Friday, March 30, 2007

Funkadelic- in search of the drum

It was some time in the early 90's when I visited legendary (and now deceased) Gotham record haven Vinylmania looking for rap singles by A Tribe Called Quest and other favorites. Then I stumbled across a 12" single (remember those?) by Funkadelic that I'd never seen or heard of before. It was called "By Way of the Drum" and it left me puzzled 'cause as a P-Funk fan, I was totally unaware of this. I wondered if it was one of those concoctions by the phony band who took the band's name and put out Who's A Funkadelic in '81. Regardless, I had to take a chance and buy it. I took it home and was amazed by it. It sound so powerful and yet so different from the rest of the Funkadelic catalog that I was convinced that it was a version of the band without leader/mastermind George Clinton. But his name was at least on the label as one of the writers and it mentioned that it was the title track of an album. BUT WHERE WAS THAT ALBUM? It was a great curiosity that I didn't hear about otherwise.

It turns out that George and friends were putting together the material for MCA records in 1988 and while GC was still sorting out assorted legal matters, the label pulled the plug and just half-heartedly put out the single (the one I bought) in the summer of '89. Clinton hated what they did with it and soon he was seeking greener pastures with Prince and Paisley Park (arranged by Alan Leeds, who did the liner notes for Drum).

Then earlier this year, I heard about Hip-O Select putting out the actual By Way of the Drum album for the first time anywhere. If the single was any indication, this had to be THE great lost P-Funk album. Again, I was drooling over this and had to have it.

But then I actually heard the record and my god, what a dud it is. Other than a Eddie Hazel guitar solo ("Some Fresh Delic"), you got weak rehashes of not only "Nubian Nut" and "Chocolate City" but also a so-so cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" (we already knew George was a guitar-rock fan, thanks).

Despite the disappointment, there was that freaky single tacked on at the end as a bonus- the same single that George hated and I loved. Nothing had changed for me- this was still a great single, maybe a possible path that P-Funk could have taken but never did. GC in particular objected to the post-production work by Jeff Lorber on it but for me, that's what made the song so special and much better than the regular album version. For one thing, the single is three minutes longer, giving it more of an epic feel. Lorber pumps up the drums (drum machines actually) with furious momentum and the whole sound is sparer, with extended room for pounding rhythms (almost like Public Image's Flowers of Romance album). The keyboards drift in and out (with that glossy 80's sound) all over the place as a bass synth pumps out a steady, heavy beat. This leaves the vocals up front, sounding more desperate also. Later, Lorber adds a doomy goth synth deep in the background that Depeche Mode would have killed for, giving the song an added sense of urgency. Occasionally, he stutters the keyboards or vocals for dramatic effect. These are not m.o.'s of Clinton and that's why it threw me off so much when I first heard it and why he disavowed it. Yet the chances that Lorber takes are worth it- these 80's staples could have easily made it dated and disposable mush but he turns them into real drama and a killer dance track to boot.

So skip the album but download the single. It was the best thing I heard circa 1990 and it's still one of the best singles I've heard this year.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

SXSW 2007 recap- not enough sleep and great new bands

Surely you must have seen the typical SXSW report by now: the writer didn't sleep enough, drank too much and ran around a lot. Somehow, they enjoyed the warm weather and the BBQ regardless. Sure I had blisters on my feet when I came back from Austin but that's part and parcel for such a music festival, especially when all of the venues are so close together that you're tempted to run around to see as much as you can.

Going through a tally of what I did (and mind you, I had to look at my notes since it's kind of a blur now), I saw a lot of good stuff. Excellent things included the Stax Review (with Booker T and MG's, Isaac Hayes, William Bell, Eddie Floyd), the Ponderosa Stomp, the first half-hour (oldies part) of the Stooges show, Swamp Dogg (who rarely plays out anymore) and Bob Mould doing "Makes No Sense At All" solo acoustic. There were also quality shows by Imperial Teen, Kinski, Thunderbirds Are Now, Ponys, Architecture in Helsinki, Hoodoo Gurus (touring here for the first time in a while and sounding great), Galatic (with a stellar guest list including Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born and Boots Riley), Daniel Johnston (off-key, off-time and great), Erase Errata, Buzzcocks (blasting thru their oldies) and the Waco Brothers.

But really, the biggest treat is finding out about a great band that you didn't know about beforehand. In between running around to see some of the bands above that I already knew and loved, I was lucky enough to catch a few groups that I hadn't heard about before and wanted to share that sacred info here with everyone.

  • Noverillo- a great power pop band from Canada with really catchy, distinct tunes. Only problem was that when I went to the mersh table to buy a CD, their label said that they forgot to bring any with them.
  • Black Tie Revue- another really good power pop band, this time from Pittsburgh. Only caught 1/2 of their set but I'd definitely go to see them again and luckily since they're an East Coast band, I might have the chance.
  • Health- kind of a blah name I admit but once I saw them (briefly unfortunately), they were the first group I fell in love with at the festival. I described them to friends as no-wave/post-punk- they also remind me of early Sonic Youth and Savage Republic. They call themselves "noise" and they're that but they're also doing something interesting, dangerous and reckless with their music and you got to admire that.
  • Powersolo- when I listened to some of their music beforehand, it seemed like this Danish trio was a bizarre rockabilly/boogie band. And after seeing them, I'm happy to report that's exactly what they are. Really fun too.
  • The Emeralds- if you ever hear that something called Japan Nite is coming to a town or city near you, make sure that you go. I promise you that you won't be sorry- they alway book a lot of good bands for this. At the tail end of JN at SXSW was this lively garage group that riled up the crowd nicely.
OK, now it's time to get some sleep...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Neil Young unplugged again and create your own dub

Ungrateful heretic that I am, I wasn't bowled over when Neil Young finally starting opening his vaults to reveal some early 70's live material, specifically a Danny Whitten-era Crazy Horse show from 1970 (Live at the Filmore East, released a mere three months ago). But now on the hells of that comes, yet another archival live release from around the same time: Live at Massey Hall. The big deal is supposed to be that 1) it was a home-coming show in Canada and 2) he's interpreting songs that had just appeared on After the Goldrush. That makes for nice history but what's even more important about the set is that it reminds us that in addition to his role as a punk and grunge godfather, the other reason that Young's revered is because of his amazing songwriting talents.

By the time of this 1971 show, Young had only been a U.S. (California to be exact) resident for about five years, yet in that time, he had formed and left Buffalo Springfield and was already staking his claim as an important artist on his own with just two albums under his belt. Yet, other than his self-titled debut, the other two records still hold up as two of his finest (Goldrush, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere). When he gives shout outs to Canada ("Journey Though the Past," "Helpless," which appear back-to-back), there's not only crowd cheers but also a real sense that Young himself still has a lot of feeling for his home country.

What's fascinating about the show is the way he skips around his catalog as it was still unfolding. He slips in "Heart of Gold" as a medley with "A Man Needs A Maid" with the audience unaware that they were listening to a future number one hit (on the following year's Harvest). "Journey Through the Past" would appear two years later on Time Fades Away (maybe his most under-rated album). Also, "Bad Fog of Loneliness" is first heard... here actually. Young's mind and talent were working so fast that songs would come and go, appearing on albums years later when he thought that they appropriately fit the theme.

The performance itself is great too- I'd take it over Unplugged for intimacy and over the acoustic half of Live Rust for its yearning and not-yet-weathered outlook. Also, the way he takes a song like "Cowgirl in the Sand" away from its guitar battles so we can savor the beautiful song itself is a joy. And the quiet "There's A World" sounds much better here than with an orchestra behind it (as heard on Harvest).

Who knows what we'll hear from him in another four months? Hopefully, the long-promised Archives aka Decade II box set isn't far away where we'll hear some unheard songs and unfamiliar versions.

On a totally different topic, homemade mixing sites aren't new to the web but they're always fun to come across. The idea is a great, egalitarian one- even with no musicianship, you just click on buttons on a page and create your own music but adding or subtracting instruments, vocals, noises and other sounds. A recent find is Infinite Wheel which offers a variety of these types of pages. My personal favorite are the dub pages which allow you to pick the backing music plus assorted sound effects to drop in and out at will. Be your own DJ now! Impress your friends!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dylan does Dr. Seuss

Ridiculous but fun, it's two of my favorites together, just like peanut butter and chocolate. Some insane wag has decided to combine 60's electric Dylan with Dr. Seuss, creating the Dylan Hears A Who site. Now you can enjoy classics like "The Things You Can Think," "Miss Gertrude McFuzz" and the classic "Green Eggs and Ham" done in the style of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. As a bonus, they also concoct a classic Columbia Records album cover and a looped picture of the imaginary record being played on a turntable. And it's just in time for the 50th anniversary of The Cat in the Hat.

Dylan might get a laugh out of it and his label doesn't really have anything to nail these pranksters on since they didn't cover any of his tunes per se but the Seuss estate might not be as understanding (since they probably didn't license it despite the copyright notice on the page) so check it out now while it lasts. It's as least as fun as Modern Times, which I thought was pretty overrated itself.

One warning: even when you're not playing the music, the webpage loops scratchy vinyl surface noise that can drive you crazy if you leave it on the background and wonder what's coming out of your digitial speakers.