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 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.
Recorded at two performances, one on each coast (at The Troubadour in Hollywood and The Bitter End in New York City), Donny Hathaway’s Live takes on an intimate small-club feel throughout. The songs recorded on the West Coast would seem to come first. They have a smooth gloss. The songs that seem to come from performance in New York retain more brutal space and gaps. Regardless of where any one song was recorded, the entire collection presents a varied, evocative look at soul music from one of its greatest interpreters.
Donny Hathaway, still in his twenties, was perhaps the most intellectual soul or R&B performer of his day. Well, that may be misleading. He was among the most mature. Depth and clarity are ever-present in his music. The complexity of a song like “Hey Girl”, for example, is of no concern. It is effortless. Simple in its relation to the fervor of feelings sought, lost, held, doubted by practically all of us, the song’s evocation of an uncertain relationship is an experience in itself. That is the near miracle of the album. Every listen makes the present day seem to stretch out forever.
Carole King‘s “You’ve Got a Friend” (popularly recorded by James Taylor) is a transcendent moment. For quite a while, Donny lets the audience carry most—not just some—of the vocals. There is a complete communion between those who began as separate groups of performers and audience. The union happens almost immediately. Hathaway gracefully lays out the first few chords on his electric piano and a cheer immediately rises. Just the first few seconds of that song are enough to restore a sense of purpose in the most lifeless among us. Hathaway’s confidence, poise, determination and generosity are evident.
Another spectacular cover is John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy”. Whimsical guitar and piano riffs punctuate Donny’s patient vocals. Like all his music, there is a warmth too rarely found elsewhere. Also, Donny shows he can downplay his gospel roots and still succeed in every way.
“Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” stretches out over four movements, with each lending an opportunity for different musicians to step to the front (like guitarists Mike Howard and Cornell Dupree, and “the baddest bass player in the country” Willie Weeks), each movement also lending to a changing emotional interpretation of the song. Certainly the funkiest number on the album, the extended (thirteen minute) performance highlights what an accomplished soul-jazz combo was at work.
Though plagued by severe depression through much of the coming years, the period when Live was recorded was Donny Hathaway’s creative peak. In his last years, Donny recorded little. His duets with Roberta Flack from the early 1970s–“Where Is the Love?”, etc.–found the most widespread popularity. Still, it will be Donny’s own records that will endure longest.
It would be too much to say this is one of the greatest albums ever made. There are no final greatest masterpieces. Contexts change. Even still, hell, Live is as close to the top of the heap as we’ll ever know.
Lester Bangs lamented that The Electric Flag got buzz in the press when more deserving acts languished in obscurity (in spite of Bangs’ best efforts). There is just something disingenuous about The Electric Flag. Yeah, they have a jazzy soul thing going, melded with slightly psychedelic blues rock. But it seems too crass, just an assemblage of whatever seemed “hip” at the time. It’s contrived. These guys would have made a great studio band for somebody else, but on their own they just don’t have any good ideas of their own, just the ability to loosely amalgamate popular styles of the day. It’s the kind of music they seemed obligated to make, not music that came from any kind of genuine passion or drive outside of rock careerism. This just clings to forms that already had matured in the hands of others. But, for what it’s worth, this album beats the seemingly better-known A Long Time Comin’. Reference The Rascals too.
The eponymous debut album by The Rolling Stones (renamed England’s Newest Hit Makers for subsequent U.S. release) is a somewhat inauspicious affair. It is full of energetic takes on American blues. The group plays with enthusiasm. Yet aside from a few hints at guitar prowess, there aren’t a whole lot of highlights here. Still, there aren’t any great missteps, and the effort to reach out across racial lines is admirable. This was about taking essentially rural music and making it more urban and palatable for middle class youth desperate for a new music to call their own. Perhaps that wasn’t the precise intent, but it was the ultimate effect. They got better quickly. What is stunning is how there are scarcely any cues here to indicate just how good they would get — or how fast they would get there.
Some bag on Stereopathetic Soulmanure as an inferior Beck release, but I think it’s easily one of his best albums. It’s a little rough in patches, but the eclectic songwriting is usually good and there is even some fairly good guitar playing. Beck is all over the place. From found sounds, to noise rock, to country, to folk, he tries a little of everything. But he manages to pull it off. In fact, Mellow Gold was a big step down from the creativity on display here. Beck hadn’t yet hooked up with hip-hop producers but it’s no real loss with what is found here. Is this juvenile? Yes, of course. But it manages to faithfully capture the sense of looking for something that resonates and finding the process of the search at least as interesting as anything found along the way. This has the feel of bored Southern California kids making their own entertainment — not unlike what Ariel Pink would do a few years later.
A more mature Vijay Iyer offers something the younger Iyer did not. He melds angular, modernist attacks with smooth, easy sensibilities in a way that avoids both stilted transitions and empty new age chamber jazz posturing–sometimes the nagging limitations of his early work. Accelerando features all his strengths and none of his weaknesses. It certainly helps that bassist Stephan Crump provides a very prominent drive to the music. Covering some pop music (“Human Nature”) also reveals a grounded sense of humor. Such little touches evidence the magnanimous spirit imbuing the proceedings. This is music that is as accessible as it is vibrant. It may well be Iyer’s best offering yet.