Monday, February 26, 2007

It’s Not Like Any Other Glove, This One’s Different

Jello Biafra knew it. Michael Jackson certainly understood, too. Madonna tapped into the wisdom as well. The glove (especially the single glove) affords singers special powers. But before all of them there was glove-wearing pioneer Sean Bonniwell of the Music Machine. Split the difference between Love and Iron Butterfly (not such a big difference, perhaps, but, in the words of Johnny Horton, "Hooray for that little difference.") Dark garage psychedelic pop tossed in with the occasional Neil Diamond cover, maybe some menacing Farfisa, and, best of all, lyrics that were so dumb they’re scarily brilliant. Take, for example, "Masculine Intuition," a genius bit of oxymoronic word play. If you can get past first feeling how groovy it all is, you move quickly into sensing that there’s something very creepy here (the possible date-rape overtones?).

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Vacuum-Packed Percolation

For a duo, the Silver Apples sure generated a lot of sound – all pulsing, percolating and oscillating, music concrete, fun-house echoes, tuned vacuum tones, spooky harmonies, and super crisp proto-rave drumming. When writing a piece on Gary Higgins -- the freak-folk cult discovery of 2005, whose 1973 record Red Hash was re-issued on Drag City after years of going as an eBay rarity – I learned that Simeon, the man behind the oscillators and keyboards in the Silver Apples, had also played with Higgins in a band called Wagon Wheel in New York.

The Silver Apples really managed to capture the potentially horrifying and alienating quality of the psychedelic experience (see Left’s Al Jarreau post), unlike many of the flower-power bands from the West Coast.

It’s said that there’s a fine line between idiocy and genius. I was struck by the boneheaded brilliance of Iggy Pop’s quote in the NYT today: "You’ve got to tone down to fit into the beauty of the percolation. This is all part of finding the stupidity." And it made me think of the Silver Apples.

Few bands mastered the beauty of the percolation quite like the Silver Apples. They may not have ever toned it down, but they definitely found the sublime stupidity.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Young and Innocent Days

I was saddened to learn of the demise of Arthur Magazine. No surprise really that the venture couldn’t survive in these times of online content and ever-dwindling ad revenues. Still, Arthur was such an obviously solid product, one would imagine that, with so much lip service paid to the idea of giving the people what they want, a free freaky taste-maker publication that gives it to them would surely be a success. Where’s multi-millionaire Clinton-trash-talker and publishing-wannabe David Geffen when you need him? I wrote two pieces for Arthur, one about the recordings of trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell and another about the French cellist/sound collagist/composer known as Colleen. I guess it will look good on the resume of the future, like having written for the American Mercury perhaps. Anyway, many people have Arthur to thank for their introduction to things like Sunn O))), the whole freak folk fur ball, legitimizing the music of the Grateful Dead, Sublime Frequencies, among others. For that we should be thankful to Jay Babcock and crew.
If I had MP3s of those sad and beautiful songs "Young and Innocent Days"or "Shangri-La" off of the Kinks wonderful Arthur, I would post them in honor.

[Here you go. -- Ed.]

Young and Innocent Days - The Kinks

Friday, February 23, 2007

I Have Ten Things to Say

And here they are:

1. Even from across this vast digital wasteland I can often see Mr. Poncho sniff in disgust at some of my profligate tastes here on the interblogger. Al Jarreau! But allow me a moment of po faced seriousness, ok? Randy Newman is a genius. I mean that. Take this indictment of (or love letter to?) ELO from 1979's Born Again. Please!

The Story of a Rock & Roll Band - Randy Newman

2. While I'm at it lemme dash off a quick heresy and destroy what's left of my cred: 1999's Bad Love is his second best album.

The World Isn't Fair - Randy Newman (Read the lyrics here.)

3. If Dennis Wilson had gone to rehab and not fallen off that sailboat and died, Nick Lowe could have helped him produce a song like "Sunny Pasadena" by The Electrolites. Listen to it on their MySpace Page. Good job, fellas.

4. Most people stick with the Folk Dylan when it comes to mining the Big D for chops. Not many choose '66 "Gone Elec'ric" Dylan. Maybe there's something to it.

Eshu Blues - The Black

The Black on MySpace

5. Brett Dennen's PR guy sent The Driftwood Singers his disc a few months ago and it collected dust on a shelf for a spell and then I listened to it. Y'know, it's not half bad. It does, however, give my living room a distinct alt-adult contemporary vibe that I'm not entirely comfortable with. But hey we love free shit!

There Is So Much More - Brett Dennen

Brett Dennen on MySpace

6. What if Nietzsche was reincarnated as a nutty pill-popping flapper on Broadway in 1972?

Yes - Liza Minelli

7. If Girl Talk achieves nothing else in life he can rest easy knowing this: by splicing together 2 Live Crew's "We Want Some Pussy" and Wings' "I Love You" for a total of 20 seconds he has created a moment of pop glory so brilliant it should be placed on a pedestal in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and surrounded by at least four security guards. Listen to the whole thing, it's fantastique.

Peak Out - Girl Talk

8. I know Mr. Poncho thinks maybe I'm over-enthusiastic about certain things. I apologize in advance.

Music Will Not Last - Jamie Lidell

9. Try to follow: Dwight Yoakam doing British Invasion Kinks in the style of Frank Sinatra. Knowing now what we didn't know then--that Ray Davies was HUGE into Frank when he made his late '60s stuff--this is a monumentally awesome interpretation.

Tired of Waiting for You - Dwight Yoakam

10. I love beating a dead horse!

A Wedding in Cherokee County - Randy Newman

Monday, February 19, 2007

Folk-Pop Kimchee

Listening to Catherine Howe's long-lost debut 1971 record, What A Beautiful Place, now re-issued by the masterminds at The Numero Group, the connections flood in. At first, one might think that this is the second Numero release to demonstrate the huge influence of Joni Mitchell. The elaborate arrangements, the jazzy phrasing and the general coolness evoke Court and Spark, which came later. And, in addition to Joni, Howe’s voice spurs comparisons to Karen Carpenter and Anne Murray. And then Dionne Warwick comes to mind. Finally hints of Dusty Springfield and even Sandy Denny come through. On "It’s Not Likely," the grandiose tympani, the woodwinds, the piano and the crisp snare rolls at the start always make me think of "Madman Across the Water." This music’s like kimchee, it’s been buried for a while, and may strike some as a little stinky, but it may be good for you, and it’s probably better for the time it spent underground.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Holy Christ

You should go check out this amazing blog. It's very deep, wide-ranging, smart, and there are some incredible jams -- from Mali, India, Saturn and beyond -- that you just won't hear anywhere else.

The Magic of Juju

Friday, February 16, 2007

Return of the Psychic Sloth

I only witnessed this phenomenon once. It was at an Aquarium Rescue Unit concert in 1992. The bass player, Oteil Burbridge, was scat singing along with his bass solo, singing note for note and at a very high rate of speed. That would have been a forgivable curiosity, I suppose, a bit of jazz fusion overkill, but I was peaking on two hits of blue unicorns and Oteil very swiftly morphed before my eyes into a three-toed sloth hanging on a tree trunk while telegraphing a psychic code to me that only we sloths could understand.

Who said acid can't damage you forever?

So Mr. Poncho has a lot of 'splainin to do after encouraging me to buy two Al Jarreau LPs at Dynamite Records in Northampton, Mass earlier this month. The psychic sloth is back! Forget that "Roof Garden" from 1981's Breakin' Away sounds like it was produced by L.A. Gear and that everyone in the band can literally be heard wearing white jazz shoes -- Al Jarreau's singing will alter your consciousness. The man is an oxymoron inside of a conundrum. He's like Bill Withers inside Animal Collective and wrapped in Barry Manilow. He's like that sound-effects dude from "Police Academy" sitting in with Weather Report and Christopher Cross is wearing Michael Jackson's glove. Forget your ironic "so wrong it's right" spin -- this shit is so wrong it's wrong and then sucker punches you with a right until you're bleeding on the floor of bad taste and loving every minute of it. Consider this: Al Jarreau appeared in an episode of SCTV in 1981 playing Al Jolson in a spoof of The Jazz Singer with Eugene Levy as the cantor father. You do the math.

Roof Garden - Al Jarreau

Hold On Me - Al Jarreau

Agua de Beber - Al Jarreau

Rainbow in Your Eyes - Al Jarreau

Rainbow in Your Eyes (live) - Al Jarreau

Milwaukee - Al Jarreau (This explains everything.)

Please, PLEASE add Al Jarreau as your friend on MySpace.

[Internal memo: Poncho, just how and why were you familiar with "Roof Garden"?]

So I Can See Willie

In case you haven’t heard it yet, we have to point out that excellent peoples at Light in the Attic are giving away the Karen Dalton track “Katie Cruel.” It’s beautiful, spooky and strange. Considering all the people who tried to cop the style (back in '52 when Harry Smith and Moe Asch originally released the talismanic Anthology of American Folk Music and since the 90s when it was re-issued on disc), it’s the closest thing to the Old Weird America of Clarence Ashley and “Cuckoo Bird” that I’ve heard. The whole future negative conditional business about if she could be “where I should be” and “where I am not” is enough to stump my feeble logic.

"Katie Cruel" - Karen Dalton

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dirty Murk

Ever since Lefty introduced me to them, I’ve been completely sold on Anomoanon. So I was pleased to see that one of the crew, Dave Heumann, has a new record with his band Arbouretum out on Thrill Jockey. At 10 minutes and something, this is one of those tunes that builds and turns and builds, then implodes and erupts and disappears altogether into itself. It’s a pretty unlikely combination – all haunted and bleak and faux-Appalachian at the start, then it switches into molten, detuned pendulous sludge ballast. There’s some wonderful electrified Native American Neil Young-worthy guitar work in there, too. Minimal, tranced out, post-everything murk. If, at the end of the book, the kid from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road doesn’t turn out to actually be the next messiah, maybe he stumbles on somebody’s fortress-like basement studio and starts recording music like this.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Bag of Spare Ribs

The Red Crayola always reminded me of the Texas version of the Velvet Underground, with acid as the drug of choice instead of heroin. There’s a general lumpiness to this music, a spastic feed-lot surrealist silliness. Not as brilliant as the 13th Floor Elevators, but probably superior to Bubble Puppy, in the hierarchy of Lone Star State psychedelia. With songs about dairy maids and Sherlock Holmes, songs that somehow manage to both meander aimlessly while still clocking in at under three minutes, the Red Crayola cracked open some sort of cosmic temporal lobe/lock.

“Sherlock Holmes” – The Red Crayola

“Dairy Lament” - The Red Crayola

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Pleistocene Era of Robin Thicke

It was in the fall of 2002 that I first tried my hand at "party reporting." A truly noxious task in the field of journalism, it's exactly what it sounds like: Attend glittery social events and suck up to famous people for quotes in the society pages of the newspaper. My first assignment was to attend a showcase for a fledgling soul singer who went by the name Thicke, the mellow, longhaired son of Alan the TV dad from "Growing Pains." Having grown up in suburban LA while his dad penned theme songs like "Diff'rent Strokes," Thicke had made a name for himself as a producer and songwriter who could spin out hits for people like Christina Aguilera. Now he was ready for his own star turn.

This was at a then-swank club on Lafayette Street called Butter, which sported the requisite velvet rope, red carpet (pause, flash), and Leonoardo DiCaprio, the required signifier of Manhattan buzz at the time. In a narrow room with deep leather booths, dim wall sconces and champaign glasses a-tinkling, the place was populated by celebs invited by Jimmy Iovine, the president of Interscope. I first tried approaching Russell Simmons, who was hunched over a Motorola two-way pager. I hardly knew what to say, so I asked if he was a fan of “Growing Pains." Here's what he said: “Yes. If it’s real, sometimes it takes that.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps his reply was in some hip-hop code that I couldn't decode. I thanked him and walked away.

I interviewed Andre Harrell, the producer responsible for P. Diddy's fame and the CEO of a label called NuAmerica, a subsidiary of Interscope. He was championing Thicke's first album, Cherry Blue Skies, and his take was that Thicke sounded like Billy Joel crossed with Stevie Wonder. He recalled the first time he hung out with Thicke, impressed that he had "good smoke,” a sure sign to him, he said, that there was something special about Thicke and that they would be fast friends. The two got stoned at Harrell’s place, Thicke did some freestyle singing for him and Harrell told his young upstart, “You need a coach to hone how hot your gift can be.”

After hearing Thicke's album, I was already blown away by how awesomely shameless this guy was, able to deliver with total conviction lines like, Baby, baby you're the shit / that makes you my e-qui-vi-lent. Thicke wasn't bad at the showcase, either, his four-piece band extraordinarily tight and groovy, but his leather pants kept falling down and the fear of an imminent tabloid fiasco was distracting. Everyone held their breath. The biggest moment of the night was when Jay-Z came strolling in, a long gold chain dangling over a grey Che Guerra t-shirt. Thicke was just then performing a version of Al Greene’s “Let’s Stay Together” when Jay slid into a booth with Iovine and some glossy babes and proceeded to affect supreme cool.

When Thicke finished, I asked Toby Maguire if he liked it. “I liked him a lot. I’m seen him a few times. I’m a fan.” DiCaprio, according to my notes, was in a baseball cap pulled down tight over his eyes, smoking Parliaments. “Get back to me later,” he responded, warily. “I like to think about what I’m gonna say.” (i.e. "Please fuck off.") A young TV actress named Hilarie Burton, then an MTV VJ who hosted something called BeatSeekers, was impressed by Thicke. “Oh my god, I love it! A perfect 10!”

I never did interview Thicke himself because I couldn't imagine what to ask him and I was actually embarrassed for him because he seemed so ... naive. By some weird logic, I actually thought I was protecting him from himself by not quoting him. I was terrible at party reporting! And I never did it again.

Unfortunately for Thicke, the NuAmerica label collapsed a few months later, the album's release was stalled and it didn't come out for another year, released with a different title, Beautiful World. The single off that album, "When I Get You Alone," remains a tragically still-born pop masterpiece that probably would have swept the nation if not for some apparent meltdown with Harrell's label (my guess: Harrell's deal with Interscope collapsed).

You could say I've watched Thicke "evolve," if you accept the premise of his latest album, The Evolution of Robin Thicke. He has added his first name, which was probably a good step (the back of the liner notes says simply, "Hi, I'm Robin Thicke"). His live act has definitely exploded since I saw him. He can even get the ladies screaming at a venue as sexless and inappropriate as a Border's Book Store (YouTube video). As I've said before, "white soul" may seem like an oxymoron,but Robin Thicke has the essential thing needed to make it happen: wildly inappropriate expressionism that defies all the usual codes of taste and conduct, delivered with guileless passion. To wit:

Girl, can I frisk you?
Search your body parts?
You look so guilty to me
If I make you nervous
It's because you're hiding WMD's
And I'm going to sentence you
Baby you can do your time on me

That's from "Teach U A Lesson," which works an extended and ill-advised teacher/naughty student metaphor. I say ill-advised, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's the R. Kelly approach and Thicke is a kind of low-fat R. Kelly. The album is fogged with smokey, minimalist beats and subtle Spanish guitar, a slinky Miami after-hours club vibe that uses large expanses of space to great effect. Basically the whole record is a stoned, horny come-on, like Thicke himself, whose quivering falsetto slithers and loops like neon light on the bay at night, blending Crockett and Tubbs into a single sexual essence. And that's not bad!

"When I Get You Alone" - Thicke

"Teach U A Lesson" - Robin Thicke

"Ask Myself" - Robin Thicke

Robin Thicke's MySpace Page

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sweet Pea

PBS airs Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life tomorrow (Tuesday) night. And there’s plenty reason to watch. The documentary includes talking-head commentary from David Hajdu, Gunther Schuller and Luther Henderson, as well as many others. There are performances of Strayhorn tunes by Elvis Costello, Joe Lovano, Dianne Reeves, Bill Charlap and Hank Jones. And the film includes great old footage of the Ellington Orchestra and Strayhorn performing. The program advances the now fairly well rehearsed narrative, the under-appreciated-genius-who-was-wronged-and-held-back-by-Duke-Ellington theory, which I find a little annoying. People take mild swipes at Ellington for any number of alleged shortcomings, character flaws and tendencies: his lack of musical training, his vanity, his womanizing, his inclination to soak up the glory, credit and revenue when he capitalized on the talents of others. And maybe Ellington was out of line in trying to sabotage and keep Strayhorn within his organization, but I just don’t think it’s cool to disrespect the Duke. Strayhorn was clearly a genius, and his tunes are so lush and harmonically wonderful and sophisticated. And he certainly struggled in Duke’s shadows, and maybe didn’t get his fair share of the cash. But let’s not forget, Ellington had already written “Mood Indigo,” “Echoes of Harlem” and “Sophisticated Lady” before Strayhorn came around. That said, Strayhorn’s story is amazing: openly gay, cultivated, with a great sense of style, he impressed Ellington at their first meeting by playing him “Lush Life,” which he’d written as a teenager. He wrote “Take the A Train” based on directions to Ellington’s uptown apartment. He drank and smoked like crazy. He and Ellington’s son Mercer practically overhauled and wrote an entire Ellington orchestra songbook of material in the 40s during a radio composers strike. He guided Ellington toward his third golden period in the 60s with the many ambitious long-form suites. So, if like Miles Davis once said, everyone should take a special day to give thanks to Duke Ellington, why not throw in another special day to thank Billy Strayhorn.

All tracks written by Billy Strayhorn, except “Such Sweet Thunder,” which was written by Strayhorn and Ellington.

“U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)” - Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, from And His Mother Called Him Bill

“Day-Dream” - - Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, from And His Mother Called Him Bill

“Such Sweet Thunder” - Duke Ellington and his Orchestra

“Chelsea Bridge” - Ben Webster

“Tonk” - Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington piano duet