THE SCENE: Although best known for his wondrous music column in the Village Voice and for co-founding the Black Rock Coalition, Greg Tate is also the conductor for his genre-demolishing improvisational ensemble Burnt Sugar, whose first album is the heady and mesmerizing Blood on the Leaf. Inspired in part by Miles Davis’ freeform extravaganza Bitches Brew, Burnt Sugar births songs as living organisms, formed on the spot yet sounding uncannily like heavily practiced compositions.
This magic trick is the result of combining dozens of musicians from around the world, each bringing their unique slant to performance, and Tate’s use of Butch Morris’ Conduction System, by which one can “play” the orchestra members as one can play keys on a piano.
Which sounds downright bizarre if not next to impossible but, like hot sauce on a watermelon slice, Blood on the Leaf produces new flavors that would never otherwise exist.
Sonically Burnt Sugar reveals an endlessly inventive palette of textures, shifting from warmongering alien landings to chilled-out meditations, usually within the same song. Motifs vanish and return with new friends, sometimes dignified and dapper, sometimes troubled and frantic, and almost always funky.
Check out the interview and you can listen to Greg Tate discuss the challenges of promoting a Black orchestral improv group, their reception in Europe and their upcoming “R&B crossover album”.
Blood on the Leaf is available through Amazon and you can listen to tracks below:
Effortlessly emotional and three-dimensional, Blood on the Leaf sears into your veins like blood transfusion and charges you up with exotic quasi-legal nutrients.
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: Cee-Lo gets his freak flag dropped to half-mast.
THE SCENE: In 1968, in a pop world dominated by Motown soul, British rock and American folk, blues legend Muddy Waters had all been forgotten by mainstream music fans. His record label then crassly masterminded a comeback plan — fuse his Chicago blues stylings to the hot new sound of the day, psychedelic rock, which resulted in the lysergically enhanced Electric Mud.
Although Waters himself sounded exactly the same, he replaced his usual band with a collection of young avant-garde jazz musicians who re-rendered his blues into smeary hyperactive acid funk.
“She’s Alright” is a death march prelude to a bar-knuckle bar fight, with power-drill guitars, goofy audio panning, and a completely unexpected segue in The Temptations “My Girl”.
Perfect for a blaxploitation soundtrack, the ultra-macho come-ons of “Tom Cat” strut around a radioactive fallout of moist sax riffs and parched guitar feedback.
“Mannish Boy” was a song he’d performed for years, but now it was dressed up with backward rooster sounds and trashy jungle drums, ready for its modern spotlight:
Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five My mother said I was, gonna be the greatest man alive But now I’m a man, way past 21 Want you to believe me baby, I had lot’s of fun I’m a man I spell M, A child, N That represents man No B, O child, Y That mean mannish boy I’m a man I’m a full grown man I’m a man I’m a natural born lovers man I’m a man I’m a rollin’ stone I’m a man I’m a hoochie coochie man
“Herbert Harper’s Free Press News” swings like a lost James Brown vamp, with Waters’ locomotive-strong baritone nearly dueting with the ear-piercing guitar shriek that runs through the entire track.
This was not your fathers’ blues.
THE FALLOUT: Blues purists abhored it. They, in fact, still abhor it. Muddy Waters totally disowned it, refusing to play any of it live and dissing the session musicians. He never publicly disowned the money he made though, as it sold an unexpected quarter million copies. The album also neatly set up Led Zeppelin’s debut the following year, a band whose fame was built upon electrifying (and stealing) Muddy Waters songs. Nevertheless Electric Mud fell out of print until 1996.
Electric Mud is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:
Sure it’s a sellout to the white audience but Electric Mud is still, inadvertently, a hard grooving and rewarding album.
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: Gaze at your Timberlands with The Veldt.
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.
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.
THE SCENE: In 1966 Christmas albums were strictly the domain of pop acts (think Nat “King” Cole) or smoothed-out rock acts (think The Beach Boys). James Brown was the first Black rock’n’roll or R&B artist to release an entire Christmas album, the aptly named Sings Christmas Songs.
One of five albums he released that year, Brown recorded a surprisingly lush assortment of standards with subtle dustings of breakbeats. Even though this coincided with his ascent into his heavy funk many of these tracks are waltzes. Go figure.
Brown tackles Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” with skittering drums, warm horns and a vocal raspyness that humanizes some of the more trite lyrics. He also serves up a cover of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, in which he oddly tries to emulate Charles Brown’ buttery flow.
He reclaims his own voice in “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” where he stops singing and talks to you, the listener, about what he’s thankful for this holiday season. It should be corny as hell but he pulls it off brilliantly.
Rich romantic violins feature prominently in “Please Come Home For Christmas” and “Christmas In Heaven” where Brown gets his croon on and gently pleads (OK, begs) for his baby.
His ode to Jesus, “Sweet Little Baby Boy”, is a surprisingly orchestrated country & western affair, perfect for drinking hot toddies or slow line dancing.
All in all, the perfect holiday package for, well, no one in 1966.
THE FALLOUT: Stylistically out of character and indifferently packaged, Sings Christmas Songs went over as well as coal in a Christmas stocking. He fared exceeding better with his next Christmas album, 1968’s unabashedly funky Soulful Christmas.
All of Sings Christmas Songs can be found on The Complete James Brown Christmas, available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:
A groundbreaker in holiday albums, Sings Christmas Songs opened the door for all musical acts to record Christmas-themed concept records. (So in some strange way, William Hung’s Hung for the Holidays is James Brown’s fault. Thanks, James.)
THE SCENE: If you were the son of R&B great Johnny Otis, you were releasing your third album. As a kid Shuggie Otis spent years playing guitar in his father’s band, receiving an enviable musical education. His previous album, 1970’s Here Comes Shuggie Otis, was a charming blues entry but Freedom Flight was something else entirely.
Using the blues as a starting point, Otis effortlessly blended California’s folk, funk and orchestral pop genres into a unified theory of music, composing and arranging and performing it nearly by himself. At freakin’ eighteen.
Otis is a master guitarist, and his rippling fretwork buzzsaws through “Ice Cold Daydream” like hail on a windshield. His gentle, sunny voice is a mellow counterpoint to the aggressiveness of the track.
Well-known through its smoothed-out interpretation by The Brothers Johnson, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a gorgeous masterwork of spacey textures and evocative lyrics:
In the garden, I see West purple shower bells and tea Orange birds and river cousins Dressed in green
Pretty music I hear So happy and loud Blue flowers echo From a cherry cloud
Named for his desire to receive his girlfriends’ next strawberry-scented letter, this original version’s fragility is a revelation. The bells and “ooh ooh ooh ooh-oohs” all are present but its’ heartfeltness adds a tension missing from the more famous version.
“Sweet Thang” features him playing barroom piano and western slide guitar in one ear and churchified organ in the othe rear, resulting in the effect of having an angel and the devil standing on your shoulders, chatting away.
“Freedom Flight” is a rumbling and purring lullaby of sweet strings, chiming guitar and echoey sax. It’s grace and restraint allows it to command thirteen minutes without succumbing to tediousness.
The overall mood is wonderfully unpretentious. He seems to have no idea how dramatically groundbreaking his music is, he’s just a kid having fun.
THE FALLOUT: Although the album got props from other West Coast artists, it was received by the public with all the joy of a tax audit, and found no takers. Three years later Otis released his last album, the brilliant and equally genre-mining Inspiration Information, which only found an audience after its 2001 re-release.
During a concurrent high-profile comeback tour, Otis’ inability to perform a complete or coherent song with his band, night after night, was the first public inkling that the unfulfilled prodigy within him had taken a dark turn.
Freedom Flight is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:
Beating both Prince’s and Stevie Wonder’s one-man show by both personal age and recording date, Shuggie Otis’ Freedom Flight is a genre without a name, an album without a time, and a voice without a future.
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: The first time Richard Pryor was on fire.
THE SCENE: In 1992 the much-loved Public Enemy tasted their first cup of Haterade after releasing the concept-free semi-remix album Greatest Misses. Undaunted, they returned in 1994 with the brilliantly bitter Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, a fusillade of finely tuned aggression and progressive noises.
PE focused its rage on the supply chain of the record industry: morally bankrupt record companies, elitist and impotent music journalists, and the audience that supports them both. Or to put it another way, they had a big problem with their own label, critics and you, personally.
Gangsta rap was becoming the genre of choice among hip-hop fans and the labels responded by pumping out more gangsta rap, a product that PE found to be morally toxic to its audience. As keepers of the pro-Black agenda they were certainly not going to start writing songs about “beating bitches down”. (OK, they did write that in “Sophisticated Bitch” but that song was on the first album and that was, like, a long time ago and stuff.)
So had you just stopped purchasing gangsta rap and the culture of consumer crap it represented, they wouldn’t have had to record such R&B diatribes as “Give It Up”. Bad consumer. Stop it.
The utter uselessness of music critics is demonstrated in the hazy mule train of “I Stand Accused”, while PE publicist Harry Allen dissected the utter uselessness of major labels in “Harry Allen’s Interactive Super Highway”. Nine years before Apple’s iTunes Music Store debuted, Allen sharply predicted the legal sale of digital music and how it would empower the creators and destabilize the record industry.
The intensity of these messages is matched with unique sounds, live instrumentation and explosive, challenging rhythms. The eco-warning “Race Against Time” cleverly sloooooows down the beat to make its point. “Aintnuttin Buttersong” laments the propaganda of the “The Star Spangled Banner” while paying homage to Jimi Hendrix’s Vietnam-era interpolation, chaotic guitar included.
Flavor Flav even kicksed in a serious song with a remake of The Last Poets “The White Man’s Got a God Complex”. Flav wrestled the kinetic sparseness with a venom he’d never shown before:
I’m making guns! (Uptown, I’m God!) I’m making bombs! (Uptown, I’m God!) I’m making gas! (Uptown, I’m God!)… Birth control pills! (Uptown, I’m God!) Told the Indians I discovered them! (Uptown, I’m God!)…
The concept of “discovering Indians” returned with the hovering incendiary metal of “Hitler Day”, which rowdily recasted Columbus Day as a celebration of a 500-year genocide.
Now that’s gangsta.
THE FALLOUT: PE’s label Def Jam were not pleased with the album (shock!) and barely promoted it. Critics were sharply divided, depending if they felt picked on or not. Although “Give it Up” was a minor hit, the audience really, really wanted to keep buying that G-Funk, and Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age stalled.
Public Enemy didn’t record another non-soundtrack album for five years, but when they did they took their own advice. 1999’s There’s A Poison Goin’ On was released on their own label, as an MP3 album.
Muse… is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:
Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age is an extremely gutsy and extremely engaging album. Forward-sounding, retro-leaning and wholly unique.
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: Saul Williams would like some words with you.
THE SCENE: In 1967, the Summer of Love, San Francisco disk jockey Sylvester Stewart turned his utopian vision of equality into a pioneering hybrid of hippie rock and hard-charging soul, culminating in Sly & The Family Stone’s debut release A Whole New Thing.
The first prominent multi-ethnic and multi-gendered rock group, Sly & the Family Stone blurred racial and genre lines with a jubilant sound filled with sharp political insights, uplifting messages, and a kick-ass backbeat. It was so unified and original that many folks didn’t know how to respond, hence this is his only album from the ’60s without any hit songs.
Well, kinda. The funky psychedelia of “Trip To Your Heart” features the main sample from L.L. Cool J’s “Mama Say Knock You Out”. But “Trip” is fantastically more ornate, with acid-trip vocals, teeter-tottering horns, free-form intro and Larry Graham’s near-inhuman bass playing.
“Underdog” universally champions the struggle to thrive in the face of adversity (much like the cartoon superhero):
I know how it feels to get demoted When it comes time you got promoted But you might be movin’ up too fast (Yeah, yeah)
If you ever loved somebody of a different set I bet the set didn’t let you forget That it just don’t go like that (Yeah, yeah)
I know how it feels For people to stop, turn around and stare So go right, don’t rate me I don’t mind
I’m the underdog
Blessed with phenomenally gifted singers and musicians, the band tears through the jazzy waterfall of notes in “Advice” and the chorale of nonsense syllables in “Run, Run, Run” with singular ease. Sly’s voice itself is an amazing instrument, often sexy and scary within the same sentence, declarative but personal.
Sly also flexes his considerable production muscles during the slowed-down ending of the brassy “I Cannot Make It”, and the echoed call-and-response of the proto-Portishead “That Kind of Person”.
Alas, being the musical midpoint between The Temptations and The Grateful Dead was not an immediate selling point.
THE FALLOUT: It was not a big seller but it was taken quite seriously by his musical peers, as they considered him to be one of the few geniuses in their midst. Sly & The Family Stone’s next release was 1968’s Dance to the Music, which started them on a six-year journey of having REALLY big hit songs.
A Whole New Thing is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:
Ignored mostly due to the greatness of the following albums, A Whole New Thing is a chunky but funky appetizer to the banquet of Sly Stone.
See you next Wednesday.
NEXT WEEK: Barry Adamson confronts the Negro inside him.
THE SCENE: It’s 1979 and my mom is amped. We’ve just come home from the record store where we picked up Stevie Wonder’s first album in three years! Mom had practically worn the grooves off his last album, the double-length Songs in the Key of Life, and this one is a double record too! It’s gonna be great!
Then Mom puts the needle on the first song. She planned to sing along with Stevie but she is freaking out over the numerous instrumentals (starting with the synthetically orchestral “Earth’s Creation”) and songs in foreign languages (Japanese in the kids-and-koto-led “Ai No, Sono”, and Bambara in the savannah rhythms of “Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye”). She wanted to get down with some high-energy funk but instead she’s hearing mid-tempo ballads (the gorgeous “Black Orchid”) and slow hymns (like the funereal organs of “Ecclesiastes”).
Mom screws up her face at the record player as if it had defecated on the carpet. She furiously examines the record sleeve for some explanation of this madness, as if some random backup singer’s name would somehow justify this thing she had just purchased, at double record price no less.
“It’s a soundtrack to a plant documentary”, she snarls, as if that clarifies everything. “Why? Why would he do this?” Meaning, why would he do this to us, all the Black people who have supported him throughout his entire career, why would he blindside us with an un-funky, un-political, un-lyrical and un-cheap score to an un-movie?
The simple answer is, because the filmmakers asked him and he said “yes.” The real answer is devastatingly more complex.
America grew up with Stevie Wonder. We listened to him sing his little heart out as a young boy on Motown. We watched him take control of his career and turn synthesizers into seductive funk instruments. We heard him mature into the one of the best living songwriters, somehow selling millions of records and having dozens of hit songs while maintaining complete respect from other artists, musicians and critics.
But after a seventeen-year career of doing the same sort of music over and over, an original score offered him a chance to expand his talents into a completely new realm of composition. Based on the book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, the documentary The Secret Life of Plants posits the thought that plants can actually feel emotions and are more sentient than anyone had ever considered. At a time in history where no one thought that a blind Black man had any more to offer the world than basket-making, I see how Stevie might have jumped at this opportunity.
Alas, the modes and tones that make up a great score are usually not the ones that make up a toe-tapping pop album. There are some classic Wonder moments on the album, namely the live band throwdown of “A Seed’s A Star” and the liquid vocoder disco of “Race Babbling”, but it’s mainly a collection of intriguing and expansive background music.
Had it been promoted as the score it truly was, the stage would have been set for a proper audience response. But it was set up as the next release from the man whose last three albums won Album of the Year Grammys, back-to-back-to-back, and the world expected something…, well at least something with a lot more words in it.
THE FALLOUT: Dead on arrival. The critical and commercial backlash was so intense I bet he wished he was deaf too. The up-with-romance single “Send One Your Love” was a minor hit but that was it. Even the film got caught in the horror, barely screening at all, ever.
Motown begged him to record a back-to-basics album lickety-split and he returned the next year with the successful Hotter Than July. The reggae of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” probably saved his career, and yet, it killed his artistry. From 1980 on, Stevie Wonder released far fewer albums and all but gave up taking musical chances. The last twenty-five years of Stevie Wonder has been an abrupt shift from new sounds and naked expressiveness into flabby, overwrought sugar treats, and it all ended with this album.
Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants is available at Amazon and you can listen to some tracks below:
Expensive and unique, progressive and forgotten, Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants deserves a rebirth. I mean really, it’s WAY better than In Square Circle, and some of you actually bought that one. Ah well.
NEXT WEEK: Los Angeles has a Problem with Negroes.
THE SCENE: All over the world, for as long as human have performed, masks have been used to shelter identities while speaking truths, no matter how base those truths may be. New York musician Marc Anthony Thompson released two pop-soul albums under his own name in the 1980s but unleashed his sacred and profane persona Chocolate Genius in the late ‘90s. Witty and urbane, naïve and spastic his second album Godmusic demands your respect without requiring your approval.
His burnished, hushed baritone draws you in like a confessional then traps you there like a fly in a web, each song slowly progressing as if gravity is its enemy. On first listen the tunes seem ordinary, familiar, but each playback reveals additional layers.
The hymnlike moods are caressed into creation, from the mournful barbershop quartet of “Infidel Blues” or the ambient piano accents of the womb-like “Love”:
Lyrically searching for happiness in a bleak world, he evokes a new dawn rising in the shimmering “Bossman Piss (In My Lemonade)” and literally creates God music with the ringing and squealing “To Serve You”.
“Planet Rock” is not a cover of the Afrika Bambaataa classic but a wheezy and cheesy eulogy to a lost friend, its synthetic candy-ass tones as cheap as the drugs she took:
I know a girl from planet rock who swears that she can stop? I heard her scream without a sound burn her father’s house to the ground I told myself I wouldn’t waste a song Because she’s gone.
This may the only album I’ve heard that tries to be as wry as possible.
THE FALLOUT: Unclassifiable, unexplainable and essentially unsellable, Godmusic attracted a fistful of great reviews and a thimbleful of sales. In a typical story for this site, Chocolate Genius recorded his next album for another label.
Godmusic is out of print but used copies can be found at Amazon, and you can hear tracks right here:
Starting with out-of-sync warbling and ending with a nod to Truman Capote, Godmusic is refreshingly intelligent, humorous and oddball.
NEXT WEEK: Stevie Wonder scores a little plant documentary and, oh it backfires.