Sip, Don’t Gulp

9 02 2014

God bless Dust-to-Digital. Eight Grammy nominations in the past 10 years. One win, for 2008’s Art of Field Recording, Vol. 1. This year’s they-should-have-won-but-didn’t nomination was for Best Historical Album, Pictures of Sound: One Thousand Years of Educed Audio. pic_sound

It was bested by a 1965 live recording of the Rolling Stones in Ireland. As good as the Stones are, it was produced by ABKCO and it’s doubtful a nearly 50-year-old recording trumps 1,0000 years of sound. Come on, Grammy deciders.

The Stones shared the Grammy with Bill Withers’ Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums. High cotton.

dtd-28-600There’s always next year, Dust-to-Digital. No doubt the label’s 2015 offering will be Longing for the Past, a box set that’s a piece of art unto itself, a 4-disc collection of 78s recorded around the turn of the 20th century until the ’60s, with a beautifully illustrated and researched book that explains the odd tunings and instrumentations that amble dizzyingly across the years. There’s Homage to a Royal Eminence, performed by Ma Thin, born in Burma with a blues singer’s name. Recorded in 1921, a staggering upright piano provides the head-tilting melodic backdrop. Everything is drastically out of kilter with any notion of Western tuning. The notes say a “piano company from Madras set up shop in Rangoon catering to British and rich Burmese patrons. Because so many of these uprights were left untuned, unvoiced for so long, the hammer felts saturated by tropical moisture, their sound became typical sandaya (piano) sound for Burmese audiences of the time.”

Great context. An entire generation’s musical taste and education was formed because a piano was left untended in the tropic heat and rain.Unknown

Burma’s Pyi Hla Hpe, who sings Ba Ba Win (Glorious Beloved), grew from entertainer to national hero. He started as an actor, became a movie studio music director. For some silent films, he “would stand behind the screen and sing live while the audience watched the film. At Burmese Independence, in 1948, Pyi Hla Hpe left behind recording, singing, and the state to enter the new army of independent Burma.”

This box set is hours of compelling, alluring and mysterious music that may well have not been heard had Dust-to-Digital not taken the time and effort to exhume, breathe new life into, and send forth into the world so beautifully packaged.

There were some quality wins at this year’s Grammys, most notable being:

Unknown-1— Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. They should win an award just for their name. This French duo continues to unleash memorable rhythm and melody that’s never too far from where the dance floor and the funny bone knit.

— Lorde’s Royals. Peggy Lee woulda loved it.

— Wayne Shorter’s Orbits. All praises to the long-living innovative saxophonist. The world is fortunate to have him, Ron Carter, Ahmad Jamal, and Sonny Rollins continue making vital jazz.

— Stephen Colbert’s America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t. Will Rogers seems more quaint every year.

Nick Cave has the touch. He’s re-inventing an old sound, gospel, and turning it into something even more secular and hypnotic than it probably should be. Still, it’s hard not to feel the spirit when he’s living completely inside performances like this one. He’s a guy who knows how to use backing singers well. Really well. Pop this one out full screen and turn the volume up.

Nick Cave escaped the drug addiction that Philip Seymour Hoffman could not. “We’ll have to abide without him.”daily-cartoon-140204fb

Why Do This?

8 02 2014

This blog has always been about celebrating the culture that makes me feel good. I’m afraid it’ll have to stay that way, no matter how much it’s more about me than it is about you.images

When I started writing this a few years ago, I had to think seriously about why I’d write it. Part of it was an exercise in social media, putting the component parts of blogging, Tweeting, Facebook posting, and self promotion together. It’s good to know their interconnectivity, how they bring people together, how they shred the old ways of publishing.images-1

Growing up I imagined writing or editing Rolling Stone magazine. It was my cultural sweet spot. It focused just about everything that meant the most to me with crystalline clarity. Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Jamaica Kincaid, Greil Marcus, Jan Wenner, Jan Morris, Cameron Crowe, Ben Fong-Torres, William Greider, and Kurt Loder had the tone and voice that brought everything home in just the right way. It’s become clear in the past 40 years that many are called but few are chosen. I don’t mind, now anyway, not being called to the Rolling Stone stable. It was a privilege just to lean on the fence from the outside. Still is, in many ways. But this  blog allows me to skip ahead in the line and push what I always felt was the best part of cultural criticism: Tell your friends what you like, why you like it, and no editor or publisher or company can tell you how to do it, or if you can do it at all. 

Criticism has many facets. I’m not wild about the school that values negativity over accentuating the positive. There’s less time and need now for slamming art for what it’s not. What it is is what counts, not what it could have been. That’s what I write about, the culture that improves my life day to day. This blog is just a list of what I’ve been reading, watching, and especially listening to. That’s all it is. My opinion may be less relevant than most cultural critics. I’m not bovvered.

The best part of writing this blog is passing on the culture that has enriched my life. If it enriches yours too, then a good thing has become even better.

That Was a Week that Was

2 02 2014

Pete Seeger was among that oddest of music-biz animals: He disliked being a commercial public figure, needed and commanded the public eye in that arena where money most often rules, yet remained an influential social voice while maintaining a high degree of artistic integrity.article-2547233-1B04B67D00000578-539_634x812

It’s no different now than it was in the ’30s, when he got his start. If musicians aren’t willing to make concessions to money and those who command it, they’re consigned to being off stage, unheard, rendered unnecessary and ineffectual. It was the love of music and its healing power that he turned to every time he picked up his extraordinarily long-necked acoustic guitar. Even faced with jail for not naming names in the ’50s, music was his savior.

“That energy came from his belief in the music, an unwavering faith that this was something worth doing,” said fellow folker Tom Paxton. “He believed with all his heart in the power of song.”Pete Seeger standing outside with guitar

He wasn’t an entire unknown in popular music. He topped the charts with the Weavers in the early ’50s, wrote tunes that everyone knew, like Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I had a Hammer. He also had a hand in history by adapting We Shall Overcome into a modern anthem, a song he didn’t write but improved upon and immortalized by being the right musician at the right time for the right cause.

He disliked the frivolous and was an effective messenger despite society’s penchant for selling frivolity as a lifestyle.

He was naturally optimistic. He would never have written or sung a classic like Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ People Ain’t No Good.

Among the thoughtful and compelling obits posted this week are those that put him in context with his times, the currents of popular music, and the vagaries of politics. Especially worth reading are ones from The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, which was magnanimous enough to not let its Editorial Board mess with.

Hats off to a courageous man who made mistakes, loved life, loved music, improved the lives of others without completely rolling over to the pernicious influences of history and money. Had he not had needed to become famous in order to do what he was born to do, he would have chosen that path. But it’s hardly possible in this time and in the culture. Fame hangs uneasily on anyone’s shoulders. It’s often unwelcome. Its rewards can actually be traps that cater to the ego and power. Take a look at Justin Bieber; fame is gasoline on his fire.rolling_stones_01

Keith Richards, another who believes in the power of song and who also, in a different yet still vital way, was a civil rights progressive in ’60s America, said, “OK, if you need me to be famous, I’ll be as famous as you like.” He too would rather have been anonymous. But Seeger and others gave their lives to song first, then dealt with everything that came with it second.

Culture and its patterns have changed dramatically since Pete Seeger was threatened with jail in the ’50s. Civil rights have improved, though there’s still a way to go. There’s more money than ever in show business, though less than there was in the music business. Live performance has replaced the money that recordings once brought in. It’s run more like a business than ever. The eccentricity of a live show has nearly surrendered itself to playing by the rules. No longer do the Rolling Stones come onstage only when they’re good and ready, like at 2 am, which they frequently did in their 1969 tour of America. 

Liver than you’ll ever be … if you could only stay awake long enough.

That all changed in ’89; the band went on promptly at the billed time and left the audience with enough time to get home, take it all in, and still get a decent night’s sleep. The romantic view of ’69: Wow, what a great thing to be so out of sync with the rest of the world. The actual view: Sinatra wouldn’t do that. Coltrane might. The Stones did. The Dead would occasionally keep an audience up until sunup. They were probably playing the whole night. The Stones lounged, until they were ready to play. Getting your head together to be in the Stones evidently took a lot of time.

Triumphant, yet on time. It’s good for live music. If only we could say the same for the forces that control climate change.bg010314dapr20140103054610

Soundtrack of the Week

20 01 2014

The Grateful Dead didn’t need much if any rest after a high-powered trek through Europe in the few months before the band wandered into Portland, OR, to play two nights at the Paramount Theatre in late July 1972. The second night found the band storming through a then-typically lengthy, bright night that’s also alternately lazy and ridiculously muscular. Unknown

The soundboard is marred by shoving the vocals too near the fore, occasionally swamping the drums and piano. Owsley was at the tape deck that night, manning it for one of the last times. Pigpen is noticeably absent for mid ’72. He’d played his last show ever only a few weeks before. The flaws  however only highlight how energetic and pleased the band had become with itself. Performances like this only lend more credence to believing this was the best band’s best year among the flurry of best years surrounding it. Listen to the show here.longislandsound

Seventeen years later, the Dead had lost the abandon but not the sense of purpose. However, the Jerry Garcia Band shows from ’89 often transcended the Dead that year. The Sept. 6 and 7 shows in Hartford, CT, and Uniondale, NY, are newly remastered and worth hearing. Bob Weir does himself plenty of favors as the opener by bringing Rob Wasserman with him to play rubbery and imaginative bass lines that wrap lovingly around the songs. Covers dominate the Jerry Band setlist, many of the same songs he played solo for years. The repetition is masked by the adventurous soloing. He made it sound all so easy, which only makes it sound better.

Sam Cook can be heard for only about 10 seconds in the splendid American Experience installment 1964. But it’s 10 gripping seconds as A Change is Gonna Come floats over footage of riots, assassinations and war in Southeast Asia. He took a ferocious year and humanized it with soul. He’s gone, sadly, and those years, gladly, are too. 1964_film_landing-nodate

Another song arrives from the good Lorde that sounds pretty darn good. Plenty of air circulates as the production doesn’t smother the mix like every other over amped and over compressed radio hit. She stands out because she’s on radio, but not of it. An oasis of good taste and crafty songwriting.

While listening back to decades-old music that manages to still sound pretty good, the president says the  NSA got ahead of itself. It’s painful sometimes living in the present because it’s too darn close to the future.nsa-spy-cartoon-4


22 07 2013

Prog is seldom addressed directly here at Out There, wherever that is. But it’s the order of the day today because anyone with a feel for speed metal, prog, and thrash should be amused and enthralled by Liquid Tension Experiment Live in LA. This recording has been around since 2008 and is part of a stretch of videos from that tour. The mood is upbeat, the musicians go stratospheric with seemingly little effort. The songs are indeed liquid. The pace wondrously relentless.

Click here to see and hear four guys with a strong feel for modern prog and reverence for the past.Unknown


30 06 2013

Great post World War II bands are not a rarity. That there are more than five is a luxury the world evidently can afford; any fewer would have made for an entirely different era in music.

The truly great are differentiated from the others by a sizzling hot streak, such as the Grateful Dead’s golden period from ’68 to ’77, by a single outstanding recording that changed everyone’s minds, such as the first Velvet Underground album, or by the sheer force of personality, such as Bob Dylan.Rolling-Stones-at-Glastonbury-Festival-2011729

The Rolling Stones have all this, coupled with longevity. The band’s appearance Saturday night at Glastonbury could have been just another modest night for a group with nothing to prove that it hasn’t already proven. Performing before vast audiences swelling to more than 100,000 is not new for them. Playing extremely well in front of huge crowds isn’t new to them either. But 50 years into a career, playing with deft verve and an enormous swell of brute force is something nearly no one does. Last night upped the ante even for these guys. The energy crackled for two hours and it was tough to look away or think about much else the entire time.

Watch this link to see last night’s show of greatness. It’s the last half of a tightly paced performance by masters.

David Bowie took 10 years off to do some thinking and some child raising. You can tell from the record he released this spring that he’s been waiting for the right songs and the right inspiration to motivate him off the sidelines. The performances by a subtle yet powerful band make The Next Day worth spending another 10 years listening to. Like many of the best recordings, this one takes multiple listenings to make sense of. It’s time well spent and don’t spare the volume.David_Bowie-06

The plight and flight of Edward Snowden will make a great movie one day. But right now it’s an international thriller unfolding in front of a worldwide audience. Today’s Washington Post update about Snowden’s inability to leave Russia is chilling. Big powers can do what they like. It’ll be interesting to see what all the interested parties will decide they can actually do.Snowden-Hideout

It’s All a Blur

21 04 2013

Though he’s been at it for about 25 years, Steven Wilson is still at the forefront of the modern face of prog.  His sense of the music’s grandeur and its uncanny ability to absorb styles such as murder ballads and metal, coupled with a highly productive work ethic, is what keeps his work fascinating.SW

Wilson cares deeply about sound, issuing his recordings on Blu-ray for maximum audio firepower with 5.1 mixing. It’s a perfectionist’s work and one to applaud. Recent recordings such as Storm Corrosion, Grace for Drowning, and The Raven That Refused to Sing are a pleasure to absorb in a far-flung, highly detailed and beautifully imagined surround-sound audio field, all mixed by his own hand.

He’s done the same for others. The famously detail-oriented Robert Fripp oversaw Wilson’s 5.1 mixes of King Crimson classics like Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, In the Court of the Crimson King, and Red. Fripp was well pleased with the results. Wilson’s vision is to not entirely re-imagine the feel of the original recordings but to pursue the original artist’s audio goals. The results make previously great recordings sound even better, something that can’t be said for a lot of remixes.

Wilson’s no stranger to touring America, but he’s not a frequent visitor. That made a recent appearance at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse, with capacity at under 1,000, a treat. A small venue wired for quadrophonic sound, a little talked about facet of Wilson’s current tour but one that can’t be stressed too much, is highly unusual and at the same time long overdue. Wilson’s crew added speakers to the rear of the theater, both downstairs and up in the balcony, then remixed the live performance on the fly. Brilliant. The surround sound played up the best parts of a floor-rattling band and provided a highly detailed sound field that shifted depending where you stood in the venue.

What’s old and cliche still works for Wilson: his mellotron sound brought back pleasant memories of classic prog from the late ’60s and early ’70s. He’s managed to make the mellotron meaningful again, decades after punk managed to kill it. For that alone, prog fans should be grateful. And around the world, they are.gra9900094

Remixing and re-imagining classic performance is a tight-rope walk. Wilson does it seemingly with ease. So does Jeffrey Norman for the Grateful Dead. He’s been upgrading Grateful Dead concert soundboards now for a few years and he also manages to take a great performance and juice the less than perfect original recording into something that isn’t afraid of some volume, a subwoofer, and a bolstered sound field. His HDCD reworkings of the Dead’s Europe ’72 tapes is a marvel. What was once slightly murky and certainly hissy sound quality was issued in 2011 as a dazzling package of a legendary run of shows. He’s doing the same for the Dave’s Picks series, which has a new release in May. It’s another instance of what’s old is not only new but it’s worth hearing … again.

The Bryan Ferry Orchestra loves the past, worships at the altar of the 78 rpm disc and the jumping sound of ’20s jazz. Ferry’s latest recording has no vocals, we don’t hear him sing a note, but he’s there in every re-imagining of songs from Roxy Music and his own solo career. It works in unexpected ways. The songs don’t always sound like the originals but somewhere along the line there’s a hook or chorus that serves as a reminder of the original. Click here for the band’s recent performance in Zermat, Switzerland, with Ferry crowning the performance with a distinctive vocal.packshot

There’s already plenty reason to give CNN a hard time. John King didn’t help the network much the other day. He would have done better with more evolved editing skills, but he’s only as good as his sources. He didn’t have to use the information passed on to him by an anonymous source. But he’s only quoting someone else. He’s the messenger who gets killed while the source is hidden. High-velocity news coverage has to be smarter and learn that no matter how right it can be, it should pay to keep quiet and allow more thought instead of breathless speculation and misinformation.

Slower news cycles won’t come back, like the imperfect old days. The newest imagining of news clearly goes faster than old media can properly handle.