1968: The Bob Seger System - Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man
Growing up in Michigan, I developed a very real hatred for Mr. Seger’s music at a young age. Very few things can instill a rage in me with such quickness as the opening bars to “Turn the Page” or “Katmandu.” Was it the fact that these songs were played too much on our local classic rock stations? Nahh, it’s just that Seger’s music is grey, dreary, boring, country-fried blues rock. There isn’t a single redeeming quality I can pick out of Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet band’s oeuvre.
It’s not surprising to me that Seger has basically disowned his early music. Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man is a diamond in the rough. A psychedelic heavy rock and soul album his first fronted group released in 1968 to moderate success. Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man surprised the hell out of me when I first heard it. It is raw, in the best way possible. The three, sometimes four piece group covers a lot of ground in the album’s short run time. From the Motown pop of the title track to the psychedelic stomp of “White Walls” there aren’t many dull moments on Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man. Seger’s soulful (for a white boy out of Ann Arbor) vocals are the hardest sell but the weighty instrumentation gives the album that great Michigan gutter-rock feel.
The rest is history, sort of. Seger had skipped out on a potentially enriching Motown deal to sign to Columbia for the Bob Seger System’s three albums. After struggling for artistic control following the moderate success of Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man in the years following, Seger disbanded the System to pursue a path in the boring radio trash most people are familiar with. Still, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man deserves recognition for being a powerful psychedelic rock record that very much represents its time and place.
Bob, I would have never believed you had it in you.
1966: Small Faces - “All or Nothing”
Unlike the other big mod band from the 60s, The Who, the Small Faces didn’t earn their place in fans’ designer clothed hearts by being bombastic. Instead, the foursome wrote cool, memorable songs that had the British sensibility of the Kinks with the melodies and delivery of Motown artists.
“All or Nothing” is quite a simple song; guitar chords arpeggiated for one section and strummed on the next one, applying the immortal “soft verse/loud chorus” dynamic to a simple lyric about losing someone, topped with a melody that gets stuck in your head without much effort. The song is a little strained by the Small Faces’ standards up to that point (and they would get much looser on their follow up album, the superb Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake) without resorting to balladeering; in other words, it does rock, although you can imagine it being a hit for a Merseybeat band a few years before if it had less balls.
What makes this song is the bridge before the final chorus. It’s here that the build up pays off and Steve Marriott actually lets it rip with a soulful voice that’s raspy and beaming with desperation, like blue-eyed soul if it was actually about getting your blood boiling instead of just trying to sound cool (in fact, Marriott was one of the first to successfully sing in this style). The now-famous dynamic can be heard here, predating the use of the same formula picked up by the Pixies and Nirvana by some 20 years.
1999: Toumani Diabaté with Ballaké Sissoko - New Ancient Strings
I wish I could say I was some sort of expert on world music, but the sad truth is I’m not. Every time I roll into a record store feeling awesome about picking up an album by some obscure sitar player, I inevitably walk out with literally dozens of new artists added to my future-purchases list that I’ve never heard of. The long and short of it: this isn’t going to be an article on the ethnomusicology of West Africa. All I can do is recommend one of my favorite world music releases from the last couple decades based solely on the fact that it sounds good to my ears. Damn good.
New Ancient Strings is a collaboration between Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko, two great kora players that play great together. The kora is a massive 21 string harp made from gourd, cowhide, and wood that is widely used in West Africa. It’s played with bare fingers and has a massive range, making it a captivating instrument for solo performance. Diabaté and Sissoko gathered in Bamako, Mali on September 22, 1997, almost forty years after Mali’s independence, and cut this entire album in one sitting. The virtuosity of this album is apparent from the opening notes of “Bi Lambam” and doesn’t let up for an entire hour as these two trade mind boggling phrases with what sounds like casual ease. But the real miracle of this album is that it never sacrifices its emotional tone for mindless kora wanking. Every note feels like it has a place, and both musicians provide excellent foundations for the others fingers to glide all over. This might not be the deepest cut of African music you’ve ever heard but I guarantee it can find an audience among almost any listener, something not many world music albums can boast.
1958: The Missa Luba
From the start you’re grabbed by the passion, the rhythms, and most of all by the sense of love put into the music. The Missa Luba, originally performed by Les Troubadours Du Roi Baudouin in 1958, has been making converts of people who would not normally be interested in church music, or world music for that matter. To brand this music with such labels would be a major misstep though, because the Missa Luba transcends such tropes.
The recording is a Congolese adaptation of the Latin Mass arranged by a Franciscan Friar Guido Hazaan, and recorded by a male children’s choir. It was recorded four years before the start of Vatican II when Latin was essentially phased out of the Mass. In the original liner notes Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel described the sound as being an example of a missionary learning from a new culture instead of forcing something upon people. When you hear the recording you probably won’t understand anything being said, but that never gets in the way of the sense of love and joy coming through. That sort of thing can be off putting at first, but the sincerity here manages to blow away any sort of cynicism. This has certainly allowed the Missa Luba to grow in respect over the decades and stretch its influence outward instead of being forgotten as a world music gimmick.
That overwhelming sense of bliss in the music brings me to a rather unexpected musical connection. If you listen to the Missa Luba with ears up to date with modern music, you might be shocked by how similar if feels to albums like Person Pitch and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Throughout their entire discography Animal Collective have nailed that same combination of spiritual power and tribal freedom; arguably one of the key reasons they have such a dedicated fan base. These share the Charles Ives philosophy of all music having equal value, from Church music to folk songs.
When Noah Lennox toured last year he would usually let Tomboy closer “Benfica” bleed into Person Pitch opener “Comfy in Nautica,” some of the most powerful moments on the respective albums. That moment felt strong enough to be playing in a church, it could have fit in during a Mass, and that is exactly what Father Hazaan accomplished with his choir: music that expressed a universal spirituality regardless of cultural boundaries.
1980: Dead Kennedys - “Pull My Strings”
As far as flipping a massive middle finger to the music industry goes, The Dead Kennedys might have locked up best “fuck you” of all time during the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards. After being asked to play their underground single “California Über Alles” at the show, singer Jello Biafra and drummer Ted (flashy name right?) took it upon themselves to pen a tune railing against the shitty state of popular music at the turn of the decade. The result was the one-off “Pull My Strings” which drew plenty of laughs from the audience and instantly bared the Dead Kennedys from ever attending the show again, not such a high price considering how brilliant the song was. Each member of the band came onstage with a giant S painted on their shirts and, right after the aborted bassline of “California Über Alles,” whipped out a concealed tie creating huge $ signs plastered across their chests. Then they tore into a bitingly critical rant on the music industry’s prefab, boring artists with big cocks and no brains. There’s even a reference to “My Sharona” in the guitar line with the phrase “My Payola” (a payment by a record label to get radio stations to play their songs) substituted. This is classic Dead Kennedys, as much wit as menace and equal parts smarts and pure punk fury.
2003: Open City - The Birth of Cruel
I heard of Open City through guitarist Peter Kolovos’ fantastic solo record from 2009, New Bodies. Kolovos’ uniquely fragmented approach to the guitar was honed in the Los Angeles-based improvisational trio Open City, so I tracked down a pair of their albums: L.A. We Revise Your Neglect (2002) and The Birth of Cruel (2003). I tend to prefer listening to the latter, which better documents the louder side of the trio, opting for a more abstractly textural sparseness than of the former.
The trio performs dynamic improvisations, able to sustain explorative loud sections about as well as more ponderous, haunting, and slightly silly parts. Hints of Kolovos’ guitar-toggling abuse further explored on New Bodies appear here; often, it’s thrilling how well Kolovos’ hiccup-y guitar echoes mesh with co-guitarist Doug Russell, even when the guitars tend to unexpectedly clip and morph. Drummer Andrew Maxwell is also dynamic in the same unpredictable sense, briefly rhythmic before going silent or scraping at his kit’s hardware.
The Birth of Cruel is constantly abstract, but not without a sense of group understanding – it’s even fun at points, with the guitars urged to perform nuanced glitches or richly textured drones at any moment. Best yet, the LP ends on a locked groove of humming low-frequency guitar drone – The Birth of Cruel has no end! Less cloyingly: it rewards active listening, so as to not miss one of the many scattered creative ideas being played between the trio.
Writing about Open City today, however, yields me with an uncommon problem: there’s really not much on the internet about this trio. No Youtube videos (at least none of Open City themselves, though a few videos of Kolovos playing solo are out there), less than a hundred listeners on last.fm, and their name is broad enough that an unspecific search merely yields several city development pages. Aside from pages on Thin Wrist’s website for their now out-of-print records, the trio’s online presence is nil. That leaves me with the basic facts –according to The Birth of Cruel’s liner notes: no edits, no overdubs. Better excuse to let the music speak for itself.