Friday, February 4, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 2/4/11 - Government Issue and Miles Davis

I’ve been on a strong hardcore kick lately. And kick is a very apropos descriptor, for at its best the aggressive charge of undiluted HC is like getting a mainline boost of pure adrenalin.  In the right dosage, the unwavering dedication to a tightly wound formal strategy is an aural blast unlike any other, but it proved a rigid plank that all HC band’s had to walk; either expand the sonic template with fresh elements, break-up the band and perhaps start from scratch or just keep on keepin’ on and run the astronomically high risk of falling into the salty sea of mediocrity (or worse). More so than in any other style of punk, the lifespan of a hardcore band is finite and fragile, with the number of HC groups that have released more than one or two great records being extremely small. In the geographical topography of early HC, the Nation’s Capital served as probably the most fertile and historically resonant environment, producing a considerable number of excellent bands in a quite brief time period, with a select few realizing some of the genre’s defining moments. Part of the reason for DC’s success likely lies in the generally non-adversarial relationship between the young upstarts and the area’s older punk-inclined inhabitants. Guys like Skip Groff (record store owner, disc jockey, “Skip we love you!!!”), Don Zientara (musician, engineer/producer), and Howard Wuelfing Jr. (musician, rock scribe) played an important role in mentoring a tumultuous gaggle of teenagers filled to bursting with righteous fury, and it was perhaps this give and take that helped to infuse harDCore with its strong ties to melody and rhythmic elasticity, elements that successfully overcame the unforgiving nature of that notorious polka-style beat. When these early DC bands were/are at their best, the ear can actually detect shards of precedent spanning back to ‘60s garage, Iggy’s Stooges and Handsome Dick’s Dictators. Government Issue were one of the finest of the first wave of Dischord bands, releasing the classic LEGLESS BULL 7” in 1981 and contributing two tracks to the following year’s absolutely essential and still incendiary compilation FLEX YOUR HEAD. The lynchpin member of the band is vocalist John Stabb, whose inclination toward a quirky, often humorous style was a much welcome contrast to the one-note rage and tough-guy bluster that grew to plague the HC juggernaut. For a whole bunch of reasons, Government Issue never really gathered the following they deserved, though discerning punk fans have known the score and talked them up for years. That’s how I was hipped to 1983’s BOYCOTT STABB LP, originally a split release between Dischord and the rather eccentric DC label Fountain of Youth. Though appropriately brief, it stands as one of the best full-length records in the annals of early hardcore, and it’s succinct heaviness now exists in a vinyl edition that’s expanded definitiveness will only add weight and luster to the group’s posthumous reputation. DC bands associated with the Dischord tradition are notorious for breaking up early or refusing to continue with replacement members, but Government Issue actually fell to the opposite extreme, including up to fourteen alumni at the point of their breakup in 1989. The lineup on COMPLETE SESSION is a fine one, if not the best then very close, and the style is still unmistakably hardcore in intent. The musicianship hits that perfect balance between sloppy and tight with just the right amount of non-flash dexterity, and Stabb shows his mettle as a true singer. At just over thirty-one minutes, the twenty-one tracks here form an impressive, compact whole. “Religious Ripoff”, originally released on FLIPSIDE VINYL FANZINE VOL. 1, might be my favorite cut, in part because it stands apart from the lyrics’ general inclination toward more personal topics. When Stabb shout-moans the name of phony faith-healer Ernest Angley it’s surely due to seeing his bad toupee and noxious shtick on WDCA Channel 20, and brothers and sisters, I can relate. “Fashionite” carries on hardcore’s proud tradition of localism, bashing trendy Georgetowners, and “Sheer Terror”  (something of a signature tune) wields just the right type of Misfits influence. The inclusion of extended snippets of studio banter provides a scholarly, folkloric aura that’s sure to increase as more people come to understand the enduring power and gnarled-up beauty intrinsic to the many stylistic incarnations of punk rock. Archival issues don’t get much better than BOYCOTT STABB THE COMPLETE SESSION, and it’s nice to see this classic record finally get a full slot in the Dischord roster.

1957’s COOKIN’ WITH THE MILES DAVIS QUINTET was the first of a four album series culled from two extended 1956 studio dates, one in May the other in October, and it initiates one of the high points in the lengthy career of the only serious contender for the title of World’s Greatest Jazz Trumpeter (the Champion [of course] being Louis Armstrong). Davis is however the finest trumpet player to spring from the deep well of Modern Jazz, with his main challengers being Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and Don Cherry. Davis beats them all though (not that it’s a contest), and one big reason is sheer longevity: he captained masterpieces in four decades, and only his ‘80s comeback proved to be anti-climactic. One of Davis’s most important qualities was a nearly unerring ear for just what talent best suited the needs of his ever evolving sound, and this attribute naturally fed into his still rather incredible ability to interact with and guide that talent once assembled. Along with the subsequently issued RELAXIN’, WORKIN’ and STEAMIN’, COOKIN’ completes a mammoth textbook on advanced post-bop studies. These records essentially capture the Quintet’s live book in the deep atmosphere of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio environment, and it’s still hard to believe that the pair of sessions that spawned this series was basically a contractual obligation (Davis was leaving Prestige for Columbia due to his success at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival). It’s also difficult to fathom how so much talent could exist in such close quarters without triggering a major seismic occurrence. For starters, the hard fluidity of John Coltrane’s tenor contrasts impeccably with the lush ache of Davis’s signature tone, and Red Garland’s faultless piano anchors, accents and solos with a brilliant nonchalance. One of the greatest of post-bop pianists and somewhat underrated in my estimation, Garland was never a busy player, knowing just when to lay back and when to push. While an unabashed swinger, he also coupled an innate detachment with his intensity. Bassist Paul Chambers (Mr. PC) and drummer Philly Joe Jones are justifiably legendary, and along with Garland they earned the moniker The Rhythm Section. Chambers was a master at holding down a bold rhythmic line while weaving in appropriately understated bits of personal expression, and Jones stands as one of the few drummers that could routinely make cymbal play and even brush work feel exciting. Even in the most rudimentary of support situations, this pair never falls back on just what’s expected, with the element of surprise being key, and the way they snake around Garland’s gorgeous solo on COOKIN’s opener “My Funny Valentine” still sends chills up my spine fifty-five years after its recording. Upon consideration, Davis’s solos might be my favorite isolated element on this whole record, thick and forceful constructions that broaden his style from the airy yet sharp coolness for which he is most associated. The four tracks on COOKIN’ include a standard (“…Valentine”), original work (Davis and Garland’s “Blues By Five”), a piece by Sonny Rollins (“Airegin”) and a closing medley (combining Davis’s lively “Tune Up” with an exceptionally pretty take on Benny Carter and Spencer Williams’ “When Lights Are Low”). In case you’re wondering, Coltrane is in a very fine groove, and the closely miked warmth ensures that the saxophonist’s huge presence doesn’t overwhelm any of the record’s multiple subtleties. Unlike some of the more labor intensive multi-disc box set reissues of Davis’s later material, the four records named above provide a very approachable dosage of a vital bit of ’50 jazz history, and if you are a neophyte to the rewards of these grand recordings or to Davis as a whole then COOKIN’ is the perfect place to start.

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