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105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’

Posted by jeff on Mar 20, 2018 in A Cappella, Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Whoopee, new discovery!! I returned from jaunt to the US with a treasure chest of CDs. I’ve been slogging through them slowly and methodically and thematically and chronologically (as is my compulsive wont). This week I got to the pile of Vocal Jazz Groups.

There have been remarkably few really important vocal jazz groups, and a couple of the more popular ones don’t speak much to me. I have touted here the a cappella jazz scene, (The Real Group, The Idea of North, Pust) especially the Scandinavians, but I’ve been trying to expand my horizons backwards. Among the CDs I’ve been studying are The Four Freshmen (1960s–snore) and The Mills Brothers (too tame).

Eureka! The Boswell Sisters!!

Raised in New Orleans, Martha Boswell (1905–58), Connee (1907–76), andHelvetia”Vet” (1911–88), they achieved local success in the mid/late 1920s. By 1929 they were appearing 5 nights a week on radio inLos Angeles. From 1930-35 they recorded in NYC with support of the leading jazz luminaries of the era (Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman), appeared in movies (The Marx Brothers, depression-era extravaganzas), had 20 hit records, and inspired a street kid named Ella (who made her stage debut at17 in1934 singing two of their songs).

In 1936, all three sisters got married. Martha and Vet retired from show biz, leaving wheelchair-bound (some sources say polio, some say childhood accident) lead singer Connee to follow a reasonably successful solo career for the next 25 years.

They have been called one of the very best vocal jazz groups ever, maybe THE best. I’ve been listening for a week now, and I’m of the mind that that’s no exaggeration. Their vocals were often so hot that the girls were assumed to be black. They scat with the best of them, and do some knock-out imitations of instruments or nonsense sounds. But most important, their 3-part harmonies are tighter than Aunt Bertha’s girdle. They make CS&N sound like YY&Y. Their arrangements are constantly chock full of unexpected shifts in tempo, major/minor mode, key, and tone, flipping cheekily from dead serious to insouciant comic and back. They have a wicked and sometimes rather racy sense of humor.

Here are the Mills Brothers, also early 1930s, ohsobland in comparison.

Here are The Andrews Sisters, who started their careers in the mid/late 1930s as Boswell Sister imitators. As charming as they are, and with all their stage presence, the Andrews Sisters’ music is unspectacular, predictable in comparison to our Boswells. Well, and while we’re on the Sister Act page, here are the incredible Ross Sisters, whose vocals are certainly respectable, but whose fame lies elsewhere. Check them out, a hair-raising experience is guaranteed.

Enough talk, let’s give you some fine music to listen to.

Here’s one of their most famous songs, ‘Crazy People’. It’s fun, it’s fine, it’s very, very impressive technically.

Crazy people, crazy people
Crazy people like me go crazy over people like you
Goofy people, daffy people
Daffy people like me go crazy over things you do.

The Boswell Sisters with Bing Crosby

First of all, it’s a very cheeky song. Using derogatories in a positive sense was, to my mind, an invention of the 1960s. There’s nothing ironic about ‘hip’ or ‘cool’. But ‘freaks’ and ‘bad’ are ironic. Our sisters here are praising a state of frenzy (in love). It seems to me that this is a loosening of corset restraints that only occurs in the 1920s, especially in dance and jazz music.

What else do we have here? The airtight harmonies. Connee’s solo at 17″. The vocal instrumentals at 30″. The syncopation at 45″. The cut-time section starting at 1’00″—if you listen closely, you’ll hear at least two more shifts in tempo within that section! Connee’s scat at 1’20”, leading into a magical shift on the chorus from major to minor. Some very dark, soulful harmony singing towards the end, then a precise wah-wah finish.

I want to tell you, sports fans, you listen to The Mills Brothers, Lambert Hendricks & Ross (admittedly a different bag, not close harmony), Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group (okay, they come close), you don’t find that kind of value for your money all in 2’01”.

Here’s another one of big hits of The Boswell Sisters, ‘Everybody Loves My Baby‘, cut from the same cloth as ‘Crazy People’. Try to count the number of different tempi they employ here. It’s like counting jellybeans in a jar.

Here’s another cut, ‘I Hate Myself (for Being Mean to You)‘. Note the bouncy opening, followed by the mock-tragic intro. Check the lyrics: “I slap my face for saying the things I do…”, “I’m gonna send myself a telegram and tell myself what a fool I am”, “If you stay away another day, I’ll kiss myself goodbye…” And the pastiche of wild, incongruous elements (instrumental and vocal) in the middle of the song, each one a gem in and of itself.

Here are a few more of my favorites, for your listening edification:

‘Shout, Sister, Shout

‘Was That the Human Thing to Do?

‘What’d You Do to Me?

We’re in the Money‘, a Great Depression anthem

‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo‘, with lyrics as subtly suggestive as an Ernst Lubitsch film

Here’s an interesting trailer for a yet-to-be released documentary about The Boswell Sisters.

Listen to what they do with a well-known standard, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek‘. According to Wikipedia, “They were among the very few performers who were allowed to make changes to current popular tunes during this era, as music publishers and record companies pressured performers not to alter current popular song arrangements.” Change it they do. Not as adventurous as some of the other cuts here, it’s still an education in itself for vocal groups 80 years later. (By the way, HaBanot Nechama, a very talented young Israeli chick trio also with very tight harmony and lots of humor and lots of shifting gears, do sound to me like they’ve been doing their homework here.)

Here’s another one, albeit light, but we can’t not mention it, ‘Rock and Roll’. I admit I thought Alan Freed had coined the term in the early 1950s to describe the new music. But it turns out that early in twentieth century the phrase was used to describe the movement of a ship on the ocean, but it carried connotations of both sexual fervor and the spiritual fervor of black church rituals.

I assume a lot of very serious, politically conscious ladies and gents will find ‘Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)‘ objectionable, but I think there were three tongues in three cheeks when The Boswells were singing this:

I’ve got a mission, it’s just a simple thing
I’ve only one ambition, to have the right to bring you
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night

It’s my desire to do as I am told
To have what you require, and never have it cold, dear
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night 

Though wedding bells sound sad and dirgy
Though wedding ties may spoil the fun
Without helping hand of clergy
Oh, I’m afraid it can’t be done

It isn’t formal, but with a wedding ring
It’s natural, it’s normal to give you everything from
From coffee in the morning
To kisses in the night

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two

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280: Charles Ives, ‘The Unanswered Question’

Posted by jeff on Mar 16, 2018 in Classical, Song Of the week

Charles Ives, ‘The Unanswered Question’ (Bernstein/NYPO)

Charles Ives, ‘Central Park in the Dark’ (Bernstein/NYPO)

Charles Ives, ‘Concord Sonata’ Movement 2 (The Alcotts)

I have a self-imposed rule: Write about music you love with a passion. This week I’m breaking that rule.

I do not love the music of Charles Ives, but I admire the man passionately. He’s my new role model – despite (or probably because of) the fact that his life was a paragon of a trait I painfully lack.

Charles and Melody

During the work week, Charles Ives (no relation to Burl) founded one of the most successful insurance companies in the US, invented the concept of estate planning, and wrote crazy, impossible music on the commuter train and on weekends. His music was largely ignored during his lifetime—and he didn’t give a flying hoot.

Me? I dabble in quasi-creative enterprises and when the world doesn’t collectively lie down on its back in reverence I run home crying. This is a guy I have to learn from.

Charles Ives Ives (1874 – 1954) was an American modernist composer, experimenting in atonality before Schoenberg and in free dissonance before Stravinsky. His roots were the church and band and popular and folk music of Danbury, Connecticut. His musical education (at Yale) was in the classical European tradition.

His mentor, inspiration and guiding light was his father, George, who led ‘the best band in the Union army’ during the Civil War. When he caught his 5-year old son banging out the rhythm part of a band piece on the piano with his fists, he patted the boy on the head and sent him for drum lessons. Charles later became one of the first proponents of cluster chords, instructing the pianist in one of his most famous compositions, the Concord Sonata, to use a board 14 3/4 “ long to play them.

George Ives would have his son sing in one key while he accompanied in another; he built instruments to play quarter-tones; he played his cornet over a pond so Charlie could gauge the effect of space; he set two bands marching around a park blaring different tunes, to see what it sounded like when they approached and passed. Of a man singing off-key in church: “Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds–for if you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.”

Charles was a professional church organist at the age of 14, already composing pieces considered difficult to play even today, which Charlie called “as much fun as playing baseball”.  He moved to New Haven, captained his high school baseball team, was touted as a potential champion sprinter, joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and learned all the rules he was determined to flaunt under the leading teacher of the European classical tradition in America.

He left Yale in 1898 to work in the insurance business in New York. As he put it, if a composer “has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let them starve on his dissonances?”

From 1906-08 his various lives climaxed.
He founded the insurance company which he would build into an empire until his retirement in 1930.
He suffered his first breakdown.
He married Harmony Twitchell, a fellow Transcendentalist (followers of the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau).
And he composed prolifically (on the commuter train and on Sundays), including “Two Contemplations”: “Central Park in the Dark” and our SoTW, “The Unanswered Question”. Both pieces would wait until 1946 for their first performance.

“Central Park in the Dark” was originally titled “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in ‘The Good Old Summer Time’”.  He described it thus: “This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

“The Unanswered Question” is scored for 3 voices playing in independent tempos. A string quartet placed offstage! sustains slow tonal triads that according to Ives represent “The Silence of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing”. The solo trumpet presents a nontonal phrase seven times—”The Perennial Question of Existence”, which a quartet of flutes answers in increasing frustration six times. They are “Fighting Answerers” who, after a time, “realize a futility and begin to mock ‘The Question'” before finally disappearing, leaving “The Question” to be asked once more before “The Silences” are left to their “Undisturbed Solitude”. The seventh ‘question’ of the trumpet is left unanswered by the flutes.

Leonard Bernstein called these “the beginning of American music”.

Ives fan

Over the next decade, Ives composed furiously, including his major works. In 1918, the same year he published his groundbreaking “Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax”, he suffered his second breakdown, after which he composed very little, although he continued to revise earlier works. One day in early 1927 Ives came downstairs with tears in his eyes. He could compose no more, he said, “nothing sounds right.”

He would spend the rest of his life revising, organizing and self-publishing his own compositions, as well as anonymously supporting other modernist composers. But his music went unperformed until 1939, when a recital of the “Concord Sonata” garnered rave reviews. In 1947 Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Symphony No. 3, completed nearly 40 years earlier.

Ives fan

In 1951, Leonard Bernstein and his New York Philharmonic premiered Ives’ “Second Symphony”.  Although he offered Ives to conduct a private performance for him in a darkened hall, Ives refused to attend. A few days later, when the symphony was broadcast, he went into the kitchen to listen to it on the maid’s radio. From the liner notes of the LP: “He emerged from the kitchen doing an awkward little jig of pleasure and vindication. This seems to have been the only unqualified pleasure in an orchestra performance that Ives ever had.”

His reputation has since grown exponentially, his works being canonized as those of a “true primitive”, an “authentic American saint” (Bernstein). “Americans found Mark Twain, Emerson and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one.” His proponents eventually included Mahler, Stokowski, Tilson Thomas, Frank Zappa, and Phil Lesh, bassist of the Grateful Dead (“One of my two musical heroes”).

He responds to negligence with contempt.

Arnold Schoenberg: “There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self-esteem and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.”

“He responds to negligence with contempt.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. When people ask me “What do you do?” I mumble something about my history of day jobs, and add “but mostly I am involved with music.” “Oh, you have a hobby?” they respond, smiling condescendingly.

After Wallace Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard but declined since it would have required him to give up his vice-presidency of The Hartford. Was his poetry a ‘hobby’?

In his twenties, Tenessee Williams worked at the International Shoe Company factory, then later as a caretaker on a chicken ranch. His mother:”Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.” Were his plays a ‘hobby’?

Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin (b. 1938) has 35 albums and piles of awards to his credit. He was also clinical professor of psychiatry the University of San Francisco. Was his music a ‘hobby’?

Minimalist composer Philip Glass worked as a plumber and a taxi driver. Glass was called to the house of art critic Robert Hughes to install a dishwasher. Hughes recognized him and complained that Glass was an artist, and therefore shouldn’t be installing a dishwasher. Glass replied that yes, he was an artist, but he was sometimes a plumber as well, and Hughes should go away and let him finish the job. Were his compositions a ‘hobby’?

These gents achieved recognition in their lifetimes. So we retrospectively minimize their day jobs, right? Charles Ives only began to taste acknowledgement at the very end of his life, but is today canonized, and good for him.

Is that what makes these people ‘artists’, their belated public recognition?  What about the forgotten Franz Kafkas and Emily Dickinsons? – the uncountable, unrecognized, potentially great artists who labored at their crafts nights and weekends and train rides, year after year, decade after decade, only to have their executors eventually dump the contents of their desk drawers into the garbage bin? What about the myriads of honest, dedicated pedestrian practitioners who supported their families by day and toiled in their chosen medium with passion at night as “amateurs”–literally, ‘lovers’?

To all the honest, unrecognized or insufficiently appreciated practitioners of creative endeavors, myself included, I wish you a modicum of Charles Ives’ dignity. May you–correct that, may we–respond to negligence by contempt. Well, we’re not all Charles Ives, so may we at least temper the lack of appreciation with the knowledge that we had the passion and conviction of our creation. Charlie Ives knew that that’s what really matters.

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170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

Posted by jeff on Mar 8, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro

Today we’re going to track the evolution of the first two measures of ‘Luckie’, the ebullient opening track on Laura Nyro’s masterpiece. “Eli & the 13th Confession”. I can’t promise that next week we’ll track the next two bars, although the entire album does deserve such reverential attention.

Once upon a time, there was a gospel singer named Curtis Mayfield, who snuck out the back door of his Chicago church and formed The Impressions (‘People Get Ready’, ‘It’s All Right’). Curtis wrote and arranged all the songs, a veritable one-man Motown. He had such a surplus of talent that he wrote and produced hits for his Impressions bandmate Jerry Butler, (‘For Your Precious Love’, ‘He Will Break Your Heart’) and for a two-hit wonder, Major Lance. ‘Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um’ (1964) was a charmer, but it was ‘The Monkey Time’ (1963) that made Major’s name and Curtis a pile of dough. I can’t think of a more infectious Top 40 song.

Curtis Mayfield

Here’s an instructional video about how to do The Monkey (as opposed to The Jerk), should you be so moved. (After locking the door) I just tried it together with Major Lance and the Shindig dancers, and it went pretty well. Maybe not as well as in this gambol of that other great Monkey hit, ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Chalk it up to my pigmental predilections. At least the Monkey’s off my back.

Listen again to the end of each verse of ‘The Monkey Time’: ‘…and then the music begins to play/You’re automatically on your way./Are you ready? (Are you ready?)/Well, you get yours, ‘cause I’ve got mine/It’s the Monkey Time!’Stop dancing for a minute, and bookmark that phrase!

Now let’s hop ahead to 1965 to Barbara Mason, a lass of 18 from Philadelphia: “I was a huge Curtis Mayfield fan, and I heard a record he had produced, Major Lance’s ‘The Monkey Time’ and he sings, ‘Are you ready?’ and I just thought, there’s my record. It only took me 10 minutes to write, and then we recorded it live in one take.”

Barbara Mason

Yes, I’m Ready’ was a giant hit, a harbinger of the Philly Soul sound which would achieve fruition in the 1970s. Her song was covered numerous times (Gladys Knight & the Pips, Carla Thomas), and became a hit again in 1979 for Teri DeSario & K.C. Interestingly, the only significant cover of ‘The Monkey Time’ was by Laura Nyro herself, backed by Labelle, on her knockout 1971 cover album, ‘Gonna Take a Miracle’. Here’s a live performance from the 1971 Carnegie Hall bootleg. I guess The Monkey beat was pretty daunting. But check out the opening cut, ‘I Met Him on a Sunday’. Here’s the original, by The Shirelles. 1:0 for the white girl!

That brings us up to March, 1968, the release of Laura Nyro’s “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Listen again to how ‘Luckie’ starts.

Bum-bum-bum, “Yes, I’m ready!!” Recognize that phrase?

Laura Nyro

Whoa, Laura! Not too much ambiguity there, is there folks? Ready for what? Well, mister, you just name it. You have to remember this was written in 1968. Girls didn’t talk like that in 1968. They certainly didn’t shout such things.

And that’s just the first two measures. In the rest of the song, she wrestled with the Devil and won. Jacob did that and got appointed a forefather! Here, let me show you.

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie
Well, there’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone
You can meet the captain at the dead-end zone
What Devil doesn’t know is that Devil can’t stay
Doesn’t know he’s seen his day

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Laura Nyro Fighting the Devil

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Devil, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever more

It’s a wrestling match, Good Vibrations vs Sympathy for the Devil. And this 21-year old banshee takes her grand piano and bashes old Lucifer on the noggin. You ain’t bringing me down, mister! It’s not luck, it’s an act of will. My friend MB from Back Then: “I took my first LSD trip alone in my parents’ house in the middle of the night, and was scared shitless. I put on “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Laura walked me through that night, and I’ve never let go of her hand since.” Laura got me through a missile attack with a similar act of no-holds-barred optimism. You gonna get in my face? Yes, I’m ready.

Laura Nyro Fan

I’m starting to feel like The Ancient Mariner – accosting unsuspecting revelers, grabbing them by the lapel, sticking my nose right up in their face, my feverish eyes gaping unblinking into theirs, to force upon them The Question: “Do you adequately appreciate Laura Nyro’s musical accomplishments?” I have no idea why, but I sometimes feel people shrinking back from this sort of engagement. With Laura, I mean. If she’s that good, why isn’t she famous?

One reason is that she effectively removed herself from the music business at 24. Others? She was quirky, personally and musically. She was seriously intense, intensely joyous. Demanding, over-the-top. She was divine, spiritual, fearless, unblinking in the face of any and every passion. An ancient mariner for our times.

I really am getting tired of quoting the litany of her praises, of quoting how Elton John and Elvis Costello and Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones and Susan Vega all recognize her as a major voice in the days when rock music was asserting itself as the torchbearer of popular culture. Even Joni Mitchell, a person known to be stingy in crediting her peers, said “Laura Nyro you can lump me in with, because Laura exerted an influence on me. I looked to her and took some direction from her.”

Joni Mitchell (l), Laura Nyro

A revolution in women’s self-image began in the 1960s. Today it’s easy to relegate The Music to the status of soundtrack. Those of us who were there know it was the inspiration. With all due credit to Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and even Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, there were two women who forged this new awareness – Laura and Joni. Carol King came along a few years later.

Laura Nyro

I grant that Joni is the more compleat artist. She had a long, variegated, accomplished career. She was a mistress of craft par excellence, a singularly soulful voice, musically courageous, a trailblazer of unparalleled achievement. It diminishes her not one whit to point out that where Joni was an artisan, Laura was wild. Joni was analytical, Laura was spontaneous. Joni was in control of her material, her voice, her compositions. Laura was an unfettered inspiration in all. Joni dismounted walls brick by brick. Laura detonated them. It was she who inspired rock musicians, male and female, to heed no boundaries of tempo, genre, or superego. She was the natural snow, the unstudied sea, a cameo, born for the loom’s desire. She still ornaments the earth. For me.

 

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie

 Well, there’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone
You can meet the captain at the dead-end zone
What Devil doesn’t know is that Devil can’t stay
Doesn’t know he’s seen his day

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Devil, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever more

Yes, I’m ready, so come on, Luckie
Luckie inside of me, inside of my mind, inside of my mind

Don’t go falling for Naughty
Don’t go falling for Naughty
He’s a dragon with his double bite
Sure can do his shortchanging out of sight
An artist of a sort but a little bit short of luck, this lucky night

Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand
‘Cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes

Dig them potatoes
If you’ve never dug your girl before
Poor little Naughty, he’s a backseat man
To Luckie forever, a backseat man
To Luckie, hey, hey, hey
It’s a real good day to go get Luckie, go get Luckie

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’
202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’
233: Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’
270: Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle Bootleg, 1971)

 
Songs of The Week: Joni Mitchell
Songs of The Week: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles

 
0

279: Ásgeir, ‘Torrent’

Posted by jeff on Mar 2, 2018 in Nordic, Rock

Laugarbakki

Ásgeir – ‘Torrent’

Ásgeir – ‘King and Cross’

Ásgeir – ‘Higher’

Ásgeir – ‘In Harmony’

Ásgeir – ‘Going Home’

Ásgeir – ‘In the Silence’

Ásgeir – ‘On That Day’ 

Ásgeir Trausti (b. 1992) grew up in Laugarbakki, a hamlet of 40 residents (mostly retirees) in northwest Iceland. There weren’t any other kids, so he grew up playing guitar. By 12 he had formed a garage band in the nearby metropolis of Hvammstangi (pop. 580).

He’s now an ultra-cool, fully tattooed indie acoustic cum electronica singer/songwriter whose  international career is taking off. But he spends every summer in Laugarbakki planting trees. “I like to go back home as often as possible,” he says. “I don’t like being in a series of big cities that I don’t know. There’s too much stress. I need the open air and the quiet.”

Ásgeir makes low-key, ghostly, introspective music with an expressive, tremelo falsetto. Think Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, think Jonsi of fellow Icelandic band Sigur Rós, think James Blake; think Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. (I see s/he has changed hir name, and presumably some other identifying features, and is now called Anhoni.)

Ásgeir debut album has been bought by some 10% of the Icelandic public (that’s about 30,000 copies), and has charted around the world (#8 in Australia, #40 in the UK). It was nominated for Best Nordic Album of the Year. And there’s a lot of fine music coming out of Scandinavia.

For about a year now, I’ve found “In the Silence” (the English version) to be really fine music. The vocals are heart-rending. The songs are full of entrancing, mystical landscapes and trolls, buoyed by pop hooks that just don’t let go. And the production, the sound palette? Worth the price of admission.

His original career choice was the javelin, but when he hurt his back he started to spend more time on his hobby. He made a demo EP at home, and at 19 took it to a respected young musician/producer, Guðm. Kristinn Jónsson (aka Kiddi – unless I missed something in translation; it’s Icelandic, after all). The next day they started recording what would eventually become the album “Dýrð í dauðaþögn”. It was the first time Ásgeir was in a recording studio.

They didn’t set out to record an entire album. They were just re-recording songs from the demo. Ásgeir was fooling around, playing with new instruments and recording techniques. At one point, Kiddi brought in a dozen studio musicians. When he found out that Ásgeir plays all the instruments himself, he let them go.

So while Kiddi was mixing, Ásgeir would go into another room and write new songs. He’s not much into words. If you look at an interview (or acoustic performance) with him, you’ll see what an extreme introvert he is. Talking for him is akin to throwing a javelin for the rest of us (the Olympic ones are over 2.5 meters long). He likes quiet.

Son and Father

But his father is a respected poet and lyricist. So he has his father write his lyrics. “I like to have my father involved, like a family thing. I know that I won’t do as good a job. I trust him, and he’s really into it…I’ve always admired my father’s work, ever since I was a kid.”

Think about that. Do you know anyone who would talk about his father like that? Do you personally know any 21st century human being who would say “I’ve always admired my father’s work”? Can you imagine any budding rock star anywhere in the world who would prefer to spend his summers in a village of 40 old people, in the middle of a bleak and grey landscape, planting trees, rather than touring California with his band?

Ásgeir’s music reflects that kind of organic, peaceful, rooted mindset. While being totally young, cool, hip, relevant, au courant. Welcome to the internet, folks.

So Ásgeir came to Kiddi with these passionate, acoustic songs about Air and Home and Silence and Birds Singing. And together they produced a wonderful, engaging, beautiful album I’ve listened to many dozens of time. It was such a hit in Iceland that they rerecorded the vocals in English, the translation a collaboration of Ásgeir, his dad, Kiddi, and indie stalwart John Grant, who just happened to be living in Reykjavik and speaks Icelandic.

The musician and the producer generously provide a fascinating (for me at least) track by track commentary on how this wonderful sound picture was composed. It’s a riveting (for us music nerds) peek into the collaborative work of an incredibly talented young songwriter from ‘out there’ and a gifted, sophisticated producer.

‘Higher’ – Based on an electronic loop, doubled with a grand piano. “I lift my mind to the sky/and I let it take flight./The wind carries to my ears/precious sounds of life./Soon I break all ties which bind me to this earth…/Higher, higher/Far away/And the glare of this world/is small and humbled.”

‘In the Silence’, the title track. Like the entire album, it began acoustically, and they consciously set out to add electronics “to make it cool.” They used three different bass players till they found the groove they wanted.

‘Torrent’ is for me the most intriguing cut on the album, hence our Song of The Week. I literally lost sleep trying to figure out the time signature of the verse. Ásgeir: “It’s kind of 7/8, but also 4/4. It’s kind of…all over the place.” Listen to the song. He’s a whole lot more eloquent playing it than describing it. He calls it “a drum song”. To my mind, it’s a whole lot more than that. It’s a rhythmic trip. Kiddi says they recorded the drum track in a stairwell, using “4 or 5 drum kits, to achieve that ‘wall of sound’ effect.” Phil Spector’s legacy popping up in Reykjavik. Phil should be smiling from his California cell.

‘Going Home’ – It’s a true story. We all know that you can’t go home again after you’ve left. But apparently there are still places in the world where one never really leaves home. “Long is the path ahead,/and though my body tires/and I have far to go,/ I know I’m going home,/know I’m going home.” The lyrics may not carry much weight alone. But they’re not meant to – they’re there to serve the whole. And the whole carries tremendous emotional weight.

‘On That Day’ is in a similar vein. What reached out and grabbed me so strongly is the repeated hook at the end, “You don’t get to call the shots that way.” It was an ear-worm for weeks, warm and affective and welcome. Yeah, just that phrase. “It’s so true.” All over life. You don’t get to call the shots that way. Ouch.

Laugarbakki

‘In Harmony’ faithful to the acoustic demo, embellished with a stunning, grandiose production.

‘King and Cross’, the closest thing to a hit, with a video full of authentic Norse elves and trolls.

Ásgeir’s second album, “Afterglow”, is quite a different trip. He’s following very much the same path as Bon Iver and James Blake, experimenting in distortion, testing the boundaries of sound. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Check out “In the Silence”. Take a couple of hours. Or days. Or weeks. I’ve found that Laugarbakki music to be both pastoral and hip, genuinely organic and convincingly innovative.

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