Music

Uncle Monk: Uncle Monk

Tommy Ramone teams up with Claudia Tienan on a satisfyingly traditional bluegrass album that brings CBGB's original meaning full-circle.


Uncle Monk

Uncle Monk

Label: Airday
US Release Date: 2007-05-22
UK Release Date: Unavailable
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Although CBGBs, the late, great Bowery bastion and launch pad that showcased some of the finest New York City and American punk bands, closed its doors for the very last time in 2006, its spirit lives on. And not exactly in the way you would think. Before CBGBs became the revered institution among the rather irreverent punk scene, it was a concert venue home to "Country, Blue Grass, and Blues" acts.

A year after CBGB's closing, a traditional bluegrass band by the name of Uncle Monk is releasing their debut album. The kicker is, the singer/guitarist for this outfit is none other than Tommy Ramone. Yes, the Tommy Ramone of the Ramones. In doing so, Ramone resurrects the ghosts of CBGB & OMFUG and brings that attitude full-circle.

Strangely enough, until you're slapped with the idea of a former member of the original Godfathers of Punk playing bluegrass, it doesn't really register just how similar in musical theory the styles are. Both punk and bluegrass usually build their melodies around a singular riff and a spartan set of chords that chug it out in the background. Lyrically, even most of their themes are similar, espousing the philosophy of "Damn the Man!" -- whether he be a corporate suit or railroad bull -- normally taking center stage as a song's central conflict.

Bearing those similarities in mind, Uncle Monk bridges the gap between traditional, old-time bluegrass and old-school punk in the most logical way possible for modern audiences to pick up on and enjoy.

Tommy Ramone (née Thomas Erdelyi) got his start leasing his building to the fledgling Ramones for practice space, eventually becoming the group's manager. He would occasionally fill in on drums and instruct potential drummers in the ever-revolving line-up on how to properly play the Ramones' songs. Realizing how well he knew their material, Erdelyi was rechristened Tommy Ramone and made a member of the band.

He left the Ramones in 1978 after playing on four albums and writing the classic "Blitzkrieg Bop", however, he still continued to produce several of their albums and resumed his managerial capacity with the band. Additionally, Ramone produced albums for a number of other artists, most notably Talking Heads and the Replacements, and now applies his expertise at the controls to Uncle Monk, as well.

Claudia Tienan, Ramone's lesser-known partner in crime and co-front person, is no slouch herself. Formerly of alternative band the Simplistics, Tienan contributes guitar and bass. Additionally, she sings on roughly half of the album's tracks and serves as a more melancholy counterbalance to the upbeat Ramone.

Uncle Monk kicks things off with "Round the Bend" and sets the precedent with a pleasant, happy sound rounded out by rambling guitar and mandolin picking. Shockingly, there are no drums whatsoever on the disc. Instead, both Ramone and Tienan create their own jangling beat with traditional bluegrass instrumentation.

Similarly, "Happy Tune" conjures up the earnest, hopeful spirit of Joey Ramone with Tommy on vocals translating the happy-go-lucky vibe of his former band for a bluegrass audience. If you listen really hard, you can almost hear the late, great Jeffry Hyman joining in with Tommy on the good-natured, old-timey vocals of this piece.

While Ramone's vocals are more suited to the up-tempo tracks, Claudia Tienan capably handles the gloomier material. Tienan's smoky vocals on "Emotional Needs" are reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, sounding both deep and feminine and avoiding the usual harsh rasp that often accompanies a darker-toned female voice. While Tienan's vocals are somewhat monotone, her voice nevertheless conveys the proper ambience on any given song. Ramone does get his crack at longing on "Mean to Me". The song's low-octane arpeggios and chords bring to mind Jim Croce, with Ramone's vocals and sad lyrics ruminating on the near-impossible nature of friendship after a failed relationship.

While things are kept rather traditional in the bluegrass vein, lyrically, Uncle Monk's repertoire covers a gamut of topics and throws in several elements of different musical genres to keep things from becoming repetitive. The instrumental "Airday" (a nod to Uncle Monk's record label) allows the steel dobro, banjo, and fiddle to take center stage in a hoe-down style jam. While "Home Sweet Reality" stays close to the bluegrass base, the track seems more country than the bulk of the album's material, with its twanging guitar notes plucking out the melody and capping things off with a gentle slide guitar solo. The duo grows more adventurous with musical arrangements on "Heaven", infused with a calypso and Spanish flamenco influence. The uplifting track explores the topic of Heaven and what it means to different people, whether it be a religious concept or something that is found in the arms of a loved one.

Nevertheless, Ramone and Tienan's punk and alternative backgrounds creep their way onto Uncle Monk while still staying within the country fence. A standout track on the album, "Mr. Endicott" is pure punk ethos wrapped with a bluegrass bow. Uncle Monk acknowledges that while many of us are long past the stage of wanting to sniff some glue, there's still that urge to rebel and stick it to the man, whether it be through taking personal calls throughout the work day or pilfering extra rolls of toilet paper from the company bathroom. With lyrics like, "He yells at me on my coffee break / Look out, Mr. Endicott / I'm gonna get you… Don't have much work to do, Mr. Endicott / Gotta fake the whole day through, Mr. Endicott", the duo finds common ground with the common man and woman in their ode to a tyrannical boss.

Similarly, Uncle Monk tackles feelings of discontent not just towards one person, but to an entire subculture of shallow on "Urban Renewal". While in theory major cities are ideally populated by open-minded, free-thinking people, urban metropolises are becoming a bastion for shallow yuppies and mindless trend-followers. In stating "Feelin' a little bit bitter / A stranger in my town / I refuse to kiss the butt / Of any friggin' clown", the track expresses frustration with the current trend towards the superficial on a mass scale.

While Uncle Monk sticks to a steady diet of traditional bluegrass, the duo kicks the genre square in the dungarees and throws in enough of a punk flair to appease those fans of both Ramone and Tienan's former outfits. The result is a strong, beautifully delivered debut album that makes bluegrass palatable to an entirely new audience while still giving veteran fans of both musical varieties some common ground to stand on.

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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