The other night I had the great opportunity to spend an evening at the Hollywood Bowl listening to the beautiful tones of one of my favorite piano concertos of all time, Brahms’ second from 1881, performed by the immensely talented Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as gifted piano player Emmanuel Ax. It’s a brilliant piece of music, and one of the longest piano concertos in the repertory. Brahms’ spent three years writing it, and his care and craft are apparent in the music from the opening melodic line to the closing material.
The piece begins with a huge opening movement, lasting nearly 17 minutes depending on variations in tempo. The pianist constantly fights for supremacy against the orchestra, and the two seem interlocked in a battle of the ages. Of course, these sorts of issues were clearly present in the social anxieties of the times, as the determination to be an exceptional and unique individual while still functioning as a part of society/the group creates problems. The paradox itself is perfectly presented in the genre, as the piano concerto has always seemed to be a two-part genre where pianist and orchestra are separate but equally important.
The second movement is a shock to the audience like no other. Tradition was that the concerto’s second movement be a slow movement to contrast with the faster opening movements. Hoping to extend his piano concerto to “Emperor” length and to hoist his composition into the canon, Brahms instead includes what he calls “a little wisp of a scherzo.” This statement deserves some sort of award for understatement of the century, as the second movement is a lengthy and tumultuous scherzo that brings even more energy and tension to the piece than the previous movement had.
The third movement finally reveals the slow movement that the audience had expected before being taken to other worlds in the preceding scherzo, but Brahms breaks tradition once again. This third movement begins with a gorgeous cello solo, taking all focus away from the “individual” of the piano and reminding that the orchestra must always be comprised of individuals as well.
The final movement is another thundering and whimsical movement, as the piano and orchestra trade musical phrases over and over until finally deciding to simply give their paradoxical fight a rest. The realization here is that in order to distinguish oneself as an individual or as a group, the opposite idea must also exist. Individuals do not exist without groups and groups do not exist without individuals. In their quest to destroy one another throughout the second piano concerto, the two become enlightened and realize that destroying their opposite would be to destroy their own identity. If only all conflict-resolutions sounded this gorgeous.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of digging deeper into the catalog of Fugazi, a post-hardcore punk band from Washington DC formed by ex-Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye and ex-Rites of Spring vocalist Guy Picciotto. Bands don’t get more authentically punk than Fugazi. While many punk bands fall dangerously close to being formulaic throughout their careers, Fugazi know the secret to true success in the scene, which is the ability to appropriate styles and consistently change faces. On one song, vocals will mimic the intense, intelligible shouting of hardcore punk bands like Black Flag. On another, they vocals will be powerful and crisp, miming the best aspects of Joe Strummer and The Clash.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is just how varied the band managed to be with their instrumentation, appropriating almost every style of punk, hardcore punk, and every punk genre beginning with the often vague qualifying adjective ‘post.’ The guitars go from simple power chords to sweetly melodic counter-melodies in the blink of an eye. The bass playing recalls the early punk-funk of Gang of Four or The Minutemen, demanding that you bob your head or dance to the rhythm. Perhaps the best album to incorporate all of their strengths as a band was their eighth studio album, 2001’s The Argument, which is certainly not just one of the best records of the last decade, but acts as one of the most perfect distillations of everything good about punk music and its rich history and legacy. Not since phony Beatlemania bit the dust had a band made such a compelling statement about the potential power of punk music.
Listen: Fugazi – “The Argument”
Well, here’s an interesting find. One reissue that happens to be causing quite a stir in the history books is Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat, an album by wedding band leader Charanjit Singh. Upon first hearing this record, you’ll find 10 smoothly psychedelic and danceable acid-house tracks that sound as if Aphex Twin or some other IDM producer had created them. And in fact, many people were initially calling foul on this record upon its reissue in April of this year, claiming it all to be an elaborate hoax. Why did it ruffle so many feathers? Because the record regarded to be the first acid-house recordings are Phuture’s Acid Trax, released in 1987. Yes, if Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat is the real deal, then it predates the first acid-house recordings by nearly five years.
Thanks to the internet and plenty of fact-checking historians andjournalists, we can know the truth. In fact, this record is not a hoax – unfortunately, following poor commercial sales upon its initial release, the album likely had little actual effect on the coarse of music history and the lineage of acid-house. The record was Singh’s only original composition, inspired by the sounds of disco that he heard coming from America at the time. Setting traditional indian ragas to these disco beats (as the title of the album makes plain), Singh managed to stumble upon an aesthetic sound that was years ahead of its time. As with most prescient recordings and compositions in the history of music, their full relevance cannot be appreciated until years later. Like Bach’s incredible baroque compositions, the music was forgotten until it was dug up at the right time.
What can we learn from this album? Perhaps there is a lesson in here about forgotten and ignored histories. Perhaps, thanks to the age of the internet, the presupposition of Western cultural ascendancy can be challenged and the walls built of arrogance can be torn down to reveal a truly global understanding of musical and cultural language. The rediscovery of this album reveals a startling truth: the deeper you dig and the harder you look, the more you can learn. Sometimes the true musical gems and truly marvelous discoveries are hiding where you would have never thought to look, and historical ‘certainties’ should always be questioned and verified, but pliable enough to accept change.
Listen: Charanjit Singh – “Raga Bhairav”
I’m a day late in posting this, but it is absolutely necessary. Happy Birthday, Elliott. We miss you.
Steven Paul “Elliott” Smith was a singer-songwriter born in Omaha, Nebraska, on August 6th 1969. He passed away tragically October 21st, 2003, apparently by suicide (though some conspiracy theorists refuse to believe it). Primarily a proficient guitarist in the vein and style of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith was also a talented piano player, clarinetist, bassist, drummer, and harmonica player. His most powerful instrument, however, was that voice. Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it. Like a gentle whisper, Smith’s gorgeous voice was pure and fragile, with a vocal delivery that has been described as spiderweb-thin. He often overdubbed his vocals on his tracks to create brilliant vocal harmonies which suited his voice and intuitively strong melodic style. As a songwriter, Smith’s songs will break your heart almost every time you hear them. He will not be quickly forgotten, and his back-catalogue is rich and vast for anybody who wishes to find their new favorite artist. Below is a quick retrospective of Elliott Smith’s discography as a solo singer-songwriter (he was a part of rock band Heatmiser before going solo).
Elliott’s first solo album was never intended for full release. Thinking he was only going to get a deal for a 7 inch release, this 30 minute slice of brilliance was immediately snatched up by Cavity Search Records upon hearing it, despite Smith’s initial reluctance. The lo-fi sound gives Smith’s voice a haunting atmosphere, as he recorded the songs entirely on a four-track recorder in his girlfriend’s basement.
Listen: Elliott Smith – “No Name #2”
Smith’s second full-length release as a solo artist was his first flash of brilliance. Stark and entirely acoustic, the album is one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the 90s, including classic songs like “Needle in the Hay” and “Christian Brother.” His intricate guitar picking never sounded as raw as it did here, but his songwriting skills were only going to improve (if you can believe it).
This is Elliott Smith’s undeniable masterpiece and the single best place for new fans to start. Not only did Smith start writing the best lyrics of his career on this album, but he cleaned up the sound just enough to let his voice and guitar shine through magnificently. When it comes to Elliott Smith, this album reveals treasures on the first listen and even the fiftieth. If you’ve never heard this stone-cold classic, do yourself a huge favor and get a copy, then put it on on a rainy day or in the dead silence of night.
Compositionally speaking, this album is one of Smith’s most complex. The vocal melodies are less immediate than those on its predecessor, and the thing just feels a whole lot more textured than anything he had ever put his name on before. But, there’s no denying the instantly classic feel of songs like “Sweet Adeline” and “Waltz #2.” The songs include more instruments than previously had been featured on any Elliott Smith album, but to great results.
Listen: Elliott Smith – “Sweet Adeline”
Elliott Smith was the first singer to emulate The Beatles sense of melody almost perfectly in his songs, and nowhere did he show off that skill more than with this album, which might as well be Smith’s Abbey Road. There are more memorable tunes here than on probably any of his albums, like the fantastic kiss-off “Somebody That I Used To Know” and the heartbreaking “Easy Way Out.”
Elliott Smith left behind an incomplete album when he passed away, and his family hired his former producer Rob Shnapf and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme to gather tracks together and put the finishing touches on the songs. It’s not as bright as its predecessor, but these 15 tracks represent an incredible collection of songs that showed Elliott Smith wasn’t even close to losing his momentum. The final result, as Smith sings on one of the album’s highlights, is a fond farewell to a friend.
Listen: Elliott Smith – “Coast To Coast”
Digging into the archives of unreleased tunes by Elliott Smith, nobody could have imagined that a double-album of gems could have been the result. Most artists have b-sides that are for completists only; Elliott Smith’s b-sides would represent a career highlight for most artists. We can only hope that there are more archives of unreleased material as good as songs like “Either/Or” and the magnificent cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen.”
Listen: Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”
Tonight was a big night for hip-hop music videos, as two powerhouses of the industry revealed music videos, both taking very different approaches. Let’s look closely at both and see what we can determine from both.
First, we have Kanye West’s “Portrait of Power,” which he described on his new twitter as “a portrait…not a video!” Watching the 90 second clip, it becomes instantly clear why Kanye would say this. The video is a hyper-stylized art piece that barely function as traditional video at all: it’s more like a picture infused with touches of motion, like the flowing of hair and the slightest movements taking place as two men fly through the air, poised to separate Kanye’s head from his body, thereby liberating his ego from its worldly constraints. The portrait begins with a close up on Kanye, adorned with the heaviest looking bling I’ve ever seen hanging around his neck, and the camera slowly pans out to reveal more and more detail, until finally an art-scene not far removed from the detail that adorns the Sistine Chapel is revealed. All the while, the first single from West’s upcoming as-yet-untitled fifth album plays in the background, which finds West back in prime form as he raps over a chanting choir and a sample of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” As art, there are clearly multiple meanings to be taken away from this and that will be argued fervently by fans, but it lacks entertainment value. West is clearly thinking on a higher artistic plain here. Frankly, this bodes extremely well for the upcoming album – the last time West really pushed himself to be the greatest was on his masterpiece, 2005’s sprawling Late Registration. If West is back to those levels of artistic output, the upcoming LP is a contender for album of the year.
In the other corner, we have rap megastar Eminem revealing the music video for his incredible “Love The Way You Lie,” featuring a hook courtesy of pop songstress Rihanna. Following two rough albums, Eminem is finally back on track with his latest (aptly titled Recovery), and “Lie” is the finest song he’s penned in ages, showing the capacity to have emotion better than he ever has before. The video, featuring Hollywood cuties Meghan Fox and Dominic Monaghan, is a gripping portrait of a relationship that can only be defined as truly love-hate, with passionate and heartfelt performances by both Fox and Monaghan. Rihanna pulls off her scenes with a fiery intensity like I have never seen from her: the raw emotion with which she sings “just gonna stand there and watch me burn?” shows that she is drawing on past experiences to fuel her performance, and the audience is reminded of how quickly her world fell apart following the infamous incident with R&B singer Chris Brown by the burning buildings surrounding her throughout. Eminem, smartly, doesn’t just want to take center-stage and play the victim in his video like Kanye does in his. Instead, he sits back and raps, alone in a huge field, perhaps symbolizing the anguish and pain of being alone with thoughts in his head that stem from that weird place that makes humans hurt the people they love most. The video, as a whole, is tense, gripping, and emotionally forthright, and the traditional medium is suitable for a song that is as radio-ready as anything Marshall Mathers has ever put to tape.
So, what’s the verdict on these two videos? Personally, I am going to give the upper hand to Eminem’s powerful clip, which will draw you in and leave you on the edge of your seat from the moment you press play. You’ll admire Kanye’s “Portrait of Power” for its ambition and its non-traditional structure, but you’ll probably enjoy Eminem and crew more as a piece of entertainment.
Watch the two videos at the links below:
Every so often, a record will drop in my lap that is simply and truly unique. It’ll be something that has its feet firmly planted on the solid ground of a rich musical past, but the ideas will be jumbled and rearranged in ways that aren’t traditional. This year there have only been a handful of records that feel truly unique and ground-breaking from a stylistic point of view: Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma, These New Puritans’ Hidden, and Sleigh Bells’ Treats are all records that come to mind. All questions of artistic merit aside, these records took the sounds of the past and filtered them through interesting aesthetic choices. Flying Lotus took electronic IDM and hip hop beats and mixed them with space-prog and jazz for a turbulent record that takes you on a journey past the planets and into the outer realms of the human imagination. These New Puritans took tribal drums from Japan and mixed it with the traditions of electro-rock and Western classical orchestrations, churning out a huge record in the process. Sleigh Bells took hardcore punk, glitchy hip hop beats, and bubblegum pop and somehow made them compatible.
We can add a newcomer to this list: Hidden Lands by Candy Claws. Hidden Lands takes the weightless atmosphere of chillwave, the ethereal vocals of dream pop, and Brian Wilson’s best chamber-pop orchestrations a la Pet Sounds, and mashes them all together, creating a record that sounds like a trip across the sun-soaked beaches of a fantasy world only imagined in the wonderful imaginations of innocent youth. It’s hard not to get lost in the beautiful and dramatic soundscapes, with vocal performances that are so beautiful and gentle that they are instantly accessible. If the feeling of falling asleep had a soundtrack, Candy Claws have made it.
Compositionally, Hidden Lands is remarkable for a few reasons. Firstly, every song is made up of many parts (the band tours as an eight-piece act), so the feeling of orchestral grandeur is prominent for the whole record. The vocals, however, are so intimate and gorgeous that you feel like you aren’t being overwhelmed by an orchestra but rather eased into a welcoming dream-state. Candy Claws have taken Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and made it pop music. If Kevin Shields had tried to make Pet Sounds, the result would have sounded like Hidden Lands.
The band has also stated that each song on this album contains a musical sample from one of the other songs, making this record interestingly post-modern in the sense that one cannot determine the origins of the samples at all. This fact leads listeners to a classic chicken-or-the-egg paradox, but this time it is a paradox of composition: from which song did the sample originate? The songs blend seamlessly, all interconnected on a deep compositional level. You can’t fault their ideas, even if the sonic nuggets used as samples are difficult to find. There are hidden treasures aplenty on this psychedelic masterpiece.
Then there’s the lyrics, which are not “written” by the band in the traditional sense of composing lyrical content. After selecting passages from Richard M. Ketchum’s book The Secret Life of the Forest, the band ran them through translation software on the internet, translating the passages back and forth between English and Japanese until they reached an equilibrium where no further changes were made in the translating process. The lyrics represent a weird poetry that are derived from technology and language, creating art in the process. It’s a remarkably interesting way to ‘write’ lyrics for an album, but it yields captivating poetry that suits the music perfectly: “Trees, like all other forms of life, trace their origins back to the sea” becomes “Tree of life in the sea.”
It’s an album that raises interesting questions about the nature of art and the nature of pop music, stretching the definition of “intellectual property” to include plagiarized passages that have been translated and transformed, while also stretching the boundaries of pop music to include something so beautiful and remarkably fresh and unique. You have to hear this.
Listen: Candy Claws – “Sunbeam Show”