The Extra Glenns
Martial Arts Weekend
(CD, Absolutely Kosher Records, www.absolutelykosher.com)
"The Mountain Goats" is what songwriter John Darnielle calls his solo musical efforts. Usually recorded on an ancient Panasonic boom box, they're the lowest of lo-fi, which suits the emotional immediacy of Darnielle's songs, even if it scares newcomers. In a gentle, occasionally quavering tenor, he sings about those nanosecond epiphanies most of us routinely ignore: A certain bird landing outside his window at the right moment can prompt him to give his life a good spring cleaning.
The songs are typically laced with enough literary and mythological references to make a grad student high, and sometimes fit into obscure cycles, such as the "Going To" series. But the high-brow material doesn't get in the way of stories about the uncertain middles and ends of love affairs — or even, on "Going to Marrakesh," affairs that simply refuse to end: "I keep waiting for our love to die / the machines by its bed dim and flicker, but it won't stay dead / and it perks up when the nurses bring its medication by."
This record is one of Darnielle's numerous side projects, on which he's joined by Franklin Bruno (leader of Nothing Painted Blue). Bruno accompanies the singer on numerous instruments, overdubbing piano and electric guitar tracks. Compared to the Goats catalog, this record is a symphony; what that means for the uninitiated listener is that The Extra Glenns might be the first Mountain Goats record you should buy. If Darnielle's totally distinctive flavor of songwriting doesn't get you here, with spare musical settings that match the beauty of his songs, it's unlikely it will on a disc he recorded in his bedroom.
Ornette Coleman Trio
At the "Golden Circle," Volume One and Two
(CD, Blue Note)
Saxophone giant Ornette Coleman is one of those revolutionary figures — unlike, say, Thelonious Monk — whose music remains extremely challenging for those getting into jazz today. Take "Focus on Sanity," from The Shape of Jazz to Come: The first thing you hear is a drum roll up to a joint blast of sax and Don Cherry's cornet, with neither making a sound that was acceptable at the time. It's still hard for most new listeners to understand the things Coleman does with his own horn, much less what he does with a group of four or five equally wild musicians.
Which is one reason why these two trio discs are invaluable. On them, Coleman is the only horn heard. David Izenzon and Charles Moffett (on bass and drums, respectively) are doing innovative things on their instruments, but the intervening decades have made their contributions more digestible. On "Faces and Places," for instance, they set up a furiously fast, bounce on your heels tempo that gets the listener's adrenaline going — the better to confront the way Ornette plays.
Where Coleman's horn sometimes sounds angry or pained on his earlier Atlantic records, here those streams of notes sound practically joyful, and his unusual intervals are just an attempt to push the audience to hear something new. For the more adventurous, Volume 2 includes the saxophonist's screechy but expressive excursions into violin playing. (Miles Davis resented Coleman's self-taught trumpet and violin technique, thinking he should stick to the instrument on which his virtuosity was well established.)
Ranging from the extremes of "Faces" to the more peaceful "Morning Song," these live recordings capture Coleman starting the second phase of a career that continues to this day. Unlike some jazzmen, Coleman has continued to test the boundaries of jazz; even his most popular records sound nothing like the mainstream. This dual reissue provides one of the best starting points available for those curious about a music that, though it holds up beautifully, never mellows with age.
End of the Day
(CD, Dualtone Vintage)
In this post-Post-Modern world, has a name yet been invented for the nostalgia one feels for something that was itself a work of nostalgia?
Austin's the Reivers were the first band I saw when I moved away for college — the first real club show I'd ever seen, not counting big amphitheater events and small town cover bands. It was my first experience of loving music that was made by people I saw on the street the day after the show. So I'm sentimentally inclined toward Dualtone Vintage's reissue (and the accompanying one, of 1987's Saturday, each of which have two bonus tracks).
I couldn't quite put my finger on it then, but End of the Day showed the Reivers as everything I wanted to be. They were smart and literate (the lyrics proved it, but the band name stolen from William Faulkner was the tip-off), as few bands I'd heard were. They could rock, but they knew the secrets of pop: The songs are catchy, from the first cut ("It's About Time") to the last; they had dual lead singers — one man, one woman — that worked great and allowed for nice harmonies; they spiced their college radio jangle with a little classic rock soloing. (One writer described them as the Mamas and Papas as produced by R.E.M.'s buddy Mitch Easter, which isn't too far off.)
More important for me at the time, they exhibited this sophistication without putting down rural life. In fact, the album revels in the past. Even the cover (my only complaint about this reissue series is that the artwork is shrunk to a two-inch square) features a big front porch in purple twilight, but the stories these songs tell are full of wistful memories and the hope that a certain way of life can be preserved. "Star Telegram," in particular, is an evocative little masterpiece, with its talk of chigger-filled backyards and childhood pleasures like talking into electric fans.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram was the paper my mother's parents read, so when John Croslin sings, "If you're looking at me / if you watch me make my way / I hope you're proud of what you see," it's especially easy for me to identify with the song. But I've met enough Reivers fans to know that I'm not the only one who gets choked up when I hear it — all the emotional information you need is in the song. It's nice from time to time to hear a tune that says what you already feel.