Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Big Star confirmed for rare Brooklyn apperance

Alex Chilton has enjoyed one of the most enigmatic careers in pop music history. With the #1 opening salvo of "The Letter" in 1967 (written, contrary to popular belief, by Wayne Carson of "Always on My Mind" fame), Chilton and the Memphis-based Box Tops enjoyed a string of blue-eye soul hits that defined the era for more pop-conscious listeners. When the band dissolved in 1970, Chilton attempted to capture the zeitgeist as a New York-based folkie, but soon returned dissolute to Memphis. Reacquainting himself with Chris Bell, another young songwriter who proved to be his musical and personal foil, Big Star emerged from the ashes of Bell's Icewater, with the duo sharing frontman duties. Although only moving a modicum of copies, #1 Record and Radio City would have a profound influence on post-1980 pop that is perhaps only rivaled by Kraftwerk and James Brown; while musically anachronistic, Chilton's mordant -- even embittered -- lyricism would have a profound impact on the likes of Michael Stipe and Paul Westerberg. (Rerecorded by Cheap Trick, "In the Street" was subversively featured as the the theme song of That 70s Show.) With their record label (Ardent, the rock division of Stax Records) nearing insolvency and unable to cope with his heroin addiction and unrequited desires for Ardent executive John Fry (who himself lusted for the straight Chilton), Bell formally left the group after #1 Record, contributing only two songs to the trio-dominated Radio City. By the time Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens reconvened to record the wistful, chimerical Sister Lovers in the aftermath of Watergate, Beatlesque songcraft had been supplanted by extemporaneity and edginess. The result is an unwieldy masterpiece with equal footing in tradition (the bookending cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On") and the unknown (a prescient rendition of the Velvets' "Femme Fatale", which Chilton makes his own amid such enduring ballads as "Nighttime" and "Big Black Car"). By 1977, Chilton had come full circle from his pop idol origins, opening for the Talking Heads at CBGBs; since then, he has put out a dependable -- if slightly ennui-laden -- string of indie albums steeped in punk blues, chanson, and the eclecticism that Big Star only began to hint at. Chris Bell's fate was less than fortuitous; struggling valiantly with his addiction amid a newfound devotion to Christianity, he died in a car crash less than a year after Chilton's Bowery stint.

In 1993, Chilton and Stephens reformed Big Star with John Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. Since then, they've toured intermittently and released a couple of albums that generally fall into the ho-hum, indifferent vein of Chilton's later oeuvre. In spite of this, their November 18th show at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, the group's first full performance in New York in nearly a decade, will likely be one of the best of the year; if recent YouTube videos are any indication, Chilton has retained his stage dynamism, while Auer and Stringfellow are sympathetic to the original records. Tickets (rather pricey at $35.00) are available here. Keep an Eye on the Sky, a box set featuring rarities and favorites, is out next Tuesday.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Sidetracked by Hercules and Love Affair

By and large, 2009 has been a transitional year for dance music. Tired of the solipsism of the electro scene (epitomized by A Cross The Universe, Justice's snooty travelogue of a documentary), critics none well versed in the mythopoeia of the groove have posited that everything from UK funky (the latest -- and well executed -- British regurgitation of early 90s diva house) to the all-too-spare strains of dubstep will mark the next paradigm shift in the genre. But throughout it all, Brooklyn-based producer Andy Butler has remained consistently prolific, recording several singles (and one album) under the Hercules and Love Affair moniker that defy ready categorization. Expropriating the walking bass lines that are all but metonymous with disco sleaze, Arthur Russell's Cageian horn arrangements, and the musique maudite of Antony Hegarty, Butler has arrived at a sound that is irrefragable proof of the idiom's continued evolution. With no less of an authority than Frankie Knuckles (the New York disco/Chicago house pioneer) having produced a remix of the hit "Blind", one can't help but feel that Butler -- who, like many of the genre's initial factotums, is openly gay and not averse to a good lyric -- has revitalized what was a moribund tradition.

Tying together 70s underground disco faves Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Gino Soccio, local upstarts In Flagranti, the early avant-dance revivalist Danny Wang, Todd Terry's epochal cover of Phreek's "Weekend", and the new Hercules single ("I Can't Wait", five minutes of truly sybaritic fun) into a cohesive whole, Sidetracked is an exhilarating mix -- so exhilarating that Butler's nuanced segues may keep you from hitting the dance floor altogether. An inveterate and relentless crate-digger, Butler's choices lend the anthology a gravitas far beyond the years of its compiler. While his three-minute deconstruction of "Weekend" (taken from the relatively rare "Retouched by the Hand of Todd" club mix, not the overplayed, hip-hop influenced radio edit) will probably not garner the DJ any new fans, the Buzzard and Ray Martinez cuts will surely bemuse the contemporary generation of banger-reared hipsters. The absence of "Grand Central Shuttle" is conspicuous, but as a subversive exercise and a party album, Sidetracked succeeds on all counts.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

MyPod: "10 Bricks" by Raekwon

When I was a little tot, Brooklyn-born MC Raekwon pioneered mafiosi rap with 1995's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, that peculiar yet profoundly influential subgenre of turn-of-the-century hip-hop which inspired anomalies (RZA's brief yet intense penchant for run-of-the-mill soul samples) and aberrations (the lamentable rise and fall of Irv Gotti). As the splendors of thug life became an indelible trope of commercial hip-hop for nearly a decade, Raekwon nonetheless stood apart. For one thing, he had been immersed in the street culture for much of his youth, lending his recordings a verite, brooding, and almost Scorsesean quality that others (onetime Fort Greene resident 50 Cent, for starters) could never dream of emulating. Moreover, like many of his Wu-Tang compatriots, he's a prodigiously talented wordsmith.

Nonetheless, the much-anticipated Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 is an incredibly risky gambit in the eclectic waters of 2009. Fifteen years removed from the hardcore era that the Clan will always be emblematic of, hip-hop is as fractured as rock was in 1975. Produced by the late J Dilla, album cut "10 Bricks" is a valiant -- and, I daresay, visionary -- repudiation of the Autotuned gloss that permeates the charts, the signpost to a new space that true believers have anxiously awaited. Fusing the klaxons and expropriated noise of Dilla's final recordings with clarion blaxploitation horns and strident lyrics that recall the gritty Nineties, Raekwon is back with a vengeance. Preview the track here.

WFMU Fest comes to Brooklyn

If you've experienced the misfortune of a long automobile ride lately, you'll know that many of New York's corporate radio stations can grow a tad irksome after about twenty minutes. For those of us who are too impecunious for satellite radio and can't depend upon FM-powered iPod docks in the five boroughs, independent station WFMU (91.1, 90.1 for Hudson Valley readers) is something of a lifesaver, broadcasting an irreverent mix of contemporary indie, rare groove, 50s honky tonk, Duke Ellington, sleazy garage sides, and just about anything else you could possibly imagine. They also host the already-venerable Free Music Archive, dole out concert tickets on Twitter, and sponsor a pretty groovy record fair every year. Don't let the "station whose name has become like a secret handshake among a certain tastemaking cognoscenti" appellation throw you off -- Hot 97 and Q104.3 just pale in comparison.

A month from now, the Jersey City-based station will be coming to Brooklyn with the inaugural WFMU Fest. As the concert market bottoms out, seminal no wavers Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (featuring the inimitable Lydia Lunch) will be headlining the final concert on October 3rd. Esoterics will also delight in a rare performance on October 1st by Wumme's finest exports -- Faust. Coalescing around the same scene that included such Teutonic perennials as Kraftwerk, Neu!, Amon Duul II, Ash Ra Tempel, and Cluster, they were the first to cross over to an international audience; The Faust Tapes, reissued by the incipient, pre-jetliner Virgin Records, sold over 100,000 copies in Britain. Neophytes should check out Outside the Dream Syndicate, a collaboration with LaMonte Young associate/composer/filmmaker Tony Conrad; it is one of the first extant examples of interdisciplinary musical minimalism, presaging the fusion recordings of Peter Gordon, Arthur Russell, and Laurie Anderson by several years. Budget-conscious listeners may want to consider the $12 October 2nd show, featuring Allentown grunge revivalists (we're not kidding) Pissed Jeans.

For more info, click here.