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Archive for November, 2018

Fifty Year Friday: Nico, The Marble Index; Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets

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Nico: The Marble Index

Quite a contrast to her first album, The Marble Index is a true art-rock album, sounding more like a collection of twentieth century classical leider than a follow-up to her relatively accessible first album.  Her intonation and singing is also better as she navigates nicely against her harmonium accompaniment and John Cale’s detailed arrangements.

Track listing [From discogs.org]

All tracks written by Nico.

Personnel 

  • Words and music – Nico
  • Arrangements – John Cale
  • Producer – Frazier Mohawk
  • Production supervisor – Jac Holzman
  • Engineer – John Haeny
  • Photography – Guy Webster
  • Design – Robert L. Heimall
  • Art direction – William S. Harvey

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Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention: Cruising With Ruben & The Jets

I heard this album in the summer of 1969, and honestly didn’t know what to make of it: was it a satire of fifties music or an homage? I had several 45 singles from the late fifties that I received as gifts from my grandfather whose worked at Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, a forty acre complex in South Gate, California.  I don’t know how he got all these free 45s, but figured it had something to do with his work at Firestone;  many were marked as “Promotional” or “Promo”, and these various 45s, on a wide array of different record labels, provided me with an rudimentary education of fifties hits (and I believe misses, for most of this music I have never heard again since I listened to it as a child) that I am thankful for today.

So listening to this Cruising With Ruben & The Jets album for the first time at my cousin’s shared college-vicinity apartment in Sonoma County, having taken in the earlier Zappa albums there, this was a very confusing contrast to their other material.

Listening to it again, for the first time in forty-nine years, and fifty years after its initial release on November 2, 1969, I better appreciate the songwriting and solid musicianship.

And I am not so puzzled, I think.

This concept album about a fictitious band from Chino, California that eschews the modern rock of 1968 to play fifties music is both a tribute to fifties music and a satire of fifties music.  This well-balanced mixture of reverence and parody is not a characteristic of all satires.  Some satirical representations or portrayals are just totally fine with mocking, ridiculing, and belittling, and the worst examples do so with little regard towards faithfulness or accuracy.  But it seems the best satirical music, from PDQ Bach to The Ruttles to Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, are works of love, celebrating the artistic strengths as well as the individual idiosyncrasies of their target and touching our hearts as well as bringing a smile to our faces.

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Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Frank Zappa except as noted.

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. “Cheap Thrills” 2:23
2. “Love of My Life” 3:10
3. “How Could I Be Such a Fool” 3:35
4. “Deseri” Collins, Paul Buff 2:07
5. “I’m Not Satisfied” 4:03
6. “Jelly Roll Gum Drop” 2:20
7. “Anything” Collins 3:04
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
8. “Later That Night” 3:06
9. “You Didn’t Try to Call Me” 3:57
10. “Fountain of Love” Zappa, Collins 3:01
11. “No. No. No.” 2:29
12. “Any Way the Wind Blows” 2:58
13. “Stuff Up the Cracks 4:35
Total length: 40:34

Personnel

Musicians
Production
  • Producer: Frank Zappa
  • Engineer: Dick Kunc
  • Cover Art: Cal Schenkel
  • Cover Design: Cal Schenkel
  • Artwork: Cal Schenkel
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Fifty Year Friday: The Beatles, The Kinks

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Recorded mostly at Abbey Road Studios during May through October 1968, the band took a freer,  less methodical, less collaborative approach to recording this album than with the incomparable Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.  George Martin had less involvement, and in July, audio engineer Geogg Emerick refused to continue to work with the group.  Ringo also got frustrated with his role and treatment, leaving in August,  with the other Beatles replacing him on at least two tracks until he was successfully coaxed back from aboard Peter Seller’s borrowed yacht in Sardinia via telegram.  Yet, this album is a classic, rich with a wide variety of excellent compositions.

It was on one of my nearly-daily visits to my next-door neighbors after Christmas of 1968 that I first heard this album, and that very day they willingly loaned it to me to record on my tape deck.  Needless to say, I was impressed by this being a double album, but I was warned about the presence of a track called “Revolution 9” on side four.

I was totally unprepared for the number of instantly likable tracks, and soon realized I made the right decision to record this on a higher quality tape at a higher speed set on the tape deck.  Impressed by almost each and every track, and feeling correctly warned about “Revolution 9” which I didn’t record, this was a tape I played in the presence of my dad, who I noticed also took a liking to the music — solid confirmation of the exceptional nature of this album.  And how could he not like tracks like “Dear Prudence”, “Blackbird”,  “Julia”,  “I Will”, “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Honey Pie.” And, to my surprise, there was not a word of criticism of songs like “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Helter Skelter”

I still love this album. It’s far from perfect, and I am just as annoyed today at the tapping sound on “Dear Prudence” as I was the first time I heard it (perhaps more annoyed as my audio system exposes it better.)  I do wish that George Martin had been more engaged, but on the other hand, I am also thankful for the inclusion of Nicki Hopkins and Eric Clapton.

Now having listened to the entire set of studio Beatles albums as well as most of the solo albums, and so much other music, I am more knowledgeable about the group today. At the age of 13, I thought of this group and listened to this group  as the collective “Beatles”, today I hear individual contributors, voices and instruments. I can easily pick out the individual band members’ vocals, figure out who wrote which songs (even if I didn’t know about the rule that the lead singer is generally the composer except if Ringo is the lead), and identify Yoko Ono’s voice in the chorus of “Bungalow Bill” as well as speculate on the degree of influence the album had on contemporaneous late sixties bands as well as bands of the 1980s and later.

A few years later after the release of this album, when I was a music composition major in the 1970’s, I often thought about what composers and what bands would still be listened to a hundred years later.  We are now approaching the halfway point of that hundred years, and with each passing year, it become increasingly clearer to me that Beatles will be much more popular at the end of that hundred years than the handful of mid-twentieth century composers that were listed in our 1970’s music history textbooks: textbooks which extolled the inventiveness and importance of composers like George Crumb, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, and Karlheinz Stockhausen but omitted any mention of Paul McCartney, John Lennon or George Harrison.

Link to Track Listing and musicians

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The Kinks: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Released on November 22, 1968, the same date that the Beatles released the White AlbumThe Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is a concept album about preserving those elements and memories of a better world.  Due to the nature of the topic (and possibly, with the Kinks still under a ban to tour the U.S., due to not getting the erosive exposure to American culture that so many of the other top British bands were experiencing) the lyrics cover, very effectively, material directly related to English cultures and values. All compositions are by Ray Davies, and showcase the very best of his musical and lyrical abilities.

Though far from successful upon its release (the album failed to chart in either the US or the UK),  The Village Green Preservation Society has slowly been embraced over time, by both musicians and critics, and appreciated not only for the courage to break away completely from the commercial interests of its time, but for the general quality of each and every track.  Now predominately considered the best Kinks album of all time, this is a must-listen album for anyone interested in the Kinks, The British Invasion or pop-music song craftsmanship — or for anyone just looking to hear a wonderful collection of songs.

Oh, yes, like the Beatles’ White Album, we are treated to Nikki Hopkins on piano for some of the tracks.

Link to Track Listing and musicians

Fifty Year Friday: The Nice

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The Nice: Ars Longa Vita Brevis

In November of 1968, The Nice release their second album, furthering their advance into progressive rock as initiated in their first album.

With the guitarist, David O’List, no longer part of the group (either dropped from the group or left on his own depending on whose side of the story is being represented), The Nice auditioned replacement guitarists, including Steve Howe.  Evidently this would have worked out, except for Howe having second thoughts a week later.  And so, the band moved on without a replacement guitarist, with a line up more like a traditional piano jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), then a rock group, providing the blueprint for the keyboard-dominated progressive rock group (with occasional augmentation by orchestra as in the case with this second Nice album.)

The first track, “Daddy, Where Did I Come From”,  seems like a throwaway novelty number, but much like the ensuing second and third tracks, has a distinct charm and quirkiness that elevates it above the commonplace. Note the peppy piano intro by Keith Emerson as well as the brief baroque-like organ passage, the ensuing unbridled electric organ accompaniment, and the spoken dialogue as the dad.

The second track, “Little Arabella” includes vocals from Keith Emerson at around the 1:37 mark. The third track, the fanfare-like”Happy Freuds”, has Keith on lead vocals and though mostly a simple upbeat pop number, has both charm and substance.

Keith Emerson’s dominance continues with the keyboard-dominated realization of Sibelius’s Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite.  The main theme works better in its original version, but Emerson’s improvisation and development of the theme — and short detour from the theme — provide the essence of this interpretation.

The title track takes up the length of the second side, including orchestra backup — at least at points.  It is not so much a coherent whole as a stitchwork that includes a dramatic Keith Emerson prelude orchestrated by Robert Stewart, a four minute drum solo, the main “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” theme with Jackson on vocals,  followed by a jazzy instrumental diversion, a third section with an Emerson intro that dives into the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg, pitting Emerson’s more excursive inclinations against the orchestra’s more faithful script,  followed by a restatement of the “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” theme with more jazz-like trio work and the prelude material serving as a coda.

All in all a pretty good album that delivers quality, variety and some impressive trio passages.

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All songs written by Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, except where noted.

Side one

  1. “Daddy, Where Did I Come From” – 3:44
  2. “Little Arabella” – 4:18
  3. “Happy Freuds” – 3:25
  4. “Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite” (Sibelius) – 8:57
  5. “Don Edito el Gruva” (Emerson, Jackson, Brian Davison) – 0:13

Side two

  1. “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” – 19:20
  • “Prelude” (Emerson) – 1:49
  • “1st Movement – Awakening” (Davison) – 4:01
  • “2nd Movement – Realisation” (Jackson, David O’List, Emerson) – 4:54
  • “3rd Movement – Acceptance “Brandenburger”” (J.S.Bach, Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 4:23
  • “4th Movement – Denial” (Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 3:23
  • “Coda – Extension to the Big Note” (Emerson) – 0:46
The Nice

 

Fifty Year Friday: George Harrison, Wonderwall Music

 

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Released in Great Britain on November 1, 2018, George Harrison’s soundtrack to the mod, psychedelic film about a late middle-aged lab scientist that expands his professional interest in watching the domestic life of microbes under a microscope to watching his neighbors through a hole in the wall. Wonderwall Music is both the first solo Beatles album (if one doesn’t count George Martin/Paul McCartney’s The Family Way soundtrack which is basically various Martin arrangements of a single McCartney tune, “Love in the Open Air’) and the very first Apples-label album.

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Harrison had no experience, of course, composing soundtracks, but with guidance from director Joe Massot and assistance from classical trained pianist and Ravi Shankar composition pupil,  John Barham , Harrison produces an effective soundtrack that works quite well as standalone music encompassing multiple styles from classical Indian music to English Music Hall pseudo-ragtime to contemporary rock.  With limited dialogue and a strong focus on visuals over story, there is plenty of opportunity in the movie for musical passages, so much so, that the album doesn’t contain all the musical material present in the film.

In terms of sales, this soundtrack album was not very successful in the UK, but it did much better in the U.S. peaking at 49 on the Billboard album chart.  Critical review has been mixed during both initial evaluations and re-evaluations of the album, but the music is generally strong with some notable tracks and the general critical trend has been towards greater appreciation as time has gone by.

The music was recorded in sessions in London and Bombay, Harrison having determined from the watching the assigned sections of film, stopwatch in hand, the exact length required for the music and working with the musicians to create appropriate material to match the assigned scenes.  The titles are appropriately named so that it is fairly easy to remember which part of the movie each particular track was for.

The first track, “Microbes” is used at the start of the film as background to the routine activity of microorganisms being observed under microscope and showcases the shenai, a double-reed instrument, similar to the oboe.  The second track, “Red Lady Too” is particular notable for its progressive-rock-like arpeggios, suspensions and chord changes and provides a representative example of how each track in the album is a miniature musical movement in a larger suite. The short length of the compositions require a brevity of expression, so instead of having 35 minute ragas, we get short Indian classical compositions, like the one-minute third track, “Tabla and Pakajav” and the four-minute fourth track, “In the Park.”

“Drilling a Home” shows Harrison’s sense of humor, and is very much like the music used for British pantomime television comedy sketches. This is followed by another dualing-shenai composition, “Guru Vandana”, followed by a particular impressive Mellotron and Harmonium duet, showing off Harrison’s sensitivity for the subtle. Next we have Eric Claption featured on guitar in “Ski-ing”, then “Gat Kirwani” featuring sarod, sitar and tabla, followed by one of the best compositions on the album,  the final track of side one, the thoughtfully crafted ambient/Hindi/instrumental/musique-concrete collage, “Dream Scene”, preceding Lennon’s Revolution and saying so much more in so much less time.

Side Two opens up with the strumming of Harrison’s acoustic guitar on a composition reminiscent of The Beatles’ instrumental, “Flying” on Magical Mystery Tour, followed by a sarod love duet, “Love Scene” and a lamenting shenai on “Crying. “Cowboy Music” was written for the scene of the neighbor’s boyfriend on rocking horse”, and is followed by another composition featuring shenai, “Fantasy Sequins.”  “On the Bed”, like a rock fanfare for the opening credits of a movie or a leading-edge BBC TV show, is followed by the masterfully brief, yet totally complete, “Glass Box” featuring sitar and tabla. The album closes with the reflective, “Wonderwall to Be Here”,  a short instrumental that any prog-band would be proud of, and the mystical “Singing Om” with harmonium and Hindustani bamboo flute.

At this time in the late sixties, there were more and more rock albums out that included lengthened tracks, with repeated verses and choruses that added little except to extend the length of an inherently two or three minute song to five or six minutes. In contrast, what we have here with Wonderwall Music is an album mostly of miniature-length compositions, with even the few longer ones, being skillfully compacted musical poems.  Much better than allmusic.com’s and the Rolling Stones Album Guide ratings of 2 1/2 stars, this is why one should only rely on their own sensibilities in determining the merit of the great music of the late sixties.

All selections written by George Harrison.

Side one

  1. “Microbes” – 3:42
  2. “Red Lady Too” – 1:56
  3. “Tabla and Pakavaj” – 1:05
  4. “In the Park” – 4:08
  5. “Drilling a Home” – 3:08
  6. “Guru Vandana” – 1:05
  7. “Greasy Legs” – 1:28
  8. “Ski-ing” – 1:50
  9. “Gat Kirwani” – 1:15
  10. Dream Scene” – 5:26

Side two

  1. “Party Seacombe” – 4:34
  2. “Love Scene” – 4:17
  3. “Crying” – 1:15
  4. “Cowboy Music” – 1:29
  5. “Fantasy Sequins” – 1:50
  6. “On the Bed” – 2:22
  7. “Glass Box” – 1:05
  8. “Wonderwall to Be Here” – 1:25
  9. “Singing Om” – 1:54

 

For those interested in the movie, it can currently be viewed on at youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2e3HeBgHKE

 

 

 

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