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Sound Grammar

What We’re Listening to This Week



Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band: Landmarks (Blue Note, 2014)

Let me cop to my biases upfront: Brian Blade, the most innovative drummer since Tony Williams, is one of my favorite musicians. His presence on any recording, from violinist Jenny Scheinman to pianist Billy Childs, is more than enough to prick my interest. Blade, the prodigy from Shreveport, is so good that he has now become the creative force propelling Wayne Shorter’s latest band. Yes, that Wayne Shorter. But when Blade takes the Fellowship Band out on the road or into the studio, it’s time to stop and listen deeply. Listen deeply, not because appreciating the band’s marvelous improvisations takes work, but because the deeper you plunge into the music the more rewarding and beguiling it becomes. There’s a seductive beauty to all of the songs on Landmarks, a beauty that lures you in, beat by beat, but down beneath, down where Blade is conjuring up deep polyrhythms, the music reveals its sublime complexity. Blade may be the headliner, but the Fellowship Band is a band in the truest, most intimate sense of the term. The core quintet has been together since their debut in 1998: Jon Cowherd on keyboards, Chris Thomas on bass, Melvin Butler on sax and Myron Waldren on a variety of reeds. Landmarks sees the welcome addition of guitarists Jeff Parker and Marvin Sewell, whose funky slide-work on “Farewell Bluebird” is one of the highlights of the record. Their joint project is nothing less than a daring exploration up the diverse tributaries of the music of the American south, all the way up to the headwaters, charting the common currents of blues, R&B, rock, gospel, and even country. The voyage kicks off with “Down River,” a swampy invocation played by Cowherd (who once did a stint with Iggy Pop) on a mellotron, which lays down the sonic themes of the record. Cowherd’s work is a revelation, from his stunning duets with Thomas and Butler on “Landmarks” (a tune Cowherd composed) to the hymn-like pump organ he plays on the brief but haunting rendition of “Shenandoah.” To label this music “jazz” seems somehow unfair and confining, even for the freest of art forms. The music is too mercurial; too intuitive. It twists and spins, writhes and ascends; it digs deep into the past and comes out somewhere in the future. What it never does is lose the groove. I hesitate to use the word “spiritual” since it’s not part of my natural vocabulary. But I’m not sure there’s a more precise description for the kind of intense emotional uplift I get from listening to this incandescent record.

Rodrigo y Gabriela: 9 Dead Alive (Rubyworks, 2014)

So you want something sophisticated that rocks. You want something frenetic, but exquisitely crafted. You want something acoustic with power chords. You want something new that remains grounded in the essential grammar of the blues. “9 Dead Alive” by the Irish musicians (by way of Mexico) Rodrigo y Gabriela, is all that and more. After some recent forays into flamenco and a well-received detour to Cuba, Rodrigo y Gabriela have returned to the music that charged them as young musicians in Mexico City: blues-powered heavy metal. On the guitar duo’s first record of new material in five years, their playing is furiously lyrical and intensely focused. Rodrigo’s catchy riffs and intricate melodies weave seamless across Gabriela’s hard-charging rhythms. The energetic fervor may be modeled on Metallica, but there’s nothing dark or brooding here, even on the slightly schizoid vamp called “Sunday Neurosis.” This is music that blazes with joyful passion.

The Pixies: Indie Cindy (Pixies Music, 2014)

It’s been 20 years since the last Pixies record. On the evidence of the bloated and passionless Indie Cindy, they should have waited another two decades to inflict the latest lyrical banalities of Black Francis (aka Frank Black, aka Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, aka blah, blah, blah …) on even their most adulatory groupies.  Some devotees may attribute the creative sinkhole of Indie Cindy to the absence of bassist Kim Deal, long the heart and soul of the band. That’s surely part of it. But even the full Deal, who for some inexplicable reason consented to lending her voice to one of these flatlining songs, couldn’t have saved this boring and self-infatuated offering from a swift toss into the recycling bin. Once upon a time the Pixies were a wild and riotous force, now their playing sounds indifferent and, worse, impotent. A less narcissistic sensibility than Black Francis’ might have detected these fatal defects in the mixing room. The sound of death by whimper.

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



Kurt Vile: it’s a big world out there (and i am scared). (Matador Records, 2013)

You may think all of us here at CounterPunch think alike. Fact is, we don’t, especially when it comes to music. However, there’s one guy out there that brings us all together around a crackling campfire: Kurt Vile. His album Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze topped most of our Top 10 lists last year. Wakin’ is an infectious, dense and melodic beauty. His sounds are made for headphones and solitude. Vile is well on his way to becoming the Neil Young of my generation. This past week I discovered that he had released an EP last fall to accompany Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. The seven song list hosts a few Wakin’ remixes, instrumentals and a couple of new tracks. If you haven’t taken the time to discover Kurt Vile, now’s your chance. Get on it.


WC and the Maad Circle: Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed, (Priority Records, 1991)

This week is now being referred to as “Racism Week” here in the Los Angeles area, as notorious slum lord and Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA for spouting off a few racist comments. If you’ve had your head in the sand for the past seven days, Sterling’s mistress recorded his rant last fall and somehow the tape made its way into TMZ’s hands. Race relations in Los Angeles are ever-evolving and constantly present. The whole Sterling affair got me thinking about an underappreciated hip hop album from the 1990s that explores race and class dynamics in Los Angeles, WC and the Maad Circle’s Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed. It’s classic early West Coast rap with Parliament and James Brown samples. Recorded shortly before the LA riots of ’92, Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed is bold and prescient. This isn’t gangsta rap, but hip hop from the hood. WC gives us first hand insights into poverty and life on the streets of South Central, what it’s like to be judged for being black and male in LA and the struggle to find work  and survive in a town with extreme gaps between the rich and the broke. WC is a big f** you to Donald Sterling and his ilk.

Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He lives in the LBC.



Dexter Gordon, One Flight Up (Blue Note, 1964; reissued on CD 2004)

Dexter made this timeless recording just short of fifty years go (June 2, 1964) in Paris. He was joined by fellow European expatriates Kenny Drew on piano and Art Taylor on drums, with the rhythm section completed by teenage prodigy, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (then all of eighteen) with whom the long, tall tenor saxophonist had been working in Copenhagen since 1962. Trumpeter Donald Byrd rounds out the quintet with his aristocratic, cool sound and bursts of boppish fleetness. I’ve got a special fondness for this recording, since it was one of the first LPs I bought on my teenage trips into Seattle to build a jazz library some thirty years ago. The CD will give you famed recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s re-mastered version, but the small format forfeits the space required to do justice to legendary Blue Note photographer and producer Francis Wolff’s image of Dexter standing in front of a quaintly dilapidated Old World house. Dexter reaches almost up to the second-story of the structure even with his legs splayed, as if to suggest that the continent could barely contain the tenorman’s musical and physical largeness. CD and iTunes access to this classic album also effaces the crucial fact that the entire A side of the LP is dedicated to Donald Byrd’s original “Tanya,” an expansive modal reflection whose eighteen minutes of relaxed but inspired improvisation is the vinyl equivalent of the three-hour lunch. The nonchalant groove and unapologetically non-goal-oriented harmonies are indebted to the innovations and experiments of Miles Davis and George Russell, but Byrd, the single non-ex-pat on the date, seems to have put his finger on the civilized pulse of European social life, though the trumpeter injects a dose of American verve through a second, swinging theme that cycles back at the end of the tune’s form. This more vigorous interlude puts some go into the proceedings, or maybe it just casts a glance back across the Atlantic at the American rat race with a knowing shake of the head. As leader, Dexter takes the first solo, a lordly six-minute oration filled with stentorian mottoes and bluesy asides. Then comes, Byrd soaring above his estate. One of my favorite pianists, Drew is chordal and funky on the modal bits and edgy and incisive on the swinging stretch. Bassist NHOP doesn’t get a solo in the conventional sense, but his big sound and big ideas fill the music from the bottom up until at last he comes to the surface like bubbling crude during the fade-out. (How else could a piece so uninterested in the passing of time end?) Tanya doesn’t so much as conclude as she recedes from the audible towards an infinite future and past. As time unspools it is given shape and texture by Taylor’s imaginative, intelligent commentary: at every turn he enlivens the conversation at this eternal café in Paris or Copenhagen or some other real, mythic city. It could go on forever. But then there’s the B side …

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



Jessica Lea Mayfield, Make My Head Sing (ATO, 2014)

Before the hot, barely legal, Bible Belt, small-town Ohio chanteuse, Lydia Loveless, there was the hot, not-even-legal, Bible Belt, small-town Ohio chanteuse, Jessica Lea Mayfield. She’s 24 now, but she’s matured from folk to metal, to keep the genres simple. And Jessica is nothing but simple and to the point.

Since she was 15, adorably head-shaved and septum-pierced, singing into her brother’s 4-track in her bedroom in Kent, Ohio, her lyrics have been blunt. Sex and drugs, and simply not giving a fuck, and getting the most fucked up in order to fuck. As one who went to college in small-town Ohio, etc., I listen to her with the heretic sneer of a big sister. I want her pull her by her ear, tell her to shut the hell up and stop screwing the riff raff, already. Stop going crazy, sister. She made me cry in frustration when I saw her in Seattle a few years ago. Darling Jessica, you and your music are so raw you scare me.

But Jessica continues on her sex-and-war path, my favorite of which is an album title any CounterPuncher could love, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, released when she was 18. The best on that record has to be “Bible Days,” with the lyrics:  “I don’t want to be tested by God or anyone else with blasphemy so heartfelt. I wish death upon someone else. God damn you.”

On her new album, Make My Head Sing, she’s far more in control of her sound than her other records. On her last one, she gave it over to some useless dude from the Black Keys, and that was a mess of a recording. I won’t even talk about it. On this one, there are walls of sound cracked by riffs reminiscent of the Flock of Seagulls and Mudhoney fuzz. Ohio is far behind her. She haunts more than she cries, and more often, she wounds, well-placed.  She’s all grown up.  And she’s sounding fine.

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.] 



Tough times call for tough music.  The Supreme Court’s Michigan Decision on Affirmative Action, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling are just the tip of the spear jabbing black people.  “Post-racial” America, yeah buddy.   They say the economy is getting better but having been stolen from 3 times in a 24-hour period to include a break-in, well, times are tough.

Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Burnin”  (Tuff Gong/Island Records 1973)

(Donald Sterling and all those “powerful” practicing white supremacists – this includes people of all hues – would do well to hear “Small Axe.”)

Peter Tosh, “Equal Rights,” CBS Records 1977.

Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Babylon By Bus,” Tuff Gong/Island Records 1978.

Peter Tosh, “Mama Africa,” CBS Records 1983.

Nina Simone,  “The Very Best of Nina Simone,” Song BMG Records 2006.

Because a week shouldn’t go by without listening to “The High Priestess.”

Kevin Gray’s latest book, Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence, (co-edited with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair) will be published by CounterPunch this spring.



Grateful Dead Live on Kresge Plaza, MIT Campus May 6, 1970

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard murdered four students and wounded more than a dozen others during a protest at Kent State University against the US invasion of Cambodia. The Grateful Dead were on tour with the New Riders of the Purple Sage, playing colleges and other venues on the East Coast.  Although the Dead were not playing May 4th, they most likely heard the news of the massacre when everyone else did. Their next show was scheduled for MIT on May 7th. Organizers working with the Boston-Cambridge anti-imperialist group the November Action Coalition (NAC) were among the many Boston area antiwar organizations organizing a never-ending round of protests. In a conversation with NAC organizer Peter Bohmer many years later, he told me how the Dead became involved in these efforts. It seems that some fans of the band who were also antiwar organizers had the ear of the Dead.  The band told them they wanted to do something to express their state of mind about the escalation of the war. So on May 6th, the Dead set up on Kresge Plaza on the MIT campus in Cambridge during a protest and played a nine song set. Bohmer wasn’t a fan, but remarked that Garcia and the other band members seemed like nice guys with their hearts in the right place.

The maelstrom of war, racism, and rebellion unleashed in the wake of Nixon’s words on April 30th took at least eight more stateside victims in the weeks following that Grateful Dead concert in Cambridge, Six blacks protesting racism in Augusta, GA. were gunned down. On May 14, 1970 two more young people were killed by Mississippi state troopers while protesting the war. The forces of law and order were resorting to the one card they could always pull from their sleeve: raw, murderous violence. Black and Brown-hued Americans knew this all too well. White ones were rediscovering it. Neither the war nor the racism of US political and cultural society was near an end. Unfortunately, the music could only do so much.

Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger.

This album is the disc that transformed Willie from songwriter to performer.  It also spawned the outlaw country music scene, which would re-define what country music was and also who its audience would be.  The songs on the album tell the story of a preacher on the run for killing his wife—a classic tale of love gone way wrong.  Nelson’s picking throughout is sublime and his take on the tunes is unmatched.  Numerous artists have recorded the Fred Rose song “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” but Nelson’s is the definitive version.

The Nighthawks: Jacks and Kings.

This 1978 disc features the 1974-1986 lineup of Mark Wenner on harmonica , Jimmy Thackery on guitar, Jan Zukowski on bass and Pete Ragusa on drums.  It also features a few guests, including Pinetop Perkins on piano and Bob Margolin.  The Nighthawks were one of the hottest, if not the hottest, bands on the DC bar and college circuit in the 1970s.  This was during a pretty fertile period for music in the region, with DC finally coming into its own in a variety of genres—rock, blues, bluegrass and even what would become known as alt-country/Americana.  The Nighthawks played blues that had a baby and they named it rock and roll.  Know what I’m sayin’?

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



The Corduroy Road: Two Step Silhouette (2012, self released)

Some guy named Daniel Roth said “Nothing says dropping out of society like learning the banjo.” Possibly. I’ve seen the music from banjos referred to as half barbaric twang. Possibly. Reasons to love the banjo, I’d say. And obviously The Corduroy Road of Athens, Georgia loves this instrument. Few realize that the banjo is an instrument that was developed by slaves in the Caribbean, an approximation of an African instrument. In fact they say the spread of the banjo followed the spread of slavery in the New World. And through that meandering path the banjo found its way onto Two Step Silhouette, a surprisingly full and layered Americana work using no instruments the band can’t fit in their van. Banjos and violins travel well it seems, complementary and soaring, Two Step Silhouette treads a familiar landscape that settles and flows, organically agreeable music, just a taste of thick wooded menace lies in “Smokehouse Whip”. Really kudzu holds it all together. These songs handily showcase playful dancing from that barbarian instrument. And a barbarian with a sense of whimsy is a thing to behold.

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



Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band: Landmarks (Blue Note, 2014)

Wendy and Lisa: Eroica (Atlantic, 1990)

Living Colour: Biscuits (Sony, 1991)

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