Real Life Rock Top Ten

Nirvana sing about the blackout, Bigfoot shines some light on human nature, and Sinéad's snarl glows in the dark

1-4) Lady J on KALX-FM (Berkeley, August 18) Mondays 9 to noon is Lady J's shift at the same college station that figures in Jonathan Lethem's new novel, The Fortress of Solitude; this morning, she outdid herself. There was the Delmonas' blitheringly happy version of the Premiers' 1964 "Farmer John"--covered by Neil Young on Ragged Glory in 1990, but not before this all-female mid-'80s U.K. outfit got their hands on it. You can imagine the Slits at the mic and the crowd on Johnny Rivers's "Secret Agent Man" as the audience, the singer telling Farmer John she's in love with his daughter, the women in front of the stage holding their breath for the chance to scream "wheee!" for every "the way she walks," not to mention every "the way she talks." Then the Larks' "Honey from the Bee," gussied-up doo-wop from 1955, and the Aaron Sisters' weird 1932 "She Came Rollin' Down the Mountain," from Flowers in the Wildwood: Women in Early Country Music, 1923-1939. Singing unaccompanied, with farm-girl accents so sharp you could hitch it up behind a mule and plow with it, the Aaron Sisters offer the tale of Nancy Brown, who throws over one suitor after another until she finds the man she's been waiting for: "A city slicker with hundred dollar bills." They live happily ever after, but Anny Celsi doesn't, not on Lady J's choice "'Twas Her Hunger Brought Me Down," a song inspired by Dreiser's Sister Carrie and released this year on Little Black Dress & Other Stories. Celsi is Hurstwood, narrating his own downfall; the singing is just past ordinary. The backing, except for a few archaic passages from a banjo, is perfunctory. The music is all in Celsi's writing, which is direct, killing--"I took twenty thousand dollars/Where it went I can't explain/I'd be richer if I'd thrown it from the train"--needing no ornamentation and getting none. What the DJ offered was her taste, a reach for oddity, a faith that each song would somehow sing every other.

 

5) Sinéad O'Connor, "Big Bunch of Junkie Lies," from She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty (Vanguard) This surfaces from a two-disc set ("rare and unreleased" plus a 2002 concert) like a corpse in a mountain lake. The clear-voiced sainted victim ruling the music is replaced by an avenger, the snarling rocker O'Connor has almost always tried to hide, and the performance is devastating, a curse in the form of a prayer. She breathes out the words slowly in front of an acoustic guitar; the blows land when a single word is sung full-throated, followed immediately by a dead drop to a bone-dry whisper. "You sucked the life out of my true friend," O'Connor says, but the truth of the song is that she knows the man she's singing to couldn't care less.

Drowning her sorrows: Sinéad O' Connor's voice floats like a corpse in a mountain lake
Chelsea Sinn
Drowning her sorrows: Sinéad O' Connor's voice floats like a corpse in a mountain lake

 

6) Graham Roumieu, In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot (Manic D Press) This unassuming rant would be hilarious even without the primitive Ralph Steadman-like drawings, and the guts of the story aren't found in Bigfoot's tale of how he abandoned his career as a junk bond trader to form a Seattle grunge band, or what he thinks of Sam Donaldson ("Me like man's hair. Me take him hair and eat man"). They're in the prosaic: "What happen world me ask? Me once believe in good. Now, no. World go shit."

 

7) The Kills, Fried My Little Brains (Rough Trade EP) Their own "Jewel Thief" ought to work as an answer to the last cut, a cover of Dock Boggs's deathly 1927 "Sugar Baby." But "Jewel Thief" is all attitude, and "Sugar Baby" is a drone. The singers keep their bodies away from the words coming out of their mouths, a fatal abstraction.

 

8) The Cutters, "(Back in the) 20th Century," from In the Valley of Enchantment (Blackjack) From Humboldt County, California, best known for marijuana plantations in national forests, guitarist Mike Wilson, drummer Ray Johnson, and bassist Tad Sutera use London punk inflections on Angela Brown's American voice for a message no different from that of their neighbor Bigfoot. It's pissed off, it's funny, it's sharp (Brown drops comments on her own lines like Johnny Rotten muttering to Clio), it's alive to its own momentum (the last "No!" following "Nancy Reagan just said" nearly pulls Nancy's size two over her head). As a song about exile in your own hometown, not to mention your own country, or your own century, it can be a stone in your shoe.

 

9) Sarah Vowell writes in from the blackout (New York, August 15) "I went for a walk in the dark last night for a little, marveling at the stars. Walked past people on a stoop blaring 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on a boombox and everyone was giddy, singing along: 'With the lights off, it's less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us.'"

 

10) Christian Marclay, catalogue organized by Russell Ferguson (UCLA Hammer Museum/Steidl, for an exhibition closing at the Hammer August 30, at Bard College September 28 through December 19, at the Seattle Art Museum February 5 through May 2, 2004) Marclay is an American with European avant-garde credits, a pioneering turntablist (his 1983 Phonoguitar allowed him to scratch a vinyl LP while performing guitar-hero gestures), an irrepressible investigator of the record as talisman (with countless cut up and reconfigured discs, album covers, sculptures made of melted or chopped vinyl albums and singles), a social critic (his 2000 video Guitar Drag is a complex and visceral version of the 1998 dragging murder of James Byrd in Jasper County, Texas), and a prankster with a bottomless appetite for trash: As for so many art punks, "Batman Theme" was his ground zero. His work doesn't come off the pages of a catalogue: You have to go where it is and look at it, listen to it, laugh at it, let it laugh at you. Still, there is one stunner here, in sound historian Douglas Kahn's essay "Surround Sound," regarding the 1930s experiments of neurologist Wilder Penfield, "the first bio-turntablist": "When Penfield lowered [a] wire instead of a stylus onto the grooves of... one patient's exposed brain, the patient, still conscious and alert, was convinced that there was a gramophone playing in the operating room." "Everybody grew up listening to all this stuff," Marclay responds, "and all this music is, in a way, already sampled in our heads."

 
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