Thursday, May 26, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Who is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole?

You've probably only heard Israel (a. k. a. Iz) Kamakawiwo'ole's most famous song, "Somewhere over the Rainbow," on TV commercials or in a handful of movies. The tune features Iz's gorgeous vocal accompanied only by his solo ukulele. My love of his version of the classic song is second only to Judy Garland’s original from The Wizard of Oz.

Iz recorded the song twice. The longer version combines Garland's classic with Louis Armstrong’s "It's a Wonderful World" and it's the one I prefer. The shorter track features just "Rainbow" without Armstrong’s hit. Recently, the song rode to the top of the charts in Germany even though it was first recorded for his 1993 CD, Facing Future. By selling 1,000,000 copies it is the first album in history by a Hawaiian artist to achieve platinum status.

I became fascinated with Hawaiian music during my vacation there two years ago and I listened to more than a little bit of Iz on CDs I found in souvenir shops. He possessed a beautiful tenor voice but unfortunately the thing that prevented me from purchasing one of his discs is the fact that he rarely sung in English. Most of his songs were recorded in his native tongue so I waited until I got home and downloaded "Rainbow" from iTunes.

Iz was an important figure beloved by Hawaiians. He was very active politically and was prominent in the movement that continues to push for independence for the former island nation that was annexed by The United States in the 19th century. (We're not talking politics here so if you are interested in this chapter of American history there is plenty on the web for you to read.)

Sadly, Iz was a very huge man and he died in 1997 at age 38 due to severe health problems brought on by his extreme obesity. At his peak he weighed over 757 pounds. The singer was so loved that his body laid in state in the Hawaiian State Capitol building in Honolulu. Only two other people have ever been given that honor and he was the first person to receive it who wasn't a politician. The state flag was flown at half mast. Reportedly, 10,000 mourners attended his funeral.

Iz's musical legacy was his voice, and while the sight of this Everest sized human strumming a very tiny, guitar-like instrument is almost incongruous, there is no denying the special gift belonging to one of the tropical paradise's most revered artists.

Despite the Hawaiian legend's recent, posthumous success in Europe and his god-like status in the fiftieth state it's unfortunate that, while we may be somewhat familiar with his most famous song, most American Mainlanders do not know the man's name.

Listen to Iz sing the medley here. The "Rainbow" only version can be found on his official website.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Beatles - The Beatles (1968)

The Beatles (a. k. a. The White Album) was supposed to lead off part four of Bloggerhythms series reviewing all of The Beatles’ albums chronologically by era. However, this review grew in length beyond my original intentions, so now it will be handled as a separate posting.

The dissension that would eventually tear the group apart began on the very first day of the sessions for this huge double LP. The fighting caused Ringo Starr to temporarily quit the band, forcing Paul McCartney to play drums on "Back in the USSR" and "Dear Prudence." Frequently the quartet didn’t even function as a cohesive unit. They recorded their parts separately or with one member playing all of the instruments on a song themselves.

The White Album contains twenty-nine songs and one freaky, annoying sound collage. It is simultaneously The Beatles' best and worst set of music. Many people have said, and George Martin was among them, that there were enough great songs to release an outstanding single LP rivaling both Revolver and Rubber Soul in substance. Looking back on Martin's comments all these years later I have to say that he was correct.

Much of The White Album was composed in India and some of the stuff (i.e. "Birthday") was written off the cuff in the studio. The complicated psychedelic productions of the previous year were nowhere to be found. These new arrangements were much simpler, sparser, often more heartfelt, and easier to digest. Even the plain, white LP cover signaled an end to the pretentiousness of the Pepper era.

After we eliminate the obvious wastes of album space: John Lennon's "Revolution 9," as well as McCartney's "Wild Honey Pie,"” and "Why Don’t We Do It In The Road," and silliness such as "Martha My Dear," and Lennon’s "Good Night" sung by Starr, The White Album is loaded with some of The Beatles' best songs. In addition to the outstanding "USSR" and "Prudence" side one gives us one of George Harrison’s all time classics, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," complete with Eric Clapton’s wailing solo. The very strange and unique, "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is also a highlight. Side two continues the diversity. John Lennon's "I’m So Tired," his solo acoustic performance of "Julia," and a typically beautiful McCartney ballad, "I Will," are all standouts. Side three contains some of the loudest and hardest rocking music The Beatles ever put on vinyl. "Yer Blues" references Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," and Starr bangs out some great cowbell on "Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey." Those people who insist on crediting The Beatles with every musical innovation even believe they invented heavy metal with "Helter Skelter." (They didn't.) Great harmonies abound on "Sexy Sadie." "Cry Baby Cry" and "Savoy Truffle" anchor side four.

Despite its unevenness, and the fact they were a mess all during its sessions, The White Album has always been one of my favorite Beatles’ creations. Perhaps the reason is the two discs contain a little bit of everything popular music offered the world at the time: mainstream pop, hard rock, folk music, country, politics, and even some weirdness. It’s not a cohesive set of tunes by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a wonderful hodge-podge of styles that show how talented these guys still were, even when distracted.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Slower Than Slow: 16 RPM Records

Have you ever heard of a long forgotten vinyl format, the 16 2/3 RPM record? They were half the speed of the 33 1/3 RPM albums that were the traditional standard for recorded music. Most record players in the 1950s and 1960s came with a speed setting to play these long forgotten discs that were considered novelties even during the years they were available.

Because most, but not all, 16s had big holes and were 7" in diameter many of them were mistaken for 45 RPMs and at that size the speed allowed for up to 20 minutes of playing time per side. However, there was no true standard size and they were also manufactured to be 9, 10, or 12 inches in diameter and these larger records played even longer. Just like the other speeds and formats 16s could be played one record at a time or stacked on a changer for continuous play.

16 RPM records were too slow for proper high fidelity sound. Because good quality reproduction was not possible they were mostly used as outlets for the spoken word although there were some exceptions. (For example, see this label from a 16 RPM Miles Davis disc on the Prestige label).

Radio stations often used the dics for pre-recorded radio shows containing interviews, dramas, and documentaries.  More frequently they became the first "Talking Books" for the blind.  Pictured at the top, left, is a 16 RPM record of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine narrated by actor Dan O'Herlihy.

The famous Seeburg 1000 was a record player that was used exclusively to play background music in offices and restaurants. The system used 16 RPM discs that were 9 inches in diameter and could be stacked on traditional 45 RPM spindle adapters. The records for this system were monaural and could play up to 40 minutes per side. Because the Seeburg's usage was strictly intended for background music the sound quality was not a major concern. You can find out a lot more details on this subject here.

Finally, believe it or not, Chrysler Corporation created Highway Hi-Fi, an audio format that enabled the 16 RPM records to be played in their cars from 1956 to 1958. The system employed a sapphire stylus with a ceramic pick up on a turntable that was installed below the instrument panel. A record player installed in a car? Yes, it really happened. Here is the Wikipedia article about it should you be interested in learning more.

It is obvious why the format died. Cassettes came along allowing people to listen to books in their cars or while jogging around town. Broadcasters also discovered superior sounding and more efficient ways to solve their transcription needs but, for a brief era, the 16 RPM record served a specific and useful purpose.

Even back in their heyday 16s were hard to find because most of them were manufactured for commercial usage only. Many retail outlets who sold records didn't even bother to keep them in stock. I have never seen one nor do I know anyone who ever owned one.  Have any of you ever had the pleasure?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Dave Shiflett and Friends - From The First Time (2011)

Folk singer and songwriter Dave Shiflett is employed as a critic for Bloomberg News. He also writes for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. He has published several books including one with Donald Trump, The America We Deserve. Shiflett just completed a novel and is currently looking for an agent but, as is often the case, his new album, From The First Time, has been released to the world on his website without any assistance whatsoever. For music lovers like me that is a good thing.

From The First Time is Shiflett's fifth CD. He has released earlier works under his own name and as the leader of two bands, Floor Creak and The Karma Farmers.

Shiflett's voice is not powerful but he has a pleasant delivery that fits the songs quite well. The arrangements are driven by acoustic guitars that are often joined by percussionists, violins, mandolins, and any other light accompaniment the situation calls for. He writes tuneful works that should hold your interest.

The fact that the songwriter is also a novelist is an indication that the seven offerings on the album are literate and worth listening to. On "Let's Go Walking Around" he desires to show Dulcinea around town and "maybe see Don Quixote chasing his dream through the clouds, singing to his Dulcinea – singing her name out loud." How often do you hear references to these two classic fictional characters referred to in pop music? The answer is not very often and that makes the song refreshing and a bit artful without being pretentious.

The more direct and harder hitting "Seven Days From Birmingham" reveals the thoughts and the heartbreak of losing a twenty-two year old son in a war while a couple who are presumably his parents are driving across the country. Because Shiflett does not take any kind of political stance both hawks and doves can appreciate the song. The track is more about grief and loss than it is about politics and war even though he sings "Now we know what war can do so we’ll drive until we find a better day."

While there are more tracks with interesting wordplay Shiflett never overwrites his material making his latest a very nice outing from an unknown talent.

You can purchase From The First Time on Shiflett's website where you can here samples of the rest of his music.