Saturday, July 31, 2010

Prince: Dirty Mind (1980)

(Warner Bros.)


Almost inarguably, this is the moment when most of the world fell in love with Prince. His first album, For You, had been a low-level R&B programmer with the standout "Soft and Wet," only a minor chart success at the time. Its eponymous followup was more distinctive and exciting, packed with pricelessly overwrought cover art and at least six now-classic songs, but even it was locked firmly into a genre format, with only vague suggestions of the eccentric hidden artist. Dirty Mind is an incalculably different universe.

My generation's been raised on the idea of genre-bending as an in-vogue item thanks to folks like Beck, OutKast, Missy Elliott, any number of others too restless for even the faintest idea of a stylistic confinement. So it's hard to imagine now, but in 1980, soul singers didn't do what Prince does on this album. As much a hotbed of controversy as his lyrics may have been and would become, the most audacious thing about this guy was how little he cared to adhere to pop musical convention. Which isn't to suggest that George Clinton and Stevie Wonder did, but as great as both were, one would be hard pressed to name an album by either that covered this much ground in so little time (less than thirty-one minutes).

Like Stevie, Prince is a solo act in the truest sense of the word. Very little noise on Dirty Mind is not somehow generated by him. What's fascinating about the albums he recorded this way, which is an awful lot of them, is how effortless it sounds. On Wonder's '70s albums, he's not only obviously giving every ounce of his attention, he wants you to know how hard he's working. It's not that Prince's work sounds comparatively tossed off at all, it's more than it seems he barely has to even think consciously to craft each of these eight songs, all but one of them (the still-worthwhile jam "Do It All Night," about doing it all night, would likely fit in more nicely on the last album) wholly unique and groundbreaking and consistently surprising. Prince is the kid in class who doesn't even have to stay fully awake to ace his tests. Maybe his confidence can be overbearing at times, particularly today, but one thing for sure: he earns it.

Except lyrically (which we'll come to in a moment), the title track wouldn't be out of place on Talking Heads' Remain in Light, released the same day. The primitive, harsh, wheezing synthesizers create a surreal, disorienting soundscape. After two albums of silky smooth balladry and laid-back jams, Prince here aims to provoke with stabbing hardest-core funk. The rawness is deliberate -- the track, like many others here, was recorded as a demo for later polish, but in the earliest of many earth-shaking artistic choices, Prince decided the public could handle his latest creations unfiltered, stark and minimal.

And over this stilted, Tubeway Army-like backing, Prince sings with no disguise or pretense about how much and how long he wants to fuck someone, possibly you. The album Prince was not exactly chaste lyrically; one slow jam had him casually pleading to the lucky lady to let him "come inside" her, and the album's foreshadowing rock move insisted that a lesbian should try his dick. But Dirty Mind leaves no doubt of the first and most important of Prince's several fixations. Even if not every song here is pornographic, all are taboo, and in Prince's sexually explicit ramblings and come-ons lies franker and more lasting poetry than soul music had yet seen. Any listener who put aside the head-spinning musical and rhythmic revelations on this record long enough was bound to notice at last that there's a song about incest, a song involving a threesome, and a song not merely about a blowjob but about getting one from a woman on her wedding day. After years of euphemism, the directness of Prince's manifestos must have been refreshing; they remain nearly as much so now: it's all funny, sure, maybe even a little silly, but it's also smart, and it's very fully human. The way media sex ought to be.

Given all this, what's perhaps most remarkable is just how impossible it is to concentrate on what Prince is going on about when faced with the sheer virtuosity of his writing, playing, and production here. Somehow "Gotta Broken Heart Again" approaches X-rated nightclub cabaret in a gleefully mindbending arrangement that anticipates Sign o' the Times. Side Two drops space between songs altogether, flying breathlessly from "Uptown" to "Head" to "Sister" to "Partyup," each either inventing a new subgenre or tackling an existing one with such skill as to be worthy of 1968 Beatles.

"Uptown" documents a freaky night in the life with innovative skittering synth and guitar trickery, especially impressive for Prince's vocal interaction with the rhythm and guitar tracks; no longer content to give the rock moves their own song ("Bambi"), Prince turns it all loose on this cut, showing what he's capable of with seemingly every instrument he has and every trick he knows. This is the kind of song radio formatters detest; at two minutes in, it's a different song than it is thirty seconds before or after. "Head" -- the subject of which you can surely guess -- is the second-greatest song on Dirty Mind and its most lovingly crafted, the irresistibly funky rhythmic tricks ingeniously backgrounding the opera of another Prince sexual conquest (this time with a speaking role) as he announces "You know, you're good, girl; I think you like to go down!" It's fucking incredible: Prince ends up single-handedly sounding like all of Parliament-Funkadelic here, replete with a perfect Bernie Worrell imitation in the bridge, evidently meant here to evoke the internal drama of oral sex. The faux-female vocals are terrific, the playful rhyme scheme a joy.

By the time of "Sister" and "Partyup," I can't imagine any doubters are left. Just in case, "Sister" is a straight-ahead punk/new wave track, and not even an imitation of one, it's actual banging, sly punk worthy of the Ramones (length is 1:31) or Richard Hell but more honest and artfully teasing than either ever could be. Prince seems to revel endlessly in the lack of limitation to what he's now permitted himself to sing about; if "My sister never made love to anyone else but me" wasn't great enough, he throws in the memorable chorus "Incest is everything it's said to be!" as if it's just another tune about walkin' on sunshine or bringin' down the government. Never flinching before his nonchalant barrier-busting, he lays on the guitars and then settles into the menacing rock & roll groove of "Partyup," fusing the soon-to-be-familiar Wall of Prince vocals with a tricky, constantly shifting track oozing with energy. This unexpectedly leads into a surprisingly affecting sociopolitical chant about who knows what: "You gonna have to fight your own damn war, 'cause we don't want to fight no more." The cumulative effect is staggering; never again could anyone doubt that Prince was something above and beyond a typical R&B or rock & roll singer.

And not to say this is all for nothing, but the mini-psychodrama in the middle of Side One might single-handedly make this a classic album anyway. It would be a couple of years still before Prince's first full-length masterpiece, 1999, but perversely, Dirty Mind contains what I think is his greatest achievement as a songwriter. "When You Were Mine" is one of the dozen or so finest songs in pop music, stunningly graceful, witty, emotive, and concise. It's brilliant on countless levels. Produced and performed like the purest of synthpop classics, it bubbles with background joy while Prince loses his mind on the microphone. The sheer perfection of his guitar line gets its emphasis during a brief and delicious breakdown. But this is heartache born of distressing reality; the level of lived-in detail in lines like "You didn't have the decency to change the sheets" and hysterical understatements like "I never was the kind to make a fuss" (about sharing the bed with his lover and her other boyfriend), as richly funny as they are, betray actual scars. Perhaps no moment in his career as a vocalist aches like when, shattered by her departure, he confesses that he's been "following him whenever he's with you," or the sheepish "You were kinda sorta my best friend," and even in something so simple (but ah, so complex, and so believably fragile) as the chorus, "I love you more than I did when you were mine." The intense, felt melancholy makes it funny and touching; the humor and empathy mark its harrowing sadness.

The song's durability is demonstrated by magnificent covers in the last few years by Dent May, turning it into something approaching English folk, and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, taking the hilarious, resigned deadpan backing vocals in the original to their obvious conclusion by making the entire song deadpan. The elegance of Prince's composition and lyric always shine over every performance quirk. It doesn't matter if Prince never tops this because this song is his statement of purpose -- love and sex are hard, funny, weird, troubling, and most likely worth all the torture he finds so many ways to express.

In his hands, all this stuff about fucking isn't petty or juvenile; it feels kind of important, and many of us have spent the years since this album on the edge of our seats to hear what profoundly dirty-minded declarations he would make next.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Chemical Brothers: Further (2010)


It's not been very long since I finally gave up on the Chemical Brothers, their last great album for me being 1999's Surrender, which was swiftly followed by the mediocre Come with Us and a host of terrible singles. (Disclosure: I have not heard the two albums between Come with Us and this one in their entirety.) But almost immediately after I wrote them off, they released Further and started gathering up a lot of return-to-form buzz. These guys were huge to me at their peak, and I'd be remiss if I didn't check in on them now.

Further is a step in the right direction, but that's about it. Standing apart from their house and club-oriented work of the 2000s, mysterious white-label twelve-inches and all, it dismisses all guest vocals and harkens back to the faint art-rock underpinnings of Dig Your Own Hole and their very earliest work (remember, their first 12" sampled This Mortal Coil) before the name change, to say nothing of their many unlikely flirtations with psychedelia. In essence, this is a trippy record, and not in the sense of the orgy of seizuredance under flashing lights so much as the classical hippie sense: it feels like the electronic equivalent of a meandering Dead record, gripping and hypnotic but not terribly distinctive out of context.

To be clear, it is thrilling to hear a twenty year-old act try new things; the Chems have done more than their share for pop music at this point and don't really have to innovate, but this honestly doesn't resemble much of their earlier work. There's a new subtlety, putting aside the juvenile gimmicry of "Horse Power" and the shimmeringly druggy "Swoon." It feels stripped down, a renewal from a changed approach, but it also has the mark of veteran expertise -- a certain underpinning of professional restraint. it seems unlikely that Ed and Tom can ever let themselves go full-force into some creative geyser as on Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole. The delicacy of age and the trappings of a history seem inevitably positioned to keep them reined in. To hear them hard at work on these new noises is pleasurable indeed; but powerful or lasting, I cannot say.

Putting this beside the first three Chemical Brothers albums is interesting, and provides a lot of perspective; all are clearly designed as albums and not merely DJ tools, but the focus and momentum are wiry and haggard on Further. After paying little attention to such virtues throughout the last decade, the attempt to re-learn the form is only partway successful. Good ideas abound but are seldom so well-integrated: the almost painfully intense buildup of opener "Snow" into the phantasmagoric single "Escape Velocity" makes for a beautifully executed thrill, but no true climax ever seems to arrive. Much of the remainder of the album consists of the kind of comedown meditations that would only mark pacing lulls in their early work. These are delightful on their own -- the mysterious, bubbling "Wonders of the Deep" is one of their most evocative performances to date -- but serve only in combination to add to the weird feeling that something is absent from Further.

And I can't place precisely what it is. Is it the way that Hole and Surrender went above and beyond dance music in a way Big Beat peers seldom did by interpolating considerable emotional depth in material like "Elektrobank," "Where I Begin," and "The Sunshine Underground"? Is it the level of variance in the '90s albums that seems impossible now? Or is it just that those records -- especially Exit Planet Dust -- had a spark, something that made them purer and fresher and more fun? For whatever reason, I keep feeling like Further is pretty serious business. And it's nice when former heroes are still that obsessed with their craft, but I just don't know if I'm ever gonna find myself completely on their wavelength again.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The C.A. Quintet: Trip Thru Hell (1968)

(Candy Floss [orig] / Sundazed [reissue])


Undoubtedly one of the most bizarre discoveries that the psychedelic revival of the late '70s failed to uncover, this album is truly steeped in all of the extremeties of late '60s rock music, for better and worse. Alternately giddy, inspired, unlistenable, and boring, it comes off as a sort of Midwestern White Light / White Heat, proving like that album that San Francisco had no monopoly on testing the extremes of druggy, kitchen-sink pop & roll.

The band displays a sly self-confidence throughout the record that makes it easy to forget how fringe and amateur they were. Although the influence seeping in from California is obvious, they sound more contemporary than most of the psychedelic bands of the day (even giving an advance nod to indie with the cheerful "Underground Music"), from their goofily over-the-top album cover to the gothic gloom & doom of the individual songs, which are easily as bleak and intense as anything that Jim Morrison or Lou Reed were coming up with. The most apt comparison may be to Arthur Lee, whose often apocalyptic declarations and versatile, theatrical vocals come into play here, but one wonders if the C.A. Quintet had ever even heard Love (or the Velvets, for that matter).

The record opens with its worst cut, "part one" of the title track, a tiresome though studio-virtuostic instrumental that stretches on with meaningless menace for nine minutes. Things get more intriguing after that. Songs like "Cold Spider" and "Smooth as Silk" fuse the glee-club vocals of the Free Design and the jangle of the Byrds with incongrous horns and an unsettlingly ever-changing mood. A song like "Colorado Mourning" that opens with pretty distance becomes a (delightfully) wrenching dirge. The only missteps are the douchey and very 1968 guitar workouts peppered all over the record, which are not manic enough to be fun and too seasoned not to be dull.

The C.A. Quintet was approaching something prophetic and new, although they never quite got there. You can get a fuller picture with the bonus cuts Sundazed included on their long-awaited reissue of the album. Non-album singles include the priceless (and slightly country-infected) "Bury Me in a Marijuana Field," possibly the all-time statement of purpose for psych, and an inexplicably amazing cover of the Motown classic "Mickey's Monkey." If the disc doesn't equal or even approach the ample skills of the Mothers of Invention or the Doors or the Dead, it's certainly smarter than all three. If it doesn't have the Velvet Underground's imagination, it's at least an album of boys having a blast and testing the limits in a similarly creative way. And if it doesn't become a regular habit for you, at least Trip Thru Hell is -- without question -- unforgettable.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chatham County Line: Wildwood (2010)

(Yep Roc)


This stylish, gifted band is one of my favorite examples to cite of the weird ways in which great music can come to one's attention. About two years ago, I was spinning records at a bar and was on an alt-country kick with Old Crow, Old 97's, the Avett Brothers, and Whiskeytown; a girl who'd been playing pool and very clearly dug the genre requested something from Chatham County Line. I confessed I'd never heard them; she was amazed and said I needed to. I wrote it down and looked it up, got their albums Route 23 and IV, and immediately became a fan -- dark, theatrical, but sly, they had a terrifically evocative sound and songs to back it up, plus the near-perfect vocals of frontman Dave Wilson (vaguely suggestive of Roger McGuinn at his friendliest). It was a pleasant surprise last week when I suddenly discovered that they were to release a new album on the 13th.

Disregarding Old Crow Medicine Show's dogged pursual of bluegrass purity, Chatham County Line is the only current band I'm aware of with what seems like an actual determination to test how far the aesthetic and temperament of alt-country can go. I feel the Avetts (with whom they share North Carolina roots), for reasons I hope to explain in a future post, were scaracely "alt" to begin with. Old 97's, for my money one of the finest bands in all rock & roll, abandoned the form one record into a major label deal. But CCL are identifiably "alternative" the way that Iron & Wine is, as much as Iron & Wine's records may sound like lilting folk music. For the Line, as much as they may love it, country is a style, a means to an end, and they are as obsessed with their sound and its conjuring of a wall of beauty as Kevin Shields. Discovered by Chris Stamey from the dB's (compare Old Crow, discovered by Doc Watson), the band writes witty, modern-sounding songs that cherry-pick the liberal heart's favorite aspects of country -- all the death and heartbreak and class struggle but little of the God-and-country -- and pepper their lyrics with self-deprecating humor and cultured sarcasm, attempting constantly to gently push a reluctant country music into a new century. I don't mean it as an insult to country to say that the attention to detail here is rare for the genre, nor do I mean to suggest that attention to detail is automatically a good thing. But by the time of IV, their music was so brilliantly calculated and so achingly beautiful it felt as though they could go no further.

In truth, outside of a few instrumental augmentations (piano!), they really haven't, and their extraordinary previous album IV remains their greatest to date (in other words, get it first), but they have recorded possibly the most straightforwardly gorgeous album of the year. You may only remember a couple of the songs after they're over, but you will never want to turn the disc off while it's on. Wildwood expands on IV mostly in the sense that it adds a noticeable sheen to which some purists will object, but I like it; the record is enveloping, full of inviting and homegrown delicacy, like some lost '70s Neil Young project only with prettier vocals. If Chatham County Line sacrifice anything at all in authenticity, the sheer and hypnotic pleasure of their music compensates entirely.

The title track (embedded above) ably sets the stage for what's to follow. Stark lyrics collide with wintry harmonies and an incongrously spacious sound, full of music-hall echo and an effective (if very studio-generated) hint of backwoods menace. To boot, the explicit reference to a line in a previous cut ("Nowhere to Sleep," the opening track of Route 23 and probably my favorite CCL song) points toward further winking ironies throughout the album. (One song consists solely of quotes from rock and pop hits of the past, like a lyrical version of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet's "16 Encores.") This could even well be a nod to the Avetts, who sequel the pleading "If It's the Beaches" with the cynical "I Would Be Sad," the latter reflective of new confidence and maturity as much as pessimism. The same could be said for "Wildwood" as it looks back with a snort on earlier convictions, but unlike the Avett Brothers, Chatham County Line sound more determined than ever to make their alternative bluegrass an uncompromised, universal product.

You can find a certain surprising honesty here as well. Wilson tackles a number of subjects other alt-countryites are unlikely ever to sing about. "Alone in New York," outwardly a straightforward ballad about getting the blues in a crowd full of strangers, plays almost as a blunt repudiation of the light NPR-program-bumper lifestyle (and Starbuck's promotional synergy) to which so many folkie indie rockers now owe their living. But he and his band know they fit the profile -- here with their calmness, their reluctance to show excessive emotion even set against the mournful lyric. I disagree with Chuck Klosterman's complaints of the alt-country community being a consortium of fakery, but a song like "Porcelain Doll" does conjure up his vision of the slick, the intellectual, the upper-rung, not too many miles away from the chuckling Prairie Home Companion audience and admittedly a longshot from the populism of (in my opinion, creatively bankrupt) mainstream country. Not that it's a bad song, just that it leaves no mystery about which world Chatham County Line is in and which they're not. Oh, and there's a song called "Ghost of Woody Guthrie," which is about exactly that.

But two tracks stand well apart and may suggest the sound of the next record. In contrast with the "big" sound of the rest of the album, "Crop Comes In" reins it all in for a much more natural and less sterile "band" sound, consciously built with space to breathe rather than just fill, albeit with still surprisingly slick production values. (But then, it may be hard not to sound slick with today's technology; perhaps the labored poser move these days would be an attempt to "age" the sound, to replicate the wobbly tape of the past. I'm not sure.) The album's best track by a relative longshot is the extraordinary "Blue Jay Way" (not a Beatles cover, to my initial disappointment), a delicate, hauntingly sparse and beautiful Appalachian waltz. Dave Wilson has never sounded so fragile and passionate, and the band's instruments have never been put in service of a piece so atmospheric and moving. And though absent of aggression, it has that integral grit in its vocals and raw texture, thereby in fact taking their music someplace heretofore unimagined without abandoning their niche, no Rick Rubin production required. Entirely separated from any of this, though, the song is still a treasure, a work of purest loveliness, sadness, pleasure.

If all the references to the "other" North Carolina coffeehouse country band seem superfluous, I apologize; such comparisons are inevitable as I eagerly track the progress of both groups through the years. I find myself curious about where Chatham County Line will take their act next; they sound interested in big things, if not destined for them. I don't think they have an eye toward trying to become national roots-rock heroes. I don't think they want to adhere to a formula either. I think they may be onto something, something vaguely new, with the way this bluegrass passes forth at times into a kind of aural soundscape -- but that's only mildly touched on here. And we needn't worry too much about it yet. It's rare that you capture a functioning band in this moment when writing new songs and recording them is enough to keep the planet's attention and their own. Let's enjoy it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The "5" Royales: Complete King Masters (1954-60)



The breadth and scope of excellent popular music is overwhelming. Amidst all the new discs I've digested this year, young and older people making vital and interesting and fun material, discoveries from the past never cease spewing forth. I've been vaguely aware of the "5" Royales for a long time but categorized them as doo wop, or low-tier early R&B, and the authors of the legendary "Dedicated to the One I Love." I knew there was a cultish passion for them among some record collectors. But I didn't know what I was in for when I put on this two-disc set yesterday morning.

The group doesn't get more than a passing mention in any book I own, but their influence on artists as disparate as James Brown (who supposedly modeled his Famous Flames on the "5" Royales) and Eric Clapton is widely noted. They began in the mid-'40s as a gospel group called the Royal Suns Quintet, switching to R&B and changing their name to the Royals when they began recording. When two other groups called the Royals -- one to remain such and the other the Detroit combo that would become the Midnighters -- became competition, they added an "e" and a "'5,'" the quotation marks around the latter signifying the fact that there often were six men in the group.

The question of what makes the "5" Royales unusual in the context of so many rhythm-gospel hybrids of the early 1950s is pared down simply enough to the prescene of guitarist and songwriter Lowman Pauling. They were not the only group to enchance doo wop with jump blues or to play secular music like it was sacred. But they may have been the only group to accompany those velvet, edgy harmonies with orgasmic bursts of screaming electric guitar, guitar crazed and exciting enough to compete not just with the obvious descendents Steve Cropper and Jimi Hendrix but Dave Davies and Lou Reed. I'm not one for guitar heroes, but I've just found one. Unknowingly laying sounds of disparate eras on an equal plane, the "5" Royales become a self-contained portrait of passionately sung and played popular music. It does them a disservice to label them any aforementioned subgenre: this is rock & roll, in some respects the invention-in-progress of it. In other words, this music is hot... and as hot now as ever.

My first exposure came a few weeks ago with the ghostly, wrenching "Don't Let It Be in Vain":

Opening with stark clicks and bass like Marvin Gaye's later magical voodoo "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the song proceeds with haunting hums and anguished singing from Eugene Tanner, followed swiftly by Pauling not so much playing the guitar as ceding control to it, the track erupting to emotional meltdown in slow motion. There's a multitude of ingenious rhythm and blues from the late '50s, but little of it can be said to sound like nothing else, before or since. "Don't Let It Be in Vain" sounds like a supernatural dance, a spellbindingly alien message from death's door... and an infectious one at that.

Imagine my pride upon acquiring the larger package of hits (51 in all!) to discover that this innovative, restlessly creative pure rock & roll band hail from my home state, Winston-Salem to be precise, where they join John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Doc Watson, George Clinton, Thelonious Monk, Elizabeth Cotten, Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, Earl Scruggs, etc. in the hallowed hall of great North Carolina musicians we should learn about in school and don't (but you bet your ass we learn who Jesse Helms is, and please tell me why he's more important). I decided I'd take a bit of advantage of my profession and its access to myriad local information databases and do a bit of research. I was sobered by the one real nugget I uncovered, but we'll come to that.

The early cuts on this disc (roughly the first ten), though excellent in their own right and a significant part of R&B history, are not really the point. King wasn't even the group's first label. For Apollo, they recorded a series of sides designed to compete with the then-big guns of what could easily be termed secular gospel, such as the Orioles. But these cuts still cook, and in the future I intend to track down a compilation of them (and their gospel recordings as the Royal Sons as well). Hits on the Apollo label included "Baby Don't Do It," "Crazy, Crazy, Crazy," "Help Me Somebody," and "Too Much Lovin'," all of which I'll try to talk more about in the near future.

But with the move to King in 1955, a gradual transformation began to take hold into an assured, muscular, distinct group, undercutting the easy trends. The two and a half hours of music here fly by as if in a stock car, most of the songs barely two minutes, all of them tossing and running through hooks, inventions, and quirks in seconds like they're nothing, backgrounding the typically flawless harmonies. It isn't even easy to explain what all this leads to; it isn't proto-soul because it's an end in itself, and there is too much going on here that transcends every genre except, as mentioned, the very idea of rock & roll. The "5" Royales, and Lowman Pauling in particular, use sophisticated methods that seem far more familiar today than they must have in the late 1950s to achieve a primal catharsis. These often stunning 45's seem less locked in time than perfectly preserved as eccentric, prophetic masterstrokes.

The narrative of rock & roll supposedly boils down to an entrance of more literate and considered, less earthy and arguably less naturally elegant language ("I'm like a one eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store" becomes "Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble" in hardly a decade), followed by the increasingly labored hard edge that leads us down the unpalatable path to "Classic Rock." But the "5" Royales skip steps in this "evolution" the way punkers and college-rock bands someday would, marrying the simple beauty of pure rock & roll form with a delightful urge to make more noise than the neighbors, to bang the drums harder, to pluck and slam and fuck the guitar strings in ever stranger and more otherworldly ways. It's astonishingly brave for a group that began as holy congregation-thrillers to break the mannered mold into making the stodgiest reach up and cover their ears, as many of these sinful platters assuredly did, reaching their ambitions above their peers, parallel to the uncharted territory of Holly, Berry, Penniman, etc.

The Big Names of early rock & roll may all have had more innovation between them, but I doubt any aside from Buddy Holly sound as contemporary and knowing today as the "5" Royales; that's not to say they did it on purpose, at least not in the best-is-never-enough sense Holly did, but it just so happens they predicted the angular sounds that would make kids and adults squirm twenty years in the future (rendering the "crazy guitar" scene in Back to the Future all the more ironic; much of what Michael J. Fox does there is far less extreme and untraditional than Pauling's style). Put simply, the experience of hearing harmonies like this colliding with the hard edge and passionate musicianship is really powerful. What's fascinating to me is that the "5" Royales' unprejudiced, all-encompassing barrier-free sensibility comes off now like an older brother of the material Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones release today: classisist soul approached from the restless, rebellious angle of alternative rock.

The market has never been any more equipped for dogged invention in soul than it is in rock; of course certain stalwarts rise to the top (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder) and some just make art of every lame thing they're given (Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin), but the mastering of the oblique, the vague, the snake-for-the-jugular for which rock bands usually have a certain economic freedom was the stock in trade of practically no one in R&B until George Clinton and Prince came along. Smokey Robinson might well have been an exception, but more as a writer than a performer. I have no way of knowing how much control the "5" Royales had over their output -- presumably more than most groups, with a composer in tow, but still at the mercy of Apollo then King for what ended up on their releases. But listening to these songs now, they sound like artistic vanguards. And that's really all that matters.

It's time for me to confess that this compilation is a bootleg. Most "5" Royales material is out of print now, but if you can find it, Rhino's Monkey Hips and Rice anthology contains much of what's here, although it's deleted and trading at Amazon for a hefty $54. Thus I recommend Googling the name of this package to find out how to get it, and then I equally recommend buying MP3s as soon as they're legally available, because this legacy matters. But you need to hear it, so do what you gotta. If you must listen to just a portion of this, make it the second half. Treasures aplenty on the first, but the highlights here are too numerous to even keep in your head.

Take "Think," to start with, soon to be regurgitated by James Brown and thus written into soul music history. Rhythmically, it's grinding R&B of its era, but the arrangement (and recording) is subtle, winding, slinking and charming along propulsively. And it's the vocal (I believe it's by Eugene Tanner) that sticks with you: frayed, aching, struggling, spontaneous. This is the beautiful sound of working men, ordinary people paid to create, as conscious of the space between the noises they make as of the noises themselves.

Superficially, "Monkey Hips and Rice" suggests the semi-comic Leiber/Stoller hits popularized by the Coasters, but the smoky, adventurous, jazzy production sinks us into more sinister and unfamiliar territory, tossing us into a vaguely dangerous swamp. The lyrics thematically call to mind the grossout antics of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, but the music is sheer black magic, heart-filling sexy evil transcending novelty -- music for kinks.

Perhaps the most purely innovative "5" Royales tune is "The Slummer The Slum," which is reputed (by Dave Marsh, at least) to contain the first-ever deliberate use of guitar feedback, predating "I Feel Fine" by six years. The song opens as an invasion, Tanner confronting you backed by his cronies at a relentless pace, like one of the gangs in West Side Story, but they haven't even begun their side of the battle until Pauling's guitar explodes forty seconds in with the kind of axe poetry you'd expect on a garage rock record... it's that insane, that left-field but strangely logical, that pure and perfect. Like some rockabilly tyrant, Tanner sounds breathless after a minute and the band seemingly deliberately loses shape around him, everything centering around the buildup to a second direct-line-to-"Sister Ray" guitar solo. And remember, this song was released in 1958.

If you need one song to most vividly appreciate Pauling's guitar theatrics, take a gander at "Say It," another stuttering groove, this one with particularly grand lyrics (almost Smokeyesque), centered around the concise soloing that leaps out of the speakers, particularly at the almost avant garde closing runout. Equipped with an extra-long strap, Pauling used to hold his guitar close to the ground for comic effect, but this is serious business -- more emotional and certainly more fitting in context than the work of a hundred later "guitar Gods." The final seconds are sheer shimmering transcendence.

The single that ensured Pauling's place in history as a composer deserves its legend. "Dedicated to the One I Love" is top-drawer, confident romantic pop, famous unfortunately in large part because of a dire cover version by the Mamas and the Papas (itself derived from a competently soulful Shirelles rendition), who squeeze every ounce of life and sex and mystery out of it (as they did just as offensively with the Beatles' "I Call Your Name"). The original is bright and thumping, with wonderfully tricky playing by Pauling behind all the most sweeping lines. It's fitting, though, that the song was resurrected in the late '60s, because it is as complex in melody, lyricism, rhythm as anything the California bands were then crafting. The song builds and recedes in a variety of unconventional ways, almost a two-minute series of tiny movements. More commercial than most of the best cuts on this collection, it is a pleasure to listen to.

But it's truly criminal to describe at length just a tenth of the songs here. They are all worthy of further investigation, bumping, discussion, dancing.

After the "5" Royales disbanded, facing an indifferent marketplace, in 1965, Lowman Pauling was unable to properly enjoy the breadth of his influence. Sadly, he died relatively unknown, working as a night watchman. We've heard the story a million times about brilliant black musicians of his day and many days earlier. But somehow, this recently-penned discovery I made in a small Winston-Salem newspaper today brings it achingly home for me:

R&B music pioneer Lowman Pauling has son, mother here
by Scott Sexton, Winston-Salem Journal

Aug. 2--Hardly anybody knows it, but a small treasure trove of music history sits in a modest house across the street from the Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy.

A man named Lowman Pauling once lived there. His namesake son lives in the house now, helping take care of his ailing mother. Sweating life's details -- seeing that she makes it to her dialysis appointments is primary among them -- is a priority now, but the realities of everyday living don't stop Pauling from breaking into a wide grin when he gets the chance to talk about his father's often-overlooked place in music history.

Lowman Pauling was a pioneer in 1950s rhythm and blues. He played guitar, performed in a group that started in Winston-Salem called the "5" Royales, and wrote a long list of songs. Notable among them is "Dedicated to the One I Love," a song that climbed the pop charts when covered by the Shirelles in 1961, and again in 1967 for the Mamas and Papas.

"James Brown, Chuck Berry ... Daddy was just as good or better," Pauling said. "Daddy could really play. He really was something."

Lowman Pauling, the father, grew up in Winston-Salem in the area around Trade Street. He started playing guitar when he was young, his son said, and began his musical journey performing gospel with his brothers.

Only the most dedicated music fans might remember the name Lowman Pauling these days. Even at the peak of his skills, Pauling perhaps didn't get the acclaim due a man of his talents.

His credits include "Think," an R&B hit recorded in 1961 by Brown -- not Aretha Franklin's smash hit -- "Baby Don't Do It" and "Help Me Somebody," both of which were R&B hits in 1953.

"Unfortunately, that happened to a lot of black artists back in those days," Pauling said. "Sometimes they didn't get the credit due them, and sometimes the labels cheated them out of royalties."

But that's history. These days, Pauling enjoys those rare times, which are growing fewer and fewer as the years zip by, when somebody recognizes the achievements of the man whose name he shares. He keeps mementoes around, and the entry foyer to the house is lined with frames holding some of the more precious ones.

A print depicting the famous Apollo Theater, the members of the "5" Royales and their signatures holds a prominent spot. Just below that is a proclamation signed by former Mayor Martha Wood and members of the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen presented when a street was named in honor of the "5" Royales.

A stack of identical dark-blue cardboard envelopes contains matching certificates commemorating broadcast milestones -- starting with 1 million broadcast performances of "Dedicated to the One I Love."

"How many are we up to now, Darryl, 4 million?" asked Ellise Pauling, using the middle name her son is mostly known by.

"Yes, Mom, I think that's right," he replied, tearing himself away from his trip through the past to tend to the present.

It must be pretty cool to flip on a radio and hear a song that your dad wrote, huh?

"Winston-Salem State used to have a DJ on Sundays who used to play some of his music pretty consistently," Pauling said. "But other than that, you don't hear it much. But, yes, it does make you feel good."

Rather than dwell on physical tributes that can be seen and read, Pauling prefers the intangible, hard-to-define portion of his father's legacy. Books, magazines and quickie online biographies and histories note that legendary artists such as Brown, described as the "hardest-working man in show business," and rock legend Eric Clapton have cited Lowman Pauling as an influence.

"James Brown and the Famous Flames, they patterned their act after my father," Pauling said. "The "5" Royales were doing those kinds of (dance) moves before they were."

He laughed at the suggestion that maybe one day his father would get more attention if by some chance a wave of renewed interest in classic R&B came along. Only 52, he smiled and started to offer a variation of the familiar "these kids today" lament before steering the conversation back to his father.

"Daddy died in 1973," he said. "He's been gone a long time."

Still, he says with considerable pride that his father is scheduled in September to get a spot in the new N.C. Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis, alongside the likes of jazz greats John Coltrane (High Point) and Thelonius Monk (Rocky Mount), country star Randy Travis (Marshville) and bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs (Flint Hill).

Of even greater personal importance, though, is a small change Pauling has noticed in his 16-year-old son, who has taken up the guitar.

"Everybody used to call him "D.D." but now he goes by Lowman," Pauling said. "He insists that people call him that instead."

A living legacy is the very best kind.

In The Trouble with Harry, a film made not long before the "5" Royales began to make their best records for King, Alfred Hitchcock and his screenwriter John Michael Hayes make the argument that the artist is the savior of the common people, perhaps even that s/he is the only uncommon person and is faced with the unenviable task of helping the restof us straighten ourselves out. It's sometimes alarming how rarely we are given the chance to return the favor. Of course Little Richard and Chuck Berry can afford to eat more than jelly bread sandwiches, and they deserve that, but what about the hundreds of others equally gifted looking out the window as the most skilled, savvy talents rise to the top? I can't tell Lowman Pauling how special his music still sounds in 2010. It's a fact of life, but when something is so vital it feels like it sprang from the earth so much more recently than four generations ago, it's painfully hard to believe. Go listen to this music and revel in it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma (2010)


[2019 note: On revisiting stuff for my decade-end projects, I heard this again and found that my taste for jabbing experimental collage music of this sort has expanded greatly, helped along by how much I've admired some of FlyLo's subsequent work. I'm upgrading this to RECOMMENDED but allowing the original, more neutral review below to stand as originally posted. Thanks.]

Admitting no prior awareness of Flying Lotus, I have to admit this record wasn't at all what I expected. I read interviews with him and expected something more... overt? And certainly more accessible. Instead, we have a remarkably subtle disc here. As we've already mentioned here, I used to consider myself sort of an electronica aficionado, but I couldn't help finding the skittering first third-to-half of this to be pedestrian, even generic. But I left it on anyway, and eventually found noises that were ever more delicious passing through the landscapes; at times, the techno-jazz experimentation is sublime, the rhythms and trickery hypnotic and enveloping.

Reflecting on this now, I start to wonder how much my behavior during the listen affected my opinion. All through the first six or seven tracks, my cat was being particularly antsy, running all over the dining room and jumping on top of things, and as the clippy little chirps banged their way tentatively through the room I felt too pensive to see much beauty in it all. Things calmed down after that and I set to work on some project on the computer that required some level of concentration, no longer moving around the room much, and suddenly what Flying Lotus was driving at fell into place. I may be liable for my lack of unadulterated enthusiasm here.

With that said, two important notes: people who come to this, as people tend to in cases like this, to hear Thom Yorke's cameo are likely be dejected and will sit this in the proverbial pile with Drugstore and UNKLE; and more importantly, though the pleasures to be found here are likely worth it for many, the uglier moments are not ugly in a way I find ingratiating. They're just ugly, and kind of maddening. My cat agrees.