Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Throwing Muses - Hunkpapa

Throwing Muses - Hunkpapa
by Gillian Watson

Hunkpapa is far from the highlight of Throwing Muses’ varied career. Almost universally panned, and disowned by head Muse Kristin Hersh, Hunkpapa saw the young band cajoled by their record company into straightening out their songwriting and adding glistening keyboards and horns that stood in stark contrast to the visceral, countrified post-punk of earlier albums, sounding tame in comparison. And yet I am constantly drawn back to it, perhaps moreso than any other Muses album.

We might put it down to nostalgia. Hunkpapa was my introduction to Throwing Muses; the odd melodies slowly wound their way around my head until I could anticipate every note, and now they tend to carry me away to seasons past. Yet Hunkpapa is the album that keeps on giving: interesting to approach cerebrally but still best experienced from the gut. Listening to it for the first time was a distinctly unsettling experience. This fourteen-year-old, who thought “Here Comes Your Man” was the epitome of punk, had no idea what make of this awkward conflation of commerciality and madness. The music reminded me of the budget country-and-western compilation they played in my parents’ favourite Ayrshire roadside café: dated, distant and yet recognisable; but the vocals were unmistakably out of the ordinary. Hersh sounded at once like a bitter, washed-up diva and a hopeful teenager, repulsive with the naked emotion and beguiling with cooing harmonies.

It was a while before I was able to pinpoint what fascinated and confused me so deeply: the confrontation between urban and natural soundscapes. Metallic clangs and horns collided awkwardly with sunshine yellow guitar; the imagery and melodic runs on “Bea” recalled rainy fields at night. This awkward combination was perhaps the natural conclusion of an evolution in sound which began with the barnlike echo of the Chains Changed EP and the panoramic sheen of House Tornado. Unfortunately the dark, disturbing nature of that album’s knife-like edge is dimmed by the sequel’s overproduction. On the first two records, nature is present in the music like day-to-day life in the countryside, and Hunkpapa is the country seen through a car window: a balance struck more successfully by “The Big Country” on Talking Heads 77. This uneasy balance between the urban and the pastoral struck a personal chord with me, a teenager who’d grown up in the city but with roots in the country. I found it difficult to reconcile the two sides.

By contrast, the commercial sound adds a delicious narrative to the band’s career: Throwing Muses vs. Sire Records, an age-old conflict to which any critic can quickly attribute Hunkpapa’s central flaw: the emasculation of the two bandleaders. The first time I listened to the album I noted with sadness that it was, well, girly. At the time I’d wondered how the Pixies could have toured with them, as I still unaware of their older albums, the ones that touched on unexplored backwaters of the female experience with toughness and energy. On Hunkpapa, the edges that made Hersh and Donelly one-offs rather than identikit girls-with-guitars are sanded away. Hersh’s voice swoops ethereally but rarely rasps. The effectiveness of her songs here are, at best, dulled by the production (“Mania”’s funny, vivid representation of bipolarity shakes out into an incoherent rave-up) and, at worst, rendered downright annoying (“The Burrow” sounds like a polite hoedown at a high school sleepover). Donelly’s “Angel”, while pretty, veers closer to Adult Contemporary than anything else in the band’s career.

Yet slicker production didn’t dull the band’s edginess completely, and intermittently serves to accentuate its angles here instead. Take the minimalism of songs like “Devil’s Roof”, which sounds almost like a mathematical formula for the Muses sound: Hersh’s cantering rhythm guitar, Donelly’s liquid leads that surface and disappear again like fish, Leslie Langston’s talkative bass and David Narcizo’s boxy drums. The clear, spacious production reveals the band’s individual personalities much more effectively than 1991’s colourful, but unfocused The Real Ramona. Look at the back cover: four wispy, thoughtful faces in sepia thumbnail prints. You could almost see them as a family on a day trip: Leslie quietly steering, David tapping on his knees, Kristin bitching and Tanya staring out of the window in a daydream. This almost dated notion of what makes a band “sell,” the presentation of the band members as personalities, as well as the glossy ‘80s production, makes it much more interesting as a quaint museum piece than 1995’s University, which led to more quantifiable success but is a lot less endearing.

Take away these arbitrary arguments why Hunkpapa is such a fascinating record. It’s ultimately no easier to analyse than any other Muses record listening to the songs themselves, which follow the wanderings of Hersh and Donelly intriguingly and resist artificial sweetening. Sure, the horns on “Take” are unnecessary, but listen to the dolorous, keening voices behind them. Every Throwing Muses song rests on the an idiosyncratic melody that worms its way in. You can only wonder to figure out why you like it; each time I tried to do so in this review, I came up against another dead end. I can’t fully explain why I fell for an album that goes against every beef I have with overproduction, and that the arists themselves have disowned. Kristin Hersh hates “Dizzy,” whose lyrics, rumour has it, she researched at a library. She has denounced it as a cynical move to appease the suits at Sire, that it came from her head and not her gut. She’d probably rather be remember solely for her authentic work. Tough. That’s her curse: even when she constructs a “stupid song” to appeal to the mainstream she comes out with touching music. The beauty of Hunkpapa: it transcends petty niggles about production values and “selling out.” After all, what was that critical stuff anyway?

Gillian Watson has written for What Was It Anyway?


Summer Jamz #3: Jonathan Bradley

Download this mixtape:

Dear Summer,
I know you’re missing me. We don’t always go together like Nike Airs and crisp tees, but when the temperature is just right, the sun’s going down, and I’ve got a cold one in my hand, we don’t look too bad together. I don’t have any up-tempo party tracks for you, summer, no pounding beats or sweat-drenched rock ‘n’ roll. My mix is for the times everything is still and quiet and perfect. The times when the sunshine is warm rather than baking, and the biggest decision I have to make is whether to start reading the newspaper from the front or the back page. I haven’t included any yacht rock or Eagles tunes in this mix, but that’s all I can guarantee. From the depths of the cold southern hemisphere, I hope you’re showing the same love to my friends.

Not this Summer

01. The Promise Ring – Wake Up April
Promise Ring frontman Davey Von Bohlen must be synonymous with summer in my mind. After all, I put his band’s perfect season closer “Jersey Shore” on my 2006 Summer Jamz tape, and once again Mr Von Bohlen has found himself on one of my mixes. “Wake Up April,” from the unreasonably maligned 2002 album Wood/Water, is dedicated to the beginning of summer; its gentle pace sounds like the welcome warmth of the first days of the season, when the sunshine is still a pleasant novelty. Von Bohlen lays out his instructions for enjoying such a time in the opening verse, and you should heed his advice as a guide to properly enjoying the rest of this mix: “You’ll be sipping your morning coffee in the afternoon.” His languid strumming smears across the track like dappled sunlight, its gentle pace befitting an indulgent afternoon filled with nothing more pressing than coffee consumption.

02. Fleetwood Mac – Gypsy
In Fleetwood Mac-land, it’s always summer, but they wouldn’t know, because the band is cocooned from any harsh realities that might intrude on its crystalline perfection. “Gypsy” exists in a temperature-controlled bubble in a sweltering Los Angeles, Stevie Nicks’ unearthly vocal gliding over hermetically-sealed, surgically sterile instrumentation. The arrangement is so precise that it seems to encase the singer; Nicks sings like she’s completely alone, never imagining anyone could be listening in on her self-examination.

03. Donna Lewis – I Love You Always Forever
Where Nicks’ bubble is cool and private, “I Love You Always Forever” is a moment shared between two people: Donna Lewis, and you, the listener. Apart from a few house-reminiscent piano chords that enter toward the end, the entire song, including Lewis’ dreamy coo, is a soft-focus throb. The disparate musical elements coalesce into a pillowy bed of sound, deliciously warm, Lewis and you under the covers.

04.Wilco – Either Way
“Either Way” is a glimpse at what an engaging record the disappointing Sky Blue Sky could have been. Jeff Tweedy is entirely passive in this song, singing, “Maybe the sun will shine today, maybe it won’t” and later, “Maybe you still love me, maybe you don’t,” seeming to suggest he has no more power to affect the latter than he does the former. His paean to surrender is an inviting one, and Tweedy has never sounded more middle-aged than here, where he finds happiness in a cloudless day and the acceptance of his powerlessness. As if to accentuate its flabby aging, the band colors the latter half of the track with an entirely purposeless guitar solo, an ostentatious piece of trilling that flutters over the song like sail boats on a lake. It would be disgraceful, save for the fact that it seems right that the aging Tweedy would enjoy nothing more than a summer picnic on the shore of Lake Michigan, the wind ruffling his hair like the notes of Nels Cline’s guitar.

05. Mariah Carey – Always Be My Baby
But if “Either Way” had you thinking too much about your pension, Mariah Carey’s “Always Be Your Baby” will have you feeling like a twelve year old again. She sings this buoyant expression of puppy love with such joy that it is easy to forget it is a break up song; the guy who Carey says will always be her baby has just left her. Few actual love songs are this jubilant. It’s not hard to share her optimism, though; the vaguely Motown beat and playful piano chords are as carefree as Carey herself.

06. Cut Copy – Feel the Love
Finding the common interest in psychedelia shared by rock and dance music, Cut Copy’s “Feel the Love” mixes shimmering acoustic guitar and shimmering synth lines so expertly that it becomes irrelevant which is which. Music festivals throughout 2008, if they’re any good, will sound like this.

07. Debbie Harry – French Kissin’ in the U.S.A.
The strident way Harry sings the title makes it sounds like a political slogan, but the graceful synths and Springsteen-esque saxophone confirm she’s concerned only with having a good time. Mixing French and English, pop and pleasure, the only excuse for not enjoying this tune is if you’re filling your summer days with actual French kissing in the U.S.A. Paris is calling indeed.

Not this Paris

08. Rilo Kiley – Silver Lining
Blake Sennett bites George Harrison’s guitar sound and the rest of Rilo Kiley embraces ’70s sheen on the opening track to 2007’s Under the Blacklight; the result is pleasure pursued so mercilessly that it’s amazing the result sounds so easygoing. Jenny Lewis’ airy vocal conjures up summer with the lines “the grass it was a-ticking, and the sun was on the rise,” even while she adds a hint of darkness, admitting that she “never felt so wicked when she willed our love to die.” If that’s the cloud, the silver lining is worth it; as pop goes, this is solid gold.

09. The Sleepy Jackson – Good Dancers
George Harrison finds himself robbed again, this time by Perth act the Sleepy Jackson. Luke Steele pilfers Harrison’s slide guitar, and in an inspired, if obvious, move, floats an unearthly falsetto over the top. When this was released in 2003, Australian critics got cute and called the result West Coast Country, even though there’s only a hint of twang and the West Coast was that of Australia. Still, the description was more than appropriate; Steele’s uh... sleepy melodies suggest California as easily as Western Australia. An ideal accompaniment to a lazy summer Sunday spent anywhere from Fremantle to Fresno.

10. Ben Lee – Begin
Over his past few albums, Ben Lee has embraced an unyieldingly optimistic outlook, and the results have tended toward the nauseating and lobotomized (“Catch My Disease”, “Numb”). Occasionally, however, this unrelentingly cheery approach results in inspired sincerity, as it did with “Begin.” From his 2005 album Awake is the New Sleep, which was released after a three year hiatus, the song sounds like a rebirth, Lee putting himself back together after losing his ultra fashionable record company (Grand Royal closed its doors in 2001), his celebrity girlfriend (he broke up with actress Claire Danes in 2003) and his status as burgeoning indie prodigy (no one was really checking for Lee in ’05, were they?). Having returned home to Sydney he sings about his old residence of New York from the perspective of a visitor: “I’m walking through Central Park/I’m in a foreign country.” The quiet hum of the song and Lee’s softly sung affirmations (“I’m thinking about the city/It’s living proof people need to be together”) are a salve, the warmth of summer tinged by a memory of a winter still recent enough to prompt a shiver.

11. Loudon Wainwright III – Grey in L.A.
“Grey in L.A.”? As a summer song? I knows that Los Angeles has a Mediterranean climate, which means that its grey days usually coincide with its winter months, but Wainwright’s treatment of the city’s unusually wet weather is so welcoming and sunny (He even seems happy that the town “smells like a wet dog”!) that I can’t help but think of it as a summer song. It helps that in my decidedly non-Southern Californian climate, there are plenty of wet summer days, and they are exactly as relaxing and refreshing as this tune sounds.

12. Manitoba – Jacknuggeted
But if Wainwright’s brief sojourn out of the sunshine had you worried, feel free to relax. If a Los Angeleno can be counted on to rejoice in overcast weather, Canadians like Dan Snaith dependably celebrate moments of sunshine. The gorgeous “Jacknuggeted” bursts into life with a dazzling wash of synths and acoustic guitars, while the mantra-like vocal glimmers from odd corners of the track like sunshine breaking through storm clouds.

13. Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant
And if things weren’t sunny enough after the Manitoba track, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes have some folky, hippie bullshit that sounds like it was made of sunshine itself. “What a life I lead when the sun breaks free,” they sing in a cappella harmony, as if they were at one with the natural world. Damn hippies. Good song, though.

Fleet Foxes: Pitchfork gave these guys a 9.0

14. The New Radicals – Someday We’ll Know
The New Radicals, of course, were responsible for that classic ’90s one hit wonder “You Get What You Give.” Less reliant on Clinton-era cultural detritus (Beck, Hanson, Marilyn Manson), and over all a better tune, is the unashamedly soft rock “Someday We’ll Know.” Gregg Alexander spews claptrap questions (“Did the captain of the Titanic cry?”) and somehow manages to make them sound meaningful. It should be the kind of tune that the radio throws on after a parade of current hits, triggering instant nostalgia for summers gone, except radio didn’t play it much when it was released, and certainly does not play it now. Since the song sounds as if it were written for them, it makes all the sense in the world that Hall and Oates covered the tune for their 2003 album Do It for Love. If anyone has a copy of that recording, I would love to hear it.

15. Neil Young – Everybody Knows this is Nowhere
Perhaps not quite as smooth as the preceding tracks with its distorted country rock guitar, “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere” is nonetheless a fitting closer. Not only does Neil Young give the song a fair amount of smoothed-out ’60s sunshine of the sort he was pursuing with Messrs Crosby, Stills and Nash around the same time, he also sounds like he’d like to spend his summer exactly as I would. “I’d like to go back home and take it easy,” he sings. “I gotta get away from this day to day running around.” Neil, when you do, play this tape. In summer there’s nothing like having nothing to do, and where better to do nothing than nowhere?


Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer Jamz #2: Mike Orme and Nick Southall

Our mix is called State of the Union, Jack and features two "sides":
Nick's "Mike Orme's summer dance bum-out!!!", and
my "Nick Southall's June Evenings"

It can be found here:

State of the Union, Jack

Two former Stylus Magazine compatriots, Exeter UK’s Nick Southall (also of The Guardian and Paper Thin Walls) and Oakland’s Mike Orme (also of Pitchfork Media), celebrate the summer by splitting halves of a mix CD, each trying to fill their side with songs the other writer would put on a summer mix. In the process, they hope to reconcile musical tastes separated by the sides of a record, not to mention the Atlantic Ocean. While they’re at it, they might get around to revisiting the whole the 49th parallel issue and whether “chuffed” is a positive or a negative.

Side One: Mike orme’s summer dance bum-out!!!
(As chosen by mister nick Southall, esquire)

01. Guillemots – she’s evil
02. The field – a paw in my face
03. Four tet – ribbons
04. Von südenfed – the rhinohead
05. Vitalic – la rock 01
06. Studio / kylie – 2 hearts
07. Lcd soundsystem – Hippie priest bum-out
08. Young gods – strangel
09. Akufen – jeep sex

Why the hell did I suggest picking tracks in the manner of each other? I’ve never really spoken to Mister Orme and he’s a; not been around the Stylus ragtag band for all that long, and b; tastefully eclectic enough not to be able to be pigeonholed into easy mimicry. Potentially hoist by my own potato, I decide to go with a theme; many of Mister Orme’s favourites from the last two years show a fondness for supremely stylish, textured dance music with an alternative bent… and so the SUMMER DANCE BUM-OUT is born…

Things start out kind of weird with an odd number drawn from the semi-rare Guillemots “Of The Night EP”, wherein the finest purveyors of indie-jazz-pop suddenly go all LCD Soundsystem on us and get freaky with the fuzz-bass and 4/4 beats – it’s something to do with the guitarist, I think. I doubt Mike has this track, but I expect he’d like it.

Then we take a turn for the familiar with The Field’s exquisite “A Paw In My Face”, one of Mister Orme’s favourite tracks from last year, and one of mine too; it’s doubly apposite at the moment, because my kitten is mental. And I’m getting another soon. WHY?!

Now for a foray into the uber-new, with the second track off Kieron Hebdon’s latest EP, “Ringer”, which sees him largely ditching the folktronica tag of his previous work and going all 90s techno on us, sort of. What Mike’s digging right now I’m not sure, but this should certainly be involved somewhere.

Mark E Smith and Mouse On Mars, in their guise as Von Südenfed, step up next, with the exquisite Motown-gone-big-beat dancepop of “The Rhinohead”; I’ve not seen Mike mention this collaboration anywhere, but it surely MUST be up his street?

Next to my favourite house / dance / wtf tune of a few years ago, and Vitalic’s exquisite “La Rock 01”; released before Mike was on-staff here, I can’t imagine he’d be anything less than into this.

Likewise this Kylie remix by Studio from Yearbook 2; I know Mike was chuffed with Yearbook 1 last year, and Studio continue to wow with their Balearic postpunk disco. Or something.

Next the title track for this side of our collaborative mixtape, which I picked up on the CD release of 45:33. Minimal by Murphy’s standards, this is nonetheless classy, just like Mike’s dapper pink slacks on his Facebook profile picture.

And finally we get the insane “Strangel” by Young Gods. Does Mike like deranged Scandinavian sampledelic dance-metal? Fuck knows, but that’s an awesome riff and beat…

[MO note: In true music nerd fashion, Nick added a track to the end of his mix after he sent me his side and his write-up. The ninth track on “Mike Orme’s summer dance bum-out!!!” is “Jeep Sex” by Akufen, a Montreal based microhouse-ish artist who is known as Marc Leclair by day. This lovely track utilizes a number of punchy samples to drive the beat, with strings, an R&B crooner, pianos, and funk guitar each from separate samples, seemingly contributing one note apiece to the groove’s melody. I always love this kind of sampling wherein the cuts between samples provide as much percussion as the beat itself. Nice work, Sick Mouthy!]

Side Two: Nick Southall’s June Evenings
(As chosen by Mike “Freedom Fries” Orme)

10. Battles – Race In
11. Patrick Wolf – Accident & Emergency
12. The Chap - Surgery
13. Air France – June Evenings
14. Fennesz Feat. David Sylvian - Transit
15. Brian Eno – Another Green World
16. My Bloody Valentine – You Made Me Realise
17. M83 – Dark Moves of Love
18. Phoenix – Definitive Breaks

I’ve always respected Nick Southall’s writing and his uniquely acerbic take on music and listening. In his Stylus articles, Nick always attempted to elucidate the struggle between the intangible pleasures of pop music and the corporeal concerns of actually listening to it. Nick is an audiophile and his Stylus Magazine writings, including the Da Capo-honored Imperfect Sound Forever, chronicle his quest to save the world one pure audio signal at a time. Anyone familiar with my tastes, which sometimes run into the overdriven worlds of noisy, electronic fuzz, might think that Nick and I wouldn’t get along musically; however, Nick’s collection of favored records intersects with mine at some significant vectors. I’ve attempted to explicate those cross-references by mixing together a couple nice tracks Nick might select to accompany him on one of these serene June evenings.

We begin with “Race In” by New York math rock group Battles. I’ve always thought of this group (and this opener to their album Mirrored in particular) as a mutated synthesis of Discipline-era King Crimson and the choral German 60s pop chronicled on the In-Kraut series. Nick called Mirrored his tenth-favorite “postrock” album of all time in a Stylus Top Ten which explored the meaning of that nebulous genre, and I wholeheartedly agree that their progressive, meandering pixie jazz inhabits the post-rock style just as thoroughly as their more tranquil counterparts.

If Nick suspected from the Battles selection that I’d be trotting out his obvious favorites, he’d be right! Next is “Accident & Emergency” by Patrick Wolf, one of Nick’s favourite artists. (Note: I love that this Microsoft Word document, in which I am appending my humble liner notes to Nick’s descriptions, automagically added the “u” to my boorish American “favorite”) I’m always a sucker for cut-up vocals and wonky, sequencer-driven synthesizer counterpoints, but to be honest I didn’t really get into Patrick Wolf until last year’s The Magic Position, on which this cut appears.

I like to think that the London-based pop group the Chap has a bit in common with Wolf’s flamboyant and subversive personality, and so I’m veering away from Nick’s canon with “Surgery” from the Chap’s recent release Mega Breakfast. The track is a sedate anthem, recalling Skylarking-era XTC, but as with all Chap recordings, there’s a curious DIY aesthetic to their electronic production, like they got their drum machine at a liquor store for ten quid. I’m sure Nick would enjoy the Chap’s heavy-handed but marvellously fun lesson in popposition.
Nick might be unfamiliar with the next cut, “June Evenings,” as well, but seeing as how we share a love for Swedish group Studio and the recent Balearic rock movement, I’m sure he would quickly glom onto this track off Air France’s recent EP No Way Down. Air France also hail from Studio’s hometown of Gothenburg and also indulge in the beach-loving synthesis of disco beats, Krautrock’s motorik rhythms, and Manuel Göttsching’s funky techno guitar.
As this evening mix progresses, the pace slows down considerably with “Transit” off prepared guitar technician Fennesz’s 2004 album Venice. This reflective cut features David Sylvian’s baritone and lyrics concerning the memory of European travels as a vehicle for explaining a sense of loss. This collaboration came on the heels of Sylvian’s 2003 starkly-composed solo album Blemish, recorded as his marriage was coming to an end, and put a coda to that brooding, experimental period in his career.

Nick and I may agree most heartily on the radiance of Brian Eno’s last two solo albums, Another Green World and Before and After Science, before the commonly accepted beginning of his “ambient” period. Next up is the title track from the former, a short, repeated guitar and organ figure that fades in and out in the space of little over ninety seconds. It’s one of my favourite transitions in the whole of popular music.

The pace picks up a bit with “You Made Me Realise” by My Bloody Valentine, an unexpected beloved of Southall. One of the group’s relatively early recordings, the track appears on their first Creation Records EP. This recorded version fails to capture the band’s crushing live performances of the song, in which MBV often extends the chaotic “bridge” (consisting of one pounded, noisy chord) for fifteen or twenty minutes before returning to the closing chorus.

I may be accused of heavy-handedness by transitioning from My Bloody Valentine directly into M83, so I beg the forgiveness of both Nick and the readers. “Dark Moves of Love” is a penultimate track (off their new album Saturdays=Youth), a sequencing position I hold dear to my heart. Although M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzales has nudged his project in an airy and nostalgic (though no less salient) direction, this track is classic Dead Cities M83. It’s basically a three-minute chorus of guitars and female vocals that repeats an abstract and insistent message of reconciliation across great times and distances, building to a climax marked by a simple five-second drum fill. Then, it all fades down into an oceanic synthesizer hum, which I’ve transitioned into…

“Definitive Breaks” by Parisian quartet Phoenix closes their 2000 debut United, an album whose blue-eyed synthpop has been praised by both Nick and myself. My relationship with the group began during a period living in Japan, during which time I would frequent a Kyoto club called “Metro” located in a subway station just off the Kamogawa river. The DJ at the Tuesday 80s night played United’s second track “Too Young” one fateful evening and that was it. Ill-advised Zima hangover be damned, I rushed to the Tower the next morning, picked up United, and never let go. I thought I was keying in on something elemental, something special. And then Sofia Friggin’ Coppola had to go and use the song to give Bob and Charlotte the same revelatory clubgoing context in Lost in Translation a year later.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer Jamz #1: Alfred Soto and Dan Weiss

The irony is, we're in the thick of winter here in Australia. It's cold, wet, and, as I type these words, I'm trying to prevent little icicles from forming on the tips of my fingers. Maybe that's why I've always enjoyed the series of annual summer-inspired mixtapes the sadly defunct Stylus Magazine would present at this time of year, starting in 2002 and continuing right until it closed its doors in 2007. These playlists, which would encompass a variety of styles and perspectives on the season never failed to warm my short winter days.
Although Stylus no longer publishes, summer continues to shine, and so this year, as June approached, I called up some of the old Stylus writers and asked them to contribute a mix of songs to soundtrack their summer. Amazingly, they agreed, even the ones who are getting married, hate summer or live in places like Miami and Los Angeles, and, by all rights should be too busy picking up models and partying to be constructing mix tapes.
Starting today, the first day of summer, and continuing each day for the next week or so, Screw Rock 'n' Roll, The Passion of the Weiss and What Was It Anyway? (along with a few other locations across the Internets) will be posting these Summer-inspired mixes for your listening pleasure. Working or partying, relaxing or vacationing, these are the sounds of our summer. Join us and enjoy.
-- Jonathan Bradley

And while you do so, check out Stylus's archived Summer Jamz:
Stylus Summer Jamz '02
Stylus Summer Jamz '03
Stylus Summer Jamz '04
Stylus Summer Jamz '05
Stylus Summer Jamz '06
Stylus Summer Jamz '07

* * * * *

Download Summer Jamz #1:

1. The Reputation - Face It
2. Arthur Russell - That's Us/Wild Combination
3. Cut Copy - So Haunted
4. Yo La Tengo - Today is the Day
5. The Cure - A Japanese Dream
6. Be Your Own Pet - Super Soaked
7. Lil' Wayne - I Feel Like Dying
8. Belinda Carlisle - Heaven is a Place on Earth (Heavenly Version)
9. Mike Doughty - Like a Luminous Girl
10. Hercules & Love Affair - Shadows
11. Pet Shop Boys - Minimal
12. Katy Perry - Waking Up in Vegas
13. Wussy - Soak It Up
14. Kathleen Edwards - The Cheapest Key
15. Jens Lekman - A Sweet Summer's Night on Hammer Hill
16. Bryan Ferry - The In Crowd
17. Weezer - Everybody Get Dangerous
18. Al Green feat. John Legend - Stay With Me (By the Sea)
19. Duran Duran - Meet El Presidente (7" Remix)
20. The B-52s - Eyes Wide Open
21. We are Scientists - After Hours
22. Liz Phair - Lazy Dreamer
23. Rosanne Cash - Hold On
24. Bob Dylan - Clean-Cut Kid

Mixing this was a necessary challenge. I'm in constant worry that the constant tide of new sounds to parse will eventually swallow my instinct for putting music together or catching the hairpin logic of a loop in potentia. I'm really proud of these results, though. Alfred is a natural collaborator for me because he's one of the few critics of my time who zeroes in on melody, rhythm, songwriting...the boring essentials that some people will go as far as SunnO)))) records to avoid. I can count on him to present me with a new way to hear E-A-B-C# again (Kathleen Edwards' brilliant Amy Rigby stunt "The Cheapest Key") or discern visceral arguments of longevity from inscrutable favorite-band-ism (Pet Shop Boys' "Minimal," as exciting as they've ever been in 20+ years). I was delighted by his picks, nearly all of them unknown to me. In fact, his choices set the bar so high I went back and redacted a few of mine that I fear relied too much on my weakness: classic alt-rock comforts. Even still, no summer can jam without Weezer, Weezy or Belinda Carlisle. Thanks for luring me out of the cheapest key.

-- Dan Weiss

After studying our mix, I noticed that we were most concerned with space -- how artists and shrewd remixes suggest vastness. In the context of summer, vastness suggests the abrogation of responsibility: school and relationships, mostly, and the moral sinecures they provide by necessity, against which we strain with some success, and towards which we return as the days start to shorten, and bank balances begin to shrink. These songs are guideposts: towards danger and release.

-- Alfred Soto


Thursday, June 19, 2008


WWIA? wishes to congratulate co-founder/senior editor Todd Hutlock and his bride Mel, who are getting hitched on Saturday! Shower him with rice and shit.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Pointer Sisters - That's a Plenty

The Pointer Sisters - That's a Plenty
by Christian John Wikane

“Hot damn–them girls is black!”

That was the response from one astounded audience member when Ruth, June, Anita, and Bonnie Pointer took the 1974 Grand Ole Opry stage to sing “Fairytale,” then a Top 40 country hit.

Right, country, pedal steel, fiddle ‘n all. You see, ten years before the Pointer Sisters dominated the airwaves with their Richard Perry-produced Break Out, they were confounding industry executives and delighting audiences with a remarkable blend of scat singing, bluesy wailing, and funk fabulousness on a set of albums they recorded for Blue Thumb Records. In the process, they set a precedent that’s yet to be equaled by any another female vocal group (don’t even think of putting the Puppini Sisters in the same class). They spun 180-degrees between musical epochs in thrift store threads and effortlessly navigated through different styles without losing their core soul and gospel-rooted sound.

That’s a Plenty (1974), which includes “Fairytale,” is the apex of the remarkable first phase of their three-decade career, a period since overshadowed by the ubiquity of their more commercially successful late-‘70s to mid-‘80s string of pop and R&B hits. Singles like “I’m So Excited” and “Jump (For My Love)” are usually the default associations that listeners make about the Pointers Sisters. I propose that That’s a Plenty, though not entirely obscure (it earned a gold record), deserves a moment or two to be reconsidered as an integral, defining moment of The Pointer Sisters’ career.

When That’s A Plenty hit shelves, introducing the group’s silhouetted flapper cover logo, The Pointer Sisters were still celebrating the impressive success of their self-titled debut and monster hit single, Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.” The Pointer Sisters (1973) set the blueprint for That’s a Plenty’s motley mix: their canny ability to traverse a wide terrain of influences, refined by David Rubinson (who later produced the groundbreaking funk-rock of Labelle’s Chameleon). Rubinson helmed the production and assembled a dream roll call of session musicians and players, including Bonnie Raitt and Herbie Hancock. He steered the Sisters through nine songs that ranged from the swaggering blues of “Grinning In Your Face” to the exuberant jazz of “Little Pony” to the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia of the album’s opening “Bangin’ on the Pipes”/”Steam Heat” medley.

But a scatting excursion around Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” is what sets the album’s genius in plaster. The deftness of each Sister’s rhythm and timing could blow 95% of any living popular female vocalist off the stage. Gaylord Birch’s frantic drumming sets the tune off and the Pointer Sisters pack an average twenty words into two-second phrases. The incredible words-per-second count never ceases to astound, especially if the lyric-printed sleeve is at your disposal. Even more impressive is that the Pointer Sisters replicated this performance on Live at the Opera House (1974), an album well worth a visit to (Note: they were the first pop act to perform at the famed San Francisco venue.)

Both “Shaky Flat Blues” and “Fairytale” showcased how the Sisters’ natural songwriting affinity translated to different musical environs. The former matched the Sister’s tale about the woes of city living with a cool bass-drum-piano-guitar arrangement and slinky solos by Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet and Britt Woodman on trombone.

But the distress of smog and sirens gave way to the tear-in-my-beer sentimentality of “Fairytale.” Written by Anita and Bonnie, and sung with a trace of twang, “Fairytale” is as authentic a country ditty as anything Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner recorded at the time. Rubinson even brought the quartet down to Quadraphonic Studios in Nashville to record the song, giving “Fairytale” an even more direct relationship to its country DNA. Appropriately, they were awarded a Best Country Performance by Duo or Group Grammy for the song.

In its remaining nineteen minutes, That’s a Plenty finds Bonnie Pointer laying down a riveting solo performance on “Black Coffee” that would make Peggy Lee proud while all four sisters vamp it up on the album’s breathless tribute to Dixieland, “That’s a Plenty/Surfeit U.S.A.” (Ruth is especially charismatic here in mastering vocal guises underneath the frenetic arrangement.) Closing the album is an eight-minute explosion of shekere, talking drum, and congas on Gamble & Huff’s “Love in Them There Hills.” The liberation of sexual mores only implied in the lyrics came alive in the underground gay clubs that embraced the song. Hot damn—this was the same Pointer Sisters who were regularly featured on Sesame Street and Carol Burnett.

Though the Pointer Sisters ultimately felt restrained by the outlandish Carmen Miranda-like costumes and Andrew Sisters comparisons, and turned to a more mainstream R&B sound by 1977’s Having a Party, That’s a Plenty provides compelling hindsight: They were true innovators and this album documents the blazing embers they left behind to get there. Three and a half decades later, That’s a Plenty remains a gleeful thrill ride.

Christian John Wikane is a contributing editor for PopMatters. He also writes for SoulTracks and David Nathan’s He resides in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mos Def - The New Danger

Mos Def - The New Danger
by Dan Weiss

If I’ve observed it correctly, the rule is that rap-rock only sucks when the rap is conceived by a rocker first, because rap is harder to emulate than rock. Say what you will about Ice-T’s Body Count, but they sounded closer to what a rock fan would listen to in 1991 than what Fred Durst (Method Man collab aside) presumed rap fans would tolerate in 1999. The only two (white) rap-rock bands everyone can agree on are Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys, because neither (thankfully) tried to sing. They were strictly rappers with rock backup. And as such, they were free to explore artificial environments like a rapper does, moving from siren sounds here to a Hendrix quote there to faux-harmonica or what have you.

And then look at the history of rock conceived by rappers: Jay-Z on “99 Problems” (or practically duetting with Jim Morrison on “Takeover”). Nas and his dad on “Bridging the Gap.” Public Enemy on Anthrax (or better, over Slayer’s “Angel of Death” on “She Watch Channel Zero”). Run-DMC on “My Sharona.” A few flimsy ones come to mind—Busta Rhymes remaking “Iron Man” with Ozzy himself, Diddy (then Daddy) lifting Zep and Bowie wholesale. But let’s be honest…Beanie Sigel’s hostile “War Pigs” flip last year plugged the Sabbath gap, “Been Around the World” is an okay song for a guy who’s not much of a rapper to begin with, and the idea of rap-rock is still the coolest thing ever.

I think. It’s hard to tell whether people are getting their Dickies in a bunch over the real problems like the inevitable valleys of riff-to-riff songwriting or if the crunch itself embarrasses them. But I have my theories: The New Danger embarrassed people, and The New Danger is great. I like to chalk it up to reverse rockism; Danger came out in a particularly unfashionable year for alpha male slab-guitars, the one when Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse and Scissor Sisters scored hits with needlepoint guitar and disco rhythms. You’d think considering who won the election that year that Mos Def’s sausage-fest lollapalooza would’ve made some fans. “Quasi-homosexuals are running this rap shit!” he complained.

That’s the worst remark on the CD so let’s start there. “The Rape Over” isn’t quite “Meet the ‘G’ that Killed Me,” so it’s annoying that he ruins a pretty ballsy (calls out Viacom!) one-minute rant fashioned over Jay-Z’s “Takeover” beat with just seconds to go. I listen to it the same way I do Common’s “circle of faggots” epithet on Like Water For Chocolate or “Meet the ‘G’ that Killed Me” itself, as a little pinch in the middle of a great experience to remind me that hip-hop needs better terminology for pussy targets (and “pussy” isn’t much more progressive…dudes get angrier about that one than calling them a “dick”—wonder why?).

The New Danger is worth the pinch. It gets slammed for its incoherence and lack of The Source-credible quotables and treated like a failed experiment, but these complaints are daft about the music. Would it have been possible for Dante Smith to have made a good rap-rock album in these critics’ eyes? What would it have sounded like? If you’re open to the possibility at all, you’d say it would sound like this. The beats on the strictly hip-hop ones, “Life is Real,” “Sunshine,” and the widescreen “Sex, Love & Money” are dead serious and the samples are sharp. The flute that snakes through the fog of war-dance percussion on the latter is worth the price alone. And the rock half, especially the scorching “Zimzallabim,” the threat-posing “Ghetto Rock,” and the black-and-blue speakeasy jam “Black Jack” split crunch and extended groove with the “underneath” sensibility that every member of Mos’ Black Jack Johnson band—a supergroup featuring Dr. Know of Bad Brains, P-Funk legend Bernie Worrell, and two Living Colour alumni—perfected during each of their respective heydays.

Mos is great at call-and-response mantras, something rarely mentioned as a suitable replacement for lax approach to lyrical content here; if he’s in a jam band, so be it: “Y-E-A” versus “Yeah yeah” and “Black Jack Johnson NYC/R-O-C-K-I-N-G,” would be enough, but the haunted torch soul of “The Beggar” lays down a deeper foundation for the bandleader to mess around with melismas on, and the result is great. Mos Def is actually a great musician (recheck his oddly pretty bridge to Kanye’s “Drunk and Hot Girls” last year), but people tend to go on auto-rampage towards rappers trying to branch out, and look, not every song is “Hailie’s Song.” This guy’s been singing since “Definition” and “Umi Says”…he’s never conceived music without natural side outlets, because he knows he can.

What does it all mean? With a scarf wrapped around his face on the cover like a surgical mask, I could argue that Smith spliced everything he knows into a mad-scientist mixtape for the damned, but that’s giving a confused guy too much credit (I will certainly not ride for the even more stillborn Tru3 Magic that seems to have been released on accident in 2006, with no artwork even, and since been eradicated entirely). The New Danger plays like a glorious and long-grooving accident, and more likely Smith spent five years trying to make a rock album and a rap album and got stuck halfway. With sounds—not songs—this rich and powerful, sometimes it’s okay to get jammed in the middle.

Dan Weiss is an editorial intern at CMJ and the editor-at-large of What Was It Anyway. He enjoys questionable lifestyle choices in Brooklyn and has written for Village Voice, Stylus, Cleveland Scene, Philadelphia Inquirer and Lost at Sea.