Thursday, June 29, 2006

Minutemen- as DIY as they wanted to be

Even though critics/reviewers are supposed to keep some kind of objective distance from the subjects they cover, sometimes we just can't help it. I've crossed over to work on some reissues of out-of-print records (something I don't recommend unless you have a lot of heart and patience). I also took the initiative to get a screening for a documentary about L.A. punk band Minutemen for a New York premier last spring at Lincoln Center. To be honest, it wasn't just that I wanted to share my love of that band with the rest of NYC but as a fan, I just wanted to see the film myself too.

It didn't disappoint either (it was screened for two sold-out shows). The fact of the matter is that We Jam Econo is just as DIY as the band itself. It's not totally polished and it wouldn't make sense if it was. But it does convey a good sense of what the band was about, especially in tribute to late singer/guitarist D. Boon. Along with a bunch of indie/underground experts, we hear from bassist Mike Watt about everything from the origins of the band to its untimely end (when Boon died in a van accident in 1985). There's also intriguing live footage (including an acoustic performance) and interviews done with Boon and the band from back then. Also, you get the sense of an idealistic band who not only loved punk but also lefty politics and free jazz. They also didn't have any use for sarcasm or snideness (they had a mile-wide sincere streak) though they definitely had a sense of humor.

As such, the film isn't just a celebration of who and what they were but also something of a tombstone morning a great band. Indeed, when film was given its premier in California, Watt himself didn't attend. It wasn't out of stuffiness but because he still missed Boon so much that he couldn't bear to watch the film in public. He's done his best to carry the torch for the band since then (with fIREHOSE and his solo work) but there's also the sense that without Boon there also, it's not quite the same.

(Call me a sentimental old fool but when I saw Patti Smith recreate her Horses debut at Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall with Flea as a guest, I was moved to see a sticker on his bass. It was a shadow image of Boon singing (the same one you see on Watt's home page) and a sign that his spirit was still around and active)

Luckily for anyone who didn't catch the film's screening tour last year, Plexifilm has just released a DVD of We Jam Econo that includes the three music videos that they did plus extended interviews and a bonus DVD of live shows.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Jimmy Spicer & the economic bottom line

BGP Records' recent compilation The New York Sound is a nice history lesson and a bit of nostalgia: "pioneering Early 80's Dance Sounds From The Big Apple," as it says. You get pre-rap building blocks like King Tim III and Fatback Band not to mention a very weird, contradictory piece of music history.

Though he's known as an old school rap legend, Jimmy Spicer's career doesn't hold up well to scrutiny. One of his later (mid 80's) hits "Adventures of Super Rhymes" now sounds like boring embarrassment, where he goes through a number of corny imitations (he's no Rich Little). It would take visionaries like Flash, Run-DMC, Bambaataa to take rap to next level as opposed to a novelty act like Spicer.

But he does claim credit to at least one single for the ages, despite some of his own input there. Just as on "Adventures," Spicer's rapping on 1983's "Money (Dollar Bill Y'all)"is pretty wack- his timing was lame, he had no flow and his personality wasn't there either. Here, he sounds like he's about to flunk an audition for Mr. Big in a crappy blaxploitation movie.

But his rapping isn't the point on that song- it's the words themselves and the music that made it a tune for the ages. The backing is an minimal synth-beat plus skeletal rhythm guitar, making it not just an electronica precursor but also Prince's sound before Prince himself found it. And then there's that ghostly, distance voice that repeats the chorus: "dollar bill y'all, dollar bill y'all, dollar, dollar, dollar, dollar bill y'all." Just in case, you don't catch Spicer's drift, he spells it out as "cash money money to the B, I, double LL bill!" to his talk about bill collectors, living through 9-to-5 jobs, the I.R.S., lawyers you can't pay and other fun things that haunt you in a land where cash is a be-all and end-all.

The same stark financial realism was later taken up in some of Rakim's best work with Eric B, in phrases like "dead presidents" and "paid in full" or in Gwen Guthrie's mid-80's hit "Ain't Nothing Goin' On But the Rent." Even Limp Bizkit would tap it for an album title much later on. The phrase "dollar bill y'all" became such currency that those pithy three words summed up not just bleak economic realism but also a whole mindset (the whole idea of "getting paid"). All of which means that while Spicer might have been something of a joke, "Money" was and is as serious as your life.

Listen to and buy the New York Sound at Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Jah Mason- new school/old school reggae

For any of us old school reggae fans who aren't entirely sure about the modern crop of reggae music, Jah Mason is a relief. Though this tree-hugger is a dancehall singer, he doesn't sound exactly like his peers (i.e. a toaster who's on crack). What makes JM special is that he appreciates old school wisdom, not just praising Selassie but also using some of the top sessionmen of 70's (Ansel Collins, Leroy Wallace, Uziah Thompson, Earl Smith, Dean Fraser- all of whom still sound great) and sometimes breaking his voice off into a beautiful rock steady lilt.

You can listen to and buy his new album Princess Gone at the VP Records website.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Robert Fripp exposed

After manning art-rock legends King Crimson for over five years, guitarist Robert Fripp had enough in 1974. He wasn't just sick of the band and their music but also of the industry itself. He needed to get away and "find himself."

Though he did take up the teachings of mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, Fripp didn't retreat to a mountain top to meditate. He hooked up with Peter Gabriel (producing his second solo album and touring with him) and David Bowie (recording the memorable guitar line on "Heroes") and eventually settled in New York City in the late 70's. This was the same time that his old friend Brian Eno had also taken up residence in the area. It was a good time and place to be. CBGB's had cultivated a punk scene that Fripp (unlike many of his art rock peers who were detractors) would immerse himself into, appearing on records by Blondie and Talking Heads. Compare that with his old band mates- Ian McDonald would wind up in Foreigner, John Wetton would made hits with Asia, Greg Lake was of course in ELP, etc.. all successful and schlocky as hell.

Another interest he had at that time was finally making his own album. As Arto Lindsay noted, a 'solo' album is only really solo if you do everything yourself. Fripp wasn't ready for that yet (though soon would), calling on a group of musicians he was surrounding himself with at the time. In addition to Eno and Gabriel, he was producing folkie sisters the Roches and planning to also to produce an album by then-hot-commodity Daryl Hall. Much the same way that Eno's label/management told them that a record with Fripp would be commercial poison (eventually their collaboration records did come out though), Hall's people didn't like the idea of an art rock guitarist producing him. They not only shelved Hall's solo album (Sacred Songs, which would come out later) but for Fripp's record, they at first suggested that it should be a Fripp/Hall album and when that fell through, they told him he could only use two Hall vocals on his record.

Fripp looks back on this with utter rage even today. Is it any wonder that he's had such a sour view of the industry? I subtitled my other blog (Crazed By the Music) with another quote of his which describes his view of the music business: exploitation and theft.

In any case, Fripp soldiered on, corralling other musicians to take up the vocals on his album. What was eventually released in 1979 as Exposure was a revelation. Though parts of it inevitably bore the stamp of Crimson, it was as if Fripp was presenting an intriguing possible direction for Crimson that was never taken (and has never been taken since unfortunately). Even the substitute vocals help give the album a kaleidoscopic view that having only Hall there to sing would never have done. In addition to taped voice fragments that dotted the record, Fripp employed Frippertronics, an ambient looping technique for his playing that he developed with the help of Eno. The album went through a seamless mix of moods from blinding anger to aching tenderness from one song to the next. In many ways, it was more ambitious than anything that Crimson did before or after that.

The album begins with a voice (Eno? Fripp?) saying "I'd like to play you something..." A phone rings, gets picked up and then we're launched into "You Burn Me Up, I'm A Cigarette," a title worthy of Bobby Braddock. What's remarkable here is that Fripp himself wrote the lyrics (something he hadn't done before) and that the song is nothing less than a stomping piece of rock and roll that you could almost hear Jerry Lee sing (though he might wince about the line about "the sage"). Hall sings the tune and does a fine job of it too.

After a metal-battered piece of Crimson memorabilia (sounding like where Red left off) comes one of the secret heroes of the record. One of Hall's substitutes for the vocals was Van Der Graaf Generator's Peter Hammill- his hysterics on "Disengage" and sly insanity on "Chicago" show more range or wisdom than any singer that Fripp worked with in Crimson could. The lyrics for those two songs come from the album's other hidden treasure, poet Joanna Walton. She also provides tender words for "Mary" (sung by Terre Roche) and "North Star" (a prospective single, sung by Hall).

Along with the bizarre title track (its letters chanted by Fripp and Eno, its title screamed by Roche), the second side has a few beautiful Frippertronics pieces, a funny piece of self-criticism ("Haaden Two" where voices complain about the song's "pathetic chord sequence" and that "it has no qualities of your work that I find interesting"), a shouting match between Hammill and Roche (written by Walton) and Gabriel's now-prescient, lovely, apocalyptic "Here Comes the Flood." In the "Postscript," a voice explains "the whole story is untrue... it's a big hoax." The phone conversation which began at the start of the record now ends with a hang up and then we hear footsteps and someone walking out of a screen door (to where?) as the album ends.

In all, Exposure is a powerful, wonderfully odd album which charted/marked Fripp's life at the time. Though he would try to repeat the schitzo formula in 1981 on God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (with assistance from David Byrne), embark on Frippertronics tours and form the League of Gentleman as his first attempt at a post-Crimson band (with former XTC organist Barry Andrews and future Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee), Fripp did eventually reactivate Crimson with Bill Bruford back from the mid-70s line-up along with Exposure bassist Tony Levin and Bowie/Talking Heads guitarist/singer Adrian Belew. Kudos to Fripp for not resting on his laurels and engaging with such a interesting range of musicians usually much younger than him (rather than only sticking with the old art rock crowd) but Exposure is where he really shined brightest and sounded most inspired.

The album can be experienced again on a recent reissue that Fripp helmed, which includes not just the original recordings all cleaned up but also lyrics, detailed notes and even a bonus CD of the unreleased Hall vocals and other out-takes. A quarter-century after the fact, the album is still well-named- it was his highest profile outing up to that time and a real expose into the mind of an erudite guitar-god.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Wire- here they are again...

Jim DeRogatis said that the words 'seminal' were used so much with the band the Velvet Underground that they should just change their name to 'The Seminal Velvet Underground.' While he was obviously joking about scribes' laziness, there is a reason why cliches exist- sometimes, they're just true.

If you're going to throw around the word 'seminal,' one of the other post-Brit invasion rock bands that deserves the tag is an arty foursome that simply called themselves Wire. Anyone with even a minor interest in punk, new wave or indie rock not only has to be aware of them but has to KNOW them.

When they came up in the first stream of London punk, playing at the Roxy, some of the purists hated them because their set sounded so polished. They tried to defend themselves (as if they needed to) by saying that they had played the material so much that it was rout. Even if most of the 'peers' had backgrounds that were just as (if not more) arty as theirs, they (the other bands) thought to cravenly hide it. Wire's problem (if you wanna call it that) was that they were part of the original punk scene and, looking to go beyond it, part of the post-punk movement too at the same time.

Even their debut, 1977's Pink Flag, with its 4/4 beat ramalama, featured their wonderfully quizzical lyrics. Like Steely Dan, they figured out that leaving out details of their little stories, narratives and (since most of the songs were so short) vignettes made them all the more intriguing. By the time of their second album, 1978's Chairs Missing, the music (written almost exclusively by singer Colin Newman) was matching the words, becoming more and more gnarled and spooky but unmistakably punk in its own way. If they didn't come across as yobbos flipping off the PM, Queen or establishment, they certainly had enough disgust and anger (though they turned it inward sometimes) but also a certain fretfulness that a lot of early punk wasn't brave enough to admit. By time of 1979's 158 (the number of gigs they'd done by then, a sign that they were tiring), they had come full circle to their art roots and previewing what was in store for their solo years. After a UK-only live album of new material, they dissolved, but only for the first time. And hell, let's face it- you should know all of this stuff already, right?

Though these three albums have been reissued before (thanks to Enigma), their recent reissue on the band's own Pink Flag records does indeed have clearer sound and as they're proud to boast: "The re-mastered albums are all returned to the original vinyl release running order (no inappropriate extra “bonus” tracks) therefore honouring the conceptual clarity of the original statements." Purists that they are, the band probably doesn't realize that those "annoying" bonus tracks were wonderful treats in an of themselves (i.e. singles like "Options R," "A Question of Degree"). Also, though you now get neat photos, notes and exact breakdowns of who wrote what, the lyrics should have been there too- their loopiness was always fun to contemplate- for that, you have to spring for the 1977-1979 box set (which also includes a Roxy show from '77 and a CBGB's show from '78).

But anyway you cut it, you should just have these records, period. No excuses. Even if you don't have them, you've been listening to them in some form or another as their progeny have replayed them again and again.

Wire themselves were always conflicted about their past. When they regrouped in the mid-80's, they hired a cover band as an opening act- Ex-Lion Tamers featuring DeRogatis on drums and vocals- refusing to do their own songs, claiming "we don't know them." Though many old fans slogged their then-new material, they eventually caught up with their still chilly atmospheres which were becoming more and more techno influenced. After they dissolved again in the 90's (culminating with the incredibly underrated The First Letter), they came back yet again around the beginning of the new millennium, releasing a series of EP's that sounded like old times (at least in momentum) and then finally at live shows covering their own oldies. As of last year, the band is kaput again but since no one thought that Wire II or Wire III was a possibility, don't be surprised if we don't see Wire Mach IV at some point.

Find all the early Wire fun at the Pink Flag website.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Little Richard still rips it up

As unhip as they may be, your mom and grandmother know who Little Richard is. Since the title of "king" is already taken, he's acknowledged as the "architect" of rock and roll, now 73 years old and like many performers of his generation, he makes his money from constant touring instead of album sales- it's not just a matter of putting out (or not putting out) new product as it's also that royalties that come from his original hits from the 50's aren't exactly structured in his favor.

Even if he can't prance around as he once could, he's still the outrageous character that we know from the songs and from his proclamations, as he proved at the Apollo Theatre last weekend. Backed by two sets of drummers, guitars and bassists (including one of his sons) plus a four piece horn section, he sounded nothing like a sad oldies act but like a mischievous boy-at-heart entertainer. "In the old days, you had to dress up to perform," he told the crowd. "You had to show them something that they couldn't see anywhere else." Interesting sentiment and one that didn't (and doesn't) usually hold water nowadays (better to ID with the crowd and be one of the people I guess).

As for his stage banter, it's priceless. "I'm not conceited, I'm convinced!" "Prince is a flip-flopper!" (he meant it religiously and teasingly he says...). Every time he let out a howler, his immediate response was always the same- "Shut up" (not mean spirited but more like "aw, you shut up, child!"). Every 5-10 minutes, he wanted to know if we were having a good time (we were) like the good entertainer that he is. Strangely enough, when someone called out for a song, he threw out his song list and immediately compiled, even if it meant playing a tune again briefly to prove that he did it. Like I said, the man wants to please.

So we were treated to "Tutti Frutti," "Lucille," "Rip It Up," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (not his tune but he made it sound like it), "Ready Teddy," "Keep A Knockin'" (a personal fave and not just 'cause Led Zep borrowed the intro), "Slippin' and Slidin'," and "Long Tall Sally." Also, "Old Time Rock and Roll" (which he should know) and oddly "It's Only Rock 'N Roll (But I Like It)." Not surprisingly, he didn't do the line about "suicide on the stage" but he does obviously get a kick out of the title.

How many times you need to experience this? Well, definitely at least once, especially if you care anything about rock. And as he's welcome to remind you, if you also care about Elvis, the Beatles, Prince, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix (who worked with him), Billy Preston (ditto and who died a few days after the show) and the list goes on. And so does Mr. Penniman.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Roman Candle- not lovin' modern radio

Maybe there's some faulty beginner-level scribing class for rock critics, but many writers for some reason or another make their first essay a "why music sucks today" rant. Trust me, I've seen dozens of these. It's simple- you complain how soulless and stupid everything on the radio is and how much better music was when... you get the idea. The problem with an article like this is that the whole premise doesn't hold water. Think of this- when was there a time when there wasn't any bad music around? A: never. Good music is always out there, it's just a matter of finding it and not limiting yourself to one type of music.

But is it really possible to make a reasonable complaint about music today without sounding like an old fogey or out-of-touch cynic? Well, yes... but it ain't easy.

Roman Candle is a rootsy North Carolina band about to come out with a V2 album (The Wee Hours Revue) but sadly, it won't include their best, smartest song, "Why Modern Radio Is A-OK." As singer/guitarist Skip Matheny explains "we wrote this song in May of 2004, between the recording of our upcoming album (May 2003) and its release date (June '06) - (which was) two record labels later. It is going to be on a newer record we've written called 'Love Songs For An Empty Room.' Not sure when this record will come out."

In any case, the title is a ruse (they don't love today's radio) as the singer actually thinks just the opposite. But rather than just make the usual observation about the good old days, there's an interesting twist. In the song, Matheny and his buddy are actually glad that radio sucks today- that way, none of the songs will break his heart the way that the classics once did. We hear the song only with a voice and acoustic guitar, appropriately lonely as he recollects the way that he once was actually moved by the music he heard on the radio. Like some of the best country songs, "A-OK" finds both solace and heartache from the radio (wonder if there'll eventually be the same kind of songs written about online streams...).

And so, they name-check their favorites, including John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and... Radiohead? The last ain't exactly classic rock (though he does dig their earlier material, which is closer to it) and truth be known, neither is Ol' Blue Eyes but they're nice/interesting surprises to be included there though I gotta wonder why Ray Charles isn't on that list too. Also, not since Blondie's "Dreaming" can I remember such wonderfully hilarious rhyming wordplay: "Van Morrison" and "chorusing" (that Emo bands do) plus "John (not Johnny) Cash" and "trash" (again, sticking it to Emo) plus Radiohead's "The Bends" and "Sir Patrick Spens." The last one isn't something they pulled out of their hat- it's an old English folk ballad covered by Fairport Convention. Not the kind of thing you find in a rhyming dictionary and exactly the kind of thing that a true music-nut/record-geek would have in their vocabulary.

In their blog, the band provides the story behind the song but more than a mere explanation, the words speak for themselves:

I was down at my favorite watering hole
with a buddy of mine that was out on parole
and we were flipping through the jukebox,
talking how we'd been and how we are.

Well he'd got a library card and he'd pierced his tongue
And a buddy in prison had turned him onto Neil Young
And he thought it'’d be best to play some for the entire bar.

Now he didn't know it but while he was in Jail
I'd had my heart broke by a woman to wondrous to tell
And we'd fallen in love to half the songs that jukebox played

So when he flattened his dollar on the side of the machine
and I saw "comes a time" come on the karaoke screen
I'd realized there was a few things I had forgot to say:

Don't play Neil Young
Don't play Van Morrison
Just let some high school emo band start versing and chorusing
Because there's no way it will break my heart as far as I can see
And that's why modern radio is A OK with me.

(Over the sound of the bar noise my friend looked at me and said):

He said a pop song used to be a powerful thing,
you could turn on the am and John Lennon would sing
or Frank Sinatra would speak to all of the girls.

And you could think like a hawk or think like a dove
or think of a winter afternoon when you fell in love and
Ten songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls.

Now my buddy rattled on till an hour had passed
And I thought about shoving his head through the front door glass
And leaving him for dead, but a friend is a friend to stay.

So I listened to him talk about Johnny and June
And how true love goes from midnight to noon
I bought another round just in time to hear him say:

They don't play Sam Cooke
They don't play John Cash
They let some high school emo band play the prettiest trash
And there's no way it can break my heart as far as I can see
And that's why modern radio is a sack of monkeys to me.

He said it makes me so mad I want to get out and shout it
And I smiled and said I hadn't thought that much about it
and we walked out the street and parted ways

I might've gone to a movie, but my money was spent
so I went on home, the Lord knows where he went
and wrote and open letter to all modern dj's

Don't play Bob Dylan
Don't play the Bends
Don't play anybody that'’s ever heard Sir Patrick Spens
Because broken hearted people are looking for a little something to ignore
And that is why modern radio is better than ever before
And that is why modern radio is better than ever before

You can listen to "Why Modern Radio Is A-OK" on the band's MySpace page.

Until the band finally makes this tune widely available, you can be sure it'll be a concert favorite for now. This is one "why music sucks" tale that should be heard.