I have to admit that I am loving this little project. After spending all of my adult life to this point focusing on and obsessing about current music, this is my first honest effort to look at the roots of our culture's best music. The education I've gotten in the past few weeks alone has been gratifying and overdue. If this is what 2014 will be like, this may be my best year yet. It will probably be my busiest year as well. As you may know, I'm working on my third album Held Momentarily (which is slowly but surely taking shape). Last week, I also got a new, full-time job that I will start next week. So with that I will be learning what so many artists must--how to balance a day job, while still pushing forward with creative aspirations. Just to keep things interesting, I think I will be starting my Masters program this year. That's a lot of juggling--but I feel like I'm ready. Let's spin those plates!
If last week was difficult because of the artists' voices, this week proved challenging more for the duration of each game-changing, double-album project.
The Who - Tommy
This album reaffirmed my thoughts that you have to listen to an album at least three times before you can really judge it--especially left-field, ground-breaking albums like this one.
On first listen, I was definitely more like "What the hell is this?" Maybe even still upon second listen.
My friend Christa stayed with us last weekend. I told her about this project, and which albums I was focusing on this week. She told me that Tommy is her dad's favorite album of all time. Of. All. Time. I guess that made me work past my initial confusion about the album, and look for something deeper that would inspire such an enduring devotion.
The thing that stands out most to me about this album, especially as a songwriter, is the attempt to have a single narrative throughout the entire record--being the first "rock opera" ever created. It really takes the idea of a "concept album" and pushes it to its limits. I'll admit I had to read more about the story line separately from the music for it to make more sense. It's odd stuff. Really odd.
There are melodies here, though, that are simply beautiful. 1921 is such a pleasant melody, even after realizing that it's a song about how the "deaf, dumb, and blind" boy's father kills his stepfather in front of him to reclaim his wife, causing Tommy to close his senses down in order to keep this family secret hidden. There a beautiful harmonies as well, as in Cousin Kevin (even while this time they're describing the abuse of Tommy by his less-than-loving cousin). I especially love the swirling counterpoint of the line "I'm the school bully, the class room cheat."
This album is classified widely as a "hard rock" album. When I think of hard rock, I think more toward the heavy metal end of the spectrum. So, what's the difference between hard and heavy? Or between regular rock and hard rock? There is a definite strut and confidence throughout much of the music here. Is that what you mean when you say hard? I can imagine using some of these tracks as, say, the soundtrack for my initial approach to my new job in order to bolster my confidence. Or playing I'm Free as I leave the office on Friday (is it just me, or does Roger Daltrey's vocal delivery here remind you of Win Butler from Arcade Fire)?
So much of this album is instrumental, which is difficult for me as a singer--but that seems to be my theme for this week (since the second album, below, is completely instrumental). The musicianship here is irrefutable, and bombastic. Underture is the longest track (coming in at 10:05 minutes long), an instrumental portraying Tommy's attempt at a hallucinogenic cure. You would think that they would really turn up the psychedelia in order to convey that--but there is so much restraint, gone are the "trippy" effect pedals or studio wizardry, relying on the music itself to express the experience instead. That trippy moment is successfully saved for Smash The Mirror, the moment when Tommy regains his senses due to a second trauma of having his beloved mirrors broken in anger by his parent. Check out that track at about 1:19 (just after the somewhat corny glass break sample) as the expansive echo, drone and cymbal roll suggests his climactic healing.
Another of my favorite production elements of the record is the maniacal ha-ha-ha-ha background vocals on the song Christmas (especially when they come back in at 3:44, this time passed through some cool tremolo effect, most rewarding in headphones). I also love the rawness of Pete Townshend's vocals on the lines "See me. Feel me. Touch me. Heal me." And its powerful reprise in the song Go To The Mirror!
The album kind of flies off the rails as Tommy is healed, becomes a famous pinball-playing guru, whose pervy Uncle Ernie creates a new "holiday camp" to capitalize on his nephew's fame, that ultimately disappoints his new legion of followers (or "comfortable people"), leaving Tommy to retreat back into his own senses.
Who doesn't love a happy ending??
Miles Davis - Bitches Brew
There is so much to study in the album cover art alone (by artist Mati Klarwein)! I had to include above the reverse-side of the gatefold cover, which I had never seen before. It's so haunting, beautiful, mystical, and complex like the music therein.
Where to begin with this one? I guess I should admit that, although I went to Berklee College of Music (a school very steeped in jazz theory), I never really got into jazz--although I do love jazz chords, intervals and vocals very deeply. I think a lot of jazz is impenetrable, and often intentionally so. A lot of times, it's a lot of "Look what I can do"--which is not what draws me to music or musicians. How quickly you play your melodic lines and scales is impressive--but it's not music to me.
I've heard the names of the musicians here many times, but never spent much time with them. I mean, I know a little of Miles' work, having fallen in love with Kind of Blue in my little bit of exploration during my Berklee days. I've heard of Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, and Bennie Maupin--but I wouldn't be able to pick them out if you played me a sample of their work.
Bitches Brew is the birth of jazz fusion. I had to, again, read more about this album online in an effort to gain context. A lightbulb went off in my head when I realized that there are two keyboard players (sometimes three) and two drummers--all panned hard left and right to separate the different players. Add to that a soprano sax, bass clarinet, electric guitar, percussion, bass (sometimes two), and it's no wonder that this cauldron of jammy music is a lot to process, and often overwhelming.
But then Miles' muted trumpet comes in, sometimes with a cool echo effect that is such a new sound that you can't help but to be impressed. Listen to his choices in melody. His lines, phrasing, blasts, repetitions--but even more importantly his long silences, as he allows his collaborators to wax and wane. As they build utter chaos, the trumpet comes in all cool and drenched in sex appeal--like a beautiful, shapeshifting kite sent up into foreboding skies: flashes of lightning, gusts of wind, people rushing to get under cover (especially in the 27 minute title track Bitches Brew). This music somehow communicates what anxiety in New York City often feels like--many interesting, conflicting thoughts rushing around, each competing for your focus, each taking over the senses, and Miles' melodies are like that wise inner voice that reassures: "There, there. This too shall pass."
In the early aughts, I was given a DVD of The Miles Davis Story (which you can watch in its entirety on the you tubes)--it remained in my possession for over a decade, left wrapped-up and unwatched. After listening to this album for the third time, I was inspired to finally break that seal, and drop the disc onto the player's tray. The film covers his entire career, showing his professional ebbs and flows, his musical exploration, his struggles with addiction, and his personal life (warts and all). It was worth the wait. The film shed light on these sessions, and further explained why this period came about and why it was so important.
I'm again glad I took the time to get past my initial rejection for both of these records. They are both so far outside of what I would usually gravitate toward. While I don't think I'll be dropping the needle on either of these again any time soon, I have a lot of respect for what was achieved by both records.