Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra – On Jupiter

On Jupiter

Sun Ra and His Myth Science ArkestraOn Jupiter El Saturn 101679 (1980)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sun Ra made quite a few recordings that revealed an affinity for relatively straightforward contemporary music.  Count On Jupiter among those.  “UFO” is probably his most obvious overture to the pop market, sounding a lot like mainstream funk rock of the day.

Sun Ra Quartet – New Steps Featuring John Gilmore

New Steps Featuring John Gilmore

Sun Ra QuartetNew Steps Featuring John Gilmore Horo HDP 25-26 (1978)

New Steps provides studio recordings from Sun Ra’s late-1970s Italian tour.  This is a small group set, with a quartet featuring Ra on various keyboards, saxophonist John Gilmore, trumpeter Michael Ray and drummer Luqman Ali.  It’s an eclectic batch of tunes, with lots of ballads, one track of intriguing synth experiments (“Moon People”), and a few songs that inhabit space that’s uniquely Ra-like and unclassifiable — blending balladry, free jazz, and afro-futurist exotica.  Gilmore receives special billing on the album sleeve, and he gets a number of nice solo spots, notably delivering a lovely rendition of “My Favorite Things.”  This benefits from being a recorded in the studio (at two January 1978 sessions in Rome) rather than live, for a change.  It probably won’t bowl over the newcomer, but it’s a great album for the fan, especially anyone who liked Some Blues But Not the Kind Thats Blue or even Bad and Beautiful.

Sun Ra – Space Probe

Space Probe

Sun RaSpace Probe El Saturn 527 (1974)

Another interesting one from Sun Ra.  Side 1 is an extended experiment with electronics. It is more of an exercise in knob-twisting than a pure keyboard performance.  Side 2 hearkens back to the way Sun Ra’s albums were sequenced in the 1960s, with almost the entire second side devoted to the kind of exotica his band recorded extensively in the 1950s.  But then “The Conversion of J.P.” turns into a very warm and consonant piano number by the end.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

The Heist

Macklemore & Ryan LewisThe Heist (2012)

My first encounter with Macklemore was when he appeared on the “Saturday Night Live” TV show.  I thought, “Who is this Vanilla Ice motherfucker?”  I was not impressed with his performance.  At some point I heard “Same Love” on the radio, and thought it was local group Atmosphere.  I loved that song.  Eventually, I put two and two together and realized the song on the radio was actually Macklemore.

His breakthrough and success is quite fascinating.  He and Ryan Lewis have put out what is arguably the most successful independently-released album in U.S. history (though the duo did hire a mainstream company to do promotion, after the album met with initial success).  Although it is hard to assess such things, some try.  One of the most well-known music sales charts (I’ll let it go nameless, but you know it) changed its method of calculation shortly before the release of this album, which as much as anything allowed independent artists like Macklemore to sneak onto the “charts” and thereby gain credibility in the eyes of the establishment that ignores other measures.

There are a lot of detractors out there though.  My take is that they fall into two main camps.  The first are part of the deeply conservative core of hip-hop audiences.  The sound here is a little more melodic than certain hip-hop and is therefore dismissed by the reductionist essentialists that seem to be helping ensure the genre dies out.  Forget them, though.  There’s good stuff here, even if The Heist has only about an EP worth of good stuff and a fair amount of filler.  The second camp is more insidious.  These folks cling to the failed doctrines of identity politics, which posits that minorities and the oppressed should claim their own personas, and essentially guilt the majority into accepting minority power over the majority on the basis of the strength of their personas.  In simpler terms, this is the foundation of the “politically correct” movement.  It fails, largely, because those in power, or their lackeys, often act like borderline sociopaths — they have no guilt.  That, plus identity politics tends to be neutralized by tokenism, something as simple as hiring a minority (“sellout”) to be the lackey.  This camp thinks Macklemore shouldn’t be speaking for the LGBT community, or whatever, because he’s not speaking from within it.  This sort of view fails because it contradicts itself — if minorities can only speak for themselves because the majority doesn’t understand them, then the majority doesn’t understand them and the “authentic” minority representative will never be understood.  It is why Johnny Cash and Marlon Brando made effective champions of Native American causes decades ago (surpassed only by the disruptive power of groups like AIM).  Looking at Macklemore, he proves surprisingly articulate here with the amazing, long-overdue “Same Love”.  I like to think that if somebody like Macklemore can reach out and make statements like this, in an era when in my state (in the United States) young people turn out in droves to vote down a bigoted, homophobic proposed constitutional referendum while not even bothering to vote for a presidential candidate on the same ballot (true!), I think the future looks like it has promise.  Macklemore engages real issues here with compassion and a refreshingly positive attitude.

Hopefully America and the rest of the world can find more ways to make room for independent voices with something to say.  The Heist makes an interesting case study of how it was possible for an instant.

Iggy Pop – Skull Ring

Skull Ring

Iggy PopSkull Ring Virgin 80774 (2003)

Well, I checked this out from the library and popped it in a CD player without paying much attention to what was on it and what it was about.  It started okay.  It felt like a solid if uneventful rock album, like a latter day counterpart to New Values.  There definitely were signs that Iggy was making overtures to the wave of post-Screeching Weasel spastic pop-punk that bands like Sum 41 and Green Day were riding.  I couldn’t really dislike what I was hearing thanks to Iggy’s blend of genuine interest and detached irony.  Well, soon enough I realized that both Green Day and Sum 41 make guest appearances here. Things start to take a turn for the worse as the sense of irony falls away, leaving something that feels a lot more like pandering.  Most disappointing is that Iggy doesn’t pull out any songwriting that matches the best of his last album Beat Em Up.  Anyway, for what it’s worth, the tracks with a reunited Stooges lineup are a lot better here than on the truly horrible Stooges reunion disc The Weirdness.  Iggy would come back strongly with an entirely new more “mature” pop sound on Préliminaires a few years later.

Iggy Pop – New Values

New Values

Iggy PopNew Values Arista SPART 1092 (1979)

Pretty much state-of-the-art 1970s rock, comparable to The David Johansen Group‘s The David Johansen Group Live, Lou Reed‘s Street Hassle or even the harder parts of Harry Nilsson‘s Nilsson Schmilsson.  Iggy is reunited here with two former Stooges, James Williamson and Scott Thurston.  Things are somewhat uneven, coming up a little short in the songwriting department more than anything.  Still, a few songs like “Five Foot One,” “Girls,” “Tell Me a Story,” and “Curiosity” are decent.  Iggy has certainly done better, but he’s done worse too.

Prince & The Revolution – Around the World in a Day

Around the World in a Day

Prince & The RevolutionAround the World in a Day Paisley Park 9 25286-1 (1985)

A revealing album in that it foreshadowed the self-indulgent character of a lot of Prince albums to come.  Now, this one is still a lot easier to take than the later stuff.  It has its moments, as well as a mega-hit in “Raspberry Beret,” but stacked next to Prince’s best work of the 80s this is a little underwhelming.

O(+> – Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic

O(+>Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic NPG 07822-14624-2 (1999)

Very uneven, but, that’s almost a given in this stage of Prince’s career (he was using the moniker “O(+>”).  The opener makes this seem quite promising; it’s a solid tune catchy enough to recall his 80s heyday.  Well, that fades fast with a tedious amount of guest spots and lame crossover attempts with whatever was considered “hip” that week.  But, then again, a lot of this is pleasant enough filler.  If trimmed down by about half, this might have been a lot more listenable.  As it stands, it’s a bit frustrating.