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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

July 2016: Palabras y Musica

Like everyone else of my age, I grew up with rock'n'roll and I love it – or at least quite a lot of it. But I never saw it as the whole musical universe. I was always fascinated, and sometimes thrilled, by other musical cultures. For one thing, I think rock'n'roll is rhythmically dull. I started listening to Salsa and Afro-Beat back in the late 70s, and the rhythms, and the way that Cuban or Nigerian musicians played with, or in counterpoint to, each other, still excite me more than the average rock drummer going boom-thwack, boom-boom-thwack. It also never bothered me that I couldn't understand the lyrics. 



RUBÉN BLADES: Son De Panamá and Tiempos


I'm delighted to say I've recently reconnected with Rubén Blades, after having lost touch for many years (five of which he spent as the Minister for Tourism in his native Panamá). Rubén is a musical kindred spirit, but I always feel a bit stupid around him; not so much because of his accomplishments as a singer/songwriter, musician, actor, political activist and Latinoamerican icon, but because his English is fluent while my Spanish is pretty much limited to Mexican restaurant menus. This means I have a pretty limited appreciation of one of his most admired achievements, namely his lyrics. 


Oddly enough, I can still listen to him sing until the proverbial cows come home, and I find his music endlessly interesting. I know people who really zero in on the lyrics of a song. Words are tangible or accessible to them in ways that music is not. But (at the risk of overdoing a theme I touched on back in June of last year) I seem to be a music guy, someone for whom the visceral impact of music has a tendency to render words impotent. 


This is of course a big generalization, and might sound a bit silly, since I admire good lyrics, and I work hard to write good ones myself. And yet I still sometimes wonder whether they matter at all. I mean, words matter very much indeed while I'm reading a book. But when the music starts, I sometimes wonder if all the clever wordsmithing in the world amounts to much of anything compared to a well-placed rimshot on a snare drum.


I did not know until a few months ago that Rubén Blades had made Son De Panamá, his most overtly patriotic project, featuring the red-hot all-Panamanian orquestra of Robert Delgado, with every track written either by Rubén or other Panamanians. It hit me like a blast of energy from the past, from the great nights I spent in New York clubs in the 80s listening to the bands of Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow, or Willie Colón. While many of Rubén's albums have been boldly eclectic cocktails, this is like straight spirit - classic, honest, fiery but sweet, like a well-aged rum.


The horn arrangements are stunning, and written for a very latin combination of two trumpets, two trombones, and baritone sax. One of the things that made so-called Salsa distinct from earlier latin styles was the ear-splitting horn sections, which did away with saxophones and their tendency to sweeten the sound; if a saxophone ever intruded, it would be a honking, farting baritone. I once saw Rubén perform with a horn section consisting just of three trombones, which somehow not only worked but sounded amazing. (Then he tore up the rule-book and formed Seis Del Solar, a groundbreaking band which dumped the horns altogether, in favour of synthesizer and vibes).


As great as Son De Panamá is, it made me want to listen again – maybe as a kind of counterbalance - to Tiempos, Rubén's most lyrical album, a masterpiece which, while sounding more-or-less latin, or more latin than anything else, seems to embrace the whole world. (Its sequel Mundo is even more ambitious, but in retrospect I find Tiempos more satisfying). Recorded with Editus, a fabulous band from Costa Rica, it also eschews horns, this time in favour of beautifully-played electric violin, acoustic guitar, and soprano sax. Sophisticated and often gentle, it has none of the brassy machismo you associate with latin music - it's like a feminine counterpart to Son de Panamá's Alpha Male. At the same time, there's nothing 'small' about Tiempos. It's majestic, romantic, and inspiring. Dia a Dia is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. And I don't understand the lyrics at all.



DONALD FAGEN: Sunken Condos


I gave Donald Fagen a bit of a hard time in a previous WILT, mainly because of certain issues I had with his book. So I feel obliged to say that this album has grown and grown on me, and I think it's his best solo effort since his first, The Nightfly, back in 1982.


I still miss the eclecticism, the unpredictability, and the oddness of early Steely Dan. (The strings on Through With Buzz, the vibes on Razor Boy, the Country flavour of With A Gun, the counterpoint of three lead vocalists on Turn That Heartbeat Over Again, the fuzz bass on Monkey In Your Soul. If you're a Dan fan, you know what I'm talking about). Nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy on Sunken Condos. Slinky Thing slinks right under your skin, Good Stuff is worth the price of admission for its funky dissonant piano riff alone, and it generally stays on the right side of that intangible line that separates the hard-won and soulful from the slick and jaded.


Speaking of lyrics, though, it occurs to me that Messrs. Fagen and Becker have never been big on including lyrics in their album packages. I wasn't either, on my first album, but by the time of my second, I was already sick of being misquoted and misinterpreted, and have included them ever since. Don and Walt, though, have always written cryptic lyrics and don't seem to care if we understand them or not. In fact, I believe they like to mess with our heads.


Listening to someone sing in an unfamiliar language is, in a way, easier and almost liberating – there's nothing to distract from the music, or at any rate, the lyrics are never going to bother you. Whereas when I get what Donald Fagen is driving at, I don't always like it. He's done the aging-reprobate-gazing-wistfully-at-young-girls thing once too often, for instance. If I was his teenaged niece I think I might find him kind of creepy. And I have a hard time with the miserabilism of things like: 'I guess he's what you want now / You're young and strong and you own the night / Good luck to you both / I'll get along somehow'. 


Or is that a perfectly legitimate and honest lyric, and me who's being the (slightly younger) curmudgeon?


Lyrics! Who needs 'em?!