Julius Hemphill, Dogon A.D. (Arista-Freedom / International Phonograph, Inc.)
Talk about “seminal”– self-produced in 1972 by an unknown saxophonist in what was then a jazz backwater (St. Louis), self-released on Hemphill’s own Mbari label (500 copies printed), brought to vinyl five years later by Arista, out of print ever since and never available digitally. Hemphill would go on to a career encompassing a long tenure with Black Saint and the World Saxophone Quartet, both cut short by poor health. But here is where he began, and where a new conception of “free jazz” arose from a group of like-minded adventurers from various Midwestern locales. At the core of these performances is a recognition that the still-young avant-garde had allowed itself to be led into artistic cul-de-sacs by seeking ever-noisier avenues of expression, a concern that the New Thing’s radicalism was hermetic in a way common to nearly all forms of radicalism. Rather than seeking crossover appeal through electricity, Hemphill and his backbeat-loving cohorts created a funky, swinging, earthy, blues-drenched take on challenging post-60s jazz, with an historical palette wide enough to seize upon aspects of African-American (and, indeed, African) cultural traditions left behind. That is, Hemphill’s focus on the ritual-heavy culture of Mali’s Dogon tribe was no mere dashiki chic, but (as Robert Palmer’s original liner notes excellently outline) a specific attempt to incorporate aspects of a mystical yet cosmographically sophisticated people – people whose musical traditions, manifesting itself mainly through timbre, impacted American music. You can hear this even amid the relatively straightforward pieces, like the noisy “Rites” or flute-thing ballad “The Painter”. But it comes to the fore on 20-minute closer “Hard Blues,” featuring a young Hamiet Bluiett on baritone blowing across a loping blues beat. And the opening title track remains one of the key musical performances of 1970s jazz. Haunting, eerie, ecstatic, rocking, it sets Abdul Wadud’s minimal cello riff – a riff that encompasses both Mississippi Hill Country string bands and rock power chords - against the leader’s revival-style sax and Baikida E.J. Carroll’s buoyant trumpet, while ex-Paul Butterfield sideman Philip Wilson lays down a single-mindedly heavy beat. 1500 copies were printed this time around. Progress, huh?
Theo Parrish, Uget (Ugly Edits) (Ugly Edits)
While this double-disc set is pricey, the original limited-edition disco edits collected here go for even more outlandish prices online, with bootlegs commanding three digit figures from the usual suspects, and of course I’m not going to say they’re worth those sums. But Parrish’s deeply disconcerting recontexualization of supposedly passé aspects of disco/funk (namely, hooks and vocals) remains audacious, unique - dare I say, special. Radical, too, even if his radicalism is so committed to the pleasure principle that its subversive qualities sneak up unawares. Decades of sampling and extended deconstruction at the hands of the dance underground has opened our ears to the avant-garde possibilities inherent in a music once derided as mindless, but at the expense of those hooks and vocals. Thus, by crafting edits that ignore percussion breaks in favor of “random” moments taken from individual documents – moments like Harold Melvin expressing exhilaration mid-song, or the Sugar Hill Gang singing rather than rapping – Parrish can claim he’s merely redirecting our attentions to the human qualities that put these joints over in the first place. If there’s any subterfuge at work here, then, it’s in Parrish’s conceit that dance music function as dance, meaning he’s operating under the same guiding principles as both the performers he highlights and the original club tweakers who unwittingly laid the groundwork for electronica. Only he’s often better at it. If you suspect this overstates the case, I suggest playing GQ’s forgettable 1980 album track “Lies” against the nine-minute edit of same, “Party Going On,” hopefully noting that Parrish highlights the only two good things about it - the killer bass line and a throwaway whine about a party. Admittedly, if you listen to this or any other track a little too closely, your eyes might cross. So just treat it like the highbrow hedonism it is.
The Office Of Future Plans, The Office Of Future Plans (Dischord)
J. Robbins moves on from his old Jawbox and more recent Burning Airlines days to supply the guitar-driven anthemic indie rock noticeably absent from the contemporary scene, with a sharper melodic sense, wider musical canvas, and better cello parts than either of his previous gigs. Sharper politics, too, even if Robbins’ tendency to over-enunciate means his metaphors register clearly the first time around. But simple though they may be, simplistic they’re not – even the seemingly bland band name references both Terry Gilliam and Dick Cheney, highlighting the way mundanity shelters monstrosities. Anybody exhausted by the prospect of tooling through the recently-uploaded Fugazi live archives may well find their earnest politically-conscious multifaceted indie fix right here in easily-digestible 40 minute form, complete with slogans both shouted and crooned – “ambition is our conviction,” “bait and switch,” “hello cryptofascists / hello wailing one percent,” “I wish all your avatars well,” “who do we pay?” But note that reference to crooning above. While he’s loads smarter and sloppier, Robbins at times brings to mind none other than Dave Grohl, which gets a little too close to mundanity (if not monstrosity) for my tastes.
Odonis Odonis, Hollandaze (Fat Cat records)
Campy, derivative, and hardly smart, this noisy debut succeeds when it does thanks to Toronto native and sometime filmmaker Dean Tzeros’ total lack of subtlety. A recorded-in-an-aircraft-hangar mélange of Dick Dale, Pebbles, early Cabaret Voltaire, psychobilly, shoegaze, and whatever else was lying around, this drags only when things slow down or the synths talk over the guitars, which fortunately isn’t very often (although dig those punchy keyboards echoing across “New World). “Basic Training” and “White Flag Riot” supply redline extremity, while the slightly less harsh “Ledged Up” displays enough warped hooks to suggest Tzeros’ healthy pop sensibilities simply choose to bow down before his sturdier noise instincts. The kind of limited-use artifact that can briefly renew one’s faith in the younger generation’s commitment to making rude sounds.
Freddie Gibbs, Cold Day In Hell (LRG download)
As unfair as it may seem to hold free mixtapes to the same high standards as marketplace-tested official releases, you just try telling Frank Ocean downloads don’t count. And then try and convince yourself that the lack of discipline, editing, and inspiration on display here is the fault of format, not artistic vision. Listen to how Gibbs’ repetitive flow gets cold-cocked any time another rapper steps to the mic, with Young Jeezy and Freeway especially ebullient where the headliner plays uncommitted. Check out a production ethos that steadily charts mock-grandiose apart from a few welcome Bobbi Humphrey and Sade (Sade!) samples. And question whether or not somebody who still believes being “motherfuckin’ gangsta” is a conceit worth striving for deserves your time and attention. Escaping the mean streets of Gary, IN in one piece is no joke, and Gibbs’ dissection of black-on-black violence during the urban criminology report that is “Rob Me A Nigga” seems heartfelt enough. Yet his idea of a moral quandary seems to be “fuckin’ my homeboy’s girlfriend,” his notion of a perfect day involves “gettin’ my dick sucked by the neighborhood hoe,” and his grasp of democracy seems stalled at allowing as to how that afternoon dicksucking “bitch might be a hoe / but she’s my homie”. Fair enough. But when I hear a supposed wordsmith repeat the phrase “bitch-ass nigga” for three long minutes, I wonder why he can’t expand on that theme a little.
Indignant Senility, Consecration Of The Whipstain (Type)
Pat Maher’s noise project garnered attention last year when his cassette-only Indignant Senility Plays Wagner saw a digital release courtesy of Type, in which a vinyl Wagner piece (“no one seems to know which one,” a booster gleefully reports) was subjected to enough distortion and manipulation to create an authenticated example of that chimera, “dark ambient”. While conceptually playing off little more than the artist’s audacity, at least that album offered an identifiable shtick, no matter that Maher was too coy or perhaps too otherwise involved to justify his “debasement” of the source material. The absurdities of Germanic mythology, Wagner’s interest in Gobineau-derived Aryanism, Das Judenthum In Der Musik – all potential jumping-off points for Wagnerian discussion, and none of which I’m willing to bet ever crossed Maher’s mind. On the other hand, he seems to have taken as read Wagner’s Schopenhauerian belief that music must defer to dramatic concerns, which is what makes this non-thematic follow-up so surprisingly limpid. Hums, shimmers, crackles, and what an admirer dubbed “opium drones” dominate four fifteen-minute settings that trudge wearily along, soothing at times if rarely as horrific as the auteur no doubt hoped. In other words, this fails to impress. Because despite his hifalutin nods to the European classical tradition and early Modernism, one look at the names he’s bestowed on both band and album suggests Maher’s spent more time studying Nurse With Wound liner notes than familiarizing himself with any artistic canon.