It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hi.

My big boy has gotten bigger. As the middle school year draws to a close, lameass fedora-wearing and manbun-sporting bullies make fun of him every day (#whatarethose #damndaniel). What can I do? Tell him to stick up for himself? Sure. Teach him that being sweet and funny and kind and respectful will pay off long term? Sure. But the hallway quotidium is still tough. So I try to help him with his unruly hair and send him into battle with some swagger. Anyway…kids.

Do you guys care what “the kids” like, music-wise? If so, how do you discover it? Do you still listen to the radio? Do you follow artists on social media, who share their latest releases? Do you follow other people on the internet, who make recommendations?  I’m honestly curious. Comment here in WordPress or email me/us – linernotesmusicblog@gmail.com.

Me? I read Pitchfork religiously. And I follow a few Spotify playlists – Drowned in Sound’s Independent Music Monday and Mike Gerry’s @OpenEars_Music are both excellent. Spotify’s Discover Weekly Archive, which contains songs based on my listening habits, is pretty good. Those sources provide off-the-radar fodder for these playlists.

I also listen to the radio almost daily. Mostly in the car, sometimes in the kitchen and the bedroom. There’s some new stuff on there, but the station isn’t exactly cutting edge. It’s WXRT in Chicago. Solid alt-rock and easy indie stuff. This playlist sorta has that theme.  In fact, many of these songs were ones that I thought my best friend would like, so I used Shazam to identify them. You can guess which ones.

This week, I bagged the usual 21-track format. (I may edit down this playlist, at some point.) There’s old – Todd Rundgren, Lyle Lovett, Marshall Crenshaw, and Nick Lowe – and new – Parquet Courts, Car Seat Headrest, Braids, and upcoming New Artist Spotlight band LUH. There’s an Eno cover of a Velvet Underground song, something about drone bombs, and a couple of bugs. There’s rock-ish guitar. Enjoy.

Have a great day, babe. I hope you feel better. See you tonight – can’t wait for a long weekend with you. XO.

More soon.

JF

Grateful Dead Weekly #14: Kezar Stadium – San Francisco, CA 5/26/73

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On Saturday, May 26, 1973, the Grateful Dead played at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

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Kezar was/is a publicly owned stadium. Renovated in 1989, it was dedicated in 1925 and named after Mary Kezar, whose estate provided a $100,000 gift to the SF Park Commission. The stadium was intended by municipal leaders to keep the city on the same level as other cities, hosting track and field competitions, motorsport races, and other professional athletic events.  According to Wikipedia, Stanford University played a handful of games there, and both the Oakland Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers debuted there. The Raiders played played their first game at Kezar in 1960. The 49ers played their first game at Kezar ten years earlier in 1950. The team stayed there until the 1971, when they lost the NFC Championship Game to the Dallas Cowboys, then moved to Candlestick Park.

After football left, the city had to find other uses for the stadium.  Several scenes from 1971’s Dirty Harry were filmed there. And many concerts were staged there. Wikipedia says, “With the loss of professional football, the stadium became a popular outdoor concert venue, and its proximity to the Haight-Ashbury District helped with the transition.” So did promoter Bill Graham.

BG planned a two-night indoor event called “Dancing on the Green” at the Cow Palace.  Mike Dolgushkin, writing for DeadBase, recalled:

“[W]hat I think that what they were planning on doing was spreading astroturf around inside the Cow Palace. When the shows got changed to … Kezar, the billing changed to ‘Dancing on the Outdoor Green’ along with the Led Zeppelin show that took place at Kezar a week later. Led Zep played so loud that except for the 1975 SNACK benefit there were no more concerts at Kezar.

What a place to see a show! Kezar is a small stadium, home to the 49ers before they became Super Bowl champions. The Haight borders two sides of it, Golden Gate Park borders the other two sides.”

The San Francisco Chronicle covered the day.

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So New Riders of the Purple Sage played first, and Waylon Jennings played second.  Dolgushkin said that the Dead hit the stage at 2:00 p.m. He added, “For about a week after you could tell who had been to the show because in order to face the stage you had to face into the sun. I’d see someone who’s skin was peeling off his or her face and I’d think, ‘She or he went to Kezar.’ ” It sounds like a mini-fest. The show was covered by local media, and there’s footage on YouTube (how great is that, srsly):

The Dead played three sets. Fwiw, there were only three other three-setters in ’73: 5/13 (Iowa State Fair), 5/20 (UC-Santa Barbara), and the deservedly-beloved RFK Stadium show on 6/10.)  The sets weren’t short: 1:23, 1:09, and 1:30, respectively. After the second set, Bobby called “an equipment malfunction break,” but that’s not apparent to me.

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What about the music? Here’ Jeff Perry from a rec.music.gdead post:

“There was a LONG break between Jennings and the Dead… it seemed like the entire crew was climbing in and out of Keith’s grand piano…then I think they replaced the piano (using a forklift). In about 1970 the Dead had all tie-dyed speaker covers (I think Bill Kreutzman’s (then) wife made them), with time speakers had blown and were replaced. At this show I noticed only a few tie-dyed speakers were left from the ‘old days.’ Bill Graham came on the left side of the stage and said something like ‘I can’t think of a better way to start this new ‘Day on the Green’ series than to say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, The Grateful Dead.’

My friend since 1st grade had become quite the musician, Bob played in bluegrass bands at the time. He told me bluegrass was “Happy Music”. As I was listening to the Dead that day it struck me that the “new” Dead was “Happy Music” also. I think everyone has a tape of this show. Some folks online say it’s overrated, they weren’t at this show. The Dead worked intensely for 3 sets to put on something special. I remember enjoying every song and jam. I guess I can only say to those critics that the tapes must only captured the magic for those who were there. (Many, many thanks to Prof. Paisley for upgrading my 70s crummy and with a sparkling Betty-board!) Someone once said to me that Keith had the ability to outshine Garcia, I never thought it possible. I was a believer after this show… the tone and playing of that instrument is what I remember most… I was absolutely giddy during the China->Rider.”

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The Grateful Dead Clubhouse gang, of which I am a proud member, tagged this show’s big third-set segment (He’s Gone > Truckin’ > The Other One > Eyes of the World > China Doll) as one of the best. This has long been among OM’s favorite GD shows – why I picked it. He’s also a GDC member, and here are his comments:

Back in the pre-internet days, certain Dead shows were favorites among tape traders. Before the LMA and Spotify and all those other sources of streaming and on-demand music, a lot of time and effort went into acquiring new shows, and when you got your hands on a gem, you played it as much as you could. As a result, your favorite shows were often your favorites not only for the music, but also for the quality of the tape or the availability of the show amongst members of the community. For example, it’s pretty clear that Cornell ’77 is both a great show, and also a show that gets its reputation partly because so many people had a really good sounding copy back in the day.

Something similar may have with this Kezar ’73 show. 1973 wasn’t as well represented as other years in many of our collections, so this show was a special treat. A good friend, maybe in annoyance at how much I talk about it, insists that there are numerous ’73 shows that “blow Kezar out of the water.” So is this a great show, or is it a show with an inflated reputation?

Well, I am quite willing to say this show deserves the attention it gets. If I love Kezar in part because it was a tape I wore through all those years ago, so what? Because the reality is, this show smokes. It’s an expansive 3.5 hours of top-notch Grateful Dead from 1973, one of the very best years in the band’s long history. Kezar highlights include the first set TLEO and Playin’, Here Comes Sunshine and China > Rider in set II, and basically all of set III, from the Half-Step to the Truckin, TOO, and Eyes.

In fact, our sister site, the authoritative Grateful Dead Projects, includes the China > Rider and the Eyes among the best all-time versions of those songs, and lumps everything from He’s Gone through China Doll as one of the band’s very best jam segments. Ultimately, the music we have now is all that really matters, and what was played on that sunny day in San Fran in May of 1973 is well worth visiting and revisiting.

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Transport to the Charlie Miller transfer of the soundboard recording on archive.org HERE.

Transport to the Bertha Remaster of the soundboard recording on relisten.net HERE.

More soon.

JF

 

Jazz Is… #5: Clifford Brown

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Sorry for the long gap between installments. Busy at work and in life. This time, there’s a simple, big point: Prodigious talents that never entered the public’s  consciousness because they died too soon.

Clifford “Brownie” Brown was born on October 30, 1930 in Wilmington, Delaware. He reportedly started playing trumpet at age 10. In high school, he received private lessons and began to play in a local band. As Brown neared graduation, he made regular trips to Philadelphia for gigs.

Brown went to Delaware State University as a math major, before transferring to Maryland State University, which had a better music program.  While there, Brown played in the jazz-oriented school band, but continued to visit Philly, where he sat in with professional musicians, including trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Fats Navarro. Navarro both influenced and encouraged Brown, who shared similar technique and approach. After a gig in 1950, Brown was seriously injured in a car accident.  He spent a significant time in the hospital, and could only play piano for four months.  When he returned to the trumpet, he soon became an in-demand soloist.  Brown performed with pianist Tadd Dameron, toured Europe with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, and accepted drummer Max Roach’s invitation to form a new group, the Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet.

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By that time, Roach (that’s him on the right above) was already a legend. He had played drums for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker, as well as on the sessions that produced Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.  The 100 Greatest Jazz Albums blogs claimed that Roach

“transformed jazz drumming, pioneering an open style with emphasis away from heavy use of bass drum towards more subtle development of cross rhythms on ride cymbal, high hat and snare rim. His prodigious technique virtually defined modern jazz drumming.”

Brown was just as good. Wikipedia (the source for most of this post) described his approach:

“His sound was warm and round, and notably consistent across the full range of the instrument. He could articulate every note, even at very fast tempos which seemed to present no difficulty to him; this served to enhance the impression of his speed of execution. His sense of harmony was highly developed, enabling him to deliver bold statements through complex harmonic progressions (chord changes), and embodying the linear, ‘algebraic’ terms of bebop harmony. In addition to his up-tempo prowess, he could express himself deeply in a ballad performance.”

According to Wikipedia, the Brown/Roach Quintet was “the high-water mark of the hard bop style.” Hard bop, the decendent of bebop, was viewed at that time as a response to the so-called cool style that was developing on the West Coast. Here’s Wikipedia: “[Drummer] Shelly Manne suggested that cool and hard bop simply reflected their respective geographic environments: the relaxed cool jazz style reflected a more relaxed lifestyle in California, while driving bop typified the New York scene.” That’s not a bad thumbnail, but it fails to account for the fact that the Brown/Roach Quintet recorded primarily in Los Angeles.

The Quintet was comprised of its namesakes along with tenor saxophonist Harold Land (later replaced by Sonny Rollins), pianist Richie Powell, and George Morrow.

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Clifford Brown & Max Roach is probably their key recording.  It features two standout tracks, “Daahoud” and “Joy Spring,” titled with Brown’s nickname for his wife. Both became jazz standards. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff called those two songs, and “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Jordu,” four of Brown’s great performances. The opener, “Delilah,” an arrangement of the theme to the Cecil B. DeMille film Samson & Delilah, was 1954’s outstanding jazz track, per Village Voice critic Gary Giddins.

That album, the Quintet’s first, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

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The other Brown & Roach Quintet recordings for EmArcy, Mercury Records jazz imprint, are solid.  They’re included here in chronological order. “Cherokee” on Study in Brown is renowned his solo.

(It looks like all those albums, and accompanying session materials, have been compiled as The EmArcy Master Takes.)

On June 26, 1956, mere months after recording At Basin Street and Sonny Rollins’ Plus 4 (inexplicably not on Spotify – frustrating, because it’s great), Brown and Richie Powell died in a car accident.  Here’s Wikipedia again:

“Brown and Richie Powell embarked on a drive to Chicago for their next appearance. Powell’s wife Nancy was at the wheel so that Clifford and Richie could sleep. While driving at night in the rain on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, west of Bedford, she must have lost control of the car which went off the road. All three were killed in the resulting crash.”

Brown was only 25, and a year removed from Down Beat‘s award as best New Star. His death profoundly affected not only his bandmate Roach, but also the broader jazz community. Several notable musicians – saxophonist Benny Golson and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval – have written and recorded tributes to Brown. Sandoval’s  second album after fleeing Cuba is called I Remember Clifford.

Rollins, Brown’s former frontline partner in the Quintet, offered an even bigger statement. Brown did not do drugs, and did not like alcohol. Rollins was a recovering heroin addict when he joined the group. Rollins later acknowledged, “Clifford was a profound influence on my personal life. He showed me that it was possible to live a good, clean life and still be a good jazz musician.”

Is it possible to live a bad, dirty life and still be a good jazz musician? Bill Evans, on the next Jazz Is…

More soon.

JF

Grateful Dead Weekly #13: Fox Theater – Atlanta, GA 5/18-19/77

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On Wednesday and Thursday, May 18 and 19, 1977, the Grateful Dead played at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia.

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The Fabulous Fox has a cool story. I’ll let the folks at the Fox Theater Institute tell the beginning:

“In 1928, the Fox was originally conceived as a home for Atlanta’s Shriners organization. To create a headquarters befitting the group’s prominent social status, the Shriners looked to the ancient temples of the Far East to inspire a mosque-style structure befitting their stature. Storied architectural gems like the Alhambra in Spain and Egypt’s Temple of Kharnak heavily influenced the building’s elaborate and intensely ornate design. Bursting with soaring domes, minarets and sweeping archways, the exterior of the building gave way to stunning gold leaf details, sumptuous textiles and exquisite trompe l’oeil art inside.

Ultimately, the design was so fantastical, it became more of a financial burden than the Shriners could bear. Shortly before its completion, the Shriners leased their beautiful auditorium to William Fox, a movie mogul who had launched his empire by building theatres across the country to meet America’s insatiable affection for the new moving pictures that were sweeping the nation. By the end of the 1920s, these aptly-named “movie palaces” were an integral part of nearly every community in the country, each one more gilded and exquisite than the next. Developers like Fox spared no expense, understanding all too well that these movie palaces were the gateway to a brave new world, transporting eager audiences to exotic, elegant settings they could only imagine.

With Fox’s financial backing, the 250,000 square foot Fox Theatre was completed, with the crowning addition of ‘Mighty Mo,’ the 3,622-pipe Möller organ that remains the largest Möller theatre organ in the world even today. The Fox opened on Christmas Day in 1929 to a sold-out crowd, premiering Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first cartoon starring Mickey Mouse.

Word about the magnificent new Fox Theatre quickly spread. Its striking red-carpet entryway and ornate gilt work, soaring turreted ceilings and stained glass windows, all leading to a vast cobalt “sky” with a sea of twinkling stars, were the perfect accent for the glamorous productions audiences lined up to see.”

Mr. Fox ran into financial trouble during the Great Depression, and the theater was sold at auction for $75,000. But it continued to be one of the country’s premier movie palaces until it shuttered in 1974. With the theater facing demolition, Atlantans rallied to help, raising three million dollars for its restoration. The theater opened again in 1975.

The Dead played the Fox for the first time two years later.  Their debut run came in the middle of what may be the most celebrated month in the band’s history – May 1977. The band even put out a box set not too long ago called May 1977, featuring five complete shows from 5/11 – 5/17. (Full disclosure: 1977 is by far my favorite GD year.)

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Needless to say, they were in rare form by the time they got to Atlanta. May 18, however, isn’t quite the barn burner that you might expect. Instead, it’s heavy on the Jerry ballads. Jack-A-Roe is pretty deliberate, almost reggae-fied, but very good. Friend of the Devil and It Must’ve Been the Roses are near perfect; High Time probably is perfect.  And there’s a really great Ship of Fools before the big second set segment: Estimated Prophet > Eyes of the World > Drums > The Other One > Stella Blue > Around and Around. (I should do a blogpost about the overuse of the > symbol. It’s supposed to represent a real in-tempo segue, Phish-style, not simply a pause before launching into another song.)

Over to the LMA reviewers. snow_and_rain called this show “overlooked.” jakester76 highlights the Eyes jam: “THIS STUFF IS SICK!!!!!” Teaklee concurred: “The highlight to me was the exquisite 10 minute jam out of Estimated that segues into a joyful Eyes intro jam, which clocks 5 minutes even before Jerry sings the first verse.”

snow_and_rain “really can’t say enough about the Stella Blue from this show. The transition from the Other One and the excruciatingly slow and luscious pace make this 15+ minute Stella an all-timer.” doug_the_dude said that “Set 1 just exudes more of that rock-solid confidence, if not Cornell sublimity,” while “Set 2’s suite is a masterwork – Estimated > Eyes > Drums > Other One > Stella > A&A. Every tune has something unique and beautiful about it, particularly that colossal Other One and the fragile, downright *virginal* Stella – don’t forget about that Brokedown encore, either!”

ECM talked last time about the world-beater Brokedown Palace encore on 5/16/80. How does 5/18/77 compare? Not as good, but still good and generous, which is a nice word to describe how so many May ’77 shows sound. (Most of the credit goes to Betty Cantor, who recorded them, but a little goes to Charlie Miller, who always finds ways to take the tarnish off the gold and leave it glowing.) There’s something incredibly intimate about this music – it sounds so much closer than even headphones can approximate.

Transport to the Charlie Miller transfer of the soundboard recording on archive.org HERE.

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The very next show isn’t on the LMA because it’s part of an official release – the front half of Dick’s Picks #29. (That pic of the band is a cellphone pic from the booklet – thanks, ECM. There aren’t any other pics of from the Fox shows that Ed and I could find, and we’re fucking good at that shit. No posters, no tickets. That’s why I’m using the dumbass cd cover as a header image.)

LMA fave dr. flashback labeled his review of this show “favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite” and “top 10!” He riffed:

“Just when you think you’ve heard all the great May 77 shows, along comes another beautiful SHN soundboard mind-blower! Jerry delivers a sweet Sugaree and Peggy-O. The Passenger is hot and raunchy (why did they drop this song?) and Bobby closes with a Dancin that rocks the house. The 2nd Set features the collection of tunes that really showcase where the Dead were at with their collective jamming mind in 1977 – Terrapin > Playin and Uncle John. Throw in Estimated, Wheel and the first China Doll since 1974, and you’ve got one of the best shows of the year. Encore? Forget it, your brain can’t take anymore! The night before is also very good, but this one trumps it for me.”

Embers dad agreed with “the authors of the Deadhead’s Compendium on this one. Best show of May 77. Not to take anything away from the other legendary shows that took place that month, but this one doesn’t have a single let down…not one note.” Whoa. Not a single note? High praise. Andy-O from Fennario mentioned the Sugaree, and added, “Though it’s true that basically all shows from May ’77 rank extremely high in all the important categories, this particular show stands out. It is, quite literally, the best of the best.”

Yeah, guys. This show isn’t messing around. According to Grateful Dead 1977: The Rise of the Terrapin Nation, the Playing in the Band > Uncle John’s Band is the third best moment of May 1977 – #1 is Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain from 5/8, and #2 is Half-Step Mississippi Uptown Toodeloo from 9/3. (Fwiw, this show’s Sugaree was #11.) The author there gushed:

“Pure exhilaration! Out of the cosmic weirdness of Playin’ in the Band, the Boys mellifluously flow into an Uncle John’s Band reprise even though they had yet to begin the song. The music halts, and as if they’d been down this road a thousad times before, the band harmonizes—’Whoa oh what I want to know oh, oh, is how does the song go?’ And whap, they rev it up from the get go–Uncle John’s Band in all its rage and glory, with a Drums > Wheel > China Doll > Playin’ conclusion to the Mother of all loops in the Fox Theatre.”

Or, as ECM, my/our guy, described the segment:

“The Playin > UJB is worthy of all the praise. The entry into UJB is especially unique b/c it begins with the outro chords/jam of UJB and the final vocal reprise ‘Whoa what I want to know is how does the song go.’ With that they launch into the beginning of UJB. I suppose it could be considered an ‘inverted’ version for those who are in the know about the Disco Biscuits.”

I’m not in that know at all, but, if you are, cool.

Transport to the yummy remastered soundboard on Spotify here…

More soon.

JF

It’s Friday, I’m in love…

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Hi.

This is the thematic playlist that I promised last week.  The theme: Shoegaze. There’s some like-minded stuff for context at either end, but no new stuff, unless a 2009 PJ Harvey track or a 2011 Pains of Being Pure at Heart track count. All killer, no filler – stone classics here.  I left out at least a couple of songs that I’ve already used (Lush’s “For Love” and Happy Mondays’ “Kinky Afro”), along with deeper tracks that will appear on other lists or a sequel to this one.

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekends.

Have a great day, babe. Can’t wait to see you soon. I love you.

More soon.

JF

Listen to Something Weird: Mogwai’s Atomic

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A few months ago, OM debuted a new recurring segment, “Listen to Something Weird.” He set the parameters broadly, saying, “These posts will highlight music that’s somewhere further out on the margins. Some may call it experimental, but here, we’ll just call it weird.”

Tim Hecker, the artist whose work OM discussed in that original post, definitely fit the experimental/weird bill. Does Mogwai?

Mogwai is a Scottish band that formed in 1995. The label that’s usually attached to their music isn’t “weird,” but “post rock.” Wikipedia explains that the term was coined by British music critic Simon Reynolds in 1994 to describe artists “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.” A lot of artists do that, including recent reviewees Radiohead, so the term isn’t particularly helpful as shorthand. In my understanding, post rock is often instrumental and rarely tethered to traditional verse-chorus song structure. It’s mood music, soundtrack music for movies in your head. It can be jazzy, or jammy, but it doesn’t have to be either. For me, a couple of examples come to mind: Chicago’s legendary Tortoise (sometimes jazzy) and Montreal’s equally legendary Godspeed You! Black Emperor (sometimes jammy).

Mogwai, along with their stateside decedents (ahem, plagarists) Explosions in the Sky, fall under that umbrella, as well. The new EITS album, The Wilderness, is great. The track “Landing Cliffs” will give you a hint about their m.o.

Which isn’t that far from Mogwai’s m.o., tbh, although Mogwai’s best stuff is louder and, consequently, seems heavier. Check this out:

A survey of the Mogwai discography, only some of which qualifies as “weird,” is beyond the scope of this post, but one part of it isn’t. Over the past decade, the band has released three soundtracks. In 2006, they scored a film by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. The film follows French soccer star Zinedine Zidane (my favorite soccer player ever) at various levels of remove for a full ninety minute match when he played for Spanish club Real Madrid in 2005, a year before the headbutt. Next, in 2013, they scored a French tv show about not-gross, still-creepy zombies called Les Revenants. (It’s on Netflix.) Both soundtracks are excellent, but subdued. The music serves the images and stands behind not beside them.

This year, they worked with filmmaker Mark Cousins on his BBC documentary Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. Here’s how the BBC’s website described the movie:

“Using only archive film and a new musical score by the band Mogwai, the film shows us an impressionistic kaleidoscope of our nuclear times – protest marches, Cold War sabre-rattling, Chernobyl and Fukishima – but also the sublime beauty of the atomic world, and how x-rays and MRI scans have improved human lives. The nuclear age has been a nightmare, but dreamlike too.”

It’s more Koyaanisqatsi than Errol Morris, if that makes sense. You can watch it free online:

Mogwai co-founder Stuart Braithwaite called the Atomic soundtrack “one of the most intense and fulfilling projects we’ve taken on as a band.” He added, “Ever since we went to Hiroshima to play and visited the peace park this has been a subject very close to us.” Braithwaite also mentioned that he’s extremely proud of both the film score and the record, like those are different things.  They are.  What the band released isn’t exactly what’s in the movie. It’s “reworked” – their version of that material, not the filmmaker’s version. In a sense, the movie and the music seem like equal components of a larger project.

The opener, “Ether,” is absolutely majestic.  Its anxious, harpsichord-like introduction unfolds into a calm, orchestral field with Braithwaite’s fuzzed-out guitar solo buoyed by layers of strings and horns below. Randall Colburn, in his A.V. Club review, even compared  the “slow climb and inspirational climax” of that track to the opening track of Godspeed’s stone classic Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Synthesizers are prominent on other tracks – “SCRAM” and “Pripyat.” The track “Are You a Dancer?” is probably the most traditionally post-rock Mogwai moment here. And “Little Boy,” named after the bomb dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and “Fat Man,” named after the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, are poignant reminders that nuclear war was once a reality, not an abstract.  That lesson will enter the news cycle later this month when Barak Obama becomes the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima.

More soon.

JF

Radiohead: “A Moon Shaped Pool”

A couple of days after Radiohead released, “Burn the Witch,” the first single from their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, I was watching an episode of Bill Maher. The infamous bridge troll Ann Coulter was a guest panelist, and when a fellow talking head tried to back up his argument about illegal immigration with a few data points, Coulter’s sneering response was, “Those are untrue facts.”

What could be a more perfect encapsulation of the bizarreness of 2016 than “untrue facts”? The dictionary says that a fact is, “something that truly exists or happens; something that has actual existence.” But in the destabilized world of 2016, something can both be true and untrue simultaneously.

So the appearance of this blistering new Radiohead track seemed uncanny. The intense paranoia of the strings, the “low-flying panic attack” in the lyrics, and the wacked-out stop-motion video pointed at a return of the Radiohead of 2003’s Hail to the Thief album. Clearly Radiohead were digging in to take on the European refugee crisis, or Trumpism, or whatever else ails the world. When I unwrapped the plastic from the CD and popped it into my CD player for the first time (ed. note: he actually probably downloaded the album on his phone), I was looking forward to an 11-track rage against the machine.

And yet, A Moon Shaped Pool surprised me by turning its gaze bother inwards and outwards. Yes, “Burn the Witch” feels of-the-moment, and “The Numbers” seems to be at some level a warning about climate change. But elsewhere, whether on “Daydreaming” or “Decks Dark” or most obviously the heart-in-mouth finale of “True Love Waits,” this is actually—can it be?—a Radiohead break-up album. Thom Yorke and his partner of 23 years recently split, and since Radiohead must be overanalyzed at all times, could this be his response?

The answer is both “yes” and “it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Yorke’s lyrics are personal in many places throughout the album, but he also remains either elusive or obtuse, depending on your POV. “Decks Dark” may ask, “Have you had enough of me? Have you had enough of me? Sweet darling,” but there are also bits about a spacecraft blocking out the sun and a ten-ton head made of wet sand. Yorke’s digging deeper than a simple, “I broke up with my partner and now I feel sad.”

Musically, this is Radiohead at its most intense. If you measure intensity only in metric tons of guitar riffage, you’ll strongly disagree with that statement. But in reality, these songs are tightly wound compositions. Famously, guitarist Johnny Greenwood has been moonlighting as a film composer for Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’s brought those compositional chops with him to A Moon Shaped Pool. The London Contemporary Orchestra is the sixth “member” of the band here.

And I’m not talking about some bullshit November fucking Rain string arrangements here. These songs have been composed and arranged as though they are part of a cinematic score. Whether it’s the dreaminess of “Glass Eyes” or the intricate mind-scramble of “The Numbers,” Greenwood has made the most effective use of an orchestra I know of on a popular rock album (if that’s what this really is).

Electric guitars and drums play less of a role, though when they do surface in the groove of “Ful Stop” or the crunching solo of “Identikit,” they feel all the more significant for it. Mostly, though, traditional rock instrumentation is just another tool in Radiohead’s expanding kit. And while they may make this album sound painfully overproduced, that’s not how it feels. These are compositions. The closer you listen, the more the album drags you down into its layers of sound. There aren’t many bands that are a better “headphones band” than Radiohead.

“Enough of this yabbering,” you may be saying to yourself. “What I want to know is, how good is A Moons Shaped Pool? Can I get a ranking here?”

True enough, Radiohead fans on the internet enjoy a good numbered list. Consequence of Sound went through the painful and rather absurd exercise of ranking every Radiohead song from worst to best, and I’d be willing to guess that article has had as many hits as anything else they’ve published recently, even though their ranking of “How to Disappear Completely” was inexcusably low. I’m not going to get into every song, but I will happily stick my neck out in terms of where this fits into the overall Radiohead catalogue.

I consider three Radiohead albums to be masterpieces: OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows. I don’t really see the need to argue for those three, as their brilliance is pretty much indisputable. In the second tier, I would put The Bends and Amnesiac. Truth be told, I’m tempted to put The Bends a touch higher on the list, but not by much. It goes to show how consistently great Radiohead has been that these two albums constitute a second tier. Hail to the Thief and King of Limbs sit on the third level as albums that are occasionally great but still flawed. The outlier is the debut album, Pablo Honey, which clearly must bring up the rear.

A Moon Shaped Pool nestles in alongside The Bends and Amnesiac. All three are excellent albums, and just because they are not as transcendent as the three big ones, it doesn’t make them any less great. Let’s give A Moon Shaped Pool an A-minus on the report card. Now, granted, I’ve had A Moon Shaped Pool for about five days now, so I could very well look back on this on laugh. But that’s why Liner Notes pays me the big bucks.

Fortunately, Radiohead doesn’t end with its studio albums. JF reviewed some of the webcasts that Radiohead has released around previous albums, and he’s shared some truly must-see videos, along with some other context around the studio releases.