1995: James Brown - Funky Christmas
Growing up in the Kern household, Christmas was always a magical time full of beautiful sights, smells, and sounds; in short it was a confluence of Norman Rockwell-esque touchstones and traditions. There was only one problem: the frigid, iron grip my parents had over the holiday music selection, willfully dismissing my fervent pleas to stray from the well-heeled, vanilla stylings of crooners such as Bing Crosby and Andy Williams.
"When you're older and you get a place of your own, you can play whatever kind of weird-ass Christmas music you want," my father calmly told me, putting in yet another Mannheim Steamroller CD one year.
Years passed, and that day finally came. To fully capture the celebratory mood of the occasion, I decided to pick a record that would fly directly in the face of every bland Christmas record I had ever had to sit through growing up, and when I came across a copy of James Brown's Funky Christmas, I thought it would fit the bill quite nicely. Yes, that's right. Papa's got a brand new bag, but in lieu of toys, he's bringing us a stylistically diverse sampling of his Christmas songs from the '60s.
The title is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the ballads outnumber the funkier fare by a rather sizable margin, and several of the jauntier tunes are good but unremarkable. That said, when Brown does decide to turn up the heat on the rest of the up-tempo numbers, he's as combustible as a Douglas Fir watered with gasoline. The self-explanatory "Soulful Christmas" is classic JB, a horny, explosive sleigh ride replete with a dynamite groove built on crisp, hollow snare licks entwined with a naked, no-frills bassline, while "Hey America" is a tight, sexy X-mas song, far more Superfly than Santa Claus. The blend of fluid strings, brass, and slippery blaxploitation riffs behind James' powerfully shouted surreal, inscrutable lyrics would have made Curtis Mayfield beam so brightly he would have rivaled the North Star.
Surprisingly, Funky Christmas' greatest assets are its amazing ballads, in which Mr. Brown draws from a pool of disparate influences, synthesizing the smooth croon of Nat King Cole ("The Christmas Song"), the baroque inspirational trappings of Isaac Hayes ("Santa Claus Is Definitely Here To Stay"), and the bittersweet melancholy of Sam Cooke ("Christmas In Heaven"). None of these come close, however, to the album's masterpiece, "Sweet Little Baby Boy Parts 1 and 2." On this exceptional cut, James wrings out every bit of his adoration and reverence for the nativity over the morose and haunting crawl of piano and strings, simultaneously echoing both his own "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" and some of the more recognizable passages of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day."
While Funky Christmas may seem like a kitschy novelty to add to an already overwhelmingly large stockpile of Christmas records available, it’s a refreshingly well-rounded collection of finely crafted, nicely executed holiday music for all backgrounds to enjoy, which goes to show that while the world may share different values and beliefs around this time of year, soul is indubitably non-denominational.
1988: Beat Happening - Jamboree
For all the ink spilled about Beat Happening’s genius in the 16 years between the two releases of their first true LP Jamboree, there is, of course, the irony that the seminal Olympia trio didn’t even meet the standard requirement for forming a band: being musicians. It was from that bottom level though, where Bret Lunsford, Calvin Johnson, and Heather Lewis maintained their music and simultaneous reinterpretation of punk music.
Their piecemeal self-titled debut solidified the group’s main foundations with its driving drum beat, three broken guitar chords, and off-key whimsical vocal tradeoffs between Johnson’s Aleutian trench-deep baritone and Lewis’ playfully innocent alto about the harmless (rather than gratuitously obvious) points of sex, love, and awkwardness.
Those basic elements remained intact on Jamboree, but where its predecessor embraced the innocent, Jamboree took the opportunity to be more abrasive. It is perhaps the most musically punk album of the Beat Happening catalogue, embracing repetitious lyrical motifs, that same punk beat that somehow now grooved, and everyone’s favorite punk standby -- feedback.
Though what follows is something new altogether, the album states its punk roots from the start as “Bewitched” pounces in with a discordant, obnoxious chord more reminiscent of the Sex Pistols than the Pastels. From there the feedback grooves into Johnson’s simple interpretation of the most basic teenage inhibitions: “I’ve got a crush on you/I’ve got a crush on you/What am I to do…” and so on. “Jamboree,” “Ask Me,” and “Cat Walk” continue in this vein, with some of the best songs here lacking vocals. Beat Happening understood themselves enough to know that less truly did equal more in their case. The more they stripped the songs of audible noise, the closer they got to driving through emotion the songs were trying to convey, especially when Calvin Johnson sang (Whether you can tolerate his voice seems to be the difference between liking the band and despising them).
Despite the greatness of the first 2/3 of the album, the last three tracks are the true highlights, forming a trilogy that perhaps most completely defines the band’s existence. They aren’t as fast or direct as punk, but “Drive Car Girl” and “Midnight a Go-Go” assert status quo rejection better than anyone with a mohawk ever did: “Don’t you mind that daily grind/I walk down the sidestreets too/9 to 5 gotta live their lives/never knowin’what the night holds for you.” The haunting closer “This Many Boyfriends Club” is a unique artifact recorded at one of Beat Happening’s notoriously raucous live performances. Johnson’s building vocal angst, ripe with childhood images backed only by pure feedback, is as good an indication of the intensity and charisma with which he spouted every needling line live. And oh, are they needling!
With Beat Happening, the greatness can seem understated because anyone probably could do what they did, but when considering the egos most acts gain from notoriety in any form, the fact they remained so steadfastly themselves is a landmark for all who embrace true expression to appreciate. Jamboree is the perfect witness to this. The subtle, steadfast drum beat is the chant of a revolution.
2. In Between
3. Indian Summer
6. Ask Me
7. Crashing Through
8. Cat Walk
9. Drive Car Girl
10. Midnight a Go-Go
11. The This Many Boyfriends Club
2004: Mars - The Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977-1978
I've mentioned this in various written pieces regarding bands in the past, but nothing fascinates me more than the reverse career trajectory, or, in simpler terms, a musical artist going against the conventionally held status quo of mellowing out and instead completely destroying and mutilating their sound as time passes. Perhaps no more plainly have we seen a band self-destruct this way musically than Mars. Arguably the most uncompromising of all the late '70s No Wave
acts — and that's saying something — Mars almost vanished into the ether before the visages of the very few who were witness to their terror. It's rare to see a band become increasingly primitive since the laws of logic suggest the moving of time creates refinement and maturity; even Half Japanese became halfway agreeable to a point, but Mars existed like a wild animal that became ravaged with both rabies and a flesh-eating virus: a ferocious beast devolved into a sputtering, screaming heap of puss-and-blood-leaking flesh. And to see all of this occur in what could've been less than two years is even more fascinating.
Mars' plummet into the depths of insanity can be witnessed chronologically on The Complete Studio Recordings disc released on G3G a few years ago. At only 11 songs, it's nevertheless more than most audiences can possibly stomach. Of all the recorded works out there that will endlessly endure in a state as harrowing and disturbing as their moment of initial creation, Mars are guaranteed to confound, confuse, and mentally assault for years to come.
But surprisingly, it didn't appear from the outset that Mars would ravage minds in such an egregious fashion. The band's first single "3E" is a comparatively easy-going nugget of primordial punk rock, similar to a very restrained Contortions or perhaps an artier Urinals. By the time the band cranked out their four No New York tracks with Brian Eno, the highlights being the perennial "Helen Forsdale" and "Tunnel," something had seriously taken a turn for the abnormal. While structure was still more or less within grasp, a much more atonal, grating, and deranged persona seemed to have possessed the foursome. Whereas Arto Lindsay of fellow No Wave legends DNA at least had some tonality in his scrapes of chordless carnality, Summer Crane's (R.I.P.) guitar musings liken to waves of industrial machinery pulling an innocent into its uncaring death-trap. Coupled with his quasi-tongue-speaking yelps, tracks like "Forsdale" sound akin to downright horrifying religious exorcisms despite the obvious concessions to a few touches of convention here and there.
All compromises, no matter how minuscule, were obliterated by the time the band rolled out their self-titled EP, which comprises the last five songs of this disc. An unmitigated venture into freeform caterwauling comparable to a snail withering in pain after being salted, the EP was one for the deviant ages, with Crane spitting into a trumpet sans mouthpiece and all manner of guitar and percussive scrapings chucked at the wall without thought. Those who can penetrate the ugliness will hopefully come across pieces they can cherish, but for all accounts and purposes, this is music that does not wish to be liked. Not until the power-electronics and noise rustlings starting to occur at the time, and which would continue to test the boundaries of sonic extremity for years to come, was there any music that pushed aural endurances as far over the edge as Mars did. And even taking in abstract noise to account, there's still something unpleasantly maniacal about Mars' swan song.
If No Wave's intentions were to take punk to task for not venturing far enough into the anti-social abysses it so desired, then Mars were perhaps easily the most successful at vaporizing everything possibly pleasant and agreeable about rock 'n' roll. You may hate The Complete Studio Recordings, but it's sheer bravery, id, and shit-tossing freedom stretches far beyond both No Wave's arty posturing and punk's self-righteous breast-beating. It gets a perfect score just for having the nerve to exist, which, in its ability to enthrall while simultaneously intimidate, is in everyway its own bit of genius.
2. 11,000 Volts
3. Helen Forsdale
6. Puerto Rican Ghost
9. Outside Africa
11. The Immediate Stages Of The Erotic
1977: Suicide - Suicide
Just as the primordial strains of punk began with bands such as The Stooges and The MC5 serving as a brazen musical stake through the heart of the peaceful, harmonious ethos of many bands of the late '60s, No Wave was birthed in the late 1970s as a drastic response to the inevitable dominance of the then current genres of punk, New Wave, and disco. With its spasmodic atonal textures, crushing overtones of ennui, and general sense of alienation, No Wave was not just unmusical in comparison to the other genres of its day. It was, in a sense, Un-Music.
New movements are never created in a vacuum, however, and some of the seeds that would eventually bloom into the black blossoms of No Wave were sown by two refugees of the New York art scene; keyboardist Martin Rev, and vocalist Alan Vega, also known as Suicide.
Suicide's eponymous debut in 1977 is a fascinating study of contradictions. Rev's keyboards and electronics could paint chillingly claustrophobic landscapes, while Vega's wildly theatrical shrieks and moans could only only be considered singing in the loosest academic sense of the word, as heard on the 11-minute "Frankie Teardrop," which masterfully immerses the listener into the hellish nightmare of a desperate man whose entire existence unravels before him in a miasma of pleading, painful whimpers and bloody murder screams, during which an artificial beat palpitates over a churning, repetitive hiss. "Che" follows a similar formula; its low, heavy synths and foreboding tones become a disaffected dirge as Vega's listless chants of "Hooray, hooray" vibrate into Rev's noisy ether.
Though attributes of these songs would later manifest themselves more prevalently in the work of their No Wave successors, Suicide maintained a level of warmth and musicality that could not be completely hidden behind the band's frigid, superficial austerity. Upon closer examination, one can glimpse a very subtle, yet clear undercurrent of melodies which pay tribute to the simple bubblegum rock and roll of the '50s and early '60s, as evidenced in such songs as "Johnny" and "Girl"; the former with happy synth loop gurgling merrily beneath Vega's Elvis-esque vocal affectations, while the latter plays like a lo-fi electronic soundtrack to phone sex, with a Latin twist sounding as though it was on loan from War's "Low Rider."
During their prime, Suicide was one of the most misunderstood and hated acts of its day, due in large part to their unique mixture of clinical, nihilistic electronics, audience baiting showmanship, and penchant for the rhythms and melodies of yesteryear in one disturbing, genre-defying package. Luckily, as with most overlooked works of genius, time has cast a favorable light over the work of Suicide. With bands from Cabaret Voltaire, A.R.E. Weapons, and practically the entire genre of electroclash counting Rev and Vega's work as a major influence, Suicide seems to have finally made the well-deserved leap from reviled to revered, even if only took the last 20 years for it to happen.
1. Ghost Rider
2. Rocket U.S.A
6. Frankie Teardrop
8. Cheree (remix)
9. Keep Your Dreams
2002: Theoretical Girls - Theoretical Girls (1978-1981)
Black sheep of a notably dark flock, Theoretical Girls disregard many of the harsher No Wave sensibilities in favor of the trammeling pop-centric feel prevailing in the hearts and minds of the pre-Neuromancer American Sprawl. As the Radio Free Europe of the No Wave scene, their tactics hardly complement the libidinal dissonance of counterparts in the East Village, embracing instead an amalgamation of new and no waves instantly recognizable as a more tuneful vehicle for compositional deconstruction. Jeffery Lohn and Glenn Branca, the Girls' chief contributors, both studied the arts in northeastern colleges before immigrating to New York's West Village scene. This academic art-house background shows in the band's dependence on pop, classical compositions, and the socio-political themes of many of their songs, which sharply contrasts the egotist musings of the No New Yorkers. Not to say that they sound alabaster; their furrows into noise just sound more surgical and contrapuntal than the emotional collapse of Chance and Lunch. The Girls trudge through the same murky feedback as their cohorts, they just remembered to wear their Wellingtons.
Theoretical Girls remain the most recognizable of the West Village No Wave groups, despite a dearth of recordings prior to this 2002 release, due primarily to Glenn Branca's continued success as a contemporary composer. No New York, the compilation produced by Brian Eno that introduced the world to the sub-sub-culture of the Greenwich Village scene, raises the bedraggled No Wave banner over only four bands, casting the rest of what was a vibrant rock 'n' roll community into shadow. The collection focuses on the incestuous East Village scene, providing ethnographic and aesthetic cohesion to a dissociative musical movement steeped in dementia and thorny manifestos. Being collected and experimentally inconsistent, the Girls lack in these qualities in every respect. Speculations as to their exclusion from No New York range from cabalistic East Villagers to Lohn's opinion of the project and persons involved, none of which hold water. The bestial sound captured by No New York does not suffer timid exploration, the Girls' chief vocation, and this best explains their absence from the record.
All this might not matter if Theoretical Girls had released more than one single in 20 years, but internal wrangling and preemptive releases of Branca's contributions forestalled any publication. In 2002, Lohn was able to press the long lost Theoretical album and secure a place at the table for the band. The final cut of Theoretical Girls is a markedly fickle collection of live, studio, and home recordings. Many of the early cuts are agitated rock songs with panicked rhythm guitar and ambivalent, subterranean vocals corroded as much by poor recording as by artistic intent, though always to the intended dystopic effect. Comparisons to Devo and The Velvet Underground will and have been made, although Lohn insists on a conceptual (rather than imitative) origin for Theoretical Girls' sound. The standout track, "Chicita Bonita," is a No Wave carbuncle both hideous and rare: a despondent, temperamental car wreck of a song, aggressively tearing through five minutes and ending in a self-satisfied smirk of the victimized suburbanite. "Computer Dating," while subdued, is certainly the most pretentious art-rock on the record, a nod perhaps to the Girls' bohemian training. Elements of coffee house wit find their way into the muted Freud of "Mom and Dad" and even their low-concept theme song "Theoretical Girls" less obtrusively, and never quite enough to ruin a song's acerbic qualities. "U.S. Millie," the only single released by the band before this collection veers off course from the No Wave (and Theoretical Girls) aesthetic, fiercely exposes the eclectic, experimental character of the group.
Theoretical Girls fall in frenetic equivocation between high and low art. They feel comfortable to thrash out jagged punk rock, content with the brutal sound that lands them in the No Wave roster. Simultaneously, the Girls delve into a framework of decay and deconstruction in a systematic fashion, composing pieces that highlight the intellectual themes of No Wave with less of the primeval impulses. Glenn Branca has certainly embraced the avant-garde in his experimentation, but that sheds little light on the dynamics of the Girls, as separating the classical inspirations from the No Wave ruckus would leave a sore ear indeed. The Theoretical Girls have a hard time reconciling their marriage of classical and punk, plagued by the pugnacity of the latter. They do a helluva job trying though, and churn out some meaty cuts in the process.
1. Theoretical Girls
2. Lovin in the Red
3. Computer Dating
4. Europe Man
5. Contrary Motion
6. Mom and Dad
7. U.S. Mille
8. No More Sex
9. Keyboard Etude
11. Electronic Angie (Short Version)
12. Chicita Bonita
14. Parlez-Vous Francais
15. Theoretical Girls (Studio)
16. Chicita Bonita (Second Version)
17. Lovin in the Red (Second Version)
18. Electronic Angie (Second Version)
19. Computer Dating (Second Version)
1995: Teenage Jesus & The Jerks - Everything
Somewhere between the gash across your face and the black stitches that mend it lie Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. It's a place where microbial wars rage, and it's something that's so ungainly that people gaze at it. When the few pieces that compose Teenage Jesus' sound are merged, we're left with an atonal scrap yard that's thoroughly alarming in its suggestion of catastrophe. The band's complete contribution to the world is a collection of pieces that confront the most rancorous aspects of human nature. What they don't give us is any solace.
In less than 20 minutes, Everything does a nice job of encompassing most of Teenage Jesus' work from 1978-1986. The band, composed of the prolific performance artist Lydia Lunch and Gordon Stevenson as the only permanent members, was in perpetual flux. During James Chance's stint with the band, we can hear the bent Coltrane Sun Ship-era horns ("My Eyes") while other pieces seem so fleeting that they're utterly unintelligible ("Race Mixing"). The common theme that runs among all of the songs, regardless of the lineup, is Teenage Jesus' unwillingness (or inability) to articulate. Though rather than detracting from the music, this trait adds impact. All of the songs find Lunch bellowing like an angry teenage girl in art class; the one whose passion and perception far outweigh her ability to create anything. The music assumes an intangible quality for this reason; like looking into the negative space of a painting; the listener begins to imagine what isn't said and what isn't played. "Baby Doll" alters its tribal tempos without warning in this vain, as Lunch insists "I'm a little girl/ In your little girl world/ And I." As the listener ponders the conclusion to this fragment, she realizes that she's been hauled into Teenage Jesus' world where nothing is intentional, certain, or pure. "Orphans," the record's highlight, uses an unrelenting primal beat and scratching guitars to underscore a brutality that is merely hinted.
Like many bands, Teenage Jesus was largely a live proposition. Typical shows would clock between 10 minutes and a half hour. The songs here are mere interpretations of pieces that gained morphology on stage. Fans who caught these shows (Brian Eno was one) still complain that other versions of the songs were more poignant, more affecting. Songs, however, don't seem to be the point. Rather, the band offers unfettered imagery and the brutality of human consciousness. The vulgarity of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks' work was unique even among the flourishing punk scene in the late 1970s. There's nothing raucous or fashionable about the work found on this record. It's simply a collection of minimalist, sonic assaults, that have as much significance as the silence you hear when its done.
1. Red Alert
3. The Closet
4. Burning Rubber
5. I Woke Up Dreaming
6. Freud In Flop
7. Baby Doll
8. Race Mixing
9. Crown Of Thorns
10. My Eyes
11. Less Of Me
12. Red Alert (Mk.II)