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Friday, Jun 25, 2010
If you like your '80s R&B uptempo, punchy, and funky, Marcus Miller's underappreciated jam "My Best Friend's Girlfriend" is worth a listen.

If you ever have a sit-down conversation with me about music, you’ll pick up sooner or later that I have a major jones for ‘80s R&B. It’s what I grew up on before I discovered rock music in the mid-1990: slick production, high-energy arrangements, and flat-out funktacular grooves. No slow jams for me: I like my R&B to sound like the soundtrack for the most happening house party ever.


I’m always open to encountering underrated gems from that period, and I was suitably impressed when a friend played me Marcus Miller’s underappreciated funk jam “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” (which peaked at number 36 on the Billboard Club Play chart in 1984). Admittedly, the song isn’t without its faults. Bathed in a production that sounds extremely dated, the song relies on a synthesized melody line with an atrocious tone, while Miller audibly strains as he attempts to high certain notes. Taken at face value, it’s actually kind of a cheesy song. However, Marcus Miller isn’t just your average glossed-up ‘80s funkateer. Miller has had an extensive decades-spanning career largely rooted in the jazz sphere, working both as a solo artist and in collaboration with heroes like Miles Davis. Miller has some serious chops as a performer and as an arranger, proving it with this uptempo blast that practically digs into the listener with its infectious hooks.


The point where “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend” really starts to work its magic is when it hits the prechorus, where the agonized Miller sings the line “And the way she looks into my arms / Lets me know she wants me” in a staccato ascending melodic figure. That staccato motif is then utilized in chorus, injecting it with a fist-pumping energy that surges in search of release. With a chorus like that, I don’t care if if Miller piles on all the dated synth fills he wants. The 12” vinyl single mix is good, but it’s the album version from Miller’s self-titled 1984 effort that really deserves to be tracked down.


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Thursday, Jun 17, 2010
The greatness of 'The Happiness Project' does not lie in its carefully-crafted songs. It lies in the stories it tells. 'The Happiness Project' is about aging, the suppleness of life, and finding whatever happiness you can in contemporary life.

I forget sometimes, sitting in my little studio apartment, the lives that go on directly beyond my four whitewashed walls. Then, later on, leaning over the balcony the first day the sun makes its remarkable summer comeback, I meet my neighbors for a short conversation that lasts just as long as our encounters in the hallway or in the elevator. Alone, I wonder what they are really like. What they do and what they think; how they survive and make sense of everything.


I imagine that this is what Charles Spearin (founding member of Do Make Say Think and multi-instrumentalist for Broken Social Scene) must have thought many times before he started The Happiness Project. Simply put, The Happiness Project uses the inflections of ordinary human speech as a springboard to compose music. On the surface, it is music and performance art, but beneath the sounds lurks a microcosm of modern urban life.


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Friday, Jan 22, 2010

One of my more idiosyncratic musical interests is exploring the countless faceless indie pop hordes that littered late ‘80s British alternative rock.  Largely forgotten except by specialist bloggers and people who dig into musty record stacks to pull out import singles that haven’t been played in 20 years (i.e. me), these sorts of mid- to lower-tier British alt-rock bands were quite common on the UK Indie Charts at the time, in addition to taking up residence in the late night environs of famed BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel’s underground-friendly program.  The average sound of these groups was jangly/distorted ‘60s-infused guitar pop, performed with a ramshackle amateurishness that betrayed their lack of technique.  To be blunt, there was no mistaking these guys and gals for ‘80s Brit alt-rock guitar icons Johnny Marr or John Squire, much less any more conventional axe heroes.  Sure, the majority of these bands weren’t even close to filling the paisley and anoraks of top-flight contemporaries like the Stone Roses and the Wedding Present, but for me, their charm comes from their simple, almost instinctive melodicism and song structures—simple pop hewn out of rough bits and unassuming bobs.  Oh, and I always get a kick out of their affinity for bowl-fringe haircuts and leather jackets.


So: the Popguns. Hailing from Brighton, England, the Popguns featured among its membership former Wedding Present drummer Shaun Carmen and jazzy-voiced singer Wendy Morgan.  From an instrumental standpoint, they weren’t terribly distinctive: ringing chords, guitar fuzz, and a rhythm section fond of throwing in numerous fills in order to liven up otherwise straightforward grooves.  Excuse me while I dig for this exact same thing in the Creation, 53 & 3rd, and Sarah Records back catalogues (hey, I like this sound, but it was certainly ubiquitous to the point of being cookie-cutter). 


What really makes the group special is Wendy Morgan’s keening voice, which infuses each track with a wistful sepia-toned longing that nevertheless sounds filled with hopeful possibilities.  Coupled with the music, you get a very plausible sonic template for American East Coast indie Anglophiles Velocity Girl.  Beginning with their 1988 debut single “Where Do You Go?”, the Popguns put out ten singles and four albums on a slew of indie labels, including Medium Cool, Midnight Music, and Third Stone, over the course of a decade.  They seem to have dropped off the face of the earth after the release of A Plus de Cent in 1996, which is a shame considering indie-inclined music critics have a soft spot these days for noise pop bands like Vivian Girls, whom I’m certain have been listening to the exact same British indie records I have been for the last few years.


How about a taste of the band’s output?  Here’s a video for the Popguns’ second single, “Landslide”:


Next up is what is possibly the band’s best song, “Waiting for the Winter”.  I first heard this on the Rough Trade Shops: Indiepop 1 compilation, and it kills me every time with its urgent hooks and energy.


And from the group’s second album Smog (1991), here’s the single “Still a World Away”:


 


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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009

The answer, of course, is Moses Asch. This month marks the 104th birthday of Asch, who founded Folkways Records more than 70 years ago along with Marian Distler. One of the most valuable musical, audio, and cultural resources of the last century, Folkways Records aimed to document the sounds (and lack of sounds) of the universe. That included titles like Sounds of North American Tree Frogs (1958), Sounds of Steam Locomotives (1956), and Sounds of a South African Homestead (1956).


It also included folk music, not just from the U.S., but from all over the world. Here’s how Asch explained the importance of this music: “Since folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us. Folk music reflects…a people’s culture, its heritage, its character.” Over the years, Folkways Records introduced the world to voices like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Pete Seeger. In 1952, the massive six-album collection “Anthology of American Folk Music” put Folkways on the map for good and changed the face of popular music forever. That compilation turned the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith on to folk music, in particular the blues and country sounds of rural America. It was the first time most people had even heard of artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the Carter Family, and the effect was gargantuan. (In fact, as I sit here next to my own copy of “Anthology of American Folk Music,” with its six CDs and its ghostly essay booklet, I can still sense the collection’s power, and it gives me chills.)


When the Smithsonian acquired Folkways after Asch’s death in 1987, they agreed to continue Asch’s tradition of always keeping all the label’s releases in print, regardless of record sales. In total, Folkways Records released over 2,000 recordings under Asch and, since the Smithsonian’s acquisition, over 300 more have been put out.


Music lovers owe it to themselves to check out Folkways Records. Here are some other excellent releases from the label, in no particular order, that show the enormous scope of its astounding discography:


Music of the Carousel (1961)
Sounds of Sea Animals (1955)
Blind Willie Johnson, 1927-1930, Blind Willie Johnson (1965)
Angela Davis Speaks, Angela Davis (1971)
American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, Pete Seeger (2009)
Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1964)
Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Dillard Chandler (1975)
Negro Prison Camp Worksongs (1956)
Church Songs: Sung and Played on the Piano by Little Brother Montgomery, Little Brother Montgomery (1975)
Watergate, Vol. 1: the Break In (1973)
Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs (1990)



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Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009

Question: What happens when you put members of the Stooges and the MC5—two of the rawest, most powerful bands of their day—in a band together?  You end up with the five minutes of sustained awesomeness that is “City Slang”.


Sonic’s Rendezvous Band featured drummer Scott Asheton and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith from the aforementioned Detroit protopunk groups.  After those ensembles imploded in the early 1970s, Smith assembled the band and cut “City Slang”.  Due to internal band tension, the planned b-side “Electrophonic Tonic” was pulled prior to the single’s 1978 release.  But in a maneuver of sheer ballsy simplicity, the group remedied the situation by simply placing “City Slang” on both sides of vinyl, in mono and stereo version.


Now, any rock song of that breaches the five-minute mark (much less one that appears on both sides of a vinyl single) needs to have either an interesting composition, a hypnotic quality, or tons of charisma to keep listeners engaged.  Sonic’s Rendezvous Band opted for the latter, delivering a powerful rocker with lurching grooves and a stuttering vocal hook.  There’s a killer bass breakdown in the middle, and a great ending where the band just rides out chord progression as Smith’s guitar delivers pummeling eighth-note rhythms.  The group even works in a piano into its assault.  To think, this was the only material released while the band was still active.  In a time when punk was insisting that rock had to be short, fast, and loud, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band demonstrated to the new kids that two out of three could be even better.


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