Otis Redding – Tell the Truth

Tell the Truth

Otis ReddingTell the Truth Atco SD 33-333 (1970)

Another posthumous Redding album.  But a fairly good one.  It may not have a trio of songs as good as “I’m a Changed Man,” “Look at the Girl” and “Direct Me,” but on the whole it is better than the immediately prior vault-clearing album Love Man.  The title track is still up there with Redding’s best.  Some songs use an effective tactic of having the low-end bass and organ play slowly, while the vocals and guitar play at a faster tempo, giving the impression of being ahead of everything around them.

Otis was a truly unique pop singer.  He largely avoided both vibrato and melisma.  His style was southern soul.  He took rural elements and made them palatable to urban audiences without undermining the gritty energy that gave his voice such power.  If there is a comparison — pardon how far afield this seems — it might be the actor/dancer Gene Kelly.  Both men had a kind of husky, athletic physical presence that they used in surprisingly nimble ways.  They also both knew showman’s tricks, and were ready and able to dazzle audiences with routines that were entertaining without being condescending.  What both did was also the kind of stuff that, theoretically, anybody could have done.  Singing and dancing just take practice, right?  Of course, they were each uncommonly talented.  But it wasn’t just a raw talent.  They both kind of found their niche.  Which is to say that equal talents that were “out of time” and not in the right place at the right time (or of the “right” race, gender, etc.) would not be known to history like these men.

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band – Lick My Decals Off, Baby

Lick My Decals Off, Baby

Captain Beefheart & The Magic BandLick My Decals Off, Baby Straight STS 1063 (1970)

It seems entirely reasonable to look at the career of Captain Beefheart as a microcosm of the entire counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and 70s.  His earliest stuff was warped blues rock, sometimes a little psychedelic and sometimes loose and jammy.  There seemed to be a genuine belief that the music was commercial enough without overtly trying to be.  In other words, it presupposed a market for rock music that openly drew from Afro-American blues without being a part of that tradition.  This was right after the formal, legal end of the Jim Crow era.  By the end of the 60s, though, The Captain released Trout Mask Replica, which was probably the furthest “out” version of what the entire hippie counterculture was about, moving from blues rock into free jazz and abstract non-sequitur.  Into the early 1970s, the abstraction was scaled back, or at least positioned alongside more radio-friendly material.  The Spotlight Kid made overt attempts to hold the weirdness in check and slow everything down.  Clear Spot went so far as to include a soul ballad “Too Much Time” along with stuff that still recalled the late 60s weirdness.  Whether all this was a naive assumption that the counterculture could survive in that rarefied environment, or just a calculated attempt to make some accommodations (with or without sacrificing integrity) is for the listener to decide.  Nonetheless, the early 70s still found The Captain succeeding artistically, even as by the mid-70s he seemed adrift — just like the counterculture that rolled back against the backlash of the business class.  But unlike many of his contemporaries, who never returned to any kind of relevance, Captain Beefheart made some interesting turns in the late 1970s.  Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was a surprising triumph, blending a kind of postmodern panoply of styles that was professionally slick and in touch with contemporary tastes while still remaining inimitably, unwaveringly weird.  It was goofy without sacrificing real wit.  From there, Doc at the Radar Station accentuated the cerebral, more abstract elements of the music.  It accepted a more limited role for this music (even if The Captain was still appearing on national TV to promote the album).  His final album, Ice Cream for Crow, confirmed a role of elder statesman of a kind of music that was obviously losing ground and no longer economically viable even at the fringes.  But there was still some small space to make the music and Captain Beefheart went ahead and did just that.  It was no surprise that the last few albums came along roughly during the punk era.  The Captain was fueled by the same independent ethos, even if his music bore little or no direct sonic resemblance to punk.

Lick My Decals Off, Baby had obvious parallels with Trout Mask Replica, but it also was more streamlined and decisive.  This was music made by a band that knew precisely what it was doing.  The fact that wide swaths of the general population wanted no part of it was beside the point.  The album was the band’s highest charting album in the UK.  While, from a certain perspective, this might be seen as the pinnacle of Beefheart’s Magic Band, and the counterculture as a whole, it also wasn’t enoughJohn “Drumbo” French‘s memoir Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic later indicated that the band was surviving on welfare and allowances from parents.  Hardly a recipe for the lasting victory of the counter-culture.  Nearly fifty years later, this album sounds remarkable for what it saw as possible — the way the album could demand so much concentration from listeners, the way it could afford to revisit a style that was so commercially unpopular on the last album, the obvious aspirations and ambition directed in such a freaky and non-corporate direction, the role of horns and guitars, and the range of material that could cohesively exist on a single album.  Looking back, it is quite a shame that everything this album represented failed to carry the day.  But this music survives, and there is still time.

Yoko Ono – Yes, I’m a Witch

Yes, I'm a Witch

Yoko OnoYes, I’m a Witch Astralwerks ASW 79287 (2007)

Sure, these guest-driven remix albums are always uneven.  Yes, I’m a Witch is no exception.  But Yoko kind of deserved a record like this.  Anyway, the best of what is here — with input from the likes of Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, The Brother Brothers, and Shitake Monkey — is really good.  Outside of Yoko and Tom Zé, there are frankly few artists over 70 years old (!) who so convincingly deliver pop/rock music this relevant and up-to-date.  Yoko offered a few more of these remix albums, plus a new version of the Plastic Ono band released some surprisingly good new recordings in the years that followed.

Yoko Ono – Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band

Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band

Yoko OnoYoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band Apple SAPCOR 17 (1970)

The Plastic Ono Band led by Yoko Ono made some startling music that never confined itself to any conventional rock structures. The album is a conceptual work that stays true to Ono’s roots in the visual arts (this is a Fluxus album!). Her piercing wails rarely take the form of words, which would only lessen the creativity.

Ono’s most notable song leads off the album, “Why.” Next she replies with “Why Not.” Ono cuts right to the fundamental question of existence: why? Her answer is as flippant as it is brilliant. Despite her aggressive attack she was always positive. Yoko is like a sunshine day in an urban ghost town. For all the hipster ambitions of the Plastic Ono Band, the bizarre interdependence on R&B grooves make it all the more complex. Yet, the album remains delicate throughout. Call it pretentious, but Plastic Ono Band is among the most provocative albums of its time.

Ono maneuvers through deep psychological recesses, as primal scream therapy prompted both this and John Lennon’s John Lenon / Plastic Ono Band record (recorded at the same time with the same musicians). Yoko’s album as bandleader is far more abstract musically than Lennon’s. She stays away from the intricacies of writing extended lyrics, but instead focuses more on improvisational tactics and pure concept. This is seen on “AOS,” recorded backstage rehearsing with The Ornette Coleman Quartet.  Ono made some more music somewhat like this (Fly, etc.), but always with a little more emphasis on song structure.

It wasn’t a simple thing for a woman to break into the male-dominated avant-garde music scene, but Yoko Ono did it. Back in her Fluxus days she did perform with The Theater of Eternal Music (a/k/a LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate), which is a credential no Beatle had. Her unique vocal style (only comparable to Patty Waters, Linda Sharrock or maybe Mongolian throat singing) is the boldest aspect of the album. Not just some academic theory, Yoko screams out the entire album. This wasn’t music of widespread appeal, but it was important nonetheless (the bass line to “Why” crops up many places, like on Stereolab‘s “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”).

Significant to Plastic Ono Band are John Lennon and Ringo Starr‘s performances. Hardly before had Lennon played guitar so passionately. He proves that as a pure instrumental stylist he can hold his own with anybody. Ringo Starr lays down a thick R&B backbeat here that funkifies this avant-noise powder keg.

This is an amazing album. Years later, after bands like PiL and Flipper, Yoko was proven a visionary. Like the album jacket suggests, listen to it in the dark.

O.V. Wright – Into Something – Can’t Shake Loose

Into Something - Can't Shake Loose

O.V. WrightInto Something – Can’t Shake Loose Hi Records HLP 6001 (1977)

In 1977, southern soul was definitely an anachronism.  O.V. Wright didn’t have a voice like Otis or Aretha.  He had a “preacher” style that was more of a sing-speak approach, with a crackly, nasal tone (Rev. Robert Crenshaw of The Swan Silvertone Singers might be a comparison).  But none of that matters.  This album has great arrangements and backing.  It is southern soul, but it pays a lot of deference to Philly “sweet” soul with its orchestral treatments.  This is the template for just about every latter day (male) retro soul singer — Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, etc.  No, this isn’t some huge holy grail of soul music, but it’s a good one that really works to earn respect.

Otis Redding – The Immortal Otis Redding

The Immortal Otis Redding

Otis ReddingThe Immortal Otis Redding Atco SD 33-252 (1968)

Otis Redding died in a plane crash at the height of his career.  Though his record label released a number of posthumous albums, Otis’ premature death meant that he left behind a significant amount of recordings that would have been released anyway had he lived.  The Immortal Otis Redding actually manages to be one of Redding’s very best studio albums.  If The Soul Album was an attempt to modernize Otis’ sound, but was only partly successful at doing so, then The Immortal Otis Redding returns to that approach, but finds more success.  There is a more rich and smooth sound here, with fewer elements of raucous 1950s rock n/ roll and R&B.  Otis’ voice blends well with the backing music.  Side one is nearly perfect.  Side two has more to like.  In hindsight, though, this relatively short album could have been his single best album if it included some additional songs recorded in 1967 that were released elsewhere, “I’m A Changed Man,” “Direct Me,” “Look at the Girl,” “(“Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “Tell the Truth,” and maybe even the magnificent 1966 outtake “You Left the Water Running.”  (If need be, “Champagne and Wine” and “A Waste of Time” might be dropped, though really there was plenty of room for more tracks on the original LP).

Demos – Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap

Link to a report by Demos:

“The Asset Value of Whiteness: Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap”

Selected quote: “This paper explores a number of these popular explanations for the racial wealth gap, looking at individual differences in education, family structure, full- or part-time employment, and consumption habits. In each case, we find that individual choices are not sufficient to erase a century of accumulated wealth: structural racism trumps personal responsibility.”

Bonus link: “From the Cold War to Clinton: How Liberals and Conservatives Have Separated Race From Class”