Who’s the funniest person in jazz? Wycliffe always knows when to go for the punchline. Jon Irabagon probably plays more musical jokes than anybody else, and Moppa Elliott is right there with him. Put those two together in Mostly Other People Do the Killing – who have a typically killer new album – and look out. Mary Halvorson can be devastatingly funny when she wants; ditto Brian Charette. Another guy with an endless supply of pretty hilarious ideas is Boston-based reedman Daniel Bennett, who has a characteristically devious new album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion streaming at Spotify. He and his long-running four-piece group with guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich and drummer Matthew Feick have a St. Paddy’s Day gig coming up at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10, the club wasn’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum the last time this blog was in the house there, and if you must be out on March 17, this show should be amateur-free.
The album’s first track is a steady, motoring guitar theme, John Lizard Comes Home: Janoff’s deadpan purposefulness brings to mind Jon Lundbom in sardonically carefree mode. Bennett plays his usual alto sax and also flute on the second number, Andrew Variations, an upbeat, pastorally-tinged tune with a serpentine lattice of voices (and amusing electronic patches) akin to Tom Csatari’s most humorous work.
Bobby Brick Sent Me Daniel Bennett has a purposefully vamping, modal groove and a no-nonsense alto attack from the bandleader, in the same vein as JD Allen’s “jukebox jazz.” The title cut brings back the album’s opening motorik beat, endless success of growling, distorted rock guitar changes and some wry alto/flute multitracks. Bennett sticks with the flute on Paint the Fence, with its woozy guitar sonics and surrealistic Jethro Tull jazz vibe: fans of Prague jamband weirdos Jull Dajen will love this.
Doctor Duck Builds a Patio – gotta love those titles, huh? – is a sort of syncopated take on the opening number: again, it’s like Csatari, but even more surreal and a lot more shreddy. We Are OK! opens ominously, Bennett playing eerily rippling cimbalom-like lines on piano as the tune comes together, a series of echoey long-tone phrases over a steady rhythm and then a stampeding free-for-all.
Poet Michele Herman recites her wry Little Disappointments of Modern Life over Bennett’s solo alto waves and echoes. Then he switches to clarinet for Animals Discussing Life Changes, a waltz, the most cartoonish number here. The album winds up with a spacy, vertiginous, suspiciously blithe reprise of the title theme, Bennett back on alto and joined by Mark Cocheo on guitar.
Although this is fun, colorful music, Bennett has a serious side. He came down strongly on the side of the good guys in that recent social media kerfluffle where Robert Glasper alleged that women jazz fans (“Fine European women,” to be specific) hear with their lower extremities and don’t have the brains to understand solos.
LA band Jazz Punks’ new album, Smashups is due out early next week: it’s one of the most entertainingly original efforts to come over the transom this year. Their claim to fame is something they may not have invented, but that they take to new extremes: the jazz mashup. Musicians have been spicing up songs with brief quotes and sometimes longer passages from other songs for a long time, but this band makes that device their signature shtick. Perfect example: Clash-Up, the second track. It starts out perfectly straight-up with the intro to Should I Stay or Should I Go, then Robby Elfman’s tenor sax comes in with the riff from Take Five. But they don’t just milk the joke for all it’s worth: they drop the heavy guitar and drums and swing it, take it halfspeed, give guitarist Sal Polcino a blithe solo which signals a detour into minor-key blues territory, and then they bring it back up again with a very good joke. To be fair, the band name is a little misleading: these guys are first and foremost a jazz band, albeit one looking forward to “busting out of the postbop ghetto,” in the words of drummer Hugh Elliott, who does an artful job switching in a split second between swing and four-on-the-floor stomp.
Another sly and very smart reinvention is Creep Train, which sets the riff to Take the A Train over two Radiohead vamps, from Creep and Paranoid Android: the way Elfman’s tongue-in-cheek microtonalities induce laughs and then goosebumps is an unexpected treat. Likewise, Heavyfoot slowly and cleverly morphs from a slow stoner soul take on Wayne Shorter’s Footprints to the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy, Mike Polcino’s bass arpeggios setting up the punchline from the guitar and drums. More than any song here, the final track, Led Gillespie, manages to keep A Night in Tunisia and Led Zep’s Misty Mountain Hop together for almost the entirety of the cut, distant heavy metal thunder underpinning Danny Kastner’s swinging piano solo. You wouldn’t expect this to work but somehow the band pulls it off.
Foleo – a hodgepodge of Sonny Rollins’ Oleo and Purple Haze – swings a lot more than it rocks. And not everything here is a jazz/rock hybrid. 12 Steps to Hell – now there’s a title to raise a glass to!!! – gently but cruelly savages 7 Steps to Heaven. There are also serious compositions here. Mind Over Matter, by Kastner, takes a familiar Miles Davis riff, adds a little salsa, a lot of rhythmic shifts and a solo from Elfman that almost imperceptibly builds to a biting, vividly agitated crescendo. Little Chickens, a soulful shuffle by the Polcinos, juxtaposes a raw, funky guitar solo with a jape from Kastner which might be the single most amusing moment out of many here. The least successful track is Bo-So, which mingles Body and Soul with Coltraine’s Naima – with its constant rhythmic tug-of-war, it’s perfectly enjoyable, but the comedy factor doesn’t rate since Body and Soul has been mangled and butchered and had other things done to it so many times before.
There’s an element of jazz fans who are going to hate this album: “You guys swing, just drop the dumb rock stuff!” There are also rock fans who will hate it just as much: “Just play the song, don’t ruin it with all that weird jazz stuff!” But put this on at a party: heads will turn. And every musician in the room will secretly be thinking, “This is great, why didn’t I come up with that idea?”
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #533:
Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear – The Ghost of Rock n Roll
Ex-Hangdogs frontman Grimm’s second album with this fiery, Social Distortion-esque Iowa highway rock band is what the Dead Kennedys might have sounded like, had they survived Tipper Gore’s assault and traded in the surf music for Americana. This 2009 release mixes snidely, sometimes viciously humorous cuts like Hang Up and Drive (a hilarious chronicle of idiots calling and texting behind the wheel), Cinderella (the self-centered girl who wants it all) and My Girlfriend’s Way Too Hot for Me (a raised middle finger at the yuppie who has everything but the hot chick, and who just can’t seem to complete his collection) with more savage, politically fueled songs. The centerpiece is the cold-blooded, murderous 1/20/09, celebrating the end of the Bush regime and looking forward the day when the “cloistered and dull trust-fund kid” might have to face up to his crimes in The Hague. There’s also the amusing Wrath of God, a sendup of doomsday Christians; White, an irresistibly funny, spot-on parody of white hip-hop; the triumphant and quite possibly prophetic singalong One Big Union, and the LMFAO Ayn Rand Sucks, which bitchslaps the memory of the “Nazi skank.” Mysteriously AWOL from the usual sources for free music, but it’s still available from cdbaby. The band’s first album, Dawn’s Early Apocalypse, is just about as entertaining too.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #591:
Black Box Recorder – Passionoia
Possibly the most witheringly cynical album ever recorded. Bandleader Luke Haines (also of the Auteurs – see #744 on this list) has said innocuously that this 1999 release was his adventure in exploring keyboard textures, but it sounds suspiciously like a parody of 90s British dance-pop, albeit with better tunes and artsy flourishes. Frontwoman Sarah Nixey delivers Haines’ corrosive lyrics in an ice-goddess whisper over the glossy sheen. The School Song does double duty as Eurovision satire (a moment that will return again with a vengeance on When Britain Refused to Sing) and knowing chronicle of the kind of torture schoolkids have to endure. GSOH QED is an early satire of internet dating; British Racing Green quietly and cruelly alludes to Britain’s fall from first world power to third world irrelevance. Although much of this is a period piece, the songs stand the test of time – The New Diana mocks the Princess Diana cult, but it’s a brutally insightful look at the cult of celebrity, as is Andrew Ridgeley, the funniest song here, a reference to the guy in Wham who wasn’t George Michael. Being Number One, These Are the Things and Girls Guide for the Modern Diva are savage sendups of yuppie narcissism. The album ends on a surprisingly poignant, haunting note with I Ran All the Way Home, a gorgeously apprehensive omnichord-driven art-pop song straight out of the ELO catalog, told from the point of view of an abused little girl. All the songs are streamable at myspace, but wait fifteen seconds before you put your earphones on, AND refresh the page after each listen or else you’ll be assaulted by a loud audio ad. Won’t it be a good day when myspace finally dies? Otherwise, here’s a random torrent.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. In honor of the doomsday that never was, we celebrate with a funny album. Saturday’s is #619:
Richard Cheese – Lounge Against the Machine
What Weird Al was to the 80s, Richard Cheese was around the turn of the century – and he’s still going strong, making fun of the suckiest songs you’ve ever heard. And he’s more than just a one-trick pony – his parodies make fun of lounge music just as much as they skewer the lamest corporate rock songs of the last 20 years. Caveat: if you weren’t tortured by a younger sibling (or, even worse, an older sibling) with bad taste in music back in the 90s, you may not know a lot of these songs. Ironically, the most popular track on his 2000 debut is the best one, the Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia, which when you think about it is even more punk than the original. Creep, by Radiohead, another good song, is also better – and creepier – than the original. Otherwise, the satire is brutal: with his cover of Guerrilla Radio, the lounge lizard exposes Rage Against the Machine for the limousine liberals they were. He gets gleefully cruel with the fratboy standards Closer (“I wanna fuck you like an animal”) by Nine Inch Nails, the Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up and the ultimate frathouse atrocity, the Beastie Boys’ Fight For Your Right to Party. Anybody remember Papa Roach? They get turned into noir cabaret here. And Fatboy Slim – remember him? – is transformed into more of a spoof of lounge music than of whatever he was (if you missed him, you don’t want to know). Here’s a random torrent.
Santa Cruz-based acoustic Americana hellraisers The Devil Makes Three play Maxwell’s tonight at nine. If you miss the Asylum Street Spankers, The Devil Makes Three are just as entertaining – and like the Spankers, they also happen to be an excellent band. The most recent album from guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean came out a couple of years ago. It’s called Do Wrong, Right, and it’s something that should have been on our radar at the time but wasn’t. It’s not just bluegrass with funny, surreal lyrics – the band also plays country swing, blues and Nashville gothic and does that stuff period-perfect as well.
The album is sort of a cross between the Spankers and Mojo Nixon’s duo stuff with Jello Biafra. The opening track, All Hail is a genuine classic: as they see it, the world is populated with clueless shoppers all wasted on crack and antidepressants: “It ain’t a drug, goddamn it, I give it to my only son,” says the guy on the way to the office thorazine party. The amusing intro of Poison Trees gives no indication of the ominous, apocalyptic shuffle that follows. The title track is a bouncy, violin-fueled bluegrass tune; they follow that with Gracefully Facedown, a woozy swing shuffle like early Dan Hicks. It’s a tribute to anyone who subscribes to the idea that “drinking bottom shelf bourbon seems to work all right til closing time.” For Good Again cynically mythologizes the band’s roots living in squalor, paying the rent in illegal drugs and writing songs that someday they’d get paid to play. “Everybody who’s anybody at one time lived in somebody’s hallway,” they assert, and they’re probably right.
Their Working Man’s Blues isn’t the Merle Haggard standard – it’s a haunting tobacco sharecropper’s lament with blues harp that sounds like it was recorded on another planet, a feeling echoed on a biting version of Statesboro Blues. The Johnson Family is an eerie, carnivalesque gypsy waltz; Helping Yourself puts a devious Curtis Eller-style spin on oldtime country gospel, spiced with an unexpectedly searing slide guitar solo. A spot-on early 50s style honkytonk tune that does double duty as raised middle finger to the boss, Cheap Reward unexpectedly quotes Elvis Costello; there’s also the careening slide guitar shuffle Aces and Twos and the unexpectedly epic Car Wreck. Good album – where the hell were we when this came out? You can get it at the band’s site or pick one up at the show.
The Jolly Boys’ new album Great Expectations – their first in possibly decades – might be the year’s funniest release. The octogenarian Jamaican band – who used to serenade Errol Flynn back in the 50s – plays mento, the folk music that gave birth to calypso, ska and eventually reggae. Where the Easy Star All-Stars have fun doing reggae versions of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Jolly Boys have just released an album of rock songs – most of them standards, with a few obscurities – done with vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar and stompbox. It’s hilarious and it’s totally punk rock even if it’s 100% acoustic – and the music is pretty good, too. The lead singer can’t hit the high notes, but that’s part of the fun – and it’s not as if he isn’t trying his best. Is this exploitation? No, it’s satire.
One of the funniest things about it is that you get to hear the lyrics clearly. The most brutal version here is Blue Monday, a synth-disco hit for New Order in 1986. Stark, rustic and the most punk track here, what’s obvious from the first few nonsensical lines is what a truly moronic song this is. It’s the one point on the album where you can sense that the band can’t wait to get this over with. Strangely, Golden Brown, a slick 1985 British pop hit by the Stranglers, isn’t funny – it’s as boring as the original. The rest is a long series of WTF moments. “Just a perfect day, drinking Bailey’s in the park,” rasps frontman/guitarist Albert Minott as the upbeat, bouncy version of the Lou Reed song gets underway – is that the actual lyric? Riders on the Storm is hilarious: “From the top to the very last drop,” Minott announces, obviously aware of who sang it the first time around. And their version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want is every bit as interminable as the original, if not as annoying, Jagger’s fifth-rate Dylan impersonation naked and ugly in the stripped-down arrangement.
But not everything here is as cruel. There are two Iggy songs. The Passenger is just plain great, and the band responds joyously; Nightclubbing is reinvented as a banjo tune, where somebody takes a mean pickslide after Minott announces that “We learn dances like the Nuclear Bomb.” The Nerves’ (and later Blondie’s) Hanging on the Telephone is a period reference that fits the band perfectly; Steely Dan’s Do It Again is the least recognizable of all the songs; by contrast, I Fought the Law and Ring of Fire could both have been mento originals, considering how many influences it shares with oldtime American C&W. The most bizarrely amusing track here is the Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, which has to be heard to be appreciated (and has a clever video streaming at the band’s site). The album closes with three deviously aphoristic mento standards: the cautionary tale Dog War, the slyly metaphorical Night Food, and a hypnotic, harmony-driven version of Emmanuel Road. It’s safe to predict that many of these songs will end up on late-night mixes at bars and parties throughout the next few years and, who know, maybe for a long time. The Jolly Boys have been around for more than half a century and show no sign of going away.
What happened Wednesday night? Oh yeah, it was 4/20 (google it if you don’t know already). Seriously, though, John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars brought a potentially mind-melting bill of cutting-edge roots reggae to an enthusiastic, sold-out, smoked-out crowd at Highline Ballroom. JBB are a band everybody takes for granted: they live on the road, play pretty much every major festival and have earned themselves a rep as one of the most reliably entertaining psychedelic acts out there. They take reggae to the next level: maybe more than any other modern reggae band, they’ve been responsible for pushing its evolution while keeping the spirit of the classic 70s Jamaican sound alive. Anyone who doesn’t know them should go to the band’s site and grab the two albums – including a delicious live collection assembled from last year’s tour – plus the assorted tracks that they’re giving away for free.
They wound their way into the set casually and methodically, Nate Edgar’s catchy basslines anchoring the bounce as drummer Tommy Bennedetti artfully worked the edges with some neat fills and cymbal hits. This band has always had a feel for dub, but they’ve bred it to a sticky purity. They don’t overdo it, breaking the songs down to a vortex of space echo for maybe a chorus at a time, not much more, before circling back to an earthy groove. One of the band’s trademarks has always been to have all kinds of fun with keyboard effects: switching effortlessly through every wah setting and woozy patch within reach, keyboardist JP Petronzio was obviously entertaining himself as much as he was the crowd. A recent track, So Aware blended Ethiopian influences with a couple of neat dub interludes, as did another one, basically a one-chord jam that pulsed along on a catchy, circling hook as the guitar and keys intertwined until any attempt to figure out who was playing what was a waste of time. It was more fun just to stand and sway as the waves of sound kept coming. A fierier, minor-key track, The Gold took a swipe at the current system, offering hope for a different, less money-oriented culture. Resonant and resolute in front of the band, singer Elliott Martin had the waves of bodies swaying along with him through the majestic, more traditional echoes of Speak of the Devil. A long instrumental section followed in the same vein, with another dub interlude, a sweet organ solo and a trick ending. The set wound up with the catchy, upbeat The Grass; the towering epic Blazing Love, trumpeter Sam Dechenne at one point playing what could have been the most interesting one-note solo ever done, blipping and blasting his way into and then out of the murky sonic kaleidoscope; and Zion Triad, a suite that took it up into the rafters much like how Burning Spear would close his shows back in the 80s.
If JBB represents everything that’s good about current-day reggae, the Easy Star All-Stars are the funniest reggae band alive. The crowd that stayed for them had really come out to make it the 4/20-est night of the year, and when the band launched into Pink Floyd’s Breathe (from the band’s first adventure in classic covers, Dub Side of the Moon), they went nuts. After about a minute of oscillating On the Run synth, when Jenny Hill substituted a bubbly jazz flute interlude for one of David Gilmour’s anguished guitar solos, it was impossible not to laugh. Which is why it’s so mystifying that this band’s devious, far-reaching sense of humor is so absent from their original stuff. They opened with a number possibly titled Don’t Give up the Music, a dead ringer for Gregory Isaacs’ Soon Come, delivered fervently by an animated, dancehall-style frontman. The reggae-pop they did afterward was competent, their bassist singing one number while firing off one tricky hook after another, but it never resonated more than it did when they finally did Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band and then an irresistible singalong of A Little Help from My Friends, everybody’s glowing coals raised high in the air. Their Radiodread stuff is arguably even more imaginative and lots of fun – and for obvious reasons doesn’t sound much like the originals. But when they brought up some guy from a reality tv show to embarrass himself in front of the band, it was time to call it a night and head to the train.
And a big shout out to Winston who was playing the subway platform in the wee hours at 14th Street. This was a late one for the veteran West Indian busker with the battered keyboard and the sweet soul voice. He’s at least fifty, possibly a lot older but he’s still here entertaining tired travelers more nights than not. He might have been the best singer of the whole night. He’s sort of a live, one-man Gil Bailey Show: mention a classic rocksteady or reggae tune from the 60s or 70s and he probably knows it. He doesn’t have a website but you can take a flyer with his number on it when you throw something in his tip bucket.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #704:
The Nig-Heist Album
We’ve previously featured some pretty raunchy comedy albums by 2 Live Crew, Blowfly and Millie Jackson here. But all that is G-rated compared to the Nig-Heist. The creation of Steve “Mugger” Corbin, a roadie for Black Flag, the band put out a single album in 1984 that remains one of the most obscenely funny (some would say absolutely tasteless) records ever made. Backed by a rotating cast of musicians he toured with, he’d typically take the stage dressed in drag, bait the audience and then spew one twisted, sexually explicit song after another. Most of them have less to do with actual sex than masturbation or simply getting drunk; none of this was meant to be taken the least bit seriously. The titles pretty much speak for themselves: Love in Your Mouth; Tight Little Pussy; Hot Muff; Slurp a Delic; Balls on Fire; and a deadpan Velvets cover retitled If She Ever Comes. The album was reissued as a double cd in 1998 along with a collection of dodgily recorded live stuff that’s more notable for the between-song banter than the songs themselves. Meanwhile, Corbin worked his way up from roadie to label co-owner and then went into the computer business, where he made millions during the late 90s dotcom boom. Here’s a random torrent via the excellent punknotprofit.
Oldtimey harmony hellraisers the Roulette Sisters burst on the New York scene in the mid-zeros. They were one of the first groups to have a Saturday night residency at Barbes, put out a wickedly fun debut album, Nerve Medicine (which made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list), and then went their separate ways for awhile. Resonator guitarist Mamie Minch made a career for herself as a solo artist, releasing her defiant solo debut, Razorburn Blues in 2008. Meanwhile, electric guitarist/banjo uke player Meg Reichardt joined forces with Kurt Hoffman in charming French chanson revivalists Les Chauds Lapins, washboard player Megan Burleyson kept busy in New York’s “hottest washboard swing ensemble,” the 4th St. Nite Owls, and violist Karen Waltuch maintained a career as a player and composer encompassing everything from klezmer, to country, to the avant garde. They reunited last year, and they’ve got a new album out, Introducing the Roulette Sisters, whose title makes sense in that this is Waltuch’s first full-length recording with the group
They open and close the album with lushly beautiful harmony-driven songs; a viscerally plaintive cover of A. P. Carter’s The Birds Were Singing of You, with a poignant guitar solo from Reichardt and lead vocal from Minch, and at the end a winsome version of Baby Please Loan Me Your Heart by Papa Charlie Jackson. Likewise, they take It Could’ve Been Sweet, by Leon Chase – of hilarious cowpunk band Uncle Leon & the Alibis – rearranging it into a shuffle that becomes a sad waltz on the chorus: “I’m not looking for a twenty year loan, just a little something extra to get me home.” The rest of the album is the innuendo-laden fun stuff that they’re best known for.
Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me, the Bo Carter novelty song, gets a female perspective. A Reichardt original, In the Shade of the Magnolia Tree, is an outdoor boudoir tune in a balmy Carolina setting. Burleyson does a pitch-perfect hot 20s bluesmama evocation on Hattie Hart’s I Let My Daddy Do That – as in getting her ashes hauled, i.e. opening the door to the coal chute. As funny as the vocals are, it’s one of the most musically rich moments here, a lush interweave of acoustic and electric guitars and viola – Waltuch’s pizzicato solo, like a koto playing the blues, is as much a showstopper as it is in concert.
Their version of Do Da Lee Do takes an old western swing standard and adds lyrics out of Reichardt’s collection of bawdy songs from over the years: “Roses are red and ready for plucking, I’m sixteen and ready for high school,” for example. Scuddling, by Frankie Half Pint Jaxon, is a “dance” you can do by yourself – which you could also do with someone else if they were willing – but definitely not in public. And Al Duvall’s Jake Leg Blues explores the legacy of Jamaica ginger, a Prohibition-era concoction whose side effects produced a whole lot of Eves without Adams: “In the garden I hang my head, I’m grabbing for apples now the snake is dead,” Minch snorts authoritatively. The album comes in a charming, old-fashioned sleeve handmade on an antique letterpress. There are hundreds of bands who mine the treasures of oldtime blues and Americana, few with the fearlessness and sass of the Roulette Sisters. As fun as it is to see them in small clubs in Brooklyn, where they really deserve to be is Lincoln Center, doing their vastly more entertaining version of a great American songbook.