Well, at least one good thing has come from having my iPod stolen – I’m discovering new music on the radio again. (Thank you, KUTX.) And when I mean I’ve discovered new music, I mean I’ve discovered artists I should have been down with all along. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of R.L. Burnside; his music has been featured in movies like Black Snake Moan and on The Sopranos, just to name the most mainstream pop cultural highlight in a decade-spanning career. Of course, I’m hardly an expert on blues music, and Burnside spent most of his long life toiling away in obscurity. Burnside was born in 1926 and began playing as a teenager, but for most of his life supported himself doing menial labor, and didn’t begin to gain recognition until the 1990’s; by the time his music began to gain real popularity in the 2000’s he was an old man in declining health. He died in 2005. Burnside recorded his first albums in the 80’s and despite his age, he could be described as a modern day blues innovator. His music doesn’t sound like classic blues music; it’s heavier, it’s faster, it’s post rock blues music. It incorporates the speed, aggression and attitude of rock and roll; it sounds modern because it is modern.
Another day, another saga of tramping and riding trains by Tom Waits. I’m pretty sure Waits isn’t actually old enough to remember the days when you could crisscross the country on a pony, adopting a new name in every town. But it is, in it’s own way, a very appealing fantasy, especially now that most of our waking moments are documented for eternity.
Sometime in the mid-1980’s, Kurt Cobain read a news story about a teenage girl who was kidnapped hitchhiking home from a concert; a pretty typical modern-day horror story, unusual only in that the victim managed to escape and went on to talk about her ordeal. Cobain was disturbed by the incident, which occurred in the Seattle area, and like any poet, dealt by writing a song about it. Obviously, some creative liberties were taken, but that is what makes it an interesting piece of work. The writer sees the relationship between perpetrator and victim as one of sick symbiosis. The condition of a man who would resort to the lowest depravity may just be a very extreme form of loneliness and alienation; he’s isolated and bored, so desperately out of touch with his own or anyone else’s humanity that only meaningful connection he can make is through violence. What about the victim, on the other hand? Here the artist takes a bold liberty, a controversial one. Is it possible that in her 14 years, being tied up and tortured by a filthy old man is the most attention she’s ever gotten? If someone is lonely, alienated, bored and ignored, then being a kidnap victim is the most interesting and important thing that’s ever happened to them. In a perverse way, they form a bond; they’re both experiencing the most intense experience they’ve ever experienced. That doesn’t make it not wrong, and it doesn’t make it worthwhile, but it does make it psychologically complex in a way that we don’t like to talk about.
Here is a surreal spectacle; it’s not all the time that you see a string quartet play by strobe lights. But this is Bjork, and in her world there’s no reason for strings and pulsing drums not to come together. In Bjork’s world the avant-garde plays with the punk rock. Why should those worlds be at odds? Nobody pulls together disparate cultural highs, lows, and obscurities like Bjork does. She’s created an insane number of iconic images and sounds, and even though she’s one of the definitive artists of the decade, she’s somehow managed to escape being a figure of 90’s nostalgia. Maybe because her work may have made waves in its time, but its not a product of its time. What Bjork does is a product of Bjork’s brain, and she can and will be just as singular in any given decade.
Here is a group of poorly dressed average schlubs who play some really good guitar rock. Built to Spill occupy a weird little sweet spot of noisy and melodic where the term post-grunge isn’t an insult. They’re just thoroughly normal dudes of modest ambition who are consistently good at what they do in the niche that they’ve created. Is ‘slacker’ still an insult? Remember when ‘alternative’ was a badge of authenticity? It does seem that listening to this record instantly whisks me off into 90’s nostalgia. Must be the cargo shorts. Party like it’s 1999?
Here is another Geoffrey Oryema song, which I initially considered skipping over for fear of redundancy. But then I discovered some good quality video of the artist performing at Woodstock ’94. That was thing, and I think it’s gone down as one of those ill-advised mildly embarrassing things from the 90’s, like hacky sack and No Fear t-shirts. But they did book Geoffrey Oryema to play in front of several thousand people, so that’s a positive. You would think that Oryema’s music is too intimate to translate well to festival stages, but it actually sounds surprisingly good. If the audience seems somnolent, well, I assume they’re all deeply, deeply stoned, and honestly, that sounds quite pleasant to me. I mean, festivals are exhausting, and you get subjected to a lot of mediocre acts desperately trying to play to the back of the crowd, and opportunities to just sit back and enjoy some fine musicianship are actually pretty rare. So yeah, that looks like a good time to me.
Many a singer has played the miserable wench Pirate Jenny, the prostitute who fantasizes bloody revenge upon her clientele. She’s been a figure in the public imagination since the early 1700’s, so she’s been around. The original, real-life Jenny Diver was well known gang leader and thief whose exploits included picking pockets at parties whilst wearing a false set of arms, being twice deported to America and bribing her way back to London, and, eventually, execution at the age of 41. She was still very much alive and active when John Gay made her a character in The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. That early template of musical theater proved surprisingly enduring, and Jenny’s immortality was assured. In 1928 Kurt Weill rewrote the play as The Threepenny Opera, composing brand new songs but keeping the story and characters. Weill’s songs have become popular standards, with Pirate Jenny being a particular favorite of singers with a taste for tragic glamour. It’s a song that every self-respecting interpretive singer tries their hand at, with various degrees of success. Judy Collins and Maddy Prior have tried, but it’s not a song for pretty-voiced singers. Lotte Lenya and Nina Simone’s versions are among the best known and the best, but for me, Marianne Faithfull’s is the ultimate. Nobody else has a comparable voice, rasping and angry and weary from a lifetime of abuse. Because it takes a real lifetime of hard living to bring to life a woman whose lot hasn’t changed much in 300 years.