Thursday, March 23, 2006

2day's Music

The list on the Ipod is short this week, but since two of the records are new to me, that’s almost intentional. To wit:

Prince- 3121

The new one. Every music rag on the planet has covered it, so let me just say I like it. A lot. It’s ridiculously funky, there’s a Clare Fischer string arrangement- too far back in the mix for my taste, but hey- and the God stuff is fun as opposed to strident. (see Rainbow Children)

He’s also touting a hot new female protégé- Tamar- who sings on a bunch of the tracks. Let’s hope she works out better than Appalonia, Cat, etc.

A couple of notes on Prince, while I’m on the subject. I remember reading somewhere (help me out here please) that one of the reasons Prince’s work dropped off in the 90’s was because he didn’t know what to do with hip-hop. Here comes this new, powerful, popular, very black music that doesn’t really fit Prince’s current aesthetic. (Michael Jackson has the same problem, the theory goes.) So he tries to work it in- rapping or adding rappers at various points, changing his beats and production- producing results far weaker than his 80’s work. And now that hip-hop has become broad enough to include damn near anything, and production styles (Neptunes, Missy Elliot, etc) have shifted again, here he is kicking butt again. Again, this is NOT my theory- I think it has big holes in it, see below- but it’s an interesting one to think about.

One thing that I think did really impact Prince’s (and others) work in the 90s was the shift from LP to CD. I don’t have every Prince CD, but what I notice is that on everything I have from “Love Sign Album” (what do you call that one?) to Rave Un2 the Joy, there are three or more songs I almost automatically skip. (Emancipation being the worst offender) I don’t think tunes like “Arrogance” or “Eye Hate U” would ever have made the cut on the shorter LP format. Smartly, 3121 clocks in at 12 songs and 55 minutes.

John Mayer- Room for Squares

Yup, that John Mayer. And not the supposedly more “legit” Try release (though I like that), but the big label, make the girls squeal release at that. Does this cost me cool points? Wait- at the age of 31, why the hell am I even thinking about cool points?

Seriously, there was a minute there where you couldn’t turn on the radio- NPR even- without hearing Mayer, so I heard it. Then a couple of my students were ga-ga about him, so I heard it some more. Then my friend that Matt Tutor, no slouch himself as a pop singer/songwriter, said “no, man, check it! He’s GOOD.” So I did. And he is- the songs are smart and well written without getting too cute, and the production is first rate. And tell me an American male in his 20s who hasn’t gone through at least a little of what he’s singing about? (Nick Lachay, sit your dumb ass down) I get stuck on “3x5”, the squeezebox and the brushes on snare creating this chugging train feel.

Oh, the audio on Mr. Mayer's MySpace page is more than worth the visit.

And gimme back my cool points. This isn’t Nelson we’re talking about.

The Bad Plus- Suspicious Activity?

As promised, I picked up Suspicious Activity? this week, and have listened to it a lot. If you scroll down you’ll read my earlier doubts about the Bad Plus, but I promised a couple of friends I would give them another solid shake. And here it is:

Apparently, TBP have caught some flack for the sound of their records- they don’t “sound like” a piano trio, whatever that means. (I guess it means a jazz trio, ala either Blue Note ca. 1964, or the Keith Jarrett trio, neither of which is a flawless approach) I’ve had long talks with my friend and brilliant pianist Michael Cain about how inadequately pianos are often recorded, and like him I’m not a purist about recording acoustic sounds. So I like the way this record sounds- clearly digitally altered, but all good sounds, and sounds that complement the musical effort. Sometimes I want the piano to ring more, but that’s minor, and may be Ethan Iverson's touch. I’ve not liked some of the recording choices I've heard them made in the past; here I like 'em all.

This band seems to answer the question- “What happens if you recast a prog rock band as a piano trio?” (I don’t know if anyone’s asked that question, but dammit they should) The guys are all very good players, and this band is so tight it’s sick. The way they bounce from form to formless (I hesitate to call it free) to form on several tunes (“Let Our Garden Grow”-no relation to Bernstein, “Rhinoceros is My Profession”, a very fractured “Chariots of Fire”) is really, really impressive, and effective. They spent a couple of blogs recently praising Django Bates, and I certainly hear an aesthetic connection- the pinpoint execution, the quick cuts, the warped sense of humor. The writing is good, clever and interesting. They make these tunes sound a lot easier than they actually are, always a good thing. These forms with very odd measure patterns or funky beat structures sound completely fluid, to the point that I didn’t notice until the third listen or so that “The Empire Strikes Backwards” is in 11. The cheeky titles are fun too (“Rhinoceros” is my favorite.) And I like the last tune “Forces” a lot.

All that said, I’m still not on the bandwagon. While all of it is good and well performed, nothing on the album moves me. I guess it’s a little too cheeky and self-conscious for me. The form to formless to form illustrates it for me- you always know where it’s going, that no matter how far “out” it gets, the melody will be pounded back at you thirty seconds later. There's a lot of fireworks, but very little suspense. And many tunes go on for too long. I feel like a lot of the tunes would be a lot more effective if they were a minute or two shorter- do we really need that extra statement of the head? The shame of it is they're endings are really cool- neat little change-ups you don't see coming, some actual suspense that gets washed over by a preceding minute of flat-out banging. But mostly, I just hear a lot of cleverness and technique without any emotional intent- too many empty vessels.

This record did make me want to listen to Fred Hersch’s recent trio for a great, fresh piano trio, and Bill Frisell’s fantastic Have a Little Faith for fractured pop covers. But it made me want to put Suspicious Activity? away for awhile. I'll come back to it, but not my cup of tea right now.

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