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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Selling Edith Piaf

By Ty Jenkins
            As a rule, the elders in society have biases against the contemporary culture, and the younger generation, the ways of the past. The Best of Edith Piaf, a career-spanning collection of the cabaret hits from France’s “little sparrow”, is a prime lens through which to view that dynamic in our society. For example, while my parents don’t regard Piaf as the voice of their generation by any means, their feelings toward her are softened by a context in which to place her, maybe as something their parents would have had on the phonograph. My peers on the other hand (most of you reading, maybe) would need a bonafide sales pitch to even stop and look at the album art, so today I think of myself as selling Edith Piaf.
            The form of cabaret, a classy musical showing that makes use of a bar table atmosphere and culture of mingling is completely absent from the popular, and even underground media choices of the young adults of the day so that the elements employed in Piaf’s music are foreign even as they are common. Basically, The Best of Edith Piaf is made up of two prevailing factors: Piaf’s voice, and the accompanying compositions.
            As an American listener the first thing you’ll notice is that Piaf sings and speaks only in French, save the ending of “C’est A’ Hambourg” (“In Hamburg”), in which she says “So long boy, adios amigos” in English (and Spanish obviously) with the same velvet allure you hear in her native tongue. It is that tongue that makes Piaf one of the greatest vocalist of the last century, her command of the sound of the French language as she vocalizes is remarkable even if you’ve no idea about the words themselves. Piaf rolls, rocks, and rides, croons, clocks, and climbs over mountains and through valleys of elegant textual scenery as in the second verse of “C’est L’amour” (“It’s Love”). Piaf’s transmissions of love and lost are so painfully evident that language at times gets in the way, in the literal sound of her voice is a thirty year recording career ended at the age of 47 from liver failure and alcoholism.
            With such power of expression comes a wheel of emotion, happiness and playfulness that underlined by Piaf’s collaboration with the arrangements, these grand, almost mocking compositions. The sound pallet is classical, with strings, upright bass, and scattered pianos in some iteration on every track although the production and composition style vary widely. “La Vie en Rose” (“The Life in Pink” or “Life through rose colored glasses”), the earliest recording on the album and her most famous sounds pasty and archaic despite its splendor and ease to the ear. While other songs have aged well, this composition is Piaf at her stuffiest, like being strapped into a toy rollercoaster that goes on too long. “Les Trois Cloches” (“The Three Bells”) from the same year is a conversation, church hymnal, and messy vocal duet all in one, drowning out the composition almost completely to create something almost experimental for the ear.
            The real experiments came in the next two decades, Piaf’s composers keeping in step with technology resulted in the production of two stunning recordings in 1953 and 1960 respectively, the whimsical “Bravo Pour Le Clown” (“Bravo for the Clown”) and the sprawling Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (“No Regrets”). The latter presents with the most animated Piaf you’ll ever hear, even so the second verse illustrates the sorrow and lowness that is always present:

“For your nose that’s on fire,
Hooray! Hooray!
And your hair filled with feathers,
Hooray! Hooray!
You crack plates
While sitting on a jet of water.
You eat the glitter,
While twisted in a barrel.
For your nose that’s on fire,
Hooray! Hooray!
And your hair filled with feathers,
Hooray! Hooray!

Taken from http://lyricstranslate.com/en/bravo-pour-le-clown-hooray-clown.html#ixzz3GGVFqkKM

Movement and realism paint “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” as an interesting parallel to the beginnings of rock n’ roll despite an adherence to the sound of cabaret. Guitars twinkle and percussion slaps like sheets of paper, a stocky string arrangements dances while Piaf rolls her R’s like magic.
            The entire album is pitted with surprises and even if the compositions might bring you back to days before television and cellular phones, the words are contemporary and striking, whether you understand them or not. The Best of Edith Piaf  is as the back of the album says, underneath a photograph of the singer looking wistfully floorways, “the electrifying voice of a legend”. If you’ve any time for a remarkable predecessor to Mariah Carey, Adele, or Celine Dion, as well as any number of independent female performers for whom vocals are the primary focus, this album is a cold, pure revelation.

* The "About Music" blog is in association with Pangea Music, catch it on Globesville.com from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Thursdays each week. 

Edith Piaf’s 1960 recording of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”:


Monday, October 13, 2014

About Music: "Alt-J’s Sense of Humor"

By Ty Jenkins

I’m the man who was drawn to Alt-J’s second release This is All Yours for the absolute (and possibly only) wrong reason, which is about par for my course.  One of the singles from the fourteen-track effort, the psych ditty “Left Hand Free” has been described as a boon for their radio crowd back home in the U.K., the band describes it as written around a “Joke riff” and “The least Alt-J song ever”
            Having come across the band only in passing during and after their run supporting 2012 debut An Awesome Wave, hearing “Left Hand Free” carried with it the possibility of a new direction that I could very much get behind. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the other 99% of This is All Yours. It is a release that inflects a limitless talent, a variety of interests, and most importantly (indicated aptly by the inclusion of “Left Hand Free” as a single) an insatiable appetite for fun and ways of having it. Despite running to #1 on the U.K. charts and growing attention from the U.S. crowd, the jury is in on better releases to come with This is All Yours serving as a required step for the band.
            There is no doubt that Alt-J knows what it is they like to make in any particular moment, the products speak for themselves, but being the listener I am there is always a worry of eluding to a style or sound as “a joke” in any case except the obvious. My interest then becomes the contemporary rock band (in the steps of Radiohead) in the minds of their fans as inherently more progressive than a new act in the vein of more classical rock n’ roll (say, The Men).We see much the same thing in our society at large, new technologies running amuck through the traditions and institutions of old, only here there is much less difference between the two and crossover is as common as either form at its purest.
            Alt-J plays the part well, the technologists or the young art-rockers misspeaking or pining for radio-play, and in the process lending credibility to those who seek divisions amongst citizens and music fans everywhere. The use of the word “Joke” is its own revelation, highlighting the trio’s remarkable skill as the riff around which the song is built is a catchy one with legs, and colour. The fact that they wrote it specifically for the radio in the U.K. speaks to a multitude of other issues, those that come with releasing under an imprint of Atlantic records. Though I admit I would’ve much rather wasted my time with the Paul Simon debut yet again, something worked correctly. “Left Hand Free” got me into the door where I discovered the wobbly vocals and lakes of orchestration that make up the rest of This is All Yours, which is (depending on how you view it) a fundamentally different experience from the single.
            Whatever they or their fans may think, the greater music press believes firmly that Alt-J is in fact carrying in the footsteps of Radiohead and the many “New Radioheads” before them. Their proficiency, structure, and position are moving them smoothly toward world domination, all I hope is that they never lose their sense of humor.

* The "About Music" blog is in association with Pangea Music, catch it on Globesville.com from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Thursdays each week. 

Below are a few pieces of media that might aid in reading this piece, understanding the album, or just taking up time if you’re bored:

Alt-J’s “Left Hand Free”

Alt-J’s “Hunger of the Pine”

…which features a sample of Miley Cyrus’ “4x4” featuring yes, Nelly.

It’s pointless to pick one song, so here is all of Radiohead’s album Kid A or, where our society is heading…

Paul Simon’s “Armistice Day” from his 1972 post Simon and Garfunkel self-titled debut