Said the Gramophone - image by Ella Plevin

Archives : all posts by Jordan

Nina Simone - "Suzanne"

The six of us played a game as the sun set on the lake. We were an adult, a child, and four somewhere in between, but we all behaved like kids, even Chloe's dad, Terry, who was past fifty. Hyperactive little Danny threw perfect blueberries across the porch of the house into my mouth. Everyone laughed, even Terry as he strummed his mandolin. And then we figured out that Danny could pitch blueberries and Terry could hit them with his mandolin and I could catch them in my mouth. This was very exciting, maybe partly because we were all already a little drunk except for Danny.

On the drive from the city, the talk had mostly been about teeth and booze. On a whim, Josh and I had studied dental anatomy the previous night and wanted to impress with our knowledge of incisors, bicuspids and molars. "There are as many people in this car as there are incisors in the human mouth," Josh observed. "That's right," I said, "it's as if the front seat were the maxilla and the backseat the mandible." "Hmm, yes, and the windows canines!" "And the windows canines," Chloe mocked in a ridiculous voice. The women laughed at us and then Anna turned contemplative. "Do we really have to stop for vodka, just so you can have your gross Caesars?" she asked me. I told her with my face that we did.

When we ran out of blueberries, we descended to the rocky shore and undressed in the day's last light. There was, for each of us, flesh to see that had been seen and flesh to see as yet unseen. Heads down, we tiptoed cold and careful out into the water, watching as well as we could for clamshells that might cut our feet. One at a time we lowered our most sensitive parts into the cold and screamed and then, the worst of it over, we lowered the rest of ourselves into the bracing lake with a splash that let the others know where we were, for it was dark now.

In towels, Anna and I sat on stools at the kitchen island, our knees nearly touching, drinking rum cocktails under an umbrella of copper pots that hung from the ceiling. Outside, a chorus of tree frogs sang the opening bars of "You're So Vain". Terry had cooked pasta and he called us to serve ourselves, suggesting that we use "just a little hot sauce. We got it in Barbados and it will melt the skin off your face." This wasn't literally true, though I did ruin my meal by adding one or two drops too many. I left the island sweating and sneezing and nothing I drank to ease the burning helped, not even the table cream.

Outside, in the driveway, Josh and Chloe leaned against the car, holding hands. Anna and I stood opposite, watching Josh contemplate his nth green cocktail - a rum, soda, citrus and sugar drink of his own creation. "What shall we call this?" he asked. "The Sea Cow?" I said. "Portnoy's Complaint?" Anna said. "The Somnambulizer?" I said. "Urchin's Abode?" Anna said. For a while we listened to the crickets and the threatening buzz of mosquitoes. "I have it!" Josh said, interrupting our reverie with a raised glass. "Behold: The Cockandballs!"

The dining room - or what had been the dining room a few hours earlier - was littered with bodies. Terry lay sweat-drenched on a chaise longue with a ping-pong paddle over his face; Anna sat slumping and cross-legged on the blonde hardwood floor, Danny's head in her lap. They were casualties of my superior ping-pong skill, though it seemed my pride in victory was not matched by their shame in defeat. Josh hadn't even tried, unwilling as he was to remove his sport coat. Now he sat in an orange Louis XIV chair, head back, mouth open, a half-finished Cockandballs in his hand, snoring in a way that suggested a caricature of snoring. I had not wanted to beat Terry, the brave, wheezing pater familias, in front of his son and daughter, but Anna was to play the winner and I was not about to miss the opportunity. I toyed with her on the first point, hitting looping forehands to her backhand until, showboating, I smashed the ball across the table, past Anna, off a window and into a fruit bowl. "That's the first thing you've ever done to impress me," she said.

How Josh got to the living room I couldn't say, but there he lay, face-down on the floor with his arms outstretched above his head. A small pool of Cockandballs had formed at the mouth of an overturned glass near his feet. Terry had gone to bed and the rest of us sat under blankets watching an episode of Saturday Night Live from the late 80s or early 90s, though I wasn't watching what we were watching. I was thinking about Anna's bare shoulder pressed against mine. We sat just like that for a long time, until the snoring became choral.


Medicine Head - "When Night Falls"

If you've never heard my karaoke version of "You're So Vain", then you've never been moved. In my baritone warble, the best verse ("You said that we made such a pretty pair/And that you would never leave/But you gave away the things you loved/And one of them was me") is rendered with unprecedented pathos. Unfortunately for you, I only do about one show every two months and I rarely tour and since karaoke is not the sort of thing one records, you'll probably never hear it. As such, I offer this thematically relevant, just slightly less beautiful, proto-Antony piece in its place. This song was recorded in 1970, but there's nothing to date it; it sounds as though it could have been recorded today. Promises are still broken and hearts with them and try as we might to run from it, when night falls, it still sounds just like this. [Buy]

Tsehaytu Beraki - "Aminey"

While they're playing music, most bands cooperate internally. Members play their pre-agreed upon parts, their melodies and rhythms, and together create harmony. It's a utopian thing. Strange, then, that Tsehaytu Beraki manages to find a funky, whining beauty in his band's disagreement and strife. The bassist, for instance, rejects outright the song's 4/4 time signature. Certainly the skittering guitarist appears to be playing from a second score and the marshalling percussionists a third, highly divergent one. It's heartening to hear the guitarist and the singer agree, though in their near-unison there's a hint of competitiveness bordering on brinksmanship. And yet, despite the fractiousness, the music is most harmonious. It's enough to make one question whether music theory is anything more than an arbitrarily decided set of cultural mores. After all, if both harmony and disharmony produce harmony, then what do we really know about anything? [Buy]

The Valentinos - "Lookin' For A Love"
Bobby Womack - "Fly Me To The Moon"
Bobby Womack - "I'm Through Trying To Prove My Love"

On December 11, 1964, Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, killed Sam Cooke. The official story, which remains controversial, is that Cooke broke into Franklin's office and, wearing nothing but one shoe and a sports coat, demanded to know where his female companion was. When Franklin told him that she had no idea, Cooke attacked her; in self-defense, Franklin shot the great singer dead. The music world mourned, with the possible exception of Cooke's protégé, Bobby Womack.

Three months after the shooting, Womack, then twenty years old, married his mentor's widow, Barbara Campbell, making himself a pariah in the R&B community and derailing his career. His detractors claimed that Womack was trying to capitalize on Cooke's legacy, to ascend to the soul king's vacated throne. It's true that Womack pursued not only Cooke's wife, but also his singing style, so it was probably a mistake, political, if not ethical, to wear one of Cooke's suits to the wedding, too. For his part, Womack said that he married Campbell to protect her; he felt that, left alone, "she would do something crazy."

Whichever story is true, Womack's formative romantic experiences were decidedly unromantic. This might come as a surprise to those familiar with the above trio of songs, recorded over a period including and just longer than Womack's seven-year marriage to Campbell and which, taken together, seem to describe the romantic development of a most sensitive soul. "Lookin' For Love", which Womack recorded with his teenage brothers, is a doo-wop account of all-consuming adolescent girl-craziness; "Fly Me To The Moon", his take on the pop standard, is the best musical mirror of the song's love-drunk lyric, while "I'm Through Trying to Prove My Love to You" captures the common love-hangover.

These are inspired love songs, but inspired by what? As is so often the case with Womack, nothing very specific is said about the woman or women these songs are supposed to be about. Instead, the lyrics focus on his subjective experience of love or, implicitly, on his love for the love song. In "Prove My Love to You", Womack sings, "See when you take my heart/I can't let you take my soul." It's mournful music, but Womack sounds unbroken; though the woman has left, he is not without love. He finds solace in something human relationships, however poisonous, cannot defile (soul music). And he sings the song just like Sam Cooke.

[Buy, Buy, Buy]

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - "May This Be Love"

In the summer of 1960, Bosley Crowther's feelings about Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho were tepid. In a review in the New York Times, Crowther derided the film's pop psychology and pulp sensibility and assessed the acting as "fair". He did not hate the movie, but he didn't like it either. By December, he had made an about-face, arguing in the same paper that Hitchcock's masterpiece was among the ten best films of the year. So what happened?

It's not, I think, that he was drawn in by the gravity of a growing critical consensus that the film was a milestone. Crowther was not usually afraid to stand on his own. A few years later, he would be replaced as the Times' film critic, some say because of his unrelenting outspoken hatred for Bonnie and Clyde, another groundbreaking American movie that would eventually unite critics in celebration.

More likely, Crowther's Psycho schizophrenia came about because he rewatched the film and reconsidered his opinion; or perhaps more accurately, a different Crowther - one in a better mood or one inured to the potential shock of the new filmic possibilities on display - watched it for the first time and liked it right away.

When I watched Psycho for the second time, I couldn't believe my eyes. I had remembered the plot and the aesthetic well, but the overwhelming paranoia, the bleeding of tenderness into violence, the timeless brilliance of Anthony Perkins' performance - these were all totally new to me. Whether this was only a matter of mood or of a more profound shift, I can't say. Just as I can't say why, after I first watched Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, I emerged from the theatre exhilarated and proselytizing, whereas when I saw it again I thought it merely quite good.

Even as a ten-year-old classic rock aficionado, I was not an admirer of "May This Be Love". It seemed to me meandering and piecemeal (though I might not have used those words then), and continued to seem so until last week when I heard it in Cameron Crowe's Singles. While the film was much worse than I remembered, the song - wildly pretty, incoherent with romance - knocked me out.

Had I been forced to review "May This Be Love" upon its release, as Crowther was forced to review Psycho in the summer of 1960, I would likely have failed, as Crowther did, to fulfill a key part of my task: to guide readers to the pleasure in my subject. (And I don't just mean because I wasn't yet born.) Until last week, I couldn't hear that whenever Hendrix sings the word "waterfall" his band paints a waterfall with drums and bass. And I could not possibly have captured, because I could not perceive, the perfection of the final minute's guitar solo, the song's most perspicuous waterfall. But lucky for me, Said the Gramophone does not demand timeliness. I'm just now getting to Hitchcock and Hendrix; maybe next month I will write about Griffiths and Bach and Euripides. As for the new Bjork, give me twenty years. I'll get back to you.


Doug Tielli - "Riversea"

Whenever I want to be at once alone and among people, I will walk over to The Tranzac, my local bar and music venue and one of the finest places in Toronto and, indeed, the world, in the hopes that Doug Tielli will be playing some of his otherworldly songs. During those moods that bring me to The Tranzac, no music is more appropriate than Tielli's strange and soulful compositions, often transcendental meditations on nature, which, in the spirit of Emerson and Thoreau, communicate aloneness and at-oneness at once. I've seen Tielli, accompanied by a big, brassy band, play perfectly to a packed, sweaty room, but better still are those times when I've seen him solo, musically meandering for an audience so small that I've just made a mistake calling it an audience. On one occasion, I sat rapt as Tielli serenaded me and two Japanese girls - I know they were Japanese because he had us introduce ourselves - with a short song about deer tracks that, in its specificity, moved us. Another time, I was one of four and one of the other three annoyingly asked if Tielli knew any covers. He said he didn't know very many, but that he did have one "old English folk song" in his repertoire and he played it and it sounded like no England I'd ever encountered in life, literature or song. We four roared, the requester loudest of all.

One thing about Doug Tielli is that he is, along with Sandro Perri, Ryan Driver, and Eric Chenaux, one of Toronto's bent crooners - a member of a musical movement that bridges the chasm between Chet Baker and Loren Mazzacane Connors. Another thing is that he is the youngest member of a gifted musical family: his oldest brother is Martin Tielli, from the Rheostatics, and his other brother is John, leader of Metal Kites and formerly of Clark The Band, who is a writer of beautiful songs. Most importantly, he is a musician of rare power and originality - a guitarist, a pianist and a trombonist, a thoughtful lyricist and a singer with expansive, effortless range. His debut solo album, Swan Sky Sea Squirrel, which is slated for release later this month, promises so much. Buy it - loneliness loves company.

(To watch the video from which this audio was ripped, and thus to see the overcooked pie discussed in the intro, go to Southern Souls, Toronto's welcome answer to Blogotheque's Take Away Shows.)

The Chills - "Pink Frost"
The Chills - "Rolling Moon"

Just after these songs were recorded, the Los Angeles Dodgers, led by the rookie pitcher Fernando Valenzuala, won the World Series. A month later I was born. It was 1981 and it had been an exhilarating but ultimately troubling year for my brother. For most of his life, my brother believed that there was a direct correlation between the Montreal Expos' fortunes and his own. (Given my brother's occasional happiness and success, the theory was dubious from the start, and it would finally be disproved in 2004 when the Expos were given a name-change and moved to Washington and he was not.) In 1981, the Expos made the playoffs for the first and only time in franchise history, but were defeated by the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. The final game, which was played on a drizzly Monday and was decided by a late-game home-run by Rick Monday, would come to be known by Expos fans as Blue Monday.

My sister was never a sports fan. She preferred art to athletics and my earliest memories of her are my earliest musical memories: "Blue Monday" or the Happy Mondays or The Chills emanating muffled through the closed door of her room - music that has persistently shaped my understanding of how the world sounded at the time I came into it.

Ten years after Blue Monday, I cared a lot more about Fernando Valenzuala than I did about The Chills. Ten years after that, baseball had lost its appeal and music had replaced it in the forefront of my mind. Nearly ten years hence, I think about music less than I used to and baseball almost not at all, though I still derive great pleasure from The Chills and can't help but think of Fernando Valenzuala as I listen.


Miles Davis - "All Blues/Theme" (Live in Stockholm, 1960)

You can learn a lot about a band from a song in which its members trade solos. You can isolate the soul of a group, as in the Jeff Parker-dominated Tortoise song "Speakeasy", or conclude, as from Rick Danko's verse in "The Weight", that the soul is more evenly distributed than you might have thought. Sometimes you can hear in such a song that a particular player is ready to move on, that he no longer belongs in the band. When the members of Roxy Music each take a turn in "Re-make/Re-model", Brian Eno produces a sublime solo of staccato static that might have led the band to quit the band had Eno not beaten them to it. In this live version of Miles's modal classic, John Coltrane plays a tenor saxophone solo from 5:05 to 10:45 that hints at his innovations to come - sheets of sound and melodic skronk, post-bop and beyond. It's a baroque, original thing that stands in stark contrast to the residue of cool on the rest of the band, but the incongruity is for the best - here is a great group at the height of its power giving birth to a fledgling genius hell-bent on distorting this new music into something yet newer, yet bolder. [Buy]

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