Listening booth — Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Toccata”

Emerson, Lake & Palmer - "Toccata"I don’t know about you, but there are certain songs and albums that I always associate with particular seasons. One of those albums is Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s progressive rock masterpiece Brain Salad Surgery. On a gloomy, chilly October day like today in New Jersey my mind often drifts to the gloomy imagery and sounds of the album.

While most fans would probably point to the 30-minute “Karn Evil 9” suite as the high point of the album, I tend to go for “Toccata,” the group’s adaptation of the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concert. It’s a muscular and moody instrumental workout, the type that ELP excelled at in their prime. It’s also one of their best classical music interpretations.

Keith Emerson steals the show with his ridiculous arrangement and keyboards, but Carl Palmer matches him step for step on one of the very first recordings of a drum synthesizer.

Enjoy “Toccata” (and don’t forget to subscribe to my Listening Booth playlist on Spotify)!

Album cover of the week: Glassworks

Some days I can handle Philip Glass, others not so much. His music can be a tough nut to crack, and his trademark minimalist style is certainly not for everyone. But 1982’s Glassworks is an excellent album, hands down.

Oh yeah, did I mention I like the album cover too? Because I do. It’s simple yet arty at the same time. Say, that reminds me of a lot of Glass’s music! How about that!

The cover design for Glassworks is credited to Henrietta Condak, with photography by John Paul Endress.

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Listening Booth – Karl Jenkins, “Agnus Dei”

I first heard this composition on one of the many classical collections I acquired to help relax my son at night.  I was struck at once by the beauty of the piece, from the choral performance to the chord structure and arrangement.  This particular selection, “Agnus Dei”, is the tenth movement of Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, which debuted in London in April 2000.  The entire Mass is well worth hearing, but this is by far my favorite selection.

In a rather sad coincidence, the first CD edition of this Mass was released one day before the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Bummer.

Platters that matter: 20 albums that changed my life (#20-#11)

Music is – or at least used to be – at once a very shared and a very personal thing.  And truth be told the only thing I’ve spent more time doing in my life than listening to music is sleeping.  Music has informed my life since I was a kid and continues to do so, although to a lesser degree now that I’m a family man.  So it’s time for me to give credit where credit is due, and list the 20 albums that had a bigger impact on me than any others.

Some of these records opened my eyes to a new style of music.  Some of them resonated on a deep, emotional level.  Some were just too good to be ignored.  Some are wrapped in nostalgia now and nothing more.  But they are all critical to my development as a music lover in one way or another.

#20 – Queen, The Game

Memory is a tricky thing, especially when you try to recall stuff from early childhood.  But I swear I remember lugging a tape player to nursery school and listening to this album nonstop.  It’s a good thing I got into them when I did too, as in a few short years Queen became painfully uncool in the States (thanks a lot, Hot Space) until their post-Wayne’s World resurgence.  But dammit, I was already a fan!

And what’s not to love about The Game?  It marks the first use of synthesizers on a Queen record, and they’re used to great effect on the opening title track.  It’s also the last Queen album with no real weak points (“Don’t Try Suicide” comes close, though).  Freddie Mercury’s cigarettes hadn’t caught up with him yet and he’s still in fine voice, and the rest of the band is also at the top of their, um, game.  “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” introduced a whole new generation to rockabilly, but for my money the best songs (other than the title one) are the funky “Dragon Attack” and the excellent Brian May ballad “Sail Away Sweet Sister”.

#19 – Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze

That’s right my friends, I wasn’t afraid to explore my mellow side even as a kid.  This was part of my family’s record collection, and I fell in love with it instantly.  Most people are familiar with the title song, but there is a lot else to love about this collection.  The songwriting and playing is top notch, and the arrangements are deceptively complex.  But what really sells this is the powerful vocal harmonizing of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts.  You needn’t go any further than the first song, “Hummingbird”, for proof of all of this.

Incidentally, it wasn’t until some time in the ’90s that this classic record finally made it to CD.  Let’s just say I was pretty jazzed when I stumbled across it. You know, back when I still bothered with CDs.

#18 – Kiss, Creatures of the Night

One fine day in 1982 (maybe 1983), my late grandfather favored me with a trip to the local record store.  He told me to pick out whatever album I wanted, and he’d buy it.  As I didn’t have a roster of favorites to choose from I kept looking until something caught my eye.  Before long I happened upon a cassette with four painted, darkly lit faces staring back at me.  I picked it up, and an obsession was born.

I was fortunately oblivious to the fact that Kiss was in the midst of a commercial dead period, and that many of their longtime fans had deserted them.  I didn’t know about all the albums that came before, and I knew nothing of the Kiss mystique.  I also had no way of knowing that many Kiss fans, as well as the group itself, was ready to move on from the makeup that attracted me in the first place.  All I knew was that an album with a cover that cool had to contain something worthwhile.

Without writing an in-depth review, let’s just say that this album kicked my ass.  And it continues to do so, almost 30 years later.

#17 – Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast

Speaking of musical obsessions…

My Iron Maiden phase began thanks to my older brother, who introduced me to them right around the same time I was getting into Kiss.  While I would grow to love other Maiden albums more (the first one and Somewhere in Time to name a few), this megaton metal masterpiece was the true beginning of my headbanging phase; a phase which lasted well into high school, incidentally.

In a way this album spoiled me for a lot of heavy metal, because it forever impressed upon me the need for good melody and strong vocals in addition to killer riffs.  That means a lot of modern metal, while musically strong, loses me with those damn Cookie Monster vocals.

Anyway, by late 1983 I had the first two slots in my holy trinity of music filled – Kiss and Iron Maiden.  And albums #18 and #17 are huge reasons why.

#16 – Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell

Is it even possible to overstate the importance of Run-D.M.C. in rap/hip-hop?  Not even a headbanging preteen from suburban New Jersey was immune from the greatness of this album, and it was the only rap album in my collection for years to come.  Hell, this album even helped make Aerosmith cool again (whether that was a good thing is up for debate).

While this album couldn’t make me stray from my chosen metal path, for one moment it broadened my horizons considerably.  And even if the lyrics seem rather quaint by today’s standards (not many hip hip acts would dare record an homage to their sneakers), back in the day I almost believed it when D.M.C. yelled “I’m the kiiiiing of rock!”  And it would be over a decade before another hip hop act (The Roots) captured my imagination like Run-D.M.C. did on Raising Hell.

#15 – Kiss, Alive!

If Creatures of the Night made me a Kiss fan, then the group’s seminal 1975 double live album made me a Kiss Army recruit.  A decade or so after it made stars of Kiss, I played the cassette in a seemingly endless loop on my Walkman.  The energy, the crowd noise, the crunch of the guitars, even Paul Stanley’s well-rehearsed and corny stage raps all captivated me but the pinnacle of the Alive! experience for me was and always will be the extended version of “100,000 Years”, featuring a Peter Criss drum solo that I’m sure thousands of Kiss fans have memorized to this day.

Even finding out years later that Alive! wasn’t the untouched, complete concert experience I thought it was hasn’t diminished my love of this album.  It’s still the standard by which I judge all live rock records.

#14 – Rush, A Farewell to Kings

I tried, I really did.  I tried to not like Rush and for a long time I succeeded.  That dude’s screeching voice, those weird lyrics, the decidedly un-catchy songs.  Who would bother with such garbage?

But I was a fair man in junior high, if nothing else, and so I kept on listening in the hopes that I would find some evidence to support my older brother’s love of Rush.  One evening I put on a cassette of A Farewell to Kings – recorded from the vinyl no less – and it happened.  I had decided that I very much liked this band by the end of the opening song (the title track), and by about halfway through the second (“Xanadu”) I had a new love.

Before long the Canadian power trio had earned their loftiest achievement – a place in my personal pantheon of Bestest Bands Ever – right next to Kiss and Iron Maiden.  The trinity was complete, and I was on my way.  But more importantly Rush marked the beginning of a new phase in my musical life, my introduction to progressive rock.

#13 – Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Yeah, I know, what a bold choice.  The thing is, this album really did help to shape my view of jazz more than almost any other.  It was not just a bunch of notes in search of a melody, it could actually be just as evocative, structured, and emotional as pop/rock.  Who knew?!  Rarely does an album heaped with such praise earn every bit of it, but Kind of Blue does.  This is the ultimate late night jazz record, and it actually spoiled me for other jazz albums for quite a long time.  I searched high and low for another recording that could match the mood, effortless grace, and overall sound of this one and failed.

This was another gateway album for me, as it introduced me to piano legend Bill Evans.  If you listen to no other jazz tune this year, check out his work on “Blue in Green”.  It is the sound of a heart breaking, and it needs to be heard.

#12 – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pictures At An Exhibition

This is an important album for me for two reasons.  One, it got me hooked on ELP and two, it served as my gateway into classical music.  Oddly enough, when I purchased this album it was really a mistake.  I was looking for another ELP song altogether but I didn’t know the name (this was pre-internet, mind you).  So I picked this up and my initial reaction was, “crap, a lousy live album.”  When I had finished listening to their interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece my reaction was, “holy crap, I need to listen to this again.”

In many ways this suite was the perfect choice for ELP, as it allowed the group to showcase some of their best traits – it’s bombastic and loud in parts, intricate and subtle in others.  Greg Lake even upped the ante by adding a wholly new piece to the suite, a beautiful acoustic piece called “The Sage”.

If you’re convinced you don’t like classical music, listen to the “Pictures” suite or ELP’s adaptation and you may think differently.

#11 – various artists, Jazz Master Files

Score one for budget compilations.  Back in the dark ages before the internet became a ready reference tool for music, I needed a quick and cost-effective way to explore as much jazz as possible.  So when I stumbled across this three-disc set for 10 bucks I snatched it up.  And while many budget compilations contain crap, this was a goldmine of vintage jazz that I used as the foundation for further exploration.

Although this set focuses more heavily on pre-War material, it’s still chock full of tunes that no jazz fan should be without.  There’s a particularly hot version of “St. Louis Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and a rendition of “Love for Sale” by Stan Kenton’s orchestra that boils over with excitement.  But there is some great bop stuff too, like “Charity Rag” from the oft-overlooked Bud Shank and a great version of the Charlie Parker classic “Bird Feathers” (also known as “Crazeology”).

While the sound quality on these songs isn’t uniformly great, many of the performances are and this album was invaluable to me as a jazz touchstone for a few years.

Listening Booth – Sergei Prokofiev, “Dance of the Knights”

Alright, time for you cretins to get a little culture.  Even if you don’t like classical music, you gotta give it up for Sergei Prokofiev.  The man could write some really stirring music.  Although my favorite Prokofiev work is his film score and cantata for Alexander Nevsky, today I’m highlighting a piece from his ballet, Romeo and Juliet (Op. 64).

Here’s a selection from Act 1, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet – “Dance of the Knights” (also known as “Montagues and Capulets”).  Muse fans will recognize this as the piece the band plays over the PA prior to some of their live shows.  If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.

I come not to bury jazz, but to praise it

Jazz!I might as well offer my two cents on Terry Teachout’s recent editorial for the Wall Street Journal, “Can Jazz Be Saved?”, since so many others already have.  In it, Teachout beats the same funeral drum that countless other jazz pundits have for decades – namely that the already small audience for jazz is shrinking alarmingly fast.  He even offers as evidence some results from a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The survey results Teachout extracts present a gloomy picture for jazz lovers indeed- not only is attendance down, but the median age for jazz fans is fast approaching AARP territory (from 29 in 1982 to 46 in 2008).  He makes the case that jazz, in terms of its audience, is becoming the next version of classical music.

This reminds me of the old joke about the two genres – classical is music by a bunch of dead white guys and jazz is music by a bunch of dead black guys.  And of course there’s the oft-quoted Zappa lyric, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.”  But I digress.

Even with all his scary facts and figures, a few things about Teachout’s piece didn’t sit right with me.  First off, he’s being a little selective with how he presents those facts.  As the NEA’s summary points out, attendance for all forms of the arts (jazz, classical, opera, ballet, plays, etc.) is down since the last survey.   To me that says more about the audience for these things than the art forms themselves.

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The Killer Bs – two new albums worth checking out

From two completely different ends of the musical spectrum comes a pair of albums – one new and one upcoming – that both get the coveted GFS stamp of approval.

Build (2008)

First up is the self-titled debut EP from Build (New Amsterdam Records, 2008), a Brooklyn-based indie classical quintet formed in 2006.  Now I know what you’re thinking: “Classical music?  Boring!”  Stop thinking that, you’re wrong.  This are modern, tuneful compositions that bears precious little resemblance to your father’s classical music.

For those familiar with Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Build takes a similar approach to their music.  It’s never stuffy or rigid, although it’s far from poppy or light.  Composer/violinist Matt McBane has written five songs that are challenging enough to reward multiple listens, but aren’t complicated for the sake of being complicated.

You can listen to songs from Build either on the group’s MySpace page or on the New Amsterdam Records site.

Track listing:
“In the Backyard”
“No Response”
“Imagining Winter”

The Places We Lived (2008)

Next up is one of my recent favorites – Backyard Tire Fire.  Ed Anderson and the boys are set to release the followup to the superb Vagabonds & Hooligans, The Places We Lived, on August 26.  I’ve only sampled the three streamable tracks on the group’s website, but I like what I’ve heard so far.  It sounds different enough from the last album to indicate some growth, but it still retains the BTF sound I really enjoy.  It treads some of the same alt-country ground as Wilco (a very good thing in my book), but it’s more straightforward.

Those of you in the Midwest can catch BTF live on tour starting in August (dates available from the band’s site).  But everyone can download the the title track from The Places We Lived on the Hyena Records website, or you can just listen to it here (sweet!).

Track listing:
“The Places We Lived”
“Shoulda Shut It”
“Everybody’s Down”
“Time With You”
“Welcome to the Factory”
“How in the Hell Did You Get Back Here?”
“Rainy Day (don’t go away)”
“One Wrong Turn”
“Legal Crime”
“Home Today”

Gray Flannel Mixtape: Seinfeld songs

These days it’s commonplace for music to function as an integral part of a television show; think Grey’s Anatomy, Smallville or Dawson’s Creek. With Seinfeld, not so much. Nevertheless, there are more than a few classic moments during the series that can be called to mind with just a few notes. With that in mind I give you the Seinfeld Songs Mixtape.

GFS Mixtape - Seinfeld Songs

The following songs were played on at least one episode of Seinfeld, which started featuring much more non-original music during its last few seasons. There are numerous instances of songs being sung by characters on the show, but unless at least a small clip of the song was played or performed, they don’t qualify for my mixtape.

  • “Desperado” and “Witchy Woman” (Eagles), heard on “The Checks” – Here’s a classic rock two-fer. “Desperado” is the beloved song of Elaine’s boyfriend, who is compelled to shush her when she talks during it. She tries to pick a song for the both of them, and decides on “Witchy Woman”. You know, Witch-aaay Woman.
  • “Downtown” (Petula Clark), heard on “The Bottle Deposit, Part 1” – You’ve got to go downtown. It’s all downtown. Just like the song says.
  • “Everybody’s Talkin'” (Harry Nilsson), heard on “The Mom & Pop Store” – This is played at the end of the episode during an homage to Midnight Cowboy (Jerry and Kramer are taking a bus to New Jersey and Kramer’s nose starts bleeding).
  • “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” (Green Day), heard on “The Clip Show, Part 2” – This was used to good effect during a montage of bloopers and behind-the-scenes clips, in one of the rare instances where the show attempted to convey some genuine heartfelt emotion.
  • “Hello” (Lionel Richie), heard on “The Engagement”, “The Invitations”, and “The Voice” – The only musical trifecta in Senfield history, Lionel Richie’s smash 1984 hit accompanied various scenes showing the show’s characters deep in thought or remembrance.
  • “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (Iron Butterfly), heard on “The Slicer” – Elaine blasts this in her apartment to drown out the sound of the neighbor’s starving cat. The performance is cut short when the power goes out.
  • “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” (Jackie Davis), heard on “The Blood” – Yeah, I didn’t know what the name of this was either when I first heard it. It’s the bouncy little organ number heard while Kramer and Newman are making sausages in Jerry’s apartment. A copy can be found on Volume 2 of the wonderful Ultra-Lounge series, Mambo Fever.
  • “Mexican Radio” (Wall of Voodoo), heard on “The Reverse Peephole” – The actual song isn’t played until the very end, during the graphic for the show’s production company, but earlier in the episode Kramer sings it to himself while installing a reverse peephole in his front door.
  • “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” (Sheena Easton), heard on “The Bizarro Jerry” and “The Butter Shave” – While not reaching the heights of Lionel Richie-dom, this little slice of pop bliss still holds the rare distinction of being used twice on the show; first on “The Bizarro Jerry” during a montage showing the commuting hassles Kramer endured during his brief tenure at Brandt/Leland, and then on “The Butter Shave” as George revels in the favored status his fake handicap earns him at Play Now.
  • “Shining Star” (Earth, Wind & Fire), heard on “The Little Kicks” – I for one never get tired of watching Elaine do her trademark funky dance at her office’s party. This is the song that inspires what George later termed “a full body dry heave set to music.” She later busted a move in “The Slicer” episode to Foghat’s “Slow Ride”.
  • “Vesti la Giubba” (from Pagliacci) (Ruggero Leoncavallo), heard on “The Opera” – I’ve never thought to use opera as workout music, but that’s just what Crazy Joe Davola does as he bench presses and weeps while listening to this timeless tenor aria.

Bonus tracks

  • “Adagio for Strings” (Samuel Barber), heard on “The Fatigues”
  • Music from The Barber of Seville (Gioachino Rossini), heard on “The Barber”
  • “La donna è mobile” (from Rigoletto) (Giuseppe Verdi), heard on “The Maestro”
  • “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (Michael Jackson), heard on “The Clip Show, Part 2”
  • “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” (C+C Music Factory), heard on “The Little Kicks”
  • “O mio babbino caro” (from Gianni Schicchi) (Giacomo Puccini), heard on “The Maestro”
  • “Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, op. 13 (Pathétique)” (Ludwig van Beethoven), heard on “The Pez Dispenser”
  • “Theme from The Godfather (Main Title)” (Nino Rota), heard on “The Bris”
  • “Theme from Superman (Main Title)” (John Williams) heard on “The Race” and “The Clip Show, Part 1”
  • “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (The Beach Boys), heard on “The Hamptons”

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New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Pictures at an Exhibition – State Theatre in New Brunswick, 5/19/06

New Jersey Symphony OrchestraI’m pretty much a dummy when it comes to classical music. I couldn’t tell a Beethoven movement from a Mozart symphony if you held a gun to my head. To be perfectly honest, a lot of the classical music I’ve heard has a certain sameness to it. But there are a handful of pieces that I do enjoy, and one of them is Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” And that piece was what brought me to the State Theatre in New Brunswick, to watch a performance by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

First, a little background – like many prog rock devotees, I was introduced to “Pictures” through the fantastic 1972 adaptation by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It was as a result of that album that I have purchased approximately half a dozen different classic recordings of the piece. It has a dramatic and dynamic quality that I can appreciate very much. So when I saw that it was being performed locally, I jumped at the opportunity.

This performance was directed by Neeme Järvi, who actually was quite the showman. He was bopping around and cracked jokes during the performance, but more importantly he conducted a brilliant performance. Having never seen a live symphony, I can’t compare the NJSO against anything else, but I sure didn’t hear anything wrong with them. The string section, in particular, was tremendous. I still got chills during certain passages (particularly Baba Yaga, my favorite), despite having heard the piece at least at least a hundred times. My wife felt the same, which was nice to hear, since I wasn’t sure if she’d enjoy it.

All in all, I was impressed by the performance, and thought that the State Theater was a very good facility in which to see it. Since I’m not likely to see ELP perform “Pictures” anytime soon, I will eagerly await the next performance by the NJSO or another top-flight symphonic group.

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