Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

MARCH 1, 1999: 

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Coming Home Jamaica, (Atlantic)

With this disc, the AEC seem to have found a happy maturity, still reveling in the joyful interplay that’s their hallmark, yet somehow doing this in a fashion that isn’t quite as bold and wild as many of their earlier efforts. Still, the merits, charms, and joys of this record are inescapable.

Opening with the uptempo “Grape Escape,” bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Famoudou Don Moye clip along with a double-time walking bass and snappy trap work, while the ever-brilliant Lester Bowie sizzles on trumpet and Roscoe Mitchell blasts away on sax. Mitchell and Bowie often slide around one another’s lines, like Ornette and Don Cherry, only undercut by mirth and a bit of musical madness.

“Odwalla Theme” features some hypnotic rhythms from Moye and Favors, with some beautiful ensemble passages from Bowie and Mitchell. “Jamaica Farewell” and “Mama Wants You” both state a somber theme, then develop it with exquisite solos from both horns over shifting rhythmic patterns. “Strawberry Mango” adds Bahnamous Bowie on piano for the only number with a blatantly Caribbean feel, as the syncopation provides background for some mirthful percussion and horn work. “Villa Tiamo” and “Malachi” provide extended room for spacious exploration, while “Lotta Colada” ends things on a bouncy Latin beat.

Though longtime fans of this quintessential experimental jazz band may find that this disc lacks some of the daring innovations that marked some of the earlier work, the band’s solid playing and giddy undercurrent bear their unmistakable stamp. It’s pretty much a mainstream gig, but proves that they’re still some of the best in the business, even when they shun their usual antics in favor of straight-ahead playing. After dozens of hearings, I still love the grace, virtuosity, and sheer fun that fills this disc. If only every new release could be this enjoyable. – Gene Hyde



T-Model Ford, You Better Keep Still (Fat Possum)

Filtering the blues through white middle-class teen angst has been a time-honored and artistically fruitful rock-and-roll strategy from the Stones and Yardbirds through to ’90s garage noize greats the Oblivians. The modus operandi of Fat Possum (an Oxford, Mississippi-based blues label) seems to be to reverse the process. Its music is made by elderly black men, distributed by the punk label Epitaph, and sold mostly to Jon Spencer and Beastie Boys fans. The strategy seems to be to force a white, young male take on authentic machismo back through the Voices of Old Black Bluesmen in a nakedly pathetic stab at post-adolescent validation. The label’s implicit claim is that the blues is the original punk rock.

Well, guess what – it’s not. In the liner notes to T-Model Ford’s 1997 Fat Possum debut, Pee-Wee Get My Gun, label owner Matt Johnson ridiculed the “romanticized” image of the bluesman as “an old black man devoid of anger and rage, happily strumming an acoustic guitar.” But Johnson has posited an equally dubious vision of the bluesman as a sexually desperate, inherently violent, existential nomad, a depiction that just happens to buddy right up to his target demographics’ visions of male power.

In T-Model Ford (much like his better-known label-mate, R.L. Burnside) the Fat Possum guys have someone perfectly content to play the mythically drunk, mentally ill bad-ass that he may or may not actually be. It’s a role that Junior Kimbrough – the real king of the North Mississippi blues scene that Fat Possum professes to document – never allowed himself to be hemmed in by. But with the recent deaths of Kimbrough and Robert Palmer, the critic/historian who served as a frequent producer for the label, any real commitment Fat Possum had to representing an under-recognized blues subgenre may be gone for good. In their absence, the label is likely to produce records like Ford’s new You Better Keep Still, where he and his drummer Spam make music that can’t touch the grandeur of Kimbrough or the genuinely punkish drive of Burnside. Ford sings off-key, plays sloppy, and lets irony-bred fans sop up self-parodying junk like the album-opening “If I Had Wings (Part 1),” a meandering, pseudo-poetic tall tale where Spam keeps the most inconsistent beat since your 3-year-old nephew got drums for Christmas, and “These Eyes,” with Ford doing his Clarence “Frog Man” Henry best to sing like a girl but ending up sounding more like a frog.

About the only respite from the punk-blooze hijinks is “The Old Number,” a solid, straight version of the blues standard “Catfish Blues,” where Ford’s benefactors blessedly keep both their mentality and gadgetry to themselves. Other than that, the whole thing is a sad, tired dud, and it’s all brought to you by the same condescending sensibility that made African-American street person-turned-crooner Wesley Willis an indie-rock darling. – Chris Herrington


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