Sunday, March 28, 2010

Can Tago Mago 1971

I recently got asked to provide a Can intro to a friend and it sent me back to their records. I came very late to Can, only discovering them in the last 10 years. Their music isn't really the type of music I'm drawn to, but their remarkable skill and extreme strangeness, especially considering that they were making this music in 1971, is compelling.

Can began with Monster Movie in 1969 and followed with Soundtracks in 1970. In 1971 Tago Mago, a two-record set, was released. I haven't heard all of their records, but of the five or six I've heard, Tago Mago is the pinnacle of their work. Ege Bamyasi followed in 1972 and was another strong work. 1974's Future Days saw Can practically invent electronic ambient music, and later records such as Soon Over Babaluma 1975 and Saw Delight 1977 always contained several good songs.

Tago Mago is about as weird as anything called rock music gets. Paperhouse rocks a deep grove, sounding like Funkadelic crossed with Kraftwerk. (Just reading that sentence, I'm thinking of someone reading this and wondering what on earth could sound like those two bands jammed together.) Mushroom is another trance groove, broken up by screaming choruses. Oh Yeah starts with a driving rock beat and morphs into a killer break that puts Michael Karoli's guitar skills on display for all to see. On the eighteen-minute Halleluhwah, the entire band turns the twisted drum groove into a hypnotic freakout of epic proportions. Halleluhwah is a great song, pushing the deep groove aesthetic of James Brown to strange new places. Germany isn't normally known for it's funk, but the way these guys mine a groove...

Aumgn is a seventeen-minute strangeness without the groove of Halleluhwah, and it's harder to cozy up to, but if you've penetrated Zappa or Beefheart, you might be ready for it. Peking O is also a bit strange and overbearing, with more than a bit of noise, and it's the hardest thing to listen to here. The record ends with Bring Me Coffee Or Tea, a welcome return to something like melody, even if it is a spacey one.

The first half- Paperhouse through Halleluhwah- is quite near perfection. The second half is a little too close to cacophony, but overall it's quite amazing. The band has very talented guitar and keyboard players in Michael Karoli and Irmin Schmidt. The rhythm section of Holger Czukay, bass, and especially Jaki Liebezeit, drums, is stellar. When Liebezeit and Czukay lock into a groove, look out. That's what makes Halleluhwah, Paperhouse and Oh Yeah such a gas. I haven't yet mentioned vocalist Damo Suzuki, who does sometimes use words you can distinguish, and sometimes sounds as though he's speaking in tongues, but rarely seems to make any sense. And yet you can barely imagine the band without this particular "singer".

Strange music for sure, but you'll never hear anything quite like it, at least not anything this good.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Elton John The Captain And The Kid 2006

I was always a sucker for Elton John, and I have grown to love all of his output from 1970-1976. He's also recently made some monumental comeback records like Songs From The West Coast 2001, Peachtree Road 2004, and this most recent one. The Captain And The Kid attempts to pick up where Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy 1975 left off, and remarkably, it mostly succeeds.

I know it's hard to believe, but Elton's currently on a tear. And this one is remarkable in it's continuation of the original 1975 song cycle. Postcards From Richard Nixon and Just Like Noah's Ark are solid mid-tempo rockers, Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way is a love ballad to NYC, Tinderbox recalls Someone Saved My Life Tonight (with a completely different rhythm), And The House Fell Down, I Must Have Heard It On The Wind, and Old 67 are all solid rockers and Elton sounds great. He's clearly inspired by Bernie Taupin's excellent lyrics, and the team sounds as great as ever.

The Blues Never Fade Away is a perfect Elton ballad, with an easy to take personal message, and a hook-heavy chorus. The record closes with The Captain and The Kid, a remarkably twisted rewrite of Captain Fantastic that you can only get away with if you wrote the original.

It's almost as good as the original that inspired it. It's considerably better than anything Elton did during the twenty years between 1978 and 1997, and with the two before it, an amazing return to form from one of the better songwriting duos in rock and roll. If you liked him in the mid seventies, one of these new ones deserves your attention.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Grateful Dead (Skeleton Live) 1971

I always liked this particular live record by the Dead. Stripped down to a five piece with one drummer, bass, two guitars, and Pigpen's occasional keyboards, they sound terrific. I actually should be talking about only half the record. The last time I listened to side two (a pretty good The Other One, as I recall) and side four (Wharf Rat, Not Fade Away, Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad) was a while back, and I didn't even do the responsible thing and listen to them for this entry.

Anyway, sides one and three are well worth the price of admission, and whatever you spend to buy this music. Bertha opens the record on a high note, a grand Dead rocker with a twisted hook in the chorus that's rhythmically difficult, even for these guys. Mama Tried follows and they do a wonderful arrangement of Merle's classic. The oft recorded Playing In The Band is presented in a nice, relatively concise version.

Side three is the Dead at their best. Me And My Uncle is a tale of familial deceit that is both gruesome and hilarious. Big Boss Man is the definitive version of this blues classic. Me & Bobby McGee, with Bob Weir giving one of his best vocal leads- the song is perfect for him- is almost as good as Janis' original, albeit in a totally different stylistic interpretation. The Dead were a really good covers band most of the time. A rocking (real rocking, not just Dead rocking) Johnny B. Good finishes things off in grand style.

The original vinyl is wonderful sounding, and probably has more bass content than is actually needed. It's warm and casual, and it sounds excellent. I've never heard the CD, but it's probably similar (let's hope).

I'm not a Deadhead by any stretch, and their good studio albums are few, but when they're on, they're good. Nowhere else is a more simple and direct explanation of what was great about this band to be found than right on this record. Flashback to right now.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Rudolph Serkin 1962

I don't really know that much about classical music, but I know what I like, and the piano concerto form has been an interest of mine for several years. I attended the entire five-year program of all of Mozart's piano concertos by Mitsuko Uchida and the Cleveland Orchestra, and that was huge fun.

In January we saw the Cleveland Orchestra perform Brahms' 2nd Symphony, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I borrowed some CDs from a friend and fell in love with this piece, Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2.

So then I went to the Stereophile web site and searched the site for this piece. See, when they review equipment, they often mention favorite recordings of various pieces of music. Plus they have an annual feature in the magazine called Records To Die For, where their staff choose great music that is also well recorded. At their web site I found a rave review of this performance of the concerto, and since I live in Cleveland and even saw George Szell as a child, well, why not.

So I hopped on over to the GEMM site to see if I could find it on vinyl, and sure enough, there it was. For about $14 (including shipping), I had a clean used vinyl copy of Rudolf Sekin with George Szell leading the Cleveland Orchestra in this fine piece of music.

The version that my friend loaned me was by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Vienna Philharmonic, and I loved it. I don't know if the Sekin I bought is any better or worse, but it sounds great. I can definitely tell it's a different performance, although I gave my friend's copy back before I got this one, so I can't tell you the difference.

The liner notes say that this was a very different and unique composition for Brahms, and I have no way to argue the point, or to tell you jack about it, except it is a super piece of music. The piano is awe-inspiring, the orchestra sounds great. If you like classical music, I'm sure you'd enjoy it in any format*.

*Any format except mp3, that is. Music has no business on mp3. I consider mp3 to be the equivalent of those extra slow tape recorder speeds that were used for spoken word only, and not music. You could put books out on mp3. Music, not so much.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

XTC English Settlement 1982

XTC was always an up and down band, with great records followed by pretty lousy ones from time to time. They began in 1978 as a punk-ska-art-pop band formed around two singer-songwriters, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Four records in, they added Dave Gregory on guitar and headed for a slightly more accessible, more standard rock sound, although nothing about the band has ever been standard. In the art-punk category, they were England's Talking Heads. By the time they made Oranges And Lemons, their 1989 masterstroke, they had become the new Beatles (circa Magical Mystery Tour). In between they made some awful records (1984's Big Express, 1986's Skylarking, not only XTC's mistake, but also Todd Rundgren's), and some classics. 1980's Black Sea, the first featuring Gregory, was a huge hit with Generals And Majors, Sgt. Rock, Living Through Another Cuba, and Respectable Street all great songs. And in 1982, English Settlement, the brainiac grown-up art punk answer to the Clash's London Calling. It's that good.

The record opened with Runaways, a rhythmic, echo-y opener that sets an ominous tone. A plea to return home from the abusive parents, it's a scary number. Ball And Chain is a stomper that decries the wrecking ball of progress. The syncopated Senses Working Overtime has an edgy lyric to accompany the quirky song structure, hook-filled chorus at no extra charge. Side One ends with Jason And The Argonaouts, another twisted rhythm, and a beat and guitar figure reminiscent of the Police.

Side Two opens with No Thugs In Our House, a classic tale of parental denial with a psychotic twist and a punky sound that hearkens back to their early hits. Yacht Dance is an English folk song dragged into the future. All Of The Sudden (It's Too Late) is a mid-tempo ballad of suburban despair, "life's like a jigsaw, you get the straight bits, but there's something missing in the middle". And that's just the first half.

Melt The Guns kicks off Side Three in fine form. A cross between the Police and Talking Heads, you can almost dance to it, and the message is delivered in spades. Then comes Leisure, a lyrical highlight of the record with a crazy chorus that somehow works. I can't describe it really, but it's gloriously funny. It's Nearly Africa (dance now) and Knuckle Down both rock hard with twisted beats and great ensemble playing.

Fly On The Wall that starts the last side is another ode to paranoia with a solid chorus. Down In The Cockpit is a fun, sprightly look at the battle of the sexes, English Roundabout rocks with that Police/Talking Heads syncopation, and Snowman ends the record on an angry lyrical note dripping with venom, "why oh why, does she treat me like a snowman". There isn't a really weak one in the bunch.

I can't really describe their sound as well as I would hope. It's English quirky pop with great lyrics, interesting rhythms, solid playing and great songwriting. Partridge writes twice as many songs as Moulding, and their styles are different enough to keep things far more interesting than bands with only one songwriter. Nothing they've done quite compares to this one. Nothing any other band has done sounds like it either. It's a classic of the post-punk early eighties, without a synthesizer in sight.