1975: Ghanaian Postal Workers - “Cancelled Stamps”
Part of the magic of field recordings is how something can be originally performed with a specific intention and then re-contextualized as something completely different. Take this famous field recording of workers at the University of Ghana post office by James Koetting. Originally recorded in 1975, it is best described by Koetting: “These men are working, not putting on a musical show.” It may not be intended as a “musical show,” yet it is hard not to be impressed by this recording which has now even popped up on NPR’s Hearing Voices.
“Cancelled Stamps” is not really a performance and the “musicians” don’t acknowledge it as making music. It is simply a work song in a tradition too old to trace back to its origin. These four Ghanaian postal workers are doing the daily task cancelling certain documents, they’re doing their jobs, and making a song out of it surely makes that less dull. Traditionally, work songs are used throughout history and cultures to help keep everyone working in an efficient rhythm. Taken out of the context of its setting, “Cancelled Stamps” becomes a stunning piece of music. The easy, laid back melody, provided by a worker’s whistling, perfectly floats over the complex poly-rhythm of the thudding stamps while another worker’s scissors click against the established beat. People chat somewhere in the background.
In some ways this transformation into music from mundane origins brings the works of people such as Matmos to mind. On 2001’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel took recordings (in this case less mundane, more grisly) of various surgeries and made pop music out of them. Whether it is the warped nose-breaking techno of Matmos’ “California Rhinoplasty” or the thumping beats of “Cancelled Stamps,” the act of recording frames raw sound into a sharper focus; it makes it something far greater than its parts.
1972: Syreeta - Syreeta
Syreeta Wright started out at Motown records as a receptionist in 1965. By 1966, (like Martha Reeves from the Vandellas) Wright was a secretary for legendary producer Mickey Stevenson. By the end of the 60s she was recording demos for the Supremes. She was even considered to replace Diana Ross when Ross left the Supremes, though Mary Wilson/Berry Gordy chose to go with Jean Tyrell instead.
Wright’s relationship with Stevie Wonder was much more pronounced, as she was one of his backup singers and co-writers during his late 60s run of jazzier soul-funk. She co-wrote The Spinners’ hit “It’s a Shame” with Wonder and co-wrote/sang backup on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” as well. After being married for eighteen months, the two divorced, but Wonder still handled production duties for Syreeta, Wright’s shamefully out of print self-titled LP.
The song that keeps me coming back to Syreeta is her reworked cover of Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing About You.” It’s gorgeous, lush, playful, and overwhelmingly more fun than the original. Wonder has a few backup vocals but Syreeta’s voice steals the show. Her staccato vocal lines during the chorus make the signature funk clav a distant backdrop.
Besides Wonder, Wright’s take on the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” features a talkbox and you can take it or leave it, more or less, depending on how you feel about a talkboxes in the 70s. Her rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “What Love Has Joined Together” is spectacular though, enlivening the original with a much smoother vocal take.
The rest of the songs were written by Wright alone or with Stevie Wonder. It’s an interesting mix because it seems like Wright’s solo songs (“Happiness,” “Black Maybe”) hint at more of a subdued Northern soul sound instead of the Philly soul numbers that Stevie and the rest of the Motown label would veer off into during the 70s. It makes sense that Syreeta gained a lot of acclaim in the UK. It’s a shame that the hits eluded her in the US though, because she did put out a bunch of really good albums throughout the 70s and 80s. You get the feeling that 72’s Syreeta was her chance to establish herself. She never reached Diana Ross status. But after listening to her solo debut LP, it’s impossible to ignore her talent.
197X: Gloria Ann Taylor - “Love Is A Hurting Thing”
Just like vintage psych-rock, disco has its share of marginalized outsiders, regional indies, vanity press hopefuls, and talented nobodies. However, unlike psych, which has been exhaustively picked-over, reassessed, curated and reissued by generations of collectors, disco remains a relatively unspoiled frontier. Other than Arthur Russell, it’s hard to think of an obscure disco artist who has gotten posthumous due recently. And Russell had so many credentials beyond his disco sides that it almost feels as if he shouldn’t count.
So allow me to nominate producer Walter Whisenhunt and his wife, vocalist Gloria Taylor, for critical reassessment. Whisenhunt was a producer who worked with James Brown in the 1960s, and Taylor was an expressive soul singer whose voice was likened to Dolly Parton early in her career. They released a handful of tracks in the 60s and 70s, mostly Northern Soul 45s on imprints such as Silver Fox and SSS International (both owned and operated by mad genius Shelby S. Singleton), with just a few making it onto the majors. One such record was a gorgeous, haunting, deep-soul side entitled “World That’s Not Real,” released in 1973 on Columbia and failing to ignite any further major label interest. The track is serious goosebumps material:
Sensing that the majors were not going to foster their talent, Whisenhunt started his own label, calling it Selector Sound, and started getting serious about making disco music. This resulted in one of the most amazing slabs of vinyl you will never be able to afford, a limited promo pressing of a 12” entitled Deep Inside You, featuring a generic cover (with no year), credited to “Gloria Ann Taylor and Walter Whisenhunt’s Orchestra.” The disc features three stellar cuts, transposing the reverb-soaked, melismatic otherness of “World That’s Not Real” into the realm of hedonistic club music. The centerpiece is the seven-minute tour de force “Love Is A Hurting Thing.” I could talk for hours about the off-kilter, ravishing beauty of this track, but it’s best to just listen to it in its entirety and commence your own obsession.
Whisenhunt released another fantastically odd disco single with the long-winded title “I Am Saluting You For Your Love (And Understanding Ways)”, a track which does not feature Gloria, on an imprint bearing his own name. Again, the year of this release is unknown, so it’s hard to speculate whether this is evidence that the relationship ended. So much is unknown. I’ll leave it to a future archivist with greater resources at his disposal to locate the heirs to the Whisenhunt estate, sort out the mysteries, and release a 180 gram audiophile double-gatefold vinyl reissue of all the tracks plus more from the archives. Usually I would be worried that having answers to questions would somehow dispel the power of this kind of music, but “Love Is A Hurting Thing” is powerful beyond any enigmas which may surround it.
2004: Converge - “Last Light”
Boston’s finest group of earth-scorchers named their 2006 album No Heroes because they felt that there were more cowards than noble, admirable people nowadays; they especially felt that hardcore music had turned into the land of sheep who wouldn’t dare raise their voices and express a different opinion than the majority.
During the 90s, when Converge first emerged, hardcore bands took hard stances concerning their ideas, be it straight edge, veganism, animal rights, religion, liberty, and so forth. They would dedicate their entire oeuvre to these subjects because they believed fervently in them. They would play benefits for the causes of their choice and talk about them incessantly in interviews and between songs to the point of being accused of “preaching.”
Converge are not really known to have a particular cause they defend in their lyrics. The band members are straight edge but they hardly mention it; in fact, you can’t really tell what their lives and beliefs are from a cursory listen. Reading their lyrics about sorrow, regret, and broken feelings brings to mind themes that are more common in emotionally based bands, yet a song like “Last Light” shows that, while their politics are personal, they certainly take a stand that tries to reach the listener and get him or her involved in what they are saying: to be honest and sensible with yourself and have that honesty rule your world to make it better; to accept love as an anchor; to live life the best you can and to confront negativity, never to wallow in it.
This is why they are a hardcore band and the reason the crowds sing along with Jacob Bannon, pointing their fingers, blood curdling over their vocal chords. It’s the most basic of causes that they defend, the cause of one self.
1991: Pixies - “Trompe Le Monde”
Somehow I’ve been a latecomer to my required duty as a college educated white guy to love the Pixies. But in the last year I sucked it up, bought all their records, and decided there was definitely something to this humble four-piece band that just happened to invent 90s music with their first two albums. And yes, these two albums are definitely my favorites. Surfer Rosa is the epitome of rocking out with reckless abandon and the first side of Doolittle is packed with anthemic tracks that weasel their way into your brain for the rest of your life… dun dun dun. Though the band’s next two albums aren’t as fondly remembered, I’m here to tell you (because I’m sure you’ve been waiting for my opinion for the last 20 years) that they still kick serious amounts of ass, probably more ass than most bands besides the Pixies could handle.
There are some really amazing songs on these records, my favorite of which is the title track from 1991’s Trompe le Monde. “Trompe le Monde” is the sound of a band rallying, coming together one last time to finish off their legacy with real purpose and strength. It might also be the most jam-packed two minutes of music outside of a Wire song. There are tempo pushes, epic choruses, and even some guitar tapping thrown in for good measure all without ever blurring together or ever obscuring Black Francis’ brilliant vocal melody. I’ve read plenty of criticism claiming the album was was written essentially as a Black Francis solo LP, and that sounds pretty accurate, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest because on Trompe le Monde the Pixies are all fully invested again, and there isn’t a whole lot than can stand in their way when these four put their mind to it.
May 27th, 2001: The Mountain Goats - “Eugene Sue”
In March of 2011, John Darnielle auctioned a tape on ebay dated “5/27/01” and labeled “FRENETIQUES Demos.” One song, “Eugene Sue,” was recorded on the tape. (John Darnielle writes that “it is the only Mountain Goats song known to feature a whistling outro.”) The auction was held for the benefit of Doctors Without Borders in the wake of the earthquake in Japan; it sold for $3,500.00. One performance, one recording, one tape, one song, one sale.
For nearly a year, the song existed, privately, somewhere in Seattle. Early on, I remember hearing something about a listening party; I was spending a lot of time on the internet then. I resigned myself to the belief that I would never hear “Eugene Sue,” which was difficult for me as I was certain that I had heard and would hear every single Mountain Goats song ever recorded, ever: especially the rare ones. (No, no. Of course I haven’t, and I won’t, but I’ve pushed those elusive, never-to-be-heard song-names out of my memory.) Maybe it is just a coincidence that this song would appear on the frénétiques demo(s), which translates to frantic, which translates all of us who have latched on, as we have, to The Mountain Goats (we know who we are). Part therapist, part provider: John Darnielle tells us, through all the shit, that we’re special in our smallness, that we can survive this; and he gives us unique, hand-numbered (or colored) objects to hold us along the way. We’re only enabled, by no fault of John’s, when our need to love something is transformed into our need to possess it.
In June of 2011, I attended a Mountain Goats show in Portland with a friend. While he was away, buying beer, I was listening in on the conversation happening one seat ahead of me. It was the woman, the winner of the tape, and she was talking about the song, that song I thought I would never hear, to those sitting beside her. They asked her if they could hear it. (Of course she had it recorded to her cell phone.) She lead them away to a quieter place. I wanted to ask her for a fix, for a quick listen, but that desire crashed into a different, newer sort of thought: what if some things are better left unheard? The internet had already given me all the Mountain Goats data I could ever need, and certainly more than John Darnielle would want me to have. So I sat there, quietly, and ignored the impulse to ask, or to follow, or to regret. They returned, talking about it, and I sipped my own beer a little faster.
“When you call down curses on the God that made you, you play hide and seek with trouble. Yes, but trouble’s gonna find you, too.”
On December 21st, 2011, a video of a tape recorder playing “Eugene Sue” was uploaded to YouTube. I immediately ripped it to an MP3.