Sunday, July 06, 2008

Four Albums In Search Of An Audience

This article appeared in the May issue of TRAFFIC Life.

So often we find albums that were the rage when they were out, growing stale within a couple of years. Think of James Blunt’s nasal route back to bedlam. Once in a while, we find a popular album standing the test of time; sounding as fresh decades later as it did when it was just released. Revolver still sounds stunning today, 42 years after it was released.

Ever so rarely, we find an album that comes along and gathers dust on music store shelves, until a few years later, when critical opinion catches up with the art.

This story is about four such great albums that didn’t get their dues. It’s about four great albums that had a sense of identity, a great sound, a unique feel, a personal style, yet didn’t quite cut it.

What follows is, at best, a personal appreciation of these albums. At worst, it’s an exercise in cultivated irrelevance. So.

Grand Hotel: Where Fortunes Speed and Dissipate

Better Known For
Their debut Procol Harum; the hit single A Whiter Shade of Pale; and their third album, A Salty Dog.

Procol Harum can be unbearably pretentious, it’s true. (I mean, Christ!, they named their ninth album Procol’s Ninth.) But they can also be wonderfully poignant and melancholic. Their best-selling single A Whiter Shade of Pale, and their eponymous debut album don’t really work for me, with its hotchpotch of classical music and blues-inspired pop. But their seventh album, Grand Hotel, showed a certain unique baroque sensibility that was taking wing.

The album suffers from all the problems that routinely plague Procol Harum – problems other than Keith Reid’s puerile songwriting, for whom there really can be no excuse – namely a lack of direction in terms of the sound, a lack of vision and extreme self-indulgence.

However, where Procol’s Grand Hotel succeeds, is in finding suitable content for their pop-magnified-into-classical-music form. The title track, with its many segments lending the song an eerie atmosphere of pretense and charade, sets the tone for the album. The second track, Toujours L'amour is a guitar vamp-driven song that bounces off its considerably more conservative rock sound against the glitzy decadence of the title track. A Rum Tale builds on the previous track’s themes of love and loss, with a greater use of Procol’s trademark Hammond-organ-and-piano sound.

T.V.Caesar is easily the pick of the album. The humorous yet poignant song, revolving around a mouse who acts mute observer of the protagonist’s lonely life, mostly spent in front of the television (when he is not partying at the Grand, one assumes). Most unusually for Keith Reid, the lyrics do not bluntly bludgeon the unsuspecting listener’s head with the idea, using simple yet eloquent direct speech instead. (T.V. Caesar mighty mouse/ Tops the pops in every house/ Sandwiched in between the ads/Something for the mums and dads/ ‘Great to have you on the show’/ ‘Sorry that you've go to go’/ T.V. Caesar mighty mouse gets the vote in every house)

Souvenir in London too is a fine song, about some contraband material that the narrator has bought as a souvenir in London. The track makes unusual use of the organ’s vamps to build the song’s narrative, instead of trying to create more pompous gravitas.

The good work on the previous three tracks are almost undone by Bringing Home the Bacon, which marks a return to the kind of glorious self-indulgence that gives all progressive rock a bad name. Long repetitive guitar bridges make the song rather intolerable, in spite of the competent lyrics. Although the arrangement is rather unremarkable, the song forms a kind of bridge between the opulence that marked the album until this song and the tales of misery and death that follow. With this track, the sang-froid of the grand soirees described in the first half of the album give way to the misery that lurked beneath. And even a song about jilted love – A Rum Tale – begins to assume greater significance.

Chris Copping’s organ rises up to the occasion beautifully with For Liquorice John. The song, about a man who ‘fell from grace’ and died upon his return from an unnamed city, fits in rather neatly with Souvenir from London. At least, enough to make one wonder if the souvenir was dope that he OD-ed on. For when the protagonist of this song died ‘the doctors didn't hesitate/ what he had they were not sure’.

Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) builds on the theme of misery that informs the second half of the album and elaborates it to the misery of war. If anyone ever wanted evidence of Procol Harum’s utter lack of self-censure, this is it. A slow, stately bass line and an annoying vocal input from Christianne Legrand don’t improve matters at all. For best results, skip track.

The album ends with a song about a man in great pain who asks for a remedy. The inconclusive end to the album works by removing the events of the last track a long way off from the hedonism of the first half of the album.

Well, why did I pick this album?
It may not have the best writing, best arrangements or even the best performances, but Grand Hotel did have character – a distinct character that makes even the worst of Reid’s gems bearable. I mean real gems like: The cord that they knotted to keep us apart/ Could never be broken: it was tied to my heart/ She grew thin and I grew fat/ She left me and that was that.
And that is saying something!

Countdown to Ecstasy: Loss and Longing in a Desolate Land

Better Known For
Aja; Gaucho; for breaking up and producing each other’s solo efforts; for patching up after 20 years and recording the superb Two Against Nature.

Steely Dan has released many fine albums, Aja, Pretzel Logic, Gaucho, Two Against Nature, among others. Can’t Buy a Thrill, their debut release, was widely acclaimed for its jazz-inspired groovy numbers.

Countdown to Ecstasy, a more challenging album, followed Can’t Buy a Thrill. Even at the first listening, it’s obvious why an album such as this would never outsell their easy-listening debut.

But in many ways, Countdown to Ecstasy is significant, for Steely Dan came into its own here. This album has edgier songwriting, giving full wing to Steely Dan’s trademark irony, populating this album with unforgettable dramatic moments. Also Donald Fagen finally came around to the view that he alone could bring out the sense and rhythm of Steely Dan’s extraordinary songwriting.

Dan’s songwriting is often described as suave, sophisticated, worldly-wise, darkly humourous… well, you get the idea. It is all of that, but above all, Dan’s songwriting is dramatic – it attempts to capture dramatic moments. Haitian Divorce, on The Royal Scam, readily leaps to mind. Countdown to Ecstasy too shows the same dramatic genius at work – the narratives written with a sardonic empathy that is uniquely Steely Dan’s.

The album deals with typical Steely Dan obsessions of love, longing, and nostalgia, but all delivered in a flurry of stunning images. Sample the concluding track, King of the World, which describes a lone man’s cry for help in a post-nuclear scenario. No marigolds in the promised land/ There's a hole in the ground/ Where they used to grow/ Any man left on the Rio Grande/ Is the king of the world/ As far as I know. Even while writing about a grim situation such as this, Steely Dan’s irony cannot be under wraps for too long. There's no need to hide/ Taking things the easy way/ If I stay inside/ I might live till Saturday.

In musical terms, this album has a guitar-driven sound, although it isn’t as predominant as in The Royal Scam. Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter is in top form on at least 2 tracks, Boddhisatva and Boston Rag, while Rick Derringer plays a superlative slide guitar solo on Show Biz Kids, one of my favourite Steely Dan numbers.

Boston Rag is one of the best tracks of the album, a narrative poem about nostalgic recollection of a drug trip. The song complements superb songwriting with excellent musicianship. Any news was good news/ And the feeling was bad at home/ I was out of mind and you/ Were on the phone/ Lonnie was the kingpin/ Back in nineteen sixty-five/ I was singing this song/ When Lonnie came alive.

The impotent rage that informs Show Biz Kids is balanced by the playfulness of Rick Derringer’s slide guitar. Becker and Fagen take apologetic cognisance of their growing celebrity and the excesses that come with it – the show biz kids they’re talking about ‘got the Steely Dan t-shirt’.

Pearl of the Quarter is an example of why Steely Dan songs could never work with another singer. Fagen twists around lines with characteristic self-deprecatory humour that makes their songs humane, insightful, and wickedly affectionate. The uncharacteristic pomp in using religious imagery is offset by the self-consciousness of the narrator, making him appear to be a character as humourous in his self-appraisal as Steely Dan is. I walked alone down the miracle mile/ I met my baby by the shrine of the martyr/ She stole my heart with her Cajun smile/ Singing voulez vous/ She loved the million dollar words I say/ She loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her/ She said she loved me and was on her way/ Singing voulez vous.

You may not necessarily agree with Donald Fagen who called Countdown to Ecstasy the best ever Steely Dan album. But you’ve got to concede he’s got a point.

White Light/ White Heat: Split Your Mind Open

Better Known For
The Velvet Underground & Nico; for being Andy Warhol’s protégés; and above all, for being relatively unknown.

It’s almost customary to begin any article on The Velvet Underground with Brian Eno’s homage that although only a few thousands bought VU albums, almost all of them were inspired to form their own bands. Whatever the truth of that, fact remains that VU is not your average rock band. Until their last two albums, they had neither hummable radio-friendly songs nor catchy instrumental arrangements.

Their effervescent debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, has quite rightly been hailed as a classic. However, it was after having drifted away from Andy Warhol and his Factory in the wake of their debut that VU’s morbid vision came into its own in White Light/ White Heat.

White Light/ White Heat has none of the finesse and structural density of a Venus in Furs, and that is its strength. The album bears the seeds of what would later become punk rock, with tracks such as The Gift and Sister Ray exploding with the raw, almost anarchical, spirit that later imbued punk rock. Most of the tracks on this album have this raw, edgy, jangly feel to it, anticipating, outdoing, later punk bands such as The Sex Pistols.

The relentless experimentation lends the tracks in this album an intensified energy, pitching the events of the songs to a certain hyperrealism, elevating the dysfunctional lives described here to mythic proportions.

White Light/ White Heat also has a certain white sound, and this white wall of sound permeates all the songs on the album. Even on The Gift, a Lou Reed short story narrated by John Cale, is coupled with a raucous edgy rock instrumental in the background. And while the writing is vintage VU – always dark, always disturbing, always demanding and dense, it never reaches the rarefied heights of Venus in Furs.

The jangly, almost-pop-but-not-quite title track is the tightest song of the album; and that sounds almost like a disqualification when the album you’re talking about is White Light/ White Heat. Reed’s droopy singing is an unlikely highpoint of the song – lending a superb feel to a song about an amphetamine trip.

The Gift is one of my favourites from this album; I definitely like it better than Sister Ray. The story starts out innocuously, replete with mundane events showing Marsha’s sexual promiscuity and Waldo’s sexual inadequacy. As the story comes to an unexpectedly grisly end, the rock instrumental reaches ear-splitting levels of disruption, superbly complementing Cale’s calm narration of the macabre incident.

The protagonist in Lady Godiva’s Operation is an unforgettable VU character – a transsexual whose sex-reassignment surgery is botched up by the surgeons. The surgeon ‘cagily’ covers this up by performing a lobotomy on Lady Godiva. The song gains in significance when one realises the barbaric practice of lobotomy was very much in vogue less than 20 years before the song came out. This song is a great example of VU’s uncompromising subversive vision, in both musical form as well as lyrical content.

The achingly beautiful Here She Comes Now is a great counterpoint to the disquiet of the rest of the album. The song, sung in perfect harmony by Reed, displays a certain sense of economy that marks it out with respect to the rest of the album. The song, a hallucination about the narrator’s lover returning, is tempered by the semi-realisation that it isn’t all real Ah oh, it looks so good/ Ah oh, she's made out of wood).

Here She Comes Now assumes greater importance when the manic guitars of I Heard Her Calling My Name take over. The furious riffs in this track have played their part in defining the sound of punk rock. The previous track paints a hopeful picture of life after the lover returns, but the facts prove quite grim. She ‘said she never understood a word from me, because’. The line breaks off without finding any answers. The narrator returns to his dreams, finding no solace in the woman, reassuring himself with: I know that she cares about me/ I heard her call my name/ And I know that she's long dead and gone/Still she ain't the same. Some read the last two lines as indication of necrophilia. Knowing VU, it’s perfectly possible, but I tend to see the ‘long dead and gone’ figuratively, meaning the relationship’s dead. Eventually he concedes ‘his mind split open’ in a haunting ending to a great, and disturbing, song.

Sister Ray, much celebrated for its 17 minute instrumental jam, is a fine example of the poignancy VU can bring to their matter of fact descriptions of dysfunctional lives. The song describes desolate, lonely lives spent in drug-induced excitement, with a long improvisation at the end forming a sort of musical counterpoint to the monotonous lives detailed in the lyrics. The song centres chiefly around themes of sex, violence, masturbation and drug abuse – all described as desolate, lonely activities that alienate the characters further, reducing their sense of reality to an uncertain haze. The shooting of the sailor is described casually, using multiple sexual innuendos, with someone reproaching the killer for ‘staining the carpet’.

While my prosaic paraphrasing of the song makes it seem either like a morality tale on the perils of what has today come to acquire the lazy label of ‘the rock and roll lifestyle’, or a ballad romanticising ‘the rock and roll lifestyle’; the experience of the song is far richer and more complex. It is nothing short of poetry – not so much the lyrics alone, but the song itself – making it a word-and-tone poem of many complex and dark undertones. The long jam at the end has its roots in blues, but the grating tone and loopy structure again point to punk.

This is a great album – one that I hold in the same high regard as Revolver or Abbey Road, Zeppelin IV or Surrealistic Pillow. And perhaps more so than in any of those great albums, White Light/ White Heat fuses words, music, and sound to create truly subversive, transcendental art.

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus: Mingus Presents Dolphy

Better Known For
Pithecanthropus Erectus; the legendary 1953 Massey Hall concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Max Roach; for his fearsome temper; for anticipating the Third Stream by fusing composition and improvisation

Eric Dolphy’s alto saxophone gets the blues, as much as Lightnin’ Hopkins or Robert Johnson. His saxophone not only plays jazz, it also sounds human, and creates moods that had not been heard on an instrument other than the human voice.

The human wailing inspired improvisation that was uniquely Dolphy’s, drew upon blues shouting as much as on traditional jazz, forging it into a new jazz form that has come to be known as free jazz. While Ornette Coleman played his part in the evolution of free jazz, Dolphy’s contribution in tying in the older jazz forms with the emerging free jazz forms cannot be understated. In a way, Dolphy and Coltrane formed the bridge between the more traditional forms and free jazz, or New Jazz, as it was called then. If Coltrane represented one within the traditional form reaching out, Dolphy was one out there reaching backwards. He was, to use the lingo of the day, the outside-inside man.

While the inside men such as Miles Davis denounced Dolphy’s experiments, Mingus, imperious as ever, declared that ‘these free jazz guys are simply running their fingers over their instruments’ and teamed up with Dolphy to create some truly heady jazz.

Although I tend to rave about Dolphy, this quartet must be one of the strongest in jazz history – Dannie Richmond on drums and Mingus on bass must surely be among the greatest rhythm sections ever. Ted Curson is versatile and energetic and shows a superb ability to add power to Dolphy’s delicate playing.

Dolphy’s work on Folk Forms No. 1 is incredible. Backed by Ted Curson’s muscular trumpet, Dannie’s Richmond’s superb anticipation, and Mingus’ solid bass, Dolphy’s playing makes the opening track at once delicate and powerful, multi-layered, and improvisational. Ted Curson complements Dolphy perfectly, filling in gaps – and Dolphy leaves a lot of those – without obliterating Dolphy’s intricate structures. About 5 minutes into the track, Mingus clearly demonstrates why every jazz bassist must live with being compared with him. His solo is simply superb, accepting sporadic bursts from Dolphy to add colour first and then to slowly build the bass solo into a full-fledged theme for the ensemble. Dannie Richmond too plays a great drum solo, with some very vocal encouragement from Mingus, whose bass line takes over from the drum solo and returns the track to its the melodic centre. The track disintegrates dramatically, with Dolphy’s alto saxophone choking on its sound, and Richmond’s superb syncopation giving it the impression of winding down.

Original Faubus Fables is an instance of traditional call-and-response blues, shouting elevated to a complex jazz form. While this is no doubt impressive, it is Dolphy again who astonishes with his ability to wield the alto saxophone with such fluency as to replicate human wailing without which the blues wouldn’t be the blues. However, I must add that Mingus Sextet’s version at Cornell in 1964 may have an edge over this album version, especially since Mingus and Richmond don’t feel compelled to sing at Cornell, and Jaki Byard on piano is a great addition.

What Love? is a beautiful track, with Dolphy sounding as quiet, economical and lyrical as he did on some of the best tracks of Out There, particularly Serene. Mingus chips in again with another superb solo, mirroring Dolphy’s in its economy and lyricism. An Ellingtonesque ‘exotic’ strain runs through the entire track, showing its full contours only occasionally. Mingus hints at the ‘exotic’ strain in his solo, and this is picked up by Dolphy and given spectacular form.

The outrageously titled,
All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother, shows some furious playing from Dolphy and Mingus. I have no clear insight as to why this track is called what it is, nor why Mingus chose to dedicate it to all mothers. Well, he was Mingus, and I suppose that'll have to do for the rest of us.

Now What?

I’m sure there'll be many who will disagree with the views expressed here. The idea was never to reach a consensus. After all, between the warm contours of Clifford Brown’s trumpet and Miles Davis’ icy depths, lie worlds waiting to be described.

Cross-posted on Swung Notes.

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