Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Does anybody here remember… Live Wire?

November 22, 2008

Live Wire were a British band from the late seventies. As far as I know they released three albums: Pick it Up, No Fright and Changes Made. Theirs was an original style which combined a rather nocturnal, essential approach to rock music with a decidedly jazz rock oriented bass. The atmosphere was different in each album, possibly a little convoluted and wordy in the first two, more easy going in the last one.

Here in Italy they were likened to Dire Straits, but the two bands had little in common except for the fact of being non Punk/New Wave bands in the height of the Punk/New Wave era. Live Wire were less immediate and pleasant than Dire Straits, but certainly not less interesting.

They toured Italy at least twice and I managed to attend the second tour’s first and last gigs. I have a pleasant memory of the band’s involvement with the audience: they appeared to enjoy playing for us and they seemed to be truly moved by our response. Their “In my Child’s Eye” is still one of my favourite songs.

Italy appears to have played a role in their career, both before and after they split. As a band they worked with some local artist; after the break-up guitar player Simon Boswell went on to write film scores for, among others, master of suspense Dario Argento, while bass player Jeremy Meek played with Pino Daniele on different occasions. A friend of mine happened to attend a gig where lead singer Mike Green was among a performer a few years later in Milan.

All in all a band that deserved better fortune than they got; all the more so considering that it’s highly unlikely that their records will ever be reissued in digital form.

Rock’n’Roll Animal – Lou Reed (1974)

June 26, 2008

In stark contrast with the minimalist approach that characterizes both his beginnings with The Velvet Underground and much of his later career, here Lou Reed presents a very triumphant, glamorous rendition of his music. Rock’n’Roll Animal starts off magnificently with a beautiful instrumental introduction which leads into a powerful version of “Sweet Jane”, one of Lou’s most famous songs and one of rock music’s most effective riffs. This is followed by a breath taking, spine chilling interpretation of “Heroin”, the archetype controversial song. If an artist’s job is to induce ideas into us by communicating at the emotional level rather than at the rational one, considering how the imagery that Lou Reed and his band throw upon us is incredibly vivid there can be no doubt that this is not only a work of art, but actually a masterpiece. Certainly this is as close as I will ever get to experiencing how it really feels. And yet…

The remastered CD version I’m currently listening to includes here a couple of songs that weren’t on the original album, “How Do You Think It Feels” and “Caroline Says I”. These don’t add much to the collection; one could almost say that they actually lower the overall average. On the other hand those who, like me, suffer from “completeness-mania” will probably be happy that these songs have been made available.

The original program resumes with a powerful rendition of “White Light / White Heat“, a fast rock’n’roll number from the Velvet Underground period. The atmosphere changes all of a sudden to a feeling of impending doom with “Lady Day”, from the Berlin album. Rock’n’Roll Animal closes on a much lighter tone with the humourous “Rock’n’ Roll”.

This is one of the great rock live albums. The songs are mostly masterpieces, very well arranged and played by accomplished musicians. In my opinion it has aged well, even though its style dates it unmistakably in the first half of the 1970’s. What can I say more? I wish I was there; instead, I urge you to buy this album, and possibly also Lou Reed Live, taken from the same concert.

A year and a half later, the problem’s still there

March 12, 2008

This is something I wrote about a year and a half ago in a previous attempt to start a blog:

“Time to go to work and I’m getting ready. Cellphone in my right breast pocket, PDA in my right one, CD player in the one underneath. Considering that I’m wearing glasses and a wristwatch, and I carry a USB flash drive in my bag, that’s quite a number of devices. Do I need all of them?
Recently I started thinking about this because my cellphone is showing its age and so is my CD player. Given the way portable CD players have gone out of fashion I might as well give in and get myself an iPod or something of the kind. Now, my PDA is capable of playing MP3 files, but I really want something that supports some lossless format, which by the way means a hard disk. With luck I’ll manage to get rid of my USB key, the less unconvenient of my portable devices; on the other hand it looks like I won’t be able to eliminate any of my other gizmos and even attaining all my desires is not going to be easy:

  • There aren’t that many media players out there that support lossless formats; the iPod looks like the best one, but it’s a bit too proprietary for my taste;
  • Assuming I was considering changing my PDA, which I’m not, PDA/cellphone combinations are either unpleasantly bulky as phones or inconveniently small as PDA’s;
  • My PDA is a diskless Palm one, not the most convenient set-up to move data around, in terms of both storage and ease of use.

On the other hand I’ll probably be able to watch photos and videos on three different devices, something about which I couldn’t care less. What am I to do?”

Since then things have changed, but not that much; most important, the number of devices hasn’t decreased. I did change my cellphone and the one I got can both play music and act as a PDA – yes, I did notice that nobody’s making PDA’s any more – but the sound quality is awful and as a PDA it’s most inconvenient.

I also gave up my CD player and got myself a portable media player. At least I was able to get something that can play lossless format and has a capacity of 16 GB, solid state. I *could* give up my USB key, if it weren’t for the fact that it is more convenient to carry around than a USB cable. The PDA’s still alive and kicking, though.

Next time around I’m not going to settle for anything less than a Linux based smartphone that is reasonably convenient as a PDA and can play FLAC files better then my current player. It shall also support removable memory cards. It’s going to take a while.

The Nightfly – Donald Fagen (1982)

September 23, 2007

After enjoying success throughout the seventies with Steely Dan, Donald Fagen opened his rarefied solo career with The Nightfly, one of the first all digital albums. The choice of technology fits well with the almost maniacal care that clearly went into both the arrangement and the performance of each of the record’s songs: nothing is left to chance, every note is exactly where it ought to be and not one note more than necessary is played. Even from the point of view of production great care went into ensuring that no instrument ever outplayed the others. When listening to The Nightfly in your headphones you get the impression that the musicians play in a circle, with no one ever taking the centre of the stage.

Fagen appears to have total control over both music and technology, but doesn’t let himself be distracted by expertise for the sake of itself. Rather, he bends it to his own purposes in order to achieve exactly the product he has in mind. The result is an album that does sound chilly as ice – sidereal is the adjective that comes to mind – but is neither uninspired nor a sterile exercise of virtuosity. While the overall style and atmosphere are decidedly uniform and lean towards the jazzy – some of the top jazz-rock musicians of the time play in the album – the songs have enough personality to stand out from each other. The Nightfly is also a sort of concept album, centered on the dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century’s fifties.

The Nightfly starts off with “I.G.Y.”, a pleasant song about the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 and the wonders that science and technologies will bring. It is probably my favourite song from the album, along with “New Frontier” and the slower “Maxine”. An effective cover of Leiber/Stoller‘s “Ruby Baby” is another highlight from this record: The Drifters meet The Manhattan Transfer, in a way. Still, it’s rather unfair to single out specific songs, as they are all good.

The Nightfly is a record you should listen to with your headphones late at night in the dark, but it’s also very good to listen to in the background, pleasant but not distracting. Definitely money well spent.

461 Ocean Boulevard – Eric Clapton (1974)

September 3, 2007

461 Ocean Boulevard is the first and probably the best in a streak of rather subdued, bluesy albums that Eric Clapton released between the mid seventies and the mid eighties. While the self celebration of bands like Cream and Blind Faith has gone for good, hard core blues is still there, but it is only one of the elements of Clapton’s music from this period, albeit an important one.

The record starts off with “Motherless Children”, a twelve bar blues standard based on a fast, original riff and embellished by Clapton’s slide guitar. Slide guitar is a recurring theme of this album, in both electric and acoustic form, the latter being played on a Dobro guitar.

Another highlight of 461 Ocean Boulevard is a cover of Bob Marley‘s “I Shot the Sheriff“, which is a perfect synthesis between Marley’s reggae and Clapton’s own style, recorded some three or four years before reggae music was to become fashionable among rock musicians.

However my favorite song from this album is “Let it Grow”, a pleasant semi-acoustic song based on a simple chord sequence, which grows in intensity and culminates in a long coda, based on a simple, but effective arpeggio.

While in my opinion these three songs stand out, all the album’s song are pleasant and contribute to making 461 Ocean Boulevard varied in style and influences, while uniform in sound. If we discount live albums and collections of blues standards, Eric Clapton hasn’t issued a better record since, with Slowhand being the only close runner-up.

Young Americans – David Bowie (1975)

August 22, 2007

In Young Americans David Bowie is caught in between Ziggy Stardust and his Berlin period, which would peak with the “Heroes” album. Here instead is a rather commercial album, heavily influenced by Gamble & Huff‘s “Philly Sound“, which was then evolving soul into disco.

To be honest there’s more to Young Americans than disco, from echoes of early Roxy Music (I wonder who influenced whom?) to John Lennon, who is present as performer and co-author of “Fame“, the album’s most notable and successful song. Lennon is also paid homage to by the inclusion of a rather anonymous cover of the Beatles‘ “Across the Universe“.

All in all not a bad record, but certainly not one of Bowie’s best. Even among his forays into dance music I find Let’s Dance to be a better achievement.

English Settlement – XTC (1982)

August 17, 2007

XTC‘s uncommonly original style can be at the same time an asset and a liability. While it makes the band’s work immediately recognizable, it may make it difficult to identify original elements in an album such as English Settlement. This is not to say that it’s too uniform; influences range from reggae to a probably unintentional reminiscence of Adam & the Ants in a song or two.

However just about every one of the album’s songs carries some of the XTC hallmarks, be it in a melodic passage or in some arrangement detail, and English Settlement will immediately sound familiar to anybody who is acquainted with other XTC records.

I find it hard to identify any of English Settlement‘s songs as my favourite; in my opinion they are not as distinct and powerful as, for instance, those from Black Sea. On the other hand I have to admit that “Senses Working Overtime“, the album’s most successful single, stuck to my mind and I keep finding myself humming it.

XTC is definitely a band worth exploring, but this is not the album I would start with, better alternatives being Black Sea and Skylarking. Still, if you already know and like XTC, you won’t be disappointed by this album.

Love Over Gold – Dire Straits (1982)

June 29, 2007

Dire Straits never were a three minute single band, but the trend towards longer, elaborate songs reached its peak in their 1982 album, Love Over Gold. This is their most intimist, almost nocturne album. Springsteen‘s influence is still present, but it’s not as evident as in their previous album, Making Movies.

The initial song, “Telegraph Road“, is probably my favourite from this album. It’s the most “Springsteenesque” from a musical point of view, but also in its fourteen minutes of length. “Private Investigations” is more intimate, with Knopfler’s Gibson Chet Atkins, an electrified, solid body classic (!) guitar, in greater evidence. “Industrial Disease” is a complete change of tempo, to the point that it sounds a little out of place. It’s the first instance of Dire Straits’ use of rock’n’roll as a vehicle for ironic themes, which will re-surface in a lighter form in their subsequent “Twisting by the Pool” single. “Love Over Gold” goes back to the themes and atmosphere of the first two songs, while “It never rains” is more of a standard Dire Straits song, both in tempo and melody.

Dire Straits are not my favourite band, but I’m rather fond of this record, if just because I respect the way they did not just try and cash in on Making Movies‘s success. Love Over Gold is definitely worth buying, just possibly not as one’s first taste of Dire Straits music; for that I’d go for their eponymous first album.