The History and Mysterious Beauty of Blue Moon

The Elvis Presley versions of Blue Moon is such a fantastic recording.  It is a whole universe in less than two and a half minutes.  I found a site where you can read the history of Blue Moon. (Though the first two paragraphs should be skipped.)  A sample:

“On August 19 they spent hours doing take after take of ‘Blue Moon,’ in an eerie, clippity-clop version that resembled a cross between Slim Whitman’s ‘Indian Love Call’ and some of the falsetto flights of the r&b ‘bird’ groups (the Orioles, the Ravens, the Larks). After it was all over, Sam wasn’t satisfied that they had anything worth releasing, but he never uttered a word of demurral for fear of discouraging the unfettered freshness and enthusiasm of the singer.”

Take 4 that evening, the one that RCA would eventually release two years later, reveals Elvis’s unusual interpretation of the song. Music historian Colin Escott describes it thus: “Elvis skips the bridge and the final verse that contains the happy ending, neatly transforming the 32-bar pop classic into an eerie 16-bar blues.” Hart’s original lyrics describe a man whose longing for love is finally rewarded. Elvis used only the following two opening stanzas, repeating and separating them with falsetto moans (that’s how I categorize the sound now):

One thing that really strikes me about the recording is how primitive it is.  Yet this does nothing to detract from its enjoyability, and in fact this actually helps to create the timeless mysterious quality of the recording.  Mood and emotion always win out in music.  What is good music if not sounds that create emotion?  In modern recordings you can make everything clear, but that is not necessarily an advantage.  When there is a bit of murkiness or misdirection, it allows the imagination of the listener to fill in the missing qualities.  Even knowing the history of Blue Moon, how it was recorded, cannot detract from the recordings strange beauty.  I think one of the reasons that something like Blue Moon is with us, aside from the fantastic performances, songwriting, and place in history, is that no matter how much we know about it, it remains a mysterious puzzle that will never be solved.  We might know the pieces that were in place on August 19th, 1954, but there is a strange alchemy, another presence, participating in the events of that night.

The Soul Man Who Walked Away

The Soul Man Who Walked Away

I became explicitly aware of Bill Withers through working with Kevin Russell in Shinyribs.  (We have covered two of his songs throughout the years.  We just played one this past Saturday.)  I had no doubt heard some of his material, but was not overtly familiar with him.  He is still someone more on the periphery of my vision.  Everyone in Shinyribs is older than me, so perhaps it is just an age thing.  However, there is so much music in the world that is easy to let something, even something important on occasion, slip past you. 

Anyway, the above Rolling Stone article is interesting if you are a fan or not.  Apparently Withers is one of the few people who retired from the music business willingly at the top of their game.  The article dives into why Withers made that decision, among other things. 

Kiss Me A Lot (Official Video)

Above is the official video for Morrissey’s song Kiss Me A Lot, which in my opinion is from the best album from the last few years, World Peace is None of Your Business.  This is easily the most straightforward pop song on the album.  I like the fact that even in a straightforward pop song he can get a term in like, “Bastille mausoleum.”

This video has created a lot of controversy in the world of Morrissey.  He has strongly supported feminism throughout his career.  The fact that this video features scantily clad models, which are so normal in most pop music, has caused disbelief amongst fans.  I admit that I was surprised to see them.

However, I love the song and the man.  Even if you count the above video as a stumble in his career, his life’s work still towers above most of modern pop music.

A Look At The Cure

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As anyone reading along will know, I have been fascinated by The Cure lately.  I have always liked them, but I think I understand their career better than ever before.  They are so much more than what their media reputation would have one believe.  An incredibly adventurous band with a strong enough personality to tie together an ocean of sound.

It is so common in the press to reduce things down to a one dimensional cartoon.  Either through luck or savvy,  Robert Smith and his band work on that level, but it’s a strange trick that they can be as experimental as they are and still hold a simple image in the collective imagination.  It allows the casual fan in while giving them the freedom to really do whatever they want.  You can always recognize The Cure, but they are as stylistically varied as Led Zeppelin or The Beatles.

Often viewed as a musical Tim Burton cartoon, though Tim Burton was influenced BY them, they are often reduced to goth or gloom or post-punk.  Music for the sad teenager hiding in bed.  They can work this way, but it is horribly reductive and only hints at what they have accomplished.  They often incorporate the psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, the dark artiness of The Doors, the cold drone of Joy Division, yet are probably more diverse than any of those bands.   (I don’t mean more groundbreaking or better.  But they are as unique and they belong to be mentioned with other great musical acts.)  They are a classic rock band with roots in the post-punk scene.  Play The Hanging Garden, In Between Days, The Funeral Party, and Six Different Ways back to back.  Aside from Robert Smith’s vocal and a sense of atmosphere, think of how different those tracks are.

Although Disintegration might be there masterpiece, The Head On the Door might be the album that best sums up their career.  At 10 songs it contains many of the various highs that their career holds in one short package.  It might not contain one of their epic six minute-plus glacial paced distorted downers that the band seems to incorporate on many of their later releases, it might not do one thing as great as some other albums, but it does everything well that’s there and provides the listener with an idea of where they can go.

They really have so many great records.  I love the dark animalistic blood lust of Pornography, the beauty of Disintegration,  the post-punk mausoleum of Faith, the varied and sometimes poppy melodies of Wish, and really most of the things they do.  Even later albums, which many fans don’t deem as great as their 80’s stuff, are full of treasures.  They always do something unique to themselves with each album, even when they aren’t breaking new ground.

I have mentioned that no matter how diverse their material is, that they always have a personality and aound.  First Robert Smith’s vocals are alway identifiable.   If you are going to like them you need to get on board with his voice, as it is a constant.  Even though he can sing with variation there is never any mistaking who is singing.

They also always create a sense of atmosphere.  Even their guitar based songs are often drenched in palatial reverbs, delays, and choruses.  Even on their relatively dry (for them) self titled album there is a sense of space.

I think more than anything they are involved in world building.  Each song is its own little cinematic experience.  The best of movies, even when they are fantasies, set up their own believable set of rules.  Even if reality is different, there is an internal logic that seems true to itself.  The Cure are like that.  There songs rarely touch upon reality in the way cinema verte does.  These little mini movies and symphonies that they create at the very least have a heightened sense of reality to them.  Sometimes their work goes all the way out to fantasy.  But even when they are at their realest, there is a sense that the emotions and senses are heightened.  You are getting an emotion, and emotions are always slightly abstract, in the extreme.  This is why they are often wrongly pegged as music for teenagers.  But music should be emotional and that is why they have made so much great music.  However, unlike so much of pop music, which is often aping emotion, you always get the sense The Cure are being true to themselves, that they are obeying the internal logic of their creations.  Even at their most fantastic there is an element of their work that stays true to the human heart.  This is why their music is outside of time and always relevant to someone.

For All My Sisters Review

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I really like the new Cribs album For All My Sisters a lot.  It’s pop music in the best sense.  Pop music as played by rock band.  Despite the fact that the band is from England, there is something California about their new record.  If not for the accents on the vocals, there is something about this record that can be traced on a musical family tree back to certain elements of Weezer and even the Beach Boys.  I’m not saying that is intentional, or that there aren’t stylistic differences, only that there is a melodic sense that is somehow sunny and often melancholy a the same time.

The album is produced by Ric Ocasek who also produced Weezer’s Blue and Green albums, and also their excellent new album Everything Will Be Alright In the End.  As I said, there are definitely some melodic moments that recall Weezer, although The Cribs have been delivering great melodies since the start of their career.  However, while Weezer, for the most part, have an easy mass appeal, despite their idiosyncrasies, The Cribs new album is more cryptic.  Despite being melodic, the guitars are more jagged, more angular.  Even their extremely melodic vocal hooks are more elusive, less singsongy.  This is rock n roll pop music filtered through British post-punk.

One of the things that Ric Ocasek does time and time again is get great guitar tones.  He does this without doing anything seemingly complex.  Aside from a couple of synth parts and extra backup vocals, there is almost nothing on this album that the three piece Cribs could not reproduce live.  Hearing a guitar overdub that plays something different than the main guitar line is rare.  Mostly it just sounds like one guitar part doubled.  If you listen to this album, the Weezer albums, or even the Bad Brains God of Love, Ocasek is able to create deep textures through guitar distortion.  He is able to take something incredibly simple and turn it into an aural painting.  Where guitars can often sound flat, he creates an incredible amount of depth, a warm swimming pool that the listener can pleasurably dive into.  This is a big deal, especially for a three piece band.

Despite the album being full of hooks, there is not anything as instantly memorable as earlier Cribs records.  There is no song that has a chorus as memorable as the song We Share the Same Skies, for instance.  This doesn’t necessarily work against it, as the album holds up on repeated plays.  The album is enjoyable on the first listen, but it is definitely a grower.  I know that I have said several times that is is incredibly melodic, and it is true that the album has very glossy production, but there is a slight sense of artiness here, just below the surface, that keeps the album from being swallowed too easily.

If I had to criticize anything, it would be that the lyrics haven’t really opened themselves up to me yet.  That’s not to say that they are bad or unintelligent.  They do not get in the way of my enjoyment either.  It’s just that, despite the album having a classic rock mix, the vocals are not buried like they are on many other indie rock records, the vocals seem part of the music more than the centerpiece.

The Cribs have consistently been at that crossroad where indie, pop, rock, and post-punk collide.  I am partial to this kind of music, but I think anyone that likes to hear guitar oriented rock music with great melodies would like this as well.  They are not doing anything groundbreaking, but they put the ingredients together in a unique way that gives them their own sound and personality.  The fact that they do have their own personality does mean they are able to expand the form on the margins, and that alone is worth something.

Thomas Mapfumo’s Shumba

I apologize to those of you that come here a lot for not having written more in the last few days.  This constant cold damp weather in central Texas has finally gotten the best of me.  My head feels like a baloon.  In the meantime I thought I’d post some more music that is worth checking out.  When I’ve been home I have been listening to music from various parts of Africa lately.  Thomas Mapfumo, from Zimbabwe, is one of my favorites.  His album Gwindingwi Rine Shumba is particularly unique, especially in the guitar playing.  The album is a front to back winner, with songs that sound more traditionally like what we often perceive as African pop, and also strange jagged guitar duels like the song above.

Pop Music by Committee

Imagine Dragons Groan Their Way Into the Speakers of Your Dentist’s Office

The above article about the Imagine Dragons made me laugh.  I believe it was Morrissey who asked if all commercial radio stations were playing the same song.  It sure seems like it.  This article not only points out what is wrong with this particular band, but why pop music in general is so bland and forgettable.  A sample:

Okay, the A&R guy would say, excitedly brushing his gel-soaked comb over back into place, sweat pooling in the deep furrows of his spray tanned forehead.  “We need an undercurrent of Coldplay and hip hop, but mix it up with EDM and Autotune, and get some ‘80s synth effects in there. I want handclaps and echo! Drench it with reverb! And make sure it will play well during an NFL game.”

The rest is history. That is, if anybody will ever remember it.

To their credit, that the band has a style a listener can immediately identify is a monumental feat in today’s mostly flat and beige pop music landscape. They should be commended for it.

Unfortunately, that “sound” reads like a greatest hits collection of “things that are or have been trendy” mashed together into a ProTools casserole of “shit the kids will buy if we play it enough on the radio.”

I would much rather spend my time championing things that I believe deserve attention, as most of you that read along will notice.  However, it is also important at times to point out how and why things in our culture are meaningless.