Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Who Boys- their mashed-up generation

Part of the fun of MySpace is that you don't get to just meet kewl people but you can also find out about hep bands, even ones that haven't been hyped up elsewhere. That's part of the power of the Net, isn't it?

After setting up a MySpace page for my zine (go there and sign up now kiddies!), I started getting requests for "friends" (people to trade links, photos and such). And it was coming from not just regular fans and readers but also bands.

One of them was a London mash-up trio called the Who Boys. As an old-school classic rock fan, I was overly familiar with their name-sakes but I didn't know about this new crew. I'm also a fan of mash-up's but only to the extent that they're fun, well-done or kinda intelligent or even better yet, some combo of the above- so far, I'm not convinced that Girl Talk makes the cut as such.

But the Who Boys do. They're classic rock fans too. Obsessed not just with the former High Numbers who can't stop doing rock operas but also Brian Wilson, another brooding genius from the 60's with expansive aspirations. Like any good DJ, they like a good beat (specifically jungle) and they use repeated sample not just for drama (think early Steve Reich) but also humor (think Negativland). Something tells me that Townshend would dig them and not just on a dry intellectual level. They have fun, fun, fun and they sell their music and videos for a mere pound note at their UK gigs.

For more, see the Who Boys MySpace page

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mahotella Queens- true royalty

You might think of them as a South African equivalent to girl group greats like the Shirelles or the Vandellas but in truth, the real connection is that the Mahotella Queens happen to be a sweet-voiced singing group who started out in the mid 60's. Unlike many of their American sisters in girl groups, the group didn't naturally come together from young friends- they were formed by producers/labels with various line-ups. During the 70's, there were a host of different "Queens" but it was during the 80's that three of the original members got together again to record: Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Shawe Mbadu and Mildred Mangxola. And if anyone is worthy of wearing a regal epithet, it's these three ladies (and Latifah too).

Sad to say, their usual leader, the late/great singer Mahlathini who had been paired up with them since the 60's and recorded again with them a number of times in the 80's, is no longer with us- I had seen one of his last (if not last) New York shows with the Queens and it was nothing short of magical.

With a new album (last year's Reign & Shine on Wrasse) and a world tour with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, western audiences have a chance to savor this great group again. What they have in common with LBM are beautiful, joyous harmonies which they can carry accapella with no problem.

But don't take my word for it- see them in New York at S.O.B.'s on October 16th (they're also playing a Carnegie Hall gig with LBM the following night). Also, listen to a few song samples of Reign & Shine.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

ELO- art-rock villains or pop pioneers?

When looking for art-rock antagonists whose very existance made it necessary for punk to come along and wipe them out, the usual names you hear are ELP, Yes and Pink Floyd. Under some breathes are muttered another acronym supposedly symbolizing all of the bloated excess of 70's rock that killed the fun out of the music: ELO aka Electric Light Orchestra. They were an easy target because they not only used strings on their records but they actually had their own string section in the damn band. Even the last word in their name was "orchestra."

But beyond all the obvious pretentions on the surface lurked the band's mastermind, Jeff Lynne. A fanatic of the late Beatles material, he rose to recognition as part of the last phase of the Move, supposedly joining mostly to be involved in what was to become ELO. But in that short time that he was in the Move (early 70's), he worked alongside one of the great pop weirdos of the time: Roy Wood. Wood wasn't just the defacto leader and songwriter of the group, he also something of an odd visionary, looking to not only advance rock forward but to also head it back to its roots. During the end of the Move, Lynne no doubt learned alongside the master, producing one of his greatest tunes, the rock anthem "Do Ya" (which you've probably heard in commercials for Monster or Volkswagen by now). ELO was supposed to be the next phase for Wood/Lynne (along with Move drummer Bev Bevan) but Wood only stayed for one album before moving on, leaving the band to Lynne.

After some snoozy ballad-with-strings material that was maybe a cut above Mantovani (though their extended version of "Roll Over Beethoven" would have made Wood proud and "Evil Woman" still sounds pretty good) and which started to net him some gold records, Lynne finally bore down on his songwriting with their sixth album, A New World Record (1976, now reissued on Epic/Legacy).

One big difference is that instead of making a faux-symphony or concept record (like Eldorado), he learned how to have fun with the form as he did with Wood back in the Move days. He dared to take all the trappings of art rock and make a great pop record out of it the way his peers could only later dream of (but secretly wanted to as evidenced by Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" or ELP's dreaded Love Beach or the Yes hit "Owner of A Lonely Heart").

That isn't to say that ANWR is perfect- the title track is too desperate and serious and "Shangri-La" and "Above The Clouds" are as flighty as their titles but everything else is as peachy as you'd like power pop to be. It starts out omniously with synth buzz, swirling strings and choirs which makes you regret their pretentions but then in comes a wailing guitar, a 4-4 beat and soulful backing vocals to clear the decks on "Tightrope." Then there's one of their sweetest singles and ballads "Telephone Line" (complete with synths minicking the phone) which doesn't get soggy if only because Lynne REALLY does sound sad and depressed in the verses about those "lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely nights." And though a classic rock friend of mine hated "Rockaria!", I always thought it was a hoot- a smart, funny pairing of rock and roll and classical ambitions as much as their "Beethoven" cover.

After the title track brings down side one, the record recovers nicely with the soaring "So Fine" which leads perfectly into "Livin' Thing." Just as with "Telephone Line," Lynne knows how to use drama well, from the solo violin that starts the song to the catchy chorus that's echoed by the strings. Just remember the last scene in the 1997 movie Boogie Nights (where Mark Wahlberg psyches himself up for a porn shoot by whipping it out) and how well that song makes the scene- it's one of the best music set-up's I've ever seen in a film and adds extra poignancy to the original song. After that, "Do Ya" sounds better than the original version both literally and figuratively. Not only is it now recorded better and clearer but Lynne rings more emotion out of it too, no matter how many commercials it's become fodder for by now. And he was right to re-record it not just for those reasons but also because, as he notes in the new liner notes, he wanted people to hear it again: by the time ANWR came out, the Move version wasn't even in print anymore and that was going back only 3-4 years.

After ANWR, Lynne was able to come up with other great, ambitious pop singles ("Turn To Stone," "Sweet Talkin' Woman," "Calling America") and not so ambitious stuff (which was both very good ("Don't Bring Me Down," "Hold On Tight") and very bad (i.e. "Shine A Little Light" and "Xanadu" with Olivia Newton-John) and a few more uneven ELO albums which still minted plenty of sales/$$$ before effectively retiring the band and becoming a producer and Traveling Wilbury. Meanwhile, Bevan revived the ELO name in the 90's, much to Lynne's chagrin. But regardless of his last 20-25 years, ANWR is still Lynne's crowning achievement as an ambitious art-rocker and dreamy pop fanatic. At five million and counting, it's ELO's best-selling album by far and for a good reason.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Fats Waller- one never knows...

Maybe the easiest way for someone not familiar with him to understand Thomas "Fats" Waller is to make some of the obvious Louis Armstrong comparisons. Both are jazz icons though most of the pop audience knows them mainly as ever-smiling novelty singers from way back when. Also true for both is that beyond those unfair cliches, they were both remarkable musicians and touchstones for generation of not only pop but also dance artists who followed in their wake. Maybe Satchmo gets more play because he lasted longed and was able to build up more of a legacy but Waller certainly deserves at least a couple of pages in the chronicles of American music.

Though box sets are by definition not for beginners, the wonderful 3-CD set If You Got To Ask, You Ain't Got It (Bluebird/Legacy) is priced at less than $25 so I'd say it's a great place to start for anyone who wonders what was behind this great man's mischievous grin. Other than the extensive notes and nice photos you'd expect from a box, legendary jazz producer Orin Keepnews collects not just his best known songs (the indelible "Honeysuckle Rose," "The Joint Is Jumpin'," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and many others) but also a whole instrumental disc to remind people of his prestidigitation on the keyboards (not just his famous piano but also ghostly organ, the likes of which David Lynch used to score his nightmarish masterpiece Eraserhead). True, he wasn't as agile as Art Tatum (as he'd admit) but who was? I liken him more as a spiritual daddy to Thelonious Monk, doing these lovely little deceptively simple piano lines- as Monk said though, "simple ain't easy." And as icing on the aural cake, you also get a disc of Waller going through Tin Pan Alley faves ("Somebody Stole My Gal," "You Rascal You" (which Armstrong also did a great version of), "Darktown Strutters Ball," "The Sheik of Araby"). What I always loved the most about his music is what he could set a scene with his own little sound effects (the riot in "The Joint is Jumpin'" or the hotel going-on's in 'Loungin' at the Waldorf").

It's just so damn gratifying to see such a lovingly selected set that shows the scope of an important artist like this. Put it on your Xmas list for your friends or just give yourself a present. It's joyous and full of life beyond words.

The one thing I regret about the box is that there's no video documentation of Waller. In a pre-MTV music video of "The Joint is Jumpin'" done decades before the network was founded, you see his rolling eyes, cheeky grin, wide smile, carefree manner on display that just can't be captured the same way in photos. There's a house party that Fats is providing entertainment for and later, the cops come to break it up but eventually join in the fun (kind of like Lionel Ritchie's "All Night Long" video much later). Sad to say, there's no single video collection (at least that I could find- please correct me if I'm wrong) of Waller so you'd need to rent Stormy Weather (with Lena Horne and Cab Calloway) or the Harlem Renaissance to see Waller in action. Trust me, it's worth it and you can then appreciate the full entertainment factor of the man, only part of which comes across on record.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Pogues & Shane MacGowan- nice Irish folk-punks

It's not just that Shane MacGowan was pogoing along to the Pistols back in the day or had dental work that would have made Johnny Lydon blush or that had his own punk band called the Nipple Erectors back in his early days or that he later hooked up with another punker from the band Radiators From Space. Even though the Pogues didn't brandish electric guitars, they were as punk as any London boys who wore slit jackets and safety pins.

Watch the DVD If I Should Fall from Grace - The Shane MacGowan Story and you'll hear SM complain about how producer Elvis Costello made him do take after take to get the right sound on their brilliant 2nd album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (originally released 1985, now reissued by Rhino with extra tracks). To his credit, EC did the right thing, getting great performances from not just the Pogues but also MacGowan himself.

The guy just spits vitriol. More than Billy Bragg ever did, he and his crew neatly make the point that folk or traditional music provided just as many punk roots as rock and roll ever did. And even though MacGowan wrote only half of the songs on RSL (including an instrumental), it's his tunes that are the most moving; full of death, depravity, blind anger, thuggery and killing (hell, the guy was gangsta before its time too). His songs are affected even if you can't pick up all the endless Blarney references (and there's lots of them as you can see from
The Annotated Pogues Lyrics Page).

As booze-soaked as he may have been and continues to be, he's a wise man and a poet. Read the book
A Drink With Shane McGowan and hear him divvy up the differences between the classic Western films of John Ford and John Houston, noting the hopeful utopian world of the former and the gritty realist world of the later. Guess which world he subscribes to.

One thing that also stands out from the McGowan Story film is his chronic alcoholism, which was already obvious to anyone who knew anything about the Pogues already. But what's striking is that it's seen unapologetically as if that's just a part of who he is and how he functions as an artist, as if his drinking and his songwriting gifts were inseparable. No apologies from the man himself or any of his enabling friends.

Not that it hasn't taken its toll on him. After recently seeing Flogging Molly (a fine band that wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for the Pogues) recently, I saw a Pogues reunion with MacGowan shortly after that, thinking in advance that it wouldn't be a fair comparison. I was right but not in the way that I thought. While both bands were tight, McGowan was barely functional for his show- he slurred even worse than usual and could only sings a few songs at a time before being briefly led off stage several times. Be that as it may, there was still something that the Pogues had that Molly was missing: an inspired, flawed genius like MacGowan. He doesn't just sing about the down and out lifestyle, he embodies it. No wonder that Tom Waits is a fan of his.