Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006)
Ethan Miller of Comets on Fire onstage at ArthurFest, 2005 (photo by Jeremiah Garcia/IceCreamMan.com)
C and D: Two fellas reason together about some new records
C: We resume not far from where we left off last issue. Only without D, our lovable excitable German, who has vacated the rumble seat to return to Der Fatherland to observe the World Cup. In his place, quaffing D’s beers for this issue only, ladies and gentlemen of the court, may I present to you: F.
F: Happy to be here, C. Those are big shoes to fill.
C: Relax. After three beers and the proper auditory stimulation, your feet will swell to fit.
Comets on Fire
F: After five seconds of this record, I can confidently say: Comets on Fire, you made an excitable German out of me. Pummely stuff.
C: This blasts off from where their last record left off: frequent flyer acid rock mentality, virtuous verses and choruses, oodles of audible poem lyrics, spry jams, and serious assblasting. A couple songs are slow burners…
F: …that put the power back in balladry.
C: The album-opening epic “Dogwood Rust” slithers into a Hawkwind-Ash Ra Tempel-Stereolab-Oneida locked groove around the six minute mark, then ignite into dueling guitar spirals, then some Von Harmonson echotronix. Plus the kind of casual avant garde move that’s so natural you almost don’t notice it: the electric birdsong at end of “Jaybird,” a nice fresh-air breather.
F: A muscle-relaxer for the brain.
C: For me, this album plugs back into what their labelmates Sleater-Kinney did on their most recent album: laying sweet waste to the center of Ted Nugent’s mind by power tripping from the top of the randiest redwoods. This is the Comets’ answer record, at least in my personal universe.
F: I grok that. Fight fire with Fire! Those dark noontide chimes at the beginning of “The Swallow’s Eye,” and the chorus guitars on “Lucifer’s Memory”…it’s crystal clear: Cosmic soul rock kills pain dead.
C: And it arrives just two months after the Howlin’ Rain album. Howlin’ Rain, of course, is the new band spotlighting Comets on Fire singer-guitarist Ethan Miller’s songwriterly aspect, which leans to the Allmans/Dead/Faces side of the highway. And just a few months after Comets guitarist Ben Chasny’s latest Six Organs of Admittance pan-cultural acid-folk stunner, The Sun Awakens.
F: Not to mention Comets pianist/drummer Utrillo’s nuevo Elton John/Bill Fay song project, The Colossal Yes.
C: That one 11-minute song on the Colossal Yes album? Wow… [listening to “Holy Teeth”] But back to the album at hand. This is total High Rise/Acid Mothers Temple/Kiss destruction boogie.
F: A strange thing about “boogie” is it’s been Not Cool for a period about ten times longer than it was Cool. [standing up from the couch] But it never left my behind!
C: [averting eyes, mumbling] Christ, F. Boogie if you must but please do it where I don’t have to see it. This one [“Sour Smoke”] is like keyboard-driven Fela Kuti meets Television. Can a band be this good?
F: Felavision: I wish they had that on the Dish.
C: Call your cosmic cable company…
F: To paraphrase Foster’s: Comets on Fire—it’s American for rock.
To Find Me Gone
F: The second album from San Francisco’s haziest, gentlest canyon-folk drifters, Vetiver.
C: There’s a bucolic feel to this I love.
F: True, but what’s up with the word “bucolic”? The sound of words should correlate to their meaning, and there’s something about “bucolic” that always makes me think of a baby with a wet, hacking cough.
C: Whereas this music would more likely cure a baby of such a cough.
F: Readers with babies might let us know how it works…
C: Vetiver’s music evokes all those little phases or episodes along a dayhike in the country: the initial entry into the wilderness…the part where you’re making serious headway, alone with your thoughts…the moment when the senses are overwhelmed by the nature stimuli, the dew and the sap, the sun’s heat and the insects’ hum…when you finally you stop for water by a brook, and take a nap in the shade. When Andy Cabic sings, “I climbed so high/the sky dropped down to teach me,” he’s tapping into the naturalist in all of us.
F: I heard somebody say you could call this kind of music ‘naturalismo.’
C: I also heard somebody say that the real reason music originating from the West Coast underground—all the aforementioned bands, Brightblack Morning Light, etc etc etc—is so beautifully gone right now is because of the high potency of the marijuana out here.
C: While I am not stoned at this time, I swear I just looked out the window and saw a burrito fly past.
F: Yeah, that’s Vetiver, working the California tradition: Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young, the Mac of course, the original Charlatans from San Francisco…
C: And of course the late under-lamented Beachwood Sparks, whose final EP had some of this same swooshy nature euphoria and next-afternoon melancholia. Not that this is mimicry. Cabic’s songwriting here goes beyond recidivist texture gesture. It’s a very subtle, tricky thing Vetiver does, mellowing the harsh but resisting the corn. They use violins instead of fiddles.
F: Whoa, this song ["Red Lantern Girls"] is amazing! It’s like a horse just trotting along, and then alluvasudden, this squalling and sustained one-note electric guitar solo [courtesy of guest Brad Laner (Medicine/Electric Company guitarist-composer)] kicks in and the band breaks into a gallop.
C: Vetiver: cures coughs, cleanses palates. Use hourly.
C: These guys get on that train and ride it back to Cincinnati 1969! Total Stooges in Iggy’s-Got-the-Peanut-Butter-Again mode…
F: Yeah, but even more than that— Sound of Confusion-era Spacemen 3, especially on this track “Dinosaur”: that’s the sound of a band refusing to learn more chords or grooves because they already found the best ones.
C: Concentrating on tone and psychotic drive, like all the greats, like our national treasures The Cramps and Tav Falco and of course the 13th Floor Elevators…Awesome Color are…uh…awesome.
C: I’ve got to admit that my inner adolescent thinks this is the coolest shit possible.
F: I hope they’re all under 18, and there better be some brothers in this band.
C: This song [“It’s Your Time”] features some actual choogle.
C: Which brings us to the question that has haunted many a rock fan: what, exactly, is the difference between the boogie and the choogle?
F: Would that be choogie or boogle?
C: Dude, I’m trying to play this DVD, but you totally messed up my system while reconnecting the TV to the stereo so you could watch the World Cup in surround-sound.
F: I think that D, absent as he is, would’ve approved. Anyways, it was worth it to hear the Mexican TV commentators hollering so sonorously.
C: Okay, here we go… This is a documentary about Slavoj Zizek, the Solvenian philosopher who’s known as “a one-person culture-muncher” and “the Elvis of critical theory.”
F: He looks more like Klaus Kinski. Or Yakoff Smirnoff.
C: Blame it on the beard. Zizek’s basically this super erudite dude who is also a willfully contrary polemicist commentating on everything under the sun as he goes. As he says, “The duty of philosophy is to redefine problems, not to solve them.” Here he is on a tour of colleges…he sees a girl carrying some Evian and remarks, “Water in a bottle —it reminds me of socialism.”
F: This guy’s great! Reminds me of the biting, death-obsessed comedy of the late great Brother Theodore. I believe Zizek speaks as a friend although he expounds with fiendish fervor.
C: Fiendish fervor is right. Zizek is a pre-postmodern man. He was raised in Communist Yugoslavia, but when that all went to bloody hell, he became a Christian atheist.
F: I knew I dug this guy. He’s got some zingers, like when he talks about being “up to your shit in ideology.”
C: Zizek cuts through the tripe. Here he is watching an old televised broadcast of Lacan giving a lecture. Lacan is one of Zizek’s primary influences, but he is not in awe of Lacan: “I find his emphasis and gestures ridiculous…. I’m a total enlightenment person, I believe in clear statements.”
F: Like Zizek says: “I always tell the truth. Not the whole truth, because one can’t.”
C: My favorite part about this film is where Zizek proudly shows us that he keeps his clean laundry in the kitchen cupboard.
F: You’ve got that much in common…
Beavis and Butthead: The Mike Judge Collection, Volume 2 DVD
C: Meanwhile, at the other end of the philosophical spectrum…
F: Beer me!
C: Y’know, there’s so much product that comes out these days, so many records, DVDs and CDs, but I still feel like there’s a void Beavis & Butthead left that remains unfulfilled.
F: Hey, Zizek’s doing his best.
C: Hard to imagine Zizek calling Lacan a “dillhole” though. It would be so cool if they made a new Beavis & Butthead movie, like, checking in with them ten years later…
F: In the meantime, creator Mike Judge is putting out these super-packed DVDs, and it’s amazing to watch the classic cartoons uninterrupted by erase-your-blemish commercials.
C: The titles alone are remarkable: “Wet Behind The Rears” — “Premature Evacuation”—”Here Comes The Bride’s Butt.”
F: “Bang The Drum Slowly, Dumbass.”
C: I love when the screen goes dark, right before the show starts, and you can only hear their immortal “hunh-huh-unh” laughter. Ohmigod, I love this one, where they go in to the plastic surgeon to get their “thingies” made bigger, but [uncontrollable laughter] instead the doctor gives them boobs! [falls off the couch]
F: Settle down, C. How many brownies did you eat?
C: I dunno. Is the baggie half full or half-empty, buttmunch?
Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan dvd
Directed by Robert Millis
F: Feature-length film about a weird three-day street festival in Thailand, sometimes referred to as “Mardi Gras from Hell.” Whoa. Talk about awesome colors.
C: You see, this is what America should have learned from pre-Katrina New Orleans. All this industrial technology and computer whatsits and the Intervoid is so much unnecessary fuzz. To coin a paraphrase, what the world needs now is less competitive work-laboring and more communal partying.
F: Preferably in blazing demon masks made from cocount husks.
C: Yes, decadence on the cheap. Whiskey drinking at dawn and total second-line parades featuring guitar-and-flute ragas on flatbed trucks, amps powered by car batteries, people waving hand-painted papier mache phalluses with strange tips. When the grid crashes, this is how I hope we’ll party. Of course we’ll probably have to wait til then. You’d never be able to get a permit for something like this in public in America, home of the so-called free.
F: I like the Sublime Frequencies approach. They stand in awe of this planet’s inhabitants’ strange beauty: they bear witness. They just say LOOK, they don’t even try to explain—well, not much—what’s going on. Their approach is, This shit is so deep you don’t even have to know anything about what it is you’re seeing to receive some its power. It’s that rich. They’re busy grokking. They’re feeling fascination.
F: They are the real human league.
A Visit to Ali Farka Toure dvd
dir. Marc Huraux
C: I stand in awe of Malinese guitarist Ali Farka Toure. His death earlier this year was a tremendous loss: his playing was part John Lee Hooker, part original African dance blues, all sensationally blazing and lyrical and celebratory, as well as appropriately contemplative and entrancing, and he was notoriously…well, as they say, touched. I never got to see him play live, because I was very foolish in my younger years. And of course now that he’s gone, I finally get to see him…on DVD.
F: This is a feature-length documentary film made by a French film crew in 1999, apparently, around the time that Toure cut back on his international touring in order to work his farm, not far from Timbuktu. “My main concern here is to grow enough food to be self-sufficient,” he says. “Whatever you do in life, you need a full stomach. When you’re hungry, you can’t think about anything.”
C: The whole story is just so perfect you keep laughing in disbelief at each new revelation or claim—it’s your choice. He talks about being the tenth son (the other nine died), the word “farka” meaning “resistance,” living in a town called “Niafunke” (say it aloud), enduring a childhood of near-slavery (“I had to push a 200lb barrel of water all by myself”), speaking and singing in three languages but reading none, having a grandmother who could communicate with nature spirits, and his year-long stay with witchdoctors at age 11. Or when he says, “There are millions of things that can be explained but some things can never even be mentioned.” And there’s the performances, like the one where Toure says, “I have to tell you that tonight is different from other nights. It’s true. I’m with the devils tonight.” He’s totally sexy, abandoned, rocking, almost disturbingly unguarded.
F: One thing’s for sure: the guy had huge hands and beautiful clothes.
C: And he knew how to bend desert air.
Lagos No Shaking
C: [listening to track 1] Okay, that’s it. I hereby rescind the dance ban. [gets up from couch] I gotta close these blinds.
F: Mr. Tony Allen is, of course, the brilliant drummer and co-creator with Fela Kuti of the Afrobeat sound. They say he played like four drummers, but that was a long time ago. I think now he’s up to six.
C: [air drumming wildly] If only all the songs on here were this good. Unfortunately half of them feature vocals that are just inappropriately slick singing with banal lyrics that borrow from Fela’s righteousness but not his wit, bite or joy in metaphor. But when Rolling Dollar sings, it’s a vintage Afrobeat clinic session that’ll make your feet weep.
Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label
(The Numero Group)
F: Talk all you want about digging in the crates, but first someone’s gotta dig up the crates.
C: And the Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul reissue series—of which this is the latest—is excavation par excellence.
F: I’d never heard of the Big Mack label, but apparently even if you lived in Detroit in the late ’60s and early ’70s you probably didn’t hear of it either.
C: [Listening to Mae Young's “The Man Put Sugar In My Soul”] Is this CD on the wrong speed?
F: Only if you can’t dance that fast. What incredible energy. I nominate it as One of the Best Songs Ever.
C: Big Mack—more than a burger.
People Gonna Talk
F: For a moment here I thought this was a missing disc from my Charlie Rich box set, and this was 1962. But in fact this is new. It’s just got that sweet soul something, yet it’s got a rock’n'roll backbeat, but really he’s singing exquisite torch songs. I gotta say, James Hunter, a pompadour-sporting white British guy, reminds me of chiefly of Sam Cooke.
C: The fact that he recorded it at London’s noted bastion of analog purity Toe Rag Studios makes sense. Almost nobody does this kind of music in this style. Hunter’s craft is so fine, his commitment so total. Listen to “People Gonna Talk”—his guitar lick’s so tasty, the roll’s so sweet, it captures that swinging moment when ska evolved into rock steady but still bore the clear influence of American soul records.
F: I would say Hunter is brown bread to Edwyn Collins wry.
C: One more quip like that and you’re going straight into the pun-ality box.
F: I’ve been yellow-carded for wordplay.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
I Stand Alone
F: Original folksinger Jack Elliott is 75 and from the sound of things, he’s knocking on heaven’s door.
C: What a beautiful, perfect album. The songs here sound happy but the words—about favorite dogs, old trains, the suckiness of arthritis—are by turns sad and ruminative. He’s know what’s been lost, and he knows the ramble is probably nearing its end. But he’s not entirely sad about it, which gives the songs—and banter—a mischievous tone.
F: Jack’s just doing the ding-dong-ditch on ol’ Death, I betcha.
Night Through: Singles and Collected Works 1976-2004 3-cd box
C: Slow chilling weird blues arcs carved by a graveyard guitar instrumental master. No ghosts, though—just a man before the Big Empty.
F: Dark, dark, DARK.
C: Definite dark night of the soul stuff.
F: It’s gorgeous, but I’m terrified.
A Vintage Burden
C: Almost unbearably beautiful new album from this long-running co-ed guitar duo, now apparently based in Texas. [listening to the perfectly titled 20-minute instrumental “Black Bed Blues”] A warm breeze on a summer night, the windows’ curtain flutters. Outside the tall Texan grass sways. You’re sleeping with your girl in somebody else’s bed. The sunrise is cloudy, gentle…
F: Two people underneath the Unnameable Vastness, instead of one. Pure mutual longing.
C: My recommendation? Give this to someone you love.
The Golding Institute Presents Final Relaxation
C: Informed Arthur readers know that the Golding Institute is associated with with notable non-comedian Neil Hamburger.
F: [reading sleeve] “Your ticket to Death through Hypnotic suggestion.” This should go over well with the Doom crowd. Zizek will dig it, and maybe Ramblin’ Jack Elliot too!!! [puts CD in player]
C: Oh dear. I think if you slipped this into amongst every commuters’ positive reinforcement self-help tapes, you could really change some lives.
F: By “change” I think you mean “end.”
C: Give this to someone you don’t love.