Thursday, July 07, 2016

RIP Abbas Kiarostami

RIP Abbas Kiarostami. Realizing that this DVD review --written for Paste Magazine back in 2010-- didn't make it to their website (though my blurb about Kiarostami on their Greatest Living Directors list did), so putting it here.

In one of Close-Up's courtroom scene, you can hear Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (#18 on Paste's Greatest Living Directors poll) direct his subject just off-screen: "This camera is here so that you can explain things which people might find hard to understand." If only. In this uncanny, conundrum of a film from 1990, the camera casts doubt on all it observes. A reporter follows a story about a man who has just been arrested for impersonating famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Is he a criminal or just a cinephile? Or does he stand in for something greater? Shot without artifice (or is it?) Kiarostami's camera meditates on the creative act and cinema, and the lie inherent in each. "I wanted to make them forget the idea that a film director is different from other people," the accused states at one point in his defense. But come the final act, when we observe the imposter's meet-up with the original through a cracked windshield with a glitching audio mic, a clutch of pink flowers obscuring their profiles, the fa├žade of Kiarostami's profound poesy becomes evident.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lee Dorsey - Yes We Can (RIP Allen Toussaint)

[Originally published in Sound Collector Audio Review Issue #3 Summer 2003]

Lee Dorsey
Yes We Can

Can you imagine one of your favorite artists making you a mix tape? While maybe not exactly my all-time all-time, a handmade package from Van Dyke Parks would be sweet, me thinks. His knowledge of worldly musics is encompassing and exact (see The Wire #163 Invisible Jukebox for an example). Add in his production work with the likes of The Mojo Men, Rufus Wainwright, Little Feat, or Cher and it gets more wondrously varied. This is to mention nothing of his co-writing many of the legendarily fractured Beach Boys’ Smile tracks like “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence,” and “Surf’s Up.” 

But why imagine a tape when his actual albums work as mixes of whatever music and themes he happened to be pondering at that point in time? His first, Song Cycle, spun bluegrass, Stephen Foster, McCarthyism, “Canto a Vera Cruz,” and Ives into a kaleidoscopic, post-colonial Americana head trip. And his second, Discover America, goes it one better by picking up the shuffling rhythms of Trinidad, Jamaica, and Barbados and dashing them into his pot (literally). It is still distinctly American though, with homage paid to icons like Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, J. Edgar Hoover, and New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint, with the inclusion of his “Riverboat” and “Occapella.” These two songs always perplexed me over the years, as Parks never seemed to be one to light on the same subject twice. So what was it about these songs that required two nearly-consecutive trips to the bayou? 

As wont to do with cover versions on mix tapes, I went looking for the originals. While Toussaint began to step out from behind the console in the early 70’s to sing his own songs, these two selections were still the domain of singer Lee Dorsey. A World War II sailor and featherweight prizefighter by the name of “Kid Chocolate,” Dorsey hooked up with Toussaint (after his own draft duties) after stints for Rex, Fury, and Minit to cut the instant strip-joint anthem, “Ride Your Pony,” for the Amy label in 1966. From that moment forth, Dorsey would be the main vocal conduit for the prolific pen, production, and piano playing of Allen Toussaint. Add to the mix the ultimate practitioners of second-line funk, the Meters, and you have a potent triumvirate of Naw’leans power. While Sundazed has so far reissued both The New Lee Dorsey and Ride Your Pony, the pinnacle of this tandem remains the obscure Yes We Can LP of 1970. Woefully distributed by the overseas Polydor back then, even the CD reissue on Polygram Chronicles is now nearly ten years gone. And it is a shame.

Kicking off with the title track, “Yes We Can” shows Toussaint writing an anthem of sorts, although it stays just shy of being an overtly political song. While not surprising, considering the timeframe, New Orleans music always enjoyed a bit of distance from the rest of the world, focusing more on the good times that comprised life in the Big Easy. That laid-back feeling permeated every aspect of their sound. There is a look out onto the world at large here, but the resulting view is non-judgmental, unaligned neither with revolution nor with the powers that be. There is no rage or riling in sight. Proffered instead is a call for kindness and consideration for the people around you. Even in the midst of the decade end’s upheaval, Lee Dorsey’s voice soothes with his sage-like flow:

Help each man be a better man with the kindness that you give
I know we can make it, I know darn well we can work it out
Yes we can.

The bouncing beat, organ swells, “bop ba doo bop” scats, and triumphant horns all reinforce the positive message without a hint of false hope or disbelief in a good outcome. Already the qualities of voice noted by Burke Johnson are evident: “(Dorsey can) project both joy and sorrow and literally take you out on a limb of fantasy, still keeping the intended mood of the composition intact.”

But once the drum kicks in for “Riverboat,” you realize that there is a whole ‘nuther level at work in the music. We are already far down the Mississippi by the time Dorsey bursts in after two measures:

Big wheel justa keep on turnin’
And the fire justa keep on burnin’
Opportunity knockin’, Big Boat justa keep on rockin’

It is at once overwhelming and reassuring. The earthy banks and levees are nowhere to be heard, just the Big River itself, and every instrument in Cosimo Matassa’s studio (the ONLY studio in New Orleans at the time) becomes a component of this sound vessel as it cruises the mighty waters. The horns bleat out steam and smoke, the wah guitar warbles like eddies alongside the boat. Drums cycle and churn like pistons, hi-hats hiss, and Dorsey floats on it all, comfortable against such enormous surroundings. Amongst the Big Wheels, Big Boats, and Big Opportunities surrounding and nearly swallowing the passengers on this voyage, it is the miniscule grain of love in his eye that is most important. That cinder renders all these other enormous, uncontrollable elements harmless. Tumultuous as it might be out there, Lee just wants to let you know that there’s a party going on y’all, and as long as we keep cool and stay together, we’ll all flow through this mess without capsizing:

We just keep right on huggin’ ‘n kissin’ ooooh, cuz we got love, yes we have

Other songs comment on the balance between the individual and society. “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” addresses the troubles of being poor and predisposed to trouble, and wonders how a person faced with such odds can make it out there. The answer that comes at the chorus is succinctly put: “One Another.” “When the Bill’s Paid” is a similar meditation on economic situations, as Dorsey imagines how easy things will be (for him and his woman) once he is free and clear. The almost-bitter invective of “Games People Play” is the most world-weary of the lot, wondering about the less-pleasant tendencies of human nature and how to deal with them. But even in the face of such negativity, Dorsey and the arrangements that Toussaint surrounds him with never get bogged down by the impending negativity. The buoyancy that laces all these bayou tracks is nothing short of inspiring. 

“Tears, Tears, and More Tears” reminisces over the heartbreaking little things of a lost love. From thinking about her first thing in the morning, to the phone call that will never come, the thought of “It’s really over” rises up in his throat as he swallows to hold it back. No more holding hands or drinking wine or speaking sweet nothings, and that absence becomes more concrete as he calls upon the only thing he has, memories, which rends his heart even more. Yet somehow the song is upbeat, as if the continual outpouring of tears will be cathartic, alleviating the heartbreak, and the saddened Dorsey will rise again, cleansed, wiser.

While the heartbreaks have their upside, so do the good times have their troubles as well. With the drunken thuds of bass under him, Dorsey warbles about “hanging out all night long, hanging out till my money’s gone/ O Me O Mi O, what am I gonna do oh?” Despite the ever-present loneliness and dead-ends of night’s pleasurable oblivion of drink, Dorsey somehow sees through to the other side of the tunnel. It’s no blinding revelation or morning-after empty promise, just a simple parry to life’s painful cycles of brief joy and persistent despair: “Another failure, another try. Just keep on trying.” While the world surrounding hits him, floating like a butterfly, and then pounding down again, Kid Chocolate, even with blood on his teeth, just keeps smiling, swinging only as he must. He was undefeated after all.

While dabbling a tad in social issues and breakups, the moments of sheer happiness on the album come to the forefront often and with a rollicking sense of play. From the good-timing indiscretions of “Sneakin’ Sally Thru the Alley” to the raw-funk swamp-pheromone physicality of doin’ the “Gator Tail,” the album also exudes a positivism that is infectious. While the former are bawdy and boisterous, the movement of the other song Parks’ covers, “Occapella” is gentle, though no less delightful with its bubbling spirits:

Pardon me, but you could use it, we’re gonna make a little music
You got soul, why don’t you use it, we’re gonna make a little music
Everything gonna be mellow, we’re just gonna sing it a capella

The percolations of the steel drum in the Discover America remake are instead the deep waters of the backing voices merging into the song’s very essence: how music (specifically the voice, both solo and merged into chorus) can uplift, empowering the song with that very sound of which it sings. The hmms and ahhs abstract beatifically here, levitating the song to a higher ground that is reverent and festive at the same time. It is that Sound of Joy so often looked for yet lost in secular music!

And what better person to embody that feeling of joy than Lee Dorsey? “If a smile had a sound, it would be the sound of Lee Dorsey’s voice,” Allen Toussaint recalled, “No wonder he inspired so many of my favorite songs.” Van Dyke Parks attempted to harness that same easy feeling so prevalent in New Orleans, showing how even the normally stiff American music can be as laid-back as the multitudinous rhythms of the Caribbean. Not a surprising connection between the two regions then, considering writer Gene Santoro’s remark that: “New Orleans is really a Caribbean city…where music is a more natural part of the cultural fabric than in any other US place.” It is a pleasure worth seeking out the originals (Soul Jazz’s excellent New Orleans Funk series holds two of the songs found here), so as to experience the sound of Lee Dorsey’s voice and feel the joy and wisdom that it instills on each listen.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Dub Club

Brooklyn Gets Serious About Comedy

The Story Collider

"Get Lucky"

The Wedding Singer

Masters of Puppets

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kid Creole interview

Back in the heat of the New York summer (remember when it was hot out? Me neither), I spoke via Skype with August Darnell, a/k/a Kid Creole. I worried that the distance of thousands of miles might create a real distance in the dialogue as well, but the moment Darnell opened his mouth, I was put at ease. This might've been the easiest interview ever. Darnell is a raconteur without parallel. My prompts were few and I just let the man rap.

When were you last in New York City?

It’s at least ten years since I lived there, but I was just there two months ago. Got grandchildren there. I can’t tell you how many I have. You can’t print that. I still love the city. The best part of it is that I can get out of it in a week. I live in Sweden now, far from the maddening crowds. I’m loving it. The album was cut here in my home studio. I’m in south Sweden now.

How do you deal with the Scandinavian darkness?

You don’t deal with it. You hibernate or get out of town. We tour and don’t get stuck in the snowstorms.

Why’d you leave in the first place?

I got fed up with NYC! I was fed up with traffic. I cracked one day when I had to go to my dentist ten blocks away and it took two hours to get crosstown. And I said, I don’t need this. I’m getting out of here. I lived in England, Denmark, Stockholm and now I’m here in southern Sweden.

You have the same inspirations there?

Hell no. Without New York, there’d never have been Savannah Band or Kid Creole. NYC was everything. I love the city for what it gave me but when you reach a certain part of your life and you find you want life to be easier, rather than an everyday struggle. There’s no town that could give me the power that NYC gave me. My favorite line from my songs was “Going Places”: “When you leave New York, you go nowhere.” I’m a New Yorker for sure.

What's the biggest change you notice now?

The biggest change is Times Square. There’s nothing like Times Square. My brother and I used to just go down there for the thrill, because 42nd Street was dangerous. On every other corner was a prostitute, a bordello, a porn cinema, and people on every corner hustling. It’s so clean they should just rename it. Big business has taken over Times Square. I thought the greatness of Times Square was it was the Theater District and its rich patrons pouring out to the street and they’d mingle with the lowest dregs of society known to mankind. I used to get a thrill out of that. The danger, the edge of it is gone. Prices have gone up, but you still don’t get more for your money. You still have traffic jams, cabbies trying to kill you, but it’s still the greatest city in the world.

In the summer, I always think of you, because everyone wears fedoras.

I noticed the fedora was making a comeback there. It was amazing. You don’t have that in London, Paris, and you don’t have it here. It’s great. Fashion is still great in Manhattan. There’s a pulse in the city. I think Brennan mixing in Brooklyn an album recorded in a forest in Sweden made a juxtaposition. The juxtaposition between my forest here in Sweden and Brennan Green’s urban jungle in Brooklyn is poetry in motion.

Why did you make an album after all this time?

It was not my idea. Strut had the idea. They wanted to put me together with Andrew Butler of Hercules and Love Affair. I Googled him and went okay, he’s definitely influenced by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole, so I thought the combination would work. I knew he was popular in the underground dance clubs, just like we were. I trusted it. 
The original plan was to write 50/50, but it didn’t turn out to be as simple as that. Our schedules conflicted and we were never together in the same part of the world. We were never together in the same room. I’ve never met the guy! I only saw him on Skype chats. We were never in the same room, which is uncivilized and ridiculous and that’s modern society for you. He sent his songs to me, I sent mine to him. A hundred and ninety-eight emails later, we’d be saying: “Can you change the bassline on the third bar of the fifteenth section of the fourth verse and can you mute the triangle on the third verse…” It became ridiculous. All the things we were doing we could’ve done in one room. That’s when technology works against you.
It took too long to do the album. If we had been old-fashioned about it, it would’ve been out two and a half years ago! To be honest with you, I got frustrated with it but I’m sure glad I did. I love the results. I’d never do it this way again though.

Speaking of Andys, did you ever hear Coati Mundi's album?

I listened to it in the car and it was spectacular. Andy came a long way and I love him and his humor. He was the zaniest character I know. I miss having a comic foil onstage. Sometimes the shows get too serious. I’m singing “Mister Softee” and the audience is taking it seriously?! He was like a Marx Brother. 

You have a song on the new album that unpacks what happened with the Savannah Band.

Tommy Mottola said to me: “Savannah Band had the potential to be one of the largest bands in America back in the 70s.” It was like Rome, we fell from within. The Savannah Band self-imploded. Our sibling rivalry destroyed it. My brother and I couldn’t take it to the next level. We were huge and had a hit record, wrote well together, and we had a great songstress, a chanteuse Cory Day. We had everything going for us. We destroyed ourselves. I wrote “Stony and Corey” as tribute to my brother and the songbird, they were the two most influential people in my life in terms of being a music personality.

How does it feel to be sampled like you are?

Being sampled was a great feeling, man. M.I.A. and Ghostface? And then Cee-Lo covered “Hard Times," too. I get my royalties and I’m flattered. Artists get annoyed by samples and downloads. To me though, it’s flattering when a new artist comes along and utilizes your music so that new listeners can discover the original.

What do you listen to now?

I have my old favorites more than explore new things. I have children and they always keep me abreast.  What I also miss is that you never have to leave the island of Manhattan, you just travel your block and the islands come to you. The music of every nation can be found there. 

I like Rihanna right about now but my favorite is still Beyonce. She’s a goddess. She’s up there with the likes of Diana Ross, Tina Turner, those larger than life female vocalists. Beyonce is a goddess. I love her stuff.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kid Creole

Today in the Village Voice is my feature on the return of Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Such a pleasure to chat with the man (my full transcript will appear before long) and revisit his body of work. Watching some of these videos --with these two posted by former sidekick Coati Mundi-- makes me pine to see the group in their prime:

Sunday, September 11, 2011

“It was a strange year that year and it is a strange year this year. The blue of the sky looks rather black to the eye.”

In a friend's water closet reading stack sits a book by William Cooper. I don't believe I have seen that name since 1991, the year that punk rock broke, when I religiously read Flipside Magazine. That newsprint rag not only told me about folks like Beck, Unwound, Fitz of Depression releasing seven inches, but --if memory serves-- it used to run Cooper's missives as well as those of someone named Jolly Roger. The latter's monthly columns went beyond the joys of The Anarchist's Cookbook (which was always behind the counter at the bookstore, next to Madonna's Sex) explained how to create new identities for yourself, how to make your marijuana seeds sprout, as well as how to make homemade napalm (it involved dissolving styrofoam peanuts in gasoline). I may have made half-assed attempts at all three in high school.

Cooper's most famous book (or at least, the one that would one day wind up as toilet reading) is Behold a Pale Horse, a hodge-podge of UFO sightings, government cover-up memos, and secret society cabals running the world and installing a New World Order. Thumbing it some two decades after its publication date, I was struck by a line that went: "The numbers 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 39 have special meaning to the Illuminati." For a book published in 1991, it's easy to have a few of those numbers stick now. Wondering just what such a figure might make of this "post-9/11" world we now inhabit, I instead learned that Cooper was shot dead by sheriffs in November of 2001. Squirting some homemade napalm on the fire, Cooper purportedly hinted in a radio show from June 2001 that an attack on the US would be blamed on some disgraced Saudi prince.

I wonder why it feels relevant to even mention this here. Perhaps its that underground thoughts go hand in hand with underground music. Perhaps paranoia and punk were always entwined for me, like The Anarchist's Cookbook and Madonna on that same shelf. Perhaps it's because I'm with this book hundreds of miles from Ground Zero (along with New York's 9/11 double issue) and for the first time in ten years, I won't be in New York City on this day. And I won't call it by those two numerals. It's always September to me.

And so I am trying to re-remember what it was like, newly arrived to New York, to wake up in the city on that September day, to climb up on my roof and watch the two towers burning, smoke billowing into that immaculate blue sky. Trying to remember who I was then, when I woke up extremely hungover, when my roommate knocked on my bedroom door and told me to wake up "to witness history," it was hard to fathom the events of that day. I remember that September 10th was an extremely late night for me and my friends, one where we stayed out until the wee hours of morning, inhaling and imbibing the substances necessary to remain up until that darkest hour of morning. Sleep that night was tumultuous and fraught. I was restless in a way I had never been in my life. I thrashed through the sheets and just barely fell to sleep before that knock came.

A few things remain in my mind upon waking up: First was a news item from the week previous was about an ultralight plane had been flown towards the Statue of Liberty. So when I thought of a plane striking the Tower, a harmless little fly of a craft is what came to mind. The other is that just a few weeks prior, the city had detonated the two water towers that loomed over the Williamsburg skyline, erasing them from the sky in a matter of seconds. So I stood on my rooftop and saw those two buildings, their concrete pluming into the sky up above.

Technically, I never went inside the World Trade Center in my first months of living in New York City. But I did go into its basement. A temp agency scheduled an interview for me at WTC 1 and so I went downtown one July morning, where I was soon ushered into the basement of that building. I had been without work for three months and my funds were depleted. I needed a job desperately. I was fucking broke. And yet...

Before I left Texas, I worked in a government building, one which also housed federal judges. They constantly received credible death threats. One had to go through metal detectors to even enter the building. The windows were so darkly tinted that I never knew the sun was shining until I left at the end of the workday. Being in Austin, but a few hundred miles from where the Oklahoma City bombings had taken place, that pall remained over the place. How could it not? I wasn't just working a job out of college (so as to save up for a move to NYC), I was working at a place that was a target. And I swore to myself when I moved that I would never work in a target again.

So sitting in the basement of the World Trade Center, hungry and broke, I threw the interview. Walking down the hallway after, my guide not only pointed out where the bathroom was but also where the bombs had detonated back in 1993, pointing out both in a casual way that was nauseating. How could you carry on with your work knowing that someone had tried to destroy the place? I left as quick as I could and never returned their phone calls. I remained willfully unemployed. My family and my roommates thought I was crazy to not take that job.

It would be another month before I had a real job and years before my present occupation, writing about music. In reading some of the remembrances of that day, like those by Hua and Mark, I wonder what I might have listened to on that day. Such sounds escape me now. Instead, I recall carrying out mundane tasks like doing my laundry and buying an extra can of Goya beans and two gallons of drinking water, all under two strips of black smoke. 

Somewhere on the web, I recently found a list of my top albums of 2001. I wonder at who that person was who listed and listened to such albums. Of greatest relevance for that time was of course the unreleased Wilco album, with its lyrics about tall buildings shaking and voices escaping, not to mention the paranoia-inducing samples from the "number" stations. I wonder what Bill Cooper would have had to say about The Conet Project

But the only sound I still remember came at night. It was not music. We all convened, friends and strangers and neighbors, on the Williamsburg waterfront to commiserate and hug one another, to down whisky straight from the bottle and stare at the sirens silent and shining across the black water of the East River. Ambulances were in a line like an unclasped ruby necklace, flaring their incandescent red lights and snaking up and down the FDR in a long procession, both north and south. I don't recall their wails reaching me. Instead, I remember the heartbeat of hand drums all around me, somehow giving meter to the black night.

Ten years later, a quote I affixed to that record list remains the most resonant, more than any of those albums. It came from a Gertrude Stein book I was reading at the time and it worked as well at that moment in time as it does now, ten years and a lifetime ago: 

"It was a strange year that year and it is a strange year this year. The blue of the sky looks rather black to the eye."