31 December 2010

Counting the old year out

I’ve listened to the second Peter Gabriel solo album (released in 1978, sometimes known as ‘Scratch’) four times in the past 24 hours. Where the last I had listened to it, was on vinyl, perhaps 20 years ago.

Before this revisitation, I had held this album (as an album) in less esteem than any of the three subsequent albums. (Although I always liked “On the Air” and “D.I.Y.” as among his very best solo songs . . . and of course “Exposure” is an old favorite.) Why?

Not sure . . . maybe a generalized impression springing from visceral dissatisfaction with the downer of an album closer (“Home Sweet Home”). To be sure, “Biko” and “Kiss of Life” are much more positive exit statements on the two subsequent albums.

Now at this distance, even if “Home Sweet Home” may be a little too sentimental, a little too Dickensian, you've got to give Gabriel points for a tolerably well written song, and in a direct, personal vein which is entirely ‘out of the zone’ from his Genesis tenure.

The whole album, though, is really marvelously voiced. Mind you, I love the rich texture and the majestic arc one hears in Genesis and King Crimson; but Fripp and Gabriel here have entirely successfully mastered a different musical game.

Scratch’ may be Gabriel’s most underrated album.

With its homey yet tasteful understatement, the Broadcasting from Home album by the Penguin Café Orchestra has been a sentimental favorite since I first chanced upon the LP in the music library at Old Cabell Hall. This year, I’ve finally gotten around to checking out some of their earlier albums. I had known of their cover of “Walk, Don’t Run,” and the curious “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas” from an old EG sampler LP; that fact probably made it intuitive that my ‘next’ Penguin Café Orchestra album would be their second, Penguin Café Orchestra, which included those two odd tracks. That album was largely true to form (as I could reckon it), though I had non-fatal quibbles with two of the tracks . . . the telephone’s timbre in “Telephone and Rubber Band” (a found object, and only true to itself) strikes me as a little stridently flat over the course of the song; and the electronic (or, electronified) sound(s) in “Pythagoras’s Trousers” similarly become a bit trying.

Enter (on my personal stage, anyway) Music from the Penguin Café

This is a fascinating first album to listen to, with the established sound of later albums as my long-standing reference point. The disc is a sort of burnt weenie sandwich, a seven-number suite played by a larger ensemble (Zopf), preceded and (more substantially) followed by the Penguin Café Quartet proper. Overall, the numbers which the quartet plays hold true to [what by the time of Broadcasting from Home will be] ‘the Penguin Café Orchestra sound’ . . . though the opening “Penguin Café Single” (which starts with a repeated double-stop in the violin which to my ears, anyway, favorably recalls King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, not that you asked) and the centerpiece “The sound of someone you love who’s going away and it doesn’t matter” both incorporate more ‘experimental’ features — dropping the established ‘groove’, opening a space for sparse, quasi-improvisatory interplay — features which no longer seem to have a place in the band of Broadcasting from Home.

The eleven-minute ‘Zopf suite’ is, right away, is flightier, more fragmented (the only number in the suite to exceed 2½ minutes is the last, “Pigtail,” at 2:44) . . . and there’s singing (which I haven’t at all been accustomed to in their music). The singing is a little homey and plaintive — imagine a Nico with less ego and more (or, rather, something like) taste — and it works all right as an element of contrast on this album. But to lose the singing for the second album was a sound decision.

(Brian Eno was the executive producer for the album, and in its way, Music from the Penguin Café shares something of the instrumental-album-with-some-singing aesthetic of, say, Before and After Science, which was released the year after — or, for the matter of that, like Another Green World, released the year before. To what extent the presence of singing on the album may have been an oblique strategy of Eno’s, were an interesting line of inquiry.)

— yet the Zopf music also has numbers of relatively ‘straight-ahead Penguin Café’: “From the Colonies” and “Giles Farnaby’s Dream.”

Impossible for me to say how I should have reacted to the album, had I heard it back when it was first released. (Oh, whom am I kidding? I was in high school yet, and it would have been one of the strangest sorts of music I had ever heard to that point.) Listening to it retroactively, and with a ‘sonic profile’ established in my ear, Music from the Penguin Café was at first a frankly weird listen — largely a matter of defying expectations — and that initial audition nearly had me repenting it. But, once I got over the hogtied expectations, my ear was beguiled by the variety and subtle playfulness of the album. The sound itself won me over; and subsequently I enjoyed the deeper insight into a composer-bandleader who was still finding his way. Simon Jeffes was taken by cancer a couple of months shy of his 49th birthday, and there is no telling what might have been. Even on the strength of Broadcasting from Home, it seems to me that Jeffes heeded the advice of Gubaidulina’s piano teacher: listen to everyone and obey no one.

This month just passing marks what would have been Zappa’s 70th birthday. In these days of dying-off paper journalism, Mojo gives us a commemorative issue:

“Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right.” —Tom Waits

No comments: