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
1968: Dorothy Ashby - Afro-Harping
People seem to approach jazz music in two general ways. Some listen with genuine artistic appreciation, while others are content looking through a slick, hipster's lens. That is to say, jazz can be viewed on both an intellectual and superficial level, and while it may be pompous to deem a specific way of listening 'better' than another, one thing is for sure: On albums like Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Weather Report's Heavy Weather, two polarized vantage points collide, transcending genre to reach a somewhat simpler epithet: good fucking music. I have little reservations when applying such a universal tag on Dorothy Ashby's 1968 gem, Afro-Harping.
First things first, yes, Afro-Harping is literal in referencing the Harp. You know, that instrument one of the Marx brothers played? Well, in the hands of Ashby, it becomes everything but a shtick. Alongside arranger Richard Evans, she crafts a collection of highly accessible, highly virtuosic jazz and pop numbers. The opener, "Soul Vibrations," and the title track are the most immediate cuts, using surprisingly funky rhythm sections to support a series of effortless, syncopated harp riffs. The fact that Ashby can lead a band with such a typically subdued, almost muted instrument is nothing short of remarkable. Things do occasionally veer towards easy listening, but the rough production and laid back, ever present groove maintains interest throughout. Eventually, each song's core theme starts to sink in, allowing you to fully enjoy Ashby's concise soloing. Of course, not all accolades are reserved for the harp. Richard Evans orchestration is subtle but effective. A low murmur of vibes and strings add extra elements of unexpectedness that, when coupled with the rhythm section, mimic a R&B aficionado's wet dream. Unfortunately, none of the session musicians are credited, leaving only Ashby and Evans to bear responsibility for this forgotten classic.
Needless to say, Afro-Harping is an essential introduction to harp and jazz music in general. Dorothy Ashby clearly expands the assumed limitations of her instrument, creating a sound that is familiar yet vaguely foreign at the same time. After all, when was the last time you heard a harpist break it down behind a thumping backbeat? It doesn't matter if you're in it for the novelty or for the intellectual exercise: Afro-Harping is jazz, but beyond that, it's just good fucking music.
1968: Pearls Before Swine - Balaklava
If the market for what has now been deemed ‘indie rock’ existed in the late '60s, Thomas D. Rapp and Pearls Before Swine would have surely been at the top of the heap. Had he become a more affixed part of the rock canon, Rapp could perhaps be credited with inventing many of the conventions that indie culture currently holds dear. Rapp had a clever reference-based band name for his solo project, was unwittingly experimental, and, had he been heard more at the time, would have likely been adored by critics while the mainstream cast him off as “weird arty shit.”
At his core, though, Rapp is perhaps one of the most engaging songwriters this great pop medium has seen, and his 1968 offering Balaklava is the proof. As the story goes, Rapp, a North Dakota native, would frequently enter into regional song-writing competitions where he would encounter – and consistently top - another young troubadour by the name of Robert Zimmerman. With songs like “Translucent Carriages,” “There Was a Man,” and “Guardian Angels,” Rapp’s talent is readily evident in the slowly building melodies embellished by winds, strings, piano, and Rapp’s creaking voice (reminiscent of a more subdued David Byrne).
Rapp had far more at work in his music than mere tunes. He was simultaneously infatuated with both history and surrealism, and he employed both in his music for a product he called ‘constructive melancholy.’ Here, Rapp is exploring the Vietnam War in ways that were never touched upon in the more mainstream folk movement. The historical aspect of the album even seems surreal, like an actual recording of Trumpeter Landfrey, who sounded the battle cry at the battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War, resulting in the senseless killing of many British soldiers. From there, it only becomes more abstract, combining the aforementioned instruments with recordings of waves crashing and chirping birds. The progression completes with a reference to Lord of the Rings, which may have been clever at the time, but admittedly losses meaning given the homogenization of the series today.
Still, the songs don’t work as a cohesive unit. Rather, they may be thought of as different takes on Rapp’s many ideas. The psychedelic label, often applied far too liberally, makes sense on Balaklava, as the experimentation meets classic song-writing for a trip of an affair. Rapp moved on to become a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia in the 70s, but like many artifacts of the Vietnam era, this album stands the test of time in a way that has not been bested since. Sadly, it may never get the chance because of the weight of its obscurity. Put in my bid for a full reissue.
1. Trumpeter Landfrey
2. Translucent Carriages
3. Images of April
4. There Was a man
5. I Saw the World
6. Guardian Angels
8. Lepers and Roses
9. Florence Nightingale
10. Ring Thing