I was waiting for him: The career of George Michael

It could have been the pinstriped jacket. But credit the combination of thick generous hair and stubble. When George Michael, then and forever of Wham!, faced the camera in “Careless Whisper” (what a title!) and shared the story of how his character had acted like a cad, I felt the first stirrings of the homosexual lust I wouldn’t acknowledge for at least another decade. Before this look he’d tried tennis shorts — or wasit badminton attire? At any rate he and amiable non-equal Andrew Ridgeley had no use for clothes. From the young men imitating Duran Duran convincingly in “Club Tropicana,” pink cocktails and all (and free!), to the mulleted High Eighties cavorting in “The Edge of Heaven,” Wham! excelled at portraying guys on the make, eyes roving for the next pretty face and good party.

Distinguishing them from their New Pop peers was Michael’s songcraft, as much on the make as everything else about them. He understood saxophones. He understood Synclaviers. He understood Motown. He could belt and whisper. Like Bowie and Madonna, he realized that he could sell any image if his muse was forever on the move, driving like a demon from station to station. And, boy, did he understand The Career Move. First: record an embalmed duet with Aretha Franklin that stayed at #1 for two weeks in the spring of 1987, to date the Queen’s only British chart topper, which should tell you something about Michael’s persuasive powers (I can’t top Tom Ewing’s dismissal: “Simon Climie appears to have written the track using a set of gospel magnetic fridge poetry. Low valleys, high mountains, deep rivers, faith, destiny, spirit”). Next: release a single, several months before his first in-name solo album, tied to the forgotten Beverly Hills Cop sequel, that was as much an ambiguous come-on as “Papa Don’t Preach.” A bait and switch, actually: if she’s made up her mind and is keeping the baby, then George reminds listeners that sex is natural and sex is good when it’s one on one. That “I Want Your Sex” coincided with the phony heterosexual AIDS panic didn’t take away from its subtle endorsement of any kind of diddling so long as it was monogamous and safe. Best, he sang with the detached pep of an enthusiastic PE teacher giving his first sex ed lecture; no one would think he had ever done the missionary.

The album it heralded was the first that dominated my pop imagination. Promising a different look on every single, Faith was the apotheosis of the ’80s obsession with the crossmarket crossover. Unlike Tina Turner, though, Michael produced the record himself and played almost every note. Its most gratifying success? A rare #1 place on the American R&B chart. Those who weren’t there can’t fathom how big Faith was; only Thriller and Born in the U.S.A. were this omnipresent, plus those who freaked to Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The two singles I adored came late in the release cycle: Miami’s Y-100 blasted the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remix of “Monkey” through August 1988, as relentless, as conversant in hip-hop idioms as anything coming out of Def Jam (scratches, “Planet Rock” synth, Michael’s interjected “SNARE!”); and the ravaged “One More Try,” a Casio keyboard demo over which Michael lamented a doomed romance with a teacher who promised worse things that young George didn’t have to learn.

A confused youth learning to read signs and symbols, I heard something discordant about the depths of Michael’s yearning. Sure, Rod Stewart had written his own elegy for an educational tryst with an older woman, but he sounded merely pained. The hysteria expended by Michael seemed disproportionate to the scenario. Straight guys don’t yearn like this; if anything, the pop world has way too many “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”s in its repertoire. The first overt clue came years later in Michael’s last American top ten “Fastlove,” in which he tries to coax an available yum-yum into his BMW because he saw “lovin’ in his eyes.” By 1996, however, no one in the Western world had illusions about George Michael’s heterosexuality. The fact that Older and its singles struggled for American airplay and sales affirmed it; in the year of The Birdcage and the Defense of Marriage Act he could enjoy Soundscan-era catalog sales for “Careless Whisper” and Faith while few gave a damn about the queen’s new music. The rest of the world told a different story about Older, as I learned when I visited London the following summer and heard “Star People ’97” everywhere. Like the Pet Shop Boys’ “Can You Forgive Her,” 1998’s “Outside” was a belated acknowledgment of received knowledge, enlivened by Michael’s obvious relief, not to mention his kinky joy in dressing like the Village Person who wore a cop outfit.

When his personal life turned careless, he didn’t lose his ability with a whisper, but after 2004’s ironically named Patience he lost interest in a mass audience that had grown up with him. He put more energy into getting arrested than recording songs. As perverse as this sounds — I wish George the best — I can think of no better rebuke to contemporary notions of homosexual maturity. Yet “Fastlove,” “Outside,” and tracks like Patience‘s “Precious Box” suggest the kind of thump-thump a randy gay man in his fifties could record should he remember that this same mass audience is ready for these stories and beats in 2016. Unlike Scissor Sisters he can sing them. think of how the writer of “Freedom ’90” and “Too Funky” would flourish in this nu-house environment. And he can look the part: during the Blair/Clinton era former mentor Elton John was old and toupeed and as sexless as a spinster aunt in a Saki short story while Michael looked like George Clooney playing Tom Cruise’s vampire.

Don’t let these observations fool you. George Michael has been an indissoluble part of my life since the fifth grade without disturbing my canon. But as I creep towards the age when in the absence of security I make my way into the night I’m realizing how much I’ve underestimated him. Anticipating the ILM poll whose results were posted today, I went on a binge. I’m still discovering songs. “Precious Box” I’ve mentioned, but what about 1990’s “Heal the Pain”? The acoustic hook and multitracked harmonies are so delectable that Paul McCartney dueted with him in a live cover. What about the bossa nova lilt of “Cowboys and Angels”? (Everyone, it seems, was wrong about Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. except Michael.) For such a former megastar his catalog is approachable and un-vast. Spotify eases the experience of dipping. For men and women who watched him jump holding the shuttlecocks, reacquainting oneself with him will yield surprising rewards; for my younger readers who get Prince and Madonna, here was the other weirdo, the most human of him all. Look at that stubble: it was begging to be fluffed by human hands.

TRACKS:

1. Everything She Wants
2. One More Try
3. Monkey
4. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go
5. Too Funky
6. Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone
7. Freedom ’90
8. A Different Corner
9. Freedom
10. Father Figure
11. Precious Box
12. Cars and Trains
13. Waiting For The Day
14. Heaven Help Me (Deon Estes)
15. Fastlove
16. Last Christmas
17. Heal the Pain
18. The Strangest Thing
19. Cowboys and Angels
20. Amazing

Thank you, thank you: Best of Al Green

Here’s the thing with jukebox heroes acquainted with Greatest Hits: as much as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, with whom he has little else in common, Al Green recorded albums. Modest about issuing statements in the post-sixties sense of the word, concerned with the space between sticks and snare, attentive to the percussive effect of a single electric guitar strum, they did not reinvent so much as return rhythm and blues to its base: a relationship between the singer and the Divine as intimate as pillow talk.

The way in which Green and producer Willie Mitchell repeated their strategic use of strings and vocal moues reminded listeners of their debt to hymns and liturgies; for Green writing and singing a couplet like “Full of fire/You’re my one desire” was an affirmation, not a prayer. He sang from a place of confidence. Not for him Gaye and Curtis Mayfield’s anguish. Even Aretha Franklin’s melismatic evocation of joy as a secular speaking in tongues was beyond his interest. No wonder he covered Willie Nelson — I can think of no other singer from the era who trusted stillness, whose pose was emulating God moving over the face of the waters. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he sang in “Jesus is Waiting.” Although a few years from becoming a reverend, he had the swagger of a man who had found grace but sang as if he had to persuade, one listener at a time; this hushed breath-on-the-neck fervor gives “You Ought to Be With Me” and “Your Love is Like the Morning Sun” their power. The suggestion that he was assuming the omnipotence of the God he loved would have appalled him. I’ll take it further: how else to account for a grinning assurance unknown to any godhead who has tangled with mortals?

1. Jesus is Waiting
2. Feels Like Summer
3. Let’s Get Married
4. I’m a Ram
5. You Ought to Be With Me
6. Belle
7. Beware
8. Love and Happiness
9. Home Again
10. Funny How Time Slips Away
11. I Can’t Get Next to You
12. Full of Fire
13. Livin’ For You
14. Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)
15. Right Now, Right Now
16. Lay It Down
17. Call Me
18. For the Good Times
19. One of These Good Old Days
20. Sweet Sixteen

The termite of temptation: the best of Brian Eno

By the early nineties Brian Eno’s cachet was at its apex. I caught up to him the year he did more than produce U2’s best album Zooropa: I discovered Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, found a Nice Price cassette version of Another Green World, and bought James’ Laid. Then Roxy Music beckoned. Eno was right, as usual: Roxy recorded its best music upon his departure. Through four wonderful vocal albums — unmatched in their admixture of formal invention and gonzo humor — and a beguiling series of collaborations with Robert Fripp, Cluster, Harold Budd, John Cale, and others, Eno has approached rock with a dilettante’s amateurish glee and a sophisticate’s subtlety, bound only by the limits of his curiosity.

So vast as to seem forbidding, his catalog is full of unexpected diversions, uneven by definition. I rank his 1990 Cale collaboration Wrong Way Up with Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Before and After Science but find the Jon Hassell co-recording Fourth World, Volume 1: Possible Musics a vaporous bore, while Discreet Music and Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks are never far away from my stereo, notably around bedtime.

I’m happy with my list: a compulsive miscellany. The songs include the collaborations mentioned above, plus a couple excellent ones from David Bowie’s Outside and a standout from his second Karl Hyde project. The differences between “songs” and “collaborations” is elastic though.

SONGS

1. No One Receiving
2. Spider & I
3. Baby’s On Fire
4. I”ll Come Running
5. One Word
6. This
7. Re-Make/Re-Model
8. Empty Frame
9. Another Green World
10. Burning Airlines…
11. King’s Lead Hat
12. Backwater
13. Becalmed
14. Chance Meeting
15. Back From Judy’s Jungle
16. Editions of You
17. The True Wheel
18. Cindy Tells Me
19. Sky Saw
20. Your Blue Room
21. St. Elmo’s Fire
22. Through Hollow Lands
23. The River (Eno-Cale)
24. Taking Tiger MOuntain
24. Weightless
26. DBF
27. Life is Long
28. Spinning Away
29. No Control
30. Needles in the Camel’s Eye

ALBUMS

1. Here Come The Warm Jets
2. Another Green World
3. Wrong Way Up
4. Before and After Science
5. Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
6. Apollo
7. More Songs About Buildings and Food
8. Outside
9. Discreet Music
10. Zooropa
11. Achtung Baby
12. No Pussyfooting
13. Laid

COLLABORATIONS

1. Gun
2. Listening Wind
3. Say Something
4. Lemon
5. The Fly
6. Heroes
7. The Unforgettable Fire
8. Artists Only
9. Viva La Vida
10. Sometimes
11. Boys Keep Swinging
12. Art Decade
13. Barracuda
14. African Nite Flight
15. The Great Curve

‘There’s not much to talk about’

In which Luther Vandross discovers the possibilities of MIDI. At the time some may have mourned the interplay between piano, backup vocalists, and bass that were hallmarks of his early sound; here, the machine-sponsored precision forces Vandross into finding new vocal nuances: harmonizing with the quiet guitar line, experimenting with his low end, the controlled anguish of the chorus. The coda dissolves into space, uncertainty. “Give Me the Reason” needs none.

A state of emergency: Best of 1997

1. Toni Braxton – Un-Break My Heart
2. Erykah Badu – On & On
3. Ghostface Killah _ Daytona 500
4. Wu-Tang Clan – Triumph
5. En Vogue – Don’t Let Go (Love)
6. Sleater Kinney – Dig Me Out
7. Bjork – Joga
8. Refugee Camp All-Stars featuring Lauryn Hill – The Sweetest Thing
9. Aaliyah – One in a Million
10. George Michael – Star People ’97
11. Smashing Pumpkins – The End Is the Beginning Is the End
12. Sheryl Crow – A Change Would Do You Good
13. Blur – On Your Own
14. Backstreet Boys – Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)
15. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – The Impression That I Get
16. Robyn – Show Me Love
17. Third-Eyed Blind – How’s It Gonna Be
18. Reba McEntire – How Was I to Know
19. Prince – The Holy River
20. Beck – The New Pollution
21. Savage Garden – I Want You
22. Cornershop – Brimful of Asha (Norman Cook remix)
23. Mase – Feel So Good
24. Monaco – What Do You Want From Me
25. Foo Fighers – Everlong
26. The Cure – Wrong Number
27. Dandy Warhols – Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth
28. Hanson – MMMbop
29. Prodigy – Firestarter
30. Shania Twain – Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)
31. The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work
32. Yo La Tengo – Autumn Sweater
33. Jay-Z – Who You Wit
34. Pavement – Stereo
35. Janet Jackson – Got Til It’s Gone
36. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)
37. Fiona Apple – Criminal
38. The Notorious B.I.G. – Hypnotize
39. Chemical Brothers – Setting Sun
40. Spice Girls – Wannabe
41. Radiohead – Paranoid Android
42. Tony! Toni! Toné! – Thinking of You
43. Bob Dylan – Not Dark Yet
44. Pet Shop Boys – To Step Aside
45. Fleetwood Mac – Silver Springs
46. Sneaker Pimps – 6 Underground
47. Michael Jackson – Morphine
48. Busta Rhymes – Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See
49. Mobb Deep – Hell on Earth
50. Daft Punk – Da Funk
51. Suede – Saturday Night
52. Keith Sweat – Twisted
53. Tori Amos – Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)
54. Usher – You Make Me Wanna…
55. Aaliyah – The One I Gave My Heart To

She’s got the moves, baby: Madonna’s best album tracks

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Revisiting after Prince’s death Eric Henderson and Sal Cinquemani’s 2013 list of Madonna’s best album tracks led me back to 1989’s co-write/co-production “Love Song,” which in turn reminded me of what I already knew: boy, Madonna has more essential album tracks than her singles reputation suggests, and they proliferated after 1989.

To note those tracks is difficult at first: the eponymous debut kept “Think About Me” and “I Know It” to itself yet I heard the former often in early ’85 when public ardor matched her chart ambitions (Jellybean’s Madonna-written “Sidewalk Talk” got Miami airplay much earlier than its Hot 100 chart peak, for instance). But if I concede that Like a Virgin is her weakest long player, then I have to explain what “Stay” is doing on my list and I don’t feel like it; like all her Stephen Bray collaborations from this period its joi de vivre justifies itself (you can do what you like with “Shoo-Be-Doo”). Plus — it’s got firework effects! Even greater is “Over and Over,” whose symmetrical title emphasizes the will to power inseparable from physical and even spiritual attraction that was Madonna’s contribution to the language of pop semiotics. Plus — it’s got the best wordless hook of her career, rendered even more thundering in its You Can Dance remix version.

Matters were still simple for True Blue and Who’s That Girl; not much unreleased shit. Two of my closest junior high girl friends adored “Jimmy Jimmy,” while “The Look of Love” was a British top ten but a nothing here beyond the playground; I included it because it’s the period’s most poignant ballad, showcasing the best of co-writer Patrick Leonard’s atmospheric keyboards and in “All the books I’ve read, and the things I know/Never taught me to laugh, never taught to let go” some of Madonna’s best ah-bitter-fame lyrics.

Finally, let me point out “Supernatural,” a Like a Prayer outtake with fabulous self-harmonizing and sharp drumming that shows what a roll she and Leonard were on in 1989.

1. Words (Erotica)
2. Bye Bye Baby (Erotica)
3. Over and Over (Like a Virgin)
4. Let It Will Be (Confessions on a Dance Floor)
5. Where’s The Party (True Blue and You Can Dance)
6. Stay (Like a Virgin)
7. Love Tried to Welcome Me (Bedtime Stories)
8. He’s a Man (I’m Breathless)
9. In This Life (Erotica)
10. Forbidden Love (Confessions on a Dance Floor)
11. Gone (Music)
12. Love Song (Like a Prayer)
13. Sky Fits Heaven (Ray of Light)
14. Thief of Hearts (Erotica)
15. Till Death Do us Part (Like a Prayer)
16. I’d Rather Be Your Lover (Bedtime Stories)
17. Impressive Instant (Music)
18. Forbidden Love (Bedtime Stories)
19. Swim (Ray of Light)
20. Gang Bang (MDNA)

Getting out of doing these things twice: Blonde on Blonde

Facts are facts: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” remains a horror, and among the examples of malfeasance perpetuated by Forrest Gump in the mid nineties was insisting that this #2 hit is representative of Bob Dylan. Representative of his playfulness? You bet. Of his way with horns? Sure. Of his ability to laugh mid sentence and keep truckin’? Of course. But the results are at best a whirring trifle. Blonde on Blonde has other songs I don’t like. “Pledging My Time” is twelve-bar blues filler. “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” can’t sustain its eleven-minute length; when I played my Columbia House copy in 1994 I’d fast forward through it. Without Hargus “Pig” Robbins’s piano I find it hard to remember a note of “Temporary Like Achilles.” Looking at what I’d cut reduces the album to my least favorite released between The Times They Are A-Changin’ and New Morning.

Yet! It’s still a doozy. Just when I imagined clickbait-obsessed editors would have to offer pencil shavings and organ grinders on the fiftieth anniversary of its release, Rob Sheffield forced me today to think about the Smokey Robinson influence; the singer-songewriter-producer whom Dylan, perhaps apocryphally, praised as America’s greatest poet is all over the sound of “Just Like a Woman.” Sheffield unearths the lineage between it and “The Tracks of My Tears”; I hear “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” recorded a year later: a lovesick ballad in which Smokey can’t resist leavening his scorn with a melody that conveys his determination to believe in the mirage anyway. His high tenor gives him the mien of a chastened seraph. Straw men who dismiss Dylan’s own melodic facility get fooled by the tug of his vocal, reluctant to leave a syllable unyanked until he can invest it with an ironist’s skepticism and a troubadour’s submission. More than twenty years later, thanks in part to repeated viewings of Annie Hall, “Just Like a Woman” still unnerves me; I’m not sure sometimes Dylan gets away with what I claim he does. To my ears he mastered this venomous admixture on 1974’s Planet Waves and 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. The two most Smokey-drenched tracks, as Sheffield argues, are “”Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” and “I Want You,” the latter drunk on couplets, with Al Kooper’s organ the moonshine; the former a lurching beast with a surly guitar line, even angrier when The Band put eight years of experience into it.

But when I remember to play Blonde on Blonde I go to “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” a train going round the bend whose passengers include Shakespeare with his pointed shoes and bells, Mona with her sage advice about railroad men drinking your blood like wine, sociopathic Grandpa buried in the rocks after shooting up Main Street, and other products of Dylan’s addled brain, reeling from wine and rocks and god knows what else. With Ken Buttrey’s assured fills and more chirping Kooper organ, “Stuck Inside…” is Dylan’s happiest song; the song is in the middle of discovering itself, of sorting itself out. As gruesome as despair is to sustain, joy is hardest.

Air can hurt you too: Talking Heads 1980

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Vinyl copies were available, but spottings were rare, like female cardinals in South Florida. I saw one in the late nineties; I bought a Japan album instead or some shit. So when Rhino issued The Name of This Band is Talking Heads twelve years ago I got as excited as David Byrne on stage. What good timing too: 2004 marked the peak of the Heads’ new influence on dance-oriented rock issued by DFA Records. Traces even appeared in the work of Interpol and Fischerspooner and other casualties of the first Bush term. About time too. Along with Bowie and Ferry, Talking Heads suffered from that excess of influence. I read this Chris Frantz interview done at the time of the Stop Making Sense anniversary and shared his wistfulness (“”We were almost overrated during our day, but we’re almost too much forgotten now”).

In one of my first reviews for Stylus, I revisited that two-disc wonder. It still sounds terrific.

—————

Talking Heads
The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
8-27-2004

The name of its leader is David Byrne. Until 1987, when U2 and R.E.M.’s declamatory arena moves flexed the populist muscle Byrne could never manage, his band Talking Heads was the biggest alternative band in the world—back when “alternative” signified a hell of a lot more beyond gormless marketing. Two double platinum albums, not a single year in which the band didn’t place an album in year-end polls and a Time magazine cover story—all for a band whose evolution from buttoned-up preppies to gonna-see-you-sweat synthesists of Afrobeat rhythms and art-school detachment should have confounded any commercial aspirations.

It was Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense that cemented Talking Heads’ mainstream acceptance. Unfortunately, the soundtrack, which remains the band’s biggest selling album, is a bit redundant, whether in its original configuration or in 1999’s expanded edition. The music was inseparable from Demme’s sustained flowing takes, as much dependent on how textures and images interweave as the Heads’ Remain in Light in 1980. The soundtrack fails because Byrne’s gonzo athleticism, otherworldly mugging, his sheer weirdness, is missing.

The 1982 The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was always the better live document; too bad not many people heard it. Out of print for at least 20 years (if you were lucky you’d find it in a good used-vinyl store), Rhino Records has reissued it with 12 previously unreleased tracks, a booklet of photos and a collection of press clippings (all of which prove how a band’s originality can make decent writers struggle for colorful adjectives). But this is no cynical cash-in; every new track adds gestalt to an album which in its original incarnation was pretty damn great to begin with. Versions of “Born Under Punches” and “Drugs” in particular disembowel the originals.

On its 1980-1981 tour, Talking Heads expanded its original quartet (singer/guitarist Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison) to include keyboardist Bernie Worrel (of Parliament fame), guitarist Adrian Belew, backup singers Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald, second bassist (!) Busta Jones, and percussionist Steve Scales. The result was glorious—as bustling, loud, funky and unhinged as Manhattan itself. Byrne especially was a revelation: the original Boy with Perpetual Nervousness reincarnated as Iggy Pop; he gave hope to every white guy who dreamed of being dorky and sinuous at the same time.

The Name of This Band…
is gratifyingly looser than the Stop Making Sense soundtrack. You’ll hear this lithe10-piece trying to assimilate the polyrhythms the band and producer (and by now co-composer) Brian Eno constructed so painstakingly on Remain in Light, and it’s a little touching to discover that the parts don’t always mesh (that’s the chance you take when you construct polyrhythms with Brian Eno). Byrne’s pig grunts on “Animals” and elongated vowels on “Mind” are either appropriate or mannered or both, depending on your mood; Belew’s borrowed Robert Frippisms matches him, screech for screech.

The album also vindicates Tina Weymouth, a notorious troublemaker whose run-ins with her neurotic leader have soured her contributions to this day. Two bassists in a band are like six wheels on a car: not only unnecessary, but dangerous. But Weymouth’s steady bottom on the early uptight classics “The Book I Read” and “Pulled Up” encouraged her to experiment with the looser dynamics of “I Zimbra” and “Born Under Punches.” The same goes for underrated utility man Jerry Harrison, whose lead work on “Found A Job” serves as effective counterpoint for Byrne’s chaka-chaka attack, while his synth fills on “Stay Hungry” are as eerie as intended.

Radiohead and Wilco get undeserved credit these days for “stretching the boundaries”, whatever that means. Talking Heads may have been just as pretentious, but for Byrne and his mates their nerd-pop origin wasn’t a boundary; it was a starting point, a Year Zero, from which the next 12 years were a refinement, a man shedding clothing styles until he’s comfortable. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads reminds us that there’s no shame in being white so long as you’re willing to embrace it.

I don’t care if you got no legs!

My Friday panel devoted a total of four minutes to the opener of Big Bam Boom, Daryl Hall and John Oates’ last imperial phase album. As I noted, clearly the duo had liked New Order’s “Confusion.” Here it is in its six-minutes 12″ glory. appy Sunday.

Phife Dawg – RIP

The joker and the horndog, the prankster and spankster, Malik Taylor vulgarized A Tribe Called Quest’s best material. From the “I like em brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian” bit in their best slow jam “Electric Relaxation” to the discovery in “Butter” that women are more complex than his attitudes were willing to admit, this B-ball playin’ fly rhyme sayin’ bro brought a spirit of play when Q-Tip threatened to live up to his The Abstract moniker. The thing was, Tip was grounded enough such that Phife Dawg sometimes felt like an afterthought. Indeed, after 1994 Tribe itself felt like an afterthought, as their increasingly listless albums showed. But on The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders he was on point all the time, his aura positive, far from a bully and no punk. I didn’t need the documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest to tell me how much Phife loved his boy Tip, not when the first verse of “Steve Biko” exists.

Al Green: It’s all okay

The streaming age hasn’t made appraisal of Al Green’s catalog easier. When the wedding standards from Greatest Hits pop up on Spotify, I understand why the young hate weddings and old people. From breakthrough Al Green Gets Next to You through Al Green is Love, the R&B singer-songwriter-sensualist recorded full length statements, boasting album tracks as fulsome and ravishing as the chestnuts playing on quiet storm as I type. I’ve a special affection for Livin’ For You because even the likes of “Sweet Sixteen” and the “Unchained Melody” sport growls; he recognizes that, as Joni Mitchell sang two years later, love’s a repetitious danger.

In 2007 I wrote an appreciation of “Beware,” the last track on Livin’ For You. It represents what Harold Bloom would call a breaking of the vessel: drummer Al Jackson and bassist Leroy Hodges disregarding their terse three-minute structures/strictures. Call it Al Green Explores Your Tolerance. Finding the danger in sex, Green stumbles into his future calling as preacher.

—————
Al Green
“Beware”
2007-01-30

You think you know me, but you don’t. I contain multitudes. That’s what Al Green’s “Beware” tells the trusting listener. Livin’ for You has never been as popular as Call Me or I’m Still in Love With You in the pre-Belle Album canon, although it’s home to sizable hits like the title track and “Let’s Get Married,” whose line “I’m tired of your bright ideas about losing me” augurs Green’s approach on “Beware.” Don’t think that this meticulous recordmaker didn’t know that bookending two variations on this theme would inject a welcome snark to an album of tepid tried-and-true’s and remarkably unremarkable covers.

At 8:12, “Beware” is one of Green’s longest tunes—an expansion of what was by 1973 a seasoned craftsman’s obsessions. If “Let’s Stay Together” and “Call Me” rendered Green as the star in his own billowy romantic fantasies, and “Here I Am (Come & Take Me)” was the PG-rated simulacrum of “Tired of Being Alone”’s hard-dicked impatience, “Beware” subsumes them in a groove whose predictability, borne of equal parts confidence and mercenary instincts, doesn’t mitigate Green’s determination to show how finely shaded the Love Man pose was if you were staring hard enough (imagine if Bryan Ferry had fused “If There Is Something” and “Just Another High”!). It’s the work of an artist with an uncanny grasp of how he stood in relation to his audience. Compared with sonic cousin “Your Love Is the Morning Sun,” the drawled hush in which Green sings “Beware” signifies a rapture as besotted with its own ability to provoke rapture as the earlier tune was at delineating the afterglow of one monstrous night of passion.

A chunk of “Beware” maintains a pace as unhurried as “…Morning Sun,” even with Leroy Hodges plucking a bass line as quietly propulsive as a finger thrust up a skirt. Over electric piano and Al Jackson’s as-ever metronomic drumming, Green sings:

The way people smile and say
Using me in every way
It’s all okay
Tired of changin’
Life is upside down
No reason to cry loud

I want to concentrate on the line, “It’s all okay.” Enunciating the two syllables, he assures us that the statement is an unambiguous admission of exhaustion—or is it? The ominous churn of keyboards and drums say otherwise; it’s not okay if one glance at the vinyl tells us there’s still six-plus minutes of all-okay. Then the truly odd: “So many people think life is fun / We’ve only just begun.” Sung in Green’s most fetching growl, you understand why pleasure—fleeting and limited to one’s capacity for re-invention—cannot be contingent on joy. You understand what led Green to affix a “Reverend” to his name after a bowl of grits scalded his back. “Beware” explores pleasure, not joy; this explains its crawl to a triumphant, thundering climax. To approach joy he had to crawl, as he would to Jesus a couple of years later, note by note, testing each instrument, spitting couplets and epithets with homiletic intensity when clarity failed him.

The rest of “Beware” isn’t so interesting: Green, at last figuring out where he’s got to take the track, leads the band through a more loping version of “Love & Happiness.” But a hint of the looser arrangements Green would pursue on The Belle Album appears at midpoint: an acoustic guitar, picked by Green himself (“Play my guitar,” he murmurs, with an infectious pride), weaving between the pistons of Jackson’s drums, coyly, nimbly. The last minute is perfection: Charlie Hodges plays an electric piano motif that’s right out Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Jackson hangs in there, and there’s Green, chuckling. “Every time he laughs mischievously at the passion elicited by his boyish come-on, he shares a joke about the pleasures of the tease,” Robert Christgau once wrote (remember Justin Timberlake’s own giggle in “Senorita”). This unassuming mélange of gospel intensity and post-jazz introspection is one of those hybrids for which Green got so little credit from an audience who wanted wedding standards—and from the artist himself, who would have himself kept recording these standards had not grits and a misunderstanding of the pleasure principle hardened him against a secular muse to whom he could have pledged a troth of a more beguiling stature.

‘This red becomes you’

In 1991 Throwing Muses released The Real Ramona, their shiniest album. Strange things look stranger in the light. The brawny rocker “Red Shoes” never explains what’s got it so upset but with Tanya Donnelly and Kirstin Hersh exchanging riffs and vocals it doesn’t matter. Happy Sunday.