Amalgam Digital is one of the most exciting projects to come along in hip-hop since the MPC2000. I mean, there’s just so much music coming out every week, and there has been for decades, so it’s tragically easy to fall through the cracks unless it all goes perfectly. Following their well-noted success in resurrecting the obviously still-viable careers of The Jugganots and Smiley Da Ghetto Child, they’ve now turned their Lazarus glare unto New York’s Jorge Alvarez. Looks like another sure winner, as far as I’m concerned.
This plucky Puerto Rican/Cuban Latino burst onto the scene way back in 1994 with his Sony debut. Despite featuring the same vein of quirky samples and, with the exception of some mild but standard homophobia, socially uplifting words that simultaneously worked wonders for Fu-Schnickens, A Constipated Monkey was released a couple years too late, and a pop world gathering interest in mean-spirited, joyless gangsta rap allowed sales to quickly stagnate. Consequently, Kurious Jorge got the boot from Sony, walking entirely away from the bidnezz shortly thereafter.
Snap to 2007, and Amalgam has an action plan on the go. With a two-album deal in his pocket and the blazing hot MF DOOM in the studio (Jorge was featured on DOOM's Operation: Doomsday), Kurious Jorge is set to make his sophomore record over a decade after his premiere. Just to remind you about the quality of character in store for that release, we are now treated to a well-deserved reissue of A Constipated Monkey, his under-appreciated debut.
For those who can remember 1994, all the beats on this album are of the exact flavor you loved to roll with. Over time, styles may have changed to a more synthetic sound, but they never really improved upon the old boom-bap, especially when you’ve got some crazy, canned soul horn samples on that shit. Hieroglyphics’ Casual and the notorious MF Grimm’s appearance on “Baby Bust It” is an aural anomaly and clear highlight, with some Asian strings, a moaning funk bassline, and a gettin’-jiggy-with-it chorus, oozing a blunted haze through any stuffy atmosphere. Pete Nice, DJ Lord Sear, and The Beatnuts also stamp their incredible sounds and personalities onto the product. Is that a Go! Team sample I hear on “Nicole”? 5th Dimension? Oh, no, they di’n’t! Break yo’ self, fools: this is a necessary reminder of rap’s Golden Age.
Like the early-'90s grunge scene in Seattle and late-'60s acid wave in San Francisco, there was a moment in early-'80s Scotland that burned bright and hot for a brief period of time, but left an enduring impression on the music landscape. Along side Orange Juice and Josef K, Fire Engines manufactured a fair-sized chunk of the first post-punk movement. Named after a 13th Floor Elevators track, these Edinburgh slackers managed to produce three singles and a mini LP over their roughly 18-month history, much of which has sadly been out of print since the '90s. Acute Records to the rescue, then.
Acute has gathered up all their old material for this special and definitive Hungry Beat compilation, along with a 16-page booklet featuring notes from their original label boss, Bob Last (who also discovered Human League and Gang Of Four), with the aim of proving just how deep their influence goes. All those Hot Hot Heat and Rapture types owe these guys a pack of smokes, as their lo-fi barrage of angular but funky punky orchestrations walked the dirty-cool walk that The Strokes would have attempted, if trying didn’t compromise their precious hipster status. Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream even says on the cover promo sticker that neither his band nor Jesus & The Mary Chain would exist if it weren’t for these guys. Franz Ferdinand also accepts this, having brought them out of retirement a couple years ago for an X-mas gig and a split seven-inch, while always listing them as an influence whenever asked.
Even without the vivid historical context, Hungry Beat is still quite viable on its own. Sure, it sounds like it was recorded with a shotgun mic in an airplane hanger, but the inimitable swagger this haggard quartet conveyed struts all over this record. Their personal Velvet Underground and Fall influence would see them being less immediately accessible than their Scot peers, yet their demeanor and interplay tells me they could give less than a toss what anyone thinks. Though technically thin in the translation, these guys rocked as hard as anyone ever has or will. The seven-minute-long, mostly instrumental rambler “Discord” was more than enough proof of that, and “Big Gold Dream” took care of the impending dance-punk movement. Fire Engines' legacy is evident of itself. Don’t forget where you came from, and give credit where it’s due. The buck started here.
The history of The Fall is not that of a group of artists, but of a show business act. Mark E. Smith hasn't fired over 60 musicians because of "artistic differences" -- he's given folks the boot because they couldn't hack it, couldn't play or tour like professionals. Misanthrope, iconoclast, asshole -- whatever you want to call Smith, he's first and foremost a consummate performer, a top-flight ham. He's been able to record over 25 albums during the last three decades because he can sell the simplest of rock songs with his attitude, his vitality, his ability to entertain. A recap of The Fall's many, many lineup changes, tours, radio appearances, and releases isn't an account of Timeless Music forged through struggle, conflict, and perseverance. For all its details and events, The Fall's story is simple: Mark E. Smith continually tries and fails to find other musicians who believe equally, as he does, in sonic deconstruction and unabashed showmanship.
How else could you explain Live at the Witch Trials, The Fall's fully-formed, instant-classic debut album? Before releasing the record in early 1979, Smith had already cycled through more bandmates than most frontmen ever will, but judging from the remarkable tautness of his first LP, he hadn't been struggling to find his voice. When he began making music in his late teens, Smith already knew what he liked: The Velvet Underground's mantra-like repetition, Van Der Graaf Generator's art-rock dynamism, Camus's dim view of human nature. He needed little time to channel these influences into a unique sound; he needed a bit more time to find a group of folks who could get with his program. To this day, he still hasn't been able to do this, but for the single day The Fall spent recording Witch Trails, Smith had a band -- and a damn good one at that.
Though not as relentlessly good as Hex Enduction Hour, The Fall's first record is as good a place as any for neophytes to begin exploring the band, and it's an essential album -- especially in this expanded edition, which is replete with crucial singles -- for the already converted. Unlike most bands who arose in Britain's post-punk era, The Fall were more interested in riffs and hooks than in identity politics and the avant-garde. So their best records are the ones with the greatest number of cogent, energetic rock anthems, albums like Witch Trials.
Good tunes -- rollicking licks, spastic drum rolls, and breathless refrains colliding into one another -- is all we've got here. The Fall strip away rock's illusions of grandeur -- texturally, their early music's anemic, every instrument scraping and scrawling -- so that we can focus entirely on its combustibility, its cultural and compositional potency. No shame in show business when the show's this captivating.
Jonny Trunk is a weird guy, or at least his tastes suggest a collector for the truly exotic. One look at his label’s web site, Trunk Records, and your snooping boss at work might fire you for looking at pornography on company time. He has an affinity to reissue soundtracks, particularly oddball jazz and porno flicks. Just in the last year, Trunk also put out the last record by the late free-jazz composer (and mostly unknown) Basil Kirchen, a compilation of British ad jingles, and a collection of folk oddities.
A crate digger in the most literal sense of the term, it’s easy to imagine him as the greasy dude that brought his own kneepads to the record fair to flick through vinyl with maximum comfort.
As the story goes, an LP by jazz pianist Michael Garrick caught Jonny Trunk’s eye one day in a London record shop and he found himself obsessed. The one record he could not find, however, was the Moonscape 10”, maddeningly pressed to a scant 99 copies in 1964. When he finally found a copy in 2003 (humorously given away by a friend of the man who originally pressed the record because he didn’t like jazz), it was shockingly unplayed and immediately digitally archived.
43 years later, we finally get to hear this stunning album in all its 22 minutes of obscure glory. Ah, yes, Moonscape is short, but oh my, is it beautiful. This is a time when “The New Thing” was actually still very new, still tickling the ears of inspiration and turning boppers into free-blowers and ushering in some of the most polarizing music the world had ever seen. From what I gather, instead of sticking to his bop roots, British pianist Michael Garrick was challenged and fascinated by the new approach to jazz. The reissue reproduces the original jacket of the LP with this introduction: “FREE FORM or THE NEW THING, as it is sometimes known, can be something of a leap into an abyss… We aim for a clean, integrated sound which, upon later examination, might be found to have meaningful shape and make musical sense” It sums up the recording perfectly: “free” enough to turn a few heads, but still accessible to the casual jazz listener.
As for the music itself, Garrick definitely takes some of his cues from Vince Guaraldi –steady, dramatic phrasing, a “blue” left hand, cascades that will break your heart. One thing to keep in mind with Garrick, though, is that he had spent most of his time writing jazz for poets. So beyond Guaraldi’s evocative imagery is Garrick’s evocative attention to poetic speech. His left hand may keep a calm rhythm, but his chords are tightly wound, nearly clustered to add an extra pang of sadness and definition to the backbone of a song like the slow-building “Sketches of Israel,” whose brief climax stops you cold.
On harder hitting cuts like the awesomely titled “Music for Shattering Supermarkets” and “Take-Off,” Garrick and his adept backing band, bassist Dave Green and drummer Colin Barnes (the former would go onto to play with Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, the latter became a tax inspector), really explore the far reaches of The New Thing. “Shattering” sticks to a hard swing a la Art Tatum, but it barrels forward with a wild intensity, Green’s bass fierce in the face of a drummer that can’t help but speed up. It’s not exactly “free” (unless you count Garrick’s severe disregard for his keyboard at the end), but it threatens like none other.
“Take-Off” begins meekly, much like the odd chords and chord progressions of the opening cut, but like its title suggests, the song mounds from ground zero, launches discordantly, and stumbles out of orbit. The bass rumbles and drums signal the sparks of the engine and the piano is the smoke ecstatically billowing in every direction. It’s a fascinating two minutes and 42 seconds, one that makes me wonder why Garrick’s never been mentioned stateside in the annals of great early free-jazz musicians.
Garrick still plays to this day and releases material on his own label, Jazz Academy. He’s best known in England for his jazz-choral works and teaches jazz at various institutions, including the prestigious Royal Academy of Music. I can only hope that the Moonscape reissue launches a whole campaign to really look at Garrick’s vast and virtually undocumented discography.
Gilberto Gil’s story is an interesting one, but not atypical of many Brazilian musicians living in the 1960s era of violence, imprisonment, intimidation, and the attempted, but unsuccessful, suppression of its country’s outspoken singers. Starting his musical career after hearing João Gilberto on the radio, Gil gained a reputation as a troubadour of some worth after penning television ads and the hit single “Louvacao” for Elis Regina. As part of the Tropicalia movement, he, along with Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, and others, turned tradition on its head and laid the foundations of modern Brazilian music (Musica Popular Brasiliera or MPB) while at the same time ruffled the feathers of the ruling government by attacking its policies and practices through song.
The dictatorship at the time had cracked down on escalating protesting and free speech and felt necessary to stop the already-dying Tropicalismo scene by arresting and imprisoning Gil and life-long friend and fellow Bahian Veloso in December 1968 in São Paulo. Feeling strong pressure to leave the country after getting released from jail, Gil decided on England as his exile destination and took to London like a fish to water, soaking up the freedom, drugs, music, and the general hyper-creative atmosphere of late 1960s post-Swinging London. Gil went on to carve himself a varied and successful musical career which continues to this day. In an exquisite turn of events, Gil represents the very same government that jailed him those many years ago, acting as Brazil’s Minster of Culture since January 2003.
Gilberto Gil was his third eponymous album (often referred to as Nêga after its opening salvo) recorded and released in 1971 during his exile in London. Despite previously toggling between a number of styles, the sound on this album is a straightforward acoustic rumination on what must have been a tumultuous time characterized by his uprooting half a world away and the sad betrayal by his own county. If this all sounds like a dour protest album is in the cards, you could not be more wrong. In “Nêga,” a more impish start to an album is not imaginable. Random “woo!”s and shout outs, silly acoustic and electric guitar fills, and rattlesnake noises in the background punctuate a song that reminisces about a relationship by looking back at the lovers’ pictures taken at the time. It is a fun song that sets the tone for the whole album and clearly states Gil’s intentions. There is so much going on that you would half-expect him to start scatting any second during the song.
The scatting does start on Gil’s take on Blind Faith’s seminal “Can’t Find My Way Home,” which goes a long way to completely erasing the memory of the behemoth classic rock monster and replaces it with a simple arrangement of a man and his guitar. Upon hearing Gil’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it is difficult not to think of Seu Jorge’s David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but without an English-to-Portuguese translation of the lyrics.
The lack of English proficiency actually lends itself to an even greater appreciation of the writing and brings an unintended childlike innocence to the lyrics throughout. It contains a simplicity sadly missing from native English speakers who vainly attempt to be purposely oblique or poetic and oft-times just end up sounding ridiculous. This unplanned device is particularly charming on tracks like “Volkswagen Blues” (“My lunar Volkswagen cabin/ With no men, no dog, no bag in/ Such an idea
thrills my soul/ Breaks down my self control”), “Babylon” (“’Cause I have a silver knife/ And my lover is Satan’s wife”), and the Hendrix-like “Crazy Pop Rock” (“From the city runs electricity in my brains/ From the city runs gasoline up in my veins”). “The Three Mushrooms” is exemplary of this as well. Gil strums psychedelically and expounds on opening his mind and body to the unknown. The song descends into a series of yelps of "atomic mushroom!" before Gil makes his way
headlong into frenetic fingerpicking at the end.
The three bonus tracks tacked onto the reissued Gilberto Gil are live em concerto in London: a rendition of the aforementioned “Can’t Find My Way Home,” a great version of “Up From the Skies,” (one of Jimi Hendrix’s more bouncy songs which Gil regularly performed around the UK during his exile), and “Sgt. Peppers,” complete with a surprisingly accurate voice-trumpet break. Unfortunately my Portuguese is not up to snuff enough to understand Gil’s between-song banter, but one would guess it is as entertaining as listening to the man perform his timeless numbers.
On record or live, Gil is all about emotion. Many of the songs on Gilberto Gil are simple renditions with voice and guitar (and a little scattered accompaniment for good measure), but what sets them apart from the low-eyed clown down at your local pub playing “Maggie’s Farm” for half-pints is the way Gil sings and plays. Carefree and 100% honest and pure, you cannot listen to Gilberto Gil without picturing the afro-ed master on the front cover smiling his way through another set of peaceful tunes calling for peaceful times, and it is hard to find anything wrong with that.
* bonus live tracks on CD
How convenient that this fabulously packaged three-disc Rubinoos retrospective was released just two months prior to a highly publicized plagiarism suit filed by them against shrill, incompetent teeny-bopper songwriter, alcoholic, and known terrorist conspirator Avril Lavigne, in perfect time for a little undue press.
Did shameful Canadian hack Lavigne, with malice of forethought or pure ignorance, ripoff “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” by these late-'70s power-pop pioneering Berkeley boys for her equally vapid “Girlfriend” anthem? Yes, she did. She is a pop swill merchant, derivative to her soulless core, as is the nature of pop. Did the Californian candy suckin’ Rubinoos ripoff the Ramones track of the same name for the extremely minor late-'70s hit they are now suing Avril for ripping off? Probably. It’s pop we’re talking about here. Almost everything is blatantly ripped off from something else, and it’s always the same tap-dancing Botox wankers whoring it to us like greasy, handsy uncles after their third shot of JD. You know you want it. Don’t tell your mother.
Proof, it did not take a mental giant to pen “Gorilla,” with its fabulous closing line “If you want, you can learn how to swing/ I’m heavy into the jungle thing/ Give the love of a gorilla” and bestiality references throughout. You can be sure even less brain was required for these wimps to cover it. My god. Sure, there are admittedly some decent licks here and there and some credibility to be found in their brief collaboration with Todd Rundgren and their award-not-winning theme to Revenge Of The Nerds, but this bubblegum is just too sweet overall to be any good for you. The Cars own these guys every step of the way. Juicy Fruit > Hubba Bubba.
However, since much of this 63-song retrospective has been essentially out of print for years (I wonder why) and the third disc contains a previously unreleased 1978 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, it’s not hard to get caught up in the sentimentalism of it all, if you’re susceptible to that kind of thing. Plus, unlike Avril, The Rubinoos actually played instruments instead of just air guitaring to a pre-recorded tape. That’s the kind of radical thinking that allowed them to open for Elvis Costello on an Armed Forces tour. That’s gotta count for something, right? Well, maybe not, but at least they have a legitimate shot at destroying Lavigne’s career with the lawsuit, and that’s more than any critic can ask for. Here’s wishing Avril all the best in repeating the success of The Rubinoos. May they be equally remembered in 20 years.
Dub as studio science. This trope allows those of us who think ourselves more cultured than your typical 420-observin', Marley-lovin' bro to feel comfortable with reggae. Because we can recount a rock-crit narrative of freaked-out, zoned-in sub-bass experimentation that draws lines from Lee Perry to Kool Herc to Adrian Sherwood to The Orb to Pole to Burial, we can live with dub, claim it without shame. Jam bands (Dubconscious, anyone?) might co-opt the genre, but we know its "true" genealogy, its line of avant-garde ancestors and descendents.
Thing is, most of the 1970s LPs that Perry or Keith Hudson didn't make don't have a thing to do with aural sci-fi, Afro-futurism, or producers triumphing over musicians. When King Tubby teamed up with The Agrovators, Bunny Lee's dream-team sessions band, in 1975 to create this album, he approached the players' sizzling instrumentals not as an engineer or deconstructionist, but as another band member. From behind his storied four-track mixing desk, the producer responded agilely to the work of the musicians, his hallucinatory augmentations melding organically with splashing cymbals and popping bass strings. Tubby's contributions don't decontextualize or dehumanize this music. In fact, his production is so responsive that you'd think the entire album, drop-outs and all, was recorded in real-time.
Flesh and blood collaborations can still chart otherworldly terrain, though, and this album contains a handful of genuinely bizarre moments. "The Height of Dub" occupies a space between compositional minimalism and minimal techno: as in a free-form Terry Riley or Philip Glass piece, instruments materialize and vanish in rhythmic waves, tones converging in unpredictable patterns. Stranger still is the intro to "The Dub Station," in which an epic reed fanfare, some wiry funk guitar, and a beat-digger groove echo into the beyond; think David Axelrod's orchestral psych, but ghost-ified. Of this reissue's twelve bonus tracks, four -- "Jah Love Rockers Dub," "Six Million Dollar Version," "African World Wide Version," and "Don't Take Another Man's Life Version" -- capture Tubby at his most warped. Here, every bass note is slurred and every cymbal stroke is melted into tidal ambience.
During most songs, however, Tubby works more subtly -- a little reverb here, a little delay there, nothing more. The bulk of the album showcases The Agrovators' top-shelf musicianship. With tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook (a Jamaican pop pioneer who played in The Skatalites) and drummer Robbie Shakespeare (of Sly and Robbie fame) leading the way, the group revamps reggae hits, dips into the American pop, soul, and jazz canons, and cops lines from children's songs -- all within a taut three minutes, usually. Unlike so many filler-heavy full-lengths by chart-topping reggae singers, this outing engages from start to finish.
Trojan, a label prone to throwing together poorly packaged compilations with less than prime tracklists, made the right call when it opted to present these once-rare songs as an album. This new edition won't cement King Tubby Meets The Agrovators at Dub Station as a stone classic, but it does document dub reggae in its most exemplary form: a dynamic exchange between telepathic instrumentalists and the visionary producers who humbly allowed their mixing equipment to sing along.
The world just isn’t fair sometimes. Though this Pittsburgh collective (of whom no one was actually named Rebecca) scored opening slots for the Lemon Pipers, Alice Cooper, and Jethro Tull during the relevant and creative peaks of their individual careers, they found it strangely difficult to build much of a fan base outside of their native Pennsylvania. They released one album on a primarily country label – which they certainly weren’t suited for, but good on Musicor for giving them a shot anyway – then broke up a couple years later to eventually become a footnote on the Pretty Woman soundtrack. The immutable reason behind this being unfair is that the potential was obviously there for so much more, a fact made apparent to anyone lucky enough to hear the somewhat ironically titled Birth. They hit all the right buttons, musically and culturally, for their own time and place. So what gives?
“Love” explores baroque psychedelic blues under the mournful wail of Ilene Rappaport, perhaps expressing the realization at the end of 1969 that the world needed a whole lot more than just love and good intentions to change the world, while “Better Dead Than Red” rides the hot-button Cold War topics of the day through reflective soft-psych ricochets, sirens, explosions, and back, elevating the level of poignancy to boiling point. “David & Sally” even sees them take a sombre approach to character-driven storytelling, backed by one of the tastiest hooks on the album. Notable from the opener “Oh Gosh (Running Through The Forest)” is the frantic sound of Ilene (yes, two Ilenes) Novog’s violin, which is largely responsible for the folk aspect. Between the personal and politically insightful interplay of male and female sung vocals, Novog’s violin truly fills out their sound to make it their own thing, while the skill level of all involved takes the whole project to a near-epic level. As such, Birth is an incredibly intelligent and moving piece of industrial city chamber pop of which the only real negative is that it clocks in at a mere half hour.
Recorded over a week or a weekend (historically inconclusive) in New York, there was more than enough raw talent and vision to see this project live out a long life, as proven by the solo careers of the group's two Ilenes. Novog would record a couple albums with Chunky, Novi, and Ernie before pursuing a successful life as a session musician, working with the Violent Femmes and Indigo Girls along the way. Rappaport changed her name to Lauren Wood and recorded several albums as such, landing “Fallen” on the Pretty Woman soundtrack as well as singing the closing credits for the popular NBC series Just Shoot Me.
A lot of people point to the deaths of Joplin, Hendrix, or Morrison as the defining musical tragedy of the early '70s, and while they may not have the drama of wasted youth backing up their story, Rebecca & The Sunnybrook Farmers' criminal lack of exposure certainly ranks as a tragedy in its own right. Here’s hoping Fallout's reissue helps to correct that.
If you ever want to attain a full understanding of the depths punk-rock has slipped into, listen to The Anthology: Let’s Submerge and then throw in an album by any number of modern mall-punks; the disparity, if it doesn’t cause you to openly weep, will at the very least hip you to something most of us Indie-genous folk have known for a long time: the wonderfully reckless abandon of late ’70s punk and early ’80s hardcore is gone, and it ain’t comin’ back.
Poly Styrene was X-Ray Spex’ lead singer, and she’s not important because she yelled “Up yours!” every few minutes at concerts or because she talks about “cliché” and “poseurs” in her lyrics – she’s a mini-legend because, like many of her peers, she didn’t give a fuck. The image pressures and marketing infrastructures that have turned punk into a Beach Party companion simply weren’t functioning at full-bore yet, at least in the underground. And so a string of rebels maintained a ‘scene’ – both in America and in the UK, where the Spex are from – so insular that even the most precocious music-industry leeches didn’t know how to go about sucking the life out of it.
Ironically, the albums recorded during this period, threadbare as they were, have become artifacts even noble lo-fi-ers can’t seem to duplicate. While modern – or, should I say, post-modern – bands have been at least marginally successful in recreating the pastoral folk of the early ’70s or the psych freak-outs of the late ’60s (not to mention that swing resurgence most of us have blocked from our memories), the emergence of a truly Punk retread, in the classic sense of the word, has yet to occur. On the surface, this discrepancy may appear to be disappointing – will the young kids ever truly know punk? – but that’s exactly what makes it so magical. Think about it: when an industry that fills its coffers by recycling the Same Old Shit can’t come up with an Nu version (or at least one anyone cares about), it’s truly a reason to celebrate.
And we do, with four-disc box sets, CBGB comps, still-running mags that can’t seem to Get Over the late ’70s (ever read Jack Rabid’s Big Takeover?), and, last but not least, disgustingly thorough anthologies that try to turn one-trick ponies like X-Ray Spex into a cerebral band through revisionist history and loads of live tracks, John Peel Sessions, demos, and alternate versions. “Whoopee,” you might sarcastically say. After all, Let’s Submerge is on a major label that wouldn’t have deigned to touch X-Ray Spex with a ten-foot A&R pole back in the day. But we’re talking about history here, so don’t sweat the semantics; just be glad these goodies aren’t long lost on old 78s like much of the folk/blues/country of the early 1900s. What’s more, none of the recordings offend. While there are several track repeats – many songs see four different versions – many of them are different enough to warrant inclusion, especially the revealing live takes.
Did I mention Styrene doesn’t give a fuck? As sax player Lora Logic’s horn bleats on unnecessarily – yet so necessarily – in the background and the guitars and bass players barely keep up, Styrene rants so hard and loud your ears will feel like they’ve been sliced, diced, and payin’ the price like Cool J’s rivals on “Mama Said Knock You Out.” To be frank, I can barely stand listening to her for extended periods of time, and this anthology – unlike, say, their only full-length, Germ Free Adolescents – isn’t blessed with brevity. (Just thank your lucky stars the 1995 reunion album Conscious Consumer isn’t included, as it would undoubtedly water down the content of this scrappy, ankle-biting affair.) Styrene’s so emphatic, in fact, that it’s no surprise she joined the Hare Krishnas soon after X-Ray Spex disbanded; after all that purging – today’s modern bulimic could learn a lot from Styrene’s puke-free method – she was probably ready to mellow out for a spell.
Best of all, she didn’t go on to form a shitty solo band. It’s better to burn out fast than to fade away where punk is concerned, and Styrene hasn’t bored us with endless attempts to replicate her golden years, save for the aforementioned reunion. This secures her legend more than her so-punk-they’re-almost-not antics – dayglo clothes, braces – and ensures that true appreciators of punk, music’s flunky, will echo her influence, whether directly or indirectly, for years to come.
Judee Sill never made it big, the way other female singer/songwriters of her generation did. While Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Laura Nyro, and Joan Baez all enjoyed considerable fame and fortune, Sill didn’t sell many albums and was virtually unknown in the United States. In the past few years, interest in Sill, along with the also largely overlooked performer Karen Dalton, has, to a certain extent, been renewed, due to the posthumous re-release of her two early-‘70s albums, Judee Sill and Heart Food. At first listen, Live in London reveals that Sill deserves this newfound attention, and more.
Though comparisons to her folk contemporaries are certainly apt, Sill’s music is more stylistically adventurous, her lyrics more imaginative, cosmic (forgive me the hippie-ism; blame the genre), and often ecclesiastical than the typical late-‘60s, early ‘70s troubadour. Escaping a rough childhood, which included her father and brother’s deaths while she was very young and, subsequently, an abusive stepfather, Sill left home in her teens and began performing in tiny spaces across the country. She had bouts of severe heroin and cocaine addiction (the worst of which caused her death in 1979) and spent some time in jail for possession of drugs, writing bad checks, or robbery, depending on whom you ask.
While other songwriters with troubled backgrounds tend to write biographically, as this live collection demonstrates, Sill was more interested in the metaphysical than in the details of her own earthly existence. Her songs, performed solo on either piano or guitar, most frequently deal with the interaction between heaven and earth, what she calls, in introducing “Down Where the Valleys are Low,” “the place where romantic love and divine love meet.” The disc begins with Sill’s only successful single, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” Of all the songs on Live in London, it sounds the most like a Joni Mitchell tune, so it’s easy to see why it achieved popularity. The lyrics are characteristic of Sill, relating religious ideas to contemporary life, describing the Christian messiah as “a bandit and a heartbreaker.” As catchy as a folk song can be, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” should be considered a classic. The Christian overtones become clear when, before “Enchanted Sky Machine,” a Revelations-via-space aliens fantasy, Sill tells the audience that she’s going to employ some “gospel licks” that she learned during her stint as “church organist in reformed school.”
The most impressive song on the album, though, is a quiet guitar ballad called “The Phoenix.” While still grounded in mythology, it is Sill’s most personal statement. Preceding one performance, she tells the audience that it “confesses that I never do quite get it right.” The emotion in her voice is palpable as she sings, “I’d like to think I’m being sincere/ But I never know.”
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this live record is its inclusion of extensive spoken commentary by Judee Sill. With a blunt, unaffected speaking voice, the songwriter candidly and intelligently explains her work to the audience, discussing the influence of “R&B of the ‘50s” on one song and talking about how she was “living in a car with five other people” around the time that her friends in The Turtles released her song, “Lady-O,” as a single. An interview with the BBC’s Bob Harris toward the middle of the album does break up the flow of the music somewhat, but provides still more insight on her thinking, as Sill rightly observes that British audience were more receptive to her music than American ones and discusses her dislike of opening for rock bands, whose audiences “want to have any ethereal music. They want to boogie on lower levels. They don’t want to boogie on the higher levels. It’s hard to combine those two things.”
The only major problem with the album is in the compilation. Split between three performances, for two episodes of the BBC program In Concert and one episode of the network’s In Session with Bob Harris, many songs are repeated. “Down Where the Valleys are Low” and “The Kiss” appear three times, while “Enchanted Sky Machines,” “The Phoenix,” and “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” each show up twice. This might have been all right if Live in London preserved the chronology, keeping each recording session distinct. Instead, tracks from the three performances are mixed together, so it’s necessary to keep glancing at the back cover of the CD to determine which of three instances of certain songs is playing. Another strategy might have been to make a shorter album, including only the best cut of each song. This flaw is annoying, definitely, but it’s worth overlooking for such an exciting and important document of one of the century’s great, almost forgotten musicians.