Possibly the best band on the planet.
-- Andy Warhol
First things first: Gray featured in Edo Bertoglio's documentary
Downtown 81, and included art-world superstar Jean-Michel
Basquiat (1960-1988) and actor/director Vincent Gallo.
Though the Other Music review mentions Gallo, he receives no
credit on this limited edition release, unless he was operating
under a pseudonym. Michael Holman ("masking tape and steel
ball bearings"), Justin Thyme ("finessed tape loops"), and Nick
Taylor ("guitar with historical restraint") complete the line-
up. As for Basquiat, he "played the guitar with a metal file."
So, that's the first thing. The second is this: is Shades of...
any good? If it wasn't, I wouldn't care, but the record would
merit discussion even without the bold face names involved.
At first listen, the 27-track set recalls DJ Shadow, while sub-
sequent listens bring to mind Danger Doom, the one-off colla-
boration between producer Danger Mouse and emcee MF Doom.
I'm not sure how to describe it, but experimental hip-hop might
suffice. At times, it comes close to the jazz-funk Defunkt was
throwing down in '79, but that's one ingredient out of many.
Click here to sample "Wig."
The drums skitter like spiders, the bass line ebbs and flows, the
guitars scritch and scratch. Strange noises intrude from time to
time: walking, sawing, and scraping on metal. Perhaps they re-
corded Basquiat while he was painting and stretching canvases.
Lyrics take a backseat to the sound of the vocals, which range
from gentle croons to dub-inspired chants ("I know...I know...").
As with Danger
Doom's The Mouse
and the Mask, spok-
bracket each cut.
Instead of cartoon
voices, they're car-
one of which
sounds a little like
Gallo, their desig-
nated go-go dancer.
As with the transgressive films of the era (see Richard Kern, Nick
Zedd, et al.), the skits revolve around drugs, street youth, and
clueless authorities, i.e. Gray: "You're harassing me!" Authority:
"Who's harassing you? Calm down." There's also a track called
"Doktor Dhoom," reinforcing the Danger Doom connection.
The set highlight, "Cut It Up High Priest," throbs and pulses as
dub joins rap to the rhythm of finger snaps. Holman leads the
way while a choir of true believers testify, though the priest
appears to be more of a music figure than a religious leader.
Watch Downtown 81 for free here.
The spoken-word samples add interest to the proceedings, but
they do get old over time. That quibble aside, the disc, available
exclusively in the US through Other Music, is a must for fans of
No New York, Jim Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation, and Glenn
O'Brien's TV Party, on which Basquiat was a regular fixture.
Update: The Radiant Child premieres tonight, Tues,
4/12, on KCTS 9 at 10pm as part of Independent Lens.
Endnote: Images from Mooks and Culture King. The Down-
town 81 DVD features "outtakes of Basquiat, accompanied by
music from his band, Gray." Also, Tamra Davis's documentary
Jean-Michel Basquiat - The Radiant Child marks essential
viewing. One of my favorite non-fiction films of the year.