Monday, February 26

Animal Was My Favorite Drummer

A couple of weeks ago I did a "quick hit" impression of the new Dalek album, scheduled for release tomorrow (to recap, don't get it). In that short bit I mentioned the late, lamented New Kingdom. This caused me to throw their two albums in the player and reminisce, and prompts me today to tell the story of me and New Kingdom.

I first heard them mentioned by Del The Funkee Homosapien; somewhere he said their upcoming debut was "mind-blowing". This was enough of an endorsement for me to buy it on release without hearing a note (I used to do this all the time - read an article, hear someone say it was great, and I'd pick it up. I can't imagine doing that nowadays – it is just so easy to hear a snippet, a sample or a whole track on a band's website or some random blog that the sense of surprise is gone. Of course, it means I'm not paying cash for crap, but I also miss that revelatory moment of discovery. I still love "Touch Me I'm Sick" and "Schizophrenia" for that more than any other reason). The album Heavy Load was what I hoped it would be, and the opener "Good Times" was the perfect psychedelic variant to the Beasties "Rhymin and Stealin", complete with Bonzo-esque pounding and in your face growling. It wasn't a rap-rock hybrid (they weren't going to be on the Judgment Day soundtrack), but a hitherto unexplored idea; heavy rap. The inspiration wasn't then current metal, but heavy funk and stoner psychedelia from the early seventies; Funkadelic and Hawkwind jamming, with Mushmouth doing ubbi dubbi freestyles out front. "Cheap Thrills" (their ode to marijuana) with its circular bassline, subdued rhodes electric piano and wah-wah guitar, is crying out for black lights and mushrooms painted on velvet. Laser Show, here we come!

Somewhat surprisingly, they put out a second album in 96 (I can't imagine they made Island much money), the even more incredible Paradise Don't Come Cheap. It starts off harder, heavier and more intense than its predecessor, with bowel-shaking bass and a horn section made for menace; "Mexico Or Bust" roars like a bad-trip version of Tom Wait's "Singapore". The Funkadelic influence is still strong, but more in little sonic touchstones (the Eddie Hazel inspired guitar on "Big 10 1/2", for example) than in the overall jammy spaciness of the first album. Whereas Heavy Load was an acid trip in a desert (Lizard King comparisons not intended, though they do mention the Doors), Paradise Don't Come Cheap is PCP paranoia in an urban dystopia, cramped and oppressive and right on the edge of lashing, desperate violence. The psychedelia is no longer friendly and strange, but instead veers into the territory of the Butthole Surfers, where the revelry is in how uncomfortable you feel. The vocal distortions are thicker and muddier, another signpost pointing to Gibby Haynes and company.

Luckily for me, they toured on this album (I don't know if they worked Heavy Load on the road, and information on the net is sparse), and made it to DC, my home at the time. So I talked my wife into going to some record store in Silver Spring for an inexpensive outing (I think $8-10 for the both of us). Opening were two bands I didn't know - Handsome (about a year prior to their sole release) and the Red Aunts. The 70-odd people there seemed pretty disinterested in the openers, though Handsome were good enough live for me to get their album - very tight and intricate rhythms, with some interesting guitar work counterpointing and weaving in and out of the bass and drums. Terry Date did his usual overproduction on their album and lost all the Fugazi-esque treble and tension they had live. The Red Aunts were incredibly amateurish, just the garage punk ravings of some loud poseur women. They even apologized for sounding so bad saying they were like, so wasted and stuff! Gack.

Then New Kingdom took the stage, cramming at least eight people on what couldn't have been much more than a 10'x12' three-foot high riser. They even had a dancer, their own Bez (whether he was also helping in the chemical department I don't know), complete with an "Intel inside" sterile suit and ass-length dreads. They started sloppy, and sounded like they were too fucked-up to care; but as they kept going, they found a groove, and it was heavy as hell. They slowed down some things even further (the aforementioned "Cheap Thrills" and "Unicorns Were Horses", which was downright dirge-like), and changed "Co Pilot" into an end times rave-up that goes right over the cliff they walked so carelessly on the edge of on the album. As the show went on, the blurring of band and audience rose, with band members stepping off the riser to move and groove with the small but adoring crowd. The hazmat dancer stripped as the show went on, his dreads becoming a cat-of-nine tails, whipping and slashing both the audience and his bare chest and back like some medieval penitent. Down to a well-filled thong (I didn't want to notice, but he came close to rubbing it on my shoulder from the corner of the stage), he at one point ended up on his back on the floor, twitching and shaking and singing along, truly ecstatic. I've never seen anything like it - not the best concert on a musical basis, nor the most mind-blowing, but it was the most organic, communal show I've ever seen.

I do wish that they had lasted longer, and gone further, than the two albums. As it stands, the albums have not dated like their chart toping contemporaries (Doggystyle and 12 Play in 93/94, The Score and All Eyez On Me in 96), and those who have tried to explore a similar landscape (say, Dalek and some of the Def Jux and Anticon contingents) haven't found that special blend that made New Kingdom so great. But the two albums are pretty easy (and cheap!) to find used these days, so though there may not be a replacement it is still a glorious thing to relive the past.

For your viewing pleasure (though it doesn't hold a candle to what I saw and experienced a few years later), the only New Kingdom I found on YouTube:

Wednesday, February 21

David Rave On

I had planned to jot something down about "The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes" (the Velvet Underground bootleg recording from '69 that was taped from Lou Reed's amp, with the squawks, squeals, blistering feedback and lyrical runs one would expect from such a recording), but another recording I "acquired" this weekend is holding me hostage; David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan in rehearsal for 1983s "Serious Moonlight" tour. Due to last-minute contractual bickering, Vaughan never did play with Bowie and his band on that tour (he was replaced by Earl Slick). However, the rehearsals were taped, and I'm nigh stunned hearing what might have been.

In the liner notes to the DVD release of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Troubles 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival performance, Bowie wrote:
December rolled around and after only a couple or so weeks in the studio Nile Rodgers and I had put down the tracks and vocals of my new album, Let's Dance. All that was left was to overdub the lead guitar. In the third week of December Stevie strolled into the Power Station and proceeded to rip-up everything one thought about dance records. After his blistering solo on the title song he ambled into the control room and with a cheeky smile on his face, shyly quipped, "That one's for Albert", knowing full well that I would understand that King's own playing was the genesis for that solo. One after another he knocked down solo upon solo, song upon song. In a ridiculously short time he had become midwife to the sound that I had had ringing in my ears all year. A dance form that had its melody rooted in a European sensibility but owed its impact to the blues."

Tour rehearsals were a fairly disjointed affair for me as I was also being shunted here, there and everywhere to do press for the albums release. By the time I got to Dallas the band had already honed the songs to a near finished state. Although pretty disjointed himself as drugs were seriously taking their toll, Stevie was pulling notes out of the air that no one could have dreamed would have worked with my songs. In fact there is a bootleg out there somewhere containing one days playing, a gem for those that can find it.
It is, as Bowie says, "a gem." Vaughan comes across as the driving force of these interpretations, bringing a more traditional rhythm & blues sound (as opposed to the plastic soul and modern r&b sound of mid-seventies Bowie) that adds a "call and response" aspect to some of the tracks, particularly in the solos. Vaughan plays a short riff, echoed and expanded by the horn section, restated and expanded further by Vaughan, taken up by the keyboards and then brought back to basics by Vaughan and the song continues. Bowie, as evidenced in his quote, was not a participant in the evolution of this style, but was added to the top. He comes across as a reluctant interloper, as amazed by the arrangements as I am. He blends in better in these recordings than in almost anything I've heard (Bowie and his boundless ego are not easy collaborators, as Tin Machine so ably proved), and there are a few moments where he ad-libs after a flubbed line, laughs and tries to right himself for the next verse, unwilling to stop the band's groove. This is in marked contrast to other rehearsals I've heard, where a goof by either Bowie or the band led to an immediate stop and a tense restart, or a blistering dressing down of the offending player by Bowie (though he, of course, is above reproach).

To compare this to the bootlegs from the subsequent tour is somewhat cruel; Earl Slick is a solid, if not singular, lead guitarist, and Bowie and the band were in very fine form throughout. However, the Stevie Ray recordings sound, to my ears, like a critical missed evolutionary step for Bowie; from plastic soul to r&b bandleader. Early in the rehearsal they play "Heroes" and Vaughan bends that singular note for measure after measure, sustaining it until it finally starts to fade; then he adds a quick little two or three-note hint at the guitar lick from the chorus before hammering back to the note and wringing it out again for all it's worth. No pedals, no effects, just a finger on a fret. The horn section vamps the chorus "da-da-duh-dah-da/da-da-duh-dah-da" and the saxophone drops down, growling, and the vamp resets. The result isn't funk, but an earlier sound, maybe Muscle Shoals.

The horns work similar magic on the cold eurofunk of "What In The World." The original is one of my favorite Bowie tracks, all off-kilter and deranged, closer to the songs Bowie gave to Iggy Pop in those Berlin years than to the rest of his own Berlin output. Here it starts like a Martian's version of Sam & Dave, the horn vamps on the chorus reminiscent of "Soul Man"; but when the song reaches the expected end, it relaunches at double-speed and comes out like Frank Zappa, complete with what sounds like xylophones and Stevie Ray Vaughan doing clipped and muted Fripp-like runs atop a manic piano. Singular, beautiful and strange.

The rehearsal recordings cover 31 songs. They aren't all revelatory, but the more I listen the more I think that they all would have been by the end of the tour. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" has never been particularly good in my opinion, but here I like the build from synth-pop to guitar rave-up. It doesn't quite come together (SRV is in full blues-mode on the solos and the band doesn't make the necessary adjustments to support him; they kind of let him flail enthusiastically and then go back to their thing), but the last chorus works very well, as the synths step back a bit and SRV steps up. I imagine that would only have become a greater meld as time went on. "White Light/White Heat" harkens back to before the Velvet Underground, becoming the Little Richard song it always wanted to be. You could imagine this being in Richard's repertoire in the Jimi Hendrix years, except for one glaring fact; Bowie is not even a poor-broken-down-hobo-street-fighting-for-$20 man's Little Richard. His pipes, perfectly fine for covering Lou Reed under normal circumstances, fail his bands inspired arrangement. I guess that wouldn't have changed, but the band might have inspired another, greater vocalist to take up that challenge.

Regardless of their pupal state, these rehearsal recordings are nigh essential for any Bowie fan. Made my weekend.

Friday, February 16

Today is Yesterday's Tomorrow, You Dig?

Coping "Feel Good Hits Of The Day" from Ian, I present to you a list of songs of the moment, shuffling along in iTunes like an old man with a bad hip, gout and no cane to lean on:

"King Of The Beats" - Mantronix
"Mr E's Beautiful Blues" - The Eels
"Slow" - My Bloody Valentine
"Sad As A Truck" - Mugison
"Afterparty" - Method Man f. Ghostface Killah
"Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown) - Judas Priest
"Fickle" - Dizzee Rascal
"Dark Horizons" - The Hidden Hand
"Sister Havana" - Urge Overkill
"Animal" - New Kingdom

There's a new podcast if anyone is looking. Click the link in the sidebar. Aiming to get some more thoughts up once I've finished digging out from the Valentine's Day storm.

Friday, February 9

EZ Podcast 18

There will be no more excuses, no more apologies.

Wednesday, February 7

Cold As Ice (Yes I Know)

I like to have excuses for being a lazy sod, and the latest one I've been trying on for size is "too cold to type." There is of course no truth to that notion. I'm not even at one of those "internet cafe" places where they use their hipness (look – putamayo collections and organic free-range shade grown coffee beans) to hide the fact they can't make a good cup of joe for $3.75. I'm a homebody, bravely eschewing the world at large for the comfort of my pajamas (that's how I roll, Holmes). So being a bum is the truth. I keep it real, not right.

Part of my lack of activity here is I've been delving into lots of new and interesting things, and I needed to chew on them a bit (alimentary, my dear Watson). So some quick hits, with the promise of some longer bits on the stuff blowing me away later.

Dalek - Abandoned Language. This is hitting the shelves in a few weeks, and was recommended to me as the kind of "forward-looking" hip-hop I would appreciate. This is not true. This is sadly unmemorable, with mediocre rhymes and humdrum beats. I guess big layers of synths (slowly oscillating washes, bad strings, faux horns and other assorted piddly bits) = novel, in that it is uncommon in the audibly barren post-Neptunes/post-"Get Low" world to bury an MC in a wall of production. But this pretty much blows. Had to dig out some New Kingdom to hear "forward-looking" hip-hop; it still sounds alien after ten years. "Terror Mad Visionary" indeed.

MONO - You Are There. I should like this; slow building instrumental rock, reaching towering crescendos of noise, brittle but hard as are all Albini productions. Yet somehow it just doesn't work – it has no grab, no catch, the repetition just repetition, with no glimmer or hint of an interesting evolution. In the end I hear paint-by-numbers post-rock whatever, which is sort of my general problem with the whole style classified as post-rock; where's the rock? Getting loud or atonal does not equate to "rocking". I do like the Jimmy Page-isms that start nearly every song on here, particularly the first section of the 15 minute "Yearning". Strangely, I am absolutely loving the MONO/World's End Girlfriend collaboration, which I'm sure I'll write about at a later date.

Yob - The Illusion Of Motion. Pick a metal label (stoner/sludge/doom/cheese & onion), and use it to unjustly write these guys off. Heavy-ass riffs, great heaving gobs of bass and thunderous toms, these guys are right up my alley (except for the occasional cookie monster vocal). As I've said before, I'm dipping my toes into metal, and am building my likes and dislikes. I like mudhole stomping tunes, big shitkicker rave-ups and ponderously slow and painful bass-driven drones. Yob tries to have the best of both worlds, alternating song by song from some hellbilly Sabbath blowout to some crazy-ass Tad-on-'ludes Northwestern doom. Sad to hear these guys called it quits, but I'll be getting their back-catalog for sure.

Capricorns - Ruder Forms Survive. More metal, this time from the UK. Not right up my alley, but down a side street I like the looks of. Distinct but full, this mainly instrumental album sounds to me like a sludgier, more interesting Pelican. Less Neurosis, more actually craziness. The tracks are also named for years, and the best title of recent days goes to the epic "1066: Born On The Bayeux".

Noxagt - Iron Point. Is it noise or metal? It's heavy as all get out, with precision drilling for drums, big raging slabs of bass (distorted all to shit with loads of effects), and an equally processed electric viola making all sorts of a ruckus over top, under, around and just plain elsewhere. Instrumental (except for a traditional Norwegian folk song that I think is a band member's grandfather singing; Fiery Furnaces weren't original in that regard either), it is like the noise band Lightning Bolt minus the wanking guitar style. They even do a death metal rave-up, like a glorious mix of Painkiller and Venom. I read that the viola player left and was replaced by a guitarist. I guess I'll have to look elsewhere for my freak-out atonal drone goodness.

Tune in next time, when I promise to not to mention the Police reunion. Consider it the other way of stopping.

Thursday, February 1

Giant Steps Are What You Take

Posted without comment.

EZ Podcast 17

Because, you know, a week later I still got nothin'.