Friday, January 14, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 1/14/11 - Floored By Four and The Carter Family

In my experience, the supergroup concept is a familiar yet distant phenomenon. As a guy born after the dissolution of Blind Faith and impacted in my formative years by the aftermath of punk, the idea ultimately came to seem naively utopian, as if the right combination of exalted musicians would somehow conjure majestic, heavenly strains that would eradicate crime and pestilence and insure a multitude of bountiful harvests. I jest of course, and I’ll admit that the “All-Star Team” concept of rock collaboration did produce some stellar moments on a small batch of important records from the likes of Faith, Cream, Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Humble Pie. Occasionally the term is used to classify later bands such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Fantômas, but for the most part it’s a descriptor of a condition of a bygone era. FLOORED BY FOUR, a new project that consists of guitarist Nels Cline (Tim Berne, Black Gang, Banyan, Wilco, Nels Cline Singers), keyboardist Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto, Butter 08, Plastic Ono Band, Dave Douglas) bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, Dos, fIREHOSE, Banyan, Black Gang, The Unknown Instructors, Missingmen) and drummer Dougie Bowne (Lounge Lizards, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, Dave Douglas) could adequately be described as a supergroup, but that’s only if you don’t consider them a jazz band. And the concept of jazz motion that’s linked to purist ideas will easily exclude this fine LP from its context, but please keep in mind that sensibility also denigrates or dismisses such major improvisational achievements as electric-era Miles Davis, the big band of Don Ellis, late-Coltrane, John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock and the extended leadership role of Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount aka Le Sun Ra. And while I certainly do consider Floored By Four to be a fusion-style jazz band of exceptional quality, I will also acknowledge an overt thrust in their attack that’s at times very reminiscent of non-flash/anti-boredom progressive rock at its spacey best, rubbing up against worthy predecessors from Soft Machine to Can to Gong. Broken into four tracks, two of moderate length, one short and one long that are named after the participants, this loose, grooving not-entirely instrumental affair is what I like to call a grower, though I’m not inferring it doesn’t already have its hooks substantially buried into my ear flesh. “Nels”, the LP’s opener, immediately impressed me with a nice bout of Cline’s oft employed feedback expansiveness, a great sound that in this instance feels explicitly connected to the grand lineage of “EXP” from AXIS: BOLD AS LOVE. Before long the track jumps into full band mode, sounding vaguely like early Mahavishnu Orchestra dabbling with a brand of free-funk that draws upon both Funkadelic and electric Ornette without being particularly indebted to either. The following piece “Miss Yuka” uses a cut-and-paste approach, opening with an excursion into Honda’s woozy keys that quickly shifts into a solid hunk of lean, exploratory, tempo-shifting bluesy hard-rock iced by Watt’s irresistible vocal panache. Unsurprisingly, “Watt” is the shortest cut, emphasizing the bassist’s unflagging devotion to the punk concept even when he’s stretching out a Stax-ian/Meters-like template into a wiggly, angular hunk of abstract scorch. “Dougie” is the record's closing track, and at nearly twenty minutes is an extended, well-conceived finale, with an airy pulse that cozies up to the NY Downtown avant-splut that both Bowne and Honda have played major roles in shaping. Bowne is an all-too-rare example of a rock-informed drummer whose experimentalist side avoids the pitfalls of overreaching ideas/ideals (aka “self-indulgence” aka “I’m going to go check what’s on TV”). Cline’s playing remains admirably hard to pin down, likely due to the scope of his influences being so large. Watt anchors, advances and never falters, arguably the finest all-around bassist that rock music has produced. And Honda brings necessary creativity and versatility, drawing on everything from Steve Winwood to Krautrock to Bernie Worrell’s more outside stuff. Any fan of any of the participants should find this self-titled slab to be of at least moderate interest, and it should roll right up the alleyways of folks that dig everything from Medeski Martin & Wood, pre-crap Weather Report and the less aggressive side of John Zorn’s gargantuan output. It’s just a shame that this will likely be the only record by Floored By Four. What do they think they are? Some kind of supergroup?

Sara, Maybelle and Alvin Pleasant A.P. Carter began appearing on 78rpm records for the Victor label in 1927 as just one small part of an influx of recording by a young industry eager to profit from a new, still relatively untested market. Immediately successful, their records helped shape the course of subsequent popular music, partly because A.P. was a savvy collector of songs, many of which had been around for generations or longer. This appropriation has occasionally inspired varying degrees of snide belittlement in certain contemporary observers, sometimes from partisans of the comparatively unheralded early country legend Ernest V. “Pops” Stoneman, but far more often from folks afflicted with an unnuanced understanding of the development of modern songcraft. BRING BACK MY BLUE-EYED BOY TO ME is the second vinyl release from the Monk label comprised of early Carter Family sides, these from 1929-30, and they illuminate the value of this trio as not only possessors of a still compelling personal sound but also as exceptional interpreters of material quite wide-ranging in its derivation. These song-forms encompassed ballads from British and Scottish sources (aka Child Ballads) and more indigenous folk styles alongside blues and gospel material that included the influence of the shapenote/Sacred Harp tradition. The integration of such varied elements into their performance arsenal sheds light on how the Carters were able to fitfully survive as a recording act through the Great Depression and additionally renders their stuff as strongly engaging when collected on LP or compact disc in the here and now, where it lacks the repetitiveness that often arises when inspecting the compiled work of assorted Old Time masters. This isn’t to imply that the Carters lack any of the substantive power that makes the captured fragments of various roots styles remain so compelling. To the contrary, probably the most important aspect of their success then and their relevance now is the stark urgency that unifies the work as belonging to one collective voice. Sara’s lead vocalizing spends most of its time in a pure, blunt affectless style that sits in fine contrast with the slyly employed flourishes of her gorgeous, perfectly controlled blue yodel, and her autoharp playing adds crucial weight to Maybelle’s amazing guitar work, the single element in their overall sound that’s probably most impressive when considered in isolation. Maybelle was in firm command of a tough yet pretty slide style, not at all far away stylistically from the loping bluesy quality of Sylvester Weaver, and she alternated that side of her playing with firm yet flowing picking that not only had a profound effect on later events in country music but played a major part in shaping the ‘60s folk scene as well. The other main ingredient in The Carter Family’s recipe for immortality is their beautiful vocal harmonizing, with all three members’ interweaving voices providing a fine counterpoint to the unadorned hugeness of the instrumentation and the serious subject matter of the lyrics, which were often preoccupied with strife, sadness and loss. Unlike today, where the vast majority of popular music is a vehicle for escapism from the unpleasantries of the present tense, singers and musicians perched at the dawn of audio recording often grappled with the ugliness of life head on, and not just in the genre of blues. This LP’s “Motherless Children” depicts starving orphans in a raw, matter-of-fact way that feels alien and just a tad bit eerie in juxtaposition with the modern sensibility, where we tend to either brush off tragedy or wallow in it. In addition to this dissonant but alluring window into an earlier era, BRING BACK MY BLUE-EYED BOY TO ME also offers the source recording of “Wabash Cannonball”, a song so imbedded in the geographical and emotional background of my ancestry that I feel like I knew it before I was born. If yr only knowledge of The Carter Family is that they spawned the late Johnny Cash’s better half, than BRING BACK will serve as a handy, much needed ear opener. It’s certainly not every excellent thing the Carter’s ever cut, but its 15 tracks are surely a fine dose worth catching.

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