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second-best since Cantor

Category: listening

TFW, Depeche Mode edition.

TFW, as they say — TFW you have copies of neither Tears for Fears’s ‘Head Over Heels’ nor Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ in your iTunes library.

The founders were people, but The Founders aren’t people.

Idle, irresponsible, testy thoughts, unedited and unfiltered and (to be frank) probably un-thought-through.

Problem: The world of the Founders seems impossibly distant from our own, and Americans are pig-ignorant about our history.

Bad solution: Pretend the Founders were essentially modern Americans, somewhat abstracted perhaps, and try to draw political/cultural lessons from them on those terms. (This is known amongst historians of the era as ‘Founders Chic,’ and is popular for boring reasons — cf. Wall Street reporter Ron Chernow’s laudatory book on Hamilton, or the current backlash against Thomas Jefferson.)

Better solution: Treat them as fallible human beings while acknowledging the historical specificity of their time and place — i.e. maintain their status as historical figures rather than mythic characters.

In my family we’ve been listening basically nonstop to Hamilton, which is a great success on its own terms but seems, based on what little guilt-motivated research I’ve done, to be bad history. The play’s full of anachronisms, which don’t bother me because (1) they’re groovy and (2) I’m not a priggish asshole, but the specific recasting of the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict (Hamilton married into a family of slaveowners and himself rented slaves, yet he gets a number of abolitionist applause lines; Jefferson’s genuinely radical democratic ideals are laughed off as aristocratic hypocrisy) damages the history for no damn reason except, I think, to pander to Miranda’s ‘progressive’ audience.

(Testy aside about Miranda’s own background goes here, but I can’t be bothered.)

It’s dangerously distorting to portray humans of hundreds of years ago as basically modern in their outlooks — though I can see why you’d do so; no one would give a shit about Alexander Hamilton today if Miranda hadn’t made that choice. It works, and you’ve got to put asses in seats. Hamilton is a multimillion-dollar business. Yet the cost of that distortion is the audience’s cheaply acquired false certainty, which leads to recklessness:

Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, [Chernow] said, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.

Sadly, no! It just substitutes a fashionable interpretive matrix for, y’know, actual historical understanding, and piggybacks the noble and correct idea that ‘Anything You Can Dream, You Can Be’ on a sugarcoated misreading of history that shuts down further inquiry. It slots the Founders into contemporary conversations too easily, and the cost to our collective historical imagination will far outlast any tactical gains that one or another side might make in the culture wars. (‘Culture wars’: rather a grand name for local proxy conflicts whose chief purpose seems to be distraction from, among other things, actual wars…)

The Founders don’t need to be mythic embodiments of Good and Evil to be useful to us today — quite the opposite, if they’re to be sustainably useful and meaningful. Our inability to admit that the Founders were complex human beings is part of the reason we have such a childish relationship to our national history. The idea of America is an ongoing conversation, a history of debate between complexly invested humans. We go back to Colonial history wanting it to illustrate a point or settle an argument. But that’s not what historical inquiry does — the past doesn’t settle our arguments, we have to do that for ourselves. And we’re best able to handle our own business when we know where we’ve really come from.

Anyhow, the upshot here is twofold:

  1. You should listen to (or see) Hamilton, which is a great musical on its own terms.
  2. You should ignore the people who tell you it ‘brings the history to life.’ For ‘history,’ there, read ‘mythology.’ Hamilton settles for being a passion play when it could have been something so much more interesting: a problem play.

Quick hits, October 2016.

Phish, BIG BOAT (2016)

Better than I initially thought (my initial review in its entirety: ‘Go see a Phish show’), but still an unevenly written, overproduced affair. I say all this with love, which has only deepened as they’ve aged into their nigh-miraculous midlife renaissance: Phish’s studio albums are a dicey proposition. Big Boat has the highest ‘dad rock’ ratio of the bunch — after the opening comic-rock number ‘Friends,’ you get four straight tracks suitable for shaking your cellulite on the grass while drinking thin American beer, and there’s two or three more waiting on the backstretch — but as always there’s a handful of interesting tunes mixed in: Mike Gordon’s ‘Waking Up Dead’ is less conventionally satisfying than ‘555’ off Fuego, but the perversity of building a song around the triumphant four-syllable wail ‘Vac-u-um-ing!’ appeals to me; Page McConnell’s ‘I Always Wanted It This Way’ goes to an enveloping indie-electropop place; and Trey Anastasio’s 13-minute closer ‘Petrichor’ is more smoothly integrated and richly textured than ‘Time Turns Elastic,’ which fans deride as jamless but which seems to me one of the best things Trey’s ever written. And honestly, a couple of Trey’s dad-rock tunes are pretty good: though ‘No Men in No Man’s Land’ is as disappointing as its unfunny titular joke (it’s a little better live), ‘Tide Turns,’ ‘Blaze On,’ and ‘Breath and Burning’ capture the unaffected sweetness and generosity of spirit which have characterized post-reunion Phish. Still, while Big Boat may well be a personal achievement for the band (though recent interviews have suggested some tension with producer Bob Ezrin), it’s just not a terribly compelling album.

Still, you can’t be disappointed. This thing they do onstage, no one’s ever done it better; we shouldn’t hold it against them that their albums aren’t their best work.

Steve Kuhn, TRANCE (1974)

If you’re a jazz fan, you probably have feelings about the use of the Rhodes keyboard: either you dig its mellow electro vibe and potential for signal processing, or you think it’s too diffuse and sonically inflexible for the job. In my experience, few listeners are truly neutral about the device — not least because its arrival correlated with the onset of jazz/rock ‘fusion,’ still a source of controversy in this maddeningly conservative discursive community. I love the Rhodes sound, but there’s a limit to its expressive capacity, and I recognize that the emotions it triggers in me have a lot to do with its cultural moment. And lately I’m starting to notice its…thinness.

Steve Kuhn’s Trance is very, very, very much a mid-70s electric/acoustic piano trio+percussion record. Ambient texture and largely static groove are the key objectives; New Agey drones and extended modal vamps never quite build a real head of steam (or more positively: they never interfere with the slow-moving sonic cloudwork). That said, it’s dreamy — not sleepy. Kuhn’s keyboard solos are fleet, the acoustic piano gets some heavy reverb, Jack DeJohnette’s drumming is Jack DeJohnette’s drumming, and the proceedings never get too wild or indeed too ‘interesting.’ As a progenitor electronic work, it’s very much bound to the norms of jaaaazzzzzzz; as a post-fusion jazz album, it’s spaced out in an appealing but not quite distinctive way. Its value, then, is in the subtlety and continuity of the playing: the way its pensive-meditations-amongst-the-fjords coolness and hypnagogic mood find expression through both the drifts of Rhodes and the percussive workouts (not to mention the brief Free breakdown on ‘Squirt’).

I found out only when I sat down to write this that Trance is a beloved ‘lost classic,’ a ‘hidden gem’ which didn’t make waves upon initial release. I don’t quite share this feeling — it feels to me like one more enjoyable Rhodes-touched album of the (ugh) ‘kozmigroov’ era of spiritual/psych/soul/funk/jazz fusion, that golden age from roughly A Love Supreme through disco. But I don’t begrudge anyone thinking this is uniquely or unusually fine music. The mid-70s were a killer time for jazz. Everyone has to learn sometime.

Radiohead, HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003)

Because they’ve been around for 20 years, and their last few albums have been ‘retrenchments’ and reflected their ‘maturation’ and so forth, the scale of Radiohead’s achievement is now easy to overlook — you can forget, or petulantly ignore, the fact that for several years around the turn of the millennium, Radiohead were one of the most interesting bands in and around ‘rock & roll.’ From The Bends through Amnesiac they were both unimpeachable pop songwriters and sonic experimenters and creators of increasingly dense avant abstractions, and when Hail to the Thief arrived in 2003, everyone I knew wanted to know what they’d come up with. Had they rediscovered guitars? Would it be pure electronic noise? Was George Bush the thief? It mattered, somehow.

And when the album was neither as dark/creepy/maniacal/foreboding as Kid A nor as majestically guitar-drenched as OK Computer nor as hermetically intimate as Amnesiac — when Thief was ‘merely’ an hour of effortlessly integrated proggish guitar-rock and electronic immersions and almost-not-quite dance beats and emotionally concrete but emphatically un-literal lyrics, merely a Radiohead album instead of the Radiohead album, it was marked down by the tastemakers as a bit of a disappointment, and that was it for Radiohead’s cultural moment. Four years later In Rainbows was a thinkpiece-ready media sensation for its pay-what-you-want delivery, but no one talked much about its music; nothing since then has made much of a dent outside of the music blogs.

But Hail to the Thief is about as fine a mid-second-act rock album as you could hope for. The Lovely Guitar Tunes (‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Scatterbrain,’ ‘I Will,’ ‘Sail to the Moon,’ ‘Wolf at the Door’) are among Yorke’s loveliest, the opening two uptempo headbangers(?!) are pure adrenaline, and the group’s experiments in computerized pop theatricality (‘The Gloaming,’ ‘Backdrifts,’ ‘Myxomatosis’) argue for the continuity of the band’s pre- and post-millennium styles. Ignore the morons who think of Radiohead as ‘pretentious’: they’re just serious, and you should be too. While you’re at it, ignore anyone who dismisses Thief as a disappointment simply because it’s a distillation and consolidation rather than a year-in-the-lab-at-night experiment like Kid A. The whiggish rock/pop historical outlook that hypocritically insists both on the guilt-free pleasure principle (good!) yet clings to the idea that a great should do something new — getting bizarrely angry at artists content to do something(s) well — is the most poisonous result of early rockcrits’ desperate status-seeking. If pleasure is enough, it’s enough.

Hail to the Thief turns a few new tricks, but in retrospect they don’t really matter, nor does the album’s ‘incoherence’ when compared to Radiohead’s brilliant run from The Bends through Amnesiac. What matters is: the work gets you someplace it alone knows about.

(Sidebar proposal: The last four tracks of The Bends would be the peak of any lesser band’s career, never mind the rest of the album, and the key change and final chorus of ‘Sulk’ are — for me, of course ‘for me’ — one of the most rapturously sad moments on record. Only the cheapness of the contrast effect in ‘My Iron Lung’ mars what is, to my mind, an otherwise perfect rock album. Still, not their ‘greatest’ work, right? It’s ‘only a near-perfect collection of songs,’ unlike OK Computer and Kid A, which ‘add up.’ Man, I used to spend hours talking this kind of shit.)

Revisits: The Slip, Dave Matthews, Grimes, Radiohead.

Listening again to some discs I’d put aside, trying to hear something new in somethings old.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

An immersive piece of intoxicated tinkerer’s psychedelia which I dismissed too quickly in favour of the immediately accessible Art Angels. It still feels a bit like student work, which is to say there are moments of obvious Technique and an abashed quality throughout — if you’re willing to write the words, why not take the next step and sing so’s we can actually make them out? — and this is very obviously a Somewhat Muddled but Affecting Drug Album where Art Angels (the (minor) breakout pop hit) is an enthusiastic celebration of clarity, and perhaps sobriety. Yet the best songs (visions?), like ‘Genesis’ (my favourite and my wife’s), bring gal-pop narrativity to spacey electronica in a lushly trippy style, engaging the senses instead of making sense or settling for sensation. A strong argument for making the dancefloor and the chillout room all one big space, or maybe one very small one. And though the bespoke knob-twiddling of EDM still strikes me as the midpoint of a slippery slope down to shared-isolation consumerist hell, there’d be a place for Grimes in a world that still valued accident and the unfamiliar. For her sake I’m glad she’s off speed, though it’s a very small but real letdown that her next album won’t be a trip like this one.

The Slip at High Sierra Music Festival, 9/6/98

In their early incaranation, one of the small handful of worthwhile ‘jam bands’ — they combined schmind-schmexpanding hippie wandering with proper jazz language, and in the late 90s their considered engagement with electronic tools opened up new vistas. (Afterward they took a turn to electronica-touched indie pop, which brought them more attention; by that point I’d fallen off the radar somewhat.) They were astonishing live, passionate and spiritually intense but with actual existing chops. All three members are superb players, and Boston was their adopted hometown, so catching them at an all-night MIT basement show or burning up the Paradise was always a special experience. In those days drummer Andrew Barr took off for a few months of apprentice drumming in Mali, and came back with new old knowledge, playing with devotional fervor. I don’t know whether that was before or after this feelgood festival set, which is bound to be more affecting if you’re already up on the band. Excellent ‘Yellow Medicine’ here after a bunch of festival jams, but the career highlight is ‘Honey Melon,’ a gorgeous tune off From the Gecko that’s lifted by fiddle and didgeridoo into unself-conscious exultation. The set overall is less essential than I used to think, but the final two tunes, more than a half-hour in total, are the truth. I miss this band so much.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

  1. These are the best strings I’ve heard on a rock album. I don’t love all of Jonny Greenwood’s film work, which at times has seemed to me to be more ‘interesting’ than beautiful, but there’s no denying his ambition — or, at this point, his mastery. Remember how folks gave Beck props for hiring his dad to do (gorgeous) string arrangements on Sea Change? This isn’t an additive process like that: Greenwood’s textures, acoustic and electronic, are essential to the structure of each piece. The second verse of ‘Burn the Witch’ — a statement of intent and show of force — features string backing of extraordinary subtlety and beauty, even while the rest of the arrangement cruelly weaponizes the string section. Subtlety isn’t exactly a rock’n’roll virtue, but listen closely to the way heavily processed samples of Thom Yorke’s moaning/humming turn out to be models for — or fore-echoes of? — the avant string part that poisons the back half of the song.
  2. Yorke has always done a brisk side business in haunting solo acoustic ballads: ‘Desert Island Disk’ continues a line running back through ‘Give Up the Ghost,’ ‘Faust Arp,’ ‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Exit Music (for a film),’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ — songs which have sometimes grown in performance to include full-band accompaniment, but which at heart are guy-with-guitar songs. Indeed, Yorke & Greenwood’s two-guys-with-two-guitars shows are perfect showcases for the songs they’ve crafted together, just as Dave Matthews’s duo shows with Tim Reynolds are an ideal showcase for his own underpraised songwriting work. ‘Desert Island Disk’ features spare synth backing and hushed work from the whole band in its final minute, but it’s a reminder that Yorke, all by himself, is a major talent. So’s the next track, which sees Yorke singing in unplaceable character as supplement to an extended uptempo not-exactly-dance tune. You can’t say Yorke’s never been better — go listen again to ‘Sulk,’ a song he refused to sing after its release partly because of The Big Feelings, though I suspect the demands it placed on his tenor were too great anyway — but he’s never gone further in, lyrically or vocally.
  3. Some American rock critics hate it when a British band puts out a masterpiece. Not just Christgau; his resentments are just easy to see. (Go read the Dartmouth grad’s U2 and Radiohead reviews if you don’t believe me — the best of our record reviewers is more chip than shoulder, there.) Americans are often suspicious of subsequent British invasions. And Radiohead, especially on this album, are very British (English, duh) indeed, trafficking in a pastoral unease that a nation needs 2,000 years of continuous local anxiety to work up to. As I tried to get at in a review I wrote of Adam Roberts’s superb SF novel Bête, I think the essential thing about American imaginary landscape is that our monumental geography predates Euro colonization — America was ancient before whites arrived, and it stretches so far in both time and space that its chief function is to make people feel small and/or (falsely) humble. But Britain itself is ancient — older than Christianity — and British fantastika seems to me to treat the mysteries of the land as understandable in terms of permanent residence rather than latecomer settlement — America has mountains and rivers and resentful natives, Britain has stone circles and fairy rings and ley lines and resentful Britons. The video for ‘Burn the Witch’ drives home this difference: when Americans go on about witch trials, they do so in tiresome moralizing tones, to tell a just-so story about {$intolerance_du_jour}. But the Wicker Man? Guy Fawkes? Spring-Heeled Jack? Now we’re into something else, free now of childish didacticism. The nightmarish somber-cheeriness of the ‘Burn the Witch’ video has no precise analogue in American culture. Or so it seems to me.
  4. Moon Shaped Pool came out two weeks after Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but without Lemonade‘s built-in pressure to have the correct opinion about it (Beyoncé is now the Significant musician, about whom Opinions must be had and shared; Radiohead’s just a band). Of the two albums Lemonade certainly goes further beyond everyone’s previous sense of the artist’s capabilities, or at any rate her interests — we all knew Beyoncé was a tremendously talented singer, and it’s not as if she wrote the music or (underwhelming except to autobiographically interested fans) lyrics. Moon Shaped Pool sounds like Radiohead moving further down a path they’d opened several albums ago, making more-than-ever complex and subtle use of familiar elements like aforementioned strings, disquieting electronics, Yorke’s alien voice, etc.; it’s the most emotionally mature thing they’ve ever put out. ‘Band gets better at the things they’re uniquely good at’ is a nice story, but younger cultural critics don’t have time for it. There’s no hook, no novelty. Radiohead are old news. Well, if we’re only giving credit for achievement and not potential or indeed Significance, then the old news is still news: Radiohead are the more musically and indeed lyrically ambitious than Beyoncé (and just about everyone else in pop or rock), and while Yorke’s vocals occupy a much narrower emotional envelope, he relies less on cliché and formula.
  5. Not for the first time, I find myself privileged to grow old/young alongside artists who were once said (dismissively, sensationally) to speak for their time, but who were always and only (it turns out) speaking for themselves.
  6. It’s beautiful.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets (1998)

DMB’s best album, so f’ing what, but also a good album on its own terms — so good that even the terrible early Matthews tune ‘Halloween’ can’t ruin the vibe. It helps that ‘Halloween’ is sandwiched between ‘Stay,’ a perfect gospel-tinged bit of danceable pillowtalk pop, and ‘The Stone,’ an extraordinarily tense rhythmic experiment which makes the case for Carter Beauford’s hi-hat as pop music’s 1998 MVP. The antic/rustic/pastoral interludes help the album cohere, as do the beyond-the-call Kronos Quartet and producer Steve Lillywhite. The inclusion of pianist Butch Taylor (who joined the band full-time around this time) seems inevitable — rounding off the percussive guitar/bass/drum texures and varying the sax/fiddle atmospherics. Matthews writes great little songs without strong melodic identities, which suits his improvisatory dude-with-guitar style but means his Band needs to deliver a lot more than background. Thankfully they do: Crowded Streets is both a topologically varied and a sonically unified album, democratic in spirit but with a coherent shared sensibility.

You’re under no obligation to take Matthews and his Band seriously; despite their early popularity and surprising staying power they’re not exactly essential artists, and Matthews’s songwriting tends toward diffuseness. In my 33-1/3 book on Phish I called him an ‘intuitive savant,’ and I stand by that — his stripped-down acoustic duo shows with soulmate Tim Reynolds showcase his oddball folk-pop experiments, and he’s written a handful of unassailable tunes in that mode (‘So Damn Lucky,’ ‘Bartender,’ ‘Jimi Thing,’ and ‘Warehouse’ come to mind, and I have a soft spot for ‘Christmas Song’). But his batting average isn’t high enough for the canon, c’mon. I take issue with Robert Christgau’s tired ‘bland as a tofu sandwich’ snobbery, not least because some well-made tofu sandwiches have kicked this carnivore’s ass all over the place (and I find DMB’s integrated-in-every-sense funk/folk/jazzgrassish pop sound pretty interesting), but there’s no denying that Matthews has never made ‘dangerous’ music, whatever you take that to mean.

And his lyrics are, worryingly often, just terrible.

Still, Crowded Streets shows how much room there is for experimentation within DMB’s radio-friendly mid-90s hedonism template. The songs move, the singer digs deep, the band passes the energy ball with casual expertise, and the sound belongs to them alone. Overlook them if you like, no one cares. Dismiss them if you like — but listen first. Listen, if you have a minute, for what so many of us heard back then.

mpfree.

Oh nuthin’, just leaving this here for myself…

(RIP Lanquidity.)

Lately: Maxayn, Grimes, Sinatra.

Maxayn, Maxayn (1972)

Hedonistic funk-soul jams receding, without making any profound impact, into the sonic murk of early 70s Rhodes/sex/cosmos mind-expansion. Because that’s lately been my favourite kind of music, I dig this — especially the two(!) Stones covers, extra-especially ‘What You Want,’ which points up how black the Stones were and definitely weren’t. Illustrative song title: ‘Doing Nothing, Nothing Doing.’ Groovy.

Grimes, Art Angels (2015)

An interesting dance-pop album. The genderiffic piss-take ‘Kill v Maim’ includes the line ‘Italiano mob-star looking so precious,’ which is funny — it was funny when The Sopranos made the same joke — but I’m not sure it’d be as funny, or funny the same way, or at any rate if the same people’d let themselves be seen laughing about it, if the lyric went ‘Africano gang-star…’ Which is one reason I’m more interested in the ‘pop’ than the ‘interesting,’ never mind the (at my age?!) ‘dance.’ Musically…well, it’s an ‘interesting’ ‘dance-pop’ album made by one Canadian weirdo, what do you expect? Jazz? There are kick-drums and handclaps; I prefer jazz. I dig it, though, particularly ‘California’ and ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and ‘Belly of the Beat’ and honestly half the songs on the album…but if the thinkpieces write themselves then you can delete yours and move on to the next thing, which (this being dance-pop) everyone will, sooner than weird smart uncertain little Claire Boucher deserves. Oh, but one more thing first: the Janelle Monae track’s a dud.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

More, um, ‘psych-tronica’-ish? Also more like Devo — and therefore more my style, but I don’t remember a note. Art Angels is, I think, correctly labeled her ‘breakthrough’ album.

Sinatra on Capitol Records (1954-62)

Read this. OK now:

As a kid I loved the movie High Society, which brought together three of the great 20th century singers, Satchmo and Bing and Frank, though I didn’t understand its significance when I first saw it. Here’s a Crosby/Sinatra duet from that film: float on those voices, savour Sinatra’s drunk bit and his obvious affection for his childhood idol, and experience the profound parallax that comes of hearing two ‘crooners’ (the guy who first popularized the style, and the guy who took it further than anyone else) singing so dramatically differently and yet meeting in the middle for the sake of the piece.

This scene’s still a wakeup call for me: to most people my age, Sinatra and Crosby may as well be the same guy. To me, growing up on Broadway soundtracks and wearing out the grooves on a double LP compilation called The Fabulous Fifties and having no adolescent connection to rock counterculture, Sinatra ‘must be one of the newer fellas.’

I’ve been reading Robert Graves’s Greek Mythology and a recent translation of the Poetic Edda, thinking about cultural legacies and what we’ll leave behind when we inevitably pass — thinking too about what to teach my son about ‘America’ in all its forms. And I’ve been listening to Sinatra’s Capitol albums. The ‘American Songbook,’ as it’s quite properly known.

The ‘Sinatra sound’ for modern ears is probably that of his comparatively ‘schmaltzy’ Reprise incarnation — ‘New York, New York,’ ‘My Kind of Town,’ ‘My Way.’ But I’ve come to prefer the comparatively understated swing of his Capitol recordings, working with older material which had and has, crucially, an independent life beyond Sinatra’s own interpretations. Sinatra’s relationship to the standards is that of poet to myth: the moment of the song is always about the moment, communion between singer and listener, but away from status questions the poet/singer’s real work is clearer: honouring the song itself, and the private stories which over time have interwoven with it. Young Sinatra’s famous textual study, his unusual attention not only to prosody but to the stories ‘his’ songs told, helped him avoid the self-aggrandizement which ‘solo’ pop performance often tends to — he knew instinctively what novelists and poets must learn, that specificity is key to universality. Of course he got famous: he looked good and did his homework, even the extra-credit questions.

The book of American standards is our body of myth, capturing a mix of voices (white, black, gay, straight, upper- and lower-class) at a moment of rapid tumultuous integration, reworked and reimagined so many times over the last century that — even fallen from favour as those songs now are — they’re still central to our many ideas of America. The figures evoked in midcentury popular song are as fantastically real to us as Zeus and Odin were to our forerunners in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, incarnated in performance to confirm their secret presence in the everyday. And our great artists do seem to see themselves, with surprising consistency, in isomorphic terms — even if each artist’s language is very different. Service to something beyond the self, an idea which envelops creator and audience, forerunners and descendants, and which reminds us of both our smallness and our role in holding together the Weave: this idea can be metaphysical (the source, the cosmic vibration, God) or psychological (the Muse, the inner voice, ‘genius’) or historical (the tradition, the songbook, ‘ideas’ as such)…for artists at their peak, it’s always there in one form or another. The metaphor changes, its referent never does.

Beyond the music — he really was one of his century’s great artists — these albums preserve some of America’s ideas of itself. Beneath the voice, a chorus of voices. Here’s one thing I love: he sounds like a guy from a poor neighbourhood in the northeast who’s worked as hard as any well heeled opera singer to master his instrument. He spins a fantasy, knows it, and means it all the same, which is one of my ideas of America — one which I don’t mind teaching my son, which isn’t what I came to this music for but thanks, Mr Sinatra, all the same.

As for the music: you should hear every one of these songs. The worst of them are maybe our greatest singer at his peak. The best of them are national Scripture.

Just look down.

The 9/3 show at Dick’s was the first 2016 Phish show I’d listened to at any length, and the only one I attended this year. I’d heard bad things about the summer tour — not ‘they’re not equalling the heights of 2015’ stuff but ‘they are playing bad shows,’ which is nearly unthinkable for this most generous of bands — so while their headlining sets at the Lock’n festival had gotten decent reviews, I wasn’t expecting anything special from the Dick’s shows. Hey, we all have off years.

Well.

If you follow the band enough to be reading this, you already know what happened that night: they opened with Slave, played one of the best first sets since Coventry — including an extended Disease in the two-slot — then dove deep for an exploratory Blaze On(!) > Simple(!) > etc. > Hood(!!) sequence complete with what I’m reliably informed is one of the first actually interesting Marimba Lumina jams. Then there was the encore, a first-ever walkoff bass solo in Coil. And of course, on Sunday night they arguably topped that performance with a spectacular run of extended jams. There is, in other words, nothing to worry about — and I’m actually looking forward to checking out the rest of Summer 2016.

My experience of the show was the polar opposite of my usual concert-night arc: up by the Mike’s-side rail I was totally dialed in to the opening set, bursting out laughing dozens of times (I was sober) and undergoing the kind of gentle transformation that’s the reason I go see Phish. Afterward, wide-eyed surprise and grateful hugs and a needed breather amongst new friends and acquaintances. But after relaxed chatter and the last of my one drink at setbreak, I found myself a little disconnected from the second set, slipping back into analytical mode, suddenly self-conscious about my appearance. It happens — it just hasn’t happened to me in years.

But there was a moment in the second set, during the gradual crescendo out of the Simple/marimba jam, when all my senses seemed to focus, and (pardon me if this langauge seems hippie-ish) I tuned in to the ‘fifth voice’ which is the ensemble’s gestalt effect, the emergent ‘groupmind.’ And I think I said aloud at that point: ‘This is new music.’ Page and Trey had developed this rich textural bed with Rhodes, marimba, and subtle guitar loops (listen closely to the soundboard for these), Fish was getting into some unexpected sounds on his kit, and Mike was playing in a lead-from-within style that reminded me, in a way, of Trey’s guitar whorls. And for a couple of minutes it was just magical. On tape it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime improvisation or anything, just a moment of easy intimacy and effortless mastery.

And I’m reminded that while we have no right to demand new music from four musicians who’ve been playing these songs for more than thirty years, we still get the privilege night after night of hearing them discover things — about their art, themselves, the family we and they have made over the decades. And those discoveries, those experiences of real newness which can’t be planned or scheduled and which I’d distinguish from mere ‘novelty’ (which was Phish’s early specialty), are the secret of both Phish’s success and their creative rebirth these last few years. And the best part, from my perspective, is that they’re opening these new musical vistas not by manically pursuing every new impulse, but by accepting the evolving moment of improvisation, performance, fellowship…and letting the ‘groupmind’ dictate the content of each jam. After getting famous for responding instantaneously to All the Ideas, they now use their carefully honed collective-improvisatory tools to respond with extraordinary sympathy, extraordinary emotional intelligence, to the Deepest Feelings arising from the creative moment.

On the surface this is less impressive — feelings, every teenage moron has those — yet we see time and time again that the kind of emotional copresence and empathy which older musicians (and other collaborative artists) model for us tends to be inaccessible to younger musicians. Rockers tend to mellow, yes, and mellow rock has no cachet in a culture which fetishizes youth’s frantic unsustainability. But the ones who find their way to a sustainable creative life gain access to perspectives which rock traditionally doesn’t make room for. Of course, you see this all the time in jazz and blues: older players stop showing off and start straightforwardly playing what they feel, speaking truly out of their experiences. This then gets derided as ‘conservatism’ by critics and young musicians peacocking for their peers. What these anxious status-seekers don’t yet see (though in the end they always do) is that the enforced simplicity and honesty of mature artistic expression takes just as much work, just as much courage, as the various modes of engagement beloved of younger artists.

We’re just not trained to recognize that purity of expression as a pop virtue — though we do go on about the ‘purity’ of art from well outside our mainstream experiences; hence the ‘world music’ craze during a period of authenticity-fetishism amongst cosmopolitan Westerners.

In Phish fandom we like bickering about the usual inanities: They Suck Now, This Version of Song XYZ Is Ranked #4 at Best, Trey vs. Jerry, Umphrey’s Is Only a Jam Band, Jukebox Sets Are Boring, They Don’t Jam Anymore, They’re Back, They Weren’t Back Until I Said So, etc. I don’t get as amped about online Phishmoaning as I used to; writing those two books drained almost all of that impulse from my system. One of our fannish commonplaces is this old saw:

Long jams are better, and long jams that go ‘out of the box’ are best.

I’ve long believed this uncritically, and have at times justified it to myself with what I’ve insisted, and maybe even believed, were aesthetic principles. Like a lot of fans (maybe most) I’m most excited about long exploratory improvisations. But we should stop fooling ourselves: thirty-minute open-ended improvisations aren’t the point of Phish’s projects, they’re a means — only one of several — to the end which Trey and the other guys have explicitly identified over and over throughout their time together:

Some of the grand ideas are mellowing, in exchange for the grandest idea, which is communication. (Trey, Specimens of Beauty)

[During the silent part of ‘Divided Sky’]…at that moment, we were in the middle of it, and I started to see these colours — I’m not kidding…as soon as I could see them, I started improvising — but I didn’t play anything. I did everything in the course of improvisation except play the actual notes. And as soon as I did it, the whole place erupted. Tears started rolling down my face. It was at that moment that I knew that it was truly bigger than me. “It,” you know what I mean?’ (Trey on Charlie Rose)

Sometimes the deepest point in the evening is…silence. When every channel of communication has opened wide and the entire moment is welcomed in — when musicians allow themselves to respond to every aspect of the moment unself-consciously, and we grant ourselves the same freedom — that’s the point, the peak, the theme. The intensity of communication is often most obvious to listeners at ‘peak’ moments, which recognize because they’re loud and musically straightforward and involve the release of tension which has built up during the actual communicative linking which has been going on uncommented-upon for hours already, duh — but to see that expressive means as the only possible form the ‘spiritual’ project can take is to make a familiar error. (I wrote about this at length in 2013, in the midst of one or another tiresome fannish spat.)

I listened all morning to the glacial late-70s Urban Sax albums — droning minimalist-ambient compositions for 40ish saxophones(!!) which present a kind of immersive static soundworld devoid of the usual virtues of concert-hall music. Heartily recommended as accompaniment to brainwork. But I’ve just turned on the Orlando Stash, good ol’ 11/14/95, and it’s so…demanding! Has any rock band so insistently demanded total attention to abstruse spontaneously developed forms? You kinda get that with some jazz groups, but how often has any band in any genre offered such an intensity of both genre-conventional catharsis and absurdist interrogation of those conventions? At least with the Dead you can put on a tape and just float, at least until Drums > Space — this Stash > Manteca > Stash > Dog-Faced Boy > Stash is 40 minutes of nonstop perversity, and the band’s good nature doesn’t actually make its civil disobedience against musical rationality any easier for the first-time listener, never mind this ‘jaded vet’…

I bring up this symphony of weaponized mathematics (which you have a moral obligation to listen to today) just to make the point that early Phish, at their mid-90s experimental-improvisatory peak, generated and elaborated more ideas per second than anyone else in rock — Yet another reason not to stress the Phish/Dead connection. But the ideas aren’t the meaning of the work, which is found, I believe, in the posture of readiness adopted by band and fans alike. Submission to Benign Stochasm, offered in (and sanctified by) a spirit of generosity which marks callow early Phish, for all their embrace of childishness, as already wiser than their years. I get it, some folks just come to hear a handful of specific songs and are bored by the rest. But most of us, more and more of us as time has gone on, we’re there not to hear peaks upon peaks but to be radically open to one another’s shared experience of what a hell of a lot of us insist on calling the ‘divine’ — whether or not the music itself ‘peaks’ with loud major chords or not. More and more I believe that the music is one outward manifestation of the transformation we gather to undergo.

Just so’s you know, this is the closest I come to ‘spiritual’ talk. As far as I’m concerned, there are almost certainly no deities, no ‘souls,’ no afterlives, no ghosts, and no cosmic musical ‘source’ to draw on. But there’s the obvious to reckon with: the universe hums, minds sense one another beyond the named senses, and music is one way our hearts learn to beat in shared time. So lately my writing about art gets this way sometimes because, um, it seems to me the universe is this way.

And when I say that Phish’s ‘cow funk’ makes sense not as a style but as an ordering principle, and that ‘peaks upon peaks’ function the same way, I’m trying to encourage you both to listen very very closely to the musical details which make up this extraordinarily detailed improvisatory music, and to recognize that as long as you’re listening closely with truly open ears (and a shake of the hips), it doesn’t really matter what you hear. Some of you will never believe that, some of you already do. I’m hoping to reach someone else.

And when I say that this post isn’t really about Phish but rather the thing that Trey says they’re trying to channel, I hope you hear that not as ‘hippy-dippy’ New Age talk but as an exhortation to look beyond the local noise of ‘style’ to the great curve which that noise obscures.

You don’t need to climb the highest peak to set foot upon a topological miracle. Just look down. I’m joking and I’m serious.

Milton Nascimento, MINAS (1975).

Except for a melodramatic ‘Norwegian Wood’ bonus track (I prefer PM Dawn’s — oh, and the Englishman’s) this is all Brazilian Portuguese, and I’ve never looked around for translated lyrics. No need, really. As pure sound, as longform musical structure, as an example of what you can do with maybe an hour of recorded sound, Minas is a triumph on par with the understandably overrated Dark Side of the Moon, mixing elements of jazz, funk, prog, chamber/baroque pop, and a variety of Latin styles into a work of generously melancholy psychedelia which signifies both within and across individual tunes. The out-of-phase children’s chorus which recurs throughout the album could be a folk tune or a lullaby or the Brazilian national anthem for all I know, or even a once-in-a-lifetime miracle of melodic inspiration — it doesn’t matter which, because the melody functions in a variety of ways from track to track, here a ghostly descant, there a calming restoration, now a question mark, then a closing parenthesis. Like the street sounds which fill the great Black Orpheus soundtrack, Minas‘s children’s chorus place the already unconventional musical goings-on in a rich context that’s no less vividly imagined or imaginable for being a studio fantasy.

That ‘Norwegian Wood’ is the remaster’s biggest question mark. Like everything else on Minas, it’s gorgeous, building over five minutes to alternating statements of the two minor-mode lines (‘She asked me to stay…’). Slowed down considerably from the original, whose inappropriately jaunty groove is the point of the track, the source of its poisonous irony, Nascimento’s cover turns Lennon’s kiss-off into something between a hymn and a dirge. But it’s not funny, and beauty isn’t in short supply over the 42 minutes prior to ‘Wood.’ So why’s it here? I suspect the answer is some variation on ‘vibe’ — Nascimento’s treatment of Lennon’s tune, like John Coltrane’s unbearable intensification of ‘My Favorite Things,’ perfectly suits the overall project, and while it makes sense that it was left off the original album, the song only makes sense in that context. The sheer pleasure of the intertwined voices and rich orchestration is the only justification needed for such a performance, but if you’re reading for meaning (which maybe you shouldn’t) then you’ll find it in the way ‘Norwegian Wood’ picks up gingerly, quietly, after the ‘Day in the Life’-ish orchestral shenanigans of proper album closer ‘Simples.’ Again: descant, restoration, question mark, parenthesis.

Minas is grand without sounding pretentious, intimate without inducing claustrophobia, subtly sexy without bothering with readymade grooves so labeled. It reminds me strongly of Shuggie Otis’s hermetically funky Inspiration Information, another work of easygoing psychedelia by a master arranger. Both albums benefit, in rerelease, from bonus tracks which enrich the overall experience — Otis’s ‘Freedom Flight’ is a perfect sequel/extrapolation of the ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ outro, while Nascimento’s ‘Caso Você Queira Saber’ reaffirms the equivalence of the album’s great pleasures (spiritual and bodily).

Of course, the lyrics might make a fool of me. But again: I prefer not to know, for now. The sound is rich and varied enough, ramifies broadly and pierces deeply enough, without that extra meaning-layer. I’ve just tracked down a healthy portion of Nascimento’s discography, and look forward to digging deeper, but after a dozen listens, Minas seems inexhaustible: that marvelous paradox, a complete and self-contained and well wrought representation of a vision without borders or limits.

Quick thought about Summer 2016 Phish.

From my world-changing bestseller, the 33-1/3 volume on Phish’s A Live One

And maybe part of the appeal of pop music is that it doesn’t have a past: in three minutes you won’t go far enough to forget where you came from. Duration is a big part of the psych-rock experience; or maybe I mean scope. How much world fits inside.

…and…

Overfamiliar fans sometimes skip over the band’s “Type I” jams (like the ALO “Stash” and “Chalk Dust”: closed-circuit improvisations on fixed changes or modes which don’t abandon the songform) in favor of open-ended “psychedelic” journeys like the Bangor “Tweezer” on A Live One. But it’s the explicitly purpose-driven improvisations that form the bedrock of the band’s improvisatory method; the open-ended explorations take their power not least from the group’s tendency toward coherence, which develops in the “Type I” stuff.

Those contained improvisations function partly as teaching tools, as “zones of proximal development” which scaffold the listener’s learning, not to mention the musicians’. There’s a reason the self-dissolving jams like the ALO “Tweezer” only ever happen in second sets — or on second discs.

Many of us noticed early in the band’s ‘3.0’ era that, while the band’s improvisations were no longer distended half-hour brainmelts as they’d been a half-decade prior — while the multipart ‘Type II’ jams of yesteryear seemed curiously, worryingly absent — they were accomplishing more in five minutes than 2004 Phish could’ve done in fifteen. In 2009-10, at a time when many fans, especially younger ones, were complaining that the band ‘couldn’t jam anymore’ and so forth, the band’s enormous increase in improvisatory effectiveness was reason to hope that something new was coming.

It’s here, of course. Since 2011 they’ve been playing at career peak levels of fluidity, empathy, creative freedom. We’re hearing some killer music this summer; it’s ‘dad rock’ in a sense, but y’know what? your dad sure can’t play this shit. They don’t bat 1.000 anymore, but then it’s long past time to acknowledge that Phish’s mid/late-90s creative streak was a freak occurrence — and to ask seriously whether any other American bands have strung together a five-year run like Phish’s 1994-99 explosion. Meanwhile their 2011-16 streak covers a lot fewer shows, and a much less dramatic stylistic transformation. But their achievement — harmony, sustainability, total improvisatory openness — is every bit as thrilling, if you submit to its logic. In a sense, they’re a better band today than they’ve ever been.

Of course, if you don’t like Phish’s music, have a nice time with whatever you’re into. No sensible person would hold it against you.

But I’ll say this: you’re missing out…

soundsense

renaissance ‘world of knowledge’ texts took poetic form for a variety of reasons, some terrible (e.g., all good things echo God’s plan so all disciplines are linked).

but the ultimate reason is good and simple: engaging the imagination and emotions strengthens your teaching.

you listen harder to story