Sunday, March 31, 2013

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Like Muddy Waters, whose final albums were among the best in his catalog, Streetcore by Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros (Martin SlatteryTymon Dogg, Simon Stanford, and Scott Shields) sends Strummerinto rock & roll heaven a roaring, laughing, snarling lion. Unlike the previous Mescaleros outings, which were rooted in various world and folk musics and tempered by rock, Streetcore anchors itself in rock & roll and deadly heavy reggae (and for anyone who needs a reminder, Strummer's former band, the Clash, played reggae in the late '70s and early '80s better than a lot of that genre's artists). From "Coma Girl," the album's opening track, there is no doubt that Strummer hits bedrock with this fusion of garage band wail and dread beat. "Coma Girl" uses lean and mean guitars and Phil Spector's 1960s girl groups, then crosses them rhythmically with rocksteady basslines and enormous backbeats. Yes, it does sound like a lost cut from London Calling. A love song for a wasted mascot who flirts and inspires the various metaphorical socio-politcal gangs that are trying to rule the dawn of the end of the world, Strummer and band -- the Mescaleros, with their killer rhythms and over-the-red-line guitar and keyboard lines are as tight and tough as anybody out there -- truly find the flowers borne by suicide divas in the dustbin of the apocalypse. Writing like Bob Dylan at his most expressionistic, Strummer's urgency is beyond the warnings of the Clash's London Calling or Sandinista! Strummer's protagonist is living on the nether edge of reality, where the worst has already happened, he can only celebrate what's left in the ahses of civilization.


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In many ways, it's easiest to appreciate Joe Strummer's album Global a Go-Go if you forget that it was made by Joe Strummer. This isn't meant to insult the music in question, which is often engaging and always passionate, or suggest that it doesn't bear any significant signs of Strummer's personality; if you loved the syllable-drenched wordplay of songs like "The Magnificent Seven," "Lightning Strikes," or "Car Jamming," you're in for a treat, because here you get nearly a whole album of it. But if you're expecting the former leader of the Clash to be backed by two guitars, bass, and drums and playing something easily recognizable as rock & roll -- not a difficult assumption to make -- then you're flat out of luck. Best described as eccentric internationalist folk-rock, Global a Go-Go is dominated by acoustic instruments (Tymon Dogg, the fiddler from the Clash's "Loose This Skin," is all over this album like a pillowcase) and a wild gumbo of flavors from Africa, Latin America, and the West Indies, and while a few tunes have a prominent electric guitar (particularly "Cool 'n' Out"), most do not. And if you're hoping for lots of punk-wise sloganeering from the usually provocative Mr. Strummer, there isn't a great deal of that, either, though it's obvious from the Dylanesque density of his wordplay that Strummer's got a lot on his mind, and the one-world perspective that shines throughout is food for thought in itself, especially on the tasty "Bhindi Bhagee" and the globetrotting title cut. And while the epic instrumental "Minstrel Boy" wouldn't lead you to imagine it's the work of one of the great icons of punk rock, it at least proves Strummer is willing to mess with his audience's expectations, which is a very punk rock thing to do. Global a Go-Go is an intelligent and uniquely absorbing record, but listening to it is like eating sushi or escargot for the first time -- knowing what it is might shape your expectations in the wrong direction.


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It has taken Joe Strummer ten years to follow up on his first solo album, Earthquake Weather, withRock Art and the X-Ray Style, and while the vocals and occasional moments in the music are identifiable as the work of a man who was once a singer, guitarist, and songwriter in the Clash, no one should purchase this album expecting to hear a direct extension of his old band. Strummer, who helped lead the Clash beyond punk rock to a variety of rhythmic styles, has only expanded his range since, and Rock Art and the X-Ray Style is an album of songs built on often exotic, funky beats, few of which rock very hard. Over those rhythm tracks, Strummer sings highly poetic, apparently freely associative lyrics whose meanings usually seem to be either private to him or just not literal. Unfortunately, the vocals are high in the mix and the musical tracks are subservient to the lyrics (which are printed in the booklet) so that one is left to ponder what Strummer is talking about. Coming back after a decade, even on an independent label, it might have been hoped that Strummer would return to action with a more accessible effort thanRock Art and the X-Ray Style, which is unlikely to re-establish him as a major force in popular music.


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Calvin Russell was the real deal, an authentic Texas-born cowboy whose face was a trail of hard-earned lines, proof of the rough mileage he'd put on his body in the years following his birth in 1948 in Austin. For someone who likes Texas and Russell's brand of country music, the act of researching his life and misadventures can often be challenging given that much of the information printed about the singing American cowboy -- including Russell's stint in jail -- is in French. Sometimes it's in another European language. Significant writeups in the language of his birthplace occur far less often, and that's because Russell found his greatest success, professionally and personally, far from home. He was a business owner and the proprietor of a Swiss nightclub, and his wife was Swiss. A good percentage of his albums were recorded in Europe. The singer/songwriter was one of nine children born to his working-class parents, Red and Daisy. The family lived on an unpaved road, not far from the town's wrecking yard. His mom was a waitress in the same little café where his dad did the cooking. Calvin Russell, their fourth child, spent his youth putting together hot rod cars. Before he turned 13, he'd discovered the guitar. Within a year, Russell was playing with an outfit called the Cavemen. A wild time during his teens brought him to the attention of local authorities, who sent him to juvenile detention and, later, prison. At one point in the mid-'80s, he did time in a Mexican jail, where he spent his nights on a cold concrete floor. Upon his release, he headed back to his hometown, where his condition didn't improve much. He made his bed outdoors, in the small area beneath a house, in the dirt. Russell took to the open road on a motorcycle and began to write his songs in the Texas hill country. By 1985, he had a single to his credit. Thanks to a chance meeting with record company executive Patrick Mathe four years later at Austin's Continental Club, Russell landed a contract with the French company that would release many of his albums, New Rose Records. Russell later went on to sign with Sony after New Rose Records folded. New Rose's release of Russell's A Crack in Time album in 1990 caused a stir for the artist, and he started picking up quite a bit of attention. He went on to play festivals in Europe alongside such artists as the Kinks and Little Village. More albums followed from New Rose. Le Voyageur (1993) is a recording of live shows performed by Russell in such French cities as Rennes and Paris. When the record company was sinking and its assets frozen in bankruptcy proceedings, Russell was very close to having his career tied up in the company's legal woes. Dick Rivers, who had a career decades earlier in pop, rescued Russell when he purchased the singer/songwriter's contract. Soon, Sony found Russell and stepped into the picture. However, the remainder of the '90s and the first decade of the new millennium found a prolific Russell releasing a number of albums on both European and American independent labels far from the majors; his recordings included Dream of the Dog (1995), Calvin Russell (1997), This Is My Life (1998), Sam (1999), Crossroad (2000), Rebel Radio (2002), A Man in Full (2004), In Spite of It All (2005), Unrepentant (2007), Dawg Eat Dawg (2009), and Contrabendo (2011). Between recording dates, Russell could still be heard singing in the hideaway bars of Austin, preferring low-key gigs where he sang his own songs and lesser-known works from the traditional repertoire. Calvin Russell was 62 years old when he died of liver cancer on April 3, 2011 in Garfield, Texas.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

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All three volumes of Medeski, Martin & Wood's Radiolarians series were reportedly to be recorded and released in 2008. Only the first volume appeared, but it provided a solid clue to both the formula and the wild adventurousness that the series would embody. Radiolarians III is the final volume in the series. What inspired it was a formula, pure and simple, a reversal of what is usually the case for a band to follow. Rather than write new material, then record it and tour, the trio reversed the process. They went out and toured incessantly, improvised and wrote new material on the road, gave it real form and focus, and then, finally, recorded it. This volume is as delightful as its predecessors, and offers inarguable proof that after 18 years, MM&W are still discovering new ways to stretch the jazz trio format, finding new music to integrate, spindle, warp, re-form, and refresh, without sacrificing it to endless synthetic edits and samples. In essence, they remain a live trio, and virtually everything they play comes out that way on record. This set was recorded in three days. The meld of jazz, vanguard classical music, gospel, rock, funk, New Orleans stride and second line, country, blues, modal music, Indian classical, and other world folk forms is simply staggering, and it is seamless -- even when the music gets the party rockin'. Check the second track, "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down." It commences with John Medeski's elliptical 20th century vanguard improv piano dissonance eventually entering into the musical terrain of James Booker before becoming a psychedelic, funky arrangement of "This Train," while Chris Wood's fuzzed-out bass plays the melody, and Billy Martin's drum skitters in syncopated breaks and march rhythms. "Undone" is a rock tune with breaks, rolling shuffles, and crescendos galore. Wood's bassline offers a lead into exploration that checks early New Order's "bass first" approach. But it is as rhythmically in the pocket as the MG's -- it even gets a bit Hendrixian in the middle section just for good measure, withWood's use of a wah-wah pedal and the organ by Medeski sounding like something from Electric Ladyland instead of Steve Winwood. "Walk Back" is full-on funky B-3 trio groove with Medeski ripping it up. "Jean's Scene" feels a lot like Eddie Palmieri's more improvisational jazz thangs, but with the impeccably articulate Medeski being cleaner , lighter, and more on the soul tip à la Ramsey Lewis. While it may not be the most fingerpopping track on the set, "Kota," with gorgeous arco work by Wood -- who also apes the sound of various Asian and African stringed instruments with his bass -- begins as a speculative, hesitant mediation by Medeski in the upper register and eventually becomes an exotic, minor-key droning, tranced-out groove that doesn't let up even when he lets loose with some wild improvisation in the middle section. Radiolarians III is a fitting parting shot in an experiment that perhaps worked beyond its participants' expectations. The entire series should be purchased and spun repeatedly. There is so much to discover, it will still sound new in a decade or even two.


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The second volume in keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood'sRadiolarians series is, much like the first, wildly eclectic. Certainly all the trio's records could be classified in this way, but few of them are as playful and musically adventurous as the ones in this series. Once more, the band incorporates everything in its own brand of modern jazz: from funk and rhythm & blues to the vanguard tradition; from soul and rock through carnival music, country, and beat-conscious grooves. "Flat Tires" opens the set and comes off all distorto-rockist in the intro thanks to Wood's nasty bassline that feels more like an electric guitar riffing before it's addressed by a couple of taut rolls byMartin and some wailing carnival organ by Medeski. This feels like film music, but it's more centered than that, because there are some stunning jazz improvs as Medeski's acoustic piano takes center stage. "Junkyard" follows. This cut, easily one of the best on the set, is a dead cross between some incidental music by Ennio Morricone spaghetti western and the Tom Waits of the Mule Variations. The shuffle, pop, and groove is given space, dimension, and atmosphere by shimmering keyboard sounds -- including accordion -- shuffling rimshot drums accented by forceful bass drum, and a downright nasty bassline. Like the previous volume, there is a cover on this set as well. Medeski plays the Rev. Gary Davis' "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" as a jazzy lounge tune with considerably more improvisational heft in his wonderfully labyrinthine acoustic piano lines. He adds some killer funky clavinet toward the middle to create an infectious groove that makes the timeless tune a modern-day groover. Check "Riffin' Ed" with its New Orleans second line funkiness, all done acoustically with some excellent work by Wood who gets his bass into the lower registers to push a bit against the melody line even as Martin breaks his beats and accents the taut end-line chords of Medeski's piano. Ultimately, what transpires on Radiolarians II is the notion of song. Certainly these tunes are played with great instrumental technique and musical acumen, but they are performed with the full intent of the listener's participation in the experience because each cut is so utterly memorable on its own. Chalk this one up as a must-have for longtime fans of MM&W, and an excellent introduction to what this group does best -- making jazz both provocative and fun.


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Medeski, Martin & Wood have been incorporating seemingly every corner of the musical universe, from funk to gospel to progressive sambas, into their sound for some time now, so it should come as no surprise that Radiolarians 1, the first of three planned and linked releases for the group in 2008, is all over the map, from country funk to sweet piano jazz, and that it coheres (since there are occasions when the band overloads and overreaches, although that isn't the case here) is really good news for their many admirers and fans. With a bright, and at times even sunny and joyous, sound, this first of the planned trilogy is a complete delight, moving from thundering fusion funk grooves to delicate atmospherics in the blink of an eye, and it shows the tight, detailed connection keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood have with each other. There's so much to like here, including the gut-bucket soul-jazz bounce of "Sweet Pea Dreams," the spooky atmospherics of "Muchas Gracias" (which sounds like Augustus Pablo thrown in a dub blender with Thelonious Monk), the skewed, New Orleans piano of "Professor Nohair," and the deliciously fractured and delightful turn the trio takes on the traditional "Free Go Lily." It's all joyous and filled with graceful touches of humor and elegance, all the while churning to both big and little grooves, stomping, skating and skipping lightly by turns, and it reminds just how remarkably well these three musicians work together, making, as they say, improvisation fun again.


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tracks: disc 2