Real Life Rock Top 10
1) The Fiery Furnaces, Gallowsbird's Park (Rough Trade) Brooklynites Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger offer hilarious sibling-loathing liner notes and songs that seem to come from an alternate universe: "Up in the North" and "Don't Dance Her Down" make instant sense and also make you feel as if you've never heard anything like them before. There's a cover of Virginia mountain banjoist Dock Boggs's 1929 "Old Rub Alcohol Blues" that is both utterly contemporary and not a cover at all: Eleanor Friedberger sings as if she's worked out every idea in the words for herself, fingering her own scars, and at first the instrumentation is simply big, gonging piano notes. Boggs's version is dead-man-walking; the Friedbergers are walking very carefully, but they fall anyway. "My mind, my mind," Eleanor says as the song seems to get away from her, or perhaps it's that she doesn't want it anymore.
It all comes together in the chorus of "Two Flat Feet": passion, anger, contempt, melody, sardonicism, fear--like Blondie's "Rip Her to Shreds" without the comic-strip wink. Like the best and least obvious album I've heard this year.
2) Metric, "Combat Baby," from Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Everloving) Emily Haines sounds very well-educated, and very tired of being so pissed off. The result is a severe, fast little pop song about not getting what you want--not even seeing what you want on the street, no matter what reflection you see in the shop windows, no matter what's on sale on the other side, even though you never wear anything but black.
3) Randy Newman interview with Bob Edwards, Morning Edition (NPR, Oct. 8) The day after California voted to smash its government, Newman was discussing The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1, solo piano recordings of 18 of his tunes. Edwards brought up the new version of the 1972 "Sail Away," noting that its premise of a con man sweet-talking Africans onto his slave ship with promises of ease and abundance back in the U.S.A. wasn't exactly in the historical record. "What am I supposed to say," Newman said, "'Slavery is bad?' It's like falling out of an airplane and hitting the ground, it's just too easy. And it has no effect."
"But the contrast is so strong," Edwards said. "That beautiful melody..."
"It worked out well," Newman said. "It ended racism in this country. Kids today don't remember, now that it's gone away."
4) Goldfrapp, "Lovely Head," from Bande originale du film 'Demonlover' de Olivier Assayas (SND) New Crime Jazz: wet Paris streets whistling, harpsichord, a Shirley Bassey-style vocal--plus a high trick voice that could have come from the Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You." And then into "Dirge" by Death in Vegas, featuring the same mood and what feels like the same voice. Weird.
5) Paula Frazer, A Place Where I Know: 4-Track Songs 1992-2002 (Birdman) Frazer did her best work in San Francisco in the mid-'90s, but it's all of a piece: Roy Orbison is god, but Frazer can't hit his notes, so she makes a world in a much smaller, more confined space. After a time you wonder how she keeps singing, since it feels as if there's no more air to breathe. She keeps singing by letting the quietly harsh sound she gets from her guitar slow down old folk melodies--secrets she knows but Roy Orbison didn't. Or didn't tell, as she does.
6) Culturcide, "They Aren't the World," from Stay Free's Illegal Art Compilation CD, free at "Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age," Nexus Gallery, Philadelphia (Oct. 3-Nov. 2, www.illegal-art.org/audio/liner.html) Keeping company with the likes of the first rock 'n' roll sample hit, Buchanan and Goodman's 1956 "Flying Saucer," as well as Negativland's legendary 1991 "U2" and Invisible Skratch Piklz's 1996 "white label edit," this 1987 revision of USA for Africa's self-congratulatory 1985 mandatory number-one hit "We Are the World" by a troupe of Houston dadaists is still ridiculously funny--Culturcide records itself right on top of the original--not to mention brutally cruel. Bruce Springsteen sounded like Joe Cocker the first time around; here he sounds like he's undergoing throat surgery without anesthetic. And he's nothing compared to Culturcide's Cyndi Lauper: one woman as three Chipmunks.
7) Placebo, Sleeping with Ghosts (Astralwerks) Music: Bush-league Bush. Cover: spectral woman's naked body merging with corporeal half-naked male figure--an image that still carries some of the charge of the version left behind by Cro-Magnons 15,000 years ago, traced in stone in what is now La Marche, France.
8) Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Streetcore (Hellcat) If Strummer hadn't died at 50 last year, the rough versions of the Wailers' "Redemption Song"--a melody that seems capable of redeeming anyone who comes near it--and "Silver and Gold," earlier recorded by co-composer (with Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew) Bobby Charles in 1972 on his Small Town Talk as "Before I Grow Too Old"--would still bleed, and still make you smile. It would have been so easy to find some studio goof on an old Clash number to stick on at the end.
9) Charles Peterson, Touch Me I'm Sick (Powerhouse) One difference between this big book of black-and-white photographs of Seattle punk in action and Peterson's 1995 Screaming Life, which collects a few of the same shots, is that here the sense of movement is much stronger. It's a vortex. Sometimes you can hardly believe anyone got out of it, and you know some didn't. Another difference is that the bands in the photos are not identified with captions. All that information is on a chart in the back--which means that as you look, you don't necessarily know what you're looking at. The two guitarists with John Brown beards--one of them looking mean enough to be John Brown--who are they? Do you really want to know? On page after page, flying hair heavy with sweat fills the image, and for once there is no difference between people on the stage and people in the crowd.
10) Blues Poems, edited by Kevin Young (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets) Dozens of poems, from the Harlem Renaissance to the present, not too many songs. Rhythms are sometimes forced, but when they're not--as with Gayle Jones's "Deep Song," or Langston Hughes's "Song for a Dark Girl," a rewrite of "Dixie" as a lynching lyric--it's like a whole literature exhaling. And there are continual surprises, like half-cast spells or whispers of forgotten curses, as with Melvin B. Tolson's late '30s "Sootie Joe," where a minstrel speaks through a chimney sweep: "Somebody has to black hisself up/For somebody else to stay white."
Thanks to Cecily of Radio K for "Combat Baby"
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