Thursday, January 5, 2017


(from the UCSD Guardian, where I was bloviating for a few years as Arts  Editor during the late Seventies, early Eighties.-tb)

After a modicum of meditation, soul-searching, and late-night phone calls, I've decided that this annual autopsy we call a "year-in-review" won't be as grisly as I imagined. In fact, the most outlandish generalization one could make about the state of pop music in 1979 is that it was merely "okay." As in any year, there were plenty of decent albums that passed through my hands on to mine and my writer's turntable, but there was a sizable proportion of discs from new and established artists that fall well below what one wants to hear. In any case, rock and roll don't seem to be dying at the present moment, though I, like anyone else who's been involved with the stuff too much for their own good, would have to have heard more records that reached the high watermark. What follows are my annual hit-and-run comments on the previous year's more or less notable releases.

1) Armed Forces — Elvis Costello (Columbia): Although Nick Lowe's production is at times heavy-handed and strains too often for effect (too much piano, echo chambers, an overkill of vocal over dubs), Costello remains a formidable talent that no amount of cheap garnish can obscure. At best, (more times than not) Costello is dead on target. At worst, he's utterly incoherent and artlessly paranoid.
2) Nice Guys — The Art Ensemble of Chicago (ECM): By definition, avant-garde or "free" jazz is supposed to be difficult for the uninitiated to warm up to, but the Ensemble's latest seems (to me at least) to be the one '79 release in the genre that even Mangione fans can find enjoyable. Nice Guys is a brilliant crazy quilt of styles and strategies, with the shifting textures and colorations of saxophones, trumpets, drums, bass, and a plethora of more obscure instruments proceeding through a fascinating session of unconventional improvisation.
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3) Trevor Rabin — Trevor Rabin (Chrysalis) Rabin is a singer-songwriter-guitarist from South Africa who's same-named debut album supplies the kind of mega-rock that Todd Rundgren's been promising for years. Rabin proceeds through a far-fetched array of styles, from Mountainesque heavy-metal, syrupy ballads, McLaughlin-inspired jazz-rock, Zappa-like ensemble virtuosity, through disco and reggae, often blending these incongruous strands into the same song. And, incredibly, it works.
 4) Van Halen II — Van Halen (Warner Brothers): Edward Van Halen plays flashy hard rock guitar with admirable vengeance and ingenuity; that is enough for me.

5) One of a Kind — Bill Bruford (Polydor): The former Yes, King Crimson and Genesis drummer deftly leads a band of superb musicians through a session that combines the best of progressive rock (compositional organization with a rich sense of harmony and counterpoint) and the best of fusion rock (inventive soloing meshing hard-rock dynamics with fleet-fingered technique). Guitarist Allan Holdsworth performs as though in a state of grace, and bassist Jeff Berlin is someone to watch out for.  

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6) New Values — Iggy Pop: Iggy, who is the godfather of punk if anyone is, has finally transcended the problems that've too often stopped him from delivering that all-purpose knockout punch. The music is crunchy, cantankerous rock and roll, Iggy's vocals have the appeal of the off-hand remark, and the lyrics succeed in being anti-intellectual without the obnoxious posturing that is the calling card of many whom Iggy has influenced. Iggy proves here that he is the main-man.

 7) Shiny Beast (Bat Pull Chain) — Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band 
ner Brothers): Beefheart, rock's most idiosyncratic avant-garde individualist, is refreshingly in place for once, seeming to have hammered his worrisome kinks and quirks into a form that benefits his talent for constructing fractured, asymmetrical, dada-derived music. Splendid use of free jazz tonalities, urban blues, Caribbean rhythms, and rhythm and blues. (Warner Brothers): Beefheart, rock's most idiosyncratic avant-garde individualist, is refreshingly in place for once, seeming to have hammered his worrisome kinks and quirks into a form that benefits his talent for constructing fractured, asymmetrical, dada-derived music. Splendid use of free jazz tonalities, urban blues, Caribbean rhythms, and rhythm and blues.
8) Fear of Music — Talking Heads (Sire): Talking Heads, I fear, is more of an alliance with art-rockers like Eno, Roxy Music and John Cale than with the New Wave, but that hasn't stopped me from liking them. Their music has a cleverly controlled graininess that puts them half-way between garage band amateurism and the post-twelve tone rigors of the "new music" conceptualists. David Byrne's lyrics, sung in a voice that sounds as though it might evaporate at any moment, expresses the tortured holistics of the paranoid mind while allowing as little self-pity as possible. This is the work of a refreshingly straightforward sociopath.

9) Rust Never Sleeps — Neil Young (Warner Brothers): Young, who, like Norman Mailer, has been producing advertisements for himself for years to little advantage (self-revelation must attain the universal, not the therapeutic, it's to sit well as something I'd like to investigate), has released a masterpiece of a kind, a rock and roll testament that deals with American icons, institutionalized violence, and the sand-trap of self-love (among other themes). And Crazy Horse helps Young play some of the dirtiest rock and roll of the sear.
 10) Squeezing Out Sparks — Graham Parker: Parker bites the head off of everyone who's ever done him dirt with music and lyrics that have the mainstream kick of the old Rolling Stones. Blunt, uncompromising stuff. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

When Costello Got Happy

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Back in the day, which is to say the very early 80s, many a well ciruclated record reviewer expended great portions of their vocabulary with claims that  The Clash's 
''London Calling'' record the hottest double disc set since ''Exiles On Mainstreet'', I've been tempted t& retaliate with my own declaration. Elvis Costello's new record, ''Get Happy!!'' (I would have written) is the greatest double rock record since ''Blonde On Blonde''. With the gauntlet thrown to the floor, warring factions would man the ramparts and try to pick each other off with sniper-tongued pot-shots. This is all nonsense, of course, nonsense on two counts. First, despite the fact that ''Get Happy!!'' contains 20 songs, it was, in truth,  a single record with 10 selections per side, most of them brief in length, some fleeting, if fetching sketches. Dylan's double set'' Blonde On Blonde'', with several songs going well over three minutes, holds less material. For the record, I was never much of a Clash fan, even though I found their antics amusing for reasons that have more to do with watching someone destroy their career out of some sense of integrity. I am cool with the conceit; all the same, Blonde on Blonde is a masterpiece beyond reproach and repair.

More importantly, however, is the nonsense rock reviewers in general (myself included) indulge in when they sling about comparisons that pale once separated from the heat of the moment. Common sense and sober thinking shows that the Clash are an earnest band who haven't developed the stylistic subtleties that the Stones used to manage, and that Costello, apart from a shared genius for non-sequitur lyrics, has little in common with Dylan. This brings us to what ''Get Happy!!'' really is: neither a masterpiece nor a landmark to be prematurely canonized, but instead a firm confirmation of the major talent his audience suspected he posessed.The major revelation on ''Get Happy!!'' is that Costello, like many had hoped, has transcended the slight trappings of new wave and has become a songwriter, an artist with a firm grasp on his material who can write songs using an encyclopedic array of song styles to their full measure. The 20 songs on ''Get Happy!!'' comprise, for the most part, something of a short order course in pop musicology. Costello, it should be pointed out, is hardly a new wave dilettante who plagiarizes other people's art because he's unable to develop his own voice. Rather, Costello shares methodological affinities with the patron saint of the French New Wave film school, Jean Luc-Godard.

Godard, who through his young life had been surfeited with American genre films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller and other Hollywood directors, took to making his own films during the late 60s, using many of the same camera stylistics of his American influences. Godard, aware that he was a French intellectual first and that he couldn't make "American" films no matter how much he admired the visual gracefulness American directors occasionally managed, ended up subverting the genres, inserting heavy doses of philosophy, Marxist literary criticism, dissertations on language, and other notions stemming from the French proclivity for spinning theories, concepts that Godard's American film influences would doubtlessly stand gap-mouth at. Film genres to Godard, then, were a medium he could use, alter, retool, change, subvert.Costello is a songwriter of course, and one wouldn't belabor a comparison between him and Goddard beyond a simple point: like Godard, Costello shuffles music styles and makes use of them the way ''he'' wants. He does this through his lyrics, which along with Steely Dan's are the most disturbing, dense and difficult in rock. Often times, Costello enjoys writing a lyric with no literal meaning against a melody that evokes something else entirely. In "Secondary Modern," with a soft croon over a melody that could pass for some of the blander efforts of Jackson Browne, Costello sings: ''"This must be the place / Second place in the human race / Down in the basement / Now I know what he meant / Secondary modern / Won't be a problem / Til the girls go home..."'' The melody, as pleasing as anything else could be, says one thing, but the lyrics, full of sparse details and indirect innuendo, deny that pleasure. Costello's aim seems to be to set us up in the visceral plane, and then to pull the rug out from under us once the words sink in. Dangerous activity.

Lack of space makes it impossible to go into a song-by-song account, but here are some of the choice tracks. "Motel Matches," set in a gospel vein, is abstracted teenage heartbreak, an implied story of a lover's concern for his girlfriend's loose ways. "Opportunity," a jaunty tune in a stiff gallop tempo that concerns, incredible enough, the Hider and Mussolini baby boom campaigns. "Man Called Uncle," is an excellent hard rocker where Costello condemns beautiful people who've resigned their free-will so that they could become mere sexual play things to rich people, and expressing a tacit yearning for real love without usury.Costello's main theme throughout is that he's against anything that keeps people from becoming the human being he'd like to see them become, against those institutions that divide people, denatures them, turns them into a mindless horde that consumes, kills, and continually destroy each other.