Ali Farka Toure-Ni Foli

September 8, 2012

Ali Farka Toure

Ni Foli (Self-released cassette in 1984/reissued on vinyl by Social Music)

This is one of the more surprising revelations I’ve come across in recent memory. I’ve loved Ali Farka Toure for years, but my gateway to his universe came through his collaborations with Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate which kind of envisioned a universe where John Lee Hooker was classically trained and born in Mali. All of his work throughout the late 80s until his death in 2006 center around Toure’s delicate and elegant guitar work that paints an intricate landscape for his bluesy and rhythmic intonations as he sings along to what has been described by others as the “sahara blues.” Now, all of these albums are pretty stellar and not a stinker is to be found in the bunch, but the calm, cool and collected nature of this long string of albums did not prepare me for the raw and raunchy guitar riffs of Ni Foli where Toure’s playing aims for a union of dissonant psychedelic rock, funk, blues and traditional Malian music that is downright mindblowing and life-affirming.

Originally released on a cassette in 1984, Ni Foli was a forgotten footnote until it was recently reissued on limited edition vinyl by the Social Music label this year. Sadly, it is already out of print, which is a shame since it is one of those rare albums that emanate this powerful vibe that is entirely unique to that moment in which it was recorded. You shake the hamster cage in your mind for something else that could possibly compare and you are left scratching your head because there are none because Ni Foli is entirely its own self-contained musical universe that no one ever quite matched or copied because it has that ineffable magic that makes all of your favorite albums so special. I swear there are moments on Ni Foli’s second track “Hondia” that kind of remind me of a Velvet Undergound bootleg of their jammiest, most serpentine moments transported to Mali as Toure just flails away on his guitar and plays one of those riffs that are so goddamn raw and righteous that you wish it would kind of go on forever because it constantly finds a new psychedelic pathway to travel. It is a ramshackle, shambling beast that maintains a graceful aura due to Toure’s ability to rein in the fury and keep his band locked in a sloppily hypnotic groove. Plus, you got to love the flute soloing on this kind of kicks as much ass as Toure’s guitar playing on this one.

Although “Hondia” is the showstopper here, the opening track “Farri” is equally potent, albeit more dissonant and abstract as it seemingly emanates from some alien universe that I would love to travel to immediately. The percussion is spot-0n perfect for this track as it sounds so goddamned stoned as it percolates and stutters in unison with Toure as he slowly unreels an epic solo where the notes all kind of smear into one another, yet maintain some earthly connection with what passes for blues and funk on our planet. In between these long bouts of instrumental perfection, Toure’s vocals almost serve as another percussive element as he always makes sure that his intonations jive with the rhythms laid down by the band.

I wish it was possible to sit down with Ali Farka Toure and discuss how he made the leap from the sloppy and psychedelic African blues of Ni Foli to the pristine and proper terrain he later mastered. I love both phases, but Ni Foli is on a wavelength few ever tapped into during their musical careers and I pray that I discover more who fly the same freak flag before I die because I wish this album lasted for days upon days.


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Cass McCombs-A

April 25, 2012

Cass McCombs

A (Monitor 2003)

On the surface, the tottering building blocks that lay the groundwork for Cass McCombs’ debut album seem all too predictable and safe for an indie-rock album circa 2003. The Velvet Underground, 4ad, Robyn Hitchcock and Syd Barrett spring to mind upon a cursory cruise through its eleven tracks. However, they years have slowly prodded me deeper and deeper into this lonely, lackadaisical and deceptively lush album and come to the conclusion that A is so much more than the sum of an easily solved equation. In fact, it might actually wind up being cited as a seminal influence all its own once the dust settles after his long and lonesome career is complete.

Many great artists are able to conceptualize their own insular universe over the course of an album. The Stooges inspire dread and nihilistic abandon. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless embedded you in the middle of a kaleidoscope of feedback. Michael Hurley whisks you off to a crowded campfire where the bottles are quickly drained and the bowl is slowly passed. Cass McCombs’ A isn’t quite a card carrying member of that hallowed crew, but it does inspire a lonely and lost vibe that makes you want to wear pajamas and draw the blinds on the sunniest of days. However, there is a sunny undercurrent that drags it above a self-destructive slog through the depths of depression. It’s one of the first things I reach for on those days where life should go absolutely nowhere for an hour and my hectic existence reaches a much needed standstill. It achieves stasis as it balances majesty and melancholy perfectly on the scales of my mind.

Supposedly recorded after a long, protracted nomadic existence spent bouncing from city to city and couch to couch culminating in a Greyhound bus retreat to a home base of San Francisco, A definitely feels like the work of a restless soul in search of anything that could possibly become familiar someday. “Gee, It’s Good to Be Back Home” is alternately sentimental and sarcastic about his travails as he sweetly sings of how it’s wonderful to be around old friends, but offers up the half-hearted description of his home as a place where you “don’t sleep, don’t eat and don’t drink the foam” as a sad acceptance of the futility of this dark place and the excess it entails.

His detached, kind of downtrodden sarcasm and bitterness raises its weathered and weary head again on “AIDS in Africa” where he paints a landscape where cancer and AIDS decimate the ranks of our beloved while folks praise a benevolent creator who utilizes these tragedies as part of some divine plan. The effect is multiplied by its reliance upon a wheezing, jittery church organ and angelic harmonies, but the message is succinct and decries all who ignore the misery around them and build cocoons in which their minds slumber until eternity calls their inevitable number.

“I Went to the Hospital” captures the transient nature of his life as he ponders the fragility of it all when you face your mortality. He talks of a bout with illness and embarks on a narrative detailing all of the thoughts we all have when the unknown looms large and casts shadow puppets of our regrets and missteps upon the walls of our examination room. It is a meditation on mortality and straddles the line between paranoia and confessional, but that wash of organ and gently jangling chords make it seem like a gentle jaunt once you soak in it a few times.

Ultimately, A is an album full of dread about what has already happened and what may come. He puts on a straight face and conjures a narcotic and dazed aura around each song, but dig beneath the surface and there are countless ghosts that haunt every track. A puts on a brave face, but the fractures reveal themselves with time and make it one of those albums that you listen to when you want to enshroud yourself in defense of your own woes.

Hackamore Brick

One Kiss Leads to Another (Kama Sutra 1971)

This album stands firmly at the  intersection of all that I love about the music of the early 70s. Most folks seem to peg it as a scruffier descendent of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, which is kind of fitting since most folks don’t even pay proper tribute to it in the VU pantheon. I kind of like that it is regarded as a lesser cousin to watered down stock. However, we all know that pedigrees don’t mean shit, so we gotta embrace what we encounter on its own merits. To be honest, I do hear echoes of Loaded, but only in the fact that that both are loosely played, kind of stoned and slightly ragged takes on what happens after the afterglow of Woodstock fades, but you still like to play folk, blues and good time rock n’ roll in an earnest fashion. There isn’t an ounce of pretension to One Kiss Leads to Another. Yeah, it’s kind of obvious they like Lou Reed like any other maladjusted longhair, but there is something sweet and sentimental about their take that lacks the overbearing artifice he engineered for himself. Add a love of the 70s am smoothness of early Bread, Poco or even a blue collar version of Colin Blunstone and you kind of have an idea of what planet these guys were transmitting from in 1971.

Yeah, I’m kind contradicting myself by immediately grasping at the VU straw, but the opener “Reachin” immediately conjures the same wistful hoodoo of “Ride Into the Sun” or “I Found a Reason” as vocalist Chick Newman sings of reaching for the last moments of sunshine as the day slowly turns dark as night. It’s supposedly a metaphor for the Vietnam War and its devastating effect upon the idealism and “can do” spirit of America. It is an ode to the fallen soldiers that had their optimism crushed by the the brutality of war. On a larger scale, it deals with a larger issue of the loss of innocence and how can anyone resist a hardening heart when the world is such a fucked terrain. Idealism gets squashed so easily and he wants to know why. You ask yourself the same damn thing after hearing it.

Now where they deviate from the VU blueprint is on the closer “Zip Gun Woman” which could almost pass as a late 70s punk tune if it wasn’t punctuated by a psychedelic organ boogaloo straight out of a live Santana or Yes album. It’s such an angry, frustrated number that lacks the musical vocabulary to qualify as proto-punk, but the piss and vinegar marks it as a definite precursor weighed down by a hippie palette. “I Watched You Rhumba” is another walkabout round the Loaded influence as it swings more than their heroes ever could due to their art-school trappings. It’s a simpleminded ode to yearning and lust that taps into the primal desires one has when they see the object of their affection for the first time. Nothing fancy, just a slightly horny ode to watching a lover rhumba on the dancefloor as you thank your lucky stars that you mustered the courage to ever speak to her.

Is One Kiss Leads to Another groundbreaking or influential? No, it isn’t anything more than a well-played rock album that invites repeated listens because it traffics in the time honored subjects of lust, betrayal, good tunes and a frothy brew in a way that makes them feel like AM staples even though Hackamore Brick never got a whiff of radio airplay.

John Cale

Music For a New Society (Rhino 1982)

This an album for days when you just feel unable to get out of bed and life has yanked your hair as a prelude to kneeing you in the balls. Music For a New Society is John Cale’s last great album before a parade of underwhelming efforts. Although his live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season, is one of his best, everything after this paled in comparison to the brilliance and creativity of his 70s works. Of all the members of the Velvet Underground, John Cale is the one who is responsible for the most challenging and interesting work after their slow, pathetic dissolution. To hell with Metal Machine Music, Cale’s Paris 1919, Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Academy in Peril, Helen of Troy and Music For a New Society are sometimes nasty and claustrophobic and sometimes lush and sentimental, but always worth your full attention. There is no excusing such dreck as Artificial Intelligence and Caribbean Sunset, but Cale’s decade of genius is enough to last me for an eternity.

Enough proselytising, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Music For a new Society is Cale’s most sparse and single-minded record as it is just Cale’s voice, piano, minimal percussion, eerie electronics and the occasional bagpipe solo. “I Keep a Close Watch on this Heart of Mine” is one of the most heartwrenching portraits of a man who has been burned too many times. He captures the essence of betrayal and its subsequent damning effects on the one who has been betrayed. It is a dark look at love and how it can harden the heart.

Never win and never lose
There’s nothing much to choose
Between the right and wrong
Nothing lost and nothing gained
Still things aren’t quite the same
Between you and me

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I still hear your voice at night
When I turn out the light
And try to settle down
But there’s nothing much I can do
Because I can’t live without you
Any way at all

I don’t know why this song haunts me so. I have a healthy, optimistic view of love and its potential to cast life in a new light, but we’ve all been to that desperate place described in this song.

An even more disturbing view of love, obsession and hard feeling is “If You Were Still Around.” It is a bit of a hateful ditty about what he would do to those who have done him wrong. There is a lot of violence in his intentions and probably much more lurking in the subtext of this one. Actually, it’s pretty much in plain view as Cale openly lobbies for some sort of psychic or emotional cannibalism.

If you were still around
I’d hold you
I’d hold you
I’d shake you by the knees
Blow hard in both ears
If you were still around

You could write like a panther
Whatever got into your veins
What kind of green blood
Swung you to your doom
To your doom

If you were still around
I’d tear unto your fear
Leave it hanging off you
In long streamers

Shreds of dread
If you were still around
I’d turn you facing the wind
Bend your spine on my knee
Chew the back of your head
Chew the back of your head
‘Til you opened your mouth
To this life

It starts off as a tender song about longing and regret, but builds into something ugly. In fact, it’s a pretty primal song and reveals a man who wants to punish a lover who revealed herself to be a traitor to his love and friendship. The rest of the album isn’t quite so morbid and grisly, but it is still pretty damn depressing. Music For a New Society may be one of my favorite albums, but it isn’t one that I dust off often because it’s so full of bad juju.

Sugar Plant

After After Hours (World Domination 1997)

Probably the only worthwhile band to record for the otherwise mediocre World Domination label run by Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen. The label suffered the same fate as many other 90s indie rock labels as it put out such forgettable schlock as Low Pop Suicide, Loop Guru, Sky Cries Mary and Perfume Tree. The label is now defunct, so its releases can only be found via ebay or a local used bin. However, Sugar Plant, a Japanese duo of Shinichi Ogawa and Chinatsi Shoyama, didn’t deserve this obscure fate.

If psychedelia could be my nightly lullaby, I would choose After After Hours to be in daily rotation as it may be one of the most soothing albums in my collection. It’s not soothing in the way I usually desire–a long, undulating drone that beats my consciousness into submission, but a gently jangling tune with two honeyed voices singing me off to la-la land. There is nothing here that hasn’t been explored on the Velvet Underground’s third album, Galaxie 500’s On Fire or countless cutesy-poo indie-pop ballads, but Sugar Plant’s take on the genre is slow, sensual and high as a kite. There is even a song which revolves around the idea that a pale. blue light is their friend as they seem to come down from whatever high they’ve pursued. Shoyama’s guitar work is highly underrated in the 90s indie-rock canon and I wonder why more folks never gave them the time of day. They are still around and reforming for a new album and tour this year, so let’s address their tragic anonymity and make them feel a bit more welcome this time around.