Lou Reed earned the prestige he holds as an arty badass of rock’s senior order. His best albums—Berlin and Metal Machine Music, chief among them—endure as testaments to the value of an ill temperament, intelligently applied. Once an undergraduate student of Delmore Schwartz, Reed has always hid a literate sensibility beneath the leathery surfaces of both his music and his public image. Still, the legitimacy of his standing as a canonical figure in rock does not legitimize something as feeble and malformed as Lulu, the new concept album he made with Metallica.
Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection Sony Music More than thirty stars of contemporary or recent-vintage pop, rock, and country music sing with Tony Bennett on his two CDs of cross-generational collaborations, Duets and Duets II, the second of which was released shortly after Bennett’s eighty-fifth birthday last summer. The albums are narratives of pilgrimage. Most of the guest singers, who include Lady Gaga and Faith Hill, are young or youngish; and the oldish ones, such as Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin, are considerably younger than the singer who brought them together.
Who led the transformation of American popular music, the movement away from the refined formality of the Tin Pan Alley age toward the earthy vernacularism that we associate with the rock era? We think of Dylan, of course, and of Elvis before him, and when we scrunch our brows to remember their predecessors, we tend to come up with the names of figures we have come to think of as canonical: Woody Guthrie in folk music, Robert Johnson in blues.
Like the Victorian spirits and sci-fi demons who haunt her songs, Kate Bush has a way of drifting away and reappearing just when you had almost forgotten about her. After her spectacular arrival as a pensive and sensual woman-child of art pop in the 1980s, she recoiled, gave up touring, focused on recording, and fell into a pattern of retreat and return that she has kept up for decades now.
With our brains set on “shuffle,” programmed now to process (if not to crave) a constant barrage of random sounds and images, a quartet such as the Four Bags no longer seems like the desperately jokey novelty it would have seemed like a decade ago. The group is a chamber ensemble making music in the era-defining category of the uncategorizable, its work a hybrid of jazz, classical, folk, and pop musics from around the world. Exuberant, virtuosic, and light-spirited, the Four Bags make smart music with a quiet, joyful intensity.
My late mother, bless her, prodded me to write better by withholding her approval, and I’m grateful to her for that in the same way that Philip Roth should be thankful to the Nobel committee. He and his admirers (and I’m one of them) might not have been able to enjoy the considerable pleasures of Roth’s late-career burst of ambition and prolificacy if he had not been fixated on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I wouldn’t want to be Jon Weber. He is a jazz pianist of superhuman ability; he has an encyclopedic command of music history (and not just jazz history, but classical and rock history, as well); and he plays well with others, as he has shown not only in the clubs but in the radio interviews with fellow musicians that he has done as one of the main back-up hosts of the long-running NPR radio series Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Earlier this year, NPR announced that McPartland, now 93, would no longer be taping new programs.
A musical duet is no less susceptible to power dynamics than any other intimate collaboration between two partners. In creative terms, someone is usually on top. Even when figures of virtually equal standing join up, as Kanye West and Jay-Z did recently with their extravagantly produced and even more extravagantly hyped match-up, Watch the Throne, it’s usually clear that one—in this case, Kanye—exerted more influence, if not quite dominance, over the other.
Musicians, like gods and sci-fi writers, play with time at the peril of their work. Because music falls on our ears in real time, and also because we have a cardio-vascular metronome set to 4/4, we are physiologically predisposed to music with a steady beat. We generally respond best to songs that, like us, have a pulse. When we are confronted with rhythms broken up in uneven parts, they tend to strike us as unnatural or jarringly cerebral—or both, if we’re anti-intellectually inclined to think of stimulus to the mind, rather than the body, as abnormal.
Duke Ellington, asked once in a TV interview about the music of his people, bridled at the question and improvised a riff on the fluidity of identity. "Let's see—'my people,'" Ellington said, feigning puzzlement. "Now, which of my people? You know, I'm in several groups. I'm in—let's see... I'm in the group of piano players. I'm in the group of listeners.