Kool Keith – Black Elvis/Lost in Space

Black Elvis/Lost in Space

Kool KeithBlack Elvis/Lost in Space Ruff House WK 52000 (1999)

This is, without question, one of my favorite hip-hop albums.  Kool Keith is inimitable.  Maybe that’s partly because there is (or was) hardly anyone even attempting his kind of abstract, surreal vision of hip-hop.  This solo release came somewhat on the heels of the critically lauded Dr. Octagonecologyst album.  It seems like a lot of people like to talk about how Black Elvis isn’t as good as the Dr. Octagon disc.  Well, motherfuckers, I’m gonna say the exact opposite.  I think in every way that counts, Black Elvis is the better album.  On Dr. Octagonecologyst, Keith’s vocals are relegated to a decidedly secondary position.  Just listen to “3000” to hear producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura chop up the vocal tracks and–subtly–undermine the natural rhythm of Keith’s vocal delivery.  Now, The Automator is okay.  I’m not convinced he’s that great though.  But I am convinced that Kool Keith is a motherfuckin’ rap genius.  To take anything away from Keith’s vocals is, in my opinion, a big mistake.  Now, there’s the Black Elvis album.  It begins as kind of concept album, with Keith’s alien Black Elvis character descending to Earth and rapping about all that he sees from the point of view of this outsider rock star.  I mean, the “Intro” track alone is one of my favorite hip-hop songs.  Then it transitions to some songs that reveal the Black Elvis character to be just that, a public persona…he’s a guy that has to go home and live a life like everybody else.  The end of the disc (which might benefit from trimming a few of the lesser tracks) goes out with a bit of a whimper on some pretty “normal” tracks.  But that’s nothing really.  Through it all, the focus is on Keith and his vocals.  In that respect it corrects all the errors of the Dr. Octagon project (“Rockets On the Battlefield” even claims this is “better than Octo”).  Plus, the electro beats make the perfect foil.  I would go so far as to say this album has no direct precedent in hip-hop.  Some of Antipop Consortium‘s albums like Arrhythmia follow in its path, but even then, there weren’t even many people following up on what Keith did here.  It’s just completely left-field hip-hop.  The lyrics are loaded with the kind of hilarious non-sequiturs I adore:

“mechanical legs, mechanical legs”, “R2D2? Me too” (on “Rockets On the Battlefield”)

“in my monkey green rag-top Seville” (on “Supergalactic Lover”)

Keith’s disfigured, amplified vision is just so incisive and insightful here that it gets me every time.  No, this isn’t a perfect album.  But I love it.  I wish more people, including Keith himself, would step up and try to make more hip-hop this daring.  Outside of a few acts like Antipop Consortium, Sole, cLOUDDEAD, MF Doom (and aliases like King Geedorah), few have made the effort.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Bon IverBon Iver, Bon Iver Jagjaguwar JAG135 (2011)

Although the opener “Perth” is okay, this quickly devolves into very pretentious music from a small-town boy trying to approximate what he thinks sophisticated pop music should sound like.  Unfortunately, he ends up with something a lot like the worst of late 1970s/early 80s pop radio drivel.  If there has been a trend lately of musical anthropologists revisiting the 70s/80s pop era, like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti or Thundercat, then Bon Iver seems to be one who did the least research and drew the least interesting insights.

The 13th Floor Elevators – The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators

The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators

The 13th Floor ElevatorsThe Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators International Artists IA-LP-1 (1966)

Mid-Sixties music from Texas, coming from the likes of The 13th Floor Elevators and The Red Crayola, took remarkably fresh looks at modern rock and roll. The 13th Floor Elevators were probably the most psychedelic band of the era. Their garage-oriented acid rock exploded with desperate vigor. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” later affirmed its classic status upon inclusion in the legendary Nuggets compilation, but that song merely flanks a much bigger musical explosion.

The liner notes (some of the coolest you’ll find with any rock album) talk about music via a program of chemically deranging structures of the senses in a “quest for pure sanity.” Relating all knowledge simultaneously will help mankind deal with “life in its entirety.” The suggested tool seems to be LSD.

This album is a great example of the proper way to use drums in rock and roll. Simply laying out a beat straight on the top or bottom won’t work. Drummers are not substitutes for metronomes. Everyone in a rock and roll band should be responsible for the rhythm, with the bass (or its equivalent) as the signpost telling where the rhythm is at any moment. The drums cannot impose anything on the band without ruining the music; they must be an integral part of the music. The 13th Floor Elevators’ philosophy of recognizing reactions with “perfect cross-reference” makes the drums an essential part of their agenda. It isn’t about ability really. There is some exciting percussion here, even though the record–the CD reissue at least–is too hazy to make out everything the rhythm section did.

Singer Roky Erickson (b. Roger Kynard Erickson) had a manic energy unlike any other known human being. His life story a few years later involved commitment to a mental institution–when those were still scary places. Jug player Tommy Hall added one of the most distinctive elements of The 13th Floor Elevators’ sound with his otherworldly stutters and pops. Hall and Erickson’s contributions to amazing songs like “Fire Engine,” “Splash 1” and “Reverberation” are unique, but the vision of the album has held up thanks to the presence of strong, varied songs from beginning to end.

A bunch of crazed lunatics? Partly. But only in a good way. The 13th Floor Elevators definitely had a complex and coherent purpose for their extreme energy.

Sun Ra and His Astro Infinity Arkestra – Strange Strings

Strange Strings

Sun Ra and His Astro Infinity ArkestraStrange Strings El Saturn LP 502 (1967)

Strange Strings is among the weirdest entries in the Sun Ra catalog.  Biographer John Szwed recounted that Sun Ra gave his musicians recording this some Asian instruments they had never played, a zither-like instrument, and a piece of sheet metal, telling them “You’re playing from ignorance–it’s an exercise in ignorance. We’re going to play what you don’t know and what you don’t know is huge.”  You do have to give Ra some credit not only for making this music and recording it, but releasing it too.  It feels a bit like the reductio ad absurdum of everything underlying the concept of “free jazz”.  In some ways, this record would sound exactly the same if the instruments were given over to a group of small children, monkeys, tax attorneys, ballerinas and bus drivers, who played when Sun Ra pointed at them.  That is both the amazing and frustrating thing about this beast.  Szwed summed it up quite rightly saying, “It can’t hold your attention for 40 minutes but you know you’re hearing something that nobody else would try to do.”  This does have some great moments, if you pay attention, but you really have to work to get at them.  Though you can get the overall effect of Strange Strings a bit more acutely from, say, a John Cage piece.

Richard Davis – Muses for Richard Davis

Muses for Richard Davis

Richard DavisMuses for Richard Davis MPS MPS 15021 (1970)

Richard Davis is best known as a “sideman”, because he has been somewhat reluctant to lead groups on his own.  But he was capable of great things as a leader, and his Muses for Richard Davis is really a surprisingly good album.  A big asset is the variety of settings in which Davis is placed.  There are songs performed as duos (in two different configurations), a trio, a quintet and a septet.  Most of the personnel are alumni from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.  “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” provides an extended Davis solo with a number of his trademark techniques, like playing double stops and adding a slowly varying microtonal interval between the strings he plays on his bass.  “Milktrain” and “Toe Tailed Moon” both feature tight horn arrangements that recall Oliver Nelson or George Russell.  The ballad “A Child Is Born” is a vehicle for some superb playing by Roland Hanna, who is in top form throughout the set.  The crown jewel of the album though is the title track, a duet between Davis and Freddie Hubbard, with Hubbard playing with a Harmon mute.  It is a mysterious and enchanting song, written by Hanna, with Davis utilizing his bow.  At the time the song might have seemed out of place, or a mere third-stream oddity, but in hindsight can be recognized as something decades ahead of its time.  Aside from the title track, the rest of the album has a mellow attitude, casual almost.  Davis brings a rather ambiguous sense of traditional decorum and modern adventurousness to the proceedings.  And there is never a dull moment.  Definitely among Davis’ best.

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Parlophone PCS 7027 (1967)

A good album, no more.  Who cares about this stuff when The Beach Boys outdid it a million times over with…Smiley Smile.  Yeah, I did just say that. William S. Burroughs once wrote that the function of art is to remind us of what we know and what we don’t know that we know.  Well, an album like Sgt. Pepper’s, about the mid-20th century white middle class experience, is a bit unnecessary, at least for me, because it’s aimed at perhaps the most (over-)documented cultural demographic that has ever existed on the face of the earth.

Green Zone

Green Zone

Green Zone (2010)

Universal Pictures

Director: Paul Greengrass

Main Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear

Some movies about the Unites States’ second war against former ally Iraq focus exclusively on the bravery, hardships, misfortunes, valor, and other personal experiences of the soldiers.  Examples are The Hurt Locker (2008) and Stop-Loss (2008).  These sorts of films make no attempt whatsoever to contextualize the war.  In The Hurt Locker, the main characters diffuse improvised explosive devices throughout the entire movie.  Why are those bombs being made and planted in the first place?  The movie doesn’t even entertain that question.

Green Zone falls into another category of films that try to explain what the war was about.  Another example in this category is Redacted (2007).  Green Zone is loosely inspired by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (2006), which provided an account of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that the U.S. government installed in a heavily fortified city-within-a-city in Baghdad during the war (until June 2004, when the Green Zone was handed over to the U.S. State Department).  The script for Green Zone, however, is fictional.  Paul Bremer, the incompetent neo-con and Henry Kissinger protégé in charge of the CPA (after Lieutenant General Jay Garner was abruptly fired) is fictionalized as Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear).   Chief Warrant Office Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is an outrageously superhero-like soldier who seeks the truth about the war, when his missions to secure materials for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) turn up nothing and he suspects bad intelligence.

The plot is far-fetched, and the timeline historically inaccurate.  Still, the movie has somewhat decent intentions.  Drawing from Chandrasekaran’s book are the major points that Bremer & Co.’s decisions to implement #1 De-Ba’athification (removal of all government officials from Saddam Hussein’s socialist party) and #2 dissolution of the Iraqi Army were monumentally bad decisions, and the idea that the folks in the Green Zone calling the shots lived in a bubble divorced entirely from the facts on the ground outside the well-protected green zone perimeter.  Even in 2014, a decade later, Bremer continues to defend what he did, going so far as to call dissolution of the Iraqi army the best decision he made with the CPA (Losing Iraq).  The movie positions the CIA agent Martin “Marty” Brown (Brendan Gleeson) as a counterpoint figure.  There, the script admirably tries to portray the U.S. government not as a monolithic entity, but subject to competing factions within it, complete with individuals vying for personal advancement and inter-agency turf battles.  There are also heavy-handed attempts to provide an Iraqi perspective, mostly by way of a former Iraqi soldier nicknamed “Freddy” (Khalid Abdalla).  But in spite of those attempts, the plot lurches from one action movie cliché to the next.

Director Paul Greengrass also directed Damon in two Bourne movies, and there are a few too many parallels here for comfort.  There are extended chase scenes filmed with shaky portable cameras and Damon’s character always seems to be a step ahead in ways that strain credibility.  Also, Kinnear has a lackey in the army who unflinchingly carries out orders, even when those include taking out fellow U.S. soldiers.  That is possible, but these soldiers are portrayed as one-dimensional robots, as if Damon’s character is the only soldier in the army with a conscience.  These features create plot situations that clearly lack authenticity.  The tone is frequently of Damon’s character as a truth-machine, pitted against a monster in Kinnear.  This is a little too simple.  Chandrasekaran portrayed the CPA as a corrupt organization that placed loyalty to George W. Bush and his GOP party above actual qualifications or good decision-making.  The later book by Peter Van Buren, We Meant Well (2011), which focused on the U.S. State Department’s bungled, ridiculous efforts at “reconstruction” of Iraq in 2009-10, demonstrates how that same mindset also took hold in the State Department.  It wasn’t a “few bad apples”, it was a spectacle of an immensely and widely corrupt U.S. government trying to “liberate” Iraq from its corrupt government that hardly seemed any different!

This film deserves credit for trying to imbue a Hollywood movie with a realistic perspective of what happened to cause the Iraq war to proceed as it did.  But it also deserves derision for being contrived and implausible, a failure of technique and writing mostly, which directly undermines all attempts to paint an accurate picture of the war.

Love – Forever Changes

Forever Changes

LoveForever Changes Elektra EKS 74013 (1967)

Forever Changes is probably the single greatest statement in rock and roll on the unanticipated dark side of the whole yippie/hippie thing of the late 1960s and early 70s.  Hunter S. Thompson wrote about “the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait” for anyone who took Dr. Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” consciousness expansion ideals too seriously.  And it is from about that perspective that Forever Changes resides.  Much of the lyrical content conjures up a process of reflection and expanding self-awareness.  But it’s in the context of recognizing that with all the great possibilities in life there come a lot of obstacles and disappointments.  Funkadelic had an album a few years later titled Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow.  Well, in between freeing your mind and everything else falls a lot of stuff.  Heavy stuff.  So what of all the others who haven’t freed their minds, and the difficult possibility that those people (actively or not) stand in the way of anything further?  Grim and meat-hook possibilities indeed.

Part of what makes this album unique is that Love was an unlikely band to have made it.  The songs are drenched in orchestrated strings and laced through with latin and Euro-classical-tinged acoustic guitar.  Earlier Love recordings like “¡Que Vida!” from Da Capo hint at it, but most of the group’s best material to this point was in the vein of garage rock (“Seven & Seven Is”, “My Little Red Book”) or psychedelia (“Stephanie Knows Who”, “She Comes in Colors”).  And that makes the kind of naive sense of bewilderment so pervasive here as convincing as it is.

There is something timeless in this too.  The immediate context was the Vietnam war era, but three or four decades later couldn’t the lyrics “they’re locking them up today/ they’re throwing away the key/ I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow/ you or me?” from “The Red Telephone” refer just as well, and more literally, to Guantanamo Bay almost four decades later?  And that’s just it.  The complexities and difficulties of life that consume Forever Changes are ones that still linger.  They touch on things deep and vast.

Of course, the unmatched blend of optimism and loneliness of Bryan MacLean‘s “Alone Again Or” makes it basically a perfect song.  But then the same greatness can be attributed to the epic “You Set the Scene”, which is the summation of everything that precedes it.  Arthur Lee sings “and for every happy hello/ there will be goodbye”, but later reiterates “and I face each day with a smile.”  The tensions, contradictions, wonder and cautious acceptance that permeates the song is the same feeling that carries the rest of the album.  That song is also a great example of how so much of the album makes a contemplative, searching state of mind so palpable.  Even if the music deals with the downsides of the cultural artifacts it considers, in the end it still finds them worthwhile.  Nothing good comes without hard work and struggle!

I have wavered in my appreciation for this album over the years.  I loved it at first, but then changed my opinion and thought it lightweight and superficial for a while.  But I came back around, and I think for good.  This is the real deal.  Whenever I come back to it, I’m more impressed than before.

If you have no sense of wonder, or just can’t see anything in yippie/hippie culture, this album probably won’t hold interest for you.  But for you, I am sorry, for you have missed out.  This album has rightfully earned a place among those few and rarefied that are worthy of a lifetime of listening, and that can actually re-frame your whole point of reference as a listener.

Johnny Cash – Ride This Train

Ride This Train

Johnny CashRide This Train Columbia CS 8255 (1960)

When Cash signed to Columbia, one of his two initial requests was to do a concept album (the other being to do a gospel album).  Ride This Train is a concept album built around stories and songs about American working people of the Nineteenth Century, the places they called home, and their exploits and travails.  The album features spoken narrations by Cash set to sounds of an old coal-powered steam train interspersed among songs with generally spare, acoustic musical accompaniment.  The approach is modeled on the format of old radio shows.  Cash is acting.  Looking back over 50 years later, the closest equivalent would be the radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, with a lot less emphasis on comedy.  As these kinds of albums go, this one ain’t all bad.  The stories are kind of intriguing and all of the songs are very nice, though Cash may have done a little better with the same basic format on Sings the Ballads of the True West.  Here, he stretches a bit far in trying to portray some sort of authentic aura of the old west, lapsing into the role of amateur archivist or anthropologist. This is far from essential Cash and will be enjoyed most by established fans and listeners interested in something along the lines of musical theater.

Johnny Cash – Songs of Our Soil

Songs of Our Soil

Johnny CashSongs of Our Soil Columbia CS 8148 (1959)

Songs of Our Soil was an important album in developing the sound of most of Johnny Cash’s albums of the following decade.  The Fabulous Johnny Cash had mostly continued with the same reverb-laden minimalist country with a rock-inflected beat and emphasis on love songs as on Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous.  But here the guitar is less loud, and things like a piano feature on occasion too.  Backing vocals by The Jordanaires are frequent.  Cash’s voice is a little more distinct and prominent.  Reverb and twang are quietly diminished.  The result is something a little more folk than country sounding, with a sophistication more palatable to pop audiences.  This seemed to arise from a time when Cash’s overt attempts at success had already been made, and having used up those commercial ideas he tended to just kind of go with the flow in more eclectic settings — a bit like small-scale Nashville versions of the great Los Angeles “Wrecking Crew” recordings from the 1960s.  The homegrown character of a guy who managed to maintain a successful music career through the rest of his life on “his” terms still shines through in an effortless kind of way.  It all works pretty well.  Cash does seem just a little stiff in places though, and some listeners don’t seem to care for the backing vocals.  But when in later years he swapped the male backing vocals for female ones from his future wife June Carter and members of The Carter Family, things settled into the form that worked so well on many albums to come.

When it comes to the songs, a lot deal with death, but more importantly they conjure up Americana themes a lot like the view of pre-industrial America later featured in the film Days of Heaven.  Cash avoids too many romance songs and manages to focus on farm and country life without any hint of rural naiveté.  This might be called the first concept album he did, though the concept is pretty mild.  The opener “Drink to Me” is an adaptation of the old English song “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” (which was based on a 1616 poem by Ben Jonson derived from Greek verses by Philostratus).  On the posthumously-released Personal File Cash revealed that it was the first song he ever performed publicly, for a high school event.  It also was the song the little owlet Owl Jolson didn’t want to sing in the classic 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon by Tex Avery “I Love to Singa.”  “I Want to Go Home” is also an adaptation, of “The John B. Sails,” which would be performed with greater success by The Beach Boys as “Sloop John B” on Pet Sounds a few years later.

Most listeners will probably want to head to other Cash recordings first, and come back to this if they like his early 60s material to see how he arrived there.  This one is still pretty welcoming, suitable for repeat listens, and really one of the more durable albums of Cash’s whole career.  It isn’t just an offering from the “Johnny Cash” persona.  It comes closer to revealing the guy who created the persona of “Johnny Cash” than anything else to this point, and even much of what came later.