Friday, May 31, 2013

Years. Collections.

Through its deluge of year-end retrospectives and various forms of commemorative nostalgia (like those little novelty books you can buy at the Cracker Barrel that tell you what the mean price of gas was the year you were born), culture teaches us to observe our listening habits (among others) in 365-day cycles--to hold records released this Jan-Dec up to a different contextual yardstick than those released last Jan-Dec, and to once again wipe the slate clean when Dick Clark's famous ball plummets to zero and Ryan Seacrest shakes several pounds of confetti from his impeccably coiffed mane to announce whatever crossover country singer has been tapped that year to ring in the festivities. All of which is reasonable and good. As customary measurements of time go, the year is almost assuredly the most sensible one to use for keeping tabs on such things; creating dedicatory fanfare for "album of the month" seems a little extraneous, and too hard to remember over time, while archiving the development of the art form across five- or even ten-year stretches (without first marking the lesser increments, that is) leaves too much stuff out.

So, for better or worse, that is how I, like many other dorks who have invested more of their lives than common sense ought to permit in worrying about these things, document my growth as a listener. Throw out any year at random and I can tell you almost without fail what was occupying space in my CD player that year, what sort of "phase" I was concurrently going through, and the memories almost always exist in these perfectly symmetrical windows of reminiscence that wind down around the holidays come to a screeching halt on New Year's Eve, only to begin anew the next morning. So rare is it that I recall, for example, an arbitrary span of six months from October through March where I was really into a specific artist, even though I know there have been many cases of it over the years (how couldn't there be?)--the cutoff lines are always way sharper than that in my brain. It's possible that this is due to the fact that, unless the listening kick in question is just so extended and all-encompassing that it's the only thing that consumes my memory from a particular time (this would be like the summer of 2001 where a friend from work and I listened to virtually nothing but '70's Elton John for four straight months), I tend to link most albums not to the time I spent listening to them but to the day I acquired them--Louis Armstrong's The Katanga Concert, for instance, I will always equate with the Christmas of 2008, when I received it as a present from my wife on our first Christmas together after she took careful note of my expression of fondness for the song "La Vie En Rose" when I heard it in Pixar's WALL-E. Of course, allowing this record to remain affiliated with that particular year is inaccurate, as unless I played it obsessively for seven days only to shelve it forevermore thereafter (which is not the case, as Katanga would fast grow into my favorite Armstrong album, even though it's essentially little more than a commercial bootleg), I would have had to allow my listening to carry over into the following year if I was to absorb the album with any depth at all.

If you've read this blog at all, it's no secret to you that I have a kind of weird fascination with my own listening habits--sometimes I think I think, if I look hard enough, I'll be able to unravel by way of my own personal listening history some sort of secret about who I am, or why I am the way I am, which is stupid because at this point in my life (two weeks from birthday the thirtieth) I feel like I have a relatively decent handle on those things anyway. Last year, for example, I made a more deliberate effort to discover new music than I'd made for about five years--the major stuff would always find its way to me regardless, but last year was the first in many that I really made it a point to seek out material that was off my radar completely, follow up on the dozens of recommendations I get on a weekly basis, and allow myself to acquire things less cautiously under the premise that sometimes just having a record in your keep and living with it for a while, experiencing it in different circumstances over time, is the only way to achieve the proper relationship with it. Beach House's Bloom and Vijay Iyer's Accelerando were a couple albums like that for me last year--two discs that now amount to major pieces in my collection, both of which I would have totally missed had I continued under the sort of passive, laissez-faire approach to music appreciation that I'd grown comfortable with in the years prior. Bloom in particular was the first record in a number of years (probably since the first Fleet Foxes album) where I found myself on occasion feeling flashes of that "new favorite album" rush I used to get as a teenager when I'd fall in love with a new CD, where I would find myself unusually impatient to get out of school (or off work, in this case--and my impatience for both of these things is always sky-high even at baseline levels) just to listen to it, where there were so many good songs on it that I would seldom make it through a full track without getting antsy to skip to the next one. I hope I never lose the pursuit of that feeling, that transcendence so nearly unattainable that most of what you end up retaining are the bits of almost-good-enough shrapnel you manage to collect along the way, the stuff that ultimately affords the rare bits of unparalleled treasure (the Blooms) to expand into what guys like me call a collection.

So far, as a matter of contrast, 2013 has been a year of my collection--the collection I have already collected, more specifically. To everything, Pete Seeger and Roger McGuinn once recited from the book of Ecclesiastes, there is a season, and after 2012's long and bountiful harvest, this has been a springtime of basking. Something that always intrigues me about people who are consistently on top of the latest thing (or, nowadays, the latest fifty things) is whether or not they ever have time to reap the rewards of all the previous latest things they've discovered, because I simply don't process music that quickly--or rather, that deeply that quickly, and I'm always looking for things that are going to serve me more than just the couple of weeks or months that they're novel. That said, one of the big lessons of last year's mass accumulation was that listening broadly at a rapid rate actually affords many things a far greater staying power than seems intuitive, because you're plowing through things quicker than the other things have time to get stale, which was a much greater risk when I was a teenager and could only afford to buy one new CD per month and had a much, much smaller collection to carry me through. I've probably listened to the first fifty CD's I bought, cumulatively, more times than I've listened to everything else in my collection combined, just by virtue of sheer economy. I don't have that problem anymore, which is probably part of why I don't stumble upon as many life-changing records anymore, but probably also part of why I don't get flat-out sick of things the same way I used to on occasion. With cash being tight for a while (we're probably going to be buying a house this summer), I am thankful for those two decades' worth of sonic art that towers over every guest that enters our front door. I pretty much have the music collection I always dreamed about as a kid, back when the idea of a recordable compact disc seemed like something out of an Aldous Huxley novel.

I've given serious thought to starting a new blog called Geek vs. Randomizer, in which I simply make a list of every single CD I own, put them into an online randomizer, listen to them, and blog about them one at a time. I love the idea of it, and find myself giddy at the idea of how many things I'd find in my own collection that I never knew (or had forgotten) was there. I made the list the other night (it took about a half hour); I have 1,009 albums in my collection, not counting bootlegs or anything on recordable media, which would (conservatively) add another 400-500. Many of those albums are 2CD collections; some of them are 6CD box sets. I love the idea of the project, and some of the serendipitous juxtapositions the randomizer would inevitably come up with by accident--I anticipate hilarity ensuing over the stringent rules I will assuredly enforce upon the procedure, such as not caring whether or not it's my and my wife's anniversary dance, the randomizer dictates we will listen to Metallica's Ride the Lightning and that's that. But I have my misgivings. For one, with 1,009 albums, even if I did one album per day (which I guarantee will be utterly impossible) and accumulated no new music between now and the end of the project (similarly impossible), it would take upwards of three years to complete the exercise--I don't know if I have the patience to complete something like that, as it would almost surely become a chore shortly into it. For two, I am utterly horrified and intimidated by the amount of Pearl Jam on the list (official bootlegs and what have you); I fear that, by the end of the experiment, I would absolutely never want to hear a single note of my favorite band's music ever again. So who knows. Somehow, though, I find myself wanting to come up with a way to systematically navigate this large body of work I've managed to fill my home with, a way to organize it in thought and in word, perhaps only to prove to myself that all the years of amassing hasn't been for naught--to find, on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, some secret to those first three decades buried there in the jewel cases, digipaks, and faded sleeve notes that have thus far dictated the course of my existence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Arts and Leisure Demos

Greetings folks.

My last post on this site was September 16, 2012--a long time in blogland, and kind of long time in regular land too, though it feels like I just wrote it yesterday. And yet, if a child was conceived the night that post was written, his or her parents are likely preparing for said child's arrival in the next few weeks. School kids who were just getting settled back into the swing of their studies are now anxiously counting down the days until summer vacation. By my crude calculations, had I elected to forsake all my other earthly duties including sleep, I could have listened to Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline 13,140 times since I last posted on this blog. No small chunk of time, especially when you choose to measure it in uncharacteristically brief Bob Dylan albums.

As it stands, I've listened to Nashville Skyline maybe once since then, and have slept a ton. Really, I have no good excuse for my absence--in blogland, I've found, there are no good excuses for being an inactive blogger, though I always do like it when my extended periods of inactivity happen to coincide with some other creative endeavor which understandably consumes large chunks of time (i.e. writing a book), thus allowing for just the kind of easy scapegoating I don't have to fall back on this time.

Or, not really anyway. Truth is, I have been busy exercising some creative muscles, only this time they're of the musical rather than lexical variety. I have been an inactive musician for far longer than I've been an inactive blogger, so it would stand to reason that many who have stumbled across my writing over the last several years would have no reason to know my storied history as a disenfranchised stalwart of the Peoria, Illinois music scene (as it is), so I will describe a little bit the nature of this project.

Most of these songs were written between 2007 and 2011, with minor amendments made sporadically as I felt the songs warranted them. I have rehearsed most if not all of these tunes over the years with an assortment of my musically gifted friends, all of whom contributed (or would have contributed) much more interesting things to them than I came up with on my own here. I still hope, someday, when lives are less hectic and synchronizing the schedules of multiple grown, employed, married parents isn't nigh on impossible, that those projects can come to fruition as originally planned. To that end, I do not consider these "finished versions" of these songs, nor do I consider this collection of material a "new album," per se. It is, as the title states, a collection of demos--a document rather than a product, a means for these wayward, lingering songs to be archived as written works.

That said, I am proud of the songs and of how they turned out, especially as they are the first real recordings I have ever made entirely on my own. I recorded them using a studio mic that I borrowed from my brother--it's a nice looking silver thing that plugs into the computer and has a few buttons on it, which is pretty much all I know to say about it. Suffice it to say, I am not a gearhead, and in general do not understand any of the technical aspects of audio engineering. I did, however, make an honest effort to learn enough to make these recordings presentable, and despite the pops and cracks (and one odd inexplicable digital glitch), I think they are at least that.

I have uploaded them to Mediafire at 320KBPS MP3, and they can be downloaded here:

Kevin Davis
Arts and Leisure Demos

1. Greatness
2. I Was a Sculptor
3. Art Rock Rhumba
4. East Missouri
5. Goodlife
6. New Radios
7. Theodore the Bat
8. Famous First Words
9. Civilization Blues
10. Bound For It
11. Baby Bird

You can download the individual MP3s one at a time via this folder here.

All the vocals and instruments were performed by me, and were most often recorded on Sunday nights after the kids had gone to sleep and my wife had gone to her aunt's house for their weekly visit. The only instrument I used was acoustic guitar, because it's the only instrument I own. I owe a kudos to Dan Myers and Charlie May, as many of the arrangements they helped formulate for the first seven songs have carried over in some capacity to these recordings. I owe a second kudos to my brother Brian, both for the mic and for the guitar I've been using for the past few years. And I owe a third kudos to Jason Lamb, my long-time musical partner, as the "sound" we refined over the years is always swirling in the background when I compose--specifically, here, when recording the harmonies, I always had that sense of "what would Jason do?" informing my feeble attempts at accompanying myself.

I have no real desire to make any money off these recordings, nor do I have the compulsion or the patience to try to "promote" them the way an artist trying to make a career for himself ought to. That said, I like the idea of them being out there in the world for people to enjoy, so please share them with friends if you like them. I have more songs floating around in the on-deck circle, which I will probably record in similar fashion in due time, but with these in the bag I think I'm going to try to re-shift my focus back to writing for a while, maybe even make a blog post or two. No promises, though. 


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mark Knopfler, "Dream of the Drowned Submariner" (2012)

What Greil Marcus called "the old, weird America" in reference to Bob Dylan's indispensable 1967 Basement Tapes is one of those odd, elusive facets of certain folk music that isn't always easy to pin down in terms of specifics--sepia-toned, a little spooky, like a transmission from a forgotten age in a world where transmissions from forgotten ages are to our knowledge physically impossible. But for people attuned to this sort of thing, you know it when you hear it. Tom Waits records like Mule Variations and Alice are good examples; R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction is another. And Marcus was right about Dylan, too--pretty much any mining of American tradition he attempts ends up somewhat embodying this trait (probably because, in spirit, there is no older, weirder American than Robert Zimmerman), those Basement Tapes accounting for its full-blown apotheosis. As is usually the case with rock critic buzz terms ("dad rock"--ugh), I hated this phrase when I first read it--I thought it sounded like rotten, lazy analysis, something that a stoned beach bum might spout off in a write-up of O Brother, Where Art Thou? for his intro to film class. But time and again I found myself surprised not only by how often I came back to it but also by how often it seemed like the only suitable term to convey what I intended. These are carnivalesque characters traipsing through a world identical to ours only one or two degrees more fluid, statistical near-impossibilities recast as simple realities, i.e. a guy born with no torso who scores a career as a lounge pianist, yet though they seem odd or quaint they never seem so farfetched as to be unbelievable. Table Top Joe would have fit right in at Dylan's million dollar bash, by the way; hell, he would have fit right in on Desolation Row.

The contemporary folk music of Mark Knopfler, though similarly antiquated in style and often in subject, doesn't quite fit comfortably into this category--can't, actually, as the antique world in Knopfler's songs comes primarily from memories of his childhood in Glasgow and Newcastle on the old coaly Tyne, probably just as old and just as weird but considerably less American, though his traditions come from all around. But what he's doing is a close relative: In "Dream of the Drowned Submariner" (Knopfler pronounces it authentically, as though he's referring to a baseball team from Seattle), he relates the tale of a nautical voyager taken by the sea (the second such track on this year's Privateering, the first being the lovely Celtic-flavored "Haul Away"), and instantly we're in parallel-universe territory--dead men, not generally known to possess the kind of brain activity necessary for dreaming to occur. Yet alas one of the many beauties of songwriting, of poetry--you can make your characters do whatever you damn well please without offering a shred of explanation, at least more so than might be expected in stricter forms of narrative. It's the kind of thing you see in movies all the time, men clinging to happy memories at the moment of death--Daddy's little girl forever young, the loving embrace of a beautiful wife, also forever young, even cruising through clear waters with your seafaring buddies--but the life that generally flashes before your eyes is often portrayed as just that, a fleeting moment of stimulation, there and gone in a flicker. Yet go back again to Mule Variations, where Tom Waits's character stoically vows to "take it with him when he goes"--so too is the drowned submariner allowed to carry these things with him beyond the moment of departure, allowd to remain locked in them forever. The melancholia in the song, then, must ring true only to those left behind, for surely remaining perpetually frozen in the greatest moments of our lives is as close as we in the world can come to understanding heaven.

Like most Knopfler ballads from his last decade, this one takes its time--three brief, unpretentious verses, spread out over the course of just over five minutes. But also like most Knopfler ballads of the past decade, this never drags--it only lingers, wise enough to know that though it could easily get its words out in two minutes, one might find greater depth in its simple lines if allowed to immerse. A guitar hero in the truest sense, Knopfler is an aural sensualist--his instrumental lines are so interwoven into the fabric of his compositions that they not only serve to comp the vocal passages but oftentimes work as additional verses unto themselves, not unlike the loose ensemble passage that carries the song out, a lovely sequence (one hesitates to call something like this a riff, but okay) arranged for clarinet and guitar that appropriately evokes an Irish funeral at sea. This is but one of such moments on the odd, quaint, sepia-toned, sometimes a little spooky Privateering, a double which may boast one or four more rote blues romps than I'd generally prefer from a songwriter of Knopfler's range but is still one of the most beautiful records I've heard all year. No one else is making contemporary folk music as good as this. (Unless you count Tom Waits, I suppose--but why complicate things?)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Elvis Costello, "The Comedians" (Demo) (1987)

My failures in the field of schedule adherence of late haven't been a product of laziness; they've been a product of the fact that I've listened to virtually nothing for the past two weeks besides Elvis Costello, and this imagined pressure I've put on myself to keep blog content diverse--a directive which pays a great disservice to Costello, who has arguably mastered (or at least successfully worked in) more musical genres than any popular artist in history. Not only that, but fewer artists have been as generous with the sheer volume of catalog they've made available to fans over the years; from 2001 to 2007, Costello reissued his back catalog from 1977-1996 on Rhino Records, each album featuring a bonus disc of outtakes, alternate versions, live recordings, demos, collaborations, etc., the program of extras oftentimes running double the length of the album itself. Lucky for me, the release schedule of these reissues more or less coincided perfectly with my discovery of Costello; once I snatched up all the available albums in the summer of 2002, I just sat around digesting them until the next batch came out, and barring a couple impatient eBay snags of then-out-of-print records, I acquired my entire Costello collection in the form of deluxe 2CD editions that cost me no more than single-disc editions would have. However, since digesting the proper albums always took top billing, a lot of that bonus material took a while to excavate, and one of the great things about these month-plus long Costello binges is that I almost always come away from them with an arsenal of 3-5 things that had managed to pass me by before--this time, for instance, I've garnered for myself a newfound appreciation for the song "King of Thieves" after engrossing myself in the acoustic demo found on the Punch the Clock reissue. One thing I always take from these immersions: There is no better self-harmonizer in the business.

I came here with the intention of writing a few words on "King of Thieves," but since another imagined pressure I've put on myself is to link to a YouTube video of whatever song I'm writing about, and since there doesn't seem to be a link to even the album version of the song in question, I'm going to write about another of these little oddities. Rather than a recent revelation, this is actually one of the few songs that cemented my love of Costello at the very beginning. I discovered Elvis by way of 2002's When I Was Cruel, which I bought on my 19th birthday and loved so much that I went out later that night (after pocketing a cool hundred in cash at my birthday dinner) and picked up two more discs: His debut My Aim is True and 1996's All This Useless Beauty, an eclectic roundup of tunes that were either co-composed with other songwriters (Aimee Mann, Paul McCartney) or written for other performers (Johnny Cash, June Tabor). Despite the diverse nature of the material, I find Beauty to be one of Costello's most fluid, cohesive records--partially due to the production quality, but mostly because Elvis's melodic signatures and vocal tics are so distinct that they're capable of linking even the most disparate of styles. Its bonus disc--unlike the ones for the other records, which were usually era-specific collections of alternate/live/demo versions--is, like the album itself, a careerwide cross-section of tunes written in the mindset of Costello's musical heroes, whom he hoped might someday record them. In that first week of Costello fandom, I became fast obsessed with two of these, rather unaware of their general insignificance in the overall picture of Costello's career but entranced as would become the norm with the superhuman combination of melodic and lyrical sophistication. The first of these--"World's Great Optimist," which originally became "The Fall of The World's Own Optimist" and appeared on Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 album--also seems to have left no tangible imprint on this arid wasteland we call the internet. But, to my surprise, the other popped up immediately. This is "The Comedians," which is a song with a bit of a strange history. From what I can deduce, this song was written by Costello circa 1982-1983 and released on 1984's Goodbye Cruel World. In 1987, he redrafted the song with alternate lyrics, his mind set on Roy Orbison, whose version of the song was released posthumously in 1989. The 1987 version is the one I fell in love with. Like many of Costello's demos, there's a warmth to his singing voice absent on the records proper, especially one as slathered in outdated pop trends as Goodbye Cruel World. Indeed, when I heard the album version of this song, I was disgusted at how obscured the melody in the demo version was beneath Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley's commercial schlock. While there's a greater whimsy to the original lyric ("Meanwhile in the motorcar kingdom/They're finding all that glitters is not chrome") that's better served by the blippy cheese of the original recording technique than would have been the version composed for Orbison, there's still a soul that's missing from the song, partially due to the jaded fatigue in Costello's voice on much of the record. He only seems capable of harnessing the melody halfway--which is bad for a guy who writes such busy ones.

However, this demo--stark, spacious, the voice through the verses accompanied by nothing other than a single note on an acoustic guitar--is a thing of beauty. Though it may not be the apotheosis of Costello's virtues as a writer, it definitely possesses all the quintessential trademarks: Here is, essentially, the story of a guy whose girlfriend leaves him swinging alone on a Ferris wheel so that she has a clear getaway when she decides to run off with the carney. This is pure Costello--an absurdist, almost sitcom-like circumstance which at first seems like it has to be metaphorical (and who knows, maybe it is) but, as you pay closer attention, you realize it's just a theatrical, tragicomic setting for what in the end amounts to another song about getting dumped. Here's this dude, suspended in midair, looking out upon this vast landscape of sky and fairground, forced to come to terms with solitude and betrayal, all while sitting in some ridiculous multicolor carriage some fifty feet above the ground. Something about this just feels perfectly representative of the kind of artist Elvis Costello is--an ass-clown always the butt of love's cruel jokes, with no consolation besides the fact that he's smarter than his feelings. And like much of the best Costello material, this is a larynx-stretching melody that's underscored by a characteristically tactful chord progression, affording a drama that allows it nonetheless to be a pop song first and a love story second. It is, however, very much both. They all are. A lot of Costello fans can cite late nights up listening to Armed Forces, identifying with its political moralism in their formative years. This is what did it for me--a simple ditty about some babe cheating on her man with a carnival ride operator.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spiritualized, "Headin' For the Top Now" (2012)

I'm relatively new to the music of Jason "J. Spaceman" Pierce, but in these fledgling months of investigation the word I'd probably use to describe my relationship with it would be "dubious." On the one hand, the simple, perfect melodies that comprise Sweet Heart Sweet Light are exactly the kinds of sugary auditory confections that back in the '90's made bands like Blur and Oasis millionaires, though these are linked by a smattering of broad but streamlined influences that would have been too controlled for the erratically adventurous former and too confusing for the stubborn, narrow-minded latter. But on the other, the streak of woozy, doped out self-pity that runs through the songwriting here gets tedious fast: "Sometimes I wish that I were dead/'Cause only living can feel the pain." An honest sentiment, sure; a frightening, brutal reality for some, sad but true. But while I don't expect every lyricist to be Tom Waits, I do expect the serious ones to be able to recognize cliches that they ought to have matured beyond, as writers, by age 46, and there's no cliche in rock music so boring by now as that of the sodden, tormented artiste trying to sort through issues with a guitar that he should be trying to sort through with a therapist. And yet the most redemptive element of Sweet Heart Sweet Light is how phenomenally hopeful it manages to sound in contrast to Pierce's various existential crises--it feels like the soundtrack to a fatigued loser with nothing to show for himself, beaten down from a life of disillusionment and failure, meeting God on his deathbed and being handed an invitation to spend eternity in pain-free bliss. That's a sound worth a few freebie cliches to me any day--hell, the song I quoted above is probably my favorite track on the whole record.

Maybe, that is; actually, probably not. More than likely it would rank a close second to "Headin' For the Top Now," an eight-plus minute opus that hinges on two chords, a fairly rudimentary shopping list lyric, and the sort of piercing atmospheric noise you might expect from a guy who calls himself "Spaceman." It's one of those tunes like Dylan's "Desolation Row" or Waits's "Sins of the Father" that runs well beyond conventional pop lengths but ends leaving you wishing there were still ten minutes of it left. To say the song builds would be a bit misleading, but it does swell--by the end, there's a greater urgency, a stronger tension, and a more tangible catharsis than you're led to expect from its plain, humble beginnings a mere eight and a half minutes ago. And, tactfully, Pierce's woes end up sounding cautionary rather than indulgent: "We're wasted all the time/And there's a thousand ways to cry/And in our haste to get a little more from life/We didn't notice that we'd died." It's not like he sounds prophetic--he doesn't, but in his voice is a combination of hipness, numbness, and coldness that allows the lyric to come across not as overly theatrical but as simple truth. And in keeping with the juxtapositional quality of the record, it rides out on that most dubious of musical entities, the children's choir, singing phrases like "Fixing, hustling/Pimping, cussing/Don't let the damage show". Thankfully this is more Nick Cave "Hallelujah" than Dylan "They Killed Him," sonically, working the magic trick of a massive wall of sound disappearing to reveal an entourage of chirpy little voices that have somehow managed to stay pure through all the tumult. It's a good trick, and probably a better metaphor for the song's underlying message than I suspsct Mr. Spaceman was aware.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Human Hands" (1982)

You can keep your E Street Band, your Bad Seeds, your The Band, I'll even throw in Entwistle and Moon as a consolation prize just for playing--for me there is no greater backing ensemble in rock history than Elvis Costello's Attractions, who accompanied the man from 1978-1986 and then again briefly from 1994-1996. And while it's true that his current backing group, The Imposters, does feature two of the three original Attractions, it's noteworthy just how different of a band it is with Davey Faragher manning bass duties instead of Bruce Thomas, who split from the group after 1996's All This Useless Beauty on the heels of a life-sized feud between himself and Costello which to my understanding is still going on. On his own merits, Faragher is arguably the more valuable band member, contributing to the group not only his ragged, rock solid groove but also his pitch-perfect backing vocals, but there was something extra-sensory going on between the original Attractions; keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas (no relation) always seemed more attuned to each other with Bruce on bass, where the current incarnation of the rhythm section seems to hang like drapes off the rod that is Elvis's famously rudimentary and increasingly loud guitar playing. The closest musical parallel I can come up with for the Attractions is Miles Davis's 1965-68 quintet, but a better comparison would be the highly-orchestrated, lightning-paced showboating of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls--again, with the exception of Entwistle and Moon, I've never heard a rock band capable of soloing in tandem through their performances while retaining such an airtight stranglehold on the tempos and changes. Maybe the reason they never chose E.S.P. for an album title was because that quintet of Miles's got to it first.

"Human Hands," from 1982's lush, impractical Imperial Bedroom, is one of my favorite Bruce Thomas moments in a catalog full of them. It happens around 1:44 with about a minute left in the song--the guitar and keyboards drop out for the third verse, and Thomas, who'd been playing very straightforward, very functional rhythm notes throughout, comes out of nowhere with this marvelous sequence of bass chords, filling in the spaces between the changes with normal D- and G-string riffery he trademarked on This Year's Model. It's one of those rare instances where one musical instrument manages to sound like an entire orchestra, which is no small accomplishment given the actual orchestra slathered all over the rest of Imperial Bedroom. This guy had it all--virtuosity, versatility, but most importantly, a knack for standalone melody, which may not necessarily be a prerequisite for bass players but pretty much all my favorite ones know how to work it in. So many of his bass riffs--"The Beat," "B Movie," "Watch Your Step"--are as hummable as the tunes themselves, which is impressive considering who the guy writing the songs is.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bob Dylan, "Early Roman Kings" (2012)

At 71, Bob Dylan finally has the voice he's always wanted, and now we all must pay. When he first hopped the train from Hibbing to New York in the early 1960's, his guitar hanging off his back like the baby fat off his cheeks, he was hiccuping fake troubadour drawls with big dreams of successfully rendering signature Delta blues jamz like "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" and "In My Time of Dying" with the same depth of emotion as his forefathers. Yet much to his chagrin, the general air of inexperience in his singing voice was unsuited to this ambition, so for lack of resources he had no choice but to settle for a scrappy hybrid of influences which, as luck would have it, would go on to change the face of popular music forever. Some decent filler material to put on a job application, perhaps, but for a gangly white kid who only ever wanted to pick and sing the blues like a 65 year-old black man, kind of a high stakes gig. It's no wonder he went into hiding in 1967 with his Band of hippie harmonists to bootleg tape a bunch of songs like "The Banks of the Royal Canal" and "Po' Lazarus"--he'd tried to expose that side of himself to the world on his debut album, and the world didn't care. You can't blame them, really--it was a pretty lousy album. But in retrospect it's not difficult to understand why this guy's career has been, until recently, basically one identity crisis after another: The one thing he always wanted to be was always the one thing that was slightly out of reach, and now that he's managed to stumble into it, even if only by circumstance, he can't let go of it.

Dylan's late-period work has been a kind of arcane kaleidoscope of vintage American forms, i.e. jazz, folk, blues, pretty much anything to which Ken Burns might conceivably devote a 12 hour PBS documentary. This is the same stuff he cut his teeth on, but the difference is, now Dylan actually sounds like the guys he always wanted to emulate--gruff, roadworn, but always smirking. And though he's done some marvelous work in this arena, new single "Early Roman Kings" doesn't exactly rate among it. It's the kind of recycled C-list riff you hear in sitcoms when the blues are being parodied; consequently, it's unlikely I'll ever be able to hear "Early Roman Kings" without immediately thinking of the episode of Married...With Children where Al Bundy takes a pastrami solo while jamming with Robby Kreiger and John Sebastian in an airport lounge (yeah, I know, the video is in German--it's all I could find). Furthermore, these "early Roman kings" of Dylan's would have fit perfectly in one of his surrealist mid-60's thin wild mercury montages like "Tombstone Blues" or "Desolation Row," but they're sore thumbs among the plainspeak in this song: "Tomorrow is Friday/We'll see what it brings/Everybody's talkin'/'Bout the early Roman kings"; "I've had my fun/I've had my flings/Gonna shake 'em all down/Like the early Roman kings." The song is neither "about" the early Roman kings nor do they serve as some kind of metaphorical allusion; it's just a random phrase burdened with the unreasonable task of tying together a bunch of other slapdash quips and images. Calling the song "Baroque Composers" or "Renaissance Painters" would have served every bit the same purpose--and surely Vivaldi and Michaelangelo could have "shaken 'em down" with just as much brio as Tiberius or Caligula, si?