Sunday, November 16, 2014


Classics playlist

Our second Liner Notes session at the 92nd St Y was on November 13, and we decided to take things a bit further back than our norm -- this time to the 'classics.' Exploring classical music is, embarrassingly, new ground for Nate and I because we are not very knowledgeable about the broader-than-Broadway field. That said, we've had the good fortune of working with a model who is also a renowned classical pianist, so we felt this was a good area to explore: historic costumes paired with classical and classical-inspired music.

The theme is also right up my alley, because it is another way to explore the roots of musical motifs. By now, you've probably figured that hip-hop's sampling and hyper-meta commentary were my entry points to this game. Hence, the Bela Bartok sample that frames Dr. Octagon's "Blue Flowers" was one of my first and only initial thoughts (though, in the end, I passed on it in favor of the goofy, "I Got To Tell You"). Researching classical influences in pop music presented a fun, new challenge for me. I'm aware it's cliche to talk about certain composers being the pop music of their day, but tracing the lineage of a signature phrase like Pachelbel's Canon in D to late 20th Century "classic" music, like Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," makes the point very clear.

I gravitated toward the more meditative pieces, so quiet Chopin and Rachmaninoff pieces figured prominently. I never realized the ubiquity of the former's "Preludes, Opus 28: No. 4 in E Minor," ranging from a bossa nova standard ("Insensatez") to a Radiohead classic, with a moody Serge Gainsbourg and slick Idris Muhammad recording in between. I wasn't familiar with Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2 In C Minor, Op. 18," but after finding a recording played by the composer, I felt compelled to include this set. The result is one of the most wildly melodramatic with the Rachmaninoff melody reappearing in Sinatra's syrupy "Full Moon and Empty Arms" (coincidentally covered on the new Dylan album), as well as forming the foundation of the overwrought Eric Carmen AM staple, "All By Myself."

I generally avoided covers of classical pieces. I made exceptions to make certain sets work, or when the efforts were pretty exceptional. Hence, Gary Numan's relatively straightforward cover of Erik Satie's first "Trois Gymnopedie" was sandwiched between Aldo Ciccolini's traditional reading and Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis's clever insertion of a sample buried behind the prominent America sample in Damita Jo's "Someone to Call My Lover." Talk about burying the lede. Another cover was ELO's reading of Copland's "Hoedown," which is pretty gloriously proggy and excessive and of-its-time. It's amusing to think that this represented some kind of pinnacle of rock music in the '70s.

There were a number of paths I did not follow for aesthetic reasons or for lack of time. My biggest regret is not representing the numerous uses of classical music in comedy. Flanders and Swann's "Ill Wind" was to form the axis for a number of other comedic takes, ranging from Victor Borge to the Animaniacs. The idea was apparently in the air -- The Guardian posted a fun listicle on this very topic just a couple weeks before our session. However, many of the examples I wanted to use required visual cues, such as Borge's slapsticky Hungarian Rhapsody routine and any television cartoon. In other words, a thread to follow in another forum.

Attendees know that our intended model Tanya could not attend that night (our substitute model, Rose, knocked it out the park with a dark, fur coat and Icelandic fox wrap), so all the more reason to return to this theme another time. Until then, see y'all next month on December 11.

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Heroes playlist

At an early Liner Notes (back when we were going by +DRAWING+MODEL+MUSIC+BEER+), we hit on an eureka moment. We found a theme that worked well with the modeling, soundtracks. The music covered Tarantino soundtracks and the model incorporated some recognizable poses from those films. Like, Amanda Plummer standing on the counter with the gun. That sorta thing.

Since then, we've seldom made this connection for logistic reasons. It simply requires more advance coordination between the model and music. However, we finally have the machine fine-tuned enough to explore this synchronicity more regularly. And we also have a new forum to share this with y'all via our new partnership with the 92nd Street Y. We'll be hosting their drawing sessions through Spring 2015.

Our first session at the Y took place on October 9 and the theme, "Heroes," worked well with both the model (who was dressed as Storm, from my all-time favorite comic title, The X-Men) and the time of the year (ComicCon in NYC). Ok, our machine is not fine-tuned enough that I have images to share here (yet!), so I'll do what I'm supposed to do and speak a bit on the music.

The music can be divided between two major themes: songs about a specific hero depiction (mostly comic book characters), and songs about the idea of heroism. The former category could arguably be more narrowly described as the "Superman" category because of the sheer abundance of songs about CK. Sure, there are songs about Batman, as well. But the vast majority of decent, listenable songs about a comic book character are about the Man of Steel (yes, Prince's "Batdance" is a notable exception, but I wasn't trying to pair that with a shitty Bow Wow song). So, the bulk of the picks focused on Superman or comic books, in general.

Highlights include the heavy fills in The Ides of March's "Superman" and the classic breaks of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Superman Lover." Suzi Quatro's "Official Suburbian Superman" gets special mention because it's a Suzi Quatro song, so it skirts neediness in favor of being on the prowl. Alicia and Stevie aren't referencing the DC character in their respective "Superwoman" joints, but the songs are alternately inspiring and insightful. That said, you would think there would be more songs about or references to non-DC characters by now. Comic books are such a mainstream phenomenon. So, Rick Springfield, of all people, gets highest mention for framing his 1973 sophomore album around being a comic book geek, like in the album opener, "Comic Book Heroes" (not on Spotify, but included in the YouTube playlist above):
There's times when real people let me down
When the temperature falls to zero
I curl up by the fire with a good book
And for a while I am a superhero
Ballsy move from a square dude. Propers, sir.

Understandably, rock stars have filled the void with songs that reflect their cosmic-level aspirations. Really, someone needs to explore the whole 'space' thing in the '70s, because I really don't see a distinction between Bowie and Parliament. Well, maybe a slightly different mix of drugs. 

The remaining songs reflect my preference for anti-heroes and questions about hero worship. Anti-hero tales dovetail quite a bit with murder ballads, a theme I'd like to return to in the future, so I stayed away from the familiar Frankie and Johnny or Stagger Lee, and opted for the more modern Bonnie & Clyde. Pretty fun, because the tale runs through renegade country to pop stars On The Run. There are a number of thoughtful and brilliant songs that explore the idea of a hero, so this was the area that required significant hand-wringing. Paper Lace and Scott Walker's respective anti-war joints are certainly of their time, but remain sadly familiar today. Several groups with past heydays -- The B-52's, The Bangles and The Stranglers -- have songs that continue to resonate with disillusion and contempt.

Due to lack of time, we couldn't fully explore my favorite idea of the hero, the personal one. Sure, John Lennon's populist class statement is a bit hack (hence, I prefer Marianne Faithfull's dirge-like approach) and I don't regret skipping Common's sermon about "The People." However, the intimacy of Gil Scott-Heron's swan song, "I'll Take Care of You," screams of the need for compassion and help in the face of fragility. What a way to go out, brother Gil.

The night and set ended with a familiar joint, Bowie's "Heroes." I concede it's another hack choice, but I instead point your attention to the clip used in the YouTube playlist above. It's Bowie playing the song shortly after its initial release with his Isolar II tour line-up, which means Adrian Belew on guitar, Simon House on violin, and some absolutely crushing drum fills and kick-drum workouts from Dennis Davis. The lazy camera work is designed for TV and stays on Bowie most of the time (though Carlos Alomar swaying behind Bowie is very gif-worthy), which is a shame because you miss watching the band gradually breathe fire into this fantastic song. The whole clip is worth seven minutes of your time, but if you really need Cliff's Notes, just skip to Bowie's vocal work beginning at 3:29. Puts Mimi to shame. The song was fresh out the oven at the time, but you see here its potency.

These notes went up late, so I'll post on the November session next. In the meantime, enjoy the tunes from where ever you are and hope to see y'all at the next sesh.

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