Album of the Week: Volodos Plays Mompou (2013)

The Catalan composer Frederic Mompou died in 1987 at the age of 94. That same year, the 15 year old Russian student Arcadi Volodos, who had previously taken vocal training and shown an intrust in conducting, began seriously studying piano. 25 years later, after international awards and performances, Volodos released these recordings of Mompou’s compositions.

Described as “music of an ultimate inwardness and confidentiality”, Mompou’s pieces are minimalist enough to make any fan of Satie or Chopin swoon. Though born in the 19th century, Mompou lived long enough to record and release his compositions. Indeed, you can listen to about 5 hours of Mompou playing his Complete Piano Works on Spotify.

Needless to say, Volodos Plays Mompou is a more easily digested set. At 24 short tracks, much of the album is divided into two different books: “Scènes d’enfants” which is happy, even playful at times, and “Musica callada” (“Silent music”). In-between, appropriately, lovely pieces like “Hoy la tierra y los cielos me sonríen” (“Today the earth and the heavens smile at me”) split the difference. The “Musica callada” suite, “considered by some to be Mompou’s masterpiece”, is the highlight. Turn up your volume and enjoy – there are particularly breathtaking moments (“Lento molto”, “Calme”).

Much has been made of Catalan architecture and indeed a visit to Barcelona isn’t complete without viewing the work of Antoni Gaudí. The Catalan vault (like the vaulted ceiling on the album cover), according to one case study, is made thusly: “Traditionally thin bricks – or thin tiles – are used because of their lightness, which is a necessary condition to build the first layer ‘in space’ (without a continuous formwork)… as the self-weight of thin-tile vaults is low in comparison to other masonry structures, the falsework does not have to support high stresses.” Concluding, Catalan vaulting provides “large, suggestive, habitable and safe free-form vaulted spaces with an inexpensive, efficient and sustainable technique”. It is fitting, then, that the Catalan Mompou’s music finds power in lightness. Like the vault, Volodos Plays Mompou creates a space that is supportive, suggestive, and airy all the same.

Listen to Volodos Plays Mompou on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 1/10/21

What day is it? What year is it? What’s happening? Oh… it’s Sunday. Right. Okay, here we go:

Ever heard of Day 26? Me neither, but their song Co Star is really good. So is Don’t You Worry by Freestyle Fellowship’s Myka 9. And rest in peace to John Prine man, I recently heard Hello in There and loved it, so it’s on here. I put a Chris Bell song earlier in the playlist but today I’m including This Mortal Coil’s version of You and Your Sister. After that, Italian synth dudes Sensations’ Fix with Acudreaming, from a great RVNG compilation of their material. Then, one of my favorite (and one of the most ominous) songs by the great Shangri-Las, Past, Present and Future. Sic Alps (whatever happened to them?) are next with Wake Up, It’s Over II. Following this, everyone’s favorite Grateful Dead with Mountains of the Moon from Aoxomoxoa. Then, Marvin Gaye’s She Needs Me and Phoebe Snow’s All Over conclude this week’s additions.

We’ve hit 250 songs this week! Celebrate with me by listening here.

Album of the Week: Willie Nelson’s …And Then I Wrote (1962)

Willie Nelson has been around the block. By the time he finished writing and recording his 1962 debut album …And Then I Wrote, he was almost 30. It boggles the mind today that Nelson had been making music for years without success or interest from labels. With a reflective lens, we can easily say that Nelson’s smoky-voice and knack for writing made him a talent that was overlooked for a long time. But back then, things didn’t work the way they did today. A 2020 New Yorker profile notes that “Before he moved to Nashville, in 1960, he worked as a radio d.j., pumped gas, did heavy stitching at a saddle factory, worked at a grain elevator, and had a brief gig as a laborer for a carpet-removal service.” The young Texan Willie Nelson spent years doing just about everything besides being the country superstar he is today.

According to one of his autobiographies, Nelson wrote many songs while still living in Texas. Among these is “Crazy”, which became a big hit for superstar Patsy Cline, helping to jumpstart Willie’s career. I knew the Cline version before I knew that Nelson wrote it, and there are marked differences in delivery between the two recordings. Patsy Cline’s is melodic and whimsical, while Nelson’s near-spoken-word vocal in his version reveals more personal pain. He actually sounds kind of crazy, or at least hurt and lost. It’s incredible.

…And Then I Wrote‘s title reflects the fact that Nelson was a hit songwriter long before he was a solo star. And as a showcase of songwriting talent, the album is both an unheralded country classic and an excellent precursor to more expansive and well-known Nelson releases like Red-Headed Stranger. These songs are stark expressions of heartbreak. “If you can’t say you love me, say you hate me,” Nelson sings on “Undo the Right”, desperate to feel something. “Three Days” is darkly comic: “Three days I dread to be alive: today, yesterday and tomorrow.” “The Part Where I Cry” and “Where My House Lives” are brilliantly coded expressions of grief. In the former, Nelson describes his life as a movie (or “picture”) and sells it to the listener-turned-viewer (“I was great in the part where she found someone new”). “Where My House Lives” is a heartbreaking closer: “Here’s where my house lives… I never go there / ‘Cause it holds too many memories” Nelson tells the listener, removing himself from the picture of domestic happiness and accepting the role of lonesome cowboy-drifter that would come to define his future.

Musically, …And Then I Wrote is Willie Nelson at his simplest, but don’t let that fool you. This seemingly effortless collection of hits (it’s one of those studio albums that plays like a best-of compilation) was borne from years of toil, failure and heartbreak. It wasn’t a huge success upon its release and still seems relatively unknown today, but thankfully, we know ol’ Willie got his due. If you’ve any interest in hearing how it started, I highly recommend a listen to this album.

Listen to …And Then I Wrote on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 1/3/21

Welcome to 2021 my people.

We enter the year with Bowie’s ballad Win, followed by Hieroglyphics’ Casual with Be Thousand (no relation to the GBV album as far as I can tell). Then South African “Om” Alec Khaoli’s jam Say You Love Me. Next, Organ Tapes’ banger Stunna and soul man Lee Dorsey’s Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley. Yoshio Suzuki’s chill Kane, Jadakiss’ By Your Side and Toni Braxton’s Talking in His Sleep come after that. Concluding this week’s additions to the playlist are Thomas Dolby’s Screen Kiss and Sibylle Baier’s I Lost Something in the Hills.

Happy new year to all, and check out the playlist here.

Album of the Week: Irma Thomas’s Wish Someone Would Care (1964)

Have you ever felt so lonely you could die? This is that feeling as an album. It’s filled with more lovelorn despair than any of my favorite sad-sack slowcore albums, all while being ten times as soulful and only half as long.

Dubbed the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”, Irma Thomas spent several years recording singles for New Orleans-based Ron Records and Minit Records while raising three children. The late, great Allen Toussaint found success as an arranger and producer on Minit (soon to be bought by Imperial Records), writing Thomas’s 1961 single “Girl Meets Boy”. The song is beautiful, but it does not foreshadow the hopelessness of this record, Wish Someone Would Care. Released at 23, her debut is lyrically pleading, but vocally it exudes the confidence and maturity of someone beyond her years.

The title track, composed by Thomas, opens the album perfectly. Every instrument is bursting with life, and Thomas’s first vocal is a great moan, filled with as much pain as melody. You can’t get a more perfect mission statement for a record filled with lonely yearning than “Wish Someone Would Care”. The next few tracks continue the theme, including the stand-out “Time on My Side”. This song was also released as a single three months later by the young British band known as The Rolling Stones, who had just released their first album and met Thomas in the UK.

Irma Thomas never had an album as commercially successful as this one since, but she is still around. In February, she said, “Survival is the thing I know how to do very well. Today or tomorrow, I get to the point where I can’t make a living singing. I know how to sew. I do a mean pot of red beans and rice.”

Listen to Wish Someone Would Care on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 12/20/20

Hi folks, it’s your pal Ethan Reis here for what will probably be the last GSG playlist update of 2020. Thanks for tuning in and happy holidays and new years to you and yours.

This week we begin with an early Ciara jam in Field Mob’s So What, before South African artist Yvonne Chaka Chaka sings Sangoma. Then one of the most brilliant songs of 2020, Open Mike Eagle’s Wtf is Self Care? Next, T.I. affiliate Big Kuntry King is coolin’ with Young Dro on Focus, and Wild of Night hosts a Video Party (recommended for all you Kate Bush fans). Been listening to so much Willie Nelson that I couldn’t help but throw in the original Three Days, then one of my favorite bands Lambchop with If Not I’ll Just Die. An absolute classic follows in Broadcast’s Come On Let’s Go, then we turn to Memphis for Eightball & MJG’s Friend or Foe (the MJG verse near the end is perfection). Rounding things out this week is a 2020 favorite, Shabason, Krgovich & Harris’s Friday Afternoon.

Listen up here.

Album of the Week: Raul Lovisoni & Francesco Messina’s Prati bagnati del monte Analogo (1979)

Whew, that title is a mouthful. Okay, ever seen Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain? Well, it’s partially inspired by French writer René Daumal’s surrealist novel Mount Analogue, in which the titular mountain is either imaginary or inaccessible. Daumal died before the book was finished, and the first track of this album acts as a sort of companion piece envisioning what the mountain contains – the title translating to Wet Meadows of Mount Analogue. I’m using some conjecture here – the album contains no lyrics and I cannot find an English translation to the Italian LP insert. The music, though, is sure to please fans of ambient and minimalist music.

Prati bagnati is composed of three tracks, the title track taking up the album’s first side and most of its running time. This is Messina’s side, and he adds synths to the piano playing of Michele Fedrigotti. The piano is delicate as a lullaby. At about the 14:45 mark, a synth melody slowly enters the mix – it sounds like what an ambulance siren would sound like if ambulances were calming instead of alarming. Then at 18 minutes we hear a couple stronger synth swaths that make me think of OPN’s maximalist soundtrack work.

Lovisoni’s b-side begins with “Hula Om”, a solo piece performed on harp, and ends with “Amon Ra”. “Amon Ra” features vocals by Juri Camisasca, who has appeared on several albums by Franco Battiato, who produced this record. Lots of Italian names, I know, but don’t worry I won’t quiz you. Both tracks continue the meditative vibe of the a-side, albeit to slightly less hypnotizing effect. But if you’re down with the 23-minute jam that opens the album, you’ll be into the rest. As a package, Prati bagnati is a heavenly slice of Milanese minimalism.

Listen to Prati bagnati del monte Analogo on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 12/13/20

Wow. The songs this week are really good. I mean really good! Damn. What the hell.

So here we go y’all. Jon Lucien’s Lady Love kicks things off, followed by the heal theme from Ico (never played it, but seems cool!). Then a throwback track from one of my favorite albums, Magnetic Fields’ Josephine (from Wayward Bus). Quelle Chris’s beautiful Living Happy is next, along with Gene Clark’s One in a Hundred. Luther Vandross brings a jam in See Me and Catherine Howe sings My Child. Then we have overlooked British folk-rockers Heron with Yellow Roses, and Supermarket Blues from Eugene McDaniels’ brilliant Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. Closing things out this week is Cat Power’s Back of Your Head.

Listen to the playlist on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Gary Burton’s Country Roads & Other Places (1969)

At the cross-section of jazz and blues you’ll find Country Roads & Other Places, an excellent record from veteran vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Jerry Hahn (Primordial Lovers, Paul Simon), bassist Steve Swallow (Basra, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra), and drummer Roy Haynes (Misterioso, Out There). This album alternates between smoky grooves and relaxing Sunday morning music.

“Country Roads” gets things off to a rollicking start, and I must say this is my favorite track on the album. Hahn’s guitar playing is particularly sublime, with a very tight rhythm accompanied provided by the rest of the band. At the time of the recording all band members were in their 20s, with the notable exception of Roy Haynes, who was in his mid-40s and had easily the most credible CV of the group. Having played drums on legendary sessions with (among others) John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Bud Powell, all of whom had died by this point, one might say Haynes acts as the kind of old-school foundation that keeps the band together. Still, the brief third track “True or False”, essentially a two-minute Haynes solo, comes out of left-field and probably won’t be a favorite among jazz purists.

There are other surprises to be found here. I like when jazz artists tackle classical, and Burton’s solo take on Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin is a nice end to the first side. Things open back up softly with “And On the Third Day”, before the jumpy “A Singing Song”, on which both Hahn and Haynes shine. “My Foolish Heart” is the album’s only standard. It’s lovely, but you’ve got to admire Burton’s decision to otherwise steer clear of the jazz standard. In 2011, he said of the late 60s jazz scene, “Everyone was playing the same standard songs a lot… My goal was to bring in country, rock, classical, Latin, tango. Anything that I could relate to.” As a young, closeted white guy from Indiana, Burton wasn’t your typical jazz cat. And his music is better for it.

Despite its title, Country Roads isn’t country music, however it is atypical for jazz releases of its time. As I’ve mentioned, its players were relatively young, in a quartet with no horns and led by a vibraphonist, and their sound was neither classic jazz nor textbook fusion (a la Zawinul). All these elements (not to mention its quality) make the album worth seeking out for the curious listener. After Country Roads, Burton recorded several acclaimed albums for the ECM label and continued playing until his retirement in 2017. As of this writing, all four players on Country Roads are still alive. Roy Haynes celebrated his 95th birthday in March, nine days before I celebrated my 25th, and to my knowledge he is still an active drummer.

Listen to Country Roads & Other Places on Spotify.

Weekly Mix: 12/6/20

It’s December. Wow! This week we add some folk songs to the mix. Well, not all of them are, but it’s a more analog than usual update to the GSG playlist. Check the songs below.

I’ve been on a big Hugh Masekela kick recently, and especially enjoying his live recordings. Abangoma from Hope (1994) still blows me away, so I’m starting this week’s mix with it. Next is Tim Hardin’s It’ll Never Happen Again, which I discovered by way of Gary Burton (who appears on Hardin’s album). The Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real got a lot of plays this year, and not just for its amazing cover art. I’ve included their Dying From Home, and Lost here. Then perennial favorite Julia Holter’s fantastic cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman. After that, the late Lhasa’s Pa’llegar a Tu Lodo. Then, gospel singer Tessie Hill’s Take a Day. The brilliant weirdness of Otis G Johnson follows with Are You Cleansed Annexus. Folk legend Phil Ochs is next with Rehearsals for Retirement. Rounding things out this week is recent favorite Tomberlin with Self-Help.

Check out the playlist on Spotify.