Saturday, February 27, 2010

Being Blessed

Gil Scott-Heron,
I'm New Here,
XL Recordings

Met a woman in a
bar. Told her I was
hard to get to know,
but damn near im-
possible to forget.

-- Gil Scott-Heron,
"I'm New Here"
(Bill Callahan)

After years spent struggling with substance abuse and
prison time, singer/songwriter/poet/proto-rapper Gil
emerges broken, but far from unbowed.

If anything, broken might be a stretch: his voice is deeper and
richer than before; rough around the edges—and through the
center—but not ragged or pitiful. On the contrary, his first al-
bum in 16 years is a blues album. And a very good one at that.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

If I hadn't been as eccentric as obnoxious as arrogant as aggressive
as disrespectful as selfish, I wouldn't be me. I wouldn't be who I am.

-- Gil Scott-Heron, "I've Been Me"

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Listeners expecting the 60-year-old to pick up exactly where he
left off in the 1970s might be taken aback, but the depth and qual-
ity of this long-player is sure to attract new admirers (and his as-
sociation with a cutting-edge label like XL Recordings can't hurt).

That said, he's the same artist, the same man. And the former
child prodigy is still talk-singing in that same direct, conversa-
tional—rarely confrontational—style, but his gaze has turned
inward. These 15 tracks look at the Tennessee musician more
than they do society and its ills (see "The Revolution Will Not
Be Televised," "Whitey on the Moon," "Johannesburg," etc.).

Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom—like a stint on Riker's Is-
land—before you can see yourself clearly and face your demons.
I can't say for sure that that's what was going on during the 12
months he spent making this LP, but that's what it sounds like.

Produced by XL Recordings head Richard Russell and featuring
contributions from Damon Albarn and the Harlem Gospel Choir,
I'm New Here is blues in the 21st-century sense of the word.

The electronics that pulse and vibrate through the disc make it
a thoroughly modern affair, one that fits comfortably alongside
recent efforts from LCD Soundsystem, Thom Yorke, and Bur-
ial, especially the spooky Melvin Van Peebles-meets-Mas-
sive Attack cover of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil."

I've always had a fondness for
music with cross-generational
appeal; music that's timeless,
not trendy. And comebacks,
which are easy to over-praise.

As the Harlem-based father
of three told Entertainment
, "I'd like young peop-
le to hear my music." At 25:48
minutes, his comeback isn't epic in length, but every note, every word is, as Yorke might say, in its right place. Gil Scott-Heron never went away, but it's great to have him back—all the way back.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

No matter how wrong you gone, you can always turn around.
-- Gil Scott-Heron, "I Come from a Broken Home"

Endnote: For more information, please click here.
Images from Mischa Richter and The Village Voice.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Anglo Ethio Suite

Mulatu Astatke &
the Heliocentrics, Inspiration
Information, Strut

Egyptian bandleader and vibe player
Mulatu Astatke (Ethiopiques 4) joins
forces with Stones Throw house band
the Heliocentrics (Out There) for
this amazing jazz-funk throwdown.

In their career, the British nine-piece has also backed DJ Sha-
dow, Madlib, and Melvin Van Peebles, while Astatke (or Astat-
qé) found a new audience when Jim Jarmusch sprinkled selec-
tions from his repertoire throughout 2005's Broken Flowers.

If Inspiration Information, which isn't to be confused with
the fabulous Shuggie Otis record of the same name, doesn't make
you tap your feet or nod your head, you might want to check your
pulse. But if it does put a little glide in your stride, Out There is
just as essential. As well as Otis's 1971 LP, which introduced the
world to the haunting psych-soul of "Strawberry Letter 23."

Inspiration is one of the few
recordings of recent vintage
that can be enjoyed by peop-
le of all ages and all tastes
(and in this case, a guy in his
late 60s has teamed up with
a gang in their 30s). Worldbeat
tends to attract a limited audience, at least in the US, but
it's hard to imagine many open-minded music listeners who
wouldn't enjoy this set if they were simply exposed to it.

It's often said that the films of Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, and
Pixar travel well, because the visuals do so much of the heavy
lifting. Whether viewers understand the language or the sub-
titles, the characters are interesting, their actions intriguing.

Music can and does travel in similar ways. In that sense, the al-
bum reminds me of Getz/Gilberto, which broke Brazilian music
in the States. In this case, there's no potential pop hit, like "The
Girl from Ipanema," but nor are there any (foreign) lyrics.

By placing too much emphasis
on accessibility, however, I
risk selling Inspiration
short, implying that the two
acts were going for the gold,
when I suspect they were
simply going for the groove.
There's nothing calculated a-
bout this effort. In fact, it's hard to figure out how to classify it, since they cross geographic and cultural borders with ease.

Sometimes, I feel like I'm listening to the JBs on a bender, a
lost Blaxploitation score, or a buried Blue Note treasure. At
other times, it's as if I fell asleep in today's America only to
wake up in yesterday's Morocco—or even outer space.

Truth is, I rarely write about instrumental music, soundtracks
aside, because I don't have much of a vocabulary for it. I just
know that this CD is the best possible way.

I can play these 14 tracks over and over again, and never tire
of a single one. They work for any time of the day, any occasion,
and any mood. I can't stand hyperbole, so I try to avoid it, but
Inspiration Information is truly one for the ages.

Endnote: Images from Jazz Atelier, RBMA Radio, and

Saturday, February 13, 2010

of Sound

Sun, Em-



From the first few notes of tribal opener "New Age," I knew Embrace was for me.
The driving rhythms of Love & Rockets meet the mystery of
Loop in this San Francisco sextet's glorious lysergic stomp.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Embrace this dark place where I stand, and sing.
Oh sing into me, then I'll live another day.
-- "Duet with the Northern Sky"

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

You can barely hear it on record, but live on stage, the twin in-
fluences of folk and blues rise to the surface, and they more clear-
ly recall Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones (especially "Sym-
pathy for the Devil"), and early Black Sabbath. It's rare to find a
band with such a pronounced split personality. The good news
is that both versions of Sleepy Sun are well worth your time.

Recently, the Bay Area collective opened up for Mudhoney at
Neumo's in Seattle, and were so unbelievably tight I feared they
might blow the Seattle veterans off the stage. If they didn't, that's
partly because Mudhoney offers something so different, some-
thing that scratches a different itch; more Stooges, less MC5.

Not having seen the Sub Pop quartet in years, I was pleased to
find that they hadn't lost a step...even if they had lost original
bassist Matt Lukin. Compared to Sleepy Sun, they're more
direct, and with Mark Arm as front man, less self-serious.

But they're not psychedelic, and that's a key difference.
Both outfits share a predilection for the occasional pierc-
ing scream and deftly employed guitar effect—recall that
Mudhoney titled their 1988 debut Superfuzz Bigmuff
but Arm's acerbic lyrics grab for the throat, while
Sleepy Sun takes a more diffuse approach.

They also try things the former never would, like the bongos
on "Golden Artifact" and the barbershop harmonies on "White
Dove." What they do isn't louder, but bigger—more a mountain
of sound than a wall. And with Embrace, a re-release of their
2008 debut, they issued one of 2009's best albums.

Endnote: For more information about Sleepy
Sun, please click here. Image from 3C Tour.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

of the
Part 15

VIE [***1/2]

(Spike Lee, US, 2009, 135 mins.)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

She swore, i' faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing
strange; 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
-- Shakespeare's Othello (1603)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Some rock operas become movies, like Hair and Hedwig and
the Angry Inch. Less frequently, a director will film one exactly
as it began—on stage. Spike Lee (School Daze, Crooklyn) takes
the latter approach in transforming Stew's Tony Award-winning
Public Theater-to-Broadway production into a feature film.

Drawing from his life story, the Negro Problem front man nar-
rates as a versatile combination of players act out his travels
from South Central LA to Europe in his quest for "the real."

Stew (born Mark Stewart) presents his younger self (Daniel
) as an aspiring bohemian who glimpses another world
through the high-flown words of Franklin (Colman Domingo),
leader of his church choir (De'adre Aziza, Chad Goodridge, and
Rebecca Naomi Jones round out the cast). Franklin describ-
es the two of them as "Black folks passing for black folks."

From there, Stew moves on to pot, punk, acid, speed,
sex, and love as he travels from Amsterdam to Ber-
lin, writing songs and trying on different personas.

For the most part, Lee sticks to the script, but follows the cast
backstage during the intermission, a move that recalls Carlos Sau-
, who often breaks the fourth wall in filming dance performan-
ces. If the sets are spare, the lighting can be quite spectacular.

In the end, Stew's story isn't really that unique. What makes it
special is the eloquent, yet earthy way he tells it (and the music is
an appealing mélange of pop, gospel, funk, and post-punk). If any-
thing, Stew is harder on himself than most other artists who broke
a few hearts, like that of his dedicated mother (Tony nominee Eisa
Davis), in pursuit of their ambitions. Special features include an
interview with Stew and musician/co-composer Heidi Rode-
wald and behind-the-scenes footage. Highly recommended.

Click here for Movie of the Month, Part 14: Trucker

Endnote: Slightly revised from the original
text. Image from David Lee/Sundance Selects.

Monday, February 01, 2010

February Reviews

These are
the reviews
and other
pieces I'm
working on
this month.

Amazon DVDs: The People Speak (Extended Edition) and The Life & Times of Tim - The Complete First Season [two-disc set].

Amazon Theatricals: Saint John of Las Vegas (reimagin-
ing of Dante's Inferno with Steve Buscemi), The Ghost Writer
(Roman Polanski directs Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan),
and A Prophet (Jacques Audiard's best foreign film nominee).

Still playing: Broken Embraces, Crazy Heart, The Ima-
ginarium of Doctor Parnassus
, Invictus, Me and Orson
, Where the Wild Things Are, and Youth in Revolt.

Seattle Film Blog: Police, Adjective, For the Love of Movies - The Story of American Film Criticism,
and The Red Riding Trilogy: Red Riding: 1974, Red Riding: 1980, and Red Riding: 1983.

Still playing: A Town Called Panic.

Video Librarian: Pray the
Devil Back to Hell, The Rich
Have Their Own Photo-
graphers, Gunslinger Girl -
Il Teatrino: OVA, The
New Year Parade, Pas-
sing Strange
, The Drum-
mer, Copyright Criminals, The New Adventures of Black
Beauty - Season One [three-disc set], 10 Things I Hate
About You - Volume One
[two-disc set], Fraggle Rock -
The Animated Series [two-disc set], I Heart Jonas,
The Baby Formula, For the Love of Movies - The
Story of American Film Criticism
Cloud 9, Charlie Murphy - I Will Not Apol-
gize Live, Rad Girls - Rad to the Bone
[two-disc set], She's A Boy I Knew,
You're Under Arrest [two-disc
, and Alexander the Last.

Endnote: Images from and The A.V. Club.