Sunday, November 28, 2010


About a year ago, I became quite obsessed with Donovan and decided to write about the four albums I was especially enchanted with. Instead, I got sidetracked reading and writing about the old Donovan-Dylan rivalry and never was able to finish the post properly. I also knew that an editor would probably just cut this analysis of something I ultimately decide is pointless, but I couldn't make myself delete it. Now that this blog is more-or-less finished, I thought it would make a fitting home for this orphaned piece. Over on Ley Lines I plan to actually talk about some Donovan songs as a follow-up to this preamble.

I'm not sure what, if anything, I thought of Donovan before having my curiosity piqued by this Woebot post, but back when I read it I made a mental note to follow up on his music. That took two years, but I eventually picked up all three albums Woebot mentions--Mellow Yellow, A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, and The Hurdy Gurdy Man--as well as the one that precedes them, Sunshine Superman (plus The Hurdy Gurdy Man's patchy successor, Barabajagal). For many, Donovan is the arch-hippie, at least the British version, but I had no strong preconceptions about him or his music. I remembered his appearance in the Dylan tour documentary Dont Look Back but couldn't positively identify any of his songs, not even his hits. So if you have some kind of anti-Donovan baggage--maybe your parents played him a lot, or you've heard the song "Mellow Yellow" too many times--I hope you can ignore it, because this run of brilliant albums puts him on the same level as the best of the late '60s groups.

Donovan Leitch, born in Glasgow in 1946 (though raised outside of London), began his career at a very young age--he recorded a set of demos at 17 and appeared on Ready, Steady, Go! (a Top of the Pops style show) at age 18. Here's his take on the period leading up to his decision to become a musician:
In England, we'd leave school at 15 and go on to a college, and I went to further education in a town called Welling Garden City. I fully immersed myself in bohemia there, which included poetry and modern art, jazz, philosophy, social radicalism. My father brought me up to be a socialist. He was a strong union man, and I was brought up in a time of Celtic mysticism and socialism, and I ran into the music of Woody Guthrie, my goodness, at 16. That was it. I saw how the elements could come together. The vision I felt in the poems my father read me, the zeal of the socialism and the rise of the working class out of its industrial slavery, and the presentation of ideas through music. That was 1960 or something, when I heard Woody Guthrie. Then Joan Baez. Then Pete Seeger. Then Miles Davis.

I've yet to really immerse myself in it, but his early folk music is nice (some songs are a little dated for sure). It fits into the British folk milieu with ease and the standout tracks from his earliest records, "Colours" for example, are quite lovely if somewhat less original than the material that makes up the next phase of his career. By "less original," I don't mean they sound exactly like Bob Dylan, a comparison that was frequently made at the time (possibly first by his label) and has continued to stick despite making little sense. Apart from the gulf in sensibility between them--Donovan is wide-eyed innocence with an open heart and little self-consciousness; Dylan is, well, kind of the opposite even in protest-singer mode--Donovan's music is British to the core even though, much like the rest of the UK folk scene, it was initially heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie and other older American folk singers. Nonetheless, the "Donovan is the new Dylan" charge electrified the music press at the time, and when Dylan came to the UK for his infamous 1965 tour the two met as documented in Dont Look Back.

You can disappear into a gossipy internet rabbit hole trying to figure out what really went on between Donovan and Dylan. In addition to never arriving at the truth, you'll run into an unpleasant coterie of Dylan fans: the kind of people who idolize the sneering peacock badboy version of Dylan seen in Dont Look Back. (As Roger Ebert put it in 1998: "What a jerk Bob Dylan was in 1965. What an immature, self-important, inflated, cruel, shallow little creature, lacking in empathy and contemptuous of anyone who was not himself or his lackey." Of course, whether you're getting the "real" Dylan in the film is an assumption you should definitely question.) These people claim they can read Donovan's mind in the scene where he plays "To Sing For You" and then Dylan plays "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". Despite it being audible that Donovan asks him to play "Baby Blue," some claim that Dylan chooses the song to belittle Donovan* and that the shots of his face while Dylan plays show him devastated by his inferiority to the master.

In their defense, it is easy to read contempt into lots of what Dylan does or says in DLB, and in an earlier, funny scene he jokingly mocks Donovan in conversation with Alan Price of The Animals. For what it's worth, here is Donovan's take forty years after his strange role in Dylan's exceptionally strange 1965. I'm sure that version has been polished over the years--to save face surely, but I'd attribute some of it to Donovan's kindness**--but the truth is that Donovan was a teenager at the time, his career had just begun, everyone involved was frequently and highly intoxicated, and, most importantly, Donovan's music deepened considerably after he left behind his folk origins. If there's any reason to persist in comparing them, that's probably it: both of their careers changed dramatically in 1966 as they, in very different ways, embraced startling new sounds.

At any rate, the rivalry is mismatched, for Donovan partisans have to reckon with the fact that he never took on anywhere near the mass cultural weight that Dylan did. I see that as an advantage though; unless you encounter them when you're rather young, I think it's difficult to develop an intimate, personal connection to Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde at this point in music history. Like trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa or a Van Gogh self-portrait, the iconic stature of the work can cause alienation, apathy, or even resentment. Despite being something of an emblem for the cliched flower-power '60s, Donovan, on the other hand, feels more available and his beautiful, charming music can still feel like a personal discovery.

*This interesting paper on the film argues that the song is actually directed at Joan Baez. That paper also led me to the Ebert quote, and, in a footnote, Baker points out that Donovan wrote many of the signs used in the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video, which calls the seriousness of their supposed rivalry into question. However, Baker's interpretation of that rivalry is that Donovan, along with Baez, is being set up by the film as a representative of the past that Dylan sheds and that the Dylan v. Donovan scene is an important part of establishing that narrative, one fully intended by the filmmakers.

** In Electric Eden, Rob Young claims that Donovan gave Vashti Bunyan the money to buy her famous gypsy wagon and horse, Bess; her travels with her partner in that wagon make up most of the subject matter of Just Another Diamond Day.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ley Lines

I'm not ready to completely shut this blog down, but I've started a new one, Ley Lines, on Tumblr, which I think is better suited for the short-attention-span style of blogging I've evolved/lapsed into. If I ever get back to writing super long posts again (I have a hilariously old draft of a Donovan post that I still hope to put up some time), I will probably put them here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Recent Stuff I Like

This Gold Panda song is a year old, but you can hear the entirety of his excellent new album on his website. So far almost all of my favorite albums from 2010 as well as many of the reissues have fallen under the perhaps pointlessly large umbrella of electronic music:

I chose that song as a cute segue to this song, "Raga Megh Malhar," from the 1982 album Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, which was recently reissued by Bombay Connection. With its Roland beats and basslines, this is something of a precursor to acid house. And while it likely didn't influence anyone in Chicago or Detroit, its prototechno qualities and its fidelity to classical Indian musical rules make a bizarre but compelling combination. Geeta Dayal wrote a good piece about the album here:

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Third Eye

Remember* when this blog was all about nostalgia? Like lots of people born in the late 70s, one of the things I am distinctly nostalgic for is the children's television I was exposed to as a kid. Before the advent of YouTube, indulging in that nostalgic impulse entailed a lot of musings on the lines of "remember that one show about the thing? with the kids? and the creepy music?" That show about the thing with the kids was actually The Third Eye, an anthology collecting various creepy shows from unAmerica, and it was an early staple of my Nickelodeon viewing along with Today's Special, Danger Mouse, and Mr. Wizard. Hauntological blog Toys and Techniques has a nice rundown of the series plus lots of clips here.

*I think we can all agree that it took real heroism not to make a lame joke here.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bailliwik Issue 08

It occurs to me that somewhere there may be somebody I have neglected to mention this to: the website for the new issue of Bailliwik is up. Unfortunately, we've already sold all of our non-virtual copies, but enjoy the site, which was designed by the amazing Sujata.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

New South African Music

In typical Western hipster fashion, I know more about obscure '70s Afrobeat, Ethiopian jazz, and Congolese soukos* than I do about what people in Africa currently listen to--or as Wayne Marshall put it "African popular music that is, you know, actually popular (not just what might best fit outsiders' expectations of African difference)." Two new compilations of South African electronic dance music offer an exciting glimpse of what's going on right now.

*Not that I'm by any means an expert in any of those genres!

From Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa, on Honest Jon's and compiled by (Saint) Mark Ernestus of Basic Channel:

From Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House on the German label Out Here Records:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Oh, let's just embrace the youtube-only turn this blog has taken.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Not feeling very verbal these days, but you should all hear this song, "Reggae Is Here Once Again" from 1979. The group, Steel an' Skin, was made up of a bunch of British nightclub musicians of African and Caribbean descent who got together in the mid-'70s for a community project designed to introduce schoolchildren to the music and culture of their ancestors. Hitting the sweet spot in a Venn diagram of reggae, disco, and calypso, it's perfect for the weather:

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In a Nutshell

One can easily conclude that from any angle you care to look at it--left, right, whatever--American politics is a poorly scripted farce by reading this article.

Friday, June 25, 2010

R.I.P. Pete Quaife

So Nice

Jamaican music's unique ability to recycle its past while absorbing a totally unpredictable range of influences from other countries and cultures is an ongoing source of joy here at Elephant Rock. So it's no wonder that this week I became a little obsessed with the Cure riddim, which was created by a German dancehall crew in 2002 and voiced by a number of Jamaican artists. Here is Ce'Cile's "Rude Bwoy Thug Life":

You can here a louder version here; Vybz Kartel's harder, more aggressive, and dirtier take is here. I prefer Ce'Cile's more buoyant version, but you can appreciate the riddim's off-kilter wooziness better on that version (or try the instrumental). The sound quality on this one is bad, but Tanya Stephens' version even keeps a little of the horn section from the original.

Speaking of the original, The Cure's "Close to Me" was one of my favorite songs when I was seventeen, and it's still one of their best:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Watch That Man

Rob Young's forthcoming book sounds fantastic:
This is a hugely enjoyable and persuasive account of "how British musicians and composers have drawn on an idea of folk, alongside a literary (or cinematic) sense of nostalgia and connection with the landscape, all of which feeds into an encompassing expression of Britain that Blake, at least, called 'visionary.'" Dipping in its pages is to be swept up into a story that connects artists as different as Vashti Bunyan and the Aphex Twin.
He also has a blog to go with the book; I really like the second poster here--might have to steal that for my certainly-not-mythical, ten-months-in-the-making post on Donovan.

I should have mentioned the blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame a while ago. This is another of those long-term, super comprehensive projects that I love. PAOTD is dedicated to discussing every single one of David Bowie's recorded songs, even the covers. I started reading it somewhere toward the end of the Hunky Dory songs, and while I haven't gone backwards into the archives, I've enjoyed following him (I think the author is a he) from there. I was already a little over familiar with the Ziggy Stardust songs, so the transition to Aladdin Sane has been a nice change. Not that I'm a stranger to that album, but I certainly never came to the conclusion that "Drive-In Saturday" is about how "a post-apocalyptic civilization, through fear or reactions from fallout, has forgotten how to have sex, so the kids watch Rolling Stones promos and old films to see how it was done" before. While being a Bowie fan is obviously a prerequisite for enjoying the blog, even if you're not an acolyte it's a good example of smart, educated music writing that you don't tend to see much.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Cartoonist James Sturm--whose work I admire a great deal--has been writing a column for Slate about not using the internet for four months. To be frank, it isn't the most interesting thing I've ever read, but I did find myself nodding emphatically at this passage:
In the two months since I've been unplugged, I have been experiencing more and more moments of synchronicity--coincidental events that seem to be meaningfully related. Today, after finishing the first phase of a graphic-novel project that is based on the life of a fictional member of the Weather Underground, I received in the mail an unsolicited copy of a graphic novel about teaching written by William Ayers. Earlier in the week, at the exact moment I started working on a drawing of a monkey (see above), Michael Chabon started talking about Planet of the Apes--I was listening to his audio book Manhood for Amateurs. I know this type of magical thinking is easily dismissed, but I keep having moments like this. So how do I explain it? Are meaningful connections easier to recognize when the fog of the Internet is lifted? Does it have to do with the difference between searching and waiting? Searching (which is what you do a lot of online) seems like an act of individual will. When things come to you while you're waiting it feels more like fate. Instant gratification feels unearned. That random song, perfectly attuned to your mood, seems more profound when heard on a car radio than if you had called up the same tune via YouTube.
When I was younger these kinds of moments really struck me. They were often thrilling or wonder-inducing, but for someone who wasn't raised within any religious tradition and was never instructed to believe in God, they were also slightly disconcerting: brief intimations that perhaps the cosmos wasn't entirely random after all; benevolent nudges from a God who would be wrathful if I died having ignored all these really obvious signs of his hand at work. As my unbending atheism was tempered by skepticism about human claims to knowledge and a desire to be more open-minded,
I began to cherish synchronicity and I have missed its absence from my adult life. If I'd thought about it, I would probably have blamed its disappearance on the shrinking of one's imaginative possibilities for the world that accompanies adulthood, but I think Sturm is on to something here.


This piece from the Daily Show that Glenn Greenwald posted on his blog handily refutes the idea that Obama has been better than Bush on civil liberties and the restoration of the rule of law. But as usual with Jon Stewart, it's a little cutesy and it could be a lot shorter (NSFW):

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Catching Up

Hello, I'm back from a lovely trip to Europe. I may bore you with a photo or two eventually.

Having been out of the country for over two weeks and having adopted my usual vacation policy of mostly ignoring the news, I've been only slowly catching up on various stories: the oil spill (luckily BP and the government are collaborating to ease my load on that score!), the destruction of the Gaza aid flotilla
, and, today, the violence in Jamaica. The relationship between Kingston's gangs and Jamaica's two major political parties is complex and has a long history. I'm not remotely qualified to provide that history, but this interview at the Soundclash blog and this article from the NYT provide some good background as well as an indication of how difficult it will be to change the way things work in Kingston.

My brain is still readjusting to being in America, going to work, etc., so in lieu of anything more substantial from me, here are some things I enjoyed reading upon my return to the internet: Chris Ruen continues to do good work on the consequences of freeloading; here he addresses the rise of corporate patronage as a replacement for the traditional label-based music industry. Nitsuh Abebe wrote a great column on the furor over the New York Times profile of M.I.A. (and this post really made me want to seek out the recently deceased David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress). Glenn Kenny's consumer guide to recent blu-ray releases makes me want to rob a bank or at least acquire a blu-ray player.

Look: a meal I can make with complete confidence on Meals; For Moderns--this was also what I ate for lunch pretty much every day in Europe. Kathy took some great photos on her recent trip to Utah. One upshot of Arizona's descent into full-on lunacy is that Utah no longer holds the most-gorgeous-but-scary-state crown; congratulations Utah! I drained Weird Baby of color. And this funny post at the Soul Review features an amazing video of Ike and Tina Turner covering "Come Together".

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Flying Lotus

Andy Beta has a great interview with Stephen Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, up on his blog. I just got the new Lotus album Cosmogramma yesterday and have only managed to listen to it once, but on first impression it's one of a handful of amazing things I've heard so far in 2010*. The impression that I'd gotten from various reviews was that the album was overstuffed, dense, wearying--but I found it to be more spacey (Ellison has called it a "space opera") and airy than his previous album, Los Angeles. There's a '70s spiritual jazz quality to it that distinguishes it from the Dilla-esque beat density of Los Angeles (which is a great album too; I'm just surprised at the critical angle on Cosmogramma); it's more contemplative and introspective, and the Alice Coltrane connection that Beta delves into is abundantly evident.

I don't want to overstate the album's breezy qualities: the music is still heavily layered with lots of synth and cascades of processed beats; at times it reminded me a little of Aphex Twin's post-ambient stuff, though searching where Aphex is ironic. I wasn't surprised to read Ellison's response to a question about what Warp Records stuff he liked before they signed him: "I'd always loved the Broadcast stuff and obviously Aphex Twin, Squarepusher." The whole interview is good, especially if you're an Alice Coltrane fan.

*I've got a post listing everything I've liked so far this year (not necessarily from 2010) languishing in my drafts; it was originally called Quarterly Report, so maybe I'll end up doing a first half of 2010 list in June instead.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Thibault et l'arbre d'or

One for Megan, who will no longer qualify for a long-distance dedication soon. This is from Emmanuelle Parrenin's 1977 album Maison Rose, which might show up in the favorite albums series at some point.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dilettante Perfume Blenders

"We are, in short . . . increasingly un-centred, un-moored, living day to day, engaged in an ongoing attempt to cobble together a credible, or at least workable, set of values, ready to shed it and work out another when the situation demands. I find myself enjoying this more, watching us all become dilettante perfume blenders, poking inquisitive fingers through a great library of ingredients and seeing which combinations make some sense for us--gathering experience--the possibility of making better guesses--without demanding certainty."--Brian Eno, quoted in David Toop's Ocean of Sound

Monday, May 3, 2010

One Year Later

Elephant Rock began one year ago today. I'd be embarrassed to make too big a deal out of that, but I will say that a year ago I definitely did not expect this to last very long. Thank you all for reading and enjoy our theme song!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Mere Fool Would Ignore This

Unless you don't give a toss about your own life, you should watch this impressively morbid 1970s British public safety film featuring rather excellent voiceover narration from Donald Pleasance:

Found via this very good interview with Jon Brooks aka The Advisory Circle.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Tábua De Esmeralda

This may be the first in an occasional series of pieces on albums that I consider personal, perennial favorites.

Jorge Ben's 1974 album A Tábua De Esmeralda is a strikingly lovely example of Ben's charismatic singing and trademark fusion of styles. His beloved samba is the touchstone, but there are also strains of soul, rock, funk, and folk present. Tábua exemplifies one of the strengths of the album format: the power to evoke a particular mood over a long period of time--in this case, a kind of relaxed but stimulating bliss--and the album is notably sonically consistent. You might call it homogeneous or monotonous at first glimpse, except Ben's guitar playing is so beguiling and there are so many inspired details in the production and arrangements that the true unifying element in the sound of the record is ornate beauty, and why would you object to that?

A few of the tracks end by dissolving into gentle psychedelia: "O Homen Da Gravata Florida" gradually reverberates into the ether; "Errare Human Est" echoes off into space. While on others, the use of a small string section and chorus provides additional color, especially on "Zumbi", a song that Ben would radically revise as stomping funk for his equally stunning 1976 album África Brasil. The only outlier is "Brother", Ben's soulful testifying ode to Jesus and a rare instance of him singing in English. As is often the case when Brazilians sing in English, the result is a little goofy, but I find Ben's voice endlessly pleasing and the song has enough of the rest of the album's gently insinuating charm to carry it through (also his pronunciation of "music" as "music-y" is rather endearing). Another highlight is the album's final song, "Cinco Minutos (5 Minutos)", which features Ben's memorable falsetto.

Much to my recurring regret, I do not speak or read Portuguese, but I do think it's worth noting that even I can recognize that A Tábua De Esmeralda has some common themes. The title can be translated as The Emerald Tablet, which is the name of a foundational text for medieval alchemists as well as esoteric Christianity more broadly; this tablet is purported to be the work of Hermes Trismegistus, a figure (sometimes considered a deity, sometimes a man) from antiquity who has knowledge of alchemy, astrology, and magic and is name-checked here and on África Brasil. Some of these ideas and references recur in Ben's work, and while the language barrier is ultimately insurmountable for me, I do think even this shallow understanding of the subject matter helps partially explain the enchanting atmosphere on this brilliant album.

Listening notes: If you're in the U.S., you can listen to this on Lala, and Amazon and iTunes (and possibly other digital retailers) also have it for download. If you want a physical copy, Dusty Groove has it in stock, but like most Brazilian CDs these days, it's rather expensive at $22.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Short Story, Short Post

My friend Ted has a great little short story (like, tiny) up here; you should read it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Education Rock

That last post ended up as more of a dry lecture than I'd hoped, though I think the idea has potential and I might return to it. But, like any teacher worried that he's strained the patience and attention spans of his students, now I'm going to play you a bunch of purportedly educational videos. Here are a few songs you can use to elucidate a variety of concepts in literary studies. Sadly the song that provided the title for this post isn't available on YouTube, but you can hear it on Lala.


Obviously a nearly infinite number of songs could illustrate this concept, but I find Bo's dedication to the "bucket = lover" metaphor in this song weirdly compelling.

Forced Rhyme

Internal Rhyme

I couldn't decide between these two songs, both of which are perfect examples of the odd way that internal rhyme is pleasurable to the ear.



The Wu-Tang Clan are masters of the acronym; see also: Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game, Criminals Robbing Innocent Motherfuckers Everytime, and Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

Okay, school is over, go watch cartoons.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Terroir is a concept used by wine connoisseurs that I've often thought should take on wider application. It refers to the effects that the physical location of the grapes has on the finished bottle; as Wikipedia puts it "the special characteristics that geography bestow[s] upon particular varieties." For oenophiles, exploring terroir requires exacting analysis of soil quality and climate--all of which is beyond my limited knowledge of wine. But beyond geology and meteorology, there is a poetry to the idea: through the miracle of viniculture--a kind of alchemy or transubstantiation--by drinking a bottle from a specific corner of Bordeaux or Napa Valley or Mendoza, you're imbibing the place itself.

Terroir often comes to mind when I think about reggae. Reggae can be daunting for neophytes because the unique social and cultural circumstances that led to its development and continue to influence it are quite different from the models of music production we're used to in the rest of the Anglophone world. One of the difficulties is figuring out a point of entry: reggae is collected and classified in different and confusing fashions. Since Jamaica has always been primarily a singles-driven market, you can find compilations based around singers, groups, producers, engineers, backing bands, labels, studios, and theme (though I would steer well clear of those). Adding to the confusion: sometimes the backing bands are the same group of musicians in slightly different configurations; the number of singers or groups with one single who are never heard from again is countless; some producers simply ran the business end of things and had little impact on the sound of the records they produced; lots of singles appeared and reappeared on different labels; and so on.

However, certain studios have such a distinct sound that experienced listeners can identify them immediately, and if you like that sound, it's possible to enjoy nearly every piece of music made there. There are a number of studios that could be said to exhibit terroir, but I'm going to talk about two very different places: Studio One and Wackie's.

Studio One

Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One is a giant in the history of reggae, easily the most famous studio and record label in Jamaica. The rhythms made there in the late 1960s and early 1970s are foundational to Jamaican music and are still revived today (see this old post for an example of what I'm talking about). When the studio was reopened in the late '70s after a period of dormancy, it played a significant role in changing the music again as the roots sound transitioned into dancehall. That reopening was a direct response to the fact that most of the popular rhythms at the time were being recycled from Studio One's heyday (Channel One's name wasn't a coincidence). Ska, the music that launched indigenous Jamaican music, began there, and the studio remained massively important through the rocksteady and roots years. But apart from decisively shaping about fifteen years of the music's development, it is the trademark sound of records from Studio One--primarily a product of the engineer and the equipment--that makes them so special.

It's a little difficult to say what exactly that "sound" is, but the most obvious factor is the legendarily heavy bass sound. Like many Jamaican studios, Studio One grew out of Dodd's work as a soundsystem operator. Jamaican audiences were used to the intense levels of bass the soundsystems pumped into the open-air dancehalls, so when Jamaicans first began recording their music, the engineers recorded the bass at levels their counterparts in the U.S. or UK would have considered way too high. Sylvan Morris, the main engineer at Studio One, went even further.

As detailed in Michael Veal's book Dub, Morris built a special box to record the bass sounds coming out of the back of the speakers and used an equalizer that further boosted the low end of his recordings. The result is that the bass is usually the most prominent sound in any given Studio One record, a warm, deep, and physical sound that is hugely different from any American or British music until hip-hop or techno, both of which are clearly indebted to reggae.

Other elements added to the signature sound of the studio, including a tape-based echo unit named the Soundimension (a name the Studio One house band adopted as their own) and less tangible factors like the amazing speed with which new recordings were made, the tight-knit nature of the main musicians, and the inventiveness of keyboardist Jackie Mittoo who created many of the most enduring Studio One rhythms before emigrating to Canada in the late '60s.


Another label-studio combination, Wackie's was founded in the Bronx by Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes in the mid-1970s. Barnes was born in Kingston in 1945 and emigrated to New York in 1967. Like Dodd, Barnes began as a soundsystem operator, but, again like many Jamaican sounds before his, Barnes eventually decided the gang violence that dances inevitably attracted wasn't worth the risk. According to this brief history: "after picking some bullets out of a speaker after a party he decided to give up the soundsystem business." And so, Barnes, who had been a backup singer in Jamaica, switched directions and began producing, recording, and distributing music made by a small group of fellow immigrants in the Bronx as well as Jamaican artists--Horace Andy and Sugar Minott both recorded some of their finest work there--passing through town.

Easily the most significant producer of reggae in the U.S., Wackie's has, until recently, been mostly ignored. This has something to do with the indelible connection between the UK and Jamaica overshadowing reggae made elsewhere, but the biggest factor is the limited quantities the records were pressed in. Nonetheless, those rare records found their way to Germany where they played a large role in the development of dub techno, exemplified by Basic Channel and Pole. Basic Channel in turn has reissued a huge portion of the Wackie's catalog, reintroducing their music to a global audience and bringing these records more attention than they could have possibly had when they were originally released.

The Wackie's sound is even more distinctive than Studio One's--even songs recorded elsewhere and then mixed at Wackie's bear the studio's unmistakable fingerprints. Those fingers mostly belong to Douglas Levy, the studio's main engineer (as much as I like this terroir idea, obviously this piece is a testament to the unsung role of the engineer), who as Prince Douglas made perhaps my favorite Wackie's release, Dub Roots. The influence of Lee Perry's maximalist approach to recording and dubbing--as opposed to King Tubby's process of subtraction--is pretty obvious, but the Wackie's sound is nonetheless singular. Almost alone among dub mixers, Levy often treated the bass guitar with effects, creating a psychedelic, liquid bass sound that is disorienting compared to the heartbeat/pulse-like role the bass usually takes in reggae. This rubbery bass combined with the heavily processed sound of the other instruments and early adoption of a variety of synthesizers and effects units gives some Wackies productions a proto-digital quality--I can see why they would have appealed to German techno heads since they often remind me of the electronic side of krautrock (Cluster and Harmonia) as much as of their Jamaican counterparts.

Other distinct elements include a very flat, usually phased drum sound, huge amounts of echo, simple guitar lines that aren't far from the wiry post-punk sound being played in downtown Manhattan* at the same time, and a general dubwise approach to the production. Ultimately, though the sound is ineffable; it's as much a mood as a recognizable set of sonic signifiers.

*Wackie's location in the Bronx leads people to wonder whether you can hear a New York influence in the records, especially with hip-hop being born at the same time in the same borough. Ultimately, I don't really hear it on a literal level, but there is an urban coldness to Wackie's productions that could reflect the concrete, high-rises, and winters of the American ghetto.

Terroir Postscript

I've given a lot of credit to the engineers here, mostly because they put the final stamp on any recording that passes through their hands (I suppose you could make arguments for mastering services and pressing plants--and there are some famous examples of the latter that people claim have identifiable effects on the finished records) and they are often ignored. But the reason terroir appeals to me as an apt metaphor for musical production is the constellation of factors that influence recording a song in a room: the musicians, instruments, recording equipment, the producer, the engineer, and the acoustics of the room itself. I've focused on reggae studios because I'm more steeped in it than other genres--though the big omission here is Lee Perry's Black Ark--but there are plenty of other good cases, including Hitsville, Muscle Shoals, the Van Gelder Studio, and Abbey Road.

[Obviously I don't agree with some of the narration in that clip!]

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mr. Hauntologylisationalism Is the Boss

There appears to be a resurgence of interest in hauntology afoot. Or perhaps it's more of a consolidation of interest, a recognition of the idea/genre as not merely a trendy buzzword but one of the defining themes of the past ten years or so, bringing together concepts such as nostalgia, media technology, decay, and memory. This old-ish post on the Wire's blog is something of a Rosetta stone for the concept, touching on some important online writing about the topic as well as linking to most of the major groups and musicians usually considered hauntological.

If reading about hauntology doesn't interest you then you should at least start downloading Jon Brooks' affable Cafe Kaput podcasts. Brooks is better known as Ghost Box artist The Advisory Circle, whose wonderful Other Channels is probably my favorite record from the label and whose Mind How You Go has just been reissued. Brooks' podcasts feature tracks from a wide range of music genres and periods--even advertising jingles--but much of it is drawn from '60s library music records and soundtracks, so they're very current for their time and yet totally obscure, giving you the uncanny sensation of hearing pop hits from an alternative timeline.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Here is a mesmerizing trailer for Dash Shaw's recently published BodyWorld, which was originally a webcomic:

I didn't get very far into BodyWorld in its online incarnation. I don't think that's necessarily a reflection on the work; so far the few webcomics that I've enjoyed all follow a more-or-less basic gag strip format or a fairly linear narrative structure. BodyWorld gives the impression of being a lot more complex, even dauntingly so, but the print version looks stunning, and the ambition of Shaw's hefty Bottomless Belly Button paid off
surprisingly well so I'm quite looking forward to reading this soon.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday in the Park

Dois por Christina. Do click that link if you haven't visited in a while; earlier this year her site was beautifully redesigned and updated with a bunch of great new photos, especially in the Greenpoint section.

Here's Gilberto Gil performing "Domingo no Parque" ("Sunday in the Park") with Os Mutantes as his backing band:

And here he is solo in 1972 performing "Expresso 2222" after returning from two years of political exile in London; you can feel the intense joy and energy of his return to Brazil in both his performance and the audience's :

Have a nice Sunday, Christina!

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Anyone interested in writing should go subscribe to Jane Espenson's blog right now. Until a few days ago it had been dormant for over a year, so I'm very pleased she has started it back up again. If you're not familiar with Espenson, she is a highly experienced TV writer and producer. I first encountered her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where she wrote series highlights like "Band Candy" and "A New Man"), but she has a pretty amazing range of credits from Gilmore Girls to Battlestar Galactica.

Her blog is aimed at aspiring TV writers, but anyone who writes anything--especially comedy--could benefit from her advice. Her current post is about how when movies transitioned into sound, a huge number of new writers were needed to provide dialogue and that many of them were either novelists or journalists. I think her conclusions are basically sound, though I couldn't help but think of The Wire, which included novelists George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane on its writing staff. Of course, series creator David Simon is famously a journalist, but I think this combination is what made the show so special. Simon's journalist past (not to mention the journalistic tendencies of this particular group of novelists) informed the show's naturalism, while the novelists' scope and foresight helped the show develop the rich depth over five seasons that has secured its current place as the consensus choice for greatest TV series thus far.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Act Now, Supplies Are Limited

This has been a thrilling week for people who enjoy depressing news--so much so that I'm not sure where to start. I could make this an Even More On That Video post by linking to John Caruso's sickening collection of quotes and stories illuminating the military frame of mind. Or I could point to this Glenn Greenwald column that features this quote from the commander of the war in Afghanistan: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." Perhaps I should say something about this study that found that 32% of the people killed by drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004 were civilians? But I think we can all rest easy in the conviction that that policy won't have any long-term repercussions.

Or we could talk about the totally unsurprising revelation (from a former aide to Colin Powell) that "George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld covered up that hundreds of innocent men were sent to the Guantánamo Bay prison camp because they feared that releasing them would harm the push for war in Iraq and the broader War on Terror." And that "the majority of detainees--children as young as 12 and men as old as 93, he said--never saw a US soldier when they were captured. He said that many were turned over by Afghans and Pakistanis for up to $5,000. Little or no evidence was produced as to why they had been taken."

Then there's the genuinely surprising news that Los Angeles County now leads the nation in death penalty convictions. But there's some good news about a general decline in death sentences included in that editorial, so that won't work for our purposes. But here's something: "the Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen," meaning that the Obama administration has just sentenced someone to death without a trial. I know there was a lot of excitement around Obama's election, but we didn't actually make him the King, did we? If I missed that, I apologize.

Cripes! I am sorry that I just ruined your day, especially since it's Friday and it's very sunny here in Chicago. Here's something that will cheer you up: you, yes you, can own this inspirational poster for the low price of $15.00! I have seen this thing in all four dimensions and the art and the timeless sentiment expressed by this odd infant are very much worth your money.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More On That Video

Blogger keeps giving me an error message when I try to respond to stickyfingers' comment to the below post, so I'm going to just put it here instead. She said: "This is awful. One of the oddest parts, of it, though, for me, is how easy it is to watch. And how distant all those guys sound -- there's clearly a lot of mis-communication and mis-interpretation going on. Whose actually 'seeing' the street? You know, from street level? And how does a shoulder camera look like an RPG?"

Exactly--the video is being presented in some contexts as an outrageous war crime, but I think as awful as the results of their actions are, it's more telling that the soldiers might not actually have violated any rules. I meant it to serve more as a reminder of what we do when we go to war, both to the innocents who inevitably die (or suffer from unpredictable, long-term physical and mental traumas) and to the soldiers who must surely be deeply damaged by conceiving of the world and other human beings like this for several years. This probably makes me sound hopelessly naive, but I would have thought Vietnam would have been sufficient to have made America beyond reluctant to engage in armed conflict without an extremely compelling reason.

To quickly answer a few of your questions: I read a bit more about the video after I posted it, and some of the dead men may have been armed (though in my obviously amateur opinion, it does not look that way in the video); what they thought was an "RPG" might have been a long telephoto lens; and I believe the street level view is from a nearby tank that they're in radio contact with, presumably the one that shows up later. Anyway, most of what I just wrote was taken from this, which is definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


There was a puzzling wave of back-patting about Iraq a few weeks ago triggered by the recent elections. This purple finger phenomenon (essentially: now that Iraqis have voted, the entire war, the lies used to justify our invading a sovereign nation, and the many lives lost for it are all completely vindicated--indeed, ennobled--forever) was a routine occurrence on the right during the Bush years, but I was surprised to see a form of the argument still being made. Conservative columnist Daniel Larison had a thoughtful response; IOZ had a more vitriolic but also persuasive point.

In 2010 congratulating ourselves on what we did to Iraq is as intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant as hoping Iraq devolves into chaos to prove that you were right to oppose the war in the first place. For the sake of the actual human beings who live in Iraq, I hope for the best possible outcome from our unjustifiable invasion of their country, but I also hope the smug hawks read stories like this one about a study that reveals that "Iraqi children born in the most violent areas are shorter than those born in other parts of the country." And I hope they watch the video below of an attack in 2007 in Baghdad where U.S. soldiers in helicopters killed a group of men, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two children who were in a van that arrived later to help the wounded. Here is a Reuters article about the video and its long-delayed release.

By the way, I completely understand if you'd rather not watch this video; I avoided it when it crossed my radar yesterday. And yet the worst thing about it is that there's nothing all that shocking in it--you hear some chillingly heartless comments from the soldiers, but in some ways (since I don't personally know any of the victims ) the most horrifying thing is how banal the incident is, how routine it is for these soldiers to fly around exterminating people from above, and how quickly they can justify possibly having murdered children.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sibling Rivalry

For years both of my siblings have copied me in every way imaginable. While their relentless drive to imitate my every move, decision, or whim has been flattering, one flaw in their program of utter slavishness has stuck in my craw a little: their irritating failure to fail to develop artistic talent. So while clearly I--and I alone--inspired them both to take to the internet, instead of commenting on music and politics, they're posting the fruits of their annoyingly talented minds.

My sister Kathy has just started a Tumblr, The Hunt Domain, to share her photographs; see above for one topical example--there are also some great images from her trip to Thailand, feline portraits, and more. While Simon has uploaded some of his films, which include a charming animation, my film "acting" debut, and one of my favorite things that he's done, a hilarious and unsettling three-part collage of weird, old film strips. Here is part 1:

pt.1 I have been soiled from Simon Hunt on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Over at The Freeload, Chris Ruen picks up on an absolutely telling image from the Republican response to the passage of the health care bill:
Republican members of Congress egged on protesters (only a few hundred) from the balcony of the Capitol, holding signs which read "Kill The Bill." During a non-synchronized moment, only one of the Congressmen held up his particular sign.

There he stood in a symbolic moment, looking out before the treasures of the National Mall, waving a sign that simply read, "Kill."
That's pretty much perfect, isn't it?

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Excellent post by Nitsuh Abebe on shoegaze, the music that dominated my young life for a few years. I don't listen to much of this stuff anymore--mostly because it's so firmly entwined with memories of my adolescence that it pretty much immediately sends me into a nostalgic or melancholy reverie--but I'm glad it hasn't entirely dropped out of the musical discourse. For a while after its popularity waned, it was quite fashionable to be really contemptuous of this stuff--with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless always serving as the forward-thinking exception that made obvious the supposed shortcomings of similar groups. These attacks sometimes had a real aggro, masculine thrust to them, which I never quite understood.

But Abebe nails it in his piece and I think this explains the music's appeal to my teenage self: this is music about confusion
, a kind of confusion that is specifically resonant for young people who often feel powerful and powerless at the same time. Grand emotions; major rites of passage; life having an immediacy and beauty to it, qualities which for the first time you might realize can be fleeting--these are things shoegaze captures through sheer sonic force (which is good since it's mostly impossible to understand the lyrics) while also offering catharsis and comfort. It's music for and of a delicious but delirious kind of swooning. Here is an old favorite, Slowdive's "Catch the Breeze", the way this ends is still pretty stunning to me:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lies These Cretins in Texas Told Me

Friends who have recently procreated or plan to do so in the future, I hope you are following the Texas social studies textbook standards story, one of the more depressing indications that the religious right's stranglehold on this country hasn't completely relaxed and that their medieval* views still have the potential to harm future generations. Hopefully James Loewen can be called upon to publish a new edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me, so parents can at least try to counter this nonsense at home. Washington Monthly has a good story on the whole sad history of textbooks and Texas; the New York Times has the tragic ending. Read those for dispassionate analysis, I'm going to pull some choice quotes from both articles out of context so I can feel better about these people having so much power:
"This critical-thinking stuff is gobbledygook," grumbled David Bradley, an insurance salesman with no college degree.

"Let's face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation," said one conservative member, Terri Leo. "You know, 'capitalist pig!'"

"Remember Superman?" he asked me, as we sat sipping ice water in his dining room. "The never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way? Well, that fight is still going on. There are people out there who want to replace truth with political correctness. Instead of the American way they want multiculturalism."
You know what? I do remember Superman: he is a fucking alien from another planet you sad, sick little man.

*No offense to the people of the medieval period who embraced their ignorance with somewhat less erotic fervor.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I'm Cleaning My Brain

How come no one ever told me that The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads is a total monster, a serious masterpiece, like one of the best live albums ever made? Seriously, it makes Stop Making Sense look positively lightweight in comparison--and I love Stop Making Sense. I'm sure today's spring weather was a major factor too, but upon hearing this for the first time it took real strength not to run out of my office, hijack a car, and drive around playing it as loudly as possible.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Zero Tolerance

In an alternate universe this blog would focus exclusively on capital punishment and the war on drugs. (I am really fun to be around in that universe.) But in the interest of my own mental health, I try not to devote myself to cataloging stories like this one about how a middle school suspended a seventh-grader for a week for touching a pill--a pill that she had been offered and refused (found via). Even worse than the insanity of punishing people for doing exactly what they're constantly harangued to do is the infuriating illogic employed by the school's administrators who can do no wrong in the holy war against drugs:

"According to Greater Clark County Schools district policy, even a touch equals drug possession and a one week suspension. 'The fact of the matter is, there were drugs on school campus and it was handled, so there was a violation of our policy,' said Martin Bell, COO of Greater Clark County Schools. We wanted to know what would have happened if Rachael had told a teacher right away. Bell said the punishment would not have been any different. District officials say if they're not strict about drug policies no one will take them seriously."

Yes, I'm sure that now Rachael knows drug policies are applied without any sense of reason entering into the equation, she will take them much more seriously, especially the only good lesson to be learned here: don't snitch.

Pictured above: artist's rendering of the chain of evidence (taken from Wikipedia).

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Random Juxtaposition

Weird life (via):

"Mono Lake, a basin with no outlet, has built up over many millennia one of the highest natural concentrations of arsenic on Earth. Dr Wolfe-Simon is investigating whether, in the mud around the lake or in the water, there exist microbes whose biological make-up is so fundamentally different from that of any known life on Earth that it may provide proof of a shadow biosphere, a second genesis for life on this planet."(full)

Purple life (via):

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fun For a Girl Or a Boy

I plan to post something more substantive soon (I think I wrote more in N.C.'s comment box for this post than I have here in a month), but here are a bunch of links I've been wanting to share.

A couple of my favorite comics artists have started blogs. Here is Renee French's simple, beautiful, super creepy blog; I've taken the image on the left from it. And here is John Porcellino's. As you can see if you click over there, JP will be on a panel at the Comic Symposium of Chicago on March 11. Surabhi Ghosh will also be on a panel for this event and you can read more details about it here.

My friend Stickyfingers (which may not be her real name) has finally given me permission to make her blog public. It's called Life in Boom City and it's a haunting tour of the underbelly of that notorious den of iniquity and haven for the insane, Minneapolis. From what I hear it's a lot like Renee French designed the place.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ed's Tumblr

More link hectoring. Go check out Ed Panar's tumblr--currently my cat Rafi, looking rather imperial, is the first photo.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Palin and Hummers II

Hopefully my previous linking of Sarah Palin with Hummers means that GM's forthcoming shuttering of the SUV line bodes ill for the former governor. Then again, is it possible to sink lower than being a political commentator for Fox News?

Also, go check out my friend Nick's new blog, Coming Up for Air. He's already blogging at a positively alarming rate, throwing around words like "mountebank" willy-nilly. I'm sure he will appreciate being included in this, one of my more thoughtful posts.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Pop World Cup

Go check out--and vote in--Freaky Trigger's 2010 Pop World Cup, which is both fun and educational. This non-sports (er, I suppose that should be "sport") fan doesn't always understand the hilariously elaborate football/soccer metaphors, but this is still a fantastic way to hear music from all over the world. While I voted for Algeria, I don't know that I'd ever heard any music from Slovenia before that. And both Uruguay and Paraguay? I can name about four bands from either country, so I'm hoping they go far.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day Jobs

In a post about the folding of hip-hop label Def Jux, journalist/blogger Jeff Weiss notes: "I’m not sure if rap is going through a crisis right now. There is a lot of good music being made, but no one seems to be getting paid. It’s become a favor-based economy where there is no pot of gold in the end and rather, just money selling pot (many of my interviews end with offers. I’m saving names for the book deal)."

Even if he's exaggerating, that is one sad anecdote. I remember gradually realizing, when I was younger and just starting to explore current music outside of the mainstream, that most of the indie musicians I liked probably had to have day jobs. Of course, back then many of those jobs may have involved working at record stores, labels, recording studios, and other places tied to the viability of the music industry. As Weiss says, this doesn't spell the end of music--one thing I do agree with freeloaders about: there is a lot of music out there--but it does signal a coarsening of our culture. We're entering a situation where musicians and many other creative workers can't even earn supplemental income from their work. Of course, we're already in a situation where lots of workers don't have any income at all, and real wages have been in decline since the 1970s--obviously there are systemic problems with the economy and the baffling iteration of capitalism under which we live--but I shudder to imagine a future where very few people can dedicate their lives to making the world more beautiful, wondrous, or strange.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Marcello Carlin Rocks, But Gently

Remember my profession of love for blogs that take the form of ambitious, slightly crazy long-term projects? If you share my ardor, then click over to Then Play Long, Marcello Carlin's blog wherein he plans to review "every UK number one album so that you might want to hear it."

I've only just discovered this, but thus far I've quite enjoyed the epochal '60s-into-'70s run of Abbey Road to Let It Bleed to Led Zeppelin II. Carlin deserves some kind of medal for not making those entries nauseating Boomer nostalgia trips--I certainly didn't think I wanted to read another lengthy piece on Abbey Road at this point in my life, but it's great. Two of his strategies pay off particularly well: 1) genuine musicological analysis deployed with a light touch and 2) frequent, surprising comparisons with music from much different eras: in one sentence about "Whole Lotta Love" he manages to reference both Eric B and Derek Bailey. Still, I'm almost more intrigued by the (previously completely unknown to me) likes of Val Doonican's Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently, which is a phrasing I expect to gain currency immediately.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


I suspect it's way too late, but it's reassuring to finally see some serious questions being asked by non-corporate music people about file-sharing. I've often thought about bringing this issue up as it's something I feel strongly about and find the attitudes of fellow music fans on this subject to be puzzling and immensely disappointing.

I haven't addressed it before because I find the pro-file-sharing camp to be incoherent and illogical. Reading the comments to this typically asinine Matthew Yglesias post*, I found this absurdly misleading (or perhaps 'willfully naive,' but I doubt it) article in the UK Times that purports to prove--with shiny graphs!--that musicians are faring better in the new system and only rapacious middleman labels are feeling the deserved pinch. Luckily some actual musicians post responses in the comments pointing out that lumping in, say, the Rolling Stones' annual windfall of concert money with what some indie band makes on a Monday night gig distorts the picture way past the point of universal applicability.

*I'm not an economist, but is Yglesias really suggesting that music should be free because (he claims) distribution costs are zero? He cannot possibly be that stupid, right?

Chris Ruen asks most of the questions I also have about what he aptly terms "freeloading." The people so anxious to dismantle copyright entirely and, more perniciously, defend file-sharing to any lengths always make me wonder: Why does the end of capitalism have to begin with music? When Eric Harvey writes in his "The Social History of the MP3" on Pitchfork that "there is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright," does he stop to compose a mental list of commodities that inherently demand to be part of a market system? Is it "natural" to pay for a book? For food? Why does Verizon deserve hundreds of dollars of my money every year, but the people who make music I love (and that could include not only the musicians, but anyone involved with the recording and even those who paid for the recording to happen) should settle for being appreciated?

Suddenly declaring that music--or "information" as the pro-file-sharers see it in their sterile view, pretty much making my point for me--should be completely free is a massive overreaction to corporate tyranny. And again, all this rage against The Labels makes me wonder: were music conglomerates (not to mention the independents, record stores, etc.) really the corporations that most needed to be brought to their knees? Disney repeatedly manipulating copyright legislation to ensure their characters not entering the public domain is despicable and troubling, but why not redirect that outrage towards, for example, KBR? Given that Disney's control of this issue hasn't been set back one bit, one might almost be moved to wonder whether "fighting copyright" is a rhetorical fig leaf for people just wanting music for free.

Ruen's point that "file-sharing" is in no way an act of genuine sharing is also damning. Harvey's quasi-mystical take--to be fair: in contrast to its introduction, the whole piece is more balanced and informative, especially with regards to the epic mishandling of events by the RIAA and their lawyers--crosses the line into pure fantasy when he writes "in the same way that Facebook visually represents 'having friends,' the mp3s coursing through file-sharing networks quantify the online social life of music by charting its path." I suppose he might be right in that my having a Facebook page only distantly connects to my having people in my life I consider friends, but that's obviously not the reading he's going for.

This kind of techno-utopianism feels like a relic of the silly hyperbole that characterized the late 1990s new economy/internet bubble. But just as the bursting of that bubble eventually resolved itself into Web 2.0 and our increasingly online lives, techno-utopianism has been so completely folded into the fabric of the internet in 2010 that anyone casting a critical eye on any of the deeply ugly, antisocial features of the Web is usually immediately dismissed as a crank, an elitist, or a neo-Luddite. As near as it is to my own heart, the damage done to the value we place on music is in some ways a relatively minor casualty of the ascendancy of the Web.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Big Brown Lozenges

My brother has put the film he and Sara made together a couple of years ago online. It's called Perennial and is a beautiful meditation on nature and a year in their life spent walking around Chicago (and Georgia) filming water and leaves and snow and ducks. Apparently there is a sequel in the works. I'm addicted to embedding, but you can see a larger version on the Vimeo site.

Perennial from Simon Hunt on Vimeo.

Simon would have to confirm this, but I think that might be my autoharp making a cameo on the soundtrack. Not played by me of course, but surely this justifies an associate producer credit!

Dust Out A Sound Boy

I can't seem to stop embedding things this month (got another one after this). Originally I was going to just post this song with little commentary, but then it struck me as an elegant illustration of Jamaican music's implicit argument against copyright. Recorded sometime in the early 1990s, Super Beagle's "Dust Out a Sound Boy" uses the famous Stalag rhythm. If you're unfamiliar with the term 'rhythm' (also spelled phonetically as riddim, but I will never be comfortable doing that), we're more or less talking about the music that backs the vocal, especially the bassline melody. Rhythms are endlessly recycled in reggae and there are some that are more than forty years old that are still in use; Stalag is from 1974 and was originally produced by Winston Riley, who also produced Super Beagle's take.

The infinite creativity of the rhythm phenomenon is already an argument against copyright; though the penury of all but a very small number of people in the JA music business should give pause to anti-copyright activists looking to idealize the situation. Super Beagle complicates the situation even further by basing his vocal melody on perhaps the most famous rhythm of all, Real Rock, and borrowing the lyrical structure from perhaps the most famous version of that rhythm, Willie Williams's "Armagideon Time". Non-reggae fans might know that song from The Clash's cover of Williams's classic, which was recorded in 1980 at Studio One where the original "Real Rock" was recorded thirteen years earlier by Studio One's house band Sound Dimension. Somewhat to my surprise, the New York Times has a nice little history of Real Rock here.

So, in addition to serving as argument against taking an overly assiduous approach to enforcing copyright, "Dust Out a Sound Boy" also encapsulates what can be both daunting and fascinating about trying to ground yourself in the history of Jamaican music--and I didn't even explain what a 'sound boy' is or who Fuzzy Jones, whose voice you hear introducing the song, is.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

R.I.P. Vivian Jackson

Dance Crasher is reporting the very sad news that reggae producer/singer Vivian Jackson, aka Yabby You, has died. As a fan of many musicians who were active in the 1970s, it feels like one of my idols passes away every month or so, though, given the depressing number of Jamaican artists who died at a young age, part of me is mostly grateful that they got to live long enough to see their legacy shown some appropriate reverence. Jackson was a relatively unsung producer until the now sadly defunct Blood & Fire label began reissuing his work. Their Jesus Dread compilation--the name derives from Jackson's unique religious outlook which combined elements of Rastafarianism with more orthodox Christian beliefs--is one of the very best releases in B&F's peerless discography.

Here is "Conquering Lion" from 1972; the chorus gave Jackson his nickname.

I also quite like Big Youth's deejay version on the same rhythm. And this King Tubby dub version of "No Tarry Yah" sung by Tony Tuff is another favorite.