Music

Skip Heller: Mean Things Happening in This Land

Organ, guitar, and drums has been a standard hack format, so perhaps it's another quirk of Heller's to use it for something quirkily interesting.


Skip Heller

Mean Things Happening in This Land

Label: Ropeadope
US Release Date: 2006-09-09
UK Release Date: Available as import
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"This most baffling of country singers," says Jana Pendragon at the end of the All Music Guide entry on Skip Heller. I'm not sure why Heller would be baffling, though on its own this CD Mean Things Happening in This Land would baffle anyone seeing him described as a country singer. He seems to have a considerable range, wide musical interests, a lot of differently disposable talent, a prodigious website where a lot of his music is available for on-line acquisition, and even a CD of piano-guitar duo jazz with Uri Caine. This is not boring music. The efforts at novelty and excitement aren't its most interesting aspects, but there's a lot more, and the occasional fooling around is fine. This is also not bored music. It's a highly intelligent organ-guitar-drums trio set with real sparkle.

I shuddered slightly at the start. "Dear God", credited to Andy Partridge (XTC), has an overaccented backbeat from the drummer on a reggae beginning from organ and guitar. Then there's the drummer. David White, who throughout the set shows he has what it takes, shades delivery of the backbeat, and the irony is palpable. I'm sick of mechanical backbeats and robot drummers, and maybe Heller is too.

The music on the CD is gentle, and swings and swings. The irony is sensitive, Heller soloing in blues-rock guitar style with quotes from "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" and a figure associated with Miles Davis, one whose name I never remember. Chris Spies solos on organ with considerable feeling, the third member of a trio which might be called Heller's Liberal Dose, or is informally called such after a previous CD by the same delightful ensemble, recorded live in Spies' and White's home state of Alabama. The skirting of clichés on this performance does bespeak irony, but not at all of any clever-clever sort. They're making music, rather than feeling superior.

Heller's "Katrina, Mon Amour" suggests the ballad "Close Your Eyes" and the perky "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". The wit of the trio opening isn't unexpected, after what happens on "Dear God", but they get down to music and are never pretentious. After the three solo contributions, White on bongos the last of them, Heller plays a cowboy bass-string guitar chorus, Spies an old pop organ one, and Heller's coda isn't far from Wes Montgomery.

"Heckuvajob" has a lengthy substantial solo from the leader before Spies solos nicely on maybe clavinet, certainly an electric-guitar-friendly keyboard instrument, with his own organ coming in toward the end to join Heller's exemplary rhythm guitar. There's an ending which doesn't let down the happy feel.

"Motel Room in My Bed" (Doe/Cervenka) isn’t a complaint, since these guys were too preoccupied dancing that tune to have needed a bed at the time. Heller's qualities as soloist are distinguished by a capacity to coin riffs. "On Beautiful Bright Blue Skye" has nothing to do with the Scottish island, which isn't anyway blue: it's an allusion to the Heller website's mp3 resources.

"Hideout in the Sun" has a spaghetti western sort of beginning, with loud twanging from Spies as Heller settles down in a groove. Spies, with excellent drum support, delivers nice music, gravitating from pseudo-guitar into keyboard. Heller again solos well. All the fun or irony seems to be in the title in the Latin-rhythm "President Nero?" Heller does justice to yet another of his own very pretty themes.

On "The Kind of Beauty That Moves", Spies synthesizes a second and echoey guitar part behind a heavily amplified but not loud theme statement from Heller, with hints of slide or Hawaiian or rock. The guitarist solos over an ostinato from the keyboardist, whose solo is on electric piano and up to the mark.

"Punk Rock Girl", theme by Dead Milkmen, is cleared up into something like a Heller composition, or something based firmly on a standard standard's family tree and chord structure. It's an extremely good-natured example of organ-guitar-drums jazz of a sort with no need to be innovative. These men make music .

"Aragon Mill" (composer credit Kahn) is a country song, literally so since it has words and is sung in an attractive smoky voice by a lady whose name I didn't catch. "The mill has shut down," she begins, and where are the lady in the song and her husband to go? There are no solos, there's not much to identify the performance as jazz, there's no self-pity expressed, and if Heller's site describes him as a musician from the "LEFT coast" this latest CD is intelligent and sane and unfanatically lively. The good life is still possible!

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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