soundstreamsunday: “Spoon” by Can

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Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebzeit, and Damo Suzuki, circa 1972.

Across five albums and five years Can rendered the categories meaningless and set the bar for the kind of rock future that would make stars out of bands like Radiohead; there’s probably an argument that theirs is still the standard.  Like the better so-called “krautrock” bands of the era, Can’s music sounds like little else, and the environment supporting such freedom became a magnet for American and British artists looking to stretch (Keith Jarrett, Brian Eno, David Bowie).  But for such a self-styled experimental rock band, Can’s music is as accessible as it is confounding, a beautiful cut-and-paste mess controlled by disciplined musicianship (and editing).  Noise, psychedelia, jazz, funk, world, new and no music vie for space in the grooves, battling, more often than not, to equal victory.

By the time Can came to make 1972’s Ege Bamyasi they’d navigated a path through narcotic claustrophobia (Monster Movie‘s V.U.-summoning “Father Cannot Yell,”), cling-clang guitar trance (Soundtracks‘ “Mother Sky”) and long-form boogie freakout (Tago Mago‘s “Halleluwah”) butted up against concrete pieces that, to paraphrase Julian Cope, were guaranteed to clear the room at parties.  On Ege Bamyasi they tighten the bolts — at least on record, as live footage from the time shows vocalist Damo Suzuki doing everything to not play along, with varying degrees of success — and come up with an album that contains, in the context of Can’s musical universe, a slew of pop-shaded nuggets.  “Spoon” distilled all previous impulses into a succinct 3-minute masterpiece of Suzuki no-sense, Jaki Liebzeit clockwork, and Michael Karoli string-slinging wizardry, with Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt binding it all together.

It’s the perfect mixtape “link” song: rhythmic, catchy, weird.  It was a hit in Germany, adopted for a TV thriller and selling hundreds of thousands of copies.  Successful bands have named themselves after it.  It was and is — attractively to young, arty and ambitious Americans — roundly ignored in the States along with the rest of Can’s stunning catalog.  And even unto itself it’s a marvelous thing.

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: “Asa Branca” by Gilberto Gil

10262012-Gilberto-Gil-1_t958In “I Can See Clearly Now,” Johnny Nash rejoices in the rain ending, the clouds parting.  In “Asa Branca,” Gilberto Gil brings the boogie down party to a song that prays for the rain to return.  Written in 1947 by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira, this oft-covered Brazilian chestnut — and Gonzaga’s own versions are pretty uniformly great — is about two lovers separated by the economic conditions of the drought-ravaged region of Sertão, forcing the narrator to leave his beloved Rosinha to find work in the city, with a promise to return.

I love Gil’s work.  Along with Tom Zé and Caetano Veloso, Gil was at the cutting edge of Brazilian music in the late 1960s and paid the political price, as did Zé and Veloso.  The music he continues to create and perform is remarkable, and when I saw him live several years ago, even at age 70 he played two hours, electric guitar over his shoulder and wicked band behind him, to a rapt crowd he kept dancing in the aisles.  He’s an ambassador without a badge, a teacher without a blackboard, and when he plays, he’s on fire.  Along with Caetano’s first four or five records and the albums by Os Mutantes, Gil carved a path for singular Brazilian expression. By 2003 he had become such a hero that he was named Brazil’s Minister of Culture. Sure, “Minister of Culture” sounds Orwellian to me too, but if you’re going to have one, by all means make it Gil.  Two hours.  70 years old.

Gil covered “Asa Branca” on his 2001 live album São João vivo, and it’s been a live staple for him ever since.  This version is from the live tour supporting his album Fé na festa, the same tour we saw, and while some record company minion got the upload video quality wrong, the audio is fine and the performance jaw-dropping.  So great.

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: “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash

johnnynash1Four months after Bill Withers hit number one with “Lean on Me,” Johnny Nash climbed to the top of the charts with the rocksteady/reggae pop of “I Can See Clearly Now.”  Unlike Withers, who seemed to appear out of nowhere, Nash had maintained a fairly solid chart presence since 1957, and by November 1972, at the age of 32, he was also a seasoned veteran of the biz side of the music biz, creating his own label and signing pop acts like the Cowsills.  He traveled to Jamaica in the late ’60s in an attempt to bring rocksteady to the U.S., for a time working with Bob Marley and the Wailers.  In a sense the sessions weren’t successful, illustrating the difference between Nash’s American AM-radio “hit” perspective and the maturing album-oriented FM-radio vision that Marley, and Chris Blackwell of Island Records, had for reggae.  And yet the association was significant for both Nash and Marley, taking them to London in early 1972 in an attempt to break reggae outside of Jamaica.  It was in England that Nash recorded his best album — relying heavily on Marley’s songwriting and the musicians that made up the Wailers and the Fabulous Five — and where Marley and the Wailers would meet Blackwell.

It’s hard to imagine a greater musical uplift than “I Can See Clearly Now.”  With that title and the refrain “it’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day,” there’s more than a hint of Nash’s commercial reach, but he was clearly inspired by his work with Marley:  the tune’s simple reggae backing and the sincerity of the performance saves it from the treacly precipice.  When the bridge — itself a grand gesture — gets keyboardy and spacey it feels like there must have been something going on in the studio to fit the song, with its monumental groove and smile diminishing whatever adversity might be at hand.  This is a song about happiness in the moment, the rain lifting, and seeing the obstacles for what they are.

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: “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers

billwithers.jpgWhere Randy Newman and John Prine brought hyper-literate character study to the singer-songwriter genre, often inhabiting in the first person the figures they constructed in song, Bill Withers went for the emotional jugular, unabashed, and if there was any character being studied it was him.  Withers’ warm, supple voice, steeped in rhythm and blues and country, was his listeners’ point of entry, a vehicle in and of itself for delivering the musical goods.  Born in 1938, by the time he released his first record Withers was 33, had spent a decade in the service, and was working a factory job so soul-killing that a guitar and an empty notebook seemed as good a possibility as any for a better life.  His age helped him make records glowing with self-assured performances, and he became an unlikely pop star.  The hits came with that first record and kept coming through the 1970s.  By the time he did the unthinkable and retired in 1985, Withers’ legacy included some of the best American songs ever recorded: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me.”

“Lean on Me” is kind of like “The Weight” by the Band — it’s almost hard to believe that an earthly person actually wrote a song so integral to the late 20th-century American experience.  There is a grandeur to it, musically, lyrically, and sentimentally, that, even in its ubiquity, still shines.  It hit number one in 1972, but didn’t do all the heavy lifting to raise 1972’s Still Bill to number four, packed as that album is with great songs and arrangements popping with gospel funk dynamics.  In its album context, closing side one of the LP, “Lean on Me” is a beautiful respite from the personal strife suggested in “Lonely Town (Lonely Street),” “Who is He (and What is He to You)?” and “Use Me.”  The song evens a delicate emotional balance, and as an affirmation of simple friendship, it’s the finest kind of pop music.

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: “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine

prine-on-couch-fca50a192d324d600e6f76c149c8061fdfeec145-s800-c85Successful Americana music hews a particularly demanding line.  It’s a “post” genre, looking to blues and oldtime musics as a starting point rather than an end, as a shared story for the getting-on-with of the next chapter.  To say the least, there’s a large margin for failure.  The masters of the form, like Randy Newman and Joe Henry and Leyla McCalla, offer an unaffected, plain spoken drive to the heart of an America that is in its essence a crossroads.  In such hands it goes far beyond a romance of sepia-tinged dustbowl-era hardscrabble, the sharecropper’s plow and his wife’s gingham print dress.  It is the common song and in it is America.

John Prine didn’t set out to do it, since as a genre it wasn’t really acknowledged until relatively recently, but he put flesh and bone to Americana songwriting.  Equal parts humor, sadness, and frank talk as broad as its landscape, the pictures in his songs are drawn, I think, from the same kind of middle-of-the-country upbringing that so imprinted itself on Mark Twain.  One of those songs, “Paradise,” from Prine’s 1971 debut, made its way to me as a tune John Denver covered on his 1972 album Rocky Mountain High.  Which was the first album I ever owned, so that when I was six I knew that John Prine, credited on the sleeve, had written one of my favorite songs.  Paradise was “where the air smelled like snakes, and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”  How the air smells like snakes I don’t know but I know what he’s getting at somehow — it’s the kind of thing a guy from Missouri or Kentucky who grew up when Prine did would say.

“Angel from Montgomery” is Prine’s loveliest melody, but not necessarily as it’s sung by him.  It’s been covered countless times, but it seems to be at its tuneful best if the singer is a woman, perhaps because its narrator is female.  So Bonnie Raitt’s version is the go-to, and Susan Tedeschi is its current champion (following Raitt’s interpretation).  But in these remarkable and wonderful tributes to Prine and his songwriting, what is absent is the charming gruffness Prine brings to the role play, and as recorded on that first record, an approach that is more gospel soul than sweet country ode.  On an album absolutely loaded with outstanding songs, Prine goes with the piano and organ and the churchy atmospherics because this is a song about a tested faith, where things could’ve turned out differently, and would have, “if dreams were lightning, and thunder was desire.”

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: “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.