Monday, December 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "DrukQs" by Aphex Twin

So remember Aphex Twin? He was a big deal at one point, that particular point being the late 90s. It was right around then that this shockingly prolific artist went from being a sensation in modest underground dance circles to being something much bigger than that - the weirdly-grinning face of the new post-rock world that the turn of the milennium was supposed to bring. More than any of the other shining lights of 1990s electronic music, it was Richard D. James (the only one of this man's many names that was given to him by his parents) who seemed to embody the spirit of the times, name-dropped as a formative influence and reviewed in all the right places.

And it's odd. Aphex Twin never made that big breakthrough into the mainstream, but it's tough to imagine any other person whose music is so extreme coming that close to the 'big time'. I mean, Aphex Twin's music is messed up. It's dance music you can't dance to, headphone music at times you can barely listen to.

DrukQs was Aphex Twin's first album under that name of the 21st century. And amazingly, a full decade later it remains his most recent. It's tough to know what Aphex Twin wanted to accomplish with this baffling album, but the critical drubbing and subsequent semi-retirement suggest either that he failed at it, or that he succeeded spectacularly at engineering a Dylanesque exit-stage-right act of self-sabotage. Could DrukQs be Aphex Twin's Self Portrait? Only James himself could possibly know for sure, and there's every chance that he doesn't either. Interesting, though, that it was the preceding album, I Care Because You Do, that had a very similar-looking self-portrait on the cover, and that this was the first release in a while not to prominently feature his grinning face.

What does this album feature? Well, it's thirty tracks over two CDs, but they're not stuffed full: they average only fifty minutes each, and the high track number is due to the number of shorter, fragmentary pieces that outnumber the longer beat-freak workouts. Almost half of these pieces aren't exactly electronic music at all but are two-minute pieces for piano, standard or prepared. A good number are brief random snippets or half-songs too, mixed in alongside the percussive blasts of what, for old time's sake, we might as well call 'Aphex acid': incredibly hyperactive abrasive sonic attacks that somehow still manage to compel.

Reviewers weren't kind. The disparate nature of the album - masterpieces mixed rather randomly alongside throwaways, flow constantly interrupted by regular mood shifts - reminded reviewers of contract-finishing vault-clearances. 'He's raided his hard disc for unfinished bits and pieces', they surmised. I don't quite agree - I see too much accomplishment on these two discs to believe that it was thrown-together. James very clearly is, however, working the shuffle-mode mood-juxtaposition concept for all it's worth, to the degree that an uncertainty what will happen at any given time is a part of the listener's experience of this record. If it's not Self-Portrait, then, call it James's White Album. And like that album, it's especially rife for a fan-made single-disc compilation.

Am I a fan? I think so. I found this music confounding, but I ultimately found it rewarding. You do have to be in the mood for it, and at times I found myself frustrated with the indulgences on display even on the twelve songs I selected. But one thing this album does do is reward repeated play. The ludicrous song titles, repeated left-turns into strange territory and lack of commercial consideration inspire the listener to disregard the project at first - something I think contemporary reviewers did - but given time the listener grows attached to any number of songs, which suddenly feel remarkably distinct from each other, despite their names. Had the reviewers played DrukQs a few more times than they likely did, I'm sure they'd have been kinder to it.

After all, perhaps it did meet the purpose James had set out for it. A good number of these ditties have ended up accompanying all sorts of televisual projects or sampled on other artists' work. So it has had a cultural effect, refreshingly devoid of the breathless 'future visionary' doggerel that had started to follow its creator, everywhere he went.


Side one
  1. Avril 14th (1:55)
  2. Jynweythek (2:14)
  3. Cock/Ver10 (5:17)
  4. Vordhosbn (4:42)
  5. 54 Cymru Beats (5:59)
  6. Btoum-Roumada (1:56)
Side two
  1. Afx237 v.7 (4:15)
  2. Ziggomatic 17 (8:28)
  3. Meltphace 6 (6:14)
  4. Orban Eq Trx4 (1:27)
  5. Hy A Scullyas Lyf A Dhagrow (2:09)
  6. Kesson Dalef (1:18)

Jynweythek: keep (side one, track two)

This is the first of six prepared-piano pieces on the disc, which essentially means a normal piano that has had objects attached to its strings in order to alter the timbre of the piano. As an electronic composer whose genre tends to worry more about sound than melody, it's no surprise that James might find a piano's limited timbral range confining. Yet prepared piano projects tend in my opinion to upset the balance too much, to the extent that we wind up listening to the noises and missing the music.

As critics complained, the original DrukQs was programmed largely as if the product of an MP3 player on shuffle mode. That being the case, then, no specific arrangement that relied on juxtaposition could be any better or worse than the original. Perhaps, then, to be contrary, I took the opposite approach and programmed my single-disc quite deliberately: the main idea was to programme all of the electronic tracks back-to-back in more-or-less descending order by BPM (fast to slow), putting one 'clean' piano piece and one treated piano piece each at the beginning of the program and at its end. So this particular piece, one of two prepared piano pieces to make the cut, comes at the beginning, a curtain-raising intro before the percussive onslaught. But unlike the double, not the very beginning but track two.

Vordhosbn: keep (side one, track four)

The first electronica piece is a skittish D&B piece, cut-up drums flying all over the place and lathered in a thick slab over top of what is otherwise a mellow midtempo piece. D&B to me has always been about that juxtaposition between the mellow and the sonic onslaught - a chill-out room next door to a construction jackhammer. This piece is remarkably easy to listen to, challenging and compelling without ever becoming grating. D&B might be mere ancient history by now, but that doesn't stop us from musing that they don't make 'em like this anymore.

A hyperkinetic D&B piece, by rights this should go on side one, with its other superfast brethren. And so it does, as track four, sandwiched between two longer pieces.

Kladfvgbung Micshk: lose

Another prepared piano piece, the individual notes being almost as percussive as melodic and the song title as redolent of someone randomly hitting typewriter keys as the music itself. This attempts an unsettling cinematic feel, but it ultimately feels too gimmicky to really register. The prepared piano pieces, despite the noise they reliably bring, wind up succeeding or failing on the strength of their melodic content. And 'Jynweythek' winds up being more melodic.

Omgyjya-Switch7: lose

A 'switch', in addition to being a kind of button for turning things on or off, is a kind of whip. An this particular piece is filled with ugly sounds that seem whip-like to me. Ugliness is throughout this rather extreme electronic piece, and while at times it intrigues, by and large getting through the piece as a listener requires too much effort and offers too little reward.

Strotha Tynhe: lose

Without he 'preparations' to enhance the weirdness levels, Aphex Twin's 'traditional' piano pieces on this album are quite shockingly conventional. It seems as if Richard D. James is very determinedly writing himself a post-Aphex future in the 'classical' world with these pieces, and while he's perhaps not 'there' yet, he displays a talent for it that is quite impressive, given how far removed it is from Aphex Twin's already eclectic range of genres. There's not much, though, to distinguish one piece from another, as by and large they are competent but uneventful. This one is sparse, with moments of pure silence, and ends quite unresolved. But that's all I can report. Pretty, sure, but just pretty.

Gwely Mernans: lose

The collision on this album of breakbeat electronica and gentle piano pieces largely overlooks Aphex Twin's first real claim to fame: post-Eno ambient electronica, of which he has several albums' worth of examples. This particular piece is as close as DrukQs gets to that genre, and it is indeed 'ambient', an atmospheric collection of barely-there background sounds. It might be an attractive piece if it weren't for James's decision to drown the whole piece under an unrelenting nausea-inducing sub-bass rumble. Like a clever joke gone terribly wrong, this piece is all but impossible to listen straight through, from beginning to end - without, I suppose, succumbing to some unfortunate form of hysteria.

Bbydhyonchord: lose

The album gets deeply weird hereabouts, as the five-minute rumble is followed by a giggle-inducing two-and-a-half piece built around only the tackiest of synthesised congos and handclaps. It sounds like something straight out of 1985, and if that was the intent, then bravo. But remind me why I'd want to listen to it more than once?

Cock/Ver10: keep (side one, track three)

Unlike its two face-covered predecessors DrukQs was not promoted in a traditional way. There were certainly no user-friendly remix-laden CD singles featuring album 'highlights' baited with clever MTV-favourite videos. The closest Aphex Twin came to a 'single' was the pairing of this track with '54 Cymru Beats' on a 12-inch. Presumably, then, Aphex Twin and Warp Records figured that if anything would fill a dancefloor, this would. I would have to agree. DrukQs might be history's least danceable 'dance album', but this piece staggers along in a compelling beatwise fashion, attractive and enjoyable without ever getting especially grating. The best electronica contender this album offers for inclusion on the inevitable Aphex Twin's Greatest Hits disc, this obscenely-titled piece is an easy contender here as well.

It's perhaps not the fastest piece on the disc, but seeing as it's the 'hit', I front-load it all the same, as track three on side one, or the first 'proper' track after two warm-up intros.

Avril 14th: keep (side one, track one)

By leaps and bounds the best-known piano piece here, the gorgeous 'Avril 14' probably earned its fame in perpetuity when Kanye West chose to build a song from his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy disc around it, an event that probably thickened Aphex Twin's pocketbook a fair amount. The song, which in my arbitrary classification is 'clean' piano even though there are two distinctly different timbres on display, is worth its celebrity, being a melodic and moving piece, well-structured and (amazingly for this album) hummable.

I love this track, and it was largely my desire to put it at the very beginning that inspired my entire programming logic. So there it is: side one, track one. My first 'taste' of what's to come, even if it doesn't resemble 'what's to come' very much.

Mt Saint Michel + Saint Michaels Mount: lose

The second-longest piece on the whole double-album is an almost comically hyperkinetic display of drum-programming wizardry. Its beat-mania explains why it was chosen to feature in one of two short films made by Chris Cunningham with music from this album, 'Monkey Drummer'. Unfortunately, that clip, like this song, seems more fascinated by intricate drum patterns than by anything else. While over the course of eight minutes, this piece does develop into something a bit more musical than mere rattling percussion, it's too little too late. It's like listening to someone play with a drum machine.

Gwarek2: lose

This confounding piece is almost seven minutes of random sound effects - not an ambient song at all or even a series of sound textures, it sounds like someone had accidentally left a tape recording in the corner of the scariest room in the universe. God knows what's going on at any given time, but as the minutes pass by the genuinely unsettling ambiance starts to grate on the nerves, especially after lengthy passages of what sounds merely like someone dragging something along a metal banister, or else complete silence. Nothing you'll need to hear twice.

Orban Eq Trx4: keep (side two, track four)

After six and a half minutes of noises, suddenly a return to music. Of sorts - like 'Mt. Saint Michel' before it, this brief 90-second snippet is more interested in the beat than in music, but at least it's a profound enough beat, a deep, rattling midtempo thing more suited to trip-hop than typical Aphex clattering noises. I find it quite enjoyable, even if it's hardly revelatory and indeed gives off the vibe of being a half-finished thing thrown onto the album to fill it up.

So why am I including it? Well, I genuinely like the feeling it invokes, and it adds a bit of variety - even if, as a slower piece, it winds up near the end of the album, where things are already getting more eclectic. It's actually how I end the 'album proper', with nothing but piano pieces to follow it - the final electronic tune, the last drumbeat. Side two, track four.

Aussois: lose

A few seconds of two or more voices talking. It's distorted, but I could probably make out what they were saying. If I cared enough to try.

Hy A Scullyas Lyf A Dhagrow: keep (side two, track five)

I listened to all of the piano songs on these two discs with an open mind, trying to avoid the impulse of decrying them as 'all the same'. And I certainly did give all of them a chance. So I can't explain why all four of the piano pieces I selected wound up coming from the first disc and none from the second. This particular piece has a beguiling melody and a sturdy song structure to it - so much so that the preparations cease to be especially noteworthy. They're not that radical anyway, merely giving each note a bit of a percussive tone. So instead it's the melody we tune in on. And a fine one it is, too.

Except for the few seconds of whispering, Aphex ends his first disc almost exactly how I end my only one, with the same three pieces. Fancy that. Anyway, this is side two, track five.

Kesson Dalef: keep (side two, track six)

At barely longer than a minute, this (unprepared) piano piece is brief, almost snippet-like. But it feels fully developed. It's a truly impressive piece, feeling every bit the equal of classical greats. It's an étude, I suppose, but I can't be sure of that because I don't know the first hing about classical music. If I did, I could probably put into words just what about the melody line here is so fraught with emotion, so compelling. I can't though, so we're left to just be moved by it, without knowing why.

All in all, I don't think the piano pieces do that much to add to the overall quality of DrukQs. Mostly they merely break up the flow of what could be a pretty interesting electronic album. But the two unprepared piano pieces I chose, 'Avril 14th' and this, truly are special, beautiful pieces perfectly worthy of opening and closing the album. This, and not some electronic click-and-whir, is what I choose to end the album with - as track six on side two.

54 Cymru Beats: keep (side one, track five)

The first track on the second disc and the other track on the album's 'single', this rather hysterical piece got rather good reviews while critics were panning the album as a whole. I can see why - it is truly a journey, a piece that can't stand still as it samples all manner of speaking toys and moves from mood to mood. And you could almost dance to it if you tried - like its 12" partner "Cock/ver10", it's a relatively user-friendly piece, enjoyable without getting too extreme. Well, for the first four and a half minutes, anyway. The last minute and a half is a rather painfully extreme attempt at eardrum-bending, with high-pitched feedback-like noises all over the place.

I was tempted not to include the track for that very reason. Then, however, I thought I would include it, but let it conclude side one, so that you could lift up the needle earlier, if you wanted to. And I didn't even wind up doing that either, though I came close. Instead, it's second-to-last, side one track five.

Btoum-Roumada: keep (side two, track five)

And a little Christmas cheer for all of us... this is a rather formless two minutes of what sounds like a sampling keyboard's take on church bells, chiming out what might be a Christmas carol. It would be nice if it actually cohered into something hummable, but it's still an intriguing thing.

Probably not intriguing enough to include, but I think the varied texture made me want to toss it in the mix. Closing side one (as track six) with it, letting it follow '64 Cymru Beats' just as it does on the double, requires me to entirely break my 'plan' for the sequencing of my album. It's a long and boring story, but it's here for reasons more to do with track lengths than anything else. So after three tracks of manic beats on side one, suddenly there's two minutes of church bells. Then you turn the record over to experience another electronic sonic onslaught. And that's just the way it is.

Lornaderek: lose

Our little Richie's mum and dad sing happy birthday into his answerphone, and somehow here I am a decade later in another country listening to it. Aw. It's so sweet I just might vomit.

QKThr: lose

This track is also called 'Penty Harmonium', which gets the instrument right anyway. It's a harmonium, and an old and squeaky one, evidently. But James has forgotten to actually write anything that we'd want to hear played on a harmonium. Instead, he just plays around with it for a bit, the third track of WTF in a row.

Btoum-Roumada: keep (side two, track five)

Drum and bass music tends to clock in at 160 bpm or so - which is spasmodically fast for a dance song, but it also double-time for 80 bpm, a slowish tempo with a sensuous and soulful feel. This dichotomy between gabba-gabba fast and heartbeat-slow lies at the heart of all of the best D&B pieces. This perhaps isn't even a D&B piece, since they tend to be fast-with-slow-elements, whereas I would categorise this as slow-with-fast-elements. It's a pretty sophisticated groove which, over six and a half minutes that feel much shorter, feels a lot more sleepy than the thudding beats on top would indicate.

That's certainly why I put it on side two, as part of the gradual 'wind-down'. It is indeed music that I can picture you not dancing but sitting to. Chill-out music, despite the tempo. The third track of side two and the final lengthy piece.

Bit 4: lose

A little bit of noise carries on for 20 seconds. For no good reason.

Prep Gwarlek 3b: lose

If the name is anything to go on (and it probably isn't), this is a kind of kin to the similarly-named 'noise' piece on disc one, but with that 'prep' in the name perhaps suggesting 'prepared piano'. Truth be told, I have no idea what this is. It sounds to me like all of the preparations, none of the piano. It sounds, in fact, like the mechanisms of a piano, thumping and squeaking as they move, with none of the sounds of the piano themselves. If that is indeed what we're hearing here, then while that makes for an interesting sonic experiment, it doesn't make for anything more than that.

Father: lose

And then the piano itself, with none of the preparations. Here it's a piece made out of a series of unusual chords played in blocks, no melody anywhere to be heard. It's pretty, I guess, but it's not overly enjoyable. And it's not even a minute long.

Taking Control: lose

While not quite as outré as Bbydhyonchord on disc one, this seven-minute electro workout still seems rather surprisingly retro. or is that 'generic'? Surely not: there's a decent amount of invention here, but there's also a fair amount of repetition here, as if a robot had taken control of the drum machine after all. In, say, 1994. The minutes pass but there's not really all that much to show for it. Even if poor old Lorna and Derek show up again.

Petiatil Cx Htdui: lose

Back to the piano, for a bit of a muddy piece that has attractive fragments of melody but not enough definition really to cohere. I'll grand that its directionless moodmaking is 'dreamy', perhaps a bit wistful or even nostalgic. But while it's not bad, it doesn't really stand out either. Not on an album that has a dozen piano interludes.

Ruglen Holon: lose

The piano bits are coming hard and heavy as we enter the long shadows of this double-disc. Another prepared piece, and this time out it's all about the preparations. There is not a single percussion instrument here and yet 'percussive' is the end result. You get the sense that the piece was composed entirely around the odd noises generated by whatever it was James stuck on the piano strings. This particular track is rather like trying to make music on a typewriter: intriguing, but not melodic enough to actually be interesting.

Afx237 v.7: keep (side two, track one)

The other of two short films by Chris Cunningham soundtracked to material from this album was the incredibly disturbing 'Rubber Johnny', a six-minute experimental piece that uses this song to accompany what I can only presume is the flight of fancy of a deformed, handicapped shut-in. It's to the not-always-pleasant grooves of this particular bit of weirdness that the titular Johnny frantically contorts his limbs and, later, bashes his head against the camera in rather horrifically graphic detail. As a song, it's a bit lacking, though it has its moments. Like much of DrukQs, I find I have to be in the mood to truly 'get' it; when I'm not, it seems rather sadly routine.

Still, when I'm 'feeling' it, I get enough value from the sonic onslaught that is this song to have included it. On side two, no less, which makes little sense when you consider how thumping this track is. But I use it to begin side two, by which point in our gradual slow-down, we evidently haven't progressed very far.

Ziggomatic 17: keep (side two, track two)

At eight and a half minutes long, the longest track on the disc is this manic head-rush of a song. It's a pretty 'epic' journey from one sonic soundscape to another, an intricate combination of music elements buried beneath the relentless beats. Somehow, the whole thing - even those spasmodic drumbeats and the oddly Kraftwerk-like ending - seems curiously warm and comforting. It never gets especially 'dark', and as a result, it winds up with a curiously optimistic glow, that you'd almost call 'celestial' as it fades out to a sincere computerised voice saying, 'that you for your attention, bye'.

All of which conspires in its own way to make this a good album closer. James didn't put it there exactly, but since it's the last electronic composition before two piano pieces (hey! he stole my idea!), effectively it is a closer. It's not for me, though; in fact, far from it. It's my track two on side two.

Beskhu3epnm: lose

The last prepared piano piece here is one of the least interesting. The preparations are percussive, and to that end something approaching a beat is conjured from the notes being played. Interesting, I suppose, but not very exciting. Then, at around the half-way point, even that goes away, and the song becomes even less exciting.

Nanou2: lose

The title of this piece implies it's a sequel to 'Nannou' from the 'Windowlicker' single. Yet it is in fact one final 'pure' piano piece, a moment of serenity with which to close out the album. It's by some distance the longest of the piano pieces on DrukQs. It's atmospheric, and a pleasant way to conclude this hundred-minute embarrassment of riches, but ultimately a bit too repetitive to merit inclusion on my slightly more disciplined single-length.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook" by Ella Fitzgerald

I had read that one of either Blonde on Blonde or Freak Out! was the first double-album of the rock era, and somehow I convinced myself that meant 'the first double-album ever', at least twelve inches in size and 33 rpm in speed.

Of course, that turns out not to be the case at all - there are several outside of rock that precede it. This current two-hour double-record set is only the first of a lengthy series of releases, some of which were as much as four-disc boxed sets. It's the fact that this particular Cole Porter volume is the first, from 1956, that made me want to take it on.

So what is it? Well, it's Norman Granz, owner of Verve Records, trying to make a 'statement'. And a great one it was too - that the USA had produced a handful of songwriters, working primarily in the medium of stage musicals, every bit the equal of the revered composers of the European classical tradition. Working together with the amazing vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, he set out to enshrine these composers in a series of 'songbook' releases, that with varying degrees of comprehensiveness, tried to 'catalogue' their works.

So this is a 'cover album', really - tribute album, in modern parlance. But it was a major statement at the time, both in that it was the first time a project of this magnitude was attempted and also in that Fitzgerald and conductor/arranger Buddy Bregman put a hell of a lot of fine detail work into these performances. At 32 tracks and almost two hours, this is epic in side, but there's never a workaday feel. You can tell sincere effort was put into every one of these recordings, and the result is frequently stunning.

But the nature of the project causes me to reconsider the entire thing I do here: to what extent is my job to critique Cole Porter's compositions and to what extent Ella Fitzgerald's performances? Should a lacklustre take on a genius song be included above a gripping recording of a run-of-the-mill tune? And furthermore, while the 32-track double gains a certain amount of gravitas and authority from its sheer bulk (while no means a comprehensive take on the prolific Porter's work, it's certainly more than a mere overview), how can I make my truncated single-disc be anything more than merely 'a dozen Porter songs assembled more or less randomly', or even worse 'the most ubiquitous dozen of Porter's stand-bys assembled for the millionth time'?

I don't claim to have successfully answered those questions. I would say that I attempted to evaluate Fitzgerald and Bregman, after all the authors of this particular aural document, more than Porter himself, but ultimately I was looking for a cohesive and memorable listening experience, and that quite obviously involves both. Regarding my ultimate tracklist, I think my single-disc plays well, moving through moods much like his stage musicals themselves must have. It's certainly not half of the Verve original - it's a good deal shorter than that. The original is long, not merely eight songs per side but eight frequently extended recordings. Each side is nearly thirty minutes, a rather amazing feat for 1956 unless the discs were either incredibly tinny or incredibly prone to scratching. Me, however, I have an almost superstitious attraction to the 12-track album, and anything more than that would stretch credibility, I think.

The Songbook series continued, but I don't think I will. I've been stepping out of my comfort zone a lot recently, and it's been an enjoyable experience. I enjoyed this album greatly, developing a real respect for Fitzgerald. Porter I was not a stranger to, but I'll freely admit my knowledge of him comes largely from two sources: (a) the 1990s AIDS-benefit project Red Hot + Blue, which offered up at times radical interpretations of Porter classics but which I ate up at the time, and (b) a stretch of time when I listened to a lot of Capitol- and Reprise-era Frank Sinatra. On some level, these two sources constantly informed my understanding and appreciation of what Norman Granz, Buddy Bregman and Ella Fitzgerald put on vinyl an amazing 55 years ago.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook 

Side one
  1. Anything Goes (3:23)
  2. It's Alright with Me (3:09)
  3. Always True to You in My Fashion (2:50)
  4. I Get a Kick Out of You (4:02)
  5. Miss Otis Regrets (3:02)
  6. Love for Sale (5:55)
Side two
  1. You're the Top (3:35)
  2. Too Darn Hot (3:50)
  3. Night and Day (3:06)
  4. So in Love (3:52)
  5. I Love Paris (4:59)
  6. Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye (3:34)

All Through the Night: lose

Fitzgerald, Bregman and Granz get the two-hour epic started with this one, positioning the experience of listening to the album as a 'nighttime' event. I suppose Porter would approve - I don't think he would envision much of his oeuvre as Sunday morning music. This particular piece is no exception, with a sighing sadness built entirely from chromatic descending scales. It's pretty enough, but it doesn't weigh very heavily on the imagination, and having little to say about it is not really a recommendation for its inclusion in my single-length.

Anything Goes: keep (side one, track one)

As is often the case on the Songbook, Fitzgerald includes the 'verse', the introduction to the song which is often removed when sung. It's a bit bizarre, mentioning Plymouth Rock three times in eight lines, but introduces the much-better main part of the song, which makes the point that customs and standards have worsened in the USA. It's hilarious to hear someone grumbling about that in 1934, when the song was written, or in 1956, when Fitzgerald performed it, more evidence that 'the world is going to hell in a handbasket' is a timeless gripe. What makes the song great, and one of the songs most closely associated with Porter, is the ambiguity: Porter's words imply derision, but there's every sense that Porter is not overly upset by the perceived moral degradation. Neither does Fitzgerald, who seems to be having a ball with the song's casual swing, and so do the brass who replace much of the song's lyrics with an exciting instrumental central section. A triumph, all told.

This was maybe the entry I was most ambivalent about, and I'm using it to start off my whole collection (side one, track one). Crazy? Well, mostly it's to start things off playful. Both sides move from playful to serious, which I thought was a good way to progress with this collection. And I'm not saying 'Anything Goes' is exactly a statement of purpose, but it does make an arresting open statement. Even if I don't like the beginning.

Miss Otis Regrets: keep (side one, track five)

Is Cole Porter truly one of the American greats? Well, of course he is - but let's ask it differently; is he one of the greats in the establishment of a musical idiom and mode of expression that could be described as in some core way 'American'? Well, I believe he's that too, and I think this jaw-dropping composition is an excellent example: as cinematic in scope as anything Hollywood spends dozens of millions of dollars making, this ballad tells the story of a young socialite apologetically unable to fulfil her social duties, due to having murdered an ex-lover and having been lynched for it the night before. Dark as tar, then, but possessing a gentle fragility that stands as total odds with the subject matter. Bregman needs nothing more than a piano and a smoky single-spotlight ambiance to wrap around Fitzgerald's hauntingly poetic performance. This is a truly amazing piece of work.

I'm not sure why exactly, but I really wanted this on side one. I think maybe because I knew which song i wanted to end the collection with, which was also slow and haunting but not, well, grisly. I thought these deserved to be removed from each other. I didn't wind up finishing the side with it, and I kind of was thinking that I would, but instead it's next-to-last, track five, on side one.

Too Darn Hot: keep (side two, track two)

What is this song about? Well, it's a quick-stepping piece with a bouncing bassline and strutting brass. And the song is about the effect temperature has on libido? Really? Surprisingly enough, yes, and it's carried off with aplomb. Porter's lyrics are genuinely funny, even as the decades have rolled on. The song is a lot of fun, and Fitzgerald is having a lot of fun singing it, barely even able at times to control herself. Hot indeed.

Both of my sides start light-hearted; seeing how close this comes on the double to 'Anything Goes', perhaps I should have put it on side one as well. But I didn't - for me, it's side two track two, the last whimsical piece before the lights dim.

In the Still of the Night: lose

This Porter composition is the reason why the doo-wop standard you probably start singing in your mind the moment you see this title is spelt 'nite'. That beautiful song is the better of this one, and yet this present recording's intriguing fast-and-slow-at-the-same-time arrangement sits on top of a sturdy melody. There's nothing really bad at all to say about this song or this recording: it's all perfectly good stuff. It doesn't make the cut, but it sits most sadly on the cutting room floor.

I Get a Kick Out of You: keep (side one, track four)

The 'introduction', which lasts forty-five seconds, presents the rather intriguing sound of Fitzgerald accompanied solely by an electric guitar. It's quite pretty, which is good, because the introduction is the low-point of this rather amazing song, which compares the excitement of spending time with an unrequited love interest to other lauded thrills such as champagne, air travel and, rather surprisingly, cocaine. Porter's walking melody is memorable and expressive, and Fitzgerald carries it very well. The arrangement is a touch too lounge, relaxed where it could have had a bit more, ahem, kick. And yet it's all so professionally and expertly done that it seems silly to complain.

I use this song on side one to bridge 'fast and playful' to 'slow and contemplative' - in other words, side one, track four. It's still playful, but in service of genuine romantic love, and the tempo is somewhere between chipper and morose.

Do I Love You?: lose

This song, a series of rhetorical questions built around the titular question, is not overly compelling a melody, the arrangement more or less just sticks to the script, and Fitzgerald embellishes the melody very little indeed. And yet where in most cases such ingredients would imply a sadly run-of-the-mill space-filler, in this case the ingredients are so strong, and Fitzgerald's vocal performance so compelling, that 'sticking to the plot' is more than enough. This is an understated and yet wistfully romantic song, recorded in a version so quintessential that nobody, post-Fitzgerald, has really had anything more to say about it. I don't include it, but that doesn't mean I don't like it.

Always True to You in My Fashion: keep (side one, track three)

For the most part, songs that I knew before listening to this collection have had distinct advantages. It's a prejudice, I suppose, or laziness, unless it's merely that it's Cole Porter's best songs which have been his most famous. In any case, the risk is that I'll excise this collection entirely of its lesser-known numbers, leaving us merely with 'Ella Fitzgerald sings only those most ubiquitous of Cole Porter's songs, which you've no doubt heard sung by a dozen people already'. So let me puff my chest out a bit when I announce that I've fallen head over heels with this charming little obscurity: it's only the best of fun, uptempo and upbeat with cute lyrics, musical quotations from differing sources and an amazing piano line that underpins the titular chorus. Really, it's all about that piano. Whatever it is, though, I love it.

I put this third on side one, third of a three-song set that's kind of coyly 'oh my!' shocking. Both this and 'It's Alright With Me' play around with devotion and cheating, from opposite sides. And they're similar tempos too.

Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love): lose

'It', of course, isn't really 'falling in love', but something more base in nature that also involves two people. Porter giggles like a naughty schoolgirl at his tiny little double-entendres, but what apparently shocked when this song was composed barely rises above Disney level today. This coyness is genuinely charming, but to be honest that's all that really charms in what is otherwise a self-conscious attempt on Porter's part to be too-clever-by-half, listing nationalities and species of animals which copulate, including such eye-rolling examples as 'educated fleas' and 'Lithuanians and Letts'. To her credit, I suppose, Fitzgerald finds the song's exact tone, which is somewhere too far on the spectrum from playful to smarmy.

Just One of Those Things: lose

I don't really know enough about musical theory to pin it down precisely, but I can tell you that what upsets me here in this performance is the rhythm. It's a sturdy composition, expertly performed, but the arrangement has a kind of 'swing' to it that I find rather removes the song's power. I can't quite get into it, which is a pity, as it's a great song. It's a hell of a song, in fact, that ought to roll in its own confident fashion toward the conclusion, but here rather fares like a car with a bent axle. Unfortunately.

Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye: keep (side two, track six)

One of Porter's most gorgeous ballads, and Fitzgerald owns it, with a performance of such performance and grace that it must have changed the minds of dozens of singers who were thinking of taking it on. She doesn't experiment at all with the song, performing it merely as it was written, but performing it with absolute assurance and mastery. 'There's no love song finer', the lyrics go. They might just be right. It's an absolute heart-breaker.

'Goodbye', right? So last song on the album - side two, track six, then, right? Might seem a bit of a cheesy joke, but really - it leaves the album with a sense of termination, but not quite resolution. Keep 'em wanting more, they always say. Oh wait... I'm getting rid of tonnes. Oh well.

All of You: lose

A mere hundred-and-five seconds, short by the standards of the Songbook. And yet, it's mostly just a 'ditty' anyway, fine by any reasonable standards, but not especially memorable. It's a simple game lyrically about how much of a person to love. And yet simplicity is no advantage here, as it's in service of a song with no real depth.

Begin the Beguine: lose

One of Porter's absolute classics down the years, but the one of his classics I'm least attracted to. I get very little out of this composition; it's probably just too closely tied to its era. The 'beguine' is a Caribbean dance style not well evoked, in this arrangement at least. It's tough to walk away from this humming a melody, which ought to be one of the defining qualities of a 'classic'. Fitzgerald and Bregman do just fine for themselves, but in service of what?

Get Out of Town: lose

An attractive torch song, one with a sense of foreboding floating in the air. One is often tempted while listening to these two discs to forget that Porter wrote musicals, and that all of these songs are in service, one way or another, of a plotline. That doesn't always matter, but this time out it does seem to. I feel I'm only getting half the story here, and the result is that this undoubtedly beautiful song remains little more than a mere curio.

I am in Love: lose

Fitzgerald follows this song's gradual upward escalator ride as ably as she can, but apart from the surprising appearance of the word 'cyanide' in a popular song, Porter's composition offers only exactly as much inspiration as its sadly generic title would suggest. It goes on longer than four minutes, which is a long time indeed for a song that fades so readily into the woodwork.

From This Moment On: lose

This could be a showstopping dramatic ballad, all swelling strings and crescendos. But it's played completely differently: light-hearted and strutting. Or 'swinging', of course, as they used to call it back then. A mid-song instrumental break brings Fitzgerald's performance up a step as she spontaneously rewrites the composition and seems constantly an inch removed from breaking out into scat. It's really quite exciting indeed.

I Love Paris: keep (side two, track five)

To my ears, 'I Love Paris' has always seemed to be one of the more minor of Porter's classics, a tourist-board jingle that gets the job done but isn't really worth more than 90 seconds of our time. So what on earth compelled Fitzgerald and Bregman to transform it, of all the possibilities, into a five-minute epic, luxuriously taking its time through a lengthy instrumental middle section and two complete vocal run-throughs? Whatever the underlying logic, the result is amazing, wide-screen cinematic (more so than most of the Songbook) in a way that allows you to just close your eyes and picture the two young émigrés that are the inevitable protagonists of a romantic comedy, falling in love on the romantic streets of Gay Paree.

Content-wise, this song has no right whatsoever to be the 'climax', side two track five, and yet there is is anyway. Why? Well, as much as I've attempted to consider lyrical content while programming my single-disc, ultimately it's mood that matters. This is the other lengthy cinematic showstopper on my disc, near the end of a side. And it fits well between the moody pieces that precede it and the gorgeous goodbye that follows it.

You Do Something to Me: lose

This is one of Porter's sexier songs of seduction, in Bregman's hands a light bounce driven on a prominent upright-bass line with muted horns in the background. The result is coy and flirtatious, a respectful take on a standard so well-known it's difficult to comment on. Good, but not good enough.

Ridin' High: lose

This song was apparently first sung by Ethel Merman, and its brassy swagger is probably better suited to Merman than it is to Fitzgerald. It's not a bad performance, but it fails to convince, at least until two minutes in, when Fitzgerald introduces her own personality to the performance, lightening her touch and playing games with the melody. It becomes a much more attractive effort at this point, but it's too late to save the song.

You'd be So Easy to Love: lose

I suppose I'm just naturally attracted to the ballads. Porter can write a great uptempo song, but it seems that when the mood is taken down a notch or two that he really shines. Take this particular song for example: there isn't even much I can say about it, it's neither better nor worse than a dozen others here, and it's not immediately attention-grabbing. Yet it weaves its own spell, gradually but assuredly, and after hearing it a few times you find yourself quite captivated by the song's beauty and its downcast barroom atmosphere. It truly is lovely, though.

It's Alright with Me: keep (side one, track two)

I first heard this song when I was so young that its moral ambiguities flew entirely over my head and I was left merely confused by the song: is she interested in this guy, or isn't she? Now of course, all these years later it's the bravery of those moral ambiguities that intrigue. Well, that and the fabulous show-stopping arrangement Bregman trots out here, with brass instruments ringing out and exploding all over the place. Fitzgerald seems to appreciate the backdrop and carries her performance off with a very particular panache that suggests she's aware of the problems that potentially result from picking someone up on the 'rebound', the scenario the song describes - aware, but not really all that concerned. She seems merely caught up in the magic of the moment, with the end result that we are as well.

This shares with 'Anything Goes' a certain libertine approach to moral and convention, and also a light-footed uptempo 'good time' feel. I think it works well back-to-back with it, so it's my track two.

Why Can't You Behave?: lose

A pretty ballad with a stately, autumnal mood and with Fitzgerald's curious yawning vocals in a fine performance. It's really quite good stuff, but for one reason or another, it never quite clicks, and five minutes is a long time to devote to a lack of clicking.

What is This Thing Called Love?: lose

An incredibly prominent bassline moves this song along, accompanied primarily by muted brass, which are highlighted on a central instrumental break. The composition isn't up to all that much, though, and the song fades from the memory as soon as it finished.

You're the Top: keep (side two, track one)

This is another list-song, built entirely out of items that Porter would compare a romantic interest to. No Shakespearean 'summer's day', though, as Porter's frequently bizarre (though very much of-their-time) comparisons include Mickey Mouse, Mahatma Gandhi, Jimmy Durante's nose, camembert, cellophane, turkey dinner, and indeed a Shakespearean sonnet. How successful 'you're cellophane' ever was as a pick-up line we'll perhaps never know, but what makes this song charm where 'Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)' fails is in its sincerity, and that's probably to Fitzgerald's credit, as she sounds like she's having a ball here with the silly, playful lyrics and the light touch of the orchestration. Porter wrote for many moods, and Fitzgerald nailed them all, so it's nice to see 'sweet and playful' carried out so well.

My single-disc record is a true record, and to play it as a continuous twelve-song programme is to face the horrid shock when the epic, emotionally rich 'Love for Sale' fades out and this cheery ditty comes on. But there's a gap there - side one ends, and side two begins, and with it (we can think of them as different 'acts') a fresh start. We're back to light-hearted and cheery. Plus, it's 'the top', right?

Love for Sale: keep (side one, track six)

Like 'I Love Paris', Fitzgerald and Bregman are clearly aiming for a cinematic feel here. Obviously this is from a musical - but close your eyes, and that smoky sax and deliberately walking bassline evoke everything you need. A hymn to prostitution? Absolutely - a risqué proposition for 2011, to say nothing of the better part of a century that has elapsed since Porter wrote it. But Fitzgerald puts every conflicting emotion into her vocal performance, and the result is enchanting. Six minutes might seem more than strictly required for a pre-rock song, but you don't find that it drags on at all. It's a bit of a grower, but in the end it's truly a great track.

My emotions for this song really changed as I progressed with this project, to the point that by the end I'd given it pride of place as a dramatic finale for the end of act one.

It's De-Lovely: lose

This odd ditty is based entirely around words (both real and imagined) that begin with the letters 'del-', a bizarre conceit to be sure, but one topped by the clunky introduction that has Fitzgerald singing 'while I crucify the verse'. Not much of it makes sense, and it doesn't leave the most pleasant of tastes in the mouth, as well as Fitzgerald sings it.

Night and Day: keep (side two, track three)

One of Porter's best-ever songs in one of the best-ever interpretations. So monotonous that most people have historically had no idea what to do with it, the jungle-music introduction in Fitzgerald's capable hands becomes the steamy heart of the song, tympani and pizzicato strings building an amazing tension that only breaks as the song crashes into its singable main chorus. When it comes, the jungle's overbearing leaves part to make way for a 1950s ballroom of an enchanting sophistication. The whole thing is quite gorgeous, really.

Like 'I Get a Kick Out of You', this is a 'bridge song', moving from uptempo dance tunes to moodier fare. Of course, this song inverts it, starting out heavily atmospheric before picking up a danceable beat. But it never really cuts a rug - it's a midtempo piece, and so as track three on side two it straddles the lightness of the first two tracks with the darkness of the final three. Night and day, in other words, or more exactingly day and then night.

Ace in the Hole: lose

This recording clocks in at less than two minutes, which on the Songbook is a decent indication of how seriously it was taken. Porter's melody is sturdy if unoriginal, and the lyrics are pretty much a one-trick pony. Filler, ultimately. Even with the reference to Satan.

So in Love: keep (side two, track four)

If I knew music terminology better than I do outside of a rock context, I could probably identify the style this song is performed in - merengue or something, who knows. I can tell you that it's wonderful - brooding and intense and yet still delicate. It's an evocative and slightly unsettling experience, and while Porter deserves credit for that, Bregman and Fitzgerald are certainly more responsible for it. Shadows lengthen here, and were this truly a musical, it'd be an edge-of-the-seat scene.

One of my favourite parts of my single-disc is the home stretch on side two where it gets all evocative. That's where this one belongs, side two track four, which on many albums is the Bermuda's Triangle.

I've Got You Under My Skin: lose

It shouldn't really be relevant to judge the quality of a performance based on a subsequent reinterpretation, and given the 'alternate-history' nature of this blog, it's anachronistic as well. Yet Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle's absolute demolition of this song - surely a masterpiece in the art of reinterpretation - turns this version into a sadly tentative 'stroll' through the song. It's still a great song, but this performance fails to catch fire.

I Concentrate on You: lose

To keep on about Sinatra, in his hands this became a sensuous, pulsating bossa nova. Now that's reinterpretation, too, and maybe just as radical. But since it takes it in another direction, it doesn't complete with Fitzgerald's more traditional take on the song, which brings out its natural beauty in an unshowy way.

Don't Fence Me In: lose

I've heard it said that this Songbook was so artistically successful because it bridged a divide - that Fitzgerald and Porter inhabited different worlds but were able to find common ground here. I disagree that they were so different, and that strikes me as a racial interpretation that fails to hold water. After all, for cultural disconnect, look to this track, an ersatz 'cowboy' song that Porter actually gets more or less right despite having probably never even set foot outside a city. Fitzgerald seems lost in it, though, evoking none of the wide open fields and thirst for freedom that the song praises.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "The River" by Bruce Springsteen

So the story of The River is this: Springsteen had been intending to release a normal-length release. He'd even written and recorded it, plus given it a cover and a title: The Ties that Bind. An eleventh-hour change-of-heart had him deciding the material wasn't varied enough, so he pulled it and went back to the studio to record some more material. In the end, the story goes, he recorded fully a second album's worth and decided to mix the whole mess together into the dog's breakfast that is The River.

The clever trick of the album is that that's exactly what it sounds like: like two entirely different albums forced to share elbow-room. And to that end, my job would seem to be clear: extricate one from the other. I've seen the tracklist of The Ties that Bind, though, and it seems that the two albums that seem to exist across these four sides are mostly a trick of the light: historically, no such beasts existed.

Fine, then. Who needs history? This rather frustrating album veers between fist-pumping stadium-bar rabble-rousers that for the most part utterly fail to impress and more emotional mid-tempo tracks that range from adequate to truly exceptional. I can recognise the value of a good ol' foot-stomper from time to time, but as far as material of quality, as far as stuff I'd actually want to listen to (a) sober and (b) more than once, there's really no competition here. Much of my work here will consist of removing the frat-rock and preserving the kitchen-drama stuff. Not entirely, I should mention, as a few of the rockier songs rank among the album's, and in fact Springsteen's, very best. But my album has a much slower average BPM than the double.

The slower tracks are not perfect either. Springsteen has a way with a melody that could kindly be described as 'respectful of tradition': his compositions are not groundbreaking musically, and in several cases it's a wonder he avoided plagiarism suits. The most affecting lyrics are ultimately as inelegant and ham-fisted as the repetitive rockers, but somehow the tongue-tied nature of the best of them is actually something that appeals. Cliché as it is, this is really popular music about and for the 'common man', and Springsteen's failure to couch his tales of working-class pride and working-class defeat in flowery or overdone language works in their favour: it's a more direct pipeline to the emotions he's trying to tap into, even if on paper the words can at times be embarrassingly clunky. Sung though, they are at times enormously moving. At times. I think if any double album has ever been perfectly suited to the 'Better as a Single' treatment, it is probably this particular one. It's not a great album by any means, but if you sift through it, there is a great album hidden within it: here is that album.

The River

Side one
  1. Out on the Street (4:18)
  2. The River (5:01)
  3. The Ties That Bind (3:34)
  4. I Wanna Marry You (3:30)
  5. Point Blank (6:06)
Side two
  1. Hungry Heart (3:19)
  2. Fade Away (4:46)
  3. Stolen Car (3:54)
  4. Wreck on the Highway (3:54)
  5. Independence Day (4:50)
The Ties That Bind: keep (side one, track three)

This would have been the title track to the single-record Springsteen was considering releasing. It's a fists-in-the-air stadium-filler, not quite an 'anthem' but a crowd-pleaser anyway. It's filled with a lot of Springsteen's most lunkheaded tendencies - turning the word 'bind' into a thirteen-syllable word at one point and a pained grunt at another point. The chiming guitars remind me of the Byrds, and are a highlight. It's not a wonderful song, certainly the inferior of what eventually became the title track, but it's good enough. It doesn't offend, it has something to say about family, which is a major theme of this album, and it's less empty than most of the uptempo songs here.

This is my third track, sandwiched between two songs explicitly about marriage on a side that's programmed as a series of mood contrasts. After up and down, uptempo again, though not for long.

Sherry Darling: lose

A truism: if you have to dub the sounds of people having fun onto your song, it's probably because the song can't do it by itself. It's like a laugh track, and while it probably plays into Springsteen's fantasy of remaining some great undiscovered bar band, the fact is that most bar bands remain undiscovered because they suck. This song doesn't suck, but it comes pretty close, and it's sad to hear Springsteen refusing to grow up by singing stuff like this when there was so much more that he was capable of.

Jackson Cage: lose

You get the sense he's trying to say something here - there's lots of words and ideas. The name of the song sounds like it means something - moreso than, say, 'I'm a Rocker'. But the Dylan harmonica aside, there's not really anything exciting enough in this song to make you really want to dig in and figure it out.

Two Hearts: lose

Fourth in a row now. Side one's almost finished, and the overall feel has been party-band. This is starting to seem like a rather inconsequential album - or that is to say that knowing what else is on this album, what's to come very soon, makes the first four tracks flatly monotonous. This one chugs along through its predictable paces in a pleasant enough fashion. It's all just fine, really, for the two minutes and forty-five seconds it takes to listen to it. Immediately after, though, you've completely forgotten every not of it.

Independence Day: keep (side two, track five)

Daddy issues transmuted into art. A major accomplishment by any standard, and one that should have been heard more widely - even if it borrows more from a single source, Van Morrison, than it really should have. The tale is that our narrator is leaving home, after the millionth argument with his father, not slamming doors in anger but pushing them closed with a weary resignation. The lyrics are intelligent, emotionally direct and confused - as they would be. Springsteen doesn't attempt to make his narrator perfectly righteous. What he has to say isn't even entirely fair to the stoic and emotionally-stunted father he's addressing, but it's all very honest. It feels autobiographical, especially since he sings about men who have mixed relationships with their fathers on several occasions, and more importantly that organ and the sax cut to the heart, mining emotions even Springsteen's beautiful composition can't access.

Might be first on Bruce's album, but on mine, this is my third wide-screen family-misery epic. Each deserves prominent placement somewhere, and I decided to use this one as my finishing touch. Why? Well, if nothing else, 'goodbye' is one of the main words in the lyric. Just another broken family, just another case where blood is so much thicker than water it starts to clot. Take a baby Aspirin, maybe?

Hungry Heart: keep (side two, track one)

A sentimental favourite for me: my mother absolutely adored this song when it came out. In retrospect, it should unnerve me that one of my parents was so enamoured with a song about a spouse escaping a marital union, but I'm quite sure it wasn't the words but that simple drum stomp, those background vocals and that roller-rink organ solo. 'Anthemic', right? Gorgeous and visceral, either way. Springsteen claims he wrote this for the Ramones, which probably confirms he didn't really listen to the Ramones much. Their version would probably have sucked, but this is glorious. I should also mention that toward the end, he manages a quintuple-negative, which must surely be in the Guinness Book of World Records, isn't it?

I really wanted to start the album with this, and did right up until the last minute. But there's a more obvious candidate, so what I wound up doing was the same thing Springsteen himself did: starting side two with it. So long as I start something with it, right?

Out on the Street: keep (side one, track one)

And then Springsteen follows it up with this, the album's best 'Born to Run' move. In the midst of the artistic confusion Springsteen is clearly feeling on this album, tapped as he remains into his muse, it's odd how little he chooses to exploit his obvious gift for setting to music the moments of ecstasy of the inarticulate working class. Because god-damn is he good at it; it may be the one thing he's absolutely best at. A secret he knows: you can't put that particular hoi polloi jubilation into erudite words; the truest expression of that feeling does happen to be 'Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh'. Which is not an insult at all: it's been true ever since 'A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop'. This song doesn't pander in even the slightest, and if we find its simplistic lyrics cheesy, it's because we've conditioned ourselves to feel embarrassment at our least 'refined' joys. Phenomenal, in any case, and heads-and-shoulders above the vast majority of the up-tempo stuff on this album. Interesting to note, also, that Elvis Costello's 'Oliver's Army' came out as a single a mere month before recording started on The River.

Yes, my album's much more mid-tempo that Bruce's. But if I'm going to have a rocker or two, I might as well give them a prominent place. I had to completely restructure this album at the last minute (just like Springsteen himself!) to accommodate a sudden desire to have this be the opening track, but given its lyrical conceit, I can't really see where else I could put it. It just has to be the album opener.

Crush on You: lose

And then... from the sublime to the ridiculous. Shrieking meaningless one-liners in a highly unpleasant voice, Springsteen attempts to bring some energy to an intentionally meaningless song. After two brilliant fast-songs, one might start to wonder where I get off saying it's the uptempo pieces that drag this album down. And yet...

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch): lose

On an album filled with touching insights into dignity and human character, Springsteen wastes some more time on this crass song talking about almost breaking a lamp in a shop and feeling 'mean' enough after watching an attractive girl on TV to telephone a 'dirty' girl for an evening of 'parking'. If you can tune out the song's message, it does pump along with a more genuine energy than many of this album's weak points, but all told it's just too unpleasant to bear repeated listening.

I Wanna Marry You: keep (side one, track four)

If this album truly is a schizophrenic melding of uptempo songs about hope and slower pieces about despair, this track is the outlier. Or perhaps it's the bridge between two discrete halves. It's slow but optimistic, lyrically simple but with a weight pushing down the slightly hazy instrumental performance. And here's the thing: it's gorgeous. There's not a drop of cynicism here, and it's really disarming to the cynic, who wants to sneer but finds he can't quite. This is not a 'major piece' by any standard, but it really does stick out as a minor highlight. Cruel to put a song about the simple pleasures of getting married right before a bitter song about the disappointment of it.

Me, however, I stick a song between them. And I invert the order, too. So this is a nice pat-on-the-back, then, as track four on side one. Though did I mention what I'm putting after it? I'm just as cruel as Springsteen, I suppose.

The River: keep (side one, track two)

If you told me I could only ever listen to one Springsteen song again, that every song he wrote bar one would be wiped from my consciousness, it might well be this one I keep. I've held onto this song for years and years now. Not because I relate but because I hope never to. It's a really dismal song, a life of promise slowly extinguished through the decisions we make, that seem like the right thing at that moment but accumulate. Misery, sure, but there's plenty of misery out there. No, for me what makes this song, and Tracy Chapman's markedly similar 'Fast Car', one of the greats is what happens about three minutes into the song, when a reminiscence of those glorious and long-lost early days serves two contradictory purposes: on the one hand, to further progress him down a spiral of despair (the memories haunt him like a ghost, he confesses in his best-sung line on the album) but rather amazingly somehow also gives him a jolt of energy, something to hang on to get him through another day. Stupidly and beautifully contradictory, it's a truly beautiful message for those of us stuck in our lives, and it's a message not even made with words but with the feeling in his voice as he says them.

Springsteen concludes side two with the title track, sticking it in roughly the midpoint. But I'd say it's more than merely the title track, it's also a kind of overview of the themes of the album. After the good-times celebration of Out on the Street, it's a rapid end to funtime to stick this track after it, as side one track two. But among other things, I think the songs sound good together.

Point Blank: keep (side one, track five)

No matter what the medium - vinyl, cassette, CD - there is a pause between the preceding track and this one. Just as well, too - two emotionally-wracked epics side by side would be a bit too much. 'Epic' applies to this one more than to the title track, of course: at six minutes, it's the longest track here that doesn't suck. They're both equally cinematic, though this one is a black-and-white mood piece, with maybe a European director. It's all atop a very well-built chassis, and though I feel embarrassed for it, I find that my attention wavers from the plot line and I'm focusing on details: a clever turn of a phrase, a well-sung word or two here, a great piano line, bass throb, organ swell or guitar lick. But as Springsteen veers between slow-burn verses and more dramatic choruses, you can sense that plot-line perfectly clear even if you're not paying attention. This is amazingly compelling music, and it's strange to me that it's as obscure a track as it is. Why isn't it on every greatest-hits collection Springsteen's ever released?

Springsteen brings the first half of his album to a close with 'I Wanna Marry You' and one kitchen drama, 'The River'. I decided to be radically different though, and bring the first half to a close with 'I Wanna Marry You' and a different kitchen drama. Maybe even bleaker, really, especially now that I have both this song and the title track on the same slab of vinyl (this one is track five). In fact, it's just as well the first half comes to a close with this track. You need a break afterwards.

Cadillac Ranch: lose

Bruce Springsteen likes cars. He once said that he didn't write songs about cars but about people in those cars. While that may be true from time to time, it's not here. This song is devoid of any meaning at all above and beyond 'I like Cadillacs'. Bruce Springsteen likes cars. I don't. Pity it's me whittling this album down, then.

I'm a Rocker: lose

In light of all the content-free uptempo wastes of space, you'd figure upon learning that one has the title 'I'm a Rocker' that it would be the worst offender. And yet it has a kind of carefree energy and, dear Lord, genuine excitement sadly missing from so many of these bar-band generics. Not enough to make me want to include this song or anything, but still... you take it where you can get it.

Fade Away: keep (side two, track two)

Choosing singles for radio play has got to be a difficult science. I can't really say I know how they decide what to put out, except that for some reason it always seems incredibly obvious only in retrospect. Like the fact that this double's first single remains one of Springsteen's most celebrated rockers and the second single is all but unknown, a track whose very title seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a nice slowish track, quite well-sung for Springsteen with a nice melody. But it struggles to maintain the listener's interest, even a listener desperately trying to concentrate on it. Given how many songs here stick in the mind as 'god-awful', this track's anonymity isn't entirely an insult - in fact, I'm including it on my single-disc. But it's the ultimate example of the 'album track', an ingredient that enriches the sauce rather than stands as a meal centrepiece. So why was it a single?

Obviously this song deserves to get slotted somewhere in the middle of side two. But it serves a purposes as side two, track two: it gets you from the fist-pumping roar of "Hungry Heart" onto the deeper-and-deeper well of misery that is my side two.

Stolen Car: keep (side two, track three)

Let's use the word 'skeletal' to describe this delicate little wisp of a song. It builds as it progresses, but at its heart it's deliberately minimalist: carried out with the minimum of instrumentation, the minimum of melody and the minimum of emotional depth in Springsteen's vocal performance: that's very much the point; this desperately sad tale of a man driven to wanton acts of crime merely because he has ceased to care about much of anything in his loveless life. The single moment he feels saddest in the entire performance is when he admits that despite his crimes, he never gets caught. It's an impressive thing for Springsteen to attempt, even if it's yet another car-thing. The song ends by merely fading out, entirely without resolution. Resolution would have been too Hollywood, wouldn't it?

On my disc, this becomes the first of two emotionally distant tracks involving cars in a row. Concept! Call it side two, track three. The middle of the second half.

Ramrod: lose

A by-the-numbers twelve-bar so blandly generic that there's not a single note within it you don't see coming a mile away. It's joyless too, like the product of some horrible afterlife where a bar band is forced to play this kind of music continuously for all of eternity.

The Price You Pay: lose

I've seen this track listed as an album highlight in some places out there, but I don't see it. It's at that tempo that on this album signifies 'portentous' as opposed to 'throwaway', and that gravelly voice squeezes out a Ford-tough durable melody line. But I guess there's a bit of a been-there-done-that feel to it. Or maybe the problem is that, sandwiched between two duds, it'd have to be a classic not to be carried down by its bedfellows.

Drive All Night: lose

Second-to-last position on a double is 'climax' territory, typical place for an eight-and-a-half-minute 'epic' to appear. And so it would seem Springsteen decided the album needed one. Content? Irrelevant. Let's press record and go at it for a little while. We're a good band; it'll be enough. Or perhaps not: the song is boring and clearly meaningless (the chorus line about driving all night to buy shoes is widely, and justly, ridiculed). or rather, the last minute or two might be the most amazing music Springsteen's ever committed to vinyl. I have no idea, though, as try as I might I've never made it all the way to the end. It's about the time he starts caterwauling, 'You've got my love, heart and soul' about a hundred times over and over that I tune out. Gruntshrieking? But of course... that's what an eight-and-a-half-minute album 'climax' needs, right? That's what it says in the manual.

Wreck on the Highway: keep (side two, track four)

A pretty little midtempo slice of melancholy, this is a tale of a man who views the titular accident and find it haunts him, though the rather dispassionate vocal performance gives no taste of that. The main inspiration I here on this track is the melodically similar 'Green, Green Grass of Home', but Springsteen apparently modelled this on the country standard of the same name (which I've critiqued elsewhere). That song is expressly religious, though, with a moral about a society that has lost sight of prayer. Springsteen offers little in the way of a greater society-at-large picture, though; even when sleepless about the disaster he witnessed he seeks no comfort from up above. Stark, perhaps, like the subsequent 'Reason to Believe' (which also swipes its title from an old classic) - but the absence of religion is noticeable only by contrasting it with the other song. Beautiful, anyway, though it's an odd choice to conclude the album.

So I don't. Not quite. It's penultimate for me, track four of side two. And the unresolved unease that concludes this track doesn't serve as the last note the album strikes. Instead, that honour goes to another song that ends with unresolved unease.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor are one of those bands that just seems to stand out, as something distinct, separate, from other bands. Well... 'band'. They're a nonet, a 'collective', with two each of the rock trinity of guitar, bass and drums plus a violinist and a brass section. They make wholly instrumental music based around lengthy drone-type repetitive phrases, music that has little to do with anything you might hear on a radio. Seems strange to call them a 'band' or to call their output 'rock music' - well, it most certainly is not rock, though I'm not really sure where else you'd categorise them in a record store.

Ah, record store. Another one of those things that set them apart: for GYBE, vinyl is an important part of the experience: not because they didn't release material on CD, they did, but because the material tended to be really different on vinyl and on CD, and the packaging was more ornate in the former than in the latter (famously, vinyl copies of their début all came with a penny that had been crushed on a train track). The present album is an exception, in that the 2-record set and the two-CD set both came with identical musical contents, but the package is still very much set up as a vinyl listening experience.

To start with, it's made up of four discrete 'sides'. GYBE doesn't create individual 'songs' so much as lengthy suites composed of smaller parts. Technically, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is a double-album consisting of four twenty-minute pieces. As we go trough my thought processes here, you'll see that I consider the conceit to be more than a little pretentious and at times rather artificially enforced, but still, they're the band and I respect their vision for their music.

To an extent. I've had to treat this release different to every other release I've done so far. To just say, for example, 'yes to side one, yes to side two, no to side three, no to side four' would have been pretty pointless (though if I forced myself to follow that format, that's exactly how I would have), so I'm actually cutting the suites up into their constituent movements and making my decision based on that. That's not quite as disrespectful as it seems: when GYBE perform live, they sometimes make 'new' suites by cobbling together different movements from different earlier pieces. Recombination appears to be part of the GYBE listening experience. The packaging of this album titles and illustrates the movements in a rather abstract way, but the 'official' GYBE website actually times them, and it's that that I've followed, chopping the pieces up. I've still tried to respect their ideas for flow, following their segues as much as possible. In the end, I took the first suite in toto, skipped the third one completely, and cobbled together my own 'side two' from parts of the remaining two suites. This unorthodox approach means I approach the write-up differently too, writing up each suite, not movement, in extended multi-paragraph descriptions.

So who are these professed anarchists from Montréal, who shun all conventional press and cultivate a highly arty, countercultural image while playing massive sheets of music in small venues in between a thousand side-projects? It could be said that what sets GYBE apart from most other musical acts is this: seeing as it's the main focus of most popular music lyrics, most musical acts could be said to treat the range of human emotions as their main subject matter. But in most cases, songs are 'about' feelings such as love, loneliness or wonder only to the extent that that's what they sing about. In other words, they use human incantation to invoke emotions. GYBE, on the other hand, have no need for vocals or lyrics: their stock-in-trade is to use their not-insubstantial array of musical instruments to evoke emotions, to churn those very feelings up from the deep pot they stir and leave them to wrap around, or at worst merely linger in front of, the listener. The advantage GYBE have is that this allows them a wider range of emotional responses; as they can tap into emotions that we don't quite have names for, feelings vividly felt but rarely verbalised. And throughout these ninety minutes, GYBE do this with regularity.

The experience is highly subjective. Not only is it true that some people will hear this as the most inspiring, beautiful music of their lives while some hear it as pretentious noodling, but it is also true that most individuals will experience both extremes, depending on their mood. Personally, this album drives me crazy from time to time. They have a sense of dynamics far, far richer than most popular musicians, but frustratingly revert time and time again to a GYBE cliché of starting quiet and building to a roaring climax, ten minute crescendos that occur with such regularity that the dramatic effect is rather dulled. Still, this is the kind of listening experience that really alters your perceptions of what music can be and even what it should be. The world would be a richer place if everyone let this into their lives at least once.

All of this, however, has conspired to make this one of the most difficult of my own 'Better as a Single' projects. I pine for albums where I pick and choose among sixteen discrete rock songs. But luckily, not all music is like that.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

Side one
  1. lift yr. skinny fists, like antennas to heaven... (6:14)
  2. gathering storm (11:09)
  3. "welcome to barco am/pm..." [l.a.x.; 5/14/00] (1:14)
  4. cancer towers on holy road hi-way (3:52)
Side two
  1. atomic clock (1:08)
  2. chart #3 (2:39)
  3. world police and friendly fire (9:47)
  4. she dreamt she was a bulldozer, she dreamt she was alone in an empty field (9:43)
Storm (details below)
  • lift yr. skinny fists, like antennas to heaven...: keep (side one, track one)
  • gathering storm (side one, track two)
  • "welcome to barco am/pm..." [l.a.x.; 5/14/00]: keep (side one, track three)
  • cancer towers on holy road hi-way: keep (side one, track four)

'Storm' starts out with guitars and brass, sounding for all the world like Spiritualized meets 1960s Miles Davis for a minute. The basic theme is played over and over, building in intensity and adding a violin, slow and compelling, for three minutes until the halfway point of the title-track opening movement, where the song crashes into screaming loudness with drums and it becomes clear that this album is beginning with an overture, a dramatic curtain-raiser. It builds in intensity all the way to the end, a simple crescendo like so much that will follow, but with a different feeling. As the piece builds, that brass starts to sound redolent of a fanfare, perhaps heralding the entrance of, well, an emperor. This is inspiring music, if not fists exactly then at least most certainly arms lifted to heaven.

It crashes into nothing as the second movement, which will last eleven minutes, begins. Never has a GYBE piece been more descriptively named than 'gathering storm', but it's pretty clear skies as the piece begins, slow and haunting. The 'storm' starts to begin about four minutes in, again when the percussion occurs, when the piece gets louder if not faster - the instruments start to scream, and the effect is unnerving and calming at the same time. GYBE instruments scream a lot, but it's not always as psychedelica-influenced at this particular 'storm' is. Until, that is, about the six minute point at which the clouds turn decidedly black and the piece becomes a noise-piece, the sort of freeform stuff I might have excised had it been a track all by itself. Here it's just some 'gathering', though, until about seven and a half minutes in when it's drums again that signal a shift, as the pounding simulates the rainfall beginning, I guess. The guitars are like monotonous drones here - not peals of thunder but sheets of rolling thunder I suppose, and it's time to hunch over and make it through till it subsides without getting too drenched.

And subside it does - to complete silence, giving a lie to the structure of this disc as four integrated pieces of music. A minute of found sounds from a supermarket introduces the highly evocative and nightmare-soundtracking 'cancer roads'. Like 'Providence' from Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, this is piano, noise and distorted speech. The whole thing feels like a post-meltdown stroll through a destroyed nuclear power station without a protective suit on. It's scary as hell, but possessed of an eerie beauty. 'Haunting' is what they call stuff like this. Hell, it's enough to make me believe in ghosts.

I'm not sure the extent to which 'Storm' succeeds as a single twenty-minute piece. But each of the three main parts of it is beautiful in its own way and entirely worth of inclusion. And seeing as how I want to include all twenty minutes of this (well, I could skip the shop announcement), I think it makes sense to refer to the band's own vision for how the movements are stitched together. So the real side one of this album is, note-for-note, my own side one too. Radical? No. But I guess it means noise-music art collectives front-load their doubles as much as anyone.

Static (details below)
  • terrible canyons of static: lose
  • atomic clock: keep (side two, track one)
  • chart #3: keep (side two, track two)
  • world police and friendly fire: keep (side two, track three)
  • [...+the buildings they are sleeping now]: lose
The second suite, and second side of the album, starts off with 'terrible canyons of static', which is a lie: this particular soundscape has plenty of noises, including feedback and the chopping sound of a helicopter, which rise and fall like, I suppose, a journey from one canyon to the next. But there's no static: this is clean as a brand-new kitchen. Evocative, yeah, but not really worth more than one listen.

The static comes next, during a track pointlessly given over to an electronic clock which leads to the reliably creepy sound of a radio preacher, whose queerly taunting voice is laid across a truly beautiful, quiet and (by these standards) remarkably brief piece for guitar and violin. Beautiful, but so terrifyingly chilling that you know no single member of GYBE could be a believer themselves.

It leads into 'world police and friendly fire', at ten minutes the heart of the 'Static' suite. As the music starts quietly but starts to build in intensity, repeated lines buried below roaring sustained notes, you start to know what to expect. But at two and a half minutes it surprises, leading into haunting lines for violin and then glockenspiel that shift sideways instead of merely rising or falling. The mood is tension, though, because you know the boom is still coming, and at four minutes it comes, sounding much like any other GYBE roar but perhaps more melodic than normal. At just shy of six minutes, the song changes shape, still roaring but sounding as much like a 'conventional' rock band as they'll sound these ninety minutes. If it weren't for that persistent violin that won't go away, I should add. By the final minute of the track, the band are rocking hard, earning that 'heaviest album' accolade, and it's terribly exciting, even as the track concludes with half a minute of screaming feedback. What's great about this piece is how it builds in intensity not merely by pumping up the volume but by introducing more an more intense emotions.

Until they're spent. The last five and a half minutes are entitled '(the buildings they are sleeping now)', and while this soundscape does indeed sound like buildings, it doesn't much sound like sleep. The metallic sheets of noise that arrive, scream and leave are beautiful, but they don't sound very much like music, and they're ultimately disposable at half the length. Side two begins and ends with a combined nine minutes of noise, featuring little in the way of 'static' but too much atmosphere and too little content.

What I've done here is, to be honest, shaved off the droning noise bits at the beginning and the end and kept the more musical bits in the centre. Which might not seem all that enlightened, I suppose. And yet my job is to distill doubles into more concentrated, and hopefully more enjoyable, listening experiences, and the drone pieces aren't exactly GYBE's peak of overall listening enjoyment. So the second, third and fourth movements become the first, second and third parts of my side two.

Sleep (details below)
  • murray ostril: "...they don't sleep anymore on the beach...": lose
  • monheim: lose
  • broken windows, locks of love pt. III / 3rd part: lose
GYBE might well be insomniacs, because whatever the title 'Sleep' connotes to you, I doubt it can be heard much on the highly distracting twenty-three minutes of side three. An old man reminiscing about Coney Island is far more moving than it has any right to be, and it's the briefest of introductions to the first of the two lengthy pieces that make up the entirety of 'Sleep'.

'Monheim' starts out gorgeous, slow and stately, evocative and calming. Indeed, music for 'sleep'. The music slowly becomes more sinister, but there's nothing wrong with that - quiet and calming can turn sinister at any given time. Doesn't make the music any less wonderful to listen to. It's at about five and a half minutes in, though, that things start to go a bit wrong, as you realise that once again GYBE is going to go quiet-to-loud, and indeed by six and a half minutes in the neighbours are starting to wake up and bang on your walls. It's not that it becomes ugly, not yet anyway, it's just that there's a pointlessness to the spell-shattering crescendo this time out, as if they get loud not because they want to but because they feel that, as GYBE, they're obliged to, on any movement that exceeds five minutes in length. Still, there's a left-turn into a galloping rhythm at eight-odd minutes that intrigues and wills you to give the piece the benefit of the doubt. But as the minutes go by, it doesn't really go anywhere. It's merely committed itself to being as loud and screaming as possible, and as the moment concludes in mere feedback and detuned guitars, whatever spell it had woven all those minutes ago has long since dissipated.

And so it is for the ten-minute other movement on side three. It does take its time, quietly plodding on for a while, so that the first big whoosh, just shy of three minutes in, is welcome. This is loud but dramatic, with a decent rhythmic groove, though the absolute stand-still of the instrumentation does make you selfishly wish for just one tiny strand of melody... ah, but this is GYBE, and melodies are for capitalists. Still, that groove gets better and better, the drums being the only thing keeping this from being an overlong and uneventful waste of time. But at seven and a half minutes in comes the whooshes of noise, embarrassingly predictable by now. It's not that I have anything against music being loud, or getting loud through gradual crescendo. It's just that on side three the first crescendo bulldozes whatever emotions had been built, constructing none in their place, and the second crescendo comes along with a complete absence of any emotion whatsoever, a group bored, screaming into the dry ice, because they feel that that's what people pay them to do. Sad.

It is my disappointment with how the two movements on this side ultimately pan out that has me skipping both of them.

Antennas to Heaven (details below)
  • moya sings "baby-o"...: lose
  • edgyswingsetacid: lose
  • [glockenspiel duet recorded on a campsite in rhinebeck, n.y.]: lose
  • "attention...mon ami...fa-lala-lala-la-la..." [55-St.Laurent]: lose
  • she dreamt she was a bulldozer, she dreamt she was alone in an empty field: keep (side two, track four)
  • deathkamp drone: lose
  • [antennas to heaven...]: lose
Shorter than the first three pieces but consisting of more movements than any of them, 'Antennas to Heaven' is a schizophrenic piece that frankly feels like an outtake reel stitched together to fill up a fourth side. Even the one movement of substance feels like little bits hobbled together, as lovely as it is to behold.

The piece begins with what the tracklisting categorises as four separate movements lasting a minute apiece, but are really little bits of nonsense: an improvised nonsense on guitar-and-vocals, a little chunk of moody noise, some improvised glockenspiel, kids chanting on a playground. Found sounds, but nothing to write home about, and nothing coherent that can be called a 'piece'.

The rather lovely 'she dreamt she was a bulldozer...' starts with a few waves of feedback. A minute and a half in, out of nowhere comes some screaming loudness. I should be banging my head in despair now, but I'm willing to go with it. Oddly enough, after less than a minute, it stops as suddenly as it began, going back into calming stillness. Weird? Certainly. It's more atmospherics until about six minutes in, when suddenly it starts to feel something like a jam band, of all things, the Grateful Dead strolling into the middle of an empty farmer's field, or maybe a deadhead sitting in a vacant flied suddenly experiencing a flashback. It gets louder, because it does... but it doesn't bother me, because it's evoked something. Not sure what, but something. Flashback ends eight minutes in, and after soft and loud and soft and loud, it's back to soft. And spacey, and humming. I guess she dreams that she's a bulldozer repeatedly, little spurts of eye-moving dream-state in the midst of a good night's sleep.

So how do you follow the two minutes of evocative, quiet noise that concludes 'bulldozer'? Why with three minutes of noise followed by a further two minutes of noise to end the entire double record. Judging by their names, 'deathkamp drone' should be stark and depressing while '(antennas to heaven...)' should be uplifting and celestial. But I'm afraid I don't really get that from them. After ninety minutes of contrasting moods or at least contrasting volumes, I'm in no mood to consider what a noise piece 'evokes'. I'm merely looking for my keys and hoping to beat the crowds.

This final movement frustrates me more than the others because it feels so thrown-together, though I suppose ultimately the other three sides aren't really much more cohesive than this side. At least they pretend, though. Still, the main 'centrepiece' of side four, 'she dreamt she was a bulldozer...' is quite lovely and worthy of inclusion. So I remove it from all the little-bits before and after and let it conclude my side two, and my listening experience as a whole. With two minutes of quiet noise. Why, that's barely any time at all, by GYBE standards.