Thursday, July 29, 2010

Surfing With Pajama Party (they titled this blog!); and also Amy Grant, sort of

About time!  "Surfing In Babylon" is from Pajama Party's wonderful 1989 freestyle album Up All Night.  It follows the monumental "Yo No Se" and pales in comparison--though really, MOST songs pale in comparison to "Yo No Se."  "Surfing In Babylon" also has the distinction of not really being freestyle, but something closer to "rock."  Not that you hear many "guitars" on the song; there's something like a distorted guitar on the chorus, but it cuts off so abruptly I suspect it's a synth.  (The credits do say there's a rhythm guitar somewhere.)  There's also a wailing electric guitar solo that may or may not be an actual guitar--we have no reason to believe otherwise.  But anyway, even a synth guitar sound signifies Rock Music in the context of a freestyle album, so there you have it--this is PJ Party's rock song!  As such, fans of the group have largely overlooked it.  Listen and love here.

Thankfully, PJ Party fan Chuck Eddy has not overlooked it!  In The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll, Eddy interprets the song this way:

"[J]ust because disco lets the party be the main thing doesn't mean the terror's not there...  [T]his is a song about a girl trying to get her friend to try something dangerous--heroin maybe, or lesbian sex.  Or maybe just a cigarette.  Guitars and strings add noisy ornamentation as the singer stands 'on the edge.'  Her pal says 'jump in, the water's fine,' but as soon as the singer dives into iniquity, the friend disappears.  Surfing in Babylon means playing with fire, and getting burned."

It's sort of an abstracted version of Decadent Babylon, a place we've seen before.  Whatever "dangerous" thing the PJ Party girls are doing--we can imagine it's lesbian sex, if you want--it runs counter to the norms of what they perceive to be correct society.  NOT Surfing In Babylon would mean--what?--falling in love and getting married.  Eating dinner at the table with your family, playing a board game together, and going to bed at a reasonable hour.  Filing your taxes correctly.  This straw-society ignores all the intricacies and vagaries that color individual lives, but no doubt there are people who strive for just such a life, and people who strive to get as far away from that life as possible.

People like... rock stars!  Maybe the most interesting thing about "Surfing" is that it posits the Babylon symbol as more a "rock" thing than a "disco" thing.  Jim Klein, who produced the album and co-wrote the song with Peggy Sendars, must've made it sound like rock for SOME reason--he sure didn't make it sound like surf music!  And a symbol like Babylon isn't endemic to the disco or freestyle genre, Boney M notwithstanding.  A PJ fan on Amazon sez, "I know the title of this song sounds a little unusual, but it's a catchy pop song.  It's not too bad at all."  Whew!--I was expecting it to sound like Celtic Frost or Faster Pussycat.  (The latter of whom did wear fabulous animal prints, much like PJ Party.)  I'm guessing that for a lot of freestyle fans in the '80s--or at least in the context of their expectations for a freestyle album--rock music was also sort of a dangerous "other," the same as what Babylon represents in Western culture.  Not that freestyle fans didn't dig rock, and not that freestyle didn't incorporate rock elements--or, indeed, rock harder than a lot of rock music of the time.  But there's no question they were different, and that rock had more of a dangerous stigma.

(This song reminds me of another pop song that incorporates screaming guitar as a rock signifier:  Amy Grant's "Good for Me," from 1991.  In Amy's case, the rock guitar doesn't signify danger, but it still signifies an "other."  It contrasts with the shiny synths that play the main riff, and within the context of the song, Amy is the synths and her husband is the squealing electric guitar.  Or vice versa.  The point is, they're different but good for one another.)  (I wonder if this move, from rock guitar signifying "dangerous other" to rock guitar signifying simply "other," indicates that rock music became totally toothless from '89 to '91.)  (And then Nirvana came along and saved us all.)  (Or something.)

To recap:  Pajama Party sang a song about Decadent Babylon, abstracted; they sort of made it sound like rock music, since that's where Babylon lives; and some yak co-opted the title for his blog.  Two of these were great decisions; jury's still out on that last one.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Best Thing I heard Today: Nas & some Marleys doing "In His Own Words"

It sure wasn't anything off that Ariel Pink CD, I can tell you that!

Distant Relatives, the recent collaboration between Nas and Damian Marley, deserves its own Babylon analysis. The album's equal parts reggae and rap, so Babylon comes up quite a bit. For now though, here's a pretty tune with Stephen Marley on the hook, Damian on beats and toasting, and Nas doing a couple verses:

Nas barely reveals what he's capable of, but he does have some interesting lines. For instance, he sees God's face in the shapes on his vintage designer clothes. Must be nice. He also sees God in the billboards, which is a little better but further evidence that Nas is often high--a suspicion backed up by this couplet:

"Through my perspective I can see Jah reflection/
In the highest definition getting high with my brethren"

OK, so we don't turn to Nas for dogmatic Christian orthodoxy. Probably not even dogmatic Rasta orthodoxy, if such a thing exists. But Damian! If you ever need beats, turn to Damian. The guy's catchy as all get out, and he comes up with a number of memorable creations on this album. I like how the acoustic guitar in "Words" starts stop-starting during the final refrain, reminiscent of Madonna's "Don't Tell Me" and probably lots of other stuff.

Distant Relatives isn't perfect. Nas, while still sounding better than 75% of other MCs, is fairly humorless and doesn't do anything astounding. There are too many slow, uninteresting reggae songs, but at least they're dispersed throughout the album, and there's enough good tunes to recommend it overall. Definitely stronger than that Ariel Pink CD.

P.S.-- I do take issue with the highly rated Youtube commenter who observed of this song, "Amazing man, to hell with mainstream rap!!!!!" You might not hear anything from Distant Relatives on the radio, but it's on Universal and debuted at #5 on the main Billboard chart, and #1 on the Rap, R&B, and Reggae charts. If that's not mainstream rap, I dunno what is.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Surfing in Babylon Leaves Home: Swell Season! Lightning Bolt! Kid Sister! Urinetown!

In what's surely been a banner period for witnessing live music not performed by myself, I've been to several performances of the stuff in the past week. Whaddo they call 'em? "Shows"? Of course, in two instances I couldn't really see the performers, so the "show" part consisted more of watching my fellow music afficionadi. To wit:

The Swell Season at Ravinia, Wed. 7/14/10

My wife's more of a fan than I am; their albums make me sort of sleepy. The movie Once, which notably starred Swell Seasoners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, was a delight, and Glen is a real charmer live. When we saw them last December at the Auditorium Theatre, Glen kept shouting out to the cheap seats, the area where you could've guessed we were sitting, if you have ANY understanding of my monetary policies. Glen told story after story. Some were moving, some were funny; all showcased his shambling appeal as a performer. We were his. I didn't want the show to end.

This Ravinia show, we were OK with it ending. Ravinia's cheap seats are a lawn with no clear view of the stage; they have a big TV, but it's less compelling. Throughout the concert, wife and I marveled at the people around us who were dining and conversing while giving little attention to the music being piped through the trees. Hadn't they paid good money for these tickets? I could see if you're going to Ravinia for Shostakovich quartets or something and you paid ten bucks, maybe you take a walk and play with the kid while listening to beautiful music in the background. But somehow a pop show demands more of your undivided attention, even if the music doesn't require close listening like a string quartet. The performers interact more with the audience, and the tickets cost more.

Unfortunately, charming Glen seemed to realize that he couldn't see 3/4 of his audience, and he seemed a little cowed by it. The stories were missing, the funny little bits of stage patter gone. A couple Swell Season songs require that the audience sing backup vocals, and Glen had no hope of communicating that to his unseen fans. He and Marketa and their band, the Frames, performed well, but the communal spirit of the Auditorium show was missing. In hopes of beating the rush to the shuttle bus, we left during "Falling Slowly," their big Oscar hit; but we did get to hear my favorite song of theirs, "When Your Mind's Made Up" (got big applause):

Lightning Bolt and the Catacombz at "The Spot," Friday 7/16/10

Against all odds, Lightning Bolt are probably my favorite band of the '00s. They put out four really good albums last decade--who DOES that? (The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin... the list is not long.) Lightning Bolt are a two-piece noise band, with Brian Chippendale on drums and Brian Gibson on bass, and they're ridiculously amplified. I mean, these guys are SO amplified, you feel them in your chest before you hear them. Before the show, everybody starts stuffing their ears with earplugs or ripped-up pieces of paper. It's ominous, like the rippling glass of water in Jurassic Park. (The trick, if you're planning on seeing them, is to find the earplug sweet spot where you can still hear plenty of treble from the bass and the cymbals. If you stuff it in too far, all you can hear is chest vibrations and snare drum thwack.) Lightning Bolt have a sound all their own, and they're slavishly devoted to that sound. In fact, in The Wire, Gibson spoke of the attention they've given their live sound:

"Cause it's so much distortion and bi-amped all this sub-low coming out of the 18s, anything I do has so much force, it's really nice. I do think that's such an important thing, that's the problem with most bands that I see, is actually getting your equipment to sound good live. It just seems like people neglect that, and they think way more about what they're playing and what's happening in the song, in theory, but I think the reality of it is that people are gonna be just hearing something initially that's purely sonic and either sounds when it hits you or it doesn't."

Trust me--when Lightning Bolt plays, IT HITS YOU.

That said, the show was just a little disappointing. Predictable. In '05, Frank Kogan argued on an Ashlee Simpson ILM thread that Lightning Bolt didn't sound like they might "potentially veer out of control." And it's true, they don't. And I think part of the expectation at a Lightning Bolt show--where you've got all this NOISE NOISE NOISE, and you might go deaf, and the band's in the middle of the audience, and hairy people are moshing and crowd-surfing, and everybody's sweaty and touching--is that the band will create, using only their music, a situation that might possibly veer out of control. But no, there's little chance of that. Lightning Bolt are well-rehearsed and they have hooks. You can recognize distinct songs from their CDs, even if I'd be hard pressed to tell you the titles of those songs, apart from "The Faire Folk." They're very polite after showtime, greeting fans with handshakes. And despite all the apparent flailing, all their songs have a basic pulse of either 60, a resting heart rate, or 100, a "Stayin' Alive" beat. They should play Lightning Bolt at CPR seminars!

So what, they never threatened to cut themselves with glass or electrocute the crowd. That's probably for the best. For ten bucks (and even if it'd cost considerably more) they put on a great, energetic show, full of guitar effects you're simply not gonna hear from any other band. See 'em before you die.

And before Lightning Bolt came tha Catacombz! Fairly loud Milwaukee four-piece that combined noise energy with classic-rock and motorik song structures--they were blasting Creedence at their merch table. These guys surprised me in ways that LB didn't, if only because I'd never heard their shtick before. Few have. I believe they've only got cassette releases right now, and their shirts are secondhand tees with the Catacombz logo spraypainted on. Catch 'em while they're hot!

(Special thanks to Chi-town's own Castro, aka Idol Threat, for getting me outta the house!)

Kid Sister at Millennium Park, Mon. 7/19/10

Hometown! Actually, I was more hoping to catch the amplified thumb piano groovez of Konono No. 1, but we missed them, so Chicago rapper Kid Sister had to do, and indeed she did. My four-year-old spent most of her show dancing and running around. The crowd, an assortment of hippies and other-people-who-like-free-live-music, seemed to be into her--they, too, danced and ran around. Sound was good, stage patter a little awkward but genuine, new songs fit right in, and all the rhymes were spot-on. In fact, Castro and I discussed her flow on the way to the LB show, and while I was claiming that, like Ke$ha, Kid Sister's flow came out of L'Trimm and Fannypack, I now think I was mistaken. Kid Sister is squarely in the GILLETTE camp of aggressive syncopation, whereas the other girls are a little cutesier and girlier, with more on-beats. (THE FLOWTATION DEVICE will get on this shit, if we ever stop horsing around.)

Anyhow, here's the lovely "Daydreaming":

Urinetown: the Musical at College of Lake County, Friday 7/23/10


Urinetown is one of that prevalent recent genre, "Musicals That Dwell On The Fact That They're Musicals." Along with The Drowsy Chaperone, this one has a shot at outlasting our cynical era. Ironic? Unlike Chaperone, which is steeped in its love of musicals, Urinetown is relentlessly cynical. Every song is played for laughs, whether a death song or a love song--like the lovely, complex "Follow Your Heart":

There are moments in Urinetown where you start to care about the characters or the plot mechanations, and then the musical simply makes fun of you for caring. In the end, the hero dies, the heroine ruins civilization, and the audience walks out laughing uncertainly, envisioning mankind engulfed in a river of pee. At least I do. I then try to conserve water for a week or so. While I refrain from flushing, I get the feeling that Urinetown is laughing at me even more.

What these live performances have in common, I don't know. I suppose they teach us the lesson that great music can come from anywhere, whether the local community college (which outperformed that link I posted), the big city immediately to the north or south, a different state, or a different country. But we already knew that, didn't we? So probably it's more like this: my synchronicity is your coincidence, my nights on the town are pretty humdrum. Which is fine. My wife just handed me a coconut macaroon that she made (we've been baking all day for the county fair). It's good, and I'm set. But it was nice to get out of the house.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Surfing With Sugar Minott (RIP)

Sugar Minott worked three different reggae styles in the late '70s/early '80s, and actually originated one of 'em--studio dancehall. After starting a singing career in 1969, he spent about a decade doing roots reggae, like "Mr. Babylon Man" from 1979's Black Roots album. It's a simple plea for the agents of Babylon to leave him and his Rasta brothers (and sisters?) alone:

Around that same time, Minott started innovating. Working as a session instrumentalist at the fabled Studio One in Kingston ("the Motown of Jamaica"), Minott and his boss discovered that Minott had a knack for singing original tunes over the tracks of other songs. Now, before he started singing, Minott had come up through the sound systems of Jamaica, where DJs would spin records and audiences would party. Since 1970, some of the DJs (notably U-Roy) would toast along with the records they played, rhythmically exhorting people to Get Up On It and whatnot. (New York's pioneering hip-hop DJ Kool Herc came out of this scene, so we have these guys to thank for much of today's pop radio.) U-Roy had recorded his toasting act in studios, but Minott was arguably the first to sing new songs over existing riddims. Throw in some very au courant synth drums, and you've got the sound that'd be known as "dancehall." Here's "Rough Ole Life (Babylon)", a 1983-ish (maybe) track based on one of the most popular Jamaican riddims, the "M-16":

These riddims make up a unique oral culture in Jamaican reggae music. (Somebody, probably not me, needs to write a comprehensive study of the relationship between all the songs based on the same riddims.) U-Roy himself used the M-16 in the late '60s, for the song "Scandal"--you can hear the difference between his toasting style and Minott's singing style, over what I BELIEVE is a Sly & Robbie rhythm track.

Minott's third style was the lover's rock reggae of England, where he lived for a bit in the '80s. I don't think any Babylon songs came out of that period, but this Michael Jackson cover sure did!

As you can hear, the guy was smooth whether he was singing love songs or raging gently against the machine. His anti-Babylon stance was one of faithful presence and quiet resistance. At the end of "Rough Ole Life," starvation and jubilation coexist, and Minott seemed to accept that duality as the lot of Jah's follower, working inside Babylon system.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Trip Lee doing "Snitch"

Christian Rap: It's Competent Now! (My marketing services are available for a fee.) Actually, it may have been competent for a while; da t.r.u.t.h. is, I've been out of touch. But Christian rappers aren't out of touch. Foor proof, here's a new song that sounds like six-year-old Timbaland:

"Snitch" is a clever co-opted gangstaism. Mr. Trip Lee, you see, is snitching on himself. So he's in his confessional booth, or in the Protestant version of same--his mind--and busily hating his sin. Unfortunately, he doesn't snitch to his listeners what he's been up to, which might make the song more interesting.

Based on this song and the rest of his new album, Between Two Worlds, Trip's a pretty good rapper. He's able to change up his patterns in subtle ways, and he's got nothing against syncopation, ptl. He's also got an appealing southern twang that kind of reminds me of a reined-in Weezy, without the craziness and wit.

So, not great, but refreshingly GOOD. Actually, I probably prefer this LL song with an actual, similar Timbo beat:

Play 'em at the same time!