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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.
Frank Zappa once described rock music critics as people who can't write, writing about people who can't play, for people who can't read. Of course, I would never be so caustic, so negative, so sweepingly judgmental . . . who, me? I'm just saying that he said it, that's all.
When I'm trying to to write about music, I sometimes ask myself: what would I say if I were a critic? Should I be bitchier? Would that be more fun to read? Well, here are three albums I could definitely find problems with. But since I'm not a critic, I can just enjoy them instead.
GABY MORENO: Illustrated Songs
I know very little about Gaby Moreno except that she is from Guatemala, though on this sprawling album she sings ten and a half songs in flawless American English and only three and a half in Spanish. My first impression of Illustrated Songs was that it could have grown into three or four albums, each with a more easily-defined niche. For that matter, some of the songs have enough ideas in them for three or four songs. After a couple more listens, though, I'm glad her talent hasn't been channeled, parceled out, or otherwise restrained, because it's a big talent and she should do whatever the hell she wants with it.
Some musicians are comfortably rooted in a specific genre. They remind me of people who stay happily in their hometown all their lives, and I'm not putting them down: I envy them. But as Oscar Wilde said, one must do as one's nature dictates, and if you're rootless and eclectic – or if your branches have taken on more importance than your roots - then you must make rootless, eclectic, branched-out music, and who's to say if that is better or worse?
The downside of being eclectic is that it's often all the critics want to talk about. Instead of an assessment of the quality or originality of your work, every article or review becomes a tedious list of musical genres that you are supposed to have 'done', along with equally tedious pontificating about whether or not you should be allowed to 'do' them. So I'm not going to do that to Gaby Moreno, whose album is multifaceted, colourful, theatrical, and held together by a sophisticated melodic sense and a wonderful, distinctive voice, which somehow manages to sound girlishly vulnerable and confidently tough at the same time. My only complaint is the lack of credits or really, any information at all. Moreno's own website isn't much more helpful – it has a different track listing to the one on my CD, and I had to go to Wikipedia to find out that she wrote the whole thing – something she should be shouting from the rooftops.
CRASH TEST DUMMIES: Give Yourself A Hand
Back in 1997 I made the most ambitious album of my career. It was called Heaven And Hell, was based on the Seven Deadly Sins, and sold well into double figures. I used the deep, lugubrious Canadian voice of Brad Roberts to represent the sin of Sloth, and he didn't seem to mind.
Brad's band, Crash Test Dummies, were in a precarious state when they made this album a couple of years later. They were at war with their record company, had not been able to duplicate the success of their hit Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, and the media had lost interest. So they did exactly the 'wrong' thing; they made an album which seemed to be pulling in several directions at once, an album not aimed at any obvious 'demographic'. It was also the best thing they ever did.
Give Yourself A Hand has songs of reckless abandon like I Want To Par-Tay, and the live show I saw when it was released was a party all right, with Brad dressed in chaps, a cowboy hat and a pink feather boa, wielding a riding crop as two strippers shimmied around him. At one point he singled out a record company representative in the audience and challenged him to 'get up here and suck my big rock star dick'. Yes, this was a band in full auto-destruct mode. But I still listen to the album, which is hedonistic, edgy and defiant, but which has great tunes and odd, haunting, melancholy moments too. The Dummies' second singer, Ellen Reid, is a great foil for Roberts and has her best moments in the band's career, and the production is an original and tasty stew of rock, pop, hip-hop and drum'n'bass elements. Definitely underrated.
DUKE ELLINGTON: Braggin' In Brass: Classic Recordings 1938
I don't know what Frank Zappa had to say about jazz critics, but I do know that any one of them could guide you instantly to the most important eras of the Duke's amazing creative journey. The startlingly original early recordings from the late 1920s; the Cotton Club years of the early 30s; the beginnings of Swing around 1934; and of course, the peerless Blanton-Webster band of 1939-41 – generally regarded as Ellington's best. Then there was the great resurgence after the 1958 Newport Jazz festival. What about 1938, though?
Well, this compilation by Naxos Jazz is packed with great stuff from a period that gets lost in the shuffle, and it works so well as an album that I often listen to it from beginning to end for the pure pleasure of it (you know, the way we used to listen to albums). So Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton and Billy Strayhorn hadn't arrived yet – so what? There's Johnny Hodges, and first-rate work by people like Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, and Barney Bigard – people who are only 'lesser-known' because the pundits only have so much time, and because they were merely big men who walked among giants.
There's also a shortage of bona fide Ellington classics here, no Take The 'A' Train or It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). But I for one find it just as much fun to see what a great arranger and great players can do with things like You Gave Me The Gate (And I'm Swingin') or Old King Dooji.
Not everything has to have an Oscar, a Grammy, five stars, two thumbs up, or ten out of ten. In football, the team with the most goals wins. Good for them, but this is music, thank God, so no one has to lose, and there's so much more great stuff out there than any of us even realise.