Category Archives: Music

Elvis – Moody Blue

Moody Blue

ElvisMoody Blue RCA AFL1 2428 (1977)


When searching for an allegory for Elvis’ later career, it’s tempting to think of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his wings of feathers and wax and then plummeted into the sea.  Although that Greek myth is often seen as a tale of hubris, there was no hubris whatsoever in Elvis’ iconic early 1970s live revue.  That was the Elvis who invented the big Vegas rock show, and who put on show after show to audiences of 2,000 or more, often twice a night.  Some claim that when he was performing a full 50% of visitors to Las Vegas went to an Elvis show on their trip!  It takes only a cursory perusal through Elvis’ early 1970s live albums to find that this was a man who could deliver huge songs with an amazing level of emotional commitment.  This wasn’t someone who thought himself the king of rock, this man was the king of rock.  So instead of Icarus, the better analogy is that of John Henry the legendary steel-driving man (a real person!) who outdid a railroad spike-driving machine, but at the cost of his life.  It’s the story of the human toll of modern existence.  The only way Elvis could do what he did as long as he did was with a steady supply of drugs.  He couldn’t stay ahead of the drugs forever though.  Inevitably, and invariably, those who surpass ordinary human limits fall.  So it’s more a question of sacrifice.  Elvis did too much.  But Elvis was an American icon precisely because rash excess seems like a national vice, and also because he did these things for us — the audience.

It is on Elvis’ descent, actually just before his death, that Moody Blue arrived.  It is a patchwork of live recordings from as far back as 1974 (the previously-released “Let Me Be There” from Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis) plus some “studio” recordings from the Jungle Room of his Graceland mansion (from some of the same sessions as From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee).  This album is flawed, surely.  Seeing the inclusion of a track from a previous album reveals how little new material was available.  And “Little Darlin'” is every bit the moldy oldie it appears.  Elvis’ voice seems to lumber, moving in one direction and sticking with it.  But by and large there is a weepy country vibe here that suits Elvis’ dark and tragic approach to what are mostly sad heartache tunes.  This is a soundtrack to a lonely night crying into your beer.  It’s far from Elvis’ best.  Yet it might be the best he had to offer this late in his life.

Elvis Presley – Elvis Is Back!

Elvis Is Back!

Elvis PresleyElvis Is Back! RCA Victor LSP-2231 (1960)


Elvis Is Back!, named in reference to the man’s return from service in the U.S. Army in Germany, marked a clear transition in his music.  The days of wild, energetic, iconoclastic rock and roll were behind.  The new approach is more clean-cut.  If the early Elvis could not be shown on television from the waist down, for what his gyrating hips implied, then the new Elvis was calculated to be a little safer and more palatable to parents, implying nothing much at all.  And to be clear, Elvis is Back! is calculated.  It’s a highly eclectic batch of songs, performed in a variety of styles, determined to find something to appeal to everyone.  There is peppy Drifters-style R&B/doo-wop, Hollywood country & western like Marty Robbins or Roy Rogers, sultry R&B/proto-soul like Little Willie John, secularized gospel, and a lot of teen idol heartthrob fodder.  There are no up-tempo rockers (though “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” comes closest).  Any echo of rural origins from Elvis’ earlier music is also gone.  The man’s voice lets go of its previous bite and sharp delivery in favor of increasing amounts of vibrato in the style of Roy Hamilton, something like a traditional pop or even operatic form of singing that doesn’t come from blues or rock.  Elvis, surprisingly, proves up to the task.  He sings strongly in this new way even without using falsetto or breathy vocals.  His stylistic range and versatility emerged here as some of his most unique and lasting talents.  While the songs aren’t all great–this was an era when the best stuff was reserved for non-album singles (like the ballad “Fame and Fortune“)–there are no missteps.  Elvis sings well, though really he would only improve in his vocal abilities in the coming years.  It’s easy to see how the styles developed here would later produce the best of what The King accomplished from 1968 to around 1972.  What shouldn’t be ignored on this record is the production.  Elvis’ handlers made this the absolute pinnacle of sound recording technology in its day, just as producers at Columbia had made strides recording Paul Robeson in the 1940s with new ribbon microphones.  New three-track technology allowed a crispness and balance between Elvis’ leads, backing vocals, and instrumental accompaniment.  This one is ultimately a bit of a period piece, evincing a time in pop music when innocence and conservative values briefly won out over the revolutionary energy of 50s rock–before being crushed by the wave of modernity in the “underground” rock movement of the late 1960s and the growing power of black soul music during the freedom/civil rights movement.  Yet, it’s probably one of the best examples of what strictly commercial pop had to offer in 1960.

Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis

From Elvis in Memphis

Elvis PresleyFrom Elvis in Memphis RCA Victor LSP-4155 (1969)


From Elvis in Memphis was recorded after Elvis made his comeback on a 1968 TV special.  It is widely regarded as one of his best albums–maybe the very best–from his later career or even his entire career.  That’s something.  On closer inspection this is a little different from that, but still amusing and intriguing.  This was the beginning of, or at least the immediate precursor to, the Vegas act, sequined jumpsuit period.   He was singing differently than he used to, with a smoother, rounder tone heavier on vibrato, taking away all the sharpness of his earliest recordings.  In a broader cultural context, this album came at the absolute pinnacle of the good times for the American working man.  Ordinary folks had their chance to obtain a small, bastardized piece of the leisure class lifestyle, and Elvis was there ready to grow fat and lazy with them. What From Elvis in Memphis offers is an attempt to portray a kind of “ordinary” life, street-wise and gritty, dressed up enough to keep the peons interested.  It’s a life of huge cars, electric home appliances, and a growing sense of deserved (yet limited) decadence.  The thing is, Elvis is always hesitant to go too far.  This is an album that doesn’t really want to get its hands dirty, or at least not too dirty.  So it can only look on its subjects from a distance, never quite getting there.  “In the Ghetto” is a perfect example.  It’s a good Elvis performance, but there are better versions that shed some light on the one here.  Candi Staton did a version (that Elvis liked) that goes that extra distance; it feels like it’s sung from the ghetto rather than looking in on it.  Then there is a version that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds did.  The Bad Seeds’ version is reflective of Elvis’ performance, more so than of the song’s lyrical content, with Nick Cave singing it ironically on the basis of its kitsch value but always threatening to make it serious at any moment.  The songs on From Elvis in Memphis are mostly quite mediocre and the band forgettably professional.  But there is still something here in spite of that.  There is a charming pomposity in this music.  The vision it conjures up is the sort of humble guy growing up, making it big and looking back to those folks that got him there, as if kneeling down to deign some poor kid to admire his jeweled ring (hey, maybe you can make it too kid).  It’s like giving that kid, that kind of listener, this music out of a sense of charity.  It’s the subtle complacency behind that sort of a perspective that led to the downfall of the good times it enjoyed.  Rather than going the extra distance and being the sort of honest, humble music that might show a solidarity and adherence to the values of the common man, this album really takes the sort of view that sees itself as standing apart, looking back, acknowledging a divide from its origins and its audience.  Yet the lasting value of this work is that it represents the dreams and hopes of its times, even though those dreams and hopes are flawed and their achievement somewhat hollow.  There’s no denying that songs like “Long Black Limousine,” “Power of My Love,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “After Loving You,” and “In the Ghetto” are all solid expressions of these things–with much of the best material congregated on a very solid side two of the LP.  If this commentary means anything, consider it in the context of Orson Welles‘ film Vérités et mensonges [F for Fake], the notion that the act of forgery says something in and of itself about motives that lead humans to create art and artifice.

Elvis Presley – On Stage: February 1970

On Stage: February, 1970

Elvis PresleyOn Stage: February 1970 RCA Victor LSP-4362 (1970)


Although widely acknowledged as a cultural phenomenon that transformed America with his charisma and music in the 1950s, Elvis’ career got off-track in the 1960s as he focused on making terrible (but profitable) movies rather than making music.  In 1968 he made a comeback with a TV music special, followed by a Vegas engagement with a new band.  As it turns out, the Vegas act came to define Elvis’ later career.  It was a glitzy show, with a horn section, backing singers.  Elvis had taken to wearing gaudy jumpsuits too.  This music had now become a sort of high-energy, rock- and soul-inflected, southern style of crooning.  No one had really done anything like that before.  It was a period when rural-influenced musical acts could find wide acceptance, with former Sun Records label-mate Johnny Cash having a major network TV show at the same time.  Elvis sings remarkably well here.  The results are probably more consistent than his much-lauded From Elvis in Memphis album, even if this never reaches the greatest heights of that earlier studio effort.  One notable characteristic is the lack of the customary mid-set batch of Elvis’ past hits, which many aficionados deem the least interesting part of most Elvis shows and live recordings of the era.  Although Vegas acts have become something of a cliché, Elvis was a pioneer in the form.  Countless musicians, down to even Bob Dylan, have tried to emulate this kind of grandiose entertainment, but few if any came close to Elvis.  That the man became a cultural icon not once but twice in one lifetime, all before the age of 40, is nothing short of amazing.  Consider this Elvis’ best live album, and possibly one of his best albums period.

The Birthday Party – Junk Yard

Junk Yard

The Birthday PartyJunk Yard 4AD CAD 207 (1982)


The Birthday Party reached a peak with Junk Yard. It soars on a pulsing energy that never fades. It is goth rock. It is punk. Frightening rockabilly. Angular funk. Gospel and blues. Demonized cabaret lounge jazz. These and other styles collide in a gruesome, purposeless, and—above all—glorious spectacle. But the darkness in which this music dwells is entirely stable. It is confident, at least. The album is mixed to emphasize the low end and the high end, with little mid-range. There are no compromises.

The Thatcher-Reagan era has, in many ways, turned out to be the beginning of the end (or at least another milestone in the world’s continued march towards an easily avoidable doom). Junk Yard plays like The Birthday Party intuitively knew this. The slow groove of “She’s Hit” reveals from the beginning that this group was more aware than most. They absorbed the maddening energy of the times, without becoming bound to them. Unlike the living dead of the world, who are modeled on an image of the past, The Birthday Party were in a state of regenerative flux, continually rebuilding something morbidly happy from the decay.

“Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” is a sleazy literary come-on, and Nick Cave sings, “Where for art thou baby-face.” Still, the words come out more like a warning to a future victim issued too late. And yet, The Birthday Party can be trusted. Despite rubbing out simple hopes and pleasant dreams, the band’s resolve is never spent. If something on this album doesn’t arouse something in you, then you might already be spiritually bankrupt. But either way, at least you will wonder what you are made of.

Barry Adamson guests on “Kiss Me Black” (filling in for the jailed Tracy Pew). His bass blasts to the forefront immediately with mangled tones that bend enough to engross listeners as much as whole songs or albums often do. Matched with Cave belting out, “Hey hey hey hey,” the song reveals no intention of relenting. The song is a small representation of all the band was.

Easily the most important rock band to emerge from Australia, aside from The Bee Gees, The Birthday Party later disbanded after recording a few EPs but no further full-length albums. While there is a saying about wicks that burn brightest burning the shortest, that quip doesn’t quite capture what The Birthday Party were about. They were a black hole that sucked life and the universe into a seeming nothingness. What that leaves us with is anyone’s guess. In a black hole, no known laws of nature apply.

Elvis – An Afternoon in the Garden

An Afternoon in the Garden

ElvisAn Afternoon in the Garden RCA 07863 67457-2 (1997)


Recorded during the height of Elvis’ “Vegas” show era, An Afternoon in the Garden presents an afternoon show recorded June 10, 1972 at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden in New York City.  It was part of a sold-out four show stand.  The evening show of June 10th was previously released as Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden.  There are plenty of live Elvis albums from this era (Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, On Stage: February 1970, Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis, not to mention plenty of live cuts on That’s the Way It Is et al.), and most are quite good (uh, not Having Fun With Elvis on Stage though).  Guitarist James Burton really gets a chance to shine here, even getting space for a psychedelic wah-wah solo on the Presley favorite “Polk Salad Annie.”  The set list is almost the same as on Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden, minus “The Impossible Dream” but with a few additional tunes here.  For that matter the set list is similar to many other Presley live albums.  But these are all great tunes.  What makes this set so amazing is that you get some of the soulful bombast of On Stage: February 1970, some of the grandiose theatrics of Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, plus some of the kicking rock drive of Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, all rolled into one perfectly balanced package.  Elvis just commands this show, with every little flubbed lyric chuckled off and re-purposed as an opportunity to charm the audience.  As with most other Elvis live albums of the era, this is a complete show that plays (almost) like being there in person.  Pop music rarely if ever had a figure like Elvis who could deliver with spectacular feeling and aplomb the biggest, brightest and best hopes and emotions of salt of the Earth folks who quite rightly dubbed him their king.  This is a damn fine album, recommended for anyone.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – The Tao of Mad Phat (Fringe Zones)

The Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones>

Steve Coleman and Five ElementsThe Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones> Novus 63160-2 (1993)


Steve Coleman.  There are perhaps few figures in 1990s jazz quite as pretentious.  He indisputably was a central figure of that time.  So many, from his now well-known early cohorts like Cassandra Wilson to later figures like Vijay Iyer, have taken influence from him.  He practiced a style of music he called “M-Base”, short for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations.  Now, okay, I just called it a style.  Coleman has this to say on the matter: “Music critics have constantly stated that M-Base is a musical style and this is not true.  Since the beginning of time critics have by and large been unable to deal with any creative expression.  M-Base is a way of thinking about creating music, it is not the music itself.”  Mmmm, right, okay Coleman.  M-Base merely fits the accepted definition of “style”, but he say it’s not a style.  I guess this just puts him in the same category as teenage garage bands that sound just like The Stooges but refuse the connection and insist they are totally unique man!  You know, the kind of adolescent posturing that tries to talk a big game but does not deliver at nearly the same level, though, in fairness, is perhaps just due to being inarticulate and lacking self-awareness–dooming them to repeat musical history.  But that aside, Mr. Coleman should go read Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, who famously said “the map is not the territory”, and then reflect on the fact that a table is not a table, it is merely something that is collectively understood by the word “table” and the word is not the thing itself.  Now that I’ve sufficiently blown your mind, writing more about Coleman and this album is probably a fucking waste of time, but, frankly, I don’t give a shit.  Come back and read the rest later.  I’m making a goddamn point here and it needs to be made.  Coleman has often used a trick much like many modern economists and their veneer of mathematics used to conceal their faulty assumptions and circular logic (or like Ornette Coleman with his “harmolodics” for that matter), which hides some rather simple ideas behind a bunch of technical jargon and big words.

Tao of Mad Phat has to be among Coleman’s best efforts from the 90s.  It was recorded “live” in studio before a small, select audience (not unlike Beach Boys’ Party!).  The hallmarks of the man’s sound are all here: lots of electric instruments and synthetic sounds.  The focus is on shifting rhythmic textures, with things like melody a mere by-product of the rhythms.  But then there is “Incantation”, which features a number of guest spots rather than his usual backing band, and which feels different in many respects from the typical M-Base style.

The basic sound though is kind of cyclic.  It’s like James Brown and Maceo Parker, sort of.  Though the focus on rhythm gives the music a narrow objective that lacks the daring of Miles Davis‘ funky fusion of the 1970s that took the limitless possibilities of Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s electronic music and applied them to jazz.  Steve Coleman usually took the sonic textures of fourth-tier 1980s funk and incorporated them into a jazz setting.  The tendency was to produce listless schlock like Black Science.  But Tao of Mad Phat isn’t listless at all.  The atmosphere provided by the staged “live” setting gives the band a chance to stretch and adjust their rhythms in a fluid manner, without the claustrophobic search for perfect meter, pitch and other distractions to spoil things.  For a change, performance takes precedence over theory.

There is the other issue of the “spirituality” of Coleman’s music.  This album avoids much direct expression of it in the performances.  It’s noticeable mostly in the titles of the songs.  Part of this element comes from a very vaguely Pan-Africanist view of the African diaspora, with similarly vague allusions to Asian religions.  The Afrocentrist elements were hardly unique to Coleman, as this was the era of One for All and that whole aesthetic.  While there is something noble, perhaps, in Coleman’s intentions, most often the problem is that stacked next to, say, Pandit Pran Nath or lots of other purely religious music, Steve Coleman’s stuff just…sounds…so…cheesy.  He comes across as the guy with statutes of Buddha, the Virgin Mary, and Ganesh in front of his house, because, well, he values all religions, and he shows it with plaster lawn ornaments.  It seems slapped on top, without deep foundations in the music.  Here at least, that whole aspect of the music is pretty easily disregarded.

I can’t exactly say I’m a huge fan, but this is a pretty good album, and it’s worth it if you have an interest in the upside of some of the most stultifying forces of the halcyon days of 1990s jazz.

Graeme Thomson – Willie Nelson: The Outlaw

Willie Nelson: The Outlaw

Graeme ThomsonWillie Nelson: The Outlaw (Virgin Books 2006)


A good biography on Willie Nelson from Thomson. It seems well-researched, and avoids the rank hagiography so prevalent in these sorts of music bios. The author doesn’t shy from questioning Nelson’s motivations and worst behavior. He also does an excellent job articulating the crazy fine line Nelson walked between positive-thinking new age guru and lazy bum coasting on a reputation without continued hard work as a songwriter and performer. Yet, at the same time, the book doesn’t dwell on tabloid gossip. As for the book’s weaknesses, Thomson falls prey to a few misplaced British anachronisms, like comments about a “football pitch” when he means to say “(American) football field” — there is no way that Nelson was playing soccer in his youth deep in the heart of Texas! Then, too, Thomson stumbles are a pure music critic. He often criticizes some of Nelson’s best work (like The Sound in Your Mind) and praises marginal efforts (particularly early stuff and Nelson’s biggest commercial successes of the 80s). He certainly doesn’t seem to go back and revive some of Nelson most overlooked material (like The Words Don’t Fit the Picture) or necessarily place Nelson in a broader continuum. But, those flaws are fairly easily ignored in a generally fine book.

Alex Ross – The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Alex RossThe Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007)


Ross brings a lot of enthusiasm to the subject of 20th Century classical composition in The Rest Is Noise. Unfortunately, that is one of the few highlights here. The book’s problems are many. It is probably a little too dense and heavy on music theory for many casual readers, but also too light and uncritical to make waves in a scholarly sense. Books of that sort tend to only succeed when the writing is taut and engaging. But this is too long by at least a third (a whole chapter on Britten, really?). Ross is also in desperate need of a fact-checker (he apparently doesn’t know what “stochastic” means, nor does he know why Angus MacLise left The Velvet Underground). Most fatally, though, Ross lacks an understanding of 20th Century socio-political and socio-economic circumstances, and so his attempts to reference music against those contexts range from the superficial to the very misguided. He comes across as to beholden to nationalistic, cold-war era Liberal paranoia. This makes the middle chapters on the periods around World War II a great chore. For example, no mater what Ross or anyone else thinks of him, Lenin was certainly not a prototype dictator of the 20th Century — Iran’s Shah would fit that description much better. When discussing Soviet music, he also seems fundamentally unable to distinguish the Stalin era from the Lenin one. It all makes sense in way, because Ross is merely trying to portray Shostakovitch as something other than a hack, and that helps Ross’ narrative. Another big flaw is the occidental outlook of everything. Although he name-drops a few non-Western and women composers towards the end, one can’t help but wonder why those names weren’t featured more substantively in the book. I wanted to like this but couldn’t help getting tired of it as I plodded through.

Miles Davis – Big Fun

Big Fun

Miles DavisBig Fun Columbia PG 32866  (1974)


It is somewhat amazing to think that despite the intense creative peak Miles Davis achieved in the early 1970s, On the Corner from 1972 was the last proper studio album he consciously assembled for roughly ten years, until The Man With the Horn in 1981.  Everything in between was either archival in nature, a live recording, or, like Big Fun and Get Up With It, an amalgamation of leftovers spanning a period of many years.  When it comes to Big Fun, rather than taking the rather disparate material — from the moody, atmospheric “Great Expectations/Orange Lady” and “Lonely Fire” from the late-1960s Bitches Brew era to the grinding rock of “Go Ahead John” from the Jack Johnson period to the murky, paranoid, Eastern-flavored “Ife” that was recorded following the On the Corner sessions — and either accepting the incongruity or else massaging the material in the editing process to homogenize it, Davis and producer Teo Macero take a third path.  What happens is that they take raw material as if in a highly elemental form, and Macero uses studio effects and cut-and-paste techniques to transform a lot of it into something different than any of its origins.  This is perhaps most apparent in the harshly chopped and distorted editing of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s solo(s) and Jack DeJohnette‘s drums on “Go Ahead John.”  This was remarkable stuff.  The editing process was a conscious and audible part of the final work.  There were precedents.  Modern composers had made similar experiments.  For instance, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Davis greatly admired) stitched together national anthems for his Hymnen, and Steve Reich chopped up a spoken word sample to create Come Out previously.  But Davis and Macero were taking those techniques and trying to apply them to popular music.  This was meant for the masses!

Often relegated to at best a second-class status, Big Fun is a better record than that spotted critical history suggests.  Yet it also isn’t the most immediately impressive entry into the long line of great 70s fusion albums from Miles.  Most listeners will perhaps want to put this further down the list of Davis albums of the period to check out.  But bear in mind that if anything from the period hooks you, you will almost inevitably seek out the rest, and Big Fun definitely earns its place in that search.  This has a more agitated and fiery flavor than the earliest of Davis fusion efforts in the late 1960s, but also a more ambient quality than much of the dense and funky early/mid 1970s recordings.  If there was a way to convey the tumult of the times, this would have to be it though.  It’s a record that isn’t always satisfying, at least not for more than moments.  If that sort of approach isn’t for you, then the album won’t necessarily be for you.