Sole – Selling Live Water

Selling Live Water

SoleSelling Live Water anticon. ABR 0026 CD (2003)

Selling Live Water is hip-hop that can’t take for granted that it is hip-hop at all.  It is music made to engage an audience and provoke critical thought.  Hip-hop is just a convenient form that it adopts.  Sole pursues his music with a fervor that concedes nothing but complete, honest commitment to his agenda.  The most appealing part of this is the self-reflexive aspect. Hip-hop has been around long enough now that a more complex look at the genre itself is due. Sole contorts traditions with no hesitation.

On “Da Baddest Poet,” Sole admits how he isn’t smart enough for any techniques other than hip-hop. The necessity of his place amidst hip-hop culture means he really is making some sort of contribution to it. Sole is just trying to keep hip-hop as good as it was, and promised to be, in the age of “conscious hip-hop”, just… different. He says, “in the immortal words of Ice-T/ shoulda killed me last year/ but in the mere mortal words of me . . . ”  There is humility here that is quite the opposite of the materialistic, misogynistic, violent subject matter promoted most heavily in the genre, combined with an awareness that Sole is tilting toward something else.

“Shoot the Messenger” goes off with “I never learned to kill for oil/ but then again I never learned to sit still/ and probably never will.” “Respect pt. 3” even seems to be a little anarchistic.  There are politics all over this album — not in the sense of passing news, but in the sense of a commitment to bottom-up social transformation away from corruption and domination (Sole has noted that material on the album was inspired by Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States).

Sole is a good lyricist though he has only a passable delivery, something still impressive given what Sole does. His lyrics are very busy, giving him the difficult task of fitting it all in. He is either silent or in vocal bombardment mode. What turns out to make it work is the jokey attitude — full of gags and purposeful contradictions. By some manner of calculation he is aware of precisely how much ferocity separates his mind and his voice. Even though his rhythms don’t stretch and his dynamics are flat, deadly words still ooze from each of Selling Live Water’s cuts.  Nonetheless, he steps up for some more impressive vocal rhythms, shifts and drawls on “Salt on Everything.”

The anticon collective producers on board (Alias, Odd Nosdam, Telephone Jim Jesus) cultivate a sort of blurred, hazy melange of oversaturated sounds, while keeping to a sense of syncopated rhythm.  The beats contribute to the bleary feeling of being overwhelmed by media and the numbing spectacle of mass culture.  This complements Sole’s way of rapping that often seems like shouting out as many words as possible without planning his delivery beforehand.

Sole makes good on the idea of personal hip-hop. He may not have expansive vocal talents to rely on, but he has still made some great music here.  To appreciate Selling Live Water, a listener must accept that important statements can be made without access to large resources or authorization by the powerful, without being a supplicant or sycophant, by anybody who puts in the effort.  If you reject those premises, then realize that this is an album made against what you believe.

Willie Nelson – Let’s Face the Music and Dance

Let's Face the Music and Dance

Willie Nelson and FamilyLet’s Face the Music and Dance Legacy 88765425852 (2013)

If you have followed Willie Nelson’s later career — and before his surprise hit Band of Brothers you probably haven’t — he has continued to shuffle between styles.  The occasional effort sounds a little more contemporary, but plenty look back to old-time western swing and early 20th Century pop, and sometimes jazz.  Let’s Face the Music and Dance is a grab bag.  The title track is an easy listening version of the sound from arguably Willie’s best late-career album, the austere Tex-Mex album Spirit.  “Is the Better Part Over” is yet another re-visitation of one of his old songs (from the late 1980s effort A Horse Called Music).  Most of the standards here seem to build on his American Classic, but with his regular touring band providing more country flavor than the jazz combos of that earlier effort.  Not surprisingly, the best here is “You’ll Never Know,” with Willie’s not-so-secret weapon his sister Bobbie featured prominently on piano.  This one is par for the course for Willie’s august years and hardly a standout, but it is more proof, if any more was needed, that he’s still not finished yet.

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left

Five Leaves Left

Nick DrakeFive Leaves Left Island ILPS 9105 (1969)

Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left was a rather unique recording that didn’t seem enmeshed in any sort of widespread movement.  Fans often remark that his music seemed to come from “nowhere”.  He never achieved much commercial success before his early death, partly due to his limited efforts to tour or promote his recordings.  Still, his renown has grown tremendously since his death.  Nick Drake is the sort of musician who came along ahead of of more widespread efforts to render a feeling of failed promise, which is to say failure to live up to potential.  This is very inward-looking artistry.  Extroverts may appreciate Drake from a distance without really warming to him more intimately.  His music is somewhat elitist.  Its lyrics are informed by the sort of poetry studied in “classics” courses in elite universities, and the orchestral treatments and delicate guitar playing (Drake was an impressive guitarist) pay homage to Euro-classical compositions.  Yet these are pop songs, which underscores the way the music has a familiarity with highbrow culture but turns away from it, if only slightly.  It is the devastating earnestness of Drake’s songwriting and performances that keeps this from being pretentious.  This album leans toward the counterculture, but from a privileged place that manages to satisfy every criterion of dominant culture.  More than anything, that was Drake’s real achievement.  He managed to hold together seemingly incompatible forms in a way that never for a second seems like a juxtaposition at all.  The stark, flawless Pink Moon may well be Drake’s finest album, but Five Leaves Left is great too, and hardly a step back at all (saying so is a matter of splitting hairs).

David Ruffin – Feelin’ Good

Feelin' Good

David RuffinFeelin’ Good Motown MS696 (1969)

Made up of leftovers from the My Whole World Ended sessions plus some additional material that leans a little toward psychedelic soul, Feelin’ Good seems to fall just short of something bigger.  There’s great singing and all, but sometimes the strings and backing seem underwhelming set against Ruffin’s leads (“What You Gave Me”).  Decent but forgettable next to My Whole World Ended.

Sun Ra – Live at the Hackney Empire

Live at the Hackney Empire

Sun Ra and The Year 2000 Myth Science ArkestraLive at the Hackney Empire Leo Records LR 214/215 (1994)

Live at the Hackney Empire was recorded in London just a few weeks before a series of strokes severely curtailed Sun Ra’s ability to perform.  That makes it the last great Sun Ra album.  The most challenging material is up front, with the bulk of the rest of the album focusing on back catalog favorites and standards (many of which, like “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “Yeah, Man!,” had become regular features in concerts).  There is overlap in the set list with other live recordings from the group’s late period (compare Live at Praxis ’84 and Cosmo Omnibus Imagiable Illusion: Live at Pit-Inn Tokyo, Japan, 8,8,1988).  But the length of this set, and the wonderfully warm and effortless performances still make it stand out.  A few guest appearances — Talvin Singh, India Cooke, Elson Dos Santos Nascimento — might also be of interest.  Although some late period records sound like they were made by a band ready for retirement, there is no indication of that here.  Certainly, this only occasionally reaches for the more abrasive sounds the band was known to utilize.  That is hardly a concern.  Even in the mellower moments the performers sound thrilled to be making music.  This might not be a bad place to get your feet wet with Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and longtime fans will probably find this stands in the top tier of the many seemingly similar live albums out there.  It is simply great music with nothing to prove.  If it is autumnal work, it manages to be that in the best possible way.

Joe Boyd – White Bicycles

White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s

Joe BoydWhite Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent’s Tail 2006)

Joe Boyd is a music and film producer, and onetime club operator.  His name is all over a lot of curious music from the late 1960s and early 1970s (and less conspicuous music after that), mostly folk, folk-rock and psychedelic rock.  White Bicycles is his memoir of that time.  He describes a trip to Great Britain in early 1965, saying, “I loved the feeling that I was in a foreign place, and the more alien the better.” (p. 65).  This works as a concise summary of his musical tastes as well.  Always keen for the most exotic sounds — especially if they can also be labeled “authentic” — he was kind of a collector of musical trophy experiences.  At least, that he how his memoir White Bicycles reads.  He provides only the barest details of anything about his life that isn’t a brag, or used as a discrete counterweight to give a more punch to an extended brag — like the story of walking away from the rights to ABBA‘s publishing before they got huge is really an excuse to claim he was in on the band’s appeal before the rest of the world.  But he certainly did rack up an impressive resume of musical acquaintances, record production credits (or co-credits), and scene caché.

As a writer, Boyd is kind of an expert con man.  He has a journalist’s flair for witty one-liners and turns of phrase.  He also has a deep appreciation for how the universal can be explained though isolated examples, betraying that universality in a memoir that seems to suggest (implicitly) that everything universal about the 1960s had something to do with him.  It isn’t that he lies or exaggerates.  The man was there for a lot of important countercultural milestones, though he should earn no credit or applause for it because anyone with the opportunities and resources that he did should have been obligated to do at least as much.  For instance, he suddenly is helping manage the Newport Jazz Festival, but we read nothing about how he managed to get the job.  We hear about how he stretches his resources and empty pockets when in college, though a moment’s pause might remind the reader that Boyd is in an Ivy League college in the first place, with room and board, and still able to travel and devote any earnings toward discretionary travel and musical investments.

Boyd is at his best doing hit-and-run synopses of particular artists and musical sub-cultures, from the sympathetic perspective of someone who “was there.”  When it comes to autobiographical details, his accounts are thin and self-serving.  There is no shortage of name-dropping.  Yet that’s also the reason anyone reads this book, to find out about the seemingly unending roster of musical luminaries that crossed paths with Boyd at one point or another.  But his little synopses are quite engaging, like one about the music of his teenage years:

“The years 1954 to 1956 were the great cusp, when black music was discovered by white teenagers and sold millions of records. The horrified guardians of the nation’s morals feared the underclass world it represented and the miscegenation implied in its rhythms; major record labels hated it because they didn’t understand it, putting them at a disadvantage with buccaneering independents [he mentions a few, none from the South, leaving out Sam Phillips at Sun]”. (p. 8)

He does sum up the book on a sober point about music in the 1960s:

“The atmosphere in which music flourished then had a lot to do with economics.  It was a time of unprecedented prosperity.  People are supposedly wealthier now, yet most feel they haven’t enough money and time is at an even greater premium.  ***  In the sixties, we had surpluses of both money and time.  ***  The tightening of the fiscal screws that began with the 1973 oil crisis may not have been a conspiracy to rein in this dangerous laxness, but it has certainly worked out to the advantage of the powerful.  Ever since, prices have ratcheted upwards in relation to hours worked and the results of this squeeze can be seen everywhere.” (pp. 267-68).

This is all true, to a point.  But your frame of reference has to be that of middle and upper-middle class white people.  This book will appeal most if you are one of those too.  It also must be mentioned that the way that things have changed such that the 60s experiences can’t be recreated a half-century later just happens to emphasize the rarity of Boyd’s experiences, and that privileged rarity is what he plies to his own advantage.

In the end Boyd manages to paint vivid portraits of scenes and incidents from his life. He is nothing if not articulate.  Whether these portraits, and their point of view, is of interest, though, is kind of a separate issue. Boyd doesn’t emerge from the narrative as the sort of chum you are likely to find endearing. There is an elitism and off-putting self-importance to much of his chosen narrative.  This is to say Boyd stops short of making any kind of existential realization that the achievements he boasts about are just as silly and arbitrary as anything else, and they stand in the way of the benign co-existence he claims to have fostered through music — in a way, therein lies the seeds of the downfall of 60s ideals.  Your interest will probably peak if you have heard a lot of musical acts that Boyd was involved with: Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Nico, Vashti Bunyan, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, etc.

Scott Walker – We Had It All

We Had It All

Scott WalkerWe Had It All CBS 80254 (1974)

While Stretch hinted at a country sound, the follow-up Any Day Now fully invests in it.  But the result is something less interesting.  Walker proves ill-suited to much of the material here.  “The Black Rose”, for instance, with the lyrics Well, the devil made it do it the first time/ the second time I done it on my own, just seems ridiculous coming out of his mouth.  “Sundown” and “Delta Dawn” are perhaps reasonable offerings, but, by and large, this album is a low point in Walker’s catalog.  It is consistently uninspired.  Scott puts too little effort into this.  At best, it’s adequately performed.