Good Music We Can Know

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Must It Be Forever Inside Me?: The Andrews Sisters- Fresh and Fancy-Free (1954))

Happy Birthday, Julia!  Today, you are the special lady!

A wholesomely beautiful, stunningly accomplished collection of sweetly harmonized, innocent-yet-deceptively-knowing romance songs from the always stellar Andrew Sisters.  I don't thrill to it quite as much as some of their earlier, more well-known recordings, but it's still an exceedingly excellent record, full of sterling performances and classic songs.  Jazzy.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Stone Cold Dead in the Market: Wilmouth Houdini- Decca Presents... Calypsos (1939); The Calypso Carnival (?)

Harking back to the Calypso styles discussed in a previous post on Van Dyke Parks' Discovering America, I bring you this gorgeous and strange selection of scrumptious Calypsos, ripped from a booklet of 78s and courtesy of the fine fellow behind Zorch's Inner Sanctum. This is his gospel to spread, really, so go pay him a visit, but I just had to share it with you all in case you might have missed it.

I sometimes like Calypsos better in theory than in practice, but perhaps that's only because you encounter so much de-fanged, post-Belafonte, near-novelty ramifications of the genre. Yet at it's purest, it has a fascinating combination of regional storytelling, social commentary, crime-and-sex balladeering, and outlandish posturing that one might find in jazz, blues, rockabilly, country, various other folk and ethnic styles, and some of the more socially-conscious reggae, soul, and hip-hop. (Let me stop right here and backtrack to say that I have nothing but love for Mr. Harry Belafonte.) Another fascinating, recurring theme in classic Calypso is the presence of American GIs in Tobago and Trinidad, and a highly critical attitude towards the various effects this had on their lives.

These six recordings by Wilmouth Houdini epitomize this spirit of lurid, entertaining, and socially relevant Calypsos. The best of the bunch is "He Had It Coming," a murder ballad (based on a recent, at least at the time, event) told from the point of view of a murderous wife, who strikes her husband down with a skillet after he gets drunk and roughs her up. "I killed nobody but me husband," she reasons. (Hit up Zorch's spot for more info about these recordings, as he's a responsible archivist, with information and research that is actual.)

Also included are two recordings of Houdini's songs by other artists: the aforementioned "He Had It Coming," this time called "Stone Cold Dead in the Market" and sung by Ella Fitzgerald, and another by The Three Flames. Wonderful stuff.


Once you've done that, run over there and grab this incredible treasure:

The Calypso Carnival is a raw and beautiful collection of absolutely classic songs and themes. The singers have a way of cutting straight to the bone, and all the songs are impressively hardscrabble and deeply felt. One of my favorites here is "I'm a Better Woman Than You," an absolutely ferocious street battle between two hard female singers about who is the more appealing and desirable female. "When I walk down the avenue, I get more fellows than you..." "I am a better woman than you, I got better notions than you..." They get pretty fucking close to pulling each others' hair, sonically speaking-- it's amazing. Another highlight is "Mama, Looka Boo Boo (Boo Boo Man)" one of those classic tracks where a fellow laments his own personal ugliness. Also included are some less raucous selections, with movingly lovely female vocals. This one is a winner. Go over there and get it, fellows.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jazz Hallucination...Sex and Death/Booze and Reefers: Cab Calloway Singing "St. James Infirmary Blues" on Betty Boop

In keeping with all this scatting and cartoon related material, I submit this to you: Greatest cartoon of all time?

Cab Calloway performing "St. James Infirmary Blues" in a Betty Boop short based on the story of Snow White. The whole thing is great, as all early Betty Boop cartoons are, but it really kicks into gear at around three and a half minutes, when Ms. Boop's ice coffin slides into Mr. Calloway's ghost cave of jazz hallucinations. "St. James Infirmary Blues" is one of the greatest songs of all time, and Mr. Calloway is on the short list of its most inspired performers. For this short, he was filmed performing the song and a spooky slide dance, then animated over in the inimitable Fleischer Brothers rotoscoping style, all done by one incredible animator, Roland Crandall. It was his masterpiece. (wiki it here)

Grab a recording of Cab's version of the song, well-ripped from the cartoon, HERE. Once again I say, it's solid gone daddy, and most worth having.

There are other Betty Boop shorts featuring Cab Calloway. They are well worth seeking out, and easy to find on youtube. All the Boops of this era have this incredible, grotesquely surreal, absinthe-crawl, opium-nightmare energy, by the way, so check them out. Have fun.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You: Louis Prima- The Wildest! (1957)

All this talk about scatting has to come back around to Louis Prima. While he's known more for his dizzying, frantic, and breathless finales than actual scatting, per se, he did have involvement in one very hip project that turned this young man on to the thrills of wacky jazz language:

The Jungle Book was awesome for so many reasons, from the deep exotica instrumental themes to the rich voice work, from the stellar animation to, oh man, Baloo the Bear-- but the best scene in the film, we all can agree, is Cousin Louie's, demanding the power of man's red flower and scat-battlin' with a dragged-up Baloo. Beautiful. (Check out some footage of Prima in the studio recording the audio for this scene, it's pretty much solid gone, daddy.)

The Wildest! doesn't have much scatting, as I said, but it does have the best collection of songs showcasing the cartoonishly huge presence and passion of Mr. Prima. Breaking soaking sweats as he runs himself and his band into the ground with frenetic, hopping, raunchy, and ecstatic performances, and taking his rich, warm voice and flogging it so desperately that it ends as a yelping croak. Prima delivers his finest set of recordings here, supported by his straight man, wife, and excellent singer, Keely Smith-- and a crackerjack band, The Witnesses. All the songs are good.

Here's a video of Prima and his band doing "Just A Gigolo" that would be amazing if the audio was synced. It's still worth watching, though:


Friday, September 24, 2010

A Double Order of O-Root-O-Roonies: Slim Gaillard- Slim Gaillard 1945 Vol. 1

If you are anything like me, you are always on a scat hunt, eyes always peeled for hip nonsense droppings like you were a bear scientist. Scatting is that most eloquent confluence of glossolalia and nonsense-syllabic poetizing., and Slim Gaillard is a rare and unique customer in the annals of scat-science, a certain genius of the craft. He spoke eight existing languages, as well as a ninth of his own ingenious creation: Vout. An absurd language it is, but consistent enough that he was able to write a real Vout O-Reenie dictionary, making him a jazzy and hip successor to the spirit of the Voynich Manuscript.

Wiki this dude. He is interesting: Gaillard's childhood in Cuba was spent cutting sugar-cane and picking bananas, as well as occasionally going to sea with his father. However, at the age of 12, he accompanied his father on a world voyage and was accidentally left behind on the island of Crete. After working on the island for a while, he made his home in Detroit. In America, Gaillard worked in an abattoir, trained as a mortician and also had been employed at Ford's Motor Works...

Here's a collection of Slim works for you. On it you'll find the voutest, o-root-o-reetest collection of hipcat jazz slams with obsessive repetitions of vooties, reenies, routies, rooties, vouties, zeenies, and so on. Sublime, goofy, and fairly brilliant. I've also included a live rendition of his finest song: "Yep Roc Heresay," a wild and thrilling mishmash of Voutspeak and Arabic food names and phrases. It has been called the first jazz song sung in Arabic. You will love life while listening to this crazy shit.


(here is a fantastic performance with his very gifted bassist stealing the show and Scatman Crothers on drums. Yeah, you heard me, SCATMAN CROTHERS)

His abilities weren't limited to inventing words and singing them with an insane, cartoonishly gleeful zest; he also played piano with his hands inverted, palms facing up, and attacked the guitar with a proto-avant shred approach, sounding at times like Sir Richard Bishop or Fred Frith, all the while delivering his performance with the slapstick comedic precision of Chico Marx's piano interludes, or some of Harpo's more destructive harp recitals. Check it out:

And here's a link to some stuff of his on Ubuweb. Thank you for your time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yessiree, Yessiree... Neither a Dud Nor a Stick in the Mud: The Mills Brothers- London Sessions (1934-39)

The fabulous Mills Brothers. (Look 'em up.) This collection rounds up some choice recordings made during their stint in London after being moved to Decca in 1932. With the golden throats of blessed angels, these brother men render up some essential versions of classic songs: Hoagy Carmichael's eternally welcome "Lazybones", the ecstatically delightful "F.D.R. Jones", "Jeepers Creepers", "Organ Grinder's Swing", and an all killer-no filler lineup of popular songs of the 20's and 30's, delivered in an unmistakably unique fashion.

It can be hard to tell when they are actually being accompanied by a real instrument and when it's their magical mouths making orchestra movements (which is indeed the case, more often than not), but the effect is thrilling, and not just for fans of vintage acapella and/or scatting (oh, the scatting!). It sounds so good... Nowhere is that "just-the-mouth-sounds" ethos more fabulous or effective than on "Caravan", the Brothers' version of that marvellous Duke Ellington masterpiece. All the orchestra parts are performed by the Brothers (except the acoustic guitar), and the horn sounds are so warm and right and good... brother you got to swing to it your own self. Believe.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

If There Were Any Gods That Ever Lived There, I Knew Them Not: Van Dyke Parks- Discover America (1973)

A while back, after having heard nearly all the Harry Nilsson there is to hear, I finally checked out Van Dyke Parks, another dizzyingly cerebral American music historian and pop scientist. Why it took me so long to get around to hearing his seminal work, Song Cycle, is a puzzler, but oversights do occur in even the most voracious among us. I found him to be a clear peer to my main man Mr. Nilsson, not just because they both do a terrific rendition of Randy Newman's "Vine St.", but because they both possess and exhibit an insanely comprehensive knowledge of virtually all forms of 20th century popular music, a quick wit, an entertainer's prankish twinkle, the ruthless specificity of genius, and an experimental and thorough approach in the studio.

One thing that separates them is the voice: Nilsson has the voice of a fucking angel fallen to earth, with the golden phrasing and interpretive ability of a god, whereas Parks... Parks is just usin' what God gave him. Which is to say, a twee, nasal tenor that always sounds like a vague impression of someone, draped in intellectual irony. For this reason, I have never fully welcomed Song Cycle into my heart, although I have to say, you really ought to hear it. It's a piece of work, to be sure-- almost certainly a masterpiece-- and the aforementioned Newman cover is only one of the highlights.

Discover America, on the other hand, is an absolutely unequivocal masterpiece. As the allmusic review says: Van Dyke Parks is one of a handful of artists possessing a purity of vision that graces every project he is involved with. Very few could pull off an album titled Discover America -- with all the themes and motifs befitting such a moniker -- done entirely in the style of the Caribbean, most specifically Trinidad circa the 1940s. The songs weave together in a sonic tapestry that connects the untiring Yankee spirit of ingenuity with the opulence and romanticism of the islands. While tomes could easily be devoted to dissecting the album's multiple layers of meaning, to call it an eclectic masterpiece of multicultural Americana might be a start. While the contents of the album as a whole are tropical in flavor, there are numerous examples of Parks' trademark swaddling arrangements and unique perspectives -- such as odes to his favorite vocalists ("Bing Crosby" and the marvelous "The Four Mills Brothers"). Just as he had done with the "Bicycle Rider" suite on Brian Wilson's Smile, Parks has the uncanny ability to incorporate various active musical story lines at once.

It's so amazing. While I can't comment, yet, on the subtextual and symbolic meaning or multi-functioning juxtapositions (both musical, referential, and lyrical, not to mention the historical/political aspect), I can say this, once again with vigor: It is so delightful, musically. Thoroughly listenable and thrillingly stimulating, all the while just as pleasant as a peach tree. Bending his barely-there voice to gently mimic or tender homage to Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Calypso singers, and perhaps Dean Martin (for a brief-but-brilliant flash at the end of the stupendous "Occapella"), he also seems to come at singing from a more straightforward and confident perspective, sounding vocally very strong and arresting.

The arrangements are executed in a fascinating, wonderful way, and the laid-back but deceptively complex songs keep the brain just a-pulsing for the album's entire runtime. This, friends, is what I was looking for when I needed a new plug for the Nilsson-shaped hole in my soul, but it's also something else entirely. Something significant.


PS. If you've never heard the Mills Brothers stunning vocal stylings, you should. Next post, perhaps.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

An Unbalanced Shift: Robert Wyatt- End of an Ear (1970)

I've never much cared for Soft Machine, their forays into "serious" jazz fusion striking me as noodly prog-jazz of the music conservatory student ensemble variety, but over the years I have developed a deep and abiding respect and love for the works of Robert Wyatt. Wyatt, of course, was the drummer for Soft Machine through their third album, Third, who then went on to fall out of a fourth floor window, paralyze himself from the waist down, and make a new name for himself as a brilliant avant-garde pop-composer, songwriter, and experimentalist, who's been said to have the "saddest voice in the world"-- although that last bit is a bit misleading, since his works aren't particularly morose or pitiful. He just has an affecting tenor. His first post-accident full-length album, Rock Bottom, is a masterpiece. If you've never heard it, then hear it. Get out of here! Go hear it!

End of an Ear came into the world in 1970, three years before the accident and just before Wyatt would leave Soft Machine, unhappy with the band's direction. This record shows his love for jazz indeed runs deep and wild, but not exactly in the direction of the time-signature-obsessed math-prog-fusion of his fellows in the Machine. Ear is a monster free jazz session, bursting with experimentation, relentless repetition, and trippy flourishes. And of course, there's some vocal work from Wyatt, that plaintive tenor of his dancing like a cartoon in wordless phrases.

His more intuitive approach to jazz is not entirely primitive, of course. Says Wyatt himself: "I'm not one for fancy time signatures - if you get too clever with time signatures it sounds like the Newsnight theme - but sometimes you do want an unbalanced shift. You can do anything in 4/4, look at Monk. 4/4 isn't just 4/4 anyway, it's 12/8. All any complex time signature really is, is binary, either twos or ones in various combinations - so no complex time signature is any more complex than a simple one." There are rhythms on here unexpected and "complex" enough that a Berklee boy with knowledge might bore you to death talking about it, but more importantly, it all hits you right in the gut. You don't have to be in the "caring about time signatures club" to get twisted up about this record, you just have to feel that "unbalanced shift."

Fans of free jazz, krautrock, minimalism a la Terry Riley, the kind of textural avant-pop practiced by Roxy Music circa For Your Pleasure, and early Brian Eno will find this to be a welcome yet unfamiliar soundscape not to be missed, and Robert Wyatt fans will find in it an early, seminal Rosetta Stone for his later efforts.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Excellence Out Of Blue Note: Kenny Drew Trio- New Faces, New Sounds (1953)

Kenny Drew on piano, Art Blakey on drums, and Curly Russell on bass. One of the best Blue Note album covers, I think by the the great Reid Miles. A sterling hard bop session, straight ahead so completely, and just a little relaxed. Do you like jazz? Then you will like this. I do.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

From the Docu-Library: Sven Libaek- Ron & Val Taylor's Inner Space (1973/4), My Thing (1970 or maybe 73), Solar Flares (1974)

Sven Libaek is one of my favorite composers. His best work achieves a quality to be highly valued in instrumental music, creating a kind of background-ish music that can't be ignored or appreciated too passively, sounds that are so evocative and transportive, they insist on becoming the active soundtrack of your existence. When listening to his tidy little library/soundtrack compositions, you are living a nature documentary, the kind with washed-out film, paternal narration, and antiquated, not-American-sounding music. I mean, I guess a lot of his stuff is literally for a documentary soundtrack, but it's notable that it translates so strongly, even away from its intended context... it's so archetypal and unique at the same time that it just floods your brain with sensation, like a childhood memory of watching Jacques Cousteau (whose music was never actually this good). One of my favorite things to do is just walk out into the desert, or row out on the water in my little boat, with my trusty little tape player and my Sven Libaek tape, and just experience nature through the lens of his soundtracks and the fantasy of a bygone day of nature docs and old-world naturalist explorers.

I've already posted some of the most essential Libaek work, Ride A White Horse and Nature Walkabout, as well as his symphonic masterpiece, Australian Suite. Click the Sven Libaek tag below to call these beauties up, and get them if you don't got them. The first two are especially key.

Here is another essential: Inner Space. It's a hard record to find because of a compilation reissue of the same name that came out a while back. This is not that comp. This is the soundtrack to Ron and Val Taylor's shark documentary, Inner Space. (Thanks to Marcellus Wallace for the rip.) Fans of The Life Aquatic will recognize some of the tunes featured here, as they were pirated for the film's soundtrack (to excellent effect, in my opinion). The music here is some of his best work, light and jaunty like sunlight dancing down through the water, with the occasional dread menace of a shark shadow crawling through the compositions. Fans of "underwater music" will find this to be the tip-top of the genre. The only thing holding this record back is that some of the tracks feature excerpts of William Shatner's narration for the film. It's actually great stuff, that old-time narration style in warm tones and purple prose (with none of the chewy hamming one might expect from him), but it does disrupt the instrumental flow of the underwater fantasy ride. But don't let a little thing like that stop you, because this is a sonic masterpiece, and the best most perfect option if you need a good shark hunting record. So worth having, you guys.


Here is My Thing, one of two Library records he made in the early 70's. It's not as excellent as it could be, featuring a few too many of the trashy horns that are common to funk-library recordings than I would like, occasionally getting too far away from the pristine sonic worlds of his best work. That said, one of his all-time best tracks can be found here, the immaculate "Misty Canyon," a two-and-a-half minute masterpiece. At least half the record, if not more, is as strong as anything he's done, making it essentially fucking essential, if you're a fan. There's some roadkill here, but mostly just cool, refreshing, sonic diamonds. If you only have four Libaek records, make this number five.


Solar Flares is a similar situation, another Library record, this one on the theme of outer space (although the feeling is occasionally more reminiscent of deep sea). This time the party is occasionally pooped by noodly jazz-funk guitar workouts and some chunky Italian synth farts, but the whole session is ultimately worth hearing, not only because of Libaek's typical sophistication, restraint, and ability to make something perfect, but also because of the occasionally delicious sounds of some rare kind of synthesizer prototype that synth nerds love. I haven't got the inclination to care about names of synthesizers (not that there's anything wrong with that), but I do love sounds. Oh, how I love sounds! Not the most essential Libaek record, in my book, but a worthy one for any collection.


That does it for the Sven Libaek records that I have that I love. Internet, can I beg of you a favor? Can someone point me to a download of Mr. Libaek's Boney soundtrack? Pretty please? I can not find one, not anywhere, no sir. Throw me a bone, if you please, and help me find Boney.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Kraut Fishing in America: Moebius- Tonspuren (1983); Holger Czukay and Konrad Plank- Les Vampyrettes 12" (1981)

This has been floating around on more than a few blogs for a while now, but what the hell, it fits with the theme of the last post and I desire an opportunity to wax, briefly, a tad rhapsodic about it. Moebius cut this record in 1983, and while he had worked on or produced a slew of Krautrock releases, including serving as one half of both Kluster/Cluster (with Roedelius) and the Moebius & Plank duo of the last post, this late-period record is actually his first solo outing. It is excellent and humble, a sterling collection of short instrumentals (Tonspuren translated means, "soundtrack", I think, which gives you an idea of the mood here).

Some have called it too slight to merit much worth, but if you are only interested in epic records of impeccable execution and concept, then maybe Krautrock is not for you. A lot of the best stuff is lurking in the murky bottom with almost-lazy electro-instrumentals and my-kid-could-do-that minimalism. To me, Tonspuren serves as a worthy follow-up to the Moebius & Plank records that just preceded it, and a magnificent callback to the sort of work he was doing with Cluster on the excellent, excellent Zuckerzeit (another record that has been called slight, lazy, or doodling, but has stood up as a classic of the genre). This record shows, again, that Moebius was one of the few German pioneers who was fully committed to pushing his craft, with guile and style, into and beyond the difficult territory of the 80s.


This 12" from Conny Plank (Krautrock super-producer) and Holger Czukay (of the powerful and amazing Can) is a journey to the absolute darkest side of the German sound. Carried by a thick, hurtful, and menacingly-- nay, terrifyingly-- deliberate bass repetition, and colored throughout by deeply slowed nightmare vocals, this is a rare sound item and richly evocative. It's almost like a chopped-and-screwed or dubbed-to-the-gills proto-Rammstein. It will certainly call to mind certain scenes from Lost Highway. But don't let those dubiously appealing descriptors stop you from grabbing this nasty little baby. One day, you will need this, and you will have it. It must be heard.