(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 16, Number 3, 1997)
Some rock fans will shake their heads and say Pat Boone's gone soft in his old age. But I disagree. Even if In A Metal Mood (Hip-O Records) isn't up to the quality of his best work, it took guts for Boone to scuttle his bad guy image and reach out to a Bible Belt audience. The question isn't whether the gambit will succeed. Already the Southern Baptists are claiming Boone as one of their own, jokingly calling him "punk's prodigal son" during a surprise guest appearance on Jack Van Impe's evangelical tv show. What's at stake is whether the core audience that joined Boone for his rediscovery of rockabilly on 1981's seminal Moody River (Dot Records) or the country/rap hybrid of 1990's Speedy Gonzales (Sugar Hill) will buy into big band renditions of heavy metal obscurities. It's especially problematic because Metal Mood's lounge music leanings indicate that Boone is for perhaps the first time in his career following rather than setting trends.
This is bad news for the struggling musicians who have depended on Pat to bring their labors into the limelight ever since he began covering material by Ivory Joe Hunter, the Flamingos, the El Dorados and even Fats Domino in the 1950s. Does Metal Mood have sufficient coattails to do for Led Zeppelin what Boone's rendition of "Tutti Frutti" once did for Little Richard? Boone's waltz-tempo version of the British band's cult hit "Stairway to Heaven" may win a few converts to the defunct British band that released a string of ambitious but commercially disastrous lps in the '70s and '80s, but it won't get Zep's ex-members off the dole. "No More Mr. Nice Guy" has fun with lyrics contrasting Boone's public persona as an outlaw with his supposed church-going real self, but the big surprise is the songwriting credit to an individual with a worse identity crisis-a male named Alice Cooper who shone briefly in the Frank Zappa-Captain Beefheart constellation before sputtering out with fellow novelty act Wild Man Fisher. Boone so thoroughly makes "Nice Guy" his own that I doubt his fans will bother seeking out Mr./Ms. Cooper's original.
Strong material is Metal Mood's virtue, from the Van Halen brothers' slightly salsa "Panama" to Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary," which couples psychedelic imagery with down-and-dirty, horn-driven funk. (Readers: is this the same James Hendrix who wrote the Johnny Rivers' chartbuster "Summer Rain"?) Boone's vocals are the unexpected weak element here, as he reins in his characteristic rawness to make this material palatable to Presbyterians. Gone are his trademark whoops, growls, howls and eagle screams, replaced by a cloth coat rationality that undermines the danger of a song like "Smoke on the Water." Certainly this harrowing tale of a flare-gun fire that gets out of hand at the Montreux music festival requires a degree of calm to put the full force of the drama across-which is precisely why the overwrought original by Britain's Deep Purple fell on its face. But Boone's deadpan delivery flirts too long with detachment until finally co-writer and ex-Purpler Richie Blackmore's guitar solo prompts him to cut loose with a much-needed "ooh, Lord" at the crashing climax.
One wonders if, after so many years of chameleon changes, Boone's heart just isn't in this latest, especially when you compare these lackluster cover versions to Tiny Tim's on 1995's Girl (Rounder), where every syllable counted and nothing was held back. Heavy metal fanatics like myself can't help feeling betrayed as one of our own sidles into musical blandness no matter how purposefully. Lutheran newcomers to the genre won't be satisfied either once the melodic puckishness of "You've Got Another Thing Coming" fades and the sentimentality of "Love Hurts" turns cloying. It may be that instead of trying to enlarge his audience, Boone is turning his leather-clad back on a public that was already migrating toward a newer generation of metal mongers with fresher ideas than simply selling out.
That's a depressing thought. But there's solace in a book by science writer Fred Alan Wolf called Parallel Universes; The Search for Other Worlds (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). Crazier than anything you'll hear on Art Bell's "Dreamland" radio show is the belief held by many mainstream quantum physicists that an infinite number of alternate universes exist alongside our own. All possible if not improbable versions of the world we know literally exist in one or more parallel realms, these eggheads claim. Thus, in a complete and self-contained universe totally ignorant of our own, editor and publisher of The Beat CC Smith is a professional tennis player with a passing interest in Renaissance harp music, and Pat Boone was never a heavy metal heavy hitter at all. In this inexplicable world, he was merely a pallid crooner from the get go who survives by peddling pabulum to a Christian community that equates mush with virtue. Imagine that.
Pat Boone, believe it or not, is a descendant of frontier congressman Dan'l Boone, and Pat's wife, Shirley, is the daughter of bluegrass legend Red Foley. But Pat never cut a decent railroad song, and so isn't among the folk and country luminaries on a pair of cds from Rounder, Steel Rails, Classic Railroad Songs, Volume 1, and Mystery Train, Classic Railroad Songs, Volume 2. Country music fans will already own the chestnuts included here, such as Johnny Cash's "Casey Jones" on volume one, or volume two's "Wabash Cannonball" (Roy Acuff) and "Orange Blossom Special" (Johnson Mountain Boys). But nary a soul owns the previously unreleased, wild and woolly radio-transcription version of "Take the 'A' Train" hooted up by a red hot Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys on volume one, and you'll never find another disc which follows the Sons of the Pioneers' bright-eyed "The Golden Train Comes Down" with Guy Clark's jittery "Texas, 1947" about the first streamlined diesel engine to pass through a small Texas town (volume one).
Extensive liner notes by historian Norm Cohen, author of Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, supply lots of tidbits about song origins and artists. They also serve up curmudgeonly backhands that enhanced my enjoyment of the songs by minimizing some of them. I've always loved "Mystery Train" as the rare ethereal Elvis track, and the version by rockabilly relic Sleepy LaBeef on volume two is fine indeed. But after delving into the antecedents of Sam Phillips' composition, Cohen deflates the ghostly aura with the wave of a hand. "If there is a mystery associated with this train," he grumbles, "it's where the title comes from." Just as good is his perspective on that modern railroad anthem "City of New Orleans" performed on volume two by its author, Steve Goodman. "Although the song's remarkably different fates in the hands of different artists is a good lesson in the relative roles of artist and song in determining popularity," Cohen writes, "there's no denying the intrinsic charm of Goodman's lyrics as well as melody." I think we may safely take this as damning with faint phrase.
Compiler Michael Hyatt picks a great crop of classic material, including Jimmie Rodgers' "Jimmie the Kid," Alison Krauss' Dolly-Partonesque "Steel Rails," and Bill Monroe alumnus Peter Rowan's "Last Train" on volume one, and on volume two, which I prefer by a cat's whisker, the Carter Family's "The Cannonball"-featuring a rare vocal by A.P. Carter-Flatt and Scruggs' "Big Black Train," Hank Snow's rendition of the Jimmie Rodgers tearjerker "Waiting for a Train," and the Stanley Brothers' huffin'-puffin' instrumental with cornpone recitations "Train 45." Since Bill Monroe's "Riding on the New River Line" didn't make either disc, nor Kraftwerk's magnum opus "Trans Europe Express," I stare at the horizon for a curl of telltale smoke indicating more railroad compilations from the Rounder roundhouse to come.
For lots more rural Americana-and I mean lots-check out the first six of 13 planned releases in the Southern Journey series of field recordings from 1959-60 by the wide ranging Alan Lomax. One of the most important figures in the history of recorded folk music, Lomax and his father gathered songs from the south in the 1940s for the Library of Congress, spurring the folk revival of the day. Then Alan returned with much better equipment to re-record some of the same artists for the Southern Journey project. In between he spent nine years gathering the traditional music of the British Isles, and later did the same in the Caribbean, Spain, Italy, Indonesia and elsewhere. In a truly ambitious undertaking, over the next five years Rounder Records will issue over 100 discs in the Alan Lomax collection, including everything on the original Prestige Records and other label releases as well as ample previously unreleased material. If even a fraction of the collection measures up to the first batch of Southern Journey cds, it should be just short of awe inspiring.
The best place to dive in is the first cd, Voices from the American South, which provides an overview of the rest of the Southern Journey discs. The depth and diversity of the material knocked me on my ear. Lomax collected music at a time when the last vestige of arcane styles could still be found in small communities before the mainstream steamroller of tv culture and network radio flattened regional idiosyncrasies. Voices includes blues, ballads, hymns, reels, shouts, chanteys from the Georgia Sea Islands and prison work songs by artists as successful as blues guitarist Fred McDowell, vocalist Vera Ward Hall and stars of early country radio J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers as well as local gospel favorites the Bright Light Quartet, prison-song encyclopedia Doc Reese and the Sacred Harp singers, whose massed undulations made me think of group performances by Ituri rainforest pygmies. I got s big bang out of types of songs I'd never heard before, including Sid Hemphill's version of "Walk in the Parlor," using an African pentatonic scale, vocal "whoops" and an American version of the panpipe that had been thought extinct called the quills. Another curiosity in between cut after cut of gorgeous singing and acoustic instruments is a square dance call by Neil Morris accompanied by Charles Everidge on the mouthbow which somehow earns the title "Turkey in the Straw."
There's much odd and exceptional material here cumulatively comprising some of the best music I've ever heard from anywhere. Pick up the Voices overview of the Southern Journey series to glean your favorites, then look to further titles for deeper treatments of the styles you like. The other volumes are Ballads and Breakdowns; Songs from the Southern Mountains (Vol. 2), 61 Highway Mississippi; Delta Country Blues, Spirituals, Work Songs & Dance Music (Vol. 3), Brethren, We Meet Again; Southern White Spirituals (Vol. 4), Bad Man Ballads; Songs of Outlaws and Desperadoes (Vol. 5), and Sheep, Sheep Don'tcha Know The Road; Southern Music Sacred and Sinful (Vol. 6). If this isn't enough, the Atlantic label, which originally financed the Southern Journey field trip, has also issued a four-cd Alan Lomax boxed set called Sounds of the South.
On Possessed (Xenophile), the Klezmatics hit each note with such intensity you'd think this was the last music they expected to play on earth. A dose of eschatology comes part and parcel with the Yiddish music tradition, but this tough New York-based ensemble never releases the pressure. Songs that begin with David Krakauer's lone voice in the wilderness gather instruments to end in a crashing orchestral Armageddon ("Shprayz ikh mir") or bear down on the chorus so relentlessly that when the other band members add their voices to the chant that climaxes "Lomir heybn dem bekher," it's like a valve exploding steam and boiling water. Lest we gentiles miss the point of the Yiddish language lyrics, "An Undoing World" has a beautiful and bitter English text about the neglectful mother that is either the America of refugees, western civilization or our wretched existence in general. While none of this seems particularly conducive to partying, this stuff rocks as hard as Pat Boone's beloved heavy metal by drinking deep of the klezmorim's tradition of expressing sorrow in frantic tempos that almost resemble joy or in carnivalesque brass and woodwind phrases that act out the running-going-nowhere fate of the individual bound to life. From Alicia Svigals' chilly electric violin to its crisp horn charts-and culminating in a 20-minute suite from Tony Kushner's play "A Dybbuk: Between Two World" -- Possessed is the perfect soundtrack for millenarian jitters.
Standing a little further from the brink is the Toronto-based Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band on the live concert recording Fire (Flying Bulgar Records). The Bulgars take a more traditional approach to klezmer than on their last disc, Agada, way back in 1993. No icy-cool Yiddish hipster shtick this time around nor Central Asian jive, though the quintet still borrow themes from Turkish, gypsy, North African music and other genres. Fire has lots of instrumental bliss stretching out as far as program-music jazz on the dreamy "Simkhes Toyre" and David Burchbinder's mindboggling Flight-of-the-Bumblebee flugelhorn throughout "Doyen Istanbul." But I miss the lead vocals by the departed Allan Merovitz who's been supplanted this time around by guest Adrienne Cooper. Besides her dramatic, full-bodied singing, Cooper also supplies three recitations bracketing the other songs, lending the concert the spirit of Jewish theater from bygone times. While the poetry is fine, I do find it breaks the flow of the disc somewhat. Not my favorite work by this talented band, but a top-rated performance nonetheless. [23 Fourth Street, Toronto, ON, Canada M5J 2B6 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org]
Though klezmer has recently been the laboratory of choice for musical experimentation, new formulas don't necessarily bring breakthroughs, as the Shanachie-label anthology Klezmania proves. Boiled in Lead's electric guitar transcription of "Sher" is best served by leaden ears despite a certain humor value. Still, it's light-years in listenability ahead of clarinetist Don Byron's harmolodic Hasidic mess "Voliner" and Twistin' the Freylakh's Yiddish surf music version of "Tum Balalaika," which happily occupies last place on the disc. Big plusses include German group Ahava Raba doing turtles on tiptoes with a playful version of Abe Schwartz's "Nokh a Glezl Vayn" and fellow Deutschlanders Aufwind launching a marvelous vocal arrangement of the theatrical piece "In Shtetl Nikolaev." Nathanson and Coleman mutate a sample of a 1917 Abe Schwartz 78 into giddy free jazz territory ("Sadegurer Khosid'l"), Godchildren of Soul join with the Klezmatics for an oddly engaging hip-hop freylekh, and the Klezmatics themselves are swell in Ben Mandelson's "Honga Onga" mix of the rousing "Khsidim Tants." Consider this disc for it's novelty value, and you might just end up addicted to the music.
Geoffrey Oryema seems determined to shake off the ambient music mantle that 1995's Beat the Border bought him with the comparatively rough and ready Night to Night (RealWorld). Instead of the polished compositions of the last go around we get uncut gems unearthed so fast and furious-from Italian cafe tunes to Medieval castrato reveries to Peter Gabriel-style art-thump-that even if you don't like half the songs, that still leaves seven more. The sketchiness of "LPJ Christine," essentially a shimmering Daniel Lanois guitar instrumental with vocals tagging along, or "Miracle Man," sporting a dynamite call and response riff in search of a song, annoyed me as half-baked my first time through the disc. But as examples of the textural or timbral explorations that flow from Oryema's creative juices, these sketches are as finished as full-blown compositions like the ponderous "Careless Works," and for all their lightness of being hold up better after repeated listenings. The strength in the rock arrangements that tug at many of these songs is the ex-pat Ugandan's lateness in coming to loudness. I can't think of a veteran rocker that could make the generic harmonic progression of "Miracle Man" or "Gari Moshi" (Steam Train) sound fresh, but energy and unexpected sonic changes save the day. And find me another musician anywhere who's having half this much fun.
Back about 1991 when Youssou N'Dour's all-and-everything approach hit its dullness stride, Senegalese compatriot Ismael Lo pepped up African worldbeat with an eponymous cd on Mango that didn't make the splash it deserved. Three tracks from that disc sounding better than ever are recycled on Jammu Africa (Triloka), including a new remix of the epic "Souleymane." The big surprise of this collection is a duet with an artist from the world of rock that flies where such crossovers usually flop. It's "Without Blame," with the terrific Marianne Faithfull, whose gravely voice resembles a stringed-instrument badly in need of rosin. But her quiet passion is the perfect counterpart to Lo's exuberance, and when they sing quietly in unison, only Faithfull's whiskey warble identifies her as other than an Ismael clone. Another standout is "Dibi Dibi Rek" with its nice use of a closing children's chorus and one of many tracks here demonstrating Lo's harmonica love. And, as expected, Lo's archetypal explosive Senegalese voice is equal to the aggressive arrangement of the title cut just as it saves "Nabou" from bottoming out in N'Dour-style blandness.
Raw Kaiso 1 (Rounder) proves that today's young sprouts have nothing on the greybeards when it comes to slackness in a triple shot of often outright shocking performances by phallic poets Lord Blakie, Black Prince and Mighty Zandolie. Recorded live in 1994 at the behest of David Rudder and Robin Foster, the three legends of the "smuts" dangle one outrage after another before a wildly appreciative audience that roars its delighted disbelief. Lest we doubt the wit at hand in these hoary depths, the veteran kaisonians also hold forth on milder topics. Lord Blakie gets the disc off to a deceptively presentable start with "Steelband Clash" about a Carnival competition and "Maria," which deals with what must be classic calypso's second favorite topic, the role of money in romance, before getting down to the real business with the rather predictable punfest "Hold de Pussy." Black Prince is funnier as he recounts the degradation a calypsonian is forced to suffer, including a missus who tells him in no uncertain terms what to do with the hole in his guitar. But Mighty Zandolie goes further than any vintage musical filth I've ever heard with the outrageous antics of "The Whip," which diddles with homoeroticism, S&M and bestiality in the name of family fun. Tempering the horniness is a classic band flashing plenty of sax and nary a drum machine in earshot. So if salty subject matter offends you, cover your ears and listen to the music instead.
It's ironic that what may be the quintessential Mideastern music doesn't come from the Mideast, nor even North Africa. Taarab, the sumptuous wedding music of the Swahili, has its epicenter in Zanzibar and developed in the cosmopolitan atmosphere when the island was at the crossroads of African, Indian, Chinese, and Arab trade routes. The massed strings reminiscent of Egyptian film music, bellydancing rhythms, African vocals and a touch of western music harmonics are displayed in full glory on the German Network label's Spices of Zanzibar by Culture Music Club (known locally as Mila na Utamaduni). You'd never know from the graceful arrangements of strings, kanun, oud, lute, bass and accordion that the subject matter can turn downright nasty as audience members shower the singers with cash to level insults and accusations at their neighbors. To keep tempers in check and the banknotes flowing, the ensemble provides the respite of soothing instrumentals called bashraf that showcase the dialog between instruments. Culture Music Club is one of the best-known taarab groups in East Africa, and this is a dandy disc. (Network Medien GmbH, Merianplatz 10, D-60316 Frankfurt)
All you need to know about Hungarian sample-manipulator Laszlo Hortobagyi lurks in the liner notes of The Transglobal and Magic Sounds (Network) containing tracks from his six Erdenklang-label releases. A few excerpts from Peter Pannke's tribute to the artist:
"Even as a child, he said, extraterrestrial beings in opal-coloured spaceships landed outside his parents' house, and after a lengthy exchange, he asked them to take him with them." "According to Hortobagyi, you can find a precise definition of the extraterrestrial music of Fomal-Hoot al-Ganoubi on a holographic work entitled Al-Risala al-sarafiyya fi'L-nisab al-ta'liffiya Fomal-Hoot al-Ganoubi." "In 1981 he founded the Gayan Uttejak Society, an imaginary society of musicians, studio and archive in one. This, too, was the result of a journey through time, for a society of this name was actually founded in India in 1884, but disbanded in 1917." "Only a handful of mavericks and madmen insist on creating products that are so totally out of step with the demands of the music market, he said in his interview, adding that he could take pleasure in a new processor even when knowing full well that the product he would create with it could not even begin to compete with the market value of the machine."
Much more successful at slinging samples in a musical fashion is Frank Harris and shifting guest musicians performing under the name Daboa on From the Gecko (Triple Earth). This studio project from San Francisco has an overriding Brazilian feel thanks mainly to Maria Marquez's Astrid Gilberto-flavored vocals on a rendition of Kermit the Frog's theme song "Green" with background voices of the Surui Indians of Brazil, "Canto Del Pilon," a traditional Venezuelan work song with Frank's synclavier providing natural and jungle sounds aplenty, and the jazzy "Campesina" based on a Venezuelan joropo song. Frank, meanwhile, sings Spanish-language lead on the salsa-flamenco-jazz "My New Shoes" with samples of the newest Dalai Lama to keep the sweet cacophony company, switches on the metallophone patch for "Jakarta" and falters only on the last cut for the calypso-pop of "Don't Be Late." It all has a very pleasant, laid back attitude with terrestrial electronics that keep a host of textures bubbling under the surface. (Distributed by Sterns)
From Davis, California (home of guitarist Gary Saylin) comes world beat band !Akimbo on their debut cd of the same name (!Akimbo). The fearless octet tilts mainly toward reworkings of southern African genres, blending Catherine LeBlanc's folkie lead vocals with everything from mbaqanga to soukous, jit and marabi with dollops of steelband rhythms tossed into "Loiseau" and Linda Deering's flute injecting "Okulolo" with orientalisms. Message song "Papillon" gets a little too heavy for its title with a social-conscience spoken commentary, but the rest of the disc is engagingly light and infectious with solid arrangements and virtuosity from all quarters. (Distributed via (916) 756-5341 or email@example.com)