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Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus
I might be shooting myself in the foot by saying this, but sometimes I really do get tired of rock music. Even blues and jazz. Sometimes I crave something different, something from the outer reaches, something that will leave me both nourished and with a blown mind when it's over.
One way I combat these moods is by plundering the world. It was in moments of such restlessness I heard for the first time the music of Sun Ra, who claimed to have been born on a different planet, and I believe him. It was how I discovered King Tubby and dub music; an experience that forever changed my perception of fun in the sun. I discovered King Sunny Ade, whose Nigerian funk with the snaky guitar got me through a messy breakup, piped through a pair of headphones. There's Juana Molina, from Argentina, a TV comediene-turned electronic/trip hop experimenter gifted with a sweet siren voice that sings gentle alien melodies you've heard nothing like. Kraftwerk, German autuers of the greatest late-night driving music ever, "Autobahn", I discovered via a cassette I bought at an I-80 rest stop in the middle of Iowa, well past midnight.
All of these are instantly accessable to the adventurous rock listener; you won't have trouble finding their rewards, if you listen in the right spirit. Some have become big time favorities. Some have led me to entirely new worlds I hadn't dreamed existed, worlds far more fascinating than listening to the same old rock song for the thousandth time. King Sunny Ade got me to listen to Fela; King Tubby introduced me to the Skatellites, Kraftwerk made electronica a warmer, less frightening world to get lost in.
I also liked exploring the outer reaches of what the untutored might call "weird, crazy music" I call it that sometimes, too. This would include the 60's electronic sound experiments of The United States of America and The Silver Apples, the space-age weird, crazy jazz of Sun Ra, John Cage soundscapes, and perverse lounge music from Esquivel. Unlike collectors of the strange like Dr. Demento, however, I adhere to one rule: I keep it only if it sounds good.
Tonight's playlist can best be called "Not Rock" I excluded all rock, jazz, blues, country, reggae, and pop. Exceptions were any bands who don't record in English. I also included any world genres, avant-garde, free-form, exotica, dub, experimental, unclassifiable, and/or weird. It is terrificly unfair to lump these wildly unalike musics together like this, but I wanted to introduce them at some point.
This created a pool of 342 titles. I set the Media Center to randomize, no other filters, and this is what we get (first 10 titles randomly selected are profiled; Jam Tags 1-5 stars, follow):
1. The United States of America: The American Metaphysical Circus *****
This recording is quite a mindblower. The United States of America were a one-album band, which sold poorly, but what an album. The band featured no guitars and relied on very intense primitive synthesizers that sound utterly unworldly even today. A plus is the detached voice of Dorothy Moskowitz, drifting ambiently through fuzz filters incanting a bizarre bad trip hallucinatory lyric that recalls Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite, darkly.
2. Baaba Maal & Mansoir Seck: Sehilam *****
This is a remarkable album, and this is probably the strongest cut from it, but there are at least three others I would've been just as happy to hear. Maal and Seck are Senegalese; Maal is blessed with one of the most haunting voices you've ever heard, and Seck is a blind guitar picker with a musical vocabulary far removed from what we're accustomed to here. Hypnotic and lush, envigorating and wistful. "Sehilam" is more uptempo than the others on the album, and has the feel of a heroic epic.
3. Toumani Diabate: Alla L´Aa Ke *****
Diabate comes from Mali and plays kora, a 21-string West African harp-lute. This instument has one of the most heavenly sounds you can imagine; delicate and intricate, but capable of intense rhythm (he later played a hybrid flamenco style with it) and enormous beauty. People who listen to new age music ought to chuck it and go with something like this instead; hypnotic and vivid, not demanding but rewarding, this is the authentic stuff.
4. Barnes and Barnes: Fish Heads ***
Looks like one Dr. Demento classic snuck on, after all. Barnes and Barnes were a cross between lo-fi music experimenters and sophomoric comedians. Most of their stuff is just silly and skippable. This one is actually touching, if you listen to it the right way. Kind of like a postmodern Alvin and the Chipmunks, but a little smarter. Former child actor Billy Mumy, of Lost In Space, was a member.
5. Liliput: Etoile *****
The big three in rock among all-girl groups in the punk era were the Slits, the Raincoats, and Liliput. Liliput were from Switzerland, and sometimes sang in English, sometimes French. While they were capable of some crude but convincing hard rock, and challenging experimental rock, they also played softer, acoustic numbers of which this is one. Insistent minor key, great voice, accordian with the band making like a rock instrument.
6. Ali Farka Toure: Ai Du *****
Ry Cooder's presence here is a mixed blessing, insofar as it brings Toure's music closer to the west when it was just fine where it was before. Still, Ry Cooder is Ry Cooder, and he and Toure are a natural match. Toure is a west African who plays a blues-based guitar, but one with the same odd African picking vocabulary as Monsour Seck. The result is an album that should be instantly accessible to rock listeners looking for something a little different. Once you've grooved to this fine track, hunt out some of his other stuff.
7. Martin Denny : Hypnotique ***
Martin Denny was always kitsch; now that it has become cool to like kitsch, it still is kitsch. But that's cool. Denny is the reknowned pioneer of lounge music; by lounge we are talking the 1950's west-coast variety that served aqua colored drinks under tiki torches. Hypnotique is perhaps his high water mark. Embellished with a cornocopia of far eastern musical instruments, and even a sitar on this track (a decade before the hippies discovered it), this is chill music for the cool set. Without irony, ironically enough.
8. Os Mutantes: Panis et Circenses ****
Vintage Brazilian psychedelica, anyone? This is pretty great stuff, whimsical and funny, and experimental, and trippy. Fanfare, organ, sunshine female and male vocals, gallumphing brass orchestra, trumpet arpeggios, tape effects, fuzz boxes, and a poppy melody that recalls the Hollies and even Sgt. Pepper Beatles but with far more twists and turns. Sneak this on to a 60's playlist and turn a few heads.
9. Youssou N'Dour: The Lion/Gaiende *****
Exciting elecro-pop from Senegal's N'Dour. He has an excellent voice, and here he's augmented by some unknown backing chicks who keep right up with him. Irresistable hooks, dancable and catchy, this song was something of a crossover move, but a good one. He never quite succeeded in that crossover, although he did manage to cut two albums for Virgin that got a lot of airplay on public radio. Although this song isn't in English, the album has a few that are, including a version of Peter gabriel's "Shakin the Tree"
10: Sun Ra: We Travel The Spaceways *****
Even, if for some reason, you simply can't dig jazz, give the enigmatic Sun Ra a try. He's not like any jazz you've heard. Obsessed with outer space, explorer of strange keys and rhythms, employing peculiar instrumentation, chants, and a sense of what might be humor, except he always was serious when he said he was from another planet. The muted trumpet blaating in the background as a space chant meanders in from the next galaxy is my favorite part of this piece. And if you are a jazz fan, Sun ra needs no introduction.
Well, there. I think I exorcised my demons for now. I'll be rocking again tomorrow. But nice to know this huge other space is out there, whenever the walls start closing in.