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253: Edgar Winter, ‘Rise to Fall’ (Indefensible Mixes)

Posted by jeff on Dec 30, 2016 in Other, Song Of the week

Edgar Winter, ‘Rise to Fall’

One of my favorite subjects to kvetch about is the burden of obsessiveness.

I’ll give you an example. I tripped over a rock/jazz group called Durutti Column, the vehicle of a British guitarist named Vini Reilly. He has a really tasteful, distinctive ambient sound and groove. I listened to a couple of his albums, liked what I heard, and got my hands on his discography. Twenty-nine albums. I can’t say they all sound exactly alike, because I’m only up to #19. But, like it or not, I will keep plowing through the last ten. Just in case.

transport-boy_racer-modified_car-punk-car_stereo-loud_music-rkin50_lowGet what I mean?

I don’t believe in radio. Why should I listen to someone else’s playlist hidden among the commercials?
I don’t believe in Spotify. Why should I listen to an algorithm’s playlist?
It seems I’m stuck with Jeff.

My usual listening schedule when I’m working from my home office is:

  • 8:00 to 10:00 – music to align my synapses and give me courage to face the day: Bill Evans or Johnny Bach
  • 9:37 (approximately) – second cup of coffee
  • 10:00 to 4:00 – methodical, obsessive plowing through music I think I should expose myself to: Wild Man Fisher’s Greatest Hits, Finnish surf music, Outer Mongolian throat singing…
  • 4:00 to 4:30 – listening for enjoyment: Buddy Holly, Luciana Souza, Bon Iver.

 

But believe it or not, even I like to have just plain fun sometimes. So a while back, I started making myself mixes for the car.

I work myself into a semi-conscious, filter-free trance, and spend an hour meandering through my library mentally blindfolded. I grab attractive tracks I seldom listen to, because they don’t fit into my obsessive, programmatic scheme.
I call these Indefensible Collection I, Indefensible Collection II – I’ll let you extrapolate the rest. I’m up to #6. Why indefensible? Because they’re a sundry assortment. They have no rhyme or reason or common theme. They’re just a bunch of – this isn’t easy for me to write – songs I enjoy listening to.

I’d be embarrassed to listen to them in my office but about once a year I allow myself the guilty pleasure of reverting to my AM car radio (‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’) adolescence. They pop up, unprogrammed, the sound of surprise, one after another. Now, that’s fun.

My recent carfare has been IC #6, 50 of which (not all 213 tracks) I’d like to share with you today. Many of them will never achieve their own SoTWs, but I love ‘em all, each and every one. I’ve made a concerted effort to curb my penchant for verboseness. Go, Jeff.

Alan Price, ‘Poor People’ Animals organist, fine singer-songwriter. Love, love this song.
Alison Kraus, ‘Baby, Now That I’ve Found You Guilty pleasure. I remember the original.
Amy Winehouse, ‘I Heard Love is Blind’ I avoided listening to her for years. My loss.
Aretha Franklin, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ Soul at its most soulful
Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’ Neglected polyphonic treasure
Barbra Streisand, ‘I Don’t Care Much’ Aged 21, con huevos.
Becca Stevens, ‘Weightless’ If you know of other music like this, please let me know.
Bonnie Raitt, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ Nod to Justin Vernon
Brian Wilson, ‘Love and Mercy’ Brian at his best
Buffalo Springfield, ‘Pretty Girl Why’ Oh, Stephen
Chicago, ‘If You Leave Me Now’ Guilty pleasure
Dusty Springfield, ‘I Close My Eyes’ SoTW someday soon
Edgar Winter, ‘Rise to Fall’ The raison d’etre for this silly endeavor. A fine, fine cut by an artist I’d never listen to otherwise.
Everly Brothers, ‘Problems’ Yeah!
Fleet Foxes, ‘Montezuma’ Earworm on a hook
Glen Campbell, ‘Galveston’ Jim Webb at his best
Hank Williams, ‘Ramblin’ Man’ Seriously intense
Isley Brothers, ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ If I could have only one Motown cut…
Janis Ian, ‘At Seventeen’ We’re all still 17
Jim Capaldi, ‘Oh, How We Danced’ Charlie Chaplin meets Traffic
John Coltrane, ‘Giant Steps’ Thrilling, every time
John Martyn, ‘May You Never’ The first Martyn song I ever heard
Lake Street Drive, ‘You Go Down Smooth’ A voice that deserves to be respected
Laura Nyro, ‘Up on the Roof’ (bootleg) Better than The Drifters or Carole King
Lee Konitz, ‘Subconscious-Lee’ Tickle your brain
Linda Ronstadt, ‘Prisoner in Disguise’ Ear candy
Louis Armstrong, ‘Lonesome Blues’ The Hot Five, 1926. Really that good.
Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘It’s Not Time Now’ What a B-side can be
Luciana Souza, ‘Amulet’ Written for her by Paul Simon
Mamas and Papas, ‘Trip, Stumble and Fall’ This is the Ms&Ps I remember
Moby Grape, ‘8:05’ Love it dearly
Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’ These young ‘uns
Nilsson, ‘Sleep Late My Lady Friend’ He just shines and shines
Paul McCartney, ‘Junk’ Barely post-Beatles, my favorite McCartney cut ever
Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’ So elusive, so precise
Peter, Paul and Mary, ‘The Good Times We Had’ So much better than what you’d expect
Procol Harum, ‘Conquistador’ 1967 was a very good year
Rascals, ‘A Girl Like You’ Hell, yeah!
Robert Johnson, ‘They’re Red Hot’ Tamales. The only blues artist who never bores me.
Rolling Stones, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows’ One of my very favorite Stones cuts
Roy Orbison, ‘Blue Bayou’ Just a little perfect
Sarah Vaughan, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ Regal
Stevie Wonder, ‘If You Really Love Me’ This for me is Stevie
Sufjan Stevens, ‘All Good Naysayers’ Justifies the whole stupid generation of Millenials
Susanne Sundfor, ‘Kamikaze’ Knockout young Norwegian electronic
Tadd Dameron, ‘On a Misty Night’ Elegance
The Impressions, ‘Woman’s Got Soul’ Singer-songwriter Curtis at his best
The Real Group, ‘Li’l Darlin’ This is music I love
The Staves, ‘I’m on Fire’ Young ‘uns; how’d they get so good?
Tina Dico, ‘Let’s Get Lost’ Fine young Swedish singer-sonwriter
Touche, ‘Shiny Stockings’ Vocal perfection
Vocal Line, ‘Holocene’ (bootleg) A guy can dream

 

 
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250: Mose Allison, ‘Young Man’s Blues’

Posted by jeff on Nov 18, 2016 in Other, Personal, Song Of the week

Mose Allison — ‘Young Man Blues’

The Who – ‘Young Man Blues’

Mose Allison — ‘Parchman Farm’

Mose Allison Photo by Mike Wilson

Mose Allison
Photo by Mike Wilson

“Hey, Jeff, did you hear who just died? You gonna write about him?”

They’re dropping like flies.
Mose Allison, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Kantner, all jamming in that roadhouse honky-tonk in the sky.
Teenagers dying of old age.
Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-g-generation.

For that matter, Dylan’s Nobel prize is also a death. How can you be a revolutionary when the establishment is embracing you? Well, I guess studiously avoiding the ceremony is one way.

And I went to see Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” tour in the summer. There are things worse than death, I guess.

They say “Inside every grown man there’s a teenager screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?’” Actually, it’s not ‘them’ who says it, it’s us. We all know that we were our true selves at 15, and everything that’s happened since then has been a perversion of or deviation from the person we were then.

anger-disorderFor me perhaps more than for some. I believe every person has his inherent age. I sometimes look at an 11-year old and see him as a 40-year old in disguise, or a man of 50 with the demeanor of a 9-year old.

Me, I’ve always been a teenager. You can call it youthful, you can call it creative and energetic. I usually call it arrested development.

I’ve always felt comfortable with people my own age – 17-23. Put me in a social situation with my chronological peers, I’ll most often gravitate to the more interesting among their children. Who wants to hang around with old people?

I was a high-school teacher for many years. During breaks, I’d usually hang out with the best and the brightest of the kids, rather than snore through the teachers’ room. I learned to speak Teenager. Which was perhaps pathetic in one way, but on the other served me in excellent stead for writing plays geared at a young adult audience.

Young Man

Young Man

Then I began to work in hi-tech, where the median age was in the mid to late 20s. I never felt out of place there, at least age-wise. My temperament and metabolism worked well in that environment.

And now I spend my days with the 45-voice rock choir I formed three years ago. “The kids”, as I call the members, are mostly in their 20s. Those I work closely with still tell me I’m a kid at heart. They’ve witnessed up close just how profoundly irresponsible and snarky I am deep inside. But I’m the head of the group, and I try to behave in a dignified manner.

Yes, it is true that Yair and I once dropped frogs through the window into the girls’ shower and listened to them shriek. He was 17, I was 45, the drama teacher accompanying the cast of a play on an overnight.

Old Man

Old Man

But now, with Vocalocity, I try to behave with the dignity becoming a mature and thoughtful leader. It’s a role I have some discomfort playing.

But I – the one screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?’ louder than anyone else louder than any other 68-year old in the tenth grade – am gradually becoming accustomed to the fact that I’m growing old.

I don’t eat Shredded Wheat, I don’t go wandering down the street in my bathrobe, and I don’t wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. But it’s there.

I communicate by phone, rather than by the latest digital platform. I believe in explaining an idea before condensing it into 140 characters. I express my emotions and I try to make personal contact.

In other words, I don’t know how to communicate with Generation Y. They make me feel old. Well, they’re right, I am.

My contemporaries are dying, and in nature’s actuarial terms, it’s no longer ‘a tragedy’. It’s “young by today’s standards”, but come on – 68? As my mother-in-law RIP used to say: “So he lives to eat another sack of potatoes, so what?” We’re done. Extraneous. Over le hill. Bye, Baby.

Telephone

Telephone

My granddaughter is a blossoming 16-year old.
I’ve met kids who know the facts of The Beatles’ career better than I do.
Barack Obama is 13 years younger than me.
I’ve fulfilled my biological, sociological and political role.

I’ve begun to reconcile myself to the fact that I probably never will learn to love opera, successfully finish writing an action novel, or date Scarlett Johansson.

Let’s face it, Jeff. You’re old. Your peers are dying. You got a few good years left, but you’re a senior citizen.
I know. But what the fuck happened? I didn’t use to be old.

I was recently in a fine, serious conversation with a bright and chipper 22-year old member of my group. She has the enthusiasm of a puppy. She’s only known me for a couple of years, and (for some reason I’m still struggling to grasp) does not really see me as her contemporary.

16allison-obit-web4-master768“I haven’t been old for that long,” I said to her. “It’s a new condition for me. I was young for a really long time. Up till now I wasn’t old.”
She looked at me with a sincere and utter lack of comprehension. ‘But it’s now,’ her expression said. ‘I live in now, not in then.’
I tell her I saw The Beatles perform, that I was at Woodstock. She’s as impressed as she would be if I were telling the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder, that we all have to see ourselves as if we personally were taken out of Egypt. “That’s so cool,” she says, but in her bones she doesn’t really believe that I was there.

I’ve often thought about the fact that my grandfather was a teenager when he read in the (Yiddish) newspaper about the Wright Brothers; and that he had all his marbles when Neil Armstrong took his jaunt.

Me? I remember the Cuban missile crisis, and have lived to see the downfall of the Soviet empire. I fear that if I reach my life expectancy, I may witness the fall of the American empire as well.

I’ve lived through so many decades that I can compare them. For example, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that (at least for those choosing a traditional study>job>wife>kids>mortgage>career life path,) the decade of about 35-45 is the best one. The most optimistic one. You’re finally steady but still hopeful. The steadiness soon becomes a curse, and the hope a memory.

But, hey, you didn’t come here to hear a toothless old geezer rant and ramble about people and things that went before. You’re here for the music, and I’ve got a job to do.

Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Elston Gunnn

Gnossos Pappadopoulis, Elston Gunnn

I’m no expert on Mose Allison (1927-2016), but I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He was born and raised in rural Mississippi, moved to New York in his mid-20s to make a respectable living as a jazz pianist, playing straightforward 1950s jazz with the likes of Stan Getz, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. But left to his own devices, he played and sang a unique blend of cool, sophisticated country blues (‘Your Molecular Structure’, ‘Your Mind is on Vacation’.

Mose had a long, productive, low-key career. He recorded an album every year for a couple of decades, then slowed down. But his career was always kept afloat by the great esteem in which he was held by the cognoscenti. Mose was always Mr Cool. All along, those in the know were covering his wry, sardonic, laid-back blues compositions.

He was Randy Newman before Randy was, and I don’t think anyone would deny his influence on Dylan, The Stones and Tom Waits. He was covered by John Mayall, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and The Who. Van Morrison, together with Georgie Fame, Ben Sidran and Mose himself recorded a #1 jazz album in 1996, “Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison.”

I first encountered Mose through Gnossos Pappadopoulis, the hero of Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”. Gnossos was a fan of Mose (according to the book), as was Dick (according to his college buddy Thomas Pynchon).

Fariña (1937-66) was a harbinger of the folk music movement, duetting with his wife Mimi Baez (Joan’s sister). Together with Joan’s friend Bob Dylan, they comprised a royal foursome in the nascent Village folk scene of the early 60s, as wonderfully documented in David Hajdu’s “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña”.

d29-mose-stud-480Mose and Dick are the two coolest people I’ve never met. They’re inextricably intertwined in my fuzzy memory. One died tragically young, one had a long and respectable career.

Gnossos used to listen to Mose’s ‘Young Man Blues’ back in 1958. Since then it’s been covered by youngsters such as Joe Bonamassa and Foo Fighters, but most famously by The Who, a signature song of the lads at their manic best. You can read the lyrics (Oh, well, a young man/Ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days). But seeing is believing – here from the Isle of Wight, 1970.

You want me to make sense of all this? Ferget it. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’. Some fine old singers are dying, and I listen mostly to music made by people in their 20s, whether now or 30 or 50 or 70 years ago.

Although Chuck Berry just turned 90 and is releasing his first album of new material in 38 years.

There’s probably a profound lesson to be learned from that, but I’m not sure what it is.
Carpe diem?
After my nap.

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247: Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Posted by jeff on Oct 7, 2016 in Other, Song Of the week

Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Cantor Joseph Malovany, ‘Kol Nidre’

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Uh-oh.

The big one’s coming up. Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. The Day of Judgement. The final verdict in the Book of Life.

As a boy, my Christian friends had ‘He’ll know if you’ve been bad or good.’ What was at stake was a new Lionel caboose.
I got God Himself with His indelible quill inscribing “who will live and who will die; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning.”
After that, you don’t need “House on Haunted Hill” for nightmares.

It all starts at the beginning of the month of Elul, 40 days before Yom Kippur, when the serious ones among us start getting up every morning (still night for me) at 4AM or some such unGodly hour to recite prayers of penitence. Then 10 days before, you get Rosh HaShana – two full days of wearing white, dipping apples in honey and spraying your dress shirt with pomegranate juice, hoping (praying) that He inscribes you (at this point in magic ink which takes 10 full days to dry) in The Book of Life. Or else…

800_afe2ed68f5589d31e73e2402b1b81fadThen the night before you take either a chicken or 18 units of your local currency and wave it over your head three times to transfer to it your transgressions. I’ll let you guess which means I employ.

On the afternoon of The Evening, here in Israel everything shuts down. By the time the sun is heading for the horizon, there’s nary a soul on the street. The radio and TV stations close down. You ask forgiveness from those you’re closest to for anything you have done to hurt them over the year. Because Yom Kippur only works to absolve you of your transgressions against Him if you’ve already made amends with humanfolk. Three out of every four Jewish citizens prepare to fast.

A simple last meal, all spruced up in your finest whitery (except for the rubber souled shoes), you take the Dead Man Walking trudge to the synagogue–hoping for the best, fearing the worst, something even more ominous than the 25-hour fast that’s just begun. Water, fire, sword, beast…

You sit in your reserved seat (that cost you a pretty penny) as the cantor takes his place on the altar, and he begins that familiar, haunting chant: Kol nidrei, v’esarei, ushvuei, v’haramei, v’kinusei, v’chinuei…

כָּל נִדְרֵי, וֶאֱסָרֵי, וּשְבוּעֵי, וַחֲרָמֵי, וְקוֹנָמֵי, וְקִנוּסֵי, וְכִנוּיֵי …

kol_nidre_in_the_machzor_of_worms

Kol Nidre from Worms prayer book, circa 1275.

The whole congregation is so geared up, so tense, so penitent, so scared out of their wits, that the guy could be singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ (in a minor scale) and you’d be on the verge of meltdown.

Actually, it’s not far from that. Kol Nidre is legalese, a contract. More precisely, the dissolution thereof. It’s a string of technical terms: All the vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and pledges, and consecrations that we’ve taken upon ourselves – seven technical terms of legal commitments, English can’t keep up with them – we disavow them. We declare them null and void with another list of gibberish verbs to satisfy the lawyers.

Not only that. The prayer—I mean, the contract– is mostly in Aramaic, the long-dead lingua franca of the neighborhood, Jesus of Nazareth’s native language, the language of the Talmud. Only one sentence in the middle is in Hebrew.

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Not only that. The content has no clear connection to atonement. It’s pretty much perceived as “If I said to myself ‘I swear I’m never taking this route to work again in my life’”, I’m retracting that. All my vows not involving a commitment to another person, I’m unilaterally dissolving. It’s a technicality, making sure that none of my stupid promises stick, so that I won’t get in trouble with The Big Boy for not keeping them. It’s so deeply ingrained that all year long some folks of my ilk say, “Okay, so I’ll see you for lunch on Tuesday, b’li neder” (but it doesn’t count as a vow).

And, of course, the melody.

Some believe that the tune for Kol Nidre was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The opening of Kol Nidre is what the masters of the Catholic plain-song term a “pneuma”, or soul breath. It begins with a long, sighing tone, falling to a lower note and rising again, as if only sighs and sobs could begin the prayer service.

maxresdefault

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt

What I’m driving at here is that it’s not the inherent content of this legalese text that moves us so on the cusp of the most solemn day of the year. It’s the moment, the state of mind and soul, the drama.

What’s the point of Kol Nidre then? For me, it’s the beginning of a 25-hour attempt to purify myself spiritually, to cleanse myself of unkept promises and transgressions by genuinely and profoundly atoning before my conscience and God. The point transcends legalese.

It’s music, the music of the Jewish soul. We all know that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,/to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak”. Not legal contracts.

There are countless recordings of Kol Nidre, ranging from the sublime to the profane, from the sacred to the ridiculous.

Perhaps most famous is Al Jolson’s rendition in “The Jazz Singer”, the first talkie (1927). Jack Robin (ne Jakie Rabinowitz) rejects his parents’ expectation that he will succeed his father as cantor, in order to pursue his career as a ‘jazz’ (popular) singer. In the movie, the errant, assimilated son is reconciled with his parents and his tradition. But that was a Hollywood ending, expressing the wish fulfillment of producer Sam Warner, the brother who kept peace between his two Alpha siblings Harry and Jack (unburdened by such compunctions over jettisoning  their tradition). Sam died at the age of 39, ending harmony within the Warner family, the day before the premiere of the movie. He was buried on the eve of Yom Kippur. Just like the movie.

Jan Peerce

Jan Peerce

I won’t even mention the 1952 remake of the film starring (Lebanese Maronite Catholic) Danny Thomas or the 1980 embarrassment starring Laurence Olivier and Neil Diamond (who at least was an MoT).

I wish my intuitive association for Kol Nidre were one of the great cantorial voices of the Twentieth Century. Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) was a poverty-stricken cantorial legend in the US. The Warners offered him $100,000 (equivalent to $1.3 million today) to portray the father in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ but they could not persuade him to sing Kol Nidrei. He felt that it was too sacred to be used as entertainment. They did persuade him to do a cameo in the movie, playing himself.

Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker (brothers-in-law and fierce competitors) both began their singing careers as cantors before succumbing to the bright lights of opera.

Richard Tucker

Richard Tucker

All of these versions include instrumental accompaniment. In a traditional service, it is sung either by the cantor alone or accompanied by a male choir. Of course, it can’t be recorded or filmed due to the prohibitions that apply to the day. So these recordings don’t really communicate the starkness of the moment. Here’s one dignified, authentic version, by Cantor Joseph Malovany (b. 1941), that communicates the beauty of the music. It’s worth watching till the end, where he talks a bit about Kol Nidre.

But we don’t choose our mind’s associations, and when you press the Kol Nidre button on the juke box of my mind, what comes on is the version by Perry Como (1912-2001).

Perry was the son of Italian immigrants, a barber, and one of the most popular singers of the mid-century. He was famous for his gentle voice, his calm demeanor and relaxed disposition, his cardigan sweaters, and his all-round niceness.

An example of Como’s popularity came in 1956, in a poll of young women asked which man in public life most fit the concept of their ideal husband: it was Perry Como. A 1958 nationwide poll of U.S. teenagers found Perry Como to be the most popular male singer, beating Elvis Presley, who was the winner of the previous year’s poll.

Perry Como

Perry Como

Perry had a weekly television show from 1949 till 1963, and a monthly one till 1967. That sentence bears some thought. Think of the stature of such a public figure.

In the late 1950s, Jews in the US were still living in the shadow of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, self-conscious of the hospitality extended to them by their adopted country (in harsh contrast to virtually every other state in the world), excluded from many hotels and country clubs and universities and industries, striving desperately to achieve acceptance and safety. My grandparents were “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”. Many Jews of my parents’ generation sought refuge in assimilation, but most still held a complex, tenuous commitment to their faith. But we absolutely carried the awareness of still wanting and needing to be accepted.

approved-gentilesAnd every year, just before the High Holidays, Perry Como – Mr Consensus – would sing Kol Nidre on network television. It was the ultimate expression of America embracing its Jews, the most reassuring promise that we were welcome and safe – perhaps the first time in history where a Jewish population would find such acceptance, such a haven.

Of course, I see things differently today. I see assimilation as an existential threat to American Judaism. I don’t know if Al Jolson’s great-grandchildren will be in synagogue for Kol Nidre this year. I will.

And I no longer depend on Perry Como for affirmation of my faith or peoplehood or personal well-being.  As far as my earthly life goes, I’ve put my eggs in a much different basket. And as far as my spiritual life – well, I’ll be doing some hard and serious thinking when listening to the music of the cantor singing Kol Nidre.

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227: Vitamin String Quartet, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

Posted by jeff on Oct 30, 2015 in Other, Rock, Song Of the week

101relaxVSQ – ‘All Along the Watchtower’

VSQ – ‘Purple Haze’

VSQ – ‘Stay With Me’

VSQ – ‘Chandelier’

My worst nightmare came true this week.

I endured a large portion of my childhood in Lima, Ohio (rhymes with “I’m a”, as opposed to the capital of Chile, which rhymes with “a-Weema-weh”. Lima is where Hugh Downs and Phyllis Diller were born, and where John Dillinger escaped from jail by killing the sheriff. In 1923, a Ku Klux Klan rally drew 100,000 participants. All this happened before my time, which was marked primarily by stealing hubcaps and trying to see just how much trouble a 12-year old Jewish boy could get into in the world’s (Euphemism Alert:) armpit.

But the most heinous crime I witnessed there was my mother buying a “101 Strings” LP at the grocery store.

101_Strings_(1957_album)_(album_cover)David L. Miller of Philadelphia (1925-85) got his start in the music biz by releasing the first Bill Haley & His Comets 45s on his Essex Label in 1952-3. He then jumped on the Mood Music orchestrawagon popularized by Mantovani, hiring the 124-member Orchester des Nordwestdeutschen Rundfunks Hamburg (123 men and a harpist) to play popular standards arranged by his in-house stable of writers. The LPs were pressed by Miller’s own plants and sold through grocery stores at the irresistible price of a mere $1.98 for 12 hits.

In the ten years of the franchise’s existence, 101 Strings recorded more than one album per musician and sold 50,000,000 records, including “101 Strings in a Hawaiian Paradise”, “The Emotion of 101 Strings at Gypsy Campfires”, “Exodus and Other Great Movie Themes”, “The Sounds and Songs of the Jet Set”, “Hits Made Famous by the Supremes”, “101 Strings Tribute to Hank Williams”. I could go on, but I’ll spare both of us. (Three+ hours of HD 101 Strings!!!)

I actually witnessed one of those sales in Lima, at the tender and impressionable of 11. I was in A&P with my mother, who had a nice collection of Original Cast Recordings of Broadway musicals, Sinatra and Lena Horne at home (which I tried to ignore, but somehow osmosed, which stood me in excellent stead some 40 years later, when I became a jazz enthusiast and actually knew all those standards). It was 1959, and I was a wannabe punk and budding music critic. In between the Wonder Bread and Fruit of the Loom stands, Mom plucked “101 Strings with Romantic Piano at Cocktail Time” out of the bin and right into our basket.

Jumping on the Mood Music orchestrawagon

Jumping on the Mood Music orchestrawagon

“Mom, wouldn’t the 99¢ be better spent on a box of Oreos?”

“Why? It looks like nice background music for while I’m cooking dinner.”

“Oh,” I said. But I didn’t really understand. Not then, and not now. Fifty million pieces of vinyl.

I like to take a short nap after lunch when I can. If I’ve been listening to John Cage or Grand Funk Railroad (that was a joke), I tone things down for sleepytime—Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau or Gregorian chants or Bach keyboard music. One deceptively regular morning this week I’d been listening to Imogen Heap, one of my favorite musicians of the last couple of years. She’s a riveting artist, so intense, angry and so frightening that she invariably triggering cremasteric testicular retraction.

say-your-prayers-little-one-the-string-quartet-tribute-to-me-4fde7379900d2But right there in the folder with “iMegaphone”, “Ellipse” and “Sparks” is “VSQ Performs Imogen Heap” – string quartet treatments of Ms Heap’s compositions. I don’t know how it got there, but I’d listened to it numerous times, albeit on my way to Siestaville, with my critical senses duly dulled. But I’d heard enough to know that I approved. Ms Heap is one fine musician, and it’s a pleasure to hear her given a respectful treatment in a quasi-classical setting. It fits her complex, intelligent music just like her musical gloves. (Vitamin String Quartet Performs Imogen Heap)

Not so different from the Kronos Quartet’s homages to Bill Evans and to Thelonious Monk, both of which include string transrangements of the original, with guest slots from the masters’ cronies (Eddie Gomez/Jim Hall, and Ron Carter, respectively) providing a fine kosher certificate.

SoTW 086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)

But the Kronos Quartet carries its own bona fides as the foremost promulgators of contemporary classical music around. They’re Mick Jagger cool. If there’s a band in the world that can’t be accused of being derivative or commercial, it’s Kronos. When they play ‘Purple Haze’, you know they’re not pandering. So I decided to postpone Le Snooze and check out just who this VSQ is.

cover326x326Turns out it’s the Vitamin String Quartet, an LA-based string quartet/”group of music geeks, string players, performers, arrangers, producers and creatives” formed in 1999 to record Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits. Their website provides scanty background information, but they do refer to themselves as “the carefully curated source for innovative string renditions of popular music”. According to Tom Tally, a leading shaker in the “rotating cast” of hired musicians, “Vitamin String Quartet is about applying rock n’ roll attitude to classical technique.”

Then I watched a short documentary about their first performance in a ‘rock setting’, just a few months ago at the Troubadour Club in LA (Pt 1, Pt 2). They come across as very cool, sincere, dedicated musicians with classical training and a mohawk coiffure, guys I’d be happy to hang out with. Kids lined the street to get into their show.

Then I dug a little further. It turns out that in 16 years they’ve recorded over 330 albums, all released through their very own label, Vitamin Records. David L. Miller, are you listening? Not only are their recordings frequently used as background music for leading TV shows – for two years WWHK of Concord, New Hampshire played their music exclusively, 24/7. David, that should make you sit up, even in the grave.

I’ve been listening to a few of those 330+ albums. Their treatment of The Beatles is as predictable as that of 101 Strings, and not much better. Most of the bands they pay tribute to I’ve never listened to (Nirvana, Aerosmith, Alice in Chains, Black Sabbath) or even heard of (Bad Religion, Sevenfold, Blue October, Bullet for my Valentine). But I really do like that Imogen Heap album. And their sound, their attitude, really are pretty cool. I even found a cut or two that work well (Howie, Shmuel, here’s a very nice ‘All Along the Watchtower’ for you.)

519UZdtatTL._SS500_Lightbulb over my head. Why are they so popular? Why do I even like some of it? Because for fans of everyone from The Beatles to Nine Inch Nails, they’re nice to listen to!

And that’s when my blood ran cold. I had become my mother.

“Nice” has always been an anathema to me, the biggest musical snob to sprout in Lima, Ohio. What do I do now? Go get myself a martini glass and a lobotomy, and ride the elevator all day just so I can listen to the music?

Vitamin String Quartet. I just can’t bring myself to disapprove. They’re clever businessmen with great hair, an innovative aesthetic, and a blockbuster formula. They’re guys I’d be happy to hang out with. They might even invite me onto their yacht.

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