Songs

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nashville impact

We wonder what became of Nashville Impact. Their album of original tunes on Smallville Records included some pretty sharp easy listening country stuff.

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“Country Music Lovers” by Nashville Impact

10408663_10152700154380028_6633489256019974392_nOur new neighbors, Peppers and Fries, have opened up in the old gas station across 39th Avenue! Click on their name to go to their website and check out the menu.

We’re pretty excited to walk over for our first burrito later this week. Meanwhile, this is as good an excuse as we’re going to get to re-post our favorite song about tortillas.

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“I Love Tortillas” by La Banda de Ray Camacho

i love tortillas

There is only one thing that keeps us up at night, and it’s not a monster. It’s not sharks in tornadoes or thieves roaming the streets. It’s not even the nightmare scenarios of terrorism and upheaval which greet us with every morning’s paper courtesy of our leaders…

It’s the bank.

George Bailey’s dead and gone. There’s surely some lawyer still settling his estate, but his spirit is gone. The banker you’ll meet today has no interest in your well-being because he doesn’t expect he’ll ever see you again, like a cashier at a big box retailer. He might have a big fancy degree from a big fancy business school, but all he’s doing day to day with all that education is typing numbers into programs which decide your fate, and don’t let him tell you otherwise. We’re barely more than a generation away from punched card computing, but still put our faith in the machines and the people who’ve been trained to do their bidding. It hardly matters your banker doesn’t know the first thing about carpentry, wiring or plumbing — if the machine says you lose your house, you lose your house.

There’s a great song about it all on Chokecherry’s new LP, The Future Was a Long Time Ago, which we posted earlier this week here.

Dick Feller wrote “The Credit Card Song” in 1974 and the only thing irrelevant about it today is the computer.

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credit card song

Untitled

(click to enlarge)

Rarely do classical albums look cool. Most feature some manic antique in the throes of conducting, or some pasty performer in a tuxedo — few make you want to bring the record home, let alone listen to it. Images of the composers themselves are no exception, as we most often find the frowniest, frumpiest image from his winter season. Consider the case of Johannes Brahms, most often represented as a pear-shaped father time, whose wild beard is topped with a dark mustache which curls upward, even if he’d been all but thirty when he composed the music on the album.

The elder Brahms is, of course, an amusing figure. He is said to have had a way of strolling with his hands clasped behind his back which accentuated his large beard and belly, and although by thirty he had become fairly wealthy, he never dressed well. He enjoyed the company of children, even carrying penny candy in his coat to share, but with adults often had little to say. He is remembered nonetheless as a loyal friend, and generous to a fault.

johannes-brahms-photo-young

Brahms in his thirties

As a younger man he was a perfectionist and anxious as to the quality of his work, even if imbued with the potential to, as Robert Schumann said, “give ideal expression to the times.” He is believed to have destroyed as many as a dozen drafts for string quartets before completing his first chamber works. In early photographs, Brahms appears handsome and confident, although he was hardly a romantic outside of his music. Some scholars suggest his feelings about women were shaped at a young age, when he worked as a dance hall pianist to help support his family. He never married.

His music rarely reflected his personal life, let alone any narrative at all, leading critics since Karl Geiringer to call him “the enigmatic Brahms.” He never cared for programmatic music. One of his few contributions to the polemic discussions of the era was a letter co-written with his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, opposing the excesses of Wagner.

Brahms took his songs came from sources like scripture, and he never composed an opera. His two dramatic overtures imply the two sides of his personality — the first, his Academic Festival Overture, was written in gratitude to the University of Breslau in 1880, is an amalgam of familiar drinking songs. His second, the same year, he christened the Tragic Overture, but he never offered an explanation for its anguished character. He explained the two simply by saying, “one laughs while the other cries.”

Two unusual works which offer insight into Brahms’ feelings are also two of our favorites, his String Sextets composed in the early 1860s. The two loves of his life are reflected in the works, and they were by form unique simply for having been string sextets, a form which was hardly ever used, aside from the series of six written by Boccherini about a century earlier.

The first of Brahms’ loves was Clara Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann, who had welcomed Brahms into his home at twenty and made great efforts to advance the young musician’s career — although his effusive praise may have actually inadvertently added to Brahms’ anxieties. When Schumann leapt from a bridge into the Rhine not long after, he went voluntarily to a mental sanatorium in Bonn. Brahms remained at their home in Dusseldorf with Clara, who was pregnant with their eighth child at the time. He stayed with them, even delaying his career, for several years before finally departing, but kept up correspondence with Clara.

Clara was an accomplished concert pianist and most of their letters are about music. At one point Brahms urged her to destroy the letters he had sent, and returned many of hers. She only partly complied, leaving scholars to suspect those which remained to be eventually published were those she wished the world to see. Like Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” or the mysterious theme on which Elgar based his lovely Variations in 1898, we’re unlikely to ever know the whole story of Brahms’ relationship to Clara Schumann.

Brahms was briefly engaged to the other love of his life, Agathe von Siebold, a soprano often described in concert programs and album notes as “voluptuous.” Most of their letters to each other were burned, but when Michelmann Emil later wrote a novel about their relationship, von Siebold quoted the composer’s last letter to her: “I love you! I must see you again, but I am incapable of bearing fetters.* Please write me whether I may come again to clasp you in my arms, to kiss you, and tell you that I love you.” Her reply was to return his ring.

[* We had to look it up too. A fetter is “a chain or manacle used to restrain a prisoner, typically placed around the ankles.”]

This is the context of his String Sextets, written for two violins, two violas and two cellos shortly after these tumultuous years. The first was filled with magnificent melodic ideas but missing the confidence of Brahms’ orchestral and choral works — it’s believed he chose the form to avoid comparisons to Beethoven’s quartets. With the second, his G Major Sextet, he displays mastery of what would quickly become a more common form (Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg all composed their own string sextets in the coming years). Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Robert Schumann’s string quartets, it is one of the most intimate works in Brahms’ oeuvre.

Since producing the first Sextet, he labored passionately on his First Piano Concerto only to have its performances received poorly — at its second performance, with Brahms himself accompanied by the prestigious Lepzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the audience actually hissed at him. He wrote to his friend Joseph, “I am only experimenting and feeling my way. All the same, the hissing was rather too much.”

The allegro non troppo first movement of Brahms’ String Sextet in G Major contains two of the only personal references to appear in his music. At the climax of its first movement, Brahms emplys an anagram of Agathe’s name, A-G-A-B-E (in German musical notation B is written H). Writing about it later, he said, “here is where I tore myself free from my last love.” The movement is impassioned and fluid throughout, with the leads less dominant than in his first Sextet. The rising motif at the beginning is believed to present a sort of opposite portrayal of Clara Schumann as is heard in her husband’s String Quartet no. 3, from twenty years earlier. Again, an anagram is used. We’re not sure how you’d do this for someone whose name doesn’t include any letters from A through G. Scholars found early drafts of this motif his notes from a decade earlier, around the time of Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide.

brahms sextets

The balance of the String Quartet in G Major is less intimate, but strikingly beautiful. Its scherzo is one of his first, lumbering too slowly for a dance until a trio passage, presto giocosso, lightens the mood. The third movement is a very slow adagio, and its opening melody first appeared in a draft for a discarded quartet which Brahms had sent to Clara Schumann in 1855. “How seldom I succeed in getting my thoughts out of my heart and onto paper,” he wrote. “I think and I feel without being able to hit the right notes.”

Brahms overcame his fear of being compared to Beethoven and composed three quartets in the 1870s, and also continued to re-work his Sextets for years. He made little reference to his romances in letters to friends after this time. He and Clara continued to burn their correspondences until her eldest daughter, Marie, convinced her otherwise.

Brahms-Johannes-04

Here in two parts is the allegro non troppo from Brahms’ String Sextet in G Major.

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On this early 1980s recording, the Cleveland Quartet is joined by Pinchas Zukerman and Bernard Greenhouse. As you can see from the picture of the jacket, our copy has seen better days. Fortunately the records within are in good shape. The Cleveland Quartet had previously recorded Brahms’ three string quartets.

It’s got to be hard to have the same name as somebody famous. We met a guy years ago (we are not making this up!) named Fred Kacyzinski. He was awful quick to mention he’d never been to Montana, never went to Harvard and had no problem with the mechanization of our lives caused by industrial society.

We once posted about “the other Ray Charles,” who was a successful arranger in the sixties, and whose name you’ll see on a lot of great pop records (usually billed as “The Ray Charles Singers”). By coincidence there was a successful figure in the same field he chose with the same name — the same thing happened to this guy, Johnny Mathis, who was a country songwriter with five hundred songs to his credit. When he was young he was half of the kinda-hip act Jimmy & Johnny, but as a solo act he always had to bill himself as “Country Johnny Mathis,” because of that other guy who was a lot more of a big seller. Still his songs were recorded by Ray Price, George Jones and Webb Pierce to name a few — he was really successful in his own world, and kept touring and playing all his life.

country johnny mathis

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“Welcome Home” by Country Johnny Mathis

kenton ritter

It seems to us like this project was thunk up by some executive at Capitol Records, seeing as how each was a top seller for the label. Ritter had a hit the year before covering Eddie Dean’s “Hillbilly Heaven,” and Kenton was on a roll: his adaptation of West Side Story had not only been a big seller, cleverly timed to coincide with the release of the movie, but it also earned the conductor his first Grammy.

In these years his over-sized orchestra included a four-piece mellophonium section (this being a modern adaptation of the mellophone, a marching band instrument with a sonority somewhere in between a trumpet and a trombone). This is the same period in which he produced his successful adaptation of Wagner, from which we posted a track a couple years ago. At its largest Kenton’s “Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra” had thirty-nine members! Kenton used a smaller version of his orchestra for the Tex Ritter album, but kept the mellophonium section. That’s one of them on the cover.

Its an interesting record — probably more rewarding for Tex Ritter’s fans than Kenton’s. Ritter’s rich voice is especially well-framed in the ballads “Green Leaves of Summer” and “The Last Round Up,” but the uptempo singing cowboy stuff works as well. We were disappointed Kenton didn’t tackle “Blood on the Saddle,” one of Ritter’s most unique performances first recorded a couple years earlier. There is a fine version of the theme from High Noon, which is probably the most famous of all of Ritter’s songs. The track below was based on the 50s Brazilian film, O Cangaceiro. which was the first in a short-lived subgenre called “Nordesterns” (combining ‘Nordeste’ and ‘Western’).

Quoted in Dr. William F. Lee’s biography, Artistry in Rhythm, Kenton called the album “a dog.” Long out of print, and never issued on CD, its probably one of the rarest albums by either.

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“The Bandit of Brazil”

Here is a local band that’s been around for so long we’re surprised they haven’t recorded more. More than a half dozen years have passed since they released a full length disc, In the Winepress, and broke up for a while. By the time they first played here at Hymie’s a couple years ago, they’d recruited Matt Engelstadt as a new bass player and already started playing some of the songs on their new album, out this weekend, as well as a great tune they’d released on a split single with the Knotwells.

They’ve never sounded as good as on The Future Was a Long Time Ago, a great album a long time coming. This “little band from Minneapolis” has always had a charming punk rock-ish interpretation of country music, which is highlighted here with shorter, quicker arrangements and exceptionally catchy hooks. On In the Winepress, Jon Collins’ lyrics about drinking and disenfranchisement had been so dense you’d have to read along to follow them (and find your glasses to do that), these eleven new songs are cleverly concise, if still about the same subjects.

the future

The songs seem seeped in the working class worries of what we’re now calling the “Great Recession,” which for a lot of us didn’t really end when the guv’ment saved the banks. Or something. As cheerful as the band sounds, there’s an oppressive sense of dread just underneath the rollicking surface, probably best captured in the concise lament which lent itself to the album’s title:

When the past goes it leaves a big hole
The future was a long time ago

The album opens happily enough with “Salt and Ice,” the first of several songs to highlight dual lead vocals by Collins and fiddler Pamela Laizure. They’ve got a great chemistry here, which reminds us of our favorite songs by This Bike is a Pipe Bomb (one of which is “Of Chivalry and Romance in a Dumpster,” if you’re wondering) and the Gr’ups. Does anybody remember the Gr’ups? They were awesome.

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“Salt and Ice”

A few years ago the Brian Just Band told us we got it all wrong when we described their first disc as a “summer record,” and so we’ve avoided giving seasonal tags to albums. That said, it sure seems like The Future Was a Long Time ago is set in a Minnesota winter, from the romanticized “Salt and Ice” to the way bus windows fog up late at night. It also seems like the themes in Collins’ lyrics are connected to songs like Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America.” Here it’s contemporary crises like the impact of foreclosures on neighborhoods like ours, and the failed evacuation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, but like Scott-Heron did in the seventies, Collins pairs politics with personal experience. “Banks” is a particularly successful example of this.

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“Banks”

Classic country music and punk rock have a complicated past, a stormy relationship going all the way back to CBGB’s, which really isn’t so strange when you think about it: both often focus on the feelings of the disenfranchised, especially those oppressed by economic conditions. There’s not so much difference between Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” and the tattered jeans Mike Ness wears with shame in Social Distortion’s “Story of my Life.” The dead man’s shirt in Chokecherry’s “Good Times (Are Over)” might end up on the same thrift store rack.

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“The Future Was a Long Time Ago”

Chokecherry sounds better than ever throughout the album, which was recorded by Matt Castore at his A Harder Commune Studio. Instead of the flat, lo-fi sound of lots of folk-punk bands (like, again, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb) they’re recorded and mixed the way you’d want a good ol’ fashioned punk rock album to sound. Drummer Chris Schuck, who has been with Collins and Laizure all along, sounds great, which you can tell just listening to “Salt and Ice” up above. And two tracks feature the one and only Ross Fellrath of Whiskey Jeff’s Beer Back Band on steel guitar. He adds a particularly countryfied atmosphere to the title track. One thing we especially love about the album is how Laizure’s fiddle sounds, sometimes very country as on that song, and other times heavy, in the style of the 90s English band the Levellers as on “Downtown Dogs.”

Last week we drank a beer for breakfast and wrote about Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy with a little wrought self-depreciation. Sometimes it feels like we’re just a few years from obsolescence — small business seems doomed in this country, especially something like a neighborhood record shop. All the while we’re not getting any younger, we know what Collins’ means when he sings about the cold wind and the “after-work bus with the windows fogged up, [when] you feel yourself growing older every day.” But that song doesn’t end with that gloomy image — instead Collins and Laizure remind us that “It’s alright.”

Chokecherry has two shows this weekend to celebrate the release of The Future Was a Long Time Ago. The first is at the Seward Cafe on Saturday night with an awesome bill of groups: Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band, Diver Dress and Up the Mountain Down the Mountain. The second is Sunday afternoon here at Hymie’s, where they’ll be joined by Wisconsin folk musician Jake Duda. Every little detail you could ask for can be found here.

 

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