Saturday, December 30, 2006

RIP James Brown (1933-2006)

I decided to postpone my planned entry for this week, and devote some web space to the late great Soul Brother #1, Mr. Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business….James Brown, who passed away on Christmas morning.

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Christmas at my house can be pretty boring. Both of my parents work weird hours, so we often don’t open our presents until the late afternoon. This past Monday morning, I was surfing the internet and trying to pass the time when I learned that James Brown had passed away. I was gob smacked. I really was.
Never mind the fact that he was in his seventies, the man was constantly on the road. The way he was carrying on, he shoulda lived to be 100. I can swear that he headlined at the 9:30 Club in DC at least once a year for the last five years. The only other performer who comes through the Capital that frequently is George Clinton (plus whatever incarnation of P-funk he’s dragging along with him).

While he wasn’t formally trained as a musician or a conductor, Brother James knew what he liked. He was demanding as a motherfucker and worked his backing bands like dogs. Musicians had to balance jazzy improvisational skills with their master’s strict discipline and funky goals. Wheezy demands of “Take me to the bridge!!!” “Good God!” and “HEH!” are among the most recognizable vocal cues in the history of recorded music.

What made James Brown so spectacular is that his love for hollering, controlled drum solos and funky breakdowns actually paved the way for the future. His influence streched far beyond his heyday in the 1960s and 70s. The man practically invented funk.The raw sexual energy that flowed through him was contagious. As a result, many former James Brown Band members went on to be funk greats in their own right. Hip-hop owes its very existence to the drum breaks that the Godfather often called for. Had sampling laws been in place during the early 80s, he could’ve retired and lived off the royalty checks!
But don’t think that his influence was limited to the Americas. During a late 60s trip to Los Angeles, Fela Kuti was transfixed by the strong messages for black empowerment and self-respect. He would return to Nigeria armed with these ideas and a good grove, only to unleash Afrobeat on an unsuspecting world.

James Brown was a visionary, a genius, and a legend. He also had a vicious temper, several drug habits and was incredibly abusive. There were numerous times during his career that his tabloid infamy threatened to soil his brilliance. However, one must remember that no man is a saint. Besides, how many other men could claim that they helped prevent rioting following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr? The national telecast of his performance in Boston actually prevented many a black man from doing something stupid. If James Brown had really been an asshole, he’d have turned ‘em loose from coast to coast.

There have been few individuals with his kind of power and presence.
I doubt that we’ll see anyone like him again.
Rest in Peace, Funky President.
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Have a happy and safe New Year….Now Enjoy!
James Brown on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966

A list of songs that sample “Funky Drummer,” courtesy of TheBreaks.Com

Download some classics at Bag of Songs

Monday, December 25, 2006

Wire “154” (EMI/Harvest 1979)

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Political Systems 101 Final Exam

QUESTION: If the English band Wire was a government, they could be defined as:

A. A military junta
B. A philosophical dictatorship
C. Anarchy
D. None of the above

If I were the one gripping the #2 pencil, I’d be stuck between choices B and D. Philosophical dictatorships are rare and incredibly difficult to explain. I can only think of one off-hand, and that’s the rule of Dr. Francia in Paraguay at the end of the 19th century.Hmmmmm, but “None of the Above” is always an acceptable cop-out.
Either way, I’d be sweating bullets by this point in the exam.

Post-punk can be such a poor definition of music. But in the last four years, it’s come to mean anything that resembles the first two releases by Gang of Four. You know, anything that reviewers describe as having an “angular guitar sound.” Huh? Why not something a bit more descriptive such as “abrasive” or “lacking mid-range”?

A more appropriate definition of post-punk would read as such
“Anything recorded after the Sex Pistols’ tabloid frenzy stopped being such a vile influence on the music.”
The arrival of art students and decidedly unhip non-Londoners allowed punk to exchange controversy for artistic freedom. Reggae and dub, classical, ambient, even field recordings of African drummers found their way into the post-punk cannon. The result was, gasp, people being experimental and at times, self-indulgent. Holy Sid Vicious!!!

Wire -a band that’s had more than it’s share of difficult musical moments- get such little love from post-punk revivalists. Oh sure, critics adore them and Elastica made them cool for a while in the mid 1990s, but they have consistently been overshadowed by their more accessible peers.

In short, Wire were a very self-indulgent group. But not in that annoying Emerson, Lake and Palmer sort of way. Nowhere was this more evident than when the band was on the road. Set lists from tours following 1978’s “Chairs Missing” were heavy on unreleased material and as a result, the majority of “154” had been road tested and rehearsed long before entering the studio. While this may have been vexing for fans, I’m doubtful that the lads ever cared. For them, live performances were an ideal testing ground for what was to be their increasingly adventurous ideas.
“154” is Wire at their most stubborn. Accompanied by producer/pianist/arranger Mike Thorne, the boys deliver forty minutes of buzzing guitars, beautiful harmonies, droning keyboards and the occasional spoken word piece. It’s Dada on record, and like Dada they occasionally wrap the absurd in the in a digestible package. Take “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW,” for example. It features beautiful chord changes and a superb melody, yet it’s about lines of latitude and longitude. Can you picture yourself singing along to lyrics that sound like they were lifted from a surveyor’s manual? Probably not. But this was not unusual behavior from Wire. A single from the previous album, “Outdoor Miner”, addressed the habits of the leaf-dwelling serpentine miner. And when they resurfaced in the mid-80s, Wire continued to wreak havoc on convention by writing pop numbers with increasingly abstract lyrics.

“Tim Souster was an old composer friend who had studied and played under Karlheinz Stockhausen, was utterly at home with electronic sound•• and played the electric viola (or had done, since he had to get it fixed for this session). We set him up with his viola feeding three separate amps each with a time delay in its path (we had three Music Man combo models among us). The enveloping sound in his playing area in the middle of the large studio was magic.”

It is evident that there was a method to the group’s madness. Wire sought to emulate the masters of the avant-garde and they were meticulous in their noisemaking expeditions. However, some of the experimental tracks on “154” can be frustrating because they change direction before one can understand what took place. “The Other Window”, which begins as an inoffensive ambient piece, takes on a sinister tone when an off-kilter drumbeat is introduced around the one-minute mark. “A Touching Display,” creeps along for seven minutes and abruptly ends with a fartlike bum note. Depending on your tastes these moments can be agonizing or exhilarating.
“154” is not a party album. In fact, I’m so sure of this that I’ll pay you $5 if you can provide evidence of this album being played in a club or bar. Nonetheless, if you listen to “Pink Flag” and then “Chairs Missing” in succession, you’ll be adequately prepared to listen to “154” in its entirety at least once. If not, you can always cheat and just play “The 15th” on repeat for a week.
(Special Thanks to Dan M. for advice on this one. And apologies for the delay, but it’s Christmas, you know.)

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The Making of “154” by Mike Thorne

Performance of “The 15th” on West German TV

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Evens “Get Evens” (Dischord 2006)

In the years since Fugazi’s decision to go on “indefinite hiatus”, Ian MacKaye could’ve done a number of things. For example, he could've taken his fine entrepreneurial skills and bought into the lucrative Washington-area real estate market.
But if thoughts of dollar signs were running through his bald head, Ian would’ve reunited Minor Threat and gone on tour with the Dead Kennedys (featuring whatever lame vocalist who’s filling in for Jello).
Those familiar with Mr. MacKaye’s philosophies know better than to make such trifling assumptions. Here’s a man who has never been known to rest on the laurels of previous musical achievements, no matter how grand or influential. After the breakup of Minor Threat, Ian re-emerged in the Revolution Summer of 1985 with the fiercely personal Embrace. Following their demise, Ian began working with Joe Lally and Rites of Spring alumni Guy Piccioto and Brendan Canty. As Fugazi, they challenged the repetitive and increasingly macho hardcore scene of the late 80s and early 1990s.
Now that they’re gone, Ian has reinvented himself once again with his latest musical endeavor, The Evens.

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(Photograph courtesy of Jim Saah)

The Evens are Ian on baritone guitar and Amy Farina (ex-Warmers) on drums. I initially passed on the Evens because it seems like every other lame indie group is a duo. In fact, I didn’t even bother with their first release. In retrospect, this was a little unfair. I dunno, I guess I was bitter about the fact that Fugazi wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
Well, I’ve finally come to terms with it and have managed to procure a copy of their latest release “Get Evens.”
But before I begin, I’ve must get something off my chest:
I’m unhappy with Ian’s choice of guitar.
On “Get Evens,” Ian uses a Danelectro baritone guitar. I can tell, because I’ve played one before. And from my experience, Danelectros sound really good when used for single note playing, not strumming, which MacKaye does rather often. Even more maddening is the fact that he never alters his tone. No cool chorus or delay pedals, not even a dramatic change of the bass and treble settings. The result get is a dull and uninteresting tone. To be totally honest I would’ve recommended a Fender Bass VI à la the Beatles on the White Album.

Then again it’s the vocals and the overall arrangement, not minute sonic details, which are the selling point of this record.
I first realized that Ian could sing (not bark) when I heard the beautiful demo “I’m So Tired” on the soundtrack to the “Instrument” documentary. Fugazi’s last album, “The Argument”, was brimming with hints that the once drill sergeant-like MacKaye was moving in a quieter direction.
On “Get Evens,” Ian can sound quite angelic, particularly when he and Amy sing in unison. Now Ms Farina does have a lovely voice, I liked her drumming more. Her technique is breezy and features very some nice cymbal work. And much to my delight, she avoids Keith Moon style theatrics that would undermine the simplicity of the recording.
TRANSLATION: She is 10,000 times better than Meg White.

“How do people sleep amidst the slaughter/Why would they vote in the favor of their own defeat”
Overall it’s a very stripped down affair, which is ideal if you pay attention to the words. The verse in quotes, an excerpt of “Cut From The Cloth,” is indicative of the album’s lyrical mood. It’s simple and direct, without sounding sophomoric or tiresome. And believe me, that’s a rarity in a city where clichéd political overtones are omnipresent in every nook and cranny of the music scene.
“Get Evens” is undeniably a product of Washington DC 2006. It represents a capital city that’s showing signs of life after years of neglect and misery. On the flipside, it’s also a city suffering from gentrification, commercialization and the overwhelming influence of the federal government. Don’t be mistaken, though. This is not forty minutes of whinging put to music, but merely a series of observations on the national mentality since 9/11. It’s an intriguing portrait of the second half of the Bush era and will probably serve as a fascinating time capsule in 20 years’ time.

Recommended tracks:
Cut from the Cloth, Everybody Knows, No Money,

The Evens at Dischord Records

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Pale Fountains “Pacific Street” (Virgin 1984)

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Liverpool, during the early 1980s, was quite possibly the hardest English city to form a band. The Beatles’ legacy continued to cast a long shadow. Manchester’s Factory Label was quickly becoming the voice of the North. And thanks to the Human League, Sheffield’s once avant-garde electronic scene was becoming a national phenomenon.
The only way for Scoucers to stand out in the face of such strong competition was to scatter like roaches and explore a wide range of eclectic styles. Echo and the Bunnymen performed with a bombast and grandiosity that rivaled U2. The Teardrop Explodes boldly explored psychadelia and Krautrock. And Frankie Goes to Hollywood managed to subvert the world by coupling shamelessly homoerotic lyrics with Trevor Horn’s inventive production. Despite their quirks, all managed to strike a balance between post punk principles and Britain’s lush musical past and reassert their city’s place as a breeding ground for English talent.

But one band remained totally out of step.
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Based on their influences alone, The Pale Fountains, formed by Michael Head in 1981, managed to stand out as an anachronism. Their music betrays the influence of Burt Bacharach, Love, Brazilian jazz and bossa nova. Their overtly sunny lyrics were suspect during the gloom of the early Thatcher years. Some critics dismissed them as a “cabaret band.” Their response? "A cabaret band play cover versions of standards -- we play our own songs."

While in a record store in the south of France, I picked up a book called “Le Guide Du Pop et Rock: 1980-1999.” Deep in the heart of this pocket sized guide was an album cover featuring a young fellow with an ammunition belt wrapped round his chest. With such a vibrant and puzzling image, I decided that I would have to track down a copy and see if bossa nova and Arthur Lee really meshed.

Released in early 1984, “Pacific Street” is a very rich and well recorded album. It’s brimming with a wide variety of sounds: including, but not limited to, congas, trumpets, string sections, flutes, mandolins, pianos and steel drums. All of this with the perfect touch of foreign rhythms to keep things interesting.
The opener, “Reach”, kicks off the program in a very quiet way. The intro is barely audible and rather unspectacular, but quickly gives way to chiming guitars and chipper trumpets. Song two, “Something On My Mind,” is a song that I use as a starting point when I recommend this band to friends. It’s quite possibly the most flawlessly recorded piece of pop rock of the last twenty years. “Unless” is the only song to take advantage of affordable synth technology. Pre-recorded choral swells accent the lead vocal while a sequencer occasionally gurgles through. Kinda reminds me of Brian Eno, except with better lyrics.
A heavy debt to Love is evident on the saccharine “Southbound Excursion” and the thrash poppy “Natural”. Though I tend to grit my teeth at Michael’s “Yeah yeah yeahs” and yelps in the latter.
After the instrumental “Faithful Pillow (Part 1)” the boys get really ambitious with “You’ll Start a War,” a mini-epic that failed to make a dent in the UK charts upon its release as a single.
The remaining numbers, while strong, lean a bit too heavily on the Burt Bacharach influence. This doesn’t mean they’re boring, but they sorta validate all the cries of “cabaret” and “M.O.R.” But I do enjoy the lively steel drum intro of “Crazier.” The original album ends with a reprise of “Faithful Pillow.” European re-issues feature 4 bonus tracks, including the single that got the band signed, “Thank You.” The Japanese reissue really beefs it up with a total of 9 bonus tracks, including alternate and extended versions.

Because the public was so fixated on looks and controversy, “Pacific Street” only reached #84 in the UK charts. Funny because if this had been released in 1996, the same year as Belle and Sebastian’s “Tigermilk” it surely woulda been a hit. And I think that this album would sit comfortably next to recent releases by the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire.

From what I’ve read, Virgin Records gave these lads a £50,000 advance and an additional £100,000 for expenses and recording fees. In a 1990 interview with French rock magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, Head expressed a sense of regret about the heroin fuelled demise of this band, but also looked back with a certain fondness:

“Money was an excellent thing for the whole of us. We could do anything we wanted. The problem is that money can buy anything, good things as well as bad. Because I've always been very curious, I began to experiment everything. I say: everything. Therefore, it's money that killed the band, because it enabled us to buy all sorts of drugs we wanted to.”

The Pale Fountains disbanded in 1985, following the release of “From Across the Kitchen Table”. Head would go on to form Shack with his brother, and continues to drift along in obscurity. But the Pale Fountains and Shack retain a cult following that includes the likes of Noel Gallagher and Badly Drawn Boy.

Photos and early single reviews

Video for “You’ll Start a War”

Interview with Michael Head from France’s version of NME, Les Inrockuptibles

Buy the expanded Japanese import version @

Or…save some $$ and contact me!

Saturday, December 2, 2006


My name is Patrick and for a while I've been pretty bored with music blogs. A majority of them endlessly hype new bands or don't cover a wide variety of music.
When I search through my CD and tape collection, I'm amazed at how much stuff I've never read about. And at times I can't help but wonder if there are others out there who are looking for a little more information on one of their favorite bands. Using what knowledge I have pieced together from years of reading through music encyclopedias, essays and websites, I've decided to add to the rubbish heap that is the internet. I plan on reviewing some of my favorite albums and singles, both new and old, and occasionally make comments on the state of the record industry.
I don't claim to be an expert and my word is not canon. If you have something interesting you'd like me to hear, send me an mp3.

Oh wait, by this time I'm sure you're wondering what the hell to expect. Well here's what I've been listening to during the past week:

*Love "Da Capo"
*Felt "Absolute Classic Masterpieces"
*Clipse "Hell Hath No Fury"
*Echo and the Bunnymen "Crocodiles"
*Black Uhuru "Sinsemilla"

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In an ideal situation, I would like to be able to update this blog weekly. So help me God, I will. Even if my exams start next week. I'm doing this for my sanity. Some of the reviews might include random bits of personal information, or may have nothing to do with the recording itself, but you know what, it happens. So starting next week, it begins....