Monthly Archives: February 2013

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“That’s the thing that inspired me to do the movie in the first place: When I was in Uganda doing ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and seeing how alive his presence is there. People in the slums with huge murals of him, and quotes from him everywhere, and his music’s playing the whole time. And I’m thinking: There’s no other musical artist who has the influence and the longevity that Bob does. And it’s not just about ‘We love his music’; it’s about ‘He’s got a message, he’s telling us something important, spiritually.’ You go anywhere in the developing world, and you find that kind of feeling about him.”

Kevin MacDonald, director of the 2012 documentary, “Marley,” in an interview on Yahoo Movies

Kevin MacDonald – ‘Marley’

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Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, “Wonder Woman”

Part “Grease,” part “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but mostly a John Waters wet dream in the flesh, what it all really boils down to is that Jayne/Wayne County is the Louis Armstrong of transgender rock. She started it all, baby. She even fronted the original Backstreet Boys in her heyday, penning the roller rink-ready “Cream in My Jeans” (included on the classic protopunk compilation, “Max’s Kansas City 1976”).

After fleeing Bumfuck, Ga., in the late 1960s, County took part in the Stonewall riots and was recruited to star in an Andy Warhol play, “Pork,” by Jackie Curtis — a transvestite Superstar who was name-checked in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and who County looked up to as a mentor. County went on to front Queen Elizabeth, whose stage act County swears David Bowie stole for his 1974 “Diamond Dogs” tour.

“Wonder Woman,” a late-glam romp off Wayne County & the Electric Chairs’ 1979’s “Things Your Mother Never Told You,” gets right to the point. The superhero in question happens to be a rather raunchy sexpot:

“I’m your Aunt Jemima at breakfast
Well I’m, I’m the other side of the coin
I got a hunch that you want some lunch
Well, I’ve got gravy in my groin (slurp noise)”

‘Nuff said. Or, as County herself concludes on the song:

“Take it or leave it, but you better believe it.”

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Gonjasufi, “Sheep”

Do beasts empathize with their prey?

For that answer, we turn to Gonjasufi. Not the best choice, we soon find out. While Sufi dude looks the part of soothsayer, the dreadlock-frocked SoCal surfer/singer’s reply just brings fresh questions.

It’s on the Bollywood-tinged song, “Sheep,” off “A Sufi and a Killer” (hands down one of the best albums of 2010), that Gonjasufi makes his king-of-the-jungle antagonist go all gooey with:

“I wish I was a sheep
instead of a lion
’cause then I wouldn’t have to eat
animals that are dying”

Which seems to suggest that either terrorized meat isn’t as good as relaxed meat, or Simba’s got a healthy case of Catholic guilt.

But this is followed with a go-vegan diversion; there’s a somber realization that sheep have their own hierarchy; the specter of strange mating rituals even shows up — and just who is the “shepherd” at the beginning? Is Gonja referring to God as a “babe?”

The Bollywood feel that crops up throughout “A Sufi” comes from Gonjasufi’s love of Eastern music (no doubt influenced by a Coptic Christian background and Sufi Islam conversion). In interviews, he tosses out Thai funk and Hindi rap as inspiration and fodder for sampling. On “Sheep,” Gonja samples two film playback singers from India (which is sort of like double-sampling).

It’s got this lazy, yet wild bass line shimmying around harp-like plucks from a guitar and occasional full-court horn blasts. But what makes “Sheep” and most of the rest of the album sparkle and pop is the nearly mystical production from Gaslamp Killer, a perfect ringmaster for Gonja’s croaky croon.

My favorite part comes as the song is wrapping up. The music hardens, goes a bit Afrobeat and the alpha male takes over, as Gonjasufi finally gives us the answer, which is that:

“I’m a lion, babe
see me livin’ in the shade
I have everyone afraid
roamin’ free so no one’s safe”

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Photo by Nick Helderman http://nickhelderman.tumblr.com/

Photo by Nick Helderman http://nickhelderman.tumblr.com/

“I think we’ve got plenty of female fans, but in rock music, people discredit women right off the bat, even if they’re unconsciously doing it. I know I’ve been guilty of that in the past. … Even going back to hip-hop and thinking about Too $hort — you’ll have a record that’s filled with nothing but horrible misogyny for 12 tracks, and then the last one will be like, “The world’s so messed up, man, what’s going on today? Kids don’t go to school, girls being disrespected…” And you’re like, “Wait a second, dudes.”

Matt Korvette, Pissed Jeans frontman, on the continuing gender divide in rock and hip hop, in a February 2012 Pitchfork.com interview

Matt Korvette – Pissed Jeans

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“What is pop music? I mean, in the old days, you knew if somebody was good: Could they perform a score? With pop music, people have personalities, they get up, they play guitar their own way. If people like it, it’s successful; they’ve set a new style. I mean all the great singers in pop had voices which everyone declared were unlistenable, that this guy couldn’t sing, but they set up new ways of singing. … According to all standards, Bob Dylan can’t sing, but then he comes along, he’s a success, people imitate him and suddenly he’s great, ’cause he’s real and the others are imitators. Given this process, Zappa comes in and does a very astute thing. He takes up someone like Wild Man Fischer and says, ‘Why can’t you be a pop star?'”

Frank Zappa historian Ben Watson, discussing the signing of Wild Man Fischer, a paranoid schizophrenic with a slightly comic shout-singing style, to Zappa’s Bizarre label in 1969, from the 2012 documentary, “From Straight to Bizarre”

Ben Watson – Frank Zappa/Wild Man Fischer

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Swell Maps, “Another Song/Vertical Slum”

During rock’s most volcanic era — as the worlds of regular rock, punk rock, post punk and new wave were colliding like cooties in a petri dish — one release that still managed to stick out like a sore thumb was Swell Maps’ 1979 debut, “A Trip to Marineville.”

Later heralded as inspiration for Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, British band Swell Maps didn’t have a foot firmly on the bandwagon at the time, still happily fawning over the likes of glam-rockers T Rex and krautrockers Can, dabbling in psychedelia and generally stretching the proceedings out, at the same time that nearly every other rock band was cranking out 2-minute-something, no-nonsense ditties.

On “Gunboats,” for example, in which the influence on Thurston Moore’s guitar drone is unmistakable in Nikki Sudden’s demented playing, nothing comes close to being a chorus or refrain during the 8-minute song. There is, however, a point about three minutes in where it sounds like somebody is doing construction in the recording studio. The same thing happens on the tune with my favorite title, “Adventuring in Basketry.” And, clocking in at 18 songs, half of which would still be hard to explain why you like to your friends, “Marineville” was definitely asking a lot more of listeners than the relatively by-rote Ramones (right down to their methodical leather jackets and ripped jeans).

It’s hard for me to pick one favorite from “Marineville” to represent the band, so I chose two. “Another Song” is a great, quick, Buzzcocks-y tune that still manages to showcase the band’s prog-rock leanings (it had, after all, been performing since 1972, back when as teens, they went under the name of Sacred Mushroom).

But it’s the following song, “Vertical Slum,” which nearly goes a cappella toward the end with a nod to the Mothers of Invention, that ends up being the one I talk to myself about at the water cooler the following morning. Enjoy!

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Bela Fleck (w/ Djelimady Tounkara), “Mariam”

In early 2005, America’s reigning king of the banjo (now that Earl Scruggs has picked his way into the wild bluegrass yonder) traveled to a number of African countries to record “Africa Sessions,” the third installment of his “Tales From the Acoustic Planet” series. All told, he laid down tracks with 40 groups and solo performers before whittling the results down to 18 songs for the album.

“Volume 3: Africa Sessions” released in 2009, also goes by its motto, “Throw Down Your Heart,” which is also the name of the documentary about the recording process. As much a music aficionado as he is a creative genius, Fleck’s idea with “Africa Sessions” was to bring the banjo back to its place of birth, like a visit from a long-lost relative. In countries such as Gambia, Mali, Tanzania and Uganda, joined by the likes of international sensations Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate, he proceeds to musically and metaphorically wash off all that backwoods redneck grime that had built up over the past 100 years or so.

The finest example of the interplay on “Africa Sessions” corresponds with one of the greatest moments of the documentary, when Fleck meets up with Malian guitar maestro Djelimady Tounkara. When they sit down together to collaborate on a song (“Mariam”), it’s great to watch as Fleck’s eyes bug out when he realizes that Tounkara is taking melodies designed for the 21-stringed kora and making them work on a standard 6-string acoustic guitar. It’s like a kung-fu hotshot about to be tested in battle by his sensei. You can see him actively sweating as he tries to figure out how to duplicate the process on his banjo. Sadly, I’m unable to find a video excerpt to share. But here’s the finished album version of “Mariam,” named after one of Tounkara’s daughters.

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Top 10 songs from the hip-hop continuum

Top 10 songs from the hip-hop continuum

I don’t consider myself even a marksman when it comes to scrutinizing rap and hip hop (I consider rap a subset of hip hop). For one thing, I have some biases I won’t shed, such as that I don’t give a shit if a rapper thinks he is a bad ass. I’ve never been a fan of boasting, just the same as I don’t want to hear some carrot-shaped 20-something hipster get weepy over soul-destroying puppy love up there on the bandstand. Tthen there’s the stuff that’s just bass beats and vocals that act as instructions for proper whore behavior on the dance floor.

I didn’t hop aboard the hip-hop train until I heard A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” in 1991. But there’s no mistaking that hip hop is the arena where some of the best cross-polination has occurred in the past 20 years, and it’s out of where the endangered genre species of jazz and soul fornicate and make babies from time to time.

These are my favorite songs (in no particular order, because that would make my brain explode) from the hip-hop continuum, going back to Newcleus’ 1984 rap/funk masterpiece, “Jam On It.” While I don’t feel the need to include a link, I must give a shout-out to the inspiration for everything on this list, Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 industry-changer, “Rapper’s Delight.”

1. “Gunbeat Falls” by Shabazz Palaces, off 2009’s “Of Light” — also “Free Press and Curl”

2. “Workinonit” by J Dilla, off 2006’s “Donuts”

3. “Jam On It” by Newcleus, released as a single in 1984

4. “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” Tribe Called Quest, from 1990’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”

5. “What’s the Altitude” by Cut Chemist (featuring Hymnal), off 2006’s “The Audience’s Listening” — also “(My 1st) Big Break” and “The Garden”

6. “Earth People” by Dr. Octagon (Kool Keith), off 1996’s “Dr. Octagonecologyst” — also “Blue Flowers”

7. “So Fresh, So Clean” by Outkast, from 1999’s “Stankonia”

8. “You Got Me” by The Roots (featuring Erykah Badu), off 1999’s “Things Fall Apart”

9. “Skanky Panky” by Kid Koala, off 2003’s “Some of My Best Friends Are DJs”

10. “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” by DJ Shadow, off 1996’s “Endtroducing”

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Death Grips, “Klink” (https://earmeat.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/death-grips-klink/); Knifehandchop, “Dirty New York”; Jay-Z, “On to the Next One”; Kanye West, “Mercy” (featuring Big Sean and Pusha T); The Avalanches, “Frontier Psychiatrist”; Chromeo, “Fancy Footwork”; Birdy Nam Nam, “Escape” (https://earmeat.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/birdy-nam-nam-escape/); Bonobo, “Sun Will Rise” (featuring Speech Debelle); THEEsatisfaction, “Enchantruss”; Mr. Scruff, “The Clock”; Flying Lotus, “Spicy Sammich” Skeewiff; “The Adventures of Cutman” (worth a listen here: http://soundcloud.com/skeewiff/skeewiff-the-adventures-of-cut)

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M83, “Steve McQueen”

Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” isn’t really a good song, but just a passing fancy, a time capsule to its time. Maybe it was never actually any good; everybody was just so high snorting coke and watching relatively freshly unbridled boobies bob around on the dance floor under all those pretty disco lights, that even Barry Manilow somehow snuck his way in the back door.

I bring this up because I, too, remember when M83’s “Midnight City” spread around the Internet like a virus a year ago. It’s sort of like the “Staying Alive” of the bluetooth generation. And usually when I hear something OVER and OVER like that, especially when I instantly liked it, my innards are cooked up into a highly volatile frenzy of fury by the time the second wave of nonstop babies-riding-puppies videos set to the song in question pop up all over YouTube like digitized herpes.

But I still have a weak spot for this song. It’s the aural equivalent of looking at the world through a humongous diamond — or gazing upon the Flock of Seagulls singer’s crown of hair as the sun is setting. French mastermind Anthony Gonzalez created an epic, ’80s new wave-mining labor of love in 2011’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” and I don’t mean ’80s revisionism. Gonzalez takes a hip-hop mixmaster-like cut-and-paste approach to “We’re Dreaming,” and created something new — classic synth.

It’s also one of those rare albums in this new millennium that actually feels like an album. The songs weave into one another flawlessly, and with tracks on Side A acting as a mirror for those on Side B, and certain electronic strains popping up in different places throughout — a bit like The Avalanches’ 2000 album, “Since I Left You” — there is a consistent tone.

But, you’ve already heard “Midnight City,” and there are plenty of other classic tracks from the album that might not yet have rubbed your ears raw. “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” is a great, fun track, with that kid yapping about a frog you can lick for instant perspective-altering happiness, which sounds like the best plan for Mideast peace to me.

“Steve McQueen” is a better representation of the album’s sound. Its moody electronic orchestration is reminiscent of early Peter Gabriel — right down to Gonzalez’ echoey vocals — along with a healthy dose of a-ha, Jesus and Mary Chain and “Kokomo”-era Beach Boys. If it doesn’t make you want to get the old hair gel out of the back of your bathroom drawer, consider yourself a lost cause.

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