Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top Ten Albums for 2015

As much as I was looking forward to Christmas this year, I have to confess that most of my anticipation was centered on getting to see The Force Awakens. Christmas comes every year, but there are only so many times in your life that you will see a Star Wars film for the first time.

 It did not disappoint. The Force Awakens will undoubtedly push the franchise along for the foreseeable future. To make a long story short and relatively spoiler-free, there was quite a bit of amazingly framed nostalgia alongside some great new characters. Most importantly, it felt like a Star Wars movie – the kind that I remember from my youth. Much more so than the prequels, which stretched my ability to suspend disbelief to its very limits.

Although I see some revisiting of the Star Wars soundtracks coming up soon, this annual post is a look back rather than a look forward. The first half of the top 20 was posted about a month ago. I had a pretty decent lock on the top 10 even at that point, but I have struggled really hard this year with the specific order of the top 5. Each of those albums have, at one time or another, decisively held that number one position. It might be easier to consider it a five-way tie for number one, but that is most certainly cheating. Undoubtedly, though, if any reader were to wonder what albums were my favorite for 2015, I would suggest them without hesitation.

10. AnekdotenUntil All the Ghosts Have Gone: Many years ago, I became a devoted fan of From Within, but sadly never delved any further into Anekdoten’s catalog. This year, just as I was considering taking the plunge, Until All the Ghosts Have Gone was announced and, thankfully, seemed to pick up right where From Within left off.

9. Sloan Double Cross: Navy Blues burned brightly for me a couple of decades ago, but ultimately fizzled out in the long term.  Double Cross, however, became the go-to Uber record for me this year, and has the unusual distinction of succeeding at being both a cohesive album and a collection of quality standalone tracks.

8. YesTime and a Word: The passing of Chris Squire caused me to consider both Yes’ back catalog and identity quite a bit this year. Time and a Word was lurking in the dark corners of my collection and emerged as a surprise favorite just as his illness was announced, but it also represents a whole lot of Yes that went through the player, not the least of which was reconnecting with 90125, one of my all-time favorite albums.

7. Low Ones and Sixes: This was a surprise that came out of nowhere, purchased only with the coercion of a single positive review and the incorrect assumption that they were a different band. It was an immediate sell, however, and has emerged as a very strong favorite in the past few months.

6. My Brightest DiamondThis is My Hand: If we were going by total number of times played, This is My Hand would probably be number one. This was a big, big hit with not just me, but the whole family.

5. Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians:  Although it doesn’t work well when left on repeat, Music for 18 Musicians is an extremely satisfying listen that I keep returning to. As I have stated elsewhere, it works on multiple levels, and as such has served as the soundtrack to several long family drives in which I am the only one awake.

4. Anathema – Distant SatellitesThe rules state that an album's year of release is not a stipulation, but this fantastic album was at the top of a lot of 2015 lists, so it seemed redundant to make it the album of 2015.  Even so, it has been the album to beat all year, and it was still in consideration until the very last minute.

3. Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajastan ExpressJunun: This was a very late entry, but in terms of its concept, musicality, and cultural relevance, Junun has every right to be album of the year. In fact, the only thing that knocked it down from consideration was its relatively late release date.

2. Steven WilsonHand. Cannot. Erase.: Steven Wilson is a long-time favorite of mine, and early on, I really wanted to put this one in the top slot. I think that in some ways, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is more distinctive than its predecessor (which was #2 in 2013), but the overall originality of the "album of the year" winner gave them a slight edge.

1. Beauty PillDescribes Things as They Are: This album has everything – quirky songs, outstanding playing, and an overall novel approach to a unique style of art rock. It’s also accessible enough to appeal to my whole family, despite a few instances of slightly off-color language that the Little One has thankfully not quite caught onto yet.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hyphenated Identities: Netflix's Iron Fist and UZU

Marvel’s collaboration with Netflix has been a game changer for superhero cinema. The mini-series format gave both Daredevil and Jessica Jones the kind of deep backstory and character development that fans appreciate, but that is difficult to develop in the limited screen time available in the movies. I, for one, am really looking to the next installments in this project, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and the eventual crossover into the Defenders. Of all the series, the one I am looking forward to the most is the one we have heard the least about – Iron Fist.

When he was conceived in the 70s, Iron Fist was a very deliberate attempt to tap into the martial arts movies that were prominent in pop culture. As Danny Rand, he was, predictably, a yellow-haired white guy who, after being orphaned as a child, discovered a mystic city and received martial arts training and powers. This did not seem too odd back when “everybody was kung fu fighting,” but by today’s standards of diversity and equity, Rand’s ethnic background has the scent of colonial appropriation. Of course, this did not matter to me, a nerdy white kid that loved comics and had a hankering for the martial arts. Iron Fist was a no-brainer, and one of my favorites.

These days, though, I see the necessity for diversity in the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe and, consequently, the need to sometimes reinvent characters.  Changing the gender or race of a given character shouldn’t matter, but when you are altering someone’s childhood memories, it should be handled with care. I usually support these changes, but in some cases they have felt forced.  To be convincing, these changes have to align with what is essential about the character and then maintain that essence across perceived boundaries of race.

I have seen some discussion about Iron Fist in this regard, with some fans speculating that he should be cast as Asian in his Netflix series. As a fan, I would be the first to say that the casting should stay true to the comic book.  I can, however, see the point in an Asian Iron Fist, especially since this particular ethnic group is sorely underrepresented in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. Part of the reason why this reinvention seems to make sense at first glance, however, is due to essentialized stereotypes about Asian people.  Although it might result in more a diverse Defenders roster, it would not help to dispel such prejudices. It would actually reinforce them.

There is, however, way to sidestep this issue, or at least address it in a way that might actually serve to deepen the character rather than flatten him, and that is to play Danny Rand as an Asian-American. By this I mean that Iron Fist's alter ego grew up America, perhaps as a second or third generation son of immigrants, and identifies himself as American. Asian-Americans deal with distinct and complex stereotypes that arise in the rift between identifying as American and being perceived as Asian.

Canadian band Yamantaka//Sonic Titan use similar tensions as inspiration. They examine their own authenticity by referring to traditions that they identify with, but have been pushed aside by modernity. Their debut album piqued my interest in a couple of years ago, and although their second album UZU did not crack last year’s top 20, it has been interesting enough to warrant revisiting on several occasions.  I admit that I am not always convinced by Yamantaka//Sonic Titan from a purely musical standpoint, but I do find their carefully constructed identity compelling enough to keep me coming back.

While most might watch Yamantaka//Sonic Titan and see a noisy new-wave reinterpretation of KISS makeup, a seasoned prog fan might also recall Peter Gabriel's costuming in his early Genesis days, especially his "Britannia" character (seen right).  The latter is probably a fairer comparison, as Gabriel intended to make a cultural reference, but Gabriel's cultural background and ethnicity is incontrovertibly  British.  Yamantaka//Sonic Titan juxtapose noh-inspired makeup and First People chanting across cultural boundaries in ways that are less satirical.  Collisions like these in their artwork and imagery subtly deepen the listening experience and paint an engaging picture of culturally hyphenated identities.

It would be similarly engaging to follow an Asian-American Danny Rand that experiences tension between how he feels he is perceived and his own self-image. Perhaps he might feel the weight of his heritage and, feeling out of touch with it, reconnects with it through his transformation into Iron Fist. Conversely, he might feel encircled by an ethnicity that he rejects, but finds that fate draws him though an experience that allows him find his own unique way to “be” both Asian and American. There are probably other scenarios that, not being Asian-American myself, I cannot imagine, which is exactly why they warrant nuanced investigation.  Iron Fist could then be made uniquely relevant in a way that broadens horizons while embellishing (not reinventing) an already established childhood icon of many.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top 20 for 2015: The First Half

Ah, November – the newsfeeds are jammed with daily thanks, moustaches, holiday recipes, and shopping deals. It also serves as the deadline for my annual top 20 list. In my pre parenthood days, the blog had monthly roundups and November would feature selections 11-20. In recent years, this has devolved into just the latter.  I start working on this list at the beginning of the month, but I usually have time to compile it during my annual Thanksgiving Day holiday to South Padre.

In contrast to having a small dinner with some friends, Thanksgiving at the beach is a quite different affair.  My in-laws generously rent a condo on the beach and fill it with their extended family and friends.  With the Little One functioning as a very precocious 4 year old, she's gotten swept up in the kid culture of the group.  This includes, of course, significant amounts of beach time.

Sand drives me nuts, so I am not a huge fan of sand castles and the like.  That's the Little One's domain.  I am, however, a big fan of the aesthetic of the beach.  I can stand for an interminable amount of time letting the waves hit my feet while I take in the vastness of the ocean.  I usually get my fix during Thanksgiving, but this year was different.  When I got beachside, I was greeted by a huge, rusty pipe running as far as the eye could see.

It didn't do much to soothe the environmental anxiety that I have been suffering with this year.  I hope that the Little Two gets to remember seeing beaches without such a post-apocalyptic aesthetic.

I say it every year, and every year I get criticism: my Top 20 is not constrained to albums with a 2015 release date. Although albums released this year do have some degree of favor, inclusion on the list has much more to do with how an album comes to mark the time for a given year.  There are other rules, which I have stuck to since the first year I did this.  They are posted here.

20. Balmorhea – Stranger: This one entered the picture in late 2014, but grabbed my attention when I revisited it earlier this year. Tortoise’s It’s all Around You was a favorite of mine in another life, and Stranger speaks the same dialect.

19. Mew +/-: I really wanted to put +/- at the top of the 2015 list. While I will say that the return of bassist Johan Wohlert brought back the band’s soul, the album is ‘merely excellent’ rather than ‘phenomenal’ like their earlier work.

18. BattlesLaDiDaDi: LaDiDaDi harkens back to the unapologetically dense days of EP B/C EP. It is a step forward for Battles as a trio, but still doesn’t reach the heights of the classic Mirrored.

17: Spock's Beard - The Oblivion Particle: Without any direct input from Neal Morse, this year's offering from Spock's Beard rakes anoter step towards solidifying the current lineup.  Ted Leonard fronts the band without taking over, allowing the group's unique personality to shine through.

16. Death Grips – The Powers that B: Although Death Grips have released several albums since The Money Store, their media antics have been more compelling than their music. The much-hyped The Powers that B actually delivers on the braggadocio that they have been delivering for the past few years.

15. East India Youth – Culture of Volume: Despite a dismal set opening for Mew at SXSW, I had a hunch that the studio might be a better vehicle for his vision. I was pleased to find that I was correct – I only wish that he was using a live drummer!

14. Other LivesRituals: While it may not cast the same spell as its predecessor, Rituals definitely weaves a similar magic. It is similarly orchestral in its scope, however, with generous use of bassoon and hints of minimalism.

13. The New Pornographers Brill Bruisers: It is incredibly tricky to make multiple albums of outstanding power pop music without becoming formulaic. The New Pornographers navigate this issue by giving each album its own subtle character without reinventing the band’s essence.

12. Original Soundtrack - 13 Assassins: Thanks to the Superhero Theme Project, I have had a lot of soundtracks in rotation for the past couple of years. 13 Assassins was a totally accidental find in the research for Wolverine's theme, but its distinctive character immediately grabbed and held my attention for months.

11. Circa: - HQ: Regular followers of my blog know that I have engaged in an ongoing exploration of Yes’ identity. Listening to HQ was part of the research for this examination, but it came to have a life of its own early this year.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Layers of Thanksgiving: "Junun" Over Dinner

I was really looking forward to having a full week for Thanksgiving this year. I would have some quality time with the wife and kid before I went down for the big annual event on Padre Island with the extended family. Inevitably, having a lot of free time with the Little One eventually results in a little Netflix-for-Kids, and I was very surprised to find that there were absolutely no thanksgiving specials up. Not a one. There were, however, lots and lots of poorly animated b-rate Christmas features. The best I could find was a grainy, third-party posting of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on YouTube. It has been up for a couple of years, as if no one cares enough to challenge its legality!

I think that this, along with the scads of Christmas sale ads popping up in my feed early in the week, caused me to be a little defensive about Thanksgiving this year. I have always felt that it is its own holiday with its own feeling, and I dislike the sense that it is increasingly becoming subsumed by consumerism related to a totally separate holiday.  I am starting to get the feeling Thanksgiving has devolved into nothing more than some time off to let the public get some shopping done.

Taking matters into my own hands, I organized my own little informal Thanksgiving dinner and invited my bandmates from Ethnos over. We are all super-busy, and as we get closer to the end of the semester it is safe to assume that we would only get to be more so. It seemed like a good opportunity to hang out before the holidays scatter us to the wind.

One catalyst for our conversation was Junun.  I acquired this album with the intent of listening to it on beach walk like I did with Barrett a few years ago.  Long before its recent release, a brief article about the cross-cultural collaboration that produced Junun generated quite a bit of personal excitement.  Its authorship is so complex that it took the whole staff at Waterloo Records to figure out where the CD was filed.

The most visible contributor is Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, and going into the store I was aware that he was working with an Indian ensemble called the Rajastan Express. The surprise, however, was Shye Ben Tzur, an Israeli musician who is trained in Indian styles.  Although a superficial listen to the album doesn’t bring traditional Jewish music to mind, his songwriting contributions placed the album in the “Israel” section of the international music.

The album as a whole is really quite incredible - perhaps even compelling enough to be considered a very late contender for album of the year.  Superficially, it is easy to indulge in the exotic aspects of the album, but the harmonic environment provided by the guitar work and the subtle electronic atmospheres frame Junun’s “Indian-ness” within a decidedly contemporary field. Even more layered is Shye Ben Tzur’s Hebrew lyrics performed in ecstatic Indian styles. Certainly, with the current state of the Middle East, his identity structure makes a political statement that should be read as particularly relevant.

This statement was not lost on us. My bandmates are a very diverse group, with members from India, Taiwan, and Pakistan, and each of us had different perspectives about the way the various contributions of Junun fit into a cohesive statement. I was enthusiastic about its textural overlap with Kid A, while our tabla player nodded his head in approval to its roots in Indian street music. The exchange was as layered and engaging as the music itself.  As I have said many times in the past, I am very grateful for the opportunity to know and create with these outstanding individuals. Spending time and conversing with them, however, reminded me of just how thankful I am for having such open-minded and diverse friends.

Oh, and shameless self-promotion: The band's website is right here.  Check us out....

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Ant-Man.....and the End?

In the most recent chapter of the Superhero Theme Project, I added an “expansion pack” to the playlist inspired by four of the Little One’s favorite characters on Marvel’s Superhero Squad animated series. Although one was handpicked from a new source, for the most part I adopted these themes from personal favorites from my own past. Even though all of these characters have appeared on screen, I did not adopt music from their respective franchises. This last theme was different.

As those with nerdly interests are aware, the Ant-Man movie was in development for several years before its release this summer. I have been anticipating its release from its earliest stages. When it finally saw a release date, I convinced my wife to go out and see it. Although it was hardly a perfect film, it generally did not disappoint. Certainly, any fan of Ant-Man should not be terribly displeased that the movie was even made, much less made well.

Although he is not a regular character on the show, Ant-Man is featured in a Superhero Squad episode in which he shrinks down several other squaddies and narrowly avoids becoming cooked into a batch of “Quesada Joe” (“…’s extra cheesy!”). Although the Little One did not specifically cite Ant-Man as a favorite, she was really into this episode around the same time that I saw the movie. Christophe Young’s soundtrack for the film caught my attention, so I took the liberty of slipping the theme into the playlist along with the others.

I feared that if I played the compositions associated with her favorites first, this theme would be relegated to the background, so I led the whole expansion with Ant-Man. She took to it immediately. It took her nearly five plays to move on, and then it was only after some persuading.

I ended up purchasing the full soundtrack, and although Ant-Man may not represent the pinnacle of Marvel movies (we’ll relegate that title for The Winter Soldier), I think that its score might be the finest that the MCU has offered up yet.  It is varied in style, but conceptually cohesive, and it does an outstanding job of acknowledging what Ant-Man, both the character and the movie, is about.

The movie centers on Scott Lang, who is more recent, but Ant-Man has a long and complicated history that can be traced back to the very foundations of the Marvel Universe. Hank Pym, who plays a role in the film, was original Ant-Man in the 60s. Christophe Young’s score has a decidedly contemporary feel, but there is also the sense that it references this era of cinema. It carries the distinctive flavor of 60s themes like Mission: Impossible and I Spy. This sensation of espionage and intrigue is particularly effective because the movie is, at its core, a heist movie, which is only a slight genre shift from the spy film. As a result, a cold war aura hangs over the entire score, and is often so subtle that it might not seem intentional. Young shows his hand, however on the track Tales to Astonish.

Superficially, this is a bit of a stylistic gag in which the Ant-Man theme gets a surf-rock treatment.  It does not by any means represent the rest of the soundtrack, but it reveals something about Young's inspiration for the character.  The title refers to the comic book that debuted Ant-Man in 1962, around the time when Dick Dale and Duane Eddy pushed this style of instrumental rock into the mainstream. In a way, Tales to Astonish would be as relevant for Hank Pym as Fanfare for the Common Man might have been to Steve Rogers.

I know that I have said this before, but for several reasons, I feel pretty sure that this recent expansion will be the last. At 29 songs, the Superhero Theme Project playlist is as big as it needs to be (anyone interested in a master list?). We periodically go back and put it on shuffle and enjoy it, but generally she has moved on to other musical interests. I think that the seeds we have planted here have already taken root and are showing themselves through these interests in indirect ways.

Besides, Star Wars is coming…….and that’s a whole other ball game.

To see the previous post in this series, click HERE
To see how it all started out, click HERE

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Zeitgeist of Repetition: Steve Reich and Little Two

I have not made an official announcement here on the blog, so let’s do it: we are pregnant with Little Two. The feeling is a wadded up ball of excitement, joy, anticipation, stress, and fatigue. Certainly, there is a lot to look forward to. There’s also the downsides, not the least of which is the subtle dread that is attached to the feeding cycle of a newborn. I definitely remember taking my shift on the unenviable 2-3 am feeding time with the Little One a few years ago. Going to sleep was not really an option, but staying awake was nearly impossible.

I dredged the margins of my CD collection looking for albums that were intellectually stimulating enough to keep me awake yet soothing enough to allow her to sleep. I discovered a bunch of really interesting stuff that I had not listened to in a long time, or that I had ever really gotten into for lack of an appropriate setting. I eventually came to look forward to these meditative reprieves in the wee hours listening to jazz, Indian raga, shakuhachi repertoire, and chamber music. It was here that I rediscovered Steve Reich.

Again, for lack of an appropriate setting, I have not revisited Tehilium much since then, but I definitely notice when Reich’s name comes up. It really caught my attention, then, when the inimitable DFW personality and Ten Hands vocalist Paul Slavens cited Music for 18 Musicians as one of his most-listened to albums of all time. In my opinion, Slavens’ advocacy demands respect, and it got the album in my player at the first available opportunity.

I had an idea of what to expect. As is often the case with minimalist compositions, a superficial description of the piece sounds tiresome: an hour’s worth of simple melodies propelled forward by an unwavering, relentless tempo. In practice, however, I was taken aback by how was immediately likeable Music for 18 Musicians is. It is an enthralling journey through an ever-evolving landscape of rippling ostinatos that balances introspection and intellect with the greatest of care.

The piece’s debut recording was released in 1978, and it is somewhat difficult for me to listen to Music for 18 Musicians without thinking of the sequenced textures that would follow in the early 80s. Although I can’t necessarily envision Sting listening to the piece and being inspired to create the intro to Synchronicity I, I do think that the similarities indicate a broader interest in the creative potential of repetition.

This zeitgeist of repetition continues even today. Looping artists like Battles and Nissenenmondai employ it regularly, often with varying results. Music for 18 Musicians stands above, however, due to the intense investment of the performers, which infuses the music with subtle excitement. I don’t see how any contemporary looping musician could approximate the collective concentration that is necessary to play the piece.

A few months from now, Music for 18 Musicians will undoubtedly be floating in the air during our newborn’s late night feeding sessions. I have actually been considering it as one of the first albums she listens to. Her older sister began life listening to Kind of Blue, and by all rights it seems to have worked out pretty well. The Little Two’s life experiences will be completely unique, though, so perhaps starting off on a path distinct from her sister’s is more reasonable. In any case, I feel pretty sure that it won’t be bad for her synapses to hear such fascinatingly organized sound.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Tapestry: Picard, Spock's Beard, and Bennett's Machine

I was a fan of the original Star Trek, but it was the Next Generation that really came to mean something to me. Not at first, of course.  Most fans will acknowledge that it took a little while for the Next Generation to grow its own legs. I watched the first few seasons out a sense of obligation to the original show, but when it took off, I think it exceeded the scope of the original series.

The show’s evolution coincided with big changes in my personal life. The first season aired right as I was leaving high school, and Jean-Luc Picard's passion and intellect provided weekly inspiration to strive for excellence during my undergraduate studies.  I did not, however, really relate to the character. I did not always deal with things in healthy or positive ways in those days, and my awareness of my flaws distanced me from the ideals that Picard represented. Until, that is, an episode called Tapestry.

In this episode, Picard was given the opportunity to go back and undo an incongruously headstrong act from his youth that he particularly regretted, and saw how his life unraveled when his vigor was tempered by experienced wisdom.

It was an act of humility for Picard, who did not readily admit his faults, to look back and confess that his regrettable actions were actually essential in building his character.  Aside from the stereotypically awkward Trek-ish fight that ensues after, this was a particularly moving moment in the Star Trek canon for me, perhaps second only to the death of Spock.

Tapestry was encouraging, but in the time that has passed, I don't know if I have been successful in realizing its point.  It is a little hard to hear Q say what he does to Picard without wondering if I have "played it safe."  In any case. since the episode aired my squishy innards have proven to be particularly susceptible to impossible tales of time travel, reflection, and self-forgiveness, so Bennett Built a Time Machine, the lead single from Spock’s Beard’s recent release, hit me right in the feels.

Drummer Jimmy Keegan takes the lead and tells the tale of Bennett, a person so regretful of his past that he dedicated his life to creating a means to go back in time and guide his younger self onto a more fulfilling path.  Bennett’s myopic obsession has an undercurrent of desperation, as it blinds him to the potential benefits his discoveries could have on humanity. He just wishes that he had made better choices throughout his life, and traveling back in time seems to be the only way to find happiness.

Bennett Built a Time Machine fit into the Spock’s Beard canon in many ways.  That was a which was a relief, because I was a bit apprehensive about The Oblivion Particle.  It predecessor, Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, featured a new Spock’s Beard lineup that successfully acknowledged the band's past while forging a distinctive version of its sound.  It also featured some writing contributions from founding (and defining) member Neal Morse, and I was nervous how The Oblivion Particle would work without his input.

With its memorable tunefulness, thought-provoking message, and evocative instrumental excursion that deepens the song’s narrative, however, Bennett Built a Time Machine immediately and wholeheartedly sold me.   The good news is that on the whole, the album is also an enjoyable, sometimes emotional listen.  It is, however, a little different in its execution than the Spock's Beard of old.

Although it’s a bit more like a cosmic-scaled Wind and Wuthering than a reimagined Power and the Glory that you can sing in the shower, The Oblivion Particle stands quite well on its own merit while simultaneously weaving its own way into the band's oeuvre.  Complexity and accessibility are the warp and woof, creating a tapestry that blends in comfortably within the Spock’s Beard continuity.  The Oblivion Particle also makes decisive moves to solidify this band's chemistry.  Ted Leonard is in fine form throughout, but it is still Bennett Built a Time Machine that I look forward to most when I spin the album.  My hope is that when it comes time to play the tune in a live setting, Keegan performs it from behind the drumset.  We all know that it can be done, and done well.  Make it so!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Seeing Some Results: My Brightest Diamond

Since her birth, I have blogged a lot about developing my Little One's musical tastes. This has been staged mostly as a monologue, with me presenting music to her in a structured way and recording her reactions. I have spoken less about her own emerging musical tastes, though, mainly because this blog is meant to transcribe my own listening habits.  She staked a claim around her own identity earlier his year when she got into Let it Go, but increasingly there are points at which our musical tastes converge. There are several albums that I am currently listening to that she has favorite tracks from. It has been interesting and revealing the way that she describes these songs to me after the fact.

For example, she asked me one day if she could listen to a song called “I try to do it all right,” and initially, I had no idea what she was talking about. She tried to describe it further: it was the “one that had the music like you play” in it. This only further obfuscated matters, but I became determined to figure out what she meant. Finally, she tried to sing it, and I was able to recognize the “pre-chorus” from Pressure by My Brightest Diamond.

Lead vocalist and songwriter Shara Worden only sings this line twice in the whole song. I thought it very interesting that she keyed into this relatively minor part, but it is a section in which the instruments fall away, leaving that text somewhat unaccompanied.  I was still unclear, however, as to what role she thought I was playing on the album. When we listened to it together, however, she pointed out a high flute part in the introduction that sounded, with a little imagination, like a shakuhachi, which I have played for her on an off at bedtime throughout her entire life.

Both of these descriptors were intriguing. In the first instance, she had a very clear recollection of a short, identifying piece of a relatively complicated song that she held in her memory. She used this as leverage into the structure of the song in its entirety, which she now knows pretty well (although she is being creative with some of the lyrics). The second descriptor was even more fascinating. It is normal to hear music as one big sound, so to pull a specific sound out of context as an identifier makes me kind of excited to imagine how she might be perceiving music.

Her interest in this song is particularly good because the whole album is really fantastic. It was brought to my attention quite a while ago by an ex-student (who also suggested Now, Now’s excellent Threads). It was on my radar for quite awhile, but the clincher came when I discovered that Earl Harvin was a contributing percussionist. I was pondering his incredible career arc as I was revisiting Ten Hands’ classic Kung Fu….That’s What I Like earlier this year, and his potential contributions made the album particularly alluring. His vigorous, distinctive drumming is immediately noticeable in Pressure, but also throughout the entire album.

Which is amazing. This is My Hand is complex and layered enough to keep my interest upon repeated listens, but also accessible enough for capture my daughter’s attention. My wife, on the other hand, has connected with the poetic nature of the album’s lyrics. She likes several tracks from the album, but in particular the title track.

So clearly, This is My Hand has emerged as not only one of my favorite albums, but as a family favorite. It’s now a standard listen on road trips. I’m sure to the outside observer, watching us listen to the album in the car would probably look exactly like you would expect, with lots of singing and worked-out choreography. Currently undocumented, of course, to protect our dignity to the public eye.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Wolverine and 13 Assassins

We enrolled the Little One in music classes this summer. She was very apprehensive and nervous at first, but after a few weeks, she really took to them. We learned some songs to sing around the house, and she got better acquainted with musical instruments. By summer’s end, it was one of her favorite things to do. After her last class for the summer, she asked me to come in and show her teacher some of the superhero songs in my phone, starting with Wolverine.

In my last post, I said that the Little One, inspired by The Superhero Squad Show, had acquired some favorite Marvel heroes and I used this interest to expand the Superhero Theme playlist. I gave the first two of these characters, the Scarlet Witch and the Silver Surfer, themes that were already sort of in a holding pattern, waiting for assignment. Her favorite, however, was Wolverine. I thought that, with all of the movies in the X-Men franchise, I would be able to easily find something from one of the soundtracks that would layer well with the character. Like the Matrix soundtracks, however, all of them were too incidental to give the sense that they could stand alone as a concise, memorable theme.

An admission: I think that Wolverine is a bit overrated in the Marvel universe. In my view, he was a late comer whose popularity resulted in some pretty serious retconning to other established characters. I do like him a lot, however, and I did not want to haphazardly assign him a theme, especially since the Little One had taken a liking to him. I began beating the streams again to find something that made sense.

Quite famously, Wolverine is Canadian, but his fictional history places him at intersections with Japanese culture. Just as a place to begin, I researched in Asian cinema for his theme. It did not take me too long to come across the soundtrack to 13 Assassins.

I saw this movie when it was in theaters a couple of years ago and it stands as one of my all-time favorites in the genre. Its dramatic and unrelenting tone certainly matched Wolverine’s character, but I could not recall anything specific about the movie’s soundtrack. My concern was that it would be too identifiably “Japanese,” perhaps using shamisen and shakuhachi music as its central instrumentation. Although that would certainly be to my personal tastes, it wouldn’t work as a representation of Wolverine.

I was pleased to find out that the soundtrack is almost entirely string ensemble with pronounced percussion. The only other theme that I used that employed this kind of instrumentation was Hawkgirl’s, but the execution on 13 Assassins stood in sharp contrast to her noble, gliding theme. Many of the tracks were too melancholy to be effective as Wolverine’s theme, but the tenth track, which is simply named Juu on its YouTube posting, caught my attention.

The melodic and harmonic components of this composition are fiery and vivacious, and its aggressive rhythm imbues it with a wild, primal energy. It evoked a very clear visualization of Wolverine running through the woods, senses ablaze. I was sold when its format included a thematic recapitulation that very clearly provided a beginning, middle, and end to the piece. When I paired this track with the Wolverine image, I felt very confident I had made the right choice. Although I am very fond of all of the tracks I added to the playlist in this recent expansion, this one is probably my favorite.

I became so enamored of the track that I special-ordered the full 13 Assassins soundtrack from Japan. Looking at the case, I don’t know that the track is actually called “Juu” (Japanese for “ten”), but I can’t read kanji well enough to tell what its actual name might be. Regardless, the soundtrack is absolutely outstanding throughout. I have not revisited this movie since I saw it a few years ago, but its soundtrack coheres incredibly well and stands on its own as a musical statement. I think that a live performance of the 13 Assassins soundtrack would be extremely satisfying to both audience and artist. I would certainly attend such a concert, and you can bet that I would bring the Little One along to watch her cheer and dance.

Which she would do. Undignified for a samurai, I know.

To go to the previous post in this series, click HERE.
To go see the next one, click HERE.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Near Misses and Coincidences: Beauty Pill's Apt Description

Sometimes I put albums to my Amazon list as a reminder to do more research on an artist. I think that this was the case with Beauty Pill. I don’t remember what prompted me to add their album, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, to the list, but when I was finalizing my summer CD order, it cost almost the exact amount I had left in my budget.  Without ever listening to a single note of the album, I ordered it sight on scene.  It ended up being an excellent purchase.  Its deeply lush, astoundingly well-performed, and layered approach to art-pop has been a continually rewarding listen.  The lead single, Steven and Tiwongeone of the most elegant, haunting, and subtly political singles that I have heard in a very long time.  Pretty lucky to have stumbled across it.

But was it luck? Some say that there are no coincidences, implying that everything happens for a reason.  By extension, this idea might suggest that we are fated to collide with people and events in our life that propel us to our end. The philosophical argument against this kind of “fate,” as it were, is that it robs us of free will. This is an uncomfortable conclusion, to be sure, so I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of a coincidence-free existence. I think that there are coincidences, but I also think that they are far from meaningless. I think they matter. Surely, each of us have had enough happenstance events and near-misses that there seems to be some master plan behind the veil pulling the strings.

Our “plan” doesn’t seem to be a straight line with a predestined end, though. It branches off into multiple outcomes, with only a couple that result in our optimal path. We have responsibility in the way things turn out. I think that we can be guided along this path, however, if we keep our minds open and listen.

I was recently reminded of this when my wife and I struggled with a terribly difficult decision as the school year started up. Throughout the Little One’s life, we have been very fortunate with our child care situation, but circumstances recently forced us to seek out a different venue. Nothing to worry about, of course, because we had planned ahead. For several months, we had outlined plan “B,” and it looked great on paper. The reality, however, was much different. After two days of chaotic classrooms, disengaged teachers, and unprompted reports from her of friends that “don’t listen or share,” it became very clear to us that it wasn’t going to work. We pulled her before the first week ended.

But then we had a real situation. School was in session, and we were reporting to our own jobs. We were anxious, desperate, and without a solution. I had an urge to beg the powers-that-be for an answer, which would traditionally have been gently worded in my mind as a demand alongside a hollow promise for some sort of improvement (if You do this for me I' know the rest). Through the years, however, I have developed the sense of how misguided this sort of transcendental deal-making is.  I shouldn't expect a solution to be handed to me without taking on the responsibility of finding the answer.  So I awoke in the morning and, before I had a chance to formulate a negative thought about our situation, I told the universe that if there was a plan out there, I would keep my eyes open for suggestions.

The night before, I stumbled across the website of a small Montessori school with very positive reviews whose front doorstep was exactly halfway between my front door and the front door of my school. I drove by and, to be frank, it was not much to look at. My first instinct was to drop the idea, but I promised that I would keep an open mind. I called them later in the afternoon and set up a visit.

Despite its humble exterior, when we walked in, all the kids there were happy, welcoming, and well-mannered. We sat down with the director to talk, and noticed that there was a string of decorative Indian elephants hanging from the door of her office. The Little One has a similar set of elephants that hang by her bed (pictured at left), and she often plays with when she goes to bed at night.  Hm.

We liked the school, so later that day we brought the Little One back by the campus to visit. The elephants were the first thing she noticed. Then one of the students volunteered to show her around and she went on to have fun for about an hour before we had to go home for dinner.

By the evening, we narrowed our choices down to a couple of acceptable options, but none of them were clear.  I was apprehensive about the shift to Montessori’s open-ended pedagogy, but we were faced with a very big decision that needed to be made quickly.  Of all things, I could not stop thinking about the elephants, so I did a bit more research on the school.  I discovered some reviews and was flabbergasted to find one of them was written by a good friend of mine from the Fletcher days. When he relocated to Austin a few years ago, he enrolled his daughter there.  In fact, when we made our visit, we had missed running into him there by an hour.  He spoke highly of the school, and if the elephants weren’t enough of a sign, his advocacy certainly was.

We enrolled her, and I am happy to say that there was a night-and-day difference in the Little One’s attitude after the first day at her new school. In contrast to her exhausted, overstimulated state when she came home from the “puppy mill” (as her gramps called it), she has been happy and talkative about her days. I am incredibly happy and satisfied with our decision, and am looking forward to her progress this year in the new environment.

I would not have seen the positive atmosphere of the school if I had not let go of my initial judgement of the physical space. Additionally, I would not have been able to talk to my friend about his experiences if I had not paid attention to the little details. By getting out of the way and seeing things as they are, though, rather than through the lens of my expectations, I think that we are where we need to be right now.

Oh, yeah, and by the way. Beauty Pill.  This is the Little One's favorite:

The whole album is well worth your time.   It will probably be a top 10 album by year's end.  Check it out - maybe it'll lead you somewhere.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Curating the Past and Predicting the Future: Yes' "Union"

Hopes were really, really high when Union came out. By the time it was released in 1991, I was pretty familiar with Yes’ entire catalog. 90125 had made me a devoted fan of the Rabin-led lineup of the band, but I quietly held the opinion that the clumsily named Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe album released in 1989 was a superior album to Big Generator. The press for Union advertised that it was to be the ultimate lineup, combining the personnel from both groups. I envisioned a broadly collaborative album, with Rabin and Wakeman facing off in a virtuosic prog-rock wankery of the highest order. When I got the album to my dorm room and perused the liner notes, however, I was profoundly disappointed.

Despite its broadly inclusive roster, Union might be the least collaborative Yes album in their catalog. The two lineups had discrete tracks from one another, with the “Big Generators” contributing 4 tracks and the “Starship Troopers” contributing the rest. I was willing to look at it like Fragile, where different aspects of the band lent their voice to a larger picture. But the truth of the matter was, the majority of the material on the album just wasn’t very convincing. The best thing to come out of the album was the tour.

Still, I recently had a revelation about Union that has some relevance to the band’s current situation, so with some trepidation, I revisited it. Union has always sat quite comfortably very close to the bottom of the barrel for me as far as Yes albums go, but what if time had actually been kind to the album, and it was better than I remember? My whole hierarchy of Yes albums might come crumbling to the ground!

Fortunately, I suppose, this was not the case. Although there are a few good moments on the album and some outstanding musicianship, by and large it sounds as it did in 1991 - unfinished and uninspired.  One of the more outstanding moments on the album, however, is the track The More We Live – Let Go. I always felt that this swirling, powerful piece stood out in terms of quality. This track is of particular relevance now because it is, to my knowledge, Billy Sherwood’s first appearance on a Yes album.

Which I think is interesting. Union was intended to unify Yes’ convoluted history, but one of its more musically convincing moments also inadvertently foretold Yes’ future. Now, almost 25 years later, this single writing credit was the first stone in a long path that led Sherwood to a position in which he could significantly contribute to the band’s continuing output.

With this in mind, Union might be viewed as a reservoir of under-credited potential rather than an album sunk by record company meddling. If that is the case, despite its somewhat spotty political setting, Union could be a resource by which other musicians already woven into Yes’ history could carry on the Yes name.

If you are just tuning in, I have been playing this "Nu-Yes fantasy football” game for well over a year, and it was all fun and games when I made that first post.  Clearly, things took a more serious turn this summer, but Yes has continued (as I predicted, eerily enough) and, according to reviews, the current lineup is playing quite well, due in no small part to Steve Howe. Certainly, he shows no sign of slowing down. Still, one must wonder what would happen if he were at some point decide not to carry on as Yes’ guitarist. As the most longstanding member of the current group, his successor is not as visible as Squire's.

There is, however, a somewhat awkward situation surrounding the guitars on the Union album that most fans don’t like to address, but that might provide a solution. According to legend, Howe’s contributions to Union were demo quality, and he intended to rerecorded them before the album’s release. The record company’s unreasonable deadlines, however, could not accommodate Howe’s other commitments. Guitarist Jimmy Haun was brought in and in the end, many of the guitars on Union that are recorded in Howe’s name are not Howe. They are instead Haun’s uncredited performances.  Without Hope You Cannot Start The Day is one of several tracks that are entirely Haun.

Although I have no way to really prove it, I have sometimes had the sense that Howe’s parts felt a little different on Union, as if he was trying something new.  This track was not one of them.  It sounds like Howe, and I think it is absolutely astounding that Haun could mimic his distinctive style and sound so well.

Haun was my dream team choice for a “nu-Yes” from earlier this year, mostly due to the work he has done with Sherwood in Circa:. I knew that he had contributed to Union, but I was not aware to what extent until I began researching for this post. If Yes fans were to openly accept this uncomfortable chapter in the band’s history, it might not be unreasonable to view Haun as an uncredited Yes guitarist, and one that has enough respect for the band to carry on its creative legacy in the unfortunate event that Howe chooses to retire.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Scarlet Witch and Silver Surfer

My previous post indicated that the Little One’s interest in the Superhero Theme Project wound down earlier this year. To a degree that was true, but her interest in superheroes never really waned at all. In fact, all of the effort I put into acquainting her with Marvel characters paid off when she discovered The Superhero Squad Show on Netflix. This show is a kid-friendly microcosm of the Marvel Universe, with low-key violence and funny side jokes for the comic fan parent that is undoubtedly nearby. Although pretty bereft of any real educational value, it has familiarized her with a lot of my favorite characters and, eventually, granted her enough expertise in their backgrounds to come up with her own favorites. She had several characters that she particularly liked, and that gave me the leverage to pry the playlist back open.

During the last run on characters, I ran across the End Credits theme from The Black Hole. If you were a fan of this movie from back when it was released, it is best kept in your memory. It has not aged particularly well. The soundtrack, however, is still incredibly evocative. Revisiting this composition vividly brought back that swirling maw through the perception of my third grade eyes.

For the Superhero Theme Project, I really like to adopt themes like this – ones that time will probably forget. The likelihood that the Little One will ever see The Black Hole, much less become a fan, is pretty slim. This End Credit theme is a very compelling piece of music, though, that deserves to live on in some form.

Still, when it came to my attention, there seemed to be no characters that fit. It had potential as The Red Tornado’s theme, but it was too menacing and ponderous to make sense. I considered using it as a villain theme, but that still largely went against the mission statement of the project. The solution came when the Little One declared that one of her favorite heroes was The Scarlet Witch.

This character had a background as a villain (which is actually addressed in The Superhero Squad) who turned over a new leaf. Additionally, her probability-bending powers satisfyingly mapped to the theme’s kaleidoscopic texture. Its depth caused her to initially mistake it for the Hulk theme, but she quickly learned to distinguish one from the other.

For the second character, I had to make a concession. Over a year ago, I made a pact with myself not to use any Star Trek music, in the hopes that the Little One would one day become a Trek fan. With so much outstanding and memorable music in the franchise, however, it has been very difficult. I conceded by using material from the movies to represent on Iceman and Robin, but I resisted using any of the more familiar themes from the television series. When she told me that the Silver Surfer was one of her favorites, though, I could not use anything but the theme from Voyager.

Again, to be realistic, the probability that she will end up being a huge fan of this series is relatively slim. To be honest, even though I watched the series, I was not its hugest advocate. Its theme, however, is one of the best compositions in the entire franchise. It evokes majesty and power, and it is not at all a stretch to replace the images in my mind of Voyager gliding through space with the Silver Surfer, who is one of my personal all-time favorite characters. It seemed fitting to overlook my self-imposed stipulation in this case.

These two themes are now part of a four-track “sub-list” that was uploaded shortly after the last post, and she is very, very enthusiastic about these entries. I am too, for that matter. It helped to have some time and space to allow these themes to find their way to the right heroes. The other two tracks were a different story.

To go back to the previous post, click HERE
To go to the next post, click HERE.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Seeking Continuity in Retrospect: Yes' 90125

Although I cite Fragile as my entry point for Yes’ catalog, it was not my introduction to the band by a long shot. In 6th grade, long before I became aware Yes’ already long and sometimes sordid history, I bought a 45 of Owner of a Lonely Heart. 90125 was subsequently one of the first tapes I bought, and the CD soon followed. This album not only defined Yes for me – it laid the first stone in a path that later led me to Rush and progressive rock in general. Even today, it is, without question, my favorite Yes album.

As crucial as it has been to Yes history, 90125 was almost the Yes that never was.  Drama, its predecessor, was controversial for installing Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes into two very well-established roles within the band, but it retained a certain a sense of artistic continuity within Yes’ already established parameters. 90125 saw the return of several classic members, including Jon Anderson on vocals, but from a stylistic point of view it was a more radical departure. It retrospect, however, it was a stroke of genius to continue under the Yes name.

When considering 90125, it is impossible to ignore the importance of Trevor Rabin. From the standpoint of guitar style, replacing Howe with Rabin might not have been too much different than replacing Bill Bruford with Alan White in the mid 70s. Rabin was also an outstanding vocalist, though, and his writing contributions created the framework for a much different Yes.  The atmospheric fantasy that the band was known for in the 70s gave way to powerful, textured songwriting in their 80s iteration.

But like all of Yes’ best work, 90125 was generated in a collaborative environment. Rabin’s material was significantly rearranged and rewritten by the band’s members and their invisible “sixth” member, producer Trevor Horn. History will show that Yes is most successful with a strong producer, and Horn, continuing his relationship with the band from the Drama period, was as invaluable to 90125 as Eddie Offord was to Close to the Edge or Fragile. I have often felt that it was unfortunate that he was not more regular in this role as the band continued with Rabin.

To bemoan stability in Yes’ creative pool, however, is foolhardy.  It is far more engaging to look at the conceptual threads that hold their oeuvre together in the face of perpetual change.  Although the stylistic shift on 90125 is impossible to ignore, the input of the continuing and veteran membership granted the album a degree of continuity. I think Drama hinted that Yes’ parameters had grown past a dependency on Jon Anderson, but his contributions on 90125, which I think are the most powerful of his career, were crucial to the album's success.

For Yes fans whose associations with the band began in the 70s, continuity in and through this period may be difficult to see or accept. As an 80s fan that looked back through Yes’ catalog, I certainly saw the differences, but I also actively sought out the similarities. I will still argue that 90125 was, and continues to be, a masterpiece in Yes’ catalog that examined new horizons in progressive rock as the 80s began to get underway. In terms of content, arrangement, and performance, it represented a new kind of prog that did not rely on extended song lengths, but on pushing the possibilities of complexity within accessibility.

Listening for “backwards-compatibility” in this retroactive way has, I think, informed my conception of what Yes is, even to this day. I find their continuity fascinating, which is why I don’t fully understand the conservative faction of Yes’ fanbase that harbor so much resistance and, in some cases, anger over Billy Sherwood’s recent installation as bassist. Clearly, the circumstances surrounding this passing of the torch are grave and clouded by emotional reaction. Squire is irreplaceable, but I think that his absence does not preclude the emergence of a new lineup that can carry on the Yes name.

From a certain perspective, however, it is a little weird. Fans that invested in the band in the early 70s probably see little resemblance between “their” Yes and the current lineup. "My” Yes only has one member in common with the group that now bears the name, drummer Alan White.  I have been saying for over a year, however, that their fluid membership uniquely positions Yes to continue past the involvement of its originating members. Not just in terms of performance as a repertory ensemble or "ghost band," either.  I think that within Sherwood and Davison lie the creative potential for this current lineup to sincerely contribute to the current state of progressive rock while still keeping a firm root in its history.  Judging by 90125, that would be a distinctively Yes-like feat.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Red Tornado and Plastic Man

When last we left the Superhero Theme Project several months ago, things seemed to be winding down. At the time, the Little One was still invested, but there was a definitely the sense that she was losing interest. After the nearly devastating success of the Venom theme, it seemed that she was a little burned out on the playlist. Understandable, since she had been listening to it almost every day for nearly a year a half. To a degree, I was too, and I was starting to run out of material. I wanted to keep high standards, but I admittedly worked harder than intended to dig up the last few themes that I added to the playlist.

I was also disappointed that there was not more traditional repertoire making its way onto the list. A lot of it just seemed too “classical” when sidled up aside more contemporary TV and movie themes, and I felt like I was kind of stylistically repeating myself in this realm. It’s not that I was ignoring chamber music, though. For example, I came across Borodin’s Prince Igor theme in my research and it seemed to be bombastic enough to work if the right hero came up.

At the time, we were still riding out the Batman: Brave and the Bold series, which, coupled with the Super-Pets Encyclopedia, provided a constant stream of characters. When Prince Igor had my attention, she was very interested in the Red Tornado. I was not entirely convinced that the style of the piece fit the character. Objectively, the Red Tornado is an android, and from that perspective, the operatic pretentiousness of Prince Igor does not layer well with the character. The character’s history will show, however, that his robotic body is the host to a “wind elemental,” which might align with Prince Igor’s swirling pomposity. With reservations, I pulled the trigger in the hopes that some new music might reinvigorate her interest.

To this day, I am still a little mixed on this one. The final entry on the playlist, however, ended up being one of my favorites. The Brave and the Bold also got her interested in Plastic Man. This character is relatively marginal in the DC universe, but kids of my generation might remember that he had a brief stint in the 70s Saturday morning cartoon universe. I loved this show back then, so I had a unique investment. I wanted to do him justice, but also make him distinct from the other tracks in the playlist.

I was listening to some George Gershwin back when I was investigating the possibilities for Catwoman’s theme. I was drawn to sections of Rhapsody in Blue that seemed appropriate, but my no-editing policy excluded this 15 minute opus. Looking for alternatives, I discovered Promenade (Walking the Dog). This piece had a running time that fit playlist parameters, but it simply did not fit Catwoman. Due to the old cartoon series, however, my impression of Plastic Man is a little silly. Promenade (Walking the Dog) had a comedic feel that seemed right. Additionally, it was a huge contrast to my other Superhero themes, but was still clearly orchestral in scope. As reticent as I was with the Red Tornado, I thought that this song as Plastic Man’s theme would be my final stroke of genius.

I uploaded these tracks to the playlist, and they were relatively well-received. In an attempt to keep her listening, however, I took another step that seemed to put a decisive end to the Superhero Theme Project.

I uploaded Let it Go to my phone.

I couldn’t get around it. She was exposed to the song through her cousins and peers and, more importantly, she was trying to learn to sing it correctly. This latter development was too important to ignore. In the end, the lure of lyrics and peer pressure was too great.

Once this hit the air, there was zero interest in the Superhero playlist. By her request, I also added a couple of other Disney and pop music hits that, for reasons of dignity, we won’t go into here. The important point is that she seemed to be developing her own tastes, and there was no reason to continue cramming my narrative down her throat. For several months, she would sporadically request to “Listen to Superheroes,” but generally there was very little interest. I thought that I had gotten all that I was going to out of the project. I deemed it successful and, more selfishly, loads of nerdish fun. End of story.

However, just now, as I am writing this nearly six months later, she caught me whistling Promenade (Walking the Dog) and decisively asked “Are you singing Plastic Man?”

This reflects a recently renewed interest in the Superhero Playlist.  She requests it about once every two weeks and listens to the entire thing intently.  Additionally, now that she is nearing four, our attendant discussions are starting to reveal the way in which the seeds that this project planted are starting to take root. This will, along with a few additions to the playlist, undoubtedly be the topic of future posts. For now, consider yourself caught up.

Jump back a few months click HERE.
To see where it all started go HERE.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

How Fragile the Fish: First Steps into Broader Horizons

When the word came of Squire’s leukemia diagnosis, I envisioned that we would have him longer than we did. At the very worst, I thought that his recovery would sideline him for live shows and he would carry on as Yes’ musical director, much like Brian Wilson did for the Beach Boys when his mental health proved too fragile for live performances. Too soon, though, we lost him.

Clearly, I am a Yes fan, but Squire was, and is, a significant influence on my personal musicianship. Squire was the first bassist that I began to explore outside of my rapidly expanding Rush catalog. Once I was able to create what I thought was a reasonable facsimile of Moving Pictures, I felt quite unstoppable. My self-directed research led me to Yes, who I had already connected with through 90125. In the name of delving deeper into progressive rock, which was my newly-adopted genre of choice, I decided to start working my way through their catalog as well. The first step was Fragile.

Fragile was touted as a landmark album, but it ended up being the one in which Chris Squire put me in my place. On 91025, Squire’s bass playing was relatively constrained in deference to Trevor Rabin’s concise compositional approach. Fragile was a different matter entirely. I got lucky on one count: Roundabout was in the same key as Tom Sawyer, so, despite being steadfastly opposed to using a pick (because, you know, Geddy didn’t), I was able to come with a recognizable version of this iconic track.

That was where it stopped. My relatively immature ear and self-developed technique simply could not process the brisk fluidity of Long Distance Runaround. It moved too fast, and the form of the song was too erratic, for me to zero in on all of the details of that bassline. I never really got it. By the time I started to tackle Heart of the Sunrise, I knew that I was in over my head.

In addition to the breakneck speed and ferocity of the song’s opening riffs, Squire’s melodic approach throughout the piece felt freely improvised, and was difficult to pin down. With better transcription skills, I might have fared better against these monstrously complex tunes, but I simply did not have them back then. I eventually cut my losses and gave up.

Regardless, the damage was done. Fragile made me a dedicated Yes fan, and I subsequently began working my way through the catalog. Since then, however, it has not left the shelf much, mainly due to my recollections of the irregular track listing. Fragile boasts four full-group compositions that are arguably some of the best progressive rock tunes ever created. It also includes five “solo” contributions, one from each member of the band. While none of these tracks are particularly bad, I remember feeling a little let down by them, especially when set in contrast to the defiant intensity of the group work.

In revisiting the album upon the announcement of Squire’s passing, however, my perception of Fragile as a holistic statement has changed. Seen as a whole, Fragile plays out like a mansion with many rooms and hallways for the listener to explore. By all accounts, featuring Yes’ individual members in this way arose somewhat out of necessity, but it ended up being a bold statement about progressive music that, regrettably, many contemporary progressive artists ignore.

Progressive rock is most effective when the voices of individual players are allowed to shine through the material.  Fragile featured what was arguably the most virtuosic lineup of Yes, with five distinctive musicians.  The active contributions of each person were absolutely necessary for Fragile to make a coherent statement, which it does.  Squire would employ this mission statement repeatedly during the band's long, continuing career by bringing new voices into the group to keep it alive.

Squire’s contribution on Fragile is The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus). It is an orchestral, multi-track statement in which Squire explored the edges of the bass’s timbral potential. It was not really a bass song that a singular late 80s garage musician on a shoestring budget could learn and perform without the aid of delays, loops, and effects.  It is, however, a powerful example of the kind of broad musical virtuosity that Squire continued to seek throughout the rest of his career.

And so it came to pass that Chris Squire became known as "The Fish" to his fans (not to be confused with Fish, or Phish, for that matter).  He wore this moniker proudly enough to employ it in the title of his singular solo album Fish Out of Water.  Although I think that this album may be the clearest statement of Squire’s distinctive songwriting and performance skills, I won’t revisit it here.  I have posted about this fantastic album elsewhere, and in the big scheme of things, Fragile had a much more profound impact on me. By the time I discovered Fish Out of Water, I had already decided that Squire was in a league of his own. His presence on Fragile shone a very bright light on the limitations of my own musicianship while also pointing towards its horizons. He will be sorely missed, not just by me, but by a vast ocean of fans with discerning ears and open minds.