Thursday, May 29, 2008

BOBBY WOMACK: Lookin' For A Love Again

Bobby Womack - Lookin' for a Love Again
Most of these songs are over before they go anywhere, but they don't need to go anywhere because they're already there, and so are you when you listen to them. The problem is, once you’re there, you want to STAY there. Rather than stretching these songs out to Fela Kuti proportions, however, Bobby Womack leaves you wanting more, biting your tongue to hold back pleas of "Rewind, selector!"

Perhaps the economical running times are a symptom of Womack's crisp, confident showmanship. With a voice that recalls his old mentor
Sam Cooke's whiskey/velvet croon, he is a master of both vocal restraint and freedom, never falling into the equally tempting traps of tasteless histrionics or catatonic, technical recitation. He's smooth, very smooth. As a descriptor of music, "smooth" is almost always pejorative; connoting a certain clinical slickness. Womack’s smoothness, however, is different. His singing is heartfelt, and he's giving it 100%, but in a manner that suggests giving 99% or less is something he doesn’t even know how to do. He's good, and he knows he’s good, but he doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. The second "You're Welcome, Stop on By" kicks in, every head within earshot starts nodding along. The hard funk of "Don't Let Me Down" can not be listened to sitting down. Even the most devout feminist will sing along with "Lookin' For A Love", despite the looking-for-a-maid lyrics. And if you needed further proof that Bobby Womack can cross any boundaries, look how deftly he fits into the slightly more country-western settings of "Copper Kettle" and "Point of No Return".

This is a modest masterpiece, beaming with exuberant musicianship (dig that Muscle Shoals horn section!) and a strong, memorable repertoire of songs. Why it has remained overlooked is a mystery. This deserves to be placed among the best works of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

BIG STAR: Third / Sister Lovers

Big Star - Third / Sister Lovers
Third/Sister Lovers appeals to me as if it were a dusty diary discovered under some boxes in the musty old utility room. Listening to this record is like overhearing a private conversation. The songs play out like secrects, some of them nostalgic, some of them agonizing, all of them candid.

This album has been released in a few different configurations, but the 1992 CD reissue is, luckily, what you're most likely to find. The extra tracks appended to the now-rearranged tracklist fit in seamlessly. A haunting reading of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" and the more-than-adequate run-through of The Kinks' "Till the End of the Day," for example, are welcome additions.

They aren't the only covers; even in its original form, the album contained a cover of
The Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" that annihilates the forced, stilted original. This take on the song brings out a gentler element and is incredibly lovely. The "she's a femme fatale" hook becomes the indecipherable voice of some siren and Alex Chilton's vocals are fragile and pleading. Like most of the record, the arrangement feels a little uneasy; as if it were a rehearsal and the parts weren’t quite finalized. For all I know that could actually be the case, but the spontaneity that comes with that is a big part of this album’s appeal.

Perhaps as a result of the circumstances surrounding its creation (anecdotes I won’t burden you by repeating) this album is reckless, frantic and totally fearless. Alex Chilton is throwing himself into this music like most rock stars are too cool to ever do. It doesn’t feel incomplete, however.

The production is simple, with a fairly rough mix and more reverb than most would prefer. Throughout the proceeding Jody Stephens plays the drums like he’s trying to stop the kit from falling over. On "Kangaroo" and the rollicking "Kizza Me" the record actually sounds as if were in danger of coming apart at the seams, but instead of making it unfocused this gives the music it’s distinct personality; one that is anxious and pitiable. Little vocal asides ("we’re gonna get born now", "play it for me, guitarist"), that punching-the-keys piano solo in the opening track, the cowbell that appears randomly for one verse and scores of other spontaneous details crop up – the kinds of "mistakes" that are so integral to a song you can’t imagine that song without them.

A few of the tracks are familiar
Big Star territory with just slight twist. "Thank You Friends" is beautiful power-pop with only sprightly strings and gospel backup vocals to distinguish it from the first two Big Star albums, as well as the sneering, sarcastic vocals that give it an extra sinister kick. "Jesus Christ" is an is as good as anything on Radio City but with lyrics that just happen, incongruously, to be about the birth of Christ (notice the Yuletide sleigh bells on the chorus.) "You Can’t Have Me" is a great 60s garage rock nugget; all slashing electric guitar chords and retro organ, still maintaining the frustrated, depressed edge that ties this album together.

The depression really kicks in on "Big Black Car." An airy, depressing meditation on self-deception, this is a total inversion of typical power-pop car songs like "Back of a Car" (from Radio City). Listen to Chilton's falsetto in the coda for an example of what people mean when they say a piece of music gives them goosebumps. "Holocaust" is the most depressing song here, to the point where it could easily be described as "harrowing." Over simple piano chords and a weeping slide guitar, an exhausted Chilton sings from some irretrievable depth: "Everybody goes, leaving those that fall behind… your mother's dead, you’re on your own… you’re a wasted face, a sad-eyed lie, a holocaust." Faint backing vocals and a cello appear, absolutely heart-wrenching. It's the emotional centerpiece of Third/Sister Lovers.

This is what the offspring of
Astral Weeks and Pinkerton would sound like; dormitory singer-songwriter cries for help ("Get me out of here/I hate it here") floating over a serene soundscape that manages to be sparse and lush at the same time. And when Chilton sings "Girl if you’re listening, I’m sorry I can’t help it…" doesn’t it sound just a bit like "And God, if you’re listening"?

BURIAL: Untrue

Burial - Untrue

Every time I’ve tried to describe this album to one of my friends, (which, for a while there, was an almost daily activity,) I’ve compared it to that near-ache of trying to remember a song you heard only once, when you can just barely form an idea of some snippet, but it’s hazy and unanchored. That’s what this record sounds like while you’re listening to it. It’s a shadowy, nocturnal record with a wide-open, empty atmosphere. Voices drift in and out, mangled, remote and disembodied like echoes. Percussion clatters and clinks in a gangly shuffle. The murky synths are nervously aloof. One affecting moment after another sneaks up and mesmerizes, like the sad child voice that strains through "Endorphin", the dub-gospel coda to "Shell of Light", and the surprisingly upbeat final track, "Raver", which offers a light at the end of a very dark tunnel that you didn’t particularly want to leave anyway.

So far, Dubstep is a pop-bandwagon that’s been worth hopping. I can’t imagine anyone actually dancing to those Kode9 tracks that crawl like they’re dying under snailspeed Spaceape rhymes, but apparently people do that sometimes. I do know that on a pair of headphones in the middle of the night, this kind of stuff is really fresh and invigorating. Inevitably, a (sub?)genre of British dance music has to make the leap from drug-addled crowd-grinds into bedroom-recluse CD libraries, and Burial is just the man (or woman, no one knows for sure) for the job. Soul Jazz records put out a nice Dubstep compilation this year called Box of Dub, and as good as it is (it’s super-cool and highly recommended), it’s amazing how adeptly Burial’s contribution blows every other track out of the water.

One has to wonder how much of Burial’s music is meticulously designed and how much is instinctually made. Every last detail here evokes something and contributes to the big picture. Like the way the sampled vocals in the title track, recontextualized and almost incongruous, relate to each so uncannily. Or the way the snippets of lyrics in one song are often reminiscent of the snippets in another. Or the way the chords in "Homeless" seem like they’re going to resolve a certain way but never do, never losing the tension seething under the surface no matter how many times they repeat. Or like the way "Etched Headplate" threatens to develop into a full-blown pop chorus, but can’t push past a muffling layer of…something; the same something that obscures every sound here. These sounds are coated in a thin layer of mist, damp like the three-in-the-morning chill that makes you pull up your hood and zip up just a little higher. When you hear this album you feel like the rest of the world is asleep, or raptured up to dubstep heaven (St. Skream at the gates), leaving you all alone with the blurred memory of distant raves and white labels and sub-sub-bass frequencies.

YESTERDAY'S NEW QUINTET: Yesterday's Universe

Yesterday's New Quintet - Yesterday's Universe
The latest installment in Madlib’s Beat Konducta series was a little disappointing, but the latest record from his jazz-hop fusion side project is one of the finest recordings yet from the exceptionally prolific producer. Yesterday’s New Quintet is a jazz combo comprised of five musicians who are all actually Otis Jackson Jr. a/k/a Madlib a/k/a DJ Rels a/k/a Quasimoto etc. Each of the five members has released an EP of one of their side-projects, and while those EPs are enjoyable, they each lean towards tedium after a while. This record, however, is an eclectic compilation of music made by a diverse group of musicians and ensembles who all just so happen to be the same guy, huddled in a basement somewhere with some instruments, turntables, and samplers.

Allegedly, there are some contributions from other people here, but the record sleeve dispenses with any personnel listings to keep the ostensible intact. Not that you would have gone scrambling for credits anyway; nowhere on this album will you hear a display of Earth-shaking chops. This is all about an endless, hazy groove that captures the FEEL of the jazz records Madlib must have grown up listening to, without recreating their technical aspects. As a spiritual cousin to post-bop and fusion, rather than a genuine entry into either genre, this album filters an out-of-order jazz encyclopedia (with funny doodles in the margins) through Madlib’s glassy-eyed enthusiasm for listening to as may records as he can get his hands on.

Like most Madlib projects, this sounds like it was tossed off in one weekend, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Nothing is over-tweaked or scrutinized. It’s loose, instinctual and free. Kind of like all my favorite jazz records.

PETER GABRIEL: Peter Gabriel III (Melt)

Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel
You have to hand it to an album that sneaks up on you the way this one does. A heart beats on the verge of panic (via icy drum kit) and there's that creaking of sneaking, and he's whispering in your ear. He knows all about this stuff, opening windows and moving quietly across floors so you don't wake up. He's thankful for the thrill you give him, laying still as he carefully slides open your dresser drawers, feeling and smelling your pretty dresses. He's the first of the record's disturbed characters we meet, and he's actually the most harmless.

Peter Gabriel's third solo album, popularly called "Melt," is a paranoid, psychotic trip into the collective subconscious of perverts, criminals, obsessives, and the insane, threatening at any moment to explode in a violent melee. Each song is a tone-poem portraying a particular state of mind along a spectrum of unsettling attitudes and behavior that gradually leads to bigotry and violence. Sounds like a hit, eh?

Fortunately, Gabriel manages to execute such a concept without resorting to overblown theatrics or dreary catatonia. Every song here is memorable and sonically unique. Presentation is Peter Gabriel's strength, as he demonstrates on "
Games Without Frontiers", the album's most famous song, featuring ominous synthesizers, Kate Bush's French pronunciation of the title, and nursery rhyme verses about children with dangerously familiar first names playing normal children's games- flying flags, pissing on goons in the jungle, and orchestrating genocide. This is probably the weakest song here from a melodic standpoint, but it's shortcomings as a song are made up for by its achievement as a record. The River Kwai whistling, the distant minimalist guitar, the auxiliary percussion and all the other ingredients give the track more than enough to hold your attention on repeat listens. The entire album is as detailed and textured as well as this song. Gabriel barred his percussionists Jerry Marotta, Morris Pert and Phil Collins from using cymbals, and without that particular crutch they fill up space with a series of fitting and diverse percussive textures. The contributions from the other musicians are just as important; particularly Tony Levin's Chapman Stick playing, which makes "I Don't Remember" a surprisingly funky song about amnesia.

"No Self Control" is an intriguing number: jittery marimbas and groaning guitars all unsettled and threatening to come unhinged at any second, and on top of it all Gabriel's disturbingly convincing vocal performance gets more and more desperate, or maybe more and more resigned, but either way, you wouldn't want to bump into him on your way home. "You know I hate to hurt you…but I don't know how to stop." The way Gabriel fits his voice to the situation is masterful; the whispered chanting on "Intruder", the anthemic flippancy of "Not One Of Us", and the musical acting of the record's centerpiece "Family Snapshot".

"Family Snapshot" opens with a dreamy scene of camera crews and crowds waiting for someone important, a scene set with just voice and piano. Something about "shooting into the light," enough to make you think about an amateur photographer. The intensity slowly builds when he sings "I've been waiting for this…I'm alive" and then we're off, in a heroic, marching singsong of an assassination plot, settling into the modest "I don't really hate you…" It's exceptionally unnerving, and plummets headlong to the climax as our protagonist let's "the bullet fly" and the scene changes to a hushed childhood- a neglected boy with divorcing parents and a toy gun. It's the most disturbing song in Gabriel's repertoire, spine-tingling and melodically heartbreaking.

These lyrics are exercises in minimalist narrative, particularly "Lead a Normal Life". In only six lines a patient in an institution is visited by his parents, who uncomfortably make disjointed small talk about the view, observe that their child isn't allowed to have knives, and ignore the uncomfortable implications of that by abruptly returning the conversation to the view before blurting out "We want to see you lead a normal life." A gentle piano motif sways like the branches outside the patient's window, and there's a sad sense of departure, of being left alone with those strange noises coming from somewhere… The relation between lyric and arrangement is impeccable.

It's hard to say why the album closes with "Biko", which would be much more at home on Security (featuring the song "I Have the Touch", which would be right at home on this record- they should really consider a trade.) This does seem to follow a direct line of thought from "Not One Of Us" and "Games Without Frontiers". The album's focus has expanded from lone sociopaths to entire societies of destructive behavior. While the violence in the previous vignettes was hidden, in late-night trespassing, tucked away in an institution, or in the mind of a neglected child, the murder of Stephen Biko is very, very public. "The eyes of the world are watching now," Gabriel sings in the chilling final lyric before the music fades and the chanting, community of voices is cut short by a gunshot snare.