Sunday, 27 February 2022

My Side Piece, or, the hallmark of legitimacy

When is a cultural phenomenon not a cultural phenomenon? Or rather, who gets to decide these matters? Certainly, sheer weight of numbers is a big contributing factor - when a song or video goes viral, it can become difficult to ignore. 

But not always.

A few years back, my partner and I were staying overnight in a Kansas City casino resort. Fatigued as I was from the sixteen-hour journey, I could nevertheless tell that we stood out from the other clientele, and not just because I'm a Brit who knows the difference between a Wildcat and a Jayhawk. We stood out because we weren't Vietnamese. That weekend, the hotel was hosting a two-day concert of Vietnamese pop music and virtually everyone we encountered was there to enjoy the festivities - babes-in-arms to pensioners, first, second and third generation.

It was great to be amidst such a swell of people who were there for a happy occasion. We had arrived the night before the fun started in earnest and guests were lugging heroic amounts of snacks and drinks up in lifts and through corridors. The infectious mood even touched us, as one guy who we had a brief chat with gave us a six-pack of Coca Cola, just because. He reckoned there would be, all told, about three thousand attendees at the shows. 

A big deal, then, to Vietnamese-Americans, but looking at the posters I didn't know the performers from Adam. I had no idea if they were the genuine article (apparently so), second-rate or otherwise. Were it not for the need to get moving the next day (family!), I would've stayed on to check what the fuss was all about.

On 3 April this year at Wembley Arena will play host to Shreya Ghoshal. I've been to Wembley Arena to see acts like Steely Dan, Ghost and ZZ Top. It is estimated that ZZ Top have sold 50 million albums worldwide; Steely Dan lag behind a little on 40 million and, whilst Ghost neither have longevity nor discography to their advantage, they've gone top ten multiple times in the USA, Canada and the UK (not to mention scoring three consecutive number one albums in their native Sweden). 

Shreya Ghoshal is a playback singer and actress from Rajasthan, around my age. Where the Indian film industry is concerned, she absolutely has a pedigree to be proud of. She is also popular enough to book Wembley Arena when playing London, yet I haven't a clue who she is. That a popular Indian singer would be a draw in London doesn't surprise me - after all, I originally hail from Hayes, which has a large south Asian population - but nonetheless I received a little jolt of surprise, and perhaps shame, that a wildly popular culture is out there on my doorstep, contemporaneously, that barely gets covered in the mainstream press. 

(Incidentally, on the topic of Hayes, in between Elvis tributes, Psychic Sally and Ireland - the Show!, one can find listings for Sahir Ali Bagga and Garry Sandhu at the Beck Theatre.)

I am not blind to the fact that, in my tastes and sensibilities, I overstate the importance of artists I like. It still riles me when I'm met with incomprehension at 'Blue Oyster Cult', despite the fact that they are not the globe-bestriding giants of my imagination. I practically weep with joy if someone under forty recognises the name Townes Van Zandt. But - at least, at one time, these acts had their moment in the sun, lauded by press and audiences alike; and even if they didn't, there's still the potential to be lionised by vinyl-sniffers and the like as a 'hidden gem' or 'overlooked genius'. 

Earlier this week I stumbled upon Pokey Bear's 'My Side Piece' by accident, a quirk of algorithm one could say, and as much as I found it excruciating, it's an earworm. I went to bed humming it and I woke up laughing at the line "You might find me in Mexico chilling in the sand", as if our infidelity-addicted narrator were a sandworm from Dune. I think, production wise, it sounds atrocious, as if every aspect of its dynamic range was squashed into a tight cylinder of the most irritating frequencies imaginable. 'My Side Piece' has 53 million views on YouTube in under six years and over five million plays on Spotify. Pokey Bear doesn't even have a Wikipedia stub.

I read a lot about rhythm 'n' blues music, and something that crops up often is the 'chitlin' circuit', essentially a touring round of theatres that catered specifically to Black audiences. It's often inferred that the chitlin' circuit has been consigned to the history books, but that's not right, at least by my understanding. Something like it exists to this day, dependable sources of income and exposure for artists like Clarence Carter, the late Marvin Sease (RIP, Candy Licker), Bobby Rush and Millie Jackson - all of whom, incidentally, have poked their head into the mainstream at one point or another. That's the sole reason I know who they are.

Two things to round off; it's inescapable that race, ethnicity or nationality come into play, given the Vietnamese, Indian and Black American examples given here (and hey, to a lesser extent, let's chuck in the Irish - Brendan Shine, anyone?). Yet that cannot be the sole factor, because there are artists 'crossing over' all the time - Black music dominates pop like never before, whilst the K-Pop phenomenon currently shows little sign of running out of steam. Instead, it's something qualitative about the music; whether it's too folksy, too 'downhome', too crude in its humour or sentiment, fundamentally it adds up to an immunity to considered critical commentary. And if the critical industry cannot winkle out anything worthy, the recourse has been to leave it be. So, Pokey Bear gets 53 million views and doesn't make a dent.

I won't pretend to even begin to understand or comprehend any facet of, say, Black experience that a Pokey Bear or Marvin Sease speaks to. I cannot even understand what Shreya Ghoshal is singing. I do have a simple plea, though, for those cashing cheques as arbiters of popular culture - why not bring the truly popular endeavours to light? It's no use thinking of this all as some kind of 'shadow culture', played out beyond the eyes and ears of tastemakers. For better or for worse, these acts are part of the fabric, and should be appraised as such.

However, 'My Side Piece' is still driving me bananas...

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Sanctions? On my blog?

Every now and then I enjoy a wander along the back streets of Spotify by plugging in a phrase and reviewing the first ten songs that pop up. So far, I've done "goodbye girl" and "sugar baby", the latter of which yielded at least one nugget of real gold in the pan courtesy of Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions.

A while ago I asked on Twitter whether anybody else wished to contribute a phrase. My friend Steve responded with 'sanctions'; whether this was a nod to then-current news items or, as I suspect, a devilish ruse to get me to experience some godawful noise I am yet to determine. Indeed, I was doubtful that such a term would yield anything but, lo and behold, there are hundreds of blessed instances. 

So, without further pomp and circumstance, here I go - this one's for you, Steve!

Artist: Raised Fist
Title: 'Sanctions'
Comically squeaky sturm und drang from frequently shirtless Swedish hardcore band Raised Fist, this has a certain animating spirit to commend it. Eh, they pay a little more attention to melody and texture than most hardcore bands I've encountered, but I can't get past the singer sounding like Mickey Mouse with a twenty-a-day Silk Cut habit. 6/10

Artist: Pluralist, Rex Domino
Title: 'UN Sanctions'
Fairly minimal electronica with a healthy slice of dubstep. Doesn't sound too far removed from the kind of stuff Kojey Radical does, albeit there's more free association going on where the lyrics are concerned. Does not sound as overtly political as our raspy Swedish friends; still, for a song released in 2020 I am impressed by the anachronism of "Got my baps out on Page Three.". Those days are long gone, my friend! 5/10

Artist: Nazar
Title: 'UN Sanctions'
Damn, the United Nations really can't catch a break! A whole minute of music concrete finally coalesces into something approaching a beat, which then disintegrates; a shame, because what replaces it is one of those distorted voice modulations, like when Channel 4 News used to interview the IRA, except in this instance I couldn't understand a single word being said. Ultimately a collage of sorts, abrasive, angular and disconcerting. Perhaps this makes more sense in the context of its parent album. 2/10

Artist: Gibberish, Chris McGrath
Title: 'Sanctions'
Is this nu-skatepunk? It certainly sounds like it. Do you think Tony Hawk still listens to this stuff? Do you think he ever did? He's probably too busy minting NFTs to really care. Anyway, this has pulled me back a good twenty years; but alas, back then I was busy inexpertly chugging my way through 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' on a Hohner. Yeah, nah. 3/10

Artist: Fauna Shade
Title: 'Sanctions'
For a brief moment I thought this was going to sound akin to 'Like Clockwork' by the Boomtown Rats. That didn't happen, but what did emerge was fairly inoffensive, garagey indie. They do that thing where the verses are quieter than the choruses. You dig, the single-note guitar chime giving way to big splashy power chords, to demonstrate that they really mean it. There's a couple of cool moments where it sounds like the singer is falling down a well, or being dragged into a cave. 6/10

Artist: gal pal
Title: 'Sanctions'
More indie, but this one has a hogshead or two more charm and inventiveness than Fauna Shade's effort. The singing is really expressive, pitched somewhere between Regina Spektor and the late, great Poly Styrene. I was immediately drawn to this strange bird due to the opening sound sounding like the start of Hawkwind's Quark, Strangeness and Charm platter, and the cataclysm of drums and synths that end the song is great craic. 8/10

Artist: jerry, slipknotmosi, hokoi
Title: 'sanctions'
Ostensibly, at least three entities contributed to the creation of this abomination. It answers the question, "what if we took the worst aspects of post-grunge, hip-hop and autotune pop and just smash them together, with no regard for what is pleasant or invigorating to the human ear?", and does it admirably. The thick mulch of layered robo-babble brings to mind the death throes of an evil cinematic supercomputer. Perhaps that's the aim? I'll stick with the Alan Parson Project's I, Robot, thank you very much. 1/10

Artist: NuMotive
Title: 'Sanctions'
I have no idea what constitutes good drum and bass. I will say this - the tempo of the music, and the staccato nature of the blips and blaps that punctuate the soundscape, do produce a sense of velocity and restlessness. A kind of skittering urgency, perhaps, which is underscored by dirty, fuzzy synth tones. If we fathom the worth of music by its functionality, this scores well. Do I like it, though? 5/10

Artist: B.O.M.
Title: 'Sanctions'
What the fuck is this? One of the more obtuse pieces of music I've listened to lately. I'd rather be listening to B.O.C., if you know what I mean! But you know what? Points on the board for creating something so quirky and challenging. It's less than three minutes, but packs a fair bit of wallop in that time - a staticky, nasty electro-stomp that assails the cerebral cortex quite successfully. 6/10

Artist: Dizzie Davidz
Title: 'Sanctions'
Autotune rap? On my blog? The day has arrived. I must admit, the Dizzie Davidz does take the manipulation of his voice a little further into the experimental realms than some of the others of the genre do, but not enough to hold my interest. It commits one of the biggest crimes around, where music is concerned - it's boring. Competent, but dull. Give me something incompetent with ambition over this any day. 3/10

And that, I type as the lights flicker on and off due to the storm blowing outside, is that. Not much there to get truly excited about, save that I want to give gal pal further consideration. In the course of this short blogpost I managed to say use both 'baps' and 'blaps', albeit the former was courtesy of the artist. What I wouldn't give for a 'bibimbap' right now! Stay safe, folks.


Sunday, 13 February 2022

Lonesome Crow - Scorpions


Provenance: Got this as a part of a 'twofer' deal along with Lovedrive, which was the album I was actually after. I did something similar with Gerry Rafferty as I had coveted City To City, but ultimately found myself enjoying Night Owl more

The packaging for this collection only depicts the original album cover artwork on the inner sleeve, which in Lovedrive's case is just as well (albeit it's not the most flagrant crime committed by the band in this department).

Review: The version of Scorpions I'm most familiar with spans the era from Lovedrive through to Love At First Sting - an era where the band had turned into a chrome-plated hard rock machine, albeit with the ability to throw the odd curveball every now and again. Klaus Meine's idiosyncratic yelp may take some getting used to, but the riffage served up by Rudolf Schenker, his brother Michael and latterly Matthias Jabs was often of the highest order.

However, Lonesome Crow was the debut, and although it features a sixteen year-old Michael Schenker, this release came about prior to his elevation as one of the more melodically astute hard rock soloists of the era. The younger Schenker would depart for UFO, paving the way for headband, Hendrix and moustache aficionado Uli Jon Roth to join the band, remaining until Lovedrive. At this point, Michael Schenker makes a brief return, long enough to play on Lovedrive before flouncing off to form the Michael Schenker Group. I saw MSG supporting the Scorpions once - Michael had a strop, stopped playing and then tried to attack his brother with a guitar.

Ah, where was I? Oh yes, Lonesome Crow. I'm expecting this to be a bit of a formative stab, and early indications are that this isn't going to be the piston-pumpin' headbanger's ball of their prime years. First impressions are that it's a bit hippie-dippie, closer to the heavy psychedelia of, say, Edgar Broughton Band or early Alice Cooper. Though, it has to be said, not quite as accomplished. Opener 'I'm Going Mad' is mostly a Michael Schenker guitar showcase, which I don't mind one bit, plus there's a little taste of the famous Meine wail on display; but its successor, 'It All Depends', already sounds quite dated for the early 1970s. Perhaps because Cream got there first with 'SWLABR'?

I shouldn't be too harsh, as plenty of bands go through the kind of metamorphosis that the Scorps would go on to do. Contemporaries UFO and Status Quo would begin as space-rock and psychedelic bands respectively before going on to toughen up their sound - and the gulf between Judas Priest's bluesy debut Rocka Rolla and the thrash metal insanity of Painkiller just sixteen years later is quite something to behold.

(I also happen to think Rocka Rolla is quite crap - sample lyric: "She's a classy flashy lassy / Imitation sapphire shine" - in contrast to the affection for Quo's early stuff I possess for material like 'Pictures of Matchstick Men', 'Ice In The Sun' and such. Nonetheless, Judas Priest are pretty cool inasmuch as they just seem to get harder and heavier, the obverse of the journey taken by most metal acts).

So it begs the question - what exactly were Scorpions attempting with Lonesome Crow? Judging by the phasing, flanging and wah-wah that abounds, I reckon we're looking at one of those joints that's meant to be deep, man. It's heavy on the atmospherics and wig-outs, every tom-tom sounding like it was recorded from the back of a cave. Are we meant to think of Scorpions as a troupe of mysterious psychedelic goblins? Because that's the overall vibe. If you encountered Lonesome Crow era Scorpions, you'd half expect to come away with a quest involving potions or amulets.

Do I hate this? No. Yes. Bits of it, certainly. I think 'Action' is about the clumsiest thing they ever committed to tape. It's like listening to a Wishbone Ash track from Argus, but it's shit. By the time one gets to the 'creepy' birdsong effects in the intro to the title track, I think one has probably had quite enough. Little of Lonesome Crow is outright terrible, but by the same token there's little to charm or wow the listener. A curio, a line in the sand, the genesis of a band that would go on to do bigger and better things - but no more than that.