Spacemen 3 were hardly the most original rock group. They wore their influences on their sleeves. On their debut, Sound of Confusion, the effect was a jolt of pure slacker charm. The Stooges, The 13th Floor Elevators, these groups were channeled with the gawkish, unashamed enthusiasm of a most wonderfully unadulterated kind. Any why not? It suited the music. Here on The Perfect Prescription, the influences have shifted to The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, even gospel music, processed through slightly jangly contemporary British psychedelia of the likes of The Teardrop Explodes, with a more lethargic, down-tempo groove. This certainly set the stage for the next decade’s “Brit pop”, which you could consider an asset or a liability. This one is a disappointment though. Could these guys even play? You have to wonder with the tuneless vocals on display. The band seems to maybe start taking themselves seriously. Snotty music that originated not far from the garage welcomed—no, deserved—to be resurrected with ridiculously faithful and inept 1980s recreations. It was a proud declaration, “We have learned nothing in the intervening years!” But the kinds of music with bigger aspirations that Spacemen 3 investigate on this album don’t quiet react well to similar treatment. You can add acid to water, but not water to acid. It’s the same with this music. The irreverent treatment of the serious rock influences has the basic equation backwards, at least when lacking a sense of humor and recognition of the absurdity in doing it that way. Ah, so it goes. The Perfect Prescription does advocate for a new rhythm of drugged out rock, and for that it deserves some credit amidst its own shambolic, desultory downward spiral.
Grateful Dead – Dick’s Picks Volume Twenty-Two (Kings Beach Bowl, Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, CA – 2/23-24/68) Grateful Dead Records GDCD 4042 (2001)
I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead for quite a long time, and albums like Dick’s Picks, Vol. 22 are the reasons why I keep coming back. The Dead from about 1967 to 1970 were a great musical force. They were energetic, genuine and unique. I almost hesitate to say unique, but I do mean it. For one, the Dead had a postmodern style that drew heavily on blues, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, and even modern classical elements. And it’s true that they never really contributed much to any of those genres individually. But in their extended jams that drew all of them together, their revelry of juxtaposition was something unique. This stuff was fun! Rather than the dour, pretentious attitude so familiar to postmodern music, the Dead sounded completely different. Perhaps the fact that the Dead don’t quite sound as “serious” as some people think they should is the very reason they are almost deemed off-limits. Sure, it wasn’t that long before the Dead became content to churn out unremarkable AOR rock, with forays into faddish trends like their silly attempt at disco a decade on. Yet here in 1968, playing in a bowling alley no less, the group sounds thrilled to be making music, without sounding like they are forcing themselves to sound like anything in particular. Later on, that didn’t seem to be the case. Contrary to their reputation, I don’t feel like they challenged themselves much from about 1970 onwards, instead becoming content to rest on a few of their own perceived strengths and ending up sounding just like a lot of other bands. But those days lay far in the future back in February of 1968, back when maybe anything seemed possible.
I hate to say it, but the sound quality here is fair at best. Still, the unusual mix (likely a necessity given the source tape) lends a few pleasant surprises in making Pigpen‘s organ and Phil Lesh‘s bass more readily audible. In the end, substance wise, this is one of the finest live sets in the Dead’s extensive catalog, and I think the concerns about sound quality can’t really hold this album back much at all.
I think this is a pretty good album. It’s really just a refinement of Ellingtonian ideas, rather than anything groundbreaking. And the album does insist itself upon the listener. I think there are better Mingus albums. But this is still good. Oh, lest I forget to mention this: read the liner notes. The whole pretentious asshole quality of Mingus that you might detect in the music should become crystal clear.
Life, Love and Faith is a great soul album that has somehow been overlooked. Backed by The Meters, Allen Toussaint brings a shaky balance to this music. The subject matter is surprisingly different from other soul music. We have insecurities and nagging desires in the open. Toussaint runs through how he deals with three of the great forces linked to humanity—that give the album its title. While few would attempt this album, it succeeds with every moment. It sounds better with age too. Though generally dismissed for some time as a watery producer’s album, no description could be more wrong.
The personal songwriting and sensitive recordings come across more like Alex Chilton than Solomon Burke. “Am I Expecting Too Much” masks a song about social equality in terms of romantic difficulties. “Soul Sister” sounds most like a hit (it has shown up on numerous soundtracks). It has black power in the background but transcends simple description with its wistful aspirations. Actually those two songs alone are enough to make this album a classic. But there is more. “On Your Way Down” is almost a southern standard, others have played and recorded it so often. “Electricity” is among the catchier numbers. The adorable melodies and intuitive rhythms support the album’s great overarching design. All the songs are personal reflections on matters of fundamental character. Each one shades the unending facets of its universe. Toussaint made use of this music. He put it forth as best he could, as if needed immediately.
Toussaint could hold out his pleadings where no explanation would do. He struggles to overcome the disbelief of others. His vision of Life, Love and Faith tries valiantly to enlighten anyone willing to listen. It’s a personal document tinged with the sweaty, impulsive movements.
New Orleans soul has always been shamefully overlooked. Let us not forget that New Orleans largely started soul off, with Professor Longhair, through Little Richard and Fats Domino. New Orleans soul doesn’t quite fit into “southern soul,” which generally only refers to Memphis or Muscle Shoals, nor is it Chicago “sweet” soul or Motown/Philly. Some people perhaps lump New Orleans soul into other categories, be it R&B, funk, blues, or some miscellaneous other category. That is a mistake. Apart from the general idea that all categories are worthless, one listen to Life, Love and Faith proves it. Toussaint was a huge influence on the entire atmosphere of New Orleans music. As a solo performer, sideman, producer, and songwriter, he touched almost everything (from artists like the Showmen, the Meters, Ernie K. Doe, Lee Dorsey, LaBelle, Chocolate Milk, and more).
Life, Love and Faith is great; it’s as good as soul ever got.
Paul Robeson had his passport revoked by the U.S. State Dept. in the 1950s. This was illegal, as courts later found. On top of that, President Truman signed an executive order that prevented him from traveling to Canada. Normally American citizens could travel to Canada without a passport (* this long-standing practice was ended during the so-called “war on terror” in the 2000s). The grounds for all this was that Robeson was supposed to be some kind of a threat during wartime. “Wartime” you ask? Supposedly, the Korean War. But there was no declaration of war with respect to Korea, so it wasn’t a “war” as far as the U.S. Government is concerned, so the actions against Robeson were illegal — not to mention completely spurious.
When prevented from traveling to a scheduled concert in Canada, Robeson set up on in a park on U.S. soil, standing feet from the border, and sang for a broadcast across the border. That was 1952. He came back again three more times for similar cross-border concerts. Recordings were made and released by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. This comp — released in honor of the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s birth — collects the 1952 and 1953 performances. The one from ’52 is by far the best of the two. Though what’s interesting is that not all of the ’52 concert seems to be present here, as I Came to Sing (recorded at that concert) included “Water Boy” which is omitted here.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s greatest strengths were their versatility and eclecticism. Les Stances a Sophie is a great example of their best qualities, as they swing between mellow soul jazz, free jazz skronking, Euro-classical adaptations, delicate world fusion, retro bluesing, and points in between. I don’t know if you could point to the group as being ultimate masters of any one style, but that didn’t ever seem to be their intention. They came up at a time when lots of the last barriers in music had been torn down, and these guys made a case for the beauty found in stitching all the various strands together in intriguing ways. The individual pieces are familiar, but the tapestry feels genuine and fresh. It would be hard to hear this and not immediately find something to like, even if the entirety takes some time to absorb.
A reviewer once described A Whole New Thing as “the most exciting mediocre record I’ve ever heard.” That about sums this up. Sly was still working out the details of his whole new thing. He would, of course, perfect it in just a matter of months. What helps this album, though, is that whatever parts of Sly’s vision were still under construction aren’t terribly apparent behind the gale force of the music’s raw energy. Any album that opens with something like “Underdog” has achieved something. It quotes the familiar melody of “Frère Jacques” for the effect of lulling you to sleep, only to jolt you awake with a big beat and punchy horns:
I know how it feels to expect to get a fair shake/
but they won’t let you forget that you’re the underdog/
and you gotta be twice as good
The album’s weakest moments tend to be those with the most overt similarities to conventional soul of the day. Sly evolved into an effective vocalist with perfect rhythm, but when he tries to be the typical kind of emotive soul singer (like you would find on Stax or Motown or Atlantic) his voice comes across as overly affected. The vocals in general aren’t as well integrated into the group’s sound as they would be later. Yet the best stuff — the up-tempo numbers, especially those dominating side one — are infectious even when the songwriting isn’t Sly’s best. The group gets a lot of mileage out of even the thinner material. A Whole New Thing is not an essential item, but even this somewhat lesser outing from one of pop music’s greatest geniuses will entertain you.
I’m not sure what to make of an album like this. The comment about David Crosby that sticks most in my mind is someone wondering out loud, “why is David Crosby so highly regarded?” Croz goes far beyond the concept of middle-aged rock. This is geriatric rock. Crosby released this when he was 72. He’s writing about trying to be mature. These ponderous topics land with a thud. The pervasive, noodling light rock saxophone and snazzy little guitar licks don’t make any connections to the sorts of music that anyone under 50 listens to. This album seems to speak to those curmudgeons still trying to live a good life on terms set decades ago, but struggling to understand what it means to live a good life today. Put up against the strangely affecting faux-retro album A Letter Home by former CSN&Y bandmate Neil Young, released just a few months later, Croz seems unable to look outside itself.
Link to an interview with journalist Naomi Klein, promoting her new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014):