Tanya Tagaq: Animism (pt. 1)

tagaq

Dear Matt:

This week, you’re getting an album that I have absolutely no idea how you will respond to. Seriously, this could go to either extreme. Because Tanya Tagaq is not an artist who inspires bland indifference. Your assignment is Animism, Tagaq’s much remarked-upon third album. You know this album by reputation from its historic Polaris Prize win, where it beat two of Canada’s most significant musical exports: Drake and Arcade Fire. Rightly so.

What you’ll be hearing is, in my view, one of the most remarkable musical fusions in recent years. What I hear on Animism is a blend of industrial electronica and noise art, with a generous dash of free jazz and — most crucially — a variant of Inuit throat singing that only one person in the world can do.

As you’ll know if you’ve read anything in the Canadian music press in the last two years, Tagaq is an Inuk icon. Her vocal technique is derived from a traditional style of throat singing where two women face each other and sing together. Tagaq’s innovation was finding a way to produce those sounds on her own. And, you know, incorporating them into industrial music.

Tagaq is an intensely political artist and an eloquent commentator on aboriginal issues. (The tweets she sent out after the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission came out are an education in themselves.) As such, most of what’s been written about her music has focussed on the political elements of her art. That’s a valid and important approach to take — far be it from me to sideline that aspect of what Tagaq does.

But the side effect of that approach is that Tagaq sometimes doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a musician and an aesthete. The fact that Tagaq’s music relates deeply to her heritage and the current political struggles facing aboriginal peoples in Canada is a significant part of why she and Animism are great. But it’s also just massively good music, when you’re in the right headspace for it. It’s got drama and tension and changes mood on a dime. It’s brilliantly paced, with slow burns and payoffs strategically distributed throughout. And it has that timbral variety I was talking about last week.

So: a bit on what you can expect to hear.

Animism is anchored around a central trio of musicians: Tagaq, violinist/producer Jesse Zubot, and drum virtuoso Jean Martin. There’s all sorts of stuff piled on top of them on most tracks: industrial-sounding synths on ‘Uja,’ operatic vocals by Anna Pardo Canedo on ‘Flight,’ horns and strings on the Pixies cover that the album starts with for some reason. (It really is a fantastic cover, though. One of those ones that nearly makes the original obsolete.)

But for me, the most satisfying moments on the album are on tracks like ‘Tulugak’ and ‘Damp Animal Spirits,’ where you get to hear the central trio performing basically unadorned improvisations. Tagaq is always in the lead, but the other two are always doing something interesting, too. Martin in particular gives one of the most entrancing drum performances I’ve heard in awhile.

Animism is not an album that goes out of its way to be likeable, much to its credit. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself loving it all the same. I think you will too, at least in parts. But I could be wrong. This is way the hell out there. Channel the part of yourself that thinks that ‘Night Swim’ is good music and you should be fine.

— Matthew

The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 2)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matt:

Alright. It’s past midnight on a Saturday; I slept in this morning; I’ve been idly passing the time all day. Basically, feeling great. Time to pour myself a wee dram of the Glenmorangie and check out these Science Siblings you keep going on about. Okay. (Ah, that’s nice scotch.) Going to start this right now.

***

Holy crap.

Well, I’m staggered. That had everything. Seriously, what doesn’t this album have? I’m glad you had me watch the video, because it only added to the sensory overload. There’s a famous editorial cartoon about Mahler (my favourite composer, you’ll recall) that I suspect is relevant here:

mahler-cartoon-1907

(The caption reads, approximately: ‘My god! I forgot to include the kitchen sink! I’d better write another symphony.’)

There is nothing I appreciate more than complete sensory overload. That is a characteristic that’s common across my whole taste profile, from music to movies to radio programs. To demonstrate how deep it goes, and by extension how well Further worked on me, I need to engage in a little musical autobiography. Bear with me.

The first music that I remember liking, way back when I was too young to make musical choices for myself and I just heard whatever my parents had on, was always either dominated by orchestras or synthesizers. It was slim pickings for orchestral music: usually either Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks or Yanni Live at the Acropolis — music that I categorically rejected as soon as I discovered Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. (I remain ashamed enough of these early taste indiscretions that I can’t even bear to link to Lloyd Webber or Yanni. This speaks more negatively about me than about either of them, I suspect.)

But the synthesizer selections were immediately more promising: I remember an immediate affinity for Vangelis — particularly his collaborations with Jon Anderson — and for Rick Wakeman. This led swiftly to an obsession with Yes, and subsequently to my entire adolescent identity.

But the thing that those early fascinations pointed towards — even the inauspicious pop orchestral stuff — was an obsession with what I’ll call timbral variety. The orchestral music had scores of different instruments with their own unique sounds working in tandem. The synthesizer music seemed to work towards the same goal with different tools. There was a ‘muchness’ to it, even when it was subtle and quiet.

And most of the music that I’ve intuitively loved over the years shares that same muchness. Prog was always partially defined by its expansion of the typical rock ensemble to include racks of keyboards, wind sections, auxiliary percussion and tape. Psychedelia is almost wholly defined by its sonic variety. The jazz I like tends not to be quartets and quintets, but rather stuff like Mingus, or electric Miles. And my preference in classical music has always been for huge orchestras used judiciously in the vein of Mahler, or indeed John Luther Adams.

Radiohead. Amon Tobin. Kanye. CHVRCHES.

It’s only comparatively recently that I’ve begun to appreciate music that operates with a smaller sonic palate: old-school rock, string quartets, combo jazz. And yes, punk.

I hadn’t heard the Chemical Brothers before, and I’m not at all well-versed in techno. All the same, listening to Further really felt like home. I may not have a tumultuous summer of 2010 to look back on, but I do have an entire life story scored by sonically massive, grandiose music like this. It felt like a walk through all of the elements I have ever appreciated in music in the past. I’m reminded of my brief dalliance with Tangerine Dream, much to my friends’ confusion. I’m reminded of the period when old Yes records were the centre of my universe. I’m reminded of the hours spent listening to Vangelis as a child and thinking ‘how does one guy make all those sounds?’

And the trip down memory lane culminates in an insight — a minor one, but an insight nonetheless: music has been the central throughline of my life because of its capacity to overwhelm.

The Chemical Brothers overwhelmed me. Basically, feeling great.

— Matthew

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (pt. 1)

Ziggy

Dear Matt:

Lately, I am obsessed with Todd Haynes’s glorious, thinly-veiled David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine. It’s got everything that I look for in a movie, including fantastic music. Of course, none of the music is actually by Bowie, because he loathed the screenplay and refused to allow the use of his songs. Thus, Velvet Goldmine is scored with a spectacular mix of great tracks from A- through C-list glam icons who are not David Bowie. And, any movie with this many Brian Eno songs is pretty much guaranteed to grace my top ten for at least a short while.

I was thinking about just giving you the soundtrack, in the hope that you’d go on to watch the movie. But then I realized that hearing the soundtrack, or indeed seeing the film, would be a strange experience without you having experienced the music that haunts the liminal space at the edge of its narrative: Bowie’s classic tale of love, eschatology and gay space aliens, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So, that’s what you’re getting this week.

In 1972, Bowie was already something of a known quantity, but hadn’t attained any semblance of his later fame. Even so, he’d already been through at least one major stylistic change. This would happen again and again with Bowie. Even at this early point in his career, Bowie was aware of his impulse to change constantly and radically. It’s the subject of one of his most famous tunes.

By this point, he’d had a massive hit with ‘Space Oddity,’ and a couple of acclaimed albums. But Bowie was about to break through in a big way, thanks to the gradual development of his first consistent stage persona: Ziggy Stardust, the gender-bending extraterrestrial who brought everything that the early glam rockers like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had built to its logical conclusion. Ziggy was new and exciting in a way that couldn’t not connect in the radical, post-hippie England of 1972. And he sang some great tunes.

Ziggy arguably predates the album that bears his name, but it’s this album that codifies him and his mythology — albeit vaguely, as we’ll see. Ziggy Stardust has guitar-driven cock rock, ultra-camp torch songs and inexplicable harpsichord. It is poetic at times, and self-consciously dumb at others. For an album with such iconic, mainstream status, it is very, very strange.

Way back when you assigned me Deltron 3030, you pointed out that it wasn’t like a traditional concept album in that it doesn’t have a distinct narrative arc. Well, that applies just as much to this particular traditional concept album. Ziggy Stardust posits a version of the 1970s where the world is set to end in five years. Suddenly, the radio airwaves are invaded by the cosmic rock ‘n’ roll of an androgynous Martian of indistinct and mutable sexuality. Ziggy Stardust’s revolutionary space music preaches a gospel of universal love and banging whoever the hell you want, regardless of normative social codes. In Earth’s final moments, Ziggy gives humanity its mojo back. But naturally, at some point Ziggy’s ego begins to supersede his message, and things end badly for him and his intrepid band, the Spiders from Mars.

If you try to situate every song on the album within this narrative (which, bear in mind, is just my interpretation — this album is super vague) you are not likely to succeed. I just think of it as a bunch of songs that could plausibly come from a world where the biggest celebrity on the planet is a glam rock alien. Like Deltron 3030, it is probably richer for its looseness of concept.

I’ll be honest: for all of its daring transgressiveness, Ziggy Stardust is quite far from my favourite Bowie album. (That would be Low, but that’s practically a Brian Eno album, and we’ve done that already.) I find Ziggy a bit inconsistent, and Bowie’s vocals — while incredibly distinctive — haven’t settled into the nuanced baritone register where I like them best. But I still think you need to hear this, because it is without question the definitive Bowie album where most of the world is concerned. You need to hear it because the highlights (for my money, ‘Five Years,’ ‘Starman,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’) really are staggering. And, of course, you need to hear it because you need to know what’s going on in Velvet Goldmine. And you need to watch Velvet Goldmine.

— Matthew

P.S.: One of the best blogs on the internet is Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie’s entire career, with substantive essayistic treatment of every track he’s ever released. For our purposes, I might suggest his essay on ‘Starman.’ If, you know, that sounds remotely interesting to you.

Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (pt. 2)

36chambers

Dear Matt:

Our little project has gotten me thinking a bit about the appropriate way to express a first impression of an album. I know we’ve both struggled with this on occasion: this format forces us to pretend that we have something meaningful to say about albums we’ve only just heard, and for which we only have the context the other provides. (Which, I mean, sometimes that’s plenty.)

Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to express total bewilderment. Occasionally, we’ve been merely nonplussed, or slightly distasteful. There have been expressions of immediate enthusiasm. And on occasion we’ve had something genuinely interesting to say, right from the get go.

I’m just going to be forthright here: I have nothing interesting or insightful to say about the massively dense album that I finished listening to for the first time mere moments ago. Frankly, I still have mild whiplash (and possibly tendonitis) from clicking all of the links in your assignment.

Let’s just acknowledge that the appropriate response to a first hearing of 36 Chambers is to marvel at its obvious brilliance and not pretend like you have anything special to add. Having acknowledged that, I’m going to reel off some things I love about 36 Chambers.

I love the unified aesthetic of the album. Considering that it’s basically a cavalcade of great verses from rappers that have almost no stylistic common ground, it is a testament to RZA’s guiding vision that 36 Chambers feels cohesive.

I love the interview at the end of ‘Can It All Be So Simple.’ The members of the Clan are such interesting people that I could just listen to them talk about themselves and each other for the duration of the whole album. Which, come to think of it, I basically just did.

I love GZA. ‘Clan in Da Front’ is, indeed, genius. I feel an urge to check out Liquid Swords coming on.

I love the way Wu-Tang collectively assumes that we know everything about them. It’s like picking up a random issue of a long-running superhero comic and trying to follow the plot. This may sound facetious, but I mean it sincerely. The phrase ‘world-building’ can easily be made to apply to Wu-Tang, and they accomplish it by implying that you’re listening in on a small portion of a much larger saga. I love that.

I love Ol’ Dirty Bastard, because WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING NOBODY RAPS LIKE THIS

I love RZA’s verse on ‘Tearz.’ It’s got to be one of the most heartfelt rap verses I’ve heard, up there with Killer Mike’s on ‘Crown.’

I love complex dynamics between radically different creative individuals. One of the reasons I love writing about music is that music always involves throwing a bunch of creative people into rooms together, and that is a story-generating machine. The Wu-Tang Clan are every bit as fascinating an assembly as the Second Viennese School, the Canterbury Scene, or the lightly fictionalized glam rockers of Velvet Goldmine (the latter of which is explicit foreshadowing of your next assignment).

I love ostentatious displays of cleverness.

I love recognizing the DNA of music I love in much earlier music.

I love when universally acclaimed classics live up to their reputations.

— Matthew

Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 1)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matt:

I have been looking through my past assignments to you and I’ve discovered a flaw in my approach.

From the start of this project, each of us has been trying to guide the other into unfamiliar musical territory. As you’ve pointed out a couple of times, we’ve generally been providing fairly non-standard entry points. That’s to be expected given how nerdy we both are, and it’s part of what keeps this so interesting.

But as I scanned our oeuvre thus far, I couldn’t help but think that my assignments have been borderline perverse. Nobody has ever suggested Van Der Graaf Generator as a possible ‘in’ to prog — let alone Magma. And, even my assignments drawn from the pool of ‘standards in their genre’ — Red and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady come to mind — have tended to be the sort of music that’s become standard specifically because of how it plays against the conventions of its genre.

This all goes double for my approach to classical music, so far. Come to think of it, I haven’t assigned you anything that can even be called ‘classical’ without some heavy qualifications. (Bartok, maybe. But even that’s a stretch.) Perhaps I ought to defer a bit more to the broader public’s notions of ‘the essentials.’

Yes, I like the sound of that. You need a firm grounding in the basics, Matt. You need ‘core repertoire.’ You need something that is, for us classical concert hall types, utterly standard to the point of monotony.

You need Beethoven 9.

(You can tell a real classical type by whether they refer to symphonies by cardinal or ordinal numbers, i.e. ‘Beethoven’s Ninth’ vs. ‘Beethoven 9.’ Incidentally, that’s the same way you can tell an old-school Doctor Who nerd from a Nu-Who fan: ‘the Ninth Doctor’ vs. ‘Nine.’ In either case, both options are acceptable nomenclature.)

What shall I say about Beethoven 9? Well, I suppose the most important point to bring up is that there’s more to it than ‘Ode to Joy.’ That may seem obvious. But then, that melody is so synonymous with the phrase ‘Beethoven’s ninth symphony’ that it may indeed come as a surprise for some that the ‘Ode to Joy’ doesn’t even crop up until over 45 minutes into the piece.

And when it does, it’s one of the most gratifying moments in all of music.

To my ears, even the most familiar parts of Beethoven 9 don’t have the whiff of mould about them that, say, Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ does. Or Beethoven 5, even. I can’t begin to speculate as to why that is, or if it’s true for anybody except me. But for all of my bluster about how the classical repertory is strangling the modern concert hall and silencing living composers, I would never question the common wisdom that this symphony is one of the best things ever accomplished by a human.

A colleague of mine, who isn’t really that much of a classical music person, once opined that Beethoven 9 is the best piece of music ever written because anybody can listen to it and enjoy every part of it. It isn’t my personal favourite piece, nor even necessarily in my top ten. But I find it hard to disagree with my colleague’s assessment. In modern parlance, Beethoven 9 is chock full of hooks.

Okay, enough eulogizing. You need context. This is Beethoven’s final symphony. It is the only one that he wrote during what’s thought of as his late period, premiering a full decade after his eighth. It was the first symphony of note to use voices and text — the ‘Ode to Joy’ is a setting of a poem by Schiller. There’s no overstating what a massive deal that was. Wagner would later interpret this as Beethoven proclaiming that instrumental music had run its course, and he used that interpretation to justify his decision to only write operas (or Gesamtkunstwerken, if you insist).

A quick word about the recording I’ve chosen: it’s a classic performance from 1962, by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. Karajan was an old Nazi (no, an actual Nazi — though his sincerity has been questioned) who led the Berliners with an iron fist and a contemptful scowl for over three decades. By the end of his career, he’d shaped the orchestra into a slick monolith that sounded the same in Debussy as in Wagner. But early on, he made some recordings that are still considered the gold standard. This is one. (And for what it’s worth, it has sold massively well, over the years.)

Beethoven and Karajan were both angry, serious and unpleasant men, but this music is none of those things. It is effervescent and powerful, and has no desire to alienate anybody but rather to reach everybody. I hope it reaches you.

— Matthew

LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (pt. 2)

4533

Dear Matt:

BING-DUNG! Activity started. Warm up: five minutes.

In criticism — I’m using the word here in the sense that academics use it — the notion of authorial intent has been nearly irrelevant since 1967, when Roland Barthes wrote this thing, and probably for some time before. I know this is a thing you think about because you wrote this on your other, Parsons-less blog. (Can I call it “One Matt?”)

As I understand it, in the limited way of somebody who’s never formally studied any of this, author-based criticism reached a tipping-point around the time of Barthes’ piece. Barthes railed against critics who attempted to use the life experiences, politics and social milieu of a text’s author as evidence for a single, authoritative (I use the world pointedly) reading of the text. He called for the author’s voice to be drowned out by the voice of the text itself, which is the thing that truly speaks.

In criticism, on the other hand — now I’m using the word in the sense that most people do, as regards movie reviews and blog posts by armchair scholars like us — we seem to still be holding on to the author, such that questions like “To what extent is Mr. Oizo taking the piss?” “Does Ian Anderson secretly love prog?” and “Is James Murphy fucking with us?” still seem to be worth posing.

BING-DUNG! First interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

I listened to 45:33 while running, with regular interjections from the female robot voice of Runkeeper, my workout app of choice (and also the source of this post’s silly structural gimmick). I took this approach because I wanted to assess, with the benefit of knowing the background you outlined in your assignment, whether 45:33 is actually good running music or not.

It is. It’s quite excellent running music. Slotted right in with my intervals. So, if we accept that 45:33 is good running music, what does that say about James Murphy and the critics who took him at his word when he lied to them about his jogging habits?

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

Let’s work backwards. The story as you told it ends with a legion of overzealous writers having egg all over their faces. They had failed the Emperor’s New Clothes test. Shorn of all credibility, they stood exposed as charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

Except, of course, that they weren’t. Murphy’s truth may have been that 45:33 has nothing to do with running. But the text’s truth contradicts that. And the text is the thing that truly speaks. I daresay that if Murphy believes that this album isn’t running music, he’s misunderstanding his own work. As such, I hereby find those critics innocent of these particular charges. There are other charges they will have more trouble dodging. But more on that shortly.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Before we move on, I want to address how angry I sometimes get about the derision levelled at critics by artists. Frank Zappa comes to mind, immediately. So does Birdman. The theatre critic in that movie (which I love in every way except for this) has a shitty attitude towards art, but the movie has an even shittier attitude towards that critic. It makes her openly, gleefully malevolent, which I sincerely don’t believe is a truthful characterization of how respectable critics think.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

No doubt many individual critics deserved Frank Zappa’s derision. But, I personally believe — in utterly self-aggrandizing fashion — that criticism, journalism, and related disciplines are arts no lesser than the arts they critique. I had an epiphany to that effect near the end of my music degree program, at which point I immediately applied for journalism school.

Evidently, you disagree with me on this, or at least you did in February of 2012. But Barthes appears to be on my side. If the author is metaphorically dead, that leaves only the reader. Good critics are very skilled readers and thus, invaluable — so long as they focus on the texts themselves. If, you know, you agree with Barthes on this. Which I only sometimes do.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

The narrative you outlined with respect to 45:33 suggests Zappa-like malevolence on Murphy’s part. If we accept for argument’s sake that there was something for Murphy’s critics to be ashamed of when the ‘truth’ came out, that means that it was Murphy himself who pulled the rug out from under them. And that would make him a more mean-spirited, slightly lesser human (though not a lesser artist, because the art speaks for itself).

But, like you, I’m not exactly convinced that Murphy was actually pulling an Emperor’s New Clothes swindle. If there was a swindle afoot (pun?), one suspects that Nike (pun.) may have been the target.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

But, naturally, we now come to the point where I say that none of this matters. I’ve already absolved Murphy’s fawning critics for praising his possibly bullshit workout mix, on the basis that it is a good workout mix. But there’s another sin that I can’t absolve them of, and that’s the fact that they so resolutely based their critiques of 45:33 on any professed authorial intention at all.

In other words, we’re charging these critics with the wrong crime. It isn’t that they have faulty bullshit meters. They are not charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

They are fetishists.

They fetishize the personalities behind the things they are ostensibly critiquing, such that the novelty of Murphy making a workout mix supersedes the music itself. Indeed, the fact that LCD Soundsystem could become a ‘buzz band’ at all comes entirely down to this critical approach.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Perhaps that’s why criticism — in the common sense, not the academic sense — is derided in so many quarters (not least of which is academia — someday, I’ll introduce you to the work of Joseph Kerman). It is at least partially about applying value judgements to people’s personalities. And that is ever-so-slightly skeevy.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

Here’s the part where I capitulate.

Naturally, music criticism and journalism that focuses on the musician often makes for deeply interesting reading. I am endlessly fascinated with the process of making art, and I don’t have any desire to see music writers stop interviewing artists, or taking note of the autobiographical elements in music. But, I would like to see close listening take more of a role in what music writers do.

(I admit that I’m saying this partially so that I don’t have to hold myself to the standards I’m setting up in this post. Take heed of my current Twitter bio: “Opinions mutable, fatuous and best ignored.”)

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Thanks for this one, Matt. 45:33 is fantastic, and thinking about all of this really put me through my paces.

BING-DUNG! Workout complete.

— Matthew

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 1)

Become Ocean

Dear Matt,

I’m still reeling from my unexpected reaction to the Offspring. I’m assigning you orchestral music to rebuild my sense of self.

In your response to my Brooklyn Rider assignment, you thanked me for starting you out with a quartet, since it lacks the flash of a soloist or the bombast of an orchestra. And, while I may chafe at those characterizations of venerable art music genres, you’re clearly right on both counts. I mean, the first ensembles that we could recognize as orchestras developed in the only place where they feasibly could have gathered the forces: 17th-century Central European royal courts. It doesn’t get more bombastic than that.

But at the same time, thank god that art is like that sometimes. Occasionally, when you put a creative genius at the helm of truly massive forces, great things happen. I don’t want to live in a world without Ben-Hur, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or BioShock Infinite or any of the other great decadent works that obviously had huge amounts of money poured into them. I think that the symphony orchestra is one of the best things that humans have ever invented. And, the fact that the logistics and finances of it dwarf those of a chamber group is part of the appeal.

To wit, here is the greatest contemporary argument for why orchestras are still a good idea: John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean.

Adams has been the composer of the moment since he won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean last year. He’s lived in interior Alaska since 1978, and all of his music is written as a response to that landscape. This is a guy who used real-time data taken from the position of the sun in the sky, the fullness of the moon, the presence of minor seismic events, and the strength of the Aurora Borealis to produce a computer-driven audio installation at the University of Alaska.

But, as conceptual as Adams’ music can get, it never veers into territory that makes it unappealing to listen to. It’s powerful, cerebral stuff — but never obscurantist. Adams cites some frightening figures as influences: the player piano innovator Conlon Nancarrow, stochastic musician Iannis Xenakis, and that arch-avantgardist John Cage.

But possibly his most important influence was Morton Feldman, who practiced a sort of alternative minimalism that focusses on creating spare, spacious music rather than the driving rhythms of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. For my money, his Rothko Chapel is one of the most gorgeous pieces of the 20th century. And Adams’ music sounds a lot more like Rothko Chapel than anything by Cage or Xenakis.

(Around this point, it’s traditional to explain that there are two well-known American post-minimalist composers named John Adams. John Luther Adams is not the guy who wrote the hit opera Nixon in China. That’s John Coolidge Adams. He got famous first, so he doesn’t need to use his middle name in his credits.)

Become Ocean is Adams’ reflection on the rising sea levels caused by climate change. As Adams put it himself, in one of the more succinct program notes you’re ever likely to read: ‘Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.’

Clearly, instrumental music is a strange medium by which to approach such specific themes. But, Adams isn’t being didactic in this piece. He’s doing what modern composers do best: expressing vague notions, sensations and anxieties by way of sound.

The work is a single, 42-minute composition (I know, I know, I know) for large orchestra. It is purely textural music — I believe that when I first discussed this album with you, I described it as ‘drone music for full orchestra.’ I basically stand by that. But as with the inventor of drone music, Richard Wagner (not trolling, listen to this), Adams employs a wealth of textural effects that intermingle to bring the music to crashing peaks and tense troughs — brought to life beautifully in this premiere recording by the Seattle Symphony and their brilliant musical director Ludovic Morlot.

Certainly, Adams would never deign to incorporate anything so vulgar as a melody. But I think that the side of your taste persona that’s into droney electronic music (a taste attribute that we share) will also appreciate this different sort of droney music — a drone made more vibrant for being played on acoustic instruments and orchestrated by a master. Feel free to zone out during this music. It’s approachable on a number of different levels of attention.

One of these days, I’ll assign you some proper core orchestra rep. But as much as I love Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, they’re not coextensive with what is erroneously called ‘classical music.’ John Luther Adams is, to me, just as central to that tradition. I hope you enjoy this.

— Matthew

P.S. This New Yorker profile of Adams by Alex Ross is one of my favourite pieces of music journalism. Just, as an aside.

The Offspring: Americana (pt. 2)

Previously, on Two Matts:

Matthew has complicated feelings about punk. He doesn’t like it in principle, but when confronted with the actual music, he has to admit that there’s more to it than he usually tends to think. Matthew’s complicated feelings got even more complicated when he found that he absolutely adores NoMeansNo’s Wrong, the second album Matt assigned him. Matthew was forced to admit that there’s a tremendous chasm between the Platonic ideal of punk rock he has in his head and the reality of a genre that has evolved and fragmented over the course of decades. Now, Matt has assigned Matthew a successful late-90s pop-punk album, and Matthew’s complicated feelings are being dredged up again…

americana

Dear Matt,

Well, shit. I like this one too.

I’ve got to admit, I wanted to despise this album. In general, on this blog, I’ve tried to keep an open mind. I’ve written before about how I generally think that when I don’t like something it’s my own fault, so I always approach new music hoping to like it. But when you assigned the Offspring, my first thought was ‘Ah, here’s my opportunity to really tear into something.’

I’m not quite sure why I had it in for Americana. I certainly didn’t feel the same when approaching Wrong. Maybe it’s because, now that we’ve established that I can’t attack punk at its ideological roots and have it be anything other than a totally facile critique, I feel more comfortable lashing out at a band that’s signed to a major label and scoring massive radio play. But that doesn’t make any sense, because the whole notion of ‘selling out’ doesn’t actually upset me. Plus, I don’t even have any sympathy for the SoCal skatepunk DIY values that the Offspring were probably betraying, here.

All the same, for whatever reason, I came to this album expecting some blend of annoyance and outrage that could only be mitigated by writing something angry and indignant about it. But around three songs in, I was unable to deny that I was enjoying myself. No matter how hard I tried not to.

You pitched Americana to me as a disc of summer jamz, and it is that. I listened to it on a bus, on a sunny day, after work. When the album was over and I found that I was early getting to my destination, I immediately listened to ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?’ three more times. Then ‘She’s Got Issues’ twice. Then ‘Pay the Man’ again.

So basically, I’ve once again been confronted with the difference between the way I think about punk and the way that punk actually works, and I come out looking like an ass.

I want to try out an idea, here. You’ll know by now that I spend an awful lot of time thinking about prog rock. To me, one of the watershed moments in the history of that music was a point somewhere in the 80s when a wave of ‘neo-prog’ bands emerged, playing music that was explicitly modelled after the prog of the prior decade. This, as opposed to working in the original spirit of progressive rock, which dealt with genre fusion and independent experimentation. There was never a prog ‘sound’ in the 70s. In the 80s, with bands like Marillion and IQ cribbing the aesthetic trappings of a few key bands, there suddenly was.

We could define this as the point where prog calcified into a ‘genre’ in the strictest sense — a category of music with a defined set of traits — rather than a ‘movement,’ or perhaps a ‘scene.’ The result, initially, was a lot of pretty formulaic music: quite the opposite of what King Crimson and Magma were trying to do. But more recently, bands like Opeth and the Mars Volta have found a way to use what they’ve learned from classic prog bands to create music that sounds distinctly different.

All of which is a self-indulgent aside leading up to this relevant insight: clearly, something similar has happened to punk. Punk was a scene or movement prior to becoming a proper genre, and the aesthetics of that genre (as opposed to the ethics of the movement that produced it) have been stripped for parts and used for various purposes with varying degrees of relation to the original source.

One of those purposes turns out to be writing pop songs. And I do love me some pop songs.

So, you’re batting two for two in terms of punk assignments that worked out. However, I suspect that I remain one of the least punk rock people that either of us know. And that is unlikely to change…?

To be continued.

— Matthew

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (pt. 1)

black-saint-sinner-lady

Dear Matt:

Jazz!

Isn’t that word just fun to look at? Especially with an exclamation mark. Here, let’s see it again:

Jazz!

Nice. Anyway, I’ve given you ten assignments in the course of this project, and none of them has had anything much to do with jazz. There’s a good reason for that: I really don’t listen to that much jazz, these days. People tend to assume that I enjoy jazz more than I do, because I’m a classical listener who listens to things other than classical. And when classical people like ‘things other than classical,’ people tend to assume we mean jazz.

Actually, my jazz fandom reached a peak in high school, and I haven’t continued my exploration of it that doggedly since then. But, I still like to revisit some old favourites from those days. So, here’s one that has more staying power than just about any other jazz album, for me.

Jazz as an idiom was never more interesting or vital as it was in the early 60s, around the time this album was released. It had long since matured to the point where people were making self-conscious artistic statements with it, but it hadn’t yet ascended to the bland legitimacy that has characterized so much of it for the past few decades. (Jazz might be the only music to which the word ‘gentrification’ meaningfully applies.)

In 1963, bassist Charles Mingus was perfectly situated to make the album that summed up jazz thus far. He’d played with Louis Armstrong’s touring swing band. He was briefly a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, who boasted the most complex and elegant jazz arrangements of anybody before or since. And he’d played in bebop combos with Charlie Parker, who redefined jazz harmony and set new standards for speed and complexity in solos. Throw all of those influences together with a big dollop of gospel and some conceptual notions inspired by Mingus’s psychoanalysis sessions, and you get The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

(It’s worth checking out the back half of the album’s liner notes, which were actually written by Mingus’s therapist. The first half was written by Mingus himself and is almost entirely inscrutable.)

The album consists of a single sprawling composition (hmm, this seems to be a theme, lately) written for a ten-piece band with occasional interjections by Jay Berliner on classical guitar. That format is the source of a lot of Black Saint’s appeal. For all of Mingus’s effusive rhapsodizing about how wonderful Charlie Parker was, he remained loyal to the elaborate structures and complex timbral effects of the Ellington band. I think that has a lot to do with why this is a jazz album that I still love, even having largely dropped out of jazz: it doesn’t conform to the standard jazz format of one solo after another.

Long before this album, Mingus appeared as a member of ‘The Quintet:’ a sort of jazz supergroup assembled for a single concert at Massey Hall, which also included Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach. Frankly, Mingus was the weak link at that gig. But that’s because he isn’t the kind of jazz musician where the joy lies in listening to him play his instrument. He’s a bandleader. He’s kind of like Miles Davis that way, except one suspects he was at least marginally more fun to be around. (He published a pamphlet on how to toilet train cats. Tell me you don’t want to hang out with this guy.)

There are plenty of solos on Black Saint, and they’re good solos. But, for me, the appeal lies more in the arrangements, which are enormously complex but manage to still feel intuitive. Jazz solos are best appreciated with a bit of insider knowledge — knowledge that I mostly lack. On the other hand, anybody can appreciate a band making a big, soulful sound. This band makes a huge sound, and I imagine they’ve done a pretty good job here of emulating what it was like inside Charles Mingus’s fascinating mind. What more can you ask for?

— Matthew

P.S. Since we’re giving bonus tracks now, you might like to check out Mingus’s most famous cut, which brings his gospel influences front and centre — and is probably the catchiest instrumental jazz tune ever recorded.

Major Lazer: Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (pt. 2)

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Dear Matt,

If this seems like a poorly thought out response, fair enough. It’s been a week.

This album is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for from this project, like A Walking Fire was for you. It strikes me as something that’s as central to your sensibility as a music fan as Brooklyn Rider is to mine — which means that Guns Don’t Kill People was always going to be a tough sell for me. I have some problems with this album, but I’m intrigued.

I’m definitely not the right person to attempt to parse the probably somewhat problematic cultural appropriation on this album. (I fully acknowledge my cowardice.) But I can certainly understand your preference for this over an album full of ‘bass drops and white people.’ That sounds terrible. Whereas Guns Don’t Kill People is the complete opposite of that sort of lazy blandness. Its entire appeal comes from how totally bonkers it is (those videos!), and the fact that it takes inspiration from sounds that come from outside of Diplo and Switch’s narrow cultural sphere.

Now comes the part where I say denigrating things for several paragraphs, in spite of my general admiration for the album. I know it’s becoming a habit, but I can’t help being perverse.

To me, Kala absolutely towers over this. The reason for that is, for all of its eclecticism, Kala still has one foot in pop songwriting. And the fact that my favourite track on that album is still ‘Paper Planes’ probably indicates that I value that characteristic. Hell, even Thick as a Brick is structured around (deeply unconventional) pop songwriting. I tend to like my pop songs clothed in somewhat flamboyant garb — be it prog rock bombast or a Diplo beat — but that doesn’t change the underlying value.

(The fact that your next assignment will have absolutely nothing to do with the craft of songwriting ought to indicate just how inconsistent my musical value system is. I am not at all sorry for this.)

Basically, my issue with Guns Don’t Kill People is that there’s no figure equivalent to M.I.A. on it — nobody to provide the raw goods for Diplo and Switch to dress up in mad, eclectic sonic outfits. (Though I did love that B-side with her on it.) Instead, we get a cavalcade of guests who each seem somewhat incidental to Diplo and Switch’s central concept. Aside from the Paul Simon-esque colonialist implications of that, which we’ve agreed to blithely ignore, this presents an aesthetic problem for me: for all of its internal cohesion and its high-concept grandstanding, Guns still feels like it lacks a core. It feels like a very attractive coat that nobody’s wearing.

And as for the guest artists — who occasionally wander by the coat, but never really consider putting it on — they’re a bit hit-and-miss, aren’t they? M.I.A.’s politics may piss a bunch of people off, but they make for more interesting listening than ‘Mary Jane.’ Granted, that’s an easy target and I’m a humourless d-bag. ‘What U Like,’ then.

So clearly, I didn’t love this. I liked it, basically. But I’d stick it at the lower end of my positive responses on this blog — above the Micronauts, certainly. But significantly lower than, say, Belle and Sebastian.

Okay, then. On to your next assignment, which I hope will be as challenging for you as this was for me.

— Matthew