Category Archives: Sharing Is Caring

One Tunguska, Two Tunguska, Three

Cymbals Eat Guitars‘s first record arrived on the front end of the 90s indie revival, enjoying popularity for its declaration that those era- and genre-defining classics like Perfect from Now On were timeless at last and steeped in artful approaches worth revisiting. Their second offering, however–released once we were deep into the 90s rehash–similarly went deeper into the alternative/indie genesis, unabashedly referencing everything from Modest Mouse’s thrash-disco to Rainer Maria’s woe-is-emo to Soundgarden’s alterna-prog. The challenging transition coincided with an effort to smooth their songwriting approaches into an even more impressionistic smear of poetic and sonic musings, blurring the already-barely-there verse-chorus-verse delineations that made their first album just welcoming enough to the general indie-pop audience. What many may have dubbed a sophomore slump rewarded immensely with many listens.

From the beginning, they’ve have an incredible knack to take one or two parts and recreate them with either slight or extreme variations in the tonality, atmosphere, pace, or intensity to produce an organically developing piece that is both familiar and discombobulating. I often come away from their music with that same feeling we note in occasions of deja vu: “I’ve been here before, but it’s different. I’m unsettled.” That unsettled feeling is one I prize most when listening to music, because I know that something’s changed, that I’ll never think about music the same, that someone has shifted the grid I’m used to operating in. Those are transcendent moments. “Another Tunguska,” one of the highlights of the album, appears to address just such moments:

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Another Tunguska

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I love bands that make me do research. What the hell is a Tunguska? Like Ghostface says in the Cuban Linx dyed Wallabees skit: Boom…

According to Wikipedia, in 1908, something exploded in northern Russia, leaving 80 million trees across 2,150 square kilometers stripped and knocked over, but no trace of whatever produced the explosion. It was, apparently, “the largest impact event in recorded history,” 1,000 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, sending a shock wave that “knocked people off of their feet and broke windows hundreds of kilometers away,” and producing for days afterwards glowing night skies visible across Asia and Europe. Carl Sagan is live at the scene:

Cosmos. Love it.

So we had a title. And now we have a Tunguska. But another Tunguska? Thank goodness singer Joseph D’Agostino provides lyrics, line breaks or no:

I emerged as if through a narrowed eye into lashes of white sun from your apartment and pollen clouds held absent sound. In gutted buildings we pray. Bridges and causeways curl fast again like slap bracelets. And the skyline resets to a bare, hushed wilderness. I worship the day of the invisible wave: Then, a stream of revenants surged outward like prominences from the sun. 1927: an explosion, another Tunguska. And at once I was flat on my back. My skateboard rolled on down the hill. The congregating deer stood stock still in the corridor of manicured lawns. Remember you and I would get so high we’d pass out with our shoes on, first light through leaves? This was back when my smoke would juke and stutter in the highway crossbreeze.

Okay, so that’s all fabulous imagery. But at this point in our detective story, I’m confused: 1927 is not 1908. What happened in 1927? Well, the Equitable Gas explosion happened. As I understand from what I can find, on November 14, 1927 in Pittsburgh, workmen tried to repair a leak in the largest of three natural gas storage tanks belonging to the Equitable Gas company–and they tried to do it with acetylene torches (!!!). The five million cubic foot tank exploded, which in turn set off a four million cubic foot tank, which in turn set off a 500,000 cubic foot tank. One of these three, a twenty-story-tall tank, actually shot into the air, where it exploded above ground, spraying steel shrapnel across the city below. Yikes. Buildings in the 20 miles surrounding shook from the blast; those nearby were leveled. 26-28 people died.

And there we have our history lesson.

With regard to the rest of the lyrics, these references are intended to associate a powerful poetic moment of insight with the force of large-scale physical disasters. At the outset, just as light travels faster than sound, D’Agostino describes a moment of emergence in which he feels as if he’s walking into the world through an opening eye; the visible experience is followed by the kind of pregnant silence that precedes the shock waves of large explosions. I imagine scenes from blockbuster films in which everything slows and hushes as light fills the screen in the seconds before the THX sub-frequencies rumble in and Maxell you in your stadium seating. And in that surging anticipation, D’Agostino worships “the day of the invisible wave.”

When it hits, D’Agostino’s moment, and/or the memory of the moment, hits him with the force of the Tunguska event and the Equitable Gas explosion, and before he knows it, he’s been knocked off of his feet. In the aftermath, as if he doesn’t have a clue where he is or why he’s there, he looks to the natural world looking back at him, a feedback loop of confusion. The song winds down in a coda of associated memory, subtly pointing us back to the beginning lyric’s light and highways as the track disperses like the imagery of tobacco whisping off against the sky.

It’s a beautiful capsule of impressionistic story-telling. And that’s to say nothing of the appropriately sunny tune that guides it, pressing onwards and upwards with the narrative, breathing in flux to the interplay of outward observation with inward reflection, impeccably conjoined with every turn of the lyrics. It’s a marvelous composition that’s one of my favorite songs of last year. That it takes some unpacking to get the most out of it–all the better. Is insight a disaster? Kind of. But that’s a good thing. Thanks dudes.

Strange Mercy

Will someone please remove this baby from my face?

Annie Clark has built a career exploring the darker side of things conventional or sweet. She’s a slight, attractive, well-groomed and well-dressed artist with a penchant for taking awkward glamour shots, making job applicants cry, and filming housewife hostage videos. She accompanies her careful voice with space-funk synths, blown-out drums, face-scorching fuzz, and Wagnerian progressions that never resolve. Last year’s well-received third full-length album as St. Vincent, Strange Mercy, was no different. Several months later, I still can’t get over the title track.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

The song begins with Dilla-esque drums that lurch along, conjuring images of slo-mo poppers on downers. The instrumentation is restrained and sparse for all the atmosphere. Only a guitar, the drum loop, and a modest helping of synths support Clark’s vocals. The narrative here is quite moving, though it’s tricky to pin down the details. At first it seems like something along the lines of Taken by Trees’ “Too Young” (whose Tough Alliance remix is one of my favorite reinterpretations of the last few years)–-a song I always interpreted as a lullaby sung at a distance to a child given up for adoption, a blessing for a life the singer is not supposed to meddle with but for which she cannot help being concerned. Clark’s lyrics here seem to describe perhaps a sister who isn’t able to take care of her young sibling. The second verse paints a beautiful, dense portrait: “Oh little one, your Hemingway jawline looks just like his, our father in exile for God only knows how many years. So when you see him, wave through double-pane.” The father appears to be in prison, only reachable through thick glass and short telephone wire.

The chorus is a concise promise: “I’ll be with you, lost boys, sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you.” But whatever “I’ll be with you in spirit” message is sent seems like a half-hearted gesture. The progress the song has made dissolves into the instrumental bridge’s mysterious and detached synth theme.

When the rhythm cuts out for a brief interlude, Clark takes the attentive occasion to define the song title: “Oh little one, I’ll tell you good news that I don’t believe if it would help you sleep. Strange mercy…” A live drum roll punctuates the emptiness. A synth rises in anticipation. Before we know it, Clark has raised the stakes for this second verse.

When the beat drops, her clean guitar has become a barking lawnmower spewing diesel across the summer-hot sidewalk. The bass synth oscillator has gone low and wonky like wind struggling through a car with just one window open. The sinister pace of the song grinds the sudden momentum through the weighted down gravity of the arrangement. In a brilliant double turn, Clark belts an open-ended vendetta: “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up…” And just as soon as she’s snarled that desperate threat, she caves in on the follow-through, admitting, dreadfully, “Oh, I don’t know what.” When the chorus returns, it feels like a spasm of resignation, a hopeless farewell breaking down beat by beat. She has invoked a judgment and, knowing she’s powerless to enforce it, she flees.

The return of the bridge and its gloomy melody leaves us in some sort of queasy status quo that’s all the more so with that second synth running the line hard right with its taunting, teasing tone. The strangeness of “strange mercy” seems to suggest that we often find ourselves led to the path of kindness not because we’re agents of altruism, but because we lack a capacity for the action we should or would prefer to take. We excuse the brutality of an abusive police officer not because we forgive the transgressions, but because we’re powerless to retaliate against police force (not to mention that we are highly unlikely to summon the will to vigilante justice). We keep our children from the shock of the adult world, not solely because we want to protect and nurture them, but because we’re unable, when confronted with their innocent minds and faces, to admit to them the fear we’re held hostage by on a daily basis. And, perhaps, when we find ourselves unable to be the people we think our family deserve, we leave them so others might do a better job, not entirely because we believe our siblings or heirs are more fortunate with what others might pass down, but because we are unable to confront sufficiently whatever keeps us from responsible, caring attachments. And this isn’t necessarily a judgment of cowardice. It’s that we’re bold and weak, graceful and clumsy. It’s that we have complicated stories. St. Vincent latches onto that here and explores it a remarkably moving way.

Step out of Your Toga

I love me some Destroyer. The academic cross-referencing, the subversive simplicity, the evolving character archive, the implicit misanthropy, the lazily bilious delivery, the obvious Bowie influence, the bad taste–it’s all part of a repertoire that drips with awkward, idiosyncratic swagger. Just take a look at what Bejar submitted to Merge Records as a list of “themes alluded to or avoided” in the forthcoming Destroyer album Kaputt:

Kaputt by Malaparte, which Bejar has never read… Kara Walker, specifically the lyrics she contributed to the song “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”… Chinatown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… Baby blue eyes… 80s Miles Davis… 90s Gil Evans… Last Tango in Paris… Nic Bragg, who played lead guitar on every song, again… Fretless bass… The hopelessness of the future of music… The pointlessness of writing songs for today… V-Drums… The superiority of poetry and plays… And what’s to become of film?… The Cocaine Addict… American Communism… Downtown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… The LinnDrum… Avalon and, more specifically, Boys and Girls… The devastated mind of JC/DC, who recorded, produced and mixed this record from fall of 2008 to spring of 2010… The back-up vocals of certain Roy Ayers and Long John Baldry tours… Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence…

I’ve been listening to the album illegally for the last couple of weeks and can’t seem to give it a rest. In it, Bejar raises his uncompromising manner for a turn towards an ’80s-infused smooth jazz-pop sound, complete with suave horns and sultry female backing vocals. And to promote the approaching release, he’s given us this video for the title track:

Amazing. The song itself has been one of my two favorite tracks on the album. The second chorus is one of the most transcendent moments in the Destroyer catalogue: “Step out of your toga and into the fog, you are a prince of the ocean.” It soars. And this video is outrageous: when the mirage evaporates as the stranded man pours a chalice full of sand into his delirious mouth; when that same man tries to drink from his chalice while he’s actually in the ocean; when a fucking whale is flying in the sky with a flock of birds; when the teenager pulls out a balloon and employs his last breath to inflate it and elevate himself into the sky!

The track that really has me proselytizing here is “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, which tackles America’s racial issues with the help of the aforementioned artist and Merge Score! Volume 11 curator.

Destroyer – Suicide Demo for Kara Walker

According to the quote above, Kara Walker contributed lyrics to this song, but I wonder how much? Bejar just sells it so authentically. Off the bat, the title is pretty aggressive. After the pregnant, melancholy instrumental intro, what are we to expect? “Brown paper bag, don’t stop me now. I’m on a roll.” And we’re rolling. The music itself is fantastically catchy and an outright dance hit but the hooks elude us. Instead, we’re charmed along by a wealth of precious Destroyer moments: when he asks “Is it still the Invisible Man you’re consorting with, woman?”; when he tags on the prophecied “and they will” to the accusation that “New York just wants to see you naked”; when Bejar finally gives us that singular hook, crooning “You’ve got it all…” and then sneaks in “wrong” to flip the sentiment. And on and on.

But as the lyrics develop, this is clearly a heavier song than we’re used to from Bejar. And we have Kara Walker to thank for transporting his listeners to such a place of gravity. Despite his off-the-cuff performance, he’s delivering a poignant and unsettling critique of a polarized Obama era in which the hopeful produce of black presidency are borne with the memory of strange fruit, in which the nation’s grossest prejudices populate the daylight to defy progress, where “four more years” worries for “four hundred more years” of slavery, and the ghost of Harriet Tubman instructs us in the escapist/survivalist mantra: “I look up, I see the North Star, I look up, I see the North Star.” We’re given a glimpse into might have been their collaborative process in the cryptic lines “‘Maybe or maybe not… fast forward,’ she said. ‘Maybe once the seed is sown… fast forward,’ she said. ‘This bird has flown south’ she said. ‘Don’t talk about the south,’ she said.” Is this the evidence of a real-life conversation between Walker and Bejar about the future of our country? Perhaps and surely. While I don’t expect specific answers anytime soon, it’s easy to see that’s exactly what this song is. And who cares about the details of credit when we’re stretched across such a spectrum, from despair to ecstasy? We’re expanded.

And then they let the horns loose.

Don’t Sleep

For the independent music world, it might seem like a strange bad dream to have Mountain Dew start a record label and go around snatching upstart acts for a roster that looks like it’s run by someone at Vice. Sure, it’s a singles only label and Chuck Inglish of the The Cool Kids says it’s okay. Let’s just say I’m suspicious. I’m all for folks getting theirs. But where does soda end and where do I begin? Green Label Sound‘s most recent foray is via Neon Indian’s new single, “Sleep Paralysist”, which also happens to have been recorded and/or produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. Neon Indian is one Alan Palomo, who made a big splash last year with the characteristically 2009 song “Deadbeat Summer” and the album Psychic Chasms. According to Stereogum, he describes his sound as “Childhood re-contextualized through a psychedelic, lo-fi filter. The idea of memory before you were old enough to have memories.” I take it he means to suggest he was born in the late 80s and can’t remember what the music sounded like though he lived through some of it; he intends to replicate it nonetheless. And that’s all good when it’s good, which it is.

Neon Indian – Sleep Paralysist

Whereas “Deadbeat Summer” was enjoyable albeit largely forgettable, Neon Indian raise the stakes on this one. To begin, the aesthetic has been seriously glossed up on this one. The full stereo field pulses with swelling and arpeggiated synth sounds that make me wish I knew more about synthesizers than I do. And the songwriting is expertly catchy. The variations throughout the verses on the “something you don’t know, something I don’t know, something they don’t know” format is straight out of a professional songbook. While I can’t understand a lot of the words, what I think I hear immediately resonates. There’s a terrible dread in the moment of satisfaction at the knowledge that it will all come to an end naturally. Palomo sings in the chorus “I’m for you when I’m awake so just don’t sleep. In the morning it will all seem fake.” The solution to hanging on is simple; it is also impossible.

The only criticism I have of the track is that it’s full of harsh sibilance, something I find myself being especially sensitive to these days and something you would not expect of someone like Chris Taylor or anyone of such notoriety. There are so many tools for folks of some resource to avoid that problem. But don’t let my engineering gripe spoil it for you. This song’s a keeper.

Come On, Tower Crane Driver

Despite enjoying the twilight of my twenties, I am occasionally surprised to miss out on a whole class of music I would describe as “adult music”. It is not anything like “adult movies” (sexually explicit music ultimately sounds juvenile more often than not). It is vaguely yuppie. I’d characterize it primarily as inoffensive and I would buy it in a Starbucks (which incidentally has become the chief indicator that an indie band has “made it”). I probably heard about it from NPR or a New York Times article and it might get a sleeper Grammy nomination. I would not download it (even though I may have picked up a download card for the single at said Starbucks); I would listen to it on CD in a real stereo at home or in a car or maybe in an iPod dock or something that Bose makes (because whether I am conscious of it or not, I believe music belongs in space and I value its format as a physical/informational/aesthetic entity). More often than not, it is rootsy or a comeback record.

My tastes suggest I actually do listen to quite a bit of adult music. I love Spoon and Neko Case, Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. The problem is, most of what falls into the adult music category is either as commonplace as it is principled or it’s a comeback record. And for every great song that pulls you into the genre (e.g. Dylan’s comeback “Sick Of Love” or the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration “Killing The Blues”) you’re going to be disappointed by the rest if you aren’t actually a bona fide “adult”. Considering how often these albums are made by highly talented musicians and engineers, this may not apply to recordists, audiophiles, or “players” who can abide passable songs for either their sound or the performances.

On the night of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, I had drinks with friends in a quiet and moderately fancy bar in Harvard Square. While a solitary dancer swung and ran over projections of Canadian landscapes to the close-captioned lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, I became typically distracted with the house music and couldn’t help inquiring about an unfamiliar song that intrigued me. It turned out to be a mouthful for the waitress: “The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver” by Mercury Prize winners Elbow. The next day, I found the album at the public library and took it home for a listen. It was a thoroughly adult music experience.

Elbow – The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver

The track comes from their most recent album, The Seldom Seen Kid and it has the kind of title that is no surprise after a single whose chorus brilliantly favors “There’s a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall” over “I get drunk a lot recently”. It reads like an academic treatment of the working class and there is a real-life inspiration for the song. But the image itself is incredibly compelling in its familiarity: the workman trapped in a box of glass and metal hovering in air working alone. It’s the poetic depiction and the musical context that sells it as an applied symbol of personal alienation.

What I find most remarkable is the dreary massiveness that’s conveyed here. After a brief plucking guitar intro, the huge drums rumble in from a great distance with sharp synth strings filling the air. The other guitar appears to play a solitary harmonic panned hard right that chimes in to alternate with the vocals. For all the space that is filled by the production, it feels very private and timid. Singer Guy Garvey begins in a somber low register. “Got to get out of TV / Just pick a point and go.” This is a song about the desperation of escape. The refrain is plaintive. “Come on, tower crane driver. There’s not too far to go.” But after the first verse, we get an open break that transforms the track from a song to a concept piece. Suddenly the space between here and there is as wide open as it is undeterminable.

When the song resumes suddenly, though we haven’t noticed its absence thus far, the bass finally arrives panned hard right with overdriven bursts like a tuba so that the guitar harmonic is revealed to perfectly syncopate with the bassline. Up an octave, Garvey’s voice slides from an easy mid-range to an anguished, tragic croon. “I must have working the ropes when your hand slipped from mine.” By the time the refrain returns, the hope dissipates in the untenable “Oh so far to fall.”

From this pregnant mood comes the climax of the song. In a perfectly paired movement of lyrics and music planted in the middle of the primary progression, Garvey sings “Send up a prayer in my name” and the track soars into a brief but intensely saturated bridge. Suddenly, the track feels like a plane that’s been barreling down the runway as it reaches take-off: there’s no noticeable change in velocity, but the ground has clearly dropped beneath you. The tension sustains like a burning flare. Before you know it, you’re back to a familiar incline, stewardesses are serving beverages, and you’re napping in the clouds. The beat runs out and the ethereal break returns to end the song.

In keeping with the adult music distinction, The Seldom-Seen Kid is one of the most unique-sounding albums I’ve heard in a while and contains a bevy of interesting arrangements (from what I’ve read, they not only recorded the album themselves; they did it with the resources of a mere project studio). The liner notes include lyrics and a refreshingly modest but defiant stance against the loudness wars. The rootsiness of aforementioned single “Grounds For Divorce” turned me off when watching the accompanying video, but ends up being the other highlight of the record (for another, album closer “Friend Of Ours” acts largely as a quiet reprise of “…Tower Crane Driver”). And the rest of the album is pretty good.

My New Theme Song

I’m 6’5″. Sometimes that’s neat. Other times it’s obnoxious. At the amusement park, for example, I can’t ride certain rides because I just can’t keep my limbs and head safely out of harm’s way and my spine isn’t short enough to sit comfortably in those harnesses that clamp down over your shoulders. And all those times when it’s convenient, like when I’m at a show or in a crowd looking for someone, there are always the folks behind me hating me and the short people looking up with strange scared faces.

Now I have a theme song. It’s called “Tall” and it has nothing to do with being tall. It’s about big wheels. And it’s by two gentlemen named Alley Boy and Young Dro, whom I know little to nothing about. But they kill it with some great double-time raps, which is a relief to hear amidst this whole slow flow style that seems to be the standard these days. And the vocals are well-mixed, thank goodness! Underneath their performance is a killer beat whose success relies on an expert combination of East, West, and South. There’s the soul sample that creeps in as a brief bridge, the high-pitched Dr. Dre synths, the bouncy drums. It may not seem like the kind of song that would garner such a recommendation, but I’d say it’s easily the best rap track I’ve heard this year. And it’s one of the biggest blips on my rap-dar since “Int’l Player’s Anthem”. This joint is hot. Feel it.

Alley Boy feat Young Dro – Tall

Apparently, this is from Alley Boy’s new mixtape, The Definition Of Fuck Shit, which sure is a striking title. Here is a link to it thanks to the folks at The Fader.

Walk On By Part 2

I just can’t get over losin’ you
And so if I seem, broken and blue
Walk on by, walk on by
Foolish pride, that’s all that I have left

Thanks to a wonderful teacher in high school, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the entire Stax singles catalog almost immediately upon becoming interested in 60’s R+B. I went from one cd, Otis Redding’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 to The Complete Stax Singles 1959-1968. I think a lot of folks can hand something this comprehensive to a kid nowadays, off a hard drive, or loaded onto a 3000gb ipod, and they will take it gladly. Though maybe not listen to it. My teacher said, “Here, write a report on it, give it back in two weeks.” Nine discs, about 250 songs, along with a great huge book that came with the set. I devoured the lot. I can still recall hearing Macy Skipper or Eddie Floyd for the first time. Flipping out over Jeanne & the Darlings and Carla Thomas.

The story of a little re-purposed movie theater with a record shop in the front and a studio in the back, where neighborhood kids would come in and make their dreams come true became something close to a fairy tale for me, and I would regale friends about Memphis’ belle epoque. Each player seemed to fulfill some role in the Stax castle, with Rufus Thomas serving as the wizened Shakespearean court jester with a beautiful daughter, William Bell the sad-hearted knight errant, Johnny Taylor the cad, Booker T. & the MG’s standing sentry over the proceedings, ready at a moment’s notice to jump into action, and label owner Jim Stewart running around like Jimmy Stewart in a screwball comedy (“Whoa, we got a goldmine over here!”). At the heart of this myth was its true hero, Otis Redding: a figure so benevolent that he held the entire place together through his kind demeanor and his ability to touch any person to the core with his voice alone. Here was a guy who used lyrics his wife wrote to create one of the greatest breakup songs ever recorded, who was known to throw a song out after the third take because it wasn’t raw enough, who sang a song to kids about staying in school. I remember being shocked while reading Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music when he mentions that Redding actually got upset at Sam and Dave for getting the crowd too riled up before he took the stage. It was, and still is, the only negative thing I have ever heard about Otis Redding.

Of course this version of events is too perfect to be entirely true, and it ends with a crushing blow. That happens on the evening of December 9, 1967, when Otis, his manager and four members of his backing band, the Bar-Kays, are killed in a plane crash in Lake Monona, Wisconsin. Besides the posthumous release of Otis’ biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the coda of this tale is sung in not one but two other songs, “A Tribute To A King” by William Bell, and “Otis, Sleep On” by Redding’s protoge Arthur Conley. The moment I had always thought of as perhaps the most fitting end to Otis’ story is on the last song he recorded “The Happy Song (Dum Dum),” when he laughs his way through the line:

You oughtta see my baby’s face/ she just grins grins grins…

Otis Redding – The Happy Song (Dum Dum)

And right there my concrete sense of Stax ends. Black and White photos turn to that gritty 70’s Brown and Yellow. Al Bell makes some highly-profitable but not-so friendly moves. Isaac Hayes stops writing music for others and starts making music for himself,

and this

turns into this

There I left it, and really have ever since. When I hear about the great Stax artists of the 70’s — Hayes, The Staples Singers, The Bar-Kays, Luther Ingram — I enjoy ’em, but they don’t stir my heart. When I recently watched Mel Stuart’s excellent 1973 documentary, WattStax, I found myself searching the artists’ faces for something of the past. A sheepish grin over all the attention, maybe? An insular attitude amongst the musicians? No dice. There is a powerful composure and professionalism throughout the all the performances. Even Rufus Thomas pulls off some artful crowd control after folks start rushing the field to get closer to the stage. And when Bar-Kays sax player Harvey “Joe” Henderson says, “Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude,” he means that he and his bandmates have earned it.

I guess I’m saying that as much as I like the 70’s stuff (and LOVE this performance of “Son of Shaft”),  I don’t pay too much attention.

All of this as a lengthy defense for the indefensible crime of misattribution* by yours truly. In my last post I indulged deeply in the fantasy of a Stax that never existed.

In my mind, Isaac Hayes was backed up by Booker T. & the MG’s in one final late-night jam, as he recorded one of the greatest soul masterpieces of all time: “Walk On By.” But, as my fact-checkin’ cuz Tim points out in the comments:

I hate to burst your bubble, but the MGs are not on “Walk on By”. Booker had just left or was soon to leave Stax, Cropper left soon after this too. That’s The Bar-Kays.

The Bar-Kays. Well, yes and no. The Bar-Kays and Harold Beane on lead guitar. Not Charles “Skip” Pitts who plays wah-wah on Shaft, or regular Bar-Kays guitarist Michael Toles, who plays rhythm guitar on “Walk on By” and on Shaft, and who later became part of Hayes’ touring group, and certainly not Steve Cropper. It is indeed Hayes on keyboard, not Booker T. That fanatic, exhausted drumming is courtesy of the Bar-Kays’ Willie Hall, not my hero Al Jackson Jr. The strings and horns, it turns out, were outsourced to Detroit, with members of the Detroit Symphony playing on violin. Definitely not the Memphis Horns, as I had always assumed. Here is how Marvell Thomas, son of Rufus, piano player and Co-Producer of Hot Buttered Soul tells the story of Beane’s playing to music historian Bill Dahl:

“The guitar solo was not something that was planned on front end,” recalled Thomas. “It was like, ‘Well why not?’ We just stretched out and let it go. When you get in the middle of it, you just kind of ride with it until it stops.”**

And that’s where I’m sort of left too. If I didn’t know a lot of this stuff, especially the bit about Detroit, I think I’d be a lot happier. And if I didn’t talk about it, the song may even be better. The fact that the fantasy of Stax is is impossible is something I’ve probably always known. I’m sure Otis Redding was secretly a shoplifter, William Bell was fiercely confident, and the works of Booker T. are actually by a different man with the same name. The golden age of Stax perseveres not through its anecdotal history, but by the immense, emotional scope of the music, and the joy which one inevitably feels while listening.

And so, I think I’d prefer to let the misinformation of the previous post stand. It’s a reverie brought about by late night radio– a truth that’s undeniable. Plus, everybody knows advice that was given up for free…lots of details to discern. Lots of details.

*This word, by the way, being the ultimate in onomotoseeia.

**This quote, and much of the personnel information comes from AllMusic and the Concord Music Group website, which oversaw the 2009 reissue of Hot Buttered Soul.

Senseis Are Standing By

I wasn’t as enamoured with The Ecstatic as everyone else appeared to be. First off, the mix sounded really strange to me, the same kind of strange that the Q-Tip album sounded. It had sloppy production on the beats end with flat sonics and not much frequency range, so the vocals sat on top of the music in an alien way. And none of the songs seemed very thoroughly explored.

On the other hand, the new track “24-Hour Karate School” renews my faith in the Mighty Mos for still retaining the capacity to make good music. Some critics have complained that he doesn’t spit more than a few bars at a time here, but that’s what makes it for me. Clocking it at just over two minutes, it’s a high-concept mash-up of rap meets 24-hour fitness center meets dojo that explores a laughable fantasy in song form. It’s endearing in a harmless hair-brained stoner-comedy way. And since it has no context, we have no expectations that Mos has to meet. We just get to listen to a little ditty that just so happens to have much better production (thanks to the great Camp Lo collaborator Ski) and a vocal mix that actually sits with the music.

I honestly didn’t find much in a first listen to The Ecstatic to encourage more, but I might give it another shot because of this effort. Maybe I missed something. I doubt it. We’ll see. Nevertheless, while this song is of no consequence, I’d rather have one of these every couple of months than albums of passable material every other year. Because this is fun times for real.

Chop-chop body work…

Mos Def – 24-Hour Karate School

Walk On By

I’ve been digging into the Stax again lately and am just floored by Steve Cropper’s versatility and style as a guitarist. His stuff on ANY given Otis Redding song would be the high-water mark for any other session musician’s career.

Not that he was just a session musician, mind you. Hardly a journeyman, Cropper stuck around the old theater on East McLemore Ave. from his teens in the early 60’s and just past its major upheaval in the 1970’s. He was a Mar-Key, an MG, and later a Blues Brother. But Steve Cropper would never allow you to mistake him for anyone else (though occasional Steven Seagal comparisons are warranted). Take “Let Me Come On Home” from 1967.

Otis Redding – Let Me Come On Home

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Featuring the kind of straight-fingered piano plink that makes white-haired RZA scratch his chin, the song manages to be one of those great and rare moments in 60’s soul music where the singer allows himself to get caught up–and ultimately lost–in the band’s sound. You can’t blame Otis, either. The horns are so tight, Booker T. and Al Jackson are in a mind-meld, and whenever Cropper is playing, you hear Otis just back right off. The rumor is that Otis Redding was an incredibly demanding bandleader, and in this case, the band is just too good to sing over.

Cropper’s ability to transition his playing early on from the style of The Ventures, John Barry or Dick Dale, to someone who could later easily play on a Meters or Funkadelic track–all without losing his trademark twang–is also remarkable.

And, he plays on Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By”

Isaac Hayes – Walk On By

I’m going to say that every other version of this song pisses me off. Even the shortened version of the Hayes song. To really appreciate it, you’ve got to hear it all the way through, allowing for the brutal pauses where every instrument has its say before Mr. Hayes sings his first word — over two minutes into the track. For a songwriter famed up to this point in his career for writing songs with an almost overwhelming sense of urgency (hey, the guy wrote a #1 song about getting off the toilet), I think giving the time to explore words he appreciates with the help of an outstanding backing band can certainly be called a turning point.

Can we go back in time for a moment?

Isaac Hayes wrote over 200 songs with partner Dave Porter in the mid-1960’s at Stax before breaking up the partnership to focus on his solo career. Their tunes were dependably great and a “Hayes/Porter” on a 45 was a stamp of approval. For one thing, they write one hell of an intro (pay attention Mr. Rza):

Charmels – As Long As I’ve Got You

But beyond that, I think they appreciated who they were writing for. As the above song easily proves, these guys could write and arrange some highly refined music for the right artists. But where Sam & Dave were concerned, they hardly wanted to sound refined or anything else. Sam Moore and Dave Prater sang intense, proud and raw music, which needed no stylistic buffers to get their point across. And with songs like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” or “I Thank You,” Hayes and Porter offer no buffers.

How great then for Hayes, to have the opportunity to explore a highly-refined song, by two highly-refined songwriters (Burt Bacharach and Hal David), written originally for a very classy lady (one Dione Warwick).

Ok, forward in time to mid-1969

Now I guess that around the time Isaac Hayes recorded “Walk On By” for his album Hot Buttered Soul, things were in a bit of upheaval at Stax records. Everyone was still mourning the death of label superstar Otis Redding (and to tell you the truth, I’m still mourning him too), control of the label had been not-too-kindly handed over by label founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton to powerful businessman Al Bell, and the entire Stax back catalog had been sold to Atlantic Records in a distribution deal. So, Al Bell ordered that 27 records and 30 singles come out, all in Mid-1969.

Hot Buttered Soul was not Hayes’ first solo record. Presenting Isaac Hayes had come out in 1968 on Stax at Bell’s urging and had sold poorly. The opening track, “Precious, Precious”, though, had been cut down from a lengthy 18 minutes of tape, and thus begins Hayes’ mature exploration of songs, musicianship, and pushing past the 3-minute boundary of radio-friendly music. This is how Hayes described the process in the liner notes to his 2005 greatest hits album Ultimate Isaac Hayes (Can You Dig It?):

“What it was, was the real me…I mean, OK, the real me had written those other songs [‘Soul Man,’ ‘Hold On I’m Comin’,’ etc.], but they were being written for other people. As for me wanting to express myself as an artist, that’s what Hot Buttered Soul was. Although I was a songwriter, there were some songs that I loved, that really touched me. Came the opportunity, I wanted to record these tunes. I wanted to do them the way that I wanted to do them. I took them apart, dissected them, and put them back together and made them my personal tunes. I took creative license to do that. By doing them my way, it almost made them like totally different songs all over again.”

Hot Buttered Soul has 4 songs. The longest, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” clocks in at 18 minutes. Of course, the first half of the song features an elaborate spoken backstory. Here is how Hayes explained the song to National Public Radio:

“The rap came out of the necessity to communicate. There’s a local club in Memphis, primarily black, called The Tiki Club. One day there I heard this song by Glen Campbell – ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this song is great, this man must really love this woman.’ I ran down to the studio and told them about the song, and they said ‘yeah, yeah.’ They didn’t feel what I felt, I thought maybe they weren’t getting it. The Bar-Kays were playing the Tiki Club a few days later, so I told them to learn the song and that I would sit in. I told them to keep cycling the first chord, and I started talking, just telling the story about what could have happened to cause this man to leave. Halfway through the song, conversations started to subside, and by the time I finished the song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Man, Glen Campbell’s version is beautiful, but the video isn’t what you’d call heavy soul:

Hayes takes this and “Walk On By” and does more than dissect them, he hears them. In the same way Gram Parsons does, when he records William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with the Byrds, or Dan Penn’s “Dark End Of The Street.” I think that Isaac Hayes is saying that in 1969 there were two sides of the aisle–Black Music and White Music–and if you tried to get someone to hear a song from the other side of the aisle, they would say ‘yeah, yeah’ but they wouldn’t want to do anything with it.

I find it funny that if you google ‘Isaac Hayes, By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ you’re going to see words like ‘soulful’ and ‘erotic’, and without his name, you don’t get any description of the song at all, just that it’s sung by Glen Campbell and that it’s a #1 hit.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So, we’re 7 & 1/2 minutes into “Walk On By,” and we know where this thing is going. Isaac has introduced a flute run after each time he and the ladies say “walk on” at around 6:30.  That run gets picked up by the rest of the brass and a few strings at 7:30, just as Hayes bows out. The brass fades out by about 8:20 and the strings fully take over. Fully, I should say, with the exception of that guitar player. Steve Cropper is so insistent that his sound come out alongside the strings that they start to fade in and out. Then, incredibly, they bow out entirely at about 9:12, just as Booker T lays it all on the table. It’s as if they’re saying “This is not the Love Unlimited Orchestra, We’re BOOKER T. & THE MG’s!” It’s 11:10 and Al Jackson Jr. is flipping the fuck out! Cropper is playing all sorts of bizarre angular chops and the band is totally together. The 70’s, Gamble and Huff, and all sorts of fluffy R&B shit may be right around the corner, but for a couple of minutes at the end of an impossibly long and perfect song, the Stax house band reigns, and the bandleader is wise enough to get out of their way.

Warzone

I’ve recently reunited with my record collection after three years living without it. On the one hand, the mass of vinyl has caused some difficulties in living space organization with all the other things I’m reclaiming from storage. But it’s pretty awesome having them back. I remember growing up with my Dad’s large home-made modular shelving full of records. The first music I ever owned myself was a record: LL Cool J’s Bigger And Deffer. In many ways I prefer the crisp sound quality of CDs these days. But I often love the tone of vinyl and nothing beats the interactive factor for listening or dj-ing. The whole movement from CD to mp3 has records back in vogue these days and there’s something very satisfying about holding 180-gram vinyl in your hands. Go with the mp3 for ease and immediacy; vinyl makes music really special.

Among the records I have only in vinyl format is this single from Pete Rock‘s Soul Survivor II featuring Dead Prez on vocal duties. Nasty. Rugged. Ill. Dead Prez on a club track spitting hedonism in the midst of warzone-like social conditions? Hectic. I first read about it when it was released on Turntable Lab and every sentence in the review jokingly concluded with the phrase “in the club”. One section gets stuck in my head all day after I listen to it: “I don’t even bring ID to the club / Why they need to know my government name in the club? / I ain’t got no paper for the bar in the club / Already got drunk before I came in the club.” The production is ridiculously hype switching from half- to double-time throughout and is an incredible example of efficient sample selection. The guitar/keyboard line, tambourine, and strings are used perfectly by a master. By the end of the track, the “what is Dead Prez doing in the club?” factor is mostly resolved as ironic, but deadly serious, commentary. “Why the fuck I came in the club?” Well, probably because you hoped to wild out on banging tracks like this.

No luck on the mp3 for me. But here’s the YouTube version…