Friday, October 31, 2014

All Saints Day Thoughts on My Halloween Mix

Seven days ago, I wrote a piece on Halloween records for Cuepoint at Medium.com. All week long, while I waited for it to run, I thought about what's wrong with it (of course), but more importantly, I found myself thinking about what more there was to say. In many cases, these things are interrelated.

One tactical thing that's wrong with the piece is that I set Halloween records up in opposition to Christmas records, as if either were taken very seriously in our culture. Novelty records (holiday records of any kind) define one pole of our pop culture, which, on the whole, is not taken seriously even by many of its fans. The two are interrelated, the Christmas ghost story being a very old tradition (Dickens' A Christmas Carol only the most famous example).

More generally, what's wrong with the piece and what's right about it reflect who I am. I'm all unmoored intuition (until I'm not). I speak in contradictions. If I can at once point out that rap and metal are the most gothic of genres and then find only one example from either genre I want to put in my Halloween mix, well, that says something about how I regard the gothic differently than others. My Halloween aesthetic has to do with a certain kind of fear and thrill that involves brushing up against the unknown. While I love rap and metal as genres, most of the more gothic pieces are simply too strong to capture a kind of quiet, primal fear I'm after.

(Similarly, I could have used a bunch of murder ballads, but I instead went for more overt examples of the country music ghost story.)

What I'm find myself thinking about most is why I made the mix I made. I built the article around a playlist, and I made it the way we used to make mixtapes--sitting immersed in all of this music and going from the gut.

So I wound up with interesting demographics that were more accidental than thought out--

On a 20 record mix, I have 5 records from the 50s, 5 records from the early 60s, 1 record from the 70s, 3 records from the 80s, 1 from the 90s and 5 from the past decade, and that was by design, half being what "I" think of as older records....before my time. 15 of the records are from a time before the experience of millenials, and I suppose that impulse comes from the same place my preference for old horror movies comes from--ghost stories are all the more ghostly when they speak from another time. The experience is, in and of itself, interacting with another world.

More important, most of the older music is doowop, and I do speculate about that in the piece. It is also interesting, though, how (well into the fifties) the roles of black characters in fright films was typically racist comic relief, and on these records, black's buddy up to Frakenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, zombies and various other kinds of undead. On the Duponts' great "Screamin' Ball" there's a prototype for the Bootsy Collins' vocal, prefiguring where funk might take all of this a short time in the future.

Finally, I think what's most interesting is how much of this haunting occurs in the presence of deindustrialization and economic collapse. This is true of the Thatcher-era British records, of course, but it's also true of the Los Angeles punk bands after almost a full decade of decline of Southern California manufacturing. Cleveland rappers' Bone Thugs N Harmony's track is two decades into the Rust Belt's economic decline, and shows it with the angriest, most offensive piece to make the mix. The Low Anthem's record is actually recorded in an abandoned Rhode Island factory. Al Spx and Ariana Gillis may be harder to pin down on this issue, but that makes them the only two exceptions, and Gillis confronts the economy pretty directly with both the opening cut and the closing cut of the same 2010 album. Janelle Monae grew up in perhaps the most economically devastated (and crack ravaged) neighborhood in Kansas, and Bruce Springsteen's song closes Wrecking Ball, his response to our most recent recession.

I have no doubt there's more to say, but these are some of the things crossing my mind, and, on some level, the reasons behind the reasons are why I think writing is worth it. All caveats aside, I think the Cuepoint piece reads well and looks nice, and I hope others get plenty out of it. I always want to start a conversation, and the conversation isn't ever really just about the specifics--it's about why we need to talk to each other in the first place, where we might go together.

So, if you haven't read this yet, I hope you take a look and see what it says to you. If you want to let me know, it will only help clarify things. Thanks for reading this far, really.

Happy El Dia de los Muertos!

My Halloween piece for Cuepoint--

https://medium.com/cuepoint/halloween-the-deeper-cuts-b235e950c233

Thursday, May 08, 2014


RRC Extra No. 47: Mary J. Blige


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SLIP SLIDIN’ AWAY… Danny Alexander writes: Researching the book I’m writing on Mary J. Blige for University of Texas Press,  I’ve been puzzled by the precipitous drop in her album sales after 2006’s multiplatinum The Breakthrough. Her strong follow up, 2007’s Growing Pains, sold half as many records, and her sales have declined steadily ever since. 2011’s My Life II: The Journey Continues, was not just a worthy sequel to her 1994 classic My Life but contained great potential for hit singles. It opens with five of the hardest-hitting tracks she’s ever recorded and closes with three gorgeous ballads, while in between there are duets with Drake and Beyoncé. But somehow that record sold the least of any studio album in her career and didn’t produce a Top 40 single.

At first, I just presumed she’d aged out. After all, the oldest African American woman sharing the radio with her in 2011 was Beyoncé, a full decade younger, and the white woman getting significant airplay who is closest to her age, Pink, is eight years her junior.  But then I compared the Year-End Singles charts from the year of My Life’s release with the Year-End Singles charts the year My Life II came out. In 1994, 37 of the year’s top records came from records featuring women and 24 of those songs featured Black women artists, almost a fourth of the most popular singles on the pop charts.

             Seventeen years later, when My Life II came out, the Year End Singles chart included only three Black women—Janelle Monae (singing a few lines behind .fun), Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna. Where Black women held onto their new share of the charts in the 90s and the early new millennium, over the past ten years their presence has shrunk as dramatically as Blige’s sales. Only a half dozen different Black women (most often on duets with other artists) have made these charts in the past five years.

            Again comparing that to 1994, then the music came filled with a torrent of Black women, including Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Dionne Farris, Des’Ree, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Brownstone, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah, Crystal Waters, Da Brat, Faith Evans, Lil’ Kim, Xscape, Queen Latifah and SWV. 

In the 90s, much of what was happening on the pop charts was tied to social and cultural movements, whether it was gangsta or Black nationalist or young country or the punk impulse suddenly rising to the surface with grunge. It’s hard to see any such signs of cultural movement on the charts today—most obvious would have to be the punky white teenage girl pop acts, and then there are the folkies, and Macklemore’s argument with rap. But those forms seem individualistic, atomized, not particularly connected to one another. There’s not a single voice that seems to stand for the working class women Mary speaks so forcefully to and for. In a sea of surface sonic perfection, Mary J. Blige comes across as real, playing to the women from around the way who fill her shows and saying to them, “I’m here for all the women who work at Wal-Mart."

            Race is an unscientific concept and counting colors and genders to find a story seems a crude way to take the measure of a complex and vibrant art form. Still, the story of popular music has always been filled with and often defined by the voices of Black women, voices too little heard elsewhere. It begins with many forgotten names, from churches and juke joints, soon represented by the likes of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Billie Holiday. Once rock and roll takes off, a steady stream of Black women artists--Ruth Brown, Tina Turner, Etta James, Lavern Baker, Martha and the Vandellas, and Aretha Franklin—fuel the music of the Civil Rights era and set the table for some of the brightest lights of the 70s and 80s. As if they heard Janet Jackson’s call for “Control” and took her at her word, Black women doubled their numbers on the charts in the mid-90s and hung onto that share for a decade, while making space for more Black men and, eventually, a greater number of white women.

            So what happened in 2006 to reverse those gains? It certainly can’t be ignored that American Idol launched four years before, screening out artistic diversity in terms of showboating histrionics. And no doubt the change also has something to do with YouTube’s launch the year before (ironically, inspired by a PayPal employee’s search for Super Bowl footage of Janet Jackson’s breast). The digital analysis company Big Champagne declared YouTube the world’s number one distributor of music the year My Life II came out. At the same time, former MTV, Six Flags, and Century 21 CEO Bob Pittman, dubbed “the wonder boy of branding” took over Clear Channel radio (and, in essence, terrestrial radio), promoting it with a major music festival devoted to the iHeartRadio phone app, described by one of his cohorts as “Live Aid without the charity.” As the potential for democratic distribution of music exploded, the most focused front for such distribution,  radio, has grown more reactionary. In a market guided by conformist network talent shows, YouTube fads and superstar concerts dedicated to corporate greed, what interest is there in Mary J. Blige’s audience? For that matter, what interest is there in the ideas that once made mainstream R&B so vital—the complicated demands of relationships, the necessity of dealing with the consequences of one’s actions, and the hopes and dreams of those used, abused and unheard?

There was a time when those ideas poised to guide us to higher ground. I’m thinking of a great video made for Mario Peebles’ 1995 Panther movie of Joi’s song “Freedom.” The video features a choir of women—twelve across and five deep—almost all with hits on the pop charts. The singers offer an “a-whoop” over the rolling bass line and present shimmering sustained notes of light after lines like Mary’s opener—“Turn us loose, set us free, from these chains that bind me,” all of this intercut with shots of the civil rights struggle. The jubilation and strength that fills the screen—and every note of song—reflects a new world being born. Twenty years later, as beautiful a moment as it is, the feel of that promise betrayed makes it hurt.


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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rock & Rap Confidential No. 232--Sly Stone, Janelle Monae, Donna Summer, Bruce Sudano, Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen, Patty Griffin, Lou Reed, Brandy Clark, De La Tierra, Buika, Nina Dioz, 50 Bands to take the KISS Hall of Fame spot and More!



ROCK & RAP CONFIDENTIAL



No. 232




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WHY KISS AIN’T ON OUR LIST... Dave Marsh writes: In the fall of 1973, recently arrived in New York City and besotted by the extraordinary shows I’d seen by the New York Dolls in Queens and downtown Manhattan, I decided I wanted to investigate who the city’s best bands other than the Dolls might be. This wound up being a story that ran first in Newsday, the Long  Island daily where I had the pop music beat; then Creem, which I was no longer editing but still writing for; and finally the British weekly, Melody Maker.

            The article, which may have been headlined Great White Rock in its first appearance, boasted that there were currently a dozen “excellent” rock acts in the New York City area, and talked about eight of those I had seen. In order of appearance they were: The Dynomiters, Harlots of 42nd Street, Kiss, Luger, Elliott Murphy’s Aqua Show, New York Central, Queen Elizabeth featuring Wayne County and Teenage Lust. (I can’t remember why I didn’t mention the Miamis. I loved the Miamis—on stage anyway, like so many of these bands, that group was never captured right on tape.) 

             Coming up with a punk icon (Wayne County), one of the key New York singer-songwriters of the period whose career has lasted forty years (Elliott Murphy), and a huge pop success in the space of 2,500 words isn’t bad. But history—helped along by Wikipedia which at least three people have tried to amend for accuracy, all rejected by the mysterian Wikiprocess—remembers none of this. If it did, the Kiss Army might salute me rather than flooding my website with what amounts to “nyah, nyah, nyah,” now that Kiss is finally going to get into the Hall of Fame. 

             Because that article was the first mention of Kiss in the press, and it was not hostile. In its entirety it reads:

            “This group looks as if it just stepped out of the underground movie Pink Flamingos, leading me to believe that I was right all along in thinking that the glitter craze was an ugliness contest.

“But Kiss's music sounds as if it is the most thought-out, controlled sound around, and the stage show is just as professional. And, they say, Eddie Kramer (of Led Zeppelin and Electric Ladyland) wants to produce them. Heavy metal meets El Topo.”

OK, I called them ugly. Why the fuck did you think they added the face paint? Other than that, it’s at least a kind of backhanded praise. It’s honest, too. I didn’t like Kiss, but I recognized what they had going for them (though I wish I had mentioned manager Bill Aucoin, a great market manipulator who’s been cheated out of almost all credit thanks to the megalomania infesting that band’s camp.)

Musically, I was done with them before I ever turned the first album over to the second side. Kiss had an extraordinary aptitude for adopting every cliché in hard rock history, and a complete absence of any ability to create so much as a hint of a new one. (I suppose maybe they were the model for Motley Crue?) The most interesting of their studio albums is Destroyer, and it’s not all that interesting, except as an example of the highly professional output of producer Bob Ezrin and guitarist Dick Wagner during the mid-‘70s. On their own, they were not clever at coming up with riffs, the beats are as repetitious as punk but without the energy,  and their most interesting lyric is “Beth” which is nothing more than third-rate Bob Seger blended with second-rate Billy Joel, or maybe “Detroit Rock City” which is a clumsy J. Geils swipe...and so forth except for the disco album, I guess.

            But they have the best make-up in the Hall. Until Insane Clown Posse is inducted, at least.

            I realize this paints Kiss as more mediocre than incompetent, but....well, if the only qualification is having made a record at least 25 years before the ballots got mailed out, they are qualified, and perhaps I shall be fortunate enough not to live to see the advent of Justin Bieber and One Day in the Hall's once formidable list of inductees.  

            And yeah, Kiss inspired a lot of kids to want to be in bands. So did half a dozen girls (and boys!) in every high school graduating class.

            All that mediocrity was harmless enough until the boastful bassist decided to turn it into a propaganda machine for the only two things he’s ever loved: Gene Simmons and money. Sex Money Kiss, his book on how to become a rich success, offers a stupendous (or maybe I mean stupefying) blend of preposterous career advice, dangerously over-simplified and inaccurate economic information and advice, and an account of human intercourse—by which I don’t mean just sex--that verifies emotional stagnation at the age of maybe fourteen. You could figure the same stuff out in maybe fifteen minutes of watching his dumb-ass TV show.  (Yes, this means I passed on reading the other two. Pointless repetition is one of the worst things about Kiss.)

            Alas, Simmons also has politics, of a sort, though I’d sure he would deny anything of the kind because that might alienate part of the audience—although since he views the rest of the species as essentially a chain of ATMs, maybe not. He is basically a cheerleader for capitalism and spreading the U.S. system abroad in ways that make Bono look like John Maynard Keynes.

            Then there are his sexual politics, which amount to “Bend over, meat” and I mean that literally. It is true that Simmons imagines all other human beings (except his sainted mama and perhaps his kids) as inherently inferior to himself, but he has a particular  contempt for women. I stopped being amused by this along about the time that he began to boast about his Polaroid collection. The misogynist misanthropy  reaches a pinnacle in his 2008 book, Ladies of the Night: A Historical and Personal Perspective on the Oldest Profession in the World.

            It seems odd that he didn’t write the book he’s best qualified for on this topic, which would be a history of pimping.  Because if Simmons isn’t an evangelist he is certainly a peddler, and he practices the hard sell and the emotional con. Kiss didn’t have fans, it had an Army because they were the biggest band of their era. The truth is, Kiss never sold more than 2 million copies of a studio album although that was precisely the time when the Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and a bunch of others began to sell 10 million (and more). One reason Kiss’s audience is early teenagers-- though these days that is true more often emotionally than chronologically, of course—is that only someone stuck there would be so militantly gullible.

            Why shouldn’t Kiss be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Because they have added not the slightest musical value to rock, which is why they were not especially huge record sellers. And because, so far, in one way or another, the Hall has avoided honoring the music at its most mercantile and shallow.

            But above all because there are so many worthy candidates who are not in the Hall of Fame. At the snail ‘s pace at which the Hall parcels out induction, many of the artists in the list below will be dead before they are even on the ballot. In Kiss’s own genre and time, by which I mean 1970s hard rock, almost every fan of it as a whole (as opposed to the Kiss Army) would agree that at least Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Judas Priest and Motorhead are not just more deserving, but far, far better choices. Not every one of these fifty artists, who operated at more or less the same time as Kiss, are going to end up in the Hall of Fame nor should they. But they’re all better than Kiss.


Alice in Chains
Anthrax
Bad Brains
Bad Company
Black Oak Arkansas
Black Crowes
Blue Oyster Cult
Body Count
Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Canned Heat
Cheap Trick
The Commodores
Deep Purple
Def Leppard
Dio
Foreigner
Free
J. Geils Band
Humble Pie
Iron Maiden
The James Gang
Rick James 
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Judas Priest
Krokus
Living Colour
MC5
Molly Hatchet
Mother’s Finest
Motorhead 
Mott the Hoople
Mudhoney
New York Dolls
Ted Nugent / Amboy Dukes
Ohio Players
Pantera
Poison
Procol Harum
The Scorpions
Sepultura
Social Distortion
Soundgarden
Steppenwolf
Twisted Sister
Ten Years After
Thin Lizzy
The Time
War
W.A.S.P.
White Zombie

(This list was compiled by RRC, not Dave Marsh alone.)

*****

THE VICTORY TOUR…. “I need to know/If the world says it’s time to go/Tell me, will you break out?”

This refrain, which calls out from the frenzied forward bounce of Janelle Monae’s “Dance Apocalyptic,” is the kind of lyrical element that worms its way into the back of your head and pans its way from ear to ear throughout the day. That’s because it’s important. The song’s video shows Monae with her hair down, risking an entirely new look, some mix of Nona Hendryx and Aaliyah, playing guitar, breaking out into the night with a post-apocalyptic biker gang.

Though the most musically ambitious pop star of the past twenty years obviously foresees a moment when everything will change, her new album, Electric Lady (Bad Boy), is about how to survive the world prior to that moment. That’s why another line that lingers in the head is from the stately ballad “Victory”—“To be victorious, you must find glory in the little things.”

Monae’s a strategic thinker but one who takes time with the details. She built her base with Atlanta’s Wondaland Arts Society, an alliance of artists building on and consciously expanding the existing collectivity of Southern rap’s Dungeon Family, and that Southern rap collective is well represented here by Ray Murray (Organized Noize), Cee-Lo Green (Goodie Mob) and Monae’s early champions, OutKast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Many of us first saw her open up for the white alternative act Of Montreal, and we watched her win over that indie crowd with a perfectly honed rock and roll tent revival. Then she toured with Bruno Mars, her vision making the tour more double bill than headliner and opener. This tour also allowed Monae to reach tweenyboppers and show established fans she could expand to an auditorium mainstage without losing her intensity. Since then, she has opened for Katy Perry, Prince and Stevie Wonder—fusing every strain of popular American music (Charlie Chaplin to Jimi Hendrix, for starters) into rock show crescendos marked by charismatic fits (Monae shaken by the spirit on the stage floor) and the five foot tall rocker’s exuberant crowd surfing. To feel the uplift of Monae’s live show is to give in to the ecstatic vision that once got a lot of rock and roll records burned.

Growing up in a neighborhood held together by three churches, Monae no doubt knows that great lesson from Isaiah, “Without a vision, the people perish.” While critics scratch their heads over the sci-fi concept of her body of work, Monae moves forward with confidence that her fans get the idea of mass liberation and subordinate the trivia to bigger concerns—the bad ass struts of her duets with Prince and Solange on, respectively, “Givin ‘Em What They Love” and “Electric Lady,” the funky, simmering build of her duet with Miguel on “Primetime,” and the soulful shimmy of “Q.U.E.E.N.,” her collaboration with Erykah Baduh .

On “Q.U.E.E.N.,” as elsewhere, she name-checks her hometown, crying, “I’m trying to free Kansas City.”  This sentiment is echoed later in “Ghetto Woman,” Monae’s funky, driven tribute to her mother, a woman—representative of so many—she fears is misunderstood by the world because “all you ever needed was someone to free your mind.” “Free your mind” here becomes something more than thinking big, it’s about the need for others to share in the burden, it’s about a community that believes a new world is possible.
After that, “Victory” serves as the album’s peak, Monae’s voice having never ridden a more beautiful melody, never sounded more relaxed, never more confident in the “mustard seed” she knows will one day move mountains. The near-perfect final third of the record caresses the dawning of a new day coming—most viscerally on the classic rock of “Sally Ride.” On the 80’s-flavored world-pop expanse of “What an Experience” she refers to her lover as “a good red wine” (yes, you can hear the UB40 in the mix), making a sacrament for artist and audience, holding tight to the moment, building toward the future.—D.A.

                                   *****

 FEET DON’T FAIL ME NOW… When I was in Navy boot camp, we spent most of our time marching. Marching to chow, marching to the rifle range, marching out to the big concrete grinder to continue marching as we practiced for our graduation parade. One of the recruits in our company, a kid from LA named Johnny Baiseri, was chosen to march us when the drill instructor wasn’t around. Johnny was half Mexican, half Arab, and he taught us how to march to commands given in Spanish and Arabic. We got really good at it and we loved to do it when we’d pass by some high-ranking brass. We were doing what we were told yet we felt totally defiant. The brass could sense it but what could they say?

We also had a couple of guys in the company who had been on competitive drill teams in high school. They taught us to think of marching as a dance. Make your foot hit the ground with a bounce. Put joy in your step. Move that rifle from side to side like a woman on the dance floor.

So there we were, eighty guys out on the grinder. Johnny carried a ceremonial sword that  he would raise before we began to move. Then he would bring it down like a conductor cuing the orchestra. Off we went as one, making music however we could. We would turn on a dime—right angles, oblique angles, 180s--singing in English (“Your mother was born on your left….go right!”), Spanish, and Arabic, stopping with a satisfying final doubletime one-two with the feet. We were completely regimented yet felt totally free.

            We were hardly Sly and the Family Stone, but they heard the same drummer we did. On the previously unissued instrumental “Wide World of Color” from the new boxed set Higher (Sony Legacy), the tune is driven by stately bass lines and parade ground drums, the horns darting in and out to keep everything in line, just as Johnny Baiseri did with us. Rehearsed til the band was as tight as a hairpin turn, Sly and the Family Stone were completely regimented yet felt totally free.

The fact that the pinnacle of what my boot camp company could create was the equivalent of a mere dab of paint on the Family Stone canvas shouldn’t obscure what we had in common—the need to make sound into feeling no matter what.—L.B.

                                   *****

 DANCE TO THE MUSIC…. In the industrial Midwest where I come from, the civil rights movement led to integration in the workplace and, in many cases, the neighborhood.  Black and white worked together, we lived next door to each other, we listened to a lot of the same music. But we didn’t socialize. We didn’t party together.

            This was partly due to the residue of American history, going back to the seventeenth century when the master class had to pass laws to keep slaves and white indentured servants apart. It was solidified by the backlash against the civil rights movement, most shockingly reflected in segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace’s campaigns for President. Wallace received a high percentage of the Midwestern blue collar vote in 1964, 1968, and 1972. It seemed then that racial division at the heart of America was permanent and intractable. Would things ever change?

This separation began in the early years of American history. In the seventeenth century, white indentured servants and black slaves had grown so close that the master class felt threatened. So they passed laws to keep white and black people apart. This taboo  was strengthened by the, as reflected in the George Wallace campaigns for president in 1964, 1968 and 1972. Wallace received a high percentage of the Midwestern blue collar each time he ran, the result of white backlash against the civil rights movement. It seemed then that racial division at the heart of America was intractable. Would things ever change?

            Enter disco. The history of disco is always told through the prism of club life in New York City. That’s accurate, but incomplete. At its peak, disco was so popular that it leapt across all boundaries. In Rust Belt factory towns, it seemed that every club and every bar had a mirror ball and a lighted dance floor. The channels of daily life that still kept us separate overflowed and we came together. To dance. To party. The racial tension that was never far from the surface in the mills and factories released itself on weekend nights as human nature asserted itself and broke the shackles of history. We moved through a haze of music, light, and smoke and became one. It was fucking beautiful.

            On Sunday morning segregation reasserted itself. We might as well have been living in South Africa—church congregations were black or they were white, no exceptions.  But we were too hung over to think about it. On Monday we were back at work and the competition to climb the ladder to better jobs resumed. So did the friction that accompanied it. Until the next weekend.

For this process to continue, it needed a star to follow, not just disco’s one-hit wonders (who in the hell was Crown Heights Affair?). It fell to Donna Summer to pump up the volume. She really was the Queen of Disco. She urged us to dance, not with the rote patter of some TV host, but like a doctor who has the cure to your disease. Try it, you’ll like it. And since the dominant dance, the Hustle, was almost as simple as the Twist, everyone did it. Her songs spoke to our needs and our longings from some mutual place deep inside and we responded.

Donna Summer drew us toward her by flaunting sex but also because she understood our world of work.  There was “Working the Midnight Shift” (“My body carries on / But I’m dying inside”), “She Works Hard for the Money” (“Just tips for pay”), even “Bad Girls.”

            In its classic form, disco eventually faded (though it never disappeared), but Donna Summer didn’t. She went on to make excellent music that explored rock, pop, and even reggae. Meanwhile, her disco hits lingered in the corners of our collective consciousness, marking time until someone came along and figured out what to do with them.

            That someone turned out to be two people: Dahlia Ambach Caplan and Randall Poster. They’re the producers of Love to Love You Donna (Verve), a remix album of Donna Summer’s hits. It works because a diverse crew of remixers digs into the songs and comes up with often startling reimaginations. It works because the originals are so catchy and well-structured that they can take wandering paths and still sound something like themselves.

There’s Masters At Work’s version of  “Last Dance,” which is mostly subtle changes as it doubles the length while using a live band and some additional drum programming, allowing Andrew Synowiec’s guitar the freedom to guide us through the mix. On the other hand, in Afrojack’s take on “I Feel Love,” the robots have taken over, big and noisy and destructive like some futuristic heavy metal, wreaking havoc until Donna enters slyly to imply that it’s all a dream and everything will be alright. The cherry on top is “La Dolce Vita,” a new song by Summer and longtime producer Giorgio Moroder. It moves along subtly like the demure slice of Europop it is until you get to the hook, which is as big and sweet and dense as a wedding cake.

            Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder helped to popularize electronic dance music over thirty years ago, so it’s tempting to say that Love to Love You Donna brings them up to date. But that would imply that the music ever went out of date. Listening to these remarkable remixes caused me to revisit the originals once again and that confirmed for me that they are timeless. They have no expiration date. Love to love you baby.—L.B.

 *****

LAST  DANCE... Millions of us loved Donna Summer, and the more you knew her, the more likely it was that you’d be a fan of her, as well as her music. No one knew her better than Bruce Sudano, her husband. He shares that knowledge with Angels on a Carousel, his first solo album since her death. Not the facts--you can look those up. Angels gets to the heart. It’s a remarkable record, filled with loss and heartbreak, but at the same time, steeped in faith and memories of the greatest happiness. On “That’s What It’s All About,” he reduces the truth he’s telling to a single line: “Live every moment, love all you can.” In his voice, it doesn’t sound like a cliché, it sounds like a testimonial.

Sudano is a rock’n’roll–maybe more pertinently, rock and soul--guy, heavily indebted to post-doo wop harmony (Brooklyn Dreams was his group), but also a terrific guitarist and songwriter, all in ample evidence on Angels. (At his best, he’s sometimes a kinder, gentler Joe Walsh, sometimes Dion born ten years later.) And this is not only the work of a very able veteran, it’s a concept album, about the life and death of a particularly fortunate couple who even so can’t escape tragedy.

             Sudano’s lyrics are suspended between joy that blossomed out of four decades of romance and agony over those final months when the beautiful couple was brutally torn apart by cancer. I’ve spent a career hearing sad stories, and twenty years listening to people talk about losing their loved ones. There’s not anything new here, I suppose, but there never is. All that separates the one from the other is the details and the power with which they’re expressed. I also have spent a lifetime, as we all have, hearing about other people’s great loves (particularly on “All Those Years Ago”). Same deal. Sudano nails both.

            Angels on a Carousel operates as a spiral, moving from a macrocosmic view to a question that boils down to...”Why?” Sudano doesn’t bluff—there is no answer. But everything on his album says that is far less important than living every moment, loving all you can. Nobody will ever make a greater Donna Summer tribute album.—D.M.

                                              *****

High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)—While this album is pieced together largely from songs that Bruce has had for years, it’s still pretty hard to miss the themes inherent in the way he’s organized the tracks. What you get is a journey from darkness to light, is the simplest way to explain it.  Much of it sounds very much like the albums he’s made in the last ten years. Much of it also refers back to albums he made forty years ago . Could it be happenstance that the question at the heart of “Born to Run”—‘I want to know if love is real”—reappears here in “This is Your Sword,” which is about a battle for some kind of more enlightened humanity. (You say it comes from the Vatican, I say it comes from solidarity with the oppressed—voila! We’re both right.)

            But the real purpose of High Hopes, it ought to be obvious to everyone with ears, is to showcase his collaborations with Tom Morello. Tom renews “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and on the other six tracks where he appears, he explodes and, yes, rages as he hasn’t since his band broke up. Mostly Morello is the solo guitar, the featured instrumentalist, but it’s more than that. Morello is a voice from an entirely different rock generation—itself not all that young—and sparks fly on E Street as a result.
            Which perhaps answers the question “Will you still need me?” from “When I’m 64.”—D.M.

*****

SOMEONE TOLD MY STORY…. In a chapter that explores the reasons behind Johnny Cash’s successful 90s revival when Merle Haggard couldn’t even get his records released, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind author David Cantwell compares the two old friends—“The Man in Black is always edging toward symbol and myth….[He] starts down-to-earth but soars….The Hag looks to fly, but remains earthbound in the end. He’s life-sized, circumscribed, life as it is, a realist—and like a character out of Crane or Dreiser, the Hag is most often not part of something bigger than himself so much as swept away by forces beyond his control.”

                Though that may sound like a description of weakness, it’s every bit as much key to Haggard’s strengths. Who else could so well capture the pride warring with fear in Dustbowl immigrants in “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “California Cottonfields,” so that listeners could believe he was telling his own story? Who else could have listeners also believing (at least for three minutes time) all those convict songs he sang, including serving “life without parole” in “Mama Tried,” that guy serving a life sentence doing hard wage labor on “Working Man’s Blues” as well as that upright citizen who salutes the college dean in “Okie from Muskogee”? 

Only a visionary artist with “an All-American working class attitude… as hopeful as it is defensive” would go into the studio and record an inter-racial love story, “Irma Jackson,” on the heels of recording “Okie from Muskogee.” The character in that song wants to shout down the “mighty wall” that stands between white and black, but, out of fear, out of a sense of pragmatism, he doesn’t. For similar reasons, Haggard himself buried that single for two years, and, instead, put out the hard-hat anthem, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” That move might be called a sell-out, or it might be called riding a rough wave. What matters at least as much is, after he finally put out Ms. Jackson, this is the same artist who could turn what may be the saddest Christmas song ever, 1973’s “If We Make It Through December,” into the strongest crossover hit of his career.

                In 274 pages of vivid, graceful storytelling, RRC’s good friend David Cantwell grapples with the key complexities of one of the most important musicians in American history, a man who embodies (and has repeatedly paid homage to) the tradition that ties together Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell while laying the foundations for country sensibilities that have all but shoved his brand of realism off popular radio. In so doing, Cantwell gets at the musical and political contradictions at the heart of America.

            Above all, what makes this work is the intimacy with which Cantwell captures this music—complicating our understanding of the Bakersfield sound, sharply defining the different strengths that made Bonnie Owens, Leona Williams, George Jones and Willie Nelson particularly important collaborators at various points in Haggard’s career, and capturing the experience of the songs themselves, vividly showing, for instance, why “Kern River” may well be the scariest record to take place at that all-important American setting, the river’s edge, and why “Sing Me Back Home” says volumes about the death penalty, almost none of them explicitly in the lyric. By not sacrificing the music for the ideas or the ideas for the music, Cantwell argues why the voices we most need to hear, the voices Haggard’s spent a lifetime breathing life into, are those using every tool at their disposal to navigate the roughest currents of a world changing like never before.—D.A.

*****

THIS MONTH’S DOWNLOADING PROSPECTS….12 Stories, Brandy Clark (Slate Creek)--“We pray to Jesus and we play the lotto ‘cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow,” Clark sings, opening her debut with a sympathetic song about a life of limits and no clear way out. Using restrained—but notably simmering—country arrangements, Clark’s debut stacks up the details of everyday blues in exquisite detail, telling you exactly why, for instance, a mom smokes a joint in her kitchen after finishing her “to-do” list on “Get High.” As with great blues, the pain tends to be cut with humor, turning the murderous rocker “Stripes”—“the only thing saving your life is I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes”—into something like fun. And there are shimmers of hope here, too, like the woman on “Hungover” who puts her life together while her husband is sleeping one off or moments at the brink of something new, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven,” “The Day She Got Divorced,” and “Just Like Him.”

De La Tierra (Roadrunner)--Metal guitarists from Brazil’s Sepultura and Argentina’s A.N.I.M.A.L. join forces with the bass player from Argentinean ska band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and the drummer from Mexico’s Mana for an uncompromising and aggressive set all sung in Spanish or Portuguese. You don’t need to speak either to be hooked by the melody of “Somos Uno” or to feel the sadness channeled by anger in “Maldita Historia” or to be flung past Jupiter by the escape velocity of “Cosmonauta Quechua.”

 La Noche Mas Larga, Buika (Warner Music)—Buika, 40ish, is from Spain’s Balearic Islands where she was born to African parents (she now lives in Miami). Singing with what has been accurately called a “broken sensuality,” she combines Latin music, jazz, and flamenco. On this, her seventh album, Buika sings in Spanish (her own songs and a hemisphere’s worth of others), French (Jacques Brel), and  English (Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away”). She collaborates with guitarist Pat Metheny on the lovely “No Lo Se” and throughout with producer/arranger Ivan “Melon” Lewis, who is also a pianist who knows how to use subtlety to generate power. It comes together best on “Siboney,” a nearly century-old song by Ernesto Lecuona which describes the homesickness the composer feels being away from his native Cuba. It manages to combine the sadness of being far away with the sweet undertow of memory.

Indestructible, Nina Dioz (Nueva Nation)--If you doubt the vitality of today’s hip hop, check out this Monterrey rapper’s hard hitting lyrics, slamming rhythms and lush, vivid soundscapes. On the single “Lo Quiero Matar,” Dioz plunges headlong into the brutality of domestic violence, while on “La Cumbia Prohibida,” she and sister rapper Li Saumet re-ignite the revolutionary fun in girl power, and on “2 Cool 4 School,” Dioz distills rock and roll high school fantasies to their essence, sweetly singing how she wants those around her to hear her vibrations and feel her voice in the air. Indestructible can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/ninadioz, but she’ll send you CDs of any and all of her work at ninadiozonline@gmail.com.

Strictly Business, EPMD (Priority)—The Long Island duo’s 1988 debut remains fresh and powerful—massive funk and album rock samples, primitive drum machines, vocal flows that are both arrogant and laid back, and above all an intense musicality. Classic tracks just roll out one after the other: “Strictly Business,” “I’m Housin’ (covered to good effect a generation later by Rage Against the Machine), “You Gots to Chill,” “It’s My Thing.” Plus five bonus tracks, remixes and dub versions, all worthy.

Trouble, Natalia Kills (Interscope)--“Maybe I just fight because I don’t know where I belong,” Natalia Cappuccini sings on the haunting ballad, “Devils Don’t Fly,” and that seems about right. That inability to fit in also seems crucial to her distinct appeal as a bad girl of pop who actually feels dangerous, say, the way Madonna once did. On the in-your-face techno rocker “Problem” as well as the reflection on domestic agony, “Saturday Night,” she manages to craft empowering sing-a-longs out of the messiest of realities.

Mystic Power, Alpha Blondy (VP)—The veteran African reggae star fleshes out a basic sound with biting rock guitar (Blondy was once the singer in a rock band), simple synths, several guest vocalists and everything from harmonica to violin. The result is a soundtrack for his wide ranging political canvas, which condemns French colonialism on the one hand (“France a Fric,” which means “France has money”) to anti-immigrant nationalism in his native Ivory Coast (“Danger Ivoirite”). There’s a French language cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” (“J’ai Tue le Commissaire”) and the countryish “Reconciliation,” which has the dual meaning of healing after the Ivory Coast civil war and the end to Alpha Blondy’s beef with fellow reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, who is featured on the track. Best of all may be “Hope,” a collaboration with Jamaica’s Beenie Man which combines their very different styles to great effect.

“I Can’t Remember to Forget You” Shakira (featuring Rihanna) (RCA)--The ska rhythm on the verses certainly points up the Latin American connections between these Colombian and Barbadian singers, but this dazzling pop song also drives home their connection as rock vocalists. The chorus’s hard driving guitar and drums allow Shakira to press the song’s angst, while Rihanna adds to the tension by keeping her cool and absolutely selling the outlaw line, “I’d rob and I’d kill to keep him with me/I’d do anything for that boy.” And if the line between art and life seems disturbingly blurry there, the strength of these two women’s interplay is every bit as reassuring.

The River & The Thread, Rosanne Cash (Blue Note)--Cash’s resonant vocals perfectly suit these reflections on the singer’s Southern roots. Standouts include the crackling rocker “Modern Blue,” the brooding “The Long Way Home,” the haunted “Night School” and a gorgeous cover of Jesse Winchester's “Biloxi.”

Mercy, Jon Cowherd (Blue Note/ArtistShare)—Cowherd, who has worked with everyone from Iggy Pop to Cassandra Wilson, has been the keyboardist in the Brian Blade Fellowship since its inception in 1997, so the easy empathy here between him and drummer Blade comes as no surprise. As both a writer and a player, Cowherd takes his time, winding around, back and forth, sometimes repeating in a circle, seldom giving an obvious big emotional payoff. Instead he invites the listener to join him in the sheer delight of the feelings the piano can evoke in the hands of someone who can play anything but who chooses always to play that just right thing. Boiling away underneath is Brian Blade who, like major influence Art Blakey, is capable of sharp turns and loud attacks while never losing sight of his duty to support the whole. Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist John Pattatucci get in where they fit in, which is just where they should be.

Bad Self Portraits, Lake Street Dive (Signature Sounds)—They first attracted attention with a YouTube video of a jazzy, retro performance of “I Want You Back” on a Boston sidewalk. Their Motown roots actually go back a little bit further than that, seeming to stop dead center on “You Can’t Hurry Love.” With just guitar, (acoustic) bass, and drums they strip that classic sound down but then keep building it back up, mostly by adding interesting vocal embellishments around the singing of Rachael Price. Her strong, brassy voice is at home in rock and jazz (she’s also sung with the likes of Joshua Redman). Like early Motown it’s all about love, but here it’s songs about romance in the context of living in your parents basement or chasing a local lounge singer or trying to justify what may (or may not) be morally justifiable. Here and there LSD hints at experimentation, so maybe their next album will flow from Motown’s Norman Whitfield psychedelic period.

*****

PATTY CAKE….Silver Bell was buried in the new corporate regime,” Patty Griffin writes in the liner notes for her latest album. “Thirteen years and some days after its recording it is being released commercially for the first time with brand new mixes from the legendary Glyn Johns, who has managed to rescue large portions of it from the trends of its day and, for me, has breathed some new life into the time capsule known as Silver Bell.

            The first track on the album, “Little God,” seems to be about the very music industry whose financial high jinks led to this magnificent work being shelved in 2000. “Good morning, little God,” Griffin sings, “I see you’ve come for me again / With a noose between your teeth / You are not my friend.”

            The over-production on the original version of the album which Glyn Johns has now stripped off? “You tell me to throw the fight / Go and place your little bet.”

            The kind of record company executive who would impose his “vision” upon an artist is familiar to us all, either through direct experience or from movies ranging from Wayne’s World to Dreamgirls. And very familiar to Patty Griffin, who sings: “Shake, little God / Shake your little fists / All the strippers think you’re odd / But you leave the biggest tips.”

            The music sets the mood with electric guitar lines that slither like a snake and are at times absolutely creepy. Griffin gets the last laugh when she spits out an epitaph for the music industry, a death letter that would have made sense to some in 2000 but is rightly regarded as just plain common sense today:

They say time is running out
And you don’t know what to do
And I hear them talk about
Another place to live without you

The music on Silver Bell (A&M) shifts back and forth from country to surging rock & roll to piano-driven ballads, with even a few hints of electronica. The rock can get almost punkish, yet at other times the guitar solos sound like something Chet Atkins might have played if he’d grown up in the desert. In turn, those electric solos find their acoustic equivalent elsewhere with the gentle breathing of accordion or banjo.

What makes this diverse stew a singular meal is Patty Griffin’s voice. It can be breathy or sharp, judgmental or forgiving, but ultimately it is embracing: “What do you wish you were? / Do you wish you were the light of every star? / Nobody knows but, maybe that’s just what you are.” She pulls you in so that you are seeing and feeling your world through her eyes and her world through your eyes. In that process, the last thing you’re concerned with is the specific nature of the soundtrack.

            Griffin works quickly. Her lines and even her words are short (on “Fragile,” 79% of the words have only one syllable). She makes, say, John Fogerty songs seem over-written and downright wordy. But although this leaves space for listeners to inject their own thoughts and feelings, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to chew on. “Fragile” concludes with this:

Underneath the waves
Sits your sweet and drowning daughter
Too strong for this world
And too fragile for the water

            The title track is about a motel, but only in the sense that Psycho is a movie about motels. To wit:

The wallpaper is
A color called sea foam
Pull down the shades a little and you’ve
Got yourself a prison cell

Patty Griffin can take individual words or even syllables and give them a life of their own, playing them like an instrumentalist, putting them in harmony or conflict with each other as if they were notes. She delivers the line “Something as simple as boys and girls” on “Mother of God” in a way that’s not only achingly beautiful on its own but so that it seems to contain the entire history of male/female relations. Which it probably does. Pushing further, she sometimes talks in tongues, spraying wordless vocals against the music to express not religious ecstasy but  pain or depth beyond the reach of any lyric.

            Ironically, now that the songs on Silver Bell have been stripped down they are actually much richer, so much so that a review, a poem, a short story, or even a novel could be written about each and every one of them. Now that they have made their collective escape from music industry purgatory, maybe that will happen. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.—L.B.

 *****

LINGER ON…. I was kind of an intermittent Lou Reed fan. There were things I loved and things that scared me half to death that I couldn’t love or resist, and things that I thought were just silly, and there was Metal Machine Music, which was a hoax even if Lou got taken in by it himself. But he gave me four Velvet Underground albums, each to my adult ear sounding better than the last, and culminating in Loaded, which for me was a life-changing experience.

            It was the solo albums I felt more hot and cold about. Lou’s singing reached its peak on the last two Velvets albums--he sounds more fluent, the edge is more implicit and still sharper. The songs probably got better as time wore on, since he was a great writer when he got anywhere near a good idea. Later on, with Robert Quine, he made his purest music ever, simply as sound. The singing wasn’t as good as earlier, the songs were not always his best, but the tracks were so good, you could take them by themselves.

            He was way beyond bold. Who else would do a bohemian doo-wop tribute album and climax it with a cynical six and a half minute autobiography?  We remember Loaded for “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” but in its own way, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin,” the extended ballad that closes the album, is just as good, musically and lyrically. He went for it, and though he could annoy the fuck out of interviewers, I was smart enough never to interview him so I could just listen and ignore the stuff I didn’t like so much and eat up the ones that hit me.  The Blue Mask is somebody’s tour de force, whether Reed’s or Robert Quine’s or both. Quine had more heart than any other musician in Manhattan in that early ‘80s period, tacking in from Miles Davis, triangulated by Mick Ronson and Steve Hunter/Dick Wagner.

            Most of all Lou had a way of expressing heart, that elusive hoodlum desideratum of youth in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the greaser rock era, when to be stand up was the whole game. And throughout his work, whenever it came time to call his own bluff, tell his own story with the wounds and all, and the victories that came from the wounds, he triumphed. That is the Lou Reed of “Street Hassle,” “Coney Island Baby,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He could be Dr. Sardonicus in rock regalia, the rest of the time he could be superciliously hip, he could even be tender on the final two Velvets albums with “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Candy Says” and “Beginning to See the Light.”

I absolutely believe he meant it when he said, “The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” And it’s pretty notorious that I’m hard to convince.

            With Loaded’s perfectly matched pair, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Reed upped the stakes for everyone. People had been writing songs about rock’n’roll and why it mattered and wouldn’t die and maybe made people invincible (Lou: “It’s an obscure power that can change your life.”) for 15 years. The Showmen’s “It Will Stand” might have been the first and it had the usual message. But those two songs of Reed’s were about something more: I will stand.

            I still remember the first time I heard them, in the old Creem magazine offices on Cass Avenue in inner city Detroit. We got the mail early there. Thursday or Tuesday or whatever day we got 'em, the major label packages would take  a while to listen through--you might get four or five in a package, which was huge then. And so it was about three o’clock, maybe four when I got around to playing Loaded. The opener, "Who Loves the Sun," seemed an unlikely but not inappropriate sequel to “Pale Blue Eyes,” maybe a weird attempt to do the Beach Boys in S&M drag. Sounded real good.

And then those two songs came on and it was just...you felt flattened by 'em, really. When the song hits the emotional breaking point on "Sweet Jane"--"But anyone who had a heart / He wouldn't turn around and break it"--you’d have dived into the storm for Lou Reed at that moment. It was so fucking perfect, especially that ragged harmony, so much my own truth, so much what I had sought and such a miracle to find. And then "Rock ‘n’ Roll," which was, I still think, part two of the same song in a lot of ways. Much more a surface song, but then again--starting at five years old and not believing what you’re hearing, it was exactly right.

            So I turn around about the third time I'm playing the tracks back to back, top volume on those floor speakers in the huge square cabinets we had and there stands Johnny B, Mitch Ryder's great drummer and one of my mentors in how to listen and what to listen to. Mitch’s band rehearsed upstairs and Johnny’s doing one of his B things, his jaw dropping and his fingers poppin'. And then the rest of the band comes in and we are all standing there with our brains in tatters.

            Six months later, I'm sitting at a table at the Waldorf, some room where Mitch is doing a debut party for his Detroit album, and they hit "Rock 'n' Roll," which they’d worked up about a day after first hearing it. We were sitting right up front, and Lou leans over from across the table next to us and says, "That's what that song was supposed to sound like."

I didn’t really agree with him even though I was thrilled he loved Mitch’s version. “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is one of those tunes where the first time you hear it, if it's your truth, you bond with it like being put on mama's chest right after they cut the cord.

So I will never miss Lou Reed, he will be with me until I can no longer hear that gorgeous guitar intro and then “Standin’ on the corner....” all the way through to “and it’s all right now / Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby,” babbling off into semi-coherence. 

            There are very few artists who can map the universe of your own heart, after all.

            So linger on, Lou,  linger on.—D.M.   


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