Category Archives: Heavy Rotation

What our contributors have been listening to lately.

Comeback Kids: The Equals’ Two-Tone Rebel Soul

Since I’m in a serious funk over the astonishing increases in inequality that define our age, it seems like a good time to feature the seriously funky legacy of England’s two-tone rebel soul pioneers, The Equals. The biracial group of native Brits and immigrants from Jamaica and Guyana, formed in North London in 1965, has been described by musician and ska expert Marco on the Bass as the first “real” two-tone band, paving the way for the Specials, Selecter and other integrated bands in ska’s second wave. Although the Equals drew from ska, they incorporated many other influences, including pop, garage rock, psychedelia, soul, and funk.

Those who know the Equals’ guitarist and main songwriter Eddy Grant as the dreadlocked pop-reggae singer who recorded “Electric Avenue” (written in reaction to a 1981 Brixton riot) might be surprised to see him with the Equals, sporting dyed blond hair and sometimes playing fuzzy psychedelic guitar as if his life depended on it. Growly Derv Gordon, not Grant, served as the band’s lead vocalist, and the band continued after Grant, weakened by serious illness, quit and returned to Guyana in 1971. But the band’s peak period ended with Grant’s departure.

The Equals’ two signature songs are probably best known as covers. The infectious “Baby Come Back,” which received a lighter treatment in Pato Banton/ UB40’s 1994 hit version, is concise and compressed enough to remind me of one of Grant’s heroes, Chuck Berry. The hard-charging “Police on My Back” fit so seamlessly into the Clash‘s repertoire on its sprawling 1981 album Sandinista! that most listeners assumed it was a Clash original. But the Equals’ original version packs almost the same wallop, with a little extra dose of sweet soul.

The Equals, “Baby Come Back”

The Equals, “Police on My Back”

When the Equals are mentioned at all, it often seems to happen after some major protest in which England’s youth take to the streets–most recently in Salon, which offered the band’s work as the soundtrack to a burning London. It’s true that by the late sixties and early seventies, the Equals offered some compelling slices of politically charged psychedelic soul (“Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,” “Equality,” “Stand Up and Be Counted”). Yet the Equals weren’t close to being politicians, and their love songs hold up as well as their fight songs. They would deserve to be heard even if the streets of London became perfectly quiet.

The Equals, “Black Skin, Blue Eyed Boys”

The Equals, “Equality”

In the Aeroplane, Over Pawnee

Sometimes imitation is an insincere form of flattery. When I stumbled upon a new TV game show called Know Ya Boo, I found it reminiscent of the Newlywed Game. That’s mainly because it is a complete ripoff, from the smarmy questions of host Tom Haverford to its strange contestants. But a recent show provided an unexpected musical twist.

Haverford asked the male contestants which rock star their “ladies” would most like to “get with.” Andy, a friendly but dimwitted musician who fronts the modest Indiana band Mouse Rat, replied “that’s easy–me.” But sparks flew after his cynical girlfriend April instead chose Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. Not quite catching on, Andy later predicted that April’s “favorite place to smush” (don’t ask) would be “at the Neutral Milk Hotel.” And why not? After all, who says “love machine” to the ladies better than a reclusive genius whose most acclaimed work, 1998’s In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea, is a surreal concept album based on Anne Frank’s Diary?

Sadly, Know Ya Boo isn’t real. It’s a scene from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, set in the underachieving fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Tom Haverford is really comedian Aziz Ansari, who has previously been spotted stalking M.I.A. and singing songs about duck people with Devendra Banhart. Neutral Milk Hotel, the short-lived leading light of Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective, is perfectly placed to get an affectionate sendup, given the religious fervor that has built for the the band over the past dozen years on scores of websites and at least one well-researched thesis. Sample blog tribute: “Christianity had Paul. The United States had Federalist papers. Indie rock has Neutral Milk Hotel.” Needless to say, there’s also a ukulele tribute band, Neutral Uke Hotel.

All this fast-track canonization prompted me to stop listening to In the Aeroplane for a few years. I typecast Jeff Mangum, an imaginative guy with a polarizing voice and a low-fi approach to high-concept songwriting, as a shade too precious to reach the pantheon. But it turns out that my dismissal was premature as well. Zach Condon’s first Beirut album, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, had so many of Mangum’s fingerprints–compressed folk strumming, evocations of Eastern European marching bands, words as travel snapshots–that I gave Aeroplane another spin. I’ve had it in heavy rotation ever since. Far from sounding like he was trying to create the Rosetta Stone of hipster cred, Mangum now sounds to me like a boy awkwardly growing into a man, haunted by a girl’s diary most of us have ignored since high school, willing to risk making a total fool of himself because he had to find a way to sing through his pain. Back in Chicago, we called that the blues.

And one day we will die
And our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young
Let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see

Mangum is finally on tour again, bringing back the evocative title track of Aeroplane . I hope he also covers “Sex Machine.”

Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland 1945”

Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed Boy”

Neutral Milk Hotel, “In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea”

How the Cedars Invaded the Land of Blue Pajamas

At a nightclub years ago, while overpraising some now-forgotten musical discovery, I found myself upstaged by a stranger who was raving about something even more obscure he claimed to have heard in London. Articulate but thoroughly lubricated, he raved about a legendary late-sixties Israeli garage band called the Seders. The band, he claimed, were what the late-sixties Beatles and Kinks would have sounded like if they had thoroughly devoured Eastern rhythms rather than politely nibbling. Two beers later, when he was explaining how the Seders also inspired a dance craze in Turkey, I stopped listening and filed those thoughts in the part of my brain that stores Apocryphal Rantings of Drunk Guys at Concerts.

Earlier this month, a quickie post on “the Sea-ders” at the Aquarium Drunkard website made me drop my burrito. For your information, the drunk guy at the long-ago show was telling the truth, except for botching one crucial detail. The awkwardly hyphenated band, later renamed the Cedars, were Lebanese rock pioneers from prewar Beirut who got signed to Decca and made a minor splash in London in 1967 before calling it a day. The band’s hard-charging debut single, “Thanks a Lot,” could pass for an outtake from the Beatles’ Revolver, fusing a slightly sugar-coated pop melody with beguiling swirls of rhythm flying miles higher than “Eight Miles High,” and sounding more like tomorrow than “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “I Don’t Know Why” vaguely resembles the Kinks’ Ray Davies having an identity crisis on a Mediterranean adventure.
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Evelyn Evelyn

Not since Hohner released the Siamese Twins model harmonica in 1904 – or perhaps since Tod Browning’s 1932 film opus Freaks – has our advanced civilization had the unmitigated pleasure of being serenaded by a pair of congenitally joined twin girls who have mastered the piano, ukulele, and accordion, each twin contributing their respectively available hand toward playing duties.


Evelyn Evelyn changes all that, with an autobiographical vaudeville revue cum baroque Pop-Rock opera (don’t swallow with Pepsi!). It’s complicated.

EvelynEvelyn_Twitter_Icon.jpg EVELYN and EVELYN NEVILLE are a songwriting duo performing original compositions on piano, ukulele, guitar and accordion. The sisters are parapagus tripus dibrachius twins, sharing three legs, two arms, three lungs, two hearts and a single liver.

Born September 11, 1985 on a small farm on the Kansas-Colorado border, the Evelyns have traveled the greater part of North America performing with “Dillard & Fullerton’s Illusive Traveling Show”.

Their unique musical style is inspired by their many eclectic influences – from 80’s music to showtunes, Joy Division to the Andrews Sisters.

The sisters currently reside in Walla Walla, Washington. They are fluent in chicken and their favorite colors are purple and yellow.

Continue reading Evelyn Evelyn

Keep a Good Head and Carry a Lightbulb: K’naan Gets the Message from Bob, Bob and Fela

Somali-Canadian rapper/ singer K’naan performs his stirring anthem “Wavin’ Flag” with such quiet dignity and righteous power that it seems like the sort of song Bono would trade half the gross domestic product of Ireland to have thought of first. With its loping tempo and big chorus, K’naan’s signature song seems simple the way that “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Get Up, Stand Up” are, distilling the restless search for freedom to words so basic your children will sing them after a couple of listens. And they will (“when I get older, I will be stronger…”).

The Marley connection is far from coincidental. If you heard that K’naan was a good friend of Damian (Junior Gong) Marley and had recorded much of his last album at the Dreadest One’s old home and studio, you might wonder whether K’naan is just latest one-anthem wonder to trade on the Marley legend. Duet versions of a soccerized version of “Wavin’ Flag” have been released in Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic for a World Cup preview tour, and Canadian all-stars rerecorded the song for Haiti earthquake relief (leading to the strange spectacle of K’naan’s words coming from the likes of Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber). And as the surest sign that K’naan is here to stay, “Wavin’ Flag” has already been recorded by a false version of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

But anyone who would marginalize K’naan as the latest world-music flavor of the month is going to miss out on the widely varied work of a complicated man from a complicated place. Synonymous here with anarchy and misery, Somalia has been known for centuries as a nation of poets, where rhythm and rhyme are central features of language and communication. The nephew of a famous Somalian singer and the grandson of a revered poet, Keinan Warsame narrowly survived the mean streets of Mogadishu, emigrating to Toronto as a teenager when civil order imploded in the nineties. He honed his English skills listening to hip-hop lyrics from Rakim and Nas, finding a pathway from home in conscious and reflective street poetry.

He can come on harder than a hand grenade (literally, as he picked one up by accident in grammar school), sweeter than Smokey Robinson at a candy factory, and clever enough to carry around a seriously tricked-out bag of fantastic rhymes in his second language. Seamlessly merging hip-hop with roots, funk and soul, last year’s Troubador album, his second, mixes booming old-school hard-knock raps than make most American gangstas sound like spoiled suburbanites (“T.I.A,” “I Come Prepared”) politically charged character sketches (“Somalia,” “People Like Me”), and tongue-twisting wordplay more fun than a bowl of Eminems (“”Dreamer,” “Bang Bang”). He even enlists Kirk Hammett to help him slay the heinous rap-rock beast. My favorite is probably the gorgeous, funny, heartbreaking “Fatima,” which tells the real-life story of a childhood friend with a cruel fate.

Perhaps even better, last fall K’naan released The Messengers, three stunning mixtapes paying homage to his musical and spiritual mentors, which you can download for free on the website of his Brooklyn-based D.J. collaborator, J. Period. Part documentary collage, part musical tribute, part mashup with K’naan’s own work, these are clearly a labor of love and like nothing else I’ve heard. Not surprisingly, two of the “messengers” featured are Bob Marley (naturally) and Nigeria’s legendary Afrobeat pioneer and Broadway musical inspiration, Fela Kuti.

The Marley and Fela tributes are as incendiary and thoughtful and you would hope, but the real stunner of the group is the mixtape for the third messenger, Bob Dylan. I wouldn’t have guessed it before, but the troubador from Mogadishu actually seems to “get” Dylan better than a whole conference room of professional Dylanologists who worship the water he walks on. K’naan’s call-and-response in “Hard Rain” adds to the song’s sense of foreboding, and his “Fire in Freetown” fits so tightly into “4th Time Around” that you’d swear it was always in the song. And the revision of “Don’t Think Twice” made me think twice for the first time in years about why I loved that curmudgeonly song-and-dance man in the first place. The “message” from Dylan that begins the remix nails the mood: “Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb. I plugged mine into the socket and the house exploded.”

K’naan, “Wavin’ Flag”

K’naan, “Fatima”

J. Period/ K’naan, Fela/ Africa (Messengers Remix)

J. Period/ K’naan, Dylan/ Don’t Think Twice (Messengers Remix)

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

Sometimes the simplest music hits you like a ton of bricks. Somewhere between Chopin and Sun Ra (in his more pensive moments) lie the gorgeous etudes of 87-year-old Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, reflecting on her passage from religious persecution to depression to solace. Emahoy’s piano moves between dark sultry and enlivened pizzicato, like the soundtrack of a pre-talkie drama full of sweet melancholy, punctuated by fleeting moments of hope. Her melodies are a graceful, fleeting ballet of simple truths, spiritual insight, and awkward stumbles. In every phrase, you can hear the course of Emahoy’s life, so different from your own.

Meara O’Reilly for Boing-Boing:

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a nun currently living in Jerusalem. She grew up as the daughter of a prominent Ethiopian intellectual, but spent much of her young life in exile, first for schooling, and then again during Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia’s capitol city, Addis Ababa, in 1936. Her musical career was often tragically thwarted by class and gender politics, and when the Emperor himself actually went so far as to personally veto an opportunity for Guèbrou to study abroad in England, she sank into a deep depression before fleeing to a monastery in 1948.

Emahoy is now 87 years old and plays piano at her monastery nearly seven hours a day.

This is music poignant and hopeful, for reflecting on life lived and not yet lived. You want this in yours.

Math Curse: Vijay Iyer on Funk and Fibonacci

My seven year-old girl loves a book called Math Curse, which begins when a girl’s teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci, notes that “you can think of almost anything as a math problem.” The girl starts seeing crazy patterns and cruel fractions in everything from schedules to snacks. Later she conquers fear and makes peace with her semi-irrational world…at least until Mr. Newton, her science teacher, tells her everything is also a science problem.

Mrs. Fibonacci came to mind when I found Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer’s recent essay, Strength in Numbers—which followed and partly explained his trio’s fascinating 2009 album, Historicity. Iyer’s graceful essay is a great read even though its subtitle, “How Fibonacci Taught Us to Swing,” brought back uncomfortable memories of math majors at school dances. The real-life Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa) was a rabbit breeding-obsessed 13th century Italian mathematician. His signature sequence starts with 0 and 1 and gets each remaining number from the sum of the previous two ( 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc.)

The ratios of consecutive Fibonacci numbers approach the golden ratio (i.e., 1.6180339887 and change). That number (phi in Greek and geek-speak) has captivated everyone from Euclid to Le Corbusier and Dali–as well as conspiracy theorists, sellers of bad stock market tips, readers of Dan Brown novels, and people who’ve spent too long playing Dungeons and Dragons or Spore.

Iyer’s essay describes the recurrence of the golden ratio in settings ranging from the architecture of the Parthenon to the opening chords in “Billie Jean.” But he isn’t some boneheaded numerologist. Having grown up with American R&B and the karnatak music of South India, Iyer makes music for the body as well as the brain. Iyer argues that the golden ratio also appears in the rhythmic durations and pitch ratios used by Bartók, Debussy, and Coltrane, as well as his former collaborator Steve Coleman.

Historicity includes a cover of Ronnie Foster’s seventies soul number Mystic Brew, a song some will recognize from its sample in A Tribe Called Quest‘s “Electric Relaxation.” Iyer gives “Mystic Brew” a Fibonacci-inspired makeover, getting surprising warmth out of a pair of asymmetric chords (three beats followed by five)—and I can almost hear Beavis and Butthead snickering at this sentence. So let me be more direct: Historicity rocks, dude. Bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Markus Gilmore are fierce and fluid throughout; the pulse swirls around but never relents on the title track and numbers by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Andrew Hill.

Two other knockout covers on Historicity deserve special mention: the slow-building, smoldering funk of Julius Hemphill’s early cult classic “Dogon A.D,” and a blowout version of M.I.A.’s amazing “Galang.” For the three minutes of “Galang,” Iyer seemed more magician than mathematician, since he fooled me into into thinking that my favorite rhythm track of the Zeroes may really have been written for a piano trio of math majors.

Vijay Iyer Trio, “Galang”

Vijay Iyer discusses “Historicity”

Jacques Dutronc: 500 Billion Little Martians Can’t Be Wrong

dutronc-cigarI only remembered it was Bastille Day an hour before it was over this Tuesday, but I knew just what I wanted to hear. Jacques Dutronc is a revered figure in his country’s rock history that remains a total obscurity to many stateside. That’s a shame, because if there’s one person who can demonstrate that “French rock” isn’t an oxymoron, it’s Jacques Dutronc. Dutronc’s music calls to mind the scene in the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in which a reporter asked Ringo Starr if he was a mod or a rocker, and he responded, “I’m a mocker.”

Jacques Dutronc made being a mocker into an art form. The dapper Dutronc drew energy from sixties-era youth rebellion at the same time he skewered its narcissistic excesses in songs like the brilliant breakthrough single “Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi,” said to be an answer song to the Franco-Dylanisms of Antoine’s “Les Élucubrations d’Antoine.” Set to an insanely catchy thumping backbeat, Dutronc rattles off increasingly surreal population statistics (700 million Chinese, 50 million imperfect people, 500 billion little martians), while always placing himself in the forefront (“et moi”).

Whether he’s tackling prickly everyday problems (“Les Cactus”), flipping the bird to hypocritical swingers (the bachelor sendup “Les Playboys”), or lampooning armchair hippies (the sitar-tinged “Hippie Hippie Hourrah”), Dutronc is also smart enough to capture what’s compelling and cool about his subjects. As with his closest British counterpart, the Kinks’ Ray Davies, Dutronc’s ironic swagger would have fallen flat if his music weren’t equally forceful, and diverse enough to capture an occasional tender subject, like his affection for Paris in the morning (“Il est cinq heures, Paris s’eveille”). Too suave to really play garage rock, he still understood enough about its simple power to deliver on songs like “La fille du père Noël,” a Gallic spin on Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” that can hold its own with the Yardbirds’ cover of the Diddley ditty.

Two other central figures in Jacques Dutronc’s world deserve special mention. First, Dutronc’s longtime muse, collaborator, and wife of almost three decades is Francoise Hardy, the classiest and arguably the most talented of the French ye-ye pop singers (their son is the jazz guitarist Thomas Dutronc). Still gorgeous well into her sixties, Hardy became an accomplished singer-songwriter who has remained open-minded enough to collaborate with everyone from Blur and Air to Iggy Pop.

Second, most of the credit for Jacques Dutronc’s droll commentary is owed to his songwriting partner Jacques Lanzmann, a twentieth-century Renaissance man whose odd career found him, at various times, as a welder, truck driver, copper miner, painter, founder of a men’s magazine, travel show host, and author of 40 novels. Lanzmann, whose brother Claude directed the Holocaust epic Shoah, also escaped a Nazi death squad as a teenager, reputedly because he was determined “not to die a virgin.” Now that’s French resistance!

Jacques Dutronc, ““Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi”

Jacques Dutronc, “Les Cactus”

Jacques Dutronc, “La Fille Du Père Noël”

The King of California

newdave_2When the last firecracker fades and the light grows dim, there’s no better way to close out the Fourth of July than with a Dave Alvin trilogy. This isn’t “Americana”; this is America. The three songs below are from Alvin’s 1994 acoustic showcase, King of California, which includes then-new material and earthy reworkings of a few Alvin songs from his tenure as lead guitarist for the Blasters, and briefly for X. X turned “Fourth of July” into an anthem, but Alvin’s less explosive version gets under your skin with its portrait of a weary lover on the stairs, smoking a cigarette alone. These songs aren’t exactly free of melodrama–the title track sounds like a lost Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad, down to the last bullet in the chest–but they’re unsentimental in their refusal to treat their subjects simply as heroes or villains. Alvin knows there’s “an evil in this land” as well as any protest singer, but his metaphors creep up on you instead of hitting you over the head:

There’s a barn burning, baby
No I can’t say who’s to blame
No one knows who did it, baby
And you’d best not ask my name.

I can’t listen to Dave Alvin’s King of California without thinking about the fascinating book of the same name by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman. The King of California explains how a family of relocated cotton farmers from Georgia maneuvered to build one of the world’s largest agriculture enterprises in the world in California’s Central Valley. Often operating under the radar, the Boswells wielded such power that they were able to make rivers run backward and drain to dust Tulare Lake, which had been the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. The “king” of the book’s title, J.G. Boswell, who passed away earlier this year, was a study in contradictions: a rugged individualist who grew his empire with government subsidies; an agricultural visionary who displaced scores of family farmers; a Stanford man who lost two fingers in a cattle roping accident. He’d make a great subject for a Dave Alvin song.

Dave Alvin, “Fourth of July”

Dave Alvin, “Barn Burning”

Dave Alvin, “King of California”

Mayra Andrade’s Lunar Mission

mayraI enjoy cathartic, noisy racket as much as just about anyone, but there are times when I just need music to transport me breathlessly and rapturously to a magical place I’d never see on my own. As a little kid with a homemade cardboard rocket, I remember hearing Julie London’s version of “Fly Me to the Moon” and not admitting to my friends how much that song played with my head. A more contemporary lunar mission can be found on Mayra Andrade‘s gorgeous “Lua,” one of the high points of her excellent debut album, Navega. That album has gained Cape Verde more recognition than any record since Cesaria Evora‘s 1992 landmark, Miss Perfumado. The earthy Evora mostly sings in the mournful morna style, which makes me think of Portuguese fado. Andrade sings stirring mornas as well, but she also sounds more like the world traveler she is (she was born in Cuba, and in addition to Cape Verde, has lived in Germany, Angola, Senegal, and her current Paris).

As a teenager, Andrade became entranced with the music of one of my favorite singers, Brazil’s Caetano Veloso, whose fluid shifts between the breathy parts and the rapturous parts are echoed on Navega. She also had the opportunity to work with Orlando Pantera, credited in his country with revolutionizing the traditional Cape Verdean batuque. Sadly, Pantera died in 2001, reportedly on the day before he was supposed to go to Paris to work on his debut record.

The album version of Andrade’s “Lua” has the rhythmic intensity Pantera became known for, but the acoustic version below provides a clearer opportunity to focus on Andrade’s otherworldly voice.

Mayra Andrade, “Lua”