Sunday, July 23, 2006

Learning to Love the Bomb

If you can, try to recall the time, 20-something years ago. Before hip-hop was the dominant pop cultural force. Before Do the Right Thing. Before Yo! MTV Raps! Before the Beastie Boys. Before LL Cool J had a video. Before Run DMC’s Raising Hell. The direction of rap hadn’t been cemented. The Fat Boys and beat boxing were still where it was at. It was a moment, 1984 or so, when black music in America might have taken a drastically different turn. Instead of tough, street-minded, New York-centric MCs. There was an instant when go-go music -- a percussion-heavy, call-and-response party-chant music out of Washington DC -- had a chance at becoming the definining black good-time music. And there was no bigger go-go band than Trouble Funk.

I remember hearing Trouble Funk’s “Drop the Bomb” on WPEG in Charlotte, North Carolina. I must have been in 8th grade or something, and the first line, with the words “Drop the bomb on the white boy crew,” had actually almost frightened me. I didn’t know then about the bomb as metaphor for earth-shaking grooves. I just thought it was a threat of annihilation. But, even then, it sounded pretty damn good. This might be a song about obliterating me and my kind, but it was hard not to like it.

"Drop the bomb on the white boy crew ... White boy crew now whatcha gonna do?"

A few years earlier I had witnessed what you’d have to call a mini race riot on a bus on the way to our elementary school (we were bused across town from our largely white suburb to Marie G. Davis, an elementary school sandwiched between a large public housing project and a textile mill). Racial tensions had been brewing on the bus (#426) for a while. There was a newly opened, mostly black, small housing project not far from our neighborhood, and so our bus was theoretically integrated. But not really. About a third of the bus was black students from the housing project. They sat in the front, near the black bus driver, probably a high school student. And two thirds of the bus was white kids from the neighborhood. I can’t really remember how it got to the boiling point, but tensions basically erupted one morning when the driver told the kids on the bus to “kick that white boy’s ass” over some comment. It was certainly provoked, because we all had been expecting a fight. I had even brought a knife, a dull little jack knife, to school in anticipation of hostilities. But when a crowd, six or seven maybe, of black kids stormed back to our end of the bus and started whooping on the boy, I didn’t have the nerve to do anything with my little knife. And they really did beat his ass. When the little blast of violent energy passed, Tom Flack, that was his name, stood up, and he had a strange grey puncture wound under his eye, the skin around which had begun to puff up. Someone had stabbed him in the face with a pencil. It really was frightening. I think I may have cried when I was called to the principal’s office to recount the incident.

A year earlier, in fifth grade, I remember we used to bring in music for Friday afternoons. For the last 45 minutes of the day we'd play tunes on the dinky, brown, school-issue turntables. My friends and I brough in Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Frank Zappa (we had older brothers) and I remember some of the black kids brought in Sugarhill Gang. I think back on it is a valuable cultural exchange.

But when I heard Trouble Funk, it was just irrefutably funky, with laser-beam bass and zapping effects, heavy heavy percussion grooves, with what sound like Remo Roto-toms approximating some timbales, horns kick in, and the crowd is just going ape-shit and you can tell.

Trouble Funk and go-go music were largely subsumed by rap, which was more aggressive, drum-machine driven and boastful. But when I moved to Japan in 1985 I realized that go-go was huge in Tokyo. Soon I was hearing Trouble Funk samples showing up in Beastie Boys tunes.

"Drop the Bomb" is probably TF's pinnacle, but they had some other golden moments, too. "Pump Me Up," "Let's Get Small" and the Kraftwerkian "Trouble Funk Express" all get the party rocking.

For another alternate percussion-based possible universe, here's the confoundingly funky Timbalada from Brazil. They're not Olodum, the samba group that Paul Simon worked with, but Timbalada famously ripped off a Keith Haring-style body paint look for their cover art, and from the group came Carlinhos Brown, the king of Brazilian samba funk. I used to play the sordu in a samba group at Wesleyan and the bottom would always drop out of the party when we'd get to the little chopped-up slow triplet break after the choruses. It's one of those rare songs whose hook is a drum break.

Trouble Funk -- "Drop the Bomb"

Timbalada -- "Toque Do Timbaleiro"

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The New Animists

It’s good that many of the folks making music today have figured out that sound doesn’t need to be allegorical, one-for-one, realistic in its depiction of the inner state. The kids have tapped into the sonic homeopathic magic. Sometimes quiet is explosive. More than the shrieking, the distortion pedal, the mimed anguish. The big noise can put you to sleep. Could we foresee, in 1994, that free jazz, avant noise, the blues and hippie folk would fuze in some future retro alchemy? No, we couldn’t. Here are two tastes of the new nature-worshiping, Leslie cabinet-spinning animism.

Jackie-O Motherfucker will usually be happy to funnel the unending analog fuzz into your ear. They'll go for the extended wank in a Live at Pompeii or Whitney Biennial insallation mode. But here they get the Native American spirituality out set it to an all-purpose old-time kernal about saddling up a pony. You can feel them conjuring the electicity, pulling weather from the air.

Brightblack Morning Light share the Indian know-how. Main dude's name is Nathan Shineywater, after all. And they've got tunes called "Everybody Daylight," "Fry Bread," "Star Blanket River Child," "All We Have Broken Shines," "Amber Canyon Magik," "Black Feather Wishes Rise," "Come Another Rain Down," and "We Share Our Blanket With the Owl." They perform with a dog on stage. They camp. Black Elk and Chief Seattle must be proud. The thing is, it's like oozing cough-syrup soul-funk. The Fender Rhodes speaks truth. They've got the deep geologic-time patience, waiting until something like minute 6 on one track before trotting out the spongy horns. You'd never think to call this freak folk. But I don't know what you'd come up with instead.

And, because I was driving in the car yesterday listening to Buffy St. Marie's version of Neil Young's "Helpless," and thinking how great it is, I thought I'd add this to my Music of Native Peoples set. I love the Ike-ette style backing vocals, the way she yips and jumps with the melody, the way the song becomes a little more panic-inducing. This comes from her best record, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina. She's from Canada. She's backed by Crazy Horse. She was married to Jack Nietsche. And the lettering on the record is done by the same dude who did the lettering for Neil Young's Zuma and Tonight's the Night. So the connection is real.

Finally, something to listen to while you boil your yerba mate and nibble on some quinoa. Some rowdy native music from the mountains of Argentina. This is from a record called Argentina: The Trintonic Music of the North-West on the excellently strange UNESCO collection. Sort of like the Andean version of the Master Musicians of Jajouka.

Jackie-O Motherfucker -- "Hey, Mr. Sky"

Brightblack Morning Light -- "A River Could Be Loved"

Buffy St. Marie -- "Helpless"

Tritonic Music of Argentina's Northwest - "Toque Quebredeno"

- "Contrapunto" (A song for male and female voices)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Condiment Rock

I’ve never understood why the Latin Playboys are not more famous and more revered than they are. As superband sideprojects, they all had better, or more lucrative things to do, I guess. The Latin Playboys were two dudes from Los Lobos, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, who teamed up with Tchad Blake and producer Mitchell Froom. It's true, their records weren't entirely coherent or consistent, but that was part of the charm.

The Latin Playboys were masters of the miniature, rarely making a tune over three minutes. They have that lurching, slightly creepy, funny-boot-wearing, hair-slicked-back, Tom Waits, Cuban-Chinese, loco polyglot thing going. They only made two records, both of which have some excellent moments. The music is Tex-Mex roots pastiche threaded with bits of woozy Bollywood synth strings, mambo/funk drum machine patterns, weird Jon Hasselly droning brass, bits of Beck-like mercado-mix, and then at moments it’s like Eric Clapton being blissfully drowned out by the music from a street festival in Juarez, and then they’ll drop in a little Carlos Castenada/Jim Morrison spoken-word vision-questing (you can skip that). It all gets slathered with an admirable layer of retardation.

These are some good ones. The bass line (which is basically all there is) on “Manifold de Amour” is just lovely. “Mustard” seems to be about mustard, one of the better condiments. I love the crippled Congolese guitar line, the clopping drum programming, the sawing fiddle and the flood of mellotron in the middle. “Viva la Raza” is a bonus.

The Latin Playboys – “Manifold de Amour”

The Latin Playboys - “Mustard”

The Latin Playboys - “Viva la Raza”

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Wind Riders

As I’ve mentioned before, when I told my colleague Alan Bisbort about the old crusty vinyl, record-obsessive, music-dork blog, he was at the office the next week with a stack of musty old LPs that needed a listening to. Among the stash I’ve already posted tunes from the Beau Brummels, Dion, Lindesfarne, Loudon Wainwright III and the Amazing Blondel. But there were so many more oddities and gems that I decided I needed to do a quick clearing of the decks. Here are three more from the Alan Bisbort library.

The Exuma record took a few listens before a worthy tune jumped out at me. And this isn’t really a song. It’s more like a spirit-possession chant/vamp. Exuma is the Obeah Man. The liner notes say this:


This is gris-gris music, voodoo blues, tourist exotica and hokum all rolled up together. He one ups Dr. John, drops a little Taj Mahal, and even hints at that ecstatic and crazed mystic thing that Cat Stevens sometimes went for. There’s a track on the record called “Junkanoo,” which is an African-derived carnival-type New Year’s street festival in the Bahamas, it’s also a dance from Jamaica with possible ties to stilt and masked dance traditions from Sierra Leone. You can read more about Exuma at AMG.

Next is Pearls Before Swine, which was basically Tom Rapp and whoever joined him. On These Things Too Rapp sings a Dylan song and puts an Auden poem to music. The rhymes on "Man in the Tree" sound a little forced, but Rapp can hold his own next to any contemporary bearded mystic, new energy generation, batik-revivalist.

And then there's McGuinness Flint, third-tier British folk-rock stuff, with just enough Harry Nilsson-ism. This track sounds like some Preservation Act-era Kinks outtake, complete with stumbling lumpy drunk-sounding funereal marching band, undue odd-time sections and lyrics of the I-didn't-have-anything-to-write-about variety. Still, worth a few listens.

Exuma - "Dambala"

Pearls Before Swine - "Man in the Tree"

McGuinness Flint - "Lazy Afternoon"

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Grinding Water and the Gasping Wind

The internet is really just a device for pursuing one’s desires -- a faster, cheaper and easier way of getting what one wants. But often we don’t really know what we want. Or, rather, we don’t actually want what we want. Or, once we get what we want, we realize that we now want something completely different, something to cleanse our mouths of the lingering taste of the last satisfied longing. The supersession of symptoms. Dante knew all about it. Following your desire could, if all the conditions were right, lead you to the divine, but it was just as likely to get you chained to the burning lake, shouldering boulders for eternity, buried to your chest in molten lead, buffeted by the assailing winds because of an ever-changing heart.

So, if, like me, you ever think that your heart is telling you to go and track down that semi-obscure record of Carl Sandburg singing Flat Rock Ballads. Think on it some more. Or listen to these tracks first.

Sandburg, as you know, was a poet (“The fog comes/on little cat feet”), a Lincoln biographer, and a song-collecting folk archivist (“The American Songbag”). He was also, it turns out, a film critic.
In a recent New York Times review of a new anthology of early American film writing, Clive James said this about the man from Flat Rock:“Sandburg is unreadable today only because of the way he wrote. His prose was bad poetry, like his poetry.”

Durn. That’s cold.

Well, Sandburg was known to pick up a guitar now and again, too (Bob Dylan famously paid a visit to Sandburg at Flat Rock back in 1964 – Sandburg had never heard of Dylan). I had this record, or my friend Chris had this record when we were housemates, and I remember being struck by the weirdness of two tracks – “Eating Goober Peas” and “The Doughnut Man.” (I was surprised to learn when interviewing the former Del Fuego and current children’s music sensation Dan Zanes, who was about to release a record of songs culled from the “American Songbag,”that Zanes had never heard of the “Flat Rock Ballads” record, so I figured it was fairly rare. And a Froogle search proved me right.) I’ve since learned that “Eating Goober Peas” was actually a song allegedly sung by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War (goober peas are peanuts, which served is rations for the troops); the song was also popularized by Burl Ives, and it’s practically like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to some people. Whatever, I went to public school.

I used to drive past the exit for Flat Rock on I-26 probably once a month for several years, making trips between Asheville and Charlotte. I’d see the brown state-issued sign for the Carl Sandburg home. But I don’t get to make that trip these days. I decided I had to re-acquire Flat Rock Ballads. So, I got on the internelle and got it. Ten bucks, plus shipping, from a bookstore in Baltimore. As I recall, I parted with the record when I swapped it for a record of Wallace Stevens reading his poems. Or Chris traded, or something. As it turns out, I work in Hartford now, where Stevens lived and worked, and I drive past the places where he walked at lunch time or on his way to the office at the insurance firm.

When I had way too much free time and ample coffee-fueled creative urges, I used to make tape loops of snippets of Stevens reading, and I’d overdub some fake atonal chugging metal riffs played on a de-tuned acoustic guitar, mimicking the phrasing, rhythms and slight changes in pitch from the repeated poetry fragments. It was both a bad and brilliant idea. Kind of funny, kind of interesting and kind of like something an actual insane person would do.

I always loved “The Idea of Order at Key West.” It’s a poem, like many of Stevens’, about the reality of the imagination, of creativity, about how the world we make in our heads, in our songs, is as much a part of the world as the sea and the sun and the sky that inspire us. If you’ve got Audacity, I recommend nabbing a little bit of “It may be that in all her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the gasping wind” and making a loop. It keeps getting better, more darkly musical with each repetition.

I’d been planning to use the theme of “legumes” to unify this whole post. Peanuts are legumes, after all. Beans are legumes. That was to be the logic behind including Charlie Parker doing “Salt Peanuts” and Beans Hambone and El Morrow’s majestically weird “Beans” (also included is “Jimbo Jambo Land” by Shorty Godwin, both from the excellent two-disc set Good For What Ails You, a collection of music from the medicine shows on Old Hat records.) I’m sure there’s a whole record’s worth of legume songs. We’ll leave it to Bob Dylan and the folks at Theme Time Radio to explore.

Carl Sandburg – “Eating Goober Peas”

Carl Sanburg - “The Doughnut Man”

Wallace Stevens – “The Idea of Order at Key West

Beans Hambone and El Morrow - “Beans”

Shorty Godwin - “Jimbo Jambo Land”

Charlie Parker – “Salted Peanuts”

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Giving Good Weight - More Reggae

As with most reggae, if you’re not sure what the song’s about, it’s always safe to assume that the subject is weed. That’s how it is with Burning Spear’s "Dry and Heavy." Probably something to do with weighing a bag of dope. Or maybe it’s about the weather. But then there’s a part about "school days." And another line sounds like "some of them have an electric ion." The lyrics really are a Rasta Rorschach – sometimes I think he’s singing something about a "tugboat," too. Who knows what to make of that? It’s all top-secret Marcus Garvey code-talking. It may be so eternally rewarding because of the chronic inscrutability.

Check for the aggressive asymmetric cowbell assault at the beginning, the doughy, extruded horn toots and the outsider-art vocal harmonies. The more I listen to the little snare roll that starts the track the more am I incapacitated by its brilliance.

Burning Spear -- "Dry and Heavy"

The Days of Wine and Vinyl

I sometimes like to pretend that a song recorded 30-odd years ago was actually recorded in the last six months. Given that so many freak folksters and retro-whozits sound so authentically like people you might have heard in 1972, the reverse can also be true, right? For instance: What if Bobby Charles were a 19-year-old indie folkster who posted "Small Town Talk" on MySpace five minutes ago? You'd probably be pretty impressed! You might also believe it. Something about the way the organ pulses and shadows the vocal melody almost sounds like the Beta Band to me.

The musical time-space illusion is doubly interesting considering Bobby Charles wasn't some runaway 60s moonbeam by the time he recorded this. He'd been rocking for 17 years, having penned the golden oldie "See You Later, Alligator," which became a hit for Bill Haley back in '58. But then the groovy times came and Bobby drifted invariably to Woodstock, New York, where he got in with the Band, specifically Rick Danko. Let's just say he spent some time in the hammock out back and whatever wasn't packed in tight when he arrived got packed in nice and tight. "Small Town Talk" was co-written by Danko with Dr. John on the organ and it has all the urgency of a sloth with a bong in its paws. I got this off a Warner Records compilation called The Days of Wine and Vinyl, a showcase of artists on the label and its smaller subsidiaries. This one is from the Bearsville label, which must have been for all the wandering rustics who showed up on Danko's door mat.

From this same comp, you can also try the MySpace mind trick with America's "Head and Heart." Again, the minimilist organ/guitar element gives it a quasi-modern sound, but the vocals are probably too 70s AM sweet and "Horse with No Name"-like to keep up the illusion for long. For some reason, none of the neo-folkies likes to sing quite as prettily as anybody in the 1968 to 1972 period. Why is that? It's like crystalline male harmonies are somehow bogus now. Or maybe just too much effort.

There's a few other gems off this compilation, each of interest for different reasons. I've promised to hold off on any expository blogging on Bonnie Raitt -- that's Dewey Dell territory -- but this tune, "Too Long at the Fair," should be absorbed and appreciated as a teaser to more sweet SoCal country-blues to come. Dewey, do your magic.

"Virginia Plain" is a sensational Roxy Music song, first heard by me on the soundtrack to the wrist-slashingly tragic Lars Von Trier film, Breaking the Waves. The whole thing quivers like a gay jelly fish with Elvis's severed hand inside it. I'm not sure why that image came to mind, but there it is. (Sorry for the sloppy editing at the end, that's 3 seconds of slide guitar by Norman Greenbaum, the "Spirit in the Sky" guy.)

Finally, this early David Bowie song, "Can't Help Thinking About Me," has a peculiar Kinks quality to it, perhaps because of the story-like lyrics, the sad tale of a guy who "blackened the family name." He never says what said name-blackening incident is -- drugs? gayness? playing drug-and-gay-promoting rock music on the Village Green? -- but he's getting booted into the cold, cruel world of glam rocking. You'd never ever mistake a guy who's feeling guilty about thinking about himself with anybody on MySpace, so don't bother pretending this isn't from the 1966.