Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Mercurial Brad Mehldau

Known for his irrepressible, mercurial artistic sensibilities, as much as he is for his willingness to accommodate material from beyond the traditional boundaries of straightforward piano jazz, Brad Mehldau is well and truly one of the most singular talents working in the contemporary jazz scene. Armed with a set of highly impressive, consistently proficient piano chops, Mehldau has explored everything from cerebral Bill Evans-influenced trio workouts and studied neo-classicist tonalities, to off-kilter, leftfield rock freak-outs and experimental, avant-garde modalisms.

A particular highlight in Mehldau's long oeuvre is his astonishing album from 2002, the brilliantly restless "Largo", which displays Mehldau's penchant for unusual harmonic constructions, mutated modal chords and contradictory instrumental figurations.

And he pulls it all off with such aplomb too, employing bucketloads of studied dissonance and lyrical improvisations in diverse tracks like the cinematic, spatial "When It Rains", the feeedback-drenched, almost Hendrixian "Sabbath", the frenetic Carnatic-informed "Alvarado", and the turbulent "Dropjes", an adventure in contrapuntal inflections, complete with modulated guitar synths, sampled electronics and a great, tension-filled rhythm section.

A reading of Radiohead's existentialist epic "Paranoid Android" makes use of that reliable John Cage trick of placing dampers between the piano hammers for the effect of mildly warped-sounding chords, while the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" is given a surprisingly straightahead reading on basic, Bill Evans-style piano trio of acoustic bass, drums and piano, arguably the most conventional-sounding recital here. There is even an incongruous, almost freeform pairing of Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa-nova classic "Wave" and the Beatles' whimsical "Mother Nature's Son", which has Mehldau ably displaying his vibraphone-playing mettle, anchored by an ambient electronic drone.

"Largo", simply put, constitutes a new benchmark for experimental jazz, not only with its technical assurance, but more importantly, with its inherent sense of adventure. Long may Mehldau roam.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I'll Never Be Your Maggie May

While the Rod Stewart standard "Maggie May" is familiar to millions, it's Suzanne Vega's wonderfully cunning reply to that immortal song of obsession that's a better proposition. Reversing the original's narrative of a younger man's infatuation with an older woman, and telling the story from the woman's viewpoint instead, "I'll Never Be Your Maggie May" is an amazing story song, a coolly accessible number that is an undoubtedly more thought-provoking composition than the overhyped Stewart rendition. Check out Vega's terrific live performance here, which is preceded by a concise, expository explanation.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Forgotten Talent

One of the most underrated and sadly forgotten talents to emerge from the late-1980s folk-pop scene is itinerant songstress Tanita Tikaram. Tikaram's most distinctive quality is her sultry, smoky lower-register tenor, a wondrous voice that has lent its magic to an array of almost perfect songs. Tikaram's first album, 1988's "Ancient Heart" remains her most accomplished and realised work, a melancholy yet hopeful collection of tracks that is one of the most remarkable debuts of all time.

There's a whole variety of moods to be found on "Ancient Heart": measured celebration ("Good Tradition", "World Outside Your Window"), airy calmness ("Cathedral Song", "He Likes the Sun"), blissful insouciance ("Sighing Innocents", "I Love You"), sombre thoughtfulness ("Twist in My Sobriety", "For All These Years"), lovelorn longing ("Valentine Heart") and sheer resignation ("Preyed Upon"). This makes for a terrific, under-appreciated album that has aged extremely well - too bad that it's long out of print.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Madcap Adventures of Split Enz

Endearingly eccentric new-wave geniuses Split Enz produced some of the most evocative, elliptical songs during their tenure in the industry, fuelled by Neil Finn's impeccable melodic sensibilities and Tim Finn's ingenuous arrangements. Of course, the Finn brothers would go on to adopt a more conventional pop-rock approach (and greater commercial success) with Crowded House and their own duo-combo career, but their Split Enz tunes are still brilliant pieces of pop brilliance worthy of more than just a passing mention. Here are a few examples of Split Enz's madcap genius:

Cocktail-lounge horns and Hawaiian guitar strums make for a laid-back tune about love at first sight, supplemented by Tim Finn's suitably woozy warbling.

A herky-jerky showtune-like piece that emphasises a carnival-esque atmosphere. The Enz's cunning take on British music-hall aesthatics.

I SEE RED (1979)
Manic, frenzied guitar riffs battle furiously with strident, trenchant organ lines, racing to an absolute stunner of a shouty climax.

I GOT YOU (1980)
One of the great new-wave pop standards, this punchy, nervy number boasts arguably the most engaging and hummable singalong chorus amongst all of the Enz's singles.

A standard-issue failed-relationship song, albeit one with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Tim Finn sings in an intentionally melodramatic tenor, backed by appropriate lounge-piano chords and a sweeping orchestral backing.

POOR BOY (1980)
Sparkling synth chords lend a sci-fi slant to the Enz's musical make-up, anchoring this whimsical, forbidden-love tale of aliens in love.

A rollicking sea shanty complete with Uillean pipes and swaying fiddles, this hilarious study of a shipwrecked crew was actually banned by the BBC during the Falklands War for its possible morality-lowering temperament.

This pure, blissful pop song is a direct precursor to Neil Finn's excellent adult-alternative work with Crowded House. Arguably the most commercially-natured song in the Enz's entire oeuvre.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Carnival Is Over

Arguably one of the most atmospheric and evocative promos ever made, Dead Can Dance's "The Carnival Is Over" is an astonishing visual fest, a melange of rich, colourful images that corresponds to the song's message, telling of a mystical, mysterious fair that acts as a metaphor for a person's subconsciousness. Impressive to the max, this uttterly brilliant, kaleidoscopic video has to be seen to be believed. Find it here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

In a Lonely Place

A shimmering, quietly optimistic song, done as a duet between power-pop veterans The Smithereens and singer-songwriter extraordinaire Suzanne Vega, "In a Lonely Place" is one of those numbers perfectly suited for those long, dark, lonely nights of the soul. It's matched with an atmospheric black-and-white video clip, viewable here.

Friday, December 08, 2006

In Praise of King Crimson

Robert Fripp's ever shifting King Crimson collective is, induspitably the foremost purveyors of that often-misunderstood genre of rock called progressive rock. In stark contrast to the labyrinthine diversions of contemporaries like Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis, King Crimson often brought an intuitive intelligence to their music, applying a cerebral approach and plenty of calculated firepower. Here are several stellar examples of the classic works that they have created throughout their forty-year existence in the industry:

The undisputed magnum opus of the band, and one of the true milestones of prog-rock. The textures on this album are varied and awe-inspiring: menacing Hendrixian freakouts and controlled post-bop craziness (the frighteningly explosive and efficient "21st Century Schizoid Man"), pastoral, lilting folk balladry ("I Talk to the Wind"), haunting, sinister medieval-influenced tonalities ("Epitaph") and theatrical, LSD-fuelled psychedelic rock ("The Court of the Crimson King"). In one word: breathtaking.

This sophomore effort might suffer in comparison to its more illustrious predecessor, but many virtuosic moments still abound here. The dramatic title track aspires to the epic heights of "The Court of the Crimson King", and succeeds to a certain extent, while "Pictures of a City" is another scholarly rock-out in the vein of "21st Century Schizoid Man". Meanwhile, the melodic ballad "Cadence and Cascade" practically glows with restful blissfulness, while "The Devil's Triangle" is Fripp's appropriately sly take on Holst's "Mars" suite.

LIZARD (1971)
Arguably the most misunderstood work from the first incarnation of King Crimson, this jazz-informed endeavour bears a heavy Miles Davis influence, circa the "Sketches of Spain" era. The acknowledged highlight is the cinematic, gargantuan 23-minute title suite (divided into four mini-suites), a brilliant, mercurial study in shifting generic textures, but there are other favourites too, like the lovelorn, airily placid "Lady of the Dancing Water" (which could well be the prettiest ballad the band has ever done), the jerky, atonal "Happy Family" (an underhanded dig at the Fab Four), and the ominous LSD-nightmare tone poem "Cirkus".

RED (1975)
The most realised effort from the mid-70s King Crimson line-up, renowned for their mind-expanding improvisatory instrumental jams. The lack of coherent melodic structures and the intentionally complicated production values might be cause for concern for some old-school fans, but on the plus side, it does possess tight, focused songwriting and intensely purposeful performances. The title track is a cacophonous but still melodic tour de force that compellingly displays Fripp’s one-of-a-kind tri-tone guitar-riffing method, while ‘Fallen Angel’ is an expansive six-minute ballad that abounds with lots of interesting sonic details. The indisputable standout has to be the 12-minute epic ‘Starless’, a carefully crafted, multi-segmented showcase that seems to incorporate everything that contributes to King Crimson’s majestic artistry.

The most cohesive effort from the 1980s mainfestation of the band has guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew bringing a welcome new-wave sensibility to the proceedings. The excellently paced title track is the unquestioned progenitor of all math-rock, the herky-jerky, madcap "Elephant Talk" brings to mind a more insightful Talking Heads, the overlapping, interlocking grooves of "Frame by Frame" is as dense as dense can be, and the brutal "Indiscipline" is King Crimson's cleverly sardonic take on heavy metal.

THRAK (1995)
Fripp assembled an innovative six-man, double-trio format for this newest line-up of King Crimson, bringing an immensely powerful, new-millennium aesthetic to a tried and tested genre. The sheer, overpowering, take-no-prisoners dynamism of "Dinosaur" will overwhelm first-time listeners, while "B'Boom" is a terrifyingly precise drums-and-percussion duel, and "Walking on Air" and "One Time" are brooding, sweeping ballads that prove that this new formation has its relatively sensitive side too.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Radiohead Videos

From the terrifyingly theatrical to the utterly bizarre, Radiohead promo videos are truly brilliant works of art that can stand on their own, even when divorced from the accompanying tracks. Here are some excellent examples of the music videos that have made a mark in the overall Radiohead scheme of things (with links to the clips themselves):

JUST (1995)
A man kneels and lies down on the street. Concerned passer-bys stop to ask what’s the matter. The man refuses to tell, insisting that it’s too terrible to disclose. The crowd persist in knowing anyway. "Yes I'll tell you, I'll tell you why I'm lying here...but God forgive me...and God help us all...because you don't know what you ask of me," the man says (via the accompanying subtitles). The next thing you know, everyone is lying down on the street. One of the most subtly dystopian promos ever made.

Set in a busy diner somewhere in Middle America, this Tarantino-esque promo features the usual suspects found in any given flick by the enfant-terrible auteur: shady characters, dramatic showdowns, and a car explosion. Arguably Radiohead’s most cinematic visual piece.

A genuinely disturbing animated clip that features imagery of casual sadomasochism, dying junkies, severed limbs and deranged angels and mermaids. Definitely not one for the Nickelodeon channel.

An understated promo that has a subtle anti-establishment message, ‘Karma Police’ is set entirely within the confines of a moving car and the road ahead. The man being chased could very well represent the oppressed everyman who looks forward to settling his scores with a shadowy, unnamed figure of authority.

This semi-animated promo is a purely CGI construct, featuring a stellar combination of computer-generated 3D imagery and traditional hand-drawn cell animation. The nautically themed clip follows the travails of a survivor of some unspecified global holocaust, as he dives into the depths of a radiation-wracked sea searching for his dead family. Strangely poignant and moving.

Arguably the most disquieting clip in the Radiohead video oeuvre, this remarkable one-take promo features decidedly surreal imagery, partly based on Salvador Dali’s paintings. Almost indescribable, this one has to be seen to be believed.

Taking direct inspiration from Bjork's "Human Behaviour" promo from 1993, this environmental-themed clip shows what happens when you get lost in the forest and intrude upon the secret kingdom of the wild.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

More Weller Magic

This time, feast your ears on Paul Weller's intuitively weary version of the Rose Royce soul classic "Wishing on a Star", done trad-rock style. Check out the original studio version here, and a stellar acoustic performance here.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Find your way out of the wild, wild wood"

Arguably Modfather Paul Weller's finest composition, the quietly bitter yet cautiously optimistic "Wild Wood" is a seemingly simple, straightforward acoustic-led ditty that is, in retrospect, a fine commentary on the perpetual injustices of the world, and trying to look for a way out of the strife. The chord changes here constitute Weller's most virtuosic moment since his similarly themed "That's Entertainment" from his long-ago days fronting The Jam. The song and video are here.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Popcraft of Deacon Blue

Deacon Blue remains one of the most underrated bands to emerge from the 1980s British music scene, never mind the fact that they were perpetual mainstays on the charts during their tenure in the business, and their sense of popcraft was impeccable. Surprisingly, with their recent new-millennium reformation, some interest in the veteran Glaswegians has been expressed by the usually apathetic masses. Therefore, it seems to be just about the right time to do a brief rundown of their classic studio albums.

The debut album was pretty much a straightforward pop-soul affair, redeemed from being a mere run-of-the-mill work by frontman and songwriter Ricky Ross’s instinctive ear for a hummable melody. The highlight is the stately dead-end job anthem ‘Dignity’, but other gems like ‘Loaded’, ‘Chocolate Girl’, ‘When Will You Make My Telephone Ring’ and the windswept title track, arguably Deacon Blue’s most dramatic instance.

The band tried on an arena-rock guise for their sophomore effort, and it mostly works, thanks to strong tunes like ‘Circus Lights’, ‘Queen of the New Year’, ‘The World is Lit by Lightning’ and ‘Fergus Sings the Blues’. Casual fans would be talking terms with the hits ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Wages Day’, but the real highlight is the yearning lovelorn ballad ‘Love and Regret’.

A tribute of sorts to their hometown, this folk-inflected endeavour abounds with radio-friendly ditties like the fiddle-led, Celtic-pop shindig ‘Twist and Shout’, the rollicking Springsteenian anecdote ‘The Day Jackie Jumped the Jail’ and the spooky ballad ‘I Will See You Tomorrow’. Longtime disciples will point to the superlative pair of ballads, ‘Your Swaying Arms’ and ‘The Wildness’, as the real standouts.

Bringing in celebrity mixmaster Paul Oakenfold to handle production duties led inevitably to this electronica-flavoured work, which, while working to a certain extent, suffers considerably from lacklustre songwriting. Nonetheless, the politically themed, techno-grunge ‘Your Town’ is appropriately angry in the right places, and the strident, martial ‘Bethlehem’s Gate’ is a good example of this new direction.