Archive for the ‘Music appreciation’ category

Bigger is Not Better

10 February 2012
Categories: Music appreciation

WXRT (93.1 FM Chicago) is my favorite radio station. Its morning team in particular, Lin Brehmer and Mary Dixon, are the best in the business: informative, insightful, and erudite, and hilarious without ever resorting to the blaring, obvious comedy of other morning shows. It’s a regular part of my weekday-morning routine—and to be frank I find my day a little off-kilter whenever anyone else stands in for Lin or Mary at the mic.

Every year XRT runs a listener poll, which is a great way for the station both to generate listener involvement and to get feedback on its programming. The results are pretty good: of course “Best Albums” and “Best Songs” are not necessarily the best of all the year’s music—they’re the year’s best releases that XRT has been playing. Still, that’s to be expected given the responder base—XRT regular listeners—so there’s nothing inherently wrong with the results in those categories.

I have a major problem, however, with one of the other categories: “Best Concerts.”

The problem is simply one of volume: the bigger the show, the larger the potential number of voters for it, and therefore the more likely it is to make the list—regardless of quality.

Take a look at the 2011 results. I think we can take as a given that people who didn’t see a particular concert are unlikely to vote for it; but that everyone who attended a concert is a potential voter for it. If we assume that each of the top 10 concert events on the list were sold out (a safe bet), we can determine each event’s potential voter base by multiplying the capacity of the venue by the number of shows/nights in the event. When we do this, not one of the events listed has a vote potential of less than about 4,000. (Well, okay, the smallest is 3,880—the capacity of the Chicago Theatre.) The average vote potential for those ten events is over 60,000.

Multiple shows, such as Wilco’s 5-night, venue-hopping “residency,” are lumped in together as a single event, regardless of whether a voter meant the incredible first-night show with Mavis Staples at the Civic Opera House, or the intimate final-night appearance at Lincoln Hall. This is about the only way smaller venues will appear on the list. (Last year, Buddy Guy’s 16-night residency at his own Legends took 3rd place: a very small venue—550 capacity—but a lot of shows.) Meanwhile Lollapalooza has placed in the top 5 every year (except 2009, when it took 9th) since it arrived in Chicago in 2005; regardless of how terrific the Coldplay or My Morning Jacket or Foo Fighters sets might have been, Lolla’s 3rd-place finish this year was surely not harmed by having a vote potential of more than a quarter million.

“I put on shows at the Saturn so that the kids can see the stage, afford the tickets, and hear the music. So screw stadiums.” — the immortal Max Wolfe, in Get Crazy

In an interview celebrating Lin Brehmer’s twenty years with XRT (as an aside, congratulations to my “best friend in the whole world”), he stated that among his favorite places to see live music are: Metro, Park West, Old Town School, SPACE, Lincoln Hall, Schubas. As he so concisely and forthrightly put it, “Small is usually best.”

And yet, because of the vote potential of the bigger shows, not one show that played at any of those venues made the “Best Concerts” list—even though four out of Brehmer’s six made XRT’s list of “Best Venues.” That’s because these smaller venues lack vote potential. The most incredible, once-in-a-lifetime show in the history of the universe, appearing for one night at, say, Metro has at most a vote potential of 1,100—and the other venues Brehmer mentioned are smaller still. There’s simply no way for that to compete against any show, good or mediocre, at Soldier Field (65,000), or Wrigley Field (42,000), or Alpine Valley (37,000).

I think XRT should weight its “Best Concerts” results based on vote potential. That, or make it clear to its listeners: these might have been the biggest shows of the year, but they weren’t necessarily the best.

By the way, given that my proposal could undermine Lollapalooza’s dominance of the list, and XRT is a major promoter of both the main event and many of its affiliated “secret” after-hours shows, I have no expectation that XRT will do anything other than utterly ignore this argument. 

Record Store Day

16 April 2011
Categories: Music appreciation

Today is Record Store Day—a somewhat new, um, international holiday. Surely conceived as a backlash against the impersonality of iTunes and big, corporate-owned, online retailers, Record Store Day celebrates the independent, locally owned, bricks-and-mortar record store. This is a good thing, and I hope these businesses can continue to survive in the digital age.

I’ll admit, however, that I myself have not been much of an actual, fiscal supporter of the local record stores in my neighbourhood in recent years. The reason is simple, and as my wife put it, succinct: I’ve gotten old. When I walk in and find the music piped through the store’s stereo to be unwelcoming, if not off-putting; when I peruse the stacks and not only find nothing I want, find that ninety percent of it is completely unfamiliar to me; it’s clear that yes, I’m old.

That’s okay; I’m cool with that. The record stores in my neighbourhood are not for me. I’m still happy to know they’re there, pleased to see (as I did yesterday) a young woman on the bus clutching a shopping bag from one of them.

The record store is a land of escape and discovery, in a way that no online store can be. In my student days it was a frequent ritual: Flip through the stacks, pause at an interesting title, read the liner notes and song list, track down that one elusive item to fill a gap in my collection, or find something utterly new to my knowledge, weigh the cost of my desire and the cash in my pocket against the need to buy groceries that week, and at the end of the day take home one or several prizes—or none, if it came to that—and cue up a magical musical realm.

Once, when I was a sophomore in college, it was the first Saturday of spring break and both campus and the city were a ghost town. It was early-spring cool, windy and overcast, with everything still a little grey around the edges.

The sidewalks of the main drag were almost deserted when I walked into the secondhand record store Wazoo Records. I was only partly in a mood to browse; partly I wanted a refuge against the chill for a little while.

Nothing in the stacks really appealed to me, but one thing kept catching my eye. It was an LP, sitting on a high shelf behind the counter, protected by a clear plastic sleeve. The almost-naked woman on the cover was the eye-catcher, in a prurient way. It took several intermittent sidelong glances before I finally read the title.

Moontan, by Golden Earring.

MoontanThat clicked in my brain: Of course! That crappy cover on the CD issue that I owned was a fig leaf, a replacement for the much more risqué original. I had to have it, and not merely for the naughty cover art. I was willing to bet it also contained an inner sleeve and liner notes also missing from the CD, stuff from an era when records were albums, not just collections of songs, in which the music was the centerpiece of a larger, complete package.

The price, however, was daunting. It might have been as much as twenty bucks, which now doesn’t seem like all that much but in those unemployed-student days meant the difference between eating out, and eating ramen. If I bought it, it certainly would be the only record I could afford that day, and would preclude another record store visit for the next few weeks as well.

So I dithered about it, and continued to wander the stacks, hoping something equally appealing—and significantly cheaper—would pop up. But nothing did, and ultimately I walked up to the counter and told the owner I wanted to buy the Moontan LP. He smiled, took it down, held it gently by its edges for a moment as if regarding an old friend for the last time, peered at the price tag, looked up at me, and said, “Nah, I can’t sell it to you for that—”

He paused for half a beat, just long enough for me to start to think, “shit, now I’ll never afford it.”

“—how about ten bucks?”

I was dumbfounded. It took me a moment to realize he’d cut the price, not raised it. I stammered, then agreed, and he bagged it up and sent me on my way.

I don’t know why he did it. Pity on a long-haired hippie kid? A vague sense that it was going to an appreciative home? A camaraderie across the generations, a sharing of a great slice of rock-’n’-roll from one music lover to another? Or just tired of having it on his shelves, taking up space?

I’ve no idea, and no matter. Whether it was his ploy or not, he certainly gained a regular customer for the remainder of my years there.

Wazoo Records closed its doors in 2006 after 31 years in business, surely one of a multitude of victims of the digital age. Here’s hoping other record stores may continue to thrive, and that Record Store Day remains a celebration of a vital industry, and not a requiem for a dying breed.

Albums that deserve a thorough listen

11 February 2011
Categories: Music appreciation

Some truly excellent record albums have spawned a hit single or two, but for the most part have been otherwise ignored. Here are seven examples that are essentials of my music collection.

MoontanGolden Earring, Moontan. “Radar Love” is an indispensable staple of Classic Rock radio. The four other tracks on this album: “Candy’s Going Bad,” “Vanilla Queen,” “Big Tree, Blue Sea,” and “Are You Receiving Me?” are each jazzy, dynamic, extended jams with solid hooks, and unique unto each other. Too bad they’re all too long for airplay—except for “Candy’s Going Bad,” which comes in just under the 6½ minutes of “Radar Love,” but whose subject matter is perhaps a bit too risqué for the radio. Apparently the same could be said for the original album cover: for its CD release MCA Records replaced the lovely, orgasm-faced, pastie-wearing burlesque dancer with a disturbingly close-up profile of an ear wearing—oh, how witty—a golden earring. And, in case that wasn’t obvious enough, the earring sports a tag stating “Golden Earring.” It is one of the worst fig-leaf album covers of all time.

IABDIt’s A Beautiful Day, It’s A Beautiful Day. “White Bird” is a strange beast, a slice of what might be deemed easy-listening psychedelia. The song is an anomaly, a red herring. So is that cover art: a wholesome young girl, standing on a windy precipice and gazing heavenward—combined with a dim, silhouetted gatefold photo of the band captioned “For those who love… time is an eternity”—can give the impression of a distinctly white-bread Christian record. Don’t be fooled. “Hot Summer Day” is like a fever dream, only far more pleasant, and the loosely melded suite of side 2 (“Bombay Calling” – “Bulgaria” – “Time Is”) surges with energy. Sure, some of the other tracks delve awfully deeply into the cheesiest tropes of acid rock—lyrics like “they told me that the sun turned green,” and pretty much all of “Girl With No Eyes.” No matter. Even with those oversteps, the record as a whole is one of the high points of the late-’60s San Francisco sound.

ChaseChase, Chase. Few have even heard of this early ’70s jazz-rock combo that, in terms of complex arrangements and virtuoso musicianship, gave both Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears a serious challenge—until a plane crash in 1974 took the lives of its namesake leader, Bill Chase, and much of the band. “Get It On” hits the airwaves occasionally, mostly on Deep Cuts weekends. Beyond that, radio listeners miss out on the album’s opener, the dense, cascading declaration-of-intent “Open Up Wide”; the eminently borrowable riffs of “Livin’ in Heat” and “Hello Groceries”; and a “Handbags and Gladrags” that stomps Rod Stewart’s 1972-charting rendition into lite-rock oblivion. Even the five-part suite “Invitation to a River” that closes the album is a worthy tour de force, studio tricks and all. (Link is to a two-disc collection of all three Chase albums. Totally worth it.)

Talk ShowThe Go-Go’s, Talk Show. Their third and final studio album before splitting up (not counting their middling 2001 reunion album) and, sadly, out of print. Sure, their debut Beauty and the Beat is the one that’s regarded as “one of the cornerstone albums of new wave,”* an accolade it deserves. Yet to me there’s something compelling about Talk Show’s high-aiming aspirations, the band finally shedding the last vestige of their punk roots—and outgrowing the bubble-gum tendencies of their sophomore effort, Vacation—and putting together something approaching a pop masterpiece. It’s not perfect, but it’s refreshingly low on filler, and surprisingly coherent given the ongoing tensions (and rampant drug abuse) within the group. Too bad “Head Over Heels” is about the only thing that has ever gotten airplay. Among that song’s many terrific companions on this album, the heartbreaking lament “Forget That Day” and the Cold War meditation “Beneath the Blue Sky” are gems.

BoomtownDavid & David, Boomtown. The lead track “Welcome to the Boomtown” hit the charts in 1986, but it’s just the opening salvo of a manifesto that skewers the excesses of the 1980s as soundly and completely as the Eagles’ Hotel California did to the 1970s. This is the only album David & David made—they kind of came out of nowhere, made this record, and departed for the obscurity of studio work on others’ projects (mostly; one of the pair seems to have had a solo career as well). Boomtown is an odd, troubling blend of dark topics and heavy lyrics atop well-crafted and often-upbeat pop melodies, with a sound that avoids the worst clichés of mid-’80s audio production. It’s one of the best records of the decade; too bad only wonky music critics ever give it its due.

Child is Father to the ManBlood, Sweat & Tears, Child is Father to the Man. With “I Can’t Quit Her” sounding vaguely like BS&T’s later hits (“And When I Die,” “Spinning Wheel,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”), it’s all too easy to dismiss this album as the group’s “no hit single” debut. But this original incarnation of the band is very different from the chart-topping (albeit short-lived) group that followed, and this album alone within the BS&T catalogue stands as a masterpiece of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s era. Al Kooper took a vision of jazz-rock fusion, added tasty morsels of R&B and soul, layered on some studio strings, mixed it with a dash of psychedelia, and came out with this daring assemblage. Along with several solid Kooper originals are neatly assimilated covers of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Tim Buckley. It begins with an “overture” of overdub bedlam, and allows a Goffin/King pop tune to digress into the same tripped-out pandemonium for the closer. Would it be as unique a sound if the band had made a similar follow-up, rather than shattering and re-grouping sans Kooper? Definitely not. Which makes this album all the more special.

“But Seriously, Folks...”Joe Walsh, But Seriously, Folks. “Life’s Been Good,” with its tongue-in-cheek tale of a rock star’s wretched excess, is a Classic Rock staple—helped in part by its nine-minute length, making it popular among deejays as a smoke-break spin. But beyond that song, and despite reaching #8 on the Billboard charts, the album seemed to be swiftly ignored. When I sought out the LP record in the mid-’80s, it was hard to find and already relegated to the cut-out bin. It wasn’t remastered to CD until 1991, well after the initial spurt of “let’s put everything on CD as quickly as possible, audio quality be damned.” True, the album’s mellow, contemplative mood is belied by the guitar-rock sound of the hit single, making an unexpected juxtaposition. Too bad for us. “At the Station” and “Tomorrow” deserve routine airplay, and all the songs are catchy pop treats. The two instrumentals, easily dismissed as lead-in filler to the “Life’s Been Good” finale, are each atmospheric and evocative. All in all, it’s a witty, wistful collection.

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Seth Bernard and Daisy May

3 April 2007
Categories: Music appreciation

When I was in college I had the privilege of befriending an exceptional musical talent by the name of Jen Bernard. As I got to know her better—for a year we shared a house in the heart of the student ghetto—I learned that her talent came naturally, that her entire family was as richly steeped in musical tradition as she. (Jen’s current project is The Stolen Sweets, a 1930s swing jazz revival group that is a fine showcase for her ear for close, intricate harmonies. Their tasty recording debut, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, is available from CD Baby.)

One chilly winter weekend that year, several of us descended on the Bernard family homestead in northern lower Michigan, known as Earthwork Farms. It was then that I met the youngest sibling, Seth, who at the time seemed to me like your typical preteen boy, interested in sports and horseplay and hanging out with friends more than family.

Years later, I was pleased to discover that Seth, despite erstwhile appearances to the contrary, had learned well at the family hearth and has become, perhaps, the most talented Bernard musician of them all.

From his first recorded output, 2001′s Hello Fellow Travelers, Seth Bernard has demonstrated a very unique and personal songwriting style, one that understands well its myriad influences and yet chooses its own independent path. Subsequent solo releases, Constellation (2003) and Being This Being (2004), have shown growing maturity, along with a lively wit. Seth is comfortable in his music, in his voice, and in himself. I’m particularly fond of “Sassafras,” “Travel,” and “Collage,” all off the 2004 album.

All his releases are self-produced and appear on his Earthwork Music label. That name, and the fact that he has built a home studio on the farmstead, are testament to his love of family—a theme that recurs frequently in his songs. Among the members of Seth’s family is Daisy May Erlewine, who has also released solo works on the Earthwork label. Seth and Daisy May have toured and performed together for some time; for one, she lends her clarion, chiming voice to a beautifully harmonious accompaniment on “Sassafras.”

Seth Bernard and Daisy MayIn early 2006 they released their first duet album, Seth Bernard and Daisy May. Although they don’t share songwriting credits (each track on the record is attributed to one or the other, but never both), their musical partnership is one of perfect symbiosis and playful give-and-take. Even on the sadder songs, the joy of making music together comes through in every track.

On this album Seth and May are joined by a trio of friends to form “The Copper Country Quintet,” a name that stems from the fact that the recordings were primarily made in Calumet, Michigan, way up near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the U.P.—copper mining country. Over the course of two days they recorded on the stage of the Calumet Theatre, a classic and well-preserved venue built in 1900 during the mining industry’s heyday.

This was a perfect choice. Judging from photographs, the theatre is gorgeous. Judging from the music, it has fantastic acoustics. In fact, the room has such a warm, strong presence on this album that it has its own entity, almost as if it’s an additional musician in the group. I don’t think I’ve heard a room play such an integral, positive role in a recording since the Cowboy Junkies set up shop in Toronto’s Holy Trinity Church back in 1987. And frankly, Seth Bernard and Daisy May deserves the same kind of long-term recognition as a piece of beautiful, timeless art that The Trinity Session has received over the years.

I can only hope that, some time soon, Seth and May make a trip “out west” and play a gig or two in Chicago.