The World of Lee “Scratch” Perry

A musician friend has helped usher me into the world of Lee “Scratch” Perry and Black Ark studios.  I have long known about Perry as a great reggae and dub producer, but he has been recording for so long, and his discography is so immense, that I think I stayed away because I didn’t know where to start.  When I was first getting into classical music and jazz about a year ago I faced the same problem.  How do you navigate your way into a new scene, when you know next to nothing?  The sheer amount of something can be intimidating.  How do you discern good from bad?  With a limited budget, how do you make the right choices when buying something?  It helps to be pointed in the right direction and then you find many other doors opening along the way.  For classical music I bought a book.  For jazz I asked my friends to suggest records.

The Perry produced record that was first suggested to me was The Congos album Heart of the Congos.  This is not only one of the best reggae albums ever, but a great place to start understanding what makes Perry’s work so unique.  It’s essentially a reggae record, with great songs and melodies, but the production features many of the unique sonic qualities that differentiate Perry from producers that came before him.  From there you can decide if you want to explore more of his reggae productions, or if you want to get into the weirder world of dub.  I think it’s a great entryway into his world as it is both unique and accessible.

The Ultimate Lee Scratch Perry Album Guide

The link above, while no means definitive, is a great overview of his lengthy career.  It gives you a sense of his accomplishments and highlights some of his better works, if not all of them.  Heart of the Congos is strangely given only a sentence.

The above video is Perry recording in Black Ark studios.  It’s inspiring to see someone accomplishing something so imaginative in a situation that is very low tech by today’s standards.

If you are someone that loves records and recorded sound, his work is definitely a world that you want to explore.  Not only is it innovative in and of itself, but it has influenced modern music in immense and unmeasurable ways.

For All My Sisters Review

the-cribs-for-all-my-sisters

I really like the new Cribs album For All My Sisters a lot.  It’s pop music in the best sense.  Pop music as played by rock band.  Despite the fact that the band is from England, there is something California about their new record.  If not for the accents on the vocals, there is something about this record that can be traced on a musical family tree back to certain elements of Weezer and even the Beach Boys.  I’m not saying that is intentional, or that there aren’t stylistic differences, only that there is a melodic sense that is somehow sunny and often melancholy a the same time.

The album is produced by Ric Ocasek who also produced Weezer’s Blue and Green albums, and also their excellent new album Everything Will Be Alright In the End.  As I said, there are definitely some melodic moments that recall Weezer, although The Cribs have been delivering great melodies since the start of their career.  However, while Weezer, for the most part, have an easy mass appeal, despite their idiosyncrasies, The Cribs new album is more cryptic.  Despite being melodic, the guitars are more jagged, more angular.  Even their extremely melodic vocal hooks are more elusive, less singsongy.  This is rock n roll pop music filtered through British post-punk.

One of the things that Ric Ocasek does time and time again is get great guitar tones.  He does this without doing anything seemingly complex.  Aside from a couple of synth parts and extra backup vocals, there is almost nothing on this album that the three piece Cribs could not reproduce live.  Hearing a guitar overdub that plays something different than the main guitar line is rare.  Mostly it just sounds like one guitar part doubled.  If you listen to this album, the Weezer albums, or even the Bad Brains God of Love, Ocasek is able to create deep textures through guitar distortion.  He is able to take something incredibly simple and turn it into an aural painting.  Where guitars can often sound flat, he creates an incredible amount of depth, a warm swimming pool that the listener can pleasurably dive into.  This is a big deal, especially for a three piece band.

Despite the album being full of hooks, there is not anything as instantly memorable as earlier Cribs records.  There is no song that has a chorus as memorable as the song We Share the Same Skies, for instance.  This doesn’t necessarily work against it, as the album holds up on repeated plays.  The album is enjoyable on the first listen, but it is definitely a grower.  I know that I have said several times that is is incredibly melodic, and it is true that the album has very glossy production, but there is a slight sense of artiness here, just below the surface, that keeps the album from being swallowed too easily.

If I had to criticize anything, it would be that the lyrics haven’t really opened themselves up to me yet.  That’s not to say that they are bad or unintelligent.  They do not get in the way of my enjoyment either.  It’s just that, despite the album having a classic rock mix, the vocals are not buried like they are on many other indie rock records, the vocals seem part of the music more than the centerpiece.

The Cribs have consistently been at that crossroad where indie, pop, rock, and post-punk collide.  I am partial to this kind of music, but I think anyone that likes to hear guitar oriented rock music with great melodies would like this as well.  They are not doing anything groundbreaking, but they put the ingredients together in a unique way that gives them their own sound and personality.  The fact that they do have their own personality does mean they are able to expand the form on the margins, and that alone is worth something.

Giorgio By Moroder and the Commonality of Music

Was listening again to Daft Punk’s brilliant Random Access Memories earlier today.  The production and musicianship on this album are completely topnotch.  The piece Giorgio by Moroder is particularly jaw dropping.  It features narration by electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder.  However, the song is about music itself as much as anything.  The song features disco music, music that emulates Moroder, a symphonic breakdown, a drummer/DJ battle, jazzy keyboards, and more.  It reminds you how there really are no rules to music and that all styles have connections to each other.  The part with the drums and the DJ scratches is particularly inspiring as the drummer and the DJ match each other’s every syncopated move.  It’s the kind of thing that you could see making young fans of electronic music appreciate live musicians, and older fans that don’t like electronic music or hip hop see the talent that is evident in those forms.  It’s an extremely inclusive piece that I feel can’t help but bring people together if they are open to it.  The song never states it in any way, and the song is most definitely explicitly about music, but one can’t help draw the conclusion that in connecting the dots between music from various eras and genres, music that often has tribal implications, that it is also about shared aspects of the human experience.  One of those rare things that truly deserves to be called a tour de force.

P.S.  If you are in any way interested in rhythm sections (I am because I play bass among other reasons.), you simply must hear the drum section I mentioned above.  The rhythm section is killing it there!

Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

Istanbul Single Review

I have waited a couple of days to review the new Morrissey single Istanbul because it felt like a grower.  My initial assumption is right after not being initially sure of what to make of the song.  The song is not as melodically captivating as the first single, World Peace is None of Your Business, but its melody slowly creeps into your head until you can’t forget it. 

The lyrics are very interesting.  Morrissey is singing in the third person, which he doesn’t do a great deal of, although he has done it before.  The song is about a father searching for his son in the title city.  The son has become a prostitute.  The lyrics are full of regret and empathy.  It appears the father drove the son out for being gay, though I could be reading into that as it is not made expressly clear.  The father has had a change of heart and wants to find the son before it is too late.  In the beginning the father talks about how the mother died when both were younger.  There is also a lyric about the father having a child when he was too young, implying that he feels he did not do as good of a job as he was supposed to.  This song tells a story from beginning to end with the father tragically finding the pine box coffin that the son is in. 

In many Morrissey songs, like When I Last Spoke to Carol, tragedies have a slight degree of comedy.  It is often the divine comedy of life, as it relays the absurdity of the human condition.  However, in this song there is no comedy.  It is a story again told with a great deal of empathy. 

Both lyrically and musically, although I will have to wait until I hear the full album, it seems as if Morrissey is branching out.  Don’t get me wrong, the things that have made Morrissey unique and the reason that those of us who love him have followed him, are still there.  However both the lyrics and the production of these songs seem more outward looking than ever before.  Most of Morrissey’s early work took place in Great Britain.  Whether they were personal reflections or story songs they were very firmly rooted in his homeland.  His last few albums have broadened his lyrical palette in terms of place.  You are the Quarry was very much an LA album despite having lyrics about Camden and the British legal system.  Ringleaders of the Tormentors charms had a lot to do with his then current home of Rome.  On these first two singles he again seems to be looking out at a much larger world and the problems that are taking place within these times. 

While Vauxhall and I will always remain my favorite, this album seems to be branching out musically as well and it is very exciting and interesting. The track Istanbul features field recordings from that city.  There is also a great musical moment when he sings of street gangs and an army of congas rise to the front of the mix.  Although he has used the sound of a storm before, in Life is a Pigsty, in this track, along with the other examples I have used, the sound of the song conjures up visual imagery of the title city. 

It should also be noted that guitars and bass sound particularly tough and sinewy.  Along with all the added textures this is the sound of a well tested road band playing at the height of their powers.  I simply cannot wait for this album to come out. 

Bruce Springsteen’s Dark Dreams

I got the new Springsteen album High Hopes this week.  I currently own 16 of Springsteen’s proper studio albums and have owned two others that I lost somewhere along the way.  I have also owned Tracks, Live in New York, and Live 75-85.  You could say I’m a fan.  I’m from the North East and my mom is from New Jersey.  His music is part of my chemical makeup at this point. 

Some critics claim that Springsteen is musically conservative.  However, he has put out folk albums (Nebraska), songs based around synths (Streets of Philadelphia), sprawling epics (Jungleland), and straight ahead rock n roll (Ramrod).  What gives this illusion of music conservatism is the fact that Springsteen’s music is always primarily song based.  It also draws off of the vast and rich traditions of American popular music in the second half of the 20th Century.  Springsteen’s catalogue has also been very purposeful.  I think this sense of purpose again creates the illusion that things are controlled and experimentation is at a minimum.  That’s not to say that all of his experimentations work, or that relatively speaking there aren’t those that are far more experimental.  But he has always taken chances with sounds. 

Topic wise I can’t think of a popular artist since John Lennon that has been more fearless in standing up for his political convictions.  And although his language in recent years has occasionally gotten simplistic, perhaps for clarity, his themes have always been highly nuanced.  On the song American Skin (41 Shots), of which there is the first studio recording of on this new album, Springsteen is smart enough to include the point of view of police officers.  He is outraged by the outcome, but he understands the complexity of the situation.  The only time he seems to paint in black and white is when he is after bigger game.  When he deals with the war makers and the bankers on albums like Magic and Wrecking Ball there can be no mistake as to who is to blame for the average person’s suffering.  Those people have the money and power to know better.  They choose to create suffering for reasons of personal greed.  But when he paints portraits of the average person caught between tremendous forces, even when they are in the wrong, he almost always appears to be at least partially sympathetic.  On the song Paradise, on the album The Rising, where he is singing about a terrorist, there is a sense of sadness and sympathy.  Not sympathy for the act committed, but for senselessness of a life headed towards a pointless tragedy. 

Before the new album, which I am still evaluating, I feel his best album since reforming the E Street Band is Magic.  It has the highest consistency of well written songs and thematically works as a whole the best for me.  If there is a shortcoming to that album, and it is a small one, it is that album suffers slightly from modern digital compression which is a technical problem that is common on many modern albums.  It lacks the warmth of the older work. 

While it is still too early to tell what lasting feelings High Hopes will leave me with, it seems to be a grower that I actually like more the more that I hear it.  As any critic cribbing from their press release will tell you, it is a collection of songs from different time periods.  This really means nothing as often many albums feature songs from different time periods.  The only difference here is that several of the songs have been featured in pervious forms.  Even this is not unheard of.  In other art forms the revisiting of themes and images from the past, and recasting them in new ways is common.  Filmmaker David Lynch often has scenes with red curtains in them for instance.  An older song that is rerecorded and recast by different surroundings is given new meaning.

The two songs that were released as singles before the album became available, the title track and Dream Baby Dream, left me wanting when I originally heard them out of context.  However, as part of the album, again recast in a different context, they make sense to me and even sound better than I originally thought they did alone.  Songs are great, but I still believe the album is the best musical form as it allows different sounds and themes to bounce off of each other creating greater meaning.  Coming at the end of perhaps one of Springsteen’s darkest albums, Dream Baby Dream is truly beautiful.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Originally some of the more modern production techniques on that song, the drum machine for instance, appeared superfluous.  Again with it being changed by what comes before it, those touches no longer bother me. 

The second song, Harry’s Place, is one of Springsteen’s strangest tracks ever.  I could see how some people would not like this song as it is not easily enjoyable as a pop song is.  But it’s cinematic strangeness appeals to me.  It sounds like Springsteen recreating his cameo from Lou Reed’s Street Hassel over music that almost resembles Roxy Music. 

The biggest change to Springsteen’s music is the addition of Tom Morello, formerly guitarist of Rage Against the Machine.  He has as prominent a role on this album as anyone else in the E Street Band other than maybe Max Weinberg.  His guitar playing is both primitive and eloquent.  The guitar effects and noises that he is well known for appear, but so does epic soloing, the kind that you don’t hear on many records anymore.  American Skin (41 Shots) is one of Springsteen’s best studio recordings of recent years, it doesn’t hurt that the song has always been exceptionally strong, and Morello’s solo is revelatory in its passion. 

Morello’s presence and the material largely picked here give this record a dark and cinematic vibe.  This is widescreen music.  The songs continue Springsteen’s anger at what has been done to the working class in this country.  Although there are a couple upbeat pop rockers thrown into the mix it is really the bleaker epics that form the cornerstone of this record.  Although Springsteen leaves you with a song of hope in the end it is the prevailing darkness of the record that sticks with you.  Even though the production is very polished in places this is a gritty record. 

One of the most moving songs is the song The Wall.  It is about a trip to the Vietnam Memorial and a memory of a former New Jersey musician that dies in that war.  The lyrics below particularly hit me.  There is an earlier line about Robert McNamara saying he is sorry and then talking about his friend:

Now the man that put you here
He feeds his family in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all
At the wall

Springsteen, again someone that so often works with nuance, lets these angry words float over a haunting ballad.  It is a great way of using personal writing to convey a deeper truth.  That the powerful often treat the average person as mere chess pieces, and are not held responsible when the consequences roll in. 

I’m glad that Springsteen is still out there tackling big themes and making records that sound as big as dreams, even if this time they are dark ones.  Although he has occasionally stumbled throughout his career, he has always remained valid and relevant and fearless in his convictions.  He’s caught hell for it at times, but that just means he is usually doing something right.    

Review of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor

Disclosure first:  Even though I knew from the very start of this blog that I would be talking a great deal about music that I either love or hate, I questioned if I should do any real album reviews.  I am a working musician and I feel that this puts me on dangerous ground.  In the early days of Hollywood most of the major studios were led by Jews.  Because there was still a stigma about Jews in America, they did not produce many movies that had Jewish themes.  As David Milch once said, who is also Jewish, they didn’t want to, “queer their own hustle.”   So I wade in lightly.  In fact I probably wouldn’t wade in at all, but I’m pretty convinced that most music reviews these days are written by bonobo apes, though even apes probably couldn’t butcher the English language with such regularity.

I already broke one of my fundamental rules when it comes to music reviews.  A writer should never take up space he could be educating you on what he or she is reviewing by talking about themselves.  The only exception is if talking about oneself leads to further understanding about the piece under review.  Anyway, I digress:

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Arcade Fire is one of the most “important” rock n roll bands out right now.  I say important without being sarcastic.  They are one of the few bands that have large enough budgets to live out their Technicolor dreams, wherever that leads them.   On record and live they also play rock n roll with immediacy.  They are unafraid to tackle large themes  That being said, important does not necessarily translate into good.  It just means that their work should be taken seriously.

This is a long record, 75 minutes, and an incredibly dense one.  I have listened to the thing about five times since its release Tuesday, that’s over five hours if you are counting, and still don’t feel that I have a great grasp of the thing.  Because of the complexity and density of the recording and the themes it seems to tackle, this is a record that probably will take months if not years to bear all of its fruits.

I champion any band that is willing to take sonic risks.  On this album they employ Haitian percussionists, bring dance beats to the forefront at times, and layer the album heavily in effects like tape delay.  That’s not to say those things haven’t been done before, even by Arcade Fire.  If you listen to Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels) on their first album Funeral, the drummer is playing a beat that has a dance element to it.  However, the way in which these techniques are employed on this record are new for Arcade Fire.  Sometimes this record feels like Funeral if it were mixed completely opposite.  The bass and drums are loud in the mix, with the wall of noise that the band is so good at being pushed further to the background, at least by their standards.  I am making an overall generalization, and this approach does change from track to track.

The record is a double album if bought in the physical form and there does seem to be a difference in the two halves.  (Again, I can’t state enough that this album has yet to fully reveal itself to me, and I wish more music journalists would be as honest.)  The first half seems more rhythmic while the second half seems more melodic.  There are moments on the first half that remind me of Sandinista by the Clash.  The second half of the record seems to go into more typical Arcade Fire territory.

If I have one general critique of Arcade Fire it is that I don’t feel like anyone plays with a distinctive personality.  Some would argue that it is because they are a large band, but so is the E Street Band, which has several players with instantly recognizable sounds.  You would almost never mistake Roy Bittan or Clarence Clemmons for anyone else for instance.  The E Street band can rise and fall together like a wave, but you can always pick out each of their individual contributions if you pay attention.  On record at least, the musicians in Arcade Fire seem to meld into each other.  Some might prefer this approach, but I think it makes them overall less distinctive than many of their influences.  I will say that they do have an instantly recognizable vocalist in Win Butler, which goes some distance in carving out an identity.

That being said Arcade Fire, even despite stretching their wings on this record, do have an overall sound.  They are stronger than the sum of their parts.  Their sound is somewhere between the American rock n roll of the E Street Band and post punk bands from England, like The Cure and those artists on Factory Records.  It is an expansive emotional sound.  There is often a sense of yearning on their records somewhere between the emotions of melancholia and joy.  That being said, it never comes across as forced as many other bands in their genre do.  You can like or dislike what they do, but they are good at it and it seems authentic.

There is also an organic quality to their records.  Even when playing music that is influenced by dance grooves, and I always view dance as having an urban element to it, there is part of their sound that is full of flesh and blood.  Their first album had moments that were very pastoral, and although again these elements have been pushed to the back, they are still there percolating occasionally along the edges.  Twinkling pianos and acoustic guitars do appear.  However even these pastoral moments are more in the spirit of Brian Eno’s Another Green World than any kind of Americana record.

Lyrically this album is still revealing itself to me.  I know from reading about it that it is partially influenced by the myth of Orpheus, but how this exactly relates to what is going on around it, I can’t quite grasp yet.  If I can be blunt, as lyricists I find them to be good, but not great.  There is nothing embarrassing.  They do have moments of poetry.  However, when listening to Cohen, or Morrissey, or Reed, there are often couplets that you can pull out of the whole, that are extremely memorable and quotable on their own.  Morrissey’s, “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now”, says so much with so little.  Win Butler does not write lyrics with such economy.  This might seem as faint praise, but I don’t necessarily mean it that way.  The lyrics on this record are just more abstracted and impressionistic it seems to me.  They do enhance the music, which should be a lyrics first job, but they are not writerly.  I do believe there is a difference there.  At the end of the day I believe an Arcade Fire record fails or succeeds on the sound of it.  The lyrics come secondary to ones enjoyment of it.

Now comes the central question of a review.  Is this record any good and is it worth your time?  Despite any criticism I wrote above, I do believe that it is.  Again, because of the complex nature of this record, the final verdict appears sometime off.  However, in the movie Alexander there is the quote that, “All men reach and fall, reach and fall.”  The Arcade Fire are definitely reaching here, when so many artists seem content to retread past glories or make art based on what they believe will sell.  I cannot tell if they will fall yet.  This record is an artistic statement; there can be no doubt about that.  They’re not fucking about.  There are definitely moments of sonic greatness here, but is the record as a whole great?  I do know that this record will do what good art should make you do, which is to feel and think.  It is still too early in the game to claim if this is a grand success or a noble failure, but it is something to experience.  This record makes me think of another Greek myth.  That would be the myth of Icarus.  The Arcade Fire are definitely aiming to shake off their earthly bounds and do something great.  Have they flown too high?  Will their wings melt in the process, sending them earthbound once again?  Only time will tell.

I wanted to make an addition to this review.  One of the mandates I have set for this site is that I will not change, unless it is with the purpose of fixing mistakes or making clearer, a particular blog.  I can always change my opinion and write a new blog, but the original blog must stand as is.  However, because this review is ultimately supposed to help you decide if you want to spend your hard earned money on something or not, I feel I should make one additional distinction:

This is not an album that is full of super accessible pop songs.  That is not to say there aren’t some great melodies and songs buried within the record. That is also not to say that as I experience repeated listens there won’t be even more strong melodies over time.  However, that is not it’s intitial stength.  I am enjoying it at this point more based on the sound of it and the emotions that it creates.   If you are looking for something to sing along to in your car, this probably isn’t the album for you.  If you are looking for an interesting and rewarding musical experience, then you will enjoy this record.  It’s kind of like you are hearing this really sonically interesting music, and then all of a sudden a strong melody will emerge, only to have it melt back into the music a few minutes later.  I think that is important to point out as you decide if this record is for you or not.  I always think you should challenge yourself musically, try things new things out and see how they grow on you.  However, depending on how much money you have in the bank, you and only you can decide when you can afford such risks.