Monday, April 29, 2013

J=J's "2013 EP"

These days, some of the best jazz and experimental music originates in Poland, a fact I discovered by hearing Dallas-based trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez's work with Polish musicians and reviewing albums for the Polish-Jazz website.

During Dennis' most recent visit there, he performed with the strikingly coiffed Joanna Duda, a pianist who's appeared solo and as a member saxophonist Wojtek Mazolewski's quintet, the groups 3D (with her brothers Tomasz and Radek) and AuAuA, and in a piano duo with Katarzyna Borek. 2013 EP is the debut of both J=J, her collaborative project with drummer Jan Emil Mlynarski (Nervy, 15 Minute Project, Oszibarack), and OESSU FANTASTIC, their independent label.

Clocking in at just over half an hour, 2013 EP is as long as a lot of band's "full-lengths," and although improvised, the music sounds through-composed. There are a lot of influences audible here: minimalist classical music, Kosmische space-rock, Brian Eno ambience, the more ethereal realms of dance music. Duda and Mlynarski use their synthesizers to craft atmospheric soundscapes and weave webs of texture, out of which snippets of medley occasionally swim.

When all the elements coalesce, as they do on "Odysseia II," the results can be hypnotic and riveting. On "Unfall," Ive Ostrowska's treated vocals lend the piece an air of anguish and desolation. It's followed by "Sunny Side," which hits like a forgotten slice of icy '80s synth pop. "Process I" is a feature for Mlynarski's traps, while "Process II" closes the proceedings with a delicately realized orchestral miniature.

The fact that this music is improvised is a testament to the artists' empathy and clarity of thought. There's no self-indulgent clutter here; the pieces unfold in an organic way, transitioning seamlessly from one musical idea to the next. Worthwhile listening.

Iggy and the Stooges' "Ready To Die": Twilight of the gods?

This one's just for the fans.

By which I mean, if you're new to the Stooges, don't buy this record. Instead, buy Funhouse, then The Stooges, then Raw Power.

If you've already got those, plus Metallic K.O., Kill City, all those quasi-legit James Williamson-era recordings on Revenge/Bomp/Easy Action, maybe even Rhino's Funhouse box set and Live At Ungano's, Easy Action's A Thousand Lights and You Want My Action, and especially the post-reunion audio and video artifacts, pull up a chair. Because if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Stooge obsessive, you're probably still dubious after the disappointment that was The Weirdness, and wondering whether this'll be worth it.

I feel you. I was there, too. I tried hard as hell to like The Weirdness, wrote a highest-rating review of it for the I-94 Bar, even learned a song from it that the Stooges cover band I used to play in performed a couple of times before we realized there was a shit-ton of material we liked playing better than "My Idea of Fun." But I've never been motivated to listen to it since then, not even once. That album is not a fitting epitaph for Ron Asheton. But now there is one; I'll get to that in a minute.

But first, realize that this is a whole different band than the one that made The Weirdness. Ron was the greatest at playing a certain type of bare-bones fundamental psychedelic blues-based rock guitar, which he perfected in the spring of 1970, and the songs that he and Iggy cooked up for the first two albums encapsulate the anomie of young 'Meercuns better than anything since Eddie Cochran. That said, Ron's track record post-Stooges was somewhat less than stellar (slight exception: New Race, but that was just for two weeks in Orstralia).

The partnership between James Williamson and Iggy was more long-lived and fecund, including Kill City and New Values, my pick for the last good Iggy album prior to the Oh-ohs' Stooge renaissance. James is a more developed songwriter than Ron, although you couldn't always tell on Raw Power. The fact that the lion's share of the material he and Iggy wrote for the Stooges wasn't released until after the band's '74 implosion has forced fans to listen to Williamson-era Stooges the way Paul Williams listens to Bob Dylan. That is, since no "official" release exists, one is forced to become attuned to nuances of performance between the myriad bootleg versions.

Indeed, some of us were hoping that with Williamson back in the fold, Ig 'n' James would pull a maneuver similar to what Rocket From the Tombs did with Rocket Redux before David Thomas broke terminally bad with Cheetah Chrome -- e.g., laying down the old repertoire with contemporary studio sonics. But boy, did we have something else coming.

Because in the same way that the Stooges never played "old shit" back in the day -- by the time you caught 'em live, they were playing a whole new set from the one you expected based on the current record -- so they went into this project determined to prove that they weren't just reliving former glories and counting the money. Rather, Iggy insisted, they're a real band with something to say in 2013.

On the basis of the first couple of spins, I'd say he wasn't bullshitting. Most crucially, the retired Sony VP behind the cherry sunburst Les Paul doesn't sound like he's lost a step since he walked out of the Soldier sessions wa-a-y back in 1980. James has grown as a musician in ways that Ron, bless him, never did, developing an interest in Hawaiian slack-key guitar, among other things. His guitar style remains equal parts propulsive chording a la Keef Richards and jagged-edged soloing, steeped in the mid-'60s masterwork of Jeff Beck and Mike Bloomfield.

More to the point, Williamson's more into the craft of songwriting; besides writing rockers with more chords than anybody's this side of Blue Oyster Cult, his slow songs like "Johanna," the "St. James Infirmary" rewrite "I Need Somebody," and maybe best of all, "Open Up and Bleed," were the most complete expression of the '72-'74 Stooges' psychodrama. While there's nothing here that sounds as terminally desperate as those excursions into the soul's dark night, there are a couple of opportunities for Iggy to explore some atypical emotions -- copping to some vulnerability in the acoustic slide-driven "Unfriendly World," expressing a sense of exhaustion on the Exile On Main St.-ish "Beat That Guy" (which features lovely, ethereal backing vocals from Petra Haden and a tortuously lyrical solo from Williamson).

The album's spiritual center, though, is closing track "The Departed," an elegy for Ron that was first performed at a 2011 memorial show in Ann Arbor (the DVD release of which is delayed but imminent). In it, the signature riff from "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is recast as a dirge for its author, played by Williamson on slack-key guitar, giving way to heartfelt lyrics, tinged with regret, which Iggy intones in his blasted sexagenarian's voice -- recorded with the same extreme-close-up quality as it was on "1969" -- over martial drums: "There's no one here but us / By the end of the game / We all get thrown under the bus." Listening to this song, I remember hearing Iggy interviewed on a local Detroit station immediately after Ron's death. He sounded dazed, and mainly talked about their early acquaintance back in the '60s. It occurred to me that that interview was probably the first time I'd ever heard Jim Osterberg speaking, rather than Iggy. That voice is in this song, too.

The rockers are a mixed bag. "Burn" fulminates with Williamson cranking out the chords and wrestling off-kilter solos from his axe. "The man of the future's a bully and loser," sings Iggy in a voice more seasoned and nuanced than his '70s snarl, but not as operatic as his post-Bowie incarnation. "Sex and Money" and "Job" echo the Ron-era Stooges in the same way as some of the songs on the first side of New Values did, but they provide a much rougher ride, with handclaps, Haden's sultry backing vocals, and Steve Mackay's sax adding a Roxy Music/Mott the Hoople pop veneer to the former. On the latter, Iggy sings, "I've got a job and I'm sick of it" -- a clue that he's contemplating retirement, perhaps?

The Stones influence on "Gun" is reminiscent of Raw Power's uptempo numbers, while on "Ready To Die," with its strutting riff, Williamson layers on the crunchy guitars the way Keef used to back when his well of inspiration still seemed bottomless. "DD's" -- yes, folks, it's a song about tits -- has a Memphis soul groove, while "Dirty Deal" sounds cut from the same cloth as "Death Trip."

By now, Mike Watt's worked the four-string axe longer than any other Stooges bassist, and while Scott Asheton is more workmanlike here than he was in his adventurous younger days, when the tension between his reach and his grasp provided palpable excitement, he's still an original and it's a drag that he's been replaced for touring; his traps still cut it on record.

Bottom line? Comparisons being odious, I think Ready To Die is actually a more consistent record than Raw Power was. It's not as ground-breaking -- how could it be? -- but I'm betting it'll hold up to repeated listenings, the way The Weirdness didn't. Come back and ask me again in six months. could try it yourself.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Johnny Case May gig schedule

Wed. May 1: Solo keyboard @ Sapristi Bistro on Forest Park Blvd., 7:00 – 8:30   no cover

Sat. May 4:  Johnny Case Trio @ Lili’s Bistro on Magnolia Avenue. Keith Wingate, guitar; Jeremy Hull, bass.  6:30 – 10:30. Reservations required (ask for piano room) (817) 877-0700

Sun. May 5: CASE BROS. 50 YEARS BASH @ ARTS FIFTH AVENUE! Johnny and Jerry Case make a rare appearance together to celebrate their 50 years in the crazy music business. This event is also in recognition of Jerry’s recent marriage to singer Judy Kaye and to Jerry’s May 4th induction into the Cowtown Society of Western Music Hall of Fame @ Swingfest 2013 in Mineral Wells, Texas. Bass player Drew Phelps, drummer Warren Dewey, violinist Steve Story and other performers will join the Case brothers. Admission $15.  Reservations suggested. 1628 Fifth Avenue, Fort Worth 76110. 817 923-9500. 8:00 – 10:30 PM

Tues. May 7: Johnny Case Trio @ Scat Jazz Lounge with Joey Carter  on drums and bassist TBD.   8:30 – 12:00. No cover.

Wed. May 8:  Johnny Case @ Sapristi Bistro.  7:00m – 8:30 PM

Fri. May 10: Johnny Case with Louise Rowe’s western swing band @ Texan Kitchen, 415 North Main Street, Euless, Texas. 7:00 – 9:00 PM

Sat. May, 11: Johnny Case Trio featuring Keith Wingate @ Lili’s Bistro. 6:30 – 9:00 PM

Fri. May 24:  Texan Kitchen with Louise Rowe Band.  7:00 – 9:00 PM

Sat. May 25:  Johnny Case Trio featuring Keith Wingate 6:30 – 10:30 PM

Wed. May 29:  Johnny Case @ Sapristi Bistro   7:00 – 8:30 PM

Fri. May 31:  Johnny Case w. Louise Rowe (western swing) @ Texan Kitchen in Euless.  7:00 – 9:00 PM

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna hear the new Stooges album?

Ready to Die is here in its entirety, but catch it quick -- it won't be up for more than a day or so. Thanks, NPR!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pssst! Hey kid! Wanna hear a Who podcast?

Then feast your ears on Come To the Sunshine #68 - The Who, focusing on the years 1964-1969, when they never stumbled.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Dawn Oberg's "Rye"

My friend, Dallas artist Frank Campagna, recently remarked on the way Carole King's songs gave lots of us Y-chromosome owner-operators our first insight into the way women think-feel, and I've recently been thinking about the way Joni Mitchell's "Song for Sharon" captures the way the dreams we're sold when we're young continue to resonate and seduce us, even after we've twigged that they're bullshit. So I was primed when the link to San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Dawn Oberg's brisk and bracing third album, Rye, hit my inbox.

Oberg is a self-described "46-year-old high-maintenance hussy," currently undertaking her first-ever tour of these United States in support of Rye. (The tour diary on her website is a hoot.) She'll visit Austin's Carousel Lounge on April 25th for an early -- 6:30pm! -- show.

If you're leery of singer-songwriters, fear not: there's no confessional morass of heart-on-sleeve emotion here. Rather, Oberg adopts the persona of a literate person -- the kind that uses "one" as a personal pronoun -- surviving life in the city with only her wit to sustain her. Her lyrics are well observed and evocative, whether she's describing the space she shares with the memory of a departed lover ("The Girl Who Sleeps With Books") or the way the taste of whiskey brings back memories of a relationship (the title track), or reaching out to an unsuccessful suicide ("Reconstruction"). My personal fave is the brief "Gentleman and a Scholar," which skewers a certain stripe of pretentious dude perfectly:

He knows the works of Fats Waller, and can play you recordings of them
He likes to read Thucydides but doesn’t mock stupidities
He’s probably read Euripides as well
But he’s really not the type to read and tell.

Oberg's been compared to Aimee Mann, but I wouldn't wish that kind of cultish semi-obscurity on anyone (unless she can find someone like Paul Thomas Anderson to write a whole movie around her music, the way Anderson did with Mann in Magnolia). Her melodies have a tidiness that resonates to these feedback-scorched ears the way the early John Cale's did. But it's her words that will catch your ear when you least expect it, and keep you coming back for more.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

My scrawl on

A review of Mikrokolektyw's album Absent Minded is online now.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

DiMucci, not Celine

This week, I've been listening non-stop to a CD-R of Dion -- yep, Dion DiMucci of "and the Belmonts" fame -- playing solo acoustic blues and telling stories on NPR's World Cafe back in 2006, when he'd just released Bronx in Blue, the first album in his "blues trilogy" that also includes Son of Skip James and Tankful of Blues (released on Razor & Tie, Verve Forecast, and Blue Horizon, respectively). Digging through my closet full of CD-Rs looking for a live recording of Dion with the Little Kings (the hard rockin' band he co-led in the '90s with Dictators/Del-Lords guitarist-songwriter Scott Kempner), I stumbled on this forgotten gem.

I blame John Perry -- guitarist for the Only Ones and author of my pick for the best book ever about the Who (that'd be Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, a volume in Schirmer's Classic Rock Albums series) -- for my current Dion obsession. He'd posted a series of Youtube videos on Facebook, including "My Girl the Month of May," a song Dion wrote and recorded when he briefly reunited with the Belmonts in 1966 that was subsequently covered by the Fairport Convention spinoff The Bunch (whom it fit like the proverbial glove), and "Shu Bop (The Lost Track)," an authentic-sounding bit of doo-wop pastiche that was released on Dion's Y2K album Deja Nu.

Perry's posts sent me back to Francis Davis' Like Young to re-read Davis' 1989 profile of Dion when he was recording his Dave Edmunds-produced "comeback" album Yo, Frankie for Arista. (The piece takes its title from one of my favorite lyrics of all ti-i-ime, from "Runaround Sue": "Here's the moral of the story from a guy who knows.") There was a guy who taught at my high school who grew up on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx and claimed that Dion was "laughed out of the neighborhood" for shaving his legs ("so they'd fit in those pegged pants"). After reading Davis' account of accompanying the singer on a visit to his old 'hood, I'd say Tony D.'s story was probably bullshit.

Listening to a guy with a heavy East Coast accent picking and singing the likes of Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues," Fats Domino's "My Blue Heaven," and Howlin' Wolf's "Built for Comfort" puts me in mind of my pal Josh Alan Friedman, but Josh (bless him) doesn't have pipes like Dion's. When Dion sings Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues," it also evokes the memory of Vinnie, the guitar-slinging cigar store owner in Wayne Wang's Blue In the Face.

Dion tells a story American Pop author Allen Lowe would appreciate about meeting Howlin' Wolf -- an early inspiration, via late-night radio -- when both of them were appearing on a bill at the Brooklyn Fox. When Wolf asked him where he learned to sing, Dion (who'd been walking on eggshells, trying not to say anything stupid to Wolf) admitted, "From records," to which Wolf replied, "Me too;" it's a common denominator if you grew up in 20th century America.

Dion got his coat pulled to Robert Johnson by none other than Johnson's discoverer, John Hammond, while signed to Columbia, where he was produced by Highway 61 Revisited producer Tom Wilson and cut blues and Dylan-inspired folk-rock with a band that included "Like A Rolling Stone" organist Al Kooper. (Both 1991's Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings and 1997's double disc The Road I'm On: A Retrospective mix doo-wop hits with blues and folk-rock; the latter adds a couple of uncredited Little Kings tracks.)

When Dion dedicates "Truth Will Set You Free," from his 1980 gospel album Inside Job, to Pope John Paul II, he does it with the sincerity of a lapsed Catholic who returned to the church in 1968, when he was fighting his way out of the morass of heroin addiction. His World Cafe set also includes Lightnin' Hopkins' "You Better Watch Yourself (Sonny Boy)," which he originally cut for the self-titled '68 album that bore his hit "Abraham, Martin and John."

Back then, having been dropped by Columbia before he kicked his jones, he'd gone back to Laurie, the label that released his hits with the Belmonts, and asked for another chance. He cut Dick Holler's tribute to four assassinated icons of social justice reluctantly; it wound up selling four million copies. Covering material by Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Fred Neil, Dion sounded bruised and fragile, more like Tim Buckley than the younger, swaggering singer of "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer." The British CD version of the album includes the bluesy B-side "Daddy Rollin'," which blew my mind when I turned the single over when I was 11, and proves that the title of his '97 album Son of Skip James was more than an idle boast.

Dion's discography, swollen with oldies compilations and Christian releases, also includes Born To Be With You, a gloomy reflection on middle age, produced by Phil Spector (except for the 1970 single "Your Own Backyard," covered by Mott the Hoople on Brain Capers), that was released in the UK in 1975 and didn't see an American release until the CD era. No less an authority than Pete Townshend has called it his favorite album of all ti-i-ime. Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying, "If you want to hear a great singer, listen to Dion. His voice takes its color from all palettes – he’s never lost it – his genius has never deserted him." Take it from Pete, take it from Bob, or take it from your humble chronicler o' events: If you've only heard the Belmonts hits, you haven't heard Dion. And you owe it to yourself to.