Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Classical Training

Dudamel having too much fun

You may have noticed a trend in the recordings I tend to write about. I am not much of a fan (let alone expert) of jazz, showtunes, opera, or classical. While showtunes and jazz would be fun to see live, I don't care much for listening to them at home, and opera is a whole different challenge for my not-classically trained ears.

When it comes to classical music, I have no problem enjoying it. I have a problem distinguishing between the pieces: I wouldn't know Bach from Beethoven or Brahms, Mozart from Mahler or Mendelssohn. In fact, I often tend to "tune out" classical music, which makes it great for grading papers or reading, but not so much for "hearing" in the sense of 1000 Recordings to HEAR Before You Die.

My wife listens to a lot of podcasts because, as I've mentioned before, we spend a lot of time putting my son down for naps/bedtime, and after the "routine" (bath, pajamas, books, etc), all that is required of us while my son falls asleep is our presence. So while I often listen to music while I wait for him to stop thrashing around, she listens to NPR's This American Life and Radiolab.

She told me about a month ago that she heard a Radiolab episode she thought I might enjoy. I don't spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, but I started getting into listening to the 1000 Recordings Podcast while I wash dishes, and since there was none this week, I browsed the podcasts I had downloaded for her. As I was looking I came across the one she had suggested for me.

First, I highly recommend checking out this episode. It's well worth the 20 minutes. But here's the Cliff's Notes version if you don't want to commit the time. This guy, Bob Milne, claims to be able to hear two complete symphonies in his mind at the same time. When pressed by a neurologist, he upped that to four. I had the same response as the show's host, Jad Abrumrad: "That's total bull****." So the whole episode focuses on how they tested this claim.

What really amazed me was not just that this guy can do this, but the way he does it. He literally sees the orchestra playing the pieces as a 3-D movie that he can zoom in and out of, increase the volume of certain sections, change the speed. He also gets certain "emotions" from chords. As Abrumrad protests, everyone has a strong emotional relationship to music (although more and more I am realizing there is a large variance between people on that one). But Milne's experience sounds much closer to synesthesia (for example, how Tony of the 1000 Recordings Podcast sees colors when he listens to music).

Well, damn, if I could do all that then of course I would be able to discern between all the classical pieces. I could probably even differentiate between different orchestras! Here's the bottom line: I'm really jealous of Milne's brain, and Tony's, and anyone whose relation to music is that organic and natural. Because I feel like I have to be an intense listener. I study my music collection like a textbook: I know how many 5-star songs I have (133), how many of the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time are on my iPod (316) vs Pitchfork's list of 500 Best Songs of the Decade (185). I know songs by the first second of guitar feedback on a track. Songs that reference other songs are my favorite, because I feel like I'm in on a secret (check out "You Were Right" by Built to Spill for a great example) which may be a reason I love covers so much.

My brain is analytical about something that really should be, I feel, more emotional. I have a very good memory, not just about music, and I am into statistics (my brother and I used to keep stats while we played Nintendo's Major League Baseball, for entire seasons). I have a strong passion for music, but I feel like I am working extra hard at something that some people have a natural ability for. I hear a song and the first thing I notice is, logically, the lyrics. In 5th grade I excitedly memorized my first song ("2 Legit 2 Quit" by MC Hammer), but if you asked me to play the notes on a piano I'd be nearly hopeless. I'd probably get there, because I have an obsession with this stuff, but I'm without talent.

All this is to lead up to the four composers listed in the Radiolab podcast; Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Two I've heard, two I haven't gotten to yet. My ears have adapted since I heard Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (the only notes I wrote in the book were "slow and boring") and Brahms' Four Symphonies (for which I wrote no notes at all, probably wasn't paying close enough attention). I think I'm getting better at identifying the patterns in jazz, taking pleasure in the lofty voices of opera, and finding the common threads that tie all the pieces in the book together, but for some reason, I still have a bad habit of drifting off when I listen to classical. Hopefully, by the time I get to Schubert's Ninth Symphony and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto (listed in the book under violinist Yehudi Menuhin), while I may not have 3-D, technicolor ears, I'll hear something in this genre that grabs my full attention.

I'm not sure what it's going to take, though, because it sure hasn't come naturally to me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

NEWS: Facebook Discussion Group and Challenge

A new Facebook group was just created by a group of friends under the title "1,000 Recordings Challenge." Each day the group listens to a new recording (or at least the "Key Tracks") and discusses their thoughts. Sounds like a pretty good idea, because, like watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, I think this book is better when read as a group. I have learned so much about music through the blogs/podcasts/conversations of others as I journey through this list.

Join in the conversation here. And hey, while you're already on Facebook, like my page. You'll get super fast up to the minute updates when I post something new, so you don't have to sit there and hit the refresh button over and over (F5, if you didn't know). Also, sometimes I share interesting news I find on Facebook that may not get its own post. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

COVER: Mike's 1000 Cover the Recordings

Last week the 1000 Recordings Podcast guys hooked the ultimate interview: the book's author Tom Moon. Before you read any further, I recommend you go check it out, and at least listen to the opening, where Moon talks about how he compiled the book.

After listening to his criteria (imagining that he is trying to introduce the world of music to a very receptive teenager rather than "The Best" or "The Most Influential") I have had to reevaluate my own "Mike's 1000" choices. I think I would still include the ones I have, but I think Moon's list has become even more subjective than it already was. It's hard to argue against playing any particular entry for someone when you are just trying to expose them to music (although, in some ways this has helped me think of more entries that I feel are missing).

Regardless of where my "Mike's 1000" list will go in the future, the three acts I've picked so far, Sun Kil Moon,  Iron & Wine, and Sublime, have all covered a recording that appears on the list. SKM and I&W, in particular, may be more well known for their covers than they are as originators. All three of these covers are fine tributes, and in the case of Iron & Wine, possibly better than the original. Check out the covers below, and then compare them to the originals at the bottom of the page.

Sublime - "Rivers of Babylon" (The Melodians cover, filed under Jimmy Cliff' in the book)
Sun Kil Moon - "Send in the Clowns" (written by Stephen Sondheim, sung by Glynis Johns in the book)
Iron & Wine - "Waitin' for a Superman" (The Flaming Lips cover)

Mike's 1000 Covers by recordingtherecordings on Grooveshark

The originals:

Mike's 1000 Covers Originals by recordingtherecordings on Grooveshark

Friday, March 9, 2012

Interview: Sal Valentino of the Beau Brummels

When I picked up 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, the main purpose was to discover "new" music. At 30 years old, I'm not the newest kid on the block. In fact, I once owned a cassette tape of The New Kids on the Block. But I still feel like I don't know music from the '80s, or even the early '90s, and aside from what got played on oldies or classic rock stations, anything earlier than that is completely unknown.

This year's Grammy's are a great example of how many folks younger than myself are even farther removed from recent music history. The phenomena of "Who TF is Paul McCartney" and the number of forum comments about how "Nirvana sucked, Foo Fighters RAWK!" shocked me. I'm sure people feel the same way when I say "The White Album is overrated" and that's why I am trying to expand my palate (in terms of classical, jazz, world) and expand my education (understanding the influence of the White Album or Captain Beefheart even if I don't appreciate the sound).

All of that is nice, but when I hear something that I have never heard before, and I really enjoy it, that's the true payoff. Something deep in my soul shouts "Yes! This is the treasure I have been searching for!" I'm always torn between listening to the songs I already love and that never ending journey of finding new songs to love. It can be tedious, time-consuming, and painful (especially if I force myself to finish a whole recording, as I do with this book), but my passion for discovery is rewarded every so often.

The Beau Brummels is a band I had never heard of. In fact, I assumed when I read the name in the book that it was one guy and that he probably played jazz or cajun music. What I discovered instead is a band that was so huge that they were drawn into an episode of The Flintstones (as "The Beau Brummelstones"), they have a song that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame considers one of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" ("Laugh, Laugh"), and another that is on Mojo's "100 Greatest Psychedelic Classics" ("Magic Hollow").

Their sound on the album Triangle (stream it here) has that signature San Francisco folk styling, Tolkien-esque lyrics, and the mesmerizing vocals of Sal Valentino. When I heard them my thoughts immediately went to another, more recent San Francisco artist, freak folk pioneer Devendra Benhart, who seems to have copped at least part of his delivery from Valentino. The question that immediately came to my mind was why had I never even heard of these guys? I decided to call lead singer Sal Valentino and find out what he thought about being listed in the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

What started as an interview quickly morphed into two guys talking about music they like, and eventually became me getting an education on lots of music I have been missing. Mr. Valentino certainly has a wealth of knowledge and a love of music, listening and playing, that showed throughout our discussion. He was gracious with his time, and even his record collection (he has offered to send me his copies of most of the artists he recommended during our interview). Check out highlights of our conversation below. I have removed most of my interjections of "I've never heard that one." Check out the list at the end for links to the recordings he mentions:

What do you think about being included on a list like the 1000 Recordings?

Well you know, I didn't know that! I knew about the other one, about "Laugh, Laugh" being one of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll." So Triangle is the one, huh? Well that's pretty good, you know, considering we're not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame... then again, rock and roll wasn't really what we were doing, I dont think. Eh, what did I know, we were young.

Triangle is my favorite album of all the ones the Brummels did, but Triangle was the first record I got to be a part of as far as the writing went with [guitarist] Ron Elliot. We both worked on it together. I basically brought in the titles and Ron did the research and all the legwork, 'cause he was good at that. And it was a great time. And [producer and Warner Bros. president] Lenny Waronker was great. He had a lot of faith in us. He really wanted to see us happen, but it wasn't in the cards then.

What do you think about people just discovering Triangle now? Because I had never heard of Beau Brummels.

One thing a couple of record promotion guys said to me from time to time is that if it's a good record its gonna always be a good record. [They said] that's why you don't quit on a good record.

Do you think triangle has aged well?

From time to time I still do [in solo shows] "Are you Happy?" I worked off Triangle around here for a little while. "Magic Hollow." "Nine Pound Hammer" was one take. It was a nice record. We worked hard on it, too. It was probably the best stuff we had ever done. I'm glad that it's lasted and I'm glad that there was people that believed in those records.

We were just mild mannered guys. I dont think anybody really looked at entertainment or a performing career other than maybe Ron Elliott. I love singing. I never thought I was a Michael Jackson or Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart or any of those guys, I just loved singing the songs. And it's funny with the Brummels we got swept away with the first two records. The second one was bigger than the first one and what do you do? You cant say "No I dont want to go. [laughs] No, I want to stay home, I dont want to do that." We didn't know any better. We had a good time.

The first time I heard "The Wolf of Velvet Fortune," boy, it really sounded good. That was really cool. It was like the first time we heard "Laugh, Laugh," sitting in the back of a car. It was unbelievable, hearing it on the radio, after being just like everybody else out there listening. I love singing and that's what I've basically been doing it for all the time anyway. I just love singing the songs, and I love listening to them. I love listening to music a lot.

If you had to put something on a list of 1000 recordings to hear before you die, what would you put on there?

Taj Mahal singing "Take a Giant Step." Paul McCartney did a lot of good stuff. Freddie [Scott]. One of the best vocals I think I've ever heard is a song he did called "Cry to Me." He's a great vocalist. Fred Neil's "Dolphin" album [Fred Neil]. Still a wonderful record. There's a lot to hear, especially now. There's no way you can get at everything, but there's a lot of great music to hear.

Are you listening to anything new right now?

I've been listening to a lot of the Black Keys. I think I've got all their albums. I love that guy's singing. That's what got me is the singing was fascinating to me. I couldn't figure out where he was coming from, what the influence was and then I found out. In [their] Rolling Stone article he mentions a jukejoint guy, named Junior [Kimbrough].

Little Feat. [Lead singer] Lowell George, best live singer that I think I'll ever hear. Man, I'm amazed everytime I put on Little Feat live. It's amazing singing and playing. Get the one that was a double album, Waiting for Columbus. Aw man, stuff like "Over the Edge," "Rocket in my Pocket," "Rock & Roll Doctor," "Willin'," "China White," "All That You Dream," "Feats Don't Fail Me Now," and also there's "Long Distance Love." I found Lowell just a fascinating singer. That was the best band I think I've ever heard live.

Levon Helm. The Band. I love his singing. "Don't Do It," it's a great great vocal. "Cripple Creek." All three of those singers, man, they were just amazing singers. Those guys were just so good. I saw Eric Clapton talking about 'em one time. He said when he first heard it, "the songs, this material, where was it coming from?" And he thought it was so unique, so unbelievable. And he was right, they were.

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." By Roberta Flack. I just listened to it lately because I've always loved the song. Man, it is sooo slow.

Aretha. I mean, Aretha, Jesus. Ray Charles. He was a big influence on me, although I never pretended to think that I could sing like him. But he influenced a lot of my thinking about singing songs. His "Nancy," "Makin' Whoopee," that live version of "I Got a Woman." I saw Ray a few times. I liked him a lot, he was amazing. Bobby "Blue" Bland. I saw him once at the Troubadour. He wore a rose-colored suit. Man, he was the biggest guy in the room, too.

Oh, Marvin Gaye. Is the Let's Get It On album on there? They should have on there, too, is his rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at the NBA All Star Game. I'm not sure if you've ever heard that. But oh, Marvin was the best. Nobody could do it like that. Otis was great. I got to meet him, too. I love Pavarotti. He was to be seen to be heard. I tell you, he was so good. I thought Michael Jackson, the footage of him before he died. I'd never seen anybody rehearse like that. Nobody. No how. That guy, boy, he could sing, too.

Now that we're talking like this, being of a 1000 albums, it's pretty cool.

Its been an eye opener for me, because I often think I know a lot about music and then I discover, you know, I know nothing.

There's always something. You can never get enough. You'll never have enough. Because there'll always be more.

Pick up Sal Valentino's solo work at Amazon and check out his website.
Buy Triangle here.
Read Moon's entry here

Here are the recordings/artists Sal listed that actually are included on the 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (if no recording was listed, I linked to the one listed in the book):
The Band - The Band
Roberta Flack - "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"
Aretha Franklin
Ray Charles
Bobby "Blue" Bland
Otis Redding
Michael Jackson

Here are artists listed in the book, but he chose a different song/album:
Taj Mahal - "Take a Giant Step"
Paul McCartney
The Band - "Don't Do It"
Marvin Gaye - Let's Get It On and "The Star Spangled Banner"

Here are the rest, some of which appear in the book as a "Next Stop":
Freddie Scott - "Cry to Me"
Fred Neil - Fred Neil
Little Feat - Waiting for Columbus