Friday, May 28, 2010

Jahnke's Record Collection: John Zorn - Filmworks III 1990-1995

Of all the artists in my music library, none is more challenging than John Zorn, both musically and simply in terms of output. I dare you to keep up with Zorn’s staggeringly prolific discography. John Zorn is an intimidating artist for the uninitiated. According to Wikipedia, the man appears on over 400 albums as a composer and/or performer, including work with the bands Masada, Painkiller, Naked City, and more. His work has roots in jazz, neo-classical, klezmer and much more. Where does one even begin to delve into a musician like this?

I was introduced to Zorn through two albums in the late 80s: The Big Gundown, a tribute to legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, and Naked City, a mixture of originals and covers including John Barry’s James Bond Theme and Henry Mancini’s A Shot In The Dark. I enjoyed both quite a bit, although the avant-garde shrieks ‘n’ bleats tracks on Naked City didn’t exactly get played over and over again. I looked for more of Zorn’s work, still a manageable task back then. That began to change in 1995 when Zorn formed his own record label, Tzadik. Finally allowed to release whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, Zorn threw open the floodgates, releasing so much music that I found it impossible to keep up.

I knew I’d have to focus my interest down to just a few key areas unless I wanted to move into a larger house and officially dub one of the closets The John Zorn Room. Since I had first discovered his music through his reinterpretations of Morricone, a safe bet seemed to be collecting his Filmworks series. I’d bought the first volume when it was released on the Nonesuch label in ’92 and enjoyed it. Surely this small corner of Zorn’s music could be easily digested.

Yeah, right. As of this writing, the Filmworks series is up to its 23rd volume. That’s about two albums per year of music for movies, mostly underground and documentaries you’ve never heard of and will probably never get a chance to see. The most well-known film Zorn has worked on is probably Trembling Before G-d, the acclaimed 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews.

As much as I liked Zorn’s work, even the most difficult-to-listen-to avant-garde stuff struck me as interesting, he wasn’t someone who received much in the way of media coverage and I wasn’t passionate enough about him to follow his work obsessively. He was one of those guys that, if I was in a record store, once or twice a year I’d go over to the John Zorn section to see if he had a new album out. Usually, he would have about five or six new albums out. Over time, I became overwhelmed by all this and I stopped buying his work. I always tell myself that I’ll return someday but it’s daunting trying to decide which of the 200 or so albums he’s released in the meantime I should start with.

Filmworks III was the last Zorn album I bought, over ten years ago now. It’s divided into four sections, representing Zorn at his best and his most challenging. The music for Thieves Quartet and Hollywood Hotel are both top-notch. It’s jazzy, moody music that evokes a distinct noir mood. It’s virtually impossible for me to listen to the main titles of Hollywood Hotel with its delicate guitar work by Marc Ribot and dreamy alto sax by Zorn without feeling a cigarette between my fingers, the pleasurable burn of whisky at the back of my throat, and the red glare of a flashing neon sign outside the window, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Zorn’s Music for Tsunta is more schizophrenic, nine cues sequenced back-to-back as one track featuring odd sound effects, turntable scratches and an occasional hesitant banjo from Bill Frisell. It’s good stuff but I can understand why most people would wonder what the hell was going on.

And then there’s the music for Weiden and Kennedy. W+K is a Portland-based advertising agency responsible for iconic campaigns like Nike’s Mars Blackmon spots with Spike Lee. It’s difficult to imagine Zorn’s music accompanying commercials but then again, it’s difficult to imagine some of the filmmakers Zorn works with on these spots, including David Cronenberg, Jean-Luc Godard and Sven Nykvist, making commercials in the first place. These are short little musical sucker punches, ranging from 14 seconds to just over a minute. Again, not the most relaxing music to have playing in the background on a Sunday morning. But Zorn gets his ideas across quickly, immediately conjuring up solid images and moods even if you haven’t seen the commercials. It’s a fascinating study in the specific needs of film composition. If I taught a class in film music, I’d have a day where we listened to these tracks and tried to dissect what they were used for.

Obviously John Zorn isn’t for everybody. I admit that I’ll rarely pull out one of his albums and listen to it from start to finish, although several of his more accessible tracks get played repeatedly on my iPod. But every so often, I enjoy giving my ears a bit of a workout and Zorn fits the bill perfectly, bleating saxes, crashing drums, guttural screams and all.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jahnke's Record Collection: The Return!

I have not been very diligent about keeping this blog updated, though in my meager defense, it hasn’t been from lack of trying. This is the third time I’ve started writing this entry over the past few weeks. Each time, I’d get a few paragraphs into it and realize that the place I’d started from didn’t really have much to do with where I wanted to go. Some interesting ideas came out of those false starts and I’ll probably end up recycling them at some point. But their time has not yet come.

All I really wanted to do was talk about a band I’d been enjoying lately. Not really a big deal, right? But in my previous efforts, I was overthinking how to lead into that and ended up going down paths that had nothing whatsoever to do with that band. But now, since it’s been awhile since I’ve updated this blog, I thought I’d just catch you up on a number of different bands and albums I’ve been listening to since last time. Some of them are new, some are new to me, and some I’ve had for awhile. And we’ll kick things off with the band I’ve spent the past three weeks trying to write about…

Heartless Bastards – The Mountain

If you’re as lucky as I am, you have several friends whose taste in movies, books or music you trust implicitly. If they recommend something to you, you get it, no questions asked, confident that you will enjoy it as much as they think you will. Not that their tastes mirror yours exactly.But they are extremely knowledgeable and can recommend things based on your specific likes and dislikes. I have two go-to guys for music, one of whom is MusicTAP’s Matt Rowe.Matt’s really good at this kind of thing and so far, he hasn’t steered me wrong once. So when Matt started raving…literally raving, like a man possessed by demons…about Heartless Bastards, I knew I’d have to check them out.

Glad I am that I did, too. The Mountain, the trio’s third album, is a country-blues tour de force. Erika Wennerstrom leads the band with a grungy guitar and deep, authoritative, bourbon-flavored voice. Listening to songs like “Out At Sea” and the title track, you’d think the band had been playing together for decades. In fact, the band’s lineup has changed a bit since their 2005 debut. You’d never guess it from listening to their three albums back-to-back. Both Stairs And Elevators and All This Time have much to offer, including great tunes like “Done Got Old” and “Came A Long Way”. But from album to album, you can hear Wennerstrom honing their signature sound, expanding from simple guitar, bass and drums to incorporate mandolin and violin. In a short time, Heartless Bastards have become a band to reckon with and The Mountain is a massively entertaining slab of roots rock. It’s their finest album to date and I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next. Until then, crank this one up loud while you stir your brandy with a nail.

Gogol Bordello – Trans-Continental Hustle

Pandora is just about the best idea for a website in the history of the internets. If you haven’t stumbled across it yet, the idea is that you enter the name of a band or song you like. Then, through some astonishing computer alchemy, Pandora creates a streaming radio station based on the specific qualities of that band or song. As you give the songs that come up a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, Pandora refines its parameters and gets better at finding music you like.The really amazing thing is the damn thing actually works. Plenty of websites make computer-generated recommendations but none of them ever come close to getting it right. For instance,Netflix right now seems to think that because I loved the sardonic British comedy In The Loop, I’ll go equally wild for Rob Reiner’s schmaltz-a-thon The Bucket List (the common thread apparently that both are “Comedies on Blu-ray”). By contrast, Pandora runs second only to actual human beings in introducing me to new music.

A few years ago, I created a Pogues station on Pandora and discovered the raucous gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello. It was love at first listen, despite the fact that half the time I have no idea what the hell lead singer Eugene Hutz is babbling about. Their latest album offers up more of the same, despite the presence of uber-producer Rick Rubin and a switch to a major label for the first time. Unlike Heartless Bastards, I can’t say that Gogol Bordello has expanded their scope much over the years. But their unique sound is so much fun, it doesn’t really matter. Trans-Continental Hustle is a loud, loopy good time. It’s a party in your ears and everybody’s invited.

Can You Dig It? The Music And Politics Of Black Action Films 1968-75

This double-disc import from Soul Jazz Records compiles 34 killer tracks from movies like Coffy, The Mack and Petey Wheatstraw from the likes of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Willie Hutch and many, many more. And if that was all it had going for it, this would still be one of the coolest CDs you could hope to own. But wait, there’s more! The set includes a lavishly-illustrated 100-page book with informative, well-written essays and bios by Stuart Baker. More than just an album, this is a multimedia history of blaxpoitation cinema.

Duran Duran – Rio

Back when this album was huge, I listened to Duran Duran in a detached, semi-ironic, I’m-too-cool-to-admit-I-actually-enjoy-this way. In fact, I would refer to the band as “Double Duran”, affecting a hiccupy, Martha Quinn-voice, mainly to annoy my friends who legitimately enjoyed them. I heard the record, of course, but was mainly familiar with the singles. It was virtually impossible to avoid “Rio” and “Hungry Like The Wolf” back then. Now that I’ve bothered to really listen to the album, I’ve got to admit…this is good stuff. I won’t go so far as to say there’s more here than meets the eye but songs like “Lonely In Your Nightmare” and “The Chauffeur” are moodier and more interesting than the band is usually given credit for. Could a reappraisal of Seven And The Ragged Tiger be far behind?