Murphy’s Law

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Archive for December, 2006

The Doors by The Doors (PopMatters Review)

Posted by bullmurph on December 22, 2006

The Doors

by The Doors and Ben Fong-Torres


November 2006, 304 pages, $45.00

The Doors: The Complete Illustrated Lyrics

by Danny Sugarman


November 2006, 208 pages, $19.95

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

The Doors

cover art

The Doors: The Complete Illustrated Lyrics

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Morrison, not to praise him…

Well, at least the carefully manufactured, sacrilegious icon, fashioned from that most contemptible of forces: the artless imitators who seek to project their own half baked and unrealized rock star fantasies and, of course, the soulless record execs, whose gluttony launched a thousand greatest hits collections. And it hasn’t exactly helped that the people who claim to love him best have done the most to consummate and capitalize on the pseudo-mythology of a man who somehow gets younger every year. Death has been very good to Morrison, but it’s been even better for those who continue to profit from his fleeting but fruitful body of work. Not to mention his body. With that in mind, the following words will be eschewed for the duration of this discussion: Shaman, Dionysus, Rimbaud, God, Satan, and Witchcraft.

When it comes to the Doors, the world generally breaks into two camps: those who hate them and those who do not. Amongst those who do not, there are those who like them, and those who really like them. And then there are the real fans. This is not an uncommon spectrum for any well-known band, but considering the Doors released their last official album in 1971, their continued relevance—and the cult of personality disorder Morrison still enjoys—is impressive and more than a little inscrutable (and, for the haters, more annoying than anything else). Amongst the critics, the so-called experts, there tends to be an increasing dichotomy: those who regard Morrison as a poetic genius (or better still, a poet), a Lord Byron of the late 20th century; and those who actually read some poetry after high school and consider him a clown, a poseur whose laughable lyrics don’t merit a second thought.

The reality, as it often insists on being, remains pretty squarely in the middle. Compared to the Romantic poets, like Shelley or Keats, Morrison ain’t much (then again, who is?); although, compared to the Beats—as he often is—he comes off okay. And if that assessment tends to underscore the observation that the Beats weren’t all that, so be it. The only pertinent criteria should be: when measured against rock musicians who came before and after him, Morrison more than holds his own. The list of articulate wordsmiths who tower above the Lizard King is substantial, but the number of those who cower beneath him is incalculable.

And so, in spite of Oliver Stone’s best efforts to immortalize a few of his favorite things (About Jim Morrison? About the ‘60s? About himself? All of the above?), he mostly achieved—in his inimitably over-the-top way—the opposite of what he ostensibly intended: a hysterically sophomoric parody that celebrated virtually every irritating trait that made Morrison an insufferable man-child much of the time. Suffice it to say, his tantrums as well as the evidence of his untapped potential have been abundantly documented by a variety of individuals who, unlike Stone, had the advantage of actually being there, and being sane.

Morrison, like Hemingway, or (insert-name-of-notoriously-tortured-artist), had periods of productivity that preceded or followed, or happened alongside the drugging, drinking, and debauchery. Not focusing on (or even acknowledging) his more mundane—if lucid—moments is somewhat understandable given the constraints of a two hour movie, but it does any artist a considerable disservice to trivialize the efforts and industry that commonly accompany even the slightest of achievements. To be certain, Morrison was seldom sober in the recording studio, but that’s one reason he wasn’t a novelist. It is also why he is no longer alive. Oliver Stone’s ass-backwards hagiography is a quintessential slab of outsider’s groupie-envy, and despite what he may actually have intended, he turned his hero into a rather uninteresting cartoon character. In the final analysis, Morrison may have cared too little about his life, but he cared a great deal about his work.

Did you know freedom exists in a schoolbook?
Did you know madmen are running our prisons
Within a jail, within a gaol
Within a white free protestant maelstrom?
We’re perched headlong on the edge of boredom.

The Doors: The Complete Illustrated Lyrics is one of the best books that should have been around 20 years or so ago. Today, every compact disc—particularly the classic rock back catalog favorites, which have now been re-remastered for ever-enhanced sound quality and company profits—comes with lyrics, and pictures. In the rare exceptions to this rule, the curious listener can painlessly peruse an entire band’s history online. Back in the mid-’80s, more money was apparently spent on the elaborate full color cardboard cases that compact discs came in, which most people promptly threw away after tearing open. And the “booklets” inside the actual jewel case were mostly two-sided inserts with a miniature replica of the album cover and song titles. Often, the task of ascertaining the lyrics of an elusive song was a sort of adolescent quest for the Holy Grail. All of which is to say, it’s debatable what makes this kind of book worthwhile in our box set, official and unofficial website, Google-ready moment in time. Fortunately for those on the fence, The Complete Illustrated Lyrics is beefed up with well-intended essays and (mostly insufferable) recollections from many of the unusual suspects, waxing moronic about Mr. Mojo Risin’, that psychedelic seeker, all those clown tears that saved every life but his own, etc. One shudders to be a fly on the wall during a potential tete-a-tete between Oliver Stone and (Doors producer) Paul Rothchild; in fact, I believe Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play about it. Listen: “Insanity of course is a symbolic death … and the cleansing is a rebirth. And then of course there’s the incredible Oedipal thing …” If this sample (courtesy of Rothchild) is your cup of treacle, there’s plenty of pleasure to be found in these pages.

Still, all the lyrics are included and should impart sufficient impetus for any lapsed fan to return to the only thing that matters—the songs. The other problem, of course, with presenting the Doors’ albums on the page is that it has the unfortunate effect of isolating the words from the music, which considerably lessens their distinctive force.

Well, I woke up this mornin’ and got myself a beer
The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.

Morrison was not a poet. Then again, Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg were not rock stars. It might be reasonable, if a bit facile, to propose that more than a few poets would kill for the type of audience popular singers have at their disposal. And that is where the music comes into play: crucial as, say, Michael Stipe, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel’s lyrics are to our collective consciousness, it’s unlikely we’d ever have heard of them if they’d published their work in chap books instead of pop albums. In Morrison’s case, some of the lyrics can stand-alone and do work rather nicely being read:

The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes
Street lights shed their hollow glow
Your brain seems bruised with numb surprise
Still one place to go, still one place to go.

On the other hand, while “The Crystal Ship” is interesting, if somewhat slight, on the page, one listen elucidates, instantly, why the song remains enigmatic and enchanting four decades on—the mood created by the music (Ray Manzarek’s subtle organ and solemn piano accompaniment; Robby Krieger’s almost ethereal guitar notes and John Densmore’s always intelligent percussion): the rush and remorse inextricable from day-to-day existence; the deadening of the senses through chemical escape; the illusory respite from reality that is more or less Morrison’s epitaph; all the pain and unfulfilled promise of his life, along with much of the glory and redemptory grace, somehow contained in one song (all in all, a pretty impressive use of two minutes and 40 seconds).

There are, to be sure, throwaway moments—at least lyrically speaking—on each of the first two albums, but the group did a great deal of its abiding work in 1967 when the svelte, leather-clad lead singer was at the top of his game. The Doors stands tall as one of the seminal debuts in rock and roll, but the aptly titled Strange Days remains a most righteous second act. Its centerpiece, “When The Music’s Over”, clocking in at over 11 minutes and closing the second side (like “The End” from the first album), supplies the lion’s share of sound bites for any half-serious discussion of the Doors. But it is the succinct “People Are Strange”, an astonishing portrait of alienation (misleadingly merry, due to the carnivalesque music—one of the rare instances where Ray Manzarek did not provide an appropriate backdrop for Morrison’s words) that could work as well, or better, in black and white:

People are strange, when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly, when you’re alone
Women seem wicked, when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven, when you’re down.

One can’t help but wonder: if this song featured only the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar with harmonica-embellished choruses, and was sung badly (in other words, if it was a Bob Dylan tune) it would—justifiably—be heralded as a masterpiece.

The third and fourth albums (Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade) proved difficult to record, mostly due to the singer’s intransigence, and his antics are not so lovingly rehashed in many of the books’ interviews. Still, each record has more than a few remarkable moments. It is a shame that the trite pop confection “Hello, I Love You” is their most popular song from 1968, when a song that actually articulates the broiling undercurrents of that year as well as any other, “Five To One”, warrants that acclaim:

Five to one baby, one in five
No one here gets out alive…
The old get old and the young get stronger
May take a week and it may take longer.

That sentiment certainly holds up better than most of the peace and love sonic popcorn that permeated the scene. Like Arthur Lee (his LA neighbor and early hero), Morrison should get props for articulating—if not embracing—the sinister elements buried beneath this not-so-soft parade. When he set sober eyes on a target, Morrison was as adept as anyone at cataloging the banal and the exotic, the perverse and the pathetic; when he set his sights on the weird circus of the late ‘60s, some of the images are at once unsettling and splendid:

Large buxom obese queens
Garden hogs and cunt veterans
Quaint cabbage saints
Shit hoarders and individualists
Drag strip officials
Tight-lipped losers and
Lustful fuck salesmen
My militant dandies:
All strange order of monsters
Hot on the trail of the woodbine
We welcome you to our procession.

To his considerable credit, Morrison the artist constantly looked around him for inspiration, and mercifully little naval-gazing made its way into his writing. At the risk of channeling Paul Rothchild, it seems reasonable to suggest that in constantly instigating what could easily have been a safer, static existence (he was rich, after all), Morrison always shattered the display case and did not shy away from the broken glass; in fact, it inspired some of his lasting lyrics:

Can you find me soft asylum
I can’t make it any more
The man is at the door …
All our lives we sweat and save
Building for a shallow grave.

And, from the same album ( The Soft Parade ), special mention must be made for the short but stunning “Wild Child”, a mini tour de force that truly straddles the line between gibberish and genius. Or, maybe it’s simply the band: at their tightest with the ever reliable Densmore dropping bombs in the background and some sick slide guitar from Krieger, perhaps just about any lyrics would sound cool:

With hunger at her heels, freedom in her eyes
She dances on her knees, pirate prince at her side
Wild child, full of grace
Savior of the human race.

Judge for yourself what that means, but it’s undeniably Jim Morrison.

Coincidentally or not, as Morrison grew a beard (and a gut), and liquor replaced LSD as his preferred source of inspiration (or escape), his lyrics became less surreal and he often wrote with precision and clarity. One of the band’s best moments, from Morrison Hotel, is a blues song that radiates sex, power, and paranoia while still exuding coolness:

I’m a spy in the house of love
I know the dreams that you’re dreaming of
I know the words that you long to hear
I know your deepest, secret fear.

And on their last album, LA Woman , Morrison again gets back to basics of the blues, once more interlacing the bitter with the sweet:

The cars hiss by my window
Like the waves down on the beach
I got this girl beside me
But she’s out of reach.

By the end, Morrison was a million miles from the blue bus and riding the snake to the lake, and if he’d abused his body (he was 27 going on 60 when he finally cancelled his subscription to the resurrection), he had lived and learned along the way. His ultimate statement was a love song about, and for, the city of angels, his adopted hometown that made him immortal:

Drivin’ down your freeway
Midnight alleys roam
Cops in cars, the topless bars
Never saw a woman so alone
Motel money, murder madness
Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness.

The Doors, By The Doors is another in an endless series of collector’s items, and it’s safe to assume that there is a readymade audience for these types of commodities or they would cease to exist. This latest installment, for what it’s worth, is the first such collection featuring only the band and its associates (hence, The Doors by The Doors). It also includes, for the first time, extended commentary from his family, and it is both touching and refreshing to see that his estranged father finally accepted—and acknowledged—his famous son’s legacy. In addition to gorgeous full-page color photos, there are interviews (culled from past and present) that provide useful and often illuminating context for the times and circumstances in which the albums were created.
So: these books are not required reading, even for more-than-casual fans, but isn’t it for the much more than casual fans that coffee table productions with never before seen pictures are assembled? This is not the end, my friends: despite misguided movies and the money-driven marketing machine, the music does endure simply because it continues to resonate with an always expanding audience. Forty years after “Light My Fire” Jim Morrison, to borrow an infamous headline, is still hot, he is still sexy, and he is still dead. But mostly, the Doors are very much alive.

— 21 December 2006


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Oliver Nelson: Screamin’ The Blues (PopMatters Review)

Posted by bullmurph on December 22, 2006

Oliver Nelson

Screamin’ the Blues


US release date: 18 July 2006
UK release date: 28 August 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Screamin’ the Blues: Nothing Abstract About This Truth

This welcome installment in the Rudy Van Gelder Remasters series is essential for at least two reasons. First, it proves that Oliver Nelson should not be remembered only for what is inarguably his masterpiece, The Blues and the Abstract Truth . Second, it features a young and typically tenacious Eric Dolphy, who acquits himself wonderfully, as always.

Ironies abound on this album, beginning with its title: Oliver Nelson is quite rightly revered for his mastery of the blues form, but it was his sensitive and intelligent renderings that tended to use the blues as a springboard for his fertile mind and considerable arranging skills. A screamer he was not. Indeed, it is interesting—and instructive—to consider that only one year before The Blues and the Abstract Truth (henceforth TBATAT), which is hailed as the epitome of smooth (from an era, difficult as it is to conceive, when the word “smooth” could be used in a complimentary fashion while describing jazz), Nelson brought together a band that would record this down and dirty old(er) school session. It is not the all-star lineup of TBATAT (what else could be?), but this group is tight and very much on time, with the estimable Roy Haynes on drums and the still underrated George Duvivier on bass. The wildcards are Richard Wyands and Richard Williams, on piano and trumpet respectively. And, of course, Dolphy.

The tone is set immediately and authoritatively, with the group tearing into the eleven-minute title track, a vehicle that offers ample evidence of Nelson’s songwriting craft. But as is the case throughout these proceedings, the inescapable focus is on the fact that he could blow the roof off when he wanted to. Haynes and Duvivier hold down the fort, allowing Wyands to stretch out with a Bobby Timmins-esque solo (indeed, the influence of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers subtly pervades the proceedings). Then Nelson reenters with that shimmering, supple tone, giving way to Williams, who takes an enervated turn at the pulpit. And then, six minutes in, the guest preacher, Reverend Dolphy, blasts a bass clarinet sermon that interprets tradition in his inimitable way, all the while edging ever outward, moving into more free and formless—but always intelligible and accessible—territory.

An air of restrained celebration, of cerebral abandon, is maintained throughout, and it’s only on the stirring “Three Seconds” that we hear the obvious blueprint for the immaculate orchestration of unique voices that elevate TBATAT. And for anyone who has ever struggled to explain the wonders of jazz to a potential fan, cue up “The Meetin’” and if that doesn’t do the trick, it’s doubtful anything will. This is cool, classy stuff, a tad looser, a bit ballsier and a little more edgy than the work Nelson is mostly remembered for. Where one may envision TBATAT being recorded in a clean studio with pros in suits punching the clock, Screamin’ The Blues has the vibe of a smoke-filled, windowless room.

A few more words about Dolphy: with all due respect to the demonstrable talents and leadership of Nelson, Eric Dolphy is always going to stand apart as the superstar of any recording in which he is involved. Listening to him on this set is not unlike revisiting the watershed work of John Coltrane, circa 1957, specifically on Lush Life and Soultrane, where he fortified his celebrated “sheets of sound”, and knowing how that would evolve into his modal work with Miles Davis, then Giant Steps, and then the door to infinity he cracked open after that. Likewise, Dolphy is exhibiting his fluency of the hard-bop stylings that signified the better jazz from the mid-to-late ‘50’s: his alto work in “Alto-itis” nods to Charlie Parker yet exudes an openness that, say, Ornette Coleman could not approximate. He is already straining at the reins of convention, already figuring out, like Coltrane and, of course, Thelonious Monk, his way around the brilliant corners that lead to real innovation. It is no coincidence that in the years after this recording, Dolphy would align himself with both Coltrane and Charles Mingus, while continuing to push the envelope that eventually resulted in his own masterpiece, Out to Lunch. The interplay and overtones of true originality beginning to boil on Screamin’ The Blues are very much a premonition of even bigger and better things to come, but this album utterly succeeds as a collection of cats, in the back of the church, conversing about the past while pointing toward the future.


— 21 December 2006

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Where There’s a (George) Will There’s No Way (from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

Where There’s a Will There’s No Way
by Sean G. Murphy
December 1, 2006

So this is all the not-so-Grand Old Party’s got?

With the so recently smug and abrasive and—so they thought—safe Republican wing of the Republican party tripping over their tails to distance themselves from the same president whose coattails they could not cling to more cravenly in ’02 and ’04, this is the post-thumpin’ reality: rally around the one thing you still all can agree on—being out of power is overrated. After failing to sufficiently fire up the base with the tried and untrue anti-gay hate mongering hysteria, and the public inevitably crying wolf on the terror card, the GOP needed a miracle. And damn it if poor John Kerry didn’t do his darndest to deliver, courtesy of his ham-tongued delivery of a joke at Bush’s expense, proving once again that Kerry is oddly uncomfortable in his own skin, and even more so when he slips into the political wet-suit that truly exposes his extemporaneous shortcomings. And yet. Once even Kerry’s inimitable ability to sabotage the cause proved not to be the fodder Fox News could whip into Election Day deliverance, it was eventually, inevitably time for a reckoning. (And even Kerry’s latest gaffe was not without its side benefit: now, mercifully, his self immolation has obliterated further discussion of a potential phoenix-like rising from the ashes for an ill-fated re-run in ’08).

So: losing the House hurt. Losing the Senate really hurt. But losing because the balance broke on Jim Webb—a lifelong Republican and military hawk turned Democrat mostly over disgust with the utter incompetence with which the Iraq imbroglio was planned and carried out—beating out the incumbent George “Macaca” Allen, who not so long ago was considered a frontrunner for the next election? That was the unkindest cut of all, and adds another element to the “Orwell couldn’t write this stuff” vibe that has seemingly guided our surreal state of domestic affairs at least since that unfortunate recount in Florida.

Anyway: Webb is experienced and intelligent enough to understand that with the considerable resentment and astonishment (and humiliation) his upset has engendered, the wing nuts of the Right would be gunning for him early and often. It’s to his credit—yet again—that he displayed his unconventional and unpredictable nature by deciding to (figuratively) throw the first punch. As has been well documented at this point, Webb could not stomach the passive-aggressive overtures from Bush, and used the opportunity to remind the Decider that he—and the majority of voters in Virginia, not to mention the rest of the country—wants a change of course in Iraq. Afterward (and one can imagine the awed and hushed tones of the reporters looking to confirm the fact that someone had the effrontery to look George W. Bush in the eye and speak to him like a man), Webb subsequently summarized his feelings in typically curt fashion: “I’m not particularly interested in having a picture of me and (Bush) on my wall.” It’s a rather sad commentary on the mainstream media’s generally supine stance on all-things Bush that Webb’s remark has served to generate such umbrage. But it’s hardly surprising.

First into the fray (presumably because Charles Krauthammer was too busy gnashing his teeth to type) is the oleaginous George Will, who has weighed in with the unique panache befitting that most insular and entrenched beltway insider he happens to be. Indeed, the entire thrust of his diatribe is exactly backward: he accuses Webb of being a “pompous poseur” for taking it upon himself to actually speak his mind and refusing to pal around for a photo op with the man who bravely said “bring ’em on”. By flipping the (obviously sacred) script of having the courage of his convictions once face to face with power, Webb has crossed the type of line that real poseurs like John McCain are too calculating and cowardly to even approach.

Conveniently, Will finds it within himself to be more outraged by Webb’s ostensible incivility than the troublesome fact that American troops are still in Iraq, and no less a connoisseur of quagmires than Henry Kissinger has now declared the situation unwinnable. Speaking of that, where exactly does Will stand on Iraq these days? We certainly know where The Decider stands. Never mind the fact that this same man (a uniter not a divider, remember) literally spent the last few months on the campaign trail doing what he’s done best: drumming up unfounded fear and preying on the baser instincts of the base. Of the myriad abuses of logic and the language that our commander-in-chief has committed, it might be difficult to top the bottoming-out moment when he declared, “However they put it, the Democrat approach to Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses.” This kind of gutter-dwelling pabulum  was appalling and offensive enough to any Democrat (or self-respecting Republican, for that matter), and that is not even taking into account the citizens—like Webb—who have children fighting in Iraq.

Anyone who has not had the pleasure of enjoying Will’s piece, it is highly recommended not only for amusement’s sake, but also to get a blueprint for the disingenuous strategies of the more sycophantic amongst the right-leaning commentariat:

What Will means to say, of course, is “Listen Webb, this is not how it works! Don’t you get it? You are supposed to stop at nothing—including outright falsehoods—to defame and destroy your opponent, and then when you are finally face-to-face, you smile and shake hands. This is politics!”  And Webb’s rebuff was most assuredly not politics as usual, it was instead a refreshing moment of clarity when a Vietnam veteran decided he was not feeling up to the task of glad-handing the man who a few weeks ago was essentially (or, for Will’s sake, literally) saying “vote for this guy and we lose!” Which, among other things, begs the question: lose what, exactly? The hearts and minds of those who were supposed to greet us as liberators? Or lose the war we are waging on “terror”? We are waging a war on terror, right? (Which prompts other nauseating scenarios: for instance, one genuinely shudders to think what knights of the keyboard like Will and company—not to mention the bloviaters at Fox News—would have to say if Kerry had won in ’04 and Bin Laden was still at large. Not that any of this is political you understand.)

In any event, it is difficult to determine what is more disturbing: Will’s feigned indignity or the possibility that he really is indignant and means every word he said. If that is the case, his rant takes on practically unprecedented levels of hypocrisy and embarrassment. Among other nuggets, he opines “In a republic, people decline to be led by leaders who are insufferably full of themselves.” Well, that’s half true: eventually, whether you get results or not, if you are a self-loving blowhard, the public will begin to tune you out. And then there are the unbelievable examples—which coincidentally run rampant in the current administration—like Donald Rumsfeld, who had the cojones to act increasingly superior in reverse proportion to the scale and consistency of his colossal screw-ups. But our current president, The Decider himself, proves the obverse of Will’s point, which is that image is everything, and style trumps substance almost every time, at least in politics. At least for a little while. That it took the public as long as it did to finally start to realize that the smiling man in the flight suit saying “you can’t get fooled again” might not be remotely up to the task is, obviously, unfortunate (and the MSM has no shortage of culpability in this matter), but whatever the tipping point turned out to be (warrantless wire-taps? Katrina? Acknowledged civil war in Iraq instead of mission accomplished?), there is no turning back.

And that is where Webb came in, much to the Establishment’s chagrin. Only in movies does a maverick politician march in, refuse to kowtow to convention, and end up facing down the smirking bully who considered his re-election a shoe in, his birthright. But it’s not a movie, and Webb—for all that can and will be said about his often cantankerous nature—is no lightweight. His credentials and street-cred are unimpeachable. A veteran (like Kerry) who actually has—or had—many allies on the Right and suffers no fools who might try to question his experience or distort his record (unlike Kerry). Could anything have upset the Swift-Boat supporting armchair soldiers than to listen to an angry and articulate critic of their Iraq misadventure calling them out?

Hell hath no fury like a chicken hawk scorned. Well, almost. The only thing that really rankles the holier-than-thou have-mores is when their half-page economic playbook is dissected, once more, for being the elitist, classist and racist dogma that it is. In this regard, Will epitomizes the well-connected insider who leads the charge card of the conservative intelligentsia: ceaselessly pointing out how the pointy-headed liberal elites remain out of touch with the average Americans, all the while parroting the platitudes of laissez-faire economic and social policies that widen the gulf between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.

Not for nothing did Will studiously avoid the substance of Webb’s recent WSJ editorial. As lamely as he latches on to Webb’s “boorish” brush-off of Bush, he lowers his sights to pointing out grammatical errors from Webb’s piece. This from a supporter of our most grammatically-impaired president; it is, as they say, to laugh—except for the part about it not really being remotely amusing. It would be instructive to hear Will’s spin on a few of the facts that Webb points out: that medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance. Wait, we have heard the spin: the free market will sort it out. Also known as, let em eat cake. Or better still, this is America: if you study enough and work hard enough you can do anything you want! That is compassionate conservatism, redux. And, if we are lucky, Webb will be among the first—and hopefully not the last—to bring this discussion more to the forefront of our discourse, and we’ll eventually recall November 2006 not only as the moment the Republican Hate Machine was derailed and repudiated, but a time when new leaders emerged and brought us back toward the light.

In the meantime, expect more of the same from Will and the sore losers stoking the fire on right wing radio, especially if Webb continues to kick the dirt of reality into the entitled kids’ sandboxes. Expect little to change in the next two years, unless well-intended and intelligent leaders like Webb force the issue. Perhaps if Bush had a daughter in Iraq, that would, at long last, give him sufficient pause to reconsider his policies. Or, at least acknowledge that, for some folks, it truly is a matter of life and death. As for George Will, it’s all in a day’s work.

Sean G. Murphy’s publishing credits include PopMatters, Web Del Sol and Phoebe. He is also a contributing restaurant reviewer for Northern Virginia Magazine. His blog can be found at:
Posted: December 5, 2006

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The Pretenders (Review from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

The Pretenders



US release date: 3 October 2006
UK release date: 9 October 2006

Pretenders II


US release date: 3 October 2006
UK release date: 9 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art


cover art

Pretenders II

Meet the New Boss — Same As the Old Boss or, The Great Pretenders

If you were a certain age in the early ‘80s—say, old enough to be out of diapers—you had a crush on Chrissie Hynde. She was, for boys, sort of what Sid Vicious must have been like for girls, although she had the added virtues of being talented and attractive. She was also intimidating: no female singer in rock had ever mixed sweet and sass quite like this, a come-hither twinkle behind that black eyeliner, belied at every turn by a slag-off snarl.

Appropriately, Pretenders was released in January 1980, a swan song for the post-punk palace revolution that never quite panned out. This was an album that immediately demanded its own space, allowing a new band the chance to get its licks in before the eventual onslaught of a decade that, musically speaking, would become increasingly icy and arid. Wearing leather was not yet ironic (or necessarily nostalgic), synthesizers were still mostly on the sidelines, and music videos did not make or break a group: the very end of the 1970s and very beginning of the 1980s were very much transitional years, and it was in the afterglow of the punk rock apotheosis and the slow death of disco that The Pretenders staked their claim.

The almost inimitable alchemy of this band begins with the (obviously intentional?) irony of its name: nothing contrived or insincere here; this was, in fact, as real as it gets. Like any worthwhile act, they wore their myriad influences on their record sleeves, and took much of what they obviously admired and emulated, and built a new foundation that quickly became influential in its own right. It was refreshing, then, and almost miraculous, now, to consider a band that came equipped with attitude and not the posturing, songwriting craft without the all-things-to-all-people earnestness that undermines so many apprentice acts.

Pretenders managed that complicated trick of capturing its time while creating new territory, bringing to fruition the best elements of the incendiary but mostly unfulfilling (aesthetically speaking) music from the punk underground, yet oozing with prescient, almost elegiac overtones of what could have come but never did—for this band in particular and, arguably, rock music in general. As we now know too well, entirely too many bands made music that people listened to with their eyes all through the 1980s. MTV aside, in The Pretenders case, most of this self-fulfilling prophecy was sadly self-inflicted: the original line-up lasted just two albums before drug abuse—leading to two overdose deaths-took its inexorable toll.

The Pretenders caught fire in part because their collective urgencies had been smoldering in semi-obscurity; by the time circumstances brought them together they’d been working for years toward this moment—even if they didn’t fully understand their own power at this point. It is plausible that no other debut album (then and still) came seemingly from nowhere, with such focus and force, such competence and confidence. Only Jimi Hendrix comes immediately to mind as a newcomer whose first official recording signaled the immutable arrival of a genius, somehow already fully formed as a freshman. Suffice it to say, lightning like this strikes only a few times per generation. To be sure, there are plenty of notable bands that give no quarter and blaze their own paths, but it is rare, perhaps unprecedented, to engineer an opening statement this immediate and appealing, which still sounds fresh, edgy and enervating a quarter century later. In short, this is not simply one of the great debut albums; this is one of the great rock albums, period. Obviously, it could never again sound as visceral and derailing as it did in 1980, but it has aged unbelievably well (or better than well considering that nobody makes music like this anymore).

The Pretenders – Kid

That there are indelible songs on the debut, then, is beyond dispute: “Kid”, “Stop Your Sobbing”, and “Mystery Achievement” continue to ride the classic rock radio carousel and “Brass in Pocket” became a ubiquitous anthem, as much a mission statement as breakthrough single. But the hits are more a testimony to the ways in which Pretenders resonated (and resonates) with an enthusiastic audience; it is the ostensibly less known songs that, one by one, add up to a sum total that is pretty well perfect. It is so easy to listen to this record all the way through that it’s also easy to overlook that song by song there is not a sub-par moment. Just listen: the sheer array of styles celebrated is striking.

From the piss and vinegar F-Off attitude of the opening salvo, “Precious”, to the triumphant, all-cylinders closing statement, “Mystery Achievement”, the listener is treated to proto-punk, reggae, ballads (of both the badass and bittersweet sort), even an early excursion into the embellishing art of sampling, courtesy of the then-cutting edge snippet of arcade favorite “Space Invaders”: it is the cumulative effect of this relentless sonic assault that propels Pretenders into that other place. Hyperbole? Cue up “Lovers of Today” and listen to the anguish and vulnerability (that voice!) Hynde brings to bear, revealing the wounded and human heart pumping beneath the red leather jacket.

James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent that should have owned the ensuing decade—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

The Pretenders – Tattooed Love Boys

Incredibly, the follow-up album would likely occupy a more elevated place in the hearts and minds if not for the fact that it had an impossible act to follow. And yet, in many regards, Pretenders II is not only a worthy successor, it’s highest highs—of which there are several—are equal to anything from the first album. And, like the debut, it is not the tunes you hear on the radio that make this an essential addition to any serious and self-respecting rock fan’s collection. Certainly, “Message of Love”, “Talk of the Town” and “Day After Day” richly deserve their rotation on less imaginative DJ’s play lists, but even the first album doesn’t quite run the gamut from defiant (“The Adultress”) to ebullient (“Pack It Up”) to provocative (“Bad Boys Get Spanked”—another early and effective use of pop culture sampling, this time courtesy of the immortal Dirty Harry’s sound bite “You don’t listen do you asshole?”). And then there are the back-to-back beauties, “I Go to Sleep” (another Kinks cover, to match “Stop Your Sobbing” from the debut) and the melancholy longing of “Birds of Paradise”, where again Hynde lets her guard down and ponders “This is the life they say that dreams are made of/ I meant to write but dreams will outlive me…”

All the songs are strong and the band is sharp, stretching themselves (including tastefully subtle employment of brass on certain tracks, particularly the very un-punk French horn on the aforementioned “I Go to Sleep”): where Hynde and Honeyman Scott fairly dominated the first album, that versatility is evenly distributed on the sophomore effort. Martin Chambers (drums) and Pete Farndon (bass) keep the beat and (once more) lay the groundwork of a groove it would have been delightful to hear them develop in the years ahead. Check out the precision and assurance of “Waste Not Want Not”, a four-minute collusion of unifying effect that takes no prisoners and suffers neither fools nor apathy: “Talk, talk, talk, talk about the government/ And not a word about political favour/ Everything touched is my political choice/ The life you take is your political voice.”

The punk bravado and rock ‘n’ roll throat-grabbing is already light years behind, and this is yet another tantalizing intimation of what should have been. It wasn’t meant to be, and the glass will forever be half full because of the unconscionably early deaths of Honeyman Scott and Farndon. And still, the cup overflows, epitomized for posterity on the almost impossibly perfect “The English Roses”: this, as much as any worthy candidate on either album, is the song Hynde was meant to write, the song this band had to play. Here’s the thing: no one makes music like this now, obviously; more important, no one made music like this, ever.

Still not convinced? Thankfully the cup truly does overflow, as these restored releases get the remastered treatment-reason enough to snatch them up-but also contain generous, and revealing bonus tracks. Each album is a two-CD set, with the second disc full of demos and live tracks, including a healthy sampling of the band in fine form from a concert in late 1981, just before the dream ended.

The Pretenders – Message of Love

Pretenders RATING:

Pretenders II RATING:

— 16 November 2006

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Charles Mingus (from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

Charles Mingus

Music Written for Monterey, 1965. Not Heard … Played in Its Entirety, at UCLA


US release date: 26 September 2006
UK release date: 2 October 2006

Mingus Big Band

Live in Tokyo


US release date: 26 September 2006
UK release date: 2 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Charles Mingus

Music Written for Monterey, 1965. Not Heard … Played in Its Entirety, at UCLA

Mingus Big Band

Live in Tokyo

“I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”

Charles Mingus is the gift that keeps giving. With the exceptions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, there is arguably no single jazz artist from the post-bop era whose body of work is as remotely vast, challenging and consistently fulfilling. And now, thanks to the efforts of his indefatigable widow Sue Mingus, our wicked world just got a whole lot sweeter with the reissue of his historic concert at UCLA from 1965.

Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way right up front: This recording is pretty much a miracle, and should be celebrated as such. The circumstances of its conception, performance, disappearance and resurrection seem not only appropriate, but almost uncannily reminiscent of the great man and his life, which too often seemed a ceaseless struggle between exasperation and ecstasy. The story of this recording is yet another installment of the underdog triumphs that defined Mingus’ creative and personal lives. Despite being a musician who’d been making well-regarded records for two decades, Mingus was still obliged to release this album on his own label, initially pressing a mere 200 copies (as always, he did as much as he could with whatever he had). Six years later, when he had the inclination and resources to try it again, he was distressed—though probably not shocked—to discover that the geniuses at Capitol Records had discarded the master tapes (along with other “obsolete custom tapes”, including some Mingus originals and, unforgivably, works by Charlie Parker!). It is, perhaps, difficult to appreciate—or even conceive—in our contemporary climate of spontaneous gratification, a time in the not terribly distant past where incalculable hours of concert and studio recordings were erased or shelved, if they were even recorded at all. Today, it is actually possible to attend a concert and purchase a freshly copied disc of the performance that just occurred. Suffice it to say, this concept was about as feasible as time travel while Mingus roamed the earth.

In September 1965, Mingus returned to Monterey (where he had played an enthusiastically received set the year before) prepared to debut several new pieces he’d composed just for the occasion. For whatever reason, the band was not given anything approximating the time Mingus demanded, and deserved, and his sardonic and cantankerous assessment of the situation is aptly delineated in the complete album title: Music Written For Monterey, 1965. Not heard … played in its entirety, at UCLA. Vols. 1 and 2. Mingus was more than capable of settling grievances—real or imagined—with his mind or his muscle, but mostly, what he wanted was the freedom and opportunity to express himself. Mingus brought an octet with him to Monterey (and then to UCLA) and some of the new material was written with the specific musicians in mind. Mingus often referred to his live engagements as “workshops”, partly because he was testing out new compositions, but also because the compositions were expected to evolve and mutate and, eventually, crystallize in a result Mingus found acceptable. He refused to hand out music or allow the band to write anything down on paper; all he asked was the impossible: he demanded polished improvisation, unscripted perfection—and more often than not, it worked. When he got what he was looking for—no matter how long it took—the results remain unparalleled, and it’s not a coincidence that many of the musicians he took under his intimidating wing did their finest work, and invariably spoke fondly of their association with the maestro. Mingus, of course, was a stern taskmaster: he knew exactly what he wanted, but sometimes wasn’t certain what that was exactly, until he heard it. That his workshops became legendary is an understatement, and no musician (or loquacious member of the audience) was immune from the prodding, encouragement, threats and occasional violence Mingus would inflict if he deemed such measures necessary.

The brilliance of the music assembled on this recording should not be surprising; Mingus was coming off the aforementioned triumph at Monterey the year before, and was less than two years removed from the release of what many consider his magnum opus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which employed more than double the number of musicians—mostly quartets and quintets—he was accustomed to working with. After indisputable masterpieces such as Mingus Ah Um, The Clown and Tijuana Moods already half a decade or more, behind him, he continued to push himself. The sheer audacity of several of these pieces clearly prodded the collective players harder and further than they’d ever gone, and a couple of compositions were not formally recorded until six years later, when they appeared on Let My Children Hear Music. The remarkable quality of the music aside, this recording is an invaluable history lesson of what Mingus sounded like as he struggled, in real time, to get it right, inspired by the high wire act of doing it in front of a paying crowd, and letting those folks watch him fly or die.

A somber tone is set from the start with “Meditation on Inner Peace”, a slow burn of simmering beauty that stretches out a full 18 minutes, giving each musician a chance to contribute. An authoritative, if slightly ominous bowed bass introduction settles into a soft pulse, and then one by one, trumpets, a flugelhorn, a French horn, an alto sax and even a tuba all make their introductory statements, with Dannie Richmond, Mingus’ musical soul mate, circling and punctuating the proceedings in his coolly confident fashion. Next, Mingus is ready to debut the ambitious and immaculately titled “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America”, but the band is not up to the task. After several false starts, Mingus chides the band (much to the audience’s delight), eventually relegating several of them backstage to “figure it out”. As a quartet, the band tackles the self-explanatory “Ode to Bird and Dizzy”, a forcefully swinging workout. Satisfied, Mingus calls the entire band back to stage for another new number, “They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux”, the title indicating that Mingus was as concerned as ever about issues of race, justice and identity, and augmenting the already palpable vibe of political apprehension informing this set. Where Mingus employed mockery and carnival-like double-time for his scornful evisceration of racist governor Orval Faubus (“Fables of Faubus” from Ah Um), here darker tones are in order, and the mood is plaintive as befits the subject matter. Mingus signals out trumpet player Hobart Dotson for particular notice on “The Arts of Tatum and Freddy Webster”, another instance where he pays props to his heroes, and further evidence that any Mingus concert or album is a virtual encyclopedia of jazz history. Finally, everyone is on the same page and the incendiary “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America” (later to be reincarnated as “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Ass Slippers”—possibly one of the greatest titles of any song anywhere): these 11 minutes are the centerpiece of the album and offer an euphoric summation of the joyful noise Mingus made from the early ‘40s until the late ‘70s, which could be described aptly as American or Mingus, since they mean the same thing. After a quick detour to the deep South with the playful “Muskrat Ramble”, it’s back to the here-and-now with another new composition, “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too”. Unlike the more up-tempo and technically proficient version (also to appear on Let My Children Hear Music), this take is slower, soulful and deliberate. One can appreciate how carefully Mingus considered the unique sounds and talents of his sidemen: the song would seem unimaginable without Howard Johnson’s mellifluous tuba, and Mingus sits down at the piano (the instrument upon which he usually composed) and some might be surprised at how well he acquits himself; (those folks are advised to check out 1963’s Mingus Plays Piano, or 1961’s Oh Yeah). Proving once again that timeless art is almost always more applicable to the present day, the concert closes with Mingus narrating (and embellishing) “Don’t Let It Happen Here”, a poem by the German pastor, Martin Niemoller. As the trumpet and tuba lines swirl around him, Mingus somehow brings the themes, concerns and obsessions of the evening’s set full circle when he intones, “All men have a right to freedom on any land”. And after one last furious musical rumble, Mingus repeats words that, sadly, are at least as necessary and relevant today … “Don’t let it happen here!”

That message, and this music, will be around as long as people are here to listen, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the 14-piece Mingus Big Band helping carry the torch almost 30 years after Mingus passed. Under the guidance of Sue Mingus, the band has been playing weekly (mostly in New York City, but also around the United States and the rest of the world) since 1991, and it would not be a stretch to suggest that this is the tightest, most interesting and exciting ensemble on the scene today. The Mingus Big Band is back with another incredible performance, Live in Tokyo, which is being released simultaneously with Music Written For Monterey …. Anyone fortunate enough to have captured this band in action understands that playing it safe is not their style, (not that it would even be possible to attempt a “safe” interpretation of a Mingus composition, as he was stylistically allergic to conformity or cliché). On this set, recorded on New Year’s Eve 2005, familiar favorites such as “Bird Calls” and “Ecclusiastics” are performed along with lesser known gems like “Opus Four” and “Prayer For Passive Resistance”. The highlight of these proceedings is the sublime “Celia”, yet another masterwork from 1957’s East Coasting, which captures the languid and sensitive piano work of Bill Evans—who played on the original—with a wonderful solo by Craig Handy on alto sax. This is important music given new life by an important band, and should not be missed.

Music Written for Monterey, 1965. Not Heard … Played in Its Entirety, at UCLA RATING:

Live in Tokyo RATING:

— 2 November 2006

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Stanton Moore (from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

Stanton Moore



US release date: 26 September 2006
UK release date: 30 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

A Native Son Makes an Unwavering Statement for the City That Made Him.

Musician’s musician? Underappreciated artist? Magnet for talented contemporaries? Stanton Moore is all of these things, and more. And so, even if his third album as a leader does not make him more of a household name, it certainly contributes to an already estimable and original body of work.

That his latest recording, the uncomplicatedly titled III, arrives little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina is both appropriate and inevitable: as much as any present-day musician, Moore is a product of and ambassador for the Big Easy. Born and bred in New Orleans, Moore cut his teeth in the early ‘90s funk band Galactic, and throughout that decade formed friendships and cultivated associations with kindred spirits in and outside of his hometown, which culminated in his first solo outing All Kooked Out!. The line-up on his even better second solo album, 2001’s Flyin’ the Koop, reads like a who’s who of many of the more cerebral jam-band jazzers of the new millennium: Skerik (sax player and sonic provocateur, who has played with seemingly everyone, from Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade to his own incredible band Critters Buggin’), Karl Denson (Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe), and Chris Wood (Medesk, Martin and Wood). At the same time, Moore joined forces with eight-string guitar wizard Charlie Hunter and, along with the peripatetic Skerik, formed the drolly named Garage a Trois, who have proceeded to casually dash off inspired albums, culminating in their latest, 2005’s tour de force Outre Mer.

Less than a month after Outre Mer, Hurricane Katrina hit, bringing New Orleans a one-two punch of Nature’s ire and governmental incompetence, and it is in the wake of this disaster that Moore assembled the band that recorded III. Moore was among the innumerable residents who experienced substantial property damage, but made his presence felt in Katrina’s aftermath, donating equipment and participating in a number of benefit concerts. Needless to say, his decision to record in the renowned Preservation Hall in New Orleans is a statement of both defiance and reverence.

Perhaps because of the self-induced pressure—or lack thereof—of making an album in the French Quarter, Moore has risen to the occasion and produced a very personal, yet engaging effort. As with every endeavor Moore oversees, there is an organic, almost effortless groove, and the funk flows freely. Much of the dirty authenticity this album achieves is attributable to organist Robert Walter (Greyboy Allstars), who composed half of the songs. And those (understandably) expecting to hear Charlie Hunter will be (pleasantly) surprised by the appearance of Will Bernard (T.J. Kirk). Luckily, Skerik lends his inimitable assistance and trombonist Mark Mullins (Bonerama) makes some stellar contributions. The first seven songs cruise along with confidence and a Big Easy élan, as if this group has played together for years. Early highlights include “Licorice”, which sounds like a greasier Medeski, Martin and Wood, with Bernard’s less-is-more soloing providing depth and edge. “Chilcock” is an irresistible jam straight outta J.B.’s territory, featuring some tasty trombone licks courtesy of Mullins. By the seventh track, “Maple Plank”, Bernard really starts to assert himself, and suddenly the thick and frothy organ is undercut with some barbed wire slide guitar while Moore pumps the engine like a cool conductor.

Thus far, the album has been a charged and exciting affair, but it is on the last three songs that the proceedings—thus far very solid—are elevated to something quite special. The trifecta of covers begins with a poignant rendition of Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Water from an Ancient Well”. The stirring restraint of this gorgeous composition is followed by an ominous take on “When the Levee Breaks”, a Delta blues song originally written in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (another remake of which consequently concludes the most popular album of a moderately well-known rock band). A song that at once recalls a recent catastrophe and portends a larger one (which, of course, came to pass), the message is no longer a warning so much as a tribute to powerless voices that should not be silenced. Moore’s snare and the somber organ turn this into a sort of military-style waltz, a properly elegiac treatment of this long-predicted, and arguably preventable tragedy, while Bernard’s sinister slide provides indignant commentary on the sorry state of affairs. And, finally, the “mini-suite” culminates with the spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved”, an appropriately serene declaration that manages to be both triumphant and redemptory. To be certain, this is superlative music performed by artists at the top of their games, and while that is more than enough, some albums simply cannot be separated from the context of their creation. That Stanton Moore chose these last three songs and recorded on the soil that made him a native son only augments this soulful encomium for the city he works in, and for.

Stanton Moore – Sprung Monkey


— 30 November 2006

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African Head Charge: Off The Beaten Track (from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

African Head Charge

Off the Beaten Track

(Anthology Recordings)

US release date: 4 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

World Music from Another World

Think you haven’t heard African Head Charge before? Think again. As is too often the case with lesser-known trailblazers whose iconoclastic work is later aped by opportunistic imitators, the product making the airwaves—and the money—is a derivative of that original vision filtered through more palatable mutations. (Think Elvis Presley.)

Today, for instance, it’s not only unsurprising, but inevitable to hear pop-culture samplings and multimedia sound bites spliced into songs. The apotheosis of this formula—at least in commercial terms—was Moby’s fin de siecle mega-smash Play. Before that, a host of deconstructionist whiz kids, led by DJ Spooky and DJ Shadow (and myriad well-intentioned acolytes with varying degrees of skill and diminishing returns), succeeded in making cerebral, hip-shaking electronic music. But in the halcyon days, the world in world music was created by real instruments in real time, and any honest producer would acknowledge that virtually all roads lead directly back to Lee “Scratch” Perry.

In the early ‘70s, Perry masterminded the use of mixing and overdub in his home studio, the Black Ark, and among his other innovations, most illbient aficionados point to Perry as the first big-time artist to incorporate samples into songs. A wavy line can be traced from Perry’s Jamaican studio to the London underground, where in the early-to-mid-’80s, producer Adrian Sherwood cooked up some incendiary sonic experiments in his own studio for the On-U Sound Records label. It was at this time, in this place, that the still unheralded African Head Charge made history.

How out there is African Head Charge? Well, when über-oddball David Lynch wanted to score the already disturbing torture scene in Wild at Heart—one of those inimitable sequences where Lynch rips back the covers of conventional reality to reveal primal, inscrutable urges and obsessions—he chose “Far Away Chant” from African Head Charge’s first album, the experimental and influential My Life in a Hole in the Ground. That album dropped in 1981, and while much had changed in the world (musically and otherwise), much remained the same when African Head Charge came together in 1986 to craft the seminal and spectacularly titled Off the Beaten Track. While their first album owed obvious debts to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, it was also an insular project combining the talents of producer Sherwood and percussionist Bonjo Iyanbinghi Noah. By 1986, African Head Charge was a collective of crafty veterans such as Jah Wobble and Skip McDonald (both of whom have made incredible, if mostly unheralded contributions to music in the intervening years). The resulting album is the culmination of their discography to that point, a world music manifesto that spans the globe (literally) and provides a virtual blueprint for so many less triumphant imitations that would follow.

But what does it sound like? It sounds like anything and everything (or, to put it another way, it sounds like African Head Charge): funk-dub foundations with sticky rhythms and loops, sprinkled with sick samples that include animal cries, tribal chants, and shouts from both types of jungle—untamed and concrete. Guest MC Albert Einstein even makes an appearance (as in, that Albert Einstein, courtesy of a masterfully sampled use of his recorded voice in “Language & Mentality”). The dog-bark beats in “Some Bizarre” give props to Perry, while making paydays possible for the lucky few who figured out how to water down this modus operandi. The album picks up steam as it goes, becoming increasingly eccentric yet somehow more familiar as it rumbles along. The melodica makes “Down Under Again” sound like a psychedelic walkabout with syncopated beats; in other words, nothing you should ever expect to hear at your local Outback restaurant. The album ends on an enduring and indelible note with “Over the Sky”, a gorgeously deep groove with Middle Eastern music cut by a coolly urgent groove that could easily go on for hours. It has to be heard to be believed.

So, African Head Charge is not easy, and it is not for everyone. For anyone who finds much of what they hear today underwhelming, give Off the Beaten Track a spin and listen to our weird, wonderful world with new ears.

Postscript: One reason African Head Charge has remained more obscure than they should be is because their albums have been difficult—or exceedingly expensive—to acquire; a recent search at shows a used copy of Off the Beaten Track going for $64.35. This recording is, arguably, worth it, but nobody should have to shell out that kind of money. Fortunately, Anthology Recordings has just launched a new website dedicated to making notoriously difficult-to-find records available digitally, and you can snatch a brand new copy of this classic for under 10 bucks. What are you waiting for?


— 12 November 2006

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Invitation To A Suicide (DVD Review from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

Invitation to a Suicide

Director: Loren Marsh

Cast: Pablo Schreiber, David Margulies, Katharine Moennig, Joseph Urla, Matthew Rauch

(Lightyear Entertainment, 2004) Rated: Unrated

US DVD release date: 24 October 2006 (Warner Home Video)
UK DVD release date: 24 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Taking the Concept of “Pay-per-view” to New and Unusual Places

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: guy wants money, guy steals from mobster, guy gets caught, guy is informed that his father is dead unless money gets repaid by the end of the week. Naturally, guy decides to hang himself and sell tickets to pay the debt and save his father. Oh, that last part doesn’t sound so familiar? Of course it doesn’t, and it’s exactly this morbidly fascinating—and quite original—solution to the clichéd dilemma that provides Invitation to a Suicide its intriguing potential. Perhaps unfairly, perhaps inevitably, a premise this potent elevates expectations that, alas, the film is not able to deliver. It’s a shame, as this movie has every opportunity to find new ways around old corners and offer an alternate spin on the dark comedy, but, maddeningly, a series of facile shortcuts and self-conscious stylizing call to mind other, far better efforts.

Kaz Malek (Pablo Schreiber) is the dissatisfied son of a humble father who operates a modest bakery in the Polish section of a busy Brooklyn neighborhood. Not particularly anxious to follow in his father’s footsteps, Kaz daydreams about Eva (Katharine Moennig), the beautiful girl he’s loved since childhood, whom he wants to accompany him to happily-ever-after in California. Neither his father nor his would-be girlfriend seem particularly impressed with Kaz, the goofy, if good-natured, underachiever who might not have any idea what he wants to do, but is beginning to understand that doing nothing is not an option. 

What is an uninspired and unimaginative guy to do? Rob the Russian mobster upstairs, obviously. Fame, fortune, and a road trip to California are one picked lock away. Predictably, the break-in goes up in smoke (literally), and Kaz ends up burning a wad of cash before he and his accomplice flee the scene. The mobster Ferfichkin (Joseph Urla) tracks them down and in short order Kaz has one dead friend and a dire predicament: come up with $10,000 or watch his father get murdered. So what does our hapless hero do to come up with the money no one in his working class neighborhood is able—or willing—to lend him?

The stakes are vivid enough: this is a matter of life and death, and the moment when Kaz decides to sell tickets to his own suicide should propel the movie into a different, if recondite direction. And yet, everything that follows seems familiar and predictable, from the lazily drawn characters to the outrageous, yet obvious, situations that arise. For instance, Kaz’s friend Krysztof, who agrees to host the event at his funeral parlor, is eager to participate and convinced this will generate business. It’s not so much that this isn’t funny so much as it doesn’t make any sense. And yet this is a minor issue that only underscores the more troublesome fact that Kaz is an increasingly difficult character to like or feel much compassion for. After his accomplice gets whacked, Kaz doesn’t give him a second thought, and that false note encapsulates most of what never feels quite right about this film: the putative consequences are very real, yet the various reactions of everyone involved undermine the narrative’s integrity.

No one in the neighborhood, including his own father, seems particularly troubled about his imminent death, and Kaz himself spends more time worrying about Eva’s attention than the fact that he won’t be around much longer to enjoy it. This handicaps the awkward momentum the movie seems to strive for: since none of the characters seem to be taking this seriously, the viewer has little reason to get invested, especially since there is never much doubt that it’s all going to somehow work out in the end. If all the ostensible nonchalance is supposed to provide a perverse commentary on voyeurism and violence, the writing is not clever enough to pull it off, making it a semi-dark comedy that is neither dark nor funny enough. Or, put a different way, the funny parts seem too forced and the occasional, but crucial, moments of import feel strained.

In the end, the wisest move Loren Marsh makes is having secured the involvement of the ever reliable John Zorn, who composed the remarkable soundtrack. The music accompanies the action like a quirky chorus, providing an alternately buoyant and somber counterpoint for the increasingly predictable proceedings. One wishes more was made of the Brooklyn locale, but the Polish experience and surroundings never come to life or function as a vibrant backdrop the way James Gray utilized Brighton Beach in the overlooked but brilliant Little Odessa . Instead, the clunky camerawork and too-cutesy caricatures call to mind the punk affectations of Clerks , that inordinately praised but obviously influential indie caper.

The marketing materials claim that Invitation to a Suicide is in the absurdist tradition of comedies like Harold and Maude , but this type of flattering comparison only serves to amplify the many ways it falls far short of the masterpiece it unwisely attempts to invoke. In order to rank in the pantheon of indelible black comedies, a filmmaker needs to produce an engaging story with memorably eccentric characters, while creating new ways of working through familiar scenarios.  Invitation to a Suicide is simply full of too many obvious faces and easy answers: in a big budget movie they’d be clichés; in this film they are merely disappointments. Nevertheless, it seems fair to hope and even expect that if Loren Marsh could conjure up an idea with this much potential, he has a few more surprises up his sleeve.


— 20 October 2006

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Moby Dick: American Chowder (from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

Blue (Moby Dick) by Jackson Pollock [c. 1943 (150 Kb); Gouache and ink on composition board, 18 3/4 x 23 7/8 in; Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki].

Moby Dick: American Chowder
[1 September 2006]

“Reduced to more practical terms, if Jazz music is gumbo — and it is — the archetypal American novel, with Moby Dick as its progenitor and arguably its apotheosis, is a chowder.” Sean Murphy takes a new look at an old classic.

by Sean Murphy

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If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!
Moby Dick, Chapter 26

When it comes to the state of the American novel, there is nothing — or at least, not very much — new under the sun. And this is not entirely a bad thing. Not when most avid lovers of literature reluctantly acknowledge that the prospect of reading all, or most of the great works of fiction in one lifetime is an unattainable ambition. Sad, but true, and because of this incontrovertible actuality, a well-intentioned or would-be aficionado must aim to separate the proverbial goats from the sheep, and ensure that the books that really matter stand at the top of the list.

For instance, when’s the last time you feel in love with an author and went out and spent a month, or a summer, or a decade devoting your attention to their oeuvre? Even when, like in love, you are lucky enough to find that soul mate of an author, how often do you get the chance to indulge yourself? And then there are the authors you should want to absorb. Have you read all of Dostoyevsky? (Shame on you). All of Shakespeare? (No? Then get thee to a video store). All of Faulkner? (Don’t worry, no one else has either).

The point is, as Tennyson proclaimed, art is long and time is fleeting. And it would seem that because of unexceptional high school and college teachers, the prospect of actually reading a novel is accorded roughly the same anticipatory anxiety as a root canal. This is unfortunate, and the authors of these great books should not be punished simply because most professors are unable to convey the joy that can, and should, accompany the act of reading for pleasure.

Good music and good literature have always seemed to intimidate, or bewilder otherwise open-minded individuals. This is doubtless at least in part due to teachers and critics seeking to justify their own intellectual enterprise by conferring upon art an ivory halo that renders it unreachable by average, simple-minded citizens. Rather than regarding, say, Jazz music or a 19th Century novel as sacred relics conceived by sullen saints, perhaps it would be beneficial to acknowledge, even endorse the actuality that most of these works were produced by individuals whose lives were as conventional as their creative minds were exceptional. Or, reduced to more practical terms, if Jazz music is gumbo — and it is — the archetypal American novel, with Moby Dick as its progenitor and arguably its apotheosis, is a chowder.


Listen: so many novels are meat, or potatoes, or broth, or milk (often watery milk that becomes increasingly rank and repellent as it stands on the counter, or in the bookshelf as the case may be), or a smattering of vegetables. It is the rare and precious novel that is able to (indeed, one that even seeks to) satisfy on multiple levels, aesthetic as well as technical, a work that amuses as well as inspires, a book that informs as well invigorates — a novel that augments or reaffirms one’s belief in what the novel, that most indefatigable form of artistic expression, can do.

Can novels do this? Yes.

What type of novel? Moby Dick.

It is exceedingly ironic that in an age where cantankerous crusaders of classic literature are defending that increasingly endangered species, the not-so-great white male author, there is a text that actually exists which can satisfy both the hegemony-in-a-haystack-hunting Derrida disciples and the pugnacious proponents of tradition: Moby Dick.

The book’s author, Herman Melville — despite getting the unfair (and unjustifiable) tag of boring old white guy, author of the quintessential boring old white guy book about a boring old white whale, not to mention a handful of equally impenetrable short stories (while most high school students are instructed to read Bartleby The Scrivener, most of them — at least partly due to the unfortunate baggage associated with its author — would prefer not to) — is, in fact, quite accessible. Really.

But accessibility is often the enemy of integrity. Why not then celebrate the all-too-infrequent instance that proves to be the exception to the very rules it rewrites? Like any truly lasting piece of expression, the writings of Melville not only have stood the intractable test of time, they incredibly — miraculously — are as viable and valuable to today’s dissolute and desperate, but not altogether dissimilar world. Perhaps resulting from the ever-mercurial moods of the left-leaning academic aristocracy, it has become ironically admissible to dismiss Moby Dick as it once was to venerate it. This would be an unexceptionable development but for the fact that for all the right reasons, this classic American text is also pioneering in its puissant, often sardonic assaults on institutions ranging from the patriarchal status quo, to slavery, to the Puritanical thought-police who cast a long, lamentable shadow on early U.S. history. This book celebrates our itinerant American roots and the notion of positive, peaceful diversity not as an apologetic ideology, but as an empowering, imperative axiom. Melville empathized with the underdog and more important, he understood them — he was one — and his real life experiences help inform the poetic prose that allows these otherwise unrenowned heroes to sing the songs of themselves, proceeding Walt Whitman’s masterpiece by a half-decade.

So: a novel that fulfills on almost every conceivable level, a meditation on our individual essence as well as the push and pull of our similitude as human beings adrift in a turbulent universe that not a little resembles the untamed sea.

If the current, confessional model — a facile forgery not even attempting to entertain, or engage in the possibilities the novel provides — is a bouillon cube: add water (or, the easily-invoked tears of an undiscerning reader) than we might recognize the depth and substance of the real novel. No short cuts, all ingredients carefully chosen, cleaned, cleaved, and combined, simmered slowly over the steady flame of inspiration, seasoned with erudition and integrity, stirred with the passion of purpose (a purpose opposite of navel gazing), and served with the unwavering arm of a confident and direct desire to communicate. It’s that simple, that impossible.

And yet, even the richest, most savory bowl of chowder can sustain one for a limited time, one meal per person. This is why art is sustenance for the soul, a benevolent gift that keeps giving. Find a novel and you’ve found a friend for life, a companion that should lend support and inspiration for any earthly endeavors.

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Steely Dan: The Definitive Collection from

Posted by bullmurph on December 6, 2006

Steely Dan

The Definitive Collection


US release date: 1 August 2006
UK release date: Available as import

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Not Much New at Their Old School. And That’s Cool.

Steely Dan will not be denied. At this rate, within the next decade or so, the total of greatest hits collections will surpass the number of actual albums they made. This, shall we say, lack of restraint does not necessarily become the badass band that famously refused to tour and took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. And yet, the music makes most of their excesses excusable. Unfortunately, there is not much new or provocative in this latest set. Fortunately, it’s still pretty fantastic.

Steely Dan, these days, is kind of like the kid you remember as an insufferable smarty-pants from high school who rolls up at the reunion suddenly the coolest dude in the class. Only more so. They could be accused of many things (and they are), but Steely Dan was never stupid: they knew enough to get out while the getting was bad, and managed to avoid ever making a substandard record. Indeed, their swan song, Gaucho, was not their finest hour, and if the sweetly sung invocation of the semi-obligatory addictions of its time (“The Cuervo gold / The fine Colombian”) is any indication, it’s not a stretch to speculate where most of the royalties from Aja went. After that, they stayed gone, until deciding it was safe to come up for air, touring in the ‘90s and making new music in the new millennium.

Steely Dan remains impossible to pigeonhole, and therein lies their difficult-to-define appeal. How many other bands could boast their jazz influences so brazenly as to build what would become their biggest hit (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) on a Horace Silver standard, and then sing wistfully about Owsley Stanley, the legendary chemist who supplied, among many others, the Merry Pranksters with the fodder for their acid tests (“Kid Charlemagne”)? Answer: exactly one. These guys were smart. They were also shrewd: the best player-coaches of their era, Walter Becker (bass and guitars) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) made albums with a sweet sheen that just barely subdued the strained malaise always lurking beneath. Take “Black Friday”, for instance, which chugs along pleasantly enough until the lyrics kick in: “When Black Friday comes I’ll stand down by the door / And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor”.

A band has to know its limitations, so Steely Dan built their studio of dreams, and sure enough, the players came. Looking at the personnel listed on virtually every song is like reviewing a roster of (mostly) unsung heroes from the ‘70’s: Pete Chistlieb, Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jeff Porcaro—to name but a handful. Notorious control freaks who spurned world tours, and wanting the best of all other worlds, Steely Dan made their unique blend of perfection seem, or at least sound, effortless, conjuring up the production chops of George Martin, the sonic skills of Phil Spector, and the sardonic acumen of Captain Beefheart. Somehow, it worked.

“Sharing the things we know and love with those of my kind / Libations, sensations, that stagger the mind”. Not many white guys could ask the world to call them “Deacon Blues” and avoid coming off like William Shatner. Listening now, it seems safe to suggest that Steely Dan was rock music’s stealthy shadow, filling in some of the dark space between bloated early ‘70s side-long suites and the stripped-down punk rock revolution. These studio nerds’ street cred only escalates in hindsight, especially when considered alongside the pantsuit pomposity of, say, 1975. (Emerson Lake & Palmer, anyone?) Mostly behind the scenes, Steely Dan blazed an eccentric trail no one could copy, with one foot in a past they knew better than to reproduce, the other foot in a future they ultimately became too uncomfortable describing.

And so, another Steely Dan collection? The question should not be who wants this album; the answer is who needs it, and that would include anyone not already in the know. For the uninitiated, it’s a safe bet and hopefully will serve as a gateway to more dangerous Dan. Those seeking familiar favorites will not be disappointed: “Reelin’ in the Years”, “My Old School”, and “Peg” are a few of the usual suspects making another curtain call here. Like most compilations of well-known bands, half the songs have been beaten into banality by unimaginative radio stations, or else, the ultimate sign of dubious immortality, born again as Muzak. None of this, naturally, is the artists’ fault. So it’s hard to quibble with a collection that includes, as it must, the hits. As an incremental bonus, The Definitive Collection features a couple of samples from the Y2K incarnation of Steely Dan, which are just enough to render the glory days all the more immutable. Steely Dan has not died, and they are still the coolest dudes in the class.


— 25 September 2006

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