Bill Frisell confused the hell out of me when I first encountered him.
With Naked City, he was thrashing out, whiplashing from country twang to headbanging metal at the flick of the wrist. My cohorts in high school worshiped at the altar of Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. I thought Frisell could mop the floor with them.
But he had a subtle touch as well, if his work on the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb was any indication.
Surely with all these bona fides, I could really dig Frisell’s own music, right?
Well, not quite.
The lightning picking and aggressive dissonance were nowhere to be found on Is That You?, Frisell’s second album for Nonesuch released around the time of Naked City and Robin Holcomb. As it turned out, Frisell’s writing occupied a strange intersection of avant-garde classical, jazz improvisation and American folk.
And it was quiet.
A cover of “Chain of Fools” is the closest Frisell would get to being raucous. Instead, he favored sparse, introspective textures. Although the album featured 3/5 of Naked City — Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (who also produced) and drummer Joey Baron — it had none of Naked City’s fire but certainly all of its intensity.
For an 18-year-old listener hyped up by Naked City, I felt let-down by Is That You?, an impression that would unjustly persist for 25 years.
In fact, Is That You? fell into the category of albums I was too young to understand at the time. I’ve been on the hunt for Frisell’s preceding album, Before We Were Born, when I spotted Is That You? Having discovered how wrong I was about other albums in the past, I gave this one another chance.
For a noisy band, Naked City was pretty tuneful, and while I loved its rowdy parts, the hooks allowed me to latch onto the band’s weirder diversions. Is That You? provided few such latches.
“Rag” is a lovely solo piece on acoustic guitar, and another cover of “The Days of Wine and Roses” provides some melodicism, but for the rest of the album, Frisell demands attention as he ties two or more disparate styles of music and sets them in opposing directions.
The title track starts off quietly with some pretty woodwinds, but as it progresses, Baron’s tribal rhythms give way to a hesitant backbeat while Frisell strangles his fretboard. Horvitz throws in his arsenal of weird effects to complicate matters. Many of the album’s tracks proceed in this manner.
I didn’t have the patience or the exposure to Frisell’s influences to understand what he was doing. Two decades and a lot of country music listening later, I get it now. More importantly, I enjoy it.
Sometimes, I’ll justify an impulse purchase in terms of how much I spend on a breakfast at Starbucks. A cup of tea and a bagel usually sets me back $4. A Nonesuch record I’ve never heard of selling for $1 is a steal by comparison.
From what I can tell, this album is the only one where Ani and Ida Kavafian are billed as a duo. The sisters have successful careers separately, and the Amazon search algorithms turn up other recordings where they both appear. But from appearances alone, Ani and Ida aren’t the string players’ answer to Katia and Marielle Labèque.
Nonesuch hasn’t reissued this recording on the digital services, and neither sister is listed on the label’s site. The album was released in 1986, two years into Robert Hurwitz’s tenure, and the very mainstream choice of repertoire — Mozart, Moritz Moszkowski, Pablo de Sarasate — doesn’t align with the post-modern direction Nonesuch would eventually take.
It’s too bad, because the album is quietly charming. Mozart, of course, his overly bright self. The final movement of the Moszkowski Suite in G has a distinct swing, and the sisters sound particularly singular on the various runs in the Sarasate piece.
Nonesuch had the presence of mind to issue this album on CD, so you’re not shut out if you don’t own a turntable. The cover pictured, in fact, is from the CD.
During the summer, everyone is touring, or gearing up for the fall release schedule. So there’s not much to seek out over the next few months. I do find it surprising that news about fall releases has been pretty scant.
Shiina Ringo, “Nagaku Mijikai Matsuri / Kamisama, Hotokesama”, Aug. 5
Is another album on the way? This single would be the third Ringo-chan has released since her last studio album, Hi Izuru Tokoro.
The Replacements, The Twin/Tone Years, Aug. 11
The Rhino-era albums have already undergone the vinyl reissue treatment, and the exorbitant prices for the Twin/Tone albums on the collector’s market certainly demonstrate a demand. So this set has been a long time coming.
Georg Holm, Orri Páll Dýrason, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Kjartan Holm, Circe, Aug. 28 (digital), Sept. 11 (physical)
Two members of Sigur Rós, plus the band’s touring guitarist team up with composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson for a soundtrack to a BBC documentary.
Everything But the Girl, Walking Wounded (Deluxe Edition), Sept. 11
The Salvo label in the UK finishes a reissue campaign of Everything But the Girl’s studio albums with Walking Wounded and Temperamental. I’m sticking with just Walking Wounded because Temperamental doesn’t age very well.
Duran Duran, Paper Gods, Sept. 11
All You Need Is Now restored my faith in the band after a long time meandering in the wild during the W. Bush era. The lead-off single from Paper Gods has enough Nile Rodgers to cue some Notorious nostalgia. The artwork, though, is the laziest I’ve seen on a Duran Duran album. Even Red Carpet Massacre showed more effort.
Janet Jackson, Unbreakable, Oct. 2
I didn’t realize how much I missed Janet till she announced her return. I have no idea what seven years has done for her music, and I kind of don’t care.
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4, Oct. 16
Górecki passed away before he could complete his fourth symphony, but a piano score with detailed annotations allowed his son Mikolaj to orchestrate it. Nonesuch is going ballers with this release by also reissuing the Symphony No. 3 on vinyl and compiling a box set of Górecki’s works recorded by the label. Let’s just call Oct. 16 Górecki Day.
It’s bound to happen that some albums from the previous year don’t get air time on the personal playlist till the following year, and as a result, they alter how the Favorite Edition list should have been compiled.
This time, two albums fell off the 2014 list — Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, and Wayne Horvitz’s 55: Music and Dance in Concrete. I mentioned that Smith’s album could have been more adventurous, so that vulnerability led to his ouster. 55 is still some of Horvitz’s most adventurous music, but the gloom of MONO’s Rays of Darkness won out in the end.
In their place are albums by D’Angelo and Sturgill Simpson.
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.
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?
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.
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 Candy. Like a Virgin was the first of Madonna’s better side.
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 Black, Off 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.
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.
No, he doesn’t have the physique of similarly clad guys on Grindr or Scruff. In fact, far from it.
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.
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:
Thankfully, Woods has turned out to be a very good singer-songwriter.