Music to Quarantine by — vol. 5 (wk of 4.13)
I assure you, this is much more pleasant than the daily COVID-19 updates.
13 April 2020
Upon first listen, you’ll find yourself asking “How the f is all of that coming from one guitar?”
It. Is. Incredible.
While the genre New Age isn’t for everyone — it’s a little soft, a little trippy, a little odd, a little spacey but some of it, like Michael Hedges Aerial Boundaries, is hella good.
I had a friend who was all into this sort of music and I was way into my snob stage. Naturally, I poo-pooed his suggestion that I listen to Michael Hedges.
I can’t explain why, but one day I was at the record store and picked up two CDs, The Replacements Let It Be and Michael Hedges Aeriel Boundaries. Having both been released in 1984, I was a bit behind the curve here.
The ‘mats are the ‘mats…but Michael Hedges was a revelation. I had never heard anything like it before…or since.
I am not a guitar player but I can recognize a good guitar player pretty easily. Aside from lyrics, it’s the thing in music that hits me most viscerally. Since there are no lyrics on it’s only natural that with Aeriel Boundaries my attention went to guitar. To be fair there are only three instruments, guitar, fretless bass, and flute.
Hedges had influences that varied and his approach to composition owed as much to Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, and Steve Reich, as it did to Pete Townsend, Neil Young, and Leo Kottke.
In my mind, he’s a genius on par with someone like Prince. Prince was a composer who played pop music just as Hedges was a composer who played guitar. Both of these artists operated on an entirely different plane.
Be warned, New Age is not for everyone and you may think it sounds too soft…and it will be if you’re expecting Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. Speaking of those two, here they are on Hedges:
“Michael was unique. His music transcends genre and trend. It’s truly musical, fun and enlightening.” — Steve Vai
“His playing has a feel and timbre all its own — technically brilliant, but always organic and true.” — Joe Satriani
I’ll be blunt — Michael Hedges is as important to modern guitar playing as Eddie Van Halen.
On Aeriel Boundaries he covers Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” sans vocals…well, it works. If you know the song, it’s all good because you will hear them in your head. It’s weirdly beautiful.
I was lucky enough to see Hedges perform once and a tiny club in Pawling, New York. It was just incredible to be that close and watch a virtuoso at work. I feel lucky. Although for reasons I’ve never been able to figure out, he wore a metal colander on his head.
Like so many great artists, we lost Michael Hedges too early. He died in a car accident just a few months after I had seen him. Not a drug or alcohol-related death, just an unfortunate thing where his car slid off a rain-soaked curve and down a cliff.
Michael Hedges was the type of artist who truly defied category. Yea, he got lumped into New Age…and I get it. But his playing and talent went beyond such simple monikers. Those are marketing terms.
After his untimely death, Hedges’ unfinished recordings were brought to completion by friends David Crosby and Graham Nash for the album Torched.
Aerial Boundaries opened doors and pushed, well, the boundaries of guitar playing. Like many that preceded him and those that followed him, his death was a tragic and monumental loss. However, anyone who takes the time to listen to Hedges will find themselves inspired…or awestruck.
In either case, Michael Hedges will have served the ultimate artist’s purpose, and something any music fan will tell you…that the power of music goes far beyond the life of the artist.
14 April 2020
The Band (aka The Brown Album)
Now I’ll admit to once being a tangential fan of The Band. I was well aware of their history (Bob Dylan, the house in Woodstock, the success…and the rest) but never took a deep dive into their music.
The other night I watched Once Were Brothers, the Robbie Robertson documentary on The Band. While good, it’s one-sided — Robertson’s. Three of the five members are dead (Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel) and the other (Garth Hudson) who lives quietly and pops up here and there didn’t participate. So all you’re getting with the documentary is Robbie Robertson’s historical take.
I think the documentary about Levon Helm Ain’t In It for My Health is fair ballast to Once Were Brothers.
All that aside, there is no mistaking two things:
- The Band was once a band of brothers.
- Before The Band, the sound didn’t exist in rock and roll.
In the mid-60s when The Band toured with Bob Dylan as he moved from acoustic folk to electric rock, they didn’t do too much in the way of influencing Dylan…he was Bob Dylan.
But when they got the house in Woodstock, the famous pink one, things changed. They didn’t have a record deal, lived communally and just created music for the sake of creating. There was no agenda. What came out was Music from Big Pink.
That debut album was a mix of rock and roll, dynamic lyricism and storytelling, country roots, Delta blues and a sound that was uniquely American.
Al Kooper’s review of that album in Rolling Stone sums it up: “This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. Some people will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.”
A year later The Band released The Band. With the relative success of the first album, fans were rabid for something new and snatched it up.
Because The Band focuses on people, places, and traditions associated with an older version of America, an argument has been made that The Band is a concept album. While I can certainly hear that, and understand the argument to an extent; however, for me, a concept album has to be born from the intent of the artist…and I just don’t think that’s present here. Or at least the songwriters or band members have said that was their intent.
The Band’s music was an amalgam of all their influences and that’s the music that came out on The Band.
Today, we’d call it would be tagged with the genre label of Americana, but in 1969? That genre didn’t exist. They were the first band (at least commercially successful one I’m aware of) to bridge the gaps between folk, country, rock, blues and a heavy dose of literary influence.
You could take any one of The Band’s first three albums and listen to them. Music from Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright cover two years (1968–1970) that is one of the most fertile in rock history. And it’s those three albums that have the majority of the songs you’d be familiar with.
The Band was one of many artists of that era that broke new ground on an evolving landscape of music. And listening to The Band today you will hear their influence everywhere.
BUT, although you may hear The Band’s influence pollinate across genres, even today, there is still nobody who sounds as good as Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. They were, after all, The Band.
15 April 2020
…For The Whole World To See
1975 (released 2009)
One of the most important American punk bands that you have never heard of.
The three Hackney brothers from Detroit — Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis (drums) Hackney — began as a funk band, but after seeing a concert by The Who, they changed course.
These guys were banging this music out before there was a name for it…and before The Ramones or The Sex Pistols ascended to their respective punk thrones (deservedly or not is a separate argument).
…For The Whole World To See is alleged to have been funded by Columbia Records impresario Clive Davis. But when he implored the band to change its name from Death, they declined…and Davis withdrew financing.
Placing this album in perspective, David Hackney’s guitar playing owes as much to Pete Townsend of The Who as it does to Wilko Johnson of Dr. Feelgood and Glen Buxton of the original Alice Cooper band. This is not to say Hackney doesn’t have his style, he does. Death and their distinct sound are the bridge that leads to Johnny Ramone, Joe Strummer and yes, even Kurt Cobain.
I suppose it would be ignorant to think that race wasn’t an issue in why Death never found the success they deserved in the ’70s. The Hackney brothers were black…and from Detroit. The recording industry being what it was/is, didn’t know what to do with another black family from Detroit…the already had The Jackson 5…and I suspect that was even one too many for them.
After Clive Davis withdrew his funding, the band released one single and then threw in the towel.
In 2009, Drag City Records released the seven songs they cut on Clive’s dime…For The Whole World To See. In 2011, Drag City released more Death music that pre-dates …For The Whole World To See on an album called Spiritual • Mental • Physical, and then in 2013 a documentary was made called A Band Called Death.
They continue to make music today.
It’s hard to say what may have happened if Death had changed their name as Clive Davis had wanted. The seismic shift that was Punk was beginning and would’ve happened regardless…BUT there is no question that Death would’ve been one of the bands leading the charge.
16 April 2020
Blood on the Tracks
So much has been written and discussed regarding this album, I don’t think I could, or even want to, add to the conversation about Blood on the Tracks.
People way smarter than I have said enough.
Here is the plain and simple truth as I see it.
Blood on the Tracks is the crown jewel in Bob Dylan’s career. He’s made great albums before and after, but this one has a universality that others lack. Considering his entire career and influence, for me, it’s this album that puts him over the top and is what makes him one of the most influential artists in history.
Now whether you believe these songs are about the collapse of his marriage (he says no, his song Jakob says it’s his parents talking to one another) or not, the songs on this album are relatable if you’ve ever been in love and/or had your heartbroken.
The reductive tendency to say Blood on the Tracks is a result of his marriage failing diminishes Bob Dylan’s artistry around the topic of failing love. Yea, the timing of the album tracks with his marriage collapsing but so what? The compulsion to place these songs into a construct that coincides with the collapse of his marriage is pointless.
It’s the songs that matter.
If you’ve been in love, regardless of gender identity or sexual preference, you know these feelings:
- Been in love with someone and you know it just won’t last?
- “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”
- Either you or your lover walked away for any reason, but you still have a deep love for them?
- “If You See Her Say Hello”
- Been angry about having your heart broken?
- “Idiot Wind”
- Fallen in love with someone so perfect but all the odds are against you?
- “Tangled Up in Blue”
- Gone back to a lover when you know you know you shouldn’t?
- “Shelter From the Storm”
- A one night stand that was perfect, but only meant for one night?
- “Simple Twist of Fate”
If you’ve dated, I’m confident you’ve experienced at least one of these.
For me, and I’m not a Dylan acolyte or scholar but this is not only the best album of his career, but it’s also one of the best albums in recorded history.
Novelist Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) called Blood on the Tracks “the truest, most honest account of a love affair from tip to stern ever put down on magnetic tape.”
Agreed. Blood on the Tracks is flawless.
17 April 2020
If you had told me in 1986 that the three knuckleheads — Adam Yauch (aka MCA), Mike Diamond (aka Mike D), and Adam Horowitz (aka Ad-Rock) that made License to Ill in 1986 would become not just relevant but one of the most lauded bands in music, I would’ve laughed my ass off.
Yet, here we are 35 years later and Beastie Boys are one of the most beloved and respected artists.
Their second album, Paul’s Boutique, released in 1988 is nothing if not a masterpiece. The creative jump from License to Ill to Paul’s Boutique is, in a word, Beatles-esque. That jump from “She’s Crafty” to “Shake Your Rump” is on par with The Beatles jump from “She Loves You” to “A Day In the Life.”
Paul’s Boutique was largely ignored by both music critics at the time and the misogynistic frat boys who loved License to Ill. To be fair to the critics, the album just confused them because the jump from seeming pranksters to actual legitimate hip hop artists was confounding. However, over time, the critics have warmed to the album and its become not only rated as one of the best albums in hip-hop but one of the most influential albums. Period.
This album is a masterpiece on par with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. There, I said it.
To look at the songs sampled is to bear witness to songs that encompass every era and genre of recorded music. There’s Pink Floyd, The Bar-Kays, Alphonse Mouzon, The Beatles, Johnny Cash, themselves, et al. How they, and the producers — The Dust Brothers — weaved it all together into something so consistent, brilliant and listenable is astonishing.
The Beastie Boys musical maturity, emotional and intellectual growth spurt coincided with their artistic expression and all continued to evolve of the course of their career. The holy trinity, for me, of their career begins with Paul’s Boutique and flows into Check Your Head and Ill Communication.
Like so many classic albums, Paul’s Boutique has that slow burn quality. It’s also that rarest of rare treasures, it sounds just as good and just as relevant today…and will again in another 35 years.
The same way people praise Sgt. Pepper 50 years on is the same way people will view Paul’s Boutique in 50 years.
If you’ve never heard this album, you’re missing something truly special.
18 April 2020
I’ll say it again, jazz just isn’t my preferred genre. This is not to say I can’t appreciate it.
And to be a fan of music and NOT be a fan of Miles Davis’ music is just heresy.
In one genre or another, you’ve heard at least ONE artist who has cycled through or worked with Miles Davis. Truely, the list reads like a who’s who in musical history (this is just a sample):
- John Coltrane
- Quincy Jones
- Wayne Shorter
- Herbie Hancock
- Bill Evans
- John McLaughlin
- Gil Evans
I suspect through today’s lens, most would agree that Bitches Brew is not the most woke album title.
However, listen to it…could it really be named anything else?
The world needs another person, especially one ill-equipped to opine about jazz, singing the praises of Bitches Brew like the world needs another presidential press conference about the coronavirus. That is to say, we need neither.
As a life-long rock and roll fan, this is one of about ten jazz albums that I listen to relatively regularly. 50 years later, the jaw-dropping creativity, and influence, of Bitches Brew continues…and won’t stop.
19 April 2020
Tunnel of Love
You gotta learn to live with what you can’t rise above —”Tunnel of Love”
That’s what I say to Springsteen fans who squawk about this album.
Tunnel of Love is a rather polarizing album among die-hard Bruce fans. I’m not sure if it’s the pop sounding production or the lack of the E-Street jangle…or both…or none. But for some reason, many fans dislike this album.
Because of the tremendous worldwide success of Born in the U.S.A., the light was really bright on Springsteen. As you may expect, it complicated his personal life. And as any good artist does, he took to his craft to express himself, making Tunnel of Love a hard left turn from the success of Born in the U.S.A..
Love, loss, pain, and hurt are the dominant themes here, making it a direct descendant of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
However, where Dylan has always been cagey (at best) about any verisimilitude on Blood on the Tracks, Springsteen has not. Tunnel of Love is about his marriage to model and actress Julianne Phillips.
Released in 1987, this album is profoundly personal and peels back the sheets on the superstar's inner thoughts and demons that surrounded love. Where his previous album launched him into the stratosphere, the intamacy and universality of Tunnel of Love helped humanize the superstar and bring him back to earth.
Despite the pop-sounding production and success of the album, Tunnel of Love is a blues record.
Critic Steven Hyden said this in a 2014 review in Grantland:
If Ingmar Bergman had been born in Freehold and cut his artistic teeth at the Stone Pony, he would’ve made this record in place of Scenes From a Marriage.
If you’ve seen that movie, then you know that’s probably the most succinct sentence to describe Tunnel of Love.
Hyden also said in the same 2014 article: “You really shouldn’t be allowed to hear this record until you’ve been married for a few years.” I would disagree. I’ve never been married…but I have had my heart broken, shattered and put through a meat grinder…more than once. Marriage is not a pre-requisite to identify with the content on Tunnel of Love.
If you’ve ever done any self-reflection on love, loss, pain and hurt then Tunnel of Love will resonate.