Billie Holiday: Lady in Satin
Number 986 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
The first time I listened to Lady in Satin I was struck by how sad it sounds. How lost and lonely Holiday appears among all those sorrowful strings and plodding rhythms. I avoided a repeat listen for quite some time. I just couldn’t face the music, so to speak.
It got me thinking about how often I’ve been told that my favourite records, by the bands I’ve admired and followed over the years sound maudlin and depressing. I’ve never understood those comments and in fact I’ve never thought of acts like Radiohead, for example, as making sad music. Instead they have always resonated with me as explorers of complicated moods and ultimately cathartic because they are willing to explore themes that the mainstream prefers to ignore. Brittany Spears and Justin Bieber, as examples, sound fucking sad to me because they’re completely synthetic and escapist.
This led me to think about the amount of sadness that was apparent in old recordings like this one by Billy Holiday. A time when all anyone seemed to sing about was how lost they were without a lover in their lives, as if independence was a faux par. And how all of this sadness seems to be overlooked by listeners because it’s smothered in schmaltzy and inoffensive music.
Now that I’ve braved many repeat listens there’s no denying the charm of Lady in Satin, Holiday’s final album made as she crumbled under the weight of heroin abuse, alcoholism and damaging love affairs. Her voice is strained and crackly, she sounds slightly desperate clinging to her stardom and somewhat aware that she wasn’t going to live for much longer (Holiday died less than a year after its release). At risk of sounding voyeuristic, it’s that emotional tension which elevates this record to a place that I can appreciate. I won’t pretend to be a fan of Jazz singers from any era. But much like Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Hours, this album has an edge over its competitors.
I now realise that Lady in Satin doesn’t carry as much sadness as I initially thought. Now I hear hear someone striving to carry on in the face of adversity. I hear someone struggling and I feel for her. Every time she strains for a note I want her to come out the other end a winner. I hear a thousand stories of highs and lows in her voice, and I want to listen again and again until I know every one of them by heart.
Tito Puente and his Orchestra: Dance Mania Vol. 1
Number 987 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Truth be told, this record is a major part of the reason why I haven’t posted in so long. I have a mountain of new music that I’d love to write about but I felt somewhat guilty that I have very little to say about this record.
I guess I want to feel much more engaged with a lot of this older music than I actually do. I want the history of music to send shivers up my spine the way more recent music does. Which is unrealistic because, of course, not all recent music affects me that way either. But still, a record like Dance Mania bores me to my core.
These Mamba jams seem vacuous like the current glut of top 40 music. Void of emotion, and destined for ballroom dance competitions. Sequins, hair spray, fake tan and coral eye shadow. Shoulders back, fake grins and sashaying hips. Is this really what everyone was listening to in the clubs back in the day? I guess the tempo and joy and were infectious.
For me, everything that’s happened in music since 1958 makes it difficult to accept Dance Mania for what it was during its time. I’ll probably never listen to this record again.
Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard
Number 988 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Here’s another record distinctly tied to my childhood. Dad may not have admired Little Richard as much as Jerry “The Killer” Lee-Lewis, but he played the guy’s records consistently.
Of all the 50’s rock n roll my dad introduced me to as a child, Little Richard was especially fascinating to me. I can’t help suspecting that my as yet untapped gay identity responded to Richard’s unusual sexuality. His lightning rod flamboyance and outrageous stage manner. He was strong, crazy, lithe and filled with the threat of violence like a lioness.
Listening to these songs now, it’s the energy that strikes me as phenomenal. His voice is a complete beast – guttural and ecstatic like a preacher losing his mind at the pulpit. Even if you’ve never seen Richard in action you’d be hard pressed not to imagine this man writhing and convulsing and flailing around on stage. Could this guy really have played the piano properly while doing that?
It’s also hard not to think about his homosexuality in the context of today. These songs are all about girls, girls, girls. Back then he was living a heterosexual life, a product of his time, but I wonder how he felt deep down about singing these songs. How does he feel about having sung them today? How did he get away with rocking that eye liner and that hair? It’s freakin’ awesome when you think about it. Liberace was so ridiculously in your face, but Little Richard had style and panache.
Records like this help me understand why rock n’ roll won’t die, and why generations of musicians have appropriated its sound well into the 21st century. The urgency, the fire, and the craziness have transcended time in an era where we chew things up and spit them out at the speed of sound. I realise I haven’t actually described what this record sounds like, so to speak. But whatever. Go listen to it for your self.
Number 989 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Frank “Machito” Grillo is credited with merging afro cubist rhythms and Big Band jazz to create both Cubop and Salsa Music. I encountered the Cubop vibe back on the Sabu record but where that sound was sparse and primal, Kenya is a different organism. Trumpets and saxophones stab, wail and croon around a syncopated hustle of bongoes, maracas and drums. Melody is used as a mere support for the rhythm section that propels Kenya through space, time and dance floors.
I had originally written this whole review based on how much Kenya reminds me of 1960s cinema; where white men and women were always dancing out complicated mating rituals to a sultry pastiche of percussion and jazz. Movies where a soundtrack of horns and bongoes accompanied criminals outrunning cops and lengthy car chases through downtown America. That weirdo cultural appropriation (exploitation?) thing that went with movies from that era.
But what strikes me most about this record are the uptempo numbers like Wild Jungle and Cannonology which burst with syncopated percussion just like the UK’s Jungle scene of the 90s. Kenya shares the same rolling but jittery rhythms, the same urgency, the same staccato vibrations. It’s a sound that somehow manages to be frantic and spacious at the same time. I wonder why Cubop and Salsa isn’t referenced more often in relation to the Jungle and Drum n’ Bass scenes? Miles Davis gets mentioned as an influence on these artists and perhaps that’s in relation to his 60s and 70s ‘funk’ works, a period in which he definitely lifted plenty from people like Machito.
The majority of Kenya plays out at half the pace, exhaling a smoky romance. Percussion is still key but the frenzy has been dialled down to a rushed waltz. The vibe remains cinematic though and it becomes clear to me why contemporary musicians like Mike Patton have mined the quirks of this genre to create their own weird and wonderful atmospheres (Faith No More’s Caralho Voador, and pretty much anything from Mr Bungle are good examples of this).
Will Kenya be something I listen to regularly? I’m not really sure. It’s taken me almost a year to get through the first 12 records in this 1001 Albums exercise, and what I’m learning is that these older records have almost been tarnished for me by so many different factors. It’s difficult to step away from how artists have appropriated and reconstructed early musical genres over the years, and too often a record that must have sounded fresh and cutting edge back in the day sounds far too familiar to my ears today. While Kenya is definitely not forgettable, I’m not sure I’ll be dusting it off and playing it again any time soon.
Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
Capitol Records (1957)
Number 991 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Jazz is a mysterious, often esoteric thing. It has similarities to Metal in that its fans can be rabid, and its walls can be difficult to penetrate. My knowledge and understanding of Jazz is limited, but if the 1001 Albums list is confirming anything for me it’s that Jazz has been a huge influence on the evolution of popular music. And there probably isn’t a name more popular in the genre than Miles Davis.
I have to confess that despite being a seminal release in the genre’s history, Birth of the Cool is slightly lost on me. The record’s title in particular misleads my uneducated mind: this doesn’t doesn’t sound ‘cool’ to me. It sounds like Miles making music for elevators, cafes and candlelit dinners. It’s not bad, just inoffensive and safe. Birth of the Cool feels like your favourite t-shirt, all warm and familiar. And yet, each time the record finishes all of its melodies slip from my consciousness.
Scrolling around the internet I can read about the distinct lack of vibrato in Miles playing, and the use of multiple melodies played together at once which was considered unusual at the time. I can read long lists of famous musicians who played on this record. But the truth is I much prefer the 70s and 80s versions of Miles. Coked out freak-fests like Bitch’s Brew and On the Corner are much more exciting albums that illustrate the man’s talent for truly pushing the genre into new territories.
Perhaps I’m just too young to appreciate Birth of the Cool.
In comparison, I’m still listening to Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners (number 992 of the 1001 Albums). That record fascinates me and each time it finishes I want to hit play again. It’s melodies will be stuck in my head forever. Brilliant Corners’ odd time signatures and unusual tones are so fucking cool, suave, fresh and fearless in comparison to the casual comfort of Miles’ debut record. For me, Birth of the Cool bears few signs of what Miles Davis was to become.
Sabu: Palo Congo
Blue Note Records (1957)
Number 991, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Infectious is where I have to start describing this record. Palo Congo promotes unashamed booty shaking and pure joy. This record is a lot of fun.
Sabu Martinez was an American percussionist who played with everyone from Thelonious Monk to Charles Mingus to Sammy Davis Jr, at a time when ‘Cubop’ was all the rage. Palo Congo was his solo debut and to me it feels like the first recording made entirely for dancing.
This makes sense given Cubop’s roots in African music, which is highly rhythmic. Even Martinez’s shaman-like ranting and raving reminds me of African tribes dancing in ecstasy. I’m not well informed about the history of Afro-Cuban music, but the percussive vocal style sounds a lot like today’s Hip Hop MCs, and overall this record makes me feel as if I’m privvy to some retro rave. In fact it has the sound of Drum n’ Bass lying dormant in its syncopated, bongo rhythms.
Palo Congo is an amazing listen on headphones. The songs consist almost entirely of voice, percussion and simple guitar lines. The recording overflows with natural reverb which gives it an incredibly live vibe. The band are right there sweating on you. Parts of it are lo-fi and blown out in an intimate and charming way that many contemporary acts desperately want to replicate in today’s digital age. The guitars in particular sound spiky and post-punk, distorted and gritty as if they’re blasting out of cheap amplifiers cranked up too loud.
It’s unlikely that Palo Congo actually was the first record made to inspire dance. But I can’t help thinking that it has inspired plenty of musicians to explore rhythm over melody in the decades since.
Thelonius Monk: Brilliant Corners
Number 992, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
From the opening moments it’s clear Brilliant Corners is different to the Big Band stylings of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, which I’ve written about previously in this series. Thelonious Monk opens the record tinkling on his piano. His diminished chords sound completely wrong on first listen, strange, jarring and discordant. The rest of his band joins in a herky-jerky passage that bumps up and down the stave. Suddenly we’re off on a groovy jazz shuffle, saxophones freestyling over Monk’s off kilter notes, but just as quickly things slow back to half time. And then speed up again. Rinse and repeat.
Apparently this opening track, named after the record itself, was recorded 25 times and pieced together from various takes because the band could never get through it in one go. So complicated is Monk’s composition. The thing is, the dexterity never comes off trite. The tracks don’t ever lose touch with reality. They’re just….different, and exciting.
Brilliant Corners gives us moments inspired by 12 bar blues (Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are), candlelit romance (Pannonica), and even a vaguely Ragtime take on Bing Crosby’s I Surrender, Dear played solo on the piano by Monk. The whole collection is stitched together by Monk’s unusual melodies and constant tempo changes. It’s a cool ride, man.
This record shows me a lineage to later, weirder free jazz recordings by the likes of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and even contemporary freak folks like Mats Gustaffson. You can sense a world of new noise was opening up. Likewise, it’s suddenly become clear to me why the Beat Generation was so enamoured with Jazz during the 50s. I could never envision them sitting around looking cool and listening to some excited Big Band. Instead, the cerebral and freewheeling Brilliant Corners paints a much more accurate (probably romantic) picture of Kerouac and his peers, hanging out in dive bars, getting drunk and rhapsodising about a new, free world.
Count Basie: The Atomic Mr. Basie
Number 993, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Research suggests that William James “Count” Basie is an influential figure in the history of jazz, particularly the ‘big band’ scene. But I can’t recall hearing his name anywhere before, which isn’t a surprise given that Jazz isn’t my strong point.
Based on the cover art I was expecting some wild, high energy freak outs. An explosion of reeded instruments and skittery drum work. But even at its most raucous the vibe here is restrained and composed. Tracks like Whirly-Bird feature some roller coaster brass lines and infectious piano work from Basie himself, yet there’s never any sense of danger. Each player knows what the score is and they follow it.
This is ‘Big Band’ though, right? At least that’s my understanding. This was music composed to get people up and moving in nightclubs, when nightclubs had tables with little lamps on them and people danced with an actual partner. I see the world in black, white and silver when I listen to this record. I slip into old Hollywood films filled with good manners and naive moral dilemmas. I feel too far removed from this era to appreciate the sound.
Oddly, the tracks that appeal to me most are the slower, slinkier numbers like Midnight Blue and After Supper. These are the soundtrack to Humphrey Bogart characters dressed in trench coats, with hat brims resting low on their brows, hiding from the rain in smoky bars and sipping from tumblers of scotch.
I can’t say that The Atomic Mr. Basie will be on regular rotation around these parts. I need my Jazz to be real loose, man.
The Crickets: The “Chirping” Crickets
Number 994, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Here’s another artist that was played a lot around my childhood home, although the name Buddy Holly was more familiar than his band “The Crickets”. I hadn’t heard any of these songs properly in years, but on listening to them recently I was immediately struck by how unusual Buddy Holly was, and still is, in the canon of rock and pop music.
These are tight pop songs. Succinct and no frills. But that’s not to say they aren’t intricate or interesting.
Holly’s voice is the first thing that grabs me. It’s varied and textured. His fallback is a just-in-tune swoon, limited in range but comfortingly familiar. He accessorises this with with a growl, the sound of his voice accumulating enough energy to reach the notes he’s striving for. Then there’s the vocal squeaks, sudden falsettos and hiccups that create tension in his performance. You may laugh, but I’m reminded of Michael Jackson.
I’m also struck by the guitar work. They’re spikey and anxious. Listen to a track like Not Fade Away and tell me the interplay between tribal rhythms and jangly fret-work doesn’t anticipate post-punk by some 30 years. Meanwhile, faster tracks like Tell me How and Rock me my Baby were an obvious influence on the likes of The Ramones. The Crickets were way ahead of their time.
Ultimately, though, Buddy Holly sounds innocent. He was only 21 when he wrote these songs. It was the late fifties and this sounds like an episode of Happy Days, where even the ballads have a bright and sunny vibe. Everything’s a metaphor for losing one’s virginity. Poor Buddy just wants to convince his girl to let him become a man. I’d normally scoff at this sort of stuff, but Buddy is also an endearing nerd. His black rimmed glasses have come to signify that, even if his look has been co-opted by Hipsters everywhere. And there’s something incredibly cool about nerds who know how to rock, isn’t there? We might not have had Weezer or Elvis Costello if Buddy Holly hadn’t done the nerd thing first.
Frank Sinatra: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers
Number 995, of 1001 Albums You Must Listen to Before you Die.
I’ve been avoiding this record because I just don’t have much to say about it. In the Wee Small Hours surprised me with smoky atmospheres and heart-on-your-sleeve emotions, but Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! is a cheesy butterball of everything that puts me off Frank Sinatra.
Sure, songs like I’ve got you Under my Skin and Anything Goes are bucket loads of fun to perform at karaoke, when you can pretend you’re a cigar smoking, whiskey sipping womaniser in a pie hat. But where’s the substance?