Sunday, January 22, 2023

Music Men: The Playboy Interview (50 Years of the Playboy Interview)

For several years in the 90's, I bought a couple of dozen music magazines per year, both weeklies and monthlies.  The NME/Melody Maker/Select style was a fly on the wall approach.  The journalist would join the artist or band in their natural environment (in the studio, on tour, their favourite pub, whatever the case may be), soak up the atmosphere, and grab as many juicy quotes as they could.  The Canadian free weeklies and monthlies (NOW, eye, Exclaim!) used a more measured style, it was rare to see a circus-type presentation, the interviews were more straightforward reporting.  This isn't necessarily a negative, but the British style was more consistently entertaining.  But of course, the free magazines didn't do long form highly in depth articles, their format limited the space they could afford for any one story compared with the paid publications.  

This is all to say that the style of the Playboy interview -- a long form, deep one-on-one conversation without any of the scenic bells and whistles -- is rather new to me.  The list of names (all of them men) is stellar, but when it misses, it really misses, and the conversation bogs down in dreadful minutiae and elongated tedium.  It's like reading the transcript between a reluctant host and hangers on at a party who simply refuse to leave.  The Bob Dylan interview (March 1978) is an unfortunate example of that.  David Bowie (September 1976) says very little of substance, and Elton John (January 1976) dances around nearly every serious question aimed at providing genuine insight into his thoughts, in particular, his thoughts on homosexuality and bisexuality (understandably so, considering the time, but it doesn't make for entertaining reading).  Luciano Pavarotti (November 1982) is a unique look at a personality that was never featured in "rock" mags, but the conversation is just too damned long, stitched together from multiple conversations.  

I want to lump together three interviews from the 90's, which carry similar goals but produce wildly varying results.  The idea is to interview a living legend, reflect on his career, celebrate his accomplishments, and speculate on their continued relevance into the 90's.   Berry Gordy (August 1995) comes across like a complete asshole, defending his policy of indentured servitude for his artists in the 60's and generally showing himself to be out of touch with most music and artist relations post-early career Michael Jackson.  Frank Zappa (April 1993) is as unfiltered as you'd expect.  His fans (I was never one) would probably enjoy his wild musings on politics and parenthood, he was undoubtedly one of a kind but if you never acquired a taste for his music, the interview probably won't be to your liking either.  He also speaks openly about his health, and would sadly pass away less than a year following the interview.  Pete Townshend (February 1994) owns up to all his problems past and present, he's a real person prone to temper tantrums, bad decisions, and frequent vacillations in opinion.  Compared to the David Bowie and Elton John interviews from the 70's, where they were ultra-careful in protecting their image and not harming their marketability, Townshend is firmly in give no fucks mode.  

The most recent interviews with Jay-Z (April 2003) and Kanye West (March 2006) encapsulate the rapid decline of the print mag industry.  In the 21st century, the 24/7 news cycle was an essential service, the internet was in every household, and the rapid rise of social media was just around the corner.  Fans no longer needed these types of interviews to gain rare insight into musical giants.  Jay-Z is entertaining and larger than life, but the interview is nothing special, he's punching the clock and not revealing anything about his true self.  On the other hand, Kanye gives clear glimpses of what he eventually became fifteen years later, speaking openly about his pr0n addiction and attraction to conspiracy theories.  

The highlights are the first three interviews in the collection.  They're like a time capsule into a long ago era of life in America.  Frank Sinatra (February 1963) is politically incorrect, boorish, and arrogant, but you can't say he didn't show up ready to play ball.  He gives his unfiltered opinion on politics and foreign affairs, providing views that were far from mainstream.  He's determined to advertise himself as as a thinking man's performer who wouldn't stand for any politician's bullshit, and couldn't care less if he comes across as a "difficult" interviewee.  The Beatles (February 1965) are immature kids captured at the height of their teenybopper fame.  Before they retired to the studio, took drug-fueled trips to India, and became peace crusaders, there was this, just four young men riding a pop star wave the world had never seen.  Some of their comments have not aged well, but it's refreshing to read something of this length about the Beatles that was published before the legend was complete.  Best of all is the interview with Ray Charles (March 1970) who comes off as the most intelligent man in the country, a musical prophet who speaks candidly and impactfully about US race relations and his niche as a performer.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

2022 Recap (according to Youtube)

Once again, there will be no list of the best albums of the past year, because I haven't heard any of them (eventually I will get around to a megapost on the 2022 releases by "former #1's", i.e. albums by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Moderat, Spiritualized, and Beach House.  Maybe if it's taken this long then I'll just hold off until the newest Orbital record is released sometime next year).

However, Youtube has helpfully assembled a year in review list so that I didn't have to.  I think it's a revealing and quite accurate representation of how I consume music-related content on Youtube.   In past years, when I listened mainly to contemporary releases, it was almost always through physical purchases or downloads, and not via streaming.  In that sense, this list is a uniquely modern look at my new normal, and highlights how much my listening habits have changed in the past three years.  

1.  Mahler Symphony #2 (live 1989, cond. Klaus Tennstedt)

It's no secret that Tennstedt could be hit and miss in the studio.  I joined the consensus after reviewing his LPO Mahler cycle, but every Tennstedt fan knows that his true strengths were live in concert.  Live, he was an incendiary Mahler conductor whose unbridled intensity and total commitment to the work has likely never been matched.  This 1989 recording is a prime example of this.  I have been meaning to review his live LPO Mahler box for months, but the task often feels too daunting, one that demands hours of uninterrupted listening.  These concerts were events, and I can never find a block of time to approach them as such.  

2.  Harry Styles, "As It Was"

I wrote a couple of posts about Harry Styles this year, I remain awed by his spectacular success and "As It Was" is a fantastic single.

3.  Shirley Bassey, "The Girl From Tiger Bay" (2009 Live at Electric Proms)

This song pops up on the radio from time to time, but until I sought it out on Youtube I had no clue that it was written by James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers.  Once you know this you can't unhear all the clues, such as the guitar part that leads into the chorus.  The song itself is wonderful, and works both as Bradfield's love letter to Bassey, and as Bassey's very own "My Way".  


4.  Oasis, "Don't Look Back In Anger"

What better than Rick Beato's "What makes this song great?" breakdown to make me revisit (over and over again) Oasis' best ever song? 

5.  Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder, "Get Lucky" (2014 Grammys)

One of my all time favourite clips, endlessly rewatchable for the indelible joy it radiates for each second of this legendary performance.  The broadcast captures six decades of music royalty partying in the audience without any pretense, united for a few brief moments by their love of one of the most format-smashing hits of recent times.  The performance takes in elements of Chic's "Le Freak" (oh yes, Nile Rodgers plays guitar here too!), Daft Punk's "Harder Better Faster Stronger", and Stevie Wonder's "Another Star", a veritable all-star mixtape condensed into five short minutes.   

6.  Moby, "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?"

Another song that fits a wide range of moods and situations, including the kids' bath time (works for me as downtempo spa music at least).  It's always interesting to ponder why exactly Moby got big when he did.  Grunge had long since expired as a force, and nu-metal had risen to fill the vacuum.  Unless you were into alternative-lite fare like Matchbox 20 or Cake, or ate up the horrible swing revival, it was a rough time to be a mainstream rock fan.  So people took to other genres with rock elements to get their fix (electronica, e.g. Chemical Brothers, Prodigy) or were drawn into lounge/exotic music/downtempo house (e.g. St. Germain -- you would not believe how ubiquitous "Tourist" was in coffee shops and dorm rooms unless you were there, a million other Cafe Del Mar and the like compilations).  Moby successfully bridged the gap between the two.  He was an outsider as far as the mainstream went, he'd reinvented himself (always makes for a good story), he had some cred as a rocker and as a former king of the underground, he seemed non-threatening, in short, he was a new type of popstar in an era when the mainstream was experiencing a great deal of turnover (rock and rock-related genres were phasing out, Britney Spears and boy band pop exploding, etc.)   

7.  Haydn Symphony #88, Vienna Philharmonic (cond. Leonard Bernstein)

I don't watch classical music concerts online (I'm usually listening while puttering around doing various things) but this clip demands your attention.  Where else can you see one of the all-time greats conducting a major orchestra with his face?  Meanwhile, I discovered the greatness of this, and many other Haydn symphonies this year.  

8.  Fleetwood Mac, "Gypsy"

It's been a rough few years for the Mac, first the departure/firing of Lindsay Buckingham, and then the deaths of Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, and Christine McVie.  My go-to video for FM-related solace is "Gypsy".  This video has entranced me since the age of nine, I was simply spellbound by the opening panned shot of the lace-covered room and Stevie Nicks performing the splits while gazing wistfully into a giant mirror, it's a goddess moment that makes me lose all sense of time and place even forty years later.  The song's metronomic pulse enhances the notion that the memories expressed in the lyrics exist in some kind of continuum, much like Zeppelin's "Kashmir", "Gypsy" seems to have no beginning and no end, it exists for infinite time before and after, we time-limited mortals merely tune into a brief stretch in the middle.  


9.  Don Henley, "The Boys of Summer"

As I noted in my September post about "As It Was", I would not have expected the ongoing 80's revival/pillorying to borrow heavily from Don Henley in 2022, and yet here we are.  

10.  Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now" (live at Newport Folk Festival)

I hope this performance isn't fading from collective memories, because it really was something incredibly special.  

11.  Nicole Pesce, "How To Play Happy Birthday like Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Bach, and Mozart"

Listen to enough classical music and you too will have Google recommending Victor Borge-inspired musical comedy videos.  


12.  Depeche Mode, "Insight"

I was certain that DM were finished after Fletch's sudden passing, but they'll be back next year with yet another album and world tour, continuing one of the most remarkable 40-year (and counting) success stories in music history.  I haven't listened to "Ultra" all the way through in years, on one hand it's their most homogeneous album, but on the other hand it features the relentless brutalism of "Barrel of a Gun", the unstoppably heartfelt "Home" (I have come around on this song over the years, I now rank it among DM's best ballads) and two of their strongest ever album tracks ("The Bottom Line" and "Insight").  


13.  Eddie Money, "Take Me Home Tonight"

Unfortunately my posting frequency has decreased in recent years, as I struggle to find the time to complete various projects (20 albums/20 years, the Eurovision winners) and post about other topics in general.  My timely posts are RIP posts far more often than not.  Ronnie Spector passed away in January and I missed the news, finding out about it a few weeks later.  Go read her memoir (published long before MeToo and Phil Spector's murder conviction, this didn't get the attention it deserved) and enjoy her mini-comeback in the 80's with Eddie Money.


14.  Brahms, "Variations on a Theme By Joseph Haydn", dir. Gustavo Dudamel

Yes, I love the piece (my favourite Brahms orchestral work) but clearly the algorithm has misconstrued my feelings about Dudamel.   This is hardly a great performance of the Haydn variations, notwithstanding the setting (Vienna's Musikverein) and the presence of  the Vienna Philharmonic.  Go listen to, I don't know, one of Furtwaengler's performances instead.      

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Christine McVie RIP

This is a crushing loss for music, and so sudden -- even Stevie Nicks, in a handwritten note posted to her Twitter account, said that it was only last weekend that she found out that McVie was sick.  

It goes without saying that Fleetwood Mac are one of the only bands in history that can boast three genius songwriters.  What's more, none of them played the George Harrison role, taking a back seat to their more famous bandmates.  The partnership between McVie, Nicks, and Buckingham couldn't have been more equal.  Considering the colossal sales and fame of the band, and the egos involved with sustaining that game, it's remarkable that this arrangement held steadfast as long as it did before people started storming out.  "Rumours" featured four songs by McVie, and three each by Nicks and Buckingham ("The Chain" is credited to the entire group).  Fleetwood Mac's 1988 Greatest Hits album featured three songs by Buckingham, five songs by Nicks, and eight by McVie.  That breakdown speaks to her strengths as a pop songwriter and her impact on the creative direction of the band.  

Once McVie left in the 90's, Fleetwood Mac toured the world many times over but they only made one additional album of all new material and came within an eyelash of imploding while recording it.  They always seemed like a happier band when McVie was involved.  Everyone liked her, everyone loved being around her.    

McVie's songs bear repeat listening (that is, listening to the same song or songs on repeat) more than either Buckingham or Nicks.  Buckingham is the perfectionist and the experimenter, frequently evolving, often hitting, but sometimes missing.  Nicks' songs carry an emotional heft that the others can't match, but they're always full of heavy shit that I'm not always in the mood for.  McVie's songs flow effortlessly, they exude an almost childlike wonder for the most beautiful things in the world.  The lyrics to "You Make Loving Fun" summarize her songwriting M.O. In popular song, love takes on many personas but pure, miraculous fun is hardly ever one of them.  McVie perfected it.  

"Hold Me" and "Everywhere" are my favourite McVie-penned singles, and it was nice the latter get its due in the recent Chevrolet ads.  The world might be full of problems, but for a scant thirty seconds, "Everywhere" comes across like the car karaoke anthem that people of many different ages and races can agree on.   

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Daniel Vangarde

No matter how much you think you know, musical six degrees of separation never ceases to yield new surprises.  My mind blowing factoid of the week: Thomas Bangalter's (Daft Punk) father wrote the disco/yacht-pop anthem "Hands Up" by "Ottawan", a near ubiquitous North American 80's TV jingle thanks to a million unavoidable Club Med ads.  This was revealed in the Daft Punk Unchained documentary several years ago, but I never saw it.

Vangarde is a fascinating person, and receives his due in a recent Guardian profile about the man and a recently released retrospective of his 70's and 80's recordings.  He wrote protest songs (which were banned in France), international disco smashes with Ottawan, and took up the cause of royalty rights for Jewish composers who were stripped of their rights during the Nazi occupation years.  One can easily draw a line between his combative attitude toward corporate music industry behemoths and Daft Punk's similarly uncompromising attitude.  In his retirement, Vangarde currently lives as something of a recluse in South America, sharing another similarity with his son who successfully keeps a low profile and avoids appearing in public despite achieving fame at the highest echelons of the music industry.  

Daft Punk retained artistic control of their career from the mid-90's onward, which would be nearly impossible today in the era of pop albums curated by a small army of outside songwriters and producers.  It makes sense if Vangarde did in fact advise them not to settle for anything less than complete control of their work and image.  How did they get away with it?  Daft Punk came along at the ideal time, long before EDM became a buzzword and a billion dollar industry.  In the 90's, companies knew that "electronica" was on the rise but had no clue how to go about marketing it.  The usual A&R strategies wouldn't work with faceless artists who recorded in their home studios and didn't play traditional concerts. Industry types had to make it up on the fly, and engage with artists on a case by case basis.  The Prodigy were a visually arresting group who could make eye-catching music videos.  Chemical Brothers were nothing to look at, but could be promoted as rock crossover artists.  Daft Punk weren't "rock" in the least, but their music had a more underground, exotic quality to it that could make up for the fact that the band members wanted to remain in the shadows.  And they could afford to keep their heads down if Spike Jonze produced their buzzworthy videos.  

So the industry let them do what they want, likely believing that the band wouldn't last long enough or get big enough to earn serious money.  They probably didn't feel like they were signing away that much in terms of future earnings or control.  It's also important to remember that the electronic music scene in Paris was miniscule compared with the more famous hubs in the US and Britain.  What were the chances of a couple of reclusive French teenagers actually breaking out into something big?    

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Harry Styles vs Robbie Williams

While watching clips of Harry Styles' remarkable 15-night residence at Madison Square Garden in September, I found myself wondering: why didn't this happen with Robbie?  

Their CV's couldn't be more similar.  Teenage superstars with that decade's biggest boy band.  Became the breakout solo star of the group with a series of incendiary singles, and a quick succession of albums, each one bigger than the last.  Live, they present a stripped down setup featuring the band, the singer, and not much else.  No dancers, elaborate stage decorations, or video screen distractions.  The shows are driven by the singers incredible charisma, and their rare and innate ability to seem larger than life while also forging a personal connection with everyone in the audience.

Robbie didn't, or couldn't break into the American market.  In the UK and Europe he was a superstar, one of the top two or three selling artists at his peak, setting records for fastest ticket sales for his concert tours.  He moved to the US.  It didn't help him break the market.  

Nobody books fifteen nights at MSG as a trial experiment.  They do it because the demand is there.  Except that this level of demand is virtually unprecedented.  And now he's doing it again on the west coast!  

During their prime, Take That's songs were unknown in North America.  I would read about them in the NME or Select, who weren't in the business of covering boy bands but Take That were too dominant of a cultural force to ignore.  Except that I had no way of hearing the songs.  The indie shops I frequented weren't importing UK boy band records.  The big chains weren't selling their records, not without regular airplay and live tours.  Only "Back For Good" got regular play, but the band had chosen to split up by that point.  When Robbie began his solo career, nobody in America knew who he was.  

You can't play down the role of social media and streaming services in helping to break Harry Styles.  One Direction were worldwide stars, even to audiences who had never watched the episodes of X-Factor that birthed them.  Downloading or streaming their music can be done instantly.  Styles was already a familiar name.  Twenty years ago, many people predicted the death of the monoculture.  They said a Michael Jackson type of megastar would never come around again, the music business was too fragmented.   There were so many disparate ways to discover music and such a massive proliferation of artists that we, as a culture, would never agree on anyone ever again.  The opposite has happened.  Megastars like Harry Styles, Adele, and Taylor Swift have never been bigger.  The echo chamber of social media can create a world famous artist in ways that the 80's generation of artists couldn't have dreamed of.      

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Mimi Parker RIP

I was dumbstruck this evening by the devastating news that Mimi Parker has died.  I hadn't heard about her cancer diagnosis, which she made public a little over half a year ago.  

I was lucky to see Low a few times, and it is a singular experience to watch a band play in front of a completely silent crowd.  The lightest brush of a snare drum, pluck of a guitar string, or deep breath between phrases could be easily heard.  Amidst such suspended tension, even a voice as gentle as Mimi's would cut through the air and chill your bones.  I recall some controversy around the release of "The Great Destroyer", some fans were upset that Mimi didn't have a solo performance.  I couldn't understand the complaints, because for me she is everywhere on that album, her voice together with Alan's form a special timbre that no other group could replicate. 

Over the last few years, and even against the expectations of many of their fans, Low hit a critical and artistic peak.  Mimi had been the angelic voice fronting the band's most tender moments, and there are too many to mention: "Two Step", "Lazer Beam", "In Metal".  On their last two albums, it turned out that she was equally talented at vocalizing the soundtrack to nihilistic chaos, technological confusion, and extreme political uncertainty.    

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Charles Munch, "The Complete Recordings on Warner Classics"

This box covers two very different eras in Munch's career: pre-Boston, and post-Boston.  Of course, the general consensus is that his best recordings were made during his thirteen years in Boston, and who am I to argue with that.  But the main thing that attracted me to this box is the breadth of the repertoire.  The box regularly branches outside of the standard repertoire and features several then-contemporary French composers whose work has not been regularly recorded.

The first six discs are stereo recordings from the 1960's.  Munch's specialty, the Berlioz "Symphony Fantastique" was the premiere recording of the Orchestre de Paris.  This orchestra that was essentially created for Munch, sadly he passed away not long after its formation.  This version may not be his finest recording of the work, but it does not disappoint.  Munch is also excellent with Ravel, drawing energy and passion from works like the "Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2" and "Bolero" that many conductors fail to do.  His "Bolero" may come as a surprise to those who are accustomed to versions where the main job of the conductor is to beat time as steadily and inexorably as possible.    

I still don't "get" Roussel as a symphonist, but I discovered Dutilleux via this box and was instantly drawn to the strange atmospheres and timbres in his Symphony No. 2 and "Metaboles".

The final seven discs are mono recordings presented in variable, but generally decent sound.  There are many wartime recordings from Paris, providing some historical significance.  A triumphant Beethoven "Emperor" concerto, recorded the week after D-day in Paris, is a fascinating listen in this regard.  But these discs contain many concertos where the influence of the conductor is more obscured, all the more so because of the sound quality which can make it difficult to hear the details from the orchestra.  Fortunately, just about all of it is good.  Elsewhere, there are several works by 20th century composers (Delannoy, Halffter, Samazeuilh) that show Munch's talent as a promoter of contemporary works if nothing else.  

This isn't a set that can be easily digested in large chunks because it's all over the place in terms of styles, sound, and orchestral quality.  But as a meaningful chapter in Munch's legacy, containing many fine performances, it's an enjoyable and highly inspiring listen.      

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Harry Styles, "As It Was"

In the last few years, a slew of Billboard Hot 100 chart records were broken that until recently would have been unthinkable.  Some of these new records are truly mind boggling.  For nearly twenty five years, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men held the record for the most consecutive weeks at #1 with "One Sweet Day".  For two decades, nothing came close to matching it.  Who could possibly defeat the kings of slow jam R&B and the most successful female solo artist ever?  Destiny had seemingly taken over. But in 2017, Luis Fonzi's "Despacito" became the summer jam to end all summer jams and tied the record.  And two years later, the record was smashed by a complete unknown.  When "One Sweet Day" dominated the charts, Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey had twelve #1 hits between them, tens of millions in albums sales, and nearly unlimited promotional support behind them.  Lil Nas X was armed with a $20 beat and an obscure Nine Inch Nails sample.  If the CMA hadn't banned "Old Town Road" from the country charts, prompting a wave of free publicity and the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, it probably comes nowhere close to topping the Hot 100 for nineteen weeks.  But it happened, and you'll never find a more unlikely megasuccess story in the history of pop.  

There are other ways to measure the success of a hit song.  The Hot 100's methodology has changed many times during its six decade history.  The 90's were a particularly confusing time.  To be considered for the Hot 100, a single had to exist as a physical product.  But since those were peak CD buying years, many artists didn't bother releasing physical singles, they simply "released" a "new" song to radio as a means to stoke their album sales.  The songs weren't new because they were readily available on the CD album, but the labels would simply signal the record stations to start playing track three instead of track six and voila, there was a "new" single.  Thus you had the strange conundrum of completely unavoidable 90's hits that didn't chart due to this bizarre technicality, at least until the rules were changed around the end of the decade.  

This is to say that prior to streaming and digital downloads, ranking chart hits by the number of radio plays was as good a metric as any, and remains an effective measure of a song's impact even today.  The record for the most weeks at number one on the "Radio Songs" chart (formerly the "Hot 100 Airplay" chart) used to be held by the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris".  Ask anyone who lived through 1998 and they'll confirm that you couldn't go five minutes without hearing it.  It topped the airplay chart for an unthinkable eighteen consecutive weeks.  For the next twenty plus years, nothing approached this number.  Then in 2020, The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights" crushed just about every chart record imaginable.  Most weeks in the top five.  Most weeks in the top ten.  First song to remain in the top ten for an entire year.  Most weeks in the Hot 100.  And not least, most weeks atop the "Radio Songs" chart -- 26 weeks, or nearly 50% more than the ostensibly unbreakable record formerly held by the Goo Goo Dolls.  

Michael Jackson's "Bad" was a blockbuster album, all the more amazing considering it was the follow up to one of the most mythical pop music albums of all time.  Michael hit number one with a record five consecutive singles from "Bad" (later tied by Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream").  With nine singles released in all, it dominated the charts for two solid years.  And yet, those five number one songs spent just seven weeks cumulatively at the top of the charts.  Drake spent 29 weeks at number one with three songs in 2018.  It's simply an unprecedented time for chart records.  Add worldwide blockbusters like Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" to the mix, and one could easily argue that five of the ten biggest hits ever have occurred just in the past half decade. This isn't all hyperbole, last year Billboard officially declared "Blinding Lights" as the biggest hit of all time

What else can possibly happen?  Well, let's take Harry Styles.  His song "As It Was" it now in its fourteenth non-consecutive week at number one, tied for fourth most all time.  But more remarkably, it set a record by hitting number one five times this year. What's more, each time it was knocked out of the top spot, it fell to number two and stayed there.  That makes a total of 23 consecutive weeks in the top two (another record), a near six month run of pure dominance. The song itself is remarkable too, and not only because its this decade's answer to Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer".  The propulsive, mechanical drumming, atmospheric keyboard in the foreground and subtle Fleetwood Mac-like guitar picking in the background, it's all there.  The song is ready to be digitally inserted into any roller rink movie scene from the 80's at your leisure. 
It's a wonderful song.  Just about all these new chartbusting songs are great.  This in itself feels novel.  The 90's were packed with awful number ones, the previously mentioned "One Sweet Day" is typical of sappy, tuneless R&B of the time that found success purely based on star power and vocal calisthenics.  What is happening?  Are we in a golden age of songwriting and producing?  I think we might be.  Music production has become a superstar endeavor unto itself, the Swedes and Americans who shaped the sounds of the late 90's and 00's have spawned a new generation of curious and creative disciples.  The artist-producer relationship feels more important and more symbiotic than ever.  

However, this recent article in The Ringer gives me pause.  The success of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" has solidified an ongoing trend, where catalog music is rapidly growing at the expense of contemporary music. Songs might top the charts for multiple weeks but completely fail to become cultural touchstones and are forgotten a few years later.  Song and album sales are cratering, it's mostly about streaming now, which puts catalog artists on more of an equal footing.  Songs released yesterday and those released forty years ago are both one simple click away.  Does this mean that the charts are more top heavy in favour of the most popular artists?  That is, are there fewer contemporary artists competing for chart spots than before?  With less competition, it will be easier for a great song to dominate.  

Friday, September 16, 2022

Alex Ross, "Listen To This"

I have just discovered that I never wrote a proper review of Ross' "The Rest is Noise", although I alluded to the book's profound affect on me in posts like these from two years ago.

"The Rest Is Noise" was an instant classic upon release, you can easily find breathless praise for it in various corners of the internet, and somehow it took me ten years to get around to reading it.  This book was as close to a Pied Piper moment in music literature that I'm likely to experience in my lifetime.  

"Listen To This" is an enjoyable companion piece for those already enamored by Ross' writing.  Based mainly on long form pieces written mainly for the New Yorker over the years, Ross continues to make complex musical concepts accessible, all while focusing on the context behind the music and the personalities of those who made it.  The autobiographical first chapter, "Crossing the Border From Classical to Pop", provides the context behind the context.  The author grew up in a household steeped in classical music and nothing else.  He only became exposed to other genres of music (alternative, punk) during his college years, before drifting back to his first, true love once more as a writer for the New Yorker and other publications.  

I view the strengths of "The Rest Is Noise" through this lens.  The strongest chapters focus on explaining classical music and its culture to The Rest of Us.  "Inside the Marlboro Retreat" is a charming profile of this difficult to access breeding ground for America's finest young talent.  Part musical summer school, part rehearsal boot camp, Ross takes a deep dive into the environment that brings out the best in a performance artist.  Every page is packed with amusing anecdotes and wild personalities.  His essays/profiles of Schubert and Brahms closely examine the whys behind the development of their careers, while engaging in some mild psychoanalysis that illuminates more than criticizes.  

His profiles of contemporary non-classical artists were less successful.  Only in the Bjork profile did I feel that I learned something profound about the artist and their passion for pursuing musical inspiration.  Other profiles (Dylan, Radiohead, and "The Edges of Pop") come off as an outsider's view, importing musical descriptors from the classical world into the pop and rock worlds in an attempt to intellectualize the appreciation of their art.  On a somewhat unrelated note, I found it amusing how Ross interviews Dylan-ologists who analyze the minutiae in his lyrics and name drop academics who had nominated Dylan for a Nobel Prize.  The article was written in the late 90's, and the tone of the piece good naturedly plays along with these absurd proclamations.  All in good fun ... until, of course, Dylan really did win the Nobel Prize twenty years later.  

Ross is at his best as a historian, describing the evolution of a concept or style.  Equally well, he can take a seemingly well-known subject (like Brahms) and take the reader back to another, describing the real time trials and predicaments of the hero composer much like an epic balladeer would.  But sometimes the long form article comes off as merely that -- long.    

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Herbert von Karajan, "Orchestral Spectaculars from Handel to Bartok" (Warner Classics)

Karajan's recorded legacy is massive, with more recordings than any reasonable human could possibly keep track of.  Box sets should simplify matters for consumers by concentrating more of the best music in one place, but there are so many Karajan sets (on multiple labels) that even collecting box sets is a daunting task.  No matter your feelings on Karajan the person or the musician, he's so ubiquitous as a recording artist -- even more than thirty years after his death -- that it's almost impossible to ignore or avoid his work.

This 13-CD set was culled from a larger 80-something CD Warner box, and represents an intriguing period in Karajan's career.  And based on the quality of the music represented here, he may have never been better.  Most of this material was recorded before he became entrenched in Berlin.  The repertoire contains a number of unusual gems that he never recorded again.  This is highlighted in the (far too brief) liner notes, in an essay that takes a subtle jab at Otto Klemperer, who became the director of the Philharmonia once Karajan started devoting most of his energies to his work in Berlin.  That is, whereas Karajan recorded a more varied selection of composers with the Philharmonia, Klemperer chose to narrow the orchestra's scope and focus on the "standard German repertoire".  Separated from the commercial intention of this essay (to hype the product you just purchased), the truth is a bit more complex.  Klemperer was also well known for playing contemporary music when he was younger.  It's true that he focused more on the standard German repertoire as he got older, but he was a master interpreter of that style and recorded countless reference recordings that entrance and fascinate even today.  Karajan, on the other hand, couldn't match Klemperer's talents in that repertoire even though he went back to the well far too often (how many Beethoven symphony recordings did he make, anyway?).  Karajan did stellar work outside of the Austro-German classics whose standards he was expected to uphold as the director in Berlin, but you have to dig a bit through his catalog to discover that.  Hence, this box.  

The first three discs are all Sibelius and they're uniformly outstanding.  Compared with many other highly regarded Sibelius conductors, Karajan ignores many of the varied dynamics and tempo changes.  Somehow it always works regardless.  He captured the raw emotion of Sibelius in a very unique way.  These Sibelius recordings, both in mono and stereo, make this box a keeper all by themselves.  

Over time I have been pleasantly surprised to discover how good Karajan was with opera intermezzi and overtures.  His disc of Rossini overture cooks, there certainly isn't a more fun disc in the set, although the Offenbach operetta works come close.  

The version of Debussy's "La Mer" is unquestionably a classic -- moody, dizzying, and grandiose in equal measures, expertly capturing the complex morphology of the work.  The two versions of Handel's "Water Music Suite" are also highlights.

Naturally there are a few misses.  Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique" doesn't come close to nailing the manic, hallucinogenic energy toward the end.  He could have taken a pass on Czech music.  In Dvorak's "Symphony No. 9" and Smetana's "Vltava", Karajan misses the essence of the unfamiliar cultures being represented in the music.  This wasn't a general flaw -- his "Finlandia" is incredible (two versions on this set) and he was also great with Shostakovich (not featured on this set).  Perhaps there was something about Czech composers that he simply couldn't master.