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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.  It also echoes Jacques Attali‘s notion of “composing” as a historical phase in the development of the political economny of music that breaks from “repetition”.  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.

Link Wray – Link Wray

Link Wray

Link WrayLink Wray Polydor PD-24-4064 (1971)


It is often the case that musical innovators languish in obscurity, or something close to it.  In rock, there are examples all over, like The Velvet Underground.  Link Wray is another.  He is best known for his raw 1958 instrumental classic “Rumble,” which paved the way for The Kinks‘s “You Really Got Me,” Pete Townshend‘s monster guitar power riffing with The Who, and much of the surf-rock genre.  But commercial success didn’t really come his way.  “Rumble” was something of a flash in the pan hit, but after recording a whole album of prime material, his clean-cut label dropped him without releasing his recordings — a story that might have been quite different if Wray had somehow found his way to the attention of Sun Records.  He bounced to a few other labels, but the momentum from “Rumble” was largely lost and soon the moment had passed to other sounds.  He became something of a footnote in rock history: the guy who added raw, improvised (as in makeshift) distortion to rock guitar.

If all you know of Link Wray is “Rumble,” or some excellent if now little-known follow-up instrumentals like “Raw-Hide,” “Jack the Ripper” and “Fat Back,” or even his later career efforts like Barbed Wire that modernized his original sound without losing the raw energy, Link Wray might be a surprise.  It sounds nothing like Wray’s signature early instrumental rock.  This is music that bears more resemblances to the country rock of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band crossed with the swampy southern rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival or Dr. John, but with searching, moody and almost existential songwriting of the kind that showed up later in the decade on Dennis Wilson‘s cult classic Pacific Ocean Blue.  Link Wray is the blueprint for The Rolling Stones‘s Exile on Main St.  Wray’s soulful vocals recall Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals.  That is no small feat.  Link Wray’s early recordings were instrumentals for a reason: he had his left lung removed after contracting tuberculosis (consumption) during military service in the Korean War.

By the dawn of the 1970s the center of gravity for rock — and by extension all pop music — was shifting away from New York City and Britain toward California.  West Coast studios were ahead of their Eastern peers in adopting more elaborate recording technologies and techniques.  The very sound of rock music was also growing more complex and intricate, with symphonic rock, rock operas, glam and prog gaining steam.  Even just within the realm of singer-songwriters, the more overtly produced and orchestrated styles of the likes of Elton John and Randy Newman were overtaking the simpler, mostly acoustic folk of popular 60s performers epitomized by Joan Baez.  Amidst all that Link Wray was yet again cutting against the grain of the industry establishment.  He set up his own three-track studio in a converted chicken coop on his family’s farm in Accokeek, Maryland.  In that setting he experimented with his own sound in relative seclusion (as with The Basement Tapes).  He recorded this in that primitive fashion.  The album is no joke.  It exudes complete honesty, even to the point of being somewhat blunt and ungainly at times.  But Wray’s lethargic guitar sounds just fine in a georgic setting far removed from his characteristic power chords.  Muffled piano and vocal choruses bolster the hopeful messages nestled in the murky, indistinct sound.  Link Wray is a little beauty that deserves another look, hopefully someday to be rescued from the obscure and dusty corners of early 70s rock.

Johnny Cash – The Rambler

The Rambler

Johnny CashThe Rambler Columbia KC 34833 (1977)


Johnny Cash was a pioneer in making “concept” albums.  These included some with between-song narrations or skits.  The very last one he ever made was 1977’s The Rambler.  In some ways, it’s the most interesting of them all, though it is a little rough around the edges.  The basic premise is that Cash plays The Rambler, a sort of “wise old man” character driving across the country.  Along the way he picks up The Fisherman, who is something of a reluctant hitchhiker (the Rambler has to persuade him to come along), and The Cowgirl, who claims to have killed her “old man” and talks about cheating a pinball machine — which only cost a nickel — to play for over two hours.  The dialogue/skits are woven together with songs that pick up on themes and events mentioned in the skits.  What is different about The Rambler from earlier concept albums like Ride This Train and America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song is that this one is explicitly theatrical, with Cash acting out a role, not merely speaking as a narrator.  This is also the only concept album Cash made that had a contemporary focus.  All his other concept albums looked back on historical topics or had nostalgic themes.  It is also worth noting that The Rambler is one of the only albums Cash wrote entirely by himself (From Sea to Shining Sea seems to be the only other he wrote all by himself).

The story carried through the album deals with the possibilities of open-ended road trips, passing scenery, romantic interests back home, people’s use for religion, factory work.  For instance, “Wednesday Car” is in the tradition of songs Cash had recorded earlier in the decade like “Oney” and “One Piece at a Time.”  It’s about an auto factory where the only day of the week that workers were in the right frame of mind to do good work was Wednesday, so you hope you have a car made on a Wednesday.  The Rambler says he has one.  It’s a commentary that was somewhat specific to its time.  Anyone who owned or rode in a big 1970s American-made car knew that quality control was notoriously bad and many cars were “lemons” that didn’t work well even when brand new.   A few decades on some listeners might not appreciate the context for the song, though.

The late 1970s were one of the very worst periods of Johnny Cash’s recording career.  Thanks to his TV show that ended in 1971, he was still riding the tail end of his biggest wave of popularity.  He was in demand as a live performer, and his grueling touring schedule didn’t exactly leave a lot of room to spend time on recording.  As a result, the album occasionally feels rushed, and certain songs and dialogues feel like they would have benefited from maybe a few extra takes.  Also, a few dated production effects hold back some songs.  It’s that way with “No Earthly Good,” which would have been better replaced with the superior acoustic demo version posthumously released on Personal File.

While not Cash’s finest moment by any means, The Rambler is one of his best of the late 70s and certainly the most interesting offering of the era.  It fits somewhere in the continuum of uniquely American travelogues, like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, Jack Keruac’s On the Road, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, and a host of others.  Cash does okay with his foray into the genre.  Even though the album is theatrical and fictional, the format allows him to really run with a lot of themes that have coursed through his work.  The topics seem meaningful to him and his treatments pretty genuine.  The very idea of traveling around the country aimlessly is pretty radical.  It seems to be premised on the idea that people aren’t entirely independent, and are unable to completely control their own destiny, because of ties to “the system”.  But, maybe, traveling long and far enough, some chance will arise to kind of break free and remake your life.

If you come to The Rambler just looking for tunes, you’ll be disappointed.  To be precise, only about 57% of the album is actually made up of songs, proper.  Frankly, none of these songs are that memorable, individually.  Taken as a whole, though, this album is a nice experience.  There aren’t many albums — if any — quite like it.

Johnny Cash – The Gospel Road

The Gospel Road

Johnny CashThe Gospel Road Columbia KG 32253 (1973)


And He spoke, and the multitude assembled contemplated, “Why dost thou release such a substandard recording?”  In an era in which double LPs seemed de rigueur, Johnny Cash managed to one-up the proposition by making a film about Jesus and releasing this double LP soundtrack to it.  It has all the hallmarks of a big-budget vanity record.  It plays like Cash’s thank you note to Jesus for helping him deal with his drug addictions.  It has about the same entertainment value and artistic merit as a nondescript thank you note to someone else found out on the street.  Only (a) bonzo Cash completists (like me) and (b) religious zealots are really ever going to listen to this, and for those poor saps it will probably be a one-time thing because this has zero replay value — if you make it all the way through the first time that is.  Facts aside, it feels like this record is one long speech by Cash.  The music is almost something fit in around the narrations, rather than the other way around.  If you want just the music, you are denied even that because the narrations are not just interludes between songs but are woven through the songs themselves.

Inasmuch as this album and the movie that spawned it were among Cash’s proudest achievements of his career, it’s worth giving this a more thorough reading.  The film, The Gospel Road, wasn’t exactly typical Hollywood fare.  It was filmed in Israel, on location where Jesus supposedly lived and preached.  Cash was in it, as himself, Robert Elfstrom was Jesus, and June Carter Cash played Mary Magdalene.  Something of an independent production, made with a lot of people who aren’t professional actors or filmmakers, this didn’t exactly get major distribution.  But Cash worked with Billy Graham to show it to churches and religious audiences.

There is an odd tone to the album.  Cash fluctuates.  At times he seems to see Jesus as a historical figure and archetype of a “good person” who lived life “right” and to have done so had to be essentially an outsider and revolutionary within his society.  It’s a kind of knowing view that although these are religious beliefs there is something more rational behind the stories that make them significant.  But then, at other times he seems to take something excessively literal, and there is a deadpan acceptance of the “Jesus was magic” sort of miracle making.  Could it be that maybe Cash just took seriously the things that most in society look at as accepted belief rituals and symbols that privately everyone acknowledges are just myths that are regularly told and politely tolerated and not questioned openly?  In those moments — there are plenty here — Cash seems naive.  It’s a sort of regression.  His earliest recordings in the 1950s came from a stylistic place in which rural life was widely recounted and even celebrated with a wise and thoughtful touch.  Here he seems like the oblivious fool who doesn’t seem to get that he is proclaiming something quite unsophisticated.  “Jesus” just becomes a symbol of something beyond, a life unattainable.  At times Jesus is presented as something of a role model — do away with hypocrites, be good to others especially the needy and downtrodden, contribute to your community.  But this routinely crosses over into the realm of setting up unattainable, fantasy images, sort of a carrot on a stick.  If these moments ended with a wink, an acknowledgement that this is just allegory and not meant to be taken literally, the whole effort might be more palatable.  But those moments never come.  Cash doesn’t really reveal the wizard behind the curtain as some ordinary joe.

So, the music?  There are some good bits.  The most intriguing stuff appears on side four, where orchestrated passages with a prominent horn meant to sound “eerie” and unsettling start to approach the sound of modern jazz, and in that are interesting for unintended reasons.  Some of the guitar and piano is good in places too.  They aren’t featured that much, so that’s a disappointment.  Early on there are some overbearing strings placed over the music that get quite tiresome.  June carter does a solo song, and Kris Kristofferson and others appears too, with good results.  The biggest disappointment, though, is Johnny Cash.  His singing is often quite noticeably poor.  He sounds downright unrehearsed.  He voice is frequently off-key and hoarse almost.  The best moments just kind of pass by quickly and the most tedious ones drone on for minutes.  Some of these songs might have been interesting standing alone, but with the narrations and fragmentary nature of these versions they don’t add up to much.  Take “He Turned the Water Into Wine (Part 1),” for instance.  Cash had been performing the song live and on his TV show for years.  The version he performed February 11, 1970 at the conclusion of “The Johnny Cash Show” or the similar version included on The Gospel Music of Johnny Cash makes a useful comparison.  Live, Cash made the song a multifaceted thing of beauty, with mellow parts just with Cash’s voice and acoustic guitar, then building up with backing vocal choruses and a full band, with Cash’s voice reaching a soaring crescendo and finding opportunities for infectious syncopation.  At his best, Cash made the song a marvel of coordination and cooperation between all the many performers.  The full song is not just about the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), but also about the feeding of the multitude of 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15).  The intricate performance by Cash’s band lends the possibility of interpreting these parables as an act of convincing a crowd to share and contribute and being good and generous.  But the performance on The Gospel Road is just Cash with guitar and a little plunking and cloying piano, delivering a few lines and then turning to a narration emphasizing the “miracle” of supposedly turning water into wine at the Cana wedding (without reference to the feeding of the multitude).  This leaves no room for an allegorical interpretation, only that literally there was an act of “magic” transforming matter against the law of physics.  The most wonderful aspects of the other performances are totally absent, leaving a hollow, worthless shell.

In the end, Cash approached The Gospel Road as an effort in proselytizing and religious praise, not as a work of purely musical value.  This sounds like a rube gushing about intimate personal details that don’t have a place in public.  Lots of gospel music provides a framework to let deep passions, emotions and feelings out in ways they might not otherwise.  But, dear reader, this is not one of those opportunities!   Musical treatments get short shrift and the audience is almost taken for granted, in the worst possible way.  We need to look at The Gospel Road as a token indulgence earned after a long career of good efforts, but not as something to really take seriously.  Then it can be safely ignored, like a bootleg copy of home recordings that weren’t ever supposed to be released.

Directions in Music By Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew

Directions in Music By Miles DavisBitches Brew Columbia PG 26 (1970)


There is no question that Bitches Brew is a milestone of that beast known as “jazz fusion”.  What continues to astound is how odd it really was.  This was heralded for it efforts to introduce rock influences to jazz music.  But this sounds like no rock record of its age, or any other.  Miles went on to record far more “rock” sounding albums, like A Tribute to Jack Johnson.  This things was something else entirely.  It presents a modulating soundscape with hardly any points of reference.  No matter what angle you approach this from, its massive sound just overtakes your any contextual references brought to the table.  You can hear Miles play trumpet, but amidst the washes of keyboard, guitar, horns, bass and drums, the whinnies and blurts coming out of Miles’ horn sound other-worldly.  The sheer number of players that are heard and the amount of raw material spliced together to form the the finished product was something new for a “jazz” album.  What it ensures is that the textures continually shift.  I somewhat rarely throw this on my stereo, but when I do I’m always surprised.  There seems to always be another layer to the music waiting to be discovered.  The density of the vision is great, because you can pick out any song, jump in at just about any point, and find one of those perfect notes.  Those are the notes that feel like the culmination of the massive sonic fabric that surrounds them.  And to think that “fusion” was a fairly new concept when this album came together, it’s a remarkable thing indeed that the creativity and power of the album is at a maximum throughout.  Don’t bother looking for missteps.  For the most part, this album defined the 1970s in jazz.  That might have been for the better early on, even if it was for the worse after around 1975 when Miles went into temporary retirement.  There probably is no other artist or group that reached the heights Miles did with this form.  Sure, others made major contributions and achieved great things.  But Miles was able to take the basic idea here and take it many different directions over the years with countless lineups.  You’ll probably either hate this, or love it to the point of addiction to the relentless, harrowing journey Miles will take you on through the rest of his activities in the 70s.

Paul Bley Quintet – Complete Live at The Hillcrest Club

Complete Live at The Hillcrest Club

Paul Bley QuintetComplete Live at The Hillcrest Club Gambit 69272 (2007)


Wow.  In short, what you have here is pretty sloppy packaging of some great music.

The packaging:  Well, to begin with, the cover and liner features a photo of Ornette Coleman that must have been taken close to 50 years after the music was recorded.  Then the tracklist is messed up completely.  Track number five is labeled “When Will the Blues Leave?” and track seven labeled “Ramblin'”, while track five is clearly “Ramblin'” and track seven is clearly “When Will the Blues Leave?” when you play the music.  Then, there is the fact that this is credited as an Ornette Coleman record.  Strictly speaking, these recordings were made at gigs led by Paul Bley where Ornette and Don Cherry just sat in.  But, Ornette does steal the show, there are tons of Ornette’s compositions here, and Bley was so profoundly influenced by Ornette that maybe it’s only slightly misleading to call the album Ornette’s own.

The music:  Awesome.  Previously released on Paul Bley/Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry/Charlie Haden/Billy Higgins: The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet and Coleman Classics, these live recordings show that, musically, Ornette was leaps and bounds ahead of what his problematic first studio album suggested.  The landmark contribution Ornette 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 his September 2007 interview in The Wire magazine.  It’s a style more linked with serialism in Euro-classical music (think Anton Webern) than the hard bop and cool jazz traditions still in vogue in 1958.

In truth, the sound quality here approaches that of a bootleg.  Billy Higgins and especially Charlie Haden sound quite muddy in the mix, and Bley is hardly audible when comping — only becoming distinctly clear when taking solos.  Yet the horns come across quite clearly.  Don Cherry is in a surprising form, playing with a delicacy on “How Deep Is the Ocean” rarely associated with him.  But Ornette is really front and center here, showing why he is known as one of the greatest stylists and soloists.  Well, perhaps Ornette’s talents aren’t quite as popularly recognized as they should be.  Bley once described the negative reaction to the music at the Hillcrest Club, which catered to a predominantly black, working-class audience.  He exaggerates some (audience chatter and even applause is audible on the recordings), stating that when his band with Coleman and Cherry took the bandstand:

“Several things happened almost at once.  The audience en masse got up, leaving their drinks on the table and on the bar, and headed for the door.  The club literally emptied as soon as the band began playing.

“For the duration of that gig, if you were driving down Washington Boulevard past the Hillcrest Club you could always tell if the band was on the bandstand or not.  If the street was full of the audience holding drinks in front of the club, the band was playing.  If the audience was in the club, it was intermission.”

Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (1999), p. 63.

But then, Goethe offers the following in his travelogue Italian Journey, Part One (1816):

“One gets small thanks from people when one tries to improve their moral values, to give them a higher conception of themselves and a sense of the truly noble.  But if one flatters the ‘Birds’ with lies, tells them fairy tales, caters to their weaknesses, then one is their man.  That is why there is so much bad taste in our age.”

In quite a later age too Johann.