Friday, March 25, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week - Chain And The Gang and Charlie Poole And The North Carolina Ramblers

For better than two decades now, Washington DC’s Ian Svenonius has been one of music’s most consistently rewarding conceptual thinkers. That he’s in a very small number only adds to his achievement. Starting out as the vocalist/trumpeter/mouthpiece for the justifiably celebrated Nation Of Ulysses, he’s since kicked out a killer stream of thematically unified work in bands Cupid Car Club, The Make*Up, Scene Creamers/Weird War, pseudonymously as flower-power mod David Candy, Felt Letters and most recently with Chain And The Gang. He’s dabbled in film, published a collection of essays and even tried his hand at astrology. In summation, quite a busy and worthwhile cat. Now some folks tag Svenonius as sort of a dandy gadfly humorist, pissing off some people while making others merry with mirth, and while that’s surely one of his modes, I think he cuts much deeper than that, getting into valuable philosophical questions on art and culture. Music and philosophy are often uneasy bedfellows, except when they’re not, and when they’re not they can get it on hot, heavy and sloppy, fogging up the windows and dampening the upholstery with heated, impulsive relish. MUSIC’S NOT FOR EVERYONE, Chain And The Gang’s brand new slab via K Records is just dripping with intellectual heft securely tied to that most crucial element: vigorous musicality. One of Svenonius’s strongest traits is how, like any truly well adjusted modern mind, he’s deeply concerned with the past, but not in a retro or nostalgic manner. His case is keen on celebrating and extending the sounds and concepts of previous eras, partly because they’re eternally vital. But they also serve more importantly as a way to spotlight and comment upon contemporary missteps and blunders. Always a willfully divisive guy, his projects have been love or hate propositions, but much of that friction is due to just how smartly they’ve been realized: Nation Of Ulysses combined ‘50s juvenile delinquent/street gang imagery with pseudo revolutionary rhetoric and post-bop jazz fashion tics and then tied all of it to raging post-harDCore, The Make*Up and David Candy plumbed into ‘60s youth dynamics, THE T.A.M.I. SHOW & mod in particular, Weird War plugged into the ‘70s and conjured up a sort of sharp-edged radically charged electro-funk and now Chain And The Gang feels tapped into the post-punk impulse from right at the cusp of the ‘80s. But don’t go thinking it sounds like PIL or Killing Joke. It’s far too raggedly D.I.Y. and (again) past-focused for that. Opener “Why Not?” is skeletal stomping blooze that sounds like it was recorded in an outhouse by a bunch of Fall-loving teen scoundrels. “Not Good Enough” is stripped down keyboard-driven pop with fine male/female call and response vocals that promote a sarcastically snide series of lyrical jabs at cultivated low self-esteem. It’s sure to piss off vast numbers of well-practiced underachievers. Certainly not anyone you or I know. “For Practical Purposes (I Love You)” continues the dude/gal vocal vibe, but this time in service of some richly conceived lovey-dovey sass talk, a bit like if Marvin & Tammi attempted to deliver an R&B original mildly inspired by Lee & Nancy’s “Jackson”. That it also features some fantastically clucking sub-Steve Cropper guitar flourishes is sweet indeed. “Livin’ Rough” continues the neo-R&B vibe, plopping a gutload of Spencer Davis-style mod-soul organ grinding into a skinny-assed James Brown-inspired rocker. The two parts of “Detroit Music” present another side of Svenonius’s artistry, that of auteurist/Godardian homage. Instead of just covering The Miracles or Stooges or MC5, why not write a celebratory original in tribute to that fine city, a locale that deserves so much more than to be the foul punch line of some odious asshole’s “joke” about urban blight? Yeah, that’s the ticket: breathe in those Motor City fumes. The title track calls on the carpet the by now longstanding tendency of music as a lifestyle accoutrement in consumerist society, and if that sounds heavy, well it is and it ain’t, for it’s delivered with the sneaky subversive feel of kids playing a gig in an under-populated rec-center on a Saturday afternoon and aiming for solemn slow-burn Doors-like atmospherics/poetics. Except one of the kids sounds like K Records’ honcho Calvin Johnson. That’s what’s called a curveball. “Can’t Get Away” tackles ‘60s Brit-pop lightness with great success, and “(I’ve Got) Privilege” heads into more swell faux-soul territory. Also in store are a spindly and emaciated dub version of “Not Good Enough” and a brief closing revamp of the opener, “Why Not? Part III”. But the whole of MUSIC’S NOT FOR EVERYONE is loaded with the expected non-bourgeois complexity and witty erudition of its creator, and all smartly scaled for easy consumption. It’s just another notch in the formidable oeuvre of Ian Svenonius, a body of work that continues to shed needed illumination on where we’ve been, where we are, and most importantly, where we’re going.

The enduring merit and sheer beauty of Old-Time music is deep and wide. If a person put mind and ears to the task, they could spend the rest of their existence listening only to early 20th Century recordings by bands and artists from the Appalachian region and it would be far from a musical life misspent. Doing so would assure familiarity with Charlie Poole, who resided just a few hours south of the desk of this writer a hundred years previous. Along with his North Carolina Ramblers, singer and banjoist Poole was a quite prolific and highly successful exponent of early string band style, and he not only continues to provide an immensely enjoyable sonic link to the subsequent musical development known as bluegrass, but the guy also has large hooks in the flesh of roots-informed psyche-merchants The Grateful Dead and spiked outsider folkers the Holy Modal Rounders. But Poole’s music ultimately needs no such connections to secure contemporary relevance, for it stands solidly on its own. Along with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers from the Peach State, Poole’s Tar-Heel Ramblers were neck and neck for the title of the most popular string band in the land in the ‘20s, though the two groups’ approaches contrasted well. The Lickers’ often rowdy nature is a grand soundtrack for a full-tilt madhouse party while the Ramblers’ more finesse and precision oriented style yielded melodic results that are well suited for less boisterous pursuits like relaxing with friends, dancing with a loved one or even solitary listening. As already mentioned, Poole’s level of production was impressive. He cut 110 sides between 1925 and ’31 and has a couple of well assembled box sets that strongly testify to the wealth of his talent. But for a smartly compiled collection to slap onto the turntable between dinner and dessert, a listener will likely do no better than HUSBAND AND WIFE WERE ANGRY ONE NIGHT, which holds 16 tracks of key goodness from Poole and the Ramblers waxed up courtesy of the Monk label. And since it includes some of the band’s best known work it also serves as a fine primer for the curious. “White House Blues”, long since immortalized through the Smithsonian’s absolutely essential Harry Smith curated ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC is here, as is the exuberant “Ramblin’ Blues” and the oft covered standard “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”. Poole’s vocals are often described as plain, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a second as unexceptional. To the contrary, his singing is strong and direct and unencumbered by ornate floridity, mixing well with his tough yet supple banjo playing. Posey Rorer’s fiddle sings swings and saws with glorious accompaniment and Norm Woodlieff’s guitar lends superb bottom end. The three weave together with sheer expert enthusiasm that’s further elevated by Poole’s diverse treatment of assorted song forms. A bit similar in tactics to AP Carter, Poole was a appropriator and reinterpreter of preexisting songs of varying strains (ragtime, pop, blues etc), gleaning and refining the best bits into something undeniably his own. This means that the Ramblers’ compiled cuts positively jump from both sides of HUSBAND AND WIFE WERE ANGRY ONE NIGHT, insuring active enjoyment that never descends into rote scholarly listening. And as others have pointed out, Poole’s urge to borrow and reshape is very much connected to the modern pop sensibility. A whole lot has changed in the near century since the weight of these songs were engraved in shellac for the Columbia label, and for ears attuned to the plush comfort of modern recording the music of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers can sound brittle, harsh and distant, sometimes all at once. But rest assured that with time and minor adjustments the fathoms of intrinsic humanity will open up and bloom, revealing with ease its timeless splendor.