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Simon & Garfunkel–3 albums/3 reviews Posted - Sep 14, 2019
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (October 24, 1966)

Simon and Garfunkel considered this–their third studio album–as really their first. Working closely with engineer Roy Halee, it was the first time they were able to fully employ the recording studio to enhance Paul's songs. Finally, the boys had found their sound. The strength of the album is the high quality of the songwriting: “Scarborough Fair”– which Paul had learned while on tour of England–plus a bevy of songs he had written: “Cloudy,” “Homeward Bound,” “The Dangling Conversations,” and the exquisite “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her.” These are tastefully and imaginatively realized in the use of their multi-tracked voices, prominent use of acoustic guitar, the melodic accompaniment of occasional keyboard, electric bass, drums and various hushed percussive instruments. Maturity and confidence abound—along with a sophistication that can only be described as urbane. The boys were New Yorkers in upbringing and worldly outlook, yet this is a collection of songs with the scope and feel of rambling, suburban California. “Coudy” and “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainful” are evocative of West Coast culture. “The 59th Bridge Street Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” while set in New York, celebrates the kind of bright sunny day that can only be found in Southern California. Even “Homeward Bound,” a song about the loneliness of touring and “one-night stands,” longs to escape the trapping of crowds and city living.

Art Garfunkel gives a haunting performance of the dreamy “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” one of the album’s highlights. But the best moments are reserved for “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” a majestic piece of rich vocal harmonies and vivid imagery. The weakest piece is the topical “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” which dated quickly and sounds out of place in what is one of the best albums of the 1960s.

Bookends (April 3, 1968)

The boys from Queens put a great deal of time and effort into this song collection. They were more than a little apprehensive about its chances in the marketplace, however, in the wake of an album released the month before—“The Graduate/Soundtrack.” They had good reason to be concerned. Who was going to shell out another four dollars (the price of an album then) for yet another album featuring their songs? Also, their previous two singles had not sold all that well, and were featured on the new album. Their worries were unfounded, as it turned out. “Bookends” topped the charts and, coupled with the smashing success of “The Graduate" movie, pushed them into the stratosphere of pop superstardom. Unlike their previous album, which was suggestive of suburban California, “Bookends” reflects their New York roots. The album breathes with an air of urbane sophistication as heard on “Punky’s Dilemma.” “At the Zoo” (where all the animals are metaphors), and the zoo keeper is “very fond of rum,” could only be about New York. “Fakin’ It” and “A Hazy Shade of Winter” add dimension to the feeling. But the album has a counter theme of isolation that speaks of another side of city living. “Overs” is about the end of a love affair—a breakup. An elderly pair seated on a park bench "lost in their overcoats" is the subject of “Old Friends." The loneliness of growing old and alone only hinted at in “Old Friends,” is manifest in “Voices of Old People,” a composite recording Art made in rest homes in New York City and in Reseda, California. “Save the Life of My Child,” however, finds that even in an attempted suicide there’s no escaping the crush of people living in close quarters. The album’s magnum opus is “Mrs. Robinson,” the featured tune of “The Graduate.” It does not fit either theme but somehow fits quite well into the album's mood and structure. Their wizard-as-producer was Roy Halee.

Bridge Over Troubled Water (January 26, 1970)

“Bookends” may have had better songs, but “Bridge Over Troubled Water” features three masterpieces elevated to epic proportions, thanks to the modern recording studio: the title song ("Bridge Over Troubled Water”), “The Boxer,” and “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Indeed, Simon and Garfunkel were among the few recording artists of the 1960s to fully utilize the capabilities of modern recording technology (the Beatles were another). The result was a big, breathtaking sound coupled with sophisticated instrumentation that could not be duplicated in the concert hall.

Simon and Garfunkel’s accomplice was producer Roy Halee, a classically trained musician who worked in television before landing a job as a sound engineer for Columbia Records. He met Simon and Garfunkel while the boys from Queens were recording their first album. At the time–1964–Paul and Art considered themselves folk singers. Their first album didn’t sell well and Columbia Records dropped them. Two years later, however, one of their songs began getting airplay at a radio station in Miami, Florida. Roy Halee was no fool. He knew the song needed work if it was going to crack the Top-40 playlist. He located the master and overdubbed electric guitar, bass, and drums, and enhanced the vocals so that the boys’ two-part harmony sounded as full and rich as the three-part harmonies of the Byrds. In fact, that was what he was after–a song that sounded like the Byrds, who were hot at the time. Simon and Garfunkel, meanwhile, had no idea of what Halee had done to their record and were absolutely stunned when “Sound of Silence” became the surprise hit of 1966.

“Sound of Silence” was the first of a string of highly-produced smash hits for Simon and Garfunkel. For the next three years Roy Halee, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel worked closely together, as if joined at the hip. They utilized the recording studio like a painter uses all the colors of the pallet. They peaked with the boy’s fifth and final album, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” One of the album’s songs– “The Boxer”–consumed one-hundred hours of studio time, and at one point had Paul and Art singing at the top of their lungs from inside a stairwell at Columbia Studios in New York, which in turn was overdubbed 16 to 20 times (depending on whom is telling the story). The result was a dense wall of harmonies that gives the song its ethereal quality. The “Only Living Boy in New York” duplicated the feat, while “Bridge Over Troubled Water” employed a symphony orchestra in the final verse to accompany Garfunkel’s angelic voice. The results are stunning. Fifty years on, the sound world of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” continues to take one’s breath away. It was the biggest selling album ever made (until the summer of 1975 when "Fleetwood Mac" topped the charts).

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Gitlow v. New York – Landmark free speech case
Posted - Sep 07, 2019
Gitlow v. New York (1925) is noted for being the Supreme Court case that began the gradual process of incorporating the Bill of Rights' guarantees (in this case Free Speech) against state infringement. The case is the subject of an informative new book, GITLOW v. NEW YORK–EVERY IDEA AN INCITEMENT, by Marc Lendler.

The case involved some of the brightest legal minds of the day, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, and Clarence Darrow. The defendant, Benjamin Gitlow, was born in Elizabethport, New Jersey, in 1891, to Russian immigrant parents, at a time when American Socialism was growing as a reaction to the rapid expansion of industry. At some point the Gitlow family moved from New Jersey to a crowded tenement building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This was the heart of the garment district, where working and living conditions were atrocious. The work was demanding, unregulated, and underpaid. The term "sweatshop" was coined at this time. These conditions, particularly among a population of immigrants who–like the Gitlows–had fought political battles in their former countries, created a left-leaning political culture, one that made Ben Gitlow's early and active entrance into socialists politics "a matter of course," as he put it in his memoirs. As a bright, dedicated young activist and (among immigrants) a rare native English speaker, Ben Gitlow quickly assumed a leadership role in the New York Socialist Party.

Opposition to World War I came to define the Party. There followed the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which made it seem anything was possible; rallies followed with calls for revolution among America's exploited and impoverished work force. On the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, American supporters held celebratory events. Gitlow was in the middle of a speech in upper Manhattan when about fifty police officers and detectives swooped in to make a mass arrest.

Thousands were held but only forty-five were charged, including Gitlow. A few days later he found himself in the New York Magistrate's Court charged as a criminal anarchist. A trial date was set and despite having Clarence Darrow as his defense attorney, he lost in Court and was sentenced to Sing Sing prison for a maximum of ten year's hard labor.

The ACLU put up the money for an appeal, an appeal made on the ground that New York State's Criminal Anarchy Law, under which Gitlow was convicted, violated his Constitutional right of free speech. The problem with this reasoning was that Gitlow was convicted in State Court, not Federal Court, and therefore the First Amendment did not apply. The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech"; it says nothing about what state legislators may do.

The Fourteenth Amendment with its "due process" clause, ratified in 1866, was designed to get around this, with a passage that reads, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States . . . without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The amendment was created to protect former slaves in the Old South from unjust local or state laws, but exactly how to apply it to free speech cases had divided the Court in the past; but not this time. According to the author, "the extension of the Bill of Rights was the most important legacy of Gitlow v. New York." The Court had one more issue to consider before possibly overturning Gitlow's conviction, and that was the "bad tendency" doctrine, the idea that speakers and writers were responsible for the probable effects of their words. The Court majority ruled they were and upheld Gitlow's conviction.

Dissenting were Justices Holmes and Brandeis who argued that the mere expression of ideas, separate from action, could not be punished under the "clear and present" doctrine, a doctrine that Holmes himself had created as justification for upholding a conviction in prior free speech decision (also involving anarchists). Since then, Holmes had had a change of heart, and this time he argued, "Every idea is an incitement" – that the mere expression of an idea, no matter how disagreeable, is protected by the First Amendment.

Final note: despite losing his Supreme Court appeal, within a year Ben Gitlow was pardoned by New York governor Al Smith and released from prison. The legacy of Holmes' and Brandies's dissenting opinions is that in time they would become the High Court's majority opinion. That's the beauty of the United States Supreme Court–bad decisions are eventually overturned.

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Dave Grohl and the Star-Making Machinery of Sound City
Posted - Aug 24, 2019
Something miraculous happened. Nirvana was merely one of several hundred faceless punk bands, looking for gigs and making a living as musicians, until 1991, when they entered the Sound City Recording Studio in Van Nuys, California, and recorded "Nevermind." To everyone's surprise, the album topped the charts and achieved multi-platinum status. Overnight, Nirvana was the toast of the record industry. One of the band members, drummer Dave Grohl, never got over it.

What the "Sound City" documentary is really about is Dave Grohl's search for what had happened. He hadn't been a member of Nirvana all that long, when the band packed its gear in a van, departed its home in Seattle, Washington, and drove down the West Coast to Southern California to make a record. Grohl doesn't recall who chose Sound City or picked Butch Vig to be their producer; what he does recall is not being all that impressed with the grungy Sound City studio, until seeing all those shiny platinum records on the Wall of Fame. He never dreamed that one day Nirvana's record would be among them.

This documentary chronicles Grohl's search and what he discovered, which was the star-making machinery of the Neve Sound Board ("Neve" rhymes with steve). The one-of-a-kind 8028 Neve Console was custom built for Sound City in 1972 for a whopping $76,000. By comparison, a house in nearby upscale Toluca Lake sold for $38,000. "That board totally changed my life," says Grohl. Imagine his surprise when he discovered the Neve recording console with its analogue tape recording system, was for sale, having been made obsolete by newer digital sound boards. "I thought it would end up in the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame," says Grohl. Obsolete or not, the board still produced a fantastic sound. He bought it and had it shipped to his 606 Recording Studio in nearby Northridge, where his current band the Foo Fighters now records, and where Grohl and famous friends (Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, et al) now jam.

What the 8028 Neve console does exceedingly well is capture the striking sound of the rock drum kit, which brings us to drummer extraordinaire Mick Fleetwood. In 1973, the Englishman was in L.A. looking for a studio to record in; his band Fleetwood Mac would soon be in need of a guitarist. Someone tipped him off to Sound City in Van Nuys. The day he arrived guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and his songwriting girlfriend Stevie Nicks were listening to a playback of their debut album. Mick Fleetwood was knocked out by what he heard. That day, he decided he'd found the perfect recording studio to capture his unique drum rhythms, and, in guitarist/songwriter Lindsey Buckingham, a first-rate replacement for Bob Welch, who would soon be departing. There was a hitch however. When the time came, Buckingham would not join the band unless his girlfriend came, too; it was a package deal. One thing led to another–Welch departed, and Buckingham and Nicks were both invited to join the band. In early 1975, the reconstituted Fleetwood Mac recorded their first album at Sound City. The album spawned several hit singles and topped the charts, eventually becoming the first of several platinum albums that would follow.

Among the bands to follow Fleetwood Mac's lead were Santana, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Kansas, Foreigner, the Grateful Dead, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, and singers Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Elton John, Pat Benatar, and Rick Springfield.

With the advent of Punk Rock in the later-half of the 1970s, a host of punk-rock bands followed, including Rage against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Fear. By 1991, when Nirvana arrived, Sound City had pretty much fallen out of favor. However, when their album, "Nevermind" sold 30-million copies worldwide, the phones at the studio that had been silent, began to ring again, and would not stop ringing. It was, as someone put it, "like Fleetwood Mac all over again."

Dave Grohl wrote and produced the Sound City documentary. Besides being one heck of a musician (he's proficient on drums, bass and guitar) he's one heck of a storyteller. Which should not be too surprising, as he is one heck of songwriter, which, in itself is a form of storytelling. The video also chronicles a number of jam sessions featuring the Neve Sound Board, including: "Cut Me Some Slack" with Paul McCartney on guitar and vocals, and two-thirds of Nirvana (Grohl on drums, Krist Novoselic on bass); and "You Can't Fix This" with Stevie Nicks on keyboard and vocals, Grohl on drums, and additional musicians; and the outrageously funny punk send-up, "Your Wife is Calling" with Lee Ving on vocals, Grohl on guitar, and additional musicians.

The Sound City documentary includes comments from studio owner Tom Skeeter, plus a number of producers who performed their magic at Sound City (Butch Vig, Jim Scott, Rick Rubin, and the man who co-produced the first platinum Fleetwood Mac album, engineer Keith Olsen).

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The Big Five
Posted - Aug 18, 2019
From the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, they were known as "The Big Five." Who were they? They were the world's five best conductors of classical music. They made their reputation first in opera and then in the Central European repertoire (the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schumann and Schubert). Their legacy extends down to our time in the scores of recordings they made, many of which have been remastered and are available today on compact disc.

Two were German jews (Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer) who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and found refuge in America. One was an Italian (Arturo Toscanini) who, after seeing the persecution of jewish musicians in Germany and in his home country, emigrated in protest to the U.S. One was Austrian (Erich Kleiber), who, as Hitler spread his poison across Europe, moved first to South America, then to the U.S. The fifth was Wilhelm Furtwangler, who was born in Berlin and remained in Germany during World War II. In doing so, he intervened on behalf of several Jewish musicians in Germany and in Austria who otherwise might have been arrested and perished in Nazi death camps.

Having achieved world-wide fame, they recorded for the top record labels of their time: in Europe with EMI, and with what would become Deutsche Grammophon; and in the U.S: with Columbia (now Sony), RCA (now BMG), and with Decca (now Decca-London).

Three achieved such distinction that their record companies created special orchestras for their exclusive use: Bruno Walter, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra; and Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Erich Kleiber, with Decca Records, recorded almost exclusively with the famed Concertgebow Orchestra in the Netherlands, while Wilhelm Furtwangler made records with Europe's two top orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.

All five specialized in recording the symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven; that remains their legacy.

Below is a list of their most noted recordings. Some are rated as "classics of the gramophone", definitive recordings that have never been surpassed. Many are in mono, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Given these recordings were made with the most advanced recording equipment of the day, and remastered in the digital era, they sound very good indeed. Sonically, nothing is lost in mono. Think black-and-white movies, and how good they look when restored with today's technology.

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957)

Toscanini first gained attention as a conductor of opera. In 1896, he conducted the premier of Puccini's "La Boheme." Having said that, he built his reputation conducting the nine symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven. He recorded all nine not once but twice. His earlier account, recorded live in Carnegie Hall, in the late 1930s, is considered by most critics to be superior. However, the latter account, recorded in the early 1950s, and remastered in the 1990s, has superior sonics and is by far his most popular work. It's available today as a boxed set (nine symphonies on five compact discs, plus an informative booklet); a real bargain at about $20. From BMG Classics (#82876-55702-2).

Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954)

When it came to interpretation, Furtwangler was Arturo Toscanini's polar opposite. Where the Italian held fast to the score and was all about maintaining a strict consistent tempo. Furtwangler, on the other hand, looked past the score and was forever probing for nuance; as a result his tempos are often as lax as pulled taffy. His greatest interpretations are highly individual and, some would say, idiosyncratic. With Beethoven, three of his recorded symphonies stand out–nos. 3 ("The Eroica"), 5 and 9. His account of Beethoven's Third, recorded live in 1944 with the Vienna Philharmonic is legendary (available from Music & Arts #17685 08142 2).

There's no middle ground with Furtwangler; you either think he's the greatest conductor of all time or you think he's bombastic and over-rated. His 1954 account of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI CDH 69803-2) is a case in point. It's a riveting performance, but is it the best ever recorded? Ted Libby, music critic with National Public Radio, thinks so. He writes: "Here the conductor is caught in the act of creation, at the height of his powers, in a performance that develops from measure to measure. . . . No one has ever said more with the four notes of the first movement's motto theme, found greater nobility of sentiment in the Andante, made the transition from the scherzo to the final movement more suspenseful, or communicated the triumphant C major symphony more overwhelmingly." Personally, I prefer Toscanini's by-the-book no frills account from 1953.

Erich Kleiber (1890-1956)

Somewhere between Toscanini and Furtwangler is Erich Kleiber. His faithful, mainstream accounts of Beethoven's symphonies are exceptional. Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to record all nine in the post-war years; what he did record is highly regarded: Symphony Nos. 3 ("The Eroica"), 5 and 6 ("The Pastoral"), all with Amsterdam's Concertgebow Orchestra. The three possess a lyricism that beguiles the ear. Symphonies 5 and 6 come coupled on one disc, which I reviewed for amazon.com in 2012. My review: "Kleiber's approach to the sixth is firm but gentle, loving without being sentimental, illuminating the details without letting the tempo sag. Despite mono sound, this is a performance that glows. Originally, I purchased Walter's fine version and enjoyed it very much. I then tried Klemperer's version which is finer still. Then I listened to Kleiber's account and found it to be the finest of the three. I have since purchased accounts by Karajan, Toscanini, Furtwangler (surprisingly uninspired), Dohnyanyi (ditto), and Gunter Wand, as well as Karl Bohm's highly praised account. None can match Erich Kleiber's perfect execution. The coupling with Beethoven's Fifth, makes an unbeatable combination." (Decca-London #417 637-2)


Bruno Walter (1876-1962)

As with Erich Kleiber, Walter's warm interpretations tend to be mainstream. He lived well into his 80s; as with Toscanini, he recorded Beethoven's Nine symphonies twice; once in mono and once in stereo. His most popular accounts are in stereo, two of which come packaged together: Symphony nos. 4 and 6 ("The Pastoral") (Sony #74646-44622-5). This release is as fine an example of Walter's art as you'll find.

Otto Klemperer (1865-1973)

As with Bruno Walter and Erich Kleiber, Klemperer's interpretations are warmly lyrical and tend to be mainstream. Like Walter, he recorded Beethoven's Nine Symphonies in both mono and in stereo. His two most famous recording are Symphony Nos. 3 (“The Eroica”) and No. 6 (“The Pastoral”). It's a question of taste as to which Third Symphony is his best–the one in mono (EMI #5 67741-2), which is gripping, or the one in stereo, which is more lyrical (EMI #404275-2). With the Sixth, there is really only one choice–the one in stereo (EMI #747188-2).

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Work of My Sons
 

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.


Oh, Yeah...
 

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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