Thursday, October 30, 2008

Phil Spector in the 1970's

Box sets are a blessing and a curse -- they gather a large and hopefully definitive amount of material associated with a well-known artist, but it is easy to assume that they represent the whole, complete picture. One might think "if I buy the box set then I'll have all the important stuff and won't have to ever buy anything else by this artist", although for a truly great artist it is virtually impossible that all the essentials can be collected in a reasonably sized package.

Phil Spector's "Back to Mono" collected his career highlights from 1958-1969, a period that can roughly be defined as one in which he created monophonic productions intended for AM radio, and worked with a constantly shifting stable of artists who were less famous than he was. The implication is that Spector ceased to be interesting or relevant after 1969, or even after 1965, considering the small amount of material that appears on the box set from that year onward. Beyond his work with the Beatles ("Let It Be") and solo albums by George Harrison and John Lennon, even many Spector fans haven't bothered to devote much effort into unearthing his 1970's works, and when they are spoken about, it is usually to repeat stories about how so-and-so hated working with Spector and ended up practically disowning the work they did together. I still haven't heard The Ramones' "End of the Century", but I can repeat the story about how Spector reportedly pulled a gun on the band in the studio in order to force them to listen to and record the Ronettes' "Baby I Love You".

But 1965 is still a significant date -- after that time, singer-songwriters were the unquestioned stars of music and a producer could not, and would not be a top star in his own right on the worldwide music scene again until the rise of the Neptunes and Timbaland (although one could certainly argue for Quincy Jones, particularly in the case of his Grammy winning solo album in 1990). Spector never seemed to accept that. No matter who he worked with, whether it was in the 60's, 70's, or beyond, he insisted on playing G-d in the studio, pushed to get his way far beyond any reasonable bounds of etiquette or acceptable behaviour, and drove artists into fits of near insanity with his relentless perfectionism. In some sense, these stories are all that has survived from Spector's 1970's work, while the music he was working on at the time simply provides the background and context for the story.

But what about the music itself? Thanks to a recent thread revival on ILM, a bunch of people, including me, finally exhumed some of Spector's long-neglected 1970's work. Both Dion's "Born To Be With You" and Leonard Cohen's "Death of a Ladies' Man" (neither of which I had heard previously) have the unmistakable Spector touch -- lush arrangements, string sections, booming drums that sound like they were recorded in a cavern, ghostly ambiance filling the cracks between all the other instruments, etc. But neither album would be mistaken for his 1960's productions. Paranoia and sadness lurks through most corners of these records, which were clearly (hopefully?) not meant for AM radio.

"Born To Be With You", released in 1975, has long been one of Jason Pierce's favourite albums. That was news to me, but after hearing the album it made perfect sense, since based on his recent career path, Spiritualized albums have been converging to this sound fairly rapidly (i.e. confessional singer-songwriter folk-blues with a hint of maximalism in the production). "Make the Woman Love Me" tackles good ol' love and longing with the dewy-eyed wonder that Daniel Johnston would later perfect on his albums, and the title track is a glorious blue-eyed soul epic, with a simple, gritty lyric delivered over Spector's scaled-back, darkened pizzazz.

After a number of listens, I'm sold on the notion that "Death of a Ladies Man", released in 1977, is a near-masterpiece. All of Spector's poor treatment of Cohen (including locking him out of the studio when the album wasn't finished) acquires a modicum of good sense if you look at it as just another one of Spector's little experiments in finding "the voice". Like with Ronnie Bennett a decade and a half earlier (a girl who sang like a little boy), he'd found a new prototype in Leonard Cohen (a poet who sang like a dirty old man) and once he had that voice in the studio, he plugged it into his (Spector's) usual formula and assigned it to the songs that he thought were worthwhile to record. Details such as Cohen's well-established reputation of his own artistic ambitions for the album were of little consequence to Spector. "Death of a Ladies Man" is not a Leonard Cohen album inasmuch as it is a Phil Spector album featuring Leonard Cohen on guest vocals, and Spector went out of his way to ensure that.

Nevertheless, the results are impeccable. "Memories" is the clear highlight: a skyscraping Spector mini-opera with layer upon layer of 60's AM glitz, huge crescendos and false stops, choirs, a mid-song sax solo, and just about every other orchestrally dramatic bell and whistle in the producer's repertoire. Cohen transforms himself into nothing resembling the sensitive poet of his best known hits -- gone are preciously erotic lines like "they touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem" or "you touched her perfect body with her mind", this is Leonard Cohen macking on chicks at the high school dance and resorting to a bit of proto-Dawson's Creek sappiness to accelerate down the path to a night of slapping stomachs. It's Cohen's very own teen fantasy precursor to "Paradise By the Dashboard Light", where the protagonist is proud of the fact that he'll say just about anything to get busy with the girl he wants. The last minute of the song sees Cohen completely hung up on the object of his affection, screaming "your naked body!" over and over in a self-induced fit of orgasmic desire, and I can only imagine how many hours Spector made him yell in the studio until he got the vocal down just right (who knows, maybe this one recording did more to reduce Cohen's voice to his current raspy baritone than age or anything else). By the time this six minute rollercoaster is over, I don't know whether to laugh, cry, shake the hands of everyone involved, or put up streamers and balloons in my apartment and find someone to slow dance with. Even Cohen had to admit that the whole thing was brilliant, for this is the only song on the album that he regularly performed live, albeit in a greatly stripped down form and only for a couple of years in the 70's before he effectively disowned it like everything else on "Death of a Ladies Man". And guess what, there's even a video!

On an album filled with arrogance and hyper-masculinity, "Paper Thin Hotel" stands out as the one song where the macho protagonist gets his commuppance by having his heart broken when he spies on an unsuspecting lover and hears things that he was never meant to hear. Pulp's "Live Bed Show" asked the tantalizing question "what if beds could talk?" but for Jarvis Cocker it was a gossip-chasing dream scenario, where the talking beds would spill the dirt that he and the characters in his songs were always chasing after. Leonard Cohen puts his ear to the talking wall and hears terrible things that he wishes he'd never heard, and despite claiming that there was "a heavy burden lifted from my soul" thanks to finally knowing the truth, it's the next line that kills me -- "I learned that love was out of my control". Sure, you might be better off knowing the whole truth, but the fact remains that the whole truth ... well, sucks. The reminder that love is a roll of the dice that can disintegrate or be irreparably harmed without the slightest notice is a brutal and sobering lesson, one that any sanity-preserving person would prefer that they never have to learn or accept. Adding to the heartbreak, the entire drama is adorned by Spector's kitchen sink romanticism, not too dissimilar from an ever better Pulp tune, the bittersweet "Happy Endings". There's an undercurrent of lounge exotica on the album, of which "Paper Thin Hotel" is the best example, that draws favourable comparisons between Cohen's lovable horny dude persona and Serge Gainsbourg's self-characterizations from his mid-70's work. That's a comparison for the modern listener to make, since it's a near-certainty that neither Spector or Cohen had heard of Gainsbourg when they made their album.

Parts of Side 2 ensure that "Death of a Ladies Man" is far from a perfect album. "Don't Go Home with Your Hard On" is a dumb but fun rave-up with Bob Dylan cranking away on background vocals. And it's a disco song. No, I'm serious, it is. It won't be making your personal list of all-time disco classics any time soon, but you owe it to yourself to hear Dylan, Cohen and Spector trying their hands at disco at least once in your life. However, "Fingerprints" is a pitiful disaster, and lord only knows why they (i.e. Spector) thought that a country and western yee-hah shoutalong would be a good addition here.

Thankfully, all is redeemed with the title track. Its surrealist lyrics and vocal cadences recall Dylan's "Desolation Row", and the simple, almost amateurish harmonies mimic the Grateful Dead's best 70's recordings. The Ladies Man's demise can be chalked up to, naturally, too much fucking. Cohen can be really funny when he wants to be, and the OTTness of the lyrics surely indicates he was at least somewhat in on Spector's plan to make an album saturated with overdramatized characters with the production values to match. Suddenly, the song downshifts in tempo, adorns itself with shimmering synths, and then it's all starlight and daydreaming as I get "Le Petit Prince" flashbacks and start hoping that the final refrain of "It's like our visit to the moon or to that other star / I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far" will continue forever, "Hey Jude" style. It's a stunning line with a conflicting double meaning, where reaching for the stars turns into a metaphor for mindless, baseless, soulless sex and everything hinges on the word "nothing". That is, if you've taken the trouble to travel all the way to the moon, then you should know that you've done it all for "nothing" = "for no good reason whatsoever". Or, if you're going that route, then you're doing it for "nothing" = "for free", so go right ahead as long as you never forget that it's all in good fun and will never lead to anything satisfying. And with that, the song fades away into a twinkling dreamland ...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Random October Notes ...

Here is a fascinating interview with Moritz von Oswald
. There are no eureka insights into the making of the classics, but watching von Oswald kicking back on a couch and playing records in a semi-academic environment feels like the most natural thing in the world, so much so that I had to constantly remind myself that he is one of techno's most celebrated recluses.

Interesting tidbits from the interview include the admission that their secretive personas were partly meant to be funny, as a way of making light of fame and celebrity. This was hardly a revolutionary concept in 1993, but I guess the joke really was on us because it was widely assumed that the anonymity of the Basic Channel label was the key to its allure (which it was), but nobody really considered the additional notion of releasing a series of records with completely illegible inner labels/credits/graphics just for shits and giggles. Also, von Oswald feels that the best place for listening to his tracks is a room like the one he was interviewed in. This coming from the man who set up his own mastering and record cutting studio because he wasn't satisfied with how his records sounded when cut at existing commercial studios. Hmmmm ... (yeah I know, audiophile standards are one thing, a proper listening environment is something totally different) ... but anyhow, hooray for home listening!

2. TV on the Radio, "Dear Science". Yet another thoroughly mediocre offering from the much-praised TVOTR, who are well on their way to be the most undeserved critical darlings in rock music since Radiohead. Except that Radiohead have made many memorable singles and a smattering of otherwise notable songs, whereas TVOTR have never created even the smallest morsel of music that I felt compelled to hum to myself five minutes after I heard it. In some strange way they are the anti-Radiohead, in that Radiohead have always been a terrible idea in theory (wimpy sub-Floydian mope rock, millennium angst, electronica/jam rock hybrids, etc.) but tend to find a way to make those ideas work, whereas TVOTR are a good idea in theory (walls of sound, like an impeccably produced Flaming Lips minus all of that band's goofy and embarrassing druggy dream sequence tendencies) but their music always falls flat.

3. Madchester ahoy ... did you know that the Charlatans UK and James released new albums this year? And that they're both pretty good, particularly James' "Hey Ma"? Sure, they went overboard, Bono-style, with the album's anti-war political pestering. "Of Monsters and Heroes and Men" was written with raised cigarette lighters in mind, and "Whiteboy" might conjure up memories of 1990 student discos that you'd hoped you'd long since forgotten about. Sometimes, music can be a bit daft but can still push all the right buttons.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Animal Collective @ Zappa, 23/10/2008

Animal Collective's first ever show in Tel Aviv attracted an unique confluence of people of and atmosphere. I'm not just talking about the unusually high proportion of Americans that were there, or the average age of the audience (far lower than most gigs in the city), or the somewhat bizarre sight of so many teens and aged hipsters trekking to the outskirts of T.A. for a gig in a slick and elegant club located in an industrial science park. This gig is rare and special because bands like Animal Collective simply don't come here very often. Most international concerts are given by established rock acts, reggae or soul artists, or DJs. P4k-approved indie phenoms simply don't add T.A. as a stop on their European tours, and the fact that this band did exactly that created a pre-gig buzz and anticipation that can only come from a crowd that has seen only a small handful of such concerts in the past year, if not in their whole lifetime. I can't say that any of this caught me by surprise, but regardless, once you've seen several hundred concerts by virtually all of your favourite bands (including this one) you reach a point of being not so much jaded (someone please shoot me if I ever become jaded about experiencing palpable excitement before a concert by a great band) but certainly on the outside looking in at a crowd of joyous concertgoers who seemed to have little clue about what they were about to experience other than the assurance that it would be a whole lot of fun. Not only that, the party hosts would be a band that matters -- not one that used to matter five or ten or twenty years ago, but one that is a creative, critical, and popular success right now. Put that together with a group of ticket holders who would normally be thrilled just to see ANY cool gig, and you have an audience concoction not unlike the Ottawa audiences I was a part of during the summer I lived there. These are some of the best crowds you will ever see because they're made up of music fans who wait for months to see the gigs they really want, and always retain a special sense of music star worship that can only come with the humble feelings of surprise and disbelief that this band has truly chosen to come to their city*.

For most of the main set, they ran through the new songs they've been road testing for over a year, interspersed with tracks like "Peacebone" to get people moving (part of me is amazed that they can still bring so much energy to a song they've been playing almost every night for the past three years, but then again this is the same band that regularly went nutso to "We Tigers" for an even longer period of time). With the exception of an 18-minute version of "Lablakely Dress/Fireworks/Essplode/Fireworks" (whew) that was probably about five minutes too long, most of the song presentations were fairly concise and uninventive. But maybe I've lost the element of surprise with these tracks after hearing so many Animal Collective live recordings over the past two years. On the other hand, I never got tired of hearing "The Purple Bottle" in any of its forms, but in general the band has dropped a certain spirit of chaos and improvisation that was lost when they transformed from a guitar band to a dance band when Deakin started staying at home for the tours.

The encores (all 40 minutes of them!) were no mere codas -- they were the highlights of the show. After the first song -- a prog-dance slowburner that owes more to house/techno than anything else they've done -- I was forced to freely eat some of my words about the band having lost an experimental edge. A wild take on Panda Bear's "Comfy In Nautica" (with Ravel's "Bolero" sung in the breakdown between verses -- no really!) and the soon to be released "Material Things" (its working title) restore my faith in the band's ability to reinvent themselves as many times as they feel necessary.

* which is one reason why journos don't know how to deal with them when they do, witness this horrifyingly bad preview and poor excuse for an interview with Panda Bear as the unfortunate victim. I'll restrain myself with comments about why it's so bad, but the band history is clearly cribbed from their wikipedia page and "revealing" that a band's fans don't get bored of listening to their albums is just about the lamest comment that can be made in a feature article.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Notes on a few mixes (but especially "Fabric 41")

With podcasts appearing regularly on seemingly every blog and website in this, the age of rapidshare, I've heard more mixes this year since ... well, ever. The Mole threw a curveball with his Resident Advisor podcast and assembled a collection of 70's soul because he'd been understandably depressed after splitting up with his girlfriend. I loved both the mix and the sentiment -- there are plenty of self-promotional mixes floating around, but not too many that were sound as if they were thrown together in his or her bedroom at 2AM in place of a mood update on their Livejournal page. My mixes probably turn out best when they were made as an extended elaboration on my feelings about a certain person and/or at a certain moment in time, and I'm sure I'm not alone in writing that. The mix is a postcard from that hour or day or week, and is often far more effective at preserving memories than a rambling journal entry.

But despite the volume of material, I had yet to hear a near-flawless, truly excellent techno or house mix. For example, I had strong hopes for Matthew Dear's "Body Language Vol. 7", but found it to be less than the sum of its parts, with too many uneven sections where the momentum was lost (most notably about 30 minutes in, when the mix gets stripped down after a hot start and starts bubbling under when it should have been ready to take off).

I hadn't been a big fan of either the Fabric mix series or Luciano's earlier mixed work (incl. live recordings). Too many minimal mixes tend to take their sweet time before stumbling their way toward a peak of sorts, leaving long stretches of understated plateau and little in the way of euphoria or climax. Combined with the style of Michael Mayer's Fabric mixes, which led to a load of copycat mixes in which the DJ let the tracks run from start to end groove, and you end up with far too many 12-track, 65-minute mixes that seem to drag on forever. Luciano's "Fabric 41" contains none of these flaws. It hits the gas immediately, dispensing completely with any conventional notion of steadily building a mix toward a peak in the middle or at the end, and creates a series of euphoric peaks by being consistently surprising and unpredictable, even while staying within the general format of a continuously mixed minimal set. He'll stretch out a track for a six or seven minutes and follow it up with a couple of shorter cuts that jumble the pace of the mix just enough to keep the listener guessing. By dropping a vocal track only every ten or fifteen minutes, he creates a further element of surprise out of simple track ordering, making the appearance of vocals feel that much more glorious. Of course, the tracks themselves are simply stellar, and from start to finish -- from the rhythm guitar lines of Rhadoo's "Slagare" to Chymera's Gottsching-like "Arabesque"-- they are full of flourishes that set them well apart from plenty of lesser, cookie cutter minimal.

One way to build a mix is to slowly tease and build to a crescendo over many tracks and dozens of minutes, in other words, manipulating the listener's expectations, and then delivering exactly what they expect. Luciano takes the opposite tack on "Fabric 41". You might not know what to expect, but when he gives it to you, it's all good. It's further proof that track selection and the ability to pace a mix are the most important skills that a DJ can have.

Friday, October 10, 2008

New Hockey Night in Canada Theme!

After 40 years, HNIC will feature a new theme this year, and voting is currently underway on the CBC's website to choose the winning theme from among five finalists. WAHT?? This is what happens when you've been away from Canada for too long -- I only found out about this last week. Well, I guess this is an improvement over learning about the Queen Street West fire some six months after the fact.


1. CBC didn't own the rights to the HNIC theme song?
2. A contest? I know that Canadian Idol is really popular and all, but ... does everything need to come down to a nationwide contest and vote? The Federal Election, OK fine, but ... the new HNIC theme? Must we?
3. re: #1, seriously? They didn't own the rights to the third most recognizable Canadian song after the national anthem and "Summer of '69"? Really????
3. Gerry Moseby, "Ice Warriors". A strong, uptempo bar rock track that gets the blood flowing. I like the lack of horns and OTT symphonic flairs that set it well apart from the classic theme. If you're going to pick a new theme, make it a NEW theme, I say.
4. Robert Fraser Burke, "Sticks To The Ice". Pretty much the opposite of what I said above. Any attempt to push the exact same buttons that the classic theme did can't help but end in disappointment. It's also a bit too reminiscent of the theme from the Superman movies, and the "Day In The Life"-esque final chord is just silly.
5. Graham McRae, "Eleventh Hour". I was all set to reiterate the comment immediately above, but then the drums came crashing in and I was instantly grabbed by the synth/horn hook. That's great songwriting. I think we have a winner.
6. Christian St-Roch & Jimmy Tanaka, "Let The Game Begin". What, you mean David Foster *didn't* write this? St-Roch worked on the theme for the 1976 Olympics though, which explains the tympani overload, but whereas the Olympics are a larger-than-life drama that plays out once every four years (thereby warranting an epic feel), HNIC is a beer-soaked singalong that plays out in bars with wood paneling and staffed by a room full of mullets. I'll pass on this theme, thanks.
7. Colin Oberst, "Canadian Gold". There's a bagpipe-psych vibe here that gives me hints of what Caribou would submit if he would try to compose the new HNIC theme (read: Dan Snaith's talents are not best utilized toward sports themes). It's a head-scratcher, and I definitely can't see this as the lead-in to a Ford Truck ad.