A Summer of Perfect Pairs

Submitted for your consideration: perfect pairs that have been engaging my two ears and two eyes for the past two months, recalled as a Michigan summer enters its last hurrah …

Three of A Perfect Pair: Live Albums

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I’m thrilled that Esoteric Recordings’ reissue series from British folk-proggers Renaissance now includes 1976’s Live at Carnegie Hall;  recorded over three sold-out nights at the legendary New York venue, this set has been a favorite since high school days.  It captures Renaissance’s essence: Annie Haslam’s clear soprano vocals soar over Michael Dunford’s spacious acoustic guitar, John Tout’s supple piano and keyboard work, Jon Camp’s agile bass and backing vocals and Terry Sullivan’s orchestral drumming.  Members of the New York Philharmonic join the band for most of the set, bringing out the delectable French and Russian flavors of extended classics like “Can You Understand”, “Running Hard” and the “Song of Scheherazade” suite.  A bonus disc of BBC session versions show that Renaissance could conjure up the same magic without the orchestra as well.  If you don’t know this worthwhile band’s music, Live at Carnegie Hall is a perfect introduction.

As is a pair of new live albums from the Norwegian trio Elephant9!  Recorded during an extended Oslo residency, Psychedelic Backfire I and Psychedelic Backfire II (the latter with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske sitting in) are two sets of unremittingly scorching jazz-rock improvisation.  Organist/keyboardist Ståle Storløkken spins out one mesmerizing solo after another, whether by himself or trading licks with Fiske, while bassist Nikolai Hængsle and drummer Torstein Lofthus stoke relentless, hard-driving grooves.  Whether subjecting Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to a Bitches Brew-era Miles-style breakdown or building unstoppable momentum on “Habanera Rocket”, the music captured here is endlessly inventive and thoroughly compelling.

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Celebrating Mediocrity, Part II: Genesis

In part I of this review, I attempted–and I hope succeeded–in professing my respect for Genesis, 1978-1983, while admitting my disappointment in INVISIBLE TOUCH (1986) and my nearly complete ignorance of anything the band released after 1986.  When Steve Hackett first introduces the [insert positive descriptive] Ray Wilson on one of the Genesis Revisited concerts, I had to google the guy.  I had no idea who he was.  This, for better or worse, probably tells you how little I know about Genesis’s later history.  I also noted that there were a few good things about the documentary the BBC made a year or so ago, Genesis Together and Apart.  Some of the questions, the footage, and the memories truly moved me.  I’d never heard of one of the talking heads, but, frankly, they were pretty entertaining, and I enjoyed their enthusiasm.

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The documentary that teaches selling Britannia is better than SELLING ENGLAND

Overall, the BBC narrative just infuriated me.

Some smart guys meet in an elite school.  They really like one another, except for Tony, whom everyone simply tolerates because of his talent.  Oh, and when there is disagreement, Tony gets grumpy.  Rather than backing down, everyone gives into Tony.  His moodiness isn’t worth combatting.  The friends write music that taps into nostalgia for pre-industrialized, Edwardian England.  From there, they create complex, artful tunes and dress in funny costumes.  Along for the ride comes some guy–who according to Tony–plays the guitar “stiffly” and another guy who plays the drums fiercely but who also smiles a lot and loves fun and gets along with everyone.  Weirdo costume guy leaves the band and becomes happy, even writing a pop anthem.  Stiff guitarist guy leaves the band and no one really cares one way or the other if he is happy or not.

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The Humility of the Duke

Every once in a while, an album from my past jumps out at me.  How much thought, perspective, and perception went into it, I wonder?  What did these folks think as they were making it?   Did they think of it as a job?  Did they think of some abstraction such as Art, Beauty, Truth, Goodness, hoping against hope for the approval of the gods?  Did they make it to satisfy themselves or their friends or their families or their producers or their record label or their fans or some combination of all of these things?

Did they know it would still be touching the lives of others thirty-four years later?

Thank you so much, Phil, Tony, and Mike.  Whatever your intentions, Duke still speaks to me.  In volumes.  Yours, Brad

It is written in the book.

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Genesis, TRESPASS

genesis trespassby Chuck Hicks

By way of introduction, I grew up in and around Southern Appalachia.  I’m as conversant on Roscoe Holcomb, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers as Robert Fripp, Crack the Sky and Spock’s Beard.  I grew up hearing pop, psychedelic and folk/country stirred together.  When I was 8 years old Tommy James’ “Sweet Cherry Wine,” with its church organ, quasi-religious lyrics and Leslie speaker-distorted background vocals helped shape my standards for genre-bending music.  It was fairly inevitable that I would fall in love with progressive rock.  But I have a peculiar need to find harmony in disparate styles.  That in part explains my choice for a first submission to Progarchy.

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The most memorable mental picture I have of early Genesis came from a set played on Belgian TV: Steve Hackett, with black beard and aviator spectacles, sitting at Peter Gabriel’s hand, ripping through the furious instrumental break of “The Musical Box” on his black Les Paul.  After whipping the pick up the neck Hackett dropped his hands to his knees and sat like a classical musician at rest, his section of the piece done.  I’d never seen anything like his demeanor in a rock band.  Hackett could have just played with the London Philharmonic.

It’s easy to forget that Steve Hackett was not the first Genesis lead guitarist.  A year earlier his “seat” was filled by Anthony Phillips, classmate of Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford at Surrey’s exclusive Charterhouse School, a place where future gentlemen were groomed.  Among many distinguished Old Cartusians was Ralph Vaughan Williams, collector of English folk songs and hymns who melded them into memorable classical pieces like Norfolk Rhapsody and the fantasias on “Greensleeves” and a Theme by Thomas Tallis.   To listen to Phillips-era Genesis is to be reminded of Charterhouse manners and influence, which included things like mandatory chapel attendance and respect for the ancient traditions of England.  The medieval, the rural, and the sacred surrounded the lads as they turned their attention to becoming pop song writers in 1967.

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