Essential Music: Faith by The Cure

In a discussion today with a colleague about music, I recalled the wonderful years in the late 70s and early 80s when discovering new music was so different than it is now. One discovered music in “record stores” where one would flip through bins of “LPs” or “albums,” and, if one was lucky, one could ask purveyor of the store to play part of a record.

I was interested in obscure music, and, for a few years, my life was similar to that described in High Fidelity (both the book and the movie). I was friends with a guy who worked in a small record store in Jamaica, New York, and would go there and hang out after getting off the subway on my way home from work. There would be a few of us – a gnarly crowd, as in High Fidelity – all interested in the new wave music coming from the UK.

This was a time of small labels, and one of the bands we discovered at the time was The Cure. First through their UK-only release Three Imaginary Boys, then their first US release – a compilation of songs from Three Imaginary Boys and from some singles, called Boys Don’t Cry, which features that wonderful Camus-inspired song Killing an Arab. Later, the band morphed from a pop-ish post-punk band to a more gloomy sound with Seventeen Seconds, which had more “production” and a darker, euro-synth sound.

Finally, in 1981, came Faith, arguably the band’s finest album. Opening with the gray Holy Hour, it shifted back to the rhythmic pop of the early Cure with Primary, which highlighted the many wonderful short melodic phrases that made up the band’s early sound. Next come Other Voices (with hints of Joy Division) and All Cats are Grey, with a darker sound, yet stronger rhythm, and that ended side 1. (Remember when albums had sides?)

Side two features four gloomier songs: The Funeral Party, with lush vocals and a dirge-like tempo; Doubt, a fast-paced guitar-and-drums song, with very gruesome lyrics; The Drowning Man, a brilliantly minimalist guitar riff track, and probably the second-best song on the album; this track is based on Mervyn Peakes “The Gormenghast Trilogy.”

Finally, we get to the title track, Faith, a dirge. The final song is, perhaps, the band’s most powerful track, culminating what is a dark yet somehow optimistic album.

Catch me if I fall
I’m losing hold
I can’t just carry on this way
And every time
I turn away
Lose another blind game
The idea of perfection holds me
Suddenly I see you change
Everything at once
The same
But the mountain never moves

Rape me like a child
Christened in blood
Painted like an unknown saint
There’s nothing left but hope
Your voice is dead
And old
And always empty
Trust in me through closing years
Perfect moments wait
If only we could stay
Please
Say the right words
Or cry like the stone white clown
And stand forever
Lost forever in a happy crowd

No one lifts their hands
No one lifts their eyes
Justified with empty words
The party just gets better and better

I went away alone
With nothing left
But faith

On the b-side of the cassette version of Faith was Carnage Visors, the soundtrack to an animated film that the band projected at their concerts in lieu of an opening act. At nearly 28 minutes, this piece made me wish they did more long pieces like this. I saw The Cure in a concert in New York in 1981, and they projected the film, but I seem to recall that they didn’t play the music live, alas.

I would listen to this album on my Sony Pressman, a precursor to the Walkman, that weighed as much as a brick, but let me hear music on the go. (Oh, how far we have come.) It was the perfect soundtrack to walking to and from my home and friends’ houses in the suburban night. It was one of my favorite albums of that period, in spite of its gloom. I have to say, the “goth” aspect of The Cure didn’t exist at the time; even when I saw them in concert, I didn’t see what would later be a growing goth movement (which I did see, a year or two later, at a Siouxsie & the Banshees concert). Together with Seventeen Seconds, and the earlier pop tracks, The Cure was a defining group for me in that period. Listening to Faith again today – something I haven’t done in years – reminded me just how good the music of that time was. While the melodies are stark, they are imbued with a sense of darkness, yet not the terminal darkness of Joy Division.

The band changed a lot shortly after this. Their 1982 album Pornography was the final record in this sort-of-trilogy (Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Pornography), and took the gloom a bit further. Around that time, singer Robert Smith cultivated a bizarre goth-makeup-weird-hair persona, and turned toward MTV-friendly pop music, until he became a parody of himself. But for a few years, The Cure was one of the most original bands around. If you listen to just one of their albums, Faith is the most unforgettable; if you grew up with it, you’ll certainly never forget it.

Developers Outsource Support to Google Groups: Fail

Yesterday, I bought TaskPaper, a simple to-do list manage from the Mac App Store. I had a reproducible crashing issue, and wanted to contact support. But support is only available via Google Groups. So, I had to post this review on the Mac App Store, in hopes I would get a reply.

I shouldn’t have to write a review to get support, but more and more developers are “outsourcing” their support to Google Groups these days.

I bought the app yesterday, seeing that it was on sale for $5. It’s well worth that, even more, but not $30. It’s a practical, simple tool, which, for me to-do list needs, is ideal. (I have OmniFocus, but only use it for big projects where lots of people are involved.)

But I have a problem: whenever I press Command-Shift-Return, the program crashes. So I went to the “Support” page and found that I could post a message to Google Groups. But that message was rejected, because, apparently, I have to be a member of that group. I don’t want to be a member of any Google group, so this means that, essentially, I can’t get support.

I’ve had this problem with other apps, and, while I can understand developers using free (well, “suck up user data and monetize it” support solutions, I think it’s a serious failure in serving customers. I won’t use apps if I know they only offer support like this, because it isn’t the way I expect to get support.

Hence this review. I’m sure the developer reads the reviews here, and may even attempt to contact me; he’ll have no trouble finding me if he does so. But developers should be aware that the free Google system doesn’t always work.

Essential Music: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.

This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.

I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.

Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)

There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:

There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.

If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.

One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”

Album Notes: Brad Mehldau, Live in Marciac

Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

I’ve been a fan of Brad Mehldau’s music for many years now, and own all of his releases (as main performer, not as sideman). I think he’s an extremely innovative pianist, and I especially like his work with his trio. This new album, recorded live at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France, in 2006, features a solo performance, one of only two live solo releases he has made (the other is the 2004 Live in Tokyo).

This is an attractive album, with energetic performances, and flattering sound. (I felt that the Live in Tokyo album had somewhat brittle, harsh sound.) In solo performances, Melhdau tends to wander a bit more than when he has a rhythm section backing him, and this album is a bit less attractive than his live recordings with his trio (such as the 2008 Live at the Village Vanguard). But it’s a fine example of his work, and any fan of jazz piano should definitely get this. Not only does it have two CDs, but also a DVD, with all but one of the songs. (I haven’t watched the DVD yet.)

However, there’s one thing I need to point out. I ordered this set directly from the label, Nonesuch, which provides MP3s by download as soon as the album is released, so you can listen to the music before you get the discs. There are some oddities on some of the tracks: a couple of them end with loud applause that doesn’t fade out; it just cuts off as the next track starts. For example, Lilac Wine has very loud applause at the end (and it deserves it; it’s a beautiful song), then cuts off immediately as Martha My Dear begins. But at the end of Martha My Dear, the same thing happens; it cuts from applause to My Favorite Things.

It is not normal that a professionally edited album would have this abrupt cut between tracks, and, now that I have the CDs, I can see that it’s the MP3s files that were truncated. In fact, in the MP3 files, four of the songs on the second disc – the ones that have the abrupt edits – are missing a total of over 2 minutes. From the amount of applause, it seems like Lithium was the last track in the set, and the rest were encores. Nonesuch’s MP3s are therefore just hacked off at the ends, and there’s no reason for this. So do buy the CDs; don’t buy any MP3s from Nonesuch. I note that Amazon is not selling this in MP3 format, but the timings on iTunes are the same as the bad MP3s I got from Nonesuch, so if you want this album, get it on plastic. While you don’t miss any of the music, the abrupt cut from applause to music is jarring and annoying.

UPDATE: I heard back from Nonesuch, who replied, “We have looked into this issue, and have learned that the original MP3s were indeed mistakenly truncated. We have corrected the files.” So apparently the files will be fixed on their site and on iTunes, but if you do have the truncated files, do get in touch with whoever you purchased them from to get new copies.

Is This the Biggest Music Download Ever?

Over at Macworld, I look at a 99-CD box set of music by Franz List (this one) which Hyperion Records is now offering for download. Is this the biggest music download to date? I can’t find anything bigger, though there are plenty of classical box sets that contain more music. One day, even the big box sets from Brilliant Classics will be available by download…