Sunday, July 29, 2007

Meaning Falls in Splinters From Our Lives

A while back I proposed a contest to ascertain the best first line ever from a song.
(At the time I championed Lou Reed’s “Wild Child," which begins "I was talking to Chuck in his Genghis Khan suit and his wizard’s hat.” – pretty tough to top, I know).
At the moment, I’d like to add Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady” to the competition. Consider the first line: “You are here and warm, but I could look away and you’d be gone.” He goes on: “‘Cause we live in a time when meaning falls in splinters from our lives. That’s why I’ve traveled far, ‘cause I come so together where you are.” Not only that. The capo-ed twelve-string ersatz harpsichord at the very beginning of the song could almost count as a non-verbal opening line. This is sound-word-wisdom.

As many know, an inferior version of “Sentimental Lady” appeared on the Fleetwood Mac album Bare Trees. Welch played in the Mac before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the crew, and, in fact, Buckinham, Mick Fleetwood and Christine McVie all play on Welch’s version of “Sentimental Lady.”

Listen with headphones for the way the noodle-verging (slide?) guitar swells and the airy backing vocal “oohs” create this weird gauzy effect, both ethereal and yet so brittle and glassy, and basically coked-out, that the whole mix sounds like it might shatter into sharp fragments if you tapped on it. It’s like elaborate spun sugar icing in some ridiculous rococo cake. And yet, the drums have that pillowy mid-70s sound, as if someone was thwacking you in the gut in slow motion with one of those cushioned inter-personal therapy batons.

When I first posted about Bob Welch in the early days of Driftwoodshedding, I said that I had an elaborate scheme of indie rock vs. soft rock equivalences. The idea was that certain indie rockers are basically just the 21st century avatars of specific soft rock or hippie forebears. Precursors. Bob Welch’s strained reedy singing always reminds me of Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips. But the production (listen to “Lose Your Heard”) – particularly the groping attempts at proto-techno rock futurism, with excessive fake strings, stiffly metronomic drumming, robotic guitar chunking – bring to mind the Kraftwerk vs. Sasquatch sounds of Neil Young’s Trans. Maybe a touch of Eliminator-era ZZ Top.

And then there’s the tricky matter of Bob Welch’s album covers. If, as Lefty proposes, the Bee Gees represent a post-sexual, post-racial, post-genre utopian vision of the future, Welch - with his cigars, pleated white pants, unhealthy hair, and entirely phony imagined sex appeal - is sort of a cultural death star. He’s demonic, trying to lure us toward some nightmare version of a present that is already hellish. Notice the licking flames. Be very careful.

“Sentimental Lady” - Bob Welch

“Lose Your Heart” - Bob Welch

Thursday, July 26, 2007


On his MySpace page, Portland musical mutant Karl Blau ends his latest diary entry this way:

Steve and Clyde and I watched this UNIVERSE special on the science channel last night that said the sun is so loud that it's like having stadium speakers blasting on every square foot of the surface of the sun. peace.

That pretty much sums up the cosmic plane this indie-ot savant is working on and we're all blessed for it. Blau washed up on our shore when we discovered he was the mysterious singer behind the magnificent (and perhaps definitive) version of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis." Like Driftwood fave Little Wings -- with whom he's recorded -- Blau is never more than a few soft, leafy steps from the cosmic forest, enshrouded with majestic fern leaves and darkening down a path to a kelp-covered beach and a moonlit cove. If a musical sensibility could be made to contain that image, Blau's does -- and how! As Mr. Poncho and I learned on our recent retreat to The Driftwood Jam-o-tron -- a musical teleportation device built from a Toyota stereo system and fueled by a popular cash crop (hint: not ethanol) -- Karl Blau has the power to summon Northeastern Native American seal spirits. He's basically the musical equivalent of Swamp Thing. Or better yet: Kelp Thing. A close relative of Hemp Thing, too.

On the earthly plane, Blau's just a flat-out visionary for starting a monthly subscription service in which he sends you new CD's and LP's he's concocted in whatever moss-covered lab he calls home. This is from his bio on the K Records website.

About 2 years ago I started an "album-a-month club" called KELP! monthly. KELP! is a documentary label tracing my musical path, an avenue for my over-active creative side. People who enjoy the mystery subscribe up to a year and start receiving my records which have included--but will not be limited to--full length albums of mine and artists I'm producing, field recordings, compilations of artists and ambient art records.

Here's the tune that launched the Jam-o-tron into a stalactite-encrusted exploration of animated Alaskan cave drawings and a psychic dance with a vine-covered entity we'll just call Mr. Greenstone.

Dark, Magic Sea - Karl Blau

He also performs as "Kelp!", inventing beautiful amalgamations of Sun Ra, early ska and Lee Scratch Perry.

The Dance of the Reed Pipes - Kelp!

International Call - Kelp!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Beam Me Up, Barry

As is our yearly custom, Dewey Dell and I are spending a month unplugged from city life, taking stock in the woods and contemplating what exactly we mean by The Good Life. Again and again this summer, we come back to a vision presented by the brothers Gibb and everything the Bee Gees stand for: An unrepentant love of hair and silky fabrics, falsetto harmonies radiating love and brotherhood set to an insistent hi-hat and wah-wah pedal, built on diamond-cut pop melodies. It's something we can each strive for in our best moments: a complete and total abandonment of the tired axies of white/black and male/female, a reaching out for a futuristic, Star Trek-ian post-religious humanism where no one blinks when you decide to combine beards with satin and sing in registers normally reserved for women and choirboys. It's a freer vision of human life, one free of sexism, misogyny, racism or fascism.

Take a gander at Robin Gibb in this video, bedecked head to toe in skin-tight flesh-colored clothes and a gold medallion. Only a completely free and self-actualized man can wear that outfit. Look at his face while he sings his part of "Nights on Broadway" and see if you can detect an ounce of false pretense, shame, ironic detachment or gauche theatrical indulgence. You won't find it. Fact is, at the time of this taping, 1975, Robin is actually married with small children. He's just a man hanging out with his brothers making unbelievable pop music and singing his heart out. Watching Barry and Maurice, there's nothing here that smacks of overweening pride or the shallow exhibitionism of disco. In fact, there's still a reticence about them, a leftover shyness from their foppish 60's days...

Four years later, on the Spirits Have Flown tour, the reticence has been utterly annihilated and the performance of "Nights on Broadway" has been polished to a laser-like intensity, urged on by a gazillion fans desiring to rip the knickers off their bodies. And who can blame them? Robin's hair is now that of a Greek god; Barry is a white-panted Zeus; Maurice rules a netherworld where shirt buttons don't exist. The overall sex appeal has reached its liberated apex, a quantum splitting of the pop-disco atom into a nuclear radiance -- pure l-o-v-e. Plus, observe this unexpected side-effect: They rock harder than they've ever rocked before. I've said it before and I'll say it again: late 70s Bee Gees is the sine qua non of all Bee Gees-ism. And Bee Gees-ism is just a fancy way of saying: There's a better way to Bee. Beam me up, Barry...

Noted: Barry Gibb has a blog and he writes of events in short poetic verse. But of course he does. He also has some samples of his comedy stylings in a selection of short home movies. Lastly, you can actually take a virtual tour of his personal studio in Miami set to the beautiful strains of "Too Much Heaven."

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Joy Division : Summer Hits

The first heat wave has passed through Brooklyn. Summer is here. And Glenn Fry (no link necessary) is singing in my head, “The Heat is On.” And boy is it ever, especially when I’m in transit from home to work, where in Manhattan with its reflecting glass towers might mean getting zapped by the sun’s rays into a puddle sack of flesh. I move cautiously, trying to preserve my energy, trying not sweat to death. So for relief and calm guidance, I listen to cool music, which brings me to Joy Division, a late 70s post punk, gothic rock band. Their lead singer, Ian Curtis, sings with a droll apathy, a style akin to Peter Murphy from the Bauhaus, or a sedated version of Fred Schneider from the B52’s. Its essence is: I’m alive, I’m dead, I’m singing. Curtis sings on the straight and narrow and it’s cool. Dead cool.

So as I dodge the sun’s rays while walking to work, I like to listen to Joy Division’s second and final album — Closer. This album spits and taps with moribund sheen, a cool and sweltering line between life and death, where I find myself on every upbeat wanting to live. Thus, a good, I’m baking on the streets, I should listen to this while walking to work, sort of jam.

There are three songs that I like to listen to on the final stretch of my walk. The song, “A Means to an End,” has a straight four four beat, where Stephen Morris, the drummer, sticks the high hat and snare with a hissing spit tap, a gut rock beat, while Curtis sings his way up to the chorus, “I put my trust in you. In you,” and it’s like that, a cold jab love; it keeps my feet moving, a straight four four. Then Peter Hook, who usually plays bass, plays guitar on “Atrocity Exhibition,” and plays like he’s scrubbing the strings with a pipe; it’s a screwy sound, a perfect reflection of the sweltering day. And all the while Curtis is chanting, “This is the Way, Step Inside.” Indeed it is, for I’m getting closer, closer to work. And then the final song plays, a processional song, “The Eternal,” where the synthesizer sprays the air like a garden tap sprinkler and shivers its way to the end sounding like a summer’s eve forested with cicadas. Back in the sun’s rays, I take my final steps before opening the work doors, and listen to Curtis as he sings, “Try to cry out in the heat of the moment, possessed by a fury that burns from inside.” And I nod my head, thinking, yeah, that sounds about right. I grab the hot steel knob of the work door and pull, silently stepping inside. It’s cool. Real cool.

A Means to an End

Atrocity Exhibition

The Eternal

BONUS SONG (An F-Yeah song):
No Love Lost

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fat-Smearing Sounds

Listen. I’m not trying to scare you away or blow your mind by getting all ethnographic. Our newest ether-amigo, E. Blanco, put in a special request for this one. We bonded over these Ainu chants years ago, when two young men could reasonably do such things. I was transfixed by Ainu chants on some Smithsonian collection and then found this record Japan: Ainu Songs on the Musics and Musicians of the World series on the Unesco Collection. The heavy stick-on fog-heat begs for some mystic musical corrective, and these shamanic butter-churning, grain-pounding beats and the accompanying back-and-forth seesaw sing-alongs from snowy lands do the trick. The Ainu, as you may know, are an ethnic group who live on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. (I once went to Hokkaido for the Snow Festival in Sapporo, but we didn't catch anything like this. Just drank some nifty cans of sake that had their own built-in heating mechanism.) They’re sometimes called the "mystery race" by researchers because of the unclear ethnic/cultural origins of the Ainu. Some speculate the Ainu are related to Mongols. Some of these Joseph Bueys-worthy bear-fat-smearing tunes remind of those breathing songs/games that the Inuit rock out on occasion (ever say Fast Runner?). In fact, this seems like something that Bjork and Matthew Barney should be thoroughly into.

“Upopo” - Chants of the Ainu

“Iyute-upopo” - Chants of the Ainu

“Rimse” - Chants of the Ainu

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sufi Beats

The music on this record has cracked my mind open, again and again. I had a cassette of it in my car for one entire summer, and parts of these rhythms are encoded into my muscle memory, even if I don’t exactly understand what’s happening. With the hypnotic click-clacking sound of the rim-shots, these beats remind me some of funky desert insects rubbing their legs together, of coded communication, encrypted alien transmissions. And then, in a flash, it turns into the percussive equivalent of a Bach fugue, with phrases getting tossed around, from drum to drum, staggered, inverted, at double time, in dense woven patterns, everything bunched together in an incomprehensible knot in places, and then opening up with bits and snippets of silence turning into vast stretches before those bass drums explode in a thundering roll.

I scored this album on a whim, I think, mostly inspired by the disarming stylishness of Boubacar Diagne on the cover. The big smile, the knit cap, the hefty medallions, the shades, the flowing boubou. And those drums! They look like old out-of-commissioned boats you might see at a dock somewhere with the rope/rigging and the skin/sails. Diagne (pronounced djah-een) leads this ensemble of Senegalese Sufi drummers. They call this tabala Wolof – I’m thinking "tabala" is the word for the drum, and Wolof is the ethnic group. Sufism is very popular in Senegal. Many popular Senegalese musicians, particularly Cheikh Lo, are devotees of Sufi mystics. There’s a lot in common with Senegalese sabar drumming. Like with sabar, the tabala Wolof players play using a stick in the right hand and they strike, mute and slap the drum head with their left hands. (The title of this track, "Bak," is the name for these inventive, extended drum-call/breaks that sabar drummers tag on to the start of their rhythms.) With the stick they can get a sharp attack on the muted or open skin, or they use it to make a clicking rim-shot by hitting the drum’s side or edge. The technique is similar to that used by Brazilian samba drummers, particularly of the lead repenique.. As in other parts of West Africa, in Senegal Afro-Cuban music was hugely popular in the 50s, 60s and 70s. And so you’ll often hear hints of the Cuban clave (also known to Americans as the Bo Diddley beat) on some songs. But there’s another, equally funky "clave" that you’ll hear a lot in Wolof music. It goes something like (four) AND/ ONE, TWO, THREE (four)AND/ONE, TWO, THREE - and you’ll hear it sometimes here. One other thing to listen for is the way the rhythms can shift from 4/4 to 6/8, with a kind of underlying 16th-note pulse changing, on cue, to an underlying triplet pulse.

This is on the excellent Village Pulse label, which was started by a couple guys from the Pacific Northwest who went to Senegal to study sabar drumming and then realized there were loads of incredible musicians who’d never been recorded. So they made a few trips - to Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bisau - with digital recorders and mics and basically started their own label. Pretty much everything they’ve released has been first-rate. Unfortunately they’ve not released anything in several years.

Friday, July 06, 2007

"Drugs Have Done Good Things"

This video drifted into my web-o-scope earlier today and reminded me of the old Bill Hicks routine about rock and drugs: "If you don't believe drugs have done good things for us, then go home and burn all your records, all your tapes, and all your CDs. Because every one of those artists who have made brilliant music and enhanced your lives? RrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrEAL fucking high on drugs. The Beatles were so fucking high they let Ringo sing a few songs." With that in mind, I submit into evidence the following, with the caveat that the chances that your own drug use will result in this kind of deep-fried melted-brain brilliance are very low. It's actually a cautionary tale considering Richard Manuel's fabled addiction to Grand Marnier, but the sheer soul survivalism of a dude who spent one too many nights on the road to wisdom (paved as it is with excess) is pretty impressive.