30 April 2008

Donny Hathaway - Everything Is Everything

My ultra-seductive friend miss F. from the Philippines sent me a link to a Donny Hathaway track she knew out there. With my l33t interweb skillz I found there was a whole album and downloaded it. That was my first proper introduction to Donny Hathaway and it left some impression. Will follow up.

Hathaway was a musician, writer, arranger with one small flaw: he was convinced he couldn't sing. Fortunately, the people he worked with, a.o. Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin and Carla Thomas, talked that out of his head. 'Everything Is Everything' from 1970 is his first album. 10 tracks, the original 9 track album and a bonus, show his talent. Half the album is written by Donny and he also did the arrangements and production, which becomes apparent on the songs he covered. You'll notice but that's only of secondary importance because this is first and foremost a superb soul album, featuring many different styles. Everything from smooth soul to inspired gospel but always gentle; Donny Hathaway appears through this album as a nice man, like in the cover photograph.

The booklet is neat and complete, it's a bio and description of the songs on the album, with many quotes from relevant people. It also contains a portrait photo, recording details with musicians and a reproduction of the LP sleeve back.

The star Donny Hathaway shone only for a brief time. The insecurity about his singing abilities was probably just a symptom of a more troubled character and he committed suicide in 1979, just 9 years after this debut album. His legacy is considerable, his name props up often in interviews with contemporary musicians and he left the world 2 daughters who are in the musicbiz too. The feeling I get though is that Donny Hathaway and his music are being re-discovered over and over again because he never got the fame of other great soul artists of the 70's like Marvin Gaye or Isaac Hayes. It's OK with me because for this album alone Donny Hathaway deserves to be discovered and remembered.
Atlantic / Rhino, 1995

Donny Hathaway - Everything Is Everything

11 April 2008

Victrola Favorites

"Artifacts From Bygone Days"

Let's start with some text from the cover, I'll refer to it throughout the rest of my loooong writing. This should give you a good indication though whether it's worth reading further:
"Deluxe, full-color 144-page clothbound book with 48 tracks on two CDs featuring Burmese guitars, Chines Opera, Persian folk songs, Fado, Hillbilly, Jazz, Blues, and much, much more. Compiled by Rob Millis and Jeffery Taylor of Climax Golden Twins from their collections of rare 78rpm records and design ephemera."

Recently, some researchers published their findings on "phonautograms", a visual representation of sound. When done right, the visual image can be reconstructed back to sound, quite similar to ripping a LP by scanning the grooves. This is remarkable for 2 reasons: the earliest recording is now dated at 1860 and it was made with the intention of being recorded but the maker never envisioned people would listen to it, let alone one and a half century later.

When listening to music, we usually focus on, what I'll call for now, the first dimension: the music itself. Another dimension then could be the context in which the recording was made, in historical, personal and cultural sense. Knowing the context of, say, "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band" by the Beatles, "Never Mind The Bollocks" by the Sex Pistols or the "Velvet Underground + Nico" album greatly increases the appreciation of the music. It even goes so far that it's interesting to know what came after those albums were made and even how those albums relate to eachother. Then there's a third dimension: the physical shape of the album (like sleeve, pressing and additional stuff), where Sgt. Pepper's and the Velvet Underground are classic examples too.

With 'Victrola Favorites' the first dimension, the music, is one interesting part. The featured recordings were made between 1910 and 1950 and the CDs are important in that they make these sounds accessible to us. As you've probably gathered from the quote above: there's no real theme, it's a collection based on its physical shape and rarity. There's 40 years between the first and last made recordings and they're from almost every continent. The diversity makes it hard to provide a context and the "second dimension" as I've called it is further difficult since recording dates, places and artists are sometimes vague or unknown alltogether. The way to regard this set is best done from my third dimension of music.

Imagine an exposition in a museum, an exposition of 78rpm records. You get to look at album sleeves from around the world, disk labels with intricate designs and unreadable languages, from artists long dead and record labels long forgotten, together with paraphernalia like adverts for labels and playback equipment. 'Victrola Favorites' can be seen as the catalog to that exhibition, where the subject made it necessary to include sound in the catalog. The museum perspective gives an explanation for the "144-page clothbound book with 48 tracks on two CDs" aspect. In the book there is a text on the background of 'Victrola Favorites' but the "catalog" does not attempt to inform or explain too much; it's mainly a reproduction of the highlights of the exposition comparable with a picture book of a painter's oeuvre.

If this leads to the conclusion that 'Victrola Favorites' is a book you basically can't read and music you don't want to listen to, you're right to a certain extent. It's a release not targeted at a mass audience but at people who are interested in that 3rd dimension. People who may own bakelite recordings themself (guilty as charged). Back to the quote, notice how it's about a book with CDs and not the other way round? 'Victrola Favorites' can be interesting for book collectors because of the way the book's made but the 3rd dimension of a book is probably not what made you come to this blog and I bought this set in a record store, not a book shop. The secondary aspect, the music on the CDs, is a rag-tag collection of oddities but with 'western' music too, anyone interested in old blues or so will also find something to his liking. It can serve as a means to discovering other music although it's not the most appropriate vehicle if you want to check out Chinese opera or Japanese ballads. 'Victrola Favorites' is a collection of fossils, a compilation where chance largely determined the content and not a systematic approach. Chance because it really depended on what could still be found, saved and brought to the attention of people who understand the value. The diversity is because this is a sort of sampler CD set. The compilers, Climax Golden Twins, collected the 78rpm records and released the music on tapes in a more thematic fashion. Check out their website for more.

There is a second dimension to this set if you're willing to see it. The music is from an era where tourism was rare and inter-continental travel even rarer. Contact with other cultures went via drawings, photographs, witness tales and imported artifacts. Recorded sound was a novelty and sound from far away places was some sort of wonder upon that. 'Victrola Favorites' documents the context that sits between the phonautograms and pop music, between technical marvel and mass culture article. It leaves you to create the story and live the experience; it only provides the sounds and images. This is intended by the makers.

So, go on some sort of psychedelic trip with the sounds and images. You travel through space and time, stopping at a few locations around the globe to have a look around. You're not travelling economy class to popular holiday destinations but rather with a supersonic zeppelin, you won't find a 13-in-a-dozen tourist resort where you touch down but you get to meet the locals in their "sunday's best", proudly displaying their world. You may even travel to your own neighbourhood but not as you know it. Off the beaten path in your armchair, you Livingstone you!

I hope that sounds appealing already but don't underestimate the fun of the package in itself. Quite literally: you may not exactly get the joke in 'Big idiot buys a pig' (I didn't) since it's sung in a Chinese language but you can still laugh about it (I did). There are remarkable sounds, virtuosity and excellent music and artists. The chance of liking every track are close to zero but so is the chance of not liking a single track. My personal favorite is 'The crucifixion of Christ', a gospel rougher than the wood the poor fellow was nailed on, and there are plenty of other songs that make me sit up and listen attentatively.
The book, next to being beautiful in its physical shape, has great visual content. Wonderful and exotic (details of) sleeve designs, advertisements for records and equipment, photographs and reproductions of texts that show how novel the technology was (interesting again since there's a new generation that grew up without records and record players ;-) ).

This set bears resemblance to 'The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of'. "Stuff" is more USA centric and its focus is the collecting aspect, "Victrola" is almost worldwide and focused on the magic of hearing and seeing things without ever being considered the audience. "Stuff" is 2 CDs first and a small book to go with it. It's a gliding scale though, both sets are in the same far corner of the music market.

The package costs serious money. You pay for a high quality book and 2 CDs, CDs where the sound quality varies between the tracks and is as good as possible (better than you'd expect from recordings between a century and half a century old). As a package of book + CDs, targeted at a niche market, it's not expensive imho. In sound and vision, it does a good job of recreating the magic of the shellac record era since the imagery and music are probably just as exotic now as they were then. 'Victrola Favorites' is unlikely to appeal to many people but if you're in doubt you can listen to the mp3's and I recommend to try to take a look at the book if possible to convince yourself. Unless you don't want to spend the money, of course.
Dust-To-Digital, 2007

Victrola Favorites, Artifacts From Bygone Days
CD 1
CD 2

05 April 2008

Blame It On The Dogg

"The Swamp Dogg anthology 1968 - 1978". 24 tracks of steaming soul going to smooth funk. A few Swamp Dogg/Jerry Williams tracks but mostly songs produced by him from a wide range of artists including Gene Pitney, Patti La Belle and Arthur Conley.

Jerry Williams started as an artist, in the late 1950's already. I only knew him as a producer and the material on this CD is from his finest hour as such. We've already had Doris Duke's 'I'm A Loser', Sandra Phillips' 'Too Many People In One Bed' and Charlie Whitehead's recordings and this complements those. The missing album is ofcourse Swamp Dogg's own 'Total Destruction To Your Mind'.

The songs are a diverse bunch, originally released on various labels or not released at all. The music quality is fantastic. The lyrics are a catalog of everything loosely related to love and relations, from the hurt of a cheating partner to the triumph of being a cheater and plenty of other aspects that made Swamp's music less suitable for radio at the time.

As a compilation, Kent has outdone themselves. The 15 page linernotes contain an introductory text and separate chapters dealing with the songs in their historical context with plenty of pictures from the artists (together with pics of recordlabels ;-) ). The photographs of Arthur Conley alone make the booklet worth the price of the CD.

Other periods in the life of Swamp Dogg are documented on other Cd's, perhaps hard to find. The easy way is to try the store via his own website, as any proper contemporary artist needs a website and Swamp Dogg is very much resurrected & kicking. In fact, why don't you come to the Netherlands to see him play at the end of the month?
Kent / Ace, 2008

Blame It On The Dogg

02 April 2008

Wende - Quand Tu Dors

Wende is a young Dutch woman singing French chansons. The 'chanson' here is a song sung in French with an emphasis on the lyrics and neat, mature music. It's not exactly pop music (at least not outside France) and it doesn't fit into another category either but is just pleasing. Should you sing the great American songbook in French, you could pass it off as chanson. The last time the chanson was popular was during the 1960's with singers like Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel.

What motivates Wende Snijders I don't know but the French language is widely considered as beautiful in the Netherlands, which is understandable since Dutch has a few rough edges when spoken. The chanson isn't perhaps the most obvious musical type for a young woman to specialize in but when done properly it makes people pay attention. 'Quand Tu Dors' is her debut album and won a few prizes, it paved the way for a second album and gave Wende a means of exploiting other talents like playing in theaters.

There's no particular reason for looking into this other than nice and good music. You can practice your French with the lyrics from the booklet. The compositions are a mix of new and classic material, the musicians (including a complete orchestra) are of the same quality as the singer. Give it a try, especially if you never considered listening to chansons before.
Brigadoon, 2004

Wende - Quand Tu Dors