Music Diary Review: Pat Metheny – What’s It All About (2011)

Music Diary Review: Pat Metheny – What’s It All About (2011)

For whatever psychological reason, songs we heard growing up stick with us throughout our life – whether or not we really liked them as kids! I can still sing along with Bobby Vinton and Neil Diamond songs that I didn’t like then. But songs we did enjoy or struck a chord with us at a special time remain core to our development. Again, regardless of what musical directions we head on, these songs of our youth are indelibly burned into our brains.

Pat Metheny has made it clear that while he has been widely influenced by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and loads of other jazz greats, popular artists like The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel also had a major impact on the course of his musical development. So more than 35 years after his debut solo recording, Metheny has stepped back in time and done something new – he recorded an entire album of covers of pop songs, each done on solo guitar without overdubs or additional instruments.

The basic concept – an intimate recording of a great guitarist alone with his instrument in a home studio playing some favorite songs from his youth – is a recipe for either brilliance or schmaltz. Not to dump my review right here, but within thirty seconds of the start of Sounds of Silence, you know this isn’t just going to be s dreary set of mundane covers. But let’s get into the recording song by song.

Actually … before getting to the songs I have to comment that this isn’t the first time Metheny has released a solo guitar collection. In 2003 he did ‘One Quiet Night’, a set of solo songs recorded on the (then new) baritone guitar. The album is solid, and got very good reviews … but for me I always regarded it as ‘failing to deliver on the promise of New Chautauqua’, referring to the under-rated 1979 recording of original compositions made using over-dubbed guitars playing melody and chords. ‘One Quiet Night’ set up some gorgeous foundations and showed Metheny’s impeccable style and compositional skills, yet for me it never came together as well as it could. I found many jazz fans who felt the same – while Metheny had matured immensely as a guitarist and composer, his ideas seemed wrapped around full band structures and therefore felt lacking in a solo guitar outing.

Let me just say that in the eight years since that recording Metheny has not only improved as a guitarist – but also in his ability to construct solo soundscapes for his guitar that allows him to produce complete and complex songs in a solo setting. The result and proof is in this masterful recording.

Now HERE we go with the song-by-song overview of the album:

The Sounds of Silence (6:33)– The classic Simon & Garfunkel song takes on a whole new twist in the hands of Pat Metheny and his 42-string Pikasso guitar. Upon repeated listens you will recognize the structure from the start, but initially it will be nearly a minute into the song before you can recognize the theme. My older son says that the juxtaposition of the simple and sweet melody and the inherently dissonant ringing tones of the Pikassoclash … personally I think they meld perfectly. My younger son asked about the bass – as with everything else this is a single instrument, and Metheny uses bass guitar strings to get a strong deep tone in the lower range, making it sound like a multi-instrument effort. As it should, this lead-off song grabbed me hard and the rest of the album never let me go.

Cherish (5:28) – After ‘The Sounds of Silence’, Cherish feels simple and direct – and yet is perfect in its own way. This is a song I loved as a kid, and bought The Association’s Greatest Hits on LP and later on iTunes, and this is a song I have had on my iPod ever since. But while you can follow the entire verse/chorus structure, what makes this a great song – and shows why this album is such a successful venture – is that Metheny has completely opened up the harmonic structure. I read a quote somewhere a while ago about Metheny having a unique gift that has guitarists studying his every note choice and chord substitution and non-guitarist music fans across a spectrum of genres just enjoying the amazing music – and that is exactly what happens here.

Alfie (7:46) – I have to confess that when I heard the title ‘What’s It All About’ in the context of Metheny reliving songs he grew up loving, my first thought went to the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (song ‘I don’t know how to love him’) rather than Alfie. But I knew one thing – on a record like this, the title would point to the centerpiece of the entire album. And what better way to celebrate a set of music dedicated to his early influences than with this gorgeous Burt Bacharach standard. As with Cherish Metheny uses the alternate tuning baritone guitar, and digs deep to produce a song that is over seven minutes long, yet never gets boring or feels over-wrought.

Pipeline (3:28) – The Chantays produced high energy surf-music in the early 60’s, with Pipeline being their sole big hit song. It is named after a surfing term, and the original song featured reverb-heavy guitars with electric piano in a very intentionally cluttered mix. It is a distinct sound – and is one of those songs that just about EVERYONE has heard at some point. This is an interesting song, as Metheny’s version bears little connection to the original and the interpretation on standard acoustic guitar turns it into nearly a entirely new composition, but not necessarily one of the better ones. It is a fun song to hear, and undoubtedly a great warm-up piece – especially on some of those extended harmonies. I particularly like how at one point you are in a long chordal exploration and suddenly drop into the surf rhythm again for a short bit.

Garota de Ipanema (5:12) – Yes, this is ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ … but you might not recognize it at first! It is slow and introspective and full of open space. The use of the baritone guitar is perfect for this contemplative read of the Jobim classic. The melody in the first verse stretches on forever, but in a good way. We all know the basic tune, as it was immensely popular in 1964 and then carried on through movies and muzak. But at the core it is just a fantastic song that has enough harmonic space to allow Metheny to stretch out and take it to new places. I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to Jobim than to stretch his gorgeous melodies across the broad canvas Metheny paints here.

Rainy Days and Mondays (7:11) – I grew up hearing the Carpenters on AM radio, and my wife has always been a huge fan. In this era of over-produced same-sounding pop divas, it is hard to remember when a pop singer like Karen Carpenter had a gorgeous voice and tremendous feeling and charm in her style and presentation. This song was written by Paul Williams and Herbie Nichols, and is simply one of the most beautiful songs of the 70’s. Metheny keeps the core pure and innocent, yet stretches the structure very far from the original composition. It makes for a song that is at once easy to digest for non-jazz fans yet interesting and rewarding to study.

That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be (6:03) – Carly Simon has managed to reinvent herself several times, but forty years ago she released her debut record and her amazing first single – and this song remains as vibrant and somber today as it was then. While views on marriage and divorce have greatly changed through the years, the feelings of love and hurt have not. Metheny himself had a rather painful and (for him and the jazz world) public heartbreak around the time of Secret Story in the early 90’s. He infuses this song with all of his ‘hope and hopelessness’ to quote Joni Mitchell. He improvises quote a bit around the wide open structure he creates within the song.

Slow Hot Wind (4:28) – This is a song I know from hearing Sarah Vaughn sing it live and later on record. It is a beautiful Henry Mancini theme with a lyrical melody and compelling chord structure. Metheny weaves a tapestry through both at once while creating something that is at once entirely new yet instantly familiar as the original song. This is something he does throughout – deconstructing songs and stripping them to their barest essence and then rebuilding them in a way that allows him to showcase what matters most both musically and personally in a way that is simple and yet infinitely complex.

Betcha by Golly, Wow (5:18) – I knew this as a Stylistics song from the early 70’s, but it was made famous earlier by Johnny Mathis so I don’t know which version inspired Metheny. When I saw the song listed I wasn’t sure what to think – and with the opening line it felt like a simple retelling of the theme … but then it just opened up wide. This is am amazing reinterpretation that makes all other versions pale in comparison. Metheny states the them while starting to open things up, then just keeps on going … and by the time he gets around to full-on improvisation he has completely reinvented the song! It was perhaps my biggest surprise on the record!

And I Love Her (4:22) – An intimate nylon string reading of the Beatles classic from A Hard Day’s Night, this song more heavily leans on the Bossa Nova feel implied in the original song – remember that ‘Girl From Ipanema’ won Best Song Grammy in 1964 at the height of the Bossa craze just as Beatlemania took over. It is more restrained than most harmonic explorations on the record, but still pushes the boundaries of the original while also paying tribute. The last song on the ‘normal’ recording and CD versions, this is an excellent way to close the record – paying respect to a band reviled by many jazz artists of the day but immensely influential for anyone growing up in that era.

‘Round Midnight (Bonus Track) (6:41) – Tossing in the classic Thelonious Monk song as a bonus track is just that – a bonus. A classic jazz song that Metheny doubtlessly played thousands of times, yet never recorded. This actually came up in the forums on his website ages ago as someone was collecting versions of this song and had over 200 … but not one from Metheny. Hopefully that person has added this great rendition to his collection!

This Nearly Was Mine (iTunes-only Bonus Track) (4:29) – one of the great songs from the musical South Pacific, this explores the pain as Emile mulls what could have been but was lost due to Nellie’s racism. The songs of Rogers & Hammerstein have long been a goldmine for popular singers and jazz musicians due to the beautiful melodies and rich harmonic structures, and this is no exception. The song once again melds love and heartache, joy and sorrow, and doesn’t feel like a ‘limited bonus track’ but instead is seamlessly integrated with some of the better and more inventive renditions featured here.

Overall Thoughts
When I saw Pat Metheny live last year and he took a section to play on solo guitar building from six string to 42-string Pikasso and then into controlling part of his Orchestrion, I knew that while he continued to have musical conceptions far beyond just the guitar, he had figured out how to find a space that contained the possibilities of the guitar and the ideas in his head. Live it was stunning as part of a larger whole, here it is an amazing realization of what is possible.

The songs here cast a broad swath across popular songs from the early 1960s through the early 1970s without choosing many overly-familiar stops. Yet just about every song is instantly recognizable but their interpretation adds entirely new life and substance to even songs as over-played as ‘Girl from Ipanema’. Metheny makes the baritone guitar work for him as a tool rather than a muse this time around, and the effects are immediately clear. Seldom have we heard Metheny as clear and concise in his thoughts – and he has little choice since is simultaneously providing lead, harmony, bass and rhythm sections in an expanded harmonic language he paints for each of these songs. This is one of my favorite 2011 albums so far and highly recommended.

Where to Buy: iTunes Music Store

Price: $11.99 (CD available for $13.49 at Amazon)

What I Like:
– Great composition selections and wonderful arrangements of familiar songs.
– Metheny expands harmonies and weaves all-new structures into even the seemingly most simple of songs
– Integrates full-band impact of melody, harmony and rhythm in a single instrument without overdubs.
– Emotional connection without ever becoming sentimental or cheesy.

What Needs Improvement:
– Bonus tracks cause value problems across different versions of the album.

Pat Metheny has put out several samples of songs from the album on YouTube, definitely worth checking out:

And I Love Her – The Beatles

That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be – Carly Simon

Girl From Ipanema – Antonio Carlos Jobim

Cherish – The Association

Rainy Days and Mondays – The Carpenters

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!