Categories
In Perspective

America Needs More Religion

America Needs More Religion

America Needs More Religion

Bad Religion’s The Empire Strikes First strikes out at George W.

In case some of the broader points should still be somewhat vague, let me spell it out: Under the auspices of an illegitimate president and his truth-twisting supporters, the recent invasion of Iraq, far from being a bold humanitarian mission thwarted by Muslim ingrates, was carried out to further the interests of America’s wealthiest Republicans and hordes of opportunistic businessmen who have no political affiliation other than the one which allows them to be the most greedy at any given time. Collectively and individually they invoked the ideals of Jesus, freedom, heroism and national security to justify and conceal their morally suspect, if not downright unlawful, self-aggrandizing motives.

More than one thousand U.S. soldiers have since died in Iraq while serving as the private militia of these ostensibly Christian free market ideologues. Hundreds of captives in Guantánamo Bay have been denied even the most basic rights accorded to them by the Geneva Convention and U.S. law. On the domestic front, right-wing proponents of the administration — at both the grassroots and national level — have demanded (often threateningly) that those harboring dissenting views stay quiet or risk censorship. The terrorists are attacking our right to free speech, they maintain, and President Bush is trying his best to stop the evildoers. As the irony continues to grow oppressively thick, the word “liberal” has simultaneously evolved into an epithet akin to “Nazi” or “child molester.”

If all this sounds depressingly and frighteningly Orwellian, that’s because it is. Two Minutes Hate? Watch Fox News. Room 101? Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay. We are at war with X and we have always been at war with X? The Taliban, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein — just fill in the variable. Thought police? John Ashcroft and the U.S. Patriot Act. Newspeak? Aside from the easy target that “Bushisms” open up, the introduction of “homeland security” and “war on terror” to the language are just two examples.

Never a band to take political events lightly or miss a literary parallel, Bad Religion has released The Empire Strikes First, an album that partly aims to link Big Brother with the machinations of the Bush Administration, and to connect the current American zeitgeist with the one in which Winston Smith finds himself in 1984. An image of a television with an eye and the words “Two Minutes Hate” occupies the central spot in the liner notes; the song “Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever” (footnoted with Orwell’s prediction of the same) gives a loose reenactment of one of Winston’s and Julia’s tryst scenes in 1984.

That isn’t to say that Bad Religion’s bookshelf begins and ends with Orwell. Along with the titular nod to George Lucas’ film, Tom Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel is also quoted and noted here in “The Quickening.” And where necessary, the veteran punk outfit is unafraid to reference its own work. “21st Century Digital Boy” from 1994’s Stranger than Fiction alluded to No Control (1989) and Suffer (1987); on the latest album vocalist Greg Graffin asks rhetorically at one point, “How could hell be any worse?” — a sly wink toward Bad Religion’s debut full-length from 1982, as well as an indirect confirmation that the world’s decision-makers have not bothered to listen in all that time.

From a purely musical standpoint, The Empire Strikes First isn’t the band’s most spectacular effort, even though things have improved since guitarist and founding member Brett Gurewitz rejoined the fold for the excellent Process of Belief in 2002. Some of the hooks here are stale. Some of the riffs seem dated. The title track, while one of the better tunes to be found here, sounds too much like “21st Century Digital Boy” to be truly noteworthy, and “Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever” is watery and limp. “To Another Abyss” wouldn’t have been entirely out of place in the repertoire of one of the late-’80s hair bands. And while The Empire Strikes First‘s brief “Overture” isn’t conspicuously poor, there isn’t quite enough thematic consistency (other than Bad Religion’s astute sociopolitical commentary) to warrant it.

But to focus on the few flaws risks overlooking the larger achievement. As with all of the band’s output, the best tracks on The Empire Strikes First convey urgency and intensity but never sacrifice melody to the cause. “Sinister Rouge” contains all the band’s trademark vocal harmonies and furious guitar wallop, as well as a drumbeat as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. Familiar though these elements may be, they’re assembled here in a way that’s fresh and invigorating. The unmitigated energy and zig-zagging guitar assaults of “Social Suicide” and “God’s Love” recall the punk band’s younger (some might say halcyon) days, but these songs too are sculpted by time and experience, proving that the Bad Religion of today is not a tribute act to the one that started to reshape punk music twenty years ago.

These highs and lows aside, music has never been the sole reason behind Bad Religion’s appeal. We listen because they have something to say — and not just that; it’s nearly always thought provoking, a pithy political essay. Why else would the press kit come with four double-sided pages of photocopied lyrics already featured in the liner notes? More specifically, the singular appeal of this band is the Molotov cocktail of words propelled and ignited by music, medium fusing with message. So although “The Empire Strikes First” may not be such a stretch from an earlier song, the fist-shaking chorus — “Don’t wanna live! Don’t wanna give! Don’t wanna be! E-M-P-I-R-E!” — and the grim acknowledgement that “we spit and we cursed and our bleeding hearts burst” more than make up for this. And “Let Them Eat War” is like a distillation of everything that has come to positively characterize Bad Religion. The song is a perfect conflation of wit, intelligence and insight (“Let them eat war! That’s how to ration the poor / Let them eat war! There’s an urgent need to feed / declining pride”), potent guitar riffs (“American Jesus” comes to mind) and chugging vamps, all of which is channeled toward expanding the confines of punk (hip-hopper Sage Francis delivers one indignant verse).

If nothing else The Empire Strikes First testifies to the uniqueness of Bad Religion. Of course, in doing so it also does much more than that: it entertains, it challenges, it incites, it reaffirms. And though we instinctively tend to look upon this uniqueness as a good thing, I’m left wondering if in this case it’s not to our disadvantage, if only because it suggests that the qualities embodied by Bad Religion — intelligence, flair, vitality, fortitude, skepticism toward accepted wisdom and a philanthropic mindset — are no longer the norm in America, but rather the exception.

Album Microsite: badreligion.epitaph.com • Bad Religion: www.badreligion.com

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In Perspective

Traffic Winds Down

Traffic Winds Down

“Traffic”

Traffic

Shootout At The Fantasy Factory

On The Road

When The Eagle Flies

Island/Universal

Through no fault of their own, Traffic has morphed from an immensely popular, influential and some might argue seminal ’60s/’70s act, to a
nearly forgotten artifact, known mostly to Anglophiles and indie record store employees. It’s hard to say what went wrong, but there were a
combination of forces at work. Regardless of how compelling their sound, in America, Traffic never amounted to more than a footnote in the
post-Brit Invasion ’60s. They had no charting US singles, and their creative combination of pop, folk, jazz and psychedelic rock was a hard
sell to the masses, especially as their songs became longer and more complex during their waning years. Dave Mason and Steve Winwood, the
band’s driving songwriting forces, released progressively less convincing solo music after the group disbanded, while trying to stay vital
in the ’80s and ’90s. Additionally Traffic seemed to gradually fade away in the early ’70s, instead of ending with a tragedy (Led
Zeppelin), well-publicized interpersonal spats (The Beatles) or an historic final tour (Cream).

Furthermore, Universal, who controls the band’s catalog, removed Smiling Phases, the beautifully conceived 1991 double disc
retrospective, from their catalog. It has been replaced by a single Best Of collection that doesn’t do justice to the group’s
overall eclectic sound and omits many important tracks. Consequently it was surprising when Universal started reissuing Traffic’s catalog
in 2000; cleaning up the sound, adding bonus tracks and even making multiple versions of the discs available for those who wanted to own
the British configured albums, which sported a different track listing than their American counterparts. These three releases finish the
job and also help explain why Traffic’s legacy isn’t what it deserves to be.

Coming two years after the platinum selling Low Spark Of High Heel Boys album — a disc that saw the band both expanding to a six
piece and exploring the more leisurely jazz tempos that made its predecessor so popular — Shootout At The Fantasy Factory sounded
like a rush job. Originally released in January of 1973 there are only five tracks (no extras on this reissued version), but more
problematically, the songs lack fire. The band’s performance verges on sleepwalking as they extend the tracks way past their breaking
points. At nearly 14 minutes, “Roll Right Stones” takes a flimsy mid-tempo melody and jams on it far too long. The American rhythm section
hired for the album (Muscle Shoals studio stalwarts bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins) never quite click with Traffic’s British
sensibilities, and the meandering tracks don’t have the sense of drama or mystery that the band always exuded, even on their least potent
albums. Reed player Chris Woods’ “Tragic Magic” instrumental is so bland it wouldn’t cut it on a Pure Moods background music
compilation and the perfectly titled “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” adequately sums up the band’s attitude to their least focused
effort. Although it runs less than 40 minutes, the disc feels twice as long.

Shootout was followed later that year with the live On The Road, a document of the subsequent tour for Shootout
recorded in Germany. Spread out over two vinyl albums (but squeezed onto a single disc for this reissue), its six tracks run an average of
13 minutes each. More problematic though was that the set list drew almost exclusively from Low Spark and Shootout, with only
the opening 20 minute “Glad/Freedom Rider” medley hailing from the earlier John Barleycorn Must Die. These versions of the
Shootout
songs make the originals seem tight in comparison, and the lackadaisical, 18 minute “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” is
something even diehards might admit you had to be there to enjoy. The lengthy jams go nowhere, certainly nowhere fast, and the band —
which had expanded to a seven piece with the addition of fellow Muscle Shoals man Barry Beckett — sounds like they need a few shots of
espresso to keep from nodding off. If this is the roots of the jam band phenomenon, it was also a warning of what extending a song for no
reason other than a long solo can deteriorate into.

Traffic then regrouped, both literally and figuratively, to a five piece, losing the Muscle Shoals crew and adding bassist Roscoe Gee. The
resulting When The Eagle Flies, released in fall 1974 — their third album in less than two years — continued the pattern
established by the previous few discs. The songs were more concise and Winwood’s lyrics remain obtuse and the playing sometimes unfocused,
yet in a dreamier fashion that doesn’t seem as plodding. Some of the electronic keyboard textures now seem dated, but Winwood is singing
like he is at least back in the fold, even if the lyrics aren’t any more comprehensible than “Mr. Fantasy.” A slight funk edge helped
“Walking in the Wind” become a standout track of the album, and one of Traffic’s best tunes. A big improvement over the other two discs, it
was nonetheless to be the final Traffic album for 20 years and the last one ever with Chris Wood, the innovative reed man and founding
member who died in 1983.

Hal Horowitz

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In Perspective

Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief

Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief

Hail to the Thief

Capitol / EMI Records

Much to the delight of Radiohead fans everywhere, the latest installment of what is shaping up to be an amazing career for Thom Yorke & co. is soon to be released, entitled Hail to the Theif. While the most die-hard of Radiohead fans love anything and everything they release, the band’s last two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, were a challenging listen for the novice fan; both albums took the experimentation of the near-perfect O.K. Computer to new and very abstract heights. Thankfully for everyone, Radiohead have managed to encapsulate just about every style of their career into one incredible record with Hail to the Thief.

The first song, “2 + 2 = 5,” is reminiscent of the final song on 1995’s The Bends, “Street Spirit” — a guitar is plucked is staccato, as Thom Yorke croons in a terribly sad tone, and the world seems as if it may end. Just when we think things will never improve for Yorke, the band explodes into a tremendous flurry of distorted guitars and they start rockin’ out like they haven’t done for years! The band then slips into a very indie rock sounding verse and chorus, making this opening track absolutely stunning.

“Sit Down, Stand Up,” features Yorke and a grand piano, with other instruments buried quietly in the background. Slowly but surely, a muzzled electronica drum beat wanders around quietly, until pouncing on the listener, like a frenzied tiger. The beat then becomes a super-fast, almost Salsa-like putter, with a loopy bassline behind, as Thom Yorke repeats a line that sounds like “Raindrops” the entire time. The first two songs, so far, show a very determined and frantic Radiohead, one much different than the band we’ve known for the last few years.

The next song, “Sail You to the Moon,” starts off reminding me of Morrissey’s “There is a Place in Hell, For Me and My Friends.” It consists mainly of piano and guitar, but the piano’s syncopation is quite similar to that Morrissey track. Just when I think I’ve got the song figured out, the guitars switch to a medieval tone, and play a strange melody, over which a ghostly Thom croons and wails. The drums eventually show up, played lightly with brushes, as the spooky song wanders on. This is one of the most beautiful Radiohead songs ever written.

“Backdrifts” sounds very much like it could have been on Amnesiac; there’s a drum machine drum beat, trippy and waterlogged-sounding keyboards, and synthesized bass guitar. Thom really cuts loose on this one, his vocals much more in the forefront here than they were in the first few songs. I could see this one being a single. “Where I End and You Begin” is a true glimpse of the early Radiohead hiding inside of each of the band members. This track reminds me of the more subdued, yet solid tracks on Pablo Honey, such as “Blow Out.” The drums are shuffled, almost Latin in nature, causing many a listener’s booty to shake uncontrollably; a distorted bassline plods along with a loopy and very catchy melody; Thom Yorke’s voice matches well the eerie keyboards and otherworldly noises that abound. Strangely enough, a distorted funk guitar shows it head a couple of times, making for a very early 1980’s postpunk-sounding track.

“We Suck Young Blood” is quite reminiscent of “Pyramid Song,” from Amnesiac; it also sounds similar to the slowed down version of “Morning Bell,” also on Amnesiac. What makes this track unique to those songs is the handclaps on every count of “4” in the 4/4 time; yeah, it sounds corny, and it is. To be frankly honest, Thom sounds like a French troubadour just learning about his wife dying; he sounds absolutely helpless, and it’s perfect. In another strange twist, the band rocks out for like 30 seconds in the middle of this song, only to return to the sad and lonely lamenting and handclaps.

Taking fans back to the somewhat controversial Kid A album (I say controversial, because it beat out The Cure’s Bloodflowers for a Grammy, which is just plain crap), “The Gloaming” is a lounging dose of electronica, complete with Atari 2600 Pong blips and bleeps. This is an interesting little song, but it’s not as stunning as the others, and would have made a nice little b-side for one of the singles. “There, There,” which I believe is the album’s first single, starts out with a tribal drum, looping bass, and almost Cure-esque sounding guitars, that quickly morph into signature Radiohead guitars. The feel of the song is quite O.K. Computer crossed with “Optimistic,” from Kid A, in that the chorus has a sad, yet triumphant melody. It takes quite some time for the drums to develop into a driving force, but they do carry the song quite well. About four minutes into the song, the band breaks into some really raunchy and raw sounding jamming, taking us back to the times of The Bends. Cool little adventure through Radiohead history, but not the most breathtaking on the album.

“A Punch-Up at a Wedding” is a song driven mainly by some laid-back drums and grand piano, while the bass guitar lays down a jazzy little melody, over which Thom sings in a “call and response” type fashion. The song itself has a 1970’s funk/soft rock feel to it, until the chorus comes along and crushes that feeling completely. Again, some weird, distorted guitars make an almost Sonic Youthian intrusion into the song during the song’s final minutes. “Myxamatosis” features an overdriven, possibly distorted bassline, and funky and peppy “Airbag” style drum beat, and a descending melody, all of which make for a frantic little song. This is by far the hardest rocker on the album, but it’s just kind of boring.

The next song, “Scatterbrain,” is Hail to the Thief‘s crown jewel. It is simply and completely gorgeous in every way possible. The primary instruments are a lightly tapped drum beat, a calm, quiet little guitar playing angelic melodies, a subdued bass, and Thom’s voice is at its very best, singing an ascending vocal melody; it’s clearly evident that Thom knows how wonderful this song is, as you can hear his pride in the way he sings. The general sound of the song is a slowed down version of “Knives Out,” crossed with the dreamier tracks from O.K. Computer. I can’t get this song out of my head, and I hope I never do; as for right now, this is the greatest single Radiohead song I have ever heard; this one’s a must hear, even if you don’t buy the record.

The album closes with the weird “A Wolf at the Door,” featuring who I think is Thom rapping over an eerie guitar melody, slowly shuffled drums, and a plain bass line. The chorus features Thom singing a beautiful little melody, and it makes up for the rapping. The next verse begins with Thom “oohing” and “ahhing,” only to give way to his rap/ chant delivery of the lyrics, which are fairly unintelligible. I could have done without this song, but I bet I’ll like it a few months from now, as pretty much everything these guys do tends to grow on me (I hated Kid A for the first month I owned it; now I love it).

Let me just take this opportunity to state that I am an enormous Radiohead fan, and have been since they hooked me with The Bends; my reason for telling you this is that I have never enjoyed a Radiohead record as much as I have Hail to the Theif upon first listen. I liked parts of O.K. Computer when it came out, but I wasn’t a huge fan right away. I absolutely love this album already. All I can say is “let the debate begin, Radiohead fans: is this one better than O.K. Computer?” It could be sacrilege to make such bold statements, but once you hear it you’ll understand. This one is a must-hear, and is, without a doubt, the best album of 2003 so far.

Radiohead:

Categories
In Perspective

Rory Gallagher and the Ghost of World Music Past

Rory Gallagher and the Ghost of World Music Past

Rory Gallagher
Wheels Within Wheels
Buddha/BMG

Rock’n’roll, like all good things, comes eventually to those who
wait. Thus Elvis was made flesh (and more and more of it as time and
alienating adoration gradually encroached into his mahogany and jumpsuit
domain) and dwelt amongst us like some sort of divinely gyrating antidote
to the cold-war rug-burnt climate of paranoia and “contentment”.

This same “rhythmic messianic template” seems the rule rather than
the exception. You need only contemplate the frayed sleeves of your record
collection (those pulsating, over/under-produced grails of homage to
resurrection through erection) to see this proudly adolescent-in-theme
process of overthrowing kings and slaves alike at work; from Elvis all the
way up to the Eminem, via the Beatles, Pistols and Nirvana and all their
snarling satellite offspring, you can follow the trail.

And if there ever was a land which demanded its very own musical
ejaculating prince, surely catholic-infested Ireland of the 1970’s – the
land into which I was born – stands head, shoulders and bent knee above the
rest. And it just so happens that that man’s name was Rory Gallagher.

Like Elvis, Gallagher burst onto the music scene in Ireland, along
with his legendary power-trio Taste, clutching onto the consoling power of
the blues with a purity and passion so evidently lacking from the dominant
cabaret show-bands of the era (in which Gallagher had begun his career).
Armed only with his trademark-in-the-making abused Fender Stratocaster and
an endlessly lumpy wardrobe stuffed with lumberjack shirts, Gallagher
released a slew of blues-based rock albums throughout the early 70’s,
culminating in the enduring Irish Tour of ’74, which showcased not only his
unpretentious yet nevertheless scorching guitar style but also his
self-sacrificing showmanship (considering the bashful truth of his soul). It
is no wonder that the state-spectacle-issued youngsters in the front rows
can’t seem to slap their knees hard enough so as to satisfy their gape-jawed
joy at what is occurring on stage before them.

A colleague of mine met Gallagher backstage at the famed London
Marquee club in 1968, and still vividly recalls the painful, even
debilitating, shyness of the man (which makes his brash stage persona all
the more sacrificial). She remembers him sitting alone backstage, his long
hair shrouding his catholic-tinted blush as she vainly attempted to strike
up a conversation with the man she had long fantasized would one-day be her
lover. She also told me of how she was reduced to tears a full quarter of a
century later when she witnessed Gallagher’s final gig, which also took
place in London. Gallagher, clearly effected by his years of excessive
drinking (mixed with his increasing dependence on prescription medicine),
was having trouble living up to his hard-won, hard-touring reputation. Thus
the more bloodthirsty in the club that night began to berate the man who
single-handedly brought rock to the masses of the stimulation-starved youth of
repressed Ireland, eventually resorting to hurling abuse and objects at the performer. It was not a pretty night and Gallagher never played
again. Just a few months later, at just 47 years old, he was dead, resulting
from complications following a liver transplant.

And now, eight years later, comes Wheel within Wheels, a recording of
acoustic blues, folk and traditional which remained unreleased in
Gallagher’s lifetime and which reflects his long-held ambition to make just
such an album. First of all, this is an album which introduces a new term
into the cultish lexicon of Gallagher cover-bands and ageing groupies – eclecticism. Eclectic has never been a word which I would previously have
associated with the music of Rory Gallagher. Indeed his terrain has always
seemed fairly well plotted, forever venturing further into the now starving
constellation of the white-boy blues (White Stripes aside). But as Wheels
Within Wheels
begins to turn, one is soon confronted by a range of sounds,
the likes of which have rarely emanated from any recording baring the name
of the artist otherwise referred to as “the Kid”. Witness, for example, the
sweet and sour McCartney-like melody of the title track, tinged with worthy
lamentation and regret, or the optimistic Mediterranean flavour so joyously on display in “Flight to Paradise” to see this variety of
styles in play. But the curiosity of Gallagher does not stop there.

To me the very thought of a fine blues player, with a stirringly Celtic twang to his tuning, collaborating with a traditional harpist is
exactly the sort of musical idea for which I would happily hijack and fly
planeloads of boy bands into record company buildings, just so as to bring
attention to the real musicians in the world. “Bratacha Dubha” (Gaelic for
Black Flags), is a beautifully understated duet with harpist, “Maire Ni
Chathasaigh”, that mixes Irish moods with traditional English folk structure
in a way that speaks not only of a land and a people but also of a view of
them by one who has continued to imbue the finest of their traits and tales.

That is not to say that all is well in Gallagher town. For whilst this album truly does possess a high-octane propensity to grow on you just
as turkey-like layers seem to conglomerate on Michael Douglas’ scrawny neck,
there are a number of tracks to which I give the Rosie O’ Donnell-ass
equivalent of a wide berth. “Barley” and “Grape Rag”, which admirably features
the legendary Dubliners and the lead singer, Ronny Drew, whose voice sounds
like nothing less than a rusty spade being scraped across gravel, is perhaps
the best example of one such track. It does, in its favour, serve as a grand
reminder of the importance of having a goodtime as a musician and these
smoke and strong-whisky boys are certainly doing just that. But it sounds
altogether too cosy, even twee, I am horrified to say, for a blues man and
rebel-song singing bunch of rabble-rousers to be indulging in, for my tastes
at least. Similarly, better versions of “As the Crow Flies”, exist throughout
Gallagher’s live repertoire. Balancing that “Going to My Home Town” is a more than a bit funky and strut-worthy, it must be
said.

But the whole crux of this album is to feature Rory Gallagher playing folk, playing traditional songs and playing them well. From oiled-up bottle-neck
renditions of “Amazing Grace” to a catgut-gumbo-jam called “Deep Elm Blues”, so
thick with deep-south evocation you have to practically pick the dragonflies
from your matted hair, this album delivers in spades, buckets and
well-crafted reams.

And that is really all there is to mention about Wheels Within
Wheels
. Just a bunch of exiled musicians getting it on with Rory in a hotbed
of folk and traditional songs that not only refuse to sleep easy, but
perhaps even seek to speak to the future based on the sweet, blazing pathos
of the past. That is the lasting legacy of folk and traditional and blues.
They give us signposts in a time of directionless sounds seduced by
streaming images designed to dazzle the eye and deafen the mind.

It is in folk, traditional and blues music which you can find the common echo of us all. For if you listen wide and far, from Ireland to Mongolia, from Bulgaria to America, common musical strands and whispers seem
to float quite fluidly between the strings and out of ancient storyteller
throats. The common heritage of the world is there for all to hear, without
the date-rape-like intrusion or sex-farm visuals of MTV.

And guess what? The same undoubtedly goes for Iraq. For tyrants may blessedly fall and ravaged populations may once again begin to sing, but one
who watches must also wonder honestly of the men (Donald Rumsfeld and co.)
who now lead the parade to celebrate the tyrant’s demise, yet who once were
so instrumental in sustaining his tyranny. Somehow the damning images and
sounds which might link us, with possibly incendiary results, to the
shocking truth of the past (in this case Rumsfeld’s official dealings with
Saddam in the wake of his worst massacres in the 80?s) have been excluded
from our sensory palate. So how has this effected the present and what will
such selective exclusion of certain sources of information mean for the
future of the bomb-dropping democracies? Will bad men reign with a cosmetic
grin? Will Britney’s cute but artless ass continue to spin and win?

Perhaps it is in the globally revealing blueprints of blues and folk and traditional music that we may once again recognise the sound of our own
common human heritage, which, try as they might, no power-brokering spinner of
the broken-record of truth may pull asunder.

Rory Gallagher’s album, Wheels within Wheels, cuts a swathe through rich musical vistas and terrains with such a singularly joyous
vision – it is truly music by and for the real world. Without perhaps realising
(or wanting to), Gallagher amounted, in my fuck-humble-pie opinion, to
nothing less than a revolutionary musical figure. Just imagine meticulous
craftsmanship, uncompromising musical tastes and, most heretical of all, the
lumpiest lumberjack shirt collection that Ireland, and perhaps the world,
has ever seen or heard.

-Paul Meade

Categories
In Perspective

Who’s Who’s Best is Who’s Better?

Who’s Who’s Best is Who’s Better?

The Who

The Ultimate Collection

MCA/Universal

This collection had been in the works for some time before John Entwistle’s untimely death, so I can’t really call its timing an effort to cash in. Nevertheless, the stickers that adorned my copy made me somewhat sad — “As Seen on TV” and “As Heard on the Hit TV Show CSI.” To paraphrase Monty Python, “Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians have to resort to television tie-ins to hawk one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.”

With that caveat aside, I can begin the important process of convincing all of you who don’t have a single Who album in their collection to at least purchase this two-disc set. The Who symbolizes the four-piece rock combo more clearly than any other act I can think of, in several ways.

Let’s start with their musical prowess. Each member stuck to their instrument of choice and defined a style of playing it that was uniquely their own: Roger Daltrey on lead vocals, Peter Townshend on lead guitars, John Entwistle on lead bass and Keith Moon on lead drums. It seems that all the instruments fought to be at the front of the song like kids at the ice-cream truck’s ordering window, but at the same time each is painfully aware of its place in the grand scheme of the song.

The Who pioneered what is now known as The Rock Opera, the next level past The Concept Album. In both Tommy and Quadrophenia, the band not only came up with an engaging and original story, but also penned songs in a variety of styles to support it, and — on top of everything — personally brought it all to life in the subsequent film versions. Though my favorite Tommy moment is still Ann Margaret squirming in a torrent of chocolate and beans, I still can’t get enough of Moon’s turn as a creepy molesting uncle.

Rebellion. Sure, the Stones shocked with their thinly-veiled talk of sexuality, but the Who still have the defining anthem of teenage alienation in “My Generation” — “why don’t you all f-f-ff-fade away” Daltrey stutters, and we all know what he’s saying, just as we know what the asterisks in s**t stand for. Transexuality (“I’m A Boy”), masturbation (“Pictures of Lily”), disposable marriages (“A Legal Matter”), and drugs drugs drugs (“Magic Bus”) are all topics that not only made their way into their songs, but into the charts with deft British double-entendres.

Then there’s the vision. Who’s Next, an album formed of tracks culled from Townshend’s Lifehouse, an abortive Rock Opera follow-up to Tommy, predominantly featured synthesizers, at a time when the instrument was still unknown on pop charts. The unmistakable arpeggiated openings of “Baba O’Reilly” (which most people would come to call “Teenage Wasteland” after its chorus) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are still electrifying nearly thirty years later.

And finally, because we’re talking about a band that began its life close to 40 years ago, longevity. Which is nothing without relevance. The band survived the untimely death of Moon, and though the sound was unquestionably changed by Moon’s replacement (Faces drummer Kenney Jones) and the addition of an official keyboard player, “Rabbit” Bundrick, the band still wrote songs that kept up with their in-your-face attitude (“Who Are You”) and ability to write a fine pop hook (“You Better You Bet”).

Whew. The last fifteen years or so of The Who have been occupied mostly by announcing Final Tours, only to make liars of themselves to the delight of fans everywhere. There hasn’t been any new material from the band as a whole, though both Daltrey and Townshend had moderately successful solo careers in the early ’80s. Even before Entwistle’s death a few months ago, literally on the eve of their latest Final Tour Ever (We Mean It This Time), the band seemed to have lost their connection with the latest crop of music consumers. Yet their grip on musicians everywhere is as strong as ever. Any time you see someone destroying their instrument on stage, any time you see someone performing acrobatics with their microphone and stand, any time you hear a bass solo in the middle of a rock song, or any time you hear a song where the drums seem to be an interminable fill rather than a straight-up 4/4, you are seeing The Who. Long live rock.

The Who: www.thewho.net

Categories
In Perspective

Hi, We’re The Replacements

Hi, We’re The Replacements

The Replacements

Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash

Stink

Hootenanny

Let It Be

Twin Tone/Restless

This would be the perfect time to memorialize The Replacements. Lord knows they are deserving. Paul Westerberg’s music and lyrics were, and still are, head and shoulders above almost anything else America produced during the 1980s. From their first album, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash in 1981, to the final, All Shook Down, every album contained moments of empathic genius, stumbling, brilliant rock and utter disaster. That was their beauty. They could fail — just like us. They could succeed, sometimes amazingly. Just like us. The ‘Mats seemed to be real people, people who we could sit at the bar and share (many) beers with. No big hair rock star poses, no endless twiddling guitar solos, none of that shit. Just neighborhood guys making music.

Perhaps that is why the band continues to resonate so deeply with fans. This music connects without overpowering; even at their most “punk” — 1982’s Stink — they never bash you over the head with volume or speed. They were derisively described by one of those smug “Punk Rock Ph. D’s” of the time as a rock band trying to play punk. Exactly. They never wanted to be Hüsker Dü (no matter how much they loved them- check out “Something To Dü” from Sorry Ma). They wanted to be The Faces. This spanning of genres is part of the reason their stature has grown in the decades since their beginning — they mean and sound something different, but important, to different people. They never sounded too polished, making lo-fi records before it was deemed cool. They drank too much, and had the sometimes annoying habit of crippling their best songs, almost as if Paul was afraid of creating something too good. “Within Your Reach” from 1983’s Hootenanny is a perfect example of this. Easily in the top five best Westerberg songs, the original version finds Paul playing all the instruments, which include a strange “wooshing” guitar and an incredibly bad drum machine part. Still, despite all this, when he sings “Cold without so much/Can die without a dream/Live without your touch/I’ll die within your reach” and a blast of distorted guitar slams in, you get a chill. Each album had moments like this. Find your own.

Replacement fans endlessly debate which album is the best. Some prefer the earlier, sloppier punkish material of the first two, some like the varied perfection of Hootenanny, but all agree that 1984’s Let It Be is in the top two. This is where it all came together — Paul’s cynical lyrics, Bob Stinson’s firecracker guitar, it’s all there. “I Will Dare” begins the album as strongly as any record, anywhere, and songs such as “Unsatisfied” and “Favorite Thing” ache. True, the world wasn’t waiting breathlessly for the goofy take on Kiss’s “Black Diamond” found here, and “Gary’s Got a Boner” is charmingly stupid, but “Androgynous” and “Answering Machine” rival any material presented on either side of the Atlantic during the ’80s. This is the record that many people “discovered” The ‘Mats with, and almost 20 years later, it still can make you shout yourself hoarse singing along. This is truly a classic.

Restless Records has gathered the rights to the first four Replacements records and reissued them, adding no extra tracks or anything, but claiming to have “digitally remastered” them for release. I guess. If anything, they sound tinnier than the original CD issues (hit the bass boost button on the Walkman to add a bit of fullness). These are records that argue for not selling the turntable in a yard sale. They sound made for LP. Couple that with the fact that Westerberg and the rest of the band stand to garner no real money off these reissues, having no contract with Restless, who licensed them from Twin/Tone (who the band didn’t have a contract with either…) there is no real reason to buy these, unless you actually don’t own them yet. If by some fluke you’ve made it this long in life without experiencing “Shiftless When Idle,” “Dope Smokin Moron” or “Seen Your Video,” channel a bit of The Replacements spirit and steal ’em. Hell, the band themselves thought they had tossed the masters to their early records in the Mississippi (they only destroyed safety copies, according to label owner Paul Jesperson), so I doubt they will care.

This would be the perfect time to memorialize The Replacements. But we only erect statues to dead people, and this band will never die. Long live The ‘Mats.

Twin Tone Records: www.twintone.com • Restless Records: www.restless.com

Categories
In Perspective

Detroit Box City

Detroit Box City

KISS

The Definitive KISS Collection

Mercury/Def Jam Music Group/A Universal Music Company

Before I go any further, a thought just occurred to me while typing out the label name. Back in the day when I paid serious, serious attention to KISS — starting in 1975, I was twelve — what stood out most, strangely, was KISS’s label, Casablanca. I remember this most because from then on I associated anything having the Casablanca label with KISS. Up until then, my association with record labels was limited to ABC/Dunhill, A&M, Polydor, Decca, London, and Capitol/Apple. My mom’s record collection consisted primarily of classical music, most of it either on the Decca or London label. These two labels I associated exclusively with classical music and hence my impressionable little mind was “blown” upon discovering that The Rolling Stones (a huge influence on KISS) were on London and a variety of other rock acts were on Decca. ABC/Dunhill was the realm of Steppenwolf; A&M and Polydor put out the odd double set or soundtrack and The Beatles were on Capitol, then Apple. All of a sudden, here’s a band that “everyone” is paying attention to and they’re on this mysterious “Casablanca” label. Tremendously odd, as Casablanca had an awful lot of disco records out…

When I was in tenth grade, a band called Van Halen appeared, and they thanked Gene Simmons in their liner notes (I was the kid who read the liner notes, even then). By the time I was twenty and “grown up” about music and “knew” about labels, especially Sire Records, a band called “Mötely Crüe” was out and they sure looked like they were aping… KISS! Instantly, I thought of KISS — even though I hadn’t listened to them in years.

This review was written for people who are familiar with KISS and their 25-plus years of noteriety, as if it’s possible to be unfamiliar with them. Nonetheless, for those who were born yesterday, KISS is a rock and roll band that plays a lot of rocking heavy metal. They wore studded leather and stage make-up and blew up fireworks on stage. Their bass player, Gene Simmons, spits blood, eats fire, and has a nine-inch tongue. In the 1980s, they decided to not wear make up and re-invent themselves as a rocking heavy metal band that played a lot of rock and roll. In the 1990s they put the make-up back on and played a lot of metal and rock and roll. And they said good-bye to their fans by touring around the world a few times. The band is arguably the most influential American rock and roll band of the 1970s, one of the most successful rock and roll businesses ever, and their international, legion fanbase spans multiple generations. They are rock and roll superheroes, par excellance. They are genuine famous rock and roll stars (see below).

Sorry for the long intro, but it’s relevant to this gigantic five-CD KISS album. The label story is relevant because this set isn’t on Casablanca, it’s on Mercury — no, it’s on Def Jam; wait, it’s really on Universal. Eventually it might be on Sony. Don’t laugh! The ugly history comprising the “group marriages” and frequent “group divorces” of the record industry played a big part in molding the destiny of KISS. So did a lot of other stuff, like sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Which, of course, has been well-documented in no less than five books, hundreds of print articles, comic books, a few movies and TV shows, MTV and other specials, in addition to simply being played out live in front of my generation. KISS has been with us as a major player and one of the top ten rock and roll acts in history for the last thirty years (though the album lists the start date even earlier at 1966).

What KISS hasn’t done until now, however, is put together their definitive musical history. Certainly, as I mentioned above, their public career as rock stars was on display from the beginning. And I’ll not ignore that a lot of the “behind the scenes” action was recorded on tape or film or electrons for all to see, as well. But this is all “finished product” and finished product is just that, this boxed set isn’t about finished product, it’s about documenting the creative, artistic processes that went into those polished, practiced performances and albums.

My feelings about demos or “previously unreleased” songs are mixed. On the one hand, it’s an interesting curiosity, on the other a demo that’s missing something might ruin a song for me. Even worse, it’s a novelty and thus something good for one listening — and then it’s forgotten, a musical dust collector. In that sense, there’s a lot of risk in releasing an album of demos. A risk that perhaps an unforgiving public would think the band hasn’t much else to offer than mixing room floor scrapings.

In KISS’ case, of course, the band has released more than thirty albums, touring around the world a lot and sold a lot of records, there’s no risk at all. I bet they’re the most loved rock and roll band of all time, too. Let’s face it, they triumphed instead of survived (there’s only one other band that’s done that over their lifetime: The Rolling Stones); and for a “niche” rock band with perhaps a “limited” appeal, they’re next in line after The Beatles in gold records. The obvious conclusion, then, is that this boxed set of five fascinating discs is, more than anything, the band’s retrospective, a musical look at the inner workings of KISS, which is something the fans didn’t have until now.

The true KISS fans, of course, have been correctly answering the trivia question “what was KISS called before they were KISS?” with “WICKED LESTER.” Based on what’s included amongst the KISS KLASSICS (ha!) are several previously unreleased Wicked Lester tracks that kind of betray the completely different band KISS could have been. Mainly because Gene Simmons and guitarist Paul Stanley wouldn’t have had lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss to kick around… But seriously, the Wicked Lester tracks sound really, really dated. As in Moby Grape meets Jethro Tull. That takes nothing away from the band one bit, mind you, the songs are rocking, but have “hippie” written all over them. Nevertheless, they’re an absolute must-listen as they are a part of KISStory.

With that out of the way, let’s rock and roll, eh?

I’ve found myself listening to discs one and three the most. Disc one starts off with demo versions of “Strutter” and “Deuce,” two of the bossest rock and roll songs ever written. Then it’s into the Wicked Lester stuff, which, though it’s hippie music, it’s pretty amazing, especially guitarwise. Rounding out disc one is material from the first three KISS albums, including a demo version of “Firehouse,” “Parasite” — true metal without a doubt, “Ladies In Waiting” — dubbed “one of the stupidest songs ever written” by many, yet equally loved by guys who dig songs about groupies, and “Rock and Roll All Nite,” the all-time greatest rock and roll anthem, right boys and girls?

Right.

Disc three has my favorite KISS song of all and I bet no one can guess it.

You’re all wrong!

My favorite KISS song of all time is “The Oath” from their album (Music from) The Elder! Ha! (Bet you thought it was “I Was Made For Loving You” — the BEST disco song ever, mind you.)

“The Oath” is a driving, over-the-top epic symphonic metal tune, twenty years ahead of its time. It is the equivalent of a heavy metal kung-fu Godzilla movie where the Seven Samurai make a guest appearance.

And that’s why it’s my favorite.

I won’t say more about the music other than I left out the other eighty-or-so remaining songs, that would be ALL the band’s hits (“Love Gun,” “Detroit Rock City,” Ace Frehley’s “Rocket Ride,” etc.) and some not-so-hits (“Beth” — ugh).

The real treasure is the 120-page book that comes with the discs. The running commentary from all the band members, including a truly touching tribute to the late Eric Carr (the drummer who took over for Peter Criss sometime in early 1981) is uplifting and kind of astonishingly sober. There’s stories about each song on each disc and lots of strange pictures, especially the ones of Gene Simmons before even Wicked Lester. Must be seen to be believed.

What I got out of the book primarily was the band revealing whom they ripped off the most. (That would be The Rolling Stones, and The Who, and The Nazz and everyone else! But, good artists create, great artists steal… – scroll down to the bottom for a unique take on Gene Simmons) There’s also interesting side notes of the band performing with Wayne County and being part of the New York City trash rock scene, right before the punk rock era. Not just that, but the passion for writing, recording, and most of all performing great rock and roll music shines through this glorious tome, as rightly it should.

The Definitive KISS Collection should be a part of the true rock and roll (and true metal) aficionado’s Shelf of Greatness — and always near the CD player as well.

KISS Online: www.kissonline.com

Categories
In Perspective

Uncle John’s Box Set

Uncle John’s Box Set

The Grateful Dead

The Golden Road (1965-1973)

Rhino

Rock impresario Bill Graham once remarked something along the lines of “the Grateful Dead aren’t only the best at what they do — they’re the only ones who do what they do.” Even as each new year seems to bring another handful of Dead-influenced “jam” bands truckin’ down the pike, Graham’s statement still holds true — for one simple reason. The Dead wrote songs. While the Dead were never radio “staples,” somehow the classic tunes of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Robert Hunter have become engraved in people’s minds. “Truckin’,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Casey Jones,” the list goes on and on. For those who admire well-constructed songs, this 12-CD box has a boatload of ’em. For the wandering tribe known as Deadheads, the bonus material on these discs will go a long way to replacing the patched-together tapes collected over the decades. Each disc features at least four or five live and unreleased cuts, plus “hidden” tracks, which are generally radio ads, demos, etc.

The Grateful Dead began as a jug/blues band known as The Warlocks. In those days, it was more Pigpen’s (keyboardist/harp player/vocalist Ron McKernan) show than Garcia’s — they performed rather straight-up versions of traditional classics such as “I’m a King Bee” or “Sitting On Top of the World.” To tell the truth, The Dead weren’t really much of a blues band — the sessions collected on the first set, entitled “Birth of the Dead,” show a band mainly playing by the book versions of songs, all topped with Pigpen’s rather annoying Farfisa organ, which made everything sound like you were at a roller rink. By this time, 1965-1966, “white boy” blues had pretty much been defined by the likes of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band or the Eric Clapton-based version of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. Compared to that pair, The Dead barely rate a mention. What is interesting about these never before heard sides (particularly the live disc) is how consistent in material The Dead were. “I Know You Rider” and “Don’t Ease Me In” make their debuts here, and both were live staples of the group until the end.

During the hippie days of the late sixties, record labels rushed to sign acts that were from California and seemed to be vaguely “out there.” The Dead certainly were that. Taken as a body of work, the first three records — The Grateful Dead (1967), Anthem of the Sun (1968), and Aoxomoxoa (1969) — border, to today’s ears, on unlistenable. Only Aoxomoxoa, with such songs as “St. Stephen” or “China Cat Sunflower,” holds up at all, and even it sounds overwrought. Or in Garcia’s words, “overwritten.” The material wanders about, unfocused and noodling. Garcia was developing his lyrical, melodic guitar style, but it hadn’t reached a comfort level by this point. When the band attempted to get “trippy” — such as on “Anthem,” with songs such as “Quadlibet For Tender Feet” or “The Faster We Go, the Rounder We Get,” the drug-drenched naivete comes through loud and clear. The live bonus material sticks more to the blues — Pigpen workouts such as “Alligator” as well as 1969’s Live/Dead all stay closer to the roots of it all, showing the band flexing it’s improvisational muscle that it would hone over the years, sowing the seeds for the likes of Phish, et al.

But in 1970, a number of factors came together — the worsening health of Pigpen, the desire to record a “hit” quickly (the band owed Warner Brothers a substantial amount of money for past recording costs) — to create the first of two records that have come to define the “golden era” of the Dead. Workingman’s Dead and its follow-up, American Beauty — both released in a seven-month period of 1970 — are as good as the band ever got in the studio. Workingman’s Dead featured the classic numbers, such as “Uncle John’s Band,” “Dire Wolf,” and the late-night, one more toke please “Casey Jones.” Gone are the rambling, goofy jams of the past, replaced with shorter, sharper songs that sound more organic than before. The songwriting partnership of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter is running full out here, and the imagery they fathered spawned a million T-shirts and bumper stickers. “Ridin’ that train, high on cocaine” (“Casey Jones”), or “He’s come to take his children home” from “Uncle John’s Band” united a sort of family around The Dead, one that still offers a sense of community and warmth today, long after the group has ceased to exist.

The follow-up, American Beauty, is not only the best Dead album, it’s one of rocks finest hours, period. From the opening Phil Lesh/Hunter moment “Box Of Rain” to the closing “Truckin’,” this is a work of genius. The songs are strong — “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and the performances stellar, but as with most great works of art, the end result is so much more than a simple combination of parts. AB walks a fine line between folk songwriting and extended jam, never getting too much of either. The live versions of “Truckin'” and “Candyman” show The Dead in a comfortable groove, one that they would build on, but never really top, for the rest of their careers. The final three releases included in the set — Grateful Dead,ìEurope ’72, and Bear’s Choice are all live collections, and all include extra live cuts.

As the years rolled on, so did The Dead. The death of Garcia ended the band in its proper form, but offshoots such as Bob Weir’s Ratdog and such, makes certain that no one will be at a loss for Dead music. Of the genre they largely spawned, jam bands are more popular today than ever — unfortunately. Unfortunate because at the heart of The Dead pumped a songwriter’s band — for every hour-long “Dark Star,” there was a snappy, five-minute long “Bertha.” The Dead offered it either way, and in this, they have never been topped. Long-time Deadheads will of course have all the studio albums offered here, but with the HDCD remastering done for this release, they probably should buy them again. Again, the bonus material has been about in bits and pieces, so it’s nice to find it all in one place. The 73-page book that is included gives one a wealth of information and memories, and the set itself is gorgeous and huge — damn thing weighs around ten pounds. There is only one Grateful Dead. Accept no substitutes.

Rhino Records:

Categories
In Perspective

Digging Up Indie Rock Fossils

Digging Up Indie Rock Fossils

Dinosaur Jr.

Ear Bleeding Country: The Best of Dinosaur Jr.

Warner Archives/Rhino

I feel like I am writing an obituary and not a review; in many ways, I guess I am. Dinosaur Jr. were the quintessential indie rock band. Before Pavement started flying their slacker flag and several years before Nirvana rode to the top of the charts with their mix of punk, pop, and Sabbath inspired riffs, Dinosaur Jr. raised the bar several notches for sheer guitar pyrotechnics. Arising in the mid-eighties, Dinosaur Jr. were contemporaries of Sonic Youth (when they mattered), The Replacements, The Pixies, and a whole crop of other bands. Yet, where Dinosaur Jr.’s genius resided was in their clever juxtaposition of ear-splitting loudness and lyrics that were laconic and reflected a navel-gazing, introverted perspective. At this point I should make clear that after the ejection of Lou Barlow in the late ’80s (after a fistfight on stage), Dinosaur Jr. rapidly became a solo vehicle for J Mascis. In fact, many of the tracks on this disc were recorded with Mascis playing most of the instruments.

The tracks on this release, primarily from Dinosaur’s stint at Warner Brothers, demonstrate their musical prowess and mastery of melody. Yet above it all, I should point out Mascis’ guitar playing. It was no small measure of the esteem that many held him in when, in early ’92-’93, Spin (when it mattered) ran a cover article which pictured him and declared: J MASCIS IS GOD! Tongue in cheek and hyperbole aside, listening to this album, it is refreshing to hear the range that Mascis displays, especially in light of the current crop of musicians on the airwaves with their tried and true power chords.

In an interview, Mascis once explained that he originally learned to play the drums, partially out of inspiration from John Bonham, drummer of Led Zeppelin. So when he picked up the guitar, he had the same inspiration, and this goes quite a ways in explaining his technique. His sound ranges from power chords, slashing notes, and cascading torrents of feedback. Listening to some of these tracks, I can imagine tiny rivulets of light and electricity arcing away from the neck of his guitar.

This isn’t to say the entire album is guitar-centered — well… yes it is. But I always enjoyed Dinosaur Jr. for the lyrics. Mascis had the oft-confusing and troubling world of relationships pegged dead to rights. That, coupled with his singing voice (that sounds more like a croak), leaves no doubt that most of the time, he couldn’t give a fuck less. And, it was okay, quite cool, and so liberating.

Rhino Records, 10653 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-4900;

Categories
In Perspective

A Flood of Fela

A Flood of Fela

Fela Kuti

Army Arrangement (’85)

Beasts of No Nation/O.D.O.O. (’89-’90)

Everything Scatter/Noise For Vendor Mouth (’75)

Fela with Ginger Baker Live (’71)

Ikoyi Blindness/Kalakuta Show (’76)

J.J.D./Unnecessary Begging (’76-’77)

Koola Lobitos/The ’69 L.A. Sessions (’64-’69)

Live In Amsterdam (’84)

Monkey Banana/Excuse 0 (’75)

Open & Close/Afrodisiac (’71-’73)

Roforofo Fight/The Fela Singles (’72)

Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (’86)

Underground System (’92)

Upside Down/Music of Many Colours (’76/’80)

Zombie (’76-’77)

MCA

One of the more surprising and welcome reissue campaigns in ages comes from MCA, who last year started sorting out the enormous catalog of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Among the most influential, politically fervent, and prolific world musicians ever, Kuti’s fertile Afro-beat was tremendously popular in his homeland, and gradually started catching on to a larger Western audience before his death in 1997. Twenty of his albums were compiled on ten discs last year, and now, this latest crop of fifteen MORE albums almost completes the project.

Wading through them all is– as you can imagine– a daunting, not to mention time consuming task. Most of Fela’s “songs” run between 15-30 minutes, and consist primarily of call and response vocals over a single repeated riff with intricate accompaniment from his enormous bands, complete with horns and backup singers. On tour, he was known to have an entourage of 80 people. These re-compiled discs typically cram in almost 80 minutes of music– often just three or four tracks–augmented with detailed liner notes and beautifully remastered sound. Fela sings, plays keyboards and sax, but mostly leads the ever-changing band in his distinctive vision of Afro-beat, not dissimilar to an African George Clinton. For those interested in Fela’s history– and it’s a long, fascinating story just waiting for a movie version starring Denzel Washington–there are a few books available. One of which, entitled Fela, Why Blackman Carry Shit, is written by Mabinuori Kayode Idowu, who pens most of the detailed track notes to these magnificently assembled reissues.

All the music played by Fela’s bands Afrika ’70, Nigeria ’70, and Egypt ’80 is, like Duke Ellington’s, consistently extraordinary. Even the long tracks–and that’s almost all of them– never seem to overstay their welcome. Inventive, exciting, groundbreaking, and jaw dropping in its flexible groove, Fela attracted astounding musicians, most of whom remain uncredited even on these otherwise well-annotated discs. His own sax lines slither, snake, and lash out with brutal force, but can also steep in their own languid juices. Many of the lyrics are talk/sung in his native Nigerian mixed with some English and are heavily political in nature.

But don’t be dissuaded by that. These are some of the most passionate, soulful, and downright funky sounds you’ll ever hear. Joyous, elaborately arranged, and completely inspired, it’s music you’ll return to often in order to revel in its complexities and let its hypnotic groove wash over you. From the exquisite, meticulously timed backing vocalists, to the spellbinding percussion, to the effortless harmony generated by a band that treats music as a religious/socio-political experience, even those unfamiliar with Fela will be hooked by the intensity exuding from every disc.

Try as I may, it’s impossible to choose favorites. Suffice it to say that if you own none of these, you can start anywhere and work your way through the batch at your leisure. Unless you’re a diehard, you won’t need the entire set, but anyone interested in worldbeat simply cannot be without some Fela in their collection. Those who crave powerful drum work should start with the Ginger Baker disc (hang on for the previously unreleased 17 minute drum duet with the ex-Cream/Blind Faith stickman and Fela percussionist Tony Allen), and those interested in an East meets West summit with fusion soulman/vibes player Roy Ayers will want to pick up Music of Many Colours, which features two 18-minute cuts that slip sensually on a bed of vibraphone, horns and percussion. The ’69 LA Sessions is a new compilation, with six of its tracks not only previously unreleased, but clocking in at a conservative five minutes and less, an anomaly of the artist. Many of these combine two albums consisting of a pair of side long (on vinyl) songs-onto one disc.

The cover art is uniformly hideous. Filled with ragged, ugly, often crass cartoons, cut and paste photo collages, and art direction that looks like it was done in a half-hour by a ten-year-old with blinders on, it’s no wonder these weren’t released by major labels in the States. Fela was so busy making music, he had no time — and certainly no money — to pay a good, or even adequate graphic designer, and it shows. When shrunken down to CD size, the sleeve credits are completely unreadable, even with a magnifying glass. Thankfully, the booklets that are specially composed for this series are classy, informative, and uniform, traits foreign to the original albums’ artwork.

Sure, at first wash, lots of Fela’s music sounds similar; the bubbling beats, repeated riffs, long sax solos, and metronomic percussion is a shared trait of Fela’s style. But similar to reggae, repeated listening reveals nuances and subtleties that expose themselves gradually. Although he recorded over 50 albums, many of which still remain unavailable in America, this series is a historically important and musically vital set of discs that prove how remarkable Fela Kuti was. To paraphrase The New York Times‘ old slogan, you may not need them all, but it’s nice to know they’re all here.

http://www.mcarecords.com