Thursday, January 03, 2013

ON THE AVENUES: The musical year 2012 (part two).

ON THE AVENUES: The musical year 2012 (part two).

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Purportedly, this second segment of my annual review of music was supposed to be devoted to listings of classical, world music and jazz, as intended to illustrate the sublime well-roundedness of my artistic taste.

This time around, you’ll have to take my word for it, because no new ground was broken in the year recently passed. There was stasis. So it goes. It remains a matter of overt pride and personal enrichment for me that all types of music can be enthralling at any given time, in a certain place, and according to variable moods.

For example, at some undisclosed point each year on a Saturday, I switch on WUOL-90.5 and listen to an opera broadcast from the Met. It doesn’t even matter which opera it is, because I don’t know enough about the genre to be selective. If nothing else, it helps to keep the Marx Brothers satire alive.

Elsewhere, my favorite classical works – medieval music, Smetana, chamber works, Shostakovich – are revisited regularly. These come from my own CD collection, and also via WUOL, for which I am thankful, and need to get back to supporting with some real money in 2013.

My world travel schedule has taken a hiatus in recent years, but music from the remainder of the planet still features regularly on my play list. I browse Internet radio stations and YouTube, delve into the CD collection, and make pairings: Fado for a Port night, or Dengue Fever with Asian cuisine. In fact, the Cambodian-American band’s documentary, “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,” was a 2012 milestone, and I regret coming to it so tardily.

And then there are my first true loves, jazz and swing, the prototypically American musical styles I literally was raised to appreciate. Alas, I have been profligate of late. In 2012, the death of Dave Brubeck probably served as the only reminder of jazz for many observers of the Lady Gaga cohort, and while sad, it’s not unexpected. Perhaps 2013 finally will be the year when I muster the necessary organization to wire the WCTU Reading Room at Bank Street Brewhouse for sound, and begin devoting certain nights entirely to jazz. Or samba. Perhaps Handel or Borodin.

After all, we need listenable diversity.


Last week I reviewed the list of my favorite pop/rock recordings of 2012. One release was purposefully omitted, because while influential in its limited time, I suspect it won’t stand the ultimate test of shelf life, in the sense of music worth returning to again and again. However, I might yet be wrong, and that’s why it’s time to talk a bit about Van Halen.

Early in 2012, there was much fanfare when the group announced a new album, the band’s first since 1984 (both the year and the title) with original singer David Lee Roth, and a tour to follow. I skipped the cash outlay for the tour date in Louisville and bought the CD instead. Interestingly, there was little truly “new” material therein. Rather, the songs were assembled largely from leftover, unused or discarded demos from the heyday of Van Halen during the Reagan Administration, newly recorded for the digital age.

For three weeks straight, I listened to Van Halen’s comeback CD. It made such a profound impression that when I started writing these musical columns in December, I couldn’t even remember the album’s title. Forced to scan the rack for a look see, it came back to me: “A Different Kind of Truth.”

The album isn’t entirely bad, although I’d be guilty of damning Van Halen with faint praise if I were to call it the “best” since the band’s last album with Sammy Hagar in 1993.

Gary Cherone, where have you gone?

There is formulaic filler, reminding the listener of why certain songs were omitted in the first place, but there also are moments of bliss and excellence, as when the lumbering leviathan belatedly gets rolling during Eddie Van Halen’s inspired, throwback solos on the song “Blood and Fire.” Thus was the air guitar duly enabled, back when we were sweaty and utterly shameless.

Eddie still has it, but David Lee’s voice isn’t at all the same, even if he’s crafty like a vaudevillian and adept at concealing vastly reduced range. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the single most noticeable absence is that of former band member Michael Anthony, ingloriously booted by the conspiratorial brothers to make room for Eddie’s son Wolfgang. “A Different Kind of Truth” proves definitively that Anthony’s backing vocals always were an integral part of the band’s sound. Without them, something vital is missing.

So, why will Van Halen still be a memorable presence for me whenever I think back on music in 2012, even if the new album was so-so, and in spite of missing them live? It’s precisely because it compelled me to return to the archive, and to listen again to those first five albums from the band’s original incarnation.

I liked the Van Hagar era, too, but indeed, there was a time when Roth prancing in spandex, screaming, and a grinning Eddie with his axe, shredding, meant quite a lot for the rock oeuvre as a whole. After finishing those five timeless albums, the new release seemed utterly irrelevant. And so collectively we age, gracefully or otherwise.


These intense musical dalliances and re-immersions are hallmarks of my year I music. It always happens. In 2012, there was Van Halen, the “pop” period of Genesis, wonderful recaps of King Crimson and Soft Machine, and two Blu-ray/CD purchases to close the year: Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day” (the 2007 London reunion show with Jason Bonham on drums) and “Hungarian Rhapsody” by Queen, a concert from 1986 in Budapest.

In the days of my youth … it never could be said that I was a Led Zeppelin fan. It may have been a cultural phenomenon, given that the pot smokers in my school milieu steered toward Zepp, while the drinkers listened to the Stones and the Who. Whatever the case, the band’s performance as elder statesmen is quite compelling. Listen to Robert Plant as a lion in winter, wisely reinterpreting his own rock singer legacy, not as a shouter, but as a craftsman.

To view the very epitome of the now-discredited stadium rock genre, rewind to 1986 and revel in the excess as Queen plays the soccer stadium in Budapest, with every movie camera in the entirety of Communist-era Hungary assembled to capture the rare spectacle of a Western concert behind the Iron Curtain.

The film, unreleased until now, is an essential gem, capturing the late, lamented Freddie Mercury and his band mates at their post-Live Aid pinnacle, with interspersed footage of Queen as bemused tourists that chills me to the bone, so redolent of the mood in Budapest just one year later, when I purchased a ticket for $7 and saw Genesis on the very same stage.

As much as seeing Genesis meant to me at the time, after seeing the Queen film these many years later, I’d have happily swapped Phil Collins for Mercury. He was a one-off. Then again, so are we all.

Radio, someone still loves you. But that’s a tale for another time.

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