Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5: Beethoven

My life, and my mindset, is shockingly different than it was just a few years ago. When my wife and I lived in Texas we went to the health food store to shop, mostly because they had great prices on bulk foods, and we even brought our own bags (a radical idea just 5 years ago), as I spent more time outdoors and started noticing how many plastic bags end up in our nature preserves. We started to eat more organics and I jumped on board with that because I grew up eating my grandpa's fresh vegetables and fruits. Once my son came along, we were full swing on the organic bandwagon, even members of an organic CSA, and then after I read Disease Proof Your Child by Dr. Fuhrman, my family moved to a "plant-based" diet: we still eat meat and bread, but we try to get the majority of our intake from plants (we plan to buy 2 shares at our CSA next year). If, 3 years ago, you had tried to get me to eat the way I do today, I would have laughed. Slowly, though, this way of living has become easier and easier, and combined with playing basketball once or twice a week, I have lost almost 20 pounds in the last year.

Once you start down this path, though, it's hard to stop. Now I am learning more and more about the simplicity movement. One idea I come back to over and over again is how folks work overtime and have such busy schedules that they don't have time to make coffee, so they buy a $4 coffee everyday, so they have to work overtime to pay for the coffee, and so on. That's not necessarily a perfect example, but you get the idea. Is there value added with all this extra stuff in my life? What if we could just cut more out? Do less? What would we do with that extra time? I am reading Simplicity Parenting, and so much of it resonates with me. I think back on the highlights of my own childhood; so many of the things I am nostalgic for are the simpler times, just hanging out in the neighborhood with my brothers, or going to the park with my parents.

Beethoven: hippie music, right? Ok, maybe not, but I was trying to keep up with the 1000 Recordings Podcast guys, and heard one of the recordings I had skipped the first time through because I couldn't find it. And it's all about simplicity.

Artist: Ludwig van Beethoven
Album: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, Arthur Schoonderwoerd, Ensemble Cristofori.
Recording #511
Stream the album here

I started reading the entry in Moon's book, and right away, I went, "Whoa." "This recording offers an excellent encounter with the early-music philosophy, which shares a kinship with heirloom vegetable farming and other back-to-basics movements." Seriously? Could this have been better timed? Had I read that when I first started this project, I might have thought, whatever. But now I really paid attention to it.

Beethoven is pretty easy to like: it's like a song with a great hook. He always comes back to these perfect melodies, and when you have a orchestra of only 20 members (the standard size in Beethoven's day), rather than the typical 80-100, you can really focus on those melodies. In general, this book has made me realize what a purist I am when it comes to music; simple is good, and the original is often the best. Some of my favorite discoveries have been totally old school: Roscoe Holcomb, the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family. So, yeah, I DO want to hear what Beethoven had in mind when he wrote these pieces, by hearing it on the instruments of the day. Fortepiano and catgut strings and whatnot. So if you are looking for a jumping off place on classical, as a guy who really doesn't know much about classical, I can say this is a pretty good start. I found the overall tone very warm and inviting. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Check out Moon's entry here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Charlie Christian, the Genius of the Electric Guitar

As I alluded to in my last post, my son is in that wonderful stage of development where he really likes repetition. An example: while grocery shopping I tapped his head with a package of tortillas and said "bonk" before throwing them in the shopping cart. This was met with hysterical giggles, and then, complete with puppy dog eyes, a pleading "mooooooore?" After about 10 "bonks" I finally decided I had to quit if I didn't want all my frozen goods to melt. Not too long ago, after we took down our Christmas lights, he pointed to the area on our back window where they used to hang and said "lights." I explained they were gone now. He then pointed to the front window: "lights." "All gone." Then the dining room light, blazing away, "lights." "Yep," I said, "lights." Back to the back window, then front, then dining room, over and over and over. My wife couldn't believe my patience with this game.

Of course, this trend also happens with respect to music. Soon after falling in love with "C'mon 'N Ride it" he found renewed interest in "Dis Doss" (Kris Kross). As soon as "Jump" ends, he calls for me to play it again. And again. And again. Sometimes he mixes it up, by asking for "Pain... House" halfway through the song (this is his way of asking me to switch to House of Pain's "Jump Around") and then, after a minute, asking for more Dis Doss. I used to know the lyrics to "Jump" fairly well, but now I can rattle off "Some of them try to rhyme but they can't rhyme like this" like the Micro Machines guy (by the way, ever notice that nothing rhymes in that lyric?). I worry about the affects of so much jumping on my son's body, because he seriously wants to jump for the entire length of the song (or, more likely, wants me to hold him and jump, because he doesn't really have that skill down yet-- it's more of a squat/fall).

I let my son get away with this because he's a toddler, and, well, he's my son. Tom Moon recently tried to get away with this repetition game, and I'm sorry Tom, but I just can't cut you too much slack.

Artist: Charlie Christian
Album: The Genius of the Electric Guitar
Recording #513

Stream the album here

Based on the title, I was really excited for this recording the first time I came across it about a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the recording anywhere. Thankfully, I just discovered Spotify, and the entire 4-disc box set is on there. Woohoo! I shouted, prematurely. Because although the overall theme of this record is pretty nice - bebop and old school late '30s jazz, which is a type of jazz I can appreciate as a jazz newbie - there is a severe problem with this recording. Four discs of jazz is a lot for me in any setting, because my ears are just becoming used to it, but when I hear the song "Six Appeal" as the original, 3 alternate takes, and 2 false starts, I'm a little put off. "Breakfast Fued" was pretty enjoyable the first time; SEVEN alternate takes!? Plus 2 false starts? The entire 4th disc consists mostly of outtakes and practices, often interspersed with chatting about timing and technique. This might be interesting stuff to a real Benny Goodman or Charlie Christian fan, but does this really have the staying power to make it worthy to be one of the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die? With so many other single-disc collections to choose from, I am truly confused by Moon's choice here. Especially since Moon points out that due to Christian's untimely death he only recorded for 3 years.

OK, but enough about the format; I will say that the guitar work is superb. Not my favorite genre, but considering the early timeframe of these recordings (1939-41), these sound way ahead of their time because of the guitar. Again, because I am not an aficionado of jazz, I have to listen closely to hear the guitar and recognize the forward thinking, but when I really focus on the smooth lines of Christian, it's damn impressive. Again, I think Moon's selection here takes away from the focus on Christian: after 4 discs I really start to space out and only notice the big picture "jazz" instead of taking the time to hone in on the guitar, which is supposed to be the star. It's too bad that there aren't more recordings focused just on his guitar, and maybe Moon's intention was to give you every opportunity to hear everything Christian recorded, but I think he failed in that decision. Check out the first disc and a half to get a taste, unless you are a completionist like myself.
Read Moon's entry here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The White Album Gets No Love from Me

My son is now old enough to have some well-defined favorite songs, and today he discovered a new one. At Christmas, both Nana and Grandma's house have train sets, and my son is now obsessed with trains (he doesn't really understand what they are yet aside from toys), and so I thought it would be funny to play Quad City DJs' "C'Mon 'N Ride it (The Train)" and teach him a conga line dance. And I was right, it was funny... the first five times through. I lost count after that, and we could barely get through breakfast because everytime the song ended he would point at the computer and shout "TRAIN!"

So, I can now add that to his list of other favorites: "I Want to Be Your Driver" by Chuck Berry ( yes, 1000 Recording entry), "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys (no, not 1000 RTHBYD), "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles (yes), "Jump" by Kris Kross (surprisingly, no), and "Yellow Submarine" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" by The Beatles (yes and yes). The last one is from the Beatles' self-titled/"White" album, and that's what I'm going to talk about today.

Artist: The Beatles
Album: The Beatles (The White Album)
Recording #175ish

Stream this on Youtube

I said before that choosing a favorite Radiohead album opens one up to attacks; multiply that by 1000 when you're talking about a Beatles album. There are entire college courses dedicated to studying the Beatles and how influential their albums were. But here it goes: The White Album is my least favorite Beatles album. Maybe it's because it's the last one I heard, and maybe Abbey Road is my favorite because it was the first. Maybe it's because there are so few singles on it, so I was totally unfamiliar with it. Considering it's their best selling album, I am clearly in the minority. But the overall theme I get from the album (strange that I notice one, considering the band had basically broken up by this point and it's a double album) is a melancholy, sludgy one. The songs don't have a lot of oomph, aside from the singles, which are generally the most interesting.

My first experience with this album was actually hearing The Gray Album by Danger Mouse (another 1000 Recording), which is a mix of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles. I remember thinking, "the backing music sounds nothing like the Beatles." Now, in part, that was Danger Mouse's genius, but it also stems from the fact that much of this album does not sound like what most would think of as the Beatles. I wonder how many people felt as confused by this when it was first released as I did the first time I heard it. After hearing the guys from the 1000 Recordings Podcast talk about this one, I understood it a little better, especially the nuances between the different members and how they were all exploring their own styles. When I went back and listened to it again, I realize it's a "grower," but I'm still not there. There are some great songs on here ("Yer Blues," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," - which I did not particularly like the first time, and "Blackbird"), but only one album's worth in my opinion (I could do without "Piggies," and "Revolution 9" for example). Let the skewering begin, but I can't honestly say I dig this one.

How many stars would you give this recording?

Buy this album here

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Huun-Huur Tu: My Son Busts His First Dance Move to Tuvan Throat Singing

As I was writing a recent post I noticed this one was sitting in my drafts! It's from back in February, but I think the timing is actually good, as my son is now a dancing machine, and it's strange to remember a time when he was not.

When I decided to start writing a blog about working my way through the 1000 recordings I think part of the reason was my son. I know he is going to be influenced by Top 40 radio and probably try to rebel and listen to whatever he thinks we won't approve of (I think I'm making that part tough on him, though, by liking a wide variety of music), but I want to foster in him a love of music.

I think my love of music stems from my dad. My dad's love of music isn't quite as obsessive as mine, but he plays music loudly in the car, he dances with reckless abandon when the mood and the music hit him, and when he has a few drinks he sits in his leather chair with a big set of headphones and a huge collection of CDs. I remember him telling me once that Grand Funk Railroad's "I'm Your Captain" was the song he listened to before he went to bed every night for months as a kid.

That's the kind of appreciation I hope is something I can foster in my son, because while my wife enjoys music and has her favorite songs and loves going to concerts, she just doesn't really care that much. She has no idea what the words are to any song, usually doesn't know song titles, and, most importantly, only listens to it once in awhile, whereas I prefer to have music on at all times. If this sort of connection to music is genetic, my son has a shot, but if it's learned behavior, I am trying to provide him with the right tools.

With that in mind, I still never expected his first dancing would occur to the strangest music I've ever heard.

Artist: Huun-Huur Tu
Album: The Orphan's Lament
Recording #413

I had heard of Tuvan throat singing before in reference to Howlin' Wolf's intro to "Howlin' in the Moonlight," but I still wasn't prepared for the weirdness I got from Tuva's most famous band, Huun-Huur Tu. At first I wasn't that impressed with the throat singing part, but I did enjoy the harmonies and the chant-like style. By the time I got to the song "Aa-shuu Dekei-oo," though, I was thoroughly engrossed. This upbeat song is the one that caused my son to stare at the speakers, smile, and then start shaking his money maker. The best part about it is that it seems he, Tom Moon, and I are the only ones who can stand it: my brother, wife, and office mate all asked me to turn it off. For sure, this album isn't for everyone, and I don't think I'll be pulling it up often, but it's definitely a good one to have in my back pocket when I really want to weird someone out or just need to get outside the norm. I hope you are one of the few who enjoys it like I do.

Buy this album at Amazon
Read Moon's Entry

Friday, January 6, 2012

Chicago Gets No Love From My Parents

They say you can't go home again, and this Christmas might be the first time I not only knew this to be true, but accepted it. It was my son's second Christmas, but his first as a toddler with his own clear inclinations, and I truly felt that my family was in visiting from out of town rather than the usual feeling I get of being "home." That's not to say that I didn't feel at home, and in fact it was probably the best Christmas since I left Cleveland for college, but I recognized my small family unit, and was recognized, as a separate family this year.

But staying in my parents' house always turns me a little bit into the teenager I used to be, which, lucky for them, was a pretty good one. Everyone rebels against or aims to please their parents to varying degrees, and I went through my rebellious phases. But, as is my nature, I generally tried to make everyone happy (which, incidentally, has created plenty of situations where no one was happy). Of course I can relate this to music: I'll never forget the pure joy and elation I got back in High School when my brothers and I were listening to Soul Coughing's El Oso and my uncle walked through the room, protesting, "You guys actually listen to this stuff and think it's music?" Damn, I was hipster before that word existed.

But typically I try to find musical common ground with my parents. I remember when Cake's Fashion Nugget came out and my mom borrowed my copy for a party she was having. I had to tell my friend to come over and trade me for his Walmart-edited version so my parents didn't catch me with a CD that had cursing on it, but I was happy that I had introduced them to a new band. And most of my classic rock collection on my iPod was ripped from my dad's CDs (the Who, the Doors, Grand Funk Railroad, Creedance featured prominently; Dylan? Never heard of him).

So while I was home this week for the holidays I pulled up the latest 1000 Recordings Podcast to finish listening to it, and heard a plug for my blog at the end (thanks Tony and Mitch!). My parents overheard and asked about it, so I told them about the blog and when I started playing cards with my dad I queued up Chicago soul singer Baby Huey and the Babysitters, which I had mentioned in my email to the podcast. My mom was laying down on the couch, dozing, and after a few songs asked, "What is this?" I told her, and then asked, "You don't like it?" "I don't know..." and then after a brief pause, "no."

I browsed my library for something more worthy of an evening card game. Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, I thought, would be much more appreciated. After about five songs, my mom again asked me to put on something good. I was shocked. My aunt and cousin had shown up at that point, and although my aunt was lukewarm to it, my 18-year old cousin was wholeheartedly on my side. My dad, though, was not impressed either. So, as far as I'm concerned, taste is not genetic, because these two albums absolutely hold a place on the 1000 Recordings You Should Hear Before You Die.

Artist: Baby Huey and the Babysitters
Album: Living Legend: The Baby Huey Story
Recording #125ish
Baby Huey by recordingtherecordings on Grooveshark

Of all the things I learned about my musical tastes from this book, the most shocking was how much I like some good soul music. Generally, R&B meant to me a more grooving version of smooth jazz. This book has shown me that if there's a singer with passion and a band that can rock (Sam Cooke, James Brown, Baby Huey) I am all about it. The first track, "Listen to Me" has a killer bass line and right away Baby Huey's voice, coming from his 400+ pound frame, is booming. I have a particular affinity for the piercing "SAY!" that he throws out there every once in awhile (probably the part my mom was not a fan of). "A Change is Gonna Come" sounds like a thunderstorm on the horizon. And my personal favorite is probably "Hard Times." The horn section is incredible; I want to simultaneously dance and be involved in a '70s era car chase when I hear it. There are a few too many instrumentals for my taste, but that's part of the legacy of this album: Baby Huey died of an overdose during the recording of the album at the incredibly young age of 26, leaving many of the songs without vocals. This one is beautifully introspective and at the same time will get you moving.

Buy the album at Amazon

Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Album: Illinois
Recording #75ish
Sufjan Stevens Illinois by recordingtherecordings on Grooveshark

From the opening piano salvo, quickly joined with fluttering flutes, you know this one is going to be pretty. Sufjan doesn't disappoint on this one if you are looking for orchestral pop music. I heard Sufjan first on Pitchfork.com, back in the early 2000s, when it was known only by the most pretentious music snobs (I actually found it so snobby I couldn't read it). They gave away tons of free music, and one of them was "Sister" off Sufjan's album Seven Swans. I loved it, and quickly sought out more, and discovered Michigan, which had been released the year earlier. The album was totally dedicated to Stevens' home state, and supposedly the first of 50 such "State Albums." When Illinois came out, my brother gave me a copy; while I had high hopes because I liked Michigan so much, I did not expect that his second state album would actually be BETTER. But it is. Michigan is very soft, dark, and sparse, while Illinois includes not only tons of horns and strings, but a group of backup singers dubbed the "Illinoisemaker Choir." I have a compulsion to rank and list (can you tell? I write a blog about a list) and on my iPod, with over 20,000 songs, I have only 133 "5-star" songs. This album has TWO of them: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is out to Get Us!" The first is the most sympathetic song ever written about a serial killer, with Stevens darkly comparing his (and everyone's) own dark secrets with that of a man who killed 27 or more people. This song is worthy of multiple "goosebump" moments- his falsetto "Oh my God" and his final confession to look beneath his floorboards before the haunted ending are two obvious ones. I'm not real sure what I love about "The Predatory Wasp." The structure of the song is actually pretty simple compared to most of the album, but the words paint such a beautiful and confusing picture that I am drawn in. Is the story about a best friend, or a lover? The song invokes the confusing, tumbling emotions of teenage years, further highlighted by longing of the shouts of "We were in love," and "I love him each day." This touching song is followed by the funky bassline and staccato shouts of "They are Night Zombies!! They are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!" The beauty of the album is how Stevens can take these disjointed themes and ideas and make them all fit into one cohesive album.

Buy the album at Amazon
Read Moon's Entry

I highly recommend making each of these a priority to add to your music collection. What are your thoughts on these? Let me know in the comments section.