2006: Los Lobos - The Town and The City
There’s something very appealing – and to be immediately mistrusted – about the standard critical narrative of Los Lobos, a band that attained heights of popularity by perseverance and hard work, held onto their relevance through pure musicianship and, at 30 years going, continue to refine with every release. Certainly they’ve overcome a series of challenges, from a near-pigeonholing as “the Mexican-American band” to being continually confused with Los Lonely Boys (a slip that, speaking candidly, makes me want to stab myself). A critical reader who was unfamiliar with the band's work could be forgiven for harboring skepticism over new praise -- especially given the well-documented ability of narrative to overpower content, throw it out of the ring, and step on its throat -- and particularly in cases where aging artists are credited with a “return to form” or with “their strongest work yet,” or anything along those lines.
It is with this expectation of skepticism in mind that I make the following statement: The Town and The City is the strongest, most focused work from Los Lobos yet. Moreover, in a year when national hysteria over immigration had begun boiling toward its present fever pitch, they made an album about the immigrant experience that crackles with feeling and relevance.
The Town and The City is located by a triptych of place-portraits. “The Valley” is an idyll from the perspective of a migrant farm worker, “The City” a breathless account of the splendor of urban America, and “The Town” a depiction of a poor neighborhood at dusk. These songs establish the feeling of movement and the allure and promise of what's beyond the horizon, as well as conjuring a faint hint of optimism to balance the darkness of many of the stories. Were it not for these establishing shots, the cynicism of “Don’t Ask Why” and the plain desperation of “Hold On” might come to dominate the record – and those themes aren't the point. This isn’t an album about hopelessness, only about hopes onto which, perhaps, too much is pinned. For example, the protagonist of the loping country-blues “Road to Gila Bend” is evidently leaving behind a whole life, but what comes across in the refrain (“Can they see me coming? Do they know I’m running?”) isn’t total resignation, but battered fight.
All of this sentiment would be wasted if it weren’t for solid songs. Fortunately, Los Lobos grasped the current fashion for artiness in rock and turned in not only a set of catchy songs, but some of their prettiest, noisiest, and most experimental. I confess that in the past, I’ve been bored by some of their more traditional output – I’m simply not of a generation that can easily appreciate classicist strains in rock. I am cynical about blues pentatonics and doubly so about such shibboleths as tasteful noodling and impeccable guitar tone. The Town and The City won me over with sparkling cascades of delay (“The Valley”), blustering fuzz (“The Road to Gila Bend”), shiny, dream-pop organ (the retro-soul gem “Little Things”), and a rainbow-colored sheen on everything (particularly on “Chuco’s Cumbia,” a snappy Latin number that stands as one of their most fun songs to date).
That the music is cast after the themes and subject matter of the lyrics further removes The Town and The City from typical classicist exercises. “Chuco’s Cumbia” is loaded with old Pachuco slang; “Hold On” is spare and dusty to match its strung-out subject; “The Town” is shaded with subdued, minor-key menace. Perez, Hidalgo, and Rosas evidently conceive of their songs as entire aesthetic experiences, which is a distinctly contemporary attitude when contrasted with other aged rockers, for whom subject matter is often treated like an afterthought – used either as an entry in an authenticity contest (hewing to the notion that the artist is always the subject), as a tedious formalist chore, or to make some cranky point with the full awareness that nobody is listening. Given the number of miles they’ve clocked, what's surprising about Los Lobos is the extent to which their songs continue to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as exhibits in the case for the artist’s relevance.
The Law of Rock Band Averages says that the next thing Los Lobos release will probably be an unpardonable dud. Of course, the whole appeal of the hard-work-and-perseverance narrative is in the way it implies that duds are the product of laziness or of style beating out substance, and not of the inevitability that talent eventually runs out. However, even if that winds up being the case – that is, if this is Los Lobos’s final seminal statement – then they nevertheless deserve recognition as one of the longest running bands to defy the odds and remain in the stream of vital discourse.
1981: Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia - Friday Night in San Francisco
It never gets fiercer in the high school cafeteria than during a good ol' Greatest Guitarist of All-Time Debate. In between sandwich bites, someone makes an innocent comment about Jack White being the all-time greatest and -- BOOM -- you instantly got yo’ self lunchtime entertainment! The next thing you know, the kid with kind of long hair brings up Jimi; the angry kid wearing a black shirt makes his case for Kirk Hammett; the slacker kid in tie-dye throws Jerry Garcia in the mix; the kid with the older brothers mouths off about Yngwie Malmsteen; and inevitably, that lonely, awkward kid will come over and get worked up about John Petrucci.
Since American youth is typically enamored with the fastest and the loudest, the “greatest guitarists” normally come from the rock ‘n’ roll universe, unfortunately shortchanging the vast talent pool in other genres. I imagine that a high schooler would probably get punched in the crotch if, as a 15-year-old, he advocated for 1970s fusion jazz guitarists that (gasp!) his parents may have seen live. Unlike the “fastest is best” mentality of the rock world, jazz talent is typically merited upon rhythmic shifts, collaborative backing, and the melodic creativity of the improvisations. As solo artists, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia’s music is not necessarily accessible by pre-driving license rock ‘n’ roll standards; but when in their collaborative trio, their shared tendency for constant, over-the-top one-upmanship should theoretically appeal to those who are enamored with guitar virtuosity. Especially on 1981 live album Friday in San Francisco, these three guitar greats transcend jazz stereotypes and rock out (acoustically) to make their respective cases for the greatest of all-time.
Originally recorded in late 1980, Al Di Meola (gypsy, Latin jazz legend) and John McLaughlin (fusion, electric jazz legend) teamed up with Paco De Lucia (Spanish flamenco legend) to record a live album and kickstart an ongoing joint tour. The five songs (the first four on the CD are from the actual concert, while the fifth is a studio recording thrown on the album for good luck) pair the trio in each possible twosome combination and together as a whole trio. Simply, Friday Night in San Francisco is a spectacular demonstration of what human beings can do with a guitar. The solos are mind-blowingly fast, the performance timing is tight, and even the backing Latin rhythmic guitar patterns are impressively difficult. Scales get climbed, strums become sonic blurs, and guess what – the assuredly laid-back (and probably culturally pompous) San Fran jazz crowd goes apeshit throughout the entire show! Careful not to take themselves TOO seriously, there are even lighthearted moments, such as Al and John's break into the “Pink Panther Theme” during the Chick Corea-composed “Short Tales of the Black Forest.”
During its more user-friendly sections, Friday Night conjures tender images of drinking sangria on hot nights alongside Spanish cobblestone streets, all before transitioning to a frantic solo, faster and more extended than the one before. So, those who will most enjoy this album are other guitarists. In fact, the entire 41 minutes are tough to appreciate (and be passionate about) unless you have tried strumming an acoustic. Demonstrating a wide stylistic range, each song is based upon lovely melodies, but the album is not necessarily intended to be “beautiful;” if you want bachelor pad music, go purchase Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy. No, Friday Night is more akin to a “biggest is best” Las Vegas casino than a romantic European villa. From the first minute, Al, John, and Paco pull out all the stops – blazing past traditional flamenco/Latin jazz subtleties like patient buildups or overwrought dramatic tension in favor of cock-out showmanship.
Now, to keep up the high school debate theme, I've purposely avoided the nitty gritty guitar details of chromatics, melodic minors, and ethnic pentatonics that the “more Guitar Center than thou” crowd will use to rate this performance. Staying on our teenage level, I heard that Paco was, like, playing so fast that he literally burnt his fingertops off from all the string friction! Yuh huh! I read it online, assface! But seriously, playing an acoustic guitar in a live setting (without the benefit of amplification, excessive studio manipulation, or a backing band) is leaps and bounds more impressive than how most other “greatest guitarists” make their mark. Friday Night in San Francisco is the album that all young, aspiring guitarists should listen to right before they quit. No greater heights can be achieved on Meola, McLaughlin, and Lucia's instrument, so you might as well stop practicing and focus your efforts on accounting, dentistry, or another field where you stand at least a remote chance of making a mark some day.
1991: Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
I don’t want to get into how or why Bandwagonesque beat Nevermind for Spin’s Album of the Year, 1991. I don’t want to discuss the obvious thematic similarities between the money bag and the baby with the dollar bill. And I’m not going to insist that, while Nevermind indeed shows some wrinkles 16 years after the fact (it’s not particularly well-sequenced, and it drags a bit between “Drain You” and “Something In the Way”), Bandwagonesque is still pretty much perfect, because it's not.
In fact, when I decided I was going to cover a ’90s power-pop album, I almost chose Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, because I figured if I did Bandwagonesque I’d feel obliged to shovel through all that shit. It’s a record a lot of people have made themselves forget about -- when Spin released their 25th anniversary top 100 list, they made damn sure they left it off. Their guilt, while regrettable, is understandable. This was 1991, the year of Loveless and Screamadelica, records that broke sonic barriers, records that screwed everything up for everyone. Bandwagonesque was derivative and retrogressive -- a ripoff, more or less, of classic Big Star, with a dash of Television’s shredded guitar workouts.
What a beautiful ripoff it is, though. I remember watching Fanclub play “The Concept” on Saturday Night Live when I was but a mere boy and laughing out loud at the part that went: “She won’t be forced against her will/ Says she don’t do drugs but she does the pill.” At the end of their performance, they all sort of hunched over and hopped around playing feedback for, like, 30 seconds. I was roughly 10 years old. I didn’t know about grunge. I had no understanding of irony or artistic debt. I was sufficiently impressed.
And now I pause, fingers hovering over the keyboard. I’m almost finished with this album review, but have yet to actually review the album. It’s just playing over on my Windows Media Player (which is what music critics do, by the way -- sit at the computer and listen to the record over and over again until something comes out; so now when any critic friend of yours starts talking about his or her “process,” you can join in the conversation). What else can I write? Teenage Fanclub's music is near-impossible to intellectualize or describe without resorting to a batch of exhausted guitar adjectives -- sweet, crisp, crunchy, fuzzy, etc. The lyrics are inane. It’s all trash, really. But Spin loved it.
1969: Lotti Golden - Motor-Cycle
I look forward to a time when labels will once again release hard-driving soul albums that play out like one long, campy musical. I guess R. Kelly’s episodic soap opera “Trapped in the Closet Pts. 1-whatever” is sort of in the ballpark, but while Kels offers his own Serge Gainsbourgian lecherousness, Lotti Golden leads us into the bizarre excursions of the late-’60s underground freaks. So fertile was the music scene of that period that an album of restlessly epic roadhouse suites could be released on a major label.
Golden gets help on Motor-Cycle from an impeccably arranged Atlantic Records session band. They give the album a wall-of-sound heft when called for and lay the foundation, in the midst of all that brass, with a flawless, swinging rhythm team. Then, at key moments, the curtain goes up and they’ve got rows of saxes, trumpets, vibes, and churchfuckingbells behind them, and you begin to realize that this is not the same song and dance. Furthermore, everyone is committed never to repeat the same progression for more than, say, 30 seconds, but also knows that at some point the song will return to each segment, just to remind you how great it was the first time around.
So, there’s that, and the emcee for this aberrant cabaret is Lotti Golden, nexus of the intemperate adventure starring a cast of sex fiends, drug addicts, and other proponents of the In The Now school of living. Motor-Cycle is exactly the sort of hazy deviant party you always hoped the late-’60s was. It plays out roughly like this: Lotti’s got a thing for this kid Michael, who “lets me ride his motorcycle.” But Michael’s truth machine was starting to breakdown, so she heads to Fay’s, the meet-up spot for her coterie of malcontents. Anabell’s gonna be there, Silky’s gonna be there, Billy is gonna drop by, Celia’s gonna come by. But for Fay, whose French poodles keep her satisfied, it’s her doctor’s pills that keep her high, and she’s in trouble with the meds.
“Hey man, did you hear what happened to Fay? Yeah, it’s really a drag, what a bring-down. So where do you want to go? Rosie’s? That’s cool. Out of sight man, we’ll dig it!”
And so the whole party up and moves to Rosie’s. No pause for introspection on poor Fay’s demise, no lessons learned, none of that crap; the good times must roll on. That’s kind of the M.O. of Motor-Cycle. If something heavy happens, slow the music down for a second, give a wail, then move on. With a crowd this colorful, there’s always another story to tell. Silky “had to get married quick in her mama’s red dress in a civil courthouse in Georgia.” Her baby was baptized on a Monday, an occasion for Lotti to sip milk from a champagne glass in the rain. Problem is, Silky’s got a thing for drag queens, who have great parties but make shitty fathers. Silky wants a straight man this time, a real butch guy. A bit of soul searching ensues, but not enough to interrupt the groove. Fact is, that groove is so infectious and permeating that you really have to pay attention to pick up on all the freaky storylines. It’s much simpler and just as pleasurable to latch onto that bass-line and horn hook and just ride along.
Motor-Cycle is that rare party record that’s got a bizarre story behind it while still being a freak-show record that you can throw on at dance parties. To make a crude comparison, it’s as if The Velvet Underground recorded for Motown. In short: debauchery with a beat. Dig it.
1971: String Cheese - String Cheese
After their 1971 debut album failed to register a blip in the marketplace, Chicago sextet String Cheese promptly faded away. Their failure is woeful, because with proper backing and encouragement, they could have been the next It's A Beautiful Day. Like that San Francisco band, String Cheese's sound was steeped in sparkling hippie subject matter, strongly delivered by chanteuse Sally Smaller and aided by the electric violin of Gregory Bloch. Unfortunately, their debut album was also their last.
12-string guitarist and co-vocalist Lawrence W. Wendelken wrote most of the songs on String Cheese, and there are some truly tasteful arrangements contained within. "Soul Of Man," for example, benefits from lush, live strings over folksy acoustic guitar picking and sparse drums, while a Larry and Sally duet muses on the winding road that is the human experience. Meanwhile, the harpsichord-led intro to "Woke Up This Morning" (not the theme to The Sopranos) comes straight out of a renaissance court, progressing to a summery, psychedelic electric sitar jam with lyricism glowing in sunshine-induced optimism. There is some serious talent on display here.
Sure, the electric guitar and bass on String Cheese sound more late-’70s than one would hope for, and the themes are a little vague considering America's involvement in an unjust war propelled by a criminal president, but another album or two surely would've worked the kinks out. C'est la vie, I suppose, and at least we have this Fallout reissue. There is nothing in the way of inflated liner notes or bonus tracks, but the new cover art is nice, the remastering has taken quite well, and it's the first time the album has made it to CD. The tape hiss and occasional pop noise are at worst minimally invasive and at best charming. It's doubtful you would ever find an original pressing that sounds better for less than $50, so this reissue might be your best bet. Consume this, lest ye be lactose intolerant.
1999: Einojuhani Rautavaara - Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus/Piano Concerto No 1/Symphony No. 3
Let’s be frank. If you are going to buy a CD combining the best three works of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, it’s because you are either (a) a doctoral student writing a thesis on Scandinavian classical music or (b) an open-minded music geek who heard that the work uses recorded bird calls as an instrument -- and you think that’s just some gnarly obscurity that you can use to impress your hipster friends*. However, unlike virtually all other “this-music-is-so-great, because-you-don’t-know-about-it” crap, Rautavaara’s music is truly enjoyable and rewarding. The composer's output is not obscure in the United States because it's bad; it just bears an unfortunate headline -- 20th Century neo-classical music from Finland.
You know, modern (or postmodern if you gotta be a dick about it) orchestral composers have it pretty rough. Their music is often unimaginably difficult to create but usually gets hidden somewhere behind a hundred Beethoven albums in the antiquated, all-encompassing “classical” section. Generations after classical music's golden age, these newer composers are unlikely to have an important page in the history books, and because the internet has effectively destroyed any chance for a lucrative career selling records, they must resort to lugging around cumbersome symphonies to half-filled community-sponsored theater halls to get any notice or paycheck (except for those who are more skillful at receiving governmental artistic grants). Einojuhani Rautavaara took a slightly different route, purposely changing up his musical styles (serialism, operatic, romanticism, avant-garde, neo-classicism, etc.), which kept his audiences on their toes and kept his music relevant. By the time he started experimenting with magnetic tape samples, electronics, and mysticism, no one saw him as an old kook resorting to record selling gimmicks; he was simply continuing his innovative path while earning the prestige associated with the most renowned Finnish composers.
Now, not to take anything away from this compilation's pianist (the lovely and talented Laura Mikkola – who is perhaps best known for performing Rautavaara’s works) nor the other works contained therein, but the highlight is Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra). What is noteworthy about the 1972 piece is that Rautavaara himself recorded Arctic bird calls in Northern Finland and composed an entire concerto based on -- and utilizing -- the recordings. Even more remarkable is that he slightly re-tuned the woodwinds in the orchestra to better match the featured avian guests. The end result comes together beautifully, delivering on the intent to transport the listener to an isolated Arctic island inhabited solely by mysterious birds, seen only in fleeting moments by ancient Nordic sailors. Rautavaara builds a delicate work that does not relegate the tapes to artsy ambiance, but relies upon them as the star of the show --the vital component that brings the entire concerto together. The (taped) birds bring life to the orchestra, and the orchestra makes the chirps and tweets lyrical.
An ample comparison to Rautavaara’s music are the building designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Both bodies of work are unmistakably modern, seemingly natural extensions of their surroundings, and will frustrate purists for sidestepping the true-to-form status quo. However, most of Rautavaara’s work should not necessarily strike the listener as overly radical -- in fact, some of his best work (including Symphony Number 3 on this disc) is quite characteristic of late-19th Century romanticism. One must only imagine the effect if Lizst, Wagner, or Chopin had the technology available to blast recorded samples through speakers alongside their symphonies. Einojuhani Rautavaara is still alive and well today, still waxing mystical (as he has done for the later part of his career), and proudly stands as one of the most exceptional names in Finnish culture. Who knows, perhaps 50 years from now, when the Arctic birds have been killed off by global warming, the world will use Cantus Articus as the best means to visualize what a cold, Arctic environment was once like.
* Please note that the writer of this review does not intentionally intend to broadcast his ulterior motives for choosing this album.