Culturespill » 2008 » April

You Better Watch Yourself: A Tribute to Little Walter

25th April

Walter

“Little Walter was dead ten years before he died.”
— Muddy Waters

Even now, forty years later, no one knows for sure exactly what killed him that night. Did the brother of one of Walter’s million wounded lovers bruise him with the fatal blow, a crushing shot to the head in an alley fight somewhere on the south side of Chicago, rupturing an injury sustained amid the many prior brawls that marbled his face with a storybook of scars? Was he beaten to death with an iron pipe in the street over a gambling debt, as others allege?

“He’s real tough, Little Walter” Muddy Waters would say not long before then, “and he’s had it hard. Got a slug in his leg right now!”

Grooves arched over one of Little Walter’s eyebrows where stitches were sewn and plucked. He also wore the permanent gash of a broken bottle someone corkscrewed into the side of his head, and one darker stripe of skin curled around the socket of an eye caved in by a man’s ringed fist.  His death is the lingering mystery of a life lost in an oblivion of alcohol, womanizing, squandered genius, street fights, blues and pain. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter why he died so young in his sleep on February 15th, 1968, more than a decade since the world passed the blues by in a cloud of kicked-up dust called rock ‘n roll and left him to shrink in the shadow of the giant he used to be, blasted on dope, boozed into uselessness, and forgotten along the road to newer thrills with the names of younger gods such as Richards, Page or Clapton. No matter the cause, the greatest blues man to ever play the harp was dead, and he was just 37 years old.

Walter

By then, Walter had fallen a long way from the harmonica king who cupped a mic and harp to his mouth and blew the thing into a hand-held fire from Memphis to Maxwell Street, where he’d cut his first record at Bernard and Red Abrams’s record shop in 1947. By the age of 17, Walter had already backed the biggest names in blues, from Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Nighthawk, before Muddy Waters took him in to form the most badass duo the blues has ever heard. Unsurprisingly, Muddy measured every harp player that came his way later on against the gargantuan talents of their predecessor.

“Walter’s was an uncommonly systematic musical mind,” blues historian Robert Palmer wrote. “In his hands, the amplified harmonica became virtually a new instrument. In his soloing, Walter used tone, timbre, dynamics, phrasing and space with the freedom and imagination of a jazz saxophonist.”

Yes, he’d fallen a long way. From the fat cat who rolled around town in a Caddy with a trunk full of cash and credit for beating Muddy to the top of the charts with his legendary harp riff, “Juke,” in 1952. From the home he escaped at 13 to leave behind a father doing time at Angola for murder and busk his way to some kind of living in the streets. From the divine heights he climbed to the minute he plugged his harp into an amp and blew it into a microphone, rivaling the volume of any electric guitar.

“There is no other way around it,” Ben Harper declared as he inducted Little Walter into the rock ‘n roll hall of fame last month, “to pass through life, you must pass through the blues, and to pass through the blues, you must pass through Little Walter.”

Through the haunted whirlwind of harp he blew to blacken the darkest mood on songs like “Blue and Lonesome,” a rattling flicker of guitar and drum blasting the bottom out of the song as Walter wills it to an unforgiving close. Through the spitting threats about the woman who left and hurt him so bad in “Hate to See You Go” and some doomed bastard who’s going around “stealing everybody’s chick” in the livid and fatalistic “It’s Too Late Brother,” how he’s got “no need of goin’ no further” and why the rest of you “better watch yourself.”

It’s exactly the kind of stuff you’d expect of a brilliant bluesman bent on brawling his way to an early grave. “He was behaving like a cowboy much of the time,” writes Mike Rowe in Chicago Blues, “and would roar up to a club date in his black Cadillac with a squeal of the brakes that sent everyone rushing to the door to stare.” It wasn’t long until they’d stare for a different reason, this time at the crumpled and bloody mess he’d become on night after night of boozed-up throwdowns in the streets of south-side Chicago, his talents wasted so thoroughly as to produce unrecognizably lame reworkings of his own songs in a super blues band of Muddy, Walter and Bo Diddley that turned out to be not so super after all.

But America’s heritage of self-destructive genius remains one of its saddest cultural chapters; Walter’s name wasn’t the first to join that tragic list, and it won’t be the last. As Ben Harper said the night Walter’s name entered a more celebrated canon in Cleveland this past March, however, “it is a historical occurrence when the word ‘immortal’ finds its proper home.”

The word most certainly finds its home in Little Walter, and nothing, not even death, can take that from him.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

The Gossip and the Great Fat Majority

24th April

Gossip

“I like the word “fat” . . . what’s funny is that they treat it like a minority, but it’s actually the majority and I wonder why we haven’t gotten it together, because we are the majority . . . really most of us are fat asses, you know.”

– Beth Ditto, The Gossip

If the jury was still out on whether Arkansas is the armpit of America–it is, after all, the birthplace of Wal-Mart–Beth Ditto has donned the black robes, adjourned court in a characteristically thunderous manner, and settled it once and for all: “Fuck, no. No. Never,” she says as Matt Gonzalez of Pop Matters asks if she’d ever consider moving back to Searcy, her small hometown in Arkansas where lesbians are subject to the fiery wrath of the Lord and “punk” is the new communism, “There’s no way, no way. No, no, no.” OK, OK, we get it: Arkansas sucks. When you’re talking to Beth Ditto, a Southern Baptist lesbian punker with a penchant for feminism and fried squirrel, you kind of expect her to tell you how she feels about things. And she does. This is a woman who holds nothing back in life–not on stage, not over the phone, not anywhere. And that’s why she fronts one of the greatest bands to surface from the festering pond of indie rock in years.

That Ditto’s band The Gossip garners far greater notice in the UK than in the US is proof enough of their greatness–take The Eels, for example, a monumentally significant group summarily ignored in the States but whose every album’s considered for record-of-the-year honors in NME editorial meetings–and so it’s no shocker that their first record for Columbia, on subsidiary label “Music with a Twist” which seeks LGBT talent, is a live album cut at a club in Liverpool before a writhing crowd of 500 people whose stunned shrieks accompany every wail, lick and thump the band delivers. Whether those shrieks are gasps of horror or expressions of joy is anyone’s guess–the two emotions tend to be interchangeable at most Gossip shows, especially when Ditto starts taking her clothes off–but Ditto, a proudly rotund modern incarnation of the Mama Cass she adoringly listened to as a kid, performs to inspire both, and if you don’t like it, you can shove it.

“I don’t really care. I could give a shit,” she tells the A.V. Club, “I think if I were someone who takes themselves completely seriously as an artist I would, but I don’t take myself that seriously, I don’t think Gossip takes itself that seriously.” Look, the woman’s made a life-long crusade of bringing “heavy” back (she reportedly weighs in at 210), tells grand tales of smoking weed from a Coke can with friends down home who shoot squirrels out back for frying when they get the munchies, and frequently removes her clothes live to expose a hulking pair of pale legs that quiver with cellulite as she romps through the rest of the set in a bra and panties. It may also be important to note at this point that she neither wears deodorant nor shaves her armpits, because “punks usually smell.” “Serious” may not exactly be the woman’s M.O., but try telling that to a single person who’s sat through five minutes of The Gossip’s uproarious live act–these kids mean it.

Gossip guitarist Nathan Hodeshell (A.K.A. Brace Paine) rips such a nasty flame through Live in Liverpool that the album sounds like a devastated Jack White blasting an amp apart by himself in the middle of an abandoned and burning garage. Ditto, flailing and twisting in place as a quilt of sweat cements her self-made clothes to her body, belts out a tune like it’s the last piece of music the world will hear before an imminent nuclear holocaust. And drummer Hannah Blilie fuses every groove with a snarling backbone of disco that directs LCD Soundsystem to the back of the “cool” line at once. Yes, this is most certainly the band that Rick Rubin went to see one night to declare that it was “the best show I’ve seen in five years.”

It’s also a band you’ll be hearing about a hell of a lot more–this article, after all, results from the fascinated but profound trauma I experienced as Ditto and her rockin’ posse took the stage for an MTV performance the other night. If I recall correctly, my various responses ranged from a bewildered “WTF” to desperate and groveling 7-year-old-girl cries for my mother; but this, I learned after a bit of research, is a perfectly normal and scientifically documented symptom of initial exposure to The Gossip. It takes a minute to reconstitute your mind in such a way that the spectacle they put on becomes comprehensible–and when that happens, there’s no turning back. In short, I’m hooked.

Beth

Ditto’s crusade to put the human back in pop music is as admirable as it is sincere. Rarely will you meet someone as comfortable in her own skin as Beth Ditto–the woman did pose nude for for On Our Backs, for Christ’s sake, a lesbian erotica magazine run exclusively by women. At 210 lbs., that’s pretty much my definition of “comfortable.” It’s a courage she brings to every second of her stage performance, a kind of “fuck you this is what real people look like” schtick that wins her an understandably vast amount of respect. “I don’t want to look like Britney Spears, I just don’t want to. She’s Hideous,” Ditto explains, “I just like food too much, and I don’t want to change. I spent so much of my childhood trying to change, and I just got sick of it.”

And before we all weep into our double-pump Venti no-sugar soy vanilla lattes about the discriminatory semantics of the word “fat,” we may want to listen for a minute to Ditto herself: “I like the word ‘fat’,” she tells Pop Matters, “people bitch about fat people who are quote unquote overweight, which is a term that I hate, because it sets a standard for people to be.” In an industry dominated by plastic pop wannabes on steady diets of locust, bean sprouts and tape worm, Ditto’s daring assertion that real people make music too is a warmly welcome concept.

Amid all of Ditto’s well-publicized eccentricities, though–publicity whose flames she seems to fan at every opportunity–it’s easy to lose sight of how powerful and genuine a band this is. Joining a not-too-crowded list of great three-piece rock groups (Nirvana, The Police, Cream), The Gossip are a trio that pack more attitude than a rock stage has seen since Dylan turned to his band and ordered them to “play fucking loud” after some forgotten imbecile in the crowd called him “Judaaasss!” for going electric in ’65. While earlier projects such as their Arkansas Heat EP or 2003’s relentless Movement convey that ferocity as effectively as a studio allows (was it Cyndi Lauper who said that recording in a studio is kind of like faking an orgasm?), nothing captures it more clearly than 2008’s Live in Liverpool.

Ditto herself is the first to admit that their studio output sounds a little canned at times, particularly on the comparatively tame Standing in the Way of Control, an album whose title track, a cry of rage against anti-gay discrimination, nonetheless became their best-known tune to date. “If I weren’t in this band, I would never listen to it,” Ditto concedes in laughter, “but I would go see it. It’s a band you would go see that you don’t necessarily listen to.” As usual, Ditto may be overstating the truth, but as the scorching torrent of meaty riffs and grooves she dresses in her full-bodied wail throughout Live in Liverpool proves, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.

Filligar: OK, So Maybe “Ivy Rock” DOESN’T Suck

22nd April

Filligar

If the first thing that a label like “Ivy Rock” brings to mind is a group of Dartmouth dorks armed with kazoos, theories of linear deconstruction, and a peculiarly intense affinity for John Cage, you need to listen to Filligar–the latest in Culturespill’s “Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of” series. OK, so maybe they ARE from Dartmouth–well, three of them, at least (twin bros Teddy and Pete Mathias and their un-twin younger brother Johnny)–and maybe they’re named after a pet goldfish, but they’ve already cranked out six albums since 2000 even though their combined age is still younger than your grandmother, with the eldest being a wily 19. That kicks ass in any book; and with more albums in eight years than most bands put out in two decades, it’s hardly surprising that The City Tree and Succession, I Guess, two of their most recent efforts, betray a maturity reserved for the established influences their music reveals–bands like Wilco, The Flaming Lips, or even Hot Hot Heat.

Tempering the incorrigible mania of Bloc Party or The Long Winters with the quirky power-pop of Wilco’s “I Can’t Stand it,” Filligar’s work lacks only the chiseled cohesiveness those more seasoned influences offer–in other words, they’re young. Their erratic sensibilities–at once supine and spastic, mellow one minute and manic the next–occasionally tug their songs in directions that catch even the most experienced listener off guard. They deny no detour and take every foreseeable turn, and if the results are mixed at times, they almost always deliver something you haven’t quite heard before–no rare feat in a market overwhelmed by enough indie bands to invade and conquer several small nations.

Filligar!

The taut and blistering rocker “Yanni Walker,” a tune that threatens to make the grade on our best of the year lists this fall, exhibits a disciplined focus that occasionally eludes 17-year-old vocalist Johnny Mathias (look, the kid’s 17–give him a break), whose initial whispers on “Purple Gum Weather” wander through an occasionally explosive series of vocal peaks and valleys carried home only by the song’s gorgeous and haunting production. Johnny Mathias finds a voice of his own when he settles down to belt a wistful wail and ask “Where are you now? Where are you now?” amid a broken-hearted crash of shuffling percussion and organ.

The ballad, truly one of the album’s most affecting and mature moments, evokes the mastered melancholy of The Eels’ “Counting Numbered Days” and delivers the poetry of a great Flaming Lips dirge, with its “blue wind sweeping away the night.” Johnny struggles just as mightily to reign in his boundless enthusiasm on tracks like “Peppermint” as he yelps his way through in a kind of restrained frenzy, but the band serves up more than the modest helping of charm that saves several songs.

Sparkling with considered melodies and deft musicianship, Filligar’s youth may manifest itself in a few overambitious flourishes at times–where the hell does that chintzy burst of synthesizer come from at the close of “Big Things”?–but, ultimately, this is a band that’s ripening into a sound of its own far earlier that any aforementioned idol. I defy anyone who fell for the Flaming Lips the first time a friend turned them on to The Soft Bulletin to try sitting through more than ten minutes of Telepathic Surgery. And if you think you’re a Pink Floyd fan because you’ve had one of 30 million copies of Dark Side of the Moon somewhere under the driver’s seat of your Jetta for a few years, try surviving the first track of Ummagumma, no less the first ten minutes–just don’t invite anyone over when you do it, and have a barf bag handy.

Plenty of bands stew in their own imaginations well into their twenties before stumbling into the fruition of their promise. But here’s a band whose lead singer can’t even vote yet, and they’re tossing off arrangements like “Fruit Fly” that rival Wilco’s “Pieholden Suite” or McCartney’s epic “Rinse the Raindrops” in their complexity and range. Both Succession, I Guess and The City Tree flash with the developing maturity of a young band that threatens to grab the world by the throat and howl in its face before long–just as soon as they register for Fall classes and submit their senior portfolios. “Right now our education is the top priority for all of us,” Teddy says, “But during our vacations we spend almost everyday writing songs, practicing, playing shows and recording–our vacation time previews what life will be like for us after graduation.” It also previews what life might be like for fans when they can do this full time–and it looks good. Very, very good.

The Black Keys’ “Attack and Release”: Why You need This Album NOW!

21st April

Attack!

It is without any hesitation whatsoever that Culturespill anoints Attack and Release the rock album you’ve been waiting for–eleven tracks of exceedingly lo-fi retro grit that doesn’t strangle you with the phony bombast of cookie-cutter Stones-lite acts like Jet, a band of such intolerable pretense that Pitchfork felt compelled to publish a review of their last album that consisted of nothing but video of a monkey pissing into his own mouth. We wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments.

Plenty of monkey piss passes for “rock” these days, when in fact it’s the bubble gum snapping in your teen sister’s mouth as she blogs on Facebook about all the bitches who flirted with her boyfriend in school today. And that’s why every primal moan and sneer Dan Auerbach delivers throughout Attack makes this not only the finest vocal performance of the man’s life, but the most compelling rock ‘n roll we’ve heard since the Stripes put out De Stijl, back before they became the band whose shows you took your frat buddies to just to torpedo each other head-first into the stage and say you were seen there.

Though Gristmill’s painfully cliched assertion that this is a “breakthrough” album for the Keys is as terrifying as it is wince-worthy–please, not another fucking Geico commercial–still it’s awfully hard to disagree. I don’t know how else to put it: this is one hell of a record. Attack and Release exhibits a surprisingly innovative flare for a band whose reputation so thoroughly confines them to the analog wasteland they’ve explored since 2002’s The Big Come Up and its two brilliant follow-ups, Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory (sorry, but Magic Potion kind of sucked.)

The Black Keys, “Strange Times,” Attack & Release, 2008

While tracks like “I Got Mine” or “Strange Times” deliver exactly the kind of scorching “attack” the title promises, it’s in the album’s departures from that familiar terrain that its vision achieves the range of true rock pioneers. The lilting twang and echo of “So He Won’t Break” vaguely echoes some great lost gem by surf-rock gods The Ventures, a flutter of piano and xylophone (yes, xylophone) dressing Auerbach’s dreamy licks in a rich jewelery of sound. The acoustic and countrified “All You Ever Wanted” exudes the effortless mojo of rock staples like “Sway” or “Torn & Frayed,” and the album closes with an absolutely devastating ballad, “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” a spare and hypnotic gut-wrencher that’s bound to show up again on our year-end “Top Ten Songs of 2008″ list.

This ain’t your mother’s rock ‘n roll–or, then again, maybe it is–and maybe that’s why it sounds so fresh. Rock ‘n roll hasn’t sounded this real since the night Keith Richards woke up in a hotel in Clearwater and recorded what he heard in his dreams–the riff that became “Satisfaction.” But the point is that Attack & Release embodies as much of the spirit as the soul of rock ‘n roll, pausing for a slow jam and unplugging the amps whenever the urge strikes and producing work that’s as compelling as any driving rocker the Keys have ever put to wax.

Rubber Soul laid the groundwork for this expansion of the band’s sound, exploding with the belch and wail of an acoustic guitar (“When the Lights Go Out”) that picked up where their idol and bonafide blues badass Junior Kimbrough left off. It’s no wonder that not even Kimbrough’s own widow, Mildred, was surprised when The Black Keys released their neglected but brilliant 6-track EP of electric Kimbrough covers, Chulahoma, an album she endorsed in a recorded telephone call the Keys included on the EP itself (keep listening after the last track.) The unfocused but sporadically entertaining Magic Potion continued this nod to experimentation with the mildly psychedelic “You’re the One,” a ballad in which you can almost hear the echo of Tommy James’s “Crimson & Clover” somewhere in the distance. But only now have those glimpses of a broader sound blossomed into the full fruit of Attack and Release, the best rock album 2008 is yet to produce, bar none.