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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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Monday, Jun 23, 2008
The only thing that prevents the Blues Brothers band from being the most ill-fated, vainglorious and embarrassingly ego-driven debacle of all time is the simple fact that Belushi really meant it.

How many people who would care to quibble that John Belushi’s endlessly quotable turn as “Bluto” Blutarsky does not represent his finest work? Not me. And yet, he had to be Blutarski; he needed to be Blutarski. He was Blutarski. Just like he was the Samurai, The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave, and the cheeseburger-dispensing counter jockey at the Olympia Café, among many other unforgettable characters he embodied. Belushi was not a black man. And, in truth, he didn’t even play one on TV. He played a white man emulating a black man, first as a Bee, eventually as a brother—a Blues Brother. Enter “Joliet” Jake Blues who, along with Elwood, had the chutzpah, or brilliance—or both—to step behind the mic for real and record music.


Best known for the movie they made, a kitchen-sink comedy that, despite it’s shoehorned, yet incredible, cameos by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker, remains hilarious and retains a strong quote-quotient. Less known is the fact that, in addition to the movie soundtrack, they made two other albums. Impossible as it seems, the first one (1978’s Briefcase Full of Blues) went to the top of the charts, fueled by their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man”. So, 30 years later, how do we assess this brief body of work? First and foremost, the only thing that prevents it from being the most ill-fated, vainglorious and embarrassingly ego-driven debacle of all time is the simple fact that Belushi really meant it. He cared, and however he did it—ability or acting, or most likely, both—he pulled it off.


It only takes a cursory glance at the tracks the band covered to see where they were coming from: not a ton of obvious “hits” there, aside from the aforementioned “Soul Man” (which still was—and remains—a shockingly unpredictable success for mainstream radio during the height of the disco era!), and the rather pedestrian “Gimme Some Lovin’” (which, incidentally, is a rather pedestrian and pallid song in the first place). Of course, it also didn’t hurt that Belushi had the best working blues band in the world behind him, featuring Steve “The Colonel” Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn (of Booker T. & The MGs—the Stax band that played on some of the original tunes being covered). It was, in short, a dream band, and it would be a travesty of the highest order for Belushi—or anyone—to make a mockery (intentionally or not) of the proceedings. Fortunately, this possibility was avoided for one single, simple reason: it works.


(Sidenote: even if it hadn’t worked, it speaks volumes about Belushi’s character and his 33 1/3 street cred that he knew very well the caliber of men he was lucky enough to be associated with. Likewise, they were lucky too, since Joliet Jake bent over backward to give them ample time in the spotlight: this was a win/win in the sense that the paychecks couldn’t have hurt, and it was exposing the great music these men had made—and continued to make—to an entirely new audience. In the end, if the worst crime he committed was getting some generally unsung heroes some well-earned time in the sun, and turning some of the world on to some essential music, then Belushi acquitted himself quite nicely here.)


The first one was the best. While the movie soundtrack and Made in America are okay, Briefcase Full of Blues remains an album that can be returned to often and with considerable satisfaction. Forget the movie, and SNL, and the outfits: on an album it’s just the voices and the music, with no shtick to save you. And to oblige the predictable protests of those most cynical purists, even if it is acknowledged that Belushi was, in effect, acting as a blues singer, it remains his most challenging, and convincing role. Or put in more realistic perspective, he is, obviously, acting, but it’s a role—and a world—he is more than casually acquainted with. After all: even white boys get the blues. Think Belushi didn’t know a thing or two about the blues? Think about the other super-sized SNL alum, the wealthy and much-loved Chris Farley. Think either of these men had those voracious appetites for destruction because they were unreservedly happy?


Consider the last song on side one, “Shotgun Blues”: even though this song is a showcase for Matt “Guitar” Murphy, it is a tour de force all around, from Steve Jordan’s explosive drums to Aykroyd—I mean Elwood’s surprisingly effective harmonica and especially the vocals (singing lyrics that are especially painful to hear considering Belushi’s not-too-distant death). In fact, if you pulled Belushi’s vocals and had the exact same track with Junior Wells (circa 1978, or 1958 for that matter) singing, it might come close to miraculous. And speaking of Junior, the band’s take on “Messin’ with the Kid” presumably inspired some folks to seek out the real deal. Again, that too would justify the entire endeavor. In the end, you can see it with your ears: Joliet Jake was, in more ways than one, the role of John Belushi’s life.


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Saturday, Jun 21, 2008
Max Tundra - "Lysine"

Electronica can be a cold beast. The sputters and clicks of a hard drive at work (think Autechre) certainly stimulate the brain, but personally, I rarely get the pure rush of endorphins that a perfect pop song generates. That is what makes Max Tundra’s (born Ben Jacobs) work all the more miraculous: he works in the idiom of electronic music (he has released two albums on Warp), yet his music sounds like that of a child discovering every sound and genre known to man. Mastered By Guy at the Exchange is Aphex Twin waking up on the sunny side of the bed, and “Lysine” is the afternoon trip to the beach. Over skipping percussion and a catchy analog synth line, Ben’s sister Becky Jacobs intones:


I isolate amino acids sometimes
I bottle them and sell them when the sun shines
Cold sores erupt if you don’t keep lysine levels healthy
A tingle on your lip, should come and see me


A helpful and humorous warning, no? Then the Steely Dan bridge comes in and all hell breaks loose [I’m glad Popmatters has given me the opportunity to write sentences like that]. The percussion explodes into so many pieces that I’ve spent the last six years trying to piece it together, and I enjoy it every single time. So much work must have gone into every second of the song, yet it is transcendentally fun. The wait for the next Tundra album has been long, but it is promised some time later this year. My musical blood sugar level is getting low.


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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

Amazingly enough, Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis has been met with virtual silence thus far by the major record companies, despite the relative ubiquity of 2006’s Night Ripper on Illegal Art Records. He released his fourth album this week, Feed the Animals, under the newly fashionable pay-what-you-will model used by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Armed with an illegal mashaholic summer jamfest, a high profile scheme, and a potentially far-reaching audience, Gillis teeters himself closer to the orange alert attention of the music industry’s legal industrial complex.


Gillis is in many ways the music industry’s worst nightmare: a well revered artist on a populist and decidedly anti-capitalist bent. His music broadcasts the message of music as a universal language, both interpersonal and catholic, quotidian and intimate. In this space, a record exists amongst its peer albums as a dialogue, not a competitor. Gillis has avoided the polite avenues for fair use, gleaned through music’s top-selling brands for his own gains, and, to boot, he’s ahead of the curve in terms of utilizing the latest digital sales technology. Girl Talk’s pay-what-you will method is certainly at least five years away from any credible media giant touching it with a ten foot pole. After all, how do you convince the shareholders that the way to save your dying company is to let consumers set their own price? A free market economy is designed upon the Hobbesian principle that the proles, given the freedom to set their own boundaries, will always choose none. The uninducted masses, so the theory goes, would hypothetically act without restraint, without caution, and with only their own self-interest in mind. It’s easy to see why they would think so. That’s pretty much been the model the multinationals have followed for the past 20 years or so. 


Sure, Girl Talk is not a household name yet, but certainly the big five have to know about them. It’s not like their name or their source material are any secret. Unlike many sampledelic artists, Girl Talk do not mask their sonic bibliography under the plaster and latex of endless tweakings. In fact, they are rather cavalier about the orgy of pop radio sounds cross-pollinating throughout their records. The liner notes for Night Ripper give shout-outs to each artist whose work was used as the album’s mortar. And within hours of Feed The Animals‘s release, fans were already compiling a comprehensive list of all the album’s recognizable primary sounds on Wikipedia. The information is widely accessible. Yet unlike Jon Oswald’s Plunderphonics, which was voluntarily decimated 19 years ago under threats of legal action, Girl Talk have been asked to neither nor desist. Could it be that the music industry actually has, gasp, better things to worry about these days?


Rather than inviting trouble though, the pay-what-you-will model may actually present a legal loophole for artists like Girl Talk. The problem with selling material with uncleared samples seems to be an issue over ownership of the sounds themselves. Would the same rules apply if said sampling artist were to only accept “donations” for their art? Consumers are not being asked to give money out for the purchase of Feed the Animals. They’re being ask to donate to a musician and his label for having made Feed the Animals, which they will gladly give you for free. In this context, Feed the Animals is about as illegal as any mashup some kid in his living room designed for his blog.


Appropriately, the button under the field where you fill in your personal price for Girl Talk’s new album says “Feed the Animals”. The music industry long ago stopped caring about whether it could feed its artists. Maybe they’ll finally stop treating them like animals when the artists begin to realize they can feed themselves. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are well-fed post-industry cash cows. Gillis is another story. If proven a success, Girl Talk’s newest experiment may pose more of a threat than all the Napsters the music industry once refused to shake a ten foot pole at.


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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

The opening track on 1968’s Music from Big Pink is one of the most perfect pop compositions ever. It is a perfectly atypical opening number and a perfect introduction to the intriguing style of The Band. It is also a depressing suggestion as to how much more perfect they could have been had Richard Manuel been able to keep himself from himself.


Co-written by Manuel and Bob Dylan, “Tears of Rage” is the painful lament of a betrayed parent. The first recorded version of the song is the Dylan-sung one that was released on The Basement Tapes. Dylan’s – usually extraordinary – ability to capture the essence of the song was utterly obliterated by Manuel’s on the official Big Pink reading. The extraordinary anguish in Manuel’s voice added exponentially to the already heartbreaking lyrics. The slower composition, Garth Hudson’s haunting organ, Robbie Robertson’s swirling guitar, the unparalleled rhythm of drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko (who also provides backup vocals), as well as Manuel’s own piano work combined for one of those very rare occasions in which Dylan was completely schooled on one of his own songs (ironically, Manuel does it again on the same album with his version of “I Shall be Released”).


Sadly, the mood of “Tears of Rage” was forebodingly symbolic of the pain and suffering that would eventually consume Richard Manuel – who hanged himself in 1986 after two decades of extreme substance abuse. Perhaps the rarest attribute of The Band was the deficiency of a definitive front-man. With three lead singers and all five members’ status as exceptional musicians, there was no member of The Band who was more important to its achievements than the other; but for the first five minutes of their first album, they seemed to revolve around one genius.


Though the introverted Manuel would continue to prove integral to The Band’s success with his singing and playing abilities, his contributions decreased to the point that Robertson was getting credit for writing all of their songs (whether he actually wrote them or not has been debated) and Rick Danko became, more and more, the go-to-guy for mournful ballads.


The final and lasting image of The Band, for many, was Martin Scorsese’s documentary of their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, in which Manuel sang only one complete on-screen song (“The Shape I’m In”) and the middle verse of the closer “I Shall be Released”, during which he is barely visible, eclipsed by the throng of superstars on stage (Dylan, at center stage, sings the other two verses). As great a movie as it was, The Last Waltz did not portray Manuel in a way that would provide those unfamiliar with him any insight into just how important he was to The Band.


To this day, most people seem to know of The Band, but few know much about them outside of their association with Dylan and would probably only recognize the name “Robbie Robertson”. Their eponymous second album is generally regarded as their definitive statement. While I wouldn’t deny that it is a pretty great album, I feel that Music from Big Pink and, more specifically, “Tears of Rage” are perfect examples of how much better “The Brown Album” could have been had Richard Manuel conquered his inner demons a bit more and played a larger role in the songwriting.


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