iTunes Catch of the Day: Portishead

Portishead has a new record out.

The reader will be forgiven for one of the following responses:

1. Portishead? What the hell is Portishead?
2. Portishead? They’re still making records?
3. Portishead — I think my Mom listens to them.
4. Portishead, yeah, I remember liking them — when Bill Clinton was president.

Twelve years is a long time to go without putting out a record. But one of the things I’ve always liked about Portishead is that they don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about being successful. And it’s one thing for bands to stay “indie” by downscaling their operations and staying closer to their (limited) audience, but it’s something else again to simply refuse to play the game, to pack up ones samplers and go home. In a way it’s kind of the ultimate cred move — smooth move, Portishead, playing the “integrity card.”

Anyway, Portishead has a new record out, and it’s called Third, and it’s wonderful.  It’s quickly becoming my favorite record so far this year (step aside, Raconteurs, R.E.M., Rolling Stones, et alia).

A band that takes twelve years between albums would be forgiven for becoming irrelevant, dusty, twee or marginal in the lapse (I’m looking at you, XTC) but Portishead simply picks up where it left off and moves forward. The record everything one would want from a Portishead record, and then more. It is startling, eerie, moody, catchy. It is simultaneously more “live” than their first two records and more artificial, more contrived. (Am I the only one who prefers the live versions on their Roseland NYC album to the studio versions?) The arrangements are more adventurous (a mandolin even pops up on one tune, with Gene Autry-style cowboy harmonies), the tempos more diverse, and there are some stylistic experiments so surprising that I’ve had to stop several times to make sure that what I had heard was intentional and not some download glitch. The tension between the druggy electronic backgrounds and Beth Gibbons’s keening vocals is as alive and disturbing as ever.  If popular music has moved on from where Portishead was in 1996, well, I was never too interested in popular music anyway.

Note: while this post is filed under “iTunes Catch of the Day,” I actually downloaded Third from Amazon, where it was two dollars cheaper. This was my first time downloading from Amazon, and I am happy to report that the Amazon download program is fast, efficient and problem-free — unlike eMusic, which is cheaper but is, frankly, is a pain in the ass.


iTunes Catch of the Day: The Raconteurs

I first became aware of Jack White when his band The White Stripes were garnering praise for their 2001 album White Blood Cells. Back in those carefree and innocent days, the White Stripes were grouped by lazy critics with a then-emerging bunch of white-guys-playing-electric-guitars bands that I liked to call “The Silent-E Bands” because they all, mysteriously, had names ending in a silent E: The White Stripes, the Hives, the Vines, the Strokes. I bought all the records by all those bands because, well, I like to hear music by white guys playing electric guitars and that thing was at the time becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

(A big spark for my interest in the White Stripes in particular was this video for “Fell in Love with a Girl.”)

Here it is seven years later and I’ve sold all those CDs by all those bands back to the used-CD store, except for the White Stripes. The Vines? I couldn’t even tell you what they sounded like, and they made it to the cover of Rolling Stone. But the White Stripes? As far as I can tell they just get better and better, with no upper limit in sight that I can detect.

Jack White, I have found, is what I like to call “the real thing,” a serious, long-term artist exploding with a kind of talent that I think still hasn’t been adequately measured yet. As a songwriter he has a comprehensive understanding of popular music forms to stand beside that of Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello (two anchors of my collection), plus he can play guitar like nobody’s business and sing better than either of those two guys. That, in my book, is quite a formidable package.

A couple of years ago he announced a side project, The Raconteurs, a band with him a bunch of other guys I’ve never heard of but who I am sure are all talented musicians. Their first record I bought and enjoyed but there was something a little pale about it, like the elements weren’t quite gelling somehow. It was a side project and it sounded like a side project. This is not the case with their new album, Consolers of the Lonely which appeared out of nowhere a few days ago (it had no advance publicity) and has not left my attention since. It is dense, loud, poppy, bluesy, rootsy and irresistible. They sound like a real band, mixing together more influences than I can accurately name. It is not a side project, or it doesn’t sound like one at any rate. It sounds like a major release from a major band and I unreservedly recommend this record to the musically inclined.

UPDATE: I thought the Beatles references on this record might have been accidental or unintentional, but check out the vest Jack White wears in this video and compare it to the one worn by McCartney in Magical Mystery Tour. I knew Jack was the cute one.hitcounter

iTunes catch of the day: Cassandra’s Dream and “The River in Reverse”

Few have ventured to see the new Woody Allen movie, so most are unaware that Allen has, for one of the few times in his career, commissioned a score for his soundtrack, from an actual living composer, Philip Glass, no less. And what a corker! I buy all of Glass’s soundtracks whether I’ve seen the movies they’re in or not, and this one has quickly vaulted to the top of my list of favorites. Stormy, melancholy, brooding and propulsive. If you like Glass or have an abiding interest in soundtrack music, this is a real treat. Can’t say I like the cover. You can listen to little bits of it either at iTunes or Amazon.

Meanwhile, Elvis Costello has knocked off a handful of his songs in solo settings for the iTunes market. I enjoy all of these renditions, they are some of my favorites of his songs, but the new recording of “The River in Reverse” is just stunning. I enjoyed the album of the same title when it came out, but to hear Costello snarl his way through this searing, scathing reading is a remarkable experience, even coming from this longtime snarler. His insistent, plangent solo guitar sets lyrics like “In the name of the father and the son/in the name of gasoline and a gun” in bold relief and elevates this song to a classic to stand with “Pills and Soap” in its withering social criticism.

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iTunes Catch of the Day: John Zorn

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We’ve seen which songs, for whatever reason, I’ve played the most in the last three years, but what actually takes up the most real estate in the sprawling fairgrounds of my iPod?

The winner, the greediest, most space-hungry artist in my library, hands down, is John Zorn, with over 1400 songs on 110 different albums. Zorn is, in fact, a primary reason why I jumped from the 40GB iPod to the 80GB — to include not just my favorites, but to include every god-damned blast, squeak, skronk and squiggle I own from Mr. John Zorn.

Zorn is a true American original — a distinctive sax player, a flamboyantly avant-garde composer, an incredible bandleader and a master of all he surveys. He’s also made himself a legend in the music wars by creating his own label, releasing hundreds of first-class albums in what would ordinarily be a marketing man’s nightmare and insisting upon absolute control of his career. If that were not enough, he’s also acted as mentor and presenter of a whole host of musical outlaws on his Tzadik label.

I came to Zorn through his 1990 album Naked City, which was handed to me by a mentor of my own who had been trying to get me to listen to folks like Sonny Rollins to no avail. It was a good choice for my mentor, who knew that I needed something immediate and demanding to get me interested in a whole new genre of music. Naked City is more than jazz, it’s an encyclopedic engulfing of a century of American music (with some Europeans thrown in for good measure) chewed up in the fevered New York mind of Zorn, played with the intensity of hardcore punk by a crack band of some of the greatest jazz musicians alive. Naked City hit my brain like the Hindenburg at Lakehurst and remains one of my top ten albums of all time. I worked from Naked City (and the seven or so subsequent albums by the same team) to The Big Gundown, his chopping and splicing of the film music of Ennio Morricone, and Spillane, his sprawling, half-hour musical film noir (which he has since expanded into a full-length CD). From there I investigated his game pieces, where large ensembles participate in structured, spirited improvisations, his jittery, menacing, occasionally terrifying classical pieces, his stunning film soundtracks (he is my number one choice for composer when I make my first feature) and his career-in-themselves Masada albums, 17 or so and counting, where, for the first time to my knowledge, a composer has succeeded in wedding jazz to the Jewish musical tradition.

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iTunes catch of the day: Dean Elliott’s Zounds! What Sounds!

I have no idea how this LP ended up in my family’s record collection in the mid-60s (except that my father worked tangentially with animators in Hollywood for a while), but I discovered it when I was about 7 and it immediately became my favorite record of all time (surpassing “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen. Whole afternoons would pass while I played Zounds! What Sounds! over and over in a state of bliss.

What the record is, basically, is a collection of jazz and swing standards conducted by Dean Elliott, who, as far as I can tell, was to Tom and Jerry cartoons as Carl Stalling was to Bugs Bunny cartoons. The arrangements on Zounds! are jumpy enough all by themselves, but then they are augmented by what can only be termed “wacky cartoon sound effects.” And so a song called “Trees” is driven by the sounds of rhythmic sawing, a song called “It’s a Lonesome Old Town” is festooned with spooky crickets and hooting owls, “The Lonesome Road” is punctuated by the sounds of backfiring cars and tooting horns, and a song called “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is inundated with the sounds of a thousand clocks and watches ticking and bonging. Boy, that sounds really stupid and annoying, doesn’t it? And yet it comes off as endlessly inventive, infectiously enthusiastic and wildly ecstatic. Or at least it did to my seven-year-old brain.

Then my family went bankrupt, my mother died, I ran away from home and endured about twenty years of soul-crushing poverty, and forgot all about the innocent joys of Zounds! What Sounds! so much so that before long I thought perhaps I had dreamed it.

Many years later, I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music watching a show by Pina Bausch, who uses whole dump-trucks of music snippets in her marathon 3-hour dance pieces, and out of nowhere, between the German cabaret numbers and the Ligeti, “The Lonesome Road” by Dean Elliott came blasting out of the sound system. Needless to say, I forgot all about the cerebral, angular, angsty choreography on display and was once again a seven-year-old in the suburbs of Chicago, innocently, joyously leaping about the house like a bug-eyed idiot to the manic strains of Dean Elliott and his Swinging, Big, Big band. The record I had come to think of as long gone had been found! By a skinny, severe, middle-aged German choreographer! By jiminy, I said, if Pina Bausch can find this record all the way over in godless Germany, I can certainly find a copy in New York City!

Which I did. Needless to say, it was long out of print and never a popular item to begin with (I’m guessing), but I was able to track down a bootleg CD copy at the now-long-gone Footlight Records, which specialized in obscure recordings of Broadway showtunes and other music outside the purview of Tower Records. Hearing it again after thirty years, I was instantly transported back to simpler days, when jazz standards hoked up on cartoon sound-effects could supply all the adrenaline I needed.

When I got my iPod, Zounds! What Sounds! was one of the first CDs I transferred, but it’s only 12 tracks in an ocean of over 18,000, so it doesn’t come up much on shuffle (which is what I almost always have iTunes on). Today “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” came on, sandwiched in between Fiona Apple and John Zorn, both of whom I think would have been comfortable with the comparison.

For those interested, apparently Basta! has done a proper re-mastering of this left-field classic.

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