Spacek: Vintage Hi-Tech (2003)


Shake your funky exoskeleton.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2001 the London-based electronica group Spacek released their first album of restrained and futurist R&B called Curvatia. Championed by a small but feverish lot they returned in 2003 with an even more subtle and skeletal recording, the click’n’blissed Vintage Hi-Tech.

Ever see shapes in the clouds and wonder how long before the wind dismantles them? That’s the fragile sound of Spacek. Using clicks for snares and clacks for kick drums, Spacek’s production technique is to record as few instruments as possible while using almost no sounds that one would associate with music.

Hums from escalators, taps from a cell phone, the modern sounds of a highly wired urban society invade the tones, much as a wooden flute reinterpreted the sounds of a singing bird way back in the day of the hunter-gatherers.

Offsetting this foundation of quiet inorganicness is the burgundy smooth voice of leader Steve Spacek. Barely singing above the volume of a golf commentator, his delicate soul crooning is the anchor that gives the songs their barest wisp of shape.

The tunes don’t ebb and flow as much as they fade in and out. The syncopated swing beats of “Motion Control” bob and weave like a street baller, with barely audible woodpecker percussion. It’s clinical and sexy, like a forensics lab with a singles bar.

“Time” flows smoothly like the weightless movement of a glass elevator, every floor revealing new gorgeous vocal layers and funky deep ends. On the jagged side, “Amazing” sounds like monkeys firing zap guns during a tango in a Chinatown dry goods shop.

The shuffling “Light Up My Life” orbits around mirrored sound puddles of electric piano. Bass shows its face now and again like a hot air balloon that occasionally hits the ground, bouncing off doo-wop vocals and synthetic chicken clucks.

Over an accompaniment of toy piano and thump, “123 Magic” distills the childhood glow of awareness into a wafer-thin mint of perception:

I’m gonna disappear
right before your eyes
Then I’m gonna reappear
make you feel surprised
123 I’m gone
you know I won’t be long
Gone to another place
spend a little time in space
All in a zone
you wanna come with me
I can take you there
you can fake it there
I’ll find ways for you
Cause I can see right through

A song about being barely there, performed as if it was barely there. Clever.

THE FALLOUT: Turns out the sales were barely there as well. Vintage Hi-Tech was well-received in dance circles but pretty much ignored everywhere else. They have yet to record a follow-up, but Steve Spacek released a solo album in 2005.

Vintage Hi-Tech is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Romantic dance tunes for pumping out of your hovercraft, Vintage Hi-Tech gently dropkicks soul music into the next century.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Muddy Waters’ sells out to the young’uns.

Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Wise Guy (1982)


Where your mai-tai is always refreshed.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Oh Europe! You lover of American culture you! How thankful we are that you support jazz and techno and comic books and interpretive dance cause we here in America need a helping hand to validate our own greatness! We love us some Hendrix but damn if he didn’t have to go to England to get a leg up.

This outright dismissal of homemade brilliance happens less in New York, and its downtown music scene of the early ’80s is where the zoot-suited Kid Creole and The Coconuts made their mark. Their revelatory blend of swinging salsa, frenetic funk and big band Broadway show tunes populated their 1981 album Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, which found only a tiny audience. For their next album they turned up the gloss without losing the crunch, resulting in the dazzling Wise Guy.

An audio vacation cruise to exotic unknown locales, each cut shimmers and shakes with lusty abandon. Much like the Kid himself all the songs are danceable, humorous, nuanced and oh-so-sharp. The calypso and soca-fueled “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” cleverly shows off the lighter side of pre-DNA paternity testing (“cause if I was in your blood, then you wouldn’t be so ugly”).

The romantic and dangerous “The Love We Have” mixes cold strings and warm horns into a frothy jungle drink of icy confusion. “I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby” features a subdued swagger, its rippling muted guitars supporting a laundry list of the Kids’ liaisons.

Straight outta the speakeasy slides “Stool Pigeon”, a gangster-hard cautionary tale of ratting out to the Feds:

If you wanna squeal, said the FBI
We can make a deal, make it worth your while
So he told it all and in return
He got a credit card and a Thunderbird
He got a spanking new identity
And a condo down in Miami
He bought a plane, a boat and jewelry
But he couldn’t buy any company

Deep grooves with dark themes cloaked in confectionary glaze, how could anyone resist?

THE FALLOUT: Like Jimi Hendrix and James Baldwin, Kid Creole and the Coconuts blew up in England big time. Retitled Tropical Gangsters, it was a top five album, produced three hit singles and stayed on the charts for nine months. But back in the States it fell off the chart faster than a baby bird out of a malformed nest. Except for the rare dance hit, Kid Creole and the Coconuts never broke through to most of America.

Wise Guy is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Groundbreaking in its world music synthesis, Wise Guy dances alone.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Click into the future with Spacek.

Cody ChesnuTT: The Headphone Masterpiece (2002)


The Low Fidelity Theory.

Purchase this album:

THE SCENE: In 2000 Cody ChesnuTT’s band The Crosswalk were dropped from their label without ever releasing an album. Where many folks would respond by shutting themselves off in their room for a good long sulk, ChesnuTT went to his room with a four-track recorder and cut the thirty-six tracks that make up the exuberant The Headphone Masterpiece.

Back in the day (and by this I mean before computers came with free audio software) inexpensive four-track recorders were the must-have item for all working musicians. No matter where inspiration struck, within seconds you could capture your musical ramblings for posterity. Eventually many a musician would get the urge to recreate their intimate demos by shelling out thousands of dollars for a proper studio recording, where the unfamiliar surroundings would ensure a soulless, sterile facsimile of a once great performance.

ChesnuTT’s brilliant move was to completely ignore this urge and release his recordings as is, complete with tape hiss, background noise and the occasional bum note. Headphone has ninety minutes of songs as catchy as a food-borne virus, its length providing an extra-large visit with ChesnuTT’s extra-large love and sex-fueled persona.

Like a friendly waiter at a down-home diner he provides comfort-food helpings of ’60s style rockers (the surf garage-y “Upstarts in a Blowout” and “Look Good in Leather), soul-man electronica ( the ominous “The World is Coming To My Party”) and folk-gospel ballads (the sad organ pleading of “She’s Still Here”). With his unfeasibly large ego, flexible tenor and dark humor he begs for forgiveness in the nicotine withdrawal anthem “Somebody’s Parent”, and gets jealous of his infant son in his own damn lullaby (No worries/No stress/You lucky motherfucker) in “Daddy’s Baby”.

In the original, shambling version of “The Seed”, ChestnuTT compares musical genre-breaking to primal infidelity:

I don’t beg
FROM no rich man
And I don’t scream, and kick,
when his shit don’t fall in my hands, man
Cuz I know how to STEAL
Fertilize another against my lover’s will
I lick the opposition cuz she don’t take no pill
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-no dear
You’ll be keeping my legend alive
I push my seed in her push for life
Its gonna work because I’m pushin’ it right
If Mary drops my baby girl tonight
I would name her Rock-N-Roll

Even his indulgences are interesting, such as the way-too-short “Batman vs. Blackman”, the never-really started “Setting the System” and the warped-in-progress “ So Much Beauty in the Subculture”.

Ambitious? Oh heck yeah.

THE FALLOUT: Cody ChesnuTT was a media sensation in 2003, appearing in an unprecedented amount of high-profile media outlets normally out of reach for such an unknown and unclassifiable musician. He also had a minor radio hit with “The Seed 2.0”, an muscular re-recording with The Roots. Oddly, The Headphone Masterpiece never sold as well as his notoriety would lead one to believe, and in 2006 I had a difficult time finding a store that stocked it. And I live in a college town.

Cody ChesnuTT has yet to record a followup.

The Headphone Masterpiece is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

In a modern world where nearly every musical note we hear has been placed and altered with diamond-cutting precision, an album that ignores thirty years of recording advancements is downright heretical. But top-notch songwriting and performances trump sonic clarity any day of the year, and The Headphone Masterpiece proves that point admirably.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Kid Creole and The Coconuts get wise.

Augustus Pablo/King Tubby: King Tubbys meets Rockers Uptown (1975)


The Low End Reality.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: To my sixteen-year old nephew Star Wars has always existed, whereas I distinctly remember life before Darth Vader. By the same token I don’t remember a time when dub music didn’t exist, as its melted beat-eat-eat-EAT-EAT-EAT has always been a part of my listening experience.

Dub was created in the late ‘60s by Jamaican producer King Tubby, who daringly dropped lead singers in and out of their own recordings while bathing instruments in milky delays and boxy distortion. It was an instant, massive hit and much pillaged sound.

Meanwhile, Jamaican producer and musician Augustus Pablo was gaining major international respect due to his mastery of the melodica, a child’s instrument that looks like the love child of a plastic flute and a toy piano. In 1975 he paired with King Tubby to record and remix tracks that became the landmark King Tubbys meets Rockers Uptown.

Like a jungle predator, Rockers Uptown gives the listener heightened sensory powers. The bass is ALL bass, no high-end, no mid-range, just strong, sweet deep bass. Cymbals are ALL treble, sneaky and clicky. Every other sound is time shifted, dissolving at the moment of recognition, like the faded memory of a dead loved one.

“Keep On Dubbing” has a watery drunken piano and a smoky horn section gait that’s akin to traveling along the island, onward and inward, hot like the Jamaican sun. The slow rubbery vibe continues in the scratch percussion of “555 Dub St”. and the slo-mo dishwasher drums of “Satta Dub”.

Pablo’s melodica notes float like bubbles through the air in “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown”, its childlike innocence wafting along the ominous rhythms. Hollow drums ping-pong double time into infinity, guitars are delayyyyyed and pop up like muscle tremors.

The ghost vocals of reggae singer Jacob Miller haunt “Each One Dub”. His refrain “Tomorrow will not be the same same same same…” dissipates into a wall of wet organ notes.

Since all of these songs started with such strong compositions, the dub versions manage to create their seductive druggy magic with a minimum of gimmickry, and a maximum of head-bopness.

THE FALLOUT: Rockers Uptown was a watershed album upon its release, catapulting Augustus Pablo into one of the leading lights of reggae music. Alas he was overshadowed by Bob Marley internationally, and this album had little presence outside of reggae circles.

King Tubbys meets Rockers Uptown is available worldwide from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

An art form that only could exist with the advent of multitracking, dub is the first post-modern music genre and is the godfather of hip-hop, electronica and ambient music. King Tubbys meets Rockers Uptown is perhaps its finest hour.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: A masterpiece for your headphones.