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Sound Grammar

What We’re Listening to This Week



The Ministry of Wolves: Music From Republik der Wolfe (Mute, 2014)

In 1971, Anne Sexton published a wildly inventive sequence of poems called Transformations. The poems, with titles like Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, The Frog Prince and Cinderella, function as a modern reinvention of the Grimm Brothers. Sexton ingeniously inverts and twists the old stories, without compromising their strange grip on the darker quadrants of the imagination. These are fairy tales for adults, written from an acutely female, if not precisely feminist, perspective. The poet’s voice moves in the fractured rhythms of a jazz chant, sly and knowing, ribald and ruthless. The unadulterated Grimm stories are dark. And so are Sexton’s poems, very dark at times. But they are also very funny, salacious and sexy, terrifying and morbid, flippant and perverse–perverse even to the point of sadism. Sexton battled schizophrenia most of her life and you can see how these stories of shocking metamorphosis, forbidden desires, and secret demons must have appealed to her and you can also see why Sexton’s shadowy poems continue to exert such a powerful hold on those of us drawn to gothic themes.  A few years ago Theater Dortmund, in Germany, produced an eerie musical using a dozen or so poems from Transformations. The Ministry of Wolves is a quartet of avant-garde musicians, featuring Paul Wallfisch, Danielle de Picciotto, Mick Harvey and Alexandre Hacke, who rendered Sexton’s poems into an outrageously creative Brechtian goth-jazz opera. The music is as visceral as the language of the poems, featuring sinister synths, drone-like drumming and elegiac violins. The overall effect is one of musical surrealism, where familiar melodies and storylines are distorted into noirish soundscapes of menace, erotic compulsion and terror. It might be going too far to call the project an exercise in sonic nihilism, but there’s certainly no attempt to draw any moral lessons from these tales of sex, debauchery and bloodlust. And that’s one big reason why this deliciously kinky record is so much illicit fun.

Marc Ford: Holy Ghost (Naim, 2014)

The Black Crowes, the southern blues-rock ensemble which featured Marc Ford on guitar for many years, are one of those highly imitative bands who somehow made it big despite the fact that their music never came close to having the same raw intensity as their idols, the Stones and the Allman Brothers. The Crowes most intractable problem derived from Chris and Rich Robinson’s crippling limitations as songwriters. In concert, their covers were always more fun than their original compositions, though even the covers tended to fizzle out into aimless jams and tendentious posturing.  Ford was the band’s outsider, a proficient slide guitarist from Los Angeles, who had made his mark with Burning Tree, a Creem-like power trio. While most of the Crowes dabbled in varieties of inebriants, when the band’s 1997 tour was pummeled by more than a few hostile reviews for sloppy performances, it was Ford who took the fall. Rehab and years of exile followed. A few albums came and went, as well as a short reunion with the Black Crowes, but for the most part it seemed safe to write off Marc Ford as another casualty of the road. As it turns out, that would have been a huge mistake, since Ford has just released an album that is deeper and more soulful than anything the Crowes recorded with or without him.  Holy Ghost is a humble record, not in its ambition but in its attitude. It’s quiet and subdued, a little circumspect and somber at times, like a testament from a long haul. Ford’s guitar-playing is stripped down to the sinews, unadorned, lyrical and tender. His leathery voice, trenches deep into the heart of the melodies. These songs have a haunting fragility, as if searching in those vulnerable early morning hours for the lost keys to redemption.  Holy Ghost is the dark and warm sound of Ford’s artistic recovery.

Ibibio Sound Machine: Ibibio Sound Machine (Soundway, 2014)

An infectious debut record by a London-based Afropop band, fronted by the ridiculously talented singer Eno Williams, whose parents immigrated to England from the Ibibo region of southeastern Nigeria. This record swirls and undulates with polyrhythms, funky beats and sparkling guitar-lines laid down by the legendary Kari Gannerman of Ghana. Williams’ voice, singing lyrics based on west African folk tales recited told by her grandmother, has a beguilingly liquid quality to it, as it flows sweetly over the thick basslines, sputtering synths and moaning horns. This is dance music, freer and earthier than disco, at times sultry, at times frenetic, but always sublimely performed and, for the most part, uplifting and downright cheery.

Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits.



The Be Good Tanyas: A Collection (2012, Nettwerk)

Layered warbling at it’s finest, the Vancouver based trio The Be Good Tanyas have an acoustic folk beauty with this collection. Nothing garish present to compete with the vocals. It’s all about the interplay of those silken voices, gently framed with just enough percussion and dancing strings to provide a path—it’s a dirt path, though, and it just pulls you down that dreamy scape where this music lives. It’s always dusk there with a humid pulse of summer charged air. I could add lightning bugs, but you’d call me hokey (they’re still there, regardless).  It’s just that certain types of music feel like a place. Those clear sirens say “The Littlest Birds” sing the prettiest songs, and it’s true. A slight detour to the dark night woods is there with their version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die” but the path leads back with “Dogsong”–the Milky Way and violins light the path back to this one; it’s a lullaby for a sleeping dog. This is important. If one is to let sleeping dogs lie, they probably do need a lullaby. “A Collection” is a mildly titled work that comes off as effortless and sweetly organic, but the lightness of its touch does not reflect on it’s musical grip.

Kathleen Wallace writes about music and culture for CounterPunch. She lives somewhere in the Midwest.



Harrison Birtwistle, Chamber Music (ECM, 2014)

Much has been made of the idiosyncratic severity of the music of eminent British composer Harrison Birtwistle, who will celebrate his 80th birthday this summer. Legendarily difficult to play, his oeuvre makes great demands not just on the performer, but, it is often said, on the listener as well. The composer self-consciously resists elegantly polished surfaces, instead favoring etched, even craggy ones. These commonplaces in the reception of Birtwistle’s work should not scare the first-time listener away from this collection of his recent chamber music: nine settings of short poems by the Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker for soprano and cello; five expansive meditations on a poem by Rilke (Love Song: How shall I hold my soul, so / It does not touch yours?) for baritone, piano and cello; and a substantial single-movement trio, a nineteenth-century genre previously eschewed by the composer. The world Birtwistle creates is dark, even pessimistic, all the more so since the shards of European culture and its codes of conviviality and decorum are tied up with the practice of chamber music.  Instead of erudite conversation, the vexed interplay of piano and stringed instruments in the trio of 2011 sounds more like a depleting argument, moments of agreement only fleetingly glimpsed and just as quickly dashed, often violently so. Remnants of a disappearing natural world litter the shadows, as when the cello—played with great expressivity and precision by Adrian Brendel—relinquishes a series of quarter-tone sighs evoking the mourning dove in the “snow-grave” of one of Niedecker’s poem. Little in this music will warm you, but there is immense, mysterious beauty in its bleakness.

David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.



The Last Poets: This is Madness (Snapper UK, 2012)

This 1971 album is the second disc from these street poets and featured a slightly different lineup than the first album.  When you listen to this or the disc that preceded it, you are listening to pure, unadulterated consciousness raising.  Indeed, it helped but the group in the FBI’s sights under COINTELPRO. The combination of percussion and words sears images of anger, love and revolution into your very being.

KRS One and Boogie Down Productions: Edutainment (Sbme Special Mkts. 1990)

I don’t listen to hiphop much, but when I do, I listen to old school.  There are two songs that stand out in my mind on this stand out album–30 Cops or More and Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love), but the entire disc puts most other music released in 1990 to shame.  What I said about The Last Poets and consciousness raising applies equally to KRS-One..

Country Joe and the Fish: Electric Music for the Mind and Body ( Vanguard Records, 1990)

Given that psychedelia helped make me who I am, I tend to dip into a psychedelic rock album at least once a week.  This 1968 disc from red diaper baby Country Joe McDonald, guitarist Barry The Fish Melton and their rhythm section takes politics, Sixties counterculture, and electric jug band music, throws it into a bowl of electric koolaid and turns out a classic piece of rock and roll.

Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.



PJ Harvey: Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island, 2000)

1969: The Velvet Underground Live (Mercury, 1969)

Pink Mountaintops: Get Back (Jagjaguwar, 2014)

Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine. [Editors' Note: Kristin has recently been diagnosed with a vicious form of breast cancer, please help her fight it off by donating a few bucks to her campaign. -- JSC & JF.] 



Gov’t Mule: Mighty & High (ATO Records, 2006)

Branford Marsalis: A Love Supreme (Marsalis Music, 2004)

Infectious Grooves: Sarsippiu Ark (Sbme Special Mkts., 2008)

Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch magazine. Check out RRC’s latest video: Dreamscape.



Wayne Shorter: Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002)

Containing some great Shorter compositions going back to the mid-60s, this release is a testament to the enduring strength of one of the great sax players and composers of jazz. Some of the tracks were originally heard on projects headlined by Shorter, others from his work in Miles Davis’ late-60s/early 70s ensemble. This recording, with all the energy and surprise of live performance, is a deft revisiting of these old tunes, filled with new discoveries made within them.

Marc Beaudin edits poetry for CounterPunch, and is the frontman of the most likely completely defunct poetry band Remington Streamliner. He can be reached at