Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Midwestern Audio Vol. 1, Part 2--The Horns, The Beat and the Jagged Grain of Debt

The next movement starts with Grand Marquis' "The Jungle," shifting to a thematic focus on getting out from under that carries through Hearts of Darkness's "Debt on Me" and Reach's "Move." All three speak to the economic insecurity that's been growing among those living below middle for over three decades--an insecurity that's had its fingers playing at the throat of anyone likely to be reading this at least since the Great Recession that arrived in 2008.  In that sense, though none of these three is a blues song (the closest might be the NOLA-flavored jump blues of Grand Marquis), all three place a strong emphasis on what Ralph Ellison called the "blues impulse"--survival songs based in keeping "the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism."

The mix of tragic and comic is most apparent in the boasts of singer Bryan Redmond's character in "The Jungle." He's a gambler, bluffing and cheating his way out of debt, plotting his escape "on a paper sack" and studying "an old weathered map of the promised land." It all sounds as tenuous as the next deal gone wrong. What really emphasizes the absurdity of his claims is the almost cartoonish interplay of Lisa Mackenzie's percussion with the horns, Ryan Wurtz's guitar punctuating each statement like the sour turning point in a movie.  I'm guessing it's Chad Boyston's trumpet and Ben Ruth's sousaphone that have a wonderful battle at the song's climax, dying off with bent notes before Redmond states "If the wheels don't fall off....Everybody knows just how my story goes." Yeah,

Hearts of Darkness's great horn section (Jolan Smith, Sam Hughes, Andrew Ford, Ken Walker, Hermon Mehari, and Bob Asher) blasts a 10 note descent and vamp against Pete Leibert's funky bass and Brad Williams, Sean Branagan and Miko Spears's rapid fire percussion. These blues have jumped into James Brown/Tower of Power territory. Rapper/frontman Les Izmore introduces the cut, along with singers Brandy Gordon, Erica Townshend and Rachel Christia, but quickly hands it off to tenor sax player and vocalist Jolan Smith, who tells a tale of seething self-loathing due to the quicksand of debt that's got hold of him. After a pause held by Richard Gumbel's rhythm guitar, Izmore fights back, calling out the creditors that play off peoples' vulnerabilities. Izmore's call and response with the singers at the end rallies for a battle not over any time soon.

MC Reach's "Move" rides a 3 a.m.-lonely mix of bass, percussion and seemingly random stabs of keyboard effects.  Like the singer in Grand Marquis, Reach dreams of making his move, but the difference is he'd like to do it being true to ideals that gambler has long since forgotten if he ever had them. Caught on "the campus" of "the school of hard knocks," Reach doesn't want to sell out, but he increasingly doubts the advice (the myth? the lie?) that all he has to do is "keep it real and wait for the check." His ultimate analysis is one of the deepest on this record--not only the story of 99% of the world's working musicians but also the story of 99% of those listening.  No matter what he does to try to get out of this place, "it's funny, 'cause still don't nothing move but the money." That's a 21st Century blues if I've ever heard one.  Music like this doesn't pretend to have answers, but it does remind us that the things that isolate us can also bring us together. Therein lies what I call hope.

Please check out this wonderful local release, all proceeds going to the Midwest Music Foundation, "an educational arts organization that unites performer and audience and fills a health care gap for Kansas City musicians"

More soon....

A note to anyone following this particular review:

7 down, 36 to go. I'll get there, but these blogs will be interspersed with other reviews. Those who care, hang in there.  Also, if anyone has corrections on any of the personnel or details, please let me know.  I'm riding on more intuition than I'd like here at times because there's so much to cover, and I want to do it justice.  I'll make corrections as I get them. DA