Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Music: They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants. "They'll Neeed a Crane." From Lincoln.

I spent most of today packing, driving, unpacking and, at various times, eating. Consequently, words and screens hurt my brain right now. I spent most of the trip listening to the buildup to the finale of The Amber Spyglass on audiobook and yesterday's SGU podcast, but this CD got a little limited play too.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Tis summer vacation here, and I've been keeping busy with music and other things that tend to happen offline. (Such as re-reading the larger part of The Sandman.) As a consequence, I haven't been keeping abreast of either traditional news or the blagosphere.

I do intend to continue the pseudolinguistics series of posts. I was hoping to acquire some reference material from local used bookstores these last two months, but that plan failed. While I wait to order a few books, I will probably delve into the world of angelic languages for a post or two.

Sunday Music: The Boswell Sisters

The Boswell Sisters. "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" (Rene/Rene/Muse). Clip from a Fleischer film by the same name.

I don't have much to say on this one. I spent the early afternoon putting together a comp of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, and somehow ended up listening to the Boswell Sisters. I couldn't find a link to the entire cartoon this video is from. You can see a touch of the always-recognizeable early Fleischer look as cartoon versions of the sisters run to the bench. Reportedly, Eddie Lang is the guitarist. Some of the runs definitely sound like his touch.

The Boswell sisters represent the aspect of the 20s and 30s that I like the most: oftentimes songs had genres but bands and musicians didn't. You were just as likely to hear minstrelry from a group of female white pop singers as Broadway showtunes from a poor black harmonica player. The brilliant and surprising arrangements, the tight harmonies, and the astonishingly talented sidemen (like Lang) are just cherries on the top. Unfortunately, being of that time period was also the group's undoing: aside from Connee's solo work, the sisters mostly stopped performing once they married.

For more information on the sisters, check out Including a few poorly recorded but educational podcasts on musicological aspects of the Sisters' sound. A few other YouTube treats:
  • A version of their frequent opener, "Heebie Jeebies."

  • A humorous short film with the sisters, "Close Farm-ony."

  • A cover of "Crazy People" by the Ditty Bops (and the end of another tune, and a little intermission).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Music: Hand Drums, Hippies, and Béla Fleck

The context: Most of the friends I see regularly in town I met through high school or I met through being a part of the local music scene, particularly the more-or-less "punk" side of the scene. A few weeks ago, a pair of "hippies" were present for a small porch party with the punk friends and the discussion turned to hand drums and whether or not they could ever rock. After some thought, I came up with three criteria underwhich they can potentially rock.

  1. The drum is being used with full respect to the tradition in which it originates and with adequate knowledge of the the theory and rhythms of that tradition and is not being used to add a touch of exoticism to the music.
  2. The drum is being played with some degree of technical ability and isn't being played to prove the (rather Eurocentric) point that all people are natural musicians until we're taught otherwise.
  3. The drum isn't being used as part of a sham-shamanistic or otherwise syncretic religious practice.

An example of these rules being violated is the following: Rusted Root "Send Me On My Way" from 1994 (embedding disabled). Although I understand the band might contain one or two ethnomusicologists among the regular lineup, the mix of faux-African pop sing-a-longs and imagery from American plains cultures can't help but reek more of ganja than respect.

On the other hand, there's this.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. "Hoedown" (Aaron Copland). From Live at the Quick. 2000.

In this performance, Sandip Burman is given the space to play the tabla as he chooses both in the song and in a demonstration of the bol technique for teaching rhythms. Not every incorporation of foreign instruments needs to be a lesson for the audience, but the band should at least pull as much away from the experience as one imagines the Flecktones doing after touring with musicians like Burman. Although the music on their album Outbound was incredibly dense, they still found ways to work with the tones of each instrument and styles of their players.

I often tell musicians the story of when I saw the Flecktones on this tour. Normally, a concert inspires me to keep playing, but the technical ability of the Flecktones made me envious and dispirited. I doubted I'd ever be able to play with their level of skill.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Late Sunday Music: Bix Beiderbecke

My apologies for the absence of posts recently. I've been on a prolonged vacation, and music and friends have been keeping me busy. I've been slowly teaching some early jazz songs to two of the musicians I played with last summer. It's been enjoyable but slow going. So in light of that and in celebration of finding a trumpet player:

Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang. "Sorry" (Howdy Quicksell). 1927.

Outside of fans of 1920s jazz, few could ascribe sounds and players of that era to any city except New Orleans. But it wasn't New Orleans that was the center of broadcast and recorded jazz: the hearts of the national jazz sound were Chicago and New York. Like the Ramones in England in the 1970s, when groups like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their records spread across the north in the late teens and early 20s, they left a wake of inspired young musicians. Among them were Bix Beiderbecke and the other young men who went on to form the Wolverine Orchestra.

Beiderbecke always ranks high among jazz cornet/trumpet pioneers, and though his recordings and story endured for decades after his death, he seems to have fallen from the popular history though his name occassionally pops up (such as in the decent 1991 biopic Bix). Louis Armstrong - as the stronger personality, showman, and band leader - has overshadowed Beiderbecke in history, but the latter and other Chicago and New York players' sweet, rich tones and complex, sometimes impressionistic arrangments prefigure the sounds that the big bands would continue to explore in the 30s.

Not to overlook Armstrong's technical abilities as a performer, but it's quite tempting to draw a line separating two sides of early jazz between the "pop" Broadway fare of Armstrong and the romantic artistry of Beiderbecke (who even composed Debussy influenced piano solos in his spare time).