Monday, December 19, 2011

Bill Frisell All We Are Saying... 2011

Still looking for a last minute present for the music lover in your life? Good thing you stopped by.

Bill Frisell is a remarkable guitarist, and he approaches the instrument, and music in general, in novel and interesting ways. He releases records at a remarkable pace. Since 1983, he's released 30 records under his own name, and at least another 35 with Paul Motain and Joe Lovano, Joe Zorn, and Zorn's band Naked City. And then there's the 15 or so other one-off collaborations, and at least 80 other records where he has made guest appearances. The guy stays busy. If you don't know his name, you can't possibly be interested in jazz unless all you listen to are old vinyl records your dad left you (not that there's anything wrong with that). But he also plays country and bluegrass inflected jazz, and some of his records are easy and simple (in a complex way) while others are more challenging. And some of them are aggressively avant-garde.

This one is nearly perfect. An examination of the John Lennon songbook, it is way way way better than almost any tribute record you can imagine (it feels like I must be forgetting some other one this good). Longtime collaborators Greg Leisz (steel guitar), Jenny Scheinman (violin), Tony Scherr (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) work with Frisell like five people with one brain. One very complex, integrated, high-operating musical brain. They don't let these melodies stray very far, so if you like John Lennon's songs, this could probably be the first jazz record you ever buy, and you'd still love it.

I certainly don't know everything about Frisell's work, but I've liked most of the ones I've heard, and I especially liked Good Dog, Happy Man from 1999. This reminds me of that record. A mellow, laid back approach to almost everything, the record delights at first and just gets better and deeper with additional listening. When they start to jam (and they never rock real hard), they can develop an amazing groove without breaking a sweat.

Every track works. Highlights abound. The opening Across The Universe invites you gently into Frisell's world. A languid You've Got To Hide Your Love Away features Liesz to lovely effect, while Scheinman lights up In My Life. But more than any one of these musicians' efforts, it is the interplay between them that comes so naturally to them, that diverse single-mindedness, that will leave you slowly, quietly staggered.   

It's a quiet, relaxed, monumental record. A glowing tribute to melodies you know so well already. They aren't so much dissected, as gently pulled apart so you can take a look inside, so you can feel how someone else feels these songs, someone who cares about them.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Frank Zappa Chunga's Revenge 1970

Well, Zappadan continues, and so we continue to celebrate all things Zappa. This one is harder to celebrate than most of Zappa's work, though it has its moments. Most of side one is pretty good.

Transylvania Boogie kicks things off with one of those crazy Zappa time signatures. The song is essentially a guitar solo, and a pretty good one at that. Road Ladies follows, and it is cool to hear Frank playing guitar in a basic blues structure, and Aynsley Dunbar's drums are a standout. Twenty Small Cigars is an almost jazz composition, and Zappa plays this mellow guitar lead that is another unusual setting for him, so that's fun to hear. The live The Nancy And Mary Music is an extended jam that includes at least two drum solos, some good guitar, and a minute of dueling pianos from Ian Underwood and George Duke that is pretty exciting, but it doesn't live up to Frank's usual quality standard.

Side two is what makes this a disappointing Zappa record. Tell Me You Love Me is standard issue stuff, and nothing saves it. Would You Go All The Way, Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink, and Sharleena all make you wonder what Frank saw in Flo and Eddie, and all three are some of Frank's least interesting songs. Chunga's Revenge is an instrumental jam with a irritating sax played through a wah wah pedal, and Frank's guitar is less than stellar. The song is too long for the one idea it contains.

When you make as many records as Zappa did, there's bound to be some that just don't stand up next to the best ones. This is one of those. I don't mean to pick on Zappa during the holiday, so just think of it as a public service.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Who Quadrophenia 1973

Usually when I write about a record from 1973, I bought it in 1973. So this is a little different, and it feels weird. I heard this record once in 1973, and frankly, coming on the heels of Who's Next, I was unimpressed. I've been familiar with the classic rock radio cuts, Real Me, 5:15, and Love, Reign O'er Me, and I always liked them.

So recently, an expanded deluxe remastered 4-CD Quadrophenia was released, and there's been plenty of press for the record. I was talking to my friend Bob, and he starts raving about the record, saying it's the Who's best album. I respect Bob's opinion, and although our tastes are pretty different, there are some areas where our musical interests overlap (Zappa, XTC, Elvis Costello, The Proclaimers).

But don't think for a minute I was going to buy some new-fangled 4-CD extravaganza with a boatload of useless extra tracks that should have never seen the light of day. No, I went to and picked up a used vinyl copy for a very reasonable price. It got here a few days ago.

It turns out I was wrong in 1973, and Quadrophenia is darn good. The aforementioned radio-friendly tracks are still solid, but many of the album tracks are equally excellent. The title track, Cut My Hair, The Punk Meets The Godfather, I'm One, Is It In My Head, I've Had Enough, Sea And Sand, Drowned, and Doctor Jimmy are all killer, and any of them could have coexisted nicely on Who's Next. There's a few weaker cuts, but not many, and only Bell Boy, with Moon's exaggerated Cockney vocal, is unnecessary.

Speaking of Moon, like all great Who records, and perhaps as much as any of them, Kieth Moon sounds like the best rock and roll drummer ever on this record. With all of Townsend's self-aggrandizing, sometimes you forget how important Moon was to this band.

I'm not so sure I'm ready to give up my opinion of Who's Next as their finest hour, especially since I've always felt that it was, track by track, near perfect. But Quadrophenia certainly surpasses Tommy, if not in story, definitely in song quality. And the recording sounds more like Who's Next, with the power and dynamics that Tommy lacked.

The record can probably never be for me what it may have been if I'd bought it in '73. There's something about those records you loved and listened to in your teens and twenties that feels burned into your musical DNA. But there's no denying that The Who's best work includes 1969's Tommy, 1970's Live At Leeds, 1971's Who's Next, and 1973's Quadrophenia. You might want to hear the earlier stuff, but anything after 1973 should be approached with reduced expectations.

Thanks for the head's up, Bob.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Zappadan 2011 Orchestral Music

Over at Ketchup Is A Vegetable, Brady Bonk is listening to The Yellow Shark. This is real commitment, people, this needs to be taken very seriously. And the posts are great. After my last post regarding the LSO recordings, perhaps a  brief history of Zappa's orchestral music deserves mention.

I suppose the first foray is 1967's Lumpy Gravy, almost completely instrumental, and featuring a full orchestra. The great music is interspersed with inane raps and bits of conversation, but the big inventions are there. Oh No, King Kong, Envelopes and several others are fine, but it is a hard listen today. Frank was really pushing it, and he wasn't quite fully developed, but you've gotta admire the cajones it took to release it in 1967. 

Next up would be Uncle Meat 1969, which introduces us to Uncle Meat, Dog Breath, and King Kong, and their variations, all performed by rock band, but later exposed as works intended for orchestra. The Royal Philharmonic played on 200 Motels 1971, and while some of the music is OK (the 11-minute Strictly Genteel stands out), much of the record is unlistenable in an annoying way unlike almost any other Zappa work. The Tuna Fish suite and the Overture both show Zappa developing his classical style, and signal the rich work that is to come. 1972's magnum opus, The Grand Wazoo, should count, but that is really a record made for a big band (the jazz kind), not a big orchestra.

But in 1979, Orchestral Favorites was released, and it's a beauty. Featuring Strictly Genteel, Pedro's Dowery, Duke Of Prunes and Bogus Pomp, and recorded live with full orchestra, it's killer stuff. It all was intended for Lather, and was reissued on the 3 CD Lather set in 1996. Much of the material ended up on the LSO recordings as well.

The first LSO recording was released in 1983, and shortly on it's heals was Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger 1984, with many a homage to Varese, whom Boulez also promoted as a unique 20th century composer. It's a pretty fine record, and certainly challenging enough. If you're ready for Frank's modern classical music, here you go. Boulez is a great conductor, but he seems to take some of the crazy out of Zappa's work. LSO Volume 2 Came out in 1987.

Which brings us to The Yellow Shark 1993, a magnificent recording, made just before Zappa's death, and performed exquisitely by the Ensemble Moderne. Including a few new compositions, it was the last release during Zappa's lifetime. If following Brady's blog this Zappadan doesn't make you run out and buy the record, it's a real shame. Unless you don't like it. Zappa made enough fine, almost regular rock records, plenty of jazz-rock, and tons of wacky rock-jazz hybrids (with a pinch of doo-wop) to please anyone, but these orchestral works may very well be the ones Zappa himself most wanted you to hear.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Zappadan 2011 London Symphony Orchestra Vol. 1 1983 and Vol. 2 1987

Welcome to Zappadan. From Dec 4 to Dec 21, we celebrate the life and work of a great modern composer, and one heck of an axe ripper as well. I thought I'd kick off the proceedings by reviewing some of Frank's least familiar work. There is no guitar on these records, and of course, no singing either. Both were recorded in 1983 with Kent Nagano conducting. Zappa is the orchestra's harshest critic, complaining about the performance quality in his own liner notes. But there is some fine music to be had here.

Sad Jane is a moody, Varese-like, highly percussive piece scattered with easy to hear, frequent Zappa motifs, such as discordant strings (often portrayed vocally on his rock records) and quick, jarring percussion-driven tempo changes. It's very entertaining. Pedro's Dowry features horns and strings in a spastic battle, again with much percussion (Frank loved vibes). Tensely disjointed, almost arhythmic at times, it's challenging. Near the end is a percussion-driven section that benefits greatly from a remarkable violin solo. Side one ends with Envelopes, which starts softer than most of Frank's work, and is lovely, and then breaks into a strange fairy march section that reminds me of a cartoon chase scene soundtrack.

Side two of the original Vol. 1 is Mo 'N Herb's vacation, which, at 27 minutes, is a lot of weirdness, even for the devoted. There's probably something important going on that I can't understand. It just never seems to get off the ground, or make a coherent statement. Your results may vary.

Vol. 2 opens with Bogus Pomp, another full-scale piece at 24 minutes, but this time things are more cohesive. Zappa describes the piece as a parody of movie music cliches and mannerisms, and it's fun to hear Zappa's take on that idea. Using traditional symphonic elements of build tension, relax tension, build tension patterns, Zappa has fun with the theme and lets the listener have a good time, too. Bob In Dacron follows, and begins with what Zappa calls a "musical description of patterns which do not blend", and yet it still works surprisingly well. The second section returns to the repeated build/relax tension pattern, and is symphonic in structure while both rhythmically and melodically challenging. It's real good. Strictly Genteel ends the record, and has been a very good finale structure since it's use as such in 200 Motels, and the big orchestra does a fine job, even if Frank is pissed at the trumpet section.   

Both records are available on a more recent 2-CD package, with a different running order, as Bob In Dacron and Sad Jane were designed as two parts of one piece.

I've mentioned Zappa several times before here at this blog, so if you want more Zappa, try these: Z  A   P  P  A     (Yes, it's an apostrophe, i.e. the crux of the biscuit).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Subdudes 1989-2008

I haven't said enough about the Subdudes. First, you've got to love the name Subdudes. You almost know New Orleans is involved. And the band's blend of roots Americana, soul, R&B, gospel and rock, with a pinch of New Orleans second line rhythm, is as appealing as it is unique. And they've made the most of it.

Singer, songwriter, guitarist Tommy Malone dominates the group, but he needs them, as his solo work has proved.

The records are splendid. If you haven't heard them, you should. Their sound is a delicious gumbo. Malone is a smokin' hot guitarist and excellent vocalist. Magnie plays accordion and keys and harmonizes with Malone in a special way, and Magnie's finely crafted songs relieve Malone of all of the songwriting and lead vocal duties. Steve Amadee plays an over-sized tambourine to remarkable effect, turning the simple instrument into an earthy drum kit, and a integral signature of the band's intricate, rootsy sound.

Where to start? Their debut, The Subdudes 1989, is as good a place as any, and one of their best. Light In You Eyes, Tell Me What's Wrong, Need Somebody, Got You On His Mind, One Time, and their fine cover of the New Orleans staple Big Chief are all standouts. It's an excellent record. The follow-up 1991's Lucky, is less fine, but has it's moments (Someday, Somehow, and Bye, Bye). Annunciation 1994 is a strong return to form, and You'll Be Satisfied and Late At Night are both priceless slices of funky Southern roots rock. Primitive Streak 1996 was not their best, but still All The Time In The World and Sarita are as good as their best work. 1997's Live At Last, closed the book on their first stint with a fine live document of a great live band, and it's a solid live hits sort of gig. The band had split prior to the record's release.

But come 2002, the original principles regroup. And the next thing you know, Miracle Mule 2004 is released, and it happens to rival the first one. Inspired with the band's revival, and perhaps benefiting from a long spell of writing, the band produces it's second classic. If Wishing Made It So, Sound Of Her Voice, Maybe You Think and the title track are all as good as they get, and the whole record holds up. Behind The Levee 2006 comes darn close to doing it again, and includes one fine gotta-dance-right-now single in Papa Dukie And The Mud People (Love Is  A Beautiful Thing), sort of a rootsy New Orleans version of John Mellencamp's Cherry Bomb. 2007's Street Symphony was a bit of a let-down, and consequently I haven't heard Flower Petals 2009.

Try the first one, The Subdudes 1989, Miracle Mule 2004, or Annunciation 1994, and you can't go wrong. Rootsy Americana, phat New Orleans funkiness, smart songwriting, great spare arrangements and top notch vocals. They are a great band to see live if you get the chance.