By The Staff
I Hear a New World
Self-loathing and paranoid Joe Meek was always doomed from the outset. Lacking the bravura of Joe Orton, his sexuality was a cause of shame and, following the discovery of the body of a rent-boy known to Meek, a source of fear which would dog him until he shot his landlady and then himself in a fit of rage in 1967. He suffered from delusions, depression, and severe mood swings, leading him to believe rival record companies had planted microphones in the walls of his home studio and, apparently, when recording with Rod Stewart he ran into the room with his fingers in his ears screaming at the top of his voice until Stewart left the building. The other manifestation of his mental health was in the all-encompassing passion for astronomy and the occult (he believed Buddy Holly used to talk to him in his dreams and he would often leave tape recorders in graveyards to try and catch the voices of the dead).
With I Hear A New World, the delusional Meek had, largely by accident, created the first concept album; it tells, through music, the different forms of life and ritual that existed on the moon. The sleeve notes enthusiastically regale you with stories of the mating rituals of the Saroos who dance for four hours straight and then fast for three days. In fact, on playing the opening title track which features backing vocals that sound like the Chipmunks, you may be tempted to call me a nutjob. But wait: the album was recorded, like everything he produced, inside his home in London, which should make the album a ludicrously lo-fi affair, and written mostly on clavioline, Hawaiian guitar, and percussion from around the house (the clatter of plates, the dragging of a comb across a metal ashtray, and snippets of found sound). But even in 1960 Meek had an appreciation for stereo and sound effects that he was able to reproduce on 2 tracks to the bafflement of producers everywhere. And okay—the tracks with the Chipmunk vocals sound as though they are straight out of a late ’50s cartoon, but there are also snatches of music which suggest Meek may have been ahead of his time, pinging Eno and krautrock with equal aplomb.
Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim
West Side Story OST
(Sony; 1961)It’s not like people haven’t heard of West Side Story (this movie soundtrack version won a Grammy after all); the problem, as I see it, is that we (meaning, non-musical theater students) don’t give awesome, awesome stuff like West Side Story the critical legitimacy it deserves as we unveil the musical past. The shit (technically, I mean) Bernstein is doing to deliver Sondheim’s (for 1957) fairly scandalous lyrics is on par with any of his contemporary composers, even vaguely influenced by the atonal directions of serial and jazz work in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I mean, if Metallica can dig this, don’t front, right?
But West Side Story gets shuffled into the “oh: musical” category, and, I mean: I get that, but seriously think about what a jazz/post-Stravinsky inspired musical with a libretto that dealt seriously with racial inequality in urban America (in a northern state, no less) in 1957 meant. This thing may just seem a fun romp today—“I Feel Pretty” especially exists on an uncomfortable cusp between queen-maker and homophobic punchline, which: back off Adam Sandler. A committee should be organized to kick your ass—but the sheer weight going on throughout (enough to make Shakespeare mean something, and no, I’m not going to qualify that) is staggering. Think bullshit like Rent will carry a torch like this one? It may have flashy vocal whatevers that Les Miserables has taught audiences to applaud, but nothing even comes close to the erratically contained “Something’s Coming.” Point being: West Side Story is bigger than Jesus. Or at least Shakespeare. And that flitty part in “Dance at the Gym” is the best thing ever.
Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Big LOLz at Mingus getting his therapist—who doesn’t seem to have any direct musical knowledge at all—to pen the liner notes for this opus. Yet, between them and Mingus’s long-winded and thoroughly technical notes that also accompany the reissue, the brain-dude’s are the more insightful. The doc hits it spot-on when he describes The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady as a product of Mingus’s inner-torment, the major factor that distinguishes it from a slew of other great albums (Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956), Mingus Ah Um (1959), Let My Children Hear Music ) in his name. Mingus had always been a fantastic composer, but here his arrangements constantly sound like they’re about to collapse—not in a free jazz kind of way—Mingus was apparently too much of a prick and a control freak to give his musicians any kind of “freedom”—but in the sense that the rhythm section always sounds like it’s dragging the reeds through the mud and vice-versa. Listening to this album it’s baffling to think why other jazz artists didn’t fuck with tempo as readily as they did scales/modes, rhythms, tonality, or texture; listen here to the legacy of avant-garde jazz that never was (even Carla Bley sent Mingus’s innovations to more surreal, whimsical ends). Where free jazz celebrated divergences and interplay, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a testament to struggle internal, no matter how schizophrenic.
And yes, the titles—“Solo Dancer,” “Group Dancers,” etc.—suggest some kind of collectivity, but if people are dancing to this it’s because they’ve lost control of their bodies, submitting to lust and temptation that they’re unable to resist. And this goes for man or woman, black or white, whatever: as much as it is a portrait of a mind at odds with itself, it’s also a testament to the individual subsumed and incorporated into the beautiful/horrible mass of sweat and dust. It’s self-abnegation as common ritual. And, oh yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the musicians are fantastic too: baritone sax to make the Earth shake, the drunken I-don’t-give-a-fuck squawks of the muted trombone, the slippery clarinets and altos collapsing and straightening out like paper marionettes, the purgatory of piano interludes and Flamenco guitar breaks, and of course, Mingus himself, the cruel taskmaster on stand-up bass who forces his subjects to dance for eternity. It’s exhausting but it feels so good.
Wish Someone Would Care
Thomas never really got the same props as her contemporaries—say, Etta James or Aretha Franklin—but Wish Someone Would Care is a gorgeous album, her well-known “Time is on My Side” just a shining jewel within. Thomas’s debut full length took a while to be released after her regional (read: New Orleans) hit “It’s Raining”; Wish Someone Would Care found people who did, and Thomas begin to receive something approaching national success (interestingly, “Wish Someone Would Care” was her bigger hit, even if “Time is on My Side” is what retroactively sticks, thanks to Mick Jagger’s almost clone-ish delivery of Thomas’s intonations.
This is my favorite studio R&B full length of the early 1960s for a whole bunch of reasons, but mostly it’s the cohesion that marks the set. Thomas plays out the title like a mission statement; every song is kind of about waiting for somebody to recognize her waiting there, and she gives every song a kind of effervescent sadness that is constantly in conflict with the aspirational arcs of her soaring, controlled vocals. And then the closing track is a rollicking, humorous look at moving on—she “can’t break-a-way” even as she’s out meeting new people. But it’s delivered over this almost-polka-ish beat, and it’s so wonderful you can’t help but giggle. Beautiful stuff.
And then we have Nina Simone. She’s saying she’s going to do the domestic shit for her man, but thank god she doesn’t mean it. And thank god Simone never really gave a shit whether she was a jazz singer or not. And thank everything that Nina Simone was awesome and existed and never gave a shit what anyone thought of her. She will probably still sing you to tears from beyond the grave if you think differently.
Pastel Blues wasn’t the first sign that Simone had given up on a very viable commercial career, but having recently ditched Colpix for Philips and becoming increasingly vocal about racism in America in the violent wake of the Civil Rights Act, Simone is here incredibly focused. And not simply on her overt condemnations of racism (see: her haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit”), but also on her subjects in general. Whether accompanying herself with only seismic hand claps on the tongue-in-cosmic-cheek “Be My Husband,” throwing piano chords out the window on the lengthy, spiralling “Sinnerman,” or just doing blues better than anybody does the blues on “Ain’t No Use,” it all cuts with the same ferocity, grueling and stunning in her intensity. Nine Simone in the mid-sixties is still the reason rock ‘n’ roll is a funny little joke today, and thank god for that.
The first thing to consider when listening to any of these stripped-back songs, whether it is the plaintive, Tim Buckley-esque opener “Someone To Talk My Troubles To” or the baroque waltz “Young Girl’s Dream,” is that Judy was only 22 years of age. Although on first listen her pronunciation may suggest she has no right to be singing folk, let alone the blues, Judy Roderick had a control over her instrument that leaves torch song behemoths as diverse as k.d. lang and Bonnie Raitt bumbling in her wake. Without breaking a bead of sweat her voice transforms from mellifluous warmth on “You Were On My Mind” to a countrified Nashville lilt, appropriately, on “Born In The Country.”
Although the notion of a white person singing the song “Black and Blue” in 2008 is inconceivable, the album retains a freshness that belies its age. This is partly in thanks to the simple arrangements and mostly well-chosen standards, informed both by her love of folk as well as blues divas like Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. It may even be due to that adoration which gives her the sense of inner-strength that is sometimes missing from other offerings by, say, Karen Dalton or the hippyish murmurings of Vashti Bunyan. Even on the closing title track “Woman Blue,” based loosely on “I Know You Rider,” Judy’s voice manages to convey a history of arguments and a masochistic self-control: “If I won’t be your woman, baby, then I’ll be your dog.” It’s an unsettling, dusty lament which, with it’s imagery of prairie dogs and deserted farms, could sit quite happily on that most chilling of Nina Nastasia’s albums, The Blackened Air (2002). And, almost as if to dispel any ideas that Judy had no guts, this was countered by the seductive “Rock Me, Baby.” Simmering with a New Orleans head in its lolloping blues Judy demands exactly what she needs from her lover, all “Rock me, baby. Like my back ain’t got no bone.”
Despite critical acclaim and performing in the best known East Coast clubs like Club 47 and Café Au Go Go, Judy Roderick was relatively unknown and only released two albums. But, unlike Vashti Bunyan, she missed out on being rediscovered with the CD reissue of Woman Blue, released just three years after her death in 1992.
Here are the Sonics
The Sonics are at times abused as a rehistoricization of music (the Sonics existed! Therefore punk came from them and not from the blues like everything else!) but it’s hard to argue that this kind of “Wooly Bully”-on-speed aesthetic has incredible appeal. The Sonics are certainly a crucial touchstone in breaking the equally depressing linear story of rock music; in 1965 they were achieving the kind of raw sound on two tracks that most popular rockers wouldn’t get around to trying out until 1968 or later.
And sure, hearing them scream shit like “Roll Over Beethoven” is pretty great, but it’s the originals here that stand out. Especially “Strychnine,” which sounds like the skeleton X-Ray Specs and Essential Logic skinned in the late ’70s. So: incredibly fun album, though I’ll say personally I’m not sure it’s much more than that. Like, I guess it’s important, but I hope we’re not turning around and calling Ween important sixty years from now for doing what essentially amounts to fucking around with whatever equipment is at hand. I’m less concerned with whether punk lays here than I am with how fun this shit is to play at parties. Which: really, really fun, and that makes this album worth a whole other load of props.
(Blue Cat/Cameo Parkway; 1965/1966/1967)
The oft-told story of Evie Sands, not uncommon on a list of obscure artists, is one of backstabbing, bad luck, corporate mishaps, and broken dreams. She released three titanic singles starting when she was a very young woman, each of which failed for her and became massive smashes for other artists. Her first single for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Blue Cat Records was “Take Me for a Little While”; the story goes that a test pressing was stolen by a Chicago producer who took it to Jackie Ross, an established recording artist who loved the record so much she recorded and released it in two days. Ross was supposedly unaware of the deception, but her record hit the charts a week before Sands’ version and, due to her fame and the backing of Chess Records, received the majority of the airplay. The resulting legal struggle did little to turn around the situation for Sands, whose next single, “I Can’t Let Go,” was lost in the fallout. When it became a #2 hit for The Hollies the next year, a pattern began to emerge. The seemingly-inevitable rise of her third monster single was stalled when her new label Cameo-Parkway went bankrupt just weeks after its release. A few months later, “Angel of the Morning” hit #1 for the dickishly named Merilee Rush & the Turnabouts.
This hard luck tale is oddly appropriate for Sands, who even at 19 sung songs of desperate obsession with a voice sad, deep, and world-weary. “Take Me for a Little” finds her begging her cruel, indifferent lover to use her how he will. Her atypically deep voice is offset by the standard girl group backdrop of sweet vocals and epic arrangement (particularly the absolutely massive piano quarter notes in the chorus). In the same vein, “I Can’t Let Go” plays the innocence and big teenage feelings of the girl group sound against the dark subject matter and Sands’ knowing and mature performance.
With the move to Cameo-Parkway, Sands began the transformation to a long-haired orchestral folk sound that culminated in her 1969 LP Any Way That You Want Me. “Angel of the Morning” thus finds her at rest among finger-plucked acoustic guitars and muted coronet. She is still lovelorn but resigned, finally able to let her lover go in peace. I like to imagine she felt the same way about her hitmaking career; she would never come so close to stardom again, but perhaps it hurts less when you stop fighting and just let it go.
Black Monk Time
MGM Studios, 1st July 2008. Hannah Pinker is pitching a new movie to Coby Schwarz, last of the big time film directors.
Coby: So, what have you got for me?
Hannah: I am so excited about this and I just know you are going to love it.
Coby: Okay, tell me about it.
Hannah: It’s the true story of five American soldiers, angry at the state of the war who get stationed in German—
Coby: Like it, sort of like The Great Escape?
Hannah: Errrm…well let me tell you more. So, they’re angry at the world and want to remedy it in the only way they know how—
Coby: Like Taxi Driver?
Hannah: Errrm…I’ll just say a bit more. So, they decide to form the first punk band.
Coby: Gotcha! Like The Filth And The Fury?
Hannah: Errrm…kinda. So anyway, they write these angry songs about their brothers being killed in the war, drunken women, bombs, and quick love. These are handsome, intelligent but brutish men that mixed existentialism and violent concerts, leaving a trail of confusion across the whole of Europe. But, get this, they never get to make it to the big time…or so they think.
Coby: Tell me more…
Hannah: It turns out that these guys were from the future. No one could understand their music until ten or twenty years later when suddenly, out of obscurity, they are reunited from the separate corners of the globe and brought together, back to their homeland, where they perform to a legion of adoring and loyal fans, each one waiting for the chance to see these visionaries
serving the truth through their pummelling, gruelling beats.
Coby: [wiping his eye] That’s beautiful. So, what is it called?
Hannah: The Monks!
Hannah: The Monks. They have the stage look and everything. The robes, the shaved bit at the tip of their heads—
Coby: _ What the _fuck are you talking about?
Hannah: No, it’s true, everyone loves them—
Coby: [pressing into the intercom] Gemma, call Security. Now, look Hannah, I don’t like you wasting my fucking time with your stupid fantasies; I’m not a fucking idiot. Now get outta here and clear your desk.
Hannah: [being manhandled out of the door] But they play the banjo!
Coby: I SAID GET OUT!
(Blue Note; 1966)
Ever since I wrote the Retconning on free jazz letters have trickled in asking, “why no Cecil Taylor?” I love Cecil Taylor, and I love other Taylor albums (especially One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye ), but this album was only just edged out (which also brings up: if you’re wondering why certain other albums aren’t on this list, I may have already covered them in my column). Unit Structures is a masterpiece of Taylor’s approach to music; the songs on it are (for him) quick bursts of incredibly dense and energetic jazz that compact polyrhythms and intricate tone clusters into an explosion of sound. And if that sounds theory-ish, Taylor’s one of the few musicians who makes you feel musical theory just by the force with which he lobs it at you. He and his band are a whirlwind, even in their quieter moments, moving around one another like the center will fall apart if their phrases ever touch. And while this album doesn’t quite have the blistering impact of, say, Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun, it’s unendingly withering for entirely different reasons: it’s the torture instead of the war. But like, delicious.