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Material girl.

I keep going past the corner of Eighth and Chew streets in Allentown every morning. And I keep seeing the ever-changing parade of Latino music performers featured there, showcased on posters on the wall of a neighborhood grocery.

(I wrote about this earlier this year in a post that you might want to go read, just ’cause it’s better than this one.)

I’d mentioned in the first post that the artists featured on the concert posters always seem to be male.

Well, a bold trailblazer has broken the pattern:

materialista1

She’s called La Materialista, which seems curious, as she does not have a whole lot of material covering her ista.

I said in my prior post that I like to imagine the individual performers’ styles just from looking at their pictures, and the same goes for La Materialista.

Do you think she sings about nothing but gold-digging, or does she slip a few heartfelt ballads into the party-and-bling rotation?

Is she unashamedly all about the good times, or does she have a well-hidden (by what I’m not sure) heart of gold?

And what about Chimbala? Is he an equal partner onstage — portraying the sugar daddy, perhaps — or does he just stand in the back and work the turntables? (He gets top billing without having to burst out of his clothes, so he must do something fantastic.)

Are they someday going to end up in a relationship reminiscent of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?,” with Chimbala insisting he made La Materialista a star, and La Materialista insisting she would have made it without him?

If I wanted to go to Allentown’s Maingate nightclub on Oct. 3, I suppose I could find out most of this stuff for real.

But it is more fun to fill in the blanks myself.

Because even a poster that leaves little to the imagination can get my creative juices flowing.

materialista2

A Week With: “Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.”

When I was in my twenties, a curious urge to swing-dance swept through my generation.

It was all the rage for six to eight months, fueled by national clothing advertisements and … well, actually, I’m not sure what else explained or powered the trend.

It wasn’t any innovation or distinction in the music. The swing dancers of the ’90s either listened to new bands that slavishly copied old sounds, or went back to the original source material. (That one Louis Prima compilation CD was as everpresent in postgrad music collections as Nevermind had been in undergrad days.)

Eventually the whole thing went away, as these things do, leaving bemusement and occasional open contempt in its wake.

(A few years ago I read an interview with a guy who owned a number of Boston’s popular nightspots. Larry something. I knew his name then. Anyway, the interviewer asked Larry which nightclubbing trend struck him as most curious or hardest to explain. “That swing-dancing shit,” he replied.)

Perhaps America’s short-lived fling with swing dancing would have lasted longer if the movement had had a house band the likes of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, whose self-titled 1976 debut album is the subject of this week’s A Week With post.

The tootling clarinets, cup-muted horns and hotcha vocal stunting scattered throughout the record make the group’s big-band influences impossible to miss.

But it’s just as clear in the grooves — if harder to quantify in words — that these guys had Studio 54 in their minds, not the Cotton Club.

They were making disco records. Not the same kinds of disco records other people made, but still, records that were new and current at heart. That sets them apart from mere imitators, and lends the album a charm and freshness it has not lost almost 40 years later.

The one song casual listeners are likely to know, “Whispering/Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon,” is something of an outlier on the record. It was the band’s only Top 40 hit, shoving the mighty Bee Gees aside to claim No. 1 on the disco chart around this time of year in ’76. It also possessed a certain pessimism and darkness of attitude not seen elsewhere on the album.

(Has any other hit song ever classified women as “sluts” in its lyrics, even in jest, or described a woman as “playing whore”? Even Robert Plant, in his early women-are-devilspawn stage, never went there. I think the bounce of the beat, and the horns crowding Cory Daye’s vocal, might have glossed over some of the lyrical message.)

The rest of the songs are either upbeat celebrations of besotted love, or recognitions that love will carry one through times of challenge. They work, and at their best even pass for droll. (“I’ll play the fool for you, oh girl / Buy you things that I cannot afford.“)

The grooves, meanwhile, are touched by a variety of Latino, tropical and big-band influences — no two quite the same, and no one seeming deliberately imitative of anyone or anything in particular. “Sunshower,” which practically throbs, is probably the best.

(A related style note regarding “Sunshower.” Solo vocals by children on pop records are mawkish. Large-scale children’s choruses on pop records are either mawkish or creepy. But two kids singing at once is just fun, especially when there’s an adult in the room. I can’t explain this. It simply is.)

Jazzy, fizzy and pleasant, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band served as a solid first step for a distinctive band.

It didn’t make them megastars; that was probably too much to expect. But it holds up today, more so than the conventional high-hat-and-wah-wah disco-by-numbers records that other artists churned out.

And, yeah, you could probably swing-dance to it, if you got the notion and remembered the moves.

Encore Performances: Singular sensation.

This ran on the old blog in July 2009. It is being reprinted in honor of the 44th anniversary of Roe Skidmore’s moment in the sun.

Back around 1984, when computing was all about fun, I received a baseball game for the family Apple II+.

The game was text-based, except for a window shaped like a baseball field where a small dot representing a baseball would amble into play.
You could always tell when it was headed out of play — i.e., over the fence — because home runs traveled faster than any other kind of batted ball.

(Upon further review, I think the game was Macro League Baseball, which looks familiar, though not 100 percent like what I have in mind. Maybe what I had was an earlier, simpler generation of Macro League Baseball.)

Screenshot reproduced from stadium64.com.

Screenshot reproduced from stadium64.com.

Graphics-based games weren’t much back then. You could move a blocky “player” back and forth across the screen, clicking the button on your joystick or paddle at the appropriate time.
So I preferred my largely text-based game. It came with 20 real-life teams programmed in, with actual players and everything, and you could program in as many additional teams as your geeky pre-teen heart desired.

One of the teams I programmed in was the 1970 Cubs, based pretty much entirely on the legend of Roe Skidmore.

I’d learned about him in Baseball Digest magazine, which interviewed a retired big-leaguer every month for a column called “The Game I’ll Never Forget.”

In a creative masterstroke, they chose one month to interview Skidmore — a career minor-leaguer who only played one game in the big leagues, making a solitary successful pinch-hit appearance in September 1970.

After entering his team into the game — and giving him a roster spot over any number of better-qualified teammates — I discovered how brilliantly Skidmore’s brief career translated to the computer world.

Y’see, the game was pretty firmly based on statistical performance.
If you had a player who hit .250, and he came up four times in a game, he would almost inevitably go 1-for-4 (unless he managed to work a tired pitcher for a walk and went 1-for-3.)
If you started a pitcher who averaged six innings per start in the real world, he would almost always lose his mojo in the seventh inning.

In that world, Roe Skidmore was pure dynamite, because a 1.000 real-world batting average translated into a 1.000 computer-world batting average.
You name it — Walter Johnson with a fastball, Sandy Koufax with a curve — nobody could get Roe Skidmore out.

All he ever hit were singles, since that’s all he ever hit in the real world. I think I got a double out of him once and felt as if I’d received a birthday present.
Still, a guaranteed hit is a guaranteed hit, even if it’s only a single, and it was a nice thing to have at one’s disposal.

There were a few early games when I started him in the field, choking the golden goose for four singles a game.
In a totally uninformed but correct guess, I had entered his data into the game as a first baseman. He never played the field in his only big-league game, and I had no Internet to look him up with in 1984, so I had no idea what he actually did with a glove on his hand.

But by and large, I thought it coolest to keep him in my back pocket until the late innings, sending him up to pinch-hit when I absolutely needed a hit and/or a run.
(Occasionally I’d do something goofy like send him in to pinch-run if I was ahead or behind by a large margin. I wish I could see a statistical roundup of his career under my management. That would be one of the weirder lines anybody’s ever posted.)

I can still remember a couple of games where I called his number in the bottom of the ninth, with a runner in scoring position … and did he come through?
Damn right, he did.

I guess it’s good for a boy to have things he can count on; and in the weird green-tinted cyber-ballparks of 1984, Roe Skidmore was one of baseball’s few truly sure things.

In my own personal Cooperstown, his plaque remains bronzed and resplendent.

And in the world of Macro League Baseball, Ted Williams still watches Roe Skidmore walk down the street and says, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.”

A week with: Dame Moura Lympany, “Preludes, Op. 32 (Rachmaninoff)”

I don’t much care for orchestras, or even chamber music, but I’m slowly warming to classical music as played by a single performer.

Solo performances seem more intimate, more welcoming and less bombastic than orchestral recordings.

I’ve been building up to this for years — first with a CD of Bach as played by organist E.Power Biggs; then with Bach’s cello suites as played by Pablo Casals; then Vladimir Horowitz playing Pictures at an Exhibition; and then a raft of Glenn Gould solo piano recordings.

(I suppose some bootlegs of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concerts from the Seventies merit mention here, as well, bridging as they do the space between jazz and something more highbrow.)

Hungry for more, I explored the Music, Arts and Culture section of the invaluable archive.org.

And there I found this week’s traveling companion — Rachmaninoff’s Preludes, Op. 32, as performed in 1951 by the British pianist Dame Moura Lympany.

What we have here are 13 short pieces for solo piano, written circa 1910. Each prelude is written in a different key, and — when combined with earlier works of Rachmaninoff’s — they form a complete set of music written in all 24 minor and major keys. (Not that that matters to any but the most anal-retentive of listeners.)

I’ve been hoping for the past week, as I listened to Dame Moura do her thing, that I would magically sprout the critical knowledge and vocabulary needed to accurately report on her.

I know virtually nothing about classical music and have never before pretended to write about it.

I have no way to tell, for instance, whether Dame Moura was playing the right notes. (They sounded fine to me. And if any were incorrect, she made up for it in self-assurance — a good skill for musicians in any setting.)

I lack the grounding to know whether her interpretation of the Preludes was traditional, or boldly innovative, or somewhere in between.

With rock n’ roll records, I have any number of signposts I can hitch my comments to — the thematic continuity of the lyrics, the career arc of the performer, the social era in which the music was released, the clarity or lack thereof of the recording, and a million other things.

With classical … well, it’s just pure sound to me, as bereft of context and information as a cummerbund left lying in a subway car.

So I must resort to saying things like:

Some of it sounded like butterflies, and some of it sounded like crashing waves, and this one brief section sounded enough like “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” to convince me that Tony Banks has some Rachmaninoff in his vinyl collection.

I liked it all; I think I have a fondness for short-form composition, as it’s like reading short stories.

Each one is a little different and leaves its own impression. And — since you have 13 of them packed into 37 minutes and 35 seconds — the less memorable ones pass quickly.

(Ray Davies took rather the same approach to writing the early Kinks albums; I tend to doubt he learned it from Rachmaninoff.)

When I wanted to listen closely, the music offered something to get into; when I didn’t, it faded into the background until I was ready to pay it attention again. And, unlike last week’s subject, I could see myself taking this off the shelf again in any number of situations.

Perhaps solo classical music will make additional appearances in this setting.

But not next week.

A week with: Jethro Tull, “Benefit.”

A diner near my house has a sign — one of those jobs with the removable letters — that currently says: “STAND TALL WITH MILE HIGH MEATLOAF!”

Which brings us nicely to Jethro Tull’s 1970 album Benefit, the first (ahem) beneficiary of my new approach to blogging:

Spend a week listening to a single recording, to the near-exclusion of all others, and then write about it once you’ve soaked it in.

Why Benefit? I dunno. It always looked from afar like a record I’d like, but I’d never bought it. I’ve been in a Jethro Tull mood lately, too, for some reason.

Last week, motivated by repeated YouTube listens to “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” I finally bit down and did the deed.

I decided I would listen to Benefit again and again, and pat it on the head, and call it George, and get to know it intimately, and then spill all its secrets.

(For those who like backstory: Benefit, Tull’s third album, was the band’s first Top 10 album in the U.K. and barely missed being their first Stateside. It immediately precedes Aqualung in Tull’s discography, and is the band’s final album with the quite recently deceased Glenn Cornick on bass.)

In future I will have to give Jethro Tull albums at least a month to digest, I guess … because I leave my week with Benefit humming a few riffs, repeating a few lines, yet not feeling particularly closer to the music than I did when I pressed the download button.

Here’s the rundown, as tersely as I can put it:

- About half the songs are standard-issue 1970 Heavy Blooze, riffy and repetitious and rather turgid.

“Son” is probably the worst, with Ian Anderson’s voice at its most hop-suckingly bitter; but “Nothing To Say,” “To Cry You A Song” and “Play In Time” aren’t all that much better.

(“To Cry” has a couple of evocative lines, but you’ll get sick of the central riff several minutes before the band does.)

Martin Barre, a largely underrated guitar player, doesn’t really have a lot to say here: He soars and bends and goes up over the 12th fret like lead guitarists do, but little of what he plays is especially memorable. So the hard-rock stuff doesn’t stand out as a showcase for virtuosity, either.

- The moodier, more tuneful stuff works better than the Big Riffs do.

The aforementioned “For Michael Collins” (does anyone write songs about astronauts any more?) is catchy in a melancholy way and actually seems to have been constructed as a vehicle to express emotion, as opposed to a frame to hang riffs on.

Alive and Well and Living In” explores some droney, modalistic, echt-1970 jazzisms for about two-and-a-half minutes and then checks out in a cloudy tinkle of piano. I like it fine, especially as a contrast to the heavy stuff.

Album opener “With You There To Help Me” begins gently and somewhat down, then ebbs and flows convincingly between quiet stretches and harder rock.

It ends in bursts of genuine energy, with Anderson’s manic flute and Barre’s sandpapery guitar trading fours — though if you listen, you’ll note that Anderson gets six bars to each four of Barre’s, perhaps a reflection even then of Tull’s balance of power.

(Or maybe it just works better for tension-and-release purposes; let’s not read too much into it.)

- For the most part, Anderson’s lyrics remind me of Frank Zappa’s description of most lyrics as “pitched mouth-noises.”

Even though Anderson is working within a language I have spoken for almost 40 years, I come away from most songs not knowing what he’s trying to say or what emotion he’s trying to convey.

This tends to limit one’s appreciation of a record.

- Album closer “Sossity, You’re A Woman” finds Anderson’s lyrical obliqueness paired with an equal or greater amount of musical obscurity. The result is an acoustic madrigal so musically knotty it’s difficult to listen to.

(yeah, I know. Great Art isn’t always in 4/4 time and it doesn’t always embed itself in the brain on first listen. I have tried to embrace “Sossity”‘s complexity and it kept pushing me away. Give it a listen; maybe you’ll have more luck than I did.)

- Finally, my version of Benefit came with four bonus tracks, three of which have some simple hook or melody that make me like them more than the stuff on the record. “Teacher,” which I enjoyed on rock radio as a kid, is the best-known, and also probably the best.

That, then, was my week with Benefit. Tull’s done better — much better — and I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone but the hardcore fan, who probably owns it already anyway.

What’s next? Check in next weekend.

One week at a time.

Posted on

I have an idea I think will snap me out of my blog-rut. So I’m going to put it down and send it out into the ether now, before I either forget it or find some reason to weasel out of it.

I recently read a column by John Roderick, frontman of indie band the Long Winters, who made a thought-provoking case against year-end Top Ten album lists.

Among other points, he suggested that albums take time to get to know, and the point is not to race through them just to put another notch in one’s belt. He wrote:

The people making records are still spending months and years on them, while the people buying them are munching through them like corn chips. Slow down.

What I propose to do wouldn’t make Roderick happy; it’s still pretty short-term in nature.

But it might help me discover some new music, rediscover some old stuff — and, most importantly, think critically about it and spend some time letting it soak in. I don’t do very much of that when I acquire new music.

My idea, then:

Take a single recording and listen to nothing else for a week. Literally nothing else, at least not of my own volition. Put it on in the car; spin it at home; listen while I surf the Net.

And then write about it. Did it move me? Why did I choose it? What were the high points or low points? Were there any, even? What does it mean to me? After a full week, I better be able to come up with something to say … though I suppose it would say something if I couldn’t.

By “single recording,” I don’t mean a 45-rpm single. I mean a single bundle of thematically related music.

It could be a conventionally released album. It could be a local performer’s Bandcamp release. (High time I got back to those.) It could be a bootleg concert recording, or a Grateful Dead show, or one of those CDs of the tide rolling in and out.

(I’ve got one or two ideas already for stuff that people might not expect out of me, which I kind of enjoy.)

I think I’ve moved toward writing less frequently, anyway. This seems like a good framework in which to do that, while still assuring I have some grist for the mill.

So let’s see how I do. If I don’t stick to it, feel free to kick me in the ass.

A stolen anecdote.

Posted on

The other day, I read a good rock n’ roll story on Wikipedia that I’d never heard before. It’s not new to circulation, but I’ve read a fair amount of pop music lore, and I can’t remember hearing it before.

It seems implausible, plus it’s on Wiki, so I don’t totally believe it. But I’m going to repeat it anyway. ;-)

(One of the quoted sources is a band member’s autobiography, for what that’s worth.)

Anyway:

# # #

Yes’s third album, The Yes Album, was the band’s commercial breakthrough. It was a worthy one, too: For the first time, The Yes Album presented a distinctive creative style for the band.

But the record’s success was due to more than just its musical contents, according to bassist Chris Squire.

The album’s release in early 1971 came during an extended national postal strike in the U.K.

Because of the strike, the British music papers couldn’t get sales information from around the country on a timely basis. So, they temporarily shifted to using sales charts based on London-area stores, since they were based in London and had ready access to that info.

Yes were Londoners, and had built up a solid following in the area, so The Yes Album placed more highly on the charts there than it would have on a national chart.

By the time the postal service workers came back to work, people from other parts of the country were buying The Yes Album because they’d seen it in the (London-only) charts and figured it must be an up-and-comer. The record had gained momentum, and the rest is history.

So, if not for the intractability of British postal carriers, Jon Anderson might be a farmer today.

(Actually, he might be a farmer today for all I know, as he got cashiered from Yes a couple of years ago.)

This story doesn’t explain how all those record buyers in Manchester or Liverpool or Edinburgh got their music publications during this period, since Her Majesty’s posties weren’t delivering them. I can only assume that quantities were still being shipped to shops, or distributed via some other method that didn’t require the post office.

No matter. Cool story, bro.

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