Sunday, August 31, 2008


This article keeps popping up in recent months, and it seems to get a little dumber each time. (You know the old line about how, if you sit down at a poker table and can't tell who the mark is after half an hour, the mark is you? If James Acklin, the young man described in the story's first two paragraphs, doesn't come across like someone who should be beaten to death with a meat tenderizer, congratulations! You're a douchebag too.)

I hated vinyl before there were any such things as CDs. A format that sounds a little worse every time you play it? Gee, thanks. I was a cassette guy in the '80s - I'll take hiss over crackle any day. And in the 21st Century, I'll be sticking with digital. The only thing I don't like about MP3s below, say, 192kbps is how cymbals sound. (Worth noting: I hate the sound of cymbals no matter how well they're recorded. If it was up to me they'd be outlawed.) Anyway, my point is: The vinyl revival is a blip. Take it from someone who works at a music magazine. I'm just glad I'm old enough to not have to spend my days surrounded by college students who think they've discovered something. My bag is already heavy, what with a laptop and books and the like; adding a meat tenderizer to that would just be too much.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


It’s been awhile since I posted anything here that wasn’t a link to a published CD review or article somewhere else on the web. What can I say? I’ve been busy. But there are moments, however intermittent, when I’m not writing about Lee Perry or Scandinavian folk-weirdness or editing a metal magazine, and I get the chance to listen to music strictly for my own pleasure. And lately, when that chance arises, the odds are good that I’ll be listening to Elvis Presley.

I’ve long believed that From Elvis In Memphis is one of the Top Ten greatest rock albums of all time, indeed one of the greatest works of American popular music, period. It outstrips even some of Elvis’s 1950s hits. I’d damn sure rather listen to “Wearin’ That Loved On Look” or “Long Black Limousine” than “Love Me Tender.” It’s an astonishing album; it combines soul, country, gospel, blues and rock ’n’ roll into a churning, hip-shaking, foot-tapping blend that’s about as uniquely American as it’s possible to be, and that’s before you add Elvis’s sublime, breathtakingly powerful vocal performance into the mix. But it was more than just a one-time achievement, a brief flare before an eight-year descent into darkness, as the mythology has it. No, he never equaled it again; even Back In Memphis, which featured tracks from the same sessions, is in some ways a pale shadow of its big brother. But. But. From Elvis In Memphis was absolutely the sound of Elvis beginning a creative resurgence, after the miasma of the Hollywood years. And if you listen to the 1970s studio albums, the way I’ve been doing the past few weeks, you realize that he managed to bring a surprising amount of energy and commitment into the studio all the way into 1975, if not until the absolute end of his life.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Elvis really started making albums that worked as albums; in the ’50s, RCA pumped out collections of singles, B-sides and filler, as was industry standard. And in the ’60s, his discography consisted primarily of movie soundtracks – albums, yes, but neither the product of a focused artistic strategy or made under conditions that inspired Elvis to do his best. So 1969 was, in effect, the beginning of his career as an album artist – it took him five to seven years to make a move other pop/rock musicians had begun making at the beginning of the 1960s.

But albums like Elvis Now, Today, and particularly the trilogy of Raised On Rock, Good Times and Promised Land, all recorded at a few marathon sessions in 1973 (at the Stax studio, among other places) but released one a year through 1975, are powerful slabs of Elvisiana. For a guy who didn’t write lyrics and whose guitar and piano playing was far from virtuosic, he really put his stamp on a song. There are some genuinely weird moments from this period - Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), with its snippets of the title spiritual serving as bridges between versions of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “The Fool,” “I Really Don’t Want To Know,” etc., is probably the weirdest album, but 1973’s Elvis has some head-spinning tracks, too, particularly the album-closing blast through Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

It's that Stax-related trilogy, though, that absolutely kills me. The song "Promised Land" is one of Elvis's hardest-rocking tracks, ever; you may remember it from the movie Men In Black (it's the song playing when Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are rocketing upside down through the Lincoln Tunnel). Much of the rest of the album is kinda countrypolitan and ballad-heavy, but that doesn't mean Elvis isn't totally committed to each and every performance. His way of inhabiting each lyric is Sinatra-esque in its intuitive brilliance and power, and when he does decide to punch the energy level up a little, with the soul song "If You Talk In Your Sleep," you'll about jump through the wall. Never mind his take on Merle Haggard's "You Asked Me To," which closes the album. The weakest album of the trilogy is definitely Good Times, though it's got its share of high points - I'll put "I Got A Feelin' In My Body," "I've Got A Thing About You Baby," and "Talk About The Good Times" on any Elvis playlist or mix disc. Raised On Rock, as befits its title (and its awesome cover art, featuring Elvis in caped jumpsuit and full live crouch/roar), is the most aggressive of the three albums, with the highest ratio of rockers to ballads. The title track, "Find Out What's Happening," "If You Don't Come Back," "Just A Little Bit" and "Three Corn Patches" all kick ass, and that's not meant to give the ballads short shrift - I mean, we all know Elvis could sing the living shit out of the slow ones, right? I don't really have to explain that to you?

I'm not joking or crazy when I say that if I had to choose, right now and irrevocably, I would happily spend the rest of my life listening to 1969-77 Elvis even if it meant I could never hear 1953-1957 Elvis again.

Friday, August 29, 2008


[My first piece for the SF Weekly.]

Onstage and in interviews, Lee "Scratch" Perry's persona is a mix of giddy surrealism, folk wisdom, apocalyptic theology, and simple crudity (fart jokes, raw sex talk). And while there's fun to be had listening to him ramble, when you unpack his riffs, there are deep worries in there — his lines about ghosts and Satan seem fueled by genuine belief. That darkness was reflected in his classic 1970s music, which transmogrified reggae into shamanic psychedelia anchored by massive, throbbing basslines. But since his Black Ark studio burned down in 1978, Perry has issued one lazy collaboration after another.

Repentance, which matches Perry with Andrew W.K. of all people, is far from sluggish. In fact, the legend sounds inspired on one of his most successful releases in decades. That's largely because of the element of surprise in this pairing: Scratch does his usual "crazy prophet" act, but the music behind him owes little to the party-rock for which W.K. is best known. Instead, the instrumentation comprises sparse electronic grooves and rhythms that gesture toward reggae, but via cheap-synth indie sounds (à la Spank Rock or M.I.A.). Hearing the septuagenarian talk dirty on "Pum Pum" and "Crazy Pimp" can be disconcerting, but the grooves are undeniable. Similarly, the end-times political preaching on "War Dance" is bolstered by hints of skronk and sonic disorder. Repentance is reminiscent of bluesman R.L. Burnside's late-career experiments with electronic music: Not what you might come expect from this particular artist, but occasionally verging on brilliant nonetheless.

Friday, August 22, 2008


[Can you spot the gigantic factual error in one of these reviews?]**

Limb By Limb
17 North Parade/VP
Cutty Ranks is one of the toughest of all danceahall deejays. From his debut single, "Gunman Lyrics" (which closes this two-disc career overview), to recent collaborations with industrial-strength UK producer The Bug, his raw-throated delivery and sex- and violence-packed lyrics have made him one of the most exhilarating and intimidating figures in Jamaican music. However, as this compilation reveals, Cutty is more thoughtful than his biggest cuts - "The Slaughter," "The Bomber," "Press The Trigger," "Limb By Limb" - imply. Collaborations with some of Jamaica's most romantic crooners, including Dennis Brown, Wayne Wonder and Beres Hammond, might seem incongruous, but the pairing of Ranks' toughness and bluster and the singers' seductive sweetness is compelling. And the four tracks here where Ranks teams up with Marcia Griffiths, one of the greatest and most revered female voices in all of reggae, are brilliant and affecting, particularly "Really Together," which finds Griffiths revisiting one of her classic 1960s hits. She even manages to get Ranks to let his guard down somewhat, and deliver a pure love lyric, with no gun talk or "slackness" (raunchy sexual bragging). The occasional embarrassingly '80s keyboard sound aside, this is an ideal introduction to one of dancehall's true legends.

Truths And Rights
Johnny Osbourne is probably best known to casual listeners for "Under Mi Sleng Teng," a genuine classic of dancehall and source for one of the greatest rhythm tracks of all time, verisoned what seems like a thousand times by nearly as many artists. On this 1979 album, he was only beginning to achieve the popularity he'd enjoy in the decades to come, and dancehall wasn't as synthetic and digital as it would later become as technology improved. So his rich, soulful voice is heard atop classic Studio One instrumental tracks (some dating back as far as 1967) that had once served Al Campbell, Alton Ellis, the Heptones and others. The lyrics are fairly straightforward love songs and hymns in praise of Jah, and the music is always soulful and conducive to slow, steady dancing: "We Need Love" is driven by an organ groove worthy of Al Green's early 1970s classics. The aggression that would come as dancehall became more influenced by hip-hop is nowhere to be found here. The original album's 10 tracks are augmented by six bonuses, including a dub version of "We Need Love" (retitled "Luanda") and three extended mixes. This is a killer set of summertime reggae.

All U Need Is Mosh
Alejandro Rosso and Jonaz, the duo known as Plastilina Mosh, exemplify the contradictions, blurring and culture-jamming that make up the contemporary Latino experience. Their music mixes overtly '80s-influenced electronica with liquid funk basslines, rock guitars, samples and smarmy rapping in both Spanish and English. Their keen sense of irony and all-encompassing tastes make their work a mixed bag, both stylistically and qualitatively. The drum-machine garage-punk of "Let U Know" is balanced by the smirky, vacuous name-dropping of "My Party." Since the last release, the core duo has hired full-time instrumentalists and the (female) drummer occasionally sings and raps like a bilingual cross between the Tom Tom Club's Tina Weymouth and the Donnas' Brett Anderson. The disc's absolute high point is "Danny Trejo," a bilingual tribute to the most badass Mexican-American actor of all time. Plastilina Mosh aren't as smart as they think, but this album is good summertime fun.

**That's right, "Under Mi Sleng Teng" was by Wayne Smith; Johnny Osbourne's version, over the "Sleng Teng" rhythm, was "Buddy Bye." I blame my iPod, which had the credits reversed ("Buddy Bye" to Smith, "Sleng Teng" to Osbourne) when I was writing the review.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The Double Trio: Live At The Festival Of New Trumpet Music
Engine Studios
Unless you're talking strictly chronologically (as in "this is our new album"), the term new ought to be retired from discussions of jazz and jazz-derived improv - with a smile, not a resigned shrug or a defensive snarl. All the instruments played on this disc have been around for decades - centuries, in some cases - and every technique employed has been in the jazz toolkit for 40-plus years. The sounds trumpeters Haynes and Bynum are making may be unexpected in the moment, but are not unprecedented; there are great splashes of melody and lyricism here, particularly on the lovely, emotional version of Ornette Coleman's "Broken Shadows" and the romping take on Dizzy Gillespie's "Kush." When the group breaks into subsets, as on "Triple Duo," the dynamics will be familiar to jazz fans - trumpet/drums, guitar/drums.
Even when the two hornmen sputter and squeal in a manner reminiscent of their mentor and collaborator Bill Dixon, it's not shocking. But everyone present (Haynes, Bynum, guitarists Mary Halvorson and Allan Jaffe, and drummers Warren Smith and Tomas Fujiwara) is in top form, swinging and grooving in between bouts of pure three-on-three beauty. The compositions and improvisations alike reflect a considered group identity, never descending into chaos. Genuine newness is a near-impossibility in any genre, but jazz is a discourse, not a relay race with the baton of innovation passing from one player to another, and an album like this invigorates the genre by simply being really, really good.

It seems like false advertising to bill this as a Golden Quartet album, as trumpeter Smith is the only recurring member from the original lineup, which recorded a self-titled disc on Tzadik in 2000, and The Year Of The Elephant on Pi two years later. For this live outing, pianist Anthony Davis has been subbed by Vijay Iyer, bassist John Lindberg replaces Malachi Favors and drummer Jack DeJohnette's seat has been taken by Ronald Shannon Jackson. And this new group with an old name work together with a coiled intensity for a solid hour.
Smith's horn playing is spacious and meditative, befitting his Rastafarian beliefs; it's as if he's creating a real-time dub mix of his own lines. Opening track "Rosa Parks" is basically a tribute to Miles Davis circa 1969-70, with Iyer's Fender Rhodes and Lindberg's liquid, electric bass bolstered by Jackson's thunderous drumming as Smith unleashes ribbons of notes. "DeJohnette" offers acoustic instruments - Iyer speeds up and heads out as Lindner bows madly behind him - and a kind of free swing, while "Caravan Of Winter" and the title track are respectively a pointillist ballad and a 25-minute soundscape. Early on in the latter, a muted Smith returns to the land of Miles, every note considered and razor-sharp, but as the piece progresses, acoustic instruments and thoughtful freedom take over, including an apocalyptic Jackson solo to close things out.


This week in the Scene:


Totimoshi is one of the most surprising and underrated bands in American hard rock. Given that it's touring with SoCal space-rock/bong-metal legends Nebula, you might expect it to be heavier and more resinous than it is. But the interplay between singer-guitarist Tony Aguilar and bassist Meg Castellanos, who are offstage partners, is frequently delicate and introspective, even on rave-ups like "Sound the Horn" (new album Milagrosa's opener) or the trancey, Latin-tinged desert metal of "The Seeing Eye." The band's latest drummer, Chris Fugitt, provides a subtly shifting foundation for the couple's riff excursions. No matter how loud things get on Milagrosa (and they get plenty loud at times), Page Hamilton's production - he helmed 2006's Ladrón for them too - keeps everything crisp and forceful. In fact, it might be more accurate to compare the Oakland-based Totimoshi to late '70s L.A. Chicano punk band the Plugz than to the Melvins or Nirvana, the two outfits they're most frequently placed alongside. Like the Plugz, they combine a uniquely Latin melancholy and emotional expressiveness with aggressive guitars and pummeling rhythms. On "El Emplazado," Aguilar even sings in Spanish, in a voice that's surprisingly similar in timbre to the Plugz' Tito Larriva.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


[All the links I posted to older Scene pieces are dead; they're revamping their website. Sorry.]

Bleeding Through
Metalcore Band Makes Inroads Despite Feuding With Its Label

Life should be pretty sweet for Bleeding Through right about now. One of the most highly regarded U.S. metalcore bands, it opened a national tour with Slayer and Marilyn Manson last year and is set to release its impressive and highly anticipated fifth album, Declaration, at the end of September. But it's caught up in a bloody and public feud with its label, the (it seems now) ironically named Trustkill Records.

"What's tour support? I don't even know what that is," says frontman Brandan Schieppati by cell phone from Dallas. He and his bandmates - guitarist Brian Leppke, bassist Ryan Wombacher, drummer Derek Youngsma, keyboardist Marta Peterson and new guitarist Jona Weinhofen - are paying their own way on a U.S. jaunt with Bullet for My Valentine, Cancer Bats and Black Tide. Schieppati's hoping both he and the Bullet guys will have better luck on the road - Bullet had to cut its last tour short due to illness in bassist Jason James' family, and its vocalist, Matt Tuck, suffered vocal problems throughout 2007.

BT is one of at least three Trustkill acts currently battling the label's head, Josh Grabelle, over issues of money and artistic autonomy. Hopesfall broke up earlier this year, and drummer Jason Trabue said in an interview, "He's not the reason we broke up, but I do hate him." Throwdown left the label after the 2007 release of its third album, Venom & Tears, and has since gone public with charges of unpaid royalties and thousands of dollars of debt. Walls of Jericho was reportedly told it had to return to the studio to finish its new album, The American Dream, which caused the band to miss a spring U.S. tour with Napalm Death and DevilDriver. BT, for its part, told Trustkill it wouldn't relinquish the masters of Declaration, its third album for the label, until band members were reimbursed for the recording costs. [Read the rest here.]

Friday, August 08, 2008


Solar Forge

This disc is nearly submarined by its booklet essay, as ludicrous an outpouring of pseudo-intellectual jabber as written English has seen in some time. Writer Michael Anton Parker is attempting to gin up a movement he calls the "New Timbralism," by which he seems to mean that Totem>'s avoidance of typical guitar, bass and drum noises is somehow pioneering. He's wrong, though, and his empty-headed logorrhea ultimately does the music a disservice.

What this new improvising trio is doing is very good, but it's hardly unprecedented. Guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil has inherited a lot from Derek Bailey - the biting-on-tinfoil tone, the seemingly random strings of notes, the scrapes and zings and staticky disruptions. Totem> employ electric guitar, drums and upright bass, but they're not a jazz trio or blues-rock powermongers. They're working a unique nexus that's kinda Venn-diagrammatically equidistant from Bailey/Bennink, Main, and late Noxagt (after they swapped viola for guitar). Drummer Andrew Drury never plays what you'd call a beat or "keeps time," preferring to bow the cymbals, rattle stuff, and generally build an atmosphere of tense stasis. Similarly, bassist Tom Blancarte rarely walks or riffs, choosing instead to create a distorted roar with the bow, or pluck high notes almost indistinguishable from those escaping Eisenbeil's amplifier. The lack of traditional rhythm keeps these four tracks from developing real momentum, though the players do interact with and respond to one another, a less common phenomenon in contemporary improv than it should be. Solar Forge is enjoyable, but not revolutionary.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Greyhound has scrapped an ad campaign that extolled the relaxing upside of bus travel after one of its passengers was accused of beheading and cannibalizing another traveler.

The ad's tag line was "There's a reason you've never heard of 'bus rage.'"

Greyhound spokeswoman Abby Wambaugh said Wednesday a billboard and some tunnel posters near a bus terminal in Toronto are still up and would be removed later in the day.

"Greyhound knows how important it is to get these removed and we are doing everything possible," Wambaugh said. "This is something that we immediately asked to be done last week, realizing that these could be offensive."

Vince Weiguang Li, who immigrated to Canada from China in 2004, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of 22-year-old carnival worker Tim McLean. He has yet to enter a plea.

Thirty-seven passengers were aboard the Greyhound from Edmonton, Alberta, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, as it traveled at night along a desolate stretch of the TransCanada Highway about 12 miles from Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. Witnesses said Li attacked McLean unprovoked, stabbing him dozens of times.

As horrified passengers fled the bus, Li severed McLean's head, displaying it to some of the passengers outside the bus, witnesses said.

A police officer at the scene reported seeing the attacker hacking off pieces of the victim's body and eating them, according to a police report.

Wambaugh said the ads only appeared in Canada and that some in Ontario and western Canada have already been removed. About 20,000 inserts of the Greyhound ads were scheduled to be put into an Alberta Summer Games handbook but they stopped the presses.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


"Poison Dart"
from London Zoo (Ninja Tune)

Feral MC Warrior Queen is one of producer Kevin Martin’s favorite foils; he’s featured her hypnotic, aggressive voice on two singles under his Razor X Productions rubric, and even shared billing with her on an EP. Now they’re working together again on his third album as The Bug, a more dubstep-conscious effort. It’s no bandwagon jump, it’s just rooted in ideas he’s been working with since 1995 or so, as curator of the Macro Dub Infection compilations and an his affiliation with Brooklyn’s Wordsound label.

This track, like the album it comes from, is slower and dubbier than other recent Martin productions, which were more about creating an industrial-strength, ultra-assaultive version of dancehall. Though the vocals still bounce to a dancehall rhythm, and there are klaxons and lasers in the depths of the mix, this is more of a creepy crawl than a floor-shaking stomper. It’s up to the Queen to keep the aggression level high, and she does just that. [Click here to hear/download the track, and read a really interesting, and slightly combative, email interview with Kevin Martin (who I've been a fan of since hearing God's Possession when I was about 18 or 19).]

Friday, August 01, 2008


"Pattern Recognition"
from Amber Gray (Hydra Head)
This song’s only 65 seconds long, so this review will probably take longer to read than the track inside takes to listen to. Still, to be brief: This is one of Jon Chang’s two new bands. He used to scream for Discordance Axis in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and he shrieks even more forcefully and piercingly now, which is awesome. Their album has 11 songs in just under 12 minutes. This is one of the longer ones. GridLink has a bassist, which Discordance Axis didn’t, so they’re heavier, if just as speedy and chaotic. Drummer Brian Fajardo, formerly of Kill The Client, whips the living hell out of his kit in a manner somewhere between intrepid grind hero Dave Witte and jazz great Roy Haynes. Guitarist Takafumi Matsubara rips it up, too, not as power-thrashily as he does in Chang’s other band, Hayaino Daisuki (less soloing with GridLink, too), but in a way that’ll make you wanna bounce your head off the nearest wall or tabletop in minute-long bursts of self-abuse. [Click here to visit PTW, where you can hear and download the song.]