Friday, January 29, 2016

January Roundup: Remembering the Legends of Star Wars

In the earlier days of this blog, I would regularly document my listening habits with a “roundup” at the end of each month. A couple of years ago my consistency began to waver, and then Grooveshark got shut down. This streaming music site was what I used for all my playlists up to that point, and its loss unceremoniously nailed the roundup coffin shut. There have been times, however, that I have missed this practice. It certainly made things easier to come up with an end-of-year review with to them to look back on. It also provided the freedom to do some personal blogging on topics that might not readily link to with my musical interests

For example, at the end of December I, like many, had a reinvigorated interest in the Star Wars franchise. Certainly, I have a lot to say about the music of Star Wars, especially as it enters its current iteration. Before I dive in to this topic in the coming months, however, there is a whole world within the world of Star Wars that has no soundtrack and, sadly, dim prospects for the future.

It’s hard to imagine today, but in the early 90s it looked like Star Wars was over. There were no official plans for the prequels, and many earnest fans fantasized about what happened in the Star Wars universe after Return of the Jedi.  The answer came with the written word.

With George Lucas’ blessing, Timothy Zahn wrote an excellent series of books that are now knows as The Thrawn Trilogy, and they kicked off what would come to be known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  After Zahn’s books, many other authors explored his deep characters and thought-provoking concepts. Without a singular narrative to steer the ship, however, the universe’s canonicity eventually became problematic. After a decade and a half, some fans argued that it became too bloated and self-contradictory to cohere, and this, along with complex intellectual property issues, caused the Expanded Universe to be summarily dismissed when Disney acquired Lucasfilms. These stories are now considered “Star Wars Legends,” and are not recognized as part of the official continuity as it moves forward.

The move was hardly surprising.  I was not a completest fan of the Expanded Universe due to quality control problems I saw with the canon.  I did, however, harbor a secret hope that a few of the characters and plotlines would be at least acknowledged if not adapted into the new Star Wars timeline. The characters from the Expanded Universe enjoyed a depth that was unprecedented in the original Star Wars movies. Mara Jade, in particular, was the most complex and interesting woman that the Star Wars universe had ever seen up to that point. It would have been satisfying to see her play a role in the canon as it moves forward with a greater emphasis on strong female characters.

There is no music that can connect with her, however, or any situation in the Expanded Universe beyond that which lies in our imagination. Or, perhaps, what I might be listening to as I have nostalgically looked back on the quiet passing of this rich world of colorful characters. This month, this includes a lot of new music from my Christmas and birthday booty.

John Williams - Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones OST: Before the release of The Force Awakens soundtrack, this was the only Star Wars soundtrack missing from my collection, mainly because I have stubbornly refused to support The Attack of the Clones in any way. The soundtrack is way better than the movie.

Mbongwana Star – From Kinsasha: Very intriguing and contemporary African pop music from the congo.  Saw a live video from this band yesterday that really piqued my interest.

King Crimson – Live at the Orpheum: With the passing of Chris Squire last year, the mortality of his generation hit home for me. No more waiting for a new studio album from Fripp and his current lineup.

Kamasi Washington – The Epic: This massive 3-disc release sounds like the hopes and dreams of every jazz studies major I have ever met. I am still trying to decide if Washington’s playing lives up to his vision.

The Judas Table – Antimatter: A glowing, positive review got this dark rock album in the player, but the melodramatic vocals just don’t quite work for me.

Africa Express - Terry Riley’s In C Mali: Minimalism comes full circle, with an African ensemble performing the work of a Western composer.

Zweiton – Form: An outstanding instrumental disc from an excellent touchstyle guitarist. Lots of mathy structures and aggressive melodies make this an engaging listen.

Sei Ikeno and Akira Ifukube – Zatoichi: The Best Cuts 1967-1973: I have been on a Zatoichi jag since this summer. Anyone who thinks that Quentin Tarantino is wholly original needs to examine these movies.

Kurt Stenzel - Jodorowskys Dune OST: I have still yet to see this documentary about this “best movie that never was,” but this synth-based soundtrack certainly captures something about the world of Dune that I have not heard elsewhere.

Atomic Ape – Swarm: I saw these guys open for Secret Chiefs 3 last year, and I found them inspiring. Their studio album is also quite good.

Zombi – Shape Shift: I love the drive and the texture of this instrumental album, but it seems a bit short on melody.  Repeated listens have been revealing, though.

David Bowie – Blackstar: There are lots of factors to consider with Blackstar, so I will reserve final judgement on it for the time being. The video for Lazarus, however, is the most haunting thing I have seen in a while.

Hans Zimmer – Interstellar OST: I have had this album for over a year now, but finally saw the movie last month. The combination of the two are simply amazing.

Clarence Clarity – No Now: What if James Blake collaborated with Death Grips? Ponder that one.

Grimes – Art Angels: Perhaps this is premature, but I am not particularly impressed with her follow-up. It took me a long time to get into her debut, though, so maybe it will open up.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Subtle "Innuendo:" Freddie Mercury's Epitaph

It has always been so: college textbooks are frighteningly expensive. During my undergraduate, the annual investment of textbooks was the most fluid and generally stressful financial aspect of starting a semester. With several hundred dollars on the line, it did not seem like tacking on another $20 or so to indulge in some new music was such a big deal - at least not to the irresponsible twentysomething that I was. There were a couple of albums that I snuck into my collection under the umbrella of my textbook budget, one of which was Tin Machine II. Another was Queen’s Innuendo, an album that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks.

In 1991, Queen held the same position for me that I described in my previous post about David Bowie. I grew up with them featured prominently on the radio, but the only album I had by them was the Flash Gordon Soundtrack, which was an odd entry in their catalog. I also owned a greatest hits CD and had every intention of eventually expanding their presence in my collection.

It took me almost two decades to realize this latter ambition, by the way.  As of this writing, the only Queen studio album missing from my collection is The Miracle, which I did have at one point.  That, however, is another story.

Queen had a progressive aspect that kept them on my radar, so when I read that Steve Howe had a guest appearance on Innuendo,  it became the first proper Queen album in my adult CD collection. Before its release, it seemed that Queen’s music had suffered from some inconsistency due the commercial expectations of their success. Certainly, Radio Ga Ga had its sights on the masses and did not compare to the cinematic scope of Bohemian Rhapsody, at least in my mind. The symphonic horizons of Innuendo suggested that Queen was making an earnest attempt to recapture the adventurous artistry that informed their best work. I enjoyed it a lot.

What I did not know when I bought Innuendo, however, was that Freddie Mercury was sick. He had been fighting a very private battle with AIDS for several years by that point, but publicly denied that his health was deteriorating. Mercury finally announced his condition late in 1991, and passed away virtually the next day. With this news, Innuendo suddenly and dramatically changed for me. Within the context of Mercury’s mortality, the album’s earnestness and good humor seemed more like urgency and poise.

Queen was an album band, so although their songs could be taken individually, the programming always seemed to enhance the album's overall narrative.  The placement of the melodramatic The Show Must Go On as the closing track on Innuendo was an undeniably clear statement. After the announcement came, I remember sitting in my dorm room getting choked up with several friends imagining the once vibrant Mercury sitting on a stool for support and belting out the vocals for this track in spite of his own fading strength.

Within the context of Mercury’s imminent demise, it suddenly became apparent that the impetus for this album was not merely an effort to recapture past glories. Even taking Mercury’s condition into account, the value of Innuendo did not lie in the fact that it was the last time he would record with Queen before he passed. Rather, it was because that album was about his impending death and a document on the manner in which he chose to approach it.  Mercury's death was the innuendo that ran throughout the album, too subtle to notice on the surface, but impossible to ignore once it came to light.

Bowie’s recent passing brought this situation to mind.  The brave and subtle way in which Innuendo brought Mercury’s struggles to light was so revealing about his character and his art has inspired me to seek the same in Bowie's recent posthumous release, Blackstar. Certainly, I don't expect it to sound the same as Innuendo.  There are few artists who are willing to put that kind of struggle up for public scrutiny, however, and I think it would be a shame to overlook such a personal epitaph.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Defined by a Footnote: David Bowie and Tin Machine

David Bowie's recent passing effected me, and like many, I feel the need to contribute to the many voices lamenting our loss.  I should admit at the outset, however, that although I have always been a fan of his work, I have never been a particularly devoted follower.  Even today, my collection of Bowie albums is embarrassingly small.  My introduction to Bowie was in the early 80’s when Let’s Dance was in regular radio rotation. Despite never actually owning the album myself, I can trace the majority of its tracks in my memory and faithfully air guitar along with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s inspired soloing.  I later got the ChangesBowie compilation that was released in 1989 and went to the accompanying Sound+Vision support tour in 1990. I admit, however, that I was far more interested in seeing King Crimson guitarist and frontman Adrian Belew play as Bowie's right-hand man. Belew did not disappoint, by the way - his backup vocals on Space Oddity still stand out as one of the live music highlights of my entire concert-going experience.

I paid attention when Bowie did anything, but clearly I was often distracted by the people in his orbit.  I did not "get" him as an artist in his own right well enough at that stage to begin prying open his catalog, and my interest in him might have all but stalled if it weren't for an article I misread.  I kept up with several music publications in the 80s, and in a brief editorial I saw that David Bowie was recording an album with a band at The Power Station.  When I saw this, I confused the New York studio that bore the name with the 80s supergroup led by Robert Palmer and backed by Duran Duran members. I was a fan of their eponymous album, and thought that David Bowie would be a really interesting lead for The Power Station if Robert Palmer planned to focus on his solo career. I tucked this piece of misinformation in the back of my mind and sat on it for months. 

This led me to the Bowie project that made the biggest impression on me, and oddly it was the one in which he tried to fade into the background: Tin Machine.  In the big scheme of Bowie’s career, Tin Machine might end up being a mere footnote, but it was the vehicle that brought me to a greater understanding of Bowie’s restless musicianship.

When Tin Machine showed on the new release rack of my local Sound Warehouse, I stubbornly perceived it as the Power Station’s follow-up album, despite the discrepancy in the name and an obviously different lineup. Listening to the Tin Machine album with the expectation of a glossy Power Station release was somewhat jarring. There was an aggressive intensity that the albums shared, but Tin Machine was significantly more ragged and noisy than I expected.  I did, however, find the tension between the obviously intellectual guitarist Reeves Gabriels and the gorilla groove tactics of the Sales brothers on bass and drums to be most compelling.

Still, it was Bowie that really piqued my interest in this project. At that point, he was the “guy that sung Blue Jean” as far as I was concerned. It was a puzzling phenomenon to see a high-polish pop-rock icon thrive in a relatively harsh musical environment. In retrospect, however, it was clear that his success had afforded him a certain status and, being the musician he was, would have nothing else to do with the artistic trappings of this title. Tin Machine, then, was an environment with one foot in the cerebral and the other in the primal and it effectively allowed Bowie to thumb his nose at the industry to which he owed his notoriety.

Tin Machine was, at times, abrasive, and did not sound like anything else that was out there in the public eye at the time. Its contrarian virtuosity was appealing, and it developed into a somewhat indulgent, private favorite at the end of my senior year. I had my eyes open for its follow up in 1991, and Tin Machine II served as the soundtrack to my second year at UNT. Tin Machine II was a more well-developed statement than its predecessor. In retrospect, the more polished feel of this album caused Tin Machine to lose a bit of the the manic grit that made them distinctive in the first place.  It is still quite good, and perhaps more varied in style than the debut album, but has not weathered quite as well.

I would continue to cross paths with Bowie’s material, playing his songs in cover bands, listening to adaptations of his more cerebral work, and just generally keeping tabs on his comings and goings. Delving into his massive catalog seemed daunting, however, and his mercurial nature made it difficult to get a bead on where to start. I got Low a few years later with the intent of examining his so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” but I never followed up. Sadly, that’s about it. It’s not that I disliked his material or had anything against him. I just kept putting it off – for decades.

And then he died.

So now I have the awkward feeling of being too late to David Bowie’s party, falling into the category of people who will disingenuously purchase Blackstar and Ziggy Stardust remasters post-mortem in an attempt to stay relevant. Perhaps that is the case, but I don't feel that my dragging feet reflect my impression of him as an artist or bandleader, but rather with my delusional idea that we would have him forever. Fortunately, he left a massive body of work behind, and an indelible mark on popular music.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 Honorable Mentions: The Cold Civil War

I’d love to be able to say that it was a great year, but in retrospect, there were some troubling developments. That’s not to say that is was a bad year for me personally, but it feels like society at large is taking a dark, nihilistic turn. For example, it seems like the American flag flies at half-mast so often that the general public doesn’t even consider why. Our society is riddled with instances of meaningless deaths, and this will not change by the installation of any law or policy. It will only change if we, as individuals, change.

For my part, I rarely post anything political, but looking back at 2015 gives me the sense that this philosophy might be misguided. It’s not that I am without political opinions, or that I think that the opinions of the individual are without meaning. I just don’t like to bare my breast to the knife of trollers. I find them troubling, and I doubt that my viewpoint will change minds fossilized by fear and ignorance.

And maybe it won’t, but we have unlimited channels to raise awareness. Leaving these resources untapped seems irresponsible, so I will take this opportunity to plead the case that more guns will not result in less deaths.  It just doesn’t make logical sense. Guns kill. That is their purpose.

That is not to say that I am against people owning guns. I am against the idea that so many people seem to genuinely think that they need them.  I don’t think, however, that it is the government’s place to confiscate guns, even though it seems to be the only solution to disarming this “Cold Civil War” that the populace seems to think is realistic. It doesn’t put any belief in the individual’s right to make morally correct choices and surround themselves with objects that are truly beneficial to mankind’s progress. Instead, attachment to guns becomes more deeply entrenched as people feel that their right to keep them is taken away.

So I think that in 2016, there should be a movement towards the voluntary surrender of firearms in honor of all the innocent people who have been shot and killed in 2015. The fact that this sounds an unreasonable or impossible request is an indicator of just how big the problem is.  At the very least people should consider that the purpose of a firearm is to kill, not to serve as status symbol. It is my fear that, as open carry policies start today in Texas, this latter standard will be the case. Individual businesses can opt out of this policy, however, and I will actively seek out these businesses in 2016 so that my daughters don’t have to feel like they are being raised in a military state. Despite what the fearful may think, we are not (at least not yet).

My apologies. Although I have considered writing a post on this subject for almost three years, this blog is about music and the topic has not coincided with my listening in any believable way. As the year ends, though, and we look back on the last few albums in 2015 that were in the running for the top twenty, it seems as appropriate as it ever will.

In general, these last five albums were ones that I really wanted to get into the “Best of 2015” category, but just did not have the staying power of the others.  Still great, and worth investigation if they grab your ear.

BeckMorning Phase: With half of the original Jellyfish lineup serving as backup musicians and some of Beck’s strongest work, excluding this Grammy winner was a tough call. It was just barely nudged out

Deafheaven – New Bermuda: There’s two ways this album could have gone: more of the same that Sunbather had to offer or something totally different. They took the latter route, and although it has all of the emotional impact of its predecessor, it did not distinguish itself as much as I would have liked.

iamthemorningBelighted: Gleb Kolyadin’s electrifying piano performances drew me to purchase Belighted early this year, and it is undoubtedly one of the more original and satisfying prog releases I have heared in a while. iamthemorning is, however, a duo and the album has some studio musicians filling out the arrangements, and I would like to have heard a more developed group dynamic on the whole.

Tal National - Zoy Zoy: A fantastic, current African pop album, a genre that unfortunately has to contend with the unreasonably long shadow of Fela in my collection. Despite being an adequate listen, Zoy Zoy was not distinctive enough to withstand months of vetting to make the year end list.

Tame Impala Currents: I advocated strongly for Tame Impala’s previous release, and I do like Currents. It has a perceptible turn away from adventurousness towards commercialism, however, that held me at a distance.