Tom Waits: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis

Tom Waits has remained a mysterious character on the fringes of popular music for over 40 years.  One of the small drawbacks to his personae is the lack of critical and analytical interview content of the strange and wonderful musician.  Thankfully, the Under Review documentary series has produced two 80-minute films which offer a surprisingly in-depth examination of the man and his music.

The first segment is titled Tom Waits: Under Review 1971-1982: An Independent Critical Analysis, and the second bears the same title replacing the years with 1983-2006.  The films feature rare interviews, footage, unusual photographs and criticism from many different experts and acquaintances of Tom Waits.

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The most revealing insight is presented in the first of the two films, which examines the context and collaborations resulting in Waits’ always unique but ever-changing sound.  Speaking about his earliest downtrodden troubadour era:

If you were the kind of person who was going to walk into the seedy bar and say, “oh… there’s a drunken bum over there,” and walk out, you weren’t going to be sitting there listening to Tom Waits.

But if you were the kind of person whose imagination started to think, “Well what was that guy’s life like? How did he end up here? What happened here?”… if there was an element of “who washed up on the shore of the promised land… L.A. being the ultimate destination and the final burying place of western culture… Tom Waits is interested in finding out where the body is buried. And that’s where those guys were.”

There is also a detailed analysis of Waits’ atypical approach to lyricism which favored narrative over confession.

This was a guy creating theater pieces in a way, in a song. These were characters he was either inventing or finding and expanding upon in his own mind. This was not the kind of diary writing that a lot of singer/songwriters were doing. This was more like short story writing – there was a highly theatrical – an element of artifice (used neutrally) in his music that was not what the singer/songwriters were supposed to be about.

Tom has always maintained a style unlike any of the artists of his day.  What was particularly fascinating about the album Swordfishtrombones was that a listener couldn’t point to other records from that decade and say, “I see where he got that from.” And that unlike his contemporaries of the 1980s, the album hasn’t become embarrassingly dated to its decade.

Still, there are more subtle stylistic influences to Waits’ work.  His music mirrors the wit of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and Kerouac.  His songs also embrace the atonalism and avant-garde compositional form of Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart, and most certainly German composer Kurt Weill.  But perhaps most apparent are the vocal influences of Howlin Wolf.  The film humorously describes his more self-parodic songs as falling “somewhere between an imitation of Louis Armstrong and Oscar the Grouch.”

This outlandish and extreme vocal quality was met with criticism from the listening public.

Speaking about Nighthawks at the Diner, the film observes:

I think it’s more about authenticity. People began to wonder whether this bohemian bar stool philosopher was a real character or whether it was just a theatrical construct.

Until you got to know Waits and you started to really believe in the character and see the depth of what he was doing, it kind of looked liked a pastiche. There was initially some suspicion that it seemed a bit phony. [But really] all artists are self-created in some form or another.

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They go on to examine his vocal characteristic further, noting that “Nighthawks was nearing self-parody, but with Small Change Waits transcended his own influence.”

They described the peak of the boho barstool character thusly:

It’s like an anti-operatic, opposite of belle canto – the opposite of beautiful singing and we understand it. And it’s certainly not natural – it’s an assumed voice – it’s a put on vocal persona. But it’s the key to why the [sentimental] / schmaltzy things work.

But it is Waits’ juxtaposition of innocent lyrics and melodies with his nighthawk performances that really make his character memorable.

A key analysis presented in segment one outlines the importance of this quality:

When Tom Waits plays around with songs like Waltzing Matilda and Silent Night – those songs represent a communality and sense of you in the famiy bossom and the bossom of your community and faith – all of which has been lost to his character. So when his character is groaning out Waltzing Matilda and growling Silent Night – that is their [Samuel] Beckett style poignant memory of what once seemed possible. They stir the emotions that those songs typically do but only by way of trying to demonstrate their absence. And that’s what’s so affecting about it.
It’s a way of re-contextualizing that music to dramatize the desperation of the characters who are singing it.

And finally, another layer of context is added to Waits music when the culture of his listeners, (particularly American audiences) is added to the mix.  Speaking on the value of the album Heartattack and Vine

Only American capitalism could have produced the songs of Tom Waits. There’s a sense of this human debt detritus – these people who are just cast off by the system here that I don’t think exists in most other industrialized countries where there’s more of a social net.

Those characters could only exist here. This is the anti-story – the other story of America that he’s interested in. And not from a social protest, Woody Guthrie standpoint but from a human narrative
standpoint. Who was that person? What was possible for that person? What was his/her dream? There’s not a lot of tolerance in America for losers. Tom Waits made art of that possibility.

Under Review expertly illustrates the depth and consistent quality of Waits’ music throughout his career with this fantastic critical analysis.  For any listener growing bored of the superficiality of taking music at face value, Under Review will be an inspiring breath of fresh air.

Published in: on July 25, 2015 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Are the Floodgates of Public’s Access to Information and of Global Communication Irreversibly Open?

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s writings on piracy culture, particularly The Anarchist in the Library, references numerous examples of the church and crown’s efforts to maintain a stranglehold on the flow of information to protect their power.  In a chapter discussing the history of control, there are clear parallels between the Catholic Church and those of the United States with the implementation of The Patriot Act.

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe was the first to produce a handwritten English manuscript of the 80 books of the Bible.  44 years after Wycliffe had died, the Pope declared him a heretic, banned his writings, and ordered a posthumous execution.  His bones were dug-up, crushed, burned, and scattered in a river.  Similarly in the 16th century, William Tyndale was the first to translate and print the New Testament into English.  As a result he was imprisoned for 500 days, strangled and burned at the stake.

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William Tyndale, before being strangled and burned at the stake, cries out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).

By the dawn of the 21st century, the freedom of information that came with the printing press experienced its most-recent incarnation with the world wide web and social media.  The Patriot Act was the government’s struggle for control over the anarchic freedom that was the internet and came in the form of mass-surveillance.

Edward Snowden became the latest in the line of dissidents who worked to empower the public by exposing the corruption of the government, just as Tyndale and Wycliffe before him.  And a curious web search for the terms “Spanish Inquisition” + “Patriot Act” instantly returns a piece by Walter Cronkite comparing and contrasting the two systems from 2003.

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger states in his article, Who Says We Know that “Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion.”  This same dissemination of distribution is what resulted in the music industry’s panic and frenzied struggle for control with crippling technologies like DRM and its continued anti-piracy campaign.  There is simply no longer a need for the monopolistic record labels that once commanded the industry.  Artists are empowered to distribute their content directly and can communicate with their fanbase without a commercial intermediary.  This artist-empowerment is expertly discussed by Amanda Palmer in her book, The Art of Asking (and in her TED Talk of the same name.)

20141103.Amanda-Palmer_TheArtofAsking-635-2-thumb-620xauto-80148Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking

In each of these milestones in the history of information freedom, the acts have been irreversible.  Gutenberg’s printing press empowered the public good through democratization of information – making it inexpensive and readily-accessible.  The web has been much the same, only exponentially more potent.

Still, small but persistent communities continue to prepare for a dystopian world war over information.  They archive the Wikipedia daily and hypothesize alternate methods of mass-communication should the Web as we know it come under fire.  Is their fear valid?

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An eBook export of the Wikipedia

It is difficult to envision a scenario in which first-world governments could close the floodgates of the world-wide web without immediate and drastic reprisal from the public at large who have come to view the internet as a right and a public utility.  Furthermore, global commerce, banking, and the mechanics of industry could not likely stand to make such a sacrifice in the name of control.  Shutting down the web would thrust the global economy into an instantaneous dark age and entire systems of utility, government and finance would collapse.

What are your thoughts?  Is our access to information irreversibly free?  Need we take measures to stockpile and protect the information we have today in preparation for a darker tomorrow?

Apple Music – A Failure At the Outset

 “APPLE BETS BIG THAT YOU’LL
START PAYING TO STREAM MUSIC”

So proclaimed last night’s headline on NPR Music.  But most music consumers know full-well that this is a losing wager on the part of Apple.
Apple Music will be the latest in a line of failures from the media giant.  They’re coming into the streaming service market far too late in the game. The world has had 100% free music for over a decade and Apple’s branded service is too little, too late to matter.
 
Certainly, it will appeal to a specific niche audience – Apple fans with no active interest in music, who will use the service on their iPhones much in the way transistor radios were used in past… but with an even smaller base of popular song.
 
A hundred years of great music – works by the world’s greatest conductors and orchestras, big band, classical, and opera, legends of jazz, funk, rare groove, and 20th century avant-garde… works which defied and defined the musical philosophies of their era – none of these will have a place in Apple’s expensive, shiny box.
 
This will be Beats Music all over again. (And we all saw how well that worked out.) Poster-boy flavor-of-the-week artists can have their contracts of exclusivity with Apple Music. The rest of the world will barely notice when the service closes in the year ahead.
 

And for the millions in the middle – the casual music consumers of the world – Colin Barrett (interviewed in the NPR article) has already spoken for them. 55 million listeners have free accounts with Spotify, and the rest are happy with the similarly free services offered by YouTube or any of the dozen other available services.

All of this while the world’s more discerning listeners will continue on as they always have, whether crate digging or file sharing to uncover rare and elusive sounds not available from any of the commercial markets.

Apple, you had a good run. It’s time to hang it up.
Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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32 Hours of Cool Jazz and Soul Jazz Classics

I was in a jazzy mood when I got home from the office so I compiled a list of the top-rated albums where %GENRE%=”cool jazz” and a second list of %GENRE%=”soul jazz” on RateYourMusic.com.

After about an hour I’d successfully constructed two 16-hour playlists from the selections I’d compiled.  Below are the resulting album playlists.

Stan Getz Focus

THE COOL JAZZ SET

[1958] Miles Davis – Ascenseur pour l’échafaud
[1957] Miles Davis – ‘Round About Midnight
[1958] Miles Davis – Milestones
[1959] Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
[1958] Bill Evans – Everybody Digs Bill Evans
[1960] Bill Evans – Portrait in Jazz
[1961] Bill Evans – Explorations
[1963] Bill Evans – Undercurrent (w Jim Hall)
[1977] Bill Evans – You Must Believe in Spring
[1961] Gil Evans Orchestra – Out Of The Cool
[1975] Jim Hall – Concierto
[1962] John Coltrane – Ballads
[1956] Art Tatum meets Ben Webster
[1963] Oscar Peterson Trio – Night Train
[1955] Dave Brubeck – Jazz Red Hot & Cool
[1959] Dave Brubeck – Time Out
[1961] Stan Getz – Focus
[1976] Bernard Herrmann – Taxi Driver OST

FreddieHubbard_RedClay

THE SOUL JAZZ SET

[1958] Jimmy Smith – The Sermon
[1960] Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack
[1963] Jimmy Smith – Prayer Meetin’
[1964] Jimmy Smith – The Cat
[1965] Jimmy Smith – Organ Grinder Swing
[1966] Jimmy Smith – Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic Duo
[1973] Clifford Jordon – Glass Bead Games
[1974] Gil Scott Heron – Winter in America
[1967] Pat Martino – El Hombre
[1963] Donald Byrd – A New Perspective
[1972] Archie Shepp – Attica Blues
[1960] Bobby Timmons – This Here is Bobby Timmons
[1965] Big John Patton – Let ’em Roll
[1961] Ray Charles – Genius + Soul = Jazz
[1962] Grant Green – Feelin’ the Spirit
[1970] Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay

What do you think?  Are there any glaring omissions?

I have a number of these albums on vinyl, but there are several LPs on the list I’ve never heard – and some by artists who are completely absent from my library.

I’m looking forward to 32 hours of outstanding jazz music, and all of the new favorites I’ll find along the way.

It was NPR’s feature on the cocktail jazz duo, Twin Danger that got me in the mood for these mixes, so have a listen to them below.

Moonbuilding 2703 AD (2015) has arrived!

This evening, the latest 3LP special edition of The Orb’s new album arrived from Kompakt Records!

Check out the photos below.

Moonbuilding 2703 AD (2015)

Moonbuilding 2703 AD (2015)Moonbuilding 2703 AD (2015)  If you missed my recent review of a promo copy of the album, tune in here!

Published in: on June 27, 2015 at 6:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Slow Music for Fast Times

This morning saw the conclusion of our latest archival project.  The world’s longest-running ambient radio program, Hearts of Space began broadcasting slow music for fast times back in 1973.  The original program was a 3-hour set, shortened to its present 1-hour format when the show began public radio syndication in 1983.

Hearts of Space

Since syndication Heats of Space has aired 1080 hour-long episodes showcasing quality ambient music each week for over 30 years.  Innerspace has successfully compiled a complete archive of the show’s broadcasts and will continue to add new episodes as they are aired.

We’ve made sure to uniformly name and tag each program and to include the original broadcast date and a companion track listing with the metadata for each episode.

Beginning next week I’ll be moving into a larger office and wanted to create a downtempo chill-out library as a relaxing ambient soundscape for my work day.  The Hearts of Space broadcasts will be added to a rotation along with other complete label archives, such as:

– the six phases from the late Pete Namlook’s ambient FAX +49-69/450464 label

Fax-tribute-poster-web

– the intelligent d’n’b sounds of LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records and its companion projects

LTJ Bukem

– the first ~150 records on the Ninja Tune label for some jazzy, downtempo electronic music

Ninja Tune Beats & Pieces

– a wonderful 330-hour audio archive of psybient albums from Simon Posford and other prominent figures of the scene

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– and an additional 72-hour collection of quality psybient mixes by Spacemind

Spacemind - Light Reactions (Remastered Edition)

The majority of these selections are not offered by any of the major streaming networks or from current commercial markets, but Innerspace Labs has got it covered.

And you can check out Spacemind’s mixes on Youtube.  Here’s Light Reactions (Remastered)

How Music Got Free – Cover to Cover

pTIS74v

Thrilled to have received my copy of Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free in the post on its date of official publication, I made myself comfortable, put on a full pot of coffee, and eagerly dove in to what I anticipated would be a fast-favorite addition to my library.

The book quickly settles into an exciting rhythm – its chapters circling around the activities of key figures in the story of the music industry and of music piracy in the last thirty years.  It begins with the struggle of Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop his MP3 audio compression format over twelve years of fine-tuning and a constant battle for acknowledgement by a fiercely competitive industry.

The action then jumps to a few seemingly inconsequential men working at the PolyGram compact disc manufacturing plant in North Carolina – an unsuspecting locale for the most pivotal characters in the end of an industry.

A chapter later, we are privy to private exchanges between the newly-appointed CEO of Warner Music and his fellow overseers of the empire.  As the story unfolds, we follow these figures through label acquisitions and purges, through major shifts in industrial policy, through aimless crackdowns on “pirates” including the elderly, the deceased, and a 12-year-old girl who’d downloaded the theme song to Family Matters.

As these individual stories progress, the reader develops an in-depth perspective of the tumultuous end of an era for recorded music.  The author offers an astoundingly detailed account of the lives and conversations between core members of the Rabid Neurosis warez group and their suppliers.  The storytelling is exciting, calculated, and fast-paced.  In elegant Hollywood style each chapter leaves one scene at a critical cliffhanger to pick up at a similar point of action from another of the sub-plots in the puzzle that was turn-of-the-century music.

I read the book, eyes wide from cover to cover, captured by every thrilling twist in the tale.  What could have been a dry and drab account of compression algorithms and legalities is instead an action-packed saga of a dangerous underground organization where anonymity is critical and risk is always high.

The book also explores the advent of the iPod and the birth and death of numerous filesharing services like Kazaa, Grokster, Limewire, Bearshare, the rise and fall of TPB, as well as a few contemporary players I’d never expected to see named in print.

The ending is incredible satisfying, and even evokes a strong sense of emotion and empathy in the reader – yet another surprise I hadn’t anticipated from a text on piracy.

Witt’s book is a fascinating read and adds a much-needed perspective to a story which is still being played out before our eyes.  This is easily my favorite title of the year.

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Vinylmania! Night in Buffalo, NY!

I had an absolute blast at the local Vinylmania record show last night!  I went to the event hoping to get some Klaus Schulze LPs (but honestly was not expecting to find any). I was blown away that one killer table hooked me up with several of his albums on the Brain label, all in fantastic condition!

I also took home The Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy vol 2 LP, and J.R.R. Tolkien Reads & Sings The Lord of the Rings (all from that same table.)

We also picked up an original Roxy Music tee for my fiance.  An excellent way to celebrate my birthday!

klaus schulze\ R-566432-1170021681.jpeg

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The Orb Returns with Moonbuilding 2703 AD!

Ten years since their last album on the Kompakt label, The Orb returns to Kompakt this month with their 13th album, Moonbuilding 2703 AD.

The Orb

The Orb – Thomas Fehlmann and Alex Paterson

Moonbuilding is hypnotic, engaging, and endlessly fascinating.  There is an ever-shifting spatial environment as an assortment of deep beats, dub rhythms, and indescribable microtonal sounds traverse the space between your ears.  There are no hooks or identifiable refrains on which a more passive listener could settle comfortably.  Instead the record is a cerebral adventure, whether you choose to explore it consciously and critically or just lose yourself in the entrancing future-tribal magic.

Moonbuilding_2703_AD

The pending Moonbuilding 2703 AD 

Like all of The Orb’s albums, it is thoughtful and reflective, but there are no peaceful, ambient epics to be found on Moonbuilding.  Still, the record does retain Paterson’s trademark natural, analog warmth.  Even his most cosmic and interstellar tracks have always maintained an organic quality sorely missing from much of the bleep-bloop techno of the last few decades.  Similar percussion is present on their newest album, though the wide-eyed energy of the LP is measurably greater than on any of their previous recordings.

But make no mistake about it – at no point does this approach hi-nrg 4-on-the-floor frat techno.  This is an immensely atmospheric record, rich with subtleties and nuances which make repeated listenings most rewarding.  This is, at its heart, proper German electronic music.  Thomas Fehlmann’s contributions are clearly evident as are all the influences of his present home city of Berlin.  If a listener is curious how The Berlin School of the late 1970s has evolved to the present day, the track “Lunar Caves” answers the question perfectly.

“Caves” is where Paterson’s work is most evident.  The song is guided more by classic, dub-inspired ambient rhythms than by heavy percussion and there is a brief but definite nod to Aphex Twin which fans will instantly detect.  If you’ve any doubt that The Orb is ideal for heady headphone listening, you’d do well to remember that this is the band who played chess live(!) on Top of the Pops for “The Blue Room” in 1992.

The Orb live Blue Room Top of the Pops

“Live” performance of “The Blue Room” on Top of the Pops, 1992

 In all, Moonbuilding 2703 AD marks a triumphant return for The Orb to the Kompakt label and demonstrates that these old boys still have what it takes to make outstanding and fresh new music.

The album is set for release June 23rd and available for preorder at kompakt.fm, as well as a 3LP+CD expanded edition which features a tribute to J Dilla.

Published in: on June 20, 2015 at 1:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Some Albums Hit You Like a Ton of Bricks – Others Wait Til You’re Ready

This morning I decided to revisit an album I’d honestly neglected when I’d first picked it up 15 years ago.  Slowdive’s Souvlaki is heralded as the quiet answer to My Bloody Valentine’s epically-loud shoegaze masterpiece, Loveless.  Released in 1993, it has remained to this day one of the definitive albums of its decade.

Slowdive - Souvlaki

The opening track, “Allison” is widely-acclaimed as the strongest selection of the album.  Straight away it sets the pace for the dreamy majesty that is to come.  The next two tracks – “Machine Gun” and “40 Days” begin with a sharp attack and relentless guitars and both tracks dissipate elegantly over powerfully-long 16-second fade outs, creating a wonderful sonic-staging of a band performing in the void of outer space.

Still, this isn’t a perfect album.  “Sing” is an attempt at a more freeform, atmospheric piece, but while Nick Chaplin’s bass maintains a simple, melodic structure, the rest of the band appears to disregard it.  The resulting instrumentation seems out-of-focus, and whether intentional or not, the lack of a tonal center takes away from the music.  “Here She Comes” had similar potential, but ends abruptly after only 2 minutes.  Neil Halstead closes the track speaking the title into silence, and you’re really left wishing there was more.

But other tracks like “Slowdive Space Station” return to the strength of the album’s start.  The song features a wash of heavily-reverberating guitar drones and indecipherable vocals that would make Elizabeth Fraser proud.  Rachel Goswell’s speech echoes from a distant star system and by the end of the piece the guitars have slowly decayed into beautiful noise reminding the listener why Souvlaki is one of the essential albums of the shoegaze/dream genre.

Slowdive

The remainder of the album is similarly trademark of the shoegaze scene.  All of the elements are there –  from the backmasked drums on “Melon Yellow” to the infinitely-sustained tones and delicate melodies of “Some Velvet Morning.”  This is a quintessential dream record.

And that’s one of the things I love most about music.  It doesn’t judge its listener for shelving an album for over a decade without ever giving it a fair chance. It simply waits there quietly to be rediscovered, knowing you’ll fall in love with it when you’re ready for its beauty.

Published in: on June 6, 2015 at 12:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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