Sunday, 16 December 2007

'97 mentality: the last stand

Galactic Mystery Solvers is on hiatus for a month of festive cheer. hence this '97 mentality series has to wrap up sharp-ish.


Exhibits V, W, X, Y and Zee

Five of this year's best albums were made by people who made five of 1997's best albums. Longevity kicks ass. I reckon that the 1997 ones were better. But basically this is just a list of ten cracking albums. I expect that'll do. Go and search for them on youtube or something.

Nick Cave
Boatman's Call > Grinderman

Camp Lo
Uptown Saturday Night > Black Hollywood

El-P of Company Flow
Funcrusher Plus > I'll Sleep When You're Dead

Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Forever > 8 Diagrams

Euros Childs of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
Barafundle > The Miracle Inn

Previously on '97 mentality

Saturday, 15 December 2007

covered inglory: the complete top ten

over the past couple of weeks GMS has identified the ten best cover versions of the century so far. we haven't heard them all, and sometimes we weren't concentrating, so they might be wrong. but then again, they might be right.

anyway, here they are, all in one place!

1. easy star allstars - 'no surprises' (radiohead cover, from radiodread)
original post

2. richard hawley - 'some candy talking' (jesus & mary chain cover)
original post

3. ukulele orchestra of great britain - 'wuthering heights' (kate bush cover)
original post

4. joan baez - 'motherland' (natalie merchant cover, from dark chords on a big guitar)
original post

5. bonnie 'prince' billy & tortoise - 'thunder road' (bruce springsteen cover, from the brave and the bold)
original post

6. wondermints - 'the porpoise song' (monkees cover, from the wonderful world of)
original post

7. six organs of admittance - 'thicker than a smokey' (gary higgins cover, from school of the flower)
original post

8. absentee - 'my dead wife / you're the one that i want' (grease cover, from donkey stock)
original post

9. rodrigo y gabriela - 'wish you were here' (pink floyd cover, live)
original post

10. wilco - 'comment (if all men are truly brothers)' (charles wright cover, from kicking television)
original post

Friday, 14 December 2007

covered inglory #10 - wilco 'comment'

a few months ago, sasha frere-jones caused a bloggish furore (no animals or real people were harmed) when he identified a parting of the ways between lascivious, bass-heavy black music and uptight, strangled, funk-free indie. he laid most of the blame on dr. dre and (good lord!) pavement's second drummer. to illustrate the parlous state of music in 2007 he used arcade fire as his favoured sorry-ass lame-o pale-faced whipping-boys. but wilco, whose records have dominated year-end lists and marked the shifting tastes of indie fans for almost fifteen years, could have fitted just as easily. this year's sky blue sky, though one of the best records of 2007 (yup), is entirely devoid of groove, opting instead for stark white album production, splintering guitar noise and cautious, self-conscious lyrics. their previous release, kicking television, was that most-feared expression of chin-stroking jam-band self-indulgence - the double live album.

flying in the face of this manichean musical moan is wilco's version 'comment (if all men are truly brothers)', the final track on kicking television. fans of six degrees of separation (music nerd edn.) will be glad to know that 'comment' was originally recorded by charles wright and the watts 103rd street rhythm band, more famous for 'express yourself', as sampled by dre for NWA (and, earlier this year, by statik selektah, with termanology, talib kweli and consequence).

'comment' is a rich, warm, social-protest soul ballad. its uplifting sentiments are just as mawkish as those of 'wish you were here', though (mercifully) they are far more direct and don't aspire to the status of bong-addled poetry. i'll be in trouble for posting it, as last time i played it in GMS HQ i got shouted at for putting on "plodding earnest crap". it does feature a sleigh-bell solo.

but in its context, coming after more than an hour of wilco's awkward, downbeat indie-prog workouts, it's a redemptive triumph, sending the crowd off with a deliberately overblown sense of solidarity and brotherly love (i think chaps make up the majority of wilco audiences). no matter how far bands like wilco drift from frere-jones' dream of miscegenation, listeners are still drawn in by the same sorts of communal sentiment, and are still listening to black and white music without (too much) prejudice. 'comment' joins the dots. it makes me smile.

wilco - 'comment (if all men are truly brothers' (from kicking television: live in chicago)

buy charles wright

previously on covered inglory

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

martin carthy's wellington concert online

the university of southampton has put martin carthy's 'songs of wellington wars' online for video streaming. it's well worth your time, if you can get past the vice-chancellor's introduction.

for the full gig, go here.

for the lowdown from GMS, head here.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

'97 mentality

1997 vs 2007

Exhibit U

How Master P played basketball in 1997:
seizure-inducing strobes
a gold-plated tank
a gorilla costume
comedy sound effects
people shouting "uhhhhhh"
mind-melting stupidity

How Master P plays basketball in 2007:
grainy black and white film
rural poverty
ku klux klan robes
some borderline-handy no-name guest rappers
belligerent political outrage

previously on '97 mentality

Saturday, 8 December 2007

covered inglory #8 - absentee - 'my dead wife / you're the one that i want'

absentee pitch themselves somewhere between the maudlin restraint of current indie favourites the national and the the lavish melancholy of british veterans the tindersticks. their calling card is to inject a streak of bitter, black humour into this elegant mix, spicing their red-wine-sodden romanticism with references to alcoholic indiscretions and grubby toilet-sex.

both elements work together on 'my dead wife' from 2005's donkey stock ep. the first section is a barely coherent, mumbled fragment from the perspective of a mourner - "some kind of memory, you were beautiful, or at least that's what i recall ... i just need more time". it's subverted - but somehow made even more moving - by the song's sudden transformation into a somnambulant cover of the grease standard 'you're the one that i want'.

there's a seam of darkness in a lot of the sort of late 50s and early 60s pop records that inspired grease, and absentee tap into that tone here. the purity and innocence of their teenage emotions need very little alteration to come across as an unsettled, delusional single-minded statements of intent. phil spector's brassy, grandiose productions covered a weird, deranged, reputedly abusive temperament. many of the beatles' early songs of innocent devotion contain a vicious, possessive, misogynistic streak. in buddy holly's moral universe, favour and faithlessness are matters of life and death, or are at least for the line between sanity and unmitigated, unpredictable desperation.

innumerable am-dram productions of grease have bled any possible tension out of 'you're the one that i want', and to a great degree, absentee's cover works as broad, grim humour. but it also goes some way to reclaiming the weird falseness of the original, a late-70s pastiche sung by ludicrous non-school-age hollywood stars, one an aerobics instructor, the other a balding scientologist, for a middle-aged hen-party audience.

absentee - 'my dead wife'
(from donkey stock)

john travolta & olivia newton-john 'you're the one that i want'

previously on covered inglory

Friday, 7 December 2007

covered inglory #7: six organs of admittance 'thicker than a smokey'

sometimes, and only very occasionally, something unexpectedly poignant appears on an album's sleevenotes (no, i don't mean "peace to my dead homies"). on slint's spiderland there was an appeal for female vocalists to get in touch for auditions - something that never happened, as slint disbanded and committed themselves to mental institutions on completing the harrowing record. i'd love to know what they'd have sounded like with a proper singer.

a similarly poignant story, but with a happier outcome, appeared on the sleeve to psych-folk outfit six organs of admittance's 2005 album school of the flower. lead organ-admitter ben chasny put out a missing persons appeal for gary higgins, the author of the haunting blues number 'thicker than a smokey', whose whereabouts since serving two years for possession of marijuana in the early 1970s were unknown. like other recently-rediscovered freak-folk progenitors like vashti bunyan and karen dalton, higgins had released some tantalisingly brilliant music in the early 1970s, before retreating into obscurity and ebay notoriety.

in an age when every artist is a potential myspace buddy, and every public indiscretion is memorialised on youtube, higgins' disappearance had a strange, romantic allure, particularly given the mysterious, mystical concerns of 'thicker than a smokey', with its haunting refrain of "what are you gonna do, young man? where are you gonna go?". the search for higgins also had a refreshingly dated and quixotic feel: chasny and drag city head-honcho zach cowie got a tip-off that higgins was still in his native connecticut, and decided to send a letter to every gary higgins in the region.

eventually they got lucky. unlike the drifter in 'thicker than a smokey', higgins hadn't headed down to mexico. he'd done his time, settled down to earn a living, occasionally playing music in local venues, never expecting to be rediscovered. he replied to cowie, leading to a few live appearances with six organs and a reissue of red hash, a beautiful, calm set of hippie spirituals, which stand alongside like-minded projects such as bunyan's just another diamond day, chris bell's i am the cosmos, david crosby's if i could only remember my name and skip spence's oar.

six organs of admittance - 'thicker than a smokey'
(from school of the flower)

gary higgins - 'thicker than a smokey' (from red hash)

interview with higgins at splendidzine

previously on covered inglory

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

the way we "wire"

for those of you "addicts" "fiending" for a "fix" of the wire, here's a "pre-up", wherein we head "back in the day". "rad".

collins & harlan - 'back, back, back to baltimore'
(from edison cylinder recordings, 1905-12)

omar little, 1985

proposition joe, 1962

mcnulty meets moreland, 2000

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

live review - martin carthy sings songs of the wellington wars @ southampton university

long before bob dylan realised the potential of playing around with identity, arthur wellesley, 1st duke of wellington, was shape-shifting his way through seven decades of british cultural history. he was a young officer rising through the ranks in india, a military hero who "liberated europe" on the fields of waterloo, a disastrous and short-lived prime minister, an unshakeable presence at the horse guards as commander-in-chief, an irascible elder statesman holding court at apsley house on hyde park corner (aka no.1, london), a pillar of the establishment who came out of retirement to defend london against chartist protesters in 1848, and a focus for patriotic sentiment on his death in 1852. he also got his picture painted by goya (see above) and pioneered lucrative product endorsement deals, putting his name on wellington boots, beef wellington and thousands of british pubs. as the 'iron duke' he had an excellent rap nom de plume. but he is not to be confused with duke ellington, who does jazz.

southampton university runs an annual wellington lecture. this year, in acknowledgement of wellington's pop-cultural presence, the lecture was given over to a musical performance by elder statesman of british folk, martin carthy. wittily self-deprecating and humble, carthy foreswore attempts at cultural or historical analysis, instead giving centre-stage to his selection of folk songs about the experience of war, with their fleeting glimpses of the duke. the performances are faltering, given that many of the traditionals have been unearthed from folksong collections specially for the lecture, but this makes the process all the more compelling, as carthy breathes life into songs that were collected at the turn of the last century from singers old enough to remember the hungry '40s, and to have known veterans of waterloo.

billed as a solo performance, carthy receives accompaniment from wife norma waterson, and from norma's bluff, flat-cap-wearing brother mike, one of the finest living exponents of traditional yorkshire finger-in-one-ear untutored folk-singing. norma handles a couple of solo tracks, giving a female perspective, with songs about the experience of the women who followed the military baggage train across europe, and those who waited at home. carthy mixes styles, genres and subjects, throwing in a thomas hardy poem, snatches of 'whiskey in the jar' (in english and irish cadences) , and songs featuring wellington's military and naval colleagues such as nelson. the officer class, from the perspective of the common soldiers singing the songs, is all-seeing but also ignorant of the soldiers' plight, sympathetic in their apportioning of rum, yet heartless in their cruel discipline, symbols of heroic valour and patriotism, but also of cowardice, self-interest and privilege.

carthy's populism, presenting the experience of war from the wide range of perspectives that the song-book offers, is also the lecture's greatest weakness: like dylan in the current biopic, wellington remains an elusive figure, sometimes entirely absent in the selections, sometimes glimpsed fleetingly. carthy admits frustration at being unable to find any songs about the duke's indian and peninsular campaigns, and wellington's second-life as a political hate-figure receives no reference, although there is no shortage of satirical song-sheet material on this period. perhaps a reliance on traditional collections (such as vaughan williams' work in hampshire and dorset in the 1900s) means that the songs dealing in universal themes have tended to survive in the sung folk tradition, while pointed satires have followed a different trajectory, aired only in more conventional academic settings. but this is an observation more than a criticism: carthy's skill as an interpreter and performer allows the audience to dwell on the easily-ignored connections between present and past. at a time of WAR, folks!

lal waterson - 'the welcome sailor'
(from the definitive watersons collection)

bonus video: martin carthy & dave swarbrick - 'byker hill'

Monday, 3 December 2007

covered inglory #6: wondermints - 'the porpoise song'

currently brian wilson's backing band, the wondermints made their name recreating the sound of the beach boys, circa pet sounds. what elevated them above similarly myopic musical revivalists like ocean colour scene (a 1990s bluesbreakers) or cat power (currently failing to update dusty in memphis) was their nerdy love of the sounds of mid-60s LA, wantonly and unconditionally uncool but all the more joyous as a result. plus, they had the ability to write songs that could rub shoulders with the originals.

2000's wonderful world of the wondermints made the logical step to a covers album. the band recorded faithful, starry-eyed covers of familiar songs by abba and pink floyd, as well as several more obscure tracks, with the emphasis on cheery, cheesy pop rather than nuggets-approved classicism, and one of their own - 'tracy hide', possibly the best of the bunch.

opening track 'the porpoise song' was originally written by carole king, and recorded by the monkees, who used it in the opening sequence of their crackpot film project head, which features mickey dolenz jumping off a bridge after disrupting an opening ceremony. the wondermints' version is pretty much exactly the same as the original, but this time it doesn't matter. everything about both songs is brilliant.

wondermints - 'the porpoise song' (monkees cover) (from wonderful world of ...)

monkees - 'the porpoise song'

previously on covered inglory

covered inglory #5: bonnie prince billy & tortoise - 'thunder road'

will oldham's collaborative covers album with chicago's beard-stroking raised-eyebrow post-rock jazz-boffins tortoise came in for some stick on its release in 2006, especially for their cover of bruce springsteen's 'thunder road'.

detractors complained that oldham's strangled, ghostly vocal performance, and tortoise's decision to replace the original's surging piano rolls with sterile guitar lines leeched all the passion and urgency out of the song. round gms' house, we reckon that's the only interesting way they could have taken it. the original 'thunder road' wasn't a straight-up, Born In the USA-style anthem - it gestured towards that, but the voice-and-piano arrangement reined in the more bombastic tendencies, while springsteen's lyrics never made it clear whether the speaker believed in his dreams of automotive freedom and redemption in "the promised land", or whether he's consciously "praying in vain", already aware that "we ain't that young any more".

as springsteen says in his storytellers performance, 'thunder road' is an invitation. the speaker tries to play up the attractions of his romantic vision, but the downsides and the risks keep edging in, and "the ride it ain't free". oldham and tortoise recognise that it's this dramatic tension that makes the song great. instead of replicating the same tension, they introduce new dimensions. like nick cave's reading of 'by the time i get to phoenix', their version has a bleakly ironic and fatalistic edge. the delivery points up the hollowness of springsteen's orbison fantasies, playing up the sinister qualities of lines like "i just can't face myself alone ... you know just what i'm here for", while still making those fantasies feel like the singer's "one last chance to make it real", if only the "scared" addressee would "show a little faith".

doing a springsteen cover is today's passport to hype machine plays and pitchfork approval. his songs have characters, drama, big hooks and an air of authenticity. but of the hundreds released since 2000, this feels like the only completely successful re-imagining. to illustrate the point, included below is badly drawn boy's version - faithful, reverent, pretty - but this is the one that really leeches the spirit out of the original. whose offer would you take? eh? EH? etc.

bonnie 'prince' billy & tortoise - 'thunder road' (from the brave and the bold)

bruce springsteen - 'the story of thunder road' (live on vh-1 storytellers, original on born to run)

badly drawn boy - 'thunder road' (buy some badly drawn boy)

bruce springsteen - 'thunder road' (live 1976)

previously on covered inglory

Saturday, 1 December 2007

covered inglory #4: joan baez - 'motherland'

looks like the polls closed over at berkeley place for cover version of the century. but none of the top twenty coincided with anything i was planning to post, so on we go:

joan baez has spent more than four decades covering other folks' material. she's pretty good at it. her 2003 album, dark chords on a big guitar saw the 60-something-year-old covering songs by no depression-era alt. country songwriters like gillian welch, ryan adams, josh ritter and steve earle. the album stood out amongst a slew of old-legend-tackles-hip-songwriter LPs through its occasional political nods (including earle's bittersweet election-time lament 'christmas-time in washington' and a dedication to michael moore), and also because of its scrupulous avoidance of novelty selections, and because of baez' voice, still as pure and dignified as ever, but with a depth and warmth that's as affecting as johnny cash's geriatric croaking.

these three elements are at their strongest on baez' version of natalie merchant's 'motherland'. i'd always dismissed merchant as a hippy-skirted, doc-martens-toting early-90s also-ran, and her band 10,000 maniacs as grunge-era sleeper-blokes who fitted snugly into their role as house-band on shows like sabrina the teenage witch. this cover version suggests i might have been wrong - but then again, baez' ryan adams and steve earle covers are much better than anything adams or earle ever managed, so who knows? informed, informative ....

joan baez - 'motherland' (natalie merchant cover, from dark chords on a big guitar)

more fun

seriously strange, here's baez and GMS guest-blogger phil spector doing 'you've lost that loving feeling' (original by tom cruise), introduced by someone who looks like donovan. it doesn't quite work, but it is A CURIOSITY!!!!

and here's an excellent muppet show appearance:

Part 1 - Joan arrives dressed as Cam'ron
Part 2 - 'Honest Lullaby'
Part 3 - Joan does her Don Corleone impression, hilarity ensues

Part 4 - 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' (with an interlude teaching rats about Gandhi)
Part 5 - 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?'

previously on covered inglory