Wednesday, 29 December 2021

El Astronauta - Quaker City Night Hawks


Provenance: A Christmas present from my partner! Who, in turn, heard Quaker City Night Hawks on Spotify and thought that I'd enjoy what they had to offer. Let's see...

Review: Despite providing me with one of the most underwhelming live experiences of my life, I remain staunch in my love of ZZ Top. Every era had something to sink one's teeth into, whether it was their early psychedelic rhythm 'n' blues, the world-conquering techno-boogie most people are familiar with or even their greasy latter day scuzz-rock. I am one of the faithful where the Church of ZZ Top are concerned - and so, it seems, are Quaker City Night Hawks.

Like the boys with the beards, QCNH are unabashedly Texan, with songs that tell of oil fields and goin' down Mexico way. Then there's the title of the album itself, El Astronauta, taking its cues from Tex-Mex Top nomenclature such as Tres Hombres, Deguello and Mescalero (a naming convention that was never adhered to rigidly, though Billy F Gibbons has more than once suggested that their eighth album might be reconsidered as El Iminator, the sly old dog!). But most of all, the kinship is there in the boogie, swagger and desert-fried weirdness that both bands revel in.

After some roaring numbers to start the album - 'Liberty Bell 7' being a particular favourite - things start to get a little spacey on 'Something To Burn', a slow funk jam laced with a spooky vocals and soulful electric piano. Changing pace again, 'Beat The Machine' is up-tempo acoustic rock that could almost be described as summery, reminiscent of the cruisin' good-time tracks that peppered the albums of another Texan, Edgar Winter (when he wasn't laying the smack down over gnarly riffs with his saxophone, natch).

In fact, over the course of thirty-seven minutes 'n' change, there's a nice variety within the QCNH sound - from the more stoner-influenced stuff like 'Mockingbird', 'Good Evening' and 'Medicine Man' through to the toe-tap shuffle of 'Duendes' or the atmospheric Rio Grande mindbender 'The Last Great Audit', plus the aforementioned switches in gear. Also keeping things interesting are the little filigree touches throughout, whether it's a burble of weird synth here or a glissando of prepared piano there; clearly this is a band with an expansive vision for how rock music can sound. For a moment I thought my speakers would implode at the finale of 'The Last Great Audit', which is of course very satisfying.

It's rare that I review an album on the first pass, but fortunately there's an immediacy and vibrancy to El Astronauta that gives me confidence to scribble down some thoughts. Fortunately, QCNH have produced something that I'll be spinning again and again - and maybe I'll be moved to revise my opinions in the future? Hey, this is the internet, and this is my blog, I can do what I like. For now, though, I'm more than happy with this festive treat and I'll certainly be delving deeper into the Quaker City Night Hawks catalogue. 

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Sugar Baby

Wearing a tie to play the banjo
It's that tedious time in the calendar yet again, the period between excitedly tweeting about your  favourite Spotify artist and the moment when some poor schmuck in the Office of Barack Obama LARPs as his boss to pretend that the 44th President of the USA spent the year listening to Little Simz and Hope Tala.

So now the post-Wrappedgasm dust has finally settled, I thought I'd structure an entry around my top Spotify listen of the year, which happened to be 'Sugar Baby' by Dock Boggs. For the uninitiated, Boggs, who was born in the 19th century, spent most of his life as a coal miner in his native Virginia. Save a few recordings from the 1920s, he went largely unnoticed until the 1960s folk revival, at which point he resumed his performing and recording career. Playing old-time, mountain, folk and bluegrass music, Boggs is considered unique due to the overt Black blues influence in his music (due in part to his fondness for an itinerant musician active in his younger days named Go Lightning).

Here endeth the lesson - because, leaning on a tried and tested format of mine, I will now proceed to whack 'sugar baby' into Spotify's search tool review the top ten results. 

Artist: Dock Boggs
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Simply, one of the mightiest pieces of music ever recorded. When I included this on a monthly playlist for friends, one of them commented that he could picture himself sitting out on the front porch in some Appalachian holler, and I quite agree. There are no fancy tricks or studio magic to be heard, just the unadorned sound of traditional mountain music by way of human voice and some nimble banjo picking. A somewhat oblique song about losing a woman that Boggs first put on wax in 1927, it nonetheless contains haunting snatches of balladry from an even older English folk tradition. A link between past and near-present, spooky and weird, and as vital a testament of a time and place as any book or chronicle. 10/10

Artist: Bob Dylan
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Bob Dylan knows what's up where the history of folk music is concerned, and I'm no stranger to this track as it's off my favourite Dylan album, Love and Theft. The whole album is a whirlwind of references, from poetry, vaudeville, blues, literature, history and the Great American Songbook. I know that Dylan knows exactly what he's evoking by calling this track 'Sugar Baby', a downbeat, hazy meditation on a lost lover. Longing and lovely, like much of Love and Theft it's a dreamy kaleidoscope of an olden day Americana that never really existed. 9/10

Artist: The Rubettes
Song: 'Sugar Baby Love'
I've talked about rock 'n' roll revivalism recently on this blog, and so here's the Rubettes, who like Sha Na Na resurrected a soda-stand doo-wop sound that was only two decades old at the time, give or take. I wasn't hugely impressed by the Stray Cats and their attempts to disinter the then-recent rockabilly past, but this is an irresistible, fizzing confection of a track. Given a maximalist production - with literal bells and whistles - the 'shoo-waddies' and soaring falsetto give credence to the notion that sometimes the second time around ain't none too bad neither. It even has a spoken word bit! Superior wham-glam doo-wop revanchism. 8/10

Artist: Jimmy Powell and the 5 Dimensions
Song: 'Sugar Babe'
One of Rod Stewart's early bands, apparently - but here fronted by Jimmy Powell. As a backup band, these cats provided the music to Millie Small on her smash hit 'My Boy Lollipop'. Well - this is great! It's one of those rhythm 'n' blues British beat cuts that has been lost in the shuffle somewhere down the line, which is a damn shame. It's got kicky guitar and organ solos, oodles of energy, proto-Moon drumming and to top it off Powell sounds utterly demented. Yeah baby!! 10/10

Artist: Sam Amidon
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Here we have our first 'cover', if one could call it such, of the tune made famous by Boggs. Here it's slowed down - Amidon sounds like he's on quaaludes - and arranged for modern folk sensibilities. So, in place of banjos we have trebly, chiming guitar, pizzicato strings and a tastefully scribbled lead guitar. I guess it falls squarely into that chamber-folk sound that was popular a few years ago (and continues to be, for all I'm aware). A pretty, atmospheric reworking. 7/10

Artist: Megan Thee Stallion
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
'Oh - he want a bad bitch? Well I want a n***a with money and a long dick" aren't lyrics that appear in the Dock Boggs song 'Sugar Baby'. This is an unabashed demand for any suitor to pay for Megan's lifestyle, or to quote directly, 'Invest in this pussy, boy, support Black business'. I'm totally not the target audience for this kind of pop-hop sound, but I couldn't help sticking this on repeat. What is it? A combo of an earworm melody, a squelchy synth sound and the attitude in Megan's delivery made the corners of my mouth twitch. 7/10

Artist: Freddie McGregor
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Reggae! This is pretty cool - McGregor's got a smooth delivery, and the chorus is every bit as saccharine as the sentiment. I've never really known what the trippy metallic sound at the start of this track is - I hear it on quite a few reggae numbers, and it always makes me think of The Clangers. McGregor serenades his lover as the 'cherry on the tree' who he wants to pick 'because you're so sweet' - might nick that one for when I'm out in Haywards Heath. 6/10

Artist: Baby Bash
Song: 'Suga Suga'
The album this is from is called Tha Smokin' Nephew. The vaguely son cubano electro-acoustic guitar riff that runs throughout, like 'Blackpool' in a stick of rock, is the best thing about the joint. As with the Freddie McGregor track, this track is a serenade to an unnamed object of affection; however, where McGregor sounds boyish, almost coy, this one has the sweaty urgency of an apprentice PUA attempting to impress an online Men's Rights guru called something like bl4Ze_d with his daygaming progress. 3/10

Artist: Wink
Song: 'Sugar Baby Love'
Intriguing, this - a Japanese female 'idol' duo from the late 1980s covering the Rubettes song. Unfortunately, in replicating this with the sonic palette of a Stock, Aitken and Waterman production job all the soul and likeability of the original is sucked out. Not even the novelty of hearing lyrics in Japanese can save this tripe. Where you once had hysterical falsettos and skronkin sax, you now get boring synths and drum machines. Kudaranai mono! 2/10

Artist: The Kills
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
A lo-fi garage rawk version of the Dock Boggs track. God, this is less than twenty years old but already sounds horribly dated. Just imagine if Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were sped up a bit and you'd have this. In and of itself it's not bad, but it feels fairly pointless in the face of other versions that do a much better job of capturing the emotion and mystery surrounding this track. At least these lads knew their music history. 5/10

So, that's that - I've listened to doo-wop glam, chamber-folk, reggae, hip-hop, synthpop and garage rock, but nothing quite touches the majesty of the Dock Boggs cut. To my absolute delight, I feel like I've uncovered a gem in that Jimmy Powell number. Right - I'm off to buy a banjo, become a coal miner for four decades and spend my final, ailing years playing to groups of earnest middle-class students. Auf wiedersehen!