soundstreamsunday: “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead

radiohead - EditedThe figure “singing from the window in the Mission of the Sacred Heart” in ELO’s “Mission (A World Record)”, last week’s soundstreamsunday entry, could be the uptight narrator of Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” from the band’s 1997 tour-de-force OK Computer.  As if in mirrored conversation, those two songs, separated in time by over 20 years but perhaps closer than they appear — in their beam-me-up guitar melodies, keyboarded grandeur and darkening moods — are to me joined at their metaphoric sci-fi hips.

Radiohead’s confidence on OK Computer, in both the intense alienation of the fragmented lyrics and the band’s break with the walls and squalls of mid-90s guitar rock, is a subtle swagger ripe with end-of-the-millenia decaying beauty.  It’s a prog goth triumph, reaching in its many directions to locate the mood of its time, a burred gloaming richly unsettled.  It’s also, I was reminded when listening again to it recently, funny, in the same way that Forever Changes is, or Fight Club, or a mad prophet preaching the end times.  There’s just no telling what the next turn will be, but there is a willful design, and so the satisfaction of a wicked lyric or the resolution of a majestic melodic sequence prompts a smile or a laugh.  The parts come together, a human victory, a denial of the end even as it’s being trumpeted.

The internally rhyming title of “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” a riff on a Dylan masterpiece (and, further back, a Kerouac novel), feels tossed off on the one hand but also maybe the only choice given its narrator’s painting a scene of alien surveillance and his desire, that he be taken “on board their beautiful ship, show me the world as I’d love to see it.”  He’s maybe one of them, maybe wants to be one of them, but who They are is undetermined and in any case moot: the point is homesickness for a place that has to be better, with the “breath of the morning” and the “smell of the warm summer air.”

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: “Mission (A World Record)” by Electric Light Orchestra

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soundstreamsunday HQ

I never knew anyone who wasn’t at least a little bit of a fan of Electric Light Orchestra.  My age privileges me in remembering hearing new ELO songs on the radio when I was a kid — it was almost impossible I think for DJs to screw up their set with ELO, as the band’s music straddled so many genres at one time — and although I never owned any of their albums until I was in my 40s (I can’t believe it either), not liking their music would be akin to not liking having any fun.  But along with that fun came a musicality and seriousness of songwriting that could get you scratching your head, too.  In the words of the old ad, this stuff was good and good for you.

Those were the days….  Launched on record in 1971, by 1976 ELO had five albums under their belt and their sixth, A New World Record, would distill Jeff Lynne’s profound ambition into a back-to-front nine-song pop-prog epic 36 minutes long.  While many fans cite ELO’s next record, 1977’s Out of the Blue, as the masterpiece (and in some ways it is), that double album’s aesthetic really gestated on A New World Record: late-era Beatles laid across heavy accents of American R&B and soul, filtered through an army of instruments and tracks.  Lynne’s achievement in 1976 was to make this happen succinctly, in service of his writing, which produced the best kinds of love songs — those without the hey babies — full of heartbreak, hope, and hooks.  Always the hooks, the insanely catchy melodies.  And so the album is packed with genuine chart hits: “Telephone Line,” “Livin’ Thing,” the odd and wonderful “Do Ya,” the dopey but tolerable “Rockaria!”  Pop done and undone to the level of the avant-garde, it’s so ridiculous.  But it’s at the end of the album’s sides where the sweetness isn’t so much cleansed as qualified, adding a complex finish to the confections preceding.  So the album closer “Shangri-La” declares in its operatic final two minutes a return to paradise, either towards or away from the pain of love, and the last cut on side A is a puzzle that resolves in a lyrical, gorgeous sadness.

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From the LP lyric sheet, the (artfully incomplete) words to “Mission (A World Record)”

There is nothing straightforward in “Mission (A World Record),” the central lyrics of which are “watching all the world go by” and — not even printed in the liner notes — “how’s life on Earth?” The rest of it could be a starry sci-fi mini-epic or the rant of a tenant at a mission hospital, or both.  But, astral projection or interstellar travel aside, the song concerns itself primarily with a melody, guitar line, and arrangement that read like maps of a future Radiohead.  A vibe of desolate beauty, of being left behind, linked with a prophecy or the ramblings of a seer, a paranoid android or a subterranean homesick alien.

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: “Drowning in the River Half Laughing” by Joe Henry

joehenry2 - EditedJoe Henry always tells it like it is.  What this “it” is depends on his song or object of the moment, but if artistry is about honesty then here’s a man who can be a W. Eugene Smith one minute and a Romare Bearden the next.  His is an Americana in context, wrought with a realism that has to, must, consider the world beyond the borders of his song.  And yet his skill at creating a complexity of life within the three- or four-minute lengths typical of his work belies this, so that his portraits are breathtaking and you are standing next to him, watching and hearing him compose a complete picture.

1990’s Shuffletown recalls both the chamber folk-pop of Cat Stevens and the improvisational glow of Astral Weeks, T-Bone Burnett’s restrained production going live to two-track and allowing a breathing space that played against the channel-filling fashion of its time.  I remember, then, marveling that an album like this could even get made anymore, much less thought of.  A modern record with a backroads feel that doesn’t get lost in bucolic moods or sentiment, it is more defining in its sound and in its genre than it gets credit for.  At its core — and the same could be said of Morrison’s and Stevens’ records — is an immediately recognizable voice, for Henry’s finesse with language is honored by a vocal delivery that is hip to its own thing, knows it limits and its power and its text.  It’s also full of hooks, patient in its timing, finding and following melody in Shuffletown‘s deep dusks and twilight.

“The moon is losing ground, drowning in the river…”

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: “Into White” by Cat Stevens

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The best records — and I guess by “record” I mean the standard late 20th-century long player — feel like one long song.  But I don’t think this sense comes just from the record itself, although certainly most musical artists search for unity in their work.  Just as much it comes from the listener, the tricks of memory, emotions of sound and a tuned mind’s expectations.  I often hear musicians say that the meanings of their songs are ultimately as much up to their listeners as to themselves, and this, I deeply believe, is true:  We are not a raggle-taggle bunch of music nerds, we are the song’s second composers.

Composing the life of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Steven Demetre Georgiou has taken a long, and at times fraught, road towards himself.  His journey, written into his music early as if he was an oracle, reads like a movie script: young man finds himself an English pop star in the late 1960s and doesn’t care for it; reinvents himself as a singer-songwriter and becomes a pop star again, this time worldwide, despite his reluctance; has a life-changing experience in the late 70s that spurs a religious conversion and exit from the stage; finds himself in the center of controversy 10 years later based on his religion’s teachings — there is regret, denial, and heartbreak for him and for his fans, his co-composers, who so treasure the peaceable and gentle music music he once made; seasons pass; twenty years on he starts making records again.

A remarkable, and remarkably human, life, full of success and missteps.  It’s all there in the song “Into White,” from Stevens’ fourth LP, Tea for the Tillerman (1970).  But the same could be said of any of the songs from the three albums flanking that record, Mona Bone Jakon (1970), Teaser and the Firecat (1971), and Catch Bull at Four (1972).  With ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith producing and guitarist Alun Davies providing detailed flourishes to Stevens’ simple strumming, these albums largely defined a genre in the early 1970s, their consistency of sound — acoustic, breathing, mostly stripped of effects except for exquisitely executed mic placement and recording — matched by Stevens’ lyrics of personal searching and that incomparable voice.  “Into White” is, in Stevens’ own recounting, a song about color, and how when the color wheel is spun it turns white.  He turns the effect into poetry, surely, much as one might expect from the man who could make such an album and also paint an LP cover that so deftly illustrates his own music.  The images he makes in the song are ripe with Green, Brown, Yellow, Blue, Red, and Black, as he renders this waltz-time world a temporal illusion, with “everything emptying into white.”  Youth and wisdom and a turning universe reside here.

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: “Jogue Au Plombeau” by Leyla McCalla

leylamccalla3 - EditedFree and blue and beautiful, those moorings Leyla McCalla holds to in her music sway and pitch like the gulf waters from Hispaniola to Lousiana, rolling through her cello and voice and coursing through her songs, lifeblood to an American music heart.  In the weaving lines of the music she plays — a snaking, sliding creole so suited to, and perhaps partly a consequence of, the playing of fretless instruments — is the sound of an America taking shape as its many diasporas meet and mix and move, intersecting lines on a map that triangulate on New Orleans.  Like the best Americana musicians, McCalla achieves something at once utterly contemporary but steeped in an authenticity of sound that says so much about the heart that makes the music.  There’s no affected vocal, no hokum on the one hand or academic archness on the other.  And there could have been, so easily.  McCalla’s classically trained; she jumped from a New Jersey upbringing to a New Orleans residency; she’s an American born to Haitian rights activists in the thick of a struggle for democracy; she was an important member of the last incarnation of the much-loved Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Her road was ripe for opportunity to leave the music behind in bringing a message that might not have resonated as strongly as it does.  But instead she chose on her first solo record, Vari-Colored Songs (2014), to artfully adapt poetry by Langston Hughes and punctuate it with Haitian folk songs.  Her second record, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, is also cloaked in a music-first approach that makes the underlying messages — because they are indeed there, as they were in her curation of Hughes’s work — so much more compelling.

Like all achieving musicians, Leyla McCalla makes great records and is better in concert, her performances enlivened by the physicality of her musicianship and the communication among her band.  In this 2016 performance of “Jogue Au Plombeau,” the band is killing it, in a droning country blues jug-on-pommel trance that I could listen to for hours should they ever decide that that could make sense.  Accompanied by violist Free Feral and McCalla’s husband Daniel Tremblay on triangle (who also happens to be one of the more light-touch guitar players I’ve ever seen play live), Leyla McCalla convinces me that all the blues I’ve ever listened to begins here.

Leyla McCalla on bandcamp

Leyla McCalla on Amazon

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: “Pran Ka Mwen” by Lakou Mizik

kanaval2016-lino - EditedI will never know, I mean KNOW, what a lakou is, in the same way that a Haitian will.  It is a backyard, a coming together, a process, a form, a spirit.  It is a community and a memory of communities stretching back through time all the way to the only successful slave revolution in recorded history and beyond.  A summation and a celebration.  It’s also just a freakin’ party, where all the significance of what Lakou means ends up in the bottom of a bottle of rum.

Lakou Mizik built itself as an experiment of sorts, coming out of 2010’s Haiti earthquake with a purpose, to revisit traditional Haitian music and recast it for a world pop culture tied to YouTube, not radios.  In full disclosure I know this band, or they at least they know my house, as I hosted them for dinner (and yes, rum), a road-weary touring unit criss-crossing the states.  The songs they sang in my living room included this gem, a homebrew version of “Gaya,” a raveup with Michael Brun that otherwise looks like this:

Their lone LP Wa Di Yo is the ultimate lakou.  The beautiful “Pran Ka Mwen,” featuring vocalist Nadine Remy and Steeve Valcourt’s gorgeous guitar, and a chorus of cornets and percussion, is the gem in the goldmine (well, then there’s “Poze” …).  This is joy drawn from the ashes, as brave a get down as any I can think of.

“I came on earth to live in peace
Down here on earth, we are all one”

Lakou Mizik: https://www.lakoumizik.com/home

Lakou Mizik on bandcamp

Lakou Mizik on Amazon

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: “Gentleman” by Fela Kuti

gentlemanIt can look like a conspiracy, from the outside, to know what those of us in middle America grew up with musically in the 1970s.  Ensconced deeply in our Yeses and our Styxes and our REO-es and our Kansases, we often missed out on the larger view of the world, despite the delicious depths of what did come delivered over the airwaves.  Case in point: Fela Kuti.  The Afro beat.  I suspect even if you were a jazzbo soldiering on in the post-bop wonderland delivered in the ever-widening sidelong jams of Miles and Herbie and Pharaoh, there might be quite a gulf between such distinctly American cooking and a Nigerian self-trained sax player and polemicist who wielded the conch of Democracy for Africa.  Kuti’s mission, though, was a kind of a trojan horse.  It looks an awful lot like a super tight big band stomp, epic riffing over a relentless beat, and musically it is.  But pulsing underneath was a heat that Kuti, with an outsized personality and voice that all-too-easily drew fire from Nigeria’s governing elite, stoked with an enthusiasm that would eventually enflame his life in tragedy.

1973’s “Gentleman” is an early classic, the title track of a record where Kuti ironically declares “I’m not a gentleman at all.”  He doesn’t want anything to do with what that word means in a place where the gentlemen were in essence slaveholders.  It’s an open statement of discontent, of a desire for justice.  And it wouldn’t mean half so much as it does if his band didn’t burn the house down with their playing.  It’s here that the idea of world music takes shape, borrowing from blues and jazz structures of the African diaspora and feeding back on them — once you hear Kuti’s work it’s hard to imagine Soft Machine’s Third, krautrock bands like Out of Focus and Embryo, contemporary bands like Seven Impale, and even the greater part of British punk and American rap without it.  Kuti’s voice was loud, gruff, a rap that cried its flawed humanity atop a fury of horns and guitars and drums.  It’s serious shit and a party all at once.  Anger and joy and heartache.  Even if that conspiracy was true and the staid worldview of 70s America denied me Kuti, I’m hearing it now.  And I am still listening.

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.