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What We’re Listening to This Week
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and the Hot Nines: Viper’s Drag (Impulse!, 2014)
A sizzling reinvention of 1920s jazz and blues by New Orleans pianist Henry Butler and New York trumpeter Steven Bernstein, incandescently backed by the Hot Nines. The songs are old, reaching back to Buddy Bolden and Fats Waller, but the interpretation is fresh, furious and urgent. In a word: contemporary. Butler has earned his accolades, but his records often haven’t done justice to his live performances. Viper’s Drag is a welcome exception. Rarely has Butler’s playing sounded so spirited. A minor classic.
Soldiers of Jah Army (SoJA): Amid the Noise and Haste (ATO, 2014 )
SoJA is probably the best American reggae band and after a decade or so out on the road Amid the Noise and Haste is their best record: accomplished, confident and groovy. Youthful stridency has been sacrificed for a soulful irreverence. There’s no sign that the band is slowing down; it’s just digging deeper and striking more decisively toward the roots.
Black Wine: Yell Boss (Don Giovanni 2014)
Brash punk from a New Jersey trio that really knows how to rock. They’re smart, funny and inventive. The songs are short and punchy with addictive hooks. Black Wine’s crushing cover of the Guess Who’s “No Time” is a triumph of the unexpected. The title of the album serves notice to their neighbor Springsteen that some of the ground he once claimed as his own is now otherwise occupied.
Nils Lofgren: Face the Music (Fantasy 2014)
Does it truly require nine CDs and a DVD to provide an assessment of a professional hanger-on, a career sideman among other sidemen? Nils Lofrgen is a competent guitarist, a frail singer and a mediocre songwriter. Lofgren has thrived in the greenhouse of greater talents, namely Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. If you want to hear Lofgren at his best check out his not negligible contribution to Tonight’s the Night. But the corpulent bulk of Face the Music can only appeal to groupies with obsessional fixations and trust funds to burn. Obviously, a debt is being paid here. But to whom? At what price? The cost to you dear reader, should you choose to fork it over, is a mere $138 and 12 hours of your life that can never be reclaimed.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits. His latest book, Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (co-edited with Kevin Alexander Gray and JoAnn Wypijewski) will be released in June by CounterPunch Books.
Sure, summer is winding down, but here in So Cal that’s a good thing. Kids head back to school, beaches clear, hiking trails become less crowded and those 84 degree days will slowly slide back to our normal 78. Yew! It’s been rough. With that said, here’s my top 10 summer tracks of 2014 – which will be in heavy rotation until the end of September when autumn begins to rear its ugly head.
Curtis Harding: Keep On Shining, Soul Power (Burger Records, 2013)
Pure X: Heaven, Angel (Fat Possum, 2014)
Further: California Bummer (re-release), Where Were You Then? (Bad Paintings Records, 2014)
Real Estate: Crime, Atlas (Domino, 2014)
Habibi: I Got The Moves, Habibi (Burger Records, 2014)
The Mattson 2: Man From Anamnesis, (2014)
Jenny Lewis: The Voyager, The Voyager (Warner Bros, 2014)
King Tuff: Eyes of the Muse, Black Moon Spell (Sub Pop, 2014)
Mac DeMarco: Brother, Salad Days (Captured Tracks, 2014)
Joel Jermone: Everybody Wants Somebody, Psychedelic Thriftstore Folk (Manimal Records, 2014)
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He lives in the LBC.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY
When shit is tight and there’s a certain pressure in the air I fall back on who I listened to in my late teens & 20s as I was trying to just learn how to deal with America.
I listen to Curtis Mayfield.
Curtis said, “bite your lip and take the trip.” That’s how I get by.
I turn on Move On Up from his debut album “Curtis” to remind me that one can’t surrender to the things that feeds American racism. I was watching some of the responses to the Michael Brown shooting whereby people were “putting up their hands” as a protest gesture. I don’t know about that one. I feel something every time I go through the airport or in a government building when I have to do it. Basically, to me it means, “I surrender” (my rights and give you complete power over me).
Anyway, I thought I’d post the lyrics to “Move on Up “ from “Curtis.” 1970 Curtom Records.
It was the anthem for a lot of us back in the day.
Move on Up
Hush now child and don’t you cry
Your folks might understand you by and by
So in the mean time, move on up towards your destination
Though you may find from time to time complications
Bite your lip and take a trip
Though there may be wet road ahead
And you cannot slip so what you wanna do
Just move on up for peace you will find
Into the steeple of beautiful people where there’s only one kind
So hush now child and don’t you cry
Your folks might understand you by and by
So what are we wanna do is move on up for a greater day
But just you gonna make it, you put your mind to it, you can surely do it
Take nothing less than the supreme best
Do not obey for most people say ’cause you can past the test
So what we have to do is move on up and keep on wishing
Remember your dream is your only scheme so keep on pushing
So hush now child and don’t you cry
Your folks might understand you by and by
Move on up for a greater day but just you gonna make it
You put your mind to it, you can surely do it
Move on up, we can to move on up
Move on up, move on child I wanna move on up
We can to move on up, we can to move on up
Curtis Mayfield, “Cannot Find A Way.” 1974 Curtom Records.
Curtis Mayfield, “There’s No Place Like America Today.” 1975 Curtom Records (with its great album cover. Although its “Hard Times” one must always keep ones “Love for the People.”
Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons, forthcoming from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Head and the Heart: Let’s Be Still (Sub-Pop 2013)
“The world’s just spinning a little too fast, if things don’t slow down soon, we may not last….. The world’s not forgiving of everyone’s fears. The days turn into months, the months turn into years. So just for a moment. Let’s be still.” Oh hell yes. Please. Sort of an anti-authoritarian genre of indie-folk-pop, this album is not clashing boldly, but just compels with soft suggestion. The shared vocals in title track “Let’s Be Still” has this egalitarian thing going, calling each other honey in that kindest of shared time. There’s a track “Homecoming Heroes” that ever so lightly touches on being poor, enlisting and coming back and knowing there’s no glory in that. But it is subtle and unfailingly melodic. “Shake” has a bit of endearing bravado “you won’t forget the man who’s making you shake”. But beyond that, it’s all about awareness of time passage and attempts to encompass the moment we are holding. And this lovely sentiment: “They’re tearing it down. So we can rebuild. And all this time is just circles in my mind.” This is a subversion style of slowing and erosion, overall the most powerful of all.
Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, The Hanover Band, directed by Roy Goodman (Nimbus 1988)
On the top of our stack of CDs (I know, very retro) for a road trip down to New York City is this now-classic recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a piece that will not only make you happy to live out in the country, but just be glad to be alive. It’s true that while driving past the rural poverty of Central New York and Pennsylvania Beethoven’s image of happy country folk communing with each other and with nature can seem almost cruel. But the exuberant landscapes, rustic dances, spectacular thunderstorms of the composer’s imagination overwhelm such guilty reservations about indulging the immense pleasure of this music. By placing the winds well in back of the strings—the arrangement used in Beethoven’s time before the more integrated approach of the later nineteenth century—the Hanover Band rejoices in the novelty of the towering symphonist’s timbral palette: the too-familiar piece is set free again to roam the country as Beethoven himself did. It is not just the physical placement of this so-called Harmonie—a spatial quality beautifully conveyed by the talented Nimbus engineers—but also the verve of the players themselves, especially the brashness of the horns, that imbues this pastoral tableaux with renewed vibrant color and irrepressible life.
Acid Test Reels, vol. 1– Merry Pranksters.
This chaotic wall of sounds is a selection of songs, raps and other such noise from the Fillmore and Sound City Acid Tests in January 1966. LSD was still legal in the US and was an essential part of these events. The key to these festivities was chaos—order—chaos. The aural presentation of this concept comes through on this CD. The Dead play some blues numbers featuring their first (and only) blues singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan taking a stab at Slim Harpo’s classic “I’m a King Bee” who does a fine job. Early Garcia-Hunter tunes that would appear on their album Anthem of the Sun segue into the Dead’s electric take on “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” From there, the listener is treated (if that’s the right word) to Ken Kesey and his Pranksters singing silly country-western tunes and talking crazy but sanely. Although no longer available in this particular format, there are some other recordings of these and other acid tests available in the collectors market.
How Can You Be In Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All —Firesign Theatre.
If the Merry Pranksters/Grateful Dead were America’s psychedelic rangers, then this comedy quartet was its jokers. Born in the studio of KPFK in LA, this group of comedians dug up the ground and planted the seed from which later comedians like Robin Williams would reap the fruits. This disc is their second. The second side, titled “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger” is a hip intellectual spoof of noir and might very well be the germ of Garrison Keillor’s less hip Guy Noir. Peppered with Beatles references and nods to multiple films and counterculture phenomena, the story is nominally about the private eye Nick Danger the Third Eye tracking down an old lover. The first side shares its nomenclature with the name of the album and is a clever satire of suburban America in the late 1960s. The story begins with used car salesman Ralph Spoilsport selling a car that has climate control which literally takes the driver to other places and other times. Climate control as time machine if you will. In this case, that place ends up being the ancient Land of the Pharaohs. From that point on, the listener is presented with a stream-of-consciousness comedic and sardonic commentary on the history of the United States. The entire trip ends with a sign-off advertisement for marijuana sales fading into Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses…”Let’s take a taste of this fabulous Yucatan Blue, scored to you from the sky-blue waters of that beautiful Mexican bay, hand-picked by naked little froggy native boys in their tight leather aprons, running through the fields by the sea and the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens yes yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rose gardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a boy where I was a flower of the mountains yes…”
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.
Freddie Hubbard: Red Clay
Brainstorm: Journey to the Light
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential.