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by Michael Kabran

16 Dec 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)

by AJ Ramirez

28 Oct 2009

Photo by
Robert Matheu

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.

by AJ Ramirez

11 Oct 2009


If I were to pick a definitive Smashing Pumpkins song, it would be the overlooked nugget “Hello Kitty Kat”, originally released as a b-side to the single “Today” in 1993, and later rounded up as part of the 1994 rarities compilation Pisces Iscariot. To me, the best Pumpkins songs always resembled huge swaths of color. The group was never afraid to be vulnerable or full-on rock monsters, and often did both in the same song, all while constructing walls of melodic guitar fuzz that built up to explosive finishes. “Hello Kitty Kat” is the Pumpkins at their best, incorporating all those factors while firing on all cylinders on a roller coaster of a song until the track practically collapses in on itself.

Speaking of melodic guitar fuzz, “Hello Kitty Kat” is sick with it. It’s no coincidence that frontman Billy Corgan’s best material was written between 1990 and 1996, a period when the man seemed inseparable from his Big Muff guitar pedal. Unlike lesser alt-rock guitarists, Corgan knew how to use the pedal in a way that the tone it generated enhanced his guitar parts instead of overwhelming them. The sounds Corgan coaxed out of his Fender Stratocaster thus served as the perfect missing link between psychedelia and grunge. That’s why I can never get hung up on Corgan’s nasally vocals like many of the band’s detractors do. At their artistic height the Pumpkins’ chief strengths were A) the guitars, and B) the arrangements. The more focus on both of those aspects, the better the song generally turned out.  On “Hello Kitty Kat”, Corgan’s vocals are mixed unusually low, sounding insubstantial next to the architectural wonder he has constructed with his arsenal of guitar tracks.

by Omar Kholeif

22 Sep 2009


In a recent PopMatters post, I highlighted the importance of the Glasgow music scene – and its historical relevance to the world of music. Like musical hotspots, Seattle and New York—Glasgow possesses the wet weather of one, and the greased-up urban spontaneity of the latter. As such, it should come as no surprise to find that another up and coming Glasgow-based band is rekindling the flame of the 1970s NY punk music scene in 2009.

In particular, I am referring to the quartet, known as Isosceles. A member of the Art Goes Pop music collective, Isosceles’ sound is emblematic of the collective’s moniker. Rickety guitar work is interspersed with a spattering of drums, and lead singer, Jack Valentine’s yelping vocal execution – all of which help position the band nicely between Television and The Modern Lovers.

And just like their forefathers, the foursome is keen to experiment with ironic, self-referential songs. Their second single (and perhaps their catchiest) entitled, “Kitch Bitch” is like a post-modern version of Pulp’s “Common People”, churned out at high speed. While their first single, “Get Your Hands Off’ is a tongue and cheek number that flips the notion that men are sex pests on its gender-bending head, suggesting instead that women are the ones hungry for the bump and grind. However, when Valentine begins to sing, “I said honey, don’t use your sexuality on me”, one starts to realise that his voice is laced with the equivalent of a wink and a snigger. For all of the song’s candour, it is still clear that the boys approach their subject matter with a sense of humour.

Having already supported Scottish stalwarts, Franz Ferdinand on a previous Scottish tour, the boys have already developed a healthy buzz in the area. Personally, my interest in the band grew out of trips to a local coffee shop (referenced in their second single). When I overheard the strapping young gentleman mutter something about his musical career, I felt such a strong compulsion to investigate them. In the year since then, the band have continued to develop their following in the Glasgow music scene, whilst maintaining their humble and erudite personas—saving their energy for their fervent, audience-pleasing shows.

by Omar Kholeif

16 Sep 2009


Holcombe Waller is one of those underground artists that doesn’t seem to care about what is happening on the surface of the popular music landscape. He writes songs in his apartment in Portland, he performs (straight-forward performances, fused with a smattering of performance art), oh and he teaches a little too…an elective course at UC Berkeley, to be exact. All of which seems to be executed, and indeed achieved at the artist’s very own creative whim.

How my love affair with this man’s music began, is simple. I discovered him just over a year ago in a back issue of Butt, and from that moment, I felt compelled to ‘discover’ whether Holcombe had the artistic credos to back up his cheeky interview persona.

The quest began with a long wait, for a US import of his release, Extravagant Gesture to arrive to the UK. Once fully loaded and synced, it was only a week, before four tracks off of the album were in my Ipod’s most played list, with the layered, melodic cataclysm ‘Anthem’ taking the prized spot as the number one repeater. At that point, I started to understand why I felt so passionately about Holcombe. Somehow, he had managed to fuse Van Morrison’s lyrical delivery, with a touch of Gospel soul, and cradled that within the airy melodic landscape suited to the The Smiths.

On his next release, 2005’s Troubled Times, Holcombe seemed ready to tackle a different beast. The self-confessional poetry of his previous effort is still all over the place, except now it is aimed at us with a political undertone. The artist weaves his way through shiny melodies that intersperse tales of war and identity, with stories of powerless lovers in helpless relationships. To the reader it may sound ridiculous, but somehow Holcombe manages to begin with the refrain “Condoleez, baby pleez” (on ‘No Enemy’), only to shift to the nonchalant candour found in ‘You Love Me’, where the singer confesses to his lover that he is going to be “vacationing from pain”. From then on, we assume that the couple are on official ‘break’, when Holcombe suddenly tells him “if I [still] love you, we’ll be fine” (that is, if his lover manages to heat things up in the bedroom, of course).

The rest of the album is equally welcoming. The singer meanders between catchy refrains, where minimalistic lyrics have the power to ignite the imagination. When Holcombe sings on title track: “What you doing, patriot? Come buck-naked dance for free, Watch one-monkey down the last cherry tree”. One wonders whether Holcombe is singing about the brutalities of the Bush administration, or a more personal, romantic war – one that may be tearing the artist up inside.

After all this, I have yet to mention Mr. Waller’s greatest gift, his voice. An astonishing instrument, the singer’s four-octave vocal range veers from a gentle simmer to a pointed falsetto with a beguiling ease and precision. This instrument, coupled with his bare and evocative lyricism suggest that Holcombe is one of the more exciting, (and underrated artists) of recent memory.

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