Monday, August 24, 2009

Marky's song #8: Napalm Death - "You Suffer"

No, I’m not kidding.

I seriously considered ending the post there; a ridiculously short post for a ridiculously short song. So, how short is this darn thing, anyway? Wikipedia gives an official length of 1.136 seconds. iTunes claims a length of 0:05, but that includes the dead time between it and the next song on the album. The label of the vinyl single reads a concise (0:01), which was probably the band’s initial intent. But it almost seems pointless to debate the issue.

“Intent” is an interesting word, when you consider how much of a throwaway this track is. In fact, the session that produced this was written off and tossed away by the majority of the participants. Stories about this song – and the album it’s culled from – are the stuff of legend. Albert Mudrian’s book: Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore does a good job collecting stories and documenting the era. (I found earlier chapters in that book far more interesting than later ones, which is an accurate way of describing death metal and grindcore in general.)

This track comes from Napalm Death’s first album, Scum, which is actually split into two separate recording sessions with two different lineups; the only common thread between the two sides is drummer Mick Harris. “You Suffer” is the final song from the first session, which, along with Harris, includes guitarist Justin Broadrick and bassist/vocalist Nik Bullen. The session was initially intended to be a demo, but internal friction caused this version of the band to break up before it could be shopped around. Not expecting Harris to re-form the band with a completely new lineup, Broadrick gave the demo tape away – for free – to Earache label owner Digby Pearson. The rest, as they say, is (improbable) history.

“You Suffer” became quite a curiosity at the time for outsiders. The band always saw the track as some kind of joke, and would often play it 30, 40, 50 times in a row at early live gigs. I guess it could be considered a (very) brief moment of levity among their more politically charged songs. John Peel’s early championing of the band garnered them some more attention from the British media, perhaps culminating bizarrely in the band winding up on the BBC educational television program What’s That Noise? (The show’s title sounds tailor-made for Napalm Death, doesn’t it?)

This is not meant to be a bio of the band; if you’re further interested in the history behind this song, I recommend the above-linked book as well as the band’s first two albums – Scum and From Enslavement To Obliteration. Sadly, at the time, neither of those were distributed in the United States; most Americans didn’t get their first taste of the band until Harmony Corruption – a decent album, but the band had re-vamped its lineup yet again, veered away from grindcore and transmuted into a far less interesting death metal outfit. The development of American underground metal would have been very different had those earlier albums had more widespread availability at the time. Oh well. C'est la vie. Just remember, by the time you finish reading this entry, you could have listened to the song approximately fifty times.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bobby's song #4: "King Medicine" by Jets to Brazil

Before I began writing this entry my general take on the word "emo" was that it was a fashion fad practiced by kids half my age that involved wearing black clothes, having mop-headed haircuts, and walking around with a scowl all the time. Which is kind of what I did when I was that age, only we called it other things back then like "being alternative" or "being a hood". Self-described "emo" music that I had heard in passing over the past few years always made me either laugh or grimace - I could never take it seriously. So I was shocked when I went to Wikipedia (and then to AllMusic) and they listed Jets To Brazil as an "emo" band. I just thought they were an Indie Rock band. And I hate the term "emo".

However, after doing a little more research I began to see how Jets To Brazil could fall under that classification. Especially with regards to lyrical content. From "Emo lyrics are deeply personal, usually either free-associative poetry or intimate confessionals."

This attention to lyrics is what ultimately made orange rhyming dictionary a permanent resident in my car for a number of years in my early-20s. The lyrics sound like they were written by a frustrated novelist. Because they were. For that, and for other reasons Blake Schwartzenbach's lyrics resonated with me. See, back then I was a generally unhappy guy who spent my evenings hanging out in bars getting plastered, trying to write a novel, reading existential philosophy books, and being pretty sure that my heart had been broken beyond repair. Hey, wait - I was so totally emo! It's all making sense now. All that was missing was a studded belt and some horn rimmed glasses.

Jets To Brazil was Schwartzenbach's second band. His first was Jawbreaker which had a decidedly more post-hardcore sound. Jets To Brazil, however, were less punkish and more geared towards the indie-rock crowd. orange rhyming dictionary was their first album and, unfortunately, their best. JTB released two other albums which were very weak (and dreadfully boring) by comparison and then broke up in 2003.

"King Medicine" is probably not the best song on the album, which is full of gems, but it is undoubtedly my favorite for its lyrical content. It spoke to me the loudest during that tumultuous time in my life and so I honor it here.

King Medicine by Jets to Brazil

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Marky's song #7: Friends of Dean Martinez - "Landfall"

I don’t drive, but if I did, Friends of Dean Martinez would be a mandatory portion of all road trip soundtracks. Their music conjures up images of endless journeys through flatlands where the lack of scenery is exactly what makes things so scenic. When I close my eyes I can imagine the constant hum of a solitary car engine as the vehicle rolls along a two-lane highway.

Hailing from Tucson, the band was originally named Friends of Dean Martin, but they were forced to change it at the behest of Mr. Martin’s estate. This turned out to actually be a prescient move; the sound they started with might invoke the image of a reveling, inebriated Martin enjoying the evening, but the sounds they ended up with most certainly did not.

When FoDM first hit the scene, “alternative” music was starting to move away from grunge bombast. Curious listeners had become saturated with fuzz box guitar and were looking for new sounds. “Lounge” music was one of the many styles to fill that gap. But a lot of the stuff was simply too cloying for me. FoDM wasn’t the most egregious offender, but the band didn’t really get interesting until they moved away from copping Martin Denny grooves.

By the time their potential swansong Lost Horizon dropped, the pandering towards the martini-and-tiki-lamp crowd had ended. In its place, they composed dirges to accompany staring out the car window at the continual late night flickering of lines and lights on the highway. (All my wanderlust fantasies inevitably have me sitting in the passenger seat.)

Lost Horizon is a very “dark”-sounding album and this track is the opener. For all the hubbub about moving away from the image of the self-aggrandizing guitar rocker, it’s ironic that their strongest song should “rock” as much as it does and that the focal point is a truly heroic guitar solo. The keyboards shift back and forth between two chords as the song swells up with fretboard runs, climaxing and having a big release several minutes in, only to go back and do it all a second time before closing.

Friends of Dean Martinez - "Landfall"

Listen to this song on headphones with the lights off. Technically, Friends of Dean Martinez still exists, but they haven’t released anything since Lost Horizon, which was put out in 2005. If they truly have split up, they smartly went out on a triumphant note.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ian Songs: #6, Got to Get Cha

"Maceo, I want you to blow." Truer words hath never been spoken (for the next three to five minutes, please believe that to be the case), especially when they leave the lips of Bootsy. But, Maceo and the Horny Horns were far away in the future when the J.B.'s had a mutiny, leaving The Hardest Working Man in Show-Biz to press some of their own wax. The result? Maceo and All the King's Men, a fairly typical offering of turn-of-the-'70s Southern funk, fried in the still-hot oils of Stax & Muscle Shoals. But, goddamn, when the J.B.'s wanted to let a groove simmer 'til a boil, there was next to no one better. Doing Their Own Thing has some burners on it, for sure; which is why Old Man Brown kept it down, suppressing the album's release and any singles from floating to the airwaves. Sad, because Got to Get Cha could've been a contender, a alternate-reality radio staple that could've rubbed elbows with R&B's guilty pleasures. The words are crap, there's no way getting around it, and they don't have a lick of the je ne sais quoi, soulful swing of the Godfather. Yet, the groove is tight and the bridge is transcendent; reaching 'dem heights through a crystal clear guitar that rings in the fact that, at this time, this was the band you wished could be backing you. Of course the snap/clap is as steady as a rock. Of course the four-string brilliantly bounces. Of course the horns punctuate every apostrophe and period. This is the fucking J.B.'s and while the cat was away, goddamn did these guys ever play. Enjoy. Big Daddy Kane did.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Marky's song #6: John Zorn - "Nefesh"

Those of us who are huge fans of John Zorn have a word to describe ourselves: “Zornthologists.” It’s meant as a term of endearment. There’s no codified process or minimum number of albums to purchase in order to cross the line into Zornthology, but those who are there usually don’t try to hide it. Between his solo albums, band projects, collaborations, one-offs and guest appearances, I have round 100 albums connected to him on one way or another. And that that’s only a minor dent into his discography, not to mention that there are certainly much more rabid Zorn fans than me.

Bar Kokhba is not one of his better-known albums. It is named after Simon Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire in the year 135. The revolt was crushed overwhelmingly by the Romans and led to the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Obviously a major event in Jewish history, the Bar Kokhba revolt is also cited as the first significant divergence between Christianity and Judaism.

As you might expect from an album named after an event of such grave emotional import, Bar Kokhba drips with somber spirituality. A double-CD released as part of the “Radical Jewish Culture” series on his own Tzadik label in 1996, the album features various small chamber ensembles. In fact, Zorn doesn’t play on the album at all, being credited solely as a composer. Those familiar with parts of the Masada catalog will recognize some of the themes and find it interesting to hear them out of a jazz context, but – and Zorn has emphatically stated this on many occasions – Masada was never meant to be strictly a “jazz” project.

The point behind the Masada project was for Zorn to write a “book” of melodies. He drew the inspiration for that from Duke Ellington. Duke had a book of songs – not full arrangements, but just main themes. Sometimes it would be nothing more than a couple lines on staff paper. He could then arrange those melodies into full-fledged compositions as the instrumentation dictated. If he needed to arrange it for a piano trio, he could do that. If he needed to arrange it for a 30-piece big band orchestra, he could do that as well. It was the same song, the same melody, but a different context.

Masada plays upon the same idea, but given Zorn’s breadth of musical interests, it doesn’t restrict itself to jazz. Melodies have been re-interpreted by string trios, techno artists and thrash bands. In the case of Bar Kokhba, it’s chamber music. But this track stands out from the rest of the album because it actually is a jazz piece.

John Zorn - "Nefesh"

The trio that plays on this track is John Medeski on piano, Mark Dresser on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. As far as I am aware, this is the only track anywhere that features this specific trio of musicians. A shame, because this song is one of the finest pieces of jazz I’ve heard anywhere, from any time period. The beautifully recorded track is balanced perfectly between the three instruments, each member getting a chance to stand out and shine without ever breaking the heavy mood. This track by itself may not be enough to recommend slogging through two full CDs of minor key chamber music, but it definitely deserves to be pulled out and placed on a pedestal.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Marky's song #5: Public Enemy - "Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man"

I’m sure I don’t need to give you the huge back-story about who Public Enemy is and their impact on the world of hip hop. A friend of mine once joked, “if Public Enemy are the Beatles of rap, then Flavor Flav is George Harrison.” I laughed, but it makes sense, even if there aren’t exact counterparts to each section of the analogy. Chuck D rightfully gets the lion’s share of the attention, being the nominal leader and frontman as well as the chief lyrical contributor, but Flav is more than just a hype-man riding someone else’s coattails; every P.E. album sports two or three solid Flav cuts – he’s never the central figure, but always dependable. Flav’s larger-than-life personality outside the groups has quite the reputation, but don’t take my word for it – let Chuck D tell you in his own words.

Fear of a Black Planet was released after the stellar It Take a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. However, before Fear… made it into stores, Professor Griff (Public Enemy’s Ringo Starr?) was released from the fold over allegations of anti-Semitic remarks in an interview with David Mills of the Washington Times. The veracity of that claim is not the subject here. The flap had the potential to damage P.E.’s rapidly increasing status, but unsurprisingly the group didn’t let the controversy slow them down one bit. The polemics are stronger than ever and the beats are just as solid as they were on Nation of Millions. In fact, Fear of a Black Planet is so strong, it made it into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.

Probably the best-known song off of Fear of a Black Planet is one of Flavor’s: “911 Is a Joke.” The only other Flavor-led track on the album is this one – a hard luck story mostly told from the second person in Flav’s loopy, instantly recognizable rasp. As always, production crew Bomb Squad finds the right backing for the song, sampling both the J.B.s and Bobby Byrd. It’s not coincidence that my interest in Public Enemy declined once Bomb Squad stopped producing their albums. The video is pretty low budget (Chuck D doesn’t even appear in it), but I dig it. This track is a perfect tonic to loosen up to between Chuck’s high strung raps.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Ian Songs: #5, Messin' With the Kid

It's unfair that I have to gaze at '77 through the hazy eye that is everyone else's collective retrospective. When rock exploded into a thousand pieces, it was the burgeoning punk curio that tried to piece everything back together with DIY crazyglue. And, of course, I missed it, born far too late to be caught in the riptide of any wave, barely treading water while being continuously inundated with the high-tides of yesterday. No first come, first served for this music neophyte, I had to creep and crawl my way through the unfamiliar subterrane, gorging myself on whatever thirty-year-old treat made my ears "O"; a blind cave fish just happy to have sustenance, happy to be feeding on something. Sometimes it was nothing but a hold over, something to keep the belly full enough so I could still hunt through the virtual bargain bins of the blogs, pouring over lost ruins looking for gems. Sometimes, though, what I found was gold. Enter Messin' With the Kid.

Amazingly not a cover of the blues near-standard, Messin' With the Kid happened to be the cream of Australia's best known entry to punk's second-wave. The Saints debut crackled with the high-energy, reckless and youthful abandon, and totally scummy sound that all great demos seem to be inherently blessed with. Yet, for all the spitfire aggression, slashed amp distortion, and bratty speedfests that colored the rest of the record, Messin' With the Kid bordered on being a tasteful rock ballad. It's weird. A goddamn anomaly, coming off like Dylan writing for The Damned or something. Underneath the snotty punk sheen is a lazy, summery pop song that gloriously waxes and wanes, building up tension in all the right spots and dropping a delicious and unforgettable hook as the outro. A band shouldn't be this good on a demo. Yet, The Saints were and Messin' provides the evidence that Brisbane's first punks shouldn't be taken at face value. One listen to the brilliant bass that fills in the negative space proves that. Sure, (I'm) Stranded received the glory, and rightfully so, but Messin' With the Kid is the secret crush, the one you wouldn't even divulge during the craziest Jolt-infused sleepovers. Ask, like, Thurston Moore or J. Mascis or something. Or me. I'm drunk.