7.29.2005

Errol Brown & the Sky Nations Band,
Medley Dub



Not so long ago, an acquaintance was curious as to my stance regarding drugs. The response was immediate and truthful: I own many dub albums. Several posts within No Condition Is Permanent come with recommendations for cocktails appropriate to the sounds at hand; with today’s post, I can only hone my flair for the obvious: Herbalizers, start your vaporizers!

Yes, herb and herb alone will provide the change of mind best matched to today’s offering,
Medley Dub. The album embodies the allure of dub, Jamaica’s contribution to electronic music. As is common knowledge by now, dub was born in Kingston's studios. There, recording engineers deconstructed the multi-track tapes of songs, playing mixing board faders as one might play a piano's keys. The singer's track would be dialed out, so that DJ's could 'toast' atop rhythms embellished with splashes of reverb and runaway tape echo, effects borrowed from Ennio Morricone's scores for spaghetti westerns, these films being fantastically popular in Jamaica. (The English music historian and theorist David Toop, ever wise, once described Morricone as 'a straight line drawn between Puccini and dub reggae.')

Medley Dub
exemplifies this form early in its evolution. In these re-imagined 'versions,' non-sequiturs gallop out of the shadows, only to fade seconds later; imagine a reggae band performing on the far bank of the river Styx, its vocalist occasionally struck by lightning. George Melly’s description of '60s psychedelic music (from his essential Revolt Into Style) serves dub equally well: "Objects appear and disappear, metamorphosis becomes a commonplace." The songs have been stolen out from under their singers. Only apparitions remain, shadowy voices drifting through the studio reverb unit, the sound of fata morgana. Bass and drums rule the dance to seismic effect. Logic becomes immaterial, just so much smoke in the grooves of hastily pressed vinyl.

I was one lucky college student. My initial exposure to dub, and to Jamaican music in general, occurred in the living room of Martin Walsh, film professor, armchair Marxist, hedonist without constraint and an unapologetic skirt-chaser. (My first experience of psychedelics took place in Walsh’s front room, too, recalled in my “Epiphany” essay for the U.K. periodical,
The Wire.) Walsh, an Englishman, had recently moved to Canada. Jamaican sounds were already well established in his menu of rococo appetites. The Walsh collection was well-stocked with lp sleeves whose crude two-color printing exuded rude magnetism: the Twinkle Brothers Rasta Pon Top, Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, Prince Far I’s Psalms For I. Best of all, he thought Bob Marley was dull. (Curiously, Martin adored Springsteen and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Go figure.)

Prof. Walsh was my ticket in. Early on in our acquaintance, he put Augustus Pablo’s King Tubbys Meets The Rockers Uptown on the turntable. Immediately, I witnessed a mere 12" vinyl disc threaten the structural integrity of his Victorian house. I sat very still, impressed into silence. It was as though I had discovered moving pictures by bumbling into a screening of
Citizen Kane in time for the establishing shots of Xanadu.

I wasn’t able to score my own copy of
King Tubbys… immediately. My professor took me along on shopping trips to Toronto’s Caribbean ghettos in search of rootical vinyl. There we would stroll past sullen black women seated beneath hair dryers; the best albums were found in the back of Monica’s, a beauty parlor on Eglinton. Medley Dub was my first purchase on one such foray. The cover was sealed with tape that had stained its cardboard. The price was inscribed on the sleeve with scarlet grease pencil. There was next to no information at all beyond the track titles and an engineering credit. Already worn-looking and smelling of permanent solution, the record promised dark stuff. I had the goods in hand, all I had to do was buy the thing. Needless to add, Medley Dub delivered in spades.

In his excellent notes for the Musical Feast compilation, Heartbeat label proprietor Chris Wilson offers a respectful depiction of Sonia Pottinger, the producer whose High Note imprint originally issued
Medley Dub. Her productions, in his words, “…were characterized by a thoughtfulness, and a certain innocence.” (Wilson refers to the producer as ‘Mrs. Pottinger’ throughout, even in the subtitle of his compilation. Manners and respect will always carry the day here at NCIP.) That innocence was balanced by the Mephistophelian touch of engineer Errol Brown. His many early dub releases include the Treasure Isle In Dub series and, alongside those of King Tubby (a deity who walked among us as a man, at least until he was shot in his front yard), helped to define dub in its nascent years during the early '70s.

Errol Brown’s dub mixes make a good case for the position, still held by many a dub aficionado, that great dubs can only be fashioned from four-track master tapes. Even so, Brown manages to isolate fragments of the music at critical junctures, summoning drama, mystery and even comedy when least expected. Hearing the brass section solo’ed as the players tied into the central riff from “Lazy, Crazy, Hazy Days of Summer” must have had dancers in Kingston’s yards smiling in spite of the humidity. Soon enough, dub would enter its surrealist/dadaist phase, where doorbells and test tones and cuckoo clocks accessorized the mixes compiled within Joe Gibbs’ African Dub series or the much-chronicled mid-‘70s output of Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio.
Medley Dub was the acme of an earlier moment, when the spry rhythms of rock steady had yet to slow down; the transition to the gravitas of ‘70s cultural reggae rhythms had begun. As you will hear, the dark stuff was already seeping in.


Medley Dub @ 160

7.21.2005

Leland "Atta" Isaacs, Atta



I began my last post with an aside on the dearth of female record producers down the ages. Said aside quickly snowballed and very nearly pushed my album notes to the periphery. Since I am fond of the thought that nothing succeeds like an excess of excess, I will now continue in that vein, extolling the merit of one more lady producer: Margaret Williams, proprietor of Tradewinds Records. Allow me first to decorate the stage:

Much has been written about the ‘70s renaissance of roots music in Hawai’i, spearheaded by the immortal Charles Philip “Gabby” Pahinui. Some musically sensitive honkies in G-8 countries are familiar with his slack-key and lap steel guitar playing, owing to a mid-'70s collaboration with Californian guitarist Ry Cooder over the span of two Gabby Pahinui Band albums, both of them thoroughly enjoyable. Additionally, Gabby made a 1976 guest appearance on Cooder's own Chicken Skin Music. Pahinui was the acme of soulfulness. His innate authenticity was evident from note one forward, both in his singing and playing, and in this regard he compares favorably with England's Robert Wyatt. Hawaiians still regard him as musical royalty, which is saying something given that actual titled folk have done their fair share of songwriting in Pahinui’s native archipelago. (He didn't live like royalty, though; Gabby worked on road crews throughout his adult life.) If you can find any of the half-dozen Gabby Pahinui albums issued on the Panini label, the great work of Gabby’s later years being impetus for Steve Siegfried to launch Panini, please buy these without pausing to think about it. You can thank me later.

Leland ‘Atta’ Isaacs was a central figure in the Cooder-produced Gabby Pahinui Band. He and Gabby recorded as well for Margaret Williams’ Tradewinds label; their duet album, Two Slack Key Guitars: A-Livin’ On A Easy, plays like maypole ribbons unfurling in slow motion, mixes well on warmer days with the traditional recipe for Pimm’s Cup, and is too short by half. Possibly aware of this last fact, producer Williams, when reissuing Two Slack Key Guitars... on aluminum, added four cuts from another Tradewinds album she had produced. An instrumental set, Atta also was frustratingly concise, but within its limited playing time managed to showcase all that is beguiling about a most Hawaiian invention, the tuned-down acoustic guitar format known as slack key. Atta also made a very good case for Mr. Isaacs as a stand-alone artist. The pianist George Winston is a slack-key maven non pareil; his Dancing Cat label put state-of-the-art technology in the service of Hawai’i’s best guitarists. Dancing Cat CD packaging might be demeaned by the expression 'labor of love,' with booklets supplying history, tunings, family trees, everything short of the brand of beer consumed during the sessions. Yet, for all Winston’s commendable efforts, I don’t think he’s ever nailed anything like the jeweled movement that is Atta.

And so, to the record’s producer: When trying to locate a copy of Atta many years ago, I mailed a note to the Tradewinds address in Honolulu. Months later, Ms. Williams herself responded with a handwritten letter, explaining that she had closed the label. She thanked me for my interest. She also enclosed a copy of the Atta lp, gratis. I was given to understand that she had retired to Richmond, CA., a place where the right piece of property nets a swell view of huge oil tanks. So this is where Hawaiians retire. Go figure.

For her part in the proceedings, Ms. Williams earned marks as a producer whose good taste will outlive her. Her liner notes point out that “Atta uses a new 12-string guitar with delightful results.” By my own cynical lights, ‘delightful’ qualifies as a treacly Victorian descriptor on all but the sunniest of days. Producer Williams obviously has dignity to spare and her use of that word connotes her joy in knowing the job was done well; it seems obvious that she was proud of Atta in his accomplishment and quietly proud, too, of her own work in the control room. The recordings made by Ms. Williams play to the gleam of Isaacs’ steel strings, his laid-back brio and that of the trio accompanying him on each cut. I’d like to think that Atta’s brother Norman played double bass as other Hawaiian players have, which is to say like just another guitar, the huge instrument laying sideways across his lap.

POSTSCRIPT: Though I’ve tried to keep this journal — blog has an uncomfortably urological ring to it, don’t you think? — free of personal testimony save for that which reinforces the picaresque contours of my own reputation, I will make an exception for the moment. A bright spark in my life, Six Degrees Records publicist Louisa Spier, was recently married in Hawai’i. (Pamelo Mounk’a fans will note that her given name ends in an ‘a.’) As the Emily Post grace period for wedding gifts may have expired, I will dedicate this archival transcription to Louisa and her still-new husband, Rob, the latter a good catch, being both biker and hedonist.

ATTA (@160)

7.15.2005

King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, Ajoo


To describe female record producers as scarce on the ground is to understate the case. Female producers, as opposed to session players and record executives, are next to non-existent throughout the history of pop music. As such the central character of the otherwise regrettable feature film Laurel Canyon, Frances McDormand’s sexually omnivorous record producer, was really the stuff of myth. The women I’m aware of who run recording sessions are deeply impressive, though. Two of my favorites have real-deal engineering chops in addition to possessing good taste, a combination you’ll find not so often as you’d think with their male counterparts. Leanne Ungar has worked extensively with Leonard Cohen, has engineered soundtracks for John Sayles’ films and film composer Cliff Martinez, among others. She shaped the sound of Lewis Furey’s eponymous 1974 debut album for A&M Records; this last item exerted mammoth influence during my formative years and continues to do so. (A wonderfully informative feature/interview with Ms. Ungar ran in Tape Op, No. 30, July-August 2002.)

The other great lady producer I can name is Catherine Lesevre. She was one among a group of French bohemians — Martin Messonier, producer of King Sunny Adé’s three Island Records releases, was another in this group — who went to work as scuba divers on the oil derricks along Nigeria’s coastline, fell under the thrall of Afrobeat firebrand Fela and wound up working in Lagos' music scene. Lesevre has engineering credits on Adé’s second Island effort, Synchro System. However, she recorded and mixed the altogether more satisfying Ajoo; both were put out in 1983, with similar cover photography, though Ajoo was never released in the West.

Ajoo is among my favorite juju albums, possibly one of my favorite dance music collections, full stop. It certainly represents the most satisfying balance of Yoruban rhythms and contemporary music technology. Synthetic timbres are woven into these extended tracks with commendable subtlety and invention by Ms. Lesevre. A ray-gun pulse, which might be the coolest synth patch, ever, forms the spine of “Gbeyo-gbeyo.” The Clavinet of Doom reasserts itself during Ajoo, as do pedal steel guitar notes beamed in from the ionosphere, courtesy of NCIP favorite Demola Adepoju. Ms. Lesevre trims the sails of King Sunny’s backing vocalists and nets the best call-and-response performances found on any of Adé’s records.


When King Sunny Adé and his African Beats first toured North America in 1982, much was made of the all-night sets he and the band would play at his club in Lagos. They played sets of conventional duration in the States; little did any of us honkies know that his Nigerian audience wouldn’t have dreamed of going home in the darkness. Lagos makes Detroit (my hometown) seem like a walk in the park; the band simply had to finish in daylight, out of consideration for its audience's safety. Still, when I hear Ajoo, even now I have no problem imagining a big crowd dancing on a walled-in patio until well after those goddamned little birds start singing at 5am.

Ajoo also occasions meditation on directions not taken and aborted missions. Both Adé and his producer Martin Messonier have mentioned, in retrospect, how much the sessions for the African Beats’ final Island disc, Aura, were influenced by the sound of Michael Jackson’s globally successful Thriller. The sound concocted by Jackson and producer Quincy Jones took then-emerging synth, sequencer and signal processing technology to another level, making Thriller one of the first true examples of cyber-funk. Correspondingly, the sci-fi ambience of Adé’s Aura was not a slick patina applied to roots music like so much digital eyeshadow, but a means to update juju’s staple talking drums and electric guitars with new textures and motorik rhythms, good things both.

Most African music fans in the West, then and now a hidebound lot, found little to like about Aura. I got a big kick out of it, though, and only wished it had been longer. I still wish that Messrs. Messonier, Adé and the African Beats had been able to pursue their Blade Runner-in-Africa vision further still. They did, in fact, on the soundtrack of director Robert Altman’s ill-fated O.C. & Stiggs, filmed in 1984. Then Adé was dropped by Island — even a cameo appearance by Stevie Wonder (playing chromatic harmonica through a harmonizer on “Ase”) couldn't help Aura’s sales — and O.C. & Stiggs went (deservedly) unreleased for three years. The African Beats were then disbanded, Adé’s working relationship with Martin Messonier was terminated and a period of retrenchment began. King Sunny Adé continued to make new records at his accustomed rapid clip, but increasingly his late ‘80s albums released to the African market sounded much like one another: all of them competently played, disingenuously cheerful and, for devotees of long standing, ultimately dispiriting. False bravado and badly-tuned synthesizers permeated many of these post-Island projects, whether performed by his new Atom Park band or a later iteration of the African Beats. As Iggy Stooge once sang: No fun / My babe / No fun. To our good fortune, owing to the thoughtful ministrations of Catherine Lesevre (and the piratical archiving of No Condition Is Permanent), we have Ajoo, being Big Fun and then some.

AJOO

7.11.2005

King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, Maa Jo


Once more, a Nigerian release from juju potentate King Sunny Adé: Maa Jo. Those long familiar with Adé’s music doubtless will recognize a couple of the songs in its lineup, being the title track and “Penkele;” both of these appeared in re-recorded versions on Adé’s second Island Records release, Synchro System, with neither of the latter being nearly so enjoyable as the renditions heard here. Maa Jo and Synchro System were issued in 1982 and 1983, respectively. (As before, thanks and praise most high for the scholarship of that most estimable Mr. Endo!) Following the wonderful Juju Music, where engineer Paul “Groucho” Smykle integrated Jamaican dub mixing techniques alongside Adé’s phalanx of talking drums and electric guitars, Synchro System seemed faintly disappointing, its contents an assembly of fragments that never managed to coalesce. It should be noted, however, that Synchro System still outshone the lion’s share of other releases from the darkening years of the early '80s.

Maa Jo shares good qualities with others among Adé’s Nigerian output, as have been and have yet to be featured on No Condition Is Permanent: prominent roles for vibraphone and marimba, before synthesizers took their place; minimal compression; seriously non sequitur guitar flourishes and solos of quixotic appeal; once more, Demola Adepoju’s pedal steel guitar; the organic miasma of a West African recording facility preserved within the record’s microgrooves, as is happiness in near-palpable quantity. Let’s hear from D.H. Lawrence: “Work can be fun and men can enjoy it.” His words describe, better than any number of mine could, the sound of the African Beats rocking in the deeply non-air-conditioned studios of Decca West Africa (for the dripping wet proof, see the Konkombe installment of director Jeremy Marre's Beats of the Heart documentary series). No subtext, this; Maa Jo’s performances are infused with sweat and contagious enthusiasm in equal measure. I believe it was also Lawrence who said, “I can tell it’s spring, there is estrogen in the air.” There you go, news and the weather, too, from the pen of a transcendental hedonist. When I post the Lijadu Sisters in the near future, I’ll be reminding you of that one.

Wait…there's more. Witness, if you will, a quote from the Maa Jo liner notes, credited to Alma & Co. Promotion, Ibadan:

Chart-buster “MAA JO” lends itself to a dancing forum where even a lame man would never resist temptation to tap his feet in response to the high-calorie effects of the album’s percussive up-tempo vibes.

I didn’t make that up. I do appreciate the sentiment, though, especially the high-calorie bit.

Next up is Ajoo, the second volume of King Sunny Adé’s Nigerian alternatives to Synchro System, and so very fine in its own right, a 1962 Studebaker Hawk Gran Turismo coupe among juju albums. Please stay tuned.

MAA JO

7.06.2005

Demola Adepoju, Olufe-Mi



Pedal steel guitarists are practitioners of an arcane discipline, on par with the medieval harp or the ondes martenot. Possibly for this reason, steel players draw the wagons in a circle at social gatherings. Stand near two or three or more of them at a Fourth of July picnic and, if you are listening as the guitarists’ compare notes and complain about pedal flexibility or string gauges or the heft and finish of the large piece of smooth metal they use to barre chords and bend notes, you will lapse into a drowsy, dopey state that caffeine can't touch. The English saloon singer and art historian George Melly once generalized trombonists as the most neurotic of musicians, perpetually worried that their slide might be dented or bent. Melly obviously never met anyone who played pedal steel.

What the pedal steel fraternity made of Demola Adepoju, when King Sunny Adé and his African Beats first toured the U.S. circa ‘82, remains the stuff of conjecture. Demola was not your standard issue Nashville session guy, this much was certain. He was black. He played barefoot. He didn’t use a volume pedal, though he did use lots of signal processing. Sitting at the side of the stage, nodding his head in a near-somnolent state, he’d occasionally tear off reverb-drenched solos whose individual notes sounded like so many comets passing near Earth’s orbit. Demola was the type of pedal steel player (the late O.J. "Red" Rhodes, featured on Michael Nesmith's solo lp's, being another) capable of transforming a C&W cliché into a rural synthesizer.

Olufe-Mi is the only solo lp by Demola Adepoju of which I’m aware; this is the only copy I’ve ever encountered. Its four tracks could be thought of as Nigerian juju in chamber format (well, except for “Igba Aiye,” which sounds like a reggae cover of a Mac Davis song), with a very few players simulating the impact of Adé’s much larger band. That band had dissolved by the time of Olufe-Mi’s release in '85. Class act that he was, Adepoju still thanked King Sunny in the liners for the latter’s ‘Golden Advices.’ He also thanked Roger “One Take” Steffens, founding editor of The Beat, perennial M.C. of Los Angeles-area reggae shows and prime mover on the Bob Marley postmortem lecture circuit.

In the '80s, Demola Adepoju toured & recorded with the African Beats, played on Paul Simon’s Graceland album and was accorded a sidebar article in Guitar Player magazine. He lived and performed in the D.C. area for a while, post-Adé, before being turfed out of the U.S. on visa grounds. I have no idea of his activities during the past fifteen years. I hope that he’s doing well, as he deserves that much, if only for having made this most impressive album.

TECHNICAL NOTE: Ordinarily, I attempt to excise the scars of overplayed vinyl manually, drawing out the clicks and some of the distortion inherent in elderly microgroove recordings with the help of the pencil tool in Pro Tools editing software. Our last posting, Private Line, required several evenings’ worth of eye-crossing attention and the whole thing began to feel less like a labor of love and more like a morning paper route in winter. Then I scrutinized the sole copy available of Olufe-Mi, which had obviously been played with a darning needle for many years prior to finding sanctuary in an audiophile’s archive. For a day, I inhabited despair. A close friend, who has saved my sanity on more than one occasion, suggested the Restoration plug-in bundle offered by Waves. This suite of TDM plug-ins allows very nearly complete removal of the scar tissue common to decrepit vinyl. Olufe-Mi was my trial run with these tools and I’m pleased to report that they work without eliminating music, when used in moderation. Like that impulsive kid in the NRBQ song who discovers caution at the last moment, I will live to climb again.

I'll probably do a line of No Condition Is Permanent t-shirts, too, should demand warrant same. Yes, I'm hinting here, people.

OLUFE-MI
(vinyl coutesy of Dan Meinwald, E.A.R., USA)

7.02.2005

King Sunny Adé & His African Beats,
Private Line


Bobby, from 1983, was our initial case study of the albums made by Nigerian juju potentate King Sunny Adé for his native market. Next up we have Private Line, a 1978 lp cut by Adé with assistance from the African Beats. One side contains the original “3-6-5 Is My Number (Dial),” later re-cut in condensed form for his first Island label release, 1982’s Juju Music. Stood shoulder to shoulder, the two versions yield telling clues as to juju music's evolution over the brief span of six years. Acoustic instruments (most notably vibraphone, a glistening presence throughout Private Line) were replaced, come the '80s, by polyphonic synths such as the Prophet 5. The French producer Martin Messonier (Amina, Cheb Khaled, Papa Wemba) worked with Adé on all three of his ‘80s releases for Island, and obviously cracked whip on the African Beats. Though still fairly laid back and loaded with loopy charm, most evident via Adé’s come-on line sung in hooked-on-phonetics English, his band plays the later Island version of "3-6-5..." like they were trying to catch the last train out of town. The 1978 “3-6-5…” sounds nearly sleepy by contrast, with not much in the way of compression, its chorus vocals sporting an impressionistic take on intonation.

Several elements coalesce to make this lp a compelling listen. Adé evidently set up his stage P.A. system in the studio (cf. the Stooges’ Funhouse) adding otherworldly reverb to his voice; Demola Adepoju, whose pedal steel guitar at this juncture still represented a novelty within juju, sprayed bent notes and berserk ornamentation in the “What, me worry?” style of pianist Lenny Tristano. Also, Demola toyed with signal processing during these sessions, the radical timbre of his fuzz-tone steel rivaled only by that of Sneaky Pete Kleinow during the first iteration of the Flying Burrito Brothers, some ten years previous.

And then there is the Clavinet of Doom. Both sides of Bobby hung instruments and voices on the clothesline of a cheap drum machine’s beats; here, the same effect was achieved by substituting a Hohner D6 for the beat-box, the former tapping out a slowly mutating riff, its subtext fraught with menace and bad vuggum.

By the mid-‘80s, Adé was dropped by Island Records after failing to conquer American audiences, as Bob Marley had previously done for that label. Adé then dissolved his wonderful band, the African Beats, in a fit of creative insecurity. Many writers of the day — and, possibly, some Island Records employees — hypothesized a fatal flaw in the otherwise winning sound of King Sunny Adé and his African Beats. Consensus had it that Adé's tendency to sing mostly in a language understood only by Nigerians was, for all intents and purposes, his commercial Achilles Heel. Even the aw-shucks transliteration of “3-6-5…” wasn't enough to put him over. I just thought he was too nice a guy to make it in the States. It didn't matter that you couldn't understand his Yoruba dialect; just from the tone of his voice, you knew he was singing about his mom. Ike Turner or Peetie Wheatstraw, he was not. Scam artists, cads, heels, grifters, roués and other such undesirables settled America, and many of their descendants continue to make its best pop music. Others of them write about that music.

Though, I'll admit I hadn’t heard the clavinet snaking through both sides of Private Line when I made that call; that such a rudimentary performance could force a character reassessment continues to impress me. It's nasty.

PRIVATE LINE (@160)
(vinyl courtesy of the collection of Dan Meinwald, E.A.R. USA)