Archive for July, 2007

Loud and Low-fi—in other words, perfect

July 25, 2007

Jack O’ Fire: The Destruction of Squaresville
Estrus records, 1994


I know I’ve ranted in the past about the musical wasteland that is Chicago radio. There are a few bright spots, though, mostly clustered down at the left end of the dial. Low-wattage college stations whose limited coverage you start to drive out of once you hit downtown. WLUW at Loyola University, WNUR at Northwestern University and WDCB at the College of DuPage are all presets in the car and are the buttons I most frequently punch. Even these aren’t consistently reliable, but when they are, they point up what good radio brings to the party. They introduce you to music you might not otherwise find on your own.

The Destruction of Squaresville is an excellent case in point. I heard the opening track of this album—an amazing, low-fi, heavily distorted and totally soulful rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s blues number Asked For Water—on WNUR [I think] and was immediately hooked. I called the station: “What did you just play? Who did it? Where can I find it?” After first striking out at Reckless Records here in Chicago [”Buy local!”], I looked on Amazon. There was exactly one copy available, through a third party. I snapped it up.

The fifteen tracks are all covers. And they cover the waterfront, from Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Hound Dog Taylor to Chuck Berry, The Sonics and Joy Division. This seemingly disparate mix is held together by a harmonica-driven garage/blues/punk sound that seems filtered through speakers that have been kicked down a flight of stairs or two in their time. The album flows seamlessly between genres with a unifying raw, dangerous quality.

And Jack O’ Fire’s musicianship is dead on, never descending into sloppiness no matter how elemental and distorted it gets. Tim Kerr’s blues slide guitar work on Hate to See Ya Go and 7th Son is particularly fine. More than anything, though, it is Walter Daniels’ insistent, boozy vocals and powerful harmonica playing that shape the album’s sound.

And that sound is this: A really great night in a dark, rough trade juke joint, slightly out of control, slightly scary. But the band is smoking, and this will be one of the best nights ever, as long as no fights break out.

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Avant garde with a funk back beat

July 18, 2007

Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul
Atavistic Worldwide, 2002


Pawing through our music collection looking for something for the kitchen boombox this week, I was pretty much coming up with bupkis. Most of what caught my eye, I’d already written about. Some things I wasn’t in the mood for right now. And more than a few things, I hate to admit, gave me real what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-when-I-bought-this moments.

Public libraries to the rescue! I admitted to library geekdom last week. What can I say? They come through. I popped into the newish Bucktown-Wicker Park branch of the Chicago Public Library near my office and perused their miniscule but eclectic and well chosen collection of CDs. And I found this.

Ken Vandermark to the rescue! From the very opening of the first track, Back of a Cab, I knew I had stumbled onto something good. At the end of the last track, I was just as convinced.

I’ve written about this reed-playing genius [he was a MacArthur Fellow in 1999] in the past. By his own count, Vandermark has been involved with and/or led more than 30 projects or groups.

Spaceways Inc. is a classic jazz trio—sax [and occasionally clarinet], bass and drums. But what they play blows right past classic jazz. This is funk-driven free jazz, shaped by reggae, rhythm and soul. As John Corbett puts it in the liner notes, the trio whips “back and forth between nasty, back-beaten funk and swinging, exploratory jazz.” So unlike some of Vandermark’s more abstract projects, the music on Version Soul stays firmly rooted in jazz, even at its most experimental.

I’m generally not a fan of jazz trios—they’re usually too much front man with drums and bass. Other than the occasional solo, the drums and bass are encouraged to lurk in the shadows while the front man does all the heavy lifting. This can get real monotonous real quick. In Spaceways Inc., everyone’s an equal partner. Drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Nate McBride are right out front, nice and loud, mixing it up with Vandermark as he goes from tenor and baritone sax to Bb and bass clarinet. The album is full of true collaboration, improvised give and take, and the sound is richer for it.

Vandermark composed six of the tracks on this disk; the remaining three are by McBride, another example of the collaborative nature of the group and of Version Soul.

If you’re a jazz fan ready to dip your toe into the avant garde end of the pool, this is an excellent place to start. And if you’re already into avant garde jazz, dive in.

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Coltrane’s restless ear

July 11, 2007

John Coltrane: Lush Life


Ask most people to name a sax player and the first name that comes to mind is John Coltrane. Sure, Charlie Parker was one of the founding fathers of bebop, the basis for modern jazz. But Coltrane, through his work with Jimmy Heath, Dizzy Gillespie and especially Miles Davis, developed a passion for experimentation that set the stage for so much that followed. Coltrane took both the instrument and jazz itself to places artists continue to explore today.

Lush Life, recorded in ‘57 and ‘58, is more lyrical than some of the more innovative work that would follow, during his time with Miles and particularly once he formed his own quartet in 1960. But already you hear what jazz critic and author Joe Goldberg called Coltrane’s “restless, probing and searching” sound.

The album opens with the ballad Like Someone in Love—a beautifully haunting rendition, just Coltrane’s tenor with Earl May on the bass and Arthur Taylor on drums. The aforementioned restlessness comes through as Coltrane plays bits of the melody intact, then alternately crowds many notes together, stretching the melody even as he dances around it. To me, it’s the best cut on the disk.

Most of the album maintains this crackling energy. Set firmly in the 1950s New York jazz scene it came from [Trane’s Slo Blues conjures up smokey jazz clubs and grainy black & white footage of Manhattan at night], it manages to stay fresh and relevant some 50 years later. The one cut that less than delivers is the title track. Throughout its nearly 14 minutes [a full third of the entire 5-track disk] Lush Life does have its moments, especially when Coltrane is driving. But too much of it too slavishly follows the difficult, slow-moving melody, and for far too long. Still, better-trained ears than mine have rhapsodized about this rendition of the Billy Strayhorn classic, so it could just be me.

In my defense, it could also be that Lush Life has been recorded to death. Yes, it’s amazing that Strayhorn was a mere 22 years old when he wrote this classic song about world-weary, dissolute women of a certain age trying to erase life’s disappointments with “too many through the day twelve o’clocktails.” And that he’d never been further than North Carolina and Pittsburgh at the time. Yeah, I get it. Can we play something else now?

But back to the disk as a whole. When I’m planning to write about an album for What’s on the Kitchen Boombox?, I play it and play it and play it. On the kitchen boombox, in the car, on my iPod on the subway, at work… Sometimes it can burn me out on an album or piece of music for a good, long while. In this case, it has me thinking we need more Coltrane in our collection.

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It was 40 years ago today, give or take

July 4, 2007

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band


First, a quick word to Sir Paul: Yes, you were the cute Beatle. Time to move on now. The male ingenue look on your poster for your new album Memory Almost Full is, well, embarrassing. Stop it.

mccartney_poster.jpgJune 1st marked the 40th anniversary of the UK release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The thirteen tracks on this disk not only showed how far the Beatles could push the boundaries of popular music, but how far they could get their fans and the music world at large to follow. As their producer George Martin put it [and I’m stealing heavily from the liner notes here], “The Beatles definitely had an eternal curiosity for doing something different.” Recording engineer Geoff Emerick describes where that insistence on being different led them: “…everything was either distorted, limited, heavily compressed or treated with equalisation… headphones turned into microphones attached to violins… we had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way around.”

And they not only recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, they pushed what the musicians of the orchestra did as well. On a recent radio broadcast about the album, I heard how one of the key tracks, A Day in the Life, came to life. John came to Paul, saying he had part of a song he didn’t know what to do with [”I read the news today oh boy…”]. Paul also had a song he couldn’t resolve [”Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…”]. They ended up putting them together into a single song. Paul said to leave a 24-bar gap in the middle. When asked what for, he couldn’t say at the time. What that gap became was the cacophonous symphonic crescendo that also repeats at the end. And how they achieved it was by instructing the musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra to all start at the lowest note on their instruments and to, by the end of 24 bars, reach the highest note. With fearless innovations like this, Sgt. Pepper redefined the boundaries of what rock music could be.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this album is that all this experimentation and envelope pushing didn’t turn into some avant garde, artistically significant but ultimately unlistenable John Cage exercise. Instead it became an immediate critical and popular success. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine called it “the most important rock & roll album ever made.” I’d be hard pressed to prove them wrong.

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