On a very brief stroll while in San Diego on business, we were reminded of just how powerful that SoCal light is in the A.M., people walking on a flat surface yet seeming to have to push against it to get anywhere. Good things happen where light meets dark, photographers say, and we were reminded just how much of those contrasting elements West Coast photographers have to play with. We materialize in shadow in the lower right. Leica Monochrom, 35mm Summilux FLE, orange filter.
Archive for April, 2013
Over a span of many years — many, many years — we’ve made playlists from Robyn Hitchcock’s albums, vinyl to cassette tape, CDs to Mini Discs, digital files to iPods and iPads. It’s hard to do a really comprehensive and good list because, Hell’s bells, he’s been at it so long, writing songs at such a consistently high level, that a really good, career-spanning playlist — starting with the Soft Boys in 1980, up to and including the excellent Love From London, which came out earlier this year — you either fill your hard drive with an impossibly long sequence of his 500 songs, or you skip over whole decades (the ’90s weren’t particularly memorable), or you start taking a single song from an album in the ’80s, say Element of Light, and the next thing you know, you’ve included the whole thing, the whole album, defeating your curatorial purpose.
Last night Robyn Hitchcock played D.C.’s 9:30 Club with a band so good that Peter Buck played rhythm guitar — yeah, think of that, the multimillionaire legend from R.E.M. goes out on the road as Hitchcock’s sideman — and his set list was just that sort of perfect playlist that has eluded us. When he strapped on the electric guitar, his long fingers languorously alighting lead notes even as he sang, of course he started with “Kingdom Of Love,” a song first heard when he and Kimberly Rew were giving Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd a run for their money as the best tandem guitar duo in that confused era between punk and post-punk. He closed his set with “Goodnight Oslo,” (sung with some missed high notes, the quality of his voice necessitating the emollient of tea), and we’d be forgiven if we said, Wow, what a span of amazing songs, except “Goodnight Oslo,” which he loves so much he’s recorded it twice — once in English, once in Norwegian — was released first in 2009, and he’s put out three excellent albums since then! Yeah, more than three decades on, Hitchcock’s fountain still bubbles with Byrdsy jangle and folk-rock craftsmanship.
To say he is still going strong understates. To put the timeline in perspective against the quality of music produced, what Hitchcock is doing now would be the equivalent of, say, the Rolling Stones still releasing excellent new music in the late ’90s, right? 33 years on from that first one. The only artist in rock’n’roll music we know who has had/is having such a late phase claim to greatness is Dylan, and unlike Dylan, Hitchcock still has his voice. Even if last night some of those high notes were just out of reach.
We love Love From London, though when it first came out, we thought maybe Goodnight Oslo or 2006’s Ole! Tarantula were a bit better. We’ve since reconsidered. Last night, playing the wonderful “I Love You” and “Fix You,” Hitchcock reminded us just how great that album is. He limited himself to two songs from the new album because, clearly, even he has trouble choosing the great songs to offer, and it’s a zero-sum game, if he’d taken too many songs from Love From London, he wouldn’t have been able to give us “Element of Light,” or maybe “Underground Sun.” (On the latter, the band did something so charming… having forgotten the bridge, after they ended the song, they remembered what they’d left off, started up again, and played the bridge!) He wouldn’t have given us “Madonna of the Wasps” or “Adventure Rocket Ship” or “N.Y. Doll.”
He came back with an encore consisting of, get this, “I’m Waiting For the Man,” followed by Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing,” followed by “She Said She Said” and “Eight Miles High.” Well, did we mention that Peter Buck was in his band. Brilliant. A complete gem of an encore package, missing only, like, “Parachute Woman” to have hit ’60s evocation nirvana.
And now, having heard the set last night, maybe we have our dream playlist, at once a concise distillation of Hitchcock’s greatness, and a reminder that it’s really just a taste of this most satisfying career.
A few weeks ago, we posted a review with some of the backstory on how it came to be, more than 30 years hence, that Wire would record in a studio many of the songs first released in 1981’s mess of a live album, Document and Eyewitness. Change Becomes Us is a really interesting album, judged strictly by the standards of contemporary music. That it actually comprises a baker’s dozen songs that were meant to be Wire’s follow-up to their opus 154, which came out in 1979, makes it all the more remarkable.
What we did not know three weeks ago — what we did not know many years ago, when we were assigned by Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) to review Wire’s posthumous mess of a live album — was that after the band had released, in 154, probably the most accomplished record of that ephemeral post-punk era, EMI dropped them from the label! The artsy/sloppy implosion that took place on the stage of the Electric Ballroom, and at Notre Dame Hall, captured on Document and Eyewitness, was the result of a band that had just produced a masterpiece yet suddenly had no place to stand. Their vulnerability, which led not only to a wildly unsuccessful show, but to the band’s demise (they reformed again in 1985, and a few times since, and as of this moment, are a thriving concern) came from having the rug pulled out from under them by EMI. The bastards.
In Mike Barnes’ excellent liner notes to the just-arrived-courtesy-of-the-Royal-Mail deluxe CD, the story is told thusly:
“Crucially, Wire’s record label, EMI, decided not to renew their contract option, and having survived on advances, the group were now label-less and penniless. They had been approached by Factory Records, but couldn’t agree on terms. They had also recently endured a spectacularly mismatched European tour supporting Roxy Music, who by then were well into their airbrushed easy-listening phase. The group had to effectively pay out of their EMI advance for the pleasure of this exposure to audiences who largely hated them. They had also parted company with their manager. Thoroughly disenchanted with the music business, Wire decided it was time to give their willful side free reign.”
It, uh, didn’t work out, at least not then, judging from the boos to be heard on Document and Eyewitness, and the album itself was, we wrote at the time, a disaster.
And now they are back, having reworked those songs 33 years later, and it sounds magnificent. Maybe they were just thirty years ahead of their time…
Leica Monochrom, 50mm Noctilux.
Last fall, when the Leica Monochrom was issued, we spent hours in The Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral, documenting the people who visited everyday. Our collection of images was meant to convey a unique urban oasis in black and white, which given how riotously colorful the flowers are there in September, was a lesson in reducing what our camera saw to luminosity, not chroma. After spending part of an early afternoon taking pictures of tulips in their most colorful (after)frenzy, we took a monochrome-only camera to The Bishop’s Garden, and were reminded, once again, of how black and white photography reduces images to their essentials.