Monday, January 19, 2015

Power 96 Presents Dancehall and Reggaeton 2005
* * * *

When all else fails, there’s always Jamaica. Other genres wax and wane (and right now, most seem to be in doldrums) but dancehall doesn’t really have “off” years. Jamaica has the world’s highest per capita rate of music production--a statistic that reflects not just the centrality of music in the island’s culture, but the fact that the dancehall industry is one of the few avenues for ghetto youth to achieve prosperity and prestige. The ferocious competition between sound systems, producers, and performers ensures a steady--at times, torrential--flow of creativity. Dancehall is simultaneously radical and conservative, reflecting its audience’s twin demands for novelty and continuity. There’s an insatiable hunger for fresh beats, sharper rhymes and ever more idiosyncratic MC stylists. But the basic function of the music--a soundtrack for sexual display and letting off steam--abides.

Judged as electronic musicians, the leading dancehall producers are easily as inventive as any critically-feted techno artist from Koln  that you’d care to nominate. Just check the madcap twists and nutty nuances woven into the Bionic Ras riddim (a term that refers not just to the beat but everything in a track that’s not the vocal). Produced by the brilliant South Rakkas Crew, Bionic Ras appears in three different versions on this compilation, ridden successively by two top MCs, Sizzla and Capleton, plus legendary reggae singer Frankie Paul. But while dancehall’s form is constantly mutating, the expressive content is unchanging. The narrow but enthralling scope for MC artistry resides in finding new twists on the same-old same-old: raunchy sex-talk, gangsta menace, blinged-out swagger, and incitement to shake-that-ass. On “Scooby Anthem,” Tony Curtis combines the last two, rhyming “Dom Perignon” with “Louis Vuitton” with “break-a-dawn”--as in, “gonna party til the…”.  

Subject matter-wise, dancehall hasn’t really evolved since the early Eighties, when slackness and gun-talk displaced the roots ‘n’ culture era. True, there are “conscious” dancehall artists, Rasta-ragga types like reformed bad boy Buju Banton. But at sound systems their Babylon-bashing serves as a brief interruption of piety amid the profanity.  On this collection, the great Vybz Kartel mischievously adapts the childhood taunt-rhyme about a girl and a boy kissing in a tree with his chorus “picture you and me/under the tree/F.U.C.K.I.N.G.”. The rest of the lyrics are so patois-thick they’re indechipherable, although I could swear Vybz says something like “spurt up ya belly like Nesquik.” The gals dem don’t go in for euphemisms either: on the insanely catchy “I’ve Got Your Man,”  Lady Saw jeers at her defeated rival-in-love, “he likes it tight and says your [digital bleep effect] is just a little slack”. 

As for the “reggaeton” part of the comp’s title, that’s basically a Latinized version of dancehall that’s spread from Puerto Rico all over the Caribbean and beyond.  The genre’s slender claim on distinctiveness is its bumpety giddy-up beat, which makes me think of that “here comes the galloping major” game where you bounce a toddler on your leg..  Dominating the middle-section of the compilation with tracks from Ivy Queen and Papichulo Crew, the style is enjoyable enough in small doses. But then so was the macarena.

Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!


director's cut, i simply cannot remember who i wrote this for! 2000

by Simon Reynolds

If Radiohead's Kid A is the upper-middlebrow candidate for this year's Most Important Album, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s Lift Yr. Skinny Fists looks set to sweep the highbrow/hipster vote. Both records are grand statements, bleak panoramic views of the Zeitgeist wrapped in music that revitalizes the "post-rock" project of the mid-Nineties. But where Radiohead, influenced by Britain's omnipresent electronica culture, embraced the psychedelic possibilities of digital technology like Pro Tools, Godspeed retain a typically North American commitment to live performance. Spawned in Montreal's bohemian milieu of cheap apartments and squatted venues, this nine piece collective jettison conventional song-structures in favor of tumultuous 20 minute instrumentals whose only vocal element comes from spoken-word field recordings--like the cracked street preacher Blaise Bailey Finnegan III ranting about America as "third world, third rate, third class" nation on 1999's Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP.

Post-rock tends not to be about anything, beyond the exploration of sound-in-itself. What immediately distinguishes Godspeed is their expressionistic passion and their politics--which are vague, but anti-capitalist and apocalyptic in tenor. In the CD booklet, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists is dedicated "to quiet refusals, loud refusals and sad refusals". "Loud" is what Godspeed are most reknowned for, especially in their legendarily gobsmacking live shows. With keening strings, harrowed guitars, and two drummers, Godspeed stir up a wall of sound that escalates and abates like popular disorder. 

Mournful yet exultant, the music has the doomed Romanticism of revolutionaries dashing themselves against an immovable status quo, or the epic historical clash of vast impersonal forces (something reinforced by bombastic titles like "Terrible Canyons of Static", "World Police and Friendly Fires", "Cancer Towers on the Holy Road Hi-Way"). Godspeed's "loud" mode often provokes comparisions with soundtrack composers from a classical background, like Ennio Morricone and Michael Nyman. Indeed, the group's name comes from an avant-garde movie by Mitsuo Yanagimachi and they perform with film projections looped behind them. But composer-wise, they actually remind me more of Penderecki, symphonic mourner of 20th Century atrocities like the Holocaust and Hiroshima. A Pendereski-esque alternative title for this album could be Threnody for the Victims of Globalization.

After a while , though, the "loud" Godspeed's hope-against-hope histrionics start to seem a little hammy and (pardon my Quebecois) deja entendu: the maudlin' strings, the canter>gallop>frantic>pell-mell dynamics, the anguished crescendos. Personally, I much prefer the "quiet" and "sad" modes: interludes of intricate anxiety, plangent sound-collages, beautiful lulls of spidery, jackfrost guitar. Much of disc two is taken up by gorgeous ghost-town driftwork redolent of Ry Cooder's haunting slide-guitar score for Paris, Texas: saloon doors slapping in the breeze, tumbleweed richocheting off a picket fence, wind whistling through the telegraph wires. In this desolation row context, the vocal samples are potently poignant, like old-timer Murray Ostril lamenting the bygone golden days of Coney Island, when "we even used to sleep on the beach overnight... they don't sleep anymore on the beach". Deliberately or accidentally, the sample echoes the Situationist graffiti that was ubiquitous in Paris during the build-up to the May 1968 uprising: "underneath the pavement lies the beach." What Godspeed mourn is the withering away of the utopian imagination, the way people seem reconciled to the panglobal triumph of what the Situationists called "the commodity-spectacle society," to living a dreamless existence. 

Ultimately one can only salute Godspeed's courage for risking Big-ness--sheer size of sound, emotion, theme. If this sometimes results in deluges of grandiosity, it's because Godspeed music dramatizes the internal struggle within each band member: optimism of the will versus pessimism of the intellect.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice
Buck Dharma
The Flood
(both Troubleman Unlimited)
Wooden Wand
Harem of the Sundrum & The Witness Figg
(Soft Abuse)
Song To Comus: The Complete Collection
Village Voice, 2004

by Simon Reynolds

It’s the “what’s it all about” factor. I’m digging this free folk stuff as pure sound, but the movement’s unwritten manifesto is harder to get a grip on, and, in my (possibly atypical) case, that’s always an impediment to buying into a scene wholeheartedly. Perhaps that’s why I literally don’t buy it (the f-folk scraps I have were all acquired by, erm, other means, shall we say). Just as well, perhaps: mapping this genre properly would entail a financial bloodbath, given its norm of incontinent productivity. Check the intimidating discographic delta-- cassettes, lathe-cut 7 inch singles, 3-inch CDs--issuing [ ] from a single group, Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice, plus extended family of side projects, in just two years of existence. This season alone has seen Wooden Wand’s solo debut and two re-releases of small-run vinyl-only albums (XIA) and Buck Dharma), while an all-new Vanishing Voice full length , The Flood, is due November.

“Pure sound” assessment first: “free folk” verges on a misnomer. As genre expert Jon Dale points out, it’s a highly recombinant style whose warp’n’weft includes threads of not just traditional music but West Coast acid rock, prog, free jazz, Dead C-style noise,  musique concrete, and “outsider” minstrels such as Jandek.  XIA0’s best tracks, “Caribou Christ in the Great Void” and “Return of the Nose” resemble nothing so much as the raga-rock trance and narcotic wah-wah torpor of  “We Will Fall” by The Stooges, while Dharma’s  Satya Sai Baba Scuppety plays ‘Reverse Jam Band’” is a strange shimmer-slither of a keyboard etude, like Morton Subotnik turning into the Blob. If  Vanishing Voice have anything like a standard-mode, it’s the long pieces like “Weird Wisteria Tangles Carrion Christ But Intends No Harm” (and yes, the track titles are major stumbling block to full-on fandom) or the 14-minute “Satya Sai Sweetback Plays ‘Oxblood Boots’,” which closes The Flood. Cantering calvacades of just-barely-integrated instrumentation (rustling bells, tunelessly parping woodwinds, Cale-like drones, listless percussion, thrumming steel-cable bass-drones, and so forth), these tracks either dissipate into oxbow lakes of abstraction or gradually accumulate disparate jetsam into tripnotic juggernauts. Still, we’re not exactly talking “Scarborough Fair” here, and the only truly folksy element is a slight bias toward sounds of acoustic provenance.

But what’s it all about, Alfie? I fear that Wand (real name, James Toth) hits the nail on the head with his self-description as “spiritual dilettante.” The f-folk genre gestures at the shamanic and visionary, but in this easy-going way that feels not so much syncretic as plain eclectic. But isn’t the spiritual path actually hard work, a discipline? When Vanishing Voice overtly invoke the transcendental, it can come over schlocky, the group’s intermittent female vocalist Satya Sai Baba Scuppety ululating lines like “I sought the truth so long” in a voice so piercingly pure-toned and mystical-me the effect verges on parodic. On Dharma’s “Wicked World,” Toth mutters like a bum/seer whose desolation-row jeremiad  (“the mystical power of the beautiful flower has turned sour”) is ignored by passers-by. On his solo album, there’s similar penchant for parable and prophecy (Toth’s a Scripture-fan) but the accompaniment is pared-back minstrelry elevated by an exquisite attentiveness to the creak-glisten textures of semi-acoustic guitar. “Spiritual Inmate” distils a hallmark attribute of f-folk that highlights its debts to the Beat movement: condescension toward the benighted square, who’s “passing so much beauty/passing on so much beauty” because he’s, like, imprisoned by his own obsession “with protection.”

It’s shtick, really, this idea of seeing clear because you’re outside society, but then so are other “performative enactments of the authentic” like gangsta or grime, so nothing wrong with that. This element of theater can also be seen in a group regarded by many f-folks as an illustrious ancestor, Comus, whose 1971 album First Utterance has just been reissued in a double-CD that scoops up everything else the UK outfit recorded in its brief existence. That Bowie was a Comus supporter seems especially revealing. This isn’t British traditional music in the Martin Carthy sense (unadorned and faithful) but closer to Jethro Tull: ripe, rustic-flavored rock with frenetic hand-percussion a la Tyrannosaurus Rex and orchestrated elements redolent of Italo-horror soundtrack proggers Goblin. Roger Wooton’s vibrato-rattling cackle and frolicking woodwinds conjure an indeterminately pre-industrial Albion, all gibbets and gargoyles, merlins and may poles and maidenheads. A tale of deflowering and murder, “Drip Drip” is all the more creepy for the grotesque tenderness with which Wooton delivers lines like “your lovely body soon caked with mud/as I carry you to your grave/my arms, your hearse” (the last line borrowed by black metal outfit Opeth for an album title). On “Song To Comus” itself, his hideously capering voice impersonates a Pan-like satyr
whose piping music lures “an enchanted damsel” to his forest lair of depravity. First Utterance courts absurdity, but like a great horror movie (and The Wickerman would be the apposite reference) it draws you in completely. Wooton brings a conviction to his roles as warlock/sprite/all-purpose bucolic bogeyman that takes it beyond play-acting. Whereas with Wooden Wand there’s still a faint aura of make-believe, even put-on. Such that, as absorbing as the sonix can be,  I still don’t… quite… buy it.
Various Artists
Futurism & Dada Reviewed

by Simon Reynolds

This compilation is a time capsule from early Twentieth Century Europe, when the continent swarmed with -isms: not just famous ones such as Cubism and Constructivism, but nutty lesser-knowns like the Nunists and Rayonists too. Although they differed on the precise details, these manifesto-brandishing movements typically called for an utter overhaul of established ideas of art, arguing that Western Civilisation, enervated and sagging into decadence, needed an invigorating injection of barbarian iconoclasm to renew itself. The material from the Italian Futurists on this anthology overlaps somewhat with LTM’s Musica Futurista collection, but includes a much longer version of “Risveglio di una Citta,” a symphony of scrapes and whirs woven by Luigi Russolo, the movement’s chief musical theoretician and coiner of the enduring buzz-concept “the art of noises.” His brother Antonio’s “Chorale” sounds like a conventional classical overture, except there’s this roar of turbulence that intermittently rears up, as though’s there’s a gale raging outside the concert hall. Wyndham Lewis, British futurist sympathizer and leader of his very own -ism Vorticism, recites a poem that once probably seemed audaciously “free” with its run-on stanzas, but now positively creaks with starchy quaintness. The Dadaist material, however, retains a good portion of its originally scandalous shock of the new. On the noise-poem “L’Amiral Cherche Une Maison A Louer”, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck unleash a polyphonic babble of multilingual nonsense, punctuated with circus-clown irruptions of  rude noise, enough to get your blood boiling with excitement almost a century later. Huelsenbeck also contributes a great reminiscence of the genesis of Dada, incongruously backed with a Indian raga drone. Kurt Schwitters’ life-long work-in-process “Die Sonate in Urlauten”, captured for posterity in 1938, is a tour de force of phonetic poetry, peppering your ears with flurries of phonemes and scattering consonants like confetti around your head. It’s oddly reassuring that works by the Socialist-leaning Dadaists have aged far better than the efforts of the Futurists, Mussolini fans almost to a man.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Black Habit
Village VoiceTuesday, Jan 8th 2008

published under the title "Atypical Girls"

On their MySpace page, Rings designate their genre as "jungle." Maybe it's a private joke with their friends Gang Gang Dance, who identify as "big beat," but if the term wasn't already claimed, "jungle" wouldn't be a bad way to put it. There's something slithery and foliage-like about this all-female trio's music, which on initial exposure seems structureless but soon reveals a curly logic and askew shapeliness. 

Usually filed under freak folk (perhaps because of their Animal Collective connection), Rings are actually closer to the world-y drift of a certain strain of postpunk. The plaintive twitter of their unison vocals recalls the later Raincoats of Odyshape and "Animal Rhapsody," while lyrics like "On this earth/We're all hurt/Disconnected from the land" remind me of the eco-mystical Slits of "Earthbeat" and "Animal Space." Black Habit is not actually this New York outfit's debut: In 2006, they released a self-titled album under the name First Nation, a phrase intended to evoke a primordial human kinship from before "all the political and cultural structures that exist now," as the band's Kate Rosko explained in one interview. Rings, their new name, is similarly freighted with meaning, condensing notions of sisterly cooperation, natural cycles, and "circular composition."

Listening to Black Habit, you do mentally picture a circle: three young women facing each other, their instruments co-existing amiably rather than being tightly locked to form a single-minded rock machine. The guitar, usually but not always played by Nina Mehta, is all spidery flickers and crabwise sidling; the keyboards, usually but not always played by Rosko, trill delicately or loop into gently propulsive patterns; the drums, usually but not always played by Abby Portner, don't lay down a backbeat, but lope alongside the other instruments or erupt in bursts of vivid expressiveness. The vocals, sung by all three, also have a bursting quality, a piercing sweetness shading into dissonance that comes to the fore on lovely songs like "You Remind Me" and "Teepee." This group can get fairly deranged: "Is He Handsome" is daubed with electronic noise, while "Scape Aside" devolves through cacophonous guitar and cawing strings into a bestial chorale of babble and gibber. But generally, Rings offer a free music that doesn't banish prettiness, intimacy, or tenderness.
Evidently the product of diligent craft and conceptual forethought, Black Habit nonetheless manages to seem "artless," that old avant-garde dream of "making music like it's being made for the first time." It's a tall order in this data-saturated, knowingness-afflicted age, and some would argue a suspect fantasy in the first place. (I'd half-forgotten why it was ever considered a good idea, but Rings reminded me.) Shedding all those ingrained preconceptions opens up at least the possibility of creating the proverbial "something new" under the sun. If the band doesn't completely disable the reference-point-spotting sector of my brain (my problem far more than theirs), they come real close on this wondrous album.