Muses: The Rorschachs of Rickie Lee Jones

Rickie Lee Jones is, in her own, as bizarre an artist as Bjork. She is uncategorizable. Is she a jazz chanteuse, adding her own spin to the American Songbook? Is she a confessional singer-songwriter like Laura Nyro? She has been a neo-beat ingenue, the female answer to Tom Waits. Her music spans from jazzy, bluesy folk-rock to big band to R&B. Her albums have been all covers and at one point, trip-hop. She is an intrepid musical experimenter who willfully ignores genre classifications.

The Weird Beast
The Weird Beast

My favorite songs of her, though, are esoteric and hermetic. Her masterpiece, Pirates,  closes with two weird songs, “Traces of the Western Slope” and “The Returns.” “Traces…” is a long, dark trip through an urban hell peopled with jailbait girls, gangs, junkies and the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe that seems to be a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice. The music is spooky jazz-tinged funk and has no real formal song structure. “The Returns” is an icy ballad as terrifying as anything on Nico’s The Marble Index. On the next album,The Magazine, “Deep Space: An Equestrienne in the Circus of the Falling Star” is a Satie-esque piano ballad full of metaphysical imagery (“the Lord’s face is an all-night cafe”). That album ends with a triptych of songs collectively called Rorschachs. The songs include an instrumental (an Italian classical guitar piece called “Theme for the Pope”); a spoken word piece about childhood memories (“The Unsigned Painting”) and disturbing song about being haunted by an living Id/Demon—(“The Weird Beast”).

MUSIC REVIEW: Julianna Barwick, Nepenthe. Vocal Ice Sculptures.

Nepenthe

In the past, I have found Barwick’s vocal-based ambient music too wispy. A Barwick album is mostly made out of layers of her vocals that mass and drift along like dandelion seeds. It’s admirable, in the way looking at a frozen lake is. But it’s too insubstantial. For whatever reason, Nepenthe has grabbed me. There’s more structure to her work this time. And rather than just being ‘celestial,’ there is a definite atmosphere to each of the compositions–something darker and more pensive. It holds together as an album. It’s still chilly and wispy, but the melodies are stronger.The song One Half is even catchy, and has words. Nepenthe is closer in spirit to Sigur Ros than it is to Enya.

 

MUSES: On Stevie Nicks and her Gold Dust Woman Persona

I first heard Stevie Nicks when I was in the 6th Grade. The song “Sara” came on and it was the most magical song I’d ever heard. Then, I was big into disco, and Donna Summer was my idol. What drew me to “Sara” were its gentle chord progressions, the ethereal background chorus, the glimmering guitars, and most of all, that voice. That voice sounded ancient; she sounded like a sibyl, and the haunting impressionistic lyrics (full of starlings, seas, laces) were illuminated by that ancient voice.  I did not run out to get the album. At the time, I felt self-conscious about liking “white people” music, so it wasn’t until the 8th grade that I finally bought a Fleetwood Mac album.

Nicks is wildly inconsistent, both as a writer and a singer, and has made some truly terrible music. Her voice is one of the most lived-in voices in pop music. You can practically taste the booze she drank and smell the cigarettes she smoked. The husky, rough texture of her voice is probably the result of her over-indulgence in cocaine, which burned a hole in her nose cartilage. She might have a one octave range and an out-of-control vibrato that makes her sound like a billy goat, but she uses it to great effect. You can catch glimmers of her younger voice, and at other times, she can sound like an ancient queen. She is the triple goddess reincarnated as a rock singer. (Maiden, Matron, and Crone).

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Recently, I listened to a live version of her signature song, “Gold Dust Woman,” and was blown away by the rawness of the performance. At the song’s coda, she chants/sings, “Baby, you can’t save me. I’m running in the shadows.” That song is one of her darkest creations, the photo negative of “Sara.” It is a song about self destructive behavior and about addiction, both to drugs and to doomed relationships. Nicks allows her voice to become harsh and grating. At 65 years old, Nicks still has power.

The Age of the AfroGeek

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I was a geek growing up. A black geek.
Bookworm? Check yes.
Science Fiction and Fantasy fan? Check yes.
Alternative/avant garde/world/ambient music fan? Check yes yes yes.

I didn’t fit in. Square peg, etc. But there’s a unique issue faced when you’re a geek and of African American descent.

You’re an anomaly, an outcast, the punchline of the end of a joke.

See: Urkel, Stephen Q. You get funny looks at SF conventions.
The record-store clerk asks you if you need help, because you are obviously in the wrong section of store. (In my case, the Import section).

Your black peers also think you’re strange.

They police your blackness.

If you read at all, you should read ONLY  The Autobiography of Malcolm X  or  Makes Me Wanna Holler.

(“I swear that Octavia Butler is black…Just ignore the picture of the white women on the cover!”)

Don’t get me started in music.
Siouxsie, Liz Fraser and Lisa Gerrard sang the soundtrack of my late teens. Thank God(dess) that those Tower Record bags weren’t see-through!

(“Yes, A.R. Kane are two Afro-Brits… Yes, their music is strange…. And yes, they don’t appear on the cover of their albums; that’s a thing now.”)

Now, it seems that there are more Afro-eccentrics out there than before.
The field of SF/Fantasy now has Jemisin, Okorafor, Hopkinson, Daniel Jose Older and more
Music has Cold Specks (gothic tinged gospel), Janelle Monae (SF and Kate Bush and funk are influences) and now a heavy metal band of African American preteens called Unlocking The Truth and much more.

We’re coming. We’re here.We’re frightening the horses, shaking the foundations and laying down our roots.

Afrogeeks are no longer novel, or “in the closet.”

There’s a damn pop culture Renaissance going on!
This the Age of Afrogeekdom.

What I’m listening to: #BlueHawaii, #StillCorners, #JohnGrant, #Colleen

Blue Hawaii: Untogether. Floating, dreamy technopop that reminds me of Bjork’s Vespertine–with a touch of eerieness.

Blue-Hawaii-Untogether

Still Corners: Strange Pleasures. Melodic dreampop full of hooks, with a dash of electronic. The mood is hazy. Think Beach House meets Mazzy Star.

Still Corners

John Grant: Pale Green Ghosts. Grant’s awesome baritone and killer lyrics drift over music that’s a blend of electronica and folk-rock. Truly wonderful songwriting and enthralling performances.

John Grant

Colleen: The Weighing of the Heart. Multi-instrumentalist Cecile Schott’s first foray into vocal music. Pastoral post-rock with references to classical minimalism. Meredith Monk and Julia Holter are touchstones. Quite beautiful.

Colleen

Muses: Nina Simone, High Priestess

Nina

The first Nina Simone song I heard was “4 Women,” a hypnotic ballad that is a character study of Black American women throughout the generations, from slavery to the Black Power Movement.  The lyrics were powerful, but the Voice–a rich, mournful contralto–was haunting. It was (and still is) one of those voices that could sing the phonebook and I’d still listen. The album was from my father’s vinyl collection–long since sold. (The collection was extensive–with many vintage and first edition jazz albums). I found out that my mother knew Nina as a child; they grew up in the same town and Mom knew her by her birthname–Eunice Waymon.

Simone has been dubbed the High Priestess of Soul. But soul music was only part of her repertoire. In addition to her own material, she sang jazz standards, Bretchian showtunes, and Dylan. She was also an accomplished piano player. The ‘high priestess’ tag was correct–there is something supernatural about her performances, both live and recorded. One of my (as yet unpublished) pieces, “Coalrose,” is based upon her.