Culture To Go

Joy's rants/reviews initially took the form of single-page screeds posted on lampposts and dumpsters around NYC, which to me sounds as much like art school romanticism as proletariat soapboxing. But the typed and scrawled pages reproduced in Manifestoes have an oddball authority about them, calculated or not. The two "lost pamphlets'" titles--Greatest Album and Greatest Album Singer, about Frank Black's Teenager of the Year and Al Green, respectively--are odd little pieces of letterpress art that, at roughly 7,000 words a pop, try one's patience (especially the latter's unhinged race theories). But they never feel less than true to the author's experience, be it real or hallucinated; and like the best arts writing (which this, shamefacedly, is not, though I hope it serves its purpose), it makes you lust for a world of heightened feelings and values beyond the one we live in--just like art is supposed to do. ($4 each postpaid from Tract Home Publications, P.O. Box 14806, Portland, OR 97214.) (Will Hermes)

MUSIC

various artists

Dancehall Queens

Blunt Recordings

various artists

Reggae Songbirds

Heartbeat/High Note

In the dancehall, as in life, it's still a man's world. The Jamaican reggae music industry has historically been dominated by male performers with few women having access to studio time, fewer still to distribution, the result being a group of female reggae "stars" you could count on one hand. But as these two collections make clear, it's the issue of access, rather than a lack of talent, that has kept reggae woman down.

Covering reggae past and present, respectively, Reggae Songbirds and Dancehall Queens offer a fairly comprehensive overview of the contributions of women in reggae. Songbirds showcases the female artists who recorded for Sonya Pottinger's High Note label, the only woman-run label in reggae history. Judging from the tracks on this compilation, Ms. Pottinger had an uncanny feel for seeking out strong songwriters and pairing them with solid vocalists whose sensitive interpretations lead the label to multiple hits in the 1970s. The disc contains rare, early singles from some of reggae's more popular chanteuses, including the smoky lover's rock gem "Sweet Brown Sugar" by Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt's early R&B ballad "I'm Alone" (both women would go on to back Bob Marley as two-thirds of the I-Threes). Perhaps more importantly, Songbirds contains tracks by artists such as Patsy (who offers a rock-steady take on Miriam Makeba's classic "Pata Pata," with help from Count Ossie), Sharon Black, and Lilian Williams, whose considerable talents never got them the exposure they deserved.

Where the artists of Sonya Pottinger's era relied on their singing skills to compete with their male counterparts, the modern dancehall scene has female artists copping the slack (and sexually explicit) lyrical styles of male stars such as Shabba Ranks. Most of the artists on Dancehall Queens are no exception, opting to "rule" their domain--as the inner sleeve photo suggests--on all fours. That said, some do it better than others. Lady Saw's rapid-fire delivery and vocal gymnastics make her pick-up advice to young men compelling ("no pretty car, no mansion, all you have to be is a damn bed stallion"), where China's "Cherry Garden" is just a lame attempt to shock. And not all of the artists rely on raw sexuality to get over: Worl-A-Girl ride the "Bam Bam" rhythm with authority on "Murder He Wrote," and Shelly Thunder's '80's hit "Kuff" is a catchy warning to "all men who cheat pon de woman." Although it would be easy to dismiss most of these queens for self-degradation, in the face of the current state of the reggae industry, the words of James Brown seem to apply: A woman has to use what she's got to get just what she want. (Rachel Joyce)

Alex Chilton

1970

Ardent Records

In between his '60s pop soul with the Box Tops and his current career as a contemptuous (and often contemptible) troubadour of the damned, Alex Chilton and Big Star recorded some of the most gorgeous albums of the 1970s. Tuneful, bright and plaintive, Big Star's music also told the story of the band's dissolution after commercial neglect, their third album a harrowing testament to Chilton's decaying morale and craft. 1970, recorded after the Box Tops and before Big Star, sees Chilton playing the chameleon, sampling a half-dozen styles on his way to developing the influential, Back-to-Britain power pop that would characterize the Big Star sound. (Chilton cultists might be familiar with some of these unfinished tracks from the import collection Lost Decade.) The steel guitar-tinged "Free Again" (in which Chilton shamelessly rhymes again with again--again and again) sounds more like the Byrds than the Byrds. "The Happy Song" starts like Donovan and ends like the Monkees; who could predict from this insipid ditty that five years later Chilton would be titling songs "Holocaust"?

While amiable enough to the ear, 1970 mostly appeals as a discarded chapter in a strange career. The melodic chorus to 1970's "Every Day As We Grow Closer" would be recycled a few years later as the bridge to #1 Record's superior "Give Me Another Chance." The strangely syncopated, half-boogie rock-star parody "All I Really Want is Money," in which Chilton aspires to fancy cars and swell cigars, also anticipates a future Chilton release: A live recording from Long Island's WLIR where the embittered musician would respond to a DJ's critical fawning with a mumbled reply: I hope it sells. What would Alex Chilton have become if it had? (Michael Tortorello)

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