TOP TEN: October 2013

A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking

1•William Gropper’s map of America’s Folklore

The first songs I ever heard were the ones my father sang to me, from a  hardback tome called The Fireside Book Of American Folk Song. ‘John Henry’, ‘Casey Jones’, ‘Frankie and Johnny’, and a whole lot of others. A few years later he read me Uncle Remus and Huckleberry Finn, and I watched shows about Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett on television. I still had no idea where the Mississippi was.

Gropper’s map locates all these characters (plus a bunch of even more outlandish ones) in the land that created them. Gropper was a New York-based illustrator, fascinated by his country's rich folklore. He painted the beautiful map in 1946 and copies were sent around the world by the State Department.

 But if the map could be read, on one level, as a primer for the American way – rife with guns, lawlessness and mad free-enterprisers – not everyone saw it that way. Gropper, like my Dad, was a man of the left, and no doubt created it as a homage to the power of myth and the indomitable human spirit. Senator Joseph McCarthy, on the other hand, suspected subversion and called Gropper to testify before one of his investigative committees.

NB: The Library Of Congress website that housed a high-res, zoomable version of this map is currently inaccessible, due to the temporary shutdown of the federal government. In the meantime, check it here.

2• Janelle Monae

Not since Prince has an R&B singer come up with such a complete or eclectic (not to say eccentric) package. Singing, dancing, lavishly arranged and referencing virtually the history of black music, Kansas-born Janelle Monae wraps her multi-media concept in a sci-fi storyline that expands with each new release. The Electric Lady, her new album, presents parts IV and V, in which the underlying agenda of racial and gender pride is clearer than ever. Musically, Monae’s default setting seems to be early-70s Stevie Wonder, but there’s a wonderful duet with Prince that takes a queasy metal riff and makes it funky, and there’s ‘Dance Apocalyptic’, for which Monae credits inspiration to Bo Diddley - but it sounds like the Marvelettes to me.

 3• Lorde On Lorde

 No New Zealand musician has ever attracted so many words in such a short space of time as the 16-year-old American chart-topper who calls herself Lorde. Plenty of those words are from middle-aged men, seemingly miffed that the world’s record-buyers have overridden their superior tastes. As for Lorde herself, she seems to know what she’s doing, and some of the best writing on the subject has been her own. Read here.

4• The musician as prose writer (part one in an occasional series)

“She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue…” Duke Ellington, describes the singer Betty Roche in his 1973 memoir Music Is My Mistress.

 Autobiographies of great musicians are usually ghost written, for the good reason that great musicians are seldom also masters of long-form non-fiction. But while such books might contain some ripping yarns, music is frequently the loser, reduced to a few bland and lifeless cliches. It is only in those odd instances where the musician takes hold of the typewriter that you get some insights into the way the artist really thinks and feels about music.

 On these occasions you may find prose with a musicality and rhythm that could never have been the work of a hired hack. Here’s the Duke again, on the singer Jimmy Grissom:

“He had a street-scene, jive quality that demanded his recognition as a worldly man who had given his heart in vain”.

 Here’s Dylan in his Chronicles, on Roy Orbison:

“With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business… singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff.”

 Here’s Chuck Berry on Chuck Berry (from The Autobiography, written in jail): “The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple.”

 And Paul Kelly, the great Australian songwriter, in a 2012 piece from The Monthly, on the music of New Orleans:

“Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry imitates a girl in falsetto and then a frog.... Professor Longhair sings ‘Bald Head’ like a crazy uncle at a barbecue…In Shirley and Lee’s ‘Let the Good Times Roll’, Shirley sounds like the next-door neighbour who’s wandered in and asked, “Can I have a sing too?” There’s something about these records that sounds homemade, a bunch of people fooling around.” To be continued…

 5• The musician as comedian - Part 1: Yes

 When it comes to the band called Yes, I have always adopted the motto of the war on drugs: just say ‘no’.

Actually, that is not quite true; I’ll admit to a teenage flirtation with The Yes Album, which ended somewhere around the time I first saw B.B. King and realised less could be a whole lot more.

 Still, my overwhelming impression has always been of a band that played too many notes and took itself way too seriously. So it has been a small revelation in the age of Internet to discover that the now-grey-haired members of this apparently po-faced band are – at least when they are not wrestling with the complexities of ‘Starship Trooper’ – hilarious raconteurs.

Here is bass player Chris Squire on the occasion he opened for Jimi Hendrix.

And here is singer Jon Anderson on his first meeting with Vangelis.

 And Rick Wakeman – always the most excessive member of the group – has hosted an entire series of hour-long talk shows, in which he chews the fat with such contemporaries as Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Family’s Roger Chapman and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. (“I saw Prince Charles making a beeline for Ozzy and I thought, ‘Oh no…’”) Hours of hilarity.

6• Steve Albini writes to Nirvana

Steve Albini knows how to record stuff. It could be the most fucked-up noise-rock (try The Jesus Lizard) or fey Joanna Newsom plucking her harp; in either case he dissolves the walls between listener and musician, and captures the life of a performance like no one else. Other people’s records may be easier on the ear, but after hearing an Albini recording, anything else sounds like it has had the breath sucked out of it.

As a follow-up to the major label platinum punk hit that was Nevermind, Nirvana enlisted Albini to record (he’s too egalitarian to allow himself to be called a ‘producer’) the follow-up, In Utero. Predictably, Geffen Records were terrified.

The result was certainly more raw-edged than its predecessor, as much a reflection of Kurt Cobain’s state-of-mind as Albini’s recording techniques. Yet the combination of Beatle-esque melody and a rock trio playing out of their skins has seldom been more persuasive.

Among the ephemera accompanying In Utero’s 20th anniversary reissue is a letter written to the band by the eloquent Albini, in which he outlined his principles. If you want to know why his records sound the way they do, it’s a great read. Read it here.

7• The producer as poet, or "Is it rolling Bob?"

 One studio maven who didn’t mind being called a producer was Bob Johnson, whose name adorns classic albums by Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen and almost everything Bob Dylan released between 1965 and 1971. I have sometimes wondered what Johnson’s contribution to Dylan’s records actually was. Seeing him in the promotional trailer for Another Self Portrait gave me an insight. Old, frail, and looking like he’s at death’s door, a question about Dylan seems to jolt him back to life and he answers in what seems to be a sudden spiel of spontaneous verse:

“Down the kerb and around the bend he came and it’ll never end now because he’s been on this rollercoaster ride ever since he left Minnesota.

He’s been brutalised, sunrised, baptised in the waters of the Village.

Still it goes on, from Soho to Moscow to Oslo.

They speak of this trip, this battleship, who sailed in the harbour of Tin Pan Alley and sank it with his Subterranean Homesick Blues.

There isn’t but one Bob Dylan.”

I suspect there isn't but one Bob Johnson,either.

8• Jay Epae’s ‘Hula-Cha’

Jay Epae was a singer from Taranaki who went to America in the late 1950s, where he cut a series of unique and high-spirited records that mixed rock’n’roll, te reo Maori and non-specific Pacificana. One of these – based on a popular Maori song and renamed ‘Putti Putti’ – was a smash hit in Scandinavia. While we await the definitive compilation of his recordings (it’s currently in the works), a few of his sides can be enjoyed on You Tube, like this one – the follow-up to ‘Putti Putti’.

9• Celestial ice-cream trucks - further sightings

Last month I was pondering the unearthly beauty of the mysterious instrument used by singing preacher Washington Phillips on his 1920s recordings. Now I’ve seen one. A kind of autoharp with keys, it is the instrument Paul Mason Howard is using in the photo (above right, third down) to accompany Huddie Ledbetter. The recordings they made together in the early 1940s (including ‘Goodnight Irene’) are some of Leadbelly’s best.

10• Beck contemplates the post-modern mustache

“Do you realize we’re now at the first point in history where a mustache isn’t completely sincere? In other eras, a man’s mustache used to be without question. Now there’s all sorts of subtext. Levels. Implications. Baggage. I think maybe, in a way, that applies across the board” – Beck Hansen, 2013

Tags: bob dylannew orleansduke ellingtonprincenirvanabeckstevie wonderjanelle monaebo diddleyroy orbisonchuck berrypaul kellyprofessor longhairb b kingjethro tullblack sabbathjay epaelordeyesfamily

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