Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 37)


Voguing: Voguing And The House Ballroom Scene Of New York City, 1976-1996    (Soul Jazz)

It would be far too easy to blame homophobia for the de facto ghettoization of voguing, a New York-born African-American drag queen phenomena that emerged concurrent with the hip-hop that would change the world. Only where to assign blame for a movement so self-consciously outsider that historians fail to agree on whether the mid-70s trend burst forth from a club on 2nd & 14th or within Rikers Island? As befits a peripheral comment upon mainstream fashion by adherents to deep code, voguing was by definition impermeable to non-initiates - just sample the many references to gate-crashing “others” that inform the history, from Malcolm McLaren to Madonna and filmmaker Jennie Livingston, sympathetic fans all who made the unforgivable mistake of attempting to convey the good news to the outside world. Plus, voguing itself was intrinsically wedded to live performance, much like happenings or earth art, thereby limiting its ability to connect to non-adherents. Perhaps most vexing, the music voguers worshipped or at least utilized was decidedly second-hand, a literally queer amalgam of latter-age disco, minimalist dance, and unapologetic drama. Which helps explain why this two-disc collection of mostly 1980s dance music is both single-minded and far-reaching, since it necessarily encompasses the post-soul grandiosity of MFSB and Cheryl Lynn, the inanity of Armand Van Helden, the sleaze of Loose Joints, and the micro-detail of 2 Body’s and the “party mix” bitch-queen ethos that is “Cunty”. Hip-hop achieved superiority partly by insisting upon “realness,” just as voguing assured its own cultural obscurity by favoring a “passing” supposedly rendered passé with each hetero-normative stride forward. But no matter. Pair this compilation with Livingston’s stunning Paris Is Burning, admit mere collections will never compete with the glory that was the Meatpacking District of the 1980s, and fuck authenticity as both concept and reality.

The Shins, Port Of Morrow    (Aural Apothecary / Columbia)

Garden State’s claim that “New Slang” would change your life was patently ridiculous, mistaking melody for meaning even as the melody itself certainly added a great tune to history. But meaning has always seemed secondary to James Mercer - secondary to melody, but also to arrangements and choir-boy vocals, if not to the striving towards studio flawlessness that would seem to embody his life’s work. And this single-minded pursuit of the perfect overdub or hook might explain why his songs seem curiously removed from the pressures of real life, even if this latest batch of tunes speaks of dark roads walked, offers a plea to drop tough exteriors, and promises that “the film will end,” by which Mercer means things will get better. That knowing confusion of life with cinema may well speak volumes, as might the deliberate complexity of “Simple Song,” in which piano flourishes and guitar spirals undercut the sentiment. Because there’s nothing simple about the glossy professionalism here, which conjures memories of Andy Partridge as often as it does solo Paul McCartney. Unlike Partridge, Mercer doesn’t seem absurd when he tackles politics, as in his lament for Yankee manufacturing decline in “No Way Out”. But also unlike Partridge, his imagery rarely holds up to close scrutiny, unless you’re brave enough to parse “and made the glitz of a shopping mall another grain of indigent salt to the sea”. Which needn’t be a deal breaker unless you’re drawn to this “band” for their meaning(s). Which you shouldn’t be.


Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball     (Columbia)

No getting around the bombast intrinsic to this election-year offering, from the uplifting us-vs-them of the lyrics to the production ethos that busily layers sound upon sound to the drums that go boom. With all the subtlety of a union rally, Springsteen can’t help but fall victim to the danger awaiting any troubadour hoping to speak for a divided nation - many of these well-intentioned tales are full of vagaries rather than identifiable characters. But the only total failure is the fetishization of back-breaking labor that is “Jack Of All Trades,” in which such noble professions as teaching, caregiving, and writing are left out of a litany that overstates the cleansing purity of sweat. Elsewhere, there’s far more ironic distance at play than those soaring choruses might have you believe, as when “We Take Care Of Our Own” doubles as a call for the reinstitution of social safety nets while conjuring memories of audience members cheering on the death of the uninsured. And musically, this isn’t so much muddled as disparate. Michelle Moore’s brief rap proves no more ludicrous than the standout Irish tunes that beat the Dropkick Murphys at their own game, while the transformation of Tom Paxton’s “Bottle Of Wine” into the accordion/fiddle riff cementing “Shackled and Drawn” is as firmly in the folk tradition as are ambiguous celebrations of violence against the ruling class. Admittedly, union rallies reject subtlety because their demands are more explicit than those of mere artists. But Springsteen has long cultivated that rarest of musical designations, the popular populist. In this, such notable peers as Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger, and Rage Against The Machine cannot compete. After all, the proletariat has always preferred Born In The USA to Nebraska. And while this speaks well for the proletariat, admit that one major reason for this preference is because the drums go boom.

Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden     (Nonesuch)

A familiarity with the original source material this noble outfit recreates and plunders from might explain my rather tepid response - when the mood calls for early twentieth century black string band music, it’s to the field recordings of Sid Hemphill,  the studio output of Andrew & Jim Baxter, or Smithsonian/ Folkways’ peerless Black Banjo Songsters Of North Carolina and Virginia I’ll turn first. So while these three living historians can’t hope to match the ragged charm and unpolished vocals of the original string bands, give them credit for successfully mirroring the anything-goes ethos of the showmen they emulate. Jug band hokum, clawhammer banjo, piedmont blues, minstresly, “coon” songs, and good old pop all had their place in the Baxter’s repertoire, as they do here. And when the Drops pull out the quills for country hoedown “Run Mountain,” they do both Hemphill and Henry Thomas proud. 


The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville     (Columbia)

Perhaps it’s clueless to accuse a purposefully shallow band of empty-headedness. But the secret to silly music - what in fact helps distinguish transcendent silliness from mere idiocy - is to make it sound like you’re having fun. And despite the very impressive flitting about and genre-hopping on display here, what this duo hawks is basic cultural co-optation well-served by a defiantly informed anti-biz sentiment that works overtime to paint a portrait of underdogs fighting the tide. “This isn’t about you anymore / this is all about me,” Katie White insists, and for 33 minutes that feel much longer, she doesn’t let you forget it. They quote Nirvana, they go electro, they rap, they stretch an “is-she-really-going-out-with-him” into three minutes of banality, they supposedly scrapped an entire earlier album in favor of this one after stumbling upon “this new sound”. Stumble is right.

Shooter Jennings, Family Man     (eOne)

Waylon’s boy’s got a wider vocal range than his old man’s, but he does much less with it, too coy on The Eagles-soundalike “The Long Road Ahead” to complete the phrase “full of shit,” although he does set up the rhyme. Maybe this kind of self-mythologizing and offhanded pride in middle-of-the-road boorish behavior enlivens somebody’s Friday night - a few tracks here would no doubt sound all right going down in a cozy bar between bottles of IPAs. Only why do I suspect Shooter’s the kind of outlaw who prefers Bud Lite to the harder stuff, since you get to surround yourself with more empty bottles before you start to feel the effects? And try not to spot the lyrical tropes from a country mile away. He asks Jesus to turn his water into wine, warns of opening that Pandora’s box, recites a “Southern Family Anthem” that involves cousins getting hitched, and drawls a tale of a black dog lurking over yonder hill. When his requisite soft side gets revealed, it’s in the way of Thanksgiving dinners and a certain love interest. “She got a special way / makes me happy every day,” and “when I’m feelin’ low / she reminds me that there’s always tomorrow”. Very sweet. Although such vague platitudes make one suspect this certain love interest is as much an artificial creation as the phantom black dog.