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Posts tagged ‘Joan Baez’

Fifty Year Friday: July 1971

Gentle Giant: Acquiring The Taste

Released on July 16, 1971 by the Vertigo record label, this second Gentle Giant, despite the apparently horrible cover (the worse prog-rock cover ever or a tongue-in-cheek expression of the kissing up that goes on to record execs and commercial demands?) and the presumptuous and cringe-worthy title, far surpasses their first effort in consistency and creating a unified musical statement while still showing a diversity in compositional techniques and arrangement/instrumentation. It is in the prevalence of the reuse and transformation of identifiable musical motifs that Gentle Giant shares common ground with some bebop artists (for example, Charlie Parker) and so many of the twentieth and nineteenth century so-called “classical” or “serious” composers. What set Gentle Giant apart from most other prog-groups was that their primary composer, Kerry Minnear, was fully trained in classical music having just received his degree in music composition from the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in 1970. We can speculate about whether he read such books as the indispensable 1961 treatise on motific reuse, Rudolf Reti’s The Thematic Process in Music (US 1951; UK 1961), but even if he had not, his familiarity with medieval, renaissance and early twentieth century compositions would have exposed him to how composers expertly handled music cells and motifs.

Putting aside the compositional tightness and cohesiveness of the eight individual tracks and the general cohesiveness of the album as a whole, one just has to take delight in the overall strength of the music, the lack of any filler material (with the possible exception of portions of the last track), and the beauty of some of the melodies, particularly “Pantagruel’s Nativity”, “Edge of Twilight”, the haunting “Moon is Down”, and the softer instrumental passages of the heavier songs on the album like “Wreck.” Notable is the prevalence of Kerry Minnear vocals, indicative of the often gentle nature of the material — with Derek Shulman vocals effectively complementing the harder rock passages. We also get the first example of what I call the “Gentle Giant stride”, for lack of a more appropriate term, due to it reminding me, rhythmically and musically, of deliberately lengthened and extended fast-paced walking steps — this occurs after the initiation of Gary Green;s guitar solo in “The House, The Street, The Room” at the 2:47 mark, with drums and bass providing the foundation for the continuation of Green’s angular yet expressive guitar-work. Another noteworthy often-used Gentle Giant compositional technique, is the use of a musical sequence comprised of a short, quadruply-repeated, rhythmically-catchy motif that creates forward drive and tension (and used extensively in their next album, “Three Friends”) and in this album occurs in “The Moon Is Down” at the 2:11 mark. Also notable is the penultimate track on the album, particularly its use of plucked and bowed viola, viola, and cello and wah-wah guitar for musical and extra-musical effect (the imitation of the meow of a cat.) “Plain Truth”, somewhat musically weaker and less interesting than the previous tracks, closes out this first in a string of half a dozen near-perfect, fully musically unified, must-have Gentle Giant albums

Black Sabbath: Master of Reality

Also released by the Vertigo record label (Warner Brothers in the U.S.), on July 21, 1971, though not nearly as fulfilling or musically nutritious as the Gentle Giant second album, this third Black Sabbath, Masters of Reality is one of the three best Black Sabbath albums, well-executed, creative and brimming with elevated yet disciplined energy. Toni Iommi, Black Sabbath’s main creative musical force, not only gives us the typical extroverted Black Sabbath heavy metal, bass-and-guitar-driven numbers but two fine introspective guitar compositions, “Embryo” and “Orchid” and the reflective “Solitude”, with Iommi also playing piano and flute, providing welcome contrast to the longer, heavier works. There may be a limited amount number of times those heavier works can be listened to, but certainly they stand up to repeated playings when driving down the road, exercising, dancing or otherwise shaking up an aging body.

Peter Hammill: Fool’s Mate

Fool’s Mate is Peter Hammill’s first solo album, filled with various, unrelated songs that were either not considered as appropriate Van Der Graaf Generator material, or were not written with VDGG in mind. Nonetheless the full VDGG lineup (Hugh Banton, David Jackson and Guy Evans) is here, and is further, supplemented by guitarist Robert Fripp on half the tracks and former VDGG bassist Nic Potter also on six of the twelve tracks. The music ranges from catchy and upbeat “Happy”, and “Sunshine” to the introspective and even heartbreakingly dark and gloomy, with the most indispensible gem being the timeless “Vision”, one the best love songs of the entire seventies.

Guess Who: So Long, Bannatyne

Also released in July 1971, the Guess Who’s succulently dissonant So Long, Bannatyne — the album sharing the title of one of the songs that reflect the guitarist Kurt Winter’s move from the Bannatyne Apartments on Bannatyne Avenue in central Winnipeg to the Chevrier district a few miles south.

It is the liberal use of dissonance and jazz-related elements that sets the album apart from earlier Guess Who albums, making this their overall best album, despite most rock critics opinions to the contrary. Whether its “Going A Little Crazy” with its jarring, dissonant recurring ostinato, the jaunty “Grey Day” with Burton’s scat singing, his dissonant jazz-based piano accompaniment and subsequent piano solo, followed by Winter’s jazzy acoustic guitar solo, or the subtly bitter “Sour Suite”, many of the songs here are neither typical pop or Guess Who songs. Strings are also used for appropriate enhancement and both Burton Cumming’s vocals and piano are at their best throughout the album, with piano nicely supporting Greg Leskiw’s banjo and vocals on “One Divided.”

Isaac Hayes: Shaft, Moody Blues: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Joan Baez: Blessed Are…, Deep Purple: Fireball

Other notable albums include the classic Isaac Hayes 2 LP Shaft, the almost impressionistic Every Good Boy Deserves Favour from The Moody Blues, Joan Baez’s two LPs and one 33 1/3 45 Blessed Are… album, and the hard-to-categorize and somewhat uneven, but mostly danceable (at least at the time), Deep Purple’s Fireball. I still remember hearing the song, Shaft in 1971 on the bus to and from school and impressed by its larger than life sound even through those somewhat shoddy school-bus speakers.

Fifty Year Friday: Joan Baez, Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, Randy Newman

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From 1967 continuing into 1968 and forward, popular music continues to become more serious, stimulating, and consequential at the same time that modern concert hall music (commonly called twentieth century classical music, modern classical music or avant-garde classical music) continues to struggle to appeal to sizable audiences, with most classical music concerts programming music from the 19th and 18th centuries with a few early, relatively accessible twentieth century works, like Debussy’s orchestral works or Stravinsky’s Firebird included now and then.

In the late sixties many of the best artists and bands in popular music became just as intent on creating works of artistic value as anyone in the more traditional and established areas of the fine arts.  When such artists or bands were lacking in a given area, they would either extend their own skills or reach out to others to assist them in completing a given objective or vision.  More and more this meant including orchestration in their albums.  At first this may have been more driven by producers and the commercial interests of the record companies, and in many of these cases the orchestration was added as something appended to the original product, as in the case with Stanley Turrentine’s “Look of Love” where strings are overdubbed on top of previously  recorded tracks.  But there were also many cases where the orchestration was part of the fabric of the music — or where electronic keyboards and more sophisticated usage of electric guitars, electric bass guitars and percussion replace the instruments of the traditional orchestra, further empowering the artistic determination of the artist or band.

Before the prevalence of electronic keyboards, either the artist or someone in the band had to be a skilled orchestrator or be able to effectively collaborate with a skilled arranger and orchestrator.  In Joan Baez’s case, she was able to partner with Peter Schickle on three of her albums.  Schickle, the mastermind behind PDQ Bach, with three PDQ Bach albums already to his credit on Vanguard, was also composing for film when he partnered with her for the third time on Joan’s 1968 concept album, Baptism. Though neither a commercial nor critical success, Baptism is a strong political statement against war and the ongoing inhumanity characteristic of “civilized” societies.  No doubt, some who had purchased this album were disappointed at the ratio of spoken word to singing, and I suspect this is not an album many will care to listen to more than once or twice, but as a document of the times, this remains an effective artistic statement with a well-selected mix of readings. some excellent orchestration, and Baez’s beautiful vocals.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

  1. “Old Welsh Song” (Henry Treece)
  2. “I Saw the Vision of Armies” (Walt Whitman)
  3. “Minister of War” (Arthur Waley)
  4. “Song In the Blood” (Lawrence FerlinghettiJacques Prévert)
  5. “Casida of the Lament” (J.L. Gili, Federico García Lorca)
  6. “Of the Dark Past” (James Joyce)
  7. London” (William Blake)
  8. “In Guernica” (Norman Rosten)
  9. “Who Murdered the Minutes” (Henry Treece)
  10. “Oh, Little Child” (Henry Treece)
  11. “No Man Is an Island” (John Donne)
  12. “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man” (James Joyce)
  13. “All the Pretty Little Horses” (Traditional)
  14. “Childhood III” (Arthur Rimbaud, Louis Varese)
  15. “The Magic Wood” (Henry Treece)
  16. “Poems from the Japanese” (Kenneth Rexroth)
  17. “Colours” (Peter LeviRobin Milner-GullandYevgeny Yevtushenko)
  18. All in green went my love riding” (E. E. Cummings)
  19. “Gacela of the Dark Death” (Federico García LorcaStephen Spender)
  20. “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” (Wilfred Owen)
  21. “Evil” (N. Cameron, Arthur Rimbaud)
  22. “Epitaph for a Poet” (Countee Cullen)
  23. “Mystic Numbers- 36”
  24. “When The Shy Star Goes Forth In Heaven” (James Joyce)
  25. “The Angel” (William Blake)
  26. “Old Welsh Song” (Henry Treece)

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It’s certainly not a mystery why talented composers would choose to pursue the popular music of their times — music that they listen to, their friends listen to, and reflect the time they live in — as opposed to less popular music of academia, which can only unconvincingly assert its lineage to the great music of  Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.  One should expect that the most engaging, commercially viable, and prevalent music would attract a substantial proportion of able and talented musicians and composers: it was the case during the jazz era, the swing era, the be-bop era, and in the late sixties, during some of the most exciting days of rock music.

Randy Newman’s father and mother were not professional composers, but three of his uncles were:  Alfred NewmanLionel Newman and Emil Newman  — all noted Hollywood film-score composers, with the most famous, Alfred Newman, conducting, arranging and composing about two-hundred film scores, nine of which won Academy Awards.  Randy already had written a number of songs including a B-side (“They Tell Me It’s Summer”) for a hit single of the Fleetwoods (“Lovers by Night, Strangers by Day”), the song lyrics for Bobby Darin’s “Look at Me” (the title song of the 1964 movie, “The Lively Set”), and songs recorded by Dusty SpringfieldPetula ClarkJackie DeShannon, and the O’Jays, when he dropped out of UCLA, only one semester short of a music degree. By then, he had taken courses in music theory, music history and probably one or more orchestration classes, though clearly he had already learned the basics before his UCLA studies having written background music for a 1962 episode of TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and then eventually providing music for other TV shows including  Lost in SpacePeyton Place,  Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea and one of my favorites as kid, Judd For The Defense.

With several years of experience in songwriting and orchestra scoring, Randy Newman released his first album, Randy Newman, in June of 1968.  The album did not sell well, and Warner Brothers provided any dissatisfied buyers the opportunity to exchange the album for any other album in their catalog.

But this album is a keeper.  From the beginning we see a thoughtful approach to songwriting.  The first song, “Love Song” immediately makes an impact with its dry, wry humor, its shrewdly crafted orchestration, and its structure: Newman’s ending to the song eschews the standard return of the chorus and ends with a bridge section that is followed by a final, modified verse with a simple brief coda, creating not a climax, but an ending that aligns well with the sober, yet tongue-in-cheek message: “When our kids are grown with kids of their own, they’ll send us away to a little home in Florida; we’ll play checkers all day ’til we pass away.”

Newman’s unique delivery, the reflective piano accompaniment, the excellent orchestration, often veering intentionally away from the core song material, make their mark on each and every track.  Repeatedly Newman is taking up the voice of the underdog, the rejected, or the trodden-down, forgotten citizen, even when reflecting on the status of God as in “I Think He’s Hiding.”  Songs like “Bet No One Every Hurt So Bad”, “Living Without You”, and “Linda” not only reflect on the sadness and angst of the persona of the lyrics (the point of view, narrator, speaker) but provide commentary on the character of that persona such that we may feel some sympathy but would sometimes also wish to distance ourselves a little from some of these characters if they came into our vicinity.

On the song “Cowboy”, perhaps the best song on the album, we feel genuine empathy and compassion for the persona. This is a song from the heart without any clever commentary or cloaked irony.  Newman raises this to an art song with his orchestration.  The work starts off with the images of the prairie, the orchestration developing and sculpting the mood, supporting the lyrics and evoking some of the characteristics of the music of Aaron Copland. Following “Cowboy”, “Beehive” is an interesting variant on the well-known “St. James Infirmary Blues”, followed by the classic “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, recorded by Judy Collins in 1966.  Ending this excellent album is “Davy The Fat Boy” — a track that might be considered politically incorrect today, but it is not a portrait about Davy but about the scoundrel exploiting him.  The orchestration/arrangement is again the star here, and it is every bit of an art song as anything turned out by the Beatles or Beach Boys.

In an act of full disclosure here, I once saw Newman perform “Love Story” on network television a very long time ago — perhaps this was in 1970 on an “In Concert” program — or perhaps on late night TV — and at that time, hearing him accompanied only by his piano, I was not impressed enough to follow-up further by purchasing an album or requesting it as a possible present for the next birthday or Christmas.  It turned out that for me, Randy Newman was an acquired taste, cemented by taking a music history course at my local college during my senior year in high school, in which course, the cellist, and course instructor, Terry King, played part of Newman’s “Sail Away” album. King had played on that album and reminisced about the experience.  Later that same week, Mr. King played, with great pride, a recording of Schubert’s Erlkönig.  At the end, one of the students asked “what was so special about that?  It’s just a song.”  King, unflustered, replied that no, Erlkönig was not an ordinary song, it was truly something extraordinarily special, but didn’t go into any details to support that conclusion.  At that point, I thought, yes, Schubert’s Erlkönig is quite dramatic and special — and even catchy, in an early-nineteenth-century-equivalency-of-hard-rock sort of way — but it is a song — and I thought back to that earlier class in which King had played Randy Newman — someone who also wrote songs, but one hundred and fifty years later. Yes, a song is a song, but there is no particular boundary to how good (or bad) it can be.  It’s up to the listener to make that evaluation, and if enough listeners have a favorable opinion over time, that song may have some longevity.

So possibly, the songs of Randy Newman will be around in the 22nd century.  If so, this album, out of print for fifteen years before being released on CD, and generally ignored by the rock critics of 1968, provides more than just an interesting assortment of early Randy Newman tunes, but a complete, and rewarding, musical experience.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All songs written and arranged by Randy Newman.

  1. “Love Story (You and Me)” – 3:20
  2. “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad” – 2:00
  3. “Living Without You” – 2:25
  4. “So Long Dad” – 2:02
  5. “I Think He’s Hiding” – 3:04
  6. “Linda” – 2:27
  7. “Laughing Boy” – 1:55
  8. “Cowboy” – 2:36
  9. “Beehive State” – 1:50
  10. I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” – 2:55
  11. “Davy the Fat Boy” – 2:50
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