Mekons, Ancient & Modern 1911-2011
Thirty years in, and still this Marxist punk collective has the ability to confound. Despite an ironclad reputation as critic’s band par excellence, more than one cultural parser has dubbed this latest effort “opaque”. Not that Jon Langford and crew ever traffic in the obvious. But merely skim the lyrics and of course the quasi-theme of Edwardian Era social change will pass you by – aside from blues singer Geeshie Wiley and the 1910 L.A. Times bombing, few explicit references are made. But examine that bombing allusion – how the botched act on the part of two Iron Workers led to the violent end of the labor movement in Los Angeles, and how Langford weaves it into a broader theme of betrayal, including romantic disillusionment. Then consider how the Edwardian Era saw the radicalization of marginalized classes at a time when magnates and barons controlled the wealth, events deployed here via snapshots rather than timelines. All set to a soundtrack that’s artificially English “trad”/folk/music hall (“I Fall Asleep” may well be the loveliest song in their vast repertoire, with a rejuvenated-sounding Tom Greenhalgh emoting over creaky piano). And scattered throughout are these thoughts, which reflect our own dire times as much as the past: “My barren thoughts chill me to the bone”; “Nothing happens twice”; “Freedom and home is not our department”; “The further your story is from the truth/the more you need propaganda”. You call that opaque?
DaVinci, Feast Or Famine
Eight song EP from young Bay Area rapper, and he’s a throwback in more ways than one. The easy-rolling grooves are built off samples suggesting 1970s block parties, chock full of wah wah guitar and old school gangsta lean - no less an artificial construct than G-Funk, perhaps, but warmer. High times are clearly valued, as “Smoke The Night Away” and “Beer, Bitches, & Bullshit” suggest. But DaVinci also seems fully cognizant of the devastation wrought on the urban community via a drug culture that is pure venture capitalism. He blames a government that handed over 40 kilos and a crew as reparation, but he also blames his toothless homies for snorting their brains numb. And while he brags that he “ain’t a playa/I just bone a lot,” he then steps aside to allow female MC Ginger several verses to tear him a new one. “Boomerang Principle,” that one’s called.
Mariachi El Bronx, Mariachi El Bronx (II)
The Bronx is an L.A. punk band that transmits relatively straightforward hardcore with slight classic rock leanings. Mariachi El Bronx is a side project that developed out of a desire to play acoustic shows without falling back on demo tapes, and the name is no joke – this really is mariachi music (with detours into norteño and bolero), albeit filtered through a completely gringo band with slightly rougher drums and unapologetically Anglo vocals. Not that the drums in any way “rock,” and not that those vocals are going to win over any skeptics (strictly affairs-of-the-heart lyrics play their part, too). Purists will no doubt balk. But this is good-hearted and fun, an insistence that Southern Californian culture encompasses far more than surfing and Beverly Hills. Cultural appropriation, sure. Just like breakfast burritos.
Tony Bennett, Duets II
Bennett’s earlier collaboration project was a failure precisely because so much of the assembled talent had so little to contribute– George Michael, Tim McGraw, Sting? On this follow-up, there are still plenty of interlopers, well-meaning and otherwise. The great pipes of Aretha Franklin and Queen Latifa simply don’t mesh with Bennett’s suavity, John Mayer struggles to work up camaraderie throughout a talky “One For My Baby,” and k.d. lang has reworked this particular tract of land for a few too many years. Far less noble are the halfhearted barfs of supposed high culture from the mincing likes of Josh Groban and opera lightweight Andrea Bocelli, or the American Idol anonymity of Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, and matriarch Mariah Carey. So what, if anything, saves this? Three young female vocalists conversant with a jazz vocal tradition not yet vanished – Norah Jones’ breathy sexuality, Lady Gaga’s highball of class and sass, and the late Amy Winehouse’s channeling of Dinah Washington, all complementing Bennett’s big-hearted professionalism. Exercise your downloading rights and investigate.
The Stepkids, The Stepkids
The problem with this three-man white guy soul/funk revival outfit isn’t their lack of groove – having toured with 50 Cent and Lauryn Hill, they’re no pretenders. The problem is what they think constitutes great soul/funk. Not Sly Stone, try as they might to echo that murky There’s A Riot Goin’ On sound. Not Al Green. Not even the O’Jays. Instead, they find inspiration in the obscure regional acts The Numero Group goes nutso over, those eBay items with a few decent breaks, fuzz bass, and Fifth Dimension vocals. Certainly succeeds as some kind of pastiche, which is to say it doesn’t really succeed at all. And even with an “Intro,” “Outro,” and an extended mid-disc spacey interlude, they barely break thirty minutes running time.
Total Slacker, Thrashin’
Plodding lysergic-acid stained tribute to 1990s alt rock, or maybe just the 1990s, viewed through tinted glasses with a weakness for pop cultural detritus. From our current vantage point, it’s easy to feel some nostalgia for a time and place seemingly as flush with good times as the post-war ‘50s of legend. Only these history scholars deploy selective memory, ignoring Oklahoma City, NAFTA, and Stacy Koon in favor of Crystal Pepsi, Bagel Bites, and that perennial source of hilarity, outdated technology (VHS tapes appear in at least two songs). Wonder what these guys really took away from Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which lamented meaningless jobs and an arid mainstream culture as much as it celebrated a bored state of over-education. Also wonder what these self-proclaimed “Thyme Travel[lers]” (hawhawhaw) would do if they managed to go back and meet Miles Davis, as they discuss with some hope. Ask him how he likes the Crystal Pepsi?