Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Vintage in the Making...Sellaband's Rooga

Pop music has taken on many faces since February 9th, 1964 when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Their performances on national television ushered in the age of the pop-rock act as a self-contained unit. I remember watching the show and realizing how different this was from all that had come before. This wasn't Elvis gyrating to the rhythm of an anonymous rhythm section. And only the most die-hard fans know the names of Buddy Holly's Crickets. Yes, this was different. And so powerful has been their influence that now, forty-three years later, popular music is still dominated by the image of the self-contained band.

American pop-culture of the fifties was considered by young musicians in England to be "the shit" and when the music came back to America as the English Invasion, American teenagers returned the compliment, adopting the hairstyles and clothing of this fresh new movement. In the ensuing years, pop music has gone international with influences from every corner of the world adding to the mix.

Rooga is a young Viennese band that drips from the massive distillery of pop-rock music with a fresh combination of influences. The self-described "Funky nu-rock" quartet are an unexpected product of Vienna, a city built on international influences but known for music of a more academic flavor.

Rooga's line up is nothing new, a guitar/bass/drums power trio fronted by the very able voice of Kati. What's new about Rooga is the maturity of the arrangements. In a larger ensemble, there is room to hide. A mediocre rhythm section can be compensated for by flashy solos, or lack of solo skills can be balanced with group vocals. A power trio must stand on its own three legs and if one leg is shorter than the others, the vocalist will be constantly shifting weight to stay balanced.

The three musicians in Rooga shoulder the load with equal doses of power, chops and commitment to the ensemble. Drummer Klaus, Bassist Victor and Guitarist Alex are like a matched set of thoroughbreds. Any weakness or strength is unapparent as they charge confidently through their sometimes ambitiously challenging arrangements.

One of the attractions of a small ensemble is the transparency of the soundscape. As stated, there is no place for a weak link in a trio. Rooga's sound is clean and accurate while maintaining an aggressive attitude. The benefit of clean, accurately played arrangements are twofold. First of all, as a musician, it's really fun to play louder than possible in a larger group. The second aspect is what I call the "ghost by-product." When a small ensemble plays with a great degree of accuracy, the frequencies tend to have more room to mingle and merge into parts that are heard but not played by any one instrument. This phenomenon is strictly subjective and each listener will perceive these ghost by-products differently. In the early days of acoustic recording, large orchestras playing into the horn of the Victor Talking Machine's recording equipment sounded thin and tinny whereas recordings of smaller jazz and dance bands had a fuller, more dynamic sound. The musicians in Rooga hold down their share of the frequencies in a way that allows the final result to sound bigger than the individual parts would indicate.

As the focal point of the band, Kati is well on her way to carving out an identity. There are many influences apparent in her phrasing and delivery, but she gives the listener a strong dose of individuality as well. She more than holds her own on a stage dripping with testosterone and counters the band's aggressive output punch for punch.

Rooga is well on their way, but to say they are complete would be premature. They have so many of the technical aspects firmly in place, but their next phase of growth will surely be in the area of feel. The music feels good, but with seasoning and experience it will grow to feel great. This isn't a matter of education, chops or intent. The intent to be amazing is clearly present in Rooga's music, If maturity and experience were plug-ins, we would be cheated out of the pleasure of watching a band like Rooga grow into the monsterhood that may well be their destiny.

Fresh moonshine will get you drunk alright. But it only gets to be Jack Daniel's by hanging around in the barrel for a while. I'm eager to hear the result of Rooga's next foray into the studio. This is a band made up of all the right ingredients and with time in the barrel will certainly be comparable to the finest liqueur Vienna has to offer.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Timing is Everything...Trail's new "City"

Timing is everything. In music, it can mean the difference between a mediocre performance or a moment in time that infects the memory of the listener for years. In the business of music, a shrewd sense of timing can make or break a career. There is a band on the Sellaband web site that has displayed a very acute sense of timing in both regards.

I reviewed Trail early last summer and the only issues I felt justified in raising at that time had to do with sound quality. As to the quality of the playing and more importantly, the songs, I had only complimentary words for this group's offerings. Rather than repeat myself, you can read the review here.

In the time since that review, Trail has been working hard toward their goal of becoming a viable recording act. Recently, they have posted a new version of their song "City" on their profile page and I was very curious if the new version would be an improvement over the recording I had originally reviewed. To put my reaction in one sentence: Trail, you are clever, clever lads.

The "hit potential" of any given recording can many times be measured on a timeline. Success can depend on what happens in the ten seconds after pushing "play." This is the first example of Trail's impeccable sense of timing. From the first note of "City" I wanted to hear more. And when the guitar kicked in at six seconds in, I was sold. Trail has gone to some expense in producing this song to professional standards. The effort, as well as the expense, shows.

I know that there was some concern about sacrificing the vibe of the original demo when putting the song under the surgeon's knife in a professional studio environment. "City" proves that this doesn't have to be the case. The recording is a perfect example of how not to fuck up a great performance. The ambience of the recording is intimate, with a warm presence that gives the listener a seat in the room as it all goes down. The drum sounds are pure and don't suffer from the over-processing that so tempts the home recording engineer/producer. The bass and drum balance is the perfect foundation for the guitar sounds that first drew me to listen to this band. The dynamics of the solo section show a mature sense of restraint without which the impact of the second section would be lost. And throughout the song, as exciting as the instrumental mix is, the vocal is never crowded into a corner but soars right up the middle with plenty of space to breathe. "City" sounds like an ass-kicking rock recording...period.

As to the performance, Trail's sense of timing once again looms large. These guys play simple, hard and, most importantly, together. You can eq the bottom end of a recording to death, but if the information isn't there, you're just pissing in the wind. The bottom end of "City" is rich, round and has impact because it was played that way...with balls. There is also that elusive feel that musicians describe as "swing" oozing in the cracks between all the parts. If it were possible to improve on the feel of the demo, Trail has done exactly that. "City" feels like an ass-kicking rock recording...period.

Now, as to the shrewdness of Trail's timing in a business sense, this new version will kill more than its share of birds with one stone. Posting songs on Sellaband is a matter of proving potential. Certainly, the songs previously presented have indicated that Trail has what it takes to make a great album, given the budget to avail themselves of the proper tools, facilities and expertise. This new version of "City" positively proves the point. And Trail's timing is spot on. The band is very near to reaching the halfway point in their quest toward the 50 Thousand dollar recording budget proscribed by Sellaband. Coming at the halfway point, this recording should prove to Trail's existing believers that they do indeed have a winner. I predict that new investment in Trail is imminent and forthcoming as well.

I try to call them like I see/hear them and I thought a lot of this band when I first heard the demos. Now I'm looking forward to a full album of top flight songs from these guys. If "City" is any indication, I know I won't be disappointed. Trail is an ass-kicking rock band...period

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Vintage Myth

"Hello, my name is Pete and I'm a guitar-a-holic." Every time I get my hands on a beautiful guitar or bass I imagine myself saying those words as I introduce myself to a roomful of like-minded addicts in some sort of twelve-step program for gear junkies. My addiction goes back to about age 3 or 4. My dad had a Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar and I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever made by the hand of man. And when the guitar was put away, I would stretch rubber bands across a cigar box and pretend that I was making music. And from that time to this very moment, I have led the life of a sex-addict working as an oil boy on a photo shoot for sunscreen products. For most of my life, I have been surrounded by beautiful instruments.

During my years at Shangri La, I had the opportunity to have some of the finest instruments in my hands on a daily basis. The studio owner had very wisely invested in a marvelous collection of vintage guitars and basses and I looked at that collection as my personal Golden Gate Bridge. Because the bridge is so massive, it is under constant maintenance. As soon as the crews finish repainting at one end, they go back and start all over again. Every one of those instruments was in perfect working order because a part of everyday was devoted to cleaning, restringing, intonating and making minor repairs. Every day was an orgy.

I learned a great deal about vintage instruments...how to date them accurately, the desirability factor of various makes, models and years...all the usual bullshit that fills the air at vintage guitar shows. But the most important thing I learned is that there are great guitars that can be had for the price of a good flight case...and there are priceless guitars that can be real dogs. A vintage guitar can be worth a boatload of cash to a collector, but that doesn't necessarily make it a great musical instrument. The guitars I'm going to concentrate on here are solid body electrics. Jazz guitars, flat top acoustics and semi-hollow body guitars are an entirely different matter.

As a player, I don't get overly excited about words like "dead mint", "ten out of ten" or "complete with original hang tags." Great guitars have usually been played...a lot. I've handled some guitars of museum quality that were dogs the day they came out of the factory. There is a mythical reverence for the hand work that went into the construction of Fender guitars and basses of the 50's. The fact is that those instruments were built to be affordable. Anything done by hand was done so because machines were either too expensive or had yet to be developed. One characteristic of hand work that escapes logical consideration is the variable level of quality control. The Fender factory of the 50's shouldn't be equated with a one-off boutique lutherie. These guitars were not hand carved by master craftsmen, they were assembled from pre-fabricated parts. And every once in a while, the perfect neck would find the perfect body and a fantastic guitar would be born. Many times those few great guitars would end up in the hands of great players.

This was In the days before musicians found it impossible to play a show without ten guitars on stage. Guitars and cases were thrown into car trunks, pick-up trucks and luggage bins with little regard for the cosmetically-obsessed collector of the future. There are plenty of stories of the "Holy Grail" being found tucked under a bed for 30 years in its original case complete with tags. Some of those guitars might turn out to be really great instruments. But maybe they were tossed under the bed because they didn't sound good or played like shit. The sad fact is that once those guitars are found, they rarely get the chance to prove themselves because the inflated price of "dead mint" vintage guitars almost insures that they will end up as trophies hanging some doctor's or lawyer's wall.

Yes, vintage guitars are wonderful artifacts of a magical era in pop music. But when it comes to solid body guitars built on an assembly line, it isn't unusual to play ten vintage beauties before finding an instrument that is everything it should be. The fact is that there are only so many old guitars. They don't build '54 Strats anymore. I've played four 1954 Stratocasters. Two were dogs, one was pretty nice and one was an exceptional guitar. Hint, the winner did not have the original tags. I've also been intimate with a half-dozen "Black-guard" Telecasters ranging from unbelievably mint to something that looked like it was dragged behind a tractor from gig to gig. The mint ones were stiff and unresponsive, which is probably why they were still mint. The old beater was probably one of the three best guitars I've ever played.

Because there are so few old guitars left, guitar manufacturers are now marketing replicas of some of the more desirable models at what I consider absurd prices. I actually bought a masterbuilt '54 Stratocaster myself. But I had to look through fourteen of them before I found one that was exceptional. Yes, they're pretty, but what makes them worth the price? They're still made out of wood and have a bit of hardware screwed on. If the "way they used to make 'em" is so special, why don't they make 'em like that now? well, I got news, They do. And I think that the standards of today's assembly line built instruments are far superior to what was being done in the "old days." The Fender "Hwy 1" guitars and basses are much better that the shit they were cranking out in the 70's...at a fraction of the cost. ( I just checked E-bay...there is an early 70's precision bass listed at $2900.00! Insane)

The bottom line is that I don't get too excited about ultra clean vintage instruments anymore. I say let the collectors shell out the bucks and hang them on their walls. There is no shortage of great playing, great sounding guitars out there. Go to a guitar shop, put on a blindfold and play twenty or thirty guitars. You might surprise yourself.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Evolution Redux or Alternative History

This is a continuation of my post Revolution vs Evolution and is written as my extended response to some of the more pessimistic entries being posted on the Sellaband forum.

Scene I:

It is a warm and balmy day as three small ships bob aimlessly in the still, windless expanse of the uncharted sea. There is a meeting in the captain's quarters and three of the crewmen express that, being lost, hungry and nearly out of water, the crew would respectfully request the captain to consider turning around so they could be home in time for the opening of the bullfight season.

"You see Chris," the first mate says, " it's like this, it was great getting out of prison to go on this cruise and everything, but the guys are saying, and we think you'll agree, that it's starting to get a bit boring out here. And we really don't know what we're looking for anyway, do we?"

"You know what?" Christopher Columbus answers, " You're right! And for all we know those islands over there may be loaded with savages. Screw it. Let's beat it back to Spain!"

Scene II:

A reptile finds himself at the edge of a swamp. He has never been here before, but the surroundings seem strangely familiar. As he nears the water, he sees what he takes to be his own reflection but recoils in surprise as the face in the water rises out of the surface and speaks to him. "Jesus Ralph! What are you doing out of the water? And what the hell happened to your damn dorsal fin?" the face booms out at him.

"Who's Ralph? and what the hell is a dorsal fin?" the reptile answers.

"Oh, sorry man, I thought you were my pal Ralph...damn, except for those fucked-up fins and no dorsal fin, you're a dead ringer. What's a dorsal fin?" The fish spun out of the water to show off his fin, "This thing...on my back...I use it to swim straight. Where's yours?"

"These aren't fins you dumb-ass fish. They're claws. I use them to dig up turtle eggs and to crawl around with. And I don't need a dorsal fin, I don't swim that much anyway." And the reptile went on his way, wondering why the face in the water should ring such a familiar bell.

Christopher Columbus didn't set out to discover America, but America was discovered and colonized just the same. His voyage had an immense impact on history. But the truth is that, at the time the events transpired, he was completely ignorant of where he was. He only hoped to find enough good stuff to bring back to Spain so Isabella would let him keep his head.

The Swamp lizard had no way of knowing that he had met his cousin 37 times removed, just as he couldn't possibly know that millions of years later, his egg-digging claws would develop the skills needed to type entries on the Sellaband Forum.

There are two characteristics of the evolutionary process which are difficult for us to accept. First, evolution, being relentless and inexorable, is not a speedy proposition. It takes time. We can see the evidence of evolutionary changes only in the rear-view mirror. Second, because of the time element, those beings closest to evolutionary adaptations...the evolving, let's call them, have the least advantageous viewpoint from which to judge or control the nature of the process. Evolution exists with or without our approval or emotional involvement.

Evolution happens as a result of changing conditions. Let's consider the music industry for example. The industry is experiencing a massive upheaval in how musical products are created as well as how these products are distributed and marketed. Even sacrosanct concepts such as ownership and rights of usage are fighting to survive in the ever-changing technology-driven environment. It is especially interesting to note that these technological advances were not instigated by the needs of the music industry at all but are the fallout, leftovers and byproducts of a human race busily inventing more efficient methods of "thinning the herd." Such are the mysteries of evolution.

What reasonably logical mind could have foreseen wireless communication across the globe from the vantage point of fifty short years ago? Neither the changes in our environment, nor the adaptations accomplished for continued survival are the fruits of careful consideration. George Crum did not set out to invent potato chips. He intentionally overcooked an order of potatoes to make a point to a complaining diner. The greasy fingers of his injured pride now span the globe.

As to the evolution of the music industry, I choose to be optimistic although I realize that my optimism is not a driving force. Environmental changes are not driven by emotion. Who can say what the future will bring. Sellaband is a means, not an end. In a hundred years, a ten dollar part in Sellaband may buy something totally different. Compact discs and downloads will be a thing of the past. Perhaps we will be investing in suppositories that, upon insertion, will secrete a consciousness expanding substance that turns us into the very artist we are supporting. Who knows...but I am optimistic.

Had Columbus indeed turned around before landing on the shores of the West Indies, the new world would not have remained unexplored much longer. Just as we don't know how many skeletal astronauts are piloting failed missions, who can know the names of those who preceeded Columbus and failed? Who knows how many species of swamp lizard starved to death because the operations manual for their egg-digging claws was yet to be printed? But if I were a swamp lizard using my claws to dig up breakfast, I would hope to be optimistically looking forward to a time when my progeny would wield the power of a laptop to make their opinions known.

I'm glad that Columbus, confused as he was, didn't turn around. I'm glad that George Crum got pissed off and sent a plate of overcooked potatoes to the table. I'm glad that the military-driven technology of mass-murder gave birth to the way we now listen to music. And I'm glad that Sellaband exists as an element in the evolution of the music industry.

But what I'm really gladdest about though...is that I don't have a dorsal fin!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Franz Schubert...The Lost Week

Since the time I first became aware of music, long ago in early childhood, I have had an abiding interest in music history, particularly the lives of the great composers who lived and worked in Vienna. I find it fascinating to look further than the dry biographical texts of my college days and examine more closely the daily experiences that inspired Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and so many others to the sublime heights of creativity attained in that city during the golden era of the Hapsburg empire. These were, after all, living, breathing musicians with all the passions, weaknesses and quirkiness prevalent in their heirs of today's music world.

My music history professor at school was an avid disciple of Mozart and we debated many hours over Wofgang's alleged superiority over my hero, Franz Schubert. I had read every word I could find about my favorite composer, and had an intimate knowledge of his letters, notes to friends, personal diaries and even knew the details of his laundry and shopping lists. I felt that I knew, as well as could be known from a distance of 150 years, enough about Schubert to have a keen appreciation for that which made him the composer he was.

When my grandfather passed away in 1974, I received a package from Salzburg containing various personal effects which my grandmother sent according to his last wishes. At the bottom of the box there was my grandfather's handwritten journal describing his adventures as a submariner during the first World War. I carefully pulled back the cover to reveal a note in his handwriting that could not have been older than a month. Translated, it said, "My dear grandson Peter, knowing your passion for stories about your favorite composer, Franz Schubert, I am leaving you something very special which has been in our family since his death in 1828. You may know that he passed from this life in the house at nr. 6 Kettenbr├╝ckengasse where my own grandfather was employed as a house servant. On these few scraps of paper are written in the maestro's own hand the facts concerning his absence from Vienna for seven days during the late summer of 1822. You may remember from your studies that Schubert was not a famous man during his short life, and his disappearance was noteworthy only within the small circle of his friends. This cherished momento from the hand of the master I leave to you upon my passing from this life."

Eureka!! Imagine how my heart jumped as I held in my humble hand that which Franz Schubert had held in his own a short 150 years before. Here, translated for the very first time is the document describing seven lost days in the brief life of the great composer:

Ach, Saturday! Today I will not write music. I feel lazy and I think that the best thing is to go for a long walk in the woods. But better that I take paper in my pocket, the symphony must be finished and maybe I will get some ideas from the songbirds...

(Later that night) What a very strange day it has been. I thought that I had walked every path in these woods, but an hour after I passed the Heuriger (Viennese wine garden) I felt that this was a different forest altogether. I did not see the usual landmarks. Where was Hofstetter's hunting shack? The giant Castanian tree that fell in last year's storm was gone. But the sun was still high in the sky and the birds were singing so there was no reason to be worried. I kept wandering in my beloved woods, thinking, always thinking...mein Gott, but the symphony just won't let itself be finished! But now it is dusk and I am very tired. Tired and hungry. I think I will rest for a moment and then try to find my way home. The moon will be almost full and I will surely find the way.

(Sunday Night) I had the strangest dream...and as I awaken it is again dark! Have I slept under this tree all day? It cannot be. But I am no longer tired and my hunger is gone. Ah, the dream...I heard the most interesting music, primitive but yet very soothing to the spirit. It came from the very depths of the forest, from a place I do not know. I dreamed that I followed the sound as a spaniel follows his nose to the back door of Hirschpichler's butcher shop. The strange music drew me deeper and deeper into the forest until I saw a house...well, it looked like a house, but it was built very low to the ground. It was made of a strange material, long tube-like pieces tied together. And the roof was made of long yellow grass-like branches. There were no doors or windows, only the holes where such things should be. And as I looked down I noticed that the forest floor was no longer covered with the dark green moss but that I was now walking on clean white sand! But what was this music? There was a guitar playing only simple chords on the second and fourth beat of each measure. And a low drum on the downbeat with some sort of percussion on every off beat. Nothing sophisticated at all, but the repetition was hypnotic and if I wasn't dreaming, I think that I would have gone to sleep. And go to sleep I surely did because now it is almost morning and the nearly full moon is sinking to the west. Ach, I should have stayed in my room to work on the symphony!

(Sometime Tuesday) The mystery is still a mystery and I am still hopelessly lost but at least I am with friends. Yesterday I was awakened by the same haunting rhythm of this strange new music. I approached the grass covered house and looking in the door, I pulled myself back in terror. Inside there was what appeared to be at least 5 or 6 people, men women and children...but like nothing I had ever seen in Vienna. They were barefoot and dressed in very bright colored clothing. The women had multicolored head coverings and the men...mein Gott, the men had hair and beards nearly to the waist that looked like sheep's wool. And all of them had skin the color of a Sacher torte! I had never seen beings like this but as I recoiled from the door I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice, "Ja Mann! Come in and Jam a while mann!" The hand was attached to a giant of a man who's shining black eyes looked out of a deeply lined brown face. His deep voice asked, "What is your name, Mann?" I answered, almost shaking out of my clothes, "My name is not Mann, It is Franz." "France!" he thundered. "This is not France, Mann. I don't know where this is, but this is definitely not France! If it is France you are looking for, then you are even more lost than we are." At this the entire population of the house broke into laughter repeating that this was not France at all.

When I saw that they meant me no harm, I found my voice enough to explain that yes, I was indeed very lost, tired and hungry, that my name was Franz, not France, and that I had been wandering in what I thought was a familiar forest in search of the final chords for my Symphony. "Ah, you are a music man, Mann!" "Yes, but why do you still call me Mann, my name is Franz." "We call every man Mann, but we spell it M-O-N, Mon. You...we will call you France, mon. Because you are lost like us and also like us you are a music mon." They went on to explain that they were the last of a lost tribe of Israel and had been wandering the earth looking for their rightful homeland. I was made to feel completely at home among these lost wanderers. They gave me food and drink and when I confessed that I played the guitar, I was not left in peace until I played one of my Lieder for them.

Later that night I sat on a log in the clearing wondering if this was still a dream and if, when I finally woke up, I would find my way home. Bruddah John, as the leader of this band of fellow wanderers was called, came to sit with me. As I looked up at the now full moon, he asked, "Do you want to go there mon?" "Where?" I asked. "Up there mon...to the moon." And with that he passed a long sweet-smelling cigar into my hands. "Take a taste of that mon, and you will be there, on that moon. And then you can look back at us down here. Maybe then mon, you will find your way." I had smoked the last of my pipe tobacco and was craving a smoke so I accepted the cigar and took a long draw... Now it is Tuesday and If I am still dreaming, I am tired and must sleep.

(At this point in the manuscript the writing becomes unintelligible but for a few musical scribblings, symbols outlining what appear to be rhythmic motifs, drawings of the moon in its various phases, and a recipe for mojitos. On the next page Schubert continues...)

Ach Gott im Himmel! If I am not still in a dream and if I have counted the days correctly, it is Saturday and somehow I must either find my way home or wake up! It won't do to miss church again. My new friends and benefactors have taken me in and shared everything with me. Their food is delicious although spicier than even the sharpest goulash. Their tobacco is most interesting however. I find that I cannot smoke an entire cigar or "Spliff" as they call them. After one or two draws, I must lie down while the most curious thoughts fill my head. I feel as if I can create any music in my head but in the end find myself wanting only to eat and play repetitive patterns on the guitar. Bruddah John and I played music for hours while the children clapped on two and four of every measure and the women tapped their cooking pans with wooden spoons. This music has such a charm, I must write something in this style one day. One thing is very certain...I have no more heart to finish the verdammpt symphony. I think that I will just give the first two movements to that idiot H├╝ttenbrenner in Graz. I'm through with it. They can call it the "Unfinished Symphony" for all I care.

I found that Brudda John's family is even more lost than I am. They are searching for an Island they called Jahmekka. I told them that there were, to my knowledge, no islands anywhere near Vienna, as the city is situated far from any sea where such an island might be found. I made the promise that upon my return home, I would look at any maps that could be found in Father's school house and would return with any information that may prove helpful to these kind people in finding this Jahmekka. But now, Bruddah has held a hot coal to a spliff and...

Here the narrative abruptly ends. Was it a dream? or did Franz Schubert really happen upon a band of future Rastafarians in the depths of the Vienna woods? And do these scraps of writing finally explain why the "Unfinished" is...well, unfinished? I read and reread the handwritten notes repeatedly searching between the lines for more insight into the mind of this great composer. But the true treasure was to be found in what I had dismissed as illegible scribbling. As I stared at the markings a composition began to take shape. Here it was, the original manuscript sketch for one of Schubert's finest songs, "To The Moon." It was all here, the melody and the chords were outlined in a rudimentary way. But there was more. There was a bass line written out and rhythmic patterns were outlined that are unmistakably similar to the music of Jamaica. You can hear the original version of this song, arranged according to notes written in Schubert's own hand by looking at the Sellaband profile of a great band from Austria called ConFused5.

Who could have guessed that a Viennese composer, the immense output of whose short career would not be recognized until after his death, would become the father of Reggae?

Sadly, three years ago, the "Lost Week" manuscript was lost during an unfortunate accident while mixing a pitcher of mojitos. But I can swear that all of the details set forth above are true...well, most of them.

...Some of them...O.K, well... my grandfather DID send me a box of stuff!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Words, or Music? Anyone...

This from the Sellaband forum, "What's more important: music or lyrics?" An interesting question, especially as it comes from a very talented artist and songwriter, Francis Rodino. As it stands, the question is open for discussion from the listener's point of view as well as that of the songwriter. An attempt to discuss the methodologies and philosophies of songwriting in all its various genre is far beyond the scope of a blog entry, so let's assume that Francis is asking the question in reference to songs that fall into the vast category of popular (read commercial) music. I choose to look at this from the songwriter's angle because any songwriter seeking an audience must have the listener in mind during the writing process.

The question I'd like to discuss is, what is it that elevates a song to the status of being considered a "great" song? Is it the lyric? Is it a melody that burrows its way into your consciousness? Or is it the artistic result of finely tuned collaboration between music and the written word, both of which exist as art-forms in their own right?

Historically, the word "song" has been used to define a rich body of literary work. There is "The Song of Solomon" in the old testament and the songs that make up a large part of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Elements of both having been set to music, they exist nonetheless as songs in their original written form.

In medieval Europe, traveling minstrels wrote songs or "Ballades" using legends, heroic stories and folklore as their texts. Many of these melodies passed from generation to generation and found their way into early church music with the idea that the melodies would make attendance more attractive to the local peasantry familiar with these songs.

The "Art Song" or Lied became popular as a method of setting literary poems to music in the local language of the intended audience. This style reached it's peak with Schumann and Schubert and great care was taken to craft music which captured the intent and emotion of the poetry. The best composers had a strong understanding of the human voice and composed melodies which gave the singer every opportunity to deliver the lyric most effectively. Composers carefully considered which vowels were to be sung in which range in order to provide the best possible marriage between words and music. These songs were meant for performance in intimate settings and were usually accompanied only by piano so the voice could be not only heard but understood.

With the advent of the Musical Theater as an option to Grand Opera, we see the birth of the popular song. As recording and broadcast technologies became more sophisticated, these songs became the core of what we call "Standard Tunes" and were recorded in every conceivable style and whistled at every bus stop. Most of these songs were originally written by lyricists and set to music by composers. This, in large part, continued until the emergence of the "artist as songwriter" concept developed in country and rock music, Hank Williams and The Beatles being prominent examples.

Looking back over the history and development of the song as an independent form, the interconnectivity of words and music is profound. Instrumental music has its forms and the spoken word exists independent of musical accompaniment. Some listeners may be entranced by a gripping melody and others by the story or message of a meaningful lyric. But for a song to be a song, it seems that both elements must conspire to create art on a level neither can attain independently.

So now, enough with the history lesson. What is it that makes a song so compelling as to be considered great? The major property of great art in any medium is its ability to transcend. Great songs transcend time in that they remain relevant. The music and the message maintain a vitality regardless of styles, fads or current events. Great songs allow each listener their own personal interpretation. John Lennon's "Imagine" is the type of song that spells out a concept without being overly specific. Each listener is allowed to go on imagining his own personal idea of perfection long after the song has ended. Or, As Francis very aptly writes:

"Sometimes I just try to stress some "keywords" and basic human feelings and emotions. I remain vague on purpose, so that people can draw up their own conclusion of what the song means, which can be different for everybody, based on their own life experience."

The other area which a truly great song transcends is that of performance. It's been said about Motown songs that you could have had Bozo the Clown singing those songs, they would have been hits anyway. And as Dennis St. John liked to say, "A hit song is a hit song...period." I remember when "That's What Friends are For" was released. Because Stevie Wonder and Elton John sang on the 1985 release, it was widely thought that the song had been written by one or both of them. The record sung, by Stevie, Sir Elton, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick went on to be a billboard #1 hit. Most people didn't know that the song was recorded in its original rock version by Rod Stewart three years earlier. And the punch-line is that the music was composed by Burt Bacharach and the lyrics written by Carole Bayer Sager. Small wonder that it was a hit.

Some years ago, I subbed for a friend and played bass on a couple of gigs with the great songwriter Paul Williams. Being the cocky bastard that I was at that time, I didn't crack the book open until the downbeat of the show. How hard could it be, right? As I played that show down, I was floored by how many great songs Paul had written. Songs for so many great artists. But the one thing that struck me the most was this. Paul is a great guy, but he's far from being a great singer. Sorry Paul, you know you're no Teddy Pendergrass, right? But in spite of his voice, every one of those songs touched that audience. They were great songs that transcended time and performance.

Francis Rodino asks a very pertinent question, "What's more important, music or lyrics?" I think that Francis already knows the answer. And I hope that in twenty years time he can look back at having pulled off a few great songs.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Nothing Up My Sleeves!

This is from the Sellaband forum posted under the thread, "What's the secret?" Posted by
Lush Progress a new band to Sellaband.

"I've spent a couple days browsing through the site, and it seems that there is a very small, elite group of bands on SAB that do very well. I'd guess maybe 10%.
So, what separates those bands from the other 90%? What is their secret? Maybe the better question would be: What are believers looking for when they invest in a band?"

As any expert in prestidigitation would say, as he rolls up the sleeves of his red brocade tuxedo, "Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat. Nothing up my sleeve!" There is no secret. The harder you work, the luckier you get. And when it comes to making a dent in the wall that is the business of selling music, Lotsa Luck! The 90/10 ratio given in the above post are liberally skewed in favor of success. I'm certain that the actual failure to success ratio across the board is much steeper.

But to address the question, why do some artists succeed and others fail? Let's make a list of some fairly obvious reasons:

1. First and foremost, as my sweet old granny liked to say, "If it's so fucking easy, anybody could do it!" (She was a real inspiration and had a wonderful way with words.)

2. Some artists/music happen to touch a wider audience. This has fuck-all to do with quality. Selling music is a business. Tofu is a higher quality food source than Sir Barf-a-lot Breakfast Krispies, but you don't get a toy so we all know who gets your dollar.

3. And then, there is the issue of quality. Some people are simply better than others. When we pay money to see anything...music, movies, sports, we want to see something at a higher level than that which we can do ourselves. To be worth the price of admission, something had better be special. This is a concept that is getting more difficult to grasp in a society that wants to ban any form of reward for excellence. There are school districts that have eliminated competitive activities like "dodge-ball" and "tag" from physical education classes citing that weaker students may develop esteem issues when they lose against more aggressive or athletic students. After twelve years of having their mediocrity rewarded it is no small wonder that an entire generation finds it hard to excel in the real world, which is for all intents and purposes divided into two classes...ass kickers and ass kickees. Now that is not to say that all the ass kickers always win all of the time. But those who find their asses constantly on the end of a foot don't have a chance.

In the early eighties (Aw shit...another one of Pete's dumb-ass stories) I was in a band called Target. Don't even bother googling...we were ass kickers but got our asses soundly kicked by the pros. We had it all going for us. We had at least five songs that were hit material. The main writer had a voice that was unforgettable and a style that had star quality written all over it. Every musician in the band was top notch, sang well and looked the part. We simply had no weak spots.

Wally Holmes, the producer of "Rock the Boat" by the Hughes Corporation was mentoring us in our quest to be the next great thing. He said one thing that has stayed with me through the years. We were having a hot dog at Pink's in Hollywood when he noticed my eyes following a big silver Benz driving past. "Do you want to drive a car like that?" he asked. I nodded, and he said, " All you have to do is work your ass off. There are 24 hours in a day. Most people work for eight and sleep for eight. It's what you do with the remaining eight hours that will make the difference. You can go to the movies, watch sports or just hang out. But just remember that when you go to a movie or see a concert or even watch TV, you'll be paying to see the people who use those eight hours to kick some ass...and they're the ones who drive those big silver cars."

We had spent two years talking our way into enough after-hours studio time to record some impressive demos. It was time to do a showcase for a heavyweight record producer who only wanted to see us in front of an audience before signing us to a lucrative deal. So here we were, the featured band on a Saturday night in a club then called "At My Place" (now the Temple Bar in Santa Monica). And boy did we wow the audience. It was a show not soon to be forgotten. Seems that our songbird suffered from an over-abundant dose of self-prescribed "external courage"...got reeling drunk on red wine. We kicked off the first tune of the set, he stepped to the mic and promptly puked on his shoes and into the drinks of the first row of tables. After the initial impact of the scene had subsided, I looked up in time to see our recording career walk muttering out the back door and drive off...probably in a big silver Benz. GAME OVER.

The lessons I learned from being in that band were these...If you aren't ready to work hard, forget it. If you don't have a hit song, forget it. If you go to bed at night thinking that you practiced enough, forget it. If you play your music for people and they don't go nuts, forget it. If you have to hand out a pamphlet with your cd explaining why the sitar part zooms across the stereo mix, forget it. If you think that being a recalcitrant asshole makes you "special", forget it. And if you spew your courage all over your shoes at the first sign of pressure...really forget it. None of these things will necessarily prevent you from being a great musician. But any one of these "Ifs" can throw a wrench into the prospect of being commercially successful.

There is one more point I want to make about the last part of the posted question,
"Maybe the better question would be: What are believers looking for when they invest in a band?"

This may not be directly related to the question, but it's an observation nonetheless. I've noticed two distinct approaches in developing artist/believer relationships within the Sellaband community. There is the artist who arrives as a dinner guest with flowers for the lady of the house, a nice bottle of wine or perhaps a special dessert...and asks what else he can do as he clears the dishes from the table. And then there is the artist who arrives late, complains that the broccoli is overcooked, takes a piece of cake to go, then walks off with half the silverware.

To be successful in the business of selling, and in music it is yourself that is for sale, people have to like what they are buying. Nobody purposely pays for something they don't want. The more successful artists on Sellaband are those that bring something to the table...something more than just the music. It is a mistake to come to Sellaband empty-handed and expect financial support from the existing financial base. For the system itself to be viable, artists must bring along a "primer coat" of belief. Otherwise the current believers will be counting the forks and spoons.

So...I guess the secret is out...nothing up my sleeves! Here's wishing Lush Progress all the success that hard work can bring.