On “Destiny Street Complete” Richard Hell Gets It All Together

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 16, 2021 by johnbuckley100

For almost forty years, Richard Hell has been in search of lost time, or at least the lost masters to Destiny Street. For it is on the brilliant second and final album by Richard Hell and the Voidoids that, along with nine others, “Time,” his greatest song, lay in what to him was an imperfect state. “We had about three weeks to record and mix the album,” he says in his memoir, “and I was too fragile to come into the studio for one of those weeks.” In the years after Destiny Street’s 1982 release, he was convinced he’d botched it and, ever since, compelled to fix it. He finally has.

Some of us think the original Destiny Street was great as is, and Hell’s compulsion has seemed less than absolutely necessary, even as we understand an artist’s desire to realize the animating vision that produced the work in the first place.

Which makes next week’s release of Destiny Street Complete all the more joyous. In the liner notes Hell writes, “I have to smile and roll my eyes when I think of this, this package, but I was determined to do it. Nobody made me, or even asked me. I take full responsibility for it. Three plus versions of the same album. It’s ridiculous, but I’m glad.”

Destiny Street Complete, released on January 22nd, contains remastered versions of the 1982 original and Destiny Street Repaired – the 2010 reconfiguration that grafted new vocals and guitars atop the primary rhythm tracks – plus the brand new Destiny Street Remixed, containing seven songs from the original plus three from Repaired.  At long last, Remixed satisfies Hell’s ears, and was made possible by kismet: the 2019 rediscovery of seven original 24-track masters in an Upstate New York storage facility. Eleven demo tracks recorded with Voidoids v.1.0 stalwarts Ivan Julian and Bob Quine on guitar are served as a lagniappe, and along with one poignant track from Quine’s 2004 memorial service, you’ve got, yeah, Destiny Street Complete. 

In 2021, Richard Hell (née Richard Lester Meyers) is a novelist, memoirist, poet and critic. For a time in the 1970s and early ‘80s he was a white tern flying out from land signaling to sailors their arrival on new shores, perennially one beat of the wings ahead of where real rock’n’roll was going. 

A founding member of Television, along with his fellow boarding school runaway Tom Verlaine, he went on to play in The Heartbreakers with New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan. It was Hell’s style – badly chopped haircut askew, torn jeans and safety pins – that Malcolm McLaren glommed for the Sex Pistols, and thus was born Punk with a capital P. Hell was, on one level, the archetypal punk primitive who could not really play his instrument yet could still make amazing music, in so doing reviving rock from the plodding and the rococo. On another level, he was a New York street poet as deeply in love with words as Verlaine and his sometime squeeze Patti Smith. Fronting the two versions of his band the Voidoids, Hell was something else again.

The Voidoids weren’t the least bit “punk” if your frame of reference is three-chord wonders from Generation X to the Germs to Green Day. What the Voidoids played in their original lineup on 1977’s Blank Generation and, slightly reconfigured, five years later on Destiny Street, was urgent, desperate music, a skilled combo always flirting with disaster, a revved-up high wire act that did the impossible. Hell was a bad singer like the young Dylan was a bad singer, which is to say he was exuberant and thrilling if not always perfectly on key. With a rhythm section that, so long as Hell was bassist, could only be considered adequate, even as the decent Mark Bell (aka Marky Ramone) gave way to the brilliant Fred Maher on drums, the twin guitars of the propulsive Ivan Julian and the subversive Robert Quine (and later, on Destiny Street, Quine + Naux) made the whole thing swing

Not since Brian Jones and Keith Richards traded leads had a rock band played so fluidly, the dials turned to 11, guitars ping-ponging back and forth so intriguingly the listener puzzled over who played what. While it’s Verlaine and Richard Lloyd that rock critters value most when trading Guitar God player cards, it was Quine and Julian who, behind Hell’s voice and on his songs, sparked absolute revved-up magic. Based on the way they so heedlessly took it to the limit, based on the virtuosic talents of their tandem, the Voidoids had more in common with bands fronted by Little Walter or, say, Charlie Parker than with the Ramones.

Blank Generation came out on Sire in 1977, graduating in the same class as Talking Heads 77, Television’s Marquis Moon and The Clash. Weirdly, it got a lot less attention than its classmates. Label head Seymour Stein soon sent Hell on a tour backing the Clash across 19 dates in the U.K. In his memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp Richard makes the tour sound, well, hellish; in the liner notes here he summarizes the misery as “the record company … didn’t get the album into U.K. stores in time for the tour and ordained the daily torture of multi-hour travel in a mini-car (not mini-van) crammed with five people (four band members and a road manager.)”

Experiences like that, plus Hell’s resistance to fully, you know, master his instrument, led to his resistance to touring, that is, getting his music exposed outside Manhattan. Big in New York and London; in Peoria they absorbed the fake news that the Knack was punk.

One thing about Blank Generation that’s relevant here was that Hell was such a perfectionist, he literally made the record twice. He recounts in his memoir how, dissatisfied with the tracks recorded on an initial foray into the studio, even with an album his record company deemed finished, he moved to a new studio and started all over again.

Such a mindset explains why, after Destiny Street was made with him so untogether he couldn’t even show up for the overdubs, Hell would want to perfect it. Three years after the record was released, having kicked drugs and regained his strength, he set out on the nearly four-decade path that brings us to Destiny Street Complete.

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Around the time that a sober Hell was beginning to regret what he thought was a mess of a second record, a German scholar named Hans Walter Gabler persuaded the James Joyce Estate that he could “fix” what he claimed were 5,000 errors in the text of Ulysses. As if… Not surprisingly, given that a new edition would re-up their copyright, they went for it. Henceforth, or so was the plan, editions of Ulysses would consist of the amended version – until an unheralded American named John Kidd blew the whole thing up by showing that the original was better than the “perfected” version. 

Imagine that: a work of brilliance that couldn’t be improved upon. Or at least that was better than the subsequent effort to improve it.

When Hell released, in 2010, Destiny Street Repaired, I didn’t like it, and said so. To me, the concept was off. Thirty years after producing the demos, the mature, resourceful Hell had gone back into the studio with New York guitar stalwarts Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell and, atop the basic tracks recorded in ’81-’82, reworked the songs, including, here and there, new vocals. The problem was, to a fan like me, it really didn’t work. I couldn’t hear it as an improvement over its wild, exhilarating 1982 release.

Part of the magic of Destiny Street, like the best elements of Blank Generation, was that the Voidoids sounded like a runaway train. What Richard came back with seemed tamed, not repaired – a 50-year-old man correcting the mistakes of his 30-year-old self. The impulse was understandable — who among us wouldn’t take such a mulligan, such a chance to redirect our 30-year old self to do what we did then better? My first novel was published when I was 31, and sure, I’d like to edit some passages from it — but I’d never be able to match the energy, the anger, the impulses that created it. Rock’n’roll is a young man’s game and, it seemed to me, the results were about what you might expect. I said so then, and definitely hurt Richard’s feelings. I don’t know what the critical reaction was beyond what Tulip Frenzy declared to its vast global readership, but it seemed then that to adore Destiny Street, as some of us really did, was to love the original, warts, warbling, screeching guitar and all. With respect and empathy for the artist, we went back to playing the record we cherished.

*

On Destiny Street Complete, you can hear the original version, remastered and gorgeous. You can hear a remastered version of Destiny Street Repaired, which you should, if only to compare it to its wilder early self. (And who knows, maybe you’ll love it! In this version, I find it far stronger than I remembered.) Both versions are on Disc 1.

What makes Destiny Street Complete complete is Richard’s newest incarnation of the album, which he calls Destiny Street Remixed, as well as his oldest version — the incredible demos made between ’79 and ’81.

Remixed takes the original 24-track masters of seven of the 10 songs and brings them to new life. Because the masters of three of the original 10 songs are still missing, the versions of “Lowest Common Dominator,” “Downtown at Dawn,” and “Staring In Her Eyes” on Remixed are products of the Repaired sessions. Overall, the mix is really good — more expansive, not nearly so compressed as the early CD version of the original sounded. Remixed becomes the definitive version, though not uniformly, as we shall see.

The album opener, The Kid With The Replaceable Head was written by Hell with hit single ambitions. It just might have become one, in a more perfect world. Here, it hits with brute force and humor. Naux (the late Juan Maciel, who replaced Ivan Julian in this incarnation of the Voidoids) takes the first lead, Quine the second, and in so doing he yanks everything into the Strato-sphere. The upgrade to Fred Maher on drums is immediately noticeable. Now it’s not just the guitars that swing. On as catchy a pop song as he could write, Hell sings with swagger and it is pure delight.

Next up: Ray Davies’ I Gotta Move, one of three cover songs on the album. This is a showcase for Naux, and Maher’s drumming is front and center. By taking the Kinks’ ‘60s British Invasion album track and repurposing it as punk, Hell makes his point about links between late ’70s rock’n’roll (or as he would spell it, “rock and roll”) and the music all these bands grew up on. It’s a fun cover, but on all three versions this isn’t one of Destiny Street‘s strongest songs.

In contrast, the sublime cover of Dylan’s Going Going Gone is one of the Hell’s best vocal performances, and as Bob Quine owns the last 30 seconds, the Remixed version is stunning. Richard doing “Going Going Gone” is analogous to Jimi Hendrix’s Monterey Festival performance of “Like A Rolling Stone” – the definitive work, ownership forever stolen from the author… you can see Dylan sitting at his desk signing over the rights as if by treaty. In Robbie Robertson’s Testimony, he writes how he got his amazing solo on “Going Going Gone” to sound as it does, using newly acquired strings on his Telecaster that were made of, I seem to recall, unicorn pubes. Here Quine – a guitarist who could combine the lyricism of Mick Taylor and the pyrotechnics of Jeff Beck — bottles lightning in possibly the best consecutive half-minute of his (or anyone’s) career.

Lowest Common Dominator is the Repaired version. Pretty good! In this context hearing Hell’s vocals recorded in 2009 is a little bit like listening to Jagger on “Plundered My Soul” and those other Exile songs that also came out in 2010 – noticeably different from his younger ‘70s voice, lower and flatter but still effective. I may still like the original version more — especially as remastered on Disc 1 — but your mileage may vary: this sounds great.

Downtown At Dawn also uses the track from Repaired, and here we yearn a bit more for the original. One of Hell’s strongest songs, on a theme repeated across his career: what it’s like to be out in Fun City at rock’n’roll clubs in the wee hours. It carries with it the solipsism of partying at the very center of the universe, as if Iggy Pop’s milieu in “Nightclubbing” – “we’re what’s happening” is the boast — has been transferred to New York. Where else — when you’re up late and and stoned — could it possibly be cooler than Lower Manhattan circa 1979, a city as dirty and romantic in the late ‘70s as Berlin. It captures the same mood as Blank Generation‘s “Down At The Rock and Roll Club.” Later, in the demos, “Crack of Dawn” nails it, “Funhunt” too, but “Downtown At Dawn” is the best of the variants. One minute shorter than the original, and muting Hell’s best performance ever on bass, the Repaired version used here misses the crude, ecstatic sparkle of the original, but again. you can decided what you like best.

Time is, by the estimation of Richard Hell and all sentient beings, the best song he ever wrote, a classic, as perfect in its way as “September Gurls”, if what twangs your woogy is chiming American guitar rock. Whether the version served up on Remixed is better than the original is complicated. The mix unearths a Quine filigree in the opening measures that is startling to those whose neural pathways are so well grooved from listening to the original over and over again. From that point on, this mix is pure magic – its sound has expanded like the universe does every second of every day. Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Velázquez “was as good at oil painting as anyone has been at anything,” but I don’t think he’d ever heard Quine play with Hell. A great song that has never sounded better. (Later, the version that Hell and Ivan Julian perform at Quine’s funeral, included with the demos, brings a lump to the throat.)

I Can Only Give You Everything is a rarity – a Richard Hell and the Voidoids cover (of the young Van Morrison’s Them) – that isn’t quite as good as the original. Why? Well — (motions with his hands to emulate a scale) there’s Hell singing and then there is Van Morrison… But still! This is another attempt at rendering a ‘60s “punk” song into an ‘70s/’80s punk song. It could have used a Farfisa to make it a little garage-ier. It’s not the record’s high point.

On Ignore That Door you have the paradigm of a Richard Hell and the Voidoids song and performance. Naux and Quine trade solos – sounds great here! – and Hell’s singing of every phrase is as filled with skronk as the guitars are. The “whoooos” are a ’70s New York rock’n’roll emollient, as pretty as anything Sylvain Sylvain (R.I.P.) might add behind David Johansen on the Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon. Love this. 

The Repaired version of Staring In Her Eyes isn’t the one we’ll play, if only because the original is so strong, and when you’ve downloaded all of Complete on your phone it takes nanoseconds to find it. Fred Maher is a monster, and his drumming steals the show. But the singing here just doesn’t measure up to what was done the first time. I suspect he doesn’t like his singing on the original, but he should!

Okay, we’ve come to the last song from the original, Destiny Street itself, and we need to digress for a moment. The urban funk the Voidoids play so naturally here is a reminder how so much of the early punk rock was a mix of White and Black musical idioms. From the Clash to the Talking Heads, the music was the product of miscegenation. Both incarnations of Voidoids had soul. Ivan Julian, of course, is Black and Hell was perfectly comfortable working in a Black musical artform. This is a strong conclusion to the album, and on Remixed, it sounds wonderful.

If not every one of the Remixed tracks beats the original, it’s okay — Destiny Street Complete has *all* of the tracks from the first two versions, plus a third, plus the demos. I can only give you everything, says Hell, and he has, in a Director’s Cut with extras.

When Dylan HQ released the complete set of every concert from the ’65 tour of Britain, it offered the possibility of going through and finding the versions that the most discerning dumpster-diving fan might like the most. These are the kinds of possibilities open to us here; who cares which song from which version I approve of? They’re all here for your musical delight.

By having Destiny Street complete we can mix and match. My version will be different from yours. I’ll listen to the new cut of “Going Going Gone” ‘til my hard drive wears out. I’ll always return to the first take of Downtown At Dawn.” Always.

*

In the liner notes, Hell reports that “in both the Repaired and Remixed sessions I was going for the same thing, the sound of a little combo playing real gone rock and roll, something like what I grew up on. This despite the fact that the playing and attitude isn’t much like that. It’s in fact redolent of the early ‘80s: a still deeply dilapidated New York in which cocaine and its type of desperation abounded, along with new warehouse-sized dance clubs; the guitars on the tracks often sound almost like synthesizers. Inevitably it’s an artifact of a specific time and place.”

Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Semyne

By the time Hell was back in the studio with the Voidoids to make this record, CBGB, TR3, the Mudd Club and Hurrah had given way to the Peppermint Lounge and Danceteria. (There was still Maxwell’s, a rumpus room comfortably established across the Hudson in New Jersey, but I can’t really imagine the Voidoids playing there.) For me, then as now, Destiny Street was the ultimate fin de siècle record. Daido Moriyama refers to photographs as “fossils of light and time,” and in this way, Destiny Street is a snapshot of a moment not just in Richard Hell’s life, but in mine – which may account for why I have been protective of it, not wanting even its creator to change it. For it wasn’t just the end of a New York era, it was the end of my era in New York, my personal exit from the louche world of a rock critic staying out late at night, just as I’d worked my way up the food chain from New York Rocker to Rolling Stone. As this album came out, I had already stopped resisting being pulled into, of all things, politics, ultimately leading to a new career in a new town. It’s like this was the album that was playing when the music stopped.

I salute Richard for his monomania, his ethic, his recovery and perseverance in making things right. He recorded Blank Generation twice, to get the sound he wanted. He has now produced, over four decades, three + versions of Destiny Street, all built off of those three weeks in which 10 songs were laid down on analog tape. During one of those weeks, he was too “fragile” to leave his pad. And yet the record got done. And now twice more over. And finally to his liking — though he, and his record label, are generous enough to let us have it all, to let us choose what we want.

This is and always has been a great album.  Destiny Street Complete is a sprawling compendium, and Richard Hell has finally gotten it all together. 

Your Snow Day Soundtrack: Phil Parfitt’s “Mental Home Recordings”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 16, 2020 by johnbuckley100

Phil Parfitt was the leader of the great British band The Perfect Disaster, whose late’80s/early ’90s run produced two of the best post-Velvet Underground albums of the era, Up, and especially, Heaven Scent. While the Perfect Disaster are perhaps remembered more as the band that introduced us to Josephine Wiggs, who went on to play bass for The Breeders, we still listen to them regularly, beguiled as ever we were by their chugging beat, by Parfitt’s vulnerability as a more sensitive singer/songwriter in the spirit of Lou Reed.

In the mid-’90s, Parfitt returned with a solo album under the band name of Oedipussy, and in these very pages, we asked, “Is Oedipussy’s Divan the great lost album of the ’90s?”

We wrote that in early 2009, and nearly 12 years on, we can answer authoritatively, Yes, yes it was. But while Oedipussy’s album may have been lost, happily Parfitt wasn’t, releasing, in 2014, a quietly gorgeous record entitled I’m Not The Man I Used To Be. Now, saying you’re not the man you used to be can either indicate a belief you’ve been diminished or that your character has improved. From a rock’n’roll standpoint, Parfitt’s record was less than his work with The Perfect Disaster or Oedipussy. But in terms of his contribution to the world of music, an argument can be made that his album’s impact was even greater than what came before it.

And now we have, in this year of Covid when so much work has been done quietly at home, away from the hurly burly, Mental Home Recordings. These recordings are, in a word, gorgeous. An entry into the pantheon of quiet, acoustic-based but thrilling music from the U.K. — think Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, the less jangly, dare we say sincere side of Robyn Hitchcock.

These songs may have been recorded at home, but the strings that have been added to the sound of Parfitt and his acoustic guitar attest to a studio. “I Saw There Beside Me” really could have been recorded in Tupelo by Van the Man. There are hints throughout of Big Star’s Sister Lovers, and I don’t mean that in terms of his cracking up, even though the album’s title might allude to tough times. I mean that in terms of the spare, but beautiful arrangements, the little off-kilter touches, such as on “John Clare.” It’s about the British Romantic poet who finished up his years in an asylum, living in his mind — and it’s absolutely stunning and affecting, its afterglow lasting. Only “All Fucked Up” asserts itself as a more up-tempo pop song, for this is an album of quiet gems, gleaming on a velvet pillow. “Bones Cold” may be the prettiest song I listened to this year not performed by Fenne Lily. “My Love” is certainly the least sappy clutcher of heartstrings we’ve ever heard.

Phil Parfitt is not the man he used to be, if by that we mean he’s produced a second solo album to put on while sitting by a crackling fire, and not — as was the case with both his prior bands — an album to dance and dream to, propelled along like the Velvets were by Maureen Tucker’s drumming.

For those today on the East Coast of the U.S., watching the snow fall and preparing to stay indoors, here’s how to entertain yourself: listen to the gorgeous songs from these Mental Home Recordings. Listen to a mature and thoughtful songwriter work in the full prime of his talents.

Fenne Lily’s “BREACH” is Tulip Frenzy’s 2020 Album of the Year

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2020 by johnbuckley100

2020 was a year that hurt to the touch. It was bewildering to go from winter’s bright promise to the abrupt Covid lockdown, and for all too many it was utterly devastating. Calendar years are not supposed to bring their own set of terrors, but this one did, from fears of a stolen election to worries about the health of loved ones. Sitting at home those first few months, I found myself listening to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” over and over, as if repeated listening under teeth-grinding home confinement would lead to figuring it out, finally. In the weeks — in the months — that followed, I could listen only to music with a melodic, jangly aspect, which could account for why the 12th Tulip Frenzy Top 10 list might be, for the first time, satisfactory to people in my age cohort. It was not a year for punk rock.

There were some great re-issues this year. Wire was the last band we saw before the lockdown — crazily going to see them in March in a small club the week their U.S. tour was canceled and, on the home front, we shut down our office, but I was so glad to hear them play “German Shepherds” from their 2011 Strays E.P., which in May was released as part of the 10:20 collection of loose ends. An absolutely unexpected joy was discovering Anthony Moore’s Out, recorded in the mid-70s, released only in the mid-90s, and finally brought to my attention in September — an album that could live side-by-side with John Cale’s Fear and Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, with a band comprising Kevin Ayers on bass and a pre-Police Andy Summers on guitar. It is astonishing, and I urge you — with that same tone of voice that one suggests wearing a mask until the vaccine arrives — to quickly find it. Speaking of Eno, his Film Music 1976-2020 was filled with delights, particularly the track “Beach Sequence,” recorded with the four members of U2. And just last week came a 40th Anniversary release of Young Marble Giant’s Collosal Youth, which hasn’t aged a bit.

I feel compelled to call out an album that did not make it on this year’s Top 10 List. Over at Uncut, they list Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways as Album of the Year, and we get it. It was a great work of Late Phase Bob, worthy of official recognition. But while we yield to no humanoid when it comes to our belief that Old Man Dylan is at least the equal of Young Man Dylan, our actual listening to his 21st Century albums, at least more than a few times, culminated in Tell Tale Signs, that 2009 alternative-arrangement epic our team voted Album of the Year. So, we are not going to honor the 79-year old Nobel Laureate here. But just you wait til we tell you about this year’s winner, the 23-year old Fenne Lily.

On to the list…

#10. S. G. Goodman Old Time Feeling

I listened to S.G. Goodman’s debut album with the same astonishment and wide-mouthed joy that I greeted Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac more than 20 years ago — the last time an alt.country rec seized me like the slow disorienting rush of ingested windowpane. If, like me, you think of modern country as the battle between smug, faux outsiders and the still-wonderful real McCoy, then a lesbian classicist from rural Kentucky could pleasingly harken to memories of ’70s Outlaw Country leavened by the brilliant insights of a Resistance poet in Mitch McConnell’s backyard. The title song was one of the best rock’n’roll rippers of the year. Maybe when the political scientists try figuring out the 2020 election, they can parse these lyrics which kicked it off:

Oh, and my soul can’t afford those city lights
Not with the sickness in the countryside
Not with the wound that we’ve left open wide
Oh, believer, you be the healer
Can’t hear the peace train with that coal train gunning
To keep the peace you’ll keep that coal train running
Or find a way to keep those paychecks coming, ah-ah

One of the fiercest debates we had to moderate in the Tulip Frenzy HQ’s rec room was whether Goodman or Waxahatchee should round out the list, but while we loved the latter’s St. Cloud, the sheer grit of Old Time Feeling captured the final rung of the ladder and would not let go.

We’re not living in that Old Time Feeling, the remarkable S.G. Goodman sang on an album at once sympathetic to the land of her birth without ever falling into simplistic Hillbilly elegies. An astonishing country album by an artist going places even as she refuses to leave home.

#9. Vacant Lots Interzone

By the advent of summer, we were able to listen to things more adventuresome, harder edged than our springtime quest for melody had allowed, but even as Vacant Lots use electronica to establish the mood, they are brilliant and tuneful songwriters, and we welcomed their dark vision, their Blade Runner mise en-scene. In the spiritual rainy day weather of 2020, starting an album with a song called “Endless Rain” hit the spot. They’re the only band I can think of to mix rockabilly, disco and drum machines in a single song, and I find them irresistible either as foreground or background music, which is saying something.

While perhaps a little less gripping than Endless Night, which hit #5 on the 2017 Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List, the Vacant Lots showed on Interzone that they’re just hitting their stride. While their more recent release of odds and ends (November’s first rate Damage Control) revealed just how powerful an influence Anton Newcombe has had on the duo from Burlington, Vermont, Interzone shows just how well they’ve perfected the interplay between guitar and synths, and between dystopia and bliss.

#8. The Proper Ornaments Mission Bells

James Hoare’s band, The Proper Ornaments, rose from the ashes of the incredible Ultimate Painting, which sadly split in a messy divorce. While Jack Cooper recuperates with Modern Nature, who put out their own E.P. of bucolic music early in the summer, Hoare’s Proper Ornaments released another perfect example of quiet British pop. Mission Bells is an album that met the moment, gorgeous, a peaceful interior that occasionally raged with an undercurrent of angst. We listened to it so often during the early Covid lockdown that we began to associate it with sweatpants, sleeping through our anachronistic commuter’s alarm, and drinking coffee while avoiding the news. As pretty a homemade pop album as you will ever find, if you’re one of those people who like to follow up Nick Drake’s Pink Moon by putting on Rubber Soul, then Mission Bells is for you — and the antidote to the year’s disturbing headlines.

#7 Coriky Coriky

Ian Mackaye — he explains to non-Washingtonians — was Fugazi’s leader, co-singer, co-guitarist, co-songwriter. We credit him with quite deceptively keeping the whirlwind tightly controlled: it’s perhaps only in retrospect that the craftsmanship of his songs fully resonate with pop sensibilities — particularly the verse, chorus, nuclear war song structure also embraced by ’80s/’90s acts like the Pixies and Nirvana — revealed underneath the more obvious hardcore armor. Subsequently, with wife Amy Farina on vox + drums, Mackaye followed the breakup of Fugazi with The Evens, a band deliberately constructed for quiet mayhem — nearly as propulsive as his earlier bands, but with the duo able to play in the basement corner of a church, shunning the clinking bottles and boozy talk of bars and clubs with big stages. It has been eight long years since The Evens released The Odds, and so Mackaye and Farina’s return would be news enough. Yet their enlisting Fugazi and Messthetics bass player Joe Lally to join the fun just ensured that Coriky would be absolutely fucking brilliant.

From the opener, “Clean Kill” — which could easily have been on *both* Fugazi and The Evens’ set list — the quiet, understated poignancy of Mackaye, Farina and Lally’s playing blooms into something far more dynamic, and it clutched our heart and brain. When the song explodes, you’ll be forgiven for believing it to be a time bomb from Fugazi’s brilliant exit album, The Argument.

You don’t have to be from D.C. to grasp Coriky’s greatness, though it helps. This is an album that should rank high on every critic’s 2020 list, because like Mackaye’s earlier bands, we’ll be playing their music forever. And yet one of Mackaye’s most admirable traits is ambivalence about stardom, which is a reason you probably didn’t hear of The Evens or Coriky til we just told you about them. Confound Mackaye’s desire to remain subversively unnoticed: seek this album out.

#6. Death Valley Girls Under The Spell of Joy

It’s really hard to do what the Death Valley Girls accomplish on their magnificent Under the Spell of Joy. Since the earliest days of New Wave, or at least since Blondie, literally thousands of bands have tried grafting Girl Group sensibilities onto garage rock, with mixed results. On this album, though, the LA band has created a Phil Spector + garage band richness, even using a children’s chorus to round out the sound of sax, organ and riffing guitar. Like singers in the best Girl Groups, Bonnie Bloomgarden doesn’t have a classically great voice, but she gets the job done. Fans of First Communion Afterparty will recognize some of the psych song structures, and I can imagine Jason Pierce and his Spiritualized bandmates nodding their heads to this ‘un. From dance songs like “Little Things” and “Hold My Hand” to the cosmic verities of “The Universe,” Death Valley Girls are equally catchy and deep — again, hard to pull off. The music is familiar and original at the same time, beautiful and thrilling. The late Alan Betrock, who in addition to founding New York Rocker and producing Richard Hell’s Destiny Street and the first dBs album was a Girl Group aficionado, must be smiling in Heaven. In 2020, a miserable year, we are so glad we fell under the spell of joy.

#5. Kelley Stoltz Ah! (etc)

If any artist could thrive under Covid lockdown, it would be Kelley Stoltz. After all, he’s released 12 albums under his own name (and several others under pseudonyms) with nary a guest backup singer — Stoltz plays every instrument himself* — so adapting to an at-home environment would seem to be easier for him than, say, Wilco, or the far-flung New Pornographers. And sure enough, while earlier in the year he released a hard-rocking gem (Hard Feelings, recorded in 2019), November saw Ah! (etc), and this album recorded under semi-confinement is a delight.

Since 2008, when Tulip Frenzy was spawned, few are the years in which we did not feature one of Kelley’s albums in our Top 10. History has proved there are only two kinds of Kelly Stoltz albums — good ones and great ones. Ah! (etc) is a great one.

What’s the difference? Well, the best Kelley Stoltz albums make ample use of Kelley’s songwriting influences (Ray Davies, David Bowie circa ’70-’83, Echo and The Bunnymen), compounded by his genius for song arrangements, and most importantly his ability to stitch together multiple instruments into what sounds not just like a band, but a great band. Like, a Rolling Stones great band. He is sui generis, nonpareil, a complete original operating inside the confines of the kind of pop music that has always twanged our woogie. While Que Aura shared album of the year honors in 2017, several of his best works have, due to intense competition, just missed the highest mark, as this one does. But give him points for consistency: no artist has been on our list more often (we had an intern check.)

Listen to “Dodged a Bullet” from Ah! (etc) and you’ll instantly see why Kelley’s claimed his customary spot in our Top 5. It sports an Enoesque processed guitar sound, inventive drumming, a solid bass track, and Kelley’s voice. That’s all you need! He never lets you see him sweat even as he casts his hooks deep into the surf. You never know which instrument is going to reveal itself as Kelley’s favorite (on this ‘un, the drums, though pretty often it’s the bass.)

We’re happy to discover that the fella who operates out of Brookyn Vegan‘s Indie Basement shares our mania for all things Kelley. Isn’t it time you did too?

*On Ah! (etc), Stoltz pal and sometimes bandmate in Echo and the Bunnymen, Will Sergeant, plays lead guitar on one track, and adds spoken words to another, thus breaking up, so far as I know, Stoltz’s perfect record of solo album performances.

#4. Woods Strange To Explain

In the early days of the lockdown, there was something weirdly reassuring to hear songs from Woods’ wonderful Strange to Explain, which returns one of America’s cultural gems back to the Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List. It wasn’t just that Jeremy Earle’s songs were beautiful and inventive, it was his thematic exploration of dreaming — and particularly, the dream life of his infant daughter. Not just the sound, but the lyrics met the moment. I dunno, it’s strange to explain.

The last outing for Earle and multi-instrumentalist bandmate Jarvis Traveniere was on last year’s release by Purple Mountains — the band Silver Jews leader David Berman formed around the nucleus of Woods to record what turned out to be his final songs. Their album entered the world to accolades — and Berman promptly committed suicide. To go from such trauma to such a gorgeous, beguiling album as Strange To Explain is a testament to Woods’ enormous courage, not to mention talent.

Look, we loved the Woods of Bend Beyond, but by the time they got to Love is Love (2017), it seemed like their need to showcase, maybe even show off their musical growth took them to playing different idioms at the expense of revealing their heart. It would seem the twin events in Earle’s life — becoming a father and losing a friend to suicide — shook them hard. The result is an album at least as satisfying as anything they’ve done before. It still shows off their growth, their enormous collective talent — utilizing synths and mellotron, playing Mexicali music as well as Calexico — but this is an album that works as a whole, from beginning to end.

Given the regrets we have for 2020, we’re grateful to have Woods return, like an old friend, with a new batch of primo, weirdo songs.

#3. Angel Olsen Whole New Mess

Last year, when we put Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors in the #9 slot on our Top Ten List, we wrote, “We don’t think there has ever been an album that has made the Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List (c) that we have played less. Some of its absence from our car stereo speakers is that Mrs. Tulip Frenzy is not a fan, but mostly it’s that Olsen’s album, like her voice and the string arrangements on it, is so intense, one has to lash himself to the car’s hood ornament in order to glide past the Sirens’ Songs contained herein.”

We meant it: All Mirrors had great songs, incredible performances, but there was something about it that was so over the top, we could recognize its excellence without loving it. So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that, as she had promised when All Mirrors came out, Olsen really did intend to release into the world the original version of the album that she had recorded, before going back into the studio to add what amounted to a bucket of gloss.

Whole New Mess isn’t a reissue – it’s an album in the same spirit as Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks, in which the artist allows the world to see the earlier, unadulterated vision. As with Dylan’s release of a less adorned version of his classic Blood on the Tracks, Angel Olsen’s giving us these songs in this form is like walking into the Sistine Chapel fresh from its restoration.

On a song like “(New Love) Cassette” (which on Whole New Mess was called “New Love Cassette”), not too much has changed. But on the very next song, the standout of last year’s album, “All Mirrors” (here called “We Are All Mirrors,”) the absence of varnish, the more understated approach is, to these ears, so much stronger. “Lark Song” minus strings sounds like it could be a cover of a track by the Velvet Underground, so great is the transformation, or I guess we should say, restoration.

We wish more artists had the courage to show us their faces without their makeup. To trust fans, as PJ Harvey just did with the demo release of To Bring You My Love, with the knowledge that sometimes the rawer version of a recording is better than what the record label dictated should go out into the world. Dylan regularly gives us alternative arrangements of songs long since deemed classics. That a comparatively young artist such as Angel Olsen is doing so shows the kind of vision that can make an artist’s career last every bit as long as our Nobel Laureate’s.

#2. Oh Sees Protean Threat

We said that 2020 was not a year for punk rock, so obviously we must have been in a better place — psychologically, if not physically — when, in August, Oh Sees released their brilliant Protean Threat. While it’s not exactly punk — John Dwyer’s combo, whether you call them Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, OSEES or OCS, have settled into very much their own gooey puree of jazz fusion, Krautrock, metal, noise rock and psych — Protean Threat was the hardest, loudest album we listened to this year.

We were glad to do so, though admittedly, we didn’t get it at first. Unlike others who fell down as drooling supplicants before Oh Sees’s 2019 Face Stabber, we didn’t much like it. And longtime readers of this list surely know, that was strange since Thee Oh Sees are one of our favorite bands. So of course we gave Protean Threat a serious listen, and while it took a few tries, once we accommodated ourselves to its complex structure, all the magic of John Dwyer leading the tightest progrock combo on the planet hit us hard. You might even say it stabbed us in the face.

Now, just a few weeks ago, the good folks at Levitation in Austin released a show — originally streamed live — of Oh Sees playing in Joshua Tree (see: Levitation Sessions Live: Thee Oh Sees & Oh Sees), and you can get a sense of just how tight these guys are in the wild: double drummers playing with polyrhythmic perversity, with just a bass player and keyboards behind Dwyer on vox + guitar. In the studio, they are welded.

Just before Protean Threat came out, Dwyer gave us an album by Bent Arcana, his actual jazz-fusion band, with an entirely different set of players. No vocals on that one, just a more reverent take on the genre. It’s so calm and polite compared to the wildness contained herein. Even in Covid year, I guess, we needed an outlet, and the return of Oh Sees to our earbuds gave it to us.

##1. Fenne Lily BREACH

We’re willing to bet boatloads of cryptocurrency this is the one and only time that Fenne Lily and Oh Sees will ever appear back to back — in print, on stage, or anyone’s playlist. For as loud as the latter is, Lily’s music is quiet, tuneful folk pop, catchy as a certain flu from Wuhan, emotionally magnetic.

I dunno, maybe the raw knuckled disorientation of 2020 brought out a latent need to watch romcoms, to care about a young woman’s heartbreaks. All we know is that we’ve never been so drawn into an album where our dominant emotion could be classified as parental concern. When you hear lyrics like, “I gave up smoking when I was coughing up blood/And when I felt better I took it straight back up,” you want to do something about it. With so many of the biting, beautiful songs addressed to an unnamed “you,” we found ourselves wondering whether it was all the same guy who treated her so badly, or a series of guys, and — like any clueless parent — we didn’t know which was worse.

All we know is that this 23-year old from Bristol, England has produced a pop album that is an instant classic. With a quiet, breathy voice — in a completely different weight class to Angel Olsen’s — you strain to hear it. And yet it packs an emotional wallop. In a chorus that goes, “You’re telling me I’m in your head like it’s a good thing/Telling me she’s in your bed like it was nothing,” the vocal tone, melodic impact and devastating words come together like a sealed indictment.

She can rock, too. “Solipsism” is one of the best garage pop songs of this or any era, a softer version of what Courtney Barnett did so effectively on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Our only wish here is that two of the singles Lily released in 2020, “Hypochondriac,” and “To Be A Woman, Pt. 2,” had been included, as they’re clearly part of the same song cycle.

“I Used To Hate My Body But Now I Just Hate You” may be the album’s summary statement and most effective moment.

“I read all of the books you recommended/I listened to your friend’s band all of the time/You justify and satiate my hunger/For not feeling alright,” she tells her ex.

But later, when she gets to her biggest putdown, she reveals more about herself than him: “I heard you live at home now with your parents/It doesn’t satisfy me like it should/I still see you as some kind of reassurance/That someday I’ll be understood.”

If quoting such lyrics seems out of character for Tulip Frenzy, Breach is that kind of album, and 2020 was that kind of year.

My Humble Homage To Stephen Shore’s “Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 29, 2020 by johnbuckley100

The image above is taken on the shore of the Snake River, a few yards from the bike and pedestrian bridge that connects Jackson, Wyoming with the smaller town of Wilson. Wilson Beach, as the swimming area is called, is a section of the Snake with braids and channels that are shallow enough for children to swim safely from mid-summer onward, when the potato farmers on the other side of the Tetons in Idaho have ceased calling for high allotments of water to be released upstream at the Jackson Lake Dam. It is a peaceful, fun, American swimming hole. I call the picture Snake River, Jackson, Wyoming, 2020. There’s a reason why.

The picture above is Stephen Shore’s Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest photographs taken in the second half of the 20th Century. It belongs high in the pantheon of Western United States landscape photographs, but it is so much more.

The “M” of the river bend mimics the “M” of the mountains in the same way that Cartier-Bresson’s man leaping across the puddle in Behind The Gare Saint-Lazare mimics the dancer in the poster on the wall behind him. It presages Stephen Wilkes’ great Day To Night series of images, where, from a position high above the action, he is able to focus in on individuals moving across a crowded scene. Shot with, presumably, a large-format camera using Kodak Portra or some other pale, blue-tinted film of the late 1970s, this image, to me, captures a moment in time so perfectly, it may as well be one of Gregory Crewdson’s staged tableaux.

I love street photography and landscape photography in equal but different ways. The best landscape photography naturalistically captures the sublime. There can be tremendous drama, as in Sebastião Salgado’s amazing Genesis project. But while beauty is more of the point in landscape photography than in street photography, the best landscape images, to me, have beauty as not so much the object but a byproduct of otherwise elevating the Earth and sky as twin actors in a drama that inspires awe.

Shore — the once-young tyro who, along with William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, elevated color photography to museum status — made his mark capturing the humdrum banality of American towns and cities. His work was only incidentally beautiful. He started, we have grown to understand, as a conceptual artist whose approach to photography could be glimpsed on many levels. His Yosemite picture above was, for me, the key to unlocking, and appreciating — loving — his work.

For years, I have had his image in mind as I’ve spent time in U.S. national parks, particularly Grand Teton National Park. The image above was taken about eight miles south of the entrance to GTNP, but that’s not the point — everything in Jackson Hole can be viewed as part of the Teton park. I walk the levee by the river fairly often when out in Wyoming, and almost always bring a camera. This past Sunday, carrying the Leica M10-R — not a large-format camera, but a capable tool — I walked by this scene and something inside me — that voice that shouts to a photographer that there is a picture worth making, if only you can — directed me to take this image.

It’s an act of conceit to think any image I would take is worth mentioning in the same paragraph as Stephen Shore’s image. And yet, even as it is consciously/unconsciously derivative of his great image, this image stands, to me, as one of the best pictures I’ve ever made. I offer it as an homage to Stephen Shore’s great picture, before which I genuflect.

Concluding “D.C. Under Quarantine: A Visual Diary”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 9, 2020 by johnbuckley100

All images Leica SL2, with the 24-90 or 16-35 Vario-Elmarit lenses

It was eight weeks ago yesterday that the partners at the Washington, D.C. firm in which I work told our team that, for the foreseeable future, we would conduct business from home. In the office lobby where we had assembled everyone — in contravention of social distancing rules we would all soon learn — people exhibited a combination of relief, fear and a little bit of excitement at the adventure ahead of us. I told people that we would be apart for “at least the next two weeks.” That seems almost funny now.

Yesterday, Mayor Bowser — proving to be far more concerned about the safety of her citizens than the man in the big white house on 18 acres in the city center — let us know our indefinite lockdown still has some time on the clock.

Keeping a city of 700,000 at home while a pandemic rages is a hard thing to do, especially as the calendar has moved from the late winter cold through Washington’s genuinely epic spring season. We’ve been good about social distancing, Mrs. Tulip Frenzy and I, but as early as March 18th, I began walking around the city — often at dawn or at sunset, after working from home — embarked on a photo project. My goal has been to capture D.C. under quarantine, but in a very specific way we will get to in a moment. Aside from the initial reportage cited above, I have updated this project here once. Today — perhaps fittingly, a blustery, cold day that seems like the clock has been reset to mid-March — I bring it to a conclusion.

The project I embarked on two months ago was to capture the weirdness and beauty of Washington under wraps during its most beautiful season. I probably would have used my Leica SL2 to capture the Tulip Frenzy, and after it, the Azalea Frenzy, but when in the city, as readers of this site know, I am partial to black & white photography — to street photography that reflects the sublime grit of urban life. Under the lockdown, I was, if not shut off from the streets — in which I’d have to keep far greater distance from other people than I’d like — then at least encouraged to stay home, to stay in my Northwest DC neighborhood. And to the extent I went to public spaces, the quadrant I kept in was the D.C. that tourists inhabit — the Mall, the Georgetown waterfront, the Kennedy Center. White D.C. Safe D.C. Perhaps not coincidentally, the city’s most picturesque parts.

Which led to this inversion of my life, and approach. The approach I take when living not in the city but out West — early morning and sunset landscapes — was grafted onto my experience here, and I began to shoot urban landscapes with an emphasis on how beautiful the environment is, flowers in bloom, people mostly absent. It was different and thrilling. At first.

I began looking at the city from new angles, in new ways. And as I posted images on Instagram (@tulip_frenzy), I learned that in the lockdown, many of my friends were spending more time on Insta than usual, and posting color pictures of our city in bloom was cheering people up. And so, for a while there, it seemed I had a purpose — which you need during a lockdown! I resigned myself to deviate from the kind of photography I typically do when at home in D.C., in part due tocircumstances, in part as a social service. Or such was the rationale. My non-work hours were given over to driving to the Mall or other locations and going on walks, camera in hand, in search of good light. The earlier posts linked to above capture that journey. This final collection shows how late April and May progressed.

For a while there, it rained a lot, and one night I went out to see what I could find. I started by going to Ben’s Chili Bowl, on a deserted U Street, the night that Congress voted to replenish funds for the Paycheck Protection Program. Ben’s, a D.C. institution that has brought people together in a racially divided city for 60 years, was reportedly in dire straits, having been shut out of the first round of federal funds. It seemed outrageous that Congress was appropriating trillions of dollars, and yet an institution like Ben’s was dying for lack of access to it.

To drive through D.C. streets on a rainy spring evening with virtually no one visible — pedestrian or motorist — was passing strange. The drive to Capitol Hill was eerie.

At the Capitol, a lone staffer emerged in the rain hours after the vote to fund the PPP (which, happily, as it turned out, was able to provide Ben’s a lifeline.)

On my way home that night, I drove near my office and saw a sight that made me pull over and jump out with my camera. A man who seemed to be having difficulty staying upright peddled a bike in wobbly loops in front of the closed Tiffany’s jewelry store on 10th Street. It was too alluring not to try capturing it, which imperfectly I did.

As time progressed, more and more people came out during the daylight hours. Wisconsin Avenue was far more crowded with cars each passing day. I would drive to pick up my salad from the SweetGreen, usually listening to reports on the radio about the hellish conditions in New York, where people were dying by the hundreds. The journey which in March had seemed like I was the only soul braving such adventures, now had actual traffic. In the evening, when I’d go out with camera in hand, people were exulting in the spring weather.

Of course they were; it was springtime in Washington, which is to say, springtime in America’s most beautiful city in that season. And they had been — all of us had been — cooped up for weeks.

And yet, as the federal response from the White House faltered until they just seemed to give up… and guidance on social distancing and wearing masks seemed to be contradicted every day… until that crescendo of derp in which the president urged us to shoot up Clorox, even in D.C., there were signs that people weren’t taking seriously what needed to be done.

And then came the flyover by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, a welcome entertainment and a lovely thanks to the medical workers, but catnip for luring people out in the kinds of crowds we weren’t supposed to be in.

While my photography is decidedly not aimed at finding the visual juxtapositions and humor that are hallmarks of artists like Elliot Erwitt, Pentti Samhallatti or Craig Semetko, perhaps my favorite image from the entire project is this one below, in which the bird clearly did not get the memo about which direction air traffic control was sending those lucky enough to have wings.

I continued going out, camera in hand, taking pictures of our city under glorious light and bizarre circumstances.

As time went on, though — and it became ever more clear that the lockdown wasn’t for a short spell, but would likely continue into summer — I began missing my beloved Leica Monochrom, and the ability to take pictures in black & white. Mentally, although perhaps not in practice, I began to rebel against the self-imposed prohibition against street photography, because by definition it meant being in contact with people. One night I went to the Key Bridge and took landscape photos up and down the river at sunset.

The moon was coming up over the bend in the Potomac in front of the Kennedy Center. And to the Northwest, the Potomac flowed under the spires of Georgetown University. It was breathtaking, honestly, crossing the bridge as traffic went by, a few hundred feet above the river, staring at the scene below.

A short while later, as I walked back up into Georgetown’s empty streets where I’d parked my car, I took a photo that reminded me of the kinds of pictures I missed taking.

Earlier that day, Peter Fetterman — the great L.A.-based gallerist who has been posting images from his collection since the lockdown began there — had emailed the black & white image Willy Ronis took in 1934 of Rue Muller à Montmartre. It was foggy and mysterious and it made me think of the Exorcist Steps, so I walked over to them just as that woman above was ascending. This seemed like the photography I should be doing.

It has been a strange couple of months, and a highlight has been capturing these urban landscapes in a city I love. But I’ve decided to end the project here, on a high note, and get back to taking photographs in black & white. I wish everyone good health as we get through the pandemic. I’m going to continue taking pictures, just not part of this formal project of capturing DC Under Quarantine, as I’ve called it. It’s fitting that the last picture posted here would be of the U.S. Capitol on a beautiful evening, as the first picture in this project was of the Washington Monument at dawn. A beautiful city. A strange set of circumstances. Please stay well.

The full gallery of John Buckley’s images documenting D.C. under the Covid-19 pandemic can be found here. His Instagram feed is found @tulip_frenzy

Update To “D.C. Under Quarantine: A Visual Diary”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2020 by johnbuckley100
All images Leica SL2, daily feed @tulip_frenzy on Instagram

In the second half of March, I began to visually document the Nation’s Capital under the soft quarantine imposed by our mayor after Covid-19 began to spread. It was, at first, a suggestion we stay home, and my office depopulated in advance of the more restrictive order that came a short time later. Mindful of safety, and taking precautions, I still went out, often early, sometimes at dusk, to try capturing D.C. in its prettiest season, and to document life under quarantine.

I became as highly attentive to weather forecasts and the times the sun would rise and set as my wife and I are when we’re out West, and color landscape photography in a mountain valley, not street photography in the city we live in most of the year, is the objective.

The city was, at is always is in spring, amazingly beautiful, as the tulip frenzy progressed to Easter. It was eery to go on walks and see virtually no one, the citizens of the capital city having gotten the message to stay home even as the White House flopped around in incompetence and indecision. I found I was oddly suited for the absence of direct human contact, and the conversion of my urban street photography into something akin to urban landscape photography.

On bright and sunny days, people would go out, but fewer of them, and with masks. Runners along the Mall seemed stunned that, in what typically is our city’s busiest tourist season, there was no one there.

I remembered, from college, seeing that 1950’s horror movie, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and it was like that. You could stand in the middle of the tourist corridors and see just the occasional bike rider.

I get a paycheck, and being at home was perfectly comfortable, but I found myself overwhelmed with sadness as the economy flatlined, and people suddenly lost work, and those essential employees had to risk their lives to go to work.

Do you see the guard above? She probably considered herself lucky to have work to go to, but I remember standing there for a long time, my head a jumble of emotional calculations, sad that she was in our city’s most beautiful museum without the usual run of schoolchildren there on Spring Break visits, happy that she seemed safe, with no one around her. It was a bewildering, emotional, upside down moment, typical of the world under the Coronavirus lockdown. Everything is upside down.

Just the birds were out, as in a typical spring morning. But there was nothing typical about this, and one had to look at things in a new, unfamiliar way.

And then came a magical few evenings when the Pink Moon rose, a super moon, and we rushed to capture it on an empty National Mall.

The moon itself was gorgeous, and as it lifted into the sky, it was so bright it was really hard to capture. It really did cast the sky in pink light. I remember standing there, amazed, and thinking of Nick Drake, whose album Pink Moon tugs at our heart, and when we got home, we learned that even as the moon had risen, John Prine had died of Coronavirus.

The next night, we went down to the Mall, again to try capturing the moon, and on our way, over Constitution Gardens, got a distant glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial in the Blue Hour, and everything was right in the world. We once again brought our tripod, but the pictures we took of the moon paled in comparison to one of the few pictures we’ve captured of what I would deem a street scene, as the bicyclists below on the left side of the image stayed still long enough for a two-second exposure to capture everything, the image I will keep for life as the best depiction of the unbelievable beauty of being in Washington during this horrible period.

I kept going out at dawn and dusk, though I felt my spirit flagging. It was hard to keep thinking of where I might want to position myself to take pictures. It seemed incredibly artificial to be capturing images of pristine, official, privileged DC and ignore all the sections of the city where people actually live. In brief forays into the city’s urban streets, however, I was pretty stunned to see people clustering, some with masks, many not, and it seemed far better to stay in my socially distant world, driving or walking to take pictures where people were few and far between.

Easter came, and the city bloomed, as it usually does at Easter time. But time began to hang heavily as we started our fifth week of working from home.

Walking with a camera in hand remained the essential psychological outlet, but the sense of unreality began to intensify. And all the while, walking from our home or car, after a day spent working, was a reminder of how many people were in absolute bewilderment of sudden joblessness, or, in New York, the horror of the pandemic raging all around them. D.C. officials kept talking about the future peak in cases, but in the city’s Northwest Quadrant, it all seemed far away.

The Earth still stood still, but our stomach churned and head jangled from the blasts of sheer insanity emanating just a short distance away in the White House briefing room. It was hard to reconcile this peaceful, gorgeous city with the unfathomable craziness of the President lashing out at governors fighting the pandemic, at the Supreme Court sending people out to vote in Wisconsin amidst a plague.

Ah, but by now the Azalea Frenzy had hit our backyard, and weather warmed, at least briefly.

We remembered how our documentation of D.C. under quarantine had begun under a cold March sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial, and by now, even as people kept their distance, things were warm, spring was here, and of course our spirits lifted. People were out on the Mall, but appropriately — we had masks on, for the most part, and there was enough space between us and the runners to be able to continue walking comfortably. How long this will go on, and what happens when the weather gets even warmer, we don’t know. For now, as our quarantine continues and news comes that at least New York is past its peak, spring continues, and we look up.

To be continued…

John Buckley’s daily feed of images on Instagram can be found @tulip_frenzy. For the full set of images, head over to our sister site, John Buckley in Black and White and Color.

The Proper Ornaments, Waxahatchee and Arbouretum Comprise Our Lockdown New Music Playlist

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2020 by johnbuckley100

Punk rock should not be your soundtrack for the lockdown. We are playing a lot of Miles Davis, Cluster & Eno, and Philip Glass. To get through being cooped up at home, the springtime view out the window reassuringly normal even as our dreams reveal turmoil, you need music that is at once complex and beautiful, that gives our minds something to hang on to without elevating our blood pressure. We have some recommendations.

For nearly 40 years, when we’ve been in a certain mood, the artist who has filled the bill is Nick Drake, and it of course makes perfect sense that this past week saw a pink moon — a Pink Moon! But there was only one Nick Drake, and he left us Pink Moon and not a whole lot else before his tragic exit. Which leaves us needing… well, here are three albums released in recent weeks that all fit the bill.

It seems like only yesterday but it was actually last May that the Proper Ornaments gave us the brilliant 6 Lenins. Tulip Frenzy ranked it the 7th best album of 2019, and our admiration for it has only increased since. James Hoare and co.’s new record, Mission Bells, is so of-the-moment, playing it seems like it could be a live stream from his own lockdown studio in London.

If, to continue our Nick Drake theme, one could enact a rating system for how closely an album tracks melodic brilliance, quiet authority and mid-tempo thrills, we’d give this record four Pink Moons. We said at the time that 6 Lenins was music for a rainy day, and that we could imagine Woods, the Feelies, Anton Newcomb and Kevin Morby being fans. Mission Bells is music for extended home arrest, and we expand our universe of comparisons for an album that makes us think of the Velvet Underground, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, the Perfect Disaster, White Fence and, of course, Hoare’s previous band, Ultimate Painting. If you are a fan of melodic British pop music, and who isn’t, this one just might see you through the miserable weeks ahead.

We’ve liked Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee alter ego since 2013’s Cerulean Salt. We’ve admired her music even when it morphed into 2017’s Out in the Storm, which sounded more like an update to Juliana Hatfield’s late ’80s power pop than the quirky Southern gothic rock that grabbed us in the first place. On Saint Cloud, though, she’s put it all together. It’s an album that bears comparison to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which even schoolchildren know got four stars from Christgau and comparisons to Born To Run. Crutchfield has a sweet voice, and she really understands both pop songwriting dynamics and how to pace an album. We put this one on, pretty loud, we have to say, when we wish to think of glasses half full, to remember springtimes when we could go anywhere and hang with, like, people. Lest this read like the album is comprised of upbeat pop music — it is certainly bright and melodic — it’s not, you know, Taylor Swift. It’s just an album that never lets you see Crutchfield sweat as she powers through a nearly perfect run of great songs, Americana in the best use of the word. Somewhere we imagine Tom Petty smiling, even as Lucinda Williams, uncrowned, sighs.

Baltimore’s Arbouretum has done the seemingly impossible. Over the eight songs on Let It All In, as beguiling a record as has ever come out of Charm City, they make us think of artists as different as CSN&Y and Can. From the beautiful folk rock of “How Deep It Goes” to the Krautrock of the title track, it’s clear this is a band that, nine albums and nearly two decades in, have learned a trick or two. They get special points in our book for enlisting Hans Chew to play piano on “High Water Song.” Wilco-level musicianship and imagination coupled with respect for the British folk formalism of Fairport Convention makes for a brisk experience, but honestly, given what we all are going trough, this album is a tonic for our troubled times.

D.C. Under Quarantine: A Visual Diary

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2020 by johnbuckley100
John Buckley’s Instagram is @tulip_frenzy; All images taken with the Leica SL2

I took my last black and white photograph before the soft quarantine began on March 9th. I actually went to a concert in a small club along the D.C. Wharf, because Wire — a favorite band for more than 40 years — are always worth it, and I was armed with hand sanitizer and instructions on social distancing. Still, though… my last outing, and what was I thinking?

Later that week, we announced to our office employees that we would work from home until the Coronavirus abated, or at least until the risks had diminished. A few days later, before sunrise, I went down to the Lincoln Memorial for MonumentHenge, that wonderful moment when the sun rises and shines directly on Lincoln’s face. It was dark when I parked my car. The guards were out in front of the State Department, but no one else was around, save for those dedicated workers, God bless ‘em, showing up before sunrise at the Federal Reserve.

The markets were in chaos, and people were beginning to die. But elsewhere, not here in this Washington, not yet. We were told to stay home, except surely you go out and walk in the morning, before sunrise, to take pictures. Washington, as always, was beautiful.

Later that same day, when teleworking, our new odd reality, had subsided, I returned to the cherry blossoms before the crowds arrived, as they did in force that weekend. There was a woman taking an iPhone photograph while she kneeled by the water, a mask on her face. It seemed emblematic of the moment.

Within days of taking that picture, the National Guard was shutting down access to the Mall, and those of us who live here were shamed, put in the same irresponsible category as college kid revelers on the beaches of Florida.

I kept going out — at sunrise, in the evenings — but carefully so, when people were distant. Photographs I posted on Instagram were, I was told, cheering my friends up, and I decided to keep at it, Leica SL2 in hand, shooting in color.

I’m going to keep doing this as often as I can, as we get through this terrible moment. There may be a time when I can’t go out, for a variety of reasons. Until then I intend — carefully — to amble along, camera in hand, a flaneur, an urban landscape photographer, intent on staying six feet or more from anyone I see. Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He died taking pictures. I’ll keep my distance.

You can see the progression of time by the blossoms, and as I write this, the tulips are out. One day I saw a couple dancing outside of the Kennedy Center, and I completely understood what was going on: they needed to get out of the house. They weren’t the irresponsible who couldn’t keep their social distance. You can tell they dance together from their shoes.

It is an awful moment in the life of our planet, our country, and soon, no doubt, my beloved D.C. Think of this, then, as a visual diary of the way things were as the sun kept rising each morning, but the progression of the pandemic kept us away from work, and one another.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep the associated gallery up on johnbuckleyinblackandwhiteandcolor.com. I’ll probably stop posting these color pictures when we get the all-clear sign, if ever we do, that we can go back to work in an office. For now, enjoy these fossils of light and time, as Moriyama might call them. I hope they both brighten your day and serve as a visual diary of Washington, D.C. in the time of the Coronavirus. Consider this a work in progress…

To follow this visual journal, go to our sister site, John Buckley in Black and White and Color.

Dream Combo: The Leica M10 on the Streets (and Beaches) of Miami

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on February 29, 2020 by johnbuckley100
All photos Leica M10 and 35mm Summilux

On the last day of the Obama Administration, my Leica M10 arrived in Washington. I remember sharing anxiety with the good folks at the Leica Store DC about whether it would be delivered before the cordon went up around downtown blocks in preparation for a certain person’s inauguration. There were two silver linings to Trump’s inauguration: the Womens’ March which followed dwarfed the crowds at his fete, and was the greatest outpouring of civic protest I’d ever witnessed, and I was able to capture it with the Leica M10, which in so many ways is the perfect camera for street photography.

Flash forward to late February and my wife and I had a weekend trip planned to visit a friend in Miami Beach. I had a newfound embarrassment of riches to choose from when it came to bringing a camera, for the Leica SL2 was released November and I’d been working with the third generation Monochrom since January. Readers of this space will remember I had recalibrated what kind of camera could work for street photography, since the Leica SL2, with the smaller Summicron SL lenses and a nifty little Sigma 45mm, f/2.8 lens could make it seem — well, almost — like I could walk around with the invisibility of an M. And while Miami promised bright colors, isn’t the perfect answer to that confounding expectations by carrying the excellent new Monochrom?

I wisely came to my senses and brought along the M10, and I’m glad I did. While the new Monochrom surpasses it in the size of its sensor (41 mp vs. 24), and the SL2 is in a class of its own, both in terms of a 47 megapixel sensor and amazing color handling, the Leica M10 is as perfect an M camera as ever existed, and using it one could shoot from the hip, in crowds, with nary an eyebrow raised. Well, maybe one eyebrow raised.

We are intimately familiar with the M10 because it has lived in our hands in walks around our city, although over the past year, I suppose, I have carried a Monochrom more often. As a photographer I have what some might call a problem, though I can’t quite see it that way: I am equally in love with black and white and color photography. Obviously, when carrying any digital camera other than the Monochrom, once can have it either way, and carrying the M10 last weekend, I was glad to be able to process some images in black and white, for that’s how I saw them when I took them.

The M10, we already knew, is versatile and discrete, but spending the weekend with it reaffirmed what we believed from the moment we clutched its lithe body in January 2017: it really is a perfect street camera. Using the hyperfocal distance, and having practiced just enough walking through crowds with the camera held as flat as possible at the bottom of my chest, keeping eye contact with people even as I surprise them by pressing the shutter, most of the time you can get away with taking people’s picture without them freaking out. Though, of course, sometimes you get caught.

If ever there were a combination of camera and city that worked perfectly, it is the M10 and Miami. Sure, HC-B’s Leica iii and Paris in the 30s was a pretty good combo too, and Rui Palha owns Lisbon with his Leica Q. But given how bright and colorful Miami is, how big are the crowds along the beach and in the Wynwood Arts District with its famous graffiti walls, the city and camera combine like rice and beans. In certain moments, when a monochrome image is best, the image can be living poetry. Shooting the M10 in Miami is the Platonic ideal of Leica photography.

Of course it makes sense that what is widely believed to be the most successful seller of Leica cameras in America — the Leica Store Miami — is in Coral Gables. Fans of destination photo workshops take note: this is an ideal city to participate in one, and happily David Farkas, Kirsten Vignes, Peter Dooling and the legendary Josh Lehrer continuously play host with such genius photographers as Arthur Meyerson and even Alex Webb using the Leica Store as their hub.

Miami is a feast for the eyes, especially northern eyes weary of winter with bodies in need of Vitamin D. How much camera does one need, under these circumstances? There are rumors that Leica is planning on upping the megapixels in the M10 while retaining that edition, perhaps calling it the M10R.

One doesn’t really need more megapixels for street photography. Landscape, sure. But street photography? Not so much. We look forward to future winter visits to colorful Miami, with the perfect street camera in hand. For now at least, that remains the Leica M10.

On Leica’s M10 Monochrom, And The Apogee Of Digital Black and White Photography

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 26, 2020 by johnbuckley100
Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

It has been a long time, but I can still remember the smell of the dark room, the odd feeling of being suffused in red light even as a print lay soaking in solution. I don’t miss processing black and white images, the chemical reek, the wrinkled fingertips, because fortunately digital photography makes it almost effortless to convert an image from color to black and white. And yet, since 2012, there has been another way of taking monochrome images. From the first moment Leica announced the Monochrom, which takes only black and white pictures, its purity appealed to me. It literally changed my life as a photographer.

I took the picture above the first day I laid my hands on what has become known as the M9 Monochrom, released in September 2012. For those who followed my journey using the original Monochrom – a journey so profound I wrote about it at several junctures — you may remember what a joy it was when the Monochrom was updated in April 2015 to what became known as the M Monochrom. Some Monochrom shooters resisted that transition, but I didn’t — I embraced the M Monochrom. Over time it became my favorite camera.

Those two cameras opened up an unforeseen dimension in my passion for photography. It’s not simply that the images each produced, coupled with Leica’s glorious lenses, rekindled my love of black and white photography. Their very limitations forced me to think about the act of photography in a different way. With a Leica rangefinder, you are already dealing with certain limitations — manual focus, until recently no ability to shoot with telephoto lenses. Taking away the color option was another, even more severe limitation. And yet it opened a world, and a way of seeing. And now, seven-plus years into the journey, the new M10 Monochrom has seemingly delivered the apogee of monochrome photography, the initial promise of that first black-and-white-only camera realized in what I can only describe as a thrilling manner. Before I get to this third generation Monochrom, let me tell you a little more about its two big brothers. The first was a poet, and the second was an athlete.

Leica M9 Monochrom, and 90mm Summicron

In 2014, I was fortunate to travel with my family to Botswana on a photographic safari, and I brought both the M-240 — the 2013 successor to the Leica M9 — and the M9 Monochrom. I shot color with the M-240, which having made the transition from a CCD to a CMOS sensor meant, for the first time with an M camera, being able to use long lenses via an adaptor. The Monochrom, however, was limited to a 135mm focal length. Because it was built on the M9 chassis and had a CCD sensor, it had no Live View and hence no way to use Leica’s superb telephoto lenses from the discontinued R platform. I quickly learned this wasn’t actually a limitation. I shot the image above with a 90mm M Summicron and the black and white images that combo captured are the only ones I choose to display on my photo site, or on my walls. It is as if, as a photographer, I visited Botswana with only black and white film, because the only images that matter to me, honestly, are the ones I returned with in monochrome.

I said that the original Monochrom was a poet, and I can’t analytically describe why other than to say there was something dreamy about the way it rendered images. The next generation Monochrom — the Monochrom M — was, as I said, more like an athlete. It happens that way sometimes in families. Because all Leicas Monochroms skip the step where a Bayer filter adds color pixels to the brew, they are able to serve up a purer distillation of grey shades, which means better high ISO shooting — with comparatively little noise or banding — than their color competitors. The second Monochrom had even better high ISO performance than the first one, and like the M-240 camera from which it was adapted, it was a workhorse. It could take long lenses. It seemed sturdier in the hand. The pictures it captured were amazing in their tonality and dynamic range, though as always with a Monochrom, because there were no color channels at all, if you blew out the highlights, there was nothing left, no data hiding in a red or green channel. (Another limitation of shooting with the Monochrom, and this one with no upside.)

Leica Monochrom M, with Leica R 70-180 zoom

In the summer of 2015, I brought the Monochrom M out West with me and used it with that same R telephoto lens that worked so well with the M-240. The picture above of Jackson Hole’s Sleeping Indian rock formation was shot at the 180mm focal length, and I have it in my office blown up to approximately 30×40. Few people would notice the difference between the original Monochrom images and those of its successor, which makes sense since they had much in common, including Leica lenses. It was when you were working with the files in Lightroom that you noticed a difference — the Monochrom M files in many ways superior to the original (better high ISO, at least as good dynamic range), but also missing a certain… something. Even as some Leica photographers bemoaned what was lost from the transition to a CMOS sensor, I put that out of my mind and concentrated instead on how much more versatile the M Monochrom was, how good it was in low light. It became, in so many ways, the camera I used more than any other, ever. Certainly, in 2019, the four-year old Monochrom M was the camera I clutched when leaving the house.

Leica Monochrom M, and 35mm Summilux

Cartier-Bresson referred to his Leica as an extension of his eye, and for months there last year, mine certainly seemed to be an extension of my arm. When I had the pleasure of spending a day with a man who is, perhaps, HC-B’s spiritual son, Rui Palha, I was able to wander the streets of Lisbon looking at the city the way he sees it, which is to say, entirely in black and white. While I had enjoyed using the M10 in the bright colors and sunsets of the Alhambra in Grenada, because I was with Rui — as poetic a monochrome photographer as there is on the planet — my mind jettisoned those color channels just like my camera had, and as we set out into the streets, my M10 was miles away, cozy in a seaside room. My beloved M Monochrom was in my hand.

Leica M Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

I don’t know how many pictures I took with that M Monochrom, but in the 55 months I owned it, it kept its position as my go-to camera even as Leica produced a number of new camera platforms, the SL (which I began using) and the Q, which I resisted. As it became obvious a new Monochrom had to be coming sometime — Leica had long missed its previous interval of 2.5 years between Monochrom — what I hoped for, honestly, was just an upgrade like the one between the M-240 and M10: a slightly smaller camera with an updated sensor, a further refinement of the Leica M digital rangefinder. I wanted the ability to travel with both the M10 and the M10 Monochrom and only have to bring one battery charger. I had zero expectations that Leica would boost the resolving power of the M10 Monochrom sensor from 24 megapixels to 40. Which was why the announcement earlier this month of just what the M10 Monochrom would be was like being hit by a thunderclap.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

The first picture at the top of this post, and the ones just above and below this paragraph, were taken Friday when, to my surprise, I wandered out of my office at lunchtime and found the city streets crowded with demonstrators. They became an opportunity for me to test out what kind of street camera the new M10 Monochrom really is.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

What was immediately notable about shooting with the M10 Monochrom was how delightful it is in the grip. (I remember receiving the M10 the day before Trump’s inauguration and using it two days later at the Women’s March, and it was a tactile revelation, a sense of a volume reduction to the Golden Mean — even as it was also clear what an upgrade in sensors the M10 had over the M-240.) By moving to a 40 megapixel sensor, it’s perhaps an unfair question to ask how the M10 Monochrom compares to its predecessor, but I should note that, while 35mm is my most comfortable focal length, having those extra megapixels has encouraged me to use the 28mm Summicron, and crop where necessary; I have, it now seems, pixels to spare. If I hadn’t been using that 28mm lens, I never would have gotten the first picture on this post, nor the one that concludes it below.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

The M10 Monochrom’s fastest shutter speed is 1/4000th of a second, but it has been grey in Washington these past few days and I was able to shoot the above wide open at ISO 160 — down from a base ISO of 320 on the M Monochrom — which protected highlights. I have been curious, at times, about the way the Maestro processor determines ISO when using Aperture Priority and Auto ISO, as I have over the past few days of testing. There were images that, had I not been using Auto ISO, I would have switched the external ISO dial (yay) to 400 or 800, only to discover that the camera’s brain decided the image was to be shot at ISO 160. I came to understand – duh – the Auto ISO is biased toward shooting at the widest possible dynamic range, which means the lowest usable ISO.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

I remember setting the ISO dial to 400 for the above shot, which was at f/5.6 @1/1500th. I’m curious whether the Auto ISO would have shot this at 160 and a faster shutter speed. I do know, however, that if you use Auto ISO when out at night, and take a shot you never would have even considered with the first-generation Monochrom, you won’t be disappointed. I won’t tax your patience with a series of images of dark alleys, but trust me when I say that shooting at ISO 10,000 produced images literally without noise.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

The above image was shot at ISO 400, on a corner so dark I could barely use the guy on the right’s glasses as the reference point for focusing. On my computer screen, it is clear how much latitude there is for making it as light as it’s posted here, or meaningfully darker but still with the two men distinct against the ambient lighting. It’s stunningly clean.

So, is the M10 Monochrom, with its amazing high ISO performance and subtle tonality in limited light, worth getting for that feature alone? No, of course not. At least not any more than one would buy a Noctilux simply because of its low-light performance; you get a Noctilux because you want that special look it provides, and the same is true for any Monochrom and this one in particular. In 2015, David Farkas of the Leica Store Miami did a test pitting the Leica M-240 against both the M Monochrom and the M9 Monochrom. His conclusion was the M-240 images converted into black and white were wonderful — but the M Monochrom’s were better at high ISO performance and dynamic range. I believe the smart testers — Jono Slack, Sean Reid and others — who say the M10 Monochrom has a likely two-stop advantage over the M10. Which translates into highly usable images shot at ISO 12,500 or even higher.

So does one actually, you know, need a 40 megapixel digital rangefinder than only shoots black and white? Of course not. But if the tonality of black and white images is your thing, I can’t imagine a camera shooting a shot like the one below — or better put, producing a file like the one below — with the same latitude and malleability in post-processing.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

It is absolutely true that I could have converted the below shot from one taken by the M10 and gotten an image that would look very much like this. Grey as the day was, it’s still daylight.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

The question is whether I would have seen the image in black and white, given the colorful Chinatown arch. By deliberately setting out today to take black and white images, the photo previewed in my minds’ eye had a very different set of values. Clearly one aspect of shooting with a Monochrom is an absolute embrace of the gestalt of black and white. But if black and white is your thing, and much of the time it is mine, then the M10 Monochrom is the best tool I know of for achieving your goal, short of going all in on a medium format or larger sensor.

It is said that because of the way the 40 megapixel Leica M10 Monochrom utilizes its pixel density without undermining it by first converting the image to color and then, in post-production, stripping the color away, it’s the equivalent of a 60 megapixel sensor or even higher. I’m not an engineer, but I can tell you that the detail visible on my computer screen when processing an M10 Monochrom file is like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed. I am just getting a handle on how detailed is what’s rendered by the 47 mp SL2, but early indications are that the M10 Monochrom renders even more visible detail.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summilux

We started with an image from Friday’s lunchtime walk smack into a demonstration in the Nation’s Capital. If properly rendered by Tulip Frenzy, you should be able to see significant detail in the frieze above the nuns — even though the image was shot at only f/5.6. We end with this picture from this afternoon’s New Year parade put on by D.C.’s Chinese community. On my computer screen, I can read the signage on the parade reviewing stand, and glean every nuance of the painted archway. It’s impressive. No, it’s actually pretty amazing!

If black and white photography is why you get out of bed in the morning, the M10 Monochrom is the camera for you.

John Buckley’s images can be found on Instagram @tulip_frenzy.

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