Good Music We Can Know

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


There is nothing I could say which would be adequate.  My god, it feels like such a loss.  I can't even listen to the records yet.  When I do, it will be the first time I hear them sung in the voice of a man who is gone.  I'm not totally ready for that.

For a lot of smart, alienated, angry young people, Lou Reed's art and art of persona offered invaluable coping mechanisms, apparatus by which to survive the necessity of having to expose our devastating sensitivity to an utterly uncaring, monstrously traumatic world.  His music sliced and tore through the pain of having to be alive with visceral, clarifying sounds and eviscerating lyrics, offering a sense of purpose and presenting a persona from which we could borrow in order to steel ourselves, transforming those weaknesses into an armory of detachment, a way to survive and thrive without dumbing ourselves down (even if it did make us assholes sometimes, or more than sometimes).  A talisman (real or imagined) of our own potential for subversive power, and a body of incredible work which could be endlessly examined and appreciated not only for its towering genius and impeccable construction of the cool, but for its infinite flaws-- naked, human imperfections.  

I'm a long way from all that now, I think.  I am who I am mostly on my own, having transformed the various syntheses of youth into self.  But in all honesty I have no idea how I would have gotten there or who I'd be without Lou Reed.  I know he doesn't need another obituary, and certainly not one from me.  But I can't be the only one who feels like an actual part of my self died on Sunday morning, and I hope you'll forgive the regrettable drama of my maudlin selfishness if I eulogize him on that personal basis.

I never stopped listening to the music, and I never will; his being gone doesn't and couldn't change that.  The music is there forever, a living document that has no need for a tombstone.  But I was one of many who counted him-- the man and myth, constructed to be conflated-- as a formative mentor, a spirit guide, a weird father, and now he is gone.  I know I'm not the only one feeling this way, this loss.  God damn it, the absence is palpable.

Uncle Lou, 
I love you and 
I could never thank you enough
How we ever gonna get through this awful old world without you?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Waning Years of a Musical Prince, Pt. 3: Arthur Lyman- Yellow Bird/Percussion Spectacular (1961)

"The name Arthur Lyman symbolizes the exotic percussion era.  There have been other albums by the same title but none as apropos of the real spirit of exoticism... contrasting the native and the modern, the group, their instruments of sound, and their music, are native, pulsatingly primitive, often eerie.  The Aluminum Dome is unmistakably modern, the product of 20th century modern genius."- Back cover notes, Arthur Lyman's Yellow Bird (originally released under the title Percussion Spectacular, to which the notes obviously refer.)

For an Exotica record that inexplicably opens with "Hava Nagila," I have to say: Yellow Bird is not half bad.  Sadly, its rarely pulsatingly primitive or eerie-- in keeping with the other entries in this series on late Lyman, it's pretty straightforward cocktail jazz, albeit with some interesting composition choices.

The song-by-song back cover notes, on "Hava Nagila": "How exotic can exotic be? Here is a traditional Hebrew folk song with the intrigue of the middle east, which Lyman has used to produce a monument to exoticism."  Alas!  A variation of this delicious copy could have been used to describe any number of Lyman recordings ("Legend of Pele" immediately springs to mind, though "Taboo" would be just as apt), but as an appraisal of this kitschy (there I said it, damn me) version of "Hava Nagila," it's fairly laughable.  This is just a playful but rather tepid and straight take on the traditional composition, with the very mild added novelty of having it played on vibes.  It can boast neither the intrigue of the Middle East (at all, come on) or the Jewish musical culture from which it borrows.  In terms of capitalizing on the wary pop-culture interest taken in Jewish music/culture following the 1960 film Exodus, it would have been no less tiresome if Lyman had actually just used the theme song, "Exodus" (which is a way more exotic composition anyway).

But enough of that.  Onto the good stuff.  The next track, "Yellow Bird," was such a big hit that the album was quickly re-released under that name.  A 19th-century Haitian song by Michel Mauleart Monton with lyrics from a poem by Oswald Durand, "Yellow Bird" was arranged and given new lyrics by Norman Luboff in 1957 as part of a calypso trend of the time.  Lyman's instrumental version is the biggest hit of his career.  While it is indeed a lovely track, it's not particularly impressive, and its hit status is to my mind slightly damning of the market.  Not that Exotica as a genre lends itself particularly well to hit singles.

This is followed by "Ravel's Bolero," an always-welcome selection on any exotica album.  Ravel's most recognizable composition, an orgasmically repetitious exoticizing of Spanish dance music, is one of the most influential pieces of early-20th century classical music in terms of the formation of the "Exotica" sensibility (alongside Debussy's body of work, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, etc.)-- so it's always fun to hear a classically Exotica-version of it.  It always falls short, of course.  How much tension can you build in two to four minutes?  It ends up being, by necessity, "Bolero" in miniature, but in this doomed task I think Lyman makes a good piece.

"Autumn Leaves" and "Arrive Derce Roma," which follow, both make better Exotica tracks than one might have suspected, with some really nice piano work from Soares energizing the tame selections.  "Sweet and Lovely" (described as "neither sweet nor lovely but completely intriguing") starts off slowly as a fairly unintriguing light little jazz blues, then with a wonderfully arresting gong crash and a wild howling scream, veers into... a barely intriguing light little jazz blues, spruced up with a decent bass solo.  Oh well.

Side two opens on a real banger, one of those perfect jungle-Exotica tracks in the vein of "Taboo," with a creeping bass, unnerving bird calls, and dreamy atmosphere, cut through with a sinewy and slightly menacing melody.  Entitled "Bamboo Tamboo," it's "A pulsating, exciting composition... more typically Arthur Lyman."  I wish it was even more typical of Arthur Lyman, because it's great, and he should have continued to do more in this vein.  I also wish it was even two minutes long, but its brevity does leave me excited.  This is followed by the evergreen "Andalusia" (also known as "The Breeze and I"), which "starts slowly, builds and the blossoms out into an exotic wonder," aided by a great cascading piano from Mr. Soares.

Up next is "Adventures in Paradise," the theme from the TV program of the same name.  A pretty perfect Exotica composition, it makes a sterling contribution to the LP.  Continuing side two's run of goodness is "Granada," the kind of spooky Latin selection that constitutes one of Lyman's specialties, full of playful tempo changes and loaded with extra percussion.  The side closes out on two rather odd numbers, Weill's "September Song" (here given a "dreamy south sea feeling," with totally positive results), and "John Henry."  The notes: "Probably no other group would choose this American work song, a folk tune, to give exotic treatment but Arthur does and it's different all the way."  This (and "Yellow Bird," in a way), is Lyman keeping up with folk trends being established anew by the likes of Belafonte and The Kingston Trio.  The admirable effort is not successful in the case of "John Henry"-- at least, not as good music.  But Lyman often closes out even his best records with disastrously tone-deaf denouments, so this should come as no surprise and ought be taken as par for the course. 

YELLOW BIRD (320 rip from sorta scratchy vinyl)
YELLOW BIRD (very low bit rate, sounds pretty ok actually, without the scratches and pops)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Man With the Bird in His Mouth: Augie Colon- Sophisticated Savage (1958)

Augie Colón is an Exotica giant, in a way.  His work as a percussionist helped to define the smaller-combo Denny sound, and that of its various imitators, but his most noticeable contribution to the genre is his gift for imitating bird calls-- that nonmusically-indebted screeching and howling, so omnipresent in post-Exotica Exotica, tearing holes in the fabric of its easy-listening bubble.  Bird calls are a big part of what makes Exotica so curiously avant-garde and internally contradictory (or kitschy and gimmicky, depending on your point of view), and Mr. Colón is a major reason why they exist in the genre such as they do.  The idea of listening to an LP with Colón as bandleader, then, is pretty cool, especially one with such a splendidly enticing title as Sophisticated Savage.

It's not as weird as it could be, to be honest.  Most of the tracks are vocals, which sort of normalizes the exotic instrumentation, and there's nary a bird call to be had.  Still, it's a really enjoyable and unique album-- it feels a lot like a middle-America aimed record of some "exotic" ethnic folk music (Calypso, Cuban, what have you), but like so much Exotica it has no real geographical focus or loyalty.  Colón was, after all, a veteran of the outrageously pan-cultural Hawaiian hotel entertainment scene, and a member of Denny's band.  Thus his specialty is almost necessarily not any one field, but rather the exotic construct.  This makes the album sort of mysterious and dreamy, and places you at an Afro-Latin-Pacific percussion party with no specific location (either geographically or audience-wise; is this a village scene or a nightclub? or a museum diorama?).

Anyway, yakkety yak, there are some really enjoyable songs on Sophisticated Savage.  The first song is really odd, and introduces Colón in a flamboyant fashion.  The second sort of takes on a dreamy, big-Latin-hotel Lecuona Cuban Boys or Cugat vibe (an aesthetic Colón returns to occasionally throughout, especially for his rendition of "Tabu," which is near-identical to the Cuban Boys version).  The third track, "Okolehau" is a bizarro ode to the Hawaiian alcoholic beverage, okolehao, derived from the ti plant root.  Opening with a slurring utterance of "'Ey bro, you like drink some okolehao?", the track stumbles along through a lovely instrumental soundscape populated by further boozy, patois-inflected ramblings.  It's a high point, both for its basic strangeness but also musically.

The rest of the album is thoroughly good, though not really ever great.  There are some lovely romantic numbers, and a pretty interesting take on the eternal composition, "The Peanut Vendor" (as Stan Kenton says, "There'll always be a 'Peanut Vendor,'" though he may have meant it more literally).  It may not be a secret masterpiece of Exotica, but it's a really nice record and a great piece of its history.  It's also rare as all hell, so in this case I wouldn't recommend waiting til you see it on vinyl.