Friday, May 25, 2007

"A" game // Metascam // A crack at Graham // A case of Joni

Rivers. Holland. Altschul. tomorrow. Miller Theatre. Rumble in the jungle, baby. (i just had a horrific yet inspiring image of Dick Vitale play-by-playing the show...)


ok, so let's say you're headed Morningside Heights-ward for the gig and you're looking for a classy bite beforehand: this French-Caribbean restaurant "A" on Columbus Ave between 106th and 107th kills it, for real. Laal called it and we went last night and though it was not perfect, the best stuff ruled.

get the grilled pear appetizer, definitely. it has bleu cheese and that perfect sweet + tangy thing that seems to be such a point of pride at nuevo fusiony restaurants. but the reason for that is it's really good and unusual. as for the other appetizer we got, pheasant pate was pretty solid but maybe a bit overgreasy. it's served casserole-style with a whole bunch of cheese and it's tasty but you kinda keep thinking of cheap mac and cheese.

the jerk chicken was the winner. i don't think i've ever had chicken presented this classily. i'm one of those prissy assholes who really hates picking chicken off the bone and this place just hurdles that issue altogether by serving chix in these thinly sliced medallions. then you get a little mound of cous-cous and this perfectly sweet and tangy orange jerk sauce. it's just goddamn delectable, like plate-licking and the whole bit. the chicken pieces are so thin and elegant and perfectly eatable. no fuss, just taste rush. that dish is goddamn stellar.

we had a seitan (say "Satan"--you know you want to) meatloaf or somesuch and that was kinda interesting in the way that fake meat always is. but it was kinda soggy. and the apple torte for dessert kinda tastes store-bought, so i wouldn't get that.

but go and do the pear for starters and the jerk for a main and you'll be really, really happy. it's byob; i recommend a bottle of Brooklyn Brown. it's also tiny, with the kitchen right in the same room, like no back area or nothin'. owned by a couple--Marc Solomon and Blue Grant, both of whom were there last night; awww how cute--and real intimate and stuff. do the jerk. do it! it's not like other jerk chicken, all messy and sloppy; that gritty stuff has its charms, but dig this too.


thanks to Time Out music honcho Mike Wolf for spinning my head around with a photocopy of this article--from this month's Atlantic Monthly; looks like you can't read the whole thing online--on anti-spam con artistry, i.e., folks who actually respond to those "I'm the widow of a Nigerian businessman and I will transfer $7 billion into yr account if you just give me the number" spams and then lead the spammers on absurd wild goose chases, wherein they might be asked to hand-copy pages out of Harry Potter, photograph themselves holding signs that say "I'm a retard" or--and this is severe--carve a replica of a Commodore 64 keyboard out of wood. you gotta dig into this...


besides the Sam Rivers fest, i'm listening to a lot of Graham Nash. he's maybe the second shadowy-est of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young crew, or maybe the third, depending on yr knowledge of Crosby. (or maybe just the most British...)

anyway, i like CSN&Y a shitload--can't find my damn copy of their s/t record--but i really connect w/ the Nash solo stuff even more. his 1971 album Songs for Beginners hits me hard; hadn't listened to it in years, but i dug it back out recently (ok, i freakin' downloaded it) and i'm there, i'm really back there.

where "there" is is my junior year of college. i went to Columbia and i lived in a dorm up on 116th between Broadway and Riverside. i made this very ill-fated attempt at trying to jog in Riverside Park every so often. i was going through kind of a shitty, depressed time and everyone's like, "You need to exercise," so i made myself miserable with that for a while before realizing that i despised the activity.

so i'd run in Riverside and i had this one tape i'd listen to over and over while jogging. it's a tape i'd made myself from two of my parents' records that i'd stolen: on one side was the Band's s/t "brown" album (which, as anyone who knows me well will tell you, became one of my absolute all-time favorites) and on the other was Songs for Beginners.

i honestly don't think i could have made it through even my brief jogging phase without Graham and his songs. simply put, this is what singer-songwriter music was always supposed to be. some of this stuff sounds hopelessly cheesy, but that's a precarious area, b/c one minute you're thinking something's cheesy and the next you're sobbing. i cried when i saw "Beaches," but this isn't that bottom of the barrel.

Nash is a sick songwriter. some of these tracks are pure jangly period folk-pop, like "Military Madness," but there are these few that really inspire me. Nash is no poet, but his sentiments hit me hard sometimes. "I Used to Be a King" especially. i remember getting to really tough parts of my runs and literally screaming along to this song, a few lines in particular: "Someone is gonna take my heart / No one is gonna break my heart again" and "It's alright / I'm ok / How are you?" (which is later retooled to read "It's alright / I'm ok / I wanna know how you are").

there's something about that sentiment ("I'm ok / How are you?"), just that turnaround that really gets me. when he's singing the song, Nash keeps coming to that, like he's been in therapy for some trauma and has to keep reminding himself that it's important to acknowledge others' feelings, to get out of your own head every once in a while and simply, genuinely ask someone else how they're doing. maybe you don't buy this, but i think you'll dig the song anyway...

I Used to Be a King

the other song that i really love is "There's Only One." this has this great journeying feeling, as if you're wandering into the song in medias res. just this ambling piano line, sort of a soul-ballad feel, a lot of "We"s in the lyrics. the verses chug along ("Can we say 'It's cool' from a heated pool?"), building up to this almost gospelish climax that kind of reminds me a little bit of Floyd's "Brain Damage," when it sort of opens up and the back-up singers come in ("If the dam breaks open many years too soon..."). i fucking hate that song (love Floyd, hate Dark Side), but Nash's tune does this right. you feel inspired when that chorus hits. it's a real catharsis. "When we all begin / To see the skin we're in / It's just the same / There's only one..." i just realized that this may be a civil-rights number. that's cool. it doesn't really matter b/c it's just a clear uplift.

There's Only One


i guess i've been consumed w/ boomer icons, but Joni. let's talk about Joni for just a sec, dip a toe. i'm scared to do this. i've been putting it off for awhile. a while back on the Paul Simon hagiography, i was talking about what "singer-songwriter" (or was it just "songwriter"?) meant to me. i'm talking about serious pop compositional chops. timeless stuff that you remember and that you don't feel stupid for doing so, i.e., stuff that deserves the unwieldy amount of space it takes up in yr head and heart. Joni is so so so that.

Blue i love; it's a great album. you probably know it well, so i'll spare ya. Court and Spark (1974) is the other biggie in the popular mind. i'm not sure it's better than Blue, maybe a little uneven. but these first two songs are slaying me, like real bad.

when i first heard "Help Me," i knew i'd heard it elsewhere and i just realized where. my bandmate, Tony, became weirdly obsessed with the Wynonna Judd version of this song a little while back, somehow convincing himself that it was a prog-rock track in disguise.

what it is, in Joni's version, is just the goddamn epitome of '70s-style singer-songwriter rock. breezy and jazzy, but so goddamn literate and virtuoso. just insanely pro, in the playing, the arrangement, the composition. i just get a feeling of a lot of people pushing themselves really hard when i hear this song, like songwriting and producing as manual labor or something. it's just such a pristine end product.

Mitchell's cadence is weightless, remarkable--just listen to the first verse how her voice flits over "when i get that crazy feeling..." and then slows down for an effortless superprecise triplet on "sweet-talkin' ladies man." each verse has its own idiosyncrasies like this marvel.

the sentiment is one of "i know i shouldn't but i am." a lot of Joni's songs are like this. as she portrays herself in her songs, she's a worryer sort of, but also a creature of impulse, afraid to venture out but just as afraid not to, or something. this is a deep song though, b/c both parties "love [their] freedom" equally; there's a lot of uncertainty. it's basically a game: two players sizing each other up. very '70s, very been-around-the-block, kind of a classy sleaziness. in the immortal words of Rick Astley, "We know the game and we're gonna play it." here it is...

Help Me

and the title track. whew. that's just super deep modern composition. is there anyone now who is writing songs like this now? could Joanna Newsom do something like this if she set her mind to it? i really, really don't know. it's so arty, but so compact. unlike Nash, Mitchell's melodic gift is matched by a true, chasm-deep poetic ability. these lyrics are just hugely intense.

"Love came to my door
With a sleeping roll
And a madman's soul
He thought for sure I'd seen him
Dancing up a river in the dark
Looking for a woman
To court and spark..."

again, there's this distrust of the shady male figure. but the piano on this one--whew. the performance has the poetry of jazz. i just can't believe how precise her vocals are, how reined in the technique is, but how unhinged it feels. the best Joni is like a laser. listen to how this one ends in this crazy open-ended way; extremely potent and unsettling.

Court and Spark

the Joni track that did it to me initially was "Coyote," but not the one from the Hejira album, but the Last Waltz version with, who else?, the freakin' Band.

they don't matter on this track though (or maybe they do... more on their role later). it's all about Joni. it's another song about a sort of doomed affair. here's the first verse...

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I'm up all night in the studios
And you're up early on your ranch
You'll be brushing out a brood mare's tail
While the sun is ascending
And I'll just be getting home with my reel to reel...
There's no comprehending...

can you imagine breaking up w/ someone b/c of lifestyle-incompatibility issues ("i'm a musician and i work at night and you're a rancher and you work during the day") and having your ex express that incompatibility in such a deftly poetic way? the whole song is basically like "this can't work for a hundred reasons; sorry, dude."

but Mitchell wants to give the improbability its due. she talks about the good times. in the second verse, the couple are in their salad days. they drive past a "tragedy," a farmhouse burning down; instead of stopping to help, they decide to go dancing at a roadhouse. "He's got a woman at home / He's got another woman down the hall / He seems to want me anyway..." -- so this guy's another one of Mitchell's "rambler and a gambler and sweet-talking ladies man" types. at the end of the verse, she slips into his voice: "Why'd you have to get so drunk and--lead me on that way?" and then she slides in a little chuckle. is she laughing at him? or is the Coyote the one laughing?

the song is a freeform chug. the Band (not really sounding like themselves at all) gives it this synthy miasma. listen to Garth's almost fruity keyboard tone. and there's this conga drums and such. it's just a very breezy, "pro"-sounding arrangement, not raggedy and Band-like at all, not in the least bit swampy. Robbie does some nice prickly, cheesily yearning Robbie-ish leads.

more portraiture re: this Coyote fella:

Coyote's in the coffee shop
He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs
He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he's watching the waitresses' legs

(re: that last line, i think of the sleazeballs in the coffee shop in Short Cuts, checking out Lily Tomlin's ass.)

and in the previous verse, check this "p" alliteration:

Privately probing the public rooms
And peeking thru keyholes in numbered doors
Where the players lick their wounds
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get them thru this passion play

so, so few could pull this off without sounding pretentious. Joni sounds steely; she's just like, "i'm superliterate and this is how i express myself; deal with it." this song is a fricking universe, an enigma, a magnum opus, a lexicon of relationships. i think this is really the best version:

Coyote (Joni Mitchell and the Band)

for an, in my opinion, far less rad, but still quite interesting version, check out this one which features not only Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius, but also some horrendously literal b-roll of an actual coyote. groan. anyway, compare these two versions: has there ever been a clearer contrast between the kind of virtuosity that serves a singer and a song (the Band, duh) and the kind that serves only itself, constantly grabbing at the spotlight? i'm sorry but the little jazzbo gimmick chords that Pastorius keeps throwing in are so intrusive; i'm sure Joni was down with this meddling, but it's just so damn smug. anyway, again, compare w/ the Band's Spartan reading:

god, i really must shut up and go to bed now. you probably think i'm going all soft with the Graham and the Joni and you're absolutely right. maybe more Paul soon? "Hearts and Bones"--it's a goddamn killer...


johnnn said...

a friend just gave me a bunch of Joni, just starting to dive in myself... thx for the support. the counter-scammer shit is classic, and so reassuring. did you know the US is sabotaging Iran's clandestine nuke program? it's like that "I'm ok / how are you" - it's good to keep in mind that there are two sides to everything, and that both are active and adapting to the world just like you.

Anonymous said...

Wow I just came across this randomly, but was happy to see someone else who loves the Last Waltz version of Coyote as much as I do. From the first bits of sounds that bounce out of your speakers you know its going to be great. Watching the waitreses legs...oh my god so f-ing good!

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