Leonard Cohen: Live in Dublin

“Are you humoring me?” asks Leonard Cohen with a warm grin shortly after the first intermission of Live in Dublin, a new concert film and triple album captured in September 2013 at the Irish venue now known as 3Arena. He’s partway into “Tower of Song”, originally from 1988’s I’m Your Man, where he plinks out a rudimentary keyboard solo over canned percussion, in between vocals about Hank Williams a hundred floors above him and being “born with the gift of a golden voice.” He adds, “If these are the crumbs of compassion that you offer to the elderly, I am grateful.”

If audiences have been humoring Cohen, who was 79 then and is 80 now, for his age, they’ve been doing it for decades; on “Tower of Song”, he also admits to having an “ache in the places where I used to play.” In fact, Live in Dublin is only the latest live album since Cohen returned to the road in 2008, having been swindled out of his savings by a manager. He previously released the closely similar CD/DVD collection Live in London, documenting a show from that first year of touring. And there was 2010’s Songs From the Road, compiling a somewhat different set of songs from various 2008-2009 performances. Whether Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979, Cohen Live (drawing from 1988 and 1993 tours), or Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, live material from the supposedly not-so-golden-voiced songwriting giant is hardly lacking.

There’s still plenty to recommend on Live in Dublin—in all earnestness, at that. For one, though Live in London has shipped more than 200,000 copies worldwide, odds are that for many who might like this package it will be their first live Cohen recording. Besides, compared with the already-magnificent London set it adds several songs that wound up on 2012 studio album Old Ideas, making this a closer to exhaustive document of the perhaps no-longer-touring artist’s legacy; though you’ll probably get more replay value out of the audio component, the quality of the video—billed as Cohen’s first to be shot in high-definition—is a noticeable improvement. Mostly, though, anyone curious about Live in Dublin might at least want to stream the audio or rent the video because, whatever similar releases came before, it’s one monumental tower of a song.

Nothing here changes the foundations of Cohen’s narrative, but as with any archetypal legend, it’s made for retelling. The Jewish-Buddhist poet from Montreal whose songs are often best known through others’ covers reminded crowds on his money-making tours that—despite a perhaps overstated reputation for aloofness (watch him doing standup comedy in 1965’s Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen)—he’s a gifted and generous interpreter of his own work. His speak-singing style has grown deeper and gruffer, but not unbecomingly so, particularly amid so much use. His songs, as former backup singer Jennifer Warnes once told the author of a 1994 Cohen biography, aim to reach “the place where God and sex and literature meet,” but his work since returning has had mostly just the artist’s advancing years in common with death’s-door albums such as Bob Dylan‘s Time Out of Mind or Johnny Cash‘s (Cohen-covering) albums with Rick Rubin. He’s still more of the darkly humorous standup comedian. Yes, he skips off stage.

For all the talk of literature that attaches itself to Cohen, it’s striking when digesting his work at such great length how greatly he prizes the concept of song. His most famous composition, “Hallelujah”, in a verse left out of the Shrek-immortalized John Cale (and thus Jeff Buckley) versions but kept in here, envisions standing “before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”; toward the end of the Dublin encore, he refers to the joy of being “united with you in the spirit of song.” Whether on 1967’s “Suzanne”, where “you touched her perfect body” (but only “with your mind”), or 1974’s “Chelsea Hotel #2”, where “we are ugly but we have the music,” physical reality can be a flawed vessel for this spirit. On “Anthem”, a song from 1992’s The Future that featured on Trent Reznor‘s Natural Born Killers soundtrack and precipitates Cohen’s first traipse off the Dublin stage, he sings, “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” Perfection is impossible, he explained around the time of song’s release, noting that imperfection is “where the resurrection is.”

Cohen’s fatalism doesn’t prevent him from at least striving toward perfection. Longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, who sang backup during the recent shows along with English duo the Webb Sisters, in her new photograph book On Tour with Leonard Cohen describes the concerts as a “detailed snapshot” of Cohen’s life’s work, “meticulously put together” and requiring “a Zen-like focus.” The virtuosity of the backing band, which includes an additional six musicians along with the singers, is a further expression of Cohen’s graciousness onstage. Despite the self-conscious artifice of “Tower of Song”, the rest of the performances are based in rootsier music, whether American folk, rock, jazz, and blues or European traditions (Spanish guitarist Javier Mas also plays lesser-known instruments including the bandurria, the laud, and archilaud). Cohen’s willingness to stretch his songs to their limits with instrumental and vocal solos means these concert recordings can’t be as lean as 2002’s The Essential Leonard Cohen—the Dublin set consists of 30 songs lasting about three hours, and the video portion adds three Old Ideas tunes performed in Canada—but in ringing the bells that still can ring, it’s perhaps truer to Cohen’s philosophy.

One more aspect setting Live in London apart from studio Cohen was his joyful interaction with the audience, and if anything that has intensified on Dublin. By the encore’s opening “So Long, Marianne”, he’s eliding words in the chorus as if startled by the crowd’s jubilant belting of the 1967 song; “You sing so pretty,” he says. And much as Cohen is willing to trust his songs to cover artists and to world-class bandmates, he also brings “the spirit of song” by closing the night with someone else’s: “Save the Last Dance for Me”, most famously recorded by the Drifters in 1960 (none other than Lou Reed worked with Doc Pomus, who cowrote the song with Mort Shuman, and Reed has said the song was written on the day of the wheelchair-bound, polio-stricken Pomus’s wedding, to a Broadway actress and dancer). By this point in the recording, my first time experiencing the concert, I was expecting something sublime, and that’s what I got, though not in the way I expected: The stage lights shine on the audience members, who do much of the hook-singing work for Cohen. Forget your perfect offering.

Cohen is a genially commanding stage presence, falling on his knees at crucial moments and doffing his cap for his accompanists’ solo turns. The Old Ideas songs, sprinkled throughout the set at just the right intervals, are naturally at home, capped with the wry God-speaking-to-a-man-named-Leonard “Going Home”. Otherwise, the songs you know and plenty of songs you should know better are probably here. There’s the apocalyptic The Future title track and the organ-drenched take on 1969’s “Bird on the Wire”, the smoldering Robinson co-write “In My Secret Life”, off of 2001’s Ten New Songs, and same pair’s bleak 1988 I’m Your Man collaboration “Everybody Knows” (used by Guns N’ Roses as  intro music on some Use Your Illusions shows). I’m Your Man‘s disco-funk “First We Take Manhattan”, covered by backup singer Warnes with Stevie Ray Vaughan as part of her influential 1987 tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat, runs right into a powerfully restrained take on that album’s title track, originally from 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate (“Sincerely, a friend,” Cohen signs off this time).

Paradoxically, on the songs at greatest risk of overexposure, it’s often the instrumental interludes, not Cohen’s poetry, that make my hair stand on end, further justifying the songwriter’s faith. This is especially the case for “Hallelujah”, bringing to mind another less-covered lyric—one that underscores where Cohen differs from the trickster likes of Dylan: “I’ve told the truth/ I didn’t come to fool you.” For the last time, no, the good people of Dublin weren’t humoring him. There might not be a single perfect, all-encompassing Cohen recording, but there’s this. “You can add up the parts/ But you won’t have the sum,” he sings on “Anthem”, and despite his failed tax-avoidance retirement strategy, I’m inclined to trust the Zen priest in the bolo tie and fedora.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1vN1uyD

Various Artists: Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985

The members of the Canadian rock group Sugluk saw their small, remote village electrified in more ways than one. Located in the northernmost tip of Quebec, just outside the Arctic Circle, their town—previously called Sugluk as well—consisted primarily of tents and igloos, with the first few permanent structures and power lines added in the 1960s. Even after that initial modernization, most teenagers traveled down to Kuujjuarapik or even as far south as Quebec City for school. The four musicians returned home with loads of pop records by the Beatles, Hendrix, and others, which they used as textbooks to teach themselves how to play their instruments and write their own songs. Soon they were playing community dance halls around the region, and their reputation grew to the point that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recruited them to record two 7″ singles in 1975. That remains the extent of their catalog, although Sugluk continued touring into the 1980s and reunited in 2013.

Of their handful of extant tracks, three are included on Light in the Attic’s new comp Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985. Those songs show a band developing an identity even as it stamps popular folk-rock with its own personal flourish. “Fall Away” opens with a thundering drum fill and a shaky one-note bass groove, setting the stage for singer George Kakayuk’s bittersweet tale of thwarted romance. The song has the folksy grit of Neil Young, but the rambunctious energy of the Flamin’ Groovies. Guitarist Tayara Papigatuk takes over on “I Didn’t Know”, which sounds so loose and rambling the rhythm section might be the only thing holding it together. Showing their range, “Ajuinnarasuarsunga” (which translates from Inuktitut as “I Tried Hard”) is a folksier number defined by the band’s careful harmonies and a lovely piano rambling in the background. “Though the band was not 100 percent satisfied with these raw one-take recordings,” writes Kevin “Sipreano” Howes in the Native North America liner notes, “they remain one of the earliest examples of original Inuit rock music recorded in Canada and carry an exceptional spiritual weight.”

If Sugluk emerge as one of the stars of Native North America, it’s largely because you can hear a very particular struggle in their songs—not necessarily to be heard by a mainstream audience, but to define themselves through some combination of Native American culture and popular music. That endeavor to some degree informs every song here, as artists from all over Canada calibrate their own equations for personal expression. Some, like the group Sikumiut, sound like they could play shows alongside Young or Joni Mitchell. Others, like Morley Loon and Shingoose, barely nod to pop music at all. But almost everyone on Native North America writes and sings about the impulse to both imitate others and distinguish oneself. Gordon Dick, a member of the Lil’wat Nation and a self-taught guitarist, even gives a name to this music: “I dreamed I was in a rock group, playing on a Saturday night. Our name wasn’t like the Beatles, but I found an old Indian name: Siwash Rock.”

Native North America might have easily buckled under the weight of good intentions. Howes, a Toronto-based vinyl collector, DJ, and blogger, spent years scouring record stores and flea markets all over Canada to locate these rare records, then tracked down and researched the unsung artists behind them. That process by itself is important, as it provides valuable information on lesser-known chapters in the history of Canadian rock, but that alone doesn’t ensure a 2xCD/3xLP set, much less the first in what appears to be a multi-volume series, will be listenable or engaging as anything other than an artifact. Fortunately, Howes does not conflate the idea of the music—its origins, its politics, or its import—with the music itself. He has curated the tracklist not only to emphasize the diversity of the artists and their ideas, but to reveal the vibrancy and energy of this large and largely undocumented scene.

Native North America likewise shows the extent to which popular music welcomes and nourishes marginalized perspectives; the form is endlessly adaptable and fundamentally democratic—even when democracy itself is not. Most of these artists faced prejudice or hardship of varying severity, which naturally informed their music. “Police they arrest me, materialists detest me,” Willie Dunn sings on “I Pity the Country”. “Pollution it chokes me, movies they joke me.” The impression is one of forced isolation, as though society has stripped away every refuge that might comfort the singer—except music, that is. It’s a startling opener to the comp, especially since Dunn’s steadfast voice conveys resignation more than anger. He’s not fighting the system, but pitying the sad men who perpetuate their own unhappiness.

“I Pity the Country” is not too different from the politically-motivated folk, rock, and country coming out of the North American mainstream at that time. Many of the artists on Native North America were weaned on early country & western, in particular the lonesome ballads of Hank Williams, but their music has more in common, both sonically and politically, with that of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash (whose 1964 album Bitter Tears looms large over this set, even if it is never mentioned). Tribal drums become a rock’n’roll rhythm section on Lloyd Cheechoo’s “James Bay” and “Tshekuan Mak Tshetutamak” by Groupe Folklorique Montagnais, a powerful means of announcing the artists’ aboriginal roots. The Chieftones (who billed themselves as “Canada’s All Indian Band”) kick off “I Shouldn’t Have Did What I Done” with a drum pattern practically quoted from some cheesy old Hollywood Western, but it turns out to be more than just a marketing ploy as the band’s energetic garage-rock attack subverts any expectation of stoicism associated with Aboriginal stereotypes.

The idea of pop music as a means of presenting oneself to the world gives Native North America some cohesion despite the range of ethnicities, geographies, and genres represented in its tracklist. The comp celebrates those distinctions even if it can’t quite underscore them, which means the extensive liner notes become a crucial guide for listening. A problem that affects so many compilations becomes especially acute: You not only want to hear more songs by these artists, but also want to hear more songs in their original context. How did Willy Mitchell expand on the folksy urgency of “Call of the Moose” for his 1981 album Sweet Grass Music? Does the rest of the Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys’ material sound as good as the Ventures-meets-Buckaroos “Modern Rock”? And what about the 1981 comp Goose Wings: The Music of James Bay, which includes tunes by Lawrence Martin, Lloyd Cheechoo, and Brian Davey? Of course, stoking your curiosity about underrepresented artists only means Native North America is doing its job.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1r7mZdm