Thursday, May 30, 2013

Song of the day

"Masters of War", by Mark Arm.

Monday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", the album on which Bob found his own voice and, essentially, became "Bob Dylan", for better or, as Bob himself might have argued afterwards, for worse. (The entry for this album is one of the more informative Wikipedia pages I have stumbled upon.)

Listening to its fifty minutes through, it seems much easier, even now, to attach it to what came after rather than what came before, even though in form, at least, it drew heavily on the music of its own past. It, "With The Beatles", and the first couple of singles by the Rolling Stones tell you that 1963 was a pivotal year for popular music; a year when the past was left behind and the future opened up, with infinite possibilities and infinite hope. (That future, at a generalised and simplistic level and with plenty of hindsight, proceeded to play itself out magnificently over the rest of that decade, until things took a dark turn around 1969.)

All of which is to say, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" is an album that stands up well fifty years later. This may be in some part because it only really contains a couple of Dylan's best-known songs, notably "Blowin' In The Wind", and therefore is not entirely caught in a time capsule. It does, though, also include perhaps my favourite song of his, "Masters of War". I can't really articulate what it is that I like about it; I think it is the structure of the song as much as, if not more than, the words themselves. Nick Cave may have learned something about the art of songwriting from this song. The chord sequence at the end of each stanza is a key to what propels the song, even if you have to listen closely to hear it.

That chord sequence is accentuated by Mark Arm in his brutal rendering of the song, which appeared as the a-side of a 1990 Sub Pop single cleverly titled "The Freewheelin' Mark Arm" (the single's cover is a nice take on the original, too; it can be seen at the start of the YouTube clip). He turns the song, as it begs to be, into a Velvet Underground rave-up. It is compelling in the way that rapidly approaching headlights are compelling to a bunny rabbit.

As for Mark Arm's voice, well, perhaps the best we can say is that he doesn't upstage Bob Dylan on that score.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hypothetical Mixtape, June 2012 (yes, that's "2012")

At some point in the very near future I am going to be 12 months behind in my listening. That will be embarrassing. At that point I am going to give up. Or start again. Or something. Until then, as YMO once intoned, "Here we go again."

"Hung Up On My Baby", by Isaac Hayes. I could happily spend the rest of my life listening to a loop of the guitar line with which this song starts. It can't get better than this, one thinks to oneself. But it can. And it does. First, a gorgeous, watery wah-wah guitar kicks in, followed, shortly thereafter, by a third, deeper electric guitar. The groove settles in and breathes for a minute and a half. Then the horns come in. Then more horns come in. Then the fucking strings start up. You might know him only as the chef from "South Park", but Isaac Hayes was much, much more than that. On this track he doesn't even feel the need to sing. Actually, you know what? Listen to it for yourself. (You can make yourself woozy by staring at the record spinning for six and a half minutes if you like; or you can shut your eyes.)

"Brazil Express", by Liza. From the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, maybe, but I have always had a thing for records from the sixties/seventies featuring a swingin' Latin beat and a Hammond organ. Especially when they hail from Denmark! And when they round the song out with some blistering electric guitar.

"La Do Da Da", by The Blue Things. Kansas mid-sixties garage rockers. Has a slight minor-key lilt that is very affecting. It puts me in mind of the song "Matelot", by The Renegades, as featured in Aki Kaurismaki's film "Le Havre". Which, as you know, is high praise.

"Respect", by Kukumbas. The gap from Kansas garages to the garages of Lagos, Nigeria seems to have been a remarkably small one, when you imagine how hard it must have been in those days for news to travel from one to the other. Garage rock really is the universal language.

"It's A Dream", by Little Ed & The Soundmasters. I think this song contains the most subtly malevolent harmonica in all recorded music. The drumming is really something, too: not the least because the drummer was, according to the publicity surrounding this Numero Group reissue, eight years old.

"Almost Cut My Hair", by Ori Naftaly. Israeli cover of the David Crosby the-day-I-nearly-joined-The-Man reverie. Everything about this song is perfect. Hammond! David Gilmour circa "Dark Side Of The Moon" guitar histrionics! Harmonica! Bagels!

"Good Old Germany", by Einzelganger. Surprise! It's Giorgio Moroder, this time coming to you from the middle 1970s and constructing a highly listenable piece of music that will fit right in next time you mix together some Cluster / Harmonia / Eno-Roedelius-Moebius / Neu tracks for your friends.

"Oh Yeah", by Yello. As heard in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". Did I mention I got a "Save Ferris" t-shirt for my birthday this year? "Oh yeah."

"Hong Kong Garden", by Siouxsie and the Banshees. My working knowledge of Siouxsie and the Banshees is far below what it should be. In fact, it almost starts and ends with this. I must try harder. This song is in my all-time top 50, regardless. Post-punk-era guitar never sounded better.

"Hidden", by Erika Spring. AKA Erika from Au Revoire Simone. They have been ominously quiet for the past couple of years so this was a nice surprise. You might say it sounds like the product of someone who has been listening to Beach House; but that should not be perceived as a problem. And it's a song that goes places Beach House haven't gone.

"Hidden (Jensen Sportag remix)", by Erika Spring. So, when your old dad pulls you up and asks "Son, what is a remix?", you could do worse than play the preceding track followed immediately by this one. Or you could take a longer route. Words change. A bootleg was once an unauthorised recording, generally outtakes or concerts, pressed onto vinyl and hunted down by obsessive fans. "Time's Up", by The Buzzcocks, perhaps, or the early recordings of Warsaw, or live Richard Thompson or Kraftwerk. At some point a bootleg became another kind of unauthorised release, this time featuring bits of a legitimate recording squashed in together with bits of another legitimate recording, hopefully creating a unique third thing, also known as the mash-up. You know about those. A remix, back in the 1980s, was a seven-inch single extended out to 12-inch length by way of, usually, adding length to the start, middle or end of the song, and beefing up the doof doof and the cymbals for added dancefloor pleasure. Nowadays a "remix" usually involves, as here, the original recording being broken apart and/or stripped down, by another artist (the "remixer"), who adds additional parts, of their own creation, to construct a (sometimes radically) different version of the song. No, it's not a cover version, dad. That's a different thing again. No more questions.

"Why? (extended version)", by Carly Simon. It might be more accurate to label this song "Chic, with Carly Simon singing". You need this in your life, even if, like me, the words "Carly Simon" make you break out in hives. Doctor Nile Rogers and crew provide a sure antidote. (See also a certain Daft Punk song from 2013.)

"There But For The Grace Of God Go I", by Machine. Ladies and gentlemen, Mister August Darnell!

"Girls Can't Do What The Guys Do", by Betty Wright. In which Betty Wright imparts some sound advice: girls, you can't do what the guys do and still be a lady. Ugh. Guys.

"The Ones You Love", by Jeremy Benson. Sometimes the best songs are the ones where it's just a guy with a resonant voice and an acoustic guitar, singing about how you would do well to look after yourself better than he has, and where a multitracked female voice sneaks in from somewhere that sounds a lot like Heaven to harmonise on the chorus. This is that song.

"Future Games", by Fleetwood Mac. You might say there were three Fleetwood Macs. The ones you know are the Peter Green-era British blues-rock upstarts ("Albatross", "Black Magic Woman"), which ended with Green's departure at the end of the sixties, and the LA coke-soaked mega-megastars ("Rumours"), which began with the recruitment of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks around 1975. But there are also a bunch of Fleetwood Mac albums that you would only vaguely recognise, released in the first half of the 1970s, where they were neither one nor the other. That era coincides with Bob Welch's stint as guitarist. He died last year. This song, all eight minutes of it, is the title track of the first Welch-era album. He also wrote it. He plays a lot of guitar on it. You might as well say it's his song. (Although a lineup that included Mick Fleetwood and John and Christine McVie is hardly to be sneezed at.) I would say they were at this point, or at least in this song, trading in the blues influence for something that nods, ever so gently, in the direction of what Joe Boyd was bringing in to the British music scene at the start of the seventies. Also, with two electric guitarists working off each other over the length of the song (the other being Danny Kirwan), does it perhaps suggest a gentler West Coast progenitor of Television? (Probably not.)

"Expanded Dimension", by Lunar Miasma. There is a website called Dream Chimney, one corner of which, "Track of the Day", is devoted to drawing attention to individual songs. (As the name suggests.) Possibly the best part about this is the "categories" that are used. My favourite is "New age without shame". This lengthy synth instrumental, which floats on white puffy clouds made of something or other, squarely fits that description. New Age music was widely, and often for good reason, pilloried in the 1980s, but like anything that contains traces of something more substantial (in the case of New Age, that would boil down largely to Eno's landmark "ambient" releases), it was just waiting for the right time to get picked up by Brooklyn hipsters and reinvented. That time, people, is now. Enjoy the New Age Revival while it lasts, then pretend it never happened.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Song of the day

"Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder", by Jens Lekman.

Jens Lekman's most recent album, "I Know What Love Isn't", has slowly crept up on me. I wasn't sure about it at first. It contains a shift in the frame of reference of Jens' songs, in the sense that he is no longer singing about using his one telephone call from the police station to call up a radio station to dedicate a song to a girl. You might drag the word "maturity" into the picture, perhaps, but he is still ultimately singing songs about love, and he still has a wonderful power of observation. The latter is enhanced, for this listener, by the fact that much of the album is drawn from Jens' experiences living in Melbourne, the city from which we drove away, we thought temporarily, 14 years ago. I suppose that makes us "expats", although The Age remains the only newspaper we still buy on a regular basis.

Jens was there through the bushfires. We weren't, and I felt awful for finding it difficult to engage with the terrible events of that day, particularly given that I had lived through bushfire seasons on the farm in the past, and even though we had experienced our own in Canberra only a few years earlier. But it only took the first sixty seconds of "The World Moves On" to reduce me to tears. And it isn't even "about" the bushfires.

But that's a song for another day.

"Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder" is what we are here for now. It is a typical, deceptively easy-listening Jens Lekman song, right from the opening reference, presumably intentional, to The Carpenters. I'm sure that if you are a girl it will make you instantly fall in love with him. If you already are in love with him, I'm sure it will make you fall in love with him all over again. But there's plenty in it for the boys as well. You might call what he does charity-shop soul music: Jens Lekman takes other people's discards and works them into songs that are entirely his own. I don't know how he does it, but I will always be grateful that he does.

Maybe it is for softies only. But I don't really think that's true.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Song of the day AND OF THE YEAR

"Get Lucky", by Daft Punk.

This song is the most self-evident Song of the Year since "Crazy" (and, before that, "Brimful of Asha"). Even when you have heard it so many times that you never want to year it again, you want to hear it again. How did they do that?

Mark my words: in decades to come, you will see balding, slightly paunchy middle-aged MBA upper-middle-manager types dancing (badly) to this song on Friday nights at the Royal South Yarra Tennis Club and other establishments of the Establishment, and you will not even feel any resentment (perhaps the slightest amount of pity) towards them for doing so. If the Berlin Wall were still standing, this would be the song to bring it down [with apologies to Ed Kuepper, who claimed that feat for "Everything I've Got Belongs To You"].