Music Review

ANNIVERSARIES: Alexander Zemlinsky Born 140 Years Ago

A late-Romantic composer who occasionally worked in a more modern style, Alexander Zemlinsky (October 14, 1871 – March 15, 1942) was something of a prodigy. Anton Bruckner was among his teachers. Brahms, impressed by the Symphony in D and a quartet, recommended Zemlinsky to Simrock, Brahms's publisher and arranged a stipend for the young composer. Zemlinsky was friends with the slightly younger Arnold Schoenberg and taught him counterpoint (in which Brahms had tutored Zemlinsky); Schoenberg later married Zemlinsky's sister.

The connection to Schoenberg (who studied music with no-one else) probably contributed to the revival of Zemlinsky's music, which was largely forgotten in the decades after the Nazis drove the Jewish composer first from Germany back to his native Vienna, and then to America, where he found none of the success Schoenberg achieved in exile.

ANNIVERSARIES: Anton Bruckner Died 105 Years Ago

Despite circumstances that would make most men bitter, Anton Bruckner (Sept. 4, 1824 – Oct. 11, 1896) in his mature symphonies and choral works wrote some of the most spiritual music since Bach's. Insecure, he spent his thirties studying with the dictatorial music professor Simon Sechter, who had briefly taught Franz Schubert. Brucker didn't compose a symphony until 1863, the "Study" Symphony, which he withheld (as he did the later so-called No. 0).

In Vienna, Bruckner was considered by many to be a naïve country bumpkin; he got unfairly entangled in the bitter Brahms-Wagner debates that split the city. Bruckner's symphonies were thus the object of myopic criticism from some in the Brahms camp, including powerful critic Eduard Hanslick (however, Wagner, Liszt, and Emperor Franz Joseph I were among those who praised or supported Bruckner).

September Rock Review Roundup

Wilco: The Whole Love (dBpm)

The last two extra tracks on the deluxe version are "Speak into the Rose," a wonderfully propulsive Krautrock rip, and a less-plush alternate take of "Black Moon," a gently jangling ballad that delicately wafts the deluxe album to a beautiful, tender conclusion. Think about the contrast there, then imagine them combined in one song. You've basically imagined the whiplash-inducing opening track on the main album. I've had my problems with Wilco in the past: S/T was kinda boring, Sky formulaically pretty, the Jim O'Rourke-induced artiness of Ghost too stiffly self-conscious. Here, the beauty and the experimentation have been more organically merged, suggesting that Nels Cline has finally gelled as a member.

Going to Hell and Back Makes for Good Music

Mimi Goese & Ben Neill: Songs for Persephone (Ramseur)

Mimi Goese was the singer of Hugo Largo, and has had an artistically fruitful career since that '80s downtown New York indie-rock mainstay expired, releasing a solo album and collaborating with Moby. Trumpeter Ben Neill first became known in the avant-garde (student of LaMonte Young, collaborator with Rhys Chatham and Nicolas Collins, music curator at The Kitchen) who has also recently had success with an album of dubstep electronica.

This music was written for a Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Next Wave Festival production that starred Julia Stiles. Goese's distinctive vocal style combines the arch phrasing of Dagmar Krause (Henry Cow, Art Bears), operatic range and agility, and a flexible stylistic sensibility that subverts any genre to which she applies it.

Adios R.E.M.

Coincidentally, the two biggest stories yesterday both came from Georgia. It's not easy writing about the demise of R.E.M. when it came on the same day as the vastly more tragic and infinitely more undoable demise of Troy Davis. There can be an R.E.M. reunion whenever three or four guys feel like it, whereas Troy Davis can reunite with nobody; that pretty much overshadows a mere band breakup. But I'm a music writer, and there's no denying that R.E.M. was very important to me. So here goes.

I believe that one's reaction to R.E.M. depends on when one became aware of it. There is no way to say this without sounding like a cranky old man (you kids get off my lawn!), but unless you were a music fan when they first appeared, at the least it must be more difficult to appreciate just how boldly different they were from everything else outside Athens, GA. I'm talking about 1981 (the original "Radio Free Europe" 7", which the singer in my college band shared with the rest of us, inspiring awe) - 1982 (Chronic Town EP, first R.E.M. release I bought) - 1983 (the mighty Murmur, the band's debut album).

End of Summer Review Roundup

Mike Doughty: Yes and Also Yes (Snackbar)

Doughty has now had a solo career longer than that of his old band Soul Coughing, so it's past time to consider him on his own merits. SC was important in its time, but I enjoy this album more than anything they did. There was an extent to which SC was only as good as its sound/production (which was great, then), but Doughty's evolution since then, stripping back his sound to a slightly more traditional style, has more depth. Not that there's THAT much difference. It's still about witty lyrics that underneath the chuckles offer genuine profundity, a delivery that's natural yet emphatic, and a musical style that's rooted in folk music but far more rhythmically acute (there's a band on many tracks here, even strings, but even when it's just Doughty and his acoustic guitar, there's an underlying funkiness), a cross between talking blues and rap that's utterly organic rather than some sort of intellectualized style mash-up. Every single one of the 14 songs could stand on its own in any style or arrangement. It would be a shame if Doughty not being on ATO led to this album being overlooked.

Hendrix Immersion

Jimi Hendrix
The Dick Cavett Show
Blue Wild Angel: Live at the Isle of Wight (Experience Hendrix/Sony Legacy)

There's no question what the most important release is in the latest fusillade from the Hendrix estate. Dribs and drabs of Hendrix's fabled three-night stand at San Francisco's Winterland celebrating the Experience's second anniversary have been issued before: three tracks on The Jimi Hendrix Concerts in '82, and 11 on a 1987 Ryko CD specifically dedicated to Winterland material and quite well chosen. But there were two sets per night, so collectors knew those tracks were just the tip of the iceberg. The new four-CD set isn't everything from the six sets (technical difficulties are alluded to), but 35 tracks, which is certainly enough for all but fanatical completists, given how much repertoire gets heard multiple times. Since Hendrix was more of an improviser than most rock musicians, it doesn't sound repetitive; it's remarkable, really, how much the same song can vary from set to set.

In Memory of Songwriters Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber

A great song is a gift to the world. And if, through luck and skill, it becomes well known, it takes on a life of its own. Past a certain level of fame, it comes to seem less like a created artifact than a given, a product of the natural world that’s always been part of the landscape -- an effect I first consciously experienced back in June of 1989 when I went to hear Ashford & Simpson at Radio City Music Hall and they performed some of the Motown hits they’d written for other artists before the duo’s own recording career took off. I was well aware of the fact that the writing credits on "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough," "Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing," etc. were theirs, but hearing them perform the songs really drove home the point that these two flesh-and-blood people standing in front of me had created these songs, in my lifetime, with their own hands.

The 50 Best Beatles Songs

Obviously, the entire idea of picking the 10, 20, 50, or -- as Rolling Stone recently did -- 100 "best" Beatles songs is not simply an exercise in futility, it is as stupid as every other "top" list that has been generated by radio stations, TV stations, and magazines. Even if the primary criterion is not sheer "popularity" (as with many of these types of lists), there are still quite a number of factors to consider. Are we talking about historic importance? The influence a song had? Songwriting? Musicianship?

Giving some serious thought to this, I decided to do the "stupid" thing and compile my own top 50 list of Beatles songs, based on a variety (or combination) of these various criteria. However, rather than rank the songs (probably the stupidest aspect of creating this kind of stupid list), I provide them alphabetically, with my comments on why each was chosen.