Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Music Library: Gillian Welch, Ginger Baker, Gladys Knight, Glands, Glass Eye, Glenn Branca

Gillian Welch - Revival (1996) and Time (The Revelator) (2001). Welch (and her partner David Rawlings, her accompanyist on both of these recordings) plays Americana with an old-timey folk feel. Here's a contradiction in me: I get annoyed when artists - particularly white artists - attempt to play the blues, an art form that I think of as essentially a dead end which was reached many, many years ago. Not that I don't love much of the music that falls under the umbrella terms "blues," because I dig a lot of the original folk-blues, the Chicago electric blues, and the weird hybrid between the two popularized by Howlin' Wolf. I like some blues-influenced music, like the indie-skronk band Come, which played a jagged form of blues, or when some of the bop greats would take blues ideas and turn them into something new. But I think the form is so rigid, especially in how it is interpreted by modern performers, that it usually sounds like a lazy way to front some sort of connection to the past that is devoid of authenticity. And here's a sidebar: authenticity actually isn't very important to me in music; I don't think country artists need to be miserable drunk jailbirds to make their sorrow songs sing, and I certainly don't think that an artist needs a background of Mississippi sharecropping to play the blues. However, I think that the artist needs to sound authentic, that the emotion that carries the song has to be something that the artist can instantiate, at least for the duration of the song. Which is why I hate the modern Americana take on "the blues," because it's a lazy way of saying "oh, I've got soul" and then going into a boring, DOA guitar solo for ten minutes. (And yet I love the Stones' blatant ripoffs of old blues songs on their albums in the late 60s and early 70s, so again, I contradict myself.) I bring all this up as a way of saying that it's weird that I don't care about artists mining the hillbilly records of the 20s and 30s in the same way. The so-called "hillbilly" and "race" records were basically the same thing, regional takes on folk songs with quite a bit of crossover between the two, but basically segregated by the race of the artist. So why does mining the blues bother me and mining the old-timey folk not bother me? I don't know. It seems racist, as if I feel that one side of the coin - the side that might be in my DNA, but is not part of my cultural heritage thanks to my skin color - belongs in the past, but the flip side is fine for revival. I don't think I'm a racist, though, but a realist. Most blues revival sounds are built on the ever-present I-IV-V song structure, with the same repetitive lyrical structure (repeat line twice, rhyme third line). But, even so, I generally like Welch, who mines the old-timey folk with the best of them (and, indeed, even appears in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as well as on the soundtrack). Those artists mining old-timey folk usually embrace a slightly more irregular song structure than those artist mining the blues , and as an artform, it feels more open-ended. Welch's songs are certainly open-ended, with one foot in the present and one in the past, and they don't seem aware of the contradiction. My only complaint is that these do dip into some dull blues occasionally and they do get a little samey after a while.

Ginger Baker - No Material (with Sonny Sharrock and Peter Brotzmann, 1987) and Going Back Home (with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, 1994). Speaking of mining the blues, boy howdy do I dislike Baker's former bandmate Eric Clapton. I don't care much for Cream, either. But I do have to give Baker props for challenging himself. He was recording with Fela Kuti before Cream broke up (or was it just after? I don't care), and he has often found some of the most interesting sidemen for his albums. No Material is actually centered around guitarist Nicky Skopelitis with Jan Kazda on bass. But Baker, Skopelitis, and Kazda made this interesting by bringing in the Sharrock and Brotzmann, the most extreme jazz artists of their age and the frontmen for the jazz supergroup Last Exit. Last Exit is definitely heads better than this, but Baker, Skopelitis, and Kazda soften the sound a bit, and make it a little more accessible by incorporating rock strategies. Going Back Home is also an album that's really about the sidemen, the brilliant Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, both of whom sound wonderful on these songs. Baker is generally ok, although far too heavy-handed for some of the material. The best track is the take on Josh Haden's "Spiritual." The worst is "East Timor," which features an intolerably misguided political voiceover by Baker. My pal Joe Boucher gave me my copy of the latter album. Thanks, Joe!

Gladys Knight and the Pips - "If I Were Your Woman." You'd think a guy with wide-ranging musical tastes such as myself would have more room in his collection for Gladys Knight than just this lone 1971 hit. So would I. Color me embarrassed.

The Glands - The Glands (2000). Viva indie rock! Viva Kinksy pop tunes! It's been almost a decade. Where's the follow-up? I should mention that I picked this up with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo wrote about how great it was, so there's another thing I owe Kaplan for. Thanks, man!

Glass Eye - Bent By Nature (1988), Hello, Young Lovers (1989), and Every Woman's Fantasy (2006). One of the greatest Austin bands of the 80s, Glass Eye played indie rock that veered between Kathy McCarthy's more direct rock songs and Brian Beattie's more avant-noise style. Excellent, excellent stuff. The latter album was unreleased for many years before Glass Eye got back together and put it out a few years back. They were also instrumental in making Daniel Johnston's career, and indeed McCarthy's album of Johnston covers Dead Dog's Eyeball (which was produced by Beattie) is a gem.

Glenn Branca - Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) (1983). Here's where modern compositional music meets punk and modern avant-rock, and you can hear echoes in almost all art-rock to come, including Sonic Youth (and I should point out that Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore are on this recording), Sigur Ros, godspeed you! black emperor, The Boredoms, the Band of Susans, Boris, Sunn 0))), and heck, anyone who uses loud droning atonal music to achieve transcendence. This is not just an amazing work of art, but an amazing roadmap to the future.


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