Music

Various Artists: The War

Ron Hart

You want real emo? Try the soundtrack to Ken Burns' WWII epic on for size.


Various Artists

The War [Deluxe Edition]

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2007-09-11
UK Release Date: Unavailable
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Just recently, my fiancé was lamenting over the fact that she really didn’t mine her grandfather’s memory as much as she would have liked to in regards to his experiences on the frontlines of World War II. When she was growing up, her beloved “Pop-Pop” was a kindly old Irishman who loved to relax in his favorite chair in their family’s living room and listen to Mike and the Mad Dog on his trusty transistor radio with a Giants blanket draped over his legs to keep from getting a chill. But in another life, he also was a fearless soldier who was one of the few and the proud who survived the much-storied landing on Normandy Beach at D-Day and later stood firm as one of General Patton’s private guards.

My own grandfather, on the other hand, didn’t really see too much action where he was stationed in Greenland, luckily for my grandmother. The photos I have of him from World War II show him and his army buddies really sort of just hanging out on a big iceberg and celebrating somebody’s birthday (how they got a cake sent to them is still beyond me). Needless to say, my Papa’s war stories were nowhere near as exciting as those of my fiancé’s Pop-Pop’s or even my Great Uncle Ray’s, who was a highly decorated Navy officer during both World War II and the Korean War.

But the point is he had some kind of story to tell, as with just about every other American who served their country during the Big One. And it’s these types of stories, the fabric of our living national folklore that grows with the passing of each citizen of “The Greatest Generation”, which inspires master documentarian Ken Burns’ latest multi-faceted history lesson on World War II and the generation thrown into its hellfire. However, rather than just rehashing stock footage we have seen 1,000 times on the History Channel or Hollywoodland’s dramatic depictions of many of the great battles fought, Burns chose to bring his view of World War II from the frontlines of the American household, taking into the consideration the viewpoints of the soldier’s families as much the soldier in this epic seven-part documentary series, taken from the standpoint of four American cities, Sacramento, CA, Mobile, AL, Waterbury, CT and Luverne, MN, and the stories of the GI’s shipped overseas from there.

And when it came to compiling the soundtrack to The War, Burns thought just as much outside of the box as he had done when putting together the film. Rather than rolling out the predictable array of Andrews Sisters, Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey chestnuts we’ve heard numerous times before and have since become virtually the World War II soundtrack (some of which, however, appear within the supplementary discs on the deluxe box version of this set), the core soundtrack to The War paints a darker, more ghostly portrait that stands parallel to the many dark themes and imagery covered in the miniseries.

Sure, you have music from such staple recording artists of the era as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Benny Goodman, featured here. But Burns chose the more minimalist and stark selections from their respective catalogs, most notably Bing’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”, an outstanding, thoughtful duet with guitar legend Les Paul that surely brought tears to many an eye in American household who had a loved one fighting overseas. Or in lieu of their more jumpier numbers, the choice of more lower key numbers in the Goodman, Basie and Ellington songbooks like Benny’s clarinet-heavy “Wang Wang Blues”, the Count’s spare “How Long Blues” and Duke’s plaintive ballroom slow burner “Solitude” really complement the dramatic tone set by the more classical-based selections on the soundtrack from Yo-Yo Ma and Aaron Copland.

And then there’s Wynton Marsalis. Perennially known over the course of his three-decade career as the corniest member of the Marsalis jazz dynasty, he continues to impress as Ken Burns’ go-to guy for soundtrack composition, as previously exemplified on his deftly underrated score to Burns’ 2004 documentary on boxing legend Jack Johnson, which fused ballroom, folk and blues to create a haunting, and dare I say, experimental sonic landscape that he continues to explore on his pieces on The War soundtrack, particularly on the strange and beautiful “Movin’ Back”, which could easily be mistaken for a Tom Waits instrumental piece if you weren’t bothering to read the credits. Perhaps it’s the sound of Marsalis paying penance for completely overlooking the likes of Sun Ra and Art Ensemble of Chicago and even Miles Davis’ electric era while serving as Burns’ music supervisor on his extremely off-kilter jazz documentary miniseries earlier in the decade. Whatever the case may be, it is certainly better than what Wynton was doing in the '80s, that’s for damn sure.

As far as Norah Jones’ much-balyhooed rendition of Gene Scheer’s “American Anthem”, while completely lovely in its sentiments, it is a bit of a snoozer to be honest; a drab piano ballad that turns this heartwrenching homage to the American GI into a throwaway track from her debut album, Come Away With Me. Now if they sanctioned Katharine Whalen from the Squirrel Nut Zippers for this theme that would have made more sense, given her uncanny knack to bringing it back to that era with her Billie Holiday-esque voice. Unfortunately, it’s not 1996, and only she had so much star power in the wake of the Zippers’ novelty appeal in the mainstream.

It’s a very sad thing to see an entire generation of people die off before our eyes. Something like a thousand or so citizens of that “Greatest Generation” pass away on a daily basis, or at least that’s what the statistics say. Some of them are our parents or grandparents, some our great grandparents, or our uncles and aunts. In the last three years alone, I lost two beloved great uncles and a great aunt, all of whom played a crucial role in The War effort of the 1940s. All that’s left of my grandfather’s seven siblings is my Uncle Mike, who was the baby of the family and is now pushing 80. These were folks who all had a highly significant role in my upbringing, and in the way I view the aspects of family and security and ethical decision-making as I get older and wiser and rapidly approach 40.

And to reiterate NBC’s Brian Williams’ sentiments, Ken Burns has indeed constructed a beautiful media monument to them, both in the form of this stunning documentary series and the soundtrack that accompanies it. The music of The War was compiled in a way that seems as though its primary purpose is to make the listener weep. And nobody on earth is more worthy of our collective tears than our loved ones from the “Greatest Generation”.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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