Friday, January 30, 2009

My adventure with Burning Spear in Jamaica

About three years ago I was sitting in my office doing what I do-ordering CDs etc.- when an employee's voice came over my intercom: “Paul there is a Sonia Rodney from Burning Spear on the line.” Luckily I knew that Burning Spear was actually a man named Winston Rodney, and I said “send her through.” On the other end of the line was what I might have called a caricature of a positive, upful Jamaican Woman addressing me as though we had known each other our whole lives. “Paul, oh my, it’s Sonia, Spear’s wife…you want any CDs?” I was flabbergasted. I knew immediately, I was, indeed speaking to the wife of one of my heroes. Winston Rodney, also known as Burning Spear is, in my opinion, the greatest living Reggae singer. He comes from the same generation as Marley, Tosh, Bunny, Scratch, you name it. He is part of the group of Reggae stars who, to me and many people of my generation, represent the essence of what this life-affirming genre of music has meant. Spear is the guy. Over the course of countless albums and thousands of life-changing concerts he has stayed true to the cause-musically, lyrically, spiritually, visually, Spear is the true Rastaman with a once-in-a-lifetime voice, an ineffable sense of rhythm and melody and an intellect informed by both the modern and the eternal. If you love and believe in Reggae, Spear is the beacon of truth.

So I start talking to Sonia. We connected immediately. I wanted nothing from her but to listen and help-she wanted nothing but to further her husband’s career. I told her I thought her husband’s work was amongst the most important in the history of modern music-similar to Dylan, Fela, The Beatles etc. and that she had a legacy to protect and promote that was both artistically and commercially unimpeachable. She told me they owned the rights to almost all of Burning Spear’s modern music and were trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m not sure why, but she mistook me for someone with power. We had hosted Burning Spear for a memorable instore performance back on Alameda Ave., but I barely got to speak to him then and assumed I was long forgotten. She did, however stumble upon a true and loyal fan. I had gotten turned on to Spear at the beginning of his career and had followed him with a private fervor that matched my love of any musician. I immediately purchased a little bit of everything she had and started trying to advise her about the modern music distribution network as I understood it. I encouraged her to keep control of her copyrights and don’t let the modern industry remove the soul and profit from her husband’s legacy. Obviously, she was way ahead of me-she knew what she had, yet was still interested in everything I said. I told her about a group of independent record stores that Twist and Shout is a member of called CIMS (Coalition of Independent Music Stores and that we had started our own distribution network that might offer her a short-term solution for the distribution of Burning Spear’s music. I gave her the appropriate contacts and she went on her way. I was three feet off the ground for the next couple of weeks-“I spoke to Burning Spear’s wife and she was awesome!

After a month or so I forgot about the encounter, but then was surprised when CIMS announced a distribution deal with Burning Spear. I was floored. After years of following an artist I had, in some small way, contributed to the evolution of his career. Wow!

Fast forward to October of 2008. The world is in turmoil. Business is unbelievably bad, and it seems that all is darkness. Out of the blue an email comes from Sonia Rodney. “Paul, you want to come to Jamaica?” I respond in a typically suspicious way; “Well sure, what are the details?” “You come, you’ll be Spear’s guest.” It went back and forth this way for some time, before I fully grasped what she was saying. She was inviting a few people who had helped her along the way to Jamaica in January, and Jill and myself were among the lucky. I continued to protest that I was broke and really couldn’t afford it, but she kept insisting, “everything paid for.” The next day, sure enough she sends plane confirmations. Also, she sends reservations for a place called The Caves. We looked up The Caves on the internet and it appeared to be one of the most unique and beautiful all-inclusive resorts in the world. I really couldn’t believe this was happening, but I filed it away and went forward with the Christmas of our discontent. It was a rough season for everyone in this country and in spite of the mild weather it seemed colder than any season in memory.

As the time approached, the enormity of the gift was starting to become clear to us. There was no agenda, no sales presentation, no nothing, just “come down and enjoy The Caves with your loved ones." Finally the day arrives and we take off for Jamaica. This has been a dream of mine since the early 70’s. I’ve loved Reggae music and have been fascinated with this small Island country with the big sound.

After a couple of long flights we landed in Montego Bay and were met by Spear’s personal driver, a ray of sunshine named Donald Pantry. Danny as we called him took us an hour away to the West end of the island and we entered The Caves. I can’t express adequately how beautiful and tranquil a place The Caves is. It is a series of beautifully appointed yet rustic cabins that sit on cliff above a bunch of caves created by the constant lapping of the crystal blue Caribbean waves. Within minutes we are in our shorts, drinking a rum drink and soaking up the incredible vibes.

That night around dinner time I hear a voice floating over the breeze. It is a loud joyous laughing voice and it could be nobody but Sonia Rodney. Finally we get to meet our benefactor. We see her approaching our small group and behind her there is the man himself-Burning Spear. Sonia embraces us warmly. She is a beautiful charismatic woman-bigger than life with dreads literally down to the ground. She is full of hugs and stories and interest in the music business. She is an amalgam of homespun Rasta warmth and New York chattiness. We learn she grew up in New York City and as a teenager caught the eye of Mr. Rodney who nurtured a loving relationship over many years, taking her children as his own and growing an admirable family that he has held as his emotional and business center. Sonia took over the business of Burning Spear in the early 80’s, turning a liability - “He would come home from tour more tired and more broke every year” - into a smartly run business that keeps the music and the message front and center. She was savvy and smart and conveyed her love with every laugh that seemed to come from a place deep down in her soul.

Throughout our hour long get–acquainted session Spear himself held back. He flashed the charismatic smile and kind of waved, but he was more comfortable talking to Danny and the people who worked at The Caves. As we wound down our conversation we all hugged and Spear came over and talked a little, encouraging us to enjoy The Caves and thanking us for being involved in his music. Then they were gone. We all (there were 7 of us) looked at each other and scratched our heads. It really seemed like they just wanted us to have a little vacation on them. We went about having a magical and relaxing time-eating the delicious Jamaican food, drinking the rum, sampling the local horticulture, etc. Jill told me on the second day that this was the most relaxed she had seen me in years, and it was true. We were actually able to forget about the horrendous economic conditions back home for a brief few days and enjoy. Throughout, I spent a lot of time listening to Burning Spear’s music and staring at the ocean. A very healing practice indeed. Spear’s music rivals any for a consistent, positive and morally righteous tone. It is not pop music, but a large and serious body of work that can be appreciated on many different levels. Just the short exposure to the man and the background of his music infused the trip with a magical air, yet I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed that I didn’t get any face time with Spear.

On our last full day we were sitting on the veranda of our cabin talking lazily about
nothing in particular when I see Winston Rodney walking toward us. What happened next seemed like a dream. Burning Spear walked up to our sitting area and sat down. He looked over at our bowl of ganj picked up a paper and rolled himself a neat little spliff and started to talk. It was a free-flowing hour of wide-ranging discussion. He quickly realized we were somewhat knowledgeable about the history of Jamaican music and his important part in that history and thus dispensed with any formality. He talked expansively about his early days and experiences with music men Jack Ruby and Chris Blackwell (who owns The Caves by the way). Unlike many of his contemporaries he had nothing but positive things to say about Mr. Blackwell, understanding the pivotal role Blackwell played in his career and in the development of Reggae music. He seemed to look at all of his history with a gently beneficent eye. There was no trace of bitterness or anger in anything he said. He spoke of his relationships with other musicians of his era. Hearing a tale of Marley growing his own “He was cultivatin’ mon” or the serious-minded Tosh or the architect of sound Scratch Perry or the early days at Studio One was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather a living history from one of the guys who made it happen. He knew these guys as peers and friends, not as legends or myths. They were his pals.

As the conversation moved lazily to his philosophy of life, Spear became more serious, leaning forward and fixing us with his gaze. He spoke of his motivations being history, teaching and art- not money. He was so clear about that. Money could not be the motivation for anything in his life. His art was propelled by the desire to leave a good example for future generations. He is a teacher, not a businessman. I think it is fair to say we were transfixed. During this part of the conversation he started talking about health. He is 64 and the only thing that tells you that is the grey in his beard. He is in remarkable physical shape. He runs and lifts weights almost every day. He always has a soccer ball in the car with him just in case. He says when he was younger he was an “exercise freak.” It shows. He has the body and demeanor of a man half his age. He made it clear that he rarely smoked any more, but at the same time he made some comments about the ganj that proved he was once a true herbsman. Like many great artists he had a manner and speech that was totally his own.

As our time together came to a close he pulled out his camera bag and withdrew a movie camera. “With you gentlemen’s permission, I would like to take a picture.” He wanted our picture? We joined our wives who had been convulsed with uproarious laughter with Sonia and we all stood in the Jamaican sunset and let Burning Spear take our pictures. The whole thing was so natural we barely remembered to take pictures of him. As quickly as it started it was over. They were gone, getting ready to go to their house in the same town Spear grew up in, and we were left with a wonderful feeling.

I have been lucky enough to meet quite a few of my heroes, and even had lengthy conversations with many of them, but this was the most special of all. Meeting a man like Burning Spear and having him live up to my incredibly high expectations was the greatest. I have always tried to separate the artist from the art and not place my own needs and desires on the artist. There was no need to make this separation with Winston Rodney. He has set the highest standard of musical excellence, and lyrical righteousness and he has lived a life that matches his artistic vision. I can say honestly, he was everything I hoped he’d be and so much more.

We left the idyllic setting of Jamaica and returned to 10 degree weather and equally chilly economic realities at home. Unlike other trips which are over the moment I step on the plane to go home, this one has provided a reservoir of healing spirit that I have been able to access as I need it. Thank you Spear! Thank You Sonia! Thank You Jamaica!

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 10)?

Roxy Music - Roxy Music
Not quite seminal for me, but damn close. The album consists of weirdo artsy stuff that still retains enough pop/rock sense to seem sorta normal, though not so much once you delve into the soundscapes on side B. So yeah- wherever they take it, there's still a sense of melody, of structure, and for this I guess we ought to thank Mr. Ferry for dominating the proceedings enough that he deserved (or so he felt) sole songwriting credits no matter how clearly you can hear the audible input of his confreres. But the 'A' is downright classic art-rock, the 'B' never tests my patience unduly or anything, but I've noticed myself tuning out from time to time when they're not hitting it perfectly right, as they are in the fractured rhythms of "Sea Breeze" or the totality of "Bitters End." But it - and by this I mean the whole album, A- & B- sides alike - sounds fantastic. The enterprise of warped pop/rock songs makes a nice audio complement to Ferry's Romantic longings and letdowns and brings the whole thing up a notch. The record really opened some possibilities for my listening - it let me realize that you don't have to wear your strangeness on your sleeve to prove you're smart like too many avant-gardists think. You can be plenty subversive via more a broadly accepted means of expression.

Kimya Dawson - Alphabutt
It should be no surprise that someone like Kimya who's always sung about adult subject matter with the whimsy of a child and in terms a kid can understand should, on the event of her having her own child, make an actual kids' album complete with songs that indulge her mildly scatalogical humor ("Pee Pee in the Potty" and whatnot). I had hoped she'd take her gift for condensing adult ideas into child-friendly music, but given her penchant for being utterly goofy (not to mention the fact that her kid (named Panda) is still only an infant), songs about tigers in your bedroom and an alphabetical lesson that makes sure to use variants of "fart" at least six times out of twenty-six are probably exactly what I should've expected. So I may not listen to it much, but if I had a kid I just might, and should I choose to throw it on anyway, I'll get some laffs out of it for sure. And then at the end she throws down "Sunbeams and Some Beans" the politically charged kid song I had hoped the whole album might be. Killer. It fits totally within her ethos, but it's a unique item` for sure. Buyer beware. Juno fans, beware.

Various Artists - The Only Doo-Wop Album You'll Ever Need
It's great, sure, and only if you take the title literally will you have a problem with the selections that don't dive too deep. If you want a great intro to the music, 2+ solid hours of great doo-wop you'll be very pleased to have this, as I am. It's a bunch of no-brainer selections, by which I don't mean an insult, it's just that there's no way for things to go wrong if you program stuff like "In the Still of the Nite," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" "I Only Have Eyes for You" and the like, the only potential problem being overexposure of some tracks. And that's what you get here, two discs worth of surefire greats, nothing controversial, every one of them very good or great. Again, if you take issue, it'll be with the false advertising of the title which is certainly misleading - there's plenty more great material out there if you want to look of course - but if you really only need two discs worth, if you look at the title and believe it, this probably will do you just fine. I personally take issue with the title, yes, but moreso with the skimpy book, which could tell you something about the personalities surrounding this great music and instead gives you nothing but a couple paragraphs by Billy Vera telling you why you should enjoy doo-wop. I mean, if you're reading it, you already know why it's worth your listening time, right? Anyway, take it how you will - a fantastic collection of music, or a misleading package that only scratches the surface; either way, it's a lot of great shit.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 9)?

Neil Young - Tonight's the Night
I know a lot of people think this record is just a bummer, but I absolutely love it. And to counter the idea that all it is is a big downer, you've got two songs two in which Neil expresses his joy about Pegi as his young wife and mother of his kid - "Speakin' Out" and "New Mama" - the latter ending on the words "I'm livin' in a dream land." And the songs that do explore darker, grimmer material - and they are many, lest you think I'm missing the point - are countered and buoyed by these, by the joyous energy of "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" that explodes right on the heels of the melancholy "Borrowed Tune," by the overall framework in which he sings a lament for his friend Bruce Berry but still offers Danny Whitten - both Berry and Whitten dead of drug overdoses by the time of recording of this album - the lead vocal on "Downtown." He's tying together the life-affirming and the skirting-the-edge-of-death, he's offering the idea that having the world on a string don't mean a thing, but knowing that shouldn't prevent you from being living life, that in fact it should strengthen your resolve to see what's good out there. Every song is distinct, makes its mark; it rocks hard, it plays it mellow, it's got meaning, it's got life, death, joy and sadness - how much more can you possibly want from a rock and roll record?

Q-Tip - Amplified
I think this is better than any Tribe Called Quest album (excepting compilations). There, I said it and I mean it. Part of the reason is that the vocals come through loud and clear, never submerged in a smoky aura or underproduced to sink underneath the weight of the beats and samples; part of it is the unity of the minimal style that threads through the record. There’s a varied, yet non-stop rhythmic drive pushing every track, each of which is then decorated with an ornamental sound effect or simple melody to mark it in the mind. Just when you think it’s gone to all beats and voice, a shift in the rhythm or a melodic line will ring through and sweeten things enough to carry you to the next riff. And that’s not even bringing in Q-tip’s mellifluous tones. He really is one of the greats, and he doesn’t need a foil to provide counterpoint – he’s got enough variety on his own. Certainly the rhythmic drive is something this shares with some of the Tribe’s albums, but even on the vaunted Low End Theory I find myself waiting a few tracks for the next great song once one’s over, examining in too much detail, for example, the space between “Butter” and “Check the Rhime.” Here, even the lower-key tracks – like “Things U Do” – give me a charge, and true to the album format they’re propped up and strengthened by their surroundings. I love the Tribe when they’re great, but they were never this consistent for me, never made an album whose whole overshadowed the constituent components. Oh yeah, and “Vivrant Thing” stands for me as the greatest single he’s ever made. Ever.

Lou Reed - Mistrial
Unlike, say, Berlin, the failure here is one of execution, not of inspiration. Songs could be better, sharper, more exciting, but as ideas, as an album concept, it’s a continuation of what he’d been doing over the last three or four records – a way less successful attempt, yeah, but where this is a rough stone that may contain nothing but mica and iron pyrite, Berlin is just an over-polished turd. Whether its surface sheen makes it worth exposure to its rotten core is purely up to you. I’d probably rather dig into this one’s shallower lyrical and musical pleasures – again, a continuation of his adult ruminations on his real-world relationships, and a street level look at contemporary problems of New York and of the country – than the feel-bad vibes and overly ornate production of the earlier record. At least he’s gunning for something that can be construed as a positive, rather than a heavy dose of second-hand pessimism. In the same way that The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts explore the tail end of his “dark” years, this is a counterpart to his explorations of a newer, positive and personal songwriting outlook on the world that starts in New Sensations (or really, in Growing Up in Public, though that one’s got its own problems, starting (and perhaps ending) with a band that's not in synch with him). Despite its bad rep amongst Lou fans, I don’t mind this at all, I dig what he’s striving for even if he falls short of the mark – there are at least three other records of his that leap to mind immediately as ones I would less like to hear. And though it’s out of print on a US available CD, it’s a safe bet that you can always find the vinyl used. And cheap, too.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Animal Collective-Merryweather Post Pavillion

Animal Collective-Merryweather Post Pavillion

A couple of Tuesdays ago we experienced a weird phenomenon; weird not because it has never happened, but weird because it has not happened for such a long time. When we opened at 10:00 a.m. as usual, a rush of excited customers came in. They raced back to the vinyl section and pantingly grabbed the new double vinyl of Animal Collective. The CD was not coming out for a few weeks, and the vinyl came with a download code for the entire album. We sold out of our initial shipment in the first 30 minutes of being open. This has not happened for a vinyl release in years. It took us by surprise, but it really shouldn’t have, with each new release Animal Collective have proven themselves to be on an unpredictable and extremely ambitious artistic path. Their albums have been consistently hard to categorize, yet their fanbase grows by leaps and bounds with each new release. They have traditionally made little to no concessions to commercial viability, and their fame seems to be entirely fan and word-of-mouth driven. They have received some critical notice but it is always far away from the mainstream.
With Merriweather Post Pavilion they seemed poised to take their career to bigger places, although there is no whiff of sell-out.

Starting with the album cover we know we are in for a strange ride. It is one of those optical illusions that through the juxtaposition of shape, color and pattern gives the viewer the impression of movement. So, the record is almost literally crawling out of its sleeve to get at you. It is very cool.

Once the record is playing, the listener is taken on a voyage to beautiful, woozy, uneasy places. Animal Collective use some conventional instruments, but if you are looking for ripping guitar solos or virtuoso instrumental breaks-look elsewhere. The thing they do is create multi-layered clouds of sound. Lots of keyboards, samplers, pedals and electronic effects stack upon each other, teetering on top of lovely melodies and goofily insightful lyrics to create a very singular effect. It is like 100 foot day-glow daisies swaying lazily in the breeze It is almost impossible to listen to this band without becoming emotionally involved in the musicians’ particular state of mind. This is not background music-it is forebrain music. The album also has a kaleidoscopic effect on me as well. That is to say, every time I listen to it, it feels like the first time. It is vaguely familiar, but at the same time there is always a sense of discovery and freshness to it. This is a tall order for any album. To always sound new and interesting. How many records can you say that about these days.

Trying to describe Animal Collective’s music is not so easy. As I listen to them they paradoxically seem to have no antecedent and yet be achingly familiar at the same time. There are wisps of Beach Boys, Olivia Tremor Control, Erik Satie, My Bloody Valentine and every other unlikely, hipster juxtaposition you can think of. Unlike their other albums, however, Merriweather Post Pavilion never veers off into harsh territory. They never lose their ineffable sense of melody and beauty on this album. It is a hypnotic, pleasing experience throughout. As I listen to it I clearly have the sense of listening to something exciting and important, the kind of album that might light the imagination of a new generation of listeners.

For us, one of the most exciting parts is that these consumers actually seem to get the value of holding something physical in your hands. That simple fact that having “something” is inherently different and perhaps better than having “nothing” that costs as much as “something” is not lost on this group of fans.

--Paul Epstein

Friday, January 16, 2009

What Are You Listening to Lately (Part 8)?

Ornette ColemanTo Whom Who Keeps A Record
An ex post facto collection, yes, but not the scrap heap that might imply given that six of seven tracks were recorded a week apart from each other and show a remarkable unity of sound – they very well could have been conceived as an album from the get go. But with this current domestic release of the formerly Japan-only disc, fans who love Ornette’s prime acoustic quartet music but don’t want to shell out for his out of print and expensive (but absolutely worth every penny!) Atlantic box set can still hear it. And I recommend that action because this is nearly as good a collection as the more revered Atlantic masterpieces like Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century. Highlights include the lead track – “Music Always” – the lone track from 1959 with Billy Higgins on drums. It’s one of those twisty Ornette themes that can still ring around your head all day if you’re not careful. There’s also the spectacular “P.S. Unless One Has (Blues Connotation No. 2),” from the 1960 sessions with Ed Blackwell on drums, and it’ll do the trick of dislodging that earlier melody if you need it to, but it’s worth your time to also focus on how Blackwell takes apart the rhythm here without ever losing the feeling of a steady pulse, as is not always the case with avant-garde leaning music in the jazz style. This track – and by extension, this album – is a testament to just how right he was in this quartet, every bit as perfect in the group as Higgins. The rest of the album is a fine slice of Ornette’s genius in full bloom, and just because my ears are drawn most readily to these tracks, I would want to slight the others. The whole damn thing is pretty great; I daresay it’s only the fact of its limited exposure to U.S. audiences that has it lesser known here.

Moby - Last Night
Well, I think it’s a beautiful thing, but I seem to like Moby better than just about everyone I know, so take it with a grain of salt. Typical of his records it starts out fast and clubby and slowly lets the melancholy of the “chill room” take over, but as a friend of mine pointed out in a discussion, his ambient/downtempo here is quite fine, particularly in the bonus track that donates a few extra minutes to the thematic title track that would otherwise close things. But where some find “Ooh Yeah” and the like to be “merely” disco, I think that they’re great – especially in the cases of “Ooh Yeah” and “Alice,” but really throughout the entire opening stretch. A couple last things – he says in the surprisingly non-didactic (for him) liner notes that he’s compressing an 8-hour night of going out and partying down to 65 minutes. Which makes this in effect a concept album, and one in which I think he tells a more coherent and accurate story (or at least conveys a truer feeling) than 90% of the concept records out there, signifying – as he says in the liner notes – “a multitude of experiences, from the celebratory to the despairing to the comforting to the frightening to the conventional to the transcendent.” OK, maybe nothing too frightening here but he’s nailed the rest, and the conventional is only that way because he was instrumental in helping change convention once upon a time. I hate it when I feel like I have to say “If you’d been there, you’d get it” but it’s true. I didn’t ever have to look at the liners to know that was what he was going for – or that this was his strongest record in years. And I'd hope that even if you weren't there, you'd understand this glimpse into that world as a particularly clear and accurate reflection of same.

Sun Ra - Secrets of the Sun
This one’s a fine contribution to the catalog of Ra’s works on CD, a simultaneously experimental and accessible work placed right at the beginning of a huge period of change in his music. The recording falls early in the group’s New York years (Ra having arrived there about a year before), featuring the same folks as on the great Bad and Beautiful (plus a few other guests), and was recorded about the same time as the better-known (and also great) Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, even exhibiting the tape-delay reverb used to fine effect on those records. Typical of his music of the time, everyone doubles on percussion in addition to creating the texture and melody of the music with horns, bass, or, as one track would have it, “space voice.” But he hits it on the head with one title here – he’s not particularly interested in creating crafty bop charts, he’s interested in “Space Aura,” in creating an otherworldly soundscape for you to enter, and this is one of his most engaging (and least intimidating) outings he made. He’s got his usual devoted cast of horn players – John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, and Pat Patrick – plus the sturdy bass and drums of Ronnie Boykins and Tommy Hunter (plus the other guests) to help shape his visions, which – as noted – are among his most accessible and enjoyable outings from one of his most fertile periods. A great disc for aficionados to fill in an under-represented era of the band and a great way in to his utterly unique world for newcomers.