Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Smile by Luis Sanchez: A Review by Peter Reum

The latest Beach Boys book is another album-centered short selection in the 33 1/3 series entitled Smile, by musicologist Luis Sanchez, a native of West Texas, near my home state of New Mexico. The credentials Mr. Sanchez brings to this book are strong, and his love of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys music is indisputable. Mr. Sanchez brings a view of Smile's music in the more macro context of The Beach Boys' evolution and development, up to the scrapping of Smile in the wake of Brian Wilson's rapid growth as an all around musician and performer.

The first important point to make is that this book is not going to satisfy the rabid obsessive who frequents the Smile netherworld, dissecting the music Brian Wilson created so long ago. In that sense, caveat emptor.....but, Mr. Sanchez slowly builds a case for The Beach Boys' music being unique, genuine, and seasoned with a healthy degree of humor. In recounting the lead-up to Smile's Sixties demise, the author recounts how the optimism and humor in Brian Wilson's music built upon the history and traditions of American Popular Music that transcends the Rock oeurve.  This quality, evident in Brian's use of Stephen Foster and The Gershwin Brothers as a melodic basis for some of his productions outside of The Beach Boys, is one of the strands of Brian's music that the author mentions as helping Brian fall within the greater tradition of American Popular Music.

Another admirable aspect of Mr. Sanchez's is his thorough literature review leading up to his writing of this brief but informative overview of Beach Boys' music. The casual reader has a treasure trove of references for readers new to the world of Beach Boys' critical reading. His reliance upon David Leaf's Beach Boys and the California Myth tends to obscure further critical writing that has occurred since that 1979 work, revised in 1985. The details of some of Mr. Sanchez's points are hindered by some minor inaccuracies in research, but this is a fine read for newcomers to the Beach Boys' music and historical literature.

To summarize, Mr. Sanchez's thesis of placing Brian Wilson's music in the broader context of American Popular Music, and seeing Rock Music as a subset of it, is a very welcome and positive point of view. In this sense, Brian's body of work stands alongside such giants of American Music as Stephen Foster, The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, and contemporaries who have written for screen and stage. Brian's last honor that he has not received is The Library of  Congress's Gershwin Award, and such recognition would be appropriate, given his influence on American Music in the last half century.

Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All rights reserved

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Personal Favorites #4: Bicentennial Musical Notions: Chicken Skin Music by Ry Cooder by Peter Reum

When the Seventies were well underway, the stable of artists known as Reprise Records, originally begun by Frank Sinatra and purchased by Warner Brothers Records in the Sixties had become quite diverse, and artists who called Reprise their home were encouraged to bring their art to market in their own unique manner, ultimately with the goal of making records that were both High Art and Commercially Viable. Artists like Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, The Beach Boys, Maria Muldaur, and Neil Young made memorable records there.

Ryland Peter Cooder, better known as Ry Cooder, began his career in a blues band in 1963 with Jackie DeShannon and then formed The Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and future Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy (from Allmusic). Cooder's career in recording dates back nearly fifty years, with his solo recording career beginning with his first album, the self-titled Ry Cooder, produced by Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks in 1970. In 1976, Cooder assembled an all star group of musicians from a variety of musical styles including Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, Tex-Mex, and Blues to record one of his finest albums, Chicken Skin Music.

Chicken Skin Music was a breath of fresh air in the middle of a highly commercial  period of music. Ry Cooder has always shunned making pop music, in favor of recording World Music and American Folk and Blues styles, commercial considerations be damned. The album spotlights at least two American Music Masters, Flaco Jimenez and Gabby Pahinui. Both of these men were musician's musicians, known to artists who admired their styles on accordian and Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar respectively. Jimenez later became a founding member of the Tex-Mex "supergroup" The Texas Tornados, and Pahinui was only to live for a few more years after Chicken Skin Music, leaving a legacy that is unparalled in Hawaiian Steel and Slack Key Guitar artistry. 

Huddie Ledbetter aka "Leadbelly"

Cooder's knowledge of American Roots Music is encyclopedic, and he begins Chicken Skin Music with a Huddie Ledbetter composition, The Beaugeois Blues. Written in the late 1930s, it expressed the frustration many African-American artists felt with segregation in the Southern United States. Specifically, it descibes Ledbetter's anger at being excluded in Washington D.C. clubs and restaurants while with a mixed racial group after a performance in that area (Wikipedia). Cooder's version is played on what sounds like a dobro or slide guitar, with his vocals sounding much older than his 29 years. Goodnight Irene, a Ledbetter/John Lomax composition, is the album's closer.  The tune dates from 1880 or earlier, but was first sung by Huddie Ledbetter in 1908. Ledbetter first recorded Goodnight Irene in 1938 at the Louisiana State Prison in Angola for the Lomaxes, who were working with the Library of Congress. Again, Cooder's vocal sounds older than his actual age, and Flaco Jimenez contributes a killer accordian accompaniment. The song is reworked by Ledbetter from its earlier version into  3/4 waltz time, faithfully covered by Ry Cooder.

The second track on Chicken Skin Music, I Got Mine, comes from a more obscure source, namely a July 15, 1952 recording by Earl Moore.  Red Callendar's Tuba and Milt Holland's percussion shine here, along with some dobro from Ry Cooder. The song originates as a memoir of good fortune from a man who while gambling with African-Americans saw the sheriff coming to arrest the crap gamers and escaped through the window with a $100 bill that was the pot at the time of the bust. The original version may be heard here, but the listener should be warned that the lyrics are racially offensive in the first version: http://web.lyon.edu/wolfcollection/songs/blairnigger1239.mp3

Always Lift Him Up, as written by Blind Alfred Reed (Hartenbach,@Allmusic), is the next  selection, and once again, the instrumental background shines, with Gabby Pahinui contributing a gorgeous backing on the verses. The melody is a traditional Hawaiian Song entitled Kanaka Wai Wai. The song is a hymn sung by Hawaiians which uses the Parable of the Rich Man by Jesus of Nazareth as it's subject matter. The original Hawaiian hymn with slack key guitar may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPLEfUGrSaA

Gabby Pahinui-Hawaiian Master Guitarist

The Country tune He'll Have to Go is rendered profoundly and mournfully by Cooder with an almost mournful accompaniment on accordian by Flaco Jimenez. The Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar is played by Atta Isaacs, with Gabby Pahinui on steel guitar. The song, originally recorded by Billy Brown, was written by Joe and Audrey Allison, and was made famous by the late Jim Reeves, whose version may be listened to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Smlaq1ezQRM  As can be readily heard, the tempo of the Jim Reeves version was closely matched by the version on Chicken Skin Music.

Atta Isaacs-Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Master

Smack Dab In the Middle originates with Jesse Stone, the song's author, using the pseudonym Charles Calhoun, although perhaps the most famous version is by Ray Charles. Like many of Ry Cooder's recordings, he renders it in a manner that is delightful and unexpected. The version here is a Dub version, with the second and fourth beats emphasized. Calhoun was one of the first employees of the post war Atlantic Records. Stone wrote many early rock and roll hits, including Shake Rattle and Roll and Money Honey. Stone's own 1955 version of Smack Dab In the Middle, recorded as Charles Calhoun, may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLq5Iu5Mike Stoller3ijE

Jesse Stone-American Songwriting Master

Stand By Me is a rock music standard, and here is sung and accompanied in a Hawaiian Gospel manner, with Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs rendering it in a manner that can be called holy. The backing vocals are most powerfully reminiscent of some of  Gospel Music's best recordings. The great Ben E. King wrote this song along with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.  The song was originally cut by King after he finished Spanish Harlem. As recalled by Mike Stoller, the tune was unfinished, and session musicians were called back to record the song, with a Stoller arrangement and lyric as finished by Mr. King and Jerry Lieber (Wikipedia). The tune as cut by Ben E. King is in Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 songs. King's version may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwZNL7QVJjE

Yellow Roses as written by Ken Devine and Sam Nichols is a vehicle for Gabby Pahinui to shine. In an instrumental opening, Pahinui's steel guitar shines brightly, and becomes the star of the song. Atta Isaac's slack key may be heard on the verses. The song is rendered profoundly sad, a reminder that love is fleeting and yellow roses are already fading when received. There is a sadness here that wrenches the heart and twists the soul. The song bleeds.....

Chloe is a Gus Kahn and Neal Moret aka Charles A. Daniels composition, and the version here is a charming instrumental performance with Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui shining brightly.  This version seems almost country in flavor, perhaps due to the steel guitar. That Ry Cooder could assemble such a fine collection of American songs and talent is a tribute to his musical vision and clarity. The album is truly a "goosebumps" or "chicken skin" producing work. Cooder's knowledge of American Music is encyclopedic, and he arranges it here in a manner that introduces anew the listener to each song. The styles here are all Americana at it's finest, and that this album came out in 1976 for America's Bicentennial is no coincidence. It is American Music presented by an American Master Musician, Ry Cooder.

Text Copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved