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Best of the Bizarre Sessions 1990–1994


“I don’t wanna be a black Vincent Price,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins told writer Nick Tosches in 1984. “I wanna do goddamn opera, I wanna sing ‘Figaro,’ I wanna do ‘Ave Maria.’” Blessed with a gigantic voice and an even greater flair for the ridiculous, Screamin’ Jay was as adept at waxing voodoo R&B classics like “I Put a Spell on You,” “Alligator Wine” and “Feast of the Mau Mau” as he was at putting his own demented stamp on a pop standard or two. In Screamin’ Jay’s skull-toting hands, an innocuous selection like “I Love Paris” could suddenly mutate into a gleefully offensive parody of foreign dialects; with his sinister baritone, even a relatively straight reading of “Temptation” could sound like a serenade to a freshly snuffed corpse.

One of the most fascinating characters ever to stalk a stage, Jalacy J. Hawkins passed away this year at the age of 70 without having had the chance to immortalize his interpretations of Mozart or Schubert. That’s posterity’s loss, to be sure, but he still left us with a wealth of amazing sides, the bulk of which have already been compiled on such essential anthologies as Rhino’s Voodoo Jive and Edsel’s Portrait of a Man. Best of the Bizarre Sessions 1990–1994 collects the highlights of the three albums he recorded for Bizarre Records — 1991’s Black Music for White People, 1993’s Stone Crazy and 1994’s Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On — plus four previously unreleased tracks from the same period. And while it’s not in the same league as the aforementioned comps, Bizarre Sessions is certainly a must-own for the discerning Screamin’ Jay fan. The two Tom Waits covers, “Heart Attack and Vine” and “Ice Cream Man,” are absolutely priceless, with Jay injecting new levels of menace into Waits’ seedy lyrical imagery. Ditto for “Swamp Gas,” a worthy successor to “Alligator Wine” and “Voodoo Priestess,” which begins with a choice bit of between-take dialogue about metaphysics.

Many of the tracks suffer a bit from the digital sterility of the era, but Jay’s Technicolor vocal presence redeems them every time. The compilers dropped the ball by not including Stone Crazy’s lustful “Sherilynn Fenn,” but at least they had the good sense to end the set with Jay’s thoroughly warped rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” “I apologize, I lost my head!” pleads our hero at the end of his jaw-dropping per-formance. No apologies necessary, friend; not now, not ever.


Safarini in Transit: Music of African Immigrants (Smithsonian Folkways)

Most folks don’t think of the Pacific Northwest as a locus of recent African immigration. Turns out there’s a healthy expat community spreading the rhythm-culture word up north. Once again, the big-beat badda-boom bounces back and forth between the Mother Continent and the New World, as the creeping, inexorable influences of adopted surroundings and new friends vie with the ethno-genetic necessity of keeping musical traditions alive. This different kind of Seattle scene underlines a recurring theme of art historian/musicologist Robert Farris Thompson’s recent UCLA lecture: “The point of black music is fusion, not fission.”

A dozen tracks from five groups make up the appropriately titled Safarini (Swahili for “in transit” or “on a journey”), originally issued in 1998 by nonprofit arts outfits Jack Straw Productions and Rakumi Arts International before getting repackaged and re-released by Folkways. Among the groups represented, name-recognition honors go to Obo Addy, the much-recorded Ghanaian master percussionist who settled in the Northwest in the mid-’70s. On the frenzied trad cut “Amedzro,” he does all the percussion and voices, using studio multitracking to push the trance mission. “Oshi” puts some pop in his Ga rhythms, resulting in some butt-shaking boing-boing akin to Afrobeat and highlife. Former Addy bandmate Kofi Anang adds more Accra flava with a pair of tracks that take off in roots pastoral (“Ko”) and wiggy terra-fusion (“Hail”) directions. The intertwining guitars and exuberant vocals of Congolese rumba and its Kenyan cousin, benga, rumble through five tunes courtesy of former Afrisa International member and short-term L.A. resident Wawali Bonane and East African import Frank

Ulwenya. Thanks to the six-string sting of fellow ex-Afrisian Huit Kilos, Bonane’s “Wumba Wumba” doesn’t stray far from the party-hearty feel of Parisian soukous, while Ulwenya’s take on the collection’s title track proffers a taste of time-capsuled Nairobi ambiance. The mbira and marimba hypno-grooves of the Shona people get the extended-family treatment from teacher-performer Lora Chiorah-Dye and her group Sukutai, which features her four kids. Their version of Thomas Mapfumo’s “Nyoka Musango” (“Snake in the Grass”) re-folkifies her countryman’s electric chimurenga proverb.

Both a historical document and an entertaining compilation, Safarini spotlights a few unexpected corners of Dr. Thompson’s panoramic aesthetic vision of “a re-imagined Africa.” (Tom Cheyney)


Complete Recordings 1987–1989 (Innerstate)

If more people had heard them, San Francisco’s Donner Party would have to be credited as one of the most influential indie bands of their day. Alt-country fans in particular will recognize the combination of sizzling guitars and summer-camp vocals, frank subject matter and front-porch folksiness. Yet, according to the determinedly humble liner notes from vocalist/guitarist Sam Coomes (now much more visible as front man for Quasi), almost no one except friends and family heard the three albums and live rarities collected on this two-disc set.

That’s a shame, because, despite Coomes’ doubts, this is pretty wonderful stuff. Instead of irony and revisionism, the Donner Party offers playfulness, earthiness, volume and joy. The subject matter is old-time murder-ballad grim; song titles include “When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out,” “Sickness,” “Try To Imagine a Terrible World,” “Boxful of Bones” and “Trepanned.” But among the covers are an unabashedly giddy take on “Up and Down” from Sesame Street. Drummer/vocalist Melanie Clarin (later of S.F. Seals and numerous other noted Bay Area acts) never lets up on the thump-and-clatter — no brushes here — and Coomes and bassist Reinhold Johnson play ferociously and sing tunefully, throats wide-open, tossing the cold, hard truths around like colored marbles in a playground game.

Though raucous and fierce, the Donner Party’s work sounds less like college rock than something descended from Harry Smith’s crazily kaleidoscopic Anthology of American Folk Music sets. Like Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” which the group covers loudly and well, the best songs here sound older, weirder and wiser than their creators, born not in the guts but in the ground. (Glen Hirshberg)


Survival Sickness (Epitaph/Burning Heart)

Gotta hand it to the Swedes. They are to music what the Japanese are to the consumer-electronics industry: No matter what pop style Americans come up with, they can do it better — or at least do a damn good job of aping it. Even so, though it’ll rock you harder than a double shot of Absolut, the (International) Noise Conspiracy’s newSurvival Sickness is a hard album to pin down; Scandi-pop has come a long way since ABBA.

At times the (International) Noise Conspiracy is a rather unholy collision of dusty relics, including the Zombies, defunct girl groups like the Brood, and ’60s legends Booker T and the MGs. A big part of the group’s retro flair is Sara Almgren’s antique Vox organ, whose gurgly strains herald psychedelic garage-pop more than any single instrument, but not in a mushy, drugged-out way; underneath the shimmery ‘60s cool is a white-hot core of rock & roll that rages like a Saab 9000. T(I)NC’s guitars hop and jump along all right, but unlike most guitar bands, the bass has pole position here, which, along with Inge Johansson’s frenzied guitar thwacking, is what drives this vehicle. If you’ve seen the 120 Minutes buzz clip for “Smash It Up,” where the band is playing inside a dimensionless white space with no vanishing points, you’ll swear you’re watching an episode of Top of the Pops circa 1965. Another treat is “Do I Have To Spell It Out?,” a dead ringer for a choice nonexistent oldies tune.

No hip-retro detail was spared in the mixing of Survival Sickness, right down to “Impostor Costume”’s handclaps and xylophone bling-blong. The band must have spent a good deal of time scouring thrift shops for just the right analog equipment, because the album’s studied vintageness is a gambit that pays off. (Andrew Lentz)

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