“I’m floating in a black balloon/A long shadow in the afternoon/My mama told me, baby stay clean/There’s no in between/But all you ladies and you gentlemen/In between’s the only place I been.”
Haunting words from a poet and musician whose life imitated his art, and vice versa, until the tragic end last year. From a Basement on the Hill is the last work of the late, great Elliot Smith, and it’s just what one would expect from him: highly orchestrated rock ’n’ roll and sharp acoustic ballads. Smith’s voice was at times caustic, and other times so lovely as to catch you completely off your guard. He screamed his words with whispers and posed ironies as skillfully as any musician in a long time. His music was laden with social commentary—sometimes cynical but always without fear. His criticisms of himself were just as tough. Smith was a brutally honest songwriter.
As a whole, From a Basement seems to be a bridge between the raw simplicity of his earlier work (Elliot Smith, Roman Candle) and the more complex mastery of later works like XO and Figure 8. The album is good, not great, but each song leaves you wishing this remarkable musician were still with us today. Hey hey, my my. (David Nolt)Ben Harper & The Blind Boys of Alabama There Will Be a Light Virgin
Great collaborations, especially when musical in nature, can produce so much spontaneous, natural energy that they leave listeners struggling to recall a time before such beauty manifested itself. Our human power to communicate comes full circle. Often, revival and/or transcendence are close behind.
Bridging a generation, Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama find common ground on There Will Be a Light in the gospel roots of hope, soul and faith. It is a collaboration of wisdom and youth, tradition and innovation. Harper, lyrically and musically wise beyond his years, brings a fresh and gritty feel to gospel without overpowering or overproducing the Blind Boys. For their part, the Boys do what they do best: sing from the gut in harmonies that echo and reverberate straight through the music unshaken, unchanged and with enough bass and soul to keep everyone fat and giggly for the foreseeable future.
“Well, Well, Well” is a haunting, bluesy revelation of a greedy man’s well run dry, played with Harper’s trademark Weissenborn acoustic slide. The title track lives up to its claim, and “Take My Hand” is a funky, rolling chant. “Make it to the Church on Time” finishes strong with a gospel song. I, and I imagine many others, would go to church every Sunday if the choir sang like this. (David Nolt) Solrak and the New Aztec Empire La Vida es la Muerte Westup
“The Mexica respected and honored death,” offer the liner notes by way of explanation. “By acknowledging death on a daily basis, by ritualizing and regarding its presence and power, they externalized abundant life. The music and art on this record represent change, culture, struggle, resistance, creativity, silence, chaos, darkness, light, life and death.”
Gee, is that all you’ve got? It’s a fool’s errand to argue that La Vida es la Muerte brims with more abundant life than your average B-Side Players record (and this is the B-Side Players, only under a different name), but it’s an interesting sideline, and hardly dissimilar musically to what these Angelenos usually do. Opening track “Pueblo Unido” gets things off to a slow simmer with tabla and call-and-response vocals; “Rancho de Muertos” quickly kicks it into third gear, B-Side style. Bandleader/trumpet-wielder Solrak holds down most of the lead vocal duties, accompanied on three of these 13 cuts by the cool vocals of LaTanya Lockett. On “Noche y Dia” (one of a few tellingly Manichean titles on the album, cf. “Good Over Evil,” “A la Guerra con la Guerra”), he surrenders the trumpet to guest Carlos Washington.
So it’s kind of like a salsa-flavored concept album. About opposites and dichotomies. With reggae beats and spoken-word interludes. Doesn’t matter if you “get it” all the way; it still rolls deep. It’s the B-Side Players! (Andy Smetanka)Maiz Feed Your Spirit (Alimenta tu Espiritu) Westup
So I call up the B-Side Players’ label and ask if they’ve got any new records out. They send me two, neither of which is a B-Side Players album exactly, but both of which feature either all or some of the members, and both of which indulge bandleader Solrak’s wide-ranging thematic interests.
Like La Vida es la Muerte, Maiz presents itself as a concept album of sorts, a musical tribute to the cereal grain without which “the great civilizations of Mesoamerica—the Mayan, Aztec, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Olmec and others—could not have existed.” (Hey, anyone out there remember Fuck You, This is Rice!, 17 hardcore songs about rice by a band of the same name?)
Solrak thinks big, but it all comes back—the social and environmental messages, the reveilles for La Raza, even the bristling indignation of “Fuckyou”—to the same general idiom, a palatable fusion of reggae and salsa that always sounds good but doesn’t offer many new surprises from song to song. Solrak’s voice even sounds eerily like Bob Marley’s at times—an unlikely conveyance, when you think about it, for polemic like this, like the reverse equivalent of a speed-metal song about stamp collecting. Oddly, very little of Maiz has anything to do with maize—but then that Rice album got old after about two songs anyway. (Andy Smetanka)
The B-Side Players play The Other Side Sunday, Nov. 14, at 10 PM.