Song: Trench Warfare
Band: Jah Wobble, Jaki Liebezeit, Holger Czucay
This track is from 1981’s How Much Are They? Ex-Public Image Ltd bassist and Englishman Jah Wobble teams up with two veterans: Holger Czukay, himself a bassist and founder of the seminal German rock group Can, and co-founding drummer Jaki Leibezeit. Wobble’s dub bass sensibilities are paired up with the restlessly innovative Czukay’s penchant for sampling and found sound. The twitching, glitch-laden result is a loose but fascinating trip into elsewhere. I remember it being an underground sensation widely received as a radical, subversive burst of free-style experimental boldness. Alas, Wobble sings on this track and that’s perhaps its greatest flaw; let’s just say Wobble is a much better bassist than he is a vocalist. Fortunately the vocals make only a sporadic appearance and the thick sonic tapestry that the trip weaves in Trench Warfare is infinitely cool on its own terms. Wobble’s simple, massively primal bass line rolling forward with implacable force holds down all of the weirdness percolating above - Czukay on guitar along with guest German guitarist Uwe Jahnke; Czukay again, overdubbing with organ, French horn and various percussive bits, and Leibzeit herding this messy blooming aggregate along with a tight, crisp cadence. Catch it on Grooveshark.
Song: Sitting On A Fence
Band: The Housemartins
The year is 1986. The band, four lads from Hull, England, burst right out of the gate with their debut album London 0 Hull 4. It’s immediate proof of their penchant for smart power-pop with fast hooks, tons of infectious energy and great vocals courtesy lead singer Paul Heaton, whose lyrics draw from a highly personal and idiosyncratic mixture of Christianity and Marxism; Sitting On A Fence is about finding the courage of one’s convictions. The short-lived band was nothing if not versatile, favouring inventive, fresh change-ups, always administered with an admirably light touch. The album is studded with gems… very much worth a closer look. Further proof of the band’s impeccable credentials and pop DNA: bassist Norman Cook went on to reinvent himself as Fatboy Slim.
Song: Dub At Hurricane Hotel
The Vienna-based collective known as Dubblestandart has been meshing traditional dub and reggae motifs with electronica since the late 80s. Their core membership has enjoyed a rich association with a loose posse of DJs, producers and topnotch players. In various incarnations they’ve put out countless singles and full albums; at their best they forge compelling and original music which, in default mode, favours spacious instrumental excursions. The use lush keyboard sounds & textures in striking counterpoint to the precise guitar chop and bass burble of deep dish dub. Their flavour of dub is often dark, even ominous; Dub at Hurricane Hotel is no exception.
From the band’s 2006 release Are You Experienced, Hurricane begins by quietly sounding a sour, even petulant synth phrase, hinting at a bleak disposition. When the bass and drums drop the thing takes on the kind of momentum which speaks of nasty inevitability; the hurricane is indeed coming. Like a stain with a life of its own the piece spreads out in billowing waves. With the fat, low-register warmth of the keyboards and the shambling, monolithic bass & drums all over the bottom end, in tandem with the skank of the riddim guitar and arcing strings doing their thing at the top, this instrumental has its sonic bases covered; throw in the odd siren and the piece is nicely over the edge. It would make a great score for some dire road flick. Check it on Grooveshark.
Song: Kosher Glass
Artist: Kosher Dill Spears
This is the third tune in on Laughing and Crying, the 2013 release by one-man keyboard wizard Kosher Dill Spears, otherwise known as Jesse Levine. I had the good fortune to see this Toronto-based artist performing recently at an east-end art space; his vivid sound effortlessly filled the room. The guy loves analogue, old school keyboard sounds and much of his fluid synth and organ work reminds me of the 70s and early 80s. Even his beats sound like fondly lo-fi throwbacks to the early days of primitive, mechanistic beat machines and ripe Casiotone cheese. In short, it’s groovalicious.
Kosher Glass is, like most cuts on the album, an instrumental. It has an appealing light touch as it gamely puts forward a tentative proposition, as if posing an open-ended question that’s shortly expecting a response - even as the piece subtly modulates and slyly suggests that the answer could well be a heartfelt ‘yes.’ This tightrope ambivalence the track skirts around is the very thing which makes it interesting. Whatever the nature of the question serenely levitating in the psychic mix, Kosher Glass revels in it with glossy, blossoming sheets of reverberating electric piano gliding tectonically over a gently bumping deep, low & rounded bass melody that brings the funk and keeps the whole thing anchored. Then there’s the layers of deliciously offbeat abstraction courtesy random-sounding squeaks, bleeps and unknown emanations - including retro raygun pulses and barking robo-dogs - mysteriously arising and then sinking back into the audio ether.
It’s as if Levine were playfully messing with the listener’s expectations of what his music is all about - and having a gas doing so.
Song: Big American Problem
Drywall is fronted by the LA-based veteran singer/songwriter (and perpetually testifyin’ witness to strangeness) Stan Ridgeway. Decades after his quirky band Wall of Voodoo launched with its infectious hit song Mexican Radio, Ridgeway is still flinging intriguing, off-kilter songs out into the universe. This band includes his wife and long-time collaborator Pietra Wextun on keyboards. Big American Problem comes from Drywall’s first release, 1995’s Work The Dumb Oracle. The song has a stadium-sized production vibe - a huge, sparkling organ sound courtesy Wexstun opens things up and suddenly you’re strapped into a wild-eyed, faintly deranged mid-tempo driving song. The keyboard-driven melody and twitching, prickly instances of guitar combine to usher in Ridgway’s unmistakeable voice, with its dry, world-weary narrative of things gone somehow astray. It’s a great shambling monster of a number that’s thematically vague but which sounds like it ought to be hugely significant. And then, about three and a half minutes into this amped-up sturm und drang, Ridgeway unleashes a brief yet searing guitar solo that’s jubilant in its ornery abrasiveness… it’s like he’s channeling some fearsome, long-slumbering beast that’s awoken monumentally pissed. After going on for perhaps a smidgen too long (perhaps because there’s no Big American Answer in sight), the song fades out in a chaotic welter of slashing keyboards, with Ridgeway’s plaintive vocals drowning in swirling waves of reverb. Epic.
Check out youtube fan RustyJerome’s inventive, wickedly complementary video for the song. It gets a little preachy at the end as he overdubs some overt courtesy the famous 1960 Eisenhower Presidential speech on the American Military-Industrial Complex. But! It works.
Song: Police and Thieves
Band: The Clash
The landmark punk act dropped its searing debut album in 1977, with a battery of hard-charging, intensely anthemic tracks. It was bristling with an emotionally raw, unrefined energy and was instrumental in defining the UK punk generation, with its roots in a strangled working class existence amidst race tensions, massive unemployment and a bottomless cynicism regarding authority.
This freshly inventive cover was only added as an afterthought, when the band realized the song list was too short for a full vinyl release. The original was written by Jamaican reggae artist Junior Murvin and produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry the year before; for a study in contrasts check out Murvin’s original version, with the singers’s graceful falsetto and the smooth, gentle melancholia of the arrangement. By contrast, the Clash’s version is a mercilessly stripped-down, rocked-up monster of a testimonial about a status quo indifferent to the plight of the besieged and overlooked in London’s gritty streets. Though their Police And Thieves is more rock than reggae, Its inclusion on their first album hints at future releases in which the band was to more faithfully experiment with reggae and dub sensibilities.
I don’t know what got to me more - Joe Strummers’s guttural, impassioned lead vocals emphatically cutting through the mix, or Mick Jones’s spare leads and incandescent finale. All I knew was that this commanding song, among many brilliant tracks on a startling debut album, was the one I couldn’t stop playing - and the one I couldn’t wait to hear again and again.