May 2014: South Africa, Brooklyn, Campeche, and beyond

Pretenders – Middle Of The Road - 2007 Remastered - I snatched up this classic back at the CHIRP Record Fair back in April, but just got around to putting in on the platter. So timeless. 

Samthing Soweto – Mdolomba - This is my favorite discovery of the month, courtesy of one of three great mix tapes of South African music from Spoek Mathambo, this one being dedicated to SA rap. (If that sounds even the least bit interesting to you, please do yourself a favor and check it out.) Listening to this song, it doesn't seem intuitive that Samthing Soweto would be included on a mix dedicated to rap, but there's a definite connection. The projects Soweto has been involved in seem fairly diverse, but this album feels to me like an evolutionary step for him, synthesizing contemporary R&B smooveness with Ladysmith Black Mambazo-style a cappella doowops, and all kinds of stuff in-between. I like to imagine Bobby McFerrin born 30 years later and a several thousand miles away. In any case, this music is deep and rich with all kinds of musical references. Highly recommended.  

KRS-One – Sound of da Police - Maybe it was listening to all of the great rap music (much of it I'd never heard) on Seth's playlist earlier this month, but for some reason the chorus to this song popped into my head one day for no reason. My sister happened to be visiting Chicago for a couple days, and I started singing it, asking her if she knew what it was. She took a wild guess, I took a wild guess, and that grand arbiter The Internet fell down on my side - KRS-One. I spent the next day with her just randomly exclaiming "woop woop..."

Listening to it now, it makes me think about a dinner I went to recently where I got to hear first hand about the overwhelming violence and accompanying despair that have overtaken parts of Chicago. In honor of the Chicago Community Trust's 99th anniversary, they sponsored an event called On the Table - roughly 1,000 small get-togethers for people to discuss "our collective future." Gabe hosted at her house, and about half of our group were people we'd never met - all African-American and from pretty rough parts of the city. The conversation was dominated by reflection on the violence they have to live with every day, and their overwhelming feeling that the Mayor and city leadership basically don't care about them. As for the police, there seemed to be general consensus that, lacking the psychic ability to know who had guns, there wasn't much they could do. After a night like that it's difficult not to feel powerless and despairing, and not a bit guilty that the idea of "our collective future" is kind of laughable, considering how little day-to-day affect this violence has in Hyde Park, just next door. I have to think, though, that there's something positive to come from even the small act of eating dinner with someone and hearing what their life is like. 

Atmosphere – Southsiders - Typically, I'm late to the Atmosphere party. This surprisingly long album is just chock full of great grooves, unusual musical ideas, and great rapping. Would it be accurate to say that Minneapolis rap doesn't shy away from rock sounds? I'm thinking particularly also of Eyedea and Abilities here. Anyway, I much prefer it to the square, canned computer sounds that seem to be everywhere in rap (especially of the popular variety) right now, which have the perverse effect of sapping all danger and vigor from songs whose sole mission seems to be proving how tough their narrators are. Also, even though it's a completely different Southside, I like to pretend this is an anthem for mine. 

Joey Abarta – They Sailed Away from Dublin Bay / The Galtee Reel (Live) - My dad and his music partner Will Branch concocted an East Coast mini-tour to justify a visit to the 6th annual Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is put together by the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn. After getting back he couldn't rave enough about it. To hear someone who's been seeing folk music for almost fifty years exclaim that this was one of the best festivals he's ever been to speaks volumes. He was stunned by the quality, number, and diversity of musicians involved. I pointed out that the same could be said about Brooklyn in any number of musical genres. Why is Brooklyn filled with so much extraordinary music?, we wondered. Clearly, New York City's history as a cultural hotbed has a lot to do with it. Still, there's something special about the critical mass that has accrued in our nation's fourth-largest city. 

As for the song from a compilation of performances from last year's festival - I've got a special sweet spot for the uilleann pipes. Bostonian Joey Abarta is clearly carrying forth the Irish tradition with serious skill and devotion. 

Jack White – Love Is Blindness - Isn't it, though? Great and unexpected cover that simultaneously smears and reveals the original

The Roots – When The People Cheer - The more music The Roots make the more I'm convinced of Black Thought's absolute dominance as an MC, lacking any pretension or tricks. No matter what else is happening in a song, musically or lyrically, my attention solidifies the moment he comes on the mic. Overall, this album seems like a continued exploration of the music and themes on 2011's Undun, with an surprisingly (especially for such a large band) minimalist focus on drums and piano. Maybe it's just how deeply Undun continues to hold me in its sway, but I have to say that (while still really good) this album seems like a lesser cousin to the last one. Still, they're clearly working at the edge of their creative potential, as this review/translation of their recent deconstruction of the new album at the Public Theater demonstrates. 

Los Socios Del Ritmo – El Pregonero De Campeche - I recently got an unexpected musical/cultural lesson from my friend Ingrid over g-chat on this song about the town in Mexico her family comes from. Here's how it went: 

Ingrid: Look up the song "El Pregonero de Campeche" on Spotify. It's about the city I was born in ;) I'm playing it right now so the baby can hear it.

Josh: What does "pregonero" mean?

I: town crier...

J: Nice.

I: In Campeche, the baker goes around the neighborhoods to sell his bread. He claps really loud and that's how you know he's coming. Then you go out to your front door and wait for him.

J: So, professional requirements for a baker are: 1. Good at making bread, 2. Loud clapper.

I: There's also the guy or girl who sells guavas a type of fruit. Same thing..they go around the neighborhood yelling "guayas" for people to know they are coming. That's what the song talks about. All the town criers which is basically all the people selling their stuff :o)

J: Cool. Los luceros? Is that what they are saying?

I: Los luceros...stars

J: Oh, got it.

I: They are talking about how people get up early and stay up late until the stars are shining bright. The song is so fitting because everyone in Campeche is so friendly.

J: I believe it! I like this song after too!

I: So, Campeche is the city but also the name of the state. Champoton is another city in the state of Campeche. It's about 45 minutes from the city of Campeche.

J: This is a group from that area, obviously.

I: They've been around forever. When I lived in Mexico city and we would go to Campeche to visit, we would always take a bus- 15 hours! For some reason the bus always stopped in Champoton. I loved it because that meant we were less than 1 hour from Campeche.

J: Sweet. You should listen to their La Gallina, and the song Chicken Strut by the Meters back to back.

The Meters – Chicken Strut - Single Version - It's seems improbable that listening to Los Socios Del Ritmo would lead to The Meters, but there it is. A great excuse to introduce them to Gabe, who recently let on that she didn't think she'd ever heard of them. Well now, you're welcome. 

Shabazz Palaces – They Come in Gold - To me, this is the sound of rap's next step - clearly electronically-born, with whispers of sampling; unmoored from stereotypes, yet full of swagger. Smart, dirty, challenging. Woozy, but not puke-inducing. Probably not what I'd throw on during the middle of a party, but maybe the tail end when everyone's properly deranged. Looking forward to the deluxe vinyl version of the full album Lese Majesty, out at the end of July. 

Cian Nugent & The Cosmos – Grass Above My Head - Of the current crop of Fahey disciples, Nugent is easily my new favorite, building here not just on Fahey's guitar stylings but his multi-instrument orchestrations as well. I narrowly missed seeing him here in Chicago, but did get to spar with him over Twitter a bit, and watch his magnetic Tiny Desk Concert, below. Doesn't he also seem like a super fun dude to hang out with? Great great stuff. Seriously, Cian - let's hang the next time you're in Chicago.

Bread – Make It With You - The day before the CHIRP Record Fair last month I was hanging out with Robb and Helean and somehow Bread came up. "Fuck Bread!," I exclaimed - more out of rowdy humor and intuition than actual informed opinion. The next day I walked into the huge hall of the record fair and literally the first record I laid eyes on was The Best of Bread. I had to get it. Listening to it later, I concluded that my inebriated knee-jerk reaction wasn't too far off. Bread really isn't very good, especially considering their contemporaries. Still, if you can get over the soft rock thing, this song isn't bad. And moreover its sentiment has special resonance for me this month as I navigate some rocky romantic waters. 

Wye Oak – Glory - I haven't yet gotten around to wrapping my head around Wye Oak's previous stuff, but I've heard/read enough to know I should. By all accounts this record is a pretty serious departure from the guitar-oriented sound they've been building on, but I can't imagine that Jenn Wasner's voice isn't the stand-out element of any Wye Oak configuration. I wonder if, in the '80's, Kate Bush would have predicted what a wide shadow she'd be casting in 2014. This band now tops the list of things I need to see live. 

Mica Levi – Lonely Void - I know what you're thinking. Yes, the movie Under the Skin is exactly this creepy and seductively magnetic. A film with a superhuman devotion to detail (both sonic and visual) and a shocking disinterest in mainstream convention. In a movie that doesn't shy away from silence, this soundtrack by Mica Levi (better know as the leader of pop iconoclasts Micachu and the Shapes) should share marquee billing with Scarlett Johansson. Levi talks about composing this unnerving music in this great interview. 

Tobacco – Father Sister Berzerker - The Black Moth Super Rainbow head honcho continues to mine the grimy end of psychedelic keyboardism. A great soundtrack to having a nervous breakdown on a dance floor at 4 a.m.

Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle – Barber: Adagio for Strings - Haunting the music section of my favorite bookstore recently, I started thumbing through The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It, by Phillip Ball. It looks incredible. In the section I opened to on rhythm, Ball named this piece as an example of music unpinned from the demands of rhythm. Gorgeous stuff.