Thursday, August 28, 2008

48 Greatest Albums: Frank Sinatra - 'Sings The Select Cole Porter'

Oh baby this one kills me. Kills me like an olive at the bottom of a glass. Like a broad in a strapless gown and high heels. Like a cigarette on a balcony. Like I hold the world in the palm of my hand.

I am classifying 'Sings The Select Cole Porter' as an album even though it is essentially a compilation of recordings from the 1950's. The collection was gathered and released in 1966 and pays tribute to the collaboration between Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, and Cole Porter.

Nelson Riddle is essentially the George Martin to Frank's Beatle. Riddle surrounded Sinatra with a fantastically lush landscape. This civilised beauty offered a perfect counterpoint to the tough brawl of that voice, which was simultaneously cultured and savage.

Cole Porter seems English but is actually as American as apple pie. Haughty, snobbish, superior, fabulous apple pie. Throw his burnished sophistication into this cauldron and you've got quite a bitches brew. When folks call him America's greatest songwriter it is not bias but matter of fact. This particular collection showcases him to such a degree that they are almost duets.

Just to clarify, this list is in no particular order but if beginning to end listens were the gauge this album might be # 1. I can sing every line. I practice singing to this album.

I still vividly remember the moment that I discovered Frank Sinatra. As a punk child of the 1980's, thinking about Frank Sinatra was like thinking about Teddy Roosevelt. There just wasn't much call for it. I'd seen 'Guys And Dolls', heard 'New York, New York', heard 'My Way', but I truly had zero idea of who he was or what he did.

I'd just come back from a year in France and I'd been hired as an actor with a childrens theater in Providence. I moved into an apartment right near Roger Williams Hospital (which would come in handy 8 months later when my appendix would burst). I was dating a girl I'd met that summer doing a summer stock production of 'South Pacific' at Theater By The Sea in Matunuck. She was a crazy Phillipino art student at RISD who was spotted waiting tables by the producer of the play and tabbed to play the island goddess. Talented, yes. Sane? No.

Anyway, she lived right over near The Coffee Exchange on Wickenden Street, a legendary part of that lovely city. Wickenden is that street packed with strange little stores, vintage and otherwise, that seem to be entirely populated by the artistic set. One of these shops was right around the corner from her rooftop studio.

I'd come to pick her up and she was having a violent reaction to some psychedelic mushrooms that she'd taken in the hours before we'd agreed to meet. Thanks for thinking of me, sweetheart. I held her hair in the bathroom, made her some tea, and then strolled out into the fall air to while away my time.

A particular vintage shop caught my eye and I ducked in. Old gas station attendant jackets, flapper hats, ruby red slippers, erotic silverware, and one tiny shelf of used LP's. I flipped through and found a Sinatra album that had his version of 'Ol' Man River'. Hmmmm. Sinatra. I'd been a dyed in the wool punk for as long as I could remember. If there was any day to try something new it was this one, with my time to myself and the girl I was dating incapacitated.

I brought it back to my bare room, popped it on the record player (!!!) and proceeded to have my mind blown fourteen ways til Sunday.

Now, 'Ol' Man River' wasn't written by Cole Porter and it isn't on this particular album. In fact, I don't have a digital version of the song at all.

But when Ol' Blue Eyes hit the lowest note I'd ever heard on 'Get a little drunk and you lands in jail' and didn't make me roll my eyes at 'here we all work while the white folk play' I felt as if I had finally left my childhood behind. Within a month I would meet the woman who would be the mother of my child. Who I would ultimately divorce. You don't get any more adult than that.

Like I said, baby. This one kills me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

49 Greatest Albums: Fugazi-'Steady Diet Of Nothing'

Indignation and social criticism do not often make for compelling music if you ask me. For every 'Straight Outta Compton' there are 15 Arrested Developments rhyming every '-tion' in the book (emancipation, resignation, disinformation, reputation, etc. etc.). If you are preaching to the converted you should simply preach and drop the music. Strong moral centers reacting to modern society might be great fodder for research papers but it rarely ROCKS.

Fugazi are the exception to this rule. I've not yet been able to put my finger on why and I've been listening to Fugazi from the moment they came into recorded existence back in 1987.

Context is everything so in order to understand 'Steady Diet Of Nothing', today's entry in the O'Malley Pantheon of Greatness, you must return to the scene of the crime. Released in 1991, 'Steady Diet' was their third album. They had risen out of the ashes of several DC hardcore bands in '87, released their debut '13 Songs' in '89, and followed that up with 'Repeater' in '90.

Desert Storm was raging in Iraq. We were spectators to war for the first time. CNN exploded. The Internet was still a gleam in Al Gore's eye. It is hard to look back at this as a time of innocence. But as we stare down the barrel of a Post-9/11 world even the chaos of Bush the First seems quaint in comparison.

'Steady Diet Of Nothing' is a voice crying out in the wilderness. Far from being didactic or preachy, the album is simply a mirror held up and left too long in front of an unwilling public.

Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto trade off singing their own compositions. The interplay between their vocal styles is a giant part of the appeal of the band. MacKaye is gruff and staccato, barking his manifestos like a hybrid of a carnival barker and a drill sergeant. Picciotto is mellifluous and nasal, stretching out notes to their breaking point and beyond. The two singers also spar with their guitars. Sputtering and spitting and grinding each other up they create an interlocking cry of anguish.

The rhythm section is precise to the point of danger. They bring to mind a POW running at top speed along a fence of barbed wire. Occasionally a spotlight brings them to a dead halt and you can hear the fear in the silence. Then they are off and running again, leaping right back to full speed and volume.

There are no declarations of right and wrong. They are as leery of solution as they are fatigued by misdirection. In 'Stacks', MacKaye goes beyond politics and into the realm of linguistics.

Language keeps me locked and repeating
Language keeps me locked and repeating
Language keeps me locked and repeating
America is just a word but I use it

I type those words out and it hits home just how powerful the music is. Upon hearing this song you will feel a strange connection to the uneasy Roman at the height of the Empire, thinking that there couldn't possibly be a day when Rome wouldn't rule. But deep down they were all Nero waiting with a fiddle.

I could go track by track but to be honest my articulation fails. Just know this. When I think of the Gulf War I think of Ian MacKaye in 'Nice New Outfit' bellowing the following...

You're number one with a bullet
That's money well spent
Your mouth plastered like poster
Address yourself success
You can pinpoint your chimney
And drop one down its length
In your nice new outfit
Sorry about the mess

The SCUD missile has become just another fashion accessory to a public CONSUMING the war. The illusion of boundary has fallen away and we are merely the tribe you fear.

This album is not well-loved by Fugazi fans. Perhaps it is rigorous to an almost fascistic degree. Perhaps every sing-along makes you feel like a part of a blood crazed mob. Perhaps it hits too close to home. Most political music allows you the pleasure of superiority, be it left or right. Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen are two sides of the same coin. But that is still the coin of the realm.

With this album, Fugazi somehow project us into a world where the United States is merely an idea, a communal projection. And that isn't some idyllic community broadcasting its best self for the world to see. It is a place slaves built. It is a place the poor go to die. It is a place you do not want to be late at night.

No rhymed combination of -isms or -tions can keep the slouching beast from roughing us up. Hey Nero, we've got 250 million fiddles, can we come up on the hill with you and watch ourselves burn?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

50 Best Albums: Miles Davis' 'Sketches Of Spain'

In no particular order I am going to lay down the O'Malley gauntlet of greatness. I was talking with my cousin Mike about what the heck I was going to do next on my blog and he said I should review my favorite 50 albums. Well, what could I do? Once something like that is out there it has to be done.

As I readied myself for the bus ride this morning I immediately thought of The Replacements album 'Let It Be' which is probably the album I'd have on a deserted island, an island with an iPod and electricity. But I have wanted this blog to be a constant source of challenge. I'll get to 'Let It Be' but I thought I'd start with something I barely have a vocabulary to cover...


I have vivid memories of making my sister Sheila howl by imitating a person I call a 'jazz douche'. I won't go too far into what makes up a 'jazz douche' but I will give a quick distillation of what truly bothers me about the die-hard jazz fan.

The die-hard jazz fan is deluded and angry. They feel that jazz is a superior form of music and they can't quite wrap their beret laden brains around the fact that the majority of the populace prefers just about any other genre. I'm all for passion and interest but when that starts to calcify into prejudice and snootiness, count me out.

According to the die-hard jazz douche, my love of the three minute pop song with repeated verse/chorus/verse structure is evidence of my inferior brain. I also am a slave to marketing because if I could only throw off the shackles of the corporate jailer I would instantly abhor anything so bourgeois as MELODY.

So. Never been a fan of the jazz fan. For decades this kept me from exploring even the slightest bit in the genre.

Then I was cast in 'Side Man'. It had won the Tony a year earlier and was now being done around the country in regional theaters. I'd scoffed and rolled my eyes at the NY Times review that compared it to a jazz ensemble. My hatred of the prejudice of the jazz fan caused me to hold this play in contempt. When I got the sides from my agent I barely took the time to read them, so deep was my scorn.

I went to the audition and came out thinking, "I'll probably book this stupid jazz-douche play, you watch." Sure enough, I booked it.

Once I read the whole play however, I was forced to admit that it was not merely the ravings of a beret-topped, handlebar mustache wearing, microbrew in the garage, stamp collecting, jazz douche. It packed a fierce emotional wallop and the writing was fantastic.

This pierce in my armor allowed me to take a chance on listening to some jazz in order to better understand the milieu. I figured Miles Davis wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Thus 'Sketches Of Spain'.

How did I decide to buy this album? Deep research? Asking a true jazz douche? Nope. I liked the cover. Stately, mysterious, violent, gorgeous.

Now a real jazz douche would be able to say, "They recorded this album entirely live with each instrument filtered through copper and brass pipes which gives the album its trebly overtones. Frank 'Bubbles' Harrington produced the album and he was greatly influenced by Ferdinand the Bull and gallons of homemade sangria. So when you listen to these tracks, man, you got to let the grapes take you away and sit down on that bee and let Miles bite you in the ass."

But alas, I am not a jazz douche. I know nothing of how this was made. I only know how it sounds to me. Track by track...

1. 'Concierto De Aranjuez (Adagio)'

A strange percussion types away while horns seem to fly in over tiled roofs. Men in white shirts and black pants held up by lengths of rope roll slowly out of hammocks, blinking away the rice and wine that led them to their sleep. The smell of blood can be sensed coming from the arena at the heart of the town. A bullfight.

2. 'Will O' The Wisp'

Her dark hair falls over her full lips. The basket she has prepared sits on a brightly colored blanket. Birds chirp and call your eyes up to the horizon. The town is far away. No one will see you. You know she wants you to kiss her but you've waited so long to be alone with her that you prolong the conversation, drawing your voice lower and lower until the talk can't get any smaller. Her eyelashes flutter as she laughs and suddenly your mouths are meeting as closely as your minds.

3. 'The Pan Piper'

The children are afraid. The man with the knapsack and flute has them gathered by the church. He's told them that they will see their parents again if they are very very good. They like music, don't they? If they like music, they should raise their hands. They don't want to raise their hands even though they like music. They feel like if they start doing what he says they'll never be able to stop. The sun tries to reach them from beyond the church spire but the clouds are gathering. Horse hooves pound from around the corner of the wall and suddenly the flute is silenced and the man on the horse is bringing them back to their houses trying to keep them from seeing the blood on his sword.

4. 'Saeta'

The learned men must hide their knowledge. Superstition rules the hour. If the Church has the ear of the King then the people must give over their mouths. Practical men reconcile this hypocrisy quite easily but dreamers are compromised to an almost maddening degree.

5. 'Solea'

Aren't the ships in the harbor beautiful? They await their orders. The beach goers lounge and converse. The bells in the tower peal on the hour. All of a sudden a cannon booms and a flurry of activity ensues on the decks of the warships. Word spreads until recreation seems inappropriate and the sand is quickly vacated. War has come to Spain.

6. 'Song Of Our Country'

Fists pounded on the thick table cluttered with pewter mugs. National identity emerges from each man's mouth louder than the one before. Loaves of bread are ignored. So are women, until later. Minutiae rules the day.

7. 'Concierto De Aranjuez (Part One)

The bull has swords hanging from every part of his hide. Breasts heave in corsets ringed with lace. Screams fall short of the sun. Pride holds the matador still beneath his cape, withholding the death blow for maximum drama.

8. 'Concierto De Aranjuez (Part Two Ending)'

The arena is empty. The sand is stained here and there with the blood of the bull. The setting sun casts darkness into the stands. How could such brutality end in such peace?

I guess there is a little jazz douche in everyone.

Monday, August 25, 2008

One More For Old Lang

For those three to six people who occasionally check in here I wish to extend my heartfelt apologies for failing to update on a regular basis. I have been unsure as to what this space was going to become so in lieu of flailing about in all different directions I thought I'd wait until I was certain of what I hoped to accomplish. Obviously that meant that I would never write again. Ahem. So today, in order to kick start the daily commitment, I'm going to revert to the iPod chronicles. Tomorrow something else will happen.

1. 'The Gutter Shit (Featuring Jayo Felony, Gangsta, & Squeak Ru) by Ice Cube from 'War & Peace, Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc)

With all of his family friendly cinematic offerings it is easy to forget just how sharp a social critic Ice Cube can be. He views all power and prestige through a jaded lens, knowing just what it takes in order to achieve it. I know that gangsta rap is seen by many as some sort of blight upon our national artistic crop but to my mind it proves the fertility of the American soil.

2. 'Valentine' by The Replacements from 'Pleased To Meet Me'

When the opening chords of this song rang out my face went in three thousand different directions at once and finally landed on a wry smile. There is something muscular and open in their crunch and you expect to be carried off into some anthemic sunset. But then the first line hits and you feel as if you are just waking up the day after your first love broke your heart. Sleep allowed you to forget just how much pain you were in. Dawn is a chore.

So you wish upon a star
That turns into a plane
Well I guess that's right on par
Who is left to blame?

3. 'Square Dance' by Eminem from 'The Eminem Show'

How does he do it? If you are one of those people who view Eminem as some sort of cheap shot vulgarian you are completely missing the point. And some of the best music ever. I feel sorry for you.

4. 'Morning New Disease' by Jets To Brazil from 'Orange Rhyming Dictionary'

If cultural anthropology had a thesis soundtrack it would be scored by these guys. Sometimes they are a bit too cerebral and the music becomes antiseptic. But this song keeps its heart beating hard up in the forefront of the mix.

5. 'Bobby James' by N*E*R*D from 'In Search Of...'

When NERD (Noone Ever Really Dies) hit the scene, Pharrell Williams was an underground/overground sensation. He'd produced hits for Britney and it didn't hurt his street cred. That's how respected his production skills were. He recorded 'In Search Of...' and decided at the last minute that it too closely resembled hits he'd produced for other people. So he kept the vocal tracks, called in a hot funk group called Spymob to replace the electronic beats with live instruments, and thus a legend was almost born. Yeah, almost. I don't know why but the whole is just a little bit less than the sum of its parts.

6. 'Bravo Pour Le Clown!' by Edith Piaf from 'The Very Best Of Edith Piaf'

It's French.

7. 'Brick Is Red' by The Pixies from 'Surfer Rosa & Come On Pilgrim'

Just another teeny tiny little rock anthem ditty from the rock world equivalent of one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. There is not a single Pixies song that doesn't feel like you were left free to roam the attic of some eccentric relative and discovered indescribably odd knick knacks in dusty old trunks.

8. 'With A Wish' by The Miracle Legion from 'Drenched'

These guys were from Connecticut so they always seemed like almost friends. Musician acquaintances knew people who knew people in the band and we all pulled for them to make it big. It never happened. But if you want a SUPREME joy of an hour, pick up 'Drenched' and get lost in it. It is like the last afternoon of your post adolescence, just before you have the cocktail that will push you from buzz to maudlin, just before you realize that you have to change everything.

9. 'A Man In Need' by Richard Thompson from 'Watching The Dark (1)'

Who's gonna cure the heart of a man in need?

If you ever need a pick me up, just take a listen to the album that this song is from, Richard & Linda Thompson's 'Shoot Out The Lights'. He writes the music and lyrics, she sings. They are breaking up. He is writing songs about the demise of their relationship. They are IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BREAK UP. She is singing his words. Seriously. You will feel like your life is not all that bad after hanging out with the Thompson's for an hour.

10. 'Speak, See, Remember' by Pavement from 'Terror Twilight'

I have no idea what this song is about but I love it anyway. You know that guy in every high school who is a math whiz, President of Debate Club, killer guitar player, excels at some mainstream sport like football or baseball but alienates all of his teammates because he is not a jock, and dates some hot girl from some town just far enough away to make you realize how sheltered and insular your life is? That guy started Pavement.

11. 'Guilford Fall Demo' by Fugazi from 'Instrument Soundtrack'

Hot punk.

12. 'Do You Want To Break Up?' by Eurythmics from 'Savage'

Annie Lennox is not afraid to be unlikeable and that makes her extraordinary. This song is a heinous mix of come-on/brush-off and aloof derision. How this song winds up being a sing-along is beyond me. And Dave Stewart's squiggly line guitar figures are creepily fun. They make my language go all haywire.

13. 'Sad Songs And Waltzes' by Cake from 'Fashion Nugget'

You know how Malcolm Gladwell talks about the tipping point, that moment when something swings from a minor moment into something larger and inexorable? Hearing this song this morning was the tipping point for me and I am fed up with Cake. The guy seems to court off-tempo snags in his vocal delivery and what promises originality comes off as stubbornly idiosyncratic and hopelessly mired in quirk.

14. 'Here I Am' by Lyle Lovett from 'Lyle Lovett And His Large Band'

See 'Sad Songs And Waltzes' by Cake RIGHT ABOVE.

What will tomorrow bring? Who knows...