Illinois

One of the more interesting consequences of aging is the tendency to lock in tight to your music preferences, most commonly formed over your teenage years into early life.

This has the unfortunate consequence of generating the ‘music of my time is better’ dogma that you hear all too often from many people. The actual music itself doesn’t matter, it’s simply what you hear when you are most receptive that captures your preferences.

This is a shame, because you tend to retreat into listening to the music of your youth and stop opening up to anything new. I’m sure I’m as guilty of this as any, despite an attempt to keep at least somewhat current all the way into my late 40s. But this fell away shortly afterwards and I found myself caught in a musical rut. A rut maybe wider than that of some others, but a rut nonetheless.

I write all this to explain partly why I came to Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” about 14 years after its release, spending that whole time completely unaware of this artist.

This was a waste of 14 years.

Better late, they say, than never and I can thank Jackson in the ‘Cursed Bikes and Coffee’ cafe for playing “Illinois” while I was on my second cup of coffee and in the midst of a lengthy journal write.

For the music, intended as background, took over completely. How could it fail to do so? In Stevens’ work, I heard echoes of so many of my favourite artists all so artfully blended together that I was left almost breathless.

Neil Young, Stereolab, Game Theory, Steve Reich, Love, Big Star, The Beach Boys – these were just the most obvious. But “Illinois” sounded like none of these, it sounds like itself. It’s complete, a glorious blend of folk and baroque pop influences around a number of simply outstanding songs. So outstanding that “Casimir Pulaski Day” asserts itself as the most poignant and sad song ever in its heartbreaking evocation of both young love and young death. But that’s hardly the only gem. The coming of age poem of “Chicago” evokes the uncertainty of striking out on your own in a wholly convincing style. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” would not be out of place on Game Theory’s “Lolita Nation” and shares the fragile grace of much of that older record, albeit refreshed with a lovely dose of Stereolab-style la-la-la counterpoint.

The record weaves themes, songs, sly chamber orchestration, bright choral singing and entrancing melodies throughout, bringing up comparisons to truly synthetic masterpieces such as The Beach Boys’ “Smile”.

So what’s the lesson here? There are two in fact. The first is obvious but so often overlooked or dismissed – the best music belongs to no particular time and is always being made. The second is that choosing to wed yourself to some period or style as the sources of all your listening excludes you from these brand new masterpieces, one of which no doubt is being made right now and simply waits for me to hear it. Hopefully not 14 years into the future.

Lessons I needed to learn.

 

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What suits

I’ve been working my way through the new David Lynch “Twin Peaks” series. DVD after DVD, all borrowed from the library as is my usual mode of TV viewing and one that requires a certain forbearance from reading about the show in question while it is being premiered and generating buzz.

As it is, I’ve just watched the pivotal central episode 8, an explanation as to the origins of the malevolent spirit that provides the oppositional force throughout the complete series and movie, “Fire Walk With Me”.

(Skip the rest if you wish to avoid spoilers.)

It’s an extraordinarily bold piece of TV that is going to puzzle many, up to and including many who are already aware of Lynch’s themes and motifs. It continues what has been apparent from the opening episode, a deliberate hommage to the work of Stanley Kubrick, from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in particular. This is most apparent in a lengthy montage that is close to the final ‘Through the Stargate’ scene in Kubrick’s movie in appearance and impact. The soundtrack to the visual is provided by Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Horishima”, seemingly an appropriate choice for a scene that begins with an atomic explosion. Yet, despite the powerful and unsettling music, I felt it wasn’t quite right. Too obvious, perhaps. Kubrick’s choice of Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’ made for a much better fit to his visual gymnastics. I would preferred Lynch to stepped a little further afield – Iannis Xenakis comes to mind as much better match with his electronic works such as “Diamorphoses” or “Concret PH”. These, and other Xenakis works,  offer a more radical (although to many ears, Penderecki’s “Threnody” will be much more radical then they are used to) soundscape that actually hues closer to Lynch’s own industrial scores (e.g. “Eraserhead”) than to much modern classical music. I can’t help but feel that Lynch could have done better on his own than by using the Penderecki. All of which suggests the Penderecki piece was picked only part way for its actual sound; it was also chosen for association.

Fair enough, I guess. But I sense something of lost opportunity. Small quibble though – it’s already clear that this new “Twin Peaks” is both something of a summation and recapitulation of themes that have fascinated Lynch since he began making films and may well end up being his masterpiece. It’s already better than the original series, more involving and, ironically – despite the multiple marginally connected plot threads – more coherent too. Which, of course, means it is just about the best TV ever made.

David Bowie

In memoriam David Bowie by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I’m old enough to have lived through plenty of famous rock star deaths. Elvis Presley, John Lennon, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain. I was alive but not that cognizant of the famous 1960s/70s losses, Jones, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison. I became aware of the magnitude of those losses a little later on.

However none of those artists, however starred and talented, approached David Bowie as a central figure in my own musical consciousness.

Bowie was with me from almost the absolute start of my musical awareness. Aladdin Sane was one of the first LPs I ever bought, followed by Ziggy Stardust and within short order, Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold The World, Space Oddity, even that strange collection of mid-60s mutant musical songs, The World of David Bowie. From the very beginning, Bowie’s strangeness, his appearance, his concerns resonated with me. Even as I explored the music of the 1960s, Dylan, The Beatles, Bowie became and remained the lyrical touchstone and the lyrical expounder of the fears and hopes that occupied my teenage self. His growth and change mirrored my own, his music was the perfect companion to the movie of my life as it stumbled through uncertainty and anxiety into the depression that capped the end of my teenage years.

It was not, of course, the sole soundtrack. I embraced punk and new wave and much else besides, but Bowie hovered above them all, as an influence and as a guide. Like no one else, Bowie infiltrated my subconscious and remained there. Even as I aged and lost direct interest in his music after the commercial success of Let’s Dance, choosing to dip occasionally into later forays, Tin Machine, the 90s albums and the turn of century recapitulations. Like many, I was ready for and embraced the reinvigoration of The Next Day and now Blackstar.

There will be no more and I feel the loss keenly. Not overwhelming grief, that, naturally enough, is reserved for those closest to me, but a sense of emptiness. No one has emerged to replace him. There is no substitute. No one else has articulated the tumult that overtook me in the early part of my life as effectively. No one ever will – Bowie’s time was wedded to my own. His death is a marker of time passed and time that cannot be replaced, only remembered. A part of myself has been taken from me and filed away like journal pages in a dusty folder. I’m not sure how large a part that is – it’s too soon to see. But things have changed. It’s as it has to be but I don’t like it. I never will.

Come Together

The Beatles’ back catalog has finally been made available for internet streaming, and as of the past couple of days or so the most popular streamed song on Spotify is ‘Come Together’.

This surprised me a little. Only a little, since ‘Abbey Road’ has long been a favorite among listeners and critics too, but it is not the song from that album that I would have picked first as most potentially popular. ‘Here Comes The Sun’, ‘Something’, ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, maybe even ‘Because’ are more melodic, more pop. ‘Come Together’ is a rock and roll song, a deeply slowed down rewrite of Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ (similar enough, indeed, that a legal judgement went against John Lennon).

However it doesn’t really sound like rock and roll. The prominent bass line, the jazzy electric piano (is a coincidence that The Doors heavily featured a not dissimilar sound in ‘Riders On The Storm’ a year or so later?), the stinging not quite blues, not quite jazz guitar, and Lennon’s last gasp of inspired surreal lyrics conjure up a very different animal underneath the familiar exterior.

It’s one of the few Beatles’ songs that continues to send shivers down me, even after all this time and the many times I’ve heard it. Ironically, considering its title, it strikes me as an ultimate breakup song, a plea for harmony that gets blown away down a darkened city alleyway as everything familiar breaks apart. The band, of course, were de facto finished at this point, only stitching ‘Abbey Road’ together as a glorious swan song (an effect dissipated, as many have noted, by the later release of the less-good and recorded-earlier frayed quilt of ‘Let It Be’). As a whole, ‘Abbey Road’ sounds less convincing than it used to. Its clear advantage in fidelity over any other Beatles recording sounds less like an audiophile dream and more like a harbinger for a cluster of over-polished records that followed later in the 1970s. As albums, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Rubber Soul’, ‘Revolver’, ‘The Beatles’, yes maybe even ‘Sgt Pepper’, have an edge to my ears.

But ‘Come Together’ remains masterful and deeply affecting. It might be my favorite Beatles song too. Or if not that, at least perhaps the ultimate kiss-off to the promise of the 1960s and an early embrace of the confusion of the 1970s. A few other songs share this quality. The afore-discussed ‘Riders On The Storm’. The Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” (recorded in 1967, yes, but only emerging on the turn-of-decade album of the same name, altered and stamped with Carl Wilson’s uniquely melancholy voice). Not much more though.

Funny that a song – indeed a repertoire – recorded so long ago should still continue to resonate with so many people. Funny, but pleasing too.

 

After dreaming I was listening to “Riders On The Storm”

I woke up this morning with my mind full of that cascading electric piano phrase that punctuates the Doors’ “Riders On The Storm”.

It reminded me – again – of that poignant song that, like The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and The Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” LPs, acts as a musical full-stop for the wild inventiveness and assertiveness of the 1960s and the beginning of a transition into less certain times.

I was young at that time – 1971. Barely into my teens, and still a year away from seriously beginning to embrace rock music as the soundtrack of my life, so I came to these records retroactively when I was little older. When they had already begun to acquire a sense of historical destiny. It seems to strange to look at back from these days of glacial rock and pop musical development where it becomes difficult to place the decade behind a contemporary sound, let alone the year, but in the early 1970s rock and pop was moving so fast in terms of changes to style and sound that you could mark out epochs in months.

At the time, of course, I thought that this helter-skelter pace of change and development would continue indefinitely. It was only in the late 1980s, as the first slowdowns began to take effect and I became familiar with the history of jazz, that I realised that this was not going to be. Jazz had gone through similar rapid transitions from the 1920s into the 1970s, but the broadly creative stylistic movements were behind it, even as certain artists continued to produce vital work. Now it was the time of Wynton Marsalis, talented for sure, but deliberately retrograde in terms of style. Jazz passed from a vital forward looking music into a consolidating, backhoeing, form. Mining the past and developing new syntheses, still interesting but now lacking that sense of historical onrush.

Rock and pop are at the same point today. Of the mainstream forms, only hip hop and dance represented some form of evolutionary development over the past few decades, but even they have begun to consolidate into their own histories.

Does any of this really matter? Vital artists continue to work within all these traditions, these days carving out small niches that more dependent on the artist themselves rather than being allied to any movement. Broad movements instead have splintered into ever more specialized sub-movements, with the multitude of confusing and often overlapping genres represented by only a handful of artists each. Such labeling has already become essentially redundant. You are better off settling in at the level of the artist him or herself alone.

This is fine, I suppose. But what has been lost is the sense of music as a social movement, an umbrella encompassing a generation. Opened wide and clear for all to see.

I miss that.

Power

I have barely posted on ‘Music’ over the past few years.

Partly this is because I have stopped buying music. My attentions have turned to the more creative, from a personal point of view, art of photography.

This means I have stopped becoming a music consumer.

I never thought I would reach this stage. Looking out, in my basement from my computer den, I see rows and rows of CDs and LPs, all lovingly accumulated over the years since I was 15.

Most have been converted to MP3s or FLACs, played now over my computer network in my bedroom, usually just before I go to sleep.

Or at work over the tinny speakers attached to my computer.

Or in the car over the not quite so tinny car speakers. Occasionally, between recorded radio plays.

Has music really become so peripheral to my life?

Perhaps it has. Yet it still holds strength. Last weekend, driving back from Holliday, MO, after an afternoon photographing sunflowers, I played the third album I ever bought, the first Roxy Music album, over and over again. Music bought when I was fifteen. I loved it. Those old songs, heard so many times since, still move me. They cast me back into the absolute beginnings of my life yet hold true to the life I life today. How can this be? How can something I loved while still living with my parents, while still a virgin, while still terrified of the unknown future ahead of me, still be meaningful today?

I don’t know. Perhaps this, more than anything, is a testament to the power of music.

The Big Express

Bit of an oddity, this, a new post here, but two circumstances led me to it. First, I was unable (for unknown reasons) to log onto the Ape House forum pages to make some comments. Second, through a convoluted chain of circumstances beginning with the introduction of an ’embed’ function into Cowbird, my almost exclusive internet outlet these days (apart from the inevitable Twitter and Facebook), I revisited my two Blogger blogs. Untouched they’ve been for years as My Opera and then Cowbird supplanted them.

But now I revisit and find a vastly increased level of functionality and ease-of-use.

So let’s go again.

“The Big Express” is an XTC album dating from the early 1980s. A period of mind-wobbling productivity for the band, pushing out reams of exquisitely crafted pop songs that sent critics into ecstasies and the general public into a swoon of indifference.

During a brief period in the mid 1980s, I scooped up almost all the current and older XTC albums (perversely skipping Go2) and feel immediately in love with two songs from “The Big Express”. The opener, a choppy mid-period Beatles-style guitar driven rumination on lack of awareness that managed to bridge the (admittedly narrow) gap between The Beatles and The Jam. And a little way into the running order, “This World Over”, a gloomy meditation on a post-nuclear world with twinges of Police sonics, but a typically entrancing melody.

The rest of the record I failed to take on board.

For years.

Until this weekend, when, undoubtedly stimulated by the multiple listens I have recently given Bowie’s excellent new “The Next Day”, a record itself stuffed with beautifully crafted songs, I listened again to “The Big Express”.

What a great record it is. Full of invention and energy, subversively constructed songs that defy clichés and an overall feel of a band at the height of its powers. Where, to be truthful, XTC was for most of its now sadly truncated career.

The revisit affirmed my love of “Wake Up” and “This World Over”, but other songs, “I Bought Myself A Liarbird”, “I Remember The Sun” in particular, are all reshuffling that great mental list of tunes, noteworthy or not.

That’s what I wanted to say on the Ape House forum, but this will do just as well.

(Originally posted April 11, 2013 on Music (Blogger))