Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #70 Facing Future

I felt odd reading a book about an album I'd never really listened to. I checked out some of the songs through the magic of downloads and YouTube, but for the most part, I came to Dan Kois' volume on Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'Ole's Facing Future as an outsider. This is doubly fitting as, throughout my reading of Kois' volume, I felt like a cultural outsider--but in a good way. And that's what makes Kois' volume on Facing Future such a compelling read--the book is as much about Hawaii's culture, music industry, and values as it is about Iz's album. Truth be told, as a straight forward "album book," Facing Future is a bit pedestrian--Kois traces the history of the performer and the songs well enough, but where the book finds its stride is in its dealings with the specifics of Hawaiian popular culture. That is to say, before reading Kois' book, I never would have guessed or suspected how much of a local music industry Hawaii has, nor would I have supposed that this industry would mirror the mainstream (or mainland) record business, only in miniature. And I definitely wouldn't have dreamed of the existence of Jawaiian music (thank god). While this resulted in a bit of me "othering" a different culture as I read, that was through no fault of the author. In fact, every step of the way, Kois is sensitive to and respectful of the Hawaiian culture he is exploring.

In all honesty, Kois' empathy is the key to this volume. From the opening pages in which he tells the tale of Iz recording the famous "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" medley in the middle of the night after a night of drinking and possibly drugging, to the treatment of Iz's desire for his family to be taken care of after his inevitable early death, Kois' prose is rich with a sincere pathos that brings Iz and the people surrounding him to life in ways rare for "album books." One of Kois' other strengths is his sincere even-handedness in dealing with local label "politics." For instance, Kois is willing to present Jon de Mello as both a hero in Iz's story, and a villain (or at least an unsavory opportunist) depending on who is talking. That Kois never really comes down on either side of the issue but merely presents the various attitudes toward de Mello is a nice change of pace from other rock books that are quick to label key players as heroes or villains and focus on those roles through the entirety of their involvement in the project.

So there it is--I don't have much to say about this book because I've never been terribly invested in Iz's music. That being said, Kois' volume was interesting thanks in large part to his ability to write well and bring Iz and the people around him to life while also painting a vivid picture of Hawaii and its culture. Sure, the book gets a bit tedious for a spell when Kois lapses into that oh-so-tired trope of the "song by song" analysis (stop it 33 1/3 writers, it's boring and lazy), but all in all, Dan Kois' exploration of Iz's Facing Future and Hawaii is well worth the read, whether your sick to death of "Over the Rainbow" or not.

Next up, the volume on XO, in which I admit to liking the song-by-song structure for once.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Late to the Party--15-60-75: The Numbers Band's "Jimmy Bell's Still in Town" (1976)

While the music scenes based around Los Angeles and New York City get most of the press, Northern Ohio produced a healthy number substantial musical acts in the 1970s. Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Pere Ubu, and The Dead Boys all originated there, and so did lesser-known but no less brilliant groups like Rocket from the Tombs, The Electric Eels, Ex-Blank-Ex, Tin Huey, and The Waitresses. One of the hidden gems of the Kent, Ohio scene has remained 15-60-75, also known more simply as The Numbers Band. They formed in 1970 and are still active to this very day, primarily playing in small clubs in Ohio. The band has counted among its alumni Gerald Casale (later a founding member of Devo), David Robinson (who drummed in the original line-up of The Modern Lovers and in The Cars), Terry Hynde (Chrissie Hynde's brother), and Chris Butler (the leader of Tin Huey and the primary songwriter of The Waitresses, who had a MTV hit in the early 1980s with "I Know What Boys Like"). To most experts, their crowning achievement is their 1976 live album Jimmy Bell's Still in Town. It was recorded June 16th, 1975 at the Agora in Cleveland. Reportedly, The Numbers Band was the opening act for Bob Marley and the Wailers. When it was released in album form a year later, it appeared on their Water Records label, getting little distribution, and quickly falling into obscurity. Long since championed by David Thomas of Pere Ubu (who currently releases the album on his Hearpan Records label), it has maintained a small but loyal group of listeners.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is a remarkably tight set, and each of its five tracks flow smoothly into each other, as if there are no breaks between the songs. It is also rather difficult to categorize. Ostensibly, The Numbers Band are a roadhouse blues rock band. The title of the album even refers to an obscure blues 1958 song by Cat Iron called "Jimmy Bell." Their ten minute cover of the song, on Side Two, is without question the centerpiece of the album. While the stamp of the blues is all over this record, it is a remarkably off-kilter variation on the form. It hints at Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's 1968 Mirror Man sessions, but is far more cohesive. Similarly, the lineup and musical arrangement of The Numbers Band is highly unusual by blues band standards. They have two guitarists (frontman Robert Kidney and Michael Stacy), a bassist (Drake Gleason), and a drummer (the aforementioned David Robinson), which is not all that aberrant. However, their sound is augmented by three saxophonists (Robert Kidney's brother Jack, Terry Hynde, and Tim Maglione). Their ensemble playing is disquieting and discordant, their horns often slipping slightly out of pitch. When they solo, they owe more to Ohio native Albert Ayler than to, say, Jr. Walker or King Curtis. The guitar solos vary range traditional blues workouts to oblique motifs that foreshadow the playing of Tom Verlaine or a more restrained Robert Quine. As a result, Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is an album in which comparisons to the first two Bruce Springsteen LPs and later recordings such as Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance, Television's The Blow-Up, and Morphine's Cure for Pain are all appropriate. It is not an album that necessarily resonates on first spin, though. This is because the material is so uniformly constructed and tightly delivered that it's often difficult to distinguish when they are improvising or deviating from the structure of the tunes. Vocalist Robert Kidney's vocals are largely free from emotion or theatricality, which can give off the initial impression that he is not all that enthusiastic about the material. But once you recognize the powerful and unusual grooves they are able to develop and pursue, it becomes a thoroughly rewarding experience.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is available from Hearpan Records' website.

Below is an audio clip of "Jimmy Bell."