All posts by Greg Bueno

Vinyl find: Ofra Haza, Shaday

[Ofra Haza - Shaday]

Like Ambitious Lovers before it,  Ofra Haza’s Shaday was an album I intended to buy when it was released in 1988, but it never managed to leap ahead of other priorities.

At the time, critical consensus about Haza seemed mixed. Some writers weren’t too keen on the commercial direction her international albums were taking, while the listening public buoyed them to the top of the world music charts.

I picked up on that ambivalence. I had my hands full getting into college rock and modern classical music. Shaday sounded like something that fit into my burgeoning interests, but without a way to preview it, I couldn’t be sure. So my curiosity was diverted and wasn’t rekindled until I ran across a cheap copy on vinyl 27 years later.

The precocious but unschooled teenager I was probably would have dug the novelty of an Israeli pop album for a spell, then moved on to something more fashionable. As an adult, I find the primitiveness of the analog synthesizers comforting, especially that robotic bass so emblematic of the late ’80s.

But I’ve also had a chance to be exposed to other international pop music in the time since I first encountered Shaday, and I’d say the album is on par with what Molotov or Värttinä do when mixing American popular music with their home culture. A clueless gringo such as myself can latch onto the backbeat while a local can appreciate the music’s core.

I don’t need to know a lick of Hebrew to appreciate Haza’s voice, and like the best J-pop artists, she throws in a few English phrases as punctuation.

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Vinyl find: Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi

[Neneh Cherry - Raw Like Sushi]

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be young and to have access to streaming services. My listening habits were shaped by scarcity and compounded by distance.

Neneh Cherry is a case in point.

When Raw Like Sushi came out, the music magazines I devoured plastered Cherry all over their covers. She was a thing, and she had a hit.

But you wouldn’t know it listening to radio stations in Honolulu. The cool kids in high school never heard of her. I wanted to find out why all my magazines devoting so many column inches to her, but I didn’t have the resources to find out.

Sure, I could have just bought her album sight unseen, but my parents weren’t helicopters, and my allowance had to stretch. I had to be strategic about these kinds of impulse purchases, and Neneh Cherry didn’t cross the curiosity threshold far enough.

A quarter of a century later — and with a disposable income on the multitudes larger than my parents’ allowance — I came across a vinyl copy of Raw Like Sushi for $3. That was a price point my curiosity could easily manage.

I don’t think I would have appreciated Raw Like Sushi as a youngster. I had already developed a chip on my shoulder about “commercial music”, and Cherry’s sophistication would have been lost one me.

But would my relationship with Cherry’s debut have been different if I had easier access to it? Would the chip on said shoulder gotten heavier or lighter? The equivalent to streaming services back then were friends with duplicating cassette tape decks.

I was lucky enough to live in a city with a few branches of Tower Records. A good 2,000 miles of ocean separated me from the Mainland, and that slowed the propagation of pop culture by half a year. So in a way, it’s a miracle I heard of Neneh Cherry at all.

The Internet, of course, bridges these gaps. Rather, it provides the infrastructure for curious listeners to find the bridges to traverse those gaps. And with the plethora of choice comes the paralysis of choice.

I’m under the impression younger listeners don’t have the attachment to music that I have. They don’t want the burden of ownership — shelves, media, playback systems. At times, I wouldn’t mind relinquishing those responsibilities myself.

But coming from an era of scarcity, it’s tough not to want to possess when curiosity, expectations and reality meet. Raw Like Sushi ended up being as interesting — and fun — as I was led to believe. Why would I want to rent that relationship?

 

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Favorite Edition 2015: Half year

[Björk - Vulnicura]

2015 is turning out to be one of those years where the really good albums suck so much oxygen out of the rest of the release schedule that it’s tough to put together even a speculative list.

That’s a long-winded way to say Sleater-Kinney’s return has pretty much overshadowed everyone else.

  • Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love: Sleater-Kinney left at the height of their career, and a 10-year hiatus did nothing to dim that achievement.
  • Björk, Vulnicura: I like Björk best when she’s more beat-oriented because her more introspective work tends to meander. This album is too wrenching to mess around.
  • Madonna, Rebel Heart: I would agree this album is Madge’s best since Ray of Light mostly because it’s head and shoulders above the last few meandering discs she put out, Confessions on the Dancefloor not withstanding.
  • Steve Grand, All American Boy: The rockist in me should rally against everything about this album, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
  • Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under the Beauty: The decidedly non-orchestral direction of MONO’s Rays of Darkness was a welcome direction that I feared this album would be a relapse. It’s not.
  • Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: I was bracing myself for more international crossover, but this album is some pretty adventurous and spellbinding music.
  • Torche, Restarter: I liked Harmonicraft, but Gaytheist’s Stealth Beats was more my speed. Then Torche recorded this album.
  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind: I hate to say this, but this album is what you would expect from artists with the calibers of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Old Yellow Moon, though, kind of exceeded that.

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My brother’s albums: Madonna, Like a Virgin

[Madonna - Like a Virgin]

My brother’s acquisition of Madonna’s Like a Virgin was a prescient stroke in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. Madonna was on the cusp of becoming ubiquitous when he swiped her, and that move precluded the rest of us from laying claim on her discography.

At least, that’s how the rules went.

By the time she put out True Blue, we all felt Madonna fatigue. Radio and MTV played her to death. Her marriage to Sean Penn was all over the news. Her provocations crossed the line to tastelessness.

In short, my brother had buyer’s remorse. None of us wanted True Blue, and he wasn’t enough of a fan to get the self-titled debut.

As all that was happening, I got into Stephen Sondheim. By 1990, attention to Madonna had become de rigeur. She pushed some buttons, the media covered who got offended. Then news hit she would sing three songs written by Sondheim for a movie adaptation of Dick Tracy.

My skepticism probably crossed over to offense.

But a Rolling Stone review of I’m Breathless convinced me to check it out, and thus a breach in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race took hold. I’m Breathless was followed by Like a Prayer. Then every Madonna album afterward.

It took a long time for me to wind back to Like a Virgin. Madonna really didn’t become critically viable till Like a Prayer. Till then, people assumed the music was just the vehicle for the fame payload. And I was dismissive of the early albums as everyone else.

Streaming services have made it easy for me to reassess my perception, and no — those early albums aren’t as good as her later work. Like a Virgin, though, is the exception.

Opening the album with “Material Girl” but waiting to release it as the second single was a genius move. It’s actually a catchier song than the title track. “Angel” is a nearly forgotten classic, which the Dead Betties recognize in their blistering punk cover of the song.

All the hits are front-loaded at the start of the album, leaving Side B hanging. But even those album tracks aren’t just filler. “Pretender” links back to “Holiday” and “Borderline”, while “Stay” looks forward to “True Blue”.

Madonna’s output has since varied wildly. For each Like a Virgin, Ray of Light or Bedtime Stories, there’s a corresponding turkey in American Life, Erotica and Hard CandyLike a Virgin was the first of Madonna’s better side.

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Q: Why have I disliked Michael Jackson for so long? A: Internalized homophobia

[Michael Jackson - Off The Wall]

I remember the moment my ambivalence toward Michael Jackson turned into downright hatred.

My family had the television tuned into the 26th Grammy Awards in 1984, the year Thriller won eight trophies. That meant Jackson went up to the stage over and over again, and as the evening wore on, the fey voice, the extravagant get-up, the single glove — they all annoyed me.

“He’s a sissy,” I concluded. I was already being taught where nerds fell in the junior high social order, and sissies (fags, faggots) were many rungs lower.

Jackson’s big win made him a target for sensationalism, and the press turned every quirk of Jackson into Exhibit A for what a damn freak he was. My impressionable 12-year-old mind conflated those reports with my own vague understanding of … let’s call it “gender identity”, and I didn’t like it.

It would be years before Jackson’s eccentricities would be revealed to be sinister, but I still feared the idea of having anything in common with him. I didn’t know what to make about being gay — I didn’t even have a word for it yet — but I understood the prevailing mood of the nation at the end of the 20th century.

Gay. Pedophile. Criminal. Hell-bound. The public at large would make no distinction between a platinum-selling pop artist or a pre-teen Asian-American Catholic school kid.

By 1995, I would eventually discover that no, I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t entirely accepted, but I wasn’t a freak. Jackson had gone off the rails, and he gave everyone fuel enough to dislike him. So I continued to scoff at his music, even though I was never going to be his target audience.

When Jackson died in 2009, I had a morbid thought — could I start to appreciate him? Let’s face it, so long as he lived, the press was going to magnify even the smallest of infractions, and that kind of baggage makes it impossible to separate the man from the art.

So difficult, in fact, it’s taken seven years for me to cross a threshold — adding Michael Jackson to my music collection.

Vinyl collecting made me rethink albums I brushed off for overexposure at the time — Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Peter Gabriel’s So, Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain. Entering my 40s has mellowed me out to the point where I find my youthful indignation pretty ridiculous.

I’ve already embraced ABBA. Why not Michael Jackson?

I would flip through the stacks at record stores and pass copies of Thriller or Off the Wall and feel the urge to buy them. It caught me off guard. I would have barely considered such a thing in 2009. What’s happened in that time?

I remembered that Grammy broadcast, remembered the vague realization it communicated. Do I still have that fear? No, it’s been nearly 20 years since I started to identify myself as gay. The national mood is vastly different as well, where disparaging gay citizens is a political liability and a social offense.

The course of Jackson’s life after those eight trophies ran a sad and bizarre course that, frankly, had nothing to do with me. We had nothing in common, and Jackson wouldn’t be the last celebrity chewed up by the pop music machinery.

At a Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale in May 2015, it finally happened. I found a copy of Off the Wall on CD selling for $1. Why not?

My oldest sister bought the singles from Off the Wall, but she didn’t make the leap to getting the full album. While I got sick of the Thriller singles, the same hadn’t happen with the hits from Off the Wall. “Rock With You”, “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” — there was enough disco in them to be timely but far more ahead of its time to sound, well, timeless.

Like AC/DC’s Back in BlackOff the Wall may well be the only album by Michael Jackson that I own. I’m still not the target audience for Jackson’s music, but an imagined fear shouldn’t prevent me from liking something he did.

 

 

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I own Huey Lewis albums because of the video for ‘I Want a New Drug’

[Huey Lewis and the News - Sports]

I posted on Facebook that I owned some Huey Lewis and the News albums, and the reaction from my friends was surprise. How did a discriminating listener such as myself end up with perhaps some of the most milquetoast music from 1980s? (Those exact words weren’t used.)

I was honest — these purchases were purely hormone-driven. Huey Lewis was a sex symbol at the height of the News’ fame, and I wasn’t immune to his corn-fed good looks.

But what cinched the matter for me was the video for “I Want a New Drug.” It opens with Huey wearing nothing but his skivvies.

[Huey Lewis in his underwear]

 

No, he doesn’t have the physique of similarly clad guys on Grindr or Scruff. In fact, far from it.

[Huey Lewis lacks a shirt]

But a 12-year-old starting to waken to his attractions wouldn’t make so fine a distinction. He was a barely-dressed handsome man. That was enough.

My household had no cable television, so the fact I managed to see this video at all without the aid of MTV was pretty remarkable. A prime-time afternoon video show aired the clip, which I managed to capture on Betamax. (Yeah, Betamax.)

It was an incredibly rare occurrence for me to be alone in a house where five other people lived, so I couldn’t really give the video the repeat viewings I had wished.

Instead, I had to content myself with gazing at pictures that only hinted as his physique.

[Huey Lewis and the News - If This Is It]

And I’ve done far worse than Huey Lewis where hormone-driven purchases are concerned. Nick Lachey? 98 Degrees? Check and check.

It won’t be the last time either. One of my favorite recent discoveries is Royal Wood, whose EP I downloaded based entirely on the cover:

[Royal Wood - The Lost and Found]

Thankfully, Woods has turned out to be a very good singer-songwriter.

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Thank visibility for the wider diversity of music by gay musicians

[Steve Grand - All-American Boy]

I should know better than to like All-American Boy, the debut album by Steve Grand.

It’s the kind of over-compressed pop music that baits rockist former-record store employees to gnash their teeth and sneer. Even more rankling is the target audience for Grand’s big choruses and butch guitars — young gays with hot bodies very much like himself. If I were ungenerous, I’d call it “twink rock”.

But I can’t help think All-American Boy is also one of the most important albums I’ve encountered this year.

That’s right. Important.

Musically, All-American Boy hits all the radio-friendly cues. The guitars get louder when they ought to get louder. The piano gets plaintive when it ought to get plaintive. This album would not give Revolver any sleepless nights.

But lyrically, Grand sings love songs to other men, in a language these men would understand. That’s remarkable but still not the big deal. No, it’s part of a bigger deal.

The landscape for gay musicians has grown large enough for Steve Grand to record a pop album with a wall of guitars, for Jónsi to sing in Hopelandish in a stratospheric falsetto, for Ty Herndon to give country music some bonafide homosexual beefcacke, for Nico Muhly to light a fire under the classical music establishment’s ass and for Ed Droste to bore the fuck out of everyone within listening distance.

A decade ago, I lamented about how gay musicians couldn’t do rock. Throw together the words “gay” and “music” in the same sentence, it would invariably mean “dance music”, with “theater music” close behind. The only band with any amount of visibility at the dawn of the aughts was Pansy Division. Sure, there was Rufus Wainwright, but he’s more Elton John than Rob Halford.

Of course, the aughts were smack dab in the middle of the W. Bush administration. Gay people were embraced on the metropolitan coasts, but the big red swath in the middle of the country meant visibility held risks. Republicans put gay marriage bans on state ballots to ensure voter turnout among its base, and it fucking worked.

Music by gay musicians couldn’t escape the ghetto of the dance floor — or the folk guitar, as most “gay rock” seemed to be labeled back then — because it was still a cultural liability.

Oddly enough, the passage of Proposition 8 in California on the night Barack Obama was elected for his first term as president marked the shift in opinion. It was the victory that shouldn’t have been, and it galvanized allies to put deeds behind intentions.

It took a while before the victories started piling up — the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act — but once in place, that liability started to lose its teeth.

Members of metal bands such as Torche and Gaythiest would make Halford less of an anomaly. Adam Lambert gave American Idol its last bonafide star before The Voice gobbled up its viewing audience. Frank Ocean and Sam Smith went so far as to win Grammy Awards.

Country singer Chely Wright weathered a lot of crap for her coming out, but it opened up the door for Herndon and Billy Gilman to follow. It’s worth noting these revelations arrived after their biggest hits were behind them. The country music audience still has a lot of catching up to do.

Steve Grand is the latest beneficiary of this shift, and he’s taken it further by recording what could have been a very plain album with all the usual paeans boys sing to girls. Instead, he’s singing those paeans to other boys, and his age group isn’t batting an eye.

But Grand is part of a larger spectrum of music by gay artists, one that expands as visibility and acceptance become more commonplace. He doesn’t have to work in a ghetto. He can find an audience performing music in a style of his choosing without compromising his identity.

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Music may have been better back then, but it doesn’t mean I heard it the first time

[Chart: Evolution of music tastes in a person's 20s]

A study using listener data from Spotify confirmed what the Onion reported more than a decade ago: listeners stop seeking music once they reach their early ’30s.

For me, the Onion story mirrors my own experience closer than the conclusions drawn in the study. Right around 2005, I got exhausted trying to keep up with all the new bands. It really did feel like I was going through the motions, and at one point, I realized I wouldn’t get back all those hours listening to music that moved me only fleetingly.

So I pivoted, and a decade on, I can say I add maybe one or two new artists to my collection each year. Most of what I listen to now is catalog.

At the same time, I’m not sure I totally believe the idea that music was “better in my day”, as the study would like to claim. A lot of the catalog I’m exploring is music I didn’t hear when it first came out.

Rhino released The Complete Studio Albums by the Replacements, a band I’ve been listening to in bits and pieces till I dropped $40 on this set. Curiosity got the best of me during Record Store Day when I picked up reissues by Social Distortion and Happy Mondays with only scant research on Google Play to help.

Neneh Cherry, Ambitious Lovers, Ofra Haza — I considered buying their albums a long time ago but didn’t act till now.

Then there’s my deepening relationship with modern classical music, a genre I’ve been following for a quarter of a century. I’ve discovered quite a number of great new pieces, such as Gloria Coates’ Music for Open Strings, just by picking up a vinyl record that looked interesting.

Heck, I’m going back and listening to music I actually disliked the first time around. Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, AC/DC — my 18-year-old self is looking at my 43-year-old self with a very suspicious eye.

So while it may look like my tastes have entrenched, I’m still getting as much satisfaction from the discoveries I’m making now as I did when I first encountered the bands that would become my idols. It’s the same experience when I encounter newer artists such as Jason Isbell, Jarell Perry or Steve Grand.

I’m not stuck in the past. I’m exploring parts of the past I never got around to visiting.

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The ones that nearly got away: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 2

[Ralph Vaughan Williams - Symphony No. 2]

 

Along with Yano Akiko, this recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2 was one of five cassette tapes I held onto after giving up on the format more than 15 years ago. The CD reissue pictured adds a few pieces not included on my cassette.

It had been years since I listened to Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony by the time I was deciding whether to toss or to keep it. I remember enjoying the piece when I listened to it, but I wasn’t too swayed to upgrade it to a CD.

So it disappeared into a closet, then I forgot I even owned it.

I haven’t listened to anything else by Vaughan Williams. The only reason this album is even in my collection is because of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Michael Walsh’s biography, Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works, name-checked the London Symphony, stating the famous descending hook in The Phantom of the Opera was ripped off from Vaughan Williams.

Sure enough, the idyllic introduction of the first movement builds to an ominous descending chromatic line full of brass. The movement then turns into a Dvorakian meditation on British folk melodies. I probably wouldn’t be the first to say the symphony could also be nicknamed the Old World Symphony.

When I unearthed the Yano Akiko cassette from storage, I also revisited this piece, wondering if my opinion of it would change over time. Surprisingly enough, it hadn’t.

A London Symphony is a beautiful work — melodic, sumptuous. Thinking back, my precocious college music student self would have scoffed at a work with this much appeal, but it makes its argument to be heard and to be appreciated.

Lloyd Webber larceny aside, that chromatic line in the first movement is really a punch in the ear. The third movement scherzo ratchets up the folk dances of the English countryside to a dizzying pace, and with the big gestures of the final movement, Vaughan Williams shows Aaron Copland how it’s done in the motherland.

While I really like A London Symphony, it hasn’t quite spurred me to explore more of Vaughan Williams’ work. Sorry to say, A London Symphony is kind of like my Back in Black — the one piece I need from Vaughan Williams at the expense of everything else.

I eventually did upgrade the cassette to CD, finding a used copy in a serendipitous stroke alongside Yano Akiko.

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Music genres do not save us from male, white, corporate oppression

[Collectorz.com Music Collector genre picklist]

Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas does not file its CD stock by genre. The name cards indicate by color code the genre in which an artist primarily performs. But they’re all stocked in the same room.

To get to the John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, you’ll need to thumb through Cocteau Twins and Elvis Costello. Compilations, soundtracks, world music and classical music are sorted separately, mostly out of taxonomic necessity. (Classical music, in particular, doesn’t lend itself easily to an artist/title naming convention.)

It’s a structure that I mimic with my own collection — compilation, soundtracks and classical get their own parts of the shelf, but everything else is sorted alphabetically by artist, regardless of genre.

For a long time, I’ve ignored genre as an attribute in the music I listen to. On an instinctive level, I recognize broad categories — Emmylou Harris and Renée Fleming don’t circulate in the same circles — but I try not to use genre as criteria for judgment. If anything, I tend to favor artists who blur them.

I use a database software called Music Collector by a company called Collectorz, and until recently, I used only four genres: Popular, Classical, Compilation, Soundtrack. (Seem familiar?) I recently decided to granularize that list to include more specific genres — rock, pop, country, soul, heck, even new age — and I reminded myself why I stuck to such overly broad categories.

Genres require judgement calls, and the traditional list used in most record shops reflect the kinds of individuals who would work there — straight, white males.

Let’s take the dichotomy between rock and pop. Rock, in your traditional music critic perspective, comes from a more authentic foundation than pop, or so it’s been perceived. A lot of calculation and commerce goes into creating pop idols, and rock musicians supposedly rally against that kind of prefabrication. So what about a guy like Steve Grand? He’s got a lot of guitars and butch posturing on his debut album. What makes him closer to Nick Lachey than to Neurtral Milk Hotel?

The relationship between rock and soul is even more contentious. This categorization is entirely race-based. Are you black? You get filed under soul. Never mind that Jarell Perry sounds more like Kate Bush than OutKast ever will. And what about Res? She released an EP of Fleetwood Mac covers.

Jazz is almost reverse discrimination. Yes, there are plenty of white jazz musicians, but the black musicians in the genre outnumber them.

The very idea of world music is Western-centric. Speak a language other than English? You are automatically a world artist. Not that I hear much Asian folk influence in the pop music of Utada Hikaru. Molotov certainly incorporates Latin rhythms in their metal hip-hop, but then so does Shiina Ringo.

Yes, certain music can be clearly classified in a particular genre. But what happens when artists confound expectations? Rock music is to guitars as pop music is to synthesizers. Is Björk a pop artist because she doesn’t have guitars on her albums? She has strings, so that makes a classical artist instead? No, ultimately we file her under rock because wearing that swan dress is not a marketing-driven decision.

The exercise of using a more granular genre list made me realize I’m pretty dumb to the nuances of each genre. What determines entry to the pop category? Use of drum machines? Sales figures? Audience size?

Is Duran Duran a pop band because they’ve sold millions of records? Are they a rock band because they play their own instruments and write their own songs?

All these judgements make genres a tiring attribute to attach to music.

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