RIP Ornette Coleman, the sayer of the unsayable, an artist who devoted his life to pursuing pure sound. We’ll never see the likes of him again.

Germany, 1978. Ornette Coleman – sax, violin; Ben Nix – guitar; James Blood Ulmer – guitar; Fred Williams – bass; Shannon Jackson – drums; Denardo Coleman – drums words / t wilcox

…King David was, in the Bible, he used to made his psalms from the stars and so forth and he wrote so many songs, you know. With a little talent and surrounding I think it’s kinda easy done.” — J.B. Smith on composition.

50 years ago, archivist Bruce Jackson first went to Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, to record the unaccompanied songs of J.B. Smith, an inmate serving 45 years there for the murder of his wife. He returned the following June in 1966 to record more, and that year John Fahey’s Takoma Records released an LP, Ever Since I Have Been A Man Full Grown, featuring three of Smith’s songs. “That album came out only because John Fahey had a lot of imagination,” says Jackson, who’d go on to author the definitive book on the subject of prison songs, Wake Up Dead Man. “To put out a record with just three unaccompanied songs and a little talk on it took a lot of balls.”

Certainly, the Takoma record was released due to Fahey’s passion, but No More Good Time In the World For Me, a new two-disc set from Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital, presents a fuller view of Jackson’s recordings of Smith, the three featured on the original LP and 15 more. Produced by Alan Lomax Archive curator Nathan Salsburg and Lance Ledbetter, the collection presents Smith’s songs as one long reading, which sprawls across an incredible range, with Smith singing of anger, sadness, toil, murder, and redemption.

“As a composition [“Ever Since I Was a Man Full Grown”] is discrete, it has integrity,” Salsburg says. “J.B. Smith was kind of an epic composer, in an extremely limited and debased setting. In prisons like Ramsey, Parchman, Angola, the goal was to dehumanize you, to make you fucking miserable. And the fact that the guy did what he did [in that place] and did it so beautifully, with such coherence and vision of content and characters and all that is remarkable.”

Along with Lomax, Jackson was among the last folklorists to record work songs — or time songs, for keeping time and passing it — like the ones Smith sang. “During the time I was working they started integrating the prisons,” Jackson says. “Once they integrated, the songs died entirely, because the white guys couldn’t do it, and a lot of the younger black guys thought it was old-timey stuff. It was sort of like capitulating to the white man. If I’d been five years later, I wouldn’t have gotten it.”

Beyond providing a rhythm for working convicts, so one worker’s pace wouldn’t be slower than another’s, which could lead to punishment, the songs offered a chance for expression. “You couldn’t say to somebody ‘I miss my old lady,’ or ‘I miss being able to walk down the street,’” Jackson says. “The other guy would look at you and go, ‘No shit, me too.’ But you could put it in a song and sing about it, just as you could put it in the blues on the outside.”

Smith’s songs were among the most expressive Jackson ever recorded. “His basic format is what is rhetorically called hyperbata,” Jackson says. “Normally in a blues, you get a line, the line will get repeated more or less the same, and then there’ll be a line that comments on that first line. What Smith does is he sings a line, sings a different line, repeats that line, and then sings the first again. The second line comments on the first, you hear it again, and the first line comments on the second line. It makes for a much more complex interplay of text. One verse doesn’t necessarily follow the other in a narrative form, but it does in an emotional form. It leaks over from song to song — it’s not a group of songs; it’s sort of one big song.”

Unlike some singers, like Bukka White and Buddy Moss, both of whom emerged from the Southern prison system to great acclaim on the folk festival circuit, Salsburg finds Smith’s songs entirely removed from popular context. “What J.B. is using is a form that has no application outside of an occupational tradition,” Salsburg says. “Levee camps, turpentine camps, and prison farms. To me, it just goes to show that J.B. had no aspiration to release a record of this stuff. He did it purely to keep himself company, to make himself feel better, to express himself. That’s deeply moving to me.”

Smith was paroled in 1967, and Jackson, who was director of the Newport Folk Festival, arranged for him to appear there with Pete Seeger. After that, he went to Amarillo, where his oratory skills were put to good use as a preacher. A parole violation sent him back to prison, and Jackson never heard from him again. But, “When I listen to it, I remember exactly where we were,” Jackson says. “It all comes flooding back.”

As an art form, prison songs are gone, and as Salsburg writes in his introduction, “it’s hard to mourn their extinction. Many of them arose from social, economic, and political arrangements that deserved to die. The iniquities of the turpentine, lumber, and leave camps; the injustices of the sharecropping system. Slavery itself.”

Yet, what Jackson and other field recorders captured in those hellish places remains culturally significant.

“They were an important expression of what people were thinking and feeling,” Jackson says. “Prison work songs originated in Africa; they came to the slave plantations where they were used in exactly the way they were used in the prisons. The prisons, many of them, were built on locations that had been slave plantations. The convicts worked under conditions very much like the slaves and they used songs in very much the same way. Had we not recorded them, they would have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. That important part of history would be unknown to us and future generations.” words / j woodbury

ought_570_v1

Lagniappe (la·gniappe) noun ˈlan-ˌyap,’ – 1. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit. 2. Something given or obtained as a gratuity or bonus.

A year ago next month, I happened upon Ought’s live show while in New York. Their performance that evening stands as one of the more memorable examples of going in to see a band cold and leaving a proselytizing fan. Shades of Talking Heads, Television, the Fall and the Feelies swirled around the room that night, though never approaching gross pastiche.

This week’s installment catches us with the Montreal group as they reinvent ’80s Cyndi Lauper and pay tribute to the defunct Sexy Kids. Ought, in their own words, below.

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I was in an American High School the first time I heard She’s So Unusual. I had laughed, at first, at the cover art and then turned to a friend for social approval.  Stone-faced, he returned my gaze: “this is a seriously amazing record.”  She’s So Unusual might be my favourite pop record, and “Money Changes Everything,” being the lead-off, might be the first song in which I’d ever heard a synth (and what a synth-line…), as well as my personal favourite to dance to. As a vocalist, I find Cyndi’s voice absolutely gut-wrenching. Also, Cyndi once saved my life: I was driving back to Montreal from the USA in the terrifying carcass of my old Honda Minivan (that Tim K and I did our first tours in). I felt myself dozing at the wheel, hitting the rumble strips as soporific Québécois folk tunes played on the radio until I remembered… a Cyndi mixtape! The first lines of “Money Changes” came on and gave me enough juice to cruise on home.

Ought :: Money Changes Everything (Cyndi Lauper)

“Sisters Are Forever” is a rare uniting force amongst the four of us; a track that can get us all out of the dumps pretty fast. I’m not even sure how we came across it–it’s a hard-to-find 2008 7″ on Slumberland, and the band seems to have disappeared from the internet. None of us have ever heard any other songs by them, as far as I know, anyway. I think some of them are in that band Veronica Falls now, which I’ve never heard, either. So it’s just this song, really, with no context, and us flailing like idiots while we pack our stuff after shows when Amy, our sound tech, plays it over the PA. For our version we thought it fitting to sap all the fun out of it.

Ought :: Sisters Are Forever (Sexy Kids)

Lagniappe Sessions Archives / imagery via d norsen.

Welcome to the seventh installment of an ongoing series with Pickathon, showcasing footage from the Galaxy Barn located at Pendarvis Farm in Oregon: Mikal Cronin – “Gone”. Photo / Autumn Andel

ladiesfromthecanyonBuried on side one of At Last, Reilly & Maloney’s 1976 debut album, “Wildman” is a heartbreaking journey through the subtle intrusion of newfound love. It’s the story of a man relentlessly seeking the admiration of a lady, beaten and bruised by the past, guided by the warm and echoey vocals of Ginny Reilly. Reilly and Maloney joined forces in San Francisco in 1968 to compose and perform their own brand of folk music — an amalgamation that can be described as woodsy and au courant California in demeanor.

Billed solely as a Ginny Reilly song, “Wildman” was rescued from obscurity in 2006 by a nascent Numero Group, via the label’s stellar anthology of far-out female folk music: Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From The Canyon. Preceded by twelve equally impressive folk gems, this collection serves as the best way to embrace the song — a testament to the compilation’s overall aesthetic curation. words / p dufrene

Ginny Reilly :: Wildman

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Unlike many bands that sprouted out of the DIY ethos set into motion by the release of Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown 7” in 1978, Sonic Youth were a few years into their long, influential run by the time that their first 7” was released in 1984 (“Death Valley ’69”).

While both sides of the “Death Valley” single were issued the following year on the group’s incredible Bad Moon Rising LP, the single (released on the tiny Iridescence label) features early versions of both tracks that have a downright frightening rawness to them. It can be argued “Death Valley ’69” was the first time the group found the sound that they are most known for — namely, adopting classic rock ‘n roll song structure to Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s reinvention of the role of guitar in a conventional rock band. The debut EP (1982) adopted their guitar skronk to post-punk rhythms, and while 1983’s Confusion Is Sex delivers a macabre and terrifying hellish racket, “Death Valley” plays out like a twisted, fist pumping arena rock anthem from a bizarre world turned upside down and inside out. Sure, the intro scream isn’t as convincing here as it is on the LP version, but there’s a definite excitement on this recording, and the Thurston/ Lydia Lunch duet is in many ways a bit creepier here than on the full-length. In a way, I slightly prefer the single version of Kim Gordon’s remarkable “Brave Men Run (In My Family)”. The tempo is a tad slower, making the intro soundscape unfold in a chaotic way (a Sonic Youth trademark) beautifully setthing the stage for Kim’s dreamy lyrics (words which are made even more interesting after reading of her inspiration for the song via her recent book). This single is marks the first time the band used the work of artist Gerhard Richter (a painting entitled Vesuv), whose candle painting (Kerze) iconically graces the cover of their masterpiece, Daydream Nation.

Sonic Youth :: Death Valley ’69
Sonic Youth :: Brave Men Run (In My Family)

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The next Sonic 7″, while released in 1985, features two recordings that predate the “Death Valley” single. Released as a freebie with Forced Exposure magazine, (Over)Kill Yr Idols features two BLAZING tracks recorded at a white hot gig in Berlin, 10/30/83. This entire show has made the rounds in trade circles for years, and it’s well worth hearing as one of the greatest early live Sonic Youth documents. The dead wax inscription reads “Kim Gordon Rocks” and yes, Kim is rocking at a whole other level of intensity on this version, which in my opinion surpasses the studio take and is the definitive version of the track. Sonic Youth, thankfully, brought this track back onto the set lists in their later years, and the raging intensity was always a concert highlight. For the flip, “Kill Yr Idols” (originally released in ’84 on a German-only EP, but a live staple of the band through many years) is retitled “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fuckin’ Dick”. While it can be argued whether the pen or the penis is mightier than the sword, there’s no pussyfooting around the fact that this diss was aimed directly at NY rock critic Robert Christgau’s dismissal of the early ’80’s NYC underground rock scene. As with the “Death Valley” single, the amazing artwork on this single was provided by southern California based artist Raymond Pettibone, who was already a legend in the underground world through his groundbreaking art on the majority of SST records releases.

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Sonic Youth :: I Killed Christgau With My Big Fuckin’ Dick
Sonic Youth :: Making The Nature Scene

Our last entry is another release from Forced Exposure, September 1988. Issued a month before the epic double LP Daydream Nation, this single features two excellent live versions of Daydream tracks “Silver Rocket” and “Eliminator Jr” (heard here as an instrumental and retitled “Non-Metal Dude Wearing Metal Tee”), as well as a live noise blast titled “You Pose You Lose” which features Thurston’s Walkman blasts onstage bleating out pieces of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (for years, Thurston used the Walkman to blast out freaky soundbites and familiar tunes to keep the flow while he and Lee switched or retuned guitars). “Silver” and “Pose” were recorded at Maxwell’s, Hoboken on 6/9/88, and “Non-Metal” at CBGB’s, 6/23/88 at shows which were dry runs for the Daydream Nation tour, and leaned heavily on the expanded reissue of that LP. Pocket Bolino’s artwork is excellent, and is beautifully printed on textured paper for the sleeve.

Sonic Youth :: Silver Rocket
Sonic Youth :: Non-Metal Dude Wearing Metal Tee
Sonic Youth :: You Pose, You Lose

Previously: Wax Wonders Archives

(Derek See is a Bay area based musician who plays guitar with The Bang Girl Group Revue, Joel Gion & Primary Colours, and occasionally makes records on his own with The Gentle Cycle.)

AQUARIUM-DRUNKARD

Our weekly two hour show on SIRIUS/XMU, channel 35, can be heard twice every Friday – Noon EST with an encore broadcast at Midnight EST.

SIRIUS 391: Jean Michel Bernard – Générique Stephane ++Intro – “Unknown to Themselves” ++ Dara Puspita – To Love Somebody ++ Van Morrison – Sweet Thing ++ Daniel Bachman – Happy One Step ++ The City – Man Without a Dream ++ Bob Carpenter – Miracle Man ++ Doris Troy – Whatcha Gunna Do About It ++ The Combinations – While You Were Gone ++ Lee Jung Hwa – I Don’t Like ++ The Mamas & The Papas – Snowqueen of Texas ++ The Band – To Kingdom Come + Clyde McPhatter – You’re Movin’ Me ++ Willie Wright – Nantucket Island ++ Jerry Jeff Walker – Well of the Blues ++ Jan Bradley – It’s Just Your Way ++ L.C. Cooke – Put Me Down Easy ++ Arthur Russell – Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart ++ Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris – In My Hour of Darkness ++ Buffalo Springfield – Kind Woman ++ Cat Power – Fortunate Son (CCR) ++ Arthur Russell – Come to Life ++ Vetiver – Sleep a Million Years ++ Here We Go Magic – Song in Three ++ White Denim – Light Light Light ++ Callers – Rone ++ Dirty Projectors – Dark Eyes (Bob Dylan) ++ Gracious Calamity – Song That Grows Like a Vine (Demo) ++ Jessica Pratt – Streets of Mine ++ Mountain Man – Around and Around (John Denver) ++ Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Into My Arms ++ The Rolling Stones – Sweet Black Angel ++ Junior Kimbrough – My Mind Is Rambling ++ Antony & Bryce Dessner – I Was Young When I Left Home ++ Vandaveer – Long Black Veil ++ Jim Woehrle & Michael Yonkers – Monkey’s Tail ++ Hawa Daisy Moore – Ja Na Ka ++ Francis Bebey – Doula o Mulema ++ Chester Lewis – Precious Lord ++ Odetta – Cool Water ++ Shirley Ann Lee – Introduction / All I Have To Depend On

*You can listen, for free, online with the SIRIUS three day trial — just submit an email address and they will send you a password.
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L.A.’s Small Wigs are the brainchild of FIDLAR’s Elvis Kuehn and Mikki Itzigsohn of Isaac Rother & The Phantoms. The group’s frenetic, SST-nodding punk has won them opening gigs with Mike Watt, the Flesheaters, and the King Khan & BBQ Show, and their debut 7” completes the circuit, snipping a bit of the Gun Club’s twangy swagger and filtering it through a D. Boon guitar strut. You can cop “Hangdog”/“New Wig” on Mock Records, but check out “Hangdog” below.

Small Wigs :: Hangdog

yltFans of Yo La Tengo’s softer side received some very good news this week with the announcement of the band’s latest LP, Stuff Like That There, out August 28th. It’s being pitched as a “spiritual sequel” to YLT’s beloved, semi-acoustic 1990 album, Fakebook, which masterfully mixed covers, re-worked originals and new songs. Judging from the two songs that have surfaced so far, the band has ably located the Fakebook magic a quarter century later.

The secret ingredient just might be guitarist Dave Schramm, who has been re-enlisted into YLT’s ranks for the first time since Fakebook (though he appeared live with them occasionally). Schramm’s gorgeous, glistening tone is all over the mellow remake of the previously stormy “Deeper Into Movies,” which originally appeared on 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Simply beautiful. words / t wilcox

Yo La Tengo :: Automatic Doom
Yo La Tengo :: Deeper Into Movies