Public Enemy – Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age

Muse Sick‐N‐Hour Mess Age

Public EnemyMuse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age Def Jam 523 362-2 (1994)

The demise of Public Enemy?  Hardly.  Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age certainly heads in a different direction than earlier PE albums, but it still is a worthy album from this seminal group.  It does, however, go on far too long, with a few total duds (“I Ain’t Mad at All”) and more than a few songs that are simply mediocre filler (“Thin Line Between Law & Rape,” the commercials).  Yet the best cuts (“Whole Lotta Love Goin on in the Middle of Hell,” “Live and Undrugged, Parts 1 & 2,” “Give It Up”) are still killer and Chuck D delivers one of his finest performances at album length as a pure rapper.  And, more often than not, the political statements are actually more convincing here than before.  The group had experienced much turmoil in the preceding years.  Significantly, the great crackdown on sampling in hip-hop had begun, creating insurmountable legal barriers to making an album like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or even Fear of a Black Planet.  So the beats here rely more on newly-recorded live instruments and something closer to an R&B groove than the early records.  The complaints that this lacks the “sense of unstoppable purpose” the group once had are fair, but really that sense of unstoppable purpose is in the album, just inconsistently and sometimes struggling to find its way past all the barriers put in its path over the prior years.  To put a finger on one of the culprits, you could identify the sameness of some of the bass-heavy grooves as being more stagnant than the unsettling, constantly changing sampled beats of four to six years previous.  Fans of the classic early albums should definitely seek this one out, but the unconverted will probably see it as merely a good album that stops well short of blowing their minds.  If it had been trimmed back ten minutes or so, maybe that would be a different story.

David Cay Johnston – 21 Questions For Donald Trump

Link to an article by David Cay Johnston:

“21 Questions For Donald Trump”

Johnston is an annoying “grandstander” but no doubt Trump had some shady business dealings.

Bonus links: “Why Donald Trump Is so Scary,” “Republican Machismo vs Hillary Clinton” and “The Spectacle of American Violence and the Cure for Donald Trump” and “The Rich Boy: the Art of Trump L’Oeil Politics” and “Why Donald Trump is (Mostly) Right About the Middle East”

Alex Chilton – Like Flies on Sherbert

Like Flies on Sherbert

Alex ChiltonLike Flies on Sherbert Peabody PS-104 / Aura AUL 710 (1979)

In 1983, Neil Young had a dust-up with his record label Geffen.  Upset that his krautrock-inspired album Trans (1982) sold poorly, they rejected his country album Old Ways (later released in 1985) and an executive insisted he record a “real” rock ‘n roll record.  Angered, Young went out and decided to make his next album Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983) by taking the executive’s statement quite literally.  So he made a collection of old rockabilly covers and soundalikes — the kind of “real” rock ‘n roll that reached its peak nearly three decades earlier.  It was this kind of nobly bratty behavior that made fans love Young.  But the resultant Everybody’s Rockin’ album was merely a competent genre exercise without any character of its own — though, in Young’s defense, the label did cut off the recording sessions before the last two songs were complete, leaving it short of his full vision.  So the album is frequently viewed as a lark, either (sympathetically) fun and forgettable or (unsympathetically) simply boring and anachronistic.  All this is relevant because in many ways it is the complete opposite approach to a very similarly bratty premise adopted by Alex Chilton on his solo debut album Like Flies on Sherbert (working title: Like Flies on Shit).

AllMusic Guide reviewer David Cleary had this to say about the album:

“Production values are among the worst this reviewer has ever heard: sound quality is terrible, instrumental balances are careless and haphazard, and some selections even begin with recording start-up sound. *** Many of the songs here stop dead or fall apart rather than ending properly. Instrumental playing is universally slipshod and boorish, and vocals are sloppy and lackluster.”

All of these comments raise the question, “by whose standards?”  Alex Chilton willfully disregards convention, employing improper, careless and sloppy techniques as a deliberate choice.  Don’t like it?  Fuck you.  Alex Chilton didn’t care.  He was going to either revolutionize music or be derided.  Right after Chilton’s death in 2010, former associate Chris Stamey recounted a story from the early 1980s when Chilton was working as a dishwasher in New Orleans, when a co-worker said, “Yeah, Alex, you’re right, and the rest of the world is wrong.”  Chilton reflected to Stamey, “You know, I think he was really on to something.”  What happened with Like Flies on Sherbert was very much to Chilton’s liking.  He once recalled to journalist Robert Gordon, “My life was on the skids, and ‘Like Flies on Sherbert’ was a summation of that period. I like that record a lot. It’s crazy but it’s a positive statement about a period in my life that wasn’t positive.”  It Came from Memphis (1994).  So, the conservative view is that Like Flies on Sherbert is a poorly recorded roots rock album like an album by The Band (Stage Fright, etc.).  But to be fair to this album’s premise it must be admitted that it embraces a rough, do-it-yourself aesthetic that is less overtly entertaining and more of a shared communion in outsider status.

Chilton had been living in New York city before recording the album, hanging around CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City.  He took to the punk ethos.  He didn’t play straight punk rock.  Rather, he obliquely incorporated the punk attitude into unraveled rock and roll, country and disco songs. The approach is often cited as a precursor to a lot of 1990s rock like Pavement, and even some 80s rock from bands like Flipper.  That was the thing with Alex, who always seemed to be working about 5-10 years in front of trends, creating and inspiring them without every really benefiting — ahem, capitalizing — from them.  The man’s career was a cautionary tale of the perils of success and the way that no amount of artistic brilliance can make up for lack of distribution and label support when it comes to making a living through music.

The album was released first on Peabody in the US, then shortly thereafter on Aura in the UK.  The UK version dropped “Baron of Love, Part II” and “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” but added “Boogie Shoes.” It is probably appropriate that not even the track listing is deemed sacred here!  The wrecked KC & The Sunshine Band cover “Boogie Shoes” is a stronger opener than the talking blues “Baron of Love, Part II” but the rave-up of the 1931 Carter Family song “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” is worth having in the mix.  Various reissues have appended some or all of the variant songs as bonus tracks.

With all the interest in dilapidated, lo-fi pop decades later, it seems that Like Flies on Sherbert deserves its due as pointing toward that same aesthetic of downward social mobility, and the ragged glory of penniless cultural sophistication.  In Holly George-Warren‘s biography A Man Called Destruction (2014) Alex is revealed as a Trotskyist who grew up in a bohemian household in Memphis, part of a burgeoning and uniquely Southern kind of leftist counterculture.  From such roots Chilton builds up a musical worldview that defends the dignity of every failure.  His music, perhaps like his politics, abhors competition, and finds a place for those who would otherwise be the losers right along those who would be kings and queens.  Taking such a stand is not the sort of thing that slides by in a society ruled by competition.

There is something of a choice given to people living under capitalism, though: become part of the system, or be crushed by it.  The system admits no one on terms other than its own.  But there is a third option, the one that Alex Chilton took.  He nominally goes along with the system.  On occasion, he’ll even smile as he does.  But then, he goes and defiles everything that the system values.  This is not a frontal attack.  It is something entirely different.  It is more of a decay from the inside.  The idea is to introduce an irritant or pathogen, like a virus, that the system can’t fight and instead must eject to save itself.  Think about this for a moment.  The idea is to be insufferable!  On Like Flies on Sherbert that is accomplished through a kind of sonic tantrum.  And what a tantrum!  Chilton had an interest in psychoanalysis (and horoscopes).  During the May 1968 uprisings, students graffitied walls with psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich‘s name (Chilton was an admirer too) and threw copies of his The Mass Psychology of Fascism at police.  Alex’s music was not far off, though it was like a rebellion standing in one place.  It simply transforms its own self-identity to be something that passively irritates the system.  From a place of disappointment and hopelessness, it forges something that breaks with those conditions.  They key is that like an irritant or pathogen that the body tries to reject, or a puzzle piece that simply is the wrong shape and must be set aside, the “system” that is the music industry casts off music like this.  Once outside the system itself, a space is created that the system doesn’t try to crush (perhaps for fear of contamination).  This is the genius of people like Alex Chilton.

Music like this does something akin to what Jean Genet‘s writing did: it takes the standards of a society that rejected the author/performer and willingly pursued what it deemed vices (Genet wrote in Journal du voleur [The Thief’s Journal]: “Repudiating the virtues of your world, criminals hopelessly agree to organize a forbidden universe. They agree to live in it. The air there is nauseating: they can breathe it.”)  Its methods also recall the way filmmaker John Cassavetes worked: recording uninterrupted, fleeting performances that would never occur if the relentless, self-conscious drive for unblemished takes took precedence over spark and spontaneity.  It may not quite be détournement, because it doesn’t claim to be a complete reversal of the prevailing order and accepts participation in it, but it is still close.  This is worlds away from what Chilton did with The Box Tops and Big Star.

It makes sense that this album arrived in its own time.  Chilton was a product of the 1960s counterculture, not as a leading advocate but as someone carried along with it.  He suffered as the counterculture and the New Left incurred political losses.  As in the 1970s, he found that opportunities dried up and that years of partying and hedonism didn’t add up to much.  The punk attempt to break off from corporate commercial imperatives appealed to his sensibility.  But as a southerner he was kept somewhat at arm’s length by many of the punks (and their record labels and venues).  So he did his own thing, which at arm’s length didn’t have to adopt all the same feedback and power chords of typical punk rock, but instead looked back to vintage rock ‘n’ roll, blues and country/folk.

A song like “I’ve Had It” recalls “Blank Frank” from Eno‘s Here come the Warm Jets (a Chilton favorite). Only about half of the songs are Chilton originals.  And those mostly chug along with a hook that comes across only crudely.  The swampy blues cover “Alligator Man” is a freewheeling success, with Chilton caterwauling in his upper register.  Co-producer Jim Dickinson plays guitar (ineptly) on some of the songs, to underscore the anti-perfectionist tendencies of the album.

Like Flies on Sherbert has maintained a cult following.  It documents a kind of cathartic approach to music — going back to a Neil Young comparison, like Tonight’s the Night (1975).  While not exactly a “great” album, it has earned admiration.  This is easily the most essential of Chilton’s solo output, even if he has plenty of other worthy solo recordings.

Jonah Birch – The Many Lives of François Mitterrand

Link to an article by Jonah Birch:

“The Many Lives of François Mitterrand”


“the political power of the capitalist class flows not just from what capital can do, but from what it can choose not to do — invest. It is its control over the investment function, not its collective organizations, that is the key source of capitalists’ power in the political sphere: since, in a capitalist economy, investment is the prerequisite for growth, employment, and tax revenue, policymakers will always have an incentive to prioritize the demands of business confidence over all other considerations.”

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

The Unforgettable Fire

U2The Unforgettable Fire Island ISL-1011 (1984)

Perhaps The Unforgettable Fire is best viewed as a transitional album.  The Gang of Four influences noticeable on War had faded, and in place Brian Eno‘s production makes the record sound like more of a continuous sonic fabric bound by The Edge‘s delay-laden guitar.  Now everything seems designed to support Bono‘s voice, a big reason most love or hate U2.  Bono confirms here that he has only one vocal trick — the aching, dramatic cry — and he was going to use it on every song, forever.  While this album took the first steps toward establishing a distinctive sound that made the group superstars, it also feels like a mere warm-up for The Joshua Tree.  The biggest factor holding this one back is the songwriting, which is mostly less than satisfying.  It’s effective on “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Pride”, but the political subject matter gets old.  “Elvis Presley and America” is of course regrettable too.  This is still a fair U2 album, but War was more interesting and The Joshua Tree was much better at what The Unforgettable Fire actually accomplishes.  Pinned between better offerings, it’s easy to see why this is overlooked, even if it’s better than most U2 albums.

Cecil Taylor – Unit Structures

Unit Structures

Cecil TaylorUnit Structures Blue Note BST 84237 (1966)

Cecil Taylor brought a composer’s sense to improvised music. His percussive use of the entire piano keyboard was unlike anyone else’s. His harmonic sense was also unique. Not to mention that his “unit structures” were tiny fragments built up by his combo in improvised songs. The “superstar” group rehearsed Unit Structures extensively before recording it for Blue Note, which distinguishes the music from strictly spontaneous “free jazz”. The resulting album is essential listening. It is useful as a benchmark to have a familiarity with someone like serialist composer Anton Webern to appreciate (by comparison and contrast) how the composing/improvising linkage in Cecil Taylor’s intense, atonal music operates — another useful reference is the chapter on Taylor in Ekkehard Jost‘s book Free Jazz. A true high point in 1960s music, Unit Structures has integrity and honesty at all times while still remaining utterly fascinating.

Television – Live at the Old Waldorf

Live at the Old Waldorf, San Francisco, 6/29/78

TelevisionLive at the Old Waldorf, San Francisco, 6/29/78 Rhino Handmade RHM2 7846 (2003)

Television could walk a fine line between long and winding but still captivating and intense guitar soloing and slightly tedious guitar wankery.  You get some of both here.  The sound is pretty clear, but for raw power this can’t touch The Blow Up (which excises all of the wankery).  This is reminiscent somewhat of all those Grateful Dead live discs that may amuse obsessive fans but just seem superfluous to most everyone else.

The Beach Boys – M.I.U. Album

M.I.U. Album

The Beach BoysM.I.U. Album Brother Records MSK 2268 (1978)

M.I.U. Album is not quite as bad as its reputation suggests.  That isn’t to say it’s a particularly good record.  The first two songs and even “Pitter Patter” have some good energy, but this is slight at best, and typically quite nondescript.  The band sounds rather disinterested and unmotivated most of the time.  The vocals can be downright lazy.  There is nothing memorable here — except maybe the so-weird-it’s-funny “Hey Little Tomboy”.  But slight or not some of the songs are good fun, and the production is serviceable.  This doesn’t induce quite as many cringes as say, The Beach Boys seven years later.  Make no mistake, though, there definitely are still cringe-worthy moments here, particularly at the end (“My Diane,” “Match Point of Our Love,” “Winds of Change”).  Truthfully, if the Boys had taken the best material from this album and their next one L.A. (Light Album) and made just one album from it, they would have had something decent, or at least better than either one individually.

The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys

The Beach BoysThe Beach Boys Caribou FZ 39946 (1985)

Where to begin?  For better or worse, but usually for worse, this sounds like a mainstream lite pop record from the mid-1980s, heavy on synths and drum machines.  The problem is that it sounds extremely dated now, and much of the material is exceptionally poor.  The first two songs aren’t bad really, with “Getcha Back” echoing the group’s old sound recast with 80s textures and “It’s Gettin’ Late” being a convincing take on contemporary — if average — pop.  From there, it’s just varying degrees of embarrassment, including a song aping Stevie Wonder‘s then-current sound.

King Geedorah – Take Me to Your Leader

Take Me To Your Leader

King GeedorahTake Me to Your Leader Big Dada BDCD051 (2003)

Take Me to Your Leader is an unusual hip-hop album. Rapping from the assortment of guest MCs isn’t the focus. Instead, MF Doom (a/k/a Daniel Dumile, the man behind the mask, the curtain, and this album) floats monster movie sound clips across a gently flowing mix of cartoonish pop samples. This creates a dense soundscape that is more cinematic than average b-boy fronting.

When lyrics are present, the theme of a three-headed monster from outer space definitely emerges, among resolute sentiments of hope, determination, and wonder recalling Curtis Mayfield. The abundance of the orchestral strings samples only reinforces the likenesses to Curtis Mayfield. Move on up! Hostile tyrants, attackers, and outright monsters won’t stop the good and determined ones. This triumph over adversity is palpable.

MF Doom uses lethargic tempos to his advantage. Placing easy listening schmaltz — complete with mushy strings and syrupy guitars — on an indistinct bed of murky beats takes the music out of the typical rap battle arena.  Take Me to Your Leader is a fight where all elements conspire together, as one amorphous mass. I wanted to reach out, place my finger on this album. To have control over how a single part of it makes me feel. Instead it stupefied me: “Take that.” I almost expected to hear that spoken.

If I weren’t a decayed, empty being, I might love comic books, video games, and monster movies. Whatever is missing in me, replaced by dead matter, I can still recognize that King Geedorah, or MF Doom, has his own loves to champion. Recurrent obstacles won’t dog him too much. He will save this planet! Or at least will he convince me to save someone myself?  Or just save myself?