Saxophonist and composer John Zorn was found dead last night in his Manhattan apartment, a victim of his own success. Zorn rode into town on a white horse, his yarmulke flapping in the breeze. He didn’t know why he came back. He didn’t know how he’d gotten roped into another war with desperadoes. The day was hot. A gun was in his hand.
Yes, he’s alive. Is John Zorn the hardest avant-squawker in the ruggedly bookish tradition of revolutionary downtown geek-skronk, or just last night’s reason for a three-alarm headache? There’s no easy answer. Last weekend, most of us enjoyed Zorn’s live collaboration at Yoshi’s San Francisco with the Bay Area’s Rova Saxophone Quartet, whose fellow travelers (especially Larry Ochs) seemed Zorny as hell the whole evening. Zorn isn’t for everyone, and others wished for earplugs. I could rave about the saxophonist’s marriage of hermeneutics and harmolodics, his duck-like squawk while dipping his reed in a water glass, or his contribution to the sales figures for camouflage pants. But since that would probably put even me to sleep, I’ll simply count down my favorite John Zorn moments. And I bet he just hates lists. Continue reading Zorn in the USA: My Top Three John Zorn Moments→
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. Continue reading How the Cedars Invaded the Land of Blue Pajamas→
My seven year-old girl loves a book called Math Curse, which begins when a girlâ€™s teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci, notes that â€œyou can think of almost anything as a math problem.â€ 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 worldâ€¦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 Iyerâ€™s recent essay, Strength in Numbersâ€”which followed and partly explained his trioâ€™s fascinating 2009 album, Historicity. Iyerâ€™s graceful essay is a great read even though its subtitle, â€œHow Fibonacci Taught Us to Swing,â€ 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 whoâ€™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 â€œBillie Jean.â€ But he isnâ€™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 BartÃ³k, Debussy, and Coltrane, as well as his former collaborator Steve Coleman.
Historicity includes a cover of Ronnie Fosterâ€™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)â€”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 Hemphillâ€™s early cult classic â€œDogon A.D,â€ and a blowout version of M.I.A.â€™s amazing â€œGalang.â€ 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.
Coastal California in January is a setting for unpredictable bursts of melancholy and joy. Scandinavians or Minnesotans would barely recognize “winter” here, but we have impossibly thin skins for ours. We have too many sunlit summer teaser days to steel ourselves for the bleakness, and when the big storms hit the Bay Area, you might as well be walking through an Ingmar Bergman movie or a Leonard Cohen album. This makes January the perfect time to listen to Neko Case‘s weather-obsessed 2009 album, Middle Cyclone.
Calling a musician a “force of nature” is a tiresome cliche, because who isn’t? We humans are a bunch of animals, and the “artificial” music of Kraftwerk and Gorillaz comes from nature just as much as Delta blues. (I’ll exclude Coldplay and Sting, since they appear to be pure cylon.) But I digress. What matters about Neko Case isn’t that she’s “natural,” but that she has such a fluid force. Galvanizing calm and rage, she can take a phrase lesser lights would turn into mushy prattle (“I’m a man-eater” or “never turn your back on Mother Earth”) and make you believe her life and your life depend on it. She doesn’t just sing about stormy weather, she is the weather.
On “This Tornado Loves You,” perhaps Neko’s best song yet, she is the speed of sound, stalking lost love like a funnel cloud ready to strike. She is the force of love and danger spinning out of control. She’s the perfect soundtrack for a continent hanging on to hope while flirting with impending doom. She’s even the cool hood ornament on a 1967 Mercury Cougar. For those of us who emerged from the Zeroes with our attention spans twittered into submission, it’s a revelation to hear in Neko’s “Tornado” a rock musician with an ace geologist’s sense of timing:
I have waited with a glacier’s patience
Smashed every transformer with every trailer
’til nothing was standing
65 miles wide
Still you are nowhere
Nowhere in sight
I’ve played Middle Cyclone repeatedly while reading Dead Pool, James Lawrence Powell’s gripping account of how decades spent denying the forces of nature have left the western landscape vulnerable to climate change, potentially turning places like Phoenix into dusty, uninhabitable ghost towns. The rivers whisper and scream with the violence of lost love, but still we are nowhere in sight.
In the first clip below, Neko Case performs “This Tornado Loves You.” In the second, she chats with a Canadian talk show host about mesocyclones and animal instinct, Goethe and Harry Nilsson, Loretta Lynn and PMS. At the end, she hallucinates about George W. Bush visiting a taco wagon dressed in a grimy tank top.
Since Thanksgiving weekend gives us all the chance to dwell on the huge chasm between the Norman Rockwell expectations and Jackson Pollock realities of our everyday lives, it’s all too easy to make it an occasion to break out the Schopenhauer and wallow in self-pity. That’s what makes it the perfect time to pay homage to one of the unsung heroes of Western philosophy, Ian Dury. A new biography and forthcoming film may signal a Dury renaissance as we near the tenth anniversary of his passing.
But Dury never played the victim, since he was too busy finding little sources of delight in the surreal and debauched spectacle that is real life. As the missing link between Benny Hill and Bertrand Russell, Dury had ingenious ways to find the sublime in the ridiculous. His backing band, the Blockheads, stayed tight and funky in an era better known for its sloppy chaos. His manifesto, “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3” finds all sorts of wonderful reasons to keep on keeping on. No Thanksgiving toast I could devise could compete with that song’s “Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty/ Going on 40 – no electric shocks.” And the reasons keep getting better from there:
Bantu Stephen Biko, listening to Rico
Harpo, Groucho, Chico
Cheddar cheese and pickle, the Vincent motorsickle
Slap and tickle
Woody Allen, Dali, Dimitri and Pasquale
balabalabala and Volare
Something nice to study, phoning up a buddy
Being in my nuddy
Saying hokey-dokey, singalonga Smokey
Coming out of chokey
John Coltrane’s soprano, Adi Celentano
The BBC, which once upon a time was known to ban the occasional Dury ditty, now features a glossary of all Dury’s reasons to be cheerful. The song also inspired Dave Gorman’s one-act play, which supposedly presents research testing the validity of Dury’s reasons.
Need more reasons to love Ian Dury? He had the opportunity to adapt the lyrics for the musical Cats and turned down Andrew Lloyd Webber. As Dury explained while terminally ill: “But I said no straight off. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s a wanker, isn’t he?… Every time I hear `Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ I feel sick, it’s so bad. He got Richard Stillgoe to do the lyrics in the end, who’s not as good as me. He made millions out of it. He’s crap, but he did ask the top man first!”
Wife and I sat down to watch Radiohead: Seven Television Commercials, a brief collection of Radiohead music videos. It had been sitting in the NetFlix queue for so long I had forgotten it was there — arrived in the mailbox like the memory of an old friend.Â Such impressionistic stuff, we decided to skip any attempt at actual review/synopsis and instead just riff words off the visuals and post whatever came out, do a sort of Kerouac typewriter roll on it.
What follows are seven songs, seven paragraphs.
n.b.: Radiohead (or its label EMI (c.f. John Lydon on EMI) or the copyright Mormons, or whomever) have seen fit to disable embeddable video for the band’s videos, so you’ll have to click through to see moving pictures, sorry).
Fake Plastic Trees
Through the grate of a shopping cart (the good kind, the metal kind), young Yorke riding rows of bioluminescent beverages. A chaise lounge, woman in beehive. Slow shaking of head like trying to scare out a wasp. Strange babies along for the ride. No exit? This is a British high-fashion dream-time shopping spree. Old man Jackson brandishing sterling six-guns. Dudes in sweats mosy down. “It wears me out.” On surveillance it’s all black and white, the gushing colors gone, but only for a moment, then the moment’s gone. If Stanley Kubrik made music videos, they would have looked like this.
Wilco will always be too traditional for those who want them to be weird, and too weird for those who want them to be traditional. For all the hype about its sonic experiments, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can still break your heart into twin towers mainly because of Jeff Tweedy’s arresting songs. Yet to certain hipstersâ€”call them peasants with their Pitchforksâ€”Tweedy has since become the archetypal boring dad, leading a mythical genre known as dad rock.
Tweedy does seems like a devoted dad. This July, he smiled warmly when his son (heavy metal drummer Spencer) came onstage in Berkeley dressed like one of the Fleet Foxes. But the haters are getting ugly. Vice offered Wilco fans the sensitive advice that â€œyou might as well sterilize yourselves, because if you have kids they are guaranteed to be assholes too.â€ Reviewing this year’s Wilco (The Album) the Village Voice trash-talked Tweedy as â€œa pale father of twoâ€ who makes music for white people to relax.
The notion that “dad rock” is a bad thing brings out the fighting side of me. I am a pale father of two. I wash dishes and mow the lawn, though not particularly well. I find myself trying to â€œbalance fun with crushing depression,â€ just like Tweedy. Despite the occasional bad haircut or twelve-minute migraine, Tweedy has special gifts. He channels the Replacements and the Carter Family. He croaks strange poetry in gorgeously cranky second-generation Dylanisms. He hallucinates about spiders doing tax returns to the tune of Canâ€™s â€œMother Sky.â€ If Wilco is the new â€œnormal,â€ my life is a David Lynch movie.
Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”
Part Two: So Misunderstood
I wish I’d been a fly on the wall in the meeting brainstorming the cover art for Wilco’s new eponymous disc, destined to be known as The Camel Album:
Record executive: “Jeff, we’ve got a problem. People are starting to think you’re a tired fossil who has no rock and roll fun.”
I love that, after getting lambasted with the “dad rock” label, Wilco chose to use a children’s birthday party theme on the cover. Despite more ups and downs than the camel, Wilco (The Album) is a truckload of fun for dads of all ages. Once in a while, as with Sky Blue Sky, it could use one of Tweedy’s frenemies named Jay — Jay Farrar, or the sadly departed Jay Bennett — to give Tweedy a kick in the pants and keep things moving. The album wonâ€™t bring back the Neil Young Country of Being There, the lush chamber pop of Summerteeth, or the fractured anthems of Foxtrot. But it draws memorably from all the Wilcos we have known, as well as a few of their heroes. Here’s a sampling of the new tracks, with accompanying sermonette and source material:
Waiting for My Van
The taut, chunky guitars plugging along at the start of â€œWilco (The Song)” reveal it as a dad-friendly reworking of the Velvet Undergroundâ€™s â€œWaiting for the Man.â€ But rather than going to Lexington and 125th to buy drugs, like Lou Reed, Tweedy sounds more like heâ€™s on the prowl for a neighborhood featuring tree-lined streets and an excellent school system. Pure genius. But it gets better. He refers to his own band in the song, like heâ€™s in Wang Chung telling everybody to wang chung tonight. And instead of trying to break your heart, he throws out warm fuzzies. â€œWilco will love ya, baby,â€ he intones, like heâ€™s Telly Savalas. And who among us doesnâ€™t need a dad-friendly hybrid of the Velvet Underground, Wang Chung and Telly Savalas?
Wilco, “Wilco (The Song)”
Velvet Underground, “Waiting for the Man”
Bull Black Volvo
Those who think Tweedy is now only serving happy meals should listen to â€œBull Black Nova,â€ The Albumâ€™s chilly melodrama in the tradition of “Via Chicago” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Tweedy and superlative lead guitarist Nels Cline build a high-wire frenzy that sounds like a lost track from Televisionâ€™s Marquee Moon. But Televisionâ€™s Cadillac pulled into the graveyard in different times, when General Motors wasnâ€™t yet a public works program. Thereâ€™s nothing remotely dad rock about a Chevy Nova, which probably doesnâ€™t even have airbags. I want Tweedy to write his next murder mystery about my Volvo V70 station wagon.
Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”
Television, “Marquee Moon”
Bastards of Old
â€œYou Never Knowâ€ is shimmering power pop in Wilcoâ€™s Summerteeth tradition, sounding like Big Star playing something from George Harrisonâ€™s All Things Must Pass. Then the lyrics kick in, and they deserve a hallowed place in the dad rock hall of fame: â€œCome on children, youâ€™re acting like children/ Every generation thinks itâ€™s the end of the world.â€ As I blurted out to my six year-old girl last week: â€œWill you please stop acting like a child?â€ Wilco gets it, and I feel so validated.
(The flip side of the “You Never Know” seven-inch single is Unlikely Japan, a version of Skyâ€™s â€œImpossible Germanyâ€ that sounds more like a Foxtrot outtake).
Wilco, “You Never Know”
George Harrison, “What is Life”
Wilco (The Duet)
Jeff launches into lullaby mode on “You and I,” proving those crib-side crooning sessions with his boys werenâ€™t in vain. Then, faster than you can count to four, Canadian mathematician Leslie Feist joins in for a little game of She & Him, with Feist playing the role of Zooey Deschanel while Tweedy turns into Matt Ward. A shade too cute, but itâ€™s dad-tastic!
Wilco (with Feist), “You and I”
She and Him, “This is Not a Test”
Part Three: A Can of Spiders
Spiders are singing in the salty breeze
Spiders are filling out tax returns
Spinning out webs of deductions and melodies
On a private beach in Michigan
Why can’t they wish their kisses good
Why do they miss when their kisses should
Fly like winging birds fighting for the keys
On a private beach in Michigan
This recent rash of kidsmoke
All these telescopic poems
It’s good to be alone
I 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.
If I had the opportunity to replay video footage of my entire life (a horrifying prospect, for those who haven’t seen the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life), I could pinpoint the precise moment where music became more than just background noise and started to become a passionate life force. While still in elementary school, I stumbled upon a free music festival in my native Chicago, and noticed an unfamiliar name on the stage sign: Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine.
On first glance, I could tell Ms. Taylor was roughly old enough to be my mom–that is, if my mom were half a foot taller, the daughter of Tennessee sharecroppers, and dressed in a glittery evening gown. But when she started singing, I entered a different world, never to return. I’d had a few experiences with live music before, including an encounter with a lame local band called Styx, but nothing in the world I knew prepared me for her complete command of the stage, and for a voice that sounded like it had been raised on a diet of sandpaper and velvet, with an extra helping of sandpaper. The first song I remember hearing–I’d later learn it was a cover of Irma Thomas‘s first big hit, the self-explanatory “You Can Have My Husband (But Don’t Mess with My Man)”–was inappropriate grade-school listening at its finest, especially in its recounting of the two male rivals’ mismatched sample menus (husband serves red beans and rice, man “keeps me in steaks,” and this being the midwest, red meat wins in a landslide).
The truly magic moment came later in the show, when Koko ripped into her signature song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” with a force that sounded like it could travel halfway to Wisconsin. Koko’s tornado of a voice made a perfect match for one of of unsung hero Willie Dixon‘s many brilliant compositions (Dixon himself reportedly thought the song was a silly trifle, but that’s why we don’t ask artists to critique their own songs). Topical songs and complicated poetic songs will come and go, but “Wang Dang Doodle” is timeless. I think of it as a classic work of Chicago architecture, in which form follows function without a wasted line or note. Deceptively simple, “Doodle” works simultaneously as cryptic secret code, melodramatic short story, risque nursery rhyme, and kick-ass empowerment anthem (to this day, when I have moments of doubt, I think to myself, “I’m gonna break out all the windows, I’m gonna kick down all the doors”).
“Wang Dang Doodle” has been covered by everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to P.J. Harvey, but Taylor’s remains the best. (In the 1967 version below, Taylor gets great accompaniment from harmonica virtuoso Little Walter, and eleven-fingered guitarist Hound Dog Taylor.) This week, obituaries reported that Koko Taylor passed away, that she won a bunch of awards, and that some called her the queen of the blues. But none of that would convey why, when I broke that news to my kids, all of us started crying. Someday when they’re older, they’ll have moments of doubt and need to find the strength to kick down all the doors. And I hope I’m still there to sing “Wang Dang Doodle” for them, all night long.
Burrowing through the hidden recesses of Tivo’s “Video on demand” menus, past the usual high-profile Amazon and Netflix offerings, I recently tripped over a set of sub-menus that surfaced lo-fi, low-profile offerings pulled straight off the web. It was there I stumbled on Gemini Rising, a web-only mini-series about a mythical ’74 band that looks like a bit like Skynyrd, sounds a bit like Tull (or is that Deep Purple?), and acts like everyone you knew in high school (assuming you went to high school in the 70s/early 80s). The elevator pitch:
In 1974, progressive rock band “Gemini Rising” returned to the studio to begin work on their second album and were never heard from again…until …
A somewhat more detailed back-story can be found on the band’s MySpace page, if you squint hard enough through the background images:
Welcome to the rise and fall, and rise again, of one of the most progressive of the 1970’s progressive rock bands: Gemini Rising. A rare American act, the McKenzie brothers of Levittown, Pennsylvania, created a unique blend of celtic/blues/space/carribean/utopian rock fusion that propelled songs such as “Electric Lady of the Lake” and “Golden Star Showers” to the top of the FM radio play lists. Tragically, the Mckenzie brothers recorded only two albums together, but due to the rediscovery of rare archival footage partially assembled here, you may experience the triumphs and tragedies of this unique band of talented troubadours.
Beyond that, little is known about Gemini Rising. The rest you’ll have to divine from the clips.
Gemini Rising is not a garden variety Spinal Tap or Mighty Wind knock-off tackling ’74 prog rock — it’s more subtle than that, and quite a bit more believable. In place of satirical concert footage, Gemini is more inclined to show the band hanging around a scuffy apartment smoking weed in anticipation of a pathetic-looking vegan Thanksgiving dinner, which is brilliantly interrupted by a band-mate bursting into the room clutching a copy of the latest Genesis record. To accompany the sonic unveiling of what they all agree is “the future of music,” lead singer Robert (Righteous Jolly) eats some bad acid and freaks out in the tub, questioning his worth as a real musician. Pathos ensues.
When Gemini Rising retreat into the wilderness (with guitars) to “find themselves” and end up noodling mindlessly to the accompaniment of birdsong, their manager claims that a nearby goose is making more music than they are. Robert, whose fatal flaw is a volatile temper, counters with a powerful philosophical rejoinder to which no rational reply is possible: “The goose is an artist. The goose is a @#%$^& artist!”
My 6-yr-old son shot this image of Righteous Jolly off the TV screen. Really.
The band’s epic photo shoot climaxes when a world class photographer none of them have heard of gets them to stand around in loin clothes in knee-deep mud, going for a set of publicity shots that will give them a more “authentic” look.
The series really gets down to business in episode 5, If Encounter Group, which plays on the shaman-as-sheister theme of EST and other self-help groups of the time that purported to be about self-improvement, but turned out to be about getting the spiritual guru good and laid. The “Pillar of Self cocoon,” aka gauzy-make-out-booth-in-the-woods sequence is just ridiculous enough to be believable. The episode also includes the excellent conflation of bongo-ist “Blind Cleve Jefferson” with “Blonde Cleve Jefferson.”
The footage is all hand-held, verite’ style. And, like all cheaply developed film from the 70s, the film stock is yellowed and scratched, with the random stray hair stuck to the projector lens. A cheap trick, but it works.
Mouth watering, right? The mini-series can be viewed in all its weed-fogged, amber-tinted, vegetarian glory here. The Gemini Rising blog is also worth checking. A single track from the mythic band is available on iTunes.