Recommended: Fletcher Henderson – 1923-1924

Posted November 23rd, 2014

So long as I keep these reviews going, the Chronological Classics series will make frequent appearances. I’m quite thankful to this French label for making these early jazz recordings available.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a ‘best jazz’ list where the recordings of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra ranked at all, much less highly. Even on a top 100 of the 1920s, the lesser output of Louis Armstrong’s small group recordings swings harder and waves the modernist flag higher. Take “Lonesome Journey Blues” above, with its herky-jerky, simple solos – few of these players saw beyond the horizon as Armstrong, Hawkins, or Bechet seemed to do.

Yet Henderson is regarded highly by jazz historians for inventing the foundations of jazz orchestra arranging. This compilation found its way onto my list when I began composing Nosferatu for The End Times Spasm Band. Though we wanted a big big band, we knew we’d be left with just a few brass and winds, much like Henderson’s orchestra when he devised many of the standard practices of big band arranging. Witness the saxophone soli sections – locked into a call-and-response with the solo trumpet – on “It Won’t Be Long Now”:

A few tonal and rhythmic adjustments could make this sound like Ellington, Calloway, or any other East Coast orchestra.

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Recommended: Le Tigre – Feminist Sweepstakes

Posted November 23rd, 2014

I remember “FYR” coming across fantastically live on the This Island tour. On record, it’s indistinct, dark, like most of Feminist Sweepstakes. The lyrics here are more direct than the self-titled. A portrait of a band tired of finding the humor in awful situations. Valuable as a document of the times, less so as art.

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Recommended: Steeleye Span – Ten Man Mop, Or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again

Posted November 22nd, 2014

I’ve written about Steeleye Span and the concept of a “second generation of electric folk” before, that time when bands like Steeleye, Mr Fox, and The Albion Country Band took folk roots and went in hundred different directions. Ten Man Mop, Steeleye Span’s third album, isn’t a new direction but a continuation of the stark, haunting style they developed on their second album, a personal favorite. While the “more of the same” element can get a little weary on the ballads, the “same” for this incarnation of Steeleye is welcomed.

I’ve read that Ashley Hutchings quit the band after this album because of the Irish songs on this recording. The reels and jigs are strong – better by far than the group’s previous instrumentals, which were often busy, loose, and flat in contrast to their clear and emotive vocal arrangements. So I’m left wondering whether the highly skippable “Four Nights Drunk” was the hair that broke that camel. It’s a variation of “Seven Drunken Nights,” and Steeleye do not quite sell the humor.

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Recommended: Hong Kong Golden Voices – Tang Kung Han Si

Posted November 15th, 2014

Among other classical/traditional East Asian forms, Beijing and Cantonese opera had been on my listening wish list for a long time. I don’t have the knowledge to comment on this album’s place, so I’ll refer you to a site which has made this album available.

Though moments of this opera are engaging, the 14-minute tracks of this release don’t quite cut it as casual listening. In the future I may need to track down a compilation of highlights – however barbaric that may make me.

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Recommended: Wire – Chairs Missing

Posted November 15th, 2014

Less recommended. More that I realized I only had a few songs from this album on my MP3 player, despite considering it a favorite of its era.

Chairs Missing is one of the reasons I’d rather think of The Snarks as a ’78 punk band than ’77. Not that the scene hadn’t been weird and diverse before any one in England had heard of punk, the Sex Pistols split seemed to free punks in the immediate aftermath. In their departures from what The Ramones or the Sex Pistols established, few of the best ’78 albums sound anything like the others, but that diversity was hard to hold onto. Punk of the ’80s became largely monotonous and insular and appeared to shut out influence from those with affection toward synths, weird chords, clean tone, and anything outside of a cheap guitar plugged straight into a Marshall.

More than its oft-forgotten place in punk history, Chairs Missing should be remembered as an instruction manual for writing a second  album: Wire explored new territory that expanded upon the sound and vision they’d established on Pink Flag, between the longer forms (“Mercy”) and the general exploration of new tones (few guitars parts feature the driving buzzy fuzz of the year before).

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Recommended: Eurythmics – 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother)

Posted November 15th, 2014

It’s strange now to think how any producer saw the connection between Radford’s desolate, impoverished, and hushed 1984 and the lush, energetic music of Eurythmics. I don’t envy the editor of the “Sexcrime” video, forced to assemble such disparate elements, much less Radford or the studio-appointed editor of the film.

(And the award for Most Embarrassing Use of a Fairlight CMI goes to…)

Yet this soundtrack, however disavowed by Radford, doesn’t disappoint. It’s refreshing to see the two Eurythmics toss aside the often-unremarkable soul covers and stretch their abilities, despite the misses (“Doubleplusgood”). The Eurythmics had a strong, singular aesthetic despite how many synthpop tropes they embodied (producer/singer duo, robotic R&B grooves, androgyny in looks and lyrics). Lennox’s muted soul act lends itself toward more complex subjects than love and loss and other safe pop lyrics with which she contented herself as writer and performer. Musically, the soundtrack adds evidence that the magic of Sweet Dreams had little to do with the duo’s isolation and other limitations, that fame, pressure, and a bigger budget wouldn’t reduce their creativity.

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Elsewhere: New Landscapes From the Ruins: The Mystique of Buying Records

Posted November 15th, 2014

For Popmatters, Thomas May writes:

Who is Carla Bozulich, Sandro Perri, or Eric Chenaux? It wasn’t so much that one was forced to imagine answers to these questions than it was that any attempts to find such answers seemed, essentially, beside the point. The mystique was in the unknowing. The music, the cryptic album artwork, and Constellation’s own perfunctory written statements all provided signposts, a skeletal framework of understanding, yet they always withheld far more than they ever revealed. As such, these artists, and Montreal itself, were realised in my mind only in the abstract, as a messy assemblage of potentialities. And despite their haziness, these vague figures were never wholly absent; indeed, they framed my every contact with these records. The separation of these sounds from the time and place of their production had thus served only to bring forth a host of other spectral forms from the fissure.

May explores John Cage’s assertion that records are postcards, taking it in a positive turn. I know the feeling well – following a physically or chronologically distant scene.

Read more of New Landscapes From the Ruins: The Mystique of Buying Records.

Recommended: Hejira

Posted November 13th, 2014

Over the last year and a half, I been consistent about making car-time new-album-time as well – albums new-to-me, those recommended to me through various sources. I’ve decided to start writing some notes on these as they cycle out of my car and a few tracks find their way onto my mp3 player, a collection of my 3,000+ favoritest songs (currently).

First up: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (1976).

For me, Joni Mitchell is that oddity of a songwriter whose talent I recognize yet feel no need to emulate, much like – perhaps not coincidentally here – Ani Difranco. Like every folkie, I love Blue unconditionally (it’s a 6/10 in my favorites system – high). It took me a few years to appreciate Court and Spark (5/11) largely because of the I’m-A-Jazz-Singer voice that Mitchell affects. I wasn’t surprised then to find that despite the high critical praise accumulating around Hejira, my reaction has been tame if not detached altogether.

The loping, slow-growing song structures on Hejira won Mitchell critical praise for eschewing pop’s verse-chorus-bridge pattern, but the songs largely fail to work for me. Given these structures, the listener is required to hang on every word of the story-song, but my attention drifts easily over the repetitive, easy-listening grooves. Musically, there are few surprises beyond the first verse on many of these songs, and that makes me tune-out altogether rather than give the lyrics a closer listen.

I feel the rock world views Mitchell’s jazz collaborations as evidence of her brilliance a little too uncritically. For example, reviews of Hejira highlight the presence of the late Jaco Pastorious, but though the Weather Report bassist plays melodically here, there is little of the flash and virtuosity that made his work influential.

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