TOP TEN: May 2014
May 15, 2014
A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking
1• Greyhound turns 100
Greyhound buses have long loomed large in the mythology of the American road; this month marks the company’s 100th anniversary. In 1982, my first time in the US, I travelled thousands of miles by Greyhound, crossing fifteen states in about ten days. It was endless and uncomfortable and much of the journey took place at night. But as Jonathan Richman sings, you meet folks this way you never see flying. My ticket allowed me to stop off to spend a few days exploring any cities that took my fancy along the way, though the view from the bus terminals, which are routinely situated in the seediest parts of town, was often so unprepossessing that I got straight back on the bus. Still, where would we be if it weren’t for Greyhounds? There would be a gaping metaphor-sized hole in the blues. Paul Simon would never have gone to look for America. Dave Alvin would have to find some other way of getting his characters to Texas. And Jonathan Richman would never have written this hilarious masterpiece.
2• Bluegrass and Bach
Chris Thile is a bluegrass virtuoso, best known as the mandolin player for Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers. But his romance with the sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach has opened up another whole dimension of his musicality. Thile’s mandolin lends these solo pieces - which Bach wrote for violin - something of the quality of a harpsichord, yet with all the sensitivity of skin on string. His album Bach Sonatas’ & Partitas Volume 1 is exquisite. There is also a lovely clip here:
3• "Up one hand broom star was an obi man…
…revered throughout the bone knob land." Four songs performed by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band for German television in 1972, the crispest Beefheart footage I’ve seen. Watch it here. Drummer (Art Tripp), appears to be wearing a monocle and a pair of undies on his head. Rockette Morton is in perpetual motion. There are two electric basses. It’s not perfect - as my friend Vaughan Matthews points out, the camera operator has the reflexes of blancmange, taking 20 seconds to get from the kick drum to Beefheart once his sax solo starts. And Winged Eel Fingerling remains out of frame for all but a couple of brief moments. Still, to get even a glimpse of this is thrilling.
4• Questlove’s essays
When Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson plays drums you can almost hear the history of black popular music laid out in his beats. When he is not drumming, he’s thinking hard about that history as well as its future. He’s set down some of his thoughts in series of six essays for online mag Vulture, which are being published at the rate of one per week under the provocative heading How Hip-Hop Failed Black America. Questlove asks more questions than he answers, still the essays are fascinating and discursive, taking in Einstein, Roland Barthes, disco and Lorde. Read 'em here:
5• Southern nights
The brilliant New Orleans pianist/songwriter/producer/singer Allen Toussaint was in London recently, where he charmed Cerys Matthews as guest on her BBC Radio 6 programme, and told some good stories behind the songs. (The Debashish Bhattacharya session is worth a listen too.) And my London friend Garth Cartwright also seized the opportunity to speak to Mr Toussaint, where he got to ask him detailed questions about his music, plus that of such friends and associates as Lowell George, Earl King and Etta James. You can read the transcript of Garth's interview here.
6• Rockcrit science
Whatever you call this job that I do – pop critic, music reviewer, rock writer - Robert Christgau is the guy that invented it. It is 47 years since he started writing his ‘secular music’ column for Esquire, 45 since he launched his Consumer Guide in the Village Voice, which – around 20,000 capsule album review later - remains some of the most brilliantly compressed criticism you’ll find of any art form, anywhere. And he’s still going strong, listening to – and assessing – an estimated 14 hours of music a day. He’s not crazy, though he is eccentric and single-minded, as you’ll discover in this long interview from last year, conducted by the food critic from the New Orleans Times Picayune.
7• Red Shirley
The late Lou Reed wasn’t entirely the scary rock’n’roll animal he was frequently depicted as. Here’s a short film from 2010, co-directed by Reed, in which he questions his 100-year-old cousin Shirley Novick, about her life as a Jewish refugee and political activist, and reveals himself to be a sensitive, subtle interviewer, and friend.
8• Aaron Tokona on Kim Dotcom
All feelings about the GCSB aside, I’ve always been bemused by the popular perception of Kim Dotcom as some kind of Robin Hood figure. He robbed from the rich and… what? Bought lots of expensive toys for his friends? Hardly the honourable outlaw, in my book. Now that he is courting New Zealand's youth vote in his bid for political power, a few conscientious citizens have chosen to air their misgivings; among them, guitarist Aaron Tokona, who Dotcom previously hired to play on his record. The experience was apparently less than edifying, as Tokona reveals in the first of a promised series of pieces, which you can read here.
And in case you haven’t heard the magnificent Mr Tokona - or only in the context of Dotcom’s album - check him out with his psych-funk extravaganza A Hori Buzz, slashing rock duo Cairo Knife Fight, or on his own in this solo workout on Elvis/Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’.
9• Otis Rush plays
An awesome opening note, a bold cardigan, and a beautifully constructed guitar solo. Here:
10• Red Neck, Blue Collar
Bob Frank is a singer and songwriter from Memphis, who made one lost hippie folk album for Vanguard in the early 70s, before fading back into the workforce. Recently reissued, its paeans to pot smokers (‘She Pawned Her Diamond For Some Gold’), wine drinkers (‘Wino’, ‘Judas Iscariot’) and general layabouts are very much of their time. It has recently been reissued by Light In The Attic and is worth a listen, but the follow-up he made in 2008 is even better. The title track is a working class anthem, and can be heard here.