1995-2002: Damon & Naomi - The Sub Pop Years
The quartet of albums that Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang made for Sub Pop in the late 90s and early 00s abound with heartbreak and wonder. In particular, 1998’s Playback Singers and 2000’s With Ghost (a collaboration with the Japanese psych-rock group Ghost) move from the heartrendingly intimate to addressing larger questions of identity and faith. The Sub Pop Years, released on their own 20|20|20 label, stands as a summation of those albums, an overview of the period following their debut, More Sad Hits, but before the more intricate work of their last few albums.
Four of the songs here come from With Ghost, including the sweepingly autumnal “The Mirror Phase” and the Jewish culture exploratory “Judah and the Maccabees.” But the album that’s represented most heavily is, in its own way, itself a compilation: 2002’s live Song to the Siren. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the group’s precision in the live setting means that certain songs (“Turn of the Century” chief among them) don’t have the more frayed sound one associates with live versions — but the presence of audience sounds following a few songs, particularly in the transition from “Song to the Siren” to “The Navigator,” is distracting. It’s an occupational hazard when blending studio and live recordings, and it’s certainly disconcerting here.
At its best, this compilation emphasizes the group’s strengths: the varied but complementary voices of Krukowski and Yang, their attention to details in the songs they write and play, and their ability to move from sentimentality to baroque precision. (As someone whose interest in the band was sparked by these albums, I can see the appeal.) Their more recent work has found them moving to deeper levels of intricacy in their arrangements, but they’ve also had a hand in reissuing their debut More Sad Hits (as well as the work of their previous band Galaxie 500). Taken together, the evolution charted here stands as one of the most consistent bodies of work made by a group of musicians across several decades. It’s a fine thing to see that history summarized here, though one hopes that newcomers to the band will be able to legitimately hear the albums that yielded these songs in full.
1970: Harbinger - Second Coming
To those of us under the age of 30, Dave Bixby’s spiritual hippie-folk songwriting will likely elicit a collection of grimaces. To those who attended liberal arts colleges where ‘townies’ trolled about campus with their white-boy dreadlocks and secondhand garb, Harbinger’s Second Coming isn’t going to do much to gratify. Let’s face it: we’ve been dealing with this shit for years. There’s no possible way that some dude with an acoustic guitar and ‘spiritual’ (but not religious!) lyrics could break through our calloused anti-hippie disposition. But while Harbinger’s Second Coming (recently re-released on Guerssen) will be an easy record to overlook, it doesn’t have to be.
Taken earnestly, Second Coming really is quite beautiful. Although you might have to circumvent a few temporal biases in order to enjoy it, Dave Bixby’s songwriting is a powerful product indeed. He hopes, he mopes, but above all else, Dave Bixby feels god’s influence in his every movement. A similar spiritual affinity characterized Bixby’s previous work (the devastatingly lonesome Ode To Quetzalcoatl), but on Second Coming we discover that he’s finally pulled himself together.
As a result, the work is much more optimistic than its predecessor; instead of appealing to god through his isolation, Bixby expresses his spirituality more directly. He’s not writing explicitly for himself anymore — Second Coming finds a recovered Dave Bixby, and he wants to tell you about what he’s seen.
1970s: V/A - Afro-Rock Vol. 1
Strut has a habit of re-releasing excellent compilations, and Afro-Rock Vol. 1 is no exception. Originally released on Kona in 2001, nine years later the collection still comes as close to perfectly presenting a panoply of afro-rock as is necessary. From jazz-inflected big band rockers to groove-heavy soul influenced dance tunes, Afro-Rock Vol. 1 trots through the gamut like so many dikdik and puku.
Whereas the Nigeria 70 compilation focuses more on documenting the Nigerian scene’s influence on the larger world of afrobeat, Afro-Rock acts as a smaller, rarer, and farther ranging collection. Fela Kuti is not present; rather, we get to check out some lesser known names like Dackin Dacking (whose super-smoking track “Yuda” is this author’s current favorite on the album) and Super Mambo 69. Or perhaps your taste is more akin to The Mercury Dance Band track, which features some colonial dance band touches that tie into African roots music more often associated with calypso or highlife.
Purchase the CD and allow yourself to learn a thing or two from the excellent liner notes. The compilation is an excellent introduction to what could become a lifelong obsession: unearthing rare afro-rock gems. Geraldo Pino, the “Nigerian James Brown” (pictured above), lays it down in a succinct fashion: “it’s really really heavy.”
1971: Los Jaivas - “Foto De Primera Comunión”
The psychedelic and progressive musical movements of the 1960s and 70s gave birth to a boatload of great bands, and left behind a central canon of brilliant albums we hold in high esteem today. It also – let’s face it – engendered some really terrible, indulgent messes. Most interestingly, though, is how quickly these predominately American and British trends influenced musicians in areas of the world one might have found surprising at the time: Asia and the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and so on. By and large, these groups weeded out the drug-addled excess of American psych and prog and blended what was left with the music of their past. The results were often extraordinary.
But the heavy hand of psychedelia landed most firmly on South America. Brazil’s rock revolution is well documented; it spawned groups like Os Mutantes, who became a legitimate sensation the world over, and who continue to play and create to this day. Less known outside their native Chile were Los Jaivas. Originally dubbed High Bass (rumor has it the name came from a guitar amplifier whose only knobs were labeled “high” and “bass”), the group soon changed it to the soundalike “Jaivas,” which, loosely translated, means “little crabs.”
(Read an excellent, if clumsily translated, Jaivas bio here.)
“Foto De Primera Comunión,” the indisputable centerpiece of Jaivas’ 1971 debut El Volantin, is a sprawling, six-minute plus improvisation that finds the group clicking on all the right levels. The song opens with a short but arresting dulcimer-sounding intro that is quickly enveloped by a heady Latin rhythm. A distorted electric guitar wafts in and out of the mix, providing exhilarating, ephemeral glimpses at Jaivas’ hidden psychedelic spine. By song’s end, it’s easy to have become so enveloped in the groove that the tune’s gradual fadeout goes unnoticed. Echoing church bells announce the song’s finale. They are jarring at first; finally, strangely soothing.
Apparently, the songs on the obscure, 40-minute El Volantin (gitchyaself a bootleg, stat!) were culled from over 20 hours of recorded material, most of it improvised (!). That the album doesn’t feel too jammy or overcooked is a testament both to the band’s ability as self-editors and to their basic collaborative skills as musicians. “Foto de Primera Comunión” only lasts six minutes, but honestly, I would listen to it if it dragged on for days.
1967: Gato Barbieri - In Search of the Mystery
Even the most casual listener’s cursory research can trace back the origins of free jazz and its major players, figures who hang like deities in a Caribbean grocery store: Coltrane, Ornette, Mingus, Ayler, Sun Ra, etc. All amazing musicians who transcended linear arrangements, traditional solo structures, and the possibilities of that music that started the whole sex, drugs, and what have you: jazz. All fine and dandy artists.
All of these beings, of course, are American.
The music did originate in the US, so it’s bound to have representatives of the highest order. Go deeper and you’ll find the European masters of chaos like Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, and Han Bennink, or even delight yourself on the orgasmic brutality of Japanese destroyers like Kaoru Abe and Masayuki Takayanagi. But, what about the dirty dirty south? I mean the really really dirty dirty south? Of the Western Hemisphere?
You’d need to be a George W-brand idiot to believe there’s no free jazz south of El Paso; still, one is caught without much argument that there’s almost no major players within the skronk-honk business that are from Mexico, Central, and South America. The few that make it to the ears of connoisseurs are mostly odd additions to very detailed collections; still, fewer artists were there when it all happened in the first place, when the hot sound of the cool cats was set free from its own obliterating slavery (and into another kind of music idiom, with forms and structures, but that’s another discussion for another day).
A reason might be that free jazz attempts to reach for the ultimate state of being, of the most plentiful of liberties spiritually through sound, all done with an artillery to create a magnificent cacophony — sharp high notes, rumbling low-end mumbles, cymbal crashes. Bullets, explosions, and landmines that are the language of war — a modern electric, merciless, honorless war — not of desperate and impoverished people working for the goals of a manipulative asshole, but one of unsettling global consequences. USA, Europe, and Japan were all part of the two biggest and cruelest armed conflicts in the 20th century with an outcome ingrained in the subconscious of all their citizens from then on.
But seldom did it have a major impact in Latin America, with hardly anyone there having contact with the battlefields and the aftermath (Nazis going into hiding there don’t count). The idea of a collective afterlife, of a new chance for the masses through chaos and destruction — via technology and weaponry — is not uncommon in many fields and disciplines, and the free jazzers from territories that were affected by WWI and WWII certainly tap into that point of view when playing in public. Yet native Latinos have little concept of rebirth through destruction. For them, wars are civilians kicking the living shit out of some corrupted government to install a new kind of government and live happily until their new appointed leaders become oppressive and corrupted themselves. In other words, war is a local phenomenon, and its consequences have a different kind of effect. Perhaps this is why, when the free-jazz call to arms was put forth for a better, peaceful, and more enlightened tomorrow, Latin American people thought it was a flawed and doomed cycle.
Or maybe all of this is bullshit I’m making up and people near the southern hemisphere just really love structured rhythms to dance to.
At least Leandro “Gato” Barbieri didn’t think so, consciously or subconsciously. Hailing from Argentina, Barbieri was in the thick of improvised mayhem, recording for ESP-Disk — home to some of the most radical no-bop players and most insane acts, even by today’s standards, outside of jazz — collaborating with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, making his tenor saxophone scream for and with vengeance. Although he recorded a number of earlier albums along with Cherry, In Search of the Mystery is his first album as a leader, in this case of a quartet featuring sax, drums, bass, and cello, the latter of which provides atmosphere and drones to an album of busy intervals, varying from discordant hard bop to all-out, no-rules beatdowns of frequencies, accidental chords, and wails of desperation, imitating Barbieri’s very nickname (“Cat” in spanish) on sax. All instruments add elements that surprise and complement, most notably the bass, which sometimes mimics inverted guitar chords. The ebb and flow of the whole affair is telepathically precise in its spontaneity, attacking then retracting to safer, warmer places, just to spike again into exchanges of dissonant notes that battle like a fencing match with 14 swords each.
Barbieri’s playing didn’t remain within this style for long; by the late 60s, he would start incorporating sounds of Spain and South America into his playing, as well as more structured and conventional styles (as heard on the score to Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris, which, no doubt, has some inspiration from the jam sessions with fellow countrymate Lalo Schifrin). He continued his road to convention until the 80s when his wife Michelle (half the title of the first piece of In Search…) died, leaving him more or less retired from music. ESP-Disk is reissuing this album to remind us that Gato once heard the good news of bad skronk, said “I want to do that too,” and made one of the most well-developed albums free jazz ever hoped to achieve.
1969: The Savage Rose - “Trial in Our Native Town”
It’s not clear where to place this track. Are we hearing some form of proto-metal, or has the Jefferson Airplane blimp been shot down and replaced with the flag of a rival vocalist? In 1969, The Savage Rose’s founder siblings (Thomas and Anders Koppel) were only at the beginning of their wide-eyed adventure into rock ‘n’ roll territory and were no wiser. By their early twenties the brothers could claim the distinction of calling themselves a composer and a novelist in their turn, but by their own account they threw away the honors to follow what the kids on the street were doing. From the start they seemed to welcome into the project whatever was current and appealed to them. Thus they adopted the stray blues alley cat Annisette and later harnessed her powerful voice in the service of several musical experiments, some of the dodgy gospel variety. The band discovered more than a new style in rock ‘n’ roll – rather a whole new pioneering attitude, which sent them a little overboard sometimes, sympathizing with the Black Panther movement in the 70s for instance. Anyway, their almost cosmic ambitions are already evident in “Trial in Our Native Town.” These ambitions didn’t make them much money, and their own version of excess was far from selling out. It was the slightly scatty pursuit of the hippie ideal. The strident organ on the last track of their 1968 album In the Plain is one of the most distinctive features of the band, and together with Annisette’s voice it publishes their revolutionary intentions loud and clear.