This Is, Indeed, a Disco

This ain't no disco? Oh really? That Talking Heads lyric was always misquoted (as David Byrne complains in his new book) but from the look of the charts, this is, indeed, a disco. The two biggest hits of the summer (certainly my two favorites) are straight-up, unashamed, and wonderful disco songs.

Daft Punk already has my vote for album of the year. I've enjoyed their other work, but Random Access Memories is absolutely brilliant. Recorded straight to tape with an all-star cast of live musicians, it combines their electronica work with their love for old R&B and disco, and features the playing of some of the greatest musicians of that era, like Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers.

And for you those of you still trapped in the segregated 1970s: While we were all chanting "Disco Sucks!" we were also, without realizing it, listening to and enjoying the work of both of those musicians, and many other "disco" artists besides. And our "rock" heroes worshiped them.

Moroder became famous in creating Eurodisco with Donna Summer hits like "I Feel Love," but he went on to produce brilliant work for "rock" musicians like David Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Adam Ant, Blondie and Freddie Mercury.

Nile Rodgers, meanwhile, was the founder of Chic and the writer of songs that wedding DJs use to this day to fill a dance floor. He was the driving force behind Bowie's Let's Dance, and produced records for Southside Johnny, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, and so on.

In any case, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" is driven by Rodgers' killer guitar. Daft Punk recorded a demo, featuring Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Nathan East, who's played with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Wonder. Rodgers stripped it down to the drum part, and worked out one of his signature guitar parts. Then East rerecorded his bass part to match Rodgers' playing, Pharrell Williams sang the vocal, and a monster single was born. No drum machines or samplers, a minimal number of tracks: Disco the way it was recorded 35 years ago.

And then there's Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," which was the result of a deliberate attempt to recreate Marvin Gaye's 1977 disco smash, "Got To Give It Up (Part I)." (The attempt may have been a little too successful, as it turns out; Thicke is facing lawsuits from Gaye and from George Clinton, whose "Sexy Ways" bears more than a passing resemblance to "Blurred Lines.")

I'm not sure "Blurred Lines" qualifies as plagiarism; the similarities are obvious, but more in groove and style than in specific lyrics or hooks. (Although the bass line is pretty damn close.) If it's plagiarism, so is a good chuck of Prince's early work. You also have to wonder why George Clinton didn't sue Marvin Gaye, considering that "Got To Give It Up" came out three years after Funakdelic released "Sexy Ways." But then maybe Gaye might have had an issue with the Funkadelic record, whose title (Standing On the Verge Of Getting It On) clearly referenced Gaye's own "Let's Get It On."

But I am sure that "Blurred Lines" is a killer single. And that Pharrell Williams is having a very good summer.


Signing Off On Madam Medusa

Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, I found myself thinking frequently of UB40's great song about her, "Madam Medusa," from their first and best album, 1980's Signing Off. Their later pop successes with "Red Red Wine" and "I Got You Babe" often overshadow their much heavier and more serious early work.

The cover of Signing Off is an image of the band's namesake, the "dole card" that recipients of unemployment benefits in Britain had to carry to get their benefits. The band said at the time that it gave them millions of card-carrying members from the day of their formation, in the dark days of Thatcherism, the Falklands war, race riots and Reagan's election in the U.S.

1980 was the year of Sandinista!, the Clash's last great album, and their magnificent 12" dub singles. Bob Marley gave us his last album, including his career farewell, "Redemption Song." In the US, David Bowie released his last great album for at least a decade, Bruce Springsteen followed up Born To Run with two discs of dark and thoughtful songs, Dead Kennedys released Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, and Talking Heads released their greatest album, Remain In Light. And John Lennon and Yoko Ono started over and ended too early.

Meanwhile, in England, things were happening up north. In Manchester, Joy Division, having released its iconic album Closer, had just lost singer Ian Curtis to suicide and was about to turn into New Order. A future UB40 collaborator from Ohio was making her name with a band called Pretenders. And the so-called Two-Tone movement was reviving 1960s ska in the Midlands, where bands like the Specials, the Selecter and the (English) Beat were getting started.

UB40 ended up being lumped in with that crowd, but while the two-tone bands were reviving the 1960s, UB40 was writing genuinely British roots reggae, in the spirit of their Midlands predecessors, Steel Pulse. But while they continued the fiery political tradition, UB40 put aside Rastafari and the Bible and wrote for their secular British peers. "Madam Medusa" is a terrifying tune that perfectly captures the impact Thatcher had on Britain. Alongside songs like "Burden Of Shame, "Tyler," "King," and their cover of "Strange Fruit," it is as much a document of its time and place as "Catch a Fire" was of early 1970s Kingston.

The album was recorded in a Birmingham flat, with the sax in the kitchen, the percussion in the back yard, and a single 50p coin being recycled through the jimmied electric meter. It was released in a single package with an accompanying 12" single (making for the very confusing prospect of a double album where one disc played at 33 RPM and the other at 45 RPM) containing three songs recorded in a "real" studio, the A side being "Madam Medusa."

Almost thirteen minutes long, it opens with a organ bubble beat, a killer bass line, and the words. "From the land of shadows, comes a dreadful sight / The lady with a marble smile, spirit of the night." Brian Travers answers every line with a heavily reverbed sax. "From the tombs of ignorance / Of hate and greed and lies / Through the smoke of sacrifice / Watch her future rise." With controlled fury and bitter wordplay ("Her tree of evil knowledge / Sprouts a special branch") that must have made Peter Tosh proud, they dissect her mercilessly, Ali Campbell's mournful vocal contrasting with Astro's frenzied toasting ("Run for your life before she eat you alive / Move out the way cos you blocking out the day"). It and "Burden Of Shame" were the only songs whose lyrics were printed on the album's inner sleeves.

I've been thinking about this song since Thatcher died, but my turntable is in the shop so I couldn't play the album. But I stumbled across the deluxe CD reissue of Signing Off last weekend at a stoop sale, and I'm happy I did because it's very much worth it. The remastering is stellar, with the bass sounding every bit as good as it does on vinyl, and the collection is perfect. Disc 1 is the original album and 12" EP, while disc 2 contains the 12" versions and singles that weren't on the album, including "The Earth Dies Screaming." There are also several live performances demonstrating exactly how great this band was, and a DVD of videos. (Warning: This edition seems to be out of print; the version available on Amazon and other online retailers is a single-disc reissue containing only the original album and EP.)

This is the UB40 that became famous in England, long before they had their first US hits, which were, ironically, covers of reggae singles they'd loved as kids. ("Red Red Wine" is frequently mis-identified as a Neil Diamond cover, but UB40's hit was a very faithful cover of the Tony Tribe version of the song, a late 1960s hit in Jamaica during the era when ska and rocksteady artists would cover American pop hits for the local market.)

But this record from the 1980s speaks to the here and now in a way the hit singles don't. The speculators still prance in the bloody footsteps of her successors in Greece and Italy and Cyprus, and we all still prefer to ignore our own burdens of shame.
Harp and Guitar

I'm back....

I am, finally, returning to good old LJ. While I do post publicly here, many posts, including my most recent, are limited to friends-only viewing. If the post below this is from October, you're either not logged in or not on my friends list. Comment here or email to be added.
Harp and Guitar


No one seems to have broken in, at least, and the windows are intact. But that looks a dead bird over there and I hear mice. The rug will have to go, and probably the furniture -- yes, definitely, looks like the mice got into the couch.


It'll take some work to spruce it up but it's nice to be back in the old place. Solid words and writing, not like the cheap drywall at Facebook. I wonder if all the neighbors have moved away?

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She Had the Will (Etta James, 1938-2012)

I'm playing Etta James today. Not her old stuff. I'm listening to two records that might not exist at all had she not been such a tough woman. I like her 50s and 60s stuff just fine, but for me, her music reached its peak when she was hitting bottom. We lost a lot of great musicians at the end of the 1960s, and we mythologize them and listen to their old records over and over. But Etta faced those challenges, and then some, and came through them, so we can not only listen to her young self, but her older and wiser self. And I think that deserves more respect than dying young.

By the end of the 1960s, blues and R&B were being shunted aside in favor of rock, and her long-time home label, Chess, was foundering (deservedly), forcing Muddy Waters to record idiotic psychedelic albums and losing many greats to illness and death. In 1974, she was one of Chess's last hitmakers, but she was also in a psychiatric hospital trying to kick a terrible drug and alcohol habit. She got releases to go to the studio though, and recorded Come a Little Closer.

It could have been a disaster. James was so ill from withdrawal that she literally could not sing a word on one of the songs. The producer she was working with, Gabriel Mekler, was better known for his work with rock bands like Three Dog Night. But out of this adversity she delivered one of the best records of her career. It's often belittled for its use of synthesizers and other mid-70s production cliches, but in many cases those choices work. And when they don't, Etta brushes them aside like so many cobwebs.

The high point is right at the center of the album (the end of side one and start of side two, originally), beginning with her version of a song by Randy Newman (of all people), "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield." I've never heard his original, but it's a spectacularly sexy and creepy song. She sings it as only she could, sultry but threatening. She has you from the opening lines. The lyrics are simple ("Let's burn down the cornfield / And we'll listen to it burn.") but there is a world of pain and sex in her voice. And it builds from there to an extraordinary dual synthesizer/guitar solo that proves wrong the idea that synthesizers have no place on blues albums.

Following that is "Power Play," a classic kick in the butt of the sort she could deliver so well. And then comes the song she couldn't even sing, "Feeling Uneasy." It's a slow blues, and she just moans wordlessly over the changes. It's magnificent and about as "uneasy" as it gets. From that she goes into the hoary old classic "St Louis Blues," but opens it with a gorgeous solo vocal, and then sings it with a chorus much the way Bessie did it originally. This album has stood up to years of repeated listening, ever since a member of blues-l sent me a cassette mix that included "Cornfield" and I made a point to track down the album.

But by the 1980s, she was in career limbo again, still battling addiction. But she came out of the Betty Ford Center, went down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and recorded Seven-Year Itch with a crack band led by Steve Cropper. She's at her best with a good horn section, since little else has the power to go toe-to-toe with her voice, and the rest of the band is exactly as tight as you'd expect. She opens up with "I Got the Will," the Otis Redding classic, and she's not kidding. The fast songs (especially "Shakey Ground") are irresistible and the slow songs let her stretch out like a big cat getting ready to pounce. When she sings "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" you want to pack up and head out the back door before she gets there. The whole album would be worth buying just for what I think is the best performance ever of "Damn Your Eyes."

Last week a harp player at a gig asked me if I wanted to come to a blues jam with him, and I said no, because amplified blues nowadays is usually just rock music without songwriting. But I remember doing "Shakey Ground" with the great NYC blues singer Christine LaFroscia and a band we called the Homewreckers, all players who know how to do blues and R&B right, and there is nothing like a good blues sung by someone who takes no prisoners. Etta never did. She fought her way through hells that most of us could never imagine, and came out the other side, and because of that strength, we have these amazing records. Thank you, Etta.

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Harp and Guitar

Nite Flights Finally Land

It doesn't matter how much music you listen to or how knowledgeable you think you are. At some point, you'll stumble across someone and wonder how you could possibly have not known about them. Better yet, you'll listen to this artist's work and say to yourself, "ooooh, so that is where (Bowie/Eno/Iggy/Nick Cave/Joy Division/etc) got it from....

Which is what I'm saying now after finally paying attention to Scott Walker and listening to some of his work. (No, not the ignorant governor of Wisconsin. The other Scott Walker, whose non-brother band The Walker Brothers was hugely successful in England in the late 1960s.)

Walker has shown up on the edge of my radar a couple of times in the past few years. He had an impressive track on the Plague Songs compilation, which also featured new and excellent tracks by folks like Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, each written around one of the Biblical plagues. His name also came up in some reading I'd been doing about David Bowie's later work; Bowie covered his song "Nite Flights" on his 1992 album Black Tie White Noise, which many including me regarded as his first decent release in a decade or so. And then a few weeks ago I saw a copy of the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man in a Syracuse record store and almost bought it. Instead I rented it on iTunes and finally got to watch it on the bus this morning.

The Walker Brothers' hits were bombastic and over-produced, and Scott could be positively painful with his deep voice and soulful looks -- picture Tom Jones if he could sing like Roy Orbison. Check him out singing Frankie Valli's "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" from 1965.

But fast-forward to 2006, and watch this video of "Jesse" from 2006's The Drift. Spare guitar, stunning digital animation, and genuinely terrifying lyrics.
Jesse are you listening?
It casts its ruins in shadows
Under Memphis moonlight
Jesse are you listening?
Pow! Pow!
In the dream
I am crawling around in my hands and knees
Smoothing out the prairie
All the dents and the gouges
And the winds dying down
I lower my head
Press my ear to the prairie
Alive, I'm the only one
Left alive
I'm the only one
Left alive

In the documentary, we watch Brian Eno listening to the original version of "Nite Flights," which he brought to Montreaux where he was working with Bowie on the Lodger album, shaking his head and marveling that music has hardly progressed since its 1978 release. He talks about the way it combines electronic and experimental music with pop songs, and then he takes off his glasses and shakes his head.

"I have to say, it's humiliating to hear this," he says. "It is! Christ. We haven't got any further. You just keep hearing all these bands that sound like bloody Roxy Music and Talking Heads." (Mind you, Eno was a pivotal figure in both bands.) "We haven't gotten any further than this," he continues. "It's a disgrace, really." Meanwhile, Bowie, who largely financed the film, just laughs and shakes his head, confessing to not fully understanding Walker's lyrics but simply falling in love with the imagery.

Bowie's Lodger was clearly influenced by Walker, and not just in its song "African Night Flight," although the Walker Brothers album was in turn very strongly influenced by Bowie's mid-70s work from Young Americans through "Heroes". Bowie's cover of "Nite Flights" itself is an eye-opener; his vocal follows Walker's original rather closely, but on the other hand, is distinctively Bowie. I've listened to the two of them back to back quite a few times today and I feel like Walker is the missing link in Bowie's vocal development, the link that connects the crooners of the fifties to the punks of the 70s.

For the last year or so I've been returning to the experimental music I listened to in college, but very selectively. I've been thinking a lot about what I don't like and why (Kraftwerk, but not Tangerine Dream; 1984 King Crimson but not 1970-anything King Crimson; Peter Gabriel but not Genesis; Jon Hassell but not Jan Garbarek, etc) and Scott Walker is a good illustration. Dark, pretentious, sometimes completely more noise than music but -- musical. Songs. Lyrics, powerful lyrics. He has a gorgeous voice but thankfully also knows that singing should not always be pretty. Most of all, he's building these spaces -- sparse music, incredible imagery, silence, noises -- all of it combines into something amazing and architectural. In the end that's what matters; his music grabs me and won't let go.
Harp and Guitar

Zipcar: Beware!

mary_wroth signed up for a Zipcar account recently so I joined her account, since that way I can have a car when I'm in the city without having to drive mine back from Ithaca and worry about parking and such.

At first I loved it -- two quick rentals for $50 saved me a lot of hauling music equipment around and were cheaper and more convenient than a cab ride. But then, the gotcha hit. And it is a big gotcha: $750 to be exact.

Zipcar's friendly site explains its "six simple rules" breezily, and they sound obvious. One of them is, walk around the car before your reservation and report any damage. So far so good. I picked up my car on a Thursday night, looked it over, and drove off. I returned it three hours later and went home happy.

But sometime after I dropped it off, the car was damaged, most likely by the parking garage attendants. And according to Zipcar and their terms of service, I was responsible for that damage even though I had not caused it. Their contract says very simply, "If Zipcar is not notified of a problem at the start of a reservation, you will be held responsible for unreported damage to the vehicle after your reservation, and Zipcar may charge you damage fees, suspend, or may even terminate your membership."

In other words, if the car is not damaged at the start of your reservation, and is damaged at the start of the next member's reservation, you are responsible. Period.

In my lengthy and largely one-sided exchanges with Zipcar (see details below; most of my emails and questions went unanswered), I kept asking the same question over and over: If I could prove that the car was not damaged when I dropped it off -- let's say I made sure to photograph the car at the end of my reservation -- am I still responsible for the damage?

They never clearly answered this question, but based on others' experiences as well as my own (Yelp review, New York Times article) the answer is yes. They will not only hold you responsible, they will charge you the $750 fee immediately, before any appeal, before the car is repaired, and before your insurance adjuster or lawyer can inspect the vehicle. And based on what happened to me, they will do it all with vague and breezy emails, and ignore your questions.

I don't know if this is a callous policy or a way of encouraging members to pay an extra $75 year for the damage waiver -- even those of us, like me, who are already covered by our auto insurance plans or credit cards -- but either way, it's outrageous. And they're being deliberately vague about it on their site and in conversations or emails with their customer service staff. So if you're interested in Zipcar or you know people who are, make sure they understand this. And make sure they use a real credit card on their account, not a debit card; they took $750 directly out of mary_wroth's bank account. If they'd charged a normal credit card, she could have put the amount in dispute rather than waiting for them to give the money back (which they did, four days after saying the damage wasn't my fault).
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Harp and Guitar

Balloon-Slide Banjo and the Electric Rake

Eugene Chadbourne
Originally uploaded by kenficara
Eugene Chadbourne is to country music what Monthy Python was to situation comedies. He played a show in Ithaca last night with improvisational percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, covering Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hoyt Axton and more.

I've been playing a lot of live/improvisational music lately, and participating in a lot of improv communities. But I don't like the sort of completely out-of-control insanity that characterizes musicians like Frank Zappa (with whom Chadbourne played) or Captain Beefheart. And the opening improvisation last night, I wasn't sure I would stay for the whole show. It wasn't musical.

Wasn't musical? That's a separate essay -- a long one -- but last night the specific problem was that the rhythms were changing constantly and there was no resolution -- no tonal center. The music had no home to return to, and therefore to my ears, did not develop and never went anywhere. All gin and no tonic. Many jazz musicians and classical composers work like this deliberately, but I don't like their work at all.

Luckily, it didn't stay this way. By the end of that improvisation there was the hint of a center, and he segued into what sounded very much like a modal old-time banjo tune. And then from there he went to very twisted covers of some country classics. Nakatani amazingly kept up with everything he did, no matter how insane or how unpredictable. It was in fact often hard to tell who was driving and who was following.

Sometimes Chadbourne drifted into outright mockery, which is maybe appropriate for Roger Miller's "Dang Me," but Patsy Cline and Hoyt Axton deserve more respect than they got last night.

On the other hand, Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" was as beautiful as it should be, and as twisted as everything the duo did -- concluding with Nakatani singing high harmony while abusing a cymbal.

Nakatani is definitely a percussionist, not a drummer. He was not keeping time, even when there was time to keep. He was playing fills and answering the banjo and spinning ball bearings in metal bowls and playing riffs on a tuneable tom-tom and sawing away at a cymbal with a violin bow. Sometimes all at once. Meanwhile Chadbourne was not content with the banjo -- he played a balloon (with Nakatani harmonizing along with the squeak) as well as his infamous electric rake. (what is it? It's an electric rake. A garden rake. With a pickup.)

It was quite an evening and when we found out the next morning we'd missed a Margaret Atwood reading we were disappointed but then thought, hey, Margaret Atwood and that show on the same night? How cool is that?

Halloween Harmonitronica

I have a few new harmonitronica pieces online, all created with some new equipment I'm testing out. I'll write more about this separately, but I have outgrown (or rather, my music has outgrown) the basic delay pedals I've been using. They weren't flexible enough, didn't offer enough loops, or enough control over the loops, and too much of the system was mono. More and more with this music I am trying to create spaces which means I need much more control over the stereo image.

In any case, here are the newest pieces:
  • March Of the Zombies
    Halloween harmonitronica. A staccatto rhythm harp, overlaid blues harp using a filter, and percussion recorded live to a loop track. This takes advantage of a new sampler I've been using that includes some great effects and a nice set of drum sounds, as well as an ElectroHarmonix multitrack loop unit. This is all live, including the rhythm track.

  • Why Are You So Far Away (Why Are You Not Here With Me)
    A sad and simple blues figure, with overlaid harmonies. There's no rhythm here and all the effects are various delays from an Eventide TimeFactor.

  • Discreet Harmonica IV (More Music For Housecleaning)
    This is a series of minor-key figures played on a chromatic harmonica, each running in its own loop, all different lengths, and themselves allowed to repeat and decay through the EHX system. Mostly the loops drifted on their own as I cleaned house. Every once in a while I'd play something new into the system, or change which loops were recording or decaying.

  • Discreet Harmonica V (The Very Long Black Veil)
    A deconstruction of the country classic. I played the melody once, straight through, as you hear it, and looped it on one track of the EHX. Then as the melody played again, I recorded harmony parts, recording sections of those into three other loops, all different lengths. I then let those decay and overlay almost at random, adding some new parts here and there. I concluded it by allowing it all to decay as I played the melody one more time. These simple diatonic melodies work really well for this; the harmonies clash sometimes, but just as often they find surprising and beautiful new combinations.

As always, these are played completely live, and edited only for length (and in some cases for level).

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Harp and Guitar

Discreet Music, Continued: Ignorable Versus Boring

An email correspondent asked what I meant in my previous post when I said that Discreet Music is not boring, since it's not something you could really listen to all the way through. Perhaps a better word would have been "monotonous," but I stand by my statement.

Robert Fripp characterizes Eno's definition of ambient music as "music as ignorable as it is listenable." Muzak® is neither ignorable nor listenable, because it's so annoying. White and pink noise machines, the sleep machines that make artificial wave noises, and many other types of generative music applications (even some of the ones Eno has worked on) are ignorable, but not listenable. They are gentle and do not intrude or annoy, but if you focus on them, you get bored rapidly, because there simply isn't enough happening.

"Discreet Music" is not like that. It's non-intrusive, but if you do listen to it (and I have been listening to it a lot as I work on covering it; the version linked to in my previous post is only the first of many approaches to it) you keep hearing new things. It's fractal in that respect -- no matter how closely you look, there is more to see.

Meanwhile, I slipped out between sets at the Greenwich Village Bistro on Sunday night to browse Bleecker Street Records, where I found the 2008 reissue of (No Pussyfooting), which could also be called the "first ambient recording." It preceded Discreet Music by two years and is the first recording of the kind of looping music I'm doing now. (Yeah, yeah, Steve Reich, Different Trains, etc. No doubt a huge inspiration to Eno, but not the same thing at all.) I'll have more thoughts on that in a day or two; it's stunningly beautiful and a reminder that sometimes "remastering" really does mean something.

Finally, here's "Low Blood Sugar," my latest harmonitronica piece, nine minutes of very noisy loops, including harmonica, synthesizers, guitars and filters, all played live.