Gun Hill Road
If Mike Ladd got out of his Bronx home more often, he’d be an Infesticon. (He calls himself a Domesticon.) Still, he’s leading the war against the Majesticons — you know, the glamorous people: “It’s about pretty vs. ugly/and eons of struggle/are about to culminate/right up the street/on Gun Hill Road.” Takin’ clippers to the Jheri curl come the Infesticons, says Yazeed on “Cinderella Theme”: “I’m only one of the few/sent to keep this shit live/
I mapped out my plans/plus my mission/broke down the whole system/now can you understand my oral tradition?” Ladd’s roommate and fellow slam-poet-MC-scribe-creative Mums the Schemer spits about other kingdoms of con on “Grinder Theme”: poeticon, eclecticon, intesticon, decepticon, etc., further delineating this thematic album’s view of how modern life represents its inhabitants.
In the spirit of Prince Paul’s A Prince Among Thieves, Gun Hill Road is a conceptual voyage, a fun and intriguing one that’ll have you studying its liner notes and abstract speech in search of the keys to unlock the basement door. Not exactly a scripted film in recorded form, it’s more like a musical saga whose 13 “themes” represent battle glories, exploits and ascension. Equipped with an MPC 2000, a couple of keyboards, some effects modules, and a cast that includes Beans & Priest (Anti-Pop Consortium, Blank Slates), BMS & Dana, Eric M.O., Myster Bruce and others, producer-arranger-professor-wordicon Ladd, a.k.a. Infesticon #0, scores each track as a gritty garage epic, employing a twofold approach of drum charges like rhinos and light synth reflections. Infesticon Saul Williams perhaps sums up the aesthetic on “Monkey Theme”: “I’m the om nia merican born/of beats and blood/
concert of the sun unplugged.”
Zooming in on several vantage points of the coming war, Ladd’s Infesticons take it all in, with Sonic Sum’s Rob Smith letting loose on “barcodiacs shreds in the trail mix/takin’ refuge in the zodiac,” and Majesticon 69 sobbing about the days when he was able to enjoy a few of his favorite things, “Like PM Dawn/in sequin thongs/like singing songs/by Celine Dion/ . . . Kenny G.” It’s all about now and the future and boom! You’ll
never be the same again.
THE FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS
Hot Burritos! The Flying Burrito Brothers
Anthology 1969–1972 (A&M/Universal)
The Flying Burrito Brothers
The subject of two tribute records and countless testimonials from everyone from Emmylou Harris to Wilco, the late Gram Parsons has become such a sacred cow that one is tempted to poke through his charred remains for proof of his fallibility. Tempted, that is, until somebody slaps a copy of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin on the stereo, and you have no choice but to marvel at the tremendous breadth of the Nudie-suited dude’s talent and vision. Sure, Gram was a spoiled, self-destructive rich kid, but he also knew how to connect the dots between country, soul, rock, gospel and even psychedelia better than anyone else in the Woodstock era, and he could sing his goddamned ass off.
Gilded Palace makes up a full 25 percent of Hot Burritos!, a 43-track compilation that contains every single Burritos track you’ll ever need, and then some. Also included are Burrito Deluxe, Gilded Palace’s solid but unexceptional sequel; 1971’s Gram-less Flying Burrito Brothers; and a handful of rarities that have been circulating in various combinations for nearly 30 years. Some of these latter tracks are stone-cold amazing — who else but Gram could have known that the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” was as poignant a country ballad as Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home”? — while others (a turgid reading of Merle’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”) are less so, but Burritos fans will be psyched to finally have them all in one place.
Recorded after Gram left to go solo, Flying Burrito Brothers is definitely a product of its era, a mellow-in-the-extreme slide into the sort of country-rock territory the Eagles (and others) would successfully mine in the years to come. Time has been much kinder to Gilded Palace and Burrito Deluxe, both of which are included in their entirety on Disc 1. The former sounds especially glorious on headphones; listen to the way “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel dances nimbly around the far-out Everly Brothers harmonies of Gram and Chris Hillman, and just see if you don’t get goose bumps. Despite the all-star cast of players that surrounded him on G.P. and Grievous Angel, Gram would never again find a band — or a mission — as compelling as that which inspired the making of Gilded Palace. Sometimes there’s just nowhere else to go but down. (Dan Epstein)
CARLA BLEY/STEVE SWALLOW
Are We There Yet? (ECM/Watt)
Carla Bley, arguably the most distinctive jazz composer since Charles Mingus, renewed her commitment to jazz piano in the late ’80s, resulting in a series of duet discs with renowned bassist Steve Swallow, with whom she lives. The pair’s first, Duets, and second, Go Together, revealed that Bley had compelling new ideas about several of her best-known compositions. The duo teamed with saxophonist Andy Sheppard for 1995’s Songs With Legs, which surprisingly did little to highlight the three musicians or the material they performed. Since Legs, Bley has released two sparkling discs of compositions for larger ensembles, both of which boasted some of her best work to date. And now this new duet disc, composed of seven cuts from a 1998 tour.
Are We There Yet? is by no means bad, but it’s all too familiar a terrain, and Bley’s apparent dearth of new ideas is indicated by the inclusion of as many Swallow compositions as her own (plus Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” which Bley had previously arranged and recorded to magical effect as a big-band cut with Phil Woods). Bley is most effective when making the unexpected sound natural and off-the-cuff, but here it all merely sounds rehearsed. Swallow’s solos are gorgeous, as always, but Bley’s imagination sounds bound by her pianistic limitations. In fact, the album’s most effective turns come off like sketchbook ideas for big-band versions.
Along with the relative lack of new Bley material, Are We There Yet?, while certainly an engaging listen, mainly raises the following question: Why is one of the great large-ensemble composer-arrangers in jazz not composing and arranging more often for large ensembles? (Skip Heller)
THE ELECTRIC HELLFIRE CLUB
Witness the Millennium (Cleopatra)
The Electric Hellfire Club
Substituting dance-friendly grooves for shredding guitars might seem like dumbing down for the theatrically gifted, synth-smart Electric Hellfire Club, but fear not, ’cause these full-time devil worshippers get right down to the proselytizing on Witness the Millennium. After five long years, they’ve unleashed a full-on ball buster that forgoes glammy histrionics for rock with a capital R.
The demonically filtered vocals on “Speed Demon” and “My Name Is Legion” evoke the Prince of Darkness him/herself — which is always a cool thing. Apocalyptic keyboard crescendos and faux pipe organs leaven the bulldozing guitar grind for just the right balance of cheese whiz and metallic cojones. And whether EHC have a forked tongue planted in cheek or not is missing the point, because the Christ-bashing on Witness the Millennium is truly inspired. “The Bishop’s Folly” begins with haunted-house harpsichord backed by the choir from The Omen as vocalist Thomas Thorn cries, “Somewhere in the night a fallen priest/Celebrates a Mass in the name of the beast/He gives in to his lust and breaks his vow/He serves a different master now.” This anti-Christian music is so silly it’d give Pat Robertson and the whole congregation a good chuckle.
For dancing goths who cut their fangs on the new-wavy synth pop of EHC’s Calling Dr. Luv, Witness the Millennium’s head-bangerisms could chafe a bit. As bona fide devotees of Anton La Vey and the Church of Satan, Thorn et al. probably thought an industrial-strength ear punisher was the more appropriate homage to their lord below. They could be right. (Andrew Lentz)
Crazy Rhythm: The Standard Transcriptions
Hank Penny, the Alabama-born country-jazz wise guy, was a one-of-a-kind talent, an outspoken renegade whose refusal to compromise and natural tendency to take off on wild improvisatory flights lost him more than one job. He arrived here in 1945, driven from the Southeast by a long-running grudge between himself and the popular Grand Ole Opry road shows, which he despised both for “fostering bad hillbilly music” and for the touring Opry packages’ tendency to take over any new territory that Penny himself had just gotten heated up. Where else could he go but Los Angeles?
Best known for chart toppers “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon” and “Don’t Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me” (also a 1951 hit for blues shouter Wynonie Harris), by the time he opened North Hollywood shrine the Palomino in 1949, Penny had more than a decade of recording behind him and a future full of strife ahead. In the meantime, though, he was cutting some of the funniest, jammingest discs in country music. This 30-track collection of previously unreleased early-1950s broadcast transcriptions shows off both of Penny’s specialties — insane novelties such as “White Shotguns” and “Catch ’Em Young, Treat ’Em Rough, Tell ’Em Nothing,” along with swinging, hot instrumentals like “The Penny Opus No. 1” and, dig it kiddies, “Progressive Country Music for a Hollywood Flapper.”
Despite a commercially shrewd tendency to clown around, Penny also had a gift for pop (“Mister and Mississippi”), jazz (“Wang Wang Blues”) and ballads (“We Met Too Late”), which keep this set on a solid footing. While clogged with a few too many weak throwaways like “Peroxide Blonde,” there are also plenty of opulent delights here, including the marvelously bruised Eddie and Dearest Dean–penned “I’m Not in Love (Just Involved)” and an aching instrumental version of “September Song” that’s so moody it sounds almost dirgelike.
Penny, who died in 1992, was a powerful talent with a singular flair for juxtaposing the hilarious and the agonized — a characteristic mix the hardheaded Alabamian did better than just about anyone else in the business. (Jonny Whiteside)