Category Archives: Music

The Swan Silvertones – Great Camp Meeting

Great Camp Meeting

The Swan SilvertonesGreat Camp Meeting HOB HOB290 (1968)

The Swan Silvertones’ over five decade existence can be broken down into about four periods.  The first period is their early period from formation in 1938 through 1951, roughly encompassing their time recording for King Records, when they were searching to find their style beyond “jubilee” gospel.  During this time they didn’t really have a sympathetic record label to record them, so today we have to just guess what they would have sounded like live.  Some surviving notes suggest that the band was holding some of their better material and arrangements in reserve until they found a more willing label to record them.  Nonetheless, they had some mild success in this early period, but probably not a tremendous amount on a national scale.  The second period is 1951 through the later years of the 1950s.  I consider this the classic period of the Swans, when they firmly established their own unique style of “hard gospel”.  They were recording for Specialty Records.  While Specialty gave them essentially complete creative control in picking arrangements and songs, it seems Specialty didn’t do that much for the group in terms of promoting them and releasing in a timely fashion what had been recorded.  During this time they recorded some all-time greats.  While I think the group was gaining a reputation, they probably weren’t getting as much exposure through their recordings as they deserved.  The third period, and the one that probably brought the group the most commercial success, was when they moved to Vee-Jay records at the end of the 1950s.  On Vee-Jay, they added instrumental backing for more or less the first time — previous recordings were mostly a cappella and generally included only minimal percussion accompaniment.  They also were releasing full-length LPs of new material for the first time.  In this phase, the group was expanding upon the stylistic ideas they had previously developed.  Things were going very well, but then Vee-Jay closed down in 1965.  They switched over to HOB records, but the group’s long-time leader Rev. Claude Jeter left in 1966.  The group continued though.  They recorded more for HOB.  Starting in 1968, HOB albums were distributed by Scepter Records, but Scepter shut down in 1976 at which time the group switched over to record material for Savoy Records, with longtime manager John Myles departing.  In these later years, particularly on Savoy when Louis Johnson took over leadership of the group, they had what has been described as a “seventies gospel” style.  This post-Vee-Jay period is the fourth and final period of The Swans’ existence — though the Savoy years could perhaps be viewed separate from the HOB years.  Finding albums from this last period can be incredibly difficult, as even discographies covering this period can be hard to find, much less copies of the LPs, most of which have never been re-released on CD in full as of this writing.  If anything, the band kept moving in a direction that bore little connection to any of their earlier periods.  In some respects, this is the least rewarding period, and that probably goes a long way towards explaining the lack of reissues and willful amnesia among fans and critics. I don’t want to make this period sound like it’s consistently terrible, because these recordings were still well-crafted, just not always very stylistically rich or ambitious.  Claude Jeter supposedly came back a few times through the 1980s and early 1990s for live appearances.

That brings me to Great Camp Meeting.  This was released on HOB records originally, and did manage to earn a CD reissue.  The album represents the peak of the increasingly rock and soul oriented sound the group first suggested with Blessed Assurance and continued into the 1970s with generally diminishing results.  When Rev. Claude Jeter left the group, he was replaced by essentially an imitator in new lead singer Carl Davis.  It seems like Davis is present on material here like “Little Wooden Church,” where his vocal similarity to Jeter is striking.  However, it’s clear that the group is under new leadership (with John Myles in control).  A lot of the material here also seems less elaborate than Swan Silvertones recordings from just a few years earlier.  The best stuff on the album tends to be the songs with simple, up-tempo instrumentals and Louis Johnson clearly taking the lead on vocals, with his voice swinging back and forth between gravelly shouting and smoother crooning.  “Can’t Do Nothing” is one of those, with one of the most grooving, driving beats you’ll find anywhere in The Swans’ catalog.  It’s probably my favorite cut from the post-Jeter era.  The version of “This Little Light of Mine” here is also really propulsive, one of the best versions of the songs I’ve yet heard, with an intense beat that shows clear signs that soul music was a vital force in popular music at the time.  Also really good here are a few of the songs like “It’s Good to Be Saved” with Johnson slowly sermonizing over driving backing harmonies, and “Stand Up and Testify” with Paul Owens delivering some slow, jazzed-out lead vocals.

The kind of offhand, inviting, casual feel of so much of this stuff has really hooked me.  There is plenty of good stuff here, and what makes it good is a world apart from what made earlier Swan Silvertones albums good.  This may be my favorite Swan Silvertones album of the post-Vee-Jay years, and it might just be one of the group’s best albums period.  It feels just a little rough around the edges, but that’s exactly what I like about it.

The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen


The Afghan WhigsGentlemen Elektra 9 61501-2 (1993)

Back in the early 1990s heyday of “grunge” and “alternative rock” that cracked into mainstream airplay, The Afghan Whigs were in the cadre of the most well-known rock bands.  Gentlemen was ubiquitous.  I must admit to having known about it, but never bothering with it until a full two decades later.  Looking back at it, I can’t really say this is my thing.  The subject matter inhabits a place that seems a little too juvenile for me to relate to today, but I can still respect what the group achieves here.  Greg Dulli’s vocals achieve a kind of burning torment that encapsulates much of what they were about.  Yet the group’s real strength was how they blended together so much of what was in the air at the time.  The iconoclastic jazz musician and composer Anthony Braxton has theorized that there are three types of musicians: restructuralists (who come up with new ways of thinking), stylists (who expand upon the restructuralists’ new ways of thinking), and traditionalists (who operate within a defined space).  By that account The Afghan Whigs were stylists.  Frankly, they weren’t the most proficient musicians by this evidence.  But bits of this recall everything from alternative hard rock (Smashing Pumpkins), to Seattle grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam), to lo-fi rock (Pavement, Dinosaur Jr.), to funky party rock (Red Hot Chili Peppers), to britpop (Pulp, Suede, Blur).  They even occasionally adopt the kind of off-key vocals that would come to dominate “indie rock” a decade later.  The result comes across like more than the sum of its parts, just because it seems to carry on from beginning to end without ever running out of new bits and pieces to assimilate.  This may be a period piece of sorts, but it’s one that perhaps endures because of a slight sense that its hardly more than a garage rock experiment that worked out in spite of the odds. 

The Discerning Listener’s Guide to Sly & The Family Stone

A guide to the recorded music of Sly & The Family Stone. Enjoy!

Danny Stewart

“A Long Time Away” (1961)

Sly Stone — born Sylvester Stewart — first made a name for himself as a jive-talking radio DJ.  He also worked as a record producer in the early 1960s, and released a few singles under various aliases and with groups such as The Stewart Four, The Stewart Brothers, and The Viscaynes.

Laugh, Laugh

The Beau Brummels

“Laugh, Laugh” / “Still in Love With You Baby” (1964)

“Laugh, Laugh” and “Just a Little” were each produced by Sly Stone.  These Beau Brummels tracks are some of the best evidence that Sly knew how to produce a record even before Sly & The Family Stone was formed.

A Whole New Thing

Sly & The Family Stone

A Whole New Thing (1967)

A decent, if uneven, debut.  This is what launched one of pop music’s brightest groups.  Sly Stone was still working out the details of his musical vision, but tagging along is a fun ride.  Even if they don’t quite fully achieve a “whole new thing” here, they at least established that they were gonna try.  “Underdog” is a classic.

Dance to the Music

Sly & The Family Stone

Dance to the Music (1968)

The debut jumped around a bit trying to find precisely what Sly & The Family Stone were going to be about.  Dance to the Music locked in to exactly everything that the “whole new thing” title of their debut promised.  The songs are all catchy, upbeat, bright, and the lyrics deliver smart wordplay with some social commentary thrown on top.  What might be difficult to appreciate in retrospect is that the group was interracial, and included both men and women, at a time when that was not happening elsewhere.  They also had a horn section within the group, whereas most soul acts didn’t consider the horn section part of the group proper — like The Memphis Horns who played for just about every Stax Records singer.  Most of the songs on Dance to the Music revolve around very similar material.  But the group really proves their mettle by making each one sound fresh.  Sly gave Miles Davis a copy, and Miles later had to ask for another because the first was worn out from so much use.  While that might just seem like a mildly amusing anecdote, it does help explain an underlying strength of the album: the improvisational flair built around irresistible rhythms.

 Danse a la musique

The French Fries

“Danse a la musique” / “Small Fries” (1968)



Sly & The Family Stone

Life (1968)

This is like a continuation of Dance to the Music.  “M’Lady” is quite similar to “Dance to the Music,” for instance.  But when you find a good thing, go with it.  While not as essential as some of the group’s other albums, if you like their 1960s stuff this is worth seeking out.

 Live at the Fillmore East

Sly & The Family Stone

Live at the Fillmore East (2015)

An archival live collection recorded shortly after the release of Life.  This was initially released as a 2-LP limited edition album, then as an expanded 4-CD set.


Sly & The Family Stone

Stand! (1969)

Generally considered one of the group’s best albums.  With “Everyday People” Sly reached the pinnacle of the unbridled optimism of the 1960s, in the process coining the phrase “different strokes for different folks.”  The depth and feeling he fit into the space of a short pop song was a spectacular achievement.  Stand! established the group as one of the most important pop acts of their time.  This is not a bad place to start in their catalog.

Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly & The Family Stone

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” / “Fun” (1969)

If ever one of Sly’s songs demonstrated both his absolution mastery of record producing and his witty, self-awareness in the world of soul music, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” was it.  It kind of pokes fun at other soul groups.  It also is a masterclass in how to make a record tailored to the talents of individual performers without losing sight of the overall effect of the group effort.  This is my personal favorite.

Woodstock (1970)

“Woodstock” has since become etched on the collective consciousness as a symbol of 1960s counterculture.  Sly & The Family Stone were right there for it.  The first album of material from the festival features a medley excerpted from the group’s performance.  Additional recordings from Woodstock came out on Woodstock Diary, but it was not until 2009 that the full performance was available on an album.  The original Woodstock album might help put the music in some kind of context though.

The Woodstock Experience

Sly & The Family Stone

The Woodstock Experience (2009)

Disc two of this collection features the complete performance of Sly & The Family Stone at Woodstock.  Proof that the band put on a fierce live show in their prime is here in abundance (despite a few sound equipment problems).

Life and Death in G & A

Abaco Dream

“Life and Death in G & A” / “Cat Woman” (1969)

The group released two throwaway singles (this and “Another Night of Love”) under the pseudonym “Abaco Dream”.  “Life and Death in G&A” is a straight funk number, with the largely instrumental “Cat Woman” featuring lingering, psychedelic synthesizer — both oddities unlike anything in the proper Sly & The Family Stone discography.  “Cat Woman” is the more intriguing side because it’s quite weird, for a major pop group or otherwise, while the A-side is driving but kind of simple.

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

Sly & The Family Stone

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” / “Everybody Is a Star” (1969)

The group’s all-around best non-album single.  The A-side is a hard, funky number lead by the slap bass of Larry Graham that foreshadows Sly’s next moves.  The B-side is an uplifting, motivational song rooted in what the group did throughout the Sixties (especially “You Can Make It if You Try”).

The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies: Isle of Wight / Atlanta Pop Festival
The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies: Isle of Wight / Atlanta Pop Festival (1971)

Woodstock was only one of many large rock and pop festivals held in that era.  The group appeared at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in England.

Somebody's Watching You

Little Sister

“Somebody’s Watching You” / “Stanga” (1970)

Little Sister was, yes, Sly’s little sister Vet’s group.  This single is historically noteworthy as being the first major (non-underground) release to feature a drum machine.  Little Sister would provide backing vocals for numerous Sly & The Family Stone releases in the coming years.

There's a Riot Goin' on

Sly & The Family Stone

There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)

The defining Sly & The Family Stone album is without question There’s a Riot Goin’ on.  For a more complete overview of the album, read jlg4ever‘s review on RateYourMusic.  Whole books have been written about and around this album, so I will only sketch the key details.  It represented an abrupt shift from the last album.  Now dark, murky sounds dominated.  Original band members were departing.  Sly was using a drum machine, performing a lot of the music all by himself, and Bobby Womack appears somewhere in the mix.  There really isn’t another album like this.  Suffice it to say, it’s one of the all-time great rock/pop/soul albums.  An absolute essential.


Sly & The Family Stone

Fresh (1973)

Not nearly as militant and obtuse as There’s a Riot Goin’ on, Fresh had a crisper funk sound.  It’s yet another classic.  Few groups have ever produced a series of albums as good as Sly had from the late 1960s through (at least) Fresh.  This is one of the essential Sly & The Family Stone discs.

Small Talk

Sly & The Family Stone

Small Talk (1974)

Sly took another turn with Small Talk.  It had a much quieter, mellower sound than any of the group’s previous albums.  The band was different, with a number of new members added and some old ones departed, and even boasted a violinist.  This album really is neglected.  The mature sound and lyrics dealing with raising a family and other domestic interests offer a new perspective on Sly’s music.  Despite having a few weaker moments (like “Mother Beautiful” and “Wishful Thinkin'”), this has held up pretty well.  People used to tell author Joseph Heller that his later books weren’t as good as Catch-22, to which he would respond, but what is?  To say Small Talk isn’t as good as something like There’s a Riot Goin’ on, or even Fresh, is kind of unfair.  No matter what, Sly had to go downhill at least a little as long as he kept releasing material following such magnificent previous achievements.  As long as you don’t come to this looking for more of the same, it should be a rewarding listen.  Small Talk deserves to be considered among the group’s better albums, even if it’s on a tier slightly below the all-time classics.

High on You

Sly Stone

High on You (1975)

High on You was not credited to “& The Family Stone”, which was perhaps a moot point with the original members of the band already disappearing in previous years.  This is a respectable funk/soul outing, though it’s nothing spectacular.  Sly’s popularity would decline from this point forward.  He was not really pushing himself anymore and that was starting to show.

Heard You Missed Me, Well I'm Back

Sly & The Family Stone

Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back (1976)

Perhaps due to the critical panning that Small Talk unfairly received, Sly’s next few albums tended to be merely attempts to recreate his “old” sound.  Each one was billed as his big comeback.  Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back is probably the worst album in the catalog.  It’s really embarrassing. Only bother with this if you have a morbid curiosity to hear how bad it really is — like smelling sour milk to verify the obvious consensus.

Back on the Right Track

Sly & The Family Stone

Back on the Right Track (1979)

Another lackluster “comeback” album that tries to recapture something lost.  It is a marked improvement over Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back.  Worth it for “Remember Who You Are”, a real gem from Sly’s late period.  The rest won’t win any new converts.

Ten Years Too Soon


Ten Years Too Soon (1979)

Well, for better or worse, this is one of the earliest remix albums.  It’s a bunch of old Sly & The Family Stone hits recast for disco-era dancefloors.  Profoundly unessential.

Ain't But the One Way

Sly & The Family Stone

Ain’t But the One Way (1982)

Sly all but disappeared for a while, though he briefly surfaced with Funkadelic for The Electric Spanking of War Babies.  Then along came Ain’t but the One Way in 1982.  In many ways, it marks the first time Sly actually presented a new sound since Small Talk.  Unfortunately, the performances are generally lackluster.  If the album could muster the intensity of “Underdog” in the horn section, things might have been different.  Aficionados will probably want to seek this out, particularly for “L.O.V.I.N.U.” and “Sylvester,” but it’s not essential.

 Eek-Ah-Bo Static Automatic

Sly Stone

“Eek-Ah-Bo Static Automatic” / “Love and Affection” (1986)


I'm Back! Family and Friends

Sly Stone

I’m Back! Family & Friends (2011)

After a very long period of inactivity, and a few brief reappearances touring, Sly released his first album under his name in decades in 2011.  What we have are mostly his old hits re-recorded, plus a few new songs.  The old songs are all performed with guest artists.  The hits are still great, and Sly has updated and modernized things in a way that needs no handicap.  Yet, the guest spots add nothing and these re-recordings are somewhat redundant.  Fans who love everything else may get a small kick out of this, but it’s nothing essential.  It is worth mentioning that due to an ongoing dispute with his (former) manager involving allegations of fraud regarding his royalty payments, Sly was living in a van in a rougher part of Los Angeles since 2009.  He has indicated that he’s now too paranoid to trust record companies to release any new material.

Recorded in San Francisco: 1964-67

Sly Stone

Recorded in San Francisco: 1964-67

Oddities collection.

Precious Stone: In the Studio With Sly Stone 1963-1965

Sly Stone

Precious Stone: In the Studio With Sly Stone 1963-1965 (1994)

A collection of early material Sly recorded for Autumn Records.

Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70
Listen to the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70 (2010)

A collection of tracks produced by Sly Stone, including those for his label Stone Flower.

The Essential Sly & The Family Stone

Sly & The Family Stone

The Essential Sly & The Family Stone (2003)

If you want a compilation of Sly & The Family Stone material, this is the one to get.  It supplanted Anthology, which had already supplanted Greatest Hits as the best one available.  Any collection will be good, but the two-CD Essential one is best because it’s longer and you will probably want the additional material.

Additional compilations that might be of interest are The Collection, which is a boxed set of the most essential albums (but is not a complete discography), and Higher!, which collects singles and oddities.

The Soul Stirrers – He’s My Rock: Their Early Sides

He's My Rock: Their Early Sides

The Soul StirrersHe’s My Rock: Their Early Sides P-Vine PCD-5594/5 (2003)

R.H. Harris of The Soul Stirrers was the Louis Armstrong of gospel music.  He is credited by many as being the first significant singer in gospel “quartet” music to break away from the “flatfooted” jubilee style and provide lead vocals that could roam over the top of the backing vocals, simultaneously adding rhythmic syncopation and melodic flourishes.  In other words, he helped create space in gospel music for dynamic soloists just like Armstrong did for jazz.  He, like Armstrong, wasn’t the only person doing his kind of thing, but he did it more effectively and consistently than anyone else.  His style of lead singing opened the door for gospel “quartets” to include more than four singers, with multiple lead vocalists switching back and forth.  And Harris was a force to be reckoned with.  His twangy, slightly nasal voice leaps out and commands attention.  He employed melisma to add an emotional kick to each and every song, but unlike the scores of perhaps unwitting imitators you hear all over the place decades later on American Idol or whatever, there is substance and disciplined restraint when that effect is used here.  It sounds fantastic, and it gets better with each repeated listen.

He’s My Rock may be the most extensive collection of pre-Sam Cooke Soul Stirrers recordings yet assembled.  The material here comes from around 1939 or 1940 through 1948.  The sound is pretty good for transfers from old 78s, and the liner notes are as good as you’ll find, with recording dates and personnel actually listed for everything along with songwriting attribution for most of the selections.  The group sounds great here, and song after song features exquisitely crafted vocal harmonies.  Their attention to detail is extraordinary.  This may be due in part to how late in the Soul Stirrers’ existence these “early” recordings were made.  The Soul Stirrers had been around since the 1920s.  Apart from some Library of Congress recordings, they didn’t really record much until the 1940s.  So don’t be surprised if you hear earlier recordings by other groups–like the Ink Spots–and mistakenly think The Soul Stirrers took influence from them instead of the other way around.  The Soul Stirrers placed so little emphasis on recording for such a long time, that their musical innovations had become well known in some circles long before they recorded any songs reflecting those innovations.  When they finally did make recordings, the material was quite polished and refined.  So it all sounds great.

Even with their many innovations, the early Soul Stirrers were still tied to the long-popular “jubilee” style, and they featured a decidedly slow-paced approach that you could link back to Victorian-era folk music.  Probably due to that fact, listening to a lot of these early recordings together it becomes clear that The Soul Stirrers rarely strayed from demure, homophonic stylings in constructing the backing harmonies.  If you aren’t prepared for that, and expect a more modern sound, like the slightly harder gospel the group recorded later with Sam Cooke, this disc might sound a bit monotonous after a while.  But that shouldn’t detract from the historical importance of these recordings.  It certainly doesn’t take anything away from the fine lead vocals of R.H. Harris.  Despite this collection representing perhaps the most influential vocal group gospel music, it probably isn’t the place to gain an introduction to gospel “quartet” music.  But if you want to understand the development of gospel music, or just enjoy some great vocals, this set is invaluable.

Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton

The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton

Anthony BraxtonThe Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton Mosaic MD8-242 (2008)

Anthony Braxton has been a major figure in late 20th Century music and beyond.  It’s fitting that his work for Arista Records has finally been comprehensively issued on CD.  Although he recorded for a variety of other labels before, during and since that tenure (notably Leo Records in later years, but even including Windham Hill Records‘ subsidiary Magenta Records), it was his releases for that fledgling major label that earned him international renown.  It has been a minor tragedy that so much of Anthony Braxton’s Arista material has taken so long to see re-release on CD, though it may still be some time before individual releases are available on CD aside from this pricey box set.

Describing Braxton is a difficult task, as his musical interests cover broad territory.  Ostensibly he is and was a “jazz” musician.  But his output on Arista showed early on that he was interested in modern composition wholly separate from the realm of the jazz tradition.  Looking back, his biggest successes from this era were his efforts to cross different styles, chief among them traditional jazz, free jazz, and modern composition.  Yet he stood for something more than just the man behind the curtain churning out the music on his records.  It was “Braxton’s chosen arena of the independent and marginal,” as Michael Heffley’s liner notes to this box put it, that set him apart.  He found ways to make his eclectic interests in smaller pleasures and out-of-the-way innovations work.  And in doing so he helped set a precedent for others to keep alive music that was always something accepted only on the fringes, but was finding noticeably fewer and fewer outlets from the mid-1970s onward.  He managed to redefine the terms for success for a musician in his position without compromising the integrity of his musical ideas.

While it might not be for everyone, given the generally dense and formal nature of much of the music, The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton should provide enjoyment and rewards to anyone with at least some interest in modern jazz.  Whatever a potential listener has heard of Braxton’s reputation can be ignored.  In part that’s because these recordings largely pre-date his reputation.  Yet it’s also because things like bright horn charts and marches on Creative Orchestra Music 1976, traditional material like “Maple Leaf Rag” on Duets 1976, the ferocity of improvisation and skill of the players throughout The Montreux / Berlin Concerts, and the boldness of For Two Pianos are all immediately recognizable and enjoyable regardless of a listener’s frame of reference.  There is also a sense that Braxton had a genuine and heartfelt interest in this material, however unusual by mainstream standards, which is at least a little contagious.

This Mosaic Records set does a great job with remastering the music for CD.  If it does have a fault, it’s that it indulges familiar jazz snob peculiarities in the liner notes, which focus on recording information to the general exclusion of release information.  The original liner notes and cover artwork from the albums compiled here are not reproduced, and it is only with considerable effort can tracks on these CDs be matched up with the names of the LPs on which they were originally released.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent set, making a fairly good entry point to Anthony Braxton’s extensive catalog, and should hopefully help preserve this vital music for the future.

Richard Strauss / Herbert von Karajan – Death and Transfiguration

Death and Transfiguration (Op. 24), Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (Op. 28), Dance of the Seven Veils (Salome)

Richard Strauss / Herbert von Karajan (Vienna Philharmonic)Death and Transfiguration (Op. 24), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Op. 28), Dance of the Seven Veils (Salome) London CS 6211 (196?)

I’ve never had any particular affinity for Richard Strauss, but these are decent performances.  “Death and Transfiguration” is my favorite here, the rest can be a bit too melodramatic for my tastes.

Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

Bish Bosch

Scott WalkerBish Bosch 4AD CAD3220CD (2012)

The most amazing feat of Scott Walker’s later career has been to have the most unlikely popular audiences receive it so well.  Since Tilt in 1995 his music has adopted experimental, operatic elements that lack the syncopation that is foundational to pop music of the rock era.  The Drift added an increasingly ominous and dark tone to what already was frighteningly unique music.  With Bish Bosch, Walker is flirting again with syncopation, fitfully at times, but with its programmed drum beats and proto-metal electric guitar it provides a more direct link with (fairly) contemporary pop music than anything he’s released in nearly 30 years.  On top of that he’s able to pull together the resources to have orchestration on an album this “out”.  Yet, he still manages to have his sense of humor felt quite directly.  His previous album The Drift had surreal, absurdist lyrics like “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” (“Jolson and Jones”) but Bish Bosch goes for a more heady mix of lowbrow phrasings with lyrics like “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face” (“SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)”).  To pull all these elements together in a way that holds together and finds more than scattered audiences at the fringes is no mean feat, and it’s the mark of a master that Walker has done it, again.  There is definitely a brutality in the world of 2012 and Scott Walker seems to have his finger on that pulse in a way that is as unsettling and uncomfortable as the times themselves.  What Bish Bosch reveals, though, is a sense of hidden value in the grotesque, an affirming quality that with a lot of effort–and with the enormous cast of players here, that’s an understatement–people have the power to reclaim the very foundation of the grotesque and create from it a new context.  It’s quite telling that Walker’s approach means an engagement of the highbrow with the lowbrow, and that a gap between those audiences music be bridged.  Granted, he has not won over all listeners, but in a philosophical sense, he’s re-imagining the meaning and possibilities of the path he sets out upon.  It’s not just a different arrangement of the same old elements, but a bold new system of determining what is real and what is illusion.  That is to say that listening to this sort of music can change how to listen to other things, and change your perception of what you have already heard.  It seems the role of philosopher king suits Scott Walker well in his advancing years.

Lotte Lenya – Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill

Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill

Lotte LenyaLotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill Philips B 07 089 (1955)

Lotte Lenya was, in a word, inimitable.  That voice, so frail yet so unshakable, gave us the definitive interpretations of Kurt Weill‘s music.  Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill was recorded in 1955 as her career saw a revival thanks to a new English-language production of Brecht/Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” by Marc Blitzstein at the Theatre de Lys (co-starring Bea Arthur, Ed Asner and Jerry Stiller).  She recorded in Berlin, returning for the first time in twenty years.  That environment was likely crucial to the record that resulted.  A lot had changed in those years.

First some history.  Germany and Prussia, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, provoked the Great War (World War I) by seeking to enjoy the same economic and political privileges that imperial powers like France and England sought to reserve for themselves.  Germany/Prussia was eventually defeated due primarily to the fact that the United States lent its fiscal and manufacturing support to the side of the Allies — in spite of the Bolshevik Revolution that withdrew Soviet/Russian troops from the ridiculous conflict (not to mention allowed the publication of the secret Allied treaties in Pravda).  That particular war lead to abdication by Wilhelm II in 1918, and later the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  The treaty has lived in infamy, as it memorialized the old grudges held by England/France against their counterparts with oppressive reparations imposed on the Germans/Prussians.  To the chagrin of the Allies, American boorishness reared its head as the United States refused to treat Allied support as wartime grants not to be repaid (as was long tradition among warring nations) but instead as loans to be repaid (thanks to American intransigence and other factors like inept British negotiation, the terms of the loans worked out after the war were, to say the least, oppressive).  (Read about this in Michael Hudson‘s Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance (New Edition)).  This set the stage for Weimar Germany, the Republic established out of the confusion following Wilhelm II’s abdication that lasted barely more than a decade until the Nazis rose to power in 1933.

Weimar Germany was a strange and unusual thing.  German reparations were so oppressive as to eliminate the possibility of economic recovery.  Moreover, repayment of the outrageous Allied loans was realistically tied to and dependent upon the payment of German reparations — despite self-serving American denials.  In that economically savage context, with recovery impossible, the German people lived a chaotically vibrant but inescapably desperate existence.  The classic novel of the Weimar era, Alfred Döblin‘s Berlin Alexanderplaz: Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf [Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf], portrays the times as well as anything (the relatively lazy can instead watch the 15+ hour adaptation Berlin Alexanderplatz by New German Cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder).  Like the novel’s protagonist, good intentions fall prey to grim realities, and crime and prostitution become familiar responses to a life of limited opportunities.  Disgusting Nazi propaganda becomes a repository for misguided resentment and wounded pride, or, in Biberkopf’s case, simple gullibility.

Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (married to each other twice) rose to prominence in this Weimer era.  Weill was a composer like Erik Satie or George Gershwin, seeking to bridge the gap between popular music and formal, classical composition.  Weill has been frequently compared to Mozart for the direct, lyrical qualities of his music, so simple but with a rich and nuanced depth underneath.

The music of this album comes from a number of Weill efforts: “Die Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera],” “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahogonny [The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny],” “Happy End” and “Das Berliner Requiem [Berlin Requiem]” with texts by Bertolt Brecht and “Der Silbersee, Ein Wintermärchen [The Silverlake, A Winter’s Tale]” with texts by Georg Kaiser.  What makes these particular recordings so wonderful is that the music is an honest and grim interpretation of Weill’s music.  When he originally scored “The Threepenny Opera,” he did not use a full orchestra.  Instead, the music was for seven musicians asked to play a total of twenty-three different instruments.  Alex Ross, in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, writes that “by asking his performers to take on so many roles, Weill guarantees that the playing will have, in place of soulless professional expertise, a scrappy, seat-of-the-pants energy.”  In that, one finds some of the essence of Weimar Germany, just like Franz Biberkopf the working-class protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz shifts his career among that of a pimp, necktie clip salesman, shoelace drummer (door-to-door salesman), newspaper barker, burglar.  Biberkopf’s determined but futile individualism has the same spirit as in Weill’s ingenious, street-wise compositions.

These particular recordings, with instrumentation like a ragged banjo and warbling organ on “Moritat vom Mackie Messer [The Ballad of Mack the Knife],” or an out-of-tune piano on “Bilbao-Song,” are true to the original Weill vision.  It is great that Brecht and Weill’s song has become something of a standard, but the slick renditions of Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and others miss something when the sense of fear and uncertainty is swept away with a very refined pop/jazz arrangement.  These 1955 recordings bring out something in Lenya’s voice too.  Recording amidst a once-grand city ruined by Allied terror campaigns, the sense of grim desperation that so characterized Weimar Germany just below the surface in the 1920s is palpable in her rough-hewn and gently aged voice.  The Great War (WWI) killed untold people, but the civilian infrastructure of Europe was largely untouched.  World War II changed that.  American callousness led the Air Force to switch to terror bombing of civilian targets starting with Berlin, then on to the fire-bombing of Dresden (memorialized in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death) and Tokyo, the dropping of napalm on Royan, France (read Howard Zinn, who participated as a bombardier), and culminating with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (later revealed to have been unnecessary in view of a Japanese willingness to surrender, but advanced to try to intimidate Stalin; read Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing The Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, Gal Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb or Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century or even Peter Kuznick) — for their part the other war powers had their own instruments of terror, from the German Paris Gun and V-1 and V-2 rockets to the Japanese explosive devices delivered to mainland North America on balloons carried in the jet stream.  In spite of the Wirtschaftswunder, or German “Economic Miracle” of the post-WWII years made possible by cancellation of German internal debt (and with U.S. aggression in the Korean War serving to bolster the German economy), Berlin was still in visible ruins when Lenya returned (for more context, watch Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun [The Marriage of Maria Braun]).  However, the Berlin Wall, erected by the East to keep out CIA saboteurs (read William Blum Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (Updated Through 2003)), was still six years away.

In such a brutal century, Brecht and Weill’s murderous Macheath, the central character of “Mack the Knife,” seems like a sign of the times.  His knife, so the lyrics tell us, is out of sight, like the airplanes and rockets bringing down fire on civilians, or the economic subterfuge of government reparations and debt that invisibly suppressed the Germans, French and English in the Weimar era.  That is the way of Brecht’s theatrical vision.  Songs like “Alabama-Song” too (with lyrics some allege were co-written by Brecht’s girlfriend Elisabeth Hauptmann) capture pub life (during an era of American Prohibition), with deadpan refrains of “Oh don’t ask why / Oh don’t ask why.”  The words also tell of looking for a dollar, or else they, the singers, “must die.”  The contrast of the merciless themes and the seemingly light, sing-along performance throw light on the odd complexities of modern life.  Times have changed less than it may seem, only the origins of those realities are more concealed than ever.

Later attempts to make music ostensibly like this so often resort to irony.  There is no irony here.  There are contrasts, and dialectical devices, but everything is a direct representation of what is expressed.  This is music like little else.