Strange Birthday Bedfellows: Elizabeth Fraser and Diamanda Galas

I don't often read those websites that list musicians' birthdays but, when I do, they often reveal something interesting. Today was no exception. Up first were two classics: saxophone immortal, Charlie Parker (1920), and superb jazz/blues vocalist, Dinah Washington (1924). Very respectable. So far, so good.  

However, today also presented two absolutely bizarro pairings. The first features two entertainers of vastly different measure: the electrifying and preternaturally talented, though profoundly disturbed, Michael Jackson (1958) and the execrable, profoundly untalented, though equally disturbed corprophiliac punker, GG Allin (1956).

The more interesting pairing for me, however, is the second one. This one featured two vocalists: the glossolaliac Queen of etherea, the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser (1958) and the harrowing avant-blues-operatic dark majesty, Diamanda Galas (1955). Both women delivered vocal signatures and performances the world had never quite heard before them, although in radically different forms. Fraser unfurled wordless spiraling streams and swirls of airy and crystalline shimmer. By extreme contrast, Galas unleashed virtuosic wails, moans, growls, shrieks and caterwauls of abject rage and horror. Despite their extreme formal differences, both artists shared a surprisingly large crossover of fan bases during the late 80s-early 90s indie/goth golden years. I do wonder what Virgo has to say about all of this...

 

Track of the Day: "Party Down," by Little Beaver (1974)

It is hot. Really hot. Really. I don't go for "heat index" subjectivity, but you can feeeeel it out here. But that's cool. No problem. Hot summer days (and nights) just call for their own music. One of my favorite hot Summer albums is Miami-based soulster, Little Beaver's, Party Down album. It's sultry, without trying to stick its tongue down your throat, and funky without demanding that you die by dehydration on the dance floor. Just sweet (not cloying), smooth (not slick), and laid-back with just enough bump to keep everyone's head's bobbing in their lawn chairs or on their way to grabbing another cold one from the cooler. The whole album carries this perfect groove, from start to finish. But the title track is what always brings me back in.

 
 

Track of the Day: "I Thank You," Jigsaw (1975)

Jigsaw were a typical 70s radio-pop band: competent musicians with a firm understanding of classic song craft and a very sweet tooth constantly in search of the sugar rush of a hit. While they didn't actually score very many hits, they did occasionally transcend their commercial inclinations with some off-centre and delectable morsels.

Their biggest hit was "Sky High," a very 70s piece of not-quite-over-the-top pop that would have fit perfectly on Rhino Records' Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the 70s series or the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack (maybe file it somewhere near Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver" or Pilot's "Magic"). However, for my money, it is "I Thank You," conveniently buried as the second-to-last song on Side A, that transcends enjoyable kitsch into something closer to classic.

The opening theme defines smooth groove with it soft funk bass line leading the way, with light funk guitar chords outlining the contours, and pillowy electric piano lending the while thing a warm glow. The vocals come in carrying a pleasant melody that maybe sorta kinda reappeared six years later as the verses in Duran Duran's "Is There Something I Should Know." But then the chorus.

The chorus is where this delightful song becomes truly special. After the verse modulates into a minor key for a one line bridge ("I never say 'I thank you,' but I shou-ould..."), the vocals cut out, the bass keeps grooving, and the piano cascades down, sweeping you into a cotton candy smile of impossible-to-resist finger snapping and inevitable singing along. "'Cause ev'ry time you stop and touch my cheek (pause) I thank you," steps springingly on the bouncing beat as caressing ooh-ahh-ohh's coo and blow around the soaring melody. Pop perfection.

To Jigsaw, I thank you.

 
 

Track of the Day: "Yama Nekh," Ville Emard Blues Band (1975)

The Quebecois music scene of the 1970s is still one of the most underrated of the time period. While much attention has been rightfully given to reissues highlighting music from Turkey, Hungary, Wales, and Persia, and the scenes in Germany, France, Italy, and Japan have long been valorized, the music from Celine Dion's homeland has largely flown under the radar.

The Ville Emard Blues Band ("VEBB") was something of a Quebecois rock supergroup or, perhaps more accurately, a collective. Sometimes expanding to over 20 members, most of the musicians in VEBB were either members of other established bands on the Quebecois scene or would go on to form important bands of their own. Several of these related bands included Contraction, Harmonium, and Toubabou. With so many cooks in that proverbial kitchen, it isn't surprising that the group's sound could be more than a little heterogeneous, with folk, funk, psych, hard rock, jazz and even African sounds flowing through the mix.

"Yama Nekh" features VEBB at their funkiest. Hand percussion sets the groove. Lise Cousineau (now Lise Vachon) joins in with a Senegalese traditional song. Then the bass haltingly snakes its way in. Soon, some tasty and crunch rock guitar takes over, with a snapping drum kit behind it. Lise and the band then ride the unstoppable rock-strut groove to the end. 

 

 
 

Track of the Day: "Choo Choo Gatagoto," by Haruomi Hosono (1973)

A miraculously delightful track that somehow predicts the groovy, goofy slacker pop of Mac Demarco while still sounding not too adrift from its 70s soft rock home. After the groove starts, it's Hosono's disarmingly woozy and slurring three-mai tai lunch vocals that either immediately win you over or make you unable to contain a giggle. Maybe both.  Making this all more unexpected is the fact that Hosono would eventually depart from this charmingly human music to co-found the electronics and synthesizer-driven Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Japanese parallel to Germany's Kraftwerk. All I know is, whenever this song comes on, I can't help but smiling.

 
 

  

Personal Mix: "Rifferama--Blitzing, Raw, Kick-Ass Underground Hard Rock from the 1970s"

One of the greatest compilations I have is called "Chains and Black Exhaust," compiled the world-class collector, Dante Carfagna. It features around a baker's dozen of raw, hard and funky early 70s hard rock 45s by predominantly Black artists, giving voice and exposure to a side chapter of Black rock history that is often left out of the canonical history books. While I cannot lay claim to putting together something of that historical and aesthetic importance, I do adore that early-to-mid 70s hard, raw rock sound. So, in that spirit, here is a concise yet storming homage to that sound and a handful of excellent bands that never sniffed within a country dirt mile of radio play or interstate distribution yet bring it home as hard as any bands of the era.

 
 



Track of the Day: "Blackbird," Faith Pillow (1981)

A wonderful recent find, Faith Pillow wove a deep blend of folk, jazz, and soul into a vibrant sound that could proudly stand next to the best of Joan Armatrading and Phoebe Snow. She released one album, a well-recorded live set in her adopted home of Chicago. The whole album is solid, with some great stand-outs, including the funky "Shady Lady" and "Winston," as well as the Joni Mitchell-esque "Sanity." The album closes with the track I picked here: a real left-field take on the Beatles' "Blackbird." With its Afro-based percussion, sparse, funky bass, gospel backing vocals, jazzy dynamics, folky sensitivity, and Pillow's strong, soulful vocals, it encapsulates everything that made the late Ms. Pillow's work so good. Sadly lost to the sands of time...

 
 

David Bowie (January 8, 1947-January 10, 2016)

David Bowie All-Time Lows: A Spotify Program of Bowie's Finest, 1970-1980

If I coulda been any "Rock Star"-type rock star, it would have been David Bowie. I was just reflecting on that a couple of days ago, when we were celebrating his 69th birthday and the widely-admired release of his recent album, Blackstar.

There is no one who straddled the avant-garde and the commercial music worlds as well as he did, as consistently as he did, in as many ways and styles as he did. While many credit his impact on the fashion and image worlds, I am less interested in that. Many people try to wade into those waters, lured by its perceived glamour. I find that road, in itself, to be artistically vapid and inevitably leading to dead ends. I would say, our world of Kardashians, Hiltons, Rhiannas and Gagas are exactly the kinds of dead ends a fetishization of fashion and image leads to (I blame Warhol).

What made Bowie special was, for all of his wild looks and character creations, those characters never took precedence over Bowie's supreme underlying musical craftsmanship. Simply put, Bowie put out around a dozen albums in a decade, and almost every one of them is either excellent, important or both, with several of them among the greatest albums in rock history. That's Complete Art, sound and vision.

Just as importantly, Bowie lived a LIFE. He did almost anything you can imagine at least once, and emerged from his experiences only wiser and more sophisticated. Only a few days before his death, he still looked like a zillion bucks. It's hard to imagine there will be another quite like him...

Here is a program of Bowie's finest from Man Who Sold the World (1970) through Scary Monsters (1980).

 

   

Track of the Day: "Green is the Colour;" Pink Floyd (1969)

I had a sad conversation with a friend of mine yesterday. He is a deeply knowledgeable music "head," someone with whom I have talked about music of ALL SORTS for hours on end many times. He is one of the most broad-minded and varied music appreciators I know. However, yesterday, he posted a note to Facebook essentially throwing out almost the entirety of Pink Floyd's recorded output. Adding insult to injury, he explained that the only good Floyd stuff was the early Syd Barrett-era stuff. This is the music snob equivalent of saying the Beatles weren't that good (or that their best stuff was done while they were still in Hamburg). I was floored. No Dark Side, no "Shine On...," no "Echoes," no "Dogs"...It was too much. It actually broke my heart...a little bit. 

So, on this grey, wet, getting chilly, bleh day, this one goes out to my friend...a song of repose, of peace, of beauty...(please forgive the poor sound. I thought this rare live version was unusual and features a nice vocal improv by David Gilmour as the band takes it the song to a gentle climax that is not present in the studio version)

 
 


Personal Mix: "Yacht Rock," But Don't Call it That!

Don't Call it "Yacht Rock"--West Coast Mix 1

My sister was kind enough to forward me this article from the Wall Street Journal on the supposed resurgence of "yacht rock." You know, Yacht Rock: smooth 70s-80s soft rock that, according to the coiners of the term, is obviously meant to be listened to on yachts. I get why the term emerged: see the cover of Loggins & Messina's Full Sail, the video for CSN's "Southern Cross," and, of course, "Captain" Daryl Dragon's (of Captain & Tenille's) ludicrous yachtsman outfit. But I always hated the term. When it first emerged, it had the briny pejorative whiff of condescension, as if the only people who could appreciate this music are ludicrous, dorkily bourgeois twits who ostentatiously associate themselves with yachts. What was tragically cast overboard was the fact that the finest purveyors of the style, such as Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, and Michael Franks incorporated elements of jazz, soul, and funk in sophisticated ways and articulated highly literate, adult and even jaundiced eyes on the worlds (and underworlds) of wealth and love (and drugs).

I still hate the term. Now, "yacht rock" carries with it the rotten oyster smell of irony (as any picture of the cheeseballs in the Yacht Rock Revue will attest). Different smell than before, but still condescending, as if you couldn't seriously respect and like this kind of music, despite the ace musicianship and compositional sophistication well-beyond what you would ordinarily hear in the realms of Pop music.

Maybe that's the key: Yacht Rock is "pop" music in its overall polish and accessibility but it's not packaged in the personality-driven spectacle that Pop music is increasingly delivered (and is increasingly demanded by Pop consumers). At the same time, the best Yacht Rock is musician's music but not packaged in the "artistic-visionary" packaging (think Dylan, Hendrix, Lennon, Cobain, Yorke, etc) that self-identifying "real music" fans often demand.

That leaves Yacht Rock in limbo as either Pop music for musicians who don't buy into the "visionary" mythology or musicians' music for Pop fans who don't buy into the celebrity mythology. I don't know how many people that leaves, but count me as one of them.

For what it's worth, most people who really like this stuff simply refer to it by the place where most of it was made and the atmosphere its evokes: we just call it "West Coast."

For your smooth, sophisticated enjoyment, here's a flow of West Coast I recently crafted.

Track of the Day: "The Last Ocean Rider," Keith Cross & Peter Ross (1972)

The Brits really had a way with rural rock. They absorbed bits of Americana and folk rock while retaining strong elements of their classical tradition and lyricism. Heads Hands & Feet were the best band to follow the The Band. Starry Eyed & Laughing did a nice job picking up the Byrds trail. And here's another, the lead track from Keith Cross & Peter Ross' wonderful one-off album, Bored Civilians. It starts off unassumingly but you start to realize there's something a little more special going on when they hit the lilting, sublime harmonies of the first "chorus" at around 0:50. Then drums kick-in as the song elegantly shifts through several parts, culminating in its staggering guitar solo (starting around 4:15) that lifts the song through its climax, coda and conclusion. Here, it's critical to note that Keith Cross was, only two years prior, the dazzling 17 year old guitar prodigy for the Beatles meets Cream proto-prog powerhouse, T2. Here, Cross trades his Hendrix-meets-Fripp pyrotechnics and distortion for something far more restrained and understated. That he is able to retain such emotional intensity with such restraint is testimony to his genius. It's not clear what happened to him after this album...

 
 


Personal Mix: Transdimensional Funk: Prog Rock Funk & Breaks

Most of my friends know that I am a deep Prog Rock head. My first concert was Pink Floyd (Brendan Byrne Arena, 1987); King Crimson and Yes took turns as my favorite bands; my biggest music revelation and with-a-gun-to-my-head favorite band of all-time is Magma. Over time, I also became a huge Funk fiend. If I could have witnessed any concert, it would have been P-Funk at any time between 1976-79. I have more compilations of funk in my collection than any other style of music. It's perhaps the style of music I work most frequently into my programming (when appropriate, of course). But one thing I have not seen done by anyone is to show how these two genres interacted with each other. While it can be tricky to hear Prog in Funk (aside from Fusion and despite the fact that musicians such as Bernie Worrell, David Sancious, and Steve Arrington are devout prog fans), it is not such a stretch to hear flashes of Funk in Prog (think of Chris Squire's popping bass or some of Neil Peart's open hi-hat syncopated beats). I thought I would try my hand at compiling some of my favorite funky bits from the Prog universe. This being Deep, I tried to go with artists more than a little below the surface. Either way, I think this mix is an original and fun open door to a realm most listeners--even most fans of Prog or Funk--have not yet traveled.

 

Nick Drake's Sound

The other day, I got a Facebook post from some online music mag saying that it was the anniversary of the release of Nick Drake's "Five Leaves Left," one of the most sublime expressions of wistful melancholy ever recorded. After checking on Wikipedia, I found that the date may or may not have been particularly accurate, but I was still inspired. The album's title supposedly comes from an ad for cigarette wrapping papers. But I always thought it was far more poignant to see it as foreshadowing, for Drake would die five years (ie "leaves" or Fall seasons) later. In honor of Drake's first (and inmho, best) album, I put together a little Spotify playlist of some of my favorite tracks evocative of Mr. Drake's work. Enjoy.


Track of the Day: "Somebody Like Me," Bobbie Gentry (1971)

#Trackoftheday. Delightful sunny day song from the deeply underrated Country/Soul/Pop singer/songwriter, #Bobbiegentry. She was nearly Dusty's equal as a vocalist and wrote most of her (often sophisticated, intelligent and soulful) songs. Somehow never quite crossed-over into pop culture consciousness. She deserves to.