This review comes from PopMatters, written by Chris Gerard, Sept. 14, 2015…
Duran Duran’s Legacy Grows Stronger with Paper Gods
Every time a new Duran Duran album is released, there seems to be an almost irresistible compulsion for some writers to herald the “comeback” of the “‘80s pop heroes” or some such nonsense. Quite simply, anybody who says that hasn’t been paying attention—Duran Duran never left. They’ve been releasing albums, most of them quite excellent, on a regular basis since their self-titled debut hit shelves 34 years ago. And are they really an “‘80s band” when they released five albums in the ‘80s and nine albums from 1990 through today? Sure, their biggest commercial success by far came during the MTV era when videos like “Rio,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Save a Prayer” and “Union of the Snake” drove a manic hysteria that recalled Beatlemania. They did have a spike of popularity with their dual classics “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” from 1993’s Wedding Album, but since then they haven’t made much headway in the Top 40.
But as we all should know, just because a band’s sales figures no longer measure up doesn’t mean they’ve stopped making great music. Limiting them to the old “‘80s band” label does them an injustice, and overlooks all the great music they’ve put out in the last 25 years. It’s time for a serious reassessment of Duran Duran and their place in music history. As they prove yet again with their latest triumph, Paper Gods, Duran Duran is one of the most consistently entertaining bands of our generation. Most of their peers from the gloriously decadent ‘80s are either long gone, or are riding the oldies nostalgia circuit, playing their old hits in small venues. Not so Duran Duran. They’ve remained fresh and inventive, never content to repeat themselves, always with new tricks up their stylish sleeves.
Although Duran Duran has endured some lineup shifts, as do most bands with over 30 years of history, the core of Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes, Roger Taylor and John Taylor has remained remarkably solid. Mark Ronson, one of the top producers in the business and the band’s collaborator on their fantastic 2010 album All You Need Is Now, is once again behind the controls. He’s joined by co-producers Mr. Hudson, Josh Blair, and one of pop music’s ultimate hitmakers, Nile Rodgers. Rodgers has a deep history with Duran Duran, having worked with them on some of their most memorable hits. His remix of “The Reflex” became their first ever #1 single in America. He also produced the smash “Wild Boys” and their fantastic 1986 album Notorious. When news hit that Duran Duran was working with both Mark Ronson and Nile Rodgers on their new album, anticipation amongst fans understandably soared.
Happily, while the album is not quite on par with All You Need Is Now, the collaboration is as successful as anybody could have hoped. Paper Gods is more pop and dance oriented than its guitar-heavy predecessor, but by no means does it sound like a desperate attempt to appeal to a generation who makes fun of their parents for singing “Please please tell me now! Is there something I should know?” at the top of their lungs in the mini-van. Paper Gods is just a great pop album—mature, sophisticated, and intoxicating. Sure, there are nods to their ‘80s heyday in the music and in the sly visual allusions on the cover art. But even with those coy winks to the past, Paper Gods is firmly planted in the present and future. It’s a thrill hearing Simon LeBon’s voice, sounding as good as ever, over the sinuous, spacey electronica of the seven-minute title track which opens the album. It’s followed by “Last Night in the City,” an electrifying rocker featuring guest vocals by the talented Canadian singer Kiesza. It has one of the strongest melodic hooks on the album with its soaring chorus, and should be a serious contender for next single. The dramatic “You Kill Me with Silence” is a moody, wounded reflection on a fading relationship, with slinky synths and searing, distorted guitar near the end that bubbles to the surface like molten steel.
The album’s first single, “Pressure Off,” is a spirited slice of funk-pop featuring guest vocals by the versatile R&B sensation Janelle Monáe. It’s as tight a pop anthem as any in Duran Duran’s career, and stands tall alongside their legendary hits of the past. “Face for Today” is a stuttery new wave revival with an emphatic groove and booming bass. As with much of the album, flashes of retro synths jolt out from the sleek, modern pop vibe. “Danceophobia” is a hard-charging dancefloor epic with a pulsating rhythm and bright flares of shimmering keyboards. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the Timbaland-produced tracks on Duran Duran’s 2007 release Red Carpet Massacre. There’s even an appearance by Lindsay Lohan in a brief spoken-word section with her voice computerized (yeah, the idea sounds cringeworthy, but it actually works). If this track isn’t a single with multiple remixes, it will be a shock and a missed opportunity. “Danceophobia” should have club DJs salivating.
The gorgeous ballad “What Are the Chances?” swoons and sways majestically in the tradition of classics like “Save a Prayer,” “My Antarctica” and “Ordinary World.” The former Red Hot Chili Peppers’ virtuoso John Frusciante weaves his guitar through the melancholy grandeur like a hot razor slicing through the dreamy, cinematic waves of keyboard. Another standout is “Change the Skyline,” an edgy dance-rocker with kinetic synths bouncing over a fiery groove. It features Jonas Bjerre, vocalist for the outstanding Danish band Mew, whose beautifully airy vocals blend seamlessly with LeBon’s. Backing vocalist Anna Ross shines on “Butterfly Girl,” a soulful rocker with an absolutely blistering guitar solo by Frusciante.
The album closes with back-to-back six-minute epics. “Only in Dreams” boasts one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album, with graceful harmonies floating delicately over the wickedly tight and funky instrumentation. The slow-burning “The Universe Alone” ends the album with simmering drama. “I’ll see you in some other lifetime/on the other side of what we’ll never know/together we have walked a fine line / now we go to face the universe alone,” LeBon sings in perhaps his finest vocal performance on Paper Gods. Frusciante again adds an elastic guitar part that coils around and through the deft electronic beats and keyboards before the whole thing descends into apocalyptic static and distortion, with an angelic chorus rising at the very last moment as it fades to silence.
Paper Gods is a sonic marvel, beautifully produced by an ace team of collaborators. The sounds pop out of the speakers from every direction— it’s an exciting feast for the ears, with always something new, unexpected and alive. Listen to it in the car on full blast, but then try it on headphones to experience all the careful attention to detail and nifty sounds that emerge with repeated listens. Almost every track could be a single, and there was plenty of strong material left over judging by the excellent bonus tracks hiding on the album’s deluxe edition. Hearing Duran Duran sounding as good as they ever have with an exhilarating collection of expertly crafted pop is a pure joy.
For those fans who only know Duran Duran’s mega ‘80s hits, do yourself a favor and check out Paper Gods immediately. And while you’re at it, seek out some of the lesser-known gems in their catalog like Medazzaland and Pop Trash. Most definitely take the time to absorb their superb 2010 release All You Need Is Now. The ‘80s hits are great and it was an amazing era for them and many other artists, but it’s time for Duran Duran to be recognized for what they are: one of the most consistently innovative and electrifying pop/rock bands of the last 35 years. Nostalgia is all well and good, but Duran Duran is every bit as vital in 2015 as they were in 1983, and whether it’s reflected on the pop charts or not is wholly irrelevant. In a statement on the Duran Duran website marking the release of Paper Gods, Simon LeBon says, “Please spare us the 50 or so minutes that it takes and listen to Paper Gods from its opening note to its closing echo. I promise that you will not be disappointed.” The man knows what he’s talking about.
This review of Keef’s first new solo album in 23 years comes from Paste, written by Holly Gleason, Sept. 15, 2015…
As rock’s enduring pirate, Keith Richards embodies swagger, sangfroid and a certain delicious naughtiness. More than the Stones themselves, the guitarist exudes a dirt ’n’ salt earthiness that’s equal parts Rastafarian, broke-down cowboy and seen-it-all gypsy globetrotter.
On “Trouble,” the most post-modern Stones-evoking track on Crosseyed Heart, his voice is all worn rope and spark. The guitars tumble and swoop as co-producer/drummer Steve Jordan presses the beat with an urgency, Richards laughingly croaking “Maybe trouble is your middle name…”
For surface fans, the check is covered.
But the more eclectic material is where Richards’ wit and grit emerge. With the unfinished acoustic “Crosseyed Heart,” about loving two women, disintegrating into the frank admission, “That’s all I got,” Richards lets it all hang out.
There’s “Nothing on Me,” the low-slung blues shuffle of getting busted and getting out of it; a horn-flecked reggae undulation, “Love Overdue”; and the “Wild Horses”-evoking “Robbed Blind” basted in steel guitar—a tale of misadventure, a dusty half-spoken vocal, a plucked gut string guitar and an evocation of Gram Parsons’ finest hardcore country.
After random spoken riffing, “Amnesia” finds Richards sinking into the pulsing groove of the corner-of-mouth muttered mid-tempo. Fallout from being conked on the head (coconut tree, anyone?), its snarl suggests far darker pursuits. That misdirection to danger fuels his song and feeds his hungers.
“She’s a vegetarian, and me, I like my meat,” Richards enthuses in the “opposites attract” rocker d’amour “Heartstopper.” Waddy Wachtel’s electric guitar sweeps down, strangles the frenzy and drives it higher—like the great late mid-career Stones moments—but Richards’ snaggle-toothed confession of lust-fueled magnetism brings it home.
If “Something for Nothing” seems expected, the halting “Just a Gift,” all midnight and gravelly offer, has that gentleman rogue tinge that’s made Richards the most alluring of all rock stars. The smoldering, world-weary knowledge and always tender soul beneath the leathery exterior beckon.
Followed by a drawn-out “Good Night Irene,” delivered like the dissolute’s “Amazing Grace,” Crosseyed Heart is a hymnal for rascals, reprobates and ne’er-do-wells with hearts of gold—or at least kindness. Honor among thieves, love amongst scoundrels… Keith Richards has carved an encompassing survey of his own spirit and set it to a vast set of influences for all to see.
The return of Difford & Tilbrook! A review of the first brand-new Squeeze album in 17 years. Written by Rob Mesure on the MusicOMH website, dated Sept. 29, 2015…
Danny Baker makes little apology for the lack of authentic grit and misery in Going to Sea in a Sieve, his memoir of growing up in 1970s Bermondsey: “What was our life like in the noisy, dangerous and polluted industrial pock mark [in] one of the capital’s toughest neighbourhoods?” asks the ever-affable broadcaster. “Utterly magnificent, and I’d give anything to climb inside it again.” Now that the book is being brought to vivid brown-and-orange life in the BBC series Cradle to Grave, who better to provide original songs for the soundtrack than Baker’s old schoolmate Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook?
Since their most recent reunion in 2007, Squeeze have released Spot the Difference – a 2010 album of classic songs re-recorded – and an EP of new songs, but Cradle to the Grave is the first full album of (mostly) new material to emerge in 17 years. Tilbrook initially contacted Baker after reading his book with a view to working on a musical; what has emerged instead is an album that complements a television series, but works just as well without it.
Difford and Tilbrook, both clearly back on something approaching the top of their respective games, write in a variety of styles here, echoing the grab-bag approach that worked so well on East Side Story. The excellent title track has vamping ukulele and piano and gospel backing vocals, while “Nirvana” is a middle-aged disco shuffle; “Top of the Form” tips a hat to former producer Elvis Costello and the stand-out “Sunny” – a re-write of “Tommy” from 2012’s Packet of Four EP – marries an “Eleanor Rigby” string arrangement to schools programming analogue synthesiser.
But above all, these sound like Squeeze songs: back together but still an octave apart, Difford’s gruff and conversational brogue is, as always, perfectly complemented by Tilbrook’s breezy and boyish tones, almost untarnished by the intervening years. A rather underrated guitarist – bands of their era not necessarily being looked to for technical chops – Tilbrook’s playing is also undimmed by the passage of time: his solo on “Happy Days” in particular is all jazzy chromatic runs and country twang, like the offspring of Larry Carlton and Carl Perkins.
Taking situations encountered by the young Baker and his family as starting points, Difford tackles these teenage reminiscences with characteristic wit and feeling. There’s awkward fumbling at a party in “Only 15” and the agony of schooldays in “Top of the Form” (“the teachers all loathed me”), while “Sunny” basks in the liberation that music seemed to offer; only “Haywire,” detailing the protagonist’s pubescent (ahem) ‘private time’ borders on too much information. Meanwhile, “Nirvana” is an affecting look at the parents left behind when the children leave the nest, unsure how to spend their new found freedom: “He quibbled with ambition, she fell into a rut.”
As implied by Baker’s fond recollection, this is mostly nostalgia without the ache, the madeleine dunked in a steaming mug of Bovril. While the penultimate “Everywhere” hints at dissatisfaction with where life has led (“The debris of my life will never let me sleep”), the closing “Snap, Crackle and Pop” is optimistic (“I’ve been giving my past away … Now I’m living with the best of me”). Warm, melodic and acutely observed, Cradle to the Grave is a convincing return from two of our very finest songwriters.
Taken from the Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2015 and written by Chris Barton… an article on jazz musician Kamasi Washington…
When jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington was contributing string arrangements to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, few could have predicted that both L.A. artists would end up dominating the conversation about hip-hop and jazz in 2015.
But Lamar’s album, released this spring, has earned widespread acclaim for expanding the boundaries of rap, a genre that’s easy to pigeonhole for those who follow only the mainstream.
Washington is earning similar raves for his explorations on The Epic, a bold, three-disc statement that features a 10-piece band, a 20-person choir and a 32-piece orchestra. The album is out this week.
Though the records appear to reside on different sides of the musical spectrum, they’re connected by a shared commitment to independent, artistic vision, forward-looking blends of sound and far-reaching narratives that push against genre constraints.
They’re also linked by a shared band of tightly knit L.A. artists who appear on both albums, including brothers Ronald and Stephen Bruner (the latter better known by his stage name Thundercat), Miles Mosley and Ryan Porter.
Together, the records point to a long-gestating high point for creative music coming out of Los Angeles, and the rest of the world is taking notice.
“In general in L.A., there’s a movement of sincere music that’s just people expressing who they are. That’s what I got from Kendrick when I went to hear his album,” said Washington, 34, speaking at his management’s lushly appointed offices in Culver City. “He wasn’t concerned with anything but doing music he thought would be great. That was the same outlook when I was making this record.
“I want to make the music that I hear in my head, it’s just purely what is in me.”
Some coverage of Washington’s rise to national attention has come with a faint air of surprise, as if it were impossible for a jazz artist to release such a fully formed opening statement without first being vetted by the music’s vaunted New York City gatekeepers. Washington is quick to cite L.A.’s long and storied jazz history, and he doesn’t mind having flown under the radar.
“In some way, that’s a bit of a blessing. I feel like that’s part of the reason it’s so organic, it’s so raw, it’s so pure,” Washington said of the music coming from him and his longtime friends, adding that the lack of outside pressure helped them remain free of anyone else’s expectations.
“In L.A., I don’t know if it’s because the sun’s always out, but we’re not paranoid about that,” Washington said. “We just do what we do.”
The son of saxophonist Rickey Washington, Kamasi grew up in Inglewood and has been playing with many of his bandmates since childhood. He studied under Locke High School educator Reggie Andrews in the L.A. Multi-School Jazz Band, a longtime incubator for South L.A. talent that has included members of the Pharcyde as well as Patrice Rushen and Ndugu Chancler.
Washington lived close enough to walk to Billy Higgins’ vaunted musical hub the World Stage in Leimart Park, and he would catch rides home from a young bandmate, Terrace Martin. A fellow saxophonist, Martin co-produced To Pimp a Butterfly and pulled him into the sessions after hearing early masters of The Epic.
“He played a couple of songs, and they had these amazing string arrangements, really cinematic, 3-D-sounding string arrangements,” Martin said. “I was confident he was the man for the job.”
Washington went on to study at UCLA, where he was mentored by revered bandleader Gerald Wilson, who asked him to join his band when he was just 19. “Kamasi’s in a world of his own,” said Wilson, who beamed while marking Washington as a talent to watch during a 2012 conversation. (Wilson died in 2014 at age 96.)
“It was like a first-hand experience through the history of music with Gerald. He really understood what was happening now in music as well,” Washington said, adding that he credits Wilson for encouragement to use a string section after an early show with his electric band, the Next Step. “He was definitely a powerful, powerful human being.”
While at UCLA, Washington was tapped to tour with Snoop Dogg through another connection with Martin. Though the rapper has long maintained a laidback public persona, Washington remembers him as an exacting bandleader for a tack-sharp group of young jazz players.
“He knew how good we were, so he’d just call stuff out in front of 60,000 people,” Washington remembered. “‘Let’s play this Rick James song that I was listening to in the dressing room 20 minutes ago’ — at the show.
“I learned a lot on that level, musically. The whole notion of jazz being the more intellectual music is not really true… These (hip-hop) dudes, they hear rhythm with a sense of detail that a lot of jazz musicians are not privy to.”
After years building a local following as a sideman and a leader, Washington entered the studio in 2011 with the same group of longtime friends. Their goal was to record as much music as possible over a month’s time. According to Washington, a staggering eight albums and 190 songs were recorded among the various ensembles, including 45 tracks of his own. From there the editing process for The Epic began.
“Trying to reduce it to an album took me awhile. I felt like all 17 of those songs, there was nothing I wanted to change about any of those,” he said. “And it was weird, I started having these dreams and the album was playing out through the dream. And I came to this conclusion — these were supposed to be together, this was it.”
The result is an ecstatic, urgent swirl of jazz, funk and cosmic gospel that balances individual fireworks from some of L.A.’s top jazz players with airtight interplay. Other than a soulful take on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” as well as a song each by Terence Blanchard and Debussy, the album sets aside familiar covers for Washington’s original compositions.
“There’s a lot of pressure in jazz to express the lineage of the music, because it has such a rich lineage,” Washington said. “And I love it, I love ‘Trane, I love Bird, I love Gene Ammons, I love Wayne Shorter … But if I’m going to somehow display my mastery or knowledge of that vast group of musicians, how much room is there really left for me?”
Over 172 minutes, The Epic revels in an array of styles, at times capturing a meeting point between John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder, with each musical element on equal footing. Sometimes, such as on “Final Thought,” Washington’s flame-throwing saxophone takes the lead, while on “Re Run Home,” the focal point is an unstoppable Afrobeat groove. On “The Rhythm Changes,” it’s the soaring vocal of Patrice Quinn.
Anchored by a loose narrative about a warrior’s journey and a changing of the guard, the album’s penultimate track, “Malcolm’s Theme,” reveals a socially conscious center. Recasting Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X through an ethereal vocal melody, the song gives way to a plea for understanding drawn from a speech by the civil rights leader from 1965.
“To me, it’s an album that’s needed right now. It’s a very intense, yet gentle album,” Martin said. “His record is right on time.”
Washington said of the sessions, “I was pushing (the band) — put more of yourself, go further, play something I’ve never heard you play before. I just really wanted it to feel free and open and just like an expression of who we were and what we are.
“It wasn’t to replace anything,” he added. “John Coltrane didn’t replace Coleman Hawkins. He just displayed who he was. The universe is a vast, vast place. There’s room for everything.”
This review of the brand new PE release comes from Heather Starks, July 25th on the In Your Speakers website…
For over twenty five years, Public Enemy has made a career out of decrying social injustice and taking on corporate greed through heated political raps that stand unmatched to this day. They were one of the first groups to attempt what is now known as rap-metal, collaborating with Anthrax for a remake of “Bring the Noise” and thereby forcing two previously opposing genres to shake hands and play nice. Without them, music as we know it might sound entirely different. Numerous artists have claimed them to be among their greatest influences, from Kurt Cobain all the way to the Icelandic princess herself, Bjork. So when they announced the pending release of Man Plans God Laughs, there was a collective feeling of excitement in the air.
It could not have come at more appropriate time considering our current state of affairs. “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry for the African-American community, tired of watching young men and women being gunned down by the very people who are sworn to protect them. Riots have shut down entire cities, only reaching a boiling point after initial peaceful protests were ignored by the media as well as the majority of the country. Who better to take on this continuing fight to end racism and inequality than the group that helped bring it to the forefront with songs like “Fight the Power” and “911 Is a Joke”? Man Plans God Laughs is a continuation of their tirade against corruption and hatred, albeit an incredibly short one. The entire album clocks in at just under twenty seven minutes and each song ends almost abruptly, most of them falling in the two minute range. Despite the diminished running time, there is no lack of powerful admonishments and thought provoking lyrical jabs. Public Enemy may be getting older but they haven’t lost a single step.
Taking cues from the new generation of hip-hop by way of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, there are some noticeable musical differences from the onset. “No Sympathy from the Devil” (one of two Rolling Stones influenced songs found on the album) starts off like an EDM track, slowly building before Chuck D jumps in with his signature choppy flow. It’s an interesting conflict of ideas since the lyrics confront the issue of ageism in rap music, as well as calling out younger rappers who spend too much time focusing on lyrical gymnastics instead of presenting a meaningful message. Chuck D explained their approach in this way: “It’s almost like that uncle sitting on the porch. He’s not going to be up there talking fast and all big winded. He’s not going to be screaming. He’s going to say three words that will get you to say, “Damn!”
The majority of the focus falls on social matters, dropping uncomfortable truth bombs like on “Mine Again” when Chuck D bellows: “So it’s cool to be black/Until it’s time to be black.” Or the heartbreaking opening of “Give Peace a Damn,” where a child asks his father to read him a bedtime story, only to hear, “Yeah, you gonna grow up and die,” in response. This heavy subject matter is nothing new for Public Enemy but it resonates louder in times of civil unrest. When you stop for a minute and think about the fact that they have been rapping about the same problems for over a quarter of a century, it makes any progress that’s been made seem inconsequential.
One of the most interesting tracks on the album is “Honky Tonk Rules,” a song that was intended for 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet. It samples the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” but they were unable to gain clearance for its use the first time around, despite the approval of Mick Jagger himself. Sheila Brody of Brides of Funkenstein lends her gravely, bluesy voice and it makes you wish the Stones had been able to use her for the original recording instead of the flat performance they coaxed out of Reparata and the Delrons. All these years later, Public Enemy is still working to bring the worlds of rock and hip hop together, once again achieving fantastic results.
Musically, Man Plans God Laughs is not going to be remembered as their greatest album. But that feels almost intentional; instead of trying to come up with the sickest beats they chose to make the lyrics the focal point of the whole record. The barrage of lambastings about the way of life for African-Americans and the continuing fight for racial equality are a necessary missive no matter how much certain factions might want us to think it’s not. It’s a plea for everyone to take off their blinders and look at the mess we’ve made of the human race and the lives that have been unnecessarily lost in the process. With a message like that, it’s no wonder the godfathers of hip-hop have remained public enemy number one.
Another look at Blur’s excellent new album, The Magic Whip. This was written by famed critic, David Fricke, and taken from the May 7th issue of Rolling Stone…
How Blur Won the Brit-Pop War
The band’s first album in more than a decade is a dark, seductive set that cements a legacy.
In the Nineties, Oasis won the major Brit-pop battles: worldwide album sales, U.K. Number One singles and gossip-column yardage. But their archrivals, Blur, soundly beat them in exploration and legacy. Oasis wanted to be as big as the Beatles and the Who combined; Blur embodied those bands’ impatient forward march. At their studio peak—the five albums from 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish to 1999’s 13—they dissected the generational malaise behind Brit-pop’s lad-ish swagger in a hook-smart rush of mod crunch, shoegazer psychedelia, dance-floor invention, sumptuous balladry and angular alternative rock.
Blur now take the endurance trophy, too. Oasis broke up in 2009, while Blur’s classic lineup—singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree—has made its first new album in 16 years, one as quixotic and seductive in its modern searching and subversive pop highs as those Nineties winners. The Magic Whip is named after a Chinese brand of firecracker, and Blur recorded the guts of its 12 songs with explosive impulse in Hong Kong after a big Far East gig was canceled. Albarn—Blur’s lyricist, whose solo work and collaborations draw liberally from Asia and Africa—drops local references in the gauzy drift of “Ghost Ship” (“Swinging on a cable/Up to Po Lin,” a Buddhist monastery) and the tiki-bar kitsch of “Ong Ong” (“I want to be with you/On a slow boat to Lantao”).
But there is darker exotica in the album’s spare electronics and hard turns, like the swerve from the Kinks-like “Lonesome Street” to the spongy trip-hop of “New World Towers.” The endless neon and digital addiction in the latter song (“Log in your name and pray 24 hours”); the contradictory funk and willful isolation in “Go Out”: This is travel without resolution, an open ticket through a world made smaller by smartphones at the expense of sincere connection. In “Thought I Was a Spaceman,” Albarn sounds like David Bowie’s Major Tom falling through clouds of church organ and Coxon’s sighing guitar. “People like me fight to keep the demons in/But we never succeeded,” Albarn admits. It’s a gorgeous trip with a cold landing.
Albarn has become a multidiscipline star with bands like the hip-hop conceit Gorillaz and as a theatrical composer, while Coxon has a fine line of wayward solo LPs. They were already too restless, in love with overreach, at Blur’s original height to make truly perfect albums. That hasn’t changed. The Magic Whip could have used more taut “Song 2”-style yippee like “I Broadcast”; “There Are Too Many of Us” is too slender to sustain its repetition.
But you get, at the end of the ennui, a great new ballad in “Mirrorball,” with Albarn singing like Scott Walker holding up the bar in a Sergio Leone Western against Coxon’s wiry shivers of guitar. Blur excelled at this sublime romanticism—”This Is a Low,” on 1994’s Parklife; “The Universal,” on 1995’s The Great Escape—while Oasis flexed their wild-boy brawn. The latter didn’t have enough to last. Blur have returned with inspiration to spare. (RS 1234)
Sadly, blues legend B.B. King has passed away at the age of 89. This news story comes from Rolling Stone, dated today…
Brilliant bluesman who inspired a generation of guitarists and singers dies after decades-long battle with diabetes.
B.B. King, the larger-than-life guitarist and singer who helped popularize electric blues and brought it to audiences for more than six decades, died Thursday in Las Vegas. He was 89. King, who was diagnosed with diabetes nearly 30 years ago, was hospitalized last month due to dehydration. Last October, he was forced to cancel eight tour dates for dehydration and exhaustion. His attorney, Brent Bryson, confirmed his death to the Associated Press.
Into his late eighties, King toured the world year-round as the unrivaled ambassador of the blues. His indelible style – a throaty, throttling vocal howl paired with a ringing single-note vibrato sound played on his electric guitar named Lucille – defined the genre. He won 15 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
“He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” Eric Clapton wrote in his 2008 biography, “and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably B.B. King.”
King didn’t do anything small; his excesses included food, women, (he claimed to have fathered 15 children by 15 different partners) and gambling (he moved to Las Vegas in 1975). His sound was also big: Speaking about “When Love Comes to Town,” U2’s 1988 duet with King, Bono recalled, “I gave it my absolute everything I had in that howl at the start of the song. And then B.B. King opened up his mouth and I felt like a girl. We had learned and absorbed, but the more we tried to be like B.B., the less convincing we were.”
He was born Riley B. King in Itta Bena, Mississippi, on September 16th, 1925. His young parents divorced when he was five and his mother died when he was nine, leaving him to be raised by his maternal grandmother. King dropped out of school in tenth grade (though he vigorously studied math and languages until late in his life) and earned a living picking cotton for a penny a pound and singing gospel songs on a local street corner. He married at 17. “I guess I was looking for love, because I never had anybody I believed truly loved me,” he told Rolling Stone in 1998. It was the first of two failed marriages. “Since my early childhood, I had a problem trying to open up. Please open me up. Look inside! ‘Cause I can’t. I don’t know how to.”
In 1948, King was living in Memphis working as a tractor driver when he landed a gig on Sonny Boy Williamson’s local radio show. That led to a job at a popular West Memphis juke joint playing six nights a week, earning $12 a night, In Memphis, he met artists like Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker, where he heard electric guitar for the first time. “T-Bone was, to me, that sound of being in heaven,” he said.
King scored his first Number One hit in 1951 with “3 O’ Clock Blues.” Dozens more followed in the coming decades, including 1954’s “You Upset Me Baby,” 1959’s “Sweet Sixteen.” One night in 1949, King was performing at a dance in Twist, Arkansas, when two men started fighting over a woman named Lucille and set the club on fire by knocking over the kerosene stove. The place was evacuated, but King rushed back inside to retrieve his guitar, which he dubbed Lucille. Despite being married twice, King has said that Lucille was his true love, and he called every guitar he owned after that Lucille as well. “‘Lucille’ is real,” King once wrote. “When I play her, it’s almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries. I’d be playing sometimes as I’d play, it seems like it almost has a conversation with me. It tells you something. It communicates with me.”
In the Sixties, the success of blues-influenced British bands helped broaden King’s appeal. He began to perform for white rock audiences with acts like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Around this time, his sound started to change. When Rolling Stone included King among the 100 Greatest Guitarists, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top said, “There was a turning point, around the time of [1965’s] Live at the Regal, when his sound took on a personality that is untampered with today – this roundish tone, where the front pickup is out of phase with the rear pickup. And B.B. still plays a Gibson amplifier that is long out of production. His sound comes from that combination. It’s just B.B.” Some of King’s greatest recordings are live albums, including Live in Japan and Live at Cook County Jail, which showcase his masterful delivery and playful, old school showmanship.
In the late Sixties, King moved to New York and started working with manager Sid Seidenberg, who helped curb his gambling habit and got him in the studio with bigger producers. The hits that followed included 1968’s “Paid the Cost to Be the Boss,” 1969’s cutting social commentary “Why I Sing the Blues” and “The Thrill Is Gone” (originally recorded in 1951 by Roy Hawkins), a spooky minor-key stomp with string overdubs that earned King a Grammy in 1970 and was named Number 183 on Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” King’s songs mixed wry humor and deep-rooted soul.
In the Seventies, King also recorded albums with longtime friend and onetime chauffeur Bobby Bland, 1974’s Together for the First Time… Live and 1976’s Together Again… Live, and Stevie Wonder produced his 1973 song “To Know You Is to Love You.” In 1988, he recorded “When Love Comes to Town” for U2’s album Rattle and Hum. Bono later recalled an anecdote from the session: “When we were working, we were showing him the chords and he said,’ gentlemen. I don’t do chords. I do this [referencing King’s soloing style]. There’s a lesson in that. He is, as Keith Richards describes, a specialist.”
Said King, “Blues purists never cared for me. I don’t worry about it. I think if it this way: When I made ‘Three O’ Clock Blues’, they were not there. The people out there made the tune. And blues purists just wrote about it. The people is who I’m trying to satisfy.”
King’ style – marked by his signature ringing, vibrato notes – became a hallmark of blues playing, imitated by everyone from Clapton to Buddy Guy. “I always liked the steel guitar. I also love the guys that play the bottleneck,” King said. “But I could never do it; I never made it do what I want. So every time I would pick up the guitar, I ‘d shake my hand and trill it a bit. For some strange reason my ears would say to me that sounds similar to what those guys were doing. I can’t pick up the guitar now without doing it. So that’s how I got into making my sound. It was nothing pretty. Just trying to please myself. I heard that sound.”
“Very seldom does he talks about the way he play, man,” Buddy Guy told Rolling Stone last year. “He always wanna talk about young women. And I fuss at him sometimes, I say, ‘Man I wanna know what did you do here!'”
In 1991, B.B. King’s Blues Club opened in Memphis. Soon, he’d have clubs throughout the country. He continued to enjoy commercial success late into his career. In 2000, Riding with the King, an album recorded with Eric Clapton, topped the Blues Albums chart and went double-platinum. A 1998 Rolling Stone feature by Gerri Hirshey estimated that King had played more than 15,000 concerts. He spent more than 65 years on the road, playing more than 300 shows a year until cutting back to around a 100 during the last decade. “We worked our asses off from ’63 to ’66, right through those three years, non-stop,” Keith Richards once said. “I believe we had two weeks off. That’s nothing, I mean I tell that to B.B. King and he’ll say, ‘I been doing it for years.'”
King was also an entertainer off stage, regularly holding meet and greets, where he chatted with fans and “guitar kids,” as he called them, long after the house lights turned on. “At the Crossroads concerts, the first one I did, I was a nervous wreck,” Gary Clark Jr. told Rolling Stone last year. “It was a big day for me. I walked across the stage and B.B. kind of grabbed my hand, looked up at me, and just kind of nodded. That was one of those moments where I was like, ‘B.B. King is smiling at me. Everything is going to be all right. Yeah, I can go on with my life.”
King was also an avid reader and Internet enthusiast who once schooled a young reporter on how to transfer vinyl to MP3. “Gosh, I don’t know how I lived without it!” he once said of the computer.
“I’m slower,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “As you get older, your fingers sometimes swell. But I’ve missed 18 days in 65 years. Sometimes guys will just take off; I’ve never done that. If I’m booked to play, I go and play.”
He added, “The crowds treat me like my last name. When I go onstage people usually stand up, I never ask them to, but they do. They stand up and they don’t know how much I appreciate it.”
A Pitchfork review of the great new comeback album by 90s pop heroes Blur. Written by Craig Jenkins, April 28, 2015…
Early in the jarring opening pages of science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, the author appears to catch a glimmer of the actual future. Protagonist Guy Montag comes home from work to find his wife limp and dying of an overdose on sleeping pills. Montag calls for assistance and hangs back helplessly as paramedics revive her, thinking to himself, “There are too many of us. There are billions of us and that’s too many. Nobody knows anyone.” Could Bradbury have foreseen the quiet anomie of faces bathed in smartphone light, shuttling through overcrowded cities, alone together in only tangential acknowledgement of one other’s humanity? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Singer-songwriter Damon Albarn invokes Bradbury’s sentiment on “There Are Too Many of Us,” the emotional centerpiece of The Magic Whip, the reunion album from his reconstituted flagship Blur, as he muses about an Australian hostage crisis he once spectated on television from a hotel room above it. “For a moment I was dislocated by terror on the loop elsewhere,” he admits in verse two—not horrified, just momentarily “dislocated”—as if to call into question our dwindling concern for people in places outside our cubicles of convenience. Technology has made our world smaller, but it hasn’t made us less isolated. Ease of access doesn’t equal closeness.
The Magic Whip is the first Blur album since 2003’s Think Tank, the first with guitarist Graham Coxon onboard since 1999’s 13 (Coxon was booted from the Think Tank sessions a week in and summarily quit), and the first with producer Stephen Street since 1997’s Blur. In 2013, a lucky twist of fate netted the group some downtime between festival dates in South China and Indonesia, and Blur holed up in a Hong Kong studio to workshop new material. Anyone who’s waited a decade and a half for Albarn and his songwriting foil to resume tussling over bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree’s lithe low end will find a lot to enjoy; something special happens when these four get in a room, and you can still hear some of it happening here.
The distant traveler’s conflicting sense of wonder and alienation is the running theme here. “New World Towers” gazes at the web of neon signs overhead in awe of their glow, “Go Out” details nights alone at the bar and defeated late-night self-love. On “Thought I Was a Spaceman” Albarn recasts a longing for the comforting familiarity of London as a space-wrecked astronaut’s homesickness. The Magic Whip was conceived as Albarn wrapped work on his 2014 solo album Everyday Robots, and it’s tempting to see its disaffected tourism as a sister to Robots’ shattered workaday ennui back home.
Sensibilities from Albarn’s extracurricular projects frequently bleed into the frame, especially the Gorillaz, which shows both in dubby, beat-oriented cuts like “New World Towers” and in the lyrics’ pervasive sense of Englishness-in-exile. “Thought I Was a Spaceman” could easily serve as a prequel to Demon Days‘ post-apocalyptic opener “Last Living Souls” in sound and story, and “Ghost Ship” wouldn’t look out of place anchored off the shores of Plastic Beach. At times the sonic tug-of-war feels like Albarn clawing at the restrictions of a framework his ideas have outgrown.
In the moments when The Magic Whip is most interested in sounding like a Blur album, it is perhaps too interested. There’s a nod to nearly every epoch, from the synth-accented Parklife alt-rockisms of “I Broadcast” to the busy Great Escape pop of “Lonesome Street,” the Blur-ish guitar squall of “Go Out” and the winding 13-influenced electro-psych of “Spaceman.” Whip functions as a career travelogue in that sense; one wonders whether the decision to have Street, the band’s Britpop-era producer, helm the sessions hasn’t aroused a certain sense of nostalgia. Restless innovators deserve a cycle back through the worlds they’ve crafted here and there (see: the last decade worth of Prince and Beck) but it’s disorienting for a band as keenly interested in artistic recombination as Blur.
Sometimes the album veers into sleepy territory: The ambient washes and close mic’d, reverb-drenched strumming of “Spaceman” are welcome flourishes, as is the cluttered keyboard-and-acoustic bounce of “Ice Cream Man,” but both are better showcases for production than song structure. There’s also sluggish, saccharine adult contemporary on “My Terracotta Heart” and closer “Mirrorball,” though, momentum-killers in a back end that sometimes lags where it should lift. The tempo only picks up on “Lonesome Street,” “Go Out” and “I Broadcast”; the rest of the album bobs calmly adrift. It suits the album’s geographical fixation on Hong Kong, Indonesia, and especially the beaches and waters in between, but not the band’s own sweet spot.
All these frustrations fall away when the quartet locks into its signature jangly strut, as it does on the late album highlight “Ong Ong,” a chugging rocker outfitted with a chorus of lilting la-la’s. Its sunny soul is infectious, as Albarn, who once lamented he had “no distance left to run,” professes a love no measure of forbidding space could quell. Coxon’s in the wings playing hokey luau guitar, zeroing in on Damon’s seafaring yearning and playing it up for yaks until he storms center stage as the song draws to a noisy close. Blur’s always been puckish in spirit, its greatest gift the identification and gleeful subversion of listener expectations, and in moments like these it re-emerges, untarnished by the passage of time.
This article/review comes from The New Yorker, dated June 4, 2013 and written by Ben Greenman. He talks about the former Terence Trent D’Arby’s career and reviews his then-current album Return to Zooathalon…
Whatever Happened to Terence Trent D’Arby?
The day Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby came out, in the fall of 1987, I bought it, on cassette, in a state of fevered anticipation. I had been reading about D’Arby all summer: the record, released in England that July, had become an instant sensation, topping the charts and earning comparisons to everyone from Prince to Michael Jackson to Sam Cooke. It remains an audacious début that brought soul music into the eighties, with hits like “If You Let Me Stay,” “Wishing Well,” “Sign Your Name,” and the Smokey-through-Michael-Jackson cover “Who’s Loving You.” The importance of the music was matched by the self-importance of its creator: D’Arby claimed that his album was the most monumental piece of pop music since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and used nearly every interview to anoint himself a peerless genius. Because of D’Arby’s evident talent, these assertions were both irritating and exciting.
Two years later, there was another record, Neither Fish Nor Flesh, a compelling sidestep that frontloaded three long ballads, and, as a result, blunted the force of the balance of the album, which consisted of powerful, soulful, and funky compositions that were every bit the equal of the début (“This Side of Love” remains one of his finest moments). The mixed reception to the record also effectively killed D’Arby’s commercial momentum. Then there were two more records, Symphony or Damn, in 1993, and TTD’s Vibrator, in 1995, uneven releases that seemed, at the time, like object lessons in diminishing returns. D’Arby didn’t want to play the superstar game, at least the way it was supposed to be played; he could be silly one moment and solemn the next, and he had a penchant for releasing singles with B-sides that were little more than wordless piano improvisations. And then he vanished, or so it seemed.
When D’Arby returned, in 2001, he had a new album, an independently released opus called Wildcard that included a soaring opener, “O Divina,” and songs co-written with hit-makers like Glen Ballard and Dallas Austin. But he wasn’t Terence Trent D’Arby anymore. Or, rather, he was and he wasn’t. The album was released under both that name and the name Sananda Maitreya (which he had adopted during his years away from recording, and which he legally took in 2001). Wildcard was re-released in 2002, and this time there was no trace of Terence Trent D’Arby: it was a Sananda Maitreya album in full. He was typically maximalist in his explanation of the change: “Terence Trent D’Arby was dead,” he said. “He watched his suffering as he died a noble death. After intense pain I meditated for a new spirit, a new will, a new identity.”
There were other changes, too. After the slow demise of his major-label career, Maitreya moved to Munich and then Milan, where he settled in 2002. The following year, he married the Italian architect and television host Francesca Francone. Many artists of his (former) stature would have stopped making music, or contented themselves with nostalgia tours, belting out lazily played arrangements of “Wishing Well” for decades. But Maitreya was as stubborn and ambitious as D’Arby had been. In Milan, he started to make music again, creating it mostly on his own (he borrowed the “Written, Arranged, Produced, and Performed” credit from Prince). He distributed his songs primarily through his Web site, occasionally packaging them into multi-phase albums and selling CDs. It took him a while to develop a working pace and a release schedule, but once he did, he created as much as he ever had: Angels and Vampires – Volume 1 came out in 2005; Angels and Vampires – Volume 2, the next year; Nigor Mortis, in 2009; and The Sphinx, in 2011.
All of the albums were proudly unclassifiable, veering between straightforward soul ballads, idiosyncratic experiments, personal confessions, and instrumental fragments. Nigor Mortis, for example, had a wordy bit of neo-soul (“This Town”), a jazzy dissection of intimacy in relationships (“A Wife Knows”), and a bit of raga-flavored hard rock (“Mrs. Gupta”). Along the way, Maitreya also created a mini genre of similarly titled odes to various women, possibly mythological (not just “O Divina” but, also, “O Lovely Gwenita,” “Ooh Carolina,” and “O Jacaranda,” which he rhymes with “I wanna be your panda,” a reasonable request). They weren’t records that major labels would have released, or could have.
This spring, right on schedule, Maitreya released Return to Zooathalon, a sprawling album that’s just as baffling, uneven, and wonderful as his best work. Listing its influences is exhausting: there’s Beatles and Stones and Motown and Sam Cooke and Prince, of course, but there’s also plenty of jazz and prog, not to mention yacht rock and arena rock.
At twenty-two songs, in fact, there’s a little bit of everything. There’s a two-part “Stagger Lee,” which has little to do with the classic Lloyd Price song and everything to do with gritty soul, something he still excels at more than a quarter-century after his début. There’s a cracked self-portrait (“Mr. Gruberschnickel”), a broken love song based on a preposterous pun (“Tequila Mockinbird”), a scene piece worthy of Jimmy Webb (“Albuquerque”), and a pair of instrumental compositions to wrap the whole thing up, one for kazoo (“D.H.S.”) and the other for piano (“The Last Train to Houston”). What there is, mostly, is a conspicuous commitment to artwork and the messy, miraculous process of creation, which is a strange thing to say about a pop album at this point in time. How does the earnest, open-hearted “Free to Be” sit comfortably next to the surging, bitter “Kangaroo” (“Will I ever learn to jump like you?”)? It doesn’t, and that’s one of the album’s greatest assets. Throughout, pop melodies are wrapped around lyrics so specific and idiosyncratic that they demand (and reward) repeated listenings.
And there’s a song to a woman, of course: “Ornella or Nothing,” which sings the praises of a girl who “punches poets just to keep it real” and features one of the loveliest choruses of his career. More than a decade after leaving American and British soul stardom behind, Maitreya still has it all, at least artistically. That’s the hardline.
This article from Magnet was written by Eric Waggoner, dated from the summer of 2007, about recording and production genius Mark Kramer…
Kramer is legendary for his sonic genius and infamous for his involvement in a pair of lawsuits. MAGNET looks at the rise, fall and rebirth of the musician, producer and label owner who helped spawn everything that was funny and weird about ’80s and ’90s indie rock. By Eric Waggoner
Collect the research on Mark Kramer, look at it from a distance, and what stands out are the flashes of brilliance, tragedy and occasional outright psychosis: A deranged Texan igniting a puddle of lighter fluid pooled on an inverted drum cymbal. A crude four-track record made by a couple of teenagers—its cover art shamelessly lifted from The Best of Leonard Cohen—that set the bar for a generation of lo-fi absurdist rock. A 41-year-old man on the cusp of nervous collapse, sitting in an airplane bound from Ireland to the U.S., swearing to himself he’d never play live music again. The studio he built, then sold, then lost. The label he built, then lost, then built again.
And behind it all, the parade of artists, friends, former friends, collaborators, plaintiffs and defendants: Galaxie 500, Half Japanese, Yo La Tengo, Low, Jon Spencer, GWAR, Urge Overkill, Penn Jillette, Ann Magnuson and others too numerous to list.
As in-house producer, engineer, founder and owner of Shimmy-Disc Records, Kramer was largely responsible for pushing the music of marginal artists—some congenially warped (Ween, King Missile), others plainly unhinged (G.G. Allin, Daniel Johnston)—into the collective consciousness of the alt-rock scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As a solo artist and member of Bongwater, Shockabilly and the Butthole Surfers, he had a hand in creating the nascent template of that music as well.
“You couldn’t touch Kramer’s taste or his instincts,” says Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween). “Look at the catalog: He had the Boredoms, GWAR, John Zorn. The guy always knew what time it was. We were living in New Hope, Pa., doing our thing in our apartment; to us, Kramer was like the Wizard of Oz or something—some guy way the fuck up in New York who was putting out all of this incredible music. He lived in a world we didn’t have any clue about.”
From 1987 to 1998, Shimmy-Disc served as a home for oddball talents who didn’t have a mortal prayer of getting signed anywhere else. Through an accident of historical timing, however, many of those artists’ recordings for the label caught the attention of the majors, who picked up the scent of the indie-rock boom and began sniffing around for weirdos to add to their own stables. Soon enough, Kramer found himself embroiled in personal and legal battles that crippled and eventually delivered the fatal blow to both Shimmy-Disc and the studio in which many of the label’s releases were recorded.
This is a story about the wages of success, even on such a wildly careening arc as Shimmy-Disc enjoyed. This is a story about how a unique artistic collaboration can be clearly destined for hatred and acrimony, and why a person might opt to court the flame-out anyway. Mostly, though, this is a story about willfully strange music, the people who make it and the people who take responsibility for delivering it into the world. Although Kramer’s story has, on some level, a happy ending, it’s not a terribly upbeat tale when taken scene by scene. Still, that shouldn’t surprise you. Stories about creation seldom are.
“I used to work with crazy people, knowing full well they were crazy,” says Kramer from South Florida, where he’s made his home since 2003. “And I loved every moment of it, right up until the collapse.”
Born in 1958 to a single mother and adopted by a Long Island couple, Kramer moved to New York City upon graduating from high school in 1976. He remained a NYC resident on and off for 27 years, during which he compiled a résumé of collaborations and ensemble work as extensive—and sometimes as checkered—as a career felon’s rap sheet.
Michael Macioce, a photographer whose work would eventually grace many Shimmy-Disc albums, met Kramer when both were in fifth grade. “I was a weird kid, and he was weirder,” says Macioce. “Corkscrew hair and a trombone.” After a visit to Kramer’s house during which his new friend played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on a Hammond B-3, the two began comparing musical thoughts on the school bus.
As the ‘70s bled into the ‘80s and punk and new wave gave way to early alt-rock, a vibrant, young community of musicians, visual artists and writers began to coalesce into NYC’s downtown arts scene. “I always thought our New York scene had its counterparts in all the other college-radio cities,” says Macioce. “But New York was descended from the Dutch, who were as tolerant in the 17th century as they are today. New York attracts people of that mind, from a lot of places.”
“I was in heaven whenever I’d see Patti Smith or one of the New York Dolls on the streets of the East Village,” says Magnuson, a West Virginia-born actress, writer and monologist. “Richard Hell always made my heart skip a beat when I saw him on St. Mark’s Place. I found so many like-minded arty folks my age who idolized Bowie and were fascinated by Andy Warhol’s Factory years.”
Kramer’s earliest group credit was a 1979-80 stint as live-performance keyboardist in NY Gong, one of the many short-lived splinter groups of ex-Soft Machine guitarist Daevid Allen’s Gong project. Two years later, Kramer joined avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and drummer David Licht to play bass and keyboards in Shockabilly, an experimental noise trio whose vivisections of Yardbirds and Beatles songs, surrealist humor (Chadbourne sometimes played “electric rake”) and spoken-word pastiches anticipated Kramer’s later work. Three years with Shockabilly led to a six-month gig as the bassist for the Butthole Surfers.
The Butthole Surfers approached their mid-’80s shows as a mix of Dada theatrics and a direct assault on the audience. Strobe lights and disorienting film backdrops seemed calculated to trigger seizures; frontman Gibby Haynes was as apt to set a drum kit on fire or attack the PA system with a screwdriver as to drop acid and cavort all but naked onstage. Video footage of the Surfers from this period, archived on YouTube, shows an impossibly skinny Kramer wielding his McCartney-style Höfner bass, sans strap, playing along with a set-closing trifecta of “Suicide,” “BBQ Pope” and “Dum Dum.” At the end of the show, the Surfers walked offstage directly onto the club’s floor, collapsing the final barrier between band and audience.
The concept of art as a direct challenge to the listener’s expectations—not to mention the skewed sense of humor behind it—would underpin Kramer’s subsequent work as a musician, engineer and producer. Upon returning to the U.S. following a European tour with the Surfers, Kramer purchased a 16-track studio on 34th Street called Noise New York with $5,000 borrowed from an uncle.
Kramer’s inaugural Noise New York session was the Surfers’ cover of “American Woman,” and soon he began hosting or overseeing dozens of projects ranging from the insane to the inane to the sublime, including Half Japanese’s Music to Strip By, G.G. Allin’s Hated in the Nation (both 1987) and a significant portion of Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker’s finest solo record, 1989’s Life in Exile After Abdication. Of all Kramer’s Noise New York productions, however, none has enjoyed more lasting fame and influence than Galaxie 500’s three studio albums (1988’s Today, 1989’s On Fire and 1990’s This Is Our Music), which became to the ‘90s shoegazer movement what Velvet Underground records were to ‘80s punk and indie rock.
“Kramer said that when he first heard us standing there, playing the same chord for five minutes, he genuinely thought we were retarded,” laughs Galaxie 500 singer/guitarist Dean Wareham. “After he heard what we were doing, he got into it a little more.”
Kramer’s work at Noise New York signaled a promising career midwifing extraordinary music. In 1987, he founded Shimmy-Disc, which would, as he frequently stated in interviews, “release music that no one else cared about.” The result would be a double-edged legacy of unearthly beauty and ungodly suffering: a catalog of 103 releases that shaped the dirtier side of the alt-rock boom and a pair of court battles and personal squabbles that would result in Kramer’s retirement from what he later called “this fucking business.”
Shimmy-Disc was as central to the early New York alt-rock movement as SST had been to SoCal hardcore. The label’s flagship act, the one that best embodied its spirit of absurdist humor and musical experimentation, was Kramer’s collaborative project with Magnuson: formidable avant-psychedelic duo Bongwater.
Magnuson moved to NYC in 1978 to mount a performance career that would range freely between the mainstream and the marginal. In 1983, she scored small-yet-memorable parts in a David Bowie urban-vampire flick (The Hunger) and a Madonna vehicle (Desperately Seeking Susan).
As events manager for Club 57, a popular gathering place for artists on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, Magnuson occasionally sang with a female drum/bass/ voice ensemble called Pulsallama. Kramer had run sound for Pulsallama’s performances at Club 57 in the early ‘80s, and when that group disbanded in 1984, he and Magnuson began collaborating as Bongwater. Ex-Shockabilly drummer Licht and guitarist David Rick joined the duo off and on for the duration of Bongwater’s seven-year career.
The band’s debut, 1987’s Breaking No New Ground EP, established its blueprint: a combination of snarky, hilarious monologues on the pitfalls of sex and fame, tape-loop and audio experiments, and unhinged covers of songs from a wild mix of genres and artists. Kramer and Magnuson, with a rotating series of guests, laid their unique stamp on tracks by Led Zeppelin, the Monkees, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Gary Glitter and Dudley Moore, among others. Unlike the molto serio tendencies that marked much of the ‘80s downtown scene, Bongwater’s work was pleasantly self-deprecating, lampooning the star systems of both the mainstream and the underground. “Frank,” from 1988’s Double Bummer, found Magnuson aping Sinatra’s belligerent star tantrums; “Nick Cave Dolls,” from 1991’s The Power of Pussy, offered her breathy, horny expression of desire for the fictional playthings.
“We were just relating to the world at large,” says Magnuson, who often pulled Bongwater lyrics straight out of her dream journal. “Then, as now, sex and money seem to be the driving forces in our culture. I think the overall theme was desire, which is really the thing that drives all of us, right? Desire and the desire to be freed from desire. And then to desire it again.”
Kramer and Magnuson’s best original material, on The Power of Pussy and 1992’sThe Big Sell-Out, deconstructed the conventions of popular music but rarely sounded glib or coy. Power’s straight-ahead cover of folk standard “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” represented why the duo was so influential among subsequent culture-mashup artists. For listeners frustrated with both Madonna-style slick pop and punk’s self-parodic tendencies, Bongwater was a brainy and welcome third path: a reminder that music could move the head and the heart simultaneously.
Then came the lawsuit.
In a 1995 interview with Magnet, Kramer claimed his partnership with Magnuson evolved into a romantic one in 1991, following the breakdowns of their respective relationships. During the final stages of recording The Big Sell-Out, Kramer said, the duo took up a two-month residence in Magnuson’s Los Angeles home, at the end of which their romantic connection collapsed and Bongwater imploded. Kramer moved back to New York and reconciled with his wife of nine years, who was then three months pregnant. Their daughter, Tess, was born in 1992. Kramer sold Noise New York and moved into a house off the Palisades Parkway, across the river in New Jersey, with a built-in 24-track studio he dubbed Noise New Jersey. Kramer’s domestic reconciliation didn’t last, however, and he and his wife divorced in 1994.
That same year—prompted, Kramer said, by both his acquisition of Noise New Jersey and their romantic split—Magnuson filed a lawsuit against Kramer and Shimmy-Disc. Magnuson sought recompense for alleged damages to the tune of $4.5 million, charging Kramer with fraud, breach of contract, copyright infringement and an assortment of related wrongdoings. Kramer hit back, filing a countersuit.
The resulting legal imbroglio would last nearly three years. Kramer launched a solo career beginning with 1992’s triple-LP The Guilt Trip and continuing with 1994’sThe Secret of Comedy and 1998’s Songs from the Pink Death. During this period, he recorded two underappreciated absurdist garage-rock albums with Penn Jillette (the vocal half of comedy duo Penn & Teller) under the name the Captain Howdy, as well as an experimental instrumental piece called Let Me Explain Something to You About Art, which was issued by John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
Kramer’s three proper solo albums offered something of a running commentary on his personal and legal difficulties. The Guilt Trip presented a series of songs that seem to reference those troubles, including “Kathleen, I’m Sorry,” “Not Guilty” and “Won’t Get Far Without Me.” On “Don’t Come Around,” from Songs from the Pink Death (an album Kramer once said was “about the murder of love [and] the death of friendship”), the barbs became more pointed: “I am the victim/They are the curse/They are not evil/They’re something worse.”
The legal battle between Magnuson and Kramer was settled out of court in 1997, with the condition that neither party speak publicly about the details.
“It was time to move on,” says Magnuson, who still lives in L.A. and has recently released her second solo album, Pretty Songs and Ugly Stories. “Several of us (in the band) were miffed over the business aspects. Some disinformation was put out in an attempt to obfuscate the fact that I made a legal inquiry into it all, but the only issue was that of accounting. Most bands have an expiration date, and I think Bongwater simply reached it.”
Bongwater’s legacy accounts for only a fraction of Shimmy-Disc’s historical importance. Trolling NYC for bands that might fit his label’s vision, Kramer often found himself stopping and listening to the music that suffused the city’s offbeat clubs and bars, tiny places redolent of last week’s smoke and last night’s urine. In 1990, on one of his jaunts through the East Village, Kramer caught an early show at the Pyramid Club by a duo from Bucks County, Pa., called Ween.
“We knew about Kramer, even though we didn’t know him,” says Ween‘s Melchiondo. “The bands on Shimmy-Disc were amazing. So we talked to him and found a lot of common areas. The Butthole Surfers were my second favorite band, right behind the Beatles. The Beatles were Kramer’s favorite band, too.”
Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman (a.k.a. Gene Ween) ended up sending Kramer the home recordings that would become 1991’s The Pod. “We had been planning on re-recording them prior to releasing them,” says Melchiondo. “When he heard them, he said, ‘No. This four-track stuff is the shit. This is the album.’ And Shimmy-Disc put it out essentially as we gave it to him. It was a straight-up one-time agreement. The deal was, in exchange for releasing The Pod, he would give us $2,500 and take us to Jamaica. We never even signed a contract.”
Ween gave the money to Andrew Weiss—bassist for the Rollins Band and, later, the Butthole Surfers—to mix the tapes. True to his word, Kramer took Melchiondo and Freeman to Jamaica, where the trio spent a week sampling the local vegetation. As it turns out, it was a stroke of luck that Ween dodged an official contract with Shimmy-Disc. The band was already signed to a multi-record deal with Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone label. The situation was resolved when Elektra Records signed Ween and ended up buying out its Twin/Tone contract. Following Ween’s only Shimmy-Disc release, Kramer suggested the band embark on a tour of England, for which Kramer would play bass.
“The tour didn’t go well,” says Melchiondo. “We were taking a shitload of drugs. We had our own path that we were on, and it didn’t involve anybody from the New York scene. So we had a creative falling-out on the road, and we basically limped along for the rest of the tour.”
Kramer’s on-again/off-again relationships with headstrong talents have sometimes resulted in flare-ups that, for all their intensity, are frequently short-lived. His work with Jad Fair (the notoriously erratic creative force behind Half Japanese), King Missile’s John S. Hall (with whom Kramer released the collaborative Real Men in 1991) and Penn Jillette (the dispute arose over Jillette supposedly being starstruck by Lou Reed, who wrote the title track for the Captain Howdy’s Tattoo of Blood) has been marked by creative disagreements and periods during which neither party talked to the other.
“It’s like when people say, ‘Well, why’d you break the band up?’” says Dean Wareham of Kramer’s creative feuds. “Like band work is removed from personal disagreements. Any friendship goes through tensions; some are resolvable, some aren’t. When the personal relationship goes bad, there’s not much of a way to continue the professional side and make it productive.”
Melchiondo’s explanation of Ween’s break with Kramer during the band’s U.K. tour makes a similar point: “We were just too different. The guy was a lot older than us, plus we gave him a lot of shit because he was the label head. And he’s a creative guy himself; working with us was difficult for him, too. Ween’s been on a million fucking labels, and believe me, nobody pays you. You’re overseas, and you’re having a miserable time, and so we held him accountable. I don’t think he cheated us out of anything, but when you’re on a label and someone else owns your music, it’s always hard to accept. But we’re still friends.”
So what’s the real story on the accusations of egomania and mistreatment that dogged Kramer through the ‘90s? Though his collaborations with artists such as Fair and Johnston have weathered rocky patches, both artists have continued to work with him as recently as last year. Today, Kramer seems to encounter little difficulty signing on collaborators for new projects. Matt Menovcik of Seattle ambient-rock ensemble Saeta currently records with Kramer under the moniker Rope, Inc.
“Kramer is very up front about telling you what’s not sounding great,” says Menovcik. “You need to be able to take criticism. But he did it in a loving way, and he didn’t try to shape us.”
Still, Kramer’s reputation has taken several hits in the court of public opinion. The Bongwater lawsuit shed no light on Magnuson’s allegations of fraud and mistreatment, though Shimmy-Disc and Noise New Jersey remained in Kramer’s hands at the suit’s end, suggesting Magnuson’s claim that Kramer had bilked her out of millions was, at the very least, overstated. By 1997, both the label and the studio had taken a significant financial beating from Kramer’s legal costs. In an attempt to keep them viable, Kramer sold both to KnitMedia, the umbrella management entity of New York’s Knitting Factory club. Under the terms of the contract, Shimmy-Disc would become a subsidiary of Knitting Factory Records; Kramer would serve as producer and A&R rep for the label he’d founded. Shortly thereafter, however, Kramer sued Knitting Factory for breach of contract. As a result of his split with KnitMedia, he lost both Noise New Jersey and Shimmy-Disc. As with the Bongwater case, the details of the disposition of Kramer’s suit against Knitting Factory are obscured.
Kramer’s final professional work for Knitting Factory came in the form of a 1999 European tour: a triple-header lineup featuring Jad Fair, Shimmy-Disc act Adult Rodeo and Milksop Holly (Kramer’s collaboration with songwriter Mara Flynn). Billed as “The Last Tour of the Century,” it was a creative flop and a financial bust. Following the final show in Cork, Ireland, Kramer flew back to New York, determined to leave the music business for good.
Back in NYC, living in a one-room apartment and without a studio or label for the first time in 15 years, Kramer was looking for non-musical work. He contacted Arthur Penn, director of such classic films as Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man. Kramer had met Penn in 1987 through his friendship with Jillette, when the director signed on to make Penn & Teller Get Killed. “I went to Arthur,” says Kramer. “He brought me into The Actors Studio, where I was his sole directing student.”
Over the next two years, he studied with Penn and assisted him in the production of a dozen plays. Kramer tentatively re-entered the music business through his association with Penn, writing the score for the acclaimed 2002 run of Ivan Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. From 2002 to 2004, he served as sound supervisor for the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group and as consultant and composer for the PBS series Closer to Truth: Science, Meaning and the Future.
In 2003, Kramer’s mother suffered a stroke; he relocated to Florida to be near her, but she passed away 16 months later. Kramer largely left the music business again and worked for the James Randi Educational Foundation. The non-profit JREF was founded by magician and psychic debunker James Randi; its highest-profile ongoing project is the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which offers $1 million to anyone capable of demonstrating positive proof of paranormal or psychic abilities.
During this time, Kramer began thinking about establishing a new record label. The assembling of a mastering studio in his Florida home, called (what else?) Noise Miami, in 2004 was a significant first step. “It took me eight years to get to a place where I could even consider relaunching the label,” says Kramer. “I’m 20 years older now than I was when I launched Shimmy, and I feel more prepared to deal with the drama of it all, the disappointments artists will experience—and sometimes blame me for—when their releases don’t sell as well as they ought to.”
So Kramer started Second-Shimmy. The label bowed in October with I Killed the Monster, a well-received collection of Daniel Johnston covers featuring Sufjan Stevens, Daniel Smith, Jad Fair, Mike Watt and Kramer himself. Current and upcoming Second-Shimmy releases include albums by Rope, Inc., Jessie And Layla (an Irish folk/pop sister act) and Little Aida (an ethereal folk/psych band from Australia).
Of course, it’s a different musical landscape than it was two decades ago. Hole-in-the-wall clubs and cassette demos have been superseded by Internet newsgroups and MySpace—which is where Kramer found Little Aida, headed by Susannah and Tessa Rubenstein. “We came to Miami and gave him the recordings,” says Susannah, who self-produced Little Aida’s Mad Country, which was mixed at Noise Miami. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard what he did. It’s hard to explain; he listens very, very closely to what’s there, and he has a very cinematic approach to music. It’s almost like he paints a picture. He strikes a sound and makes a picture with it.”
The Second-Shimmy catalog so far seems to lean more toward the pop sensibilities of Kramer’s solo records than the willfully absurd music of Bongwater. “I still love artists like the Tinklers and King Missile,” says Kramer. “I just think I’ve done all I can do with those genres. I’m more interested in crafting what I would consider the ideal sonic landscape, rather than exploiting people’s desire to laugh.”
Having re-entered the process of collaborative work with largely unknown artists, Kramer nonetheless speaks like a man who’s trying to learn from his past and one experience in particular.
“I’ve chosen my recent collaborators more wisely than my previous ones,” he says. “I once thought the end result—the art—was worth the end of a friendship. Really, what’s more important: that I remain friends with this woman for the rest of my days, which I knew would never happen, or that I make this beautiful, meaningful collaboration happen with an electricity that burns fast and bright before imploding and taking our lives down with it? When I was younger, I felt this way: No risk was too great. It was the art that mattered and only the art. Now, frankly, I figure that life is far too short to get involved with folks who can just as easily go elsewhere and wreak years of havoc and destruction in somebody else’s life. I’d rather play cards.”
Indeed, the Rope, Inc. and Little Aida releases sound like some of the most heartfelt albums to find their way into the light through Kramer’s assistance. Melodic without being sentimental or saccharine, they reflect a new, more emotive phase of a lifetime’s commitment, for better or worse, to the dissemination of beautiful noise.
“I do find myself more interested in beauty as the years roll on,” says Kramer. “The heart is the sole target I’m aiming for. I guess it used to be the heart and the funny bone, but I’ve lost interest in music that makes people laugh. I want people dipping their toes in a pool of tears. In such an ugly world, beauty is the only true protest.”