Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Inspiral Carpets, "Cool as **** EP"

If ESPN can milk "30 for 30" well past their 30th anniversary, then I can run my series of 20 records I haven't heard in 20 years (since starting the blog in January 2000) well past year 21.  We will get to 20 eventually, I promise.  This will be the sixth in the series, and I have the next six records already lined up, waiting to be heard for the first time (with near certainty) since the 1990's ...

Out of the Madchester Big Three, Inspiral Carpets are, and were, by far the least famous.  The Stone Roses had the best peak musically, Happy Mondays had the best notoriety and were uncannily in the right place at the right time to capitalize on their limited talent (in no small part thanks to their label, which did all they could to promote the myth).  Inspiral Carpets had a longer peak than either of them (and a better peak than the Mondays) but could never quite transcend their reputation as a somewhat geeky number three in the Manchester hierarchy.    

I wore my "Cool as F***" shirt (without the asterisks) a good luck charm in tests and exams for years.  So this EP has a unique sentimental value that no other record in this series can match thus far.  

The record itself is a US-only release that compiled a few of their early singles and was released as a sort of lead-in to their debut album "Life".  

The Carpets' formula is on display from the opening notes of "Joe" -- blasts of shiny organ over shuddering bass and syncopated beats.  There's a clear nod to the Fall (and perhaps even the Mondays) in its minimalist bluster and shouty-lite vocals, but without the grit and upheaval that you get from the best of the Fall.  More creative, catchier melodies would come with the "Life"-era singles.  

"Find Out Why" is silly and awkward but nails the chorus in a way that "Joe" can't touch.  "So Far" has barely a glint of a decent melody and comes as every bit of the blatantly tossed-off B-side that it was.  "Out of Time" mostly exists in order to be an easily shoutable chorus in live shows, but as a two minute slice of bouncy pop, it certainly accomplishes its intended goal. 

The EP ends with the 16-minute "Plane Crash", which starts as an homage to "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" before launching into an extended organ jam punctuated by churning guitar-based noises and other airy sound effects.  "What Goes On" it's not.  Singer "Tom Hingley" declares, on record, that "it's only been ten minutes" toward the end of the middle jamming portion, suggesting that they were going long purely for the sake of doing it.  A couple of years later, they'd get it right with "Further Away", a 14-minute monster with nary a wasted note.  But "Plane Crash" is certainly not the tense epic that I remember it being.  

How about that t-shirt though?  It supposedly sold better than any of their albums? 

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Jim Steinman RIP

I just heard about Steinman's passing this past weekend.  I wrote about "Bat Out of Hell II" recently and since then, I have been feeling sentimental about Steinman's contributions to music.  I knew about many of his non-Meatloaf compositions for some time but it was only a year or two ago that I stumbled upon the knowledge that he co-wrote and produced some of Sisters of Mercy's biggest hits ("This Corrosion", "More", "Dominion").  It makes perfect sense once you know, at which point you can't unhear Steinman's influence in future listens.  And it figures that Steinman would be the best person to bring out the OTT hilarity in goth rock.  

Which was the more impressive achievement, BOOH I or BOOH II?  The first album was famously rejected by every major record label but went on to become one of the biggest selling albums ever.  It's hard to understand why no label thought it would be marketable, considering that the 70's was a decade full of overproduced histrionic rock excess.  The 90's gets repped (by rock fans) as the decade of grunge and alternative rock, but the truth is more complex.  In the early 90's, Bryan Adams, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, and Eric Clapton hit their commercial peak.  Each was highly recognizable thanks to heavy rotation on MTV and some memorable videos.  So there was plenty of space for rock "veterans" even as the landscape was shifting.  However, each of them were active during the 80's and continued their success into the 90's. By 1993, Meatloaf was a burnout and a nobody who made a completely improbable comeback to the upper strata of the industry.  Even more improbable was how BOOH was promoted as a Big Event Album despite Meatloaf not being relevant for over a decade.  "I'd Do Anything For Love" hit the airwaves/MTV and its astonishing success seemed almost preordained.  That speaks to Steinman's continued clout in the industry, the value in the BOOH name, and of course, the unexpected quality of the album.  The music was a black sheep completely out of place and out of sync with everything else happening at the time.  There was no indication that this type of music would make a comeback -- and in fact, it didn't.  Steinman-inspired rock wasn't a returning fad, BOOH II was in a bubble of its own success.  It was influenced by nothing except itself and inspired no copycats. It appeared out of nothing and then vanished into the ether.  BOOH I is the better album, but BOOH II's triumph ran contrary to all sense and logic of the time, and still stands as the more impressive overall achievement.   

Friday, April 23, 2021

Vienna Philharmonic Symphony Edition, Volume 2

There is a bottomless pit of boxsets devoted to a single conductor, and rightly so.  It's a shame that there aren't more that focus on orchestras.  On iTunes I could only find this set and a couple of similar sets for the Berlin Philharmonic (broken into different time periods).  Admittedly, those are the first two you'd expect to be given the box set treatment.  I'm sure there are others -- I've seen Israel Philharmonic sets in brick and mortar stores -- but there should be more. 

The Vienna box presents a brief survey of a composers work, usually featuring multiple conductors. It makes perfect sense to feature the VPO like this, since they are the rare orchestra that has eschewed having permanent principal conductors throughout most of their long history.  In other words, they're used to having their signature sound molded by a sequence of guest conductors.  Although the first, larger volume seemed to attract more attention when it was released, the second volume is much more my style, based around Romantic and early 20th century composers.

I received a crash course in Bruckner from this box, which was actually a big selling point for me.  Bruckner essentially wrote the same symphony nine times, with progressively longer run times, while rarely straying from strictly imposed forms for each movement.  That's a criticism for some, but an ethos for Bruckner superfans.   Abbado's Bruckner 1 is taut and energetic.  His Bruckner 4 is strong too, but Bruckner 5 felt too safe, too benign.  von Karajan takes over for the 7th and 8th, two oft-cited reference recordings.   The 8th, which was one of his final concerts, is simply spectacular.  Giulini's Bruckner 9 is certainly passable, but failed to bring out anything truly inspiring from the piece.

von Karajan conducts Tchaikovsky's 4th, 5th, and 6th, which are all wonderful but special mention must go to the devastatingly powerful 6th.

Next comes Dvorak.  I was unfamiliar with Myung-Whun Chung, but he did fantastic work on Dvorak's 6th and 7th symphonies.  Both are punchy, exciting, and strike the perfect emotional tone of the work.  Lorin Maazel's 8th and 9th were big disappointments though, particularly the 9th, which was simply dull and underplayed throughout.  The dynamics were simply absent, the entire piece felt devoid of feeling and inspiration.       

I had read reviews about this recording of Mahler 2 by Abbado, which universally criticized it as dull and slow-moving.  Those reviews were completely correct.  The first movement comes off well, but the rest plods along.  All the tension in the music evaporates during each quiet part in the finale, and the final minutes were horribly recorded and overcompressed.  Bernstein's Mahler 5 is deserving of its reputation as one of the finest ever recordings of that symphony.  My favourite thing on this box set might be Pierre Boulez's simply breathtaking Mahler 6.  The whole symphony is great, but the finale in particular is seat-of-your-pants excitement and suspense.  Just the perfect combination of orchestra and a conductor with the right temperment for the source material.  Bernstein's live Mahler 8 is certainly fun, with the conductor audibly banging on the podium and barely keeping the tiger under control.  Abbado's Mahler 9 is a mixed bag.  The opening movement gets the emphasis wrong for my tastes.  The chaotic parts should be the interludes that interrupt the blissfully quieter portions, but Abbado does the opposite.  However, the third movement is scorching, and the final Adagio is suitably devastating without a doubt.

Bernstein's four Sibelius symphonies are far from his best work with that composer.  All were recorded in Bernstein's 80's slow tempo period.  These tempos almost completely kill the 1st and 5th symphonies, both are exciting in parts but the longer running lengths simply drained my patience while listening to them.  That approach is much more successful on the short, single movement 7th symphony.  I have a soft spot for this Sibelius 2 recording, which I first discovered via videos on Youtube.  It's also far too slow, and drags significantly for the first two movements but the melodramatic tempos are exploited to their fullest on the powerful two final movements.  

Bernstein closes out the box conducting Shostakovich's 6th and 9th, which are passable but nothing special.

All in all, what's to complain about?  Each recording was previously released, so many VPO fans will have heard the best stuff already.  But for someone looking to grow their collection, you get 24 discs worth of music (more if you buy the full symphony edition set) including a few all time great recordings, and generally notable work from beginning to end.        

Monday, March 22, 2021

Nathan Salsburg, "Landwerk"

While reading the profile of Salsburg in Toi , I wondered how many readers knew or understood the Caretaker reference.  Is it a number in the single digits? 

Naturally, I was intrigued.  "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World" is all about looping its source material precisely so, distorting the sound just enough to induce feelings of nostalgia and unease in equal parts.  It's deceptively simple, and yet copyists are nowhere to be found for the most part.  Kirby noted in interviews that the Caretaker "formula" was a lot tougher than it seemed, and almost dared others to copy him.  "Landwerk" is more about using short samples from old records as a springboard to improvisation.  The noise and static is there, but Salsburg's guitar playing emerges as the star of the piece.  As a parallel approach to the Caretaker, it's entrancing music, albeit somewhat anodyne.

Salsburg's comments about cultural appropriation were revealing about the cultural climate we currently live in.  Somehow it's OK for him to curate the Lomax collection for the past twenty years, but using the records as source material for his own recordings is problematic?  He probably understands those records more than anyone alive, he's the last person who should be concerned about accusations of exploitation.  The 20's klezmer recordings are surely all kinds of wonderful and it would be unfortunate if non-Jews felt uncomfortable turning to them for inspiration.  

Friday, March 12, 2021

A bad week for Beethoven's 7th

Teodor Currentzis released a preview of his recording of Beethoven's 7th Symphony.  It's the final movement and the full recording will be released next month.  Like many people, I wasn't a fan of Currentzis' now notorious version of Beethoven's 5th Symphony.  He claims to have uncovered some kind of hidden truth in Beethoven that others have ignored for nearly two centuries, placing himself on a pedestal as the genuine keeper of the flame.  He presents himself as a lone soul trying to preserve Beethoven, when it's kind of obvious to everyone that he wants his Beethoven to sound different from everyone else's just for the sake of being different.  Nevertheless, there was something compelling about his version of the 5th.  Its pugilistic fervor and bludgeoning, monotonous consistency made for a passable hulk smash version of the work, even though, as many have noted, it had very little connection to what Beethoven wanted it to sound like.  His 7th goes of the rails in the opposite direction, coming off as a jaunty pantomime, a teeny bopper roller rink version of a piece that should continuously ramp up the tension toward the finish.  Currentzis obviously likes his role as the maverick outside, and why not -- every musical genre has a place for novelty cover versions.      

And yet, it wasn't the worst version of Beethoven's 7th that I heard this week.  That honour goes to Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic, who actually performed this piece at an empty Hollywood Bowl a few months ago, although I only heard it for the first time now.  I want to like Dudamel.  He's passionate about music, smashes the European mold of the stuffy concert conductor, and has an undeniable star quality.  He's a rock star and he's perfect for LA.  When he's good, he's brilliant but when he's bad he can churn out the absolute worst interpretations in the standard repertoire, and this Beethoven's 7th falls squarely into the latter category.  There is no middle ground with this guy.  

The reduced orchestra is badly out of sync in parts -- in particular, the timpani player is playing from another planet -- but perhaps that's to be expected when the players have to sit so far apart and behind screens and masks.  In one sense, you can't blame the conductor for the hand he was dealt by the pandemic, but on the other hand you can because he's the sole member of the orchestra who hears the music from the vantage point of the audience.  It's his job to make those key adjustments to timing and dynamics because what the players hear is influenced by those sitting nearest to them, he's the one tasked with making sure the orchestra is playing together.  

But Dudamel's main problem as a conductor is that he's clueless when it comes to changes in tempo.  If a piece is uniformly slow or has subtle adiabatic changes, he can be brilliant.  His performance of "Bolero" with the Vienna Philharmonic comes to mind, that clip is a youtube staple.  He's good with fast, energetic music too, he understands how to keep the piece moving and the enthusiasm high.  But transitioning from the slow opening few minutes of the first movement of Beethoven's 7th into the vivace section?  At around the five minute mark, the piece slows to a crawl, which is a Dudamel staple.  Whenever a piece goes pianissimo, his tempo drags and the music simply dies. Then he cranks the tempo abruptly in a jarring transition.  Yes, it's supposed to be an sudden shift but the conductor has to control the flow of the music, the two sections aren't supposed to sound as if they were stapled together from two different works.  From that point, the movement could still be saved if he could keep it the tempo rolling.  But yet again, the piece sags only for Dudamel to crank the engine again leading to the unison where the entire orchestra repeats the theme.  In the space of about a minute there were a flurry of unnecessary tempo shifts, I'm feeling seasick, and the first movement is barely half over.  

I could continue picking apart the performance in this way, but these are the kinds of mistakes Dudamel makes all the time, they're hardly specific to Beethoven.  In most instances, he can be counted on to nail the big finish of whatever work he's conducting, leaving a positive final impression and leaving the audience satisfied.  This is one of those times when he couldn't finish strong, as the fourth movement lurches toward the finish, no thanks to a number of sloppy asynchronous moments, and I was practically begging it to be over five minutes before it finally did end.              

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Daft Punk are no more

 Add me to the long list of people who are skeptical that it's a true breakup, rather than one of:

1) a plot to reunite and/or make money on a comeback tour whenever big concert tours are possible again

2) a convenient "out" for business/tax reasons

3) a way to do pursue separate projects for a while without people pestering them about when the next Daft Punk record is coming out

It's been eight years since their last album, that's effectively the same as a long breakup, regardless of whether they "reunite".  They've remained relevant through collaborations and production work (most notably The Weeknd) but could continue without the Daft Punk name.  Portishead haven't released an album in thirteen years, sure they've toured and released a track here and there, but if they had in fact broken up and not told anyone, would we know?

Assuming this is the end for Daft Punk, they leave an astonishing legacy for an "electronic" band.  Each of their four albums was a mini-revolution of sorts.  "Homework" was perfectly timed for the 90's electronica boom and made them MTV stars.  "Discovery" was the dancepop smash that gave them a lifetime membership to almost any club or wedding DJ's playlists.  "Human After All" spawned the famous pyramid and a legendary tour that arguably launched the EDM craze. And "RAM" was the crossover megahit that ensured them radio play forever.  

By winning the Grammy for Album of the Year with their final studio album, they join Simon and Garfunkel as the only acts to accomplish that surprising feat.  Of course I'm discounting soundtracks/compilations, contemporary artists (e.g. I'm sure Billie Eilish will make another album), and Lauryn Hill (she won the Grammy with her first and only album to date, but she's never really gone away and a solo artist can't disband, so ...).  


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Gilbert Kaplan and Mahler 2

This month, I learned about this remarkable story via a scathing profile in the NYT that was originally published in 2008.  Kaplan was a wealthy magazine publisher who lived out a dream to conduct Mahler's Second Symphony.  He lived out that dream about 75 times spread over three decades, despite not having any formal music training.  The NYT paints him as a talentless impostor that musicians hated working for, who lived out his spoiled rich guy dreams by having the right friends in the right places.

On the other hand, a BBC report from the 80's depicts Kaplan in a completely different light.  Here, he comes off as a patron of the arts who spent a small fortune to buy Mahler's original score, learn it by heart, and become a world leading authority on the symphony.  He later published the score, and seeing it as a near historical document, supported further scholarship on the subject.  Before his first time picking up a baton in front of an audience, he trained with a professional conductor for eight hours a day for months at a time.  His route to becoming a conductor was anything but typical, but nobody could say he hadn't put in some time to learn the craft and pay some dues.  

One could chalk up the BBC report to "LOL 80's" -- what characterizes the Me Decade more than showing sympathy on TV to rich yuppies?  It still isn't clear exactly how Kaplan broke into the conducting business.  Nobody will seem to admit that money/donations were the main factor, but it's hard to imagine that they weren't.  A guy who already has everything buys himself an orchestra for a night to fulfill a dream?   That could get play only in the 80's.  So yes, without the connections afforded to rich New Yorkers, none of this happens.  

Some rich guys consider owning a sports team as a vanity project and couldn't care less about winning. Kaplan wasn't that kind of person.  Conducting Mahler truly was his dream and he approached it seriously and with the best of intentions.  As a conductor, he was enthusiastic and probably quite a bit ego-driven.  Most conductors are.  He didn't have the charisma or technique to do the job well, but he could do it competently.  Whatever innate talent he lacked was partially compensated by his mastery of the score and his absolute sense of purpose as a conductor -- he never conducted any other piece, nor did he have any interest in doing so. His conducting was mathematical and had no real interpretive vision.  His performances could never touch that of a professional conductor who can speak the orchestra's language and use them to translate the sounds in his head to the stage.  

Outsider Music and Outsider musicians have always populated the fringes of pop music.  Usually they're disadvantaged people without the financial means to compete with well funded mainstream artists.  That wouldn't describe Kaplan.    And yet there's no denying that it's a remarkable story.  Kaplan conducted world famous orchestras all over the world.  It's impossible to imagine this happening today.  Ironically, cronyism in classical music isn't like it was a generation ago.  Orchestras are more of a meritocracy than ever before.  The best people, male or female, stand a good chance of being hired via a rigorous process.  It's not about knowing someone who knows the conductor.  How many contemporary pop music stars got their start by posting videos to Youtube?  Where are the classical Youtube stars?  Fluke conducting careers like Kaplan's are impossible to envision these days.  Maybe that makes classical music a bit less interesting.  That made the NYT's cynicism a bit disappointing, even if it was totally predictable.         


Sunday, January 31, 2021

Paying for digital music

 A little over three years ago, I wondered if I had bought my last CD.  I knew the likelihood was small, but more importantly, the roadmap was there.  Shopping excursions were becoming ever more infrequent, and could eventually stop, at which point I would hear new music exclusively via streaming services or blogs.  

Since writing that post, I have bought enough CD's to confidently declare that the format's demise vis a vis my spending habits was exaggerated.  My purchasing frequency did drop, but purchasing variety reached a twenty year peak.  With a mix of new, used, and bargain discs, and an increased breadth of genres (including classical, a genre I hadn't bought in significant numbers since the mid-90's), the end seemed nowhere in sight.  

And yet, I've been down this road before, where a peak turned out to be a last hurrah, bringing on a sea change in my purchasing/downloading/listening habits. 

I participated in the first wave of Napster, binged regularly on music through Kazaa and Soulseek, and had never paid to download music.  Until now.  It only took twenty years, but I finally paid to download music through iTunes.  What was the history making purchase?  Osmo Vanska's Complete Sibelius Symphonies with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. When it comes to the frozen Finnish winter interpretation of Sibelius' music, Vanska can't be topped.  It's a classic cycle that came at a great price.  And given the difficulty in buying non-bargain bin classical music on CD, it seems that iTunes and other music services give me the best opportunity to hear the exact performances I want.  

My Roland DJ505 came with a three month subscription to BPM Supreme, a record pool site offering tracks and tools for DJ's across numerous genres.  I browsed through it, downloaded some solid tracks, but decided it wasn't really for me.  But then I found myself discovering more and more great music through the site.  I also became accustomed to the convenience of searching for tracks on a whim and catching up on years of great dance music that I hadn't been exposed to because for years, I have been listening via albums and podcasts, rather than individual artist EPs or single tracks/remixes. Of course I have known about Beatport and similar sites for ages, but didn't have the proper motivation to spend money there.  With two small kids at home, my mixing has been stalled, so I might just cancel my BPM Supreme membership and re-sub later when I'm ready to devote more time to it.  

This may be how the CD will finally die out in my collection.  The randomness of CD shops will be replaced by digital services offering niche versions of songs in the genres that I'm currently interested in.  

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Phil Spector is dead

Spector was a brilliant record producer, perhaps the best ever. His influence is immeasurable.  He was also a spectacular failure as a human being -- and that was before he murdered Lana Clarkson.  

For me personally, Spector indirectly inspired me to start writing about music.  I had thoughts about comparing his productions with the dense, layered guitar music I loved in the 90's.  I picked up a pen (literally, there were no blogs at the time) and the rest is history.   

Rather than size up his complicated legacy (which I've already looked at in other posts over the years), I think I'll shine a light upon CNN's horrible excuse for an obit.  

Starting with the headline: "Grammy-winning producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector dies."  His Grammy win was inconsequential to his career, Phil Spector was not famous for winning Grammys.  It's a small footnote in any proper bio.

"Spector, who was originally from Bronx, New York, produced recordings by stars including The Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, Cher and the Ramones".  When George Martin died in 2016, did the obits read "he produced records by Elton John, Neil Sedaka, and Gerry and the Pacemakers"?  

"Creator of a production style that became known as the "Wall of Sound," the influential producer formed the Teddy Bears and recorded the group's only hit, "To Know Him is to Love Him," while he was still in high school."  These are two unrelated factoids linked in the same sentence, not to mention that the implied timeline is reversed.  

"Spector's approach to record production -- the layering of instrumental tracks and percussion that underpinned a string of hits on his Philles label -- was a major influence on popular music in the 1960s."  This is easily the most benign and meaningless description of the Wall of Sound ever written.  There is nothing of substance in this obit, not even the slightest attempt to produce an informative piece of writing, it is clickbait, content for the sake of having content, and nothing more.   

Monday, December 28, 2020

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 45

 New era mix #3, 98 minutes


Originally this mix had a slightly different tracklist and ordering (and was called "new era mix #2"), but I was unhappy with it.  After mapping out the mix a second time I re-recorded it completely.  The style is very similar to the previous podcast, and uses songs from some of the same older-school compilations.  It's a bit longer and more ambitious, I think.