You know the drill. Hup, two, three, four. Hup, two, three, four.
Welcome back, if I must say so myself. The title of this little tirade connects to two things: 1) I had a high-school English teacher who had a soft Virginian accent who happened to say “time” like “Tom”, so we used to always ask, “Tom who?” whenever he dropped some platitude about time. 2) Tom Waits has released a highly anticipated odds ‘n’ sods mixed with new bits collection called Orphans, which I hate to say is more than disappointing.
I like Waits. Some might say I like him more than is healthy, as I’ve gone out of my way at various times to track down demos, b-sides and rarities (I mean, I bought Stay Awake, the Hal Wilner helmed Disney tribute, basically to get his version of “Heigh Ho.” I’m glad I did, because Los Lobos contributed an amazing take on “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” from The Jungle Book). I expected Orphans to be right up my alley, or at least the “rarities” portion, though I had some hope that delving in the archives might have been of benefit to the new recordings. Instead of outtakes from the past thirty years, Orphans seems primarily to be songs from the past thirty years recorded in the past five. There is no session information, and his vocals on most songs sound suspiciously like the Waits of Mule Variations and later. There is some precedent for this; 2002’s Alice was new recordings and arrangements of tracks written and recorded nearly a decade earlier.
Take the aforementioned “Heigh Ho”. I have the original to compare it to, and – lo and behold! – it isn’t the same performance. The vocals are either new or remixed in such a way as to blend more smoothly with his present croak (the original, from 1989, has him forcing his voice to an extreme that now sounds like a premonition of his current state), and the arrangement has changed, with a fuller sound and added harmonica. Though still unsettling compared to the happy-go-lucky chaps in Snow White, it has lost some of the work-song-mixed-with-menace of the original. Another audible change has been applied to his contribution to the Skip Spence tribute More Oar from the hoary days of 1999. The song “Books of Moses” has had a new vocal treatment and has had drums slapped on top of the existing bongo rhythm.
Re-recording is frustrating and angering, but on top of that is the realization that there is a reason why most of this stuff has never seen the light of day; it just isn’t very good. There aren’t many real departures from the Waits formula of strangely named protagonists in mid-tempo tales of trouble and the devil, with a side dish of weepers and sad-sack tales of woe. Did you ever wonder what it might sound like if you mashed the rhythm of “Get Behind The Mule” with the orchestration and vocal style of “Big in Japan”? Well, today is your lucky day, for that very combination exits on the probably Mule Variations-era outtake “Fish In The Jailhouse.” But did I forget to mention that it appears to have about six lines and thirty repetitions of the phrase “Fish In The Jailhouse”? I did? sorry, guess that’s why it is an outtake, after all.
If you like the Tom Waits of the latest vintage, then I’m sure you will find plenty to like here – it all sounds familiar (or painful but easily dismissed, like his Bukowski poetry recitations). There are a few solid songs – I think the Bawlers disc (I guess I forgot to mention that he has thematically grouped these as Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards – rockers, ballads and oddballs, respectively) has maybe a half dozen. I think there are better ways to spend $40-50 on Tom Waits albums – get Nighthawks, Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years and The Black Rider. Or assuming you have all of those near essentials, go to rbally.net and download this great radio performance from 1975 before it is gone.
It’s approaching that time of the year when nerds, dweebs, hipsters, bohemians, cranks and charlatans decree the greatness of some nerd, dweeb, hipster, bohemian, crank or charlatan musician. The End (of the year list) Is Nigh!
So in honor of the aforementioned NDHBCCs (you may decide on your own to which category or categories I belong), here are some things that will appear on many of those lists but not on mine. In alphabetical order:
Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not & Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock & Roll. Art Brut and the Arctic Monkeys do nothing for me. I can’t slag them off because they can’t hold my attention long enough for me to hear if they’re doing anything interesting with the post-punk fashions of the day. I guess I should turn in my Anglophile membership card or something before I get gobbed on by some blighter.
Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. I feel kind of bad listing Neko with some of these dogbottoms like The Knife and Nellie McKay, but hear me out. I actually like her voice, and this album is just fine. Unfortunately, its not any better than that. To me, Neko Case falls into Emmylou Harris territory – I really like her voice, but I find I enjoy her most when she is collaborating with other artists. Emmylou with Gram Parsons or Neil Young or Willie Nelson – sublime. On her own – mainly solid, sometimes uninspired. Neko with The New Pornographers is fun, and is in fact the only part of that band’s sound that I like. Neko with The Sadies or The Pine Valley Cosmonauts (her best work, in my opinion) is even greater. Even her small guest roles with M. Ward or Giant Sand or John Doe are highlights of those artists vast recorded work. I hope in 20 years we get an album comparable to Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball; until then I’ll enjoy her supporting role for other artists.
The Decembrists – The Crane Wife. Colin Meloy – The Dan Bejar for people who who wish there was an album called Pirate Tales From Topographic Oceans.
Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies. Dan Bejar – the Colin Meloy for people who pretend to dislike prog or the 1660s.
Bob Dylan – Modern Times. You know the variety of songs on Love & Theft, from Forties shuffle to barn-burning blues to old-fashioned ballads? Well, forget what you know, because this band only plays variations on “Summer Days” and “Mississippi”, and we get an hour of that. Now, stay awake and listen to an entirely different Dylan – the emerging snarl of Love & Theft is now a carefully crafted (as in, he reportedly recorded a line or two at a time because he can’t actually sing. Based on recordings from shows this year, I would say this is correct) croon, a dime-store version of a pre-Hank Williams Grand Ole Oprey star. One thing going for it – no Daniel Lanois, so it doesn’t have the leaden reverb of Time Out Of Mind. Woo-hoo.
The Hold Steady – Boys And Girls In America. I already castigated these poor fellows for their derivative sound and lyrical subject matter. Others may enjoy them, especially if they can’t get enough of THE RAWK but are ashamed to listen to Foghat or the Goo Goo Dolls, who were The Hold Steady of the Nineties.
The Knife – Silent Shout. I liked “Heartbeats” a few years ago. Good minimalist beat, solid Siouxsie Sioux vocal impression. I listened to this a few times and I realized I really don’t like Depeche Mode enough for this to work. Enjoy The Silent Scream would be a more appropriate title, as they in no way transcend either of the aforementioned influences. Plus they appear in Venetian carnival bird masks. I like Matthew Barney and Peter Greenaway too, but come on.
Mastodon – Blood Mountain. I can’t help but think Tarkus – from the silly Wild Hunt inspired cover to titles like “Cicle of Cysquatch” and “Pendulous Skin.” Mastodon is so overly serious in their metalosity that they come across like Emerson, Lake and Pestilence (borrowed from THE super group, the Four Horseman of the Progocalypse). I can accept the technical virtuosity of their thundering , but I like a little absurdity and self-awareness in my stentorian attack. Give me Dragonforce. That is pure cheese virtuosity.
Nellie McKay – Pretty Little Head. I can’t believe Columbia dumped her! I mean, don’t they know the marketing potential of this? I mean, how could anyone, in the year of High School Musical, not market this as “Liberal Arts College Drama Department Musical (The One Woman Show version)”? What is wrong with you people? Oh, by the way, she now has two double albums of variations on three songs.
Joanna Newsom – Ys. The pedigree gets her a B+ starting grade in indie circles – idiosyncratic harpist/vocalist lays down tracks with “don’t call him a producer even though he fulfills the producer role” Steve Albini, then has Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks write and record orchestration, and turns to tastemeister/nob twiddler du jour Jim O’Rourke to mix the resulting cornucopia of plenty into spun gold. Unfortunately, it amounts to gilding a turd. The praise for her lyrical complexity is admirable if somewhat off target; alliterative couplets and archaic verb forms are lost amidst the rhythmic repetition and mangled metaphors. There was some line about monkeys and spelunking that made me laugh out loud at how incredibly silly it all is and how deathly serious she portrays it. Because of her vocal limitations and the songs she writes, Parks is crippled from the outset; limited tremendously in the range and character of what he can do, he can only repeat trills and flourishes to no great effect. Speaking of her voice, it is said you either love it or hate it. I quite agree. She sounds like Judy Tenuta.
Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. One of my all-time favorite bands records a greatest hits album without any hits. It is the most Tengo-by-numbers thing they’ve ever done. A mad-lib version, with “guitar freakout”, “farfisa garage rock song,” “Georgia sung ballad,” “falsetto James’ song that belongs on a Dump album,” “song from Ira to Georgia,” and “another guitar freakout.” Plus filler.
That picture is the cover of The Beatles “reimagining” coming out on November 21. For those of you unfamiliar with this project, it is 20-something songs that serve as the “soundscape” for the latest Cirque de Soleil Vegas extravaganza. Original producer George Martin & his son Giles (reports are it was mainly Giles) have mixed a bunch of songs together – the first legal Beatles mash-up/sample – and I’m concerned. Though I expect the audio quality of such a project to be top notch, I cringe at some of the press release examples:
“If you can imagine ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ beginning with John’s original demo before going into an early take of the song and then climaxing in a musical collage including the piano solo from ‘In My Life’ and the harpsichord pattern from ‘Piggies’ and lots, lots more–or ‘Get Back’ prefaced by the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ opening guitar chord, the guitar and drum solos from ‘The End,’ and segued into ‘Glass Onion,’ you will begin to get the picture.”
I can imagine these things, but I’m having a hard time imagining they’re any good. Fortunately for me, I have heard a four song sampler from this album, though they fade before segueing into the next track so I can’t judge the “soundscape” concept, or the sequencing.
The tracks I’ve previewed – at admittedly low quality – are “Lady Madonna”, “Octopus’ Garden”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. My first thought is that it isn’t horrible. Though that seems damning with faint praise, I had such trepidation about the project that instant hate was my expected reaction.
“Lady Madonna” opens with a bit of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” (Ringo’s drums are pretty distinct) and uses the “ba ba ba ba” backing vocals from the original to guide us into “Lady Madonna” proper – maybe a different vocal track? – which carries us along into the guitar from “Hey Bulldog” and a guitar solo I can’t place. A few other stray pieces (some organ I’m not placing), a couple of god-awful saxophone stabs. Solid, though it doesn’t add or displace the original in any way. Good as remixes go.
“Octopus’ Garden” is one of those throwaway Ringo tracks that are unfairly derided – yes it is silly, but The Beatles were not afraid of silly. Here we start with the strings from Paul’s treacly “Good Night.” Ringo seems slowed down – strange – they’ve split the lines a bit so it may be mainly that the flow is different. A little touch of “Yellow Submarine” in the background as the song kicks in. The drums sound really good on these tracks. during the solo they’ve mixed John saying assorted words, “Late. Beautiful,” over the solo. It is driving me nuts that I can’t quite place the chuka-chuka guitar bit right before the song fades into the guitar intro of “Sun King.” I’ll get it eventually. Less interesting than “Lady Madonna.”
“Strawberry Fields Forever.” I’ve heard plenty of demos, various takes and mixes of this over the years. This sounds a great deal like what George Martin was doing with it in the Anthology videos, where he isolates and plays different sections and versions. It builds to where you expect it to go before layering other things onto it – I feel I should note the clarity of the little backwards tape bits is crisp as a New England morning in autumn – the “Sgt. Pepper” trumpet fanfare into “In My Life” (the piano bit mentioned above), then “Penny Lane” and its coronet, the aforementioned “Piggies”, a touch of the crescendo of “A Day In The Life” as recurring background unification, the “hela heba heloa” vocals from “Hello Goodbye” running it aground at the end.
I’ll end with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (henceforth WMGGW, not to be confused with WWJJD, or What Would Joan Jett Do), for it is a different beast from the prior songs. Here is the biggest rework – we start with just George’s underrated singing and his sublime guitar playing. Yet when one expects a band we get strings; big, overwrought strings. I don’t have the slightest idea where these are from, as generally “big strings” were used in Paul’s deeply moronic and simplistic paeons to nothing in particular (have you ever listened to Eleanor Rigby and given a shit for the titular woman? Ever? Crusty bag, symbol of crusty bags the world over. The visuals chosen to accompany it in Yellow Submarine are perfect – cardboard cutouts with cardboard cutouts layered as backdrops to provide depth. The Mantovani string quartet George Martin pasted in is auditory cardboard. ), and damned if I still don’t block those puppies out of my consciousness. I only know the previously mentioned “Good Night” because I didn’t know it for years and years. As a child, the cassette I had of The White Album didn’t have this song because it didn’t fit on the tape. I didn’t hear it until High School, so it is still one of the “new” Beatles songs for me. Now back to WMGGW – that’s it. George solo performance, plus strings of boredom. This was my fear – a horrible eructation as opposed to the somewhat clever mash-ups and reworkings of the prior songs. I can imagine this serves a purpose in the Cirque de Soleil performance; a change of tempo, an auditory break, probably as accompaniment to a solitary clown, miming the death of a flower, it’s fading bloom and decomposition leading nicely into the questioning nihilism of “A Day In The Life” (WMGGW is sequenced right before this in the album).
Overall a mixed bag. The sound is great – The Beatles catalog is due a proper mastering, as the best recordings I’ve heard are MP3 files made from immaculate high grade vinyl (yes they sound beter than the cds). Three of the tracks are well done, if not revelatory of any new insights into how damn good The Beatles were. The fourth? A shiver, a shame. Letting people hear how good the song was even in a demo-like solo state is wonderful, but the cloying, choking strings are a travesty. Sucker I am, I still want to hear the whole thing.
CORRECTION: It has been pointed out to me that “Good Night” was a John Lennon song. It seems in my desire to paint Paul with a treacly brush, I have missed badly. Instead of correcting the post, this correction is to remind me to be less of a all-knowing gasbag. The song is still overblown tripe, however. And I hold Paul & George Martin response for introducing John to the Mantovani strings.
Today’s random goodness from iTunes: Django, Wes, Jimi & Stevie Ray, in order. Now you’re saying to yourself, “Far out! Cosmic Man!” I reply, “No, grasshopper. A message.” (OT: my wife and I were watching Thank You, Mr. Moto the other evening and she pointed out that the actor portraying Prince Chung was Master Kan on Kung Fu. “35 years didn’t change those eyes,” she said. I was duly impressed.) I’m not quite sure of the message, mind you, but it did make me think about each of these artists individual talents.
Django Reinhardt makes me smile; even when he touches sadness, you know it will pass like water under a bridge. Wes Montgomery is the subtle master, effortless and true, but he plays hard, aggressively, his thumb heavy like a bass players. Hendrix took that attack and made it his own. Where Wes and Django brought feeling through technique, Jimi is feeling through motion – accuracy be damned! – a missed note forgotten in forward propulsion. Hendrix had technique, but knew his time was one of rules be damned. And then Stevie Ray Vaughan.
To be honest, I’ve always admired Vaughan more than I’ve liked him. His playing is awe inspiring, but often seems to veer into noodling. When he is focused, like on the sublime recordings from Carnegie Hall (the Double Trouble portion – once Dr. John and company join in it steps back to mortal levels), he’s nearly untouchable; so searingly white hot that he can burn all other guitarists out of my mind. Other times, just so much Yngwie Malmsturbation. Luckily for me, the track that came up was “Lenny.” Written for his wife, it is as heart-on-the-sleeve as anything I’ve ever heard. The lyricism of his playing gives me goosebumps (which is most likely more than you need to know). I’ve never read a good description of his playing on this – it is a blues ballad, but incomparable, even to ballads by comparable talents like Buddy Guy or Robben Ford. I promise not to post YouTube videos willy-nilly, but sometimes I can’t sum things up in words…