“[Slim] Gaillard stands as jazz’s premier comedian-eccentric, the hepcat as novelty artist to end all novelty artists. Gaillard laughed in rhythm, barked in rhythm, clucked like a chicken in rhythm; he made up his own language, then adapted it to Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Incan; he was so fond of the suffix “rooney” (as in “You got the federation blues-o-rooney”) that when introduced to Mickey Rooney he asked what his last name was.”—Robert Christgau, reviewing the Slim Gaillard compilation Laughing in Rhythm: The Best of the Verve Years in 1994. “He was so fond of the suffix ‘rooney’ … that when introduced to Mickey Rooney he asked what his last name was”—that, my friends, is some funny shit. Like an idiot, I didn’t realize Gaillard is the Slim in Slim & Slam. You might know “The Flat Foot Floogie.” If you don’t know it, what are you waiting for?
“The Romantic notion of the autonomous transcendent artwork entailed a hierarchized, strictly enforced split between emancipated creators, beholden (in theory) to no one but the muse, and selfless curators, sworn to submission. The producers of timeless works are the gods, exulting in their liberation from the world of social (‘extramusical’) obligation and issuing peremptory commands. The recipients of the commands are the Nibelungs, bound scrupulously to carry out the masters’ intentions for the sake of their glory, their own lives pledged to a sterile humdrum of preservation and handing-on. That is the mythology of our concert life.”—Musicologist Richard Taruskin, in the introduction to his essay collection Text and Act, p. 10. This is a mere tidbit of his larger, damning criticism of the current state of musicology, and of the related performance-practice movement. Trust me, he’s just getting warmed up here. My second favorite quote comes from his response to Leo Treitler, who had published a criticism of one of Taruskin’s early essays. Treitler writes, “I don’t know whether Taruskin would make a principled defense of the differentiation,” between the level of accountability we should expect from a scholar versus that which we should expect from an historically-informed performer. As if to bring attention to, and thus undermine, Treitler’s pretentious nitpicking, Taruskin retorts how, “he could have called me up” (p. 24). The chutzpah!
“In the interest of bad vibes I have agreed to appear on a panel discussing ‘progressive music.’ I am booed when introduced; the booing continues when I utter the single word ‘Ramones’ into the microphone.”—Robert Christgau, reporting on Giorgio Gomelski’s “Zu Concert,” which was announced as a 12-hour “manifestival” of “progressive music” from Europe and America. Village Voice, Oct. 23, 1978. Every day is a battle; how we still love the war.
Sleater-Kinney, “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” (All Hands on the Bad One, 2000)
I’m catching up on the second season of The Good Wife, and what do I hear? Guest star Miranda Cosgrove singing “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun” by Sleater-Kinney! I know Cosgrove from one of my favorite films, School of Rock, in which she played the aspiring recording agent Summer Hathaway. But I live under a rock, so I didn’t realize that she’s über famous for her Nickelodeon show iCarly. In this episode of The Good Wife, she plays the teenaged pop star Sloan, who is on trial for a DUI and an alleged assault. Alicia Florrick, played to perfection by Julianna Margulies, visits her in the studio and waits for her as she completes a vocal take for… this Sleater-Kinney song. I hope Corin, Carrie and Janet earned a good chunk of change licensing this. If any band deserves to get rich, it’s this one.
“Seth Rogen is a great American artist. He can think whatever he wants about Steely Dan far as I’m concerned.”—Robert Christgau, in a comment on his Expert Witness blog at MSN.com. He was responding to Ryan Maffei's remark that “the only truly objectionable part of Knocked Up… is when Seth Rogen says that Steely Dan can gargle his balls.” I suppose this could be considered objectionable except for the fact that Donald and Walter likely spit scotch and soda out of each of their respective nostrils when they heard Rogen’s line. An honor.
“Any punk angst was long gone from the song [“Eric’s Trip”]—angst is for kiddies—replaced by intense curiosity, always a tougher emotion to translate into music, but always the emotion Sonic Youth has expressed better than anyone.”—Rob Sheffield, in his essay “Fading Fading Celebrating,” which concerns the sad news of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s separation, and the likelihood that the band Sonic Youth will breakup. Published online at Rolling Stone.
I am hosting the first ever Jazz Poll for the online community active at Robert Christgau’s Expert Witness blog. The rules and parameters for this poll are available here, and the poll closes Oct. 30. This first poll concerns the best jazz albums recorded in the 1960s. If anyone wishes to vote—and I hope you do!—please be sure to read the rules carefully and submit your ballot to the email address listed there. Voters are asked to provide their ten favorite albums within the poll’s parameters (or the ten “best,” or however else you wish to define your ballot). You may either rank these using the Pazz and Jop points system (as explained in the rules), or weight them each equally; either is just fine.
Since a lot of jazz was recorded in the 1960s, I put together this list of recommendations culled from the texts of two book chapters by former Village Voice critic Gary Giddins: “Postwar Jazz: An Arbitrary Roadmap (1945-2001),” as reprinted in his book Weather Bird, and “Collecting Jazz Recordings,” in the appendix of Jazz, written with Scott DeVeaux. For a few of the recommendations below, Giddins had merely mentioned the existence of the album, or only explicitly recommends one song from the album (“Three Little Words” from Sonny Rollins on Impulse! for example). But I’ve sought out enough of these albums to know that when Giddins mentions one, it’s probably worth hearing.
Brief caveats: these are not the only great Jazz recordings of the 1960s. Notice Giddins does not mention Thelonious Monk’s work on Columbia, John Coltrane’s Ascension, or Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, nor any albums by Davis’s second great quintet in either of these chapters. Don’t get mad; he discusses and recommends each of them elsewhere, if memory serves, but just not in these two chapters. He doesn’t mention any singers either, except Armstrong with Ellington, nor any European recordings, unless you count the albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Albert Ayler, each of which is identified with American jazz anyway. He recommends such contenders elsewhere as well, just not here.
If you’re not as familiar with Jazz as you would like to be, or just have some gaps in your knowledge of ’60s Jazz, you’re going to have a good time with this list. Check these albums out, share them with friends, and don’t forget to have fun. Because Jazz is fun, and polls are fun. Most will be available on any one of several streaming services. I use MOG. Now dig in! The list is after the jump (click “Read More”).
Teddy Pendergrass, “Close the Door” (The Essential Teddy Pendergrass, 2007)
In the “Live Show” episode of 30 Rock last year, there was a Dr. Spaceman sketch in which our “doctor” informs us of his new medical product for erectile dysfunction: “For too long, erectile dysfunction has been viewed as a physical problem, and it’s been treated with pills and ointments and contraptions whose straps break all too easily,” he explains. “But couldn’t the real cause of E.D. be that we haven’t produced a good ‘doing it’ song since ‘Close the Door’ by Teddy Pendergrass? That’s why I recorded an album. Guaranteed to end erectile dysfunction, these are the sweet sounds of Dr. Leo Spaceman’s Love Storm. An ultra-strength audio re-boneulator.” It’s even funnier if you know the 1978 Pendergrass song. See above.
“Yet despite these black marks, Is This It was a decade-defining record that set the agenda for how rock sounded and even looked throughout the aughts.”—Taylor Clark, making an article-length and factually-incorrect assessment of the Strokes’ debut album ten years on, in Slate. He continues how “at the time, remember, bands such as (brace yourself) Limp Bizkit, Staind, Slipknot, and Linkin Park—along with a heavy dose of Creed—absolutely dominated the rock charts. With one sweep of their Chuck Taylors, the Strokes kicked the nu-metal blight to the curb, clearing the way for other garage-influenced bands like the White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and spawning many imitators, among them Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers.” Note that his argument implies that the Strokes and other sympathetic bands outsold Linkin Park. This is not true. Anyone else remember that sad, damning chart published in Blender half a decade ago which diagrammed how Nickelback’s All the Right Reasons had outsold a dozen recent critical-acclaimed and marginally-popular indie rock albums combined, including albums by Wilco and the White Stripes? Both Nickelback and Linkin Park have diamond-certified albums according to Billboard, which means each album has sold over ten millions copies. The Strokes may have saturated the indie hype machine, but their breakthrough didn’t sell like many of their mainstream rock competitors. Or like Nirvana’s Nevermind, which has sold over ten million copies as well and which actually changed the sound of rock radio. Of course, that’s not Clark’s only misguided comment. Concerning the Strokes innovative recording technique: “they twisted knobs on their guitar amps until each tone was just right.” Genius!
My brother-in-law just alerted me to Music Think Tank, a site where music insiders write about recent industry experiences and concerns. Last week, there was a post by Leena Sowambur, who worked for Sony in 2005 and was responsible for the launch of a new Take That website to promote the act’s upcoming reunion tour. At that time, many fans of the group interacted online at the Take That Appreciation Pages. Sowambur, then manager of digital products at Sony, asked five fans from this site to moderate a new forum at Sony’s official website.
The arrangement worked like a charm until one contributor turned nasty and threatened the moderators and Sowambur herself. When told about the problem, Sowambur’s boss at Sony said to leave the matter alone—what could he do about it? Unsatisfied by that answer, Sowambur sent the threatening correspondence to a friend at the police department, and the problem disappeared. When asked how he handled the situation, the policeman responded, cryptically, “don’t worry about it.”
The online threat is the hook for Sowambur’s article, and she closes asserting that “any organization has a duty towards its fans. An organization with fans must show its fans respect.” Of course, scroll down and you see that Sowambur now runs a company that builds fan bases for music industry clientele. I don’t point this out as a judgement, but instead to underline why she concludes by stressing the moral duty companies should feel towards their product’s fan base—it’s part of her sales pitch. Hey, everyone needs to make money; no harm done.
More than the online threat or the moral obligations of the record industry, however, I was struck by who Sowambur got to moderate her fan forum, and, further, that these moderators then did their work for free. Not that I would insist that they be paid for their work, it’s just that I’m surprised that they weren’t. These fans have the knowledge and connections that Sony wishes to bring to their website, and therefore these fans are likely the most qualified applicants for the job. And yet, it’s not a paid position. Should it be? I don’t know.
I’m not particularly experienced with fan forums, though I do contribute to the comments section of Robert Christgau’s recent Expert Witness blog, which has become a kind of fan forum. And to be honest, I would never expect to be paid to contribute there, and if someone asked me to moderate a different forum about his work, I probably would, and for no money to boot. But, then again, I’m an academic who studies Christgau’s work, so I have ulterior motives.
Does Sony have a moral obligation to pay these moderators? Probably not. But I would certainly be indignant if the label didn’t at least slip them a little concert schwag or maybe a meet and greet. Something like that. It’s only fair.
“Rarely has the pomo practice of trashing history while you honor it reached such a pitch of accomplishment.”—Robert Christgau, reviewing Red Hot + Blue, on p. 271 of his Christgau Consumer Guide: Albums of the ’90s. This tribute album, which features c.1990 pop performers re-interpreting Cole Porter songs, relates to my previous post concerning aesthetics and Maria Schneider. “Trashing history while you honor it”; conceptually this could just as likely lead to crap as quality. But the proof of its validity is in the pudding—Red Hot + Blue beats dozens of albums I’ve sat through by the more accomplished and educated jazz divas of the last forty years. It’s garish, novel, exciting, sometimes crude, and the words matter, not just as content, but as sound and play. Would Mr. Porter like these interpretations, or would he prefer the more sanctimonious alternative? I don’t know. That’s a topic worth investigating.
“I don’t believe there’s a dime’s worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans. When we get someone new in the White House, don’t you suppose they’d set him down there the first morning in the Oval Office and explain the rules? Give him orders about what to do, and if he didn’t do ‘em, they’d kill his kids? That’s what i think. I think there’s a No Shit Day, when they sit the guy down and he says, ‘No Shit.’ And they say, ‘Yeah, and it’s this way, too.’ ‘No shit.’ ‘And we’ll kill your fuckin’ kids if you don’t like it.’ I think we’re there.”—Merle Haggard, a few months before the 2008 presidential election, venting somewhat humorously about what’s wrong with America. From Jason Fine’s “The Fighter,” published in Rolling Stone, October 1, 2009; reprinted in Best Music Writing 2010, edited by Ann Powers and Daphne Carr, p. 221.
“Well, my whole reason for doing music —it’s expression. It’s not to make cool sounding music or hip tunes—it’s storytelling… The problem with big band music is so few writers are writing with that serious intent that the music really means something beyond just being a really cool sounding chart.”—Maria Schneider to Eugene Holley, Jr., interview reprinted in Best Music Writing 2010, edited by Ann Powers and Daphne Carr, p. 191. To which my knee jerks, and I respond, “Hey, what’s so wrong with cool sounding music?” Academically, I can defend this response by directing readers to Lawrence W. Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow, a book which traces America’s cultural division into high and low culture c.1850-1900. In his book, Levine bemoans how, by 1900, “culture had become a manifestly serious and intricate endeavor that few could hope to master” (211). He explains that “what was invented [in the late-nineteenth century] was the illusion that the aesthetic products of high culture were originally created to be appreciated in precisely the manner late-nineteenth century Americans were taught to observe: with reverent, informed, disciplined seriousness” (229). My heart hurts when I witness first hand how high-culture perceptions of jazz have wrangled the fun out of so many of the great jazz recordings I cherish in my life. It’s not irreverent to play Louis Armstrong’s music and have fun—in fact, one could argue that that’s what it’s there for. When I listen to Schneider, I plead with her to include at least one really cool sounding chart. Just one. Then maybe have some fun with it, it can’t hurt. Hell, it might very well feel good. Perhaps that’s what makes fun so dangerous?
“I need to take my pants off as soon as I get home. I didn’t used to have to do that. But now I do.”—Tina Fey, writing about turning 40, on p. 265 of her book Bossypants. Also, on p. 171, “If you want to see a great pilot, watch the first episode of Cheers.” Truer words have never been spoken. Watch it now. It’s available streaming from Netflix. No excuses!
The Power of Independent Trucking blog has posted a gorgeous transfer of a super-rare R.E.M. demo recorded with Mitch Easter at his Drive-In studios on April 15, 1981. According to the blog, R.E.M. recorded overdubs in May, and the recordings were then mixed by Easter and Johnny Hibbert to make up the original “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still” Hib-Tone 7” single. This demo includes the recordings before overdubs, however; it also adds a super-fast “polka” intro to “Sitting Still” and a screw-up by guitarist Peter Buck at the end of “White Tornado.” This and more are discussed in depth at the aforementioned blog. The demo is offered as a FLAC file; Mac users can use All2MP3 to convert this to MP3.
My wife and I started watching Raising Hope this weekend (Netflix now has it available for streaming). You don’t need me to tell you it’s funny, but I will: it’s funny. The creator is Greg Garcia, best known for My Name Is Earl, and like that show, this one’s scripts are airtight, each ending with some kind of moral or lesson. Martha Plimpton is wonderful here, just as she is guest starring on The Good Wife.
All of which leads, however improbably, to my recent listening to that Roger Miller comp. In episode four of Raising Hope, the family sings “Do-Wacka-Do" together as Burt accidentally runs a red light, gets the family’s picture taken because of it, and ultimately provides the perfect family photo Virginia is so desperate for. Ah, Roger Miller, I wish I had your good luck charm and you had a do-wacka-do wacka-do wacka-do.
Like I said, you don’t need me to tell you this show is funny, but I will anyway. Here’s an exchange from the end of the third episode, after Jimmy learns Sabrina is a writer and we learn that Jimmy isn’t particularly educated:
Jimmy: “Another way to say ostentatious? Highfalutin. I looked it up in something called ‘The Saurus.’ It’s a cool book. It’s like the dictionary’s cousin.”
Sabrina: “Um… Thank you.”
Jimmy: “No problem. Wait… [opens thesaurus]… No conundrum.”
At this Chronicle of Higher Education blog, a linguistics professor posted a defense of passive voice, and a larger criticism of the grammatical rule that passive voice is always incorrect. To support his argument, he quotes several corrections a friend and colleague had given him concerning a piece of writing that uses passive voice, and the professor demonstrates how active-voice revisions of these passages actually distort his original, truer statements made in passive voice.
Of course, any real writer knows that the professor is correct: sometimes using the passive voice gives us the best or most appropriate sentence. If I may transfer this idea to music, it’s like disparaging the Ramones (“Rockaway Beach,” say) because Johnny plays parallel fifths on his guitar. The idea is simple: if what you’re playing sounds good—if it works—then you should play it or write it regardless of the “rules” of composition.
In his article “Writing about music is writing first” for the academic journal Popular Music (24, no. 3 : 415-421), critic Robert Christgau explains how “the craft [of music writing] is best learned the way most rock and rollers learn to play, not through formal training but by paying it the same level of attention you pay music itself.”
Of course, formal training can provide us with valuable tools, but that’s all they are: tools. If music or language could be successfully and completely broken down into some kind of formula, then a strict adherence to that formula—to the “rules”—would produce the best music, or, at the very least, good music. But as you and I both know, this is rarely-to-never the case.
These “rules” are really for the writer or composer apprentice—they’re a means to learn a craft, but they are not the craft itself. The craft itself requires reading and listening and copying and mimicking and working and writing and writing and writing. No rules can provide a shortcut to this process. I know this because, trust me, I’ve been looking for a shortcut for decades, and I still haven’t found one.
Speaking of writing, though I do appreciate the professor coming out in defense of passive voice, someone needs to help him with his word choices: for example, “these critics are often clearly inexpert at accurate identification of what they deprecate” and “recently a colleague and friend with an American doctoral degree did me the kindness of commenting on a draft of mine.” These sentences lack every kind of grace. Note to writing apprentices: always read your work out loud. If you need a rule to follow, make that the one.
The Louvin Brothers, “The Christian Life” (Satan Is Real, 1959)
I’ve been collecting classic country albums these last few months, and, as I should have expected, I’ve come across many of the songs that were covered by the Byrds on their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Rodeo is their 1968 “country” album with Gram Parsons, after which he recorded with the Flying Burrito Brothers, and then with Emmylou Harris for two solo albums. Then he died, in 1973, at age 26. That Byrds album was my introduction to the country music I’ve come to really adore over these past 15 years.
I love discovering the more country-identified versions of these songs, such as “The Christian Life,” my personal favorite; the non-Byrds version I know was released by the Louvin Brothers on Satan Is Real in 1959. Check out the gorgeous harmony singing in the recording accessible above; I understand the close harmonies are a throwback to the country brother groups of the thirties. And, despite the tenderness of the melody, notice how tough this song is as performed—even at mid-tempo the singer’s rhythm is stern, and the tone of the vocals on the refrains and the bridge are a little piercing. The Byrds’ cover is more like kitsch; respectful kitsch—if such a thing is possible—but kitsch nonetheless, especially with Roger McGuinn’s Southern accent. Whatever; it remains lovable.
“Happiness songs are, like, my area,” Deschanel told Jada Yuan for a recent New York magazine profile. Three months later, she handed the author a CD mixtape, which is linked via this post’s title, and by individual track below.
Deschanel’s husband, Ben Gibbard (aka Death Cab for Cutie), explained how he was “immediately taken when we first met that she had this just, like, immense knowledge of really obscure music. I hate to say it, but it’s the kind of obsession that mostly dudes have. Like, ‘Oh, but Emitt Rhodes’s second record …’ Nerdy, lonely guys know about this stuff. She’s turned me on to a lot of music I hadn’t heard.”