Archive for March, 2007

Chet Baker—too cool, indeed

March 21, 2007

Chet Baker: Too Cool

baker_too_cool.jpg

I was going to write about jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman this week, but yesterday a package arrived from my friend Picture Boy [A.K.A. Rich Meyer of Swell Advertising in St. Louis, the guy who designed the Blue Kitchen masthead for me]. In it was this wonderful CD.

The fifteen tracks on this disk, a mix of instrumentals and vocals, all come from the 1950s, when Baker was at the top of his game and helping define the West Coast style of jazz. While I’m generally a bigger fan of New York’s be-bop and hard bop sound from the same era, there is something undeniably cool about the West Coast sound, especially as practiced on these tracks.

Baker’s trumpet playing helps me understand what Picture Boy means when he talks about the warmth of the trumpet. A lot of beautiful solos on this collection—as with most West Coast jazz, they invite you into the groove rather than challenging you to keep up as be-bop sometimes does.

And then there are the vocals. Sweet, wispy, quiet. I listen to a lot of college radio here [Chicago commercial radio pretty much universally sucks, but that’s a topic for another time]. I once heard a jazz DJ on Northwestern University’s WNUR introduce a Chet Baker tune this way: “Some people don’t think Chet Baker had a great singing voice. Well, they’re wrong.” What a perfect statement. No explanations, no apologies. This disk includes his signature tune, My Funny Valentine—it is indeed wonderful. But for my money, his take on But Not For Me outshines it.

The disk, produced by Starbucks’ Hear Music, is a visual treat too. The 16-page liner notes booklet includes moody black and white photos that showcase Baker’s “matinee idol” looks before his ongoing heroin addiction ravaged him. And they give you plenty of background both on the music and the artist.

Too Cool, too cool. Thanks, PB.

Rock & roll, LOUD and raw

March 14, 2007

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

yeahyeahyeahs2.jpg

My tastes in a lot of things trend toward rough edges and a raw, unpolished, unfinished quality. Maybe that’s why I find this self-titled, five-song EP by the New York trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs so much more appealing than their more polished, more commercial recent album Show Your Bones.

It’s not that this 2002 release sounds low-fi or underproduced in its production values. It’s the music itself, both the lyrics and the garage-tinged sound. Stripped down and heavy on distortion, the music masks a satisfying complexity at times that keeps it from being repetitive. And Karen O’s vocals go from sweet pop to haunting to full out screaming, on a dime. Dark, sexy and smartass, their music has an over-the-top attitude that makes the best rock & roll feel dangerous and makes you feel cooler just listening to it.

I saw them touring pre-record deal, when this EP was all they had to hawk. It was an amazing show, constantly dancing on the edge of flying out of control as Karen O and guitarist Nick Zinner careened around the postage stamp stage of the Fireside Bowl. There’s a knowing quality to the over-the-topness, and the audience is in on it. But you don’t care, because everyone is having such a sweaty, LOUD good time—and because the band is delivering killer lyrics like this, from Mystery Girl:

The girl hit hard like a barracuda, baby,
She floated on air like the crest of a wave.
She was a primal institution, she was a danger to herself.
A night of lovin’ by the coldhearted.
Take a deep breath because we just started.

When Show Your Bones came out in 2006, I heard a track on the radio that felt like the early stuff and bought the CD on the strength of that track. It’s good solid music, an evolution from where they started into something that could bring broader commercial success for the group. But it’s too polished for my taste—especially when I’ve heard just how wonderfully unpolished they can be.

A little side note on walking the walk: About the time of this EP, various record companies got into a major bidding war to sign the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, going to obscene lengths to court them. I remember reading in New York magazine about some record exec picking up a £1,600 bar tab after a night of drinking in some London club.