Patti Smith – Horses

Horses

Patti SmithHorses Arista AL 4066 (1975)


Patti Smith was a poet first, and rock musician second. The stiff grip of the opening line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” announces that rock has changed. Soul, reggae, free jazz, euro-classical, and rock all co-exist on Horses. Patti Smith built on a new dialectic that recognized a future world of possibility without any need to destroy the past.

Patti Smith’s words encoded a mishmash of desperation and jubilation in three chord rock ‘n’ roll. After her breakthrough single “Hey Joe / Piss Factory,” the true Patti Smith Group came together. Rock critic turned rock star Lenny Kaye played guitar with a knowing yet innocent abandon. Richard Sohl, Ivan Král, and Jay Dee Daugherty rounded out the fine rhythm section. Though the minimalist rock pulsing behind the sing-speak monologues receives little fanfare, its understated beauty is what makes Horses so lovable. The music simply happens (thanks to John Cale’s production). More improvisational numbers like “Birdland” drift through a world of emotional struggles. Guest Tom Verlaine adds soaring guitar solos to “Break It Up.” New sounds of punk-reggae on “Redondo Beach” and “Kimberly” affirm that the instrumental performances were in fact highly influential. The whole band contributes to the homespun rawness that makes Horses so moving.

The Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo reveals the artist in her element–the Chelsea Hotel scene she romanticized. Patti Smith was both the ultimate New York City icon and iconoclast. Like she rolled out of bed to breath poetry. Whether redefining Them’s version of “Gloria” or Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” Smith tears through convention with the cerebral precision of William S. Burroughs. She worked from a gritty, immediate level. Nevertheless, as profound as she was, Patti Smith could still write a simple non-romantic love song like “Kimberly.” Her spoken word (spouting Rimbaud and James Brown) took a sort of pleasure in spitting on the audience as she slung revelations. Before Smith, few artists dared to infuse raw spoken word with the rudiments of rock and roll (Gil Scott-Heron, Leonard Cohen, The Last Poets, and Lou Reed being among her predecessors). A living drama unfolds with the theatrics of these performances. The hands of a master shape mere substance into the fluid forms of a new aesthetic.

Patti Smith was a feminist (despite what she says to the contrary). Her will forged her work. In a man’s man’s man’s world, Patti Smith acted independent of convention. Her gender did not solely determine her course. She wanted to be a housewife and left rock and roll for a long time (this is significant in that declining to exercise a power helps confirm vested rights and the power to control their exercise). Later, Smith came back to music. Yeah, some of the later stuff is pretentious garbage. Patti Smith still lived rock and roll, the good, the bad, and all that in between.

Judy Collins – In My Life

In My Life

Judy CollinsIn My Life Elektra EKS 7320 (1966)


I have always rather liked Judy Collins’ voice.  She resembled English folk singers like Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson (or more accurately, it was the other way around).  Collins is often described as “Elektra records’ answer to Vanguard Records’ Joan Baez.”  Collins began as a traditional acoustic guitar folk singer, and that description may have held true for a time.  But with In My Life she began what many consider her “art pop” phase.  Rather than simple acoustic guitar treatments she was adding string arrangements and performing material from a wider variety of styles such as theater songs.  And she dressed up the core of folk music with something other than rock influence.  It is appropriate to identify Collins as an innovator in this regard, because In My Life quickly showed influence, directly or indirectly, on a lot of other works in the coming years:  Nico‘s Chelsea Girl, Phil OchsPleasures of the Harbor, Tim Buckley‘s Goodbye and Hello &c.  The album proved an important stepping stone in developing the more elaborate and ornate sounds of the singer-songwriter movement that followed the urban folk revival.  You can even find traces of Collins and In My Life in such works as far apart in time as Joanna Newsom‘s Ys and Have One on Me.

What we have here is a bit inconsistent.  Collins does well with Randy Newman‘s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and Donovan‘s “Sunny Goodge Street.”  She also delivers some nice vocals on Bob Dylan‘s “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” where her vocal phrasing is wholly new and nothing like Dylan’s.  That song is a bit like the mad tea party in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, because Collins’ assured voice set against the surreal and absurdist context of Dylan’s lyrical landscape is like the logical Alice precociously befuddled by the social antics of the Mad Hatter and friends that she does not understand.  It reveals in Dylan’s song an almost coming-of-age quality.  Where this stumbles, though, is with some of the song selections and the instrumentation and arrangements.  “Tom Thumb’s Blues” has a rather nondescript string treatment, and it doesn’t quite live up to the power of Collins’ vocals.  The theater numbers vary.  Brecht/Weill‘s “Pirate Jenny [Seeräuberjenny]” is ill-suited to her, though “Marat/Sade” (a medley from the Peter Weiss play) works.  Jacques Brel‘s “La Colombe” isn’t quite right either (try Scott Walker from the following few years for superior interpretations of Brel).  But you can draw an almost direct connection between this and the ways West Coast singer-songwriters and interpretive pop singers would emerge in the coming years, though it’s obvious that Collins took a more serious approach than others who followed.  “Marat/Sade” may be from a musical, but it’s no Andrew Lloyd Webber pap.  The studio musicians turn in performances throughout that are polite and competent but not always particularly engaged.  Joshua Rifkin‘s arrangements don’t always do enough to tailor themselves to Collins’ singing.  This is now more a period piece than anything, but a nice one at that.  It has certainly grown on me since my first listen.

Gareth Porter – Robert S. McNamara and the Real Tonkin Gulf Deception

Link to an article by investigative historian Gareth Porter:

“Robert S. McNamara and the Real Tonkin Gulf Deception: Pushing LBJ Into War”

It is interesting to consider Porter’s perspectives on this in light of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the “bureaucratic field”.  That is, Porter does not view the “state” as a monolithic entity, but a field established by and through its agents (and groups of agents) struggling amongst each other for authority.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today

Before Today

Ariel Pink’s Haunted GraffitiBefore Today 4AD CAD3X15CD (2010)


A growing and widespread trend amongst music of the early 21st Century is a tendency to look back at earlier eras, and to the innocence of youth.  At its most grating and shallow, this is represented by many forms of indie “twee” pop.  At its most incisive and nuanced, representatives of the freak folk movement stand out, like early Devendra Banhart and, more significantly, Joanna Newsom.  New strains of “hypnagogic pop” also fit the bill.  Ariel Pink fits in that continuum too.  His music, lo-fi pop he credits to the R. Stevie Moore school, is like a filtered and re-cast version of pop music of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  For Pink, the “innocence of youth” is about remaining a sort of juvenile delinquent of the highest order, and playing and subverting music that resembles what was popular when he was a child.  Slavoj Žižek, discussing the film The Village, mentions how the story portrays a “desire to recreate a closed universe of authenticity in which innocence is protected from the coercive force of modernity . . . .”  That also could describe the most devolved and conservative visions in music emphasized incessantly by indie twee, while Pink’s motivation is more of an attempt to pour acid on innocent history and corrode it sufficiently to create his own mutant version.  The boldest and most impressive aspect of what Pink does is that his musical sources tend to be the most passé kinds of AM radio fare that would normally provoke a sneer from most listeners, or at least any that consider themselves “hip”.  The earliest Haunted Graffiti albums were solo affairs, recorded on primitive equipment in Pink’s home, complete with human beatbox “percussion”.  Now Pink has a band behind him.  They are the right band.  Without backing away from the warm and fuzzy sound of a 4th generation tape dub, his group adds precision to the melodies that is a major asset.  What this music represents though is a reboot of pop of the preceding decades.  It is as if to say, “it failed before, but this time it might work!”  Music like this says a lot about society, and how on some level there is recognition that we have to go back and undo the mistakes of history while salvaging its successes.

Beck – Morning Phase

Morning Phase

BeckMorning Phase Capitol B001983802 (2014)


Beck returns to mellow indie-rock with Morning Phase.  It is territory he’s strode before.  But it also represents Beck the conformist, and the guy who seems to be a little long in the tooth for the rock and roll game.  Still, he’s also somewhat self-consciously taking on that role.

Once upon a time, fifteen years or so earlier, Beck worked in post-modern pastiche.  His music back then didn’t settle into one genre.  It drew from many.  It juxtaposed elements of each.  At a most elemental level, it presented a unique perspective on how to subjectivize the American experience of the 1990s.  It valued the diversity of expression available, and the permissiveness of access to those different forms.  It was the beginning of the Internet era, when communications were seeing a unprecedented (if, in hindsight, possibly brief) period of democratization, at least down through the middle class.  In music this meant that obscurantist knowledge was becoming less constrained into cliques organized around particular music shops, (maga)zines, concert venues, and so forth.  Cultural acuity began to require a faculty of recombining the large-scale raw elements of form.  This is what mattered at a time when information about music, and music itself (via on-line file-sharing services like Napster, etc.), was becoming more widely available.  There was more stuff out there, more readily available, than most people had historically been able to grasp.  And the music industry had just offered one of its more open-minded policies to mildly subversive material that would appeal to upper middle-class audiences (not just to lower middle and working class audiences).  There was a lot of music out there to choose from.  It mattered to audiences how a person would make sense of it all.  Enter Beck.  He took all these things floating around and pulled them together in a way that was fun, ironically mocking, and inclusive.  He pulled in elements of genres, like hip-hop, in which he possessed no inherent credibility.  He didn’t have the sort of “street cred” that seemed like a entry requirement for the “gangsta rap” that had dominated the hip-hop genre in the early part of the decade.  But he, and his producers, demonstrated that enough wit and some catchy hooks could totally obviate the need for entry credentials.

There was an audience out there who also liked a wide variety of types of music, and perhaps were demonstrating a possession of knowledge of such musics (“cultural capital”) by gravitating toward music that embodied diverse tastes.  Wrapped up in all this, still, was a certain irreverence.  There was no loyalty to any particular type or types music.  But this irreverence crafted another kind of loyalty within the specific audience that could understand a wide variety forms. Listeners toiling away at three jobs to make ends meet maybe did not have the time to absorb and contextualize multiple contemporary musical genres, not to mention have meaningful access to them.  Anyway, this positioned Beck’s relation to “genre” as a means of classifying music as something that principally depended on the audience’s sociological makeup, not the purely technical aspects of the sound in his music.

In the next decade, Beck turned to more discrete efforts in particular genres.  He gravitated toward themes like relationships, and his earlier focus on form sort of evaporated.  His music remained popular.  He was sort of a reliable figure, leaning on slightly different approaches, from moody, low key and nearly acoustic music, to brash guitar-rock with tinges of hip-hop and electronics.  Of course all of the kinds of music he was pursuing had precedents.  In fact it could almost be said that he was simply amplifying the dominant trends in the sort of rock that appealed to college-educated, white audiences — ones that always seems to have disposable income for music.  A clear pattern can be found in which he kind of followed more or less the same audience as it grew older and settled into more of a routine, which did not admit so much time for exploration of new and different musical genres.  This was reflected in Beck’s music more frequently being called “mature” than “juvenile”.

If Beck’s career can be compared to that of a figure from the world of cinema, François Truffaut would be as good a reference point as any.  Truffaut began as a film critic, but when he transitioned to the role a of director his earliest films exploded with personal idiosyncrasies made the thematic focal point.  But over time Truffaut chose commercial and financial well-being over artistic innovation.  Personal idiosyncrasies evaporated, and he made “films of quality” of the sort he once questioned as a film critic.  There was a shift from modernism to classicism.  Is this what has become of Beck?  The albums Beck now makes fit squarely into established genres.  He doesn’t really offer any particularly new ways of perceiving and subjectivizing worldly experience.  He instead has focused on craft and technique within well-defined genre boundaries.  He can do melancholy ballads.  He can handle three-chord guitar rock with distortion pedals.  If listeners choose to compare Beck’s music to that of other artists, there is nothing in the substantive content that can’t be readily found elsewhere.  But in terms of the packaging, so to speak, fairly little other recorded rock music has a more polished a delivery.  This stuff is well-built.  Not a note seems out of place.  He has access to absolutely the finest recording studios and supporting staff, and he makes ample use of those resources.  And also, there isn’t any filler material padding out the run-time of the albums.  Every song is finely honed, and effort went into each of them.

Beck can still write a decent song.  He also is not a bad singer.  But his attentions here are are on using established methods in a richer, more intricate web that relies less on discrete riffs and hooks than on slowly building modulations that evoke “evolution” of the music.  “Blue Moon” is an example of how effectively he can wield these sorts of techniques.  There are layered vocals set against a tapestry of acoustic guitar and distant sounding drums, with punctuation provided by piano.  The rhythm becomes more insistent.  Backing vocals grow more urgent while the drums sound more hurried.  The lyrics speak of a fear of abandonment and loneliness.  Really, they speak of concern for being left behind and forgotten.  These are relevant fears for an artist who has already achieved as much as can be expected as an entertainer, and is always at risk of becoming a forgotten anachronism.  Yet the music is so effusively smooth that it sort of drifts by rather than imposing itself.  It is almost a dare precisely to forget it.  That sort of seems to be the point.  Beck is playing the part of the fading middle-aged rocker, coming to terms with middle age.

On songs like “Wave” there is orchestral treatment, with rising and falling dramatic pulses (reminiscent of the only internationally known Icelandic pop singer). A moody darkness dominates.  “Don’t Let It Go” opens with deliberate acoustic guitar picking, emphasizing a rhythm that Beck’s vocals later emphasize.  A piano is added, followed by drums.  These are all well-established approaches for building moods in pop music.  So, maybe Beck is still combining different types of music?  There are bits and pieces of this music that resembles everything from 1970s FM radio pop rock to more contemporary “indie” rock.  This is more like a scavenger hunt.  It is like a challenge to find the points of reference, at once meant to be reassuring by making the referents very familiar to Beck’s core audience but also stretching to cover a wide assortment of middle-class mainstream pop.  This is something of a trend in indie rock of late, with a set of “musical anthropologists” of sorts trying to reclaim the passe pop music of prior generations.  Unfortunately, there is a self-congratulatory aspect to such devices in Beck’s hands, particularly when he draws from material that his audience probably already likes rather than challenging them to accept music they are socially expected to despise.

Beck is always ready to try to put a finger on what audiences want.  It almost seems like he’s reading up on market research, and delivering just what commercial rock needs in any given year — much like a certain Irish rock band that won’t be named.  But Morning Phase is ultimately a mediocre album because it doesn’t offer the realization of any new desires.  It is an attempt to capitalize on existing desire.  The calculated nature makes it inhibited.  No, there is nothing wrong with this music, exactly.  But it is no more than an attempt to fulfill the pre-existing expectations of an established audience.  No amount of coloration with gongs, mandolin, guitar flange pedals, pedal steel guitar, or airy vocals on the usual assortment of interpersonal relationship quandaries and weighty personal feelings can make it anything other than a palliative, an assurance to the audience that everything is as it should be.  The audience is left right where it began, mildly distracted by an unbroken chain of emotional distractions that just loop onto themselves across a host of musical genres.  If you are in the right demographic, the loop sounds vaguely like Beck, inasmuch as it sounds like anything distinct at all.

Pavement – Brighten the Corners

Brighten the Corners

PavementBrighten the Corners Matador OLE 197-2 (1997)


Pavement might well be THE rock band of the 1990s.  They skew a bit toward the white middle class demographic, though Gold Sounds might suggest there is more to that story.  As a reviewer on RateYourMusic astutely noted (with respect to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain), Pavement studied up on everything that was good about 80s (underground/college) rock and updated it.  Brighten the Corners, while unfairly maligned by some, belongs near the top of the heap of the group’s recordings.  Wowee Zowee was trying too hard to have an “eclectic” sound.  Here, it all comes more naturally, and the band seems to be doing more of what they like.  Comparisons to Television‘s debut are apt, as Pavement really looks further back than just the 80s.  The ponderous but astute lyrics from Malkmus just top this one off with whipped cream and a cherry.

Paul Robeson – Robeson

Robeson

Paul RobesonRobeson Verve MG V-4044 (1960)


You can’t find an American better than Paul Robeson.  There are a lot of things life can throw at a person.  You would have to say that Robeson encountered a good many of them and, in the face of those challenges, made the right choices no matter the burden of doing so (at least in his public life).  Best known for his definitive performance of “Ol’ Man River” from the musical Show Boat, Robeson’s staggering list of lifetime achievements included being an all-American athlete, attorney, star of stage, screen and recordings, and internationally recognized civil rights activist.  He took a principled stand in favor of the USSR, and as a result was harassed and persecuted over a period of decades by the U.S. government (the same government that tacitly permitted lynchings into the 1960s [with President Truman refusing Robeson’s challenge to formally ban lynchings by law] and to this day has a national holiday honoring the genocidal plunderer Christopher Columbus, the last man to discover the “new world”).

Robeson (Verve) was recorded August 22, 1960 in London.  It was during a time when Roberson’s health was starting to deteriorate.  His passport was revoked and he was denied international travel from 1950-58.  But after the U.S. State Department reinstated his passport — and then only when forced to by the U.S. Supreme Court after the case Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116 (1958), a decision written by Robeson’s law school classmate William O. Douglas — Robeson resumed travel and revived his international performing career.  That allowed him to make these recordings abroad.  For his age, and given his health problems, his bass-baritone voice was still commanding.  Though it had lowered somewhat, the vibrato a little shakier at times.  While he sometimes performed “spirituals” (an early term for afro-american gospel music), this album features non-religious “pop” repertoire with orchestral backing.  It was a return to pop for Robeson, who focused more on folk and activist material in the 1950s.  Here, his voice is out front and the theatrically-leaning orchestral backing tastefully restrained.  If ever a musical discussion turns to the question of the merits of lighter fare, turn to Robeson for proof that a great singer can turn any material into something meaningful and lasting.  Not only that, if in the final analysis the history of the 20th Century mostly bore out Hannah Arendt‘s dictum about “the banality of evil,” then Paul Robeson’s provides us with a crucial look at what it will take in the 21st Century to find the antidote.

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.