The latest issue of the RRC newsletter is out with the usual potent mix of music and politics, record reviews and the always cool downloads of the month picks.
This month, positivity in commercial hip hop, Pete Townshend on Rap and Rock, more reasons why we don’t need the music business, Snoop Dogg on country music, tributes to Buddy Miles and Danny Federici, and a whole lot more.
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ROCK & RAP CONFIDENTIAL
No. 223 / June 2008
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT…
“Hip-hop needs to find the next subject. Politics and social stuff—those are going to be the next real subjects groups get into.”—George Clinton, Detroit Free Press, summer 2007
Too many in the hip hop audience accept the big lie promoted by opportunist preachers and politicians that hip-hop is only about madness and misogyny. The truth is very different. There are many, many hip-hop songs reaching millions of people which carry a message of unity, songs whose protests and promise promote a vision of a world without war, poverty, and racism. The truth here should set us free, free of false divisions between mainstream and underground, between bling bling and backpack.
Let us know what we’ve missed.
“All of Me,” 50 Cent featuring Mary J. Blige—Two heavyweights talk about politics at square one, between a man and a woman in a relationship. Fifteen rounds of intense negotiation lead to the kind of “win win” outcome music manages best.
“Bendicion Mami,” Fat Joe—A tribute to his mother and, just like Tupac, it resonates beyond the individual situation because our mothers are held up as subhuman by the media and by the masters of puppets in the White House. Here it’s also about unconditional love for one’s family and support in the face of physical illness and the sickness of the system.
“Black and Brown,” Xzibit—”80% of inmates are black and Hispanic/They’re trying to wipe us off of this planet/Dammit….That’s why we’ve got to sit down/And talk about the black and the brown.” A love song to brothers thrown against brothers in Los Angeles, nationwide and worldwide, with a dream of what could happen if we learned to focus on our real enemy.
“Buck the World,” Young Buck—”My rent due/Baby need food and shoes/I’m flat broke/Still I refuse to lose.” A song about reaching the breaking point and choosing life anyway, changing a “Fuck the World” goodbye to a “Buck the World” throwdown.
“Cold World,” Xzibit—A rap that follows the money at the root of a young woman savaged by a dehumanizing job then by unemployment, of a kid locked into a losing street hustle and of an Iraqi family facing guns and bombs.
“Concrete Jungle,” Jim Jones, featuring Max B, Rell, Dr. Ben Chavis and Noe—There’s power to Jones’s shout out to his “political soldiers” behind bars—without romanticizing the streets, he’s dreaming of the world that can come out of making the culture of those streets work for us.
“Do Your Time,” Ludacris with Beanie Siegel and C-Murder—A roll call of friends and loved ones locked down by a justice system “fucked up,” bolstered by details of life behind bars, suggestions for how to support these brothers and sisters and contemplating what MLK would think of how far we have to go.
“Dreams,” The Game—King’s dreams again, asking us to contemplate what they have in common with those of Huey Newton, Easy E, Marshall Mathers, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Jackson, Aaliyah and Left Eye Lopez.
“Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” Ice Cube—Lays waste to the logic that blames rap for everything from selling crack to college shootings, in fact arguing that gangsta’s the loudest voice against everyday violence. And the reason, Cube explains, “Lyrically I’m so lethal…Just to feed all my people.”
“Georgia Bush,” Lil’ Wayne—Sums up the first year after Katrina, calling the President out for ongoing genocide. A sample of Ray Charles’s “Georgia” not only emasculates the president but restores the power of that refrain free of nostalgia.
“Get Ya Hustle On,” Juvenile—Life after Katrina’s a lot like life before Katrina, “your mayor ain’t your friend/he’s the enemy,” your friends are behind bars, and there’s no government for the people just a hustle to stay alive. But this song’s not about defeat—”It’s crunch time,” Juvenile declares, “It’s the movement.”
“Ghetto, Arab Remix,” Ali B featuring Yes-R & Akon—This call for worldwide unity features Morrocan rappers Ali-B and Yes-R joined by R&B singer Akon, who has his own roots both in St. Louis and West Africa.
“Hangin’ On (My Song),” Chingo Bling—Biggie rapped about contemplating suicide, here it’s the terrorism of the immigration police that puts a man in that mind state.
“Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” Three 6 Mafia—Oscar or not, this song stands strong on its own, deromanticizing the hustle of “seeing people killed and seeing people deal and seeing people live in poverty with no meal.”
“Hate It or Love It,” The Game and 50 Cent—”The underdog’s on top, and I’m going to shine, homie, until my heart stop.” Summons Rakim and Marvin Gaye to remind listeners that playa hatin’ avoids the hard work of dealing with the power structure.
“Hip Hop Police,” Chamillionaire featuring Slick Rick—Cites Snoop Dogg’s “Murder Was the Case” to suggest hip hoppers not let themselves be turned against each other but, instead, stay focused on the real sources of injustice.
“Hope,” Twista and Faith Evans—Twista wishes, “I could go deep in a zone/And lift the spirits of the world with the words within this song.” He does just that and so much more, calling for his brother to get out of jail, his grandmother to get well, an end to drug dealing, war and poverty. Faith’s refrains make it easy to “take this music and use it, let it take you away.”
“Imagine,” Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and D’Angelo—In this world without hip hop, there’s all the same poverty, sickness, madness and death except no music to bring people together to fight.
“Let’s Get This Paper,” Rich Boy—May be the angriest, hardest-hitting political statement anyone’s made about the war against the poor, here at home and over in Iraq.
“Lighter’s Up,” Lil Kim—In English and in Spanish, Brooklyn’s self-proclaimed queen of rap serves up this reggaeton-flavored rap for unity, “no matter where you from.”
“Live Again,” Yin Yang Twins—Dirty South bad boys contemplate the quiet agonies of women forced out of their homes and into the streets, taking off their clothes to feed their kids and hoping for a second chance at life. D-Roc bemoans the fact that the schools don’t prepare these women for the world they face, and the preachers don’t give them refuge, so their hopes and dreams only find voice in rap.
“Make Me Better,” Fabolous and Ne-Yo—A Brooklyn rapper joins forces with a sweet voiced refrain to show just how much we need one another.
“Memphis,” Eightball & MJG—A rally cry for unity among all the hoods of the Mid-South, calling upon the region’s rich musical history and pointing toward a future where all the ghettos nationwide come together.
“My Hood,” Young Jeezy—”Everytime I do it, I do it for my hood/And everytime I do it, I do it for your hood/and everytime I do it, I do it for they hood/It’s understood….
“100 Years,” Plies—Story after story indicting a justice system out to put every young man in the hood behind bars, asking such pointed questions as “how in the fuck can four birds get you a life sentence, but give a cracker seven years for money launderin’ millions?”
“Over and Over,” Nelly—Even without the video of a day in the parallel lives of Tim McGraw and Nelly, these blues suggest the strong ties that bind Nelly being “country” to country music.
“Pal Norte,” Calle 13—This rap about the political vision of an immigrant to El Norte ran in heavy MTV rotation after its album knocked Jennifer Lopez off the top of the Latin pop charts in 2007.
“Ridin’,” Chamillionaire—A tribute to the Undeground Kings’s “Ridin’ Dirty,” this huge hit is the catchiest, boldest protest of racial profiling yet.
“Runaway Love,” Ludacris with Mary J. Blige—Just what it sounds like, a love song to children fleeing violence and a dream of a future those kids can live for.
“Slap,” Ludacris—A working man’s blues that runs through the details of a hard scrabble life, growls at the wealthy, tells the President to just shut up, and then stops and contemplates the abyss. “Troops gone and we still at war/Nobody even knows what for/Even more I’m scared to find what the world really has in store.”
“Slippin’,” Lil’ Kim featuring Denaun Porter—”Fuck the law, the whole system’s corrupt,” Kim declares as she describes just what’s universal about the dog-eat-dog situation that landed her in jail.
“Speaker,” David Banner featuring Akon, Lil Wayne & Snoop Dogg—West Coast and Southern unity “busting out of your speakers,” relishing a sense of power and self control that comes with others at your side.
“Stand Up,” Eightball & MJG—A call to the South, East, West and Worldwide for rappers to talk straight, stay true, stand up for each other, go the distance and forget those who’ve got nothing better than do than hate on other artists.
“Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill),” Wyclef Jean with Lil’ Wayne and Akon—A redemption song for a high school sweetheart all but lost to that same mess that threatens to take us all down.
“The Message,” Styles P—To each member of his family, to his hood, to his crew, to the poor, to the jail, to the kids, to the ladies, to the rich, to the world, the messages P leaves vary in specifics, but they’re tied together by “one is all and all is one/I’m going to see us all rich before all is done.”
“The Morning News,” Chamillionaire—After the enormous success of his debut album, this Houston rapper opened his second album with this attack on the emptiness of television news, where Rosie debates the Donald and the latest gaffes by Paris Hilton and Michael Jackson are worth more time than the reality that your tax dollars just “pay for classes,” CEO’s are “slavemasters….and if you ain’t upper class/then your opinion is irrelevant.”
“The Way I Live,” Baby Boy Da Prince—An appreciation of life in Marrero, one of the neighborhoods spared by Katrina’s floodwaters but not New Orleans’ neglect and devastation before or after.
“We Takin’ Over,” DJ Khaled (with Rick Ross, T.I., Lil’ Wayne, Fat Joe and Akon)—Exactly what it sounds like, blasting off with tympani and some kind of outer space choral/keyboard part that says, think big and then think bigger. Arab-American, West African, Latino and African-American voices plan a takeover, “one city at a time….with enough work to feed the whole town.” A manic Lil’ Wayne vocal promises that those who polite society most fear will soon be heard.
“What’s Going On,” Remy Ma with Keisha Cole—A heartbroken prayer to an aborted child from a young mother, without money or even support from her family or the father of her child, waiting for an answer.
“Why We Thugs,” Ice Cube—The original gangsta still standing spells out the tough questions gangsta’s critics either don’t think hard enough to ask or willfully dismiss. “Call me an animal up in the system/But who’s the animal that built this prison?/Who’s the animal that invented lower living?
“The turn to death themes in the spirituals was partly due to the execution of Nat Turner in 1831. Soon after, many songs included references to the coming ‘Judgment Day’ for the plantation regime and, later, for the Confederacy—‘Can’t stand the fire.’ Turner’s rebellion also sparked a movement that spread white Christian missionaries across the South in order to establish churches for African-Americans that used only approved songs. The battle over lyrics and music censorship, sacred and secular, has been fully engaged ever since. The day-to-day life of the plantation bloc was built around perpetual monitoring of the behavior of blacks and whites.”— Clyde Powers, from Development Arrested: Race, Power, and the Blues in the Mississippi Delta
NO QUEENS IN THE KINGDOM… Suppose that all the rappers who ever used the words “bitch” or “ho” controlled the U.S. government. Suppose that they sent teams of police out into every neighborhood and arrested any woman who allegedly wasn’t conducting herself properly. Suppose that they refused to allow women to vote or to drive or to go to school or to travel or to leave the house. Suppose that they controlled the media and used it to constantly assert that women were too emotional to make any decisions and should never be listened to.
Sound far-fetched? Take out the hip-hop part, and this is exactly what is happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The obscenely wealthy Saudi royal family which controls that country has received hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. aid. The U.S. occupies Saudi Arabia militarily and our sons and daughters have shed a lot of blood there. Every time you get a paycheck, a good chunk of the taxes you pay go to keep the Saudi regime in power and to keep women there from having any function beyond pregnancy. Without U.S. support, the Saudi royal family would be immediately overthrown.
Not one of the critics of hip-hop who get media face time to slander our culture has proposed doing anything about the oppression of Saudi women. All the Presidential candidates support the status quo in Saudi Arabia. Our society definitely needs to deal with misogyny. Let’s start by breaking away from the political parties who take our money to defend it in its worst forms.
ROOTS AND BRANCHES… While answering fans’ questions on the Who’s official website (thewho.com), Pete Townshend argued against one fan’s view that rap and hip-hop are dominating the charts and essentially blocking positions for new rock music. When asked what he felt about rap and hip-hop’s “stranglehold” on the pop charts, Townshend answered, “Rap and hip-hop is the music of the street today. The street is where rock came from. When the white rock players and their fans stopped hanging out on the street, and started hanging out in restaurants, the reality shifted.”
Townshend added, “This is… a ‘loaded’ question. You assume I will agree with you that rock has lost its grip on the masses. Firstly, it never had a grip on the black audience, they’ve always had their own music styles and special coded language which rap has now formalized. I also reject the use of the word ‘stranglehold’–it suggests a noble rock ‘n’ roll tree is being starved of air and nurture by the weeds of rap. I am a huge fan of rap–even Eminem has a real connection to the work I did when I was young.”
RRC reader Dennis Walkling’s response:
I’ve always loved Townshend’s fuck you attitude towards people who claim to be fans of rock, and maybe get the music to a degree, but just don’t get the idea of it. It’s that ridiculous “either/or” attitude that has been the destruction of so many good things throughout history, particularly when it comes to culture, something about which there is never an “either/or” stance one can take without looking completely ignorant. The irony of it is that musicians have been offering hope, release and plenty of in your face rebellion since before Mozart started composing at age four, and it didn’t matter then about any sort of over-commercialized, self-congratulatory sales number pretending to define what is meaningful or not. And that’s all the charts are is a data tool for sheer numbers of product sold. It may or may not have anything to do with cultural value, longevity or meaningfulness. Hoping not to die before I get old, because there’s still some great music to be made that I haven’t heard yet.
WHITE BOY MUSIC… Michael Gonzales writes: Growing-up in the seventies, me and my baby brother Carlos had more differences than just our musical tastes. While he was a small boned boy, I was squeezing into husky sized pants; while he played stickball in the street, I devoured Jack Kirby comics; by high school, while ‘Los pumped iron and marched with R.O.T.C., I was puffing reefer and scribbling poems (“…like some kind of sissy,” he teased) in my notepad.
Living in the concrete circus of New York City, we were surrounded by an array of cultural rhythms that soared like soft winged birds throughout the neighborhood. From the open window of our shapely Rican neighbor Miss Soto, the frantic salsa sound of Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri blared; up the block, hard knock hustlers parked their ornate rides and chilled to the chocolate bubble bath splash of the Isley Brothers, Barry White or Isaac Hayes that sloshed from their speakers.
Across Broadway, the flour-covered men behind the Formica counter at Tony’s Pizzeria digested a steady diet of ballroom ballads sung by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Tony Bennett; while around the corner, the old black man who worked in Leo’s Laundromat listened to sacred gospel songs, contentedly nodding his head to the hallowed hymns.
While Carlos listened to wah-wah funk bands and strobe light disco singles, I had somehow tripped into a wonderland of screaming guitars, blaring banshee vocals and thunderous drums. Beginning with sneaking peeks at Elvis Presley flicks on the CBS Late Movie when I was seven, I had a serious jones in rock-n-roll.
One humid summer evening, hanging-out with our neighborhood crew playing the dozens in front of a flickering street light on 151st Street and Riverside Drive, my brother snapped, “At least ya’ll don’t have to listen to that white boy music Michael be playing. Those loud ass guitars and screaming drives me crazy.”
Brooding like a baby, I ran into the crib, and drowned my sorrow in Freddy Mercury’s falsetto. Indeed, the rock acts that attracted me were the flamboyant glam of Kiss, David Bowie and Elton John. My “Bennie & the Jets”/”Pinball Wizard”/”Someone Saved My Life Tonight” obsession got so bad, I had started scribbling “Elton” as my middle name on school papers.
In class, handing me back a yet another history test I had failed, beefy Mr. Waters snidely screamed, “I’m sure Elton John managed to pass history, but, at the rate you’re going, you may never get out of sixth grade.”
The entire class snickered as I visualized myself bedazzled in neon boots and a mohair suit as electric music and solid walls of sound crumbled at my feet.
For me, television was yet another passion. Forget about the former Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd band, I’m talking about the glowing glass teat that hypnotized my generation with its Technicolor gamma rays: Schoolhouse Rock shorts, nappy-headed Fred Sanford heart attacks, pictures of Patty Hearst robbing banks, soulful Fat Albert playing funk tunes in a Philly junkyard and ivory picket fence Brady Bunch images was my thing. Still, it wasn’t until a few months past my twelfth birthday that I got my first peek at punk rock, and realized there was a universe beyond Elton’s radiant rhinestone eyeglass, Freddy Mercury’s spandex jumpsuits and Ziggy Stardust partying with spiders on Mars.
One Saturday night, lying on the pudding brown linoleum in the living room, ‘Los and I watched a NBC news show called Weekend. Hosted by Lloyd Dobbins and Linda Ellerbee, a groundbreaking program came on as a replacement to Saturday Night Live once a month.
With subjects that ranged from comic book collectors to incest, one could never predict the topics that would be featured. Still, it was quite a surprise that winter night in ‘77 when Weekend aired a segment on “the punk phenomenon in England.” Open-mouthed, I gazed at the television screen with glee as The Sex Pistols wreaked havoc in countless unsuspecting households through out America.
Broadcast “in living color,” this crew of wild Brit boys clad in worn jeans, ripped t-shirts, chunky black boots and numerous piercings stalked the stage of a tattered venue in brutish abandon. “That’s disgusting,” Carlos mumbled sleepily as lead “singer” (screamer, shouter, shrieker) Johnny Rotten lobbed gobs of spit into the frenzied folks in the front jumped up and down. It was as though they were being baptized “You would never see The Jackson Five spitting at their fans.”
The more these “self-styled barbarians,” as Brit writer Nigel Williamson later described The Sex Pistols, taunted their fans, the more maniacal the crowd became. These crazed scenes inside the club were edited with shots of the band’s infamous boat ride on the Thames to promote the single “God Save the Queen,” an interview with their trickster manager Malcolm McLaren and footage from their demented appearance (pre-Sid Vicious) on a BBC talk show.
Until that night, I had never of thought of rebelling against the system or my mother, but one glimpse of The Sex Pistols changed my perspective on the world, which at the time was limited to my Harlem hood, a massive comic book collection and more than a few pop records.
For months after watching the broadcast about the social revolution of punk, I worried about the fragile state of civilization and badgered my mother with inane requests to be sent to an English boarding school like my cousin Calais, who upon returning to the States spoke incisively in her affected accent and gushed about seeing the Sex Pistols in person.
Next to the poof-pop of Elton and Queen, punk rockers were a bunch of rowdy kids who could barely play their instruments, but perfect pitch and harmony hardly seemed the point. Enraptured by the sheer emotion, vibrant energy and defiant anger directed at the plastic people populating our world, the Pistols planted a germ of creative discontent that encouraged me to write angst ridden poems overflowing with images of anarchy and sorrow, question the teachings of my Catholic education as I strived to survive in a no-future (a slogan the non-punk Black folks in my hood could well understand) world of posers and squares.—Michael Gonzales of Brooklyn writes at blackadelicpop.blogspot.com
ROCK CRITIC OF THE MONTH… “I actually did a country song on my new album called ‘My Medicine’ that was inspired by Johnny Cash. Country music inspires me and it makes me feel so good hearing it, so I really wanted to come and be a part of this heritage.”—Snoop Dogg, backstage at the Country Music Television Awards
BULLSHIT THE BLUE SKY…. On January 24, Bono shared the stage at a world business conference in Davos, Switzerland with Al Gore and other luminaries. Bono addressed the music censor personally and talked warmly about how Gore had visited his home. Turning to Gore, Bono said: “Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter. I am a noise-polluting, diesel-soaking, Gulfstream-flying rock star. I’m trying, Father Al, but oil has been very good to me—those convoys of articulated lorries, petrochemical products, hair gel.” Bono the comedian conveniently overlooked the fact that Al Gore is a major stockholder in Occidental Petroleum and an architect of NAFTA, the disaster which gives corporations the power to sue governments if environmental regulations cut into profits.
The day before he flew to Davos, Bono was at the Pentagon to discuss “the fight against global poverty” with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates’ anti-poverty credentials are even worse than Bono’s. An unindicted Iran/Contra conspirator, Gates, as deputy director of the CIA during the Reagan years, argued for the massive bombing of civilians in Nicaragua. He went on to become director of the CIA under Bush the Elder and, until his recent return to “public service,” was a trustee of Brinker International, owner of 1,800 restaurants, including the Chili’s chain. How many restaurant employees do you know who live above the poverty line?
Bono and Gates didn’t actually have time to discuss “the fight against global poverty.” According to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, the two anti-poverty crusaders discussed “plans to set up a new U.S. military command for Africa.” Six weeks later, a U.S. submarine fired a Tomahawk cruise missile into a remote village in Somalia, killing six people.
It’s becoming clear that Bono isn’t just a misguided idealist—he consorts with the CIA and with music censors because they all have the same agenda: Making sure that the rich keep getting richer. U2 manager Paul McGuinness made that clear at the January Midem music industry convention in Cannes when he called on all Internet service providers to disconnect the service of music downloaders and for governments to make such policies into law. McGuinness attacked Radiohead for giving away its music and called out companies such as Apple—which paid big bucks to U2 two years ago for a special edition iPod—as “makers of burglary kits.” In McGuinness’s view, the millions of fans who have made him and his band five of the wealthiest men in Ireland–one of the world’s poorest countries–are nothing but “burglars.”
And more people are noticing that Bono the Emperor has no clothes. In his February 22 Guardian review, Peter Bradshaw gave U2 3D one star. “…This seemed reasonably enjoyable when I saw it last year at the Cannes film festival, after the band played a live introduction on the red-carpeted steps of the Palais. But watched again, deprived of that novelty and the live buzz, it’s flat and U2 just look like four conceited billionaires who are further up themselves than ever…At all times, the band congratulate themselves on their raw courage in espousing human rights. ‘Is this a time for keeping your mouth shut?’ Bono roars at one stage. Well, given it was only the Dixie Chicks and not U2 who risked record sales by explicitly opposing the Iraq war, it would seem that in Bono’s case the answer is, em, yes.”
Meanwhile, Bono has been working hard to gain Irish planning board approval for a $200 million expansion of his Clarence Hotel in Dublin. The plan will involve the demolition of several large Georgian buildings and has drawn opposition from local preservation groups.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER… In his February 6 keynote address at the Concert Industry Consortium in Los Angeles, British promoter Harvey Goldsmith criticized U2 manager Paul McGuinness: “He accused the heroes of Silicon Valley of being manufacturers of burglary kits. However, when I later had a drink with Paul and asked him about the secondary ticket market, he told me that U2 would run its own auction site. So on the one hand he is attacking the Internet pirates for stealing his artist’s music, but on the other hand he is quite happy for the same fans to be ripped off by the secondary ticket market—providing the money, of course, goes to him and his artist.”
Al Gore is executive chairman of Current Media, which paid him $1,041,677 in salary in 2007 even though the former veep works only part-time and even though the company has lost $31.5 million over the past three years. Current Media is now preparing an initial public offering of its stock. SECinvestor.com predicts the stock will come on the market at between $13 and $15 a share, which would mean Al Gore’s 3.7 million shares would be worth a minimum of $48 million. He should have no problems buying U2 tickets at auction.
GOIN’ DOWN LOUISIANA… “I’m not just a musician who plays my show and then takes off after the show. I use it to open the door so that we can talk. There are always discussions after my shows with 10-20 people about what’s going on. Look at the numbers of the people who are eligible to vote, and look at the number of people who actually do vote. Because I think the majority of people know better, they know that the vote doesn’t matter. They’re looking for a way to change that. They’re looking for a way to get involved. They’re like, what do we do? They’re waiting for somebody to tell them what to do. They know that something’s not right.”
Louisiana’s swamp-rockin’ bluesman Tab Benoit founded the organization Voices of the Wetlands to promote the defense of the Mississippi Delta from any and all predators but especially the corporate ones. He helped put together an all-star band, Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars, which includes Dr. John and Cyril Neville, to spread the word.
Benoit also provided much of the music and authenticity for the IMAX film, Hurricane on the Bayou, which was funded by Shell Oil. And he knows what’s wrong with that, too.
“When you see the IMAX thing, the first thing you see is Shell Oil. As long as it’s like that, we’re never going to fix it. As long as Shell Oil is funding the awareness tools, we’re never going to fix this. We didn’t touch oil [in the IMAX film], so it was Shell-friendly. It’s a good introduction, but it aggravates me when we see ‘we can just do it, we know how.’ And we aren’t doing any of it, and we’re not going to do any of it as long as these oil companies are making record profits and all, as long as the EPA restrictions are lifted off the oil companies as they are right now.”
These words come from the recent Benoit interview by Georgianne Nienaber and keith harmon snow for A28 (network.a28.org). By way of introduction, they write: “The Audubon Nature Institute produced Hurricane on the Bayou in partnership with Chevron, Dow Chemical, Dominion Oil, the Weather Channel, and several ‘philanthropic’ foundations. The film green washed the truth—there is not one word about big oil and defense and not a single image of the vast oil infrastructure that blankets the Gulf onshore, offshore, underground, and underwater.”
“My dad,” Benoit says, “owns a pipe company; he’s the guy that puts threads on the pipes so that they can screw them together. That’s all he does is mass production threading, but he’s got patents on them. All these companies have to come to him for high-pressured gas well applications. He has to do the work. He’s made millions, and I was always taught by my family—I don’t think I’m any different than most American families—if it’s legal, and you can make a living doing it, then it’s good. And I didn’t believe that. And I still don’t believe that. Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s good.”
“I understand the importance of Louisiana, for the United States to survive, for the globe to survive. You hear all about this global warming, and you look at all the stuff that supposedly causes it, and the stuff that could be fixing it. Everybody knows that the delta of a river, that those lush forests of swamps and trees are like natural filters, and oxygen makers. And we just killed a huge amount of it. We killed the third largest river on the planet’s delta. We killed one of our big atmosphere scrubbers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that maybe we should pay more attention to the delta of the Mississippi river.”
“Here we [Cajuns] were forced to speak English. If you go to Lafayette and everything, Lafayette and that area west still speaks French and they keep French important. Here, my grandparents didn’t learn English in school. Everything was totally French here. They learned English from Texaco. Texaco bought 70% of [Terrebonne] Parish; they were kind of forced into learning English and changing their ways of living. As far as I’m concerned, that’s when the culture started dying, right there. It was stripped away for industry purposes.”
“How can we say we’re the greatest country in the world when you see the Governor of Georgia saying Atlanta has 80 days of water left, and we’ve got no solution? With all of the scientists that we have in this country, and all of this technology and all of the advances that we make, we can’t get water to a city that has a river flowing not too far from the city? There is water there.
“We’re in Iraq trying to turn them into a democracy, trying to make them be more like the good old U.S. I don’t want them to be like us.”
“All the artists are going to be the voices. Artists are the communicators. We see everybody, we go everywhere, we talk to people everywhere we go, we find out information, we find out stories, we tell stories ourselves, and I mean that’s where you’re going to get the news from. It’s come to the point right now where the news doesn’t matter; the news doesn’t count. So how are you going to get pertinent information from each other? The artists have a way to spread it. We have a way to spread it nationally, worldwide for that matter.”
“The only reason I got into music is because I knew it was the one talent that I had that I could help others with. It was a bigger more universal way to help.”
Power of the Ponchartrain, Tab Benoit with Louisiana’s Leroux (Telarc)—Picks up steam, rising above stock blues licks, on the third track, “Shelter Me,” which may or may not be about Katrina but is definitely some fine gospelized gumbo. Then, as guitar and voice go where they feel like going, the title track tells credible tales of unbelievable voodoo and “Midnight and Lonesome” channels the spirit of John Lee Hooker in its attempt to exorcise heartbreak. Benoit even manages to inject life into that hoary chestnut “For What It’s Worth,” which here is about Katrina (“There’s muddy water on the street”).
JUST EXACTLY WHY DO WE NEED THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?… If file sharing is destroying the music industry, then how did Warner Music Group increase its sales in the first quarter 7 per cent to $989 million? This despite the fact that Warner Music paid its top five operational execs a total of $15,733,611 in 2007. It doesn’t hurt Warner Music’s bottom line that in 2005, according to the LA Times, they “eliminated 1600 positions, pared wages, slashed investment in new artists, shut offices, and quadrupled employees’ health insurance premiums.”… In February, Michael Cohl was elected chairman of the board of Live Nation, the nation’s leading producer of live shows. As a Toronto concert promoter, Cohl charged a “tax” for ten years to acts who played CNE Stadium even though the levy didn’t exist on provincial books. Cohl pocketed 100 per cent of the money but was never charged with a crime. He continues to work with some of the acts (Rolling Stones, U2) on whom he pulled the scam.
MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER… In the excellent new documentary on copyright, Good Copy Bad Copy, Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Industry Association of America (MPAA), opined that artists will not create without the financial incentive that copyright allegedly provides. “People will not do things for free,” Glickman said. “It just defies human nature.”
What are this hack lobbyist’s qualifications to make such a fundamental judgment of the artistic impulse? Glickman, who makes over $1.5 million a year at the MPAA, has never made an album or written a book, let alone made a movie. He is a former nine-term Congressman (Democrat, natch) and was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture, where he made his mark promoting genetically-modified foods.
In fact, hundreds of millions of people around the world are making music, writing, painting, and filming without any expectation of getting paid for it. Faced with this tsunami of creativity and the technology which helps it spread, Dan Glickman operates in the same spirit as his predecessor Jack Valenti, who once told Congress that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”
Glickman even told the filmmakers that his rigid stance on copyright was just an application of the ideals of our nation’s founding fathers. The most creative of that group, Benjamin Franklin, refused to patent any of his many inventions, saying they should be the property of all humanity.
To watch Good Copy Bad Copy, go to: http://nofilmschool.com/2008/03/seen-good-copy-bad-copy/.
JUST EXACTLY WHY DO WE NEED THE MUSIC INDUSTRY?… “After the conflagration, in the final years of humankind, the artists will, once again, be found painting the ceilings of the caves, and the middlemen will, as always, be trying to talk the honest hunters out of their kill. And it may or may not then be remembered, or indeed believed, that there was once a time when the two groups were inextricably linked.”—David Mamet in Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business
ROCK CRITIC OF THE MONTH… “Beauty does not oppose the revolution.”—Che Guevara
With Castro stepping down, the romance of the revolution takes on the aging creakiness of the passage of time. Collective thinking, common good, these are things that can be dismissed as hippie commie pinko notions… But in a world of What Would Jesus Do? it harkens to a humanistic insurrection that is about decency, kindness and the best of sharing abundance with each other.
True beauty is not i-me-mine-more-now-gimme. If the revolution is lowering profit margins to increase the quality of how people — especially in this, the richest country in the world — live, then Steve Earle is right: the revolution starts now.—Holly Gleason, Nashville, at http://www.theyummylist.com
HOME XEROXING TIPS… Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music (Duke University Press, $22.95), edited by Eric Weisbard, is wildly uneven but includes plenty of highlights. There’s Ned Sublette’s “The Kingsmen and the Cha Cha Cha,” which tells the story of how the “Louie Louie” riff (DOT-DOT-DOT, DOT-DOT, DOT-DOT-DOT, DOT-DOT) originated in the cha-cha and was inadvertently part of the ongoing infusion of Cuban music into North American culture. Even better is Benjamin Melendez telling the story of the Ghetto Brothers, rock/soul band and peace treaty organizers, who came up in the gang environment of the South Bronx just before hip-hop. Melendez describes how gang warlords began to fight each other through dance challenges, a precursor to break dancing. As for the Ghetto Brothers band: “It started with the Chipmunks. This is how me and my brothers learned harmony, by listening to these guys! Then came the Beach Boys, then came the Four Seasons. Then came the Beatles and everything changed. But the Beatles crossed all barriers of races. When we started playing guitars, we brought in Beatles music. We introduced the Beatles to the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads and they loved it. When we were doing “Help” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they would say, “Who wrote that?” We’d say, “Oh, we did!” Then there’s Michelangelo Matos on how “Apache” evolved into the b-boy national anthem: “A record written by a white Englishman imitating Native Americans as portrayed by white Americans and made famous by a Dane with a vaguely Hawaiian sound, newly arranged by a Canadian and rhythmically defined by a Bahaman, became the biggest record in black New York.”… Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business by Wired editor Chris Anderson is a lengthy, thought-provoking essay on the rise of “freeconomics.” Anderson details how everything touched by the Web is moving inexorably toward being given away free. He explains how the technologies which drive this process are only in their infancy, meaning we ain’t seen nothing yet in the journey to gratis. “Because free is what you want,” Anderson concludes, “and free, increasingly, is what you’re going to get.” The record industry which insists otherwise won’t be with us much longer. [Go to wired.com to read the entire article or to get a free copy of the magazine].
ROCK CRITIC OF THE MONTH… I was driving home from a gig at two in the morning recently and I had Mary J. Blige playing as loud as possible to help me stay awake. I stopped at a red light near my house in an area where there is construction going on around the clock. There was a construction worker standing there whose only job seemed to be to hold up a light all night. He was paunchy, 50-something, and, yes, he had a red neck. After a few seconds I noticed he was smiling and bouncing on the balls of his feet. Just before the light turned green, he walked toward my car, pointed at the stereo, and gave a big thumbs up. Mary J. Blige has said that her role in life is to “be there for all the girls who work at Wal Mart.” Looks like there may be even more to the story than that.—L.B.
VOICE YOUR CHOICE… On March 2, RRC received an email about Canadian blues-rocker Jeff Healey’s untimely death from cancer at age 41 in a Toronto hospital. It was lengthy but I read it til the end, looking for the news about the benefits that Healey’s fellow musicians would play to cover his medical bills. There was no such news. Then it dawned on me. Healey was Canadian. His medical care was free. In America, we just take it for granted that part of being in the music business is staging benefits to pay medical bills. To my knowledge, such a benefit has never taken place in Canada. Or England. Or Norway. Or any other industrialized country.—L.B.
THE BUDDY SYSTEM… George “Buddy” Miles, who died at age 60 on February 27, was born eclectic. He got his nickname from his idol, jazz drummer Buddy Rich, with whom he shared a stage as a teenager. His father, George Sr., was a bassist who played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker. Buddy joined his dad’s band, the Bebops, at the age of twelve. Then over the next several years he played behind the Ink Spots, the Delfonics, Ruby and the Romantics, and Wilson Pickett.
It was while Miles was with Pickett that he was spotted by guitarist Mike Bloomfield and tapped for the drum chair in the blues-rock horn band The Electric Flag. Electric Flag’s 1968 debut album, A Long Time Comin’, is a masterpiece which rises to the conceit of its vision—to be “An American Music Band,” an amalgam of genres from rock to soul to country to jazz to blues. It wouldn’t have succeeded without Buddy Miles.
And that wasn’t even the best band Buddy Miles was in. That would be A Band of Gypsies, the trio that also featured Jimi Hendrix and Billy Cox. Buddy was no sideman there. He contributed much to its injection of funk into rock, as much with his singing and writing as with his powerful drumming. He also played on Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and had some fine moments in Santana.
Buddy Miles recorded a long string of solo albums and not one of them is fully satisfying (not even his greatest hits album is devoid of filler, for Chrissakes). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good—most of them have thrilling peaks of roadhouse R&B heavily flavored with rock elements and Buddy’s rock-flavored singing, in which he used sheer force of will to overpower the mic.
Why was his own output so uneven? Maybe it was because he had small recording budgets and was in a hurry. Maybe it was because he never resolved the tension between being the drummer and being the vocalist/leader (at one point he had his drums and vocal mic set up at the front of the stage while another drummer played in the back). Maybe it was just that, like so many artists, his reach exceeded his grasp.
That yin and yang continued as he made some excellent music in the 90s, doing blues covers on some projects and working with Bootsy Collins on others. Music was such a part of him that when he wound up doing time at Chino and San Quentin he formed inmate bands. In his last few years Miles, who always expressed a strong social conscience in his music, became a crusader against youth violence, insisting that “we all are one.”
That’s a part of his legacy, as well as a sprawling career that can lead a listener into almost all the musics of America. The only time I saw Buddy Miles offstage he was eating cheesecake at the café in the Fillmore West, hanging out with anyone who would have him. He wasn’t performing that night, he was just checking out a bill that was, like him, very eclectic.
Buddy Miles is said to have died of natural causes (congestive heart failure). But, as is true for most artists in the richest country on earth, he never had health insurance. His family had to send out an appeal on the Internet to raise the money to bury him.—L.B.
KING OF THE GLOCKENSPEIL… I delivered the comments that follow at E Street Band keyboard player Danny Federici’s funeral on April 21:
Yesterday, I tried to figure out why there’s been no E Street Band book. Not by me, not by anybody. Then I tried to imagine the chapter where I’d explain Danny. Now, how do you explain Danny?
For the last several days, I’ve watched people try. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share the voices of people who didn’t know Danny and loved him. Someone told me that when he played, so often with his eyes shut, it looked like Danny didn’t seem to care what the audience thought. Maybe that was true in the moment. But when the playing was done, we know he cared that he had been heard.
Here is what some folks found in listening to him.
Brian Keizer, author and musician:
“If a group of musicians from teenaged to whenever sought to imitate some of the essence of Bruce and Co. you always knew you couldn’t be E Street because of what Danny brought. An amazing and yes underrated musician and always a head scratcher to watch him up there doing what he did.”
Michel Ramos, formerly the keyboard player and accordionist in the BoDeans: “One thing I was really proud of was that when the BoDeans needed to replace me, they had to go out and get Danny Federici.” [Man would I love to hear Danny on “Closer to Free!”]
“More than any other instrument, Federici’s seemed to do its job to make sure everyone else could be the best they could be. He offered a wall of sound against which Roy Bittan could dribble his countless, intricate volleys. He seemed to offer resistance that heightened the punch of Gary Tallent’s bass and Max Weinberg’s drums. While Clarence’s horn could open “The River” with a jazzy, lonesome blues, Federici’s organ stepped in to answer the call of Springsteen’s keening at the end of the song. In “Badlands,” he’d be this bright yellow light behind the chords, offering bravura flourishes at the end of certain lines, like a cross between the Hammond B3 and slide guitar. He was always underscoring lyrics and phrases coming from other members of the band, making them shine.”
Best of all, what Karen Brown from Mississippi Public Radio found out:
“I never consciously identified or separated Danny’s contributions to the E Street Band but as I listened to that brief remembrance on NPR this morning my heart just tore up hearing those strains from “You’re Missing.” As people have made suggestions of songs to tell Danny’s story, I suddenly hear every note he played, just by hearing the title of each song. I couldn’t be more surprised to know that his music was inside me all along and how hearing it now makes me ache all over.”
And if you’ll let me take my turn as a critic for just a minute – Danny is always the interruptive voice, the one that offers a suddenly clear route to the musical spirit. His was the sacred heart of the band on everything from “I’m a Rocker” to “Racing in the Street.” Danny almost never dominated the music but he’d sneak in there and smash your consciousness to smithereens, leaving you with sheer feeling. A true soul man in that respect.
Mostly, though, I keep coming back to what Charley Giordano told me: “Of course I don’t play like Danny. To play like Danny, you’d have to BE Danny.”
When Danny was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, he paid my wife Barbara and me the biggest honor that our friends who have become cancer patients or loved ones of cancer patients can offer: He asked us to help him find a way.
He was seen by the best of the best: Murray Brennan, my daughter Kristen’s doctor, the Sloan-Kettering chief of surgery for 25 years, and the only other person who is called The Boss voluntarily by those he works with. But even the best surgery is not a cure for melanoma.
After surgery, Danny didn’t want conventional chemo. Who could blame him? The results of conventional medicine for melanoma patients have been the same for 40 years and they are dismal. As Bob Maki, the Sloan-Kettering sarcoma oncologist, told me, “If we can figure out melanoma better in my lifetime, I will be delighted. I know we are close. It has been super-frustrating as until now these diagnoses have lagged behind everything else. Even sarcomas.”
Danny’s response was to look in other countries for other kinds of help. Then he met another Sloan-Kettering oncologist. Danny wrote me this in January: “So we worked with my oncologist Paul Chapman at Sloan and he mixed up something he has been trying out on a few people and had had results but not as quick and good as mine.”
Danny’s response to the chemo was amazing to everyone, and for those who know about the disease in general, remain amazing no matter how brief that response may have been.
Those results won’t be brief in the world as a whole. Like all great souls who find themselves in that fix, Danny responded to his illness by worrying about others at least as much as himself. In the period around the surgery, Maya worried about it, saying Danny was fretted about her and the girls and Jason but voiced no concern for himself. When he found Chapman—who is truly a fine physician in every sense, and I grade hard on that subject—and got the unbelievable break of a response, Danny didn’t just rejoice. He set up The Danny Federici Melanoma Fund. Dr. Chapman’s work will benefit.
Go to thedannyfedericimelanoma.com website. On it, you can find Danny reaching out, thinking about the next patient or the next person who doesn’t need to be a patient. I’m gonna read his full statement because it needs to be heard—although today what really matters is that he wanted it to be heard:
“What people take for granted on a daily basis, among so many other things, is their skin. I spent my life, like many others, catching some rays, surfing, hanging out in the sun and it never bothered me until now. Who knew that something as simple as a proper sunscreen or keeping yourself covered up on a sunny day could one day save your life? Our culture looks at a nice tan as a sign of luxury. We spend time in tanning booths when we can’t go to the beach or lay by the pool. It’s time to think again. Especially if you’re fair skinned, have freckles, or light eyes. Be aware of the dangers, take precaution, and have yourself checked out regularly by a dermatologist from head to toe. It could absolutely make the difference in your life.”
These words come from someone who was fighting for his life and decided to turn that into a fight for anybody’s life. This is a fine measure of who Danny Federici was. I hope everyone will go to the site and pay Danny the honor of standing up for his fight. I hope we’ll also remember him by following his advice about the sun and our bodies.
Danny’s life, in its struggles as well as its successes, the total reality of it, makes me think of my favorite passage in American literature, a paragraph from James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” It’s the story of a musician who is trying to find his way back from the disease addiction and of his brother, who is trying to grasp why Sonny needs to be a musician in order to heal. The answer arrives while he’s listening to a solo by another figure in Sonny’s band:
“He began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”
If Danny truly was—as I have been told and as I believe—Phantom Dan, the minister of mystery, then it is in the light that we will always find him. He told me in our last interview that the organ was a color instrument. And now what I hear when I listen to him is the clarity of light—the everyday light that is transparent because it contains every shade of every color.
Danny was a master of the musical moment. I am grateful that so many of those moments that have been recorded. And I am grieved—appalled, really—that there are so many moments that we will not get to share.
Damn the darkness. Viva Federici! –D.M.
THIS MONTH’S DOWNLOADING PROSPECTS… Accelerate, REM (WB)— Peter Buck and Mike Mills are as locked in with one another as any guitar-bass combo in rock’n’roll history. The songs are platforms for them at least as much as for Michael Stipe. Not only that, they rock harder than ever, so who cares what the lyrics say, now that you can understand them?
Comeback Special, The Sleepers (Pravda)—Frayed around the edges, solid at the core, this Chicago band pushes the rawer strains of 70s rock through a punkish extruder to create music that leaps out of the speakers with unbridled joy. Highlights include the title track—so hook-filled you may have trouble catching your breath (you will definitely be dancing)—and “Dirty Cop,” about a drug-addled Dirty Harry who’s out for blood and the Constitution (“Got a .44 trained on the rule of law”).
Savage Life 2, Webbie (Trill/Asylum/Atlantic)–“Independent,” a party rocker dedicated to a woman who’s “got her own house/She’s got her own car/Two jobs, work hard, you a bad broad,” took this Baton Rouge MC straight to the top of the rap album charts. But these 16 cuts are consistently solid and dynamic, including the Marshall Mathers-like reflection “Miracle,” the loving and lovely “I Miss You,” and the exuberant “Fly As An Eagle,” which mixes Latin American woodwinds with a dub sensibility and an unforgettable vocal by the late Pimp C.
Coal, Kathy Mattea (Captain Potato / Thirsty Tigers)—The best album of her career, a group of eleven songs all focusing on coal and its consequences for her Kentucky homeland. Beautifully sung versions of songs like “Blue Diamond Mines,” “Green Rolling Hills,” “You Never Leave Harlan Alive,” “Coming of the Roads,” and “Dark as a Dungeon.”
Self Portrait, Lalah Hathaway (Concord)—At first this seems more like producer Rex Rideout’s record, with the singer just another element in a gorgeous mix of horns, strings, keyboards, and human and computer beats. But as the album goes along, Hathaway takes control, phrasing more and more like her father Donny while putting her own indelible stamp on the songs. Highlights include “Learning to Swim,” the tale of a lover who can be made to act right just by imagining that he will, and “Little Girl,” in which the music on the radio made it possible for a child to cope with the most horrific loss.
Cold Cold World, Blaze Foley and the Beaver Valley Boys (Lost Art Records)–These electric recordings by the Austin singer-songwriter legend are almost 30 years old but they’re as enduring as they are often endearingly improbable. Consider the dilemmas of the homeless man trying to get enough change (out of a cop) to make it through to “Election Day,” or the loony lover in “Baby Can I Crawl Back to You.” Other songs that producer Guff Morlix must be praised for rescuing include “Christian Lady Talkin’ On a Bus,” “Faded Loves & Memories” and “Officer Norris.”
Poeta del Pueblo, Ruben Blades (Fania)—Blades was a singer made for the creative upheaval that was the classic salsa era, someone whose talent matched the ego that was necessary to front those magnificent bands and orchestras. He was a bit of a jokester (a winking eye in his voice) and a cynic (a bit of a curl to his lip) but that never dampened his passion, in fact it made it all the hotter when he tossed aside all side issues and came straight at you. Like one of his few peers, Bob Marley, he wrote anthems that will never erode, let alone die, although unlike Marley his canon is not all that well-known in North America. You can do something about that (buy this and burn it) and then get to the next phase—his ever-growing post-1984 output. It’s there waiting for you with a wink and an open heart.
Leccion de Vuela, Aleks Syntek (EMI)—One-time child actor and teenaged jingle producer resting easily on the verge of middle age, Mexico City’s Syntek is now a veteran multi-instrumentalist and pop producer/singer/performer. The cool pulse of electronics and the hot pulse of Cuban and other Latin rhythms are constants in this eclectic journey through the hemisphere’s creative haze. Highlights include “Superficie Lunar,” featuring the soulful, restrained electric guitar of Santiago Ojeda; “La Dona Muerte,” powered by an accordion that triangulates Louisiana, Buenos Aires, and border cantinas; and the ode to Syntek’s daughter “Natalia,” gorgeous enough to touch the hem of “Isn’t She Lovely”’s garment.
La Conquistadora, The Krayolas (Box)–In ’64, Chicano kids formed some of the finest domestic approximations of the British Invasion bands. Only San Antonio’s Krayolas remain, but they are still feisty and exuberant, especially with the addition of worldwide legend Augie Meyers on Farfisa organ and accordion. Today, leader and songwriter Hector Saldana (who covers music for his day job at the San Antonio Express-News) is free to sing “Little Fox” in Spanish, and to tell the story of “the venerable Father Francisco Geronimo” who’s “left to pilgrim alone, viva la revolucion” in “La Conquistadora.” These guys rock their hearts on everything, including a pair of outstanding songs written by Meyers.
Solo Acoustic Vol. 2, Jackson Browne (Inside)—Not as “hit-laden” as Volume 1—it’s most frequent reference point is 2002’s The Naked Ride Home—but perhaps even better than that stalwart effort. While Browne has no pretensions of virtuosity, his guitar and piano breathe out of his pores and frame his compelling, compassionate vocals in a way that embraces the audience yet challenges it to feel and to think. While this could be viewed as some kind of shorthand version of a career summary (1973’s long lost “Redneck Friend,” three songs each from the 80s and the 90s), it doesn’t feel like a wake but like a snapshot of a great artist who isn’t done yet.
The Loner: Nils Sings Neil, Nils Lofgren (nilslofgren.com)–Neil Young more-or-less discovered Nils Lofgren at age 20 and made him an instrumental centerpiece on After the Gold Rush. So this is a tribute from student to mentor. Nils is no less an eccentric singer than the old man down the road, but he’s gained power and control in recent years that pays off on these, some of the most melodic and touching songs in Young’s catalog: “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Don’t Be Denied,” “Mr. Soul,” “Don’t Cry No Tears” (the last could realistically be described as a Neil Young version of a Nils Lofgren song).
The Best of Salt-N-Pepa (Island/Chronicles)—Aggressive, beguiling, the music throbs and thrills as the lady condiments glory in sex while asserting their independence. They give several new meanings to Lowell Fulsom’s “Tramp” while, in the wake of Tipper Gore, they update Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” into “Expression.” “Push It” and “R U Ready” are so exhilarating they make you wanna find a law to break. Plus the skills of Spinderella, the first female DJ of national note.
The Leak, Lil Wayne (Cash Money)–This five-song digital EP sounds like nothing else out there, true to the mission stated by the opening cut, “I’m Me.” That defiant hip hop blues, which in a more fair world would be seriously compared to classics like “Mannish Boy,” declares, “Yes, I’m the best/And, no, I’m not positive; I’m definite.” Lil Wayne’s much more than that, and it’s all in evidence here—his increasingly strong and affecting singing voice, his fierce patriotism to the fighting and forgotten in his hometown New Orleans, a surefooted feel for hooks that allows him to make an angry retaliation against his naysayers, and “Gossip,” which sounds of a piece with the laid back and sexy party anthem, “Kush.” His fearlessly anarchic rhyme style never plays for less than the soul and is nowhere in better evidence than on “Love Me or Hate Me,” where he prays that, if he dies, his children get his money, and then describes himself as “Spit sickle cell psycho/I go off like a motherfuckin’ rifle/I’m from the underground like a pipe mole” before making the surreal declaration “I will stand tall like light poles until the light blows.” Strange, yes, but funky and triumphant.
Reverb Confidential, Terry “Buffalo” Ware (OkieMotion Records)–If surf and hot rod records had been invented in Oklahoma, Buffalo would be Dick Dale. Actually, even though it wasn’t, he pretty much is (“Bob, Meet Buster”), except when he wants to be, say, Santo and Johnny (“Sleepwalking Talk) or maybe even John Fahey (“Remember Christmas”).
The Best of Charles Mingus (Verve)—The great bassist/composer grew up in Watts then studied bass with the New York Philharmonic; toured as a 21-year-old with Louis Armstrong before going on to expand the forms of jazz into new realms; worked with a vast array of jazz artists while sometimes physically abusing bandmates worse than Ronnie Van Zant ever did. Mingus’s tumultuous life settled uneasily into the grooves of albums, presenting challenging music that was also quite accessible, coming as it did from church roots as much as rock and soul did. Highlights here include the beautiful melancholy of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the pulpit-pounding joy of “Better Get Hit in Yo Soul,” the civil rights movement classic “Fables of Faubus,” and Mingus’s solo piano exploration “Myself When I Am Real.”
Hits, Remixes, and Rarities: The Warner Bros. Years, Ashford & Simpson (WB/Rhino)—Disc one is extended remixes of some of this soulful duo’s signature songs, versions that were only issued as promos to DJs in the mid-70s. Disc two is new remixes which are longer but capture the same spirit as the originals. Ashford and Simpson were so-so singers but great writers so, something like great standards in the hands of jazz improvisers, these tunes offer a lot to work with and reward the repetition that goes with the disco territory. The funky orchestrations are driven by percussion and violins that makes them direct descendants of one hundred year old Cuban music.
PedalJets, The PedalJets (Oxblood)–This sophomore release by one of Kansas City’s great postpunk bands came out almost two decades ago, but it came out unfinished and poorly mastered. Reuniting after all these years, the band re-recorded rushed performances and took advantage of today’s more sophisticated technology (and producers) to make the record they always meant to make, as eclectic as The White Album but with a hard focus on small town dreams and desires that range from a dark tale of murder, “Stipple County,” to the childhood romp “Giants of May” to the psycho freakout “Dead Dogs” to the sexy cock rocker, “Burgundy.”
The Odd Couple, Gnarls Barkley (Downtown / Atlantic)–Confused the hell out of reviewers by being a truly modern rock record that owes its soul to Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield. Even if you don’t buy that, Cee-Lo remains one of the finest contemporary singers, and that’s reason enough to check this out.
Rarities, B Sides, and Other Stuff Volume 2, Sarah McLachlan (Arista)—Worth it just for her duet with Cyndi Lauper on “Time After Time” and the revelatory “Just Like Me,” which everybody missed on DMC’s solo album. McLachlan is as good a singer as exists right now, whether she’s doing “Don’t Let Go” with Bryan Adams or “Unchained Melody” all by herself.
Life of Contradiction, Joe Higgs (Pressure Sounds)—If you know someone who can be very passionate while remaining coolly conversational, you know the vocal style of Joe Higgs on this 1975 reggae classic. Recorded with Jamaica’s Now Generation session band (plus American session ace Eric Gale on guitar), these are variations on standard reggae, with the result often sounding something like what came out of Memphis at that time. There are songs of love and songs of freedom, especially “Song My Enemy Sings,” which really means “Lies My Enemy Tells.” In other words, those lies can be overcome by the truth of music.
The Band of Heathens (BOH)—The blueprint is this: A circle of singer-songwriters backed by a rhythm section. But Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quint, and Colin Brooks go beyond that. They answer the musical questions you might have asked back in the day: What will folk-rock and country-rock sound like in the 21st century? Will there be a band that knows the power of just voice and acoustic guitar but also knows that sometimes life is meaningless without a wall of electric sound? How much exponentially greater can the power of collaboration make already standout singers, players, and writers? How much does it help to have Ray Wylie Hubbard in the producer’s chair and Patty Griffin in the vocal booth? This is an open book test so don’t hesitate to take it.
Boo!, Was (Not Was) (Ryko)—Hail! The reunion of the last great soul-funk-rock band. The whole gang’s reassembled, with David Was providing the weird and pertinent lyrics, David McMurray the classic horn arrangements, Don Was the not-quite-too-slick production, and the amazing Sir Harry Bowens, Sweet Pea Atkinson and Donald Ray Mitchell the shattering voices. Highlights: “From the Head to the Heart,” “ Crazy Water,” and “Semi-Interesting Week” in which Sir Harry conducts a Clintonesque (George) threesome with the Bush twins.
Doin’ the Funky Thing, Walter “Wolfman” Washington (Zoho Roots)— Journeyman blues veteran Washington has never sounded better than on this set, partly inspired by the New Orleans native’s exile and return to his homeplace. “I’m Back” and “Crescent City Starlights” say it all. But don’t miss both renditions of “Shake Your Booty / Funky Thing,” which is about why he needed to go home.
Razed, EOTO (Sci Fidelity)—Fucks with the space/time continuum by “improvising” live in the studio with pre-recorded computerized sounds added to live instruments. But the result is far from a lab experiment. It’s dense, funky, engaging music of many moods, rhythms, and textures. Sort of like Steely Dan with the horns replaced by video games.
Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire, Jimmy Radcliffe (Media Creature Music / 12×12)—Classic 60s soul from a performer better known as the writer of one of this posthumous anthology’s highlights, “Deep in the Heart of Harlem,” a hit for both Clyde McPhatter and Walter Jackson. Radcliffe’s masterwork was “Stand Up,” written after a brief encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. Radcliffe was also a first-rate demo singer and included here is the demo for “This Diamond Ring,” a song he didn’t write (blame that on Al Kooper and his co-conspirators) but to which he brings amazing soul.
Nigeria Disco Funk Special! The Underground Lagos Dancefloor 1974-1979 (Soundway)—Massively influenced by American funk of the time but with a bubbling, sinuous core from Afrobeat and highlife. These tracks, many of them obscure even at the time they were first issued, throb with wah-wah guitar and percussive keyboards and the singing—in English, Yoruba, and Ewondo—pans playfully across the back of your mind. Highlights include lengthy explorations (“Take Your Soul” by the Sahara All Stars, “Love Affair” by S-Job Movement) and Bongo Ikwue & the Groovies’ cover of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”
Live It Up, David Johansen (American Beat)—At a 1982 Boston show, the leather-lunged Johansen leads a careening but still in control band through an Animals medley, Motown covers, and his own (relatively) delicate “Frenchette” and “Donna.” All this sets the stage for the anthems. “Funky But Chic” is simultaneously a putdown, a fashion statement, and an attitude upgrade while “Personality Crisis” will make you feel like you’ve been cured of the incurable (“And you’re a prima ballerina on a spring afternoon / Change on into the wolfman howlin’ at the moon”).
Call It What You Want, Kevin Naquin & the Ossun Playboys (Swallow)—Now a veteran of several CDs and countless shows, the 27-year-old accordion player Naquin is at his peak as he nudges Cajun music in new directions. He adds slide guitar and B3 organ, covers Conway Twitty, combines the music of the black accordion player Amede Ardoin with that of the Allman Brothers, and is as obsessed with beats as any hip-hop producer. But the core of it is traditional two step and waltz on both new tunes and half century-old hits, delivered by a young band of gifted players who know their history.
Recapturing the Banjo, Otis Taylor (Telarc)–This isn’t the all-banjo band Taylor showed up with at the Folk Alliance convention last year but it is an all-star cast, including Alvin Youngblood-Hart, Corey Harris, Guy Davis, Don Vappie and Keb Mo’, each of whom ought to be an acclaimed banjo player (though only Vappie is). The concept is that the banjo is a blues instrument, a product of African culture (which it is) and that it’s never not had an important role in some parts of African-American culture. This is proved on such classics as “Walk Right In” (on which Corey Harris absolutely destroys the lyrics), “Little Liza Jane” and believe it or not “Hey Joe.” Actually, “Hey Joe” is very believable because Taylor originals like “Ran So Hard the Sun Went Down” and “Ten Million Slaves” come out of exactly the same dark circumstances.
This Is My Country/The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story, The Impressions (American Beat)—Twofer of 1969 albums features not just Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto and funky guitar but luminous orchestral arrangements by Donny Hathaway and Johnny Pate. The cover art for This Is My Country shows the group in a crumbling ghetto building, giving the tune a double meeting. Fast forward to today and the song still has bite—both sides in the immigration debate claim that “this is my country.” “Choice of Colors” skewers crooked preachers while “Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey)” chases that still elusive “black and white power.”
Scream Aim Fire, Bullet for My Valentine (20-20/Jive/Zomba)–More coherently a heavy rock band than many of today’s acts that balance pop melodies with death metal roars, this Welsh four piece manages to skewer pro-war hype, tackle our ongoing environmental disaster and dramatize the conflicting emotions of a vet coming home. And that’s just the opening trifecta in the kind of rock album you could say they don’t make anymore…. if they’d ever made them in the past.
Just Between Us, Clarence Spady (Severn)—Good songs, serviceable vocals, a funky organ-driven sound. But what makes this album worth repeat listening is Spady’s guitar work. No heroics, just pushing, adding, subtracting with a nuanced style until economical solos of real emotional power come and, almost as quickly, go.
South Side of the Moon, Gideon Smith and the Dixie Damned (Small Stone)— The Southern rock tradition may have been subsumed by country and trumped by metal but it refuses to die. At first listen this North Carolina group is reminiscent of Black Oak Arkansas, but then you notice that Smith, who claims Zora Neale Hurston as a primary influence, is a (little) better singer than Jim “Dandy” Mangrum and the band is a lot better. They roar through the likes of “Save a Dollar for the Dead” and “The Wolf Will Survive,” only to melt seamlessly into a lovely ballad like “Daughter of the Moon.”
Never Say Never, Ian McLagan & the Bump Band (maniacrecords.net)—The former Faces ace never sounded better than on this tribute record, to his late wife Kim, killed suddenly in an auto accident last year. Sure, he’s more of an organist and pianist than a singer or a songwriter. But by the last track, “When the Crying is Over,” the painful honesty of his songs and his singing make McLagan into a truly great artist.
The Best of Guru’s Jazzmatazz (Virgin)—Instead of sampling, rapper Guru brought in the actual jazz players (Branford Marsalis, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith) but this is more a collaboration between Guru and the female voice—N’dea Davenport, Bahamadia, Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Kelis, Carleen Anderson, and more. Opposites attract, nowhere more so than with Bobbi Humphrey and N’dea Davenport on the bonus track “Choices” (don’t push him, ‘cause he’s close to the edge).
Danny Alexander, Lee Ballinger
Cheryl Burns, David Cantwell, Walter Dunn, Jr., Ben Eicher, Carvell Holloway, Steven J. Messick, Luis Rodriguez, Daniel Wolff