Friday, August 19, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 8/19/11 - Yo La Tengo and Uncle Dave Macon with the Fruit Jar Drinkers

Because it was released in the second month of the opening year of this century’s inaugural decade, it’s often easy to forget Yo La Tengo’s masterpiece AND THEN NOTHING TURNED ITSELF INSIDE-OUT when assessing the greatest full-length releases of the new millennium’s first ten years. But it should indeed be placed right up there at the apex of the ‘00’s best albums. I bought it a matter of days after its release and by the following December was hailing it not only as the best (non-jazz) record of the year, but as the finest release in Yo La’s by that point already impressive career. By my lights, every LP the band had issued previous to AND THEN NOTHING, eight in total, was in some sense a classic, starting with ‘87’s rock solid and confident debut RIDE THE TIGER and running through ‘97’s absolutely amazing I CAN HEAR THE HEART BEATING AS ONE. That’s one hell of a ten year span, and I designate three of those eight albums with “M-word” status; ‘90’s laid-back and covers heavy FAKEBOOK, ‘93’s giant stride forward PAINFUL, and yes, ‘97’s I CAN HEAR. If they’d stopped right there I’d easily rank them as one of the few rock bands legitimately possessed with long-term greatness, for an eight album run as strong as theirs is simply very rare; in comparison most groups can’t manage four non-crap discs before imploding in anticlimactic dysfunction, and acts that do make it beyond that point are usually going through the most putrid kind of motions. Eight straight great ones is just early Stones-ian or, dare I say it (gulp), Beatles-like stuff. It’s for this reason that I call Yo La Tengo the ‘90’s best rock band. Yes, better than Pavement. If this statement makes you spit fumes of fury, then please just listen to TERROR TWILIGHT next to I CAN HEAR before you deign to educate me on the error of my ways. Yo La Tengo are less controversially the greatest band ever formed by a rock writer (yes, better than Birdland or Vom, or for that matter The Nurses or Meatmen); the scribe in question is masterful guitarist Ira Kaplan, and I really think the man’s (and the band’s) rather low-key “critic’s approach” to sound construction is what’s helped him (them) last through parts of four decades. Even when Kaplan’s in full-on blazing “string-god” mode he’s not much more than a fantastically inspired conduit of extremely well calibrated Velvet Underground sensibilities/worship. Sure, that means his “not much more” can actually prove to be a whole helluva lot, but my point is that the default approach of the band seeks to touch upon greatness in many of its wondrously “minor” forms: the obscure R&B single, the neglected frat-rock band, uncelebrated nuggets from a bootleg Freak-Beat compilation, unknown tracks (B-sides, demos) by well known quantities, the occasional well worn but undervalued chestnut (ala I CAN HEAR’s “Little Honda”), the beatific legacies of Eddie Bo, NRBQ and Jad Fair. Alternately, this approach can be called “record collector rock”, and the only other band that really gives them a run for the money in this sweepstakes is Sonic Youth. But where SY are assertively experimental and hip in direction (this is why some folks hate them), Yo La are more casual in their sustained artiness, sorta like the aural distillation of the greatest record shop clerk you ever befriended. Nothing better illustrates Yo La Tengo’s modus operandi than AND THEN NOTHING’s gorgeous cover of George McCrae’s outstanding but slept-on 70’s soul groover “You Can Have It All”. Where the original focuses, as great soul music should, on McCrae’s communicative vocal ability, the cover instead adapts the song to a structure more suited to the band’s instrumental strengths, adds some deceptively no-big deal backing vocals and then shoots for a beautifully achy downtrodden groove. It’s so sublimely Jersey-ite I could eat a deep fried hot dog in its honor. Two even. And when I’m in the right mood/state of mind “You Can Have It All” can become rhythmically euphoric. Georgia Hubley’s drumming is maybe the band’s secret weapon; she is certainly the foremost exponent of the Moe Tucker School of expressive time-keeping. And her vocals are a no-nonsense joy; if Barbara Manning didn’t exist Hubley’d easily be my favorite gal singer to emerge from the ‘80’s American rock u-ground. The general synopsis of AND THEN NOTHING is that it came as a contemplative/meditative shift away from their at times tastefully noisy post-VU indie-rock foundation building. That’s not a bit inaccurate; it’s just not the whole picture. A small stadium could likely be filled with folks whose favorite cut from AND THEN NOTHING is the feedback drenched, bruised libido tour-de-force “Cherry Chapstick”. For a long while it was mine, but that was a long time ago. Frankly this is a record full of eternal growers. Recently I’ve developed a severe attraction all over again to the Georgia-sung “Tears Are in Your Eyes”, as melancholy yet sturdy a tune that has ever deepened the darkness of an early AM. I also love the soul-bearing vulnerability of “Our Way to Fall”, with the hovering ache of its electric keyboards blending with the rich fragility of Ira’s irresistible near whisper. Much of AND THEN NOTHING shoots for and sustains this emotionally tender aura (“Last Days of Disco”, “The Crying of Lot G”). However, the smoldering keyboard atmospheres take a turn for the catchy on “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”, and the later portion of the record finds them investigating an intriguingly cinematic instrumental angle with “Tired Hippo”. Album closer “Night Falls on Hoboken” seamlessly begins as an Ira-sung tune that’s somewhat comparable to a Brit-folk informed version of THIRD/SISTER LOVERS-era Big Star before heading into an appealingly extended and actually very psychedelic ending. Undoubtedly this pissed off scads of Flamin’ Groovies hardliners, but I’m sure they all eventually got over it. Ultimately, the psyche twist should’ve registered as no big surprise; the record’s title after all is lovingly swiped from the sage words of the late great Herman Poole Blount aka Le Sony’r Ra, likely the greatest psychedelic general practitioner jazz will ever to produce. It cheers me greatly to contemplate that Yo La Tengo’s intuitive mastery of offhand brilliance has been with me for my entire adult life; they released their first 7” in ’85 when I was a freshman in high school, and I wisely bought NEW WAVE HOT DOGS on cassette a few months before graduation. As swell and at times masterful as they were early, they really didn’t get cooking until James McNew joined on bass in ’92 and nailed down the trio lineup. AND THEN NOTHING TURNED ITSELF INSIDE-OUT is in my estimation their greatest work, a perfect record that kicked off the 21st century with a transcendent bang.

There’s really nothing quite like Uncle Dave Macon. He’s rightfully considered one of the mainline links to North America’s Folk Music of the 19th Century, and as such it doesn’t get much more “old-time” than the raw thrust of the man’s amazing work. But Macon was also an undeniably brassy entertainer with vaudeville in his blood and the future of country music in his vast cache of songs. Unlike many of the artists in the American Old-Time tradition, Macon’s discovery was no accident. His was music made with zeal if not polish, meticulousness if not refinement, and it stands as a prime example of what can be described as “community commercialism”, the sort of locally honed sound captured by money-hungry record labels long before they learned the odious concept of “Artists & Repertoire”. This sort of uncut crowd-pleasing gusto is what made him the first star of the Grand Old Opry. It can boggle the ol’ gourd to consider Macon’s life. He was born in 1870, just five years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and he died in 1952. This means he lived through Reconstruction, both World Wars and the Great Depression along with seeing the invention of the auto, airplane and Atomic Bomb. In this light (and keeping in mind his unwavering intent as an entertainer) Macon’s work can seem a mite anachronistic, sorta old-time at the very moment of its recording. In a sense it was. Droves of people (poor people!) in the early years of the last century embraced newfangled technology (the Victrola, the radio) to hear songs that reminded them of the old times, the Better Times aka the mythical Good Old Days. So much of the recorded gestalt from the young 20th Century’s American poor consisted of songs that were older than the artists actually getting them down into the grooves of brittle shellac discs, the Carter Family being a very notable example. But the Carter’s were also quite modern (if in no way self-consciously so), and for that matter so was Uncle Dave Macon, though his homespun newness is much harder to detect. There are many places to turn for a strong snort from this glorious apostle of the wild and weird, but pound for pound none are better than County Records’ GO LONG MULE. Originally released in 1972, its fourteen tracks do a basically faultless job of mingling Macon’s more melodic side with his penchant for unruly mania. A powerful, expressive singer and a somewhat underrated banjoist (at least in comparison to his flashier bluegrass descendants), Macon also possessed a fine ear for song quality. Perhaps most importantly, he then worked those tunes to a deep intensity with the longstanding band The Fruit Jar Drinkers. Made up of Macon, the multi-instrumentalist McGee brothers Sam and Kirk and fiddler Mazy Todd (outstanding players all), the Drinkers were effectively an initial concession to the recording company’s desire for sounds in a string-band style ala Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers or Charlie Poole and the Tar Heel Ramblers.  If this seeming acquiescence to “market demands” forebodes trouble in yr book, don’t let it. Macon was cagey enough to know he needed a great band to make great band music, a fact that would appear to be simple but in fact has been lost on legions of players through recorded history. But where the strength of string bands (and jug bands, as well as rock bands) often comes from players that thrive specifically in the throes of collective abandon, Macon’s ace in the hole is how he often sounded best when he was stark raving lonesome. The combination of these two elements, band heat and an authoritative solo voice, makes his music stand up strong over time (and over the span of two sides of vinyl), even if it can be sometimes difficult for contemporary ears to place him in historical context. This doesn’t mean he isn’t sneakily in the weave of what’s currently happening, however. Anybody influenced by or enamored of The Holy Modal Rounders is a disciple of Uncle Dave by association. And anybody who knows THE ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC backwards and forwards is already familiar with Macon’s at times scorching brilliance. One of those crucial ANTHOLOGY tunes is also included here, the maddeningly raucous “Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line”, and the more I hear it the more it blows me away. And I've heard it a ton. The song hovers between a delirious lack of restraint, both vocally and in the way the band attacks their instruments, and a melodious sing-song energy that can have a listener shouting along off-key the very first time they hear it. Is there any surprise it’s a Labor Song? And frankly this fact really adds to the sometimes problematic nature of Macon’s legend. To be blunt, he was the son of a Confederate General, and again as a vaudeville performer he excelled at certain aspects of that thorny tradition which many “enlightened” modern folks would rather not hear discussed. He could surely be considered a man of his time and milieu. But for all this Macon’s music is overwhelmingly benevolent, geared toward inspiring enjoyment and togetherness (like nearly all the old-time musicians, he was foremost a performer and not a recording artist), and indeed he could sometimes be quite progressive. “Buddy…” falls on the side of free labor in the Coal Creek War dispute of the 1890s, and not to be callous, but many of those among us right now could stand to be as forward thinking as Macon on the subject of the rights of the working poor. Any way it’s sliced, the music on GO LONG MULE is of great necessity. Whether it’s the true strangeness of Macon’s vocalizing (and the strength of his banjo) on “Johnny Grey”, with a bounty of wild fiddling coming in as the song nears its conclusion, or the pretty and somewhat bluesy lament of “Last Night When Willie Came Home”, or of course the numerous blasts of bonkers rural oomph, this LP is not only a vital document of American musical heritage, but it smokes like a January chimney. Uncle Dave Macon was an absolute giant in the field of Old-Time music, and anybody truly interested in examining the history of this country’s (and country music’s) artistic sprawl simply must connect with his work. Believe me, it’s a task to relish.

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