Friday, November 11, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 11/11/11 - El Rego and Spectrals

Some bemoan the internet and file-sharing in particular as harmful to not only the Recording Industry, but also to struggling musicians and the smaller brick and mortar music stores that stock their wares. I understand and don’t necessarily disagree with that line of thinking, but can’t help seeing it somewhat differently. Take for example the steady stream of choice (re)discoveries from Africa. Back in the day, non-empowered global consumers interested in exploring the sounds of that most excellent continent’s more commercially oriented movements so often had to be satisfied with whatever the big record companies deigned to release. Sure, smaller labels like the late John Storm Roberts’ absolutely crucial Original Music were dedicated to tirelessly documenting numerous pockets of the African scene, but if a shopper didn’t have foreknowledge of these happenings then she had to rely upon either stumbling luckily over them in the racks, a dubious likelihood at best, or getting hipped to them through the pages of a music press that even twenty-five years ago was far more interested in chasing after the Next Big Homegrown Disappointment than in spotlighting a master like Francis Bebey. Meanwhile, musicians were struggling as always seems to be their lot. In the new millennium however, a Fela fan with ‘net access can get online and in a matter of hours experience the “dry guitars” of ‘50s-‘60s Kenya, soak up the majestic Ghanaian highlife of Alhaji K. Frimpong, cherry pick a couple volumes from the still astounding ETHIOPIQUES series, discover the massively popular Malian Afro-Latin innovators The Rail Band, and then mellow out with the classic PIRATES CHOICE by Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab. And instead of the non-capitalistic sharing of this material killing off the market for actual commercially released product like so many doomsayers had predicted there seems to be more than ever an intriguing flow of geographical or stylistically themed compilations and lovingly annotated single-artist retrospectives in the racks for deep consideration. A few years back it was Ethio-jazz master Mulatu Astatke who blew up large in part due to his work’s inclusion on the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s excellent film BROKEN FLOWERS. Who knows who is next, but it just might be Theophile Do Rego, better known as simply El Rego aka Benin’s Godfather of Funk. Daptone Records has compiled a smoking batch of this key figure’s stuff, originally waxed on 45s, some of which were first collected (credit where it’s due) on CD by the amazing label Analog Africa, home of such delights as AFRICAN SCREAM CONTEST and AFRO-BEAT AIRWAYS. El Rego’s style will seem instantly familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of U.S. funk. Unsurprisingly, James Brown is the music’s biggest influence, but “Feeling You Got”, the opening cut on this self-titled 12-track LP also explores more basic and less dense dance-craze territory like Archie Bell & the Drells’ masterpiece of synchronized motion “Tighten Up”, a motif El Rego will continue to exploit on the songs “Djobime”, “Hessa” and “Cholera”. Perhaps “Feeling You Got”’s most interesting attribute, in addition to its infectious groove-mining and exhortations to “sock it to me!”, is the seemingly left-field use of accordion, frankly not an instrument often associated (outside of zydeco) with sweaty rhythmic throwdowns. The employment of squeeze box does point to Benin’s history of French colonization, however, and this is a huge part of the record’s surplus value, showing that the growth of 20th Century African popular music was as complex and convoluted, i.e. non-purist as anywhere else on the globe. But while much more than a local sensation, El Rego was predominantly geared toward the make-it-or-break-it logistics of the bandstand; this is live music, recorded cheaply but warmly with no overdubs as an uncut display of what a listener would experience if they dropped a few ragged coins and stepped out onto the dance floor. In this regard El Rego and the Commandos aren’t so much interested in showing off just how stylistically varied they could be; instead the songs are far more inclined to examine and adjust structures already proven to be successful. This shouldn’t imply that the music here is monochromatic. To the contrary, “E Nan Mian Nuku” is a slow-boil mid-tempo monster featuring call-and-response vocals and a massive sax solo, and “Vive Le Renouveau” is a bluesy lament that can’t help but betray El Rego’s ambivalence toward the Benin revolution, a movement that for practical purposes here can be summed up as “all work and no play”, not the happiest of environments for a man who made his living as a nightclub performer. Yes, there are enough grunts, shouts and hollers on EL REGO to please any James Brown hardliner, and in fact one of the coolest moments on the whole disc is the atypically down-tempo moodiness of “Ke Amon-Gbetchea”, which begins with a sly tip of the oh-so-suave hat to Brown’s magnificent early classic “I Don’t Mind”. But there’s also a very fine guitar solo on “Kpon Fi La”, fantastic keyboard and sax on “Achuta”, the frenetic playing of “Cholera” and the basically flawless party igniter of “Do Do Baya”. If EL REGO has a tangible shortcoming, it might just be that all of these songs were recorded for 45s, a fact that’s certainly no crime but does indeed leave a wee bit to be desired when the party’s cranked up and cooking, the Commandoes having elevated smack-dab into that gorgeous groove-zone that dependably raises the intensity on the way to crafting one of those eternally memorable nights, and then…fade out. Well, it’s not a big deal, since like all truly great music El Rego’s sound is multi-purpose. Yes Virginia, it’s enjoyable while driving, walking, sitting and even lying down. Score another major achievement for funky Africa and to those distinguished kings and queens at Daptone for increasing the profile of this most deserved artist.

Upon first cuing up BAD PENNY, the full length debut from Spectrals, I was immediately beset with thoughts of Scotland’s Orange Juice, a band that I like (quite a bit actually) but will confess to not listening to in a couple years at least. Orange Juice played a crisp, chiming, unthreatening brand of cleanly delivered guitar-pop that pleased a whole lot of listeners fatigued by the lingering unruliness of punk. Naturally, this inspired a whole lot of punks to disdain them immensely. But this is all water long under the bridge. For listeners unfamiliar with Orange Juice I can throw out some other names in regard to Spectrals: The Smiths, hints of New Zealand’s The Chills, and the still extant UK-based Merge recording artists The Clientele. What these names all share is an abiding love if not necessarily reverence for the 1960s, and all (but one) can claim Great Britain as home. This puts a fine point on how the UK excels at just this sort of guitar-based melancholia-tinged riding my bike on a rainy day song-construction, and Spectrals peddles it with the youthful confidence of being defiantly out-of-vogue. BAD PENNY posits an alternate universe that shapes up like a weird facsimile of 1985, possessing the kind of grey-skied chilly landscape that decreed a highly intelligent, overly sensitive young genius who just couldn’t help but express his alienation, self-deprecation and preternatural maturity through the medium of songwriting simply must indulge his talent by spending hours (days, months even) crafting his opuses in a cluttered but almost maddeningly picturesque bedroom, photos tacked in scattershot fashion to the walls and taped to the smudged bureau mirror (snapshots all in black and white, natch), a threadbare rug partially covering a dusty, creaky hardwood floor, and towering stacks of books of poetry and neglected literary masterpieces (need I say all old and worn?), so naturally when it came time to actually record these tunes of exasperating brilliance for some small but deservingly hip label our headstrong auteur insists upon playing nearly all of the music himself, reasoning that it springs from his mind and he above everyone knows just how it all should sound. Perhaps this is arrogance in action, but if so it’s also par for the course. Yes, here in the real world Spectrals is the project of one 21 year old, namely Louis Jones, with assistance on drums and with production. This makes him just a smidge younger than Edwyn Collins at the point of YOU CAN’T HIDE YOUR LOVE FOREVER. But Orange Juice, while in retrospect obviously Collins’ band, were still until the very end an actual band; Spectrals is the show of one young man, and this makes BAD PENNY’s level of quality and assurance doubly impressive, though it denotes two different shades of musical authorship., e.g. Edwyn Collins is an old(er) school Nicholas Ray-type auteur while Louis Jones is a newer model, more like Robert Altman or better yet Peter Bogdanovich. Now that I’ve effectively lost most of the people reading this, let me get down to some more tangibly musical observations re: BAD PENNY. Jones as maestro squarely hits upon that very UK mode of mingling string-driven whimsy and jangle with an experienced crooner’s sense of weathered pomp. One thing about this particular strain of Brit-post-punk is its inherent theatricality; while Jones leans more toward Collins in delivery than the well-practiced melodrama of Morrissey, he is still very much in a Tin Pan Alley mode. This said, BAD PENNY’s first and biggest immediate flaw is an occasional sameiness in the songwriting, a fact that may matter more for some folks than it does me. Maybe I’m just in a slack-giving mood, but no; I tend to like it when a debut record leaves promise for the future instead of being so worked-out, fussed over and well-honed that it quickly instills a growing dread for the disappointment of the sophomore effort. To be blunt, BAD PENNY isn’t as good as the first long-player by Girls, but what Louis Jones does provide is a sense of promise for the future. And while I didn’t find Girls’ latest to be disappointing, I couldn’t help but notice that on FATHER SON HOLY GHOST Christopher Owens was already taking unexpected detours into the realms of latter-day Pink Floyd. Something tells me Spectrals isn’t going to go that route. To be clear, BAD PENNY is actually way above average, within hailing distance of great in fact, and anybody with a fondness for some or all of the above reference points should give this one a shot. As the eleven songs unwind, Jones displays an uncommon level of appreciation for classic pop songcraft, something he shares with Magnetic Fields, though Stephen Merritt’s love of Cole Porter/show tunes is basically absent from Spectrals’ sound. Instead, Jones is more like the kid transfixed by the Dionne Warwick records spinning on Mum’s hi-fi. Hmmm. Come to think of it, if there is indeed an American connection to Spectrals, it’s probably Burt Bacharach. Geez. Just when it seems like that dude might finally be old hat, along comes someone else to validate his relevance. Little animated birds have informed me that Spectrals’ early stuff is a little more reverbed-out and Spector-reverent than BAD PENNY’s relatively understated yet ultimately quite pleasurable pop, which leads me to surmise that Jones’ potential could take one of two possible avenues; in one he follows a smoothed-out later-Scritti Politti or Style Council-like path of diminishing returns, but in the other, he grows as a songwriter and performer in a manner not unlike David McComb of The Triffids, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk or even Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. Anglophiles are pissed!!! Let’s wait and see what happens.