Wilmoth Houdini

[Portrait of Calypso, between 1938 and 1948] (LOC)

After seeing the absolutely amazing C.W. Stoneking a few months ago (in a tiny church, which was pretty much the best show I’ve ever been to. No exaggeration, literally the best show I’ve ever been to. Even months later, I’m in awe.), I started to wonder about some of his direct influences. I knew that some of the songs on his Jungle Blues must be covers, but since we don’t get liner notes anymore (sigh), I hadn’t yet looked into any of the original artists.

During the show, Stoneking mentioned a few who I hope to research eventually, but the song that’s always intrigued me on that record is “Son of America”, the very odd calypso ode to General MacArthur. I’d assumed it was a bit of a joke, a serious subject done so bizarrely intensely that it’s hilarious. I had no idea it was an old song.

The original artist is one Wilmoth Houdini (to the right in the photo above), a calypso singer from Trinidad who eventually became known as “The Calypso King of New York”. After singing in Trinidad and traveling the world working on ocean freighters, Houdini landed in New York and, apparently, went to town making calypso records. Between his arrival in New York in the late 1920s and the 1940s, Houdini recorded over a hundred songs and supposedly wrote over a thousand. Even though I’m pretty crazy about the ones I’ve heard, the sheer volume of these recordings might explain why a lot of them are a bit same-y.

In 1946, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five recorded a version of Houdini’s “He Had It Coming” as “Stone Cold Dead In The Market”. Their version was a hit R&B single and even had some crossover success. This gave Houdini the boost he needed to create calypso events all over the city, helping to popularize the style for the masses.

Although Houdini’s songs are an absolute joy – just try to listen to “Rum and Coca-Cola” and not get up and dance – here’s the really funny part of the story. Apparently, Houdini’s calypso colleagues back in Trinidad started to see him as, well, a bit of a sell-out, watering down their calypso for the American (ahem, white) audience. This seems to have started pretty early on, because Houdini answered these allegations in his 1934 track “Declaration of War”. Oh, snap! Diss songs, old-school stylee. Truthfully, his come-back is a little weak – he basically accuses them of being jealous ’cause he so fly. Not the most creative retort ever. The thing is though, I hate to say it, but I kind of see what they meant. From the first time I listened to Houdini, before I’d researched his career, I couldn’t help but wonder who these songs were meant for. I mean, ‘Oh, Frankie Sinatra … you have the perfect voice to sing calypso’ and songs about how great it was when the Yankees came to Trinidad, spending American money and dating their daughters – it sure seems like these lyrics were meant to appeal to the white record-buying audience. Not that I can blame him for it – the music business has never been an easy one, especially for black artists – but you can’t help but see what his fellow musicians were saying.

Even so, Wilmoth Houdini is a sadly forgotten artist today – I’d have never heard of him if it weren’t for C.W. Stoneking – and 1930s-1950s calypso isn’t a style we talk about often. Shame really, because these are some really wonderful pop songs. Grab yourself a collection of Houdini’s recordings at emusic.

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Len, again

Gin Blossoms

I’ve posted about Len and their 1999 album, You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush once before, but in a different-ish context, so I’m calling it ok to repeat a little now. Even though it’s now 12 (holy crap) years old, that album still sounds fresh to me. Maybe because it doesn’t sound like the late-90s at all; it borrows and mixes tiny bits from all over music history and every genre, which gives it an oddly timeless quality.

Len was a Canadian band inspired by early hip-hop, gospel, skater-esque punk-pop … and Kraftwerk? “The Hard Disk Approach” is a surreal electro-pop jam, “Cheeky Bugger” would sit nicely next to Blink 182, and “Crazy ‘Cause I Believe (Early Morning Sunshine)” has a chorus that could’ve come from Stevie Wonder. But instead of feeling like a disconnected stream of references and influences, You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush is bursting with the pure love of music. You can hear it spilling out of the speakers – Len just loves it all. Now that I think about, that may be the thing that keeps me coming back to this album after so long, it’s infectious.

But even with a huge assortment of influences, Len clearly loves old-school hip-hop the most. Like, the oldest school – Kurtis Blow and Biz Markie make appearances here, though I’ll never know how they got those legendary guys to join up with these crazy Canadians. And they get it just right – I agree, old school is the best school, and on songs like “Cryptik Souls Crew”, Len pay homage with respect, not with mimicry or irony.

What a shame then that Len never really got it together properly again. Apparently Bum Rush was their third album and there was another after, but the reviews I’ve come across (I haven’t had the chance to hear any of these myself) haven’t been kind. There was an odd magic that came together for just one album, apparently, that was sadly not heard by many. “Steal My Sunshine” was a really fun single and Len will probably be remembered as a one-hit-wonder because of it, but they had a lot more to offer on Bum Rush.

Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience

Gin Blossoms

Apparently, there’s a wicked case of nostalgia going around. I had no idea until I read Chuck Klosterman’s recent Grantland article (which I highly recommend) on the epidemic, but you know what? I’m kind of glad Chuck said something because now I feel less alone. I’ve been weirdly obsessed with the 90s for … well, a while now. It started with watching Thirtysomething reruns on tv, and then Northern Exposure on DVD. And the more I was re-exposed to the 90s, the more I’ve wanted 90s stuff – to the point that I’ve even got Soul Asylum on my iPod. Really. Soul Asylum. It’s becoming a problem.

But it all fits in rather well with a band I’ve been wanting to post about for a long time: Gin Blossoms and, specifically, their 1992 album, New Miserable Experience. Gin Blossoms are a band that kind of just faded away into unimportance, although this was a pretty great album. I suppose it’s not really the kind of album that gets referred to as one of the best of its time or anything, and – sadly for the band – it doesn’t really help anything that their lead songwriter (or, at least, the one who wrote their biggest hits), Doug Hopkins, was fired from the band just before this album was released and then committed suicide not long after. The band continued with a new guitarist, but either it just wasn’t the same without him or the Gin Blossoms were a band destined only for a specific moment.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what that moment was – an idea Chuck explains in his article that I found incredibly interesting: some music makes you nostalgic falsely, that you didn’t really listen to it at a great time in your life so much as you listened to it a lot at some point in your past. That notion really rang true with me; there are indeed some albums that are so intertwined with a specific (good) time of my life, that they are nearly inseparable. Pearl Jam’s Ten will always, always conjure up warm feelings associated with buying a much-desired album with saved pocket money, a weird sense of music-induced independence – the first album I loved fiercely, all on my own. New Miserable Experience doesn’t bring back any specific memory, only a sense of fondness. Back then, I didn’t have that many tapes, and I think Chuck is probably right that we used to listen to fewer albums more often. Through sheer repetition, Gin Blossoms became a band that I feel nostalgic about.

But that’s not really fair to the album and the band. New Miserable Experience really is a good album – early 90s alternative pop at its very best. Sure, its sound is most definitely of its time but, as a pop record, it holds up really well. It’s got mad catchy hooks everywhere you turn, so the songs burrow into your head and refuse to let go. It’s got the kind of melodies you absolutely can’t help but sing along to. Not terribly challenging listening, but here’s where I think Chuck missed one tiny aspect of musical nostalgia: a side effect of listening to one album a lot is that it becomes extremely easy to listen to. You know every note, you remember the lyrics years and years later, the melodies are so familiar you don’t have to think about it at all. It’s second-nature, and relaxing because of it. I think that’s also why I’ve been enjoying those old tv shows – they’re silly and naive, but they are so simple and easy to watch. Sometimes you don’t want to think about it, you just want to sing along.

The semi-new 100b, plus The Blueskins

A while ago, I talked about some changes I wanted to make here. To paraphrase myself: I talked about how I pretty much suck at writing about new bands and how I’d ultimately decided not to do that anymore. But I’ve been doing this little blog, for whatever reasons, for longer than I’d care to admit. I do wonder from time to time if, honestly, the sensible thing to do is to just pull the plug, but I just love geeking out about music too much – I can’t bring myself to do it. This is really my only outlet for what is, perhaps, my very favorite thing in the world. Even if I’m just babbling to myself, it gives my scattered affection a little focus.

But not really – we’ve always wanted to write about anything we liked, but that makes it impossible to pin anything down. When I finally said to myself, it’s do or die time, I knew that deciding to ‘do’ had to include narrowing myself to something I would properly enjoy writing about.

You’ll notice, perhaps, that I’ve updated the 100b header just a touch, to reflect my new focus. I eventually realized that what I love doing most is researching music stuff that has come as a surprise to me. Yes, I know that’s oddly specific – for example, my post about Mike Nesmith was fascinating to research. I started out just wanting to know what songs he’d written and discovered a whole list of achievements I’d never have guessed. My Shel Silverstein post followed the same basic path. Which made me realize that what I really love doing most is discovering those little bits that history let fall by the wayside. Sure, there are some people out there who know about them, but most of us have no idea.

I once read an article where Jack White said that, generally, the stuff that’s popular is the best stuff, that there’s usually a reason that bands end up in the bargain bin. I used to agree, and I still do think he had a basic point – popular stuff is very often popular for a reason (even Katy Perry is catchy as hell while we’re loathing her very existence). But what he (and I) weren’t thinking about was all those treasures that haven’t just been forgotten but were never noticed in the first place? Mike Nesmith made amazing albums that a few people loved, but were mostly ignored just because he was a Monkee. Those albums really don’t belong in the bargain bin, but most people don’t even know to look for them. I love looking for them.

That doesn’t mean 100b will only write about old music – sometimes I’ll want to point out an album from the more recent past that was unfairly ignored. But it does mean I will not write about anything new – for music to be considered ‘ignored’, it’d have to be at least, say, five-ish years old. Anything newer and there’s still a chance it’ll break out on its own. But even without profiling brand new bands, I hope people will stop by and find some music they didn’t know about before, that I’m able to give a little new life to something that has remained in the shadows for too long.

On that note, I’d like to briefly mention a band called The Blueskins to kick things off. You probably remember their debut album Word Of Mouth from way back in 2004 – or at least the lead single, “Change Your Mind”, which was featured in a Lynx ad in the UK. That was a pretty great album, a frantic indie-blues-rock affair, and “Change Your Mind” was a fantastic single. It felt like it was tripping over itself to be heard. But then The Blueskins kind of just stalled – they always seemed to be working on a follow-up, but instead formally broke up in 2008. Bummer.

For whatever reason, Word Of Mouth kind of went nowhere, but it deserved better. The Blueskins were definitely a band with promise – Tamboosh and I even went to see them play back then and they rocked out, even if the crowd was pretty small. It’s a shame they weren’t appreciated then, but I do see that Ryan Spendlove (Blueskins lead vocalist) released a solo album, Fables, earlier this year. I haven’t been able to hear the whole thing yet, but it sounds like it’s got good potential. A little more laid back than his previous band’s efforts, but there’s still some Blueskins wildness in there.

Get Word of Mouth at Amazon and Fables at emusic. And I do hope you’ll stick around to rediscover some forgotten music with me.

Little Brothers

Who: Little Brothers, who are, apparently, brothers. Whoda thunk? Brothers Michael and Tony Weis team up with their friend Jason Anderson to record in Michael’s basement studio and write awesome songs for … their own amusement? Michael says that they don’t tour at the moment and that they do pretty much everything they do on their own. Michael also says that he doesn’t imagine that will change anytime soon, but I have to respectfully disagree. I’m hardly an oracle on these matters, but I think these guys have a very promising future ahead of them as a band.

What: Indie rock with bits you won’t really expect: a little bit of disco-ness, some ska, a touch of Kenny G (in an awesome way)? There is definitely something about this sound that is rooted in the 70s, and maybe also the early 90s, but it’s really hard to put your finger on exactly what it is.

Where: Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Why: Honesty? I’m not sure! I think I avoided posting about Little Brothers for a while simply because I had no idea what to say. This always happens to me when I really like a new band. Don’t you find it’s so much easier to describe what you don’t like than what you do? I think I like that there’s something quite 70s (my favorite time period, musically speaking) about their sound, that their singer (I’m not sure which of the lads is on vocal duty) has a wonderfully odd captivating voice, that these are songs you can’t help but dance to, that “I Miss Those Days” (being in a bit of homesick phase right now) makes me cry a little, that these three dudes are clearly doing this just because they love it and you can hear it in every song.

When: Right now! Little Brothers’ debut EP, “Nostalgia Trip 2011”, is available right this second from bandcamp, on a pay-what-you-like system, and it seems like they’re recording more this summer. Visit them on bandcamp or facebook.

Low Cut Connie

Low Cut Connie

Any regular / long-term reader of this blog will know that I’m a really big Ladyfingers (aka Adam Weiner) fan; I’ve written about a couple of Ladyfingers albums already and love them so much, I never feel like I’ve managed to do them justice. Adam’s a great talent, has a fantastic and utterly unique voice, and makes music I can honestly say I’ve never heard the likes of before.

Now he’s teamed up with a whole group of dudes (there’s not too much information available about them just yet) to create Low Cut Connie, a bona fide, gen-u-wine rock & roll band. Putting on their debut LP, Get Out The Lotion, you feel immediately transported to a dark, dingy, kind of seedy bar in some backwater town. They’re playing in the back and every once in a while, someone throws a beer bottle.

Actually, my brain makes an immediate connection between Low Cut Connie and the earliest Beatles – way back in Hamburg or the Cavern Club. Known for being quite wild before Brian Epstein made them all shiny and tidy, the Beatles during that time were pure rock & roll. Listening to Low Cut Connie feels very much the same, like there’s nothing but undiluted rock in their veins – except that Low Cut Connie doesn’t have to be censored the way that even the wild Beatles would’ve been. I mean, they’re adorable and all but, c’mon, we all know the young Beatles weren’t as innocent and sweet as they looked. Low Cut Connie is just that little bit filthy, in the best way possible – making Get Out The Lotion feel both modern and old at the same time.

Low Cut Connie is getting some seriously good press already – they’ve apparently received great reviews from Rolling Stone and Robert Christgau – and not for nothin’. I’ve been a Ladyfingers fan for many years now, and I really hope this will be the project that finally gets Adam Weiner and his pals the recognition they deserve. Go grab the album now (pay what you want) from their official site and check them out on tour at a town near you.

Songs About Dancing

When I’m able, I like to watch the UK Top 40 on Monday nights – you know, to keep up with what those crazy kids are listening to these days. If I consider each song on its own, I’m pretty much ok with chart music right now. No one song is so bad that I really hate it*, some are even catchy as hell.

On the other hand, I look at the chart as a whole and I’m all, ‘Wha’ happen?!’ Since when is a single sound represented in the charts? And I mean that almost literally: during a recent countdown, I counted about 6 songs out of 40 that did not use the same clubby dance beat. And on top of that, the beat kind of makes them all sing the same – to the point where choruses actually do all sound the same, note-wise. And what’s weird is that it’s almost as if artists are now afraid not to sound exactly like everyone else, if recent tracks by Snoop Dogg (ahem) and Flo Rida are anything to go by. I know that chart music is not always the most diverse, and every old fart like myself says it was better in their day, but seriously – this is out of hand. It’s like unique-ness is now a flaw in an artist, no longer their potential selling point.

While thinking about all this important stuff, I’ve also noticed something else weird (and same-y) about chart songs right now: they’re all about partying, getting wasted, dancing all night, having the night of our lives. Last Friday Night, Party Rock Anthem, On The Floor, Don’t Stop The Party. There are few artists that even pretend they’re offering any substance right now. Tracy Chapman, Aloe Blacc, and even Adele feel very out of place when you watch along on MTV. Doesn’t anyone have an opinion about anything anymore? Don’t these artists think about stuff? I really wish the youth of today had something to say that wasn’t about partying but – based on the charts, at least – I’m really not sure they do. Which is pretty much the most depressing thing ever.

But, if you think back a-ways, this isn’t actually new, it’s just a little worse than before. Here’s a weird little thought that’s been floating around in my head for years: there were a lot of songs about dancing in the 80s. Seriously, a lot – everybody just dancing all the time.

Lionel was dancing on the ceiling:

while Bruce danced in the dark:

and Billy danced with himself** :

Whitney wanted to dance with somebody who loved her:

but David was inviting us all to just dance already:

And, of course, Madonna was into the groove, Michael Sembello told us the story of the maniac on the floor, Kenny Loggins got footloose … the list goes on. Maybe we just always loved dancing and always will. Maybe, just maybe, there’s still some hope for those kids out there right now.

After all, we all turned out ok, right?

David Byrne – I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston cover)

* Other than that godawful Snoop Dogg song that’s popular right now. It’s so crap I can’t even be bothered to check the title. Please stop playing it. Seriously. Please stop.

** And some zombies, apparently. What the hell is going on in this video?!