Tag Archives: Pop

Yoko Ono – Yes, I’m a Witch

Yes, I'm a Witch

Yoko OnoYes, I’m a Witch Astralwerks ASW 79287 (2007)


Sure, these guest-driven remix albums are always uneven.  Yes, I’m a Witch is no exception.  But Yoko kind of deserved a record like this.  Anyway, the best of what is here — with input from the likes of Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, The Brother Brothers, and Shitake Monkey — is really good.  Outside of Yoko, Tom Zé, and Scott Walker, there are frankly few artists over 70 years old (!) who so convincingly deliver pop/rock music this relevant and up-to-date.  Yoko offered a few more of these remix albums, plus a new version of the Plastic Ono band released some surprisingly good new recordings in the years that followed.

Mitski – Puberty 2

Puberty 2

MitskiPuberty 2 Dead Oceans DOC123 (2016)


A really good pop album.  Mitski’s Puberty 2 takes a bit of introspective singer/songwriter electronic pop (reminiscent of The The‘s Soul Mining) and some noisy, punky retro-pop sensibilities (like The Raveonettes) and puts them forward with a voice that recalls ubiquitous recorded announcements from automatic call centers and elevators (“Doors opening at the third floor.”).  What carries the album, though, is the songwriting.  There are lots of great melodies.  This is thankfully a short album.  Anything more probably would have been filler anyway.

Carpenters – Horizon

Horizon

CarpentersHorizon A&M SP-4530 (1975)


By the mid-1970s, extensive touring and television appearances had taken a toll on The Carpenters.  But in 1975 they bounced back with the excellent album Horizon.  This has much of the same lush “soft rock” sound with dark undercurrents that made the brother and sister duo famous.  Now, though, there were more and more recording studio tricks being deployed, making the music sound a bit more like a continuous sonic fabric.  Some great songs here, like “Happy” and “Desperado.”  Side two is practically flawless.  This might not be A Song for You, but it is still one of The Carpenters’ best.

Fabrizio De André – La buona novella

La buona novella

Fabrizio De AndréLa buona novella Produttori Associati PA/LPS 34 (1970)


La buona novella (translation: “The Good News” or “The Good Book”) is a concept album about Jesus.  It draws from both the canonical New Testament and the Biblical Apocrypha.  On “Laudate hominem,” the closing song, De André sings, “I don’t want to think of you as son of God, but son of man, even brother of mine.”  He had this to say about the album in 1998:

“When I wrote La buona novella it was 1969. At the time we were in the very middle of the students’ protests, and less attentive people, which are always the majority among us — comrades, friends, people of the same age as me — regarded that record as anachronistic. They told me: ‘What’s this? We go fighting inside universities and outside universities against abuses, and you instead tell us the story, which moreover we already know, of Jesus Christ’s preachings?’ And they did not realize that the Good News was meant to be an allegory, it was an allegory that consisted in a comparison between the better and more sensible instances of the revolt of ’68, and some instances, certainly higher from a spiritual point of view, but similar from an ethical-social point of view, raised by a gentleman, 1969 years before, against the abuses of power, against the abuses of authority, in the name of egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. That man was called Jesus of Nazareth. And I think he was, and remains, the greatest revolutionary of all time. When I wrote the album I didn’t want to venture into roads or paths that would be difficult for me to travel on, such as metaphysics or even theology, first of all because I don’t understand anything about those, secondly because I always thought that if God did not exist we should invent Him, which is exactly what Man has done ever since he set foot on Earth.”

When put this way, it is clear that he was looking at christianity in a similar way as film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who wrote the screenplay St. Paul around this time but was unable to find funding to film it.  (Pasolini also made the trite Gospel According to Matthew).  They both were interested in the radical underpinnings of christianity, viewed from an atheistic point of view.  It is a perspective that has gained some traction in academic philosophy in more recent years (Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism; The Fragile Absolute — or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?).  Actually, musicians and others have for some time argued that Jesus was a communist.  For that matter, Ernst Bloch‘s Atheism in Christianity touched on this approach back in 1968, as did Thomas J. J. Altizer‘s earlier “death of god” theory.  At bottom all these are attempts to link the foundations of (purely atheistic, materialist) egalitarianism to the revolutionary content of early christianity, separate from the way the christian church has evolved (especially since the Roman Empire).  La buona novella can also be seen as something of the polar opposite of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which debuted on Broadway the following year and dwelt on the melodrama of being a messiah — in the superficial trappings of hippie garb.

The melodies here are memorable.  De André applies his wonderfully smooth, resonant voice to treatments that might be called folk-rock mixed with christian chorale music.  These recordings can be appreciated even by listeners who do not speak Italian.  Yet De André is renowned as a lyricist.  Reading translations of his lyrics by themselves is worthwhile.  (There are translations available online.)

One of the best songs here, “Il testamento di Tito” (“Tito’s Will”), includes the lyrics:

“honor the father, honor the mother
and honor also their rod
kiss the hand that broke your nose
because you asked for a morsel

“when my father’s heart stopped
I felt no sorrow
when my father’s heart stopped
I felt no sorrow”

This is more than a bit reminiscent of Luke 14:26:

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

The story draws from the Syriac Infancy Gospel and is narrated by Tito/Titus, the so-called “good thief” or “penitent thief” (also called Dismas).  Tito describes himself violating nine of the ten commandments, unrepentant, with “though shalt not kill” violated by those crucifying him.  The last lines of the song are Tito saying,

“I, in seeing this man who is dying
Mother, I feel sorrow
in the piety that doesn’t yield to resentment
Mother, I learned love.”

This is the essence of christian universalism, by taking the criminal (of a low social strata) and making his acceptance of the duty of christian love — agape, love as charity or “political love” by choosing to act like the Holy Spirit — an example of gaining direct, personal access to the universal, depicted in a positive light (rather than as a usurpation or transgression).  There is still no transcendence.  The thief dies, and so does Jesus.

De André is known for his sardonic criticisms of the catholic church, a major institution in his native Italy.  His popularity there arguably maintained or increased after his death.  A bit like Camarón de la Isla in Spain, he is a people’s musician, an iconic champion for the marginalized (even as De André came from a well-off family).

João Gilberto – João Gilberto en México

João Gilberto en México

João GilbertoJoão Gilberto en México Orfeón TCI 10.012 (1970)


João Gilberto seemed to always take unexpected paths.  Following his rise to international fame into the mid-1960s, he did not release any studio recordings for five years.  He moved to the United States, then to Mexico for a couple years, then back to the United States.  During those few years in Mexico he recorded the sometimes overlooked João Gilberto en México.  The music is transitional, and while there are some simple performances rooted in his past work, with a focus on just Gilberto singing with his guitar, this was an album that notably embraced lush American pop in a new way.  That new turn is epitomized by a version of “Trolley Song,” made famous by Judy Garland‘s rendition for Meet Me in St. Louis.  The album features orchestration, but it seems like that of a minuscule budget, deployed sparingly.  Gilberto would remove all traces of orchestration on his next album, arguably his best.  But orchestration came back even more prominently on the highly successful Amoroso, which has little of the spark and vitality of João Gilberto en México, and the use of an American pop standard carried over to the artistically rewarding collaborative effort Brasil.  This is an interesting set of music, revealing Gilberto’s willingness to rethink his music in fairly fundamental ways.  Much of the newer (if still retro) ideas he introduced initially here would only come to complete fruition over two decades later on João.

João Gilberto – João

João

João GilbertoJoão Polydor 848-507 (1991)


More than thirty years into his recording career, João Gilberto released 1991’s João.  The master sounds as cool and relaxed as ever, but here he is backed by orchestration.  It is somewhat hard to understand why Amoroso (1977), with its treacly, Sinatra-aping, cookie-cutter arrangements, gets praised as one of Gilberto’s best while this stunning, superior effort is somewhat overlooked.  While he often was at his best in minimalist settings, with little else but his voice and acoustic guitar (João Gilberto, Chega de saudade), João might be the consummate realization of his music in a more elaborate and ornate setting.  The orchestration (by Clare Fischer) features strings plus wind instruments, sounding mostly like woodwinds.  The recording is detailed enough that the woodiness of the oboes comes through, and the flutes are smoothed over to eliminate sharp angles.  And the arrangements are superb — voicings move independent of one another and add melodic detail, always perfectly complementary to the overall mood (reminiscent, perhaps, of Richard Carpenter in his prime).  The orchestration is not so much underneath Gilberto’s playing as interspersed and traded back and forth against his singing, sometimes augmenting it with crescendo-ed washes of strings.  This is not a return to a style of his earlier career as much as a new facet that retains a connection to all of his strengths while also standing somewhat distinctly apart form other trends and undercurrents of his past career.

From the beginning, everything about Gilberto’s craft was suited to last into his autumn years.  He is singing here at such a slow tempo, maybe that is a sign of age, but it also encapsulates the reclusive, deliberate, insouciant, persevering, and, above all, incorruptible qualities that make his music so appealing.  This was one of the first of his albums in a very long stretch to feature new songs.  Released decades after the bossa nova fad had passed, this is, surprisingly, yet another Gilberto album that is among the best the entire genre has to offer.  Pure class.  Superb.

Josephine Foster – Blood Rushing

Blood Rushing

Josephine FosterBlood Rushing Fire (2012)


After listening to Josephine Foster off and on for years, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t care much for her singing.  It is simply too much.  The affected mannerisms are too imposing, the delivery too forceful, and, in general, the emphasis too heavy on the vocals.  In short, she tries too hard to make her singing out of character for the kind of folky music she makes.  What I do like about Blood Rushing is everything else.  These are wonderful songs, with an effortless blend of shambolic eccentricities and virtuous melodies.  It’s actually a pretty endearing album.

Elis Regina & Antônio Carlos Jobim – Elis & Tom

Elis & Tom

Elis Regina & Antônio Carlos JobimElis & Tom Philips 6349 112 (1974)


Tom Jobim was the songwriter of the bossa nova movement.  If the genre was always the bourgie version of samba, then Elis & Tom might be the very finest example of those tendencies.  This is the album that the mediocre Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim should have been.  Elis Regina’s vocals exhibit many of the qualities valued by traditional pop.  So her voice is perfectly suited to these treatments of classic Jobim songs set to decadent, refined and classy orchestration and warm electric keyboards.  She is especially effective on the slower songs with string arrangements (“Modinha” etc.).  And while Jobim’s keyboard playing still has some of the heavy-handed lounge jazz affectations of his past work (Wave, Stone Flower), those qualities are mostly held in check here.  Anyone who doubts the range of the genre should listen to this alongside Dez anos depois, João Gilberto, and any of the slightly, lounge-y bossa nova records of the mid-1960s.  Even as the same songs are re-worked again and again, there are new perspectives offered.  Hardly the stuff of rigid formulas.

Recorded in Los Angeles, this album looks back a bit.  Regina saw working with Jobim on the album as a question of confronting a “sacred cow” of Brazilian music.  This was a period in which Regina, nicknamed “furacão” (“hurricane”) for her mood swings and one of the the most popular Brazilian singers of all time (nearly as well-known as Carmen Miranda), shifted her music to be more political and critical of the Brazilian military junta.  While recording the album, a Brazilian diplomat in L.A. screened Saul Landau & Haskell Wexler‘s documentary (with staged re-enactments) Brazil: A Report on Torture for Regina and Jobim.  Screening the film lead to persecution of the diplomat, Jom Tob Azulay, by the junta.  While nothing about these old songs is overtly political, the way the album looks back and celebrates the music of the pre-military dictatorship period is tacitly political in a very subtle way.

João Gilberto – Chega de saudade

Chega de saudade

João GilbertoChega de saudade Odeon MOFB 3073 (1959)


Chega de saudade was an album credited as the being the very first in an entirely new genre: bossa nova.  João Gilberto was the genre’s true master, the epitome of its cool, detached, laid-back qualities, with a voice perfectly suited to the music and an often-imitated but never duplicated style on the guitar.  He is supported by some jazzy accompaniment.  It is complementary.  Yes, this is music of the well-off, but it is music of the most aware and sympathetic among them.  In an era before the LP format really came into its own, this is one of the early milestones.  It still sounds great more than a half-century later.  His next few albums, though still good, lacked the utterly effortless cool achieved here.  Then came international success with the excellent collaboration Getz / Gilberto.  Also check out Gilberto’s arguably best album, the eponymous 1973 effort  João Gilberto.