Friday, September 28, 2012

Slog Prog


There are stirrings at Slate and elsewhere about the true worth of progressive rock, that hyperventilated amalgam of trick pony riffs that made radio something you dreaded turning on. I don't buy it, for the most part. The fascination with progressive rock  grew out of the long improvisations pioneered by the essentially blues based bands like The Butterfield Blues Band, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, as the going conceit of the time was that rock and roll had become something smarter like "rock" and could now rival jazz as a young musician's medium for instrumental chops.

The transition to classical borrowings, occasional jazz motifs and jacked up time signatures and tick-tock chord changes made for its own kind of monotony. Jazz, whatever its form or origin, was premised on the idea that , as a form, it was in a state of constant transformation--the musicians we still listen to rarely played the signature tunes the same way twice. Progressive rock, generally proud and defensive about the form's gerrymandered fussiness--this was the best place to learn the distinctions between the words "complicated" and "complex"--became insulated ever so much faster than jazz did.

 A one idea concept, with rare exceptions --Zappa, King Crimson, Pink Floyd--progressive rock could only become fussier, crankier, more incestuous. It actually became something resembling "rock" not at all, in any sense. It was the arena of sterile perfection and was truly unlistenable to a young listener having no desire (or need) to stare at the sky and ponder stoned philosophies. Punk rock was the shock rock and roll needed; stupid, obnoxious, repetitive, angry, the rude style pretty much revealed what a conceptual crock of mung progressive rock turned into. It was time to flush things away and allow progressive rock to become something actually useful, such as fertilizer.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

You are what you think you're eating


A knife , fork and a cracked plate don’t constitute a meal , though all three items are handy for show, as are empty frames on the wall when there is any kind of company visiting , who demand our attention, taxes, documents of your legal rights, you just say it’s the wall you wanted to highlight, the frame is only a, well, a, well, uhhhh,a framing device!to bring a viewer’s attention to the rub of the paint, the embedded fingerprints, the light switch in the center. Likewise, it’s knowledge we’re hungry for, isn’t it? Knife, fork, cracked plate are about the idea of eating as others go without forks, knives, or cracked plates.
 
This is to insist that I have always believed in love and virtue and connecting words that  give the typist permission to push the sentence further than the original idea needed,the original excuse desired as a pretense of  topic, we need these words to join and twist and coil around the legs of the table and then to find their way through the living room and into the front yard , we need to let the sentence become the vine tangling upon itself, in love with it's embrace, sleepy and ready to elongate again should the batteries on the smoke alarms die and whistle their frantic warning that their voice is softer now, gone with the smoke.
 
 
 Dead ethics professors choke in non-intrusive urns and French deconstructionists blow kisses from balconies and any perch they can secure, Appearances are misleading, explanations are fictions worth listening to for the way the words are warped and wrap around each other until it’s not reasonable descriptions of a material world we are listening to, but rather melodies flitting about like nervous birds trapped in a small cage, a messy page of tuneless songs, all this for a description of my house that now seems to rest on top of a giant hill, bracing clouds and tree tops, a form I’m filling out asking me to describe myself and all the desires I would bring into the world if finances would allow, I would allow everything is what gets written, and everything not forbidden would be inscribed in the rhetoric of future tense, when software anxiety rules the body electric.


 

Friday, September 14, 2012

David Foster Wallace's grand failure

David Foster Wallace was brilliant, verbose, depressed and stressed, having made it his writer's mission to contain  the multitudes that swarm within him and without him; this was a quixotic task to notice everything about the universe he's chosen to parse, and in turn parse his own thinking about the characters he is giving a close inspection for. His was a virtuosity that couldn't end, as one item led to another item, a distracted description before a circuitous return to the scenario at hand , usually by way of another  round of  qualifications and self-doubt mongering about his chosen occupation of  being a writer , the one who creates a document readers far decades from now will refer to garner something of the verve of the moment in which he lived.

We realize , to,that DFW tried to contain these things in  sentences, long sentences, many long, serpentine sentences that stretched , coiled, curled and eventually untied themselves by the time the author had exhausted, or more likely quit ,the tangent he was on. This was his problem in the longer books, the distractions, the digressions, Although I enjoyed large chunks of Infinite Jest ,, there was simply, plainly too much padding between the good parts; there have been especially intelligent discussion in many places of what traditions DFW falls in line with, and that his is a legacy t

hat adds to the sprawling, decenter ed universe Thomas Pynchon has eviscerated   so splendidly. But even Pynchon had some control and was not prone to introduce himself as the self-doubting author attempting to inject a trace of irony with bloated  indecisiveness. Pynchon lectured at times, yes, gave us bounds of information about unexpected things and their history, but he trusted the scenes he created--his ruminations , his research, were the texture and color light in the crowded universes he chose to inspect. DFW , much of the time, was merely chattering all the while in his long novels , Infinite Jest and Broom of the System, and was, as often as not, tone deaf, not unlike one of those extended ,  unaccompanied Keith Jarrett piano impromptus where there is the inevitable and sad drift into artless noodling. DFW often made me think of the guy in back of you at a movie theater who kept talking during the movie; you had to deal with two soundtracks at the same time.

That, of course, might have been what he was attempting, something like a Robert Altman movie where the camera takes it all in and dwells on how inaction resonates among the furniture in is frame and where dialogues ,and city noise overlapped. It might be that Wallace's writing was an attempt to capture his own thought processes in action, as the notions occurred to him, in that proverbial stream of language and instinct where thinking about things are restless and fluid and nearly erotic in their intensity which can never quite be recorded in their abundance. Trying to get that on paper, in between book covers, obsessively , would be doomed to failure, with each book and short story judged by the author as inadequate to the mission. That would depress anyone, some much more severely than others. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

TEMPEST /Bob Dylan (Sony)

Bob Dylan has a new album, Tempest, an event that would normally not interest me so much had it not been for the large portions of praise the songs and performances have drawn from smart rock and pop critics. There are some pioneers, some esteemed geniuses that a generation of record reviewers (and a generation of critics after them) don't want to let go of, let alone admit that the later work isn't as interesting as the  material that drew you to the artist to begin with. There is a problem with reaching one's zenith so early, in that everything you do afterwards is compared with the singular work you'd done years before. It's not fair to the particular artist, whether great or mediocre.

For Dylan, though, the generally solid reviews that he receives for his stream of albums seems an irrational response from someone who  hasn't demonstrated more than the capacity to be mysterious and inscrutable . Mystery and inscrutability are qualities that in themselves that do not make for something that will turn my head ahead and cause me to cogitate beyond reasonable length when the disc is done playing. I don't know what the fuss is all about other than it seems to be a recurring outbreak of Everything- Dylan -Does-is -Genius fever. Musically it is solid, well produced, and the musicians have a disciplined grittiness that has more polish than the cluttered and slapdash quality of much of Dylan's recent work and yet avoids sounding slick and corporate. It is obvious that sometime was spent over the sound board adjusting the mix. The pity is that Dylan is far from his best form here; for all his striving to write with an idiomatic tone his bucolic phrase making has nearly always seemed practiced, rehearsed too much in a mirror. What is obvious to me is that Dylan continues to traffic in cliches ; he is , as Lester Bangs remarked, selling off what is left of his charisma with under-constructed songs and ideas.

Much of the lyrics for this album seem like a parody of an aging musician long past his brilliant work doubling down on bad version of himself; there is an art to sounding as though your lyrics are from a vernacular , but the magic happens when the listener, the witness, forgets the contrivances and believes , for a moment at least, that the voices are from an era and place forgotten . This is what Robbie Robertson did with the Band; lyrics giving elliptical tales a plain-speaking, direct address from within the narrative line, not from without. There is something genuinely conversational and intimate in the best of the Band's rustic workings, no large message or grotesque  rumbles of  philosophical swell. Life is too short and interesting to try to makes sense of it and the characters Robertson and his band mates are rather too busy telling everyone what just happened, what happened before, what things were like  before any catastrophe, cataclysmic event or history altering debacle made the tides rise and the price of gas to go up.



The reviews have been absurdly positive while the music is merely passable. The lyrics, though, are what's truly abysmal. Smart pop music critics, especially younger ones eager to reinforce the conceit that Dylan is untouchable, have tripped over themselves to praise "Tempest" when in point of fact what Dylan does with this disc is resort to the cliches, tired tropes and convenient moralism that he proved in the sixties could be abandoned altogether. Once or twice, as in an effort like "Self Portrait", you could argue that the songwriter was being supremely ironic, daring his followers to find sage advice,worth and significance in the banality that album is marked by. Forty years worth of raiding the Prison House of Chestnut Schematas, though, indicates not irony but a bad habit. Some writers are brilliant in their old age, managing a new style to meet their tested experience; Dylan is only vague and pedestrian in his narratives, without a quotable line for the effort.

"They battened down the hatches 
But the hatches wouldn't hold 
They drowned upon the staircase 
Of brass and polished gold. "

The fact that Dylan cannot seem to write anything that does not included hoary prophecies that are more smoke than thunder , nor stay away from convenient phrases that seem more author notes in a screenplay-in-progress, late Dylan is only another workman in the field, dutiful but not brilliant. Dylan wants to write parables of indefinite place and time, but his linguistic invention, his ability to mash up idioms from folk traditions, hip argot and Modernist poetry--TS Eliot, prime period Allan Ginsberg, RImbaud--is gone; as with Norman Mailer's famously baroque prose style constructed in the 3rd person, I think his ear for that kind of writing has gone deaf. Unlike Mailer, Dylan did not create, for the most part, a compelling replacement. He is a shadow of what he was and stalwart fans pay him a fortune to be precisely that, a stick figure reminder of their youth, not an aging artist who has managed to remain interesting on the merits of his later work.




Dylan, I think, is a class of artist who had a enormous , galvanizing, revolutionizing style for a period of his career , years in which he released an impressive series of albums , from Another Side of Bob Dylan up to Blood on the Tracks, that are one of those bodies of work that are untouchable works of genius . Fitting perfectly well within his interesting notion of the Anxiety of Influence, Dylan's songs and lyrics in that period so profoundly changed the nature of what popular songwriting can be that all songwriters, regardless of style, write in the shadow of that genius.

Younger writers can write further into the direction they believe Dylan was headed, taking further risks, bigger chances, or they can go in the other extreme, writing away from the pull of Dylan's gravity, writing in a way no less risky and perplexing as those who become Dylan apostles. Dylan's case, within that of songwriting, is comparable to that of Shakespeare's, an influence so vast that no artist, even those who intensely dislike the work, can ignore the artist; lesser writers, "weaker" writers as Bloom would put, cannot help but be influenced by the profundity of the work that has gone before. Like it or not, it is a standard that compels you to make a stylistic choice. Genius, though, is fleeting, and Dylan's ability as such was that it came out of him in a flow that was, I believe,effortless,nearly savant-like, requiring less craft than a brain that was firing on all cylinders and producing a language that seemed to compose itself. But genius leaves a good many of our great artists--it is a spirit, perhaps, that takes residence in a person's personality long enough to get the work done and then leaves, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually. 

Other things come into play as well, such as change in why one engages in the kind of self interrogation that writing essentially is; Mailer dropped his high style, my favorite style, when he came across the Gary Gilmore story and wrote in simpler terms as his fiction become more nuanced and rich. This is was a plus. Allen Ginsberg became a Buddhist and fell in love with the notion of "first thought, best thought" and essentially transcribed his continuous notes to himself, unedited, unmediated by literary qualification, in the effort to present a truer, constantly evolving face to the public in his books of poetry. Much as I like the reasoning and dedication, AG's poetry became far, far less exciting, interesting, became far less good. For Dylan, after his motor cycle accident, he has taken up with simpler more vernacular language, and we see the good it offered he and the listener, with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The language was simpler, and the sources from which Dylan took his inspiration, folk tales, old songs, country western bathos, navigated closely to the banal and hackneyed, but we must admit that Dylan had the skill, the instinct, to manage his language no less artfully than Hemingway would have done at his prime and kept matters enticingly elliptical at the heart of things: there are ways to create a sense of what you're getting at without too much artifice and pretension, useless .He was masterful in creating simpler lyrics that still drew you in and still kept you making intelligent guesses.

Like Hemingway, this virtue wouldn't last, in my view; Hemingway fell prey to depression and concerns of his virility and sought to write his way out of his depression, the result being a series of late career books that lack the grace or conviction or the brilliance of insinuation of his great work; he veered toward self parody. Dylan's work, post Blood on the Track, became alarmingly prolix and parochial in ideas and a contrived rural diction that sounds completely false, the phoniest I've heard since the quaint southern tales of Erskine Caldwell.

I know that Dylan has always trafficked in clichés, but what he did previously with stale phrases was to subvert them, place them in unexpected juxtapositions, and cleverly invert their meanings to expose their short comings. He is not doing that these days--rather I think the good man just starts writing something without an inherent sense of where to go or when to stop or where to edit and seems to write in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. He seems to need to hear himself write; it is more the process than result that matters. His use of clichés or banal phrases seems more stitchery than rehabilitating the language; they are means that he can connect his stanzas, do patchwork on an incomplete idea.

Dylan wears his age as if it allows him to say what he wants because he has wrinkles you can hid your money in--he  stands apart, saging about, the voice that is too busy documenting feats and folly:  it fits neatly into the covert self-mythologizing Dylan has turned into his secondary art. His principle art, his music and his lyrics, are what Andy Warhol foretold decades ago--art is anything he can get away with. What I hear, though, is a slovenly , lazy, uninteresting filter of the creaky, eyebrow raising cliches and obvious transitions ; there are no amazing associational leaps of fancy here,no "Desolation Row", no "Memphis Blues Again", nothing as truly brilliant as the succinct parables in "John Wesley Harding";  the man who gets the credit and the blame for expanding the pop lyricist vocabulary  is now involved in convincing his audience that the contrived, the hackneyed, the severely corny and portentous are ,in his hands, masterful reworkings and reinventions of old forms. I think it more apt to say that he makes me think of a bankrupt interior designer who is constantly rearranging the same old broken, tattered, torn furniture in a wan hope that few will notice how tacky the whole thing actually is.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The greatest album ever made. Zzzzzzzzz...

Blood And The Ballad: Bob Dylan’s Macabre New Album | The New Republic:

The hero worship of Dylan continues unabated . The poor man is more Living Legend than Artist, who sense of imagery these last few decades has been more a storehouse of tacky stage props than anything quotable, witty or head turning. A generation of critics remains too close to Dylan to give him the rigorous estimation they would an actual poet; John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara receive franker reviews. Even Billy Collins, beloved by millions , gets the occasional Bronx Cheer from reviewers who regard him as a perennial lightweight. Dylan is a songwriter, not a theologian, nor a moral philosopher. He was once a brilliant songwriter and a lyricist with originality and power. That moment is a long time ago. His writing in the last  four decades  don't  come near the genius had once. There is something to be said about an artist's late work in that one can connect a number of themes that have morphed and changed due to age and gathered experience, but Dylan is , again, a songwriter, not a poet, not a novelist, not a playwright, and his writing has been reliably hackneyed and cornball for decades.
Styx were an abomination at best, a wind up toy designed to pop a spring and collapse on itself. I always considered them to be Grand Funk Railroad taken to the next level, which wasn't very far to go, a journey that graduates from a slow lumbering and becomes a club-footed stumble.

 Kansas, though, had chops as instrumentalist and were able to deftly handle quick changes and scatterbrained time signatures with ease.

 Although derivative of their English cousins through out their career, they could play the busy arrangements with the best of them; guitarist Kerry Livgren had a definite talent for this stuff.


 Kansas, though, had awful lyrics, lots of them, but that was mitigated somewhat in the form of vocalist Steve Walsh, a cogent blend of Paul Rodgers and Mark Farner. His bluesy, wailing read of the band's wheat field mysticism was a welcome respite from the Brit habit of being nasal and neutered in their precise pronounciation of utter nonsense.
All told, though, not  much of the progressive rock and prog rock inspired music of the era, the    Seventies, has aged well into the 21st century. If this had been instrumental music, we might have had discussion of the technical aspects of the music; as is, though this genre's congenital habit of needing lyrics that are unwieldy in cadence and top heavy with the arrogant sophistry   only the most isolated first year liberal arts major could manage drag this music to the bottom of the lake. The heaviness these bands sought is rather like a big chain with a profoundly unforgiving anchor .

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Freddie Hubbard Oscar Peterson 01 All Blues - YouTube


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Freddie Hubbard Oscar Peterson 01 All Blues - YouTube:





I recently read on an online music forum a conversation regarding the use of speed in an improviser's playing and it seems that there is an element of the audience that is loud and absolutist in their opinion that the capacity to play fast is merely cold technique executed by soul-less show off egotist. There might be something to that idea--too many musicians learn to play with it only in mind to take solos like they were Rambo blow torching a sniper's perch--but these guys, virtuosos all, play fast and furious but most of all swing at all times. 


They do not sound like they are going berserk; their phrases weave and cascade, and build a new section of their solos with quotes and paraphrase of what has gone before. This is the swinging, uplifting acceleration of musicians who happen to be interested in being musical.One can , and several thousand goosed up guitar goons insist upon pointing out that the expansive likes of a Malmsteen is able to  play guitar consistently faster note flurries against stupidly unplayable time time signatures, making those remarks with the implication that Malmsteen's bloviated ersatz fretwork is superior to what Joe Pass could do. 

Speed in itself, though, "does" nothing"; it is merely a result of   concentration in how one practices their craft, it is a facility that pays dividends for the listener only when there is something of melodic and tonal interest involved in the mix. Indeed, the melody is the motivation for how  amazing the soloing will be in a what we think of being the traditional jazz combo, bass, piano, drums, horn, guitar . Rock and roll guitarists of the virtuoso stripe are less musicians in the strictest sense than they are  quick wristed imbeciles. 

Take away the amplification and the effects and you wind up more often than not with another drop out who hasn't finished his studies on the instrument. And put any of these fellas against the likes of  Freddie Hubbard  or John Coltrane , with the emphasis being to discover which set of stylists, rock vs jazzbos, achieve the speed only God can hear, my guess, a safe one, is that FB and JC would leave the angry fretsterbators cringing in their cribs, humiliated,  crying for their mothers.