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Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like a Wheel

Heart Like a Wheel

Linda RonstadtHeart Like a Wheel Capitol SW-11358 (1974)


Heart Like A Wheel is a gift from a gifted interpretive singer. And Linda Ronstadt can sing! She puts all her abilities to use in perfecting her subtle, easygoing style. Her sense of purpose always prevails over the banal concerns of technique. It seems ironic that an album of cover songs is so uninhibited.

Linda Ronstadt sang with a voice that was warm yet incredibly dynamic. Heart Like A Wheel is comforting even when the songs deal with pain and heartbreak. It doesn’t seem to matter who writes, sings, or hears them. These are universal and timeless notions. Understanding is as easy as each breath drawn as you listen. There was nothing to prove here. Ronstadt was free to pursue the most vital aspects of her form.

“You’re No Good” starts the album with a sultry passion. It sets up the overflowing emotion carried throughout the record. Peter Asher’s layered production plays an immeasurable role. It’s not obvious just where this album fits into the “scheme” of American pop music. It’s kind of everything at once. Even Paul Anka and Hank Williams songs find their way into this home cooked Californian stew.

“Faithless Love” is one of the many looks at a common ailment. Accidental misery and lonely regret come out in a long sigh. Letdown envelops you as inauspiciously as it does Ronstadt. The lovelorn feeling permeates her voice. Riding waves as they come to her, she is willing to follow the currents and powers beyond her control.

The “Heart Is Like A Wheel” arrangement makes every millisecond a awe-inspiring achievement. Ronstadt may only sing and not write the songs, but she makes every one her own. The studio musicians, as on all the songs, commit themselves to the selfless acts that unite the greater whole.

The Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” is a moving plea for confirmation of faith in love. Linda Ronstadt delivers songs so forcefully it’s hard to imagine anything but her longing state. The song doesn’t tell a happy history, but she conveys an unshaken belief that she’s only asking when. The rhythm carrying the song is just another heartbeat. Who could have possibly cheated and mistreated such a caring person?

Heart Like A Wheel sweeps you under its spell. It really is magical, as it seems to make something appear out of nothing. Linda Ronstadt’s voice lasts long after the sound is gone from the air.

Opposites in History

A recurring phenomenon in history is that certain key figures represent a merging of opposite tendencies.  One early figure of this nature is Brasidas, the Spartan officer lauded by Thucydides in his history The Peloponnesian War.  Unlike the most of the terse-speaking Spartans, he was a gifted orator much like his enemies the Athenians.  He died in an attack on Amphipolis  in which he led by making an example of bravery and was one of the few Spartan casualties, though he prefaced the attack with a claim that he would conduct himself in action following the advice he gave to his comrades.  But earlier, he also led covert operations and engaged in deception of cities the Spartans wished to conquer or ally with. Thucydides was actually the Athenian general who led excursions against Brasidas, but he nonetheless praised Brasidas more than almost everyone else in his entire history of the war.  Characterized by his “charm”, that really meant Brasidas excelled at the qualities that his enemies prized, namely oratory.  He also acted quickly with bold, decisive and dramatic surprise attacks.  This quick action was not common among Spartans more known for endless deliberation and caution.  He was an example of one side, the Spartans, succeeding on the terms of the opponent, the Athenians.

John Muir, with the help of many others, remained the primary catalyst for the creation of National Parks in the United States.  He was undoubtedly a pantheist, and perhaps an atheist (as much as would be accepted at the time in his cultural setting).  But reading some of his writings, the overarching tendency is to rely on religious and moral argument.  He especially leans on the tone of fundamentalist christian writing.  Yet his advocacy pointed to a return to a simple appreciation of nature.  This resembled the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the critic of civil society.  In this he merged opposite tendencies.  He used the language of the socially conservative religious status quo to advance a position that was ultimately a radical critique of the foundations of the economic system operating in his society.

Of course, history provides plenty of counter examples.  But it is worth pausing on some of the ways opposites do merge from time to time with spectacular effect.

Ornette Coleman – Town Hall, 1962

Town Hall, 1962

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 ESP-Disk ESP 1006 (1965)


Town Hall, 1962 finds Ornette at the top of his game.  It was recorded only a few years out from his big breakthrough in 1959, but already his sound had expanded into new territories — very new territories.  The trio with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums was simply astounding.  Ornette was and is the kind of performer who simply has to do his own thing.  Aside from an accommodating nature as a composer, he has never been the kind of performer who can play according to any external constraints, meaning he never could never really be a sideman and even when he has tried that he has just tended to take over (such as with The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet or even Tales of Captain Black).  That makes Izenzon almost his polar opposite.  Izenson was a very gracious performer who was flexible (and willing) enough to play what the situation created by Ornette’s sax called for, at any instant.  The dichotomy between Ornette and Izenzon is really key in pulling off Ornette’s new ideas effectively, particularly where those ideas called for more liberal use of space, slower tempos and a more lamenting feel.  Moffett was a great drummer, and his bop-ish licks were really a good match to Ornette’s style.  That is a big plus because I can’t help but feel that when Denardo Coleman permanently took over in the drummer seat years later Ornette’s groups never quite came together the way they used to, with Moffett, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins.  “Dedication to Poets and Writers” is performed by a string quartet rather than the trio, and makes the likes of The Music of Ornette Coleman – Forms & Sounds and Skies of America seem integral to Ornette’s long-term musical vision rather than mere anomalies.

This album makes a good companion to the two Golden Circle Vols. 1 & 2 discs on Blue Note Records with the same Izenzon/Moffett trio.  Ornette feels a bit more focused and intense here, as nimble as he ever was in his playing, pushing himself all the time, and that probably makes this the best offering of the bunch.  Though it is worth mentioning that Town Hall has none of the sunniness in the Golden Circle albums, which might make it less appealing to some listeners.

Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction

Science Fiction

Ornette ColemanScience Fiction Columbia KC 31061 (1972)


Science Fiction might be Ornette Coleman’s last really great album.  It is a doozy.

In some respects, this is one of the last original statements of the musical approach Ornette had taken starting in the late 1950s.  Many of these songs open with a “head” with two performers playing a composed line in dissonant unison.  Then the songs open up with the performers playing in less coordinated ways.  But that approach only accounts for a portion of the album, mostly in the middle part.

The opener “What Reason Could I Give?” is something different from the traditional Coleman song structure.  Instead of a more structured head that gives way to less structured collective improvisation, the entire song is organized around unison playing.  Every one of the performers, with some slight exception for the two drummers who must accept the more limited tonal palettes of drum kits in exchange for unobtrusively skittering rhythmic attacks, seems to be guided by a close and commonly structured composition that tries to balance the tone, volume and overall intensity of performance.  A singer (Asha Puthli) provides an inherent focal point because of the lyrics, though really they are not “in front” of the other performers in any real way.  This type of song structure seems like a more fully realized version of things Ornette had hinted at in the late 1960s, when he started working with Dewey Redman, but never really mastered.  This song is fluid, engaging…convincing.  And the balance never falters.

An open secret to Ornette’s music is the way he integrates composition and improvisation.  Performers are not simply cut loose to play whatever they want.  Ornette was a composer above all.  Yet his way of composing presented the opportunity for his compositions to seem to dissolve away amid the improvisation.  Paradoxically, the only way the improvisation can structure itself to overcome the compositional elements is through the compositions themselves.

So, starting with “Civilization Day,” Ornette is back to a kind of bop group combo formation that opens the song with a form of unison playing that leaves specific spaces in place.  After the initial statement of the songs theme, the drums drop out, and then solos are traded.  The bass (Charlie Haden) is very insistent throughout.  It provides the strong urging of a regular beat that undercuts what would otherwise be an oppressive intensity from the wailing of the wind instruments.  The next song “Street Woman” sort of combines the approaches of the first two.  The bass takes more liberal departures from a steady beat, both in a rubbery statement in the head (plus a similar closing to the song), and in a prominent mid-song solo.

The title track launches straight into no-holds-barred skronking from basically the entire group, but then is overlaid with a heavily echo-processed spoken vocal recitation that is delivered as broken, almost independent declarations, bolstered by the sound of a baby crying.  While the sudden presence of the vocals threatens to subordinate the skronking to a secondary role of just background noise, the disassociated nature of the spoken pieces, broken up further by the baby crying, deny those vocals the chance to take on the central focus of the song.  Ornette uses misdirection.  He structures the song to return to the premise built up by the first tracks just when the song seems to reject that premise.  Its is a brilliant move.

“Rock the Clock” again opens right into a bunch of skronking from the wind instruments, but with Ornette on violin playing scratchy, abrasive and high-pitched bowed sounds, then an electric bass gives the song a touch of the sound of the jazz-rock fusion movement — very funky.  Between the bass and the violin, two extremes sit together, taking opposite approaches (pulsed beats on bass, extended tones on violin)  yet kind of create a meaning through their juxtaposition.  This proves to be a great performance of a song that would become standard in the Coleman repertoire.

“All My Life” basically establishes the template for what Ornette would do with his Prime Time band in years to come.  Puthli returns on vocals.  However, this formulation lacks the immediacy of the opener “What Reason Could I Give?”  Each performer seems to hold in place so as not to disturb the others.  All together, nothing moves forward.  It is as if the compositional framework amounts to no more than a very constrained set of rules governing how each performer must relate to the others (as to tone, volume and overall intensity).  The content each performer delivers seems to get reduced to fluff — sort of like a theorist coming up with a complex mathematical equation to model some principle but working it through with only “easy” and unrealistic numbers to make the formula easier to compute.  But “Law Years” ups the ante.  It has a catchy hook, ending with a staccato “bah-doo-bah-da-doo-dah,” first introduced on Charlie Haden’s bass, that seems to stop short of a full resolution, like a person walking then suddenly stopping only to lean forward, through momentum, almost forcing this person to keep walking.  The drums and bass pummel the listener with a drive that is unrelenting.  It adds to the immediacy of the solos.  The title “Law Years”, a kind of pun intimating “lawyers”, is sort of an aggressive challenge cloaked in a nostalgic look back at a bygone time of order.  It is an expression of anti-legalism.  Yet it is delivered through performances not too far off from what Ornette’s groups had been doing for a decade.  This was just a more aggressive and militant expression of it.

The closer (“The Jungle Is a Skyscraper”) is sort of a throwaway, not really up to the rest of the album.  It frequently verges on indistinct soloing without the conceptual force of the best songs before it.  Ed Blackwell gets to pummel the drums a bit.  But a lengthy drum solo doesn’t quite seem like the best way to cap an album like Science Fiction.

Ornette Coleman – Change of the Century

Change of the Century

Ornette ColemanChange of the Century Atlantic SD 1327 (1960)


The Shape of Jazz to Come gets more fanfare, but Change of the Century is just as classic. It’s got too many catchy songs to say otherwise. “Ramblin’” and “Una Muy Bonita” have Ornette Coleman at his most lyrical. Coleman and his group are confident. The feeling that they could do anything proves true.

Much of the album leans toward bop, but when Coleman includes “Bird Food” you know the influence is intentional. There is more to music that pre-set harmonies and predictable song structure (A-A-B-A fits better into a Fred Flintstone catchphrase than into this album). The Coleman Quartet lets out some things that wouldn’t suit the confines of traditional jazz. Comfort is not the point. These things were inexpressible unless Coleman could break free.

The oft-made comparison to Jackson Pollock’s painting style is still worth repeating. These motherfuckers had the gravy. Insides-out. Calling them “sloppy” technicians is missing the point. Change of the Century fails by conventional standards because conventional standards had failed the group. So if you can get past blaming who for what, this is a hip slice of music.

Charlie Haden turns in a brilliant performance here. Apart from the tremendous songs, he makes the album unforgettable. Hayden needs to be particularly pointed out. He earned that honor, no jive.

Ornette Coleman was as monumental a force as there was in Twentieth Century music. His albums don’t come better than Change of the Century. This makes a cornerstone of any record collection.

Elvis – That’s the Way It Is

That's the Way It Is

ElvisThat’s the Way It Is RCA Victor LSP-4445 (1970)

Another good one from Elvis’ second golden era.  Just look at the album cover!  That, my friends, is an Elvis album cover.

When Elvis made his musical comeback with a 1968 TV special, after about a decade wallowing in dreadful Hollywood B-movies, he did something that is the hallmark of every musical comeback.  He took a kernel of something that was always present in his music and thrust it to the forefront.  Other examples are Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash.  When Cohen came back in the late 1980s, he made a change from his reputation as a purveyor of depressingly dark songs to a kind of jokester delivering deadpan humor left and right, but in hindsight the humor and wit was always there.  He was always winning over listeners by creating a sense of mutual belonging, and that frequently meant that he used humorous devices.  When Cash came back in the early 1990s, he emphasized his voice almost in isolation and sang mostly songs with dark themes, occasionally with a sardonic approach.  He resurrected his voice as his greatest strength.  Yet Cash’s voice had always been a major strength.  He always used it as a force that could not be contained, by anyone, anywhere.  With Elvis, his post-comeback period banked on one characteristic: his charm.  There was a documentary film (That’s the Way It Is) made in conjunction with the making of the album, and in both the studio sessions and the live concerts Elvis is utterly charming.  In the studio he joked with his band, and effortlessly switched between “bandleader” directing the shape of the song arrangements and “buddy” goofing around with his friends, and in that way building up a rapport with his band that gets him the desired recording.  On stage, he was always enrapturing his audience, whether leaning down at the edge of the stage to give out kisses to audience members, or joking about his pants being too tight as he bends down closer to the audience or does karate moves.  Of course, he was always a charmer, but when he arrived on the national stage in the 1950s he relied more on a cool, rebellious swagger and brashness than pure, unadulterated, charismatic charm.  But even during his ’68 comeback special, he laid on the charm when conducting more intimate sessions with his old supporting musicians, running through some of his old, classic rockabilly songs.  The charm built connections to the audience.  This provided context for the rest of his music that would not otherwise be there.  The audience can listen with different ears.

During this Vegas show period, Elvis developed a band and a sound that fit his charming personality — of course later on this would be a liability as he seemed to struggle to turn it off and lacked meaningful personal relationships as a result.  Following somewhat the template of pure pop (showtune) singers like Judy Garland, he did big, orchestrated pop and soul songs that gave him opportunities for soaring vocal treatments.  Songs like “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,”You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are nothing short of amazing.  It’s the smooth, sultry power of Elvis’ vocals that gives the performances a sense of overwhelming intensity.  And there is no need to resort to flashy gimmicks (like Liberace).  This music just feels big and commanding, as if it simply has to.  Elvis doesn’t have to pull the music along.  It as as if he is tapping into something bigger than even him.  The weakness of this album is that a few of the studio tracks — “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights” and “Mary in the Morning” — kill the energy maintained by the rest of the album.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said (in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste):

“Charm and charisma in fact designate the power, which certain people have, to impose their own self-image as the objective and collective image of their body and being . . . .  The charismatic leader manages to be for the group what he is for himself, instead of being for himself, like those dominated in the symbolic struggle, what he is for others.”

For Elvis, this holds, it seems.  His earthy and muscular emotional range embodied a kind of work ethic.  It was a style that valued the hard work and labor that goes into his music.  An audience that valued a life of work could relate to such an attitude.  But Elvis, too, was nimble and varied in his use of these attributes.  And he suggested a virile benefit to this sort of an attitude.  But none of this is forced on the audience by the music or Elvis’ performance.  It is assumed by the totality of the show.

Elvis’ approach was unlike that of other Vegas-style entertainers.  Axel Stordahl was the conductor who worked with Frank Sinatra in the 1940s.  It is instructive to contrast the approach of Elvis and his orchestral conductor Joe Guercio.  Stordahl deployed syrupy and treacly strings that established a rather static foundation upon which Sinatra crooned.  It conveys a sense that the singer is in his place.  The music will not go anywhere.  It will remain where it belongs.  And in that space, the singer, and he alone, has the ability to deploy his considerable talents to dazzle.  It is actually a fairly simple twist on a rather old performance trick.  Sidney Bechet, the jazz saxophonist, used basically the same trick in an earlier era.  A “star” soloist working with a large orchestra will have the orchestra “sandbag” their performance.  That is, they play simple stuff, that lumbers or is overtly bland, or maybe even feigns a kind of sourness.  Any or all of this provides a foil for the star soloist to work against, allowing even small and otherwise unimpressive embellishments to seem bigger and flashier than they really are.  It wows audiences by suggesting that the soloist is better than them, because not even the backing musicians can do what the soloist does.  This is partly the secret of Sinatra’s music with Stordahl.  In Bechet’s case there was a twist.  There at least in context there was a statement that said even a black man (legally a second-class citizen) was better than some others, though problematically the use of orchestra sandbagging undermined that claim by presenting it as (only) a lie — Louis Armstrong would have to come along to prove it while working in front of great musicians for the point to be indisputable.

Elvis had a sweaty, visceral energy to his performance that made the forward drive and power of the entire ensemble palpable.  He worked with a conventional guitar-based rock band, complete with drums and electric bass.  This provides syncopation that propels the music forward.  The orchestra extends and fills out the sound of the rock band.  The Guercio orchestra didn’t sound static at all.  They use swelling dynamics to accentuate dramatic surges, and the wind instruments extending beyond conventional limits for proper tone to have a pulsing drive that magnifies the energy level.  It’s a kind of modernism that calls attention to the medium of orchestration itself.  The distinction may be subtle, but the Guercio orchestra adds more than punctuation to the rock band or padding to the tonality of the rock band’s instrumentation (though they do some of that too).  They provide a kind of raw mass to the overall sound, that has the feeling of movement along with the rock band and Elvis’s vocal.  An analogy would be to movies, in which the good guy or bad guy, usually one possessing magical or superhuman powers, floats into a scene accompanied by fog or smoke.  The fog/smoke billows along with the character, filling up the space on screen, conveying a sense of power larger than the actor’s physical build.  This is what Elvis’ great Vegas stage show delivered in its prime.  It was the musical equivalent of expanding a sense of space in film.  But rather than the kind of laser light shows that became a side-show fad for some rock acts, this was a musical force that envelopes the audience.  This is the key difference between Elvis and the other sorts of entertainers that preceded him on big stages.

Elvis’ show was about making and maintaining an emotional connection to the audience.  The audience was positioned at his level, not as an aside, but in both his music and in his on stage antics (kissing audience members, etc.).  Go back to Judy Garland’s style.  On her famous Judy at Carnegie Hall live album she tells a funny story about a hairdresser in Paris. While this story does charm the audience, it simultaneously reaffirms her elitist stance vis-a-vis the audience.  Going to Paris (for work or otherwise) is not the stuff of the ordinary person on the street.  Elvis sings songs on That’s the Way It Is that are overwhelmingly about personal relationships.  This is something that anyone walking in the door to a Presley concert, no matter how humble, has the potential to relate to.  When Elvis emerged in the 1950s as the symbol of youthful rebellion, it was partly an earnestly apolitical stance that wagered that social elites would not recognize how his swagger and songs about earthly romance could build a bridge across Jim Crow racial lines by way of an audience of youth.  Elvis’ “comeback” likewise used his charm through the medium of romance songs to advance revolutionary democratization through music.  What made his comeback so remarkable was how he had managed to reconfigure the sound and instrumentation of his music to use the same element of charm to achieve a different objective.  Elvis undoubtedly deserves the title of “king” bestowed upon him, because he did these things with a kind of aristocratic benevolence.  These aren’t new ideas.  But Elvis actually pushed them forward to a wider swath of the population and therefore more effectively than maybe any other.

Addendum:  There is an expanded edition of the album That’s the Way It Is: Special Edition (2000) that is worth it for the fan.  The third disc has outtakes that run a bit thin in places, but the collection includes two entire concert performances with stellar performances the build on the success of the original live/studio album.

The Flaw(s) of Libertarianism

Libertarianism is a flawed doctrine, from the viewpoint of general public well-being.  At least some of its support comes from the partial awareness of a very real phenomenon:  there are spheres of power, and government is one of them.  Government power can act as a limit and constraint on the power and actions of individuals, business, etc.  Libertarians are usually either very naive or very disingenuous in focusing on how government can constrain individuals (usually framed as curtailing their liberties and freedom), while ignoring the way that other forms of power, such as that arising from business, can also constrain individuals (and government, etc., for that matter).  The result is that a few intelligent but nefarious operatives use these doctrines to try to build support for the concentration of power in the hands of business/finance/etc., bringing along a rabble of “useful idiots” who want individual freedoms but lack an understanding of the full range of constraints on individual freedoms (not to mention that some of the particular individual freedoms that come up again and again, like a right to be a bigot, carry little moral authority on their own).  This critique of libertarianism arises from something like a hybrid of the sociological analysis that people like G. William Domhoff advance (the class-domination theory of power) and the economic analysis that people like Simon Patten advanced, which said reducing one monopoly merely frees resources to be captured by another (economic rent capture).  It also draws on the field theories of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (Loïc Wacquant has applied that approach to neoliberalism in a similar fashion).  But a similar critique has been astutely summed up by Corey Robin, who has written that what most libertarians want is not feedoms and liberties, but rather the maintenance of a particular social hierarchy–with particular men (always men) at the top of some node within it, of course.  Robin notes that these people are reactionaries because they seek to suppress emancipatory movements from below (Wacquant goes further to say neoliberalism is a revolution from above).  This is what distinguishes them from anarchists.  But the most superficially irksome flaw in the discussion of libertarianism in today’s context is not the political choice of inequality, per se (that topic is omitted entirely from mainstream discourse), but rather the hypocrisy that lies in obscuring that political choice behind rhetoric that speaks of liberty and freedom without explicitly admitting that it is advocacy of freedom and liberty for some at the expense of others.  This dissipates any credibility that libertarian advocates might otherwise have, but also explains their apparent inconsistencies and selective, limited application of doctrines that are usually stated as if universal.  It is the false appeal to universal principles, while always limiting their application to the maintenance of particularized hierarchies (making property ownership the only fundamental issue), that libertarians use to feign the support of a popular majority with policies that are plainly only in the interests of a minority.  It is a kind of political arbitrage, making a play against being called out for the underlying lies by the media or simply an uninformed public realizing the scam on their own.  For that reason, a captive and submissive media is essential for these flawed policies to have any chance in the public sphere.  Of course, eliminating hypocrisy does not prove or disprove libertarian theory.  However, doing so is a first step in debating its real merits, if any, as a political program.

John Cale – The Island Years

The Island Years

John CaleThe Island Years Island 314524235-2 (1996)


John Cale was at the epicenter of much of rock music’s development in the 1970s.  Well, to be fair, his influence began in the 1960s, with one of the first and still one of the best “underground” (read: modern) rock bands, The Velvet Underground.  Then he was producing The Stooges‘ self-titled debut and recording on his own and in collaboration with others.  But his solo career was in full swing in the 1970s, and he continued to produce some outstanding records by others.

After a solo debut (Vintage Violence) that focused on artful country-rock shot through with strong Leonard Cohen influences and another album operating in the realm of modern classical music (The Academy in Peril), he made the gentle Paris 1919.  Then he landed a multi-record deal with Island records and released a trio of albums within the space of about a year.  The three Island records Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy–all collected here with additional bonus tracks–have a certain consistency and commonality that makes them ideally suited to being packaged together.  Though each of the albums collected has its own personality.  Fear is the inventive one, with a twisted, arty appeal.  Slow Dazzle is the most conventional sounding–relatively speaking–with a more traditional rock sensibility.  Helen of Troy is the most savage and viscious of the three, with a hard tone laid down by a band well-practiced from performing live with Cale.

Reviewer Patrick Brown described Cale as a “master of mood”.  That’s absolutely true, but it’s also worth noting that on his Island trilogy he specialized in a very particular kind of mood that bore a very special place in the context of its time (very much like Jim O’Rourke roughly two-and-a-half decades later).  Somebody on a wiki wrote that Cale’s music in the 70s “featured a dark and threatening aura, often carrying a sense of barely-suppressed aggression.”  While Paris 1919 was hopeful and intimate with an emphasis on the nostalgic, the Island trio adapted to times a bit more tumultuous.  There was now a palpable sense of uncertainty.  Nostalgia still played a role (like “Ship of Fools” from Fear), but it now conveyed something lost and squarely of the past, like a new era was upon us and the old ways didn’t point the way for the future.  There are plenty of songs here that recall various bygone rock and roll movements, but reconfigured in a punchy and sometimes more unnerving way (like Cale’s deconstruction of “Heartbreak Hotel” from Slow Dazzle).  Even when mannerisms of the past are present (like the saxophone on “Darling I Need You” from Slow Dazzle), the sound is never “retro” but more of a transposition, accentuated with heavier bass and a more ominous or wearied tone.  Discussing the songs here, that astute RYM reviewer praised “pretty much any one where he starts screaming.”  There are quite a few of those.  Cale has plenty of hard rockers here, most of which build up from a steady beginning to a kind of frenzied, chaotic conclusion.  What makes these so special is the very explicit unraveling that takes place within those songs, something not merely implied.  But even when it seems like any of this music is set to go off its hinges, Cale reels things back a touch.  His pop sensibility always remains in reach.  He was strongly influenced by The Beach Boys (like on “China Sea” from Helen of Troy), and even recorded a Brian Wilson tribute (“Mr Wilson” from Slow Dazzle).  Though in some ways this music might actually be seen as the frayed rock and roll spirit that sits just outside the best of Carpenters‘ early 1970s oeuvre, now less contained and closer to (or past) the boiling point.

Cale’s lyrics are suited to the material.  They are always a little obtuse.  Still, they serve the overall mood, which is given a greater importance than interpretation of the words divorced from the music.

As a producer, Cale’s work here is brilliant.  It’s never heavy-handed.  There is a warmth but also a clarity to it.  He makes the instrumentals and vocals all very articulate without losing a razor-sharp edge.  It gives all these songs a sense of power and nominally polite menace barely contained under the surface.  Cale was producing other albums in this era like Patti Smith‘s Horses and (most of) The Modern Lovers‘ self-titled debut.   Cale would later go on to be a fixture at CBGB’s in the late 70s, with harder more direct rock like Sabotage/Live.

These albums aren’t “punk” but they make sure steps between a lot of earlier rock and that movement.  This collection captures the sense that whatever had happened in the 1960s was over and conveys the need for something new.  As one other reviewer on RateYourMusic (drifterdk) wrote, “The paranoia, the ennui, the boredom, the restlessness, the drugs, the heavy politics, the terrorism, the wars, the unrest, the dissatisfaction, it’s all here.”  But it’s not just that those elements are here.  Cale masterfully switches between different modes, with a rocker here, a gentle ballad there, a poppy and fun tune there.  There is something in the totality of what he achieves across this trilogy of albums that can’t be conveyed in any one song.

This music is vital.  Cale was really on a run at this point, and drugs hadn’t slowed him down yet.  Listeners wanting the glossy, happy version of 1970s rock and pop probably will want to pass on this, which gets more to the unvarnished heart of the era.

Ornette: The Original Quartet & Prime Time – In All Languages

In All Languages

Ornette: The Original Quartet & Prime TimeIn All Languages Caravan of Dreams Productions CDP85008 (1987)


The landmark contribution Ornette Coleman made to jazz was in disengaging improvisation from a verse/chorus format built around repeating harmonic structures, and turning it into something that seems to continuously move forward, as Paul Bley explained in a September 2007 interview with Andy Hamilton in The Wire magazine.  Bley said,

“There was an article in Down Beat in something like 1954, in which I mentioned that jazz had reached a crisis and that AABA form had too many As, and not enough CDEFG.  So I began working with groups where we would play totally free, and that led to a kind of dead end, because ‘totally free’ didn’t necessarily allow you to continue.  A totally free piece is a totally free piece, end of concert. ***  [But Ornette] suggested ABCDEFGHIJK, in which repetition was anathema *** It wasn’t totally free because totally free was A forever, metamorphosing.  It was a form that took hold, because you could finally return to the written music, and the audience had something to hold on to.”

It’s a style more linked with serialism in Euro-classical music (think the Second Viennese School and Anton Webern) than dixieland, swing, bop, or any other movements within jazz or blues.  Ornette told interviewer Howard Mandel (The Wire, June 1987),

“I always tell everybody I’m a composer who performs.”

Coleman wrote in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

“The composed concept of the music I write and play is called Harmolodics. The packaged definition is a theoretical method not exclusively applied to music. Harmolodics is a noun that can be applied for the use of participating in any form of information equally without erasing or altering the information. In music, the melody is not the lead. The lead is a sequenced unison form which requires anyone to transpose all melodies note for note to their instrument.”

The term “harmolodics” has caused much consternation, because Ornette has never fully defined it — though he has long claimed to be working on a book (yet unpublished) that will explain the theory in detail.  Some aver that “harmolodics” is a made-up term that has no meaning in music theory; it’s just a term Ornette arbitrarily uses to describe his music after the fact.  This view tends to find support in the many vague descriptions Coleman has given over the years, like one to John Szwed (The Village Voice, July 22, 1997), where Coleman stated that “harmolodics allow[s] a person to use a multiplicity of elements to express more than one dimension at one time,” adding that “harmolodics means the loss of a style in music.”  Yet in an interview he gave Andy Hamilton (The Wire, July 2005) Ornette stated:

“The sound of the piano is not the note of the piano.  The note of the saxophone is different to the sound of the saxophone.  The note you hear is not the sound of the instrument.  It’s the idea of the notes that you hear being applied to the instrument.  To this very day, I’ve been working on a concept called harmolodics, which means that the four basic notes of Western culture are all the same sound on four different instruments [per Hamilton, these are “typified by clarinet (Bb); flute, oboe and all stringed instruments (C); alto sax (Eb); and French horn (F)”].  I call that harmolodics.  So when I found that out, I started analyzing what people call melody for ideas.  But melody and ideas are not confined to any instrument . . . , you don’t have to transpose ideas.  ***  Harmolodics is where all ideas — all relationships and harmony — are equally in unison.”

Hamilton summarizes this approach in music, which is expressed by Coleman in his later years in the context of transposition and non-hierarchical inter-performer dynamics, as an “extreme sensitivity to nuances of timbre . . . ” and where “the quality of a musical interval is more important than the relation of the interval to any possible key centre . . . .”  In short, that could be described as merely the rejection of pre-determined temperament, which has been accomplished long before Coleman arrived.  But Hamilton’s rather technical interpretation still doesn’t positively and objectively define the boundaries of what Coleman actually does with his music, at least not in a way that allows other to make “Harmolodic” music without reference to a Coleman recording or performance.  It merely points out some things the music is not.  The jury may still be out on what Harmolodics really means, and it is even possible that the strength of Harmolodics is that it can’t be explained, but suffice it to say that Ornette Coleman consistently uses the term to describe his musical outlook — one he has developed to shake off the arbitrary confines of 20th Century Western musical forms and notation.

In a June 1997 interview with Jacques Derrida, Coleman explained his goals in music:

“I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another.  I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”

This is important in suggesting that Coleman’s Harmolodics may be as much a political statement that is applied to music as any sort of concrete artistic practice.  He continued,

“In fact, the music that I’ve been writing for thirty years and that I call Harmolodics is like we’re manufacturing our own words, with a precise idea of what we want those words to mean to people.”

Coleman then questions his interviewer,

“Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?  Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?”

(“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004).  That quote is basically a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  This also ties in to something sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has written about with respect to autodidacts (people who teach themselves things), who are typically shunned and rejected by people trained in “legitimate” modes of discourse that are associated with dominant groups and institutions.  This is because autodidactism is commonly (implicitly) perceived as a threat to those dominant groups and institutions — threatening their ability to reproduce themselves and regulate the status of members of those groups.  John Litweiler‘s bio Ornette Coleman a Harmolodic Life (1992) recounts stories of Ornette feeling ill when he realized how much his own methods differed from accepted norms when studying with Gunther Schuller and of the numerous physical beatings Ornette suffered at the hands of those threatened by his new techniques when starting out as a musician.

Harmolodics may, possibly, be explained in terms of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan‘s theories regarding three orders of The Real, The Imaginary and The Symbolic, inasmuch as Ornette attempted to avoid the burdens of conformist and limiting social norms through a passion for The Real.   The Real in this instance is the elusive core of the ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc. that is the subject that the musical discourse is about, ultimately a lack constituted by those ideas, thoughts, feelings.  The Symbolic is the musical expression as such, the written or performed notes and sounds.  The Imaginary is the ideology — Harmolodics — that mediates between The Real and The Symbolic, a kind of fantasy or dream that subjectivizes material experience.  In this formulation, Harmolodics may be something of an attempt to break free of socially-imposed limits on the structuring of human thought by pre-existing musical notation and structures in the Symbolic order (what Lacan called “the Big Other”, a sort of colonization of thought that creates but also limits the scope of desire), and find more space that overcomes a lack of free, diverse and unique expression, through new fantasies (Imaginary constructs) that facilitate a connection between the symbolic musical notes and sounds (which create a desire to express something through them) and a kind of unattainably direct reality, what he various refers to as “thoughts” or “ideas” or “emotions”.  Harmolodics would therefore be a kind of myth of freedom.  It was radical because it challenged the idea that the existing system of Western music created a justified order, or provided freedom already.  Ornette never completely breaks from the socially constructed symbols of musical form.  He is still trying to express something through musical sound, just like the pre-existing musical order professes to do.  He did try, however, to use music to express something real outside musical symbolism, and yet impossible to express directly.  In this way, Harmolodics might be seen as evincing a super-Platonic “notion that empirical reality can ‘participate’ in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through” the spatio-temporal reality and appear in it, while recognizing that “the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.” (to quote Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing 2012).  So, in some sense, Harmolodics allows Ornette to revisit all sorts of common topics with a fresh perspective, or, as the case may be, from multiple perspectives.  A kind of constellation of symbolic representations can thereby imply the inexpressible ideas or feelings that emerge at the breakdown of those musical symbolizations.  This may be why the apparently contradictory nature of Ornette’s Harmolodics is actually its greatest strength.  For Ornette, the dream (Harmolodics) embedded in his new musical forms was a means to inscribe ideas, thoughts and emotions with more democratic, egalitarian, and, self-determined contingencies into music.  In this way Harmolodics gives the appearance of being just another musical theory, just another purely technical program for putting together sounds in a “musical” way, which masks the political objectives bound up in it.  Going back to Paul Bley’s characterization, about making repetition anathema, this is the way a black man who lived through Jim Crow America could envision expression in a different sort of society, a free one, by imagining the possibility of change and reconstructing musical forms to suit those possibilities.  This was a rejection of those symbolic limitations of musical forms or styles that deny change, rather than a perpetuation of the inherent stasis of something like European contrapuntal music (a symbolic order), for instance, or even the tonal centers of be-bop jazz or the formalized rhythm of swing jazz.  These ambitions or dreams are not immediately realized through music, but they make it possible to conceptualize a movement in that direction.  All this pushes toward fulfilling the lack of freedom and free expression.  What Bley describes as “totally free” is usually anything but that, and instead music that falls back on disavowed or unacknowledged mental hangups and limitations.  Ornette jumps right past that problem by putting forward Harmolodics as a guiding principle that both establishes a set of rules and laws for musical performance and at the same time suggests transgressing those very rules and laws.  There is an endless back-and-forth baked into Harmolodics in this way.

At its best, Ornette’s music addresses a lack of freedom in a way that does not simply revel in a completely anarchic morass that pretends to be the complete fulfillment of freedom, as if all limits on freedom are simply instantaneously shed and overcome.  Instead it makes constant recourse to melody, syncopation, and other compositional details that provide a kind of guidance, fractured by techniques that in fact often go beyond socially accepted stylistic forms, complete with squawks, conflicting solos, and irregular beats.  This might be what Ornette means when he talks about the melody not being the lead, because in the ideology of Harmolodics the melody is just a symbolization, a kind of secondary aspect tied to mere technique, and not the “note” or the idea that is what is inscribed into the music through melody, and other techniques like harmony, etc.  In its most utopian aspect, the tension between out of reach democratic egalitarianism and the limitations of socially accepted music forms in a racist, restrictive society is mediated by the dream of passing boundaries and evolving in a way that does not simply reproduce the existing music forms, and by extension, the limited kinds of ideas, thoughts and feelings they tend to engender.  Freedom, in this conception, is therefore not a state, a condition that finally overcomes constraints preventing its realization, but rather a process, already graspable, that can never be fully resolved.  The only thing to do is patient, simple work along these lines.

In Goethe‘s Faust, a professor makes a wager with Mephistopheles that he can live without christian morality and not regret it.  As Faust is dying and poised to lose the wager, he wishes he could live to keep trying.  At that point angels come to save him, saying, “He who strives and ever strives, him we can redeem.”  (Goethe, Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy). Ornette’s wager is that he can live without European musical forms and symbolization, and the narrow range of thought and emotion they embody, and not regret it.  He can’t fully succeed.  Like Bley said, Ornette’s music is not totally free.  But he strives and ever strives.  And above all, he strives to eliminate the mental hangups that that suggest limits on musical practice that were never there.  This is what made Ornette among the most important figures in modern jazz.  But there is the caveat that his Harmolodics is a kind of empty theory, that doesn’t have any particular subject.  The democratic ends he tries to express in his compositions are just one possibility, and in a society that is already free his music could be used to move toward oppression.  Well, it could also end up wallowing in nothing more than entirely circular quagmires of supposedly self-evident emotional truths, even if no more than empty narcissistic, hedonistic, self-indulgent platitudes.  In other words, it could end up reverting to the endless metamorphosing that Paul Bley described, albeit shifted to endlessly cycle over egotistical personal experience.

The album In All Languages was a double LP, with one disc featuring Prime Time and the other Ornette’s reunited 1960s Quartet.  Many of the same songs were recorded with both groups, including probably the most notable new song “Latin Genetics.”  Listening to both versions allows comparison and contrast, particularly with respect to the different rhythmic textures and phrasings.  It would be hard to call this one of Ornette’s best album-length efforts.  The sterility of the recording sounds oppressively dated just a few decades out.  But the in making an effort to tie together the “classic” style of his 60s Quartet with the very different approach of Prime Time in one work, it highlights how Ornette’s early work looked forward towards something that was just beginning — a something slightly vague and unspecified — while Prime Time was something of a declaration of victory — perhaps a bit premature — that the democratic future of music had been achieved.

Black Flag – Family Man

Family Man

Black FlagFamily Man SST 026 (1984)


You might say that Black Flag represented the very best qualities of a rock band from the country that gave birth to rock and roll.  They did new things and they pushed boundaries.  They came up in the late punk scene, one in which there was no “entry code”.  Anyone could self-identify as a “punk” — just like James Franco‘s character starts calling himself a “punker” in an episode of the TV show Freaks and Geeks (incidentally, Franco is heard listening to Black Flag in that episode).  But even without an entry code, there ended up being a lot of conformist behavior in the punk scene.  Many punks practically wore uniforms!  Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins commented in the documentary Punk: Attitude that lots of punks ended up being a lot more close-minded than they promised.  Rollins can safely say that because Black Flag was most definitely not made up of those kinds of punks.  Although in their first four years, Black Flag seemed like a band fairly close to the norm, with just a better guitarist than most — Greg Ginn — and less fashion sense.  But as time went on it became clear to anyone paying attention that Black Flag was actually really different.  They had long hair to piss off the close-minded punks in the audience.  And what is more punk than that!

After a draining legal battle, the band emerged from hiatus in 1984 with what seems like a truckload of albums.  The third (or second?) of them was Family Man.  It raised the stakes considerably for how far the band was willing to go.  Punk bands, before or since, were NOT releasing albums of roughly half spoken word pieces and half instrumentals.  Granted, the origins of punk lay in college-educated poets like Patti Smith, with very clear connections to literary and performance art circles.  Even Lydia Lunch came to fore in a scene of like-minded artists.  But when Rollins started doing “spoken word” (not that the term was even well-associated with it at the time), he did not come from any formal background in literature.  He took a very DIY (do-it-yourself), self-taught approach.  Side one of Family Man is devoted entirely to Rollins doing spoken pieces.  His words are, well, a bit juvenile and fueled by a disturbing amount of aggression and rage.  But, he is very earnest about what he is doing.  It also takes a considerable amount of guts to try to break spoken word performances to fresh audiences on the West Coast and Midwest with little or no reference points.  Punks would have found more refined performance at a William S. Burroughs reading, but that’s not really the point.  The real point is that Rollins was doing what he thought mattered even when it wasn’t what was expected — or accepted.  His earliest attempt here might be a bit rough-hewn, but he did get better going forward.

Side two of the album opens with “Armageddon Man,” the one true full-band track.  Even though that might lend the impression that it’s the “classic” Black Flag sound, it’s hardly that.  It’s another extended jam, running over nine minutes.  From there, the rest are instrumentals.  Guitarist Greg Ginn has plenty of space to stretch out and he makes the most of the opportunity.  It’s worth noting that side two is probably bassist Kira Roessler‘s finest moment with the band on record.  Drummer Bill Stevenson sometimes struggled to mesh with Ginn, but he does okay here, in spite of a few patches where it takes him a moment to lock into a good groove.  The influences on side two run the gamut.  The jammy, long-song format takes a cue from Ginn’s adored Grateful Dead.  But telling is the closer “The Pups Are Doggin’ It,” with Kira playing a bass line cribbed from “Right Off” on Miles Davis‘s A Tribute to Jack Johnson.  The jazz influences in Ginn’s playing work best when Stevenson hits a hard beat along the lines of what the great jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson would do.  The results on the second side of the record are much more replayable than the first side.  For that matter, the instrumentals simply rock harder and come together better than on the following year’s all instrumental EP The Process of Weeding Out.

The best thing about this album is its capacity to surprise by taking chances and breaking the mold for what a hardcore punk band was supposed to be like.  The relentless drive to try to evolve and rethink the very foundations of the band’s sound take this album beyond just the literal contents of the recording.  An album like this provokes a dialog.  The outcome of that dialog can be anything…and the ending isn’t written yet.