The last mystery man rock star bids au revoir

We live in a society where seemingly everyone believes him or herself to be so utterly fascinating, and worthy of everyone else’s full attention – this as opposed to all the other loathsome poseurs believing themselves to be utterly fascinating and worthy of everyone else’s full attention – that everyone should know all that can be known about him or herself. This reigns especially true in the entertainment/pop culture/social media world. We are exposed to incessant self-exposure, some voluntarily provided and some semi-forcibly extracted by gossip hellhounds such as TMZ. Quite a few years back, a British documentary focusing on the 1980s, in a rather gimmicky fashion theming itself as a historical examination of events long ago regardless of their being contemporary, had this to say about Madonna: “She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, and she couldn’t act. All she could do was be.” A bit harsh, but given how she has made a decades-long career out of self-focused personality cult as much as any artistic achievement, not far from the truth.

This has not always been the case, particularly in pop music. The 1960s and 1970s were a heyday of artists doing whatever they deemed necessary to cloak themselves in mystery and mystique, this aura serving as a major component if not all of their promotional outreach. Some of this was attention-seeking kitsch, embodied by left-field zaniness such as Question Mark and The Mysterions. Subsequent efforts were far more reality-based. Led Zeppelin almost never released singles. Steely Dan refused to do interviews, and were so intent on maintaining their recording studio-bound anonymous wizards image that for a time their record company handed out blank photographs in lieu of the traditional promo head shot. Christian rock founding father Larry Norman avoided almost all interview requests and seldom acknowledged, let alone publicly commented on, the many controversies that surrounded most all aspects of his life and work. While successive generations artists have occasionally tried to build a similar wall around themselves, the omnipresence of social media has made keeping yourself to yourself well nigh possible. With one very noticeable, and most likely final, exception.

Gord Downie, lead singer of Canadian textural heartland rockers The Tragically Hip, has avoided letting his audience draw near during the band’s twenty-five year plus career. He has played close to the vest offstage, saying little about his private life. For his band he pens lyrics laced with cultural, historical, and contemporary Canadian references while far more often that not binding them together with a quirky stream of consciousness vibe leaving the audience trying to keep up as much as enjoying the poetry. On stage Downie gives the distinct impression of someone playing a character based on whatever he is singing at that moment; a benevolent yet sly storyteller living within the story rather than personally living through his or her music. This is the skilled wordsmith’s marker; the ability to envelop listeners in a tale well told without placing him or herself as anything other than the story’s conduit.

The Tragically Hip are nearly universally revered by Canadian rock fans, this adulation spanning multiple generations. While other Canadian artists have enjoyed far greater popularity in the Uniter States and around the world, starting with The Guess Who and going forward to Rush, with Triumph and Loverboy enjoying lesser but still not inconsiderable success during their respective heydays, it is the Hip that has cemented itself as the Canadian band for Canadians. This made the band’s shock announcement earlier this year that Downie was suffering from terminal brain cancer all the more devastating; headline news from Vancouver to Nova Scotia and all points in-between. It also made the announcement that since Downie was still able to perform the band would mount a presumably final tour this summer bittersweet, with tickets going for five figures on the scalper market.

The band concluded its tour this past Saturday in its home town of Kingston at the local hockey arena, located at 1 Tragically Hip Way, named this in 2012. The concert was broadcast live on CBC, with an estimated audience of one-third the television sets in all of Canada tuned in for what presumably will be the band’s final performance. To say emotions were running high would be the an understatement of massive proportions.

How would Downie and the band respond to such a moment? For its part the band was sublime, filled with seamless energy as it gave classic songs, plus contemporary tunes from its June of this year release Man Machine Poem, a satisfying workout. Downie was understandably in lesser form, forcibly oversinging through much of the set resulting in multiple painfully out of tune moments; only near the end did he sufficiently control himself to where pitch was no longer an issue.

Absent was the storytelling banter during songs that had been Downie’s live stock in trade. Instead, there was Downie the visual performer, audience interaction via looks and gestures dovetailing into the song rather than typical rock star adulation-seeking fare. In presumably his artistic final act before personally entering eternity, Downie maintained his polite barrier, hiding behind virtual greasepaint. Even during the end of “Grace, Too,” when Downie repeatedly screamed “why,” it was impossible to tell if he was reacting against his impending death or remaining in the song’s character.

After three wrenching encores it was over. A country’s poet hero had said his goodbye not by saying goodbye, but rather through telling stories and leaving it guessing one final time. Whether we see Downie and/or The Tragically Hip in any fashion again remains to be seen, but for one night he and the band had received a farewell of unconditional love. For once, the recipient of this eulogy was on hand to know just how loved they are.

Pirates

“Who’ll make his mark,” the captain cried
“To the devil drink a toast
We’ll glut the hold with cups of gold
We’ll feed the sea with ghosts
I see your hunger for a fortune
Could be better served beneath my flag
If you’ve the stomach for a broadside
Come aboard my pretty boys
I will take you and make you
Everything you’ve ever dreamed”

“Make fast the guns! Tonight we sail
When the high tide floods the bay
Cut free the lines and square the yards
Get the black flag stowed away
The Turk, the Arab, and the Spaniard
Will soon have pennies on their eyes
And any other laden fancy
We will take her by surprise
I will take you and make you
Everything you’ve ever dreamed”

Some posts back, I referenced Billy Smiley (Whiteheart, The Union Of Sinners and Saints) lamenting storytelling’s increasing exclusion from current Christian music. It is curious how so much of Scripture involves both storytelling and telling of stories, yet both are routinely avoided by today’s songwriters. Parables, allegories, and even the rich poetic language of traditional hymns are rare commodities indeed.

It is not solely Christian music where this dearth of depth can be found. Today’s pop music is conveyor belt fan fodder, autotuned vocals layered atop virtual instruments without soul or satisfaction for anyone wanting more than disposable, valueless mass tuneage. There has always been an element of purposeless fluff in commercial music, but today it is a flood drowning any and all efforts to keep creativity alive. Bands like The Hyperdrive Kittens face a fierce struggle to find an audience.

Six days off the Cuban coast when a sail ahead they spied
“A galleon of the treasure fleet,” the mizzen lookout cried
“Closer to the wind my boys,” the mad-eyed captain roared
“For every man that’s alive tonight will be hauling gold aboard”

“Spare us,” the galleon begged but mercy’s face had fled
Blood ran from the screaming souls the cutlass harvested
Driven to the quarterdeck the last survivor fell
“She’s ours my boys,” the captain grinned “and no one left to tell”

In the face of this dreary plastic onslaught, it should be no surprise that catalog releases now outsell new music. Latter day fans are accustomed to streaming everything and buying nothing. One time, a number one album could be expected to sell 300,000 or more copies in a week riding atop the charts. Now it is 30,000 or less. Older fans value music as art; something to cherish and collect so it can be savored time and again.

Which brings us to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s The Anthology.

The captain rose from a silk divan
With a pistol in his fist
And shot the lock from an iron box
And a blood red ruby kissed
“I give you jewellery of turquoise
A crucifix of solid gold
One hundred thousand silver pieces
It is just as I foretold
You … you see there before you
Everything you’ve ever dreamed”

Anchored in an indigo moonlit bay
Gold-eyed ‘round fires the sea thieves lay
Morning … white shells and a pipe of clay
As the wind filled their footsteps
They were far far away

Some information for the uninitiated. Emerson Lake and Palmer was one of the leading purveyors of a genre known as progressive rock. First heard in the latter part of the 1960s, as created by bands such as Procol Harum and King Crimson progressive rock was an effort to stretch rock‘n’roll past its blues roots by incorporating more adventuresome, experimental elements. This ofttimes meant bringing both jazz-flavored improvisational and classical music notions into the mix. In lesser hands this quickly devolved into unlistenable, self-indulgent drek. But when the artists knew what they were doing … well, you had the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Keith Emerson was that rarity among childhood prodigies, namely one whose artistic development did not end once they had reached adulthood. Equally well versed in classic R&B, multiple flavors of jazz, and classical with a bent toward contemporary composers, while not the first rock‘n’roller to have keyboards rather than guitar as a band’s focus Emerson took it to a level both musically and visually far beyond Jerry Lee Lewis’ kicking over the piano stool. His ritualistic Hammond organ abuse, including shoving daggers into the keyboard, was as much Emerson’s known quality as his ferocious playing, compositions and improvisational stretches alike overflowing with creative fire channeled through breathtaking virtuoso skill. He was the Jimi Hendrix of the keys, never so far removed from the known as to be unapproachable yet inventing something altogether new. After first coming to public attention with The Nice, Emerson decided to take it to the next level by working with artists at or near his own level. Bassist/vocalist/occasional guitarist Greg Lake, fresh from King Crimson’s first incarnation, and drummer/percussionist Carl Palmer from experimental band Atomic Rooster were just the ticket, and thus Emerson Lake and Palmer was born.

Our sails swell full as we brave all seas
On a westward wind to live as we please
With the wicked wild-eyed woman of Portobello town
Where we’ve been told that a purse of gold
Buys many man a crown
They will serve you and clothe you
Exchange your rags for the velvet coats of kings

“Who’ll drink a toast with me
“I give you liberty
“This town is ours tonight”

Emerson Lake and Palmer found near-instantaneous success worldwide. In the United States, all of its studio albums save its last went gold (more than 500,000 copies sold), as did two live albums. The band routinely packed arenas and stadiums. Its music filled the FM airwaves. The early and mid 1970s were the band’s glory years, and even after fervor cooled as times and tastes changed, Emerson Lake and Palmer retained a large core of devoted fans.

“Landlord, wine! Make it the finest
“Make it a cup for a seadog’s thirst
“Two long years of bones and beaches
“Fever and leeches did their worst
“So fill the night with paradise
“Bring me peach and peacock till I burst
“But first
“I want a soft touch in the right place
“I want to feel like a king tonight”

“Ten on the black to beat the Frenchman
“Back you dogs give ‘em room to turn
“Now open wide sweet Heaven’s gates
“Tonight we’re gonna see if Heaven burns
“See how she burns
“Oh she burns
“I want an angel on a gold chain
“And I’ll ride her to the stars
“It’s the last time for a long long time
“Come the daybreak we embark
“On the flood of the morning tide”
Once more the ocean cried

As is far more often than not the case with bands from its era, Emerson Lake and Palmer has seen its music repackaged and resold at a ridiculous pace over the years. Late last year, the announcement came of yet another series of reissued albums, this time with the band’s official blessing and participation. Individual albums would be remastered and also remixed, the latter effort being resumed after an abortive effort a few years back by Steven Wilson was dropped when, after having done the first two albums in the catalog, he admitted he simply was not sufficiently into the band’s music to continue. Tragically, Emerson would not see these loving preservations come to fruition; depressed over his deteriorating playing skills and the venom spat in his direction by alleged fans unwilling to forgive Emerson’s growing old, he took his life in March of this year.

As part of the project, a three CD compilation was assembled and released a few weeks ago. Given the plethora of Emerson Lake and Palmer compilations already out there – at least ten – whether anyone needs yet another one is highly debatable. However, given how this one draws all materials from the newly remastered series, not all of which have yet to be released, it warrants attention for this alone.

So how does it serve as an overview of the band’s recorded output? Sonically it is breathtaking. The subtleties, the dynamics, of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s music have never sounded better. It is easy to forget these recording are for the most part more than forty years old. The music breathes and lives, not as a simple nostalgia trip but a brilliant example of musicians turning their full force toward creating something both new and noteworthy. On this level The Anthology admirably succeeds.

Alas, the musical selections themselves in terms of best representing the band are decidedly hit and miss. It is admittedly impossible to assemble any kind of musical anthology by any name (collection, sampler, greatest hits, etc) and please everyone. There will always be cries of “how could you have left out” and “how could you have included this instead of that” and “why did you use that version of,” and so on. This duly noted, there are some puzzlers in this collection. Including both a live version and the studio version of ‘Toccata,’ originally from Brain Salad Surgery, when the two are nearly identical makes little sense. There are too many tracks from side two of Tarkus, which was not the band’s greatest moment, and omitting ‘Black Moon’ from the album of the same name is just plain odd given how it was a not unsubstantial radio hit.

“This company will return one day
“Though we feel your tears it’s the price we pay
“For there’s prizes to be taken and glory to be found
“Cut free the chains make fast your souls
“We are Eldorado bound
“I will take you for always forever together
“Until Hell call our names”

“Who’ll drink a toast with me
“To the devil and the deep blue sea”
Gold drives a man to dream

It is no more logical to expect the average Rhianna or Ed Sheeran fan to understand, let alone appreciate, Emerson Lake and Palmer than it was to have expected the average Carpenters or John Denver fan to have understood and/or appreciated Emerson Lake and Palmer back in its heyday. This is as it should be. There was a time when artists made music for music’s sake. If an audience chose to follow all the merrier; this was a byproduct rather than the sole objective. There will never be another Emerson Lake and Palmer. But, once there was, and we are all the better for it.

(Song lyrics from ‘Pirates’ by Emerson Lake and Palmer from the album Works Volume One)

Of magical powers and muddle-headed social justice warriors

NOTE: The following is my personal opinion. It in no way reflects or represents my employer, its policies and platforms, or my daily efforts on behalf of said employer to keep the company head in Purina Giraffe Chow.

 

One of the advantages of working in a toy store is watching children react to various toys. This of course involves first hand viewings of assorted temper tantrums, crying jags, screaming fits, and the like. But enough about the parents.

I bring this up because the other day I put out the first shipment of Elena of Avalor toys. For those of you minus a girl or girls aged four to ten in your household or reasonable equivalent thereof who faithfully watch Disney Channel, the recently debuted show is set in a fictional Central American country during colonial times. Elena is a Latina princess with magical powers. There’s more, of course, as any aforementioned girl or girls aged four to ten can breathlessly tell you.

Getting back to the merchandise, it’s in the front of the store, where coincidentally I’m usually stationed. This provides a prime vantage point for observing responses. Which are …

… pretty much universal for girls in the four to ten age bracket. Doesn’t matter what color the child: white, black, brown, yellow, purple with pink polkadots, etc. Immediately their eyes become big as saucers and they grab an Elena doll of various features (one sings, one comes with a horse, one comes with her sister, and all come with a special feature that automatically sucks money out of parental wallets and purses). Just as immediately, it is totally apparent their harried mothers have absolutely no idea who this character is. Apparently they’re not spending a lot of time with their children watching Disney Channel. I know parenting is tough, Mom, but once in a while put the wine down and watch some TV with the kid(s).

Now, what lesson can we draw from this? Despite the whining of some self-appointed Social Justice Warrior types, it’s quite simple. Regardless of the character’s race, and regardless of the child’s race unless they’ve already been programmed to hate, girls love princesses with magical powers. Period.

I am reminded of an afternoon I spent at a local mall after Frozen hit the theaters. It was Halloween time, and all the stores in the mall were participating in giving out candy to children. For amusement, I decided to see how many girls dressed as Elsa I could count. I gave up after it rapidly became apparent I should be counting by dozens and not one at a time. Again, as with the girls grabbing the Elena dolls, it was every color child imaginable wearing an Elsa address. The identity wasn’t with her race. It was with the character herself. Indulge me while I repeat myself: regardless of the character’s race, and regardless of the child’s race unless they’ve already been programmed to hate, girls love princesses with magical powers. Period, end of story.

Maybe if we would stop defining ourselves and each other, and dividing ourselves and each other, by our skin color we might be better off.

Out Of The Grey’s “A Little Light Left” brilliantly shines

I’m not sure when it changed, but in the past few years I’ve noticed more “my kid(s) is/are back in school” social media posts in mid- and even early August. Whatever happened to school starting back up in early September? Apparently that has gone the way of having to have gotten off the couch and walked across the shag carpet to turn a knob if you wanted to watch a different television channel. Or, as they were known in the murky past, stations. But I digress.

Understandably accompanying said posts are parental musings combining justified pride at their children’s accomplishments and wondering aloud who knows where the time goes. The child seen seemingly yesterday playing in the back yard is now packing books for high school or packing the car for college. The nights are long, but the years are short when you’re alive. Where did my baby boy or girl go?

Enter Out Of The Grey. When the husband and wife combo of Scott and Christine Dente first emerged in the early ‘90s Christian music scene, they were noticeable for their sophisticated adult rock style and being the most ridiculously good looking couple working in the genre. After more than a decade away from it all, the Dentes returned last year with the crowdsourcing funded A Little Light Left. For some inexplicable reason I neglected to review this gem when it first arrived. Hopefully this belated commentary will make amends.

Leaving artists to their own devices can be a dangerous thing. Some need an outside guiding hand to steer them in the right direction and/or challenge them to do their best. This duly noted, some artists thrive when serving as chef, cook, and bottle washer. The Dentes are most definitely in the latter camp. Freed from commercial concerns, they have woven a truly magical musical carpet of acoustic sunrise rock; sparse, precinct textures atop the foundation of Scott Dente’s understated acoustic guitar mastery. The sound is relaxed without slipping into lazy complacency, topped by Christine Dente’s sweet, heartfelt vocals with occasional effective accompaniment by her husband. If their vocal blend on “Giving Up Slow” doesn’t grab your heart in all the right ways, you’re doing it wrong.

The years have not dulled Out Of The Grey’s songwriting skills. Melodies are pure and comforting, backed with inventive structures and arrangement. Everything makes sense; nothing is included for the sake of ‘because we can.’ The Dentes understand that less is more without always stripping everything raw for “authenticity’s” sake. A Little Light Left makes no apologies for being warm and approachable without pandering to the lowest common pop denominator.

Lyrically, A Little Light Left addresses the concerns of middle age as seen through the eyes of faith. In the Dente’s word pictures, relationships deepen and mature as time passes. Children grow up regardless of wishes for all to somehow remain the same, as expressed with simple love in “Bubble Girl”:

And what she don’t know, she don’t know
And what she’s going to find, she’s going to find
Tell her for me to take her time
Take her time

Every parent of a daughter can relate.

On all fronts, A Little Light Left is a superb album. It touches heart, mind, and soul without heavy-handedness or cheap emotional manipulation. The album gracefully, skillfully reassures its listeners that they are not alone in simultaneously enjoying the passing days and wishing that somehow once in a while time would remain fixed at a single moment of joy. And for the record, the Dentes are still a ridiculously good looking couple making equally ridiculously great music.

The album is available at the Dente’s website, CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.