Bonus link: Beyoncé Review
Bonus link: Beyoncé Review
Yoko Ono’s 1973 album Feeling the Space tends to be relegated to the dustbin of history. But why? This is one of her most “mainstream” pop/rock recordings, relying on a lot of fairly conventional rock-ish genre devices. There is even a faint hint of the ironic/unironic use of kitsch that propelled the Brazilian tropicalistas starting in the late 1960s. Frequently derided by audiences opposed to her basic artistic purposes, often under the blanket criticism of her alleged lack of talent, Ono actually had formal musical training as a child. She proves here — for anyone needing such confirmation — that she can sing conventionally and on pitch. Though by singing in a second language, her Japanese accent lends her vocals a warbly, primitivist quality. The lyrics reflect the heyday of second-wave feminism during which the album was recorded. I happen to find this an immanently listenable album that deserves credit for reaching out beyond the confines of frequently elitist avant-garde practices and into popular forms. John Berger, in “The Primitive and the Professional,” New Society 1976 (reprinted in About Looking), said:
“the ‘clumsiness’ of primitive art is the precondition of its eloquence. What it is saying could never be said with any ready-made skills. For what it is saying was never meant, according to the cultural class system, to be said.”
Ono complicates the primitive vs. professional dichotomy by combining a sense of the primitive with erudite theory and overtly popular forms executed with conventional precision. While few individual songs here stand out like a “hit single”, except perhaps “Women Power,” it is very refreshing to hear music drawing from eclectic genres performed so consistently competently, paired with lyrics that evidence an intelligent moral center. While no “lost classic”, Feeling the Space exhibits many of the same strengths that are also overlooked in CAN‘s albums Flowmotion and CAN from later in the decade, as well as critically applauded features of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson‘s recordings from the early/mid 70s.
Of Willie’s numerous forays into hybrids of country and pop in the late 1960s and early 70s, My Own Peculiar Way is probably the most consistent. The backing arrangements are all reasonably suited to the music, unlike the jarring discontinuities of Willie Nelson & Family or the revolting and overbearing schlock of Laying My Burdens Down. That isn’t to say this is a great album. It is unambitious. But it is also pleasant enough.
Recorded at an appearance in Italy in 1990 of the “reunited” Ornette Coleman Quartet, this bootleg has a number of things going for it in spite of the expected lo-fidelity sound. For one, there are some original songs present that do not appear on any official albums, and this bootleg comes from period of years without any official recordings. Second, some of the performances are quite good. The first disc is relatively strong, though the second disc doesn’t really maintain the same level of performance.
Charlie Haden plays like a motherfucker here — this is one of his strongest recordings of the era. Billy Higgins also turns in an above-average performance that surpasses any of his studio turns in Ornette’s band. Ornette plays well as usual, though there is nothing particularly remarkable about his performance here. On the other hand, Don Cherry turns in a substandard effort, and he more often detracts from the songs than contributes to them.
This bootleg is naturally only for Ornette fanatics. But there are a enough highlights to recommend this to those fanatics.
Pavement’s full-length debut album Slanted and Enchanted has remained a critical favorite decades on, sort of the archetype for the kind of indie rock it represented. It reveled in a “lo-fi” aesthetic with tons of slacker charm. Read most reviews of Slanted and Enchanted and you’ll probably be told one or more of the following: a list of influences (The Fall, etc.), personal details about the band members and the history of how the band was formed, and some personal anecdote about how the reviewer discovered or reacted to Pavement. You can read about those things elsewhere. I want to instead write about the cultural significance of Pavement in terms of what they represented in a larger cultural context of the time.
The 1890s were called the “gay 90s” and the 1990s were called the “cynical 90s”. Following a decade of brutally reactionary policy from the like likes Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, cynicism in the 1990s was very much a kind of coping mechanism. In his important book(s), Kritik der zynischen Vernunft [Critique of Cynical Reason], Peter Sloterdijk described cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness”, a kind of purer strain of opium for the masses. That is just the right description for Pavement’s music. Read interviews with the band at the time and later, as well as any of the various books about 1990s “indie rock” and you’ll find much the same set of concerns about not “selling out”, staying “independent”, and so on. And yet, stop and think about what those things mean. It’s all an open acknowledgement of how shitty things are living under late capitalism. But the response is a kind of mild reformism (“economism” if you will), lessening the harsh impact and trying to stand apart from the worst excesses without really fundamentally changing anything. Their cynicism was a kind of self-preservation effort, by demonstrating an awareness of the shittiness all around, and thereby implying that they stood apart from it. Elaborating on more or less the same concept of disavowal, Mark Fisher wrote,
“Capitalist ideology in general, . . . consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief — in the sense of inner subjective attitude — at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”
Stephen Malkmus‘s lyrics are sort full of non-sequiturs and almost surrealist imagery. The lyrics, delivered with cracked, non-virtuoso singing, are a big part of what makes up the band’s sound. There is a charm about them. These seem like slackers worth rooting for. On songs like “Here,” Malkmus sings, “I was dressed for success / but success it never comes.” This is sort of what sociologists call “strain theory,” when there is a gap between social expectations and really existing conditions and actualities. Different songs here might represent different types of reactions to social strain: retreatism, rebellion, innovation. The second track, “Trigger Cut / Wounded-Kite at :17,” perfectly fits one of Sloterdijk’s phrases: “coquettish melancholy”.
The music is full of noisy guitar distortion. The drums are a lot looser than on later Pavement albums, and this is album is altogether more legitimately lo-fi than later recordings. Alex Chliton‘s Like Flies on Sherbert is an important precedent for Pavement’s aesthetic in this regard.
Some of the songs seem like parodies of grunge era rock music. This is where the “enlightened false consciousness” angle gets a bit specific. Pavement seems to be parodying the “false consciousness” of others. But doing so doesn’t escape this false consciousness, and that was precisely Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of cynicism — it still retains a connection to that which it purports to reject, and what it does retain, subtly and unspoken, is the same lust for power and prestige, just through different techniques and strategies. Put another way, a parody of false consciousness merely steps away from the most extreme false consciousness while remaining within it, which is quite different than turning from the wrong path to the right path. If we look back to the song “Here,” it certainly contains a critique of the so-called “myth of meritocracy” of the neoliberal era, but it also displays a casual acceptance of it as well. There is a reference to joining in prayer (religion being the original “opium of the masses”), and to waiting, as if someone else will swoop in and change things.
On this debut, Pavement was mostly channeling musical pop culture of the present and past. They had certainly studied up on everything good about 1980s “college” rock. But they were putting their own stamp on it all. That was evident with the album cover — a trashed re-purposing of an old album cover. Later on, Malkmus’ lyrics got a bit sharper. By the time of Brighten the Corners, he was witheringly good at capturing the existential anxiety of trying to manage socially imposed expectations, personal desire, ambition, and resigned acceptance of limited possibilities. But on this debut, the raw energy is a bigger factor.
While it is important to note the band’s cynicism, there was more to their music than just that. Actually, one of the very reasons they remain one of the most lauded bands of their day is that they used their cynicism to open up a space to slip in some rather earnest reflections on the sorts of anxieties and coping mechanisms that middle-class, educated white people tended to rely on in a time when opportunities were starting to diminish and expectations were being (somewhat forcibly) adjusted downward. Pavement didn’t rage and despair about it in a nihilistic way quite like, say, Nirvana. They took a more contemplative approach. The ironic distance and cynicism Pavement used was kind of a dead end (just like nihilistic grunge/alt rock). It accomplished the opposite of what it intended. But I think their music represents kind of a necessary wrong move, to enable those who followed to make the right moves — or, at least, better moves.
Well, I might as well succumb to one of the typical Pavement album review cliches, and talk about how I was introduced to them. In the late 1990s I was involved in student radio. A woman (Nora?) worked at the station who was middle-aged, and I think was in a graduate program at the time. Everybody loved her because she was one of those gracious, erudite types, who treated us young college kids with respect, lending her wisdom to us but seeking to learn from us too. When talking to her one day she admitted to having fallen out of the loop on what was the latest “in” music, and asked what band was like the new Pavement. I had never heard of Pavement at the time, so I had to admit I did not know. But her inquiry encouraged me to find out. Though I made only a cursory investigation at the time. I did keep hearing more about them though. At another school, a classmate of mine who knew I wrote music reviews for the campus paper asked what I thought about Pavement. His all-time favorite album was Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Then a few years later a friend got me a ticket to see James Carter‘s Gold Sounds project perform — this was a jazz band covering Pavement tunes. I felt somewhat bad for not sharing my friend’s deep knowledge and appreciation of the songs, even if I already had an interest in Carter. Anyway, now with a much deeper appreciation of Pavement’s music, I can say that Brighten the Corners remains my favorite of theirs, though Slanted and Enchanted is runner-up and is definitely the place to start with this important 1990s rock outfit.
The 1960s represented a crucial period for jazz music, with its commercial appeal dropping precipitously, a host of radical new innovations developing, and recording technology reaching an important plateau of sorts. It was an era producing many acclaimed albums, which the album format in general coming into its own during the decade. But even among the many great jazz albums of the era, Intents and Purposes stands out. Bill Dixon was one of the great jazz artists of the 20th century, though for a variety of reasons his name is not particularly well known and his relatively small catalog of recordings has not consistently remained in print. That was somewhat the fate of Intents and Purposes.
Recorded with a large group orchestra, the music is able to realize a wide range of textures and produce rather large swings in dynamics. The pieces tend to, strangely enough, include many highly conventional elements of jazz and classical music. There are clear melodic statements, tightly choreographed harmonies, and even syncopated rhythms. But what makes the album so unique is that those conventional elements are a rather small part of the music as a whole. Dixon places an unusually large emphasis on timbre/texture, space, and compositional movement. There are frequently almost independent statements, such as a passage with a simultaneous trumpet improvisation, string harmonies, a pizzicato bassline, and skittering percussion, each of which might have stood on its own. The way Dixon puts these elements together largely eliminates distinctions between foreground and background. Filmmaker Robert Bresson famously said that while most people considered film the combination of theater and photography, he saw it as the combination of painting and music. With Dixon, he seems to make music that combines philosophy and (wordless) poetry.
It has been noted that Dixon drew substantial influence from the work of Ornette Coleman, whose unique style of composition and performance utilized motive structures (as described by Gunther Schuller in the liner notes to Ornette!). Dixon offers his own take on Coleman’s motivic development. It is fair — and perhaps appropriate — to call Intents and Purposes “harmolodic” music, after Coleman’s portmanteau term for his own artistic theory. Though Coleman tended to always emphasize elements of juxtaposition, while Dixon emphasizes synthesis a bit more. That is evident in how he merges foreground and background, eliminating soloist/accompaniment distinctions. There are also some resemblances here to “third stream” music, such as the collaborative album Jazz Abstractions. Of course, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra grew out of Dixon’s earlier, less documented efforts and is certainly one of the closest counterparts to this music — compare their self-titled album from the following year.
There is a very non-competitive aspect to this music. It asserts itself through a kind of self-actualization, but resists easy comparisons and the sort of jockeying for recognition and prestige that characterizes most other music. That sort of an outlook describes most of Dixon’s career, in which he spent comparatively more time as an educator, recording infrequently and often merely privately.
More than half a century later, this album still sounds unique and impressive. That is to say it hasn’t aged a day. But that shouldn’t surprise, because while this certainly is a part of the social fabric of its time, it was always a work of unique self-expression that showed no deference to commercial trends or fads.
Song X paired Ornette Coleman with the relatively popular guitarist Pat Metheny, augmented by the multifaceted drummer Jack DeJohnette and Coleman’s frequent collaborators Denardo Coleman and Charlie Haden. Metheny’s music –primarily from his band the Pat Metheny Group — is sometimes derisively referred to as “fuzak”, meaning a kind of jazz/rock fusion that is so dull and unengaging that it resembles “Musak” brand piped-in background music. But whatever might be said about his solo recordings, he really rises to the challenge of playing with Ornette here. For his part, Ornette returns to a style of playing and writing that hadn’t been heard much since the 1960s. These songs have clear melodic content, not just repeatable riffs like with his Prime Time band, and the guitar and saxophone play together in harmony. DeJohnette is great. It is somewhat a shame that this is the only recording of Ornette playing with him. While the cliched 1980s production values are a bit unfortunate, they don’t detract too much from what are otherwise uniformly good performances. I think that is really the key to this album’s success. It doesn’t devote its energies to inventing some kind of “new style” or musical theory. It instead presents excellent new compositions that expand upon the old styles/theories and the musicians all play to the best of their abilities. Anthony Braxton came up with a useful three-part taxonomy for musicians and their work, which was not meant to favor any particular category or categories: restructuralists (i.e., innovators and game-changers), stylists (i.e., expanding on an established framework with a uniquely identifiable perspective), and traditionalists (i.e., preserving and faithfully recreating the language and techniques of the past). Song X represents these musicians performing as “stylists”, even as Ornette had elsewhere established himself as a “restructuralist”. Metheny and Coleman supposedly butted heads when recording the album, in a friendly, constructive way. It seems that friction prevented either of them from coasting on a past reputation, and works in favor of the resulting album.
This is probably my favorite of Ornette’s 1980s albums. I can’t say I’m familiar enough with Metheny to offer a similar comparative view, though this is certainly much better than his prior solo effort Rejoicing (which featured Haden and Billy Higgins, both of whom played with Ornette in the past). Most listeners will want to seek out the expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition of the album, which adds some very decent bonus tracks.
Sound Museum: Hidden Man (a companion album to Sound Museum: Three Women) is appropriately titled. Like a museum, this is sort of a curated look back at what Ornette had accomplished in his career through the mid-1990s. And yet it also offers a slightly different perspective on his past accomplishments. He is recording with a pianist (Geri Allen) in the most substantial way since the late 1950s. Bassist Charnett Moffett, son of Ornette’s former drummer Charles Moffett, adds understated yet substantial coloring. But what strikes me most about this music is the way Ornette’s trumpet playing resembles that of Bill Dixon so much. That aspect was detectable going back to The Empty Foxhole. Here it is unmistakable — compare Dixon’s Son of Sisyphus (1990), for instance. There is a lightness to this music, full of space, with a conversational tone to it much like the style Dixon pioneered. While Hidden Man might not be the most immediately striking album Ornette released over his long career, it is perhaps better than anything he released until his death in 2015.