Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Los Zafiros - Y Sabes Bien

Los Zafiros were an extremely popular Cuban vocal group for a brief time during the 1960s. The group's sound is a unique fusion of popular American influences (most obviously doo-wop) and styles more commonly associated with Latin America (son, mambo, rumba, samba). The results sound like nothing else. Their heartbreaking story is the subject of the documentary Los Zafiros: Music From the Edge of Time, a film that can really only hint at the larger political and social forces behind the group's rise and fall.

"Y Sabes Bien" is a fantastic song. Honestly, I'm not a big of a fan of doo-wop, but I find Los Zafiros' vocal harmonies utterly captivating, and the underlying rhythms make the music compelling for me in a way that doo-wop has never been. That and Manuel Galbán is an absolute genius on the fretboard. Oh yeah, and this video is amazing.

Los Zafiros first came on my radar after I picked up Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán's fantastic 2003 collaboration Mambo Sinuendo. Many of Los Zafiros' biggest hits are collected on the 1999 Nonesuch compilation, Bossa Cubana. I highly recommend both albums.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

R.I.P. Cyd Charisse

Legendary dancer and actress Cyd Charisse died on Tuesday at the age of 86. In 1952 MGM reportedly insured Charisse's legs for a sum of 5 million dollars. Though sufficient to earn her an entry in The Guinness Book of World Records under the category "Most Valuable Legs," even adjusted for inflation that was clearly an inadequate amount. Impossibly graceful, Charisse was the only female dancer whose athleticism could rival Gene Kelly's (as you can see in this clip from Singin' In the Rain). Ironically, it was poor health that served as her introduction to the world of dance--at the age of six her doctor recommended exercise to aid in her recovery from polio.

Charisse is survived by her husband of nearly 60 years, singer Tony Martin and two sons, Nico "Nicky" Charisse and Tony Martin Jr.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The New Seekers - Pinball Wizard

Yesterday I almost picked up a still-sealed copy of The New Seekers' 1973 album Pinball Wizards at my local Salvation Army. I passed on it because the Salvation Army was asking $2 per record. I just think $2 is more than you should have to pay for a record at the Salvation Army. That and--let's face it--I doubt I would ever listen to the album all the way through even once, and I only have so much space in my house. Watching this video was no doubt more entertaining, and as a bonus takes up less space and is free.

I guess it's not entirely fair to say I was acting on principle, if it had been another Verve album, say a still-sealed original pressing of The Velvet Underground & Nico with a still intact banana, I would probably have shelled out the $2.

This brings up another question that I am going to put to you, my readers. I recently came across a still-sealed copy of Telly Savalas' legendary Telly album. Usually this is the kind of camp stuff I would scoop up in a second. But the album was priced at $10, and the joke would seem a lot funnier if it only cost me $3. So I ask you (provided I can get the record store owner to knock a couple bucks off) should I buy the album and (of course) present one or two of the tracks here?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Parents Get Homework Too

I was asked to write about what I could remember of Kindergarten for a project related to my son Will's kindergarten class. Here is what I wrote followed by a couple appropriate tunes:

Memories are inherently unreliable. We change and distort our memories to suit our own needs and create compelling narratives that help us make sense of our lives. My memories of kindergarten are at best hazy and fragmented. Thinking back on kindergarten it is difficult for me to distinguish between things that really happened and things I may have imagined or dreamed. I doubt the memories of kindergarten I carry with me bear much relation to events as they actually happened at time.

I vaguely remember feeling nervous on my first day of kindergarten. When I got to school, my teacher, Mrs. Tolson, mispronounced my name and I had to correct her (a ritual that would be repeated for the next twelve years of my life). My Elementary School (which housed grades K-6) seemed enormous, and so did most of the other children in comparison with myself. At first, everything about kindergarten was intimidating and unfamiliar. Even the word “kindergarten” sounded strange to me. I had misheard it as “kindergarden.” If this was a garden where were all the plants? Not much about the experience made sense to me initially. But once I had been in school for a few days, it was hard to remember what I had been so apprehensive about in the first place.

Mostly, I remember having fun in kindergarten. I remember playing a lot. The boys in the class favored wooden building blocks that we would use to construct tall fortresses, which we would proceed to knock down with great fanfare. The girls were always doing something else, but I never knew what. I don’t recall the class doing much in the way of academics, although I’m sure there must have been some of that.

I didn’t find everything about kindergarten fun though. One unpleasant thing that sticks in my mind these many years later is the fact that whenever the class had to go somewhere, we were forced to line up by height, shortest to tallest. I can still faintly recall my perpetual embarrassment at having to be first in line. I realize now that this arrangement made it easier for our teacher to keep an eye on all of her students, but at the time it seemed arbitrary and cruel to me.

These are the things I think I remember about kindergarten, but it’s impossible to know how closely they reflect reality without some immutable record like a photograph or video recording. Fortunately, I do have one such record, our class photograph.

Looking at the photo of my kindergarten class drives home just how many of my memories from that time are lost to me now. There are two adults in the picture, one Caucasian, the other African American. I literally have no idea which one is my teacher, Mrs. Tolson. I had expected to find the face of someone I am still friends with in this photograph, but he isn’t there. My good friend Peter Hennig doesn’t show up in my class photos until first grade. I do recognize a few of my classmates’ faces (or at least I think I do): Peter Munch, Jennifer Rucker, Dwayne Redding, Danita Chase, Kerry French, Holly Pearmon, Lisa Debord, Laura Hughes, Sonya Atkinson, Alan Rourke and Sharonda Maynard. I haven’t seen most of these people in decades, but remarkably I can still put names to their five and six year old faces. Other faces tease the limits of my memory, while still others are completely unfamiliar to me.

The photo also stirs memories of the time period in which it was taken. I can recall some of the popular songs that were being played on the radio at the time: “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “The Streak” by Ray Stevens (streaking was a briefly popular pastime in 1974), “Band On The Run” by Wings, “Mandy” by Barry Manilow and “The Hustle” by Van McCoy (which kicked off the disco craze). By far my favorite song at the time was “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell. I remember trying to sing along to it in front of my father’s KLH Model Twenty-One transistor radio.

Looking at the photograph it is clear that our parents had as questionable taste in fashion as they did in music. It would be unusual today to see so much plaid in one place outside of a family reunion in Scotland. I wonder if Will will find similar fault with the way we now dress him someday. I suspect so, and I’d like to apologize to him in advance.

Fashion aside, the mid-seventies were a different time in many respects. Few of my classmates’ mothers worked outside of the home. When not in school, children rarely participated in organized activities. Instead, we were generally set free to play as we wished around our neighborhoods, and were only expected to return home for meals. I remember playing kickball, tag and games with lurid names like “Ghost in the Graveyard” and “Smear the Queer” with the other children who lived in my neighborhood. In my memory, childhood was a freer and less structured affair than it is today.

But I think it would be a mistake to fall victim to nostalgia and conclude that I grew up during a “simpler” or “more innocent” time than today. In fact, it strikes me that there are a number of historical parallels between the time I was in kindergarten (1974-75) and Will’s kindergarten years (2007-08). Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and having sunk to public approval ratings almost as low as the current occupant of the White House, had been forced to resign from office just before I began kindergarten in September of 1974. The earliest thing I can remember watching on television was Nixon’s resignation speech, followed by a helicopter carrying him into the void of history.

Helicopters would again be in the news in April of 1975 as the last American military forces were airlifted out of Saigon, ending an unpopular war with too many parallels to the one the United States is currently ensnared in. Due to an OPEC embargo, gasoline prices skyrocketed, and just like this summer, families were forced to adjust or cancel their summer vacation plans.

As a child, these events were never more than on the periphery of my consciousness, but I’m sure they had an effect on me. More generally, I recall there was a pervasive sense of pessimism about the future. I remember being told on more than one occasion (perhaps in kindergarten, perhaps later) that I belonged to the first generation of Americans that would have less than their parents’ generation. We were constantly being told, in ways subtle and obvious, to adjust our expectations downward. I trust that this is not a mistake that will be repeated on Will’s generation.

Radiohead - Rhinestone Cowboy
Robyn Hitchcock - Kung Fu Fighting
Robyn Hitchcock - 1974

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Fugi - Mary Don't Take Me On No Bad Trip

Fugi's 1969 single "Mary Don't Take Me On No Bad Trip" is what you might call a funky nugget. Funky, heavy, druggy and slightly paranoid, the song would have sounded right at home on Funkadelic's lysergic apex, Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow. Truth be told, it would have been a stand-out track on that album. But virtually nothing was heard from Fugi (aka Ellington Jordan) for years following the release of that one spectacular single on Chess subsidiary Cadet in 1969.

Information about Fugi and Jordan is scarce. Executives at Cadet purportedly passed on releasing a full length Fugi LP because they considered the music too "druggy." A full album worth of material recorded for Cadet around the same time as the single was finally issued by the Funky Delicacies label in 2005, but appears to have gone out-of-print on CD. At least some of the material on the album was recorded with fellow Detroit psychedelic funkateers Black Merda.

A couple more Fugi singles appeared in the early 70s, including "I'd Rather Be a Blind Man," a song co-written by Jordan that was recorded as "I'd Rather Go Blind" by Etta James, Clarence Carter, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Paul Weller, and literally dozens of others. Not much more was heard from Jordan until Shaak, a CD credited to Fugi, was released on the Bogalusa label in 2003. Almost Home, credited to Ellington Jordan, appeared in 2005. I can't tell you any more than that, but I'm guessing there's much, much more to the story (Jordan discusses some drug issues in the reissue liners). Talent like this doesn't just disappear for such an extended period without there being a story there.

This version of "Mary" is what appeared on the a-side of the original single, and was also included on the spectacular Rhino Compilation, In Yo' Face!: The Roots of Funk, Vol. 1/2. The single was originally issued as one of those "pt.1/pt.2" deals (so this is "pt. 1"). To my ears this edited version sounds harder and funkier than the extended version that appears on the Funky Delicacies album. I suspect it's a result of a punchier, more compressed mix. It's killer.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Bo Diddley in Rock's Back Pages

Rock's Back Pages has made a number of articles on the late, great Bo Diddley available for free this week.

Charles Shaar Murray's extremely insightful defense of Bo Diddley (NME, 1975):

THE WHOLE THING about Bo Diddley was that he was by far the weirdest and craziest musician ever to come out of either blues or rock in the '50s.

Unlike Chuck Berry, he made next to no attempt to relate to white high school kids and articulate their fantasies in a voice that could pass for white on the radio. Diddley was black-ass from the word "funky", and the bemused white critics who referred to his work as "jungle music" weren't as far off the beam as might at first be supposed. Primitive it was, sure, but it had a kind of preternatural sophistication, plus a healthy dose of animal cunning – and you'd best believe you could dance to it.

Richard Williams compares Chuck Berry & Bo Diddley (Melody Maker, 1971):

I suppose you could sum it up by saying that while Berry gave the music its hot-rod speed and the ability to create lyrics relating to the teenage infrastructure, Bo contributed the "dirtiness," the earthy down-home quality. His innovations as a guitarist were surely crucial, too; many a budding picker must have been turned inside out by the intro to ‘Roadrunner’, or by the reverb on ‘Hey Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut’.

Cliff White thoroughly enjoys a trans-Europe jaunt with Bo Diddley and others (NME, 1975):

Bo is fairly well known by British audiences, and although he hasn't received half of the kickback that is his due, he is at least assured of a prominent place in R&B's hall of fame. But even British fans haven't seen him performing 'I'm A Man' with Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica. (Whatd'ya mean "so what?" Billy Boy was the harpist in Bo's first band who played on the original recording. Together they turned the clock back to Chicago, 1955, and if that doesn't stir your imagination you might as well start digging a 6-ft pit right now).

Carol Cooper is highly impressed by Bo live in NYC (Newsday, 1995).

Hank Bordowitz talks guitars with Bo Diddley (Guitar Player, 1996).

"I’m against all that stuff today where a guy just sits back and pushes a button," he insists. "You’ve got to learn to play your instrument, then learn to push the buttons if you get lazy. If the thing breaks, you’re in trouble, you dig? We should not rely on transistors. We should learn to play our instrument so if you are plugged up to something and the sucker quits working, maybe you can take an acoustic guitar and make the gig, so you can pay your rent. I learned that a long time ago, bro."

Gunslinger (live) [right click to download]

Friday, June 06, 2008

Trotsky Icepick - Baby

Trotsky Icepick was a Los Angeles underground supergroup of sorts, formed by songwriters Vitus Mataré (formerly of The Last) and Kjehl Johansen (100 Flowers, Urinals). Originally, the band planned to change names with every album, but keep the same album title. This resulted in two albums entitled Poison Summer, the first released by Danny and the Doorknobs in 1985, the second by Trotsky Icepick in 1986.

After the second Poison Summer album it became clear that this plan was impractical, and the band name Trotsky Icepick (originally only intended as a bad joke, "the ultimate earache," get it?) stuck.

Released on the SST label in 1988, Baby, is either the band's second or third album, depending on how you look at it. I also thought it was their best (although 1991's The Ultraviolet Catastrophe has one of the coolest album titles ever).

Because of my involvement with my college's radio station, I interviewed Mataré by phone shortly after Baby's release. Of course it's hard to remember what was said that long ago, and I know my memory is not 100% reliable. But a couple things stand out in my mind. I remember discussing his time with The Last, and his production/engineering work for other bands, including Angst. I specifically remember him telling me that although he literally did his recording in a studio he set up in his garage, he really hoped he didn't make the records sound like the work of a "garage band." He had never been happy with the lo-fi, garage rock sound of The Last's first album, L.A. Explosion, and was very serious about his work as an engineer. While he was obviously working on a limited budget, and not trying for a slick commercial sound, he also didn't want the production to stand in the way of the music. For the most part I think he succeeded in that regard; the production on Baby never gets in the way of the music, either by being too primitive or too slick.

I also asked him specifically about the song "bury manilow," which was getting a lot of airplay on our radio station at the time. An attack on the shallowness of pop music (and I guess specifically Barry Manilow), Mataré told me he considered the song a failure. I remember him telling me regretfully, "I picked too easy of a target." That may be true, but I don't think that's where the song fails. "bury manilow" actually succeeds too brilliantly as pop music in its own right to function as a credible critique of the form. The lyrics "Simple words and maybe a melody, It doesn't bug you driving your car" describe Mataré's bouncy, catchy song far better than it does anything by Barry Manilow. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.

In contrast to Mataré's more pop-friendly concoctions, Kjehl Johansen's songs like "dante's flames" and "pillars of salt" have a more spiky, post-punk sound to them that was clearly influenced by British bands like Magazine and Joy Division (the band would cover Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me" on their next album). These are fine songs too, but I tend to prefer Mataré's bouncy ditties, despite (or perhaps because of) his distinctive nasal vocals.

Long out-of-print, Baby is still available cheap on the used market. Recommended.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

More Diddley

Thanks to Guy for pointing this one out to me. This is an amazing performance. It looks like the hippies were digging themselves some Diddley. And check out the psychedelic editing. Groovy!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

R.I.P. Bo Diddley

During my senior year in college my landlord was also Bo Diddley's lawyer. He told me about the many ways Bo Diddley had been ripped off financially during his career. When I said I felt bad for him, he laughed and said "Don't. Bo Diddley is probably the happiest guy I ever met."

Tuscadero to Perform "The Pink Album" Live

Tuscadero will perform their 1994 classic The Pink Album live in its entirety in a series of special concerts this summer. Each performance by the newly reformed indie-rock legends will feature an early and a late show. In the early show the band will perform the lo-fi indie version of the album as released by Teenbeat in 1994, and in the late show they will play the remixed major label version as released by Elektra in 1996.

Alright, that's not really happening. To the best of my knowledge Tuscadero has not reformed and I know of no plans to perform The Pink Album live (remixed or otherwise). But how surprising would it actually be? The "classic album played live" phenomena has gotten so entirely out of hand at this point that little would surprise me. If you don't think so please consider this--by no means complete--list of albums that have been performed live over the past several years:

Built To Spill - Perfect From Now On
The Meat Puppets - II
Sebadoh - Bubble And Scrape
Thurston Moore - Psychic Hearts
Tortoise - Millions Now Living Will Never Die
Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Mission of Burma - Vs.
Lour Reed - Berlin
Patti Smith - Horses
Primus - Sailing the Seas of Cheese & Frizzle Fry
Killing Joke - Killing Joke & What's This For...!
Jethro Tull - Aqualung, Thick As A Brick & A Passion Play
Mountain - Climbing
REO Speedwagon - Hi Infidelity
Cheap Trick - Live at Budokan
Alice Cooper - Greatest Hits
Died Pretty - Doughboy Hollow
Ed Kuepper - Honey Steel's Gold
The Scientists - Blood Red River
Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
Slint - Spiderland
Redd Kross - Born Innocent
The House of Love - The House of Love
GZA/Genius – Liquid Swords
Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session
Comets on Fire - Blue Cathedral
Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
Girls Against Boys - Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby
Green on Red - Gas Food Lodging
The Stooges - Funhouse
Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles
Melvins - Houdini
Belle & Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister
Cat Power - The Covers Record
Dinosaur Jr. - You're Living All Over Me
Dirty Three - Ocean Songs
Gang of Four - Entertainment!
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Orange
The Lemonheads - It's A Shame about Ray
Echo & The Bunnymen - Ocean Rain

I won't pick on any band in particular and claim that any of these albums don't deserve this kind of treatment. It's just that, considering the phenomenon as a whole, we clearly have a trend that has gotten ridiculously out-of-control.

The whole thing started off innocently enough. Brian Wilson, recovering from years of creative inertia, self-abuse and seclusion triumphantly took to the stage to perform the Pet Sounds, and later Smile, albums in their entirety. Troubled Love front-man Arthur Lee, fresh off a stint in a federal penitentiary, followed suit by performing Forever Changes live with his new band. Only a horrible cynic would begrudge these artists the right to revisit these long past moments of glory, especially considering the years of hard living that followed them. These concerts were triumphs of the human spirit and demonstrated an inspiring level of artistic resilience.

Following up on those successes, an organization called All Tomorrow's Parties created the ironically titled Don't Look Back series, in which complete albums from the more recent past--mostly from the indie-rock cannon--were performed live. Divorced from the emotional back stories that made flawed live performances of Pet Sounds and Forever Changes interesting, I would have expected such an undertaking to fail miserably. After all, live performances and albums (however good they happen to be) have their own unique virtues, most of which don't overlap. The great thing about albums is that they can be played back in their entirety (or in part) at any time. By contrast, the best live concerts present a once-in-a-lifetime, never to be duplicated experience. Favorite albums comfort us with the familiar and the expected, while the best live shows surprise us ("Wow! Are they really covering Klaatu!").

It's frankly hard for me to imagine why someone would want to know exactly what song is coming next in a live performance. Back in 1987 when Hüsker Dü chose to promote their then new album, Warehouse: Songs And Stories, by performing it in its entirety, in sequence at their live shows, I felt slightly ripped off upon leaving the show. I wanted to hear some of my favorites songs from their other albums performed live too. And with such a structured, predictable set-list it seemed like it was difficult for the band to turn in a truly inspired performance.

But now for some reason, this is exactly the kind of predictable live music experience listeners seem to crave, and I find it difficult to understand why. Let me be clear: I don't blame any of the artists for doing this. It's harder than ever to turn a buck in the music business these days, and this is a perfectly honest way of doing so. My beef is with the audience.

For me, this is the equivalent of taking a particular moment in time and fossilizing it in amber. Why fetishize Bandwagonesque when Teenage Fanclub has released a string of fantastic (in some cases arguably better) albums since their brief commercial apex 15 years ago? Worse, I believe the music on the album--presented in the right context--can still be vital and alive, but presenting it in this way risks turning it into a staid museum-piece.

This is an overly long post, and I still don't feel like I've articulated what really bugs me about this trend. I only hope it runs its course soon.