Black Power, Resistance and Consciousness in Album Cover Art

black_power_1200The birth of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s marked the beginning of a social, political and cultural revolution that drastically changed American society.

What began as a peaceful and pacifistic movement aimed at ending racial segregation, embodied by protest marches, sit-ins, Freedom Riders and figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., gradually evolved and splintered into a more militant climate. While legal and symbolic victories like the defeat of Jim Crow laws were major milestones of progress, they did not necessarily lead to better living conditions for the common man, and from the mid-1960s onward many started seeking different strategies for socio-political empowerment, leading to the rise of Black nationalism.

Black nationalism and separatism challenged the Civil Rights Movement, with ‘Black Power’ used as a strong political slogan emphasizing racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions. Key leaders of this movement included Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Along with intensified friction within the different fractions, the combination of inner city riots, the Vietnam War and economic downtimes added fuel to the fire in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And there’s a straight line connecting that era and the ongoing debates about police brutality, economic inequality, mass incarceration, underrepresentation and other major disadvantages still facing African Americans in 2016.

Black Power had a significant impact on pop culture and music, not the least of which occurred in the decade between 1965 and 1975.

In his book Listen Whitey! The Sights and Sound of Black Power, Pat Thomas writes: ‘As the Black Power movement expanded, it influenced established artists such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and the Isley Brothers. The movement would shape the voice of emerging songwriters like Sly Stone and Gil Scott-Heron (…). It would force Jimi Hendrix (…) to reconsider his apolitical stance. There would be rank-and-file Black Panther members like Nile Rodgers of Chic and Chaka Khan of Rufus who would go on to pop music fame in the 1970s.’

Below are just some album covers with a discernible message related to Black Power, resistance and consciousness, albums as worthy of seeing as they are worth listening to, chronologically connecting Max Roach and Gil Scott-Heron with Nas and Kendrick Lamar.

* * *

Max Roach:
We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite
(Candid, 1960)

This avant-garde jazz album led by drummer Max Roach consists of five parts concerning the Emancipation Proclamation and the growing African independence movements of the 1950s. All Music Guide calls the record a ‘pivotal work in the early-’60s African-American protest movement [that] continues to be relevant in its message and tenacity. It represents a lesson in living as to how the hundreds of years prior were an unnecessary example of how oppression kept slaves and immigrants in general in their place.’ The cover references the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement: a black-and-white photograph of three black men in a diner, staring directly into the camera while being tended by a white waiter behind the counter. The image might seem like an ordinary scene today, but in 1960 it was certainly meant as a political and provocative statement.

Elaine Brown:
Seize The Time – Black Panther Party
(Vault, 1969)

Songwriter and pianist Elaine Brown was among the most noteworthy musicians to emerge from within the Black Panther movement. Her debut album, Seize the Time, includes the Panther anthem “The Meeting.” In a 1970-printed ad for the album, Brown herself writes: ‘Songs are a part of the culture of society. Art, in general, is that. Songs, like all art forms are expressions of feelings and thoughts. A song cannot change a situation, because songs do not live or breathe. People do. And so the songs in this album are a statement – by, of and for the people. All the people.’ The cover was made by Panther-illustrator Emory Douglas and it’s strikingly symbolic both in the use of the AK-47 (a symbol of solidarity with the North Vietnamese) and the fact that the hands holding the gun are wearing nail polish. In other words, black and female power combined.

Sun Ra:
The Nubians of Plutonia
(Saturn Research 1959/1966; below cover featured on 1974 Impulse re-release)

The Nubians of Plutonia dates back to the late 1950s, when it was originally recorded, but it wasn’t released for almost a decade, ultimately on Sun Ra’s own Saturn label in 1966. It’s a groundbreaking cosmic jazz masterpiece its own right, laced with tribal African grooves and hints of funk and space-age exotica, but the main reason for featuring the album here is the stunning artwork from the 1974 reissue on Impulse. The label acquired the rights to 21 albums originally made on Saturn, cleaning up the sound and providing them with brand new full-color covers, and the design for The Nubians of Plutonia is especially wonderful, embracing its afro-centric focus in line with the pan-African vibes of the era.

Gil Scott-Heron:
A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox
(RCA, 1970)

Gil Scott-Heron was only 21 years old at the time of his debut album’s release, a poignant and politically passionate set of spoken-word, percussive rhythms (bongo drums and congas) and proto-rapping recorded live in a New York City nightclub located at the address indicated by the title. The album, along with Scott-Heron’s greater career, is widely considered a presage of hip-hop, and includes the iconic and heavily-sampled “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The black-and-white cover photo by Charles Stewart captures Scott-Heron in a back alley, with a written introduction on him as the centerpiece: ‘He is the voice of the new black man, rebellious and proud, demanding to be heard, announcing his destiny: ‘I AM COMING!”

The Upsetters:
The Good, The Bad And The Upsetters
(Trojan, 1970)

Not exactly a cover referring to anything associated with the Black Power movement, but a wonderful shot in its own right with The Upsetters posing in Spaghetti Western garb. This album stirred conflict on a different matter, though. The Upsetters were the house band for legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and the original U.K. edition of The Good, The Bad And The Upsetters was released on Trojan in 1970 without Perry’s involvement. Angered by this, Perry issued another version of the album in Jamaica using the same Trojan album artwork but with totally different songs on it.

Joe McPhee:
Nation Time
(CjR, 1970)

This free jazz masterpiece by saxophonist and trumpeter Joe McPhee, once described by The Guardian as ‘a grinning punk cousin to Miles Davis’s brutal and brilliant Bitches Brew,’ is closely connected to the emerging Black Power movement. Nation Time was recorded live at the Urban Center for Black Studies at Vassar College in 1970, where McPhee himself taught classes in ‘Revolution in Sound.’ The album sounds as groundbreaking today as it did back in 1970, and is a total must-hear. On the cover, shot by photographer Ken Brunton, McPhee is posing in a Black Panther-style outfit, holding the saxophone instead of a gun, in front of an old slave-shack. Bringing the African call-and-response tradition into the Black Power movement, McPhee shouts out the rhetorical question, ‘What time is it??,’ in the title track, with the audience enthusiastically chanting back, ‘It’s Nation Time!!’

Isaac Hayes:
Black Moses
(Stax/Enterprise, 1971)

Black Moses is the fifth album by legendary soul singer Isaac Hayes, following up his soundtrack to Shaft with yet another chartbuster. This was his second double-LP of 1971, his second consecutive release to top the Billboard R&B chart, and his second consecutive Grammy-winner. Stax Records boss Dino Woodward is credited for coming up with the ‘Black Moses’ tag. As pulled from the book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records: ‘Dino said, ‘Man, look at these people out there,’ explains Isaac. ‘Do you know what you’re bringing into their lives? Look at these guys from Vietnam, man, how they’re crying when they see you, how you helped them through when they was out there in the jungle and they stuck to your music. You like a Moses, man. You just like Black Moses, you the modern-day Moses!’ Hayes himself disapproved of both the title and the concept, but changed his mind after release. The LP itself came in iconic packaging: a fold-out, cross-shaped cover showing him as a modern-day Moses. “It raised the level of black consciousness in the States,” he later said. ‘People were proud to be black. Black men could finally stand up and be men because here’s Black Moses, he’s the epitome of black masculinity. Chains that once represented bondage and slavery can now be a sign of power and strength and sexuality and virility.’

The Last Poets:
This is Madness
(Douglas, 1971)

Closely linked with the Black Panthers and Black Nationalism, The Last Poets performed their live debut in Harlem in May 1968, at an event marking the recent killing of Malcolm X. They described their music as ‘jazzoetry,’ combining jazz, poetry and rapping. The cover for This is Madness, in striking colors and raised fists, is a painting by Abdul Mati and based on a photograph by Bilal Farid.

The Pharaohs:
The Awakening
(Scarab, 1971)

Rooted on the South Side of Chicago, The Pharaohs were closely connected to Chess Records (the esteemed label known as a quality stamp for funk, blues, rhythm & blues, jazz and soul), formed in part by a group called the Jazzmen and the Afro Arts Theatre and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. On the back cover they describe their debut album as ‘the sounds of the pygmies blended with the Soul Sounds of 39th street in Chicago.’ The cover itself is mixes Egyptian imagery (a style Earth, Wind and Fire later would employ) and pan-African interest. From the flipside of the LP version: ‘Once upon a time there is a group of young men who came together and formulated a dream. They dared to dream that hey could create an approach to the arts that would encompass their experiences in America, the soul of their motherland… Africa, and the spirit of the oneness of the Universe.’

Pharoah Sanders:
Black Unity
(Impulse!, 1971)

Gigging with the likes of Don Cherry, Sun Ra and John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders turned out to become one of the most revolutionary jazz saxophonists of all time and a key figure in pioneering astral jazz. Black Unity is truly essential listening, a 37-minute long, tight, rhythmic and energetic improvisational piece that fully embraces the pan-African ideals of the time. All Music Guide describes it as ‘pure Afro-blue investigation into the black sounds of Latin music, African music, aborigine music, and Native American music.’ The multi-ethnic musical amalgam and spiritual freedom is equally reflected in the music, the title and on the front cover.

Bob Marley & The Wailers:
Soul Revolution Part 2
(Upsetter, 1971)

Soul Revolution Part 2 was released in Jamaica, as a kind of sequel to Soul Rebels the year prior, and was a part of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ collaboration with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. The album, not properly released outside of Jamaica for several decades, found them moving further away from their ska and rocksteady roots and into an early form of reggae. Their growing social concerns are being elevated to new heights with this original album cover art, showing the band dressed in full guerrilla warfare outfit, armed and ready for action. The rifles were perhaps fake, but he imagery is still as stark today.

The Watts Prophets:
Rappin’ Black In A White World
(Ala, 1971)

The West Coast equivalent to Harlem’s The Last Poets (above), The Watts Prophets (from Watts, Los Angeles) is a group of musicians and poets. Beginning in the late 1960s, their combination of jazz and socially conscious poetry made them (like The Last Poets) among the forerunners for establishing hip-hop as a music form. Actually, the title itself is supposedly the first time ‘rappin’ came into use, and The Watts Prophets have been described a living bridge from the Civil Rights of the ’60s to the Hip Hop generation of today.

Miles Davis:
On the Corner
(Columbia, 1972)

It received lousy reviews, didn’t sell, and has been called ‘the most hated album in Jazz.’ But history has proven many of the worst critics wrong, and today On the Corner is rightfully considered one of Miles Davis’ best and one of the most influential albums of all time. Miles mixed rock, jazz and funk in a way that is hailed as a proto-album both for hip-hop and electronic music, and All Music Guide says ‘the music on the album itself influenced every single thing that came after it in jazz, rock, soul, funk, hip-hop, electronic and dance music, ambient music, and even popular world music, directly or indirectly.’ Miles Davis aimed to reconnect with the African-American communities for this album, and the cover art mirrored the social transformations of the time. He also named one of the tracks “Mr. Freedom X,” in reference to Malcom X.

Huey Newton:
Huey! Listen, Whitey!
(Folkways, 1972)

Huey P. Newton, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party, was arrested in the late 1960s on charges of shooting a police officer. An album in two parts, Huey! is a representation of the support Newton received from the Panthers and other members of the community during his trial, while Listen Whitey! chronicles the reaction of the black community immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unrehearsed, the people’s voices on this album offer an unblemished glimpse of two difficult moments in African American history. The album’s cover shows Stokey Carmichael at the lectern of the Oakland Auditorium in February, 1968, speaking at the “Free Huey Rally.”

Eddie Kendricks:
People… Hold On
(Tamla/Motown, 1972)

Led by the club hit “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” the second solo album from the former Temptations vocalist Eddie Kendricks turned out to be his breakthrough. The album cover is a remake of the iconic photo of Huey Newton, conceived by Eldridge Cleaver, with Kendricks sitting in a large African chair, spear in hand.

Jimmy Cliff:
Struggling Man
(Island, 1973)

The title might refer to the strife Jimmy Cliff went through following the death of his producer Leslie Kong’s in 1972. As All Music Guide writes: ‘it’s the intensity of the singer’s struggle during this period that fuels this set, his pain, confusion, and turmoil are raw, packing the set with an emotional intensity that he’ll never quite equal elsewhere.’ The album cover itself combines his emotional turmoil with inner city despair. The drawing by David Dragon shows a rather grim street with empty-looking faces strolling behind Cliff as the focal point. A struggling man, in a struggling world, this is a great reggae album with an iconic cover.

Curtis Mayfield:
There’s No Place Like America Today
(Curtom, 1975)

This album cover is based on a famous photograph by Margaret Bourke-White of flood victims, originally published in the February 15, 1937 edition of LIFE magazine. When David Bennun revisited this underrated classic for The Quietus, he wrote of the cover: ‘He couldn’t have picked a more apt one; the record evokes its own time and place as surely as the picture represents the chasm between American dreams and street-level reality. 1975 was, for many in the cities of the USA, a particularly wretched time, one which even now carries the aura of winter, of hangover, of chills and meanness and struggle.’

Steel Pulse:
Tribute to Martyrs
(Island, 1979)

Tribute to the Martyrs is the second studio album by English roots reggae band Steel Pulse. The album cover, illustrated by Jene Hawkins and designed by Bloomfield & Travis (Barrington Levy, John Cale), is packed with socio-political references. The scene’s background features an alternative Mount Rushmore-styled carving of seven heads, composed of Malcolm X, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, Emperor Haile Selassie and others, who look over an island-dwelling family exploring their homeland.

Bad Brains:
Bas Brains
(ROIR, 1982)

The first LP by Bad Brains is a seminal masterpiece. The D.C. band of African-American Rastafarians, in itself an anomaly in hardcore circles, came to be known as pioneers in the way they fused punk, hard rock and reggae. Their debut album is not only considered a masterpiece in the evolving of hardcore, but stands out as one the strongest albums of its decade no matter the genre. Commonly known as one the fastest albums ever recorded at the time of its 1982 release, this crucial record features classics cuts like “Banned in D.C” and “Pay to Cum.” And of course its striking yellow, green and red cover art depicting the dome of the United States Capitol building being split apart by thunder and lightning.

Public Enemy:
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
(Def Jam, 1988)

On their iconic second album, Public Enemy set out to make an updated version of Marvin Gaye’s socially conscious What’s Going On, with the goal to ‘teach the bourgeois and rock the boulevards.’ This landmark LP, one of the greatest, most important and influential hip-hop albums ever made, sports an equally striking cover art of Chuck D and clock-wearing Flavor Flav behind bars. No way any jail could stop this revolution.

The Roots:
Things Fall Apart
(MCA/Geffen, 1999)

Things Fall Apart was The Roots’ breakthrough album, earning them a Grammy and Platinum sales, and hailed as a cornerstone for conscious rap. They borrowed the album title from the highly acclaimed 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, considered an essential writer on African identity, nationalism and decolonization. The default album cover (it came in five different versions) is a picture from the 1960s, shows police chasing two African-American teens on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn during a riot. Art director Kenny Gravillis later described it like something the urban community could really relate to: ‘Seeing real fear in the woman’s face is very affecting. It feels unflinching and aggressive in its commentary on society.’

Dead Prez:
Let’s Get Free
(Columbia, 2000)

The debut album by politically-charged hip-hop duo Dead Prez has been called the most politically conscious rap since Public Enemy, raising awareness of inner-city issues like racism, police brutality, education and political injustice. They also touch on Pan-Africanism in their lyrics (‘I’m an African/Never was an African-American’) and the Black Panthers (‘I don’t believe Bob Marley died from cancer/31 years ago I would’ve been a panther/They killed Huey cause they knew he had the answer/The views that you see in the news is propaganda’). Their call to action, revolution and Black liberation is clearly reflected in the album cover, an photo of South African schoolchildren raising their rifles during the 1976 Soweto uprising, fighting for their right to education under an oppressive regime.

(Columbia, 2008)

Nas changed the title of this album from the full N-word to just calling it Untitled, keeping the N brandished into his back depicting the whippings common in the age of slavery. In a 2008 interview with CNN, Nas explained how he didn’t seek out to upset on the original title, but rather to upend a society that focuses more on pejoratives than the racial plights that spawn them: ‘There’s still so much wrong in the whole world with people – poor people, people of color – I just felt like a nice watch couldn’t take that away, make me forget about that. A nice day on a yacht with rich friends couldn’t make me forget about reality, what’s going on. That’s why I named the album that – not just that the word is horrible, but the history behind the word, and how it relates to me, how it’s affected me, offended me.’

Kendrick Lamar:
To Pimp a Butterfly
(Aftermath/Interscope, 2015)

This feature end with one of the most strikingly symbolic album covers of recent times: Kendrick Lamar holding a baby in front of the White House with a group of basically shirtless young men flashing cash and champagne (and what appears to be a dead or passed out white judge laying on the lawn underneath them). To Pimp a Butterfly is packed with references of black American music and culture, including some of the albums and artists already mentioned above. This is the picture of the aftermath of the very same black revolution first subtly indicated by Max Roach on top of this list, seeking the same kind of liberation and freedom that has here finally been crossed out like the eyes of the judge.

* * *

Sources & Links of Interest:

Pat Thomas: Listen Whitey! The Sights and Sound of Black Power, 1965-1975 (Fantagraphic, 2012)
Giles Peterson and Stuart Baker: Freedom Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz Original Album Art 1965-83 (SJR, 2009)
Ashley Kahn: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (Granta, 2006)
The Independent: Heart on sleeves: 50 years of Jamaican album covers tell the story of a nation
Dangerous Minds: Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses – The Story of One of the Greatest Album Covers Ever
The Quietus: Revisiting Curtis Mayfield’s There’s No Place Like America Today
42 Reggae Album Cover Designs: The Art & Culture of Jamaica
Complex: Art Director Kenny Gravillis Tells the Stories Behind The Roots’ 5 “Things Fall Apart” Album Covers
Let’s Get Free: Living Hip-Hop History Fifteen Years Later
The Guardian: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album cover: an incendiary classic
Smithsonian Folkways

Yo La Tengo = Genius + Love

Det er vanskelig å ikke bli personlig når man skal holde en liten tale i forbindelse med et porselensbryllup.

Første forelskelse var med en EP som het President. Det skjedde i 1989, og side 2 førte til et langvarig hakeslepp grunnet det da ukjente bandet (selv om de hadde et par album bak seg allerede) Yo La Tengo fra Hoboken, rett over elva for New York City. Den bikkjelange feedback-orgien ”The Evil That Men Do”, avrundet med Bob Dylans ”I Threw It All Away” ble starten på et langt og varig kjærlighetsforhold.

Forlovelsen kom året etter og gikk under navnet Fakebook. Den inneholdt akustiske coverversjoner fra Gene Clark, John Cale og The Kinks til The Flamin’ Groovies og Cat Stevens, en aldeles nydelig plate som gjorde det klart at vi her hadde å gjøre med band som gikk utenpå de fleste amerikanske indierockere på den tiden. Og sannelig har det vist seg, snart 20 år gamle – en anstendig alder for denne formen for musikk – står Yo La Tengos låter seg forbausende godt. De tidlige tingene deres er (naturlig nok) preget av en mer rastløs lo-fi skrangling, men modningsprosessen krever på ingen måte kronologisk kunnskap.

De to nevnte platene skulle likevel bare vise seg å være en begynnelse. Helt inntil noe skuffende Summer Sun (2003) har trioen hele tiden utviklet seg, funnet nye veier der de har finpusset sitt eget sound, blitt bedre og bedre i det som har vært en bemerkelsesverdig stødig og solid karriere. Basert som en powertrio i indieformat har de tatt opp i seg innflytelse fra shoegaze, krautrock, drømmepop, bossa nova, støyrock og electronica, og flettet det inn til å bli en del av sitt eget uttrykk – med en egen stemme. Noe av det som slår meg i gjennomgangen av deres karriere er det sensuelle, myke elementet som preger alt fra de innbydende balladene til de mest utagerende støyeaksjonene. Det er en melodiøs intimitet, en følsomhet, som gir Yo La Tengo et fortrinn og et solid fundament i forhold til mange av deres likesinnede. Inntil de selv ble et referanseband er selvsagt linken til Velvet Underground sterk, sammen med røttene i new wave/indierock-scenen og band som Eleventh Dream Day, db’s, Sonic Youth, The Feelies og Stereolab.

Hør Legende: Yo La Tengo i WiMP

Yo La Tengo har gitt så mange store opplevelser i løpet av sine anstendige 20 år som artister. Jeg må dele et par med dere. Mitt gylne øyeblikk med Yo La Tengo er knyttet til en ørkesløs busstur gjennom midt-vesten i USA midt på nittitallet, med President EP rundt skallen. Etter døgn med flatt, akkurat i solnedgangen, akkurat i det øyeblikk “Orange Song” langsomt dro i gang, raget plutselig Rocky Mountains opp i det fjerne, som en mektig, nærmest hellig åpenbaring som ble ytterligere understreket av musikken.

Et annet, om ikke så majestetisk minne er knyttet til en tidlig intervjusituasjon. Dette var noen år senere, og jeg hadde blitt forespeilet en samtale med ekteparet Ira Kaplan og Georgia Hubley – bandets kjerne, låtskrivere og frontfigurer. Da jeg ankom hadde de blitt huket tak i og fraktet vekk av NRK, og jeg “fikk” bassist James McNew med inn på et bakrom. Den hyggelige bamsen var ikke direkte avvisende, men gjorde det raskt klart at han ikke likte å bli ’intervjuet’, at han heller ville vært på hotellet og sett The Simpsons, og at vi strengt tatt ikke hadde noe som helst å prate om. Det ble en svett halvtime innestengt på et 3 kvm stort rom. Vår lille samtale kom aldri på trykk – men konserten de spilte i etterkant ble noe av det beste Oslo kunne by på i løpet av 90-tallet. Det er på scenen Yo La Tengo virkelig lever. Enten det er gjennom lange gitarorgier, eller med vakre popdrømmerier, enten Georgia hvisker innbydende inn i mikrofonen eller Ira lar gitarens muligheter alle komme frem i løpet av 10 minutter lange orgier. Dette har de i stor grad klart å overføre også på plate, med eklektiske I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997) og stillferdige And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) som to søyler. Med den labre konserten på Rockefeller i 2003, en relativt uspennende sisteplate (Summer Sun) og nå en samler, kan man bare spekulere på om de igjen vil by på øyeblikk av magi. Det vil de nok. De har uansett en karriere bak seg få andre er forunt, og med Prisoners Of Love får vi et lite utsnitt fra denne.

Prisoners Of Love: A Smattering Of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003 (Matador, 2005)
Det er ikke lett å sammenfatte hele bandets bredde på 2-3 CD’er, og for et ikke akkurat ’singleband’ blir det heller ingen ’greatest hits’. Det vil nok derfor være mer tilfredsstillende å hengi seg til en skikkelig fullengder, men her er det i hvert fall mulig å få et overblikk over karrieren (selv om rekkefølgen virker tilfeldig). Det er ikke så mye å klage på selve låtutvalget her, det blir litt personlig, tilfeldig og meningsløst uansett. Matador kunne plukket 20 andre uten å svekket inntrykket, men Prisoners Of Love vil lett fungere både for nye og gamle ører. Sistnevnte får sitt med bonus-CDen som inneholder ’outtakes and rarities’. Den vil i første rekke appellere til de som kjenner bandet godt fra før, selv om bare en håndfull er uutgitte eller nye. Dessverre selges den ikke separat etter det jeg vet. Her er det plukket frem 16 uutgitte spor, singler, remikser og sjeldenheter. Av de mer kjente låtene finner vi demoversjonen av ”Big Day Coming”, en akustisk variant av ”Tom Courtenay” og ”Decora”, samt Kevin Shields remix av “Autumn Sweater” (som også var med på bonusplata til I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, 1997).

På de to ordinære samleplatene har de klemt inn 26 låter. Fordelingen er skjønnsomt og jevnt fordelt, fra singlen ”The River Of Water” (1985) til Summer Sun (2003). Alle skivene er representert med, med unntak av debuten Ride The Tiger (1986) og ambiente The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science (2002). Nestenhits som ”Autumn Sweater”, ”Tom Courtenay” og ”Stockholm Syndrome” er selvsagte. Bandets bredde fremheves med covervalg fra Sun Ra (den uventede favoritten, rytmiske ”Nuclear War” fra 2002) og Sandy Denny (”By The Time It Gets Dark”). Har man alle platene fra før, og det synes jeg man bør ha, er det sikkert mulig å sette sammen en mer personlig samler på egenhånd, men slik vil det alltid være.

Hvis man skal summere; genius + love = Yo La Tengo. De kan svinge, støye og drømme, de kan være et frelsesarméorkester hos Hal Hartley og de kan avholde sin egen åttedagers festival med gjester som Calexcio, Richard Hell og Conor Oberst. Yo La Tengo er et av de siste store bandene fra sin tid, og de er blant de få som har vokst med stil. Jeg gir tilnærmet full pott til denne samleren, ikke bare på grunn av musikalske kvaliteter, men også for å oppmuntre nye lyttere til å oppsøke trioen, for en helhetlig og pen utgivelse og som takk for et snart 20 år langt ekteskap.
(først publisert på, 21.04.05)

Summer Sun (Matador, 2003)
Hvis Summer Sun hadde vært debutplaten til en fersk trio fra New Jersey så ville det kanskje vanket flottere ord med større patos enn tilfellet nå er. Den harde realtieten er at det ikke finnes mange band som har levert varene så trofast over så lang tid som Yo La Tengo.

Ekteparet Ira Kaplan/Georgia Hubley har helt siden EPen President (1989) hatt en konstant formutvikling som hele tiden har pekt opp og fram. Den akustiske coverplaten Fakebook (1990), de gyngende gitarkaskadene på Electr-O-Pura (1995), omfangsrike I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997) og dampende mørke And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) står som de høyeste pålene i bandets karriere. Det er derfor man stiller litt ekstra krav til at Hobokens største etter Sinatra igjen skal levere varene, og det er derfor skuffelsen nok blir urettferdig stor når man for første gang på mange år merker at de tilsynelatende ikke etterlever de store forventningene. Ta det likevel med litt med ro, platen vokser – ikke i plutselig byks, men den kommer sakte sigende inn under huden hvis man tar seg tid.

Summer Sun følger i stor grad sporene etter den stemningsfulle forgjengeren. Man bør derfor ikke la seg lure av låttitler som “Beach Party Tonight” og “Moonrock Mambo”, for dette er en plate som i stor grad ikler seg høstlige farger. Denne gangen har de også for første gang (bortsett fra på Fakebook) frigjort seg fullstendig fra gitareksessene til Kaplan. I stedet har de døst inn i et behagelig drømmeland der detaljene som eksisterer i bakgrunnen er mer sentrale. Platen er stort sett bygd opp ved hjelp av forsiktig rytmebruk, hviskende vokal og stillferdig instrumentering som rører innom både electronica, jazz og søvnig sambapop.

I tillegg til den sedvanlige produsenten Roger Moutenout, har de også med seg bred bistand fra blant andre Lambchops Paul Niehaus (pedal steel), fiolinist Katie Gentile fra Run On, samt trompetist Roy Campbell Jr og saksofonist Daniel Carter, begge fra Other Dimensions In Music. De to sistnevnte er særlig hørbare på ti minutter lange “Let’s Be Still”, som nikker høflig til jazzmestere som Roland Kirk og Yusef Lateef.

Det er nok av øyeblikk med hypnotiske detaljer og svale partier på Summer Sun, dannet ved hjelp av lag med baklengse gitardroner, casio, rytmebokser og piano. Funk-instrumentalen Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo løser opp stemningen litt over halvveis, og ‘tredjehjulet’ James McNew gjør en av sine sjeldne vokalprestasjoner på “Tiny Birds”, uten at det akkurat markerer et savn. Slik trioen nå står frem er deres sterkeste kort likevel i Georgia Hubleys søvndyssende-morfinstemme. Hun leger som vanlig alt som er vondt, så også på “Today Is The Day”, luftige “Winter A Go-Go” og platens vakreste spor “Take Care”. Det er til gjengjeld skrevet av Alex Chilton, og befinner seg på Big Stars klassiker Third/Sister Lovers (1975). Her står endelig Yo La Tengo frem på sitt aller skjønneste i et par minutters tid. Hubleys vokal, den melankolske melodien og Niehaus’ pedal steel er det som skal til.

Yo La Tengos plater har ingen holdbarehetsdato, og kan med letthet plukkes frem igjen når som helst. Summer Sun har kvaliteter som gjør at den vil stå seg over tid, og hvis jeg ser solen om noen år vil jeg være den første til å trekke min litt lunkne holdning tilbake. Av praktiske hensyn må likevel platen omtales mens den er relativt fersk, og jeg har så langt ikke vært i stand til å gå helt ned i knestående av den.
(først publisert på, 28.04.03)

Bjørn Hammershaug