Thoughts on GREEN BOOK, Yugen Blakrok, and The Stanley Brothers

Nicole and I took a tiny road trip to Fulton (a frequent getaway for us), mainly to eat some exquisite gumbo and po’ boys at Fontenot’s, but also to take a chance on the Oscar-nominated Green Book. I’m just being honest–we don’t go to many mainstream movies these days, and not because we’re high-toned snobs. We’re both tired of simple explanations in these complicated times, and so many of the films that hit the multiplexes have precisely that to offer. Perhaps not explanations, exactly; more accurately, they’re hawking simple, comforting reflections of who we are. Our lives are too short for those. HOWEVER, I’d only heard of Don Shirley in passing (Nicole not at all), we both love pretty much everything we have seen Mahershala Ali do, and good ol’ Viggo is pretty reliable, so we thought, “How bad can it be?” Our answer was not that bad.

We’d purposely not done much research into either Shirley or the movie. Stuff does slip in over one’s transom: I was aware of some critical disagreement over the handling of racial issues, but often that’s a sign of something good, and I knew Shirley’s family wasn’t happy about the facts–but, um, it’s a movie. Well, that’s what I said to myself, but I ended up being a little bothered myself. Thoughts:

The lead performances were pretty great (though I did not get the impression Ali was a supporting actor–that designation tells me much). The aloofness and self-possession Ali brings to the role of Shirley ensures we do not see him as a monolithic black man, and Mortenson infuses Tony Lip with a childlike spontaneity–it’s only after witnessing him win a hot dog-eating contest with about 10 seconds of preparation that we can buy him taking a job driving Shirley after having just put two Negro-besmirched drinking glasses in the trash. I did feel, however, that at about the 3/4ths mark, both actors let their grip slip on their control over their respective characters and turn them into something broader–a sign of a fledgling dramatic director at the helm, perhaps.

I was also was a shade disappointed by how quickly the film scurried past the revelation that Shirley was possibly gay or bisexual. Really, no conversations about that? No mixed feelings? Maybe Shirley’s only too happy to put that back in its container, and Tony’s only too happy to not have to talk about it (think about his early letters home to his wife). But I do like how we are provided enough insight into Shirley’s intense loneliness by that point to understand why he would risk same-sex-intimacy-while-black in the Deep South. Fortunately, he has white muscle to rescue him (over and over again).

Finally, I was a bit curious about the depiction of the Macon, Georgia, police department as being racially integrated in 1961, and about Shirley being able to magically play Little Richard-styled piano with feeling at a moment’s notice. Did the Celtics ever barnstorm as far south as Birmingham? I just read two books by and about people who’d know and would have recalled it in their writing, but I don’t remember them doing so. But, hello, these films don’t have to be completely factual!!! Still….

However, taking it for what it was–a mainstream film about an inspirational professional relationship between a black man and a white man, portrayed by two excellent actors–we ultimately felt it was not a waste of time. It’s good stuff for right now, assuming the people who need to see it actually do see it (and do they ever?). For both Nicole and me, it piqued our interest enough to listen to Shirley’s Orpheus in the Underworld–humorously referenced in the film–on the way home (the YouTube copy’s been ripped from forest-fire vinyl, but it’s not impossible to track down on CD–I know, I did) and enjoy it thoroughly.

 

In other news, my favorite rap album of 2019 was released Friday: South African MC Yugen Blakrok’s Anima Mysterium. Her debut release, Return of the Astro-Goth, and her appearance on the Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther companion were both very promising, and this modestly makes good on that promise. Blakrok parses African history, mythology and iconography (of Africa and elsewhere), and the cosmos to offer a critique of our present and a forecast of our future. Needless to say from that claim (if it isn’t just gobbledy-gook), she’d be categorized as an abstract rapper, and, until she finds catchier and thunkier beats and varies her cadence more regularly, that’s going to be a fair assessment. But her adeptness with meter, figurative language, and rhyme is special; you can’t hear it by staring at these words from Mysterium‘s “Carbon Form,” but check back to the video track after you’ve let these sink in:

Cosmic breath, I’m air element, find strength in the mental
The thought behind the rhyme’s consequential
The flow’s decked in space boots, leaping over lunar tombs
Write lyrics in runes and play the Muse
Inspire Fate to paint predestination’s landscapes
For the awakened, imaginations are stargates
Whistle, I’m listening – Pilgrim of the House of the Wind, I’m the emissary
Hearing voices in the breeze observing airy commentary
Asleep in howling deserts with thorn trees in bloom
Until the spell breaks, I’m wolf to the full moon
And wild as the monsoon, glassy eyes like crushed minerals
The pattern’s troublesome – planet’s crying rivers of literals
Wooden tears flaking into fragments and splintering
Buried in the earth where dark secrets lie whispering
That the end has not yet come to the place where dreams rest at
I look at self, facing the mirror, nothing’s reflected
Black stone carbon, I’m stardust
Bizarre, trust – quiet, part-mime invade the mind like archons
My jargon’s a headache to decipher, never idle
The heavy burden’s only light work to bright disciples
And I’m sky bound, messenger like Malachi
Cardinal offspring of Capricorn and Gemini
Born from a sandstorm, whirlwinds in my burning eyes
Slayed a beast with seven tongues, electrifying
So I vibrate in coded synergy, linguistics my Achilles heel
Wade in stellar waters deep, a mystic whistling in the reeds
That cosmic breath, that air element that finds strength in the mental
Make all doubts of the mind inconsequential

As much as she does limit herself with a favorite cadence, there is a cool, defiant, but almost deadpan quality to her delivery that I find spookily addictive. For those in search of a new and unique voice in hip hop, I strongly suggest that, should the above samplings agree with you, you indulge in and support her art.

 

Of late, I have been deeply enjoying David Blight’s massive biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. One extremely powerful achievement of Blight’s is intensifying our understanding of the degree with which Biblical stories informed Douglass’ abolitionist and natural rights philosophies. In a development pretty typical of the way I zing and zoing from lit to music, I found myself drawn unavoidably to The Stanley Brothers’ King and Starday recordings, where the bluegrass legends tap, better than in any other period of their recording career, the Bible and Christianity in general as sources for extremely moving, often frighteningly intense performances. I am not a Christian at all, nor will I ever be, but the political and personal power of gospel anecdotes warms my blood and stimulates my brain on a regular basis. It’s a testament to the consistent excellence of these recordings (roughly ’58-’61) that they broke Brazilian pop’s seven-day grip on my attention.

For an excellent look into the story behind “Rank Strangers,” check out what Mr. Gary Combs has to share on his spiritual blog.

 

 

Three Lists (which The Blogger Sheepishly Submits)

Posting every other day has been the hardest of the five-six resolutions I cornily made for myself (I’m doing great on the others). Life has happened, and you can’t push that river. Perhaps I should post just when I want to and I have something urgent to communicate? Yes, and that would be today.

TEN OF MY “FAVORITE ALBUMS OF ALL-TIME”

Recently I asked my Facebook friends the impossible: name your favorite album of all-time. I led with my choice (Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta, which I’ve definitely played more than any other over the past 15 years) and instantly regretted it, not because it isn’t sublime, but someone else listed something more important. So, here aren’t my 10 favorite albums of all-time, in order; here are 10 records I’d list as my very favorite record, based on number of lifetime plays, significance to my development as a human, sparked joy, and facility in connecting me with other humans. I steadfastly avoided trying to have a politically correct representative list; these are the ones my heart reaches for, instantly.

The Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime

Professor Longhair, Crawfish Fiesta

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited

Howlin’ Wolf

The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin

Lucinda Williams

Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys: Basin Street Blues–The Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume 3

The Best of Doug Sahm & The Sir Douglas Quintet 1968-1975

The Clash: London Calling

Having a Good Time with Huey “Piano” Smith and The Clowns

 

MY TEN FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2019

I don’t know about you, but the offerings thus far have been slim compared to last January. I will stretch to 10, nonetheless, though I may have to lean on reissues of older stuff. There is no serious priority order–it’s too early, and some of these may not end up making my Top 100 in the end. Also: a deep bow of amazement to the ageless Joe McPhee, who’s the star of no less than three of these; an acknowledgement that I have only sampled the glam comp below via YouTube searches; a thank you to my young friend Lucas Fagen, who convinced me that I was not too old and trap-rattle-addled to return to, and enjoy, Bad Bunny; and my apologies if some of these are kinda-’18. I remain needing serious convincing regarding Sharon Van Etten (Remind Me Tomorrow is an “up” album for her???).

Heroes are Gang Leaders: The Amiri Baraka Sessions

Various Artists: Travailler, C’est Trop Dure–The Lyrical Legacy of Caesar Vincent

Greg Ward and Rogue Parade: Stomping Off from Greenwood

Usted Saami: God is Not a Terrorist

Joe McPhee / John Butcher: At the Hill of James Magee

DVK and Joe McPhee: The Fire Each Time

The Clifford Thornton Memorial Quartet: Sweet Oranges

Sir Shina Peter and His Internation Stars: Sewele

Various Artists: All the Young Droogs–60 Juvenile Delinquent Wrecks

Bad Bunny: X 100PRE

 

TEN GREAT BRAZILIAN ALBUMS THAT PAAL NILSSEN LOVE AND CATALYTIC SOUND HAVE LED ME TO (SO FAR)

I ordered and received a CD recently from the fascinating experimental music label Catalytic Sound (Sweet Oranges, above), and within was a neat little ‘zine-styled “quarterly” with poetry and other neat stuff–especially master free drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s list of his 100 favorite Brazilian records. Nilssen-Love’s made many sojourns to Brazil in the recent past, and he’s clearly a sharp, indefatigable crate-digger (that describes his drumming, too). What blew my mind is, though I really love Brazilian music, I’d only heard of 10 or so of them, and didn’t own many. Thus–and this is a reason I haven’t posted recently–I’ve been on a grail quest of my own, using his list as a road map. I’ve heard at least 20 of the records he’s listed since Friday; these are my favorites, and I only have 60-70 to go!

Pedro Santos: Krishnanda

Alessandra Leao: Dois Cordoes

Underground Samba Lapa

Ile Aiye: Canto Negro

O Som Sagrado de Wilson Das Neves

Clara Nunes: Esperanca

Tim Maia: Racional, Volumes 1 and 2

Moacir Santos: Coisas

Grupo Fundo De Quintal: Samba E No Fundo Do Quintal

Elis Regina: Samba, Eu Canto Assim

 

 

Love Them Live

I diverged from my usual MLK Day routine of playing every Impressions song in my collection augmented by some raucous ’50s gospel and decided to rock the hell out. I’m reading David Blight’s Frederick Douglass bio, and ol’ Fred liked to shake one’s lapels, and I imagine if Dr. King were here and saw this mess he might go aggro. Plus, I sensed my bride was up for some volume and clatter–she gets a mean eye-glint when her blood’s up.

Pre-glint, I had already loaded up some Butane James, but it’s not like that was so halcyon.

James Brown: Love Power Peace Live at The Olympia, Paris, 1971

The only official live document of Brown backed by Catfish and Bootsy Collins, with the former unspooling concertina wire solos at key junctures. Even the ballads will melt you–and not your heart. Your skin.

Nirvana: From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

Just as their studio albums could almost be cut by three different great bands, their live albums have very distinct identities. This ‘uns rougher textured and more furious than the Reading record, at least to my ear. They really were a fantastic band, and I will never tire of them.

Joe King Carrasco & The Crowns: Danceteria Deluxe

Not really deluxe; in fact, it’s just a bit longer than an EP. But with the band’s self-titled Hannibal album OOP, this is the best place to experience these exuberant Tex-Mex garage-rock nuts in their prime. One of my very favorite party bands, and they’re plenty tuff. Three of the nine cuts are a bit rare, too. By the by, Joe’s website offers several hard-to-find items, but even he’s had to rip some of it from vinyl.

Hüsker Dü: The Living End

This was the end, my friends–selected live cuts from their final years. Their rant ‘n’ rave isn’t quite as potent in looser live versions, except the later songs, which are elevated from pretty good to pretty great by the ramshackle roil. We listened to this right after the above Nirvana record, and it was more apparent than ever to us that they were the essential bridge between hardcore and grunge.

Dead Moon: What a Way to See the Old Girl Go

Closing down Portland’s X-Ray Café in ’94, rock and roll’s greatest and most durable husband-and-wife team got a terrific show down on wax. Not a bad place to start for the benighted: with a decade of music under their belts and two ahead of them, they’re in their prime, and you get smoking versions of “Poor Born,” “Walking on My Grave,” “It’s OK,” and “54/40 or Fight” all in one place. Fred Cole, you’re missed on this turf.

Motörhead: Nö Sleep At All

Yeah, yeah–I know about recontextualization and all that shite, but if Lemmy hadn’t finally been killed by death, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have to hear their kinda-pale “Sympathy for The Devil” backing a fucking commercial. I turned this up all the way to clean that ooze out of my ears. Live’r than the Stones ever were, this is a mid period best-of that definitely wasn’t sucking in the Eighties. I’m tempted to say if you need one, maybe this? But I have Orgasmatron breathing down my neck…

Three for A King

Let me recommend three records that can help you celebrate the life work and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers (upper square, lower right)

This four-disk, Pulitzer Prize-winning set looks back at the titular time period and ahead to the massive work we still have to do. In 19 pieces composed across 35 years, trumpeter Smith, his celebrated Golden Quartet, and Southwest Chamber Music tap into the danger, gravity, turbulence, and intensity and purity of focus that defined the Civil Rights Movement. Almost five hours in length, the set is never less than absorbing. Special props to the dual drummers of the Quartet: Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra.

Click here to sample an excerpt of the composition “Martin Luther King, Jr: Memphis, the Prophecy,” the set’s coda.

Joe McPhee / John Butcher: At the Hill of James Magee (upper square, lower left)

Two hornmen dialogue about oppression, freedom and resistance in the Chihuahuan Desert, at the site of Magee’s mysterious sculpture near Cornudas, Texas. The recording has the character of a religious service and includes the ambient noise of the place. One of the best records of 2019.

Click here to sample the track “Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No” (McPhee is in the left stereo channel, Butcher in the right).

Ustad Saami: God is Not a Terrorist

Saami, a Palestinian, is the last living practitioner of a pre-Islamic music (featuring elements of Farsi, Hindi, Vedic, and Sanskrit) that does not endear him to local extremists. His practice is a testament to courage, belief, and devotion–and it sounds fascinating and moving (and good, to be sure): a kind of Middle Eastern Gregorian chant with tense instrumental backing.

Click here to sample a track and read more about Saami’s background.

Click here for an album “teaser.”

Quick Takes on My Other Listening Adventures

James Brown: Foundations of Funk–A Brand New Bag 1964-1964

Brown at his finest, on tracks that are gripping and propulsive not even considering his vocals, which are punctuated by screams that sound as avant-garde as Ayler’s honks.

Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow

Though I found myself enjoying “Comeback Kid,” I just don’t have patience for whites people miserably moaning right now.

Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade: Stomping Off from Greenwood

That title’s enticing, and the music’s admirable intense when the guitarist isn’t taking a turn; fortunately, the leader’s sax, Quin Kirchner’s drums and the compositions (!) win the day.

JLin: Black Origami

This landmark of EDM and the style known as footwork has spell-casting power: normally immune to such stuff, I’ve played it 20-25 times since its 2017 release and it mesmerizes and mesmerizes, even though I’m too old and not imaginative enough to dance to it.

Hama: Houmeissa

Synth music is back–even in the Sahara (try it–you’ll like it)!

Room Full of Mirrors

My day was so fraught with unexpected urgencies and aberrant activity that I barely squeezed in a record (I am such a hopeless nerd that “listen to one complete record actively” is one of the three items on my “Habit List” app. And that was done while driving from place to place; fortunately, it’s in the cab of my truck where I most completely commune, and sometimes merge, with the music.

I’ve been on a Hendrix kick lately–his work as much as anybody’s blooms perennially, in different formations and colors as I become an older listener–and I was thinking about my young friend and fellow Jimi fanatic Donnie Harden Jr., who’d been asking about the Rainbow Bridge soundtrack. His queries were to no avail because I hadn’t listened to it in awhile, so I’d brought it out to “The Lab” so I could really focus on it.

It may be crazy to say, but Hendrix is slightly underrated. 48 years in the rear view, he might as well be 48 years beyond. “Room Full of Mirrors” is, for me, the highlight of of Rainbow Bridge. The virtual meteor shower of streaking, sliding guitar lines with which he adorns this song is visceral, a shock to the synapses; I found myself wondering, “Who today can deliver such adornments?” The lyrics, too, confirm that Hendrix was a terrific personal songwriter…though in this case they seem to portend his fate.

On one side of “Room Full of Mirrors” is the slow-building, insinuating, stinging instrumental “Pali Gap” (a bit of a deep cut). On the other, is the all-Jimi studio version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” so stately, so magisterial it’s almost reverent, and thus funny (where–at least I feel this way–his Woodstock version was frequently terrifying). Almost.

The whole record’s pretty good, but its middle, its guts, is truly mesmerizing.

Doors to My Heart

Wayne Shorter: Emanon

A good friend gifted me with, um, a sampling of Ol’ Mr. Weird’s new opus, and on first immersion, I’m happy to report his playing is very powerful and imaginative for a 42-year-old–except he’s 85. The string arrangements create a disembodied aura for the music, but that’s perfectly weird. I’d love to sample the accompanying graphic novel.

The English Beat: Beat This! The Best of The English Beat

With the triumph of streaming, grocery store music ain’t like it used to be. I was piddling around looking for the right cough drop when “Save It for Later” danced out of Gerbes’ soundsystem–stunned, I looked down the aisle and saw another older person bopping his head happily. The soul, intelligence, and movement of the song lit a fire in me, so when I got home, I immediately pulled this and cranked it. They were pegged as ska, and they could nail that, but they grew it into something more personal and unique. With Special Beat Service, they seemed to still be growing–but that was it, after just three great LPs. They’ve reformed, but it’s not quite the same.

The Kampala Sound–1960s Ugandan Dance Music

The warmest and–this is a compliment–cutest sounding African comp I’ve heard. The vocals are mixed way up in the foreground and, along with the ass-tickling guitars, they’re seductive as hell. The whole kit and kaboodle‘s on YouTube, too.

The Flesheaters: A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die

I’ve not had any use for Chris D. except here. Maybe it has to do with the members of The Blasters and X who make up his band. If your mind wanders from the singer’s gaze into the abyss, and it will, it can concentrate on the rhythm section. Booga-booga, boogied.

50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong

And we’re not. This two-cd set’s a great intro to Mark E. Smith, a recently departed genius ranter, poet, eccentric, and curmudgeon the likes of whom we’ll never see again. Backing him, your grandma on bongos sounds great! And for a punk, he was surprisingly adaptable to the pop dance floor: a crank who wasn’t too invested in himself to have fun.

Patato & Totico

Carlos “Patato” Valdes (click that hyperlink, kids) invented the tunable conga drum, and I could swear I read that he also pioneered the three-conga attack, but I can’t locate the source. He’s at his best here, joined by a scintillating cast of Cuban masters, including Arsenio Rodriguez on guitar, Cachao on bass, and Totico on vox. Muy caliente!

Allison Moorer: Show

I received this as a gift from a dear cyber friend, and dug into it yesterday, finally, with great interest. I’d only heard Moorer backing up other artists (notably the much-missed Lonesome Bob) except for her song on The Horse Whisperer soundtrack (don’t ask–well, Dwight Yoakam covers Eddy Arnold on it). This is a superbly recorded, passionately performed live set, featuring Moorer’s sis, Shelby Lynne (their first recorded collab), Mr. Bob, and Kid Rock before he sunk into the pit (it’s a mid-‘Ought rekkid). Dang, she’s got a powerful voice, and she writes a fine, generic-plus country song. But she oversings, and some peculiar mannerisms in her articulation can be distracting; when Lynne takes her verses, the effect is one of mild relief. Still, a heartfelt and boisterous set.

Clifford Brown: The Singer Sessions

Brown’s sound is so burnished, so meticulously dynamic, that, while listening, you can easily get angry (all over again?) that he was taken so young. He’s amazing in a mostly accompanying role on this collection. The singers? Oh, just Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Helen Merrill. And should you be wrinkling your nose, perhaps, at the last, she belongs, at the very least by virtue of her great unsung debut, Brown with her every step of the way. Taste it right here.

CONGRATULATIONS to Ms. Jackie Shane and Numero Records for their Grammy nomination! Best Historical Recording: Any Other Way–get caught up on her story right here.

Also:

Enjoy a YouTube Playlist that samples these records!