Staff Picks: Music
If you lived in Kalamazoo during the 1970s and listened to WIDR (WMU campus radio) you undoubtedly heard a lot of Gil Scott-Heron – like others I’m sure, that was my first exposure to this highly influential musician and poet. Scott-Heron is often described as “the godfather of rap” for his sharply pointed spoken word infused jazz and soul. In his 1970 single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his deep soulful voice—accompanied only by a steady drum beat—brought life the hot-button issue of racial inequality; not as a radical street preacher but as an articulate street-smart professor (he held a master’s degree in creative writing). His words were riveting and immediate. “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not give you sex appeal. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.”
He collaborated with many of the jazz heavyweights of his time – Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws to name a few and his influence is acknowledged by a generation of artists, from Kanye West and Public Enemy to Eminem. His work touched on a variety of social and political issues, including addiction (“The Bottle” - 1974), slavery (“Rivers of My Fathers” - 1973) and racial oppression (“Johannesburg” - 1976). In 1979, he joined other high profile artists in Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and contributed “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a poignant reminder of a close-by nuclear near-disaster in 1972.
In 2010, Scott-Heron released his fifteenth studio album, I’m New Here, to great critical acclaim. A track called “Where Did The Night Go” is highlighted here. Gil Scott-Heron passed away last Friday in New York after a brief illness. He was 62.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on 24 May 1941, today marks Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Celebrate the occasion right along with Bob by lending a fresh ear to the Best of the Original Mono Recordings, a single disc sampler from the recently released 9 CD set featuring Dylan’s first eight albums. Recorded between 1962 and 1967, these recordings are “universally regarded as some of the most important works in the history of recorded music, painstakingly reproduced from their first generation monaural mixes.” (www.bobdylan.com – Sorry, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.)
During the 1960s and before, monaural (mono) was the most common format for recorded sound, though many of us today might not have ever heard these records that way. The subsequent “stereo” versions often suffered from unrealistic separation—voice center, harmonica on the far left, guitar far right, etc.—and for technical reasons, simply flipping the switch from stereo to mono only makes matters worse. (I say “stereo” because early stereo was often faked for novelty effect rather than sonic clarity.) Now presented for the first time on CD in their proper format, these songs can all be heard as the producers—and probably Bob—originally intended. And in many cases, the differences are not subtle.
So, Scotty, “what is the antidote to stereo? Well, it’s been right in your home all along. Good old American mono.” Happy birthday, Bob!
The Original Mono Recordings
The latest release from Emmylou Harris (her 21st studio album) is a collection of heartfelt tales of love and tragedy; stories about lost friends, family and deep-seated faith. Recorded in the home studio of her producer Jay Joyce, the production is lush and spacious, and her signature voice shines as always. The sound very much recalls the atmospheric feel of her work with Daniel Lanois, which is amazing considering that only three musicians play on the record; Harris, Joyce (guitars and keyboards), and drummer/keyboardist Giles Reeves.
Ms. Harris penned eleven of the thirteen songs herself (unusual since she’s only ever recorded a handful her own songs), but she includes a couple of tasty covers here, too... “Cross Yourself” is written by Joyce and the title tune is by Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Emmylou says that she finds songwriting difficult, but honestly, she should do more of it—her writing is articulate and her songs are genuine.
Standouts for me include the album opener, “The Road,” a fond remembrance of her early years with Gram Parsons. (If you’re quick, you can still grab a free download of this song on Emmylou’s website.) “Darlin’ Kate” is a tribute to her close friend Kate McGarrigle, who recently died of cancer. “My Name is Emmett Till” recalls the story of a 14-year-old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in 1950s, and considers “all that might have come” had he been allowed to live. “The Ship on His Arm” explores the life and love that her parents perhaps shared during the Second World War, while “Goodnight Old World” (written with longtime Steve Winwood collaborator Will Jennings) hopes for a better world for newer generations (Harris recently became a grandmother).
Like a glass of Pinot and a nap in the sun, Emmylou’s voice soothes the soul—melancholy never felt so good. Yet after 40 years as a professional musician, 25 albums and a dozen Grammys, she still drives a Hard Bargain.
Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain
I’ve been listening to the music of Gram Parsons lately since I watched the documentary film Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel. Parsons musical gifts and passion for country and roots music was a major factor in his influencing of such legendary bands as The Rolling Stones and The Byrds. He is cited as the one who helped to usher in the genre of country rock during the late sixties when he worked with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He later introduced to the musical world a young singer songwriter named Emmylou Harris. Parsons lived fast and died young but he left behind two very strong records, GP and Grievous Angel. If you’re interested in musical documentaries, you may enjoy:
Kurt Cobain: About a Son
The Velvet Underground: Vanishing Point
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The Heart is a Drum Machine: A Documentary Film About Music
Here is a video clip from the documentary.
GP [sound recording] ; Grievous angel
Over the past couple of years there has been a spike in retro-sounding soul musicians whose work echoes the groundbreaking sounds of early sixties Motown and Stax recordings. For starters, the soul enthusiast looking to delve into some of the newer troubadours will want to grab a copy of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement, Fitz and the Tantrum’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces, and the forthcoming Raphael Saadiq’sStone Rollin’.
I Learned the Hard Way
As a collector and (ahem) connoisseur of “underground” Bob Dylan recordings since the 1970s, I was of course thrilled with the official (and thankfully ongoing) release of The Bootleg Series. Now nine volumes and counting, these releases represent the hidden side of Dylan’s work – especially during the early years. Akin to browsing through an artist’s sketchbook, these recordings give us a fresh glimpse at Dylan’s writing and recording process and a chance to hear otherwise lost performances.
As an addendum to this historic series, Columbia has just released the stand-alone version of Bob Dylan In Concert - Brandeis University 1963, a previously unreleased and seemingly un-bootlegged early live set.
On May 10, 1963 – 48 years ago today – Bob Dylan performed at the Brandeis First Annual Folk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts, just two weeks before the release of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. A seven inch reel-to-reel tape recording of Dylan’s performance that day sat tucked away on a shelf in Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Ralph J. Gleason’s home for more than four decades.
Recently discovered, these recordings represent a glimpse of how Dylan sounded while he was still touring the small clubs and coffee houses on the brink of fame. Michael Gray, author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, calls this “the last live performance we have of Bob Dylan before he becomes a star... way back when Kennedy was President and the Beatles hadn’t yet reached America.”
So how does it sound? In a word… amazing. Bob… his guitar… his harmonica… and seven audible slices of 1963. The version of “Masters of War” is alone worth the effort.
Bob Dylan in Concert
If you’re a fan of extended atmospheric guitar work with a slightly intense edge, you might want to dive into the seventh and latest studio album from the Scottish band Mogwai, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Mogwai first came to my ears through an NPR live webcast soon after the band formed in 2006, and I’ve since become quite fond of them. Their sound is unique but familiar, combining elements of post-punk Radiohead, Sonic Youth and even Flipper with gorgeous atmospheric textures of old school prog rock ala Pink Floyd. The result is what the band calls “serious guitar music.” But don’t let that scare you, Mogwai creates some truly beautiful and accessible (mostly instrumental) music. The band will take part in the iTunes Festival in London this summer and return to the US for a (rescheduled) tour in the fall.
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will