1982: Laurie Anderson - Big Science
From perhaps 1977-1984, music had a preoccupation with the progress of society and technology and George Orwell was to blame. 1984 created an unconscious cultural deadline for the self-examination of Western society. Rock music sang about the spawning of mega-governments, punks assaulted fascism, pop stars noted a scaled cooling of compassion, jazz captured the spirit of robots. Suddenly, the word “modern” became an esteemed concept. It instructed us to accept the reality of imminent nuclear war, to be gaudy, to indulge, to ditch your 8-track player and buy a Betamax, to compete for every decibel of laughter, scrap of land, and shade of color.
On Big Science instead of fostering these notions, Laurie Anderson observes them. Culled from fragments of her performance art opus, United States, Live, the songs from Big Science are compassionate and alarming. They describe the death musings of a commercial airline pilot over an intercom (“From the Sky”), the hubris of urban expansion (“Big Science”), the ignorance of the free-born (“Born, Never Asked”). The minimal music is loyal to her themes, melding organic brass and woodwinds with electronic beats, vibes, and melodic interludes. Most of the songs find Anderson, speaking over the music with her compelling pace and diction. “Cause I can see the future and it's a place - about 70 miles east of here,” she utters in the simple, Cartesian, “Let X=X.” In this essence lies the source of Big Science’s magnificence. Here silence is used as artfully as words. There are empty slabs of pause, appealing to mechanistic processing and as well as warm-hearted salutations. The renowned “Oh Superman”, the album’s centerpiece, is complete immersion in this notion. Anderson reads her apocalyptic verse while a robot voice echoes. This interplay is chilling: like a mental duel between compassion and complete detachment. The “song” finds Anderson talking on the phone to what seems at first to be her mother then she gives pause, “OK who is this really?” And the haunting reply comes, slow over a subtle, sweet keyboard dirge, “I am the hand, the hand that takes.”
The world Anderson describes, however, is far from minimal or bleak, for she also gives us texture. “Example #22” erupts with rhythm and jovial horns. German samples abound with Anderson bleating,“Honey you’re my one and only, So pay me what you owe me.” A bass and kick drum join the fray and suddenly the modern world is dancing. “It Tanga” jests at the connection gaps between men and women, women speaking open-ended and men repeating ageless Dylan, “Isn’t it just like a woman.” And that’s how the sparse chaos that’s presented by Big Science ends. You’ve been lured into a dream without realizing. Anderson has assaulted you with enough thought and silence and sound that you return society more enlightened but less certain of anything than when you left.
As “O Superman” climaxes, Anderson reaches a resolution to this societal fray and I can’t help but think that Orwell would approve. It unfolds gradually in the telling, “Cause when love is gone, there's always justice. And when justice is gone, there's always force. And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom” It’s a poignant conclusion for certain, but when living in a world of compromise and miscommunication, it may be the best of all things.
1970: Rita Lee - Build Up
It wasn’t easy for the sunlit fuzz-funk music of Tropicalismo to make it all the way to 1970. The late ‘60s sent the movement’s major players through everything from musical game show appearances to military dictatorship-imposed imprisonment and exile (key players like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, for example), all with minimal public support. When the ‘70s finally hit, rock was still finding its footing, even though it was becoming more generally accepted by Brazil as a whole. While this summary skips over volumes of details, it gives an idea of where the country was positioned musically in 1970: finally ready to accept rock with moderately open arms and prove to the rest of the world that they could rock with the best of them.
Rita Lee, of course, already had. She’d bested most of her Anglo counterparts on two late-‘60s albums with Os Mutantes, lacing her bandmates’ heavy sub-equatorial psych with the perfect compliment of larking alto, as well as a dark opus, A Divina Comedia, with the group that same year. Having already proved herself in that arena (she’s now known as “The Grandmother of Rock” in her native Brazil) was perhaps the reason Lee decided to try something different on Build Up.
Though fellow Mutants Arnoldo Baptista and Sergio Dias both contribute to the album, those looking to hear Lee’s voice in the midst of their drug-induced guitar fuzz-outs have come to the wrong place. The first notes of this record come in the form of string arrangements on opener “Sucesso, Aqui Vou Eu,” which, at first glance, more closely resembles a Petula Clark Broadway number than anything in the Tropicalia canon. Hearing it for the first time, it’s hard to believe you’re listening to the same woman who sang vocals on a song which translates to “Hail, Lucifer” that same year -- and even harder to believe that you’re actually kind of digging it. It may be ‘40s nightclub at a glance, but Lee was never one to walk someone else’s trail, especially at this point in her career. A closer listen reveals stylistic sparks taken from all corners of the globe and plenty of twists lying just below the surface. This song foreshadows stylistically what’s to come on many tracks throughout the rest of the album. Most aren’t really the psych-rock jams Lee was doing concurrently with Os Mutantes, but rather conventional numbers taken and tweaked in ways as to make them totally unique.
From there, Lee dives into “Calma,” shifting the mood from ocean breeze to high-speed chase at will, again keeping it all in a jazz-lounge framework. Side one continues turning the string and horn vibe on its head, while side two contains most of the ‘rockers.’ Given the context, the ‘conventional’ tracks actually end up being the least straightforward on the album. Many notable rock figures have gone the way of ‘conventional’ music in efforts to prove that they’re capable of more than one style, but this album is one of the best examples of being able to do that without sacrificing what made the earlier music notable to begin with. All the intriguing aspects of Lee’s music are present here, just in different forms. Lee continues to keep it interesting on side two with “Hulla-Hulla,” which is Hawaiian from the name down. Yes, Hawaiian. Call it cheesy, but it holds up to the rest of the album instrumentally with its strong humming-it-for-days-after-you-hear-it factor. Beatles cover, “And I Love Him,” gives Lee an excuse to channel her inner Janis, something she’s been known to do on Mutantes tracks (see: “Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona”). It’s tolerable, but given that Lee has always been the better of the two both vocally and stylistically, it’s regrettable to see her feeling the need to go the drunken-blues route. Cloak-and-dagger number “Prisioneira Do Amor” leads into the album’s closer, a straight-ahead rock number chock full of electric guitar, walking bass, and wah pedal.
The album is full of great rhythms and instrumental work, but when a vocalist from a previous musical outfit does a solo album, the vocal quality is sure to be dissected. Under any microscope, Lee’s voice holds up to the challenge. If the album does have a few flaws, vocals aren’t one of them. Her voice keeps even the less interesting tracks afloat, gliding through all the right notes while always managing to stay somewhere between a moan and a whisper. It’s sexy, it’s ear-candy, it’s Rita Lee in her prime.
It will be difficult for most of us who first learned about Brazillian music through Os Mutantes to resist comparing the two incarnations of her music instead of just listening to it. Indeed, it may come as a disappointment to many fans that Lee appears to have traded whatever hallucinogens she was taking with Os Mutantes for a pleasant glass of wine this time around. But this shouldn’t be cause for dismay -- these are two separate sounds entirely. It wasn’t a Mutantes album for a reason, after all. Build Up was never trying to send us to another universe, only to make us enjoy this one a little bit more.
2000: M. Ward - Duet for Guitars #2
I’ve had a sort of nebulous understanding of what M. Ward sounds like and his place in the overall musical panorama for a few years now without ever actually listening to his work. Luckily, instead of being thrust into some fully formed, grand statement of a new album, Duet for Guitars #2 is Merge’s reissue of Mr. Ward’s apparently difficult to track down 2000 debut. And a debut it surely is. Duet is decidedly lo-fi; most of the tracks sound as if they were recorded in an open room with a few mics and an almost total absence of overdubs. There are doors opening and floors creaking all over the place. Very bare bones.
The instrumentation is just what you’d expect: acoustic guitars with a part-time electric buddy and clattery percussion. Things get mixed up with mandolin, dulcimer, and various keys, but on the whole, it makes little difference to the album’s back-porch feel. As much as the set-up tells me I’m going to like it, Ward’s debut ends up just being there. The album is peppered with instrumentals, which is nothing too grand as Ward rarely produces melodies of interest with his guitar. “Not a Gang” is a welcome exception with its almost Eastern guitar parts, but it unfortunately got relegated to bonus-track status. “He Asked Me To Be a Snake & Live Underground” is a Neil Young-aping, snippet of a song but remains a highlight.
My biggest problem with the record is a purely objective one: Ward’s voice grates. It manages to be nasal and raspy and wavering, which proves to be too distracting. Regardless of the timbre of his pipes, Ward does little melodically to encourage. The album never really presents any memorable ideas, and M. Ward sounds exactly as expected. Never a good thing when someone’s never listened to you before.
1964: Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band - Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
In writing about music, we often discuss the powers of influence and novelty. In favor of these, a concept that's been overlooked is the role of heritage in the creation of music. This concept describes something so entrenched in a particular culture that its expression is preserved and treasured. Yes, it's also a banal concept historians like to use, and that's too hefty for any music review of reasonable length. Still, heritage is something all forms of music possess, even if it's not acknowledged or, furthermore, felt. On the self titled, live recording, Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the spirit of heritage is cradled, heralded, honored, and impossible not to sense. The recording takes jazz, America's most idiosyncratic art form and fosters it in New Orleans, America's most idiosyncratic city (sorry citizens of Red Haw, it's true). The result is music of both movement and reflection: there are celebratory pieces for the dancehall as well as mournful spirituals.
New Orleans Jazz, rising in the early 1900s from the blues and ragtime sounds that pervaded the American South, is the first incarnation of the Jazz genre. Its most fundamental elements included bass, banjo, woodwinds, and brass. Whether spectacular or solemn, the music sought to celebrate the human experience. Sweet Emma pays complete homage to this notion. Recorded live at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, the record reels in slow with the introduction of each player and instrument. The band then launches into "Clarinet Marmalade," a roaring piece that epitomizes the New Orleans Jazz experience: bursts of clarinet, trombones and trumpets that double, then run contrary to each other, with drums, banjo, bass, and piano pacing the action. Amid all of this, there's little showmanship: each player is a master of a single instrument, and each is given ample and equal space. "Ice Cream" and the ubiquitous and important "When the Saints Go Marching In" continue the tradition in this vain. The slender and aged Sweet Emma herself takes vocal responsibilities on the monument to unrequited love, "I'm Alone because I Love You," and the funeral standard, "Closer Walk With Thee." Drawing the listener in further is the charismatic MC work of trumpeter Percy Humphrey.
Regardless of the precise context of each of the selections on Sweet Emma, the overall tone is one of resounding celebration. In this sense, it finds kinship with Irish folk music. Both forms insist to us that a life lived, whether tragic, common, or heroic, should be documented and honored with a sense of joy. Three years after the recording of this record, Sweet Emma suffered a stroke leaving the left side of her body paralyzed; 40 years later, Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans leaving a swell of catastrophe and loss. In spite of these, Sweet Emma, like the city she loved, remained true to her heritage. Unmoved, she crept back up to the stage, sat at her piano, and played on.
2007: Sarolta Zalatnay - Sarolta Zalatnay
Don’t even try to pretend like you’ve heard of her, you trendy North American bastard. While Jim Morrison was in the act of exploding and destructing all over the place, Sarolta Zalatnay was busy establishing herself as a veritable cultural movement in her native Hungary, complete with several appearances on screens both big and small and album sales numbering in the millions. However, despite her brief association with The Bee Gees, the A-list status she built up across Eastern Europe since she first started making waves in the mid '60s (at the impressionable age of 16) did not translate into much UK success and virtually no North American interest to speak of. Sarolta, known by her devoted fans as Cini, would go on to appear in the Hungarian versions of Big Brother(without the Holding Company) and Playboy (thanks to her porn director husband) in her fifties, if you can believe it. To be fair, she didn’t record many English tracks -- staying loyal by dedicating herself to her own scene -- so it’s not entirely our fault for the ignorance, or at least it wasn’t until this Finders Keepers compilation.
Standing as an immutable testament, Mancunian producer and world-renowned deejay Andy Votel wrote extensive liner notes and helped pick the tracks for what is basically Cini’s Greatest Hits 1970-1980. Andy’s introduction aptly describes the cultural and creative processes and happenstances behind all of her finest projects, giving you a better idea of her surroundings than her own personality. That, my friend, is what the music is there for. While I can’t understand word one, except for the CD-only bonus tracks, the fact of the matter is that Zalatnay is the Hungarian pop hybrid of Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, with a little more attention paid to style. And you could easily make the case that throwing “Hungarian” in front of the previous comparison at least sounds like it’s belittling her accomplishments. Believe me, she is among contemporaries there, not dreams.
The bands she fell in with and helped form understood the principles and aesthetics of '60s British garage, American R&B, funk, and psychedelia of the time far greater than your average contemporary band ever will. Zalatnay held her righteously soulful, slightly raspy voice like a jive cannon propelled by the changes of her backing band that coaxed her on, note-for-note, with equal passion for this new and exciting music oozing out of London and California and into the hearts of the Hungarian youth. Sure, it ain’t as tight, catchy, or well recorded as Janis’ brief output, but it’s far closer than you might guess. It’ll leave you Hungary for more... ugh. Why must bad puns be my strawberry asshole?
1968: Terry Riley - In C
After 40 years, it's easy to forget how important In C was to the 20th century. Yet while some would say Terry Riley created an entire sub-genre of modern classical music, I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion. He simply solidified an aesthetic, giving a face to what we now know as minimalism. In a sense, In C is closely related to the 20th century's other major form of minimalism: rock and roll. Both genres took musical elements that had been stewing under the surface and brought them to the fore in a major way. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, let me back up and introduce the work as I experienced it.
As a testament to In C's fairly ubiquitous nature, I was subconsciously aware of the piece before hearing it. It was the song that repeated one note for an hour, interesting in a purely nihilistic sense. At least that was the misconception I picked up along the way. But after accruing a bit of musical knowledge and actually hearing the piece, I was stunned. This was no droning, one-note torture session. It sounded like a highly conceptual, fluttering work of ambience, that, when scrutinized, revealed an intense amount of musical interplay.
The idea behind the piece goes like this: In 1964 Riley composed 53 short phrases of music in (you guessed it) the key of C -- not so much a score as a musical outline. An ensemble of musicians were instructed to go through each of the 53 phrases consecutively, placing their own rhythmic accents. They were also advised to hold and repeat each note/phrase for as long as they wanted, ultimately creating a living, thriving work of improvisation. The piece's first recording, from 1968, highlights Riley's modern ideas of spontaneity vs. structure. Here, he leads eleven musicians through 45 minutes of interweaving melodies and ever-shifting down beats. The most exciting moments occur when several instruments break from the chaotic rhythm and lock in together, displaying highly contrasted and clarifying moments of structure.
While the CBS recording is slightly rough, with an awkward balance of volume between instruments, Riley's concept comes through loud and clear. His imposed sense of structure and space is very much a modern device to my ears, and permeates so much of the music we hear today. But beyond any cultural or musical impact, In C works as a solid piece of music. When you hone in on a single instrument and follow its progression, there is a certain feeling of discovery, a sensation of peeling back the layers to reveal order within the chaos. It's the dichotomy that works. In my mind, In C will be played as long as humans are alive, because it's one of the few pieces I've known to so thoroughly engage its performers without requiring any great level of skill. It's also one of the few pieces that inspired me to get a group of friends together and actually perform the damn thing. I can think of no greater compliment.
1. In C