Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tuning Room Variations: Simone Dinnerstein

Preface: One thing that I always intended for the TR was to have discussions about a wide variety of music—not just one particular genre. That said, I didn’t really get off on that foot and so am going to make a bit more concerted effort to do that. I know many of you listen to a wide spectrum of music and so I hope that talk of jazz and classical music won’t send those of you who prefer rock or pop or alt-country running for the hills and vice-versa. And so begin the TR Variations.


Those clever editors at Gramophone recently published a discussion between Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein about the challenges of second albums when your first effort was wildly well-received—clever since Merritt and Dinnerstein’s music have nothing to do with each other. Merritt made her name first with the alt-county work Bramble Rose which got all kinds of attention, while Dinnerstein crashed on to the classical scene with her debut recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and has just released her second album, The Berlin Concert.

Now as you, dear readers know, when I see reviews of albums that refer to important previous efforts, I tend to go backwards rather than for the current release. And this seemed like a great opportunity to check out Dinnerstein’s work, particularly since I didn’t have any versions of the Goldbergs in my collection. Yes, yes, I know—Glenn Gould! Glenn Gould you say! I have had that disc in my hands multiple times before, but somehow it just felt too predictable (someone will surely correct me). Anyway, I picked up Dinnerstein’s interpretation and let me say that I think it is just beautiful.

What I really like about these pieces are the warmth of the playing. I always thought of the variations as very technical (probably more GG influence), but Dinnerstein’s technique is clean while still having a very round and full sound even on the most challenging fast-pasted pieces. The touch reminds me of how I felt when I heard Murray Perahia play Bach's Keyboard Concertos for the first time.

Multiple reviews I have read since starting to listen to this disc and thinking about this post have commented that what I might most be responding to is the somewhat slow pace of these interpretations (although the more common comment is that Dinnerstein's choice of tempos are unpredictable). In addition, everyone comments on the great sound of the which is a 1903 Steinway model "D" concert grand which according to the liner notes was rescued from the townhall in the Northeast England town of Hull which was bombed heavily during WWII. While all these variables surely matter, I get the sense that what makes these pieces so attractive is the quite confidence of the playing and the interpretation.

Finally, Dinnerstein is all the more interesting because this recording is due to her first borrowing enough money to record the variations on her own, which got Telarc to pick her up and promote her playing. Evan Eisenberg over at Slate has it all wrapped up in his review "The Goldberg Variations Made New: Move over Glenn Gould, here's Simone Dinnerstein."

For those interested, her is the opening Aria and three short movements that make up the Sixth Canon which I think show off Dinerstein's wonderful touch in any tempo.

Variation 18
Variation 19
Variation 20

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Not too long ago Little Sis visited and arrived with a whole bunch of tunes. At some point she asked if I had any Ryan Adams to which I responded: "Bryan Adams? I haven't listened to anything by him since I was in high school and Cuts Like a Knife was all the rage." Little Sis patiently points out: "Ryan. Not Bryan." Me: "Oh. . . . um, no."

So she drops Heartbreaker on me along with a double Cardinals' disc Live from Ludwigshafen, Germany pointing out that she really liked Whiskeytown, Ryan's earlier band. I pop in Heartbreaker and am immediately impressed with the songwriting and mix of song styles--country, folk, rock--and the folks who show up on the album--Emmylou Harris, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch (I often pay attention to who folks associate with as a test of their music, movies, books, etc.). And so the exploration begins (albeit ridiculously late).

Then I start this blog and I am listening to a lot of Ryan and thinking about a post on his music and I run into Payton's Place where there is more info about Adam's than I can ever imagine covering (and anyone who is a Ryan fan should check out). Consequently, I continued to put off this post since, well, what more is there to say? However, given my new commitment to the Tuning Room and the fact that (Ryan and) The Cardinals are about to release a new album in the next month, I thought it was time to put a marker down.

So here are a few thoughts on the few albums I have just in case you haven't started weaving your way through the huge Ryan Adams discography--I offer them in the order I experienced them rather than chronologically and try to focus on a few aspects of Adams' music that I find interesting.

As I noted, Heartbreaker was the first album of Ryan's I heard (by chance, it is also his first solo effort). It has a great mix of tunes and styles, but the strength of the album is that it is, in fact, an album that holds together really well. There are a number of great tracks here and perhaps my favorite is "Come Pick Me Up." But one aspect of Ryan's music I want to highlight is the fact that he has some real rockin--one might even say kickin'--tunes and one of my favorite is on this album. So here is that highlight from his first solo effort.

Shakedown on 9th Street

Given Little Sis' recommendation, I then decided to go back in time to Whiskeytown and picked up Strangers Almanac which is still perhaps my favorite of all the offerings here. It has a host of great tunes with all kinds of great lyrical hooks (Excuse Me, While I Break My Own Heart comes to mind). It is a true alt-country album. Here again, my favorite on the album might not be the track I offer up here (I love the bluesy "Everything I Do") but the opening track "Inn Country" is a great example of Adams' country writing that really shows up on this album (and I should note is superior to the "country" tunes on Faithless Street--see below--where Ryan wasn't doing as much of the writing as on this effort).

Inn Town

Given my overwhelmingly positive reaction to Strangers Almanac, I then went on to purchase Faithless Street which actually preceded Strangers and by the time I bought it had already been re-engineered and re-released with all kinds of bonus tracks. Have to say that I am glad I didn't start here. The opening track which I feature here really exemplifies their (and his) sound at this time and I think is a great track. However, I could do without much of the middle of this album which feels like someone trying to fit into a certain genre--just a bit too much whiskey, my kin-folk, and we're a country band orientation for me. Some of the extra tracks are better on the other albums that they appeared, but the "baseball park session" tracks are quite nice. If I were burning this one for you I would cut this album in half for you. Here is the opener though, which I think is really solid.

Midway Park

Still, I was quite enamored and ventured on. The next purchase was Demolition which really re-engergized my enthusiasm. This album, like Strangers has a great mix of tunes and styles that are really well ordered. It also has some great lyrical hooks such as "Cry on Demand" and "She Wants to Play Hearts." But here, I give you "Dear Chicago" which exemplifies another genre Ryan has down: the "twisted and torn and I'm the problem" love song in a wonderful accoustic setting. It has that feeling of someone just sitting down and telling his story with a guitar, and well, it makes ya weep.

Dear Chicago

And finally, I picked up Cold Roses, a double disc effort from Ryan and the Cardinals that is simply a wonderful set of tunes, although I imagine some might find it less adventursome and a bit more mainstream (for Ryan and the boys). Whatever. This is a stellar collection of absolutely great songs that are just a joy to listen to. Many have commented on the great production, which is hard to argue (and others are happy to note that the production of the upcoming album involve similar folks). There are so many great tracks to pick from these discs, but I am going with "Easy Plateau" which I think is pretty representative.

Easy Plateau

And so I must end by saying: "thanks Little Sis, I owe ya." And come October, we will be talking about Cardinology here at the TR for sure.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

History Mystery: Traveling with Bill Frisell

So I confess to reading Downbeat's review of Bill Frisell's new double-disc effort, History Mystery before listening to it and that definitely colored how I engaged with this album. David French, the reviewer, points out that much of this album was written for theater and an NPR series called "Stories from the Heart of the Land" and as a result "it's easy to imagine a poetic-but-quirky indie film shot beneath the big skies of the American West." And while it doesn't have lots of improvisation and has a bit of a soundtrack feel to it, French recommends it highly (4 and 1/2 out of five) and suggests that we "dial this one up as you pull onto the highway headed west with a full tank of gas and no real direction in mind." I agree.

First, let me point out that one wonderful little advantage of today's technology: when you load this one up into your Ipod, it loads up as 30 continuous tracks, not two discs. This is particularly cool because this album is really one to listen to as a whole--don't be putting on that "shuffle" feature. This album is a trip to be experienced as a whole rather than in bits and pieces.

The instrumentation and how those instruments are mixed are particularly wonderful. At times you have Frisell with just a guitar wandering through a theme, at other times you have mixes of strings with violin, viola and cello. At other times, you have strings and horns and then you have straight up jazz mixes with sax, trumpet, and a rhythm section.

It begins with songs that have a wonderful sense of beginning an adventure, with a searching feel--the string instrumentation add depth and a certain immigrant (read: klezmer) feel. The feeling grows, not unlike listening to Dvorak's pieces from his time in America--I am crossing Iowa as I hear this music. It culminates two thirds of the way through the first disc in the uplifting Change is Gonna Come as if travellers are celebrating in reaching a destination. But then things turn a bit more introspective and darker (more cello)--as if the future is less certain.

As we enter into the second disc, the music gets a bit more dissonant and fractured as if we have suddenly discovered that this is not a romantic Dvorak piece, but rather we have ended up at our destination and we are in a Flannery O'Connor novel or a Jim Jarmusch movie and Tom Waits is living with us. And then we have resolution as if we have settled in with our life--happy, sad, troubled, beautiful and quirky as life is.

I have to reiterate the Downbeat review here. Take this trip with Frisell and his band--whether in a car of just listening and letting the music take you places. Here are four tracks to try to give you a sense of the movement and feeling of this fine new album.

Probability Cloud
A Change is Gonna Come
Sub-Conscious Lee
Monroe Part 3

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rilo Kiley: Indie (to) Pop?

So I am the kind of guy (I think the guy part might be important here) who likes to delude himself into believing that he can understand things better by going back to their origins and then following their neat, linear and chronological path forward to their current state. So when David over at IndieMuse recently posted on Pierre de Reeder's new solo effort, I immediately needed to go back to the discography of de Reeder's home band, Rilo Kiley.

The two albums in question here are their 2001 effort, Take Offs and Landings, and their 2007 effort, Under the Blacklight, and I want to set my comments in the context of UNCUT's review of the more recent album.

UNCUT starts their totally favorable review with a tortured narrative about Neil Young to finally arrive at the point that a popular album shouldn't necessarily be equated with a sell-out, by noting that "Under The Blacklight is by far and away the most accessible album that Rilo Kiley have ever made. But, d'you know what? This is a GOOD THING!"

Why? Well, apparently RK had previously been "slightly irritating" with "an affected kookiness to Jenny Lewis' vocals" and thank goodness they like the Eagles "stopped listening to their coked-up peers on the LA scene, cut loose of their fears and started listening to the radio."

So here is the thing. I totally agree with the assertions that pop doesn't equal sell-out, but I just don't quite agree with the revelation and transformation narrative here. Mainly because while I do enjoy Under the Blacklight and I get the whole "dark lyrics hiding amongst the pop trees" here, if I were to recommend an RK disc, it would be the earlier Take Offs and Landings by a mile. I don't find Lewis' vocals to be either irritating or affected, but rather personal, contemplative and funny. I like the rockier and more basic R&B feel of the earlier disc as opposed to what feels like a bit too produced throw-back disco of the latter. And while the music on Take Off's has a bit of an indie feel to it, it is certainly not all that far from pop, if at all.

As Lewis notes in her interview with UNCUT when asked about the pop nature of Under the Blacklight:
I've always been a fan of pop music and if you listen to our earlier recordings and our early demos, we started out as a pop band and sort of moved away from that a little bit. I don't think we've ever really been an indie band, it's just that we've made records that were released on independent labels and we kind of worked with what we had at our disposal.

I confess, I don't know the middle albums in RK's discography (there are two other albums between these two releases), but I would suggest that you have two pop albums here, one on an Indie label, Barsuk, and the other on a major label, Warner. Whether that and/or the band's development are the driving factors in any of the differences here, I am going to stick with recommending the earlier album.

But hey--just one guy's opinon. Here are a couple cool tracks from each album to give you a taste. The first two from Take Offs and Landings and the second two from Under the Blacklight. They might not sound all that different put together here, but I think you will agree the albums do if you listen to them side-by-side. And no matter how you slice it, Rilo Kiley is definitely worth a peek.

Science vs. Romance
Pictures of Success
Close Call
Give A Little Love

Monday, September 15, 2008

Off to The Great Gig in the Sky

Ever imagine making your own set of music to be played at your funeral, or perhaps more appropriately your wake? Oh c'mon, I know there are some of you out there with just the right mix of love for music and obsessive compulsive traits to have thought about this. And, now that we have gotten over that hump, might we also admit that we all had "Great Gig in the Sky" by Pink Floyd in that imaginary set? It is perfect, isn't it?

First there is the opening voice over of reassurance:

And I am not frightened of dying. Any time will do; I don't mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There's no reason for it—you've gotta go sometime.

And then of course comes by Clare Torry's amazing performance which one imagines as a sort of vocal catharsis in response to loss. Just listening to the song and thinking of someone you lost even a long time ago can really bring back serious emotions--both sadness and beauty.

Well, one person who might well have imagined that song playing as people said their final farewells to him, Richard Wright, keyboardist for Pink Floyd and the dude who crafted that amazing song, has left us.

I am pretty sure that anyone who stops by this space is old enough to have a Pink Floyd memory. I am going out on a limb that many of them might sound a bit something like this. My close friends and housemates when first at college laying in the middle of our living room on the floor in an altered state having just . . .well do I really need to say what we were doing . . . with all four speakers on, listening to Atom Heart Mother or Dark Side or pick your Floyd album and feeling like these guys were so damn smart and cool and insightful and . . . well, I am guessing you know what I mean.

I don't necessarily play the Floyd a lot these days, but I did give my boys a side of Dark Side tonight, ending with "Great Gig." And since all of my Floyd is on vinyl, we will turn to the Tube for a fine rendition and wish Mr. Wright Godspeed and offer our best thoughts to his friends family.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fables of the (Re)Construction

Dear Readers (all six or seven of you):

Forgive this self-indulgence, but I have been thinking about this post since about a week after I started The Tuning Room, which really should be entitled: "What Was I Thinking?!" Truth be told, I started this blog before I should have and then tried to turn it into something I am probably incapable of achieving--a resource on music (albeit a resource from a limited and personal perspective). So I find myself in a bit of a conundrum--one which might end this here adventure or, at a minimum, will alter the approach.

This really isn't a whine--I mean it! I am just thinking through this little (and I mean little) dilemma. Here are pieces of the puzzle--all problems with the mental construction of this blog and I am fully aware that the solutions might just be delusional answers that will allow me to reconstruct (the same) blog. (BTW--I learned this cool technique of inserting random self-reflective commentary via the use of parenthetical qualifiers in graduate school--isn't it the smartest thing you have ever seen?)

Problem #1: So I have this bad habit of building things as I go--but hey it has worked so far! The problem here is that I had this funny idea that if I started this blog about music and got friends and fam to check it out, people would naturally ask if they could join in and post their thoughts on music. I, being raised like a Garrison Keillor character, didn't see any reason to ask anyone directly if they wanted to actually start a group blog on music--that would be presumptuous now wouldn't it? Needless to say, that was I had in mind in the first place.

Problem #2: Too many blogs. Is it possible? Well, yeah, but don't just mean the number of great music blogs out there already, I mean for me personally. There is the work blog--luckily a good colleague maintains the other or it would be two work blogs. And then there is the Brothers K blog (by invitation) about The Artist, The Engineer, and Little Boss which we try to write on frequently to keep friends and family up to date on the boys. So the point is that there is a lot of blogging in this life already. And because of blogging for work (not to mention friends who maintain great sites) I have a tendency to think of blogs as needing to be interesting and have fresh content and therefore I create some self-imposed obligation to keep this site filled with new stuff as if folks are looking for new features each day.

Problem #3: I can't. I love music, but I just don't listen to that much music, have time to explore it as much as I want, AND write about it. Right now there are about a dozen new albums/artists that I want to check out and that doesn't even include jazz and classical. And as I recently noted, I feel like I am just too behind the times to catch up with most of you who would read this. I never meant to be cutting edge, but I am feeling a bit more than behind the curve. As a result, I feel like I am just throwing something up for the sake of posting.

Problem #4: I can't believe that I have reached this point in my life, but I feel like I don't quite have a handle on the technology and so I end up spending time trying to right things that seem wrong on the blog (I am sure you have all noticed) or trying to figure out to get something to work rather than posting about tunes--or god forbid, listening to tunes!

Okay so that sounded like a whine even though I promised it wasn't going to be one and perhaps I should just check into some Blogs Anonymous group, get over it, crank up some tunes and hang. . . . oh please!

Here are the considerations for going forward:

1. Add Players? I am going to let this sit here on the blog for a bit and see if any of you all who read this are, in fact, interested in joining on as "A Player" and writing your thoughts about music here at the TR--or creating something else all together with a music angle. I know most of you have blogs already and doubt you want to sacrifice those--but if you think there might be something to work on along these lines, you know where to find me.

2. Reorient the Room? The other alternative would be to change the orientation of the blog to not just be focused on music--goodness knows I have lots of thoughts about other stuff (really!) and perhaps I should just get out of this genre specific gig.

3. Bone Up on the Techno? Also want to take a little time to figure out some stuff about the back end, putting up music files, and creating a site that is less cluttered and easier to read without all these extraneous components (that I put up rather than taking the time to actually write). So while I might not post very frequently for the next bit, you might see design changes.

4. Get a Life? Finally, while this blog is about as old as a Mayfly, it might just be that we should let it fade into the background and focus on other things (doubtful, but in the mix).

So there you have it--an honest assessment of my current perspective on The Tuning Room. I truly, truly do not share this thoughts as some fishing expedition for reassurance that I must keep this all-important blog up and running (I have enough experience with blogs to know different). Rather, I thought I would put it out there and see if you all had some suggestions--no one would be better to weigh in on this that the few of you friends who stop by. Would love to hear from anyone interested in a joint effort or any advice on good resources for getting more up to speed on the technology side.

Update: Okay I am over this thanks to a little help from my friends--new and old. Thanks to Lisa B. from HighTouchMegastore for the support, advice and offer. To Wobs from OrganizingGrievances for making a comparison that was more motivation than any positive re-enforcement ever could be. Thanks to the good dr over at The Bellman for some tech advice, and a special shout out to Payton from This Mornin' for help on the music files and player piece. Needless to say I am back at it with a bit less ambition and hopefully a bit more focus. And now enough with the navel gazing.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Open Thread: Connor Oberst

His newest release with the Mystic Valley Band. What say you?

1. Acquire (from Merge)
2. At least borrow it
3. Who is Connor Oberst?
4. Not worth the time

Get Well Cards

Video (that might make you wish for just video): Souled Out!!!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

There's A Storm A-Comin

Okay--actually it is here. Tropical Storm Hanna is rolling through as we speak. As evidence that it isn't much more right now than a big windy rain storm, I took the time to throw up a new Mixwit volume dedicated to storm--or more accurately, rain.

A few words about the mix--first, as always it is limited to what MW has (as I haven't taken the time to learn how to add songs)--hence a few obvious choices are missing such as "Wasn't that a Mighty Storm" by Tom Rush. I also didn't add a couple obvious songs cuz truth be told they aren't my favorites (in case you wonder why that obvious Neil Young isn't there)--although I did put the Scorpions on there as I just couldn't see how such a mix didn't include that song. Finally, I focused a bit more on rain given the type of storm we are having so you get "Fool in the Rain" rather than "When the Levee Breaks" by the Zep. And of course I realize that all the songs aren't really about rain or storms! So there you have it. What did I miss?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Modern Guilt . . . Whatever!

I have decided that Beck put out his new album, Modern Guilt with me in mind—or at least people with my particular kind of attachment (casual) to his music. That said I think that pretty much anyone who likes Beck is going to like this one to some (or to a greater) degree.

Hardcore Beck fan? I am going to guess you like it, but not as much as whatever you think the core Beck album is. Or, perhaps you think Beck is too clanky/techno/x-games for you? This still has some of that, but I think if you have danced around other Beck albums, this might be the one for you. Or if you are like me and you listened in on those key, ur, popular/critically acclaimed, albums, Mellow Gold and Odelay (okay I have Mutations too), and liked them but weren’t committed enough to explore more offerings, I am going to recommend you head out and pick this up.

First of all, Beck has just simply given us some great songs here that have that cool psychedelic sound set in his signature techno-remix feel. It really makes me think Sgt. Pepper’s. Okay, I don’t mean I think it is the classic that Sgt. Pepper’s is, but it has that feel within a 2008 Beck album and I don’t use that comparison lightly. Let me also say that I am keenly aware that I am often guilty of judging albums by their earlier tracks and as Rolling Stone suggests: taken as a whole, the album's first five songs stand among Beck's strongest work”—so that might be part of my bias.

Now as for the content of the songs, folks keep saying, as Paste does, that this is “
Beck’s darkest record to date.” Yeah okay—can I say Johnny M. Yes, Beck is worrying about aging, the environment, the world . . .but who isn’t. I have to say that I think UNCUT has it just right with the focus and tone of their review.

There has always been a shade of Austin Powers to Beck’s more upbeat efforts – one thinks of “Pay No Mind” and its pastiche video – and on frisky rug-cutter “Gamma Ray” Beck sings of “these ice caps melting down” and the “transistor sound” over Carnaby Street chug and twang, his voice phasing across the track. “Chemtrails” – wait, is he concerned about the environment? – blends plaintive sighing and refrains about “too many people” with the kind of lolloping funk, tumbling drums and driving guitars that Ride mastered on Nowhere. . . . So Beck is finally fun again, and you suspect the person most surprised by how well Modern Guilt turned out is the guy who made it.
For more evidence I give you the title track which has lyrics that capture mid-life angst as well as any, but the beat is just too fun for anyone to get to worried about that.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Harps and Angels

Randy Newman might love LA, but his verbal delivery always puts me in smack dab in the middle of New Orleans, which somehow seems appropriate today. That sense is magnified by many of the tunes having a NOLA jazz feel to the arrangements, although some sound more like something from a musical. But if you like Newman's style of telling you a story more than singing you one, and the synthesis of stage and jazz is something you appreciate, you are going to really love this album.

Of course, on any Newman album, lyrics are key--I mean how many people can work "arrhythmic" into a song. That would be part of his heart attack/near death title track in which God and his angels provide the following advice:
When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business ("bid-ness") clean
'Fore they lay you on the table
Better keep you business clean
Don't want no back stabbing, ass grabbing
You know exactly what I mean
Alright girls -- we're outta here
Is it inappropriate of me to laugh at the idea of God calling his angels girls? Speaking of girls, how about these heartfelt lines for his daughter in "Potholes":
I even love my teenage daughter
There's no accounting for it
Apparently I don't care how I'm treated
My love is unconditional or something
Of course, all of these edgier observations that make the soft songs all the more sincere.

But ultimately, much of this album is political commenatry on the state of our country, particularly the direction we have been heading as of late. There is this from "A Piece of the Pie":
Jesus Christ it stinks in here high and low
The rich are getting richer
I should know
While we're going up
You're going down
And no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne
And then there is the most direct criticism of the album offered up in "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"--here are a few choice verses.
I'd like to say a few words
In defense of our country
Whose people aren't bad
Nor are they mean
How the leaders we have
While they're the worst that we've had
Are hardly the worst
This poor world has seen

Take the Ceasars for example
Within the first few of them
They were sleeping with their sister,
Stashing little boys in swimming pools
And burning down the city
And one of 'em, on of 'em
Appointed his own horse to be Consul of the Empire
That's like vice president or something
Wait a minute, that not a very good example is it?


A President once said,
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"
Now we're supposed to be afraid
It's patriotic and color-coded
And what are we supposed to be afraid of?
Why being afraid
That's what terror means, doesn't it?
That's what it used to mean

You know it kind of pisses me off
That this Supreme Court is going to outlive me
A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now, too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world,
to find me two Italians as tight-assed as the two Italians we got
And as for the brother, well
Pluto's not a planet anymore either.

The end of an Empire is messy at best
And this Empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We're adrift in the land of the brave and the home of the free
Somehow, Newman's concerns about this country's leadership seem appropriate given the news from both ends of the Mississippi today. Let us sincerely hope the the focus today and this week is on the natural event as opposed to the political one.