Turtles and Tricycles and Tortion

William Ackerman’s dreams must be difficult to follow, if they have anything to do with his song titles.

I recently found a copy of Ackerman’s first album, “William Ackerman's 'In Search of the Turtle's Navel'In Search of the Turtle’s Navel” and have enjoyed it almost every night since I bought it. A long-time casual fan of the founder of Windham Hill Records, I’ve lately become a bit more active in my appreciation.

Originally released in 1975, the album is composed of ten songs written over the period 1970 to 1974. Peopled with such characters as Windham Mary, Jose Pepsi, and the Pink Chiffon Tricycle Queen, and concepts like the second great tortion bar overland of West Townshend, Vermont and a slow motion roast beef restaurant seduction, these guitar solos have more personality than many single-instrument tunes.

While I find the music of Leo Kottke a bit more accessible, Ackerman frequently sounds like Kottke, but with another dimension, another undiscovered room in the mansion of sound. Such is the case with the opening track, and still my favorite, “The Pink Chiffon Tricycle Queen.” Written in 1973, the liner notes claim that this ‘proves once and for all the speed and dexterity are not enough.’ Whatever that means, there are speed and dexterity aplenty in this Kottke-esque romp. There are also those other things implied in the liner notes – quiet passion, delicate nuance, and a complex time signature which comes and goes like a turtle popping in and out of its shell.

It’s not stated explicitly whether Will ever finds the turtle’s navel. He did find a most remarkable guitarist, ‘the guitarist from outer space’, Michael Hedges, coming soon to an Know Your Music entry near you.

Planet of New Orleans

If you own a radio, chances are you’ve heard bits of Dire Straits‘ eighth album, ‘on every street‘ (they didn’t capitalize it; who am I to correct them?) ‘Calling Elvis’, ‘The Bug’, and ‘Heavy Fuel’ were all heard on commercial radio here in San Diego.

If you don’t own the album, chances are you haven’t heard some of Mark Knopfler’s best writing, and, just as important, arranging.

on every streetDire Straits usually includes at least one longish tune on their albums. ‘on every street’ has three, all of them better examples of what a longer pop tune should be. While I’m a huge fan of Neil Young, Knopfler’s longer songs tend to be more directed, less rambling. Maintaining direction and focus for longer than the traditional three-minute pop tune requires a certain understanding of musical arrangement. Knopfler has it.

The longest cut on the album is the penultimate track, “Planet of New Orleans.” A dream image of a meeting, the consummation of which we’re not privy to, Knopfler allows the saxophone to share the stage throughout, as he’s done on many Dire Straits tracks.

Opening with a slick slidey echoey guitar and some quiet electric piano, the song has a frequent feeling of something mechanical happening in the background; the kind of misplaced-but-perfect percussion we often hear in movie soundtracks. This movie, I like.

None of the guitar solos are guitar-god material, just good solid playing. Mark leaves plenty of room for fellow lutist Guy Fletcher, with a recurring undercurrent of steel guitar added by Paul Franklin.

‘New Orleans’ is arranged well. As one solo ends, the next feels almost inevitable, as if nothing else could have belonged there. The verses are long, the chorus short; the vocals feel more like another instrument, part of the orchestra, than the ‘singing’ part of a rock song. Building from the mysterious, subtle beginning to a large conclusion, ‘Planet of New Orleans’ is worth visiting.

 She took me back to her courtyard where magnolia perfume screams behind the gates and the granite of the planet of New Orleans

Ruby Dan

Early in February 1959 music history changed when Dion DiMucci missed the plane carrying the other musicians with whom he was touring: Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Dion turned in seven top ten singles during 1962 and 1963, one of which was the Lieber/Stoller collaboration “Ruby Baby.” Only 19 years later, Ruby got quite a facelift at the hands of the more vocal half of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen.

Fagen’s Donald Fagen's 'The Nightfly'The Nightfly“, released in 1982, contains seven of Fagen’s own tunes, “Ruby” being the only cover. While Dion’s almost doo-wop, almost rockabilly version fit his times, Fagen makes it timeless as a pure jazz tune. Nearly discordant backing vocals and a piano solo credited to Greg Phillinganes (which sounds to me a lot like Fagen) transform the 60s pop tune into an after hours meeting at your favorite smoky club. Larry Carlton‘s guitar sounds less jazzy, more edgy than you’d expect from him, but fits neatly into the package’s arrangement.

Both of Fagen’s solo albums, “The Nightfly” and “Kamakiriad“, deserve close attention. I’ll spend more time with both in the very near future.

Mountains Come Out of the Sky

For more than 30 years, Jon Anderson of ‘Yes‘ has been telling an ever more detailed story which I’ve always found fascinating. Anderson, known to fans as the poet of the premier prog rock band’s inscrutable lyrics, has woven his tale through a number of the group’s albums, and made it the focus of an entire solo album.

Way back in 1971 the group finally had a mainstream hit with the song “Roundabout.” They had already gotten attention on the album oriented rock stations with works like “The Yes AlbumYour Move/All Good People” and to a lesser extent, “Survival” but it was their fourth album, “FragileFragile“, with its classical bent and almost fractured composition which propelled them into the limelight.

“Roundabout” (presumably referring to what we in the US call a ‘merry-go-round’) has lyrics obscure enough to please any ‘Yes’ fan, but as a pre-teen trying to understand this new music, these lines in the chorus were particularly difficult:

 In and around the lake, Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there

What could that possibly mean? Of course, the writer of the line “the eagle’s dancing wings create as weather spins out of hand” couldn’t be asked to make sense of something as pedestrian as mountains, sky, and lake. Still, it troubled me.

Two years later, my brother bought ‘YessongsYessongs‘, a three-record live set. There in the huge fold-out cover (a foot tall and a full three feet long) was a picture, of, yes, mountains, coming out of the sky. Only these mountains were clearly pieces of a fractured planet; inverted mountains, broad and curved at the top, narrowing to a point at the base. If you’re not familiar with Richard Dean’s artwork, YessongsI’ll say that owning the classic ‘Yes’ albums on vinyl was worth the full cost of each album just for his gloriously surreal planetscapes.

The next chapter in the revelation was the most complete. In 1976 Anderson released a solo album called “Olias of SunhillowOlias of Sunhillow“, performed entirely by Jon and Vangelis. This album told the complete (as it was then) tale of Olias, navigator of the space ship ‘Moorglade Mover’, who helped guide his people from their doomed planet to a new home. The lyrics of the album, along with the cover art, made it clear to me that this was the story Anderson had been telling all along. It’s good to see that this album is available on CD. My old vinyl copy is due for retirement.

Over the next 20 years, the band went through upwards of 13 iterations, at one point becoming essentially two separate bands, reuniting for the aptly titled “UnionUnion.” Finally, after I was grown and had children who, on their own, discovered a band that beautifully blended the classical music they love and respect with the pounding edgy rock they thrive on, Anderson revealed one more chapter. The opening track to “The LadderThe Ladder” is, lo and behold, called “Homeworld.” At first listen, it seems to be about leaving the homeworld, but closer listening reveals that it’s about finding the homeworld. Written in conjunction with a video game of the same story line, the song harkens back to the early days of ‘Yes’, and reminds me why I love music which tells a story.

No matter how long it takes.

Boating With A Finn

Many long years ago, my younger brother introduced me to a really strange album with the really strange name “Waiata.” I discovered before long that it really wasn’t so strange. Eventually, I also found that the band, Split Enz, was founded by two brothers, Neil and Tim Finn.

Over the years they’ve been the forces behind Split Enz and Crowded House, and recorded as The Finn Brothers, as solo acts, and with other performers. In 1992 I stumbled across Tim’s 1986 release “Big CanoeBig Canoe” and it’s been a favorite ever since.

Born in New Zealand, Finn’s music has some of the Celtic rhythym and occasionally obscure lyrics common to Aussie and Kiwi bands. The influences of indigenous music are much subtler than Paul Simon’s “Graceland” but a careful listener will hear them. Finn’s keyboard playing is rarely the star of the song; instead, his carefully phrased vocals give his lyrics the spotlight they deserve. Strong rhythyms from bass and drums play a part in even the quieter tunes, but only grab your attention when it’s their job to do so.

  • “Spiritual Hunger” – The lyrics of this syncopated upbeat opener still mystify me. Tight, short guitar solo.
  • “Don’t Bury My Heart” – A strong string section gives a ‘movie soundtrack’ feel to this ballad of unrequited love. “I was trying to forget the way you smiled when you said goodbye . . .”
  • “Timmy” – About a kid who just can’t stay away from the disco; by the time I heard this song on the radio, I was so used to the Split Enz proto-thrash sound that a nearly disco tune confused me. Now, listening to the trumpet solo and the aggressive soul backing vocals, it’s obvious why Timmy can’t stay home on Saturday night. (Wait; a song about a guy named Timmy, by a guy named Tim; wonder if there’s any connection?)
  • “So Deep” – Are we spiritual animals, or bestial spirits? Most lines are juxtapositions of the beautiful and the beastly:

     A thousand butterflies lifting away, while the hunter pursues his wounded prey . . . 

    It is so deep.

  • “No Thunder, No Fire, No Rain” – From the complex opening guitar and strings, it’s clear this song is has a different attitude from those before it. Martin, a young Maori villager who works in the local chemical plant, is killed in an industrial accident the day of his wedding. no thunder, no fire, no rainThe verses depicting Martin meeting death alternate with the gentle loving picture of his bride-to-be preparing to share his life, tragically ignorant of his death. A stronger native rhythym permeates the song, which ends with a slow sad string section fading to silence.
  • “Carve You in Marble” – For once, the piano stars, creating a beautiful introduction which makes me think of Beethoven, whether or not it is really like his works. Keyboards appear, swirl around, and fade; punctuating this song about immortalizing his love. I for one am glad that Finn sculpts melodies rather than carrera. Although all the references in the lyrics are vague, it has an intimate feeling.
  • “Water Into Wine” – After the grace of “Carve You in Marble” the initial crash of “Water Into Wine” is jarring, which fits the shift in subject matter perfectly. About a class ‘A’ jerk trying to convince his girl that he’s really going to score big this time; “We can make it this time; just tell me we ain’t over yet.” By the end, we’re pretty sure the loser’s brilliant drug-smuggling get-rich-quick scheme (“It’s just like water into wine!”) isn’t convincing anyone, not even himself.
  • “Hyacinth” – If men go crazy for the smell of a deluxe pizza or a thick steak grilling, why is it we expect our women to smell like delicate flowers? Therein lies a mystery I’m no closer to solving than any other man in history.
  • “Big Canoe” – Aboriginal percussion introduces a not-entirely-sad look at the changes wrought on ancient cultures by the encroachment of more ‘advanced’ peoples. The only song I’ve ever heard use the word ‘archipelago’ in its chorus. As the music fades, the percussion comes to the fore, continuing until we’ve got the rhythym firmly in mind, at which point it suddenly becomes the in-your-face electric guitar of
  • “Are We One or Are We Two?” – Guitars nearly flailing, a string section much more aggressive than you might expect, and a poor befuddled erstwhile lover wondering what’s going on here, anyway? As the whole thing collapses in a heap, the final sounds of the album are a pair of drumsticks being tossed across the room, clattering to the floor.

CorroboreeThe CD version includes two extra songs, “Searching the Streets”, with a very interesting jazz/country guitar solo, and “Hole in My Heart”, which does a wonderful job of emulating a 60s love song and still fitting the rest of the album.

Oh yes; “Waiata” is finally available under its original release name, “Corroboree.” Perhaps we’ll revisit it someday; magical tunes like the piano wonder “Albert of India” deserve further scrutiny.

For even more about Tim and company, visit his website, especially the links page.

Like Swallows to Capistrano

Wally’s Swing World returns to the marvelous atmosphere of the Gordon Biersch restaurant in San Jose, California. If you can swing it, you just have to see them in this venue.

 Thursdays July 25th & August 29th Wally's Cocktail Combo Gordon Biersch, San Jose 9:00 p.m. - midnight (408) 294-6785

For more info on the band, check out their very nice website. And for a review of their second album “Full Swing Ahead” see “Loading Dock Dark Alley Swing” right here at Know Your Music.