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May 29, 2008

Horses & Masters of Reality

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , , , , — Alex Rawls @ 6:26 am

I hoped Philip Shaw’s Horses (Continuum) would help me get closer to Patti Smith’s debut album. Only “Gloria” and “Land” delivered the wild and dangerous art that her early 1970s press promised. When Shaw writes about her development of a poetry-based rock ‘n’ roll, it still sounds exciting, marrying garage band, pre-punk and soul to Rimbaud-influenced poetry. Most of the album just sounded like artsy songs, though, and Radio Ethiopia came much closer to realizing the promised music I heard in my head.

Not surprisingly, Shaw focuses on Smith’s lyrics/poems, but because of that, once he writes about the songs, the book becomes pretty standard literary criticism – interesting, and oddly credulous where Smith’s accounts of dreams she remembers from childhood are concerned – but he misses the performed dimension, the words as they were sung while interacting with musical instruments. The flipside of the “Gloria” single was a live cover of “My Generation” recorded at CBGB’s with producer John Cale on bass, and it was the raw, daring thing I wanted. It was also that band that appeared on Saturday Night Live (guest host: Ron Nessen, Gerald Ford’s press secretary). I remember her sawing the strings of her guitar as if she was trying to pull them off (sadly, it’s not on YouTube for me to check). It was further evidence that the sense of drama, the frantic energy and compulsive risk-taking (acting like a rock ‘n’ roll cavegirl on national TV) that I had read about wasn’t a media fabrication, but I didn’t hear her or that on Horses except in moments. And I still don’t.

A more compelling entry in Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series is Masters of Reality by the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. He takes the series back to its more experimental first books and writes a novella written from the perspective of a teenager in a mental hospital. The premise seemed cheaply dramatic to me at first, and I’m not sure if I buy the voice of the teenager (not surprisingly, the protagonist 10 years later rings truer), but putting his thoughts on the Black Sabbath classic in the mouth of an unreliable narrator is provocative. It’s also hard not to see the book as a sly wisecrack toward critics, comparing them to unstable teenagers.

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May 28, 2008

The Sound of Percolation

Today I’m trying to get through some recent electropop CDs of one stripe or another, all of which entertain me.

Sally Shapiro: Remix Romance Vol. 1 and 2 (Paper Bag): Swedish dance pop singer Sally Shapiro has one album – Disco Romance –   and these two albums of remixes from it have piqued my curiosity. She has the breathy, girlish voice you recognize from countless one-hit wonders from the 1990s, but there’s enough in the song to give the producers something to work with. Tensnake swaddles her in 1980s Madonna, Holy Fuck adds some darkness and muscle, and the Junior Boys remake her in their sonically lonely image. Since Shapiro works to avoid the limelight and press – never played live, never has done interviews – she’s a completely plastic entity, offering no conceptual resistance to the contexts she’s placed in. Still, everything comes out slightly sweet or sweetly melancholy, so she’s not completely amorphous. I’m not sure one disc is better than the other, butI listen to volume one more because I like the Juan MacLean, Holy Fuck and the Junior Boys.

Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles (Last Gang): The songs by this Toronto synthpop duo don’t stretch out like the Shapiro remixes do; in fact, seven of 17 songs are under three minutes. That’s the punk in them showing, something that also crops up in the occasions when Alice Glass shouts a song’s lyrics like she’s two rooms away from the microphone. On those occasions, she is accompanied by the sound of combat during 1980s arcade videogames; in the more melodic moments (which dominate the album), her voice is processed within an inch of its robotic life and set to the sweet little riff the game played when your player started or died.

Kassin +2: Futurismo (Luaka Bop): This album is the third from the group, the previous two released as Moreno +2 and Domenico +2, the name change theoretically telling us who’s driving the car. In this case, the result is lush, contemporary samba and bossa nova that is periodically tested by ambient sound, stray guitar parts - and as the album progresses – surf guitar parts that eventually become surf songs. The retro drum machine and Moog parts accompanying the sugary “Ya Ya Ya” draw the clearest line to Tropicalia (after Moreno, who’s last name is Veloso and is Tropicalia pioneer Caetano Veloso’s son). The trio is joined on three songs by sympathetic souls John McIntire (Tortoise) and Sean O’Hagan (the High Llamas, Stereolab), and you can hear O’Hagan’s contributions to “Lakeline” in the Brian Wilson touches – the banjo and stacked harmonies. 

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May 27, 2008

Last Call for This Year’s Jazz Fest

I’ve done all the post-Fest writing I’m going to do, and our Jazz Fest wrap-up will appear in the June issue (due out later this week). But writer Larry Blumenfeld has a strong, unified take worth checking out – more about the context of Jazz Fest than the festival itself. But really, that’s more of a story than who did what, particularly this year when Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Mardi Gras Indians could parade for tourists on the sidewalk on the infield at the Fair Grounds, but a real jazz funeral on the walkway under the Claiborner Overpass was broken up by the cops.

… and in completely unrelated news, I’m trying to decide what it means when your music is used to accompany a fireworks show. Friday night after the Zephyrs game, the fireworks show was set to a medley of songs by Better Than Ezra. It was far better than a series of generic patriotic anthems or classic rock hits, but I’m not sure this didn’t simply mark the band as classic rock from another era, and its music as officially safe for all ages.  

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May 22, 2008

Dr. Michael White an NEA Heritage Fellow

Yesterday, traditional jazz clarinetist and educator Dr. Michael White was awarded an NEA Heritage Fellowship. He is the eighth Louisianan to receive this recognition since 2000. In 2001, Boozoo Chavis was named a Heritage Fellow. In 2003, the honor went to Luderin Darbonne and Edwin Duhon of the Hackberry Ramblers, then in 2005, BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet and Creole artisan Earl Barthe were honored. In 2006, the Treme Brass Band and blues pianist Henry Gray were named Heritage Fellows.

 

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May 21, 2008

Chris Thomas King’s blues

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , — Alex Rawls @ 5:04 am

I reviewed Chris Thomas King’s Live on Beale Street for our upcoming issue, and it reminded me of everything great and perplexing about King. The less he tries to seem significant, the more interesting he is. On the other hand, his efforts to establish his version of hip-hop as “21st Century Blues” sound strained. He’s a journeyman as an MC, which makes his hip-hop tracks sound dilettante-ish, as if he likes the idea of hip-hop more than he likes actually listening to it.

Putting forward the idea that hip-hop is the modern version of the blues is provocative, and anyone who puts interesting ideas in the world is okay by me. But just as classic rock bands who cut disco tunes sounded older for doing so (with the exception of the Stones, but that’s because you believed Mick danced to it), reaching to a youth-oriented form to try to make a traditional genre sound contemporary has the opposite effect.

Perhaps if King made his hip-hop blues his primary output, it would seem less like a novelty, but though he has been talking about it for years, it has been a minor part of his last three albums. But as they demonstrate, he doesn’t need to dabble in a shaky genre-cross to make the blues sound relevant. The frankness of a couple of tunes on the new album mark them as the product of the modern world, as does Rise, recorded after Hurricane Katrina. In those instances, he doesn’t take contemporary thoughts and phrase them in timeless language to make them sound as if they could be 50 years or 50 days old. All it takes to write blues that reflects contemporary times is the willingness to pay attention to detail, then write about it.  

 

 

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May 19, 2008

Best Band?

After seeing the New Orleans Bingo! Show twice in the last few weeks, I wonder if it isn’t the best band in town right now. I didn’t see anybody inspire a more passionate attempt to provoke an encore at a Jazz Fest show than they did, and at the Ogden Museum’s Sippin’ in Seersucker, audiences liked Topsy Chapman’s Diana Washington set, liked the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but stopped what they were doing for the Bingo! Show. Anyone who can engage a crowd that is not the band’s traditional audience - there were few hipsters or regular clubgoers - and turn Canal Place into a semi-intimate venue is doing a lot of things right. 

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May 17, 2008

Incomprehensible in All Formats

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 1:24 pm

I’m entertained by Coheed and Cambria, but I have no idea what the songs are about, much less the story the collectively tell. I recently read The Amory Wars: The Second Stage Turbine Blade, Vol. 1, the graphic novel by C and C’s Claudio Sanchez. As the title suggests, their story – a sci-fi epic, in case it isn’t obvious – is perplexing in any form. Sanchez is obviously a comic book fan, but he’s better and writing riffs and hooks than he is at writing a comic.

I can’t hear the connection between the comic and C and C’s records, but I remain perversely amused by someone who wants to tell such a sprawling, jargon-laden, multi-character story in rock ‘n’ roll.

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May 14, 2008

Repudiate Everything and Waiting for Waits

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 7:42 pm

I wanted to wait until I read Vanity Fair’s Miley Cyrus piece before commenting on the furor over the Annie Leibovitz photo of her wrapped in a sheet. It’s silly to deny that there’s a sexual dimension to the shot – How did her hair get go messy? What happened that she needs to wrap herself in sheets? What’s with the uncertain look? – but the article is about a girl growing up, and the spectre of sexuality is part of the story.

The saddest thing about her repudiation of the pictures is that it says no to a natural part of maturing. In this case, she was able to try on the style and trappings of sexiness in the safety of a studio with a respected photographer and her family; a lot of girls and young women first walk that walk under conditions that have far more repercussions.

… and in other stuff, everyone I’m talking to is planning a Tom Waits road trip to Mobile July 2 or Birmingham July 3. Unfortunately, we still don’t have any sit-down venues that meet his specs, so the city that has more Waits-influenced musicians per square mile than any other is conspicuously absent from a southern swing. For those who need a fix before then, Scarlett Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head – an album of Waits covers – is better than you might expect. TV on the Radio’s David Andrew Zitek keeps her fairly safe from harm, swaddling her in artfully haunting electronics. A celebrity album reeks of the indulgence of fame, but if her name were Janet Wilson, we’d find her restraint and Sitek’s ominoso production an interesting counterpoint to Waits’ croak and clang.

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May 7, 2008

Block that Metaphor

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 1:19 pm

The Democratic primary has proven to be an interesting study in what constitutes effective political speech, and yesterday Hillary Clinton gave us another fine example. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, she announced that “we need to get on the track in America,” and “if you want to go forward, you put it in D. If you want to go backward, you put it in R” (Indy driver Sarah Fisher reminder her open-wheel cars don’t go in R), and though I haven’t found it quoted online, she said something to the effect of “We have to get America closer to the finish line.” During her victory speech, she continued the metaphor, announcing that it’s “full speed ahead to the White House.”

If you lived in Indiana – and certainly Indianapolis – wouldn’t that strike you as the worst kind of condescension, as if you couldn’t get her deeply complex message if she didn’t put it in terms of car racing? It reminds me of Bush’s references to jazz funerals and second lines in his speech in Jackson Square after Katrina, or anyone who talks to us and compares things to gumbo.

Obviously though, 52 percent of Indiana Democrats weren’t put off by that, which raises the question of what political speech is actually worth, and if the answer is “Not much,” then what grounds are we actually electing people on?

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May 6, 2008

Housecleaning: Reissues

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 4:25 pm

CDs stack up like cord wood under the best of circumstances; going into the black hole of Jazz Fest just exacerbates the problem. Here’s a quick trip through recent reissues:

Carole King – Tapestry (Ode/Epic/Legacy): Still sounds great, and the second disc of live solo takes of the album’s songs from the 1970s (which are supposedly more intimate) highlight how genuinely intimate the full band version is. Live, it’s clear she’s singing to a audience; in the studio, it sounds like she’s singing “You’re as beautiful as you feel” to the mirror.

The Replacements – Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, Stink, Hootenanny and Let it Be (all on Twin-Tone/Rhino):
The first time around, I heard the first three albums on campus radio and liked them when I heard them but wasn’t motivated enough to buy them. The only song that stayed with me from those was Stink ’s “God Damn Job,” so hearing them again borders on a first listen, and they don’t really show their age. There’s not much essential listening on anything before Let it Be, but on Hootenanny, you can hear a band stretching its musical muscles to see what they can do. Nothing quite prepares you for the leap in ambition and sophistication they made between that album and Let it Be and I wonder if I would have been irritated by Hootenanny’s all-over-the-place quality when it was first released in 1983 when I didn’t know what would follow it. There’s little left to say about Let it Be, which belongs in everybody’s collection. The bonus tracks are unnecessary on all the discs, but the demos on Sorry Ma suggest that the band was fully formed right from the start and just needed time to discover their voice.

Mission of Burma – Signals, Calls and Marches, Vs. and the Horrible Truth About the Mission of Burma (all on Matador): The first two Mission of Burma releases are, like Let it Be, pretty essential discs from the American post-punk moment (late 1970s to early 1980s), and it’s impossible to imagine the Pixies without Mission of Burma.

Otis Redding – Otis Blue (Atco/Rhino): Bonus live stuff that lets you hear Otis the showman, bonus alternate takes and B-sides that are the usual reissue filler, and mono and stereo mix of a classic album.

Steinski – What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective (Illegal Art): Not a reissue, strictly speaking, but it’s a collection of work by one of the people who treated DJing as a form of collage, assembling a financially suicidal number of film clips and samples into a danceable whole. The first five tracks were recorded with Double Dee, and after “The Payoff Mix,” it sounds like they got caught in a formula, giving James Brown, hip-hop, jazz and Sugar Hill Records the Double Dee and Steinski treatment. The post-Double Dee material isn’t as compulsively filled with stuff, which gives the parts a chance to accumulate, resonate and speak to each other. “The Motorcade Sped On” is built on broadcast tapes from the Kennedy assassination, and it starts with Ed McMahon’s introduction, “here’s Johnny,” followed by the opening chord to “Hard Day’s Night,” then John F. Kennedy’s voice. The link of him to the Beatles is a nice comment, one echoed later when a news anchor reads, “Mrs. Kennedy jumped up, she called ‘Oh no,’” and “Oh no” is repeated until it sounds like “Ono,” while a voice yelps in the background. Revolution is evoked when the word “Time” is looped over a drum and cowbell pattern that recalls the psychedelic mid-song freakout in the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.” Am I inventing connections? Maybe, but in the best of these tracks – and the second disc, a mix prepared for the BBC – he scatters enough voices and ideas to suggest a comment and conversation.

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