Saturday, October 05, 2019

John Coltrane, Meet the New Pornographers. New Pornographers, Meet John Coltrane

Last Friday was a banner day for album releases. In terms of popular creative music, you'd arguably be hard pressed to find two acts that could generate as much anticipation for new releases as the New Pornographers and John Coltrane. That's not some baseless claim either. It's not meant to hold them up to the same measure as someone like Taylor Swift either, who I think might have also released something last Friday. Note the use of the word "creative" there.

Anyhow, I had a day off last Friday so I ran off to Government Center, a newer record store on Pittsburgh's North Side, and snatched up both of these. (I also picked up an empty cover of Peggy Lipton's self-titled album out of the free bin. Although it would have been cool to have the record, the cover alone will suffice, as this link to a previous post will explain.)

Blue World qualifies as a Coltrane "lost session" to some degree, though not quite to the extent of last year's windfall Both Directions At Once. Recorded in 1964, Coltrane revisited a few of his Atlantic tunes as something of a favor to Canadian film director Gilles Groulx. A fan of the tenor saxophonist, and a friend of Jimmy Garrison, Groulx wanted to use Coltrane's music as the soundtrack to a film he was making about two young lovers, Le chat dans le sac. Unlike Thelonious Monk's labored efforts to record music for Les Liasons Dangeruses (which was released a few years ago), Coltrane took his classic quartet into Rudy Van Gelder's studio, banged out eight tracks and Groulx had what he needed.

Although there are eight tracks, there are only five different compositions. The quartet runs through "Naima" twice. In Take two, Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones eschew the slow tempo of the song for a beat that almost goes against the melody, taking it in a loose direction that Coltrane would explore further in the coming years. Three takes of "Village Blues" appear on the album, each coming in under four minutes and featuring pianist McCoy Tyner as much as Coltrane. The title track is a reconstituted version of the standard "Out of This World," the only track that Coltrane had recorded with this exact lineup, and the only one to appear on Impulse, rather than Atlantic, Records.

The revelation of the set comes with "Traneing In," which dates back to 1957 and the saxophonist's tenure on Prestige. It opens with a Jimmy Garrison solo different than the style that he became known for (out of tempo, with thoughtful double-stops). Garrison, who is usually buried in the mixes of Coltrane albums, plays in tempo here, sounding bright and maybe even a little funky. At 7:38, and one of only two cuts that last more than five minutes, it kicks the band into an aggressive mood after giving the bassist some overdue props.

Coltrane fanatics will surely want to grab this one for yet another glimpse of the amazing quartet. But even casual fans - especially ones who don't revel in the long solos - will find value in the performances. Considering how Coltrane's live performances were beginning to take on longer lengths, Blue World also proves that he could still be concise in a chorus or two.

The New Pornographers set the bar especially high for themselves with their first two albums, which go back almost 20 years. Recently I was making a mix CD for a friend who had never heard them (there are still a few out there, hard to believe) and upon hearing the intro to "The Electric Version," the majesty of that song hit me all over again - plucked chords (a la "Friday On My Mind") over a riff over eight (!) chords that eventually spills into a Beatle-esque climax. No wonder it realigned my universe at the time. And as I've stated far too many times on this blog, "The Bleeding Heart Show" from Twin Cinema is one of the most powerful songs ever, giving me chills when simply thinking about the coda.

Every New Pornographers album since then (as of last week, there are now eight in total) has been at least good, and more often than not, really good. A few years ago it hit me than one thing that wasn't as prominent on recent albums as past ones were the guitars. Not that they've forsaken them, but the group's sound often downplays them in favor to the layers of vocals and the keyboard atmosphere.  A.C. Newman (he doesn't seem to be going by "Carl" on the albums anymore) has made the '80s keyboards sound respectable when combining with his pop smarts, but sometimes the pre-programmed arpeggiated feel of them takes something away from the music. Which is not to say that a so-so New Pornographers can't beat the pants off of most bands on a given day.

In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (their second album for Concord, a label that was once known primarily for distinguished jazz vets like Mel Torme and George Shearing).feels like this might be the strongest set of Newman's songs in a while. It features similar expansive, Sensearound production as its predecessor Whiteout Conditions, even adding a string section on several tracks, but the writing also feels a little sharper. Newman has a very personal way of arranging harmonies, pairing his voice with Neko Case, keyboardist Kathryn Calder and new addition (on album at least) violinist Simi Stone that sounds like no one else. This happens right out of the gate with "You'll Need a Backseat Driver," which like The Electric Version's opening title track knocks you backwards in bliss. Melodically, he also takes left turns at the end of choruses that give the music unexpected boosts.

Dan Bejar, the Destroyer frontman who contributed three songs to most of the band's albums, was MIA on Whiteout Conditions, off recording his own album. He hasn't officially returned to the fold but he and Newman co-wrote "Need Some Giants," which leaves a Bejar footprint due to its catchy riff, complete with a key change in the chorus that's just unsettling enough to be enjoyable. The keyboards still play a heavy roll  throughout, but while the previous album's sound sometimes programmed, In the Morse Code has a more organic feel.

For the first time, the album liner lists what everyone plays on each track. Perhaps it's just a personal preference but it serves as a good guide to how the songs are built. Maybe next time, they'll even include a lyric sheet, although Newman's production does push the words more to forefront this time, anyway. You won't be hearing "Higher Dreams" on the airwaves anytime soon.

Yeah, records are little more expensive these days, but these were a worthy investment.

1 comment:

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