Tag Archives: compact discs

Music of the Whiskey Rebellion

Folk, country, and rock music have lots of songs about whiskey.  But unlike other events in U.S. History, there are not a lot of music or films specifically about the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.  Here is a list to get you started:

  • The public television series The Appalachians contains a segment on the Whiskey Rebellion.  (During the segment, you’ll hear the traditional song “Boozefighters,” performed by Gandydancer and also on the companion CD.  But this song is more likely about Prohibition in the 1920s and not the taxing of whiskey in the 1790s.)
  • The book Two Hundred Years of Pittsburgh-Region Folksongs contains a song “A ‘Canny’ Word to the Democrats o’ the West” (1799) which includes references to the Whiskey Rebellion in heavy Scotch-Irish dialect such as this: “When, ance, about Whiskey, / Ye a’ gat sae crusty, / An’ swore ye’d na pay for a drap.”
  • The same lyricist, David Bruce, also wrote “A New Song for the Jacobins” circa 1798 and also found in Two Hundred Years of Pittsburgh-Region Folksongs.  According to the notes accompanying the song, American Jacobin Clubs were radical agrarians inspired by the French Revolution and “furnished the leadership and organization for the Whiskey Insurrection.”
  • In 1953, Albert F. Beddoe published a song “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” which became somewhat well-known amongst 60s folk revivalists.  It contains the lines: “My daddy he made whiskey, and my granddaddy too, / We ain’t paid a whiskey-tax since seventeen-ninety-two.”  Local group NewLanders, who specialize in songs about the region’s history, perform this song on their Where the Allegheny Flows album.
  • Another song called “Copper Kettle” also appears in folk song collections and tells the story of a jailed Patrick McCrory.  It contains the lyrics: “But Patrick paid no taxes / On any stuff he sold, / That’s why he went to prison,  / So the tale is told.”

— Tim


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My Summer of 2012 Music Obsession

Jazz often sounds good on rainy spring evenings.  Sometimes autumn drives in the country are well suited for classic American folk music.  I dig despair-filled metal and noise during the beautifully stark, white, wasteland of winter.  But summertime often finds me listening to more melodic music.  Poppy, yes, but still uptempo, guitar-based, and suitable for turning up the volume in the car (volume within reason, though; call me cranky, but I think cars with blaring and booming stereos are a public nuisance).

This summer, I have been listening to The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy by Nada Surf over and over and over and over.  It’s somewhat surprising since I didn’t pay much attention to them when they had their big hit “Popular” in the mid-90s.  But in the last ten years, Nada Surf have reinvented themselves into a less ironic, less grungy, more melodic, more earnest and endearing band.  Or maybe it’s just that singer Matthew Caws started singing prettier tunes higher in his vocal range.  Their latest album is a masterpiece of power pop with the right amount of driving songs, catchy melodies and frills like cello, organ, trumpet and xylophone to spice up the guitar rock.  (If you don’t trust my opinion, check out the gushing enthusiasm for Nada Surf by the good folks at Aquarius Records.)

As might be expected from still-inspired musical veterans,  lyrics from many songs address the passing of time:

“elusive energy / hard to hold / I’m looking for it now / and will be when I’m old”

“when I was young / I didn’t know if I was better off / asleep or up / now I’ve grown up / I wonder what was that world / I was dreaming of?”

“sometimes I ask the wrong questions / but I get the right answers / moved to a tear by / a subway breakdancer / it’s never too late for teenage dreams”

“and I cannot believe / the future’s happening to me”

Time has been good to Nada Surf.  I am so pleased when a band can release possibly their best album twenty years into their career.

— Tim

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Irene Dunne: Lovely to Listen to

You might know actress Irene Dunne (1898-1990) from her movies.  I have yet to see any of her dramatic films; her hilarious comedic turn with Cary Grant as a sparring couple in The Awful Truth was my introduction to her.  And she was one of the reasons why I watched the fashion show musical Roberta where she sang her hit “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  She had a lovely voice which is why I’m so glad that the UK record label Sepia has recently compiled and released a CD of recordings of hers from the 1930s and 40s.  The album, titled Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities, mostly features tunes by Jerome Kern (1885-1945) who was most famous as the composer of the musical Show Boat.

Dunne’s voice was certainly a well-honed tool: she attended the Chicago Musical College on a scholarship and auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in NYC (see Wes D. Gehring’s fawning Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood for more biographical info).  Unfortunately, some folks might describe Dunne’s vocal style as “dated.”  So what?  What’s wrong with a musical style that defines an era?  I think of it as a bridge between the ultra-rounded vowels of classically trained singers and the brassier, wide-mouthed style of later musical theater.  Give it an ear or two and see what you think.  My favorite tune on the disc, “Lovely to Look At” (from Roberta), is proof enough for me that Dunne is also lovely to listen to.

— Tim

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Speak Softly and Carry a Guitar: The Bitch Magnet Reissues

The 1970s and 80s were full of loud rock and metal bands with larger-than-life personalities.  Or to put it more bluntly, let’s say image-conscious bands full of egomaniacs, on stage with oversize drum sets, walls of amplifiers, and elaborate light and stage shows.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  I love Van Halen, for instance.

But what was special about the band Bitch Magnet in the mid-to-late-80s is that they could totally rock loudly with bombast and complexity but had really unassuming personalities as people and musicians.  They met at Oberlin College.  The two front men, guitarist Jon Fine and bassist Sooyoung Park, were both bespectacled nerds in casual clothes.  The band name was surely ironic.  Sooyoung’s vocals were more spoken than sung.  But over the stunningly great drumming of Orestes Morfin was a wonderful wash of guitar volume.

Fine wrote last year in an article for The Atlantic about his rock-induced hearing loss and stated:

Extreme volume is nerd-macho. I couldn’t bench-press 250 pounds—actually, I couldn’t bench-press half of 250 pounds—but my band was much louder than yours.

I implore you to not follow in Fine’s footsteps and to please wear earplugs.  But I recommend his music.

Amongst indie rock fans, Bitch Magnet and Slint also were known for having some songs using the soft-loud formula: usually very restrained verses with almost mumbled or whispered vocals and then choruses where the guitarist hits the distortion pedal and everything gets really loud.  Of course, soon after, this formula was turned into one of the most successful songs of all time by Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Bands in Pittsburgh’s 90s indie rock scene such as Hurl and Don Caballero were clearly influenced by Bitch Magnet.  In fact, Don Caballero and Battles guitarist Ian Williams is quoted on the back cover of last year’s reissue of all three Bitch Magnet albums.  The reissues are long overdue and contain extras: unreleased songs, old photos, flyers, etc.  But perhaps the best part about a comprehensive reissue is that you can experience a band freshly out of context and in reverse chronological order.  I’d advise starting with Ben Hur, the majestic final album and working backwards through Umber before listening to the inchoate Star Booty.  Enjoy!

— Tim


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Contrasting Early and Late Art Pepper

Many musicians’ careers go like this: early efforts bristling with rawness and urgency, a successful creative peak where a bit of polish is added but doesn’t overwhelm, and then a long downward slope where earlier ambition is replaced by simply refining or just plain simplifying one’s sound.  A case in point might be the progressive rock band Rush who after their late 70s/early 80s peak mostly abandoned odd-time signatures and epic-length works to concentrate more on songwriting.  Boo.

Anyway, it’s exciting to look at an early and a late recording by an artist and see the reverse happen.  Take saxophonist Art Pepper (1925-1982) and contrast his Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section album from 1957 with his Complete Village Vanguard Sessions from 1977.  The former showcases Pepper’s facility, brevity and clean tone while the latter documents more sonic experimentation with longer songs, longer solos, and an exploration of the noisier potential of his instrument.

Of course, some of the difference can be attributed to one being a studio recording and the other being a live album.  But also in the interim between 1957 and 1977, the influence of soul-searching, sonic explorer, saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) can’t be denied.  Pepper’s use of Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones (1927-2004), for the gigs at the Vanguard further reinforces the Coltrane connection.  Also certainly, Pepper’s mental illness and drug problems affected his process, both creatively in manic episodes where he would write new material all night in his hotel bathroom or destructively where years of his career were lost to addiction and prison.  Read his memoir Straight Life: the Story of Art Pepper or watch Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor if you want to know more, but for now, I’ll advise concentrating on his music and avoiding any romanticizing of troubled artists.

Check out those two worthwhile recordings (and others) and hear what Art Pepper was able to accomplish despite his troubles.

— Tim

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Discovering a New Drummer: Marcus Gilmore

Lately I’ve been listening to Vijay Iyer’s 2005 album Reimagining.  Even though Iyer is a one-of-a-kind pianist, since I’m a drummer, let’s be honest, I’m paying lots of attention to the drummer, Marcus Gilmore.  Instead of the standard, swingin’, ding-dinga-ding ride cymbal pattern of traditional jazz, Gilmore chops up the time to follow Iyer’s quirky lines.  Yet he still drives the music along.

According to Jazziz magazine, “Gilmore started playing in the rhythmically complex environments of Vijay Iyer’s trios and quartets in 2003, when he was a 16-year-old high-school student.”  (Jazziz, Summer 2011, Vol. 28, Issue 6, p.78)  Wow.  And that was after Gilmore had played with saxophonist and odd-time innovator Steve Coleman.  It reminds me of whiz kid Tony Williams (1945-1997) joining Miles Davis’ quintet at age 17 after playing with saxophonist Jackie McLean.

It’s natural that Gilmore (b. October 10, 1986) would gravitate towards great drumming since he is the grandson of still-living, mind-melting, master drummer Roy Haynes (1925- ) and nephew of cornet player, Graham Haynes.  But perhaps more importantly, it’s Gilmore’s practicing and the opportunities he got while a student at the famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts that set him on his way.  And in his mid-twenties, Gilmore is already a well-established figure in the world of jazz drumming.

Bill Milkowski sums him up well in Modern Drummer:

…it’s his talent alone that has led Marcus Gilmore to be considered one of the most gifted young drummers on the New York scene.  Blessed with an abundance of chops, flawless time, a penchant for intricate subdivisions, and a remarkable sense of independence on the kit, Gilmore also exhibits rare poise and a quiet intelligence on the bandstand — a natural-born drummer indeed. (Modern Drummer, March 2008, Vol. 32, Issue 3, p. 110)

— Tim

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I (Somewhat) Hate Being Irish

Perhaps the only holiday I dislike as much as Christmas is St. Patrick’s Day.  I also loathe being Irish.  That’s right.  Amongst other things, I have little pride in my ancestors’ alcoholism, bad skin, belligerence, and boiled potato cuisine.

But what is perhaps best about public libraries is that they are places to be easily introduced to different cultures and to overcome one’s prejudice.  So on March 17th, instead of being outside watching some hooligan in a green hat vomit on the sidewalk, I’ll be working at the library amidst some of the wondrous things that Ireland and the Irish have to offer.  For instance:

  • Though William Butler Yeats (born in Sandymount, Ireland in 1865) made forays into mysticism that got a bit ridiculous, I love his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
  • The books and plays by brilliant, witty Oscar Wilde (born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854) have at least one quotable line on every single page.  I just re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray a couple of months ago and I also drove around listening twice in a row to an audio recording of The Importance of Being Earnest without realizing that it featured the guy who played Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
  • Oh, Irish music.  I don’t care for most jigs and reels and pub sing-a-longs.  I also don’t know why people (including lots of ex-skinheads) like The Pogues and their thoroughly unappealing sounding frontman, Shane McGowan, so much.  What I do think the Irish are great at, though, are the sentimental songs like “Galway Bay” that long for home.
  • You might know him from Bridesmaids, but I love Irish actor Chris O’Dowd and his accent in the comedy series The IT Crowd.
  • Why would one sit in a pub when surrounded by fabulously green hills, harsh but beautiful coastline, and ancient, mysterious stone structures?  Until I actually go visit Ireland myself (and I will soon!), I’ll be thumbing through books with lots of pictures of it.

— Tim O’Tim McTim


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The Best Way to Show Off the Endearing Charms of the Euphonium

On Valentine’s Day, I went to a taping of the inspiring radio show From the Top, where young classical musicians perform with and are interviewed by pianist Christopher O’Riley.  Amidst all the talented string players and pianists, I was thrilled to see a teenager who played the euphonium.  If you’re not familiar with the euphonium, perhaps picture a tuba that’s been slightly shrunk or just look at the photo below.  Soundwise, it has a deep, mellow tone but is more facile than a tuba.

The young euphoniumist, Grant Jameson from Dublin, Ohio, performed a stunning number titled “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms.”  It began with a sentimental theme and then went through a series of showy variations.  According to our almost 600 page book, Guide to the Euphonium Repertoire: The Euphonium Source Book, Jameson chose his piece well.  The book states that “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” is “arguably the most played and popular theme and variations ever written for the euphonium.”  (p. 51)

The variations on the traditional theme were originally composed by Simone Mantia (1873-1951) who played euphonium with such highly regarded ensembles as the New York Philharmonic, Victor Herbert’s Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, and, perhaps most significant to brass players, in John Philip Sousa’s band from 1896-1904.

I’m not sure exactly whose arrangement Jameson and O’Riley performed because a great number of arrangements for different accompanying instruments have been made since Mantia’s time.  In the Guide to the Euphonium Repertoire book, though, every different arrangement includes statements such as “This work demonstrates all of the technical, melodic, and range possibilities of the euphonium.  It is a must study for the serious euphonium student.” (p. 52) or it “…will certainly test out one’s dexterity and technique.” (p. 104)

Pittsburgh’s own River City Brass Band recorded a fine version of Stanley Boddington’s arrangement of Mantia’s “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” on their Concert in the Park: Twenty Turn of the Century Bandstand Favorites album from 1992.  The liner notes don’t indicate whom the soloist is but they state the piece, an air varie, is “unabashedly intended to display a soloist’s virtuosity.”  It sure does!

Dr. Brian Meixner, one of the euphoniumists of Pittsburgh's illustrious River City Brass Band. (Photo used by permission.)

Go check out the River City Brass Band or Pittsburgh’s British-style brass ensemble, the Allegheny Brass Band, to hear the euphonium performed live.  For recordings, come browse over a hundred CDs of band music (brass bands, wind bands, military bands, etc.) that feature the best of American, British and other band traditions.

— Tim

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A Dozen Albums You Might Have Missed from 2011

This isn’t a “Top Ten” list because it has twelve items.  And it’s not a “Best Of” list either.  It’s just a dozen music CDs from 2011 that I thought were worth checking out and talking about.

Battles – Gloss Drop

In his previous band, Pittsburgh’s mighty Don Caballero, guitarist Ian Williams successfully dealt with the departure of the other guitarist by using sampler pedals and taking on the role of two musicians.  Could Williams (along with bassist Dave Konopka and drummer John Stanier) do the same thing with Battles after the departure of multi-talented band member Tyondai Braxton?  With some help from guest vocalists like Gary Numan and Matias Aguayo, the answer is yes.  Gloss Drop is daring, experimental rock that’s also really fun.

Cage, John – The Works for Percussion

This likely will be a divisive recording for listeners.  Some of you will think it’s a brilliant recording of pioneering works by an iconoclastic composer.  Some of you will think it sounds like someone dropping an armful of coffee cans while spinning the radio dial.

Cut Copy – Zonoscope

Vocally, this Australian group is reminiscent of 80s British new wave and synth pop (e.g., O.M.D., Haircut 100, Human League, etc.) but with updated production for the dance floors of the 21st century.  It’s the kind of layered, easy-going music intended to keep you swaying on the dance floor all night rather than head-pounding fist-pumpers that might exhaust you after one track.

DiDonato, Joyce – Diva Divo

Sopranos get undue attention so why not check out the latest CD by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato?  Mezzos get to sing almost as high as sopranos, but also in a fun opera tradition of often playing young male roles (as fellow American singer Jennifer Larmore showcased on her album, Call Me Mister).  Here, DiDonato goes back and forth between trouser and skirt roles and sings arias from 18th century Gluck up through 20th century Strauss.

Dudamel, Gustavo – Tchaikovsky & Shakespeare

Energetic conductor Gustavo Dudamel (b. 1981) is a product of Venezuela’s El Sistema of music education for poor children.  Here he conducts a program of 19th century pieces by a sexually conflicted Russian composer based on English plays from four hundred years ago.  And people say that classical music is somehow culturally limited.

J-Rocc – Some Cold Rock Stuff

The creations of record collector and turntabilist J. Rocc are less suited for rapping over than for film soundtracks or smoky sit-down parties.  The standout track for me is “Malcolm Was Here,” whose first half is jazzy before the ominous bass line and a straight beat takes over.

Low – C’mon

Low are still a three-piece indie rock group of guitar, bass and percussion with male and female vocals.  They’re still slow.  But for the last ten years or so, they’ve added other instruments (such as banjo and strings) played by a number of guests.  Nonetheless, their songs still retain their austere beauty.

McGarrigle, Kate & Anna – Tell My Sister

Even though recently deceased Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright and is the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, I sometimes worry that the McGarrigle Sisters are forgotten when people think back to talented Canadian 1970s singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot.  This reissue will help correct that.  The singing sisters play accordion, banjo, guitar, and piano, and as Canadians they sometimes, not surprisingly, sing in French.  Although they are accompanied by some of the top-notch studio musicians of the era, I prefer the sparser songs like Kate’s “Go Leave” which is just voice, guitar and heartbreak.

Meehan/Perkins Duo & the Baylor Percussion Group – Restless, Endless, Tactless: Johanna Beyer and the Birth of American Percussion Music

You may or may not be already familiar with the music composed for percussion ensembles by Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell and John Cage.  This CD will familiarize you with a half dozen works by Johanna Beyer (1888-1944) and some of her contemporaries from the 1930s.  Less bombastic than you might think, many of these percussion pieces feature passages that are quiet and hypnotic.  And if you’re a fan of late 20th century minimalism, check out the 2nd movement of Beyer’s Three Movements for Percussion (1939) and see how she predates the experiments of composers such as Steve Reich, albeit more sparsely.

Ortega, Lindi – Little Red Boots

Lindi Ortega doesn’t have much twang in her voice, but she isn’t some slick and smooth, over-produced, pop country star.  And musically, you’ll find traditional country sounds such as slide guitar, upright bass, and the “train beat.”  Often, she defines herself more by what she is not: “not a blue bird,” “no Elvis Presley” and “you may not know my name ‘cause I have not met fame.”  After an album as solid as this, you may soon know her name.

Vile, Kurt – Smoke Ring for My Halo

Kurt Vile’s rock has a bit of a lackadaisical, watery feel, but it takes a lot of talent and craftsmanship to sound like a slacker.  While Kurt Vile is based in Philadelphia, his sideman Jesse Trbovich was a participant in Pittsburgh’s indie rock scene in the 1990s.

Wild Beasts – Smother

The vocals for Wild Beasts are characterized by clearly articulated words often pushed up into the falsetto range and sung at an almost confessional volume.  That may sound unappealing to some, but I find this album to be thoroughly engaging, especially as each track varies the instrumental texture underneath the vocals: sometimes guitars, sometimes piano, sometimes drum set or percussion, sometimes electronic bleeps and bloops.

— Tim


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It Used to Be Easier to Write Songs About Getting Away From It All

Since I’ve been listening to a lot of Gene Krupa and Anita O’Day lately, I’ve enjoyed their version of the 1941 song “Let’s Get Away From It All.”  You might know the tune, though, from Frank Sinatra’s Top 10 hit version with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra from 1941.  If you don’t know it, give it a listen.  Sinatra’s voice was appealingly different then, with less swagger than his later Vegas years.

In addition to enjoying lyricist Tom Adair’s clever rhyme of “kayak” and “Nyack” (a town in New York), these lines of his also got me thinking:

We’ll travel ’round from town to town / We’ll visit ev’ry state /I’ll repeat “I love you, Sweet!” / In all the forty eight

Remember that Alaska and Hawaii didn’t become the 49th and 50th states until 1959.  Arizona became the 48th state in 1912.  So between 1912 and 1959, geography-minded lyricists had an easier time rhyming about romantic getaways: eight, state, great, first-rate, hot date, don’t be late, please wait,  soul mate, etc.  The possibilities were wide open!  But since 1959, if you wanted to write about the United States, you might have had to rhyme “fifty” with “nifty.”  Pretty limiting, eh?  Or how about these clunky lines I’ve made up?  

“Let’s have an ambiguous sort-of date / around the lower contiguous forty-eight.”

Pretty contrived, eh?  So, for the rhyming poets and romantic lyricists of our great and nifty nation, I propose we grant statehood to a couple more territories.   “Fifty-two” will lend itself to so many good rhymes.

— Tim


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