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Seeing Blues

So when you’re listening to Miles Davis’ “All Blues”, you can also check out the visual representation of the solos and the different styles they’re played in in this really interesting PDF poster. Here’s the author’s site.

I Was Aiming For 10, But Missed

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Since it seems that everyone and her brother are doing top ten lists to wrap up 2005, here’s the official Top Ten Earworms of 2005, presented in no particular order:

  • Spinvis, Ik Wil Alleen Maar Zwemmen. I have no idea what this song is about—it’s in Flemish—but you can dance to it anyway. The song starts off with a simple solo guitar riff—very indie-rockish—but about half-way through it drops into a wonderful synth bass break that’s as hip-loosening as anything I’ve heard recently.
  • Annie, My Heartbeat. It makes the list solely for the tight, funky instrumental break after the first chorus.
  • Robyn, Be Mine!. The previous song was about the start of the affair; this one’s about the end of the affair. Fantastic production on this one too.
  • Ed Askew, Fancy That. Truly wonderful and bizarre alt-folk. Except that I’m not sure that Mr. Askew would embrace labels like that…
  • Genesis, Squonk. I wrote about the squonk before, in this post. In case you’re wondering, this is from Genesis’ first album after Peter Gabriel left, but before Steve Hackett left and the group turned into the pop powerhouse they were in the 1980s.
  • Imogen Heap, Hide and Seek. A cappella vocoder overload, or, perhaps, the most haunting thing I heard all year. I still haven’t figured out what the song is about.
  • The Free Design, I Found Love (Styrofoam & Sarah Shannon Mix). The Free Design were an entirely obscure pop/folk group from the hippy Sixties; they were rediscovered and their songs updated, to varying degrees, last year. Lovely, cheerful, optimistic Summer-Of-Love pop filtered through a indietronica sensibility.
  • Kudu, King Kong. No tie-in to the Peter Jackson movie, but a great commentary on alpha males and the war of the sexes.
  • The Cat Empire, Hello. Guitars, horns, the funky, and Australian vocals run through a distortion filter—what’s not to like?
  • Yes v. Sir Mix-A-Lot, Owner of a Lovely Butt. Exactly what you’d expect: “Owner of a Lonely Heart” remixed with “Baby Got Back”.
  • April March, Sugar. There’s much to love about this song, but I’m particularly taken by the rhythm section, which sounds like it wandered in from a Blue Note recording session, circa 1963.
  • La Laque, Secret. I thought these guys were Canadian of the Quebec persuasion until I looked up their website, where it turns out that they’re a NYC band that just happens to prefer singing in French. Still, there’s something about a breathy femme whispering en français—it doesn’t matter what, hell, it could be a grocery list—that’s just incredibly sexy.
  • John Hiatt, Thunderbird. A little country, a little roots rock, a little Americana… hell, it’s just a great song about a guy and his favorite car. Screw labels.
  • Royskopp, What Else Is There. Take some chilly, glassy electronic beats, add a dash of synth pop and some obscure, moody lyrics (hey, at least they’re in English!), and stir. Pour over rocks.
  • Bonobo, Nothing Owed. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s an oboe solo actually, on further review, it seems more like a soprano saxophone.

I guess that’s more than 10. At least I left out the song performed entirely on the hurdy-gurdy.

What with finishing my last final at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve Eve Eve (known to most people as December 22nd), I had but little time to ‘get into the holiday spirit’, whatever that is (for those of you wondering, I don’t mean a bottle of Johnnie Walker wrapped in tinsel when I say “the holiday spirit”).

But still—an old friend took me to the Prairie Home Companion Christmas show at Town Hall on Christmas Eve Eve (from which I stole borrowed the title joke), and the show (for a change, taped Friday night for Saturday night’s broadcast; the cast and crew justifiably wanted to be at home on Christmas Eve)—which featured three child singers singing various traditional carols from Eastern Europe in languages I don’t know, two opera singers, Odetta, and a young man who played heavy metal (“Sweet Child O’ Mine”, to be precise) on a ukulele—had a marvelously calming and holiday-fying effect. The carol sing-along at the end of show helped, I think.

On Christmas Eve proper, my second cousin held a traditional Polish Christmas dinner at her apartment, complete with carp, gefilte fish, herring salad, pireogies, and so much more. Plus more singing of carols, including the full twelve days of Christmas, which I probably haven’t sung in full in at least 20 years. Anyway, that particular song reminded me of this classic piece of humor, regarding what would happen if your true love actually did send you all that stuff. A sample, from day five:

Dearest Fred,

What a surprise! The postman just delivered the “Five golden rings”; one for every finger. You’re just impossible, but I love it. Frankly, all those birds squawking were beginning to get on my nerves.

All my love,


It goes on somewhat from there.

So, enjoy your winter holiday, be it Christmas, Hannukah, Festivus, Saturnalia, the Solstice, other, or any combination of the above; and when you gather with your family and friends, may your glass have as much cheer as spirit in it.

A few things:

  • The holiday seems to be driving a lot of traffic to this old post about cheap halloween costumes. There are some good tips in there, so if you’re still hunting for that perfect, cheap costume….
  • One of the occupational hazards about living in New York is that you’re never sure if someone’s dressed like that because it’s Halloween… or if they really are a ‘intimate services provider.’
  • And finally, this is the iconic music for Halloween (link expired). This particular performance of the d-minor Toccata & Fugue is a little ideosyncratic, but that’s because it was recorded in a cathederal in Freiberg that has four different organs. E. Powers Biggs bounces the various themes and counter-melodies around the church like a tennis ball. It’s a neat listen (and the SACD surround-sound version—it was originally recorded for quadrophonic sound, apparently—is supposed to be even more spectacular) and it’s even better if listened to at the appropriate volume for listening to organ music (i.e. loud enough that one feels one’s internal organs vibrating—listening to an organ recital is isn’t just about listening, it’s a whole-body experience).

It Was A Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket

This 12-minute track is a excerpt from the monumental Philip Glass/Robert Wilson collaboration Einstein on the Beach. It’s often called an opera, and to a certain extent that’s accurate, but it’s also, to a certain extent, not entirely accurate. For one thing, there’s not much in the way of a traditional narrative plot; for another, traditional opera forms like arias have been thrown out the window entirely. On the other hand, “opera” is probably the only really appropriate word to use to describe its potent synthesis of music and theater. I’ve never seen Einstein in person—my exposure has been limited to owning the recording and watching a PBS special about the show. Perhaps one day Wilson and Glass will decide to remount the production…

If you were wondering, the slightly surreal stream-of-consciousness lyrics were written by Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet who has worked often with Wilson.

Come Here Baby, Put Your Leg Before My Wicket

This is a bit of an odd song, but then again, the artist is a bit of an oddity. David Wrench is a gaunt 6’5” albino Welshman who is probably most famous for a extended spat with Thom Yorke of Radiohead (involving a cover of “Creep”). His so far only solo album, “The Atomic World of Tomorrow” (only available in the UK) is stuffed full of dance music that sounds like Abba songs covered by the Pet Shop Boys and sung by Morrissey. If you actually listen closely to the spectacularly rude (clever, but definately not safe for work) lyrics, you’ll discover that this particular track is really a glorious tribute to Britishness (I think—anyway, it’s an appropriate bit to put up on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Or it could be an ironic comment on being British. I’m not entirely sure. Either way, anyone who can make cricket (the game, which is played by grown men wearing white trousers and cable-knit sweaters, and really, any activity that’s undertaken whilst wearing a cable-knit sweater really can’t be considered a sport) sound as perversely dirty as he does has a certain amount of talent. Oh yeah, and then there’s the 3 minute Eno-esque coda, which just adds to the oddity…


Perhaps US/Indian rock star Karsh Kale was profoundly moved the last time he was in Italy. Or perhaps he wrote this song about Milan, Michigan, home to a drag-racing strip. It’s hard to tell, since it’s an instrumental.

(OK, it’s probably about the city in Italy)

A Little Heavy Music

I’m gonna steal from myself a bit in introducing this next clip: it’s the first movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in c minor in a stunningly remastered performance by von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmonic:

This 1963 recording of this monumental work has recently been remastered by DG and is now available as part of the DG Originals series. I have to say that they did it right; quite frankly, the sonic quality of this recording is spectacular. I have also heard (and will later review in this space) an other DG Original CD (Gundula Janowitz singing Mozart) and the quality of that disc is also fabulous. If these two CDs are indicative of the sonic quality of the rest of the series, I cannot and will not hesitate to recommend them. The best part is that they’re all mid-price.

It would be a shame if the performances weren’t worth the effort that DG has put into the remastering process; fortunately for us, we have Karajan leading the Berliner Philarmoniker through an astounding performance. From the powerfully ominous opening, with its pounding timpani and sheets of strings, through the sublime allegretto and through to the famous Beethoven-inspired theme of the finale, the orchestra plays as one instrument. In other words: buy this.

I suspect that Phil Spector got his ideas about a ‘wall of sound’ from listening to this symphony.

Brahms was Beethoven’s self-appointed musical heir; he fought against what he viewed as the romantic excesses of Wagner and Liszt. Certainly, in form, this symphony is very traditional, with four movements, all in the right places; from the point of structure, the only thing a traditionalist might find fault with are the violin solo in the Andante and the sheer length of the piece (this performance, which cuts the da capo exposition in the first movement, runs a solid 46 minutes). Brahms even tips his hat to the old masters by using a theme that is directly descended from the finale of Beethoven’s 9th.

However, in terms of tonality and harmonic structure, Brahms sounds more like Wagner, Liszt and Mahler than he does Beethoven. His sonic palette is clearly and unambiguously mid- to late-nineteenth century romantic; in fact, Strauss would later use some of the same aural vocabulary in tone poems such as Don Quixote.

Going Back Back Back Back

In the comments to this post, Ethan Zuckerman pointed to the Accordian Guy posting a mashup of Yes and Sir Mix-a-Lot called “Owner of a Lovely Butt”.

Which is a very long way of introducing west coast bluesmen Charlie and The Nightcats’ own ode: The Booty Song (I Love To Watch You Walk Away)

The music of Gavin Bryars is inevitably described using the words listed in the title of this post. And that’s not entirely inaccurate. But at the same time, that’d be like describing the music of Philip Glass as “repetitive” or Morton Feldman’s scores as “slow”. Yes, it’s slow-developing, and yes, it does seem drenched in melancholy. After all, one of his recordings is titled After The Requiem.

But there’s much more to it than that, and careful listeners will be well rewarded by his very thoughtful music. Some of Bryars’ music reminds me of a more tuneful George Crumb, actually. This particular piece is an adaptation of a instrumental interlude for a proposed (apparently never written) opera based on Thomas de Quincy’s The Last Days of Immanuel Kant.