Monday, December 25, 2006

Soul Genius

James Brown, 1928 - 2006
LP: The Payback (1973)




Although Bob Dylan famously advised us not to follow leaders, we wouldn't get far without them. Even the greatest artists are influenced by their forbears - Dylan by Woody Guthrie, Sinatra by Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles by Guitar Slim and Nat 'King' Cole. In popular music, as in religion or politics, change occurs as messages are transmitted to the masses by individuals - visionary elites, if you will. Possessed of unique sensitivities and intense drive, these remarkable souls react to their environment and invest their personal revelations with universal relevance, thus kickstarting popular movements.

James Brown, the self-styled Godfather of Soul, was such a leader. A ubiquitous and defining presence in pop culture, it's humbling to consider what a vital force Brown was in the evolution of gospel and rhythm 'n' blues into soul and funk. Rock, jazz, disco, dance, hip-hop and electronica all bear his imprint. Following his untimely demise - passing away on Christmas Day, now how stylish is that? - I’ve had my favorite Brown LP The Payback on heavy rotation.

The Payback is a key LP in Brown's development, coming at a pivotal moment following the Black Caesar LP, the death of his eldest son Teddy in a car crash and just before his career went into its famous late 70s slump. Originally conceived as soundtrack to the Hell Up In Harlem blaxpoitation movie, (but, amazingly, rejected by its director for "not being James Brown enough"!) this is a landmark funk album.

That The Payback was something of a departure for Brown is clear from the wigout LP cover, a bizarre pastoral homage to Black Power which depicts the Godfather of Soul as a benign father-figure proclaiming “we got a right to the tree of life” as he looks down upon images of dollar bills and what appears to be a post coital black couple. The sleeve notes proclaim “It all began with forty acres and a mule… a simple desire for one whose personal branch on the tree of life struggled to protect itself from the dangerous branches of lust and greed". Powerful stuff.

“Revenge, I’m mad,” declares Brown, before the hypnotic funk of the title track kicks in. Whoever sold James out - it might be the guy who stole his girl, the girl herself or even the government - they better watch out, as he warns, “I don't know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!” In the confessional ballad Doing the Best I Can, (featuring a haunting “I’m For Real” chorus) James tries everything he can think of to get back with his woman. Following that, lamenting the loss of his son, Brown's hurt is palpable on Forever Suffering, with its heartbreaking "There ain’t nobody home" refrain.

After that the band picks itself up and dusts itself off for the exciting horn workout Time is Running Out Fast, (characterized by a distinctive African flavor which gives a passing nod to Fela Kuti) and there’s hardly time to catch your breath before The Godfather hollers his way through the meditative groove of Mind Power, presented here as the key to escaping the ghetto ("You can't fool yourself/You gotta deal with it/Look in the mirror").

A funk-drenched exploration of black anger, pain and pride, The Payback takes the listener on a remarkable journey. Brown is at times vitriolic, but still soulful, energized and exhortatory, his performance verging on stream of consciousness. The wonderful JBs display some of the most amazing musicianship to be found on any James Brown record, laying down some terrific extended jams.

If you're wanting to pay homage to the late, great Godfather, this is a great place to start. Funk as catharsis, The Payback pushes Brown's groove to its telepathic limits.


LISTEN. The Godfather and more. Check out We Funk. D
eep funk, underground hip-hop, and rare grooves:http://www.wefunkradio.com/

Saturday, December 23, 2006

What becomes a legend most?


Pink Floyd (Psychedelia)
iPod Choice: Jugband Blues (1968)

Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, 1946 - 2006



Sad news for rock fans this year was the passing of Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett, founding member and inspiration behind Pink Floyd. His rise and fall are traceable through the evolution of Pink Floyd’s classic early singles (all Barrett originals), the psychedelic masterpiece Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and two patchily brilliant solo LPs.

A gifted composer and guitarist, Barrett exerted a wizardlike attraction on admirers. Said to be borderline autistic or aspergic, he was also one of the rare individuals who have experienced synaesthesia - an apparent ability to see sounds and hear colours - which helped effect a singular musical vision.

Possessing a peculiarly English whimsy and childlike sense of wonder - in this respect John Lennon being perhaps his only equal among contemporaries - Syd’s influence was felt by The Beatles and David Bowie.

Yet Barrett was active as a musician for a relatively brief period, leading his bandmates to the verge of stardom before a drug-induced psychological collapse prompted social withdrawal and eventual seclusion. The story of Syd unwittingly sacrificing his sanity on the altar of psychedelia is a cautionary tale for all users of ‘mind-expanding’ substances, and also for those who indulge in idol worship.

I’ve recently been revisiting Jugband Blues, Barrett’s schizophrenic swansong from Floyd's A Saucerful of Secrets album. Representing the point where his mania span irrecoverably out of control, Jugband Blues shows a brilliant mind struggling to maintain its hold on reality. It begins with these extraordinary lines:

It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I’m most obliged to you for making it clear that I’m not here
.

A 'blues' in its fatalistic sadness, Jugband Blues depicts a plaintive yet scary awareness of an unhinged mind slipping beyond its owner’s grasp. The song ends with a schizoid juxtaposition of brass band and interstellar guitar which jarringly gives way to Syd's self-mocking realization of impending psychological collapse:

And the sea isn’t green/And I love the Queen
And what exactly is a dream?/And what exactly is a joke?

Following Barrett's abdication from pop sainthood, he led a fairly normal existence, doing home repair (reportedly amused by the often ramshackle results), shopping, painting, cooking curries and entertaining his nephews and nieces with dextrous word games. Though psychologically delicate, he probably wasn't as near mental collapse as many fans suppose.

Auction photos of Barrett's estate depict bicycles, stereo equipment, kitchenware and homemade furniture, often curiously painted and modified. Fascinating in their skewed mundanity, these household objects suggest an affecting eccentricity rather than the stuff of which legends are made.

Barrett himself had no interest in his mythic status; indifferent to his past and bemused by fans' obsessive attention, he could only remark of a BBC tribute to his music that it was “rather noisy.”

So what becomes a legend most? In Syd's case, an understandable denial of the fantasy which fans had projected onto him. Though the pressures of his hyper-reality caused Barrett to turn his back on stardom, his followers clung vicariously to his myth.

Projecting - a la Jung - their unconscious desires onto their hero, they behaved as if he were truly what they imagined, a madcap magus, rather than a suburban recluse who desired nothing less than humdrum individuation.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Controversy and Infamy

Opinion: The ‘N-word’



2006 probably won’t be remembered as a great year for mainstream hip hop music. Jay-Z showed his age with a distinctly below par comeback, Bubba Sparxx lost the plot in his efforts to become a pop star, and Snoop descended further into self-parody with puerile and offensive videos. To cap it all, Nas rode out the year with an LP which proclaimed Hip Hop is Dead.

Thank heavens for Missy Elliot. For me, the brilliant Respect M.E. compilation confirmed Missy’s pre-eminence among rappers – male and female - and underlined Timbaland’s status as one of the most innovative producers in popular music. It’s one of my top LPs of the year.

According to most fans and critics, the high point of 2006 was The Clipse Hell Hath No Fury release. Hailed as groundbreaking minimalist gangsta-rap, its amazing sound concocted by the Neptunes, much of the LP does make for an edgy, groovy listen. But when it comes down to it, it remains a celebration of coke-fueled gang culture which disses “faggots” in its ill rhymes while proclaiming, “The world’s my monopoly with your bitch on top of me”. Women and gays probably won’t be impressed. Containing its share of bigotry, misogyny and materialism, Hell Hath no Fury has few claims to consciousness raising.

Talking of raising awareness, the disgraceful racist diatribe by Seinfeld star Michael ‘Kramer’ Richards in a Los Angeles comedy club was a low point of 2006. One of America’s most popular white comic actors spewing racial invective at a largely black audience made for a sorry, dispiriting sight.

If there’s a silver lining to the cloud hanging over Richard’s head, it might be that he inadvertently reignited the debate over the use of the ‘N-word’ among the hip-hop community. Certainly it’s gotten me thinking about my own contentious relationship with rap music (I'm a fan) to the extent that I’ve now found myself blanching every time the ‘N-word’ comes up in a hip-hop track.

Back in ’88, Niggaz With Attitude blew my mind when they exploded out of Compton with Fuck tha’ Police. I was shocked, I admit, but the dramatic justification for the profanity seemed undeniable in the age of Rodney King. At that juncture - twenty years back, it should be emphasized - gangsta-rap was exciting and vital. When Public Enemy demanded we Fight the Power, the message had relevance and urgency. As African-American scholars like Mike Dyson and Todd Boyd placed the ‘N word’ in its historical context, the term, it was said, had been reappropriated by hip-hoppers as a term of empowerment. Parallels were drawn with homosexuals ‘taking back’ the words ‘gay’and ‘queer’. “It’s only a word”, rappers said, "but now it’s our word". The more it was used, they claimed, the more desensitized it became.

The degree of sensitivity is clearly heavily dependent on context. Among the African-American community, nigga is used freely, but when Latina actress Jennifer Lopez used the word on live radio, she was censured by blacks. This despite the fact that she had been in a long term relationship with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and therefore could plausibly claim some intimacy with black culture. If a double standard has arisen around use of the word, maybe it’s a double standard we’re going to have to get used to.

Black hip-hoppers claim they are making music which represents their community, yet their buying audience is predominantly white. Why then use a word that vilifies blacks to continue spreading the ignorance, a term which can divert listeners' attention from any intended message? The soul giants of the sixties and seventies, after all, raised consciousness without resorting to profanity and evident self-hatred.

It’s easy of course to point out the negative aspects of hip-hop because controversy and infamy generates more media exposure. Let's not forget that ‘conscious' acts like The Roots, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu, Jedi Mind Tricks, Spearhead, Gnarls Barkley, Intellekt and Black Eyed Peas have all stressed affirmation in their music.

Nevertheless, it’s clear from hip-hop magazines and discussion groups that many in the black community are uncomfortable with artists indiscriminately bandying about the ‘N-word’. Its use, they claim, has become counterproductive. Black Commentator magazine calls for "a new trajectory within hip-hop modalities". Where’s the 'empowerment', they ask, when Jay-Z has a hit song titled, Jigga, My Nigga, and impressionable white kids are singing along? How can blacks continue to use the term yet take white racists to task for doing the same?

The 'N-word' debate is a complex, sensitive issue, and I admit, as a white man, I sometimes don’t feel entirely comfortable dealing with it. But I‘m a music fan, a hip-hop fan, a lover of culture. Hip-hop makes me think, it makes me dance, often it makes me laugh. As a consumer and admirer of this art I have a vested interest - I can’t separate myself from its controversies. Even if 2006 hasn’t been a great year for urban music, I'm hopeful that this discussion could represent a turning point for rap and - in terms of how it’s perceived by the masses - be seen as the moment when mainstream hip-hop got its (political) groove back.


What do readers think about this issue? Please post a comment.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sheer Ecstasy

John Tejada (Minimal techno)
Track: The End of it All (2006)
Lindstr
øm (Space Disco)
Track: I Feel Space (2005)
Chelonis R. Jones (Techno)
Track: Deer in the Headlights (Radio Slave Remix) (2006)



If you simply can’t get it on with techno, I’m not about to try and change your mind. Personally I’m intrigued by the talent that can get to grips with this kind of music making.

As fans know, even if you're mad for electronica it's hard to keep up with new developments. Since the explosion of sequencing, sampling and synthesis technology in the late 80s, electronica has developed to the point where there’s a mind-boggling array of combinations. Sub-genres have their own sub-genres, and you can hone your personal taste to the nth degree.

During my sporadic forays into the underworld of the techno tribes I inevitably unearth something which excites me, and I'll obsess for a while about that artist till my hunger for groove has been exhausted. These three tracks have had my head spinning for weeks, and remind me of one of the main attractions of electronica: I love to draw the blinds and shake my booty when no one's looking.

Whether it's house, techno, glitch pop, drum & bass or even instrumental hip-hop, John Tejada seems to have the ability to switch effortlessly between categories with predictaby splendid results, never sacrificing melodicism in the process. Another in a long line of masterpieces, the minimal techno of The End Of It All is perfectly realized, each note spherical and elegant, the whole a sublimely understated groove.

Norway’s techno genius Hans-Peter Lindstrøm is such a huge presence there are few dancefloor devotees who aren’t already familiar with I Feel Space, an irresistible taster from the It's a Feedelity Affair 12” single collection. Already acknowledged as classic space disco, I Feel Space’s squelchy stabs give way to a gorgeous wash of synths and Lindstrøm's insistent Moroder beat never lets up.

The Radio Slave remix of Chelonis R. Jones' Deer in the Headlights steps things up a gear with a more direct techno attack. Beautiful sci-fi clicks give way to a gurgling beat and soulful vocal sample. Heard on a packed rush hour train hurtling through Japan’s urban nightmare it’s absolute heaven, and cranked on a club sound system at 2AM I’ve no doubt it’s sheer ecstasy.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

War, cars and football

Tall Pony (Psycho-Art-Rock)
iPod Choice: I'm Your Boyfriend Now (2006)
Winner: Best Band Name Category



Now this is what I miss about British culture. A record which sounds amateurishly homemade yet utterly hip and and gets played on mainstream radio (I first heard it on the BBC).

Invoking in their twisted poptones the ghosts of Cabaret Voltaire and Public Image Ltd, Tall Pony (actually two chaps from Cheltenham named Tony and Paul, heh-heh) deliver menacing ultimatums to a new girlfriend: "We will talk about war, cars and football". Creepy, amusing and utterly wonderful.

I'm Your Boyfriend Now can be heard on oloRadio.
Tall Pony at MySpace: http://myspace.com/123806710

Mystic Warbles

Black Sabbath (Psychedelic Chill)
Track: Planet Caravan (1970)




Back in '88, before anyone ever heard of The Osbournes, my friend Jane was living in darkest Beverly Hills, working as nanny to Ozzy and Sharon's sprogs. The kids were waaay out of control, Papa was a law unto himself and mealtimes were apparently a free for all - food, knives, furniture went flying - no one could predict what would happen next.

I bet dinner with Ozzy was never as sedate as this. The current chill-out favorite chez moi is Planet Caravan, a relatively forgotten track from the classic Paranoid LP, and recently revived on a LateNightTales mix. 

Pantera covered this one, but they didn't really do it justice, perhaps because it's not what we would normally consider standard Sabbath fare. Laid-back and distinctly unsatanic, it’s easy to imagine this little gem emerging at the end of a stoned Black Country space jam. 

The Floyd influence is obvious as Ozzy’s mystic warbles riff on windless skies and silhouette dreams, while Tony Iommi contributes a marvelous solo - jazzy but also Gilmouresque. Ever-so-slightly off kilter (thanks in part to Bill Ward’s gawky bongos), Planet Caravan is spooky and enticing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Mindless Boogie

Oasis (Lad-Rock)
LP: Stop the Clocks (2006)




Exploding onto the mid-90s scene as heirs to a formidable legacy of Manchester rock legends - The Hollies, Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, Magazine, The Smiths, The Stone Roses - Oasis received an hysterical welcome from the scally army as they swept away the tedious ennui of grunge.

Calling card of New Laddism, their first LP Definitely Maybe (the hedge in the title exhibiting classic Oasisian befuddled vagueness) was the UK's fastest selling debut ever. Majordomo Noel Gallagher, churning out chart-toppers apparently at will, proved to be a one-man hit factory. Nothing, it seemed, could stop them.

Yet, as the 'best of' compilation Stop the Clocks demonstrates, Oasis rapidly became formulaic and boring, trapped inside an exhausted rock ‘n’ roll fantasy with no means of escape. Early numbers like Rock ‘n’ Roll pack an adrenaline rush, but the Oasis catalog lacks musical depth, a particularly depressing fact in light of their status as a global phenomenon.

Confused stoner lad anthems par excellence, Oasis songs invite you to slip inside your mind to see what you’ll find, only to discover...ulp!...there’s nothing there. Wonderwall, an Oasis 'classic' and one of the most embarrassingly meaningless songs ever recorded by a major band, drones on: “There are many things I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how”.

And the literary nuggets keep on coming: I Hope, I Think, I Know (Lyric: “I feel a little doubt today/And I ain’t got much to say”). Noel never met a rhyming couplet he didn’t like, nor ran out of exciting phrases to describe his mental vacuity.

If Oasis’ music displays a recurring emotional numbness (a common trait among habitual coke users), the band bring their legendary arrogance and self-aggrandizement into play as a psychologically defensive publicity ploy.

Snarling and scrapping and boasting their way through interviews and airport lounges, exemplars of the loutishness which pervades British culture, the Gallaghers are generally too into themselves to be uplifting or profound. They give spoiled layabout rockers a bad name, and make stardom about as glamorous as laying bricks.

Despite their avowed reverence for The Beatles, Oasis rarely exhibit the depth, humor or ironic self-deprecation of their idols. The sonic explorations of a Radiohead, the transcendent emotiveness of a Jeff Buckley or Polly Harvey seem beyond them. Standing on the shoulders of giants, shackled by oafishness, the Gallaghers rarely connect with the deeper possibilities of their muse.

If there's a saving grace, it's that Oasis are expert purveyors of no nonsense mindless boogie, and I admit a grudging partiality to the confident strut of their best songs. Some Might Say, Don't Look Back in Anger, Live Forever still sound great on the pub jukebox, and Talk Tonight even displays a rare sensitivity.

Indeed, the better parts of Stop the Clocks suggest there could yet be a way forward for Noel Gallagher, if he were only to lower his guard and expose the vulnerability inside his Mancunian heart.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tantric Turn-on

Karma Moffett (Meditation/Spiritual/Tantric Sex)
LP: Golden Bowls (1995)



I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Moffett in his Tibetan goods shop on Polk Street, San Francisco in the early 90s. Golden Bowls was playing in the background and I was immediately entranced by its meditative otherwordliness. Like his music, Mr. Moffett communicated a calming and spiritual presence. He ushered me into his inner sanctum for some Jasmine tea and Tibetan Yak cheese.

Far removed from the banality of 'new age' music, Golden Bowls preserves the depth and spirituality of Tibetan bells, never diluting their essence. Indeed, this LP is a marvellous accompaniment for meditation, relaxation, Tantric couplings or any other intimate moments. Recorded live at the Land of the Medicine Buddha Monastery, Golden Bowls is a classic of the genre.

Artist web site: http://karmamoffett.com/

Ethel the Frog's Guilty Pleasure

Johnny Winter (Blues-Rock Epiphany)
LP: The Progressive Blues Experiment (1969)



My friend Ted - a record company A&R guy - used to say that every music fan has at least one guilty pleasure stashed away in their record collection, a album or single so abominably uncool it's guaranteed to attract hoots of derision.

Ted’s secret shame was 70s whizz-kid Todd Rundgren. Not the early masterworks on which the Runt built his early reputation - Something, Anything and A Wizard, A True Star. We’re talking the spiritual prog-rock of Rundgren’s Initiation / Hermit of Pink Hollow period, and the woeful prog-anthem-fusion-rock of his Utopia project.

Ted told me he derived a perverse satisfaction from records like these. Sure, his friends thought they sucked, but that just made him like them all the more. They were indivisible elements of a masochistic teenage rite of passage, so overblown and bombastic that only a true fan - a bona fide fanatic - could remain immune to their excesses.

When I got to thinking about my own guilty pleasure, one choice stood out: the 1969 blues-rock classic The Progressive Blues Experiment, by “the whitest man ever to play the blues”, Texas albino guitar legend Johnny Winter.

In 1968, Johnny was playing in his first classic lineup with bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John Turner. They recorded The Progressive Blues Experiment (live, but with no audience) at the Vulcan Gas Company in Austin. In actuality it was a glorified demo intended to drum up some major label attention. Shortly thereafter, an article in Rolling Stone magazine helped generate a great deal of interest in the group, and, thanks to impresario Steve Paul (credited as, er, 'organic advisor' on one of Johnny's later albums), Johnny suddenly found himself on the verge of major label stardom, signed by CBS and hailed as the fastest, coolest guitar slinger in America.

Johnny’s major label debut Johnny Winter was released on CBS near the end of that year, with Progressive Blues coming out at the same time, causing not only some embarrassment for Johnny and CBS but also poor sales. Luckily CBS didn't lose faith in Johnny and his next album, Second Winter (a double album with, get this, only three sides!) went gold on the back of Johnny’s barnstorming appearance at the Woodstock festival.

The rest is history - Johnny went on to become the whitest, rockingest, most lightnin'-fingered axe hero around, a major concert draw and, after he’d conquered a career-threatening heroin addiction, the man behind Muddy Waters’ triumphant Grammy-winning comeback album Hard Again.

The funny thing is, The Progressive Blues Experiment is about ten thousand times better than Johnny’s major-label debut, exhibiting a raw vitality almost completely missing from the CBS album. From the get go, the excitement never lets up.

On the opening cut, a screaming high-octane version of blues standard Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Johnny and the boys are white hot, and Johnny’s licks have to be heard to be believed. You’ve barely had time to catch your breath when along comes Tribute to Muddy, a rootsy salutation to Johnny’s muse Muddy Waters (not too loosely-based, as it turns out, around Muddy’s own Catfish Blues).

Another highlight, Black Cat Bone is a hell-for-leather tour de force which showcases Johnny’s astounding electric slide technique, and It’s My Own Fault is an extended wig out version of the B.B. King classic only bettered by the incredible live version on 1971’s Johnny Winter And Live. You also get what are perhaps Johnny’s two best ever – and that’s saying something - National Steel acoustic slide performances on Bad Luck and Trouble and Broke Down Engine, as well as a funky take on Slim Harpo’s Got Love if you Want It, featuring a typically nimble yet endearingly sloppy Winter guitar solo. Oh, and Johnny sings the blues with that unique raspy Texan drawl and plays a mean harp and mandolin, too.

Long-revered among hard-core Winter devotees, The Progressive Blues Experiment has appeared in numerous incarnations over the years (I’ve owned FIVE different copies, on album, cassette, CD, even 8-track). The original features hilarious photos of Johnny with a pageboy hairdo, cape and medieval tunic which totally blow his cool guitar hero image. The first version of the album which I owned also carried some priceless sleeve notes which I’ve long since committed to memory:

“Winter is hot and heavy in his blues bag. Before the session there was Johnny and his guitar. During the session, Johnny became the guitar.”

Let's not forget the other classic albums Johnny recorded during his career. They include the aforementioned greatest EVER live rock-blues record Johnny Winter And Live (Stevie Ray WHO??) , as well as the 1977 classic, Nothin’ But the Blues (recorded with Muddy Waters' last, great, band) and 1978’s blistering White Hot and Blue.

But Progressive Blues has a special place in the hearts of Johnny's fans. Maybe it's because - artistic brilliance aside - it's a kind of mongrel, neither here nor there. It's live, but it isn't. It's an album, but it's really a demo. Johnny's cool, but by the same token he's an uglysonofagun.

Fellow Johnny Winter fans are hard to come by these days. They know they're not cool, and tend to keep a low profile, only coming out of the woodwork at one of Johnny’s increasingly rare live shows, where they can feel comfortable enough to let their hair down and whoop it up among their own kind.

My best buddy Ethel the Frog is the only other freak I know who loves Johnny like I do. When we first became aware of Johnny (during his legendary appearance on British TV's Old Grey Whistle Test show, now immortalized on BBC DVD), we each had a rock-blues epiphany, rushed out to buy Johnny's albums and solemnly inscribed his name on our school satchels, beside those of Status Quo and Rory Gallagher.

Johnny belongs to us, and The Progressive Blues Experiment is our private thing. We know we need to get a life, but we can still spend an entire evening passionately arguing about Johnny, while our twenty-five year standing disagreement on which is the album’s best track is still going strong. Is it Tribute to Muddy (Ethel's choice) or Black Cat Bone (mine)? Hard call.

It doesn’t matter who’s right. What’s important - aside from male bonding - is the primal experience of a record which feels like it was genetically programmed as part of your very being, where every vocal whoop (no one yells "Whooo!" like Johnny), every fumbled note, every cymbal crash is an absolute perfection, hard-wired into your brain, set to destroy.

For maniacs like us, reveling in our fandom, The Progressive Blues Experiment, every raw, electric, compelling second of it, is a guilty pleasure we’ll know we’ll never outgrow. It's only rock 'n' roll, but we sure do like it. All together now: "Whooooo!"

Progressive Blues web site (including those hilarious photos): http://www.yee.ch/winter/Disco/winter_disco_progressivebluesexperiment.html

Artist web site: http://www.johnnywinter.net/

Best fan site: http://www.yee.ch/winter/

Millionaires and Teddy Bears

Kevin Coyne (Art-Rock Angst)
iPod Choice: Having a Party (1978)

From the essential, absolutely classic Millionaires and Teddy Bears album. Over an elementary yet compelling guitar shuffle, the late Kevin Coyne rants against record industry mavens, "Fools in fool's hats" (specifically, Richard Branson). Celebrating and lamenting his outsider status, Coyne is characteristically gruff and incisive. You gotta be rough and tough and rough and tough to be a pop star. Just like the man said, "After Kevin Coyne, everything else is just toothpaste".

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Handsome Poet's Finest Hour

That Man Fantastic (Art-Pop)
LP: Pop Songs for Art Films (2006)




A select few have been aware of Stephen Duffy's presence in San Francisco music circles since the early 90s, notably with modern rock geniuses Handsome Poets.

His latest project, Pop Songs for Art Films, a meditation on maturity, contentment, isolation and faded dreams, continues his tradition of crafting moody evocative pop influenced by - among others - Beth Gibbons, Brian Eno, David Bowie, U2, Nick Drake, and Rinse Dream. Well, if you're going to have influences you couldn't do much better than that, and on this record That Man Fantastic more than live up to them.

Second Skin
, a standout track, is distinguished by Duffy's yearning vocals and trademark circular acoustic guitar patterns. Many of the songs are haunted by liberal applications of reverb and a shimmering moodiness courtesy of Brother Jack Elder's guitar work, notably on She Who is Always in My Thoughts, a touching tribute to a constant companion.

In fact there are lovely guitar touches all over this beautifully produced album; check the spooky musings of Electricity. Instrumentally there is much else to admire, including stirring melodic bass courtesy of David Brooks, and some lovely piano work, for instance on Layer upon Layer. Stephen, have you been taking lessons on the old joanna? Nice one.

There are other surprises on this album, too. Listening to The Prayer, TMF seem to have created a new genre, "ambient alt.country rock!" If that sounds weird, give it a spin - I have feeling you'll be impressed. Fans will enjoy spotting influences here, but then there are some songs, like Or all 6, (say it fast, you'll get the pun) and Whenever I See the Sun (quite often in California, I'd have thought!), which are pure Stephen Duffy. I can't explain what that means, you'll have to hear for yourself.

After listening to Pop Songs for Art Films, I rather pretentiously reminded myself of T.S. Eliot's poem Little Gidding, where Eliot writes: "We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time". It really feels like Duffy and his cohorts have effected a kind of homecoming on this record. The cover photo shows band members relaxing on a couch in the middle of the sidewalk, a comfortable if somewhat exposed location which sums up the feeling of much of this album - cozy and welcoming, yet spacious and occasionally edgy.

Celebrating the mystery of creation and a love reborn, Pop Songs for Art Films is Stephen Duffy's finest hour.

Artist web site: http://www.myspace.com/thatmanfantastic

Obliterate

Plastic Ono Band (Rock)
iPod choice: Don't Worry Kyoko
(Mummy's Only Looking for her Hand in the Snow) (1969)



It's late 1969 and John Lennon's pick up band, featuring Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Alan White and Yoko Ono, run through a few rockers on the plane before stumbling on stage to obliterate 50,000 Canadians at the Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Festival. Live Peace in Toronto is one of the great live albums. Its climax is this stunning version of Don't Worry Kyoko, originally b-side to the cataclysmic Cold Turkey single.

Engaged at the time in a custody battle with her ex-husband for daughter Kyoko, Ono screeches convincingly as Lennon and co pound a relentless riff into the ground. Unfairly maligned and undervalued (she pretty much wrote Imagine, her hubbie's most popular song), Yoko is at her wailing best here. Even better if you can catch it on the Sweet Toronto DVD, and witness Bagism in all its glory.

Familiar Ghosts

The Clientele (Art-Pop)
LP: Strange Geometry (2006)




As a small but devoted following continues to champion their music, I know I’m not alone in feeling there’s hardly a band to touch The Clientele. The transcendent,
deceptively effortless Strange Geometry is proof positive they are one of Britain's top groups.

It's true The Clientele have in the past been criticized for hardly deviating from their signature sound. Like their previous CD The Violet Hour, Strange Geometry resolutely sustains its emotional mood. But what a mood. Like familiar ghosts, lyrical motifs appear and reappear as songs unfold. However, rather than creating a feeling of repetition, the emotional tone is heightened, the unity of feeling maintained.

A common Clientele theme - the bittersweet tension between sadness and heightened emotional awareness - is addressed on the delicate I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine, an ode to frustrated passion distinguished by a typically gorgeous guitar pattern tremoloing its way to heaven. On E.M.P.T.Y., jangly guitar lines interweave with a barely audible violin as the protagonist sighs for the dreams of beautiful losers.

But few pop songs have described the disembodied agony of a marooned heart like the exquisite Since K Got Over Me. Instrumentally, every element is perfectly restrained and delicately placed, while Alasdair MacLean’s breathy vocals are resigned and wisely sad:

All my senses shot
My hands are fists

I’m really tired of making lists

It’s just this emptiness I can’t chase away

And when the evening paints the streets

It’s like walking on a trampoline

A profound meditation on echoes of lost love and transfixing urban ennui, Strange Geometry is a superb album.


Evil Thoughts

Graeme Todd (Alt.Country Pop)
Track: Old Photographs (2006)



Country succeeds like no other music in evoking the ups and downs of family strife and bittersweet loss. On a bed of honky-tonk guitar and banjo, Todd rifles through his family album, announces "Here come the evil thoughts/From evil men/You thought had gone", and with a flash we are back in 1969, wistfully keening for days of fathers, cloudless skies, lawns and frozen smiles.

Todd is a Brit, now transplanted in Japan. Perhaps that's why, even amid its alt-country surroundings, Old Photographs recalls British kitchen-sink TV dramas of the early 1960s. Redolent, earthy and wistful, Todd delivers a charming paean to a time that's dead and gone.

MP3 Old Photographs: Listen

"Thems that die'll be the lucky ones!"


The Drones (Rock)

iPod Choice: Shark Fin Blues (2005)



There's already a grand seafaring tradition in rock music: Led Zeppelin's Moby Dick, the cover of The Pogues' Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, The Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues, er, Yellow Submarine. Now this from Australia's Drones. Ahab meets Neil Young and Ned Kelly in a gripping drama of sharks, albatrosses, brotherhood and despair. Standing on deck, the water lapping at his ankles as the wreck goes down, the protagonist can only embrace his shipmates with a mighty shout as sharks circle and oblivion beckons, "Floating away on a barrel of pain". What a way to go.


Return of The Four Headed Monster

The Beatles (Pop/Mash-up)LP: Love (2006)










On The White Album’s Revolution No. 9, The Beatles - unconsciously channeling 60s avant-gardists Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono - experimented with cut-up techniques pioneered by 1950s Beat Generation enfant terrible William S. Burroughs. Intent on challenging the linearity of popular culture, Burroughs - himself later tributed on the cover of Sgt Pepper - had famously asserted that “When you cut word lines the future leaks out”, a point not to be lost on hip-hoppers and samplers some 40 years later.

A touch of Burroughsian iconoclasm would have made a world of difference on Love, soundtrack to Cirque de Soleil's Las Vegas extravaganza. In fact, we might have had a minor masterpiece on our hands had this project been approached in the manner of CCC’s Revolved or Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, both of which famously mashed up The Beatles to intriguing effect.

As it is, Love was overseen by Beatles' producer George Martin and son Giles, both perhaps inhibited by excessive reverence for their source material and the constraints of producing what is, after all, the soundtrack to a Las Vegas circus show. As a result, there’s little evidence of future shock, rather another engaging exercise in Beatles nostalgia which is sure to fly off store shelves by the boxload.

That’s not to say that Love isn’t a good listen, or its recontextualization a complete failure. After all, this IS The Beatles. Part gimmickry and part a jaw-dropping reshuffle of pop's mightiest back-catalog, Love is a giddy joyride through moptop history. Beatlemaniacs will thrill to its juxtaposition of familiar favorites, and advances in studio technology ensure that a splendid time is guaranteed for most, if not all.

The acerbic anti-establishment rant I am the Walrus has never sounded this good on CD. The results here are breathtaking, in particular George Martin's celebrated cello arrangement, which benefits from dramatic, crystal clear definition. Similarly, the distorted guitars on Revolution ROCK…BIG TIME, while The Beatles' harmony vocals have to be heard on this recording to be believed.

Other inspired touches, such as McCartney’s blistering Taxman guitar solo grafted onto Drive My Car, are great fun, and the group's two greatest songs, A Day in the Life and Hey Jude, acquire a new-found sonic majesty here, courtesy, again, of superb remastering. John Ono Lennon - a huge fan of studio wizardry - would surely have approved of the backwards-rendered ‘Gnik Nus (Sun King), a divinely gorgeous sound which shows what could have been achieved here with a tad more imagination.

Case in point is the juxtaposition of Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows with George Harrison's Within You Without You. While eerily effective, the combination is an obvious one, both tracks long since immortalized as cornerstones of eastern-influenced mid-period Beatles psychedelia. The mix of Strawberry Fields Forever, combining Lennon's early demo with the gradual studio evolution of the song, is essentially no different from what was presented on the Anthology version, and ends with an aimless smorgasbord of fab snippets which contributes to a general feeling of hollowness.

To be sure, it all sounds marvellous, but rather like a souped up version of those 1970s Beatles Stars on 45 singles. Ringo fans may get a kick hearing his droll rendering of Octopus’ Garden pasted over the syrupy strings from The White Album's Goodnight, but really what's the point? And while Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds sounds amazing, the increased brightness still doesn’t hide the fact that it was one of Sgt Pepper’s most under-realized tracks.

Most of Love will I'm sure make more sense when heard in the context of the Las Vegas show. One can easily imagine being blown away hearing this stuff through a multi-million dollar sound system. Though purists may bemoan the cranked up rhythm track, Macca's bass lines are now afforded a punch and prominence they couldn't always enjoy on Beatles analog recordings, while Ringo's drums hit home with impressive new force and clarity throughout.

Nevertheless, as a home listening experience there are moments where the whole exercise seems - if impressive - rather pointless. Once the novelty has worn off it's unlikely that listeners will often return to this album since, rather than suggest new levels of meaning or interpretation, Love fails to push the envelope far enough. DE- rather than RE-contextualized, much is lost, little gained. We are simply reminded of why we loved The Beatles so much in the first place.

So those anticipating a "new" Beatles album will be disappointed. The project mainly serves as a tribute to the excellent original recordings and, if nothing else, shows that - in light of advances in digital technology - The Beatles’ main back catalog would benefit from some serious remastering.

Fab Four anoraks will enjoy hours of pleasure spotting each cut and paste, but there will be those for whom Love is merely the latest irritation in an endless nostalgia fest. Whatever your view, it’s clear that what Mick Jagger described as "the four-headed monster" shows no sign of fading away. Once again The Beatles get back, and Love is an entertaining if at times exhausting trip through their era-defining masterworks.

Magic Grass

The Magic Grass Band (Psychedelic Groovy Rock)
Tracks: Explicit / Just Around Midnight / Southern Comfort
(Demos, 2006)



Proof that postmodern groove is alive and well in
Kyoto, Japan, The Magic Grass Band are a Japanese-Canadian-Italian-Panamanian (!) psychedelic-funk-rock collective who found each other, it seems, in Japan’s cultural capital. Can’t be bad. Though they exhibit roots in early Floyd, jazz-fusion and Latino funk, these musical misfits are ravers at heart, hence the overtones of electronica and trippy ambience in the mix. Best track (these are demos, I think) is Explicit (instrumental), an agreeably funky workout which gives more than a passing nod to Santana and Bitches Brew-era Miles. In fact that might be a Miles Davis sample establishing the groove, which proves these guys (and a gal) have impeccable taste.

Not sure whether it's the magic or the grass, but Aya, the singer, coos alluringly, backed by a solid rhythm section and propulsive guitar by Oli, who lays down a mean wah-wah.

Unfortunately, the Magics have seen fit to tease us by posting only the first six and three quarter bars of this song on their web site, but listen and you'll get the general idea. If you like what you hear, their album is due out in December, so save up your yen and you'll be able to make it a Cool Yule for Aya and her friends. How do you say "Merry Christmas" in Japanese, anyway?


Artist web site: http://www.freewebs.com/themagicgrassband/

Gromit's Grandad

iPod Choice: Muttley's Laugh (Spoken Word)
Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines (1969)



In 1969 Hanna-Barbara debuted a new cartoon – a spin-off of The Wacky Races show - entitled Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines. Much to the delight of young fans, there were negligible changes in the weekly plot: anti-hero Dick Dastardly devised nefarious schemes, with accomplice Muttley's help, to interdict a World War I carrier pigeon from delivering his message to the enemy. Needless to say, all attempts to stop the pigeon failed, and as a result of their Sisyphusian endeavors (parallels here with Wile. E. Coyote’s doomed attempts to catch Roadrunner), Dastardly and Muttley became one of the most celebrated double acts in cartoon history.


A forerunner of contemporary claymation star Wallace’s longsuffering canine sidekick Gromit, Muttley
(voiced by the multi-talented Don Messick) was the butt of Dastardly 's frustrations and the true hero of Dastardly and Muttley. The highlight of each show, Muttley’s trademark laugh - a wheezing snicker usually rendered at Dastardly’s expense and eagerly anticipated by viewers each week - has become iconic.

Muttley’s laugh: http://www.hotink.com/wacky/wrstuff/muttlaugh.wav