Arthur Russell – Calling Out of Context

Calling Out of Context

Arthur RussellCalling Out of Context Rough Trade RTRADCD161 (2004)

Overlooked disco maverick Arthur Russell left large amounts of material unreleased at his death in 1992. Calling Out of Context pulls together songs from an unreleased album (tentatively titled Corn — though a later archival released titled Corn had entirely different contents), and some works-in-progress from the later part of Russell’s life. Confident in his eccentricities, Russell still cultivates enough dance mojo to blanket the nation under a groove. This was a different kind of groove though. Disco and dance could be different. Arthur Russell made it different.

Dinosaur – You’re Living All Over Me

You're Living All Over Me

Dinosaur [Jr.]You’re Living All Over Me SST 130 (1987)

A classic of 1980s rock.  When I want music for the slacker in me, it’s either You’re Living All Over Me or Flipper‘s Album: Generic Flipper — the former for the harmless, cute type and the latter for a more depraved and comical type.  J Mascis‘ guitar + vocals = the shit.  Other than the Lou Barlow clinker “Poledo” (thankfully it’s last) this is about perfect.

Bill Dixon – Papyrus, Volume 1

Papyrus, Volume 1

Bill Dixon With Tony OxleyPapyrus, Volume 1 Soul Note 121308-2 (1999)

Dixon employs a very conversational style here.  He plays at a pace that lets things unfold very slowly, as if there is no rush to get anywhere in particular.  Tony Oxley provides a more inquisitive reaction to Dixon’s statements, as if always asking, “Tell me more.”  Count this among Dixon’s better late-career albums.


Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home

Brining It All Back Home

Bob DylanBringing It All Back Home Columbia CS 9128 (1965)

The first side, where Bob Dylan makes his first real attempt at rock music, feels like a mere warm-up for Highway 61 Revisited.  That side is good — very good even — but not great.  Side two, with a more familiar folk sound, is better, truly achieving greatness with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Ewa Demarczyk – Ewa Demarczyk śpiewa piosenki Zygmunta Koniecznego

Ewa Demarczyk śpiewa piosenki Zygmunta Koniecznego

Ewa DemarczykEwa Demarczyk śpiewa piosenki Zygmunta Koniecznego Polskie Nagrania Muza SXL 0318 (1967)

Frequently compared with Édith Piaf, it seems like a better comparison for Ewa Demarczyk’s singing is somewhere between the sing-speak folk/pop style of chanson à texte singers like Jacques Brel (especially his most dour songs like “Amsterdam” and “Ne me quitte pas”) and the scrappy, punky cabaret theater music of Lotte Lenya — this album reminded me of one of my favorites, Lotte Lenya Singt Kurt Weill.  The emphasis is on dramatic recitations of poetry, set to dark, almost minimalist orchestrations.  Demarczyk was part of the group of performers at the Piwnica pod Baranami (Cellar Under the Rams) theater in Kraków, Poland.  She was nicknamed “The dark angel.”

This album was a big success in Poland.  Demarczyk would gain further international renown as a recording artist in the 1970s, when she worked with the Soviet state-owned record label Melodiya (remember that at this time Poland was part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc).  While her later albums sold better, thanks to better distribution and promotional support from the Soviet government, it was this, her debut full-length album, that seems to garner the most critical praise, even decades later.

It is interesting to place this album in the context of the Brezhnev era as well as in the continuum of periphery/core tensions in cultural production.  Many reviews, particularly from Poland, describe this album and Demarczyk’s work more generally as being uniquely Polish.  Around the same time, the Brazilian tropicalists were engaged in a similar sort of debate about their work and its cultural significance on an international scale.  In Brazil, there was a clear tension between the irreverent kitsch of the tropicalists and the rigid literalism of the nationalists.  Many of Demarczyk’s supporters tend to fall prey to nationalist chauvinism, or at least their descriptions belie a desperation in trying to break out of the orbit of Western cultural dominance.  Much like fellow Piwnica pod Baranami performer Krzysztof Komeda, whose work drew heavily from that of Miles Davis, Demarczyk’s work had obvious precedents.  Unlike the tropicalists, though, it is harder to see how her music presented any sort of radically new formulation, as opposed to being (merely) excellent performances that subtly expanded existing forms within their established paradigms.

As to the Brezhnev angle, it might be said that this is a Stalinist work.  Now, immediately, this claim will probably draw some concerns.  Isn’t Demarczyk work part of a “dissident” tradition?  Well, yes, but that is precisely what makes it Stalinist.  After the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, Brezhnev re-introduced a more Stalinist line. There was a resurgence of Stalinist thought. “Wiersze Baczyńskiego” is a good example of an attempt to find confirmation of meaning in life:

“Only take out of these my eyes
the painful glass mirror — image of days
which roll white skulls
through burning meadows of blood.
Only alter this crippled age,
cover the graves with the river’s robe,
wipe from hair the battle dust,
The black dust
of these angry years.”

Here it is useful to ask whether Demarczyk’s music more closely resembles the writings of Andrei Platonov or Mikhail Bulgakov.  While she does modulate her voice across a range that must be characterized as singing, her nearly monotone recitations of poetical texts emphasize a “protest” attitude.  That is what Bulgakov did, and Stalin called him up once to talk — Stalin was known to do this, and to hang up the phone mid-conversation when asked to validate the other speaker’s concerns.  The question is whether artists have internalized the Stalinist ethos and self-police themselves to advance the regime, or whether they look toward something else.  Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita has been described as being an expression of Stalinism rather than — as is commonly assumed — a critique of Stalinism.  It is kind of a form of hero-worship, a belief in some sort of dynamic actor who can break out of constraints on behalf of others.

Platonov, in contrast, developed a more ambiguous stance toward the Soviet government.  He recycled the standard government lines in a kitschy way that ridiculed the perverse aims of the political sloganeering as betrayals of socialist ideals.  One reviewer has described his writing as being rich with examples of musical, elegant prose while also embracing the crude, the dirty, the obscene.  In his novella Happy Moscow, the protagonist Moscow Chestnova is a parachutist (a glamorous occupation at the time) who suffers an accident while building the Moscow subway, then aligns herself with the most hopeless and destitute of the city.  The novella comments on how the socialist revolution leaves intact certain inequalities and vestiges of class, while emphasizing how existential concerns about finding meaning in life proceed in parallel and quite separate from the material concerns of creating socialism in one country.  The challenge is how to find meaning in the increasingly unprecedented realities of modernity.

Zygmunt Konieczny provides the orchestral music here, which is always respectful.  Eastern Bloc countries had ridiculously easy access to symphonies and classical music performers.  It was a type of music largely supported by communist governments.  The use here of orchestral accompaniment is entirely respectful and deferential.  There is really nothing ironic or cynical about it.  The backing music is performed earnestly and literally.  The textual recitations, however, often stand in contrast.  Because of the use of a lone individual standing against the force and weight of the orchestra, the “dissident” attitude is felt most strongly.  At the same time, the use of ornate orchestral accompaniment belies a kind of sophistication.  Demarczyk forged her performing career out of a collegiate environment, centered around the oldest medical school in Poland.  This is clearly a kind of elitist music.  It isn’t about solidarity or the triumph of the workers, or any sort of other kind of socialist realism.  This is about individual grandstanding in the name of The People.  This is Stalinism!  And the censors were pretty smart.  This music got past them precisely because it is line with Soviet politics of the time.

In a way, think of this music as the Polish equivalent of the urban folk movement in the United States, and the bourgeois chanson of Western Europe.  It is pretty good.  It revels in the same sort of quest for individual recognition through showy, ostentatious performance nominally disguised as being for a larger cause.

Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy

Welcome to a humble guide to the music of Public Enemy, one of the most iconic, innovative, and long-running hip-hop groups in history.  This guide focuses on albums, rather than singles.  Links to other resources are provided at the end.  Credits listed below are accurate to a point; the band tended to skip attribution — and often intentionally obfuscate — who contributed to producing individual tracks and entire albums.  Information on available releases is current for the United States as of early 2016, and focuses on physical formats.

A Brief History

Public Enemy (PE), formed in “Strong Island” [Long Island], NY, in 1982, emerged at the forefront of “conscious” or “positive” hip-hop.  Biographer Tim Grierson wrote, they had “little interest in the materialism and bloodshed that had quickly become two of [hip-hop’s] major selling points.”  Instead, PE wrote songs mostly about political and social topics.  At the same time their music earned a reputation for being dense and hard, as in the most densely layered in all of hip-hop.  At the peak of their fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were deemed controversial by some — partly a conscious strategy —  and became embroiled in quite a few scandals — some deserved and some not.  As much as they tried to make intelligent music, sometimes looking back it doesn’t seem as intelligent as it aims to be (though usually it is).  They have survived for decades, innovated hip-hop music and various music production and distribution techniques, and fallen off from widespread public consciousness in later years.  Chuck D has engaged in various other projects, from speaking at conferences to TV hosting and more, and Flavor Flav starred in a number of “reality” TV shows (“The Surreal Life,” “Strange Love,” and “Flavor of Love”), a short-lived sitcom (“Under One Roof”) and launched some restaurants (he is a trained chef) that quickly closed.  Chuck D has maintained an anti-drugs (including anti-alcohol) approach, though Flavor Flav has had many drug abuse problems and his TV appearances are rather at odds with the core of Public Enemy’s artistic stance.  And yet, given that Chuck D has said that Flavor Flav “is the street,” the group’s willingness to include someone from a different sort of background faced with attendant challenges is worthy of respect.  The group was (and is) more than just Chuck (the MC) and Flavor (the hype man), though a self-serving (unaccountable and even hypocritical) opacity falls across much of their work as to who is involved (or not involved) in actually making the music on recordings — the credits that follow are accordingly incomplete.  There have been falling-outs, bitter rivalries, members ejected then later brought back, new members absorbed — accounts of those happenings vary widely and former members disagree with a few of the “official” accounts.  Technically, Chuck D and Flavor Flav are the band, in terms of who signs the contracts, and the others are their employees.  Professor Griff was forced out in the early 1990s, but he returned seven years later.  Hank Shocklee was perhaps the major innovator in terms of producing the beats on records from the band’s peak, through a combination of legal issues related to sampling, theft of the vinyl the band used for samples, and differences of opinion about whose contributions made the band successful, he left in the early 1990s.  Whether directly related or not, the band only briefly maintained both commercial and critical appeal following that split.  Then in 2020 even Flavor Flav and Chuck D got into a dispute, with Chuck’s faction performing as “Public Enemy Radio”.  And, despite all this, PE has made good music decades after they formed.  Most interestingly, they have taken bold steps to maintain independence from the corporate, major-label music world while still touring and recording.  There are few hip-hop acts as long-lived or as deeply beloved by fans.


⊕⊕⊕ = top-tier; an essential
⊕⊕ = second-tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more
⊕ = third-tier; a lesser album, for completists, with perhaps only one or so notable songs

Continue reading “Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy”

Herbert Deyer, Jr. – The First Demand for Slave Reparations

Link to an article by Herbert Deyer, Jr.:

“The First Demand for Slave Reparations”

Bonus Link: “Statement to the Media by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the Conclusion of Its Official Visit to USA, 19-29 January 2016” (“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent.“)