Wednesday, August 31, 2005

When the Levee Breaks

I don't mean to be facetious in choosing a LedZep(/Memphis Minnie) title for a post written in the midst of the current catastrophe in New Orleans, but let's face it: songs provide a soundtrack for just about every facet of human experience, somber as well as ecstatic.

Ever since I got off the phone yesterday with my friend Donna (pictured in this blog entry from just last month) who's still down there, I've been glued to the TV (I generally hate almost all TV coverage of global events these days) and far more informative websites like this one trying to get a coherent picture of what's going on down there. (BTW, my family lives on the other side of the state and in East Texas, and they're all high and dry. But I have at least a dozen or more friends in the affected area, and other than Donna I don't know what's up with any of them at all, since communication is pretty much impossible at the moment, and I imagine they all have their hands full with mere survival.)

There's nothing I can say in a music-related blog like this, written from the comfort and safety of my air conditioned, fully powered, dry little home thousands of miles away, that will shed any light on the situation or help anyone out. (Well, I guess I could put in the obligatory link to the Red Cross site, but surely you don't need me to suggest that.)

I just wanted to report that my initial musical impulse--one I still haven't acted on, because I fear it will just be too sad--is to listen to Randy Newman's great song "Louisiana 1927" from his immaculate Louisiana-centric 1974 album Good Old Boys (complete lyrics here).

The song is a sober, matter-of-fact account of the great nameless flood which nearly decimated Louisiana in the late twenties, back before we adopted the quaint, almost primitive habit of attributing human monikers and personalities to storms. The lyrics are disturbingly close to what's going on this very minute ("six feet of water in the streets..."), culminating in the chorus, "They're trying to wash us away." I think about that song any time my home state is inundated with water, which happens pretty often. The current devastation may be unprecedented, but it does exist within a historical context. (It's also not particularly shocking, I must remind folks; everybody knew this was going to happen sooner or later. That doesn't make it any less awful, of course, but it would be silly to suggest that the Big One took anyone by surprise.)

While I'm at it, allow me to put in a plug for Newman's entire album, which I'd say is his masterpiece. I first heard it almost by accident around the time it came out, pre-"Short People," and from the opening song "Rednecks" to the very end it struck me as one of the richest portrayals of Louisiana life I'd ever experienced. Still does. And it has nothing to do with southern belles or ragin' cajuns or Streetcars Named Desire or any of those other stereotypes of the state: just a collection of eccentric characters from the late 1920s through the 1970s (a period bracketed by two economic depressions) struggling to make a place for themselves in the world.

Speaking of songs and storms, my friend Scott (a one-time resident of N.O.) turned to the city's resident Queen of Soul, Irma Thomas, for "It's Raining," a lovely sad song whose raindrops weren't originally intended to be taken so literally. And according to this poignant but positive valentine to the cultural legacy and resilience of the Crescent City in the Washington Post, a piano player at the Royal Sonesta Hotel has been serenading stranded guests with "Stormy Weather." Maybe "I Will Survive" would be a wise choice, too.

What about you? Any songs for the storms of life? Good tunes for bad times?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Way We Were

It's been a real trip down Punk Rock Memory Lane for me the last few days. I just watched We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, a 2005 documentary about my Second Favorite Band of All Time. At least that's what I used to call them, back in the early 80s, with tongue in cheek and hyperbole in full effect.

And a few days ago, this item I stumbled across at the info-packed music site Tiny Mix Tapes indirectly led me to a half-hour BBC radio documentary on my FAVORITE Band of All Time, Gang of Four. I'm still kicking myself for missing the Toronto stop on their current reunion tour last spring, and it doesn't look like there are any shows anywhere closer to me than Philadelphia in the fall. Perhaps I can ease the pain by listening to this US radio broadcast of a recent live show sooner or later.

(While I'm at it, here's...
the band's skimpy official UK site
a much more informative fan-run site,
Dave Allen's label/site/blog, and
Andy Gill's site, which includes info on his other production work, his studio, and other solo endeavors in addition to G4 content.)

I can't possibly overstate the importance of these two bands in my own life, particularly when I (like their members) was in my early twenties. They--along with the Clash (my Rolling Stones) and the Talking Heads (my Beatles)--showed me and like-minded folks my age around the country/world that radical art and radical music and radical politics could intersect and inform each other in all sorts of amazing ways. That you could combine danceable rhythms, complicated lyrics, and sheer noise to reach the body and the mind at the same time, albeit in different ways. That the most exciting music of the moment was not on commercial radio. That songs could be about something other than love, though they could also make room for the most romantic of notions.

I still remember standing in some indie record store on some road trip in December of 1985 learning that D. Boon had died the day before, and feeling heartbroken. That sadness came back as I watched the Minutemen movie (and damn if they didn't follow up the section on his death with an acoustic version of "History Lesson Part Two," the band's best and saddest song, just to rip me to pieces). The film isn't particularly impressive on a technical level (it combines long-lost, ultra lo-fi footage and new, student-level interview sequences shot on a shoestring budget), but I can't imagine any fan of the band minding very much. In fact, anything more high-quality would probably not feel true to the group's, and the era's, DIY spirit. I hope that younger people, and older folks who missed this music the first time around (like my partner, who was more of a Rush/Floyd/Sting fan than a punk rocker), can at least get the basic idea from the movie. (For their sake, it's kind of unfortunate that 95% of the music is live footage with crappy audio and intense performances that don't entirely translate on tape. It's definitely an exciting document of the times, but most of the band's recordings, while raw, were not nearly as crude sounding as the concert videos.)

I'm honestly not sure I'd still call the Minutemen my Second Favorite Band of All Time anymore. I really need to pull those old albums out again, but after hearing vast numbers of their songs for the first time in almost 20 years, I have a sneaking suspicion that they were the right music for a very particular moment in rock and in my own life, and that that moment is long gone. Which is fine; most of the band's songs, as various friends and colleagues note in the documentary, were designed to express a short, simple thought and then move aside for the next one, or ten, or twenty. They were like journal entries, or beat poetry, or improvised theater: here for one glorious instant, then gone.

As for the Gang, hey, I've got no problem permanently enshrining them at the top of my personal pantheon even today. It's sort of funny to see them become the influence du jour for a whole bunch of buzz bands (none of whom, I predict, will be so fondly remembered 20 years down their own road). They always did sound ahead of their time, and now that their time is here, I say, cash in, guys, you deserve it. Do the reunion tour, put out the remix album (even if it doesn't sound like a good idea to me), do whatever the hell you want. Let a hundred flowers bloom!

You may have noticed that this entry is probably the first time I've mentioned anything in this blog about punk (okay, postpunk), and one of the few in which I've said much about rock at all. And I gotta say, the older I've gotten, the less interested I've been in that whole world--not because I'm older, necessarily, but because I don't really think that that kind of music has evolved in very interesting ways in the last couple of decades. The Minutemen and Gang of Four (and, yes, some other bands of that era) blazed trails and suggested possibilities that most of their successors in rock haven't really picked up on yet (other than imitating their overall guitar sound and marketing it to a larger audience, which is not what I had in mind). I know that, at least for a few years in the late 90s, I heard some of that radical spark in electronic music, particularly in stuff by Autechre and Aphex Twin. But they're primarily instrumental, which means the political content is less overt. (By the way, there's an interesting moment in We Jam Econo where someone notes that the band's approach to music itself--scratchy, angular guitar, kept distinct from the bass--was a conscious political act.)

For large chunks of the movie, Mike Watt drives around his old stomping grounds in San Pedro, CA, pointing out the former sites of long-gone landmarks, retelling the band's story, and reflecting on its legacy. At one point he talks about how, in the 70s, musical options were far more limited than they are today: there were great big arena-rock bands, and tiny garage bands, and not much in between. Punk changed that, of course, and bands like the Minutemen pushed it even farther, suggesting connections between rock and a whole other universe of music: bebop, free jazz, c&w, reggae, psychedelia, you name it. That got me thinking about how punk became a jumping-off point for so many different things in the years that followed: one path led to 20 more years of generic hardcore, another path led to alt country, another to experimental/electronic stuff, and so on. I know for a fact that just about everything I've listened to obsessively since the days when punk really mattered to me--old-time country, 50s R&B, the Beach Boys, electronic(a), Brazilian stuff--is tied in one way or another to the noise I listened to when in various college dorm rooms and smoky clubs in 1979, even if the links aren't immediately apparent.

Punk gave American kids of the Ford/Carter era permission and encouragement to listen outside the box. Granted, for some of them, it quickly became a new, rigidly constructed box of its own. But for artists like the Minutemen--and those of us lucky enough to find out about them through the most haphazard of means--the world became a much bigger, more interesting place overnight.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Don't believe the hype

This entry from the fine but now-dormant Brazilian music MP3 blog An Order of Progress and a Side of Fries is now several months old, but it's one of those things I meant to post a link to and never quite got around to until now. It's a response to a New York Times article about a street shooting in Rio, a city which the story describes as an "often violent metropolis."

Blogger Ari Joseph critiques Americans' two main stereotypes of Brazil, which happen to be polar opposites: crime-ridden hellhole and beach paradise with a bossa soundtrack. City of God on the one hand, Chill Brazil on the other--"leaving it up to us to resolve the conflicting images of carefree party people and AK47-wielding 6 year-olds by resorting to recycled popular music from 50 years ago," he writes.

I'm only quoting short snippets of his argument because you should really check out the whole post if you're so inclined; it's really good (and makes me sad it's the most substantial one on his blog in months). Here's a further taste:

Brazilian culture thrives today in a way that is seldom appreciated here in the United States because of our preoccupation with the issue of crime. It warrants, and deserves, a trip to Brazil to see for yourself. The culture is complex, significant, and, most of concern to many people, original. Crime is an issue, but as many of my faculty members abroad have said, the United States is the most dangerous country in the world and we don't seem to have any problem with it.

... How so many Americans can be completely oblivious to a nation of 80 million people is baffling, to say the least. What is more disturbing, however, is how much our two nations have in common with each other. I think Americans are in a unique position to relate to [Brazilians] more so than perhaps any other nation in the world, and there was a time in our collective history when we appreciated that.

Now, I've never been to Brazil, so I can't speak with any authority whatsoever on the subject. But I do understand the power of both of the myths Joseph elaborates. They're not so unlike outsiders' two major images of New Orleans, come to think of it--crime den and pleasure palace (whose soundtrack is either ancient Dixieland jazz or 60s r&b depending on your age and personal taste)--and I know how incomplete/misleading both of those are, even if there's an element of truth to each. (To extend the analogy, the current music of New Orleans is also as different from the old stuff as contemporary Brazilian music is from the bossa, samba, and tropicalia that we gringos love so much... but I digress.)

Interesting to note that the favela funk I was just writing about here brings together the crime myth and the party myth in one convenient package; hard to find an article on that genre of music that doesn't offer lurid details about the seedy criminal element at its core. Tidy, no?

Friday, August 19, 2005

Things I Found While Looking for Something Else, #1

Deviating from the usual song title as subject line in order to launch a concept I've had in mind for this blog for a while now. Pretty self explanatory: we all love the internet for its ability to misdirect us to accidental discoveries that end up being more interesting than the stuff we were originally trying to find, don't we?

In today's case, it's this mini-essay on those great double-album "Loss Leader" compilation albums Warner Brothers put out in the late sixties and early seventies. (FYI, I found it by way of this 2003 entry in the super-cool blog The Johnny Bacardi Show, which is roughly 80% comics and 20% music.)

I don't know if you're familiar with these albums--evidently there were just over 30 of them, according to this annotated list--but they were a touchstone of my music-fanatic adolescence. I only owned one of them, namely this scary-looking one--

--but I used to see ads for the series in Crawdaddy and on the inner sleeves of various Warner Bros albums of the day. (Ah, the inner sleeve: you never hear anybody lamenting the CD-era demise of that particular relic of vinyl culture, do you?) The design was great and the promotional text had a great wit about it--an early predecessor of the Ironic/PostModern School of Advertising, as it turns out. (Cue Thomas Frank/Baffler reference.) The lineup of artists was as eclectic and eccentric as mid-seventies FM radio; the one I've got includes AM hits by Wet Willie and America (Oz never did give nothin' to the Tin Man that he didn't already have, ya know), deep cuts from Maria Muldaur and Little Feat, stuff by Jimmy Cliff, the Meters, Dickie Betts, Elvin Bishop, and Jesse Winchester, a fairly obscure Van Dyke Parks single, a cut from Randy Newman's brilliant Good Old Boys album, and pre-stardom selections from Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt, among other treats both listenable and otherwise by people who promptly disappeared off the face of the earth (Ashton & Lord, anyone?). Some of the other compilations were much weirder, working in snippets of old radio dramas, soundbites from Warner Brothers movies, some great cuts from the Beach Boys' WB albums, even music that Van Dyke composed for the Ice Capades, of all things. (Now, that's one I'd like to hear!) Alas, these things are long out of print and unlikely to resurface ever again except perhaps in some dream garage sale. Anybody still know any reformed hippies selling off their old LPs?

All aboard the trip to Memory Lane. Now, what was it I started out looking for, again?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Unlike true blogger types, I have a bad habit of waiting too long to post things, until their 15 minutes of pop-cultural notoriety are up. On top of that, the fad I am about to tell you about is one I learned about not from my superhip underground posse of Early Adopters but from the pages of, ahem, Entertainment Weekly--probably about 5 months ago, at that.

But what the hell. In the interest of spreading the word that Brazilian music of recent decades means far more than bossa nova, samba, and tropicalia, our subject today is Rio/baile/favela funk--Brazil's 21st century fusion (dare I say "mashup"?) of 80s electro, raunchy 90s booty-shakin' party music, gangsta bravado, obscure (and not-so-obscure) samples, and random sonic weirdness. I'm pretty sure I heard snippets of both "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and an ice-cream-truck jingle in one song, for instance. Lacking any first-hand knowledge of favela culture, I think of this as avant-garde street music: of the people and off the wall at the same time. This site is a treasure trove of mp3s and DJ mixes; pick any song and dive in--that's what I did, and continue to do every now and then. Naturally I have a soft spot in my heart for any compilation titled "Funk Neurotico 23," even if (okay, especially if) its individual tracks are completey unidentified.

I am no expert on this stuff by any means; all I've done so far is get my feet wet, and that's probably all I'll ever do. Here's an article on the phenomenon from Blender (with accompanying list of sample songs), and here's a review in Pitchfork of a commercially available compilation. (By all accounts, most of the good stuff is unavailable except in bootleg form thanks to the huge number of uncleared samples; the Pitchfork review says the album in question "feels like a Pier 1 Import of ghetto world music." Ouch!)

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Saturday Night at the Movies

My two favorite movies of the year so far are only vaguely music-related, but that won't stop me from writing about them here.

1. THE ARISTOCRATS is the documentary you may have heard about in which several dozen standup comics from Phyllis Diller to Carrot Top to Drew Carey alternately tell and/or reflect on the deeper meanings of a single filthy joke. In addition to being incredibly funny, it's one of the best reflections I've ever seen on the art of live performance. Central to the premise of the film is the notion that standup is like jazz, that certain jokes are equivalent to pop music standards, open to reinterpretation by the people who tell them.

The film itself is structured like a particularly elegant musical composition, too. For a good 20 minutes or so you wonder whether you're ever going to hear the actual joke or simply hear about it. Eventually you do, in a flat, affectless way that makes you wonder what all the fuss is about and how anyone could get a feature film out of it. Then you get one retelling after another, followed by postmodern variations that make no sense at all unless you're really familiar with the main version, and then there's one that lifts the whole thing into a different realm. (As the credits end, you're even invited to submit your own version for possible inclusion on the DVD, an offer I've never seen before, unless you count a Moby single from 10 or more years ago which included a deconstructed version of a song and a contest for listeners to remix it for the next single.)

2. ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW is the first feature by Miranda July, a multi-talented musician/performance artist/fiction writer/media artist/etc. who has somehow made the leap from exhibiting at venues like this and (on a parallel planet) record labels like this to writing and directing a film shown at my local suburban multiplex where it might conceivably be seen by all sorts of people who have never heard of such venues and labels.

That would be impressive enough, I guess, given how few artists make that journey in our culture, but the movie itself is fantastic: a tiny little epic about a half dozen characters whose beautifully crafted stories crisscross in various ways. The writing is great, the performances are astounding (I'll be surprised if this doesn't turn out to be one of those Diner-like films where several of the unknowns in the cast go on to far greater acclaim in the years to come), and every little detail is revealing. Oh, and the soundtrack by Michael Andrews is a delight, too.

FYI and BTW, July is currently keeping a very entertaining blog documenting the aftermath of the film and its effects on her daily life. See the movie first, then check out the rest of her work.