Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Endless River is (Likely) the End of Pink Floyd

Proof of Purchase.  A handsome package.
Pink Floyd is my all-time favorite rock band.  I have blogged about, among other Floydian things, their final set in 2005 and about their final bow in 2011. Now comes their final studio album (as Pink Floyd).

The Endless River is almost 55 minutes of mostly wordless musical conversations, jam sessions taken from many hours of recordings unused in the band's excellent 1994 record The Division BellDavid Gilmour and Nick Mason revisited this material which heavily features the keyboard work of Rick Wright who died in 2008.  Roger Waters, the driving force, lyricist, and visionary behind the band's best works, quit in 1985.  Earlier this year the two last men standing in Pink Floyd went back into the studio, sifted through the unused recordings, picking the best parts of what were at the time (in late-1993) hours of improvised musical doodles created while laying down more established songs for The Division Bell.

The resulting new music is not actually a new idea. Back in 1994 the band was toying with the idea of using some of their recorded jam sessions as a compliment to The Division Bell. At the time they referred to the potential music as The Big Spliff. But nothing ever came of the idea until this year when Gilmour and Mason reworked some of their playing, added parts for other vocalists and musicians, and came up with 18 tracks of new music surrounding Wright's remastered keyboard work.  The only song with lyrics is the final track, "Louder Than Words", which features Gilmour's still superb vocals singing the lyrics written by his wife, Polly Samson.

Like most of the best Pink Floyd albums there is a concept or underlying theme to The Endless River which simultaneously ties it back to The Division Bell and yet is distinctive in its own right.  The result overall is an accessible, meandering album, handsomely packaged, that has that classic Pink Floyd feel.  I was not blown away by anything on the record. It is not one of their greatest efforts but it appropriately punctuates the improvisations of Wright and the band in what is apparently their final musical offering, released some 20 years after the original recording sessions.

"Keep Talking" is an important track on The Division Bell. And the theme of human communication, understanding, and relating to one another ties much of that album together. That theme is carried forward on The Endless River which is rather ironic.  There is hardly any words on the new album though the importance of human dialog is not dismissed, rather the new album seems to transcend the previous theme by uplifting the power of things left unsaid, of understanding without words.

This is underscored at the very beginning of the new album with the usual Pink Floyd affinity for background sounds, layered effects, and spoken words laid down underneath and supporting the musical development.  The Endless River starts with Wright's voice stating "We certainly are under-spoken and understanding...But there's a lot of things unsaid as well..."  As the opening music slowly develops we hear what I think is Gilmour chime in with "...ah well we shout and argue and fight and work it on out..."  The importance of understanding without words is held in equal esteem with the often necessary friction of dialog to come to an understanding.

Though I have rationalized The Endless River so far in this post, the truth is that it is very listenable and immersive without any thought given to it at all. In fact, Jennifer and I both enjoy the music but we agree that it works just fine as something in the background establishing an ambiance. There is no need to concentrate so heavily on it to find deeper meaning as with, say, The Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall.  This is certainly not a thematically "heavy" album though, as I said, there is a thread of concept here.

For me, the best tracks on it are "Sum" and "Skins." These tunes are a bit more sophisticated and rock a bit more than the rest of the collected tracks.  I enjoy a nice rocking Floyd and you do not really get much of that on this record.  Which is fine, as I said, it all strikes me as more music you drift in and out of rather than something you dance to or sit and ponder within.  Some critics are disappointed by the album. But most reviewers of the record seem to have accepted it as valid and decent if not artful.

"Autumn '68" is another track worth mentioning. Here Wright performs on the great Royal Albert Hall pipe organ. To my knowledge, that great cathedral organ does not appear on The Division Bell, which means the band rented the Hall organ one day back in 1993 and let Wright air it out, yet they never used any of that work on the final studio album.  So, it seems especially important that we get to experience the previously unheard work of Wright with this grand instrument of 10,000 pipes.

The title The Endless River is the last lyric sung on "High Hopes,"the last song on The Division Bell. This new music is definitely integrated with the more vocal and more rocking album released two decades ago.  Another stitch that ties The Endless River with The Division Bell is the electronic voice of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who was featured on the "Keep Talking" track back in 1994. In 2014 we have a track entitled "Talkin' Hawkin'" where the scientist once again briefly discusses the importance of spoken dialog in human history.  He says:

"Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together; to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking.  Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future, with the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking."

But, overall, this album is more about the potential power of human understanding beyond words. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that words are necessary to achieve understanding but the actual understanding, empathy, compassion, love, whatever you want to call it, really resides in the unspoken, almost wordless realm.  That is where all this instrumental music comes in.  These three guys were improvising and achieving a form of musical understanding 20 years ago that required no lyrics nor was any written music needed.  The music emerged out of just slow jamming and understanding where one another wanted to go with the music, sometimes led by guitar, sometimes led keyboards with percussion providing the backbone.

My deluxe Blu-ray edition of The Endless River is a piece of art in terms of the packaging.  The cover art is by a previously little-known Egyptian artist filling in for Storm Thorgerson, who produced such outstanding album art for the Floyd for many years.  (Thorgerson died last year.) The album's presentation contains a thin hardbound book of lyrics, credits, and photographs from the original recording sessions.  There are three nice photos included each in a heavy-stock postcard format. One is a photo of a simple abstract sculpture of two heads talking (you can see it in the middle of my pic above), connecting us back to the main artwork for The Division Bell.  Another is a really cool reflective hologram vibrant sphere that pulses and glows as you move the card stock around.  The last is a nice photo of Gilmour and Mason sitting on a dock probably on the Thames River.  The sleeves for the Blu-ray and CD are decorated with a techie looking circular and intricate almost spaceship looking symbol that pervades the disc labels and other places in the packaging.  Each component is of the highest quality.

The Blu-ray also features a number of interesting short videos capturing these extended jam sessions. Some of the music presented here is actually on The Division Bell.  The band seems to have been working out variations on the tracks presented on that album. You get to see Wright and the other band members working alongside several studio musicians in trying out different forms of musical expression on the various established ideas.  They are not talking with words here.  They are talking with their instruments, occasionally making eye contact and nodding at one another, communicating either a shift in the music or bringing things to conclusion for that particular jam.  I enjoy video features on music Blu-rays and many of these particular cuts rock harder than anything presented in the 18 tracks on the album.  I like some of this spontaneous music a lot.

Upon its release,  the album reached number one in sales in its initial release in the United Kingdom. This warm reception is more a reflection of the band's solid reputation than the specific music on this effort.  The album is decent but not outstanding. The album has received mostly mixed critical reviews.

Hearing this new Pink Floyd inspired me to go back and listen to their previously final studio recording from 1994 from which this music emerged. "Wearing the Inside Out" and "Coming Back to Life," like "Keep Talking," are great Pink Floyd songs.  The Division Bell is their best post-Waters album, but in itself it is not as good as any of the Waters-led Pink Floyd of the 1970's.  The Endless River is not as good as The Division Bell.  It is only significant because it contains the final fine keyboard stylings of Wright as a member of Pink Floyd.  And with Wright gone now, with this recording apparently, so goes the Floyd.  

The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that The Endless River is the end of Pink Floyd's musical journey. Things are not "endless" at all. This is the end. Or perhaps the music goes on.  Perhaps that's the point.  I don't know. I still enjoy most of Pink Floyd's music. (Nick Mason still holds out hope that Roger and David will join him on stage somewhere again.) But it seems in this case it is the Floydian world coming to an end, as T. S. Eliot proclaimed, "not with a bang but with a whimper."

Repeated Note to Readers: The title of this blog comes from Pink Floyd’s fourth album. It is a double album with one record devoted to the band’s early live performances and the other devoted to various experimental pieces of music by the individual band members. As such it is a collection of scattered personal ideas linked to a record of the band in life. Kind of like this blog itself. Hence the name. Legend has it that the word also has certain erotic connotations which I find clever and are somewhat revealing about myself. Don’t tell my mother.

Late Note:  The Endless River debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200.  Here is an article on how all Pink Pink Floyd studio albums fared upon their initial release.  Here is another article speculating on why The Endless River is so popular.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Neil Young: Storytone

Neil Young has had another busy year both as a performing artist and personally.  Earlier this year he released an album of covers he recorded in Jack White's special "phone booth" studio.  It was intended as an experiment for the fidelity of vinyl sound.  The recordings themselves were not that appealing to me and I will add this one to my Neil collection at a later date when I can get the CD cheaply. 

Then Neil left his wife, Pegi, apparently for Daryl Hannah. This motivated long-time band mate David Crosby to critique Neil's new relationship on Twitter.  Crosby has difficulty keeping his mouth shut at times and his comments pissed Neil off. Even Graham Nash, a lifetime collaborator with Crosby, called the comments "inappropriate."  But Neil went a bit too far, according to Nash, on his side of things and declared during a performance that CSNY would never play music again.  Nash thinks that it would be tragic for the musicians not to continue to collaborate just because of this little spat.  Neil was most revealing about all this, (although he remained skimpy on the specifics) in a recent interview with Howard Stern.  So, the jury is still out on what comes next, if anything, for CSNY.

Meanwhile, Neil toured this summer in Europe with Crazy Horse, trying to complete the 2013 tour that was cut short when Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Poncho Sampedro broke his hand.  Just before the 2014 re-tour started Crazy Horse bass player Billy Talbot suffered a light stroke.  Rick Rosas, who has played bass for Neil on many recent recordings and tours, filled in for Talbot.  Now, tragically with the quasi-Crazy Horse tour over, Rosas died suddenly at age 65.  So, that whole aspect of Neil's life is a bit of a downer.  A ride with the full-blown Crazy Horse might be over forever, just as, apparently, we might be at the end for CSNY.

Always a political activist, Neil was also involved in a concert to stop the Keystone pipeline project and involved with continuing concerns over a variety of political issues. This is in addition to his work on enhancing the quality of music through the near-future launch of his Pono sound system as well as his continuing efforts of focus attention on the possibilities of bio-diesel and electric powered cars such as his experimental LincVolt.  

Neil also published his second book.  This one is semi-autobiographical and is mostly about automobiles, his first and most lasting true love, and memories he has of his life surrounding automobiles.  As with the covers album, this is not a topic that especially interests me.  But I still want to read what Neil writes about so I will pick it up later off the discount shelf.

Last week, Neil released his 35th studio album (more than 50 albums overall), Storytone, a double CD set that features ten new original songs delivered two ways.  Disc One contains the 'solo' versions of the tunes with Neil on piano or guitar or ukulele.  Disc Two delivers the same songs in the same order but in an "orchestrated" format. The orchestration might be full symphony orchestra or a big band or a rock band configuration. Sometimes it is a mixture of the formats.  I found the album to be sort of middle-of-the-road for Neil, with a few really great tunes, a few mediocre ones and the rest just kind of OK.  It is not Neil's strongest recent work, certainly not as exciting as 2012's Psychedelic Pill, but it is an interesting addition to any serious Rustie's collection.  Neil is still pushing boundaries and trying to find new sonic experiences for himself and Storytone fits that ambition.

The ten tracks are featured in the same order so it makes for an interesting and entertaining comparison between the two musical ideas, one simple and minimalist, the other more refined and layered with various instruments and vocals. After several listenings, I came up with my own mix of the two discs, taking what I felt to be the best versions of each track and combining them into one nice mix.  I will review the material as I selected it for my mix.

As of this post you can listen to both discs in their entirety on youtube here.

"Plastic Flowers" is a beautiful piano ballad and a good way to kick off the mix with a slow, reflective piece filled with the quirky, ironic, and poetic lyrics that are such a mainstay of Neil's musical oeuvre. Neil's vocals are an acquired taste but overall he does a pretty good job with his harmonies throughout Storytone.  The full orchestral version of "Who's Going to Stand-Up?" comes next.  This is one of the highlights of the album.  Neil is featured with a large orchestra here, reminiscent of the some early works he did on his now-classic After the Gold Rush LP.  This is quite a contrast to the raucous rendition of the ecologically-minded song that he performed with Crazy Horse this past summer.  I really like the orchestration here (arranged by Chris Walden, not by Neil). Neil may have worked with orchestras in the past but he has not performed anything that sounds more like true classical music than this wonderful piece. 

"I Want to Drive My Car" follows.  I actually already posted on this blog about a year ago when Neil made a surprise appearance with his then-wife Pegi's band The Survivors. This orchestral version features electric guitar and harmonica backed by a large brass section for a wonderful big band sound. It is surprisingly rocking tune on an otherwise laid back album.  "Glimmer" is way over-composed for my tastes in the orchestral version so I prefer Neil on solo piano again on this one.  Another introspective piece, this time about cars and relationships, sort of like his recent book I suppose.

"Say Hello to Chicago" is a fun, bluesy number again with a lot of brass backing it up.  I really like the way this tune swings a little.  This sounds more like a Frank Sinatra song than anything else. "Tumbleweed" is not bad in its orchestral version but it is such a wonderfully simple and sweet song that I decided to go with the solo version for my mix.  Neil is strumming a ukulele on this one (throughout the solo disc Neil strums, he does not pick) which makes it a nice contrast sandwiched between the multi-layered tunes on my mix. 

"Like You Used to Do" might be my favorite song on Storytone.  It is a fun, swinging track featuring an excellent sonic blend of big band and blues.  By contrast, "I'm Glad I Found You" is one of the album's weakest moments, slightly more tolerable in its orchestral mode than solo. "When I Watch You Sleeping" is a relaxing tune with a nice country folk feel, adding yet another dimension of musical style to Storytone's exploratory range. Likewise, "All Those Dreams" hearkens back to Neil's great Harvest Moon album with a smooth string section supporting drums and bass and acoustic guitar.

Overall, the sonic variety on Storytone is really entertaining. With the exception of a couple of noteworthy tracks, there is nothing particularly outstanding on this album.  But it is accessible and makes for some easy listening.  My parents would probably like this music.  Much of it reminds me of something that Bobby Goldsboro or Jim Reeves might have done in the 60's.  The full orchestration on tracks like "Who's Going to Stand-Up?" is particularly worthy of attention. Neil does not reinvent himself with Storytone.  He merely accentuates some undercurrents of sound that have been there through past solo efforts and special explorations like his off-beat album This Note's for You and, more recently and successfully, Prairie Wind

It is interesting that Neil credits each of other the more than 100 musicians and vocalists that contributed to Storytone. But he does not credit himself on any song.  So, you do not know specifically what instrument, if any, he is playing on each track.  He did credit himself on the watercolors that he painted for the CD cover and inside.  On top of everything else in Neil's life, he has an exhibition of his paintings displayed this month in Los Angeles.

Storytone serves as the capstone on another complex, successful, and conflicted year for one of the great living songwriters and performers from the classic rock era. As of today it ranks #2 in amazon's "folk" music category, #5 in "classic rock", and #12 in "rock."

Late Note:  Neil's latest record debuted at #33 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Watching Interstellar

I saw Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's latest film, yesterday. As long-time readers know, Nolan is my favorite living director.  I have compared him with Alfred Hitchcock in the past but it is more common in the press to see comparisons with Stanley Kubrick.  Both Hitchcock and Kubrick rank as my favorite directors of all-time.

The Kubrick comparisons seem more warranted with Interstellar as Nolan's film is obviously inspired by 2001, one of the greatest movies ever made.  Interstellar is not quite that, but it is sophisticated, often stunning to behold, and surprisingly emotional.  In fact, I would say that Interstellar is the most emotional movie Nolan has directed yet.

I read a lot of the early reviews.  Spoilers don't usually bother me but the ones I read were very cautious not to give too much of the plot away.  I won't either in this post.  I will say that the movie has several splendid nods to 2001.  There are situations and scenes that remind me of Kubrick's masterpiece.  But these are done in Nolan's style so he isn't copying Kubrick, he is merely admiring him and incorporating a little bit of him into this film.

Interstellar stands on its own and is much more "human" than 2001.  Kubrick's film is all about the wonder and possibility of space and human potential on a grand scale. Nolan's movie takes place in space and the narrative is nested in space stuff but Interstellar is not really about space.  It is about other things.

Those other things actually remind me more of Nolan's brilliant Inception than any other film.  If you liked Inception's inward journey and complex story line, you will enjoy Interstellar's outward journey that ironically offers more character empathy.  It is equally challenging in that it is not a casual movie, it is not an action movie, there are no sex scenes, no gun fights, you must be engaged and pay attention or you will literally find yourself lost in space.

Interstellar is not about space.  Space is the vehicle for the story but the movie is more akin to Inception's consideration of Time, only here we are dealing with the "big scale" time of relativity.  And love plays a fundamental role in the movie. Not physical or romantic love, but love of family and love as basic to the human species. Love in Interstellar matches knowledge in 2001 as a primary theme.

The biggest surprise in the film for me personally comes about halfway through its near 3-hour length, when - without giving anything away here - the characters portrayed so well by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway encounter unexpectedly powerful emotions as they experience the relativity of Time at a deeply existential level.  I have never considered how humans would react to an encounter with relativity experienced intimately.  Interstellar boldly immerses the viewer, through strong empathetic performances of these actors, in that shocking intimacy.  From that moment on I was totally into the movie and realized that it was going to stimulate my heart as much as my mind.  That was pretty cool.

The film is visually amazing at times.  I can see why many reviewers advocate seeing it in IMAX. Generally, I would have driven a little further and paid a little more to see it in that format.  Nolan really enjoys filming in IMAX.  But, due to a bit of a hectic weekend schedule, I chose to drive a shorter distance and see Interstellar on a "standard" screen. I recall thinking 4-5 times during the film that "Wow, that would look so cool in IMAX."  But, to be honest, the film is more of an inward journey than I was expecting, and I am talking about maybe 8-10 minutes of the long movie that is clearly of IMAX grade.  Watching it on a standard screen did not detract from the overall experience of it.

Jessica Chastain joins McConaughey and Hathaway in providing the necessary performances to sell the believability of the film's incredible premise and, more importantly, to latch on to the discerning viewer at an emotional level.  The weight of love through the passage of Time is the powerful core of Interstellar's message.  Unlike 2001, this movie is more about who we are now as human beings instead of what our potential is as human beings.

Interstellar has some flaws.  Its execution is not quite as smooth as Inception.  It is a bit of a rocky ride to start with. The first 20 minutes contain a lot of necessary setup information for the huge narrative story that follows.  But it is presented in a non-dramatic yet heavily theatrical documentary type style that is somewhat disorienting and a challenge to get in to.  It is the most efficient way to get the story going but it is not fluid nor did I feel much of anything for what was happening as it was all so hastily told to me.  A necessary evil perhaps.

Likewise, I found it difficult to relate to the film's final ten minutes or so.  The ending is too abrupt and too neat, the usual Nolan ambiguity is not there.  The ending felt too clean for me given the winding course of the narrative.  But in between the beginning and end Interstellar is immensely rewarding visually, intellectually, and (I can't emphasize this enough) emotionally.  I would give this film an 8.5 if I did fractions on my ten-point scale.  It is not quite as good as Inception but it is still an excellent movie.  Because of its surprising emotional power and the overall handling of the complicated story during the bulk of the movie I will round this one up to a 9.  It is a must-see movie and another magnificent, though flawed, effort by Nolan.

I do not expect Interstellar to enjoy the massive box office success that some of Nolan's other films received.  The simple fact is that most moviegoers will find the film too flat in the action department and too complicated to ever relate to something like the existential experience of relativity.  That is not mainstream stuff.  Yet, it is all there in the film for those who make the effort to connect with it. That connection is a richly rewarding movie experience.  But it is probably too much of a stretch to ask the masses of people that saw, say, The Dark Knight, to go so deep with Nolan.

Nevertheless, I applaud him.  I connected with the intimate nature of the film and I will likely pay again to see it, maybe in IMAX next time. Interstellar is a sophisticated experience for sophisticated people.  To that extent it is very much like 2001, which was not a huge box office success when it was initially released back in 1968. Kubrick was seen as an artist making an artsy movie.  Over time the stature of 2001 has risen compared with the critical controversy of its initial release.  It may well be the same for Interstellar, only this time most critics seem to like the movie (though many critics do not) while the common movie goer may not relate to its existential message sufficiently to drive financial success. But, as the film itself expresses, things can change dramatically with the passage of Time.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Treadwell at the One: The Agony of Defeat

A new standard for the Agony of Defeat.  I apologize if someone finds this image disturbing.  It is unfortunately necessary to understand how close Ole Miss came to victory and why this was not ruled a touchdown.  The receiver lost control of the football at this precise instant, the ball clearly short of the goal line.  I hope Laquon Treadwell recovers from this heart-wrenching Ole Miss moment. 
Although I have never been an Ole Miss football fan I was kind of rooting for them this year.  A storybook narrative was developing as I pointed out in a recent post.  But last night it was not to be. Last night Ole Miss (ranked #4) apparently lost their chance at a national championship by losing at home to an excellent (ranked #3) Auburn Tigers football team 35-31 (see ESPN's highlights of the game here).  But it is the way they lost that resonates this morning.

I grew up watching ABC's Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons.  I saw the really excellent opening sequence to that series many times.  Jim McKay voicing the phrase "the thrill of victory...and the agony of defeat" was part of the zietgeist of my youth.  For many years "the agony of defeat" was a film clip of skier Vinko Bogataj wiping out in a ski jump competition.

But, last night's Ole Miss loss replaces the image that defines this phrase for me today.  Auburn came storming back from a 24-14 deficit to the Rebels.  The Tigers have a truly talented quarterback in Nick Marshall.  Trailing by 10 points late in the third quarter Marshall faced a 3rd and 11 when he scrambled away from the feisty Rebel pass rushers and connected with an Auburn receiver for a 41-yard completion. A stunning play.

After that the Tigers seemed to storm over the Rebels at will, scoring three touchdowns to only one more by Ole Miss.  But the Rebels had a chance, two of them in fact, in the final minutes of the game before a roaring home crowd at Oxford, Mississippi.  They blew their first chance when Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace made a great scramble to prevent a loss of yardage caused by the Tiger defensive rush and struggled down to the two yard line where he fumbled the ball and Auburn recovered.

At that point I thought it was game over.  I mean, Auburn had been running and passing all over the Ole Miss defense the entire second half.  But, wait. No.  Ole Miss stopped them and forced a punt. Ole Miss got the ball back with about 3:30 left in the game...and they drove again.  Wallace connected with star receiver Laquon Treadwell, who escaped a few tackles and made it to the goal line with the football just as he was being pulled from behind by a desperate Auburn defensive back. Treadwell's right foot crossed over into the in-zone but the momentum of the tackle carried his body backward while the lunging Auburn player fell and accidentally pinned his left foot.  This twisted and broke Treadwell's leg.

But the ball never "broke the plain of the goal line" as they say in football.  In literal agony from his fractured leg, Treadwell could not hang on to the football, which bobbled into the in-zone as another Auburn defender fell on it.  The play was initially ruled a touchdown.  Ole Miss would go up 37-35 before the extra-point attempt.  They would become the Number Three team in the country. But, that is not what happened.  

As the Ole Miss trainers assisted a visibly hurting and shaken Treadwell on a cart from the field the play was under video review, as is the way of SEC football.  Since the football did not "break the plain" until after it was fumbled by Treadwell, and since Auburn recovered in the in-zone, the touchdown and possible victory and major step toward a national championship all evaporated into the cold night air.

It was a touchback.  Auburn ran out the clock. Auburn wins. Ole Miss will drop out of the Top Four now and, in addition, they have lost their most talented receiver for the rest of the season. Agony upon agony.  My post immediately before this one, on Madison Bumgarner, is an example of the "the thrill of victory."  This is its antithesis.

I don't recall seeing a team twice fumble the football on their last two offensive drives late in the fourth quarter inside the three yard line - where either time a score could have given them victory.  I certainly don't recall seeing it happen in such a big game.  I am glad I am not an Ole Miss fan this morning because it feels bad enough to me just being a bystander acquiring a new sense of the agony of defeat.