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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

January 2014: The Most Dismal Time Of The Year (And Music To Help)

It’s the most dismal time of the year, and this month’s selections have one thing in common: they make me smile.


SEEED: Seeed


I saw this charismatic band in Berlin last summer, on the last of 5 sold-out shows at a 17,000-capacity outdoor venue. In other words, if you’re German, you don’t need me to tell you about Seeed, but otherwise, you’ve probably never heard of them. Which is a shame.


I saw one of their videos before I heard them, on a screen without sound in a hotel gym, and I was intrigued. Firstly, the video was obviously shot on locations all over Berlin (most of which I recognised) and secondly, this large group (11 or 12, I’m still not sure) had great style: scruffy and elegant at the same time, as though they’d just scored all the best stuff from all the best vintage clothes shops and flea markets in town, and thrown it all together in a way that worked. What they sounded like, as it turned out, was an infectious mix of reggae, dancehall and hip-hop with lyrics half in German and half in what sounded like Jamaican-accented English - though I now know that two of their three singer/rappers are Afro-German. The white one, Peter Fox, is probably the band’s most talented member and had a huge hit a couple of years ago with his solo album StadtAffe. Seeed’s future was in doubt for a while, but they came back with their best and most original album. It’s not often a band changes up the formula, experiments, grows up a bit, and not only produces something great but has enormous success with it. Bastards! I wish I knew how to do that.


I don’t claim to be an expert on the German music scene, but for a long time it seemed divided between trashy pop on the one hand, and rather earnest and gloomy stuff on the other. Seeed and Peter Fox have broken the mold by being both sophisticated and great fun – a neat trick anywhere in the world, but in this case, dare I suggest, symptomatic of a country increasingly happier with itself than the rest of the world seems to realise.


NAT ‘KING’ COLE & Friends: Riffin: The Decca, JATP, Keynote and Mercury Recordings


Nat Cole is one of my favourite pianists, which might surprise some people who know him only as a singer. I imagine some jazz purists have resented his pop stardom, but not me – he was a good-looking guy with a pretty voice, and what the hell? But he started out as, and remained, a tremendous jazz piano player.


This very nicely-packaged 3-CD set collects a wide variety of live and studio recordings featuring Cole mostly as a sideman (sometimes with major figures like Lester Young and the young Dexter Gordon) but also with his own King Cole Trio. He does do some singing, and I confess I like him here, on things like Scotchin’ With The Soda and Hit That Jive, Jack, more than I do on high-sugar-content stuff from a decade or two later like O Little Town Of Bethlehem. But it’s his piano playing that sparkles, with wit and swing and spontaneity. He’s not an innovator so much as a consolidator of everything that had been done in jazz piano up to that point. He has great technique, but never ‘shows off’ – you just realise it now and again when he has a particularly flamboyant inspiration. His solos are beautifully constructed and yet it all sounds so easy, as though he’s just fooling around and it happens to come out that way. He even throws in a slide across the keys here and there – a glissando, not a very natural thing to do on a piano, not like it is on, say, a trombone. It amuses me that the only other pianists I can think of who do this are Jerry Lee Lewis and Chico Marx.


Meanwhile The After Midnight Sessions, the perfect balance between Nat the jazzer and Nat the crooner, remains essential for anyone who’s even half-interested.


MIKA: The Origin Of Love By Mika


Every now and again I make an effort to catch up with some new or recent music, and to that end, a music biz acquaintance recently laid a stack of CDs on me. Now, I’m not here to put anyone down (I’ll leave that to the critics) so I’m not naming any names, but suffice it to say that in my opinion there’s a lot of dull, dirgey stuff out there, and going through this pile was hard work. That is, until I came to this album.


Suddenly the mix was clear and punchy, the voice was high and sweet, and the tunes were catchy. It’s not the most original thing I’ve ever heard (a cross between Queen and the Pet Shop Boys often comes to mind) but it’s a damn good pop record, and the best tracks, like Make You Happy, are positively uplifting. I don’t know much about this guy, and for all I know he could be a depressive misanthrope, but he certainly sounds as though he wants to make me happy. Thanks, Mika, I appreciate it.


VARIOUS ARTISTS: Boardwalk Empire, Music From The HBO Original Series, Volume 2


I have mixed feelings about this Prohibition-era drama, but it certainly looks great and sounds great, thanks to its ‘house band’, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Mr. Giordano is an impassioned expert on the music of the 1920s, and I’ve seen him perform twice with his band. It was fantastic to hear this music live, re-created so meticulously (right down to a period drum kit) and it suddenly struck me as odd that it’s much harder to find live performances of music from the 1920s than the 1820s.


This Volume 2 has a lot more big name guest vocalists than Volume 1. They’re a very mixed bunch, from Liza Minelli to St. Vincent, and some of them acquit themselves very well indeed. I like Neko Case on Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, and Patti Smith’s mournful I Ain’t Got Nobody was a surprise. For some reason, though, the male voices here have more character than the female ones: old-timers like Leon Redbone and Loudon Wainwright III along with Loudon’s son Rufus, and Elvis Costello, singing softer than usual and very effectively, on It Had To Be You. My favourite, I think, is David Johansen’s irreverent, in-your-face rendition of Strut Miss Lizzie.


But what’s really great is the songs themselves, and listening to them it seems to me, as it often does when I delve into early 20th century music (or for that matter, Victorian Music Hall) that people back then were not afraid to be genuinely funny or genuinely sad. These days, it’s as though we’ve put aside the time-honoured masks of Comedy and Tragedy in favour of an ironic smirk. Maybe it’s just a phase we’re going through.