This is a most highly refined margarine of heartbreak. When you’re stocking yourself with the china, spritzed by the twinkle on your spurs, it’s the sort of stuff that stands up in delicious, slick black streaks. As you’re burning a grilled cheese.
There are vocal affectations, and then there are voices—voices that transcend personal expression and become a signpost or something resembling a formal genre convention. What starts as just the way some guy or girl sings eventually becomes a signifier of time, place, and politics. We have the alt rock voice (Cobain/Vedder through Stapp/Nickleback) the metal voice (obviously there’s lots of kinds of metal voices, but for all intents and purposes we’re talking about incoherent growling here, which I’ll trace back, not without serious factual error, here, to Slayer) and increasingly, we have the not-a-pop-star white girl voice.
Shania Twain was a big deal because she made country music that was palatable to people who didn’t like country music, and a lot of that had to do with her voice. She sang with enough twang to be country, enough country to never be fully pop, but enough city rigidity to appeal to the whatever part of the listening public it is that doesn’t like country music but liked Shania Twain (I see that my thesis has a hole here —who are these people, and what is it about country music that they don’t like? Questions for another time.) She was also—and this is important—Canadian.
It is my belief that the country vocal style comes naturally to the Canadian voice. Part of Shania’s deal, I’d argue, came from the fact that she wasn’t a country girl singing country, she was a First Nations Canadian singing pop, which just came out sounding like country.
We now live in a world where I hear slivers of country in the vocals of most of pop’s leading female singers who sing primarily in front of traditional rock instrumentation. Taylor Swift is the obvious queen of this phenomenon, but while she goes out and embraces electronic Skrillex music, while maintaining at least some of the country in her voice, we have Avril and Hayley going the opposite way, and meeting somewhere in the middle.
In 2013 are nearing the culmination of a process begun back in 1993 when, meeting Mutt Lange for the first time, Shania Twain unknowingly set in motion a series of events that would merge Canadian identity, pop punk, ties worn over t-shirts, country music, Mayer-shaming, and youthful exuberance into a single sound. In Avril Lavigne, Hayley Williams and Taylor Swift we have the holy trinity, the unholy triplet brood of Shania, and they’ve come to remake the world of popular music in her image, surreptitiously, covertly, from the inside. When their destinies are fulfilled, we will all be listening to country music and not even know it. We will hear distorted electric guitars, see an alt rock station on the dial, and bob our heads not realizing how at odds our love for Incubus is with the COUNTRY music that we’re listening to. It will be everywhere and it will not wear cowboy hats or fringe.
Though this time is still a ways off, it is closer than you may think. Listen to Paramore and Avril’s new singles closely, compare them with Red, think on it. Something is afoot, something even I can’t quite put my finger on. All I know for sure is that when I listen to Taylor, Avril and Hayley, I picture the same middle school hallway, and not just any middle school hallway: a middle school hallway in some unimportant backwater burg nobody every cared much about: a middle school hallway in a one stoplight town that most folks breezed through without noticing they’d ever been there, somewhere out on the plains of northern Alberta where the wind was cold in Winter, but bred real Canadians, with real Canadian voices: a middle school hallway where young girls fall in love, dye their hair, and grow up grasping acoustic guitars, wishing for something bigger, something more exciting, more dangerous. I call the middle school that contains this hallway “Shania Twain Middle School” for reasons that should be pretty obvious if you’ve been paying any attention.
Fifty years ago this week the Kingsmen, a band from Portland, Oregon, recorded “Louie Louie,” which should get a commemorative postage stamp if anyone mailed anything any more (actually, especially because they don’t). In many ways, that recording both launched and came to typify the genre of music roughly known as garage punk. This genre was in full swing by 1966, faded from the scene by 1968, but refused to die. Successive generations of bands since the mid-80s have been reviving, retooling, and regurgitating songs like “Louie Louie” and inventing scruffy originals in their image, like so many golden calves forged amidst much drinking and dancing. These bands persist like Forever stamps in an era of Facebook and Twitter, affixed with a kiss to a tangible, noisy, and heartfelt musical past.
Like many other garage punk hit-makers, the Kingsmen repurposed “Louie Louie,” in this case from a calypso song by Richard Berry, who recorded it in 1957 (as Richard Berry and the Pharaohs) and made virtually no money from it until the 1980s. Berry’s original is a great song, but almost unrecognizable today owing to what later bands did with it. The Kingsmen’s version boiled the song down to its bare essentials, because that’s all the band had the money or skill to do; and even so, their recording was positively tame compared to what The Sonics, just up the road in Tacoma, did with it in 1965—not to mention Pittsburgh’s The Swamp Rats, whose 1967 version might have been chargeable with gross musical harm in a different decade or under a different rule of law. It’s no accident that the two other versions of “Louie Louie” (out of more than a thousand that have been recorded) that I own, by Paul Revere and the Raiders and by Little Bill with the Adventurers, are also from the Northwest, since (a) that’s where I’m from and (b) that’s where Berry’s original recording was a hit.
Other classics soon joined “Louie Louie” in the garage-punk canon, both borrowed (“Hey Joe,” origins murky, but recorded by numerous bands starting in 1965; “Have Love, Will Travel,” also by Richard Berry, and garagified by the Sonics) and new (“Pushin’ to Hard” by the Seeds, “Psycho” by the Sonics, “I Can Only Give You Everything” by Them). Few genres have been as wedded to a canon—in large part, I think, because so many garage bands learned rock and roll in their practice rooms, on stage, and in recording studios, by seeing how far they could bend, twist, and shout the sweat out of the six or seven combinations of three chords that these pioneers pressed onto plastic. And since they didn’t know what they were doing, they chose really easy songs to cover. They recorded their songs on the cheap as well: The Kingsmen’s recording of “Louie Louie” cost them all of $50.
There are some examples of garage punk from 1963, and a few more from 1964-65; but based on the songs I’ve come to know, 1966 was the year when it all came together. I haven’t seen any theories about this, but my guess is that 1966 was so important because that was the year most of the major-label rock and roll icons stretched themselves farther than they had done before: LPs like “Revolver” and “Pet Sounds,” and singles like “Eight Miles High,” “Mellow Yellow,” “Paint It Black,” “I Am A Rock,” and “Substitute” were all game-changers for the bands that created them, and for hundreds of bands that formed that year. 1966 was the year the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, and Stones took chances, and taking chances was what garage punk was all about—within the significant constraint of three chords, little money, and whatever substantial musical limitations they might have faced. But to focus on their shortcomings misses the point. Forming a band in Portland or Pittsburgh, and pressing a single that only your friends might like, was the big chance they all took, and the world is a better place for it.
Similar styles of music also flourished in Britain (fewer cars meant fewer garages, so it was called “freakbeat” there): some of my favorites from that side of the Atlantic include The Sorrows, the Music Machine, and The Mickey Finn—whose 1965 ode to agnosticism, “Ain’t Necessarily So,” is equal parts Biblical criticism and cheeky rhyming dictionary. And, for that matter, garage punk flourished anywhere else in the world that ever heard (of) the blues, the Beatles, or Bob Dylan. The incredible bands Q65 and Cuby and the Blizzards both hailed from the Netherlands (where the scene was called Nederbeat), and made R&B sound the same way the Count Bishops and Motorhead would do a decade later. In Japan, The Mops will forever reign supreme in my book: their “I’m Just a Mops” is crazy-stupid, they covered both “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” on their first and only LP, and, on their song “San Francisco Nights,” they encouraged listeners to save their money to buy an airplane ticket to California. And on and on: The La De Das (New Zealand), The Easybeats (Australia) and The Mascots (Sweden) also converged in the international garage in 1966.
Most garage punk bands in the sixties, though, were American. Crucially, however, they were not just from New York and Los Angeles. A garage rock road map might take you from Boston (the Remains), to New Jersey (The Myddle Class), through Cleveland (The Outsiders) and Chicago (The Cryan’ Shames and the Shadows of Knight) to Minneapolis (The Litter), to Portland (see above), then down the coast to northern California (The Beau Brummels and The Other Half from San Francisco; The Chocolate Watchband, and The Count Five from San Jose)—with a detour through New Mexico (The Chob) and Texas (Mouse and the Traps, Zakary Thaks). Even the best Los Angeles band, The Seeds, formed after the legendary Sky Saxon found his way there from Utah. And these are just some of the canon-worthy bands; each and every state in between featured dozens of garage bands, many of which recorded at least a single or two on a local label. The one thing you wouldn’t find, very often at all, was a garage band with women in the line-up; this would wait until the 1980s, and even then, an old boy network remained the norm in that scene.
After 1966, most bands that stayed together beyond their first couple of singles did one of two things: they learned how to play their instruments and became a white blues band, or they took a lot of drugs and became a psychedelic band. Some of the first batch, mainly from Europe, produced some pretty amazing representatives of that genre, including The Blues Project and Cuby and the Blizzard. The psychedelic track yielded some sublime moments and some ridiculous ones, often on the same album: witness the UK band Tomorrow, or just about anything by the Blossom Toes. Quite a few garage band alumni became famous, especially in Britain: Jimmy Page went from The Mickey Finn (where he played a supporting role to the brilliant Mickey Waller) to Led Zeppelin, via The Yardbirds; Ritchie Blackmore went from The Sessions to Deep Purple, Ted Nugent graduated from the Amboy Dukes, Van Morrison left Them to become Him, The Herd launched Peter Frampton, and The Move turned into ELO.
Best of all, from my historian’s perspective, the sixties-era garage scene is one of the best and most lovingly documented music genres in existence. Documentation began in earnest in 1972, when the rock critic Lenny Kaye (who later played guitar for the Patti Smith Group) teamed up with Elektra Records to issue a double LP he called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era. Thanks to Kaye’s liner notes and impeccable selection, Nuggets established the garage-punk canon, which within a decade would inspire new bands to start their own garage rock scenes. Other compilations followed: Pebbles went through eleven volumes between 1978 and 2007, scrubbing the ground left unpicked by Nuggets, and the Moxie label out of LA issued ten volumes of Boulders between 1980 and 1984. These were just the tip of the iceberg: nearly every local sixties garage scene has at least one compilation devoted to it. The rush to unearth local garage-punk graveyards sometimes took an amusing turn, as when the Vancouver band One Way Street found themselves on a Louisiana compilation! (see video below for the full scoop). Finally, with the dawning of the internet, garage punk found ample living quarters in the blogosphere. My favorites include Garage Hangover, Dan’s Garage, and Flower Bomb Songs.
When I was eight years old I was impressed, in the physical meaning of the word that only music and lithography are capable of, by Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” which was a big hit in 1971. His layered shouts jumped out of the speakers and landed in my ears, and there they’ve stayed for forty years. I heard that song a lot on the radio in the mostly-white Pacific Northwest of the early 1970s. I heard “The Whole Funky World is a Ghetto,” by Bobby Patterson, for the first time last week. The two songs share shouts and echoes and loping feedback, and both jump out of the speaker. Both were dangerous, in their own way; Bobby Patterson’s was dangerous in a political way, which made it unlikely for a white kid in Oregon to hear it in 1972. It might have told me about racism, immigration, pollution, and really loud guitars, but it didn’t have a chance to.
Bobby Patterson, who grew up in Dallas, had a lot more to do with James Brown and Otis Redding than he had to do with the Black Panthers. Most of his songs, like the brilliant “If You Took a Survey” or “Quiet, Do Not Disturb” (most likely the best-ever song about coitus interruptus), were about the usual blues themes of sex, adultery, and other darker shades of love. The same, with appropriate geographical and musical and gender variations, could be said about Stevie Wonder, Camille Yarborough, Parliament, and numerous other acts I don’t have space to mention here. But the common denominator was that most of them recorded at least one honest song about the world they lived in during the early 1970s, a world that wasn’t mine at the time, and that I wasn’t likely to learn about from the TV, the newspapers, or the radio in the Pacific Northwest.
Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot more than I once knew about American race relations forty years ago, thanks in large measure to my colleague Robyn Spencer, but thanks also to catching up on what African American singers managed to sneak onto their major-label LPs at the time. One of the best-known of these eye-witnesses was Stevie Wonder, and his most telling story, “Living for the City” (1973), even got heavy airplay in white as well as black parts of the country. The four-minute radio version was telling enough, but you had to buy the album (Innervisions) to get the seven-minute version, which breaks into an agonizing short motion picture where the single ends, tracking a newcomer to New York from his Mississippi hopes and dreams, through the NYPD, to a broken family, told in an anguished voice that Stevie Wonder never, ever, would replicate again.
Camille Yarborough never tried to be on the radio like Stevie Wonder was all his life. She only released one album in the seventies, “The Iron Pot Cooker” in 1975 (another, the marvellous “Ancestor House,” appeared in 2004), and it sounds, in hindsight, more like Traci Chapman than like anything going on at the time. In other words, way too ahead of its time to stand a chance of getting airplay in the Pacific Northwest. Her closest contemporary counterparts were the Last Poets, since around half the album is spoken word with a thriving bassline. Compared to the more standard compositions, the spoken-word lyrics are more (perhaps too) obvious: “Last night, night before/ The silent majority blamed the dark and poor/ They blamed the schools, they blamed the slums/ They blamed the lazy welfare bums.” Even these ones soar, because Yarbough’s voice soared above the lesson she was teaching, full of painful emotion. But the ones that stick, now that they’ve made their impressions, are the songs that she sang: like “Ain’t It a Lonely Feeling,” which contrasts “my and me” with “we and free”: in other words, the two most enduring, and conflicting, American dreams, regardless of your color of skin.
Around the same time as “The Iron Pot Cooker,” Parliament released their song “Chocolate City.” I was eleven years old in 1975, and this song would probably have had the same impact on me, at some level, as “God Save the Queen” would have a year later. They showed the latter on American TV, perhaps because the Sex Pistols were British and we didn’t have a queen. We did have a White House, and I think I would have noticed if they had shown Parliament painting it black on “Chocolate City”: I didn’t. The roll call in George Clinton’s White House of the Future is worth recounting: Muhammad Ali, president; Aretha Franklin, first lady; Reverend Ike (Frederick Eikerenkoetter, a radio evangelist), “minister of the treasure”; Richard Pryor, minister of education; Stevie Wonder, minister of the arts. At its core, this was a local song, about the black majority in Clinton’s home town of Washington, DC. The chorus, “Gainin’ on ya,” said it all. But it was also about the country, where braces of soon-to-be-suburban white people were packing, as they braced for African-American majorities and mayors of the same color in Gary, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark, and (for a time) New York. Just not my country, at the time.
These examples are the tip of the iceberg. Marvin Gaye (“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler,” 1971), Sly and the Family Stone (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” 1969), and Edwin Starr (“War,” 1970) all included a track or two on their major-label efforts in the early seventies to make sure people got the message. Since then, by and large, the intersection of black power and music has become (like most other things) a niche market, reserved for the already-converted fans of Public Enemy, Dead Prez, The Coup, and other laudable but increasingly less-relevant voices. The message didn’t go away; and we do have a president in the White House today with a Muslim last name and a similar skin tone to Muhammad Ali. But it has dispersed, in both good and bad ways, and for good and bad reasons.
In patterns that are as diverse as the world is, the turmoil that impressed inner-city anguish onto vinyl in late-60s America is daily recurring in ghettoes from Dakar to Dacca. As Mike Davis pointed out in his sweeping book Planet of Slums (2006), at least a billion souls live in shanty towns, the ongoing culmination of the largest and most rapid migration of people the world has ever seen. Many of these places have produced the same crucibles that DC, the Bronx, and LA kindled in the 1970s, which have pulled from all sorts of musical influences to send all sorts of invigorating messages. The Bongo Flava scene in Tanzania; Sen Kumpë and Keyto in Senegal (see Keyto’s video below); or Zubz (real name Ndabaningi Mabuye) from South Africa, all personify this. Zubz followed his mellowish hip-hop debut, “Listener’s Digest” (2004) with the amazing “Headphone Music (In A Parallel World)” in 2006. The very funky “Cochlea—One More Time,” which came next in 2009, played Idlewild to his earlier Stankonias. The song “Fight Back,” from the middle CD, says exactly that, and makes you want to march; “The Legend of the Golden Mic,” from the debut, spits a surrealist mythology that’s equal parts Black Athena, W.E.B. DuBois, and Dr. Octagon.
Then there are the diasporas: From India to Fiji, Guiana, Trinidad, South Africa, and eventually Britain; from Jamaica, Barbados, Lagos and Cape Town to London and New York; from Algeria and Senegal to Paris and Marseilles. (And, in all these cases, back again). An older development, historically speaking, but for that reason a producer of even richer intersections of music with how the other 95% live. Keny Arkana (see video below), born to Argentine parents and now living in Marseilles, is one the most vibrant and politically vocal hip-hop artists operating out of France, alongside La Rumeur. Here are two more examples from London: Lowkey is the son of an English dad an Iraqi mom, who says on his song “My Soul”: “I refuse to be a product or a brand, I’m a human/ I refuse to be a part of the gangsta illusion.” And Trenton and Free Radical (pictured above) is mostly Trenton Birch, a Johannesburg native who passed through Nigeria, Kenya and London before settling in Cape Town last year; their debut album, “Giant Step,” combines ska with hard-edged dance-pop and pulls only a punch or two in hummable, positive lyrics that insist on telling the “first world” about the “third” one. All this is clear enough from the song “United Nations,” which covers environmental devastation, refugees, genocide, and child prostitution, and makes you want to dance at the same time.
Not all, or even many, of these artists are on major labels, the way Bobby Patterson and Parliament were in the early 70s. But then again, it’s fair to say that any precocious nine-year-old today with internet access will have a lot easier time finding out about them than I had finding out about Bobby Patterson in 1973 with my FM radio and “Seattle’s Best Rock” on KISW. So it’s some bad news and some good news, as usual. The whole world is, increasingly, a ghetto, with little hope of a short-term reversal of that trend. But it’s also increasingly funky.
Keyto’s Nguir Gune Doon Gune, which is about so-called talibes, real-life Oliver Twists on the streets of Dakar:
And Keny Arkana, “La Rage,” from her outstanding 2006 CD “Entre Ciment et Belle Étoile”:
My favorite Prince song isn’t a Prince song, in a way. Always good at shading certain kinds of ambivalence into personal contradiction (maybe I’m just like my father … maybe I’m just like my mother), he sometimes also made use of additional cast members for the effect. The way this works in Sheila E’s song of the woman-liberated-by-materialism involves how the chorus triumphs She wants to live the glamorous life / She don’t need a man’s touch — but simultaneously worries Without love / It aint much. Prince throws the voice around a bit, with the unnamed protagonist who has big thoughts, big dreams / And a big brown Mercedes sedan (the car is a princely detail that reappears later, followed by a wake of numerology), and then going over to a narrator: What I think this girl / She really wants / Is to be in love with a man.
In the second verse the protagonist confides, dropping into first person: Boys with small talk and small minds / Really don’t impress me a bit / She said I need a man’s man, baby / Diamonds and furs / Love would only go to my head. But in the end she and the narrator — who may, considering his omniscience, also be the “he” who disappears with her in the glamorous brown sedan — are reconciled as in the realization that gives the last two lines of the chorus (without love…) back to her: She thought: real love is real scary / Money only pays the rent / Love is forever / That’s all your life / Love is heaven-sent — and, what’s more — It’s glamorous.
Still from a television advertisement. Audio: St. Thomas, "The Red Book" (2004).
Many of my stories seem to start in record stores. This one starts in the first half of the last decade, when I spent a month or so out of each year in London, where a must-visit was the since-closed Rough Trade record shop in Covent Garden. They always seemed to have at least one CD that changed my life, just a little bit, every time I visited: Ballboy’s The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories was one, and Hey Harmony by St. Thomas was another.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending: St. Thomas was mostly Thomas Hansen, who died at the age of 31 of an “unfortunate combination of prescribed drugs” in 2007, the same year the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden shut down. When he was alive, he looked like a thinner Stephin Merritt, with the same evil twinkle in his eye, the same reverence for campy Americana, and the same penchant for melancholy brilliance. Unlike Mr. Merritt, Hansen sang (sometimes warbled, sometimes yodeled) his sad songs in a tenor voice, took his country influences a few furlongs farther, and lived in Norway. He lived long enough to record four albums and several EPs between 2000 and 2005 (see a full discography here, but good luck finding much of it), the most memorable being Hey Harmony (2003) and Let’s Grow Together (2004)—both of which are easy enough to track down on i- or other-tunes.
Even before he died, and before I found out that he had died a few years later, I would dial up his songs when I felt like feeling sad, or enhancing the sadness I already felt; now there’s an extra layer. Sad songs, like all emotion-inducing songs, range from the banal (most break-up ballads fit that bill) to the profound. St. Thomas occupied the second space, with more than a touch of irony-tinged tribute to the sadness of tragi-country classics by the likes of Webb Pierce or Gram Parsons. Like them, he knew how to make his voice crack, which voices tend to do when emotions get the better of them. And like them, he told sad stories. On Let’s Grow Together, my favorite is “The Red Book,” which jangles through two verses about (a) the intersection of love and stolen vehicles and (b) an encounter with a wise ex-con on a bus trip from Atlanta to Nashville. The chorus goes: “We dig ourselves dead before the night comes,” followed by a good Norwegian yodel or two. “Silence Break Your Heart,” my second-favorite song on the strong-overall CD, ventures down a bluegrass-strewn path, with beautiful backing vocals.
“Hey Harmony” mixes in some whimsical cheer with the sadness, as on “Heroes Making Dinner,” which is a Sunday-brunch of a song replete with wine, cookies, fuzzy guitars, and aliens. The loping “A Long Long Time” is the perfect unrequited love song, which plaintively croons “Bye bye love, I miss you too” on the way out of a warm house full of friends offering solace. But even most of the sad lyrics on this album are more hopeful (“The sweet cowgirl came and asked you for a dance/ everything was up for a romance”) and punctuated with absurdisms (such as the lines “Mushroom in the garden is getting stronger legs to stand on,” as observed in the song “Sitting on the Porch”); again with the occasional yodel. The general theme seems to be that Norwegians, especially the farmers, drink more than they should: happy while it lasts, but sad when it’s over.
Melina Metsoukas, the music video director you may remember from last year’s “We Found Love” for Rihanna is also responsible for this charmingly art-directed bauble for Solange. The track leads off Knowles’ EP True, a full-length collaboration with English musician Dev Hynes (the smooth but crisp tone of the production reminds me of a less fraught Furtado-era Timbaland; but Hynes’ more contemporary variety of eclecticism might be quickly summarized by a few links from his Wikipedia entry — Florence and the Machine, Saddle Creek Records, Hal Ashby, the Tindersticks and Van Dyke Parks).
Were music videos always fashion editorials mobilized to the service of pop packaging? Or were they once, as I have tended to think, ads built only partly on the contingencies of fashion? The case that Metsoukas makes—with a very sure hand on the editing console and exquisite set tailoring—is that the former is closer to what we’re shooting for now. Like Sophie Muller, rather than getting bogged down with whatever scenario is called for (if any) and larding up the in-between time with product placement, the point is to address the song but also dress it way, way up. And it seems to me that by adopting this attitude of high preciousness, the director avoids the sense of pretense which tends to accompany a million dollar 5-minute narrative, and tries instead to carefully cultivate a kind of internal weather. Rather than attempting to sell the song on the basis of some baggy bundle of aspiration and distraction, she merely sets it in the right bezel.
Timothy Alborn is a new contributor to Ply. Alborn, a professor at Lehman College and CUNY Graduate Center, founded Harriet Records (1989-1998) and published the zine Incite! from 1985 to 1998. Some background on Incite! was recently featured on the blog of the London Review of Books.
Whenever I’m in a faraway place for the first time, one of my priorities is to figure out where the best record stores are and find my way there. This almost always results in finding something I’ve been seeking forever, or something astoundingly new, at least to me (it also usually results in my getting lost). When I was in Prague in July, the consensus was that the record store I needed to visit was called Rocksters. I nearly missed it, since it was tucked away in an alley and up a flight of stairs. But perverance paid off: it was exactly what a record store should be, with plenty of good records and good advice from the woman at the counter (she steered me away from the grindcore and gave me plenty of time to listen to the things that looked interesting). I learned about an amazing punk rock band called Zeměžluč (from Brno), which has been busy being melodically angry since the late 1980s. I also picked up a sampler from the label that seems to be the Most Worth Knowing About in Prague, which goes by the unassuming name of Indies Scope.
(I also had a hard time not running into the amazing postcard/ book-bag/ tee-shirt conveyor, Fun Explosive, which has achieved blanket coverage of Prague’s expansive gift-store scene; sampled at the left). A lot of people pass through Prague, so it’s not surprising that musical influences have proliferated along with all the visitors. Add to that the fact that Indies Scope seems to be committed to be as eclectic as possible (a luxury afforded by a smallish scene), and the result is a pretty broad spectrum of artists: the only ones not included are punk and metal, and I have the sense they’ve got enough support (label and otherwise) in Prague. Bands on the label brandish American blues, British folk, and even classical sounds, and some venture (falteringly) into hip-hop, post-punk and dance. A critical mass, though, are recognizably “folk” in a very Eastern European vein: most traditionally so on Prosti Dumi’s “Aide Na Balnana” CD (2007), a Bulgarian-Czech hybrid with jagged accordians ablare. The very strong self-titled CD by Jananas (2011) swerves toward pop, and judging from youtube evidence, Europop of an unbearably cheesy might be in their future (it’s a fine line, apparently). And a band that embodies Indies Scope’s eclecticism are the Yellow Sisters, who went from edgy Czech folk on their first CD (Singalana, 2006) to feminist-gospel-Africana (think “Lion King”: it’s that approachable) on “Tubab Woman” (2010), to children’s music on this year’s “Zvěřinec.” Then there’s this matter of their two hip-hop songs on the topic of breast-feeding, which you have to see to believe.
Of the large and varied array of musicians who have appeared on Indies Sounds, the two that I keep coming back to are Dva and Tara Fuki. Dva comes closest to my lazy approximation of pop perfection, which (these days) has its needle pointed to Swedish artists like Lykke Li and Lasse Lindh, who I’m sure I’ll be writing about soon enough. Exhibit A: Dva’s song “Tatanc,” which features the chorus “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which happens to be the name of incredible songs by those two bands farther to the north. And it’s quite a bit better than either of those. As I hope you’ll be able to figure out from the video I’ve posted below, their edge lies in their assuredness, their ability to stretch traditional musical forms into the realm of the postmodern, and, above all, Bára Kratochvílová’s sinuous tenor saxophone, which elevates what might have been just another tape-loopish electro sound to stratospheric levels. They sound a bit like the Leeds post-punk band Delta 5, only quite a bit more melodic (and without the bass guitars or the drums); their most recent CD “Hu” is their best, so the future is promising.
Tara Fuki (pictured at the right) are Andrea Konstankiewicz (who’s Polish) and Dorota Blahutova (from Brno): two women, two amazing voices, two amazing cellos (or at least what they do with them is amazing). They shone especially on their debut CD “Piosenki Do Snu” (2001) which means “Songs for Sleeping” in Polish: this must be the kind of sleeping my cat does when she kicks her heels against the pillow. All the lyrics on this one, and most of the lyrics on their next three, are in Polish, which (apparently) has “softer vowels and consonants.” I’ve always thought the cello was the best “classical” instrument to appeal to a rock, or even punk, sensibility, because its sound fills up so much space without having to be plugged into anything; and that’s certainly the case here. It doesn’t hurt that both singers have incredible range and an uncanny bond with one another’s voices and instruments. Witness “Pada” (listen here), which builds from a sexy whisper-cello back-and-forth to a rocking climax. They’ve gotten slower, jazzier, and sparser as the years have progressed, but are still very much worth tracking down: “Piosenki Do Snu” is still available one mp3 at a time on amazon, and the rest (including the very good “Kapka” from 2003), are on itunes.
It may be that the cello, played with hard edges the way Tara Fuki does, and the tenor saxophone, are exactly the right complement to the Czech and Polish languages, which have plenty of hard edges of their own. Or, as likely, Dva and Tara Fuki would be hard to beat whatever language they used. But I’m glad they’re sticking with the one(s) they know best: their vowels and consonants are more than edgy enough for me.
This week’s video: “Nunovo Tango,” recorded live on Dnipropetrovsk TV:
Watching a friend’s home movies recently, a scene that should have been relegated to his own memories opened a zone of aural prepubescent for me. Private municipalities of children’s birthday parties… ice skating rinks, bowling alleys; the special room in McDonald’s where each kid gets a Happy Meal, a chunk of thawed Ronald McDonald ice cream cake and private VIP access to the play zone (plastic balls that smell like feet).
My friend and his brothers, ages 4–10, were jumping in and out of an in ground pool in Long Island, each of them coaxing the others to complete and repeat the chorus of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It.” Mostly just “Anything you want, you got it.” A lot. For a good three minutes of VHS. It never seemed to diminish its pleasure.
At my age during that period, this and two other songs were some of the only radio songs that had really penetrated me. I was still jamming to the primary colored cassette tapes of Raffi, Sharon, Lowis and Bram: Bobo folk music for the junior set. Even the Beatles were out of reach. My Dad’s stuff infused me: late 60s and 70s rock—Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Neil Young—somehow R.E.M. snuck in there. But Pop was still alien; I wasn’t really primed for Debbie Gibson, Belinda Carlisle—whatever those sounds were. There was no cause for me to have been exposed; kids weren’t passing around cassette tapes yet: they listened to whatever stations their parents played on the radio and I listened to what mine did (in fact, I found it shocking, even by fourth grade, that my friend had the gall and tacit permission to take control of the car dial). But this song came out in 1989; it issued at the call of our preset radio buttons, and it straddled the threshold between my musical inheritance and what I’d claim as my own two or three years later.
Also in heavy rotation during “You Got It’s” tenure were “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys (penned for Tom Cruise’s Cocktail) and late 1987’s “I Got My Mind Set on You” by George Harrison (originally performed by Rudy Clark in 1962). They were all fruit punch bright; brisk and compelling—I bet as much for my parents as for me. I remember sitting, with special permission, in the sheepskin covered front seat of my Mom’s minivan, unwilling to go into the bakery (the bakery—if you can believe) because I was determined to listen all the way through “Set on You.”
Maybe it’s because it’s a bit harder to distinguish songs when you’re six that these songs seem of a common denominator now, but I think they really are. At minimum what unites them is that they’re performed by Boomer generation superstars who revived their careers for a short time in the 80s (Harrison and Orbison too in the Traveling Wilburys). They also stood at the very peak moment of the popular shift from cassette to CD (the moment when cassettes began to lose to CDs in market share). In fact, I would wager that these very songs were contributing factors to that shift: dusted off legends shedding old skin made Boomers too want to vest in to the modern day. CD inserts more like LP covers than cassettes could be; shaped like records with an iridescent (Terminator mercury) gleam. The sounds came from artists whose latter careers in the 60s and 70s fell more in the range of woebegone than jubilant, but they were now Up With People, Tic Tac fresh, so a six year old could enjoy them and the 80s embrace them.
There’s a tropical retirement vacation vibe too. Though Orbison falls less into this category, there was a palette of colors and garments with these songs and their performers—Harrison and the Beach Boys in Hawaiian shirts; Orbison, at least, in sunglasses. I think this is partially what the pool imagery in my friend’s movie drew out for me. Those late 80s colors: aqua, pastel orange, hot pink—colors Tom Cruise mixed up in his cocktail shaker; colors D.J. Tanner broadcast on her bedspread in Full House (where “Kokomo,” via Uncle Jesse, was the centerpiece of a “Very Special Episode”). They tied it all together. I know it’s actually a fruit—a hybrid fruit, which is nice—but I like to call those years and all that stuff tangelo.
Atmosphere hardly gets brinier than this: the drums rolling in against the rocks, the constant hummmmm setting off occasional sprays of guitar, with clinking and chiming flashing up in the background, like white caps. In the midst of it all, the broad reverb and echoed instruments blurring the image of this ancient sailor, the “matelot.”
(As seen on Alex’s tumblr and featured in the major motion picture Le Havre.)