Sunday, December 9, 2012

4. “Singing Aboard Ship (Laivassa lauletaan)”

Composed by Veljo Tormis (1983); as performed on
Tõnu Kaljuste/Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir:

Veljo Tormis - Litany To Thunder (ECM New Series 1999)

There is music that wishes war away in the subjunctive (“would it were not so”), while other music does not even warn of a hard rain so much as it says the rain it do fall, precisely how it falls, and upon whom. Apart from being an Estonian music student in the 1940s, I cannot imagine what Tormis experienced, but this a capella setting of an Ingrian-Finnish folk song for alto soloist and mixed chorus reminds me more than a bit of Maria Irene Fornes’s The Danube, in which she constructed an entire post-nuclear non-future from a discarded Magyar language record. This is a traditional song of ethnic Finnish women from the Neva river valley singing about and to men who have been impressed into the Russian military, awaiting transport aboard ships anchored offshore. The original song is the women’s lament, but in Tormis’s adaptation, the men answer – in the wordless tightly-harmonized choral mass that underpins the whole, beginning the piece as a low growl that rises to a sardonic roar as it joins with the women ringing over the water: “When the boys sang on the ship, / the girls thought it was an organ playing.”
Note: 25 secular essays about 25 songs, each one exactly 200 words long, appearing one per day during Advent from Dec. 1 through Dec. 25. Or, most likely, later.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

3. “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”/
“Moon, Turn the Tides…gently, gently away”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968);
composed by Jimi Hendrix


Electric Ladyland is the only album Jimi Hendrix released in his lifetime that was entirely the way he wanted it and it now makes for an unsettling backwards telescope into what might have transpired if the ambulance medics had kept his lungs clear in 1970. Not coincidentally, this sixteen-minute tone poem about the end of the world in the middle of it has to be addressed with a certain skepticism. Not because of the music, of course. Played entirely by Hendrix, except for Mitch Mitchell’s drums and occasional flute interjections by Chris Wood of Traffic, the track comprises stately inversions of one chord extended through a bone-chilling sequence of sound constructions produced entirely through the delicate interaction of upside-down guitar, amplifier, and remarkably little tape manipulation. It remains one of the very finest and intuitively musical noise excursions in the music. So, why skepticism? Because it sounds like an ending when it was not one. Because it also sounds like an experimental opening that did not ultimately open (although his “Machine Gun” solo makes me wonder). Its only message is that Hendrix could do anything he wanted and we live with never knowing exactly what that means.
Note: 25 secular essays about 25 songs, each one exactly 200 words long, appearing one per day during Advent from Dec. 1 through Dec. 25. Or, most likely, later.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

2. “Workin’ for MCA”

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Second Helping (Sounds of the South/MCA, 1974);
composed by Ed King & Ronnie Van Zant


Despite how late in the day it (really) is, some people still think I must be joking when I sing this band’s praises, but sing them I do. Skynyrd still messes with certain ironic (or “ironic”) sensibilities because their singular ways of layering contradictory meanings in their songs were so full-impact that they rarely registered as irony at all. Mastermind Ronnie Van Zant was also singular for (among many other things) the miraculous absence of two qualities in his makeup: sentiment and ressentiment. Accordingly, “Workin’ For MCA” is the single best song about record companies ever. Its adversarialism was nothing new, but only Van Zant would threaten the suits with physical violence while simultaneously demystifying their economic relationship so concisely in his title. Absent is any punkista pretension about being artists putting up with corporate parasites. Skynyrd were artists to the max – and no one knew that better than they – but no rock band ever was more aware that it had been given a job and contextualized its hostility in such real world terms. Underlining Van Zant’s concept were six musicians who had mastered their craft by playing for months inside an unventilated metal shack in the Florida heat.
Note: This is the third annual series of 25 secular essays about 25 songs, each one exactly 200 words long, appearing one per day during Advent from Dec. 1 through Dec. 25. Or so.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

1. “Lucinda”

Randy Newman: 12 Songs (Reprise, 1970);
composed by Randy Newman
If Randy Newman’s second and greatest album had a theme, it was not so much alienation as anomie: the breakdown of social bonds between individual and community. 12 Songs posed an unsettling corollary: What if anomie was something you liked? Accordingly, the narrators of these songs are mostly creepy guys at the end of their tethers. “Suzanne” comprises an obscene phone call, for example. In “Lucinda,” a young woman is lying on a beach in her graduation gown at sunset. The narrator lies down beside her, for reasons unstated. Since she never speaks, he only gradually realizes that she is really just there to wait for the beach cleaning truck to come along and scoop her body up with the day’s trash. And it does. After he fails to avert this, the narrator’s dumbstruck explanation is that “She just wouldn’t go no farther.” This recalls my pet theory about why The Night of the Hunter is a truly scary film: because Charles Laughton probably empathized most with the Robert Mitchum character. “Lucinda” reminds me of the town drunk incapacitated by his discovery of Shelley Winters’ bound corpse in the river - an utterly appalling image with few rivals in American cinema.
Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, intended to appear one per day during Advent from Dec. 1 through Dec. 25. Or so.

Friday, December 23, 2011

25. “Remember (Christmas)”

Harry Nilsson: Son of Schmilsson (RCA, 1972);
composed by Harry Nilsson


This album’s predecessor, Schmilsson, was a great one because it instantly made tangible the frank desperation that powered what had often seemed like overly whimsical craftsmanship in his previous music, but never was. This self-mocking sequel took this process further, which is why some of it makes no sense, in both good and less good ways. Unlike the tracks this album is best known for - “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” (response in the chorus: “So, fuck you!”), and “Joy” (which makes “Far Away Eyes” sound like “Sister Morphine”) – “Remember (Christmas),” a piano-with-strings ballad, would have fit on Schmilsson, but only the way that “Que Será Será” would have fit on There’s A Riot Goin’ On. It figures that Randy Newman performed this on a tribute album, because it is unequivocally pretty the way some of Newman’s darkest songs are. Over a lustrous cadence, Harry croons “remember” over and over at the beginning of each line, until he hits the bridge and croons “dre-ee-eeam!” so cheerfully that you instantly know how sad it actually is: “Love is only in a dream.” Happiness is what we make it, and one of the things we make it out of is sadness.

Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, to appear one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

24. “Lush Life”

Composed by Billy Strayhorn; first performed publicly in 1948

“Lush Life” is one of the most beautiful songs in the American “standard” canon, and not coincidentally it contains a rhyming couplet so abysmal (“awful” paired with “trough full” – full "of hearts," no less) that one has to assume that Strayhorn, who composed the song over a period of years starting when he was sixteen (sixteen!) and well before he had even met Duke Ellington, had to have known what a bummer it was and left it in, deliberately. It sits there like a pill any singer just has to choke down quickly, except its taste never quite gets past you. Neil Young once claimed he originally wrote over a hundred verses for “Sugar Mountain” and left in the very worst of them, “just to show what can happen.” “Lush Life” is entirely about that, and it is also about that pill. The original title, “Life Is Lonely,” thankfully gave way to a title with the truest of double meanings, insofar as it runs in two directions: not just happiness and romance leading to a despairing alcoholic aftermath but - more problematic – back again. And again. His happiness and despair seem interchangeable, but what they are is all of a piece.


Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, to appear one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.

Monday, December 19, 2011

23. “Can’t Hide Love”

Earth, Wind & Fire: Gratitude (Columbia, 1975);
composed by Clarence Scarborough


I have loved this group to pieces ever since “Shining Star” hit and never once worried about whether they were just all too smooth and cosmic. Sure – pretty heavy on the astrology and other such Reasons for playing the Love Game – but their sound was unique and that is even more obvious now. Their groove was The Funk the way Count Basie’s 1930s band had it if you hear it right – not just the horns, but a top-to-bottom interlock keyed as much to Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s vocal trade-offs up top as to the White Brothers’ rhythm change-ups down below. Even when they slowed down, they sounded like an idling dirigible. I would not say this track is typical of anything, but as one of the rare hits they did not write, the inscrutability of its construction raises all the right questions. The horn part that opens it sounds as if a first half has been deliberately omitted, while almost the entire second half of the track is fade-out. The song itself is great, but the fade is the charm: repeating the same four-bar cadence with different inversions until the substitutions take over completely.


Note: 25 secular essays (each one exactly 200 words long) about 25 songs, to appear one per day during Advent (or so) from Nov. 27 through Dec. 21.