Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
I was born two decades too late. Back in 1975, shit was cool. You could be a cheesy, no-shirt-wearin' guitar dude with a lisp and somehow still get the ladies. Or so you'd think while listening to the Brazilian singer Hyldon. His first solo album, Na Rua, Na Chuva, Na Fazenda
("In the street, the rain, the farm") is full of sultry grooves, paired with lyrics that are charmingly lame if you speak Portuguese and beautiful if you don't. (Contrast with Wyclef Jean, who tries the I'm-singing-in-another-language trick all the time to impress American audiences... but just sounds lame throughout.)
The joy of this album is its warmth. Slow jams like the title track evoke a calm, humid midsummer evening where you might be doing any number of things, but they probably all involve having sex. (Apparently the producers of "City of God" agree, as this song was used during a love scene in the film.) Other songs, like "Vamos Passear De Bicicleta?" start lethargically but build to the type of groove that make you wonder how such a slow song could make you want to dance (think D'Angelo at his finest). Of course, there are a few blunders on the album: "Quando a Noite Vem" is a weak digression into disco, and "Vida Engraçada" is only saved by its wonderfully understated horn arrangement. Slow songs proliferate, but at the cusp of drowsiness all is forgiven when the up-tempo and winning "Meu Patuá" arrives to close the album. Rewind!
This album also sounds great from a technical perspective. Unlike modern recordings where loudness is king
and the music pushes you back from the speaker cones, this album invites you in and embeds you in a spacious sonic landscape. Hi-hats and shakers shimmer on the fringes, bass and drums solidly drive the rhythm but never overpower the vocals or the occasional arrival of strings or the backup choir. (I wish every producer displayed the same restraint with the string section.) Hyldon's voice, cracking and lispy, is a wonderful counterbalance to the almost too-sweet instrumentation backing him up. Though many albums from the '70s share the warm analog sound of "Na Rua," this is one of the most luscious of the genre. (Just for the record, I'm writing this review by candlelight; it's the right thing to do when Hyldon's involved.) This is an album to turn to whenever you need a languid summer day... or night.
Many, many times on my train ride to work I have decided that I would write about the band The Arcade Fire and their first album, Funeral
. I have even done it before. But I never really get to where I'm trying to go. Well, I get to work, but I don't get beyond, "The Arcade Fire is great and I saw them play with David Byrne at the Hollwood Bowl. It was awesome."
I've heard some of the band's non-Funeral tracks on the Six Feet Under
soundtrack and the Internets but I don't feel the same way about them as I do Funeral
. Those other songs don't have nearly as much heart, although some of them are good. "Cold Wind" -- the Six Feet Under
song -- is good. It is. But it really isn't like anything off Funeral.
The album got its name because several of the band members had relatives die during the recording of the album and the writing of some of the songs, and I imagine that this accounts for some part of the incredible amount of emotion that's packed on to this disc. There's anger and sadness, there's a sense of triumph and a sense of futility. And it all, to me, feels really goddamn genuine in a way that only music can. It's this scale and heft of emotion that I feel is missing from the band's non-Funeral work.
All of us are surely aware of the ongoing conversation and general feeling that the album as an art-form is dead or dying. Funeral
is a really great one. Each song works with all of the others to make something larger. Listening, I sometimes think of soaring along an empty road somewhere between Joshua Tree and Rancho Cucamonga with warm sunlight, and I sometimes think of fighting to climb a humungous flight of stairs, and there are plateaus where I can stop and look at how far I've come, and then the steps get steeper and steeper again. That makes listening sound laborious, but it isn't. It is some of the only music that I would describe as "complex," without meaning that I think it's overwhelming or obnoxious. It's rich. It bobs and weaves. It comes from the least likely angle at the most unexpected time, but I still don't miss a beat of foot tapping.
Then I recently listened to Arcade Fire's new Neon Bible
and it's very good in a very different way.
If my children ever take an interest in my music collection, they'll listen to the evolution of their old man's taste (or lack thereof) from the CD era to the mp3 age and beyond. My love for the music, however, will be inaudible. Those same zeros and ones that we can thank for the incredible fidelity of modern recordings don't much care how many times we listen to our favorite tunes. Not so with vinyl.
My parents (or more honestly, my dad) just bought a flat screen TV and a fancy digital receiver. I was the lucky recipient of their analog past, including a box full of LP's. Shining among the gems in my dad's collection is an album recorded on August 24th, 1960, and issued by Prestige/Folklore Records: Pure Religion
by the Reverend Gary Davis
Davis was a Southern-born Harlem sidewalk blues evangelist. If the cover photo is to be believed, he was a wiry Black man who wore a grey suit, a narrow tie, and a pale fedora. His teeth were more metal than bone, and he covered his blind eyes with opaque aviator sunglasses (for me, he's Sophocles' Tiresias, the archetypical, visionary blind outsider). He played a steel-string Gibson acoustic with decorative inlays at the odd frets, an ornately sinuous bridge, and an oversized pick-guard covered with minimalist flowers. He wore picks on the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
Those two fingers start the record bouncing with a lively bass-line accompaniment to the Old Testament tale "Samson and Delilah." Later tracks layer the bass with contrapuntal harmonies, melodic solos, and ragtime changes. The guitar is Davis' backing band and his responsive congregation. It is also his frequent interlocutor as over and over again, he tells his instrument, "Talk to me now," and without fail, the guitar sings its own effortless and wordlessly lyrical syncopated sermon.
In fire-and-brimstone admonitions like "Death Don't Have No Mercy" and in odes to the New Jerusalem like "Twelve Gates to the City," Reverend Davis makes full use of a rich baritone that rises purely and passionately to a devastatingly damaged growl. More than the poetry, more than the fretboard and fingerstyle wizardry, it's that flawed voice that gives Gary Davis his power. The growl hints at hard times, suffering, and redemption, and when I hear his worn voice joyfully declare, "Hallelujah/Hallelujah/I belong/to the band," I hear that music itself is holy and heavenly. As the worn record pops and hisses, I hear my young father listening; a meaningful overtone that will be absent in the immutable media I'll pass along to my own kids.