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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
I think I was probably about thirteen years old when I first became aware that I was fascinated by music which other kids regarded as weird, obscure, unfashionable or unimportant. Well, I’m all grown-up now, with my own website, and I can preach the gospel of the obscure and the underrated to my heart’s content.
This is a great one to use in a blindfold test with musical friends. Where does this music come from? Well, it sounds sort of Celtic. No . . . Eastern European! Wait a minute, isn’t that a bouzouki? Is it Greek? But no, what’s that crazy language they’re singing in? Hungarian? Or, is this some kind of cult Spanish music from, say, Galicia or the Basque country? Gypsy music from Moldova? Hang on, now it sounds Irish again. No . . . Russian! But no, that language, what the hell is it?
Värtinnä actually hail from Finland, which apparently has both a strong tradition of folkloric music, and a lot of people mixing that music up with different kinds of instruments and rhythms. The only parallels I can think of in the English-speaking world might be folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention, or someone like Clannad in Ireland, but the music sounds very different. The vocals – sung mainly by three women in vibrato-free and sometimes bracingly dissonant harmony – are the most obvious clue to the band’s origin, but only if you’re one of the few people on Earth who can distinguish Finnish from ‘what the hell is that’.
I’m one of the few people on Earth who owns five Värtinnä albums, but I have a soft spot for this one because it was my first. It was given to me by a record company exec who I suspect was about to chuck it in the bin if I hadn’t been curious about it. Maybe he had a good laugh after I’d walked out of his office, but if he never listened to it, it was his loss.
This is mostly acoustic music, and fiddles and accordions give it a folk flavour, but apart from guitars and various guitar- and zither-like instruments, there are, for instance, saxophones, electric bass, and a tremendous drummer. I would say he rocks, except that what he’s doing is not rock drumming at all, and for that matter not jazz or funk drumming either. He just does very cool things that fit the sometimes odd rhythms of this unusual, but to my ears, hugely appealing music.
DON REDMAN: Shakin’ The Africann
Gang, it looks like we picked out the wrong spot this evening, don't it? Huh? Y’know this ‘Sweet’ music's all right, but, uhh . . . we always been a bunch that go in for plenty ‘pep’ and excitement! I know where to go. Let's get our coats and hats and get out this joint, huh? Come on then, let's go from here, where we can have some fun, I mean!
Welcome to the wild world of Don Redman, composer, songwriter, arranger, bandleader, pianist, saxophonist, clarinetist, singer, MC and rapper. In 1931.
Redman was an influential figure in the pre-Swing era, the late 1920s and early 30s, when the bands were getting bigger but the music hadn’t yet been widely taken up by white people. Not that there wasn’t a lot of great music in the Swing Era. Ellington and Basie were always great, and some of the white guys weren’t bad either – I’ve always liked Artie Shaw, for instance. But the Big Bands soon became pretty formulaic. Recordings from the pre-Swing period, on the other hand, can be delightfully weird: for instance, Redman’s Chant Of The Weed, included here with all its hallucinogenic chromatic harmonies. Shakin’ The Africann is one of two Redman compilations on the Hep label, but there are a couple more on the legendary Classics label, too*. This one seems to have most of the best tracks, though. My only minor gripe is the ubiquitous, and pointless, inclusion of alternate takes - four of them, which are Rare! and Previously unreleased! and . . . Not quite as good as the Master takes! Otherwise, this is joyous, and sometimes surprising, stuff.
Some of the vocals are by a crooning tenor with the puzzling name of Lois Deppe (unless this is a misspelling of Louis, she was the butchest Lois ever recorded). They struck me initially as pretty corny, but I’ve since come to enjoy them as Camp. One track also features a characteristically over-the-top Cab Calloway. But the real vocal star is Redman himself. Unlike Miss Lois, he hasn’t dated at all, and his voice is instantly appealing; he sounds like a guy you’d like to have a couple of drinks with. He sings and scat-sings a bit, but his speciality is a droll, understatedly humorous spoken or half-spoken delivery, which is not really plain speech, since the words are structured like lyrics, often in rhyming couplets. (Louis Jordan did this sort of thing too, but not until the 40s or 50s). Redman flirts with the rhythm section, never quite synching too obviously with the groove; instead he’s sly and slippery and . . . well, he’s rapping, really. Damn! Don Redman invented Hip-Hop. If anyone can find an earlier candidate, please let me know.
WALTER BECKER: Eleven Tracks Of Whack
OK, this isn’t that obscure - in this context, I almost feel like I’ve gone all Top Twenty. But it is underrated. I can’t believe how many people I’ve met who profess to be Steely Dan nuts like myself, but don’t know that Walter Becker has made two solo albums. Becker’s solo efforts seem to be overshadowed by Donald Fagen’s, but in my opinion this 1994 album (my God, has it really been that long?) is not only better than Becker’s second but better than any of Fagen’s, and better than a lot of Steely Dan’s post-‘comeback’ work.
I still play this album often, but part of its appeal when it was released was that it was just so damn unexpected. No one ever thought Becker could deliver a whole album’s worth of lead vocals, for one thing, but he does a pretty good job. His voice is difficult to assess: it has a laconic, amateurish, not-really-trying quality which is less intense and distinctive than Fagen’s, but somehow a bit easier to live with. The album is full of great songs, too: Down In The Bottom, Junkie Girl, Book Of Liars, Girlfriend, Lucky Henry, the magnificently-titled This Moody Bastard. Of course it sounds very much like Steely Dan, which might, I suppose, only be mildly surprising to someone who always assumed Fagen to be the ‘main man’. Though I should probably mention that he is credited here as co-producer.
Anyway, the other refreshing surprise for me, when I first heard this album, was its slightly rough-edged, homemade sound. Whereas later Steely Dan is sometimes criticized for being too ‘slick’, this sometimes sounds almost like a demo tape. It’s more rhythmically varied and interesting than a lot of Late Dan, too.
Don’t get me wrong, these guys are heroes of mine. I’m delighted they’re still around, and there were moments in the New York show I saw a couple of years ago that sent shivers down my spine. I can’t believe I have the nerve to be even hesitantly and ever-so-politely critical, but I do think their sound of late has become a bit set-in-stone. Maybe they should go back and give this album another listen. And maybe Pretzel Logic, too.
* For anyone who’s interested: the Classics label – also known as Chronological Classics – is a series of several hundred compilations of classic jazz from the pre-LP era, launched in 1989 by a Frenchman, Gilles Pétard. I was recently astonished to find out that the whole series was sourced from one collection – a treasure trove of 78 rpm discs amassed by one fanatical jazz geek in Belgium. The Classics CDs include some of the finest compilations of early jazz ever released, but they haven’t had a distributor in quite a few years, and can be hard to find; some have become sought-after collectors’ items.
See also last moth’s WILT re. the CD as an ‘archival medium ‘.