Can: Tago Mago

Can is one of those bands that always lurked on the periphery of my musical awareness, but never received my undivided focus. I knew they were early innovators of experimental rock music. I knew that bassist Holger Czukay recorded some beautiful instrumental albums with David Sylvian. I knew I should listen to them, but I just never got around to it.

Now that I've checked out Tago Mago from EPFL, I know what I've been missing. This is a difficult album, but it is completely unique and undeniably awesome.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
On first listen, I guessed that Tago Mago came out somewhere in the mid 1970s, when punk innovators like Wire and Television were proving that you didn't need mad technical chops to create vital and relevant musical experimentation.

I was way off. Can's first album came out in '69, and Tago Mago was released in 1971.

I can't even begin to describe what this sounds like. It's rock music, but it embodies the spirit of punk and the spontaneity of jazz. It's adventurous and experimental, even for a time when the musical world was filled with the adventurous experiments of artists like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. It's chaotic, but it holds together without ever exploding.

This is punk before punk existed. This is jazz without the stodgy elitism. This is rock without the constraints that normally define rock. This is, quite simply, everything that makes the greatest punk and jazz and rock so damned exciting.

Packaging: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I haven't read much of British rock critic David Stubbs' writing, but if his essay here is typical of his style, he should be banished to the dark recesses of romance novels and open-mic poetry. His words epitomize the pseudo-intellectualism that makes people despise music journalists. For example:

"There's a moment here when, so in synch are the band that the song actually levitates."

No, jackass, the song did not actually levitate. Your inability to use proper punctuation or sentence structure, however, did make my blood pressure rise.

Anyway. Stubbs' commentary on the album is rotten, but the essay by Primal Scream vocalist Bobby Gillespie clearly demonstrates a love for Can's music, and his story about jamming with 2/5 of Can is genuinely exciting. Best of all, he doesn't resort to any Stubbs-isms like "beetling basslines" or "impassioned vocals creating a mist of condensation."

(Here's some obscure music trivia I figured out from reading the liner notes: The name of the band The Mooney Suzuki comes from the surnames of original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney and his replacement, Damo Suzuki.)

Listen if you like: Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth, Miles Davis' fusion experiments from the late '60s and early '70s, Zappa, Pink Floyd's early records, Wire, Television.

If it were food, it'd be: One of my co-workers turned me on to the fact that Huy Fong's Sriracha hot sauce is delicious with pretty much everything, including pizza, popcorn, veggie dogs, mac & cheese, and even peanut butter sandwiches. Tago Mago is like the unholy combination of Sriracha and peanut butter: it shouldn't make any sense, but it's utterly fantastic.


My Teenage Stride: Ears Like Golden Bats

It's been awhile since I've praised Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library for their music collection. I haven't been to any other libraries where I can walk in and find dozens of CDs by bands I've never heard (or even heard of), and nearly all of them will at least be decent.

It's not often that I write a really bad review of a CD I get from the EPFL. In fact, very few of the CDs I review end up at the bottom of my rating scale (earning a 1, 1.5, or 2). I wish the music on MySpace or iTunes had that kind of track record!

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
My Teenage Stride is Smiths-influenced indie pop, spiced with a splash of '80s one-hit wonders and simmered in a broth of The Beatles. All the songs are short, and like the early Cure records, My Teenage Stride focuses on hooks and melodies without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. Nothing here is in the least bit original, but it's all written, recorded, and performed extremely well.

Packaging: 2 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The multi-colored text on the cover gives a pretty good clue of what the music sounds like, but otherwise, the package is bland. There's nothing except for credits, some nature photos, and a quote that is presumably from one of the songs.

Listen if you like: upbeat indie pop or downcast 80's Manchester new wave. There's enough mope to catch the heart of twee fans, enough joy to please the bespectacled indie rock boys of Brooklyn, and maybe even enough Beatles for fans of Matthew Sweet and the Posies.

If it were food, it'd be: A Hershey's Special Dark bar.


Charles Mingus: Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus

Everybody from Elton John to Tom Jones has released a remix album, making them as ubiquitous (and unnecessary) as blogs and tattoos.

But what happened back in the days when the innovators of remixing were still crawling around with diapers full of poop?

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is one answer to that question. Mingus had proven his musical genius by 1963, so he decided to go back with a new band and revisit some of his earlier ideas.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I'll be the first to admit I'm biased when it comes to Mingus. There has never been another jazz musician who rocked as hard as Mingus did. The man's music is as energetic and exciting as anything Zeppelin or Sabbath or (enter your favorite rock band here) ever did.

You might ask, "Chuck, why would you say that Mingus -- a man who didn't much care for rock music -- rocked?"

Making music that rocks has nothing to do with making rock music. The latter is a genre, and most of the music within that genre is actually pretty lame. The former is a state of mind that transcends all genres, and occurs when the musicians have completely let go and let their wildness take over.

This music is wild. These ideas were already explored on some of Mingus' greatest albums, but Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus is still unique and original. The band is on fire, the arrangements are amazing, and the music is as adventurous as nearly anything the man recorded.

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
When I was a kid and was home sick from school one day, my mom brought home a novel called This School Is Driving Me Crazy by Nat Hentoff. I liked the book and read it several times, but it wasn't until I began earnestly exploring jazz that I learned Hentoff was like the Lester Bangs of jazz. The liner notes here are pretty much what I'd expect from Hentoff writing about Mingus: a little overblown and a little melodramatic, but also passionate and enthusiastic and informed and deeply respectful of both Mingus the man and Mingus the musician.

Hentoff wrote, "(Mingus) is one of the most alive men I have ever known, and it is this commitment to living rather than only existing which makes his music so energizing and so insistently provocative." No words could nail the music on this record better than these.

A few more pictures would've been nice; otherwise, this is a strong package.

Listen if you like: powerful music, passionate music, wild music, alive music, music that rocks.

If it were food, it'd be: The first thought that came to mind was "a can of Red Bull," but that analogy captures such a small part of the album's greatness that it's actually a disservice. Really, this album is like a giant meal that encompasses every imaginable flavor, and leaves you excited for more. I've never actually eaten a meal that tastes like this music. Readers? Any ideas?


Daniel Lanois: Acadie

It must be bizarre to have countless platinum records -- critically acclaimed platinum records, nonetheless -- under your belt, yet be unknown to all but the most die-hard rock fans.

As a producer, Daniel Lanois is at least partially responsible for seminal albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, The Neville Brothers, and Dashboard Confessional. (Not often that you see Dashboard Confessional and Dylan on a list together.) But how about on his own? Can he make the same kind of magic when he's in control of every aspect of the music?

Music: 3 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The answer is, "not really." There are a few songs on Acadie that flirt with greatness, there are a few that are almost embarrassingly bad, and there are a bunch that sound like they came from a guy who spent a whole lot of time listening to The Joshua Tree.

Now, in Lanois' defense, he did spend a whole lot of time listening to The Joshua Tree. As the album's co-producer, that was his job. It's hard to say whether his influence had a dramatic impact on U2, or vice versa, but a lot of the songs on Acadie sound like Joshua Tree throwaways.

As for the good songs, I've had the bassline from "The Maker" stuck in my head since 1991 (the year I last heard Acadie), and for nearly 20 years I've been trying to figure out from what song it comes. If that doesn't qualify as a hook, I don't know what does. "White Mustang II" is a simple instrumental track that is solemn yet spooky. "Amazing Grace" is easily the strongest song on the record, and Aaron Neville's vocals make it one of the most interesting and impassioned versions of the gospel standard that I've ever heard.

Packaging: 0.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
This is one of the worst packages I've ever seen. The cover sports a cheesy '80s photo of Lanois standing in the snow with hair that looks like a cockatoo with a bad dye job. And the rest of the package is... well, it's nothing. No credits. No lyrics. No photos. No stories. Nothing. Just a note that you can read the credits at Lanois' web site, which is a lie as far as I can tell, because I couldn't find a single thing about who played on this record. If I'd spent $10 or $15 on this CD, I'd be pissed. There is no compelling reason to buy this. If you're interested in the music, just download the songs. (And that's coming from a guy who hates downloading songs.)

Listen if you like: U2 from the mid '80s, Peter Gabriel from the late '80s, Lanois' production style. There's a strong New Orleans sound on several of the songs, so if you like The Neville Brothers, you might enjoy this.

If it were food, it'd be: Gumbo and Guinness


Bettye LaVette: I've Got My Own Hell to Raise

(I've been away from the blog for awhile, but I'm hopefully back to the regular Tuesday/Friday updates.)

Bettye LaVette is proof that, in some people's careers, everything can go wrong. Bettye LaVette is also proof that sometimes, after everything's gone wrong for a decade or four, the fates finally smile down upon you.

I'm glad the fates smiled on Bettye LaVette. I'm glad because she worked for a long time and deserved a break, but I'm also glad because her voice is incredible and if she hadn't gotten a break, I never would've heard her sing.

Music: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
I've Got My Own Hell to Raise opens with a powerful cover of Sinead O'Connor's a capella "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." It's a great song and a great start to a very good album.

The second song is when that truth of the album really begins, though. It starts with a guitar that is a little rough and a little sexy and a little raunchy. Then a second guitar kicks in, and it's the kind of guitar that sounds as if it spent a few years wandering the streets before it decided to walk into the studio and be recorded. The drums creep up, and they are as thick and rich as the soil that holds the roots of a mighty tree. Then the bass starts, and it sounds as deep as the desire to discover joy when you're stuck in the roughest parts of a rough place.

Then LaVette starts singing.

The second song on the album, "Joy," is amazing. It is everything that simple music -- rock or soul or country or blues or hip-hop or punk -- can and should be. It is emotional, it is powerful, it is awesome, and it sets the tone for an album that practically overflows with soul.

(If you're wondering why I only gave the album four library-cards after those glowing comments, it's because there's very little range in the song tempos and dynamics. It's a relatively minor complaint, but it makes the album feel somewhat monotonous.)

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The package has almost everything a CD jacket should have. There are a handful of photos that fit the mood of the record. There's a little bit of information about each of the songs (all of which are covers). There aren't lyrics, but it's easy to understand every word that LaVette sings. Best of all, though, is the essay by Rob Bowman, in which he tells LaVette's story. It's a good essay, and it makes me grateful that more and more artists are choosing to add more and more words to their liner notes.

Listen if you like: Stories. LaVette's got a fascinating story, and it comes across both in how she sings and the music she performs. Every song on the record is a cover of a song originally performed by a woman; if you like the stories that Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, or Lucinda Williams tell, wait 'til you hear Bettye LaVette tell them.

If it were food, it'd be: a classic and complex wine that's been hiding out in dark rooms for 40 years, just waiting for its delicious flavor to be discovered.