1985?: Orchestre Tout Pussaint Likembe Konono No. 1 - Mungua Muanga
I originally heard about Konono No. 1 through the local Philly radio station XPN. They’d mentioned the typical bio about the band being a “world music punk” group, and even though that doesn’t quite describe the music in the right way, I was still interested. When I heard that the likembe (thumb piano) was heavily featured, I was more intrigued. Then when I heard that their amplifiers were crafted together from car parts, I was enraptured enough to not only go see them but bring friends. Needless to say, their live show was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed.
The part I didn’t hear about Konono No. 1 in their bio was their long history. After recently reading a post on the Ngoma Sound blog about Congolese footwork and Mbira rap, I found my way to a Vincent Kenis interview (the producer of the Congotronics CDs and founder of Crammed Discs) in which he discussed the Mungua Muanga cassette and the origins of Konono No. 1.
First off, the cassette was released on the famed and now-defunct France Culture radio label Ocora. Founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1954, the label started with an African focus based on a pretext that the rise of radio would jeopardize the musical traditions of African villages. Over the years, it spread to Eastern countries and eventually the rest of the world. From an ethnomusicology standpoint, it’s most likely the closest precursor to the modern Sublime Frequencies label, even if Ocora didn’t primarily focus on psych-rock/Western-influenced bands.
Vince Kenis heard the Konono musicians for the first time on this French radio broadcast in 1979, and was so fascinated by the band’s sound that he recorded the performance. Then by chance the broadcast was released officially by Ocora in 1987 as Musiques Urbaines a Kinshasa. By 1989, ten years after he’d first heard the band, Kenis went to Kinshasa to seek out Konono No. 1 and another band from the cassette – of course, he couldn’t find either band. When he went back another time in the mid-90’s, he heard that the Konono musicians had dispersed and stopped playing. It wasn’t until 2000 when the president of the group’s fan club alerted Kenis that they were expected to return. Kenis recalls:
In July Le Tout Puissant Likembe Konono No. 1 was ready for an audition, complete with 3 electric likembes, a drumkit made of hub caps, and a PA system made of two “lance-voix” (“voice-throwers,” i.e. megaphones used by the Belgian colonizers before independence to diffuse radio broadcasts in the streets) which were probably the same ones featured on the 1978 recordings.
Kenis recorded the band soon after and the album was eventually released to rave reviews in 2004, with European and Western audiences and critics especially hyping up the noisy/punk/electronic aspects of the record. Besides bringing the excellent live show around the world and showcasing other artists and the scene surrounding the Congotronics sound, the album has been name checked in the ongoing think-piece-friendly critical debate concerning world music, otherness, post-colonialism, etc. (see also: David Byrne, Paul Simon, Vampire Weekend).
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of interesting modes of thought in that discussion, but in the age of instant access to media through BitTorrent, Mediafire, YouTube, what have you, I think my favorite part of the Konono No. 1 story is how it’s also really the story of one man’s pursuit of a band in the hopes of spreading their music – to give others the same feeling he felt when he listened to this 1970’s broadcast and had to have a recording. Vince Kenis’ dedication seems just as relevant as talking about the band’s instruments or their role in some larger geopolitical ethnomusicological debate. His story is why we even have a section like this on the website.
1998: Scaramanga - Seven Eyes, Seven Horns
The emergence of Action Bronson and subsequent comparisons between his elephant tusk ivory style and the “cold like Eskimo” flow of Ghostface Killah have got me thinking about another rapper who was once accused of biting the essentially inimitable Ghostdeini: Scaramanga aka Sir Menelik. While that second moniker might ring a bell to Dr. Octagon devotees (Chewbacca Uncircumcised, anyone?), the name Scaramanga Shallah has never really traveled that far beyond the circles of a relatively small but intensely loyal cult following — essentially, ‘90s NY underground hip-hop enthusiasts. The reason his records haven’t yet been embraced by a wider audience are too numerous to list, but for many of those who match the aforementioned description (myself included), Scaramanga’s magnum opus, Seven Eyes, Seven Horns, remains a bona fide classic.
There are two versions of the album: the 12-track double LP and the 16-track CD. I’m not going to take the purist stance and say don’t get the longer version. Of the four additional tracks, I dig three of them: “S.I.R.,” “Face It,” and “7XL” featuring Sadat X and Grand Puba. That being said, I prefer the LP simply because it’s much more cohesive, with each of its four sides labeled as a three-song act, and for my money, ACT 2 is easily one of the best sides of its era.
“Sugar 99” was the first Scaramanga song I ever heard. If I remember correctly, I was shown the song under a pretense like, “This guy is biting Ghostface.” The similarities are apparent from the jump, but when you add to Scara’s seemingly breathless delivery and seamlessly shifting cadences the fact that, like Ghostface, Camp Lo, or Aesop Rock, his weird word choice and obscure reference points are enough to constitute a distinct vernacular, the whole “this sounds like this” point is rendered moot. Combine those three qualities and what you have before you is an admittedly demanding listen, but one that most definitely pays dividends in replay value.
And when I say “demanding,” don’t get me wrong; from beatsmith Scholarwise’s precisely sliced samples and dusty drum patterns to Scara’s cipher-like rhyme schemes and free-flowing word association, there is plenty on the surface to appreciate. No matter how complex the songs get, they always remain raw and rooted in mid-school fundamentals. “Sugar 99” is the perfect example of this; even though many of the lines remain impenetrable after first, second, and third listens, the syllabic cascade and contagious head-nod appeal are immediately accessible. The song’s remix by Godfather Don (the other one of the four extra songs on the CD), while decent enough, simply cannot compare to Scholarwise’s treatment of The Heath Brothers’ oft-flipped Smilin’ Billy Suite Part II.
Scholarwise doesn’t only shine behind the boards, he also has a smooth but hype everyman-type voice, kind of like that of Kid Capri. This is put to good use in several places, including his (possibly freestyled) verses on “Sun Large Promo,” as well as the chorus on “Alphabetic Hammer.” Here, Scaramanaga completely blacks out, combining graf-writer lingo with God knows what else. At one point he spits something like “Omni duos flex on the metroplex/ text on oblivion worth a billion resilient/ fuck illyin’, third pavilion flirt cotillion.” Of course, that transcription cannot be confirmed without Scara’s input, but I’m willing to wager it’s a lot closer than what’s available via OHHLA and Rap Genius, which give the next song, “Seven Eyes, Seven Horns,” what can only be described as the “Louie Louie” treatment.
It’s on the title cut that Scholar and Scara are most synchronized, with Upsetter seventh chords and anvil-heavy kick drums providing an ideal backdrop to antediluvian tales of gaffling, gun-running, and government goonism. Shallah Magnetic flashes from one vivid scene to the next like a viewfinder disk of HD photographs: “Son crashed the incense-scented rented/ Entered five months at HDM for the ATM blast/ the public defender wasn’t defending shit, fucking Benedict/ In the pen it’s blood or crip, what a script/ The government never meant or intend on me growing up a gentleman/ White collar cake cinnamon Entenmann.”
A few bars later, infamous stickup kid exploits are juxtaposed with the rise of Trump Tower, offering an incendiary dichotomy made all the more potent by the speaker’s specificity. Furthermore, a plethora of proper nouns (Fila, Bally the loafer, Bally the gymnasium, Hardaways, Tina Turner, Judge Wapner, Benz – to name a few) and one oddly cogent sequence bridging “Polo Wimbledon Hilfiger” to Israelites and the NOI flag via “futuristic symbols in the front like halogen fluorescent,” suggest that this piece is as much a meditation on symbology, semiotics, and brand identity as it is an erudite MC’s spin on a passage from the Book of Revelation.
1994, 1995: Jawbreaker and Go Sailor
Does anybody know if Rose Melberg and Blake Schwarzenbach ever dated? Because that would explain why I currently can’t separate these two songs in my head.
True, these tunes were released a year apart from each other and I’m probably making random connections but I think that a) Music is a form of communication, which is why I believe some songs can be taken as two sides of a story – a conversation, if you will – and b) the chords from the main riff of both these songs are very similar. They represent two different sounds from the same geographical scene: one clean and poppy, the other more driving. You put two and two together and you get something very peculiar.
Jawbreaker’s number talks about doubt and desperation, a man longing for contact with his loved one after fighting and not knowing where he stands. “Are we talking?” he wonders at one point; he doesn’t understand why they can’t work things out, and he misses her.
Heartbreak is also central to “I’m Still Crying,” the difference is that the protagonist here would rather move on with her life and leave the relationship behind. She tries to fool herself that things will be better soon but she can’t get there, she’s still crying, obviously hurt and caring about the guy, as much as she hates this feeling.
If the main characters in both songs were talking about the same relationship, then we can conclude that the guy from “Do You Still Hate Me?” did something shitty to the girl from “I’m Still Crying.” She’s so upset, she’s distancing herself from him and wants out of the relationship since she feels there’s no turning back, yet she’s betrayed by her sensitivity and wishes she was tough enough to get over him sooner. The guy feels regret and tortures his own mind with thoughts of hope; he is pleading to the air for another chance to mend his mistake, since she’s not there listening anymore, trying to not care where he is or what he is doing.
Jawbreaker’s title is a question, Go Sailor’s an affirmation. I like to believe these songs represent the different attitudes between genders in modern relationships. The similarity of feeling in both songs, however, reflects humanity in the face of emotions, something universal.
1986: Eddie Money - “Take Me Home Tonight”
Please leave all your musical taste at the door before entering this article.
Okay, it’s gone? Good, let’s get started.
Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight” is just about the perfect encapsulation of how awesome 80s pop music was. Better than either Rick, Sirs Astley, and Springfield, this song has all the right parts in all the right places. Amazing guest vocal? Check. Bitchin’ sax solo? Check. Great vocal hook? It has two. The guest is Ronnie Spector, singing her hook from “Be My Baby.” Sure, it’s kind of gimmicky, but you have to admire the way she is able to sing the same hook, in the same way, and make it sound different in spite of that.
The video is basically Patton Oswalt’s bit about 80s music videos come to life – I’ll provide a dramatic retelling if I may:
Money is on the stage alone, with just an inexplicably placed ladder for company. Meanwhile Spector is in a completely random different place. They’re never on screen at the same time. She’s always apart from him, always unattainable. The final piece is the sax, just sitting there on stage. It’s a monument to Eddie’s powers, but when will we hear it’s sweet song? You know he’s going to use it, but when dammit! The tension is indescribable; your whole reality would be shattered if you weren’t rewarded with that brass catharsis. Finally, at just the right moment, Eddie grabs it and lets loose, blaring his way into the dreams and nightmares of children everywhere. The solo is so profound that finally Ronnie Spector appears and dances her way to him. All is now right in the world. The balance has been restored.
So check the video out, we won’t judge you.
Eddie Money, TMT approved.
2004: All My Brother’s Girlfriends - The Second Album on Cassette
“Tigers are great, they’re the toast of the town/ Yeah life’s so great when the tigers are around/ Tigers shouldn’t be locked up in the zoo/ Instead they should go downtown dancing with me and you.” That’s when the melodica kicks in on “A Song About Tigers (Revisited)”— my favorite nonsensical track off the lo-fi indie pop album by Swedish band All My Brother’s Girlfriends. The album’s title is Second Album on Cassette.
Swedish singer Pontus Tenggren took All My Brother’s Girlfriends as a moniker for his lo-fi recordings. On the out-of-date website that still exists for the band, the first piece of quoted italicized text reads: “I never thought anyone would ever listen to my music. That was never my intention either. But now that I know that people actually listen, I hope that I get a chance to put out records for people to rock-out and have a good time to!”(sp) This is the spirit of All My Brother’s Girlfriends’ music summed up succinctly.
Besides the wonderfully catchy tiger song mentioned above, “Sunscreen, Part 1” and “Sunscreen, Part 2” really come through in the melody department. Part 2 is offered first with a cheesy drum machine to go along with a toy piano. Yet the song’s “ba da da da da’s” still win me over every damn time. There’s clearly a nod to Beat Happening and the other lo-fi indie popsters posting up in that RIYL-Daniel Johnston camp.
Bookended by instrumentals, the first song is ironically titled “Spring Sing-A-Long.” Closer “Dagen Då Det Slutade Regna” translates to “The Day When It Stopped Raining” and sounds more like a sad rainy day song. Either way, that brings the subjects of the album to five: springtime, sunscreen, summer, tigers, rain. Simple, sweet, to the point. This album was probably really special to those who were lucky enough to have the original cassette. I am not one of those people but the CD makes me happy too.
2001: Pulp - We Love Life
The first time I heard Pulp’s pastoral swan song I felt disappointed. It was confusing; Pulp’s discography before this had a perfect sort of arc when you look back at it. It all seems as premeditated as the arc of a rocket shooting, but then something goes wrong, it goes wild and flies off course. This might sound dramatic (especially for such a gentle album) but coming after the suffocating cocaine nightmare This is Hardcore, We Love Life, from it’s title to it’s poppy songs, seems like a compromise.
The video for “Bad Cover Version” is still one of the funniest music videos you’ll ever see.
After learning a bit more about We Love Life, I’ve come to respect it more than any other Pulp album. Pulp was recording a totally different follow up to This is Hardcore, one most likely going even further down the rabbit hole of sex and addiction that Hardcore reveled in. But Jarvis Cocker ended the sessions, took some time, and started work on an entirely different album. The new album was gentler, warmer, funnier, and more in touch with nature; but perhaps the biggest change was the dismissal of producer Chris Thomas in exchange for one of Cocker’s heroes: Scott Walker.
If this all seems too perfect, believe me I’m right there with you. A band, fed up with their current sound and tied down by the Britpop crowd, wants to make something different so they [begin hyperbole] hire the fallen god of 60s pop music. Walker: the man who had a fan club as big as the Beatles and walked away from it all so he could write songs inspired by Ingmar Bergman and Lenin, who had been enjoying a return to prominence ever since his masterful 90s album Tilt [end hyperbole].
Point is, We Love Life sounds like a weird career move (and without the context, perhaps even a cop-out), but it’s so much more than that. It’s Pulp at some of their most musically adventurous (“The Trees”), funny (“Bad Cover Version”), and beautifully creepy (“Wickerman”). Not to mention “Birds in Your Garden,” one of the best make-out songs by a band with enough great make-out music to fill a two disc compilation.
There are two tracks on here that elevate “We Love Life” to an even higher level of brilliance, though. First of all there’s the almost-title track. “I Love Life,” a song that a younger Jarvis Cocker would have made sound bitter and cynical, but here, after Britpop’s reign, after all the cocaine, and yes, after 9/11, Cocker sounds sincere, sad, and hopeful. His admission of “I love my life, it’s the only reason I’m alive,” sounds honest, though hard-won.
The final track, “Sunrise,” remains one of the great swan songs of any band. After so many albums focused on partying, club-life, sex, and drugs, Cocker’s song about facing the sunrise is one of his best lyrical moments. “I used to hate the sun because it shone on everything I’d done,” Cocker wearily begins. The song is tired; the party is finally over, and he is finally ready to move on.
“Sunrise” may sound lyrically similar to “Bar Italia,” the final song on Different Class. In “Bar Italia,” Cocker and his date are accidentally a part of the morning rush as they pass by people on their way to work, but they’re tourists visiting another world. There’s something very oppressive about the morning when you’ve been out all night. I’ve found the experience of still being up partying while people are on their way to work incredibly unsettling. It feels like you don’t belong out there, like you’re an outsider, and that’s what makes “Sunrise” so goddamn cathartic. Because on “Bar Italia” Cocker and his date are rushing to find a place to get inside, and “Sunrise” finds Cocker looking right on at this bright world with a smile. He’s excited and he’s hopeful; he’s looking to change.
He reminds me most of all of Mark “Rentboy” Renton, the heroin addicted hero of Trainspotting. Renton finally escapes from his destructive lifestyle in the early morning, running past all the people on their way to the office. There’s a chance that he may take all that money he has, mess up and get hooked again, and there’s a chance that Cocker will fall back into the lifestyle captured so perfectly on This is Hardcore, but he’s finally reflecting and realizing what he wants and that intention is what counts. It makes for the perfect ending to this bands career.
People have recently petitioned to get We Love Life a deluxe release, in hopes of hearing the abandoned first sessions. While it would be interesting, I think that it may be better to just let them stay buried. While so many other Britpop bands tried to keep the party going as the 90s came to an end, Pulp made the right decision. Compared to those other bands, Pulp always felt not just smarter, but more sensitive, and We Love Life is the truest testament to that.