White Bread, Black Beer
Green Gartside, the sole constant behind the Scritti Politti moniker for three decades, has led an erratic career. Starting out as a DIY post-punk philosopher (check out last year’s comp of rough-hewn singles, Early), he went on to create one bona-fide masterpiece of cutting-edge urban pop (1985’s Cupid & Psyche 85) that spawned a MTV hit (“Perfect Way”), then became… well, a freaky recluse. Despite a resumé featuring collaborations with icons Kylie Minogue, Mos Def, Robert Wyatt, Shabba Ranks, and Miles Davis, the innovative Welsh songwriter is even stingier than Kate Bush with his output; his fifth album, White Bread, Black Beer is his first full-length in seven years. And it’s possibly his finest.
To the uninitiated, Scritti can seem lightweight. Gartside’s primary instrument is a voice so delicately angelic, his words practically evaporate as soon as they issue from his lips. What keeps his lyrics suspended in midair long enough to reach the listener’s ears is their gravity; think Marvin Gaye weaned on Marxist theory. The combination is simple but powerful, as Green’s childlike coo imbues lines like “I’ll break every bone if I must” with infinitely more menace any bellowing thug-life wannabe. For support, he fashions arrangements so minimal they make the Neptunes sound like Phil Spector: A three-note bass riff anchors “E Eleventh Nuts”; a finger-popping groove and just a dash of electric guitar buoy up “After Six.” But Gartside can afford to eschew sonic window dressing; these 14 tracks are pop genius distilled to its purest essence. KURT B. REIGHLEY
Prayer of Death
On previous Entrance albums, singer/guitarist Guy Blakeslee took valiant stabs at resurrecting bare-bones Delta blues. But while channeling the spirits of legends like Charley Patton and Bukka White, Blakeslee brought back a few unexpected ghosts.
It would be inaccurate to say Blakeslee’s traded his eternal soul for some temporary hot licks. However, the electric dirges on Prayer of Death suggest some kind of newfound connection to the afterlife. From the heavy riffs on album opener “Grim Reaper Blues” to the otherworldly drones and chants of its closing sermon, “Never Be Afraid,” the grim meditations of some cursed specter pulse through every note and word.
Lyrically, Blakeslee’s blues are still blue—bitter and downtrodden. But with lines like “I want to live in freedom now, I don’t want to wait for heaven,” from “Prayer of Death,” he communes with the afterlife and manifests a kind of reverse lament that seems to welcome death at every waking moment.
Shedding his acoustic cocoon, Blakeslee nods to the music of the Delta, but also fixes it with a shake of Moroccan folk and a heavy dose of raw psychedelic rock, creating something much darker. The disc’s fourth track, “Valium Blues,” swirls choppy waves of strings (arranged by A Perfect Circle’s Paz Lenchantin) with buzzing sitar vibrations and Blakeslee’s own disembodied howls, conjuring images of galloping moonlight sorties through a treacherous desert battlefield.
Self-released through his own Entrance Records (www.entranceband.com), Prayer of Death will be one of the major sleepers of 2006 if it does not get picked up by a bigger indie. STEVEN SAWADA
Keep on Moving
It’s usually considered sad when a band are caught in a time warp, not updating their sound to reflect current tastes. But like AC/DC, ESG should always stay in the way-back machine. Both bands have such distinctive sounds that were they to deviate, it would come across as calculated and fake, not a progression.
Thankfully, its still 1978 in ESG’s world.
When the South Bronx’s Scroggins sisters formed their band 28 years ago, little did they know that they would help define the sound of hiphop and No Wave through such skeletal funk classics as the Moody EP, which featured the oft-sampled classic “UFO,” and the Come Away with ESG LP.
While the band never broke up, ESG remained mostly silent throughout the 1990s, even as the group’s legend continued to grow. The 2000 compilation, A South Bronx Story, on England’s influential Soul Jazz label introduced ESG to a new audience, spurring the band to make another CD, Step Off, the following year, with a slightly revamped lineup—but one that’s still a family affair. Renee (vocals, guitar), Marie (congas, vocals), and Valerie (drums) were joined by two of their daughters, Nicole (bass) and Chistelle (guitar).
Five years later, ESG is back with more of the same—thankfully—on Keep on Moving. The sound is still stripped to its birthday outfit, consisting of bowel-rumbling bass (“Insane [Bass Mix],” “Purely Physical”), typewriter drums (“The Road”), rattling percussion (“Insane [Tambourine Mix]”), off-key vocal chants (“I’d Do It for You”), and almost nothing else. ESG tries to switch it up on the electric-piano ballad “Ex,” but melody isn’t the band’s strength; stiff-legged boogie is—just ask AC/DC. CHRISTOPHER PORTER
Waters of Nazareth
Justice are on a mission to save techno and, if you believe their heavy-handed Christian iconography and biblically themed song titles, your soul. The French duo of Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé have remixed Daft Punk, Franz Ferdinand, and Death from Above 1979, but they’re probably best known for their collaboration with Simian, “Never Be Alone.” Waters of Nazareth was previously released on Justice’s own Ed Banger Records, and this rerelease includes the original three tracks plus three remixes. Their gospel is lifted straight off Daft Punk’s Old Testament, recalling the stomping beats, lo-fi production, and heavy synth hooks of Homework.
The title track sounds like it might be blowing speakers out until the crisp percussion kicks in over the digitally distorted synth lead. “Let There Be Light (demo)” and “Carpates” mix vintage drum machinery with vibrato organ and fuzzed-out bass.
“Waters of Nazareth (Justice Remix)” dismantles the track’s catchy riff and repairs it with scratches, breaks, and rhythmic tics. DJ Funk’s “Let There Be Light (Bounce Dat Ass Remix)” all but abandons the original track to make way for Funk’s booty-bass catcalls, retaining only a tiny snippet of sampled organ. Erol Alkan’s “Durrr Durrr Durrrrrr Re-Edit” (imagine Beavis and Butthead making guitar sounds) isolates the title track’s heavy distortion and turns it up to 11.
This is the “Robot Rock” promised but not delivered upon by that other French duo’s disappointing last album: heavy-metal electro that demands headbanging, metal claw, and even (gasp!) devil horns. ERIC GRANDY
STEVE MILLER BAND
Fly Like an Eagle 30th Anniversary Edition
In the mid-’90s—with Paul Oakenfold not a total twat and trance not all jock jams—psychedelic/Goa DJs melded odd soundtrack swatches to fluoro beats, and the Steve Miller track “Space Intro” made for as versatile and vivid a transition as Miller contemporaries Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” In the early ’80s, any downtown Manhattan DJ worth his Paradise Garage membership and disco (not disco) dust traveled with a pristine vinyl copy of Miller’s 16-minute space blues-gone-Balearic “Macho City.” And in 1976 like at least four million folks noodled to Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle LP (and Book of Dreams, his immediate follow-up recorded concurrently). Miller—“The Joker” and “midnight toker”—has held quite a few aces in his pop and rock’n ’um career’s most successful phase—leading from and up to this hook-saturated album and its 30th-anniversary remaster.
It seems 1975–1976 was the Year of the Dude. Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Boston’s Tom Scholz, and Miller—these were just dudes sweatin’ riffs, not “rock stars,” as evidenced by the 30-minute Eagle documentary where everyman Miller affably chronicles his self-produced sound experiments to evolve something “positive.” Three demo drafts demonstrate the puzzles Miller was assembling—exhibiting, say, “Take the Money and Run” sung over “The Joker.” Accompanying the original classic-rock staples, always intended for trippy quadraphonic sound, is a bright and playful Dolby 5.1 DVD mix. And a two-hour 2005 concert completes this already deeply satisfying package by capturing a dressed-down Miller and friends still weaving through breezy jams such as “Serenade,” and you sure can groove to ’em! TONY WARE
PHI TA KHON: GHOSTS OF ISAN
dir. Robert Millis
(Sublime Frequencies DVD)
The audio documents that Sublime Frequencies releases naturally conjure a more mysterious feel than do their videos. Sounds more readily blend into disorienting, hallucinatory collages to where the listener can’t help getting lost in the strange dervishes. Sublime Frequencies videos stand in stark contrast: they’re more straight-ahead, unadorned, and firmly rooted in reality. All the better to make the actual ceremonies caught on Phi Ta Khon feel all the more surreal. Climax Golden Twin Robert Millis and Sun City Girl Richard Bishop whisked themselves to Thailand’s outer provinces based solely on some mysterious masks they saw from the region. The filmmakers happened upon a three-day festival to insure fertility and rain, via the lubrication of shots of rice whiskey downed first thing each morning. Buzzing three-stringed guitars mix with giant gongs, corps of hand drums, and pickup trucks full of blown speakers to soundtrack the ribald festivities.
Originally celebrated to mark the return of the penultimate Buddha (and the dead who came back to hang with him), the homemade masks grin with such fright that juggaboo fans must be feeling jealous, Since there’s no anthropological voice-over to make the visions captured more PBS-like, one must presume that the Buddha was one hell of a Lothario: Phalluses “pop up” throughout the celebration. Such red-helmeted warriors assume all forms—as puppets and pop guns; matchstick-sized or as immense as cannons. They dangle from floats wantonly and wag pendent in the hands of lady dancers. Maybe an alternate title should be Thais Gone Wild? ANDY BETA
The Lost Takoma Sessions
In a recent piece on freak folk that ran in the New York Times, a record-store clerk is quoted as saying that “we live in an age of reissues.” Such an age sometimes leads to the exalting of backwash, but it also allows for a reexamination of those who just had shitty luck back in the day. In the case of Kentucky picker Mark Fosson, he had a bit of both kinds of fortune.
Obsessed with Takoma Records and the steel-string music created by John Fahey, Leo Kottke, et al., Fosson sent his demo of 12-string guitar playing to said label, catching Fahey’s ear. Hosannnahing him as the best new talent he had heard since Kottke, Fahey flew Fosson out in 1977 to record in L.A. Takoma also promptly went bankrupt, so Fahey sold his label to Chrysalis, handing back the studio tapes to a devastated Fosson, who let them gather dust for 30 years. At the prompting of his younger cousin, musician Tiffany Anders, the tapes were unearthed to reveal a sterling young player who never got the chance to shine.
He’s not a lightning-fast technician like Kottke, nor the ornate and complex composer that Fahey was, but Fosson’s approach is singular. His touch on songs like “Wind Through a Broken Glass” and “Chillicothe” stream gently, resounding so as to be both crystalline and fluid, his melodic lines lilting and naturally accruing into shape like autumn leaves. Fosson’s nascent career may have been aborted, but on the brief and lovely “All the Time in the World,” it all makes sense. ANDY BETA