July 2009

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I don’t generally post youtube links for a couple of reasons. The main reason is just an element of self-discipline. It’s important to me to mostly post songs that I’ve lived with for a while. I will occasionally put up something that’s new to me and that I’m excited about, but I like to emphasize music that I’m familiar with. I worry that youtube makes it too easy to find novelties. The second reason is similar, I don’t like the sound quality on most youtube videos and I like to listen to things on different systems as a way to get different sense of the sound, and that isn’t possible with youtube videos.

All of that said, I do see videos that are well worth a link, and here are a couple:

1) A delightful video of Wayne Henderson at PSGW. I first heard a recording of Henderson about four years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since (in fact, I had a very small role in the story of how his latest CD got released). The video has good sound quality and really shows off his particular casual musical dexterity. He isn’t working hard at all, and he sounds like he can do whatever he wants without ever being in a hurry. As an extra bonus, it was recorded at PSGW which is always worth a mention (just don’t ask me to explain how they chose the cover photo for the current brochure).

2) For a completely different mood, there is this video of Townes Van Zandt performing “Waiting Around to Die.” I think some of that footage was in the Townes Van Zandt documentary “Be Here To Love Me,” but I don’t remember if that entire clip was included. I don’t know that the performance is particularly impressive, as a performance, but I think it gives a very interesting sense of Townes’ charisma. He’s capable of being simultaneously casual and jokey while also having moments of intense emotional focus and openness. He can be himself while being around or chanelling intense emotions and you can see how that would be really compelling to people around him.

That clip also made me think of the description, in “Be Here To Love Me,” by Townes’ wife, about the start of his songwriting career. She said that they had gotten married not that long before, Townes decided that he wanted to start writing songs, shut himself up in a small room for a week, and then came out excited to play her his first song — “Waiting Around to Die.” At that point she realized the marriage was not going to be exactly what she expected. Clearly Townes Van Zandt was not particularly inclined to alter how emotional journeys for the sake of the people around him. But he did become a truly amazing songwriter and performer.

3) Finally, a clip of music that I am less familiar with. Via Ta-Nehisi Coates there are some great Joan Armatrading videos from a session live in studio. I’ve just recently bought a Joan Armatrading collection and I think it’s going to take me a while to get used to her style but that I will really like her when I do. At first listening there are parts that I find distracting. Her performance is an interesting mix of being stylized and formal and also intimate and emotional. I suspect that the parts that feel overly formal to me are a sign of not being familiar with her musical style. But I’m interested to try to listen enough that I can focus on the real emotion in the songs.

Reprise

I was listening again to the Talib Kweli track that I included on my hip-hop playlist a while back, the track that I forgot to say anything about at the time, and was again struck by how good it is.

As I mentioned before I’ve been tired, and not listening to a lot of music. I happened to put Talib Kweli on, one day, when I was laying on the couch and I was really taken with how gentle it is. That isn’t an emotion that I associate with hip-hop (and, as I’ve said, my experience is limited), but he seemed absolutely to be a comforting, supportive, gentle presence to listen to after a rough day. That track, perhaps because it is recorded live, stands out on the album for those qualities.

To take one example, contrast how Talib Kweli approaches the line, “If I could make it in New York, I figured anywhere I’d make it” with Sinatra’s, “Im gonna make a brand new start of it – in old new york / And if I can make it there, Im gonna make it anywhere.” In the Sinatra version, all the world is a stage, and New York is grandest stage of them all. It is a place where a star can truly shine. For Talib Kweli, New York is a city of neighborhoods and house parties, where making it means being accepted by a complicated community.

It’s a song that reflects in a variety of ways about what he makes of success, and how he has arrived at his current position. As befits the title, it’s circular in various ways, but the more I listen to it, the more I feel like it’s a very personal sincere statement.

Update: I have to say, I am completely in love with this song at the moment. I’ve listened to it another handful of times since the original post, and I’m really impressed at how many threads it weaves together. At this point I know the words relatively well, but I’m still trying to make sense of the emotional arc of the song. It clearly has an arc, but figuring out how to describe it or make sense of it is tricky. There are so many things that the song takes as emotional touchstones: Being a parent and being a child; growing up and looking back; attachments to a community, and individual milestones.

As RS points out, much of the song is nostalgic, but it ends with “Yes. / We made it / We here.” and the sound of the ocean. It goes through a lot to get to that point.

This is not music related, but just something I want to have available for myself. Below are two passages from Freeman Dyson on Robert Oppenheimer.

Read the rest of this entry »

After the last post, thinking about music that succeeds as both pop and conceptual music, I was reminded of just how impressive Laurie Anderson’s debut single, O Superman is.

Laurie Anderson’s career and musical style are such that details of chronology may not be obvious to a casual listener and, as such, it’s easy to hear how confident and successful “O Superman” is and think of it as a mid-career piece rather than a debut. I know, for myself, I heard United States Live relatively young and, while I didn’t listen to it that often, it had a significant, lasting, affect on my musical tastes. It seemed like an accomplished artistic statement by a mature performer. I never would have thought of it as a first album.

In some ways, that is a misleading description. According to wikipedia Laurie Anderson had performed live, and done previous recordings for art installations*. “O Superman” was her first recording to get widely distributed when Warner Brothers picked it up after it had become popular in Britain after being promoted by John Peel. It isn’t, therefore, the work of someone who is preparing a debut to try to make an impression on the pop music world. It was conceived of for a different audience and noticed by the pop music world.

At the same time, as I’ve said before, it’s difficult to write pop music. Whatever Laurie Anderson intended for the piece, it clearly works and that’s a significant achievement. The loop of her voice saying, “ha” is wonderfully evocative as simultaneously electronic and human. The vocals are electronically modulated in way that makes them unfamiliar without feeling overly processed or “produced.” The lyrics are allusive but, again, evocative. “Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice / And when justice is gone, there’s always force / And when force is gone, there’s always Mom / (spoken) Hi mom.”

It seems, at this moment, like a fitting descendant of the beat humor of the previous piece, though her style of humor is very different.

* For example, “One of her most-cited performances, Duets on Ice, which she conducted in New York and other cities around the world, involved her playing the violin along with a recording while wearing ice skates with the blades frozen into a block of ice; the performance ended only when the ice had melted away.”

Timing

Here’s something I’ve been meaning to post for a while. Proof that you can do a lot with impeccable timing (and a great title), The Murder Of Two Men By A Young Kid Wearing Lemon Colored Gloves. Off the same compilation from which I got the Kerouac that I used on History and Hope.

It gets a lot out of small variations of delivery. I think it loses a little bit in the mp3 conversion, but hopefully the essential humor still works.

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