June 2010

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Living Room Songs — Track 6 “BoozeFighters” by Gandydancer from The Appalachians.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. At some point, working on the mix, I started pulling CDs off the shelf that I didn’t know well, but that looked promising. I’d picked up this collection a year or two earlier but hadn’t been in the right mood and didn’t listen to it much, but this mix was the perfect occasion to go through it. I thought this was an awfully charming song.

It was an interesting challenge to put in the sequence, however, because it (a) has a lot of energy (b) is short and (c) doesn’t have an into our outro to speak of. So there isn’t any way to easy into or out of it, you have to be able to transition into its mood immediately. So it works well following “Bash Bish Falls” which also has a lot of energy, but doesn’t have great emotional force.

Incidentally, I apologize for the break in posting, but I was sick last week. I’m feeling better now and looking forward to getting back into the mix.

A very fun video, via nosflow, “Chopsticks in ragtime on two pianos, unplanned & unrehearsed”

The description on the video explains it well

It’s only 20 minutes until the start of the finale concert at 10th annual Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival, but instead of heading out to the concert venue, Adam Swanson (foreground) came into the American Exchange Hotel venue and told Tom Brier (background) that he wanted to play a two-piano duet with him.

He asked Tom if he knew “Car-Barlick Acid”. Tom, who is such a good sight-reader that he doesn’t memorize many tunes, said he’d probably be able to follow Adam’s lead.

Tom asked Adam how it starts. As a joke, Adam played the first few bars of “Chopsticks” instead.

Well, as Adam was about to discover, when you give Tom an idea like that, he’s going to run with it!

The video starts as Tom begins playing Chopsticks in return.

Adam says he only knows the first strain, but look at how quickly he picks up the second strain (and, later, a Trio section that Tom makes up on the spot in the subdominant key).

Once Adam gets it down, Tom starts playing with the rhythm, in true cutting-contest fashion.

Adam later changes the performance into “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home”, then, once Tom plays it too, Adam plays “Tiger Rag” on top of it, since the chord structure is the same.

They did eventually play “Car-Barlick Acid” together, but that’s for another video.

Alas, Adam is on an old piano that had some of its notes badly out of tune by this time on Sunday (even though it had been tuned in the morning).

It’s fun to watch Adam trying to figure out what to do when Tom switches gears — he gets lost a couple of times, but figures it out really quickly.

As one commenter says, “change the name of the video to ‘Best Improv On YouTube- Two Pianos.'”

Living Room Songs — track 5 “Bash Bish Falls” by John Reischman and the Jaybirds from Stellar Jays.

The first instrumental track, and a change of pace. The three proceeding songs were all pretty serious, and the song immediately prior to this one, “I Wish To The Lord I’d Never Been Born” was very patient and internal, and it felt like time for something more lively.

This track certainly is lively. I don’t have a lot to say about it, except that I think it’s great and that, even though it’s very fast, they all really seem to be listening to each other throughout. They way they trade off playing lead works well (you can see that visually in this live performance), nobody has to keep up full speed for the entire song.

It’s very fun, and a nice pallet cleanser before the mix heads into a different mood.

Living Room Songs — Track 3: “Who Will Sing For Me?” by Earl Scruggs/Doc Watson/Ricky Skaggs from Three Pickers.
Living Room Songs — Track 4: “Wish To The Lord I’d Never Been Born” by Bob Coltman from Lonesome Robin.

I’m listing both of these because I’ve already posted quite a bit about the Bob Coltman song so I think I can talk about them together. Looking at that post, I think Bob Coltman’s describes the force of the song well with his line, “Summing up, this is one of those intensely vision-laden songs I love, that just entangle you deep in the brush and mire and dust and deep woods of somebody’s intensely felt locality. ”

Track 3, the song from Three Pickers was, actually the inspiration for doing a folk/bluegrass mix in the first place. I’d gotten that album, listened to it a bit, and new that I liked it. But then I happened to grab it for a car trip and, somehow, in that setting I was struck by how beautiful the album was, and I wanted to share it.

It’s a relatively recent concert album that features three people who were all extremely famous in their prime and are now getting older. At the time of the recording Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson were, respectively, 78 and 79 years old. Ricky Scaggs was comparatively youthful at 48 years old, but he had been performing in public since he was seven years old, so he still is somebody with a long career behind him.

Knowing that, I think, lends additional poignancy to the treatment of mortality in this song.

When friends shall gather round
And look down on me.
Will they turn and walk away
or will they sing one song for me?

This concert reflects many of the virtues that I appreciate in traditional music — they clearly have
a deep, emotional connection to the music which, in this case, they have been playing for their entire life. What must it be like, I wonder, to sing a verse like that, when you’re at an age to be acutely conscious of one’s mortality. It is at the same time so stark and so tender. It takes death as a fact of life, but the song isn’t sad, it just asks for one song. The way they sing it, it feels like you couldn’t imagine a better way to feel alive, and rooted in one’s life than to be singing with good friends.

As a note about the sequencing, in an earlier draft I had these in reversed order, with the Bob Coltman coming first, but I think this order is better. It keeps up a little bit more energy through the first three songs. The Bob Coltman song is more patient, and is less emotionally dynamic, which slows down the pace. In this order I think it works as a chance to follow “Who Will Sing For Me?” with something that’s equally rooted, but doesn’t make as much of an emotional claim on the listener. You can listen to “Wish To The Lord I’d Never Been Born” and still carry into some of the emotions from the previous song and it isn’t a problem.

I also feel like those two songs solidly move from the first two which both feel contemporary, and establish a very traditional feel which carries through in various ways for the next 7 songs, more or less.

Living Room Songs — Track 2: “Snowing In Brooklyn” by Ferron from Not A Still Life.

If I could hear Ferron playing in somebody’s living room I would be very happy. In fact, I got the live album that this version is from after seeing her perform in town a couple of years ago and she was very good.

This was an interesting song for me. I knew that I liked the performance a lot, but I wasn’t sure that it would fit, because it was such a different style that most of the tracks. Among the ways in which this compilations clarified my sense of “living room music” was that it should be social, and it implies a small group. A large group isn’t going to fit into a living room, but a solo musician may not either. In the settings in which I’ve eavesdropped it isn’t rare for somebody to perform a song by themselves, but most of the time other people join in as they pick up the tune.

This Ferron track is one of 3 solo tracks on the collection, along with the songs by John Hartford and Wayne Henderson, and is the most introspective and personal of those three. I moved it around a lot when I was experimenting with different sequences and, ultimately, I’m happy with it in this position, as the second song, and think it serves the mix well. I like it as a contrast to the Judy Roderick song with the two of them marking out the opposite edges of the emotional spectrum represented on this set. That pairs two confident, intelligent performances, one which is complete play, and the other emotional, lived-in, and human.

That lived-in quality, in particular, is an aspect of music that I’m very happy to include on this collection. It sounds like it takes no work for her to find the emotions and tone of the song. By the time of that recording, eight years after the original recording, she’s clearly sung it enough times that she doesn’t have to think about it. Contrast this with the album version in which is very good, but feels very thought about, and makes me think that, while I’m sure the emotions are sincere, they’re being processed by the brain before they’re expressed.

On that same note, her guitar playing and guitar sound are so wonderful in the live version. It sounds like she has complete familiarity with that guitar, and knows exactly what it’s going to do.

Living Room Songs — Track 1: “Louisville Lou” by Judy Roderick from Woman Blue

This was a song that I decided on relatively early in the process. I knew that I was making this mix for a relatively large CD swap and that it would be easy to get lost in the crowd, so I wanted to open with something immediately catchy, and it was an easy choice. Woman Blue is another album for which I had a cassette copy when I was younger, and just recently got a copy of the CD because the songs were still stuck in my memory.

I think Judy Roderick is an amazing singer, she’s got a gorgeous voice, but she doesn’t show off much. This track is the jazziest* and most show-offish on the album, but I feel like there’s something very rooted and physical in her singing. The melody is always completely clear in her performances and my first response is frequently, “what a nice song” rather than “what an impressive singer.” In this case, when I listen to the song I end up with it stuck in my head for days.

The song doesn’t need much explication, but my favorite flourish is the “hey” in the line the line, “when she struts about you hear a dumb man man shout, ‘hey, she sends chills up and down my spine.'” It seems so appropriate as an inarticulate bawdy exclamation from somebody who has just acquired the ability to speak.

* Two interesting things from the liner notes of the album. First I find it interesting that they go out of their way to identify her as a blues singer, which must say something about which lines of identification were contentious at that point in time. I think of her as a folk singer. Secondly, I had an “aha!” moment when I saw this song described as ragtime. That seemed like a good identification.

I want to try an experiment that I’ve been thinking about for a while. As I’ve mentioned, working on mixes is when when I do my most focused listening — in terms of paying close attention to both individual songs and what elements of the songs contribute to smooth or jagged transitions. I always end up learning something from constructing a mix. So I thought it could be interesting to walk through a mix song by song.

To start with, my most recent mix. I’ve put the entire mix up here (I burned it from a copy of the mix, so the artist information won’t be available, but otherwise the metadata should be accurate). I hope to post about each of the songs every couple of days, so it will probably take a 4-6 weeks to go through the entire mix (and I reserve the right to post on other topics during that time), but I think it will be interesting.

To quote what I said earlier about the mix

have a large set of childhood memories of hanging around in the living room while my parents played music with their friends. . . . I realize those memories are what define traditional music for me. When I’m listening to recordings of folk or acoustic music one of the things that I listen for is whether the performance and recording capture something of the spirit of making music for pleasure. It is, of course, a subjective category, and the musicians in my parents’ generation that I knew, growing up, represent a specific style of making music. Still, there are many recording in which I do feel that sense of music as a social activity shared among participants — rather than between a performer an an audience.

I would add a couple of notes to that, along with a copy the tracklist below the fold.
Read the rest of this entry »

Oddities

It’s a rainy Sunday, I’ve been doing some straitening up, and I noticed a Frank Zappa collection, the lost episodes, that I haven’t thought about for a while, which fit my mood. It was released shortly after his death, and was culled from his personal tapes. It includes a variety of unreleased songs, along with random recordings. I wanted to highlight one of each.

First, “I’m A Band Leader” Zappa’s merciless satire of the small time musical huckster. It’s a pure cheap shot, but delivered perfectly. “I gave away a box with two small bottles of champagne imported from Europe and kissed the girl who won and shook hands with the guy she was with. He didn’t mind when I kissed he because I’m important.”

Second, “Cops & Buns” a recording made when somebody left the tapes running when a cop came to their apartment studio responding to a noise complaint. It’s represents another stereotype, as the cop comes across as somebody straight out of central casting but, in this case, he is more sympathetic than they are.

I’ve been listening to the debut album of much-discussed-on-unfogged Janelle Monae, ArchAndroid. If you haven’t heard of her, I recommend starting by watching her performance on Letterman (watch to the end for a James Brown homage). Seeing that convinced me to buy her album, and it doesn’t disappoint.

There are a couple of things that one might notice from the video that are reflected in the album — she is young, genuinely talented, full of creative energy, very ambitious, and spends a lot of time thinking about her music and her performance. Were she not so good the whole thing could sound way over thought. I’ve only listened to the album a couple of times, so I don’t claim to have figured out how the elements fit together, but I cal already say that one of the pleasures of the album is the way in which she keeps introducing new puzzle pieces — different styles, different moods. It’s all very clever and it seems like she pulls it off.

Having no particular place to start, talking about the album, I did get an interesting echo from one song. Listening to “Cold War” made me think of one of my favorite Marianne Faithfull
songs, “Broken English”, with she shared phrases “cold war” and “fighting for.” They’re an interesting contrast in styles. To begin with, the Janelle Monae song is in favor of, or at least anticipating, the titular cold war, so her version is more seductive, suggesting glamor and grandeur. But, even just hearing that song, I think you can get the sense that that “Cold War” is obviously a piece in an ambitious larger picture, while “Broken English” is whole in and of itself. This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, but Marianne Faithfull makes an emotional commitment to the song while Janelle Monae makes an intellectual commitment.

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