Prince’s untimely passing coincided with a program by Warner Brothers to reissue his albums under their license, and as they work their way through his catalog chronologically they’ve hit a stumbling block with Batman, which is not exactly his most popular album anymore. Nevermind that the record was a colossal success when it was released in 1989 — it remains the most un-loved of several orphans in the Prince discography.
How does one do the “Batdance”? We’re not certain, and Prince’s music video for the song really only further confuses the matter. We do know for sure it is not the same as the legendary Batusi, as performed by Adam West.
“Batdance” is one of the most unusual Prince songs to become a hit. The track uses dialogue from the movie and seems entirely spliced together in the style of musique concrète. The album is probably the first (to that point) in Prince’s catalog to age poorly — Batman still feels like a record from 1989 where everything leading up to it has a magical, timeless quality. The record also marks the end of Prince’s paisley, psychedelic era and the dawning of a newer and darker image.
We’re not movie critics (hell, we’re hardly music critics) but the Batman film to which Prince contributed music feels like the only screen adaptation of the dark knight’s story which captures the comic book’s continuing creepiness. Prince, so recently on the national radar for his suggestive lyrics, really captured the weirdness of Tim Burton’s reimagination of the Bruce Wayne story.
So we love Batman because the album makes us feel like kids again. You know, unsure of the future and a little terrified but also curious.
We first found it on this 45 by former I Dream of Jeanie star Barbara Eden, but the song was earlier a huge European hit for a group comically named Dave Dee, Doozy, Beaky, Mitch and Tich.
Their recording of “Bend It!” topped the German single chart. The song incorporated the bouzouki sound popularized by Zorba the Greek by using an amplified mandolin. It received little airplay in the United States because the lyrics were considered suggestive, so the band re-recorded it with different lyrics.
Barbara Eden made a few records in the sixties which are campy collector’s items today. Her version of “Bend It!” came with a picture sleeve that had instructions for “The Bend” on the back, so now you can dance along at home!
But first, this: the editors of The Star Tribune should be ashamed of today’s front page story about Prince. Their speculation that Prince’s sudden death was due to drug use is based on “unnamed sources” which are clearly the half-brother who sued the rock star several times, and a downright greedy lawyer.
Where the Carver County Sheriff’s office has reminded people that Prince was “a very good neighbor” and declared they will respect his privacy, The Star Tribune has sunk to a new low by placing their unfounded speculations on the front page. Even their own local music writer called the article out as “pitiful.”
Let’s hope that’s the last word on our hometown newspaper, which once again proves to be an embarrassment.
Here’s something from the lighter side of music news:
The Louis Armstrong House Museum has shared with the world rare footage of the legend himself in the recording studio. It was discovered in a warehouse in 2012, and released through the help of his daughter Andrea Bass. One would think there would be more film of Armstrong recording, considering his long and prolific recording career, but there isn’t — making this glimpse into his work all the more valuable to fans.
This was followed by a second discovery which delighted jazz enthusiasts all over the world. In a storage facility in Germany, three metal mothers featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were found. They had been sent by Okeh Records for pressing by Odeon, but for some unknown reason were never used.
The result is magnificently clear sound for the recordings, made in 1928.
The metal mother falls in the middle of the process of 78rpm record production. It is cast from the lacquer first cut, called the master, on a lathe by a skilled engineer as the recording is in progress. These are very delicate and ideally cast as quickly as possible into a form called the matrix, through a process called electrotyping. In brief, the lacquer is dipped in a bath derived from metals, commonly copper or nickel, while an electrical current is passed through.
Thus far we have created one ‘positive’ image of the recording, and one ‘negative’ image. The difference is that the first, the master, could be played back on a phonograph (this would, of course, destroy the soft and delicate lacquer). The matrix, a reverse image of the master, could not be played back on a phonograph.
The third stage is the production of the metal mother, such as the three from 1928 recently discovered in Germany. These are likewise produced by the electrotyping process, but the results are once again a ‘positive’ image of the recording. For 78rpm records, the sound on a metal mother is stunningly clear. There will be none of the familiar frying pan. Engineer Nick Dellow transferred the three recent discovers, and kindly has shared them on Youtube for all the world to enjoy.
If you are curious about the remaining two stages of the process of production, here they are: the metal mother is used to create a new ‘negative’ image of the recording called the stamper. This is the piece used to finally press the records. Several may be made, depending on how many records the label intends to press.
These parts may all be stored, although after some use the stampers must be changed so they are often discarded. Discovering long-lost metal parts may provide an improved recording of recordings from the era. This is what inspires, for instance, the folks who have been scuba diving in the Milwaukee River for years, in hopes of finding metal parts from Paramount Records, the legendary blues label which shut down production in 1935. It has long been thought employees tossed hundreds or more metal mother and other parts into the river. There is a chapter devoted to this in Amanda Petrusich’s great book, Do Not Sell at Any Price.
Fortunately, these newly discovered recordings of Armstrong and Ellington are available for all to enjoy!
Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis will turn eighty-one next month. He has released more albums that we care or count or dare to collect — but we always enjoy playing them. Especially when we come across one we’ve never seen before. One of the great things about his epic discography is that there’s always something awesome to discover.
For nearly a decade he led the Ramsey Lewis Trio, rounded out by the rhythm section of “Red” Holt and Eldee Young. The early albums lean on jazz standards, but they had their pop breakthrough with a cover of “The In Crowd” in 1965. His backing band left, forming Young-Holt Unlimited (whose sound is characterized by this super swingin’ hit). Holt’s replacement, Maurice White later became a founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire. Lewis never held on to a backing rhythm section as long as he had with his first group, but his albums always feature top performers. Young’s replacement, Cleveland Eaton, stayed with Lewis well into his funkiest years.
Ramsey Lewis had three million-selling mid-sixties hits, pretty unprecedented for a jazz artist. “The In Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water” all came from Lps which included jazz standards and sweet arrangements of pop hits. Wade in the Water augments his regular trio with a brass section and is one of our favorite Ramsey Lewis albums.
Ramsey started playing on a fender rhodes and other electric pianos while he was still recording for the Chess Records jazz-leaning subsidiary Cadet, but he really took on electric keyboards after he started recording for Columbia
When Ramsey left the Chess labels to record for Columbia, he started working with larger groups. Some even included a second pianist.
We came across a copy of his 1973 album Funky Serenity for the first time recently. Ramsey and Eaton (joined by blues drummer Morris Jennings) are in top form on this cover of Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right)”. Funky Serenity has quickly become one of our favorite Ramsey Lewis albums.
A very popular album from this period is Sun Goddess, which finds Ramsey joined by his old friend Maurice White and some of his Earth, Wind and Fire bandmates. The album was another huge pop hit for Ramsey.
We really wanted to include the funky Spiderman song from Ramsey’s next album, Don’t It Feel Good, but we couldn’t find our copy (our record collection at home isn’t very organized!). You’ll have to check it out from the link.
Ramey Lewis still lives in Chicago, but if you look at his official website you’ll be surprised to find the eighty-year-old still tours extensively. He just finished a four night stand at Washington DC’s Blues Alley last weekend, and next month he’ll be in Seoul, South Korea!
Irene loves coming to the record store every day, but like most older dogs she does not love walking in the snow anymore. Our puppy, on the other hand, couldn’t love it more. She’s a boxer, which according to our veterinarian at the East Lake Animal Clinic, are “the clowns of the dog world.” Watching our kids throw snowballs to her during this morning’s snowfall, we quickly understood why.
And what a perfect morning to tell you about this upcoming album from local composer Paul Fonfara, The Seven Secrets of Snow. While we might have a hard time explaining exactly which genre it would fit into in our otherwise organized shop, we are quite certain it is one of our favorite albums of the year.
Fonfara was commissioned to provide material for a documentary about the Russian clown, Slava Polunin, whose theatrical productions are legendary (check out this trailer for Slava’s Snowshow). Andrew Douglas, the London filmmaker who directed a documentary about Jim White, Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus, did not finish the film about Slava, but Fonfara’s songs survived in the form of this new disc. It will be debuted on Saturday with a performance at the Cedar Cultural Center, along with a short film to accompany each song and stunning visual art by the incomparable Whitney A. Streeter.
We are here on the Hymie’s blog are well-known to know very little about cinema, but to have omnivorous taste when it comes to records. The Seven Secrets of Snow is a captivating amalgam of jazz, carnival music, Eastern European folk, and chamber music. One will not be surprised to find members of the Poor Nobodys, Dreamland Faces, the Bookhouse Trio and the Brass Messengers amidst the cast assembled by Fonfara for the production. Each of these collaborative groups has years of experience creating works which combine theater, film, or other media far beyond your turntable with the music. The songs are alternately ideal music for dancing (this reflecting Fonfara’s work with the Brass Messengers) and introspection (drawing from Dreamland Faces and the Poor Nobodys). While driven in two directions, Fonfara’s imaginative songs compliment one another well, as for instance do Van Gogh’s various paintings to feature snow-covered settings.
While The Seven Secrets of Snow is not explicitly a jazz album, it fits snugly alongside several of our favorites from the 90s and early 00s, an under-appreciated period of innovation in the genre. “Tar Sands,” for instance, reminds us of Bill Frisell’s album The Intercontinentals, for its incorporation of a traditional folk motif and modern jazz in an arrangement which slowly builds tension. Fonfara is featured on the clarinet throughout the album, and is as agile at shifting styles as Don Byron, whose 1996 album Bug Music also came to mind. A highlight of that disc was Byron’s interpretation of several songs by Raymond Scott famous for their frequent appearances in Looney Tunes. Scott’s “Powerhouse” is, without a doubt, one of the most inspired themes in search of a movie (to paraphrase Charles Stepney) and found its home when the composer sold his catalog to Warner Brothers in 1943. His songs have since been licensed for other cartoons, including the Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy and, naturally, the Animaniacs. To draw an interesting parallel to Fonfara’s Seven Secrets of Snow, Raymond Scott once recorded an album with an all-star band credited only to “The Secret Seven.”
And likewise, while The Seven Secrets of Snow is not explicitly an album of chamber music, there are passages which could have come from Prokofiev’s film scores for Lieutenant Kije and Alexander Nevsky or, from a melodic point of view, the late quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. Fonfara is allowed wide freedoms in his arrangements due to the exceptional talent of the musicians he has conscripted. Few composers, for instance, have the luxury of writing for the singing saw, because they are not fortunate enough to work with Dreamland Faces’ Andy McCormick (the instrument was featured in Krzstztof Penderecki’s surreal comic opera, Ubu Rex and in the score to One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest by Jack Nitzche). Fonfara’s friendships benefit us listeners, because the arrangements are performed with precision and enthusiastic energy.
Each song is set to a film, which will be presented along with the performance on Saturday at the Cedar. Like Slava Polunin’s productions, they would appear to each be montages presenting ruminations centered around the themes of natural beauty and mortality. We have not seen all of the films and so instead have created our own imagery.
The title track — like Prokofiev’s “Troika” from Lieutenant Kije or Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall” — invokes a morning much like today’s here in Minneapolis. And this reminds us we need to shovel in front of the shop once more before its time to open. We hope you’ll enjoy these songs from Paul Fonfara’s new album. If you are like us a fan and want to take a closer look, there is a Kickstarter page to fund the disc’s recording and production, and while it’s contrary to our general discomfort with crowd-funding, on the subject we’ll plug our noses and offer the link here. You could likewise support this project by going to Saturday’s show at the Cedar. We are certainly looking forward to it!
Paul Fonfara and the Ipsifendus Orchestra will perform the songs from The Seven Secrets of Snow, accompanied by the films, on Saturday December 5th at the Cedar Cultural Center. Also performing will be the Brass Messengers and the one and only Jim White. Details on the Cedar’s site here.