Thursday, October 11, 2007

Awe and Nordic Melancholy ("nordiskt vemod"): Jan Johansson: Jazz på Svenska (1965)

I won't call this a jazz album, since that's gotten me into trouble before, but I will say that Jazz på Svenska, Jan Johansson's 1965 album of Swedish folksongs interpreted with piano and upright bass alone, is easily one of the most beautiful albums I've heard, and one of the saddest. Jazz certainly influences and to an extent determines some of the sound, style, and flourish to this record, but to describe it simply as a jazz record is to do a disservice to it and to jazz. It's something beyond jazz, but because of jazz.

This is an album of Swedish folksongs interpreted by two masterful jazz musicians, Johansson, a deft pianist and protégé of Stan Getz, and bassist Georg Riedel. The arrangement is minimal: piano and bass, the echo of ringing notes, and nothing else. While there are notes and touches throughout the album that swing, for the most part the album seems to follow a tonal scale divorced from what a lay-person (that is, I) would identify as jazz. It just doesn't sound like jazz, but it doesn't quite sound like precisely anything. Sure, it sounds like Swedish folksongs, I guess. At times it sounds almost like Glenn Gould (minus the muttering and embellishment). But it sounds less like any other music and more like a range of moods-- it drifts between generous warmth and desolate cold, between intimacy and lonesome abandon. There are tones and moments that seem to have all the deepest feeling imaginable bound up inside them; it's not hard to hear grief and despair here, helplessness and horror, but there is also faith and awe and wonder in abundance. This is a record that has given me goosebumps, over and over, which has at times chilled me with a sense of how truly alone I was, while at other times has reassured me of the unequivocal safety of the foundations of my life and relationships. It's not hard to find everything you feel expressed more precisely in this record.

As a means of explaining this, I'll offer the following story: in the spring of 2006, I felt as though I was at a point of intersection as far as my career was concerned. For several long years I had sought out one particular job, built up my qualifications so as to make myself more desirable to employers in that field, and endured several harrowing interviews. Finally, I got some work, and later, some more. By the time the third round of work came around, I was having drastic second thoughts, recognizing many of the grim faults in the job that I had not, in my dumbfounded fantasies of employment, imagined would come into play. By early winter 2006 I had begun to consider stepping away from the field of my aspirations, but when spring rolled around and it was once more time to send in applications, I dutifully filled out and faxed off my forms.

I had already been working for one particular outfit, but mid-week in late April I got word that union rules required they re-interview me for the job I'd already done. The interview was to be on Monday; on Friday I was stricken with some crisis of conscience. I couldn't bear to go on with the work, I figured. I hated it-- it was nothing like I'd imagined it would be. I hated myself, too, since I'd stupidly spent as many as seven years focused on a single goal that I now seemed to have to abandon. But between the ache of making active disappointment and the woe of letting drop my hard-won goal, disappointment still seemed the worse. On Monday morning I determined I was through, but nonetheless would still go to the interview out of courtesy for my colleagues: I put on my best suit and tie and headed out early for the 90-minute metro-bus combination that would take me to the job site.

Being late April, there was a cold rain coming down, mostly as a mist at first. I drifted over me as I followed Duluth street from my corner down to St Denis, where it thickened. As I ducked into the metro station it had begun to come down heavily, and waiting for the bus I felt it had grown dense and determined. Without an umbrella, I was soaked before my bus arrived: rain was dripping along my scalp and crawling past my tie-cinched collar. What little light there was in the sky was greyish yellow, as though passing through a grease-stained paper plate. I was miserable, beaten, and soaked, finally recognizing that the future to which I'd aspired was essentially a fiction in which I could not live comfortably, and at a loss for an alternate course. Having no future needed not, as I'd imagined it in my teenaged years, necessarily be set to punk rock. As the bus pulled away from Lionel-Groulx station, I leaned my dripping head against the window and put Jazz på Svenska on my discman, over which I could hear only the rhythm of the bus's windshield wipers and the occasional crackle of the radio. For the duration of the ride, that music was the only thing in the world, and the most beautiful thing. Then I got off.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Appreciation: "How Could I Help But Love You?" by Aaron Neville, Minit Records 1963

A friend polled me recently for my favourite love song, and after only brief consideration of the many, many possibilities ("I Found A Love" by the Falcons? "Turn It On" by Sleater-Kinney? "Something's Got A Hold Of Me" by Etta James? "Baby Baby" by the Vibrators? "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)" by Otis Redding? etc etc etc.), I came to one unassailable conclusion: "How Could I Help But Love You?" Aaron Neville's 1963 masterpiece of New Orleans R&B on Minit Records.*

Many may find it difficult to imagine Neville responsible for a genuine expression of feeling-- after such crimes against music as "Everybody Plays The Fool," Neville seems doomed to association with "soft rock," that form of music favoured by those who don't want to listen to anything moving, honest, or exciting, but prefer nonetheless not sit in silence. But that wasn't always the case; like a lot of musicians who defenestrated their talent and dignity during the 1980s, Neville's very early recordings are in many cases astonishingly good. In particular, Neville's earliest sides with New Orleans's famous Minit Records, which lasted only from 1961 to 1963 and released early records by Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, and Eskew Reeder (aka Esquerita, strong influence on Little Richard), are all worth listening to. But chief among them is "How Could I Help But Love You?"

Every time I've described this song, the first word that's come to mind has been "ghostly": this is a song with the rare power to draw gooseflesh just by the way it sounds. A large part of this is in the brilliance of the instrumentation and arrangement-- the song progresses slowly and begins with Neville's imploring voice behind an echoing cymbal, tapped snare-rim, and gently ringing guitar which follow an almost hidden bass. The initial effect is like a faint wind rustling the last fall-dry leaves on a tree-- you're just as ready for it to die out as pick up. But lord, how it picks up: the chorus hands the melodic counterpoint from the bass to a strong piano in classic NOLA R&B form and distant backup singers (eerie and virtually unidentifiable as male or female) swell in utterly stunning harmony to Neville's vocal trills, which contain not one whit of bullshit or showboating. No part of this song is any louder or more prominent than it absolutely has to be: humility permeates it above all. The second verse doubles in length to fit in a saxophone and trumpet solo as quiet as breath and as gentle as the guitar that ebbs the melody away. The song is never agitated beyond its careful rustle by any drum-beat except the rim of the snare-- even with the intensity of the chorus, the entire song is piano, bass, and voice alone, its power in its scarcity, and when the chorus ends it returns to the quiet simplicity of that shimmering guitar.

Neville was barely out of his teen years when he recorded "How Could I Help But Love You?" and the awkward earnestness of youth permeates and defines the song. But the song is dominated by this nervous hesitance in a way that other tracks of the same era which sought to capitalize on a young man's stammering declaration of love (such as more polished songs by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Dion and the Belmonts, or the Orioles) are not. Quite simply, Neville sounds like he means what he's saying though he's terrified of saying it: he's full of the awe and reverence of falling truly in love at 20, and the song is arranged precisely so as to amplify every tremor of that emotion. When Neville sings, "You send cold chills down my spine," you don't just listen, you feel exactly what he means.

Performed by a different singer against a less deft arrangement, "How Could I Help But Love You?" might have been another hamhanded R&B throwaway, as there's nothing at the core of the words and melody to set the song apart from a dozen similar tracks. Yet between Neville's warm and tenuous voice and the perfect organization of instruments around it, this song becomes stunning. The lyrics are not, by any means, complex or witty, but they sound utterly sincere, and as a whole the song is likewise sincere in its minimalism. Where later Neville tracks would come to bury their lack of genuine emotion in an oily mountain of production, this song is structured to contain only what is absolutely necessary to get its point across. Its point is the feeling of being in love, and no song that I can think of does it better.

* - (to which I have the estimable Warren Hill, proprietor of Back Room Records and Pastries and publisher of $2.00 Comes With Mix-Tape zine, to thank for introducing me. Thanks, Warren.)

Small Favours:

Still sick, and worse than before. I got a substitute for my morning class, woke up early, and went to the neighbourhood clinic, where a kind young doctor told me I should probably take the rest of the week off of work. She figures it's a sinus infection that I left too long and she gave me a prescription for antibiotics, so hopefully I'll be able to get back to work for Thursday. I'm supposed to teach the first class on "The Dead" by James Joyce, and I'd rather not leave that up to a substitute. Angie's now as sick or sicker than I am (though without the apparent sinus infection, at least), so we make quite a pair of layabouts. We've succeeded in accomplishing soup and television watching today (we're already done the first disc of Season II of The Wire and have had to resort to Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and neither of us is feeling particularly good about anything.

BUT! The doorbell rang just after 5pm today, and a courier fellow handed me a box with my name on it, which I opened to discover was an order from Deranged records that I'd almost forgotten I'd made. Inside, the Tranzmitors self-titled LP plus s/t 7", the Teen Crud Combo retrospective LP, Fucked Up's Hidden World 2xLP gatefold, and (oo! oo!) the eagerly awaited full-length LP by Portland's Red Dons (see my giddy review of their April set at L'Esco here).

Of course, said package arrived just as Ang retired to the guest bed in her office with a grinding sinus headache, so I can't very well throw any of these guaranteed rock-and-roll blowouts on just now. However, I hope the potential energy of this stack of vinyl will encourage a swift recovery, since these are the sorts of records that demand dancing sock-footed around one's kitchen.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two notes from Pop Montreal

(photo by unknown party, posted on

Things have been quiet on this blog lately for a number of reasons, chief among them the amount of preparation and marking that I've been facing as we move toward mid-term season. As well, I spent much of the last week done in by a nasty cold that I hope I've finally bested. There will be more to come, and soon, I hope. For the time being, however, let me say that for all my mixed feelings about the Pop Montréal festival, seeing Patti Smith read in front of and sing with A Silver Mt. Zion last night at the Ukranian Federation Hall on Hutchison was pretty amazing, and paying only $5 for the show about tripled my amazement. The show had strong points and weak points-- it was, by and large, exactly what I expected it would be, but by the end I'd have paid ten times as much just to hear their emotionally flattening version of "Pissing In A River." Their treatment made the song new again and gave it more power and immediacy than when I first heard it on record ten years ago. It was the first of two encores at the end of a two hour show, for which I paid five dollars. Amazing.

Addendum (Saturday afternoon): Patti Smith played again on Friday night with "Her Band" at the St Jean Baptiste church on Rachel near St Denis. Tickets were $35-- 7 times what we paid to see her play a tiny hall with Silver Mt Zion. My partner Angie (who's a member of CKUT-FM's Venus Collective and had been taping Smith's keynote address at the Pop & Politics conference earlier in the afternoon) had a guest-list spot, so we could have split the price of a single ticket, but we both agreed to forego the show and Ang handed the guest-list spot off to a friend. It wasn't the price, nor even the fact that I've taken poor care of myself this week and been once more routed my a resurgence of my cold just as Angie's finally caught it from me. Instead, we concluded that a show in a larger venue with a practiced band couldn't possible top the intimacy and urgency of a palpably nervous Smith in a tiny hall, backed by a band with whom she'd had a single afternoon to practice. So much could have gone thoroughly wrong with that show, and I'm sure everyone in the audience was aware of that-- the tenuous, feverish atmosphere in the choking-hot room drove the band as much as the music stoked the room. Five fucking dollars-- it wasn't just the price, or the size of the room, the gamble of the band and singer united at last, but all of it at once coming together perfectly and powerfully. It wasn't worth trying to repeat it-- we knew it wouldn't be as good again two nights later.

Instead, we caught an exhilarating 90-minute set by the mighty Ted Leo & the Pharmacists at the Gymnase, their second show in the last six months. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Ted since the first Pharmacists show in Montréal at Barfly in May of 2001, but never have I seen give less than everything to the room. Last night was absolutely not an exception. The set list covered the last four records (though nothing off the early Treble In Trouble EP, which I'm always holding out for) as well as a long jam while awaiting a replacement bass-head that developed slowly into an cheerily improvised cover of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town" with mostly-remembered lyrics and mostly the right chords. I'm happy to see James Canty playing second guitar with Ted again after several years away from the band-- he's got as much energy as Ted and drummer Chris, and between the three of them the band's live impact is staggering (for reasons I didn't get to hear, the more retiring bassist Dave is not playing on this tour; his shoes are being filled by a capable fellow whose name I didn't catch). By the end of the show both Angie and I were nearly catatonic with illness, but as we staggered down the stairs we determined it was, in fact, worth it. Even as I've spent all day today coughing up lung articles of ominous colour and feeling utterly destroyed, I remain convinced of that.

I will not, however, be seeing Tyvek, Fucked Up, Career Suicide, Jay Reatard, Kickers, Spy Machine 16, or any of the other bands I was hoping to get in tonight. I can tell when it's time to take it easy or do myself some serious damage, and the eighty minutes between waking and being able to get out of bed this morning were a clear indicator of what I must choose. Tonight will be about watching movies on the sofa with the cat and not feeling regretful for missing however many shows I wanted to go to.