The latest and last issue of 2007 of the RRC newsletter is out with the usual mix of music and politics, record reviews and the always cool downloads of the month picks.
This month, the politics of immigration as seen from the perspective of Latino hip hop artist Chingo Bling. A review of the great new Springsteen album, several pieces on New Orleans music. More reasons why we do not need the music business and a whole lot more.
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Below is an edited version of the newsletter.
ROCK & RAP CONFIDENTIAL
No. 222 / December 2007
PLEASE STAY… Cheech Marin’s 1987 music video, “Born In East LA,” was based on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” The song and video were novelties in the Weird Al Yankovic tradition. Cheech played it for laughs, even though there was no question that his heart lay with the persecuted immigrants.
Houston rapper Chingo Bling (aka Pedro Herrera III) started out in much the same vein, achieving notoriety with a video for “Taco Shop,” a spoof of 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop.”
“A lot of people tried to categorize me as ‘The Mexican Weird Al’,” he told Agustin Gurza of the LA Times. “But novelty songs don’t last long…I’m going to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Chingo Bling offers emphatic proof with his new CD, They Can’t Deport Us All (Big Chile/Asylum). The video for the first single, “Like This and Like That,” has this to say: “They’ll never catch us all, it’ll never stop/Anytime, any corner baby, I’mma set up shop/The border got a fence, but we got underground tunnels…Right now, they got us cleaning up Katrina/Yo Kanye! Bush don’t like Mexicans either.”
“The video,” Gurza writes, “reenacts scenes from a day in the life of an illegal immigrant: Sneaking across the border, getting shortchanged after a day’s labor, running from a raid on a Laundromat. It dramatizes real events in the life of Chingo Bling’s father, a Mexican immigrant who fled one of those Laundromat raids with his wife and daughter, too afraid to go back for the family’s clothing.”
“My goal with the video was to make the illegal immigrant the hero for once,” Herrera says. His album unfolds from there, taking its cue from the massive 2006 marches for immigrant rights across the United States: We’re proud of our homelands but we live and work here and we claim America as our own. We apologize for nothing. We speak English how we speak it if we speak it all. We aren’t begging. We demand to be allowed to live in peace.
Chingo Bling also fills up the album with shout outs to prisoners and fuck yous to the police while he skewers liberals (skit newscaster Bob O’Riley) and rhymes “citizen” with “visitin.’” But this is no Public Enemy record, except perhaps in its polished sonic sheen and the way that it crams details into every corner of almost every track.
They Can’t Deport Us All glories in its obsessions with sex, drugs, food, and street corner hustling. It’s generally hilarious, as in its exposition of the subtleties of “Wetbonix” and “Chinglish.” The music is filled with that good time Texas keyboard sound, only with loopy synthesizers instead of Augie Meyers/Doug Sahm-styled organ. Herrera is a good rapper and there is plenty of crisp, punchy scratching. The best tunes are “Show That Chit,” an affecting strip club ballad and “Hangin’ On (My Song),” a scary number about suicide and the INS that sounds something like Run DMC if their guitarist played only chords.
The album concludes with Herrera’s plaintive cry “I can’t go on/Without singing my song.” Who will listen? This is the crucial question, especially in light of the fact that a few of his listeners have sent him death threats. One even shot up his van.
There is a very different audience out there. It is potentially vast and contains new possibilities for unity. The immigration marches of the past eighteen months have mobilized not only Mexicans, but Latinos from many countries as well as large contingents whose homelands are in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
What about American blacks? On Deport’s title track, Chingo raps about how his dad learned English from “black folks.” The CD’s producer is Salih Williams, the “Dr. Dre of Texas.” Many black hip-hop artists from Houston collaborate on the album, not to mention Mistah F.A.B., one of Oakland’s most popular and politically engaged rappers. None of this should be surprising since, for instance, 72% of California blacks endorse full legalization for immigrants.
What about whites? Chingo Bling depicts them, especially Border Patrol agents, as ignorant rednecks. This ignores the fact that thousands of Border Patrol agents are Mexican-American. But Chingo, who probably knows the true demographics of the immigration police, seems to answer that on “Reppin’ Da Soufside,” which proudly claims “We’re takin’ over the South/Now take down your Confederate flag.” In other words, redneck stereotypes serve as symbols for the real enemy, a white-dominated system.
Consider that Poles (the second most deported nationality in the U.S.) and Irish have been prominent participants in many immigration marches. And it’s interesting to note that the Chingo Bling bobblehead doll hawked aggressively in the CD insert looks almost exactly like a Hank Williams, Jr. bobblehead doll (I see one of those every time I visit Amoeba Records in Hollywood). Even cowboy culture may contain pathways toward unity.
Most important, Mexican immigrants no longer live totally segregated from the rest of America. In Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwestern Town, author Dale Maharidge details how Denison, where eleven would-be immigrants were found suffocated in a boxcar in 2002, has changed and is now almost half Mexican.
Maharidge lived in Denison for a year and he depicts a town in which immigration has led to discrimination and occasional violence, true enough, but more often to integration and embrace. The racism is countered by growing acceptance, sometimes even love. It can be as simple as 17 employees of the Hy-Vee Supermarket signing up for Spanish lessons. Or the way the entire town polarized when immigrant Luis Bravo was denied a city construction contract for which he was the low bidder. Bravo, and the town’s majority, ultimately prevailed.
The spirit of this messy stumble toward a functional unity is reflected in Chingo Bling’s music. Yet the hypocritical members of Congress who convened an anti-hip hop witch-hunt on September 25 want to make it impossible to record such albums, supposedly because the music isn’t polite enough. Buy a copy of They Can’t Deport Us All before it too becomes an illegal.—L.B.
YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY… The arc of Bruce Springsteen’s career is described by the journey from the bursting energy of “Born to Run” to the new album’s “Long Walk Home,” with its only solace in the line “everybody has a reason to begin again.”
Magic also hearkens back to the Spector-like Wall of Sound of Born to Run and is Springsteen’s most ornate and accessible album ever, with bold and catchy refrains that vividly convey the heart of each song. But, as with that long walk, this album tends to be reflective, and all that old youthful exuberance has hit a wall of uncertainty.
The song that defines Magic most clearly is “Your Own Worst Enemy.” It doesn’t offer hope. But if there isn’t hope, there’s beauty. Springsteen opened Born to Run by invoking the spirit of Roy Orbison. Magic is the closest he’s come to channeling that great singer. Listen to the way “Your Own Worst Enemy” builds, almost one instrument at a time, with an urgency reminiscent of Orbison’s “Running Scared,” and ends with Springsteen’s voice sailing up and away on the last few syllables, just as Orbison did at the end of “In Dreams.” Like Orbison, Springsteen seems to be dreaming of victory even as he admits the illusion of it.
It’s a gorgeous melody that begins with a simple piano chord, ringing like a bell. When the vocal comes in, sleigh bells and baroque strings, mostly cello, give the song all the confection of a Christmas record. The irony is that the lyric is a portrait of a criminal lying awake at night, dreams gone, knowing his days of freedom are numbered. Only Springsteen uses the second person, so the criminal isn’t just anyone. It’s us, his listeners, lying there in that bed, our fingerprints “left clumsily at the scene,” as the band kicks in.
The arrangement is as ornate as anything since Pet Sounds, complete with harpsichord and layer upon layer of Springsteen’s overdubbed vocals repeating, “Your own worst enemy has come…to town.” It’s hard to miss the irony. Though he once had a hit record connecting with his audience over the fate of our mutual hometowns, today Springsteen mulls over the fact that we may be, in some way, part of the threat.
“Everything is upside down,” he sings recalling a time when we felt some measure of comfort and certainty, but the tambourine and more elaborate musical figures that answer these thoughts seem to mock us.
Then comes the bridge, and Springsteen uses it like Orbison did on “In Dreams,” where the singer woke from his dream. Here, he puts us in front of a shop window, reminding us of one he sang about years ago, the one where he saw a picture of himself as a local hero. Now, the person looking back feels like a failure. At this point, it seems most clear that he’s including himself in this reckoning. After all, we’ve followed him on this thirty year ride, and it’s brought us sleeplessness and dread.
All four measures of the bridge are punctuated by tympani followed by door chimes, as if someone’s knocking at the door. No need to answer. We all know who our own worst enemy always is, and who wants to confront that?
Instead, the lyrics give way to layers of “ah’s” that seek to elevate the moment but wind up sounding like a great sigh. And then the music drops back to the original piano chord, ringing like sleigh bells.
In the last verse, the singer calls us out for hiding from our own reflection, and the lines are answered by funky riffs from Danny Federici’s organ. They “amen” the honesty, but they can’t erase the truth. The voice that once called for his city in ruins to “rise up” is admitting that “everything is falling down.”
In the song’s final two lines, Springsteen addresses the American flag, the one he once tried to reclaim for the best of its values with the cover of his biggest selling album, Born in the U.S.A. Though it once “flew so high” it has “drifted into the sky,” and Springsteen’s voice literally reaches for it–and for the Roy Orbison in him. He doesn’t have Orbison’s voice, which only makes it more moving when he hits the note, as the flag floats off, leaving us behind. Springsteen set out to make music that symbolized all that was best in that dream, but even that has gotten away from him—especially that.
When he does reach the note, all the instruments draw up like someone’s stomped the brakes. The band drops away, leaving only the distant tolling of church bells. It’s a moment of naked reckoning. The journey that started looking for a place in the sun has wound up with nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.
In many ways, the Bruce Springsteen story has been a struggle to find the integrated, liberated community suggested by rock & roll. At a time when Rock had become a term for white music cut off from its black roots, Springsteen broke onto the charts mixing rock guitar with the sound of black girl group records. He wound up with a nearly all white audience with nostalgia for the black music of its youth.
He wrote songs for black artists including Gary U.S. Bonds and Donna Summer and found himself covered by the Pointer Sisters, and he joined integrated groups to fight hunger, human rights abuse and apartheid, but he never found the cultural synthesis he seemed to be seeking. In fact, when he toured with a mostly black band in 1992, when radio formats and concert audiences were more divided than ever, he found much of his core audience rejected the project.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that his music spoke of compassion and liberation, the country grew colder and more repressive. When the World Trade Center fell, he began building unity around the grief the nation was facing, but by the end of the tour he was raging against war in Iraq.
Once that war came, mocking his career long effort to make sure—with “Lost in the Flood,” with “Born in the U.S.A.,” with his cover of Edwin Starr’s “War”—we learned something from Vietnam, he made his most desolate album to date, Devils & Dust, and then he toured with a completely different band singing traditional folk songs.
Magic, Springsteen’s most musically ambitious record since Born in the USA, shows what inspiration he gained by stepping away. But it also grapples with the reality that, almost 40 years down the road, the world is in a darker place than it was when he started. In fact, the country has seemed to grow cynical about its own dreams, and the body count climbs every day.
At the heart of Magic, “Your Own Worst Enemy” expresses Springsteen’s need to reckon with this reality and his role in it. Perhaps most importantly, he’s using the second person to ask listeners to do the same kind of reckoning.
The song asks us to think hard at the wall of impasse. Springsteen used to say, “nobody wins unless everybody wins,” and it’s never been more clear that we can’t get past this wall without some real help. His stage can’t be the mainstage, and he and his band can’t be left alone on it.
One of the harsh truths of idolatry is that fans tend only to hear their favorite artist. As if there were no other music, no radio, only Bruce Springsteen records and Bruce Springsteen concerts. The dreams of liberation become their own self referential world: a trap.
Conventional wisdom about the sorry state of today’s radio justifies this isolation. And if they do listen, Springsteen’s core fan base is directed towards formats that cater to an aging demographic far removed from today’s version of the Crystals–ironic because “Born to Run” is inconceivable without “Da Doo Ron Ron” as inspiration.
But suppose Springsteen’s fans found themselves listening to a young black woman like Keisha Cole? On the title track of her latest, “Just Like You,” she’s staring into a mirror, too, and recognizing she has the same general strengths and weaknesses as her fans. Suppose they heard Rihanna’s hit album Good Girl Gone Bad, on which she reckons the cost of her experience, different from Springsteen’s but comparable. Or if they paid attention to the words of Alabama rapper Rich Boy, asking himself, on his current hit, “What did you do this for? What difference did you make?” Houston rapper Chamillionaire, on his new album’s opener, “The Morning News,” itemizes the same dirty tricks that Springsteen alludes to on Magic. What might Springsteen’s audience gain by hearing these records in dialogue with “Your Own Worst Enemy”?
To listen to contemporary hip hop radio is to hear people who’ve been beat down personally and politically still having the strength to dream big dreams. Keisha Cole shows that vision beautifully in her hit single with Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, “Let It Go.” So does La La, who currently tops the Latin charts with her anthem of unity, “Homegirls.” Brooklyn rapper Fabolous and R&B crooner Ne-Yo sing “You Make Me Better.” And that’s the theme of Arab Floridian DJ Khaled’s summer hit record, “We Takin’ Over,” on which Akon, T.I. (the self-proclaimed King of the South) and New Orleans’ Little Wayne call for those most reviled by the system to rise up.
Imagine fans listening to Springsteen’s staple favorite, “The Promised Land” back-to-back with that record. Both songs would gain something out of that dialogue—one suggests idealism worth aiming for, while the other has the audacity to believe in the peoples’ ability to make it real. Springsteen’s music needs just such a larger context—after all, that’s the connection he’s sought from the beginning.
He starts Magic by crying, “Is there anybody alive out there?” And he ends it with a wounded soldier, “adrift with the heroes of the Devil’s Arcade.” Isn’t Springsteen himself, if not the soldier, one of those heroes adrift? Aren’t we all?
On Magic, Springsteen’s doing what he knows how to do, and doing it as well as he ever has, but he needs help. So do we. Maybe, by listening to Springsteen as a part of a larger dialogue, his fans can begin to find a way to build a real land of hope and dreams. That’s what we ought to be thinking about after the music’s over, during that long walk home.–D.A.
VOICE YOUR CHOICE… On October 18, the RIAA sent letters to 19 schools ranging from the University of Southern California to the University of South Florida alleging that campus networks are being used to share music. The RIAA offers the 411 students it targeted the chance to settle out of court at a “discounted rate.”
Meanwhile, the national organization Students For Free Culture is now up to 35 chapters and growing rapidly. “We will listen to free music, look at free art, watch free film and read free books,” says the SFC manifesto (freeculture.org). “We refuse to accept a future of digital feudalism.”
SFC chapters have organized demonstrations in front of record stores and held “iPod liberation” parties where members download software that makes song-swapping possible.
Cory Doctorow of the technology blog Boing Boing says that RIAA lawsuits aren’t “scaring students away from file-sharing, but scaring them into political consciousness.”
“People wonder why college students aren’t rallying more around the Iraq war,” Zachary McCune of the Brown University SFC chapter told Rachel Aviv of the New York Times. “If there were a draft, we probably would be. Students are so quick to fight for this cause because we’re the ones bearing the burden.” In 2006, McCune was bullied into paying a $3,000 settlement by the RIAA .
The RIAA claims that the lawsuits, which have brought its member labels over $100 million thus far, are motivated by a desire to protect artists artistically and financially. Yet few artists have expressed support for the music industry’s tactics. On September 16, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails took the mic at a concert in Sydney, Australia to denounce the RIAA’s member labels as “greedy fucking assholes.”
“Steal it,” Reznor continued. “Steal away. Steal, steal, and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.”
JUST EXACTLY WHY DO WE NEED THE MUSIC BUSINESS?… In August, EMI Music was bought by Guy Hands’ U.K. private equity firm, Terra Firma. Recently the Financial Times obtained an internal memo in which Hands said that “EMI artists need to work harder.” Hands complained that “some artists unfortunately simply focus on negotiating for the maximum advance” and he described advances as bonuses “which are often never repaid.” What will happen to EMI artists who don’t work hard enough to help Hands fund his next corporate takeover? It will “be open to us which artists we wish to work with and promote.” Hands apparently views EMI artists as his employees, in which case they should be given the same generous health and pension benefits that he and all other EMI executives enjoy…. On November 27, Eric Bangeman wrote in Ars Technica: “In Capitol vs. Thomas, the only file-sharing case to go to trial so far, Sony BMG head of litigation Jennifer Pariser testified that she had no idea about the extent of actual damages suffered by the recording industry. ‘We haven’t stopped to calculate the amount of damages we’ve suffered due to downloading,’ she told Jammie Thomas’ attorney during cross-examination.” Why haven’t Sony and the other major labels made those calculations? Probably because, no matter what the RIAA’s Congressional hirelings claim, it’s reasonable to think that the number is far closer to zero damages than to $150,000 per track.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO… “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” became a truism back in the day because it was partly true—GM provided jobs with good pay and benefits and, seemingly, lifetime security. But in the wake of massive downsizing and a worldwide race to the bottom, the trickle-down concept has joined the flat earth theory in the dustbin of history.
Yet some people still believe what’s good for the corporate overlords is good for us all. For example, Michael Hegg, one of the jurors in Capitol Records vs. Thomas. Hegg, a Duluth MN steelworker who often works 14 hour days, was downright jubilant in describing in an interview with Threat Level the righteousness of the verdict of $222,000 against single mom Jammie Thomas for allegedly sharing music. The fact that this represents more than six years salary for Thomas didn’t faze Hegg. “We wanted to send a message that you don’t do this, that you have been warned,” he gloated.
Incredibly, Hegg said that two of the jurors fought hard for the maximum possible penalty: $150,000 per track for a total of $3.6 million. Although surveys show that Americans now hate the RIAA even more than Wal-Mart, the music industry evidently still has friends in low places.
BULLSHIT THE BLUE SKY… On November 1, Bono met with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The two wealthy men may have discussed a subject on which they are both experts—how to avoid paying taxes—but Bono says the mayor wanted an update on the U2 frontman’s “philanthropic” projects.
“What I’m interested in isn’t just his cash, but his intellect, and how his business acumen could be used to work for the world’s poor,” Bono said.
Michael Bloomberg is notorious for a vicious war against the poor which cleanses New York City’s streets of poor people in order to increase property values. Bono told reporters that he thought Bloomberg would make a great President.
“I get angry about how African kids have to live . I though the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005 was a real missed opportunity. I didn’t like the way Bono and Geldof hijacked the G8 summit demo with their pop concert. The only result was Pink Floyd sold a few million more albums. People have to realize you don’t help African children singing along to 60 year old men playing tunes from 40 years ago. It was like 1750 all over again: we are the white do gooders. If there’s another G8 summit there should be a court order banning Geldof or Pink Floyd or Bono from leaving their houses until its over.”—Ian Brown of Stone Roses
THE GUEST LIST…. Gavin Martin writes: The Joshua Tree 20th Anniversary Edition, U2 (Island)–The Joshua Tree is an unavoidable landmark in 1980s rock, an essential step in Bono’s route march to celebrity sainthood. U2’s megastardom went champagne supernova when they got their Tree out in 1987. Now it’s reissued with extensive notes, added demos, B-sides and live DVD content.
The demos are gruesomely fascinating, but akin to watching granddad clean his dentures–unnecessary. Bono is revealed as Very Pompous Indeed, the 1980s big haircut syndrome extending to his vocals, and producers Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite were obviously crucial to shaping U2’s content.
Twenty years later, U2 is at a crossroads. Bono admits recent albums All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the iPod-promoted How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb played too safe. Now, hardly revolutionary plans to make an album with franchise producer Rick Rubin are on hold, while Daniel Lanois has been roped in as a virtual fifth member. In crisis, what crisis? mode, the U2 organization reverts to type–and polishes its laurels.
In 1987, The Joshua Tree was a world-conquering album, making Bono as important as he always thought he was. But as far back as 1980, with barely enough money to buy a pair of cheap sunglasses (let alone an expensive designer pair), he was already sure of U2’s future global success. But were they going to change the world or merely their singer’s bank balance?
Bono’s star rating had escalated with U2’s 1985 Live Aid performance. Anthems such as “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Where The Streets Have No Name” cemented a deeply meaningful relationship with a huge international audience. They offered seasoned sincerity, killer riffs, confident singing and bold, clear musical ideas.
Twenty years later, Bono is a partner in Elevation, the private equity company that owns business publisher Forbes, and U2’s attitude to taxation and sponsorship has been revealed as hypocritical. Last year, when tough questions were asked about his latest charity scheme, Bono responded by playing a poor African in a Comic Relief sketch.
This music still has the power to raise the spirit, but now there’s an added twinge–a vague sickening in the stomach. So when Bono sings, “I can’t live–with or without you”, the feeling is, almost, mutual. [This review originally appeared in mirror.co.uk]
HOME XEROXING TIPS… The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette (Lawrence Hill, $24.95) tells the story of New Orleans by beginning in 1492 and ending in 1821. In explaining the unique nature of the Crescent City, Sublette gives a fascinating description of its ingredients: Spanish, French, and American colonialism (and the different streams of African forced emigration which accompanied each); Cuba, both Havana in the west and Santiago in the east; slavery and the Haitian revolution which overthrew it; unity and conflict among blacks and between blacks and Native Americans; the reactionary who was Thomas Jefferson; sugar, cotton, and tobacco. And, of course, the music and how the sound of New Orleans was fashioned from all the elements which flowed into it by river and by sea.
Along the way, Sublette throws off an astonishing array of nuggets: The impact of the transition from the harpsichord to the pianoforte in Europe; how the habanera rhythm not only galvanized antebellum New Orleans but went on to become part of the Brill Building sound and the basis of the theme from Dragnet, much of 80s corporate rock, and reggaeton; the 18th century quadrille dance eventually giving birth to dancehall reggae; the first use of the word “rock” in relation to music (in 1819); and the first rock & roll record (Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight in 1947) being recorded across the street from the site of Congo Square, where New Orleans slaves once gathered in mass to dance and play music.
The final chapter, “We Won’t Bow Down,” brings the story up to date by describing today’s “only-in-New Orleans art form” of the Mardi Gras Indians, all of whom are black. Donald Harrison, the world-renowned saxophonist who has played with everyone from Art Blakey to Eddie Palmieri, is the Big Chief of the Congo Nation tribe which means, among other things, that he sews his own spectacularly elaborate costume for Mardi Gras, featuring feathers, buttons, and horns in a tradition that goes back through New World slavery to Africa.
Harrison is a part of New Orleans traditions which are rooted neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block, but he’s also part of the tradition in which the city’s musicians carry their rhythmic, soulful gumbo to the world.
Sublette writes: “During his New York years, Harrison lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where he was a musical mentor to his young neighbor, the teenaged Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., who would later become one of the most famous rappers of all time, and who was sensationally murdered in 1997.”
“The first thing I told him was, ‘You know, you would be a great rapper if I could understand what you were talking about,’” says Harrison in the book. “‘So you need to spend a lot of time really making the words where people can understand exactly what you’re saying…That’s gonna put you on another level, right there—the enunciation.’ Such a simple thing, but it’s powerful.”
“Sure enough,” Sublette continues, if you notice, on record Biggie has excellent diction. ‘One of the things I had him doing at one point was learning solos, but learning how to scat ‘em,’ Harrison recalls. ‘And he was a brilliant young person…He would sing a Cannonball Adderly solo. I wish that he would have played jazz, but he went on the path that he deemed for himself, and it turned out that he became one of the best in his genre.’”
So a part of Biggie’s musical legacy was a result of emigration, in this case voluntary, from New Orleans. Now Hurricane Katrina has caused a massive involuntary migration of New Orleanians to every corner of the United States (Sublette: “Dispersing that population was like tearing up an encyclopedia in front of an electric fan”.) What will the social, political, and cultural results of this newfound New Orleans diaspora be? We don’t know yet but we’ll find out soon enough. Ned Sublette has given us the context to understand what’s coming so that we can use the glory and the shame that are New Orleans to help make a different world than the world that made New Orleans.
SLEAZY IN THE BIG EASY… Davey D writes: In recent years New Orleans has reached out to us through Hip Hop–Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Master P, Silk the Shocker, Mystikal, Mia X, the Cash Money Millionaires with Baby, BG, Manny Fresh Turk and many more.
Like most areas that have a roster of superstars there are those who are lesser known as far as the mainstream is concerned yet very popular amongst the common folk in the hood. In New Orleans that would include acts like Truth Universal, DJ Jimi, 54th Platoon and Sess 4-5.
Coming straight outta the ravaged 9th Ward, Sess 4-5 has seen a lot and lost a lot over the past two years but, like most people from New Orleans, he’s focused on moving forward. Hard Knock Radio sat down with Sess recently for an interview.
We talked about the role some of New Orleans rappers played in the ongoing repair efforts. Sess noted that we can’t expect people like Master P or Baby to shoulder the entire load. Many of them have family and friends that have been helping out.
We discussed the lack of contributions put forth by those parent companies that distribute artists like Master P or Cash Money. It was noted that record labels have made billions of dollars off the music coming out of this region. The question that was raised was how much money did any of those major labels put towards recovery efforts? What sort of big events did these labels put together?
For example, David Banner worked tirelessly and with little outside help to put on huge benefit concerts for Mississippi. Did we see anything similar being put forth by big time executives and label owners like Clive Davis, Jimmy Iovine, David Geffen, Lyor Cohen , Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, Doug Morris and others who may own huge catalogues of artists coming from New Orleans? How much money did these companies give? What have they done to help restore the region’s musical heritage and was it commensurate to the profits they made over the years?
Our discussion then switched to the role of established Black leaders. Sess 4-5 eloquently addressed the question of how such a catastrophe could take place in a city that is pretty much Black run. N.O. has a Black mayor, Black police chief and other key individuals who run the infrastructure of the city. How could the aftermath of Katrina happen on their watch?
Sess 4-5 noted that many of those in power see their position as stepping stones to bigger and better things. Getting down and dirty to help uplift the people could be a career killer for many of these Black elected officials who tend to cater to white and corporate power bases. The real heroes of the day were young brothers who stuck behind risking life and limb.
Sess broke down the politics behind how the police department works. It has long been corrupt. He said they have quotas that need to be met in terms of arrests. Officers have an incentive to go out and put cuff on people because if they meet a certain number they get bonuses. The end result is New Orleans having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. In addition it has the highest percentage of people with misdemeanors getting locked up. He noted that any little thing including littering or expired tags can get you jail time in New Orleans.
Sess 4-5 went on to add that the city’s economy is based upon tourism and incarceration. He then went into detail as to how one person getting arrested in a family can quickly drain resources while fattening the wallets of those who run the city. He talked about how residents have to pay for drug tests, court costs and every other service connected to their punishment.
Sess noted that up to 80% of Black males sooner or later will get arrested in New Orleans. The cops make it their business to engage young brothers and make their presence felt. He himself has been arrested more than 30 times.
Sess 4-5 also gave a run down of the Presidential race. He notes that none of those running have really made their presence felt and even if they did at the end of the day, whoever is elected, Black people would lose because all of them including Hilary and Barack are carrying out agendas for a power base that doesn’t have the best interest of poor Blacks.
We concluded our discussion by focusing on Black-Latino relations which have intensified during the reconstruction efforts. Sess noted that many of the immigrants arriving from Mexico are getting played by white developers who are paying them below market low wages in an attempt to lock out Black folks who have long been unionized and staples in the construction industry. On top of that these immigrants are getting abused. He also noted that many Latinos are now new targets for an aggressive police force that works on quotas. He said it would be best if Black and Brown came together and fought for a living wage.
Sess-4-5 is currently finishing up his new album called The Louisiana Purchase on his own record label, Nuthin’ But Fire.
NOWHERE RADIO… “In the local newspaper today [9/13/07], there was a memorial/advertisement on the obituaries page for a young lady who died about five years ago. It included a photo of Meagan, who was only 18, and the lyrics to what I assume was her favorite song, “My Wish” by Rascal Flatts. My question is, when the record industry gets wind of this, will they slap a lawsuit on the still-grieving family?”–Chris Manson, Destin FL
In case you think Manson is exaggerating, consider that the Performing Rights Society of the U.K. has sued Scotland’s Kwik-Fit Corporation for $400,000 because its employees listen to the radio while they work and allow copyrighted songs to be “overheard” by customers and co-workers. The PRS conducted an undercover operation in 2005 and alleges that, on more than 250 occasions, Kwik-Fit mechanics were listening to the radio without ensuring that no one could overhear it. At a procedural hearing in early October, Edinburgh judge Lord Emslie held that there was enough evidence for the suit to go forward. Kwik-Fit protested that it has had a policy for ten years forbidding its employees to listen to the radio. So everyone—corporation, judge, and rights society—agrees that the mechanics slaving away under cars should have nothing to distract them from the monotony of the job.
As for the traditional advice to “whistle while you work,” that isn’t safe either. It’s likely the whistler would be carrying a copyrighted tune and God only knows who might overhear it.
LET’S GET SIRIUS… RRC editor Dave Marsh has a music and politics show on Sirius Satellite Radio that features great music, a variety of special artist and activist guests, and Dave’s provocative commentary. Sundays 10 AM to Noon, Eastern Standard Time (repeats that night from 1-3 AM Eastern time). Sirius Channel 102, Stars.
Starting in January, Dave begins a second show on Sirius. It will be all about politics and will be on Sirius Talk Channel Left (Channel 146) on Sundays from 2PM-5PM (Eastern Standard Time).
FIFTY CENT AND KANYE… Nelson George writes: There’s so much to say about these two young black men, as commercial forces and as artists, but I think the most important thing is what their records/personas say about the state of masculinity in our community. To the cluster of brothers who gather in the middle of my block, blasting their music all summer in defiance of the gentrification soon to push them out, 50 is a loud voice for the simple glories of “street” success.
He embodies the mythology of that ethos, with its very limited but easy to understand vision of manhood. Fight, fuck, shot, do time, stay true to your cru (unless they got you on a conspiracy beef!), wear bling & doo rag, brag about your bullet holes, and in no way be seen to be soft. In 50’s case, let’s add “always have beef” with someone. It seems that every one of his albums has been marketed with a ready-made beef, perfect for projecting an unending air of combat, and doing that Muhammad Ali thing of defining your rival in the popular consciousness.
Remember Ja Rule, who 50 left for dead, even as he adopted the same singing hook device that Ja used to have pop hits. 50 makes “girl”-centric dance records and “street” album tracks and mix tape cuts–playing all ends to generate sales. It was a smart, cynical strategy that leaves him nowhere to go artistically. Not that this ever seems to have mattered to him. In most of the interviews I’ve seen with him hip hop was just a tool, no different than selling crack or sugar water or sneakers. At his core, like Jay-Z, he was a businessman who should probably have retired before this record’s release to better tend to his investments. The difference is that Jay, probably against his better judgment, actually seems to love the art of rhyming as well as the money.
If there’s exhaustion in the marketplace with 50, it’s the same way that street life’s lure withers even for the hardest core playas. You can only be hard for so long (maybe to 25, but certainly 30) before the challenges of mortality, morality, child-rearing and yes, even, love begin to cloud its simple minded ethos. When I see 50’s videos and hear his new records I see/hear a guy trying to live up to an image that he, as a man, probably outgrew three to four years ago. Like a reigning heavyweight champ, he still wants to step into the ring but, once there, what is there to win? More money? One more beef? In those fights the champ defeats himself by competing, because his enemy is no longer another opponent, it is his previous success. (A lesson Jay-Z may have learned, though MCs, like fighters, are a stubborn bunch.)
Without a spiritual dimension, and the accompanying inner search for a higher self, diamonds have no value. Which is why Kanye West is such an interesting brother. One reason for Jay’s (and Damon’s) lack of enthusiasm for the man’s early MC ambitions was that he represents a new vision in hip hop masculinity. They didn’t understand (or maybe respect)–the well-raised middle class boy, determined to hang with the hoods, but learned enough to see the contradictions in street truisms. He knows that spirituality can’t be ignored –Kanye’s listened to enough soul records to know that black art and the question of God are central to our psyche–and that materialism always exploits someone on the low end of the food chain.
When Kanye is being an asshole (a role he plays with great gusto) it is a very conscious personal decision, not the rote commercial role playing of 50. It’s almost like Kanye knows he could tip over into back-pack rap corny if he’s not careful, so he’s smart enough to use his own inner dialogue as his lyrical base. His music shows the man has a very sophisticated understanding of the wider world, an eclectic style that may make him suspect in the “street” but makes his music vibrant, challenging and even inspiring. Unlike 50, whose obvious intellect is obscured by his wooden phrasing and voice, Kanye is the irritating middle-class boy and is better off for embracing that part of himself. I knew quite a few dudes like him growing up. The stupid ones hung out too much and got their ass in trouble. The sharp ones got a nice white-collar gig or started their own business, set up some kind of foundation for kids and gave parties on the weekends to keep hot girls around.
Outside of Kanye there are relatively few depictions of these guys in hip hop, though black literature and R&B are full of them. I’m not talking stereotypical buppie out of some ’90s black movie (see the movie I wrote, Strictly Business, for the bad version of that type) but the living breathing brothers who live in Jersey with kids, a wife and crazy rims. In soul terms 50 Cent is Wilson Pickett–bold, brash, silly, boastful, prone to self parody, and a good man to have on your side in a fight–while Kanye is closer in meaning to fellow Chicago native son Curtis Mayfield–spiritual, well-read, pretentious, observant, somewhat self-absorbed, and a good man to have behind a mixing board.
The Mayfield comparison is a bit more of a stretch since it remains to be seen if Kanye can make a record as unified artistically as Super Fly (which, all due respect to Marvin Gaye, I think is the greatest record R&B culture has ever produced.) Whether 50 moves more units than Kanye won’t matter in the long run. Well after 50 has purchased a sports team, bought up huge hunks of Jamaica, Queens to build luxury condos, and starred in The Dirty Dozen remake in the Jim Brown part, Kanye will still be part of the music world, making interesting recordings and wrestling with the complexities of middle age in between shopping sprees in Amsterdam’s diamond district. [Nelson George’s 1985 book, Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, has just been reissued with a new introduction by University of Illinois Press.]
GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HYPE THEMSELVES… Dave Marsh writes: Two years ago Pete Fornatale Jr. asked me to write a book about a Beatles album for a new Rodale Press series. I replied that I doubted that either he or Rodale would be interested in a book about my favorite Beatles album. I was wrong, and so I wrote The Beatles Second Album, which is a record that contains 22 minutes of music, programmed by a man who hated the group, with an awful album cover and a haphazard song selection and running order. It is not the group’s second album, even in America (the only country where it was released).
Which means it’s got all the makings of a great story. It was fun to write, too, as much fun as listening to the Beatles all day for a month or two can be. The Second Album is the Beatles playing old rock’n’roll, R&B and soul music, which was still new in 1964. It’s also a hint of the Beatles future, in “I Call Your Name,” the first of John’s paranoid midnight visions of love (mother?) lost and in “Money,” where he runs the gamut of emotions about the main topic, from lustful to utterly rejecting the whole premise. On “Money,” when he sings at the top of his range and with all the force he can find, “I wanna be free!” if you aren’t a Beatles fan already and don’t become one on the spot, they send a hearse, I think.
The book is about two of life’s greatest preoccupations, money and music. The fortune Capitol made, the ruination of a great R&B label, the contradictions the Beatles faced, the anger of a man who wasn’t getting rich selling music he deemed “illegitimate” The story spins out into the saga of the Butcher Cover on Yesterday and Today, and the man who hated the Beatles gets his last licks in by writing a hostile obituary of John, which Billboard published, if you can imagine stupidity that deep.
It’s also about what it was like to be a teenager in 1964—what it was really like to love rock and soul music at a time when America was at war over race and recreation. That’s my story, and I must say, it felt very good to come across in the man who hated the Beatles a grown-up more boneheaded than my father.
Now I get find out what everybody else thinks. That ought to be interesting.—D.M.
I was a member of Long Island CORE during the 1960s. We hit upon the idea of a fundraiser and sought to involve the Beatles. They replied that they would have loved to participate, but they were booked on another continent. So we had Pete Seeger and Nina Simone instead.—Gene Glickman
BEDFELLOWS ARE BURNING… In 2004, Peter Garrett left his band, Midnight Oil, after he was elected to Parliament in his native Australia. Garrett had long been an environmental activist, sitting on the board of Australia’s Green Party and serving as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. However, he came to Parliament as part of the Labor Party, which is the rough equivalent of the Democratic Party in the U.S.. He agreed to join Labor even though Labor cost him his first election in 1984, when he ran as a representative of the Nuclear Disarmament Party.
While he was an activist without a governmental position, Garrett opposed the joint U.S.-Australian military base at Pine Gap, loudly opposed logging in the old-growth forest of Tasmania, and displayed take-no-prisoners attitudes on nukes and climate change.
For the past two years, Garrett has been the Labor Party’s environmental spokesman. But he created havoc in the run-up to Australia’s November elections, changing his position on Tasmanian logging and telling Steve Price, the local version of Don Imus, that once in power Labor would renege on its positions and adopt much more conservative policies. Green Party leader Bob Brown denounced Garrett and revoked his side of their friendship over the Tasmanian issue. Rather than opposing pollution, Garrett signed on to Al Gore’s ridiculous plan to sell rich polluters so called “carbon permits,” which encourages things to stay the same, not even improve.
Garrett discarded his earlier principles in order to maintain his potential position in the Labor cabinet if his party won the election. Labor did win, under the leadership of Clintonian Kevin Rudd, a Christian who has discarded the party’s socialist principles in favor of becoming an “economic and social conservative.” Nevertheless, Rudd gave the environmental ministry to Peter Garrett. But not all of it. Garrett isn’t in charge of the two most important parts of the environmental portfolio–water rights and climate change. These have been given to Penny Wong, a much more reliable Laborite.
So what has Garrett really accomplished? The price of becoming a powerful politician was slacking off on his most important commitments. Even then, once they’d milked his celebrity of all the votes they could get, his bosses didn’t trust him enough to let him handle the most meaningful issues. Still, the issues suffer more than Garrett.
The story of Peter Garrett ought to be cited, chapter and verse, wherever American progressives embrace the idea that a celebrity candidate could best represent their interests. In the end, the political system in America, even more than in Australia, isn’t subject to meaningful reform. A star who decides to “work within the system,” especially as a high level government official, will inevitably place the needs of the system first. That’s the price of doing business.
But with the environment in a state of decline almost equal to that of the economy and of the political system itself, that price isn’t worth paying. Whether or not Garret was kidding when he said Labor would betray its campaign promises to the public, Labor has certainly betrayed its commitment to him.
If we can remember this for the next eleven months, we can save ourselves considerable pain next November—the pain of shattered expectations if nothing else.
WE’RE SEEING THINGS… Brothers of a Feather Live at the Roxy (Eagle Vision DVD)—Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, with only occasional sax and vocal backing, delve deep into their own catalog, in the main bypassing the hits. Rich is revealed as an acoustic/electric guitarist of supreme subtleties and deep emotion and his brother dials it down a bit from his over the top electric band persona. Includes a few new tunes and covers of Tom Rush, John Martyn, Gene Clark, Lowell George, and Bob Dylan… Wild Style 25th Anniversary Edition (Rhino DVD)—First released in 1982, Wild Style was the first hip-hop movie and made that mark at a time when most people had no idea what hip-hop was (in then blissful ignorance, the MTA allowed director Charlie Ahearn to film in its subway yards). Its story line of the persecuted graffiti writer Zoro, along with break dancers and a revelatory set on the wheels of steel by Grandmaster Flash, helped to not just document hip-hop history but to make it by spreading the culture worldwide. Its impact has never abated—Nas, Cypress Hill, and the Beastie Boys have all used scenes from it on albums and the ongoing devotion to hip-hop’s original five elements keeps bringing new viewers to the film. Special features include a fascinating commentary track by Ahearn and prime mover Fab Five Freddy… Help!, The Beatles (Capitol/Apple DVD)—Magnificently restored, which is good because you need to watch it several times to catch all the asides, sight gags, and inside jokes. Seven great songs are presented as the first ever “music videos” with often only a tenuous connection to the plot but it all works because the film looks great, the energy never flags, the Beatles are hilarious and charming, and Leo McKern is priceless as the bumbling villain. Fun is constantly poked at government, religion, the police, and academia in ways that are not always as lighthearted as they seem. The bonus disc features everything from Help!’s relationship to the Profumo scandal to an in-depth description of the1965 film’s restoration that isn’t just for techies. Overall, this package will help anyone who wasn’t there to understand why the Beatles were once so dominant in the world…Greatest Hits Live in ’76, Marvin Gaye (Eagle Vision DVD)—Recorded in Amsterdam during Gaye’s first European tour, this seems like it might have been the first show since the funky orchestra and Marvin are sometimes a little out of sync, although at least as often they fly like two wings of a soaring eagle. Features both his early hits and trips through What’s Going On and I Want You. Marvin’s voice is in rare form, effortlessly going wherever it needs to go to take singer and audience beyond their earthly cares….Wes Montgomery Live in ’65 (Reelin’ In the Years DVD)—Imagine if the person you love being with the most in this world could express all of their best qualities through the guitar. That’s Wes Montgomery, on the evidence presented on these television appearances in Holland, Belgium, and England. His intelligence, warmth, and humor overflow in conversation and in his playing. Bending pick-up bands to his will, exhibiting world-changing technical innovations with consummate ease, pouring out harmonic and melodic ideas, the notes seem to come not from his instrument but from somewhere deep inside him. As Pat Metheny points out in his liner notes, this music was a reflection of the times and a lot of what that meant was that a black kid in Indianapolis took one of the few roads open to him and made it into a musical superhighway.
THIS MONTH’S DOWNLOADING PROSPECTS… The Ultimate Victory, Chamillionaire (Universal)–Much is made out of how this Houston rapper sets himself apart from other lyricists, but he doesn’t get enough credit for the accuracy of his vision, defending Southern rap and aligning himself metaphorically with Snoop. Fortunately, his mix of hook laden beats, rapid fire lyrics and sing-a-long refrains are among the most infectious in rap. When he compares CEO’s to slavemasters, explaining their employees “work the bill but don’t even own it” or when he charges if you aren’t “upper class, then your opinion is irrelevant” only a media wanker could miss the point.
Play It As It Lays, Patti Scialfa (Columbia)—Scialfa has now made a trilogy of albums (spread out over more than a decade) that offer a vision of life as lived by a tough, smart woman who is both romantic and practical, cynical and embracing. “Run Run Run” celebrates a similar figure, Shirley Muldowney, the first great female drag racer. Elsewhere she slips girl group choruses into stark examinations of how spouses cheat each other, without exactly cheating. None of Scialfa’s albums sounds much like the one that preceded or followed it. But all of them sound better than good, thanks to excellent production and arrangement smarts, and a rhythm section whose bedrock is drummer Steve Jordan and the ageless Willie Weeks on bass. Nils Lofgren plays very bluesy guitar on top although the melodic force just as often emerges from Cliff Carter’s piano. Scialfa asks something of us that few artists dare: She wants listeners who are as engaged and excited by reality and excellent musicianship. In a better world, they’d be flocking to her. In this one, she’s one of the boomer generation’s best kept secrets.
Chronchitis, Slightly Stoopid (Stoopid)—As time goes on, they have evolved away from being a mirror of fellow Cali stoners Sublime, honing a focus on an acoustic-dominated reggaefied sound. Nothing about them—not the playing, the singing, or the writing–leaps out at you but their overall vibe of good intentions and supreme self-confidence is just fucking irresistible. And there’s enough variety to keep your finger near the repeat button. Slightly Stoopid just toils away in productive obscurity, maybe due to the vagaries of the music business or maybe due to the fact that their ridiculous name invites people not to take them seriously. That’s too bad, because Chronchitis, if not quite a masterpiece at the level of The Chronic, is one hell of an album that deserves widespread inhalation.
Mighty High, Gov’t Mule (ATO)— If the question is “Where is there left for hard rock to go?,” here’s one good answer. Begins with a heavy, humid cover of Al Green’s “I’m A Ram,” with Warren Haynes offering a serviceable vocal and a killer riff, falling away to reggae sections that set up that thrilling riff again. After seven minutes of that, it’s a dub version of “Unring the Bell” with Jamaican singer Willi Williams. The rest of the album winds in and out of dub, always ultimately returning to some approximation of “I’m A Ram.” Live recordings are doctored to good effect too, especially “Play With Fire,” where Michael Franti takes the cynical populism of the Rolling Stones and turns it into an apocalyptic prophecy of revolution.
Son of Skip James, Dion (Verve Forecast)—Dion is 68 years old. Next year will mark his 50th year as a recording artist. He is the only great ‘50s rock and roller who has sustained himself all that time, writing songs, making unpredictable albums of great creativity throughout the decades. The music Dion has made on his last two albums—The Bronx in Blue last year and its follow-up—ranks with the finest things he or anyone else in the rock world has ever done with blues. He applies his doowop smarts to singing songs like “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”), “ “Devil Got My Woman,” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” and he is a masterful guitarist. So he not only gets away with working tunes pioneered by Robert Johnson, Skip James and Muddy Waters, he makes his blues as truly personal as it needs to be to honor the form and its masters. Compared to what he does here, The Bronx in Blue is a sketch and Clapton’s Johnson tribute album a finger-painting. This is a genuinely great album, and it’s fearless—he not only takes on those blues classics, he also nails a version of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine,” and effortlessly incorporate several new songs he’s written into the mix. May he make such sounds for another half century.
Latino Modern: The Greatest Songs Ever (Petrol/EMI)—A compilation of artists from Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Colombia, and…the Bronx. What links the music together other than language is that it’s all highly danceable, with a pop feel and sense of optimism. The raindrops of everything from dub to electronica to hip-hop drip down and fertilize indigenous gardens and the results feel more harvested than concocted. Highlights include Pacha Massive’s “Don’t Let Go,” which sounds like it could have been written by Madonna until the gentle left turn where a clavinet starts breathing in the spaces of a guitar solo and “Amortiguador [Shock Absorber],” by Andrea Echeverri of Aterciopelados, which expresses both aspects of its title with a sweetness tempered by a chip on the shoulder.
Give Us Your Poor: 17 New Recordings to Help End Homelessness (Appleseed)—The solution to the most intractable problems of poverty begins with the poor taking control of their own situation. Here’s a step in the right direction. Although the billing goes to stars—Natalie Merchant (the beautiful “There Is No Good Reason”), Bruce Springsteen with Pete Seeger, Bonnie Raitt, Bon Jovi, Buffalo Tom and readings by Danny Glover and Tim Robbins—many of the musicians here are or have been homeless. Glover’s “My Name Is Not ‘Those People’” is particularly chilling in a climate frozen into an ugly posture by the likes of Imus’s return and the degrading Presidential election “debates.”
Over the Under, Down (ILG/Warner Music Group)—The aftermath of Katrina has only solidified the myth that New Orleans is all about jazz and R&B when in fact hip-hop has been a massive Crescent City export and so has heavy metal. Down is a collection of musicians from Pantera, Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar, and Eyehategod–all of whom claim New Orleans as home—who made this album in the wake of the flood. While only three songs are explicitly about Katrina (“On March the Saints,” “Mourn,” “Beneath the Tides”), the entire CD has the feeling of nature out of balance, of water giving death instead of life, of monstrous riffs saving drowning men. The closer, the Zep-like epic “Nothing in Return,” urges us to just “walk away” but, like America and Katrina, we can’t. Gotta play it again, gotta find a way home.
The Young Rascals (Collector’s Choice); Groovin’, The Young Rascals (Collector’s Choice)—In 1966, there were good blue-eyed soul cover bands all over the place, inspired by connections both indirect (the radio) and direct (Rascals drummer Dino Dinelli apprenticed with Little Willie John). The Young Rascals took their place near the top of that firmament with organ-driven sizzle and convincing vocals on the likes of “Good Lovin’,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Midnight Hour.” The real test was the leap to original material and, by their third album, the group had mastered that while effecting a considerable change in sound by using piano instead of organ. “A Girl Like You” and “How Can I Be Sure” are shimmering, gorgeous love songs made more potent by the universal realities they reflect. “Groovin’” used harmonica, flute, and percussion to help fashion an across the board smash that completed the circle, giving the group a large black audience.
Bass on Top, Paul Chambers (Blue Note)—In 1959, bassist Chambers was a part of the recording of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, which included “So What” and the memorable bass line which has impacted music ever since. Here on this 1957 date, Chambers begins “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” with four bars of that bass line, then seems to back away from it in awe of its power, only to go forward and create one of the few successful albums by a bass player who doesn’t compose. Chambers dominates nonetheless, sometimes by extended bowing sections, always by projecting his strong spirit and musicality into the mix. Guitarist and primary foil Kenny Burrell has to work hard to keep up.
Draw the Curtains, Will Hoge (Rykodisc)—A heartland writer-performer in his early 30s, so committed to his work that he drives his own bus—and so good at what he does that he can afford to own one. Hoge is all about the passion, whether it’s for a lover (the title track, “Dirty Little War”), a lifestyle (“The Highway’s Home”) or his opposition to the war and the culture that produced it (“Washed by the Water”). If this sounds like the heyday of Bruce, Tom, Bob and John, it’s not an accident—and the quality level isn’t far off, either.
Number 1s, Conway Twitty (MCA Nashville)—Begins with 1958’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” one long crescendo of unrequited love that is an homage to the RCA Elvis, not the Sun Elvis, although Twitty was born right down the road from Elvis’s Tupelo hometown and also moved to Memphis. It goes on to four duets with Loretta Lynn, from the resignation of “Lead Me On” to the joyful “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” all part of a 28-year sprawl of number one songs. Twitty—who wrote several of his hits—explores his inner thoughts and conflicts, sharing them with his women even when he betrays them. With his baritone growl and soulful production, he is far above the ranks of the mere countrypolitan crooners with whom he was often linked.
The Scene of the Crime, Betty Lavette (Anti)—Lavette’s 2005 I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise couldn’t properly be called a comeback since the soul veteran never had a hit in thirty years of trying. (The news of this album’s Grammy nomination moved her to tears.) That album featured a batch of songs written by women, from Joan Armatrading and Sinead O’Connor to Dolly Parton and Rosanne Cash. This one puts her together with the Drive By Truckers, and the collaboration brings out the smarts and toughness in both. Lavette still considers herself an interpretative songwriter, and she’s possibly the finest one still practicing. But while these songs may have originated with writers like Elton John, Eddie Hinton and John Hiatt, they’re hers now, even Elton’s “Talking Old Soldiers” and “I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me as I Am),” one of Hinton’s defining compositions. The best of them all is “Before the Money Came (The Ballad of Betty Lavette),” which she cowrote with the Truckers’ Patterson Hood. In her early 60s, Lavette sounds like she might be around—and highly visible—for quite some time to come. Damn right it’s about time.
Never Slow Down, Roman Carter (Bong Load)—Garland, Alabama native Carter has been bringing it with his textured hoarse shout for forty years but it hardly sounds frayed on this collaboration with former Beck producer Tom Rothrock (they co-wrote most of the songs). There is some use of beats and distortion, but the main instrumental punch is supplied by slide guitar, dobro, organ and live drums. The result is an organic hybrid that doesn’t necessarily feel modern or retro, except maybe in the way a couple of tunes evoke the feeling of some great gospel-infused one-off hit circa 1970.
The Outsider, CL Smooth (St. Nick/Blackheart)— CL Smooth’s voice and its flow, so embedded in the history of hip-hop, is as good as ever. This mixtape album has new songs and redone ones from his American Me album plus four effective live tracks from a Dutch concert, classic tunes from his days with Pete Rock. Highlights include the raw, guitar-driven “Impossible” and a sweet, beautiful remix of “Heaven Only Know” with John Legend.
Soneros Jarochos:The Arhoolie Recordings 1989-90, Grupo Mono Blanco (Arhoolie)—If you have trouble getting into Mexican traditional music, try son jarocho. With its heavy West African and Afro Caribbean historical influences, it’s closer to what North American ears are used to. Mono Blanco, with four generations of musicians in it and recorded live here, is one of the groups which has helped to galvanize a revival of this Veracruz genre in both Mexico and California. Although the lineup is string harp and small, specialized acoustic guitars, this is heavy music made for all night dancing—the rhythmic drive is overwhelming and the vocals soar and dive like demented fighter planes. There is now a growing two-way pipeline of music and musicians between Veracruz and the United States, so keep your eyes open for a local show since son jarocho is best experienced in person.
The Detroit-Memphis Experiment, Mitch Ryder (Lilith)—One of the pinnacles of blue-eyed soul, this lost classic features Ryder fronting none other than Booker T & the MGs and turning in unforgettable performances of “Raise Your Hand,” Otis Redding’s “Direct Me,” and originals such as “Liberty,” “Meat” and “Push Aroun’.” Ignored or panned when it appeared on Paramount Records in 1969, this album actually proves that Ryder’s voice was one of the best R&B vehicles ever, period. How it is that such a great figure finds an audience mainly in Germany these days is one of God’s great anomalies.
Roy Street Inn, Rex Moroux (rexmoroux.com)—Cajun soul singer with an ache in his throat and a keenly observant eye for dramatic particulars. He can break your heart with stuff like “December 24th,” “Extended Stay America,” and most of all, “Walking My Baby Home.”
Rise, Samantha James (Om)—Under the jaunty spell of dance producer Sebastian Arocha Morton, James is something like Sade without a band—cool, breathy, tugging unobtrusively at your heart (or maybe a little lower). The title track is the flip side of suicide bombing (“People rise together/When they believe in tomorrow”) while “Send It Out to the Universe” is that belief in tomorrow.
Bridge of Sighs, Robin Trower (Capitol/EMI)—On the former Procol Harum guitarist’s second solo album, he runs one killer riff after another through both massive reverb and a Hendrix fixation that doesn’t get in the way of his own creativity. What lifts this album above the pack is stellar songwriting and the powerhouse vocals of bassist James Dewar. There’s also a bonus album of live tracks included—uniformly good and, in the case of “Confessin’ Midnight,” absolutely electrifying.
Psychedelic Sunrise, The Chesterfield Kings (Wicked Cool)—Garage rock that rushes out when you open the door, reminiscent of when such sounds were all over the radio. “Rise and Fall” projects a happy ending to wars everywhere while “Inside Looking Out” has that great fake classical vibe of days gone by. Heavily British-influenced without falling into anglophilia. No mean feat.
Live at the Turning Point, Willie Nile (River House Records)—The opening “Welcome to My Head” just about sums it up; this is a career retrospective from the small but mighty Nile, and his accomplices, Rich Pagano on percussion and the great Jimmy Vivino on everything else. From “The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square,” a celebration of rock’n’roll spirit, to “Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead,” a meditation on the dead and dying in the rubble of the Madrid train station bombing, to the cover of the Who’s “Substitute” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” this is the real shit: Deep, tender, irreverent, funny, quick as a knife and twice as honest.
Down Below It’s Chaos, Kinski (Sub Pop)—Opening for Tool with no soundcheck earlier this year, Seattle’s Kinski wandered the too big stage like lost lambs, had equipment problems, and still were able to bring the crowd into their world of hugely satisfying, eclectic sludge riff instrumentals. On record, it’s (a little) more neat and clean, which means that you can more easily hear and feel all the hammer and tongs sounds they cram into each track. They don’t use electric guitars to look for truth, they insist the electric guitar is truth. They ain’t lying.
Funk This, Chaka Khan (Burgundy)—Chaka has become some kind of Minneapolis magnet—her last album was produced by Prince and this one is produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, both of whom Prince fired from the Time back in the day. (the Time’s Jesse Johnson is also the primary guitarist here). Naturally, they cover Prince–giving “Sign O The Times” a surging ending and a change-the-world outro. This album is a different sound for the Jam/Lewis production team, with plenty of live drums and domination by guitars, both chunky fills and screaming leads. It’s about half covers (Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Rufus, Doobie Brothers), with some good Khan originals (especially “Back in the Day” and “Super Life”) and a roaring duet with Mary J. Blige, “Disrespectful.”
Soul Season, Tim Krekel Orchestra (Natchez Trace)—Krekel’s a veteran Nashville songwriter but though he’s penned a hit for Patty Loveless and worked with Jimmy Buffett, left on his own he’s never been anything but an R&B-drenched rocker. The band here sounds more like one of those tight, tough groups that Mitch Ryder put together in the ‘70s and ‘80s than anybody’s “orchestra.” The songs and performances are both on fire, never more so than on “Wilson Pickett,” a tribute to the soul giant from a guy who loves him so much that he imagines Pickett’s buried in his backyard.
Moby Grape (Sundazed)—Thirteen songs totaling thirty-one minutes wasn’t that unusual in 1967, but an album that features–start to finish–such strong songwriting, sharp playing, and varied harmonies is unusual in any era. Some tunes emerge from jagged blasts of electric guitar, while others such as “Sitting By the Window,” an aching sigh set to music, drag you quietly into your own pain. The energy captured in this debut was such that the group imploded immediately afterward, scattering random albums across the landscape but only as their one mountain of greatness receded rapidly in the rear view mirror.
Ultra Wave, Bootsy (Collector’s Choice Music)—This 1980 album takes a James Brown core of musicians (Bootsy’s brother Catfish Collins on guitar, the Horny Horns of Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley) and colors way outside the Godfather’s lines with its refusal to take itself seriously while creating some serious funk. “It’s a Musical” is very off-Broadway, with a splayed lockstep between bass and the clavinet enticing dancers to try new things while “Sacred Flower” is a lovely, elongated ballad that Bootsy describes as “foreplay.” “Fat Cat” is less spacy—it’s an indictment of those future guardians of Internet morality who, the story goes here, shorted Bootsy on his money.
Everybody’s Brother, Billy Joe Shaver (Compadre)—Shaver is both Christian and contrarian so even though one of these songs declares “If You Don’t Love Jesus,” you are condemned to the pits of Hell, the best of them (“To Be Loved by a Woman,” “The Greatest Man Alive,” “You’ll Always Be My Best Friend”) are about the glories and tragedies of everyday life. Which is why Shaver is one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, a unique figure worthy of his own designation: “Honky Tonk Hero.”
Dylanesque, Bryan Ferry (Virgin)—Ferry has been one of the finest Dylan interpreters since his debut solo album in 1973, with its monumental reinvention of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Here he tackles eleven Dylan tunes, from the inevitable (“The Times They Are A-Changin’”) to the inimitable (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”) to the delightfully surprising (“If Not for You,” “Gates of Eden,” “Make You Feel My Love”). Nobody this side of Roger McGuinn and the man himself has ever sung this material better.
Gozalo! Bugalu Tropical Vol. 1 (Vampisoul)—Boogaloo emerged in New York in the early 60s as a result of cross-fertilization of Puerto Rican and black musics under the influence of Cuba. It then traveled back toward its original sources and beyond–in this case Peru. Peruvian bugalu flowered in the space between the mambo and salsa eras and was much less influenced by American soul music than its New York counterpart. It’s more big band music, with occasional hints of Cab Calloway and rock and roll, and it’s amazing to hear such a treasure trove of previously unknown bands. What’s next?
Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown, His Name is Alive (High Two)—Although alto saxophonist Brown was a leader of the 60s avant jazz scene, the nine-piece Detroit band His Name is Alive only occasionally goes in that direction. Their basic approach is gentle and circular, with what muscularity there is coming from electric piano and rockish guitar as much as from the horns. The album functions like one long invocation but, instead of disappointment at the lack of a main course at the end of this prayerful excursion, you’ll probably just want to play it again.
The Grand Tour, George Jones (American Beat)—This 1974 album came out as Jones’s marriage to his finest collaborator, Tammy Wynette, was falling apart. That gave added bite to the title track, a trip through a now empty home that’s a little like listening to a drunk on a barstool, if that drunk happened to be one of the finest artists of the twentieth century. Jones knew his fans were always watching, which led him and Wynette to write “Private Lives,” a novelty tune on the surface but really a profound meditation on what musicians endure in order to bring happiness to others. Throughout, Jones not only overcomes Billy Sherill’s often cloying production but bends it to his will, making it a tool for even deeper emotional impact.
Let Us Get Together, Marie Knight (M.C. Records)—The great gospel/R&B/soul diva tries out a full set of country-blues holiness tunes, all associated with the great Rev. Gary Davis. It’s her first album in 20 years and it’s beautiful, the singing impassioned and powerful, the phrasing delicate and intelligent. Producer Larry Campbell, a guitarist, clearly loves Davis (though his playing more resembles Pops Staples), but not so much that he forgets to put Knight’s showcase voice at the center. Highlights include “I’ll Fly Away,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and the title track, which is the social gospel incarnate, a vision of redemption as revolution, and heaven right here on planet Earth.
The Knife Feels Like Justice; Live Nude Guitars; Brian Setzer (American Beat)—Twofer of Setzer’s first post-Stray Cats albums. Nude is mostly the Cats’ style and themes, pumped up a bit sonically. Knife is something else again—a concept album where war and poverty are inseparable from rock & roll dreams and self-loathing. While religion is lightheartedly mocked on the rollicking “Three Guys,” the main theme is money and/or the lack of it (“All the king’s men have a summer house in France/But you and me live on the radiation ranch.”) Setzer even casts himself in the role of a Mexican immigrant crossing into Texas on “Maria,” a song whose power grows from the unspoken assumption that border crossers are right and their enemies are wrong. Aided greatly by Tommy Byrnes on guitar and Kenny Aronoff on drums, the former Stray Cat here fashions a timeless rock sound, nothing like the sounds of the past to which he subsequently soon returned.
Afro Blue, McCoy Tyner (Telarc)—Those unfamiliar with pianist Tyner could start with the classic albums he made over forty years ago with John Coltrane (My Favorite Things, A Love Supreme) and then move on to this collection of highlights from the past ten years. It includes excellent work with a trio (with Stanley Clarke), a quartet (with Bobby Hutcherson), and a quintet (with Terence Blanchard). Best of all are Tyner’s Latin big band doing an epic version of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” and two solo piano explorations. As for the thirty-plus year gap between then and now, you can spend the rest of your life checking out the dozens of albums Tyner made in that interim. His probing intelligence and deep well of emotion, not to mention a certain pop sensibility, will consistently reward your quest.
Nil Recurring, Porcupine Tree (Transmission)—British band rises above the tyranny of material possessions on “What Happens Now?,” yet searching for truth is hard when you’re “Cheating the Polygraph” and “Stoned in the mall the kids play/And in this way they wish away each day.” They rise above cynicism with the music—vaguely experimental hard rock that wanders in interesting ways only to always return to raging riff-heavy choruses. Very precise, layered production ultimately becomes almost invisible and forgotten, like foreplay when it gives way to the pressure drop of ecstasy.
Revival, John Fogerty (Fantasy)—Fogerty’s back in closer control of his Creedence Clearwater material, and thus can give us “Creedence Song,” a gem about what happens in a truck stop with “Lodi” on the box. The rest of the time, he opposes the war, sometimes with a degree of subtlety (“Gunslinger”) but more often with the most outspoken material of his career: “Somebody Help,” “I Can’t Take It No More,” and “Long Dark Night,” each written with malice aforethought.
Folk Music, Deep Blue Organ Trio (Origin)—During a long-running residency at the Green Mill Tavern in Chicago (where the poetry slam was invented in 1986), these veterans–Chris Foreman, Bobby Broom, Greg Rockingham—forged a sound that’s leaner and cleaner than the typical organ trio. They relax and play around with original blues, be-bop, and covers that range from the delicate (the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home”) to the downright nasty (the Ohio Players’ “Sweet Sticky Thing”). DBOT pulls you in bit by bit and those who are just mesmerized by that B3 sound won’t ever want to leave.
Better Days The Encore, Lorenzo Owens (MusicMind)—You’ve been drinking in an upscale bar in Chicago for an hour or so, enjoying conversation with the guy next to you. He dispenses wit and wisdom on the foibles of romance. All of a sudden he strides to the small stage in the corner and begins to sing some heartfelt nuevo soul. What is this, karaoke night? Not even, as his songs aren’t covers but smart takes on his barstool philosophizing, and a band shambles up from the crowd, most notably a very able acoustic/electric guitarist and a fine electric pianist. Turns out the barmaid can sing her ass off, giving Owens a run for his money at times. When it’s over, you want to buy him a drink but he’s nowhere to be found.
Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (Rhino)—The title’s a mouthful and the contents live up to its every implication. Opening with demos of “I Never Loved A Man” and “Dr. Feelgood,” and including everything from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” to Little Willie John’s “Talk to Me,” there’s a career for any ordinary singer in these 35 songs spread over two discs. The absolute apex is Aretha’s brilliant version of “My Way,” which takes everything about the song that’s damnably corny and turns into it heavenly truth.
Black Ice and Propane, Erik Friedlander (Skipstone)—Listening to the first track, the muscular “King Rig,” you think that you’re hearing a very unusual acoustic guitar sound. It may be a few tracks later, or maybe only when you read the liner notes, that you realize that it’s a cello being plucked and hammered by a very unusual virtuoso. This concept solo album is about the trips Friedlander took as a kid with his parents in a cramped trailer towed along the open roads of the west. Without vocals, he effectively conveys the landscapes, the campsites, the thrills and the boredom of such a journey on an album that is, to say the least, entirely unexpected.
Danny Alexander, Lee Ballinger
Cheryl Burns, David Cantwell, Walter Dunn, Jr., Ben Eicher, Carvell Holloway,
Steven J. Messick, Luis Rodriguez, Daniel Wolff.