Pops-Staples-Dont-Lose-ThisIn 2014, Mavis Staples tasked Jeff Tweedy with a heavy responsibility. She asked the Wilco songwriter, who’s helmed the production console on her last two solo LPs, to take tracks from an unfinished 16-year-old session recorded by her father, gospel patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughters, and use them to craft a completed album. Don’t Lose This, named for Pops’ command to Mavis regarding the incomplete recordings before his death in 2000, is a modest but stalwart piece of work.

Tweedy resists any urge to tinker, instead presenting the barest elements of Pops’ sound, his tremolo-shaking electric guitar and worn voice, with as little obstruction as possible. In addition to original tracks by bassist Tony Grady and drummer Tim Austin, Tweedy adds spare guitar and bass, and his son Spencer contributes economic drums, but mostly Pops and his daughters, Yvonne, Mavis, and the late Cleotha, who passed in 2013, handle the work. It’s a wise move; it’s hard to imagine what one could add to these songs that isn’t already there in Pops’ holy murmurs and the Singers’ sanctified choruses.

Pops’ guitar always muddied the waters between the blues and gospel, and on Don’t Lose This it sounds incredible, from the introduction of “Somebody Was Watching” to the stinging live version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” that closes the record. Mavis takes the lead vocal on “Love On My Side,” a standout selection, and the group revisits the Carter Family’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” adding to the number of times the group included the standard on one of its recordings. Their reading this time is both somber and celebratory, with the sisters’ voices swelling around the insistent thump and roll of the rhythm section and Pops’ snaking electric guitar. Even at its sparsest, the record’s simple elements exhibit a tonal lushness. All on his own, Pops imbues “Nobody’s Fault But My Own’”with a kind of mournful grace. “You do wrong your soul be lost,” he sings. Luckily for the listener, these recordings weren’t lost, and the love and care exhibited by Mavis Staples and Tweedy is a testament to just how “found” they were. words / j woodbury

Pops Staples :: Somebody Was Watching

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Transfiguration. In 1968 British guitarist Davy Graham kicked off his lp Large As Life And Twice As Natural with this re-imagining of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” — a song itself made famous (in part) by Judy Collins Grammy award winning cover in 1969.

Whereas Collins rendering was fairly catholic to the Mitchell original in its approach, Graham’s is anything but. Transcendent.

Davy Graham :: Both Sides Now

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Tune in to this all-vinyl medley of soul, funk, blues and folk intended to guide you through February on a freedom train of rhythm.

Aquarium Drunkard Presents: February – A Medley

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This: While in pursuit of a Radio and Television Broadcasting degree from Chicago State University, Cynthia C. Gibson produced the music video for “More Than Enough.” Filmed in the Summer of 1983, the video stars her husband and Universal Togetherness Band frontman Andre Gibson. The group’s prolific studio career, spanning the years 1978-1983, explored permutations of soul, jazz-fusion, new wave, and disco with little regard for studio rates or the availability of magnetic tape. Previously unreleased, Universal Togetherness Band’s brightest moments are now available through the Numero Group.

keggsThe story of The Keggs plays out like the narrative of a death disc single. A rock n roll band from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, in July of 1967 they recorded their one and only 45 single on Orbit Records. Of the seventy-five copies pressed, most were destroyed during the subsequent 1967 race riots — there are currently ten known copies left in existence. Although they gigged around the midwest playing public pools, VFW halls and backyard birthdays, The Keggs failed to garner critical attention or accrue a serious following of any kind. It wasn’t long into their young career, when the lead singer (or guitarist, depending on which legend you believe) was decapitated in a motorcycle accident on his way to rehearsal. His tragic death ended The Keggs forever; the rest of the members disappeared into slow, irretrievable obscurity.

Whether any of the above is true or the product of a gossipy garage-rock game of telephone is beside the point. What is irrefutable is that “To Find Out” — the A-Side to The Kegg’s sole document — is perhaps the purest, most earnest specimen of punk ever put to wax. A wild, raucous, inept and soulful teen-age dirge. The paragon of rock n roll’s unpretentious, animalistic, primitive cave-man id. In it, one can hear the proto-slop of bands to come — from The Ramones to The Modern Lovers to The Black Lips and beyond.

“To Find Out” is perfect imperfection. A song which belongs next to “Louie, Louie,” “Psychotic Reactions” and “Wild Thing” in the perennial canon of primordial fuzz. If it weren’t for Tim Warren and his mandatory “Back From The Grave” compilations, “To Find Out” might have died that night with the Keggs’ lead singer (or guitarist). Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. words / e o’keefe

The Keggs :: To Find Out

Paul-NgoziOur 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 375: Jean Michel Bernard – Générique Stephane ++ Honeyboy Martin & The Voices – Dreader Than Dread ++ Johnny & The Attractions – I’m Moving On ++ Andersons All Stars – Intensified Girls ++ King Sporty – DJ Special ++ Freddie Mackay – When I’m Gray ++ Hopeton Lewis – Sound And Pressure ++ The Upsetters – Popcorn ++ Willie Williams – Armageddon Time ++ Sister Nancy – Bam Bam ++ Nora Dean – Angie La La ++ The Upsetters – Taste Of Killing ++ The Skatalites – Herb Man Dub ++ Lloyd & Glen – That Girl ++ The Jamaicans – Ba Ba Boom ++ Hopeton Lewis – Let Me Come On Home ++ Byron Lee – Hot Reggae ++ Ernest Ranglin – Below The Bassline ++ Errol Dunkley – The Scorcher ++ Slim Smith – Hip Hug ++ The Reggae Boys – Selassie ++ Dave Barker – Funky Reggae ++ Johnny Clarke – Rebel Soldiering ++ Clarendonians – You Won’t See Me ++ Paul Ngozi – In The Ghetto ++ Peter King – African Dialects ++ Dorothy Ashby – Soul Vibrations ++ Sun Ra – Angels & Demons ++ Alton Ellis – Whiter Shade of Pale ++ Os Mutantes – Bat Macumba ++ Mor Thiam – Ayo Ayo Nene ++ West African Cosmos – Emeraude ++ Fatback Band – Goin’ To See My Baby ++ Darondo – Let My People Go ++ Yaphet Kotto :: Have You Ever Seen The Blues ++ Nina Simone – Four Women ++ Damon – Don’t You Feel Me

*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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newmanThere’s been a lot of talk recently about satire. What it is, what it does, if it really exists anymore. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, the question whether or not the use of racist imagery can ever be sufficiently ironic has been a noticeably polarizing one. Everyone poring over the nuances of a French, left-leaning magazine (and, yes, its oftentimes crude appropriation of racial stereotypes) has also opened a larger debate, however. Not only in regards to free speech and political correctness, but also when it comes to satire per se.

In the wake of recent events, the writer Will Self found reason to draw a line in the sand:

‘[T]he test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken’s definition of good journalism: it should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” The trouble with a lot of so-called “satire” directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting.’

Leaving aside the irony of any good, moral definition having sprung from the mind of an unapologetic elitist-racist like Mr Menken, let’s think about this use of affliction as a moral barometer. (Let’s also gloss over the fact the Menken-Self test becomes rather less precise where groups wrangle over who is the more afflicted and who is being afflicted by whom.) The thesis here is that we should seek to protect the underdog, the lumpen few—which is no bad thing, obviously. Satire is surely meant for the bad guys, for taking down the complacent powers-that-be. However, according to Self, if satire is to maintain its moral backbone—if it is to be ‘good’—it can only do so by punching upwards and away from the have-nots. In other words, satire’s shit sandwich should be left for the status quo alone. Thou shalt not mock the underprivileged, the put upon, the uncomfortable…

My rather more succinct definition of ‘good’ satire is Randy Newman. Others may throw around more technical, more literary names (Juvenal and Horace, the Minippean, the Hogarthean), but I prefer Newman’s name because of what it represents in regards to the art of satire. Show me any recent think piece about what good satire is or is meant to be and my response is invariably going to be Well, what about Randy Newman? And that’s because, when we talk about Newman’s satirical songwriting, we are necessarily talking about more than straight mockery and poking fun. This is about making you feel something alongside the laughter. It’s about stripping away pretense in less-than-obvious ways and making you swallow hard facts. More importantly, it’s about never being made comfortable.

Let’s get Newman’s best known song, “Short People”, out of the way first, as it both is and isn’t the kind of exemplary Randy Newman satire I want to discuss. It was such a staple of the late-Seventies (kept out of Billboard’s number one spot by no less than “Staying Alive”) that very little recap is needed. Suffice it to say, the song’s narrator has a thing against short people. What we are offered in the lyrics is a laundry list of grievances, all the result of short people with their ‘grubby little fingers’ and ‘nasty little teeth’. So, at first glance anyway, this would seem like comedy very much at the expense of the little man. (The song pushed enough buttons to get legislation drafted in Maryland to keep it off the airwaves). Admittedly not quite as sophisticated as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the irony was still lost on some listeners. On the face of it, these lyrics are offensive, aren’t they? Don’t short people have a hard enough time without a bouncy song poking fun at their shortcomings? What was frequently missed was the characteristic double-ness of Newman’s satire. The laughable stupidity of the song’s prejudice is the un-laughable stupidity inherent in all prejudice. Once that central irony is appreciated, we can see that the target isn’t demonic little people, it is our own prejudicial stupidity. The butt of the joke is all of us.

As Newman himself has explained in a number of interviews, it’s too easy to say ‘prejudice is bad’ and have done with the issue. ‘I find it more natural to do it in an indirect way by having a character who states the case. I always think the audience is a little brighter than some of the people in my songs.’

That sense of the indirect route, of Newman-ian Double-ness, is a fundamental to his satirical songs. In “Davy the Fat Boy” we find a carnival barker who exploits the rotundity of an orphaned ‘friend’ for monetary gain. Drawn into the sideshow, listeners are held to account. Again the finger points at us (‘I think we can persuade him to do/The famous fat boy dance for you.’) Another great example is what might be considered Newman’s first satirical masterpiece—”Sail Away.” There too we find a huckster disguising cruelty underneath a sheen of philanthropy and communal spirit: ‘In America, you get food to eat/Won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet/You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day/You all gonna be an American.’  You want irony? Well, imagine a slave trader backed by a string arrangement as sweepingly gorgeous as anything by Aaron Copland. Imagine him laying down a piano figure filled with the ghosts of Stephen Forster and Hoagy Carmichael and singing the praises of ‘the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake.’ It is unsettling, almost painful, the way the song balances a slave trader’s reassurances (‘In America every man is free’) with something musically so beautiful that it makes us want to get on the boat. And all this despite Newman’s treading very sensitive ground indeed (‘climb aboard little wog, sail away with me’). We know this history, we know the suffering it was predicated upon and how it turned out. But the song works as great satire because it doesn’t let us off the hook so easily.

We don’t laugh at this style of irony and find our moral superiority still intact. The funniness gives way to darker truths. Try listening to “Rednecks“, for example (the epitome of an ironic Newman-esque one-two punch) and remain sitting comfortably. You might even laugh with relief at the first couple verses and the pot-shots taken at the ‘good ol’ boys from Tennessee,’ but come the final chorus, Newman makes sure the irony is pointed squarely at you.

Religion isn’t off limits for Newman, either—but you have to be mindful of the way his brand of satire deals with this subject matter, particularly in “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”, the song that closes-out the Sail Away (1972) album.

Randy Newman :: God’s Song

By this point in the album, we’ve already heard an unadulterated song of praise (‘He Gives Us All His Love’) and a bleak, atheistic lament (‘Old Man’), but ‘God’s Song’ shuts the door on unquestioning faith and shuts it hard. Satirical to its core, it is also serves up one of Newman’s darkest ironies—and does so in no less a voice than that of god Himself. The song’s subtitle hints knowingly at Threepenny Opera’s ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ but what we get musically-speaking is closer to “St James Infirmary Blues“: just solo piano and voice, along with a faintly tapping foot reminiscent of John Lee Hooker. On the face of it, it’s a bluesy dirge sounding the death knell for the very concept of a compassionate God. A theodicy to end all theodicies. If Dylan rooted his Americana in the story Abraham and Isaac, Newman now pushes it even further back, to the first murder, the first conscious act of violence and cruelty.

JAG260Calgary’s Viet Cong arrived fully formed with last year’s Mexican Summer release, Cassette. But on their self-titled Jagjaguwar debut, it is clear they have grown even tighter and more sure-footed in the short time that has passed. Teasing the new release with “Continental Shelf” and “Silhouettes,” two crystalline cuts of damaged coldwave and an Echo & The Bunnymen breed of post-punk, the tracks only hinted at a record that is relentless in its rhythm, volume and intensity.

The album opens with “Newspaper Spoons,” a brutal kick in the face of propulsive, distorted drums and industrial melody, which unfolds into a beautiful wash of synths. “Pointless Experience” maintains this harsh texture with a driving krautrock groove before sliding into “Bunker Buster” — a Television-esque guitar jam, angular and unbridled. The 11-minute album closer “Death” is a shape-shifting epic and will be one of many reasons that this band will have a frenzied live show this year. But it’s the album’s centerpiece “March of Progress” that is the true highlight. An unflinching drone of pulsating rhythm and faded synths, a kaleidoscopic harmony appears midway through comprised of psych-folk vocals and gorgeously reverberating six-string as they sing, “maybe you just need someone to keep you warm/with fire/coming from a different sun.” It’s a tender and inviting moment on a record that is not full of them. It’s also just enough respite to send you right back into the fierce. words / c depasquale

Viet Cong :: March of Progress

prassOn Nashville singer-songwriter Natalie Prass’ self-titled album, every song is like a tiny miracle. Helmed by producer Matthew E. White and his Richmond, Virginia-based studio/band/label, Spacebomb, the album features lush string arrangements, jazzy overtones and classic R&B horns. But White could make almost anyone sound good. What sets Prass far apart is the maturity of her songwriting; her elegant, woodwind-esque voice and absolute feel for phrasing.

These are introspective breakup songs that deal with losing the upper hand in a relationship. It’s the kind of gospel-tinged country-pop that Nashville produced in the ’60s with artists like Brenda Lee and Skeeter Davis, though Prass’ voice has a little more Dusty Springfield in its almost-whispered and airy falsetto.

Yet Prass has clearly moved beyond those stylistic comparisons. A few years ago, she recorded a set of stark videos that would foreshadow her new musical direction. In an empty room with just her voice and the distorted bell tones of a Wurlitzer, she sounded more like James Blake or D’Angelo than her Nashville contemporaries.

One of the songs from that session winds up on the new album as the opener “My Baby Don’t Understand Me.” The song poses a practical question in the face of losing love — “What do you do when that happens?” — before turning an everyday thought on its head: “Where do you go when the only home you know is with a stranger?” Another song, “Why Don’t You Believe In Me,” follows a similar emotional line of questioning: “Why don’t you believe in me? What did I do?” Prass asks, before filling in the painful blanks herself: “You need something new.”

There’s an impressive stylistic range here as well. “Christy,” with harp and an unexpected chamber feel, evokes Mark Mothersbaugh’s film scoring, Scott Walker and Tom Waits’ Alice. “Reprise” takes a cue from ’60s girl groups, while “It Is You” tries on Disneyfication with only a hint of irony.

For his part, White’s gift as a producer is to create a multi-layered world that the listener is able to unravel bit by bit with each listen. The album seems to have been years in the making. I first heard demos a few years ago, though it’s clear that Prass and White (friends since high school) have been laboring heavily over the design since then. This is the type of album where every song is so good, it must have been nearly impossible to pick the singles. It’s only January, but this already feels like one of the best albums of the year. words / d inman

Natalie Prass :: My Baby Don’t Understand Me