Sunday, November 30, 2014

Night of Hunters - Tori Amos

Night of Hunters
Tori Amos
Deutsche Grammophon  B0015900-01

If ever there was a pop music artist worthy of recording for the venerable classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, it is Tori Amos.  She approaches her music with extreme seriousness and on this album each song is inspired by the work of a classical composer.  Furthermore her principle instrument is a Bösendorfer grand piano and on this particular album she is backed by classical instrumentation throughout.  When I saw her perform at the Orpheum in support of this record she was backed by a string quartet, but on the record she is also supported by woodwinds.  The result is the most sonically impressive and arguably most ambitious record of her long career.  It is beautifully recorded and it sounds fantastic on vinyl.  It is a concept album that analyzes a disintegrating relationship from a mystical perspective.  The opening track, "Shattering Sea," is inspired by a piece by Charles-Valentin Alkan.  The song is driven by a dynamic piano riff as Amos looks around at the aftermath of a fight with her lover.  The evocative language of the song and the powerful music compare favorably with her best songs.  "Snowblind" is taken from a work by Enrique Granados.  In this song Amos encounters Anabelle, a magical creature who appears to her in the guise of a fox.  Anabelle invites her to travel into the past to see a past incarnation of herself and her lover.  Anabelle is portrayed by Amos' daughter Natashya Hawley whose voice blends well with Amos' voice in their duet.  "Battle of Trees" comes from Satie.  The song depicts the events of 3,000 years ago in which Amos and her lover engage in a battle in Ireland against magical forces using language.  The song is a bit too fey for my taste, however it is such a beautiful song that I don't mind.  She could be singing gibberish and I'd still be entranced.  Amos and her lover lose the battle and take flight upon the sea in "Fearlessness."  Dark magical forces stir up doubt in her lover and drive them apart.  She returns to Granados again for this song and the interaction between her turbulent piano lines and the orchestration is very stirring, musically creating the sensation of a storm at sea.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  She created "Cactus Practice" from a nocturne by Chopin and it is another duet with her daughter.  In this song she encounters Anabelle in the form of a goose.  They discuss the conflicts between Amos and her lover and Anabelle induces her to drink a potion produced from a cactus in order to more clearly perceive her situation.  The result is described in the somber "Star Whisperer" which is derived from a Schubert piano sonata.  The song uses the natural world to create foreboding and depict alienation as discord rises between her and her lover.  The song features more dynamic interaction between the piano and the orchestra that validates Amos' decision to employ classical musical themes in her work.  "Job's Coffin" sees the return of Anabelle in the form of a fox.  The song invokes nature once more as the stars look down upon the earth to observe the self-destructive power struggle between the sexes.  Anabelle tells Amos that she must consult the Fire Muse to put her life back in order and regain her strength.  "Job's Coffin" is inspired by her following song "Nautical Twilight" which comes from a song by Felix Mendelssohn.  In this song Amos laments that she left her world to follow her lover and thus lost the force of which she is made.  She complains of the obsessions that consume her lover and drive them apart.  "Your Ghost" is based on a piece by Schumann.  The interplay between Amos' piano and the string quartet is particularly compelling in this delicate and bewitching song.  In this song she is addressing the memory of her lost love.  She continues to ruminate on her lost lover in "Edge of the Moon" which comes from a Bach sonata.  The latter portion of the song is very kinetic and Amos double tracks her vocal to great effect.  "The Chase" is derived from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."  Anabelle returns once more (as a goose) and she and Amos sing about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted and the duality of the two within people, particularly as symbols in the relations between the sexes.  Amos at last meets the Fire Muse (sung by Kelsey Dobyns) in "Night of Hunters" which was created from a Gregorian chant and a sonata by Scarlatti.  The song is loaded with religious and mystical language as it further explores the symbolism of the hunter/hunted dynamic among people.  Amos again invokes the image of constellations (the Pleiades this time) watching over the human race as the Fire Muse and Amos discuss the dark forces that corrupt people.  She takes up Bach again for "Seven Sisters" which is an instrumental featuring her piano and an oboe played by Andreas Ottensamer.  It is a lovely passage of music.  The album concludes with "Carry" which was inspired by a prelude by Debussy.  In this majestic song, Amos celebrates the contributions that the people she has loved have made in her life.  She realizes that although they have left her, she will always remember them, "they carry on as stars looking down as Nature's Sons and Daughters of the Heavens."  It is an uplifting finale to a rather dark record.  I'm not normally drawn to mysticism or spirituality, but I find Amos' use of them in her libretto to be effective.  They give her tale depth and resonance and I also admire her symbolic use of the natural world.  One rarely finds such artistry and intelligence in pop music and that is just the lyrics.  The music itself pushes the boundaries between pop and classical music utilizing the best elements of both.  I love this record, I think it is Amos' best album since "Under the Pink."  I respect her for taking chances and exploring new avenues in her work so late in her career.  Kudos to Deutsche Grammophon for recognizing Amos's special gift and encouraging her to express it.  Recommended to Leonard Cohen fans who dig Schubert and Tolkien.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sunflower - The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys
Brother Records/Reprise Records RS-6382

Over the summer I went with my family to the Ventura County Fair.  The price of admission to the fair included admission to the show in the evening which is how I found myself watching a concert by Mike Love and his Beach Boys imposters.  There is no way I'd ever pay money to watch Mike Love perform and I wasn't even sure I wanted to see him for free, but my wife and son insisted on staying for his performance so I went and to my surprise I enjoyed it.  If nothing else Love knows how to please a crowd and unleashed a slew of popular Beach Boys classics plus well-chosen covers like "Surf City" and "California Dreamin.'"  Love's nasal whine was in fine form and he showed impressive enthusiasm.  He had a solid back-up band which featured some good singers to take the place of Carl and Brian Wilson.  He definitely needed them because his two "Beach Boys" were basically window dressing.  Bruce Johnston can't sing anymore, his performance on "Please Let Me Wonder" was appalling and David Marks is, well, David Marks.  There were a few departures from the stream of hits such as Love's self-serving tribute to George Harrison, "Pisces Brothers."  The most notable one came from special guest John Stamos.  Stamos sat in for several numbers and had more charisma and a greater passion for the music than any of the hired guns on stage.  As a tribute to Dennis Wilson, Stamos delivered a heartfelt and moving performance of "Forever" off this album, easily the highlight of the show for me (Stamos previously recorded the song with the Beach Boys on "Summer in Paradise.")  "Sunflower" is my favorite of the Beach Boys' post-Capitol albums.  It was a flop when it came out, but I think it has aged well, in large part because of Dennis' strong contribution.  He opens the album with "Slip On Through" which is a love song.  Dennis sounded more like a rock singer than anyone in the band, his voice was gritty but still capable of delicacy.  The song is propulsive and bolstered by excellent back-up singing.  Brian delivers another strong song with "This Whole World" which is sweetly sung by Carl.  It is extremely poppy in the familiar Beach Boys' style but the vaguely hippie-ish love-is-everywhere lyrics are more characteristic of the Beach Boys in the late 1960s.  "Add Some Music to Your Day" is by Brian, Joe Knott and Mike Love.  The song is about the value of music in everyday life and its uplifting properties.  This extremely catchy and buoyant tune demonstrates this with brilliantly arranged and exhilarating vocal harmonies.  It is a classic Beach Boys song and its failure to become a hit single is more a reflection of the crappy state of pop music in 1970 than the quality of the song.  Dennis returns with "Got to Know the Woman" which has a harder rock edge than a typical Beach Boys song and a soulful flavor as well.  The song describes meeting a woman and immediately falling for her.  "Deirdre" is by Bruce Johnston with some help from Brian.  Like most of Johnston's songs it is kind of sappy and his wimpy vocal doesn't help much, but the song has some nice vocal harmonies that make it listenable and even enjoyable in the chorus section.  Side one concludes with "It's About Time" by Dennis, Al Jardine and Bob Burchman.  The song is about someone who has been creatively frustrated but who then discovers his artistic voice and seeks to make the world a better place with his work.  I always assumed it was an autobiographical song for Dennis, but then I read that the lyrics were Burchman's.  Nonetheless the song seems to have had a lot of resonance for Dennis and he set it to music with a rocked up tune that is bursting with energy befitting the ebullient lyrics.  The song features an excellent vocal from Carl that expresses the passionate nature of the song.  Side two gets off to a rocky start with Johnston's "Tears in the Morning" in which he whines about his wife leaving him to find fulfillment in Europe.  Hard to blame her listening to the stream of self-pity running through this dreary song.  It is easily the worst song on the album.  Things improve with Love and Brian's "All I Wanna Do" which is a bland love song crooned by Love.  The song benefits greatly from a strong vocal and instrumental arrangement reminiscent of "Pet Sounds" that makes it seem more distinguished than it really is.  Dennis' "Forever" which he wrote with Greg Jacobson is another album highlight for me.  It is a gorgeous love song sung by Dennis and the slight roughness in his vocal keeps it from being sappy or phony.  It feels completely sincere and I find it one of the most touching songs that the Beach Boys ever did.  It has a memorable melody and more excellent background vocals to help make it a real winner.  Brian, Carl and Jardine's "Our Sweet Love" continues in a similar vein.  It is another tender love song boasting a typically gorgeous vocal from Carl.  It uses strings and lovely background vocals to create a fabulous romantic sound that really sends me.  It is followed by Jardine and Brian's "At My Window."  The song is about seeing a sparrow outside a window and features a verse spoken in French for reasons that escape me.  Although the theme of the song is typical of the interest in nature expressed in many of the band's songs of that period, it still feels like filler to me, albeit beautifully arranged and sung filler.  The album concludes with the weirdness of Brian and Love's "Cool, Cool Water."  The song sounds like a "Smile" outtake and that is almost what it is.  It was derived from "Love to Say Dada" from the "Elements" section of that album.  The original version was largely an instrumental aside from the repeated words "water" and "wah-wah."  "Cool, Cool Water" retains most of that song's melody and expands the chant to become "have some cool, cool water."  There is also a trippy instrumental passage in the center that is followed by some new inane lyrics that sound like the work of Mike Love to me, such as "cool water is such a gas."  I still really like the song though.  The vocal arrangement is wonderful and the melody is soothing and it gives the album a mellow finish.  This record seems almost miraculous to me.  With Brian withdrawing into his own little world and only a minimal contribution from Mike Love, Dennis Wilson stepped up and filled the void magnificently.  His four songs are all terrific and are the backbone of a record that is only two mediocre Bruce Johnston songs away from being an absolute masterpiece.  I love this record and it is one of the Beach Boys albums that I play the most.  I like its maturity and the emphasis on love that permeates the record.  It sounds fabulous and is full of interesting touches that keep me from ever getting bored with it.  It was one of the best albums of 1970 and the last truly great album the Beach Boys ever made.  Recommended to people who like "Surf's Up" better than "Surfin' U.S.A."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Isle of View - Jimmie Spheeris

Isle of View
Jimmie Spheeris
Columbia  C 30988

I picked this up at a flea market a few years ago for a couple of bucks.  I'd never heard of Spheeris, I was attracted to the album by its striking cover design (my photo does not capture its vibrancy.)  I flipped it over and saw the hippie dude on the back and thought that maybe the record was psych-folk and decided to buy it.  When I gave it a spin and heard the sensitive singer-songwriter music it contained I was disappointed.  That was more a reflection on my false expectations than the quality of the music.  After a few spins the record grew on me and I came to like it.  This was Spheeris' debut album.  He released four albums prior to his premature demise in a traffic accident in 1984.  He was only 34.  None of his albums achieved much commercial success, his biggest claim to fame is that he was the brother of the film director Penelope Spheeris.  That may be unfair but it is understandable.  His music is introspective and subdued compared to his more successful singer-songwriter peers.  It lacks the exuberance of Cat Stevens and Elton John, the pop smarts of Paul Simon and Carole King, the passion of Laura Nyro and Tim Buckley or the poetic intensity of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.  As befits an album which has a title that sounds the same as "I love you" most of Spheeris' songs are romantic love songs with abundant poetic imagery.  This includes "The Nest," "For Roach," "Seeds of Spring," "I Am the Mercury," "Let It Flow," "Come Back" and "Esmaria."  My favorites are "The Nest" which benefits from a dramatic musical setting and the atmospheric "I Am the Mercury" which features an exhilarating conclusion with Spheeris' vocal soaring into falsetto territory.  Both songs are boosted by tasteful string arrangements by David Campbell.  "Esmaria" is an odd song, most of it is slow and sappy but in the middle it comes to life with a brief country rock rave-up before lapsing back into somnolence.  The other love songs are pleasant, but I don't find them memorable or stimulating.  "Monte Luna" is more abstract and overtly poetic.  It celebrates nature which seems to have been a significant theme for Spheeris.  Even his love songs are permeated with poetic images drawn from the natural world.  It is the prettiest song on the album and another one of my favorites.  "Long Way Down" is the only non-original on the album.  It was written by Lee Calvin Nicoli who plays bass, flute and guitar on the album.  Nicoli's lyrical approach is a lot more direct than Spheeris' style and the song is more dynamic with tempo shifts and a more pronounced beat than most of the other songs on the record, it even has a riff at times.  I wish there were more tunes like it on the album.  "Seven Virgins" is Spheeris' one attempt at a rocker and it is the oldest song on the album featuring a 1969 copyright.  It is a straight ahead hippie boogie type song with relatively hedonistic lyrics for Spheeris.  I don't think it is particularly good and it stands out like a sore thumb among the sensitive love songs on the record, but it is what the record needs more of.  It is vulgar, propulsive and features some stinging guitar licks all of which are more important to me more than nature metaphors and tender romantic crooning.  That is not to say that I don't like this record.  Even though I don't have much of an affinity with this type of music, when I'm in the right mood I enjoy listening to it and I respect its intelligence.  You could do a lot worse with singer-songwriters in the early 1970s.  Recommended to fans of Eric Andersen and Jesse Colin Young.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Texas Campfire Tapes - Michelle Shocked

The Texas Campfire Tapes
Michelle Shocked
Mercury 834 581-1

I was mortified and mystified when I read in the newspaper how Michelle Shocked committed career suicide by allegedly making homophobic comments and denouncing gay marriage on stage in San Francisco of all places.  As a result of the controversy her tour was cancelled and a bunch of journalists who probably had never even heard of her dragged her through the mud for a while until they lost interest.  I was flabbergasted by the whole thing for several reasons.  Firstly I had recently seen her in concert myself and she seemed completely normal.  Secondly I had no idea she had become a born again Christian, I basically thought of her as a left-wing activist (she made a lot of comments about the Occupy movement at the show I saw.)  Finally I always thought she was a lesbian herself.  I despise homophobia and I don't condone her remarks although I'm not entirely sure exactly what she said.  I've read descriptions of the event and excerpts of her stage patter and it does not make much sense to me.  I think I get what she was trying to say though and I do believe it was just a case of miscommunication and a misguided attempt at ironic humor.  I don't believe she meant any harm and though I find her explanations confusing, I accept her apologies.  I'm a fan of her work and I'm not going to dismiss it on the basis of her saying some stupid things at a show.  This album is one of my favorites.  The record is taken from a tape recorded on a Sony Walkman as Shocked ran through some of her songs accompanied only by her acoustic guitar while sitting at a campfire on the grounds of the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1986.  You can hear the persistent chirping of crickets throughout the recording as well as the occasional passing car or truck.  The album begins with the moody "5 a.m. in Amsterdam" which is about being alone in Amsterdam and hearing the church bells toll.  The mood brightens with the rollicking "The Secret Admirer" which dissects a sex symbol with a "sweet little asset."  Shocked says that the next song "The Incomplete Image" sounds unfinished but she calls it finished.  It alternates a lively instrumental section with quasi-spoken verses about a couple of vagabonds, one male and one female.  Shocked introduces "Who Cares?" as her most recent song.  It is a narrative of a visit to a spooky ghost town with Shocked picking out a compelling, atmospheric melody on her guitar.  The swinging "Down on Thomas St." is about a jazz club.  The jazzy mood continues with "Fogtown" which paints a dark portrait of San Francisco.  It describes the seedy nightlife of the city and the story of a hooker who dies from a heroin overdose.  It is one of my favorite songs on the record.  Shocked re-recorded the song as a rocker on her subsequent album "Short Sharp Shocked."  Shocked introduces "Steppin Out" by describing how she worked at a "non-commercial" radio station in Amsterdam where she wrote this song for a program about the reasons why people go out.  The song has an uptempo folk-blues flavor to it.  "The Hep Cat" is another one of my favorite songs on the album.  It is a jazzy, retro style tune and Shocked's sexy vocal is full of charm and personality as she describes her attraction to the cool cat of the title.  Shocked introduces "Necktie" as being an older song.  It is a jumping tune that reinforces the axiom about clothes making the man (or woman.)  I like the line about cultured pearls being "the kind that sips lots of tea and reads lots of poetry."  Shocked keeps up the fast tempo as she jumps right into "(Don't You Mess Around with) My Little Sister."  It is a rock and roll style song about her sister who is "a real gone twister" but too young for boys to mess around with.  She slows down for "The Ballad of Patch Eye and Meg" which is about an old sailor who tells tall tales but won't talk about the woman he loved.  The album concludes with "The Secret to a Long Life (Is Knowing When It's Time to Go)" which is a narrative ballad about an outlaw on the run in the old west.  The song sounds pretty worldly for a 24 year old.  That is true of the entire album, it has a timeless, folksy quality that seems way beyond her years.  I find listening to the album to be soothing and relaxing.  If you turn the lights down low and spin the record, Shocked's engaging and intimate performance will almost make you feel like you are sitting at that campfire next to her.  I defy anyone to play it and then proclaim that Shocked is a bad person who should not be allowed to perform.  Recommended to people who like to listen to demos.