THE SHUFFLER HAS MOVED!

From our Desk of Elegant Solutions:

I’m cranking out the music posts with far more regularity than I am the more literary works that this blog was intended to showcase. That’s cool, that’s kind of how it works sometimes — the other stuff takes longer. But poems cohabitating with posts about Atmosphere or whatever seemed like kind of a strange set-up, and ultimately, this wasn’t meant to be a music blog.

So.

I’ve migrated the music posts to a new corner of the internet, http://thisistheshuffler.wordpress.com. There you’ll find all the old stuff, plus some new stuff, all with a snazzy new design that I think suits its purpose a bit better.

Shufflers 0001-0013 will continue to live here for a week or two, then this blog will turn back into the quiet library of poetry, essays, and short stories.

 

SHUFFLER 0013: THERE AT MY COMMAND

SHUFFLER 0013: THERE AT MY COMMAND
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Roberta Flack – “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from First Take (1969 Atlantic Records)

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This song is so absolutely enchanting I barely know where to begin.

Clint Eastwood seems a pretty odd place to start, so let’s do that. First Take was released, as noted above, in 1969, but thanks to Clint Eastwood’s inclusion of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1971’s Play Misty for Methe song enjoyed newfound popularity. Atlantic Records, sensing an opportunity, shortened it up, rereleased it to radio as a single, and in 1973 it won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards (a category reserved for singles). Flack would win again in 1974 for “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” proving once and for all what an incredible talent she is.

So that’s fascinating. But Roberta Flack is pretty fascinating all on her own. For starters, her middle name is Cleopatra, which is fairly unique. Moreover, she was a musical prodigy from a young age, earning a full music scholarship to Howard University at age fifteen, graduating at nineteen.

What I think is most interesting about Roberta Flack, however, especially as it relates to this song, is that she was not the first to perform it. It was written in 1957 by Ewan MacColl, a British songwriter (who also wrote, oddly enough, “Dirty Old Town”). It was covered by the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and Elvis, among others, with varying degrees of success, but Roberta Flack truly made it her own.

And sexy! She made it sexy! The instrumentation is a big part of that — lilting accoustic guitar, muted piano, just the right amount of cello, some expert jazz cymbal work, and of course Flack’s sensual voice. No wonder Eastwood used the song in a love scene. And that ending! The unexpected chord change that draws out the ending and makes us wait for resolution. It’s a thing of perfection. The easy comparison to Roberta Flack is to Lauryn Hill, who’s cover of “Killing Me Softly with His Song” as a Fugee continues to blow minds, but I hear shades of Jill Scott in “The First Time Every I Saw Your Face,” in the range and control that Flack has over her amazing voice.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention MacColl’s absolutley no-holds-barred passionate lyrics, which help to make the song what it is. This is a song about being absolutely bonkers in love and not caring what anybody else thinks. So dim the lights, pour a couple glasses of the good red, turn up the hi-fi and enjoy.

SHUFFLER 0012: JUST AN EVENING?

SHUFFLER 0012: JUST AN EVENING?
Monday, September 8. 2014
Philip Glass – “I’m Going to Make a Cake” from The Hours (2002 Elektra/Nonesuch)

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For my money, the magic of Philip Glass rests squarely in what seems to be his stubborn insistence on rethinking what music can and should be. It’s almost as if he made the conscious decision that, if he was to be operating in the realm of such a contradictory term as modern or contemporary classical music, he may as well get to do so on his own terms.

I first became aware of Glass’ work by way of the wordless 1982 Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance and its sequels. Because the film contained no words, the repetitive score carried much more meaning than it may have otherwise. Somewhere around the turn of the millenium I was fortunate enough to see Glass and the Kronos Quartet perform a live score to the 1931 version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. It was intoxicating — the musicians were seated behind the screen and were largely unnoticed, until tricks of lighting brought them to life when necessary.

Of course, The Hours is hardly Dracula or Koyaanisqatsi, but a fascinating movie all the same, and Glass’s soundtrack does what he does best — uses repetition, pacing, and dynamics to create emotional peaks and valleys that draw listeners/viewers/experiencers in. There is an urgency to this track from the beginning — something not quite right — as explained to us by a rapidly undulating string section underpinning a slow phrase of octaves being laid out on the piano at an eighth of the speed.

Listening to this track today, it’s clear to me that John Lunn‘s opening theme to Downton Abbey owes much to Glass (and in fact I’m hardly the first to say so). “I’m Going to Make a Cake” takes a very Downton-y turn just before it ends in what sounds very much like tragic resolution. Likely Lunn is guilty of a move I’ve employed in the past — putting multiple Glass albums on repeat for hours at a time to get a bunch of work done, which we should all probably do a lot more often.

SHUFFLER 0011: WEIRD IN MY JAZZ

SHUFFLER 0011: WEIRD IN MY JAZZ
Friday, September 5, 2014
Yusef Lateef – “Plum Blossom” from Eastern Sounds (1961, Prestige/Moodsville)

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This is the first opportunity I’ve had to post about jazz thus far, and it’s maybe funny that it comes on the heels of a straightedge hardcore post, but that’s the beauty of the Shuffler, I suppose. I’m excited that Yusef Lateef is the first jazz artist I’m writing about, because he’s a little bit off the beaten path. I like a lot of weird in my jazz (as time goes on, you’ll see posts on Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman and others), and Lateef delivers in spades.

The album title doesn’t leave a lot of mystery as to the album’s concept: Eastern Sounds are what Lateef is after here, and “Plum Blossom” delivers a sound that combines Eastern music and Western jazz in a way that is fresh, not at all Putamayo, and still leaves room for future innovators like Rudresh Mahanthappa and others to try their hand at the same idea decades later. More than that, most importantly, it works — the “weird” here is just the instrumentation, the innovation, but the tune itself stands strong on its own.

“Plum Blossom” has kind of a laid back, wistful plunkiness, beginning as it does with Lateef improvising on a xun (a Chinese globular flute that is worth exploring on the google if you have a minute — the sound is almost electronic) over a single note that is played over and over by Alice Coltrane’s half brother Ernie Farrow on the Indian rabab while Barry Harris plays fairly standard jazz chords and Lex Humphries (who played with Sun Ra and Coltrane as well) waxes super chill on a tambourine. Eventually the xun gives way to a straight ahead blues improvisation by Harris, before everything is stripped away and we hear the rabab trucking along in rhythm. Lateef comes back in on the xun, and the whole thing is just so natural and pleasant sounding that you just want to sip some delicious lemonade and hope it never ends.

But it does, it always ends. Lateef died in December of last year.

SHUFFLER 0010: A LIST OF THINGS

SHUFFLER 0010: A LIST OF THINGS
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Battery – “Leave it Behind” from Whatever it Takes (1998 Revelation Records)

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This is one of those albums that I love maybe more than I’m comfortable admitting. In sophisticated circles, the admission that one really likes a nineties straightedge hardcore record, especially one that was emblematic of the prevalent nostalgia for the youth crew era of a decade prior, makes one appear a little daft.

But damn, I like this record a lot, warts and all. This song starts off a bit sloppy, and the vocals are sometimes a bit weird, but what I always loved about this band was their willingness to be emotionally vulnerable in a scene that was all about bragadoccio and tough guy bullshit. “Leave it Behind” is a good example of this. The lyrics aren’t poetic by any means (though they try at times: the story’s getting older/and the weather’s getting older), but they’re real. They tell the story of someone going off to chase their dreams, to make sure that they life they live is lived on their own terms. The refrain I do not want this on a list/of things I never did” captures that need to move on, even if it means cutting ties or going through difficulties along the way.

If punk rock matters, and I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, then it needs to include ways for people to make the world better by making their own lives better. Positive hardcore anthems like this one help to keep that spirit alive, and I’m grateful for it. Maybe the music is a little formulaic, but sometimes a pick slide is just the thing to help you to make that next positive decision.

SHUFFLER 0009: DOWNGRADE/DESTROY

SHUFFLER 0009: DOWNGRADE/DESTROY
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Hot Snakes – “Hatchet Job” from Audit in Progress (2004 Swami Records)

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It’s a funny thing: Drive Like Jehu played a one show reunion on Sunday night in San Diego. I was excited to go, then ended up traveling to Minnesota to be with family instead. The first Shuffler of the week gives me another John Reis project, Rocket from the Crypt, and today, hot on its heels, I get Hot Snakes.

I absolutely love Hot Snakes. A friend has a story about seeing them at CBGB’s or ABC No Rio or somewhere like that in New York. I don’t have a story like that, and I wish I did. What I love about Hot Snakes is that they marry perfectly, in my opinion, John Reis’ love for American rock and roll with the frenetic energy of punk rock. Add to that the kind of reappropriated vintage artwork shown above and a zany sense of humor that yields songs about carbohydrates and the like, and I’m all in.

And good God, those hooks. The changes in the bridge (you know you don’t have/forever/hatchet job/you know I don’t know whether/it’s a job/or what I like) are riveting. The lyrics aren’t earth-shattering or anything — somebody’s happy with their vocation, and that’s nice — but there’s not a whole lot else to be gleaned, and that’s fine. That’s not what the Hot Snakes are for.

I touched on this yesterday as well, but for me, I much prefer John Reis when he’s not performing lead vocal duty. Rick Froberg‘s vocals bring to mind the very best parts of Drive Like Jehu even though the soundtrack is pretty different, and that’s a pretty great throughline to get down to. It also maybe explains why I much prefer the Obits to the Night Marchers.

Hot Snakes are windows down, pounding on the steering wheel, singing along at the top of your lungs American punk rock, and this song is no exception.

 

 

 

SHUFFLER 0008: YOU WANTED A MIRACLE

SHUFFLER 0008: YOU WANTED A MIRACLE
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Rocket from the Crypt – “Heater Hands” from Scream Dracula Scream (1995 Interscope Records)

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For a lot of people, I suppose, it was a huge deal when Rocket from the Crypt (or RFTC, or that band that would let you into their shows for free if you sported a tattoo of their logo) signed to major label Interscope Records. For my part, though, I can’t quite understand how John Reis was simultaneously making this music and Drive Like Jehu records, and it is essentially for this reason that I keep their music in my library — to try and break through to the other side of the mystery. Also, Rocket from the Crypt had a horn section, which kind of always put them in a Mighty Mighty Bosstones category in my mind.

The above paragraph is the kind of thing that could really raise the ire of some indie rock types. They might be right. The fault may be entirely my own. After all, I love Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, The Sultans, and feel pretty warmly about the Night Marchers and the Obits. So why can’t I get into the band that many would call the umbrella that arches over the whole operation?

“Heater Hands” features John Reis at his whiniest and most nasally, and that horn section is definitely there in the background, whether we need them or not. Here is what I think: this made a lot of sense in the early and mid-nineties, but maybe didn’t age well. I know there are others who will disagree, and for them I have a whole record collection full of things I love from that time period that probably didn’t age well either (and about which I’m loathe to make such a statement).

I’m also unsure of what’s going on with these lyrics. They seem to be about a relationship, “don’t heat the hands that hold your love / before they hate you / don’t heat the hands that hold your stuff” — seems like practical advice. The refrain of “time is the backside of my hand,” however, is a bit puzzling. Is it a reference to domestic abuse? An acknowledgement of the weathering effects of the sands of time? Like so much about this band, it remains a mystery to me.

I like the title of this album a lot, and I love Reis’ undying devotion to American music, as well as his clear affection for loud volumes. I remain ambivalent about Rocket from the Crypt, however, which is a long way from where I started, and I imagine this is a puzzle I’ll be trying to solve for years to come.

You guys know where there’s video of this song? I couldn’t find it.

 

 

SHUFFLER 0007: CROSS ME OFF-A YOUR LIST

SHUFFLER 0007: CROSS ME OFF-A YOUR LIST
Friday, August 29, 2014
Bob Dylan – “Abandoned Love” from Biograph (1985 Columbia)

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My opinion of Bob Dylan tends to change with the weather. For me he falls into a class of artists who are so prolific that I don’t even know how to take their body of work as a whole. It’s so much it overwhelms. When it comes time to talk about Neil Young or Elvis Costello, I’ll be expressing a similar sentiment, I can assure you.

I realize, however, that this Shuffler deal isn’t set up in a way that requires me to make a definitive statement about each artist, especially one as prone to genius and madness as Dylan. More important is that I like this song, and I do. Recorded a year after “Forever Young” (but not released until a decade later), this song gives a similar feel, begging you to sit down at the warm and cozy outdoor dinner table with the Bravermans. Or it could be that I’m approaching middle age and waiting to Hulu an episode of Parenthood with my wife. Who can really say?

Here’s a better question. Why are rock musicians not writing lyrics like this today? Or are they? Apparently Dylan was going through a divorce at the time that he wrote this song, which makes the lyrics and the haunting melody that goes with them all the more penetrating. I’ve included them below in their entirety, which is especially helpful given that the video version I’ve included contains Spanish subtitles.

I’m grateful for this Shuffler business, and for those of you who continue to click and read. I know I wouldn’t have stopped to really notice this song and listen deliberately to it without having created these constraints, and I’m glad I did it.

I can hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Oh, something’s a-telling me I wear the ball and chain
My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost
He’s always off somewhere when I need him most
The Spanish moon is rising on the hill
But my heart is a-tellin’ me I love ya still
I come back to the town from the flaming moon
I see you in the streets, I begin to swoon
I love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time ’fore I finally disappear?
Everybody’s wearing a disguise
To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes
But me, I can’t cover what I am
Wherever the children go I’ll follow them
I march in the parade of liberty
But as long as I love you I’m not free
How long must I suffer such abuse
Won’t you let me see you smile one time before I turn you loose?
I’ve given up the game, I’ve got to leave
The pot of gold is only make-believe
The treasure can’t be found by men who search
Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the church
We sat in an empty theater and we kissed
I asked ya please to cross me off-a your list
My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange
One more time at midnight, near the wall
Take off your heavy makeup and your shawl
Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.

Jilting

Jilting

With your beard newly full
and the banks of your eyes failing,
I turned, unceremoniously, and left.

An altar of stone, countless arches
receding to the kind of tiny ache
that grows to insurmountable heights.

This, put plainly, is loss.
It’s every friend I ever left,
the time I narrowly escaped arrest

protesting some illegal war or another
only to watch it unfold in night vision
on the cable news networks of the day.

Grandiose gestures are the bricks
we hurl at inefficacy, only to wind up
pushed down, wriggling out of flexicuffs.

Please wait for me at home, as I await
processing. I swear I’ll make it up to you,
I swear this time I’ll stay and fight.

SHUFFLER 0006: ANGELS GAZE DOWN

SHUFFLER 0006: ANGELS GAZE DOWN
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Billy Bragg – “The Passion” from Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986 Go! Discs/Elektra)

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Wasn’t somebody just complaining about the lack of apocryphal stories on this blog? Well, do I have a treat for you. I remember buying this album on the now-on-trend-but-then-conventional cassette format somewhere around 1990 as a gift for my older sister. It was one of too-few trips that I made to the now-defunct Northern Lights Records in downtown Minneapolis. Young people will be surprised to learn that a) there was once a time where one could purchase music in downtown Minneapolis* and b) Billy Bragg was doing Frank Turner’s deal before Frank Turner.**

These days Billy Bragg kind of looks like what might happen if you accidentally washed your favorite pants but forgot that you had an Anderson Cooper or a Conan O’Brien in one of the pockets. That’s entirely irrelevant, but also fairly true. What I appreciate about him, though, is less superficial — it’s his radical left-leaning politics. In my time on this planet, I’ve observed the way the world works, and I think that working people need all the voices they can get, and if one of those voices happens to be socialist and has one of those funny accents, well, so be it.

In this instance, Billy is making the personal political, or actually just personal. This is a song about a young couple expecting a baby girl long before they are emotionally ready to deal with parenthood, or, for that matter, each other:

It pains her to learn that some things will never be right
If the baby is just someone else to take sides in a fight
Harsh words between bride and groom
The distance is greater each day
He smokes alone in the next room
And she knits her life away

It isn’t a happy song; there’s no resolution, save for the refrain “sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn / Just what it takes a child a night to learn.” It is, however, a real snapshot, a kind of working-class Raymond Carver portrayal of what can happen to people and their lives almost without their knowledge, and it’s set to the minimalist soundtrack lf Billy and his guitar.

I understand why pop music isn’t often this honest — it makes people uncomfortable — still, I wish this level of honesty in music wasn’t quite so rare.

I’ve always enjoyed the evocative title of this album, but didn’t know until now that it is named after a poem by the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. My sister probably knew — apparently the poem is included in the liner notes.

* I think there’s maybe a Whole Foods in downtown Minneapolis these days. If it’s anything like the Whole Foods I frequent in Orange County, one could, unbelievably, purchase the middling At the Drive-In 10” Vaya for $20, among other vinyl releases that are for some reason available at the supermarket.

** I’m not super duper familiar with Frank Thomas, but upon watching him from a distance, have good feelings about him. I was just using him as a point of illustration. I suppose I could just have easily have picked on John Sampson of the Weakerthans, someone I also enjoy.

I was unable to locate video of this song. If anyone has more success than I did, please let me know.