COOK'S CORNER 15: THE HISS OF SUMMER

Opening rhetorical: If one is lost in love and they don't know much then why bother to write it down in a song?

A few things that'll make your toes tap, a few others sure to make you think, and a healthy serving of Latin soul to wrap your hungry ears around...

Album of the month:
Velvet Crush: Stereo Blues (Action Musik)
Maybe it takes 20 years to find your masterpiece. Stereo Blues is everything good about pop music boiled down to 36 minutes full of yearning hooks, gently barbed words, vintage keyboard hum, kickin' drums, and guitar tsunamis. Alternately chilly and spring day warm, this is the most satisfying work yet from Paul Chastain and Ric Menck, who've been plying their trade together for more than two decades. Like the Kinks? Cheap Trick? Then you're gonna dig the Crush. The pair has never written sharper or more perceptively than on these 11 cuts. The lines on their faces have added a palpable density, a mature perspective that turns a clear eye on relationships where the innocence at the start isn't diminished or mocked by the cataclysmic shock of seeing through one's illusions. Menck is one of the best pop drummers since Ringo Starr played with that Liverpool quartet. Sound overblown? Spend a little time with say the White Album and then slip on Stereo Blues and tell me you don't hear some major similarities. Both are drummers who go straight for feel-over-flash and are worth more than a thousand Neal Peart's (Rush). "Fall Awake" twists the knife like '80s Richard Thompson, upbeat but edged in black ink. "B-Side Blues" would fit nicely on the Stones' Beggars Banquet. "The Connection" is perhaps THE heavy breakup epic they were born to record, further electrified by guest Darren Cooper's distorto-nasty lead guitar; it's so good you'll want a smoke and some cuddling after the fade. Every track is a maturation of the best elements of what's come before, chock full of lines that will stick with you, like "Do what you want... if you can live with it," or "All the plain talking and the luck that just runs out," and "Make me a man for all seasons, give me a hand for no reason." A decade back they made reference to Brian Wilson's goal to write "Teenage Symphonies to God." What their latest does is find the adult version of that urge, a prayer tempered by failure and long days and missing persons. Shuffling around in blue jeans and graying hair, the Velvet Crush find the things that "hit you where you live" and that includes nuggets of hope and pleasure waiting for us despite our disappointments. Stereo Blues will make you dance around like a Peanuts kid, happy even though you got a rock and everyone else got candy.

Runner-up:
Comets On Fire: Blue Cathedral (Sub Pop)
Take rock out into the noonday sun. Let it bake, dehydrate, condense. Gather the yellow-red powder and grind it in a mortar and pestle with blood, pickled night terrors, and the essence of some careening astral body. Pulverize to a brick dark paste, which you then smear like war paint on the cheeks of Noel Harmonson (analog electronics and vocal echoplex player), Ben Flashman (bass), Ethan Miller (guitar, vox) and Utrillo Belcher (drums). Invite Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) to bolster the guitar maelstrom. This is metal minus the histrionics and showy devil horn genuflecting. It's prog rock sans the pomp and silly capes. The 45-odd minutes within this Cathedral are a righteous shag--carnal, shattering, true as anything ever thrown down, a gauntlet to that which would be less when it could be more. This shakes our marrow and floods our senses with hot black rainbows. Touchstones? Pre-Dark Side Floyd, Japan's High Rise, the Tangerine Dream of Electronic Meditation and a dose of the same drool drenched fever that possesses Comets' fan Julian Cope in his Brain Donor guise. Tim Daly's intermittent sax intrusions are pitched somewhere between Caspar Brotzmann and a cheeba-smoked Phil Woods. Their titles are small worlds waiting to reveal themselves, "The Bee And The Cracking Egg," "Brotherhood Of The Harvest" (featuring some haunting acoustic from Chasney), and "The Antlers Of The Midnight Sun." Listening becomes compulsive, irrational, transmutative, a purifying fire searing away the false and the clever and the limp. Faith restored, a new body providing sanctuary and pagan nourishment.

Second Runner-up:
Doug Hilsinger with Caroleen Beatty: Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (DBK Works)

These are your orders
Seems like it's do it or die
So please read them closely
When you've read them be sure that you eat them up
They're specially flavored
With Burgundy, Tizer, and Rye
Twelve sheets of foolscap, don't ask me why

This can be appreciated on multiple levels (as inspiration to revisit the original, as post-modernist calliope, as fascinating experiment, as crazed tribute) but mostly it's a swell, uplifting song cycle that holds up admirably after 30 years. Brian Eno certainly couldn't have imagined someone would do an end-to-end cover of his idiosyncratic sophomore album when it was released in 1974. Partially inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Tiger Mountain puts the art in pop, gently pushing genre boundaries, creating an alternate stream for rockers that the kiddies have been splashing around in for decades. Like last year's release of Camper Van Beethoven's version of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, what emerges is more than hero worship, more than mere homage. To purists who dismiss this effort I say, "Pull your head out of the new issue of the Big Takeover and listen to this as if you'd never heard the original." Is it good? Is it great? Would you obsessively listen to it on stereo and iPod if you didn't know it was a cover of Eno album? Yes across the board. The creators of this warped delight are quite a find. This introduces most of us to a very talented pair with a strikingly musical ear for pop fluidity. Caroleen Beatty's insinuatingly warm voice suggests Roxy Music with a female singer or Debbie Harry if Wire had gotten a hold of her before Blondie. Save for some handclaps from Beatty and some bowed psaltery by Johnny Martin on two cuts, Hilsinger has created a just-different-enough recreation that departs most strikingly from the original by refusing keyboards or drum machines. Instead he ratchets up the guitars (which include pedal steel and sitar-guitar) and has them spar with melodica, glockenspiel, autoharp, live drums and more treatments than a medical clinic. Eno himself has given his blessing, penning thoughtful liner notes that describe hearing the revisit as "an unexpectedly moving experience" that's "a little like being in a Borges story." Like the original, one can drift away without having to turn off their mind. That's a rare atmosphere indeed.

I can think of nowhere I would rather be
Reading morning papers, drinking morning tea

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Welcome To Woody Creek (Dualtone)
Lordy, this is mighty slick. No warts, no stumbles, no happy mistakes. The Dirt Band will always be remembered for bringing bluegrass to a generation of political protesters with Will The Circle Be Unbroken (which had two subsequent sequels in the past two decades). Their gift for reinterpreting pop songs with a mandolin glee offers up the familiar in a sweet new light (as they do here with the Beatles "Get Back"). Their original material isn't unlike '70s Eagles, sturdy daytime dramas with warm harmonies, lonesome and high as the sun goes down for another day. Woody Creek would have sounded just fine in 1974. "Jealous Moon" and their cover of Gram Parson's "She" would both have dented the charts and stolen some business from Henley and Frey. In 2004, it's well played, well sung but missing some spark that might separate it from other very professional country rock like Nanci Griffith and Dwight Yoakam. They do write better songs than nearly any of the younger generation of twang craftsmen making noise these days and if they had a bit more fire in the belly this might be more than just a nice visit with old friends.

DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid: Celestial Mechanix-The Blue Series MasterMix (Thirsty Ear)
Thirsty Ear's Blue Series is a blow against those who would freeze jazz, codify and stiffen it. Things have changed. Miles plugged in and hip-hop hopped. Beat merchants have perfected the consolidation of discrete bits into something wholly funky. How appropriate then to honor the thirtieth release in the series by turning over the previous 29 experimental excursions to DJ Spooky. His subtle touch is ethereal as an idea, the Martian Manhunter passing through solid objects, a reverb whisper caressing the original tracks with a bit more boom here, some bleeped bap there. Disc one of the set comprises 11 very tasty remixes, notably "Not In Our Name" (with spoken word maverick Saul Williams) and "Lingua Ex Machine," which are everything the Def Poetry Jam aspires to but rarely achieves. The second disc is a fine continuous mix that touches on many of the best bits from the forward-thinking jazz made by Matthew Shipp, William Parker, David S. Ware and many others. That such deep playing could be reshaped into such a smooth introduction to the raison d'etre behind the Blue Series is a real accomplishment for both label and DJ.

Richie Havens: Grace Of The Sun (Stormy Forest)
There's nothing false about Richie Havens. The pervading sense one has encountered a genuine soul hovers around the man and his music. This places what he does outside time, not the product of one age or one year but existing in what we'll call "Richie Time," where we talk about what's real, what's true, what we dream about, and how those things may always be just a dream. Like 2002's Wishing Well, this finds the man in full form, every bit the truthsayer he was in the '60s and maybe a little wiser still for the intervening decades. Grace envelops you like a pleasant fog, thick and contemplative and none too easy to navigate. In other words, a lot of like life itself. The instrumentation is colorful, feathered flutes soaring with Havens' signature open tunings, tabla, and Turkish violins easing the sorrow from your sore mind. The instrumental "Dusk" may be one of the single most emotional pieces in his catalog. The set also includes an early Fred Neil tune, "Red Flowers," a sign of the consonance between Richie and Fred, a small glimpse of the aborted project the pair were working on not long before Neil's death in 2001. Havens also interprets Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" and Joni's enduring flower power anthem "Woodstock," both good fits in many respects though a bit obvious as baby boomer touchstones go. More impressive are the new originals "Way Down Deep" and "Scarlet Flames" which show a musician still fully capable of moving us, as he does repeatedly on his latest, a lovely, philosophical walk in the sun that rejuvenates and enlightens.

Roger: This Is The Shit (Head Heritage)
He's returned from space (where he's been growing bomb herb on Dankgoba with Chewbacca and that blue chick Kirk abandoned...) to rescue the "Fonk-less" masses. Rog lashes Chic riffs to George Clintonian testifying for a slippery Aquaboogie that puts the electric paddle to those war babies. This falls on the Funkadelic side of the P-Funk axis, all nasty guitars and death disco and booty rock. I defy you not to lose your freakin' mind during "Hot Fuddge," chanting woo-hoo as the man spreads chocolate on your fingers and beckons you to let him lick them off. There's more than a little punk spiritus grande mingling with the melanin-rich influences. "Clapp Your Fockin' Hands" sounds like something that might have burbled out of England in 1977 if the mohawks had allowed some soul into the pit. Every nook and cranny is filled with chatter, a pimp's confidence laying down The Game; one day I fully expect a whole slew of Brides of Doctor Roger. This is self-referential like Parliament or Prince, consciously building their gold lamé mythology. Sometimes it's not as nasty as one might like, bumping more like early '80s discotheque fare, holding onto one position a heartbeat or four too long. They could use a keyboardist like Bernie Worrell, someone who snorts fat lines of moon dust and then mangles the black and whites. Those quibbles aside, this slams like a good boinking, druggy without the drugs (though I hardly think they'd look askance if you lit up...), powered up like Eddie Hazel's exhumed cadaver, dancing, laughing and getting' you "higher than a spaceship."

Patton Oswalt: Feelin' Kinda Patton (United Musicians)
"I watched a man shave his balls. Let me back up..." Thus begins one of the most taboo stomping, guffaw triggering comedy albums to come along in ages. Lewis Black, Dave Attell, Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, and a small posse of other humor merchants, that includes Oswalt, seem hell bent on redeeming stand-up comedy. Feelin' Kinda Patton moves this mission forward a hop, skip and a face plant into the asphalt. Like The Simpsons, Patton is an equal opportunity offender; no one is spared, least of all himself. He offers a happy spin on the Apocalypse that rivals John of Revelations. He celebrates TiVo, makes fun of hippies, the hypocrisy of liquor versus other drugs, offers an inspired solution to Humvee ownership and even paints a picture of a steak dinner at Black Angus that's truly horrific. America is described as "a giant retarded kid with nuclear weapons." Oswalt defies the knee-jerk resistance to words like "retard" or "gay;" the jester's cardinal rule of fair play across the entire spectrum of humanity holds sway here, and some parts WILL offend you. You'll still laugh but you may catch yourself mid-giggle. That's the gift of a comedian who actually makes us think. Nothing is too easy, too simple (except perhaps for simpletons, who get the hot poker of his smarts jabbed at them often on this record). Oswalt has some of Bill Hicks' insight, Richard Pryor's gift for characters, and a yell that might wake wormy old Sam Kinison. The Dan Fogelberg soft lighting cover shot doesn't belie the clever, in-touch fella waiting for you in these grooves. It's even got a little rock 'n' roll pedigree; the performance was recorded at the legendary 40-Watt Club, where R.E.M. and many other southern luminaries got their start, and the disc is being released on the new United Musicians label, who's roster includes Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, who Oswalt worked with on their Acoustic Vaudeville tour. This set is so quotable, so intrinsically entertaining AND thoughtful that it makes one think of the days where we waited for new vinyl slabs from George Carlin, Red Foxx, and Richard Pryor. Ace bunny killer, man.

Glenn Jones: This Is the Wind That Blows it Out (Strange Attractors Audio House)
John Fahey's shadow looms large in the world of steel string acoustic guitar. It's fair to say it's inescapable; some people so thoroughly reshape an art form that their fingerprints will forever show up on some part of anyone who approaches the same instrument. As one of the fret magicians in Cul de Sac, Jones has been responsible for some of the strangest, densest music to flow through an electric guitar. His sound defies all usual descriptors, one of those hailstorms that one needs to be pelted by to really understand. Jones, a longtime friend and sometime collaborator with Fahey, has finally released his debut acoustic guitar recording. And kids, it's a doozy. The happy yellow bird on the cover strumming a guitar is a signal that one's usual tune will not suffice, a broader range of joy and sorrow and mystery need to be conveyed through the resonant harmony of steel and wood and fingers. These solos for six- and 12-string guitar (plus one duet with equally dexterous Mr. Jack Rose) accomplish poetry, leaps of logic and storytelling achieved without words or even the need for them. Fahey gathered in the blues, traditional folk, experimentalism, slack key, and a dozen other strains to birth a whole school of thinking about acoustic guitar. Jones is a worthy student, especially because he both incorporates doctrine and gently plays against it. Moments can feel downright epic ("Spinx Unto Curious Men"), gleeful ("Linden Avenue Stomp"), and believably melancholy ("The Doll Hospital" with its evocation of little girls in waiting rooms, hoping that porcelain heads can be mended, cloth arms reattached, and the unblinking certainty of a toy reestablished). Solo displays can often feel labored or too demonstrative but Jones conveys a profound pleasure in excavating this music that dispels any thoughts of scholarship or technique. This is what one person can do with one instrument and it is a beautiful thing.

Infinite Livez: Bush Meat (Big Dada)
While American hip-hop grows increasingly calcified, settling into a diminishing number of style sub-sets, it falls to a few brave souls outside the U.S. borders to test fresh waters. Like Canada's Buck 65 and Sixtoo, Infinite Livez hears voices in his dome that tell him to dance with marsupials, classic soul riffs, Wonder Woman's clay clitoris, and nipples full of white gravy. This young UK rapper is a supreme weirdo, consistently making one scratch their nodding head, puzzling over how he even came up with some of his lyrical concepts let alone put them down for posterity. The Brit tinge to his voice may throw off those uncomfortable with anything outside the mainstream but there's trunk beats aplenty and more cultural sub-referencing than an early Dennis Miller routine. That he laces in imagery that'd curl Captain Beefheart's toes only makes this groove meringue sweeter. Apes and one-eyed teddy bears roam freely in his stanzas, a mad monster party peppered with skittering radio chatter and slow passing tamagotchi. He avoids the utterly foreign approach of the much-praised (and far less talented) Dizzee Rascal, his fellow UK export that melded dancehall and garage. Bush Meat has enough familiar elements to grab the ear of an open-minded Anticon or Beck fan without asking them to abandon what they already love. A truly curious, deeply imaginative debut, a bright flare above the Atlantic that reaffirms rap is an international phenomenon with big enough Timberlands to take a few fresh steps into the new millennium.

Tanya Donelly: Whiskey Tango Ghosts (4AD/Beggars Group)
Never suspected there was a street corner torch singer hiding inside Donelly. Nothing in her time with the Breeders, Throwing Muses, or Belly hinted at this slow, shuffling Joni-esque whispered conversation. The title cut is haunting, a small slice of the intangible made real, a spectral puddle that worries about being "a freckle away from changing everything." Donelly is a lovely foil for the pianos and expertly picked guitars that stir up just the right clouds for her love soaked seas of honey. Other echoes besides Ms. Blue herself include Laura Nyro, Iris DeMent ("My Life As A Ghost"), and Sam Phillips, a sighing sisterhood that feels things on a deeper level than the average moonbeam monkey. One can hear how this will go over well with the Ani DiFranco crowd but there's also a lot here for anyone who misses the carefully sculpted radio pop of the early '70s, a slower road to self-understanding than all the shouting and heavy noise today. These are good songs, if a touch Adult Contemporary at times, rendered in a clean, gently absorbing manner.

Vintage Stash selection of the month:
Cosa Nostra: Squeeze It Tight – Mexican Hot Funky Grooves 1971/72 (Vampisoul)
Where have you been all my life Cosa Nostra? Just as Santana has abandoned just about everything that made me love that band, here comes a time capsule from the Mexico of another era. "Get Down And Do It," the opening cut on this compilation of sizzlin' soul licks, serves as a rallying cry for lovers, stanky good organ leading unexpectedly to phased-out slow jam islands and wah-wah abused guitars. Their trippy ballads are hypnotic and visionary, down to the Barry-White-before-there-was-Barry-White spoken rap on "Memory Of Your Touch." Even on familiar turf such as "I Like It Like That" they inject something different, in this case a Screaming Jay Hawkins meets The Association party atmosphere. The first Spanish we hear doesn't come until track five, a stone cold vamp that reminds us that the rock revolution north of the border also seeped into Mexico. When they do CCR's "Proud Mary" it has the slightly askew charm of Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 except instead of girly songbirds we get the Ike and Tina influenced rasp of Malena Soto and Norma Valdes. The '60s soul of Ray Charles is clearly an influence, as is the mutated doo-wop singing of early Mothers Of Invention or Brazil's Os Mutantes. Guitarist Ezequiel Nieto owes Steve Cropper (Booker T and the MGs) a royalty check, but that said, he holds his own with one of the greatest six-stringers of the era. If War or the much less talented Malo could get airplay in the States it's hard to fathom how Cosa Nostra didn't make the grade. Kudos to Vampisoul for rescuing this from the dustbin of lost classics. Their Spanglish spirit is very much of its age in all the best ways.

Coming at you next month: A listen to the new Judas Priest box set, some Creature Comforts from the Black Dice, Western Classics from O-Type, a bit of blues from young upstart David Jacobs-Strain, some quality jangle from The Sadies, and a hidden classic from 1971 from England's Rockin' Horse. Until then, remember to look up into the wide-open sky at least once a day. It's an easy, expansive way to toss your soul out into the universe and have it returned cooled by winds and suggestive cumulus.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Oakland
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[Published on: 9/9/04]

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