Saturday, May 06, 2017

Clap Your Hands Say... Thelonious Monk

I've come to regard Record Store Day as a whole lot of meh, meaning - nothing. Nothing except supposed "collectible" pieces of vinyl that are often nothing more than reissues of music I already own, or don't really need. (That's oversimplifying it, but I'm trying to get to another story.)

This year, there was actually something coming out on RSD that I wanted, the previously unreleased soundtrack that Thelonious Monk did for Roger Vadim's Les liaison dangereuses which he recorded in 1959. As mentioned in a previous entry, I stood in line at Juke Records the morning of Record Store Day, only to be beaten to the Monk record by the first guy who walked in the door. However, when I was leaving, I was told that the store might be able to get additional copies. Call in a week, they said. 

Fast-forward to yesterday, a few phone calls and visits to Juke later. One copy was left. If my life was a Warner Brothers cartoon, I probably would have dashed into the store while Red Bob was still saying, "Hello? Mike?" into the phone. Instead I came in after work a few hours later. 

The above photo originally had me peering over the top of the cover, not gloating (I'm not that kind of record enthusiast, folks) but just beaming. However my eyes seemed creepy so I cropped myself out. 

The box was expensive, but, man, what a box it is. Not simply a holder for two records in paper sleeves, the box houses two sealed album covers and a 50-page 12"X12" booklet of essays about the recording sessions, the film and Monk's relationship with Paris. There are also photos from the sessions and the film. Musically, the only brand new, never-recorded-anywhere-else by-Monk track is the hymn "We'll Understand It Better By and By," which is less than 90 seconds. There are multiple takes of the other seven tunes. "Six In One" appeared under another name a few months later on Thelonious Alone in San Francisco.

But there are several points of interest. First of all, Monk's band features Charlie Rouse, who had just joined him recently and was still in the process of developing an attack that he maintained for years with Monk. Sam Jones (bass) and Arthur Taylor (drums) had come aboard recently as well, appearing along with Rouse at the first Town Hall Concert, with a large ensemble. They'd also appear, along with Thad Jones (cornet) on Five By Monk By Five, a prime Riverside album. Sam Jones especially was a great bassist for Monk, giving him a solid bounce. Taylor had played with Monk during his Prestige era and complimented the pianist well. A few tracks also feature French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen joining the group. His additional voice on "Crepuscule with Nellie" gives it more depth.

Most of Side Four of the album is taken up by the real discovery on the album - a fly-on-the-wall recording of Monk trying to teach Taylor the appropriate beat for "Light Blue." Of all the pianist's tricky songs, "Light Blue" ranks up there because its lumbering rhythm and tempo make it a challenge to get the feel right. The 14-minute track reveals the pianist working Taylor, chastising him ("Dumb motherf***er") and keeping to the task. Maybe the whole thing is for completists, but the booklet and that track assured me that I made the right choice. A CD version will be released in a month or so.

I was wondering if I'd make it out to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last night, now that I had the new Monk set to digest. However, I made it through three of the four sides, so I figured that would hold me until the next morning. Off into the pouring rain I went, to check out Alec Ounsworth and company.

I spoke with Ounsworth for a City Paper article to preview the show, in which he said that the lineup of the band was completely different than last time they were here. What I wasn't expecting was the heavy roar that the new four-piece lineup produced.

When writing the article, I didn't have the guts or the conviction to compare the new CYHSY album to the Cure or New Order. During my 20s, I couldn't stand the Cure. They were too whiny, mopey and just too caught up in an image to me. Years later, I've come to a little more of an appreciation of them, noticing the catchy elements of their songs, and a dry wit that underlies the mopiest (if that's a word) of their lyrics. The Tourist does have a bit of that Seventeen Seconds-era Cure going for it, with the right combination of guitar and keys scrambling on top of driving beats. Occasionally they also have some of the primitive jangle of New Order too.

But if CYHSY can sound like the Cure in the studio, in person they come on twice as strong without needing of the bands accouterments. Sure, Ounsworth casually rubbed his eyes during "Better Off" but it was hard to tell if that was an affectation or whether the brim of his ever-present hat couldn't keep the bright light out of his eyes. After a few songs, he engaged in a little small talk, which got as far as thanking us for being there before he admitted that's all he could think of saying.

He later told us that Pittsburgh was the penultimate show on the tour, and the band was clearly tight and ready before they hit Club Cafe. More often than not, one song segued quickly into the next, such as when the almost-hit from their debut album, "Is This Love," slammed right into the drum-machine-powered title track of sophomore album Some Loud Thunder. Ounsworth turnedout to be a pretty vicious guitarist too, peeling off some caterwauling leads. His fellow players (whose names I didn't get) were no slouches either.

The 17-song set included five songs from the new album, drawing the rest from the band's previous four. Selections from the debut seemed to get the best response. Ounsworth might have even cracked a grin when someone voiced loud approval for "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)." It was hard to tell definitively, but he appeared to be chewing gum throughout the set.

Before writing this review, I went through the set list (snatched off the stage at the end of the night), picking out what song came from which album. I decided to compare the version of "Heavy Metal" on the first album with my memory of last night's final song. While the recording does have some overdriven bass, the upper frequencies of the song sound relatively lo-fi. Last the band attacked it like the Volcano Suns in their prime, churning up a big roaring sound that maintained a catchy, hooky quality. The band's previous visit to Pittsburgh was good, but the memory of that lineup seemed to have more to do with atmospherics, which were a big part of 2014's Only Run. While they started with the opening track from that album ("As Always") it served as a jumping-off point for the rest of the set. Last night was about the Rock. And it sounded fantastic.

Solo guitarist/vocalist Laura Gibson opened the evening on a more subdued note. Her first song gave me pause, as she sang in a very affected cat-watching-a-bird-voice, over sparse chords. A few songs in, she won me over with some haunting finger picking and great story in the title track to her album Empire Builder.

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