This month Nonesuch Records celebrated 50 years. Impressive for a small label, especially in light of the current decline of the recording industry.
The label, which was initially a subsidiary of Elektra, was my entry point for many favourite acts, especially Bill Frisell, John Zorn and the Kronos Quartet. The first two had recorded on another Elektra subsidiary called Musician, and I’d assumed Nonesuch was borne from this other label approximately twenty years ago. I’d had no idea it had been around a lot longer.
The label actually started in 1964 when founder Jac Holzman decided to produce classical records that could be sold for about half the price of a normal LP; apparently, he was using along the paperback book as his model. In the decades since, Nonesuch has grown and evolved, especially after Bob Holzman came over from the jazz and new music label, ECM, on its 30th anniversary 1984 to run things. (On the record’s website, Holzman has chronicled his thirty years, as well as the work of his predecessors, most notably Tracey Sterne.)
Maybe my first inkling that the label had been around for some time was when I stumbled across the Nonesuch Explorer Series. These recordings, which began in the late 1960s, gave listeners the chance to hear what’s now sometimes called “world music,” often controversially. I first came across these cassettes, which could be procured very cheaply, covering music from all corners of the globe, when I worked in a music warehouse. One of the titles was of Balinese gamelan music, paired with another piece called, “The Monkey Chant,” that was heavy on percussion and theatrical, almost percussive vocal chanting. (I’m pretty sure a sample of it ended up in the mix on Mercury Rev’s debut.)
Long before Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel or David Byrne, the Explorer Series delved into music from other cultures, and apparently several of the recordings were included on a special record sent on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
More recently, Nonesuch has released albums by top contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. The bulk of Bill Frisell’s solo recordings have been on Nonesuch (he’s since jumped to Savoy), and many other top jazz artists like the World Saxophone Quartet, Brad Mehldau, Josh Redman and Fred Hersch have cut records for it.
The label has also moved into the realm of rock and popular music, signing such acts as Wilco, the Black Keys, Ry Cooder, David Byrne, k.d. lang, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell. And it’s continued to release the music of artists from around the world like Amadou and Mariam, the Bulgarian State Television female choir, Buena Vista Social Club and Caetano Veloso.
FYI: Off the top of my head, if I had to pick my top five Nonesuch records, they would be in no particular order: Bill Frisell’s Have a Little Faith, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, John Zorn’s Naked City, and Buena Vista Social Club.
I’ve been negligent with the blog of late. I meant to file something Christmas-related last month but ran short of time.
Instead, I thought I’d list off some of my favourites from 2013. First off, as I’ve said elsewhere, this site is more about finding interesting music in the cracks or taking new angles on the familiar. I’m going against convention here by not writing about some musical niche, but the whole point for me is to look at things that cross boundaries, as often as I can.
In any case, what I want to avoid is yet another music blog devoted to the brand new. I don’t want to feel the need to keep up with everything new, and frankly, as I confessed in a recent blog, I’m a bit down on much of what’s going on now in music, but when I put together the following list I realized I wasn’t totally out of touch in 2013:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Finally got to see Cave and the Seeds live in 2013, on tour to promote Push the Sky Away. The record, itself, is stark and beautiful, the latest in a long line of fine Seeds records. Unlike most, the man gets better with age.
Marc Ribot – He’s gone garage rock on his latest project, Ceramic Dog, and, my God, does this thing rip. Ribot is one of the most versatile guitarists around and he unleashes his instrument here. There are some subversively lyrical songs, but much of the record is instrumental. Take note of his nasty cover of Brubeck’s classic “Take Five.”
Vampire Weekend – These Brooklyn-based critics’ darlings have topped lots of best of lists. I don’t love them yet, but I’m starting to get them, and their latest, New Vampires of the City, is more melodically complex and mature than previous efforts. They might just buck my theory that most rock bands, even good ones, have about three albums of solid material in them. I’m curious where they’ll go from here.
Braids – I wanted to pick the Luyas’ latest, but I realized it came out in 2012. Instead, I’ll sub another electro-pop group, Braids, a Calgary act now based in Montréal. Flourish // Perish is very dreamy stuff.
Neko Case – That voice! That’s all you need to know (plus the album title is so long, it would take up half the blog).
Bill Frisell – His Big Sur record is fine, in line with his most chamber-like projects, but Silent Comedy on Tzadik, with loads of multi-tracked Bill and no one else, is more interesting. Sure, he hasn’t made a classic record in a while, but he’s still Bill Frisell for God’s sake. (Look at my blog from mid-2012 if you’re new to the man.)
Tim Hecker – A lot of electronic music is dull, tub-thumping dance music consisting of sterile synth bass lines and predictably monotonous drum beats. Hecker’s though is more experimental, as his work is influenced by the minimalist layers of composers like Reich, Adams, etc. Give his latest, Virgins, a chance.
Public Service Broadcasting – (See above re: electronics.) Musically they’re more typical “dancey” than people like Hecker, but this British act digs into the past in the form of old samples from news reels, information films, etc., to make their futuristic sounds. Their 2013 release, Inform – Educate – Entertain, makes for a fascinating listen. I’ll be checking out more of their back catalogue.
Kurt Vile – Okay, I don’t have his latest, Waking on a Pretty Daze, but I remember hearing it on NPR’s First Listen and really liked it. His is a world where Sonic Youth is a shoegazing roots band sitting around a campfire in an abandoned warehouse district. (His old band, The War on Drugs, is also mighty fine.)
Patty Griffin – Silver Bell. Finally released from the vaults after well over a decade, Griffin’s record is a gem. Currently, I only have the leaked version that’s been floating around on the Internet for years, but I will buy this if only to spite her then-label boss, Jimmy Iovine. She also released an album of new material, American Kid, this year. I haven’t heard the whole thing, but the songs I have are, not surprisingly, breath-taking. The woman is still criminally under-appreciated.
Other stuff I need to check out: I saw saxophone and clarinet legend David Murray play a great show with Macy Gray, but I still need to listen to his new album (Macy shows up on one tune). I’d like to hear more of Jonathan Wilson’s album Fanfare after hearing a track called “Cecil Taylor.” The reference to the avant-garde giant is simply lyrical rather than musical. For some reason, the tune reminds me of those old guitar-driven epics by the Doobie Brothers from the early 70s. Interesting. Perhaps my favourite recording of the year was a droll, slightly surreal tune by Australia’s Courtney Barnett called “Avant Gardener.” I’m not sure what the rest of her songs are like, but I’m curious as hell.
On the whole, I had an easy time picking favourites (Spiritualized, Swans, Sharon Van Etten, Kathleen Edwards, Dan Deacon) the previous year, though I don’t recall blogging about this. This wasn’t the case in 2013, as I am not sure any of this last year’s candidates will go down as all-time favourites, but they’re still plenty good.
I have a bit of block on the blog of late. Part of it is a drain on my time and energy. Part of it is that I feel flat about a lot of new music.
I’m not sure why, but I find too many bands sound too much like each other. Too much alt country and roots stuff, which is music I generally quite like. Too many indie hipster collectives with a flock of people pretty much playing all the same parts and singing the same chanting vocals. Sure, this stuff might not sound like some factory-produced corpo-pop, but neither is it very imaginative. I’m tired of their sameness, their self-important attitude, their musical timidity, tired of the hype bestowed upon them by my fellow music snobs.
In recent years, I’ve glommed onto new stuff in a number of ways, from Paste and Pitchfork, to NPR’s World Café and CBC’s Q. Ten years ago, I remember getting excited about records by Wilco and Sufjan Stevens, ones I still really like. At the time it seemed like the supply of good bands and artists was inexhaustible to the point where it overwhelmed me.
Most of these acts are still out there, and many are still making good music. On the whole though, I have been experiencing what can only be called buzz band fatigue. I frankly don’t care about most of what’s going on. There’s some electronic stuff (e.g. Dan Deacon, Tim Hecker) that perks up my ears, but many indie rock bands sound stale to me.
The other factor might be that most of the music I’ve bought of late consists of used LPs from the 60s or 70s, with maybe a few from the 80s thrown in. What’s evident to me is how unafraid musicians were of their instruments 40 years ago. It didn’t matter whether it was Zeppelin, Yes or Jackson Browne, you were likely to hear a well-crafted guitar solo. Real craftsmanship.
The guitar solo though has seemed like an endangered species in recent decades. I’m not advocating the argument that more always means more, but it seems like some many bands now barely learn to play their instruments. Again, athletics does not always translate into aesthetics, but neither does simplicity. Seriously, if you’ve got a dozen people jumping up and down on stage making music that could’ve been made by two guys with Roland synths and a drum machine back in the 80s, you’re not so much a band as you are a dance troupe. (Yes, that’s right, here I give a rare compliment to the 1980s.)
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been excited to come across acts like Sharon Van Etten or Tuneyards or Grizzly Bear in recent years, but I no longer feel the need to keep up with all this new stuff. Much of it is OK. Very little of it is great.
Who knows? In a few months, there might be a half dozen bands I suddenly care deeply about, but frankly the most exciting “discoveries” I’ve made in the last couple of years have been bands like Spiritualized or Swans, acts that have actually been around for two or three decades.
On the other hand, I might just go through one of my phases where I listen to little else but the jazz or experimental records in my collection.
I do hope the blahs pass; otherwise, I might have to start calling this my “blah-g” rather than my blog.
When I was a little brat, one of my sisters scared the pants off me by exposing me to the first Black Sabbath album. If the creepy green-faced woman on the album cover wasn’t enough, there was a song – I think it was “Wasp” – with a blood-curdling scream partway through.
I admit I’ve never been a fan of Sabbath – too sludgy – but I decided to listen to the song when I was in my 20s and found the thing, and my young self, a bit comical. The thought of being frightened by music seemed laughable.
I was wrong. A couple of years later I was listening to CBC’s late night music show, Brave New Waves, while lying in bed. Instead of drifting off the sleep, I was petrified by the sounds coming over the airwaves, strange Eastern sounding semitones, strangled whispers, sadistic groans, all under electronic keyboards and percussion. I hated it, but I couldn’t stop listening.
This was my introduction to the work of singer and performance artist Diamanda Galas. Again, my first reaction was revulsion, at least to the whispers and screams, but in the mix were some frighteningly beautiful, or beautifully frightening, passages. (Turns out I already had something by her in my collection, as she had collaborated with John Zorn of his first Filmworks CD.) If part of me wanted to turn the radio off that night, it lost out to the part that kept listening, though I confess I had to turn my bedside lamp on to keep from getting too freaked out. The CD that host Brent Bambury was playing was Galas’s operatic trilogy, The Masque of the Red Death (Mute Records).
A short time later, I ended up back at my old music warehouse job, where I made sure the collection was one of my first purchases, with other Galas disks to follow. On the surface, her work might seem like shock for shock sake, but I learned that most of it was in response to the AIDS crisis and her brother’s death.
I was able to catch Galas at the Moore Theater in Seattle when she and Led Zep’s John Paul Jones were in town to play a show. Then in 1996, I was sitting in the front row of the Knitting Factory in New York where Galas, alone onstage with four microphones, performed Schrei X in total darkness for 45 minutes.
It was one of the most intense things I’d ever witnessed, especially the ending, a seven-minute “shriek-out” called “Hee Shock Die,” which at times sounds like someone being tortured or laughing to death. I later reviewed the CD, calling the closing section possibly the most frightening seven minutes ever recorded. I also wrote that in a bygone era, she would like have been tried as a witch. My guess is her work would make Ozzy Osbourne shit himself!
I admit I haven’t dug into my Diamanda disks too frequently in recent years, but every so often at this time of the year, when the ghouls and ghosts are about, I like to turn out the lights, throw on one of her pieces and remember what it’s like to be one scared-shitless little kid. Happy Halloween!
It’s to the point where I’m almost boycotting Hollywood during the summer. I’m tired of the retreads and comic book movies.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t movies to check out. A couple of gems this summer were musical documentaries, both about obscure bands, one of whom I’d known for years and the other a new discovery. Obviously I’m not talking about the new One Direction movie. (How the hell did Morgan Spurlock sign on for that?)
A Band Called Death chronicles the Hackney brothers of Detroit. Its tagline is “Before there was punk…” While punk existed both in name and in form before Death (and certainly before it was exported to England), there’s no doubt these guys were their own band. Even though Detroit was a centre of shitheel hard rock and early punk, it’s clear that the Hackneys, especially brother David, were making music that was different what others in the African-American community, but they seemed to be on the verge of finding an audience.
They were shopped to the legendary Clive Davis, but the record exec balked, as did everyone else in the music business. The reason was the band’s name, which David Hackney refused to change. Even though David isn’t directly in the documentary, the movie really is about him, his singular vision and an unfolding of events that seems eerily fatalistic. As much as anything, this is a movie about the power of belief.
While Death was an unknown to me prior to the movie, the same can’t be said of Big Star. I’d first heard the band about twenty years ago while working in a music warehouse. Unlike Death, who seemed closed to getting signed but never did, Big Star recorded for local Memphis label Ardent, but both the band and Ardent were the victims of label wars being waged between bigger companies. The band’s story is chronicled in the film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.
While they were never a household name, they should’ve been. In my view, they should’ve been one of the biggest acts of the 1970s. Unlike Death, who toiled in anonymity, Big Star influenced so many alternative bands: The Replacements, who honoured lead singer Alex Chilton with a song named after him, R.E.M., the dB’s, Teenage Fan Club, Elliott Smith, Cheap Trick and so on. (If you don’t know, the theme for That ’70s Show was Big Star’s “In the Street,” performed by Cheap Trick.)
While I knew much of the story already, the film did offer some treats, most notably a look inside producing giant Jim Dickinson’s home and studio. I also learned Ardent Studios landed the first mellotron outside of Britain. (The mellotron, if you don’t know, was an early synth-type keyboard that could mimic strings, choirs, etc. The Beatles used it, but it was best known in prog circles, i.e. the Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson.)
The documentary also doesn’t bury Chris Bell’s contribution to the band, or his truly sad story. In a way, he almost remained truer to the original Big Star vision than did Chilton, even though he was only there for the first album. Whereas Chilton had a solo career, albeit a checkered one, following Big Star, his bandmate seemed all the more tragic for leaving a band that was so far ahead of its time, due to drugs, mental issues, etc. (Like so many others, Bell ended up in the 27 club, dying in a car crash a couple of week’s shy of his 28th birthday.)
Both films follow the almost-rise and fall or better-late-than-never pattern of films like Searching for Sugar Man and Buena Vista Social Club. My hunch is there is no shortage of bands or performers that never made it, that almost got signed, that did get signed but whose recordings were shelved or never promoted. Many are probably better left to obscurity, but doubtless there are at least a few more flashes of gold in the pan amidst the pyrite, and I for one would look forward to checking these docs out – winter, spring, summer or fall.
There’s some quote (I can’t remember who said it) that goes something like writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a good point, but this hasn’t stopped fiction writers though.
I recently finished the novel, Half-Blood Blues, by Canadian writer Esi Edugyan. It won the Giller and was shortlisted for the Booker. It tells the story of a group of jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris during the Second World War, complete with a cameo from Louis Armstrong.
As a music snob, I can say Edugyan knows her stuff. The novel is far from alone when it comes to delving into the musical world. Here’s a sampling of some of the fiction books I’ve read over the years, so if you’re looking for something to read this summer, maybe crack one or two of them open:
Great Jones Street – Don DeLillo might have been one of the first writers to seriously tackle rock and roll. His third novel centres on jaded rocker Bucky Wunderlick, a character with a passing resemblance to Bob Dylan that’s hauled up in a New York apartment. Much of the plot centres around drug experiments, communes and the status of the protagonist’s unreleased Mountain Tapes.
Hard Core Logo – Michael Turner’s novel follows the exploits of the punk rock band that gives the book its name, as it threatens to burn itself out at both ends. It was later turned into a film by director Bruce McDonald, though the book ended on a more ambiguous note than the movie.
A Visit from the Goon Squad – There’s some debate as to whether Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer winner is a novel of loosely linked chapters, each from a different character’s point of view, or a book of connected short stories. No matter, it’s a worthwhile read. As it jumps around in time as well as a place, it tells us the stories of an aging music industry executive, his assistant, musicians and others in their spheres. There’s even one section that lists off the greatest pauses in rock songs. I listened to an interview with Egan in which she confessed that she wasn’t a music geek. She could’ve fooled me. Apparently, HBO has the rights to turn it into a series. Looking forward to it.
The Commitments – Oddly enough, I’ve never seen the movie but have read Roddy Doyle’s dialogue-heavy tale of two friends that put together a band with the goal of bring soul to Dublin. The story follows the usual tensions among members, all while trying to get a record out. Nothing unexpected here, but an entertaining read.
Whale Music – The late Paul Quarrington wrote this tale of reclusive rocker Desmond Howl, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Brian Wilson. Howl has tuned the world out since the death of his brother and spends his days composing music for whales. When a mysterious woman shows up at his house though, he just may face redemption. The Rheostatics named their masterpiece after the book, and when it was adapted for the screen, they performed the soundtrack.
High Fidelity – No list would be complete without a nod to the music obsessives in the retail trenches. First, there’s Dead Rock Stars by my pal Wes Funk, and Michael Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue, which I haven’t read yet but sounds interesting. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity though is the most obvious example of a book about a person that perhaps loves music a little too much. It chronicles the story of an aging man-boy whose life could best be measured in mixed tapes and break-ups with girlfriends. The movie version was pretty close to the book, though with the obvious change of Chicago standing in for London.
I’ve just taken in a few shows at this year’s jazz fest, all good, but again the thought strikes me each year how these events are turning more and more into pop festivals.
On the one hand, I hate having to break down music into often-arbitrary genres. That’s one of the reasons I began this site. On the other, I think the festivals’ growing dependence on acts that are clearly pop or rock is troubling.
I know it’s about money. In Canada, through the 1980s and ’90s, the festivals’ big sponsor was tobacco, but then the federal government clamped down on how cigarette manufacturers could market their products. The fear was this would be the end of the festival circuit in this country, but other corporate partners stepped in to fill the gap, at least partly. I don’t think the festivals have ever fully recovered though.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no love for the tobacco companies and I’ve never smoked their products, even though I was a regular festival-goer in Vancouver back to the first Du Maurier festival in 1986 and was exposed to their corporate logos. I’ve also lost track of how many jazz players, all too often photographed with a cigarette propped between their fingers, died before their time. If they weren’t dropping dead from heroin overdoses in their thirties anymore, they were losing to lung cancer in their fifties.
I don’t miss the tobacco advertising, but I do regret that jazz festivals are losing their identities. I recognize the challenges they face in terms of keeping an audience and finding revenue streams, particularly over the last few years of economic turmoil in North America and Europe (The days of those festival tours by big bands from Europe, supported with generous arts grants from their governments, seem to be a thing of the past.)
I should also point out the mix of musical styles at festivals isn’t entirely new. The festivals have included funk, R&B, roots or world music acts for a long time, but they didn’t seem to be the focus. There might have been a “groove” series for funk acts or a double-bill of African musicians. Most festival headliners though always fit comfortably into the category of jazz, which albeit is a broad term for many styles of music. If they acts weren’t jazz, most of the pop acts at least had some relatively direct links to it, or at least blues.
The renowned New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has provided an example of mixing musical styles, though perhaps the word “heritage” allows an escape clause to account for the many non-jazz acts.
In general, jazz fests seem to be pushing jazz less and less. Even the venerated Montreal festival shows acts like the Specials, Xavier Rudd and Mother Mother as headliners across the banner of its website, with only a few clear-cut jazz names in the mix.
I know folk festivals and blues festivals have gone the same route in recent years by offering more acts that clearly fall outside their boundaries. In a way, it’s great chance for people to get exposed to more kinds of music, but it’s also a little embarrassing, at least to me, when your headliners have little to nothing to do with the style of music that your festival claims to be celebrating. I’d hate to see these festivals turn into pale imitations of Lollapalooza, Coachella, ACL or Bonnaroo, with a smidgeon of jazz, folk or blues thrown in.