Archive for the ‘Doubleshot Tuesday’ Category

Doubleshot Tuesday: The Bristol Sessions/Wild Style

14 December 2010

[Today: Big Bangs…]

Country music and hip-hop were both up-from-the-people musical movements, with country springing from the rural splendor of the Appalachians in the 1920s and hip-hop forming in the urban wasteland of the South Bronx of the 1970s. It’s difficult to come up with two genres that are less alike, but Country and Hip-Hop share one wrinkle: both had their formative geniuses captured on wax, totally unpasteurized, right before both forms of music blew up coast-to-coast.

The Bristol Sessions was the work of an industry scout named Ralph Peer, who set up shop in Bristol, VA over a couple of weekends in the summer of 1927 with the intention of recording the finest examples of “hillbilly” music. Bristol was a thriving city of 32,000 located on the Virginia/Tennessee border and at the crux of several railroads, making it a strategically sound spot to attract mountain musicians. Peer put out word through the local newspaper and ended up discovering a treasure trove of artists, including The Carter Family – A.P., Maybelle and Sara Carter – who would become the first family of country music. “They look[ed] like hillbillies. But as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful,” Peer recalled. During these sessions he also discovered the great Jimmie Rodgers, as well as Ernest Stoneman. In all he recorded 67 sides by 19 different acts, and the songs he captured would form the backbone of what would become country music. None less than Johnny Cash has said that “These recordings in Bristol… are the single most important event in the history of country music.”

Wild Style was a 1983 motion picture that served as a de-facto documentary of the fledgling hip-hop scene. Sure, it had some Hollywood story lines sunk into it, but it featured real rappers and graffiti artists, playing characters loosely based on themselves. The movie’s soundtrack is a goldmine of early hip-hop, a sound that wasn’t largely captured on tape because the artists involved felt like it was a spontaneous music that wasn’t meant to be recorded. Rappers like Busy Bee and Grandmaster Caz deserve to be better remembered by modern music fans – they are every bit the pioneers to their genre that A.P. Carter and Jimmie Rodgers were to country. Unfortunately, their best moments were left to the ether, so the physical proof of their brilliance is pretty thin, but Wild Style is evidence enough. With its snippets of b-boy and graffiti artist chatter, this album has been sampled by a Who’s Who of rappers, including Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill, Beastie Boys and Jurassic 5.

The Bristol Sessions was recorded four years after the recognized birth of country music, while Wild Style was laid down roughly five years after the advent of hip-hop. Both are remarkable documents of the popular birth of a distinctly American music…

Listen: The Soldier’s Sweetheart [Jimmie Rodgers – The Bristol Sessions]

Listen: South Bronx Subway Rap [Grandmaster Caz – Wild Style]

Listen: Single Girl, Married Girl [Carter Family – The Bristol Sessions]

Listen: Stoop Rap [Double Trouble – Wild Style]

Doubleshot Tuesday: Lust For Life/Boys Don’t Cry

30 November 2010

[Today: Existentialism in rock…]

Without dipping too far into the philosophical soup, let’s just say that existentialism has come to be popularly understood as something that is quite the opposite of what it once meant. For 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, existentialism meant that in spite of many external and internal obstacles, life (existence!) should be lived passionately. Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger has come to be closely identified with this strain of philosophy, and as such, has helped to shape popular opinion about what existentialism means (and because Camus had intellectual cache, helped make it a breezy, easy concept to drop at dinner parties). The main character of the book is a strange fellow named Meursault, who can’t be concerned with petty moralities or bigger questions like the existence of God. For him, the death of his mother or killing a man on a beach are the same as so many grains of sand, and his tale is told in a chilling first person narrative that attempts to rationally negate the very tenets of life as we know it. It’s filled with cheery quotes like “Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”

Camus didn’t consider himself an existentialist, and with good reason – his first novel was basically an inversion of Kierkegaard’s self-determined man. If it’s all up to me, Camus seemed to say, then I choose not to believe in anything. As Meursault sits in jail and denies the world, it’s easy to wonder if he’s crazy for not caring about his place in the universe, or if you’re nuts for caring about the same. At any rate, this book became the jumping off point for The Cure’s famously banned song ‘Killing An Arab’. Camus’ bleak, nihilistic world view synced up beautifully with the glass-half-empty, woe-is-me swoon of Goth. But it took Robert Smith to tie the two together with a song that flatly recounts gunning down a man on a beach, looking into his eyes, and… not caring a lick. This song has echoes of Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, but where Johnny was at least interested in watching his victim die, Robert Smith can’t even stir up a little blood lust. This is something even less than murder for murder’s sake, and if the song is a fairly inelegant hash of what The Stranger is actually about, it certainly conveys the blank stare behind that smoking pistol.

Leave it to Iggy Pop to go deeper than Camus. With his 1977 song ‘The Passenger’, Mr. Osterberg created the perfect rock vehicle (pun intended) for Camus’ brand of existentialism. For Iggy, life is a journey by car, and he’s determined to enjoy the ride. If his hand isn’t on the wheel, it only means he’s more free to take in the views of the city and the ocean that flash by his window. See the stars come out at night – they are us and we are nothing…

Listen: The Passenger [Iggy Pop]

Listen: Killing An Arab [The Cure]

Doubleshot Tuesday: Archive Of Gospel Music/His Hand In Mine

16 November 2010

[Today: Giving thanks and praise for Gospel…]

As a lifelong atheist, I’m not sure if I’m entitled to the enjoyment of gospel music. My gut tells me that it’s okay, for the same reason that you don’t have to be a hard-luck cowboy to enjoy Hank Williams or a square-jawed fugitive to dig Johnny Cash. I attended a few Sunday school sessions during summer visits with my grandma growing up, and later spent a few Sundays in church trying to conform to the wishes of a girl I liked in college (didn’t work out). The singing in those churches was mostly white folks mumbling over their hymn books and trying not to draw attention to themselves – or 180 musical degrees from the gospel fire and electricity of Professor Alex Bradford. Child of God or atheist, it’s impossible not to admire the energy that Bradford brought to his music. His influence seeped beyond gospel and into early rock & roll, most noticeably with Little Richard – Bradford’s whoops of rapture were mirrored by Little Richard’s orgasmic yelps of joy. The music of Professor Alex Bradford is a vivid reminder that one of the main roots of rock stems directly from the good book itself…


One of my favorite questions for The P is “What would you like to listen to?” If that question is asked on Sunday, there’s a good chance the answer is going to be another question: “How about some Gospel?” This has presented a bit of a problem, because while I have a lot of albums stashed about this house, very few of them are of the gospel variety. I’ve got some Mahalia Jackson, as well as gospel LPs by The Louvin Brothers and Stanley Brothers, but those Sundays keep coming around, and I knew I couldn’t keep going to the Mahalia Bluegrass Brothers for all my gospel. So I started casting about in the Gospel section of my local record stores, and keeping an eye out for promising titles. And that led me to Professor Alex Bradford (his title is a nickname), and Elvis Presley’s His Hand In Mine. Released in 1960, this was made just before Elvis started mailing in most of his albums. Cynics saw it as a Colonel Tom Parker ploy to scrub Elvis’ rebel rocker image, but it’s clear from the first notes that Elvis took this music very seriously. When he sings of meeting his mother beyond the Pearly Gates, it makes me think of them floating on a cloud and enjoying their eternal reward. And then I wonder: did Elvis make it into heaven?

Listen: Living Between Two Worlds [Alex Bradford]

Listen: His Hand In Mine [Elvis Presley]

Listen: It Makes Me Tremble [Alex Bradford]

Listen: Mansion Over The Hilltop [Elvis Presley]

Doubleshot Tuesday: Ring-A-Ding Ding/(Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You

9 November 2010

[Today: Two cool cats…]

Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were two cool cats. Sinatra’s 1961 album Ring-A-Ding Ding was his first record for his Warner Bros. spinoff vanity label Reprise, and it’s a perfectly lovable example of the stuff that the Chairman Of The Board did so well. Sinatra was a craftsman behind the mic, and he worked hard to carve out his own unique musical persona. For him, subjects like love and matrimony were to be observed at arm’s length. Even when he was singing of the joys of marriage (see this album’s title track or ‘You’d Be So Easy To Love’) he still sounds like a wiseguy who’s telling you how it is and selling the song, without losing his cool about it. He was fully in his Rat Pack moment at this time, and ‘The Coffee Song’ is prime evidence of how Sinatra flashed a pretty good sense of humor, again without losing his cool.

In spite of their longtime friendship, Rat Pack connection and obvious similarities, Sinatra and Dean Martin were pretty different characters. Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography Dino paints a picture of a ridiculously talented and charismatic performer who didn’t give a fig about his legacy and pretty much mailed in his musical performances after about his third album. Certainly his 1965 album (Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You sounds like a paint-by-numbers affair that featured Dino rolling out of bed and walking to the mic in his robe and slippers, with a cigarette in one hand and a tumbler of scotch in the other, while he knocked out his latest LP. With almost any other performer, this kind of carelessness would drive me to distraction, but Dean Martin was so cool that his half-assed versions of songs like ‘King Of The Road’ and ‘I Don’t Think You Love Me Anymore’ are exponentially cooler for his laissez-faire approach. Frank Sinatra sweated the details so that the world would understand how cool he was. Dino just let ‘er rip, and the cool came oozing out of his pores…

Listen: The Coffee Song [Frank Sinatra]

Listen: King Of The Road [Dean Martin]

Listen: Ring-A-Ding Ding [Frank Sinatra]

Listen: I Don’t Think You Love Me Anymore [Dean Martin]

Doubleshot Tuesday: We Are The Champions/Smoke Two Joints

2 November 2010

[Today: Buzzing in the city…]

San Francisco has a world champion in baseball and this city couldn’t be more excited. This Giants team has been accurately described by manager Bruce Bochy as a bunch of “misfits and castoffs”, and they’re more like the Bad News Bears than your typical World Series winner. Their left fielder, center fielder, first and third basemen were all plucked off baseball’s scrap heap during this season. Their shortstop was thought to be washed up, and their catcher is a green-behind-the-ears rookie. And yet San Francisco has fallen for them like no baseball team in this city’s history. The Giants moved west from New York in 1958, and until last night it had been 52 years of futility, heartbreak and near misses.

I was living in San Francisco when the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1995 and the Giants made the Series in 2002, but I’ve never seen the city buzz like this before. Everywhere you go, you see people in fake beards (in tribute to offbeat closer Brian Wilson, who inspired the team motto of ‘Fear the Beard’), fuzzy panda ears (reserve third baseman Pablo Sandoval is nicknamed Kung Fu Panda) and ‘Let Timmy Smoke’ t-shirts (star pitcher Tim Lincecum was cited for marijuana possession last year), along with ear-to-ear smiles. Any time you see strangers hugging in the streets, you know something good has happened. I can’t claim to be a lifelong Giants’ fan, but this was an easy bandwagon to hop aboard. As ESPN’s Rob Neyer wrote, “This one’s for the fans who love the Giants, mostly. But there’s plenty left over for the rest of us, too.”


One subject that was remarked upon quite often during the coverage of this year’s World Series is the amount of marijuana that’s generally smoked in and around San Francisco. A Dallas/Fort Worth reporter named Newy Scruggs became a viral Internet star with a news segment he filmed from behind the Giants’ home ballpark in which he laughingly points out that “They’re smoking weed over there!” Welcome to San Francisco Newy – please take two puffs and pass.

As it happens, Californians will go to the ballot box today, and one of the most talked-about measures on this year’s ballot is Proposition 19, which would legalize and tax the use of marijuana by adults over the age of 21. In 1995, California voters ratified the use of medical marijuana by passing Proposition 215, but it’s safe to say that open pot smoking has been a part of the fabric of this city since long before dispensaries and ballot measures. Attend any show at the Fillmore or Warfield, and you’ll find yourself in a fragrant cloud of smoke before long. Hit the parks on the weekend, and you’ll see people passing pipes and funny little cigarettes. Later today, we’ll find out if California voters will decide to let Timmy smoke…

Listen: We Are The Champions [Queen]

Listen: Smoke Two Joints [The Toyes]

Doubleshot Tuesday: Black Sabbath/Fleet Foxes

26 October 2010

[Today: Pieter Bruegel the Elder…]

The cover of Fleet Foxes’ self-titled 2008 debut, and the cover of Black Sabbath’s 1977 Greatest Hits were created by the same artist – a Netherlandish Renaissance painter named Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel was active between the years 1551 and 1569 (when he passed away) and was known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. The Fleet Foxes cover is a 1559 painting called Netherlandish Proverbs that features a chaotic village scene with a monkey on a throne, a man carrying a steaming vat of liquid, an ass hanging out of an outhouse, a man shooting arrow over a roof covered in pies, a saint blessing a sinner, and numerous other humorous and industrious vignettes. This art fits pretty well with Fleet Foxes sound – a heady mix of Gregorian chant and freak folk that contains a lot of depth and color.

The Black Sabbath cover is a 1562 Bruegel painting called The Triumph Of Death, and it also perfectly matches the music it was chosen to represent. Here we see coffins and carts full of skulls, gruesome battlefield scenes with rabid dogs gnawing on the dead, and angry skeletons grinding the living into dust. The color palette is the blacks and browns of death and decay, as opposed to the verdant greens and reds of Netherlandish Proverbs. Sabbath’s music was all about the heart of darkness – the agents of death, rampant paranoia, blood running through the gutters, etc. It’s a great tribute to Bruegel that his work could be used to sum up the angelic, white-light of folk, as well as the satanic black death of rock…


Doubleshot Tuesday: Velvet Underground & Nico/Workingman’s Dead

19 October 2010

[Today: The Warlocks…]

It absolutely slays me that one of the most nihilistic, bondage and drag queen-oriented bands of the rock era, and one of the most peace-loving, LSD-gobbling band of hippies once had a common name. Before they were the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead, both groups were known as The Warlocks. Both bands were led by charismatic guitarists who had personalities as far apart as New York and San Francisco. The Velvet’s Lou Reed was a surly, ill-tempered, androgynous poet who blasted off flinty guitar lines wrapped in barbed wire rolls of feedback and screech. The Dead’s Jerry Garcia was a lovable, furry teddy bear who took millions of blissed-out fans on a psychedelic joyride through the strings of his guitar. Garcia: “Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.” Reed: “Some even claim that I’m a terror, a dictator and they’re right.” VU made songs about junkies and whores and hard drugs, while the Dead concerned themselves with nature and love and hippie philosophies. VU were a cult band who never really played outside New York, and failed to catch on with a larger audience. It was only after their demise that critics and fans began to appreciate what they captured on their albums. The Dead were a cult band who eventually built a massive following through relentless touring and word-of-mouth. Even true fans regard most of their studio albums as disappointing efforts that don’t really capture the band’s magic. Both bands are in the rock and roll hall of fame, and both had their work wrapped in the art of gifted graphic designers like Rick Griffin and Andy Warhol. But otherwise, it’s hard to think of two bands of Warlocks who are less alike…

Listen: Heroin

Listen: Uncle John’s Band

Listen: I’m Waiting For The Man

Listen: New Speedway Boogie

Doubleshot Tuesday: American Recordings/Don’t Give Up On Me

12 October 2010

[Today: Stirring comebacks…]

Johnny Cash and Solomon Burke was each a legend in his own way – Cash an internationally famous, Bunyan-esque character who popped pills and wore black for all the right reasons; Burke a soul pioneer who sported a crown and carried a scepter, and was revered by musicians and music geeks alike. Cash had his own TV show and married June Carter, daughter of country scions A.P. and Mother Maybelle Carter. Burke never quite broke through to mainstream success and worked in the family mortuary. Cash made country music and Burke made soul, but both were deeply influenced by gospel music (Burke was also influenced by country music). After decades in the business, both men saw their careers bottom out – Cash in the late 80s, Burke in the late 90s – after several uninspired, over-produced albums.

Both had their careers revived by sympathetic producers (Rick Rubin for Cash, Joe Henry for Burke) on small labels (American and Fat Possum, respectively) who realized that the biggest asset these artists possessed was the pure strength and integrity of their voices. On American Recordings (1994) and Don’t Give Up On Me (2001), Rubin and Henry put their artists in the sparest possible settings and let those legendary voices shine through. Both artists were given big assists by admiring musicians who wrote songs specifically for these albums. Cash got tunes from Glenn Danzig and Tom Waits, and threw in imaginative covers of songs by Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, Kris Kristofferson and others. Burke meanwhile got originals by Bob Dylan, Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Lowe. Both albums touch on sin and redemption, mortality and the almighty, love gone wrong and long black trains.

These albums awoke a new generation of fans to the timeless genius of Johnny Cash and Solomon Burke, and both albums made critics wonder aloud how the music business could have so perpetually mis-used such talented voices. These stirring comebacks were arguably the best albums released in their respective years – Mojo magazine named Don’t Give Up On Me as its pick for the best album of 2001, and American Recordings is widely regarded as a modern masterpiece. The artists who contributed their talents to these albums undoubtedly did it out of love for Cash and Burke. But they also did themselves a big favor by helping to provide the industry with a pair of rock solid blueprints for how to gracefully handle living legends who’ve still got it…

Listen: Thirteen [Cash]

Listen: Don’t Give Up On Me [Solomon Burke]

Listen: Delia’s Gone [Cash]

Listen: Flesh And Blood [Solomon Burke]

Doubleshot Tuesday: The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown/Reincarnation

5 October 2010

[Today: Happy birthday to me…]

I’ve got a birthday coming up, and one of the real disadvantages of being over 40 and still having birthdays is that people continue to ask what you want for your birthday. “What do you want for your birthday?” It’s a question I could have answered with a 5,000 word essay when I was eight years old, but now it’s hard to work up a shrug in response. When I was a kid, the stuff I wanted was stuff – toy guns and slot car tracks and nerf toys and a million other things that kids stopped asking for and parents stopped buying decades ago.

But lately, I’m more taken with gifts that don’t come in wrapping paper – being happily married; knowing where to get excellent soul food; owning a five-lifetimes supply of LPs; having good neighbors and true friends; not loathing my work; loving and respecting my entire family; and living with two of the ten coolest felines on earth. What more could you ask for?

More music, that’s what. So last week I snuck off and treated myself to a browse of the local (Berkeley) record establishments. Whenever I do this, I always come up with a fistful of records I never intended to own, and this visit to Amoeba and Rasputin was more of the same. The first of two highlight finds was The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, a pyrotechnic blend of psychedelia, spoken word nuttiness, and hard metal soul. Arthur Brown wore crazy costumes, including a helmet of fire, and his song ‘Fire’ charted in 1968. “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE, AND I BRING YOU FIRE!!!” he bellows, channeling his inner-demons and no doubt inspiring a young Gene Simmons.

My second find was provided courtesy of Macfarlane Gregory Anthony Mackey, who recorded under the stage name Exuma. Mackey was born in the Bahamas, and it shows in his music. Reincarnation is more chameleon than album, shifting colors with every track. Exuma alternately sounds like a Bahamian Cat Stevens, a fired-up Taj Mahal, a raving voodoo witch doctor, and Richie Havens at Woodstock. And if you can’t get behind that combination, I’ve got a couple of George Winston albums for you.

My hat’s off to the forward-thinking record executives who green-lighted these projects. As long as record bins continue to be stuffed with unique artists like Arthur Brown and Exuma, I’ll have enough birthday presents to last me to 110…

Listen: Fire [The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown]

Listen: Exuma, The Obeah Man [Exuma – not from Reincarnation]

Doubleshot Tuesday: Croweology/Black Light

28 September 2010

[Today: New albums from old favorites…]

Throughout the last half of the 90s and first half of the 00s, the Black Crowes gave every indication of being a band in serious decline. Brothers Rich (guitar) & Chris (vocals) Robinson fought with each other and made pointless solo albums, while Chris married the obligatory Hollywood starlet (Kate Hudson). True fans of the band would point to albums like Three Snakes And One Charm and Lions and see vessels that were half full, but for the rest of us, the spark seemed to be missing, and the Crowes sounded very much like a band going through the motions.

If that comes off as complaint, forgive me, because it’s not meant as such. Most rock bands are lucky (and extremely talented) to be able to drop three meaningful albums within their lifespan (four gets you into Stones/Beatles pantheon territory). With their 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker, 1992 album Southern Harmony & Musical Companion and 1994’s Amorica, the Crowes pretty much single-handedly resuscitated Southern Rock and gave every classic rock fan enough great songs to last a lifetime.

You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted to begrudge a band like that the spoils of rock star success. But you’ve have to be downright foolish to expect that a band with so many ups and downs and personal problems would bounce back to make some of their most inspired music 20 years after their debut. The upward trend for the Crowes started with their 2008 album Warpaint. At that point a good-not-great album with flashes of their past brilliance was enough to awaken excitement in their longtime fans. But with 2009’s Before The Frost/Until The Freeze they made an album that was on par with their best work.

With its easy Americana sound, Before The Frost… reflected a mature, seasoned touring band that was stronger than ever for the presence of guitarist Luther Dickinson. Because of their Southern roots, this band had historically drawn comparison to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but the laid back country flavor they were delving into evoked other vintage groups – The Grateful Dead, circa Workingman’s Dead and The Band.

So good music and some pretty heady comparisons – but even an eternal optimist couldn’t have foreseen their next move. With Croweology, they’ve re-recorded a career-spanning selection of songs, in most cases creating defining versions. But this doesn’t feel like a Greatest Hits-type album as much as re-assessment of their own work. Like much of this album, ‘Remedy’ and ‘Jealous Again’ have less bite and more soul than their original versions. Elsewhere, songs like ‘Under A Mountain’ and ‘Soul Singing’ sound refreshed and very much like hits, even if they went un-noticed on original release. Croweology is reportedly the last album by the band before they go into extended hiatus. A well-deserved rest is in order, but let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from a band that is finally hitting on all cylinders again.

Groove Armada has also given the world three very worthwhile albums: 1999’s Vertigo, 2001’s Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub), and 2003’s eternally pleasing Love Box. These albums saw them progress from a big-beat, techno sound, into more nuanced, layered songs that increasingly featured guest vocalists. These albums were some of the best in electronica, and were clear inheritors of the disco sound. And like Disco in the 70s, Groove Armada have set about polishing their music to a pin-drop sheen, while being overpowered by vocalists who are trying too hard to sound important. With Black Light, they’ve effectively become a backing band on their own album.

Croweology reminds me of the regenerative power of rock and roll, and why it has survived so many insurrections through the decades, while Black Light reminds me of why Disco died such a preening, spectacular, flaming death in the late 70s…

Listen: Soul Singing [Black Crowes]