Friday, January 29, 2010

Barry Dransfield

There is a lot of music out there, far more than even the most dedicated fan can take in. That inevitably means that good and sometimes great music goes unheard and unrecognized.

Take the case of one Barry Dransfield. I knew Barry’s name. I had read of his music here and there, probably in Dirty Linen, the kind of niche music rag that focused on English hippies who played the traditional music of their forefathers. I even owned a bit of his music. Barry’s grinning visage stares out from under a top hat on the cover of Richard Thompson’s 1972 obscurity Morris On, a collection of bizarre little dance tunes and in-jokes so distinctly British that they are utterly baffling to anyone not well versed in 16th century rustic English culture. That would be me, for one. So much for Barry Dransfield.

That is, until a couple weeks ago. I’ve been listening to a 4-CD box set called The Acoustic Folk Box, a surprisingly generic name for a compilation that is, essentially, a bunch of English hippies playing the traditional music of their forefathers. And there was Barry Dransfield again, this time playing and singing with his brother Robin. Their particular contribution is a song called “The Rout of the Blues,” which has nothing to do with feeling happy, and everything to do with an early 18th century tale of the muster of British soldiers. Their singing was so stirring, their sibling harmonies so bracing, that I needed to hear more.

And so the past few weeks have been devoted to hunting down music that is old, very obscure, and absolutely wondrous. Most of Barry’s and Robin’s music is long out of print, so my first discovery was the 1997 2-CD compilation Up to Now, which assembles a goodly portion of the brothers’ recorded output. In true sibling fashion, Barry and Robin didn’t always get along very well, and so there are multi-year gaps in their catalogue. But this 2-CD set is a superb summation of why they mattered, and matter. Most of this material was recorded in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but these songs – both originals and trad covers – sound fresh, and the harmony singing is revelatory, and elicits the kind of sparks that only great brother duos such as The Everlys and The Louvins achieved before them.

Barry recorded solo albums in the long interims between gigs with Robin, and his eponymous solo debut from 1972 remains one of the great milestones of the trad revival. At one time Barry Dransfield had the distinction of being labeled the “rarest folk album,” and fanatical, aging English hippies paid upwards of 400 pounds for the privilege of owning a vinyl version. It has since been re-released on CD, and if it’s not worth 400 pounds, it is surely worth the $20 I paid for it in a local used music store. I suspect I got a bargain. It’s still going for over $50 on In any case, it’s a perfect trad folk album, split equally between lusty singing on the covers of ancient tunes and sprightly instrumental jigs and reels (Barry is a world-class fiddler).

Fast forward a couple decades. Barry retired from performing in the ‘80s and set up shop as the proprietor of a violin and cello restoration business in his native Hastings. Aside from occasional work scoring television shows and films, infrequent gigs with Robin, and a brief but memorable appearance as a blind fiddler opposite Mel Gibson, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Anthony Hopkins in The Bounty, the era of Barry Dransfield, Folksinger appeared to be at an end.

Which makes his two late-career albums all the more delightful. There’s music I’m missing in between, so I can’t really comment on his entire career, but the ‘00s were a very good musical decade indeed. Wings of the Sphinx and Unruly – both recorded during the past ten years – show absolutely no diminishment of vocal powers, and, if anything, a more nuanced and impressive instrumental prowess.

I’m especially enamored by the warmth of the singing and the dexterity of the fiddle and guitar work. Many trad folk revivalists come off as a bit studied and reverent, caretakers rather than the embodiment of the men and women who had to face the prospect of Johnny marching off with King George, or Napoleon laying waste to half of Europe. Barry Dransfield remembers flesh. And blood. He’s a marvelous, soulful singer, and I’ve experienced the same pleasure in hearing his voice that I encountered when I first heard Richard Thompson or Sandy Denny.

I love it when this happens. Several decades after the fact, old music has been made new. Those are the best kinds of surprises.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger

Like most American kids, I read The Catcher in the Rye in high school. Even back then, not all that many years after its publication, it was assigned reading for an English class. But no one had to force me to read it. It was funny, profane, and irreverent. That’s usually a recipe for success in the adolescent world, and it worked for me as well.

J.D. Salinger, who wrote the book, and precious little else, died yesterday at the ripe old age of 91. For all intents and purposes, he quit writing in 1965. He lived the last four and a half decades of his life as a virtual recluse. Perhaps no other author’s work has been simultaneously so influential and pervasive – some 65 million copies of Catcher have been sold – and so skimpy. This was a man whose life’s work essentially rested on a book of 200 slender pages. Two pages per year, more or less. It’s nice work if you can get it. Or if you want to call it work.

Looking back on it, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss was about. Catcher is the most banned/censored work in America by a wide margin. To this day, every time it’s taught in school you can count on one or more parents making a stink about it. I taught it in a suburban Columbus high school in the early 1980s and, sure enough, a few parents were outraged. Didn’t I know there were cuss words in that book? Didn’t I know that it was filled with filth and immorality? It turns out I did know that, and I wanted to teach it anyway, even as a God-fearing Christian. Go figure. That’s because a) I figured that little Buffy and Skip were already familiar with cuss words and immorality, b) I honestly thought it was fairly wonderful literature, and c) I had already read Shakespeare, who basically covered the same territory. Zounds.

But more than that, I appreciated the way Salinger told the truth, and told it in a fresh way that would resonate with anyone old enough to have experienced profound disappointment. Cynical? Yeah, you bet. But sometimes there are good reasons to be cynical. I heard a rumor of Salinger’s death shortly before last night’s State of the Union speech. Then I watched the speech, and listened to the political pundits on two very different networks arguing about the merits of the speech, each driven by their own agendas. Phonies. Holden Caulfield was right. Who wants to grow up to inherit this world?

Salinger captured the heartsickness at the root of the loss of innocence. He was a profoundly sad writer and, by all accounts, a profoundly sad man. But he got the heartsickness exactly right. He captured a life at a crucial turning point – on one side the childhood Disneyland fantasy of “if you can dream it you can do it,” and on the other side the hollow, dispiriting vision of how the adult world really works. You don’t have to be an adolescent to appreciate that conundrum. Sometimes you just have to watch TV on a Wednesday night.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Patty Griffin

My recent interview with soulful singer/songwriter Patty Griffin is right here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Jaga Jazzist - One Armed Bandit

Once upon a time, "fusion" was not a cuss word. In the ancient mists of time, before Kenny G. roamed the earth, there were musicians and bands who actually managed to merge the best of jazz and rock, classical and funk.

Even in those storied days, however, there were dangers on all sides. Keith Emerson bludgeoned his keyboards with knives, and he and his piano were hoisted out over the audience in a sling, thereby becoming a cross between Peter Pan and Liberace. "Over the top" didn't begin to describe it. Spyro Gyra combined jazz chops with Muzak sensibilities and produced elevator music that was annoyingly hummable. "Jazz Lite" became its own genre, suitable for low-volume listening around the hottub or in the dimly lit bedroom.

But at its best, "fusion" was a challenging and creative merger of the best of two or more genres, and could result in music that sounded like nothing that had come before it. Visionaries like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Oregon, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Soft Machine, Weather Report, and Mike Oldfield blurred old labels and categories, creating vibrant and fresh sounds in the process. It became stagnant and boring all too quickly. But for a brief moment, it heralded a musical renaissance.

Which brings us to Norwegian band Jaga Jazzist. I couldn't even begin to label the music. I do know that, in the best "fusion" tradition, labels really don't work. Go with prog/electronic/funk/jazz/classical/post-rock if it makes you feel better. I also know that what is here is dazzlingly creative, and that new album One Armed Bandit is a breakneck tour of the musical trends that have dominated music for the past fifty years. Earlier albums from the band could broadly be categorized as electronica/jazz, dominated by intertwined sax and trumpet, Lars Horntveth's serpentine keyboard lines, and insistent beats and tape loops. This one? Even the old fluid boundaries won't work. Consider the song "Toccata" for starters, which has nothing to do with Bach, and which instead hints at Philip Glass minimalism before introducing some tribal drums, and then morphs into a free jazz trumpet solo that is breathtaking. Got a label for that? Go for it.

Across 53 minutes, the nine tracks here bleed into one another, contort, twist and turn in a hundred different ways. And yet the music remains organically rooted, never contrived, always evolving in surprising and surprisingly accessible ways. It's a brilliant, if uncategorizable, triumph. Consider it an early contender for Album of the Year.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Thank you, Kurt Vonnegut.

Internet search engines are fearful and powerful things. While googling my name today (look, it's one of the few vain activities left to me; my young adult daughters having, through ongoing ridicule and chortling, stripped me of all other vestiges of self-worth), I encountered the following link: Andy Whitman - Asshole.

My first thought was that the jig was up. I had been found out: utterly unemployable, frequently despondent, and now revealed as a major, miserable whoreson, for all the computer-literate world to see. My second thought was to wonder who had so categorized me, and what had brought about such a dire pronouncement. I clicked on the link.

It turns out that there are websites out there that compile words used on the Internet. This particular website/robot/thingie had been programmed to ferret out the word "asshole." There were pages and pages of links containing the word "asshole." One of them was a link to a recent posting of mine where I had referenced the name of a Martha Wainwright song called "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole."

I am intrigued. For any of you cyber-security gurus out there, who looks at these lists of words? What are they looking for? How do you know if you're in trouble? On one hand, I guess I can understand it . Somebody needs to keep track of the nutjobs out there who write about "as*assi&at#ng Ob@ma" I hope somebody's keeping track of that. But asshole? What possible value does an alphabetically compiled list of postings containing the word "asshole" provide?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kate McGarrigle

In very sad news, Kate McGarrigle has died.

Kate (and her sister Anna) have, rightly or wrongly, been shuttled to the sidelines over the years. Kate's kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright (of "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" songwriting fame/infamy) have claimed the spotlight, and her former husband Loudon Wainwright III still puts out rueful, wise, smartass albums every couple years.

Kate? I haven't followed her for a while, and the last I had heard of her was on a McGarrigle Family Christmas album from a few years ago, where the whole dysfunctional McGarrigle/Wainwright clan got together and sang some painful songs about how difficult it was to be together at Christmas. It was the most dispiriting holiday album I'd ever heard and, strangely, one of the best, because it cut through the mawkish, sentimental bullshit and exposed the dark underbelly of "home for the holidays."

And although she made her share of fine music on her own, I can't help but think of Kate in light of those dysfunctional dynamics. This was the woman about whom Loudon once sang:

Your mother and I are living apart
I know that seems stupid, but we weren't very smart
You'll stay with her, I'll visit you
At Christmas, on weekends, the summertime too

Your mother and I are not getting along
Somehow somewhere something went wrong
Everything changes, time takes its toll
Your folks fell in love, and love's a very deep hole

Your mother and I will do all we can do
To work this thing out and to take care of you
Families get broken, I know it's a shame
It's nobody's fault, and you're not to blame

Your mother and I are both feeling bad
Things will get better, It won't stay this sad
And I hope when you grow up, one day you'll see
Your parents are people, that's all we can be

I love that song. It's tender, and it's raw, and it's infinitely sad, and even though I suspect Kate would have objected to the notion that "it's nobody's fault," it at least acknowledges the value of the woman left behind. No kidding. She was a wife, and a mother, and a friend. No one needs to speak to the people who mourn her loss about value.

She was also a terrific songwriter. Kate, who grew up in Montreal, recorded ten fine albums with her sister Anna, and sang many of her songs in French. So much for Top Ten hits in the U.S.A. But she had a real fondness for America, and one of her best songs sounds like an American hymn to me, and reminds me of the finest work of American hymnodists such as Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. It's a tale of wandering, pretty much from the New York islands to the redwood forests, in fact, and it's a tale of coming home. I hope Kate has found her true home.

I bid farewell to the state of old New York
My home away from home
In the state of New York I came of age
When first I started roaming
And the trees grow high in New York State
And they shine like gold in the autumn
Never had the blues from whence I came
But in New York State I got 'em

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait
Must I follow
Won't you say come with me

And it's on to South Bend, Indiana
Flat out on the western plain
Rise up over the Rockies
And down on into California
Out to where but the rocks again
And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I'll rise with it till I rise no more

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait
Must I follow
Won't you say come with me
-- Kate McGarrigle, "Talk To Me of Mendocino"

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lovely Caribbean

This is the ad that is currently displaying next to's Haiti coverage.

Friday, January 15, 2010

20th Century Man (in the 21st Century)

Ain't got no ambition,
I'm just disillusioned
I'm a twentieth century man
but I don't wanna be here.
My mama said she can't understand me
She can't see my motivation
Just give me some security
I'm a paranoid schizoid product of the twentieth century.
-- The Kinks, "20th Century Man"

Welcome to the brave new world. Here's a typical 3-month swath of time early in the second decade of the 21st centjry:

1) Interview for job. "We pride ourselves on our stability," the hiring manager says. "We've been in business for 17 years, and most of our employees have been here for ten years or more. We had one small layoff in 2008. We hated to do it, but we saw the recession coming. Now we're in great financial position, and we're prepared to move forward. And we have a lot of work for you."
2) Start new job. Feel good about it. Bust butt. Receive plaudits and kudos.
3) Three weeks into new job, meet with co-worker. "How many more weeks are you here?," he asks at the end of the meeting. Shut up and treasure these things in your heart, just like Mary.
4) Five weeks into job, meet with hiring manager. "We don't have budget to pay you for the rest of 2009," he says. "So we're going to ask you to take a 2-week unpaid vacation. But don't worry. We have budget for you for 2010."
5) Eight weeks into job, six weeks into the actual work experience, pass hiring manager in the hall. "By the way," he says, "we got you approved for another 96 hours for this year." "Two weeks and two days?" you ask. "Yep," he says.

I'm aware that there are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of dead people in Port Au Prince, Haiti. Yes, it could be worse. Yes, I'm aware that there's a recession on, and that many former employees haven't even had the opportunity to get screwed over by an employer for a good, long time. And yes, there's something to be said for a paycheck, albeit one that comes and goes. So I'll make this short and sweet: corporate America sucks. Corporate America will lie to you. Corporate America will take advange of you. Corporate America doesn't give a rat's ass about you, or the people you love.

When you are given a promise, assume it will be broken. When your boss praises your work, watch out. It probably means that you're about to be laid off. Don't be paranoid. Just do your work heartily, as unto the Lord. Go get 'em, slugger.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Worst Rock Lyrics, Installment 1

Let's start with a powerful double feature: horrid lyrics associated with a horrid song title.

Every day a little sadder
A little madder
Someone get me a ladder
-- Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, "Still ... You Turn Me On"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Obama To Wait For Next Springsteen Album For Word On Economy

Why can't The Onion take over the 11:30 slot at NBC instead of Jay Leno?

And while you're there, you might as well click on the "Gay Teen Worried He Might Be Christian" link, too.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Elvis Costello - Live at Hollywood High

I remember the Live at Hollywood High EP. It fell out of the record slip, and I wasn't expecting it. I had bought Elvis Costello's 1979 release Armed Forces, and expected to find a new vinyl album inside, which I did. But as an unexpected little bonus there was a 7" EP hidden away in the packaging. That little EP contained three songs -- "Alison," "Accidents Will Happen," and "Watching the Detectives" -- all recorded live at some place purportedly called Hollywood High. I didn't believe it was a real high school. But those pubescent co-eds surely sounded like they were having a good time anyway. And why not? It was a short, 12-minute blast of the Angry Young Man at the peak of his powers.

Those three songs, along with 17 others recorded at the same time, have now been released as Live at Hollywood High, the second installment of Costello's Archives series. Like the Live at The El Mocambo set, often bootlegged but officially released only a couple years ago, the setlist leans heavily on the first two classic albums, My Aim Is True and This Year's Model. And like that set, there's an appealing to-hell-with-it looseness and raucousness about the proceeedings, a barely controlled hour-long careen from great song to great song. Listening to it, you remember why, on the right night, Elvis Costello and the Attractions could be the best live rock 'n roll band in the world.

Is it essential music? Nope, not if you already own Live at The El Mocambo. The setlists and performances aren't appreciably different, although that solo piano version of "Accidents Will Happen" is still a nice touch, just as it was back in 1979. But every serious rock 'n roll fan needs to own at least one vintage slice of live Costello in his prime. Take your pick. If you don't already own Live at The El Mocambo, this one will do quite nicely.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Friday, January 08, 2010


Is anyone else inordinately fond of this Philly psych/folk sextet? As a longtime fan of early Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Strawbs, I have to say that the two albums I've heard (II and III: Roman numerals, lads; how much more early '70s retro can it get?) are lovely, haunting, and disturbing, and are quite worthy successors to albums such as Liege and Lief and Cruel Sister.

Meg Baird fills the Sandy Denny/Jacqui McShee folk thrush role quite admirably, and the instrumental interplay between acoustic and overdriven electric guitars and cellos reminds me of the folk/blues/Renaissance/middle Eastern/jazz impossibility of categorizing Pentangle. Whatever you call it, it's beautiful. And this well is deep. The more I listen, the more I hear, and new sounds open up every time I pay attention. It's much like jazz in that way.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

My Avatar

This is what I look like when I am inhabiting my Sexiest Man Alive avatar when visiting Planet Stud.

The more I think about Avatar, and the further removed I am from the visual extravaganza, the less I like it. James Cameron raised a real dilemma in this movie, and then totally dropped the ball in its ethical resolution. And no, I'm not talking about the cartoonish portrayal of imperialist money grubbing. I'm talking about the choice facing Jake Sully: the choice between reality and virtual reality. It's the dilemma we're slapped in the face with every time Mr. Macho Marine tells Sully that if he does a good job, he'll make sure he gets his legs back. Sully, of course, as part of his Na'vi avatar, already has full use of his legs (and a bitchin' tail!). The clear implication -- and one that is borne out later in the movie -- is that it makes no sense to choose reality when one can have a better, happier virtual reality.

So ... do you believe that?

That, to me, is where the real debate about this film ought to be occurring. Who is Sully? Is he the wheelchair-bound Marine vet, or is he the nimble Na'vi hero/warrior? In a world in which the lines between fantasy and reality are increasingly blurred, it behooves us to answer that question for ourselves.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Willie Mitchell

Take nothing away from Al Green. On any given day, and at the drop of the proverbial hat, I'll argue that "Tired of Being Alone" is the greatest three minutes of pop music ever recorded, with "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness" bubbling just out of the Top 10. But a big part of the magic of Al Green came from producer and arranger Willie Mitchell, who died today. Willie owned the record label (Hi Records) and the recording studio (Royal Studios), and it was Willie who hired the masterful musicians who accompanied Al, and it was Willie who wrote those superb horn and string arrangements. The Al Green sound -- as distinctive as any in popular music -- was architected by Willie Mitchell. Willie laid the ground work, and Al floated over the top and sang those incredible babymaker ballads. RIP, Willie. You rocked my world.

Monday, January 04, 2010


I wonder if some of the nagging feelings of character anonymity among the Astro-Sioux were due to unpronounceable names, or at least names that don't easily resonate with moviegoers not versed in the Astro-Sioux language. Han Solo and Chewbacca still have recognizable counterparts in the English language. Hence, their character names are easier to remember. Hah-eh-eee-ay-nah? Not so much. I can't recall a single Astro-Sioux or alien critter name from Pandora, and I saw the movie less than 48 hours ago. It could be encroaching senility. But maybe not.

Nick Curran and the Lowlifes -- Reform School Girl

Nick Curran has been around for a long time, making soulful garage rock and rockabilly that almost nobody hears. His latest album Reform School Girl, out February 16th on Electro Groove Records, doesn't vary the tried-and-true formula much, so there's nothing to suggest that this will be a breakout album. But it surely captures everything that made the kids go crazy fifty years ago. The great critic Greil Marcus once described Bruce Springsteen's song "Born to Run" as a "'57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records," and there's a similar sound at work on Curran's album. Any one of these fourteen tracks could have been a hit single in the early days of rock 'n roll, and would have sounded fabulous blasting out over a cheap transistor radio.

The problem, of course, is that it's now 2010, and Little Richard doesn't really sell, no matter how accurately you imitate him. So Nick can probably kiss the Platinum record dream goodbye. I suspect he's not particulary worried about it. He's made a red-hot revival record, thirty years after The Stray Cats revived the '70s rockabilly of Robert Gordon, which itself was a revival of Elvis and Chuck and Little Richard. You can view it as an old and tired formula if you want. I prefer to see it as further evidence that some sounds never really get old, that a good, raw, unpolished rock 'n roll raveup will always be welcome news, daddy-o.