C & D: Two guys reason together about some new records (Arthur No. 23/July 2006)

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
Avatar
(Sub Pop)
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.

Vetiver
To Find Me Gone
(diCristina)
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.

Awesome Color
Awesome Color
(Ecstatic Peace/Universal)
C: Whoa!
F: Yowza!
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?

Zizek! dvd
(Zeitgeist)
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
(Paramount)
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
(Sublime Frequencies)
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. Continue reading

TONY ALLEN on Fela Kuti, Afrobeat, solo career, more (1999)

tonyallen

This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia, and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal; the main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick). Main article text is online here: http://www.arthurmag.com/2009/11/02/fela-king-of-the-invisible-art

TONY ALLEN
by Jay Babcock

Tony Allen is the original funky drummer. As a member of Fela’s ’60s highlife group Koola Lobitos, Allen, Tony traveled with Fela to the U.S., where Fela developed Afrobeat. Allen’s complex, seemingly eight-armed and eight-legged drum parts—an encyclopedia of inventive groove spread over dozens of albums—were the only parts of Fela songs not composed by Fela himself. Allen released an incredible series of solo albums in the late-70s and early ’80s, three of which featured Fela and the Afrika 70.

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FELA: KING OF THE INVISIBLE ART by Jay Babcock (1999)

felasmokes1

This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), which I was editing at the time, with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia. The piece was accompanied by a set of sidebar interviews and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal [who was finishing his work on the manuscript that would be published as Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon]. The main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick).

FELA: King of the Invisible Art
by Jay Babcock

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 77 albums, 27 wives, over 200 court appearances. Harassed, beaten, tortured, jailed. Twice-born father of Afrobeat. Spiritualist. Pan-Africanist. Commune king. Composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, dancer. Would-be candidate for the Nigerian presidency. There will never be another like him. This is the sensational story of Fela, the greatest pop musician of the 20th century, featuring the words of Fela’s friends, fans and the Ebami Eda himself.

“What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart!”
Fela always knew the power of a name.

If you are African—and especially if you work with music, which shares a link of common invisibility with the spirit world—you must have a spiritually meaningful, beneficial name. Without the correct name, Fela explained, “a child can’t really enter the world of the living.”

He didn’t like the name he was given when he was first born, in 1935: his Nigerian parents had followed a local German missionary’s suggestion. So Fela died and was born a second time, on October 15, 1938; this time his parents called him Fela.

“Bear the name of conquerors?” he asked Carlos Moore, author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life, in 1981. “Or reject this first arrival in the world? The orishas [spirits] they heard me. And they spared me. What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart! It wasn’t for white man to give me name. So it’s because of a name that I’ve already known death.”

In 1975, at the height of his popularity and power, Fela changed his middle name. “I got rid of ‘Ransome.’ Why was my name ‘Ransome’ in the first place? Me, do I look like Englishman?” Fela’s full name was now Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which meant in whole, ‘He who emanates greatness, who has control over death and who cannot be killed by man.’

That same year Fela also started to cheekily call himself Black President, eventually releasing an album bearing the same title in the midst of a thwarted campaign. And sometime in 1986, following his release from Nigerian prison after serving 20 months on trumped-up charges, Fela began to call himself the Ebami Eda, which translates roughly as “the weird one,” or more delicately, as “the one touched by divine hand.”

Fela was touched, alright. But he was not only a visionary musician who created a whole new style of music—Afrobeat—and left behind an incomparable body of recorded music. No. Fela also simultaneously spoke truth to power, and then recorded it as a 12-minute dance-funk song, with a title like “Government Chicken Boy” or “Coffin for Head of State.” He endured brutal physical punishment and constant imprisonment. In the end, he died from complications associated with the AIDS virus. His heart was broken: he had sung so much, fought so hard, amassed such popularity, and still, hardly anything changed for the better in his beloved, heart-shaped continent of Africa. So: following is the story of that big generous, humorous, creative, divine heart that Fela had: from its early heartbeats, to Afrobeat, to the beatings it took, to its final, slow heartbreak.

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