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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008
With art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

Eighteen years ago today.


First day of classes, junior year. Standing in the bathroom with too much shaving cream and not enough whiskers, getting geared up for another semester of partying too much and studying too little. No e-mails to check, no cell phone messages to return, just listening to the clock radio on the counter, because that’s how we rolled. Not that we had much choice in the matter.


Roommate walks into the bathroom with a look on his face like someone told him that Milwaukee’s Best raised the price of six packs.


“Dude, Eric Clapton is dead.”
God is dead? I thought, reflexively.
“His helicopter crashed.”


Not that again. You get used to the overdoses, no matter how pointless or accidental or idiotic. It doesn’t make them easier to accept, or justify, but there is some semblance of accountability. But these random acts of mechanical destruction? Intolerable. Unacceptable on any level.


Of course, as we shortly found out, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who had actually died (part of the confusion came from the fact that he was on tour with Clapton, and had just played on the same stage the night before). Same principle applies: shocking, inexplicable, unacceptable.


And even worse, in a way. To put it in as respectful and delicate fashion as possible, this one hit home a lot harder. Eric Clapton was another, earlier generation’s Genius. Stevie Ray Vaughan was my generation’s guitar god, the one whose albums coincided with those crucial high school years, the formative times in your life when each album is a revelation. And, with an artist like Vaughan, a living chain connecting the past to present. This is the dude who, not to put too fine a point on it, had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and take it places even the best guitar player who ever strapped on a Stratocaster didn’t go.


Plus, I knew Stevie. Not personally, of course. But the summer before, I worked at the local record store just as Stevie’s new album In Step dropped. We used to spin that baby a few times per day, and it wasn’t even personal, it was strictly business. The album sold well, as it should have. The back-story elevated its import: after years of struggle with drugs and drink, Vaughan had cleaned up and was enjoying sobriety (indeed, the album’s title refers directly to his recovery process, which he was understandably proud of). The album remains top notch, but—as last albums from artists taken entirely too soon tend to do—it has an almost eerily elegiac feel that is difficult to deny. That the last song on the last album released in his lifetime is the sublime “Riviera Paradise” seems, at once fitting and devastating. It teases and cajoles with its promises of what should have been—all the great music this man undoubtedly would make. It also, being a near perfect song to end any album (much less a final album), feels entirely fitting. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for our loss, but it helps. And, as always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.


God is dead, again.
I can’t say for sure that I thought this, but maybe I did.
And speaking of God:
The 20 year old kid couldn’t help but wonder: “What kind of God would take a man like this from us?”
The 38 year old kid thinks: “The same one who gave him to us?”
That, of course, is not good enough. It’s never enough.
But it will have to do.


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, Israel Vibration's vision -- and sound -- was fully formed when they entered the studio.

Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song


The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.


The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).


Israel Vibration

Israel Vibration


And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).


Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.


They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.


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Wednesday, Aug 20, 2008

On episode 10 of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 21st at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific), the Subways discuss how the three-piece dynamic adds to the energy and adaptability of the band, and claims that each member is so excited by the songs that the band brings exactly the same fervor to playing for 10 people in a studio as it brings to playing for 10,000 in a stadium supporting Foo Fighters. Then the performance proves those claims. Drummer Josh Morgan plays as though his life depends upon it, and guitarist Billy Lunn and bassist Charlotte Cooper shout out their shared vocal duties while dancing all across the studio floor and diving from the bass drum during “Oh Yeah” from 2005’s Young For Eternity. “Strawberry Blonde” and “I Won’t Let You Down” from this year’s Butch Vig-produced All or Nothing demonstrate some serious songwriting chops while still showcasing what Lunn calls The Subways’ “ferocity”.


From ferocity to funk and fun, Gnarls Barkley performs tracks from 2008’s The Odd Couple. “Whatever” seems slow to start at first, but builds, layer-like, until Cee-Lo’s smooth delivery and Danger Mouse’s spellbinding melody has filled up every speck of space in the studio. “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” are each equally and hypnotically compelling, riveting in a way completely contrasting the Subways segment before it. Gnarls Barkley’s gift—that of seamlessly combining both creative personalities, both approaches and both sides of life—shows even more clearly here than it has on past work.


Herbie Hancock saw bringing the past into his present as a welcome challenge. He performs two tracks from his Grammy winning River: The Joni Letters. Accompanying vocalist Sonya Kitchell on “All I Want” and “Court and Spark”, Hancock is the consummate bandleader, stately and sedate playing his part in a quiet study of perfection, all the while finessing, caressing,  commanding the performances of the musicians around him. It’s the polar opposite of the energy displayed at the beginning of the episode, but in no way less energetic.


Upcoming Line-ups:


Episode 11 - August 28
Bryan Adams, Ben Harper, Justin Currie


Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson


 


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Friday, Aug 15, 2008
Polyhedron - Little Jinder

There’s something about the diminishing quiet of this song that draws me into the subterranean chase of its music box clatter.  The Bjork touchstone seems obvious, but its not forced or even earnestly parroted.  She doesn’t have the range and seems less interested in doing a floor routine with her vocals than in curling through curious and coy paces.  The sound parallels the work of Little Dragon (no relation) in that they both seem to be working with R&B out of its modes and moods, complicating the traditional subject matter and glacially arresting the genres movements with slipper beats and elongated ambience.  The VCR and the dated recording equipment add to the artifactual elements of the song, which, ironically, sounds like a perfectly shaped, delicate piece of pop architecture. The lush room fabrics and casual observers further deepen the song’s intimacy, making it seem like Josefine Jinder just shuffled her way up to a cozy coffeehouse open mic.  It’s a security blanket song and an easy ease into the weekend.


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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008

When the Old Grey Whistle Test DVD Set came out, for some reason I wasn’t surprised that the Replacements performance wouldn’t make the cut. Although I never got to see the band during their days of performance, countless hours have been spent on YouTube seeking out their performances—and “Kiss Me on the Bus” has been one of the most consistent, exceptional pop songs that the Replacements ever produced.


This performance, circa 1986—shows the Replacements in their prime. Although not quite as memorable as their famed Saturday Night Live performance, this highlights Paul Westerberg’s raw vocals at their best, and Bob Stinson whips up a solo variation that has the guitar sounding massively out-of-tune, and massively wonderful. Every time you watch the Replacements play, there’s something different to be offered, and that’s part of the glory of the Replacements. They never tried to be something they weren’t and the songs were never perfect. They were more focused on a valued performance and a songwriting that left an impression—a lesson a plethora of bands that spend entirely too much on their image and exact reproductions of the studio sound can learn from.


Tagged as: the replacements
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