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Monday, Aug 17, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

Nina Simone - “Mississippi Goddam”
Written by Nina Simone
From Nina Simone in Concert (Philips, 1964)
[Videos: Live / Live 2]


As her accompanists bustle along in a brisk show-time tempo, Nina Simone begins this song from her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert by saying “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam”. The drummer then drops a vaudeville thump accent on the kickdrum, and Simone pauses for audience reaction, which is laughter and a smattering of applause. Without changing the timbre of her voice, she quickly adds, “And I mean every word of it.” There is more laughter from the audience after that, but it’s more tentative than the first burst, and this time no one applauds. There’s no possible way the audience could have prepared themselves for what follows. “Mississippi Goddam” is a subversive tour-de-force, a highly sophisticated piece of musical signifying which mixes confrontational anger, point-blank accusation, and deeply felt frustration with a bouncy show-tune melody and a wonderfully expressive vocal by Ms. Simone.


I love “We Shall Overcome”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Change is Gonna Come”, and all the other songs associated with or about the Civil Rights struggle of the American 1960s, but for my money, as powerful and accessible as those songs are, none are as emotionally immediate, or possess more unrelenting spiritual force, than “Mississippi Goddam”. The lyrics are a marvel, unraveling at first in a deceptively lighthearted strut (“Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest”) before turning into the most solemn of lamentations around the middle ( “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We’re all gonna get it in due time”), and then a full-on, unapologetic demand by the end (“You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality!”


The most striking lyric arrives at around 1:44, just as Simone is starting to dig into the real intent of the song. Here, in a single line, Simone captures the dual existential uncertainty of living in a society which repeatedly pronounces you “other”, while also realizing you don’t really have anywhere else to go: “I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” Like the song’s title, these lines are a deeply symbolic statement from a bona fide church girl (Simone’s mother was a minister), both a declaration of painful truth, and a plea for that truth to be heard, understood, addressed. By the time Simone murmurs “Bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?” after the refrain following those lines, the Carnegie Hall audience is dead silent.


Given Nina Simone’s undeniable prowess with bluesy tempos and songforms, demonstrated in countless later recordings, one has to wonder why she chose to deliver her most confrontational message in the vehicle of an upbeat songform more suited to a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical. The lyrics of “Mississippi Goddam” lyrically give voice to the contemporary concerns of African Americans, but ironically, there is not a lot of obvious church, blues, jazz, or R&B to be heard in the music here. The result is a somewhat dislocated sonic context, a feeling that you’re hearing something that just might be different than what it appears to be on the surface. Whether the African Trickster in Simone intended this or not is always up for discussion, but clearly, “Mississippi Goddam” is not meant to be comforting, uplifting, or reassuring in any sort of way; on the contrary, it is meant to be confrontational, discomforting, prophetic: a call to wakefulness in a dangerous time, and perhaps an apocalyptic warning of sorts, as well.


We celebrate and cherish songs and songwriters often because their words and music bring us joy, comfort, and feelings of empathy and belonging. In this case, we remember and celebrate Nina Simone and “Mississippi Goddam” because in 1964, amidst great turmoil in the country and unbearable race-related murders and violence, Nina Simone had the courage to stand on the stage of one of America’s most hallowed venues and deliver a song that expresses the dismayed yet indefatigable heart of a prophet.


 



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Friday, Aug 14, 2009
The story of a golden-voiced one-hit wonder who always felt invisible.

Alison Moyet, an incredibly gifted singer with a deep, rich, bluesy voice, first found fame in her early 20s. Joining forces with Vince Clarke, a former member of Depeche Mode, Alison formed Yazoo, a synth-dance band, in 1981.


Yazoo was a major success in England. Their first two albums, Upstairs at Eric’s and You and Me Both, peaked at #2 and #1 respectively on the record charts, and four of their singles became Top 15 hits. In the United States, the duo (renamed Yaz because an American rock band was already using the name) saw three of their singles become number one hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, but they weren’t nearly as successful on mainstream radio.


Alison and Vince decided to disband Yazoo shortly before their second album was released.


Vince Clark went on to form Erasure with Andy Bell and had an astonishing 24 consecutive singles become Top 20 hits in the UK Alison Moyet began a solo career, and while her success hasn’t rivaled that of her former band mate (she’s had nine singles become Top 40 hits in England), she has never particularly strived for success on the radio. Instead, she has gloriously followed her own path.


The only real success Alison Moyet has had as a solo artist in the United States is with a song titled “Invisible” that became a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 4, 1985. But that song was enough to make me a lifelong fan.



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Thursday, Aug 13, 2009

Let it not be said that the members of Radiohead don’t know how to employ the element of surprise. Just a few short days after loosing uncharacteristic new track “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)”, the band made headlines again when frontman Thom Yorke told the Believer that, “None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again.” This quote was, of course, quickly spun out of context, with blog commenters the world over fearfully predicting that there would be no new material from Radiohead for the foreseeable future. In fact, Yorke was hinting that the opposite was true: by leveraging their direct-to-fan distribution platform, the band hoped to release music in fits and spurts, in the form of EPs and singles. If anything, Yorke seemed to suggest that we would be seeing new music from the band very soon indeed. 
 
It’s curious, then, that just a few days later, we should happen upon this: “These Are My Twisted Words,” an allegedly “leaked” MP3 that sounds an awful lot like a new Radiohead song. The track surfaced on the At Ease fan messageboard yesterday, accompanied by little more than a title. On peer-to-peer networks, however, the lone MP3 was flanked by an “nfo” file, containing a cryptic, Yorke-esque rant hinting at an August 17th release date.


And what of the song itself? It’s a guitar-heavy number, awash with seasick, cascading arpeggios yet firmly-rooted by a syncopated drum line and a deep bass groove. The vocals don’t kick in until just past the 2:30 mark but when they do, the sound of Yorke’s cheerless moan is nigh unmistakable. For all its mystery, the track would feel right at home among the back-to-basics numbers of Hail to the Thief.


So is this a new Radiohead song or not? While all signs seem to point toward ‘yes’, as of yet, there’s no confirmation from the band or their management. In the meantime, why not decide for yourself?


Tagged as: leak, radiohead
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Thursday, Aug 13, 2009
Rashanim's work is quite clearly grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but their invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

Guess what? Rashanim has recently released what will undoubtedly stand as one of the best albums of 2009 in The Gathering.


Guess what else? Rashanim has been making incredible music for the better part of this decade.


One more thing: you are not the only person who has, unfortunately, not heard (or heard of) this band. For all the right reasons, changing that should become a priority in your life. Trust me. I hope and expect to hear many more noteworthy new albums in 2009, but I sincerely doubt I will come across another effort as profoundly effective and moving as this one.


So, who is Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who describe themselves on their website as a “Jewish power trio: Rashanim (’noisemakers’ in Hebrew) combines the power of rock with the spontaneity of improvisation, deep Middle Eastern grooves and mystical Jewish melodies.” Led by guitarist Jon Madof, the band also includes bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Mathias Kunzli. They record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik (http://tzadik.com/) and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.)


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Monday, Aug 10, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Cars” - Gary Numan
Written by Gary Numan
From The Pleasure Principle (Beggars Banquet/Atco, 1979)


According to the Wikipedia entry for Gary Numan, the famously dark-viewed British new-waver has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. In the article, a quote attributed to Numan indicates that he feels his longtime difficulties in relating to others, the subtext of much of his work, may be directly related to this syndrome.


That gossipy tidbit may reflect the whole truth, a kernel of truth, or no truth at all, but one thing is definitely certain: no other artist in rock and roll has so thoroughly mined the subject of emotional alienation in the modern, computerized world. Numan’s brittle-broken vocal style, ice-cold synthesizer lines, herky-jerky beats, and dread-filled lyrics all contribute to a challenging and compelling aesthetic, one that is still undervalued by many music lovers but cherished by millions of dark-clad misfits worldwide.


Tagged as: gary numan, new wave
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