Friday, September 29, 2006

All Tomorrow's Parties (In German)

German language appreciation week concludes with this version of "All Tomorrow's Parties" recorded by Kendra Smith with Steve Wynn back in 1981. German is such a natural choice for this song it makes you wonder why Lou Reed didn't think to have Nico sing an alternate version in German. German also comes naturally to Smith because she spent part of her childhood in Germany. This was recorded around the same time as the sessions for the first Dream Syndicate EP. It was probably a good idea not to release it at the time as the band was being obvious enough about its primary influence without actually covering them.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Robyn Hitchcock (In German)

German language appreciation week here at Flowering Toilet continues with this cut sung in German by Robyn Hitchcock. Okay, so I'm already repeating artists. So what? It's Robyn Hitchcock, and he has a new album coming out next week on Yep Roc! (it's really good--I pre-ordered it from Yep Roc! and got it yesterday).

Going through some of my 7" singles I came across a flexi 7" from The Bob fanzine with Robyn singing "Alright Yeah" in German. I had completely forgotten this existed, let alone that I owned a copy. A Swedish language version of the song was released on the limited-edition, LP-only release, Mossy Liquor (that album is now available for purchase from iTunes, BTW). I wouldn't be surprised to learn Robyn recorded this song in other languages too. I look forward to hearing "Alright Yeah" sung in Esperanto ("neniu, neniu, neniu, neniu, neniu, neniu, bone jes") on the inevitable Hitchcock box set.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hallo, ich bin Johnny Cash


It's kind of weird to hear Johnny Cash sing in German. After all, it's hard to think of another voice as distinctively American as Johnny Cash's. But here it is, Johnny singing "I Got Stripes" in German. On the other hand, there is something wonderfully American about the whole enterprise because if Americans sense there is a market for something we go after it.

This comes from a Bear Family boxed set, The Man In Black, 1959-1962. It's also available on a single Bear Family CD, The International Johnny Cash, where you will also find more Cash in German and Spanish, along with Cash hits sung in German by Gunter Gabriel. If the German label Bear Family is any indication, the Germans take our country music heritage much more seriously that we do. While American labels offer slipshod reissues of major American Country artists, Bear Family offers completist sets by even relatively minor ones like Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Pastels

Deliberately amateurish and childish, there is a very good argument to me made that the Pastels are simply a horrible band. I won't be the one to make that argument however because I like them. The Pastels started releasing music back in 1983, and for better or worse spearheaded a movement of intentionally naive, twee, and childlike pop music. I wouldn't go so far that we would never have had bands like Talulah Gosh, Small Factory, Bunnygrunt and Tiger Trap without The Pastels, but there is no denying that Steven Pastel and company got there first. But I think they can reasonably be partly blamed for the mid-90s trend of women in their late twenties and early thirties wearing butterfly bobby pins and carrying Hello Kitty lunchboxes. That was a dark moment in indie-rock culture I think most of us would rather forget.

This version of "Baby Honey" comes from the Creation compilation Suck On The Pastels, and was recorded for a BBC session in 1984. Like the earliest music of the Velvet Underground, The Ramones or Shonen Knife, it is amateurish in the best possible way.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Futura

Back in 1959 Bernie Green and his Orchestra dared to imagine what popular music would sound like in the year 1970. Not surprisingly this sounds nothing like "Green Eyed Lady" by Sugarloaf, or anything else that was popular in 1970. But Green needn't have felt too badly about being off the mark in his projections, because people are notoriously bad about predicting things to come. If predictions in the popular press at the time had come to pass, machines would be doing all our work today, and the few of us who still actually worked would be doing so on the moon.

Bernie Green did a lot of this stereo-demo/lounge music with a great amount of humor, including a parody of stereo-demo records for Mad Magazine. The liner notes describe one song as follows: "If you've got stereo, you'll hear the drummer actually move across the bandstand (to kill the chimes player). Otherwise, you'll just have to be satisfied with a monaural account of the bloodshed!"

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Last

The Last were both power-pop and garage rock pioneers. They released a few independent LPs, and a bunch of singles that vaguely recalled the sounds of 60s garage bands before this became a popular thing to do. The original incarnation of the band broke up in 1985. Keyboard player Vitus Matare went on to form Trotsky Icepick with former members of 100 Flowers.

The Last reformed in 1988 with different lineup including Robbie Rist on drums. They released a few decent albums on SST in the late 80s (I think Rist only played on the first SST album).

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Spinning Wig Hats



When I first heard this song on a flexi 7" that came free with a 1986 issue of The BOB Magazine, I thought The Spinning Wig Hats were a real band. I had no idea this was actually The Long Ryders in disguise due to contractual issues. I also had no idea this was a Flamin' Groovies cover. Anyway, it's really nice. Long ride the Spinning Wig Hats!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hooray For Human Engineering

I'll pass this one along without much comment. It's an industrial curiosity from Clarke Equipment, makers of products that make our lives better, although it sounds like it could have been written for an episode of The Simpsons. You'll love it. Like industrial films, sometimes this stuff tells you more about the culture that produced it than more celebrated "artistic" creations.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Billy Strayhorn

Quick, think of a Duke Ellington composition. Did you think of "Take the 'A' Train"? Or maybe "Satin Doll," or "Something To Live For," or "Day Dream"? Those are indeed some of the best-known songs associated with Ellington and his orchestra, but Ellington didn't write them. They were written by his lesser known counterpart, and musical soul mate, Billy Strayhorn.

Strayhorn wrote and arranged hundreds of compositions for the Ellington Orchestra, but was content to mainly stay in the background while Ellington received the lion's share of the acclaim. As David Hadju points out in his biography of Strayhorn, his decision to work in Ellington's shadow was no doubt in part influenced by the fact that he was an openly gay black man in an era less tolerant of homosexuality than our own. (BTW, I highly recommend Hadju's Strayhorn biography, Lush Life, one of the best musical biographies I have ever read).

The Peaceful Side, released by United Artists in 1961, is the only album I am aware of that was credited to Strayhorn alone during his lifetime. It sounds very different from anything recorded by Ellington, with a pronounced easy-listening feeling. Vinyl copies are extremely difficult to find. I own a Solid State reissue with grotesquely manipulated cover art. I'd like to find an original, but they tend to be pricey. The album was reissued on CD by Blue Note, but it too is out-of-print and hard to find.

Here is a version of Strayhorn's signature tune, "Lush Life" from The Peaceful Side. This is the composition most associated with Strayhorn, perhaps because it was never recorded by an Ellington band, or perhaps because it matches the image of Strayhorn as a world-weary sophisticate so well. He was a teenager living in Dayton, OH when he wrote it. I love this version of the song with its wordless sighing chorus and strings. It's perfect.

Friday, September 08, 2006

R.E.M.

What am I suppossed to say about R.E.M.? I'll say this about them, after all their success, by 1995 they were still willing to give a song away to a tiny fanzine that was an early promoter of their music. What is more, they covered this criminally negelected song by their buddy Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn's version was on his low-selling final album for A&M, Respect, which never got enough, ahem, respect from even Hitchcock's biggest fans. This cover comes from a flexi 7" given away with The Bob fanzine. Flexi 7" are always pretty dodgy as far as sound quality goes, some more so than others. This one sounds like it had some pitch problems, but then again maybe that's just Stipe's voice (but the guitars sound off too). Anyway, it's worth hearing warts and all. And if you don't already own a copy, go find a copy of Respect while you still can.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

de Artsen

De Artsen are best known for contributing members to indie-pop-flavor-of-the-moment-circa-1992 Bettie Serveert (who are still at it by the way). From the moment I first heard it, I was quite taken with de Artsen's one and only album, 1989's Conny Waves with a Shell. It was reminiscent of other Velvet Underground inspired indie rock acts, but filtered through the band's own Dutch sensibilities in a way that make it just enough different to be interesting. In the wake of the success of Bettie Serveert, there were rumors that Matador was going to re-release this album, but that never happened so I'm glad I paid premium price for the import. "Down the Road" is one of my favorite cuts from the album. Does anyone know who they're quoting in the "where switches set you free my friend" bit at the end of the song?

Bob Dylan is #1

I noticed that Bob Dylan's new album, Modern Times debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts this week. Johnny Cash's posthumous release, American V: A Hundred Highways achieved a similar feat earlier this year. This tells me two things: #1 mostly old people are buying albums these days, and #2 the recording industry is in big trouble.

The reviews for Dylan's new album have been ecstatic. Those of you who know me, or have read much of the content on this blog, know that I enjoy playing the role of the contrarian. But I have no contrarian take to offer on Modern Times. I haven't been able to listen to the album as closely as I'd like, but as far as I can tell it is every bit as good as the reviews suggest. If you haven't picked it up already, I highly recommend it, along with another album of geezer rock, Tom Petty's Highway Companion, and Richard Thompson's wonderful DVD/CD set 1,000 Years of Popular Music.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

This Is Your Brain on Music

I found this review of This Is Your Brain on Music by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin interesting. If this blog has a meta-narrative it is about the connection between music, memory and emotion, so this is very much the kind of topic in which I am interested.

Also, because I have two kids, I'm interested in the relationship between music and overall cognitive development. I recognize the so-called "Mozart effect" is bunk, and I'm not one of those annoying parents trying to breed super-geniuses through a steady diet of "Baby Loves Mozart" CDs. But I am interested more generally in how early experiences with music effect cognitive development. For example, this weekend my son asked me about "that record store near the pizza shop we used to go to." He was referring to Rick’s Records in Providence, which closed over two years ago. My son, who is four, claims to have no memory of the apartment we lived in at the time, but somehow he remembers a record store he visited with his father. This amazes me. Why have so many memories from his early development been lost while something like this sticks in his head?

I have other thoughts on children and music, but I’ll save those for another day. In the meantime, this looks like something I'm going to put on my "to read" list despite the book's unfortunate title. When I get around to reading it I'll post my thoughts.

Air Miami

I guess you could say Air Miami never took off. Formed in the wake of Unrest's demise by Mark Robinson and Bridget Cross, Air Miami released a couple compilation tracks, a few singles, a couple of cassettes, a full length album and an EP or two. Then they dissolved and the principals went on to other things. I was a big fan of Unrest's final two albums, in which they morphed from a schizophrenic D.C. punk band into anglophile popsters of the highest order. Air Miami was okay, but never really lived up to the standards of the previous band, as is so often the case. Songs like "World Cup Fever" hewed a little too closely to their Euro-trash influences for my taste.

They did get off to a very promising start with this single, "Airplane Rider." Stylistically, it is not different from the Unrest of Perfect Teeth in any meaningful way, which is just fine by me. Someday maybe I will catch up with some of the projects Mark Robinson has been involved with after the breakup of this group.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Tony Bennett

This year marks Tony Bennett's 80th year on planet earth. A new duets album is being released to mark the occasion. But it should also be occassion for Sony to re-think its slipshod reissue policy on Bennett's catalogue. For an artist of Bennett's caliber and influence, the simple fact that many of his LPs have never been reissued on CD is outrageous. Adding insult to injury, many of the CDs that are on the market are early CD-era relics with sub-par sound quality that are badly in need of fresh remastering. Others contain bonus tracks with no discernable relationship to the album. Meanwhile, Sony/BMG's Legacy label is busy cranking out deluxe-digipack Journey reissues.

I don't know who is at fault, Sony or Bennett's management, but despite the existence of some well-chosen anthologies, Tony Bennett's catalogue is a mess. There appears to be no rational reissue strategy at work. If you think I'm exaggerating, check out the discography from Bennett's website. Click on the individual releases, and notice how many say "Not currently available." I count over twenty. It's outrageous--a lot of these are amazing albums. While it's true that even the best of these albums were not as carefully thought out as Sinatra's Capitol "concept" records, that is no excuse for them being absent from the market altogether for such a long period of time.

Tony's artistry has near universal appeal. 90-year-old Grandmas, toddlers, and the hippest hipsters all find something that speaks to them in the magic of Tony's voice. When my son was two he saw a brief clip of Tony performing at the Newport Jazz Festival on TV, and he was absolutely captivated. So I threw "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" on the turntable for him, and for months all he wanted to hear was "Tony Bennett music." At one point he decided that the name "Tony Bennett" wasn't a good enough and that he should change his name to "Tony Soda." Since Bennett is only a stage name anyway, I felt like writing Mr. Anthony Benedetto and telling him that although he had a nice 50 year run with the name Bennett, my toddler felt it was time for a change of pace and perhaps he should consider changing his name to "Tony Soda." I never got around to that, but you have to admit "Tony Soda" has a certain ring-a-ding-ding to it.

Anyway, this version of "Speak Low" comes from one of Tony Soda's best LPs, When Lights Are Low. Amazingly, this LP has never been reissued on CD in the United States. It's a wonderful relaxed, jazzy session he cut with just his then regular trio fronted by pianist Ralph Sharon, and the easy interplay between singer and instrumentalists is evident. This album is the equal of his more celebrated sessions with legendary pianist Bill Evans. Some key tracks from the album can be found on the 50 Years of Artistry and Jazz anthologies, but not this one. Enjoy!