What We’re Listening to This Week
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Jon Langford and Skull Orchard: Here Be Monsters (In De Goot Recordings / Relativity, 2014)
The title is a reference to the old maps of Empire, where the territories beyond the borders of authority, the unruled world, were inscribed with warning signs. The imperial cartographers of Rome marked unknown lands with the phrase: HIC SVNT LEONES –Here be Lions. Lions became dragons in the Middle Ages, mutating to monsters for the seafarers of the Renaissance. In Langford’s suite of caustic songs, however, the real monsters seem to be manning the helm. The Welsh-born veteran of the venerable British post-punk band The Mekons now lives in Chicago, where he has pioneered the fusion of American roots music with the ferocious sound and attitude of punk. The new record lacks the ragged anarchy of the Mekons’ best work. It is more finely crafted and measured, featuring pristine harmonies with Tawny Newsome and elegiac fiddling by Jean Cook. And, it turns out, that’s just fine. These songs are about living in a world were nearly every inch is delineated, inventoried, monitored, but still doesn’t make much sense, except, perhaps, when you summon the ghost of Hank Williams as your guide through the wreckage. In Langford’s blasted landscape, we encounter searchers and the faithless, war profiteers, street wanderers, separated lovers, victims and victimizers, the vanished and the lost, and those of us who find our consolations in old poems and rum. The music may not rock as savagely as it once did, but Langford’s lyrics are, if anything, more acrid, the ironies biting even deeper. His song, “Drone Operator,” is perhaps the closest any rock musician has yet come to capturing the black comedy of Terry Southern. Here Be Monsters may not be the album you want to take with you when exiled to a desert island, but it’s precisely the kind of music you want playing loud as you amble through the ruins of an empire in the grip of terminal entropy.
Tord Gustavsen Quartet: Extended Circle (ECM, 2014)
I saw the Tord Gustavsen Quartet a few weeks ago in Portland. It was a luminous performance of highly intuitive improvisation drawn from modal blues, classical and Scandanavian folk music. The sound, though, was modern: spare, gorgeously austere. Most of the music these highly gifted Norwegian musicians played that night appears on their third record, Extended Circle. The slow, moody quality of the music is deceptive, as the various themes softly braid together into a dense sonic tapestry. Gustavsen has all the tools of a Nordic Ahmad Jamal, but he has surrounded himself with more empathetic musicians, players who seem to be preternaturally attuned to his genius for melodic improvisation. Extended Circle is a record whose virtues continue to unfold after repeated listens. As usual, the production from ECM is immaculate.
Boozoo Bajou: 4 (Apollo, 2014)
Two German prodigies, Florian Seyberth and Peter Heider, with a love of Cajun country and sophisticated electronics concoct a musical ode to water: its motion, sounds, tidal pulses. “4” is a sonic rendering of Freud’s “oceanic feeling,” dark, hypnotic waves of electronic beats. This is ambient jazz morphed into a kind of swirling trance dance, with spooky groves, chilly horns and narcotic dubs. You don’t have to be stoned to enjoy it, but it just might enhance the experience. Boozoo Bajou put the thrills back into Thanatos.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits.
Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan: In Session (Stax, 2010)
It was Albert King’s Flying V, man. That unmatched sound that’s never been replicated. It was King’s instrument of choice that changed music forever and influenced a whole generation of guitarists. The “King of the Blues” could also be called one of the Godfathers of Rock. This great showcase has Stevie Ray Vaughan paying tribute to the great Albert King, with the King himself.
Nas, Illmatic (Sony, 1994)
Illmatic is the greatest rap album ever recorded. Hands down. While Nas has always been a true urban poet, much of his latter material lacked in the beats department. Fortunately for Nas (and our ears), DJ Premier of Gang Starr, Q-Tip from Tribe Called Quest and other East Coast heavy hitters produced his first album. And it’s infectious. This is inner-city poetry at its finest – tales of poverty and struggles in the projects of Queensbridge, New York where Nas found his voice as a teenager, when most of this material was written. I hadn’t listened to Illmatic in years, but loaded it onto my iPod for a run earlier this week. I have not been able to turn it off since. Nas will always represent the grit of real New York. The New York that HBO’s Sex in the City and that Girls could never explore. Here’s a taste of Nas’ skills on the track Memory Lane:
I rap divine, Gods check the prognosis, is it real or showbiz?
My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses
Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real
A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja
Here’s my basis, my razor embraces, many faces
Your telephone blowing, black stitches or fat shoelaces
Peoples are petrol, dramatic automatic four-four I let blow
and back down po-po when I’m vexed so
my pen taps the paper then my brain’s blank
I see dark streets, hustling brothers who keep the same rank
Pumping for something, some uprise, plus some fail
Judges hanging niggas, uncorrect bails, for direct sales
My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch.
Philip Glass: Solo Piano (Sony, 1989)
Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine.
PETER STONE BROWN
Bob Dylan’s tour opening show in Tokyo, March 31st, which includes some new lines in Blind Willie McTell
The Band at Asbury Park Casino, July 20th, 1976.
This is a full show featuring apparently professionally shot video with excellent sound, in fact probably better than the sound in the venue itself which I can say because I was there. While Richard Manuel’s voice is more than rough (to put it lightly), especially after his first song, this particular version of “Tears of Rage” even though his voice is shot is intense to say the least. Everyone else is in top form with Robbie Robertson particularly on fire.
Peter Stone Brown is a musician and music writer living in New York.
Antonio Vivaldi, Four Seasons, Venice Baroque Orchestra (Sony, 2000)
I know, I know, there is nothing more hackneyed in the world of classical music than this most famous set of concertos tracking the course of the seasons. Unfortunately, practically every orchestra has recorded it: a stocking stuffer for the patrons and bit of ear candy for the masses. Ringtones now do their best to finish off the illustrious set. Nonetheless, at the end of a long winter with the North Wind retreating back to its icy lair, one can’t help but hear Vivaldi in the song of the birds and the gentle breezes playing off the waters. The Red Priest begins his set with Spring and it will always remain part of the season. That the joyous beauty of this music can push up through the dirty sludge of decades of accumulated concerts and recordings like so many sounding snowdrops is a testament to its undying, renewable energy. Rather than condemn you to seek this harbinger of the season in the dank Vivaldi Four Seasons compost bin, I’ll send you right to the best version imaginable—the energetic and imaginative Andrea Marcon leading his orchestra from Vivaldi’s Venice with the tremendous violinist Giuliano Carmignola up front as the soloist. These forces range confidently from the suave and lilting to the fast and furious, from the languorous to the stormy. This bunch of brilliant, bad-boy Italians breathes new life into the Four Seasons: Spring has never felt nor sounded better.
David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY
Nina Simone, “Little Girl Blue”, Bethlehem Records, 1958.
Deniece Williams, “This is Niecy”, Columbia Records, 1976.
And thinking of Marvin Gaye this week (April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984.)
“Let’s Get it On”, Tamla Records, 1973.
“Midnight Love”, Columbia Records, 1982.
Kevin Gray’s latest book, Killing Trayvons, (co-edited with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair) will be published by CounterPunch this spring.
Glass Animals: Glass Animals (Virgin, 2013)
Just a four track offering, but all clearly worthwhile–I’ve seen this band labeled trip-hop, which I sort of like the sound of, but that’s not exactly a perfect description. Opening track “Psylla” is this initially sparse, hypnotic luring thing. Velvety thumping percussion on that track feels connected to the beat of the heart, atria to ventricle and repeat. Few songs have that sort of organic effect, but then again, maybe it’s a sign of a cardiac anomaly for me, not a connection to the music. But I don’t think so. I’d say it’s when a song hits a certain intangible, and this song does just that, making it felt as well as heard. I first heard “Psylla” when I was driving and listening to some live feed from a radio station off a music fest. Very trippy to hear this song while driving at night, imparts a feeling that you might accidentally take a left turn and end up in another dimension (and that it might just be okay). “Black Mambo” does probably fit the trip-hop designation. Like “Psylla” it has a sleek pull as well as that slight intoxicating menace that permeates each track. “Exxus” continues the trend, relaxing until it jars a bit. And “Woozy” adds a weary voiced Jean Deaux rapping, the overall effect is looming thunderclouds. There’s a muddy sensation of submission to a coming storm with each of these tracks. These four songs are experiments that work—the potato made electricity and the baking soda volcano erupted.
Kathleen Wallace writes about music and culture for CounterPunch. She lives in the Midwest.
Jon Cowherd: Mercy (Artist Share, 2013)
Mary J. Blige: My Life II (Geffen, 2011)
La India: Mega Mix
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch magazine.
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris: Grievous Angel (Reprise, 1974)
When I returned to the US from Germany in 1973, people in the DC area were still buzzing about the 1972 appearance of Emmylou Harris at a Flying Burritto Brothers concert on the Montgomery College campus and the subsequent performance. The harmonies produced by Emmylou and Gram Parsons that night became the stuff of two amazing albums in the early 1970s. By the time this disc was released in 1974, Parsons was dead of an overdose and Emmylou was heading slowly towards a long rewarding career as one of country music’s greatest female interpreters of song.
Otis Taylor: White African (Northern Blues, 2001.)
Blues. Acoustic. Country. Raw. Banjo, guitar, mandolin and harmonica. A voice that bleeds the blues. Lyrics about racism, Louisiana, death and cowgirls, among other themes of the darkness that lurks deep in our souls.
The Beatles: Rubber Soul (Parlophone, 1965)
Hey, it seems to finally be spring in New England. The sap is running, children are dancing and the Beatles make me a happy guy. Let’s burn some of the Norwegian Wood!
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.
Another Man’s Treasure, Greg Klyma (2013, indie/unsigned)
Greg Klyma excels in two areas: writing strongly crafted songs with poetic, witty and often gut-wrenching lyrics, and assembling the perfect team of top musicians to bring his songs to life. After a dozen-plus years of relentless touring, writing and recording seven self-produced CDs, Klyma seems to have put everything he had into his eighth, Another Man’s Treasure.
I mostly keep playing the songs “Signpost,” “Train” and “Time Does Fly.” They are what happens when folk sensibilities are slapped upside the head with a rock attitude. I find myself comparing them to Springsteen’s Pete Seeger Sessions, but not because they are in any way derivative, rather that Greg and Bruce have fed from the same table and hiked the same trail.
Marc Beaudin edits poetry for CounterPunch, and is the frontman of the most likely completely defunct poetry band Remington Streamliner.