning for keyboardists had to be more invasive and deliberate. Now, it seems much easier to mess up your instrument or just reprogram it. Has technology paradoxically made the phase shifts of minimalism more organic for keyboard players and less grounded in the formal structure of composition?
Whatever the reality for keyboardists today, the stripling compositions of Lauten cleverly achieve the running water/drone effect of minimalism by making the piano’s hyperactivity mimic passing time, all the while running this apparent complexity through repetitive cycles. In the tracks from the album Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory, the violin takes a more active role. The eponymous “Orchestral Memory” adopts a slow, grand pace, and in doing so dispenses with the piano. Listening to this track — which is beautiful in its way — I recognize in myself an instinctual aversion to extremely dissonant music that borders on musical xenophobia. Minimalism seems to recognize and deliberately attempt to override this impatience, treating all processes, even the geologically slow, as if they are equally likely to reach a resolution, in the worst-case scenario one presumes, referring unhappy punters to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But human beings — frail creatures that we are — do like to see things from a bird’s eye perspective and we do like to keep busy. Just slowing down the recorded human voice can cause us to make signs of the cross or reach for the holy water.
I’m not suggesting that all minimalism takes the form of ominous, atonal music, but that in principle it seems to maintain a saintly, almost inhuman patience for maddeningly irresolute processes. Piano Works Revisited is mostly pleasant to my prejudiced ears not because of some residue of untrimmed, romantic babyfat in the compositions, but because Lauten’s raw material (the piano) doesn’t move freely through alternate tunings, and so although its ideas unfold gradually, it resolves itself by means familiar to me. It simply has less opportunity to stray and to delay its inevitable resolution. If it were a canvas, Lauten’s piano on this album would be Jane Austen’s little bit of ivory (and ebony), taking root in a small patch.
Perhaps Lauten sees the future of music purely in composition that relies on tinkering with instruments and achieving far-out results (like the mystically inclined circuit-benders). But judging by “Variations on the Orange Cycle” — her “mature” work — she has benefited from working closely with the sonic limitations and the complex, percussive strengths of the piano. Strange how the pianoforte’s loud and soft was once a revelation. Now, as a relatively inflexible instrument, its appeal is almost monochrome, vintage. Perhaps this is why it’s often considered a starter instrument and why Lauten’s own debut appears precocious, even apologetic on its behalf. The later composition for solo piano, “Variations on the Orange Cycle,” is accomplished and has been rightly acclaimed. An improvisation was recorded in 1991, which was written down with impressive care to remain faithful to the spontaneous original. In the program notes, Lauten waxes lyrical on the 36 minute composition: “The theme – objective – exists not as a melody but as unchangeable fact, a reality to be accepted just as the rotation of the earth. It is the most basic musical utterance, a fundamental tone.” Lauten says she has altered the subject object/relationship of theme/variation. I’m not exactly sure what she means by this, but I recognize the reassuring bell-like ‘single tone’ and I see how it grounds the piece — conceptually in imitation of a natural physical process like the turning of an old-fashioned weathercock, but also emotionally in its relationship with the other tones accessible across the piano’s traditional layout.
Piano Works Revisited is fundamentally intellectual music, and given the subtlety of the compositions, it could hardly be otherwise. However, Lauten’s attention to structure rather than sound makes for extremely pleasant listening by conventional standards. Although I speak from a limited knowledge of her subsequent career, I think the album shows that Lauten has benefited from her confinement within the coffin-like boards of the piano, its traditional intervals, its monochrome sound. It may sound a tad Victorian to say this, but young artists often do benefit from austere apprenticeships like this.
1995-2002: Damon & Naomi - The Sub Pop Years
The quartet of albums that Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang made for Sub Pop in the late 90s and early 00s abound with heartbreak and wonder. In particular, 1998’s Playback Singers and 2000’s With Ghost (a collaboration with the Japanese psych-rock group Ghost) move from the heartrendingly intimate to addressing larger questions of identity and faith. The Sub Pop Years, released on their own 20|20|20 label, stands as a summation of those albums, an overview of the period following their debut, More Sad Hits, but before the more intricate work of their last few albums.
Four of the songs here come from With Ghost, including the sweepingly autumnal “The Mirror Phase” and the Jewish culture exploratory “Judah and the Maccabees.” But the album that’s represented most heavily is, in its own way, itself a compilation: 2002’s live Song to the Siren. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the group’s precision in the live setting means that certain songs (“Turn of the Century” chief among them) don’t have the more frayed sound one associates with live versions — but the presence of audience sounds following a few songs, particularly in the transition from “Song to the Siren” to “The Navigator,” is distracting. It’s an occupational hazard when blending studio and live recordings, and it’s certainly disconcerting here.
At its best, this compilation emphasizes the group’s strengths: the varied but complementary voices of Krukowski and Yang, their attention to details in the songs they write and play, and their ability to move from sentimentality to baroque precision. (As someone whose interest in the band was sparked by these albums, I can see the appeal.) Their more recent work has found them moving to deeper levels of intricacy in their arrangements, but they’ve also had a hand in reissuing their debut More Sad Hits (as well as the work of their previous band Galaxie 500). Taken together, the evolution charted here stands as one of the most consistent bodies of work made by a group of musicians across several decades. It’s a fine thing to see that history summarized here, though one hopes that newcomers to the band will be able to legitimately hear the albums that yielded these songs in full.