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This album came to me via “free trade,” which is a more apt usage of the term than its common one; that is, I didn’t pay for it—and in lieu of any money spent on my part, I suppose I got this on the condition that I review it.
A regular review, though, will not do.
Had this record come to me in a commercial context, I’d prattle on about the band’s dramatic history and try to impress with esoteric comparisons. Then I’d judge the album’s worth, and you’d know whether you were supposed to like it, right?—but just because some reviewer in nut-hugging jeans (dis)likes a record really shouldn’t matter so much, should it? After all, it’s just one person’s view. Record reviews shouldn’t be another form of sound suppression under the guise of art. That’s why record reviews come out the day of or before a record is in consumer hands.
This review, therefore, should fall within the intellectual bounds of the Commons, requiring a different treatment—one that doesn’t commoditize a cultural creation. I aim to place it in a broader context of the current struggle for human rights throughout the world, and to give a close listen to a sound that denies the auto-tuner, the focus group, and the youth group—the capitalist molds. Upon reflection, the band’s lyrics anticipate the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, while simultaneously sending “smoke signals” toward a present, awash in the chaos that gave rise to these protests. Belonging to neither state nor market—but to the commons, itself—this music bucks the age-old collusion between the former two, which seems to be the common burr under the 99%’s saddles. With Common goals in mind, then, this review will proceed with a final question on whether this album is Rhizomatic, as Deleuze and Guatarri have coined the term.
In addition to the song, “Smoke Signals,” their funkiest song to date, this so-called review will focus primarily on three songs—to wit:
- Sound Depression
- Test the Champ – The Hardest Game
- Street vs. State – Global Tribal – reconstruction
Before I get going, here’s a brief comment on the music:
If I were reviewing this album in one sentence, I’d say, “Listening to The Rebel Soul Sound System is like listening to a roots-reggae parade going by, with each song, riff, or sample mingling with last’s sonic space.” One sentence can never do justice to a Dingees album, because of the many genres and sub-genres represented: The usual reggae, dub, ska, punk, and hardcore are present, but new influences of Afro-pop, jazz, funk, and dubstep also join this parade, making this the most daring and expansive Dingees album to date. Pegleg attempts more variety vocally than before, and while he sounds less precise, he also sounds more human, vulnerable, and real. Thankfully, another blogger, Will Hodge, has put together a thorough review of the music, and I encourage you to read it. To compensate for this lack of the musical analysis, music links to influences appear between paragraphs. Additional videos will buttress your understanding of the ideas supporting this album. Enjoy these brief interludes at your leisure; hopefully, they will help you pick up what I’m laying down.
“Sound Depression” begins the album with a crisp reggae groove beneath an ethereal chant, heavy in reverb and heralding the chaos as if from an urban street: “Sound suppression rules our air today. / Sound oppression rules our airwaves.” It dared me to review this album differently, encapsulating the band’s struggles dealing with a Christian music market that co-opts its own into feigning joy when they ought to mourn the state of things. So the Dingees entreat us, “Tell me: Who is going to govern the state of disarray?” The phrase “state of disarray” has a double meaning: For one, a scene of chaos, but “state” here also refers to a kind of disarray brought about by states, especially toward those that have little in the way of a functioning government. In the U.S., we see a vast, complicated state, swayed by bailed-out bankers and warmongers leading us into battle against abstractions (e.g. terror). The state itself still demands uniformity, but that force in its senility cannot prevent disorder—in fact, it tends to breed it.
There where the structures of society ostensibly seek to add order, the clampdown displaces it. It has been pointed that, when states commit violence, it is the norm—the ambient noise of our existence; but when citizens revolt against that violence, it “breaks out,” implying a violent restraint is necessary to contain it. The Dingees are no strangers to this paradox as exemplified in “Chaos Control” (Armageddon Massive 1998).
A taste of this displaced chaos comes during “The Hardest Game” (part two on track two), when band member, Jeff Holmes, reminds us that,
We forget, kids die—
And in a heart of darkness, everybody’s still crying.
We move on, we move on, we move on.
Carry on, carry on, carry on.
Well the planes can’t land, but the bullet are still flying.
Mother, you can open your arms wide, but your baby’s still dying.
It’s the hardest game.
So carry on from Kinshasa to a refugee land,
And go to Rwanda, where you make your final stay.
Carry on, carry on, carry on.
If you’re living under a rock, you may not know that Kinshasa is the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is the most dangerous place to be a woman, a child, or a pygmy. We can access this information. We shouldn’t need the Dingees to sing about it, although it doesn’t hurt. In the lyrics above, Holmes implies a willful forgetting: We don’t forget so much as we ignore these human rights catastrophes, or pretend we can spend our way out of them. We’re too wrapped up in our own first-world problems to deal with the depression that would stem from facing third-world problems. But the Dingees want to take you there, word-playing again: The repetitious “carry on” sounds indistinguishable from “carrion,” which takes the listener to the plight of the refugee, ever in danger of starvation, disease, and death—a vicious sentence that vultures punctuate. And taking us there is the principal problem. It’s all well and good to know about injustice from the web in an abstract way; it’s another to confront it in a sensory way. As cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek, has darkly joked, “It’s one thing to hear about your wife screwing around on you; it’s quite another to walk in on her in the middle of the act.” Likewise, the Dingees are trying to get us to “walk in” on these crimes with all their powers of expression. They succeed.
If Joseph Conrad implicates the “heart of darkness” as the Congo, itself, driving the civilization out of a civilized man (and I’m not sure he does), then the Dingees definitely turn this around. The capital-imperial West drives the civilization out of these places. In the DRC, mining companies find it easier to pay off a few thugs than to give everybody a living wage—which would be incredibly small there. The Dingees get labeled as “anti-establishment,” but this implies they would be against any structure of governance—and I don’t think that’s categorically true. Small scale tribal governance is still an establishment. They’re seeking a new kind of government where the people aren’t misrepresented to the ruling class. After all, in Kinshasa, there is a government, but only nominally. Most would characterize the nation as anarchic, but it is technically a democratic republic just like the U.S.A. There are 24-trillion dollars worth of minerals beneath the D.R.C., but the country can’t seem to rise up on the heap of these resources. Western politicos often style this the “resource curse,” as if the U.S. were stable because of the utter dearth of our resources. Which is of course ridiculous: We have plenty of resources and wealth in our people. But so does the D.R.C. What keeps the U.S. on top is its military, which seems to have a gland problem these days. Nothing has changed from the old days of empire, just the names of things. The stream of tribute issuing from the Congo, either in the form of interest to the World Bank or as the cheap minerals for laptops and smart phones, flows as freely as the blood of their people.
As a debtor nation, the so-called “anarchist” Congo is beholden to Western free trade agreements (AGOA)—agreements that pretend the U.S. ascended to industrial hegemony via free trade and global cooperation, when it really did so through tariffs and imperialism. A more apt name for the economic structure of the D.R.C., however, is capitalist without the pesky socialist burdens, like Medicare or Social Security. For the majority of citizens in the Congo, their only recourse is to seek the humanitarian shelter of refugee camps, which are often just as dangerous as their homeland. And those very refugee camps add to the debt burden their host countries already bear. The feedback cycle of this problem is not the stuff of Top-40 songs, but the Dingees will proclaim it, at least. We need to dignify these proclamations.
Taking their message to the streets then, the medley, “Street vs. State – Global Tribal – reconstruction,” cuts to the central nerve of this album. The “Street vs. State” section is a dub containing a number of sound clips from protests, while the bassist gets to have a little fun on his fret board. Then the street samples cut, and a motherly voice shouts with urgency, “Don’t listen to what they’re saying. Watch what they do!” Well said, whoever you are.¹ Her admonition introduces the horn riffs of “Global Tribal,” a profound plea for global unity. Pegleg addresses future observers, who will view us as barbarians in a dark age. And rightly so, because all the religious and political problems that seem so important now will become insignificant compared with the crises to come. Pegleg asks, “To the future, is there anybody out there?” reminding us that there may, in fact, not be anyone in the future at all, never mind enlightened historians, chuckling at our stupidity. “While we could be global of one tribe / When we could be one people globally,” we instead erect barriers, establish clubs, and claim that the guest list at heaven’s party contains a string of blandly consistent names. These clubs—those from the Judeo-Christo-Muslim matrix, but also a host of variegated peoples who don’t like each other—do not capture the fullness of the love that Christ himself proclaimed—a love that has “no east nor west, no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free.”
Such love has been the study of the thinkers linked in this article. They refer to it as “political” love or agape (ah-gah-PAY), a Greek word meaning “unconditional love,” which the apostle Paul used extensively in his epistles to illustrate how Christ’s love ought to break down barriers between people. This sort of love occupies the Dingees more than, say, erotic love. In “reconstruction,” Pegleg references the breaking down of a famous wall, entreating us to,
Roll with me, baby
We’re gonna dance to the Junglist
The furious deejay, drum and bass music
Run now, my people.
We’re gonna watch all walls dem fall,
When we hit that frequency
They played that day down in Jericho.
It was a breakbeat, a breakbeat
According to the Bible, the march around Jericho did literally break down its city walls. Now, if you paid attention in Sunday school, you may know that it also kicked off one of the earliest recorded and God-ordained genocides in human history—barrier creation pushed to its logical conclusion. Pegleg, though, re-appropriates the image. That destroying “frequency” might activate us to break down barriers, but the purpose has turned from exclusivity to inclusivity, from violence to peace—a reconstruction of the very notion of destruction. On the Dingees previous album, Pegleg sings, “We don’t want destruction, but we know it comes before creation” (“World’s Last Night” The Crucial Conspiracy). The thought here is very much the same: We have to destroy these structures that keep us arbitrarily separated. Nuclear fallout does not respect borders. Neither does climate change. So why should we? And yet we are stuck in that place Gramsci wrote about, where “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” But we could break out of this interregnum. We could be “one people globally.” We have the technology and the capacity within ourselves to do so. Soon we will have to be one—or else go extinct, vanishing into the vast universe like smoke in the sky.
The Dingees remain hopeful, though, and so should you. The song, “Smoke Signals,” is a prayer of petition to God. The music itself communicates as much as the words, so I encourage you to simply listen to it—but the last words of the song are directed toward the Big Man (and she is black): “Be with us always, even until the end of the age, / for these are troubled times.” But just before that, he states what ought to be obvious, “Give me room and I’ll fire up the sun / There’s enough warmth there for everyone to catch a reflection.” Simple wisdom like this should at once humble us and give us great hope. As far as conflicted emotions go, that’s not a bad place to be. Indeed, the Dingees espouse a kind of Christianity that honors singularities—or differences that refuse to stop being different, if you will. That’s comforting too. It may not get them another Christian record deal (or any other, for that matter), but it puts them on the right side of the struggle.
In conclusion, I should point out the prophetic nature of this whole album. Pegleg says that he wrote most of the material right after The Crucial Conspiracy, which was right about the time the U.S. was ramping up its war on terror. Indeed, protest movements had been hard at work at the time, but recent revelations have shown that people like the Dingees aren’t just a bunch of dope-smoking, unrealistic hippies. They predicted these problems but in a way that was as much a narrative of the times then as of now. They understand a great deal more about these disastrous systems than the vulture capitalists of our day, who think the world will keep turning regardless of what we do to it. To illustrate this, you can image-search maps that are supposedly going to be used in the future for oil freighters once the polar ice caps have melted. I suppose in a literal sense, the VCs are quite right: The world will keep turning, but our presence or absence on its surface hardly amounts to a pretext for it to stop.
As mentioned earlier, I wanted to submit the question to you readers as to whether The Rebel Soul Sound System is Rhizomatic. If you’re acquainted with the concept, perhaps you can help me with it. I think it is, but I’m not a specialist in this area of thought (although my landscaping experience has left me well acquainted with the botanical rhizome—myrtle, pachysandra, et al.) The whole album has no privileged entry point, there’s not really a clear delineation of where one song stops and another begins, and it re-appropriates images and influences throughout. There’s a great deal more to talk about than just rhizomes, too, so do host comments on whatever you see fit. This is a new kind of a review—one that is never complete, yet does justice to the intellectual foundations of a cultural creation. That, it seems to me, is what a good review ought to do.
1. I’ve since been told that this motherly voice belongs to Dr. Helen Caldicott, an anti-nuke hero.
A few years back I heard this song called Valentine’s Day In Juarez. The chorus of the song peaked my interest, so I downloaded the song. It goes like,
They got the cocaine, oxycontin, mushrooms, marijuana,
Vodka, plastic pop off (or Popov?), twist one up
It’s a catchy tune, but I didn’t explore the message behind it. I thought it was just a song about partying in a border town. And so it quickly fell into the rest of my music collection like a raindrop in a river.
Then I read Charles Bowden’s Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, and I revisited the song, illuminated by Bowden’s work. I can only describe this book as a sort of “marriage of Gonzo and Hell,” because Alice Leora Briggs illustrated in wood-etchings the dissolution of order there, in a style reminiscent of William Blake or Peter Bruegel the Elder. In fact, the images are quite disturbing, which makes them effective.
The word Gonzo seems appropriate, though I’m not clear on what it is, exactly—for Bowden participates to some degree in what he covers. His book details his experience, not so much the cold facts of the war. He doesn’t edit things but leaves the tape rolling. He’s deeply opposed to it yet unable to imagine the situation there getting better. He’s also a brave son of a bitch, considering all the recent murders of reporters.
Back to the Ike Reilly Assassination—He opens his song, singing,
Yesterday I smoked, today I don’t (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Yesterday I swallowed, today I choke (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Yesterday I dreamed, today I hoped (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Yesterday I sunk, today I float (yeah, yeah, yeah)
These words seemed a bit banal to me at first. But Bowden’s account illuminated a few things: First, the Juarez Cartel, as well as the others along the border, kill most of their victims quietly, in a suburban condo, by strangulation. Perhaps after some torture. The cartels call it carne asada, which in plain English means “grilled meat.”
The character of his song is in Juarez—or maybe just across the border—and he was looking to party, specifically for some drugs (Cocaine, Oxycontin, etc.). So he hooked up with some shady characters and for the drugs, he has to “carry roses across the bridge / to gain favor with the Suicide Girls.”
I don’t know who the Suicide Girls are, and I’ve Googled it, and, well, it turns up porn sites, so…?—But let us imagine for the sake of argument that the Suicide Girls are a gang of women, working with the cartels much like the Zetas, and have dominion over their little fiefs within the greater kingdom of the Mexican drug cartels.
Carrying roses across the bridge refers to a “mule,” I think—that is, someone who smuggles drugs across the bridge for the cartels—and some mules make money, but more disappear. Likewise for the character of the song: He sinks one day, floats the next. He’s been strangled and dumped in the river, floating down the Rio Grande. Which makes this song every bit as dark as Bowden’s stories of missing people: “Where he goes isn’t always clear / Places we both know have been closed for years.” Bowden keeps talking about the disappearing people. Most are never found, save for in a dusty folder within a DEA file cabinet.
My friend called the scene in Mexican a “soft war,” which I suppose is a reasonable nomenclature—except it’s still a war, despite the fact that it’s neither a cold nor hot one. It’s a unique case of drug cartels outstripping the Mexican government’s resources and ability to contain them. Instead of curtailing the growing violence, the government participates. The police perform the executions. The higher-ups look the other way on both sides of the border.
“But here is where we stop and turn off the answering machine and go back to the history that comforts us, the faith of our fathers,” Bowden says.
Where, then, do these cartels find all this money to keep on keeping on? You have to look no further than your own neighborhood. And while our government guilt-trips kids so they will avoid drugs, it knowingly supports, or tacitly approves of, the violence that is funded by drugs.
Such is the state of things, and it’s only getting worse.
On a side note
Since we never see Thomas Pynchon, there are always people trying to guess who he really is. Here’s my best guess so far: He is Charles Bowden.
Their voices are both similar, old and bass-y. Cf. this interview with Bowden with this video ad for Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which he apparently narrated. Maybe it’s just the subject matter that makes the connection for me. Even the pictures kind of match up: Pynchon vs. Bowden.
I know it’s crazy. But the name Bowden is similar to Bodine, who is a recurring character in every (I think, anyway, haven’t read em all yet) Pynchon novel. He’s either Pig Bodine (V) or Seaman Bodine (Gravity’s Rainbow), and there’s also a Bodine in both Mason & Dixon and Against the Day.
So would it be so crazy to think Pynchon works pseudonymously through Charles Bowden?—that, when Pynchon isn’t writing sprawling novels, he is an active journalist.
I’m probably wrong, but there are worse people to suggest, right? I can’t image either one would be offended at the guess, because they are both fantastic writers.
As I was redacting and compiling my Hundred Handers playlist, I rediscovered Joy Electric. I don’t know what exactly I thought of this band at first. Something like Boy George on helium singing over a Nintendo. It was weird. But I was twelve, so my shock-threshold ran kind of low. I found the album at a—wait for it—Christian Bookstore (in the alternative CCM section, of course).
So hey you younguns in nuthuggers, leaking autotuned disco from your headphones—spit out your pacifiers and get a load of Ronnie Martin’s Joy Electric. And get ready to get tweaked.
Back in the mid-nineties, nobody I knew knew what the fuck Joy Electric was or why they were so unabashedly Christian and, simultaneously, sort of gay (in both connotations of the word—but not the “stupid” sense). I don’t really think Martin is gay, but anyway, I don’t think they’ve ever sold a lot. Back then, to the CCM market, they were just a little too, you know, out there….
Today, Joy Electric fits right in there with the loosely defined genre, IDM (Intelligent Dance Music—yes, you’re a moron if you like anything else), along with a host of electro-disco jockeys and glitch-geeks with carpal tunnel from something other than (or in addition to) porn. Only, Joy Electric use Moog synthesizers instead of computers—a badge that is unassailably badass to most audiophiles.
Oh yeah. Joy Electric don’t like it when reviewers insinuate or say outright that they use computers. Not long ago, that was a problem for artists like Joy Electric, because somehow, if you used a computer instead of an instrument, reviewers thought you were faking it. Funny how things have changed. You hear Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, Kanye West, and you realize that computers are just so banal, so not a problem. Those artists would have faced the same struggle Joy Electric faced if they dropped on the scene fifteen years ago. And for that, they should check out Ronnie Martin’s Joy Electric; for it is foundational to IDM in much the same way Raymond Scott is to Joy Electric. And I think it’s a reasonable bet that if you thumbed through Dan Snaith’s or Richard D. James’ Ipod, you’d find an LP or two by Joy Electric.
Side note: Though I’m not a fan of the A & R ilk, props to Brandon Ebel of the Tooth and Nail records for signing Joy Electric. When everyone was gobbling up pop punk and rap rock during their post-grunge hangovers, he had the stones to go with these guys. Why? Because they really are great. Better than Xanax.
Big and bold, Joy Electric, you deserve your moment in the sun.
If you have an eon to kill and you really like music, get a load of this: The Hundred Handers compilation, which is a playlist of your top one hundred favorite songs. (I know I came up with a nerdy name, but when I had the idea, I’d just seen Clash of the Titans, which didn’t have any Titans in it.)
It’s hard. First, you have to assign a value number, one song through three, for each artist or band. For instance, I give Bob Dylan an initial value of five, but I’ll have to whittle it down to three. Three Bob songs that have really stuck with me for a long time. Also, you have to try (at least) to be as objective as possible. Obviously, you’ll lean more toward songs you like now—and that’s okay, for this season of life should receive representation—but you might have to give a nod to songs that had a huge impact on you when you were say, 14-years-old. Depends on how autobiographical you want to make it. I’m at 125 songs already and I’m only through the M’s.
You can then burn it to a five disc box set, or single DVD, and give it to that special girl or guy you’ve been makin eyes at. Or not. Just loan it to the next person who asks you that impossible question, “What’s your favorite song?”
Then you can reply, “Here’s my top 100. All time.” and not really have to think about it too much.
A decent first draft….
1. “Soya” Ali Farka Toure
2. “Fistful Of Love” Antony and the Johnsons
3. “Daydreaming” Aretha Franklin
4. “The Weight” The Band
5. “A Day in the Life” The Beatles
6. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” The Beatles
7. “Hey Bulldog” The Beatles
8. “I Loves You Porgy” Billie Holiday
9. “Stack Shot Billy” The Black Keys
10. “The Soul of a Man” Blind Willie Johnson
11. “Shelter from the Storm” Bob Dylan
12. “Ballad Of A Thin Man (Edinburgh)” Bob Dylan
13. “Like A Rolling Stone (Manchester)” Bob Dylan
14. “Waiting in Vain” Bob Marley
15. “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (a better day)” Broken Social Scene
16. “Going up the Country” Canned Heat
17. “Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles” Captain Beefheart
18. “Smackwater Jack” Carole King
19. “Rudie Can’t Fail” The Clash
20. “Lookin’ out my Back Door” Creedence Clearwater Revival
21. “Rocks and Gravel” Dave Van Ronk
22. “Changes” David Bowie
23. “At the Hop” Devendra Banhart
24. “Life is Like a River” Doc Watson
25. “Caledonia” Dougie MacLean
26. “Let Down (Featuring Toots & The Maytals)” Easy Star All-Stars
27. “Masters Of War” Eddie Vedder & Mike McCready
28. “Mr. Blue Sky” Electric Light Orchestra
29. “Bennie and the Jets” Elton John
30. “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” The Flaming Lips
31. “Blue Ridge Mountains” Fleet Foxes
32. “The Holly and the Ivy” George Winston
33. “Mind is Playing Tricks On Me” Geto Boys
34. “My Morphine” Gillian Welch
35. “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Gordon Lightfoot
36. “Tesla’s Hotel Room” The Handsome Family
37. “Let’s Make it” Hooker and Heat
38. “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” Iron & Wine
39. “Do Me” Jean Knight
40. “A Postcard To Nina” Jens Lekman
41. “A Higher Power” Jens Lekman
42. “Operator (that’s not the way it feels)” Jim Croce
43. “All Along the Watchtower” Jimi Hendrix
44. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” Jimi Hendrix
45. “Sadie” Joanna Newsom
46. “Feeling Alright” Joe Cocker
47. “Redemption Song” Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash
48. “I Walk the Line” Johnny Cash
49. “Wayfaring Stranger” Johnny Cash
50. “Folsom Prison Blues” Johnny Cash
51. “Meet Me in the City” Junior Kimbrough
52. “Police and Thieves” Junior Murvin
53. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Leadbelly
54. “Going To California” Led Zeppelin
55. “When The Levee Breaks” Led Zeppelin
56. “Old Friend” Lyle Lovett
57. “Between the Bars” Madeleine Peyroux
58. “Engwish Bwudd” Man Man
59. “All Night Diner” Modest Mouse
60. “This Devil’s Workday” Modest Mouse
61. “The Blood of Cu Chulainn” Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna
62. “What Have You Done?” Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens
63. “Heart Of Gold” Neil Young
64. “Deep Red Bells” Neko Case
65. “Wild is the Wind” Nina Simone
66. “I Got it Bad and that ain’t Good” Nina Simone
67. “Wagon Wheel” Old Crow Medicine Show
68. “Immigration Song” Ozma
69. “Canarios” Phil Keaggy
70. “Time” Pink Floyd
71. “Us and Them” Pink Floyd
72. “Wish You Were Here” Pink Floyd
73. “Fairytale Of New York” The Pogues
74. “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy ” Queen
75. “We Are the Champions” Queen
76. “Jumper on the Line” R.L. Burnside
77. “Nude” Radiohead
78. “Paranoid Android” Radiohead
79. “Old Friend” Rancid
80. “Hit the Road Jack” Ray Charles
81. “Build Me Up” Rhymefest featuring O.D.B.
82. “My Deliverer” Rich Mullins
83. “Ruby Tuesday” The Rolling Stones
84. “Beast of Burden” The Rolling Stones
85. “Oh My Sweet Carolina” Ryan Adams
86. “Wo Qui Non Coin” The Seatbelts
87. “Up above my Head I Hear Music in the Air” Sister Rosetta Tharpe & Marie Knight
88. “Superstition” Stevie Wonder
89. “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” The Temptations
90. “Come On Up To The House” Tom Waits
91. “Hoist That Rag” Tom Waits
92. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” Tom Waits
93. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” U2
94. “Moonshiner” Uncle Tupelo
95. “Into The Mystic” Van Morrison
96. “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” War
97. “El Scorcho” Weezer
98. “Jesus, Etc.” Wilco
99. “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” Willie Nelson & Calexico
100. “Mr. Tough” Yo La Tengo
I write this across from my sister, who has recently endured an evil encounter with a giant razorback catfish hovering in the shallows of Long Lake. She is trying to fall asleep with her iPod earbuds in, listening to… Coldplay.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, either musically or commercially. Coldplay, after all, were voted “band most likely to put you to sleep” by a British Travelodge poll, which had all the esoteric music sluts howling with schadenfreude. But it occurred to me that this is the mad genius behind Coldplay: Music you can sleep to.
I was exposed to the music-during-sleep phenomena in my early teens at James “Wiley” McMullen’s home. There, in Wiley-ality, we were fully expected to fall and remain asleep either to constant radio, TV, or video game interference, or to some godawful combination of the three. Pure insanity reigned. But it had a way of driving the party onward to that next two-liter of Mountain Dew and that yet-to-be-reached level of Megaman X. And for all the times I’ve woken up drunk amid the rotten morning-afters of my twenties, none could match the dissolute chaos that prevailed after a caffeinated orgy of high fructose corn syrup, chips and flashing videogames from my early teens. It’s a wonder we aren’t all epileptic.
Now, there were different levels of nocturnal exposure. Sometimes, it was just a DVD menu, with the theme song on repeat, and other times, a tape of old sitcoms we’d seen before. Still other times, an amplifier was all that was left on and hissing in the darkness. Invariably, after a couple hours of real sleep, the parents lumbered downstairs, flicked on both a gurgling pot of coffee and Regis Philbin, who sounded like a mutant on crank as near as we could tell at eight o’clock on a Saturday fucking morning.
Such were the sleeping conditions at the home of James “Wiley” McMullen. But I remember with pleasure those first overnights, sleeping under a musty afghan in a rickety barcalounger, in limbo between sleeping and waking. I remember being drawn to those overnights, like a moth to light.
And in a sense we were moths. We needed that light. We needed to wake up and see Joey from Friends going “how you doin?” at that dark and lonely hour when your friends slept, but you couldn’t. It was comforting. Plus, it lit the way to the bathroom.
Subconsciously, I’m sure we kept the TV on to avoid feeling alone. Think of whenever you were young andy you were put to bed early—for not eating your supper or something—and it would still be light out, though mom had pulled the blinds to. And you could hear from the other side of the wall the muffled voices of your parents. You’d wonder what they were saying while you felt horribly alone.
So I find it more of a compliment to Coldplay that they are the best band to fall asleep to. I haven’t tried it, but I’m sure they’re polite bedfellows.
I knew this was coming and braced myself for the worst. Six weeks after its release, I finally gathered my gumption and listened to Scarlett Johansson’s opus of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head.
When the news originally hit, many jerked their heads up, wondering what the fuck. The idea seemed, at best, overreaching and, at worst, utterly ludicrous. But of course, it was Scarlett—the hammer and tongs otherwise reserved for such an impostor were still holstered until we actually heard her efforts. Yes. We kept an open mind, albeit a wary one.
Which was a nice sentiment really: Why write off a set of songs just because the singer seeks to accomplish the unreasonable?
Answer: For starters, she has nothing in common with Tom Waits, except some overlapping vocal range. And her voice is bad. But it is not bad because she has a few problems with pitch, and because the melody doesn’t always come through—after all, these qualities appear consistently throughout Waits’ work. Her voice is bad because it has no dynamics, and because her delivery is devoid of character.
Whenever Waits sings, he belts it. Or howls it. Or snarls it. Or blubbers it, but he certainly doesn’t lurk behind his soundscapes with a dump truck on standby to unload all the reverb that’s been piled on his voice. He’s out there, in front, warts and all, for the world either to swallow or to regurgitate with a countenance awash with horror. Naturally, he is the deformed mutant star of his own show.
Scarlett Johansson, however, is not the star of this album. Her voice is too meek, too wooden, too boring to be the main event here. And that made me wonder about her acting career too, because after all the hoopla about her, I still can’t figure out what’s so impressive about her. But I’ll save that for another time….
As for the accompanying music, Waits’ originals strengthen their arguments even after dance-techno beats and ambient synthpads invade. Mr. Waits’ recent embracing of beatboxing notwithstanding, new-fangled digital technology has little place in his songs. When producer Dave Sitek wants the popping and hissing of an old LP, he generates it with a digital sampler, whereas Waits records a skillet of sizzling bacon. Everything Waits records sounds like it came before WW2, but this sounds too much like everything else in indie-IDM-whatever-it-is that reviewers are creaming themselves over these days.
If Sitek had run Johansson through a nightly regimen of whiskey binges, filterless cigarettes and scrap iron, and then sat her down at an off-key piano and had her belt out some of Waits’ classic bar ballads, this album could have been decent. For it would have been truer to what Waits actually put himself through.
Sitek fails to grasp the inherent insanity of Waits’ subject matter and arrangements. Waits’ most recent offering, 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, showed the darkness he is capable of delivering. From the chaos and brutality of “Fish in the Jailhouse” (about a prison break riot), to the snarling Cormac McCarthy-esque “Lucinda,” to the dark and menacing necessity of “Heigh Ho,” Tom Waits’ Orphans left his fans with clear picture of the horror that consumes him.
Scarlett Johansson is unable to reproduce even a flutter of that horror. Of course she can’t. Not when she’s 23, engaged, and being voted sexiest woman since Helen of Troy. She is quite limited to the soft side of Waits, which he hasn’t shown much of in the last ten years. She fails to capture that gravel that the man ground himself into, and how could she have? It’s arguable no one could.
That said, at least this album doesn’t put on any airs—that is, apart from the rotten hubris of its very conception. But Dave Sitek doesn’t so much pour toxic waste on these songs as he dumps high fructose corn syrup and Crisco. Which is all wrong indeed.
What gets me is that this album actually received some good reviews. Perhaps some critics imagined Scarlett in a cathedral somewhere singing on bended knee. The reverb suggests as much. Regardless, this album is still a disappointment, especially because many secretly hoped this album would add to their mythic rendering of her. Instead, it proves that Tom Waits was two steps ahead of us two years ago and is still an ineffable figure in popular music, untouchable by the sexiest woman alive.
*Other than his wife, obviously.