Midweek Music Break: I Moderni, “Carol of the Bells”

[Video: “Carol of the Bells,” by I Moderni]

I Moderni — Italian for “The Modern” — was at the time they made this video an a-capella quartet who placed second in the fifth (2011) season of the Italian X-Factor series. (They’re now a trio.) I’m crippled in my search to learn much about them: every single thing I’ve found on the Web about them, so far, is in Italian. Of course I can use Google Chrome to automatically translate, but it’s tough going…

In any event, here’s their decidedly unconventional video take on this familiar onomatopoeic Christmas carol. The song has always struck me as almost obsessive, hypnotically so; it has “lyrics,” but after you’ve listened to or read even a few stanzas it’s hard not to think, like, It doesn’t matter what the words say. (Poe’s ode to bells can do the same number on you. Clearly, there’s something about bells…) In I Moderni’s video reading, the words go even further — into territory like this:

Let yourself to be taken over by the music, your attention to the the world will wander. This will allow the real truths of the world to come out and play, unobserved, unbound by the familiar, animated not by human preconceptions but by their absence.

I really like this. It’s not quite horror; these aren’t “Chucky”-type dolls. But it sure as hell doesn’t square with “reality,” whatever that is. The right word might be eldritch.

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A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix (2016 Ed.)

[Video: “The Wexford Carol,” performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Kraus.]

Want to visit the pages for earlier playlists, which include videos, other songs, and some background material not in the “official” current list? Here y’go:

2008 2009
2010 2011
2012 2013
2014 2015

Let’s get right to it:

Per usual at this time of year, I’m adding ten songs to the previous years’ selections. These are presented in two ways, in two separate little audio-player thingums:

  • The complete playlist — now up to ninety songs total (about four and three-quarters hours’ worth).
    • The list plays straight through, from start to finish, in the order in which the songs were first presented here at RAMH.
    • but you can also pop out the playlist into its own, compact window. This lets you proceed to read through the rest of the post or use your browser for something else — or close it altogether — while the music’s playing. (Note that the pop-out window will automatically begin playing.)
    • If you’d prefer, you can also shuffle the complete list in random order, in a pop-out window, by clicking below:

      Pop Out to Shuffle!

  • OR you can simply play this year’s list of ten songs (about a half-hour in length). This is pretty straightforward: sequential order, no pop-out window, no shuffle mode.

In either case, or even if you don’t want to listen at all, you might want to glance at the complete current list of song titles and performers. (Note: this is just a listing; you cannot play music from it.)

Okay, here are the two player doo-dads — the complete, followed by the current…

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (complete)

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (2016 Only)

[Read more…]

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Midweek Music Break: Kelsie Saison, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’

Kelsie SaisonWhen I’m putting together my annual list of Christmas music here, I draw most inspiration (of course) from my existing music collection. But I also try to keep my eyes open for other, newer sources; many music-marketing sites, for instance, offer Christmas music free or for a nominal charge, and these downloads often come from from interesting newcomers. That’s how I came across Kelsie Saison this year: at the NoiseTrade site for musicians and authors hoping to find an audience.

There’s not a whole lot of information online about Saison. She is, or recently was, a student at Belmont University, and she currently lives, or used to live, in Nashville (where Belmont’s located). The image posted here is the one featured almost exclusively on other sites. Her recordings are available from other sites as well as NoiseTrade — at SoundCloud, for instance. She’s got a Facebook page, and a Twitter account (at least, I think it’s hers)…

but the music — three EPs of Christmas music — all seems to have come out in 2013. That’s also when her last Facebook post appeared; her Twitter feed is more active, after a fashion, but even there she hasn’t posted anything for months.

Given the untimeliness of the little information I could find, I don’t know if we’ll ever get to hear more from her. But in the meantime, we’ve got the three EPs. “Just” Christmas tunes, as I said — with a twist: she plays the piano and sings, and it’s jazz: lightly swinging, slightly old-fashioned, easy-listening jazz.

Her voice naturally suggests, as her Facebook page says, that she’s fond of Ella Fitzgerald, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Michael Buble, and Frank Sinatra. In today’s little gem, in particular, she seems to be channeling Fitzgerald: the song is a little over four minutes long, but she dispenses with the lyrics after the first ninety seconds or so. Thereafter, she scats through all but the last seconds of the remainder.

Scat singing is an interesting little back corner of music history. No one really knows where it came from, although theories abound. Louis Armstrong claimed to have invented it himself in 1926:

According to Armstrong, when he was recording “Heebie Jeebies,” soon to be a national bestseller, with his band The Hot Five, his music fell to the ground. Not knowing the lyrics to the song, he invented a gibberish melody to fill time, expecting the cut to be thrown out in the end, but that take of the song was the one released.

(Wikipedia)

Armstrong’s claim, like pretty much anyone else’s with a theory, almost certainly relies more on legend and “common sense” than on actual historic fact. Wherever it came from, scat just blends the concept of vocals with that of instrumentals: it turns the human voice into a purely auditory device. In that way, it extends the voice — a particularly potent technique, I think, when used by someone who plays an instrument in addition to singing. Says Barry Keith Grant in Representing Jazz, edited by Krin Gabbard:

Scatting, unlike vocalese, does not taint the music with the impurity of denotation… Just as one musician explained the title of Charlie Parker’s “Klacktoveedsedsteen” by declaring “It’s a sound, man. A sound,” so scat singing, in avoiding the use of words, is seen to strive for the abstraction, the purity, of the music itself.

By the standard expressed there, I think Kelsie Saison’s scatting through the second half of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas!” (she uses an exclamation point there) succeeds very well. I love the way it sounds.

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Weekend Music Break: Gershwin for an Early-November Sunday Afternoon

Gershwin - signature/inscriptionYou can be forgiven for feeling more than a little stressed out today, especially if you’re in the US and if (as is true for this post, and its author) today is the first Sunday in November, 2016 — or for that matter, if you’re elsewhere and just watching us a bit nervously.

Under the circumstances, without further comment, herewith a bit over an hour’s worth of easy-going music to accompany your newspaper-reading, blogging, airport-lounge-waiting, or what-have-you…

[Like that little signature/inscription over there on the right? You might like to see a brief analysis of it from Suzanne Shapiro, a “court-qualified graphologist whose thirty-five years of experience have led her to some unique cases, from analyzing graffiti for a Los Angeles Charter School to Bernard Madoff’s signature and most recently, Prince William and Catherine’s for ‘The Daily Beast.'” Just click on the image to open the analysis in a new window/tab.]

Gershwin Sunday

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Something Beyond

'beyond, the river,' by 'bunchadogs & susan' on Flickr

[Image: “beyond, the river,” by a photographer whose name displays simply as “susan” (her full account name, though, is “bunchadogs & susan”). I found it on Flickr, of course, and use it here under a Creative Commons license. The photo was taken by a pinhole camera.]

From whiskey river:

An Inventory of Moons

If you live to be very old, you may see twelve hundred full moons.
Some come in winter and you trudge out into the deep snow to
stand beneath their glow. Others come to you in the city and you
take an elevator up to the roof of the highest building and set out
a couple of folding chairs to watch it glide across the sky. Or the
moon finds you along a foreign shore and you paddle out in some
dingy and scoop its reflection from the waters and drink it down.
The moons of your old age are the most potent but seem few and
far between. They make their way into your marrow and teach it
how to hum. When your final moon arrives, it’s as if youth has
come back to you. Though instead of flaunting its yellow hat, now
it’s dressed in black.

(David Shumate [source])

and:

…many of us in this time have lost the inner substance of our lives and have forgotten to give praise and remember the sacredness of life. But in spite of this forgetting, there is still a part of us that is deep and intimate with the world. We remember it by feel. We experience it as a murmur in the night, a longing and restlessness that we can’t name, a yearning that tugs at us. Something in our human blood is still searching for it, still listening, still remembering. Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal wrote, “We have always wanted something beyond what we wanted.” I have loved those words, how they speak to the longing place inside us that seeks to be whole and connected to the earth.

(Linda Hogan [source])

and:

On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

(Mary Oliver [source])

[Read more…]

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Midweek Music Break: Jack White and Margo Price, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”

Jack WhiteThe White Stripes’ music never appealed to me. And I haven’t followed Jack White’s career much otherwise. But he keeps popping up on my radar anyhow, and in the back of my mind I’m Margo Pricepretty sure my inattention is hurting me more than him. My disregard (so to speak) stems almost entirely from media classification of the Stripes’ music; garage-rock is usually the label applied. And I’ve just never taken to other garage-rock performers, and I think, y’know, Why would the White Stripes be any different?

Wikipedia‘s classification of the White Stripes cites not only garage rock, but blues rock, alternative rock, punk blues, post-punk revival, and garage punk as the duo’s genre. I can’t even wrap my head around some of those genres.

But White himself is regularly said to be an aficionado and practitioner of old-time music: country, folk, straight blues… (Favorites of mine, all.) Furthermore, critics claim to hear those influences when discussing the White Stripes’ music.

So much for my critical acuity, eh?

White has appeared here at RAMH once before, as a featured performer (among Dylan, Levon Helm, Sheryl Crow, et al.) on the compilation/homage/archaeological-project of an album called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Of course, Hank Williams’s own bona fides as an icon of Americana music — even from the mouths and instruments of rock, pop, and (yes) garage-rock icons — don’t need any evidence from this quarter. And now there’s very recent evidence that I’m missing a good bet in continuing to ignore Jack White: his appearance a few nights ago on Prairie Home Companion: dueting with country-music star Margo Price.

But consider that duet further: the song they performed, and which (of course) I’d never heard, comes from the White Stripes’ 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan.

As rendered by White, Price, and their backing musicians, it’s about non-garage-rock as one can imagine, right down to the mandolin, fiddle, and bass accompaniment. Even the soul of the song is Americana: a broken heart, family relationships (even hinting, ever-so-carefully, at incest), a touch of wistful wry humor…

Just as a sanity check, I spent several hours’ research looking into others’ reactions to the song, not just as performed on PHC but from its first appearance on the Stripes album. Probably ninety per cent of the results returned were (unsurprisingly) simple lyrics, or MP3 downloads, with no discussion of the song itself; most of the others were just casual mentions (especially of the PHC performance). But here’s a selection of the rest, in no particular order:

  • Reddit: discussion of the song and this specific performance (“Meet Your Theme Song…”)
  • The New Yorker: “The Gift & the Curse: Jack White’s Vexing Brilliance” (“…surely written by Hank Williams… White delivers the kind of compressed and restrained pain that country songwriters spend years trying to perfect”)
  • NME review: “The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan” (“a rousing waltz which… Loretta Lynn would have no problem singing”)
  • Slant Magazine: (ditto) (“steeped in heartbroken ‘woe is me’ wordplay but delivered with a solemn sincerity that tells you that Jack ain’t playin'”)
  • The Fader: “The White Stripes Want Truth, Romance and Beauty for a Fallen America” (“a straightforward country-soul-‘n’-gospel ballad on the piano, and Jack almost whispers the third verse”)
  • Baeble Music Blog: Time Capsule, on “The White Stripes ‘Get Behind Me Satan'” (“a piano-heavy, bluesy, stubborn lament, lacking a home yet too proud to look for one”)
  • Google Books: Jack White: How He Built an Empire From the Blues (by Nick Hasted) (“…straightforwardly comic. But the last verse’s barely audible murmur ends with a near-suicide in a river”)

And here, finally, is the video of White’s and Price’s performance on Prairie Home Companion (link to the full lyrics below):

[Video courtesy of Prairie Home Companion; lyrics here.]

And finally, if you’d like, you can listen to the White Stripes’ own version of “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet”) here.

______________________________

Addendum: I should also mention the Dwight Yoakam song, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet.” [Video with lyrics here.] It appeared on Yoakam’s 1993 album This Time, and Yoakam’s performance won a Grammy as Best Male Country Vocal Performance. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the two songs are related (aside from their titles and the basic message — the tones are very different); no one else seems to have made the possible connection. However, I have found evidence that the two songs can be confused. (Ha.)

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The Voice, the Song, the Vision, the Light

[Video: 10,000 Maniacs and David Byrne (live), performing Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be.” (Lyrics here.)]

From whiskey river:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

and:

Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning
in which the autumn leaves have no question
as the breeze passes through them and is gone

(W. S. Merwin [source])

[Read more…]

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Weekend Music Break: GQ, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”

GQNot at all a men’s style magazine, GQ is a girls quartet, each described at the group’s Web site as “a recent graduate” of Baltimore’s Towson University. Although they often use the a capella descriptor for themselves, the phrase most others reach for seems to be barbershop quartet. Toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe maybe: they made their first public splash in 2012 by winning the regional Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival, “the premier American showcase for vocal harmony music” — regardless of specific genre label — and then went on to place second in the nationals, performing against groups who’ve adopted one or the other of those labels.

(Happily, as far as I can tell, no one — least of all, GQ themselves — uses the rather hokey term for a “women’s quartet”: Sweet Adelines. In a recent Tweet, one of the group expressed gratitude for the other three and for “our barbershop family.”)

The core of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s “definition of the barbershop style” goes like this:

Barbershop music features songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that often resolve around the circle of fifths, while also making use of other resolutions.

That’s quite a mouthful, almost none of which makes sense to me (or, I’d wager, to many other non-musicians). But the sound and style of barbershop singing is instantly recognizable. Stereotypically, a bass vocalist provides a sort of beatbox bum-bum-bum-BUM rhythm in the background, while three foreground voices — a couple of tenors and a baritone — twine around one another and sometimes merge, for sustained notes, in a glorious three- or four-part harmony. The content of barbershop music also follows stereotypical paths: “traditional” popular songs, often from the early 20th century.

(“Down by the Old Mill Stream” is not only considered typical, but also a frequent target for humor, especially parody. See, for instance, this clip from Eddie Murphy’s 2003 film, The Haunted Mansion — in which four haunted statues perform the song.)

But GQ (and similar groups), while honoring the tradition, are also determined to break from it. They showcase offbeat and often very contemporary songs, and explore ways to adapt traditional techniques to “modern” ears. For example, GQ’s big hit at that 2012 regional competition was “Timshel,” by Mumford & Sons. (Here’s a video they made, sometime later.)

GQ’s second album just dropped this summer, as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign. At the Kickstarter project page, they chose to feature the video below to demonstrate their approach, using the old swing hit — think the Andrews Sisters — “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Among other attractions, the video offers a nice visual demonstration of classic barbershop style: adding a voice at a time, melding them into a single layer. I really like it.

[Lyrics]

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Weekend Music Break: Limestone Chorus, “Woods & Water”

Limestone ChorusLet us consider, first, the name “Limestone Chorus.”

Limestone sounds rugged to me, rugged and roughcut. It suggests quarrying, of course, and it suggests caverns carved by underground rivers. It’s a sedimentary rock, so it crumbles and dissolves rather easily on its own — unlike (say) granite, basalt, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks… and it is everywhere. Wikipedia tells me that it makes up 10% of the volume of all sedimentary rocks. While it is inarguably rock, unlike (say) sandstone, limestone is curiously organic: “Most limestone is composed of skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs.”

Think about that a moment: limestone is a “living” rock — a common building and construction material comprising the remnants of a gazillion creatures. (Think about that the next time you’re inside a building of concrete: you might as well be undersea.)

So here we’ve got a band pursuing one of the longer threads — a sub-genre: folk, soul, and Americana — of (yes) rock history, a band named for this curiously-organic inorganic material. If the name had instead been constructed from the word “granite” or “quartzite,” the effect would have been totally different — calling to mind not the flowing of water and the whisper of grains, but hammers and chisels and bang-bang-bang.

And then there’s chorus: voices twined together, harmonizing…

Yeah. Now you’re getting the idea.

The name “Limestone Chorus” apparently represents a recent name change; the group (in a slightly reduced configuration) had previously been called “Shore Thing.” Okay, the latter was clever(ish), with the pun. But it was also easy, glib, and really wasted an entire word — thing — which communicated nothing at all. I have no idea how much thought and anxiety went into the name change, how much conscious vs. unconscious decision-making came into play, but as a band name, “Limestone Chorus” is leagues beyond “Shore Thing.”

So then there’s this song. Again, look first to the name: “Woods & Water.” When you hear a song title like that, do you imagine you’ll find headbanging within? Will the musicians assault their instruments and their amplifiers — and the audience’s ears — with an avalanche of sound? Will the lyrics preach, insult, rebuke?

When I opened the email announcing the upcoming debut of Limestone Chorus’s album Deer Friends*, and of “Woods & Water” in particular, I had no expectation of noise, electronica, trance. Indeed, I found almost exactly what I expected: luscious three-part harmonies overlaying and interleaved with acoustic instruments.

(With the obvious exception that Gordon Lightfoot sang solo, of course, the overall effect to me strongly recalls his “Did She Mention My Name.” Not a bad forerunner at all — again, no matter how conscious or unconscious the choice!)

The band is on record asserting that the song “describes the search for familiarity: the rediscovery of people and places who make us feel whole, safe and grounded. The song is driven through memory and nostalgia, pulling on emotional connections that shape a person.” This all comes through in the video, too, which I found oddly moving… Even though it’s not a “static” video, with a fixed image, pretty much nothing at all happens. And yet there is stuff happening, after all: the words (and their meanings and connotations) run over and through the music, and all of it runs over the visual, just like — well, just like water over and through limestone.

[Lyrics]

__________________

* Yes: Deer Friends. The album cover art even depicts the hallucinogenically colored head-and-shoulders of an antlered buck. Maybe they’re not quite over the punning impulse under which they first organized as “Shore Thing.”

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Potpourri, June 18th (2016 edition)

1959ish, I'd sayIt’s been a few months of hardware madness here — and if you know my tastes in computer stuff, you know they lean towards the software rather than the hardware side of things. So I haven’t been entirely happy during that time…

Back in mid-April, my two-terabyte (2TB) hard drive abruptly failed. It took me several weeks — educational ones, to be sure — to admit that I probably could not resuscitate the thing. I replaced it with a 3TB one, and all went swimmingly at first…

…at least, until I installed Windows 10 on it.

Here’s how my computer at home has been set up, now going back maybe five-six years:

The hard drive is divided into two (main) partitions, running two entirely different operating systems: Windows in the first partition, and Linux in the second. This is called a dual-boot setup: when you boot the computer, you’re prompted to select which operating system you want to run for this session. The default for me is Linux, but I do occasionally (rarely, actually) use Windows for one specific program or another.

The Windows side has moved progressively from Windows XP to Windows 7 and then finally to Windows 10, via the automatic (i.e., forced) upgrade which Microsoft “offers” to users of older versions. When I installed Windows 10 on the new hard drive, I was actually restoring it.

[Read more…]

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