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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

November 2017: It's The Real Thing! Or Is It?

Another month, another maddening miasma of bewildering crap, both in International Affairs and popular culture. Trump and Kim are locked in a Macho Posturing Race (I almost preferred the Arms Race). Some might find an antidote in the routine misandry of pop videos, hours of which I still see at my gym in Berlin. For instance, Not Your Mama, in which Jennifer Lopez, in a series of different 'personae', 'fights back' at various contrived figures of masculine authority (boss, husband) by doing things like throwing food or drink over them and abusing their ties,before segueing into the obligatory sexy dance routine. I know you're not my mama, J.Lo, my mama never dumped my dad's dinner over his head and then shook her butt in skin-tight pants for the camera.

 

Katy Perry, meanwhile, has issued a public apology for having her hair styled in cornrows: a heinous act, apparently, of Cultural Appropriation. For me this triggered a vivid flashback to South London circa 1981, where my then mother-in-law – who was from Sierra Leone – was jeered at in the street for her exotic, twisted African hairstyle . . . by black girls who'd all had their hair straightened. Too bad Katy Perry wasn't there to straighten them out.

 

This is why I try so hard to avoid debates about politics, race, or gender; it's like being thrown into a swimming pool full of rabid chihuahuas. Let's try to get back to music.

 

 

THE SKATALITES: Independence Ska and the Far East Sound

THE AGGROLITES: Dirty Reggae

 

It's coincidental, and pretty funny, that I should pick up these two albums at the same time. The Skatalites compilation is another triumph for Soul Jazz Records, and contains their best-known, and some lesser-known, Ska classics from the mid-60s. I've always liked this music, though mostly, I admit, just for its overall sound and groove. A few years ago in New York I saw a live set by The Skatalites – or whatever was their current mix of original and new members. Like the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo from Benin, or El Gran Combo from Puerto Rico, they seemed to have become a franchise, or an institution, something that doesn't really happen in pop/rock (good luck with calling yourself The Rolling Stones after Mick and Keith are gone). The most interesting player in the band, incidentally, looked like one of the oldest: the drummer, who played nothing like the drummers in younger ska bands, but more like a jazz drummer. The Skatalites can actually be quite jazzy (especially on tracks like Further East) and are also not averse to a bit of Cuban Mambo (Suavito).

 

When a friend of mine played me The Aggrolites, I thought I'd found an undiscovered gem from that sweet spot where Ska morphs into Reggae. It turns out to be a bunch of white guys from LA, with names like Dixon, Wagner and Mackenzie. Oh! Oh! Cultural Appropriation!! Surely Wagner should be singing opera, or playing the tuba in lederhosen, while Mackenzie should stick to the bagpipes. Then again, opera originated in Italy. (The bagpipes originated in Hell). Is anyone authentic around here?

 

Maybe it helps that The Aggrolites have worked as backing band for actual Jamaicans like Derrick Morgan, Prince Buster, and Joseph Hill of Culture – or that Dirty Reggae, their first album, was recorded in one day and sounds great. If they've followed any particular role model, I'd guess it's whoever played on Toots and the Maytals classics like Funky Kingston and 54-46 That's My Number (produced, incidentally, by a Chinese-Jamaican called Leslie Kong).OK, I know The Aggrolites didn't invent this style, but guess what: so do they.

 

As for who's allowed to do what, my personal view is that everyone's allowed to do whatever the fuck they want, otherwise it's not art.

 

TAME IMPALA: Currents

JAKE BUGG: Hearts That Strain

CHARLES BRADLEY: No Time For Dreaming

 

Until a few weeks ago I knew nothing of Tame Impala, except for hearing the name and thinking it was a pretty terrible one. I discovered their (its?) latest album in a time-honoured but now uncommon way, that is, by being in a record shop while it was playing. This was in Berlin, where record shops still exist, at least in greater numbers than in the US or UK, where a lot of people have forgotten about record shops as places to browse, find new music, listen to bits of new records, chat with the music geeks who run the place, and so on. The track that really knocked me out was Past Life (about which more in a moment) but the rest of the album has grown on me, too.

 

There's a live version of Tame Impala, but the studio incarnation is all written, sung, played, recorded and mixed by an Australian bloke called Kevin Parker. As a do-everything-yourself auteur he reminds me a bit of Todd Rundgren, but also of a huge range of disparate artists, from late Beatles and Psychedelic Rock to Tears For Fears, Pet Shop Boys, Air, Daft Punk, Mika, Gotye, and God knows who else. In interviews Parker has enthusiastically cited the influence of Supertramp and the Bee Gees. It's interesting that, while pop trendiness endures, and young people will mostly tend to be interested in what other young people are doing, there also seems to be a tendency out there to draw influences from all over the place, and see nothing as uncool.

 

Currents is mixed more like a DJ album than one by a singer-songwriter or a rock band: an electronic, studio rather than live, sound, with the drums pretty far forward. Meanwhile the somewhat androgynous vocal floats in a sort of luxurious halo of reverb behind a gauze of synths, romantic and slightly ethereal. It's a neat formula, though it wears a bit thin – there are a couple of songs which could have benefitted from a different approach. But the songs are mostly good, and Past Life still kills me, with its combination of slamming down-tempo groove, electronic noise, trippy phasing effects and strange spoken-word interludes. I find it both immediately striking and mysterious enough to want to listen to again.

 

Jake Bugg seems to be another adherent of the nothing-is-uncool school, having named Don McLean as his biggest influence. I'm struggling with this album, which is a softer, more acoustic affair than his previous ones, and seems to live in a kind of soft-focus mid/late 60s dream with a soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, and Kris Kristofferson, as though Bugg has retreated into some nostalgic safe space from before he was born. Some of it gets dangerously close to maudlin, though even when the music is as gentle and harmless as a California breeze, the lyrics can be pretty dark. It's certainly not bad – some of it is quite beautiful – but I really wonder where he goes from here.

 

There have always been periodic outbreaks of nostalgia for musical styles that have been around for long enough to become Retro. Nevertheless, both these albums suggest to me that musical influence may have ceased to be linear. It no longer has to be this following this following this, in, theoretically, some kind of progression. Young artists used to copy what their older peers were doing, and then try to take it further, or twist it in some way, or react against it. Now it seems just as common to start with your own bespoke set of influences from a year ago, fifteen years ago, and fifty years ago. Whether Jake Bugg or Tame Impala will be remembered in fifty years is another question. Though probably a pointless one.

 

Not long after the sad death of Sharon Jones, the Grim Reaper has come for her male equivalent on the Dap-Tone label, Charles Bradley. Like Sharon, he was a bona fide Soul singer who, fairly late in a hard life, got a second chance with the Brooklyn revivalists whose devotion to the authentic stuff in every detail is positively Japanese. Bradley's voice is a mixture of Otis Redding and James Brown, astonishingly urgent and compelling, at least (for my taste) in fairly small doses. Is masterful, heartfelt revivalism as good as 'the real thing'?  Is it, in fact, the real thing? I can't figure it out. But I like it.

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