Saturday, July 22, 2006
To Whom It May Interest,
A couple years ago, I was browsing through rows of used CDs at the local record store, trying to ignore the fact that it was hot as hell and there was no air conditioning. Every cracked case held something I couldn’t have cared less about. I don’t remember actually looking for anything specific I think I was just trying to find something cheap that looked half way interesting. I was about ready to leave, when I found a copy of Miles Davis’ Get Up With It, an album I knew nothing about. It was a Japanese import and about $8. That was enough to warrant purchase.
Anyway, I got into my car, unwrapped the first disc and put it on. Within five minutes, I was asking myself out loud, “Where is this going? Do something, will you?” The record’s first track, “He Loved Him Madly,” is 30+ minutes long. The first ten to fifteen minutes consists mostly of eerie organ, sporadically plucked instrumentation and the most random drumming. There is no structure at all, just a sad and sleepy mood. Impatient, I wrote it off as a bad purchase, and pulled it from the player.
For some reason, maybe an hour or two later, I went back to it and listened to the track again. And then I listened to the rest of it. Then, over the course of the next month, it was all I listened to. I’m not really sure why because, on the surface, it’s not a good record. It’s overlong, at times annoying, at other times very repetitive and overall seemingly meaningless. It would most definitely suck to see played live. But, I fell in love with it and kept listening to it. And, now that I’m fighting a headache, it seems like an opportune time to write about it.
Get Up With It, down to its grainy cover, a photo of a somewhat introspective looking Miles donning space goggles, is about two hours of absolute grey. It doesn’t venture into the realm of anything uplifting, nor does it really plunge into the negative. It stays within the confines of some sort of musical purgatory, wherein it seems to express frustration, remorse, exhaustion and even the subtlest of agonies. Its songs just get tired and stop, providing no outro or big finish. Dedicated to Duke Ellington, who died the year this was released, Get Up With It lets on the Miles was not in the best of places at this time. His records weren’t really flying off the shelves anymore and his health was becoming a problem. A year after this record was released, he retired until 1980. The contents of Get Up With It were recorded between 1970 and 1974, and pieced together by producer Teo Macero.
“He Loved Him Madly,” the track that initially turned me off, is the album’s gem. Beginning with the quiet doom that I described earlier, “He Loved Him Madly” works as a biographical, and perhaps spiritual, study of Duke Ellington’s legacy. It’s a similar take on Ellington’s renowned “Black, Brown and Beige,” which was his musical journey into the development of African American history. After it’s seemingly directionless introduction, “He Loved Him Madly” finds a quiet rhythm, layered by Miles’ trumpet and David Liebman’s beautiful flute over Al Foster’s percussion. It’s easy to get lost in its atmosphere as it’s more of a prayer than a song. It’s peaceful enough to allow a mind to wander and it was probably meant for its listeners to think about Duke.
Following “He Loved Him Madly” are “Maiysha” and “Honky Tonk,” both of which add a little more pep to the non-caffeinated coma that you may find yourself in after a little more than 30 minutes of meditation. “Maiysha” features Miles on both the organ and trumpet, the former being his more utilized instrument of choice. “Maiysha” plays like a tropical island on a rainy day, emoting sequestered relaxation. It feels content in its lethargy. “Honky Tonk” playfully screws with the traditional sounds of country music by adding jazz’s improvisational twist. Mahavishnu Orchestra’s John McLaughlin strums along while Miles’ trumpet boldly blasts the tumbleweeds into the uncomfortable and unfamiliar city streets.
When “Rated X” begins, it’s a shock to the system. Over the heightened air of urgency and Mtume’s rapid African percussion brought about within the first couple seconds, Miles furiously presses the organ’s keys ‘til they scream or bleed. There is so much pain in “Rated X,” it’s frightening to listen to. Fast paced and relentless, even when the band periodically stops Miles continues to hit those keys for long stretches of time. There is no relief until the final notes of the organ peter out and you’ve reached the end of the first disc.
Disc 2 or, if you want to get technical, side 3 begins with “Calypso Frelimo,” another 30+ minute jam that seems to continue the nervous energy brought about by “Rated X.” It’s fast-paced, but nowhere near as excitable or maniacal. Conga drums are continuously heard under Miles’ sporadic trumpet and organ while Leibman’s flute works to relieve some of the tension. At about the half way mark, the percussion relents and the bass line slows to a crawl. At this point, the wind instruments interact while Reggie Lucas strums his guitar and adds some very amplified dissonance. Miles taps a key here and there but only really reappears with the speed once the interlude is over.
“Red China Blues” provides a platform for the trumpet playing Miles is better known for. Over a mix of brass and 70s funk, Miles pushes notes out like he was living out his yesteryears.
“Mtume,” named for the African percussionist present on four of this album’s tracks, is a very repetitive and unstructured mix of congas, heavy-handed drumming and random organ noise. Fusion meets funk meets Africa meets free-form jazz. Toward the song’s closing, the mix grows more anarchic and sports a horror-inspired synthesized whine that only adds more darkness and chaos.
The album closes with “Billy Preston,” a light and somewhat high-spirited funk jam. Billy Preston does not appear on the song though. I can only guess that its creation was intended as homage to the fifth Beatle himself. Relative to the album, “Billy Preston” ends things on an upswing.
I’m not sure how you critique jazz music. It’s not as straight forward in its delivery as rock or hip-hop. It’s not as easy to understand as pop or techno. It’s got more musical liberty than blues and more soul than today’s R&B. It has a boldness that no other musical genre has in my opinion. So, all you can really do is talk about how it makes you feel. At least, that’s all I can do.
Get Up With It demonstrates that human emotion isn’t necessarily all about highs and lows. Sometimes, what you should focus on is how you get to those highs and lows. That’s what therapists look for and chances are that’s what he was dealing with: The Birth of the Problem as opposed to The Birth of the Cool. He doesn’t explain what it’s like to be sad, but how you get sad.
I’m not going to bother employing tired phrases like “ahead of its time,” even though it is, but I will say that it’s a fascinating album. It may take a couple listens to grab hold but, once you get there, it’ll be worth it. Just make sure you’re in the mood when you decide to Get Up With It.
Letters From A Tapehead
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Rating: 4 out of 4
I’m very behind on my review of this record. In all honesty, I’ve rewritten this review about four times and thought about very little else for the last three weeks. Mike Patton, quintessential embodiment of all that is anti-Pop has come up with something that makes very little sense:
Patton made himself a Pop record.
Now, to understand how uncharacteristic this is of Mr. Patton, one must understand the colorfully loud, vastly chaotic and purely independent output that he is known for. Having tasted life in the illustrious Top 40 almost twenty years ago with Faith No More’s played out musical misnomer, “Epic,” Patton has since molded himself a career mostly devoid of MTV and radio. Since his seminal and accessible days in Faith No More, he’s been traveling musical avenues as varied as Frank Zappa’s legacy, hitting metallic high notes as screeching loud as any longhair with a flying-V and producing beats as BOOM-bastic as any back-alley DJ from the Boogie Down. And he’s been doing it all through online promotion, concerts and his DIY record label, Ipecac Recordings.
Peeping Tom is almost contradictory in its existence. Containing music as seemingly radio-friendly as any over-priced cookie cutter in a cracked jewel case, it’s tough to imagine that he would do something like this on purpose. Its sound is relatively close to Dan The Automator’s hip-hop-based and sultry Lovage, but Patton’s involvement there was strictly vocal. Here, he’s making all the moves so what’s his fucking motivation?
And then you hear it: At the end of the album’s first single (Can you believe it? Patton has a single! What the fuck!?!), “Mojo,” Patton states “Oops…I did it again.”
The idea that Patton could take such an unfortunately well-known turn of phrase and put it on one of his records is at first disconcerting. Why would he add a phrase like that to an already accessible mix of songs like this?
But, there’s more to his inclusion of that phrase than meets the ear. The idea that he himself played the roll of peeping tom, on the outside looking in at the plastic and attractive world of Pop, taking notes like some musical Diane Fossey, doesn’t seem too out of the question once you realize what you’re listening to. It’s inspiration from a world of studio percussion, solo records with guest lists so expansive that the headliner seems secondary, silly song titles, accentuated sexuality that sweats lust, a music video, a single and even guest rappers. Some of it even turns up the Nü. Patton evidently took a lot from that phrase and used it to base his anthropological journey into a world that he usually shuns.
Peeping Tom is the type of thing that would’ve made Andy Warhol very happy. Similar to Warhol’s silk-screened canvas, Patton breathes new art into a commercial sound, meticulously adhering to the “rules” of the genre while adding those little touches that only he is capable of making. The results offer at least some idea of what Pop sounds like when it isn’t being handled by industry darlings or soda endorsements. It also provides a little insight into why sometimes Pop doesn’t burst as quickly as its eventual namesake. It’s catchy. This record boasts smooth production, beautiful vocal work and goes one-step beyond conventional Pop by building itself an atmosphere. In today’s rather shallow radio-scape, Peeping Tom isn’t only a look from the outside in, it’s also a hint you can take notes and improve a formula. It essentially squeezes the life out of any excuse as to why mainstream music sucks as bad as it does, proving that all it takes is a musician with some determination to makes things a little better for our ears. Those of us who give a shit anyway.
With an impressive list of co-conspirators, various musical hotshots and eccentrics, it’s a wonder that the album isn’t all over the place but Patton manages to keep it all unified. The percussion mixes studio beats and effects with live instrumentation throughout, creating a sound too loud and raw to be purely manufactured. Its feel is mostly trip-hop, here and there adding middle-eastern rhythms (“Five Seconds”), bossa nova-flavored sway (“Caipirinha”) and straight-up rap (Kool Keith rocks the mic for “Getaway” amid buzzing bass noise).
Patton is ever the vocal craftsman, expressing his usual range with ease sans his propensity for screaming and rapid-tongued scat. He expresses a notable versatility in the “Don’t Speak”-esque, “ Your Neighborhood Spaceman,” a song that interestingly pinballs from sorrowfully emotional to abrasively confrontational. Patton also harmonizes Massive Attack’s “Kill The DJ,” supplying quiet seduction and loud desperation into its atmospheric poise.
The album finds its libido in the album’s single, “Mojo,” aided not only by Patton’s seductive vocals, but also by eerie violin and Rahzel’s and Dan The Automator’s percussion. Also high on the sexuality tip is the rather tasty “Sucker,” featuring Norah Jones in the unconventional roll of enticer. Not to be juvenile, but it’s really hot to hear Jones croon “motherfucker” like some modern-day Mae West.
The beat is turned up for “Celebrity Death Match” which finds Kid Koala on the turntables while Patton humorously name checks celebrities throughout. “How U Feelin?” and “Don’t Even Trip” play up the hip-hop’s influence on Pop and then the album finishes with Dub Trio’s “We’re Not Alone (Remix),” the one song closest to Patton’s familiar association with rock. The original version of this song is available on Dub Trio’s latest, New Heavy, and also features Patton.
Objectively, as an album, Peeping Tom is not necessarily a four-star achievement, but its existence is almost heroic. Knowing that music’s sad and pathetic state will only get worse as long as mediocre bullshit keeps filling the airwaves and the damaged ears of millions of kids with money to spend, it’s going to take musicians to sweep away the debris and get back to creating. Patton’s Peeping Tom is a step in the right direction in that it disguises itself as what the kids are listening to these days, but has the potential to lead its listeners somewhere they’ve never been. It wouldn’t be out of the question for someone to be listening to this and be exposed to new music through it. Patton’s eclectic output aside, Dan The Automator, Rahzel, Massive Attack, Odd Nosdam, Kool Keith, Norah Jones—all these groups and performers could potentially lead any new appreciator to something new. It has potential. All it needs is a couple budding minds to take hold of it and let it take them somewhere. We’re all now on the outside looking in, and all we can do is watch…and hope.
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