soundstreamsunday: “Cowboy” by Randy Newman

randynewman1.jpegRandy Newman makes diamonds.  You can feel the pressure and time and heat that go into his songs, creating the effect of lush spaciousness in tunes typically clocking in under three minutes.  His eagerness towards satire is a product of his style, immersive first-person character sketches delivering broad social commentary and comedy in lines simply phrased, acidic, and wrought with compassion.  His skill at delivering his own songs is often eclipsed by his influence as a songwriter and his work as a hired gun — “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” from his 1968 self-titled debut has been covered something like 75 times, and his scores and songs for films are in themselves a major achievement — and yet his unmistakable voice, coupled with arrangements measured to plumb the intellectual and emotional depths, carry such weight that as a performer of his own music he’s peerless.

“Cowboy” is from the ’68 debut, and in its brief stay conjures Dvorak and Copland, the film music of Newman’s uncles Alfred and Lionel and Emil, and a particularly nuanced form of American songwriting that was then just taking shape and was particular to Los Angeles.  It leans heavily on cinematic structure and the idea of music as a vehicle for a script’s emotional power.  Consider the slightness of the lyrics:

Cold gray buildings where a hill should be
Steel and concrete closing in on me
City faces haunt the places
I used to roam
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try
Wind that once blew free
Now scatters dust to the sky
Cowboy, cowboy – can’t run, can’t hide
Too late to fight now – too tired to try

In contrast to much of Newman’s work, “Cowboy” doesn’t contain the erudite wordplay and swing he shared with Mose Allison and it doesn’t betray his deep roots in New Orleans.  It’s instead a kind of beautiful dirge of disillusion, a Brave New World Symphony where the fantasy of open spaces bumps up hard against the darker angels of human nature.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Vier Stücke für Xylophon” by Gunild Keetman

kettmann_trommelOn Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen rode the violent edge of Americanness that coursed through rock and roll, consciously plugging into Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the legacy of Charlie Starkweather’s and Caril Fugate’s 1958 killing spree across the midwest.  Springsteen was inspired towards Misfit-style murder ballad by Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, a thinly-veiled fiction of the Starkweather/Fugate rampage, and went so far as to write a song called “Badlands” for Darkness on the Edge of Town before going all in with the spare Nebraska.  As a source of influence on Springsteen’s work and, by association, those of Springsteen’s acolytes, Malick’s film is profound, and yet it achieves its own dark power partly through a music almost entirely unrelated to its subject matter.

Music für Kinder.  Music for children.  Given the youth of Starkweather and Fugate, this may have been the connecting tissue Malick was looking for when he used the work of Gunild Keetman in his film.  Keetman and her collaborator Carl Orff created volume upon volume of educational texts and compositions from the 1930s into the 1960s under the name “Schulwerk” and “Music für Kinder.”  While Orff, as the composer of “Carmina Burana,” was the high-profile name attached to the project, Keetman did the heavy lifting.  At times interpretations — as in the first of the four pieces presented here, “Gassenhauer” (which Malick used throughout Badlands), composed by Hans Neusidler in 1536 and recast by Keetman in 1952 — the work tends towards the percussive and rhythmic, with simple starts building progressively in complexity.  The results are lovely, spritely even, but, as in this performance by the Karl Peinkofer Percussion Ensemble in 1995, maintain a meditative quality lending a potential for darkness, not of childhood but of perhaps lost childhood.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen

bruce_springsteen - EditedIn 2014, Bruce Springsteen covered Suicide‘s “Dream Baby Dream” on his album High Hopes, revealing common roots among artists you wouldn’t normally associate, and further illustrating Springsteen’s connections to the New York art punk scene of the mid and late 70s.  His association with Patti Smith, through her interpretation of “Because the Night,” cross-pollinated rock and punk in a critical cultural moment.  Then in 1980 Springsteen and Alan Vega of Suicide struck up a friendship while both were recording their respective albums in NYC, and he lent Suicide much-needed support when their second album elicited nothing but stony silence from their label execs.  He later likened Vega’s voice, admiringly, to an exhumed Elvis.  Springsteen’s rise to bona-fide-and-sanctified rock star in the mid 80s tends to mask that his rock and roll roots were essentially punk, street, to the degree that the nickname he earned early on in his career never sat well with him.  He read in Elvis and the Sun brethren an unseating of authority.  He was seduced, romanced by rock’s exalting of the everyman, and he built his songs from a society of sympathetic blue collar and rural down’n’outs that appeared fully sketched on record.  This was and is his art.

“State Trooper” from Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982) most immediately links his work and Suicide’s, the acoustic blues rock stutter as lean as the song’s words, here exercised in relative economy (compared to, say, “Thunder Road” or “Blinded by the Light,” or, god forbid, “Rosalita”).  The lo-fi slapback echo combined with the aesthetic of the cassette multitrack Springsteen was experimenting with to make demos — which he then decided to release rather than flesh-out with his E Street partners — smacks strongly of cheap electronic processing and a reaching towards Suicide’s elemental synthesizer rock.

Both Springsteen and Vega were writing characters deeply steeped in rock’s first wave, but the innuendo is gone, so that Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop and the first person of “State Trooper” — who’s holding on to that thing that’s “been bothering me my whole life” — share a spinning endgame.  “Mister State Trooper, please don’t stop me…” is a plea to limit the damage that’s grown out of control, the high-pitched yawp at the conclusion, overloading the mic and my circuits, forever linking Springsteen and Suicide in a stylistic rock’n’roll entirety consisting of a road, a car, probably a gun, and not much time.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Ghost Rider” by Suicide

suicideIt’s not until it works its witnesses into a state of ecstatic frenzy, as if reading a preacher-inflected text so self-aware it reaches ascendancy, that New York rock satisfies itself and its audiences.  It’s a city of distillations and self-regard, and so in its great contribution to rock and roll, New York puked up a revival so dazzling in its love for rock’s foundations it sometimes barely reads as the punk it became known as (or maybe a common idea of punk): there is no rejection, it is all embrace.

Suicide played rock and roll, and even as they coined the term “punk” — or at least early-adopted it from Lester Bangs to describe what they were doing — in their world that meant you visited the monuments and tore them down to find what was left in substance, not shadow.  It was an intentional act of art, constraint-driven, that Martin Rev and Alan Vega followed in the rock they made.  And they made it howl.

The pulsing drone riff of “Ghost Rider” leads Suicide (1977), the culmination of seven years of paring and refining and filtering the pure rock spirit.  That Suicide did this as a duo with synth and drum machine was revolutionary to the point of riot-inducing, and to this day sounds outside a point in time.  Suicide denied time, even to the degree that Vega claimed he was far younger than his 39 years.  It was no nostalgia trip, Suicide’s rock and roll, even though that trip hung heavy in the air: this same year the retro band Sha Na Na debuted on TV, though they too had been around for a while, hocking the schlock of 50s rock, that shadow that Suicide made it their business to avoid.  Both were needed but only one was important.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Isolation” by Joy Division

ian-curtis- joy-division-wendy-winder-obskur-magazineMusic critics tend to dismiss Joy Division’s posthumous Still as a hit-and-miss collection of studio scraps paired with a lackluster recording of their last show.  And in a specific context — compared to the brilliant Unknown Pleasures and Closer, it seems a bit of a rush job with less-than-pure motivations — this holds some weight, although I’d argue as its own thing Still may be more representative of the band as a whole, and that the live half of the double album contains fiery performances wildly joining hard rock, punk, and synth-y goth music.  My first exposure to Joy Division, over thirty years ago now, was hearing “Shadowplay” from Still, and it gave me the metal thunder frights.  It sounded as if Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis, and Stephen Morris channeled the essence of Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi” through a punk filter, as they sped to the center of the city in the night.  Even as they rode their wave of goth punk popularity their songs betrayed the band’s primary strength: their music was as much about making connections as alienation, masked and revealed in turns by Curtis’s not-waving-but-drowning lyrics and delivery.

When Curtis made good on the promise of his lyrics a few days after the show, the band pivoted into New Order and went on to define electronic dance music in the 1980s.  It’s a remarkable story of artistic continuity in the wake of tragic change, but the strength of the group’s trajectory even before Curtis’s death can be found on Still and on “Isolation” in particular.  Stripped of producer Martin Hannett’s carnivalesque studio tweaks, the song’s live incarnation has a punch lacking on Closer, with Sumner’s keyboards threatening to submerge Curtis’s plaintive singing, and Hook’s and Morris’s stripped bass-and-beat backbone out-crafting Kraftwerk.  The big guitars so much a part of their origins were yielding to distilled, synth-led rhythmic and melodic lines.  While “Isolation” would sit comfortably next to its future cousin, the New Order calling card “Blue Monday,” it remains a place of passage rather than a destination, a liminal space aglow with potential.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Wardenclyffe” by S U R V I V E

rr7349Scored by S U R V I V E’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the Netflix show Stranger Things can at times seem written around the music, such is the importance of its soundtrack.  The duo’s band creates very similar music but in longer form, developed stories in contrast to Stranger Things’ vignette accompaniments.  If they recall the European progressive synth work of Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream, as instrumental narrative S U R V I V E’s tropes, fresh as they are, are the well-heeled scions of horror and suspense soundtracks of the 1970s and 80s — those coveted analog burblings so influencing rock archetypes that today a band like S U R V I V E can be embraced by a culture that may not have looked so warmly on the be-caped japes of synth lords in their keyboarded cathedrals of yore.  This is a good thing, as is S U R V I V E’s 2016 album RR7349.  The punky, catalog number-as-title approach is embedded in the band’s music, in its wordlessness plain spoken, symbolic of itself, its images so strong — or perhaps its ability to conjure notions and memories of images we’ve grown used to associating with such music — that there’s an enjoyable lack of heavy lifting here.  As instrumental albums go, it’s a seamless ride through the horrorshow.

“Wardenclyffe” is the heart of RR7349; it is an opus of classic thrash metal rhythm, a slow burn, slow bleed psychedelic nod off, an American folk opera circa 2016.  It is everyman music, an electronic field holler to the collective national iThumb and Assemblage of the Hallowed Streaming Box.  Like its mothership album, it is so woven into the now that it’s a blip on the screen; but mark it, for when the future civs recreate our campfire dances, this is the soundtrack.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Sons of Pioneers” by Japan

japantindrum2A British post-punk band could grow into just about anything in that fertile ground of the late seventies, and Japan proves the point, as over its short record-releasing career (1978-1981) the band moved from a funk punk glitz unit to new pioneers of progressive art rock.  You can see the steam rising off the entire five-album catalogue, the creative engines driving full tilt, inevitably towards early breakdown.  If the end came too soon there’s one more record, 1991’s self-titled Rain Tree Crow, that seals the deal: together, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri, and brothers David Sylvian and Steve Jansen were among the most unique musical collaborators of their era, and should be in any discussion of Talking Heads or King Crimson from this same period, as bands who pushed forward and influenced all musical directions.  In its progression of fashion and music, Japan functioned as an interlocutor, a not-so-missing link, between New York Dolls-style punk and Tears for Fears-style new wave, a Roxy turned Crimson, an achieving Guns’n’Roses cum Duran Duran.

“Sons of pioneers are hungry men,” intones Sylvian in the nuanced Ferry-esque croon he’d been developing since 1979’s Quiet Life, the band’s third album.  I have no idea what this lyric means. But…I like it and its pure sonics and the way Sylvian so naturally handled a lyric as a shaped sound.  “Sons of Pioneers” comes from their last work as Japan, Tin Drum, an album charged with atmospherics, and further demonstrating the contributions and importance of each member, although Mick Karn’s gorgeous playing is a particular show stopper.  His expressive command of the fretless bass pushes and pulls “Sons of Pioneers” across its landscape, as the song takes its time unfolding, enjoying its own groove.  I’m including the live (from the posthumous live record, 1983’s Oil on Canvas) and studio versions because they both kick ass in their own spacious and patient ways, although there is an urgent edge to the live performance.  The concept-y concert footage shows a superlative Japan in its swansong, Jansen with his world beat and Barbieri sino-spacing out the proceedings on keyboards, Karn transporting himself magically sideways and Sylvian, dapper glam hand ever in pocket, delivering the riddles.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.