Thursday, December 31, 2009

Shuffle play Friday-Let the countdown begin

Hot Tuna-I See The Light/The Phosphorescent Rat

There have been a wealth of bands and performers over the years occupying my personal upper shelf of favorites. While it’s difficult to isolate and name a solitary artist/band as my all-time favorite, Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna would give the #1 slot a strong push—and depending on the day, Hot Tuna may be the one artist I’d take with me if given one catalog of music to take with me to a remote location—like the proverbial dessert island.

I was a high school freshman during the fall of 1976. Dana Aspinall introduced me to his senior football teammate, and Hot Tuna fan, Paul Bohunicky. I didn’t know much about the band at the time, and wasn’t aware that they were Jorma’s Jefferson Airplane side project. Bohnucky was cranking what I’d later learn was America’s Choice from his Jensen’s perched in the back of his ’69 Rambler. Given that I was always interested in new music, I made my own mental note to check out the record bin at DeOrsey’s the next time I was in Lewiston.

By the end of my sophomore year, I had acquired the entire Hot Tuna catalog, all of it on vinyl, which was the preferred music format of the era, and still my favorite way to listen to music when I have a turntable nearby. Unfortunately, the draconian dictates of the fundamentalist sect I got wrapped up with looked unkindly on rock and roll, and I eventually unloaded my carefully acquired record collection for pennies on the dollar.

I’ve begun reacquiring some of the best of my former collection, picking up the odd gem, and adding back classics like Hot Tuna’s Burgers, America’s Choice, and Yellow Fever on vinyl.

Realizing how much I love music, my lovely wife gave me a gift certificate at BullMoose Records. Ironically, owner Brett Wickard once worked for the long departed DeOrsey’s, before starting his original BullMoose store in Brunswick, while a student at Bowdoin back in the early 1990s.

I still love browsing my way through music (to me, always “record”) stores, and BullMoose still maintains a great physical selection at stores like the one I visited in downtown Brunswick. This is no small fact in our age of iPods and other digital music devices, given that younger (and older alike) listeners no longer believe they should have to pay for others creative genius, causing sales to continue plummeting downward.

When The Phospherescent Rat was released in 1973, Hot Tuna no longer was a sideline endeavor for Kaukonen and bassist extraordinaire, Jack Casady. Jack and Jorma were now fulltime and full throttle committed to the band. Jorma’s songwriting shows it, and Casady’s bass playing is amazing, with few modern players coming close to creating the textures, and even foghorn effects that Casady was getting from gear that is far from today’s technologically advanced equipment.

While many of Tuna’s current fan base clamor for the acoustic, Rev. Gary Davis-style finger-picking songs in the band’s catalog, I’m one of those that loved the heavy, effects-driven mid-70s period. It was during this time that the band was known for three plus hour shows, combining both acoustic, and electric in separate sets, and extended jams. This album was transitional, with songs like “I See The Light,” along with “Sally Where’d You Get Your Liquor From,” hearkening back to the previous Burgers style of folk-rock, and “Easy Now” foreshadowing the full-blown electric inclinations of Jorma and Co.

Jorma and Jack performed in South Portland two weeks ago. I was on the fence about seeing them, but decided against it at the last minute. One of the reasons was that I knew they’d play a lot of great acoustic stuff. For me, however, the electric days are gone, as the amplified storm generated 30 years ago just doesn’t seem the same coming from an older musician, which Jorma certainly is, at this juncture in his career. That’s not a criticism, it’s just part of conundrum of rock and roll, baby boomers, and the nature of what the music once was about, and often is tough to pull off for stalwarts like Kaukonen, Neil Young, the Stones, and others, as they age, some not very gracefully.

Sonic Youth-Teeage Riot/Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth represents the break I made with the music I listened to throughout high school, and the DIY-influenced music that I embraced after coming out the other side of a difficult period immersed in fundamentalist ideology. Bands like Sonic Youth provided a new way of seeing music, even processing personal experiences at the time.

Another piece of recorded music that I once owned, originally possessing it on cassette, released on the Enigma label. As would happen occasionally with a cassette recording, particularly longer recordings (Daydream Nation clocked in at 70:47), the cassette would jam, and sometimes get “eaten” by the cassette player. At some point, my cassette copy became unlistenable, and disappeared from my music collection.

My new copy is on CD. I listened to the first half on my ride to work Wednesday morning, finishing the first run through on my commute home, at night. Subsequent listens defy a sense that this recording is 21 years old.

“Teenage Riot” is anthemic in the best sense of the word’s usage. Driving, propelled by Steve Shelley’s always solid drumming, with paired vocals from Thurston and Kim, this song is fairly straightforward, but not typical, given the band’s penchant for feedback, noise, dissonance, alternate tunings, and guitar skronk.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember the bleakness that many of us felt back in the late 80s, at the tail end of the Reagan presidency. This disc reminds us a bit about the dark days of those years, and cuts through so much of the historical revisionism that’s taken place since.

Here are a portion of German artist/musician/critic Jutta Koether’s liner notes that appear on the CD version I picked up at BullMoose.

Daydream Nation: a picture of a moment, taken with a Polaroid. Though the colors are faded, they were faded when the album was first released…remember? Hearing this music now reveals the power of memory-conceptually dreaming, thinking along with the flow. For that moment, it appeared as a stylized recording, a conceptual work, which allowed for spacey “light listening.” [light listening, indeed!—JB]

Koether, again:

Others thought of Daydream Nation as a perfectly laid out demonstration of the paradox of underground music, a dialectical meltdown, a moment in utopia and regression. To a quite a few people, the whole thing looked and sounded good as well. A breakthrough of unique but also somehow generic independent music.

Sonic Youth have continued making solid and even some excellent subsequent recordings, but nothing approaching the sprawling epic sweep that was Daydream Nation.

Todd Rundgren-Just One Victory/The Very Best Of Todd Rundgren

It might be difficult to truly appreciate Todd Rundgren’s musical genius, removed from the late 1960s/early 1970s context, which saw his star reach its commercial zenith.

While not an obscure talent by any account, as time spent listening to oldies formats will probably allow a listen to one of a string of Rundgren’s hits from the 1970s, it’s rare to find anyone that recognizes his name in a conversation about music. During the 1970s, however, you couldn’t pick up a major music magazine without reading an article on Rundgren.

Rundgren was someone that I was somewhat familiar with during my formative musical development as a pre-teen, browsing, and occasionally buying what I remember as Creem, Circus, or possibly even Rolling Stone, at Robert’s Pharmacy in my hometown of Lisbon Falls, or Victor News, in Lewiston.

Later, my best friend, Dave Gray (who taught us all to think [inside joke]) would tell me of Rundgren’s musical prowess as a mult-instrumentalist, his spiritual inclinations, and other qualities that I obviously had missed in my reading.

Most of my musical purchases over the last 20 years have primarily been rock of the independent variety. The last few years, however, I’ve allowed myself to be less focused on maintaining the self-imposed militancy against so-called corporate rock, and I’ve begun occasionally picking up recordings that seem a bit eclectic, and even mainstream, compared to most of my current CD collection.

Browsing BullMoose, I saw TVBOTR and realized that many of the songs were ones I recognized, and actually really enjoyed. Once in my car, after grabbing a cup of coffee at Little Dog (a great locally-owned coffee shop on Maine Street), it was Rundgren’s CD that found its way into the CD player.

There are wonderful tunes on the CD, in fact, all of the 16 tracks are of the quality that I could listen to them over and over again.

“Just One Victory,” however, contain lyrics that uplift, and promote an optimism that might seem hokey in 2009/2010, but in 1973 still seemed possible, as our sense of what was possible hadn’t been wrung out of us yet.

The Rural Alberta Advantage-Edmonton/Hometowns

My last tune, on the last day of 2009 (most of this is being wrapped up an hour before midnight) is by yet another Canadian band, a special discovery from the last half of 2009. I now know there is a wealth of musical talent north of the U.S. border. The Rural Alberta Advantage is one of several artists that I’m learning about.

The band’s music is rooted in a sense of place—in this case, the vast prairies and mountain ranges of western Canada. I think the music also has a timeless appeal to that sense of geographic rootedness that we all yearn for, and continue to search for. As homogeneity continues to be pushed upon us, from Edmonton, Alberta, to Portland, Maine, songs like the ones that the RAA play connect.

Much of the material was written by Nils Edenloff, the band’s lead singer, and chief songwriter. Edenloff had relocated to the more cosmopolitan and artistically viable Toronto, a journey that countless creative Canadians have made before. What comes across in many of the band’s songs, is that sense that you can take the boy out of the prairie, but you can’t take the prairie, and the distinctiveness of Alberta, out of the boy.

The band plays music that’s acoustic, but rocks as well as anything electrified and cranked to 10. In fact, the driving nature of many of the tracks indicates that rock and roll is an attitude, as much as it is amplification. The arrangements of strummed acoustic guitars, synthesizers, even glockenspiels, work, and make for a rich mix of musical mastery.

Well, 2009 is history, and we’re on to bigger and better things in 2010—music will continue to be part of that journey.

Happy New Year!!

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