Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Angelus' "There Will Be No Peace"

Denton ain't what it used to be. Back in January, a Midwestern friend of mine who'd worked for Amtrak played a gig at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio. He got out of the van, saw the light rail station I'd never noticed before across the street, and said, "This place will be gone in six months." RGRS presented their last shows in June. No more shows in the basement at J&J's Pizza on the square, either, where I once saw a band soundcheck for an hour and a half before playing a set of 120 dB noise that cleared not only the basement, but the restaurant as well.

In some ways, The Angelus -- currently a trio, fronted by singer-guitarist-songwriter Emil Rapstine -- are the archetypal Denton band, men of somber mien and rustic sensibility, not extraordinarily prolific, but steady. Their trajectory reflects their hometown's changing scene: a 2004 EP released by The Pyramid Scheme, an art collective whose principal is now part of the group that revived the Dallas movie house where Lee Oswald was captured; a 2011 full-length on Gutterth, the imprint of a two-man concern that promoted shows and released records from 2006 to 2013, whose legacy continues with Denton's Civil Recording.

These days, Rapstine & Co. dock in Dallas, and they have a new record ready to drop in January on the exquisitely curated Tofu Carnage label, known for its beautifully packaged releases. The songs on There Will Be No Peace flow inexorably from one to the next, each starting on the last note of the one that preceded it, and a continuity of mood, like a ceremonial rite, permeates the proceedings. The sound is dark and stark, a step back from its predecessor's more orchestrated sound, heavy but not jarring, arranging simple elements -- incantory voices, droning guitar chords, locked-in bass and drums -- to engage and envelop the listener.

The opening acapella invocation gives way to a wordless explosion of roaring guitar and pounding rhythm, coalescing into a descending melody, blanketed in clouds of harmonic feedback, that culminates in a dissonant solo. A mournful plaint leads to an awakening acknowledgement of existence and a soaring celebration of solitude, sown with the seed of doubt. Adversity is confronted and overcome, but the journey ends in negation and despair. Listen and imagine yourself transported to a place out of time, far from the reach of gentrified modernity.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A bumper crop from Saustex

Right after I announced on social media that for the next year, I'm going to forego buying music so we can make regular contributions to social justice organizations (and subscribe to a real newspaper), Hickoids frontman/Saustex Records honcho Jeff Smith hit me up to let me know he had some music he thought I might dig. The package arrived today -- as fortune would have it, on the same date when Jeff's pal and longtime Hickoids guitarist Davey Jones checked out last year, from lung cancer. So it was with mixed emotions that I dug into the stack.

Jones, originally from Philly, got to Austin as quickly as he could via Little Rock and Fort Hood. A beloved character with his own distinctive, jumble-sale scarecrow look, and a great player with a sprawling, lysergic punk style, he logged time with outfits as diverse as the punk Ideals and the bluesy Big Foot Chester, as well as OG cowpunks the Hickoids (whom he named). The Out of Towners, a Hickoids EP, is his last recorded work, cut in Austin during his final illness and comprised of six covers of songs by Texas artists including Roky Erickson, Willie Nelson, the Dicks (of whom Davey was once a member), and Doug Sahm. "You just can't live in Texas / If you don't have a lot of soul," Jeff sings on Sahm's "At the Crossroads," before the guitars take the tune out with a proper rave-up. Davey sure did. Light up them strings on the astral plane, man. Adios.

In a just universe, Black Oak Arkansas' Jim "Dandy" Mangrum would be receiving royalities from David Lee Roth for his stage persona. And who could forget BOA's appearance on TV's In Concert, with Tommy Aldridge's barehanded drum solo and the two semi-hollow Gibsons being smashed together for a finale? Showmen supreme, these cats were. Mutants of the Monster is, of all things, a BOA tribute album, lovingly co-produced by Joecephus & the George Jonestown Massacre frontman Joey Killingsworth and drummer/studio owner Dik LeDoux. The players include musos from BOA's spiritual children Nashville Pussy, the Butthole Surfers, Honky, and the Supersuckers, not to mention BOA members Rickie Lee Reynolds, Jimmy Henderson, and yes, even Jim Dandy Himself. The sound is all rough 'n' raunchy vocalismo and rolling, roiling heavy psych guitars, enough to make me understand a little better why a bud from up North once made a pilgrimage to Black Oak to hear BOA throw down on home turf.

"Costume rockers" The Upper Crust and The Grannies are like opposite sides of the same two-headed coin. The proper Bostonians in the former built their whole band around the concept of AC/DC's "Big Balls": scabrous hard rock with lyrics that take the POV of 18th century aristos. The Bay Area's Grannies are just your garden variety superannuated cross-dressing punk rockers. Both bands recently graced the stage at the original Fred's Texas Cafe here, on a bill (opened by Pat Todd and the Rank Outsiders!) that a friend whose opinion I respect said was the best she's ever seen. On their split album Lords and Ladies, minus the visuals, they prove themselves to be as strong on rockaroll fundamentals like relentless energy and clangorous rifferama as they are on shtick. But cake is always better with frosting than without, yes?

It's hard to believe that Churchwood -- an avant-blues outfit with literate lyrics roughly declaimed by Notre Dame Ph.D. and former Leroi Brother Joe Doerr -- are up to their fourth album, but with Hex City, that's indeed the case. The band -- here augmented by a horn section and backing singers -- crackles with R&B energy like Beefheart's Magic Band circa Shiny Beast, the guitars jousting contrapuntally while the rhythm section chugs along with cool assurance. "One Big White Nightmare" isn't the picture of TrumpAmerica one might have expected (too soon); rather, it's an evocation of Moby-Dick -- the Melville one, not the Bonham -- that ends with a reference to Davy Jones of locker (rather than Monkees or Hickoids) fame. And "Hallelujah" isn't the Leonard Cohen (RIP) chestnut, although it does include Doerr's loveliest lines here: "hallelujah, coming through you / just like a stopped clock / reaching through the crush of time / to find that moment when its hands are true." Nice to hear music that operates on so many levels.

Saving the best for last, Grandpa Death Experience is the Amsterdam-based vehicle for SoCal expat Ron Goudie, who in another life co-founded Enigma Records and produced artists including Stryper, GWAR, and Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. Their promo pic has a sleazy, Turbonegro-like vibe (those crazy Euros and their WW2 fixation!), and like Oslo's princes of darkness, GDE synthesizes a whole bunch of hard rock and garage rock influences into something undeniably original, with Goudie's distressed vocals -- imagine a defeated-sounding Waylon Jennings after wa-a-ay too many Pall Malls and whiskey shots -- riding on top of the mix. His songcraft is just skewed enough that I know I'll be finding new things here for months.

Saustex is a label with a highly idiosyncratic vision, whose website is often a season or two out of date (Jeff Smith's a busy guy). Hit up saustexmedia@aol.com to stay current with their useful email updates.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Tribe Called Quest's "We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service"

Mea culpa. It should have occurred to me as I watched in real time as police lobbed tear gas grenades into residential neighborhoods in Ferguson (or more recently, turned fire hoses on water protectors in subzero temperatures at Standing Rock) that there were other folks watching who were as terrified by the people on the receiving end of those volleys as I was horrified by law enforcement's actions.

Woke up November 9th to a different America than I went to sleep in. Shit you don't think can happen, can happen. Unlike 2004, when I stayed depressed for a month after the election, I've been staying focused on what I need to stay focused on, but things are hardly "business as usual." I've decided to stop buying records and CDs, using the money I'd have spent there to make monthly donations to the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center, and buy a subscription to the NYT (mainly so I can read their content online; my wife still likes to ride her bike to her old neighborhood to pick up the analog paper).

Mea culpa. I've done freelance work for Kushner's rag, and worked in internet advertising -- the tool by which newspapers and other media outlets seek to "monetize" their content. (Not to mention the blogosphere -- right here under your shoes -- where everyone is a journo, and where misinformation and disinformation abound.) The media created Trump as a candidate because he was "good for ratings," and reported the campaign like it was a game show. Is it any wonder the game show host won? (With a little help from Russian intelligence, WikiLeaks, and the FBI.)

So I've gone from being a music geek to being a news geek. After reading reports of harassment of minorities, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT folk, and women -- 701 reported (which begs the question, "How many unreported?") since the election at this writing -- I pinned a safety pin to my Ozzie Nelson sweater, as hollow a gesture at that seems. Sure, triumphalism is as much an American habit in politics as it is in sports, but it doesn't usually come accompanied by Hitlerite posturing. Now I'm just waiting and wondering what other shoes are going to drop after January 20th. Besides the aforementioned groups (basically evabody but white men), it seems free speech, the environment, science, and education, for starters, are about to take it on the chin. (Barbara Kingsolver elucidates it far better than I ever could. Some other constructive ideas are here.)

I've always called the Dems the party that could fuck up a wet dream. Libs have always been better at nitpicking each other over ideology or semantics than organizing for action. Cons just have their "two minute hate" and get down to business. The Reps have been working on rolling back the Voting Rights Act since the Burger court. The Dems made the fatal error of thinking their job was out-fundraising the Reps, rather than coming up with a platform that addresses the needs of common folks. American voters made the mistake of thinking they were choosing a flavor of ice cream, ignoring the fact that the vanilla came topped with a Klan hood and a swastika. Now it'll be open season on natural resources as the profit takers take their profits and the poor bastards who voted for Trump "to send a message to the Establishment" get screwed the way they always do.

Into this highly charged atmosphere drops We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, the first album in 18 years from Queens, NYC, hip hop crew A Tribe Called Quest and the last work from rapper/founding member Phife Dawg, who died of diabetes complications in March, aged 45. The first single, "We the People," which carries the refrain, "All you black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways...," fairly exploded out of the gate with a SNL performance that even a confirmed non-TV watcher like your humble chronicler o' events heard about. (Runner up for best line: "Niggas in the hood living in a fishbowl / Gentrify here, now it’s not a shit hole.")

Mea culpa. Comparisons and quotes are the laziest way to write a review.

As a piece of politically conscious black pop, We Got It From Here... ranks up there with the first Curtis Mayfield solo LP, What's Going On, and Innervisions, not to mention Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly (whose creator Kendrick Lamar guests on "Conrad Tokyo" here). Having buried some hatchets to make this album, Tribe plan to call it quits after a final tour, but they're going down swinging.

These days I listen to music at home at a volume comparable to when I still lived with my parents, and the way this is mastered, you have to crank it up to be able to hear the lyrics, so today I took advantage of the opportunity afforded by a brief trip out of town to spin it twice at volume. (For others like myself, who are too myopic to read the tee-tiny fonts in CD slicks, you can find the lyrics here.)

"The Space Program" sets the scene, with Q-Tip and Jarobi proposing the same solution posited by George Clinton and Sun Ra (not to mention, closer to home, Doc Strange on this year's Sindrome), only to find they're not invited: "It always seems the poorest persons / Are people forsaken, dawg / No Washingtons, Jeffersons, Jacksons / On the captain's log." (Spot the Gene Wilder sample!) "Solid Wall of Sound" takes its loping pace from an improbable Elton John "Benny and the Jets" sample (elsewhere, Ali Shaheed Muhammad samples Kraut rockers Can and Brit proggers Gentle Giant), with a taste of Busta Rhymes' rapid fire delivery and Jamaican flavor.

On "Dis Generation" and "Kids," the elders in Tribe show empathy for those with a younger point of view. A slippery guitar line propels "Melatonin," in which Q-Tip describes a familiar predicament, elevated at the end by Abbey Smith's sung refrain, "So many thoughts in my mind / Making it very hard to unwind / I guess I should take one / Just one." When Kanye West (!) makes a cameo on "The Killing Season," I misheard his "They sold ya, sold ya, sold ya" as "You sold your soul, soldier." "Lost Somebody" carries the album's most heartbreaking lines, way too familiar in communities of color this goddamn year: "Have you ever loved somebody? / Way before you got to dream? / No more crying, he’s in sunshine / He’s alright now, see his wings."

"Movin Backwards," "Conrad Tokyo," and "Ego" are tied together by a razor sharp dissonant guitar line, framing lyrics like the first's "Po puts braces on my wrist like he was clapping his hands / How demeaning, y'all? Who could be blind to racism?" and the second's "Sayonara tomorrow, it's just blood on the ground." "Ego" equates hucksterism with pimping ("Fool the thirsty people, selling tap water in bottles / Fooled a girl with NYU scholarship and now she models"), while "The Donald" imagines Phife in a rap battle with its title character. (He'd probably clean his clock like Hillary did, but would it matter?) Noted rockumentary talking head Jack White guests on guitar, channeling Eddie Hazel and Ron Asheton the way you'd expect him to.

Tribe's Midnight Marauders got me through the worst year of my life up to that time (the one when I got divorced). I'm counting on We Got It From Here..., along with open eyes and ears, good friends, and lots of small acts of kindness, to get me through the one coming up. Keep your head and your strength up.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Gimme Danger": A dialogue on Jim Jarmusch's Stooges documentary

At the end of a week that knocked lots of folks for a loop, my buddy and Missouri teachaholic Phil Overeem and I both had the chance to view Jim Jarmusch's new Stooges documentary Gimme Danger and put our heads together via intarweb chat to share impressions. Here's the resultant chinwag.

Ken: I thought Jarmusch did a good job, appropriate to the material. The MC5's story was a big story with heavy socio-political significance. The Stooges' was a little story about young guys growing up together through music. Iggy performed the same role in this as Wayne Kramer did in MC5: A True Testimonial, which is appropriate, because Ig's a good storyteller. I like that Jarmusch stuck to "family," with no Dave Grohl/Slash commentaries. James Williamson and Kathy Asheton added interesting sidelights. Steve Mackay and Scott Asheton both looked ravaged and didn't have as much to say (although I found Scott on Dave Alexander particularly poignant), but they belonged in this. I would have liked to have seen more Danny Fields, but he has his own doco now, I guess.

The big question in my mind going into this was what would Jarmusch do visually, given the paucity of footage (James Williamson told me, "Film stock was expensive and not worth wasting on us"). The synced footage from Cincinnati and Goose Lake that everyone has seen on Youtube was used well. There was some better quality vid of a performance from the Ron era without sound, and some B&W footage without sound from the '73 Academy of Music show in NYC that I didn't know existed. Jarmusch used a lot of photo montage, and employed animation to illustrate some stories in the same way the Beware of Mr. Baker filmmaker did. I thought the visuals supported the story well.

Phil: I can't disagree with any of that. Jarmusch had some serious technical limitations as do so many directors trying to do similar things, and I was hoping he'd be a little more imaginative in overcoming them, but the movie seemed to swing metronomically between talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content. Plus clip-recycling and animation (which I admit I found amusing), which are like check-boxes. Also, a little light on L.A. And stretching a short story into a novel, so to speak. I enjoyed it, but it dragged a bit. I love your point about the band as family. That was a major strength of the film.

Ken: By L.A., I presume you mean the "death march" time after Raw Power. Some folks, I reckon, are disappointed there's not more about the drugs and debauchery. I figure they can read Please Kill Me. The story I was interested in was how these absolutely typical American kids went about becoming a band, and what happened after. I liked that Jarmusch started at the end -- kind of like Sunset Boulevard with Bill Holden "narrating" the story facedown in the swimming pool.

Phil: Well, I certainly wasn't craving drugs and debauchery (I know it well), but for a general audience it's certainly part of the story, right?

Ken: I don't think they glossed over it. There weren't a lot of stories, but it was acknowledged in the context of the band's deterioration.

Phil: It seemed pretty minimal compared to the reality, to me. But not a huge deal-breaker, true. Also, how did you feel about Ig's discussion of Bowie's role? That combined with the stock footage of the plane taking off to Europe made an interesting statement.

Ken: I think it was fairly accurate. At that point, Bowie was as manipulated by De Fries as anybody. But he definitely gained cachet from the help he rendered to Lou and Iggy. I think Ig showed nice humility -- and perhaps, self-awareness -- in allowing them to skip his entahr solo career until the reformation.

Phil: I thought about that. Jarmusch was wise to just jump that (for the most part--there are a few vid clips from that time) for scope's sake. We are agreeing for the most part on the content; I think my disappointments were technical and structural, though I too like the way he chose to open. I have been struggling with the question, "Well, how would he have done it differently?"

Ken: I'm glad it exists to bring all of that material together in a coherent way (because I hate watching shit on Youtube). And I still have my grainy Nth generation VHS of Cincinnati. I think it was important to do it while as many of the cats were still living as possible. Ron passed relatively early in the filming, but they did get some good material with him. It wouldn't have been possible to make a great film like MC5: A True Testimonial or The Kids Are Alright because the Stooges just weren't filmed that much. Prior to 2004 or so, no producer would have countenanced the making of a Stooges doco. Luckily, Ron told his stories lots of times to lots of folks, so his side of the story is well documented.

Phil: That, to me, was so fortunate: to get Ron's and Scott's takes. Also, I was very impressed with Williamson. To your last comment: yeah, that's part of my struggle in trying to suggest a more imaginative approach--it's just that I have put so many docs under my belt in recent years I found myself calling the next move. BUT the most important thing is to get it all in one place, coherently, with relative artistry. He did that.

Ken: I like that Ig and Scott gave props to Dave Alexander, and I found the bits on the making of the various recs to be useful.

Phil: I suppose he could have, ala Julien Temple, provided more musical context for what they were doing, instead of mostly the IMMEDIATE context of the MC5 and VU and free jazz. What about the crap that made The Stooges such a shock? I also agree pretty completely with you about keeping the commentary in the family, but it might have been nice to have a few more old dogs other than Danny to record what it sounded like fresh. Was expecting more story on the making of Funhouse, but maybe what was said was the main thing.

Ken: It's a fan's document, but still a more coherent narrative than The Kids Are Alright. Most of the people who will see this know the story, from Please Kill Me and From the Velvets to the Voidoids. Not to mention the Paul Trynka and Bob Matheu books. The crap -- from Fabian to manufactured flower power -- was addressed.

Phil: Yeah: a fan's document. OK, maybe I disagree a little that the film is just FOR the fans. I mean Jarmusch has his own following that might conceivably not know much; there were several such in the audience. I asked for a show of hands. But Fabian was long past and flower power was waning anyway. Confessional singer-songwriters?

Ken: "Marrakesh Express." I think you're correct -- they focused on main things. It was longer than I expected it to be. To make a movie of viewable length, excessive context is dispensible. They could have made a longer film crammed with more minutiae, but that wouldn't have served the Stooges or the viewer any better.

Phil: I initially understood your phrase "fan's document" as meaning "Jarmusch's document" but you mean more than just that.

Ken: I mean a telling of the legend for people who already love the Stooges.

Phil: Yeah, I think that was what he was doing, but shouldn't one reach a little further, at least? I am thinking now about what WAS in there that could have been cut...There will be, I am sure, the inevitable bonus material.

Ken: To your comment about going from Ig to visual, I think that's why the animation was added -- to break the monotony. The best use of stock footage I've ever seen was in the Howlin' Wolf doco. But then again, in comparison, Wolf was filmed extensively. Mike Watt was his loquacious self, and reminded me of the Wylde Rattz thing that Ron talked about when I spoke to him in '99. (BTW, I hated Velvet Goldmine.)

Phil: I couldn't make it through VELVET GOLDMINE. Watt was a burst of energy into the proceedings, and THAT was a great example of the occasional details that even solid Stooges fans (like me) might not have known--the genesis of the reunion. That might have been widely circulated, but I missed it. Further example: the band's decision to just stay in one place when they went on stage!!! Another highlight was Iggy serially dismissing claims that the Stooges were "rock," punk," etc--they just were. Surprise for me was SO much about the Five in there. I knew it would be there, but not so developed ("big brother - little brother").

Ken: I'm not sure it's possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like. It's like, I'd dig to see a doco about Buddy Bolden that shows his importance, but such is not possible. But I think Jarmusch focused on the universality of their experience, rather than the uniqueness, for that reason. I know the MC5: ATT filmmakers struggled with narrowing the focus. It could have been a ten hour social history of '60s America. But I think they made good decisions, as did Jarmusch.

Phil: You said, "I'm not sure it's possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like." I honestly would have liked to see a stab at at least the former, and how the latter affected their legend. Thanks for giving me more ammunition!

Ken: Part of the point is that while they were "real communists," they weren't involved in "causes" like the Five were. And that is addressed.

Phil: Funny Reagan Republic Ig talking about communism!

Ken: The difference between practical and ideological. "If you live in the same house, eat the same food, and share your money, you're a communist."

Phil: Hey, I know you hate this, but what grade would you give it? You've moved me up to a B+. BTW, I thought the text seemed either eye-rolling (bleeding? well, I get the connection, but we didn't see much of that) or cheap.

Ken: I don't have the objectivity to rate this. Although I'm not close friends with these people, this feels like a movie about people I know. My expectations of it were apparently different than yours. I'd be curious to hear what a young person who was aware of the Stooges (or one that wasn't) thinks about it. I'm glad they included Harry Partch. I knew of his influence from Please Kill Me and Velvets to Voidoids, but still.

Phil: Yeah, the Partch segment was a very pleasant surprise. OK, OK, I am coming around further. A few times I was made to rethink the Stooges music a bit.

Ken: What I loved about the Stooges was their ordinariness. The Who and the Five looked like golden gods. The Stooges looked like me and my bad acting buddies. I could imagine them sitting with us outside the deli, having spitting and farting contests and wondering why the really neat girls wouldn't go out with us.

Phil: That last sentence connected with part of my intro, where I stole from what you told me about Iggy seeing the other three just being lowlifes and conceiving the Stooges from that. I don't remember you using "spitting," but I did...and polishing switchblades, which was a bit much. They looked like bad news.

Ken: The most revealing story is about the hood-type guys Ig was "friends" with coming over to the trailer and goofing on it and his family. An example of how the anger was fueled.

Phil: Also, "25 words or less."

Ken: Key to the aesthetic. And Johnny Ramone hating the '70 shows because they didn't play songs he knew. They never dwelt in the past, even when they scarcely had any material.

Phil: Where do you think GIMME DANGER ranks against similar docs where the directors had similar disadvantages? You mentioned the Wolf doc and The MC5's.

Ken: I can't think of one where there was such a paucity of live footage. But again -- as I said starting out, I think the scale and scope was right for the story. It was more like listening to a guy telling a story, with illustrations and digressions. Which is what you could do, given the available materials. I liked the voice recordings of the Asheton kids, which Kathy told me were discovered right before her int, but after Ron was gone.

To people of the Millennial generation and younger, the Stooges don't sound unique because there are a million bands that sound "like that" now. I think the film recognizes that such was not always the case, but I don't know how more examples or explanation would have made that point more strongly.

Phil: We are not so far apart. One point, though, that I made in my intro was that as easy as the early Stooges' sound seemed to be to make, even THEY couldn't replicate it when they reunited. I don't really hear many bands sounding like them.  I hear bands trying on that attack but it just isn't as primitive, as id-rock, as natural-sounding. Sidetrack: another of my favorite moments was Iggy's analysis of how they came to be thought of as nihilistic (kind of related to the 25-words-or-less vow).

Ken: The reason for that is they learned how to play. Scott says the first time they played "Not Right" was the take. They became more skilled players, but they were more creative when they were reaching beyond their grasp.

Phil: Well, YEAH, they learned how to play, but few bands who don't know how sound anything like they did when they didn't!

Ken: By the '70s with SRB, Scott had become more of a four-on-the-floor drummer. On Funhouse, he's reaching for Clyde Stubblefield and Elvin Jones. Not making it, but doing something unique.

Phil: See, yeah, that's it. And out of what did that spring?

Ken: I think Iggy might have been the "pusher."

Phil: The jazz. The Partch. Yeah, the pusher!!!!

Ken: Free jazz was in the wind in Detroit/A2 because of the Five, Sinclair, and people like Charles Moore. As for Partch: Ig worked at Discount Records.

It was quite revealing that they couldn't get a band take on the first album unless Ig was in the live room, dancing.

Phil: That's really the secret. The movie tells it, w/o clubbing you over the head. A-....

Ken: They literally learned to play on the road in front of huge festival crowds. Before that, they were...an art project. The reason they sounded the way they did is because they weren't copying a established sound, they were playing over their heads with a variety of bizarre influences that they couldn't possibly have replicated. And then they got caught up in the momentum of volume, adrenaline, and endorphin. I like your "not clubbing you over the head" remark. Just tell the story, and if the viewer is engaged she'll figure it out.

Phil: Nice. I'm a little overmatched here.

Ken: I've been obsessed with this music since 1970. But you and I are different kinds of fans/listeners. I'm a "just enough" guy. You're a "more" guy. It's not a criticism, just an observation.

Phil: No, I get that. I think it's related to my tendency to listen as a gestaltist. I do not know where that came from.

Ken: I don't think more data would have strengthened the case.You studied lit theory? I'm guessing. I listen more...intuitively. Like a monkey who finds a transistor radio. First it's magic. Then I listen to it all the time. Then it breaks, and I find...something else. That's an interesting observation, and I guess I do tend to hear parts before the whole, if they are audible.

Phil: Nope. Well, a little [literary theory]. I listen intuitively, too, on a song by song basis. Certainly I respond and write that way. But I don't think it's from that. I want the whole to be better. But see that's why I don't think we're so far apart. I don't necessarily want more data...maybe different...and different structure. But you've brought me over.

Ken: Maybe I went knowing the limitations that existed, and so didn't expect or want anything more. I think it was done coherently and respectfully. I would see it again. I would recommend it to another fan, or a novice.

Phil: Gear-shift: what year was it when you first played a Stooges song live?

Ken: I didn't play Stooges music until 2004. No one I knew back then dug 'em, although some of the older cats I knew saw them and the Five at Randall's Island in '70.

Phil: "I Wanna Be Your Dog" was a staple of my first band ('85) and "Funhouse" the climax point of my second one ('90). 'Course, I didn't play, I "sang"--but those were cathartic songs, especially the second. Lou [Reed] was a great model for me to be a non-singer because of his style but mostly for his verbal genius. Iggy was how to do it physically, release the id, plus...25-words-or-less made the song easy to remember.

Ken: The first Stooge song I played was "TV Eye," sitting in with a band the night the Stooges played Coachella. Two years later, we started the Stoogeband. When we learned those songs, we started with the mistakes. I mentioned before Scott said the first time they played "Not Right" (not "Real Cool Time") was in the studio. You can hear on the take, he plays through the break after the first verse. They left it in. We learned it. The beginnings of "Loose" and "1970" are chaos that coalesces.

Phil: Which I absolutely love.

Ken: Me too.

Phil: I guess the reason I went down this road was to try to think about how the movie worked for me just from the perspective of having been in a band of semi-reprobates who could not play (except for one guitar player). We weren't together long enough to have learned much, but we had a reunion (minus one, with a different guitar player) that sounded like the reunited Stooges sounded compared to the original, now that I think about it. The other band: everyone could play (except me), and it was all covers, and I had anger to expel and often was altered. BTW, that reunion was just a few years ago, and the drummer and original guitarist could play very well, and the added guitarist had come out of SRV into garage punk.

Ken: I always say the MC5 worked harder, but the Stooges always won. Not then, but via historical validation. I think the simplicity of Stooge songs has given them more longevity than the Five's with the exception of "KOTJ."

Phil: But don't you think that's also due to Iggy's visibility over the last forty years? And his being taken up as an icon? By the youth circa '90s, I should say. I am thinking that the (for lack of a better term) grunge kids were the ones who first started to bring them up to me when I was teaching. I remember, too, a couple of videos and his Rock The Vote thing with Kate Moss.

Ken: By 2002, though, as he admitted, he was out of ideas and not selling records. The Stooges reunion was many things. One was a tonic to his career. Although I like that he gave the Ashetons a nice victory lap while they were still living.

Phil: Do not disagree. But he stayed in the public eye via the reunion and some movies and constant comparative references in the rock press, don't you think? (Still trying to explain why the Stooges--though maybe I am just talking Iggy here--trump the Five for other reasons.)

Ken: The Five were better musos, saturated with Chuck Berry and Stones when they started. That made it harder for them to do something new. Their free jazz freakouts, all released in the '90s, do not stand up to repeated listenings well. The Stooges were barely competent, and invented their music from the ground up as they went.

Phil: Oh, I agree. Especially about that last sentence. But I don't think THAT'S the main reason the majority of us don't think of them as much as we do the Stooges, though it ought to be, I think Iggy has in some ways cast shade over THE BAND--another reason for the documentary to exist.

Ken: The Five's political aspect is harder for people to grasp.

Phil: Oh, I agree with that, too. Hell THEY had trouble grasping it, and sometimes rejected it.

Ken: Too complex. The Stooges were simple. "25 words or less."

Phil: Hard to believe Iggy is the last man standing of the original group. BUT...BUT...do you think, say, had Iggy OD'd in '73 we'd still be seeing the Stooges on a more important level? I don't mean you and me, because we do, I mean rockdom.

Ken: Affirmative.

Phil: I have thoughts about whether the movie illustrates a band-forming process that is no longer common?

Ken: I don't think that's changed much in the fundamentals. What's changed is what they aspire to. There are more roadmaps/templates/models. Musicianship is generally at a higher level.

Phil: Which, ironically, can be a barrier?

Ken: Yeah. If you have a certain level of chops, it's easier to copy somebody else (cf. our earlier discussion of the Five). There are "Schools of Rock" now. A few years ago, the Stooge band drummer and I went to one to teach a bunch of 10-year-olds how to play "Search and Destroy." It was innaresting.

Phil: And you can't go backwards in time.

Ken: Nope.

Phil: The film really does nicely nail that.

Ken: But aesthetics haven't changed much in the last 40 years. Even forms that were considered extreme now have conventions.

Phil: Indeed. But can you pretend to not be able to play and run smack into something fresh? Anymore?

Ken: "Pretend to not be able to play" is a concept beyond the scope of this inquiry, I think. You have the life experience that's been dealt to you. You have all the knowledge you've acquired that affects your ability to express yourself through whatever medium you choose. You're influenced by all of that whenever you try to create something.

Phil: Sorry about that! I was just thinking about the odds of really NOT being able to play and innovating. I mean, can't musicians code switch just like folks do when they talk? Today, I mean.

Ken: A kid born in 1996 can't pretend to be Ron Asheton in 1967. Nor would he want to be, I don't think.

Phil: I would think "a kid" might!!!

Ken: It's kind of like "Can blue men sing the whites?" You are the product of your time and place. You perform or express yourself in a way that mirrors that.

Phil: So you're making me rethink the early portion of the film. Slowly pushing me to the "A" by demonstrating how MUCH Jarmusch DOES get in...

Ken: Again, I'd say that given the limitations (available resources, human attention), and the scale and scope of the story (small, human, not grand and epic), I'd say he did what needed to be done. There may be other movies about the Stooges, but this will be, um, hard to beat.

Phil: I think, having seen most of his films, I was looking for more of his stamp on it. But he ceded that to getting the story right.

Ken: Like J. Mascis ceding half of his set on the "Fog" tour to Watt (and later Ron) doing Stooge songs.

Phil: And just dealing with the band-doc conventions. Humility begets humility.

Ken: You can't make it more than what it is.

Phil: And humility is a gateway to truth.

Ken: They were pariahs who were validated by history.

Phil: Well, yeah!

Ken: And historical validation wears the white Stetson.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Things we like: Steve Hunter, Mary Halvorson, Richard Thompson, Larry Coryell

In the process of reacquainting myself with the guitar in preparation for Stoogeaphilia activity in December, I've been listening to good guitarists again (not that I delude myself that it'll help me).

If Steve Hunter had never played on anything besides Rock and Roll Animal (on which the famous "Sweet Jane" intro is his) and the eponymous LP by the Mitch Ryder-led early-'70s biker-rock archetype Detroit (which contains the cover of Uncle Lou's "Rock and Roll" that its author acknowledges as "the right way to play it," shades of Dylan/Hendrix "Watchtower"), he'd be a rock guitar immortal. In his maturity, Bob Ezrin's favorite sessioneer has developed into a finesse guy, sort of an American Jeff Beck, and I can't get the instrumental version of "Solsbury Hill" from his Manhattan Blues Project (yes, he played on the Peter Gabriel 'riginal) out of my head.

I need to dig deeper into Mary Halvorson's catalog. A recent NYT article provides some profound clues, in the way a '76 Bob Palmer piece in same journal pulled my coat to post-OC Don Cherry. For now, I'm still getting familiar with her 2015 solo joint Meltframe. While I find her distorted sound -- which kicks open the door on her album-opening Oliver Nelson-as-metal-Scarlatti reimagining of "Cascades" -- as unnerving as original Prime Time axe slinger Charlie Ellerbee's, her comfort with F/X like tremelo and what sounds to my tech-ign'ant ear like a Digitech Whammy is emblematic of how far "jazz guitar" has come since the older, invariably Italian music store dudes used to intimidate my tyro-tastic young self by playing chord melody like Joe Pass back in the '70s.

While Richard Thompson's guitarissimo has always been just one of several arrows in his quiver (singer, songwriter, folklorist), his fretwork has always fascinated me for the way in which it seems to invert all the conventions of blues-based rock soloing, and how inscrutable are his influences: I'm no expert, but I don't believe Brit folk music has any tradition of string bending and vocally-inflected solo lines. Bagpipe music, maybe? He's also the source of my affection for the "in-between" positions on a Stratocaster's pickup selecter switch. Still, not evabody's taste. In response to a Facebook post I made of an Unhalfbricking outtake of Fairport Convention's "A Sailor's Life," cut back when RT was still rocking the gold-top Les Paul, a young friend commented: "Gag. It killed me." Wha-wha.

While time hasn't been kind to fusion's exhibitionistic chops-mongering and super-session grandstanding, there was a time (before everyone that played with Miles Davis in the rock era went off to make bank) when jazz-rock was worthwhile listening for those of us of a certain bent. Larry Coryell was there firstest with the mostest, on Chico Hamilton's The Dealer in '65, with the trailblazing Free Spirits in '67, and Gary Burton around the same time. His "good jazz record" (in the same way as Sonny Sharrock's swan song Ask the Ages), 1970's Spaces, was cut with ex-Miles/future Mahavishnu Orchestra/Weather Report musos before all the hype started. He released a bunch of good records in '71: Live at the Village Gate (which Dallas DJ/muso Craig Shropshire correctly identifies as a Band of Gypsys homage, although on the closing number, an Axis: Bold As Love homage gives way to swirling electric raga), Fairyland (on which Coryell plays either sloppily or with abandon -- beauty is in the ear of the behearer -- over the ace R&B engine room of Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie), and Barefoot Boy (on which he and saxman Steve Marcus -- whose worthy Tomorrow Never Knows also features Coryell -- take a run at Gabor Szabo's "Gypsy Queen" with a percussion trio led by the estimable trap-kicker Roy Haynes that cuts Santana's on chops and fire, all because the bassplayer showed up late). In the fullness, his Eleventh House sounds more legit and less like ersatz Mahavishnu than they seemed when I saw 'em back in '74. But my favorite Coryell thang is probably 1975's The Restful Mind, on which he's acoustic and backed by musos from the band Oregon on a program that spans Euroclassicism, heartland spaciousness, and darker-toned excursions in the same way as another perennial at mi casa, Metheny and Mays' As Falls Wichita.

Before the li'l Stooge band practices for the first time in a long time, I plan to take in the Jim Jarmusch Stooges flick when it plays the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff for what I hope will be more visceral and spiritual inspiration.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Things we like: Nels Cline, David Breskin, Allen Lowe

I'll admit I was a little worried when, prior to the release of Nels Cline's new album Lovers, all of the fun, idiosyncratic writing disappeared from his website, which had become a promo piece for the album. I'd heard that Lovers was a tribute to mood music, and couldn't help flashing back to around '76, when I heard Larry Coryell refer to producer Creed Taylor in an interview as "the man who destroyed Wes Montgomery." Nels has been my favorite axe-slinger since 2009's overdubbed solo Coward, and the thought of his sound smothered in cloying strings in the manner of Wes' Taylor-made outings for A&M and CTI was almost too much to bear.

But I needn't have worried, as Nels' album was produced by David Breskin, whom I'd met at Ronald Shannon Jackson's memorial service here in Fort Worth and came away with the impression that he was a decent man. With Rafi Zabor, Breskin co-authored the Musician piece that clued me in to Shannon back in '81 (although I'd been digging him since Ornette's Dancing In Your Head in '76). Breskin went on to produce the albums Mandance and Barbecue Dog for Shannon, as well as the 1987 Power Tools album that teamed Shannon and bassist Melvin Gibbs with guitarist Bill Frisell. Breskin's worked with Nels since 2010's Initiate. He also produced the recently released Duopoly for the estimable pianist Kris Davis.

The tunes on Lovers include covers of Sonic Youth, Annette Peacock, Gabor Szabo, and Jimmy Guiffre as well as Broadway standards and a previously unrecorded piece from Henry Mancini's score to Breakfast At Tiffany's. Michael Leonhart's orchestrations fit seamlessly into Nels' conception, which has always possessed a dark, ruminative lyricism that marks him as a musical descendant of Jim Hall (to whom "Secret Love" here is dedicated) in the same way as Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie are. My favorite moments here come on the second disc: the soupcon of gypsy swing on "Why Was I Born?" and the closing original theme, "The Bond," which was also a highlight of Nels' duet album with Julian Lage, Room, and the live set I saw the duo perform last year.

Nels' other, face-melting side is in ample evidence on the prolific altoist-composer Allen Lowe's Hell With an Ocean View: Down and Out DownEast, in harness with the equally adept axe-slinger Ray Suhy, whose expressive palette ranges from bebop to metal but is always intense; the titanic pianist Matthew Shipp; and a newcomer to watch, Larry Feldman on amplified violin and mandolin. The album's an engaging romp, sort of a '50s-style blowing session with more modern material. The charts, all by Lowe, include a couple that sound like Monk refracted through the prism of Andrew Hill, some blues with lots of room for all the soloists to make forceful statements at length, and a Hendrix portrait that sounds more like a Miles ca. Jack Johnson portrait (with Suhy flowing molten rock in the manner of John McLaughlin when he was still playing the flattop with the DeArmond, while Nels gets all warm and Cosey). The leader also does some of his fieriest blowing I've heard. There's an irascible rasp to his tone that echoes his persona.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Back in the Basement with Bob

i.

Say what you want about Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for literature: There isn't another scribe besides Shakespeare whom people of A Certain Age have quoted more (knowingly or unknowingly).

While I'm not going to say that my buddy John Bargas conjured Bob's Nobel, we had lunch a couple of days before the announcement and he gave me a copy of Invisible Republic, in which Greil Marcus imagines a country based on Bob's '67 "basement tapes" and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. I'd never read it before, because I bailed on Marcus after Lipstick Traces, which I found unreadable. But it sent me back to Robbie Robertson's revisionist-history version of The Basement Tapes, which Columbia released back in '75, and which I now own on vinyl. And without Greil's pointing it out, I'd never have recognized "Clothes Line Saga" for a goof on Bobbie Gentry. I'm slow like that.

The Robertson Basement Tapes remains not only my favorite Dylan music, but my favorite Band music after the "brown album." But it's not The Thing Itself, it's an edition compiled by a shameless self-mythologizer that made me remember watching The Last Waltz and thinking, "Wow, isn't Robbie full of himself?" Robbie and engineer Rob Fraboni remixed the original stereo tapes in mono, adding reverb and overdubs, and included eight performances recorded after the fact by the Band without Dylan. Beyond that, it's puzzling that something could have been marketed under that title that didn't include "I Shall Be Released" and "Quinn the Eskimo."

Still, it was the most commonly available way for a non-Dylan fanatic (they had all the bootlegs) to hear this music until Columbia released the full whack on five CDs a couple of years ago as The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (with a 2CD "highlights reel," The Basement Tapes Raw, for cheap bastards like your humble chronicler o' events, or folks who feel like they've been brainwashed after listening to multiple takes of the same song back-to-back). Even the "complete" release, however, doesn't include "Even If It's A Pig (Parts I and II)," two mic-testing jams that sound so hallucinatory in Marcus' description that I had to go back and look them up in the index a few days after my first reading of Invisible Republic to make sure I hadn't imagined or dreamt them. Perhaps in another ten years, Sony will release yet another upgrade that includes them. Completism is endless, and Dylan's appeal doesn't look to be fading any time soon.

ii.

OK, so I broke down and bought The Basement Tapes Raw. To these feedback-scorched ears, they actually sound better -- clearer -- than the '75 release. Then again, I often like "demo albums" better than fully produced ones. All I generally want to hear is what went down in the studio, not what someone thought it would be clever to add after the fact. Without the 'verb, it's easier to hear the lyrics, and none of the overdubs are missed. Plus, you get to hear things, like Bob cracking himself up in the middle of "Please Mrs. Henry," that Robbie excised. To say nothing of all the "new" songs -- 22 of 'em! There are instances where I prefer Robertson's revisionism to The Thing Itself: the Band's version of "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos" beats Dylan's on vocal harmonies; the second take of "Too Much of Nothing" on Raw lacks the crazy modulations of the first take, which Robbie used; and the trombone-driven "Don't Ya Tell Henry" that Bob sings here isn't a patch on the Levon-sung one from '75. But those are few, and I've still got the records, for when I want to hear 'em.

I almost projectile vomited when I started to read the liner note essay, which commenced by declaring that the basement tapes are important because they represent "the roots of alt-country" and "the end of psychedelic music." To the first point, I've been reading this kind of hype -- which suggests that something old is relevant only in relation to something newer -- since I stumbled on the Yardbirds in 1970 ("no Yardbirds, no psychedelia/metal," to which a subsequent generation of PR flacks would add "punk"). In my dotage, I think singular art and artists matter because of their intrinsic qualities, not the fact that someone (invariably not as good) copied them. In the last decade, there's been a glut of bands that have borrowed the superficial trappings of the Band ca. the "brown album." Hats, facial hair, and funny looking instruments abound. But there was no template or model for the basement tapes; that's what made them great. And as far as psychedelia being dead, tell it to Tame Impala and Dungen. Psych will survive as long as metal, in its own world, oblivious to the passing of innumerable Next Big Things. May it always be so.

The Hawks were a rock 'n' roll band with enough blues in them to have nearly been Sonny Boy Williamson's backing band (they knew him in West Helena, before he died in '65). They'd been living in each other's pockets since the early '60s, and had a strong identity before they started backing Bob. That gave the music they made with him -- on the road and in the basement -- a different feel, more cohesive and organic than the somewhat shrill, strident sound the session cats made on his great run of records in '65-'66. (You could almost put it down to the difference between the metallic scream of the bridge pickup on a Fender Telecaster, which Mike Bloomfield favored, and the throatier tone of the neck pickup, which Robbie preferred.) While the legend of their touring days focuses on their volume -- possibly because many of the reporters were folkies who weren't used to loud electric guitars -- in Woodstock, they made human scale music. At low volume, in small rooms, they found they had different things to say than they had when they were roaring back at volatile arena crowds. And on the "raw" tapes, you can hear the sound of the basement at Big Pink as surely as you can hear the sound of the rooms where the great Sun and Chess records were made.

Another factor in the "thin, wild mercury sound" of Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde was Dylan's drug use, which, Bargas points out, gets glossed over in Martin Scorsese's otherwise excellent documentary No Direction Home. Myself, I'd bet it was the price the director agreed to in exchange for his subject's candor on other subjects in his on-screen interviews. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn't be surprised if the '66 motorcycle accident was something Albert Grossman concocted for the media after Dylan got home from the UK, looked at his itinerary for the rest of the year, and elected to step back from the abyss of drugs and overwork before he destroyed himself. The Beatles, of course, took a similar step around the same time.

Back in Woodstock, Dylan returned to the well of folk tradition he'd abandoned in '65. (Marcus points out that he'd do the same thing again in the early '90s with the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. Dylan also devotes a sizable chunk of Chronicles to his love of folk music.) Bob used that body of American song to ground and center his music. He also schooled the Hawks in that tradition, which they'd come up disdaining as the province of "the Yorkville people." (Did he bring them Ian and Sylvia songs to record thinking these Canadians would find the material more relatable?) Once they'd internalized those lessons and learned to draw from them as he did, they were able to forge a career as the Band without him.

The gate of influence swung both ways, because that's the way symbiosis works. Canadian archivist-producer Jan Haust, who worked on the 2014 reissue of the basement tapes, writes of the Hawks/Band's estimable multi-instrumentalist/electronics whiz/recordist Garth Hudson recalling that gospel 45s were a staple of the musos' listening during the time of the recordings, and that feel definitely permeates much of the music -- "Apple Suckling Tree," "Sign On the Cross," and most transcendentally, "I Shall Be Released."

Beyond that, I remain convinced that playing with Richard Manuel -- whom Ronnie Hawkins once said was more talented than Van Cliburn -- caused Bob to rethink his approach to singing. The Hawks' haunted piano player is the hidden influence on post-basement Bob in the same way as Muhammad Ali was the hidden influence on '65 Bob. Just listen to the newly-discovered take of "One Too Many Mornings," on which Richard sings the first verse before Bob takes over the lead, or "Tears of Rage," which Bob sings here, but Richard would sing on Music From Big Pink. Or the three-part harmony at the end of "All You Have To Do Is Dream," which Bob, Richard, and Rick Danko repeat five times, just for the sheer ecstatic rush of it. Even when these voices strain, every note is felt and meant.

In rediscovering and recombining folk elements, Dylan discovered the mutability of both the tradition and his own songs. Never a purist, Bob drew from rockabilly and soul music as freely as he did from sea chanteys, country, and blues. His vision of American song was expansive enough to include Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, and Frank Sinatra as well as Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, and the Carter Family. Not only that, but he could mix and match influences at will -- and the Hawks had the variegated chops to follow him. Thus, the basement tapes include a version of "Folsom Prison Blues" that owes as much to Jimmy Reed as it does its author (a familiar of Bob's). You can also hear Bob realizing that not only the historical canon but his own catalog can be reimagined, when he revisits "Blowin' in the Wind" as a blues jam shuffle, with Robbie soloing with wilder abandon than is his custom. In the wake of this discovery came years of fans (myself included) at Dylan concerts wondering "What song is he playing now?"

While Dylan and the Hawks were making this music in Woodstock, the Civil Rights movement was giving way to cities aflame with riots, and the Vietnam war was escalating as the flowers of the Summer of Love faded. Once, the music Dylan and the Band went on to make when they emerged from the basement -- John Wesley Harding, Music From Big Pink, and The Band -- allowed an alienated generation, in small ways, to reconnect with America. But can that genetic memory resonate for people far enough removed from those events to be able to wish they'd been young in the '60s without thinking about the draft? The basement tapes exist outside of time, in a world where it is simultaneously 1967, 1890, 1930, 1956, and right now.

To be continued...?