THE SCENE: Having recorded over one hundred albums in a forty year span, many of them self-released only at his concerts, Sun Ra’s entire canon defines obscure. As a turban-and-robe-wearing, Egyptology-loving outer space enthusiast, his oddball status within jazz circles kept many music fans from taking him or his music seriously. Claiming a birthplace of Saturn, he nevertheless drew attached to his adopted hometown of Birmingham, Alabama and in 1965 he recorded an homage to it entitled The Magic City.
Ra and his band the Arkestra were highly skilled swing musicians, which may explain why their transition into free jazz remains listenable. The title track, nearly half an hour in length, has a dozen movements that could serve as a miniature Sun Ra biography. It begins with a spooky buzzing that’s reminiscent of 1950s alien arrival films. A lattice of stratospheric flutes simulate the wonderment of a new civilization. One can also visualize the growth of modern industry, the vertigo of skyscrapers, the joy of walking your pet in the park, and the madness of traffic jams, all within the rising and falling of the instrumental moods.
“The Shadow World” is a night full of travel where the city never sleeps. Drums pop like oil in a skillet, horns circle like birds around a building. “The Abstract Eye”, appearing in two takes, features wonderfully expressive bowed bass that sounds not unlike the opening and closing of twenty-foot zippers.
THE FALLOUT: Barely known outside of hardcore jazz fans, The Magic City sold poorly, although massive sales were not the point of Sun Ra’s musical experiments at all. Still, many of his contemporaries borrowed his ideas, both musically (Art Ensemble of Chicago, Funkadelic) and presentationally (Earth, Wind & Fire), and received fat accolades while Ra remained a fringe artist nearly until his death in 1993.
Ironically for such an historically hard-to-find album, The Magic City is now available worldwide from such retailers as Amazon, and you can hear tracks below:
A landmark of improvisational music, The Magic City helped redirect the limits of modern composition and still sounds contemporary, forty years after its recording.
NEXT WEEK: Tackhead reformulates and gets the Axe.
THE SCENE: In the 1980s Los Angeles fixtures Fishbone were one of the first ska-influenced bands to net a major-label deal, yet creative control was not a part of their contract. Producer David Kahne buffed and honed their more commercial songs to a pristine polish, which was a major shift from their ruggedly eccentric live material. After three years of negotiation they convinced their label that they could self-produce, resulting in 1991’s psychedelically stunning The Reality of My Surroundings.
Normally a seven-piece band, Fishbone strived for audio maximilism, cramming most songs with orchestra-level layers of Technicolor instrumentation and agressive melodicism. They sounded like a band suddenly freed from oppression, and the theme of surviving through hard times flavors every track.
“Fight The Youth” explodes with curlicues of metallic guitar set to “stun”. Instruments slash and thrust like an open pack of switchblades, daring you to approach them. This isn’t the sunny funny goofy group from 1988’s Truth And Soul. This Fishbone is politically aware and incredibly pissed off.
The inner-city fury of “So Many Millions” slams you like a newbie in a prison riot. Skittery drums anchor funky swells of sound, as if danger is rising up behind you. Gangs of vocals moan over insistent guitar solos and the song doesn’t stop as much as it passes out from all its expended energy.
The indentured servitude anthem “Housework” conjures up a mythical 1920s New Orleans juke joint, full of tinkly piano and muffled horns. Yet its continual beat changing — from old-jack swing to new-time waltz — keeps it in the now.
Control and the loss thereof haunt both the sadly melancholic “Those Days Are Gone” and the radioactive carnival ride of “Behavior Control Technician”:
Children runaway from the torturistic ways Children still resist from the powers that persist Will you shut up and sit still I think you should obey Having very few rights we cannot communicate
Train my brain to work the way you want me to Don’t question authority see Be a little zombie that agrees with you You are strapped with a double standard cup In a battle you won’t win And when it’s over we’re gonna dance your memory away
Sheltering will restrict your baby’s mind
Over nothing but African drums, “Junkies Prayer” recites a different cracked-out poem in each ear while a gritty sample of a cheesy laugh track floats in and out of the mix. It’s both humorous and devastating, as is the entire album.
THE FALLOUT: The kinetic first single “Sunless Saturday” helped propel Reality to become Fishbone’s highest charting, largest selling and most critically beloved album. But all success is relative, and after fourteen years it has yet to reach gold status. One album later Fishbone was dropped by their label and lost half of their original members.
Reality is available at Amazon and you can listen to tracks here:
An artistic tour de force, The Reality of My Surroundings’ intense and well-crafted performances deserves a better fate than what it received.
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: Sun Ra, the original Black departure artist, shows us the “Magic”.
Let’s make a concept album, where the concept is me.
Purchase this album: Amazon
THE SCENE: In 1988 Terence Trent D’Arby rocketed from nowhere to become the artist of the moment. His debut album Introducing The Hardline sold millions of records on both sides of the Atlantic and his single “Wishing Well” went to number one in England and America. His musical stock-in-trade was Sam Cooke-styled R&B rave-ups, and in classic R&B mode he mostly sang about women. He was also quite cocky about his musical talents and gave great interviews about his utter, utter brilliance.
But that same year he met his idol Brian Wilson and sang on Wilson’s first solo album. Brian Wilson hadn’t created a complete album since 1966 when he composed The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the original rock’n’roll departure album. While working with a man who represented the zenith of music freedom, D’Arby must have sensed that this was time to ask, no, demand complete artist control for his next album. And so he set off to create (deep breath now) Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh: A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction.
T.T.D.N.F.N.F:A.S.O.L.F.H & D. represents D’Arby’s state of mind circa 1989. “I’m concerned with the fate of mankind” he seemed to say, “as well as maintaining my stature as King Of All Macks”. And as the sole composer, arranger, producer and primary musician, it’s truly his world.
“Declaration: Neither Fish Nor Flesh” begins with silence, lots of it. A good half minute passes before any sound is audible and then it’s a slow bloom of liquid guitar fuzz and tuned feedback while D’Arby low-talks about being neither fish nor flesh. In “I Have Faith In These Desolate Times” he shares his world optimism over nothing but the delicate plinking of a koto water harp. It has the lilting spirit of a unicorn gallivanting through the forest, at least until the end where it completely turns into a “James Brown meets Foetus” groove.
D’Arby’s precision arrangement skills are evident in the next piece, “It Feels So Good To Love Someone Like You”. It’s a masterwork of composition as he creates a dreamy exotic island from flutes, sitar drones, waterfall sounds and whale samples, and he powers down his usual hard-charging vocal attack into “caress” mode. It’s the song by which to slowly eat honeyed fruit off your lover’s hand.
Quite unexpectedly D’Arby pulls off a quintessentially contemporary sounding pop song. “Billy Don’t Fall” is the hit single that never was, perhaps because it’s a pop tune about AIDS and gay tolerance, recorded back in 1989 when AIDS was considered a karmic death sentence:
Billy was a young boy Who’s fate did decree That he would like only other boys So being with a boy came to him naturally Billy was a green boy His thoughts so naive He wondered why he was so victimised And his fear brought him close to me suddenly But Billy my friend Don’t fall in love with me I’m not that kind of guy But I’ll stand by your side If you need me to be
The album’s centerpiece is “This Side of Love”, a bass-free classic soul carnival ride with train-track tension that gives the feeling it could fall apart any moment, much like love itself! (Man he’s good). Although this train is essentially just guitar and drums, it features cameo appearances by nearly every other instrument in existence, as if they were standing outside the gate and waving at the song as it passed by. Lyrically he’s wondering how he even got into this situation:
We’re on a roundabout whirl of scorn The demons are smiling and the angels snoring I feel like a stepchild Caesar that’s been Beaten and bruised to please her Wearing a rusted ring of thorns What have I done to piss the Gods off (To end up on) This side of Love?
The Alice-in-Funkyland style crescendos with “Roly Poly”. Double-time drums run backward throughout the song, which combine with shimmering strings and wordless background crooning to maintain an intoxicating sense of dizziness. D’Arby layers on the vocals till it reaches madness level, and then he keeps adding other rewind sounds until you just submit to its power. He also beats on a cardboard box, just because he can.
Neither Fish Nor Flesh is exceptionally well-arranged and mixed, and does provide proof that TTD was nearly as talented as he had been claiming.
THE FALLOUT: His egotistical pushiness had already made him enemies at his record label, who didn’t hear a hit single and withdrew nearly all promotional support. D’Arby also fought to have Fish released during the competitive Christmas season, which all but assured the album would hit the stores dead on arrival. As a result he didn’t release a follow-up album for four years.
Neither Fish Nor Flesh is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:
Self-indulgence has rarely sounded so charming. See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: A.R. Kane brings the ruckus into shoegazer culture.
THE SCENE: In 1993 hip-hop duo New Kingdom released the lo-fi and poetic Heavy Load during the dawn of Death Row Records “G-Funk era”. Although it was critically well received Heavy Load wasn’t remotely gangsta and thus attracted little attention from the gangsta-buying public. Undaunted, partners Nosaj and SebStop spent three years crafting their followup, the hickory-smoked masterpiece Paradise Don’t Come Cheap.
Reckless and scorching, it’s an hour-long ride in the passenger seat of a ramshackle big rig on the hottest day of the year, and you’re all out of lemonade. Musically thick and vast it blends live half-speed hiphop beats with all sorts of pedal steel guitars, organs and dust. That’s right, dust. I don’t how one records the sound of microscopic layers of sediment but it’s on every track and it sounds fantastic.
Both Nosaj and SebStop don’t rap as much as rasp over the tracks, as if Tom Waits and Ol’ Dirty Bastard got drunk and planned a road trip, evidenced by the first song “Mexico or Bust”:
Mexico is callen me and damn if it ain’t all in me. To pack my bags and grab a crate. Ain’t nuthin better than an unplanned escape. Hell ain’t catchin up to me no way. I’m taken backroads riding side of the bus.
Wavin at runaways. Wanderlust has got us. Both lookin for a better day.
The guitars sound like lazy rattlesnakes uncoiling in the noonday sun as the drums lurch over a slowed down Texas-two step beat. Amazing.
The title track “Paradise Don’t Come Cheap” is a theme song in search of a movie, with its 007-esque spy horns and its own referencing of cinema desires:
Rented one bedroom upstairs in the attic. Off the wall murphy style bed. Old black and white read nuthin but static. Caliber she lay like a lady side my head. Whisper in my ear justify my bad habits. Mexican Gold had me sinkin in the mattress. Careful what you wish for cuz it just might happen. As strange as it looks..the stranger it seem. It feels as if I’d been stuck inside a movie screen.
Lyrically the songs are about changing ones’ scenery, whether its surviving Armageddon (“Horse Latitudes”), traveling to outer space (“Journey To The Sun) or merely being “Suspended In Air”, all delivered by a unique and gritty flow that sounds ageless and primordial. On “Terror Mad Visionary” they come across like outlaws transmitting secret directions over a cheap AM radio, while on “Unicorns Were Horses” they testify like preachers stuck in an overly hot revival tent.
Their unique voices and twisted poetry cuts through the swamp of dusky sonics, which is no easy feat. At any given time all the turntable scratches, metal power chords and echoed beats merge into one pulsating, throbbing mass of sound. The sound of escaping from Hell, or perhaps escaping to Hell.
THE FALLOUT: It was a hit with alternative rock critics, who get their records for free. MTV gave “Mexico or Bust” a few spins but Paradise Don’t Come Cheap went mostly ignored by the public at large. In 1998 their label, Gee Street, was acquired by V2 and many artists were, um, dropped. But in 2005 New Kingdom finally announced plans to record their follow-up. Yay!
Paradise Don’t Come Cheap is out of print worldwide except for Japan, where they’ve always had an appreciation for odd music. If you don’t feel like paying import prices, used CD versions are easy to find, like right here. It makes great traveling music. You can also listen to samples here:
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: TV On The Radio infiltrates indie rock by wielding the power of electronic doo-wop.
THE SCENE: By 1973 keyboardist Herbie Hancock had recorded ten albums with Miles Davis, including the historic free-jazz sessions of Bitches Brew. That recording must have of woken up his inner freak-child because his own music started to steadily mutate away from traditional song structures toward dense aural sculptures, light on hooks but ultra-heavy on grooves and atmosphere. Hancock’s future of the funk also used a literal ton of bleeding-edge synthesizers, mostly tweaked to produce unearthly bleeps, blops and, er, pings.
After recording three albums of challenging and poorly selling releases for Warner Brothers, Hancock and his band Mwandishi moved to Columbia Records and unleashed Sextant, a fresh blend of African polyrhythms, melodic brass and layer after layer of tripped-out keyboard sounds.
“Rain Dance” begins with, well, imagine the sound of water slowly drip, drip, dripping onto the metal floor of an empty submarine. This submarine then suddenly drops 20,000 leagues beneath the sea of shrieking horn stabs, switches on the acoustic bass propulsion jets and cruises through the waters of electronic jellyfish and percussive sea critters.
The journey continues on land with “Hidden Shadows”, an arid trek through a rocky terrain populated with dive-bombing synthetic mosquitoes and bubbling percussion volcanoes that erupt drum geysers without warning. The rhythm section gallops quickly as if they are being chased by unknown assailants. Keyboard smears and horn solos hang in the air like angry buzzards circling its prey.
“Hornets” takes you deep inside the rainforest of wild, untamed instrumentation. It’s a twenty minute battle for jungle supremacy as every musician fights for control of the song, trying to ride the humid wave of its primacy while avoiding being sucked into the undertow. The horns and drums maintain a valiant catfight but Hancock’s wall of synths eventually outflanks all comers with a continual venom of exotic textures, both oppressive and effervescent.
Nowadays we’d call this music electronica or ambient, but in 1973 it was called “an unlistenable mound of dung that’s best ignored”.
THE FALLOUT:Sextant didn’t sell and the resulting tour was not well attended so Mwandishi called it day. Hancock focused his next musical project on merging jazz with funk, which was a novel idea in 1974. That album, Headhunters, became the largest selling jazz album of all-time. How’s that for a career rebound?
Sextant is currently in print from Sony and available from your better CD retailers, like this one. It’s the perfect headphone music for that odd trip to the aquarium. You can also listen to tracks here:
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: In the streak-free world of major label hip-hop, New Kingdom brings beats to the grime.