Metawyrd Archives: Can’t Miss Blooz

Finding worthwhile music has always been a challenge and in the brave new digital world of 2012, even the most intrepid explorers can be daunted by the sheer mass of recordings that have been released to the public. So where do you start? Metawyrd would like to help by giving you some “can’t miss” recordings from well-known genres such as the blues, folk music, and country. This installment will focus on the blues. Here we go….

B.B. King – Live at the Regal (MCA): If you have never heard the blues before, I suggest that you start with this live album from Chicago circa 1964. King’s heart-rending vocals and smooth yet stinging guitar are pure gold and his band’s swinging horn-driven style is totally soulful and totally impeccable. You just can’t miss with this one. I guarantee.

Little Walter – Hate To See You Go (Chess/MCA): If you love “Live at the Regal,” I suggest you try this recording next. This is a collection of marvelous ’50s sides from influential harmonica player and singer Little Walter. These tracks range from swinging urban blues (“Mellow Down Easy”) to the stripped-down country style which recalls John Lee Hooker (“Key to the Highway”). Sometimes people complain about the blues and claim that “they always sound the same,” but this collection dispels that myth with ease. There’s a ton of variety here and all the tracks are ace.

NOTE: If Amazon is any judge, this CD is now hard to find. I have not heard Little Walter’s “His Best” CD but it does have more than a few tracks from “Hate to See You Go,” so “His Best” is definitely an option.

Fathers and Sons (Chess/MCA): Yes, we have more Chess! On this superb late 60s recording, the blues legend Muddy Waters is backed by an all-star cast of young R&B and blues stars and almost by luck, everything comes together in this disc. On “Fathers,” Chess allowed the tracks on this recording (originally a double LP) to go out beyond the typical three minutes and this does immeasurable good for Muddy. The songs don’t feel like canned singles–they sound fresh and lively and real. The additional time also allows Muddy to stretch out and terrify me with some totally searing electric slide guitar! It is some of the best blues guitar I have ever heard. EVER.

Best of Howlin Wolf (Telstar): If you go by discography alone, I am willing to state that Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) was and probably is the greatest bluesman to have ever lived. The tracks on this greatest hits collection of Chess recordings, most of which you can find on the “Howlin’ Wolf”/”Moanin’ At Midnight” CD, make this case without even breaking a sweat.

Once you get these tracks in your player, Wolf’s barbed-wire “vokills” will grab you by the throat then his wild and passionate band–led by the intense stutter-snap stabs of guitarist Hubert Sumlin–will give you the ride of your life. And the songs! These versions of “Little Red Rooster,” “Spoonful,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “Killing Floor” inspired all the lesser rock musicians who never matched the Wolf. Yes, Mr. Burnett is pretty raw and he may not be to your taste, but everybody needs to give him a whirl and hear a hint of what the real blues can be.

For the Faithful: John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat’s “Turn Up The Heat!” cassette (Sony Special Collections), John Lee Hooker’s “The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954″ (Ace Records UK), Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “I Do Not Play No Rock’N’Roll” 2XCD (Capitol Blues Collection), Buddy Guy’s “Sweet Tea” (Silvertone), R.L. Burnside’s “Too Bad Jim” (Fat Possum)

Next week: Metawyrd’s Can’t Miss Folk and Country!

Metawyrd Archives: Wirewatch – July 2012

First of all, beg pardon for the lack of activity on metawyrd. The world intervened and it took a while to get back in the game!

In this post, I highlight a few articles of interest in Wire magazine, a UK avant-music magazine that is one of my favorite periodicals. (By the way, Wire was founded in 1982 to cover avant-jazz and it has nothing to do with the TV series.)

Some music lovers claim that the Wire is too academic, too pretentious, too insular, and just too too. Yes, that can be true, but no other magazine views all genres from an avant-weird fan’s POV. And even when they go leftist academic analytical on your ass, you always end up learning something new as a result. Finally, these folks have heart and when I read the Wire, the love of music is almost palpable. That’s what I want from a music magazine.

How low can you go (July 2012 issue) – This special section devoted to bass (Low End Theories) is simply superb. The capsule reviews of classic live and recorded bass moments by Wire contributors are insightful and incisive, while almost all of the other articles are top-notch–the only disappointment being Dave Tompkins’ lackluster article on Miami Bass. By the by, Ornette Coleman’s “Science Fiction” LP gets a mention.

Dylan Carlson meets Mr. Strange (March 2012 issue) In the lead article on metaldrone-turned-folkdrone act Earth, bandleader Dylan Carlson discussed his recent interest in magick, British folklore and the supernatural. Suzanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” reawakened his teenage interest in mythology and fantasy, which in turn inspired him to start actively exploring the occult in literature, history, and in real life.

James Blackshaw meets Alice Bradley Sheldon (July 2012 issue) – In The Columns section, Joseph Stannard reviews top-notch British fingerstyle guitarist James Blackshaw’s new album “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” on Important Records. As True Metawyrds might guess, the album contains musical settings based on James Tiptree’s amazing short stories. “Tiptree” was actually a pseudonym of sometime CIA analyst and legendary author Ms. Sheldon, and in the 70s, the science fiction world was shocked to find out that “his” prose was written by a woman. In any case, Stannard says this about the album:

I usually have limited patience for post-Fahey/Basho folk guitar troubadours like Blackshaw, but there’s really not a great deal to dislike here; Blackshaw’s fingerpicking is accomplished and his original creations (these are original songs rather than sketches) involve enough internal variation to elevate them above tedious contemporary acoustic fare.

Some complement, eh?  Since I happen to really like Mr. Bradshaw’s work and also own a copy of this recording, I will be reviewing this album soon.

Oliveros and feminist SF (June 2012 issue) – While reviewing the new 12xCD box set of early recordings by electronic music pioneer and composer Pauline Oliveros, reviewer Nina Power namechecks feminist SF writers Joanna Russ and Marge Piercy. I did not know who Piercy was but it turns out she is an Arthur C. Clarke Award winner (go figure).

Artists on Africa and “science fiction” (July 2012 issue). Thanks to the Low End Theories section (see above), the July issue had me singing in the Tuva style until I read a review of an art installation called “Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction,” which is located at Arnolfini in Bristol, UK. It is hard to judge an installation from a third-hand perspective but reviewer Basia Lewandowski Cummings seems to relate a usual sort of mixed-up hash of murky “futuristic” nonsense that the Art World generates when Our Beloved Genre comes up.

A common fallacy held by artists outside of the genre is that if something is “sci-fi,” it does not have to be realistic or consistent. If visual and performance artists want to associate their works with the phrase “science fiction”, they should develop a passing familiarity with the genre as well as the esoteric arts of worldbuilding and extrapolation or else they are just making shit up. And that is never true science fiction, not by a long shot.

Metawyrd Archives: Great Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels About Music

Of course I noticed io9′s ambitious list 100 Albums Every Science Fiction and Fantasy Fan Should Listen To. Even though it misses at least one key album (Klaus Schulze’s “Dune,” anyone?), the list spans multiple genres and it isn’t afraid to get into the nooks and crannies of genres. i09 namechecks a ton of notable recordings including albums from Sun Ra, Eon, Cybotron, the Mountain Goats, Meshuggah, Voivod, Bo Hansson, the Residents, Hawkwind, and of course the Rocky Horror soundtrack.

In tribute to this mighty effort, here’s three science fiction books and two fantasies which do a great job of giving music the “sensawunda” treatment.

1. The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

Possibly the best fantasy about rock music ever, even before the Game of Thrones series made its splashy debut. The book is about the fall and rise of the Nazgul, a dark razor-sharp band from the Sixties who come to an unfortunate end when their lead singer was assassinated by a man with a rifle.

Ten years later, Sandy Blair, former reporter for the Hedgehog–aka Rolling Stone–is called in to investigate the occultish death of the Nazgul’s former promoter. Of course he is in for more than anyone could possibly expect. The band is returning again and the powers behind the Nazgul are raising the long shadows of the Sixties for good and for ill. So what side is Blair on? Can he even tell difference between the two sides?

Martin pulls out all the stops here and the book does a masterful job of evoking the power of rock music. Hell, he even made me feel the dilemmas that drove the Boomers to yuppiedom. That alone is an amazing feat. Three thumbs up.

2. Little Heroes by Norman Spinrad

In the future, The Music Industry has discovered that its approach to making hits–selecting a few youngsters and transforming them into Big Stars–is not generating enough revenue. Unfortunately, the powers that be make a crucial mistake by hiring an old rocker (cue someone like Bonnie Raitt) to help produce the current crop of budding stars and underestimating the power of new sensory technology to move The People. The result: Revolution!!!

OK, the plot of Little Heroes seems farfetched and it is. Yet, in the late 1980s, Spinrad envisioned a totally synthesized pop music that has an exotic, lush and totally freaky sound that definitely resembles the heavily produced electronic pop of today. The author has collaborated with the French avant-rock band Heldon (whose name is from one of his albums) so the man knows something about music. One thumb up.

3. Glimpses by Lewis Shiner

What if you could manage to persuade your musical idols to finish lost masterpieces? Shiner attempts to answer this question in this book with the Beatles, (Get Back), the Doors (Celebration of the Lizard), Brian Wilson (Smile), and Jimi Hendrix (New Rays of the Rising Sun).

Shiner does a wonderful job evoking the different places and people from the ’60s, with the caveat that I am not a detail nerd for any of artists in the book. Yet, in the end, I’m on the fence about recommending it to everybody. All of the players in this drama are well-known to most readers but how many people really care about Brian Wilson’s Smile (besides the usual bootleg-wielding fanatics)? For music fans, two thumbs. For the rest, one to one and a half thumbs.

4. In War Times by Kathleen Anne Goonan

During World War II, a Romany physicist combines insights into quantum physics, alternate realities, and molecular biology to create plans for a device that may change mankind for the better. Sam Dance, who is studying to be an electrical engineer for the Army and plays tenor sax, is given the plans and recruits his friend and fellow engineer Wink (who not coincidentally plays jazz violin). Both of them discover the amazing new “modern jazz” (aka bebop) and immediately see parallels between the music and the nature of reality.

Music is not at the center of this plot but when Goonan brings it in, her love of bebop shines like the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria (link). It took my breath away and for that alone, this book belongs here. Two thumbs.

5. Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip

A man who is nicknamed the Basilisk for his cruelty takes over the kingdom and massacres the royal family. However, a very young heir to the throne is stripped of his name and given anonymously to a school for bards in the wilderness. Tormalayne House, the old royal house, becomes a home to musicians who perform for the new royal court.

The book details the adventures of the nameless bard as he returns to discover his name, the old royal house’s last effort to return to the throne, and the music that is played at Tormalayne House and elsewhere in the book.

Like most McKilip fantasies, Song is not written in your average work-a-day fantasy prose. At points, her prose has a stream-of-consciousness feel, like walking through a dream, and the uninitiated may find it hard to follow. But it is oh so worth your while. Take your time to discover Patricia McKillip and you will be rewarded. Three thumbs.

There you go. Hope you enjoy these books. I think they are well worth your time.

Metawyrd Archives: Ode to Joy

In 1994, I carefully yet casually asked a guy I knew from high school about Joy’s whereabouts. It was a fine summer evening out in front of Temptations, the local home-made ice cream shop. Ben stared at me and said, “What, you hadn’t heard? She got killed in a car accident last year.” He told me the details, but they weren’t important, because I was numb. I never ever said “thank you,” not at all.

My mind fell back to the days when I was a proud student of Richard Montgomery High School. Back then I couldn’t tell that Joy had a rush on me, but she gave me a tape that would change my life. No, it wasn’t anything by L. Ron Hubbard, Jello Biafra, or the eminent Rev. Sun Myung Moon. She gave me a copy of “Atlantic Rhythm and Blues Classics: Vol. 5 1962-1969.”

When she gave me the tape, I smiled, looked down at it, and turned away from her. I wondered at it, turning the tape over and over. My musical affections were reserved for the mind candy that poured out of WMAL-AM, a station that combined show tunes with easy-listening dreck from the ’70s.

As you might recall, Chicago had been my favorite band, and I was still partial to Christopher Cross and the theme from “Tootsie.” A sixth grade memory comes back to me: Howlin’ “something’s tellin’ me it might be yoooo….” as I sat out in the hot sun in my Scout uniform, parking cars at the County Fair near the Tractor Pull.

But everthing changed when I listened to that classic soul tape. My life began to change as soon as I heard Wilson Pickett yell “ONE TWO THREE!!!” on the very first track, “Land of 10,000 Dances.” Horns blared as the good-time vibes flooded my room. I didn’t even know what he meant when Wilson sang “Do the mashed potato,” and I didn’t really care. It was something good, I was sure of that.

Next came Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood,” followed by Sam & Dave’s “When Something’s Wrong With My Baby.” Then Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” came hot on their heels. The raw feelings and deep down grooves flew free from the fixed magnetic patterns on the tape and shamed my record collection, which included the Best of Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Finally, the bare powerful truth of “Chain of Fools” stripped away all my pride and pretension; “Hard to Say I’m Sorry/Hold On” just melted away into weepy mush. Any music that didn’t punch me in the gut like Aretha Franklin’s “Baby I Love You” wasn’t worth my time anymore. I didn’t know it then, but I had taken the first step away from Peter Cetera and was headed toward Sonic Youth and Camper Van Beethoven.

So the search began to for music that would match Aretha & Co. It eventually led me to the original Yesterday And Today Records, where I asked for some good music. The guy at the store told me to get Husker Du’s Metal Circus. My Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz had been gathering dust in a corner, but it was pulled out and I started to absorb Charlie Parker, Theolonius Monk, and Duke Ellington.

By the time I graduated from college in 1992, the transition was complete. A few years later, I looked back and tried to figure out how I had developed such a deep love for good music, and it all led back to that R&B tape.

And there I was, at an ice cream store on a fine summer night, trying to absorb the impossible….

Soul music saved me. Thank you, Joy.

Metawyrd Archives: Chicago – A Love Story

Posted on April 8, 2012

It seems that every music geek has a My First Band story and mine centers around the band Chicago.

For those not familiar with them, the group Chicago started out as one of the so-called 70s “jazz-rock” bands along with Blood, Sweat and Tears. As a new trombonist in 7th grade (circa 1983), I was looking for role models and since they had a horn section, they were obviously meant for me.

I began my journey into Chicago with Chicago Transit Authority, their first album. It was my first exposure to a real warts-and-all “double album” from the wide-open world of late ’60s rock. The big CTA tracks that made me happy were “Questions 67 & 68,” the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man,” as well as the current classic rock chestnut “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is.” Many avant-rock fans fondly remember this album for Terry Kath’s feedback-laden guitar freakout “Free Form Guitar,” but my 7th grade self barely remembers it. It was wonderful to hear a trombonist in a rock band kicking it and being a real part of a real band.

None of the other albums gave me the kick like the first one but I dutifully collected them all, including the turgid four-LP set “Live At Chicago Hall” (aka Chicago IV). I was proud of my band, like all First Band Fans are, even though by 1983, they had basically dropped the whole jazz-rock image and had gone straight for the MOR (“middle of the road”) pot of gold with hits like “Stay the Night.” They were My Band and mine alone.

Since they were My Band, I had to go pay them tribute. Finally, my chance came about two or three years later. With the help of my car-enabled friend Tom, I got to see the band at the Patriot Center in suburban Virginia. I don’t remember much of the show but I do remember that every time I saw the trombonist wander my way, I stuck my fist out in tribute. And to my young mind’s amazement and surprise, he began returning my salute! In retrospect, doing that while playing trombone was a pretty trick.

I came home from the concert walking on air. But that was the end of my love affair. I didn’t know how to go any further as a Chicago Fan. After the trombonist saluted me, what was left? I grew aimless and bored with the band. Not too much later, a classmate named Joy  gave me a tape that would change the rest of my life (and of course that is another tale).

In the end, I tried to sell my collection to the nearby record shop Yesterday and Today Records. Naturally, they did not buy a single one and all my First Band records ended up in the trash.