Saturday, May 24, 2014

"20 Feet From Stardom", dir. Morgan Neville

There are plenty of impressive things about this documentary.  The celebrity roll call, which includes Sting, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen, is eye opening to say the least.  The big celebs speak better to the importance and admiration for the background singers than the background singers themselves do, which in a roundabout way, turns out to be the single biggest weakness of the film.

This film came off like a series of disjointed interviews that relies on name dropping and the aforementioned star power to make its case.  The irony of the background singers (who in large part, for various reasons, couldn't make it as solo artists) needing their superstar friends to tell their story for them seems to be completely lost on the director.

The film floats several reasons why they never became stars in their own right.  Many simply loved their roles as background singers and had little desire to do anything else.  Others were afraid, or lacked the confidence to stand centre stage, and learned to accept their background role.  Yet we also see them getting singing duets or even getting featured solos as part of stadium tours, and writing songs for the breakthrough solo album that may never get recorded.  So which is it?  Are they missing the "charisma gene" (as implied by Springsteen) or is a matter of never being afforded the opportunity to shine by a myopic music industry?  The movie never takes sides, but it really should have.  Documentaries should have a point of view.  Beyond the obvious degree of admiration for what they do, I left the theatre not having a clue how the director really felt about most of these people.

The highlights include Merry Clayton's story about getting woken up in middle of the night and called in to record "Gimme Shelter" with the Rolling Stones, and every scene featuring Darlene Love.        

Short aside: in the pre-film lecture by Yashiv Cohen, which focused on the gospel roots of soul and R&B, I realized that there's not much of a leap between The Soul Stirrers' "I'm a Soldier" and The Velvet Underground's "Heroin".  At the risk of sounding silly and ignorant, has this drone rock gospel been hiding in plain sight all this time and I didn't realize it?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Music in Vienna (May 2014 edition)

No radio alarms and Irish pubs this time, just great shopping and two incredible concerts.

At a time when music shops are an endangered species just about everywhere, I was happy to see that all the shops I visited six years ago are still in business.  I even stumbled across a couple of new ones (new to me at least). 

The results were a bit different however.  Rave Up Records carried more punk and indie rock than I remember, and the new stores (including Record Bag) were also heavy on punk and metal.  Scout Records is packed with records and discs from floor to ceiling, with boxes piled upon boxes upon racks of CD's, crates underneath tables and discs hanging on the wall. It's the kind of place that will cease to exist when the 70's and 80's punks and jazz aficianados leave the music business, so enjoy it while you can.  Musik und So's stock seems to have shrunk considerably (IIRC), but you can still buy plenty of great CD's for one Euro or not much more.  I bought the 2CD reissue of The Cure's "The Head on the Door" (an album I never owned in any format) for just nine Euros. 

The most worthwhile stop was at Substance.  Not only have the prices in Vienna leveled off and even fallen below those of other major European cities (e.g. Milano), but Substance is now undercutting their competitors in the Viennese electronic music market, which I definitely don't remember to be the case last time.   I had to put back several amazing CD's to justify the total expenditure to myself and keep the total cost under 100 Euros.  I grabbed a ton of great stuff, including last year's Haxan Cloak album that I'd been meaning to check out for ages, the new Voigt and Voigt, a not so new Emeralds disc for a great price, and a few more. 

The concerts were great but the venues were even better.  The Musikverein is the home of the Vienna Philharmonic and it's not clear to me how a box shaped venue could have such exceptional acoustics.  The abundance of wood as opposed to steel is a big part of it, but beyond that I'm stumped.  Its main chamber is called the "Golden Hall" for obvious reasons -- it's a sensory overload of shimmering gold, glistening wooden beams, and regal paintings.  Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture has long been a favourite of mine despite a lifetime of not liking opera, but his Piano Concerto No. 3 is not (too many frilly runs) although soloist Rafal Blechacz's playing could not be faulted.  The highlight, by far, was Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" -- a piece I'd always appreciated for its historical importance but couldn't bring myself to like.  Hearing it played by a full symphony orchestra changed that.  All its unusual rhythmic shifts felt natural when you can react along with the notes while watching the orchestra attack the piece, and the pounding of the drums ring in the ears and enhance the experience far beyond what you would normally experience on disc.

The Burgtheater (National Theatre) is another stunning building that I felt privileged to visit.  The organizers of the Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival) deserve a round of boos for their arcane rules for ticket collection and distribution, and for selling tickets with partially obscured views of the screen without any regard for fair pricing.  I sat in the centre section on the first mezzanine level and every seat in that section, save for the pairs of seats in the corners of the last row, were sold at the same price.  However, at least one third of them (including mine) had partially obscured views due to the low hanging ceiling or sharply angled side walls.  It's fine for a play, when you don't need to see much more than the performers on stage, but for a 3D Kraftwerk concert, it's an inexcusable promotional mistake.  I think many people in the side balconies and the upper mezzanine would have had similar problems.  In my section, there was a fair bit of seat reshuffling, as people preferred to sit in the aisles while the people in the back rows moved down to take their seats or used the extra space to recline and find better views.

Once I found a way to deal with these issues, I could start to properly enjoy an otherwise excellent concert. 

My decision to choose the "Trans Europe Express" concert deserves a bit of explanation.  There wasn't much question about it really.  TEE has always been my default choice for my favourite Kraftwerk album.  Of equal importance, songs from "The Man Machine" and "Computer World" have been the basis of their live sets for years, whereas most songs from "Autobahn", "Radio-Activity", and TEE have been rarely played over the past two decades, if ever.  If you're going to a special event that only takes place in a select few cities, why choose to hear the same songs you can hear in nearly all their regular concerts? 

After buying the tickets to the show, I listened to TEE (of course) and heard things I'd never heard before.  Over the past several years, I found myself listening to the modern, reconstituted touring band version of Kraftwerk (e.g. the "Minimum Maximum" DVD or other recent live shows) far more than the original albums.  During a rare airing of Kraftwerk as they were thirty seven years ago, for the first time, TEE sounded weak, tinny, and lacking in punch.  In contrast, "The Man Machine" has a lot more in common with contemporary electronic music -- funkier, more precise, more metronomic.  This is where they first because The Robots and adopted a style and image that they'd carry with them more or less for the rest of their career.  However, "The Man Machine"'s streamlined efficiency is also its biggest fault.  Everything is too ordered, not a note is out of place, and there's not the slightest air of whimsy or improvisation.  TEE is more varied, more cerebral, and its highs are a lot higher.

TEE is the last album where Kraftwerk's roots as a jazzy improv outfit are central to the music.  It's their final attempt at preserving and advancing the style of music they broke through with.  After that, the pressure to evolve was too strong and there was no way to push the old style any further.  It was time to transform into something else.

For some reason, this kind of album turns out to be my favourite for a lot of notable artists.  Other albums fitting into this category include Depeche Mode's "Violator", Stereolab's "Mars Audiac Quintet", and PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me".  They are the last albums of those bands' "original" style before they quickly morphed into something else entirely. 

On that night at the Burgtheater, even their playing seemed like a throwback to the old days.  In order to play these old songs they needed to go back to being what they once were.  I could see Ralf Hutter playing the chords to "TEE" (the song) on his keyboard.  Kraftwerk looked like performers again and less like office workers who would prefer to send their robots on stage to do the work for them. 
In fact, a quick check of the "Minimum Maximum" DVD shows that their live setup hasn't changed much.  Although their work stations once had monitors that blocked the audience's view of what they were doing, in some shots you can see that they still had the same keyboards and effects modules, and you can see them physically playing the notes if you look carefully enough.  But in Vienna in 2014 -- perhaps due to the venue or the set list --  Kraftwerk's world looked and sounded different for the first time in a long time.   

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fennesz, "Becs"; Swans, "To Be Kind"

Two new albums from acts with inimitable styles, returning to their noisy, bludgeoning ways that they abandoned years ago.  The end results, however, are drastically different.

The newest album from the reborn Swans is the heaviest, most industrial music they've done since the 80's.  "The Seer" was almost overwhelmingly massive, but "To Be Kind" somehow finds a way to shift into a higher gear.  At times it's almost too much -- they've gotten the point across but keep blasting away behind all sense and sanity, until it all finally makes sense again and you're ready and willing to endure even more of what they have to throw at you.  "To Be Kind" and especially the 30-minute centrepiece "Bring the Sun/Toussaint Overture" are the best examples of how relentless this album is.  Up until now, if I wanted to hear Swans bathed in the metallic shards of their own sweat like these, I had to listen to crappy sounding bootlegs from the 80's.

"To Be Kind" is more "rock" than "The Seer".  On the last album they relied on experimental collage pieces to fill up the two hours and give the listener a break, but "To Be Kind" is nothing but heavy and heavier, all the time.  And believe it or not, these two hours flies by a lot quicker that they do on "The Seer".


"Becs" is pretty much a noisier carbon copy of "Endless Summer".  You could say that Fennesz was also looking to take his music to a sort of extreme, but whereas Swans looked at their last album as a stepping stone for something biggeer, Fennesz approached "Becs" like he was doing a remake of "Endless Summer" with extra static tossed in.  The starting point even could have been a low quality rip of "Endless Summer" that sounded so scratchy and distorted that he decided to use that awful sounding source as inspiration for the sequel.  For the most part it works, because anything this reminiscent of that album can't help but be mostly good.  Only the title track manages to hit the legendary sweet spot where the Beach Boys meet distorted guitar and frayed electronics in front of a sun that never sets.  

Friday, May 09, 2014

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 19

"A Swedish mix marched within sight of Vienna", 78 minutes

I've been wanted to record an ambient mix for quite a while ... not a down tempo mix with ambient parts, not a noisy, experimental blast of sound, but a real blissed out mix that would gently drift by as you stopped to take it in.  So I set aside a few tracks, planned out the set order, and stuck with the plan almost until the end, when I couldn't help but improvise a more energetic ending.

I am less high on this mix that I was when I recorded it about two months ago, but that's probably a reflection of the season.  This is a late night, winter mix, not a sunny summer afternoon one.