Locals Done Good

There aren’t many big name, major label recording artists these days that cause me to get excited when I hear they’ve got a new album coming out . . . but The Chemical Brothers are one such group. Throw me in a car with a good stereo system and a couple of Chemical Brothers’s discs and I can drive and drive and drive and be happy while I do it. Unlike most techno/electro artists, the Chems have an amazing sense of melody and dynamic scope . . . they make good singles, but they make great albums, ones that build and grow over their duration, and actually seem to hold together as coherent works of art, rather than an assortment of disconnected short bits. Good stuff.

Their new record, Push the Button, continues their long-standing habit of featuring guest vocalists, although there’s far more of an urban/hip-hop flavor to the guest list this time out there than has been in the past. Plus . . . (and this was the reason for the title of this post) . . . a great Albany-bred and based composer-singer named Sara Ayers is prominently sampled on “Come Inside,” one of the best tracks on the album. Sara has curated two excellent art shows for me at the C+CC, and has performed live as part of each exhibition. She’s great to work with, and makes great music. I commend the Chemical Brothers for recognizing that.

On another local music note, if you have ever played in a band or are thinking about playing in a band, you need to click the link to the left and read former Albanian Jed Davis‘s ongoing blog history of his Albany band, The Hanslick Rebellion. Go back to the entries that begin January 23 and read forward to catch up. I had planned at one point to work with Jed on a book-length treatment of his music career to date, but that fell through for a variety of internal and external reasons . . . but I think at the core of it not happening was my knowledge that Jed really tells the story a lot better than I would have. Anyway . . . the Hanslick Rebellion were an extraordinary band. And their methodologies and plans of attack (both musical and nonmusical) were smart and well-executed. Read and heed, wannabe rockers.

From Systems Engineering to Fela

When I started school at the Naval Academy, I planned to be a systems engineer, because I envisioned that would involve playing with robots, and robots are cool. But after three semesters of doing little more than writing lab reports, I decided that I needed to have a major that would occasionally allow me to actually write complete sentences and reports that didn’t include numbers. So I shifted to one of what were refered to as “the bull majors” . . . Political Science, “poli sci, GPA high,” as the conventional wisdom went.

Of course, that conventional wisdom proved wrong, and my grades actually decreased a bit after the switch, in large part because of the fuzzy subjectivity of grading term papers, compared to the clean and elegant objectivity of grading math and science papers. In those areas, you either got it right (A) or not (F). And I got most things right. But in Political Science, it was a bit more . . . . ehhhh . . . “this paper sorta feels like a B, I guess.”

We had to pick a region or country or theme to specialize in within the major. Without thinking much, I originally opted for US-Soviet relations (since this was still during the height of the cold war) . . . but the first time I waited until the last night to work on a paper, and I went to the library to check out books (since this was before the internet) and found every US-Soviet related book already out, I realized I needed something less popular. As I drifted through the library, I noted that the section on African politics and history was virtually untouched: long rows of books packed tight, dust on top of a lot of them. This was not a popular field, so I chose it, knowing I could safely start my term papers the night before they were due. (Of course, I also had to take classes on other parts of the world, but even there, I always went for the unusual locales . . . in a Latin American politics class, I honed in on Paraguay for a semester while most of my classmates studied Mexico or Brazil or Argentina . . . in a class about global communism, I picked Mongolia instead of East Germany or the USSR or Cuba . . . I probably still know more about Paraguay and Mongolia than 99% of the people in this country, I would imagine, which isn’t saying a whole lot . . .)(. . . the semester I was studying Mongolia resulted in the infamous “Books About Mongolia” tape, from which I cribbed the title of one of last year’s poems).

Anyway, it was a bad reason for choosing an academic track, but as it turned out, it was an absolutely fascinating field of study, about a part of the world that most folks here never much think about, except during the occasional humanitarian crisis that reaches such absurd proportions (Rwanda and Darfur come to mind) that the U.S. media deems it worth a sidebar on the front page every now and then.

As I learned about the politics and governments, both current and historical, I also began seeking out recordings to properly soundtrack my studies, and after hours spent in tiny import record shops in Washington, DC’s Adams-Morgan neighborhood (which had a high Ethiopian immigrant population at the time), I accumulated quite a nice collection of traditional music and pop from throughout the African continent, in the days when it was for the most part authentic and largely untouched by American recording and mixing standards (i.e. before Paul Simon’s Graceland, Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD tour and Sting’s and David Byrne’s lesser cultural appropriations led to the rise of the odious “World Music” genre, filled with watered down ethnic melodies made pablum for American consumption).

The first thing I discovered was that there is no such thing as “African Music” as a genre. The best you can do to lump it all together is to call it “music from the African continent,” since the breadth and depth of the music is extraordinarily wide and diverse. The stuff I liked the most tended to come from Central and West Africa. Some of my favorites included King Sunny Ade (Nigeria), Manu Dibango (Cameroon), Foday Musa Suso (Gambia), Kanda Bongo Man (Zaire), Babatunde Olatunji (Nigeria), Toure Kunda (Senegal) and Papa Wemba (Zaire).

Another exquisite album that I listened to regularly was a field recording of two young boys from Malawi (age 12 and 14, if I recall correctly) playing traditional marimba-like instruments. I don’t know the boys’ names, and I don’t know what their instruments were called, but I know that the result (all scratchy and noisy from the crudeness of the field recording) was positively King Crimson-esque (Discipline era, mainly) in its hypnotizing circular rhythms and melodic patterns.

Almost all of that stuff was on vinyl, so I don’t listen to it much anymore . . . except for one as-yet-unmentioned artist who has a huge and readily accessible CD catalog: Nigeria’s late Fela Kuti. When I get in the mood to listen to Fela, it usually takes me weeks to move on to something else, because his music is so engaging, so heady, so powerful and so damn listenable. My favorite Fela CD is one that combines tracks from a couple of vinyl releases, including “Original Sufferhead,” “I.T.T.,” “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” and “Colonial Mentality.” I would be hard pressed to pick four better examples of Fela’s body of work, so having them all on one disc is quite the treat.

I was listening to that disc this morning while driving in through the latest snowstorm (which is what inspired this long, disjointed ramble) and was even more than usually smitten with the track “Colonial Mentality,” which has the most insanely catchy and insistent horn chart I think I’ve ever heard: there must be at least a dozen saxes (alto, tenor, baritone . . . no stinking soprano ones to be heard) and trumpets and who knows what else going at it together atop a groove to die for, with organs and guitars and antiphonic vocals chants filling in around Fela’s cool baritone delivery of his usual insightful political observations. Simply breathtaking, with a melody that should have been an international hit many times over, except for the fact that its part of a 12-minute or so song.

Worth investigating. As are any of the other artists mentioned above. Not to be a pop culture snob or anything, but if you can find records they originally released before 1984 or so (when Graceland sent every major record lable scurrying for African music they could sanitize), you’ll probably have a more eye- and ear-opening listening experience. I think I’m gonna have to do some shopping myself to see if can’t replace some of my old vinyl with CD versions.

(Later That Same Night):

I’m listening to Fela again, this time a CD that contains “Army Arrangement,” “Cross Examination” and “Government Chicken Boy.” It’s another great collection. The one I was talking about earlier today has no liner notes on it, but this one does, and the band on “Army Arrangement” is every bit as big as it sounds:

Three baritone saxophones

One tenor saxophone

One alto saxophone

One soprano saxophone (oh dear)

One flugelhorn

Two trumpets

Four guitars

One bass guitar

Five keyboards

Five percussionists/drummers

There are no vocal credits given, but Fela was extensively polygamous, and often had many of his wives onstage with him, so I’m guessing there are at least another dozen people singing on this disc behind him. The arrangements are superb. Such an amazing talent.

On (Not So) Classic Cartoons

A recent post on My Non-Urban Life opened a floodgate of childhood cartoon memories, primarily focused around Deputy Dawg, the first TV show I can remember avidly, diligently watching. So obsessed was I with this character that I absconded with one of my grandfathers fedoras and wore it around, refering to it as my Deputy Dawg Hat. Years later, I caught some Deputy Dawg cartoons on late night television, and was amazed at how borderly-offensive the thick Southern accents and broad yokel comic strokes were. But it occured to me that the reason I liked it so much as a kid in South Carolina was because everyone else I knew in real life talked that way too.

Later, when we moved to New Jersey, I became a Speed Racer fan, a much more urban/northern sort of cartoon obsession. This Christmas, I bought my nephew a DVD of some classic Speed Racer episodes. The current Japanese manga/anime fad seems to keep Speed (the first Japanese animated series to run in the States, I believe) in the public eye a lot more than poor Deputy Dawg is these days. Somehow I don’t imagine Deputy Dawg gettting an official, slick flash website anytime soon.

Other favorites from the ’60s and early ’70s: Underdog, Wacky Races, Hillbilly Bears (I don’t think I realized they had funny accents either), and Quickdraw McGraw (but only the El Kabong episodes). Towards the end of my regular cartoon watching days, I also liked The Groovy Goolies and Hair Bear.

I think kids today would find any and all of these cartoons to be woefully inadequate, spoiled as they are by CGI and digital animation, and by 24/7 opportunities to watch cartoons. But, man, in the ’60s and early ’70s, Saturday morning cartoons were the bomb, and your afternoon play couldn’t officially start until you’d caught up on what Speed Racer was up to that day, so that way you’d have something to talk about while throwing rocks at each other.

The only peril to Saturday mornings was when you work up too early, because then your parents would make you watch Davey and Goliath until the real cartoons came on. And the last thing you wanted to start a Saturday with was something wholesome (yuck!) with a message (blech!). It was better to just stay in bed and dream about setting your model airplanes on fire.

Another Project Comes to Fruition

For the better part of two years, I’ve been helping an older gentleman on the Board of Trustees of the C+CC write, layout and illustrate his autobiography. It’s actually been a pretty interesting project, and one that will be of historical value to RPI and the C+CC and the City of Troy in general since the author, Stephen Edward Wiberley, is a long-time mover and shaker in these parts. There were a lot of famous folks, mostly scientists, passing through the pages of his life’s story (Fermi, Heisenberg, Van Allen, Kuiper, Teller, Pauling), plus guest appearances by the likes of Bette Davis, astronaut Jack Swigert, NASA deputy administrator George Low and the 1985 NCAA Hockey Champion RPI Engineers. The final manuscript ran to about 320 pages and had about 240 illustrations, photos or figures, all of which I have been scanning and treating and restoring as well as possible, then fitting into the book. Today, Steve dropped off the finished, bound product. It looks great, and has been a very rewarding project. I think the hard part now is to keep him from feeling like his life’s work is done and he no longer has anything to live for. I told him that my fee for helping him was that I expected him to give me an update and addenda ten years from now, and that he had to find some exciting stuff to make it worth my while. He laughed at that, but I hope he thinks about it. He’s a good man. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him in a tremendous amount of detail, more so than you normally do for anyone you’re not closely related to. The book looks great, and I think it will be an important addition to some regional libraries around here. The C+CC one, for starters, since Steve was one of the men who helped build the place.

And then?

First, enjoying not feeling a self-imposed requirement to write and post here every day. Requirements become onerous after a year, even when they’re self-imposed.

Second, a thorough re-read of all the poems to see what I really like, and for what purpose. Some pieces may lend themselves to submission to fusty poetry journals, but others may have better stand alone uses. For instance: my sister is interested in illustrating the Low Country Limericks as her personal art project this year. So compiled and illustrated, I think there’s probably some small press down in the Low Country that might be interested is such a humorous little tome, given the huge number of other little humorous tomes that fill regional bookstores down that way. Or, if not, then maybe we have a more visually interesting collaborative chapbook to send out with some future year’s Christmas cards.

Third, further exploration of the poems-as-lyrics model. In addition to the two songs posted from the fellows in Edinburgh here, I’ve been approached by a songwriter locally (who I consider to be quite superb) who has expressed an interest in taking on a few numbers, and a colleague from many years ago who’s making big noises of an industrial/electronic variety has also requested use of some of the poems. I think in a perfect world, this would be the vein in which I would most like to write poetry in the future; I’m realistic enough to recognize my own limitations when it comes to crafting melody, but I’m also realistic enough to recognize my strengths when it comes to crafting words. So if any of you songwriters out there are looking for something to say or someone to say it for you, I’m certainly open to dialog on the subject, regarding both poems in the 2004 project or new material.

Fourth, I have 18 of the 100 chapbooks I printed still sitting here by my computer. They’re not doing me any good here, so if anyone wants one, let me know and I’ll be happy to send it your way. Once these 18 go, I won’t be doing any more of this particular collection in this format, so who knows, maybe it’ll be a collectible someday, if “Happiness” wins a Grammy in 2009.

Fifth, I have to figure out what I want to write in 2005, and where I want to write it. I don’t want to walk away from the best part of the poetry project, which was being in the head space where random thoughts and ideas got committed to paper, instead of disappearing into the mental lint. I want to preserve that, I want to continue to create (not critique), but I don’t think I want it to be happening here on the blog anymore. As I started to feel like I had some things of value during 2004, I became increasingly concerned about either losing them or losing their publishability because I had posted them online, a big no no as far as more magazine or book publishers are concerned. Maybe its time to just put teasers on the blog, while the actual works go out where they should be going: agents, songwriters, publishers, readings, etc.

Sixth, as a related issue, I have to figure out what the blog becomes now. In addition to all the literary and personal reasons that I took on the poetry project, it was also a way to put something on the blog that made it worth coming back to regularly. It seems to have worked. At the beginning of the year, my website was averaging about 18,000 hits per month from about 300 trackable distinct visitors (i.e., each of those distinct visitors averaged two hits per day over the course of a month: 300 times 2 per day times 30 days per month equals 18,000 hits). In December, I received 41,000 hits for the month from about 750 distinct visitors. That means each visitor averaged about 1.8 hits per day over the month (750 times 1.8 times 30 equals about 41,000 hits per month). The key statistic there is that in January, there were about 300 people at least occasionally reading the site. Now there are about 750 people at least occasionally reading it. It’s not best-sellerdom, but it was a good growth in outreach for my work, and I don’t really want to lose the interest (or support) of those 750 people. So . . . any ideas, Committee of 750? What would you like to see here?

Seventh, I still plan to enjoy a little luxurious gloating over doing what I did. Again, it’s not penning a best seller, it’s not curing cancer, it’s not really helping anybody in any tangible way, but it was a solid commitment to work on a time-consuming project, and I completed it, on schedule and as planned. There are tons and tons of poem and day blogs and websites online, as you will find if you search for “poem a day” on your search engine of choice. But few of them feature all original poems, and even fewer of them are stuck with until completion. I’ve not found a single other one, in fact, which doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but means that completed projects of that ilk are far more rare than undertaken projects of that ilk. So, yes, I’m going to enjoy a few days of arrogance over that accomplishment, sans any guilt. Even though I know that 90% of this big, fat notebook on my desk is crap, I’m proud to have produced it, knowing that the good 10% wouldn’t have existed had the other dreck not been ground through along the way.

Eighth
, I need to thank all of you who wrote to me over the course of the year to offer encouragement or criticism or commentary. It made it worth while, really, and there were times when I would have quit had I not received key posts at key points. I also very humbly offer appreciation and praise to the half-a-dozen other folks who, over the course of the year, told me they were inspired to start similar projects. Some of them are continuing into 2005. I imagine that some of those projects may, in turn, inspire other projects. It’s nice to know that something I did for myself had enough weight in someone else’s life to inspire them to attempt a similar project and (hopefully) to inspire others in turn.

Ninth
, a good chunk of the morning is now gone and I’ve accomplished nothing other than making this list. It’s a nice list, but reality beckons. More here when I feel like it. Hopefully soon.

Year in Review

Here’s my Top Ten Albums of 2004, as submitted for inclusion in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop Survey (minus the points I allocated):

1. The Wasted, We Are Already in Hell

2. The Fall, The Real New Fall LP…Formerly Country On the Click

3. The Residents, WB:RMX

4. Clutch, Blast Tyrant

5. Ministry, Houses of the Mole

6. P.J. Harvey, Uh Huh Her

7. Gibby Haynes and His Problem, Gibby Haynes and His Problem

8. Bjork, Medulla

9. Einsturzende Neubaten, Perpetuum Mobile

10. Bryan Thomas, Babylon

The Wasted and Bryan Thomas are local Albany folks, if you don’t recognize their names. They are both exceptional: marrying strong songwriting with kick-ass studio and live performances.

Here’s my favorite films of the year, so far:

1. Garden State

2. Hero

3. Collateral

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

5. The Incredibles

6. Finding Neverland

7. Shaun of the Dead

8. Mean Girls

9. Shrek 2

10. Spider Man 2

I haven’t seen Sideways, Ray, Open Water and Closer, but I imagine some of them might bump off the lower ones in my seen-to-date list one I get to them.

The five worst movies I saw this year:

1. Napoleon Dynamite (Remember, I lived in Idaho: it wasn’t funny then, either. But this was just an exercise in creating unwatchable characters and letting them be stupid together. How this became a hit, I’ll never know.)

2. Van Helsing (I had no clue what was going on most of the time, drifting in and out of sleep between explosions and screams. BO-ring.)

3. The Stepford Wives (So much wasted talent on such an obviously doomed re-make.)

4. Spanglish (Hateful and mean; you know you’re in trouble when Adam Sandler is the most appealing thing in a movie.)

5. I, Robot (You know you’re in trouble when the robot is a better actor than Will Smith).

The only television show I watched regularly in 2004 was South Park, so I guess it wins my show of the year nod for the eighth year running, or however long it’s been on.

Okay. Time for more drugs now. My head is oozing.