Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #537:
Mama Cass Elliot – Dream a Little Dream
What a voice.What soul, and longing, and sensuality. Some of the tunes on the 60s cult heroine’s torchy 1968 debut release, like Burn Your Hatred and Rubber Band, are a little dated, but those vocals are timeless. And it’s too bad she isn’t with us anymore (the story about choking on a sandwich is cruelly untrue – it was bad dope that did her in). As you would expect from the hippie milieu she inhabited at that point, a lot of usual suspects stepped up to help out. Steven Stills’ guitar spices up the surprisingly plaintive Talking To Your Toothbrush; the Band’s Richard Manuel contributes Blues for Breakfast; John Sebastian throws in the pensive chamber-pop Room Nobody Lives In; and Leonard Cohen – who knows something about sexy allure – gives her You Know Who I Am (and she reciprocates mightily). There’s also the heavily reworked title track, a Bessie Smith hit forty years previously; California Earthquake, a psychedelic pop period piece that still resonates; the big ballads What Was I Thinking Of and Long Time Loving You; the blue-eyed soul of Sweet Believer, and the jokey but actually very spot-on Jane the Insane Dog Lady. Here’s a random torrent via Jensen Brazil.
New York office workers are just like preschoolers. Keep them cooped up in air conditioning for the better part of a week, then finally let them outside on a rare, pleasant summer evening, and they go nuts. Ironically, it was probably because Boston-based Ethiopian groove orchestra Debo Band is such a party machine that so many in the crowd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors tonight felt the energy to holler at each other over the music. And it was kind of weird watching the group blaze through one hypnotic groove after another, without people dancing – last year they turned the ordinarily sedate Joe’s Pub into one big Ethiopian disco.
It’s also impressive how Debo Band approaches the music of the world’s oldest civilization as eclectically as the natives. A lot of the band’s originals pulse along as circular, hypnotic vamps that could be part Afrobeat and part Indian. But they don’t limit their own songs to that style, and their covers are diverse as well. One 1970s track by the Imperial Bodyguard Band had a suspenseful, brooding, bolero-tinged groove; toward the end of the show, they slunk through a tune from late in that decade by Mahmoud Ahmed that blended American disco tinges into the mix, with an acidic, intense electric violin solo. As the piece wound out, the violinist hit her wah pedal and mimicked the dancers shimmying in front of the band with some musical shimmying of her own.
Frontman Bruck Tesfaye was a cool, suave presence against the maelstrom behind him, ornamenting his vocals with a brittle vibrato that reminded of Jello Biafra, whether on a darkly reggae-flavored tune early on, or the cinematic, chromatically-charged Henry Mancini-esque anthem they did toward the end. Midway through the set, the band brought up a duo to do guy/girl vocals with a lot of call-and-response; because the lyrics were in Amharic, the effect was pretty much lost on the Americans in the crowd, but the Ethiopian posse was very into it. The horns would occasionally go off on a tangent, sputtering and squabbling for a couple of bars as the bass and percussion maintained the trancey, rolling bounce, the accordion, guitar and violin adding subtly spicy textures behind the matter-of-fact intensity of the horns. By the time they wrapped up their hourlong set, they’d finally managed to get the restless audience to relax and watch, far more of an achievement than it would ordinarily seem.
Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Laurie Anderson played a requiem for New York, possibly titled Delirium. The nocturnal atmosphere settled in from the first few notes of Rob Burger’s accordion, the highly processed quality of the music giving it an air-conditioned chill. Throughout the suite, which went on for over an hour, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing, Anderson’s trio or a machine, but that was the point. All these machines we rely on so much distance us from a reality we can’t bring ourselves to face. This piece was all about denial – denial of reality, denial of impending doom, and in that doom, the death of a beloved city, by gentrification, by greed, and especially by denial. “This is the real New York,” was the mantra early on, spoken quietly, matter-of-factly, giving away nothing, Anderson letting her narrative’s fragmentary images speak for themselves against the lushly icy backdrop. She got it all – global warming (a recurrent allusion); mindless “if you see something, say something” paranoia; Fukushima; Wall Street swindlers getting rich on worthless paper (and then shredding it) while the rest of the world riots. Familiar city sights – fire escapes in midsummer; the San Gennaro Festival and its “onions marinara;” Madison Square Garden, a three-way oxymoron; crowds swiping their way into the subway on the way home from work – grounded the piece in an indelible New York milieu. Behind the narrative, sheets of strings, real and synthesized, rose and fell, sometimes with mechanical electronic percussion behind them, often with astringent, vividly wary lines by violinist Eyvind Kang and Anderson herself while Burger shifted from accordion, to simple piano lines, to more nebulous atmospherics. Creepy, occasionally sleepy, it reached with an elegant menace toward a fever dream, especially when a police siren wailed for close to a minute a block further west, slowly making its way uptown.
“‘Hard times,’ says the maid, as she begins her lawsuit against the next President of France, now known worldwide as a chimpanzee in rutting mode, his DNA in her spit on the carpet,” Anderson deadpanned. In this netherworld, technology nerds produce nothing more than speeches full of hot air and time-wasting gadgets; hotel rooms are indistinguishable from offices open 24/7; and, in one blackly funny vignette set to faux boudoir sonics, advertising makes us miss places we’ve never been. And while Anderson never said it directly, this is what our world has come to. How do we deal with it? Midway through, Anderson alluded to suicide, once. She didn’t go near it again.
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The funniest moment of many was when Anderson mocked the pseudo-sophistication of the usual Lincoln Center crowd driving down from Westchester, by reciting a litany of google map directions, straight to the parking garage on 62nd St. Clearly, Anderson is still downtown. She closed the suite by returning to a theme that had arisen earlier, that we tend to reinvent people we’ve lost by cutting them down to size, right or wrong, because once we’ve shed that emotional baggage, we can “travel lite.” By implication, this is how a generation of New Yorkers, maybe more than a generation, deal with the loss of the city where thirty years ago an opportunity existed for Anderson to springboard avant-garde ideas into a successful global career. An entire city park felt that, and was transfixed. The show ended with a coda where Anderson brought out her husband, Lou Reed to play fluidly atonal, biting yet graceful noiserock guitar as the overture swelled and then gently faded down.
Ex-Ethel violinist Todd Reynolds opened the show, first entertaining the crowd by building the animated title track to his new album Outerborough all by himself with a series of loops, from a simple beat to heated, virtuosic lead lines. He was joined a bit later by Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey – playing percussion on innumerable found objects – and a string section including Caleb Burhans, Conrad Harris, Pauline Kim Harris, Yuki Numata, Courtney Orlando, and Ben Russell. Together they made their way gently and hypnotically through a warmly thoughtful, somewhat minimalist Philip Glass-inflected piece by a composer friend from Michigan, as well as a couple of rousing songs straight out of the Hazmat Modine catalog that were equal parts Balkan and blues. But where Anderson used the chill of technology to make a point, any point that Reynolds might have made with it was lost, especially when he brought out a “human beatboxer.” For decades, real hip-hop has pilfered rhythms from every other style of music ever invented, from jazz to funk to classical, so as to sidestep the mechanical monotony of a drum machine. The cold, unwavering beat managed only to sabotage the liveliness and goodnatured energy of Reynolds and his fellow musicians.