Last weekend when Laura ran in St. Paul’s “Get Lucky” half-marathon, Dave and the kids met her at the new CHS Field in Lowertown. There they heard enough Irish music to last a whole year, reminding us of what a customer once jokingly said when selling his mother’s collection of mariachi records: “You really just need one.”
Of course, any healthy record collection should represent the wide range of genres found around the world, including Irish music. Here’s a fun Clancy Brothers tune for today.
Tribute albums have been around for about as long as any other kind of record, but they really took off in the 90s when the “Various Artists” section of your neighborhood record shop (likely to be largely CDs in those days) swelled. Some artists were fortunate enough to find such a collection could buoy their careers by introducing their music to a larger audience. Sometimes the covers disc eclipsed the sales of the original recordings, as for instance with Sweet Relief – A Benefit for Victoria Williams in 1993, and a subsequent album of Vic Chesnutt’s songs.
It may be some songwriters will be best remembered by such a collection long after they’ve left us, and to further this theory we’d like to look a ways further into the past, about 135 years. This is when an Austrian music publisher, Antonin Diabelli, embarked upon a charity project to benefit the country’s orphans and widows in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. To create his fundraising publication, Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (“Variations for the Pianoforte on a Given Theme”), he sent a waltz he had written to every A-List composer he knew and asked each to write variations on it. Fifty complied, including Franz Schubert, a now largely-unheard son of Mozart, and a then-twelve-year-old Franz Liszt. And then there was the fifty-first contribution, which came from Ludwig van Beethoven.
At this time, the monumental maestro was working with renewed fervor on the late sonatas (including the epic, finger-twisting twenty-ninth), the late quartets, the Missa Solemnis and that capstone of all works, the Symphony no. 9 in D Minor. His initial reaction was to dismiss the project as beneath his talents, as we know from his description of the piece as Schusterfleck, a German term of derision (literally “Cobbler’s patch”) which compares work to mundane stitching. Beethoven’s secretary and earliest biographer Anton Schindler, fond as he was of exaggerating Beethoven’s accomplishments, claimed he quickly created his thirty-three variations so as to establish his enduring prowess. More likely, Beethoven was promised a princely sum for a set of variations and complied for the cash. Studies of his sketchbooks suggest the variations were not written at one time, contradicting Schindler’s story.
The scale and depth of his set of variations, thirty-three in all, certainly did serve to further his supremacy in Vienna at the time. They were published, along with one each from the fifty other contributors, in 1823. The Diabelli Variations, op. 120, were his last major works for the piano published before his death three years later. And Antonin Diabelli, who likely initiated the project to advance his publishing business, achieved at least part of his goal in establishing the endurance of his name. The work is a favorite among Beethovenians, widely recorded and performed, and even the subject of a Tony-nominated play (33 Variations) produced in 2009.
Famously described by Daniel Barenboim as “thirty-three mutation,” Beethoven takes tiny elements of Diabelli’s melody and expands them. Throughout the series, which hardly strays from its original C-Major setting, Beethoven makes reference to Bach, his own sonatas, and most famously to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Beethoven changes direction in the last several variations, first shifting to the minor and then, in number thirty-two, to the key of E-Flat-Major. This leads to a dramatic flourish which builds to a comfortable return to Diabelli’s key for the brief closing minuet in number thirty-three.
Some pianist, such as Alfred Brendel, have suggested his thirty-three variations were intended as a capstone to the thirty-two sonatas, the last of which had only recently been published. There is also an account of Beethoven having asked Diabelli how many composers had contributed variations to the project, and when told thirty-two said, “I shall write thirty-three myself.”
Owing to how ridiculous thirty-three little track players would be, we’ve posted this recording of Rudolf Serkin performing The Diabelli Variations in two tracks, one for each side of the record. The first track contains numbers 1-19 and the second track contains the remaining eighteen. You’ll have to forgive the noisiness of our this copy of the album, which was recorded from our personal collection.
There’s an interesting story about Serkin himself, who made his debut at seventeen years old while living with the family of German violinist Adolf Busch. Joining his host and others in a performance of one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, young Serkin was asked to play a little encore. As a joke, he suggested that other famous set of variations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I took him seriously,” recounted Serkin, “When I finished there were only four people left — Busch, [pianist] Artur Schnabel, [musicologist] Alfred Einstein and me.”
If anything establishes television’s derisive status as “the boob tube,” its this 1974 commercial for a Lou Reed album. RCA’s investment in the advertising campaign must have paid off because Sally Can’t Dance became Reed’s first record to reach the top ten. The label’s overall investment in his solo career, however, was probably less appealing to investors after Reed delivered Metal Machine Music the following year, which RCA was contractually obligated to release.
A couple years ago a friend from Numero Records came into the shop and told us about a new project they were researching. We’d worked with them in the past when Dave wrote a story about the reissue label’s release of the first reissue of the Lewis Connection LP, which is a true Minneapolis treasure. This time around they were collecting songs for their “Wayfaring Strangers” series, which is the label’s lesser-known collection of rare, privately-pressed country and folk records. The set in the works, which was released last year, was to feature Gram Parsons-inspired “cosmic American music.”
Of course, the whole idea is complicated in the Parsons legacy, which gets muddier the more you know about him. He came from loathsome plantation wealth and by nearly every account he was pretty much a prick (we wouldn’t recommend reading any of the several biographies of Parsons to a fan). But his country-rock records with the Byrds, the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers were hugely influential in the United States, even if he later dismissed them as “a plastic dry fuck.” The enormous success of the Eagles or Poco is hard to imagine without those records to have shown the way.
Numero released their collection, Cosmic American Music, last year to positive reviews all around. Rather than focus on artists who followed the country-rock tradition, the set includes reproduces tracks from nineteen rare records which owe more to the last two Parsons’ releases, GP and Grievous Angel. This Mistress Mary album, for instance, could easily set a collector back $300.
Reviews of the compilation point out that, as the first of its kind, it could turn out to be something like the original Nuggets LPs, which inspired new interest in discovering vast amounts of largely-unheard 60s garage rock. We hope so and we would love to see additional collections (the good news is that Numero did tag Cosmic American Music as “Volume I.” Another volume will certainly be more interesting to us than another Eagles reissue.
Anyway, the Minnesota artists we recommended didn’t end up on the finished compilation. There are certainly songs from here in the North Star State which we prefer to some selections on Cosmic American Music, but we understand the collection is intended to paint a picture of the subgenre and can’t collect all its best in only two LPs. Besides, a lot of our favorite Minnesota country albums are a little more country and a little less cosmic, we suppose.
One of the albums we recommended was the second record by Podipto, which we have only posted here on the Hymies blog once, and then only featuring some of the cover art. It is a really gorgeous looking record, but we were really remiss to not share at least one song as well.
Their second album was self-released because the Canadian label which put out the first had folded and that’s how it earned its title Homemade. You can learn a little more about them on their website here, which we should mention describes them as a rock and roll band and not a country or country rock group. Also through their site, you can purchase their two albums on CDs which also include demos and live cuts, and which we enthusiastically recommend.
Its always really heartbreaking to see a box of good albums which has been in a flooded basement or garage. Sometimes they’re worth saving, in case a clean jacket can be found. Others are just a lost cause, like the BB King album in this picture. In addition to water damage, it looks like a dog chewed on it!