Friday, March 31, 2006

Dreaming Out Loud- Country music in the 90's

You know that you're way behind in your reading when your latest tome is from the 90's but Dreaming Out Loud (first published 1999) is a fine piece of work, detailing the dizzying pace that country music exploded through the music scene in that same decade.

I'm only 50 pages into it but I've already found three timeless nuggets.

- Rolling Stone magazine sniffing that SAT scores are at an all-time low and when Garth Brooks was at the top of the charts as if the two phenomenons were related. Did they say the same thing later about the American Idol contestants or Britney when they appeared on their cover?

- I think this is just a urban legend but... supposedly, the Grand Ole Opry had propelled a certain superstar at the time (the Garth of that period) to the point that a taunt against American soldiers by the Japanese was "To hell with Franklin Roosevelt! To hell with Babe Ruth! To hell with Roy Acuff!" No, I don't believe it either but it's quite a story.

- Debunking the myth about the country audience being a bunch of tabacco-spitting, drooling hicks, the author details a study that this fan group is actually better educated and earns more than their counterparts in adult contemporary and rock.

Writer Bruce Feiler details his own Southern roots and how he was compelled to run from them but later compelled to return to them. To try to explain the 90's country boom, he spends a lot of time with Garth, Wynonna Judd (when she still had two names) and then up-and-comer Wade Hayes. He paints a lot of evocative behind-the-scene moments in their careers, especially in the beginning where he details their mis-steps and failures- Garth turns down an American Music award, Judd lets Bette Midler steal the spotlight during a supposed comeback and Hayes reluctantly declines an encore at a sold-out show. Very bumpy roads for these stars indeed. Feiler doesn't try to be comprehensive- there was plenty of other stars at that time though not as big and this obviously isn't meant to chronicle the alt-country movement which also exploded then but those are other stories for other books.

And needless to say, a lot has changed subsequently in the last six years or so for country (Big & Rich for one thing) and one hopes that someone like Feiler (or maybe Feiler himself) will be there to chronicle it.

Monday, March 27, 2006

More Nikki Sudden

Around April 2003, I was helping to play a Rough Trade night in New York, centered around the long-loved, long-lost U.S. compilation that the label put out in 1980 called Wanna Buy A Bridge? As part of this, I contacted the original artists collected on Bridge to get some comments to read for the show. As part of this, I got a communique from Nikki, who supplied this nice message to share with the assembled (note in the beginning that I told him that we needed it within a week of when I first contacted him).
"Jason & Co.

It always takes a deadline to get anything out of me...

Back in 1980 Rough Trade approached the Swell Maps and asked if we could come up with a cover design and title for a compilation album they were releasing to test the US Market. The result was, Wanna Buy A Bridge? ~ A Rough Trade Compilation Of Singles.

Maps' guitarist, Richard 'Biggles' Earl did the cover photo, using an Action Man and a few other accessories. I have vague recollections that this was the cover he wanted to foist on the band for our second album, Jane From Occupied Europe. But he was beaten to it by Epic and Jowe's similarly strange submission. Things were becoming a bit murky by then...

Wanna Buy A Bridge? ended up being released in the States at around the time the Maps broke up... We'd played an Italian tour and - even though we didn't yet know it - the band broke up en route to the last couple of shows. A US tour had been scheduled. Our fifth single, which would have been Back To The Coast, would have hit the UK top 40. But we broke up anyway. I didn't know why for a long time... But talking to Richard some years back he told me that the others were scared of the success they saw coming fast... They decided it was easier to fall apart than to take on the world.

This is what I'd aspired to the whole time. And still do. My latest album - my twentieth, or so - will be released this September. It's called Treasure Island and has touches of the Maps alongside everything else I've touched over the years. I'll be touring Europe, touring the States. touring the World - as usual - when the album is out. I think if you're a musician then you should be playing gigs or making records. I try and play around 100 shows a year - half solo, half with my band, The Last Bandits...

Just remember that you can take the boy out of the Maps but you can't take the Maps out of the boy..."

And then since the Maps song from Bridge was "Read About Seymour," he thoughtfully supplied the lyrics (Ari Up and the Tall Boys were on the bill but RAS didn't get performed, sad to say).

Read About Seymour
Read about Seymour yesterday
In the news that found it’s way
To where I sleep and seek to be
Where I am, I hear, I see.
Read about Seymour in my mind
Window stacks across the blinds
The lightning tower on Pyre Hill
I wonder where I’ll find my field.
Don’t look out…
Don’t look out…
Don’t look out…
Don’t look out…
Read about Seymour, look my way
Feel him near day after day
All cutlass and alone, alas
The spirit sank like mourning glass.
Read about Seymour yesterday
In the news that found it’s way
To where I sleep and seek to be
Where I am, I hear, I see.
Don’t look out…
Don’t look out…
Don’t look out…
Don’t look out…

Thanks Nikki, you Mappish boy...

RIP Nikki Sudden (Swell Maps)

Sad news to report. Nikki Sudden (formerly of the Swell Maps) passed away this weekend, just after having done a show here in Gotham (which I sadly missed). As part of a tribute to him, there's this Swell Maps article at Perfect Sound Forever. I'll also post a note that he sent me about two years ago where he was thanking all the fans for remembering him and his work.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lobi Traoré- Mali madness

Having Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn as a booster definitely helps but what makes Lobi Traoré special is his guitar picking- his playing is pure garage on his latest album, Lobi Traoré Group (Astralwerks, originally recorded in '02 and first released last year on Albarn's Honest Jon label).

His music is sometimes linked to blues and you can see the connection there- his gruff shout over the constantly unfurling guitar lines do trace a route to Chicago, even though the influence was originally the other way around (as Corey Harris and Johnny Copeland among others elegantly demonstrated). This can also be traced to his more famous countryman, the recently deceased Ali Fourka Toure (who also produced some of Traore's music).

While early albums had a folkie sound to them, Traoré's records have gradually picked up the pace/tempo so that now, he's got the full-throttle surf madness that he first admired in another stellar Malian guitarist, Zani Diabate.

For a good bio on Traore and to hear some of his early tune, see Calabash Music.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Exene marks the spot

Great as it is to see the original X line-up once in a while (especially Billy Zoom's ear-to-ear grins and sly nods as he cranks out rockabilly madness), they themselves seem to know that their recording careers are elsewhere. While John Doe looks to roots music, Exene herself is still working out her rock obsessions in her solo work. And that's a good thing because her latest album, Sev7en (on Nitro Records) may be the best X-related material that anyone from the band has done since their early 80's heydey.

Heresy as it may be, I never enjoyed the off-harmonies that Exene and Doe would do in X- didn't seem to mesh right but maybe that was the point. Exene isn't technically a great singer but she's expressive as hell and with this kind of music, that's everything. Having a band to match her is important too and the Original Sinners (talk about heresy... what a great name), she has a solid group to send up her visions, including guitarist/hubby/co-songsmith Jason Edge but not X man DJ Bonebrake who once backed her up. Not necessarily bowl-you-over stuff like her original group but it's enough to satiate any X (or punk) fan. She calls it her "Chuck Berry phase" but if so, he's on some high-powered uppers here. Even if she doesn't feel the need to make new X records, she's found a fine context for her work here, even if her guitarists lack Billy's charm.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Porest- true musical terrorism

Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop says of the Porest CD Tourrorists: "It's a masterpiece. In fact, its the only record that actually matters right now. Everything else seems irrelevant in comparison." Alright, maybe he's a little biased since he heads up the label that put it out but one thing's for sure- it's not like anything you've heard before and it's a truly disturbing listen. Not disturbing in the thrilling way but more in the truly unsettling way. Not many CD's can do that nowadays.

For his 4th album, Oakland's Mark Gergis acts like a one-man band, playing all manner of instruments but more importantly, supplying voice, real and computerized, processing and appropriated. Other than artwork, not just the burning twin towers of cash on the cover but also the box-cutters used in the credits, the voices heard provide a strange, unpleasant conversation about terrorism and how it's perceived through the media. Even with a few years of distance, the Sept. 11th attacks are still an open wound for many. Forget sugar-coating- Gergis doesn't care about being disrespectful to the incident or the reaction to it. To him, it's a joke. A horrible, ridiculous joke but a joke nevertheless. In his eyes, the breast-beating over-patriotic militarist Yanks and the Al-Qaeda terrorist are equally worthy of being slapped up and ridiculed.

(If it seems unthinkable to make a light of foreign attack on American soil, remember back to an episode of the Simpsons where the senile ol' Grandpa says: "I haven't felt this relaxed and carefree since I was watch commander at Pearl Harbor." We get the joke and can laugh now but it definitely wouldn't have been as funny in 1941.)

While much of the music is fake ethno music (i.e. Can, Byrne/Eno) or Eastern dance music as seen by a Westerner (i.e. Muslimgauze), it's the words that Gergis finds or uses that cut deep. For starters, "Let's Roll" has computer voices over a cool jazz beat. "One of them said Let's Roll, if you believe that, I have a box of boxcutters to sell you," says one of this disembodied voices. Later, there's a bizarre conversation: "My American passport is my greatest asset but did you know, I'm also a terrorist?" "That's so awesome." "C'mon, it's a holy war." "In that case, let's roll." (those last two words of course being the rally cry of the passengers who stopped the last airplane from flying into Washington DC).

After a racial exchange, one of the voices claims to be aligned with the "Yankee Doodle Martyrs Brigade," followed by verses like "when the media speaks, the people nod/we take our instructions from the Israeli mosad" and "when I masturbate, I think of Bin Laden/but he's been dead since 2001/laid to waste in the Afghan sun" and "Get down on the floor/this is going to be our holy war" and "The sooner we're finished/the sooner we'll be in heaven." The song ends with these words (echoed in the liner notes): "God bless the terrorists and their families... peace." Somehow, you don't believe that he's just talking about Al Qaeda and company here.

Later on the cheesy Disco beat of "Eye of the Leopard," he dispense more wisdom. "I saw the planes hit the building and I had to laugh... You f*ck my people and you break them in half/I think your company is too over-staffed." "We'll kill you while you sing 'the lord is my shepherd'." "You say that you want to bring me de-moc-racy/I say you don't even know what that means."

Later, a woman is interrogated by a barrage of INS questions, Yanks make fun of a foreigner's accent, "Haiti... Cuba..." gets chanted over a fog horn, another Yank tries to speak Spanish but the respond is "no comprendez" and a kindly man offers a bomb recipe ("... mix carefully and explode") and cannibalistic recipes for Africans and Middle Easterners.

None of which totally makes sense and isn't meant to. Gergis wants to confound, upset, un-nerve and titillate in the most un-P.C. way possible. Some of it's funny, some of it's not (and it's not always meant to be) but it's never boring or un-interesting. Bill Maher could learn a lot from this guy.

[SIDE NOTE: I'll be in Austin for SXSW for the next few days. If you happen to be around the Convention center, stop in for the Blog panel on Saturday the 18th at Noon. We're planning to end it with a pie fight.]

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Allman Brothers- truth in advertising be damned

I'm not sure why I'm giving this virtual space to these ol' classic rockers when I could/should be writing about recent records I love by the M's or Duke Spirit but...

Egged on by Creative Loafing editor and Southern rock freak Kandia Crazy Horse, I was curious to find out if the so-called Allman Brothers Band really did put on a great show after these years and lost band members.

Greg and friends do a famous annual run of shows at New York's Beacon Theatre, recently documented in both a live double album and a DVD set. Don't worry if you didn't know that- their efficient marketing machine will gladly remind you of that more than once.

I did like their early 70's records but with Duane and Berry long gone and Greg a long-suffering druggy, I didn't know what the point would be. With the Dead living on through archive releases and assorted reunions, maybe these other jam-band godfathers were one of the last place for heads to congregate and relive the old days. I'd given up mary jane years ago myself so again, I didn't know what the point would be to even showing my respects. I guess I thought that I should just go see 'em, cross it off my list and not worry or bother about it again.

So I went this time, getting a cheap nosebleed seat in the balcony. Even before they came out, I had a good contact high from the people around me and noticed that even at 40, I was easily one of the youngest people there. It also looked like some fans weren't from Gotham and had traveled from afar to see the band. After usually crowding into small dank clubs stinking of stale beer, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of college students, this was at least an interesting sociological throw-back experience for me.

Along with Greg, the drummers are the only original members still there as guitarist Dickey Betts was canned (or as Kandia put it, "Dickey fired Dickey"). Butch Trucks is still pretty damn agile but Jaimoe was low-key to say the least, sometimes not playing during songs or wandering off during others. Maybe that's why they hired an extra percussionist- to take up the slack.

Guitar-wise, Warren Haynes is back after doing Govt Mule on the side and the other slot is filled in by another Trucks named Derek (Butch's nephew). Surprisingly, they're a great team. Maybe not Duane and Dickey in their prime but they did shred on their own solos and occasional great trade-offs between themselves. And when Susan Tedeschi guested for a few songs, not only did her voice lift up the proceedings but when she played guitar, she could stand toe-to-toe with Haynes and Trucks. Personally, I didn't think Greg himself sounded any better or worse than when I've heard him on record but the gutiarists alone make the show worth seeing.

Judging by 2003's One Way Out (recorded at their Beacon stand of that year), it didn't sound like their set changed much in the last few years but why screw with a great formula? "Statesboro Blues" and "Hoochie Coochie Man" will always be great blues songs and they've played them long enough to know how to make the most of them. Though I was surprised not to hear "Midnight Rider" and actually glad not to hear "Ramblin' Man" (overplayed), "Dreams" and "Wasted Words" sounded in fine form and by the end, when you hear "Whipping Post," you know that you've gotten the whole experience you've hoped for.

OK, the psychedelic lights and projections were un-necessary throw-backs and the constant hawking of Brothers merchandise wasn't endearing- nice to know that they have multiple double live albums for sale. But the T-shirts were kind of snazzy and if I didn't think it would make me look like a Dead-head wanna-be, I actually thought of buying one.

And OK, so technically, they're not the Allman Brothers anymore (unless you wanna argue that Duane's there in spirit, which isn't that far-fetched) and they haven't made any studio albums you'd wanna buy for a couple of decades now. But I got to say that as a live band, they're still amazing. I honestly wouldn't have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it for myself but I'm a believer now. I would definitely see 'em again when they come back around here. I might even buy a T-shirt at their next show I go to...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Ray Davies- consummate showman

I'd been meaning to write about RD's first-ever solo album Other Peoples' Lives, which came out a few weeks ago (obviously, I'm behind with a lot of stuff...) but after a few listens, it wasn't really bowled over enough or interested enough to delve into it. It's not a bad record but not extraordinary either. I'm an ol' Kinks fan myself so I'm willing to give the guy at least a listen and consideration though. Maybe it's a little under-par compared with recent comebacks by other 60's legends like Sir Paul and the Stones and a little bit of a let down after his Thanksgiving Day EP that he put out as a teaser last November.

I did remember something I wrote about a show he did around the time of the EP though. Regardless of the new record, there's no doubting RD's ability to work a crowd. Maybe nowadays, that's the best way to experience him. So, here's what I had to say, written a crude missive (or frothing fan letter) to RD himself...

Supper Club, NYC, November 28, 2005

Oh Ray... even after all these years, disappearances, failed comebacks, family and band spats, you are still the consummate entertainer when you want to be. Just like Macca and Mick, you can even put out a respectable record now but who would have thought that we'd see you do a small club show and manage to wow us all again? Granted that you're my mom's age by now and many of the crowd looked even older, but you looked so damn youthful and sprightly- did Dick Clarke lead you to some Faustian pact to forestall aging? And yes, you did that Yo La Tango gig not too long ago but now you actually have a new record to celebrate. And no, I can't imagine any of the '90's Brit-pop without your tunes as a cornerstone or know anyone else who's been covered by David Bowie, Van Halen, the Raincoats, the Pretenders, the Jam, Herman's Hermits, Blur, Big Star and the Fall.

And don't you know how to play us like a book? I mean, starting off with a B-side that's become a concert staple and an anthem for independence and individuality like "I'm Not Like Everybody Else"? Did you know how loudly we'd be singing along with the chorus, finding not just ourselves there but also bolstering your position as a perennial outsider in the biz? My god man, you had us by that first song.

We expected some tunes from your recent EP, "Thanksgiving Day" and you had them in there but they didn't sound bad and didn't break the momentum of the oldies much. But such an English chap like you celebrating a Yank holiday? How perverse!

And no opening act, just two hours of you, plus your new trio- a good old guitar/bass/drums line-up like your old band. And while these youngsters weren't the Kinks (though guitarist Mark Jones did shred nicely), what are the Kinks anymore or are they anymore? There would be you, your brother Dave plus... a rhythm section you put together. We know you're the lead man, the brains and such but you heard people should out for your errant sibling 'cause he's the heart of the band.

But no matter 'cause you know how to bring a house down yourself. You could have just run through the hits that the radio keeps spewing out but after the opener, you kept stepping up with these wonderful little gifts to us real, old fans like a... set of songs all from the "Village Green" album! Yes, we did want to hear "Picture Book" and not just because of the recent commercial but the nice readings of "Johnny Thunder" (who you called your hero) and the touching "Animal Farm" more than made up for it. Or chestnuts from the very cult album "Muswell Hillbillies" like "20th Century Man" and "Oklahoma USA." And wasn't it lovely to hear you dig up other little favorites like "Dead End Street" (a natural sing-a-long) and "Tired of Waiting For You" (one of your most beautiful songs)?

And how you teased us with "You Really Got Me," telling stories about the song (how a record exec thought Dave's guitar sounded like a barking dog) and then doing a lounge version before roaring into the real thing... And leaving "Lola" for the inevitable encore where you know that all of us were going to shout along with you... Or how you stopped to let us all sing the verses to "Sunny Afternoon"... Or how you waited to the end to unfurl your most heart-warming tunes like "Days" and "Waterloo Sunset"... Or the Harry Belafonte "Banana Boat" call-and-response you had us do on "All Day and All of the Night"... And yes, you knew how to get our sympathy with a touching observation about the biz: "(We) couldn't get a deal in the beginning... (it's the) same now!"

But ending off with "Low Budget"? Yeah, that was your late '70's comeback and it's always good to tie it to hard times but it ain't up to your other classics or even some of your new tunes. But all's forgiven- you knicked us for sixty-five bucks and we got every penny's worth out of you for it. And right back at ya- we thank you for the days...

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Devil didn't make 'em do it- Christian Rock

Religious music isn't just "Amazing Grace" or "How Great Thou Art." It's exploded into a huge market that includes everything from rap to rock and just about any other genre you'd care to name. To most outsiders (including myself), it's a curio at best or a freak show at worst.

That's why a movie like the recently released on DVD Why Should the Devil Have All The Good Music is such an eye-opener. The documentary mostly covers bands playing at a 2003 music festival, including snippets of their performances and interviews with the band members. They talk about trying to be humble before God in their work, not pushing extremist social issues to alienate people, not just becoming a Christian knock-off of popular bands. Most band names won't ring a bell outside this musical community though Pedro the Lion, Styper and Victoria Williams (who sadly isn't interviewed and who you wouldn't think as part of this) are included here.

The problem with the film is that it's not focused or encompassing enough. They shuttle between the music and interviews without always tightly focusing on the themes. Also, there's no outsider Christian perspective heard on what others think of their music or movement and outside of Punk Planet, no one outside of the Chrisitan community to give their two cents.

Nevertheless, the bands they speak to do sound sincere, almost... emo, if you like. In the most touching scene, the band Cool Hand Luke stops its set dead for a moment so that drummer/singer Mark Nicks can address the crowd. He tells them that his heart hurts when he thinks about himself and other bands he sees who forget why they're there- to celebrate Jesus. He's overcome with grief and starts weeping as he addresses the crowd. You'd think the audience would be cat-calling and heckling him by now but instead they're cheering him on. They're with him and they don't see anything wrong with what he's telling them. Even if you're a non-believer, it's hard to see a scene like that and not be moved.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ivor Cutler & the silent music

Sad news about the death of poet/musician Ivor Cutler. If anyone outside the UK remembers or recognizes him, it would be the Beatlemaniacs who saw him in the Magical Mystery Tour flick that the Fabs did (it was seen as their first flop but it's my fave record of theirs). It's a shame that he's not known otherwise but he's one of those people who are just so British that their stature and influence don't cross the sea well- think of Spike Mulligan, another example of a wonderful loon who the Beatles also loved and Peter Sellers owed a lot to.

In 1999, as part of EMI's Songbook series (much like Starbucks did with their spotty Artist's Choice series), they put out a collection of some of Cutler's favorite music called Cute (H)ey? It features some Albert Ammons' boogie-woogie, Nina Simone's lovely "I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free," Bartok's "6 Romanian Folk Dances", Japanese traditional music, polymath jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, South African diva Miriam Makeba, gospel diva Mahalia Jackson, Robert Wyatt, African drumming and plenty of modern composer Arvo Part's pieces ("which jar the teeth and raise the hackles delightfully" said the compiler). Plus a nice selection of wacky poem pieces by Cutler himself (how modest). It's a rich, varied collection that's of a piece, which speaks to Cutler's taste. He illustrated it with his adorable child-like paintings and brief notes on the pieces, ending with this thought:

"That's all folks but if you feel I've sold you short, try listening to silence, the music of the cognoscenti. You'll never look back."

You couldn't ask for a better sign-off than that.

Sad to say, this collection appears to be out of print or in "limited availability." There are some albums of his own work still around as imports but it's this one, a generous tour through his record collection, that really captures his essence. If you find it floating around used, do yourself a favor and indulge it and relive Cutler's wild spirit again.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Dion's got the blues

Dion's blues album? Yes. At a January benefit show to kick off the release of his new album Bronx In Blue, the doo-wop legend explained that even more than R&B, it was the blues that intrigued him as a lad and made him want to be in the music biz. You might have had a hint of that in his late 60's/early 70's Belmont-less solo days when he re-appeared as a folkie. And then later, he dove into gospel, made peace with his rock beginnings and now was ready to dig further back for some more history.

In the albums notes, he toasts Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker as early inspirations. Relying not just on his warm voice but his ample guitar playing, he's more than credible as a blues man, even if that still sounds strange to say about him. Along with those forbearers, he also covers Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Lightnin' Hopkins and Hank Williams. While some writers will note this just as a curiosity, this album deserves more respect than that. Nowadays when say Eric Clapton tries to do a blues album (i.e. his Robert Johnson tribute), you realize how far from his roots he's come. As for Dion, he's just coming full circle.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Keats rides again

About five years ago, I wrote an article for Sound Collector magazine about punk compilations. In addition to classics like Sub Pop 100 and Flex Your Head, I thought to include another lesser-known West Coast collection from the early 80's called Keats Rides A Harley. And now it's out and reissued for all God's little skinhead children to enjoy, thanks to Warning Label (great name for a record company). Not coincidentally, it's done by the same enterprising gent who originally did Keats but now there's 13 bonus tracks to enjoy also, including tracks by Gun Club, Meat Puppets and Leaving Trains.

Here's what I had to say about it first time around.

Los Angeles native (James) Talley-Jones formed Happy Squid initially to have a place to put material for his own band, the Urinals. He soon found out about other interesting bands in the South Bay area that he considered like-minded enough to join his roster though in no way were these other groups sound-a-likes- in fact, what made the label’s small output so strong was the variety it offered. As such, the Keats Rides A Harley compilation (a 9-track, 12-inch 45 rpm record) stands as a great, over-looked collection of bedroom new wave, making you wonder what would have happened to many of these groups if they had some additional time and/or money. Still, this comp contains some of the earliest recordings from indie-rock mavens like Gun Club (primal bluesy rumbling) and the Meat Puppets (psychedelic guitar with howling voices, so wild that it’s comical). Intriguing possibilities also come out of lesser-knowns like Earwigs (spooky keyboards, funky beat, mewling vocals), the strangely catch S. Squad and Talley-Jones’ post-Urinals project 100 Flowers (lo-fi guitar, punky pace, flat vocals).