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Instrumentally Yours: The Saxophone

Damn, do I love me some saxophone. I keep trying to put my finger on what it is that draws me to it such readily, and the only thing that I can come up with it that it sounds more ‘alive’ than any of the instruments in standard rock, as it’s driven by breath – comin’ from the very inside of a human being rather than stemming from the extremities. As flowery as that sounds, it means that no two notes are really the same, as the smallest change can make the timbre sound totally different and you can really hear the effort welling up behind the note, whether it be a quiet toot or a wailing peel.

Used at the low end, it usually has a lot more texture and character to it than just a pluck of the string . There’s a little wildness around the edges as it blasts the low notes into your gut; a feeling that you could just fall right into the gaping hole the sound creates. A little goes a long way. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Why Don’t You Write Me?” doesn’t use it to replace the bass entirely, but does have an irresistible baritone sax part at the break, honking away at either side of your ears and sort of relishing in the deep tones by playing mostly the same note but with a funky rhythm. On his recent album, The Next Day, David Bowie’s opens “Dirty Boys” with the sleaziest, slinkiest bari sax line, barely able to keep itself above board through the verses of the song as Bowie recounts his times of debauchery with the lads. Near the end, it begrudgingly offers up a solo as it crawls towards the finish, no doubt hungover and pissed off and eager to get on with the next night’s activities.

As a lead instrument, it can open up a crazy amount, as you can go through all kinds of timbrel changes even around just the same notes, twisting your mouth or playing with your breath. It’s more akin to singing in that way, as it feels varied and articulate at points. I’d be lying if I said that my adoration of Van der Graaf Generator did not have a major influence on my selection of this subject. Using the sax as their main lead instrument, they’re caught right in the middle of wresting it from the hands of jazz circa 1970. In “Killer”, David Jackson lays down the main riff of the song alongide the organ (playing two saxes simultaneously, might I add), but quickly jumps at the chance to squonk and scronk away atonally – very much echoing the sounds of jazz but in the name of the energy and aggression of rock. The movement from order to chaos exhibited on the sax is awesome – the note becomes completely irrelevant and inaudible as he channels rage into the reed until settling back down at the return of the verse.

Pop music is also unable to resist the dalliances of that sweet sweet horn – it’s something I’m hearing more and more of and I’m getting excited about it. Lady Gaga uses a sax solo for the break in “The Edge of Glory” on Born This Way, and it creates an interesting contrast – hearing that sax wail about against Gaga’s usual bank of synths and drum machine seems like it would make the natural sounds of the sax seem out of place, but it actually fits in better than you’d think. The boisterous sound of sax actually fits in with the carefully tweaked synths that surround it – it has that thickness and character than we want out of synths nowadays, as we’ve long rocketed past the tinny sounds of the Casio. The synthesizer is supposed to sound like a synthesizer, not anything else. As such, it hangs quite nicely as another varied tone in the bunch – just as complex, timbre-wise as anything else in the bunch and  ripping notes to shreds left and right.

And then there’s “Baker Street”. I don’t think I could possibly come up with enough superlatives to describe the sax riff alone. After several listens, I’ve discovered that it actually has verses and a guitar solo, and they’re actually pretty good. But the sax. It plays that eight-bar riff over and over and gives it a different flavour every time – a little more gusto, a little micro-second longer note. It’s transcendent. Just listen.

And putting it all together is Colin Stetson. Often Arcade Fire’s hired gun, Stetson has put out three solo albums now playing only bass saxophone and with no overdubs. He instead has many, many microphones placed all over the instrument to capture every nuance of every little sound he can get it to make. Here’s “Judges” (and here, Colin breaks it all down). He’s playing low, high, the percussive aspect of slapping the keys and using some of his breath before he even gets to the freakin’ sax, which he needs a hell of a lot of to power the beast that is the bass sax. It sounds primal and visceral and otherworldly. The same instrument provides so many different facets at the same time, it’s dizzying. Provided, Stetson has an insane talent, but I really didn’t even know it was possible to do that and have each portion of it sounds satisfying as if each part were given to a different person.

Sax is on the rise, and I couldn’t be happier. Anytime I can turn on the radio and hear some really brassy woodwindy gusto, I’m super pleased. Possibly the reason I can watch this for hours (also because dude’s got serious moves):

P.S. I know it’s a meme – I could not find a video that looped the actual footage of the dude moving that didn’t have dumb text all over it. So I present the whole song because it owns anyhow.

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Enter the Collector: Wither the Album?

I’ve long bemoaned the decline of the physical album in favour of digital formats, because I am a fan of things. For the most part, it feels like the distinction is insignificant, as a majority of my music listening is spent either on my computer or my phone, where the source could be digital or CD without any real discernible difference. But I really like lookin’ at ’em all collected there on my shelf. Flipping through the liner notes or art inside. Organizing them meticulously. Gazing into them as they do me.

It is for this reason that I’m happy to see the tidal wave of ‘archival’ style releases of classic albums that is approaching us. Being 50 years on from the 60s, it’s about to hit big time and it ain’t gonna let up. Led Zeppelin, impatient to reach the big 5-0 has released its first three LPs in a deluxe format to celebrate their 45th anniversary of being recorded. Accompanied with each are the juicy extras – live concerts from the time (eagerly anticipating getting my hands on the ’69 concert from Zep I), demos and songs that never made it onto the albums originally. Extra Zep! Don’t have a 50th anniversary coming up? That’s okay, you probably have a 25th!

A couple years ago, I picked up the rerelease of R.E.M.’s Document on its 25th anniversary, replete with photos, a gigantic poster and a concert from the album’s tour. And that’s the stuff I’m really into. The digital format is no doubt here to stay and has usurped any physical format as the way to check out albums instantaneously now, but these rereleases offer up the context and experience of the album at the time it was releases. Hearing what a band sounded like and what they did with the album they were promoting at the time at live shows is fascinating, not to mention seeing both the publicity from the era and the rare b-sides that were cut that didn’t make it on. That not only allows you to hear new stuff from your favourite band, but new stuff from that specific time period that you love so dearly.

Having things attached to an album other than the music flowing through your ears gives you more to associate it with and spaces everything out so that the material that you already love so much gets a little bit more attention and a different perspective from you. That’s not to say that you don’t appreciate King Crimson if you don’t buy their 13-CD boxed set of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, but having the experience of that extra material might help it from bumping against Madonna, Conway Twitty and Stevie Wonder in your brain as you listen. Physical formats are becoming a collector’s game, so it’s at least nice to see that collectors are being offered something more interesting to collect as the physical-album-buying public becomes ever narrower (I still treasure the copy of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick that I found packaged with a newspaper replicated the original LP cover!).

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The Long and Rhythmic Road: Getting Into Rap

It’s never been an easy time with rap and I. Of course, I bought The Marshall Mathers LP when it came out, right around my entry into high school, but it was just an end-in-itself. I never sought out any more like, nor did I follow up with any other Eminem albums. I was into it, and then it was gone just as quickly. I was there for the 2000s rap-rock craze, but it never really did much for me (my Marshall Mathers LP story could apply just as easily to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory). Since that time, rap – much like its cousin in cliche music non-preferences, country – has never really gotten me excited. Every time I heard it, I would just hear the genre as heavy beats, some dude talking fast and saying ‘yeah’ a lot and reciting their own name incessantly. I would never engage with it, as any time I heard any one of those things, I would just tune it out immediately and say “oh, rap.”

Of course, when at odds with a genre, you just hear the worst in it. You pick out those things you already know you don’t like, and that just reinforces the feeling. It doesn’t help that you’ve probably decided that you dislike the genre based the most popular iterations of it, which is what you would probably hear of it most often, as you’re not going to be seeking out something you don’t think you’re going to want to listen to.  I’d made the decision previously that I didn’t like it and really didn’t feel the need to revise it for the longest time.

It’s not that I hadn’t encountered sort of the basic elements in a different context, with rapid-fire lyrics (for rock music) delivered mostly for emphasis on rhythm rather than melody in amongst my usual listened-to bands – R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” or Radiohead’s “A Wolf at the Door.” come to mind. I never ventured further, as I just thought them to be neat extensions and experiments of the bands I was listening to rather than something to explore in isolation. The first crack in the armour came with Radiohead’s most recent effort, The King of Limbs. Though there isn’t any rapping on it, whole album is based on wonky rhythms – chopped up drum parts by drummer Phil Selway re-arranged as such as to need two drummers to play the tracks on tour. After a few cursory listens, the rhythm bug got its hooks into me and I couldn’t get enough of it (in fact, this is also what drove me to start making music, realizing  I could generate some pretty good beats with my computer to build on top of).

Now having that solid basis in beat appreciation, there was something more to be found in the rap world for me, but it was still rough going. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” was the example that I frequently brought up to people. I love the backing track – the instruments, the vocals, the hook, the beats, everything that was going on in the background totally had me hooked. At which Kanye actually came in and started rapping and it all fell apart for me. All it felt that it was doing was dulling the impact of the rest of the song. I couldn’t understand why it couldn’t have been just let be. The problem was that I was still refusing to engage with it as rap. I was trying to listen to it as a pop song or some such and then this rapper kept intruding. I was willing to acknowledge the skill in crafting the song, but that was about it. I still wasn’t ready for rap.

There may be a bright light, however. I recently re-listened to the Doomtree album No Kings, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of things. I think I’m ready to actually listen to rap for what it is rather than what I can appreciate from the view of another genre. I am into the hooks big time, but starting to appreciate the actual rapping that comprises the bulk of the songs. Take a song like “Bolt Cutter”, which reads like a radical manifesto – “my baby gave me a bolt cutter/we like to break in/and reclaim all the spaces they forgot they had taken” – a fact I had never paid attention to before. The rapping during the verses serves to colour in and give a reality to the idea that is only hinted at in the chorus, much as the instruments in most songs do. I’m beginning, too, to appreciate the variance in rhythm and flow that each of the rappers in the group brings to the table, especially when stacked up against one another in the same song, not to mention the impact a second or two of silence from the rapper can have on the rhythm.

It’s taken me awhile, but maybe I’ve listened to the right combination of songs, or maybe the time is right now for me to start to appreciate rap on its own terms. Luckily, Doomtree has seven members, all of whom have solo projects, so I feel I’ll be off to the races fairly quickly as my knowledge about the genre expands.

“E-Bow the Letter”

“A Wolf at the Door.”

“All of the Lights”

“Bolt Cutter”

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Beyond the Pale: Getting Into Reggae

It was one of those nights, y’know. You’re sittin’ around, playing video games or chatting or what-have-you, and the laptop gets passed around, and each person gets a turn at picking a track on YouTube to serve as the evening’s soundtrack for the next however many minutes, which is both terribly exciting and terribly frightening all at once. You get the chance to sneak in another of your best kept musical secrets, but at the same time it has to fit both the mood of the evening and keep in line with what’s been played previously. It has to progress, like a thinking playlist, and evolve based on similar themes or musical motifs. Anyhow, standard practice. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track.

Now, my experience with reggae is spotty, at best. I’d mostly heard Bob Marley echoing from the dorm rooms of stoned neighbours back in first year, and the playing of Radiodread to the crowd gathered on campus during 4/20; I’d also listened to the Police. Beyond that I never really got any closer, as there wasn’t much that really captured me any time I’d listened to it. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track: “Poor Me Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & the Aces.

After asking Bryce who it was, I was intrigued, as he wasn’t Bob Marley or Peter Tosh or Jimmy Cliff (about the extent of my knowledge of reggae at the time). It made me aware that there might be an entire world I didn’t know about. But more on that later. This song swept me away! Maybe it was the repetition of “Poooooor meeeeee Israelite” after each refrain that turns your ear towards the story of a man wishing to suffer as little as possible. Maybe it was the brisk pace compared to most reggae I’d heard before, or the dramatic slow introduction before the song kicks off. Maybe it was Dekker’s high voice, syncopating all over the place. Maybe the boppin’ bassline. Whatever it was, the moment this song entered my head, it would not come out for at least a month afterwards.

Having it go round and round in there got me to thinking that I could maybe give this reggae thing a try now. I checked out the album the song came from (1968’s Intensified) and Catch A Fire by The Wailers on a friend’s recommendation. After that, as far as I could tell, I was hooked. Wanting to see what was going on in the genre currently, and after goggling at the fact that Bob Marley was still atop the Billboard reggae charts (I don’t know why I was surprised, but it caught me off guard, as my intention was to educate myself in “more than just Bob Marley” by seeing the current trends, with the acknowledgement of how huge Marley is in reggae), I pulled a couple of interesting looking albums (working on Hawai’i 13 by The Green currently), and have been about there ever since (apart from, in that period where I was listening obsessively, I went and recorded a reggae-flavoured song).

The thing that confounds me still, however, is this – did I just hear the right reggae song that got me into it or had I built up enough appreciation for some of the musical tools that it used via other music that the time was now right to accept a reggae song and, perhaps, the whole genre now? I don’t think I’ll ever quite know, but “Poor Me Israelites” gets played in my ears constantly to this day, and I’m expanding knowledge and appreciating the reggae I do hear much more than I used to, which I only figure could be a good thing.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Ten Easy Steps

I recently listened to the Bad Seeds’ discography straight through, in chronological order. It was something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, but got further than about half of his albums scattered throughout the years. The impetus came from starting to read through the special Uncut magazine I picked up in England that went through Cave’s entire career, album by album and everything in between*.

Cave has always been an interesting songwriter. His fascination with the macabre and the gothic has been a constant throughline in his work. He’s never afraid to cast his booming baritone in your direction and let it hang in the air while the other thoughts drain out of your head. At the same time, he’s always been one of the more thoughtful rock lyricists, as his horrid pictures and colour-draining situations can only be a purge of the chaos going on inside of his head. While his discography roughly follows a noisiest to quietest movement, there’s never been a boring moment or duff album for yours truly. Here are the ten tracks that will take you through the 30+ years of the Bad Seeds’ existence:

1) Cabin Fever! (1984)

Rising from the ashes of Cave’s previous outfit, the Birthday Party, From Her to Eternity maintains much of the wild intensity of that group, with slightly less emphasis on pure noise, and turning attention more towards malice. The repetitive piano bass line pulls the song down over and over again into its own little hole, the one-note bassline bangs on the walls repeatedly while Cave wails and masticates and sniffs and whoops his sorrow away in the middle of the ocean, lost asea with “nothin’ to touch or hold/notch by notch/winter by winter”, accompanied by some rowdy drunks doing backing vocals. This was the last hurrah (at least for some time) for Cave’s unhinged wildman act but it serves as a good starting point to understand where the Bad Seeds started from.

2) Tupelo (1985)

The first sign of Cave’s foray into the southern gothic feel (“Lookie yonder!”) he would employ so often for a lot of his career. The story of the birth of Elvis as a portent of the apocalypse begins with a crash of thunder and a stuttering bassline as Cave begins to report on the strange happenings around Tupelo, Mississippi, interspersed with near-sarcastic recitations of nursery rhymes. While “The King will walk on Tupelo”, Cave also tells the tale of Elvis’ stillborn twin, giving the album its title (The Firstborn Is Dead). Organs begin to peel and set in the horror movie feel to the proceedings, but this is very much one of the first exercises of restraint for the Seeds, as the mood dominates all.

3) The Carny (1986)

In contrast to the first two tracks, you have to lean in and pay attention to hear another one of Mr. Cave’s narratives about a disappearing carny – another to add to his fairly extensive rogues gallery. The backing here tips back and forth between goofy and sinister with an organ-led waltz lurching back and forth underneath. Not content with a simple wide-eyed manic delivery any longer, but intricately building an atmosphere of night, of paranoia and gives you eight whole minutes to experience it, as a low bass note keeps intoning in your direction.

4) The Mercy Seat (1988)

A live favourite ever since it’s debut on Tender Prey, it goes inside the mind of an inmate who may or may not be guilty headed to the electric chair who is “quite prepared to die”. After recounting and giving his own thoughts on the story of Jesus, we get to the main bulk where the chorus repeats over and over of him sitting in the electric chair and how he’s “done with all this weighing up of truth”. The chorus repeats over and over as the electric buzz from Blixa Bargeld’s guitar gets more and more intense and Thomas Wydler refuses to relent from his assault on his drums. Loosely harmonized vocals get slapped on and a violin gets introduced as the song crescendoes, and you wonder where it could possibly end. The merciless repetition and fantastic build of the song added with the grim content of the lyrics is a perfect example of what the band was capable of at the time – my favourite album of their early period.

5) Do You Love Me? (1994)

This is where they begin to do more with less, which is very much a course that would continue throughout Cave’s career from this point on. The archetypical Cave song, “Do You Love Me?” shows the Seeds at their most potent. The haunting organ, the carefully measured echoes of guitar and an ominous account of a relationship created and destroyed. Cave’s snarl on the line “Do you love me?” is the perfect example of how something so innocuous can sound terrifying when put to him to deliver. Ditto with the lead-in of “And the bells from the chapel/go jingle/jangle!”. What the Bad Seeds are all about.

6) The Curse of Millhaven (1996)

From the album that actually got me into the Seeds in the first place – Murder Ballads. As the name suggests, every song gives the tale of a killing. I was sort of taken aback but intrigued by the concept. it’s not one I spin too much any more, but I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t include it on this list. This is a great example of Cave’s – say it with me – love of the macabre. He also manages to ingest this one with a sort of upbeat tempo and jauntiness, with the accordion and the back-and-forth bass. Not to mention a sick sense of humour, as tales go through the town of Millhaven following a series of mysterious murders. The identity of the killer may or may not surprise you.

7) Into My Arms (1997)

Here, Cave does an absolute 180 and is left alone with his piano, singing a heartfelt, honest-to-goodness love song, which is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. The Boatman’s Call would largely comprise these piano driven slow-burners as, it seems, he just had to take a break from the noise.

8) As I Sat Sadly By Her Side (2001)

With three simple chords, Cave tells one of my favourite short stories that espouses his opinions on people, God and the relationship between them, with some stiff rhythm from Blixa. The organ still makes its presence known, but the main riff of the song is a gentle tapping on the piano, with Cave’s voice now in a higher register. At this point, he’s left much of the darkness behind and is more of a removed observer, wondering openly about his place in the world and very much concerned with the human element.

9) O Children (2004)

The song I have probably listened to more than any other by Cave. A slow-burning, full-band mantra beginning with “Pass me that lovely little gun…”, this was oddly included in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. As he discusses the arrival of “the cleaners” and mysteriously alludes to events of the past, the calm tempo is bolstered by some gospel backing vocals: “O Children/Lift up your voice”. Over ten or eleven verse, he spins a yarn that expounds on rebirth and moving forward on “the train that goes to the kingdom”, wondering “have you left a seat for me/is that such a stretch of the imagination?”

10) Water’s Edge (2013)

There were lots of songs I could have chosen off of their recent album (Push the Sky Away), as it also definitely featured a turning point in the Seeds’ sound once again. Rock has pretty much been left behind and the tempo has remained somewhat slow, with Warren Ellis and his violin and loops commanding much of the proceedings. This one struck me however, for the description of “the local boys” and “the girls from the capital” interacting at the water and the strange approach to drumming employed. Thomas Wydler does not hit a single skins in time with the music, but instead creates a flowing and ebbing tide of flailing bashes. He describes it all like some strange foreign ritual, rather than an everyday occurence – an incredible look on how Cave’s mind can distort what he sees in front of him. The girls with their “legs wide to the world/like bibles open” in mock damnation he proclaims, while adding to all the kids under his breath “yeah you grow old/and you grow cold”.

*The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party and Grinderman are on my list somewhere, but having fifteen albums to track Cave’s growth as a songwriter and artist within the confines of one particular group was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up!

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When the Beloved Bandmember Goes Solo

Lately, I’ve been re-listening to a lot of the Peter Hammill catalogue that I have, and the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the idea of being ‘really into’ a particular singer-songwriter with such a large body of work appeals to me greatly (as of 2014, Hammill has 35 solo albums to his name, and shows no signs of slowing down) – there’s quite a huge world to get lost in there, and enough to cover every mood and whim once I get a basic familiarity with it. The other reason, is that, quite, simply, I want more of the band that Hammill famously fronts, Van der Graaf Generator.

Van der Graaf has been my (co-)favourite band since I first heard them five or six years ago, and I have, quite simply, pretty much worn myself out on a large majority of their work. There is lots of stuff there for me to revisit whenever I feel the urge, but I’ve listened to it all many, many times. The particular albums I’ve been giving attention – Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage and In Camera – all stem from the 1972-1974 period where Van der Graaf was on hiatus, and so features a lot of actual collaboration with David Jackson (sax), Hugh Banton (organ) and Guy Evans (drums), each including one lengthy VDGG-style harrowing final track. Three new ten-minute tracks is a lot to gnaw on in terms of the band, so that itch has more or less been scratched. I do find myself, however, stricken by the same problem I had when entering Peter Gabriel’s solo oeuvre.

The Peter Gabriel era of Genesis is what got me into progressive rock in the first place, and I very much had the same pattern. I listened to the albums they put out during that time incessantly, but the point eventually came where I needed to find something else. Considering my main anchor for that stretch of albums was Gabriel’s voice, I decided the next place to turn was his solo stuff. If he’s the same guy, and he’s following on from this kind of pedigree, it must be similar, right? Wrong. Gabriel’s first album is a tour of styles, including the jangly “Solsbury Hill” and very much has Gabriel trying to write much more melodic and varied stuff, which baffled this dude hoping that the supply of ten-minute organ based epics was not ever going to run out.

Up and down the discography I went, always hitting the same block with “but this isn’t Genesis” rattling in my head. I would listen to it occasionally, but never quite got the same pleasure out of it that I would hope for. It wasn’t until coming back much later, having shaken the pure-prog yoke that I could approach this stuff with a new perspective and appreciation for what he was doing, rather than what he wasn’t. Even with that being said, I find Gabriel’s stuff takes a few listens to get into, but knowing that going in, it’s easier to reap the rich rewards for doing so (especially on the superb Us).

How then, do I get used to Hammill’s solo acoustic guitar songs, when he’s tearing the house down in a mad organ-drenched frenzy two songs later? It’s not that that composed a majority of his work either – he seems to relish the chance to use most instrumentals at his disposal with equal fervour – it’s just that hearing Hammill with only acoustic guitar as accompaniment still sounds oddly jarring to me, like it’s weirdly displaced after getting to know him as the eye of the storm of VDGG. I want to reach a place where I am not just trying to suck the Van der Graaf out of it, and am actually appreciating it for what it is, but that may take some time or just some listens. Such is the quandry of the solo artist post- or outside of the band they are more famous for. It’s a shadow that looms across the solo career of many (not necessarily for the negative, but often pigeonholing), but the jump fans make from band to artist can just as easily open their ears up given the one thing they are familiar with in a new context. Either way, it’s going to be a helluva ride. Despite some of the strangeness or strange-in-its-normality tunes that Hammill provides on his albums, I have yet to find one that’s been boring.

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La Règle du jeu

Welcome to my blog. Each year, I attempt to listen to one hundred albums of music that are new to me (and try to make sure I listen to some albums from the current year). This blog is going to be a document of the albums that I listen to, as well as my thoughts on them. I have absolutely no objective scale on which to rate these albums – just on how much I enjoyed them; also included will be an explanation as to why or why not, my prior history/knowledge of the band and other errata.

These albums will be in no particular order – there’s nothing stopping me from going on a five-album Duran Duran kick, for example (though I got that out of the way in 2012). For the most part though, it’ll just be based on whatever I hear is getting good reviews or what sounds interesting to me, who has a good album cover or album title.

Y’all come back real soon.