Friday, June 30, 2006

London calling

Mea culpa.

Mere days after gently mocking the notion that Brazilian singer Cibelle could be lumped in with the "freak folk" movement, I actually listened to her new album, The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves, and I'll be damned if it doesn't kinda fit in after all. It's also pretty gosh-darned great, all around. I was skeptical because her self-titled debut album struck me as perfectly enjoyable but fairly innocuous School-of-Bebel dance-pop. The new one represents a giant step forward--much weirder, more idiosyncratic, and a lot catchier, if you ask me. (Sort of like the evolution from Bjork's days with the Sugarcubes and her first big solo album to the ones that followed.) The production, by Apollo Nove, is full of cool/quirky little touches that tickle your ears and play with your head, although beneath its occasional psychedelic flourishes, it's still a generally mellow affair. Special guests include Seu Jorge and Spleen, and there's a nice Tom Waits cover--in fact, roughly half the songs are in English, if you care about such things.

Given my generally lukewarm response to that earlier disc, I probably wouldn't have gotten around to this one so quickly if it weren't for this brief "Global Hit" spot on The World, focusing on Cibelle's cover of Caetano's "London London." First you hear his original, written during his enforced exile in that city in the early 70s, then her remake, a duet with freakfolk godfather Devendra Banhart celebrating her own time in the same town four decades later. The highly informative interview between the two versions is well worth a listen, despite a slightly confusing moment where it sounds like Cibelle is being put forth as a spokesperson for tropicalia, a movement that surely peaked before her birth. (When she says ""We're all just absorbing each other and playing together and experimenting, and it's all so nice," I have a feeling she's referring to the international scene in 2006, not Brazil in 1966, as the host implies.)

The album is available here to eMusic subscribers, and you can also find it via iTunes. The label, Crammed Discs/Ziriguiboom, is the place to check for several RealAudio samples and a charming video of "London London" as well as one for her cover of Nirvana's "About a Girl," available on an EP. (Watching the "London" video, I would in no way be surprised if Mr. Banhart starts popping up in indie features soon; he's a natural.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Freaks come out at night

The freakiest thing about this NYTimes story about the freak folk scene (that I discovered through this Boing Boing item) is its overall premise that this ultramarginal movement is So Two Years Ago and yet is now entering a second wave. I find this freaky because it seems safe to assume that 99% of America has never heard of Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom, and here's the nation's newspaper of record performing the twin tasks of
1. telling mainstream readers about those two, and also
2. hinting that they are now old hat, and there's a whole bunch of new superobscure folks to pay attention to instead. (Remind me again: when did the Times become N.M.E.?)

The story has a strong element of instant nostalgia--specifically, nostalgia for a music from 2004 that is itself grounded in a nostalgia for a completely mythologized version of the late 1960s based on records nobody listened to the first time around. Freeeeeaky! I learned a whole lot from the story, including these freaky fun facts:

1. Devendra briefly dated Lindsay Lohan!
2. Vashti Bunyan's lovely, delicate 1969 ballad "Just Another Diamond Day" is now in a T-Mobile ad--making her this year's Nick Drake, only she's still alive!
3. Both Cibelle and Juana Molina can be considered freak folkies (?)! Cibelle even theorizes it's an outgrowth of tropicália! ("It's not about genre, this new state of mind. Even if musicians don't know tropicália by that name, they are still making music that way, by intuition, without rules, following their own uniqueness.")
4. Sellout/backlash alert! "Virtually every major indie-rock label has embraced the style..." (Freak folk, meet emo. Emo, this is freak folk. I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about....)
4. Neil Young digs it, while old punk rockers don't!

As an old punk rocker and Neil Young-digger myself, I am of two minds about this phenomenon. Some of the (admittedly little) FF-identified music I've heard sounds like crap you could have heard at any open mike in a bar over the last 30 years or so and would never have paid a second's attention to without the name "freak folk" slapped on it. Let's just say songcraft is not always a high priority--self-editing, even less so. And, come on, neohippies have been with us since right around the time the original hippies got their first fulltime jobs. (The Times dubs 2006 "Summer of Love 2.0," which I guess means I must have hallucinated all those previous Second Summers of Love, like the one I read about in the mid80s, and then the one at the height of the rave era.)

On the other hand, I am really enjoying some of the stuff I've listened to, like 5-6 songs out of the 20 or so on each Devendra B. album I've heard so far. (God, I am coming across truly snide here, aren't I? I'm sorry, it's just my longstanding neohippiephobia. Though I must remind myself that, as someone in the article points out, true neohippies--the annoying ones--listen to Phish, not this stuff.) And I want to hear more. And a lot of the musicians quoted in the story have smart stuff to say. Oh, and don't miss the really nice slideshow featuring narration by the article's author, Will Hermes, images of several of the artists, and audio clips.

I recognized several of the up-and-comers Hermes mentions (Espers and Vetiver, for instance) from their appearances at Soundlab here in Buffalo over the last couple of years, and I've missed all of them, dammit.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Saturday Night at the Movies (again)

1. Just watched the movie Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in which musician Jim White drives around the deep south looking for Guess Who. This entails trips to church services, bars, a prison, several service stations, and lots of swamps. Every several minutes there is a deliberately awkwardly staged musical interlude by someone like Johnny Dowd, the Handsome Family, or David Johansen. The fact that these folks hail from Ithaca, Chicago, and New York City, respectively, is never brought up. White does mention that he is originally from LA and doesn't feel entirely comfortable identifying as a southerner, but that doesn't seem to stop him from pontificating at length on the nature of religion and class below the Mason-Dixon line.

Pardon my skepticism, but the first hour or so is set in my home state of Louisiana, a place I'd like to think I know a thing or two about--although, I must now point out, I have not lived there for the last quarter century, which is one impediment to my own desire to address a camera from the wheel of a moving car spouting wisdom about the area.

This is a very frustrating movie, to put it mildly. The subject matter is fascinating, particularly in this era of supersimplified Red State/Blue State dichotomies (oddly, though, electoral politics is barely mentioned), and I was excited to see and hear all the musicians I named above, including White, and a bunch of locals I didn't know. Plus the film looks pretty. But it's just so damn contrived and condescending, and far too much of the dialogue feels scripted, and the end result feels like a bunch of big-city yankee hipsters slumming in the Exotic South for the amusement of others of their kind. (Hey, it caught my eye.)

2. It is possible that I found the movie even more annoying than I normally would have because I had just finished watching Celebration at Big Sur, a 1971 documentary about one of the many rock festivals that followed in the wake of Woodstock, and as flawed as it is, I still found it extremely moving on many levels. It's dated, in the best possible ways: truly a document of its time, from the headlining acts (Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, CSNY, John Sebastian) to the trippy camera work and editing. There are some really intriguing juxtapositions, like the point when a CSNY number ends, then Steven Stills gets into a near fistfight with a clearly stoned and obnoxious heckler, then there's a cut to someone saying the single word "money," then Stills in a calmer mood explains how wearing a fur coat onstage doesn't make one out of touch with The People.

The most striking thing about the movie when you watch it 35 years after the fact is the way it documents an event that could and would never happen today: the bands play on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, and the only thing separating the performers onstage from the crowd is ... a swimming pool. The acts hang out in the crowd watching the show when they're not playing, and almost everybody seems to sit in on each other's numbers. You really get the feeling a lot of them are making it up as they go. The whole affair feels more like a big party than a concert or festival. Needless to say, there are no corporate sponsors.

Gospel singer Dorothy Morrison and her group get several numbers; at one point Baez leads them on a mini-parade through the crowd. Seeing Morrison's music so prominently featured--and seeing the film end with everyone onstage singing a trancelike version of "Oh Happy Day"--it struck me that nothing like that would likely happen today, either.

Friday, June 16, 2006

She's my shoo-shoo

Strangely enough, it was this post at my new favorite Beach Boys news source that alerted me to this interview with Sérgio Dias of Os Mutantes on the website of Light in the Attic Records. (They've got the first 8 Mutantes albums at around $14 apiece! As well as a whole bunch o' Free Design CDs for $10 each!)

The bottom of the OM Q&A page lists several tropicalia-related links, which is how I discovered the many Mutantes videos (mostly TV appearances) available via YouTube right now. Here's the grooviest of the 4 I've watched so far:

Remember, there's plenty more where that came from.

And doesn't this upcoming documentary look like a must-see?

Sunday, June 04, 2006


The information overload must come to an end!

Until it does, though, I guess I'll just keep sharing the steady stream of incoming data that comes my way--like this podcast mix of baile funk (with a little M.I.A., postpunk, and Os Mutantes thrown in for good measure) courtesy of "Atari" at the blog Reasoner, and this earlier one of other favela faves.

I'm getting a little nervous that this stuff is going to go the way of lo-fi, riot grrrl, drum 'n' bass, IDM, mash-ups, and other grassroots movements of the last 10 years or so: small underground subculture attracts attention of slightly larger hipster crowd, flirts with mainstream recognition/appropriation (which offends the hipsters but never quite blossoms into largescale popularity), provides the soundtrack for a car commercial or two, flames out in a couple of years. But maybe that's not such a bad thing after all, just a condition of life in an oversaturated consumer culture. Here today, gone tomorrow. The high points of the movement become historical artifacts, the rest are forgotten--only to be resurrected for the inevitable revival by a whole new crop of scenesters 10 or 15 years later.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Just can't get enough

Between podcasts, DVDs by mail, and our pseudo-TiVo setup--on top of the usual range of books, magazines, CDs, and movies--I've been suffering from some major level Information Overload lately.

So I don't know whether to weep or scream upon the discovery of 23 cover versions of "God Only Knows" at an MP3 blog called My Old Kentucky Blog. Haven't heard most of these yet, but the artists involved include some old and new faves: Bowie, Elvis Costello, Petra Haden, Joss Stone, etc. Plus the very nice Mandy Moore/Michael Stipe version from the wonderful movie Saved!--which, by coincidence, I just happened to re-hear earlier in the day on this Coverville podcast.)

There's something to be said for experiencing so many variations on the same thing--part jazz experimention, part conceptual art project. I cherish the cassette a friend made me containing at least 10-12 (often wildly different) takes on "Sweet Jane," even if I can't exactly play it for anyone else without driving him or her out of the room.

Once I've had my fill of Beach Boys tributes, perhaps I will move on to MOKB's oh-so-obsessive collections of 17 "Girl from the North Country" versions (happy belated b-day, Bobby D) and a jaw-dropping 33 covers of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Life truly is too short, is it not?