Album of the Year 2014

Posted in Dancing about architecture on April 8th, 2015 by bill

It has taken a while, partly through indecisiveness, mostly through laziness, but I am finally ready to name my album of the year for 2014: the self-titled LP by Benjamin Booker.

I use the term LP advisedly, as this music would sound right at home on scratchy old vinyl. It is a gloriously analog production — just guitar, bass, and drums, and of course Booker’s voice, which has the raspy authority of a grizzled bluesman though he is only 25 and this is his debut album. He just sounds like an old soul, sort of like Amy Winehouse did; hopefully he will be around longer than she was.
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The Serve of the Thin White Duke

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on March 31st, 2015 by bill

Poking around Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame today, I was struck by the following passage about David Bowie’s 1999 sessions with the band Rustic Overtones:

The band had wanted to invite Bowie for a [ping-pong] match during the sessions but thought better of it: this was a serious rock artiste, after all. Later, they read that Bowie was actually an avid ping-pong player and once had an epic match with Lou Reed.

Sadly, I was unable to find any photographic evidence of a table tennis match between Messrs. Bowie and Reed, but I did find this:

And this:

And this, which I believe is from The Man Who Fell to Earth:

Which was enough to make me pretty happy. Note the Batman symbol on David’s kimono. Awesome.

The Golden Age of Hype

Posted in Dancing about architecture on March 13th, 2015 by bill

Is it vinyl, CD, or wax cylinder in there?

We are not living in a golden age of music right now. Sure, there is good music being made; always has been, always will be. But there’s nothing like the depth and breadth of the 60s and 70s, or even the 80s and 90s. You could come up with a thousand reasons why, from the decline of Western civilization to the rise of downloading and the vegetative state of the music business, but it hardly matters at this point. We all have access to so much music, no one now living will ever run out of new things to explore. So in a sense, who cares if not much great stuff is being recorded these days? We don’t really need much more.

But one place where the boundaries are still being pushed, and new summits still being reached, is in the area of hype. Last week, for instance, the Wu-Tang Clan held a public event at a museum in Queens, New York to preview their new album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Why would people crowd into an auditorium and consent to have their phones confiscated to hear 13 minutes of music by a group whose previous release – A Better Tomorrow, still just a few months old – did not exactly set the world on fire?

Because according to scluzay.com:

The sole existing master of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, of which all backups and digital files have been destroyed, is available through the New York auction house, Paddle 8. It is presented in a hand carved nickel-silver casing designed by the British Moroccan artist Yahya and accompanied by a 174 page volume containing lyrics, credits and anecdotes on the production and recordings of each song.

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The Journey of 10,000 Songs

Posted in Dancing about architecture on January 21st, 2015 by bill

About two and a half years ago I bought a new MacBook Pro. Unlike my previous laptop, it didn’t come with any music preloaded, so this was a chance for me to start from scratch with an empty iTunes library.

At first, I loaded only albums from 2012 to force myself to listen to recent music. Then I added stuff from 2011, and then 2013 when the time came. Then I wanted to have staples like the Beatles and the Stones, so I relaxed the rules, and from there things started to get out of hand. Around this time I discovered that it’s pretty easy nowadays to take your laptop to the library and burn to your heart’s content, without bothering to check stuff out and return it. My friend Robert gave me a memory stick full of Sly and the Family Stone and Madlib mixes. I got 8 CDs’ worth of both Johnny Cash and James Brown. You get the picture.

Fast-forward to today, and I just reached the 10,000-song mark. This seems like a good time to step back and reflect for a minute. Of course, 10,000 songs represents only the merest fraction of my total collection, but that’s still a lot of music; to be precise, 26 days, 5 hours, 4 minutes, and 56 seconds’ worth. So I could still theoretically listen to all of it during the month of February, as long as I didn’t sleep. If I just made a job of it and listened to 8 hours a day, it would take me 79 days to get all the way through, assuming I didn’t add anything more in the meantime. Which is unlikely.
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Nothing Has Changed – Part 3 (Disc 1)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on January 8th, 2015 by bill

“I’m exhausted from living up to your expectations.”
—Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth

One of the perks of being David Bowie, with a long and distinguished career behind you, more money than God, and an inexhaustibly deep well of heavy heavy cool to draw from, is that you can do whatever you want.

Last year, what David wanted to do was release a career retrospective that includes greatest hits, unreleased tracks, and songs he felt were insufficiently appreciated. He also recorded two new songs, one of which (“Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)“) leads off the three-disc, reverse-chronological-order version of Nothing Has Changed. (There are also double-vinyl and single-CD versions, each with different track listings and sequencing.) I must admit that despite my best efforts I have been unable to find a way to enjoy this song; it does not seem to be designed with enjoyment in mind.

“Sue” is perhaps best viewed as the latest step in the pas de deux between Bowie and Scott Walker, which has gone on for 40-some years now. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around but it’s quite possible that, as great as we all think being David Bowie must be, what David Bowie really wants is to be Scott Walker. My theory on this is that despite his artistic adventurousness, Bowie has always been somewhat constrained by his desire to please his audience. In doing so he has become rich and famous, but I wonder if he has in some respect felt hemmed in by what people expect of “David Bowie,” and wished for the freedom afforded a Scott Walker, who seemingly cares to please only himself. In the last 20 years Walker has abandoned all commercial considerations and explored completely alien territory that challenges what we think of as music. I don’t personally care for albums like Tilt and Bish Bosch, but there is no denying their integrity.
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Nothing Has Changed – Part 2 (Disc 3)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on December 31st, 2014 by bill

David Bowie: Artist and athlete

Disc 3 begins in 1975 with “Fame,” which may be the first Bowie song I ever heard; it’s certainly the first one I remember. As with so much of the innovative music of that era that I ended up loving, I initially found it disturbing and frightening. At that point I was not yet a person who controlled his own musical environment; I just soaked up whatever was around me, mostly from the radio, and there was nothing else on the radio like “Fame.” For one thing, it was hard funk when the charts were dominated by soft rock and first-wave disco (funky enough, in fact, that James Brown ripped it off wholesale for a song called “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved)”). For another, it had that bizarre descending vocal line near the end; surely nothing like it had penetrated my tender young ears before.

But now “Fame” is a comforting old friend, ditto “Young Americans,” which follows it on Nothing Has Changed. Like “Heroes,” “Young Americans” is lyrically ambiguous, to say the least, if not downright grim (consider: “Well, well, well, would you carry a razor?/In case, just in case of depression” or “We live for just these twenty years/Do we have to die for the fifty more?”). But as with “Heroes” that tends to get lost in the sheer sonic bliss and forward momentum of the music. There is a sense here that the Young Americans are maybe not all that bright, that they’ll gladly swallow any poison pill wrapped in tasty candy. And I have to admit I’m right there with them; I love this song regardless.
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Nothing Has Changed – Part 1 (Disc 2)

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why on December 8th, 2014 by bill

Funk to funky

I resisted buying the new David Bowie 3-CD anthology, Nothing Has Changed, for the better part of 20 minutes. I already have most of those songs, I tried to convince myself, and it’s unlikely there will be any real revelations among the outtakes and rarities. I had already heard the new single, “Sue (or a Season of Crime)” and decided I didn’t care for it.

But I am weak, and it was not that expensive, so my resistance did not last. And although everything I told myself is true, I can’t say I regret the purchase; the opportunity to hear new Bowie songs, or old Bowie songs in a new context, is always welcome.

The gimmick in this set is that it is sequenced in reverse chronological order, which definitely changes the narrative, turning Bowie into an artist who starts off experimental and abstract but self-assured, goes through a long shaky period, and emerges from it as a mind-blowing rock’n’roll superman, before petering out in a series of derivative, underdeveloped, but not charmless singles.

I actually cheated a little bit and listened to discs 2 and 3 first, because I was on a car trip with two teenage girls in the back seat and I didn’t think they’d sit still for a full disc of late-period Bowie. Even so, we all got a little restless during “Buddha of Suburbia” and “Jump They Say,” but to the rescue, surprisingly, came “Time Will Crawl” — a refugee from the abysmal Never Let Me Down, but in this context it sounded great. (The version included here, the “MM Remix,” may be better than the original, which I haven’t heard for a while.)
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Tuesday Night in A-Town

Posted in Dancing about architecture on December 3rd, 2014 by bill

A not-so-great picture of Sallie Ford and her band.

Last night is one that I’d like to remember. It started off shaky but ended up great, and some lessons were learned along the way.

Lesson #1: I really don’t like jazz all that much. Or certain kinds of jazz, at least. As part of a general program to try to shake off old biases and enjoy as many kinds of music as possible, of late I’ve relaxed my strict “no jazz” policy and tried to find a way to enjoy what is, after all, a huge and diverse genre. And I’ve made some progress, discovering a fondness for Miles Davis especially.

So when I saw that the Bad Plus was included in our subscription to the Center Arts season, I was mildly optimistic. They have a reputation as jazz mavericks and have covered songs by the Pixies, Nirvana, and Radiohead. While I haven’t dug deep into their oeuvre, I have heard a few things I enjoyed, and hoped that in a live setting they would do some crowd-pleasing.
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Some of My Favorite Shows (Part 2)

Posted in Dancing about architecture on October 3rd, 2014 by bill

This picture is almost as blurry as my memory.

This one is a little tricky, because my memories of the show in question are very vague. You might ask, as my friend TV did, why I want to write about a show I barely remember. It’s a good question, and the answer is that I have fond feelings for the band, the time period, and the people involved, and enjoy thinking about all of them.

The band was Shriekback, the venue The Stone in San Francisco, the time late 1985. I was attending UC Santa Cruz at the time, and had gotten into the habit of reading the SF Chronicle’s Sunday arts and entertainment section (known to all Bay Areans as the Pink Section). When I saw that Shriekback — one of my favorite bands then and now, and one rarely seen on U.S. soil — was playing in S.F., I was determined to be there. I convinced a group of friends to make the trek, and for transportation we enlisted a hallmate who was not a favorite person of ours but had a car. It was not a proud moment, but sometimes you do what you have to do.
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Some of My Favorite Shows (Part 1)

Posted in Dancing about architecture on September 17th, 2014 by bill

Updating the Bands I’ve Seen list lately got me to thinking about Times of Olde, and I realized I’ve never written much about many of the great shows. And I might as well do that, because my memory is not getting any better. In general, I probably remember a show that happened 20 or 25 years ago better than one that happened in 2008, but the brain damage is selective and unpredictable.

My first real concert (seeing the Hooters in a shopping mall doesn’t count) was Devo at the Tower Theater in suburban Philadelphia. If the internet is to be believed, this event took place on November 13, 1982, which means I would have just turned 15.

To say that from 1981 to 1984 I listened to Devo and nothing but Devo would be an exaggeration, but only a slight one (the Cars were in there too). To a kid of my age, gender, class, IQ, and general orientation toward reality, they were the only band that mattered. As I wrote previously (in a piece about how much they’ve betrayed me in later years), their message was one that I found irresistible:

They and I and those like us were not weirdos but superior mutants, and the future belonged to us.

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