More Leisure Options

It's been a long time since I rock'n'rolled, to use a phrase favoured by the band that I've been rock'n'rolling to over the last month. Yes, Led Zeppelin - shock! Well, it was to me. The shock being that I found them so entertaining and, I must say, musically worthwhile.

This has partly been a nostalgia trip, of course, although the actual enjoyment of their noise did, honestly, outweigh another obvious factor, such as ironic distance from all that Heaviness. That said, if I were feeling bold enough, which I'm not right now, I might make a case for the sheer weight of a Jimmy Page riff somehow making way for crucial density employed by apparently unrelated exponents of Heavy such as the Dark d&b brigade. Perhaps that's an unjustifiable artistic connection. Then there is John Bonham's drumming, which provides the almighty (break) beat anchor. Without wishing to deny the more obvious influences of all the great Afro-American funky drummers of old, I still hear something in his sound which echoes down the years, filtered through sample technology.

People spend a lot of money on surgery in an attempt to recreate youthfulness. I spent a few quid on some old Led Zeppelin vinyl and, as Page played the opening to 'Heartbreaker', found myself being eleven years old again. My Pavlovian reflex response from those early days training in air guitar playing even saw me holding an imaginary axe again, albeit for just a few seconds. What fun.

For all their progressive attitude at heart Led Zep were a blues band, so it's fitting that we turn to Meat & Gravy from Bea & Baby, a new double CD on Castle Music. The title is apt of course, the blues being the juicy steak of music, as opposed to the sonic Quorn of so much modern slop - accept no substitute. Wash it down with a few bottles of beer, a cigar, and drive on down to Cadillac Baby's Club in Chicago to hear Little Mac. Cadillac Baby ran his own label (Bea & Baby) too, the source of all the jumping, shouting and general testifying to the traumas of everyday life.

The titles alone tell the tales of trouble and strife at the raw end of society - 'Times Getting Tougher', 'There Must be A Panic On', 'I'm Tore Down', 'Trying To Make A Living', 'Lost In The Jungle' and, of course, 'Mother In Law'. But the dominant tradition of the blues as a release for frustration is occasionally countered by celebratory sounds such as Eddie Boyd's 'Thank You Baby', Sunnyland Slim's 'House Rock', or Tall Paul Hankins' organ workout, 'Red Hot'.

Despite spanning the whole decade, there's little evidence here of other developments in black music during the time, the exception being the funky 1972 blues of Arelean Brown's 'Hello Baby'. Some of the later cuts sound a little cleaner, but you wouldn't know that 'Hudson's Jump' by Willie Hudson was also recorded in '72 since it perfectly recreates the sound of jive from thirty years earlier.

From my casual observation of the current music scene I suspect that the blues might be back in favour these days, albeit from the perspective of skinny white kids from Detroit. 'We all hail hail from rock'n'roll!' chant The Von Bondies, and you know where that came from, don't you kids. This is a good thing. Perhaps it's an ironic thing, considering the multi-choice available to young musicians via technology, that some should find inspiration in the roots of American music. Well, back to basics is fine by me if it re-sharpens the couldn't-cut-butter edge of most recent rock.

There's a hint of the blues to some of Marc Ribot's guitar playing on John Zorn's Filmworks XIII, his soundtrack to Loren Marsh's Invitation To A Suicide. But Zorn being a devotee of Morricone, he can't resist coaxing out the silver screen tumble weed atmosphere too. Ribot is that rare thing, a multi-dimensional cat who can cut it several ways whilst still sounding like himself, as befits a resident of post-No Wave Noo York's downtown (?) community. Whether he lives in NY, or the 'scene' is downtown, I've no idea, but I like to think so.

Rob Burger on accordion is great, lending a Left Bank atmosphere which sometimes reminds me of Gato Barbieri's soundtrack for Last Tango In Paris. Kenny Wollesen (vibes, marimba, and drums) is another essential component of the quintet, but Zorn doesn't play, claiming to be less interested in exercising his chops these days and, more surprisingly, not have practised since 1981 - what a wag. The album glides by under his direction as they tease out the possible variations on the theme. Erik Friedlander's cello lends a suitably melancholic beauty when used, but considering the film's title, this music really is quite painless and far from depressing. Like all great soundtracks, these tunes really stand up without visual accompaniment. Whilst not in the same film composer league as his beloved Morricone, Zorn proves once more his ability to engage in anything from micro-hardcore noise to jazz and beyond. Sounds like genius to me.

Since I'm talking suicide, how about Alan Vega and Marty Rev's American Supreme? The rhythmic influences are Brooklyn block rockin' beats and Berlin tech, but miraculously they avoid sounding like retirement-age rebels trying to be With It. From the opening swamp of Bootsy-style funk on 'Televised Execution' to the fodder stomp of 'Death Machine', the rhythms are spot on. 'Misery Train' cleverly contrasts a lightweight, bouncy beat with a lyric referring to the burial of a brother and grey rain.

American Supreme is both an examination of the American psyche post-Sept 11th and a critique of consumer/celebrity society in general. Sleeve note polemics, entitled 'Failure', illustrate the thinking behind the music, as in 'Pop is disappointment in multiple', or 'The supposed objects of our admiration have become a testament to human failure'. Suicide may not be Pop, but some of the rhythms here are very listener-friendly with exception, perhaps, of 'Dachau, Disney, Disco', which sets the chant in sheets of technological noise.

Despite the authority of Vega's delivery, the closing desperation of 'I Don't Know' mirrors most people's response to the disgraceful state of everything from the politics of war to Pop celebrity. 'I don't know what to do...should I cry?'. He may claim, finally, to be lost for the appropriate words or deeds, but at least, with this album, Suicide have achieved more than most in the contemporary culture of excess and despair.

After the drama of Suicide, why not relax with the superb Orchestra Baobab album, Specialist In All Styles. 'Seductive' and 'sublime' are the two words which immediately spring to mind listening to this Senegal band blending Afro and Cuban rhythms. Musical mastery may be in action, but like most great art, it sounds as if these creations grew naturally out of the soil of the soul (wow!). But hey, enough of that. The nicely designed booklet explains the meaning of the songs, but the voices in themselves are beautiful enough as sound without specific meaning. Guitarist Barthelemy Attisso is possibly the star of the album, but to pick one out of all the players is a bit unfair. With the dull Winter setting in, Orchestra Baobab bring warmth and sunshine, and for that I am truly grateful.

© 2002 Robin Tomens