Sex Grits Rock & Roll 002
ex Grits Rock & Roll: a bi-weekly column about twang, funky butt, and the pursuit of succulent fatback. Animated by coeval guitar army and hominy fetishes, these fan's notes hail from a Dixie boogie wonderland whose anthems are "Water No Get Enemy" and "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed."
1. dreaming wide awake / LIZZ WRIGHT (Verve Forecast)
Full disclosure: producer Craig Street is a friend and I am inclined to big-up my Georgia homegal Lizz Wright for roots’ sake…but the delight is that one doesn’t have to descend to hype about this record, the follow-up to 2003’s fine, jazzier Salt. For dreaming wide awake, stretching farther out into folk and blues, is as refreshing as the warm smile the singer wears on her album cover and it’s already neck ‘n neck with Eddie Palmieri’s Listen Here! (Concord) and the new Shelby Lynne (see below) as contender for album of the year.
Reminiscent at times of singers such as her fellow smart pop chanteuse Oleta Adams and even the long forgotten Jean Carne, Wright’s rich, husky contralto alternately plumbs smoky depths and rings dem bells. Rock snobs might want to note the presence of Bill Frisell and the woefully underappreciated Mark Anthony Thompson (a.k.a. Chocolate Genius) on several cuts. Some may object to the cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man”—and to be frank, it’s a composition that seems to oddly attract and confound sepia sisters; N’Dea Davenport’s version was uninspired—yet, being one of my least favorite of his classics, it’s no skin off my teeth. Far more exciting is Wright’s passionate conversion of Chester Powers’ great (but often maligned—especially on the white hand side of my generation) “Get Together” into a transcendent spiritual, primed and ready for rotation during services at my late grandfather’s church in Southwest Georgia and for Sweet Honey In The Rock to add to their repertoire.
As Black Music Month waned along with my Duke colleague Mark Anthony Neal’s astute chronicling of the slow decline of rhythm & blues online, I returned to this album daily, reveling in its humble and subtle luxuries, praying that times and audiences have changed sufficiently for there to be room in which Lizz Wright can evolve without too many hurdles…lest she end up like such greats of our formative years like Angela Bofill and Phyllis Hyman.
2. HUSTLE & FLOW (Dir. Craig Brewer, 2005)
No, not seen it yet…only heard about all the hype at Sundance earlier this year and read a few articles chronicling the struggle to get the project green-lighted—even with John Singleton’s influence—and about Scott Bomar’s recording process in Memphis with several Stax veterans to produce the soundtrack. Quick plot summation: a Memphis pimp struggles to surmount personal crises and ghetto pathology in an attempt to become a rap star.
Still, I just saw the trailer and it offended me: the sole black woman shown therein (actress Paula Jai Parker, I believe—whose character is listed with the moniker Lexus), presumably a whore or otherwise slattern, speaks to Terrence Dashon Howard’s protagonist in terms of emasculation and “killing his dream” [of hip-hop stardom]. Meanwhile, the white woman—possibly another ‘ho, played by Boomkat dabbler Taryn Manning—is silent throughout but shown several times, filmed as an obvious prize object in bleach-blonde cornrow extensions ripped off from Bo Derek and seen in headphones implying she is a helpmeet on Howard’s path as an MC or at least a conduit to a better life (of privilege). Of course, these stereotypes reinforced in a mere fleeting seconds of rapid-fire images should not be surprising considering the collaboration with typically offensive and problematic director Singleton (with the exception of 1997’s tour-de-force of American terrorism Rosewood) as a producer. I mean: Howard’s character is a PIMP, hardly a pillar of society. Yeah, yeah, I saw the Hughes twins’ American Pimp doc too and found it riveting…but for the “wrong” reasons and it’s still a horror show, ultimately. Black men’s repeated testimonials that ever since the Reconstruction era the sole way the White Man had left them to prosper was peddling (female—although occasionally male) flesh for the highest possible dollar, as those pimps themselves had been less than a generation before in slavery rankled to say the least. Something’s rotten here, even if it cannot be teased out with clarity…
On the other hand: greatly amused by the Ludacris feat. Bobby Valentino track “Pimpin’ All Over The World” retaining some specificity about quotidian black culture by namechecking the Bronner Bros. convention in Hot’lanta. Peace & hairgrease…
3. MASTER OF DISASTER / JOHN HIATT (New West)
I admit it: during my youth in the 70s, I heard rather limited “white” music. The radio dial and spending money just didn’t stray into certain areas. This habitual selectivity continued into the 80s, one thing that accounts for my having missed the emergence of such careers as John Hiatt’s. My primary experience of him is from residing in NYC and viewing/attending Sessions at West 54th Street where he held down hosting duties. Also: by the standards of the Black Aesthetic I was raised with, Hiatt can’t sing (certainly not sang).
Nonetheless, I am enjoying his latest, Master of Disaster, not least because of the strong support of Muscle Shoals Sound legend David Hood on bass and 1/2 of the North Mississippi Allstars (Luther & Cody Dickinson) buoys the disc beyond the moribund sameyness threatening a wide swathe of such songwriters’ latter career releases. Also, there’s great pleasure to be derived from the NMAS being allowed to lay back and groove, away from the glare of their stature as many-handed Atlas of Jam Nation and young Turk saviors of roots music. When the band’s patented sonic imprint first strikes indelibly on “Wintertime Blues,” spurring Hiatt’s fluid croak to greater heights, it’s a wondrous thang. “Find You At Last” is a sweet little country soul paean—only missing the Reverend Al Green’s honeyed-grits vox (which Hiatt yelps between the horns, attempting to mimic the Green Holy Ghost the listener cannot help but imagine during the coda) or Eddie Hinton’s. And, tough-tangling fiddles and all, the rave up of “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It” could certainly give Neil Young & Crazy Horse (no relation) a run for their money in some hypothetical rock-off upon Mt. Olympus. It’s a fine cross-generational summit of the type that ought to be explored more often. And, yep, it never hurts that Jim Dickinson’s production is flawless.
4. “IF I HAVE TO BEG AND PLEAD…DO THE SYMPHONY!”
Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall (Atlantic Monthly Press, July 2005)
This case is still developing but suffice it to say that NYT music columnist Blair Tindall’s memoir about a turbulent youth in the cloistered classical music world and subsequent failed bohemian life (before fleeing the symphony chair for freelance journalism) is causing quite a ripple. Because Tindall advanced via her sex and recounts the struggles of herself and others on drugs, the book is being dismissed as mere potboiler. Yet a significant part of the criticism leveled at her derives from her advancing her subjectivity as a (young) woman employed in two very male worlds, likely for daring not to simply deliver a requiem for classical music in an America whose landscape is dominated by garage rock, hip-hop, and pop but ripping the veil off the mysterious realm of the high arts. And, of course, naming names.
The book came to my attention more so because Tindall is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina [as well as alumna of EMF and the N.C. School of the Arts] —I don’t know yet if her southerness comes into play in the story or the growing furor surrounding the book but she has had several appearances cancelled by relevant educational institutions, including the Eastern Music Festival in her home region. This news sparked my brain, as I’d just watched some hours of Comedy Central’s “southern fried-Sunday” with a lineup heavily skewed towards the good stars of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. During his special, Larry the Cable Guy’s joke regarding Dixie Chicks: [something to the effect of] “…that if it weren’t for them cute sisters, Natalie Maines would be working at a Lane Bryant in Nashville somewhere.” And further babble that she should’ve left Toby Keith alone, especially since they’re [Dixie Chicks] just as redneck with a song about killing Earl. Pondering something now about the changing stature of the southern belle in the New South. Adding more mouthing off (just like their male “Mouth From The South” counterparts who always grab headlines) to enduring traditions of magnolias and mint juleps could be a good thing.
Then again, Beyoncé Knowles continues to set the cause for reform back decades with her lyrical obsession of serving as doormat/Umfufu to the men in her life—lyrics wailing “my life would be purposeless without you” (!) carrying over from her mostly flaccid and tedious solo debut to Destiny Child’s latest heavy rotater “Cater 2 U.” I mean, really, Darius James and his Dr. Snakeskin alter-ego must got nothing on Jigga. Being from Texas too, Bouncee, with her retro stylings and outlook, must be Bush’s favorite pop star.
5. IN FLIGHT / LINDA PERRY (Kill Rock Stars / Custard)
The One-Hit Wonder (“What’s Up?”) with the bigger second act:
Linda Perry, a key component to the success of Gwenihana, Pink, Kelly Osbourne, Courtney Love, Faith Hill (!) et al as songwriter-producer…to good effect, honestly. Yet the same bombastic voice that overpowered her lone Grunge-era hit with 4 Non Blondes mostly undermines the often quite interesting tunes on this “long lost” (but actually poorly received ca. 1996) album, harkening to the 60s western pop songwriting elite of such as Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb, and Jackie DeShannon. Tellingly, Perry’s past comments to the NYT repeat almost verbatim what Janis Joplin said when asked about her own prodigious instrument. Yet Perry possesses little of the diversity to be found in Joplin’s voice.
Originally released on Interscope, this disc also has all the hallmarks of the amorphous clique of mid-90s, LA-based, Gen X musicians (think ex-Grays Jon Brion & Jason Falkner, the Jayhawks, Jellyfisher Andy Sturmer, the Black Crowes, early Lenny Kravitz etc) obsessed with 60s-70s California sounds like space- and canyon-rock, English folk, boogie, and psychedelia—plus inspired by 80s paisley underground bands. All of them far more apt to employ Chamberlains, Theremins, hurdy-gurdies, and Rhodes than a drum machine or sampler—with layered compositions, tack piano trickling through a paean to drag queens and speed freaks, and the odd sub-Nitzschean, lush soundscapes, Perry adheres to the general aesthetic but the unrelenting dark mood and slow tempo that pervades the disc obscures a lot of those gestures in the murk. In some instances, despite the problematic pipes, this disc is aptly titled, nigh symphonic soaring conquering the flaws. On the other hand, tracks [like arena rock anthem “Life In A Bottle”—“I love, I love, I love all my bad company,” indeed—and “Fill Me Up”] show too much overlap with late 80s lite metal, the very diabolic and despised genre Perry and her fellow traveling ranks of Grunge boyz and riot grrrls were supposed to have eclipsed in the early 90s. Further proof that that whole “alt” gang lionized in Spin doth protested too much in pissing out the Rubicon-esque boundary betwixt them and the spandexed-and-be-tressed 80s arena buffoons. What might have countered the metal missteps: Perry, the daughter of a Portuguese father and a Brazilian mother, presaging the hidden samba from her sophomore effort, After Hours (Rock Star Records), and jumping the gun on the whole rock en español bandwagon of the latter 90s.
Warmth of the ballads and emotional complexity imbuing the whole project—qualities she’s obviously deployed to great and often astonishing effect for those dismissed as vapid teen queens, like the quite talented Christina Aguilera—is where In Flight’s strength lies. But lacking Xtina’s tones makes this CD likely too off-putting for the casual ear. And overindulging her initial rock chick juice by duetting with heroine/forebear Grace Slick on “Knock Me Out” for an excessive, draggy seven minutes doesn’t help Perry’s cause. Interesting original album art invoking surrealist painter Leonora Carrington’s œuvre though.
Question is: will anyone aside from the Shade of the Comte de Lautréamont give a damn about the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of Joni Mitchell’s fleeting Ladies of the Canyon aesthetic and Queensrÿche?
6. LIVE 8 NOT SO GREAT
Rather ambivalent about this 20 years later sequel to the scene of Sir Bob Geldof’s (ex-Boomtown Rats) greatest glory. I agree with the criticisms about a dearth of African artists on the bill (no, Slash doesn’t count). Back in the day in ’85, I was 14 and between two stints of living on the “Dark Continent” (from Mali to Lesotho) yet I probably grumbled less about the small number of brown faces in the lineup because A) after sitting out the turn-of-the-eighties in the Sahel, I felt I was out-of-step with American culture and fascinated by the British pop stars of the day (primarily soulful androgynes Boy George and Annie Lennox), B) while I was well-versed in many African sounds from the annals of griots to hi-life, this music’s relative invisibility in mainstream consciousness was evident, C) the ripping of Tina’s leather miniskirt and Patti LaBelle’s voice rising above the entire throng during the Philly finale represented “Black is Beautiful” big time, and D) due to my mother’s expert involvement with USA For Africa, I was inclined to believe the aid would actually reach its intended subjects.
Today, however, after the 90s boom of interest in so-called world music (yes, yes, down to those cute Putumayo samplers and Starbucks Fuzak), there’s no excuse for any kind of claims of not having access to artists on the Continent or in exile in the West nor that these same artists’ “appeal” is limited. Where was Hugh Masekela? Angelique Kidjo? Seu Jorge? Les Nubiennes? Tinariwen? Any of these acts could’ve fit smoothly with the program. On the other hand, peeping MC Lyte interviewing Russell Simmons backstage in Philly reinforced the idea that he and Jay-Z (who sat in with Linkin Park) and Diddy and a few others certainly had the means to stage their own concert if they so chose, that they could have easily roped in the Diaspora artists who were critical of the Geldof establishment. It’s simply pathetic and shameful that in this time of exceeding hip-hop largesse and Oprah Billionaire no group of aware blacks bothered to take a public stand in favor of aid to the countries they romantically like to claim descent from. In the Live 8 arena, only Kanye West redeemed himself by performing Shirley Bassey-sampler “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (and the Don Cheadle intro didn’t hurt!), shocking in its insider critique of bling mania (the black & white video complete with child miners as zombies is even more devastating and pointed in fingering European consumption and complicity in the exploitation of Africa).
On a purely aesthetic level, the limited footage aired by MTV offered little excitement—Green Day singing Queen’s “We Are The Champions” to arm-waving fans in Berlin, soon after I lamented to my husband that African-born-and-bred Freddie Mercury was sadly missing; Stevie Wonder’s pretty great band complete with horns onstage in Philly (whose heat could not even be diminished by Rob Thomas and that Maroon5 guy); George Michael’s surprise appearance with Sir Paul McCartney in London—and nothing to rival Live Aid’s myriad must-see performances. Did we really need the umpteenth versions of McCartney’s “The Long And Winding Road” or “Hey Jude” as concert closers? The fact that Geldof and his crew are still privileging a white male rock center—Sting, the Who, and co., Pink Floyd’s hell freezing over allowed much airtime while Wonder’s appearance was given short shrift—while pretending to get jiggy with youth-friendly acts, as well as appealing to hearts in the belly of the old Empire by producing a grateful Ethiopian girl who survived famine beautiful enough that Madonna had to suck her face like a vampire (pray she didn’t take her back to the Ritchie estate as her new boudoir slave), is definitely one of those things that makes you go, “Hmmm?”
Above all, I just don’t think folks grooving in the park and Sting’s eagle-eye is going to shame the privileged, (mostly) white males of the G8 into doing anything for poor, beleaguered Africa…although it was the rapacious decisions of their forefathers during the “Scramble For Africa” that largely undermined the continent’s evolution, infrastructure, and resources to begin with. Ole Mungo, we hardly knew ye.
7. ALLISON "Tootie" MONTANA GONE TO GLORY
Awhile back I was talking about the new Eddie Palmieri disc with my friend, the esteemed and fabulous Ned Sublette of Cowboy Rumba (Palm) fame, and, as we mutually raved about the Latin jazz giant’s magnificence, Ned commented about his having been basically written out of a significant (and merited) place in pop music history (no doubt due to language and piano vs. ax, among other things). Because I grew up in a predominantly latino neighborhood (well, pre-gentrification anyway) and have since dwelled in Manhattan’s upper, browner precincts, I find it hard to grasp a vision where Sr. Palmieri would not be at the center. Still, since I am also guilty of rockism—Allmans! and Segers! and Crowes, oh my!—that previous discussion caused me to ponder some issues about popular sound’s colored roots.
Some readers are no doubt familiar with Ned from his much blogged-about presentation on New Orleans at this year’s EMP conference in Seattle. One of the significant proponents of the hybrid Mardi Gras Indian culture Ned discussed, Allison "Tootie" Montana, suffered a fatal heart attack while speaking at a special New Orleans City Council meeting to discuss a St. Joseph's night confrontation between Indians and police that went down in March. Montana, one of the most revered Big Chiefs to emerge from the century-old street culture, was a fascinating icon amongst many of my “black Indian” background, a great spirit with 52 years of masking supporting his legend as leader of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe.
Of the man named a Master Traditional Artist in 1987 by the NEA Folk Art Program and revered by both Uptown and Downtown Indians in NOLA, Ned had to say: “In March, I interviewed Joseph Roach, professor of English at Yale, former New Orleanian and author of Cities of the Dead, a rich book which contains a fascinating chapter on the Indians.
“In the interview, speaking of the Mardi Gras Indians, he said, "In Japan, theatre artists are honored by being conferred with the title 'Living National Treasure.' In New Orleans, our living national treasures are sometimes busted for crossing the street in the middle of the block . . . [The Mardi Gras Indians are] one of the great North American achievements in performance. It's like the great achievement of jazz or symphonic music, or our great stars and artists of the history of American theatre. Tootie Montana is a great American artist. As I said, a living national treasure. Which is what he would be if he were in Japan."
[You can peep the interview here]
We who remain behind must never betray the Funky Butt.
Rest in peace, Big Chief.
8. BIG & RICH A GO-GO BOSTON POPS!
“Save a horse, ride an oboist?”
[Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular was to be broadcast live on CBS. Big & Rich’s new song, "Our America," with the Boston Pops incorporates elements from "The Star-Spangled Banner," the Preamble to the Constitution, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Declaration of Independence. A studio version of the song will be available for a free download here for five days only, starting last Friday (July 1). Frankly, on the Two Americas tip: Will Smith’s celluloid alien bloodbath notwithstanding, “Independence Day” has always seemed a mostly white holiday—many blacks increasingly celebrate Juneteenth instead or in addition to—so I’m just as inclined to revel in some scandal amongst the land’s upper class or unexpected thrills on this holiday, especially if deprived of decent crabs and watermelon (as I was this year, out here in the Ozarks far away from the Maryland shore).]
Not least because the Pops’ married conductor Keith Lockhart was fingered in Mozart In the Jungle, I was very tempted to tune into this year’s Independence Day extravaganza to see one of my favorite music cartels, the MuzikMafia who continue to shake-up Nashvegas, do their do with a “6 ft. 4 black rapper” and all. The “Redneck Woman” Gretch Wilson in attendance of course. Somehow, I doubt “Our America” and its underlying message will be taken anymore to heart by folks than Big & Rich’s skurrifying hybrid sound is by the Music Row potentates. Just amusing to me that the Pops was touting this since their supposed bid for relevance in inviting this cultural Cornbread Cosa Nostra up to the flagship city of Yankeeland saps a lot of critiques of Tindall’s tome that claim classical music is more vital than ever, goldarnit!
9. CHET HELMS RIP
A great loss, truly one of my earliest and most enduring heroes. Disconsolate about his passing and lack energy to say anything more significant about it than any of the San Francisco Chronicle coverage. So just the facts, Jack: Chester (Chet) Leo Helms was born August 2nd, 1942, in Santa Maria, California; raised primarily in Austin, TX, and Missouri; and he died on June 25th, 2005 at San Francisco's Pacific Medical Center from complications due to a stroke he had suffered on Tuesday, August 21st.
Chet Helms had been pronounced dead before: a 2001 report of his death produced numerous tributes from his confederates and a mock funeral was held with Helms rising from his "coffin" when his mobile phone rang. Sadly, this time he’s all the way gone.
Helms, the Bay Area arts impresario, was known as the "Father of the Summer of Love" and was the manager & founder of Big Brother & the Holding Company (Janis Joplin had initially come to the Bay Area by hitching back from Austin with Helms). With his production team the Family Dog, Helms, who retired from active promotion in 1979 after mounting the Tribal Stomp (which featured the Clash’s first Cali appearance), also was the first to produce psychedelic light show concerts at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium then later at his own Avalon Ballrooms. Inspired by the Beats, Helms was also one of the first full-on hippies of prominence who preferred to put on free concerts and was loath to stray far from that culture’s ideals. Significant to us’n in rockcrit, according to Robert Draper's Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, my main man Chet’s original concept for an “underground” rock paper to be named “Straight Arrow” and its mailing list was ripped off by hanger-on Jann Wenner. Little needs to be offered up to underscore the importance of Chet Helms the man and his vision. The Summer Of Love was so long ago now yet hopefully the spirit of Helms and his friends’ contributions to American culture will play on.
10. SUIT YOURSELF / SHELBY LYNNE (Capitol)
So I’m in love with Shelby Lynne (have NOT forgotten Emile Hirsch (from column #1), I’m merely avaricious like Angelina Jolie…and don’t really want to preface this declaration with “I don’t mean it in a Sapphic way…” but, well, I don’t really. It’s just that, in my humble opinion, I feel that the Nashville refugee’s new album opener “Go With It”—complete w/ bona fide “redneck woman” chatter (featuring Shelby Lynne’s ‘Bama-ass drawl) leading into jazzy, female 40s radio voices on acid swooping around the loping, chiming guitar seemingly filched from early Big Star, reminiscent of lilting, folky fits and starts on Gene Clark reissues, and approximation of the adrenaline rush of NASCAR races—is this year’s equivalent of “Portland, Oregon,” the rawkin’ wonder tune of a seasoned and mature country artist whom one respects but doesn’t necessarily expect much from and yet they flout most hackneyed perceptions of chicks in the rock-pop arena with enviable assurance and self-possession. The breezy-with-gravity vocals on the track—post-pastoral western swing at its best—are an articulate reminder that erstwhile jazz queens like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday seemed far less plagued and better received as full women (in sound anyway) compared to the tartlets of today. First-take demos recorded in Lynne's home studio among them, the songs throughout—even if Lynne only really gives her voice its head on the opener, one from the Muscle Shoals vaults “I Cry Everyday,” and Tony Joe White cover “Rainy Night In Georgia,” as some have opined—are so strong that she doesn’t even need Linda Perry as song doctor. Former Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench do make contributions to Lynne’s mostly moody, muted suite of shifting blues.
Above all, it’s so refreshing to derive ecstasy from a self-produced album by a female artist from the initial encounter, without even reference to crit ‘n hipster consensus…an occurrence that has decreased vastly since my youth in Chocolate City when the likes of Patti Patti, Chaka, Valerie Simpson, and veteran girl groups still held sway o’er the waves. Indeed, per gratuitous Big Star namecheck above, rarely this one is replete with tunes that make me think Alex Chilton ought to cover ‘em —or at least ardently pursue a platonic aural romance with Lynne and revive a Dixie version of the sublime Flack-Hathaway duetting franchise for the Aughties…can certainly see that on the long-running “Mike Douglas Show” in my mind…izza gas, gas, gassss.
Like the Lizz Wright and Hiatt above, this is grown-ass music…which ain’t to say it wouldn’t best serve adolescent mall punks’ aural education nor help with the last likely generation reared on “Sesame Street’s” (threatened by the FCC Machine) digestion of their after school milk ‘n cookies (hear Bernie Mac uttering the last two words…). Combined with 2003’s Identity Crisis, Shelby Lynne’s on a sublime roll.
Something else I might not like to admit: I am finally coming around to digging a wider, meaningful swathe of chick singers in my old age. I shouldn’t like to think the puerile sensibilities of the guys, forever trapped in the meshes of arrested adolescence, have done their damage and are now culling me and my shrinking ovaries from the rock fan herd. But it must be occurring, what with this record attention to not one but four female artists in one go. As half-Georgia Peach, simply cannot resist her weary, sexy roll through “Track 12” a.k.a. “Rainy Night” growing over the bottleneck like roadside kudzu and comparison of a lover to “iced (presumably sweet) tea”
“Go with it…you know it feels good…do it, do it…” Just get it. Do it now!
By: Kandia Crazy Horse
Published on: 2005-07-05