2002: Sonic Youth - “Sympathy for the Strawberry”
‘Pleasant surprise’ is an inadequate phrase to describe the moment that decisively marks the drift between movements in some of Sonic Youth’s more experimental songs. I choose to use it, however, as a figure of rhetorical understatement, or litotes as it is technically called. All of us who write about music struggle with the problem of devaluing it by over-referencing the superlative. The problem when writing about music that you love is how to approach it from any other angle but the superlative. You could take the historical significance approach, but we all know that’s not what stamps ‘important’ on something, no matter how hard we try to rewrite music’s significance in hindsight (history belongs to the conquerors etc.). You could give the musical equivalent of the literary ‘close-reading’, by examining all the ways that this music is music. But that would be dry without some effort to convey what listening to this sound is like – the impossible feat of “dancing about architecture” that music writing tends to be.
So we settle for a compromise, most of the time, because there is really no right way to describe something that’s partly cultural, partly linguistic, partly mathematical, and partly emotional. Sonic Youth always struck me as happy in this amphibious realm: land-dwelling rock ‘n’ rollers who had half-crawled into the watery world of experimentation (see, for one thing, the beat-poet referencing NYC Ghosts and Flowers). Over the course of several not-half-bad albums, they staged reasonably impressive musical breakouts the way The Beatles used to pull stunts for photographers, as if they knew that being quite good gave them license to pull funny faces sometimes. Most of the time you got the impression that Sonic Youth were just concentrating on their music fairly hard – something would blossom as a sudden dreamy digression that would strike them, and they would follow that up.
But Sonic Youth’s moderate success lay in the way they crystallized these Jams into songs. They could make you remember the near imperceptible moment when the big boat they were steering started to turn around; they could make a miniscule twist sound like the dramatic bridge in a short pop song, as when Kim Gordon sings “Let me introduce you/ Since you saw my shadow self/ Living underneath you/ She can’t resist a tickle out/ I’m a girl scout,” in “Sympathy for the Strawberry.” This was unlike the free-jazz they referenced in that, as chaotic and drawn out as Sonic Youth songs could be, the changes did not dissolve into the whole, but left you craving the hook, the moment when the harmonics became subtly atonal, and the postmodern jags of Kim Gordon became insinuating and even menacing. There were many moments like these in Sonic Youth’s oeuvre, but “Sympathy for the Strawberry” was one that struck me over and over – without knowing quite why – as being one of the Youth’s most remarkably understated moments of musical innovation.
May 15th, 1953: The Quintet - Live at Massey Hall
Of all the Bebop records and compilations released over the years there is still nothing like Live at Massey Hall by The Quintet. To use the old cliché, it was like catching lightning in a jar for one sweet moment on a Friday night in Toronto, 1953 – the only known time this quintet played together. The group in question consists of Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie “Bird” Parker on saxophone, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums; each one arguably the greatest purveyors of their instrument with the exception of Parker, who is without doubt the finest sax player of all time.
The Massey Hall concert dares you to find a flaw; a perfectly chosen setlist, a rapturous audience, and the best lineup possible. It balances the swinging cool of “All the Things You Are” and the effortless-sounding opener “Perdido” with moments of gleeful madness like “Salt Peanuts.” The audience seems aware of how special what they are hearing is and are constantly bursting into applause and cheers throughout every song, a connection that helps the album feel so alive. “Wee (Allen’s House),” is an especially stunning moment as each player’s solo riles the audience up more and more, building anticipation until the end when Roach’s drum solo blows them all away.
The moment was as important as the music. This record was unexpected considering Parker had been recently struggling especially hard with heroin. In addition, he had a major falling out with Gillespie and it didn’t seem likely that they would ever play together again, but they did here. When Parker introduces “Salt Peanuts” as a song by “my worthy constituent Mr. Dizzy Gillespie,” it sounds so casual that it can be easy to miss how powerful that moment is.
There is a sadness associated with the Massey Hall concert that can’t be ignored despite the ecstasy occurring on tape. It’s sad because Parker really does sound completely revitalized during this Friday night. He was 32. He would be dead in less than two years. I look at pictures of this concert – Bird and Dizzy look so happy together, but there’s a problem: Dizzy is three years older than his friend, but Bird looks old enough to be his father. Parker’s death makes it heartbreaking to hear such unbelievable talent stuck in time; so beautiful, yet perpetually doomed.
1985: Breaking Circus - “(Knife in the) Marathon”
Breaking Circus were a Midwestern post-punk group initially based in Chicago, though later based in Minneapolis. I acquired their relatively slight discography (two EPs and an LP) secondhand, and I find their first EP, The Very Long Fuse, to be their most interesting – especially its pop song “(Knife in the) Marathon.” Long Fuse is a somewhat scattered EP, with tracks like “Soul of Japan” and “Precision” hitting a sweet spot between Chicago peers Big Black and Naked Raygun, but “(Knife in the) Marathon” is the track I keep returning to, despite being the most unlike anything else in the band’s discography (well, aside from a posthumous single where frontman Steve Björklund makes electro-pop covers of songs by Naked Raygun and the U.K. Subs – but the less written on that, the better).
“Marathon” is essentially a college rock tune, albeit one about an altercation: “an unidentified third world athlete was wrestled to the ground by security,” the song opens. In some ways “Marathon” almost feels like a bizarre parallel to the music of Big Black – the same Roland TR-606 drum machine presence is there as well as the sinister turns of narrative, but the buzzsaw distortion has been replaced by clean 80s jangle. Thus, on one level, “Marathon” is just a hooky 80s indie rock cut; on another level, however, it’s an intriguing juxtaposition between two disparate sounds of the 80s Midwest underground. Okay, maybe they didn’t think of it that way upon release, but given how synonymous with Big Black the sound of a Roland TR-606 can be, it’s pleasingly odd to hear it used in a different (yet not totally dissimilar) context.
Breaking Circus would eventually scrap the drum machine for the talents of drummer Todd Trainer (who would later join Shellac, for those still riding that Big Black parallel), and refine their focus into noisier post-punk for their LP, The Ice Machine. To me, however, the creative off-kilter edge of Long Fuse makes it the band’s most interesting record. Unlike Breaking Circus’ other work, the EP doesn’t have artwork focused around a hammer. This can be heard symbolically – where The Ice Machine can be overly blunt and single-minded, Long Fuse isn’t content to incessantly pound the same ideas over and over. “Marathon” may lack the concrete thud of the band’s punker side, but it shows they had moments where distortion wasn’t even necessary. With its placement on an already scattered (but better for it) EP making it a noteworthy find, Breaking Circus briefly hit a catchy spot between mid-80s Midwestern punk and hooky college rock before quickly shifting off elsewhere.
1982: Yazoo - “Only You”
I was surprised after I learned that Vince Clarke offered this song to his ex-cohorts in Depeche Mode after agreeing that he could remain in the band as a non-touring member, writing their songs. The surprising part was that they turned it down, although, in a way, it made sense – the Mode usually drifted into darker territory. Instead of abandoning the track, Vince used it in Yazoo, his subsequent band with singer Alison Moyet.
“Only You” epitomizes synth pop, using technology to flesh out simple, traditional ideas in an effective way. With its intertwined melodies and clear, universal sentiments that go straight to the heart, the track is reminiscent of old Motown records instead of an incomprehensible futuristic cacophony. Everything is dressed in the finest digital modules and processes available at the time, disregarding the possibilities for sound manipulation in favor of sparkling instruments that barely resemble the ones they are trying to imitate. It ends up with a sound that feels like a warm and familiar extraterrestrial creature.
Thematically, “Only You” talks about break up and summons the confusion felt right before it unfolds, the minutes that seems like days and the days that feel like nothing, unsettling you to the very core of your being; you know what’s going to happen but you ache and hope you are wrong and everything is in your head. There’s no break up in the lyrics, per se, but the protagonist knows things aren’t good; he/she just wants things to remain the same, disregarding any conflict and negativity, only thinking about the good parts as if that’s all that exists in a relationship. If only life was that easy, songs like this wouldn’t sound – let alone hurt – so right.
1974: Amon Düül II - Hijack
Amon Düül II’s body of work has the same critical focus problems that plague a lot of their German peers. Outside of their “classic” records (Yeti, Tanz Der Lemminge, Wolf City) there is a lack of discussion about the group’s work. It is really a shame too; Amon Düül II continued on as a group long after Wolf City, managing to put out a wealth of great material.
Hijack, Amon Düül II’s seventh official full length album is by no means a great record. It is a charming addition to their oeuvre though – probably the group’s most earnest attempt at putting out a straight “pop” record. They definitely tailored this album for an international audience. Elements of fusion jazz and glam rock are mixed in with the prog and psych rock that Amon Düül II were known for. Vocals are pretty on par for the group, with Lothar Meid and others taking turns singing in strangely endearing and comical broken English phrases.
“I Can’t Wait (1+2)” and “Mirror” are worth the price of admission alone. Leading off the album with a multi-part suite may seem like an odd choice, but by 1974 Amon Düül II were no strangers to this sort of sequencing. “I Can’t Wait” manages to go from string-driven Beatles-esque pop to a bass-driven boogie before “Mirror” introduces horn-filled psychedelic funk in the suite’s final stretch. The band transitions through all of this but never loses sight of their fantastically weird pop sensibilities. The rest of the album can be taken as a continuation of the suite, but it also stands on its own.
Hijack also marked the return of many original Amon Düül collective members. The group weren’t such a glorious “hot mess” by this point (which was definitely a selling point for Yeti, Phallus Dei, and anything by the original Amon Düül), but they were still bizarre and a whole lot of fun.
1971: Calvin Keys - Shawn-Neeq
With every well-done reissue program – Blue Note, the back catalog of Nikki Sudden, and the Swell Maps – there are countless labels and artists whose output has languished or been subject to spotty availability. Gene Russell’s Black Jazz imprint, which issued a series of progressive post-bop and electric jazz LPs between 1971 and 1975, has seen brief reprieve on CD and the occasional bootleg, and the entire catalog was recently offered for sale on Craigslist of all places. Its subsequent fate sparked some online acrimony and is still to be determined. Tompkins Square – mostly an American folk, non-Western, and outsider music imprint – has stepped in to at least ensure that one of the label’s early classics is legally available. Alongside titles by bassist Henry Franklin, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr., and The Awakening, California guitarist Calvin Keys’ debut Shawn-Neeq is one of the strongest Black Jazz LPs. Recorded in 1971 with reedman Owen Marshall, electric pianist Larry Nash, bassist Lawrence Evans, and drummer Bob Braye, the program features five of Keys’ effervescent originals.
It’s no surprise, really, that Keys, who worked with such luminaries as Ahmad Jamal, Bobby Hutcherson, and Dr. Lonnie Smith, would find a home of sorts on Tompkins Square. Steeped in blues and R&B, his phrasing is deceptively simple and wrapped in a deep, muscular tone. “B.E.” opens the proceedings with a freer vibe, Marshall’s bass clarinet providing a throaty burble alongside open rhythms, but it’s only a coda to the cracking open-road groove and dusk-toned lace of the leader’s multiple choruses. There seems to be a healthy dose of studio reverb applied so that electricity and split tones have a warm, albeit distant quality. Keys’ dry, tenor guitar-like cells add a sense of depth and physicality to the title track’s breezy, flute-accented waltz; incisive notes skimming across loose and shuffling percussion. Tracks like this and “Gee-Gee” (which starts off the second side) might, in lesser hands, be cloyingly slick pop-jazz, but with Keys’ go-for-broke improvising and the rhythm section’s rough-and-tumble brinksmanship, the music on Shawn-Neeq remains incredibly arresting.
“B.K.” is the lengthy closer, blending grungy keyboard blats and a raw backbeat with Keys’ smartly robust drive, repetitive a la Grant Green, expansive and bluesy. Keys would record once more for Black Jazz with a larger group, 1974’s Proceed With Caution, and Russell also produced that album’s follow-up, Criss-Cross (Ovation, 1976). Keys mostly played the role of sideman for the next decade, returning to the bandleader fold after 1985’s Full Court Press (Olive Branch). Still busy in the Bay Area, Keys’ music is definitely deserving of a wider contemporary audience.