“sinnerman” – nina simone (1965)

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For the last few months, I’ve been going to a Meetup group focused on discussing classic albums.  There, the participants meet for an hour to discuss whatever album was selected that week; their thoughts on the music, artist, personal anecdotes, or whatever else they feel they want to contribute.  Think of it as like a book club but for music.

The structure for the group is simple.  We meet for an hour every other week or so at a coffee shop where we have a conference room reserved.  Usually, about half a dozen people show up.  Selections for the album discussion from a compendium entitled 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, or something to that effect.  In this book, 1001 different albums noted for their critical or cultural value are featured chronologically from 1956 through 2009.  Each album, depending on the inherent value of the album, has a write-up about the significance as well as a track break down with recommending signature songs and pertinent release information.  Most of the records have a half page write-up, while the more popular albums have a full page and perhaps even a picture of the artist.

With 1001 different albums to choose from, there is the potential that choosing a record can be an arduous process.  However, it is not.  In preparation, it was agreed that the first album would be from the 1950s which is the first decade listed in book.  An album would be picked, people would go listen to it during their own free time, and then come to the meeting to discuss.  After discussing the selected 1950s album, the meeting would adjourn by picking an album from the next decade.  Repeat the process again and the end of the meeting to discuss the 1960s album would result in an album from the 1970s being picked.  Then the 1980s, the 1990s, and finally the 2000s before circling back around to the 1950s.  Not only does this process make the meetings a little more structured and the selection process easier, it also encourages diverse listening and getting out of one’s own comfort zone.  Without that structure, the selections would be homogenized with little opportunities to listen to something new; previous selections have included afro-Cuban jazz as an example.  The album selection for the next meeting is made by having everyone write their choice from that decade onto a sheet of paper, and then an album is randomly pulled from a hat.

A few weeks ago, the pick during the meeting designated for an album from the 1960s was Nina Simone’s 1966 classic Wild Is the Wind.  The album is significant and features “Four Women,” one of Simone’s most signature tracks that focuses on racial issues and stereotypes; issues Simone is known for in her career.  The album is great and worthy of listening to, but it is flawed.  Wild Is the Wind feels like a compilation as opposed to a cohesive listening experience.  That was pretty much the consensus during that discussion.

Thumbing through our reference book, I found Wild Is the Wind was the only Simone album featured in the book.  Many artists have multiple albums featured, but Simone didn’t.  And that’s a shame because Wild Is the Wind, while great, is not Simone’s best work.

Unjustifiably missing from the book is Simone’s 1965 album Pastel BluesPastel Blues is an innovative album that references a variety of different musical styles and arrangements.  Simone sings blues, jazz, and soul on this record with such intensity and passion that listening almost becomes a spiritual experience.  The record features complex arrangements including a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that almost overshadows Billie Holiday’s version.  However, the final track of the album is what truly defines Pastel Blues as a complex work of art and serves as being one of Simone’s finest recordings.

“Sinnerman,” closing out the record, is an African American spiritual song that chronicles the struggle of a sinner seeking refuge from Judgment Day.  The sinner runs to the rock to hide, but is turned away.  The sinner runs to the Lord for help, but the Lord sends him to the Devil.  The Devil is there waiting for the sinner takes him in.  Simone’s arrangement of the classic folk song is a 10 minute tour de force of jazz, soul, and gospel rhythms.  An urgent sounding piano opens of the track followed by some percussion shortly afterwards.  Simone’s signature deep voice comes in to the tell story.  As we follow the sinner on his journey, Simone’s voice becomes louder and more intense until it erupts in chanting “power” and “bring down” along with band behind her shouting in unison.  After a few minutes in, the backing band dies down and the track segues into syncopated clapping with the piano underneath driving the rhythm.  During the course of the song, the progression changes and features moments of raw fire vocalization and a culmination of music that I only describe as a jazz explosion.  It is a powerful and briskly paced track that is complex and offers a challenging listening experience.

I first heard this song in college, but it has always stuck with me.  In the discussion group, Nina Simone was a new discovery for some of the listeners.  I’m enjoying the group and have already learned so much from exciting records I had never heard before.  There is a lot of great stuff out there if you take the time to look.  I am eager to find the next big thing that will make an impact on me.  Always growing.  Always learning.  Always listening.

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“a to z blues” – blind willie mctell (1961)

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Early blues music, I believe, is the darkest genre of music in the 20th century.  Old bluesman busking on street corners, playing bars, or fingering on their front porches in stifling heat of the Deep South weave tales of deception, intrigue, and murder.  Often set against a jangly 12-string guitar, these balladeers and storytellers create elaborate narratives about the limits of human nature and the worst aspect of our own psyche; often drawing from personal experience.

I love old blues music, but it isn’t a genre I often find myself making the time to listen to.  Whenever it comes on, I enjoy it.  However, it isn’t something I seek out as an active listener.  I get really busy with my day to day routine that I don’t often have the time to really seek music that I isn’t readily available to me.

Every week, I volunteer for a prestigious music school in Chicago.  They offer classes and instructions on a variety of different instruments and dance styles.  They also have what I feel is the best concert venue in Chicago.  I have personally attended shows there by Marshall Crenshaw, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and John C. Reilly.  It is truly a great place and shining cultural beacon in the city.

The volunteer work I do is in their resource center; a media archive and library that houses over 20,000 records, CDs, and books.  Part of my role as a volunteer is data entry, media asset management, and helping people locate materials.  It is a really cool space and a very calm, welcoming atmosphere.  I arrive, grab a beer, and just enjoy my time.  I can play whatever I find there.  Oftentimes, I like finding records that I personally love.  The resource center has an amazing hi-fi system and I love playing albums that I already own because the fidelity is so rich that I’ll hear elements I have never heard before since I listen on my low end stereo or Apple earbuds; elements like certain instruments or backing vocals.  It feels like I’m discovering something new in something I had assume I knew everything about.

Lately, I’ve been trying to balance my listening habits.  I do like to spend some time listening to what I know and like, but also I try to find something random that is unknown or unfamiliar to me.  This is usually hit or miss. Sometimes I really love what I find, but most of them I find it just ok and doesn’t particularly move me.  So, it becomes background noise at that point.

This week, I came across an LP from blues musician Blind Willie McTell.  I had heard of McTell before.  Bob Dylan has a very brilliant track about him they he cut from Infidels and relegated to be released on rarities collection years later.  I couldn’t say for certain I had heard McTell before.  The album was entitled Last Session and was released in 1961 as McTell’s first collection of songs.  McTell had actually died two years prior in 1959.  This was fairly common for musicians like McTell.  He recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s onto 78s, and then recorded a bit in the ‘40s.  He barely made much money and would often perform on the street and under different aliases.  The bohemian movements in Greenwich Village during the 1960s shed light on these forgotten performers and offered them a new audience, though many were long gone which added to the ancient and ghostly appeal of their music.

Recorded in 1956, but released in 1961, “A to Z Blues” is a wonderfully dark and comically violent song recorded for Last Session.  In some versions of the song recorded by other artists, the first half of the song is a duet involving a lover’s quarrel.  They can’t get along.  The man is tired of being fussed at and his lover’s infidelity, while the woman has had enough of her man’s drunk and violent ways.  The song comes to a standoff with the woman responding to a veiled threat from her man.  Then, the man threatens to take his razor blade to stab and carve the entire alphabet into his lover’s skull and face.  How macabre!

In McTell’s rendition of the song, there is no duet.  He is the only one singing and the song becomes less of a fight and more of an attack.  McTell is the dominating force and laying it all down on the table.  While the duet version appears to be the product of rage brought on by a fight, McTell’s version is one of cold, calculated murder; and he is loving every minute of it.  Going through the motions of reciting his ABCs, McTell outlines every step along the way.  From cutting her head by the letter D, cutting her face by G, slicing her arms by N, and gutting her chest at the very end with Z.  All the while, McTell is relishing every slash.

I was so happy to find this track.  The guitar sounds jovial at times and makes the whole scenario more dastardly.  Decades before the PMRC and other parents organizations designed to censor offensive music, there were artists telling stories of their lives and desires often reflecting the darker side of humanity.  It is all very uncomfortable, but cathartic as well.  It makes the whole hunt of finding great older music so much more thrilling.

“i’m new here” – gil scott-heron (2010)

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Getting old terrifies me on some level.  I’m not old by any measure and am still very young.  I have a youthful vigor and energy and still can run wild during my more uninhibited moments.  College was just a few years ago, but it seems so far away.  Cliché thinking, I know.  However, when you have a 401k, savings account, and insurance, it feels like eons.  My studio apartment costs me $795 per month for rent.  I remember when I used to worry about paying my share of $230 for a room in a house with some friends.  Now, I spend that on alcohol and responsibilities.  Looking back, it makes me smile.

I will get old and I will die.  There is a lot I do not know, but I know that much for sure.  And it isn’t the dying that frightens me.  It is everything else.  Losing my mental and physical abilities.  So, I try to live my life to fullest.  I make a good living, have hobbies, and I surround myself with good people.  There are times now when I feel my life is just too busy, but days can be fleeting.  There may come a time when I will have nothing to do.  Just existing.  A wrinkled husk that used to go on adventures and make love.

What I’m most afraid of is losing my memory.  When I really think about it, that is the only thing I am truly afraid of.  Because what are we?  What truly defines us on an individual level?  I believe that our personal experiences make us who we are.  I am the person I am because of my experiences.  Moments with friends and lovers.  Periods of reflection and introspection.  Flashes of excitement and turmoil.  A random sequence of events that has settled in my brain and shaped my worldview is the reason I am the person I am at this very moment.

A few years ago, I made myself a promise to always work at being a better person.  I believe I have figured out the secret to success and fulfilling that promise.  Trying new things and being open to new experiences are essential in personal fulfillment and being a more whole person.  Whether it involves food, people, or places, I strive to “yes.”  To learn and become more storied.

Gil Scott-Heron had a long and amazing career as an influential and revolutionary afrobeat artist.  Before he passed away in 2011, he released his final studio album I’m New Here. A deeply personal record, Scott-Heron sings as a man who is aware of his own mortality and wise in the ways only a man of his age can be.  Naked and emotionally exposed, Scott-Heron reflects deeply on his life and his state of mind.  This record is a window into the final days of a man who has lived so much, but desires to live even more.

The title track “I’m New Here” is a ragged cut featuring Scott-Heron and an acoustic guitar.  Telling a story using spoken-word, Scott-Heron proclaims that no matter how far wrong you’ve gone, you can always turn around.  What I get from this is that the journey towards an increased sense of self and personal development doesn’t stop at any particular age.  Until you’re six feet under and just dirt in the ground, there is always time to focus on yourself.  If you live your life and grow, you will not have a life you regret.  In the song, Scott-Heron is comfortable with who he is and is aware of himself.  He didn’t become some different that he did not want to be.

Whenever I hear someone tell me that they are who they are and that how it always will be, I feel sorry for them.  To me, they’ve become complacent.  Sure, they might be happy, but only for a moment.  Happiness cannot sustain itself in a vacuum.  Grow from the ground and reach towards the sun.  It may be too high to grasp, but don’t ever stop reaching.  If you do, you might as well be dead.  Become constantly in a state of becoming.  Don’t overstay your welcome.  Go to another place and announce “I’m new here.”

“dig, lazarus, dig!!!” – nick cave & the bad seeds (2008)

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I really love discovering the unfamiliar within what I thought I was familiar with. I’m reminded of a really brilliant nugget of philosophical wisdom from Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums; when you reach the top of the mountain, keep climbing. How great is that! There is so much to take from that simple idea. For me, it represents a motivation to keep discovering and to never be satisfied with the status quo. Will the journey end? Who knows? But, look at all the great stuff we found along the way. Those things are the treasure that comes from peeling off life’s unending layers.

Nick Cave is an artist with whom I’m hardly aware. I know a few of his songs. Mostly because they were in the background of a movie I was watching (“Red Right Hand” in Dumb & Dumber, “Into My Arms” in About Time). Hell. I even went to see his documentary 20,000 Days on Earth. Though I could count all the Nick Cave songs I knew on one hand, I was drawn to his mythos on the screen. During an interview, he was asked what he fears the most. Reflecting deeply and quietly for a moment, Cave confessed that his biggest fear was losing his memory because that is what makes up ourselves; our experiences, loved one, beliefs, and the other riches of a life well lived. I think that fear ties very well with the mantra to keep climbing even when we reach the top of the mountain.

This week during one of my volunteer sessions in the media archive at a local folk music school, my archive partner put on Cave’s 2008 album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! From the first few beats of the album’s titular opening track, I was hooked. From little I experienced of Cave, I had already drawn a conclusion as to who he was. I packaged his entire sound into a box and labeled it. But this album changed that. This wasn’t the Nick Cave I knew. Correction. This wasn’t the Nick Cave I thought I knew. I continued to be drawn in as I continued to dig deeper layer by layer.

There are a lot of great tracks on this album including “More News from Nowhere” and “We Call Upon the Author,” both which dabble between the extremes of blues train rhythms and methodical contemplation of sonic themes. But I want to focus on the opening track “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” Released on the ANTI- record label (home of Tom Waits for the last two decades), Cave kicks off the record by cutting to the chase. The song features a powerful blues-driven track with meandering, nearly spoken-word vocals. The rhythm guitar is laid on thick and chugs through the song with an organ tinge following suit in the background. The band comes together with a garage-rock appeal that calls back to L.A. blues rock of the 1960s. Even the Bad Seeds have a bit of fun using their own vocals as instruments with a poppy yet brutish chorus. The chanting “dig yourself, Lazarus dig yourself” repeated throughout is bouncy with the intoxicating aroma of smoke and alcohol and is followed with a husky command from Cave to Lazarus filtered through a distorted megaphone a la Tom Waits. “I want you to dig!” sounds commanding but also like a philosophical proclamation to not stop. Keep going! When you get to the bottom, keep digging!

Lyrically, there is a lot of tongue in cheek humor offered by Cave. The story of the biblical figure of Lazarus is played out like a stoned existential journey. There’s a mental disconnect between where Lazarus is and how he feels. He’s going through a seemingly out-of-body experience and everything around him in unexplainable, unreachable, and untouchable. Perhaps he is dead. Or perhaps he has lost his mental clarity and his memory. Perhaps this is the story of Cave acting out his biggest fear. Is this particular story of Lazarus really the story of Cave losing his mind? Could the something that is going on upstairs be result of something becoming nothing?

The whole album is a treat that remains fairly consistent. It is incredibly rich with a stylistic theme that is maddening and fun. Cave is someone I want to explore further. I enjoyed what I had heard before this week, but this gave me something to explore even further. Though, I don’t think I would’ve put this album on if I was on my own. Life is full of little surprises.