September 2017 ~ Walls

Tony Allen - Wolf Eats Wolf Well, last month was an African "fake-out" - this month I'm getting back to the real thing. Over 50 years into a career in music, legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen has made this insanely enjoyable record, fusing jazz, Afrobeat, rock, and probably a lot of other stuff that's over my head. To me, a lot of this sounds like Mingus jamming with Fela. Which...goddamn. And behind it all is Allen's skittering, deceptively unobtrusive drumming. I love how the beginning of this song seems to go in one direction, until the horn section comes in - not changing the direction of the chugging groove truck so much as revealing what it's carrying. Superb horn arrangements. Ah, man. Listen to this album!

Francis Bebey - The Coffee Cola Song I stumbled this month on a fantastic column in The Guardian called "101 strangest records on Spotify," written by Rob Fitzpatrick. Living up to its name, the column is a treasure trove for those who are tickled by kitsch. Just looking at the album covers is gold. But, based on the inclusion of Francis Bebey's supremely likable African Electronic Music 1975-1982, I'd wager there's a ton of great (for reasons other than kitsch) music buried in here. Hailing from Cameroon, Bebey was a prolific musician, artist, and writer who stretched Cameroonian makossa music into new arenas. In his short write-up on the album, Fitzgerald describes how after moving to Paris in the '50's, Bebey became " so frustrated by what he saw as colonial prejudice towards traditional African music and rhythms, that he came up with his great plan – to use Western technology to spread an appreciation of the African music and culture he so loved. A staunch proponent of Negritude, or Blackness, Bebey wrote poetry, novels and journalism, all of which aimed to promote the common values of Black civilisation; this remarkable record forms part of that aim." Is this music strange? It is, but it's difficult for me to say how much of that is the music itself, and how much is my own ignorance about its context. First of all, what is coffee cola? Who are the "them" and "we" he's singing about? In the end, whatever "strangeness" the song exhibits ends up being what makes it so fun. 

Nilüfer Yanya - Baby Luv I'm just obsessed with this single from the young London singer. It's her voice. It's the simplicity of the guitar. It's the melody? The drums. The production. I don't know. I just want to listen to it over and over. 

Jane Weaver - The Architect Discovering Jane Weaver this month felt like learning about Jack Kerouac when you're 30 years old. How in the hell did I not know about her? This album makes me think of all kinds of music I like (Can, Cate Le Bon, Stereolab, Bjork, etc.), but it never feels derivative. And bottom line - it just jams. I had a lot of trouble picking a track. The Guardian's review really nails what's so special about it: "It says something about how good Weaver is that even the most familiar of influences come alive in her hands."  

Youssra El Hawary - El Soor In 2011, the Egyptian accordionist and singer released a video for this song, translated as "The Wall," and became an overnight sensation. The video's great, and it's clearly made on the sly in a not-so-friendly environment. The website  has brief explanation of the context, as well as the lyrics: 

"In order to prevent protests, SCAF, the military government ruling over Egypt following Mubarak's ousting, erected large walls in the city of Cairo. These walls have become a site of resistance in the form of graffiti and the like, and in this song, an even simpler expression of discontent."

Youssra el-Hawari - The Wall
In front of the wall
In front of the ones who built it
In front of the wall
In front of the ones who erected it
And in front of the one who guards it as well
A poor man stopped to pee
On the wall and those who built it, erected it, and guard it
On the wall and the ones who built it, the man peed

Los Hijos De La Montaña - One Breath, One Soul This month saw the return of the Chicago World Music Festival, my personal favorite of all the festivals sponsored by the City's cultural office, DCASE. We went to Thalia Hall to see the wonderful all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache (see February 2016), and wound up falling in love with this "super group," led by Y La Bamba's Luz Elena Mendoza and Calexico sideman Sergio Mendoza. They clearly had been working on new material, and I'm hoping a follow up to this 2015 debut is on the way. Incorporating all kinds of Latin sounds with healthy sprinklings of synth-pop and rock. This recording doesn't do justice to Luz Elena Mendoza's tremendous voice. Keep your eyes out. 

Mastodon - Toe to Toes Metal really isn't my thing, for the most part. I've liked plenty of heavy rock bands, but these days whenever I hear something described as "metal" (with whatever modifier is attached) I find myself not being interested. Picking up bits and pieces about Mastodon in articles and blurbs over the last few years, I understood that they're on the more musical end of the genre's spectrum. I listened to Emperor of Sand when it came out earlier this year and liked a lot of it. What clenched it for me, though, was understanding that all four guys in the band sing lead. And I like every part of that statement - that all four of them do it, and that the "it" is actually singing. The textures and shifts they achieve by trading off vocals inside songs is really cool. It's almost like rappers taking turns. Also reminiscent of The Beatles. Yeah, I just said a metal band reminds of The Beatles and a rap group. This song is from an EP that just came out. I guess they've got a lot to say. They're all kick-ass players, and their album art is extraordinary. 

Deerhoof (w/Juana Molina) - Slow Motion Detonation I ran my first half-marathon in five years this month. Aside from definitely feeling that five years in my body (ugh), one of the interesting differences was the music that got me through all the training. I tried running to old playlists, but largely they just didn't get the right juices pumping. I always run with music, and what I'm looking for is a combination of percussive motivation (keep going!) and novelty, because running can get a little boring. Mountain Moves, the most recent Deerhoof album, just did it for me every time. 

Miguel - Shockandawe I just like how weird this song is for an ostensible R&B song. Is he trying to be political? Sexual? Does he know? Does anyone care? It's hard to take seriously, but it's fun. It's almost like a Timbaland track as performed by your neighbor's really good garage band. 

Run the Jewels - Mean Demeanor A one-off from a new sports-themed video game. I love to hear record scratching in rap songs in 2017. RTJ keep showing up in novel places, including the recent Black Panther trailer. 

Tricky - Armor Tricky's magic has always rested on transmogrifying his limited gifts into something unique and gripping. As a vocalist, he's neither a good singer or a good rapper. He's just Tricky - raspy, unmistakable, all desperate emotion. I'm not sure he knows how to play any instruments - if he does, it doesn't figure much in the music. Like so many artists in this era, those who really are "producers," his gift is that of putting together old sounds in new ways. His earliest, and best, music succeeds largely because of his lack of traditional music skill - it's like nothing you've ever heard. In their review of Tricky's most recent album - ununiform, his 13th - Pitchfork quotes his Maxinequaye co-producer Mark Saunders describing the making of that remarkable album: “think of how to make a record, then forget everything you've learned.” I remember reading, over 20 years ago, about the band Garbage asking Tricky to collaborate with them and being put off when he showed up with only a box with simple electronic effects - and not being able to figure out how to work with him. (Garbages's Shirley Manson in 2015: "He had a very different approach to recording, which makes for incredible records, but I think totally freaked the band out, because he just worked in a totally different way than we were used to working.") Collaborations have always been a major tool in his arsenal, and over the years he's learned the skill of being a band leader - harnessing not just other vocalists, but instrumentalists as well, especially drummers. I saw him play with his band in New York around 2000, and it was like watching some dark hallucinatory version of Cab Calloway. On this song from ununiform, he one-ups his habit of off-kilter covers, by covering a song by the band Rituals of Mine with the members of Rituals of Mine, including singer Terra Lopez. The original version of "Armor" is clearly very influenced by Tricky. Here, Tricky undoes all of the "Tricky-ness" of the song, breaking it down to just drums, keyboard, and bass guitar. It lacks the sparkling creativity of his early work, but is a kind of master class in how to strengthen a song by revealing its skeleton. 

Portico Quartet - A Luminous Beam An appropriately named space jam from Britain's Portico Quartet. I was convinced for a while that the bass line was a processed tuba. I don't think it is, but I'm going to keep pretending.

Emma Kirkby - Una stravaganze dei Medici This month, the Harris Theater kicked off its 14th season with a three night engagement of John Eliot Gardiner and his groups performing the three extant operas by baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi, who would be turning 450 years old this year. As part of the preparation, our team had the good luck of getting a crash course in baroque music from our co-worker Oliver (who I'm wrangling to do a Faux Sounds Guest List). One of the artists he introduced us to is Dame Emma Kirkby, whose supernatural voice allows her to do incredibly fast runs of notes and sing longer notes with zero discernible vibrato. The paired-down instrumentation and arrangement of baroque music means the vocalist has lots of room to shine. It's just beautiful. 

Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet - Lila Bambo A totally different supernatural voice, that of Malian treasure Hawa Kassé Mady Diabate, daughter of legendary Mande griot singer Kassé Mady Diabaté. Along with two other descendants of important Malian music families - bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté, son of Bassekou Kouyaté, and master balafon player Lassana Diabaté - she formed Trio Da Kali on the inspiration from Kronos Quartet, who were looking for Malian musicians to collaborate on a project with. Ten years later, that idea has come to fruition with the album Ladilikan. Kronos Quartet have been on a roll with collaborative albums, and I have to agree with violinist David Harrington's description of Ladilikan as "one of the most beautiful collaborations Kronos has had in our first 40 years." The push and pull between the two ensembles, and their respective musical traditions, is particularly incendiary on this track. The way the string quartet adapts the central vamp and doubles Lassana Diabaté's dizzying runs, then veers off into the kind of jagged coloring they do so well (around 2:10) and is very unusual for Malian Mande music - it's just magical.  

Hiss Golden Messenger - When the Wall Comes Down When Hiss Golden Messenger played a mid-afternoon set at this summer's Pitchfork Festival, M.C. Taylor introduced this song by commenting on how ridiculous the idea of a wall with Mexico is. Although his music is never explicitly political, it's clearly on his mind. His descriptions from the road of seeing Trump signs disappear in towns that were littered with them prior to last year's election has been one small spot of hope for me this year. On his website, he writes of the new album: 

"I see the dark clouds. I was designed to see them. They’re the same clouds of fear and destruction that have darkened the world since Revelations, just different actors. But this music is for hope. That’s the only thing I want to say about it. Love is the only way out. I’ve never been afraid of the darkness; it’s just a different kind of light. And if some days that belief comes harder than others, hallelujah anyhow.

Whatcha gonna do when the wall comes down?
When the wall comes down?
What you ought to do is let it lie—let it lie
And in the gathering darkness vow to never go back
It was built by man and you can tear it down
Tear it down, tear it down
Step back, Jack, from the darkness 

I’ve seen darker things than night. Hallelujah anyhow."