Alex Ross – The 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 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 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.
Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes (From the Underground) Columbia FC 40009 (1985)
Wynton Marsalis has become the poster child of the conservative movement in post-1970s jazz, which tends to view the genre as something entirely mapped out with well defined boundaries that has survived certain “failed” formulations that are only worthy of being derided or ignored. He is relied upon as the “definitive” musician-commentator on jazz. And so he has been regularly featured in films, etc. pontificating about the meaning of the music as a whole. Naturally he does so from within the narrow confines of his own definitions of what jazz is and should be. And, naturally, I hate his fucking guts for that. But Black Codes (From the Underground) is still a success. In spite of its scarcely-concealed agenda of skipping over all jazz history since Miles Davis’ second great quintet from the mid-1960s, there is conviction behind it. This doesn’t exactly wow or thrill me, or even surprise me. I still have to admit that this is a good album.
Johnny Cash – America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song Columbia KC 31645 (1972)
The early 1970s were a turbulent time in America, with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam war, the biggest economic crisis the Western world had faced in many decades, continued fights to implement integration, women’s liberation, and much more. Oh, and there was a lot of stuff happening to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the nation’s independence from England in 1776. Along comes Johnny Cash, with this album, depicting him on the cover in a military-style jacket on a decrepit farmhouse porch behind a flag, and subtitled “A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song”. The theme is American history. It looks pretty heavy-handed on paper. The thing is, he does a pretty good job with this concept. He re-records a few tunes he had done before, and performs an assortment of other songs, mostly new ones written himself. There is a lot of between-song spoken dialog, and even a recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Some of these tracks were recorded exclusively for the astronauts on the Apollo 14 space mission (the one where Alan Shepard hit golf balls on the Moon), but ended up here instead. Like much of Cash’s early 70s output, the songs have a minimalist, folky feel, and there are only a couple of cuts with his trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm (“Paul Revere,” “These Are My People”). And while this looks a lot like a very rudimentary recitation of the standard “story of America” taught to little kids in grade school, it ends up being slightly more nuanced than that. “Big Foot,” about the Wounded Knee Massacre, wasn’t something frequently taught in school history classes — would Cash have dug Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States when it came out years later? This release predated the Pine Ridge Incident, erupting in response to the anniversary of Wounded Knee, by only a matter of months. Yet Cash elsewhere celebrates genocidal madmen like Christopher Columbus, so there are still contradictions. Listeners who want Johnny in good voice, recorded well with a crisp and talented backing band will probably find lots to like here. Those who focus on lyrics more than the instrumental contributions probably will care a lot less for this one. In any event, this was one of Cash’s last concepts albums.
Johnny Cash – Ragged Old Flag Columbia KC 32917 (1974)
Johnny Cash’s recordings of the 1970s aren’t usually regarded well. He seemed to struggle with issues that tend to face every big star eventually: what happens when you’ve been around the business for long enough that popular tastes have changed and new trends and fads have come along? Stay true to what you always did (even if that is less popular) or adapt to the times (can you pull it off)? Interestingly, Cash tries a little of both with Ragged Old Flag.
The title track finds Cash displaying his most chauvinistic, nationalist populism, which is presented as mere patriotism during the midst of the Watergate scandal. It’s always hard to pin down Cash on politics, but it is common for people who lived through the Watergate era and fully understood Nixon’s crimes to insist that the president shouldn’t have gone to prison or been removed from office, just out of some vague sense of “patriotism”. Cash seems to take a similar view, at least by implication. It’s maybe also worth noting that Cash had met Nixon personally by this time, and had performed for him at the White House.
The album often recalls the “old” sound of Cash’s 50s recordings. But Charlie Bragg is the co-producer, and he seems responsible for providing a more contemporary country flair to some of the material here, most notably “Southern Comfort.” Cash has good support from Earl Scruggs on banjo and The Oak Ridge Boys on backing vocals throughout. Some of the folkier moments build on what was achieved on Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and Man in Black too, with a little more slick and polished sound.
Cash wrote (or co-wrote) everything here. Some of those efforts are worthy of note. “Don’t Go Near the Water” is an environmentalist paean. It’s something unusual for a country star. Then there is “King of the Hill,” a song that prefigures a lot of what Bruce Springsteen would become known for a few years down the line. It’s a song about “manly” men who want to succeed in life and go to the coal mines rather than the cotton mill to do it. But by the end, the song conveys that eventually all the coal will be gone, and if you’re not dead already you can call yourself king of the hill. But it’s a kind of sad prize, and Cash very subtly makes it an ironic one, implying (without clearly stating it, except through a little chuckle) that maybe it was all a waste.
This album is among the better of Cash’s efforts of the decade. Much of side two runs a little thinner after the good “Lonesome to the Bone,” but side one in particular delivers some good performances and songwriting with energy and conviction. This isn’t the place to start with Cash. Still, admirers may want to take a listen at some point as it would be a full twenty years before he made another album this good.
Link to an article on the substitution of prisons for social welfare programs in the USA by Loïc Wacquant, author of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009), which came out around the same time as Michelle Alexander’s similar (but more well-known) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).
“Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare, and Social Insecurity”
Various Artists – The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years MGM P6S 5878 (1973)
While showtunes and soundtrack music might not be things that I personally enjoy all that much, you can’t go wrong with this set if you want an introduction to those genres. I really respect what was done here. From a historical perspective this collection of recordings is amazing. It features some of the most well-known music of the 20th Century. People who wouldn’t consider themselves music listeners in the slightest probably still know the melody to “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, or could recognize “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'”. The common denominator of this music is its simplicity. In terms of rhythm, nothing here is beyond a remedial level. The melodies are all straightforward and uncomplicated. The vocals often lack much subtlety, but instead focus on brute force vibrato. The instrumental film music on the final two “bonus” discs deals only in broad strokes, with lots of syrupy string arrangements and melodramatic surges. Despite the enormous popular recognition of this music, it would seem that already most of it is nothing more than an anachronism. The theatrical and vaudevillian aspects of this stuff — cartoonish, larger-than-life emoting that doesn’t leave any room for a reaction other than the one intended — isn’t all that common outside of Bollywood just a few decades on. It’s a wonder how tastes change so fast. I guess that Bollywood comment might make for an interesting comparison: is this music something that is borne out of socioeconomic conditions to fill a gap between the general public’s cultural sophistication and its more rapidly rising disposable income? At its worst, that is probably exactly what it does. But here we get some of the best and brightest moments, where there’s something more at work. “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are so well known because they simply are great songs. And there are plenty more great songs here. There was also a book of the same name by Lawrence B. Thomas released just before this LP box set, which might be of interest. There are no liner notes to speak of with this set, so perhaps the book has more information about the music (I haven’t read it).
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs Island ILPS 9803 (1985)
Easily Tom Waits’ greatest achievement. It’s a ramshackle wreck of a thing, and no two songs are great for quite the same reasons. This one will stay with you for a lifetime.
Public Image Ltd. – The Flowers of Romance Virgin V 2189 (1981)
Wife: “This music is upsetting to me.”
Drunk History Comedy Central (2013- )
There is a silly television show called “Drunk History” on a cable network in which comedians consume alcohol to the point of drunkenness and then re-tell the story of some historical incident or personality. Well-known actors reenact the story and lip-sync to the narration of the drunken storyteller, with absolutely meticulous fidelity to the words of the storyteller, belches and all. There is a hidden secret as to what makes the premise of the show intriguing. The reenactments are not faithful to “historical fact”. Instead, they are faithful to the inebriated ramblings of the storyteller. The historical accounts are like myths. The drunk storytellers clearly have some sort of script in hand, and have done some amount of research beforehand. But they act (or maybe really are) too drunk to tell the story in an articulate and nuanced manner. So the show dramatizes the myth in a way that makes the act of mythologization evident–that’s the funny part. This is like the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It also makes the show a “pragmatic reflective history,” according the G.W.F. Hegel in Reason in History (1837), because it “nullifies the past and makes the event present.”