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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.

October 2017: Pushing The Envelope

You can say that someone has tried, without necessarily turning their back on tradition, or tearing up the rule book and starting all over, to find ways to transcend limitations – either their own or those of their chosen field, or genre. Or you can use an excellent idiomatic expression and just say they're pushing the envelope. The most interesting artists always push the envelope in some way. I should add, though, that I think we're sometimes too ready to expect or demand something which is actually quite rare, namely originality; and we sometimes overrate iconoclasts at the expense of good solid craftsmen who have successful careers and give pleasure to many.

 

Since I started this blog thing, I've tried to write about both kinds of artist, and to point out the ways in which the less original and 'important' ones can be sometimes even more enjoyable, and have character, if nothing else.One thing I didn't see coming, though, is that artists I've already written about, have by now released new albums . . . and this in fact What I'm Listening To. Does that mean I should write about it? I think I will, but I'll try to keep it short before moving on to something I haven't written about.

 

First, though, I have to say RIP Walter Becker, and to once again plug his great and underrated first solo album, Eleven Tracks Of Whack.

 

TONY ALLEN: A Tribute To Art Blakey

TONY ALLEN: The Source

ANTIBALAS: Where The Gods Are In Peace

 

As someone who was positively electrified by Fela Kuti back in the late 70s and 80s, I'm thrilled that his Afrobeat revolution is still alive, or at least reverberating. Two of Afrobeat's major exponents, Nigerian master Tony Allen and Brooklyn upstarts Antibalas, have new albums out, both of which are fascinating in different ways.

 

The first thing to be said is that it's Allen who, at an energetic 77 years of age, is most obviously pushing the envelope. Earlier this year he released a 4-track digital EP tribute to Art Blakey, one of his biggest influences (who was himself deeply into African music). The prospect of two of my all-time favourite drummers getting together, so to speak, practically had me drooling, and the music is mostly very good. If you're familiar with classics like Moanin' and Politely, it's startling to hear them recast with such radically different grooves - but after, say, about ten seconds, it doesn't hurt a bit.

 

Allen's Afro-Jazz adventure continues with The Source, recorded for Blue Note in Paris (where he lives) with some excellent French musicians. I'm still exploring this album, but there are all kinds of pleasures in it: for instance, just hearing Allen playing with acoustic bass, acoustic piano, and a very different kind of horn section to the ones he played with as Fela's drummer and MD. One of the best tracks, Woro Dance, is a stirring baritone sax feature for Remi Sciuto; it's almost like seeing an instrument which was a regular character actor with Fela, stepping out from the wings and taking a commanding lead role. And Allen's playing with more freedom than ever. The best jazz drummers can keep up a constant flow of varying rhythmic patterns while still driving and swinging the band. Allen is doing the same thing, but in his own distinctive, and distinctly African, style.

 

Meanwhile Antibalas, on their second Dap-Tone album, are positively nostalgic, but that's just fine with me. The huge, almost orchestral, slightly messy sound of a twelve-piece band is strongly reminiscent of Fela (and I love the blatant use of old-fashioned reverb, almost as a thirteenth member). On the other hand, it's not Fela, and there are many little reminders that this is Brooklyn 2017. The Dap-Tone aesthetic fits them well (and is a great example of a record label pushing the envelope). And it's in some ways their most ambitious work, a kind of concept album which moves from denunciations of colonialism and exploitation to a vision of a better world. The concluding Tombstown features vocals by Zap Mama, and, with just two simple but somehow sinister chords alternating over a churning 3/4-6/8 rhythm, it becomes almost frighteningly hypnotic – a long way from Lagos 1978, yet still firmly rooted in the tradition. Strong stuff.

 

QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE: Villains

 

I'm no aficionado of this band, though there's something I like about their leader Josh Homme. I was drawn to this album because (a) I enjoyed Iggy Pop's collaboration with Homme, Post Pop Depression, and (b) it's produced by Mark Ronson, a bold and unexpected choice.

 

I have two Ronson-produced albums, Amy Winehouse's Back To Black and his own Version, and I like his retro-hip soul thing as much as anyone. Incidentally, for some reason people always seem to be asking me what I think of Amy Winehouse. For what it's worth, she seemed to me like someone who hadn't quite put all the pieces together, but nevertheless had great talent. Therein lies a great tragedy.

 

(Oh, and while I'm on my soap box: there's a song on my last album called Junkie Diva which everyone seems to think is about Amy Winehouse. I've even seen it in print, stated as a fact. Well, it's not. Haven't these people ever heard of Billie Holiday? And isn't it obvious that the song isn't really about the diva anyway, but the obsessive fan?)

 

Just had to get that off my chest. Back to QOTSA (great acronym): it's not always obvious what Ronson has brought to the table, but I'm pretty sure he's gotten them to stretch out and make some different choices, and made the drums more 'in your face'. There are still plenty of those nasty midrange guitar frequencies, though – distorted sounds which often strike me as just ugly rather than exciting. But that's probably just a matter of sonic taste.

 

It's an interesting album, eclectic within a fairly narrow range but never dull. Like another good mainstream rock band, Foo Fighters, QOTSA almost make a case for hard guitar-driven rock as a Classical medium. Their various reference points are all in themselves classic: there's a definite Glam-Rock vibe to tracks like The Way You Used To Do and Head Like A Haunted House (great title) while The Evil Has Landed has some Lep Zep-worthy riffing. The ghost of Bowie hovers over quite a bit of it – both the Bowie of Diamond Dogs and the later Berlin albums.

 

I even hear a hint of Bowie in Homme's vocals, which started me on an interesting train of thought. One of Bowie's many innovations was that he freed British singers from having to imitate Americans. Suddenly it was possible to sing in a Cockney accent, or to make the vocal performance theatrical, and be whoever you wanted to be – including someone else. But I think Bowie influenced American singers too, maybe to make the white singers feel they didn't have to try to sound black, or didn't have to just sing as well as they could - it was OK to sound like you're not really trying at all, or be ironic, artificial, or again, theatrical. Without Bowie, it's hard to imagine Brits singing like Johnny Lydon or Damon Albarn or Morrissey, but equally hard to imagine Yanks singing like Ric Ocasek or Tom Verlaine or David Byrne.

 

Homme's songs generally seem to carry more or less the same message: be yourself, don't take any crap from anyone, be free, be alive. I can see how he hit it off with Iggy. One of the best songs on the album, though, is almost a ballad. At first I assumed Fortress was dedicated to a lover, but it's even better now I know it's actually for his daughter. 'If your fortress caves / You can always run to mine' – be strong, stand on your own two feet, but if it all goes to shit, I'm there for you. If I was a kid who got to choose his own dad, I think I'd pick this big leather-jacketed lug over a Wall Street banker any day.

 

 

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