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Tuesday, Jul 8, 2008
Sundance Channel's acclaimed series is well into its second season, and, again, is bringing all manner of artists to Abbey Road for a look into the process of music-making.

Sundance Channel’s Live from Abbey Road has returned for a second season. The popular original series once again features rehearsals, interviews and performances set inside the legendary London studios. One of the biggest strengths of the show is that it features such an eclectic mix of artists from many genres, and at all points of what is considered a successful career. Mid-career bands mingle with up-and-comers, and lesser-knowns are alongside legends.


Episode four, airing this week (Thursday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific), showcases Stereophonics, Colbie Caillat and Joan Armatrading. Diversity like this is not easily found at a summer music festival, let alone on your television schedule! It’s interesting to see how these artists react to being in the hallowed Studio 1, and although they are being followed about by what must be an enormous production crew, the entire affair feels very intimate. The best thing about this show, for me anyway, is that the joy in the performances is quite evident, as is the fact that the interviews are freely candid—no rehearsed and rehashed sound bites here! Personally, I loved episode four because I grew up on my mother’s Joan Armatrading albums (and it’s great to hear her discussing guitars in detail!), and I’m a massive Stereophonics fan, but I also enjoyed the exposure to the soulful, singer/songwriter stylings of Colbie Caillat, with whom I was previously unfamiliar.


Live from Abbey Road has a little something for everyone, it seems. Casual viewers, music lovers and even the featured artists themselves (in episode three Panic at the Disco were obviously pleased to be able to perform a stellar cover of the Band’s “The Weight”, while this week, Caillat warms up with a brief, impromptu version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” that clearly thrills her.). If each episode is as consistently as good as this one, Sundance Channel may have to expand the series beyond its 12-part format.


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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008
Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever. It isn’t. It’s better.

Part One
HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos


Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.


Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.


The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.


(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)


Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.


Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…


This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.


Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.


“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.


We come with our culture to enlighten the world…


Any questions?


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Wednesday, Jul 2, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
Stanton Moore is a respected New Orleans drummer and a founding member of Galatic, a jazz/funk group that is a perennial PopMatters favorite. Moore digs into our 20 Questions to reveal his creative inspiration.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Actually it was a song. Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Water From an Ancient Well”. I heard it right after a storm. It moved me so much, I recorded it on my record III.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Han Solo


3. The greatest album, ever?
Jimi Hendrix’s Axis Bold As Love.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars... yeah definitely Star Wars... yeah… Star Wars... def, defin… definitely Star Wars


5. Your ideal brain food?
Going to see Shannon Powell, Herlin Riley or Russell Batiste play in New Orleans. I always come away with tons of ideas.


6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
My first instructional book and DVD project. It was a hell of a lot of work but it has been very well received. It’s my approach to New Orleans drumming and it features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ivan Neville and George Porter Jr.


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Saturday, Jun 28, 2008

I’m a pretty begrudging late adopter of the music blogosphere;  someone deeply skeptical about its grandiose claims of revolutionary potential. At this point, it appears little more than an en masse, passive, bitchy decimation of one particular group’s intellectual property rights. The technological ease of the theft has made the debate all the more quaint, because technology often demands moral imperatives where there clearly is none. The disembodiment of the internet makes the debate all that much more surreal. If I could find the technical means to steal a bunch of Cindy Sherman’s original photographs, few people would hail me as somehow changing the paradigm of a consumerist society, robbing all those evil corporate, um, artists. Just as the internet gives all fat people “swimmer’s builds” (i.e. floats in water), it also provides a home to philosophical fantasy and ugly displays of id. No insult is too impolitic, no opinion to stupid to utter, no thoughtlessness too thoughtless. The MP3 is not an actual CD in your hand and the person you’re calling an asshole is not sitting in front of you bearing your brunt.


Which is why I find the morphology of Perez Hilton to be a fetching snapshot of the music stealing revolution. On the one hand, I can totally appreciate a good scam. I love televangelists and Ryan Phillippe. And, if I’d thought of Hilton’s signature photoshopped jizz on celebrity photographs first, I would have done him one better and used the real deal and scored an NEA grant with heralded works like “Money Shot Hasselback”. But if all these prominent bloggers really want is better paying jobs in the industries they’re economically undermining, what revolutionary content is left in the act of releasing an album early or parlaying your cum stain photography into a Hot Topic line of John Hughes casual wear? Worse still, is Hilton’s idea for his own record label. Don’t we remember how evil those people are? They never gave artists enough money anyway, which is why it’s so much better to give them absolutely nothing by stealing. Hilton’s project is itself designed on the most regressive corporatist model. His unpaid minions send him music, he does the hard work of clicking through the stuff he didn’t find and then gets to brand himself a tastemaker. That makes sharecropping look like Whole Foods.


And what of his discoveries? Mika? He forgets that the excesses of the blogosphere have created an environment where the consumption cycle is accelerated to the point of instant incineration. How exactly will he be able to shepherd these dubious “discoveries” through the old label system and make them profitable before they are irrelevant?  Perhaps I’m picking low hanging fruit in knocking Perez. He has never seemed more than a nakedly honest opportunist trying his hand at the celebrity alchemy of making something from nothing. But his example makes me doubt much of the talk about the unprecedented and new world created by online file sharing and its curiously concurrent revival of vinyl sales. As Tricky once said, “Brand new, you’re retro.” And all of this talk of revolution makes me think that there are a lot of dislocated liberal arts majors like myself looking for an angle in a movement with no collective, a revolution in resume padding.


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Wednesday, Jun 25, 2008
Unorthodox Daughter - No Lay

Granted, this was never part of “pop’s” past, but this No Lay song which I originally caught on a 2005 Grime compilation called Run the Road, I thought she would be the breakout superstar of the UK hip hop scene.  Of course, that hasn’t happened yet, though a new LP , No Comparisons could put her miles above far more modestly talented imports like Mike Skinner and Lady Sovereign.  Her flow is frenetically knifed out, flipping angles so fast that it takes a constant listening sprint to keep apace.  Of course, that level of aggression could prove problematic since Americans tend to prefer Fergie to Jean Grae and the image of slicing someone guts for garters is about as darkly evocative as Jean Grae’s line about taking Satan to a baptism in a flooded basement.  There’s also Grime’s antsy grooves, more ricochet than head bobbing, though the stuttering success of imports like Justice could soften the market for something a bit more jagged in the hip hop market. 


I also can’t help but love her total lack of guile.  If you can’t come up with some outrageous Bowie-esque persona why not just be yourself, hanging out with your friends, braiding some hair, and lounging around in your neighborhood.  Hip hop would do a far greater service to affirm people’s lives rather than indulge some of their most childish fantasies.  All hail No Lay!  Get on this bloggers so that she can be as heralded as already forgotten hip hop saviors like Uffie.


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