I’m hardly the unbiased party to review a new Tom Waits. I happen to love his gritty, carny, meandering, noisy, maudlin sound. And I know from personal experience (and many mix CDs) it’s a taste that people love or hate.
This is Waits’ 17th album, and I’d say it collects the highlights of the types of sounds he has been working with over the last few albums. “Talking at the Same Time” is a lonesome, almost Latino barroom tune sung in an impressive falsetto. Even his tendencies for loud and brash noises seem restrained and even refined on the title track.
In the interview I heard with him (on Terry Gross, ahem) he spoke of his and wife/producer Kathleen Brennan’s desire to capture a vintage soundscape. And there’s a snap and crackle to the music like make it sound like timeless Tom Waits. And that’s just about perfect for me.
Watch the video for “Satisfied” here (directed by Jesse Dylan… yep, one of those Dylans).
I hope that you’ve at least heard of Harry Smith’s wonderful Anthology of American Folk Music. For the uninitiated, Harry Smith was a kooky old guy who collected American recordings of the 1920s and 1930s. It was released as a six album set in 1952. Loads of folkies in the 1950s and 1960s got their grubby hands on it, and shaped the way of popular music.
The blog The Old, Weird America is one of those places on the Internet that makes the rest of trash worthwhile. The site’s host is going through each song of the Anthology, finding covers and live performances and research (and mp3s!). From the introduction:
With this blog, i want to use the Folkways Anthology as a roadmap to explore american folk music and maybe other countries traditions along the way. I’ ll use texts, images, music and videos gathered from my personal collection and from the net to make this work-in-progress enjoyable and educational the best i can.
It’s a trove of historical music Americana and a labor of love.
I had some awesome back to back concert experiences recently: James Blake at the Fillmore (9/21/11) and Bon Iver at the Greek (9/22/11).
Both artists have similar artistic temperaments, specializing in songs that tug on your heart’s memory, but with different musical styles: James Blake relies on computer-based sounds, while Bon Iver has a more organic, woodsy approach.
At the James Blake show, opener Teengirl Fantasy let me experience some true dubstep (which I totally had to look up, old person that I am – it’s basically electronic dance music from London). They made LOUD and POWERFUL sounds come from their computers and drum sets, and even if it was entirely my scene, it was a good preview for what came next.
Blake is a rather unassuming presence – his striped shirt and sideways (Bieber?) hair make him seem like a recovering art student. But his voice? Even as he proclaimed to be sick, it hit the highs and held the lightness of an Antony.
The highlights for me were “To Care (Like You)” and “Limit To Your Love,” during which Blake recorded live samples that he looped, including the whoops from the crowd. In between the intense light show and the wall of noise, it was a show that really swept me away.
Bon Iver at the Greek was a different story. We got there too late for the opener, and it was at the Greek, which is outdoors and huge (also, trivia: where I had my English graduation). It was hard to find a seat, as the picture below attests.
Justin Vernon, the man behind the band, came to (relative, indie music status) fame with 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Legend quickly established that he wrote it after a devastating heartbreak in a cabin in Wisconsin. Somehow the music-listening public erupted in sympathy and understanding.
With this year’s Bon Iver, Vernon’s sound became bigger, and this was evident by how big his touring band is. I love the epic, Peter-Gabriel-Genesis “Holocene” and “Flume.” Having the entire auditorium erupt in the encore “Skinny Love” was awesome, but I do feel sad that I missed the time when I would have seen this talented artist on a smaller stage.
Bon Iver @ Greek Theatre (9/22/11)
Check out the collaboration between James Blake and Bon Iver, “Fall Creek Boys Choir”!
I do like a good biopic. From Walk the Line to Ray, it’s pretty easy to get wrapped into a fictionalized, more drama-filled version of the life of an artists that I love and respect. For that reason, it’s fun to play the game “Make that biopic!,” in which I create my dream-team line-up of biopics I’d totally watch. And it just so happens that all of them happen to be country music super-stars. Bonus: I cast them!
1. Hank Williams
Hank Williams I was a rambling, gambling man. He pretty much defined the country singer-songwriter: rough life, sad songs. He was addicted to pain killers and alcohol, was a devout, torn Christian, and was dead by the age of 29. Christian Bale has the intensity to do old Hank proud.
Hank Williams, courtesy Mxdwn
Christian Bale, courtesy Judy Halone
2. Waylon Jennings
Waylon Jennings is another country music star deserving of a cinematic coverage. His life story is almost too bizarre to be believed. He grew up in Texas, became friends with Buddy Holly, almost ending up on the the plane that crashed and ended Holly’s life. Instead Waylon become a country music sensation, singing about hard luck times that he lived and breathed. Bonus: you’d get to have someone play Willie Nelson, one of Jennings’ close musical partners and a fellow Outlaw. Jason Lee, who did hicks right in My Name is Earl, would play a mean Waylon.
Waylon Jennings, via Yahoofs
Jason Lee via Film School Rejects
3. Dolly Parton
Another fine rags-to-riches country story. Ms. Parton grew up in Appalachia, one of many children. She made it as a songwriter in Nashville, co-starring on the Porter Wagoner Show, and managed to make herself an independent millionaire by keeping the rights to all her songs. I’d love to see the sunny, optimistic star played by the similarly happy (if not endowed) Kate Hudson
Dolly Parton, courtesy whicdn.com
Kate Hudson, via Celebtv
4. George Jones and 5. Tammy Wynette
What a pair. Depending what you read, he drove the lawn mower to town to buy liquor when she hid the kids. He sang “White Lightning,” she sang “Stand by Your Man.” Their marriage was six years of hell and heartbreak, with two of country’s saddest singers. Call me crazy, but I can see Jim Carrey as the tyrannical George, and Laura Dern as the sweet but sorrowful Tammy.
George Jones & Tammy Wynette
I’ve written about it before, but Nathan Rabin has the most amazing series (that is turning into a book!) at the AV Club. He takes the anti-country music fan’s tour through these artists’ work. I’d suggest reading them all: Hank, Waylon, Dolly and George & Tammy.
Also, I made a Youtube playlist for your enjoyment!
Why make a movie about Bob Dylan, let alone six Bob Dylans? He’s a living legend who has shaken off every label that the public and his fans have put on him: voice of a generation, prophet, rock star, elder music statesman.
Perhaps Todd Haynes’ 2007 film, I’m Not There, is the only way to reconcile all the Dylans. Six actors portray the musician: Christian Bale as the folksy protest singer; Ben Winshaw as the tortured poet; Heath Ledger as the high flying rock star; Richard Gere as a hero of mythic, rootsy Americana; Marcus Carl Franklin as the itinerant singer-songwriter; and Cate Blanchett as the angry, gifted songwriter dealing with fame.
The whole film is a dreamy, music-soaked affair, drawn together by Dylan’s songs. Each story has a different arc that illuminates a facet of Dylan’s life or his myth. Some stories fall flatter than others – I could never completely tell what Richard Gere’s character was doing.
But some Dylan doppelgängers work beautifully. Cate Blanchett plays one of the most interesting characters of her whole career, as the twitchy and uncomfortable Dylan. She channels some of the scenes from Pennebaker’s 1967 Don’t Look Back. I’m not quite certain that Haynes meant to highlight any sort of femininity on the part of the character, but rather show how he felt like someone else acting in his own body.
Heath Ledger also shines as the debauched 1970s version. He and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are in the middle of getting a divorce, because he’s angry and detached from his family. It’s the story of the perils of fame against self and family, and the fact it’s played by Ledger gives the whole affair an even more tragic lens.
I would only recommend the film to Dylan fans, as it’s more fun to recognize the allusions. Perhaps film buff would enjoy it too, as it stands alone as a quirky and innovative film telling of the many lives of a man who refused to be there.
Continuing with celebrity memoir week, I thought I’d share some impressions about Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Vol. 1, a book that I bought when it first came out, then proceeded to never read completely until a recent long plane ride.
Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has proven himself extremely adept at refusing to take responsibility for his public image. He lies in interviews, purposefully misdirects, and generally has a palpable dislike for anyone, fan or journalist, who believes that he or she is “owed” a piece of him. In short, you must read Chronicles with a grain of salt the size of the Chrysler Building.
That being said, Dylan is a fine writer, at times both lyrical and direct. He divides the book into five parts: his early days as a folk singer in New York City, his attempt at family life in the late 1960s and early 1970s on a farm in Woodstock, and his later touring years in the 1980s.
Young Dylan was famously inspired by the folk singer Woody Guthrie. He tracked the dying artist down to a hospital in New Jersey, where he would visit him in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Reflecting on his younger self, Dylan recognizes the desire to do something different musically, to move beyond the tame folk resurgence to a movement with more teeth. He describes the musical, literary, and social influences that inspired his art, but:
The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.
Frustratingly, the book skips straight over his most interesting recordings, including Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The next section picks up with an unhappy Dylan in the late 1960s, holed up in a farm in Woodstock. He’s trying to escape the responsibilities lingering from his early roots as a protest singer, actively recoiling from being any voice of a generation. The emotion behind this section rings true and even current.
The third and fourth sections might be the most tantalizing, as you glimpse his mid-career struggles. Dylan writes of his (relatively) recent past recording the album Oh Mercy (1989). He describes his frustrations with touring and a hand injury:
The previous ten years had left me whitewashed and wasted out professionally. Many times I’d come near the stage before a show and would catch myself thinking that I wasn’t keeping my word with myself. What that word was, I couldn’t exactly remember, but I knew it was back there somewhere.
How much is true? Does it matter? You’re a fan before you pick up Chronicles, not after. And if you are, it may make you appreciate the man even more.
I created a Youtube playlist of songs Dylan spoke highly of in Chronicle: Volume 1. Listen and enjoy!
Must be the New Orleans trip fever, because I’m finally writing up a great book that I found at a used book store ages ago.
The book is called Mister Jelly Roll, and it’s about the famed early boogie woogie pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton played all over the United States in the first forty years of the 19002, but was born and raised in New Orleans.
Mister Jelly Roll cover
Alan Lomax, the author of the book, might be familiar to you for his ethnomusicology work and folklore efforts. Mister Jelly Roll is one of the many oral histories Lomax collected from famed musicians of the early 20th century.
Being an oral history, it’s all you can do to take Morton as his word. He’s a larger than life character, with a pretty strong self-pronounced claim for being the “father of jazz.”
He certainly did originate early arrangements of jazz music, and helped to popularize them all over the U.S. through a grueling tour schedule. Whether or not he is the “father of jazz,” Morton’s life story takes you through marriages, success, failure, small clubs, big band halls, racism, and impressive musical creativity.
The book is illustrated by David Stone Martin, whose strong graphic lines can be found on many jazz album covers of the day. The drawings, as well as the musical notes included in the appendix, make the book a fully engaging historical document. Recommended for music history buffs.
Fleet Foxes released their self-titled first full length album three years ago (2008! where did time go!). It was a frequent companion of mine on scenic drives and road trips, and their medieval jam-band sound made a perfect soundtrack to summertime adventures. I saw them live at the Fox Theater in 2009, and was incredibly impressed by their beautiful harmonies and tight arrangements.
Their new album Helplessness Blues is no sonic departure, but it does seem like lead singer Robin Pecknold has grown up. The themes are more grounded, less about the mythic pastoral past and more about everyday, modern struggles. “Montezuma”, the first first song on the album opens, “Now I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” Even as the song goes on to reference empresses and dragons, I can recognize a quarter-life crisis from 2 paces away.
Later, on “Helplessness Blues,” he goes on to mourn, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” Are you going to opt out of the bigger grind? Downsize and find a space you can be master of? More questions I certainly don’t have the answer to, but Pecknold wonders beautifully.
Despite the band’s lyric earthiness, the music itself embraces the ethereal. The arrangements are very complex but are made pure and simple soaring lead that recall medieval choirs (which I can’t, but can certainly imagine). What they have accomplished on this album is so precise, but flows so easily that you’re never aware they must be working really, really hard.
Mad did a great review after seeing them at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
Jonathan Russell of the Head and the Heart @ Bottom of the Hill (4/28/11)
Live concerts are kind of odd, if you think about them. You buy a ticket to a band you like, arrive to a venue populated by fellow fans, maybe have a drink or two, and then stand there, waiting to be utterly transported. And transported alone, too – from what I can tell from shows in the Bay, people don’t like to show emotion. The most you’ll get is some mild bopping as people clutch their beer bottles. I’m not asking for dance circles, but if you’re not looking for connection, why did you leave the house?
And yet we’re all guilty of craving the experience. I had first heard the Head and the Heart on KEXP, was converted by rapturous praise over at I am Fuel, You are Friends, and found myself greatly enjoying their self-titled album. When I went to see them with KO last Wednesday, April 27 at Bottom of the Hill, I confess, I was ready to be transported. And boy, did they deliver.
The songs are not complex, sonically or lyrically. They are about travel, and love, and family, and roads, and rivers. “Honey, come home,” singer Jonathan Russell sings on “Honey Come Home.” “I’ve cleaned out the fridge / wiped the counters off.”
But what the band brings is heart, and so much of it. When they started “Down in the Valley” and the crowd erupted with the chorus, you really felt like you were part of something. The band just moves together so well, and brings the audience along for the ride.
Looking at their touring schedule, I have no idea how they make it work. I’m all for it though, as this is a band to see if they come by your town… especially if it’s at one of the smaller venues that they are sure to outgrow soon. Check out outcoming dates here.