Friday, December 30, 2011

A little something special in yr cyber-stocking: Absinthe for Breakfast 2011 holiday gift mix Part 1 - Hipnosis

In the spirit of better late than never, Parts 2 and 3 won't appear until the beginning of 2012. I hope to have both posted by January 15th at the latest. We shall see. These three volumes were compiled, burned to CDR and given out to friends in the spirit of the season, and I'd love to do the same for acquaintances and strangers, but unfortunately I'm not made of moolah. So this is the next best thing. A fair amount of the contents across all three parts would frankly be unknown to me without the knowledge and dedication of a diversity of bloggers (Holy Warbles, Ghost Capital, Awesome Tapes From Africa, Root Blog, etc) so I say thanks. Covers and labels swiped from the web and added for additional illumination. As should be rather obvious, this concept is an international one, and idea that spans across all three volumes. Hope you like it.

Download Part One here

Track 1- Jackie McLean “Hipnosis”- we begin with the title cut from a 1967 Blue Note session that remained in the vaults for eleven years, also never issued on CD to my knowledge, and its relative obscurity testifies to the wealth of seriously happening material that Blue Note actually did release throughout the ‘60s. And for that matter they weren’t a bit shy about keeping McLean well stocked in the bins; from ’59 to ’68 he had something like a dozen albums as leader alone pressed up and available, all of them excellent to varying degrees. I can only guess as to why the heads at Blue Note central elected to sit on this one for so long, for in my estimation it’s easily one of his best. The tune is from the great pen of Grachan Moncur III, who also contributes his superb trombone to the session, and the music can be described as a blend of high post-bop melodicism a la Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and some well conceived reflections upon the avenues opened up by the New Thing. Having pianist LaMont Johnson immediately establish an advanced groove and then requiring him to basically maintain and embellish its simmering swing for the song’s duration insures that more sophisto ears will perk right up and wiggle, if they haven’t already been seduced by the loping, see-sawing head as expressed on alto and ‘bone. But both Moncur’s and McLean’s solos bleed the restless imagination that found them collaborating with first wave free titans like Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman during this same period. Bassist Scotty Holt and drummer Billy Higgins hold down the rhythm with championship skill, but I can’t avoid calling “Hipnosis” Johnson’s show. His playing, particularly in his solo, hits a sweet balance between the funky and the cerebral; he’s an anchor, catalyst and commentator all at once. Sadly, Johnson and Holt were terribly under-recorded when they were hot so this session’s value is quite multi-faceted. That a track (and album) this good is essentially considered deep catalog fodder for serious aficionados emphasizes jazz music’s endless fount of riches.

Track 2- Brigitte Fontaine “Le goudron”- dripping with a slowly building and menacing intensity, this track from the ’69 Saravah Records LP COMME A LA RADIO inhabits a dark place that’s positively contemporary. Folks with an amorous eye on a guy or a girl that’s smitten with the early work of Cat Power or Polly Jean Harvey should perhaps consider presenting this edgy little nugget for their consideration; it just might end up impressing the pants right of them. If you catch my drift. And I think that you do. Me? I’m not trying to depant anyone. At least not right now. Fontaine began her distinguished career in relative French-pop normalcy, but quickly jumped with both feet into a complex web of avant-garde ideas, and while I haven’t heard all of her stuff, I’ve always been pleased as peaches with the early recordings. Of which this is a prime example. COMME A LA RADIO was recorded with members of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, by this point well established as expats from the tumult of late-‘60s USA, and the whole record radiates the fine spirit of outsider collaboration. But “Le goudron” is really something special, so it makes perfect sense that Saravah pressed it up as a single. I’ll confess to having no idea as to the lyric’s translation, and that’s the way I want it to stay. It’s the eerie calm of her doomsayer’s voice that gets me, as if she’s knowingly imparting that some heavy shit is about to go down, maaaaannnnn. Bad vibes rarely sound this great.

Track 3- The Hot Pepper “Kun Rod Fai, Pai Rod Bus, Kee Chang, Kang Tent”- found on THAI FUNK ZUDRANGMA, a simply head-swimming collection of tunes rescued from the ever mounting detritus of history by the folks that comprise the Bangkok-based ZudRangMa label. As the title states, its contents are chocked with all kinds of funky tomfoolery circa the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s, and the cut from The Hot Pepper is one of my favorites from the whole dang trip. Quite disco in its orientation, the track spends most of its running time exploring an undisguised strategy for celebratory dance floor high-stepping. But at around the three minute mark, the song indulges in a detour so out of left field that it brought an eruption of laughter and a smile so intense that it nearly wrapped around to the back of my neck the first time I heard it. I’ll drop no spoilers, but will add that while The Hot Pepper were surely engaged in the sort of cultural appropriation that can in one sense be assessed as no big deal, their strange but thoroughly sensible twist on the material reveals it to be a fine example of what happens when musicians cozy up to pop movements outside of their own tradition, the benevolent plunder subsequently molding the ideas into something very unlikely to have been conceived by the originators themselves. This sort of non-affected global discourse transpired in an environment of vast indifference until fairly recently, with labels like this one and the quite prolific Sublime Frequencies compiling endearingly messy and often deeply mysterious volumes that serve as a big eye-opener and nice counterbalance to the long history of assorted national music’s more refined, scholarly and specifically unique traditions. Part of the point of some of these comps is that the Information Super Highway was once a winding scenic road that could produce artifacts far more curiously alive than the often homogenized results of today’s ease of connectivity. But the main thing is The Hot Pepper are a wild bit of oddball fun, all set for a little dancing, a little making love, and a whole lot of getting down. Tonight? Yes, why not.

Track 4- Lambchop “Why Can’t I Touch It?”- I value few bands more than Nashville’s Lambchop. A huge part of why is vocalist/songwriter/leader Kurt Wagner, as unique and sincere a creator as is currently on the scene. Another reason for my partisanship is that, through a fluctuating lineup held down by crucial core contributors like pianist Rob Crow and guitarist William Tyler, Lambchop has become one of the truly crack bands of the last thirty years, the kind of large ensemble that can sound amazing in a roomy auditorium, a hole-in-the-wall club, or even at an in-store held by some college town vinyl-shack/CD-exchange. And it just dawned on me that I’ve seen them live four times. On each occasion they killed, combining instrumental mastery with the type of in-the-moment verve that can’t be faked. Some folks call them alt-country, and while that’s not an inaccurate term (I’ve occasionally used it myself), I tend to favor them as country-soul, a descriptor that was particularly apropos back when they were covering Curtis Mayfield. It still basically fits though, since Wagner can combine Tom T. Hall and Shuggie Otis and then give it all a subtle, melancholic twist like he’s a downtrodden version of Leonard Cohen from a small town beneath the Mason Dixon line. Lambchop excel at unpredictability, and just one trick up their collective sleeve is deftness at a diversity of other people’s material. Here they are tackling The Buzzcocks from the covers-only tour CD RAINER ON MY PARADE. Crow’s piano thunders, the guitars alternate between racket and funk, drum and bass are in the pocket, and Wagner takes the ‘cock’s punkly expression of frustration at thwarted desire and turns it into the swagger of anticipation delivered from the midst of temporary denial. What a shrewd bunch of macks.

Track 5- Eleanor Kane “Morning Dew/Travelers/Shark’s Favorite”- When it comes to trad Irish sounds, I prefer my stuff to be of a certain vintage. So much of the newer material that gets filed under Celtic is either too damned polite or far too hackneyed for my tastes. What can I say; while perhaps a bit unrefined, I’m also a stickler. The material collected by Rounder Records on FROM GALWAY TO DUBLIN: EARLY RECORDINGS OF TRADITIONAL IRISH MUSIC hits me right in my wheelhouse however, and while unsurprisingly chock full of fiddles and pipes and jigs and reels, the compilation is also quite varied in its instrumental and emotional range. One unexpected turn came via Eleanor Kane’s crisp, pretty piano medley from 1935. It manages to add modern, somewhat erudite flavor to the undeniably traditional nature of the music while lacking the (well-)mannered sensibility that makes so many contemporary takes on Irish folk feel sealed under glass. Kane’s presentation instead possesses a casual feel that (perhaps paradoxically) imbues the music with liveliness and depth which still feels fresh today; she wasn’t mummifying the music with reverence or sterilizing it with ill-advised production techniques, she was instead just playing. Upon reflection, this is a rare and wonderful thing.

Track 6- Nahid Akhtar “Tarasta Hai Yeh Dil”- for around 25 years Nahid Akhtar dominated Pakistani film music. And it’s a stone cinch that I dig her voice. Closing my eyes, her singing easily inspires visions of comely belly dancers engaged in blissful Busby Berkeley-like choreography; she’s breathy but strong with range and control that’s doubly impressive due to the song’s reliable changes of direction. And while she and the music perhaps radiate an aura of eccentricity, it’s important to consider how that’s not really by design. This is soundtrack music for films aimed at a pop audience, with the twists, turns and extremes intended to accompany a steady barrage of images; to my ear, “Tarasta Hai Yeh Dil” sounds like it’s a delicious slice of opening credits music. Surely it’s an unusual flavor, but I can say the same thing about the first time I listened to Morricone’s themes for grand Spaghetti vistas or Carl Stalling’s work divorced from the rapid fire animation it accompanied. In the end, this is a fine slice of Pakistani boogie-down, and whenever Akhtar exhales those deep sexy breaths she makes me want to go and renew my passport.

Track 7- Ducktails “Beach Point Pleasant”- Matt Mondanile of the Jersey band Real Estate has been cultivating this side project for a few years now, and it’s been getting increasingly more pop oriented of late. And that’s cool. But the tweaked yet mellow psyche action of this cut from the self-titled ’09 record on the Not Not Fun label sorta exemplifies the outsider promise of his stuff; on one hand it’s beachy, warm weather music perfect for zoning out in a lawn chair as an army of ants march into the potato salad of your personal picnic. But its looped textures, abstract guitar tangles and gusts of keyboard drift are not-climate specific, ultimately appropriate for a variety of activities and contexts. While a lot of experimental music examines textures and intensities that’ll throttle listeners unaccustomed to the exploratory nature of the endeavor, Ducktails is a far more relaxed proposition. Mondanile isn’t a disruptor, but he certainly is an extender. In the past I’ve compared the tool-shed psyche qualities on display in the Ducktails’ early catalog to Animal Collective, though Mondanile has surely craved out his own sound. Listening to this track for something like the thirtieth time (at least) I suddenly just thought of ‘60s Sun Ra; it’s those meandering keyboards, I’m sure of it.

Track 8- Joseph Spence “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer”- I first heard of Bahaman guitar master Spence way back when I was still in high school. A year or so after graduation I finally got cozy with his stupendous 1958 recordings as captured by Alan Lomax, and Spence’s strange yet deliriously infectious melodicism got under my skin and into my bloodstream so deeply that the disc was the only thing I listened to for nearly two weeks. Flash forward roughly a decade or so to a good friend and I chattily enthusing over Spence’s timeless grandeur with me relating just how terrifically addictive I initially found the guy’s stuff to be. My counterpart laughed and related a tale of a mutual pal’s own headfirst Spence binge, a plunge which became so severe his wife eventually announced in no uncertain terms that he would no longer be playing that CD in the house. Now this might sound like some harsh marital relations, but in reality it’s probably best described as a stern intervention. Joseph Spence’s music lacks commercial polish, but it’s amongst the most accessible sounds I know. His bullfrog croak makes some folks think of a scatterbrained Leon Redbone with a severe case of the mumbles, and that’s truly jake. Another thing; that constant foot-tap shares something with the soft yet hard driving beat of much post-‘70s dance music. And it took me years to notice this, so as immediately seductive as Spence’s music can be it also possesses undercurrents that reveal themselves with time.

Track 9- Sir Victor Uwaifo “Kirikisi (Ekassa 24)”- Nigerian music has been one of my favorite nooks in the musical landscape for a few years now. Uwaifo, nicknamed “Guitar Boy” because he’s a wiz on the ol’ six strings, mixes the highlife style of his home country with Western-style soul/funk and palm-wine music, a West African genre popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And while Uwaifo’s proficiency on guitar is obvious, he’s no mere noodler. This is groove music, made in a celebratory spirit, intended for dancing and joyous communion, and Uwaifo’s instrumental adeptness never interferes with the thrust of the songs. On the contrary, his imaginative technique adds a heap of distinct flavor to the proceedings. I tend to think this stuff sounds best when just slightly tipsy, with limbs extra limber and ready for motion, but the inherent prettiness is also appropriate for more sedate listening. So it’s great when standing up and sitting down. For anyone interested in African pop styles, GUITAR BOY SUPERSTAR 1970-1976 is an absolute must. This is the first track on that collection, and it only gets better from there.

Track 10- Nolan Strong & the Diablos “The Wind”- I finally got to hear this legendary Detroit doo-wop number a few years back, and it didn’t disappoint one wee bit. Doo-wop at its best can be a spectacularly weird genre, particularly the closer it gets to pure a cappella form, and while “The Wind” does feature guitar and bass accompaniment, it still stands as an odd (yet naturally conceived) bit of business. Strong’s lead vocals are exquisite, weaving terrifically with the tenor of Juan Guitierrez and the baritone of Willie Hunter, a deep-toned tandem whose work achieves a sort of emphatic lethargy, especially when Strong delves into the tune’s spoken section. Speaking of which, I’m not the first to point out that the leader’s recitation sounds more than a bit like Michael Jackson. “The Wind” possesses a lingering haunting quality that’s kept it consistently high in the estimation of doo-wop cultists, a bunch of occasionally curmudgeonly cats that can be rather stingy when doling out the praise. I mean some of those characters staunchly believe there hasn’t been anything worth listening to since around ’64 or so. Which is utter nonsense, but proving those fuddy-duddies wrong is not the point of including “The Wind” on this comp. Upon hearing, the point should be obvious.

Track 11- Leo Rowsome ‘The Ace and Deuce of Pipering”- more trad Irish stuff and the title track from an outstanding Dick Spottswood-curated collection of bagpipe music from betwixt the years 1906-1947. Leo Rowsome was a prolific guy, recording frequently as well as performing on radio, and this cut from ’33 really excels at establishing the dual qualities of the bagpipes; the more lithe though certainly harsh tones tasked with expressing the melodious nature of the tune at hand, but also the droney bedrock that anchors the performance, feeling at times almost like the warm thickness of those cheap electric chord organs that were popular in both home and church around thirty years ago. I could’ve chosen any of the songs from THE ACE AND DEUCE OF PIPERING, an excellent and multi-faceted survey (15 countries are represented over 20 cuts) of an often stereotyped instrument and an essentially lost vernacular, but this one by Rowsome got the nod. For anyone who automatically associates the bagpipes with dead Irish cops and/or firemen, searching out this typically out of print compilation just might expand a few horizons.

Track 12- The Raincoats “No One’s Little Girl”- one personal high-point for this year was getting to see The Raincoats, a favorite band of long standing, in a small space (namely Comet Ping Pong in Washington DC) and at the top of their game. When they played this tune early in their set (the second song if I recall correctly) a flood of memories hit me in the best possible way: cautiously ordering the MOVING reissue based on a glowing review in CMJ (by whom? Doug Wolk? Franklin Bruno?), for I loved the self-titled debut LP and the follow-up ODYSHAPE but was always worried over plunking down hard-earned cash for full-retail price compact discs that might prove disappointing; discovering that MOVING, while poppier and more mature, was anything but a letdown; repeatedly listening to the disc and this song in particular (not on the original LP, by the way) alone or with a most excellent ex-girl in my hotter than blazes second story apartment (no air-conditioning) that’s since been torn to the ground; writing a review of MOVING in my own fanzine’s second and final issue (how predictable, eh?), an enterprise that, looking back, divides me between indifference and nostalgia. I’m in no way indifferent toward The Raincoats, however. While they can fill my head with grand memories, the fact that the group continue to thrive as a vital creative force thankfully means they escape any potential snafu with simple nostalgic yearnings. Most bands half their age (or more) should hope to be half as good in the here and now.

Track 13- Tony Joe White “Stud Spider”- and speaking of country-soul, until recently I’d only been peripherally knowledgeable over Mr. White. Sure, I could recite “Polk Salad Annie” from memory, but outside of a few casual run-ins with somebody else’s party platters, I’d simply never had much exposure to Tony Joe’s output. Then a few months back while doing the dishes I was streaming WFMU and this song came on the box. Suddenly the situation turned quite sharply from the mundane, and it was surprisingly easy to guess who it was. Country-soul is a very good way of describing the guy’s work, but it’s also somewhat limited, for White also integrates a swampy, humidly bluesy angle into the stuff that’s quite unique. This is from his third LP released in 1970, and it can be hypothesized that the feverish, smack-talking hoodoo groove on display here is what late-period Elvis really could’ve sounded like if the unholy trio of Col. Tom, Dr. Nick and Tricky Dick hadn’t gotten him down.

Track 14- Alhaji K. Frimpong & His Cubano Fiestas “Kyenkyen Bi Adi Mawu”- absolutely killing Ghanaian highlife from ’76. One of the unsung greats of the ‘70’s African scene, Frimpong’s music at its best is a pressure cooker of advanced funk-science augmented with jazzy soloing, intense vocalizing and drumming that’s simply unfaltering. For incendiary use of hi-hat alone this track enters the upper echelon of rhythmic prestige. Also impressive is a flute solo that in no way hinders the song’s steamy, humid boil (a rare occurrence in my estimation, for flute is often a highfaluting [ar-ar] bring down). But Frimpong as leader possessed a seasoned jazzman’s ability at utilizing a wide instrumental palate; “Kyenkyen…” features guitar, organ, sax, trumpet, that flute, vocals and the rhythm section, all integrated into a flowing, seamless tapestry. Frimpong died in 2005, so unlike Ethiopian master Mulatu Astatke, any contemporary/retroactive “fame” for the man will be posthumous. And in one sense that’s a drag, but in another his (inevitable) discovery will plainly show that Frimpong’s music is solidly geared toward the ages, for the sound of Alhaji K. is truly inexhaustible stuff.

Track 15- Selda “Ince Ince Bir Kar Yagar”- context is everything. For when I first heard this tune on the revelatory (and highly recommended, natch) compilation ANATOLIA ROCKS – A MUSICAL TRIP THROUGH TURKEY 1963-1983, I categorized it for future reference as a somewhat harder rocking Turk version of Shocking Blue, the fine Dutch group of “Venus” and “Love Buzz” fame. Only later was I to discover that Selda Bağcan was an extremely popular folk singer in her home country and that her self-titled 1976 debut album (from whence this song originates) was a serious attempt to fuse folk, psyche, pop and even touches of prog. It’s a dandy LP, with “Ince Ince” probably being my personal high point from its dozen tracks, and when heard in the light of Selda’s subsequent jailing by Turkish authorities over the political content of her songs the music acquires an even deeper resonance. “Ince Ince” is a smart blend of up-tempo folkish strum, polished but strong rock rhythms, undeniably pop-inflected vocal moves and some tough but fleet psyche-fuzz guitar. And that initial comparison to Shocking Blue isn’t all that inapt, but the fact that Selda’s not singing in English makes it plain that she wasn’t shooting for any sort of international pop-chart success. Instead she was creating for change in her homeland. Just another hero, y’know?

Track 16- Bessie Banks “Go Now”- the pre-crap R&B-era Moody Blues hit big with a cover of this tune, and their take is indeed a good one (actually, it’s a great one), but any key cat will tell you the original is where the true action resides. The combination of Banks’ bruised, almost mournful voice, the assured drive and gorgeous tone of the piano in the lead, the sly horns, the modest but crucial rhythm section, the achy boost of the backing voices, the impeccable production by Leiber and Stoller…all the basses are covered, and it’s a crying shame, a crime even, that this version climbed no higher than #40 on the R&B charts before having its thunder stolen by those dudes from Birmingham. The Blues’ version surely flaunts a smooth, insistent finesse and a piano solo for the ages from Mike Pinder, but in comparison Bessie Banks feels like the personification of a true broken heart. The Moodies are ultimately too polished to be anything but a brilliant approximation of romantic despondency. I’m tickled to the gills to have both takes of the tune, but Banks makes me want to knock back a snort of the hard stuff in commiseration with lovelorn sufferers everywhere. I mean I know what it's about; heartbreak is a truly universal language.

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