Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Heat Up the Chrome Jammy

Digable Planets has had one of the strangest careers in popular music. Their first record included a massive hit, "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)", that seemed to encapsulate in a single song the fusion of jazz and rap (as well as connecting the dots between beat poetry and hip hop slang). The success of that song in the crossover (read: white) market led to accusations that the group was soft. (Does anyone remember the animated TV special "A Cool Like Dat Christmas"? I have that shit on VHS. I don't think the Planets had anything to do with it.)

Digable Planets came back in '94 with Blowout Comb, an amazing album that silenced any criticism of their beats and rhymes, their integrity, or the place of the trio among the vanguard of innovative rappers in the mid-90's. No one seemed to know what to make of it. And then they broke up.

...and came back a decade later with a reunion tour, a compilation album, and new records from Ladybug Mecca, Cee Knowledge (Doodlebug) and Cherrywine (Butterfly). The compilation is nice, but there's nothing like listening to Blowout Comb from start to finish to appreciate the achievements of Digable Planets. Many live musicians were utilized on the songs, and on the horn and percussion fanfares that precede and end several tracks. There are relatively few, but impeccably chosen, samples (Roy Ayers, Bob James, Shuggie Otis, and Bobbi Humphreys). The guest MC's include Guru, Jeru the Damaja, and a Digable Planets protege called Sulaiman, the Bronx Ripper.

The lyrical tone is uncompromisingly militant and Brooklyn-centric: references to 718, 11217, and specific streets abound. The CD booklet is fashioned to resemble a Communist Party community newspaper, with articles and photos that call for revolution and the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geronimo Pratt, and Sekou Odinga. It's a record that seems designed to alienate the audience that bought the first album after hearing "Cool Like Dat" on MTV and radio.

I listen to it knowing that I am not part of the Planets' intended audience, but am instead one of the "devils" they occasionally reference. I find the meaning of the raps almost impenetrable, but the words and music are still so exciting and innovative, a dozen years after the record's release. The beats on the last two tracks alone ("9th Wonder" and "For Corners") are amazingly complex, yet compellingly catchy. I can't quite pin down the rhythm, but I bob my head to it anyway, feeling helplessly lost, giant steps or whole city blocks behind the ineffably cool Doodlebug, Ladybug, and Butterfly.

"Little Renee" is a non-LP song that ended up incongruously placed on the soundtrack to the movie Coneheads.

Digable Planets: Little Renee

Buy music and merch from the Digable Planets reunion here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

This Life Is for Squirrels

My grandfather died on Sunday, May 14. He was 92 years old. Although his advancing dementia made it impossible to have a meaningful conversation with him in his final years, "Chief" did retain two characteristic traits until the very end: his sense of humor, and his appreciation of the female form. I found it comforting to know that, despite everything else he lost to dementia, these finer things prevailed.

Chief was the biggest music lover in my family. He loved jazz, and he loved musical and literary humorists. I am grateful to him for introducing me to the music of Spike Jones, Victor Borge, Erik Satie, and PDQ Bach. I used to try to rattle my grandfather's ears by playing him things like MX-80 Sound, Captain Beefheart, Faust, and Holger Czukay, but he maintained his personal credo that if it moves you, it's good music.

Most of all, I am thankful that Chief introduced me to the comic strip Pogo. There is no cartoonist in history that I would place above Walt Kelly in terms of his artistry, his political satire, the strength of his characters, and his sense of whimsy. There's not a lot of Kelly's work still in print. Have you ever had record collector dreams, where you stumble upon a trove of rare and wonderful discs, some of which may not actually exist? I've had those dreams, as well as dreams about finding all of the many volumes of Pogo cartoons that were published over the decades (and some that never were). Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes) once wrote about having Pogo collector dreams.

A recording called Songs of the Pogo was recently restored and rereleased by Ric Menck from the band Velvet Crush. You can buy it on eMusic. Here's to Chief, or "Wild Bill" as he was known by the folks who took care of him in his last years.
So break out the cigars,
This life is for squirrels;
We're off to the drugstore
To whistle at girls.

Walt Kelly: A Song Not for Now

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Damned Bloody Bunker

I heart the Damned, especially their music on the albums Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album, and Strawberries. Sometime during this golden era, under the name Naz Nomad and the Nightmares, the Damned recorded a mock soundtrack to an imaginary psychedelic 60's film called Give Daddy the Knife, Cindy. The "soundtrack" was released in 1984, a year before XTC did their Dukes of Stratosphear album. "Cold Turkey" is an electrifying blues-rock workout, with hysterical raving by Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies drum bashing, and squealing guitar solos from Captain Sensible. It's not a cover of the John Lennon song about drug withdrawal; this song is apparently an ode to deli meats and "stinky cheese", and "P.Miller" is the songwriter listed on the vinyl label.

Not to be confused with the Hendrix warhorse "Hey Joe", Captain Sensible recorded this "Hey Jo" (without the "e" and without playing any guitar) for the Wargasm compilation (1982). It is an anti-war synth-pop tune, and I don't think it's available anywhere else. "Hey Jo" is sung from the perspective of two British survivors of a nuclear conflict between the US and Russia. Remember when we worried about the Russians? Good times, those.

Kids, both of these songs have real pops and clicks in them from real vinyl played on a turntable. These aren't "glitch" versions.

Naz Nomad and the Nightmares: Cold Turkey

Captain Sensible: Hey Jo

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Tina the Go Go Queen

Back in our undergraduate days, my friend Tina winced every time this Panther Burns song came on. (You really shouldn't play this song for your kids. Don't let your babies grow up to be strippers.) But we didn't play it to offend Tina with the saucy lyrics or the uncomplimentary body images. We liked its laid-back bounce, with that tasty organ sound and the cool horn fills, plus Tav Falco's charmingly amateur voice slipping in and out of synch with his backup singers. And Alex Chilton lays down some cubist blues on the guitar solo.

Gustavo "Tav" Falco is (or was) a Memphis performance artist and modern Delta blues historian. His band, the Panther Burns, have a rather messy discography with releases on many labels, including Rough Trade, New Rose, Chris Stein's short-lived Animal Records, and Falco's own Frenzi label. "Tina the Go Go Queen" appeared on the Panther Burns' first album, Behind the Magnolia Curtain. "Tina" is also included on Characters, a very interesting compilation of story-songs by modern outsiders (ranging from Jim Dickinson to The Ledgendary Stardust Cowboy), which you can buy here for three bucks postpaid.

ADDENDUM: "Tina" actually first appeared on the Sugar Ditch Revisited mini-LP (thanks for the correction, Oliver!) There's a Tav Falco website with news and illustrated discography here.

Tav Falco's Panther Burns: Tina the Go Go Queen

Monday, May 08, 2006

You Am I Am You Am I Am You Am I

Convicts, the new album by You Am I, comes out on May 13th. This band is far better known in their native Australia (and in Europe) than they are here in Yanquiland. You might remember "Berlin Chair", their bid for airplay during the grunge years, from their first album Sound As Ever (which was produced by Lee Ranaldo). Their second album, Hi Fi Way, was also produced by Ranaldo, and included Epic Soundtracks and Jon Auer among the guest musicians, but it failed to make a dent on these shores. The third You Am I release, a song cycle called Hourly Daily, was HUGE in Australia -- but again, not here. Number Four Record was produced by George Drakoulias, who did big things with the Black Crowes when they had just changed their name from Mr. Crowe's Garden and their sound from jangle-pop to blues-rock. But Number Four Record was the last You Am I album to come out on a major label in the US.

The second, third, and fourth You Am I albums went Number One upon release in Australia. Aussie bands like Jet (who started as a You Am I cover band), Powderfinger, and now Wolfmother have had the benefit of better US promotion (by iTunes in particular), but Down Under bands like these OPEN for You Am I, and You Am I only opens for the Stones or the Who. I never understood how a clearly inferior band from Oz like Silverchair got as much attention here as they did, when You Am I was making better records, rocking harder live, and touring the US with Soundgarden and others.

Enough of the historical perspective. To me, the amazing thing about the first four You Am I records is the progression the band makes from Nirvana wannabees to a power trio with influences that include early Kinks, Stones, and the Who; the Stooges, Dolls and KISS; the power pop of Big Star and the Replacements; and (on the last album) the Big Easy rhythms of Little Feat. Tim Rogers is a talented songwriter and a compelling frontman, and he has the good fortune to be backed by a world-class bassist (Andy Kent) and a monster drummer (Russell Hopkinson, who also plays with the reunited Radio Birdman). This trio added lead guitarist Davey Lane for the albums Dress Me Slowly and Damage (the latter of which was actually released in the US by SpinArt the year after it came out overseas).

I have so many favorites in the You Am I catalogue that it's hard to choose, but this is my favorite of their songs in the power pop vein, and I can't believe it was just a b-side on a bonus disc with their live album Saturday Night 'Round Ten. The lyrics should find sympathy among those of us who are wellsprings of trivia, and my hat is off to anyone who would think to rhyme "Iron Maiden" with "Charlie Haden".

You Am I: Useless Information

Visit You Am I and grab over 40 free mp3's.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Yacht Rock: the Sequel

Back in March, I posted a song from the late Liverpool new wave band the Yachts, and compared it to the music being made now by the Futureheads and Maximo Park (whose "Hammer Horror" is my current favorite song).

I got a few responses from folks who wanted to hear more of the Yachts, in particular Mersey Mark, WHO HAS BEEN SHOUTING AT ME FOR OVER A MONTH NOW (presumably to make himself heard from across the big pond). So here's a couple more from the Yachts self-titled album from 1979, which was crisply produced by Richard Gottehrer (except for "Look Back in Love", produced by Clive Langer).

If you like new wave, it's good stuff. The band could play, and they had strong vocal harmonies and songwriting smarts. Their debut single "Suffice to Say" was a song about writing a song, a lyrical gambit later copied by Peter and the Test Tube Babies on "All about Love".

Yachts: Then and Now
Yachts: Look Back in Love

Snakefinger: "Man in the Dark Sedan"

My brother used to love this song. He just got back from Jamaica. It's sort of a faux-reggae tune, so I thought this would be a good time to share it. Great guitar solos and percussion (by the Residents) on this song.

Snakefinger (born Phil Lithman) played with Nick Lowe (in the British pub-rock band Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers), the Residents, the Club Foot Orchestra, and Eric Drew Feldman (from Captain Beefheart's Magic Band). You can see the video for "Man in the Dark Sedan" on YouTube.

My favorite Snakefinger song (from the same album, 1980's Greener Postures) was "Living in Vain". It has a watery guitar line similar to Killing Joke's "Eighties", which is often cited as the source for Nirvana's "Come As You Are". By the way, there's a great new music blog called Armrest that cites incidents of apparent plagiarism in indie music.

Snakefinger plays some sharp-edged and slithery slide on "Living in Vain". As a guitarist, he had a unique ability to play just slightly off-key (most notably on his version of the Residents' "Smelly Tongues"). He was also able to bring out the more commercial side of the Residents. Snakefinger's musical background was in the blues and psychedelia, and he enjoyed performing the film music of Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. Snakefinger died of a heart attack on stage in 1987.

The lyrics to Snakefinger originals often described strange visions of abduction and entrapment. With his slightly nasal British singing voice, he sounds a bit like Robyn Hitchcock, especially with lyrics like this:

I used to have a grandma
She always called me "Dear"
I never knew her purpose
I only knew her atmosphere ("Living in Vain")

These songs are vinyl rips of less than perfect fidelity. If you want to hear more (and better) Snakefinger music, buy the CD reissue of his first two solo albums from Midheaven or Forced Exposure.

Snakefinger: Man in the Dark Sedan
Snakefinger: Living in Vain

Monday, May 01, 2006

Mcluskyism Fo' Shizzim

Somebody do a dance mix of "Bipolar Bears Take Seattle" right now. I hereby commission you. It already sounds like DFA1979, but it's OC/DC. This song is bananas. "O-C! O-C-D! D'you UNDERSTAND the CONDITION?"

Mclusky: Bipolar Bears Take Seattle

The live stuff on Mcluskyism has the best between-song crowd baiting since Fear on The Decline of Western Civilization, or the Fall on Totale's Turns.

MARK E. SMITH (to a punk in the audience): "Did you do what you do three years ago?"

PUNK (who thinks he's being accused of being a poser): "Yeah."

M.E.S. (who is psychic, and predicted the punk's answer): "Well, don't make a career out of it."

In other band news, there is now a Myspace group for the Screaming Blue Messiahs (with a message from chief Messiah Bill Carter).

And San Francisco band Translator has a best-of compilation available now on iTunes. None of the band's three LP's were ever issued on CD. The group's original members reunited at SXSW this year. Bandleader Steve Barton released a solo record last year; co-leader Robert Darlington and his wife are massage therapists in Baltimore (where Screaming Bill Carter is also rumored to live); and Translator drummer Dave Scheff moonlights as the drummer for a theater troupe in San Francisco called Teatro Zinzanni. Dave describes their show as "Cirque du Soliel with food and not taking itself so seriously – we get a lot of the same acts they do, but we have more fun." That sounds like a must-do for whenever I visit SF. I forgot to ask about Translator's bass player. I guess Bruce McCullough was right about bass players.