Saturday, December 29, 2018

James Calvin Wilsey (1957 - 2018)

James Calvin Wilsey died on Christmas Eve this year of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

Originally the bass player for San Francisco Bay Area punk band The Avengers, Wilsey was best-known as the lead guitar player on the first three (and best) Chris Isaak records. His beautiful modern/retro tones and tasteful playing gave Isaak's heartbreak songs depth and mystery.

Wilsey's playing inspired me to return to the Fender Stratocaster in the late 80s, and remained a touchstone for elegant, restrained playing. I was lucky enough to see him play live with Chris Isaak in 1991. A rare talent and the real deal.

Thank you for the music and the inspiration, Mr. Wilsey.

"Kings of the Highway"

"Blue Hotel"

and of course, "Wicked Game"

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

2018 in Music

Album of the Year

Low - "Double Negative"

2018 was a rough year for everybody. Everything seems to be falling apart -- our society, our government, our environment, our relationships, our health. We are beyond outrage and into a kind of fatigue and resignation.

Low made a record both timely and timeless, something that sounds like this moment feels. It is a masterpiece of production and songwriting, and the fusion of same. 

"Double Negative" sounds only vaguely like Low's previous records, and nearly nothing like anything else out there today. It is a bold, thrilling work. The melodies are memorable and strong, and it hits slow, hard, and unrelentingly.

It is an album, rather than a collection of songs, and best appreciated listening from beginning to end. It is also dark, disturbing, and by far the best thing I heard this year.

The lyrics are frequently overwhelmed by the music, but that adds to the sense of weariness, confusion, ambiguity and mystery.

"Always Trying To Work It Out" offers a good sample...

But even better is this triptych of the first three songs on the album: "Quorum", "Dancing and Blood", and "Fly":

"Double Negative" is a remarkable piece of art, and the first music in a long time that really stopped me in my tracks.


Angelique Kidjo - "Remain In Light"

It is rare for a cover of an artist's best-known work to be as good as, much less surpass, the original. Rarer still for an entire album of covers to do the same (for proof, see notable attempts by artists including David Bowie and Duran Duran).

Angelique Kidjo's cover of the entirety of Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" manages to shine new light on the original, and transforms the music from its jittery new wave origins to transcendent pop. This could have been a disaster, but from the minute you first hear her sing "Take a look at these hands...", you know you are in for something great.

There's all kinds of meta-narrative and layers for those who want to focus on identity issues -- Talking Heads were a kind of epitome of white New York hipsterdom, and led by a man. Contemplating how their Africa-influenced music has reclaimed by a black African woman may add to your enjoyment.

Regardless, this is the best kind of pop music -- joyful, powerful, fun, and with a slightly subversive undercurrent:

And of course, "Once In A Lifetime":

While I didn't listen to as much new music as I would have liked this year, 2018 brought a lot of disappointment. Anticipated new albums by a whole range of artists, including Aphex Twin, Robyn, Smashing Pumpkins, and more turned out to be less-than-compelling.

Many new artists hyped by the blogosphere and new machinery of promotion were just terrible, or were Johnny One-Note acts making their effort at being contemporary pop stars, which these days is frequently more about Twitter and celebrity stuff than writing memorable songs and performing them well. (I know that makes me sound like an old person, but it is hard to believe any future artists will be covering the current crop of hits. Also, I'm old.)

There were also a few artists who made work so challenging it defeated me, either because it was too hard to listen to or too incomprehensible or just...unpleasant. An example is the new album "Pastoral" from Gazelle Twin. A powerful, detailed work of art about the current state of the UK, with plenty of brilliant references right down to the glitchy album cover. But most of it sounds and looks like this:

It's undeniably great, but it gives me a headache, and I feel like I'm enduring it, not appreciating it. Given the subject matter and themes, that may be the point. But I'd rather put that Low record on any time.

Even the "new" old-stock Prince album was more of a "huh, that's interesting" than revelatory experience, though it is always great to hear him put a different spin on songs you know. Stripping away his trademark production only reveals how talented he really was:

...but in the end, this is the sound of an artist rehearsing, warming up, playing around, not a masterwork in and of itself.

Brian Eno dropped a brick of an ambient compilation this year with "Music For Installations". The deluxe vinyl box cost more than $200, came with a glass-covered book, and included 9(!) LPs, but despite the heft and length of the compilation, I found it somewhat inconsequential (unfortunately, like much of his recent work). It is/was still nice to listen to on Spotify.

But for ambient / electronic stuff, I found myself returning frequently to a new album by Tangerine Dream: "Quantum Dream". Edgar Froese, the founder, died back in 2015. But like the Ship of Theseus (or perhaps KISS), he had been steadily replacing members over the years. The current line-up of Tangerine Dream includes notable modern synthsters Thorsten Quaeschning and Ulrich Schnauss with violin player Hoshiko Yamane.

They may not have any "original" members, but they built this new album on ideas Froese had left behind, and it plays like a historical survey of synthesis and the so-called "Berlin School". Classic analog textures and motifs mix with digital tones, producing a modern space music that references the past while sounding contemporary. I found it enjoyable while working, running, or gaming.

Here's the new line-up doing "Identity Proven Matrix" live in the studio:

Good for fans of synth music and the "Stranger Things" soundtrack.

I look forward to hearing what 2019 has in store.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Pete Shelley (1955 - 2018)

2018 continues to be a challenging year: Pete Shelley is dead.

Pete Shelley (known offstage by his real name of Peter McNeish) is best known for co-founding and leading Buzzcocks, a landmark and long-lived punk band. Buzzcocks' influence can be felt and heard in nearly every "punk" band that you've heard on the radio, particularly Green Day and their descendants (and The Descendants).

Shelley wrote many of the band's songs, and his sense of melody and ability to write hooks enabled the band to burn furiously and brightly for several years, releasing 3 astounding albums between 1978 and 1979: "Another Music From A Different Kitchen", "Love Bites", and "A Different Kind Of Tension". During that time they also recorded a pile of incredible singles, later compiled on "Singles Going Steady".

My friends John Hong and Tyson Whitney turned me on to Buzzcocks in high school, and in college I went through a period of several months where they were all I listened to. I studied the songs and marveled at their perfect, simple construction.

Not long after that, I had the opportunity to interview Pete Shelley for my college radio station. I am somewhat embarrassed to note that I went full Chris Farley on him, and was barely able to stammer out questions not much better than "Remember when you wrote 'Nostalgia'?...THAT WAS AWESOME!" Fortunately, Pete was a good sport and handled his 10 minutes like a true professional.

Buzzcocks' songs showed a tremendous degree of versatility, and managed to make heartbreak and depression catchy and endearing. If you have to pick one song to sum up his brilliance, it is the instant classic "Ever Fallen In Love":

A close second would be "Why Can't I Touch It", which is barely punk (as currently thought of), and has the same wistfulness and longing. Another instant classic:

Pete Shelley's musical range is much broader than even Buzzcocks' broadly appealing punk. Shelley started out making vageuly kraut-rock-ish electronic music, and had some solo success with proto-synth pop, most notably the gay club anthem Homosapien:

"Telephone Operator" is almost industrial:

Thank you for the music, Pete.

[Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley's music can be found on most digital services]