Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Was Wrong: Revisited

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I'd love to see music critics take a look back into history and admit that at times, they could be wrong.

Well, it looks like someone's listening! Check out this blog posting by Jim DeRogatis about this very topic.

The most revealing passage:
"As a critic, you receive an album advance a week or two before its release (at best; other times, you get it the day before). You listen as many times as possible, and then you present your emotional reaction in the intellectual form of a written review. (Some people would say there's very little intellect involved with some critics, but you know what I mean, I hope.)

After that, like any other fan, you live with that album for two weeks, two months, two years... and sometimes your opinion changes. Sometimes, you realize, 'This just isn't holding up.' "

Looks like the vault is open!

Monday, March 24, 2008

For The Love Of The Cello

In a previous article, I featured the double-bass and a few pieces that highlight the instrument. Today, I will focus on the cello, arguably my favorite instrument (save for the piano of course), and will chronicle what I would consider to be a good starter set of cello masterworks.

No list of great cello works could ever start without Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, so I’ll begin there. Also, note that this list only includes pieces that were originally written for the cello. There are many pieces that have been transcribed for the cello but weren’t originally intended as such. In the case of the Schubert Sonata for Arpeggione, this instrument does not exist today, and therefore this piece is most often played either on a viola or cello and I’m considering it eligible.

Masterworks for the Cello

  • Bach, Johann Sebastian – Suites For Unaccompanied Cello (esp Suite 1: Prelude and Suite 6: Sarabande)

  • Beethoven, Ludwig Van – Cello Sonatas 1-5 (Complete)

  • Brahms, Johannes – Cello Sonatas 1 and 2

  • Dvořák, Antonin– Cello Concerto In B Minor

  • Elgar, Sir Edward Elgar – Cello Concerto

  • Pärt, Arvo – Fratres for Cello and Piano

  • Penderecki, Krzysztof – Cello Concerto No. 1

  • Saint-Saëns, Camille – Le Cygne (The Swan) from “Carnival Of The Animals”

  • Saint-Saëns, Camille – Cello Concerto No. 1

  • Schubert, Franz – Sonata for Arpeggione And Piano (arr. For cello)

  • Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich – Variations On A Rococo Theme

  • There are plenty of good recordings of all these pieces which you can find on Amazon. In general, you can almost never go wrong with Rostropovich and the Elgar concerto seems to have been tailor-made for Jacqueline Du Pré. You can always contact me if you’re looking for some tips on recordings I love!

    Wednesday, March 19, 2008

    I Was Wrong

    Music critics hate to admit they are wrong. They are stubborn people with very strong opinions, and, of course, there is an arrogance that goes with their opinions that is hard to combat. After all, they do listen to far more music than almost anyone else, and, typically, have as much experience in music evaluation as the next guy. So shouldn’t their opinions be “right”?

    Well, more often than not, the great critics are not necessary “right” or “wrong”, but at least can backup their reviews with educated viewpoints. Statements like “it’s been done before” or “in 5 years no one will listen to this album ever again” are rooted in some level of history and facts. It is a fact that Interpol, for example, borrows a lot from Joy Division. That shouldn’t necessarily prevent anyone from liking Interpol, but, from a critical standpoint, certainly Interpol isn’t breaking new ground, which can negatively impact the overall review.

    With that, critics can be wrong, in a certain sense. Critics listen to a lot (a lot) of music at all times, but it is not often that they get the chance to revisit past albums, especially ones that they didn’t like the first time around. If you’ve got 100 albums to listen to and review this week and thus limited time to listen to others, why would you listen to an album you didn’t like the first time? Time is simply too precious.

    However, music doesn’t always operate in that manner. Just like beer, sometimes music can be an acquired taste – terrible at first but after multiple attempts, the beauty begins to reveal itself. In this article, I’m going to lay myself out there with a few albums that, quite frankly, I was wrong about. My initial opinions of these albums were not strong, and only after either urging from someone else or just time did I revisit them to realize that they really are wonderful works.

    Before I begin that, I’d like to highlight one instance that I wished critics would just ‘fess up to: Radiohead. I am proud to state that I’ve been a fan of Radiohead since “Pablo Honey” first came out, and when “The Bends” came out, I was very quick to hail its genius (I still consider it my favorite Radiohead album and it contains two of the best Radiohead songs – “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”). However, I was disappointed in the critical reviews. Most critics listed it as, at best, a decent outing from a fairly average band – but certainly not the groundbreaking one that I felt it to be. However, a few years later when “OK Computer” came out, not only were critics jumping on the bandwagon by hailing it as a modern masterpiece, they somehow rewrote history and claimed that they predicted this based on the strength of “The Bends”. And now, major magazines (you know who you are) look back on history and claim “The Bends” to be one of the great albums of the nineties. Huh? In no way am I disagreeing with the claim, of course, I just wish that critics could have the chutzpah to admit they were wrong on the first go round.

    With that off my chest, it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is, and here are three albums that I was simply wrong about.

    1. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”
    When this album came out in 1991, it saturated the radio airwaves, right next to “…Teen Spirit” and Pearl Jam. “Under The Bridge” was a massive hit, and songs like “Suck My Kiss” and “Breaking The Girl” were gaining momentum. The trouble is, I was 14 at the time, never heard of this band, and was still fully immersed in my studies of classical music. My brother bought me this album in April 1992 for my birthday, and after a listen, I remember somehow exchanging it for Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” (I remember this vividly). I just didn’t care for this album – I guess I may have just written it off as another “band du jour” on the radio with a few hit singles.

    A few years later, I recall some sort of CD-buying binge in which this album found its way back into my collection. Listening to it again, I was amazed at the energy and dynamism of this album. It rocked! Flea’s bass lines were all over the place showing a healthy balance between classic slap-bass funk lines and straight-ahead rock ones, Frusciante’s guitaring had a very gritty and dirty funk sound, Chad Smith was pounding relentlessly on the drums (and metal plates as on “Breaking The Girl”), and Anthony’s vocals just blended perfectly on top. Songs like “Funky Monks” and “Naked In The Rain” had me bouncing off the walls. Even “Under The Bridge” had a freshness to it now that it was no longer being played on the radio stations every half hour on the half hour. This was a great album, and I had missed out on it during its prime. My initial opinions were (here we go), wrong, and I’m happy to admit it.

    2. My Bloody Valentine – “Loveless”
    Another 1991 outing, coincidentally. Again, I was 14 and never heard of this band (only later to learn that virtually no one had heard of this band at this time). It was only when I was in my early 20s that I started to hear people singing its praises as a masterpiece. Well, with the way people were talking about it, I had to give it a try.

    So I bought the album and popped it in. Excuse me? What was this? I actually thought that I had bought either a faulty CD or that my CD player was damaged. I remember turning to a colleague who turned me on to the album, and, after her asking what I thought, saying, “well, I think I got a broken copy.” She assured me I had not, and I just decided to give up for the time being.

    A few years later, I revived the album and decided to listen to it again. Suddenly, all these melodies were swirling around me and I felt like I was wrapped in a warm blanket. I started hearing guitar harmonics and overtones that created a soundspace I have never before heard. Songs like “I Only Said” and “Blown A Wish” are so breathtakingly gorgeous that even the thought of them warm the spirits. And as you learn more and more about the creation of that album, its genius is brought out even more – Kevin Shields truly created a masterpiece, and I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

    For my third choice, I’m going to take a different angle. This album is one that when it first came out, I was amongst the masses (masses) who thought it was a masterpiece. The more I listen to it, the more I wish I could’ve changed my earlier review…certainly this is going to be the most controversial of my three selections, but, …

    3. Pearl Jam – “Ten”
    Wouldn’t you know it, another 1991 selection! I’ll bet many will hear the words “Ten by Pearl Jam” and say “wow – amazing album!” without even flinching. However, I have to say, that at least for me, when I listen to that album now, I’m amazed at how bored I get. Songs like “Even Flow”, “Jeremy”, and “Alive” were considered landmarks, and, yet, they are pretty basic mid-tempo guitar-riff based songs. Nothing groundbreaking here, and I just don’t think time has served those songs well. Eddie’s singing, or lack thereof, starts to grate on me and I find that tenor voice to feel forced the more and more I listen to it. Granted, songs like “Porch” and “Release” still have a charm to them, overall, this is a boring album that might as well have been released in the mid 70’s with Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, and others. This album sounds like a collection of straightforward singer-songwriter/rock and roll songs with distortion and rock drums to spice it up.

    I realize that there are die hard Pearl Jam fans who would basically stone (pun fully intended) me to death over this claim, and I know there’s no stopping from “Ten” living on as one of the most groundbreaking albums of the alternative era, and Eddie and the boys will laugh at this claim all the way into the hall of fame, but I have to maintain my claim. I just can’t listen to this CD anymore without yawning. You want energy from Pearl Jam? Start with their next outing, “Vs”. I’ll take “Go”, “Animal”, or “Blood” against anything off “Ten” any day. I hold my opinions – we were all wrong about “Ten”. Yes, all of us.

    So, there you have it. I’ve admitted three of my errors. I’d still hope for others to follow suit – it’s okay to get something wrong now and then. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t even have “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” and “Loveless” in my collection…

    Friday, March 14, 2008

    Welcome To The Frames

    With the success of the (great) film “Once” and now an Oscar in hand for Glen Hansard for the song “Falling Slowly”, perhaps US audiences will finally pay more attention to his regular gig, the Irish band The Frames. That idea worked well enough for me - the film certainly pointed me in that direction and I eagerly began making my way through their catalog.

    I started with their most recent album, 2007’s “The Cost”, which features alternate versions of “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up”, both also on the “Once” soundtrack. On first listen, it would be easy to dismiss The Frames as another version of Coldplay, Snow Patrol, or any other of those types of bands. However, what immediately distinguishes The Frames from those others on this album is perhaps the same reason I was so drawn to the film – Glen Hansard himself. His voice is so honest and natural, almost like he’s a real person singing about real things in the same room as you. Very low on reverbs and equally low on the “forced whiney-ness” of singers like Chris Martin from Coldplay. Where it works for Coldplay, it would break down just about anywhere else. Glen really brings you into the song, and though it’s a band effort, you begin to feel a real emphasis on the emotions of the lyrics and the singing shine through.

    Those who know me will also know that I am not at all a fan of most singer-songwriter offerings out there. There are not a lot of Nick Drake’s or Eliot Smith’s left out there, and most end up going the way of Jack Johnson or other similar, , music. With “The Cost”, I began to fear that The Frames were right on that border, so I decided to move further back.

    I continued to move backwards but skipped 2005’s “Burn The Maps” for the time being and picked up 2001’s “For The Birds”. After a quick instrumental, we arrive at the second track “Lay Me Down”. Wow, much better. Again, the intimacy of Glen’s voice shines through, but now the supporting music seems to be better connected to the overall song and the band seems to be even channeling Nick Drake himself in this song, with strings darkly entering after the first minute. “What Happens When The Heart Just Stops” is a breathtaking track with the emotional impact of a volcano – erupting into a chorus with horns and Glen chanting “I’m disappointed” repeatedly. A few tracks later, with “Fighting On The Stairs”, we find the band ready to take more risks, crafting a song to rest on top of a heavy electro-disco beat. But it works. In “Santa Maria”, the band shows that they are not afraid to turn it up a bit, with a noise-rock section to round out the song – guitars on full distortion. They are clearly not the generic singer-songwriter band I was worried about.

    Moving even further backwards, I went way back to 1996’s “Fitzcarraldo” and 1999’s “Dance The Devil”. Within the first 10 seconds of “Fitzcarraldo”, another influence becomes immediately clear – alternative darlings The Pixies (another favorite of mine). “Revelate” may as well have been found on any of the great Pixies albums! This album also featured another immediate favorite of mine, “Say It To Me Now”, in which Glen shows early signs of his ability to lay out his emotions. The bass line in this song is incredibly deep and subtle – provides warmth and movement to make the song move. This is another song that became featured on “Once” in a strictly acoustic fashion. On “Dance The Devil”, we are treated to gems like “Star Star”, a beautiful and minimalist ballad, and “Pavement Tune”, a clear single from their earlier catalog, with its rock roots.

    At this point, I feel like I have a very good feel and appreciation for what the Frames are all about, and it was time to put it all together with 2004’s live offering, “Set List”. Here, the band run through gem after gem, and you begin to understand where the real beauty of the band lies – the live performance. It’s a subtle point, but ignoring the energy, medleys (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ring Of Fire), and re-workings, what really jumps out is the fervor from the crowd. On almost every track and at every moment, you can clearly hear the crowd singing word for word with Glen. At one point during the first chorus of “Lay Me Down”, you can hear Glen overcome as he says “wow” after the crowd just takes over. THAT, my friends, is a live experience.

    After it all, I am thrilled to be on the bandwagon. While I’m still not ready to put The Frames in my inner circle with Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Tool, Bjork, and my other favorites, I certainly can appreciate their strengths. Glen is a great singer who is so honest and natural with almost everything he does, and the band works incredibly well together. I hope that their next offering can break them from some of the vanilla they seem to have put themselves in with “The Cost”, but clearly there is enough skill there to avoid that trap. They are a great band and seem poised to really break out in the states – 10 years too late or not.