Ween: 12 Golden Country Greats

Ween: 12 Golden Country Greats
(Elektra, 1996)

Wonderful Ween. So eclectic, so unpredictable and always great. Gene and Dean Ween (real names Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo) are to music what the Coen Brothers are for the movies; stealing and lending from a wide array of cultural references and creating something completely their own.

Ween started out in the mid 1980s and by 1996 they already had an astonishing catalog under their belt, including their major label debut Pure Guava (1992) and the formidable magnum opus Chocolate & Cheese (1994). Their previous albums were all rollercoasters of various styles and influences, but on 12 Golden Country Greats they decided to focus their sound on good ol’, classic country music, from honky tonk and countrypolitan to folk.

To do things right they even went down to Music Row and brought in a bunch of legendary Nashville session musicians and hired Ben Vaughn to produce. The final result is 10, not 12, golden country songs that are musically superb and work tremendously well beyond just being a parody of the genre by two college boys from the Eastern seaboard. Yes, their sense of humor and vulgarity aren’t for everyone, yes they fool around with all the Nashville clichés in the book, but overall 12 Golden Country Greats is one of the best country albums of the 1990s.

Featuring some of the Ween’s finest songs, including “Japanese Cowboy,” “Help Me Scrape the Mucus off My Brain” and “You Were the Fool,” it’s an album hardcore country fans will appreciate, and also an album that will turn non-believers over to the genre.

Getatchew Mekuria & The Ex: Moa Anbessa

Getatchew Mekuria & The Ex: Moa Anbessa
(Terp, 2006)

What happens when free-minded Dutch anarcho-punks meet a 70-year-old Ethiopian jazz saxophonist? Well, in this case, pure magic; or as Terrie Ex calls it: “A tribute to the free spirit.”

The story goes that the members of The Ex were longtime fans of the Ethiopiques re-release of the 1972 album ‘The Negus of Ethiopian Sax,’ where the big sound and memorable vibrato of Getatchew Mekuria (1935-2016) caught their immediate attention. When the fabulous and open-minded punk veterans were about to celebrate their 25th anniversary in 2004, they had the wild idea of inviting Mekuria to the party. So, they went down to Addis Ababa, tracked him down and explained their story. Mekuria didn’t think twice. He joined the band for his first travels outside of Ethiopia, and he was on fire! The event was a massive success, and the combo agreed to record together.

Recorded partly in the studio and partly live, a number of traditional, mainly Ethiopian, songs were rearranged by The Ex and guests, including a horn section featuring Xavier Charles (Silent Block) and Brodie West (Deep Dark United), and Mekuria flexed his sax like there was no tomorrow. Titled Moa Anbessa, the result is completely dazzling: a fiery and joyous mix of funky Ethio-jazz and sharp, authoritative post-punk vibrating with soulful energy and warmth. So much more than your average “world fusion,” this is musical exchange at its very best. ‘Moa Anbessa’ is strongly recommended for all “free spirits” out there.

Put it on, don’t resist the urge to groove, dance or sing along.

Arthur Russell: World of Echo

Arthur Russell: World of Echo
(Upside, 1986)

World of Echo, the only solo full-length album released by avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell during his way-too-short lifespan (1952-1992), is a hands-down classic piece of music, and a transcendental listening experience to boot.

Born and raised in rural Iowa, Russell moved to New York City in the early 1970s for musical education, and ultimately became a fixture in the city’s vital downtown loft circuit, and he was even appointed as musical director of the artsy hotspot The Kitchen. Highly involved in New York’s bourgeoning punk, jazz and disco scenes, Russell literally worked with everyone, was all over the place musically, and particularly made a name for himself on dance floors with his various pioneering projects (Dinosaur, Loose Joints).

World of Echo is something else entirely, mainly consisting of Russell’s bowed and percussive cello and his dreamlike, echoey vocals, with some additional electronic effects. It’s a mediative and minimalistic masterpiece, suspended outside of time and space. A bit distant or hazy at first as the songs ebb and flow in no strict particular direction, repeated listens will unveil its beauty in full. Embracing ambience and textures in favor of beats, it’s akin to equal parts Nick Drake and Philip Glass. And no matter how intimate and personal this is, it also resembles the heyday of the New York underground, the vast cornfields of Iowa, transcendental meditation and deep dub.

The echoes of this album haven’t faded at all, and still can be heard around the world in all its quiet glory.

Magnet & Paul Giovanni: The Wicker Man

Magnet & Paul Giovanni: The Wicker Man
(Trunk, 1998)
The Wicker Man is a magnificent 1973 horror movie set on a fictional remote Scottish island, and starring Christopher Lee in the unforgettable role as Lord Summerisle. He is the leader of the island, where Sgt. Howie, a devoted Christian policeman, is being lured from the mainland in search of a missing girl, just to be dragged deeper and deeper into a bizarre and mysterious world of Celtic pagan secrets.

It is a thrilling story, but the soundtrack, closely interwoven as an integral part of the film and finally resurfaced in 2002, is not only crucial to the whole experience, it functions as an astonishing album in its own right. The Wicker Man arrived amid the fruitful British folk revival, but the music was actually created by American composer Paul Giovanni and a one-off band entitled Magnet, with performances from various cast members. The story goes that the songs were written in just a couple weeks, but they manage to capture the essence of British folklore with a combination of new and traditional songs, on what turned out to be a stunning record revolving around pre-Christian mythology and traditions.

Listening to the album gives an immediate urge to put on a mask and dance around a maypole while chanting creepy nursery rhymes. Highlights include “Willow’s Song,” later remade by Sneaker Pimps and epitomized in the movie by the landlord’s seductive siren daughter (Britt Ekland), the ballad “Gently Johnny,” the child-sung “Maypole” and a chilling version of “Sumer Is Icumen In.” The movie is still disturbing and scary as hell, and the soundtrack is hypnotic, creepy and beautiful at the same time.

Make sure to watch it – not the lousy remake with Nicholas Cage – and enjoy to this spellbinding soundtrack.

The Lounge Lizards: s/t

The Lounge Lizards: s/t
(Editions EG, 1981)

The Lounge Lizards were a sharp-dressed act made up of some of the coolest cats in New York City, including filmmaker John Lurie, The Feelies drummer Anton Fier and DNA guitarist Arto Lindsay.

The eclectic (and over the years revolving) lineup reflects the music on their 1981 debut album, where downtown jazz, no-wave and alternative rock flawlessly melt together into a higher unit. They never steered away from the outskirts of the music landscape, embracing an experimental approach and adding a renewed sense of energy and joy to the jazz scene of the early 1980s. They did so with a high acknowledgment of the past and managed to head into the unknown without ever leaving the listener behind.

Mainly consisting of Lurie originals, they also found room for a couple of Thelonious Monk tunes here, an album that still sounds remarkably fresh and exciting. The cover is designed by Peter Salville, best known for his work with Factory Records artists like Joy Division and New Order, who added an extra element of coolness to the band.

Lula Côrtes E Zé Ramalho: Paêbirú

Lula Côrtes E Zé Ramalho: Paêbirú
(Solar, 1975)

The Brazilian scene in the 1960s and ’70s blessed the world with some extraordinary artists and unique music commonly known as ‘Tropicália’. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa and Tom Zé spearheaded this sizzling melting pot of traditional sounds, African rhythms, breezy pop and avant garde.

The northeastern city of Recife was a major hub for an even more psychedelic branch of the Tropicália movement, centered around musician Lula Côrtes. On his 1975 album Paêbirú Côrtes collaborated with composer Zé Ramalho and created a strange, transcendental album where pastoral folk meets psychedelic electric freak outs, richly layered with field recordings and trippy detours. This is one hazy ride where the songs weave into each other with no clear start or ending, making it an endless voyage into the unknown.

Paêbirú is literally impossible to track down on LP, but fortunately it’s available digitally. Put it on one of these blistering hot summer evenings, close your eyes and drift away into a dense jungle of mystery and magic.

Songs: Ohia: Magnolia Electric Co.

Songs: Ohia: Magnolia Electric Co.
(Secretly Canadian, 2003)

Jason Molina was the best songwriter of the 2000s, and Magnolia Electric Co remains not only his finest work, but stands as a beacon of modern American storytelling. Fifteen years down the road, this album still burns with an eternal flame. It begins dim: “The whole place is dark/Every light on this side of the town/Suddenly it all went down/Now we’ll all be brothers of the fossil fire of the sun/Now we will all be sisters of the fossil blood of the moon,” and it ends as the “lonesome whistle whine.”

The lyrics are dark, the songs heartbreakingly expressive, and the including some wonderful guest vocals by English singer-songwriter Scout Niblett and country artist Lawrence Peters. It’s also a transitional album, on the way from Molina’s lo-fi origins under the moniker Songs: Ohia to a fuller, working-class band sound as Magnolia Electric Co. Whatever he named his projects, Molina had a tight grip on the American music mythology, which he closely intertwined with his Rust Belt surroundings.

Such were his personal demons part of the geographical landscape he knew so well: the abandoned factories, the dismal towns, the taste of gasoline and the odor of hopelessness, as he was writing about a people, a culture and a landscape torn between rural downfall and post-industrial struggle.

Jason Molina dug deep in the darkest corners of the human mind. He wrote 21st century blues about crossroads and back highways, shadows and ghosts, the moon above and hell below. He unveiled the loneliness inside our hearts and the emptiness that surrounds us. And he did so with a clear vision and a beating heart that bled clear through his shirt and dripped into ours.

In March 2013, the world lost a original voice – and his peer has yet to be found.

John Zorn – Bar Kokhba: Lucifer

John Zorn – Bar Kokhba: Lucifer
(Tzadik, 2008)

Ranking among the most enjoyable and popular projects from the highly productive avant-garde composer John Zorn are his works with the Bar Kokhba ‎Sextet, made up of the Masada String Trio – violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander and bassist Greg Cohen – and featuring Mark Ribot on guitar, Joey Baron on drums and Cyro Baptista on percussion. Needless to say, this is a brilliant cast of musicians from the New York Downtown scene performing some of the most melodically rich and accessible music in Zorn’s wildly eclectic catalog.

Lucifer: Book Of Angels Volume 10 is a laidback and gentle journey of traditional Jewish harmonies, klezmer jazz and classical chamber music with smooth flavors of spaghetti westerns, latin rhythms and surf rock.

There’s not a dull moment here. This album flows like a lush breeze into an eternal sunset.

Karen Dalton: In My Own Time

Karen Dalton: In My Own Time
(Paramount, 1971)

The story of Karen Dalton is not paved with gold or glitter. But her music continues to amaze and inspire new generations of music lovers.

Dalton didn’t write much of her own music – acting more as an interpreter than a songwriter – and she only cut two albums during her lifetime: 1969’s It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best and 1971’s In My Own Time. Raised in Oklahoma and Kansas, Dalton entered the Greenwich Village folk circuit in the early 1960s, where she befriended the likes of Fred Neil, Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan. In My Own Time was recorded in Bearsville Studios, Woodstock with a great group of musicians and a wonderful set of songs. But it failed commercially, and Dalton drifted away and faded into obscurity, living a rough life, partly on the streets, fueled by her drinking and drugs habits. She passed away due to AIDS related illness in 1993 at only 55 years old.

Often dubbed “a folk singer’s answer to Billie Holiday,” Dalton’s hauntingly beautiful and bluesy voice matches her wide open musical approach, blending folk, country, soul and jazz, exemplified here with George Jones’ “Take Me” and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Marvin Gaye hit “How Sweet It Is.” Highlights include the stunning opener “Something On Your Mind” and the dark, mournful and sparsely accompanied folk classic “Katie Cruel.” Karen Dalton was a transcendental singer, leaving no listener untouched.

Such a shame there were so few of them while she still was alive, in her own time.

Terry Callier: What Color Is Love

In the early 1970s, Chicago singer-songwriter and jazz guitarist Terry Callier cut three astonishing albums for the Chess Records subsidiary Cadet: Occasional Rain and What Color Is Love (both 1972), and I Just Can’t Help Myself (1974). Here Callier fully displays his masterful ability to intertwine folk, rock, soul and jazz, and What Color Is Love shines particularly bright among the three.

This is a kaleidoscopic album of timeless beauty and enduring quality – sublime orchestration, funky grooves and lush arrangements add further texture to Callier’s rich, mellow voice and exquisite songwriting. In 2012 Terry Callier passed away at the age of 67, and despite being re-discovered by the British acid jazz scene in the early ’90s, he never really got the recognition he deserved.

He ranks up there with (his childhood friend) Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Gil Scott-Heron, and on ‘What Color Is Love’ he outshines them all. Just put on the epic opener “Dancing Girl” and check out for yourself.