13
Jan
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Two
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"This may sound like sacrilege, but I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley"¦ Who the hell ever put so many style together and made it work?"-Billy Joel

"Hey everybody, let's have some fun. You're only little but once and when you're dead you're done. So let the good times roll."-Ray Charles, "Let the Good Times Roll"


When I was a teenager, life seemed a lot more intense than it actually was. This is a fairly common experience I think; when you're young everything that happens is made much more important because it's happening to you and no one can ever understand what you're going through. The just don't get it. After a particularly bad brush with heartbreak in my freshman year of high school (which seemed at the time of course like just about the end of the world) I went into the kind of depression the depths of which can only be known by heartsick 14 year olds. And then, one day, I discovered Stars album Set Yourself on Fire and in all its melodramatic glory it saved me from my far too serious self. For a while there, Stars was the only band I listened to because each and every song felt like a quiet peek into my soul. It felt like someone knew what I was going through and knew how to express it with all of the gravitas I thought it deserved. Now there are better break-up records, and there are absolutely more mature examinations of heartbreak and lust, but for the time and the place, Set Yourself on Fire was exactly what I needed. Over time, much of Stars music has come to seem sensationalistic and even slightly immature, but that album still holds resonance with me, if only because it reminds me of the person I used to be and the (hopefully) much better adjusted person I've become.

What I'm trying, in my own incredibly long winded way, to say is that sometimes music is our salvation. No one embodies this ideal more clearly than Ray Charles. He was born into poverty. His older brother George was drowned in a washtub at only four years old. When he was five, he began to lose his eyesight due to glaucoma and by the time he was seven he was completely blind. His father died when he was ten, and his mother followed when he was 15. Dealt the raw deal that he was, what was Charles to turn to for salvation except music (to be clear, I am not comparing some high school rejection of mine to the death of Charles' whole family and his blindness. It may be a stretch, but I think he had it slightly harder)? He began his musical education at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, where he was only trained in classical music. After the death of his mother, Charles didn't return to school. Instead, he decided he wanted to play some slightly different music: rock "˜n' roll.

While Charles recorded several pre-rock and roll jazz songs before, and would record many more after (later solidifying himself as one of the initial inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) The Genius of Ray Charles, Collin's pick for this week, ignores rock entirely for 12 songs influenced by rhythm and blues, vocal jazz, big band instrumentation, and a crazy little thing called pop music. Instead of breaking into the mainstream using rock and roll that refused to be ignored like his contemporary Little Richard, Charles won the hearts and minds of America by placing his own stamp on classics already familiar to his intended audience. The strategy paid off for him, and The Genius of Ray Charles was his first album that crossed over from the rhythm and blues charts and turned him into a Top 40 artist.

The album opens with Charles' cover of Louis Jordan's "Let the Good Times Roll." With this song, and with this album as a whole, he proved to audiences that he was not afraid to sing someone else's song, nor was he anxious to let the band backing him take center stage for extended solos. And he shouldn't be. After the extended solo in the opening track, he jovially reminds us, "hey y'all, tell everybody, Ray Charles' in town!" As if anyone could forget that regardless of who wrote the songs, or who was playing behind him, this album is Charles' show. Following the opener, Charles covers "It Had To Be You" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band," two staples that were famous years, and even decades before Charles was around, yet he sings them with such confidence and verve that he leaves his own mark on each song.





"Deed I Do" showcases Charles' relaxed showmanship and his bravado, while later in the album "Tell Me You'll Wait for Me" and "Come Rain or Come Shine" give him more room to showcase his vocal talents, stripping back the big band feel and allowing Charles himself to shine through. Over the subsequent years, Charles would struggle with many more problems, from his arrest in 1965 for heroin possession (he admitted in court that at that point he had been addicted for 20 years) to the dissolution of two marriages (Charles eventually fathered 12 children with nine different women) and finally to his death from liver cancer in 2004, yet the music was always his salvation. Getting over his heroin addiction, he released the heavily biographical Crying Time which told of his troubles and so freed him from some of his heavy burdens. Sometimes music can be salvation. And really that was the genius of Ray Charles.





Sometimes music can provide satire and be used to communicate a bevy of ideas in a way that they might actually permeate mainstream thought. The band Devo, whose name comes from the concept of de-evolution, the idea that mankind is regressing instead of evolving and that things are getting worse, exemplifies the concept of an "idea band" (a term I am just coining right now, unless of course someone much more intelligent than me coined it a long time ago, in which case I'm very sorry and I didn't mean to steal it. Please don't sue me). Born as a punk band, Devo went on to represent post-punk music, utilizing synthesized sounds to create electronic art rock, which is basically a pretentious way to say that they created the sound of the future (though doesn't it sound so much better when it's all pretentious?). As much as they pioneered the genre they worked in (their album Duty Now For The Future, Ashley's pick this week, was one of the first major records to rely heavily on synthesizers, influencing if not creating the entire New Wave movement that would emerge in the "˜80s), Devo also used their music to communicate some lofty ideas, usually using satire or outright parody to get the message across. In a complex takedown of organized religion, several members of the band publicly became members of the Church of the Subgenius, a postmodern mockery of organized religion. Carrying the gag even further, the band occasionally performed as their own opening band, pretending to be the Christian soft-rock group "Dove (the band of Love)," Dove being an obvious anagram of Devo.

Duty Now For The Future is an album packed with clever ideas and sly satire straight from the opening track, "Devo Corporate Anthem," a reference to the film Rollerball in which regional corporate anthems are played before the beginning of every game. The album starts off with more of a standard punk rock sound with "Clockout" emphasizing guitar and drums over the synthesized sounds that dominate later tracks on the album. "Wiggly World" also has a rock feel, bringing the glam sensibilities of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie to the post-punk electronic age. "Blockhead" has the band's surrealist, satirical humor on full display and "Triumph of the Will" brazenly mocks facism and the films of Leni Reifenstahl.







By "Strange Pursuits" the album has totally devolved (as the band would probably prefer me to put it, though I'm not sure the term is accurate) from its punk rock origins into a completely synthesized electronic punk record. "Secret Agent Man," the band' neo-futurist cover of the Johnny Rivers song changes the lyrics to fit Devo's satiric outlook, mocking religion and the government simultaneously while covering a song that was humorous and innocuous before they got their hands on it. One of the bonus tracks included on the remastered version of the album I listened to this week is a spoken word piece "General Boy Visits Apocalypse Now" which is played like a message from Devo Inc. outlining a conspiracy to use consumerism to coopt the human mind. As the messenger puts it, outlining perhaps the entire message of the album, "We must fight back. We must know what we want. We must want what we need. And what we need is duty now for the future."




Devo has existed in one form or another for almost 40 years (forming in 1972 and releasing their most recent album, Something for Everybody just last year). The band is one of the most influential of the post-punk era, having formed the New Wave movement that influenced basically every "alternative" rock band in the 1980's (again, that discussion of the term alternative is forthcoming, I promise). Yet in addition to this, lead singer/songwriter Mark Motherbaugh is a prolific composer, notably writing the theme song for Rugrats, the scores the first four Wes Anderson movies, and the music for several videogames, including the Crash Bandicoot series and the music for all of The Sims games. Most recently he wrote the score for the 2010 documentary Catfish.



Finally, sometimes music can be a support to lift up another's work, as we will see as we return to examine three full length scores by Nino Rota. Last week I looked at the work of Rota in macro and talked about his influence. This week I want to look briefly (because I am trying to keep this column as short as possible each week) at the way his music supports the stories being told in the films he was scoring. Ideally I intended to watch all three films, yet a combination of time (I am currently preparing the upcoming installments of Whose Film Is It Anyway?) and my decision that I would likely end up evaluating the films more than their scores kept me from actually viewing them. So instead I will rely on the flawless Wikipedia for the summaries of the films, and on my own much less perfect analysis for the discussion of the scores themselves.

The film Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers for all of us who speak absolutely no Italian outside of the word pizza) makes a good starting point as it is the only piece of Rota's music we will examine here that is not directly tied to the work of Federico Fellini. Rocco was directed by Italian neo-realist Luchino Visconti and tells the story of a family from southern Italy and the slow disintegration of their close bond when they move to the north. The "dark drama" of the film (Wikipedia's words, not mine. I tend not to throw around adjectives about movies I haven't seen) seems readily apparent in the opening track of the score, "Introduzione E Canzone." Rota clearly went more traditional with this film than he usually did on Fellini's, which is apparent in "Terra Lontana" which sounds like a standard Italian score, more in the vein of his work on The Godfather films than in relation to any of the rest of his work.





Back in Fellini territory, the score for Giulietta Degli Spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) is much more surrealistic, keeping in tune with the film, which follows a housewife as she explores her subconscious and the life of her free spirited neighbor as she tries to deal with her oppressive husband's infidelity. "Amore Per Tutti" sounds like music to be played during intermission at a Broadway show (but, you know, better), while "Rugiada Sui Ranocchi" is a darker melody highlighting some of the demons Giulietta must face. And "Rosa Aurata-La Ballerina Del Circo Snap," as its title implies, brings back the circus-esque feel we discussed last week.





Il Casanova di Federico Fellini is a biopic detailing the life of adventurer and writer Giacomo Casanova. The film portrays his life as he loses the respect of those around him in a reverie of sexual gratification. The opening "O Venise, Venaga, Venus" feels exotic and mysterious, while "L'Oiseau Magique" is the most atmospheric and experimental of all the Rota music I have listened to these past two weeks. Unlike the other scores we examined today, the score for Il Casanova features vocals throughout, especially prominently on tracks like "Intermezzo De La Mante Religieuse." While Rota was an incredibly prolific composer and his work clearly stands well on its own (I can attest to that, as I did not watch any of the films mentioned above, yet still understood the emotions Rota was going for with ease), sometimes music can be used as support.

Salvation, satire, and support are just three of the ways we can use music to improve the world around us. When we're at rock bottom, the right song can save us from ourselves. When no one seems to be listening, setting your clever ideas and silly satire to music can have the desired effect. And when something just seems to be missing, music is often just what's required to fill that void. In the weeks to come I will examine and reexamine the ways we use music and what music means to us, yet I'm not sure if any week will express quite as well the diverse ways that music can improve and even save our lives. As a devo-ted member of the Church of the SubGenius might say, thank Bob for music.


Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We'll look at the self-titled albums Howlin' Wolf and The Velvet Underground and Nico and hope Gang of Four can give us some Entertainment!
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