This is how you disappear: Scott Walker RIP

For the second time in as many weeks, I delved into an artist’s work not long before his death. Savoring the mediation on medieval Provençe called The Mays of Ventadorn and thumbing through one of his final collections The Shadow of Sirius, I awoke to the news about poet W.S. Merwin. At the same time, I had acquired a rather expensive (for 2019) used copy of The Climate of Hunter. I’d heard it in dribs over the years. I relish uneven accommodations to mainstream taste; years after admiring Scott 4 (1969) and learning how to listen to Tilt (1995), I needed to catch up. Now I have all the time necessary.

Scott Walker was not a fringe artist in 1984; a scan of the credits reveals the names of Mark Knopfler and Billy Ocean, flashed like FBI badges, both having or about to have their greatest pop moments. If Walker intended The Climate of Hunter as his contribution to the MTV-indebted New Pop explosion, then it failed. On ballads “Rawhide” and “Sleepwalkers Woman” the climaxes don’t happen in the expected places if they happen at all. The squeezed plushness of the American-born Walker’s vocal approach, like Edith Evans singing through a paper towel roll, enforces a waiting game; with a voice this unusual, this mannered, there had to be a payoff. Meanwhile the rhythm section burbled and rumbled at a discreet, discrete remove, as if an engineer happened to record it. At all times the use of strings was unnerving: while Walker stayed in place, they screeched like a replay of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score; when Walker chose to keep up with the bass and drums, the strings hung fire. Similar dynamics applied to Tilt‘s “Manhattan,” in which sustained Bach-like organ chords keep up anxiety levels. Other instruments, unidentifiable or avoiding their usual functions, buzzed — “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation,” in Derek Walmsley’s perfect description. When Pulp hired Walker to produce their final album We Love Life, it’s clear that the band wanted to organize “The Trees” around these tensions. On the title track Jarvis Cocker’s performance demonstrated why Pulp wasn’t Scott Walker: it does build to a climax, a glorious one. In Walker’s later music it would have been a principle betrayed, a concession to a mass taste he hadn’t courted since the sixties. Who needs a boring old guitar solo when a donkey’s bray will do?

About the Walker Brothers material and Nite Flights in particular I will cede insight and knowledge to Chris O’Leary, whose extensive writing on Walker’s influence on David Bowie (and Bowie’s own generosity acknowledging the influence) persuaded me to give Walker another chance. I have not much else to write about the albums released after Tilt except to note his needling score for The Childhood of a Leader, directed by Vox Lux‘s Brady Corbet, in 2015. But let me return to Scott 4, on which I’ve spent most of my time. Drenched in a chansonnier tradition that ran parallel to rock through the sixties and into the next decade, Scott 4 adduces Jacques Brel, Dionne Warwick, the Richard Harris of “MacArthur Park.” A stately collection, “classy” in the booboisie sense; also, louche and mildly decadent in the manner of fading European nobility persisting into the Nixon and Heath era. Walker rarely allowed him a couplet as plummy as the following in “Duchess”: “With your shimmering dress/It says no, it says yes.” Male chorales compete with strings in the perfumed air of “The Old Man’s Back Again,” in which, speaking of faded glory, the ghosts of Stalin, Dostoevsky, and Voznesensky insist on being remembered. Ian McCullough and Pet Shop Boys no doubt wore out their vinyl copies.

All this, plus, to use the Randall Jarrell method of listing praise, “Two Ragged Soldiers,” “Plastic Palace People,” “It’s Raining Today,” “Fat Mama Kick,” and cover material of marvelous fluency and vitality. To say Walker toyed with camp is to accuse water of being wet. Camp is irony at its most equable. When Walker unleashed that vibrato on an unsuspecting syllable, he called attention to a limited physical range that was determined to break through emotionally anyway. Sound – the suggestive possibilities of phonemes; the dynamic on those later albums whereby the spaces between instruments and voice had a disjunctive power – intoxicated him. In the songbooks of Bob Crewe and Leiber-Stoller he saw unexplored corners of weirdness: the weirdness of a David Lynch movie in which an old man drives a lawnmower across the verdant lawns of rural America and neighbors say howdy. Scott Walker’s corpus will continue to fascinate the devoted and to elude casual listeners. At his best he alerts listeners to how fluttering things, to quote a poet whose composed, cologned mien hid a musky imagination, have so distinct a shade.

Oh god save us: Grammys 2019

11:08 p.m. G’night, y’all!

11:02 p.m. Almost bedtime. Three more categories and an Aretha tribute. I want to read a few more pages of Jack Kelly’s excellent recounting of the Pullman Strike and a couple of Louise Glück poems before head hits pillow. Let me gather my strength for a final award, Best Rap Album. Invasion of Privacy wins, an album that in 2018 is impressive for its brevity and focus. So is Pusha T, but you’d expect this from the Don Henley of rap.

10:58 p.m. I underrated By the Way, I Forgive You a year ago.

10:50 p.m. I’d like to thank my friend Tere Estorino Florin for introducing me to and proselytizing for Brandi Carlisle for years. She sings “The Joke” as if her life hung on this performance, this night. And it works.

10:42 p.m. BTS emerge without a spot of blood, like Fortinbras in Act V of Hamlet. They announce that H.E.R. has won Best R&B Album. She will get streaming revenue, deservedly, for this EP, not album, as she points out, yet her EP is almost seventy-five minutes.

10:41 p.m. Motown was gayer than this.

10:40 p.m. “Square Biz”!

10:37 p.m. As fascinating as this performance: the cutaways to the audience, who to a man and woman nod as if listening to a recitation of Goethe.

10:37 p.m. Can you imagine if the curtain rises and performing every Motown chestnut is Meghan Trainor

10:34 p.m. ….yet Keys and Smokey harmonize well on a snippet of “The Tracks of My Tears.”

10:30 p.m. A Motown tribute with…Ne-Yo? Has it come to this? A decade ago he released one of the twenty-first century’s best male R&B albums.

10:26 p.m. The commercial breaks increase in frequency and length. So do the slow jams. James Blake’s single with Travis Scott and Metro Boomin’ is the 2019 equivalent of a 1978 Kenny Loggins song, complete with bloodless funk section.

10:11 p.m. Ten minutes after the room has had a chance to grab a Tito’s and soda, Lady Gaga is on stage to perform “Shallow” in a Bowie-worthy leotard. She does Queen better than Bohemian Rhapsody.

10:01 p.m. In 1979 I would likely have criticized Diana Ross’ self-regard too, but it’s been forty years, and with her formidable catalog coursing through every capillary she turns “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” into a valentine for her fans and their lifeline to her. Moving.

9:59 p.m. There was a time when the Grammys meant watching Diana Ross in these gowns.

9:50 p.m. After quiet weeping in the bathroom, I return and Drake wins Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan.” I think of Tootsie‘s last act when I see Drake: “Oh boy, here come the terms…” But Aubrey Graham’s speech, replete with praise for the little people who trudge through snow and rain and Trump tweets to his shows, is solid. All I can stand are two minutes, but producers interrupt him for a commercial break anyway. They’d rather let Alicia Keys mangle The Classics.

9:44 p.m. After performing a round of classics, Keys conclude with her “New York State of Mind,” as if to say, I’m one of you, I won 15 Grammys.

9:43 p.m. oh for FUCK’S SAKE

9:39 p.m. Alicia Keys playing two pianos at once. A generational talent. She sings Roberta Flack as Hazel Scott, then flips to “Lucid Dreams” by way of Sting. Now “Unforgettable.” I know these performances establish continuity and context to a pop world that abjures history, but Keys can’t do it without coming off like the smartest Vegas singer.

9:30 p.m. Best Country Album goes to Kacey Musgraves, a harbinger of her shut-out in an hour for Album of the Year.

9:27 p.m. I expected Cardi B to dominate year-end lists. This performance reminds me why she should have.

9:22 p.m. A Motown tribute from Smokey Robinson. We needed one.

9:20 p.m. oh WOW — a H.E.R. guitar solo.

9:19 p.m. I wanted H.E.R. to perform “Comes a Time,” “Journey Into the Past,” “Motorcycle Mama” or any other Neil Young country track to make the evening complete.

9:16 p.m. BRB.

9:11 p.m. We critics publish variants on the following statement after every awards show: these ceremonies don’t offer redress for past crimes so much as act as arbitration. Perform tonight, we’ll forget about ignoring you all year.

9:09 pm. Snark aside, I heard more women singing country in 10 minutes than I heard on my local country station all year!

9:08 p.m. The cutaway shows a politely indifferent audience to “9 to 5.” Which was weird! In this Post-Malone world, “9 to 5” is proto-rap.

9:05 p.m. Although hard to make out through the sturm und drang, this new Parton composition sounds promising.

9:01. Now the evening’s highlight: a poignant cover of “After the Gold Rush.” BTS loves it too!

9 p.m. It’s 9 p.m., and I hear “Jolene.” Miley Cyrus could’ve sung a less frantically arranged “Jolene.”

8:58 pm. A Dolly Parton kicks off with “Here You Come Again, sung by Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves, a song given new life by a commercial. Perry treats”Here You Come Again” as if it were meat sauce. Then Parton, giving the pair the closest Dolly approximation to a withering glare, takes over, indifferent to harmonizing.

8:55 p.m. To continue: this makes me the The Weeknd of bloggers, impressing you with my ardor in the hopes that you’ll love me. Oh, right — that’s Alicia Keys.

8:53 p.m. I’m certain that my students, for whom these byzantine legal agreements about performances are made, are watching Russian Doll.

8:50 p.m. Don’t these people know that hopping on your bare feet or in flat shoes is bad for your arches?

8:49 p.m. At last, the Chili Peppers transform into the Eagles.

8:47 p.m. Post-Malone performing “Rockstar” is the kind of post-modernism that consumes solar systems.

8:45 p.m. Of course I don’t object to the Malone/Chili Peppers pairing. Malone and “Under the Bridge” are natural mates. And this kind of tattooed sincerity will always have a place in Grammy lore.

8:43 p.m. Brandi Carlisle in this category defines “dissonance.” It’s like trout at a slaughterhouse. Childish Gambino’s “This is America” wins.

8:42 p.m. However, John Mayer, Song of the Year winner for “Daughters,” deserves fifteen Grammys for his hair.

8:41 p.m. Alicia Keys: “I have been super impressed to win 15 Grammys.” Humility, I saw it fly out the window once.

8:38 p.m. “Post-Malone and Red Hot Chili Peppers are about to share the Grammys stage.” I may return to reading about the Pullman Strike of 1894.

8:29 p.m. Costumed in a fabulous jet vinyl space outfit with models out of a Robert Palmer video, Janelle Monáe does discrete upstrokes on her guitar for “To Make Me Feel.” The size of the stage — are they on a battleship? — dilutes her power, though. Again, we’re down to Solid Gold routines, complete with smoke machines. MIKE DROP.

8:25 p.m. “A songwriter whose songs radiate a light of their own,” Kacey Musgraves appears on stage to sing “Rainbow.” She’s nervous, disarmingly; also, to my ears, flat. Yet these developments turn this performance into a triumph. Not the most original song on the nominated Golden Hour — a “Yesterday” killer to which voters succumb.

8:20 “I’m so proud to be part of a movie that deals with mental health issues.” Is that how Gaga and Coop sold A Star is Born to producers? This is like saying Grand Hotel is a movie that deals with hospitality issues.

8:19 p.m. Best Pop Duo/Group, the evening’s first award, goes to “Shallow,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s duet for A Star is (Re)Born. One of the losers is Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton’s “Say Something.” Remember it? Do I? Do they?

8:17 p.m. I’m on board with Mendes reviving the Elvis style of vestigial-guitar-around-left shoulder if it means he doesn’t get to play it.

8:15 p.m. Never on God’s earth have I seen boots on legs as thin as Shawn Mendes’.

8:13 pm. So who follows these powerful women of color? Shawn Mendes again, playing “In My Blood” — on piano. His alabaster arms are tattoo-proof.

8:09 p.m. “They said I was weird,” Lady Gaga announces in a lineup that looks like a firing squad. Who said she was weird? “Music is the one place where we all can feel truly free,” Jennifer Lopez adds. Michelle Obama, however, overpowers them, with her simplicity of gesture, a high priestess of piety. It’s 2019, and the audience — we — need it, I suppose.

8:07 p.m. “I will always love you, Dolly,” Alicia Keys says, highlighting my Alicia Keys problem. She reminds everyone that she’s quoting Dolly Parton and also being sententious about it.

8:05 p.m. Never mind: Ricky Martin is here. Martin, from whom irony dribbles off like scandal to Reagan. I should mention that Martin is poignant as Versace’s lover in the FX series.

8:03 p.m. I’m watching this West Side Story revival and thinking, do watches 18-24 care? It’s like watching a Dean Martin roast in 1974 and wanting to kill everyone for being so old and smug.

8:00 p.m. Camila Cabello does a dollhouse routine, is not singing, and descends a fire escape. This is talent.

7:58 p.m. Shawn Mendes weighs more than his music.

7:55 p.m. I dislike Alicia Keys. She breaths falsity like lamprey eat plankton. I look forward to the ceremony.

Rashod Ollison — RIP

Doing research for my 2018 MoPOP Pop Conference paper on Angela Winbush, I found the following bit published two years earlier:

It’s a shame the St. Louis native, who’s a successful producer, arranger, songwriter and musician in addition to being a powerhouse vocalist with a five-octave range, isn’t more well-known outside of R&B. But some of the fault lies with Winbush. Steeped in the holy waters of gospel, like many soul sisters who preceded her, her style was perhaps too black. And given the culture erasure of the Reagan era, that was too much.

“The cultural erasure of the Reagan era” — a phrase fraught with significance. So vehemently do we despise the GOP and Donald Trump that we have allowed media elites on cable shows to use Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of John Winthrop’s figure the city on a hill as an example of What We Have Lost; so swiftly do we mythologize our presidents that the evil is oft interred with their bones. To millions of gay men and black Americans, the white straight dudes who endorsed an assault on state and federal power lived in a beautiful city on a hill; the rest of us were condemned to shacks at the foot of the hill.

Not until a week before the conference did I understand that the author of this Winbush piece would sit on my panel — beside me. This intimidated me. Reading a paper on the power of Chaka Khan, Rashod Ollison seduced the crowd from the moment he played a clip of her marvelous hit with Rufus, “You Got the Love”; he held their attention with the precision of his insights, read in a silken purr that rumbled when confronted by an obscenity. Black and gay, Rashod Ollison, the columnist and reporter who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma two days ago, could not be bullshitted. I sensed he would not bullshit me either. After my presentation, he looked me in the eye, nodded, and mumbled, “Thank you.” I demurred. He said, “Now I’m goin’ back to my room to blast me some Angela.”

Other tributes have praised Rashod’s warmth and the depths of his commitment to music as soul power. Because she gave us permission to “dream and build,” Aretha Franklin “will always be a revolutionary act,” he wrote two months ago about the R&B and gospel singer-pianist. A life like Rashod Ollison’s was also a revolutionary act. Men like Rashod don’t wear out their recti muscles looking for cities on a hill — they make do with what they have, describing it as ruthlessly as their imaginations allow.

‘Nico, 1988’ presents the last days of an icon

Until the moment of her 1988 death in the most banal of accidents, Nico had earned her distance from the Velvet Underground material that turned the model into a camp and often transfixing chanteur in the seventies: like any star, would-be and real, the costumes that the poor girl wore and the hand-me-down dresses from who knows where she also wove into challenging self-presentations. Continue reading

Doom averted!

My first question for the Braman Honda salesperson three weeks ago was not about mileage or maintenance: “This Civic doesn’t come with a CD player, right?” He looked at the asphalt, shook his head sadly for my sake. Three years earlier, signing the paperwork on my first leased car, I was delighted that I had a working player instead of the Discman and tape adapter I’d used in my 1998 Ford Explorer since the Breeders’ Title TK pretended to be Excalibur and jammed itself. In the last fourteen days I’ve been burning music into a USB drive. I was one of those Luddites who kept archival stuff on CD and relied on my phone for new music — music I still often bought on CD, mind.

Turns out Best Buy has delayed the inevitable:

Best Buy officials say the chain has decreased its focus on CD sales, but denied multiple reports it had ended sales entirely as of July 1.

“The way people buy and listen to music has dramatically changed and, as a result, we are reducing the amount of space devoted to CDs in our stores,” the company said in a statement. “However, we will still offer select CDs, vinyl and digital music options at all stores.”

….The statement from the company was its first comment since reports emerged in February that it told music suppliers about plans to pull CDs from stores on July 1, which resulted in a some confusion

CVS still sells tape adapters, in case you wondered.

‘Even the mysteries/It’s all me’

With deep respect to Dusty in Memphis, my Supremes comp, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Exile in Guyville, these albums I submitted to NPR’s Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women survey. The first album will get enough mentions but if I were being honest myself I couldn’t ignore it. The other four I worry will get no votes. What links these albums across decades is an experience with role playing: accepting with a cold eye the projections of male listeners even when – especially when – these projections fit; discomfort with yielding to the emotions that men expect from women; the arranging of clothes and makeup as creation of self. “Sometimes it’s hard to move, you see/When you’re growing publicly,” Erykah Badu sings on “Me.”

Anyway, it’ll be a combination of these finalists:

1. Pretenders – Pretenders
2. Rosanne Cash – King’s Record Shop
3. Angela Winbush – Sharp
4. Sinead O’ Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
5. Belly – Star
6. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott — Supa Dupa Fly
7. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
8. Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
9. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
10. Yoko Ono – Walking on Thin Ice: Compilation

If you lose your faith: the best of Everything But the Girl

“Tracey Thorn has always been one of those singers who sounded dandy on other people’s records, notably Massive Attack’s,” Robert Christgau wrote at the dawn of the 2000s, and he was right. But for a critic who has admitted to preferring livelier and noisier pleasures the implied condescension of the praise is no surprise.

Continue reading

She’s got herself a universe – ‘Ray of Light’ at twenty

Happy birthday to Ray of Light, Madonna’s shrewd attempt to position herself as an older woman whose newborn conferred Wisdom and Experience. The other day I remarked that the production – mostly by William Orbit but Marius de Vries and longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard get credits too – is the aural equivalent of the sleeve’s aquamarine backdrop. It’s like a soap bought at a high end resort hotel store: delicious, sure, but your body sweats it off in hours. This was said about Ray of Light at the time: her voice, strengthened by coaching, was stiff if not inflexible on otherwise strong material like “Mer Girl” and “Drowned World” (I still giggle over Rob Sheffield’s comment on the latter: “She enunciates the word lovers as if she’s never met any”). Perhaps the ubiquity of those awful Victor Calderone remixes in gay clubs was an attempt at redress. There was a sense in which Music and its return to dance floor insouciance was the Real Comeback; I thought so, despite liking ROL a lot. Now I can barely listen to most of Music‘s non-single filler while ROL boast her most bewitching album tracks after Erotica, as my list below acknowledges.

So, accept the plaudits, girl. Orbit’s dense rhythms, many of which with faint psychedelic tints, complement your vocal melodies; he’s got unexpected instrumental filips too, like the harsh guitar on “Swim” and the piano line on the chorus of “Sky Fits Heaven,” the best of the album’s spiritual plaints. Savor Ray of Light. Appreciate Oprah’s mom dancing to a live performance of the title track.

1. Skin
2. Sky Fits Heaven
3. Swim
4. Candy Perfume Girl
5. The Power of Goodbye
6. Drowned World/Substitute For Love
7. To Have and Not to Hold
8. Ray of Light
9. Nothing Really Matters
10. Frozen
11. Mer Girl
12. Shanti/Ashtangi

‘The sun comes/Like a god into our room’

Longtime readers know my affection for INXS’ singles. Last week I had the chance to write a few hundred words about Kick, reissued in an absurd multi-disc edition but with a phenomenal sound. Here’s the list I drew up last April of their best tracks:

1. Original Sin (Extended remix)
2. Shine Like It Does
3. Don’t Change
4. Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain)
5. What You Need
6. Devil Inside
7. Listen Like Thieves
8. Not Enough Time
9. Disappear
10. Bitter Tears
11. The One Thing
12. Suicide Blonde
13. This Time
14. Same Direction
15. Need You Tonight
16. New Sensation
17. Guns in the Sky
18. The Swing
19. Biting Bullets
20. Just Keep Walking

David Cassidy — RIP

The variety show star as teen phenomenon, without the talent to make the leap into pop that reflected contemporary values until I remember that Terry Jacks and The Carpenters reflected the Nixon seventies as surely as CSNY and Alice Cooper. I was too young for The Partridge Family, the only episode of which I remember is when the kids are sprayed by a skunk, but “I Think I Love You” was in the ether, like refrigerator exhaust. Cassidy sung it with the conviction of a Broadway kid playing a greaser. That was all I knew until in 1990 he emerged with a pop metal song called “Lyin’ to Myself,” for which he got songwriting credit, presumably for the apostrophe/contraction; at best it sounds like solo Lou Gramm. This is the Forgotten Eighties — the eighties of Boogie Nights‘ Dirk Diggler recording “You Got the Touch” in a studio that looks like a karaoke bar after 6 p.m. Cassidy’s kind of idolatry soothed; no libido was necessary.