Saturday, December 29, 2012

Previously Unpublished 2012--Amy Cook, Lupe Fiasco, Ian Hunter and Santigold

Summer Skin, Amy Cook (Thirty Tigers) Robert Plant and Patty Griffin lend guest vocals while Me’Shell N’Degeocello plays bass, all of which hints at the way Amy Cook manages to balance rock and roll intensity, brilliant melodies and back porch ease.  Always ebullient and infectious, “Summer Skin” is never far from a dark turn. A menacing bass and obscure shapes painted by shimmering guitar color the surreal imagery of the perpetually taxiing “Airplane Driver.” The classic rock build of the gorgeous “Sun Setting Backwards” explicitly fights the distance in satellite radio transmissions and cellphone calls to fight its way to an uncommon intimacy.
Food and Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Lupe Fiasco (Atlantic) “Ayesha Says” makes the perfect opening for this record, a young woman spitting rhymes on the street—connecting hoodie and hijab,  “prayer rugs, church pews, Mexican coin stands,” the West Bank and the West Side of Chicago, “Emmet Till, Malice Green, Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin,” finding hope in the midst of almost universal despair.  As high tech and hook laden as last year’s Lasers, this album preaches hard from beginning to end, never more powerfully than on the massive “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free)” and the reflective “Unforgivable Youth,” both of which sum up American history in five minutes or less and make a new vision for the future that much easier to grasp.
When I’m President, Ian Hunter (Slimstyle) “Comfortable” starts the record rocking as hard and raunchy as Mott the Hoople, before the explosive “Fatally Flawed” confronts the most implacable human frailty. “When I’m President” sums up the electoral con as well as anyone has, while “Ta Shunka Witco” takes America on with the vision of Crazy Horse. “Life” closes things out reminiscent of Mott the Hoople’s self-mythologizing, but the message—here and throughout the album— has never been more tender and generous.
 “Master of My Make Believe,” Santigold (Atlantic) The mix of Anglican and African choral styles over tribal drums and marching band rhythms on “God from the Machine” shows the breadth of this album’s reach; the depth may be best indicated by the way it seems to reach back to the Clash’s “Sandinista” and fold the next thirty years of music into a unified dance mix.  The urgency is palpable in the lyrics to the revolutionary rallying cries “Disparate Youth” and “The Keepers."  Perhaps the boldest musical surprise comes with the wall pounding response to the call of “This Isn’t Our Parade.” 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Midwest Audio, Vol 1, Part 4--Deals with the Devil, Holidays in Our Heads, Coffee-Fueled Rapture and Loads of Punk Bravado

Midwestern Audio, Vol. 1’s second disc starts with a ten song run as coherent as if these (all previously released) cuts were all meant to be played together. (Actually, in the old days, that would have translated into an entire coherent album.) Part of the credit for the unity of this project has to go to engineer Pat Tomek, who not only pulls the sound together but had to have made many of these sequencing choices. But there’s another part that has to do with an artistic ethos developed as a form of survival…not incidentally in a society that does not particularly respect music (or art) as a way to make a living. 

It starts with frenetic rolling drums, horns and hints of Spanish guitar. The Water MoccaSins’ “Diablo Diablo” is an ironically Dune Buggy-sunny take on the “Crossroads Blues” theme. By definition, it's great fun at a no doubt dreadful cost.

Tom-toms and handclaps fight to keep spirits up for ACBs’ “My Face,” a work of adrenaline over frustration.  In one sense, that’s what rock always is, but this particular version, in form and content, gets set in the universal context of a child watching others at play, unable to join in. If that Diablo made house calls, another contract would be in the offing.

The Empty Spaces’ “Holidays are Nice and Warm” chases a similar theme, this time seemingly trapped in a dingy Westport bar and dreaming of playing somewhere far, far away. Lead singer (Mat Shoare?) sounds more than a little like the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley—both for the odd appeal of his whinging cries and for the way this could be a lost option for Singles Going Steady, sounding every bit as fresh and raw today as any of those records still do.

Like the Empty Spaces record, Schwervon!’s “Wake and Bomb” could also be one of those little plastic singles that used to come inside Trouser Press magazine.  Minimalist bass, drums and guitar rumble against morning rants. Again, what’s underscored by these tracks is the perennial vitality of the punk impulse—particularly when it does as good as job as this capturing the everyday suicidal angst and anger of those inoculated against dreams and promises. Raging against the dying of the light is indeed something to do. 

Racing against that same light, The Brannock Device’s “King of the Soapbox Derby” burns a rockabilly free jazz fire that holds off the darkness. Rarely has contemptuous aggression sounded more comforting, even optimistic.  At least there’s hope in the fight.  At least there’s the real light sparked by drums, guitar and words spit as kindling.

The Beautiful Bodies’ “You’re a Risk” carries this present tense desperation forward with the refrain, “I want to be alive, tonight!” Alicia Solombrino’s hyper-energetic, expressive vocals bounce the spaces between rubber-band bass, trash can drums and starlight guitar. When she ends with a kind of primal scream, she’s earned its satisfied smile.

Also reveling in the moment, The Dead Girls’ “It’s All Happening” fights for some perspective on perspective. Repeating the refrain, “I didn’t think this all would happen,” like a mantra, the singers engage in a sort of dialectic about the implications of the moment. Pounding drums and a giddy, classically grand, dual guitar attack signal the simple answer long before it’s stated—“tell it like it is.”

Speaking of dialectics, the seemingly domestic battle in Deco Auto’s “Pointless Fight” asks “why bother when you could just give in?” Of course, as such battles go, it ain’t that easy, so nothing really changes over the course of the three minute surrender. Fortunately, singer Steven Garcia’s shouted refrains and the power trio’s lean, yet massive, attack find some measure of righteousness in the effort to walk away.

Just don’t try to walk on The Quivers’ Terra Peal. “Blue Light” begins with her shaking it into your thick head that she’ll be done with you when she tells you she is. It pretty much ends that way, too. What makes this fight of a dance so much fun is the bravado of her two fisted vocal up against insistent drums, keys and Abe Haddad’s tumbling surf guitar.

One of my strong contenders for best song in this solid collection comes next, The Grisly Hand’s “Black Coffee.” It’s the story of a Quik Cash teller the morning after a night of aggravated drinking, rallying to face another gray day. Jimmy Fitzner and Lauren Krum’s duet vocals offer just the right grist to an impossibly hook-laden melody, and what begins as a simple back porch lament evolves into some “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” neighborhood sing-a-long. A minor-keyed triumph of dirt-laden pride, this record plows straight through social and self-denigration, shouting “You ain’t ready for me!”

Stay tuned for the conclusion….

Buy Now, name your price!

Proceeds for Midwestern Audio, Vol  1 go to good folks:  The Midwest Music Foundation (MMF) is an educational arts organization that unites performer and audience and fills a health care gap for Kansas City musicians. Each yeah, MMF puts on a showcase at Austin TX's SXSW Festival to showcase Kansas City (and midwest) bands.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Midwest Audio Vol 1, Part 3--Red Wind Nights and Lonely Company Racing Motionless

It’s a musical sound—a shining woman’s voice and a sparkling guitar, little more than a whisper over snare and brushes and a low, searching bass.

I’m following it, but I’m not close enough to fully pick up that station. I’m using a figure of speech, but I mean it literally. I’m driving the darkest nights in memory, and I’m trying to find the direction to clear up that signal.  I want to lock in on that voice and follow it to its source. 

But, for a kind of eternity, I’ve been losing this signal every direction I go. I push the gas to the floor and eat up the starry night, turning down section roads and searching for diagonal routes, never finding myself any closer.

Meanwhile, other music takes over the speakers, a juxtaposition of styles and voices each with its own allure. As random and diverse as it sounds, this is a playlist, a dozen songs by Midwestern bands that close out the first half of a music compilation.  The record reminds me of Big Hits of Middle America, Vol. III, the record that would inspire the Minneapolis garage rock explosion of the early 80s….only the sound is more sophisticated, the music less easily defined by genre.

First comes this staggered drum part over a fat, fuzzy bass keyboard, and distorted vocals echoing the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” all giving context for a singer’s anxious effort to reckon with a relationship.  And though Yoko may be one of the most common Japanese female given names, the “Blue Jay Way” keyboards and found musical elements refracting all over the soundscape and the final Yoko Ono vocal warbles make it pretty clear that this is a form of “That’s All Right, Mama” that tackles the scapegoats created by fans hanging onto ethnocentric (even racist) myths. At least that’s the way I hear this frenetic, psychedelic potpourri by Be Non, and I’m thankful for that.

An absolutely gorgeous music meditation comes next, courtesy of the experimental music collective, Monta at Odds. A yearning keyboard accompanied by gentle drums, high hat and strolling bass travels the dark night, too, picking up horns, strings, guitar and shimmering keyboard sustain.

That sense of a long dark night intensifies with the Latenight Callers’ “Calaveras,” a song that begins with a Raymond Chandler quote about the impending domestic violence brought on the Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds. Pulsing bass and garrote-sharp guitars frame Ms. Julie’s weary plea for escape.  Eventually, Mr. Nick’s accordion-like keyboard locks into a dance that propels her to a moment’s child-like peace.

A study in contrasts comes with the following two instrumentals.  Diverse’s “Full Circle,” begins with Hermon Mehari’s trumpet stating the main theme with warmth and restraint. But the jazz trio makes subtle shifts every few bars, the drummer pushing Mehari to respond with increasing variations and an intensity and tone that makes this driver think of Freddie Hubbard. That said, Mehari is his own voice, reining ideas in that glow all the more hot as the fires die down to the original clarity of the main theme.

Mr. Marco’s V7’s “Sparkin’ Your Mama Sweet 2” follows.  This blend of metal-heavy bass pushed hard, assaultive guitar noise, frantic Turkish (what zither? baglama?) riffing and volcanic drums is as intent on losing control as “Full Circle” seems intent on maintaining it. The music is as rife with violence as that Santa Ana wind a couple of songs back, but for all the wild improvisation, the band hits each improbably planned mark and stops on a dime after its last dizzying array of manic flourishes.

The metal edge becomes full-on metal, or even proto-metal, with The Conquerors’ “Proxy Shady,” sounding mysteriously “found” like a demo cut by Blue Cheer in some San Francisco warehouse circa  1967. After drums pick up speed and push the guitar to two psychedelic freak-outs, the music slows back down with cooling harmonies and those warehouse walls reverberating with sustain.

Things grow infinitely more soothing with Cowboy Indian Bear’s “The Hunter and the Hunted.” It’s mainly about that singer’s ethereal seduction, promising whatever he’s selling will be well worth it. But something else is up, as there generally is in important matters of trust.  It may be the dominant keyboard washes and pulsing expectant bass or it may be the tambourine on the margins, but there’s a quiet menace hanging here as dark as the blackest shadows elsewhere.

A keyboard wash serves as a transition to the folkie romp form Quiet Corral, “Lonely Company.” Lyrically, the purpose here is very similar to the previous song—to reassure a loved one about the future. But the way this melody finds its jaunty way to some rock guitar friction—not to mention group whistling and harmonies—allows the listener to rock the darkness back into its proper corners.

To make sure that darkness stays put, the even more folky and rambunctious, “Headless King” by She’s a Keeper tells a tall tale against a panoramic soundscape fleshed out by energetic banjo, guitar, cello, bass and mandolin. The specters are all up front here, the subjects of playful derision and dreams of newfound liberation.

The duo Eyelit picks up on this theme of liberation with “Motionless.” Singer Austin Marks declares, “in this heartache, I’m finding what it is to be a man.” This front porch celebration builds on its acoustic guitar with strings and delicate backing vocals by Marks’ band partner Dansare. It’s a song about surrender and acceptance and growth, and that’s exactly how it sounds, like the growing promise of a new day. In the movie that plays in my head, the anxious all night drive has found its way to the first rosy rays of dawn.

Howard Iceberg’s “The Wrestler” reveals that dawn to be a bleak Sunday morning. Kasey Rausch’s warm vocals and Rich Hills’ spirited keys breathe hope into Iceberg’s doomed ballad. At the end of the song, when he and his girlfriend sit in church seeking redemption, the distance between here and heaven has never felt more like a cruel taunt. 

Countering Iceberg’s closing declaration, “I’m gone,” The Blackbird Revue’s “When You Are Mine,” says you’re not getting away that easy. The duo’s airy vocals pile into cumulus dreams and harmonies fed by running crescendos of tom-tom and guitar before the morning’s color washes away with the revelations of death from Appropriate Grammar’s “Six Foot Dreams. A nagging guitar arpeggio anchors this rooted meditation.  Despite all of the hopes and dreams raised by its drum and guitar battle climax, that one riff refuses to budge from its modulation around a single, fixed point. 

So another night has gone, and day has come again, but the “search for dreams” Nick McKenna sings about is already lost.  Fortunately for this lonely driver, another CD’s worth of music is yet to come.

To be continued….

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