Saturday, September 25, 2010

Musical Dumpster Diving

Today, one of my friends convinced me to go to the Portobello Market with her. Portobello advertises itself as the world's largest (no, not mushroom) antique market, so it sounded a bit more up my uncle's alley than mine. But no matter, sunny weekends in London are a valuable commodity and seeing the market would be pretty miserable on a cold wet day. So onward! Oh, the tube isn't running to Notting Hill Gate? We'll just walk!

Anyway, I was pleased to find that Portobello Market was more of a kitschy street fair. So there was new kitsch, like t-shirts that read "My Boyfriend went to London and all I got was this T-shirt." And old kitsch, of course. I was especially excited by the musical kitsch. First, I found a stall specializing in CD box sets, like those ones from the Time Life informercials (The Folk Years! The Swing Era! Motown Gold!). Then there was a guy with a pretty big stack of used CDs, and a surprising amount of material from the ECM label. I almost went for a CD by the drummer Alex Cline from the late eighties, but the scratched condition didn't warrant my £8. I later passed by a used vinyl store with a super neat jazz collection, including a lot of weird '70s avant garde stuff. But they were more collectors items and priced as such. So I continued to window (err, what do you call window shopping without windows?) shop.

While standing on line for some lunch, I saw an OxFam bookstore. It was like Goodwill meets Princeton Record Exchange/Labyrinth Books, except all the money goes to help people. So, I thought to myself, if I buy something in there, I will be doubly happy! After chowing down on my hefty bruschetta, I walked in and peered at the jazz vinyl collection. Just a couple of LPs in, my jaw dropped.

PAUL BLEY! With Paul Motian and Bill Frisell too!!!???

Bley is kind of like the most distinctive jazz pianist since like ever. Motian is one of my favorite drummers with quite the surreal style to complement Bley's pointillism. And if you look a few posts down, you can get an earful of why anything Frisell does is worth listening to.

I had known about this group (which also included British sax-off-onist John Surman), but had never found one of their albums. I was friggin' pumped. Then my eye went slid up to the price tag. £10.

A slight grimace. That's like $15 for something I won't be able to listen to until I get home. Or what if it's scratched and it won't work at all? Oh screw it. It will still be awesome just to tell my jazz nerd friends I have it. And think of the children in Haiti!

So I picked it up and walked over the cash register to look at their cd bin. Over the next few minutes, I felt less and less attached to the LP. I've lived down the street from one of the best used vinyl stores in the US and never bought one. There's something about vinyl that makes me just not want to get into it. Maybe its the inconvenience. Or the fact that it's now "cool" to release new albums on vinyl. I looked up from the cd bin, walked back to the record rack and slid the Bley LP back behind some Ellington compilation. Some Pakistani child must be crying.

It was getting late and I needed to get back to my place before heading out to the London Philharmonic in the evening. But on my way, I walked through Notting Hill back towards Hyde Park. Again, more kitschy shoppes. Including the Music & Goods Exchange.

Music? Exchange? Sounds a bit familiar, I must check it out!

The store is definitely a throwback, something you find in trendy college towns across the US. Like they had an entire small section of Tangerine Dream LPs. You know, that band that made music that was meant to mirror the fealings of an acid trip, time to the t?

Right. But they had a pretty extensive used CD collection, including a section dedicated to contemporary "classical" music. I passed a CD on the Innova label, a small midwestern label dedicated to the weird and wonderful - a very good sign. I then came to the debut album by the hip New York string quartet Ethel. £3? I'll take it. A little farther down the stack was an album from another hip New Yorker, Phil Kline. I had listened to some of his stuff from the University library and dug it quite a bit; it's ambient but richly textured, with lots of bell sounds. I had wanted to check out this CD, Zippo Songs, as well, but it was like on permanent loan or something. Theo Bleckmann sings on it too, which means it's at least going to be super interesting with weird falsetto jumps and inward singing. So £4? I had to.

With both CD's in hand and a wallet seven pounds lighter, I walked happily across Hyde Park back to my res-hall.

At this point in my writing, I've listened through most of Zippo Songs and it's really quite striking. It's a series of songs about war, with texts taken from Donal Rumsfeld's briefing of the Iraq War, and poetry soldiers wrote on their Zippo lighters during the Vietnam War. The texts run the gammut disheartening ("There will be some things that people won't see. And life goes on," from the Rumsfeld briefing) to the hopeful ("When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace") to the bitterly funny ("When I'm dead and in my grave, no more pussy will I crave"). Kline adorns the text with simple textures of guitars, violin, and tuned percussion. The music is varied enough to hold your attention, but never gets in the way of the poignant words. I'm definitely going to have to listen to it a few times to really get the emotional heft of it all.

Based on this assessment, I'd have to say bargain hunting in London was a success. It's probably a good thing that Music & Goods Exchange is a little too far away for me to go every week.

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