Posts Tagged ‘Beethoven’

Sweet Oblivion
Screaming Trees

Unemployment has so many advantages that I hardly have time to list them all in. For example, I never got dressed today. I’ve been wearing my pajamas since last Monday. Or maybe the Monday before. For another example, I get to listen to as much music during the day as I want.

Yesterday I listened to Rhapsody’s Baroque channel for about four hours. The Baroque period ends with Bach’s death in 1750. I guess you can take it with you. The music of the Baroque era features clarinets, flutes, viols, lutes, and theorbos, and don’t tell me you don’t know what a theorbo is. Pete Townsend smashed one into his amplifier onstage at Leeds in 1966. I’ll bet Bach never did that.

When I decided I was about full up on theorbos, I switched over to what Rhapsody calls Essential Classical. The first artist was Beethoven. After four hours of Baroque serenity, Beethoven sounded like I was running for my life in a bowling alley. I still had writing to do and it was getting late. It was time for the Power-Thru.

Write like the big boys
The term “Power-Thru” was coined by Odd Todd, who literally wrote the book on unemployment: Hard Times, Soft Couch. Todd was referring to the common problem of how to finish a bag of chocolate fudge-striped cookies when you’re already full. I use Power-Thru to describe the process I undergo to kick-start whatever I’m writing.

In 1995 I went to work for a company that made computer games. Software deadlines were far more onerous than what I’d known in newspapers. I often had to lock myself away in my monk’s cell at midnight to get anything done, and when I did I came to rely on certain albums played very loud to ignite my creativity (which, in stubborn moments, felt as if I were thawing a glacier). One sure-fire fire-starter was Sweet Oblivion.

Describing Screaming Trees won’t make you want to listen to them. They popped up in Seattle during the grunge era. Critics said, “Screaming Trees are not grunge,” but if they’re not I sure can’t tell you what they are. Like most grunge outfits, their lyrics make no sense. I mean sometimes you get a song by Soundgarden or Alice in Chains and you can sort of tell what they’re on about, but you can dip into almost any Screaming Trees song and fall right through the looking glass, even on their one hit, “Nearly Lost You”:

I nearly lost you there
And it’s taken us somewhere
I nearly lost you there
Let’s try to sleep now

There’s a reason why Screaming Trees’ best-of collection is called Ocean of Confusion.

It won’t help to say that I can’t remember if I ever saw Screaming Trees on a stage. I remember a show I went to about 1990 where all four men in the band were wearing unbuttoned flannel shirts, but that could’ve been anybody. Two guys were rather large and one was kinda skinny; I couldn’t tell about the drummer. That fits their profile. The show was in Seattle. I want to say it was at the Gorilla Room, but that place had closed years before. So it could’ve been at Gorilla Gardens, except I’m pretty sure I never went there. This is starting to sound like one of their songs.

These caveats aside, let me state unequivocally how much I love this band and this record. The individual songs never attain greatness, but the overall effect of listening to Sweet Oblivion is like listening to Baroque all day and then getting hit in the face with Beethoven, except I know exactly what’s coming. Bowls me over every time. Gary Lee Connor’s guitar playing is not too little and not too much but just right. Mark Lanegan wields a baritone voice that, like Perry Como’s, never seems to work too hard but always makes itself known. (Lanegan has released several dark, spare solo albums. They remind me of Tom Waits without the laughs.)

Whenever I’m stuck on a project, I can go to half a dozen albums guaranteed to set me free. Sweet Oblivion leads the pack.

Cover of the week: The Slits, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
The three women in The Slits made up the weirdest rock act of 1979, and that’s saying something. For competition they had Gary Numan of Tubeway Army. Gary Numan pretended to be an android. He made David Bowie look like an investment banker.

Their first album, Cut, has two excellent tracks; one is their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” A ton of artists have covered this one; Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and Creedence Clearwater Revival had early hits with it, and of course there’s Marvin Gaye’s version, which is a landmark of Western music. The Slits’ interpretation is not just a whole lotta fun, it’s…how can I put this…singular. Of all the covers I know of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” nothing sounds like this one.

I would’ve remembered these women if I’d seen them in person.

More me in The Nervous Breakdown
In my push to totally dominate this online zine, I’ve posted my second humor column. This time I take on Thor and other superheroes, tools, and general musings on life. When I posted yesterday, my neighbor on the front page was a woman writing about bondage and discipline. I suspect she got more readers than I did with my stupid puns about Thor.*

The Nervous Breakdown now has a contributor who is 16. The competition out there is fierce. I hope you’ll stop by and run up my hit count!

* I couldn’t work this one into my column: For Halloween this year I’m going as Thorsten Howell III.

Get Bach!
The Baronics

Nothing says “respectable,” “significant,” and “serious” like classical music. And nothing says “pretentious,” “turgid,” and “snorefest” like rock musicians taking classical out for a spin. Need convincing? Let’s examine the evidence:

Exhibit A: The radioactive remains of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” after Emerson, Lake & Palmer
blew it up real good.
Exhibit B: Just about everything else by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Exhibit C: Paul McCartney’s 1991 Liverpool Oratorio. Only Yoko liked it.
Exhibit D: Any doofus with an electric guitar who thought it would be cool to eviscerate Ravel’s Bolero.

I don’t know which band in rock’s distant past was the first to fall down this mine shaft, but I’ll bet it wasn’t Black Sabbath.

Can rock and classical ever make nice?
You betcha. The Canadians solved this problem in 1996/Les Canadiens dénouér ce problème dans 1996. In that year the Canadian surf quartet The Baronics released a selection of pop tunes from the Classical and Romantic eras, arranged for the reverberating surf guitar we older teenagers recall so fondly from “Walk Don’t Run” and “Wipe Out!”

The Baronics fearlessly tackled five of the baddest boys in the classical-music game, resulting in a totally whacked, straight-up sick party record. (Just kidding. Don’t play this thing at parties, after the first laugh subsides people won’t know what to do with themselves.) Here’s the set list, with some helpful notes on the composers for those Run-DMSteve readers who are still listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And I know who you are.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Nearest contemporaries: Talking Heads
What Vivaldi would be doing today: Martha Stewart stunt double

Vivaldi is best known for The Four Seasons. When this experimental double LP of violin concertos was released in 1725, critics called it La Album Bianco. Concerto No. 1 in E Major, “Spring,” is the perfect introduction to the Baronical approach. “Spring” is not too fast, not too slow, and not too crowded; you can hear all the moving parts. You’ll enjoy the delicious solo in the middle and the steady Ringo-like drumming.

Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, “Summer,” showcases the band’s furious two-guitar attack. Actually, The Baronics’ two-guitar attack can best be described as “affable,” but compared to their usual work this track is furious.

Concerto No. 3 in F Major, “Autumn,” would fit right in at a luau on Kauai. It features two saxophone breaks, almost 20 seconds of pure Clarence Clemons/Born in the USA­-style playing. (Twenty seconds may not sound like a lot, but this piece isn’t even three minutes long. Antonio would’ve been amazed.)

As for Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, “Winter,” this is where you’ll learn to air-baton.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Nearest contemporaries: The Beatles
What Mozart would be doing today: Running Apple

Dave Brubeck has already given Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca a good jazzercizing, and of course The Beach Boys turned it into “Help Me, Rhonda.” This new version will keep your foot tapping, though the guitarists barely meet Mozart’s hectic pace and the drummer gets left several laps behind. Big finish, though. What we really needed here was a guest appearance by one of the master thrash-metal outfits. Megadeath would’ve done nicely, though I’m afraid if they had shown up for this session they would’ve killed and eaten The Baronics afterwards.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Nearest contemporaries: U2
What Bach would be doing today: Dividing the Lutheran Church

Bach, who couldn’t resist a practical joke, wrote his Inventions to torture his students. Kudos to The Baronics for choosing the trickiest Inventions, 1 and 13, bypassing the sissy-pants 2 through 12. The boys heroically rise to the challenge; even the drummer almost does well. In your face, Bach! W00t!

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
Nearest contemporary: Bobby McFerrin
What Pachelbel would be doing today: Only Oakland Raider who never breaks curfew

You know Pachelbel’s Kanon. You hear it at every wedding you go to, even the ones where the bride and groom are dressed as Klingons. Hearing The Baronics play the Kanon makes you realize how beautiful this tune is. This isn’t just a track off another obscure CD, this is a public service.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Nearest contemporary: Beck
What Beethoven would be doing today: Amy Winehouse

This is the only spot where Get Bach! falters, but the problem isn’t the band, it’s their choice of music. Beethoven wrote his Moonlight Sonata for a woman he was in love with. Sounds promising, but I have to wonder if Ludwig really knew his target market. How many women would be willing to engage in sex on top of a piano after hearing this doleful crawl through the dark? It’s tough enough listening to the Moonlight Sonata while someone tries to belt it out on the piano. Giving it the surf treatment only thickens the claustrophobia.

Mozart reprise
Forget Beethoven and his ideas on how to approach chicks. Surf and Mozart go together like Lego bricks! Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 as translated by The Baronics is more fun than catching a wave and shootin’ the pipe in front of a beach full of babelinis.

Bach reprise
The Bourrée was a dance the French did in their 17th-century mosh pits. Seems tame to us, but back then Bach’s Bourrée terrorized the Church and plunged Europe into the Dark Ages. The Baronics end this good-natured album with their good-natured version of the Bourrée, and even throw in some genuine English/French yelling. Bravissimo, Baronics!

In a future post we’ll discuss classical’s attempts to assimilate rock and roll, including string-quartet tributes to everything from The Cure to Pink Floyd and the endless Hooked on Classics series of disco drum-machine freakouts (which, wouldn’t you know, can all be traced back to Electric Light Orchestra).

Until then, appassionato non troppo!