Martha Redbone, Whatchoo Up To? (May 21st, 2018, Columbia, MO)

In 2012, Martha Redbone, a versatile singer of African and Native American heritage, released The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake. She is far from the first musician to have tried to bring Blake’s songs (many of his poems were intended to be sung) to life on record–it’s a tempting task, you have to admit, though a daunting one. My past favorites had been by The Fugs, who, under the guidance of poet Ed Sanders and polymath Tuli Kuperfberg, waxed yearning, fragile versions of “How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field” and “Ah, Sunflower! Weary of Time,” and (really, very unsurprisingly) The Fall’s wicked “Jerusalem.” However, Redbone’s album (fascinating from beginning to end) broke the hold of those songs. How to describe it? Well, it’s like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack–with teeth. It’s not only the often-hidden darkness and destruction in Blake’s poems that provide that bite; it’s also Redbone’s carefully controlled blues inflections, terse line deliveries (amidst much joyousness), and musical settings, which nicely fit (and sometimes provide ironic commentary on) the great Dissenter poet’s complexity. Three wonderful cases in point are at the heart of the record: her black gospelcum-bluegrass “I Rose Up At the Dawn of the Day” (“…for riches I should not pray…if I pray / It must be for other people…” and “I have mental joy and mental health /  I have Mental friends / and mental wealth…I have all the riches bodily.”), her devastating bluecum-bluegrass “A Poison Tree”–a starker warning about repression does not exist–and the clarion a capella “The Ecchoing Green.”

Here she is in 2016, knocking the title song out of the park:

Thing is, the record was released under the name “Martha Redbone Roots Project.” I noticed that immediately upon laying hands upon the CD, then came back to it after a mesmerizing first listen, and murmured to myself, “What next? If it’s a project, and that’s the first result, what further glories await?” (That’s rather formal murmuring, but it’s how I roll.) But we’re six years down the line–almost to the day–and no follow-up. I am encouraged that the above video performance is so recent, but even it is over two years old.

I’m gettin’ on one knee, Martha, and I’m somewhat of a Dissenter myself, but I’ll do my version of praying that you have another powerful Roots Project rekkid in the chute. I will play The Garden of Love as long as I am sentient, and I am sure as I age, its power will grow–that’s Blake, that’s poetry, that’s your commitment and vision–but I pray for you that you’ve experienced new inspiration visions.

Short-shrift Division:

Only the strong stuff this day.

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vols. 8-9: late Columbia-period Lady Day, my favorite, with her startling “Tell Me More and More and Then Some” and her perfectly blue and resigned “The Man I Love.”

Billie Holiday: Lady in Autumn. That title is correct–she’s a different but cannier singer (and she was canny to begin with), and if you need a boost, read Zadie Smith’s classic Holiday short story, which I never tire of pushing and which never fails to send me rushing to the “H” section of my stacks. Better yet, play the audio track of Smith’s supernatural reading of the piece and dig Jerry Dantzig’s pics of Lady in Harlem in ’57, which inspired the story.

 

From the Page to the Earbud (May 20th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

A nice buffet of music journalism led me to some fantastic listening experiences this weekend. If you don’t feel like listening to today’s highlighted tracks, try the articles, and maybe you’ll change your mind.

First up was Adam Shatz’s simply beautiful New York Book Review piece on the recently departed Cecil Taylor. Aside from being very sensitively written, it’s awash in rare insights about the pianist’s work and life, and provides some links to other essential Tayloriana (including a brilliant Cesar Aira short story). Read “The World of Cecil Taylor” here, and check out this track, discussed therein:

I am barely conversant about classical music, but much of it I like, even if I can’t explain why. I like fury, apostasy, minimal stillness, angles–stuff like that. I happened across a New York Times review by Zachary Woolfe of a performance by the pianist Yuja Wang that piqued my interest. The title incorporated the phrase “dazed chaos”–perhaps that was a dig, but it intrigued me. In addition, an accompanying photo by Hiroyuki Ito reinforced the phrase’s intrigue; apparently Ms. Wang’s garb often has reviewers’ knickers in a twist, and she does indeed look fetching in Ito’s photo, but it’s the fury of her motion he captures that ran the hook further through my lip. Check the article out and compare it to a Wang performance, as I did. I haven’t yet arrived at a judgment yet–I’m harder on the classical genre than any other.

Finally, I stumbled upon a couple of reviews of albums by reedman Michael Moore’s now-defunct Jewels and Binoculars project, which was devoted to an extremely unlikely aim: interpreting noted melodist Bob Dylan’s compositions in a relatively free jazz vein. It’s funny how often I’ll drift to realities that oppose views I’ve just very reluctantly resigned myself to. I was carping here two days ago that, with the advent of streaming, it’s no use having music anymore. Where’s the fun? I have owned one Jewels and Binoculars release for awhile but–Eureka!–there were three, and one the two I don’t have isn’t streaming (from what I can tell). Grail mode reactivated (because the album I own is stellar, almost alchemic). After reading the reviews, in Jazz Times and The New York Times, I reacquainted myself with Ships with Tattooed Sails, the one I have. Try it, you’ll like it.

Short-shrift Division:

Now’s as great a time as any for a Black Arts flare-up in jazz! To wit:

Idris Ackamoor…

…and Shabaka and The Ancestors.

GOOD SHIT!

Still Diggin’: May 13-19

I am still reeling from the realization that my drive to own and hold every great record every made has smashed up against my mortality linking arms with streaming technology. That said, here’s a Spotify playlist of the highlights of my last week of listening:

Plucked from History’s Dustbin (best recent purchase of an old record): Dennis Gonzalez, So Soft Yet. Get hip and give the man props while he’s livin’…

Grower, Not a Shower (old record I already owned that’s risen in my esteem): Digable Planets, Blowout Comb–I now like it better than the debut. More of an EDGE, shall we say?

Encore, Encore! (album I played at least twice this week): Dennis Gonzalez NYC Quartet, NY Midnight Suite

Through the Cracks (sweet record I forgot to write about): Dennis Alcapone, Forever Version; Birdcloud, Singles Only

Sunday’s Children / Today’s Sounds:

Shabaka and the Ancestors: Wisdom of the Elders

African Scream Contest 2

Destabilized Collector’s Blues (May 18th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

I’ve finally been rocked by the streaming revolution. In multiple senses of that main verb.

I’d just looked at a list of new rekkids to be released on this particular Friday. I’ve been reluctantly enjoying the heck out of Apple Music, which I’m now subscribing to, and realized that, hey, I could kick back and sample fresh tracks for a few hours. I was honestly pretty excited, and a decent day it was, nicely summed up by these examples:

So I’m listening to all of this very provocative and promising music and thinking to myself, “OK, what am I gonna buy? What digital, what vinyl, what CD?” I’m starting to drool–shopping is easy and there’s much to be bought–when I realize, I mean really realize in my 10,000-plus-units-in-every-medium-in-my-house record collector’s soul, that I don’t have to buy any of them. This may seem like a “duh” moment, but I buy for many reasons. Creators need to be paid. I like to hold albums, study their artwork, and read their liner notes. I take pride in having what my friends need but don’t have. I like to save on data when I’m out of wifi range. I’m a born curator and I love libraries, so I’m building my own. CDs and vinyl sound better. What if the web collapses? What will I leave my heirs (What heirs, asks the Greek chorus)?

But seriously. What do I need more stuff for? I began to think back across the past month, and sat bolt upright: hey, I don’t have the new Willie album, the new Sons of Kemet, the new Bettye LaVette–yet I am still a functioning human being. Normally, I’d already have those. Have have have have. My head was spinning. Really it was. I don’t buy anything voluntarily but books, booze, and toons, pretty much, and that’s been my practice for, oh, 38 years!

What has it all been for?

I’m not panicking. I know there are multiple other answers to that question than a resonating “NAUGHT!” In fact, later, Nicole, who has always encouraged my accumulation and even occasionally tried to prevent me from selling records, suggested, “Hey, I love records! Let’s just get the stuff that’s epic?” Yes, but I have a touch lower bar for “epic” than my beloved does–I’m sure next month’s new Joe McPhee will meet my definition, but I’m not sure she’s familiar with The Poughkeepsie Gypsy’s work. Also, am I cheating artists? What about my vow to pay cash for every Swamp Dogg record that comes out the chute? And didn’t I just sell 500 CDs…to make room for more?

Perhaps, in life and record collecting, the questions are more important than the answers. I’ll keep you posted. I wonder if the Wussy LP that’s on the way will qualify, but I can always check…Apple Music.

Hot takes on the above?

Bombino: every househod needs a Bombino album. Like the above, they’re all good. Straight-up Agadez-style desert blues, no impure funny business–aside from some skankin’.

Parquet Courts: I hate these guys because they’re too cute (musically and formally) by half, but I love them because they have the particular music and forms that I happen to be weak for down cold. BUT first half of this one has emotional fire, too, and thus is my favorite music of theirs ever.

Courtney Barnett: Opens with a weird, slow, kinda whiny one, but recovers with a vengeance. Not as catchy as last time, but more grown.

MC Paul Barman: In your face from jump, he’s got the rhymes as per usual—plus Questlove, DOOM, and Masta Ace.

Angelika Niescier: The lady can blow, and she pretty much must wail, with the true genius of the drums Tyshawn Sorey clattering and hissing behind her on his kit.

Note: above are very hot takes—one listen while cramming other things into my living

I Like My Pockets Fat and Not Flat (May 17th, 2018, driving around Columbia, MO, in my truck)

The following is adapted from a Facebook post I made yesterday on a group page inhabited by other music fanatics. We are all–of most of us are–fans of the great, time-tested music critic Robert Christgau. He himself has tested time as few critics have. On the page, we occasionally tout albums that Chriztgau underrated, overrated, or…failed to date at all. It’s that last category that fascinates me, and it just so happened I’d dusted off the above CD to reacquaint myself with in “The Lab” (my truck cab, where I engage in pure musical meditation and try to operate the vehicle simultaneously).

I’d been introduced to the album by a friend in 1992. My wife Nicole, Mark, and I had been invited to a party thrown by Nicole’s co-worker; the majority of the other partygoers would be rap and r&b fiends, and Mark, who happened to be visiting from out of town, insisted on bringing Runaway Slave to force on whoever was selecting. It (along with Redman’s debut and a 12″ of EPMD’s “Headbanger“) turned the gathering out, and I got myself a copy the following week. I listened to it constantly for several weeks (and failed to turn my 10th graders in to it), then it disappeared into the stacks for the better part of 26 years.

Played it twice in the truck yesterday, then purt-near ran into the house and wrote this:

A classic rap album Xgau didn’t even deign to acknowledge. Aside from a run of wreck-catchers (“Fat Pockets,” “Still Diggin’,” “Soul Clap,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “Party Groove,” the title song), aside from the great horn-powered, beat-bejeweled production by Showbiz and the underrated Diamond D, aside from it being light on misogyny and peeled caps, aside from the two MCs being distinct and in synch, it’s pretty fucking conscious, with self-determination a thread throughout and considerable science dropped re: systematic racism. On heavy rotation in our three-room apartment in ‘92, and it still sounds phat, yet crisp. An “A,” easy, and one of the peaks of so-called “Golden Age” hip hop.

Hours later, I’ve calmed down, played it again, and rdeduced I’m exactly right…though perhaps not praising enough! Time: the revealer.

Five for The Festival (May 16th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

No unifying thread–just five somewhat disparate recordings I pulled because I hadn’t heard ’em in awhile and had the luxury of cranking them up.

Four discs is more than anyone but a serious aficionado needs; on the other hand, much excellent stuff here is quite hard to find. Conceivably, you might not know The Falcons, but indeed they can contend for the title claim: from the classic “You’re So Fine” to their springboarding of Wilson Pickett, Sir Mack Rice and Eddie Floyd to their showcasing the unique guitarist Robert Ward to the seeds they planted for The Ohio Players, they stretch across the genre’s growth. Doo-wop’s utopianism, gospel’s fervor, soul’s pleading, funk’s eccentricity–it’s all here in at least nascent form.

Three discs of wailing jazz expressionism by a large group of titans in the field. You’d think it’s be enough to bring a headache and scare the cat, but in fact all the tracks demonstrate formal definition and careful listening between the participants. And ingenuity: highlighting the third disc, recorded in the studio, is a 25-minute composition that rocks and rolls (among other things). Key players besides Brotzmann: name o’ McPhee and Gustafsson.

At this point, a somewhat lost masterpiece of–if not pop–powerful pop. Resist “Overnight Sensation,” “Hands on You,” “All Through the Night”–hell, the whole album–and you might be a contrarian. Beyond the great songs, impassioned singing (the Carmen-McCarl team was way too short-lived), and considerable wit, Michael McBride’s drumming will rock yer ass if you’re concerned about sticky sweetness. How this stalled at #143 I am not sure; it is a definitive Seventies classic.

Hands down, my (and many other listeners’) favorite dub reggae album. Briefly frightening, frequently nuts, deeply spacey and spacily deep, it’s an aural experience not to be missed. The CD reissue from Trojan has several more Gussie Clarke-produced tracks from the period, featuring Youth, Gregory Isaacs, and Leroy Smart, that don’t detract from the effect of the original album. By the way, if you dig it, Screaming Target is not the man’s lone shot; Blood & Fire’s three-disc Natty Universal Dread (no overlap) is the proof.

Given the implications and sorrow of the Windrush scandal, it’s a good time for any citizen of the world to revisit the work of reggae’s greatest poet. Though he still walks the earth, this may be his final offering, and for a musical valediction, it’s pretty perfect: the addition of violin to LKJ’s always-sharp attack gives several tracks an autumnal feel, and the opening “Mi Revalueshanary Fren” (as well as other key tracks) could only have been written by an ideological soldier of many years’ standing–through wins, losses, bridge-building and bloodshed. Let’s hope he’s got another record in him.

Fifteen from My Teens (May 15th, 2018; Columbia, MO)

 

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Music first deeply affected me when I was a young public pool rat. Certain jukebox sounds just made me feel good, and I played them over and over: Lobo’s “I’d Love You to Want Me,” The Spinners’ “Mighty Love,” Paul Revere’s “Indian Reservation,” Cher’s “Half Breed”–I have no native ancestry, nor did I study it in class or on the side, so don’t ask me–Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” anything by Elton or Alice. But since I remember really thinking, I’ve spent quite a bit of time (too much, still) inside my own head. I think that was originally an outgrowth of eventing games and scenarios first for Captain Action, Johnny West, and GI Joe, then for doodling in my school notebooks, then for “TV shows” I acted out alone in our backyard when we moved out in the country. I never needed another person to have active, imaginative fun, and eventually my interest in music joined with my tendency to spend considerable time silently thinking, imagining, and inventing.

The catalyst was Ken’s Record Shop, just down from the high school. There, I bought my first albums; to me, their design implied extended mental engagement, though I still evaluated them as a whole, like I did the pool jukebox 45s, and like I still do. For the first time, I started thinking about lyrics and archetypes (I didn’t have that word, but I had Edith Hamilton and Bergen Evans) and seeing if they applied to what I was living and seeing, or what I could live or might see. To a great extent, those first albums were an escape: from the exquisite torture of adolescent yearning to belong and be loved, from the grind of most of my classrooms, from the considerable lack of constructive non-sports outlets in my community (I was an athlete, but sports were not an escape for me; they were where I physically released my frustration, anger, and confusion). Church couldn’t compare to those first records, and I wasn’t being asked to read many books in school, so they were my first scriptures, for better or worse.

Here are the first ten albums that I contemplated and tried to unravel, interpret, and apply–whether they really bear up under that weight or not.

1. Elton John: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (seemed literary and I was starved for such, though I thought I was stoopid because I didn’t “get it”; the title seems to me today a bit more of a clue)

2. Alice Cooper: Billion Dollar Babies (I mos def got the entertainment aspect of this, but I labored to dig it what money and decadence really meant to him–um, Phil, you knew the reflexive property from math, dude!)

3. Bob Dylan: Street Legal (yeah I know–this Dylan album?–but I was miserable and confused by girls just like he was)

4. Neil Young: Decade (his Cortez v. my teachers’ Cortez + his guitar + he was confused by girls = love!

5. Rush: All the World’s A Stage (when I heard the album on KSYN outta Joplin–in its entirety–it sounded profound)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (a whole new strange world to me–I knew no Bruces but I did see the cars–but “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” became a credo)

7. Ted Nugent: Double Live Gonzo (proof I wouldn’t lie to you if I’d actually list this–remember, I said archetypes as well as lyrics)

8. Elvis Costello: My Aim is True (I seldom listen to him or it today, but he put words to my (so often self-inflicted) agonized romantic and sexual desires, and he was confused by girls)

9. Boston: Don’t Look Back (soaring guitars, smooth harmonies, and strangely transcendental lyrics were Midwestern boy-balm–balm enough that I had to write my first-ever record review about it)

10. Bob Seger: Night Moves (the whole album’s still good to me, but the title song was dictated from my fantasies, the only place I got to cluelessly “work on” The Mysteries)

Scary, ain’t they? For scriptures? Exclusively white and male, het’ro (far as I knew), foursquare (even Alice, really–I never took him seriously even then), a tad humorless (no?). On the plus side, there’s some “poetry” in there, a dollop of politics (historical and emotional), a touch of class-consciousness, spacey futurism, wang dang sweet poontang (really, though…), wordsmithery–stuff for my addled but determined mind to work with.

Maybe the next five I explored before heading to college were more important.

1. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (the kind of food my teachers should have been serving me daily–still nutritious after all these years!)

2. The Clash: London Calling (a cultural dictionary I didn’t have the background for, but I wasted no time trying to translate “Spanish Bombs” and figure out who Ivan and Montgomery Clift were)

3. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks (“I’m looking over the wall / Oh no it cannot be!” was the most exciting line I’d ever heard, delivered by the most frightening singer I’d ever heard, and I didn’t even have a clue about the Berlin Wall at fucking 18–but I did know he meant it, man…and that meant a lot in the days of “Disco Duck”)

4. Teddy Pendergrass: Teddy (yes, I studied that–to no avail, and no hot oil rubdowns for me)

5. Neil Young: Live Rust (I would read a book about the sound engineering for these shows, because they sounded transmitted from outer space–or the Palace of Experience)

Still no codexes from women, but I am thankful for the intercession of those five platters in this southwest Missouri boy’s life before I was cut loose into the wider world. I guess I linger over them because I’m fascinated that I got here from there, and wonder if, oh, “Desolation Row” had anything to do with it in a dance with chance. Believe me, if you’d told me then where, what, and who I’d be now, I’d have fainted from surprise–and relief. I’m still an old chunk of coal, though, and I wonder, too, like most, how much of the teenage me is still operating in my core. At least I’m much less confused about girls.