It’s difficult to find vocals more compellingly arranged than on Quarteto Em Cy’s frightfully beautiful Som Definitivo. Having released a broad array of popular bossa albums (including children’s recordings), Cyva, Cynara, Cybele, and Cylene, four vocally virtuosic sisters, are among the most significant of female bossa and MPB groups. While the Quarteto released a body of formidable work spanning over three decades, it is Som Definitivo that fully reveals the group’s mastery of bossa nova, jazz, and pop.
“Imagem,” written by Tamba Trio pianist Luis Eça, is a microcosm of the broad genre synthesis that began in the ’60s. The composition begins with an almost stereotypical bossa nova flute section, which, due to the appropriation of Brazilian music, American ears may associate with elevator music. Then comes a jazz-inflected vocal line, sung in hauntingly low -- though imperceptible -- unison; the sisters match their vibrato flawlessly. The harmony breaks into two groups, then four as the section modulates to a new key, insinuating each chord change with as little sound as possible.
The show stopper, though, is the bossa standard “Arrastão,” which Eça engineers away from the piece’s usual pop bombast (search it on YouTube for a nauseating experience). The vocal delivery in relation to the presumed genre is again fascinating; the piece doesn’t actually sink into a recognizable “bossa” feel until the very end, favoring a straight bass line full of jazz and vocal pop tensions. It’s hard not to think of Brian Wilson’s vocal breaks as harmonies circulate around the memorable melody.
This delayed gratification in “Arrastão” also reflects Som Definitovo's astute politics. Bossa nova’s tendency to signify upper-class leisure is subverted by delaying the “bossa” until the very end. The contoured harmonies reflect both the anticipation felt in the first section ("Hey, there’s a raft out to sea!") and the leisurely relief felt in the finale ("We’ll never see as many fish as this!").
Although the Quarteto continues to exist today, the lineup is vastly different and the transglobal resonances of pop as a (potentially) all-encompassing genre are noticeably absent. So, what foresight the group had in calling their masterpiece “Definitive Sound.”
The more recognized Randy Newman is in mainstream culture, the more reviled his presence becomes. Despite enduring critical popularity with Pixar, his songs for their films -- think “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story or “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. -- have made his name synonymous with mediocrity. They’re fine songs, but regular Oscars viewers turn hostile seeing this potato-shaped old man on the red carpet every year. (Though I’d like to make a case for the beautiful “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2. Maybe that’s a separate column.)
It wasn’t always so. Newman’s records, including this year’s decent Harps and Angels, are elegant character portraits and sharp satirical documents. As a writer, Newman ranks with Mark Twain as one of the country’s finest and funniest social critics; as a musician and composer, he stands with McCartney and Lennon, and the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Sail Away, released in 1972, is often cited as the pinnacle of Newman’s satirical work. And while it’s a great record, Good Old Boys is the subtler, more complicated effort. In fact, satire doesn’t get more complex than opening track “Rednecks,” whose hick narrator sees Georgia governor Lester Maddox on the Dick Cavett Show and spits out a rant about the patronizing response the politician receives from the northern-elite audience. The result is Newman singing from the southerners point of view, himself singing about the northern hypocrites who mock his kind: “We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/ We’re rednecks, and we’re keeping the niggers down.” This is followed by a critique of segregation: “[The black man is] free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/ He’s free to be put in a cage on the south side of Chicago.” That’s just the first track.
Things get a little less complex from there, but no less vivid. The narrator of “Birmingham” is a proud Alabama resident who works in a factory (“that’s all right with me”) and owns Dan, "the meanest dog in Alabam." He is also married to the title character of “Marie,” one of Newman’s finest compositions. The heartbreaking ballad is sung by Marie’s drunk husband, who tells his wife the things he’d never say sober: “The song that the trees sing when the wind blows/ You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow.” (He won’t remember this in the morning.)
Good Old Boys' centerpiece is “Louisiana 1927,” an account of the Great Mississippi Flood. The song’s refrain is “they’re trying to wash us away,” a comment on the theory that the city’s levees were dynamited to preserve the wealthier sections of New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, the song gained new popularity in 2005, after similar theories arose from Hurricane Katrina. It's simply a gorgeous track, accomplishing in a few words what lesser social critics attempt with entire books. And, like the rest of the record, the song just sounds great. There's just enough orchestration to inject some theatricality, but Newman's tight band -- which included session veterans Jim Keltner on drums, bassist Russ Titelman, and Glenn Frey and Don Henley as guest vocalists -- provide its R&B backbone.
At the time of Good Old Boys' release, some criticized Newman for patronizing his southern subjects. However, though these narrators are seemingly inarticulate, they’re simply direct: “they’re trying to wash us away”, “he’s free to be put in a cage.” These aren’t idiots, and in using the vernacular of a hick stereotype, Newman has pulled off a bait and switch, a record of misdirection. If you think this is a crude caricature, you can almost hear him saying that you’re the one recognizing the stereotypes, so you’re the crude one. See what I mean? Complicated.
There’s a reason people associate the sound of NWA (and West Coast hip-hop in general) with Dr. Dre instead of Arabian Prince. The Prince was a founding member of NWA (under the moniker Professor X) but left after Ice Cube came back in 1988. Now, consider the lack of common knowledge about the group before 1988, which of course means before Straight Outta Compton, and you'll begin to understand Arabian Prince's dilemma. Aside from a few minor vocals on “Something 2 Dance 2,” he just isn’t there. He’s the Pete Best to NWA’s Beatles, the guy who exited at the wrong moment and got left in the dust as a result.
Innovative Life proves that his departure was hardly a tragedy.
While G-funk itself is a pungent leftover dish these days, Arabian Prince’s electro-rap has aged worse, and this compilation shows that there’s not much reason to look back. While opener “Strange Life” provides a great mission statement in the verse ("The end’s not near so don’t scream and shout/ Live a strange life until your time runs out”), Arabian Prince’s definition of strange only went as far as pushing the weirder-sounding buttons on the newest synth of the day. The poorly paced compositions rely on then-new electro sounds to cover up unimaginative riffs and chord progressions, and the results are predictable.
Of course, you could argue that The Prince's music was made explicitly to get booties shakin’ rather than titillate some pasty, sofa-bound reviewer playing the collection in his living room. This is simple dance-floor fuel, and you wouldn’t go wrong slipping one of the tracks into a housewarming party playlist (once you kicked that pasty reviewer off the couch). Maybe Innovative Life is just meant for DJs rather than casual listeners, a handy compendium of tight, funny-ha-ha electro tracks that will effortlessly flow into a Spank Rock remix or something -- as long as no one’s listening too hard and there aren’t any real dance music fans in the house. But ’80s retro parties aren’t even in style anymore: it’s all about the ’90s these days, from Brooklyn to the Bay, and even so, you don’t hear any of the crate diggers at Academy or Amoeba wishing someone would reissue all the old EMF 12-inches, no matter how “Unbelievable” they sounded back then.
Though they didn’t go over too well with the mudslingers at Woodstock, The Incredible String Band were some of the biggest thrill-seekers in late-1960s psychedelic folk. Judging from the group photo on the cover of their third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, their lives were just as full of fairy-tale images as their music. In 1968, when The Beatles donned white kaftans and absconded to India to study transcendental meditation, Robin Williamson had already returned from Morocco carrying an oud, a gimbri, a sitar, a water harp, and a bag full of melismatic vocal licks. Though former bandmate Clive Palmer seemed lost to India and Afghanistan forever, Williamson reunited with rock guitarist Mike Heron and set up house in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where the Scottish duo experimented with communal living, ran around wearing Renaissance costumes, and mastered enough non-occidental string instruments to justify their towering moniker.
After their second LP, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, confirmed their movement away from traditional Celtic roots, The Incredible String Band hit upon a distinctive marriage of East and West that would become their signature sound. With The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which expanded their lineup to include girlfriends Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson, the group pushed the logic of cultural hybridization further than anyone else had dared. Unlike other members of the Sgt. Pepper’s generation, Williamson and Heron were ready to do more than just quote the Middle Eastern and East Asian musical traditions; they allowed these influences to explode the very fabric of their songwriting.
If only for its hallucinogenic quality, listening to The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is a lot like watching the dream sequence in Walter Lang’s 1939 remake of A Little Princess, where the film suddenly switches from monochrome to Technicolor, sublimating the life of an orphaned Shirley Temple into a tale fit for the Brother’s Grimm. Shirley, now styled as a petticoated princess, arbitrates a dispute between an evil witch (her tight-lipped headmistress) and a lovely shepherdess (her beloved teacher) over a “stolen kiss” as she is regaled by a swirling cavalcade of pied pipers, court jesters, and cooks armed with over-basted suckling pigs. If we can’t triumph the powers that be, the film seems to suggest, why don’t we just drop out of reality for a while and write our own tall tales?
Equally enchanting and enchanted, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter provides a potent musical antidote to today’s daily grind. Taking off from the group’s farmhouse in Pembrokeshire, Williamson’s soaring tenor catches on a gust of wind and sweeps us into a promised land filled with panpipes and misty garden walls, frankincense and minotaurs, spinning castles and witches wearing black cherries on their fingers. Though each song unfurls like one of those long-winded adventure stories that bards rattled off to the ladies back home, Hangman’s is a movement not only across the seven continents but backwards through time, where childhood make-believe magnifies into courtly love and a stroll down a tree-lined lane becomes a caravan down the Silk Road. In “A Very Cellular Song,” a 13-minute ode to an amoeba that joins a Sikh hymn with a Bahaman spiritual, the group enumerates the joys of “living the timeless life” -- perhaps hitting upon the secret ideal of all true-blue hippies, past and present.
But while The Incredible String Band were busy luxuriating in their own escapist fantasy, they were also working long hours to break apart traditional song structure and confront their glut of exotic instruments with their wickermanian aesthetic. With the advent of 8-track recording, they had finally discovered a way of putting all of their ideas (and all of their instruments) down on tape. And Williamson and Heron were overflowing with ideas -- so much that they didn’t see the point in drawing any one of them out into a verse-chorus-bridge-chorus number.
“I did not write this song,” Williamson sang on their first album. “It was my joys and sorrows that bore it.” Obviously, The Incredible String Band did write their songs, and we cannot overestimate the amount of time it probably took them to sync up each microtonal flutter of Williamson’s voice with a corresponding sitar arabesque. But, listening to Hangman, we cannot avoid the feeling that Williamson and Heron were trying to reverse the equation that had come to dominate even the most “eclectic” music of their time: the channeling of sentiment into form, as opposed to the accommodation of form to sentiment. Though their transitions from raga to music-hall parody were nothing short of virtuosic, The Incredible String Band were less interested in blowing their own pennywhistles than in confronting the fact that no single melody, no single musical language, suffices to capture all the colors in the psychic rainbow.
Often lost in the pantheon of Bernard Stollman’s ESP label is the last batch of recordings they released just before closing their doors. While there are several dozen “essential” ESP recordings from the late-’60s, releases from the early-’70s by Ronnie Boykins, Donald Garrett, and others often get lumped in with posthumous records by Bud Powell and Billie Holiday (which do deserve some attention of their own). Among these is Frank Lowe’s debut, Black Beings, certainly one of the most quintessential ESP releases.
The death of Coltrane and Ayler put a small muzzle on American free jazz, ultimately causing it to branch out and take on new forms. By the early-’70s, many American players had left the country, seeking out a more receptive European audience. European natives had already established their own take on free jazz. While not soulless, the deliberate lack of rhythm and melody heard from European’s like Peter Brötzmann, Albert Manglesdorff, and Paul Rutherford were far cries from the Pan-African influences pouring out of those like Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders. But in the midst of all this change, Frank Lowe remained one of the last to carry on the “Fire Music” tradition in its truest form. Mixing post-bop influences, African heritage, and the experimentation of late-period John Coltrane, Black Beings remains one of the most soulful and extreme albums of its ilk.
Beginning with “In Trane’s Name,” Black Beings takes off like a shotgun blast, bearing a sense of urgency rarely captured on recording. Over the interlocking static-like rhythm section of William Parker (one of his earliest appearances on record) and Rashid Sinan, Frank Lowe, Joseph Jarman and Raymond Lee Cheng race through the “head” with intense prowess, a sort of formality before jumping into full-on improvisation. Lowe begins with some staccato melodic phrasing similar to Shepp, but quickly soars into an overblown, multiphonic scream/skronk that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Essentially just a recording of a live show, Black Beings encapsulates what’s great about improvisation at its very core: harnessing spontaneity in a way that can never be recreated. Aside from stellar, moment-to-moment playing, Black Beings also documents a pivotal time in music. Lowe takes free jazz to its fiercest and rawest states, while remaining deeply invested in the same roots as the previous generation of jazz experimenters. As avant-garde as Black Beings gets, it is indeed pure soul music, without a trace of pretension or self-indulgence that often cripples free jazz.
While this album has been reissued several times by various questionable sources, the latest reissue is significant for two reasons. Aside from being an official release on Stollman’s recently revived ESP label, Black Beings also has bonus material that is pretty much essential to the release. Previously “In Trane’s Name” had ended with Rashid Sinan’s sharp snare drum crack, which seemed to mark the end of the piece. But to make the original album fit within the sides of an LP, Raymond Lee Cheng’s impressive violin solo was left out, along with the entire finish of the song. (It should also be noted that up until this release, Raymond Lee Cheng had always been credited as “The Wizard.” Maybe some people knew who it really was; however, I had always assumed it was a moniker for Leroy Jenkins.) Additionally, the final track, “Thulani,” originally faded out on a high note but now plays out until its definitive ending, in which you can hear an audience of about 10 devoted fans clapping. (How fucking sad is that?) The fidelity of the recording has benefited from a superb remastering job as well. Where previous versions heard the mix obviously in the red, full of lo-fi analog distortion, the latest version keeps the all the grit, while adding a great deal of clarity. Bass notes that were once buried in the mix are brought out to the surface, and no longer do the drums drown everything out in an overdriven haze.
Black Beings is an essential release for anyone interested in the history of free jazz, and those already fond of the album will without a doubt appreciate the upgrade.
He howled at the moon before Allen Ginsberg, freewheeled it to New York from the Midwest before Bob Dylan, and was more adept at self-fashioning than either of them. An object of fixation for the high-profile bohemia of the ’50s and ’60s -- from Charlie Parker to Leonard Bernstein to Dylan and Ginsberg -- he never saw the mainstream success of the fashionable artists who championed him. Moondog (born Louis Hardin in Marysville, Kansas) was attractive to the avant-garde partially because he was unmarketable (though Columbia records briefly tried, releasing two Moondog records in the late ’60s/early-’70s): blind, homeless, stubbornly eccentric and always dressed in his customized translation of Viking attire, he was an outsider in the most fundamental sense. A composer, poet, street performer, and inventor of instruments, he went without all but the most basic comforts and dedicated himself fully to his art.
It’s understandable if Moondog’s romantic profile as the quintessential practitioner of art brut, driven by an unstoppable need to create above all practical concerns, arouses your skepticism. His extraordinary life story has made him a fetish for obscurists, folk academics, record collectors, and field recorders such as Tony Schwarz, who captured Moondog’s impromptu street performances on the record Moondog on the Streets of New York. Yet, as this early career (I use the term career loosely) compilation from Astralwerks proves, Moondog’s works are strange but immediately pleasurable, as idiosyncratic and playful as the legend of the man himself.
Moondog’s freak appeal is advertised by the cover art: New York photographers’ favorite subject stands in full Viking attire on a street corner (presumably 6th avenue and 54th St., now officially known as Moondog Corner) while a swanky Manhattan couple staidly side-step around him. His outsized image was inseparable from his work and his personality; it reflected his complex worldview, one that I frankly fail to fully grasp. It involved a love for the classical tonal compositions of the Renaissance and a deep, possibly controversial identification with the ancient Nordics.
“Theme and Variations” opens with tribal percussion; then a four-note, cycling flute melody enters while other flutes and horns slowly play counterpoint to the original pattern. It’s the kind of concentrated, mesmerizing build-up the minimalist composers were after, and indeed, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass often referred to Moondog as the original minimalist. Rejecting this title, Moondog argued that his songs were in the classical tradition of Western tonal music. The second track “Down is Up” brings this point home; it’s a canon that places (what sounds like) amateur choir singers over Renaissance-style melody and instrumentation, punctuated by quirky percussion. “Bumbo” comes on strong with its pulsing, repetitive jazz. “Big Cat” is a sparse exercise in rhythm, interspersed with Native American influenced flute.
These four songs introduce the major styles that occur throughout the record. There are the melodic flute-driven pieces, the madrigals, the hard-bop numbers, and the rhythm-based songs utilizing Moondog’s unique percussion instrument, which he called the trimba. “Bird’s Lament,” which falls under the bop category, is an impossibly satisfying tribute to Charlie Parker that radiates theatrical cool on every second of its perfectly short 1:44 length. “All is Loneliness,” once covered by Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & The Holding Company, perfectly evokes the alienation of living on the fringe of society, with its single line “All is loneliness here for me” repeated over a haunting flute and acoustic guitar line. “Be a Hobo” finds Moondog entreating anyone with an open spirit to “be a Hobo and go with me/ From Hoboken to the sea” in a melody that echoes “All is Loneliness” but somehow excises the despair. It’s beautiful, funny, and understated. Album closer “Invocation” sounds like the stoic and insistent march of an army of horns led by Terry Riley towards the netherworld.
The Viking of 6th Avenue skillfully arranges a heterogeneous selection of songs from various Moondog releases so that his singular, though eclectic, vision emerges intact. The tunes are minimalist in a few senses; excluding the 10-minute “Invocation,” they are all extremely short. Each idea is allowed enough time to germinate, and no more. Additionally, the songs are stripped down in terms of instrumentation and players; Moondog overdubbed many of the parts himself, and he sings with his daughter on a few of the madrigals. His influence on capital M Minimalism can be found in the contrapuntal pieces where dueling melodies in the same key enter and leave at random intervals.
For all his formal concerns, Moondog rarely abandons the pleasure principle: one listen to bawdy “Rabbit Hop” or endearingly irreverent “Enough About Human Rights!” will prove as much. These songs were written on the streets, not in the academy, and it shows. Those looking to The Viking of Sixth Avenue for a slice of weird Americana will not be disappointed. Try playing it sometime for people who know nothing of the Moondog myth -- if they’ve got any howl in them, they’ll love it too.
Now that Pitchfork scribe Amanda Petrusich has gone and made the investigation of the connection between the old and new “Weird America” all official with her excellent book It Still Moves, the work of artists like Nimrod Workman has become even more paramount to our understanding of the elements that compose American folk music: the thematic ever-presents of God, love, murder, and justice, the lonesome tones of strained voices and the inherent multi-national, multi-racial aspects that manifest themselves as Nimrod Workman (named for his Cherokee grandfather). Unaccompanied by any other voice or instrument, Workman sings songs ranging from self-composed tales of lust and murder, to British and Scottish traditional ballads and spiritual devotionals.
I Want To Go Where Things Are Beautiful contains just a small chunk of the 18-hours' worth of recordings that musician and folk historian Mike Seeger made of Workman at his home in Mascot, Tennessee in 1982. At 87 years old, Workman proves strikingly lucid; between the songs, he often takes time to elaborate on their origins, explaining that his uncle Peter McNeely took him aside as a young boy and taught him songs he wouldn’t teach anyone else. He details his struggles as a coal miner union activist, fighting to gain medical compensation for exposure to coal dust that led to black lung. The conversations between Seeger and Workman are warm and often given to laughter, as Workman details where he learned the songs, as if by recording them with Seeger he is to some degree passing them down to future generations as they were passed down to him.
Workman’s voice, shrill and heavily accented, is the perfect vehicle for the songs. As he describes singing in the coal mines, alone and in the dark, it becomes clear that his songs serve a higher function than mere entertainment. Songs like “Shady Grove” and “Gabriel’s Trumpet” long for a kind of beauty, sounding like survival tactics against the harsh backdrop of dirty, desolate mines. As he belts out “Coal Black Mining Blues” and describes his battle against the injustice of the mining business, a line connecting Pete Seeger to Billy Bragg and The Clash becomes apparent, with music as a message of social change. Just as Bukowski spent a good chunk of his life slagging it out in a sea of crap jobs, only free to truly explore the “fullness” of artistic life after retirement, Workman only began singing professionally after 42 years of mining, forced into retirement by a slipped disc and black lung, and the years of work are clear in his ringing voice as they are in Bukowski’s writing.
Workman shines when walking the line between the sacred and the profane, offering Pentecostal blessings in the same company as murder ballads (and sometimes even merging the two) or depicting Jesus as an avenging warrior in “Hewed Out of the Mountain,” conjuring images of a “stone rolling down from Babylon.” “Oh Death” and “Great Big Hand of God” feature similar dread, recognizing that at the core of the smiling-pastor visage of Christianity is a pretty terrifying book, full of rivers of blood and sacrifice. Workman is careful not to sermonize too much; however holy the Sunday mornings are, the Saturday nights seem pretty wild, as Workman describes calling out girls, drinking in the bar, and generally having a great time with the ladies when he’s not disposing of their bodies in the river.
But it’s not all so grim. “Good Morning” finds Workman blasting out some rapid-fire talking blues, genially rapping, and the smirk on his face is practically audible. As the record concludes, Seeger has wisely left in Workman’s goodbyes to him on that particular day. Among the colloquial “y’all comeback now”s, his gentle nature shines through. A classic storyteller in a uniquely American fashion, his tale is one that embodies all that’s notable about “traditional American” music. Though he passed away at the age of 99 in 1994, Nimrod Workman’s songs contain the threads that our modern folk -- indie or otherwise -- is built upon, the tightrope walk of spirit and flesh, the pathos of love and murder, and, above all, the idea of music as lasting salvation.
Char Vinnedge, frontwoman of the Luv’d Ones and self-described “non-sleeper,” was one hard-working woman: in addition to doing lead guitar and lead vocals, she wrote all of the band’s songs, booked all of their gigs, designed their outfits, crafted their album artwork, repaired their equipment, and drove their tour van. In 1964, when The Beatles were busy working American teenyboppers into a frenzy and most of the women lucky enough to be on the other side of the stage barrier were singing songs by Phil Spector, Vinnedge bought a white Airline guitar off of her brother Vic, tuned it down a whole step, and decided to start a rock ‘n’ roll band. On her own terms.
The resulting group -- based out of her parents’ basement in Niles, Michigan and including her 13-year-old sister Chris on bass, Mary Gallagher on rhythm guitar, and Faith Orem on drums -- would never become as famous as Vinnedge believed they would. After four years of almost non-stop touring, opening for bands like The Turtles and The Buckinghams and flooring skeptical male audiences from New York to L.A., The Luv’d Ones fizzled out, turning down a dodgy record contract with Chicago’s Dunwich Records. They did, however, manage to leave behind some of darkest, most stunning, and most idiosyncratic music in 1960s garage. And that’s not just “girl garage.”
Though The Luv’d Ones’ early repertoire consisted mainly of old standards and Beatles covers, Char’s desire to establish her own creative voice quickly took precedence over what their record company, their audiences, and even the three other members of the group wanted to hear. Between driving the girls around, laundering their clothes, and bargaining with club owners, Char holed up in her parents’ basement to write songs, experiment with fuzz and feedback, and carve out a sound that she could call her own. “The reason I tuned my guitar down a full step was simple,” Char explained in an interview with Jud Cost and Bob Irwin. “I didn’t want to sound like anybody else.” Something that couldn’t have been too hard for Vinnedge, whose glacial, full-bodied alto was a good octave lower than most of her female contemporaries.
Truth Gotta Stand, released by Sundazed in 1999, brings together 23 singles, demos, and live recordings that the group recorded between 1964 and 1968. The recordings themselves are far from perfect, and the first nine songs or so -- ironically, the only songs that were ever actually released by their record company -- are perhaps most interesting as documents of the group’s struggle to discover their own voice. But as much as The Luv’d Ones might fit the mold of other unsung garage-girl heroes of the ‘60s (their classic lineup, their snappy baselines and twangy guitar hooks, their kicking, round-robin vocal refrains), Char’s conscientious songwriting elevates the compilation above and beyond a mere period piece. Though Char Vinnedge had clearly digested the rock idioms that were crystallizing at the time -- and that continue to dominate popular music to this day -- we get the sense that she was already bored with them, already looking for something more. Whether they are up-tempo and exuberant or plodding and overflowing with quiet despair, Char’s melodies always have something exquisitely counterintuitive about them, as though she spent hour upon hour in her underground studio trying to pin down simple combinations of notes that her listeners had never heard before.
“All the laws are written/ In some dusty old book/ Any fool who breaks that book/ Is gonna get kicked,” sings Char on “Portrait.” A risk that this blond, Midwestern Don Quixote was willing to take, even considering the structure of the song in which these lines appear: a single, repeated refrain, threaded with a constantly shifting series of instrumental baroque motifs, punctuated with guitar solos that send the song flying from tonic key to kingdom come. With an expressivity never set into default mode and a hearty helping of shredding on her Gibson SG, Char and the girls seemed to be fighting a four-woman war to prevent America’s ears from falling asleep.
* Previously unreleased
1995: Chavez - Gone Glimmering
Early in the pages of X Saves the World, a self-proclaimed “manifesto for a generation that’s never had much use for manifestos,” author Jeff Gordinier maintains that a vacuous artistic trend gradually emerged towards the end of the ’80s and suppurated for some years after, making for a rather exasperating lull in the history of compelling pop music. Then, of course, along came Nirvana.
But roughly half a decade later, the musical landscape had more or less reverted to lolling in the same stagnant mire that Nirvana penetrated. Airwaves were congested with more dime-a-dozen bands rigidly complying with the same checkpoints constituting whatever “alternative” was (when alternative was never intended to serve as the designation of a genre anyway). In the midst of this commercial fluffiness, while just about every other ostensible artist was attempting to huff the last hackneyed fumes from Kurt Cobain’s rotting brainchild, one particular band emerged that -- in conjunction with Gordinier’s projection of the Generation Xer ideology -- didn’t care too much for the manifesto of the mid-’90s.
Granted, to suggest that Chavez “emerged” may be a bit of an overstatement. No one ever lauded them as the voice of a generation. In fact, not too many people really noticed them at all. Chavez just occupied this little pocket of otherwise frustratingly pedestrian musical output. And even now, due in part to Matador Records releasing the comprehensive 2006 compilation Better Days Will Haunt You, a general appreciation has only begun to bubble.
Listening to Gone Glimmering, both their first and penultimate album, it's easy to fathom why Chavez is perpetually overlooked. It epitomizes a deliberate opposition to the period's prevailing monotony, which left more conformist bands to remain as staples of adult contemporary radio stations across America. When everybody else was mass-producing innocuous drab, Chavez was primarily concerned with shredding.
On the occasion that Chavez does serve as a topic of conversation, the “math rock” stamp is inevitably drawn upon. While not necessarily an inaccuracy, the label is more titular than authoritative. Math rock in relation to Chavez is problematic because the term calls to mind a snapping, ticking, pulsating preciseness à la the Dillinger Escape Plan or Battles. And while Gone Glimmering is certainly skintight, it’s driven wholly by guitar, retaining the angularity inherent to the genre yet possessing a sweeping, billowy aura as well. That is, if last year’s Mirrored was a calculated foray into regularity and prime numbers, Chavez’s math rock is a study in geometry.
Popular songs have always been constructed using transitions between verse, chorus, and the occasional bridge. Gone Glimmering’s inattentiveness to this blueprint, instead opting for a more explosive across-the-board approach, is the most obvious and enthralling aspect of the album. Even in some of the quieter moments, like the opening to “The Ghost By the Sea,” there's still a jaggedness courtesy of rippling, icy guitar arpeggios and Matt Sweeney’s corrosive, suppressed voice. Each subtlety (used in the loosest sense of the term) manages to surge into that territory where Chavez thrives.
And thrive they do, particularly on the guitar. The one-two pummel of “Nailed to the Blank Spot” and “Break Up Your Band,” though not ideologically different from the other seven tracks on the record, leaves one hard-pressed to think of another album that opens with such a masterful duality of sheer vigor and accessibility. Throughout these songs, frenetic, isolated squeals trade smacks with sawtoothed bursts of full chords, all while piggybacking on “The” James Lo’s (as he is credited in the liner notes) clamorously popping drums.
Aside from the unmitigated capacity to coerce such rawness and appeal out of their instruments, the boys also seem keenly aware of where they're going. Gone Glimmering could have easily tumbled into that overworked tactic of melodramatic buildups and soaring crescendos that so many other bands of the time were riding. But Chavez tautened the harness when veering too close to what the alternative juggernaut would have ordained. After an uncharacteristic escalation in “Wakeman’s Air,” for example, they opt to fizzle out, only to blast back into typical Chavez mode after a moment or two. These instances occur few and far between on Gone Glimmering, as it bares quite an edge from beginning to end, but they prove further witness to the precociousness of an unconventional band accomplishing something altogether unprecedented on their first record.
Finally, with closer “Relaxed Fit,” Chavez chooses not to linger. Almost as if to supplement the brunt of the preceding eight tracks’ collective sucker punch, Gone Glimmering is over as fast as it began. No self-congratulatory anthem. No token schmaltzy, emotionally wrought ballad to contrast with the rest of the record. It’s an in-and-out affair. And in this way, Gone Glimmering manages to continually resonate, despite the relatively unrecognized status it has held since its 1995 release. Its shirking of the mainstream nondescript serves as a refreshing glimpse back at a time dominated by formulaic rock, while the intrinsic merits of the album render it a pure thrill.
Despite her name, Patsy Cline proved she was "nobody's patsy" throughout her career. In a time when the Nashville music business treated female acts as pretty window dressings or chattel, she demanded and rightfully garnered deep-seated esteem. Concert promoters were known for cheating artists out of their stipends at the time by promising to pay up after shows and running with the money during the concert. Cline stood up to male promoters before she even took the stage, demanded their money by claiming: "No dough, no show."
That type of obstinate showmanship was reflected in her stentorian voice, a peeled-back husk, a full-throated contralto that stood in marked contrast to the light, prairie-wind vocals of other female country musicians. Cline described her vocal stylings matter-of-factly: “Oh, I just sing like I hurt inside." And there was plenty of hurt going around for female musicians in what many still consider a male dominated industry. Cline certainly opened up the doors for the big name country-pop starlets like Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and in recent years LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood. When she made her first recordings in 1955, Kitty Wells was the reigning “Queen of Country Music." By the time Cline broke through as a durable hit maker in 1961, a year before her untimely plane crash, she had taken the throne.
Her third and final album, Sentimentally Yours, sounds more like a melodic capstone on a career and less like an extension of a star’s brief dust trail. This was exacerbated by her continued augurs of impending doom in the months and weeks leading up to her death at age 30. The crash is surpassed by the music with every listen though.
Cline's early days in rockabilly are hinted at in some of her winking deliveries and turns of phrases, but for the most part, Sentimentally Yours is a subtle fusion of sharp populism and C&W gravitas. Similar to her self-titled debut and Showcase, Cline demonstrates her eye for picking choice cuts, from Hank Williams to the staple muse for her countrypolitan material, Hank Cochran.
Despite appearances, Cline wasn’t afraid to rend her heart for the public eye; in fact, she found herself steeped in unabashed nostalgia with the songs she chose to front on Yours. Her final mega-hit “Heartaches” matches her previous two singles (57's “Walkin’ After Midnight” and 61's #1 hit “I Fall to Pieces”) pound-for-pound with the simplest of instrumentation. She doesn’t hide behind any production or backup orchestration. An upright bass, a doleful steel guitar, spongy drums, and a tinkling bar piano courtesy of Nashville mainstay Floyd Cramer fill the small spaces that Cline’s powerful voice doesn’t manage to reach. The setup reveals a bravery in short supply in or out of the Nashville canon.
At various times throughout Yours, influential record producer Owen Bradley's production seems to have one foot in pop, jump-blues, or early rock ‘n' roll. He created a sound all its own; countrypolitan. Today it's colloquially known as country pop or derisively as Bud Light country, but Bradley did it before any co-optation.
“She’s Got You” was the perfect epitome of that sound. It reached #1 on the country charts and remained perched just outside the pop Top 10. Patsy’s phrasing on this torch ballad is unimpeachable, as she lists off all the ephemera as if she’s crying before a bonfire, recalling her old flame. She gets through a signed "I Love You" portrait, old records, and a class ring before singing the clincher: “The only thing different/ The only thing new/ I’ve got your (picture/records/little things)/ She’s got you.” The last line is stretched out until it's unbearable. It's those kinds of moments that truly make Sentimentally Yours a triumph.
Naturally, Cline's pedigree was firmly planted in the nourishing sustenance of country and western music, and Sentimentally Yours features two songs, “Heartaches” and “Anytime,” that became C&W staples in their own right. Penned in the 1930s, "Heartaches" was probably the most identifiable song upon the album's release, seeing as it was highlighted on the cover after initial pressings. It’s a swinging song with light jazz drumming. The mid-tempo is augmented to grand effect by barbershop backup singers The Jordanaires, whose united sighs on the downbeats catapult the frolicsome piano line and watery guitar at a speedy gait. These aren’t simple recreations though; Cline truly leaves her stamp on the source material. Hank Williams’ country hit “Half As Much” is brought to a lazy trot to accentuate the female perspective, and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” is sung with an on-the-lamb thirst for companionship.
Cline was a dynamo musician that jack-hammered hearts and Nashville’s stolid expectations of women artists. During her truncated career she traded in the country music garb she grew up with for fancier duds; though she was becoming a huge sensation on the outside, she remained true to her roots, even until her death. Her singing still makes other people’s attempts seem like taciturn frauds, and as for us; we’re the patsys who go along with it.