Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Yet Another iPod Commercial

Yeah, LPs are the best, but let's face it, I'm addicted to the iPod, so in its thrall that I even spell its name with the correct trademarked capitalization. Furthermore, I'm addicted to the album shuffle setting, one album at a time to infinity, always at random. At home, at work, and on the train, I have in fact had my iPod and iTunes on album shuffle for almost two or three years straight. The times in 2010 that I actually put on an album of my own choice, vinyl and CD included, could probably be counted on two hands... well, four... maybe six... okay, eight at the most (that's a mere 40 in a whole year, and at least 10 of those were the new Sun City Girls)...

How could I stop the shuffling when sequences keep coming at me like they did today and tonight, sweet gradational shifts through modern folk forms, from a Canadian man to two English women to an African-American man... it started late this afternoon with a concert by Leonard Cohen, live at BBC in 1968. All Leonard Cohen is great, his recent concert tours have looked exquisite, but my particular love is for the early stuff. McCabe & Mrs. Miller era. Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs From A Room (1969),  production by John Simon (who did Music From Big Pink) and Bob Johnston (who did Blonde on Blonde) respectively. The high young reedy voice, great lyricist, killer acoustic guitar player. To quote one extremely accurate YouTube comment, "wintery hymn(s) of the soul's interior!" These BBC sessions are gorgeous... forget those legendary producers I just named, the music here sounds as good as anything on the albums, and so does Cohen's singing. Lenny is one of those guys whose lyrics stay nested and emerge gently, and only on repeat listens, even when they twist like knives. Tonight the one that stuck was the 8th stanza of "Teachers": "I ate and ate and ate, no I did not miss a plate, well how much do these suppers cost? We'll take it out in HATE." I have no idea who the backing band is, even after googling for almost 10 minutes! (I guess some folk/rock mysteries are still sacred... though there was a mention somewhere of "Dave Cousins and The Strawbs").

And after the Cohen, the shuffle goes right into Bridget St. John and her album Ask Me No Questions. Can you imagine the gradational shift from 1968 Leonard Cohen to 1969 Bridget St. John? The voice goes from male to female, and the mood is different, but there is still so much in common. She is a decade younger, born in 1946, part of the global beat/folk/hippie boom, with acoustic guitar playing as idiosyncratic as her contemporary Joni Mitchell, but with a much different singing voice, deeper and richer, almost like a British Nico. And that's what a lot of this album is focused on, just her acoustic guitar and voice, with only sparse backing. Her songs aren't immediately hook-filled, but they are complex and intriguing and often lovely. Progressive folk for sure, like when she sings "And as for me I'll eat a buttercup sandwich and wait 'til the shower is over.

And then the iPod shuffle goes from 1969 Bridget St. John to 1967 Shirley Collins, can you believe that? Had to be on purpose... talk about gradational... another British lady singing beautiful folk songs in the late 1960s. Shirley is a little older, more Leonard's age, more pre-hippie, and for the intents and purposes of this album  The Sweet Primeroses even pre-beat, in fact sounding like she could be singing from 500 years ago. Her voice is as clear as a bell and she sings over the sparsest of accompaniment, most notably her sister Dolly on Portative Pipe-organ (which she plays on six tracks... Shirley accompanies herself on 5-String Banjo for another four), which she plays at least 14 times more beautifully and hauntingly than this guy (who is fine, don't get me wrong... the costume changes are a plus, as is the cat cameo).

In a way, the shift from the Collins album to the next one is even more gradational; even though the change is from a British woman singing folk songs in 1967 to an African-American man playing fusion jazz in 1976, it took me a few minutes to even realize that it was a different album. I literally thought that Lol Coxhill himself, or someone like that, had been drafted by the Collins sisters for a rousing album closer, the old weird Britain meeting the new, if you will... but it was actually this odd mostly acoustic chamber fusion jazz LP by Michael Gregory Jackson that was released in 1976 on legendary label ESP-Disk. At that time the label was a bit past their prime, kind of like being on SST in the '90s, but this album, called Clarity, is a good one, some sweet, spiky, and exploratory 1970s music by an excellent and unconventional group: David Murray, Oliver Lake, and Wadada Leo Smith, all on horns/reeds/woodwinds/etc (no piano or rhythm section), while Jackson plays acoustic and electric guitars and sings occasional proto-neosoul vocals over a mix of composition and free improvisation. Almost as importantly, he's holding a cat on the cover. This was his debut, at the tender age of 23... he went on to record "career defining records on Arista/Novus in the 80s and 90s."

I swear these all came up today on random, in order, without me stopping the iPod. And after Michael Gregory Jackson, it jumped from folk forms (or did it??) and went into a perfect palate cleanser: the "T.V. O.D." b/w "Warm Leatherette" single by The Normal. As the brilliant A side came pulsing through the room, my son yelled from the next room "I LOVE THIS MUSIC!!" He was a little weirded out by "I don't need a TV screen/I just stick the aerial into my skin/let the signal run through my veins," but it was cool, I told him it was science fiction.

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