Friday, May 31, 2013

The Return of Camera Obscura

WHY is it that so many of the band we like here at the Misread City -- a site dedicated to West Coast culture -- come from Glasgow, a city whose cold/rainy weather and Victorian/industrial cityscape is about as far from sunny coastal California as we could imagine?

It may be because so many of these bands seem influenced by '60s West Coast pop -- Pet Sounds, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Love. Or it just might be that for all our regional chauvinism, we are willing to recognize musical quality, especially when it comes in the shape of great melodies and songcraft.

One of  our favorite Scottish bands, Camera Obscura, has a new album, Desire Lines, which comes out next week. (The snappy single "Do It Again" is getting a lot of play on KCRW.) We've loved this band since we heard their early song "Suspended From Class," and dig the new record heavily. Try this video for this somewhat gloomy song I really love, Fifth in Line

HERE is our interview with the group's lead singer, which took place when My Maudlin Career, the last Camera Obscura record, came out.

They're at the Wiltern on June 18. A much more assertive live band than you'd guess from all the wistfulness. See you there.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Chamber Group Salastina Society

THE other evening I saw a sextet performance of Transfigured Night. To say that I have mixed feelings about its composer, Arnold Schoenberg, is about the only way I can put it: The dude wrote some lovely and powerful music, but also left the state of western classical music, especially in the academy, a smoking ruin for about two generations after his 120-stone and serial systems. He was clearly a complex dude, with what seemed like good reasons at the time for his formal shifts. (A stranger once asked him, "Are you that Arnold Schoenberg?" -- he offered back, "Well, no one else wanted to be, so I had to take the job.")

But I want to talk about this piece specifically, and Saturday night’s rendition of it. Transfigured Night was written when he was still quite young, and still a Wagner-drenched late romantic. The piece take tonality and chromaticism about as far as it can go, and the music and its poem are very much works of Germanic romanticism. I've always loved the piece in its sextet recording -- it's put on more often, I suspect, with orchestra -- but have never seen a chamber group version of it until last weekend.

The show was a performance by the Salastina Music Society, a mostly youngish Los Angeles group only a few years old that performs typically at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Zipper Hall at the Colburn School in downtown L.A., and elsewhere. I always love seeing chamber music, which I often prefer to orchestra concerts, so I'm hardly an unbiased judge here. But I can't imagine a better interpretation of this piece, which was remarkably warm and saw each voice fully integrated with the others. 

A nice bonus to this and some other Salastina concerts include an introductory interpretation by the KUSC deejay and general classical man-about-town Brian Lauritzen. I'm very fond of Brian's delivery -- here is my story on him -- and by asking the group to play brief passages from the piece, he brought out far more than I knew about the piece, the poem it's based on, romanticism, and Schoenberg's life story.  

My only regret is that poor Arnold -- at the time a 25-year-old in love with the sister of his music teacher -- did not write more pieces in this idiom.

I'll keep my eye out for more offerings from Salastina Society.


Three thoughts came to me last night. First, how certain passages or phrases of the piece remind me of film music. As scary as Schoenberg can be, some of his stuff can be very cinematic. (I think Mark Swed has written how bits of serialism have shown up in movies, especially, if memory serves, horror movies.)

I usually groan when any event is opened up to audience questions. But the brief post-concert Q+A here was really illuminating, including the part where each musician spoke about his or her instrument, some of which were quite old. (As the owner of several guitars I could share their pride even though my instruments are not Venice-made or 19th-century.)

Finally: Composers like Schoenberg -- and this starts with Wagner and Liszt, I suspect -- felt the need to move beyond traditional major and minor keys, since tonality was supposedly confining. The musical innovations of the 20th century were supposed to allow you to do more. But listen to Transfigured Night, especially the way it was played the other night, with its moments of terror, guilt, uncertainty, pastoral, romantic sublime, and open-hearted forgiveness. It covers an enormous amount of emotional terrain.

When we listen to much contemporary music -- including all but a few pieces from Schoenberg's Second Vienna School -- the emotional palette is vastly narrower. You can do more technically, perhaps, and it gets alienation real well, when you "liberate" all twelve tones in the octave. But with the musical language that came after this early piece, you can say far less about human experience.

Sarah Polley, Director

SARAH Polley, the actress and director, has a new, very well reviewed film out. A few years ago, when her directorial debut, Away From Her, was released, I had lunch with her at the ArcLight. That film was based on an understated short story by the master Alice Munro, who I also spoke to.

HERE is that piece, which I wrote for the LA Times.

My main memory of that encounter was saying, somewhat clumsily, "Oh, you're Canadian, do you know the music of Ron Sexsmith? He's Canadian too." Instead of pouring her ice tea on my head, Ms. Polley -- who I found smart and engaging throughout -- beamed and raved about how much she loved Sexsmith's music.

I'm very eager to see her new Stories We Tell, a documentary about family secrets.

Speaking of new docs, I'm also curious to see the film Deceptive Practices, about the magician and storyteller Ricky Jay, who I absolutely adore. (That link takes you to the website, and the trailer, of the film.)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Web, Jaron Lanier and the Disappearing Middle Class

TODAY I have a long and I hope substantial Q+A with web visionary-turned-skeptic Jaron Lanier. Here it is. We get into some ideas that reflect on my investigation of the fate of the creative class in the 21st century, including the growth of a tiny digital plutocracy at the expense of the imperiled middle class.

The piece is provoked by his powerful and odd new book, Who Owns the Future?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Folk Duo The Milk Carton Kids

YOUR humble blogger caught a very good show at Largo last night by the LA folk duo The Milk Carton Kids. I've dug their Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings-like songs on their recordings -- their mix of old-time vocal harmonies, smooth melodies, and bits of guitar dissonance -- but the show took it all to a higher level. (Others will hear the Everly Bros or early Simon and Garfunkel.)

Beautiful ingredients: The between-song banter was somewhere between Richard Thompson and improv comedy, and the guitars were a '50s Gibson and Martin. (Not sure why THIS isn't coming up, but it's one of my favorite songs of theirs -- try it.)

I say all this not just because these guys -- whose new record, The Ash & Clay, is recently out on Anti -- are like a younger/cuter/more talented version of Slowpoke, the acoustic duo I was once in.

Don't take my word for it -- Joe Henry likes em, too.

As strong as the show was, I would have liked to see them encore with a cover -- Townes? Scud Mountain Boys? Delmores? -- or bring onstage Punch Brother Chris Thile, the godlike mandolin player who the Kids sometime open for. Their style is very sharply worked out, but I'd like to see an occasional wrench thrown in to get them moving a bit.

Also enjoyed the opener, a band of very young Tennessee kids called the Barefoot Movement, playing spirited old-time music on guitars, mandolin and double bass.

I'll be keeing my eyes and ears peeled for the Milk Carton Kids.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Prog Rock Tales

YOU would have to look long and hard to find someone who felt less warmly about the movement known as progressive rock as your humble blogger. (If the genre was bad in its original appearance, it seemed doubly awful in its ‘80s AOR rebirth.) I expect a lot of us who came of age in the years after punk feel the same way, and preferred the concision of college radio or “modern rock” acts like R.E.M. and Elvis Costello to endless prog symphonies. (Of course, I will make an exception here for the bizarre genius of Robert Fripp.)
Why, then, can’t I put down this new book, Yes is the Answer , a collection of writers on prog? I’m still not sure, but I love its combination of humor and critical seriousness. The book is edited by longtime LA writer Marc Weingarten – an old friend whose music journalism I read in the '90s -- and Tyson Cornell, who once booked authors at Book Soup and now runs Rare Bird Lit. 

The years between Sgt. Pepper’s and those first Clash and Pistols singles were a strange disorienting time for rock music. Glam found one way out of that puzzle, and prog took another road. Was all that heavy, high-pitched silliness worth it?

In any case, Yes is the Answer includes writer/producer Seth Greenland on The Nice, novelist Matthew Specktor on Yes, Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding) on the prog scene of Canterbury, UK, Rick Moody on Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jim DeRogatis on Genesis, music writer Margaret Wappler on getting laid to King Crimson, New York Times food writer Jeff Gordinier on how failed sex is a lot like a Styx concert, writer/bassist Jim Greer on Guided by Voices' debt to prog, and many other sharp, counter-intuitive pieces. 

Overall, it's way more fun than it has any business being.

Keep your eyes peeled for events around town. For now, here is my conversation with Weingarten.

Why did this seem like the right time for a book on this once-mighty musical form? Is there a prog revival going on, like when Yes returned with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and Rush and Asia were rockin’ the suburbs? 
I think there are a lot of bands out there who secretly love prog but don't want to admit it - they have no cultural cover, so to speak, because this is the last rock subgenre that hasn't been reclaimed by hipsters.  So, we thought it was a good a time as any to point out that there's a lot of great music here, made at a time of pretty outrageous and often overreaching experimentation. Which is also part of the charm of prog - how crazily ambitious it was.  I love the idea of bands writing hour-long suites and traveling with orchestras - it speaks to a kind of silly grandeur that I think is lacking in indie rock  - you see it in contemporary metal, I suppose.  
Most of your contributors are -- like you and me -- Xers who came of age with post-punk or alt-rock. We’re a generation, then, for whom prog became a punch line or a bad memory. What undercut prog’s world domination back then? 
Because Prog was almost exclusively a British phenomenon, it was completely stomped by Punk Rock, because Punk in England was really a tsunami.  It was time for Prog to go, anyway - it had gotten really overblown and quite awful.  I don't think any of our contributors would argue that Relayer is better than London's Calling, but we all have a soft spot for Prog.  
How did you and your co-editor come up with your contributors? There are a few well-known rock critics like Jim DeRogatis, but mostly this is literary folk.
We didnt want this to be a wonky, "Robert Fripp created Frippertronics in 1979," facts-and-figures book. We didn't see the point of that, especially with a genre like Prog, which is so rooted in adolescence, and cherished memories of early drug experiences, arena shows and gatefold album analysis.  It seemed like a good idea to have non-music writers have a fresh go at it.  
I count two women among all the contributors, and suspect this is NOT the fault of the editors. Could it be that prog has traditionally been a guy thing, and as some of your essayists suggest, a pre-adolescent guy thing?
Totally young dude thing. One hundred percent! 
Do you have a favorite prog band or album? Anything involving Phil Collins?
Well, Phil Collins is an incredible drummer - and I do love all the Gabriel-era Genesis stuff. I guess King Crimson's Red is my favorite album - a noisy, dark and disturbing record. So unlike most Prog, in other words!