Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God (One Year Later)

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The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Four (Revisited)

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20. Rashanim: Shalosh

Shalosh showcases Jon Madof’s infectious surf guitar attack, but also represents an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof finds an ideal balance between the traditional inspiration of his source material and the dexterous, even restless proficiency of his skill set: he is a player equally comfortable invoking the Temple or the mosh pit. The songs are serious and complex, polished to the extent that all potential excess is eliminated and each composition says precisely what it means to convey utilizing minimal time for maximum impact.

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Thrash? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

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19. Bill Frisell: Where in the World?

Jazz? Avant-garde? Rock? All of the above? Certainly, and much more, as a matter of fact.

Bill Frissel is one of those virtuoso chameleons who seems comfortable (and effective) tackling any of these genres; often simultaneously. Where in the World? will serve as a fortuitous find for anyone uninitiated in the sublime realm of Frissology. This music is brooding, gothic, even melancholy at times. He is doing with instruments (real instruments, played by real people) what just about every other group these days is lazily relying on technology to do for them: creating mood. Thus, where even the best pre-programmed work invariably sounds somewhat stiff and soulless, Frissel’s work here resonates with a dusty authenticity.

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18. Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium

It was necessary to have at least one solid representation of contemporary jazz, and for me this was far and away one of the best releases of the last decade. More, for the purposes of this list, it illustrates that jazz is not boring music played by buttoned-up stiffs, or else frenetic jamming by self-absorbed experts. (Actually, does anyone actually think these things anymore? As outdated as these clichés are, the worse fate is that so many people don’t think of jazz at all these days.) Suffice it to say, Matthew Shipp makes modern music for modern times, but it is very much rooted in the tradition of America’s greatest invention.

Joined on this outing by the impeccable William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), the wild card here is the one-two punch of old and new school: vibes by veteran Khan Jamal and programming by FLAM. As a result the recording at times invokes the Modern Jazz Quartet and at others modern electronica. The solo pieces recall Thelonious Monk and some of the experimental ones (with bowed bass by Parker and percussive interplay between Jamal and Cleaver, cut by FLAM’s wizardry) are like Pink Floyd paired up with Sun Ra. Yeah, it’s all that, and it’s intelligent, soulful and, at times, it swings like nobody’s business.

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17. John Davis: John Davis Plays Blind Tom, The Eighth Wonder

Who is Blind Tom? Who, for that matter, is John Davis? Davis is an American hero for doing his part to make people aware of a very obscure American treasure named Blind Tom Wiggins. Google that name and marvel at two things: one, that his story is true, and two, that a movie has not been made about him. This disc is, without question, one of the happiest discoveries I’ve made in the last ten years, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since (also recommended: Davis playing the music of Blind Boone).

This solo piano music is reminiscent of its time (mid-to-late 1800s) and inevitably recalls everything from the Civil War to black-and-white photos, to slavery, to classical music (Chopin’s influence is prominent) and a period of American history that was at once simpler and more complicated (see: Civil War, slavery and the conditions that inspired these songs and ultimately devastated their creator). For eight bucks you can download this album and it might just be the best money you spend this year.

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16. The Congos: Heart of the Congos

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

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15. Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity

Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Reid was already a man amongst boys when Living Colour broke through in the late ‘80s, and he has never stopped absorbing and innovating, crafting a technique that is virtually all-encompassing. A recollection: when word broke that Living Colour, the band poised to be the best and most important collective of the ’90s, had called it quits, the only thing that softened the pain was the promise of some solo work.

A confession: Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (’96) was so mind-bogglingly brilliant it made me grateful that Living Colour—one of my favorite bands—had broken up. If they had not, I thought, we may never have gotten this album. And it illustrates everything that makes Reid such an incomparable technician: he truly paints colors with sound, and is capable of creating a mood that you can’t quite describe, but remain—after countless listens—utterly enraptured by. If you are even the least bit adventurous and anxious to hear sounds you’ve never imagined, don’t miss out on this.

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14. Painkiller: Execution Ground

There could, and perhaps should be multiple John Zorn albums on this list. (His ever-expanding soundtrack series, for instance, is an embarrassment of riches and, of course, his Masada catalog is essential.) Arguably the most accomplished and multi-faceted musician of his generation, Zorn wears more hats than a baseball stadium.

Along with drummer Mick Harris and bassist/producer Bill Laswell (who himself could have many albums on this list), Zorn uses his alto sax as a weapon: at once aggressively bashing the rhythm like relentless waves against a rock, or else crouching in the darkness, circling its prey (which is you). The second disc, an “ambient” mix, will make any electronica played in clubs sound like elevator Muzak. This music is beyond dark, almost disturbing in its ruthless tension, but capable of conjuring foreign images and sensations that slowly become familiar, and addictive.

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13. African Head Charge: Songs of Praise

African Head Charge is not easy, and it is not for everyone. For anyone who finds much of what they hear today underwhelming, give Songs of Praise a spin and listen to our weird, wonderful world with new ears. But what does it sound like? It sounds like anything and everything (or, to put it another way, it sounds like African Head Charge): funk-dub foundations with sticky rhythms and loops, sprinkled with sick samples that include animal cries, tribal chants, and shouts from both types of jungle—untamed and concrete.

The culmination of their discography to this point, Songs of Praise is a world music manifesto that spans the globe (literally) and provides a virtual blueprint for so many less triumphant imitations that would follow. It is, by turns, strange, surreal, celebratory, peaceful and provocative. Above all, it is absolutely unique, and suffused with an oddball integrity that makes it at once an artistic and cultural statement. What more can we reasonably ask from music?

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12. Prince Far I: Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3

Michael James Williams, the man who was christened Prince Far I, is perhaps best known for the work that is considered to be his masterpiece, Under Heavy Manners. On this collaboration, massive credit here goes to the Roots Radics, featuring players who are well-loved in reggae circles but sadly obscure outside them: Flabba Holt (bass), Bingy Bunny (guitar) and Style Scott (drums). With crucial contributions to British musicians Stever Beresford (synths and melodica) and David Toop (flute) this is a mash-up of super-heavy dub and free-flowing semi-improvisation. The result is a swirling loop of ambient instrumental reggae that features female chanting and the occasional voice of thunder from Far I.

Perhaps more than any other album on this list, this is one you’ll play and find friends asking about. It’s almost impossible to ignore and it’s instantly addictive. This is music you’d expect to hear in a dorm room, at a house party, in a cool movie, and perhaps in your mind when you think “I wish there was some crazy laid back, utterly badass instrumental dub music without any overly slick production or computerized beats.” This is that music.

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11. Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages

I promised there would be almost no jazz on this list. I lied. And yet, in addition to being a crucial addition for all the right reasons, Ask the Ages is as uncategorizable—in a good way—as so much of the music mentioned throughout. Certainly it’s jazz, and features some true heavyweights from the golden era (Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, both of whom played with John Coltrane), as well as younger legends-in-the-making Charnett Moffett (bass) and Bill Laswell (producer). But the star here is the perfectly-named guitar player Sonny Sharrock, who should be much better known—and perhaps would have been if not for his ridiculously premature death (at age 53, from a heart attack).

Sharrock (did I mention his name is perfect?) was known for his visceral, aggressive play, which, considering the reputations Sanders and Jones brought to the sessions, should prepare one for a sonic tsunami. Surprisingly, even refreshingly, it’s a decidedly contemplative (not to say restrained) affair, and Sharrock does some of the most expressive playing on a jazz album since Grant Green’s Blue Note years. Each musician is at the absolute height of his powers, and it’s difficult to think of an album that balances brawn and tenderness quite like this. Concluding on a note that, with hindsight is even more elegiac and devastating, “Once Upon a Time” remains a monumental closing statement.

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List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God

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The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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Via the Spectrum Road with Vernon Reid (Revisited)

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Listening to Vernon Reid speak is like listening to Vernon Reid play the guitar: you need both ears and all your mind to keep up. Ideas flow eagerly, thoughts within thoughts ricochet off each other, quotations and questions are sprinkled in like sugar and spice, and it is almost overwhelming. In a good way.

Keeping up with Vernon Reid in conversation is like trying to keep track of his career: blink and you might miss something. Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration with fellow guitar hero Bill Frisell), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Knowing how far and wide Reid’s interests and abilities range, it makes all the sense in the world that he was drawn to his latest project, Spectrum Road. A contemporary super group, the quartet features Reid along with living legend Jack Bruce (Cream), keyboard virtuoso John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz). By no means a tribute band, Spectrum Road is nevertheless in every sense of the word a tribute to the late and very great Tony Williams. Williams, of course, was the drumming wunderkind who cut his first tracks at age 16 with Jackie McLean before joining the seminal Miles Davis quintet during the mid-to-late ‘60s. He then embarked on a career that found him blazing trails that had literally not been discovered. His early-to-mid-‘70s albums with The Tony Williams Lifetime caused predictable confusion and consternation amongst the so-called jazz intelligentsia, but it introduced him to a young audience who could pick up what he was putting down (and had the added benefit of allowing newcomers to work backwards and follow the ingenious work he had been doing for a decade). A harder edged fusion, his concept attracted the accomplished and celebrated Jack Bruce, who stuck around for a couple of albums.

The music—and resultant album, which the band is touring behind this summer—is faithful to Williams’s vision. Arguably, the composer/drummer’s work was sufficiently advanced and unprecedented that some folks (such as the aforementioned critics, who could scarcely comprehend, much less appreciate Bitches Brew) are only now getting their heads around what he was up to. In hindsight, it seems easier to describe Lifetime’s catalog as an exercise in seamless genre swapping, which included straightforward jazz, fusion (when it was a dirty word but had not yet degenerated into the neutered expression it became) and what we now simply call world music. Naturally, it tended to be rejected at the time as too rock-oriented and/or “out there”. To complicate matters, Williams had the audacity to sing on several tracks, which proved to be the final straw even for more open-minded fans.

“Lifetime was crazy ahead of its time,” Reid says. “There is a special resonance for me personally. You have the jazz-rock on one hand, and the fusion of jazz where his roots were. But there was a lot of alt-rock in what Williams did.”

Take “Where”, a track which, like the other Lifetime compositions Spectrum Road covers, does not stray far from the originals but is rendered in the distinctive styles of these players. This twelve-plus minute tune has elements of multiple genres but is ultimately unclassifiable, in a class of its own. The yearning (and sparse) vocals, here delivered in a speak-sing seduction by Blackman Santana, are like a rush of wind just before an electrical storm. Extended and ethereal introductory notes give way to a frenzied jam, violent but never veering into chaos. It sounds like a super-amped extension of the Miles Davis In A Silent Way sessions, anticipating the more experimental prog-rock that was just around the corner.

Jack Bruce is the obvious bridge between generations, having played with Williams, but also an avatar of classic rock. In fact, Cream was arguably the first super group in rock, and after the ‘60s, virtually every project Bruce has worked in has, by default, been “super”. Or, as Reid puts it: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years…it’s just astounding.” Having played with both Bruce and Medeski (in different settings) during the last decade, it was up to Reid to bring these brilliant musicians together. The fourth—and perhaps most scrutinized—member is the one sitting in the proverbial hot seat, Cindy Blackman Santana. In addition to drumming for Lenny Kravitz, she has also displayed her ample chops playing jazz, including her own Tony Williams tribute, 2010’s Another Lifetime. “Here is this beautiful woman with a real ‘60s kind of look who is just killing it on the drums,” Reid says. “Tony was a huge influence on her, which is obvious in her playing and her whole approach.”

According to Reid, the connection these four players felt was the result of serendipity, a happy accident. “If this was focused on the so-called ‘glories of the past’ it would be dead on arrival. Since Tony’s expression is only now being fully understood, we can take that momentum and run with it. We are totally in the moment, so there is a great deal of improvisation.”

Seeing the band perform, which is highly encouraged, is an awe-inspiring experience. One need not have ever watched Vernon Reid in action; all it requires is functioning ears to grasp how dynamic and busy (in a good way) his playing really is. But seeing him make all those sounds can be genuinely intoxicating. Watching him interact with Jack Bruce, laid back and flashing his Cheshire grin like a man truly enjoying himself, while trying to keep pace with Blackman Santana’s frenetic assault is a challenging, if rewarding proposition. And off to the side, calm and confident, is Medeski, busily building sounds like an eccentric architect.

What Spectrum Road is reflecting, and what Williams anticipated, is a world where information overload has become an unquestioned facet of existence. “We are in a culture that is somewhat insane,” Reid says. “No one can keep up with it; new trends are instantly passé.” At the same time, it’s a culture of conformity, or at least one where a certain sameness can provide security, if not success. “To carve out your own path as an artist, or even as a person, can be extraordinarily difficult… and there is resistance.”

Reid is talking about Williams, and the pushback he received, from critics, audiences and even fellow musicians (including, or especially the ones who respected him). Of course he could also be talking about himself. Reid, like so many of the best artists you read or hear speak, has seemingly listened to every album, read every book, seen every movie, and absorbed so many aspects of culture, both high and lowbrow. As a result, his style is inevitably an encyclopedia of sound: his influences and sources of inspiration are constantly alluded to even as he is busy inventing the future. In the course of a 90 minute conversation ostensibly focused on his current project, we also discussed names ranging from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Fripp, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Prince Paul and Don Byron. He even made a point of insisting on a shout out to “Captain” Kirk Douglas (of The Roots), who in his opinion deserves more attention than he receives.

“This is really powerful and it’s not lost on any of us,” he says, explaining the mission of Spectrum Road. “These moments are measured, so we’re just loving the moment, loving that we finally got the opportunity to do this.” And the future? “There might be something with Medeski Martin & Wood upcoming, and of course Living Colour.” What else? “I’m still trying to learn the instrument, trying to find that individual voice. I always think of the great people who gave me advice or taught me how to think about things in a different way.”

This leads to a discussion of his aesthetic and philosophy, which are pretty much one and the same. “When a person means what they say they expose themselves,” he explains. “When a person is earnest he exposes naked humanity. Coltrane went all in. Hendrix was all in. There was no irony or calculation; this was their life, finding a unity of expression.” Once again he could be describing himself.

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Four

TomPiano2

20. Rashanim: Shalosh

Shalosh showcases Jon Madof’s infectious surf guitar attack, but also represents an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof finds an ideal balance between the traditional inspiration of his source material and the dexterous, even restless proficiency of his skill set: he is a player equally comfortable invoking the Temple or the mosh pit. The songs are serious and complex, polished to the extent that all potential excess is eliminated and each composition says precisely what it means to convey utilizing minimal time for maximum impact.

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Thrash? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

rashanim

19. Bill Frisell: Where in the World?

Jazz? Avant-garde? Rock? All of the above? Certainly, and much more, as a matter of fact.

Bill Frissel is one of those virtuoso chameleons who seems comfortable (and effective) tackling any of these genres; often simultaneously.  Where in the World? will serve as a fortuitous find for anyone uninitiated in the sublime realm of Frissology.  This music is brooding, gothic, even melancholy at times.  He is doing with instruments (real instruments, played by real people) what just about every other group these days is lazily relying on technology to do for them:  creating mood.  Thus, where even the best pre-programmed work invariably sounds somewhat stiff and soulless, Frissel’s work here resonates with a dusty authenticity.

frisell

18. Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium

It was necessary to have at least one solid representation of contemporary jazz, and for me this was far and away one of the best releases of the last decade. More, for the purposes of this list, it illustrates that jazz is not boring music played by buttoned-up stiffs, or else frenetic jamming by self-absorbed experts. (Actually, does anyone actually think these things anymore? As outdated as these clichés are, the worse fate is that so many people don’t think of jazz at all these days.) Suffice it to say, Matthew Shipp makes modern music for modern times, but it is very much rooted in the tradition of America’s greatest invention.

Joined on this outing by the impeccable William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), the wild card here is the one-two punch of old and new school: vibes by veteran Khan Jamal and programming by FLAM. As a result the recording at times invokes the Modern Jazz Quartet and at others modern electronica. The solo pieces recall Thelonious Monk and some of the experimental ones (with bowed bass by Parker and percussive interplay between Jamal and Cleaver, cut by FLAM’s wizardry) are like Pink Floyd paired up with Sun Ra. Yeah, it’s all that, and it’s intelligent, soulful and, at times, it swings like nobody’s business.

matthew shipp

17. John Davis: John Davis Plays Blind Tom, The Eighth Wonder

Who is Blind Tom? Who, for that matter, is John Davis? Davis is an American hero for doing his part to make people aware of a very obscure American treasure named Blind Tom Wiggins. Google that name and marvel at two things: one, that his story is true, and two, that a movie has not been made about him. This disc is, without question, one of the happiest discoveries I’ve made in the last ten years, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since (also recommended: Davis playing the music of Blind Boone).

This solo piano music is reminiscent of its time (mid-to-late 1800s) and inevitably recalls everything from the Civil War to black-and-white photos, to slavery, to classical music (Chopin’s influence is prominent) and a period of American history that was at once simpler and more complicated (see: Civil War, slavery and the conditions that inspired these songs and ultimately devastated their creator). For eight bucks you can download this album and it might just be the best money you spend this year.

john davis

16. The Congos: Heart of the Congos

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

congos

15. Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity

Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Reid was already a man amongst boys when Living Colour broke through in the late ‘80s, and he has never stopped absorbing and innovating, crafting a technique that is virtually all-encompassing. A recollection: when word broke that Living Colour, the band poised to be the best and most important collective of the ’90s, had called it quits, the only thing that softened the pain was the promise of some solo work.

A confession: Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (’96) was so mind-bogglingly brilliant it made me grateful that Living Colour—one of my favorite bands—had broken up. If they had not, I thought, we may never have gotten this album. And it illustrates everything that makes Reid such an incomparable technician: he truly paints colors with sound, and is capable of creating a mood that you can’t quite describe, but remain—after countless listens—utterly enraptured by. If you are even the least bit adventurous and anxious to hear sounds you’ve never imagined, don’t miss out on this.

vernon reid

14. Painkiller: Execution Ground

There could, and perhaps should be multiple John Zorn albums on this list. (His ever-expanding soundtrack series, for instance, is an embarrassment of riches and, of course, his Masada catalog is essential.) Arguably the most accomplished and multi-faceted musician of his generation, Zorn wears more hats than a baseball stadium.

Along with drummer Mick Harris and bassist/producer Bill Laswell (who himself could have many albums on this list), Zorn uses his alto sax as a weapon: at once aggressively bashing the rhythm like relentless waves against a rock, or else crouching in the darkness, circling its prey (which is you). The second disc, an “ambient” mix, will make any electronica played in clubs sound like elevator Muzak. This music is beyond dark, almost disturbing in its ruthless tension, but capable of conjuring foreign images and sensations that slowly become familiar, and addictive.

painkiller

13. African Head Charge: Songs of Praise

African Head Charge is not easy, and it is not for everyone. For anyone who finds much of what they hear today underwhelming, give Songs of Praise a spin and listen to our weird, wonderful world with new ears. But what does it sound like? It sounds like anything and everything (or, to put it another way, it sounds like African Head Charge): funk-dub foundations with sticky rhythms and loops, sprinkled with sick samples that include animal cries, tribal chants, and shouts from both types of jungle—untamed and concrete.

The culmination of their discography to this point, Songs of Praise is a world music manifesto that spans the globe (literally) and provides a virtual blueprint for so many less triumphant imitations that would follow. It is, by turns, strange, surreal, celebratory, peaceful and provocative. Above all, it is absolutely unique, and suffused with an oddball integrity that makes it at once an artistic and cultural statement. What more can we reasonably ask from music?

african head charge

12. Prince Far I: Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3

Michael James Williams, the man who was christened Prince Far I, is perhaps best known for the work that is considered to be his masterpiece, Under Heavy Manners. On this collaboration, massive credit here goes to the Roots Radics, featuring players who are well-loved in reggae circles but sadly obscure outside them: Flabba Holt (bass), Bingy Bunny (guitar) and Style Scott (drums). With crucial contributions to British musicians Stever Beresford (synths and melodica) and David Toop (flute) this is a mash-up of super-heavy dub and free-flowing semi-improvisation. The result is a swirling loop of ambient instrumental reggae that features female chanting and the occasional voice of thunder from Far I.

Perhaps more than any other album on this list, this is one you’ll play and find friends asking about. It’s almost impossible to ignore and it’s instantly addictive. This is music you’d expect to hear in a dorm room, at a house party, in a cool movie, and perhaps in your mind when you think “I wish there was some crazy laid back, utterly badass instrumental dub music without any overly slick production or computerized beats.” This is that music.

prince far i

11. Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages

I promised there would be almost no jazz on this list. I lied. And yet, in addition to being a crucial addition for all the right reasons, Ask the Ages is as uncategorizable—in a good way—as so much of the music mentioned throughout. Certainly it’s jazz, and features some true heavyweights from the golden era (Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, both of whom played with John Coltrane), as well as younger legends-in-the-making Charnett Moffett (bass) and Bill Laswell (producer). But the star here is the perfectly-named guitar player Sonny Sharrock, who should be much better known—and perhaps would have been if not for his ridiculously premature death (at age 53, from a heart attack).

Sharrock (did I mention his name is perfect?) was known for his visceral, aggressive play, which, considering the reputations Sanders and Jones brought to the sessions, should prepare one for a sonic tsunami. Surprisingly, even refreshingly, it’s a decidedly contemplative (not to say restrained) affair, and Sharrock does some of the most expressive playing on a jazz album since Grant Green’s Blue Note years. Each musician is at the absolute height of his powers, and it’s difficult to think of an album that balances brawn and tenderness quite like this. Concluding on a note that, with hindsight is even more elegiac and devastating, “Once Upon a Time” remains a monumental closing statement.

sonny sharrock

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8 & #7 (Revisited)

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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Gary Clark Jr.: Seeing Is Believing

It’s only happened on two other occasions, before last Friday night.

In 2001, seeing Mike Patton in person for the first time, with his brand new side project Tomahawk (at the Black Cat in D.C. which, before the overdue smoking ban, was like standing in a dark closet with a nicotine-scented dry-ice machine). They came out and played “God Hates a Coward” and I turned to my date and said “I’m good. We can go now.” We did not, of course, but I truly would have been 100% satisfied with just those 3 minutes. To get an hour-plus of that passion, musicality and showmanship was one for the ages. I was less than 20 feet from the stage.

(More on Tomahawk, HERE, check out #39.)

In 2008 I caught Living Colour on one of the opening nights of their tour for their then not-yet-released “comeback” album The Chair in the Doorway. (My subsequent review of that album can be found HERE.) They played “Burned Bridges” and it was both an opening salvo and shot across the bow: the guys came out en fuego and the smoke did not stop rising until five minutes after they left the stage. Reid’s solo, and I happened to be on the right side of the stage to see it in, well, living colour, remains one of the most ridiculous sixty seconds of virtuosity I’ve ever worshipped in real time. It left me shivering with delight and disbelief, knowing they were locked in and about to operate at this level for another couple of hours. (They did.) I could easily have left right then and felt satisfied and spent (I didn’t.)

Footage of Reid in action is instructive, but the sound quality is not optimal; make sure you check out the authentic version, HERE.

A lot more about this band, and seeing them live (in ’93!) HERE.

 

Which brings us to Gary Clark Jr.’s performance at D.C.’s 9:30 Club last Friday night. He opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. This dude commands the stage like no one else has in a long-ass time: tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December, he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate.

See what I’m saying?

When I saw him, the first time, last year, my impression was that he displayed the type of playing –and talent– we see from a handful of players every 10 years or so. Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling (and history) that you can’t fake. I was absolutely gobsmacked, and immediately hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR.

I look forward to enjoying him  for a long, long time. For now, he seems to be more like a blues or jazz artist in that he shines live and to fully appreciate him, it needs to be in real time. That’s not to say his studio work thus far is underwhelming, but, well, it’s not nearly as effective in my opinion. The intensity and connection is lacking. Certainly, that is true on literal levels (duh): seeing an act live will bring intensity and a literal connection that a digital file played on a digital device can’t deliver. But this is not typically the case with rock music, where so much of it sounds better on album than in person. Quick: name me one rock band that consistently sounds better live.

One example that fairly leaps to mind: The Black Keys. Like just about all rock acts, they sound much better in the studio than they ever do live. And this is understandable on several levels: for one, it’s exceedingly difficult to convey that sound (one guitar, one voice, one drummer) to a large arena. If you could watch the Black Keys –who recorded the bulk of their early work live, in a basement, proving that they could “do it” without studio trickery or production pyrotechnics– in a small room forever, they could be legit live contenders. As such, they struggle (in my opinion, having seen them in venues small and large) to put it down, effectively, in person. (More on The Black Keys, HERE, check out #5.)

It says a great deal about Clark’s ability and acumen that he brings the noise, on several levels, when he’s performing. Plus, it would be wrong to label him a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.

(For the record, I do think his major label debut, Black and Blu, is more than a little overproduced. It’s understandable, if expected: he’s trying to break in with a sound that is sufficiently accessible to a wider audience, and I certainly don’t begrudge him that. I’ll simply say, if I were handed his new album and his EP, and asked to assess him, I’d probably say: lots of potential. Having seen him live (twice) and with the benefit of myriad clips courtesy of YouTube, I can confirm that the potential is largely realized and he has already arrived; it’s just a matter of being in the same place at the same time.)

If you have a chance to check him out, do so. He sounds fine (thank you very much) in a studio setting, and I encourage you to grab his new disc. But like most of the better acts, especially of the jazz and blues idioms, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future.

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They Will Rock You, They Are The Champions: The Consummate American Bands (Revisited)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M. 3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Extra innings.

Let’s bat around the order with one indelible moment from each starter.

CCR, “Ramble Tamble” (can you say lead-off scorcher up the middle?):

Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” (Did Bruce ever sing, write or sound better than he does here?):

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva” (Can you show me?):

R.E.M., “Finest Worksong” (can you say grand slam?):

The Pixies, “Debaser” (can you say inside-the-park-home-run?):

Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street” (He leads the league in strikeouts; he also has the most game-winning hits):

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Call Me The Breeze” (Yup, they are crowding the plate; I dare you to throw a brush-back pitch!):

The Doors, “Wild Child” (Nothing like a little locker room dysfunction to keep things fresh!):

The Beach Boys, “Hang On To Your Ego vs. I Know There’s An Answer” (Brian Wilson is the man I want at bat with 2 outs, 2 strikes in the 9th inning…):

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Via the Spectrum Road with Vernon Reid

Listening to Vernon Reid speak is like listening to Vernon Reid play the guitar: you need both ears and all your mind to keep up. Ideas flow eagerly, thoughts within thoughts ricochet off each other, quotations and questions are sprinkled in like sugar and spice, and it is almost overwhelming. In a good way.

Keeping up with Vernon Reid in conversation is like trying to keep track of his career: blink and you might miss something. Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration with fellow guitar hero Bill Frisell), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Knowing how far and wide Reid’s interests and abilities range, it makes all the sense in the world that he was drawn to his latest project, Spectrum Road. A contemporary super group, the quartet features Reid along with living legend Jack Bruce (Cream), keyboard virtuoso John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz). By no means a tribute band, Spectrum Road is nevertheless in every sense of the word a tribute to the late and very great Tony Williams. Williams, of course, was the drumming wunderkind who cut his first tracks at age 16 with Jackie McLean before joining the seminal Miles Davis quintet during the mid-to-late ‘60s. He then embarked on a career that found him blazing trails that had literally not been discovered. His early-to-mid-‘70s albums with The Tony Williams Lifetime caused predictable confusion and consternation amongst the so-called jazz intelligentsia, but it introduced him to a young audience who could pick up what he was putting down (and had the added benefit of allowing newcomers to work backwards and follow the ingenious work he had been doing for a decade). A harder edged fusion, his concept attracted the accomplished and celebrated Jack Bruce, who stuck around for a couple of albums.

The music—and resultant album, which the band is touring behind this summer—is faithful to Williams’s vision. Arguably, the composer/drummer’s work was sufficiently advanced and unprecedented that some folks (such as the aforementioned critics, who could scarcely comprehend, much less appreciate Bitches Brew) are only now getting their heads around what he was up to. In hindsight, it seems easier to describe Lifetime’s catalog as an exercise in seamless genre swapping, which included straightforward jazz, fusion (when it was a dirty word but had not yet degenerated into the neutered expression it became) and what we now simply call world music. Naturally, it tended to be rejected at the time as too rock-oriented and/or “out there”. To complicate matters, Williams had the audacity to sing on several tracks, which proved to be the final straw even for more open-minded fans.

“Lifetime was crazy ahead of its time,” Reid says. “There is a special resonance for me personally. You have the jazz-rock on one hand, and the fusion of jazz where his roots were. But there was a lot of alt-rock in what Williams did.”

Take “Where”, a track which, like the other Lifetime compositions Spectrum Road covers, does not stray far from the originals but is rendered in the distinctive styles of these players. This twelve-plus minute tune has elements of multiple genres but is ultimately unclassifiable, in a class of its own. The yearning (and sparse) vocals, here delivered in a speak-sing seduction by Blackman Santana, are like a rush of wind just before an electrical storm. Extended and ethereal introductory notes give way to a frenzied jam, violent but never veering into chaos. It sounds like a super-amped extension of the Miles Davis In A Silent Way sessions, anticipating the more experimental prog-rock that was just around the corner.

Jack Bruce is the obvious bridge between generations, having played with Williams, but also an avatar of classic rock. In fact, Cream was arguably the first super group in rock, and after the ‘60s, virtually every project Bruce has worked in has, by default, been “super”. Or, as Reid puts it: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years…it’s just astounding.” Having played with both Bruce and Medeski (in different settings) during the last decade, it was up to Reid to bring these brilliant musicians together. The fourth—and perhaps most scrutinized—member is the one sitting in the proverbial hot seat, Cindy Blackman Santana. In addition to drumming for Lenny Kravitz, she has also displayed her ample chops playing jazz, including her own Tony Williams tribute, 2010’s Another Lifetime. “Here is this beautiful woman with a real ‘60s kind of look who is just killing it on the drums,” Reid says. “Tony was a huge influence on her, which is obvious in her playing and her whole approach.”

According to Reid, the connection these four players felt was the result of serendipity, a happy accident. “If this was focused on the so-called ‘glories of the past’ it would be dead on arrival. Since Tony’s expression is only now being fully understood, we can take that momentum and run with it. We are totally in the moment, so there is a great deal of improvisation.”

Seeing the band perform, which is highly encouraged, is an awe-inspiring experience. One need not have ever watched Vernon Reid in action; all it requires is functioning ears to grasp how dynamic and busy (in a good way) his playing really is. But seeing him make all those sounds can be genuinely intoxicating. Watching him interact with Jack Bruce, laid back and flashing his Cheshire grin like a man truly enjoying himself, while trying to keep pace with Blackman Santana’s frenetic assault is a challenging, if rewarding proposition. And off to the side, calm and confident, is Medeski, busily building sounds like an eccentric architect.

What Spectrum Road is reflecting, and what Williams anticipated, is a world where information overload has become an unquestioned facet of existence. “We are in a culture that is somewhat insane,” Reid says. “No one can keep up with it; new trends are instantly passé.” At the same time, it’s a culture of conformity, or at least one where a certain sameness can provide security, if not success. “To carve out your own path as an artist, or even as a person, can be extraordinarily difficult… and there is resistance.”

Reid is talking about Williams, and the pushback he received, from critics, audiences and even fellow musicians (including, or especially the ones who respected him). Of course he could also be talking about himself. Reid, like so many of the best artists you read or hear speak, has seemingly listened to every album, read every book, seen every movie, and absorbed so many aspects of culture, both high and lowbrow. As a result, his style is inevitably an encyclopedia of sound: his influences and sources of inspiration are constantly alluded to even as he is busy inventing the future. In the course of a 90 minute conversation ostensibly focused on his current project, we also discussed names ranging from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Fripp, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Prince Paul and Don Byron. He even made a point of insisting on a shout out to “Captain” Kirk Douglas (of The Roots), who in his opinion deserves more attention than he receives.

“This is really powerful and it’s not lost on any of us,” he says, explaining the mission of Spectrum Road. “These moments are measured, so we’re just loving the moment, loving that we finally got the opportunity to do this.” And the future? “There might be something with Medeski Martin & Wood upcoming, and of course Living Colour.” What else? “I’m still trying to learn the instrument, trying to find that individual voice. I always think of the great people who gave me advice or taught me how to think about things in a different way.”

This leads to a discussion of his aesthetic and philosophy, which are pretty much one and the same. “When a person means what they say they expose themselves,” he explains. “When a person is earnest he exposes naked humanity. Coltrane went all in. Hendrix was all in. There was no irony or calculation; this was their life, finding a unity of expression.” Once again he could be describing himself.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8 & #7

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous terms.

A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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