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I feel bad for not having written anything here for a while, so while I promise I will write something new soon, for now here’s some brief thoughts about the stuff I’ve been listening to a lot recently:

Thelonious Monk

As if you needed me to confirm it, he’s a genius. He’s brilliant because of his bravery, because he dares to play with powerful dissonance that threatens to sink his playful melodies, but he always manages to get just the right balance. As you can hear on “Little Rootie Tootie”, his swing-era blues melody is punctuated by harsh stabs of unpleasantness probably meant to mimic horn shots in a big band. He’s adventurous, you can hear that he can’t resist those moments in his solos where you think he’s about to fall off timing only to swoop and regain it in an amazing flourish of skill. He plays with a sense of humor, adding in an extra couple notes to the head of “Blues Five Spot” on Misterioso when he should have stopped. His playing style is simply impossible to ignore, and rewards closer inspection. I highly recommend the Ken Burns collection and “Thelonious Monk Trio”, which has one of my personal favourites, “Bemsha Swing”.

Barry White

Do you ever meet someone who seems like less of a real person that a parody of a certain type of person? If you have, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you’re not sure, I recommend checking out Barry White’s “All-Time Greatest Hits” for a good example. White plays the Love-Man persona so heavy it comes across as comical more often than not. He begins most of his syrupy soul songs with some breathy dialogue in his rich baritone speaking voice, which is basically pillow talk before he starts belting out the tune about loving you, or not being able to get enough of your love, or (I kid you not) “never giving you up”. In other words, a commercial monster of the soul market. The strange part is that a lot of this stuff works: not only is White a great singer, the songcraft and arrangements often transcend the cheesiness that lesser songs might be bogged down in. Often I find that the songs take on an unintended second emotional quality, often a surreal one. Someday, I’d like to set up a really weird installation art piece and loop his song “I’ve Got So Much To Give” in the background.

Lil Wayne

I must admit, I’d never heard a Lil Wayne album I could listen to all the way through (yes, even “Tha Carter III”). He’s just too inconsistent. Or so I thought until I checked out his pre-Carter III mixtape “Da Drought 3”. Shockingly, this unwieldy 26-song collection (not counting intros and outros) is remarkably consistent (I count only 2 weak songs). Not only that, it’s damn funny, too! Never before have I heard such a concentration of bizarre wit and silliness cohere into a genuinely great hip-hop album. Many times Wayne will halt his flow to inject a strange non-sequitur like “When I was five, my favourite movie was The Gremlins,/Ain’t got shit to do with this, but I just thought that I should mention…” Some of this stuff almost comes across as proto-Das Racist it’s so weird. And who can deny such wackiness as “I get up in that ass like a donkey” or “I’m on your heels like a shoehorn”? Wayne is clearly at the top of his game here, almost enough to convince me he really was the “best rapper alive” at the time. Also featured: a then-unknown Nicki Minaj.

Glasvegas

File this under “Things that shouldn’t work but somehow do anyway”. Glasvegas’ self-titled first album is an exercise in everything I’d normally tell bands not to do. For example, under no circumstances would I advise a band to begin their album with a seven-minute song of which the last two minutes are a heartfelt rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” atop a mass of arena guitar-noise, but this is exactly what Glasvegas does. Once I got over laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it, I realized there might actually be something to these guys. They mash the influences of the Velvet Underground and The Jesus And Mary Chain into an Oasis-like blur (see what I did there?) of anthemic teen pop. And they do it with such conviction you wonder whether it’s self-conscious in any way or if they even know what irony is. In fact, I think they’re completely serious about this stuff, considering the personal confessions of “Daddy’s Gone” and my theory that nobody dares to be this bad without being absolutely sincere about it. And so this absolute mess of an album becomes a surprisingly enjoyable effort by a band I hope nobody ever tries to duplicate the sound of, for everyone’s sake.

Steely Dan

Every once and a while I feel the need to come back to Steely Dan and pay my respects to what is surely one of the greatest “rock and roll” “bands” I’ve ever heard. “Rock and roll” because they themselves deny it and see themselves as more of a jazz group (understandably so) and “band” because for much of its life it was mostly just the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker plus side musicians. Absolute studio perfectionists, their best albums are near flawless in sound quality, musicianship and songwriting, which is a truly incredible feat. The first four albums are an absolute must-hear for pretty much anyone, packed with mind-bending tunes, fantastic arrangements and their brilliantly dark and often satirical lyrics. “Aja“‘s not half-bad either (and chances are you probably already have it somewhere in your house), but I’m serious about those first four, especially “Pretzel Logic”.

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