Monday, January 30, 2017

First on First - Black Sabbath

first on first

Imagine it's 1970, you go to the record store and this creepy album cover with the name Black Sabbath catches your eye. Is that the band? The title? Is this the soundtrack to the movie?  If I touch this, will I be possessed by demons? Maybe. Or maybe you'd heard of them in passing, briefly, but nobody was playing their music on the radio and you didn't have access to any bootlegs of their John Peel session from the previous year or really even knew about it. There was no Internet so it's not like this kind of thing spread that quickly or pervasively. You are scared and intrigued by the cover, and you tend to be a little adventurous when buying music, so you buy it, getting maybe a concerned look from the old man behind the register, run home and drop the needle on the record, and instantly the world is never the same again. And I'm not even talking about the whole album, just the first song - "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath on Black Sabbath.

Rain, thunder, bells and then dread. I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear anything that sounded quite like this before the arrival of Sabbath. Sure, there were some acid influenced, heavy bands and theatrical, progressive acts with dark sounds (Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Arthur Brown, etc) but none of them came close to the level of doom and evil Sabbath captured just in their very first song.Whether it's Iommi's sinister guitar chord invoking demons from hell, the rolling bass and ceremonial drums of Butler and Ward, Ozzy's vacant and haunting/haunted voice or all of this and more, coming together, the chills are instant. Then there's that pace of the verses, so slow and creepy, before the icing on the Satanic cake as Ozzy screams out in very real terror "OH NO!!" Those screams are, in my view, a huge part of his legacy, bringing a sense of outright terror and agony to all his songs, and it's there from the very beginning.

boris karloff

The album as a whole shows a bit more range, and includes what may be my actual favorite Sabbath tune, "N.I.B." which somehow manages to balance groove, blues and doom in a way I still don't fully understand. That the album was basically recorded live in one day is just further fuel for the legendary status of the album and the band. But as far as first songs on first albums go, "Black Sabbath" is iconic in every possible way. It's a mission statement like no other. That mission is, of course, led by Satan and you were either scared shitless by the invitation or you were enticed by the darkness and rewarded for it. Guess which one I am.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

La Santa Cecilia at Gusman Concert Hall

When I first started this blog it was meant to be about how music affected me. How certain songs or just moments in songs triggered sometimes mysterious emotional responses in me. It came from the fact that since I was a kid, there were always songs that would make me cry hysterically even if I didn't have a clue what they were about. I since have learned there is actually a psychology theory on this and that it has to do with high levels of empathy in some people that makes them respond emotionally to art. Last night, seeing La Santa Cecilia at The University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall, I had what is probably the most intense moment of empathic response I've had in decades.

The Gusman Concert Hall at UM's Frost School of Music is one of the best secret venues in Miami. Its intimate size and cozy acoustics make performances there feel very personal without being constrained. It's not a fancy venue where the lighting might transport you somewhere. This is all about the music and the performers being right there, literally within reach, with no barrier between you and them either literal or figurative. We were in the first row, but I can't see how the experience would be that much different for those in the last row. 

I first heard La Santa Cecilia a few years ago and I'm not sure now if it was their Tiny Desk Concert or if I heard them on the Alt Latino podcast, also from NPR. Either way, I instantly loved their sound. They blend multiple Latin sounds from Cumbia, Rancheras, Boleros and more, with Rock, Soul and R&B. And last night I realized there's also a lot of Jazz in there that somehow glues all the pieces together. It never feels forced in any way and the balance between all of these genres is so perfect that it never feels like an experiment or anything other than authentic. And on top of the great players in this band (more on them in a bit) is the voice of Marisol "La Marisoul" Hernandez, with a voice that is equal parts passion, power and pride and communicates joy and anguish with every note and syllable, sometimes simultaneously. 

From the opener "Sucede" off their 2016 release Buenaventura, which is nominated for Best Pop/Rock Album Latin Grammy this year, I was struck by how tight they were as a group and how connected they are to each other and what they are doing. Song after song, their intensity and joy was coming through in their playing. Alex Bendana's bass was the ever present groove that flowed through everything. It was his playing, during the intro to "Falling" that first made me notice the jazz in their sound although I instantly felt like I should have noticed it all along in all of it, including some of Marisol's melodies. And of course the entire band was in sync, from Andres Torres on drums and Miguel "Oso" Ramirez on percussion to Marco Sandoval on Electric Guitar, who played a scorching solo at one point that had everyone headbanging. Orale.

But the moment that hit me was all about Marisol and Jose "Pepe" Carlos - accordionist and requinto player and in many ways, I think the member of the band that most anchors them to their traditional Latin roots. Before they played this song, Marisol gave an impassioned speech on love, off mic and clearly heard, saying she believed in love and how important it is for everyone to show love in these times of so much hate. As she spoke, her voice was already wavering and I already felt the intensity building in my eyes. She didn't only mean every word, she was feeling it and projecting it. Then, with only Bendana's bass and Carlos on requinto, they went into "Como Dios Manda" and I could literally see the tears rolling down her cheek as she sang. It turns out that the emotion that comes through in her voice on those albums is beyond real. I have no idea if she was going through something or if that song has so much personal meaning to her or if this is just how she approaches her art - by throwing herself into the moment full on - or maybe all of those. The point is, for that moment, the intimacy of the room, the raw nakedness of her emotions, the beauty of the song itself and the message of the lyrics all combined and I was right there, connected to her somehow through this song. I felt myself losing control and then, half way through the song, she went off mic and Carlos disconnected from the amp and she sob-sang the rest of the song in a way I've never seen anybody do before. I didn't look around, because as far as I was concerned the room had disappeared and there was only the song, the performers and me, but there couldn't have been a dry eye in the house. They finished the song, she wiped her tears and I tried to collect myself as everyone stood. Absolutely beautiful.

They went on to play several more songs, including "Amar y Vivir,"(above, shot by Carlos) a beautiful, traditional bolero written by Consuelo Velazquez.  The rest was mostly upbeat and heavy on the cumbia, a genre I've really come to appreciate a lot in recent years. They ended with their version of "Strawberry Fields" which is probably my favorite cover of that song ever, bringing new interpretations with each verse in a way that fits the self-interruptions of Lennon's lyrics as well as the piecemeal style of George Martin's production on the original recording (music nerd moment). When they ended, everyone wanted more and I did what I've never done, screaming out my request for "En Fin." I didn't get that request fulfilled, but I'd be a real entitled dick if I felt disappointed because of it. After the show we met most of the band and they were beyond humble, gracious and friendly. I do wish I'd met Marisol so I could have thanked her for giving so much of herself in that moment and allowing us to feel that with her. It's a moment that will stay with me. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Songs of the Times - Antipatriarca

While this is a music blog and I don't feel competent enough to write about politics in depth, sometimes, being a citizen means you have to express yourself. I'll try to keep it focused on music as I usually do, but I have a feeling there may be more of a creep in of social and political issues in here. I'm going to try to post on songs that fit specific issues or moments that come up, so I can relate it back. Here's my first attempt at a song of the times.


Like most sane individuals with a knowledge of history and an ounce of compassion, I have been freaked the fuck out since November. This past weekend it all came to a head when the Alternative President was sworn in before a crowd of hundreds and he hasn't disappointed, signing a barrage of those executive orders Republicans were hysterical about when the supposed evil tyrant monarch Obama signed a few. And that's fine, it's his job. But already women's reproductive rights, health care and the fucking planet are in jeopardy. None the less, this weekend also gave us history with the largest protest ever in the US, and possibly the world. Millions of people marched all over the world lead by and in support of rights for women and all people, really at Women's Marches on all 7 continents. Seeing those crowds, especially from people I actually know that were out there in their respective cities, was hugely encouraging and inspiring to say the least.

There are many songs I could pick from to mark this moment, this movement. Many of them could be from this same artist, but how could it not be "Antipatriarca" by Ana Tijoux?

I could go into details about why this song is perfect, but I think it all speaks for itself with the most relevant verse to the march and the current need for this movement:
"Yo puedo ser jefa de hogar, empleada o intelectual
Yo puedo ser protagonista de nuestra historia y la que agita
La gente la comunidad, la que despierta la vecindad
La que organiza la economía de su casa de su familia"

"I can be head of the household, worker, or intellectual
I can be the protagonist of our story and she who incites
The people, the community, she who wakes up the neighborhood
She who organizes the economy of her house, of her family."
Anti-patriarchy means many things. On the simplest level it's about the liberation of literal women from literal, physical oppression, but that's only the most basic level. It's also about the symbolic oppression that systems designed based on narrow gender roles have entrenched in most, if not all, world cultures. And, ultimately, because of that, it's not just about literal females, but rather the female perspective - the feminine aspect of everyone.


When Prince died, I changed my profile pictures on social media to his Love Symbol which merges male and female. I have purposely not changed it and have no intention of doing so. It's a reminder that, as Prince sang, we are all 50/50 girl. Anti-patriarchy is about accepting that and empowering the female side of ourselves in everything we do. This song is a celebration of the first level of that acceptance and liberation and letting the feminine lead us. That it's also by a Chilean artist who always sings about the oppressed, anti-colonialism and more so-called revolutionary topics. only adds to the mix. It's the perfect song to highlight the march this weekend and I look forward to a revolution that is centered around this idea. It's not their fight, it's our fight. All of us, even if you disagree with it, will benefit from it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best Albums of 2016 - Number 1

I pretty much knew this would be my favorite album of the year the moment I heard it. I was already way beyond on board with Deap Vally after their first album, Sistrionix and seeing them at an in-store at Radio-Active Records a couple years ago. I've said before that I think the female voice, the female perspective, in rock represents the true meaning of rock n roll as far as I'm concerned. With Deap Vally, that goes to the ultimate extreme for me, because, as Lindsey Troy sings, in "Smile More" which I consider an anthem for our times, "Yes, I am a feminist, but that isn't why I started doing this." In other words, the rock comes first and hard and in your face, leaving you dripping with Femejism.

As a drums and guitar duo, it would be easy and lazy to compare  Deap Vally to countless other such duos. And if I had to pick one, I'd probably say The White Stripes. Lindsey's guitar tones come closest to being like Jack White's, but honestly, I think the similarity ends there. Julie Edwards is more in line with John Bonham than Meg White (nothing wrong with either). And the journeys their songs take are beyond the intentional simplicity of The White Stripes. There's more of a metal and punk edge than there is a blues thing going on. There's also a whole lot of groove, which is only heightened on Femejism, in part due to being produced by The Yeah Yeah Yeah's Nick Zinner, but the truth is, the groove was there on Sistrionix as well, like an invisible third member of the band.

Femejism opens with the deceptively simple (a term that can be applied to just about all of thier songs) "Royal Jelly." By the time we get to the "ooh ooh" chorus, I'm hyped as fuck. Which is good, because then we dive right into "Julian" like a punch to the face. A punch that makes you dance. Then there's a surf/psych twist in "Gonnawanna" which is the first anthem on the album, about doing whatever the fuck you wanna do.

Every song is a standout in its own way, but none more so than "Smile More." So much is said about feminism lately, but ultimately, I think a huge part of the conversation is often forgotten. I think the real backbone of feminism isn't just about empowering women, though that is obviously crucial. But to me, the concept that resonates most is the idea of letting people, all people, regardless of how they identify, be whoever the fuck they want to be, free of prescribed gender roles. And with increased awareness of the fluidity of gender, this is a critical message. In other words, it's the quote I always go back to: "Leave everybody the fuck alone" and this song perfectly captures it. I keep calling this an anthem for our times, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, this is an anthem for our times. "Stranger in the bar tells me to smile more, I look at him and I ask, what for? I am happily un-happy man. And no, I don't wanna shake your hand." Seriously. I know women get that all the time, but not just women. And then, "I don't wanna be a reflection. I'm so bored with this rejection. I don't wanna be a reflection. I don't need your direction." Sing it, sister! Thank you, Lindsey and Julie. My daughters will thank you one day, too.

Anyway, I can't wrap this up without mentioning the aptly named, somewhat surreal "Post Funk" and the driving spy dance beat of "Grunge Bond." Remember that groove I mentioned at the beginning of this? These two songs are the most obvious examples of that. This is the type of shit that will give you visions of some sweaty club each time they hit your ears. And don't think that because I'm focusing on the groove that this thing doesn't rock. "Teenage Queen" and "Heart is an Animal" alone will melt your face. There's no way I've done any justice to this album, but the fact that it's my number one is all I got these days. I look forward to hearing more and more from Deap Vally in the coming years. Their voice is needed now more than ever and I hope they provide at least some of the soundtrack for a revolution.