1971: Gilberto Gil - Gilberto Gil
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
1975: King Tubby - King Tubby Meets The Agrovators at Dub Station
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.
1969: Rebecca & The Sunnybrook Farmers - Birth
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.
2007: X-Ray Spex - The Anthology: Let’s Submerge
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.
2007: Judee Sill - Live in London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973
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.
1996: Crescent - Now
Few of the lo-fi, noise-rock freak-outs of the ‘90s can claim to leave behind the amount of slow-motion wreckage Now does. One can only hope that every Crescent gig during this stage (meaning before they went sampling, electronic dub primitive) was played in a basement illuminated by a grand total of about two strings of Christmas lights and at such volume as to make one nauseous even if the music plodded by at twenty beats a minute. No other environment would really be acceptable. The liners say Now was recorded from September 9th to September 10th, 1994 and I hope that means it was recorded in one night rather than two days. It’s late night music if it ever existed.
Crescent is basically Matt Jones (guitarist and head mumbler/screamer) and threatening bass grooves. With the core decided on, the twain culled various other musicians from the mid-‘90s Bristol area housing the likes of Flying Saucer Attack, Movietone, and Amp. There were singles (Oh, were there singles!) on Planet Punk but Now was the full-length introduction to the band. The album reuses “Sun” from the single/EP of the same name as its opener (with good reason) but everything else is newly minted.
“Sun” uses that rave-up/lull formula so popular during the time (which I’ve never ever tired of, personally). Esophagus-ruining screaming is juxtaposed with shimmery, sideways guitars. “Superconstellation” is perhaps the album’s best groove situated on top of what seems to be a drone made out of French movie samples. “Intermission” is Now’s “5 - 4 = Unity” being instrumental and sort of jazzy albeit punctuated by the sort of noisy spikes that make your mom ask what’s wrong with the car. However, the album’s transcendental section is smack in the center: “Song,” “Exit,” and “New Sun.” “Song” gradually gets wilder and wilder with more frequent screaming by Jones (but whatever the stronger version of screaming is) and organ work like a pissed-off Messiaen. “Exit” destroys. It just destroys. Chinese walls of feedback and distortion, skronking sax, drumming that seems like it’s almost entirely cymbals, and Jones ruining yet another mic. “New Sun” is its polar opposite: just an acoustic guitar and the lone occurrence of intelligible vocals from Jones. The album continues with three more solid noise-rockers, but the album is essentially over after “Exit” rips the entire album into untold thousands of pieces.
Jones’ snarl and that central bass give any second on Now, even the moments when the band obviously built breaks for themselves into the songs, an ominous, “Oh God here it comes” dread. A couple sequencing issues and being a bit overlong even at 40 minutes are the only things holding it back from being one of lo-fi’s crowning achievements. But even those achievements don’t have “Exit.”