Thursday, January 15, 2009

Abstract Index Playlist - January 14/09

An early contender for one of the best album covers of the year.

I can tell why this got reissued, it's got that certain freeform indie spirit that the kids buy into so much these days. These are unfettered grooves which don't always cohere - certainly Animal Collective of a few years ago would have drawn inspiration from the D.C based Mr. Witch, Ricky Simms. And that outfit is timeless.

But it wouldn't be accurate to term this proto-Williamsburg music. This music represents a point near the end of a long line of black American development. Wicked Witch mulches rock, funk, blues, jazz and electronics into a lumpy gravy. Simms plays almost all the instruments (except for a compellingly off-kilter slice of jazz/rock fusion recorded with a band in 1978) and he's not going for dancefloor satisfaction. There are no signifiers to DJs like intros or breaks, it would be difficult to mix this into a set with such wobbly timekeeping.

This music's kin is the harmolodic movement spearheaded by Ornette Coleman in the mid 70s. There is funk in this music, but it's more about the energy of funk and its electric pulse than its forward drive. There is near constant soloing in some tracks which blurs together into a tasty yet schizophrenic mass. Within the Chaos (apt title for this reissue) emerge a few linear grooves, often of very period-specific blues rock with slap bass. Blues was still a going concern in black audiences in major urban centers in the States at the time; if you played a gig for an older crowd, you'd better know how to play the blues convincingly. It was still a time when blues was passed on from generation to generation as part of the 'dues paying' process of making a living in clubs. Wicked Witch and fellow travellers like Alfonia Tims, James Blood Ulmer and Skip and The Exciting Illusions incorporated blues licks into less linear funky rhthyms (and you could make the case that the roots of blues itself have non-linear elements). This added up to music of tremendous feeling, a full understanding of the roots and branches of black American music and an idiosyncratic command of electronics.

This all changed when sampled loops became popular just a few years later. You didn't have to work hard to imitate James Brown, and absorb all the jazz, blues and African touches that made his grooves special, you could just sample and hold him without worrying about the constituent elements. I have ranted before about the good and bad aspects of DIY production, certainly one of the negative consequences of tabula rasa attitudes to electronic music is that traditional musical mentorship tends to suffer.

It's no surprise that the harmolodic/no wave movements declined rapidly in the 80s - it was too much of a musical challenge to the dancefloor. Leaner, contemporary approaches to electronics which dispensed with blues based song vocalbulary and song structures made this movement sound passe to the kids. But of course composing with electronics in dance music yielded compleletly new ways to write songs, and ultimately fulfilled the harmolodic ideal of placing equal emphasis on rhythm, harmony and melody within music.

Wicked Witch uses all the hair metal, blooz rock, brutalist electronics and slappity poppity bass cliches of the era and mashes them together. These days, we can identify with the mash-up, but not so much with the forms being mashed.


sun watcher - albert ayler (impulse)
say what - melvin jackson (limelight)
dis moi la verite - orchestre poly rhytmo de contonou (analog africa)
pulo pulo (live) - jorge ben (bbe)
ho na nae - wild magnolias (barclay)
fancy dancer (remix) - wicked witch (em)
hair suite - ookpikk (no label)
s.o.c.a. - asian dub foundation (naive)
es'kabani - gumshev (wagram)
zebra - seed organization meets richie foe (balanced)
tell me - femi kuti (downtown)
darkest light - lafayette afro rock band (strut)
lay down in the tall grass - timber timbre (out of this spark)
wet rainbow - tipsy (ipecac)
vapor burn - johnny valentino (9 winds)
prepared - david shea (sub rosa)
old st. peter - assif tsahar, cooper-moore, chad taylor (hopscotch)
plastic smile - black uhuru (virgin)
ashmatic - puslhar (phonobox)
tickle me dub - stromba (fat cat)
three winds of dubwood - dubin hood (balanced)
soldier - barrington levy (vp)
nature planned it - delroy wilson (vp)

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