Newtown and The Healing Power of Music, Featuring Herbie Hancock

I feel obliged to say something, anything, on this sombre occasion.

Fortunately, Sean Beaudoin has done some heavy, eloquent lifting in the service of sanity, healing, and remembrance.

Sean is an outstanding writer. He also happened to grow up in Newtown. I can’t recommend this piece highly enough.

A few especially poignant passages:

Twelve girls, eight boys. Barely seven years old. First graders.

That alone is an essay. It is haiku for loss, without the seven syllables of absolution. There is no pretending horror can be spun into a redemptive cliché.

To lose a child, particularly in a violent manner, is beyond reckoning. Or belief. Or typing a worthy sentence about. When I sat down at my keyboard after a few days of emotionally curling up on the basement floor, I wanted to write something imbued with meaning. I wanted to comfort and inspire and transcend. But I find that I don’t have the words. Or the presumption to even try and conjure them.

What we need, just as much as sane, baseline legislation, is to start seeing these events for what they really are. “Tragedy” suggests infrequence. “Mass shooting” implies a random and unpredictable deed. “Act of a madman” pretends that we bother to identify the mad, let alone spend the money to treat them. “An expression of evil” lets everyone off the hook, as if it were something metaphysical, preordained, or inscrutably Nietzschean. It is exactly the opposite. These incidents are the direct result of institutionalized, heavily funded, and cravenly protected invitations to slaughter.

Much more, here: http://www.theweeklings.com/admin/2013/12/14/newtown-one-year-later/

 

And what do I have to say for myself, on this occasion? Well, I’ve talked a bit about my fear and loathing of our obsessive and insane gun culture, here: http://bullmurph.com/2009/04/14/ignorance-is-a-warm-gun/.

Today, I’d rather talk about what I do when words fail, when words and even thoughts seem insufficient, even inappropriate, for the scope of sadness and the sufferings of others. Certainly, we have one another; in the end we only have ourselves, and part of what keeps us going is that our good deeds, on balance, outweigh the evil and indifference we tolerate and abet. Many people have various types of faiths, and I certainly endorse any activity that helps more than it hurts (organized religion does not quite make the cut, but at least in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to enough people that I’ll Let It Be).

For me, it’s music. And while that may seem trite, or even disrespectful to some (music above humanity? Art before God?), to me it’s the ideal amalgamation of all the things we think we’re thinking about when we think about faith in something bigger than ourselves, regardless of whether or not an omnipotent Being is shuffling the deck upstairs in ways that will only make sense once we’re reunited in His eternal company. I’ve written extensively about this topic, HERE and my perspective is more succinctly articulated, below:

My own issues with Faith, Church, God, Religion (etc.) have often been inextricable from my writing, just as they have been inseparable aspects of my life. Why shouldn’t they be? Just because I ceased to wrestle with the metaphysical angst of who we are, what we’re doing here and where we’re going –amongst other concerns– and above all, if there was a big conductor in the sky overseeing the proceedings, does not mean I don’t contemplate the implications. For me; for us all. So, getting that out of the way right up front, I think the following paragraph is a succinct enough distillation of where my head is at in matters of “The Faith Question”:

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

But let me be clear, I can –and do– appreciate holy places for their aesthetic appeal. I am encouraged –and inspired– by people of genuine faith whose actions speak louder than psalms. I remain in awe of the human works that have been commissioned –or prompted– by the religious imperative. Being in Ireland this Spring involved a steady diet of Guinness, sheep, castles and cathedrals. Both of the pictures above were taken during this journey. It was incredible, and not a little humbling, to behold these mammoth structures that took decades, or centuries, to construct, and withstood the time and tempest of our increasingly insane world. The combination of inconceivable expertise (how, exactly, did these people create hundred-foot statues out of stone without, you know, lasers or at least the same friendly aliens who assisted the Mayans and Egyptians?), patience, craft and, ahem, cheap labor, all combined in the service of something intentionally designed to be bigger than mortality; something intended to span generations bonded by a common belief. Et cetera.

And certainly some of our best composers have been directly moved by the passion and intensity of their faith to create tributes dedicated to a force they can neither prove nor explain. As a dedicated non-musician, I use music (and jazz in particular) as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

I can –and have– made lists of the myriad songs that have pulled me through; the ones that rise above the ranks and never cease to inspire, console, recalibrate. Anyone who has followed this blog understands there is no shortage of material. But today, for a number of reasons, I think of one artist who has literally made a career out of using his extraordinary abilities to create beauty: Herbie Hancock. In addition to merely being a genius, and one of the seminal American musicians of the last century, virtually everything he has produced is infused with a joy, an awe, a sort of grace combined with humility that keeps the sounds fresh, vital, unequivocally positive. And deep. Hancock is a profoundly peaceful and erudite dude, and that intelligence, humor and drive propels the indefatigable quest he’s been on, and the staggering body of work he’s accumulated since the ’50s (!). (Much more on him, here: HERE). And, of course, the great man just received the Kennedy Center Honors treatment; more on that, here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/kennedy-center-honors-recipient-herbie-hancock-still-seeking-the-next-sounds/2013/12/05/14683214-5b6b-11e3-a66d-156b463c78aa_story.html

Here then, are a handful of tracks that, for me, are ceaselessly fresh and fertile; they are human answers to unknowable riddles. They achieve what Art, and the humans who create it, is capable of when it is undertaken with the rare combination of honesty and awe: it is the greatness we are in the presence of when we see what is best about ourselves.

First, here he is as part of the greatest band ever assembled (much more on the second Miles Quintet, here: http://bullmurph.com/2010/06/02/five-guys-or-the-greatest-band-of-all-time-no-really/).

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Bright Moments (Again)*

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

While my weapons of choice remain pen and paper, I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery, and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); then it can work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind and your heart, it’s capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

This is what music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use this art as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure, it’s also a vehicle, something I use to get someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

***

Never forget this feeling.

That evening, halfway through high school, watching the snow fall outside your window. Lights out and that music playing: Beethoven. The sonatas, with titles that seemed mysterious and exhilarating: Pathétique, Appassionata, Mondschein.

The music, it seemed, was always there for these significant moments: remembering those times, always accompanied by music that was solemn yet ecstatic. Later on, being ushered into the other worlds of sexual activity, or studying for fast-forgotten exams, or those solitary seconds that sometimes turned into hours, the time alone, in the darkness, before sleep overtook awareness and you still knew who you were—tracing it all back to that first evening, staring at the snow: the sound of the piano, feeling connected to lives apart from your own, able to imagine what the world was like, then, feeling deeply aware of your own life, wholly there, utterly cognizant—which, of course, did not mean you were only aware of yourself; it was exactly the opposite sensation—and not realizing, not needing to know, yet, that this feeling would be increasingly difficult to capture, transitory moments of perception as a tonic for, or distraction from, the muddle of adult life and the urgency and oddness that this new reality entailed. It was not that this music facilitated these feelings, but that it accompanied them. This was what made it central to your world, so inextricable from your soul, from the way you wanted to see yourself.

***

When all else fails—and all else always fails—there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002, was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall—or half recall—the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: from my father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The sensations would become overwhelming at times, and I struggled through interminable hours when I wasn’t even certain what was real or who I was. During one of those episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I hadn’t been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst-case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat, or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

*I’ve been honored to write for PopMatters since 2006, and I’m humbled that they were kind enough to run this excerpt from my memoir this week. By the way, the memoir is AVAILABLE!

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Streaming Services: Savior or Disruption?

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with good friend and industry veteran Jason Herskowitz (more about him HERE).
In my capacity as an industry analyst at the Consumer Electronics Association, I’ve followed the developments of this changing landscape –what I refer to as the democratization of content– with keen professional as well as personal interest.
Jay and I talked about these trends, with a focus on streamed services and whether or not they are saviors or disruptors of the music industry (spoiler alert: it’s a bit of both, but mostly the former, according to us).
Some key takeaways include the one indisputable fact that streaming services and innovation have permanently changed the music industry. As such, we tried to provide some historical perspective in order to better understand the present –and suggest what the future may hold. Some other takeaways include:
  • Recording and selling music doesn’t require studio time and a fleet of trucks and trains anymore. A laptop and Internet connection does the job much cheaper and easier.
  • What has happened to the music industry is similar to the innovations we have seen in traditional news and publishing. Bloggers and independent authors can find audiences and compete with big established players.
  • Social media makes everyone a Program Director.
Enjoy the video and let us know what you think via the comments section.
In terms of this topic and our conversation, the status is definitely “To be continued…”

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An Appreciation of Rick Wright (Popmatters.com)

Sound Affects
The PopMatters Music Blog

Pop Past

19 September 2008

The Great Gig In The Sky: An Appreciation of Rick Wright

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by being invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in the local pub. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers and—as the resulting records prove—they put the music first. In their prime, the records were truly group efforts, and no one cared too much about taking credit. This, of course, changed once Roger Waters decided he was Pink. Not coincidentally, the more Waters set the controls for the heart of his ego, the more the albums started sounding like…Roger Waters albums. By the time an increasingly megalomaniacal Waters turned his attention to The Final Cut, the original band’s presciently titled swan song, he had decreed Rick Wright’s keyboard abilities no longer necessary for his vision. It was an unfortunate power play: the album suffered for Wright’s absence, and the solo albums Waters subsequently made only served to prove how desperately he needed his band mates (and, to be fair, vice versa).

It was not always thus. Indeed, from the band’s first album, Rick Wright’s piano and organ were integral parts of the Pink Floyd sound. Once founder (as well as leader and primary songwriter) Syd Barrett left the group, it was Wright who temporarily assumed vocal duties until David Gilmour joined the fold. In those early, transitional albums (everything from A Saucerful of Secrets to Meddle can be seen as transition records, all leading to what is arguably the greatest rock album ever made, Dark Side of the Moon) made between 1968 and 1972, the dominant sound of the group was created by Wright and Gilmour. The interplay of guitar and keyboards infuses practically every song, including the sidelong epics “Atom Heart Mother Suite” and “Echoes”. The employment of keyboards moved ever closer to the forefront as progressive rock dominated the early ‘70s, and Wright should get his fair share of credit for legitimizing—and popularizing—this evolution.

To properly appreciate Wright’s versatility, it makes sense to consider Pink Floyd’s most overlooked and misunderstood album. The soundtrack to the film More is often, and egregiously, dismissed as an inconsequential stepping stone to more significant work. The individual songs hold up remarkably well, but they also remain illustrative of the ways in which Gilmour and Wright (as musicians, as songwriters) would hone and perfect that signature post-psychedelic Pink Floyd sound. The uninitiated should be pleasantly surprised by the delights contained within: the expansive dreamscape of Wright’s organ solo at the end of “Cirrus Minor”, the almost jazzy action of “Up the Khyber”, and the languidly mesmerizing “Quicksilver”. The album’s centerpiece, appropriately titled “Main Theme”, represents early Floyd perfection, and epitomizes the surreal soundscapes Gilmour and Wright were capable of composing as early as ’69. It is really a remarkable achievement, managing to sound urgent and laid back at the same time—a uniquely wonderful effect Floyd would pull off with uncanny consistency going forward. Many of the ingredients found on More, particularly the blues-influenced guitar and atmospheric keyboards, would resurface, albeit in a steadily refined fashion. The instrumental tracks from this album are blueprints for the slowed down and fleshed out masterpieces waiting down the road.

About those masterpieces. People understandably remember the words to the songs from Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and Animals, but Rick Wright is the not-so-secret weapon dominating the sound and feel of these albums. As ever, Gilmour’s guitar is the engine soaring into infinity, but always, it’s Wright framing the contours—the boundless blue sky behind all the clouds. Consider the sublime (no other word will do) “Breathe In the Air”: Gilmour’s slide guitar (and vocals) dominate the action, but Wright balances it throughout with his ethereal and understated control. Of course, he wrote the music for “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, two of the group’s best loved, and enduring tunes. The crescendo of the album’s coda “Eclipse” would be unimaginable without his pulsating organ notes.

Perhaps his penultimate contribution is to Floyd’s somber meditation on loss, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Is there a more melancholy, but beautiful opening to any song in all of rock music? Considering the subject matter (the drug-induced disintegration of former band leader and childhood friend Syd Barrett), it is at once stunning and poignant. And speaking of the aforementioned “Pink Floyd sound”, that’s all you get for the first four minutes of the song: Wright and Gilmour. To be certain, this is Waters’ finest hour as well (those, again, are his words and, on this song, his voice) but let there be no mistake about the sound and feeling, and who was responsible for its creation.

Wright’s role was diminished, but still integral to the final great Floyd album, Animals (yes, I’m of the opinion that The Wall is merely a very good, but not great album—certainly not in the class of the holy trinity that preceded it). After that, if it’s easy to claim that Waters moved himself more to the forefront with increasingly middling results, it also is the truth. Of course, Wright and the others had the last, lucrative laugh, as they soldiered on, sans Waters, in the newer age version of the band. They filled arenas while their embittered ex-mate nursed his indignity, arguably at the expense of his art. No matter. What the band did, from 1967 to 1977, is indelible, and undeniable. In all those years, the refreshingly faceless band focused on the only thing that matters—the music. Fittingly, the quietest member of this most unassuming supergroup possessed the calm contentment of knowing how impossible it all would have been without him.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Five (Popmatters.com Blog)

Pop Past

8 September 2008

Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Five

Party Music for the Apocalypse: Mikey Dread’s Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts. Notably, many music fans have heard Mikey Dread even if they own zero reggae albums. As the ‘70’s came to a close, two things were difficult to deny: reggae’s golden era was over, and The Clash were, as many people acknowledged, the only band that mattered. Of course, The Clash’s kitchen-sink approach (which reached its apotheosis—for better or worse still a ceaseless debate amongst fans—on their fourth album Sandinista!) included the embrace of reggae, first evidenced in their cover of Junior Murvin’s classic “Police and Thieves” from their first album. It made all the sense in the world for Mikey Dread to enter their world, which he did when he became the opening act on their tour. Shortly after, they hit the studio and collaborated on the single “Bankrobber”. Mikey Dread’s fingerprints (and vocals) were all over the aforementioned Sandinista and at this point, it’s fair to conclude that his street-cred, both in reggae and rock circles, was beyond reproof.

With this experience, and bubbling with confidence, he returned to the studio to work on Beyond World War III. All of the albums in this series have featured vocal trios, and one duo, who represent the highest level of harmonizing skills. Finally, here is a record that features one singer—but not one voice. Mikey Dread, the dub master, multi-tracks himself to create a constant chorus that manages to sound fresh and clean. Unlike the glorious murkiness of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s productions, Dread’s sound is crystalline and unencumbered. Each sound from every instrument, each word (sung, chanted, spoken) is precise and perfect. And that voice! Regrettably, Mikey Dread rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great reggae singers, at least in part because he’s appropriately celebrated for his production skills. Allow me to make a case that his name should enter that conversation, with the most convincing testimonial being Beyond World War III.

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. Words won’t be minced here: this is an outright masterpiece, as close to sublime in its way as any of the other albums discussed so far. Importantly, like the other albums, this one can, and should, easily appeal to casual fans of reggae music. Indeed, like the others, this one truly is recommended to anyone who listens to music, period.

The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive (“Break Down The Walls”) and at times jovial (“The Jumping Master” which features Dread giving approbatory shout-outs to his bandmates and his young apprentice, Scientist, and even name-dropping original “jumping master” Spiderman). The ebullient “Rocker’s Delight” dates back to the Sandinista! sessions, and the spoken word title track anticipates the concerns about nuclear confrontation that dominated the next decade. The most arresting, and timeless track is “Mental Slavery”, which catalogs some of the societal inhumanity that was about to fester in the ‘80s—and beyond:

How can we survive in times like these
When prices rise and wages freeze?

Sound familiar? Mikey was around to see things get worse, and the more things remain the same, the more compelling his message becomes. He left us, way too soon, this past year. His legacy is not in dispute, but his legend is still underappreciated. Beyond World War III is his greatest gift, and it’s one that keeps giving.

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God Is Dead (Again): Remembering Stevie Ray Vaughan (Popmatters.com blog)


Eighteen years ago today.

First day of classes, junior year. Standing in the bathroom with too much shaving cream and not enough whiskers, getting geared up for another semester of partying too much and studying too little. No e-mails to check, no cell phone messages to return, just listening to the clock radio on the counter, because that’s how we rolled. Not that we had much choice in the matter.

Roommate walks into the bathroom with a look on his face like someone told him that Milwaukee’s Best raised the price of six packs.

“Dude, Eric Clapton is dead.”
God is dead? I thought, reflexively.
“His helicopter crashed.”

Not that again. You get used to the overdoses, no matter how pointless or accidental or idiotic. It doesn’t make them easier to accept, or justify, but there is some semblance of accountability. But these random acts of mechanical destruction? Intolerable. Unacceptable on any level.

Of course, as we shortly found out, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who had actually died (part of the confusion came from the fact that he was on tour with Clapton, and had just played on the same stage the night before). Same principle applies: shocking, inexplicable, unacceptable.

And even worse, in a way. To put it in as respectful and delicate fashion as possible, this one hit home a lot harder. Eric Clapton was another, earlier generation’s Genius. Stevie Ray Vaughan was my generation’s guitar god, the one whose albums coincided with those crucial high school years, the formative times in your life when each album is a revelation. And, with an artist like Vaughan, a living chain connecting the past to present. This is the dude who, not to put too fine a point on it, had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and take it places even the best guitar player who ever strapped on a Stratocaster didn’t go.

Plus, I knew Stevie. Not personally, of course. But the summer before, I worked at the local record store just as Stevie’s new album In Step dropped. We used to spin that baby a few times per day, and it wasn’t even personal, it was strictly business. The album sold well, as it should have. The back-story elevated its import: after years of struggle with drugs and drink, Vaughan had cleaned up and was enjoying sobriety (indeed, the album’s title refers directly to his recovery process, which he was understandably proud of). The album remains top notch, but—as last albums from artists taken entirely too soon tend to do–it has an almost eerily elegiac feel that is difficult to deny. That the last song on the last album released in his lifetime is the sublime “Riviera Paradise” seems, at once fitting and devastating. It teases and cajoles with its promises of what should have been—all the great music this man undoubtedly would make. It also, being a near perfect song to end any album (much less a final album), feels entirely fitting. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for our loss, but it helps. And, as always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

God is dead, again.
I can’t say for sure that I thought this, but maybe I did.
And speaking of God:
The 20 year old kid couldn’t help but wonder: “What kind of God would take a man like this from us?”
The 38 year old kid thinks: “The same one who gave him to us?”
That, of course, is not good enough. It’s never enough.
But it will have to do.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Four (Popmatters.com blog)

Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Four
Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song

The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.

The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).

And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).

Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.

They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.

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Melvins: Nude with Boots (Popmatters.com Review)

Good News! Melvins are back.Melvins are not a band so much as a machine. For almost a quarter of a century they have rumbled and rolled over the earth, leaving a trail for anyone bothering to look, and inventing an entirely new language for anyone able to hear. Hear this: Melvins are at it again, not wasting too much time following up on their last release, 2006’s A Senile Animal. That album was remarkable, and ended up surprising even longtime fans with its variety, and the sheer quality of practically every song. It also managed the semi-impossible, incorporating as it did, more polished edges into the Melvins’ patented sound: a shadowy diffusion that manages to sound glacial and molten, sometimes at the same time.

 

A considerable amount of credit was correctly given to the group’s newest members, bassist/vocalist Jared Warren and drummer Coady Willis—on loan from their other jobs as the demonic duo in the band Big Business. The two drummer/two singer strategy was risky and potentially misguided, but in hindsight, it seems like a no-brainer. The band sounded more invigorated, with the new blood clearly pushing the others—guitarist/singer/mastermind King Buzzo, and drummer extraordinaire Dale Crover—to reinvent ways of distributing similar sludge. It was, in short, a newer take on a tried and true formula, and it yielded spectacular results. The line-up is unchanged this time out, and expectations were high for a return to form, or—if such a thing is reasonably imaginable—an improvement. The bad news: Nude With Boots is not better than A Senile Animal. The good news: it is undeniably a success, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

Early on in the opening song (“The Kicking Machine”), it’s clear enough that the M.O. from A Senile Animal is in effect: the twin drum assault and the synchronous vocals, and a discernibly enervated pace to the proceedings. More of same on track two (“Billy Fish”)—rolling drums introducing the action, then the always reliable Buzz Osborne unslinging (yawn) yet another nasty, tasty riff. But, like the previous album, it’s on the third track that the band truly locks in. That initial minute is pure Melvins bliss, that familiar, stuttering death crawl, unsettling yet irresistible. Not for the first time, and likely not the last, one cannot help marveling at Buzzo’s brilliance. How does he do it?

How does Buzzo do it? Perhaps it’s because he’s not human. That has to be it. Indeed, it is this fact that it’s a tad disconcerting, at times, to hear him sound like one. Or, to be more precise, hearing a regular human being singing alongside him. Probably because Jared Warren is mixed too high on the harmonies (it sounds, on most songs, like he and Buzzo are at equal volume, which means Warren is, in fact, mixed too high), the songs lose some of their otherwise insistent power when Buzzo’s voice is not front and center. A much better balance was subtly achieved on A Senile Animal, where Warren’s (and on some songs, the others’) voices embellished and accompanied. On Nude With Boots they come dangerously close to interfering. Ultimately, this might well be a matter of taste, and to some ears the novel, “fresher” sound might rate as a positive development.

Along with the occasionally claustrophobic harmonies, there is a little more light and air in several of the songs (the title track, for instance), which causes them to come near to being not only accessible, but even (gasp) catchy. Not to worry, no one is going to confuse the current incarnation of Melvins with, say, Vampire Weekend. Nevertheless, the band has evolved. The more fundamentalist-minded Melvins’ fans might protest—not without justification—that this is the one band that should remain in the muck, neither swimming nor walking, but sort of slithering in the boiling primordial ooze, making their prehistoric noises … like the sounds made on the album’s best track, “Dies Iraea”. Every Melvins album has at least one song that separates itself from the others, and this is it. This is the music playing at that last dinosaur house party before they all toppled drunkenly into the tar pit.

In sum, Melvins fans, do what you need to do. Newcomers might want to check out A Senile Animal, but then again, perhaps this one will make the last one easier to understand, and then it may be more enjoyable working backward. The question persists: how do they do it? Melvins remain a contrary respite from the gumball machine sensibilities of so much modern music: put in a penny, suck on some sugar for a few seconds until it all turns sour. Melvins are already sour, but instead of turning sweet, they do something even more surprising. They remain unsullied. And so, if you hear one of your semi-jaded friends whining about how no good music gets made anymore, you can hold Nude With Boots up as merely the latest example of how good it can still be, even today. And how fortunate we are that this band continues to thrive, sucking on the carcass of banality and spitting out gold.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Three

This is the reggae album for people who do not know, or claim not to like, reggae music.

Go and Seek Your Rights: The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time

Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the alpha and the omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.

Okay. Even for those who are not sufficiently intrigued by the notion of a deeper dive into reggae’s abundant waters, there are more than a handful of sure things right on the surface. Enter the Mighty Diamonds and their first—and best—album, Right Time from 1976. Like the Wailers, the Mighty Diamonds are a harmonizing trio (with a killer backing band), and these three men, Donald “Tabby” Shaw, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson, created songs that stand tall alongside the very best reggae. Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown.

The group’s allegiance to Rastafarianism is skillfully articulated in the socially conscious lyrics, but the ten tracks on Right Time tackle romantic turmoil, violent crime, and redemption—sometimes all in one song. The title track, equally an ominous call to arms as well as a rallying cry against the system, sets an immediate tone that predicts chaos while promising resolve, pre-dating Culture’s epochal Two Sevens Clash by a year. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The next two songs, “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor. If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so that the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

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Love Story (Popmatters.com Review)

A Story to Fall in Love With

One is tempted to suggest, if sardonically, that now is the time for a reappraisal of Love. But that is unlikely. It’s never been time for Love, then or now, and this one-two punch of bad timing and bad luck tends to encapsulate the band’s maddening legacy. Love could never quite get over, and this certainly contributes to the enigmatic air that hangs over their history.

 

Of course, the music they made (their first four albums in particular) insulates them from easy analysis, so fans and especially critics are unable to neatly pigeonhole them into a particular period. This is remarkable in itself, considering the year they made their masterwork, Forever Changes: it is, in so many agreeable ways, utterly of its time as a reflection—or, really, a refraction—of 1967, but it also remains fresh and unfettered, more than 40 years later.

Don’t think so? Consider how much of the music, circa 1967, sounds not only dated but instantly identifiable. Even records by the better bands (The Rolling Stones and, yes, even The Beatles, to name two of the top dogs on the scene) have not necessarily aged well. While Sgt. Pepper is not quite as lionized as it was, say, 20 years ago (it is venerated, appropriately, for its symbolic import as much, or more, than the songs on the album), it is still considered one of the all-time masterpieces of rock ‘n’ roll.

With that in mind, if you put Forever Changes alongside Sgt. Pepper and did a track-by-track comparison, Love would, at worst, be in a dead heat. That aside, it is difficult to deny that Forever Changes stands up to repeated listens, and it remains an exciting album simply because of the sheer quality of the individual songs.

What might get lost in the discussion of Forever Changes is the fact that Love existed before that album, and more surprisingly, they existed after it. More, they managed to actually make some worthwhile music. Not enough people know this, but it almost does not matter; plenty of people know that Forever Changes is indelible: not for nothing does it consistently pop up on “best albums” lists; it is a perennial favorite of musicians as well as critics.

Which brings us around to the question of whether there could possibly be an audience for a DVD detailing the band’s history. The answer, of course, is yes. Love Story is an overdue gift for the converted, and will serve as a valuable introduction for the uninitiated.

Love Story is, by any reasonable criterion, a considerable achievement. The first-time film makers, Chris Hall and Mike Kerry, have assembled tons of footage, including insightful interviews from Arthur Lee and his band mates, as well as Jac Holzman (head of Elektra Records), Bruce Botnick (producer) and John Densmore (drummer from The Doors)—among many others. The story unfolds chronologically, tracing Arthur’s (and childhood friend Johnny Echols’) upbringing in Los Angeles. Generous portions of interviews culled from 2005 and 2006 (again, featuring both Lee and Echols) make up the bulk of the narrative. In an early sequence, Lee is filmed driving through the LA streets, and it is sobering to consider all that has changed (in his life, in his city), and the things that will never change.

Lee was a star athlete in high school, but when he saw Echols playing guitar and—in classic rock cliché fashion—saw the girls seeing Echols, he understood immediately where his future lay. Lee was precocious, with ambition to match his gifts, and his confidence made the subsequent success seem all but inevitable. By the time they got serious about their musical careers, Lee and Echols hooked up with Brian Maclean, a guitarist so keen on joining up with The Byrds he’d become one of their roadies.

The alchemy was immediate: Maclean’s folky influences embellished Echols and Lee’s blues and R&B leanings, creating a sound that was both bigger and better than it might have been. The name the band chose was not only a no-brainer for a west coast group in the mid-‘60s, it was more than a little appropriate for the first racially integrated rock outfit. Love started gigging on the sunset strip, catching the attention of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, who quickly signed them to his label (which, to this point, had primarily focused on folk music).

A classic—and prescient—Arthur Lee anecdote followed: the singer split with the $5,000 advance and returned later that day in a new Mercedes. He then proceeded to give the other members (Echols and Mclean, as well as bassist Michael Stuart and drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer) one hundred bucks each, because that was what was left. It’s hard to say what is more astounding: Lee’s audacity or the fact that a Mercedes convertible cost less than $5k!

Entering the studios, the band was tight and focused from months of steady gigging. Their self-titled debut was recorded quickly—the band essentially came into the studio and performed their regular set. From the first, there was never the slightest question about who was in charge: Love was Lee’s band. Holzman credits Mclean with lightening Lee’s intensity and broadening the scope of his compositions; Mclean was an accomplished—and determined—musician in his own right, and a natural, if inevitable, competition evolved. For a while, it was a fruitful partnership, and the two men brought out the best in each other.

The hit from the first album was the band’s annihilation of “My Little Red Book”, giving Burt Bacharach a menacing edge a few years before Isaac Hayes did his own extraordinary deconstructions of songs like “Walk On By” and “The Look of Love”. Another dark, unique tune is the appropriately entitled instrumental “Emotions”, with Echols creating something like surreal surf music; it sounds like The Ventures after a sketchy acid trip. And here was another harbinger of Love’s unique M.O.: taking the (mostly) sun and fun vibes of guitar-heavy surf rock and giving it a solemn edge, turning something simple inside out, exposing the shadow beneath the glow (this ability to see, and insinuate, the darker side of the free love ethos is arguably what made Love difficult to fully embrace, and what makes them still sound unique, now).

Love quickly became the Kings of Los Angeles, with celebrities like Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane dropping by “The Castle”, the large house up in the LA hills the band shared. They immediately commenced work on the next album, partly to capitalize on the collective energy and excitement, but also (crucially) because the band was not interested in hitting the road to promote the first record. Da Capo is an album that most fans (including this one) consider a 50 percent masterpiece: the six songs on side one are stunning, and represent incredible forward steps, full of sophistication and inventiveness (The Stones happily stole/honored Lee’s words in “She Comes in Colors” for their own hit “She’s a Rainbow” and there is little doubt Robbie Krieger studied “The Castle”—a song that introduced flamenco guitar to rock music—before composing the music for “Spanish Caravan”).

Side two, notable as the first side-long track (an innovation that was embraced by other acts, much to the rock critics’ collective disdain when this practice reached its prog-rock apotheosis the following decade), was, according to Lee and Echols, a scorcher in their live set. They failed to capture the energy—or whatever it was that captivated the crowds—in the studio, and the result is a kind of half-assed blues romp with plenty o’ noodling that mostly goes nowhere. Nevertheless, the sum of Da Capo is far greater than its parts; or, perhaps, the parts, assessed one a time, constitute six songs out of seven that are homeruns, and no athlete (or artist) could ask for much more than that.

Around this time another young group was starting to develop a reputation on the strip. Lee took them under his wing, going so far as to convince an initially unimpressed Jac Holzman to sign them. This band, led by a charismatic young man named Jim Morrison, famously stated that their original ambition was to be “as big as Love”. The rest, of course, is history.

Holzman fondly recalls The Doors being eager and, compared to Love, more obsessed: in a nutshell, they were willing to pay the obligatory dues, touring the entire country and steadily cultivating an audience. Echols and Lee both express bitterness that Elektra latched onto the Doors, ignoring the band that had delivered them on a platter. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to give a great deal of credence to these sour grapes: by all accounts the escalating internal tensions, Lee’s control freak tendencies (in and outside the band) and of course the increasing drug use—along with the aforementioned refusal to tour—arguably combined as an imperfect storm to prevent Love from striking while the Zeitgeist was glowing.

The subsequent Forever Changes sessions almost never happened. By the time they returned to the studio, Lee’s band was a mess: exhausted, apathetic and strung out. Eventually, Lee cajoled them into pulling themselves together and, against some serious odds; they hung in there long enough to make one of the greatest rock and roll records of all time. The album failed to break the Top 100, and Lee was crushed. According to Jac Holzman, people simply needed to see the band performing the songs, but it wasn’t to be. A fuller analysis of Forever Changes can be read in “Forever Never Changes” (PopMatters August 2006).

Lee admits, in addition to his band mates, “I was kind of spaced in those days.” To a certain extent Lee’s defiant nature is understandable, or at least explicable. When you are that naturally talented, it has to be more than a little challenging to jump through the necessary hoops in order to connect the dots of pop star accessibility. Many years later, Lee acknowledges, and regrets, his self-defeating intransigence. To Holzman’s credit, he flew Lee out to New York City, but the singer was the opposite of Woody Allen in Annie Hall: he was allergic to the big apple and only felt comfortable in L.A. Lee begins to sound like rock music’s Jake LaMotta: he understood the game, but because he saw through it, or felt above it, or was willfully sabotaging himself or—most of all—he simply couldn’t be bothered, he never seized the gold ring that was gleaming right in front of his face.

The proverbial writing was on the wall: even Lee had pushed himself to the edge (to the point where he became certain he was going to die; that the world was going to end), and the band was unable to return again to the well (although subsequent sessions produced some incredible songs, found on the Forever Changes reissues). Heroin was the drug of choice, and almost the entire band succumbed. As Echols summarizes, “You chased the dragon until the dragon catches you.” After the January ’68 sessions, Maclean left the band and an oft-repeated rock tale played out: neither Mclean nor Lee was ever as good apart as they were together. Nevertheless, Lee carried the banner, and while the results were decidedly mixed, Love (with a rotating cast of backing musicians) made some meaningful music in the ensuing decades. Four Sail, while never approaching the heights of its predecessor, is somewhat of a lost classic, and is overdue for reassessment.

Unfortunately, Lee received more attention for his behavior than his music in the years that followed, culminating in his controversial jail sentence for a firearms charge (courtesy of California’s three-strikes law). Fortunately, he was released half-way through his ludicrously harsh 12-year term, and soon after began touring with a revamped Love line-up. The tour, where the entirety of Forever Changes was played, won critical praise and drew large crowds.

Finally, it seemed, Lee was beginning to get his due. Tragically, in the midst of his latest return from oblivion, Lee was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and he passed away in August 2006, before filming of Love Story was completed. The post ‘60s years are somewhat glossed over, and while there is (obviously) a great deal of material to cover there, Lee is probably the only one who could speak about those darker days. Of course, the only people who will be disappointed by the lack of dirt are the ones for whom the melodrama is more important than the music.

Lee left his mark, and he knew it; and before he died, he had a decent opportunity to witness the collective appreciation. That he was able to tour the world in his last years is just, that he was taken before he could add to his legacy is regrettable. That old fans and, hopefully, legions of new listeners will continue to discover his work is exactly as it should be.

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