Monday, June 23, 2008

blown fuses

Sly and the Family Stone - There's a Riot Goin' On
You might actually alert a DEA dog at the airport by merely having this album on your iPod. Riot is much less about explosive protest than it is about the empty space, the grand vacuum of being stoned. Other Sly records like Stand! are about everything coming at once; Riot is about nothing coming in. Stand! is "Go funk!"; Riot is "Oh fuck..."

The recording sessions for Riot are legendardy, the isolation, control, paranoia - with Sly casting himself in the role of enemy of society, locked away in his studio. It reads like the final days of a doomsday cult, nervously seeing the ATF tanks approaching from the horizon and all they have is Jesus (or Miles Davis in this case) and the calling to push the groove forward until the tear gas comes.

Like a rose growing in shit, out of this emerges "Family Affair," one of the greatest pop songs ever written. Sure, the family is pushed to the background behind papa's growling pronouncements and rare good mood, but together in the loose glue of a syncopated beat the family still clings to the last threads of love that manage to stay tight, even as every other one has long unraveled.

Various Artists - Roots of Greek Music Vol 3: Rebetika
I did actually find a rather anthropological record called Cannibis Indica in Rebetika Songs Recordings, 1931 - 1946, old stoned Greeks singing songs like Sa Foumaro Zeibekiko "When I'm Smoking a Joint" - I was going to wade through just to fit in on the stoned theme, but instead I opt for the bargain bin survey of this noble intricate music like the American Consumer I am.

Rebetika emerged as from the poor sectors of the Greek cities, rattling away, dancing about hashish and the hardships of the people which led it to be banned by dictator Ioannis Metaxas in 1936. Metaxas be damned! Even dry-old Wikipedia cannot help but succumb to the inherent sexy, forbidden noir of this music:
The cradles of rebetic song were the tavern, the ouzeri, the hashish den and also the prison.
If you have a taste for Gogol Bordello and Beruit and Devotchka, then you owe it to yourself to taste the flavors that get weakened in their respective stews. It's much sexier when anonymous Greeks do it than indie rockers with a library card. I can understand their adoption though; if I could play this stuff on either mandolin or accordion, I might never stop until the next dictator locked me away.

Zydepunks - Exile Waltz
Now, if you are looking for some impassioned fusion of the world's wild accordion music, mazurka on over to New Orleans' own Zydepunks. Not one but two accordions are required to beat out this wild storm of Gypsy/Cajun/Irish/Greek drinking music of the damned. I interviewed these guys a while back as part of a piece I did on New Orleans underground music for The Wire on October 2007. Here is the whole interview

How would you describe your group to a serious music fan who'd never heard you before?

Folk/punk. A combination of Louisiana French & and European folk with punk rock.

What is it with ecclectic music in New Orleans. NO other place in the US has as many fiddles and accordions and other non-rock instruments playing in often, large bands. Why is that? Is there something about New Orleans that brings that out (dixieland/brass band tradition)

I'm not sure that's 100 % true. New York, San Francisco, Asheville NC, Portland OR... there are a lot of cities with a core of bands using non-rock instruments, for different reasons. Right now a lot of it is really underground. Bands like the Decemberists, Flogging Molly and Gogol Bordello are a reflection of what's going on underground and what's been going on undeground for a long time.

NY has a lot of Russian and Jewish immigrants, Asheville's an old-time/bluegrass capital, San Francisco's music scene is incredibly diverse and experimental so there have always been bands using weird instruments there. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of musical exchange between New Orleans and these cities. Many musicians move between them and NOLA on a regular basis.

New Orleans' base of jazz music gives non-rock instruments instant credibility and give people who live here the opportunity to hear music that's not purely run by DJs and rock'n'rollers. It also draws people here who play other instruments because they're respected here. Where are you going to go if you play clarinet? The choices are limited, and New Orleans is one place to go.

Also, there is an eastern European "circus" vibe that many bands have about them, a very Fellini-esque sound. Any idea where that comes from?

Tough, tough question. You're asking about musical traditions that go back to the origins of jazz, vaudeville, Yiddish theater, Gypsy jazz, train-hoppers, punk rock and more. It would take a book even to summarize it, but I'll try.

Some musical styles have a lot in common. Slavic, Jewish and Gypsy music all have a "weird" sound to Western ears, so it fits well with the "weird" vibe a lot of modern freakshow circuses have.

People pick up on music from Eastern Europe by traveling there or meeting street performers who teach songs. It's a very natural progression.

New Orleans attracts weird people. It has an "anything-goes" vibe, especially in the more obscure neighborhoods, though the anything goes clubs have pretty much shut down in the last few years. And the circus attracts weird people who need large, open-minded venues to be able to do their shtick.

Do you see what you are doing, taking a number of disparate elements and putting them together in an artful way a reflection of what New Orleans is doing to itself after the storm?

I hope I don't offend you, but I have to shoot the idea down :-)

I've been playing folk and punk for a long, long time - well before Katrina. Music hybrids are a natural progression of society - jazz was a combination of blues, African and classical music, Salsa combines jazz, Cuban, african and classical, the Rolling Stones mixed blues/r&b with a heavier sound. The list is absolutely endless. It's just what musicians do.

What really is a reflection of New Orleans is the nature of our new songs and lyrics. They present a bleak, dreary, angry vision of how things are in New Orleans and Louisiana right now, with the occasional glimmer of hope.

Various Artists - Miles from India
This is where fusion starts pushing things. Miles Davis may have included some Indian flourishes on Get Up With It, largely because of the effect Indian music was having on rock music at the time, but I think lacing late Miles and the Indian tradition up is being a little too connectivist, even for me.

Fortunately, I think this project is more of an acted-upon lark than a sound anthropological manifesto and is all the better for it. An it'll-sell-at-Starbucks CD. All that aside, the album is pretty good, retrofitting the Bitches Brew/On the Corner funk haze to be performed on Indian instruments and chanting singers. The violin on "It's About Time" is particularly incendiary, going interstellar like John McLaughlin or Jean-Luc Ponty while still holding on to that peculiar thinness of Indian violin, the group giving it a moment of silence in which it can shine.

Miles Davis - Get Up With It
If I'm going to say its name, I should be willing to go there. This is Miles at his best not-really-jazz-anymore state, I think. There are funkier records (On the Corner) , once more in line with acid rock (Jack Johnson) and even more feral Hendrix-inspired wildness (Dark Magus) but Get Up With It is where he gets possibly further away from jazz, sounding more like Italian horror movie band Goblin (they did all those delicious Dario Argento movies) than Miles Davis on the spectral "He Loved Him Madly."

Get Up With It (1972) shows Miles the wolf standing on the precipice of becoming the lizard that emerged 9 years later with the largely flat The Man With the Horn, a low point that led into his final phase. Miles has a claustrophobic atmosphere on many of his electric records, and that exists here, but you get the feeling the heavy studio curtains are starting to part, a knife of blaring sunshine illuminating the dust tumbling in the air.

Like on Riot, Miles is revealing a glimpse of the end here. Perhaps they both have gone out far enough to finally see the big picture and that realization is what snaps them back to earth.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post on Riot. It was misunderstood when it was release but your post is right on target is relating what was behind this album. I write about this album and more in my book Sly: the Lives of Sylvester Stewart and Sly Stone. I hope you'll check it out.