Tag Archives: Queen

Omnibus (week of Nov. 26, 2017)

You know, I think this is actually a pretty strong instalment. Usually this blog just sort of is what it is. God knows nobody reads it. At least, not on days when I’m not on the radio. And obviously I don’t care, or I wouldn’t have been doing it every week for two years. But sometimes I think maybe it’s pretty good. This is one of those. For what it’s worth.

Three picks of the week, since I only did one last time. 15 reviews.

Music

Margo Price: All American Made — I think I speak for every single human on the planet when I say that 2017 suuuuuuuuuucked. Like, on a universal level, and also seemingly on a personal level for a whole bunch of people I know. I mean, lots of great things happened this year. But big chunks of it were confusing and disappointing, and perhaps some of us have been wishing we’d made different choices. It is what it is. We all end up there sometimes. Never fear. Margo Price has a new album, and it’s even better than the first one. All American Made isn’t a Sad, Dark, Personal Album in the vein of Blood on the Tracks, Tonight’s the Night or Blue. Hell, Price wrote these songs after breaking a 15-year losing streak in the music industry. And she co-wrote a bunch of them with her husband, who she seems rather fond of. This isn’t an exorcism. Musically, it’s even pretty peppy, aside from the ballads. But Price realizes the same thing that all of the greatest country songwriters have realized, which is that there is no catharsis in the world like a straightforward description of a bad thing happening. Or, a straightforward description of a shitty state of mind you’ve found yourself in — see the outstanding heartstring tugger “Learning to Lose,” featuring a very 84-year-old-sounding Willie Nelson. I believe (here begins the hot take segment of the review) that bleak, doleful country music is more relevant today than ever. The social role of songs like “Learning to Lose” is to reassure you that disappointment, rejection, loneliness and failure are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. That they aren’t specific to you. This is crucial now that we live in a world where everybody can so easily airbrush the worst bits of their lives out of their public identities on Facebook and Instagram. These platforms have caused us to perceive life as a game that can be won or lost on an ongoing basis. And they have also made it really easy — and socially necessary — to lie and cheat at that game. We must always be winning, even when we are not. So, where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? You turn to lonesome, dejected country music, soaked in whiskey and regret. On the day before the day before the new year, many of us will be looking back on a dubious 363 days. Margo gets it. She’s the most honest songwriter to emerge in the last couple years, and she’s exactly the one we need. Pick of the week.

Margo Price: Weakness (EP) — Since the title track is also on All American Made, this is mostly worth it for “Paper Cowboy,” the rare Margo Price recording where the focus is squarely on the band, which is amazing. Seriously, Luke Schneider’s pedal steel playing is next-level.

Queen: Sheer Heart Attack — I rewatched Baby Driver last week (conveniently forgetting at the start that it’s got Kevin Spacey in it) and I was plunged into a world of “Brighton Rock” on repeat. Seldom has a song that only has one repetition of its chorus been more addictive. (Is it really a chorus if it only happens once? Yes it is. Because it sounds like one. “Oh rock of ages, do not crumble” are not words you just throw into a verse or a bridge.) The clear next phase in this obsession was to revisit this album, which remains my most neglected classic Queen album, mostly as a consequence of how I experienced Queen at first. As a prog-obsessed teenager, Queen II was my go-to, with A Night at the Opera getting the secondary nod almost by default, just because it’s “the classic.” But with a few more years behind me, I’m willing to entertain the notion that Sheer Heart Attack is stronger than either. Sure, it’s got an uneven second half. The run of “Misfire,” “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” and “She Makes Me (Stormtroopers in Stilettos)” is markedly less magnificent than the rest of the disc, with the second of those being virtually the only Freddie Mercury novelty song that fails to amuse me. But I’m not sure Queen ever made an album that didn’t have a couple dogs on it. In retrospect, Queen II has more lacklustre tracks than that. And for all that album’s musical intricacy and wonderment, it is couched in a high-fantasy aesthetic that I find less compelling at 27 than I did at 15. Sheer Heart Attack’s greatest improvement over its predecessor is its adoption of surrealism and introspection in place of Queen II’s ogres and fairy fellers. I still love those songs, but Sheer Heart Attack keeps you at arm’s length just a little bit less. Aside from “Brighton Rock,” which belongs in everybody’s top five Queen songs, my highlight is the three-parter formed by “Tenement Funster,” “Flick of the Wrist” and “Lily of the Valley.” The middle part of the trilogy is what really holds it up: “Flick of the Wrist” is Queen’s entire ethos in three minutes. The way Mercury’s piano (absent throughout “Tenement Funster”) arrives suddenly, elegantly tossing off a bit of filigree before the vocal begins, is a masterstroke. And the moment when the Queen choir kicks on on “Don’t look back! Don’t look back!” is as dramatic and satisfying as they get. But the other two bits should get their due as well: “Tenement Funster” may be my favourite Roger Taylor track, simply because it is the most Roger Taylor track. And “Lily of the Valley” is a sort of refinement of “Nevermore” from Queen II, which has a lovely melody but very overwrought lyrics. To my ears this still leaves three classics in “Killer Queen,” “Now I’m Here” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” the latter of which sounds about four years ahead of its time. Bottom line, Queen is everything that’s good about rock music from the ‘70s, and this is maybe their best album.

Morton Feldman/Marc-André Hamelin: For Bunita Marcus — One of my favourite “classical” (terrible word) releases of the year. Every time Hamelin records something that isn’t stupidly technical — like his amazing Haydn recordings — the classical music chattersphere makes that the lede. And, fair enough. But in the case of this beautiful late piece by Morton Feldman, the set of demands placed on the performer are no less extraordinary than those of Alkan or Godowsky, though the piece is technically simple even by ordinary standards. The performer of For Bunita Marcus must play extremely sparsely populated music, very quietly, for well over an hour. I can hardly conceive of the presence of mind it must take to maintain the atmosphere. Hamelin is both an artist and a stuntman, and this is as much a stunt as anything he’s ever played. It’s also as much of an artistic accomplishment as he’s ever put to record. Also: in his liner notes, which I ignored the first time I heard this and only just read this week, Hamelin compares this music to Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” which is an irresistible germ of a thought, given that I coincidentally finished the Ficciones last week. I’m not entirely sure what he’s on about, but certainly both Borges and Feldman are offering two attempts to visualize and quantify the infinite — or, in Borges’ case the finite but inconceivably vast. Maybe in Feldman’s case as well. This is great music for when you need to leave the small things behind.

Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks — Richter is either a genius or a charlatan, except he’s definitely a genius. I don’t like everything he’s done, but his best music (this, the Vivaldi recompositions, parts of Sleep) are modern classics that deserve to stand alongside the music of William Basinski and Tim Hecker. Mind, he’s a lot less spiny than either of them. If you felt emotionally manipulated at the beginning or end of Arrival, it’s Richter’s fault. “On the Nature of Daylight” is one of his simplest, most direct and (dare I say) poppiest pieces of music, so it makes sense that it should find a home in the movies. That track is a highlight of The Blue Notebooks, but it isn’t the highlight: that’s “Shadow Journal,” a dark, slow-moving piece with trancey electronics and reverb-laden harp and strings. You can’t quite call it ambient; it’s too structured for that. But it is spectacular mood music. So is the rest of this. It’s definitely the place to start if you’re looking for an introduction.

Movies

Andy and Jim: The Great Beyond — This is a magnificent documentary about a terrible man who was massively acclaimed for doing a thing badly. Andy and Jim confirms my theory that Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman is horseshit. It is 100% based on the front-of-camera Andy Kaufman, with no attention paid or insight sought out into Kaufman’s actual character. Regardless of how deeply Jim Carrey descended into method acting hell to play Kaufman, his interpretation of the character is fundamentally misguided and has a lot more to do with the neuroses and tics of Jim Carrey than those of Andy Kaufman. Carrey’s Kaufman, for instance, simply can’t accept that Jerry Lawler is a person worth befriending. Where the real Kaufman (as illustrated in one presumably difficult to film segment of Man on the Moon) was a firm friend of the wrestler in real life and only condescended to him for show, Carrey’s Kaufman is a dick to him even when the cameras aren’t on. This is borderline emotional abuse, given that Jerry Lawler played himself in Man on the Moon and was therefore subjected to ruthless taunting by a cheap facsimile of his deceased friend. It’s no wonder he punched Carrey for real. Who among us hasn’t wanted to do the same? The reason Andy and Jim is a great documentary is that it lays bare the extent to which Jim Carrey’s performance was a semi-conscious attempt to outrun his own pathologies. He expresses a need to be “absent” from himself. That’s what acting really is to him: an escape from being a person he doesn’t like. And Man on the Moon seemed to offer a unique opportunity to up the ante on this escape by playing a real person who famously didn’t break character (even though this is untrue and exaggerated in the film). I don’t know what Jim Carrey thinks of this documentary. I don’t know what the director of this documentary thinks of Jim Carrey. Regardless, it’s a fascinating portrait of a violently needy person letting his worst impulses lead him by the nose.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife — I vaguely recall liking this better than The Golden Compass as a kid. And I was right. Smart little fucker, I was. The Golden Compass is a sublime adventure story with one of the best protagonists in children’s literature. But The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman starts to tip his hand that what he’s really writing is an epic on a cosmic scale. This is where the elements of His Dark Materials that I really love start to come out: the multiple universes, the questions of free will and destiny, the rumblings of a great war to come. If there’s a weak point, it’s simply that Pullman has to introduce and develop the character of Will, which means we get less Lyra per page than in The Golden Compass. But Will is a more than acceptable secondary protagonist, and a great foil for Lyra. The early scenes of the two of them trying to cooperate in spite of their drastically different upbringing are fabulous. Also, The Subtle Knife turns up the horror by several degrees. The Golden Compass contained some truly horrifying scenes, particularly the reveal of the first severed child Lyra encounters. (Wonderful how Pullman normalizes the fact that people have daemons so successfully that when she finds something that would look to us like a normal child, it’s appalling.) But The Subtle Knife’s spectre attacks and the general atmosphere of Cittàgazze wouldn’t be out of place in The Dark Tower. Speaking of King, one thing Pullman doesn’t get enough credit for is the way he writes action. I’ve been reading King as well, so it sticks out to me that Pullman and King are equally adept at writing tense action sequences. The one where Lee Scoresby and Hester die is a) heartbreaking, but also b) a hell of a gunfight. Anyway, I’ve been finished this for a few days now and I just got The Amber Spyglass out of the library. I am as excited to crack it open as I was when I was 11 and finishing The Subtle Knife for the first time. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “Picasso’s Guernica” & “The Picts” — These are two episodes that together illustrate why this weird, unvarnished, slightly stuffy talk radio show is one of my favourite podcasts. The Guernica episode is just a full-on, firing-on-all-cylinders episode of this show, where every professor on the panel has something different to offer and Melvyn Bragg organizes the discussion so you see the subject from multiple sides in only an hour. He gets into not only Picasso’s painting itself, but also the actual bombing of Guernica itself and the political situation that let Picasso to make the painting at all. He gets into the impact of reportage from Guernica on Picasso’s approach. He even manages to fit in a bit of the continuing story of Guernica in more recent times, i.e. its presence at the United Nations. The episode about the Picts is an entirely different sort of affair, because it is live in front of an audience, and it is a celebration of the show’s 20th anniversary. It is so demonstrative of this show’s sensibility that when faced with celebrating a milestone, they obviously just decided to do what they were going to do anyway, which was talk about the Picts. I love that. I also love how transparent Bragg gets in this episode, where he doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s attempting to lead his panelists into saying a specific thing. At one point Bragg explains about a general in a decisive battle: “Completely unexpectedly, after winning battles for 30 years, he was not only defeated but killed, and that changed everything.” And then he turns to a member of his panel: “Can you say that more elaborately than I did please. With more scholarship.” And his panelist proceeds to do so, brilliantly. Why mask the process, when forthrightness yields both results and punchlines?  

Fresh Air: “Margo Price” & “Comic Patton Oswalt” — Two fantastic interviews with people who make brilliant, vulnerable art. Also, Margo brought her guitar. So, listen to that one.

On the Media: “About that Nazi Next Door” — A good interview about a distressing reaction to a distressing New York Times story about a white nationalist. What this show is for.

More Perfect catchup — This is shaping up to be one of the best shows of the year, with a second season that eclipses the first by a fair margin. The fearless complexity that’s been missing lately in Radiolab is here in spades, and so is the musical sound design. And the stories themselves are the sort of thing that’ll make you stop doing the dishes from time to time and just stand in the middle of your kitchen. Of the three episodes I listened to this week, the one about Citizens United stands out. Go listen.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Black Cloud of a Husband” — The best episode of this show that I’ve heard so far, and a truly enthralling story. This time, Chris Gethard’s anonymous caller is a newly single mother who has been through what sounds like a hellish marriage and lived to tell the tale. She’s in therapy and seems to be moving past her trauma, which makes this feel less exploitative than it otherwise could. (Though I’ve never actually felt this show is exploitative, really. The anonymity helps, but mostly I feel that Chris Gethard always keeps his callers’ best interest in mind, or tries to as best he can.) But the story of this woman’s relationship with her husband, which she now sees with 20-20 hindsight, is an incredible thing to listen to. Gethard hardly has to do anything. She just has a story to tell and wants to get it out. This is a good starting place for this show. If you don’t like this, you’ll never be won over. Pick of the week.

Constellations: “ellie gordon-moershel – anatomy of the road” & “janet rogers – broken english” — “Anatomy of the road” is a dull, predictable bit of drama in itself, but I can imagine it going somewhere interesting in its continuation. Apparently that will happen. “Broken english” is more fun, on account of its basically being music. I’m all for the line between music and talk radio being blurred.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Right to Dissent” & “Criminal Justice and the POTUS” — Two great, disquieting episodes of a forever disquieting show about how everything is changing for the worse because the most powerful man in the world is a baby with no understanding of the system he’s at the head of. The criminal justice episode is particularly good, because it references Trump’s response to the Central Park Five to help understand his current stance on criminal justice, which is deplorable.

StartUp: “The Race for a Driverless Future” — It’s been a long time since I listened to the first part of this two-parter, but I remember it was more fun than this. If this show were continuing with this episodic approach, it would be gone from my feed.

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Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 21, 2016)

29, this week! Back on track! It’s been one of those weeks where there’s a lot of cleaning and cooking, and even a bit of running, so there are inevitably also lots of podcasts. Also, many other interesting and unexpected things.

Literature, etc.

Umberto Eco: “Ur-Fascism” — Read it. I had never read anything by Eco, but when he died, this came highly recommended by two bloggers I enjoy. It contains some interesting personal nuggets and, most interestingly, a list of features that tend to be present in various forms of fascism. So, it’s a very useful essay if you’re looking to call somebody an evil fascist on grounds that aren’t totally specious.

Peter Hince: “Being Queen’s Roadie was One Intense, Rewarding Job” — This is an excerpt from a book that’s probably insufferable by a quarter of the way through. But, a free excerpt won’t hurt anybody. It doesn’t contain a lot of revelations; these things never do. Basically, Freddie Mercury was a handful. Hince’s reveries can get a bit self-indulgent — like your uncle who was in a band, once. He’s a bit of a prick, really. It’s still kind of fun, and Hince saw and heard Queen’s shows from angles that nobody else did. It’s worth a read if you’re a Queen fan, which you probably are. You couldn’t pay me to read the whole book, though. On the other hand…

Will Romano: Mountains Come Out Of The Sky — This is a fairly straightforward history of progressive rock. I’m reading it for a project I’m hoping to start sometime in the not too distant future. I’ve been reading it for ages. It’s the same every time: I borrow it from the library, read one measly chapter, renew it three times thinking I’ll get further, then I have to return it. The reason for this is simple: this book is dismal. Romano doesn’t know how to write sentences. He has nothing interesting to say about the music or the culture that it came out of. And he rehashes tired truisms from prog fandom about how vacuous everything else was. I’m committed to finishing it for one reason: Romano interviewed everybody, and gets some interesting quotes here and there which may prove useful to me. But seriously, this is dire. Every time I pick it up it lights a fire under me to write something like this, except good. I’m working on it.

John Cavanagh: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — An early entry in the 33⅓ series, and not the strongest I’ve read, but still a really good insight into the making of Pink Floyd’s debut album. Cavanagh (what is it with Cavanaghs?) made me realize the influence of Roger Waters, even at this early point in the band’s history. I was always sort of stupefied that a guy who started off as just some bassist eventually wrote The Wall. My impression was that Waters only stepped up his contribution because Syd Barrett’s absence from the third album onwards made it necessary. That’s clearly not true. He always had designs on rock stardom.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — Specifically, after finishing the book, I listened straight through the three-disc 40th anniversary edition that has the album in both mono and stereo forms (maybe it’s because I grew up with it, but I don’t hate the stereo mix as much as most Floyd fans, though the mono is certainly better overall) plus all of the associated singles and B-sides. It’s a top-notch set, and absolutely worthwhile for anybody that likes the album. Which I do, clearly. But I will say that parts of it have aged better than others. “See Emily Play” remains a 10/10 pop single, “Astronomy Domine” is as good a four-minute distillation of psychedelic rock as you’ll find, and perhaps surprisingly, the ten-minute, mostly atonal jam track “Interstellar Overdrive” still works, in spite of being more firmly of its time than anything else on the record. I’m more hesitant about “Flaming” and “The Gnome.” There is only so much tweeness I am willing to accept in my psychedelia. And, as far as songwriting goes, I’m inclined to believe that Syd Barrett was better once he’d abandoned that aesthetic on his comparatively dark solo albums.

Pink Floyd: Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — I can’t believe I’d never heard this. This is the half-hour recording Pink Floyd made as the score to the bizarre-looking movie of the same name, which I will likely watch, maybe sometime. But the version of “Interstellar Overdrive” on this is far better than the version that made it onto Piper, though it lacks the state-of-the-art EMI mixing and mastering. And “Nick’s Boogie” is dank af.

Jethro Tull: War Child — Just as Jethro Tull is one of the most underestimated bands ever to skirt the borders of the classic rock canon, War Child is the most overlooked of their many masterpieces of the 70s. This was the first Tull album not to be made up of just one gigantic song since Aqualung three years prior. But the “bigness” of Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play continue here. That may alienate some listeners, but I think it’s very artfully done. Dee Palmer’s rock orchestral arrangements are maybe second only to George Martin’s, and the glockenspiels, accordions and tablas that the band employs on “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” make it one of the best recordings of Jethro Tull’s career — and not just one of Ian Anderson’s best songs. This album is full of moments that I find sort of chilling, like the soprano sax melody that opens the title track, or the line in “Skating Away” about being the only one in the audience. My only complaint is that “Two Fingers” is a bit of a weak ending, and not nearly as good as the simpler version recorded as “Lick Your Fingers Clean” during the Aqualung sessions. It’s the only song on the album that’s let down by its arrangement, and it’s right at the end. But up to there, War Child is a classic and one of my favourite albums.

Movies

Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — Okay, it didn’t take me as long to get around to this as I thought it would. This is an absolute pleasure. It’s an arty sort of documentary about Swinging London that has a sense of humour about itself and never disappears up its own ass. This, in spite of the fact that it was actually made during the period of Swinging London, and not in retrospect. Usually, I find there’s a certain inevitable self-seriousness to nonfiction that speaks on behalf of a contemporary counterculture. (That’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t get into On The Road.) This isn’t like that at all. It’s mostly verité footage over relevant music, with relatively little speech. What speech there is is mostly stoned people talking out their asses, but you get the sense that the film neither endorses what they’re saying, nor does it hold them in disdain. (Okay, maybe it holds Andrew Loog Oldham in disdain, but the wanker deserves it.) There’s a moment near the beginning where the camera’s shooting a guy playing trombone in a sequence making fun of the pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guard, and the camera keeps zooming in and out as the trombonist moves his slide. It’s surprisingly funny, and establishes the camera as a really engaging, likeable narrator. The last third of the movie revolves more around interview footage and is far less interesting than what came before, but there are worthwhile tidbits. Julie Christie is remarkably indulgent of Peter Whitehead, the obviously eccentric man making the film. A young Michael Caine reveals himself to be very sexist. And Mick Jagger’s actually fairly thoughtful at times. If you’re going to watch a movie about psychedelic culture in the 60s, this is not as good a choice as Performance, but more worthwhile than Easy Rider.

A Serious Man — The best part of this movie is a scene where the main character, a physics professor, is arguing with his student’s father in his driveway. The father is threatening to sue the professor for defaming his son — the professor claims that his student tried to bribe him in exchange for a passing grade, which is almost certainly true but we can’t know for sure. So, the professor says, okay I’ll pretend like this never happened, but your son still fails. And the father says that unless his son passes, he’ll sue the professor — not for defamation, now, but for taking money. Aha, says the professor, so he did leave the money! “This is defamation,” says the father. The professor reasonably points out that this doesn’t make any sense: either he left the money or he didn’t. “Please,” says the father. “Accept the mystery.” This is, of course, a Schroedinger’s cat scenario. The cat can’t actually be simultaneously dead and alive, but we accept the mystery because the math checks out. And, Schroedinger’s cat and the associated math is the very topic of the failed exam that all of this is about. The Coens structure the movie so that this is an obvious and easy connection to make, and their main character sees it too — which is part of what spurs on his crisis of faith. Yes, this movie is thematically based around a three-way allegory comparing faith, physics and bribery. Like Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou, it deserves to be much more highly regarded. Pick of the week.

Television

Deadwood: Season 2, episodes 3-6 — The abysmally-titled but excellent episode “Requiem for a Gleet” features not just one, but two moments that must rank high on my list of great TV scenes: the shot of five people at Al’s bedside after his medical ordeal (the nature of which is only marginally spoiled by the episode’s title), and the scene where E.B. fails miserably to trick Alma out of her gold claim. The latter is borderline Shakespearean in its wit. E.B. is an idiot, but a wonderfully loquacious one in the vein of Polonius. And, the way that Alma turns the tables and manages to unsettle him rather than the other way around recalls Shakespeare’s cleverest heroines: Beatrice and Rosalind. Also, the character of Francis Walcott, who shows up this season to stir the pot, feels like a prototype of Vee from Orange is the New Black: another ill-intentioned interloper in a show’s second season. We’ll see which of them turns out to be more dangerous, but as of episode six, I’m leaning heavily towards Walcott. He basically just turned into Hannibal.

Last Week Tonight: February 22, 2016 — Sometimes satire doesn’t make me laugh, but instead makes me say “yes, that is correct; good job liberal America.” I don’t think that’s good satire. That’s what the Hollywood whitewashing segment did — not that it isn’t something worth talking about. It’s just that everybody’s talking about it already, and this segment didn’t frame the issue in a new way, or make me laugh. (Except for the bit about Idris Elba dressing like French Waldo. That was gold.) The rest of the episode is wonderful. I have a limitless tolerance for John Oliver fact-checking Republican talking points when actual journalists won’t, and the segment on abortion laws works by sheer accumulation of examples.

Better Call Saul: “Cobbler” — “You think I’d be caught dead driving that thing? It looks like a school bus for six-year-old pimps.” Michael Mando as Nacho is becoming one of my favourite performances in this show. The story is becoming as frustrating-in-a-good-way as Breaking Bad was. You see what Jimmy’s capable of at every turn, but you can also predict his every backslide into criminality. He’s undone by his own self-image.

Lost: “The Moth” — Not to be confused with the podcast discussed below. Charlie is one of the most appealing characters in Lost because of Dominic Monaghan’s performance, but his story is appallingly written. This episode, with its hamfisted symbolism and its rock and roll clichés, is the show’s first proper stinker. It’s one of the obvious points to go to illustrate the failings of this supposedly “best” season of Lost. Also, this is the first I’ve noticed it, but Naveen Andrews’ accent is really bad, isn’t it?

Podcasts

Sampler: “Magic and Tonic” — This is a perfectly entertaining show, but I honestly don’t see who’s going to tune in (I have decided that this is still an appropriate expression to use about podcasts) regularly to hear a show that’s about other shows. Brittany Luse is great, though. I’ll check out her other show when I catch up with my damn subscriptions.

On the Media: “Bernie Sanders is Running for President” — That title was supposed to be a joke, because the episode aired in January, months after Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy. But since I’m listening to it a full month after that, I guess it’s… funnier? Not much to say, except that once I catch up with my damn subscriptions, I might add OTM to my list of shows that I listen to every episode of, because it’s the most consistently intelligent show available that relates to news.

The Moth: “Moth GrandSLAMs: Life and Death” — I tuned in for Neil Gaiman, and ended up consistently bored throughout all four stories. Oh well. One episode closer to having caught up with my damn subscriptions.

Radiolab: “I Don’t Have To Answer That” — Politics stories on Radiolab are almost sure to be good, and completely certain not to be extraordinary. There’s no good reason that Radiolab, with its capacity for bold aesthetic choices and esoteric storytelling, should be the show to do this story. Hell, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield work just down the hall. This is fine. It’s good. But I miss the version of Radiolab that would take on the questions nobody else could.

Serial: “5 O’Clock Shadow” — Okay, now this is starting to pick up. This episode has a detailed outline of a military mission and great tape from people who were there. It’s also the first episode that has really sold the confusion over Bergdahl’s motives to me. Having heard his complaints about his platoon, I have no idea why he thought such dramatic measures were necessary.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Grease: Live, and Musicals on TV” — Even as a person with a relatively high tolerance for musicals, all of the stuff they talk about on this episode sounds dire to me.

All Songs Considered: “Shearwater, Lily & Madeleine, Eskimeaux, More” — Nothing on this really stuck out, but I love when Lars Gotrich comes around, because he has some magical way of finding the sort of strange and marginal music that I want in my life.

Fresh Air: “Original ‘Cabaret’ Emcee Joel Grey” — Grey’s a complicated guy. There’s a lot of drama in his life story, which he’s been keeping under wraps for a long time, considering that he only came out publicly as a gay man last year. This is a good interview. It’s hard not to think that Grey was a bit of a jerk to his ex-wife, but there were compromising circumstances.

Theory of Everything: “After Work” — Benjamen Walker checks back in with the unpaid intern he “hired” to try and make a living in the sharing economy back in the three-part “Instaserfs” series. This is great; I love how the two of them use their relationship as a metaphor for the actual sharing economy, and this episode turns that on its head, a bit. As ever, Walker’s intense skepticism about “progress” in the world of labour is much appreciated.

99% Invisible: “The Yin and Yang of Basketball” — This is a story about design solutions to seeming injustices built into the game of basketball. It’s real genius lies in the fact that it’s not important to understand what a three-point shot is, for example. I have no idea what that is, and if they’d tried to explain it, I guarantee I would have tuned out.

Imaginary Worlds: “Noble Effort” — This is actually an episode of 99pi from back when Molinsky was a freelancer without his own podcast. It’s a very, very good episode of 99pi, about the work of the man who drew the backgrounds and landscapes for the Looney Toons, and was thus at least halfway responsible for their brilliance.

Radiolab: “Hard Knock Life” — Robert Krulwich got Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, to write music about the mating rituals of beetles. This is essentially why we need Robert Krulwich in the world.

99% Invisible: “Miss Manhattan” — The best episode of 99pi since “Structural Integrity.” Before there were supermodels, one woman posed for nearly every sculptor in America. It’s a great story, and Avery Trufelman is an incredible storyteller. Just go listen to it. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The 2016 Grammy Awards” — I saved so much time by just listening to this and not watching the Grammys. I hate the Grammys. But everything Kendrick Lamar touches turns to gold, so at least there’s that.

Serial: “Hindsight” Parts 1 & 2 — The more that this season of Serial stays focussed on Bergdahl himself, rather than going madly off in every contextual direction, the more I like it — which is to say that this two-parter is one of the highlights of season two. I realize that this is an argument against the very thing that I’ve previously claimed makes Serial such a positive cultural force in the past, but I just can’t deny that personal narratives mean more to me than the granular details that Sarah Koenig and Dana Chivvis are so good at parsing.

Reply All: “The Line” — This is a story about doubt in the Mormon church, as expressed online, that neither condescends to Mormons, nor does it gloss over the fact that their doctrine doesn’t make sense. It is very deft and very moving, and once again does that thing that I love so much about Reply All where it switches effortlessly back and forth between being “important public radio” and being people with microphones shooting the shit.

Ian Anderson is a better singer than you probably think.

If you’ve never actually had a conversation with me, count yourself lucky.

There are only a few things I can really talk about, and they’re almost certainly not the same things you like to talk about.

One thing I prattle on about all the time is my love for Jethro Tull. And, once I’ve found myself deeply involved in a satisfying rhetorical conversation on that topic, I almost always get the same vaguely disinterested response from my unlucky company: “Yeah, that guy can sure play the flute.”

I know that they all mean well, when they say that. But they’re entirely missing the point.

Ian Anderson’s flute playing isn’t what makes Jethro Tull a great band. It’s not even what makes Ian Anderson a great musician. Or, not the only thing, anyway.

So, let’s take a look at a different side of everybody’s favourite rock & roll man-flamingo – his singing voice.

Anderson makes no claim to be a good singer. He’s said before than when he joined the band that would become Tull, as a harmonica player, the mic was thrust upon him because his voice was slightly less awful than everybody else’s. But Anderson can do more with that nasal baritone than he gives himself credit for: indeed, more than anybody gives him credit for.

Here’s my argument in brief:

Proposition: Ian Anderson, the unsung hero of rock vocalists, is in some respect as agile a singer as some of his more acclaimed contemporaries.

…which of course begs the question, in what respect?

Well, for now, let’s consider Anderson’s use of melisma. That’s when you sing more than one note on a single syllable of text. It’s the opposite of syllabic singing, which is when you sing one note per syllable.

This should make it clearer:

We often associate melisma with ornate, baroque vocal music and gospel-inflected pop. In recent years, it’s become popular as a tasteless mechanism to show off your dubious technique on TV talent competitions. But, there’s no question that it takes some vocal agility and control to pull off highly melismatic singing.

Ian Anderson sings melismas kind of obsessively. He’s even mentioned in the Wikipedia article on melisma: “Melisma is also used, though rarely and briefly, in the music of Jethro Tull: examples include the eponymous track of the album Songs From the Wood, and the song Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of the New Day).”

Actually, Anderson’s melismas are neither rare nor brief. Almost every Tull album up to Crest of a Knave is loaded with them.

So, here’s the crazy thing I did to prove my proposition.

Method: I chose three songs by three different rock bands of the 1970s. One of the bands is Jethro Tull. All of the songs chosen show an accomplished vocalist at the peak of his abilities. I analyzed each song to determine which is, on average, the most melismatic.

Of course, trying to rank rock singers’ vocal abilities by any objective measure is a fool’s errand. But maybe when you see the way this shakes out, you’ll listen to Anderson’s snide, sardonic rasp a little differently.

Let’s meet our contestants:

Ian Anderson

Contestant #1: Ian Anderson

On behalf of our intrepid contender, I have submitted the track “Minstrel in the Gallery.” It’s a powerhouse vocal performance that shows Anderson’s approach to melodic, acoustic music and riff-powered hard rock in equal measure.

 

 

 

Freddie Mercury BW

Contestant #2: Freddie Mercury

It was an obvious choice, really. Mercury’s four-octave range is enough to ensconce him in the top tier of his generation’s great singers. Add expressiveness and flexibility to that, and he’s a shoe-in for a spot in our contest.

“Somebody to Love” sees Mercury singing in every corner of his massive range. And, unlike most Queen, it’s got a bit of church in it. Church is, of course, the ultimate domain of the melisma, so we can expect Freddie to score pretty high with this track.

 

Robert Plant BW

Contestant #3: Robert Plant

Sometimes, when you listen to music from the ’70s, you wonder what the singer gets up to during the ten-minute instrumental breaks. Not so with Led Zeppelin. Plant is right there in the thick of it. No rock singer understands that the voice is an instrument quite like he does.

We’ll judge him according to his performance on “Kashmir.” The track is mostly based on repetitive patterns in the guitar and drums, with an orchestral arrangement that doesn’t command much attention. So, the responsibility of keeping the listener’s interest throughout the track’s eight-and-a-half-minute duration falls squarely on Plant. He “oohs” and “whoahs” his way through the task with great finesse.

Process:

If you’re not interested in how I reached my conclusions, and I wouldn’t judge you for that, you can skip to the section titled “Results.” Just take for granted that my methods are totally precise and scientific, and that there were no grey areas for me to exploit for my own purposes. I would never cook the books like that. Trust me.

The ultimate goal of this little experiment is to calculate the ratio of notes per syllable in the lead vocal of each selected track. That means we need to count the syllables and the notes in each performance. So, we need an accurate transcription of the lyrics of each song as sung, complete with any incidental “heys,” “yeahs” etc. Then, we can count the syllables in each text, and listen closely to each recording to count the notes.

Here’s what I came up with:

Minstrel in the Gallery

Transcription

The minstrel in the gallery looked down upon the smiling faces.
He met the gazes, observed the spaces between the old men’s cackle.
He brewed a song of love and hatred, oblique suggestions and he waited.
He polarized the pumpkin-eaters, static-humming panel-beaters;
Freshly day-glow’d fact’ry cheaters, salaried and collar-scrubbing.
He titillated men-of-action, belly warming, hands still rubbing
On the parts they never mention.
He pacified the nappy-suff’ring, infant-bleating one-line jokers.
T.V. documen’try makers, overfed and undertakers,
Sunday paper backgammon players, fam’ly-scarred and women-haters.
Then he called the band down to the stage and he
Looked at all the friends he’d made.

The minstrel in the gallery looked down upon the smiling faces.
He met the gazes, observed the spaces in between the old men’s cackle.
And he brewed a song of love and hatred, oblique suggestions and he waited.
He polarized the pumpkin-eaters, static-humming panel-beaters;

The minstrel in the gallery looked down on the rabbit-run.
And he threw away his looking-glass – and saw his face in everyone.
Hey!

He titillated men-of-action, belly warming hands still rubbing
On the parts they never mention, salaried and collar-scrubbing, yeah.

He pacified the nappy-suff’ring, infant-bleating one-line jokers.
T.V. documen’try makers, overfed and undertakers,
Sunday paper backgammon players, fam’ly-scarred and women-haters.
And then he called the band down to the stage and he
Looked at all the friends he’d made.

The minstrel in the gallery looked down on the rabbit-run.
And he threw away his looking-glass – and saw his face in everyone.
Huh-hey!
The minstrel in the gallery, yes.
Looked down upon the smiling faces.
He met the gazes, yeah.
Mm, the minstrel in the gallery.
Mm, and he waited, yeah.

Notes

For our purposes, it’s important to note the way that Anderson pronounces the words “suffering,” “family,” “documentary,” and “factory.” Each of these words could be sung with a varying number of syllables, depending on the context. Anderson always chooses the shorter one. For example, “documentary” becomes “documen’try,” so that it’s pronounced with four syllables. Accounting for this, Anderson sings a total of 458 syllables.

Counting the notes isn’t quite so black and white. I frequently wondered whether Anderson was singing six notes on a given word, or seven; seven or eight; nine or ten. It’s easy to lose count when the notes fly by as fast as they do here. Where there was ambiguity, I generally erred towards the lower number, to counteract my pro-Anderson bias. In the end, I counted a total of 704 notes in the lead vocal.

So, the average number of notes per syllable in “Minstrel in the Gallery” is about 1.54.

Here’s a picture of my notes for this track, which look like something only an insane person would produce. They show the number of notes that I heard in each word of the song. All in the interest of transparency:

MITG Transc

Somebody to Love

Transcription

(Note: This is a transcription of the lead vocal only. Mercury does sing backup in this track as well, but for the sake of comparison, I’ve left that out. Also, like I could seriously pick him out in the mix…)

Can…

Ooh…
Each morning I get up I die a little,
Can barely stand on my feet,
Take a look in the mirror and cry,
Lord what you’re doing to me,
I have spent all my years in believing you,
But I just can’t get no relief, Lord!
Somebody, ooh somebody…
Can anybody find me somebody to love?

Yeah…
I work hard every day of my life,
I work till I ache my bones,
At the end,
I take home my hard earned pay all on my own,
I go down on my knees,
And I start to pray,
Till the tears run down from my eyes,
Lord somebody, ooh somebody,
Can anybody find me somebody to love ?

Everyday – I try and I try and I try,
But everybody wants to put me down,
They say I’m going crazy,
They say I got a lot of water in my brain,
Ah, got no common sense,
I got nobody left to believe.

Ooh somebody – ooh,
anybody find me somebody to love?

Got no feel, I got no rhythm,
I just keep losing my beat,
I’m OK, I’m alright,
I ain’t gonna face no defeat,
I just gotta get out of this prison cell,
Someday, I’m gonna be free, Lord!

Uhhh-ooh
Find me – Find me – Find
Ooh – Find me – Find me somebody to love
Ooh

Ooh, can anybody find me
Somebody to love.

Ooh
Find me somebody somebody somebody somebody to love
Find me find me find me find me find me
Ooh somebody to love
Ooh
Find me find me find me somebody to love
Anybody anywhere, anybody find me somebody to love love love love
Find me, find me, find me
Love.

Notes

Once I stuck all of Mercury’s improvisatory flights of fancy into the transcription, I found that he sings 369 syllables in total, not counting backup vocals.

The number of notes that he sings is even more ambiguous than in Anderson’s case, due to the fine line between melisma and portamento, which is where you slide up or down between notes, singing all of the pitches between the two. There are two key notes in such a gesture, at the beginning and the end, with an undefined number of pitches in between.

If we were to make a distinction between melisma and portamento, we could say that in melisma, the singer moves cleanly between the notes, and in portamento, he slides between them in a more relaxed fashion. Still, that’s a pretty fine line to draw, so in the spirit of generosity, and to once again counteract my bias, I have counted some of Mercury’s portamenti as two notes, rather than one “bent” note.

I have only done this where Mercury clearly intends to move from one note of the melody to another, rather than to ornament a single note. An example of the former would be the word “look” in the line “take a look in the mirror and cry.” That gets counted as two. An example of the latter would be the word “stand” in the line “can barely stand on my feet.” That’s just one.

This is one of those grey areas that I said didn’t exist.

All said and done, I counted 442 notes, resulting in a notes-per-syllable ratio of 1.20.

Here are my notes.

STL Transc

Kashmir

Transcription

(Note: Where the vocal fades out at the end of the song, I assumed that Plant follows the same pattern as previously, both in terms of words and notes.)

Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream,
I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been,
Sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen,
Talk of days for which they sit and wait – all will be revealed.

Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace, whose sounds caress my ear,
But not a word I heard could I relate, the story was quite clear,
Whoah, whoah.

Oooh, oh baby, I been flyin’…
No yeah, ah-mama, there ain’t no denyin,’
Ow, Oooh, yes. I’ve been flying, mama-ma, ai… ain’t no denyin’, no denyin’.

All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground,
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land,
Tryna find, tryna find where I’ve been-ahh.

Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream,
Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream,
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again,
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin’ through Kashmir.

Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years,
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear,
Whoah-ohh. Whoah. Ohh. Ohhhhh.

Well, when I’m on, when I’m on my way, yeah,
When I see, when I see the way, you stay-yeah.

Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, when I’m down…
Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, when I’m down, so down,
Ooh, my baby, oooh, my baby, let me take you there.

Oh, oh. Come on. Come on. Ohh.

Let me take you there. Let me take you there.

Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, let me take you there. (faded)

Notes

Another one of those fine lines: Is he singing “whoah,” or “whoah-ohh?” Anyway, it sounds to me like Plant sings 348 syllables, here.

The same distinction between melisma and portamento applies here, as it did with Mercury. I’ve treated it the same way.

When I calculated the notes-per-syllable ratio of this track, I realized it’s kind of unfair. The end result is a higher score than Mercury received, but the majority of Plant’s melismas are only two notes long: hardly melismas at all, compared to Mercury’s nine and eleven note beauties. Nonetheless, Plant sings two notes on a syllable frequently enough to put him just over the top, for a total of 440 notes, and a ratio of 1.26.

Another page of notes:

Kash Transc

Results:

The proposition stands. Ian Anderson’s notes-per-syllable ratio of 1.54 is the highest of the three by a clear margin. Robert Plant is the runner-up with a ratio of 1.26, and Freddie Mercury, in spite of singing far longer melismas than Plant, brings up the rear with a score of 1.20.

These may seem like small numbers, but bear in mind that the standard number of notes to sing on a syllable of text is one. Melismas are the exception rather than the rule, even in the three songs examined here.

Perhaps it seems slightly trivial to rank singers based on inconsequential little numerical values like these. But it certainly pegs Anderson’s claim not to be a good singer as false modesty. For all his shortcomings, whatever they are, he has a lot of vocal flexibility.

Moreover, it’s always used in service to the song. “Minstrel in the Gallery” deals with the relationship between the performer and his audience. It uses the image of a medieval minstrel to shed light on the public personas of ’70s rock idols. A teeny bit of technical showmanship can be expected, given that theme. You can also find a lot of melisma on side two of Aqualung. That’s the churchy side, so it fits. (See “Hymn 43” in particular.)

But also, that guy can sure play the flute.