Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Matt's Mood," by Matt Bianco

“Matt Bianco” was a trio, formed in 1983 with Danny White, Mark Reilly, and prominent vocals from Polish chanteuse Basia Trzetrzelewska. The name of the group is fabricated; a fictional secret agent, which came from the group’s love of TV and film spy themes. Their music is European pop, strongly influenced by samba and jazz. The band’s debut, Whose Side Are You On? scored a significant hit throughout Europe, but it’s quirky synthesizers and splintered English prevented it from making a dent in the U.S. market, to wit: “The waiter crept away with…the micro dot.” Um...huh?

Fun fact: pulling an unprecedented hat trick for a brand new band, Matt Bianco’s debut featured saxophone work from the legendary Ronnie Ross (listen to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” on which he played tenor saxophone, and you’ll understand the moniker).

The original Matt Bianco lineup parted ways in 1984, with Trzetrzelewska and White joining forces to begin work on their own music, of which Basia has said, “we didn’t even expect to get a record deal let alone a hit.” True to her suspicion, the pair’s first release (as “Basia”) was almost not released in the U.S.; their record company believed it “too European.” Unexpectedly, however, several American radio stations added the mid-tempo single, “Time and Tide,” to top-40 playlists, and the song and album became a rare jazz-pop crossover hit. In fact, Basia enjoyed significant success in America in the late 80’s, where both of the duo’s albums, Time and Tide and London, Warsaw, New York reached platinum sales.

Breakneck touring followed, which quickly took a toll on the duo, causing Basia and Danny to take a few years to regroup. The pair released their third album, The Sweetest Illusion, in 1994. But by that time, Nirvana and Seattle grunge ruled the airwaves, leaving little room for the duo’s jazzy pop stylings. The album failed to find an audience, unfairly disappearing within weeks of release. Around that same time, Basia suffered the end of a long personal relationship and the death of her mother, which kept her out of the limelight for the next decade. Of that period, the usually cheerful songstress has said, “I just didn’t feel like singing anymore.”

But in 2003, White and Reilly started writing together again and eventually coaxed Basia back into the studio for what became a comeback of the original Matt Bianco. The result was 2004’s dazzling, Matt’s Mood, which brought back the band’s familiar Latin, jazz, and samba influences, but with even more spark than before: not only a triumphant return to form, but vastly improved with time and experience. The album’s opening song, “Ordinary Day,” bows gratefully to any number of João Gilberto compositions, sporting a snappy, samba melody with a familiar sunny lyric from Basia expounding upon the virtues of mundane, day-to-day life when with the one you love.

Basia trades lead vocals throughout the album with Mark Reilly no more effectively, perhaps, then on “Say The Words.” Strongly referencing French folk music, the maudlin song describes the moment when two people realize their relationship is over, but neither has anywhere to go from there. The song “Ronnie’s Samba” is a tribute to their mentor, the aforementioned Ronnie Ross. White found clips of Ross’ playing from their early 80’s sessions and flawlessly incorporated them into three songs on the album, and Ross’ saxophone-from-beyond on “Ronnie’s Samba” truly enriches this exuberant tribute.

Reilly handles lead vocals on “Wrong Side of the Street,” and Basia contributes smooth and sensual “da-ba-da’s” as the chorus, moving into a sultry Polish end verse, which loosely translates: “Don’t be scared, try once more. You stumble; you’re unlucky again. Maybe you don’t stand a chance. Who knows, but remember that I am here for bad and good. You’re not alone.” Um…ok, but who cares what it means? It sounds real pretty when sung in Basia’s native language. Relevant side note: Basia is sometimes trounced for what some critics believe to be a penchant for trite and overly innocent, verging-on-naïve lyrics. One reviewer suspected that she composes in Polish and translates to English, resulting in the demure, “Oh my!” flavor sometimes found in her work. While I concede the point, it still doesn’t stop me from loving this extraordinary album.

Vying for best song on Matt’s Mood is “La Luna,” which juxtaposes cheerful Latin-flavored samba with what is arguably Basia’s most lugubrious lyric. “Move on. I try to, but I’m lost without you.” Basia sings of her mother’s passing. “All around the Universe, you’re looking down; I know you’re watching over me…is it a mild case of madness?” she asks, referencing centuries-old folklore and theory about the terrestrial effects of the moon (i.e. “the lunar effect,” which postulates a correlation between the Earth’s lunar cycle and mental illness, or “madness”). But to me, “La Luna” is heartbreaking - a song written by a grown daughter who just misses her Mom.

Will Matt’s Mood ever be included in any “Top 100 album” lists? Probably not. So why am I recommending this album? First and foremost, it’s an album that overflows joy, even in its quietest moments. There’s a lot to love about that. Secondly, I’ve never heard an album that accommodates almost any occasion like Matt’s Mood: pick an activity, and this album will supply the perfect background. In fact, I’ve used this album as the soundtrack for a summer lawn party, as background music for a reception, when making dinner with my wife, and as a driving companion on long road trips. I’ve never skipped a track, and you won’t either.

Post Script: This post comes out a few short weeks before Basia’s 2009 return with It's That Girl Again. Who knows, maybe a future entry…

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Subtítulo," by Josh Rouse

Josh Rouse is just one theme song in the right "date movie," or just one fluke hit record away from being the biggest pop star on the planet. He’s the music world’s best-kept secret, and it was only coincidental that I stumbled upon his music almost a decade ago. I first heard of Josh Rouse in a radio interview in 2000 to promote his (then) new album, Home. On the strength of the few songs they sampled during the interview, I picked up the CD and have been a Rouse fan ever since.
Rouse's songs sound like they were lifted from the smooth, mellow-gold, singer-songwriter era of the early 70’s. In fact, Rouse’s music has always struck me as au fait with some of the best “un-hip” artists from that era: America, Neil Diamond, Bread, Don McClean, etc., and this hunch was confirmed by his 2003 album, 1972, in which he paid tribute to both his birth-year and that era of popular music. Further validating my hunch was Rouse’s appearance in the 2004 Bread tribute CD, “Friends and Lovers,” in which he performed “It Don’t Matter To Me,” the band’s top ten hit from 1970.

Like 1972, Rouse’s albums are almost always thematic, mostly finding him toiling away at love from various angles, most of them melancholic: loss of love (Dressed Up Like Nebraska), anxiety from love (Home), loneliness in love (Under Cold Blue Stars), etc. Subtítulo (Spanish for “subtitle”), however, is a significant departure for Rouse. Recorded in Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain shortly after ending his marriage, the album places Rouse in a completely new geographic environment: a sun-dried, balmy, beachfront town in southern Europe. From halfway across the world and even further removed from his former life, Rouse had begun a new relationship and seemed to be viewing love from the benevolent side for the first time on record.

For the Rouse fan, it was almost jarring to hear him in this breezy new musical environment, juxtaposing images of his newly adopted hometown with the joys of new romance. This isn’t the Josh Rouse from the past decade. Think Nick Drake covering the Jackson 5’s “ABC:” joyous, bewildering, and completely unexpected. The album opens with “Quiet Town,” a sweet, hum-along that revels in the charms of small town life. Still, even on this upbeat track, Rouse’s dark side is never far from the shimmery surface as he sings, “Ooh, sometimes I miss the show, I loved a long time ago…” At his cheeriest, Rouse seems unable to completely immerse himself in newfound bliss.

Summertime” is a faded summer vacation Polaroid from junior high, sitting by the pool, sipping iced-tea, and listening to Purple Rain without a care. But, as noted earlier, Rouse must be Rouse, and wistfulness can’t help but creep in: “And the feeling doesn’t last that long, before you know it it’s up and gone…the things we do.” The album also features sugar-sweet guest vocals from Paz Suay, Rouse’s girlfriend, on the call-and-response ditty, “The Man Who Doesn’t Know How To Smile.” Suay’s phrasing is reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto (“Girl From Ipanema”), and her voice serves a perfect counterpoint to Rouse’s. The quietest moment on the album, however, is the effortless, “Wonderful,” an intimate charmer that never quite rises above a whisper. Profound? Nah. Clumsy? Maybe. Truthful? Absolutely.

While a critic’s darling throughout his entire indie career, some reviewers took a left turn for this album, slamming Subtítulo as slight, pithy, and lighter than air, claiming that with his move to Spain Rouse had lost focus. But the subtlety of the album is precisely where Subtítulo gathers its strength, because sometimes in art, as with life, the most powerful sentiments are communicated with a whisper. And Subtítulo’s sentiment speaks to the sheer joy of falling in love. It’s about how when you’re in love, food tastes just a little better, colors shine just a little brighter, and life moves along just a little easier. So the guy who specialized in beautiful music about broken hearts found new romance and made an album of silly love songs…and what’s wrong with that?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

"Astral Weeks," by Van Morrison

In April of 1993 I was finishing my senior year of college, and about that time I went for my once-a-semester haircut. While waiting my turn at the barbershop, I thumbed through the two year-old magazines stacked under each chair and found an interview with Tanita Tikiram, who had just released her third album…two years earlier. The album was, Everybody’s Angel, and I owned a copy, so I read more. The interviewer asked Tikiram about the Van Morrison influence on the album, and she replied by simply saying, “I’m haunted by Van Morrison.” Haunted by Van Morrison? Isn’t that the guy who sang ‘Brown Eyed Girl? Haunted by that guy?

And for the next few weeks Van Morrison kept popping up in my life. First, I stumbled upon a copy of Astral Weeks in the used CD bin at “Record Revolution,” DeKalb’s best record store. Next, I happened to see a magazine ad for the album’s 25th anniversary. And more than I should have, I heard Van Morrison songs, “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Gloria,” and “Domino” on the radio that week. Maybe it was a sign, or maybe curiosity just got the best of me, but whatever the reason, I went back to “Record Revolution” and bought the used copy of the CD: a graduation present for myself.

Returning to my half-packed dorm room that day, I popped-in the CD and continued to pack for home. I filled cardboard boxes with four years of college: pictures, notes from friends, graded papers, textbooks I couldn't sell back, concert ticket stubs, etc. Senior year had been disappointing, and even though I was sad to say goodbye to friends and teachers, I was glad it was finally over. I was looking forward to the next phase of life. And Astral Weeks sounded exactly like I felt at that time. Melancholy, excited, searching, and completely hopeful. Astral Weeks is filled with mini meditations, starting with the title song. “To be born again, to be born again…” Ending a chapter and beginning a new one - I could relate.

A celestial mixture of folk, blues, jazz, and classical, Astral’s delicate, remote, and visionary meditations sing about life, love, and growing up. Astral Weeks is stunning. Van Morrison’s first solo effort, the album was recorded in about three days and much of it improvised, with the musicians being instructed to just “play what they felt.” Those musicians “felt” a lifetime over those three days, and Astral Weeks stands as the perfect example of the complete album as artistic statement. There were no hit singles on this album. Nothing stands out or is catchy like that, but it doesn’t matter, because every song is stronger when heard in context with the others.

It’s only been 15 years since I first heard Astral Weeks; I was 21 at the time. But strangely, I don’t remember a time without those songs. It’s as if the album has always been a part of my life. Hearing that music makes me feel nostalgic for childhood, which happened well before “Cypress Avenue” or “Beside You” were a part of my psyche. I guess you could say I’m, well, haunted by Van Morrison.

"Odessey and Oracle," by The Zombies

Almost everybody who knows this album by the Zombies found it through its 1969 hit single, “Time of the Season.” The lyrics are way over the top: “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” Who talks like that? Not exactly “sweep a girl off her feet” kind of talk, right? I suspect the lyrics were meant to reflect the 1967 “Summer of Love” mindset: strangers meet, strangers exchange love beads, strangers expand their minds, etc. I’m just speculating; I wasn’t there. But the ridiculous lyric has not kept me from loving these 3 minutes and 33 seconds of pure pop perfection.

The song was written by keyboardist, Rod Argent, who later went on to further success in the 1970’s with his band, “Argent,” and also went on to continued success in the 1980’s behind-the-scenes as a producer (Tanita Tikiram’s “Ancient Heart” – see entry forthcoming). “Time of the Season” reached #3 on Billboards singles chart in 1969 – over a year after the album had been released and the band had called it quits. I first remember hearing the record on the radio around the time I was starting grade school in 1976. I found it kind of spooky, starting with Colin Blunstone’s mysterious, whispery, almost raspy vocals. Over the years I became a fan of Blunstone via the other Zombies’ hits from the 1960’s, “Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There,” and also “Old and Wise,” from the Alan Parsons Project’s 1983 album, “Eye In The Sky,” although I didn’t make the connection that it was Blunstone until years later.

Fast-forward to 1987. I was in high school with some discretionary funds and found myself in the record store, looking for Zombies albums. To my good fortune, I found one solitary copy of “Odessey & Oracle” at a small record store near my hometown. The album cover struck me first. Did they intend to misspell "Odyssey?" The artwork seemed so rebellious and dangerous, full of strange, swirly, psychedelic shapes, insane octopus tentacles, and disturbing images of human monsters, mythological creatures, and a figure of a man crying out loud in utter despair. These pieces were mixed with softer imagery of an artist painting, flower pedals, lovers touching and dancing, and some good old-fashioned nudity. Oh, and the first names of the band members were snuck-in as well. It’s essentially everything one might look for in a rock-n-roll album cover, and I was immediately taken by it; I still am. Today, in fact, my copy of the album artwork is framed and hangs in my office, immediately above a Beatles concert poster.

As for the music, there is literally not a weak song on this baroque-meets-psychedelia record, with a possible exception being “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” an anti-war story set in World War 1 with surprisingly graphic imagery depicting the utter horror of war. It’s not a “weak song,” per se, it’s just difficult to listen to and the only one I occasionally skip.

“Care of Cell 44” is a contradictorily cheerful song about a man preparing for the return of his girlfriend a long time away…in prison. It’s possibly the most covered song from the album, most recently by Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) and Matthew Sweet.

Maybe After He’s Gone” begins with a solitary, echoey guitar and volleys between that and a joyous crescendo of romping piano and shouting Beach Boys-esque chorus. It’s a sad song about romantic rejection of the worst kind: she found a cooler guy. The band creates in this mini masterpiece, this "teenage symphony to God" another polarizing juxtaposition of words and sounds, a song about a horrible breakup with a rapturous chorus and musical accompaniment.

A Rose for Emily” is an allusion to William Faulkner’s short story of the same name. It has a haunting and powerful melody to go along with the heartbreaking lyrics. In one of those late night college chill sessions back in the early 90’s, I witnessed, in fact, the song bring tears to a friend of mine.

The album as a whole is rife with some of the most beautiful vocal harmonies I’ve ever heard. Chris Martin and Thom Yorke were no doubt influenced by Blunstone’s voice and the band’s soaring harmonies. Thematically, the album is all over the place: life and death, love and war, joy and despair, cynicism and optimism, friends and family…kind of like life. Which is ultimately why I love this album so much and why I keep going back to it – I never get tired of it. “Odessey and Oracle,” imperfect spelling and all, sings about what it feels like to be alive.