1991: Sonny Sharrock - Ask the Ages
During the time of year when all the leaves are gone and the nights are long, without flaw, I begin an annual shift into pensive hibernation. Three transformations take place in me that I neglect the rest of the year. First, I rediscover my oven and the delights of baked deserts; I crank out enough cookies, sweet breads, and pies to make your grandma green with envy. This comfort food fattens me up for coming winter months and lays the groundwork for the next metamorphous that takes place. Step two, I become a raging midnight hour film fanatic of the black and white persuasion. Night after night, I sit in the dark, wrapped in a fuzzy down comforter, nestled up with my chubby cat Delilah in a drooling semi-diabetic coma from all the of baked yumminess, and I watch movies from Tinsel Town's golden era, with an occasional Criterion Collection selection sprinkled in to appease my highbrow aspirations.
The final phase of my march towards monastery-like introspection takes full effect: I dig into that forgotten attic of my record collection, the hidden corner that contains that most cerebral of musical art forms, the music that makes documentarian Ken Burns wet his starched slacks with glee -- the music known as jazz. Sure, some of you have your Mannheim Steamroller Christmas collections to sip eggnog to while wearing your holiday-themed sweaters. Not me. I prefer to transport myself to an imaginary Parisian nightclub thick with cigarette smoke, where Billie, Miles, Duke, and the like reign supreme. I suppose I could choose to watch an inspirational and heartwarming made-for-TV holiday movie starring Meredith Baxter Birney on one of those family-friendly cable networks like my mom does, but would Meredith Baxter Birney provide the appropriate acoustical ambiance I require for making a Bundt cake? I think not.
Oh, but don't think my appreciation for jazz lies only with musicians who grace U.S. postage stamps. This is where I seem to differ from the aforementioned filmmaker with starched slacks. You see, I also get my freak on to avant-garde jazz from the ’60s, where giant afros stare at me from the album covers. I weird-out to those art-damaged beatniks hanging out in the downtown New York lofts during the ’80s. I scan the pages of Wire magazine for the latest improvisations hitting the streets from some unheralded, underground maestro. This is my wintertime, get-out-of-bed-and-face-the-world music. This provides the jolt I need to shake the sugar hangover from the previous night's confectionery smörgåsbord. This is the fiery yang to my moonlight yin preference of bebop, ballads, and swing. That's where Ask the Ages by Sonny Sharrock comes in. But really, as fascinating a topic as I am, enough about me.
You might be familiar with Sonny's guitar sound already. He recorded the theme song for Space Ghost Coast to Coast, is featured on several Ron Burgundy-approved Herbie Mann records, and played with Miles Davis' early ’70s fusion band. But that only scratches the surface of what Señor Sharrock does when plugged in. Sonny shreds on the guitar. Not the sort of hair guitar shredding that is promised in the tabs of the glossy guitar mags with Joe Satrioni and Stu Hamm on the cover. If I were to make assumptions, I would guess that Sonny could shred after finding the glowing orb from the cartoon cult classic movie Heavy Metal lying in his backyard, which gave him the guitar power of Greyskull. It's kinda like if the love child from the respective worlds of Rod Serling and Lewis Carroll was given a guitar, these would be the sounds that it produced. Is it making sense for you yet? Sonny Sharrock is the guitar boss you've never had. I don't care how good you are at Guitar Hero, even if you have Thad Jarvis backing you up; there is no way you are producing the whacked-out sounds that come from Sunny's six string. Too bad for any of you wannabe Yngwie Malmsteen blowhards reading this; I'm not technical enough to be able to tell you what's going on from a theoretical point of view. (I do, however, have a great recipe for ginger snaps.)
Joining Sunny on Ask the Ages are two undisputed grand poobahs of free jazz, Pharaoh Sanders on saxophone and Elvin Jones on drums. Elvin is best known for propelling John Coltrane through his peak creative years, and Pharaoh has my second favorite name in jazz after former Jazz Messengers bassist Spanky DeBrest. Pharaoh howls and shrieks in all the right ways to compliment Sonny on his exploration of the stratosphere; there are moments when the intensity is at such a fevered pitch that you absolutely think one of them is on the verge of blowing an o-ring.
But this isn't a total skronkathon that can turn off many listeners to free jazz; there is a lot of variety going on here. On "Who Does She Hope To Be?" for example, the band simmers it down for a scorching electric blues. You know that obnoxious commercial where a bunch of baby boomers are sitting around singing Viva Viagra? I bet they crank out some electric blues while driving in their midlife-crisis convertibles -- but Sonny isn't playing the generic electric blues that would appeal to that crowd. This is the sort of soul searching electric blues that reminds me of Eddie Hazel's "Maggot Brain" from the Funkadelic clan. If I had to find a flaw in that song, it'd be its brevity, and that it isn't opened up enough to let Sonny totally rip into the ether as it's on the verge of doing. Meanwhile, on "Many Mansions," I hear Love Supreme-era Coltrane being channeled. Which reminds me of the time I went to the Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco and had some red beans and rice. Which just triggered my salivary glands and is making me aware of that delicious aroma coming out of my oven. Which is making this review come to an abrupt end. Godspeed, mix tape fans, godspeed.
1991: Jim O’Rourke - Tamper
Jim O’Rourke gets the reissue treatment from Drag City, the Chicago label better known for hyphenated folk stalwarts like Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Joanna Newsom, two artists for whom O’Rourke has done engineering or production work in the past. On Tamper, we get a much less accessible O’Rourke, reminiscent of the innovative instrumentalist who has frequented the likes of Derek Bailey, Eddie Prevost, and Keith Rowe since his college days. The three classically-minded pieces on this record dilate and deepen through quarter-hour crossfades, attaining violent crescendos and murmuring in near silence with generous stretches of overlapping, single-note loops in between. For those who appreciate drone and minimal composition, it’s quite intriguing stuff.
“Spirits Never Forgive” swells patiently toward a climactic, birthlike highpoint, starting with nearly inaudible pulses before queasy, cosmic oscillators jangle through each other and Tony Conrad-style violins squeal away like agitated bats. There may be a clarinet at the bottom of all this, but the sounds are stretched so much that instrumentation seems irrelevant; texture and mood are more central concerns. “He Felt the Patient Memory of a Reluctant Sea” is downright mournful, tracing wobbly orbits through de-tuned, echo-heavy wavelengths. “Ascend Through Unspoken Shadow” begins with a feedback shitstorm; sharp blocks of sound cleave into and through each other, resulting in a texture far more abrasive than in the two more contemplative tracks that open the record. On all three pieces, O’Rourke deftly welds a vehicle for experimental, classical, and noise music, without allowing his layered tones to veer too far into any one of those domains.
All in all, Tamper is a worthy reissue of the high caliber one would expect from someone of O’Rourke’s stature. Although the original release dates back to 1991, it sounds perfectly relevant in the context of contemporary experimental work. This should give us pause: If, some 17 years after its original release, this ‘experimental’ record still sounds fresh, we can and should praise the foresight of its creator, but we should also question the ingenuity of his would-be successors. Tamper should serve as a challenge to today’s electro-acoustic mavens to renew both the sound and structure of their work.
1971: Holy Moses - Holy Moses!!
The late-’60s and early-’70s musical landscape is marred with one-shot albums. Thousands of bands took a stab, failed to hit the jugular, and disappeared quietly into the night, but only the good lord knows why such a fate was handed down to Holy Moses. The band's lone, eponymous release has all the ingredients of a bonafide classic. Recorded at Jimi Hendrix's newly built Electric Lady studio and produced by Kim King (Lothar & The Hand People) and Mike Esposito (The Blues Magoos), it sounds just as fresh and full today as it must have back then. Billy Batson -- which may not be his real name, since it's the mild-mannered moniker of Captain Marvel – wrote all the songs with a clear sense of humor and an undeniable swagger. His roughhouse storytelling was propelled to another dimension by the six-string prowess of one Ted Spelios: a man who is said to have impressed a young Bruce Springsteen during his brief stint in another one-album band called Kangaroo.
"No Turnin' Back" is a sure mixtape highlight. Spelios' shredding is righteous, totally supporting the saloon piano and a tale of love -- half way out the door -- as moaned by Batson. With a hint of southern revival cutting through the sombre barroom rowdiness, Billy's husky voice fleetingly wanes under the struggle, sounding like a clear influence on Kings Of Leon and other like-minded bands that would crop up decades later. "Roll River Roll" hits roughly the same area, but with a church organ instead of piano. The plinking tone that occasionally surfaces, care of Ted, sounds like Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" or something Tom Morello might use. Typically, though, the album rambles through rockin' psychedelic R&B numbers, the band's bread and butter. They were as good as anyone at the up-tempo numbers, yet the two dismal tunes are the most thoroughly engaging, the ones where they let their guard down and truly emote.
I cannot fathom why Holy Moses!! wasn't a gold record in its time, or why it's taken so long to appear on CD. Didn't the world need a drunker Canned Heat (check "Agadaga Dooley" and you'll know)? I guess not, because the LP fizzled on release and the band followed suit shortly thereafter. Sadly, Ted Spelios never got a third chance to fulfill his awesome promise and crumbled with mental problems, eventually becoming, -- according to legend -- a wine-making monk. He could have easily been the next Robin Trower; the East Village already considered him the best guitarist alive next to Hendrix. Hopefully this Fallout repressing will at least give due where it's earned. There are no bonus tracks, but a brief detail of Holy Moses' account has been added to the liner notes. Realistically, their album still won't get the press it deserves, but I consider it to be one of the essential reissues of 2008.
1997: Mogwai - Mogwai Young Team
When discussing Mogwai, it’s too easy to talk about tension and release, about loudness and its absence, about tantalizing gestures toward the industrial-strength machinery whirring behind a velvety sonic curtain. And it’s all too easy to talk about Mogwai Young Team at the exclusion of all else. Ten years on, many critics and fans would still prefer to act as though the story of this album is the period-point-blank story of Mogwai, despite the four full-length follow-ups of diminishing returns. To some (including this reviewer), news of a remastered, reissued Young Team with outtakes was more exciting than the prospect of a new album. But as tempting as the rhetoric of reissue packaging and bonus material is, take this album for the album, not the trimmings.
Only the first of the nominal tenth-anniversary bonus disc’s tracks is previously unreleased, and it’s not hard to see why. The cover of Spacemen 3’s “Honey” is Mogwai doing sugar and love as well as they can -- it's better than their own similarly themed compositions, but sweetness was never really the band’s strength. Most of the extra tracks are live takes of album material, which are interesting, but rendered irrelevant by bad mixes that fail to capture the dynamic lifts and sheer drops of the band’s concert repertoire. The alternate version of “R U Still In 2 It?” might be excepted, though only because the vocals (by Arab Strap’s Aiden Moffat) assume prominence, which ironically reinforces the track as a better portrait of a relationship arcing towards failure than anything Arab Strap ever wrote. The best of Mogwai’s ancillary work from this time is already collected on the singles disc Ten Rapid, which stands up better than the band’s last two albums and would be more worthy of your hard-earned cash if this reissue was only about odds ‘n’ sods.
But disc 2 is just gravy for the roast beast centerpiece of Young Team itself, which comes to us now from the Chemikal Underground deli case in a finer, heavier-cut slab than previously released. The debut was, and is, a straight knockout: 5 for 5, not quite like anything the increasingly sleepy band has done since. The twin trademark bone crushers “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod” get a booster shot to keep them socking the air out of unsuspecting guts from the dorm room to the boardroom, though the bystanders asking if the listener’s gasping-out-loud, headphones-askew ass is alright are probably more likely office colleagues than freshman roommates these days. Beyond those two oft-cited pillars of pulchritude, the remastering job also brings out subtler, rounder tones in other highlights like “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” and “Tracy,” tracks that were squished flat on the original.
In a way, a little bit of the lower-fi mystery of the album’s original Exile on Main Street murk has departed with the high-def clarity of this version. What the remastering shows best, though, is that Young Team hasn’t gotten softer with age; Mogwai were always good at the light stuff and used to be better at keeping you interested in it.
2008: Nick Lowe - Jesus of Cool
Every now and then, a “criminally overlooked” record gets picked up and re-released by a hip label to glowing reviews. The collective blogosphere, the music press, and rock lit nerds, anxious to latch onto a little piece of hidden history, are quick to extol said album’s virtues and heap praise at its feet. It’s easy to get desensitized to the whole process. I mean, can this “unknown classic” really be that great? If it’s so amazing, why haven’t I heard it?
Well, put your record industry mechanics aside, and let’s cut straight to it: Nick Lowe’s 1978 solo debut, Jesus of Cool is undoubtedly a rock ‘n’ pop masterpiece, and every single shining review you’ve read about it is right-freaking-on.
Perhaps you’ve noticed Nick Lowe’s name on a few of your albums. A legendary knob twiddler, he’s always been known as the man behind the boards on Elvis Costello’s best records, as well as an in-house producer for Stiff Records, where his fast-paced recording style earned him the nickname “The Basher.” But Lowe was a prominent performer in London’s pub rock scene in addition to his production credits, playing bass and writing songs with Brinsley Schwartz, who’s ruckus live shows paved the way for the burgeoning punk scene.
Cobbled together from various fly-by-night sessions and recorded on borrowed or stolen studio time, Jesus of Cool featured Nick flanked by a who’s who of the London scene, featuring contributions from members of the Rumour, Larry Wallis (Motorhead, the Pink Faries), and longtime associate Dave Edmunds. The album was released in 1978 on Radar Records, former Stiff main-man Jake Rivera’s new label, and was surrounded with ubiquitous sloganeering brought over from Stiff’s ad department: “We’ve finally nailed the Jesus of Cool” read posters all over London. “The Jesus of Cool recordeth for your sins. The Jesus of Cool is a testament to the Church of Aural Sects.”
Not surprisingly, “conservative” American audiences were given the same album under a different name (Pure Pop for Now People) and saw a slightly different tracklist. Fortunately, “Pure Pop” says as much about the album as the original title. With reckless abandon, Lowe tackles a variety of pop styles, and the results are exhilarating. We get tales of vicious show promoters sung through a Thin Lizzy-inspired lens and Jackson Five-style dancefloor pop that grinds its gears midway, launching into something like Paul McCartney’s English reggae excursions.
“Tonight” recalls The Everly Brothers; “Rollers Show” chews the bubble gum of its subject matter, The Bay City Rollers; and “Heart of the City,” recorded live, finds Lowe and company blasting their way through a straight-ahead rock tune with snarling punk rock intensity. It’s not hard to see why audiences were more than a little confused with Jesus of Cool. It was too punk for the rockers, too rock for the punkers, too traditional for the new wavers, and too new wave for the pub-rockers.
Opener “Music for Money” chugs along with heavy menace, its lyrics reflecting Lowe’s disdain for the music biz. “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” inspired by a trashed hotel room during a tour with Bad Company, is a perfect piece of new wave pop, it’s bassline pogo-ing about while tinkling piano and syncopated drums dance around endlessly. Lowe’s lyric “I love the sound of breaking glass/ Especially when I’m lonely” somehow manages to sound utterly goofy and poignant at the same time. The gleefully gruesome “Marie Provost” is similarly conflicted: a sly ditty about the silent film actresses’ mutilation by her dogs, the track certainly sounds like it would appeal to a shock-hungry audience, yet Lowe sings over it with a wistfulness that paints a more complex picture -- at once sad, funny, and lonesome. It flew smoothly over the heads of the average listener.
Jesus of Cool is indeed Nick Lowe as pop prankster, but even more, it’s Nick Lowe as pop fan -- a record collectors record: sonically all over the map, witty, charming, and fun without ever being easy. His later records maintained a master craftsman's quality, but would move in more subdued directions, embracing polite pop, rockabilly, and country sounds. “In those days I wasn’t interested in creating serious art," Lowe states in Yep Roc’s deluxe-edition liner notes. "I was much more interested in the mischief. I wanted to make music that was accessible, but just as you’ve hooked people in, you would screw it up and throw it across the room. I do regret it somewhat, but time was of the essence and it had to be disposable.”
Lowe doesn’t give himself enough credit. If Jesus of Cool is in fact disposable, then it can only be disposable in the best possible way.
2006: Los Lobos - The Town and The City
There’s something very appealing – and to be immediately mistrusted – about the standard critical narrative of Los Lobos, a band that attained heights of popularity by perseverance and hard work, held onto their relevance through pure musicianship and, at 30 years going, continue to refine with every release. Certainly they’ve overcome a series of challenges, from a near-pigeonholing as “the Mexican-American band” to being continually confused with Los Lonely Boys (a slip that, speaking candidly, makes me want to stab myself). A critical reader who was unfamiliar with the band's work could be forgiven for harboring skepticism over new praise -- especially given the well-documented ability of narrative to overpower content, throw it out of the ring, and step on its throat -- and particularly in cases where aging artists are credited with a “return to form” or with “their strongest work yet,” or anything along those lines.
It is with this expectation of skepticism in mind that I make the following statement: The Town and The City is the strongest, most focused work from Los Lobos yet. Moreover, in a year when national hysteria over immigration had begun boiling toward its present fever pitch, they made an album about the immigrant experience that crackles with feeling and relevance.
The Town and The City is located by a triptych of place-portraits. “The Valley” is an idyll from the perspective of a migrant farm worker, “The City” a breathless account of the splendor of urban America, and “The Town” a depiction of a poor neighborhood at dusk. These songs establish the feeling of movement and the allure and promise of what's beyond the horizon, as well as conjuring a faint hint of optimism to balance the darkness of many of the stories. Were it not for these establishing shots, the cynicism of “Don’t Ask Why” and the plain desperation of “Hold On” might come to dominate the record – and those themes aren't the point. This isn’t an album about hopelessness, only about hopes onto which, perhaps, too much is pinned. For example, the protagonist of the loping country-blues “Road to Gila Bend” is evidently leaving behind a whole life, but what comes across in the refrain (“Can they see me coming? Do they know I’m running?”) isn’t total resignation, but battered fight.
All of this sentiment would be wasted if it weren’t for solid songs. Fortunately, Los Lobos grasped the current fashion for artiness in rock and turned in not only a set of catchy songs, but some of their prettiest, noisiest, and most experimental. I confess that in the past, I’ve been bored by some of their more traditional output – I’m simply not of a generation that can easily appreciate classicist strains in rock. I am cynical about blues pentatonics and doubly so about such shibboleths as tasteful noodling and impeccable guitar tone. The Town and The City won me over with sparkling cascades of delay (“The Valley”), blustering fuzz (“The Road to Gila Bend”), shiny, dream-pop organ (the retro-soul gem “Little Things”), and a rainbow-colored sheen on everything (particularly on “Chuco’s Cumbia,” a snappy Latin number that stands as one of their most fun songs to date).
That the music is cast after the themes and subject matter of the lyrics further removes The Town and The City from typical classicist exercises. “Chuco’s Cumbia” is loaded with old Pachuco slang; “Hold On” is spare and dusty to match its strung-out subject; “The Town” is shaded with subdued, minor-key menace. Perez, Hidalgo, and Rosas evidently conceive of their songs as entire aesthetic experiences, which is a distinctly contemporary attitude when contrasted with other aged rockers, for whom subject matter is often treated like an afterthought – used either as an entry in an authenticity contest (hewing to the notion that the artist is always the subject), as a tedious formalist chore, or to make some cranky point with the full awareness that nobody is listening. Given the number of miles they’ve clocked, what's surprising about Los Lobos is the extent to which their songs continue to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as exhibits in the case for the artist’s relevance.
The Law of Rock Band Averages says that the next thing Los Lobos release will probably be an unpardonable dud. Of course, the whole appeal of the hard-work-and-perseverance narrative is in the way it implies that duds are the product of laziness or of style beating out substance, and not of the inevitability that talent eventually runs out. However, even if that winds up being the case – that is, if this is Los Lobos’s final seminal statement – then they nevertheless deserve recognition as one of the longest running bands to defy the odds and remain in the stream of vital discourse.