Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thoughts on Magnetic Fields show

Playing right now: Hospitality's self-titled album. It was in the CD tray right after Charles Gayle, which makes for quite a transition of sound and sound quality.

Here it is, Thanksgiving morning. It's such a novelty to be drinking coffee and sitting in pj's at 8:48 in the morning and not having to be anywhere - not work, not church, not dropping the kid off at school. And not having any frantic deadlines hanging over my head. I filed a story on AZITA with Blurt earlier this week, which accounts for my lack of activity here. As soon as that's posted, a link will be provided here.

Last week's Magnetic Fields show was a really enjoyable experience, aside from the overwhelming heat of the Carnegie Lecture Hall, which only exacerbated my already bad tendency to get droopy eyelids. Jennie and I sat behind my sister and her wife, who had just gotten into town a few hours earlier. Seeing her added to the excitement. We just got to talk a little bit before the show started.

The band's merch gal Emma Straub opened the show doing a reading. First she read an essay about going to see former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre which was really well constructed. It was not heavily ironic, it wasn't fawning or yearning about the early days, it had a really good perspective on the whole scene - which consisted of him doing standards that a lot of his no longer young fans understood. She also read an excerpt from her book Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures which was also really good.

In what seems like true Magnetic Fields form, they were introduced a few minutes before they made their way to the stage. It seems like Stephin Merritt doesn't mind making people wait, and wouldn't see what the problem with that was. But then out they came, announcing themselves as "The Carnegie Five." Merritt played a few different keyboards - harmonium (pump organ/accordion looking thing), melodica/hooter. Along with him were the sweet yang to his grumbly yin Claudia Gonson (piano), Shirley Simms (ukulele), John Woo (guitar) and Sam David (cello).

For an instrumentation that seems really spare on paper, they got an incredibly rich sound. Woo used several effects on his guitar, giving it a really psychedelic sound, which helped with that. But the use of the uke and the way it blended with the keyboards were really exquisite. Gonson and Simms sang a lot of the songs. When Merritt sang he sounded really strong. A lot of people harp on his low, toneless voice, but I'm here to tell you that he really does have a strong voice that has a lot of power to it. With a little more training, he could be a bit operatic. No lie.

And the hits kept coming. I counted 25 songs in the proper set. (We had to leave just before the encore so they could've topped 30 by the end. If that's the case, we got our money's worth, at about a buck a song.)

I feel rather lucky, as I mentioned here previously, that when I interviewed him for City Paper, I had a good chat with Mr. Merritt and he seemed rather friendly and nice. So I took his onstage grumblings to not be that bothersome. It seemed more like a way of showing how friendly Gonson is compared to his shortness. She repeatedly tried to help members of the sold-out crown find seats so they wouldn't have to stand in the back aisles. This didn't take too long between songs but long enough for Merritt to ask if the lights could be turned down so that Gonson couldn't see out there anymore. Way to go, Grumpy McGrumpsalot.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Return of Franklin Bruno

Playing right now: Thomas Chapin - Quartets '95 & '96

On Monday, Donovan and I were getting ready to go out when I realized that I hadn't sent my Best of 2012 list to JazzTimes. After quickly dispatching that - and feeling that, this year, I actually had a better grasp of the albums that merited such a distinction - I thought I'd quickly check my personal email account just to see if there was anything important there.

As fate would have it, my good friend Will sent me a very important email, letting me know that Franklin Bruno - once and forever the frontman of Nothing Painted Blue and a big inspiration to my songwriting over the past 15 years or so - was going to be appearing at Sound Cat, the record store in Bloomfield. FRANKLIN BRUNO IN PITTSBURGH! FOR FREE! AT 6 O'CLOCK! HOLY COW!

I had been thinking about him recently because during my interview with Stephin Merritt, I brought up Bruno's name, and Merritt mentioned how he remembered a song Bruno sang at CMJ in 1993 - and he proceeded to sing "Growth Spurt" to me, melody and crucial lyrics intact. I hadn't heard hide or hare from Mr. Bruno in several years. About 10 years ago he played at Quiet Storm in support of a solo album, and a few years later there was a posthumous final Nothing Painted Blue album, which is not exactly reviewed but expounded up in this early entry.

Well not only is Bruno still playing music, mid-set he mentioned that he now lives in New York, rather than back in California where he originated. And he was appearing not as himself but as part of a two-piece band called the Human Hearts, who just released an album called Another. His partner in crime is drummer Matt Houser who pounds like a monster, and occasionally came close to drowning out the guitar in the louder moments of the songs.

Any longtime fan of Bruno's will appreciate the songs from Another, as they have the same brand of guitar pop with a sprinkling of jazzy chords to spice up the music. And then of course there's Bruno's gift as a lyricist for which he's virtually in a class by himself. There was one song he did that really reminded me of separate parts of a couple songs that I wrote several years ago (not that he would've ever heard them since they were never released). But that was cool with me because I think I subconsciously lifted pieces of his work in one of my songs - on top of thinking WWFD when I wrote the lyrics.

The crowd was small. I could probably count them on two hands. But if I had no idea one of my faves was in town, how's the rest of the fair city to know? But of course this simply meant that there was a small very appreciative flock of people hanging out and listening intently.

Another is available both as a CD and a double-10" vinyl. The packaging and the general festive mood of the evening made me decide that I needed to get the double 10" of course. Bruno plugged the vinyl by explaining that the previous day he had them all set up in his apartment, assembling them (they come in two separate handmade covers, with a cardboard insert and a band to hold them together). This was before he mentioned living in Queens, so he had me puzzling how he did the production yesterday and got to Pittsburgh so quickly. "He must've flown here," I thought. The packaging and the general festive mood of the evening made me decide that I needed to get the double 10" of course.

Years ago, I interviewed NPB for my fanzine Discourse and I remember Bruno talking about how impossible it seemed to try to attempt a career in music playing the style that he did. He didn't seem interested in any compromise and was going to school for a doctorate in philosophy. (Drummer Kyle Broudie had just taken the bar exam prior to the tour.) The way they talked about it made it sound like there was limit placed on how long they'd be doing this. That was about 18 years ago and while it might have held true for Broudie, it does my heart good to know that Bruno is still doing it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

CD Review: Ron Miles - Quiver

Ron Miles

This is a beautiful album. With only trumpet, guitar and drums, Ron Miles, Bill Frisell and Brian Blade respectively create a sound that is simultaneously spare but very full. The results don't ever sound like something is missing from the group but rather enthralls with the way they use what they have.

Frisell is no stranger to this kind of set-up, having playing in Paul Motian's trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano. But Brian Blade is no Motian, which is to say he's his own man. He keeps tempo even as he adds impressionistic colors the music. His bass drum accents on "Just Married" give the song's two-step an infectious punch that drives it along with Frisell's countryfied picking, the latter instructed by Miles to evoke "Big Buckle Elvis." This follows a slow, 10-minute reading of 1920s obscurity "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears," which doesn't waste a minute of time and includes some thunderous mallet work from Blade.

Hearing recordings like this reminds of why Frisell won me over the first time I heard him. The mood that he creates on these sessions, balancing accompaniment and lead voicing, is hard to replicate. Notes from chords scatter over the drums and between the trumpet in "Queen B" and work double-duty in Duke Ellington's "Doin' the Voom Voom."

And, saving the best for last, there's Ron Miles, whose vision is responsible for all of this. His compositions reveal a vast knowledge of music. Some of these roots get referenced in his own writing, such as "Bruise," which has the off-beat style of Monk's "Evidence," before it opens up into an angular swing, wrapping up with a blues groove. Miles' unaccompanied opening to "Mr. Kevin" sounds so rich that a solo trumpet album doesn't seem out of the question from him. Another long track comes with "Days of Wine and Roses," in which all three players stretch their own way, never clearly stating the song's melody until they're done with it. By that time it's almost hard to believe that they've gotten something so emotionally deep out of a song that can often sound so maudlin.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Back in the Studio

I stepped into a recording studio yesterday for the first time in about six years. The Love Letters laid down basic tracks for four songs at Machine Age Studios. We've been together about three years but the urge to record never really came along until recently. And by recently I mean the idea probably came to light in the past nine months or so because it takes us a while to get from thinking to doing.

I've recorded with most of my bands and in several cases, released albums (CDs) only to have somebody leave the band or see the band breakup a few months after we put out the album, leaving us with no way to unload all of the product. The Mofones had the right idea: we recorded an EP and burned copies of it as we went so we only had as many leftover discs as we needed. The Love Letters have moved along a little slower than most bands, since we all have other things going on beside the band, so it didn't seen like we were ready for quite a while.

I was actually a little nervous heading in, for some reason. Recording always seems to be a tense process for me. Sure you can go back and rerecord flubbed notes, but it's much more rewarding when you can get it right on the first try. Which never happens. But today, we had a good engineer who encouraged us to go back and record an extra take or two of songs, even if we thought the one we just finished was good. And usually the next one did have something strong going for it, either in spirit or technicality.

For the first time ever, I played to a click track. We have one song that doesn't have any drums in it for the first verse and we always seem to get a little wobbly, so the click was good for that (Dave the engineer shut it off as soon as the drums kicked in). And we're doing a Monkees song that is not only drumless until the very end, but is in 5/4 during the verses and 6/8 in chorus. Dave also made me bass sound really great. I love my Rickenbacker but the low end can disappear on the E string, leaving it to sound a mid-range and buzzy. But it sounded beautiful and rich in playback.

Once we get the songs done, a couple of them are going to be sent out to John Collins of the New Pornographers to mix and, I guess, produce. It seemed like a wild idea - the band has some direct influence from the NPs so I emailed John to see if he does things like this. And he does so why not? I think we can only afford to have him do two songs right now.

But before that, we need to get the overdubs done.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Two Interviews Go Well

Yesterday I interviewed Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields. After all I'd heard about him being a little prickly, I was really nervous about it. Once upon a time I would've been saying, "Yeah, bring it on," like I did when I desperately tried to score an interview with the late great organ maestro Jimmy Smith (who had a rep for being nasty with reporters). Those bold days are gone, however.

But as it turns out, Stephin was a nice guy. We had a great conversation, veering back and forth between questions about the band and tangents where we discussed rhyming dictionaries and the scarcity of Lawrence Welk records. I have to write a piece for City Paper to preview their show in mid-November so I think I should have some good fodder for that. I just have to transcribe the damn thing, which might take a while.

One week earlier I had another interview that I was apprehensive about. (At this point I should probably indicate that in the hours leading up to phone interviews, I'm almost always really anxious. There's the fear that the tape player might not work, the batteries might die, not to mention that the interview might bomb.) But the person I was interviewing was Azita, the pianist/songwriter on Drag City. I sort of wondered, based on her intense music, if she was going to be a tough, serious interview subject. Alas she was not and another good conversation ensued.

Maybe it pays to be a nervous wreck because when you are and things go smoothly you feel twice as relieved.