Julius Hemphill – Dogon A.D.

Dogon A.D.

Julius HemphillDogon A.D. Mbari MPC 501 (1972)


Although lots of narratives about jazz history ignore the Midwestern United States, Julius Hemphill and crew came along in the early 1970s in St. Louis, along with the AACM organization in Chicago, and made a case for the region’s relevance and importance.  This is an amazing debut, released on Hemphill’s own M-Bari record label.  The most distinctive feature is Abdul Wadud bowing and strumming his cello to a regular beat, which is matched against R&B tinged avant garde jazz soloing from the wind players.  This music comes from a very different place than a lot of other jazz of the era, because it doesn’t seem to take the same sources of inspiration as artists operating on either coast.  In forty years this hasn’t aged a day.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

MGM

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Main Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Tom Drake


Probably the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. The plot revolves around a family so fearful of any and all changes from their preconceived notions of life in America (without the family ever questioning those preconceived notions) that they are literally doomed to live in the aftermath of the past. Horrifying. A good movie.

Tiny Tim With Brave Combo – Girl

Girl

Tiny Tim With Brave ComboGirl Rounder 9050 (1996)


Well, this album has finally given me the idea of the proper time to yell out, “Play ‘Stairway to Heaven!'”  Dinner theater.  I have one Robert Goulet album, a live one, and he takes the time between songs to mention that the next number is one he sang on Broadway, and how he’s going to do a song that’s about love, and he somehow conveys — on vinyl — the way he’s leaning down to suggestively hold the hand of some swooning woman in the audience.  Tiny Tim plays “Stairway” the way Goulet would have, but that’s not enough, so there is a vocal chorus reminiscent of The 5th Dimension‘s “Age of Aquarius” for good measure.  Oh, then Tiny Tim does a cha-cha-cha version of “Hey Jude” and you wonder why you didn’t sing it that way along with the similar pre-programmed beat from your late 1980s Casio synthesizer.  Tiny Tim’s voice isn’t the ridiculous falsetto you remember, but deepened to something more like Bobby “Boris” Pickett of “Monster Mash” fame, with a lot more fantastically odd vibrato.  He’s swooping from rock era hits to forgotten vaudeville numbers to old show tunes, and more.  Tiny Tim could be kidding and completely serious at the same time.  Yes, god bless Tiny Tim. Head for a Neil Hamburger record next.

The Dirtbombs – Ultraglide in Black

Ultraglide in Black

The DirtbombsUltraglide in Black In the Red ITR-079 (2001)


Pretty good album of garage-rock-oriented soul covers.  It makes for good party music.  Mick Collins has a good voice for this stuff, even he is a bit rough around the edges.  Highlights are “Your Love Belongs Under a Rock,” “Ode to a Black Man,” “Got to Give It Up,” and “Do You See My Love.”  It’s kind of funny that the song “Kung Fu” opens with a nod to Bauhaus‘ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”.  These guys kick the crap out of some similar but lame bands like The Detroit Cobras.  Try this if you’re into garage rock from Oblivians, The Gories, Reigning Sound, etc.

Dinosaur Jr. – Farm

Farm

Dinosaur Jr.Farm Jagjaguwar JAG150 (2009)


When Beyond reunited the original MascisBarlowMurph Dino Jr. lineup, it was jolt of the best sort of rock energy.  Here were guys well past the usual cut-off for the young person’s rock game pulling off something that hardly seemed to lose a step from an era twenty years prior.  They still were the same screw-ups singing songs that endearingly begged, “please like me,” and “please be my friend.”

Farm takes a turn in a different direction though.  This is a more conventional indie rock album.  The hallmark warbles and fuzzy guitar solos of J. Mascis are held in check within a wall of sound.  Lou Barlow’s bass is unusually prominent.  One song blends into the next, and by the end of the album it’s hard to remember anything about it.  This is the album for people who never liked Dinosaur Jr. to begin with, but want a competent, if rather faceless, guitar rock album to add to the pile of others.  But it is a rather competent faceless guitar album!  The opener, “Pieces,” is the best thing here, though it comes up short of the most memorable of the group’s songs.  Don’t fret though.  The follow-up I Bet on Sky turned things around in a more promising direction, and Mascis’ guitar thundered back to the forefront.

Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

Are We There

Sharon Van EttenAre We There Jagjaguwar JAG255 (2014)


Sharon Van Etten operates mostly in the tradition of singer-songwriters from the 1970s, with vocals a little more breathy and quaking in the style of contemporary indie rock.  Almost all of Are We There is a look at the sadder, more difficult parts of relationships–bad ones mostly.  Where she shines, though, is incorporating a rhythm box and primitive keyboards.  She takes what could be sad sack, mopey music and enlivens it with a patina of making more than expected from sort of stock elements.

One of the best songs is “Our Love.”  Against a slow, monotonous, almost drone-line synthesizer (which could almost pass for “Kip Waits” on the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack) and a lithe, slick guitar note bent slowly, she sings again and again, “It’s our love” with a faint, warbling voice.  The tension from the juxtaposition of those elements are what make the song.  The lyrics, which are minimal, suggest an abusive relationship. The keyboards suggest monotony.  The heavy vibrato on the vocals suggests tortured emotion.  Yet, the song doesn’t get around to pondering an end or escape.  Instead, it wonders, “Still don’t know what I have found,” then repeating, “In our love.”  It ends repeating the line, “It’s all love.”  What makes the song something other than than a meek submission to abuse is that it ponders, without knowing, what the good parts are mixed in with the bad.  Repeating the same lyrics so many times, with little flourishes of percussion, and slowly changing guitar riffs, subtly makes the point that there is more to the story than what the words explicitly say, and that there is a need to find our own deeper meaning.  That takes an effort.  But the song is fundamentally about making that effort.  It isn’t a cheery song, and maybe the deeper meaning is that what the song conveys was never really “love”.

“Break Me” continues the theme of an abusive relationship.  This is one of the bleaker tunes on the album.  Powerlessness and dependency are recalled with a forceful touch of frustration, and perhaps even bewilderment.  What makes the song listenable, is that it looks at the situation being described in repose, as something already conquered.  Those synthesizers are back, with an ascending two-chord pattern repeating, with a slight addition of another note, then resolving with a middle chord and a higher one.  These ostinato passages clash with washes of cymbal and a drum beat, probably a snare, processed with gated reverb (a kind of echo that doesn’t fully resolve; frequently used in heavy metal records of the late 1980s).

“Tarifa” adds horns.  There is a hint of R&B flavor, and a huskiness to Van Etten’s voice.  Just like a lot of the songs, the theme is again the uncertainty of knowing whether a situation is right: “Tell me when / Tell me when is this over? / Chewed you out / Chew me out when I’m stupid / I don’t wanna / Everyone else pales / Send in the owl / Tell me I’m not a child.”  Unlike “Our Love,” this song tells of someone trying to find confidence, which is to say to connect inner, subjective feeling to some kind of external validation.

It might have helped to have something on the album other than hard looks at romantic relationships.  It fades to black a bit too much for its own good.  The sense of deliberateness, the sort on the percussive chords bashed out repeatedly on the piano on “Your Love is Killing Me” typify it, give this weight but also weigh it down.  There also is too much reliance on the sorts of affected vocalizations that litter indie rock recordings of the day (Josephine Foster comes to mind as a comparison point), and even the kind of aching cries (“You Know Me Well”) that Bono trades in regularly.   Are We There is still better than much in its milieu.  Hopefully Van Etten has more and better things to come.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

Blue

Joni MitchellBlue Reprise MS 2038 (1971)


Blue tends to be cited as one of Joni Mitchell’s best albums, if not her very best.  This is difficult to understand.  She has better albums: Ladies of the Canyon, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns.  Her vocals are a little shrill here too.  That’s not to say that this is a bad album, by no means, but in a larger context it falls short.  What is interesting is how the songwriting makes Blue sort of emblematic of the failures of the post-1968 hippie culture.  With introspection providing almost hermetic boundaries, the endless navel-gazing wallows in newly-permitted formal freedoms to “live your own life” without really challenging structural constraints or, more to the point, the people who set the ground rules and contours of those permitted freedoms.  In other words, this sets up the failure to truly have self-determination and re-make the world in a new way.  There is an element of settling for positive but (relatively) small concessions that in the long term further dependence on the forces of misery granting those concessions.  The problem, of course, is that none of this is recognized in Mitchell’s songs.  They have a satisfaction that implies the job is done and all there is left is to get on with life outside of the problems others create.  But it doesn’t work that way.  Maybe Mitchell’s true self is paradoxically creating and participating in the situations and relationships she (rightly) sees as unfulfilling and hurtful?  It’s the same troubling short-sightedness that plagues things like Jack Kerouac books — Dharma Bums especially.  So you “get away.”  Then what?  You might say this confuses the starting line with the finish line.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Scared Famous

Scared Famous

Ariel Pink’s Haunted GraffitiScared Famous Human Ear Music HEAR0003 (2007)


Originally part of a two-cassette, self-released album package Scared Famous/FF>> (2002) recorded in 2000-2001 and available to practically no one it seems, Scared Famous was (re-)released in 2007 in slightly different form.  The liner notes to this later version say it features selections from the original release.  It seems that some songs from both the original Scared Famous and FF>> cassettes are present here (at least based on the song titles), plus some other material apparently not previously released (“Politely Declined,” “An Appeal From Heaven”).  FF>> was re-released in 2010 in what seems to be its original form, overlapping in content with the Scared Famous 2007 re-release.

Let’s look at this music in context.  This is, after all, music that is all about context.  During basically Ariel Pink’s entire lifetime, there has been a retrenchment of power in the hands of the already rich and powerful.  This came at the expense of the middle class (and the poor), undoing the social contract of the New Deal era as complacency set in among the middle classes who forgot about the militancy that forced the concessions that made their “golden age” after WWII possible.  Pink’s music, mostly recorded entirely by himself on rudimentary equipment in his own apartment, but also with guest R. Stevie Moore (their original collaborative activity is omitted from this re-release), in a sense challenges middle class complacency.  In its own way, this music is very militant.  It appropriates musical elements that epitomize the period in which the social transformations that began stripping the middle class of their social status really came forward in an obvious way.  More to the point, this borrows from the sort of music that represented the time when working people enjoyed the highest social standing they ever received in the industrialized world.  This was the music of their glory days, played back when the glory was practically all gone — destroyed.  But since then it all collapsed.  Pink reboots it.

Antonin Artaud wrote an essay, “En finir avec les chefs-d’oeuvre [An End to Masterpieces],” in Le Théâtre et son double [The Theater and Its Double] (1938) — reprinted and translated in Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings (1976).  He advocated for a “theater of cruelty” that had “the power to influence the aspect and formation of things” utilizing physical understanding and trance “as if in a whirlwind of higher forces”.  He was determined to address the power the past held over the future:

“One reason for the asphyxiating atmosphere in which we live without possible escape or recourse — and for which we are all responsible, even the most revolutionary among us — is this respect for what has already been written, formulated, or painted, what has been given form, as if all expression were not finally exhausted and had not reached the point where things must fall apart if they are to begin again.

***

“The masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us.  We have a right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way which pertains to us, which is immediate and direct, which corresponds to present modes of feeling, and which everyone will understand.”

David Keenan wrote about “hypnagogic pop” in The Wire magazine (“Hypnagogic Pop,” August 2009, Issue 306).  He coined the term to describe “How James Ferraro, Spencer Clark, Pocahaunted, Emeralds, et al are floating beyond Noise to a dreampop hallucination of the 1980s.” “Hypnagogic” means “Of or relating to the state immediately before falling asleep.” (Oxford Dictionaries).  The way Ariel Pink adopts (and modifies) this approach, it becomes a reflection of the very same sentiment Artaud expressed about the theater seven decades prior.  What has been said and formulated before falls apart, and is put back together in a new way, breaking out of a trance-like impression of the former, accepted meaning.  The flat, creaking falsetto vocals, tape hiss and sudden shifts in tone, and fragmentary lyrics on Scared Famous are like the violent jolts that promote a physical understanding of the music just as Artaud suggested in theater.

What separates the music of Ariel Pink from, say, hip-hop, is that Pink largely retains the overall structure of the sources he plunders.  Hip-hop uses repeated samples, which disassociates the new music from its source.  New rhythms are created.  Raps also use less vocal dynamics than the singing common on the source material.  In contrast, Pink creates songs with verses, choruses and all the other formal elements of the original rock/pop music.  What differs are the jumps between styles and breakdowns within a song, and his vocals, which are irreverent, off-kilter, off-key (flat or sharp), sarcastic, and often in a different style juxtaposed against the musical accompaniment.  So “Talking All of the the Time” has fuzzy heavy metal guitar riffs broken up by squeaky novelty teen pop vocals, shattered by gothic growls.  Also, the degraded, lo-fi haze over everything in Pink’s music has a distancing effect.  It emphasizes remove from the original source, the way late-generation dubbed cassette tapes sound.  Yet it does so inscribed on overt references to the past.  Another way of looking at his music is that it is like being locked in a room in which you have to listen to 1980s FM radio blasted loudly from an adjacent room, with the music sounding indistinct and muddy through a wall, and continuing to the point that it all seems to blend together into a morass of old, jumbled memories.  At that point, someone keeps opening the door to the room to interject statements (in affected, goofy voices) that seem to both contradict and complement the music in a way that makes it seem more concrete and pointed than you previously imagined it could, or ever wanted it to after sitting through it so long.

This is unsentimental, militant music because it does not respect the status of the sorts of cultural artifacts it appropriates.  Pink’s songs pay the sources no deference.  They are just some bits of raw material, the stuff of the past.  History, like these musical fragments, gains meaning only looking back.  Pink has a free hand to fashion whatever meaning in it he chooses.  This is not unlike demolishing an ancient Roman shrine — or if you prefer, a Nazi concentration camp — to use the blocks and rubble to build something entirely different.  And if the only thing built is a flophouse — an apt comparison for some, given the coarse, lo-fi, uncouth sensibility of Pink’s music — so what?  The early Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums may seem like bored SoCal adolescent indulgence, but they are also militant in their appropriations.  They must be seen as militant.  Hegel said, “It is an insight of speculative philosophy that Freedom is the sole truth of Spirit.”  (Reason in History).  The caustic, impudent, profane, and at times self-indulgent mess that Ariel Pink has recorded here requires a substantial sort of freedom, or else it would not be tolerated.

What makes Ariel Pink one of the great pop/rock musicians of his time is the scope of his faculty with the remnants of bland pop music of the past.  Some references are easy ones, but they only scratch the surface of what Pink is up to on Scared Famous.  Every song dabbles in slightly different genres, from R&B (“Howling at the Moon”), to psychedelic surf rock/pop (“Jesus Christ Came to Me in a Dream”) to TV commercial jingles (“Beefbud”), Italian pop exotica meeting jangle pop (“Gopacapulco”).  He catalogs a vast array of styles from the 1960s onward.  Some are featured only for a single guitar riff.  Others weave throughout an entire song.  Pink doesn’t just show off his familiarity with so much music, though his work does prove the time and energy he’s put towards such a self-styled education.  The specificity of what he draws upon, both in its time referents, and in the demographics of the audiences that it was directed to and who once fostered its success, make it more than that.  There is a definite act of defiant creativity in the way this slacker takes thrift store cast offs — the music people have wanted to forget — and transposes it to summon meaning that matters to the present.  He is definitely not trying to recreate some closed universe of nostalgic authenticity.  He’s sifting through the wreckage of the past, and taking bits of it down another path.  No doubt, along the way he exudes the sort of attitude that comes naturally from working in record stores and collecting albums (“The List (My Favorite Song)”).

I must admit to a soft spot for autodidacts.  Ariel Pink fits that description.  He’s doing what he does, on his own.  There isn’t deference to norms.  More importantly, he puts forward his own vision, turning the standard hierarchy of taste-making on its head.  If he can turn around perceptions of music like he has here, it seem like anyone can reformulate anything.

Taking, presumably, the best of what was on the original double-album set, this is about as compelling as Pink got with his early work.  No doubt, even this trimmed version of the original Scared Famous/FF>> album set could stand to be trimmed back a little further (dropping “Girl in a Tree,” “The Kitchen Club”).  It still benefits from a sequencing that puts most of the slower, folkier elements in the second half and most of the more driving R&B and metal elements in the first half.  Assuming it is fair to accept the hindsight editing of this re-release, Scared Famous probably edges out Worn Copy as the best of Pink’s early home recordings.

Cultural Detritus, Reviews, and Commentary