The business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge famously put it a few years before the first crash. Today, of course, the leisure of America is business, as well.
Our artists are salesmen first–they have to be–though, as shown by Metallica’s recent Napster-driven plunge in credibility, we cringe when they choose not to disguise it. And those who are remembered as outsider artists still have half a leg through the front door, more often than not.
Take Harry Smith and Raymond Scott, both dead in the first half of the last decade, both pathologically oddball spendthrifts, both possessors of omnivorous, if finely tuned, genius. Now they are both Fuller Brush men from beyond the grave.
Previous to the 90’s, their reputations were at an ebb, and whatever regard remained was tangential to their recent posthumous successes. Smith was primarily remembered as a maker of obscure, painstakingly hand-animated films. Scott was a former 1930’s band leader whose compositions sometimes served as accompaniment for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes. He later took up residence conducting for the 1950’s television show, Your Hit Parade .
Today, these men’s reputations exist on much different planes. Scott is considered a pioneer of experimental electronic music; an inventor of synthesizers as far back as the 1940’s. His office was a gingerbread house of wires, which he called the “Wall of Dazzle.” Smith’s honorific as a preeminent musical archivist was secured with the 1998 reissue of his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music , a collection of obscure pre-Depression era 78’s often grandiosely credited with launching rock ‘n’ roll.
In an age that treats aesthetic obsession with Prozac, this sort of music is priceless. Which means that as the business of America is business, it is put in elaborate boxes so that we may fetishize and put a hefty price upon it. Both Scott’s Manhattan Research Inc. (Basta) and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume 4 (Revenant), a follow-up to the original, are two-CD sets packaged like the Bibles they hope to become, with hardcover book-length liner notes. Both releases are designed to advance their inspirations from the rank and file to the front office. Smith was a curator, not a performer. He got the gig compiling the original Anthologies when he was attempting to sell his beloved 78’s to Folkways records. Scott’s cartoon music was heard without attribution, and he peddled his electronic compositions to advertisers. That was, in fact, their primary means of exposure. An old trade advertisement for Scott’s space-age jingles, reproduced in Manhattan Research , depicts a man with a blissful expression lying atop a TV set. Beneath it runs the endorsement, “I love ‘Raymond Scott Jingles.’ Every time I hear one, I gotta buy the product … And I buy, and I buy, and I buy, and I buy …”
Smith sold his love. Scott sold himself. Which is why Scott was ultimately more of a folk artist than Smith. If the business of America is business, then its folk music is advertising, and Manhattan Research contains plenty of Ken Nordine-style voice-overs beseeching the public to consume Twinkies and other wonders of 20th-century American know-how, as Scott bleeps and blorps in the background. You can’t dance to it, but today’s listener will get a better understanding of this country through Scott than through Studs Terkel. Listen to the spring of Sprite’s “Melonball Bounce” and witness the birth of a nation, or, at the very least, modernity.
A large part of the Scott box set will evoke the mad-scientist laboratories of Roger Corman’s oeuvre . This stuff is to music as Howard Roarke’s buildings were to architecture–so aggressive in its attempts at futurism that it must have seemed Flash Gordon-like the day after release. Which is exactly what the give-me-tomorrow-just-for-today world of advertising demands. IBM, Vicks Medicated Cough Drops and Baltimore Gas and Electric are some other clients represented here. Also included are a couple of updated versions of Scott’s Looney Tunes compositions, as well as early scores he produced for Jim Henson and his Muppets. Big business indeed.
Meanwhile, Smith’s compilations are so individual and morosely perverse in their arrangements that they strike the ear as closer to an avant-garde than Scott’s experiments. This compilation of unique and haphazard music, based on notes for a set Smith had once planned to put together (but without the eccentric commentary of the previous volumes), shows that it’s been quite a path to the robotic mummery of today’s blues and country performers. The Blue Sky Boys’ “Down on the Banks of the Ohio” may first bring to mind Neil Young’s “Down by the River” (itself a landmark of primitivism, with its famed one-note guitar solo), but then one is struck by the unpredictability of the music. It’s near impossible to guess when the bars will end, and the suspense is mystical.
Smith’s selections reflect a down-and-out revisionist loserism that he must have romanticized the dickens out of Jesse James’ “Southern Casey Jones,” for example, is a pimp. Some other notable titles: “I’ll Be Rested (When the Roll is Called),” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” and “He’s in the Ring (Doing the Same Old Thing).” Forget rock ‘n’ roll–Smith created Leonard Cohen! The one reasonably upbeat piece would appear to be Uncle Dave Macon’s tribute to a former presidential candidate and New Deal opponent, New York “Governor Al Smith.”
Although many of the names on this set seem relatively unadventurous (Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, the Carter Family), the music is decidedly alien from our current experience.
Alienation, of course, is the hallmark of the avant-garde, and no less current today. As Blind Alfred Reed sings on the Smith set, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”? Music may be one answer, and if not, perhaps one might consider selling one’s rags as heirlooms on eBay.
Britney Spears, Ba-Da-Bing Girl
Forgive me, Mr. and Mrs. Jamie Spears, but watching your daughter Britney dominate MTV’s schedule a few weekends ago, I was struck by an unshakable vision. Seeing Ms. Spears clomping around in video after video, midriff exposed and headset gyrating, I began to picture her performing before another audience: The one that frequents Scores and other local strip clubs that I have occasionally visited.
It wasn’t so much a case of wishful thinking, (well, maybe a little) as it is the message that Ms. Spears is putting out there, in direct refutation of her Disney beginnings.
When she’s on duty, Ms. Spears wears the kind of clothes that usually get dropped next to a guy’s chair come lap-dance time. Her nice-Southern-girl interview banter resembles the banal something-for-everyone chitchat employed by out-of-town ecdysiasts who fly to the city for a few days’ work.
Throw in the lingering “Are they real or not?” debate and new video direction by porn legend Gregory Dark, and envisioning Ms. Spears as the pop-music equivalent of a Ba-Da-Bing Girl is hardly a stretch.
Now comes Ms. Spears’ sophomore effort, Oops! … I Did It Again (Jive Records), an album that seems tailor-made for the Scores crowd.
If … Baby One More Time was a strip-club routine–and, God knows, its songs have accompanied quite a few–it would be more suggestive than overt, much like the school-girls-in-uniform video that was shot for the title track.
Oops!, which sold more than a million copies in its first week of release, is more like the fire-pole dance. It’s a vigorous, often thrilling display of confidence from Ms. Spears. Save for a few songs, Ms. Spears spends most of Oops! acknowledging her power over males. The title cut, a reprise of her first big hit, “… Baby One More Time” (dubbed by some wags as “Oops, I Did Baby One More Time Again”) casts Ms. Spears as the dispenser of mixed signals to an infatuated male acquaintance, instead of vice-versa. Mr. Lovesick thinks she’s an angel from above, but Ms. Spears sets him straight, declaring “I’m not that innocent” at the end of each of the song’s choruses.
On a radical, staccato rearrangement of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” produced by current R&B titan Rodney Jerkins, Ms. Spears has rewritten some of the song’s hallowed lyrics. “Some girl comes on and tells me how tight my skirt should be,” she sings, and she could be referring to the much-debated issue of whether she influences young adolescents to dress too bawdily for their tender ages.
But Ms. Spears doesn’t pull back on Oops! Instead, she pushes forward as a sensual vocal stylist. She purrs in a distinctly coital fashion and moans to punctuate most vocal lines. It is on the up-tempo cuts, such as “Stronger,” and “Don’t Go Knockin’ On My Door,” that her singing is exhortatory and really quite original. When she sings ballads, her upper register disappears into the ether, particularly on her self-penned “Dear Diary.”
Ms. Spears also benefits from the participation of Max Martin, the album’s main producer and songwriter. Mr. Martin, the Swede behind many of the Backstreet Boys’ and Ms. Spears’ hits, is a sculptor of pop melodrama. His melodies soar and his sense of the drama of late adolescence is spot on.
But Mr. Martin and the others who put together this album should not be mistaken as Ms. Spears’ pop Pygmalions. Oops! works because it is shot through with her sensibility; that of a woman who has discovered the power of her sexuality and chooses not to obscure it. And anyone who’s ever dropped a bankroll at a strip club knows just how powerful that knowledge can be.
– Rob Kemp
Surrendered : Commercial Ware
An avantist with heavy 70’s credentials (the Cecil Taylor group, the New York loft scene), saxophonist David Ware drove a cab for 14 years, and then, thanks to the intercession of Branford Marsalis, in 1998, he got a record deal. Go See the World was a polyrhythmic, polyphonic blow to the head and a statement to the effect that Mr. Ware didn’t care if he had to drive a hack for another 14 years, this was his music. The title of his new Quartet album on Surrendered (Sony/Columbia) is an announcement that some changes in the program have been made. (The David S. Ware Quartet will play a free concert at the Columbia University steps June 4, part of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival.)
Has Mr. Ware surrendered to commercial realities? In the album’s liner notes, Mr. Ware alludes only obliquely to “those forces … man, they have their own agenda too.”
A new disposition on the part of the Ware Quartet rates as serious news. Three-quarters of the Ware group are a long-standing avant-jazz institution–Mr. Ware, pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker. The fourth, drummer Guillermo E. Brown, is a recent replacement for Susie Ibarra, one of the most acute colorists in jazz percussion. However, since the tunes on the album have a set rhythmic base that the soloists blow over (so heretical for that “collective improvisation” torchbearer Mr. Ware, so ordinary for most everyone else), the personnel change doesn’t register as a loss.
What’s more striking are the new moods for the old hands, Mr. Ware and Mr. Shipp. On the album’s first tune, “Peace Celestial,” the saxophonist forgoes the clangorous mood of Go See The World and settles in for a keening, meditative blow in the spirit of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme . Mr. Shipp comps demurely behind him and then, after Mr. Ware has politely stepped aside, launches into an earnest jazz-meets-New Age solo that recalls Brad Mehldau at his softest and most self-regarding.
Mr. Shipp may occasionally get a little carried away with the beauty of surrender, but generally, his melody-minded solos, in a handful of different piano styles, raise his contribution almost to the level of co-leader. “Sweet Georgia Bright,” written by the saxophonist Charles Lloyd (whose late 60’s success crossing over to the hippie market is inspiration for Mr. Ware), is shot through with Mr. Shipp’s fleet single-note bop lines, a shock to anyone who knows the pianist as an abstract artist only.
Surrender is not a mild album. On Mr. Ware’s tune “Theme of Ages,” he obsessively wails on a simple four-note figure, in the extreme freak reaches of his horn, sounding like someone strangling a rubber duck. Still, I never thought I would come to the end of a 17-minute Ware performance (“African Drums”) feeling anything other than wrung out. I never imagined that the tenorist would or could unravel the dense ball of the Quartet sound into a relaxed and captivating series of musical episodes. And I surely never expected a Ware performance to remind me of the lilt and bounce of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Mr. Ware is from Mars, Mr. Brubeck’s altoist Paul Desmond was from Venus. Except on Surrender , where worlds sometimes collide.
– Joseph Hooper
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