The Best of Johann Sebastian Bach

The Best of Johann Sebastian Bach

Various ArtistsThe Best of Johann Sebastian Bach Excelsior EXL-2-4217 (1993)

Some of the individual recordings here can be sloppy at times and the sound quality is only fair, but I think this budget-priced Bach “sampler” album maintains a more authentic Baroque feel than many others.  That said, even while this may not be an ideal collection of Bach recordings, I find myself listening to it quite regularly.  The performance of Italian Concerto in F Major BWV 971 by Christiane Jaccottet on harpsichord is the highlight for me.

Jim O’Rourke – Bad Timing

Bad Timing

Jim O’RourkeBad Timing Drag City DC120 (1997)

If you followed what Jim O’Rourke was up to with Gastr del Sol, his fascination with John Fahey so evident on Bad Timing should come as no surprise.  It’s a decent album, perhaps a bit bland.  The thing is, why not just listen to a Fahey album instead?  Anyway, O’Rourke would go on to bigger and better things in the next few years, particularly the magnificent Halfway to a Threeway and Insignificance.

New York Dolls – One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This

One DAy It Will Please Us to Remember Even This

New York DollsOne Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This Roadrunner 168 618 045-2 (2006)

Can’t say this is likely to ever please me to the extent the album title implies.  Now, I’m certainly not opposed the the idea of the New York Dolls reuniting with a drastically different lineup, decades later.  In fact, I rather like Cause I Sez So (especially its title track and “Better Than You”) and Dancing Backward in High Heels.  The secret to this band is undoubtedly David Johansen and his songwriting and vocal presence.  Here the focus is a little nostalgic, with a sound updated but still rooted in that of the classic Dolls.  I just prefer the change for the next studio outing, with its emphasis on a more mature and contemporary sound, complete with bolder attempts to take chances messing with the formulas old and new.  And I much prefer the overtly pre-Dolls retro pop of Dancing Backward.



Hud (1963)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Martin Ritt

Main Cast: Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon De Wilde

One of those rare times Hollywood delivers a movie worth watching.  This might be seen as an early warning shot of the “New Hollywood” movement. The drama involves an old fool rancher (Melvyn Douglas) in a state of desperate denial, clinging to old values as the world changes around him.  He disavows his sanctimonious nature, which forces his son Hud (Paul Newman) to become everything that Douglas’ character hates.  On Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne describes it as Douglas’ morality vs. Newman’s amorality.  That seems like a ridiculous view.  Newman has morality, of a kind, it is just antithetical to everything Douglas’ character stands for.  Hud is a womanizing drunkard, and hardly a conventionally likable character.  But he’s a character true to his circumstances.  He highlights how Douglas’ character denies his oppressiveness and closed-mindedness, by revealing how Hud sees no other option to preserve his dignity.  On the surface, Hud creates problems, but as the movie progresses, he comes across as someone fighting back — perhaps in a futile, excessive way, but fighting back nonetheless.  The cruelty of the human characters is underscored by the casual animal cruelty on the ranch.  Everybody leaves Hud in the end, but that suits him just fine.  The ending is kind of fitting.  Hud wins out.  He gets no real satisfaction in it though.

This is just a really well-made film too.  There is music in the film, but usually the stark black & white cinematography speaks for itself.  Much of the music comes from characters turning on a radio or jukebox.  Of course there is great acting throughout.  Osborne called Patricia Neal’s performance one of the best of the decade and he’ll get no major argument here even for such a bold claim.  And this might be Newman at his very best.  He throws all the charisma he can behind a character that seems to deserve none of it, and that underscores the tensions and contradictions of the character’s situation eloquently.

Nick Drake – Bryter Layter

Bryter Layter

Nick DrakeBryter Layter Island ILPS 9134 (1971)

If you will bear with the analogy a bit, Nick Drake’s music in some ways represented an alternate path from that of Neil Young.  Both artists represented ways of dealing with the failure of the 1960s counter-cultural movement.  In Young’s case, he did two main things.  One, he played scuzzy, grungy electric guitar in a way that scared off those not attuned to the counterculture.  That approach proved difficult to maintain though the drug-fueled hedonism of the 1970s.  He made a good go of it though!  Second, he incorporated country music into his sound, suggesting that he looked for support beyond urban environs, toward the rural dispossessed.  All these things had Young carving out a separate space away from mainstream culture.

Nick Drake approached conventional pop music unabashedly.  In a way, he was adapting to and working with mainstream pop.  But he was also reformulating it.  Bryter Layter, frequently described as an extension of his debut Five Leaves Left and the most hopeful of his three albums, comes closest to radio pop.  But his attitude toward mainstream pop is to wonder about his place in it.  His pop music innovation is his reflexive approach to it.  Most of these songs are about the hope and promise of the future, approached with trepidation and uncertainty.  Drake sings with a breathy, waif-like voice.  He seems to pursue a very radical christian program of fighting his battles with weakness.  But unlike Neil Young, Drake heads right for mainstream music with his deeply personal take on it.  What links the two seemingly disparate performers is that neither can accept the extroverted world as it is.  What differentiates them most is the lack of catharsis in Drake’s music — that is kind of the defining trait of Young’s music.  Making music seems almost to deplete Drake, but he makes his music anyway.

There are a few songs on this album that seem a bit saccharine: “At the Chime of a City Clock,” “Bryter Layter” and “Hazey Jane I.”  But there are more that weave a richly compelling sonic fabric: “One of These Things First,” “Northern Sky,” and “Hazey Jane II.”  Drake may have the qualities of a poor little rich kid, but his music also stands as an example of the best that can come of such circumstances.  This isn’t Drake’s best album — that would be Pink Moon.  It is still a pleasant one, and Drake doesn’t have a bad album to his name.

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Pink Moon

Nick DrakePink Moon Island ILPS 9184 (1972)

Nick Drake was an overlooked but extremely talented individual.  Pink Moon is his most intense and ultimately best album. Sweet pop melodies and deep, intelligent songwriting are Drake’s trademarks. His refreshing approach moved far beyond simple love songs, with breathtaking but sad results.

The interaction between a man, his words, and his expression are profound. Gone are the lush strings and grand arrangements of his past work. Yet Pink Moon is incredibly expansive for just a singer with an acoustic guitar.

Where his previous release, Bryter Layter, looked towards better days ahead, Pink Moon begins by evaporating all hopes of happiness and grasps a bleak reality. The title track signals the break from his earlier work, and is the only track featuring piano. “Place to Be” then settles into blind depression. The brilliant guitar work on “Road” fills up space. While others may dream, Drake can only continue his static existence. He struggles just to understand his situation.

Drake is powerless to change himself or his world. On “Which Will,” he is a pawn held under someone else’s control. The instrumental “Horn” breathes a lingering sigh. He has not yet reached the point of acceptance. Side one ends with the cold observations of “Things Behind the Sun.” From a detached viewpoint, he collects thoughts and experiences.

Side two represents Nick Drake’s dawning awareness. “Know,” with just four lines of verse, evidences a new approach to life. The self-hypnosis of his guitar and chanting demonstrate his commitment to change. “Parasite” is one of the most gripping songs on the album. He finally opens his eyes wide and finds his place in a larger order. True to character, Drake portrays himself like an infection dragging failure to foreign places. Passing through a self-imposed exile, he sinks deeper into sin and despair. “Free Ride” is a plea for help, but “Harvest Breed” finds Drake freed to exist as an isolated oddity. He calmly stands in the face of his insecurities.

Concluding with “From the Morning,” Drake looks back on his travels. He takes his lessons on a final journey. His story ends in wry reflection. Nick Drake died a few years later, only 26, from an overdose of anti-depressants.

Pink Moon is a choreographed dance. A brilliant autobiography of genius, this was Nick Drake’s last gasp. Falling squarely between a comedy and a tragedy, in the classical sense, Pink Moon is ultimately an unassuming fragment of universal truth. It would be hard to say any other singer/songwriter ever produced such an immaculate album.

Lou Reed – The Bells

The Bells

Lou ReedThe Bells Arista AB 4229 (1979)

Named after the Edgar A. Poe poem, The Bells is a cerebral album with a soft touch — unlike so much of Reed’s other work.

The way Reed recorded The Bells (with a quickly defunct technology) definitely sounds like something from the 1970s. It sounds like it has an inbred echo. Hearing it feels a bit like sonic vertigo, if vertigo was a pleasant feeling. The album does open itself up, though, after you get a sense of it.

“I Want to Boogie with You” has the old time sentimentality of Springsteen but more depth.  Reed recants stories of family life. He doesn’t feel compelled to make it a pretty picture though. The dysfunctional “Stupid Man” or the vaguely autobiographical “Families” mark the arrival of a changed songwriter. On “Families,” he shakily cries “momma” as Lou Reed brings his struggles for transcendence to new contexts. He still had a passion of old fashion rock and roll, but was tackling that with a renewed energy. This makes up-tempo rockers like “With You” a natural environment for Reed, as well as for his band that previously backed Alice Cooper.

Reed’s lyrics over the years changed contexts but always retained core themes. His music, however, varied widely. The Bells teams Reed with the legendary Don Cherry, who co-wrote “All Through the Night.” Cherry is quite effective playing with a Harmon mute on “City Lights,” a tribute to Charlie Chaplin. The irrepressibly charming trumpet toots recall so well Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The lyrics, “Don’t these city lights/ bring us together?” are very worthy of being called Chaplinesque. The improvisational closer, “The Bells,” wants to be wrong, to fail, but Cherry turns out a baffling, lingering success of a song in just a few notes. Cherry always did play well in a rock context, as was certainly clear a few years later playing with his stepdaughter Neneh for Rip, Rig & Panic.

“Disco Mystic” with only two words worth of lyrics is sharp commentary on the vacuousness of the genre, even if disco commentary (good or bad) is of marginal interest. Fortunately, the plain groove of the song will never fade away.

The Bells is dense in sound and content. The whole thing is legitimate. It’s ambitious. Despite years of writing, recording, and performing Lou Reed still uncovers a wealth of inspiration. The album jacket too, with Reed gazing away from his reflection in a mirror, is a fine indication what might be his least indulgent work.



Baskets (2015- )


Director: Jonathan Krisel

Main Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Martha Kelly, Louie Anderson

Situated between the films of Wes Anderson — sentimental tales of oddballs who fail to live up to their promise — and Louis C.K.‘s TV show Louie — eccentric, philosophical “dramedy” drawing from disparate elements of tenderness and cruelty — plus drawing on the past work of star Zack Galifianakis — full of sudden and futile yet endearingly harmless rage.  Louis C.K. (co-creator, co-executive producer and a writer of the show) seems especially prominent in influencing the way the show emphasizes the grandeur in the sheer range of opposites in human emotions and relationships.  It is the idea that sadness, heartbreak, anger and frustration are as valuable as satisfaction, joy and serenity.  Much of Baskets revolves around a particularly compelling vision of friendship and family, one that sees deeper value in people choosing again and again to stick together through fights, failures and temptations than in one-dimensional portrayals that are all smiles, hand-holding and shared values.  Pushing this a bit further, the point is that incongruous, even antithetical sentiments coexist in juxtaposition with each other without either merging into some kind of unified hybrid or one set of happy/good values victoriously dissolving an opposite set of values.  Many of the best qualities of the various relationships between characters emerge only after the worst qualities come out, and only because of that coupling.  The main characters stick together through often painful hurdles.  It is a paradoxical sort of triumph that embraces its own messiness.  Don’t wait for transcendence in this series.

The main character Chip Baskets is a “classically trained” clown (really a French mime) who moves back home to Bakersfield, California and takes a job as a rodeo clown.  He transitions from being “Renoir” the clown to “Baskets” the clown.  Flying in the face of the role of a rodeo clown — protecting rodeo riders from bulls — he performs pretentiously unhelpful artistic routines in the face of complete audience indifference, if not outright hostility, as the bulls run him down.  Galifianakis is forced to come to terms with one humiliation after another — often entirely self-inflicted — and with his life being seen as a total failure by most of the world outside a meager handful of companions.  He is hopelessly naïve.  Time and again he takes foolish pride in absurd rituals, inconsequential achievements and ridiculous demands — like going to a fast-food restaurant drive-through window and trying to order from a long list of obscure drinks such a place would never have, mentoring a fellow rodeo clown into the normalcy of a low-wage fast food job, or watching a short demo video that came with a new television set over and over again to marvel at the picture quality.  Despite his narrow pursuit of “classical” clowning he has almost no sense of social norms or how to earn a conventional living.  At least, he seems to avoid succumbing to the dictates of norms and conventions.  The show clearly has sympathy for him anyway, or maybe because of that intuitive, ersatz defiance.

Martha Kelly and Louie Anderson are fantastic in supporting roles.  The show (most of the way through the first season at least) never falls short on great performances.  The show comes close to a Felliniesque parade of grotesque characters, with a slant toward the pathetic.

This is one of the most arty and elusive shows on American TV.  At the moment it is also one of the best.

Odetta – Odetta Sings Dylan

Odetta Sings Dylan

OdettaOdetta Sings Dylan RCA Victor LSP-3324 (1965)

When Odetta covers these Dylan songs, she seems to make extra effort to change the songs around and, especially, sing everything to completely new rhythms and phrasings.  It gets very, very tedious.  She’s also very theatrical in her vocals.  What it reminds me of is singing songs in school or church when I was a small child.  In school there would always be some teacher who considered herself a good singer, and would sing loudly, and sometimes a box of instruments, like an “african fish” (it was kind of like a wooden washboard with a stick dragged across ribs on the side to make a rhythmic, percussive sound) would be brought out for accompaniment.  Similar things happened in church, though there was usually a skilled organist for accompaniment.  In either case the showy, self-important manner of singing louder and more prominently than everybody else was the key.  That’s what this recalls to me.  That, and amateur theater productions my mom was in when I was young, when she would take me and my brother to rehearsals.  I think I’m reminded of those times from childhood because this music feels like what you give to children because it’s safe, or whatever, and the kids just don’t relate and get bored immediately.  It’s like a gravely mistaken kind of pandering that turns out to be more about imposing the performer on the listener than trying to flatter the listener.