Patti Smith Group – Easter


Patti Smith GroupEaster Arista AB 4171 (1978)

Here is an album that has always underwhelmed me.  Coming on the heels of the transcendent and Earth-shattering Horses and its worthy (if sometimes neglected) follow-up Radio Ethiopia, Easter is something of a let down.  For one, Patti just doesn’t sing well.  Take “Because the Night.”  With stronger, more impassioned vocals it could have been something special.  Then there is the pretentious and cringe-inducing stab at world music influences on “Ghost Dance.”  These kinds of missteps are all over Easter.  There surely are good moments too.  “Babelogue/Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” is Patti at her best, and it’s one of her great moments on any album.  But that song is not the norm here.  Patti’s earliest work was really poetry set to music, but then, at some point, she transitioned — at least for the most part — to writing “songs” in the conventional sense.  This is perhaps a subtle thing to grasp in listening to her music, but it is noticeable.  Easter revels in a few too many Doors-like psychedelic blues jams and doesn’t feature enough of Patti’s righteous poetic monologues — the kind of thing that made her stand out from everyone else.  In terms of writing songs, the well had run a bit dry after Radio Ethiopia (“Space Monkey,” really?) and better attempts lay ahead.  The somewhat weaker material might be forgiven if Patti sang the stuff more confidently, but she doesn’t.  That is the main reason this one usually just sits on my shelf collecting dust.

Sweet Honey in the Rock – The Other Side

The Other Side

Sweet Honey in the RockThe Other Side Flying Fish Records FF 70366 (1985)

Good vocals.  I can’t help but think this music feels a bit sterile though.  There is no doubt that this is the kind of group that performs primarily to cultural centers, civic centers, and other venues that have certain unstated rules of decorum and a presupposed deference in regard to artistic merit.  What I mean is that it’s the performers who are largely deciding what is meritorious and challenging rather than the audience, which is probably not very familiar with or critical when it comes to the type of music presented.  In other words, this is for musical tourists.  The format for this album seems similar to other albums by the group: about 1/3 gospel music, about 1/2 political/protest music, and the rest sort-of “world”, indigenous music adaptations.  The highlight for me is their version of Woody Guthrie‘s “Deportees”.  The rest had no effect on me.

NOVA – The Great Math Mystery

NOVA: The Great Math Mystery (April 2015)


Director: Dan McCabe and Richard Reisz

“The Great Math Mystery,” an episode of the long-running PBS science show Nova, is in essence an analysis of mathematics and analytic philosophy.  In the program, about 99% of the show consists of people from the analytic philosophical school talking about math, plus one token representative from the Continental Philosophy school (Stephen Wolfram) and a few comments by analytic philosophy people about the Continental Philosophy view.  What this show desperately needed was a dose of the “fairness doctrine” by giving something closer to 50% of the airtime to the Continental view.  Ideally, Alain Badiou would have been featured, because he is perhaps the most well-known living philosopher to argue about the nature of mathematics from outside the caste of “working mathematicians”. Count this episode among the many that PBS airs that is a polemic disguised as an even-handed treatment.

The Stooges – Fun House

Fun House

The StoogesFun House Elektra EKS 74071 (1970)

This album kicks you where it hurts and begs you to like it.

The songs speak for themselves. “Down on the street,” with its bluesy bass vamp, is one of the best album openers you can find. Titles like “loose,” “t.v. eye” (twat vibe eye), and “dirt” are not songs for your mother. The album progressively cuts loose as side two ends.  “1970,” a reprise of “1969” from their first album, shows dramatic changes in one year’s time. Steven Mackay comes in on sax, with solos outside almost anything previously heard in rock.

While none of these songs have radio appeal, most stretching out for four to seven minutes, this is one of those rare perfect albums. It seems to capture the craziness of a Stooges show. If you aren’t provoked, shocked, or insulted you must be in a coma. This music represents a side of America most people choose to ignore or refuse to acknowledge. The nihilistic lyrics succinctly codify urban disillusionment circa 1970.

Fun House is intuitive music, not some academic experiment. The sound is untouched.  Ron and Scott Asheton bash out scathing but fluid noise on their instruments. Iggy Pop’s vocals ooze through the murk, often bursting into powerful screams. Almost like a trance, the Stooges smash ahead without regard for technique or tradition.

Despite being the most powerful and trashy album ever made, Fun House holds up well next to Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane. Iggy Pop had a jazz ideal in mind without knowing how his band would get there. In a way, the Stooges’ nominal lack of technical prowess allowed them to do what hindered even some jazz greats. Don’t assume lack of skill lessens incredible talent, because technical skill is irrelevant to the musical statement. On that point, many of the same riffs repeat throughout the album. All rock and roll repeats the same riff structures anyway. The Stooges simply use an honest approach that makes no excuses.  1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions later proved that the Stooges refined the songs from a loose live set, to a concentrated statement of their identity.

Recorded on a visit to Los Angeles, Fun House was the Stooges’ last chance to record something that would sell. The title, Fun House, comes from the old Ann Arbor frat house the MC5 and Stooges used as a commune for rock and roll freaks. The record, of course, did not generate sales and the band broke up (luckily, the Stooges re-formed to later record Raw Power). Producer Don Gallucci deserves credit for not leaving any signs he worked on this album.  Only the band’s raw energy comes through. Any overdubs are brilliantly concealed, creating an energetic and totally improvised feeling. In contrast, the Stooges’ great debut album, produced by John Cale of The Velvet Underground, sounds at times more like a collaboration with Cale than a pure Stooges effort.

Fun House is trash achieved. It plays like a soundtrack to high school shop class. Young punks who cruise main streets each night, all over the country, have this music in mind if not on their stereo. All three Stooges albums are classics, but this rises to the top as the purest documentation of their existence.  It is simultaneously a raw statement of sex/drugs/rock’n’roll and a fluid masterpiece of experimentation. Like it or not, this is one kind of American culture at its finest.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Bright Moments

Bright Moments

Rahsaan Roland KirkBright Moments Atlantic SD 2-907 (1974)

Rahsaan makes goofing off a profound experience. If only people spent more time doing just that, maybe there would be more bright moments and less fabricated problems in this world. Such is the shoot-from-the-hip philosophy Rahsaan promotes.

His style was a little Afro-centric, but that sells him short. Rahsaan made humane music. Everyone is involved. Here, there is plenty of opportunity for the audience to holler, testify, and clap along with every song and interlude. It isn’t just Rahsaan who makes Bright Moments what it is. Unlike his studio masterpieces Rip, Rig & Panic and The Inflated Tear, Kirk’s band here is not made of big-name superstars. It doesn’t take a band from the short list of jazz masters to make a great album.

Bright Moments is a fantastic example of the power of live recordings. Great live albums should make it a trivial fact that you aren’t actually at the concert as you listen. It is vaudevillian, and makes the effort to craft the performance into one tailored just for the audience. With the right set of ears it’s obvious Rahsaan is spinning his craft just for you.

Rahsaan certainly brought his bag of tricks at this date. He played three saxophones at once. He played a flute with his nose. These aren’t gimmicks. Kirk was talented enough to make sounds these unusual ways, but also to do a little more. “Fly Town Nose Blues” has him playing the flute with his nose with vibrato! When he plays multiple saxophones, there are certain logistical difficulties — three instruments and two hands. Kirk could deftly make the drone an integral part of some complex solos.

Few people could accuse their audience of not knowing everything about John Coltrane “and the beautiful ballad he wrote called ‘After the Rain’” and turn the accusation into a peace offering. Rahsaan was the people’s sax man. That isn’t any big secret, because in so many words he certainly lets you know.

Yeah, it takes a little something to blow such ragged solos. Rahsaan let all the breathy, clipped, muffled noise coming from his saxophones have their moments in the lights, hanging there as invisible sound sculptures.

At some point the criticism that jazz became academic gained supporters. It’s not that Rahsaan went out of his way to dispel that myth, but he did dispel it. Rahsaan Roland Kirk is like good whiskey. There are supporters, but the rest — even those finding it hard to swallow — can be easy converts.

Sun Ra – Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy

Sun Ra and His Solar ArkestraCosmic Tones for Mental Therapy El Saturn LP 408 (1967)

One of the more difficult Sun Ra albums, but a great one too.  It was recorded in 1963.  Like some of the other recordings from the early 1960s in New York this features vaguely psychedelic reverb effects.  These recordings are the most effective of Sun Ra’s experiments of the era.  The reed players are stretching (“Voice of Space”) and laying the foundation for what they would do after the October Revolution in Jazz the following year.  While the band had experimented with dissonant, spacey sounds for years, they use those techniques for longer, sustained stretches on many of these songs.  The polyrhythmic percussion finds new life here by bridging the newer recording effects and soloing with sci-fi exotica stylings the band had used for years.  That is to say that this actually marks a break from the merely superficially “exotic” approach of the prior years, giving way to something a lot less bound to conventional swing and bop structures and more able to float about purely on moods and washes of sound.  If this doesn’t sink in right away, give it time.

[Historical note: This music was recorded in New York City in the early 1960s, but was inspired by a performance at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Chicago on February 28, 1957, at which a (formerly) catatonic woman who supposedly hadn’t spoken in years exclaimed at the end of the performance, “You call that music?!”]