Tuesday, November 24, 2015

My Thanksgiving Mount Rushmore

Thanksgiving time again. My favorite holiday, bringing together my favorite things: food, family, and football. Not to mention friends, family, and a few fingers of fermented grain mash (aka whiskey). In my family, Thanksgiving is a beloved tradition and something I always eagerly await. This year, I’ve decided to express my love of the holiday by compiling my personal Thanksgiving Mount Rushmore: a four-headed tribute to the people I think of each and every year at this time.

At the outset, I suppose it behooves me to acknowledge that even referring to Mount Rushmore is problematic, given the cultural genesis of the holiday being the peaceful and cooperative interactions of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans of Plymouth. After all, Rushmore is carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota, which are sacred to the Lakota Sioux. An 1868 treaty between the U.S. government and the Sioux gave the latter permanent rights to territory that included the Black Hills. But as early as 1874, General George A. Custer led an expedition of miners who found gold in them thar Black Hills. The U.S. government then forced the Sioux to give back that portion of their reservation (who’s the “Indian giver” now?); the dispute led to Custer’s Last Stand two years later and continues to this day.

So given that disclaimer, let me say that the first head on my Thanksgiving Mount Rushmore would be Squanto (a nickname; to his own people he was known as Tisquantum). When I was young, I took a book out of my elementary school library called Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims. I’m not sure why, but I fell in love with it. I guess I just felt so bad for the guy. The Patuxet was captured and brought to England in 1605, where he learned English. He continued to go back and forth from the Old World to the New World, usually against his will. When he finally made it back to his homeland in 1619, he learned that his people had been wiped out by an epidemic the year before. When the Pilgrims arrived, he was indeed a help to them, though other Native Americans were suspicious of his friendship with the white settlers. Some reports claim that his death in 1622 was due to poisoning by the Wampanoag.

The next head is on Rushmore already: Abraham Lincoln. It was his Thanksgiving Proclamation of October 3, 1863, in which he asked his countrymen to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving,” that led most directly to the current holiday. Lincoln was not the first president to declare a day of thanksgiving (Washington declared one in 1789) but its annual observance on the last Thursday of November stuck, right up until 1939. In that year, the last Thursday also happened to be the last day of the month, and retailers were worried about a shortened Christmas shopping season. Responding to their entreaties, Franklin Roosevelt moved up Thanksgiving by one week, to the fourth Thursday, and in 1941, Congress made it official and binding. But Lincoln is still considered the father of the American Thanksgiving holiday.

The third head (and by the way, I’m going in chronological order by birth year) would belong to my mother. This was her day to shine, and she never disappointed. For years, my mother made the entire meal: turkey, stuffing, vegetables, salad, lemon meringue pies, and her famous apple pies (as many as six of those). She always made the crusts by hand, from scratch. She peeled and sliced Cortland apples, then she would mix the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. As she did this, she would walk up and down the hall, stirring and smelling, and adjusting the quantities of one or the other until it was just right to her expert nose. When the pies were in the oven, she would listen to them. Somehow, they told her when they done because she used no other method to gauge their progress.

I would go to sleep the night before Thanksgiving with the scent of fresh baked apple pie in the house, excited about the big day of feasting that would come soon. Despite my excitement, it was nice to sleep late the next morning, to be awakened by the smell of a turkey in the oven. I would get dressed, go downstairs, and watch the Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. My sisters and I would hang around my father when he carved the turkey, and when he was done, we would start picking at the carcass until we’d eaten every last bit of meat off the bone. Before the meal, my father would say a few words of welcome and then we would dig in. There was always a ton of food, no matter how many guests we had. And when the apple pies came out, people just flipped. Everyone would shower my mother with compliments. After meal was over, we would sit and digest, my mother would begin cleaning and we would help – but from beginning to end my mother did the most work.

The fourth and final head on my Thanksgiving Mount Rushmore belongs to none other than Arlo Guthrie, because listening to “Alice’s Restaurant” has been a Thanksgiving tradition for me for as long as I can remember. Actually, though commonly referred to by that title, the song is actually called “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Alice’s Restaurant is the name of the album. The song tells the true story of a Thanksgiving meal Arlo had on November 25, 1965, thanks to the generosity of his friend Alice; to pay her back, he offered to take the post-meal trash out to the dump. Finding it closed, he dumped it illegally. He was subsequently arrested and, in a delightfully ironic twist, it was due to that arrest on his record that he was declared unfit for military service during the Vietnam War. Every year, along with all my blessings, I am thankful that I can get anything I want at Alice’s Restaurant.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Where is my outrage?

In the wake of the illegal murder of Cecil, the Zimbabwe lion who now has greater worldwide name recognition than Taylor Swift or anyone running for U.S. president, I have seen postings on social media wondering why the killing of an animal far, far away has caused more outrage than the murder of Sandra Bland, the latest (one of the latest is more accurate, since another incident happened last week in Cincinnati) unarmed African American person to be killed by police or in police custody. She was found dead on July 13 in a Texas jail cell she probably had no cause to be in after a routine traffic stop. There certainly was outrage from the American public about yet another police-related death, yet less than two weeks later, Cecil’s death was all anyone could talk about.

I have sympathy for those who are suggesting that racism or perhaps just apathy are to blame for the fact that Cecil is outpolling Sandra. After all, what is happening between police and black people in America these days is scary and indicative of a larger pattern of police brutality. According to a recent study by The Guardian newspaper:
  • U.S. police fatally shot more people in the first 24 days of 2015 than England and Wales police have in the last 24 years, combined.
  • In Australia, there were 94 fatal police shootings between 1992 and 2011. In the U.S., there were 97 fatal police shootings in March 2015.
  • Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.
  • Some 140 black Americans have been killed by police this year.

Obviously this is abhorrent. And yet I would also suggest that the sheer volume of black lives not mattering to police is part of the problem. After awhile, news fatigue sets in. Who can remember the names of all the victims, aside from those most widely covered, such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott? We as a public accept that there is a problem but we have become numbed to it. There is no more shock value; we perhaps even come to expect it. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there aren’t one or two more black victims before this summer ends.

Furthermore, the media is always in search of a new story, especially a new shocking story (you can’t read an article about Cecil without being reminded that he was decapitated and skinned), and, of course, everyone likes a good animal story, right? I count myself among those who are outraged by Cecil’s murder. I also count myself among those who are outraged that our police are executing Americans in numbers one would only expect in some dystopian science fiction society – and particularly that African Americans still are targeted by and vulnerable to the white American power structures.

So where is my outrage? It’s in both places, and not for dissimilar reasons. There’s too much gun violence and too little respect for life. And it’s not just happening here, and so my outrage is not confined to these two matters. Just yesterday, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew stabbed six people marching in a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem (which, incidentally – or ironically – means “city of peace”). As a Jew, I am outraged that the supposedly most pious of my religion could act in such a way that is so counter to the “Jewish values” that were drummed into me in Sunday School.

For that matter, I have long been outraged by the Israeli government, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arrogantly continues to build settlements in disputed areas and throws obstacle upon obstacle on the road to peace. China with its endless human rights abuses has always outraged me. Closer to home, Donald Trump outrages me, as does just about every Republican office holder in the country, all of whom are hateful obstructionists, most of whom are horribly racist, and none of whom give a shit about women.

The IRS outrages me. I’m sure I get many more notices from them than does, say, Apple Computer, which pays next to nothing in taxes, despite earning quite a few more billion dollars per year than I do. Reality television outrages me. Last winter outraged me. Roger Goodell outrages me. In fact, I’m going to repeat that last one. Roger Fucking Goodell outrages me.

Now, none of the last few outrages are on the same level as poaching a protected animal or murdering unarmed black people, but for those who wonder where our outrage is, it’s everywhere. There’s so much to be pissed off about. We can’t be outraged about one thing; even if it’s a horrific thing, it’s one of many horrific things going on in our neighborhoods, our country, and our world. This very evening, my ex-wife, a social worker who works in the labor and delivery department of a local hospital, told me that a barefoot woman walked in, six centimeters dilated, ready to give birth, and she couldn’t tell people where she lived, how she got there, who the father was, and whether or not this was her first pregnancy. Eventually, she was able to give her name but still much is not known. She had scabies but gave birth to a healthy boy – a baby that is likely going straight into the system.

One could be outraged at this woman, but this woman is a victim of the system as well. Where were the mental health services she needed? The obstetric services? Has she been living on the street? Can you imagine a homeless pregnant woman fending for herself in the richest country on earth? If that doesn’t make you outraged, I don’t know what will.

So yes, I am outraged. I’m outraged at all of it. And frankly, the thing I’m probably most outraged about is that I don’t know what to do about it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Movie Review: Love & Mercy

Brian Wilson’s production masterpiece, “Good Vibrations,” was the apex of his popular success, topping the charts and selling more than a million copies. Released in October 1966, it was a psychedelic harbinger of 1967’s so-called Summer of Love, providing both a sound and a lexicon for nascent hippiedom everywhere.

Much could be – and has been – written about what makes “Good Vibrations” so innovative, but perhaps the most distinctive element is its modular construction. Rather than a through-composed and performed song, “Good Vibrations” is a mosaic, pieced together from months of recording sessions and untold numbers of musical segments that on their own seem quite unrelated to each other. Brian’s genius was in his overarching vision for the track and the workmanship involved in assembling the collage of sounds into a cohesive, compelling, and insanely catchy whole.

It was a new way of recording popular music, and the next evolution was obvious: applying this modular process to an entire album. That was what he attempted with Smile, aborted at the time and only completed under his own name in 2004. With Smile, specific sections of songs would be treated classically in a theme and variations mode, surfacing in slightly altered ways in other songs throughout the album. It was a daunting challenge, and with resistance from certain members of the Beach Boys and from Capitol Records, along with growing paranoia and self-medicating drug use, the project fell apart and was abandoned by its ambitious creator – who slipped gradually into a reclusive life of sporadic musical activity and ultimately an enveloping shroud of fear, pain, and undiagnosed mental illness.

In directing the new Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad effectively employs Brian’s modular approach. At the highest level, Pohlad slices Brian’s life into segments from the 1960s, where he is enjoying his creative peak with Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations,” and Smile; and the 1980s, where he is under the unethical care of a doctor who after saving his patient’s life is now angling to siphon his fortune. But then Pohlad goes further, dicing his subject’s life into daring – and often scary – cubes that take us inside Brian’s head (at one point through his mostly deaf right ear) to hear the inner voices that plague him to this day; inside the eyes of his girlfriend and eventual second wife, Melinda, as she tries to break the legal and pharmaceutical hold that the doctor has on him; and inside Brian’s bedroom, where a prismatic, 2001: A Space Odyssey-like sequence shows us Brian in triplicate: as a struggling child, a struggling artist, and a struggling survivor, all observing each other lying near-catatonic in bed (where the Brian in the 1970s – a fascinating period alluded to but not covered in the film – spent the better part of three years under the covers, ballooning in weight and occasionally being pushed, and ultimately miscast, on stage with the Beach Boys, with seriocomic consequences).

As a certifiable Brian Wilson nut, I saw the movie three times in its opening week. It has been widely reviewed, and nearly unanimously raved, far and wide. My goal is not to review it as such, but to explore questions it raises for me. Chief among them is this: How is my experience of the movie different from that of a viewer who knows something or nothing about the history of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys? Part of what thrills me about the movie is that it seems to have been created for the choir, the brotherhood, the initiates; there is a distinct lack of context, explication, and connective tissue that would help a Brian novice follow along. I know the background and significance of certain scenes and don’t need Pohlad or the scriptwriters to awkwardly explain them to me (though this does happen from time to time, how else to introduce who Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks are – two names that certainly separate the Brian nuts from the Brian novices).

Without providing spoilers, here are a few examples.
  • Brian’s father, Murry Wilson, informs us in nearly every appearance that he was fired by his son. It is never specifically stated that Murry was the band’s manager in their earlier years and Brian, in a rare display of backbone in family matters, dismissed him of his duties because of his meddling and bad vibrations.
  • While recording the Pet Sounds vocal tracks, Mike Love complains about the lyrics to a song called “Hang On to Your Ego.” (Mike’s balking at the lyrics and music for Pet Sounds and Smile is both historically accurate and part of the battering Brian’s fragile psyche took during this period.) The actual instrumental track is heard clearly. If someone seeing this movie didn’t already own Pet Sounds and decided to buy it (a win in every respect), that person would not find a song by that title. That’s because Brian relented and allowed Mike to write new lyrics. The song as released is called “I Know There’s an Answer.” That part is not mentioned in the film. (Interestingly, Frank Black of the Pixies recorded a cover of “Hang On to Your Ego” on his first solo album in 1993.)
  • The Smile sessions are represented largely through a single sequence involving two songs performed in different contexts: Brian playing “Surf’s Up” by himself at the piano in his house; and “Fire” (also known as “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”) in the studio with the Wrecking Crew (the ace session players he employed). Both of these songs are of monumental importance to the Brian story; yet neither are identified by name, nor is their respective significance shown or explained.
    • The “Surf’s Up” bit is clearly a recreation of a solo performance that Brian taped for a 1967 CBS TV special about pop music hosted by Leonard Bernstein in the midst of the Smile chaos. In the special, the song was summed up thusly: “There is a new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today's pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today's most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.’ ... Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, ‘Surf’s Up’ is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future.”
    • As for “Fire,” the track is an instrumental that brilliantly uses strings, whistles, and percussion to emulate the sound of a raging inferno. Brian insisted that all the musicians wear plastic fire helmets, and he created a small wood fire in a trash can in the studio to get everyone in the mood. This is recreated faithfully in the movie, except that Brian is shown holding smoldering sticks and running through the studio. What is not mentioned is that while recording “Fire,” a building across the street from the studio actually did catch fire. Brian, in his growing paranoia, believed that he had somehow been responsible for it; thus, this haunted track has become considered “another brick in the wall” of Brian’s ultimate breakdown.

Personally, I do not consider these to be devastating omissions because I can fill in the blanks and connect the dots; in other words, Pohlad is speaking to me in shorthand and I get it because I know the shorthand. The fact that others do not, however, could result in a different, perhaps less pleasing, experience for them.

There are at least two consolations. First of all, viewers should be assured that no matter how strange or confusing or even unrealistic certain scenes might be, this movie is highly factual. As with all movies based in fact, the chronologies are sometimes altered for clarity and more fluid storytelling. For example, the movie portrays Pet Sounds as having been the first album he produced after he retired from the road following his nervous breakdown/anxiety attack aboard an airplane. In reality, that event occurred in December 1964 and he produced three albums from then until Pet Sounds. But aside from such directorial conveniences, there is a high degree of veracity throughout the movie.

The other consolation is that the viewer is supposed to feel disoriented. The constant sudden shifts between the 1960s and 1980s, the disturbing aural collages that simulate the voices Brian hears in his head, the jerkiness of the hand-held cameras, are all a way through which we can empathize with Brian's splintering mental and emotional states. If things might seem confusing for the viewer, be assured they were confusing for Brian as he was living them.

I do have a few quibbles with the movie, things that, again, a Brian nut would notice and take exception to that likely would be uncontested by a Brian novice:
  • Aside from chief antagonist Mike Love, the rest of the Beach Boys are not well cast and their lines (those who have them) are hardly worth recording. The actor playing Carl Wilson is too thin and is seen very often holding a beer bottle (he had a problem with alcohol later but it wasn’t a long-lasting situation; his Wiki page doesn’t even include the word “alcohol”). The actor playing Al Jardine is too tall. Dennis Wilson’s lines are about nothing but sex (not far from the truth, but certainly not accurate; by 1970, Dennis had proven himself a talented and sensitive artist in his own right).
  • Brian’s first wife, Marilyn, is shown to be young and dippy, which she probably was to an extent, but it’s hardly a fair portrait. Melinda is certainly a stronger personality than Marilyn Wilson, but Marilyn had to live with Brian at his worst, and she deserves more compassion.
  • Brian’s drug friends in the movie are dumb, generic stereotypes; his real drug friends were more interesting and accomplished people.
  • Mentioned earlier, Tony Asher (Pet Sounds) and Van Dyke Parks (Smile) were Brian’s primary lyricists of the time period. They enjoyed close creative collaborations with Brian and produced excellent work; they deserve more and better attention in the movie.
  • There is a scene after Smile is abandoned that shows a fat, stoned, unresponsive Brian sitting by the pool, with Marilyn calling out from inside the house that their baby (Carnie Wilson, though unidentified) just smiled. “Look at her smile,” Marilyn shouts. “She has your smile.” Yes, we get it. Brian has no Smile.

Aside from these minor complaints, though, the cast is extraordinary. Paul Dano is particularly impressive and could well receive an Oscar nod. As the 1960s Brian, he gained 35 pounds, took piano lessons, and does a great job actually playing and singing in the movie. He portrays the ecstasy and agony of Brian’s art and life equally effectively. John Cusack as the 1980s Brian has less of an acting challenge (mainly tics, fatigue, and social awkwardness) but he embodies Brian’s innate warmth and humor in his portrayal, and the way in which he delivers the line where he tells Melinda that he hears voices but didn’t want to tell her because he didn’t want to scare her off (shown in trailers) is very powerful because Cusack shows that Brian is so clearly vulnerable and scared himself. Elizabeth Banks as Melinda is exceptionally good with uncanny facial expressions that respond perfectly to the craziness she witnesses; she also is absolutely gorgeous in every scene. Paul Giamatti as the doctor (as you can tell by now, I don’t wish to honor the character’s one-time existence on this mortal coil by mentioning his name) is spine-tinglingly creepy. One reviewer astutely pointed that that while Murry Wilson and the doctor did not look anything alike in real life, the actors playing them in the movie have a great deal of physical resemblance to each other, emphasizing their dual-villain status.

So to sum up, if you are a Brian nut, the movie is a must-see. If you are a Brian novice, what kind of movie is it for you? As a biopic, it is about as good as the genre produces. You really will learn things about Brian and the Beach Boys, things that two previous TV movies on the band completely and perhaps deliberately got wrong (one was produced by John Stamos, a friend of Mike Love’s, and it’s laughably biased in favor of the man in whose “honor” a thriving Facebook group is named Mike Love Is a Douchebag). If you just plain like the music and want to be entertained, you will be and the music is there in all its glory. If Jurassic World is sold out, and Love & Mercy is the only movie you haven’t seen yet, go ahead. Two hours with Brian Wilson is a lifetime with anyone else. You will be touched by the story of a man who made the music he had to make despite the cost – which was nearly his life.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

CD Review: The Waterboys, Modern Blues

The Waterboys
Modern Blues
Harlequin And Clown, CLOWNE1 (2015)

Bob Dylan has long admitted to being a fan of Scottish bard Robert Burns and has also stated that “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” was based on old Scottish ballad. Perhaps then it’s not surprising that he has had an enduring influence on modern-day Scottish singer-songwriters. Perhaps the first was Donovan, who endured criticism (not least from Dylan himself) that he was a Dylan wannabe. Certainly “Catch the Wind” owed a clear debt to Dylan’s lyrical and musical style of the time (1965), but poor Donovan certainly wasn’t the first, last, or only to be so charged.

In the 1970s, the next Scottish singer to carry Bob’s torch was Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople. Pressed into service as the lead singer, he all but mimicked Dylan’s drawling delivery on Mott’s first album. Thereafter, the influence came out more in his introspective lyrics; to this day, Hunter remains a fan. In a 2012 interview, he said, “If I listen to anybody these days it would be Bob Dylan because he’s the yardstick. You write a song like ‘Jokerman’ or ‘Every Grain of Sand’ it’s hard to get anywhere near the same league. That’s the only guy I would listen to today because I think he’s amazing.”

Edinburgh-born Mike Scott came to modest fame in the early to mid 1980s as the leader of the Waterboys. Poetic, spiritual, and frequently changing his band’s musical style, he is much like Dylan, except less oblique about revealing himself to his fans. He has also hailed Dylan’s influence and has covered several Dylan songs over the years.

The point of all this is really just to say that I hear a lot of Dylan in the brand new Waterboys album, Modern Blues. It’s more of a hard rock album than Dylan would do, and that itself is reflective of Dylan’s own changeling nature. After all, the previous Waterboys album comprised a set of Yeats poems and writings that Scott set to music. Over the course of 11 studio albums, the Waterboys evolved from a horn-driven, highly literate, post-punk soul band (biggest hit, “The Whole of the Moon” from 1985’s This Is The Sea) to a roots-oriented band with emphasis on fiddle and mandolin (biggest hit, the title track to 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues), to a guitar-driven band singing of spiritual ecstasy and romantic despair (no hits to speak of).

In recent years, Scott has been bouncing Neil Young-like from one extreme to the next, from 2003’s haunting and meditative Universal Hall to 2007’s rip-roaring Book of Lightning, to 2011’s psychedeliterate An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, to the current disc. If there’s a problem with this, it’s that Scott’s second banana, Irish fiddler Steve Wickham, a fan favorite, sometimes has not much to do. Wickham came on to the scene at the end of the This Is The Sea sessions, and was a key factor of the Fisherman’s Blues era (in fact, he co-wrote the title track with Scott). When Scott decided to bring electric guitar to the fore, Wickham left, not to return until more than a decade had passed. In concert, he is to Scott what Richards is to Jagger, what Perry is to Tyler, what Page was to Plant; yet on the recent albums, he seems not to have a lot to do. On the current album, he plays “fuzz fiddle,” turning in a fiery solo on the opening track that I originally thought was electric guitar. Beyond that, I don’t hear him. It seems like his role is to fulfill the Fisherman’s Blues-era songs in concert and otherwise to fit in by playing loud and electric. He has much more than that to offer, but knowing Scott, it’s likely that his compass will at some point shift again to a position more welcoming to acoustic fiddle.

As for the album itself, two songs were previewed on the band’s last concert tour: “Still a Freak” and “I Can See Elvis.” Ironically, they are the two I care for least, not because they are bad or familiar, but because they seem tossed off in comparison to the depth of thought and feeling that is apparent in the other songs. The former is the defiant crow of an aging rocker, insisting “Things disappear but I’m still here” and “I ain’t been gagged/I’m still flying the flag.” The latter is a fantasy about Elvis partying in heaven with other dead rockers and famous figures from history. Had he not mined this idea already with “The Return of Jimi Hendrix” in 1993, I would be more forgiving of it.

The rest of the nine-song, 51-minute album, however, is pure gold, the kind of songs you wish they’d play on the radio but you know they never will. Inspiring my Dylan thesis, many of the songs are lyrically dense, long, and rich. The opening song, “Destinies Entwined,” is not only a powerful rocker, the lyrics scan almost perfectly with Dylan’s “Up to Me,” a beautiful outtake from Blood On The Tracks, and the story they tell is not too dissimilar from “Isis,” which appeared on Desire.

Her point of view was radical, more than just a change of plan
She sold me her proposal which I did not understand
She said the secret’s in the road, I tried to decode the signs
And followed her for seven years, all eyes and ears
Our destinies entwined

The following track, “November Tale,” is another relationship song, where Scott meets a woman from his past and her religious orthodoxy and his more organic spirituality clash. Scott’s vocal delivery, more spoken than sung, is reminiscent of Dylan’s but with better articulation. “The Girl Who Slept for Scotland” is beautifully written and compelling, but I have to be honest I have no idea what it’s about. Still, it’s a wonderful listen, even as Scott gets uncharacteristically sexual:

Yet I remember a day by a river wild
When she clung to me hard like a darling child
And a night in the sheets of a Dublin bed
When she moaned like a woman and gave sweet head

Similarly obscure, in “Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy)”, Scott sings (apparently) to the heroine of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, casting aspersions on her marriage to Orlando. A bluesy pub rocker with fierce Hammond organ by Waterboy newbie Paul Brown, the song kicks butt and that’s good enough for me.

The most radio-friendly song is “Beautiful Now,” featuring a poppy melody and a happy lyric (“You were beautiful then, sweet angel/You’re way more beautiful now”). That’s followed by the more mournful “Nearest Thing to Hip,” in which Scott laments the passing of a café where jazz played on the box, an old record store that went out of business, and a bar and a bookstore that no longer stand. It’s actually rather reminiscent of Ian Hunter, who in his later years has turned his keen sunglass-covered eyes on the things we and he have lost.

The album closes with “Long Strange Golden Road,” a 10-minute, 10-verse epic poem on the scale of “Desolation Row” or “Sad Old Lady of the Lowlands,” but with that chugging electric guitar (this is the only song on which Scott takes a solo, though two other lead guitarists ably drive six other tunes). The song is preceded by an excerpt of an old scratchy recording of Jack Kerouac (another Dylan reference) reading from On The Road, and the lyrics tell of Scott’s desire to hit the road himself, inspired by Kerouac’s words and voice.

I was longing to be wooed, I was ready to be humbled
By the words that you had written, by the syllables you mumbled
Yeah, I was ready in my heart to have my heart invaded
By the fervor of your passion, yes I came to be persuaded

But when I heard your ragged voice something switched in my perception
And I knew I was the victim of a beautiful deception
All my once exact beliefs like tangled threads unraveled
I walked out stunned and liberated and so began my travels

For the most part, Steve Wickham excepted, “The Waterboys” is Mike Scott and whomever he hires to play with him. On Modern Blues, recorded mostly in Nashville, most of the band have no more Waterboy experience than the last U.S. tour (drummer Ralph Salmins dates back to An Appointment With Mr. Yeats). Yet the recording does feature the all-star presence of bassist David Hood of Muscle Shoals fame, who keeps it nice and funky.

All in all, I have to say that as a Waterboys fan, this is yet another winner from Mike Scott. Which is to say it will sink like a stone. But I hope I’m wrong about that because more people should know about the Waterboys and more Waterboys fans should embrace their new recordings. Because to paraphrase something Dylan sang 50 years ago, there’s something happening here and not enough people know what it is. And that’s a damn shame.



Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dual CD Review: Dewa Budjana, Surya Namaskar; Tohpati, Tribal Dance

Dewa Budjana, with Jimmy Johnson & Vinnie Colaiuta
Surya Namaskar
MoonJune Records MJRO63 (2014)

Tohpati, featuring Jimmy Haslip & Chad Wackerman
Tribal Dance
MoonJune Records MJRO64 (2014)

It sounds like an intriguing musical combination. Take an Indonesian guitarist, well-versed in Western progressive and fusion music yet not forsaking the structures and sonorities of his native land; and pair him with a rhythm section comprising a bassist who has played with Allan Holdsworth and a drummer who has played with Frank Zappa. A rare concoction, right?

Not if you are Leonardo Pavkovic, whose MoonJune label specializes in prog and jazz fusion with ethnic flavors and a flair for the unusual. In 2014, he managed to release CDs from not one but two different trios of the same ethnic and musical combination described above. That’s two extraordinarily talented Indonesian guitarists fronting incredible trios.

Surya Namaskar features guitarist Dewa Budjana, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. It was recorded in Los Angeles in September 2013. Tribal Dance features Tohpati (as he’s billed) on guitar, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Chad Wackerman on drums. It was recorded in January and October 2013. In Los Angeles (except for one track recorded in Jakarta earlier this year). For a city sitting on top of so many fault lines, it was very risky having both these dynamic trios recording in L.A. in the same year.

According to Pavkovic, “Tohpati has a very big profile in Indonesia, mostly in the pop world as a top session player, composer, and arranger for many pop stars. But Dewa Budjana is huge in Indonesia, his band, called GIGI, is one of the most famous in the country. What I am able to capture of them on MoonJune is maybe 0.5% of what they do in their careers.”


Of the two CDs, Surya Namaskar is the more progressive-sounding, very muscular and daring with the unexpected twists and turns one expects from a prog recording. Fully instrumental (except for a vocal on the largely improvised “Kalingga,” which also features Sundanese violin and harp), the album’s sound is fleshed out with important contributions from such notable musicians as Gary Husband (synthesizer on the King Crimson-esque opener, “Fifty”) and Michael Landau (guitar solos on “Campuhan Hill,” which Dewa composed after his first meeting with Holdsworth). The music is impressive and relentlessly energetic. In spite of their power and ability, Johnson and Colaiuta show great restraint; each is fully capable of taking over a tune or a session with their virtuosity (which nevertheless is on display throughout, especially for Colaiuta on “Lamboya” where he becomes a cyclone under Dewa’s restatement of the theme), but the spotlight is firmly on Dewa throughout the CD and he shines.


Tribal Dance, in contrast, is more of an East-meets-West affair, largely in the realm of jazz fusion with ethnic influences. This trio is a bit more democratic, with Haslip and Wackerman getting a few spotlights of their own; in particular, Haslip takes a nice solo on “Run” and Wackerman turns up the heat at the end of the title track, the middle of the following tune, “Red Mask,” and “Supernatural.” Several of the songs open with exotic chants or percussion before leading into the composition proper, as if Indonesia was setting the table for the American musical feast to follow. The one exception is the closer, “Midnight Rain,” which stays largely in the East (in fact, it is the only track recorded in Indonesia). Tohpati is a very fluid and nimble player who uses effects sparingly but effectively. One can detect traces of Di Meola and Scofield in his playing, but he is very much his own artist.

If these CDs are any indication of the talent that exists in Indonesia (the fourth most populous country in the world), more Western musicians and labels should be heading out that way to mine the apparently very rich veins of musical ability to be found. If they do go there, they will find that Pavkovic has had a head start.

“There is great talent in Indonesia,” he says, “but also great diversity. For example, Tohpati is ethnic Javanese, from Java, so he has certain influences, both genetic and musical, that might be different from Dewa, who is ethnic Balinese, which is a minority in Indonesia. I am also working with Dwiki Dharmawan, a well-known pianist and keyboardist; guitarist Reza Ryan from I Know You Well Miss Clara, who has more European influences, such as Terje Rypdal, Jan Akkerman, and Phil Manzanera; and two other guitarists, Agam Hamzah and Tesla Manaf Effendi. They are all very different from each other.”

As for these two recordings, it is always nice to see the trio format utilized; it is, in my opinion, the structure that requires the most awareness, instinct, and communication among the musicians. In the jazz world, some of the greatest recordings of all time have been made by trios, and these two releases add considerable luster to the form. Both guitarists are well worth watching out for.