Monday, March 20, 2017

(One of) Chuck Berry's Perfect Song(s) - Too Much Monkey Business

too much monkey business

I'm not sure what I could possibly say about Chuck Berry that hasn't been said better. There's always dispute about the origins of rock n roll, but only if you get into splitting hairs about very specific elements of it or just don't know what the fuck your're talking about. But if you listen closely, all the most important pieces were laid out by Berry. Musically, lyrically and culturally, you can draw a line from Chuck Berry to just about any rock artist since the 50s. As a matter fact, I'll take a step further and say you can draw that line straight to hip hop as well. He was creating his own legend from the very beginning - "Johnny B. Goode" was all about him. He used hip lingo and even made up words. Several of his songs used a talking blues structure that can arguably be considered rapping. But I won't go into anymore and instead make this about what I think is his best song and covers just about everything I think he brought to the world - "Too Much Monkey Business."

As soon as this kicks off, you get that quintessential early rock sound with the guitar, upright bass, drums and piano, all bouncing hard. Then he goes right into what I believe may be the earliest example of recorded rhyme spitting, complete with the "ahh" at the end of each line. If you're not feeling his frustration, you're not listening. Just amazing. Lyrically he's basically had it with all the bullshit, which is not only rebellious, but it's the slacker call to inaction of the grunge era and beyond. And if that wasn't enough, that first guitar solo does something that is almost imperceptible and that I somehow didn't notice until I was listening to the song one day last year. There's a sudden increase in tempo that makes this thing bubble with nervous angst in a way that the 50s wasn't ready to explore fully, but would eventually be the bread and butter of rock. Then it all comes together with the line "I don't want your botheration, get away, leave me be." Perfect.

It's amazing how even though this man was revered and actually did get a lot of credit and respect, he somehow didn't get enough recognition. And I don't even mean in the sense of how so many black artists didn't get recognized for their contributions in favor of the white artists that followed. I mean as a musician and an artist in general. It's easy to overlook what Berry did as simplistic and maybe get lost in some nostalgic fantasy about "music back then" or whatever. But the reality is that his music is timeless. It's still alive in just about everything you hear, but beyond that, listen closely to his technique, his delivery, his lyrical poetry. The man was a master, full stop. And "Too Much Monkey Business" is only one of his perfect songs. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

August and Everything After

august and everything after

In the past few years I've been rediscovering the 90s. I guess it's just part of middle age to do this, but as I've mentioned before, for me that period comes with the emotional complexity of regret and depression as much as it does with the idea of reliving my youth. Recently I was reminded of one album I heard a whole hell of a lot back then that I had somehow, not forgotten, but put away in my mind. Listening to Counting Crows' August and Everything After again recently, several times, has made me really love this album a lot again in a way that is different than how I usually remember my 90s, and I think it's because what I mostly remember about this album now is how musically great it is.

Back in 93, there was a lot of this hippy, jammy thing going on with bands trying to be "authentic" in a way that really is much like what many hipster bands do now. There was this folky coffeehouse Americana flavor that came through in everything from Blues Traveler to Toad The Wet Sprocket and everything in between. As time passed and it all became commodified and turned into cliche, it got old and I pretty much wrote Counting Crows into that same chapter of history. Except the thing is, this album actually is authentic, without the quotes. It still holds up - the music, the poetry of the lyrics, even the earnestness of Adam Duritz voice, which can sometimes feel like a bit much, has an honesty to it that comes through.

Everyone knows "Mr. Jones" and it's "Brown Eyed Girl" evoking "shalalala" chorus. It was certainly overplayed and likely responsible for the explosion of this sort of thing to the point of obnoxiousness. But that is only the most recognizable song on this album and not even close to being the best. Even though if you pay attention to the lyrics, "Mr. Jones" is far from a happy little tune, in the context of the rest of this album, it's practically a party anthem. Not that the album is necessarily depressing, but it's even at it's moments of hope come with melancholy. And that, right there, is why I love this album. It's grey. It's almost as if it just starts raining in the room whenever I hear it. But it's not unbearable. From the opening lines of "Round Here" and beyond, it's drizzling mood that is somehow sad without drowning you. It inspires meditation, but not a new agey bullshit type of meditation. Just real contemplation.

Back then, I think this album helped me much more than I ever realized. That mood I just described may have very well kept me going through times that felt much darker. I always look back on those times with a certain sense of longing. I'm sure I've read somewhere that depression can become addictive. That the intensity of the sadness becomes a lure from numbness. But this album is one of the things that kept me from drowning. It kept me feeling without wallowing. I don't know. I just vaguely and subconsciously remember a sense of hope from lyrics like "I wanted the ocean to cover over me. I wanna sink slowly without getting wet. Maybe someday, I won't be so lonely. And I'll walk on water every chance I get." from "Time and Time Again" one of my favorite tracks on this album. And then there's "Rain King" which can best be summed up in this verse:
"Mama, why am I so alone?
I can't go outside
I'm scared I might not make it home
I'm alive but I'm sinking in
If there's anyone at home at your place
Why don't you invite me in
Don't try to bleed me
I've been there before and I deserve a little more."
The band sounds tight throughout the album, and the dynamic range is pretty great. I think I need to get this on vinyl now. And look deeper into the rest of their catalog, since I don't remember them after this. Although while writing this I looked up some videos of them playing live from back then, including on VH1's Storytellers and, let's just say I almost erased this entire post because I was somewhat annoyed. I guess this is one of those cases where it's better to just listen to the album and let my mind fill in the blanks, judging the music on its own merits.

Monday, January 30, 2017

First on First - Black Sabbath

first on first

Imagine it's 1970, you go to the record store and this creepy album cover with the name Black Sabbath catches your eye. Is that the band? The title? Is this the soundtrack to the movie?  If I touch this, will I be possessed by demons? Maybe. Or maybe you'd heard of them in passing, briefly, but nobody was playing their music on the radio and you didn't have access to any bootlegs of their John Peel session from the previous year or really even knew about it. There was no Internet so it's not like this kind of thing spread that quickly or pervasively. You are scared and intrigued by the cover, and you tend to be a little adventurous when buying music, so you buy it, getting maybe a concerned look from the old man behind the register, run home and drop the needle on the record, and instantly the world is never the same again. And I'm not even talking about the whole album, just the first song - "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath on Black Sabbath.

Rain, thunder, bells and then dread. I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear anything that sounded quite like this before the arrival of Sabbath. Sure, there were some acid influenced, heavy bands and theatrical, progressive acts with dark sounds (Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Arthur Brown, etc) but none of them came close to the level of doom and evil Sabbath captured just in their very first song.Whether it's Iommi's sinister guitar chord invoking demons from hell, the rolling bass and ceremonial drums of Butler and Ward, Ozzy's vacant and haunting/haunted voice or all of this and more, coming together, the chills are instant. Then there's that pace of the verses, so slow and creepy, before the icing on the Satanic cake as Ozzy screams out in very real terror "OH NO!!" Those screams are, in my view, a huge part of his legacy, bringing a sense of outright terror and agony to all his songs, and it's there from the very beginning.

boris karloff

The album as a whole shows a bit more range, and includes what may be my actual favorite Sabbath tune, "N.I.B." which somehow manages to balance groove, blues and doom in a way I still don't fully understand. That the album was basically recorded live in one day is just further fuel for the legendary status of the album and the band. But as far as first songs on first albums go, "Black Sabbath" is iconic in every possible way. It's a mission statement like no other. That mission is, of course, led by Satan and you were either scared shitless by the invitation or you were enticed by the darkness and rewarded for it. Guess which one I am.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

La Santa Cecilia at Gusman Concert Hall

When I first started this blog it was meant to be about how music affected me. How certain songs or just moments in songs triggered sometimes mysterious emotional responses in me. It came from the fact that since I was a kid, there were always songs that would make me cry hysterically even if I didn't have a clue what they were about. I since have learned there is actually a psychology theory on this and that it has to do with high levels of empathy in some people that makes them respond emotionally to art. Last night, seeing La Santa Cecilia at The University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall, I had what is probably the most intense moment of empathic response I've had in decades.

The Gusman Concert Hall at UM's Frost School of Music is one of the best secret venues in Miami. Its intimate size and cozy acoustics make performances there feel very personal without being constrained. It's not a fancy venue where the lighting might transport you somewhere. This is all about the music and the performers being right there, literally within reach, with no barrier between you and them either literal or figurative. We were in the first row, but I can't see how the experience would be that much different for those in the last row. 

I first heard La Santa Cecilia a few years ago and I'm not sure now if it was their Tiny Desk Concert or if I heard them on the Alt Latino podcast, also from NPR. Either way, I instantly loved their sound. They blend multiple Latin sounds from Cumbia, Rancheras, Boleros and more, with Rock, Soul and R&B. And last night I realized there's also a lot of Jazz in there that somehow glues all the pieces together. It never feels forced in any way and the balance between all of these genres is so perfect that it never feels like an experiment or anything other than authentic. And on top of the great players in this band (more on them in a bit) is the voice of Marisol "La Marisoul" Hernandez, with a voice that is equal parts passion, power and pride and communicates joy and anguish with every note and syllable, sometimes simultaneously. 

From the opener "Sucede" off their 2016 release Buenaventura, which is nominated for Best Pop/Rock Album Latin Grammy this year, I was struck by how tight they were as a group and how connected they are to each other and what they are doing. Song after song, their intensity and joy was coming through in their playing. Alex Bendana's bass was the ever present groove that flowed through everything. It was his playing, during the intro to "Falling" that first made me notice the jazz in their sound although I instantly felt like I should have noticed it all along in all of it, including some of Marisol's melodies. And of course the entire band was in sync, from Andres Torres on drums and Miguel "Oso" Ramirez on percussion to Marco Sandoval on Electric Guitar, who played a scorching solo at one point that had everyone headbanging. Orale.

But the moment that hit me was all about Marisol and Jose "Pepe" Carlos - accordionist and requinto player and in many ways, I think the member of the band that most anchors them to their traditional Latin roots. Before they played this song, Marisol gave an impassioned speech on love, off mic and clearly heard, saying she believed in love and how important it is for everyone to show love in these times of so much hate. As she spoke, her voice was already wavering and I already felt the intensity building in my eyes. She didn't only mean every word, she was feeling it and projecting it. Then, with only Bendana's bass and Carlos on requinto, they went into "Como Dios Manda" and I could literally see the tears rolling down her cheek as she sang. It turns out that the emotion that comes through in her voice on those albums is beyond real. I have no idea if she was going through something or if that song has so much personal meaning to her or if this is just how she approaches her art - by throwing herself into the moment full on - or maybe all of those. The point is, for that moment, the intimacy of the room, the raw nakedness of her emotions, the beauty of the song itself and the message of the lyrics all combined and I was right there, connected to her somehow through this song. I felt myself losing control and then, half way through the song, she went off mic and Carlos disconnected from the amp and she sob-sang the rest of the song in a way I've never seen anybody do before. I didn't look around, because as far as I was concerned the room had disappeared and there was only the song, the performers and me, but there couldn't have been a dry eye in the house. They finished the song, she wiped her tears and I tried to collect myself as everyone stood. Absolutely beautiful.

They went on to play several more songs, including "Amar y Vivir,"(above, shot by Carlos) a beautiful, traditional bolero written by Consuelo Velazquez.  The rest was mostly upbeat and heavy on the cumbia, a genre I've really come to appreciate a lot in recent years. They ended with their version of "Strawberry Fields" which is probably my favorite cover of that song ever, bringing new interpretations with each verse in a way that fits the self-interruptions of Lennon's lyrics as well as the piecemeal style of George Martin's production on the original recording (music nerd moment). When they ended, everyone wanted more and I did what I've never done, screaming out my request for "En Fin." I didn't get that request fulfilled, but I'd be a real entitled dick if I felt disappointed because of it. After the show we met most of the band and they were beyond humble, gracious and friendly. I do wish I'd met Marisol so I could have thanked her for giving so much of herself in that moment and allowing us to feel that with her. It's a moment that will stay with me.