He howled at the moon before Allen Ginsberg, freewheeled it to New York from the Midwest before Bob Dylan, and was more adept at self-fashioning than either of them. An object of fixation for the high-profile bohemia of the ’50s and ’60s -- from Charlie Parker to Leonard Bernstein to Dylan and Ginsberg -- he never saw the mainstream success of the fashionable artists who championed him. Moondog (born Louis Hardin in Marysville, Kansas) was attractive to the avant-garde partially because he was unmarketable (though Columbia records briefly tried, releasing two Moondog records in the late ’60s/early-’70s): blind, homeless, stubbornly eccentric and always dressed in his customized translation of Viking attire, he was an outsider in the most fundamental sense. A composer, poet, street performer, and inventor of instruments, he went without all but the most basic comforts and dedicated himself fully to his art.
It’s understandable if Moondog’s romantic profile as the quintessential practitioner of art brut, driven by an unstoppable need to create above all practical concerns, arouses your skepticism. His extraordinary life story has made him a fetish for obscurists, folk academics, record collectors, and field recorders such as Tony Schwarz, who captured Moondog’s impromptu street performances on the record Moondog on the Streets of New York. Yet, as this early career (I use the term career loosely) compilation from Astralwerks proves, Moondog’s works are strange but immediately pleasurable, as idiosyncratic and playful as the legend of the man himself.
Moondog’s freak appeal is advertised by the cover art: New York photographers’ favorite subject stands in full Viking attire on a street corner (presumably 6th avenue and 54th St., now officially known as Moondog Corner) while a swanky Manhattan couple staidly side-step around him. His outsized image was inseparable from his work and his personality; it reflected his complex worldview, one that I frankly fail to fully grasp. It involved a love for the classical tonal compositions of the Renaissance and a deep, possibly controversial identification with the ancient Nordics.
“Theme and Variations” opens with tribal percussion; then a four-note, cycling flute melody enters while other flutes and horns slowly play counterpoint to the original pattern. It’s the kind of concentrated, mesmerizing build-up the minimalist composers were after, and indeed, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass often referred to Moondog as the original minimalist. Rejecting this title, Moondog argued that his songs were in the classical tradition of Western tonal music. The second track “Down is Up” brings this point home; it’s a canon that places (what sounds like) amateur choir singers over Renaissance-style melody and instrumentation, punctuated by quirky percussion. “Bumbo” comes on strong with its pulsing, repetitive jazz. “Big Cat” is a sparse exercise in rhythm, interspersed with Native American influenced flute.
These four songs introduce the major styles that occur throughout the record. There are the melodic flute-driven pieces, the madrigals, the hard-bop numbers, and the rhythm-based songs utilizing Moondog’s unique percussion instrument, which he called the trimba. “Bird’s Lament,” which falls under the bop category, is an impossibly satisfying tribute to Charlie Parker that radiates theatrical cool on every second of its perfectly short 1:44 length. “All is Loneliness,” once covered by Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & The Holding Company, perfectly evokes the alienation of living on the fringe of society, with its single line “All is loneliness here for me” repeated over a haunting flute and acoustic guitar line. “Be a Hobo” finds Moondog entreating anyone with an open spirit to “be a Hobo and go with me/ From Hoboken to the sea” in a melody that echoes “All is Loneliness” but somehow excises the despair. It’s beautiful, funny, and understated. Album closer “Invocation” sounds like the stoic and insistent march of an army of horns led by Terry Riley towards the netherworld.
The Viking of 6th Avenue skillfully arranges a heterogeneous selection of songs from various Moondog releases so that his singular, though eclectic, vision emerges intact. The tunes are minimalist in a few senses; excluding the 10-minute “Invocation,” they are all extremely short. Each idea is allowed enough time to germinate, and no more. Additionally, the songs are stripped down in terms of instrumentation and players; Moondog overdubbed many of the parts himself, and he sings with his daughter on a few of the madrigals. His influence on capital M Minimalism can be found in the contrapuntal pieces where dueling melodies in the same key enter and leave at random intervals.
For all his formal concerns, Moondog rarely abandons the pleasure principle: one listen to bawdy “Rabbit Hop” or endearingly irreverent “Enough About Human Rights!” will prove as much. These songs were written on the streets, not in the academy, and it shows. Those looking to The Viking of Sixth Avenue for a slice of weird Americana will not be disappointed. Try playing it sometime for people who know nothing of the Moondog myth -- if they’ve got any howl in them, they’ll love it too.
Now that Pitchfork scribe Amanda Petrusich has gone and made the investigation of the connection between the old and new “Weird America” all official with her excellent book It Still Moves, the work of artists like Nimrod Workman has become even more paramount to our understanding of the elements that compose American folk music: the thematic ever-presents of God, love, murder, and justice, the lonesome tones of strained voices and the inherent multi-national, multi-racial aspects that manifest themselves as Nimrod Workman (named for his Cherokee grandfather). Unaccompanied by any other voice or instrument, Workman sings songs ranging from self-composed tales of lust and murder, to British and Scottish traditional ballads and spiritual devotionals.
I Want To Go Where Things Are Beautiful contains just a small chunk of the 18-hours' worth of recordings that musician and folk historian Mike Seeger made of Workman at his home in Mascot, Tennessee in 1982. At 87 years old, Workman proves strikingly lucid; between the songs, he often takes time to elaborate on their origins, explaining that his uncle Peter McNeely took him aside as a young boy and taught him songs he wouldn’t teach anyone else. He details his struggles as a coal miner union activist, fighting to gain medical compensation for exposure to coal dust that led to black lung. The conversations between Seeger and Workman are warm and often given to laughter, as Workman details where he learned the songs, as if by recording them with Seeger he is to some degree passing them down to future generations as they were passed down to him.
Workman’s voice, shrill and heavily accented, is the perfect vehicle for the songs. As he describes singing in the coal mines, alone and in the dark, it becomes clear that his songs serve a higher function than mere entertainment. Songs like “Shady Grove” and “Gabriel’s Trumpet” long for a kind of beauty, sounding like survival tactics against the harsh backdrop of dirty, desolate mines. As he belts out “Coal Black Mining Blues” and describes his battle against the injustice of the mining business, a line connecting Pete Seeger to Billy Bragg and The Clash becomes apparent, with music as a message of social change. Just as Bukowski spent a good chunk of his life slagging it out in a sea of crap jobs, only free to truly explore the “fullness” of artistic life after retirement, Workman only began singing professionally after 42 years of mining, forced into retirement by a slipped disc and black lung, and the years of work are clear in his ringing voice as they are in Bukowski’s writing.
Workman shines when walking the line between the sacred and the profane, offering Pentecostal blessings in the same company as murder ballads (and sometimes even merging the two) or depicting Jesus as an avenging warrior in “Hewed Out of the Mountain,” conjuring images of a “stone rolling down from Babylon.” “Oh Death” and “Great Big Hand of God” feature similar dread, recognizing that at the core of the smiling-pastor visage of Christianity is a pretty terrifying book, full of rivers of blood and sacrifice. Workman is careful not to sermonize too much; however holy the Sunday mornings are, the Saturday nights seem pretty wild, as Workman describes calling out girls, drinking in the bar, and generally having a great time with the ladies when he’s not disposing of their bodies in the river.
But it’s not all so grim. “Good Morning” finds Workman blasting out some rapid-fire talking blues, genially rapping, and the smirk on his face is practically audible. As the record concludes, Seeger has wisely left in Workman’s goodbyes to him on that particular day. Among the colloquial “y’all comeback now”s, his gentle nature shines through. A classic storyteller in a uniquely American fashion, his tale is one that embodies all that’s notable about “traditional American” music. Though he passed away at the age of 99 in 1994, Nimrod Workman’s songs contain the threads that our modern folk -- indie or otherwise -- is built upon, the tightrope walk of spirit and flesh, the pathos of love and murder, and, above all, the idea of music as lasting salvation.
Char Vinnedge, frontwoman of the Luv’d Ones and self-described “non-sleeper,” was one hard-working woman: in addition to doing lead guitar and lead vocals, she wrote all of the band’s songs, booked all of their gigs, designed their outfits, crafted their album artwork, repaired their equipment, and drove their tour van. In 1964, when The Beatles were busy working American teenyboppers into a frenzy and most of the women lucky enough to be on the other side of the stage barrier were singing songs by Phil Spector, Vinnedge bought a white Airline guitar off of her brother Vic, tuned it down a whole step, and decided to start a rock ‘n’ roll band. On her own terms.
The resulting group -- based out of her parents’ basement in Niles, Michigan and including her 13-year-old sister Chris on bass, Mary Gallagher on rhythm guitar, and Faith Orem on drums -- would never become as famous as Vinnedge believed they would. After four years of almost non-stop touring, opening for bands like The Turtles and The Buckinghams and flooring skeptical male audiences from New York to L.A., The Luv’d Ones fizzled out, turning down a dodgy record contract with Chicago’s Dunwich Records. They did, however, manage to leave behind some of darkest, most stunning, and most idiosyncratic music in 1960s garage. And that’s not just “girl garage.”
Though The Luv’d Ones’ early repertoire consisted mainly of old standards and Beatles covers, Char’s desire to establish her own creative voice quickly took precedence over what their record company, their audiences, and even the three other members of the group wanted to hear. Between driving the girls around, laundering their clothes, and bargaining with club owners, Char holed up in her parents’ basement to write songs, experiment with fuzz and feedback, and carve out a sound that she could call her own. “The reason I tuned my guitar down a full step was simple,” Char explained in an interview with Jud Cost and Bob Irwin. “I didn’t want to sound like anybody else.” Something that couldn’t have been too hard for Vinnedge, whose glacial, full-bodied alto was a good octave lower than most of her female contemporaries.
Truth Gotta Stand, released by Sundazed in 1999, brings together 23 singles, demos, and live recordings that the group recorded between 1964 and 1968. The recordings themselves are far from perfect, and the first nine songs or so -- ironically, the only songs that were ever actually released by their record company -- are perhaps most interesting as documents of the group’s struggle to discover their own voice. But as much as The Luv’d Ones might fit the mold of other unsung garage-girl heroes of the ‘60s (their classic lineup, their snappy baselines and twangy guitar hooks, their kicking, round-robin vocal refrains), Char’s conscientious songwriting elevates the compilation above and beyond a mere period piece. Though Char Vinnedge had clearly digested the rock idioms that were crystallizing at the time -- and that continue to dominate popular music to this day -- we get the sense that she was already bored with them, already looking for something more. Whether they are up-tempo and exuberant or plodding and overflowing with quiet despair, Char’s melodies always have something exquisitely counterintuitive about them, as though she spent hour upon hour in her underground studio trying to pin down simple combinations of notes that her listeners had never heard before.
“All the laws are written/ In some dusty old book/ Any fool who breaks that book/ Is gonna get kicked,” sings Char on “Portrait.” A risk that this blond, Midwestern Don Quixote was willing to take, even considering the structure of the song in which these lines appear: a single, repeated refrain, threaded with a constantly shifting series of instrumental baroque motifs, punctuated with guitar solos that send the song flying from tonic key to kingdom come. With an expressivity never set into default mode and a hearty helping of shredding on her Gibson SG, Char and the girls seemed to be fighting a four-woman war to prevent America’s ears from falling asleep.
* Previously unreleased
1995: Chavez - Gone Glimmering
Early in the pages of X Saves the World, a self-proclaimed “manifesto for a generation that’s never had much use for manifestos,” author Jeff Gordinier maintains that a vacuous artistic trend gradually emerged towards the end of the ’80s and suppurated for some years after, making for a rather exasperating lull in the history of compelling pop music. Then, of course, along came Nirvana.
But roughly half a decade later, the musical landscape had more or less reverted to lolling in the same stagnant mire that Nirvana penetrated. Airwaves were congested with more dime-a-dozen bands rigidly complying with the same checkpoints constituting whatever “alternative” was (when alternative was never intended to serve as the designation of a genre anyway). In the midst of this commercial fluffiness, while just about every other ostensible artist was attempting to huff the last hackneyed fumes from Kurt Cobain’s rotting brainchild, one particular band emerged that -- in conjunction with Gordinier’s projection of the Generation Xer ideology -- didn’t care too much for the manifesto of the mid-’90s.
Granted, to suggest that Chavez “emerged” may be a bit of an overstatement. No one ever lauded them as the voice of a generation. In fact, not too many people really noticed them at all. Chavez just occupied this little pocket of otherwise frustratingly pedestrian musical output. And even now, due in part to Matador Records releasing the comprehensive 2006 compilation Better Days Will Haunt You, a general appreciation has only begun to bubble.
Listening to Gone Glimmering, both their first and penultimate album, it's easy to fathom why Chavez is perpetually overlooked. It epitomizes a deliberate opposition to the period's prevailing monotony, which left more conformist bands to remain as staples of adult contemporary radio stations across America. When everybody else was mass-producing innocuous drab, Chavez was primarily concerned with shredding.
On the occasion that Chavez does serve as a topic of conversation, the “math rock” stamp is inevitably drawn upon. While not necessarily an inaccuracy, the label is more titular than authoritative. Math rock in relation to Chavez is problematic because the term calls to mind a snapping, ticking, pulsating preciseness à la the Dillinger Escape Plan or Battles. And while Gone Glimmering is certainly skintight, it’s driven wholly by guitar, retaining the angularity inherent to the genre yet possessing a sweeping, billowy aura as well. That is, if last year’s Mirrored was a calculated foray into regularity and prime numbers, Chavez’s math rock is a study in geometry.
Popular songs have always been constructed using transitions between verse, chorus, and the occasional bridge. Gone Glimmering’s inattentiveness to this blueprint, instead opting for a more explosive across-the-board approach, is the most obvious and enthralling aspect of the album. Even in some of the quieter moments, like the opening to “The Ghost By the Sea,” there's still a jaggedness courtesy of rippling, icy guitar arpeggios and Matt Sweeney’s corrosive, suppressed voice. Each subtlety (used in the loosest sense of the term) manages to surge into that territory where Chavez thrives.
And thrive they do, particularly on the guitar. The one-two pummel of “Nailed to the Blank Spot” and “Break Up Your Band,” though not ideologically different from the other seven tracks on the record, leaves one hard-pressed to think of another album that opens with such a masterful duality of sheer vigor and accessibility. Throughout these songs, frenetic, isolated squeals trade smacks with sawtoothed bursts of full chords, all while piggybacking on “The” James Lo’s (as he is credited in the liner notes) clamorously popping drums.
Aside from the unmitigated capacity to coerce such rawness and appeal out of their instruments, the boys also seem keenly aware of where they're going. Gone Glimmering could have easily tumbled into that overworked tactic of melodramatic buildups and soaring crescendos that so many other bands of the time were riding. But Chavez tautened the harness when veering too close to what the alternative juggernaut would have ordained. After an uncharacteristic escalation in “Wakeman’s Air,” for example, they opt to fizzle out, only to blast back into typical Chavez mode after a moment or two. These instances occur few and far between on Gone Glimmering, as it bares quite an edge from beginning to end, but they prove further witness to the precociousness of an unconventional band accomplishing something altogether unprecedented on their first record.
Finally, with closer “Relaxed Fit,” Chavez chooses not to linger. Almost as if to supplement the brunt of the preceding eight tracks’ collective sucker punch, Gone Glimmering is over as fast as it began. No self-congratulatory anthem. No token schmaltzy, emotionally wrought ballad to contrast with the rest of the record. It’s an in-and-out affair. And in this way, Gone Glimmering manages to continually resonate, despite the relatively unrecognized status it has held since its 1995 release. Its shirking of the mainstream nondescript serves as a refreshing glimpse back at a time dominated by formulaic rock, while the intrinsic merits of the album render it a pure thrill.
Despite her name, Patsy Cline proved she was "nobody's patsy" throughout her career. In a time when the Nashville music business treated female acts as pretty window dressings or chattel, she demanded and rightfully garnered deep-seated esteem. Concert promoters were known for cheating artists out of their stipends at the time by promising to pay up after shows and running with the money during the concert. Cline stood up to male promoters before she even took the stage, demanded their money by claiming: "No dough, no show."
That type of obstinate showmanship was reflected in her stentorian voice, a peeled-back husk, a full-throated contralto that stood in marked contrast to the light, prairie-wind vocals of other female country musicians. Cline described her vocal stylings matter-of-factly: “Oh, I just sing like I hurt inside." And there was plenty of hurt going around for female musicians in what many still consider a male dominated industry. Cline certainly opened up the doors for the big name country-pop starlets like Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and in recent years LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood. When she made her first recordings in 1955, Kitty Wells was the reigning “Queen of Country Music." By the time Cline broke through as a durable hit maker in 1961, a year before her untimely plane crash, she had taken the throne.
Her third and final album, Sentimentally Yours, sounds more like a melodic capstone on a career and less like an extension of a star’s brief dust trail. This was exacerbated by her continued augurs of impending doom in the months and weeks leading up to her death at age 30. The crash is surpassed by the music with every listen though.
Cline's early days in rockabilly are hinted at in some of her winking deliveries and turns of phrases, but for the most part, Sentimentally Yours is a subtle fusion of sharp populism and C&W gravitas. Similar to her self-titled debut and Showcase, Cline demonstrates her eye for picking choice cuts, from Hank Williams to the staple muse for her countrypolitan material, Hank Cochran.
Despite appearances, Cline wasn’t afraid to rend her heart for the public eye; in fact, she found herself steeped in unabashed nostalgia with the songs she chose to front on Yours. Her final mega-hit “Heartaches” matches her previous two singles (57's “Walkin’ After Midnight” and 61's #1 hit “I Fall to Pieces”) pound-for-pound with the simplest of instrumentation. She doesn’t hide behind any production or backup orchestration. An upright bass, a doleful steel guitar, spongy drums, and a tinkling bar piano courtesy of Nashville mainstay Floyd Cramer fill the small spaces that Cline’s powerful voice doesn’t manage to reach. The setup reveals a bravery in short supply in or out of the Nashville canon.
At various times throughout Yours, influential record producer Owen Bradley's production seems to have one foot in pop, jump-blues, or early rock ‘n' roll. He created a sound all its own; countrypolitan. Today it's colloquially known as country pop or derisively as Bud Light country, but Bradley did it before any co-optation.
“She’s Got You” was the perfect epitome of that sound. It reached #1 on the country charts and remained perched just outside the pop Top 10. Patsy’s phrasing on this torch ballad is unimpeachable, as she lists off all the ephemera as if she’s crying before a bonfire, recalling her old flame. She gets through a signed "I Love You" portrait, old records, and a class ring before singing the clincher: “The only thing different/ The only thing new/ I’ve got your (picture/records/little things)/ She’s got you.” The last line is stretched out until it's unbearable. It's those kinds of moments that truly make Sentimentally Yours a triumph.
Naturally, Cline's pedigree was firmly planted in the nourishing sustenance of country and western music, and Sentimentally Yours features two songs, “Heartaches” and “Anytime,” that became C&W staples in their own right. Penned in the 1930s, "Heartaches" was probably the most identifiable song upon the album's release, seeing as it was highlighted on the cover after initial pressings. It’s a swinging song with light jazz drumming. The mid-tempo is augmented to grand effect by barbershop backup singers The Jordanaires, whose united sighs on the downbeats catapult the frolicsome piano line and watery guitar at a speedy gait. These aren’t simple recreations though; Cline truly leaves her stamp on the source material. Hank Williams’ country hit “Half As Much” is brought to a lazy trot to accentuate the female perspective, and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” is sung with an on-the-lamb thirst for companionship.
Cline was a dynamo musician that jack-hammered hearts and Nashville’s stolid expectations of women artists. During her truncated career she traded in the country music garb she grew up with for fancier duds; though she was becoming a huge sensation on the outside, she remained true to her roots, even until her death. Her singing still makes other people’s attempts seem like taciturn frauds, and as for us; we’re the patsys who go along with it.
Fuck Vampire Weekend. No, seriously: to paraphrase Dr. Gonzo, those swine should be fucked, broken, and driven across the land. Why make do with watery, lite-FM spoiled goods from those smirking poachers when you can buy organic, straight from the far more deserving farmers who coaxed this stuff out of the ground in the first place?
The title of this compilation is no exaggeration: Sir Victor Uwaifo was a towering pillar of Nigerian music by the ‘70s, one of the true innovators in twining the country’s traditional and tribal music with the electric mayhem coming across the Atlantic from the likes of Atlantic, Stax/Volt, and Motown. Guitar Boy Superstar focuses on Uwaifo’s injection of ekassa (traditional coronation music) with a shot of fretboard lightning, instead of his early highlife work or later disco deviances. The result is a laid-back stew of soul, funk, and rock that is as celebratory as its roots suggest: music of the king, by a king, and fit for a king.
Like a lot of the music to come out of Lagos at the time, Uwaifo’s body of work sounds like the product of sheer joy at the mutant idioms he was forging with his bands, often spilling into outright playfulness. “Agho” even borrows the riff from lounge classic “Tequila” (you know, the one where “tequila!” is the only lyric) for a funky workout between the horns and the keys, with Uwaifo’s licks holding down the rhythm. Uwaifo is frequently compared to Jimi Hendrix, and while that’s a touch over the top, the wriggling, fuzzy wah-pedal lines on some of the slinkier tracks here definitely bring Electric Ladyland to mind, as well as the “play like your momma just died” histrionics of Funkadelic’s forever-underrated Eddie Hazel. This is especially apparent on the last track, “West African Safari,” maybe the best, most eclectic and free-ranging number of the bunch. Parts of the song could almost fit in with John McLaughlin’s axe-slinging in Miles Davis’ fusion bands of the same early-‘70s period. As always, James Brown and the JBs are a heavy influence too, and tunes like “Do Lelezi” show that Uwaifo might have already been picking up moves from that hardest-working African disciple of the hardest-working man in show biz, Fela Kuti.
As far as Uwaifo’s career goes, this compilation is a great sampler pack. He’s certainly one of the more unique guitarists to come out of the wildly creative atmosphere of 1970s Nigeria. But the Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump collection released earlier this year by Strut Records is a better overview of the contemporaneous musical currents Uwaifo swam. Both Lagos Jump and Soundways’ own Nigeria Special compilation pack better killer-to-filler ratios, too. Their lack of focus on a single artist or group allowed the labels to pull a wider variety of tracks from the exploding number of local musicians who often made only a handful of enduring songs (like the Brooklyn blog babies of our own era). But if you’ve already wiggled your toes in the shallows, breathe deep and start plumbing the depths right here.
By the year of his death in 1967, John Coltrane had already exhausted a variety of jazz idioms, though not for a sense of accomplishment. His entire musical career thrived on its fluid, adaptive approach, so it's no wonder that many late-period albums -- Ascension, Meditations, Om, etc -- were not only increasingly free, but more conceptually complex. Coltrane adapted well to the pulse of the time, and his later music mirrored his spiritual state of mind, one that was developed to the point of inextricability. Although the musical cacophony might signify otherwise, his vision was particularly lucid during this period.
But Coltrane's musical trajectory is not easily predictable. Interstellar Space -- a fierce free-jazz rumination in four movements -- was among his last studio sessions, yet a week prior he recorded Stellar Regions, one of his more accessible, melodic albums of the time. What these two albums show aren't necessarily contrasting mindframes, but Coltrane's dexterity, range, and pliability. He wasn't moving from style to style as if to conquer each one; the styles themselves were what made him move. And on Interstellar Space, it felt like he was moving to reconcile free-jazz with spiritual truth.
Each of the album's tracks follows a similar structure, with Coltrane sounding bells while drummer Rashied Ali, the sole other performer, lets his drumsticks dance. Coltrane then introduces a melody, frequently shifting, extending, and modulating until it becomes more swirling impressionism than blues-influenced realism. "Venus," for example, is stretched to its tonal limits, with Coltrane getting downright throaty around the 4-minute mark, resembling younger contemporary Albert Ayler (whose spiritual free-jazz had a tremendous influence on Coltrane's sound during this period). He's not intoning on scales, he's screaming in the upper registers. Around 7:10, he stops for breath during a fast-paced ornamentation, only to continue its statement midway through. It's almost as exhausting to listen to as it must've been for Coltrane to play.
Ali, meanwhile, matches Coltrane's intensity with cymbal-heavy flourishes and tumbling snare-tom aggression. He's relentless on his set, sounding each drum and cymbal with equal confidence. Although the emotional limitations of the drum sound restrict his stories from reaching the level of Coltrane's commanding declarations, it's no less important to Interstellar Space's aesthetic. On "Saturn," Ali simply owns his instrument during a two-and-a-half-minute introduction, easing us into Coltrane's final, most rhythmic assertion of the album. From there, the two rip through a movement so raw, so visceral, so complementary that their respective approaches become that much clearer when sound together.
Although it may not have the significance of A Love Supreme and Giant Steps, Interstellar Space better captures what Coltrane had learned throughout the years, especially in terms of style (overtones, multiphonics, the altissimo register) and spiritual philosophy. It's an album indicative of growth over transition, the album I go to when I want to be challenged. Many might characterize his later style of playing as "abstract," but that would only serve to undermine his intent. Coltrane believed in the essentialism of musical notes, that they had universal meaning and that the musician's job was to understand and employ them. He was obviously trying to communicate something deep on this album. And when that effort comes with as much spirituality and philosophy that Coltrane brought to the jazz vernacular, you can't help but get caught up in the romanticism.
1995: Morphine - Yes
In the ’90s, it wasn’t the strangest thing for a hip band to have horns. It was the heyday of the ska revival, after all, and Cake -- an artsy rock band with trumpet in nearly every song -- was on the charts. But Morphine was different. They had two saxophones, drums, and slide bass guitar. While most bands would have treated this setup as a gimmick, Morphine used their unique instrumentation to make gloomy, dangerous pop music.
Yes was the band's third album, after ’91's Good and ’93's Cure For Pain. By the time of its release, they were poised for a break; college radio and international touring had given them substantial exposure and a strong fan base. But Yes, with its dark corners and ominous imagery, probably wasn’t the mainstream bid their fans had in mind. The album was foreboding, but also offset by fast tempos and catchy melodies.
Lead-off track “Honey White” is as poppy as Morphine gets and became one of the band’s signature songs. It's also quintessential Morphine: singer Mark Sandman’s low voice is layered on top of the even lower bass and saxophones, pounding away furiously. The melody is only a few notes, but paired with Sandman’s lyrics about a deal with the devil, it serves its purpose beautifully.
The rest of the record unfolds more quietly. Second track “Scratch” is as subtle as “Honey White” is abrasive, and a fair representative of Yes as a whole. Sandman’s voice is typically resigned, and his lyrics -- “I lost everything I had/ I’m starting over from scratch” -- are both bleak and funny. This darkness shows up elsewhere on Yes, from the repeated warning “sharks patrol these waters” in “Sharks” to the heartbreaking closer “Gone For Good,” a breakup song that features only Sandman’s hushed vocals and acoustic guitar.
“All Your Way” finds middle ground between the band’s sweet and bitter extremes, resulting in one of their best songs. The lyrics are about love gone wrong -- “I found a woman who's soft but she's also hard/ While I slept she nailed down my heart” -- yet the pretty melody slinks around major chords, and the song’s saxophones sound almost happy. It may be the closest Morphine gets to serenity.
The record’s other highlights -- the punchy “Super Sex,” the madly romantic “Radar” -- don't shake things up too much, but they fill out the album nicely. The only missteps are ones of excess. “The Jury,” with its beat-poetry delivery and dull atmospherics, is a glaring weak spot and, being the ninth track out of twelve, slows the record’s momentum.
But as a whole, Yes perfectly represents what made Morphine great. Underneath the murkiness, the roaring saxophones, and the sinister vocals are songs full of pathos, wit, and perfect melodies. It’s easy to see why Cambridge, Massachusetts named a city square after Mark Sandman. Why the rest of the country didn’t follow suit is anybodies guess.
1970: Curtis Mayfield - Curtis
Curtis Mayfield kicked off his debut album, Curtis, with a string of racial epithets aimed dead-on at no one in particular. He had America in his crosshairs. From the crumbling inner-cities to the finely manicured suburbs -- black and white, those both privileged and down on their luck – Mayfield wanted to garner the attention of the masses. And over the 40-odd minutes that followed, he would dissect and explore the deep-seated sentiments of injustice, poverty, and revolution that were afflicting this country in 1970.
The opening track is "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go." It's eight minutes of fire and brimstone -- a pessimistic caveat to a generation left jaded by the failures that followed the promise and ultimate decline of the ’60s, a rallying cry to the ignorant. Mayfield comes out swinging right from the start, bolstered by the absolute might of his backing band. A chugging funk guitar dances with a percussion setup bent on polyrhythm, consistent only in its sporadic deviations. But Curtis ends up digging us out of the dark, psychedelic "Hell" and greets us, rather abruptly, with a swell of heavenly harps on "Other Side of Town," a lonely ballad about the hopelessness that comes with being penniless. Without rushing, he relays the despair of what the poorly informed might refer to as "the underprivileged."
But he reassures us that there's still beauty worth fighting for on tracks like "Makings of You" and "Miss Black America." They soar due to the work of Riley Hampton and Gary Slabo, who share production credits with Mayfield, and can be thanked for the album's abundance of string arrangements. They took Henry Mancini to the streets, mixed in Mayfield's Chicago soul and shook well. Those strings manage to evoke a grab-bag of emotions, from skittering paranoia to absolute bliss, not to mention the eerie calm that can envelop a city in the dead of night. The expert horn section is nothing short of inspired as well, and they're used to their full potential on cuts such as "Wild and Free." Though the harp may seem like Mayfield's ace-in-the-hole, the horns keep the songs on their toes: that brass force continually provides balance to the vocal's slight falsetto, which might come off as wispy if Mayfield weren't so confident.
One could make the argument that Curtis hinges on two tracks. One of them is "Move On Up," the 9-minute expedition that doesn't need an introduction (especially since a certain Mr. West slowed it down to right a few wrongs and help him write some song). The other is "We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue." It's a beautifully structured catharsis, plucked from the bowels of Curtis Mayfield's soul. It starts off slow, with intention, but before long the band drives into a fury of drumming and blasting horns, only to ease back out over a sprinkling harp, as if the digression was just a bad dream. It's a perfect display of the album's duality, as gliding soul meets the hard-hitting funk that would later be refined on the ghetto symphony Superfly.
By all counts, Curtis got the ball rolling for a new type of socially conscious R&B and soul. It took black music beyond Hitsville, USA and gave it a set of principles, which Mayfield had already hinted at in his earlier work with The Impressions. The importance of his message sometimes overshadows the density of the actual music. Curtis is a lush, thick record that not only supports a healthy dose of social commentary, but also embraces the listener in a distinctive, velvety swathe that, until then, was foreign to soul records.
I’ve only seen Tobin Sprout perform once, opening for his former band Guided by Voices on their 2004 farewell tour. Sprout seemed like the polar opposite of Bob Pollard’s notoriously drunken, boisterous crew as he played through a set of solo material alongside some of his contributions to the GBV canon. It’s not just a coincidence that Voices albums began to decline in quality (if not quantity) soon after Sprout left the group following 1996’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars; Tobin was responsible for some of the band’s best-loved songs, including “A Good Flying Bird,” “Awful Bliss,” and “To Remake the Young Flyer,” and he collaborated with Pollard on many more.
After Under the Bushes’ release in early ’96, Sprout struck out on his own with Carnival Boy, which dropped just a few months later. Not surprisingly, the two records are quite similar – Carnival Boy even reprises Bushes’ “It’s Like Soul Man.” But while Under the Bushes is a 24-song monster, like most Pollard epics, Sprout’s album is comparatively brief – only 14 songs, with minimal filler and quite a few legitimate sing-a-long jams.
Arguably, Carnival Boy is more consistently good than any GBV or Pollard record outside of the immortal Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. If anything, the record is back-heavy, with the stellar trio of “Soul Man,” “Hermit Stew,” and Syd Barrett ode “The Last Man Well Known to Kingpin” closing the deal. “Kingpin,” in particular, is the standout, with layers of Sprouts singing a chorus of “Shangri-La wrecker” so earnestly it sounds meaningful.
It’s impossible to say whether Carnival Boy is so good simply because Sprout doesn’t spread himself as thin as Pollard often does. Regardless, it’s a record often unjustly overlooked by fans of the genre -- a near-perfect nugget of charming ’90s pop from a guy so modest he didn’t even bother to put his name on the front cover.