Archive for June, 2008

Smash it up: Punk rock Swedish style

June 25, 2008

The [International] Noise Conspiracy: Survival Sickness

For most people, when you say Swedish rock band, they say The Hives—unless, of course, they say, “Hunh?” Even Newsweek, who proclaimed them the the biggest rock band out of Sweden likened that to being the strongest person in your house. And while their punkish, garage-rock sound is a lot of fun, it turns out it’s also pre-packaged. The band claims that their songs are written by an honorary “sixth Hive”, Randy Fitzsimmons. Another version I’ve heard is that songwriter Fitzsimmons put together a band to perform his music.

For the real, radical deal, the band you need is The [International] Noise Conspiracy. Amazon named Survival Sickness one of the Best of 2000. Here’s what their reviewer S. Duda so eloquently said about the band: “The trailblazing American feminist Emma Goldman loved to say, ‘If I can’t dance, I want no part in your revolution.’ Emma Goldman would love the [International] Noise Conspiracy. Combining radical anarchist politics and punk-mod-soul sounds, the [International] Noise Conspiracy’s debut, Survival Sickness, reads like a manifesto but moves like a triple-bill featuring the Small Faces, Booker T and the MGs, and Fugazi.”

I’ve seen the band a couple of times, most notably at the legendarily cramped Fireside Bowl [which I used to call the scummiest place I ever paid money to get into and now miss terribly since it no longer has rock shows on a regular basis]. In that tiny, shabby space, it was pretty much impossible to be more than 50 feet from the stage as the band ripped through its set, charging around the postage stamp stage and sweating through their white shirts and suit coats [what is it with Swedish rock bands and dressing for success?]. The music and energy were transcendent.

And much of it was radically political. Between songs on that night in 2000, the lead singer began talking about politics. When the audience grew restless and obviously disinterested, he warned that Bush was going to be our next president. Those of us paying attention scoffed at the notion that the American public would be so stupid as to let that happen. And here we are, eight years later, with the revolutionary anger of songs like Smash It Up in the excellent music video below sounding more relevant, more necessary than ever.

I’m happy to say this all translates perfectly to this CD. There’s no escaping the radical messages, but they’re delivered in smart lyrics with a darkly energetic punk rock sound that is more a call to arms than a tedious, strident harangue. And unlike many punk bands, they exhibit plenty of musicianship and variety to keep the music interesting from beginning to end.

So if you like the Hives [and even if you’ve never heard of them], give this Swedish garage-rock/punk band a listen. This is the real thing.

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Monk and Coltrane, lost and found

June 18, 2008

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. Restoring something that was lost is especially appropriate for this album.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Have you ever misplaced something for so long that when it finally turns up, you’d forgotten you ever had it in the first place? The Library of Congress had a doozy of a moment like this in 2005. One of their engineers unearthed an unmarked box with tapes of this historic concert in it, tapes no one even knew to look for. And so this November 29, 1957, performance became one of the hottest new jazz releases in 2005. Not a re-release—a new release.

To call the discovery of the forgotten Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall tapes an important find doesn’t begin to do it justice. More than an amazing historical document of the far too brief collaboration of these two giants, it’s just plain great jazz. The eccentric Thelonious Monk has been both lauded and slammed for his iconoclastic piano playing—a spare, muscular and decidedly unrefined sound that is instantly recognizable as no one but Monk. If you like that style—and I do—this pairing with Coltrane’s brilliant solos is sublime. Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson round out the group. Monk is considered one of the founders of bebop, and this disk puts you squarely in the exploding 50s New York jazz scene, while still sounding fresh and relevant.

Perhaps almost as remarkable as the find of this lost treasure is the fact that Monk and Coltrane were only the second act of a five-act show that included Chet Baker, Ray Charles and headliner Billie Holiday. Alas, their performances aren’t part of this CD, but the poster for the event is included with the liner notes. It tells us that tickets for this fundraiser for Harlem’s now defunct Morningside Community Center ranged from $2 to a whopping $3.95—tax deductible, of course.

Miles Davis—in a silent, electrified way

June 11, 2008

Miles Davis: In A Silent Way

This album has languished in our collection for some time. It was bought with the best of intentions, to explore Miles’ own explorations of electric music, particularly keyboards. As jazz critic Andrew Bartlett put it, “Legendary as a kind of line in the sand challenging jazz fans during the ascendance of electric, psychedelic rock, In A Silent Way hinted at the repetitive polyrhythms Davis would employ throughout the early 1970s.”

Unfortunately for me, it just didn’t catch my ear when I first heard it. Always a fan of Miles’ earlier work, I would occasionally haul it out to try again, only to put it away after a cursory listen.

Recently, though, I pulled it out again and popped it in the kitchen boombox. And this time, it took. Probably as much as anything because I’d been exposed to a similar sounding Miles tune, Spanish Key, used in the soundtrack of the movie Collateral [an excellent film, by the way, whatever you think of the increasingly weird Mr. Cruise].

I listened to the two-track, 1969 release In A Silent Way over and over, each time anticipating the arrival Miles’ long, clear trumpet solos over the layered textures of multiple electric keyboards and dreamlike electric guitar, bass and drums. At that moment, the music would come alive, yet another birth of the cool for Mr. Davis.

But ultimately and interestingly, the album worked best when I had it on in the background and was listening passively. Usually, it’s while actively listening to an album that I find the music most interesting. When I listened actively to this album, though, I quickly became frustrated. Especially when I looked at the liner notes and reminded myself of the personnel. Besides Miles, there are seven other musicians on this disk, including jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea on keyboards, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax and Dave Holland on bass. But when Miles isn’t soloing, no one else emerges to pick up the conversation. They all just swirl around each other in this hypnotic mishmash of sound, what Bartlett describes as “part ambient color exploration, part rock-inflected energy and vibe.”

And even Miles’ solos, as lovely as they are, err on the side of repetitive and somewhat expected. By way of comparison, I listened to one of my favorite Miles Davis tracks this evening, his 1964 recording of the standard My Funny Valentine. In it, he plays exactly 12 notes of the original melody faithfully before taking off in all kinds of amazing improvisational directions. Throughout the 15-minute track, everyone is improvising non-stop, having a true jazz conversation. And only occasionally will someone play maybe a bar or two of the original melody, as if to say, “This is what we’re playing, remember? Now try and keep up.”

All that said, In A Silent Way will stay in my current jazz rotation a while longer—and return more often. But I think it will be when I want a cool groove in the background. And that’s not a bad way to enjoy it, I think.