Songs That Broke My Heart: Hallelujah by John Cale

Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.

As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.

The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.

The most idiosyncratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and electronica genres flirted with the mainstream. Jeff Buckley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s version, and numerous amateur performances on American Idol finally broke the song into the mainstream consciousness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliché, but retains its ability to push emotional buttons even when performed robotically by Justin Timberlake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

The worst abuse of all, however, was when director Zack Snyder misappropriated Cohen’s original recording for a preposterous sex scene in the superhero psychodrama Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). Granted, it must be said that Cohen deliberately crafted his lyrics to be flexible, and has himself performed different variations over the years. Buckley’s version found a markedly sexual interpretation, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watchmen. Cohen himself told the Guardian in 2009:

“I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”

With such a wide variety of renditions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the particular vocalist’s delivery. Too many, however, bury any real human emotion under mountains of overproduced strings and histrionics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s elegantly minimalist interpretation is the one for the ages, perhaps even moreso than Cohen’s original.

Albums That Broke My Heart: Sea Change by Beck

You could throw darts at the tracklist from Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change and each song you hit would be sadder than the last. Hence this deviation in format from our ongoing playlist of Songs That Broke My Heart… call it an Album That Broke My Heart.

Beck had always been equal parts folk (Mutations) and weird (Odelay), and perhaps at his best when he combined the two. Although his sense of humor and absurdism usually dominates, a pronounced darkness is often present. All of these tendencies were on display on his breakthrough single “Loser”, which, together with the roughly contemporaneous “Creep” by Radiohead, was part of a groundswell of indie rock self-loathing in the mid 1990s.

Perhaps wary of being typecast as the dude with the emotionally detached and quirkily abstract lyrics (walking, one might say, in the Talking Heads’ shoes), and of being too closely associated with the production techniques of The Dust Brothers and the videos of Spike Jonze, Beck took an unexpected genre swerve in 2002. Sea Change was an album-length outpouring of anxiety, grief, and loneliness. Its low-key emotional honesty was probably alienating to most of his fans, and its morose mood no doubt not very attractive to new listeners.

After listening to only a few songs from the album, you wouldn’t need to consult Wikipedia to find out if these songs were the result of somebody breaking up with him. But if you did, you’d learn that this batch of songs dates from when he discovered his longtime fiancée was cheating on him.

Standout tracks for me are “Guess I’m Doing Fine” and “Lost Cause”:

Songs That Broke My Heart: Days in the Trees (Reich) by No-Man

Any playlist of sad songs I might compile must include No-Man, but it was no easy task to select only one piece from a songbook positively chock full of them. To make my job a bit easier, I went back to the band’s beginnings.

Similar in style to their first breakout single “Colours” (a dramatic reimagining of Donovan’s mid-60s folk-pop hit), “Days in the Trees” is very much an artifact of early 90s minimalist art-pop. Despite its superficially dated production, the song is quintessential No-Man: Tim Bowness’ melancholy vocals hovering over Steven Wilson’s looped breakbeat, accompanied by Ben Coleman’s dramatic violin and very little else.

I found myself drawn to a relatively obscure alternate version subtitled “Reich”, first released in 1992 on the virtually impossible to find original EP and the subsequent mini-album Lovesighs – An Entertainment, and now available on the retrospective anthology All the Blue Changes. In a personal reassessment, Bowness expresses reservations about the mix and performances in the released version, but concedes that “Reich is a piece I still love”.

Utterly unlike a prototypically unimaginative remix in which rigid disco beats are bolted onto scraps of a song, this version has only the most tenuous of connections to its source material. It omits Bowness’ vocals entirely, in favor of a gently repeating keyboard arpeggio. The title alludes to composer Steve Reich’s brand of systems music, which reached its hypnotic apotheosis in Music for 18 Musicians. A generation of electronic musicians expanded upon Reich’s interlocking patterns, and Reich himself later completed the circle by experimenting with electronica and remixing on his 1999 album Reich Remixed.

The stark ambient soundscape of “Days in the Trees (Reich)” provides an atmosphere for an astonishing soliloquy extracted from David Lynch’s seminal TV series Twin Peaks. Donna (Laura Flynn Boyle) is a teenager disillusioned by unsavory revelations regarding her best friend Laura’s drug abuse and sexual misadventures. Over the course of the series, she is exposed to even greater depths of corruption and depravity in her seemingly idyllic small American town.

Lara Flynn Boyle as Donna in Twin Peaks
“It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

While pursuing information on her own, Donna finds it necessary to ingratiate herself to a lonely male stranger. The mode of seduction she chooses is to recount the story of her first kiss. Her ploy quickly becomes a real confession, even an uncomfortably intimate flirtation. It’s an ostensibly happy memory, but her state of bliss over an event in the distant past is shot through with melancholy over a sublime moment long gone. Forced to confront the profound darkness festering in her community, this young woman prematurely mourns simpler times forever out of reach. Her tale portrays herself as a girl just beginning to sense that sexuality was a dangerous force her friend had already embraced but she couldn’t yet harness.

Boyle may not be one of the world’s most celebrated actors, but her performance in this scene is nothing less than stunning. Bowness and Wilson edited and condensed her monologue, but opted to leave in the sound effects of a cigarette lighter and her exhalation, effectively providing an audio vérité percussion track. Here is a full transcript of the truncated version that appears in “Days in the Trees (Reich)”:

“This is from a long time ago, is that ok? I was about thirteen years old, fourteen maybe. We were going to the Roadhouse to meet boys. They’re about twenty years old. And they’re nice to us. And they make us feel like we’re older. Rick asks if we wanna go party and Laura says ‘yes’, and all of a sudden I feel this knot building up in my stomach. But when Laura gets in the truck with Rick, I go anyway. A stream in the woods, and when I think, it’s pale and light out. Laura starts to dance around the boys. She begins to move her hips back and forth. And we take off our clothes. I know the boys are watching. Laura starts to kiss Josh and Rick. I don’t know what to do, so I swim away. I feel like I want to run, but I don’t. He kisses my hand and then me. I can still feel that kiss. His lips are warm and sweet. My heart jumps. He’s talking but I can’t hear him. It was the first time I ever fell in love.”

The brief song drifts away on her last word.


Further reading:


You’re reading an entry in The Dork Report’s ongoing mixtape The Songs That Broke My Heart. Get started with the introduction or dive right in. Know a sad song you’d like to see added to the playlist? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Songs That Broke My Heart

Rock ‘n’ roll is not an everyday conversation topic around our family table, but the improbable longevity of The Rolling Stones was remarkable enough to come up once during dinner. I had recently listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time in a while, and remarked upon how surprisingly dark and intense it was, so much so that it gave me chills. My grandmother asked why, then, would I deliberately listen to something that unsettled me?

She had a point. Upon reflection, I’ve found that most of the music I hold dear is chilling (like the aforementioned ode to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), chilly (like some of the more academic, brainy music by Brian Eno, Philip Reich, or Robert Fripp), or just plain cold (pretty much everything else). Some have subject matter that makes you want to jump out a window, some just sound like they do, and some may not be sad per se, but are rather so painfully beautiful I almost can’t bear listening to them.

How on earth did incurable sad sacks like The Cure, Nick Drake, or Kurt Cobain become pop stars? Why do we listen to the likes of “Hallelujah”, “Mad World”, or “Hurt” for fun? The answer is simple, but opens a can of worms: prehistoric humans almost didn’t invent music for entertainment or personal expression, but rather as a component to ritual, spirituality, and community.

To think of music as merely entertaining or escapist is to belittle an entire art form with limitless capabilities. Even at its best, it can be dissonant and ugly (such as György Ligeti’s Requiem, which still sounds alien today in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) just as easily as it can be pretty and moving (Johan Pachelbel’s Canon in D, so lovely it has passed into cliché and back again). It’s possible to make the same point about other oft belittled media, such as comics — where the uninitiated may be unable or unwilling to accept that the same format that stars Ziggy and Superman can also be as trenchant as Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury or as literary as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Hence this new series of short essays exclusively for The Dork Report: The Songs That Broke My Heart, in effect a playlist of melancholy, misery, and loneliness. It is not meant to be an objective list of the saddest songs of all time, but rather a personal compilation of songs that create an emotional response in me now, at this time in my life. But first, I’m going to start with something slightly more esoteric. Watch this space for my thoughts on No-Man’s “Days in the Trees (Reich)”.

The Songs That Broke My Heart:

  1. No-Man: Days in the Trees (Reich)
  2. Beck: Sea Change
  3. John Cale: Hallelujah

Hey Man, It’s Your Trip: Woodstock

The classic feature documentary Woodstock captures the full experience of the near-mythical 1969 festival of the same name, from septic tanks to traffic jams to brown acid. It remains an important record of one of the most peaceful spontaneous gatherings in human history, not to mention the brief-lived spirit of the hippie movement as a whole.

The original version directed by Michael Wedleigh, with a young Martin Scorsese as assistant director and editor and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, was released the following year and played continuously in theaters for years. Oddly, it is the only film that the last surviving human on earth (Charlton Heston) chooses to watch repeatedly in The Ωmega Man. A Director’s Cut added 40 minutes of additional footage in 1994, but the new 40th Anniversary edition is a whopping four hours long, “Interfuckingmission” included. It’s unclear whether or not Scorsese and Schoonmaker were involved in either of the expanded editions.

The film is experimental in format, extending even to the aspect ratio. Nearly the first ten minutes are windowpaned, leading me at first to suspect something was wrong with the DVD. But the movie then alternates from windowpane to widescreen to splitscreen. The only other movie I can think of off the top of my head that played as loose with aspect ratios is the opening sequence to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock

With a leisurely four hours to fill, the first full 25 minutes concern the arrival of early fans while the stage is still being constructed. A surely ironic mural on one of the famously psychedelic caravan buses reads “even God loves America.” One of the festival’s most iconic images — a pair of nuns flashing a peace sign to camera — may have been in fact partially staged (as alleged in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock). Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, Lee’s film goes on to tell a conflicting, largely discounted, version of events in which a small town misfit midwifes the festival, which in turn frees his identity and transforms his family.

The first performance footage in Woodstock is an extended unbroken close-up of Richie Havens’ intense solo performance. Finally, the cameras turn the other way around and look out at the staggeringly huge crowd. Indeed, as later scenes make clear, so many people arrived that the earliest arrivals couldn’t physically leave. That such a large number of people coexisted peacefully while quite literally being trapped is a minor miracle.

Everybody knows the tale of the gargantuan crowd, but I underestimated the scale of the concert itself. In my mind, I always pictured a tiny stage dwarfed by throngs of hippies, but in actuality, the festival itself would have been a large production even if the crowds hadn’t materialized. Before simple logic forced the organizers to waive the ticket fee, the festival had a multi-million-dollar budget footing a massive stage, huge towers, power, food, lighting, and sound system.

Woodstock

Not all the acts would necessarily be known to later generations watching the documentary, but there is some surprising variety in genre; Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie’s folk, Sly and the Family Stone’s funk, and Sha-Na-Na’s retro pop went a long way towards breaking up the sometimes tedious stretches of blues-rock jamming. Some key performances either weren’t filmed (such as The Band, at their request) or shot but excluded from the film (particularly The Grateful Dead, whose performance was compromised by heavy rain and technical issues), and some of the era’s top acts were absent altogether (most notably The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones — but Scorsese would later catch up with all three of them in his own documentaries Living In the Material World, No Direction Home, and Shine a Light). Personally, I most liked seeing The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the height of their powers, and was pleasantly surprised by an obviously nervous Crosby, Stills and Nash. CSN claimed it was only their second gig, and they seemed visibly relieved to receive applause. Each act was allotted only 1-2 songs each, even in the extended version of the film, which for many of these artists is not enough. I would have liked to see more Who footage, especially the famous moment where the often tempestuous Pete Townshend famously booted countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman offstage: “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!”

Interviews with audience members during the concert demonstrate that they were already self-mythologizing the event as it was occurring around them. A legend quickly spread that the gathering was the equivalent of a spontaneous city. Not quite, but the actual total of 500,000 people was nothing to sneeze at. But they were all correct that it was nothing less than a miracle that that many people could gather in one place and survive a massive storm on the second day, all without violence. That is, aside from Townshend again: “The next fuckin’ person that walks across this stage is gonna get fuckin’ killed!”

The film includes co-organizer Michael Lang and concertgoers facing hostile interviewers determined to express their bias that rock music is empty and meaningless. Scorsese emphasized similar confrontations in No Direction Home, where Dylan is dogged by condescending reporters determined to undermine his political and social import.

Wedleigh’s camera often seeks out nude young women. The blatant scopophilia misses the point of the burgeoning equality between the sexes by the late 60s — not only are the hippies embracing free love, they’re also obviously comfortable enough in each other’s company to bathe together like children in a bathtub. I can’t believe I’m complaining about the sight of naked girls, but Wedleigh’s camera is often just plain lustful.

Aside from free love and unashamed nudity, the next most alien aspect for contemporary post-War-on-Drugs viewers is the pragmatic attitude towards controlled substances. One of the first people seen brandishing a joint onscreen is none other than Jerry Garcia, despite his band not appearing in the performance footage. Everybody’s heard about the infamously dodgy brown acid, but dig this eminently pragmatic announcement issued from the stage: “Hey man, it’s your trip, don’t let me stop you, but if you feel like experimenting, try half a tab.” In contrast, we see a huge crowd practicing Kundalini yoga, which the guru espouses as an alternative to drugs.

One of the most striking sequences is when the documentary steps back from the proceedings to take in another angle that wouldn’t ordinary be covered in a typical concert documentary. Wedleigh takes the time to meet a Port-O-San maintainer with one son attending the festival and another flying helicopters in the Vietnam DMZ.

Champagne & Reefer: Rolling Stones Shine a Light

Martin Scorsese’s long history with musical documentaries and concert films includes working as assistant director and editor on Woodstock (1970), directing an account of The Band’s final concert as The Last Waltz (1978), executive producing and designing the shots for Peter Gabriel’s concert film PoV (AKA Point of View, 1987), directing part of the massive The Blues television documentary series (2003), and crafting the definitive Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries No Direction Home (2005) and Living in the Material World (2010).

Shine a Light is a little of all the above, but mostly just a straightforward concert film featuring the Rolling Stones in a benefit concert thrown at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2006. The Stones are joined by special guests Christina Aguilera, Jack White, and Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy (watch the DVD bonus features for the entertaining story behind that moniker). It was originally released in IMAX, and no doubt loses something in translation from 50-foot theaters screens to small televisions. U2 did them one up by releasing U23D in 3D IMAX the year before.

Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones in Shine a Light
Are you sure you want to see these faces in 50-foot-high IMAX?

Like Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary account of the fallout following the killing of a fan at a Stones concert in Altamont, Shine a Light is sometimes less than totally flattering. Mick Jagger is seen to be so ruthlessly single-minded that he will not deign to collaborate with Scorsese. Even when meeting no less than Bill Clinton, he only wants to talk about whether or not the lighting will distract from his performance. But to be fair, The Rolling Stones hit the big time long before either Scorsese or Clinton, so perhaps Jagger’s vanity may be partially excused. Let it not be said that the old codgers in the band don’t embrace new technology; witness as Jagger strikes classic poses for fans in the front row to capture on their mobiles.

Keith Richards and Buddy Guy in The Rolling Stones Shine a Light
Keef jams with Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy

Scorsese is famously a fan, utilizing Rolling Stones tunes in his soundtracks so often that Jagger now jokes that “Shine a Light was the only film of his not to feature the song Gimme Shelter.” I like The Stones well enough, but I’m not a huge fan. Here’s what a similarly casual listener might learn of them based on Shine a Light:

  • Charlie Watts, also a successful artist and jazz drummer outside of the Stones machine, comes across as quite distracted, almost to the extent of appearing senile (or maybe even more drug-addled than Keith Richards). He behaves the same in vintage interviews scattered throughout Shine a Light, so perhaps it’s just his natural demeanor. But there’s no doubt he can still rock his stripped-down drum kit.
  • Mick Jagger still has the body of a preteen girl, albeit one with impressively ripped arms.
  • Everybody knows the legendary Keith Richards has abused his body to such an extent that he has no business still walking this earth. He jokes in the film that he must come from hardy stock, but maybe he is in fact already dead, seeing as how he barely notices a kiss from Christina Aguilera. He still has chops, though, beyond going through the highly rehearsed motions of a typical Stones spectacle. In a telling moment, the camera catches him alone, playing some moody blues licks to himself as the rest of the band hobnobs.
  • Ronnie Wood comes across the best, reminding fans that although Keith Richards may have co-written many of the most popular and enduring rock songs of all time, he’s the one that plays all the solos.

Scorsese includes himself as a character in his own film, appearing at least twice in a characteristic tracking shot that caps the film: following the Stones offstage and out of the theater, and flying up into the night sky over New York. The world will have to wait for Scorsese’s true documentary on the Stones to equal No Direction Home and Living in the Material World as a true fan’s deep look into some of the world’s most interesting celebrities.

Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.

Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:

At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.

The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.

The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.

The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.

MGMT live in Brooklyn, July 1, 2009

The electronic/disco/pop/rock group MGMT has made a huge splash, earning spots on tours with no less than Paul McCartney and Beck. The wildly catchy “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” (the latter featuring a truly deranged music video) are not out of keeping with the rest of their repertoire in terms of style and instrumentation, but the infectious hooks do stand apart from the forgettable rest. At their Celebrate Brooklyn concert in Prospect Park on July 1, they debuted a few new songs set for their forthcoming sophomore album that didn’t immediately grab me either.

MGMT live in Prospect Park
MGMT live in Prospect Park

For a band called “synth-hippies” by Pitchfork, they all looked rather clean-cut to me (but they evidently have a very young and boozy audience – one kid passed out and literally collapsed on our feet only a few songs into the concert). Their sound may be very electronic and a throwback to disco, but their live instrumentation is very rock guitar oriented. The only exception being “Kids,” for which the band put down their analog instruments and let the synthesizers and sequencers take over, even recreating a live fadeout.

Explosions in the Sky live in Central Park, June 30, 2009

Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental post-rock quartet from Texas. Their characteristic formula of a chiming guitar power trio on top of pulsating drums is a bit more palatable than their extremely loud, menacing Scottish peers Mogwai (read our review of their April show in New York). Personally, I hear a kind of homogeneity to much of Explosions’ music that I don’t hear in other post-rock outfits like Mogwai, Sigur Rós, and Tortoise.

To oversimplify their history, the band is primarily known for two factoids. In an unfortunate coincidence, their album Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, released a few days before 9/11, featured a cover illustration of a plane and a caption reading “This plane will crash tomorrow.” Long before I actually heard any of their music, I do recall this story helping to feed the 24-hour-a-day broadcast news hysteria that followed. Better bolstering their repute, they composed the popular score to Peter Berg’s 2004 film Friday Night Lights, and they’ve attracted a significant fan base – selling out outdoor Central Park Rumsey Playfield even in the rain.

The band’s designated spokesman Munaf Rayani began the show by announcing it was their 10-year anniversary as a band. They played for about an hour and half without interruption, blending songs together into a continuous flow. From where I stood, the appreciative audience recognized and cheered many tunes. But Rayani apologized at the end of the show for things having “going off the rails,” and they walked off without an encore despite there still being some time before the Central Park curfew. For all I know, that may be their custom, but it was really surprising, and audibly disappointed everyone around me. Awkward.

California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009

The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know. As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers. As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times, all without having specifically meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)

California Guitar Trio

Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite (listen for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel introduces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers. Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one. I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio
California Guitar Trio & Tyler Trotter perform Tubular Bells

Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam, along with some of my subjective comments:

  1. Punta Patri
  2. Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
  3. Cathedral Peak
  4. Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound guy Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
  5. Portland Rain
  6. Andromeda
  7. TX
  8. Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
  9. Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
  10. Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
  12. Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Superconductor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.

Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men
Tony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.