Dec. 26, 2003 –
Arts in Review 2003
Songs of Praise
In With the Old
Being rediscovered by hipsters is a rough deal. No one gives a fuck about you for the better part of 20 years, and then all of a sudden there are these bands worshipping your slap-bass lines, appropriating your impeccable use of the cowbell, and putting you in the same sentence with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. The hype can be wonderful, but it comes with messy rituals, too: the jowl-exposing photo shoots, the where-have-you-been interviews, the forced reunion gig at some festival.
If you’re 2003’s reissue king, James Chance, you have no choice but to accept the spotlight suddenly shining in your direction and bask in the nerd glow—after all, it beats playing in that jazz combo. This past year, the Godfather of No Wave had to recount the death of his manager/girlfriend, reveal his drug “issues” and label problems, and even tell one interviewer that the last show he caught was Little Jimmy Scott. Not bad, but the fact still marks him as a fogey. “I don’t really go out much anymore,” Chance explained.
The trade-off was ubiquity. James Siegfried—the altar boy from Milwaukee who shared loft space with Lydia Lunch, punched out Robert Christgau, and studied sax under David Murray—was everywhere this year. You heard his signature “Contort Yourself” in all its various mutations: the cold, brittle standard; the remix; the spaced-out disco version. Not just all over the Rapture’s much-hyped Echoes, but also on every compilation that tried to cash in on the new New York scene with the old New York scene: Soul Jazz’s New York Noise (the best of the bunch, and the only must-have), Rough Trade’s Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk 01, ZE’s Mutant Disco and N.Y No Wave. The song appeared on the standard reissue vinyl of the Contortions’ Buy, too—not mention on the four-CD Irresistible Impulse box set.
But the hipsters could have it worse. Jazzbos will eventually have to pretend to embrace Miles Davis’ ’80s back catalog. Country fans will get to sort out posthumous Johnny Cash collections for the next five years. Hippies will have to contend with Canned Heat for the rest of their lives. “Contort Yourself” deserves the heavy spins. With its bass taffy, slide-guitarscrapes, and vocal ’n’ sax vomit, it captures our perceptions of its late-’70s milieu better than any other song. The birth of rap, the last days of disco, the evilest of punk—it’s all here, depending on which version you hear. I hope Chance’s middle-aged hips make the most of it. Other artists have to die before they get theirs, watching their records live out their years on the eBay circuit, or, worse, get covered by Yo La Tengo.
It’s instructive to note that even with the glut of “Contort Yourself”s out there, fanboys were still clamoring for the domestic re-release of No New York, arguing that its four Chance tracks are no less essential. Instead, they got packages from one NNY participant (Mars) and a couple of fellow travelers (Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham). If only those records had come with a lecture from Thurston Moore: They turned out to be more interesting to read about than to actually listen to.
Just in case that’s a sign that the Great No Wave Revival has nothing left to revive, here’s a list of other notable records that made it from the collector swaps and onto our grubby stereos this year. After all, even hipsters need to get out of the city sometimes.
Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s, 1926–1937, Various Artists. Old Hat boss Marshall Wyatt went up to Frederick, Md., to the home of Joe Bussard, and headed down the cellar stairs. He surfaced with 24 tracks from before the world went to hell and an affectionate portrait of a cantankerous character both loved and loathed among hard-core collectors of old shellac. It’s all killer, no filler, and far and away the compilation of the year—but then, with 50,000 sides to choose from, it ought to be.
The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain), Blue Orchids. Founding Fall members Martin Bramah and Una Baines balanced the opposing imperatives of postpunk and psychedelia like nobody else, and this LP-plus-singles package makes the case the only way possible: with the band’s full early- ’80s catalog and nothing else. Who says a collection needs to be compleat to be great?
The Definitive Hoosier Hotshots Collection, the Hoosier Hotshots. This two-disc set from these National Barn Dance regulars may be stickered “35 Classic Cuts of Country Corn!,” but Indiana’s Depression-era novelty giants don’t exactly put you in mind of Cledus T. Judd. With Hezzie Trietsch’s virtuoso slide whistle leading the way, the quartet melded jazz, pop, and vaudeville, and it came at country from the Western-swing and Hollywood-cowboy angles. Don’t believe the hype that this is “the ONLY collection available,” either, but it’s definitely the place to start.
Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra, Various Artists. More a tour through an obsession than a thorough survey, Folk and Pop is culled from cassettes that Sun City Girl Alan Bishop acquired in Sumatra in 1989. There’s really no rhyme or reason beyond that. To Bishop’s credit, the collection’s Bollywood-style pop, Latin-tinged balladry, blissed-out trance, and bizarre “drama” outtakes all sound perfectly right and natural together.
Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba, Cedric Im Brooks. Sometime in the ’60s, a Kingston saxophonist travels to America and discovers Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Sun Ra. He returns to his home base, cobbles together a loose band of horn and drum players, and sets to connecting his country’s musical history to ours. The best retro party record of the year.
Goodbye, Babylon, Various Artists. You’d have to be a pretty hardhearted heathen to deny the corporeal pleasures of this box set, a six-disc collection of Southern gospel and religious songs from the first half of the 20th century. There are plenty of familiar voices, from Bukka White’s craggy blues drone to Hank Williams’ pinched country croon to Mahalia Jackson’s melismatic gospel bellow. But whether it’s the Dixieland shuffle of the Blue Chips or the calypso bop of Roaring Lion With Cyril Monrose String Orchestra, there’s just as much joy in the obscurities.
The Smoke, the Smoke. “The Hobbit Symphony” is exactly the sort of excess that gives 1968 a bad name. But the rest of this long-loster, co-produced by West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band member Michael Lloyd and Runaways impresario Kim Fowley, is remarkable for its restraint, string and horn sections notwithstanding. In other words, Dear Catastrophe Waitress this lovely little gem definitely ain’t.
Lost and Found: Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics, Pete Rock. Lost and Found was recorded in 1994 for Rock’s own label but long left to the bootleggers. The lyrics and flow of rappers INI and Deda may have gathered dust, but they don’t obscure the production skills of one of hiphop’s best. The intricate jazz loops will make you think you’re back in your dorm room debating the latest Spike Lee joint—which ain’t such a bad place to be.
It’s Not Up to Us, Byard Lancaster. This one seemed as if it would be a real screecher. After all, Philly saxophonist/flutist Byard Lancaster honed his chops with fiery free-jazz pioneers Sun Ra and Sunny Murray. But on his 1968 debut as a leader, Lancaster barely lets out so much as a skronk. Even freaky six-stringer Sonny Sharrock reins in the noise, very nearly swingin’ his way through, of all things, “Misty.”
No Other, Gene Clark. It seems that every commercial flop from the past stands a good chance of being resurrected by rock snobs as a “misunderstood masterpiece.” The tag is apt, however, for Clark’s admittedly self-indulgent but absolutely gorgeous No Other. Somehow the questionable addition of strings and gospel singers to a country-rock record gives an epic weight to the coked-out cosmology of the early-’70s Laurel Canyon set.
—David Dunlap Jr.
Copyright © 2003 Washington Free Weekly Inc.