The Curse of Tastefulness
What do you do when it all gets too tasteful? It must be difficult for the Soul Jazz collective, after years of plugging away, putting out ace collections, to find the spotlight of adulation upon them. Suddenly, their every move is met with all-round approval. If I were in their shoes, I would feel a huge temptation to turn my back on the soul/jazz/reggae/funk archives and really go for that compilation of Haitian priests who incorporate the sound of kazoos and Slade. Their version of 'Far Far Away' has to be heard to be believed, and restores the hope that had grown dim since the Fall's Slates that someone would do for kazoos what Pablo did for the melodica. In your shops soon, as they say. Speaking of which, can you still buy kazoos?
The Soul Jazz brand is so strong at the moment, and if the Philadelphia Roots set is anything to go by, then that's fair enough. It is fascinating, however, how feelings swing in one way or another, and the general consensus of opinion beams on the right kind of thing for a change, and I can't help but feel uncomfortable.
For example, I had long been seeking Shuggie Otis' Inspiration Information set having heard bits'n'pieces and picking up on the respect shown to it by those with a better record collection than mine.
While I am absolutely delighted this special record has been salvaged by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, I am again amused at the overwhelming acclaim. It's a lovely, lovely record, but it's not the only great music brought back to life in 2001.
I have mentioned elsewhere the monumental greatness of the LiLiPUT compilation on Kill Rock Stars, and there is now another set to rival it. I found this week a double CD of the finest works of Crown Heights Affair, covering their heyday from 1975 to 1980, and it's glorious.
Two CDs of pure, concentrated disco in excelsis, and not one weak track. John Reed at Sequel had done a fantastic job, but will credit be given where credit is due? While some of the New York disco scene may have been canonised, and pioneers rightly lauded, I have suspicions that not too many column inches in the highbrow papers will be devoted to this compilation and the story of how some kids out of Brooklyn produced a peerless stream of irresistibly infectious disco greats.
This is a record for anyone who has tapped a toe to Spiller or Daft Punk, and wants to find the real thing. This is a record for anyone who has shed a tear over the death of Joey Ramone. For, I would argue, the Crown Heights Affair did for disco what the Ramones did for Punk Rock. If the Ramones' first three LPs contain some of the greatest pop songs ever, then so do the first three Crown Heights Affair LPs, and even the sleeves have a thematic link.
Some still feel the Ramones were dumb, but anyone who can come up with a line like "chewing out a rhythm on my bubblegum, the sun is out and I want some..." has more to do with possessing a great gift. So, the Crown Heights Affair may sound almost formulaic, but like Bridget Riley they take a style and make their own art from it. So many of what in our disgustingly ironic age seem like corny clichés are, in the hands of the Crown Heights Affair tools to create joyous masterpieces. The chopping rhythm guitar, the sizzling hi-hats, melodic bass runs, burbling synths, awkward electric keyboard blasts and brass stabs work so well, like the Ramones' "1, 2,3,4" where in the hands of others they may sound preposterous.
Strangely, this is music that reminds me more of the early '90s than the late '70s. for, in the early '90s, I really would not have considered shelling out even £10 for this CD. I did not need CDs in those days, for there was such an abundance of old vinyl at giveaway prices in charity shops and at boot sales. It was particularly easy to pick up old LPs for 50p by the likes of the Crown Heights Affair, and their contemporaries like Brass Construction, Players Association, BT Express, T Connection and so on.
A distinct lack of money, but it never seemed important then. I was an expert on London for free. One of the benefits of this was getting some great free haircuts at the Vidal Sasoon modelling school on the West End. This took an age each time, but time was something I was not short of. It was always a treat as the ineffably cool guy in charge used to play these amazing compilation tapes, with lots of On-U stuff, and among the African Headcharge, always 'Dancin'' by the Crown Heights Affair, with its awesome guitar motif, almost as great as the start of Yabby You's 'Conquering Lion'.
Good times, and I like the idea of listening to disco away from disco trappings, like the old Fire Engines concept of active listening music, so listen to this when you are doing the housework between your old Cabaret Voltaire and ESG.
Of course, the mirrored ball is the disco icon, and it significantly features on the cover of the best new release of 2001 so far. 2000 was a great year for 'new records': Bebel Gilberto, Anti Pop Consortium, Clinic, Broadcast, Two Lone Swordsmen, the Sea and Cake readily spring to mind. 2001 may have Missy Elliot's 'Get Ur Freak On', but little else grabbed me until I came across Andrea Parker's mini LP The Dark Ages, out on Belgian label Quatermass. The sticker on the sleeve in Rough Trade stated it was deep and dark like Two Lone Swordsmen, and yup! It is as deep and as dark as electronica gets while still being fantastic pop music.
As a West Ham fan, I have huge empathy with Andrea Parker. For the past seven or eight years, I have been hearing about how Andrea, the person who has it all, will clean up and leave everyone else behind, yet like the Claret'n'Blue perennial underachievers, it has somehow never worked out - until now! Which bodes well for Joey and the boys next season!!
Dark Ages has the hallmarks of being a bit of a classic, and a godsend for those of us who love their electronica on the slow and sinister side but shrink from the sickening synth washes and jazz funk flavours that came close to killing off the music entirely. This music is up there with Photek's Hidden Camera and the Sabres' Haunted Dancehall, and I hope it only scratches the surface for what Andrea now has to offer.
In the meantime, pass me that copy of the Trojan Linval Thompson and friends' Rockers From Channel One.
© Kevin Pearce 2001