The Marshall Mathers LP Eminem (Interscope)
How many times have you heard someone try to defend what people consider harmful or dangerous art by explaining it away? An artist puts his rawest stuff out there, it disturbs someone, maybe many someones, and immediately the managers, p.r. people and critics start working overtime to convince us that it's all "just" fantasy, "just" the creative imagination at work, a persona, an alter ego?nothing to worry about, folks, move along, move along?this isn't real.
If the artist is interested in maintaining his commercial viability and making what the Kinks called some real money?the kind of money you make after you're number one?then he knows he's gotta spin too. The Slim Shady LP was a calculated bitch-slap across the face of popular culture. It was also one of the greatest albums of the last 10 years. Of course, you're saying, Eminem's just about entertainment, not art. Slim Shady is a character, he's not real. This is like saying that Olivier playing Archie Rice in The Entertainer was art, but what Archie did onstage was entertainment. And that Archie wasn't real. But if he's not real, why bother? What was so compelling about Eminem when he first blew up was his mix of recognizably authentic fucked-upness and razor-sharp commercial smarts (okay, the smarts were just as much Dre's and Paul Rosenberg's and Jimmy Iovine's). Not to mention the way he played with what was real and what was not.
"Realness" is the commodity in rap these days but it's in short supply. Don't the biggest bullshitters you know talk a lot about keeping it real? Eminem had a strike against him when it came to being accepted as real by certain segments of the record-buying, review-writing public. That's why it was so important to get the fatherless, trailer-trash backstory into heavy rotation, to counter all the people who either don't or can't listen and so thought (still think) of Eminem as just another whiteboy rapper. And remember, Dre?arbiter of real niggahood?was behind him, which led a lot of people to give him a chance. That's why it's funny when Em takes them on, imitating them in one of his wonderful whiny, funny voices: "Dr. Dre said?nothing, you idiots/Dr. Dre's dead/he's locked in my basement." That independent spirit doesn't prevent Em from including "Bitch Please II" with Dre and Snoop on The Marshall Mathers LP.
Just to prove he doesn't give a fuck, on "I'm Back" he also disses Puffy and raps about fucking Jennifer Lopez. Not to mention talking about how he "became a commodity/because I'm W-H-I-T-E 'cause MTV was so friend-ly to me." He even bites the Public Enemy lyric "once again, back is the incredible/the rhyme animal." Then there's Snoop on Eminem's own album, calling him the great white American hope.
It's this kind of self-aware, real/fake interplay that fuels the best parts of Marshall Mathers. Eminem's at his funniest when he pretends to be one of his critics: "Oh, now he's raping his own mother, abusing a whore, snorting coke and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover." Or the skit with Steve Berman: "Do you know why Dre's record was so successful? He's rapping about big screen tv's, blunts, 40s and bitches. You're rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin." "Kim" is a delirious, over-the-top look inside Eminem's head that might get those critics antsy again. At least on "97 Bonnie and Clyde" she was already dead. On this album we get to hear a loud, uncontrolled domestic "interlude" with Marshall dragging her into the car while he screams out, "You think I'm ugly, don't you?" and "I hate you, I hate you... I love you." What other "entertainer" around puts out anything like this?
For me, the best song on the album is "Stan." But it's a song that Eminem came close to ruining?or more precisely, did ruin. "Stan" starts out with the sound of falling rain and a woman singing a catchy, melancholy melody with lyrics about how celebrity worship can bring you up when you're down. Then Eminem takes on the persona of one of his own fans, an unhappy guy who identifies with him so strongly that he gets enraged when Em won't respond to his letters or sign autographs. He ends up killing himself and his pregnant girlfriend. "Stan" is a complete mindfuck. It's incredibly real at the same time you know it's "just" Em imagining himself into the life of one of his fans.
Again, what other popular rapper has those kind of imaginative powers? The song should end with the splash of the car as Stan drives into the water. Instead Eminem comes back in?as "himself"?and proceeds to rap about how he's sorry he's so late writing back and "you got some issues Stan/I think you need some counseling." Weak! Even weaker is what Eminem said to the L.A. Times about the song: "[Stan]'s crazy for real and he thinks I'm crazy, but I try to help him at the end of the song. It kinda shows the real side of me." That's the spin. Unfortunately, the spin made it into the song.
Eminem got a lot of fans because he was crazy for real. Crazy enough, anyway. Remember how Slim Shady was full of references to dying and coming back? He'd been there and he knew. There's a little of that spirit on the new record, like on "I'm Back," where Em raps that "you'd better get rid of that 9/it ain't gonna help/what good's it gonna do against a man that strangles himself." Then you hear choking f/x. Slim Shady was all about how crazy beats hard. That was why some people didn't like it?they wanted to hear about hard guys dealing drugs, not wimpy guys overdosing on them. What a pussy way to go out anyhow?a real man shoots himself, preferably after shooting someone else.
The new record's not crazy enough. It's infused with a cautious spirit that says let's give 'em more of the same, which isn't the same the second time around. So we get almost identical PSAs and Paul Rosenberg skits. A lot of bragging raps about nothing in particular (please, leave that to Snoop and Dre, they're better at it). A lot of choruses like "you don't/wanna fuck with Shady/cause Shady/will fuckin' kill you." Heartfelt, I'm sure, but what was he thinking? On "Under the Influence" he says, "I was high when I wrote this/so suck/my dick." That might be funny, if the rest of the song were any better. "They say I can't rap about being broke no more" is a lyric near the beginning of the album. But Marshall Mathers is still being marketed with photos of Eminem taking out the garbage in a food-service apron. Just in case we forgot?
There are moments of good dumb fun on the disc, like "Amityville" (aka Detroit) with its dark scratchy sounds and the chorus, sung with Bizarre from D-12 and more intensity each time: "Mentally ill from Amityville/accidentally kill your family still/thinking he won't goddamn it he will." I like "Drug Ballad" with its true-to-life tales of rum and ecstasy and Eminem predicting a future for himself of drinking scotch on the porch and babysitting "while Hailie's out getting smashed." I also like the "Ken Kaniff" skit with its outrageous cock-slurping. Great little machine-gun-fire lyrical moments are scattered throughout the album. It's worth owning. But it doesn't measure up to Eminem's own standard.
Even the "Murder Murder" single on the Next Friday soundtrack was better than a lot of what's here. Given that the single was terrific, and the video is in heavy rotation, Eminem didn't need to do much to guarantee at least the initial sales. So he didn't do much. He's still Eminem, but the "Just Don't Give a Fuck" days are gone (they had to go, I guess, and don't tell me about how it was all just a posture?never real?to begin with). Marshall Mathers makes it hard to tell whether Eminem now cares too much, or not quite enough.
Pastoral Composure Matthew Shipp Quartet (Thirsty Ear)
This album does for Matthew Shipp what Sunrise in the Tone World did for bassist William Parker: it establishes him as a bandleader of formidable repute. This complements his role as one of the great sidemen of the era, most prominently in the David S. Ware Quartet (to which Parker also belongs). Earlier efforts as a leader, including such collaborations with Parker as Zo and DNA, have been more scholarly exercises. Not that Shipp ever comes across as anything soulless or unfunky. It's just that collaborations between a pianist and stand-up bass player, and solely a pianist and stand-up bass player, are usually less than accessible by their very nature. An earlier trio effort, Prism, was a gem, however: an harmonic firestorm wrought through the filter of post-Cecil Taylor improvising.
But none of those records could have prepared one for Pastoral Composure, which is, in its own way, as brilliant as Surrendered, the new David S. Ware album on Columbia, which naturally features Shipp as well. Not that one could compare the two?Ware's is firmly entrenched in the constantly moving-outward tradition of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, among others. The Ware group is totally on a mission to keep forging onward and upward. What Shipp is doing here is a lot more experimental and, I suppose, less organic. Whereas Ware's record succeeds as the great sky-blast free-jazz record of the season, Pastoral Composure succeeds on many different levels. It's a testament to Shipp's integral commitment to the "movement" that he can be involved in so many multifarious levels of musicmaking at once. One only has to consider the decrepit rock clowns who put out an album a year or less and bemoan their artistic suffrage to realize this is no mean feat.
Pastoral Composure is bound to draw comparisons to Miles Davis, if only because it features a trumpet player prominently. Roy Campbell is no stranger to the whole spectrum of experimental jazz, as his work here, as well as with the excellent collective Other Dimensions in Music (which also features Shipp and Parker), proves. His duet with Shipp on "Visions," featuring some primal pounding on Shipp's part plus some fast-fingered glissando motions, is a scintillating interchange of musical ideas and idioms that eventually works into one of Shipp's greatest solos ever, a boat-rocking ride somewhere between Monk and funky New Orleans. Campbell whips out a flugelhorn for the title cut, and the result can only be termed "psychedelic." There are a lot of atmospheric flourishes from drummer Gerald Cleaver, and a kind of rolling thunder courtesy of Parker.
Miles comparisons come courtesy of "Progression." One expects Wayne Shorter to start soloing any minute, but there are no actual saxes on this album. (Maybe Ware took up all their theoretical honking space?) "Gesture," with its thumping caravan-like rhythm and almost martial buildup, recalls Sketches of Spain for about one second, but Campbell's doing things on trumpet that Miles never even thought of. It has the "Bolero" feel of Coltrane's "Olé." They also do an all-out freakout version "Frere Jacques," which I have mixed feelings about since I've never been a big fan of the tune. Shipp solos on Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" and his own "XTU" and proves why he's the logical heir to Cecil Taylor, as well as the most important jazz pianist since Ran Blake, or at least Andrew Hill.
Joe S. Harrington
Little Black Kathryn Williams (Caw)
Here's what I hate about modern music. Alanis Morissette. Paula Cole. That stupid hippie girl with a tongue stud who made her living from promoting her 10-minute bass solos on the Net. Anyone influenced by dreary professional miserabalist Nick Drake. Anyone who thinks that simply through singing softly and plucking the bass they can sound remotely like the Cowboy Junkies' immaculate Margo Timmins. Anyone who thinks it's big or clever to drop the words Joni and Mitchell into otherwise personable conversations. Anyone championed by St. Etienne's Bob Stanley, a man so innocuous and earnest it's a miracle that he hasn't been swallowed alive by his collection of Dinky Toys. Musicians who are even remotely influenced by New Country. Critics who think that there's something somehow alluring in drippy Beth Orton's vaguely psychedelic drone-fests.
And I like Little Black Numbers. A lot. It has a subtlety, an innocence and almost mystical air. Williams may well have been compared, contrasted and callously championed by differing combinations of the above names (Alanis Morissette! Jesus, talk about cloth ears!) but this album is not a cynical record. Even vaguely. Its precursor Dog Leap Stairs was rumored to have been recorded for £80, and... Well. It should have been. There's no need for adornment, for frills, when music sounds this haunting and super-melancholy. I guess if I examined this Liverpool singer's lyrics I could find them irritating?"The water was like creased old leather/Lit by a bare bulb" ("We Dug a Hole"); "You're like a cup of water/Swimming on a bigger sea" ("Each Star We See")?but really there's no cause to be harsh. The voice, and the wonderfully resonant stand-up bass, reminiscent of Tom Waits' quieter moments, sweep me away every time, make me forget my cynicism every time. This is a stunning album.
That Beck. He's ruined everything. A couple of years ago, Shivaree would have been a fairly pleasant outfit in the style of a Sally Timms-fronted Mekons. But ever since the advent of Beck and his bleedin' postmodern hybrid music, every last country hopeful is wearing the baggy strides and making faces at the four-on-the-floor contingent. Shivaree's exotically named Ambrosia Parsley has a delightful hiccup in her vocals, a sweet way of rolling one syllable into the next that would endear her to men with far hardier hearts than mine. She knows when to yodel. More importantly, she knows when to stop. She sings from the back of her throat like Cerys Matthews, if it's possible to sound like Matthews without sounding Welsh. So why, then, does half of I Oughtta sound like it wants to get into bed with the Bloodhound Gang? That bleedin' Beck and his bleedin' drum machines. There ought to be a law against it.
It's not like Shivaree don't have their moments. The high-spirited "Darling Lousy Guy" and nursery rhyme segment "Cannibal King" both rollick like dark angels on LSD. "Arlington Girl," too, starts off by clip-clopping and breathing heavily like a sex line populated by equines. After three of four numbers seamlessly rounded off and given a coating of beats, the production starts to grate, however. "Lunch" should have the phrase "Out to" inserted in the title. "I Don't Care"?sadly not a cover of the Ramones' minimalist classic?is too damn cool for its own good. Could well be more massive than Massive.
Pioneers Who Got Scalped: The Anthology Devo (Rhino)
Some 20 years ago, Devo played a show in Chicago. They were approaching the height of their popularity at the time, and drew a crowd of thousands. Given the nature of things then, the crowd consisted mostly of punks.
That's why it seemed such a shockingly bad decision to have a Christian band open the show.
They called themselves Dove, and made it through about three soft, gentle numbers about God's love and the power of Christ's forgiveness before the barrage of garbage and beer bottles, hoots and catcalls finally forced them off the stage.
Nobody in the audience that night, it seemed, bothered to notice that if you rearranged the letters D-O-V-E, you ended up with the name of the headliner.
I wasn't a huge Devo fan at the time, but that move?opening for themselves as a Christian band?really, really impressed me. It was a very hardcore stunt for a new-wave act to pull.
It wasn't like I went out and bought a lot of Devo records after that. I heard enough of them as it was on the radio. Still, though it's something I could never admit, I secretly really liked them.
Formed in Ohio in 1972 by Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, Devo, it goes pretty much without saying, defined what we think of when we think of 80s-style new wave: the cold, repetitive electronic sound and jerky, mechanical presentation, the futurist attitude, the goofy fashion and the video style of the time. Of course they were making a point with it all about the dehumanizing effects of contemporary culture, but whatever.
Only problem with Devo was, after defining "new wave," and being copied by a couple hundred Casio-wielding bands, they never got much beyond that point. In their later albums, their dance remixes and their soundtrack work for films like Doctor Detroit and Revenge of the Nerds II, it often sounded as if they had become lazy, shiftless followers instead of the pioneers they once were.
And that's what makes this new two-disc, 50-song set from Rhino so iffy. On the one hand, unlike most such boxes, it doesn't seem to be missing anything fundamental (though I'm sure some of the more obsessive fans would disagree). "Whip It" is there, of course, as is "Jocko Homo," "Mongoloid," "Uncontrollable Urge," together with their covers of "Satisfaction," "Secret Agent Man," "Working in a Coal Mine" and "Are You Experienced?" All the basics from those first few albums are crammed onto the first disc, and in the forms that you remember them.
On the second disc, however?aimed at the collectors?you get the dance remixes, the obscure songs from obscure soundtracks, live tracks, later bits off albums no one much cared about. And it's on that second disc that things start sounding an awful lot alike?and more and more like some generic New Order ripoff band. It's almost as if Devo had finally, in the end, actually become everything they had been parodying all those years.
Thing is, if you're just looking for your Devo basics in a cheaper package, there are already at least eight "Best of" discs available. If you're a complete Devo geek, chances are you'll already have most everything here (except for the last track?a newly recorded version of "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat"). And if you're somewhere in between, then maybe this is just the convenient package you're looking for, complete with a 3-D flickerbox cover and a thick booklet jam-packed with delightful archival band photos.
In a way, Pioneers Who Got Scalped (which becomes a very appropriate title) is not only a snapshot of what made a certain generational subculture so great?but also a snapshot of how it went very wrong.
The Sophtware Slump Grandaddy (V2)
Here's something strange. A couple of years ago, I was unfortunate enough to catch Grandaddy live at London's Rock Garden. Dismal. The absolute nadir of pretentious lo-fi, so I thought. Americans who pretend to be Lou Barlow's kid brother and bring along tape recordings of all their false starts and lo-fi mistakes just so they can appear soulful. Not only that, but they had pretensions toward that New Country horsecrap. I spat in the general direction of the stage. All right, I'm not denying I was drunk.
The weird part is I absolutely adored their album at the time, played it to the back of infinity and beyond. After that show, I expunged it completely from my mind. That is why, even now, after 223 plays, I cannot tell you the title.
So now Grandaddy's back. With another record that I find myself unable to resist. All nine minutes of the opening track, "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot," is not long enough?even though it starts recalling Pink Floyd at their most soulful toward the finale. I've always been a sucker for a vocoder, a minor key change exquisitely drawn out, a Mercury Rev-style falsetto vocal. Psychedelia when applied to the music that I love means imagination, melody, songs of nonsense sung with such world-weary resignation that they take on hidden nuances of meaning. There's no denying that on numbers like "Jed the Humanoid" and the upbeat "Chartsengrafs" they owe the debt to all the familiar faces?Pavement, Sebadoh, the Rev. It doesn't matter. A year ago, I had a favorite album of Americana in the shape of Mercury Rev's magical, mystical Deserter's Songs. It's been replaced. By the mighty Devo retrospective. But The Sophtware Slump isn't half bad.
In the Flesh Johnny Thunders (Amsterdamned)
Johnny Thunders' audience never gave up hope that the great renegade junkie would one day surprise them with another dose of life-affirming rock 'n' roll. They suspended disbelief and watched the debacle that his "career" had become, late into the 80s, even though the guy hadn't written a good original song in five years. This kind of blind devotion isn't uncommon when it comes to the family members of junkies as well. Thunders' audience was the Al-Anon of rock 'n' roll. More aptly, they were like the noonday lunch crowd who spot the guy about ready to make a swandive off the 34th floor and yell, "Jump!" Thunders & Co. put up a flier back in the primacy of the Heartbreakers that said "Catch 'em before they die," and the fans enjoyed this element of danger, that every show might be his last. Johnny Thunders ranks only slightly ahead of GG Allin as an argument for mortality over immortality.
As usual with junkies, the love was not reciprocal. Thunders viewed his sympathizers as easy marks who could be hit up for a few more bucks to keep the junk flowing into his veins. His whole career was like a weird prop-up of this legend-that-never-was. He was legendary all right?a legendary junkie. His first two albums, LAMF and So Alone, weren't even released in the U.S. Then it got worse. By the 80s no record company in America would sign him. He was perceived as a liability.
All these things would be romantic if he'd jeopardized only his commercial potential with his love of junk. Instead he damaged what was a pretty decent musical talent as well. The guy penned some of the greatest songs in rock?"Chatterbox," "One Track Mind," "Ask Me No Questions," "You Can't Put Your Arm Around a Memory," "Just Another Girl"?before becoming merely a parody of himself. Like any good hustler, Thunders realized the end must justify the means, and the end was junk and the means was a sackful of old songs he'd been hauling around since he was a teenage superstar with the New York Dolls.
Almost a decade after his inevitable death, why are people still bearing testimonial to it? That's what In the Flesh constitutes: saying because this is Johnny Thunders, and there isn't going to be another Johnny Thunders, why not add this to the albums that already exist, with the exact same songs on it? Recorded in Hollywood in 1987, the performances here are about what one would expect from Thunders at that juncture. Undeniably sloppy, Thunders' guitar playing is an exercise in going-through-the-motions. Thunders only had about three or four variations on the same guitar solo anyway, but here he's abandoned any hope of coherence. When the band begins "Green Onions" with the intro to "Pirate Love" one wonders if even they knew which song was next. He melds Bo Diddley's "Pills" and "Too Much Junkie Business" and it actually makes sense, helping to draw together the drug-soaked aura of Thunders' entire musical trajectory. He blows lyrics in mid-verse but the fans still cheer. They're just waiting for him to fall off the stage. The big deal about this album could have been that it reunited three-fifths of the Dolls, with Arthur Kane on bass and perennial drummer/sidekick Jerry Nolan. But, at this point, they weren't much better off than Thunders.
The other thing this album demonstrates is how badly the man's voice was shot. His original trademark yowl wasn't exactly poetry in motion, but it was distinct. Here he alternates between that and this weird new voice he picked up sometime in the mid-80s, perhaps to compensate for his lack of range. It's a weird parody of Louis Armstrong and Thunders uses it in all the wrong places. What's really bizarre is the way he uses both voices in the same song, sliding from this guttural delivery to his typical whine. The guy was delusional. Only point of this album is as a spectacle and/or human sacrifice.
2000 Years: The Millennium Concert Billy Joel (Columbia)
Fortunately I figured out a long time ago that getting drunk means never having to say you're sorry. Unfortunately, most of my friends haven't. After mentally separating those who agree with me from those who don't into two distinct camps, and having only myself and a guy from high school with two first names in the former, I began entertaining that most self-destructive of notions?the second guess. That was until I heard the following:
"Friday night I crashed your party/Saturday I said I'm sorry/Sunday came and trashed me out again..." Now this is the part I want to have made into a t-shirt: "I was only having fun/Wasn't hurting anyone/And we all enjoyed the weekend for a change."
And with that I found the good in a Billy Joel album, which is kind of like finding the bright side of a tiger cage in Quang Ngai, or being at Jonestown and thinking, "Well, at least it's grape-flavored, because I can't stand cherry!"
The first time I really listened to "You May Be Right" was on this live record, The Millennium Concert. And that, for me, justifies the album's existence. Barely. However, I'm not going to try to validate Billy's existence, as the few good moments he probably ever gave himself or anyone else for that matter add up to fewer than 20 minutes total (most of which are on this CD). Besides "You May Be Right" there's "Big Shot" (written back when he tagged and bagged Brinkley for back-waxing, Jersey white trash everywhere) and "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," which, much like Seger's "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" or the Stones' "It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)," may not be a great song, but a sentiment worthy of a facial tattoo none the less.
There's just one absentee here (my personal favorite and the comment on a religious education), "Only the Good Die Young":
Come out Virginia, don't let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
But sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well be the one
You might have heard I run with a dangerous crowd
We ain't too pretty we ain't too proud
We might be laughing a bit too loud
But that never hurt no one...
Billboard.com recently featured Joel and this latest release. Below his picture was the caption: "Billy Joel's swan song performance?" News flash?that happened more than 15 years ago. Now he's just hanging around to prove there's a reason his initials are B.J. As far as the record goes, you're better off with an old greatest hits.
Blues Come Home to Roost Super Chikan
Grand Slam Magic Slim & the Teardrops
Midnight Delight Lonnie Shields
Rooster Blues 1980-2000 Various Artists (all Rooster Blues)
The blues is dead. Any night at a place like, say, Cambridge, MA's famous House of Blues (famous on the same level as the Rock Hall of Fame) is filled with more geeks than an X-Files convention. Seriously, I'm surprised these guys don't still have the pocket organizers literally sticking out of their shirtfronts . Blues? Last ones to do anything interesting with the genre (not counting urban punk-wail like Patti Smith's "Piss Factory") were the Allman Bums and their generation of Southern boogie bands. Other than that, it's the same old-men-with-guitars going through the motions. And this caskload of cretins from the kind folks at Rooster Blues is no exception.
The Rooster people have been putting their red cock emblem on fine blooz for more years than you can remember and they've done it with "authentic" bluesmen like Super Chikan. Chikan's real name is James Johnson, and he's been a local legend in the Mississippi Delta ever since the preacher's daughter had waders on. Or so he'd like you to think: the inner sleeve of Blues Come Home to Roost is ripe with pictures of shotgun shacks, not to mention such mythmaking hype as "Super Chikan played a one-string guitar made out of baling wire when he was 13..." etc. With a buildup like that you know the Chikan ain't no clucker. He's got a smooth delivery, and he rarely busts up the chicken coop. This is domesticated blues?the Chikan is happy on the homefront with the missus, although he sometimes squawks: "You don't know nothin' 'bout me, woman," as he sings on the aptly named "Captain Love Juice" while a funky organ wriggles throughout. And it's hard not to crack a smile over a song named "Camel Toe" (although Jenny Mae's song of the same name is way better).
Then there's Magic Slim. Not to be confused with Magic Sam, Memphis Slim, Slim Harpo, Guitar Slim or Memphis Minnie. Slim smokes the chicken-man on guitar and, for that matter, as a vocalist. It's a guttural growl akin to the Beeb at his most impassioned. He cuts the Stones on "Walkin' the Dog," but not Aerosmith or the Flamin' Groovies. And when it comes to women, I'd like to see how his "Rough Dried Woman" stacks up against Chikan's crack ho. Maybe they should trade sometime, like they apparently once did with guitars.
Unlike the rough bumpkin Super Chikan and the grizzled veteran Magic Slim, Lonnie Shields is a class act. Once again, B.B. seems to be the catalyst. I guess he occupies the same niche in blues now as Wynton Marsalis in jazz. The nurturing father figure who proved that crossover success was the quickest route out of the trenches. So Lonnie Shields plays it real slick, but he's still "authentic" (having been born in the Delta, like Super Chikan). One thing about the blues: it ain't changed much in 100 years, and that's one of its shortcomings. So when Shields slicks it up a little with some syrupy organ on "Woman, I Want to Talk to You," it's a welcome relief from blues-as-usual. Horny horns, as well as more organ, invade the song toward the end and it's a rejoicing moment, believe me.
Actually, the cut Shields contributes to the Rooster compilation 1980-2000 is better than anything on Midnight Delight. With sinewy ripples of guitar, percolating percussives and a more "urban" atmosphere, "Fistful of Dollars" is almost as good as the movie. Rest of the comp ain't bad either. After all, Rooster is probably the preeminent blues label in the country (fuck the oppressive swine at Rounder), so why shouldn't it be great? Willie Cobb contributes some funky juke-joint jive on "Eatin' Dry Onions." Larry Davis' "Worried Dream" is a strangulated beat-off just this side of ZZ's immortal "Blue Jean Blues." Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes gives us his Howlin' Wolf parody on "Rocking Daddy," although the subsequent "Elvira" by Lonnie Pitchford is more reminiscent of Lightnin' Hopkins. Carey and Lurrie Bell's "Rollin' and Tumblin'," which is pretty raw and amateurish, is a nice variation on an old formula. Valerie Wellington's "Bad Avenue" cops Koko Taylor. And Eddie Shaw's "Dunkin' Donut Woman" even sticks up for fatties: "We thought she was hot/Because she had a lot." Johnny Rawls and L.C. Luckett, meanwhile, go for more of a Clarence Carter/soul vibe on "Can't Sleep at Night." And only Super Chikan emerges a turkey.
Flatheads and Spoonies Drums & Tuba (My Pal God)
"Funky Tuba" sounds like a joke, like one of those painfully trying-to-be-hip tunes the high school band director would slip into the repertoire in between "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and an arrangement of "Danny Boy." It's no joke though?this band, composed of drums and tuba plus guitar, knows its way around a groove. Originally from Austin, they've been playing regularly (for free) in the Knitting Factory's Tap Bar and are better than a lot of the bands that you have to pay to hear. The first sound on the first track of Flatheads and Spoonies ("The Mummy") is Brian Wolff's tuba sliding down into an infectious groove. Then he's joined by Neal McKeeby on guitar and finally Anthony Nozero on drums. Everybody's riffing at once, not in unison but overlapping and intertwining around each other. There are some weird avant-garde elements to it, some hints of dark jangly indie-rock, but this is not a pretentious band.
McKeeby uses a lot of pedals and effects so you don't miss the other elements you might hear in a funk band. I've got to wonder how he feels about being the only one not in the band's name. His style reminds me at times of Andy Hawkins from Blind Idiot God. But where they were heavy, dense and overpowering (in the best possible way), Drums & Tuba create a wide-open, spacey sort of sound. Wolff is so agile that the band isn't heavy at all.
In general, the tracks on the CD feel a little more mellow and dreamy than their live sets. This may be a conscious decision about what to play in a bar, or because the album was recorded a year ago and their sound has evolved. "11 o'clock," for example, has a dark, abandoned Halloween-type feel with a lot of guitar effects. "The Chicken" is another mid-tempo track with a melancholy indie-rock sound, kind of like a Pavement instrumental, but begins with what sounds like an old-fashioned manual typewriter and, of course, a rooster cawing in the distance. The title track, improbably enough, starts out with a variation on "Hot Cross Buns" and gets funky with great press rolls and rim shots from Nozero.
The only complaint I have about this CD is the object itself. It comes in a brown cardboard case with photos of the band printed on it in green. The transfer quality is so bad you can't even tell what the guys look like. The album title is in French on the cover and you have to flip it or look at the spine to see the English?okay, I take it back, they are a little pretentious. The first and second tracks tended to skip as well. But the disc is worth it precisely because it is different from the live show. Which is not to be missed.
Filth/ Body to Body, Job to Job Swans (Young God)
"Don't be a whore now," Swans leader Michael Gira bellowed back in 1984. "You could be screwing yourself." Standing by his words, Gira has refused to sell himself out to the will of marketeers. He remains a master of grand paradoxes and an uncompromising creative force. His music, especially his early material, is scabrously ugly yet brutally poetic, crudely anti-intellectual yet strategically conceptual, structurally primitive yet wholly novel?but always unyielding.
Gira was the first 80s noise-rocker to realize and overcome the self-imposed limitations of no-wave cacophony, though ultimately he wound up as one of the genre's truest ideological adherents. Throughout their 15-year existence, Swans underwent numerous stylistic shakeups and changes in personnel, but whether they were finessing a proto-industrial crush or sounding like Leonard Cohen for the art-school set, they never lost sight of their vision and their original intentions. Save 1989's slick, faux-pastoral, major-label embarrassment, The Burning World, Gira has never made a dull or commercial album. Even now, three years after retiring the Swans name, his methodical, repetitive work continues to pulse with an oppressive, superhuman intensity. While he saves his gentler, more symphonic offerings for his elegant, tuneful ensemble, the Angels of Light, he still rattles skulls with his hellish, anti-ambient projects, the Body Lovers and the Body Haters.
Gira threw his first real punch on Filth, which originally appeared in 1983 on Glenn Branca's Neutral Records. A caveman-like bluster and an expressionistic fervor inhabit the depth-charge drums, churning tape manipulations, grainy feedback smears and cathartic snarls of this landmark in unsurpassed aggression. Initially released in 1991 on Gira's own Young God label, the similarly potent Body to Body, Job to Job rounds up odds and ends recorded between 1982 and 1985. Paired as the fourth and final title in the lavish, double-CD reissue series of the group's canon, these LPs chronicle the birth of Swans' fighting technique while encapsulating the rage, thrill and decay of downtown Manhattan during the Koch administration.
To execute the remarkable Filth, Gira assembled a cast consisting of himself on bass, tapes and vocals, Norman Westberg on guitar, Harry Crosby on second bass, Jonathan Kane on drums and percussion and Roli Mosimann on more drums, tapes and percussion. The extraordinary double rhythm section packs a total wallop, locking together in unison but also pushing and pulling against itself to amass tension, head-spinning rolls and fills and general car-crash-like clatter. Gira erects his plodding, rudimentary compositions around the numbing pound of dueling, panning bass chords, which sluggishly march in step while scrap-metal avalanches tumble around the beat, like bullets ricocheting against the sides of a steel box. The lumbering sludge moves like nobody's business on "Big Strong Boss," "Power for Power" and "Right Wrong," while it remains solemnly static on "Weakling" and "Gang." Westberg's slab-like chord washes turn empty space into wet cement, while Gira commandingly and obsessively roars about control, submission, sex and cruelty. His chants (e.g., "You're gonna murder somebody weak," "Use your body to get satisfaction," "Hammer the nail") are just another blunt object with which to bludgeon you. By Filth's conclusion, you'll feel like gnawing on a bone and lifting something heavy.
Circa '81 or '82, prior to conceiving Filth, Gira and Kane ditched their icky, Euro-wave-influenced quintet, Circus Mort, to devote themselves to the nascent Swans lineup that spat out an edgy but developmental, self-titled 12-inch EP. Pressed by Labor Records and featuring low-mixed but unfortunate sax parts, that four-song curio was tacked onto the now-deleted 1990 Filth CD, but it's nowhere to be found on the new edition. Seamlessly inlaid with cassette experiments ("Loop 1," "Loop 33," etc.), Body to Body, Job to Job documents the same era by including gutsier live goods from an '82 show at CBGB, when Swans employed auxiliary bassist Thurston Moore, whose main endeavor, Sonic Youth, served as the droning Beatles to Gira's junkyard Stones. Body to Body also contains sterling concert renditions of standards from Cop and the Raping a Slave EP, the 1984 tours de force on which Swans became even louder, slower and harder. Without the technical savvy of the departed Kane, the players effectively strip down and approximate a sadistic machine on the endurance-testing "Thug" and the blast-furnace "Your Game," in which Gira recites a narrative (also found in his 1994 book, The Consumer) to the Black Flag/Black Sabbath redux of Cop's "Your Property." He enunciates his words in an increasingly hearty basso-growl, with projection and control that could make Rollins or Danzig dress in drag. The period's studio leftovers are another step forward; the subdued "I'll Cry for You" is a perfect intro to the less monochromatic themes of Swans' mid-80s discs.
Longtime devotees will appreciate Filth/Body to Body's lavish packaging and archival bonus tracks. Uninitiated tough guys who think they can cope with a 135-minute beating should also seek out this defining collection of dirges. Swans' dualistic cocktail of painful pleasure is designed to blow small subwoofers and small minds alike.
Jordan N. Mamone