Transporting Music Across Race Lines
Five Acts with Almost Nothing Else in Common, Except That They’ve Delighted Me in September 2008
Especially given that rock & roll more or less started with a white man from Memphis who pre-fame had to say the name of his high school on local radio so the listeners would know he wasn’t black, and with a black man whose guitar had a decided twang to it, it’s striking (except that it’s also entirely commonplace) that nearly all rock genres have been identifiable as black or white. Doo-wop was racially integrated, sometimes even within groups, but that was over by 1961. Since then, transgressors have stood out. The Righteous Brothers and Jimi Hendrix. Arthur Lee and Rare Earth. Beastie Boys and Bad Brains. Things got so bad in the ’80s that even Prince had trouble getting play on AOR radio — and the first time WNEW played “Little Red Corvette,” a couple months before the single was released, I figured it must be some other act called Prince, probably a group. It sure didn’t sound like “1999” or “Controversy” to me. Things were so bad just a few years ago that I can’t even come up with a contemporaneous counterpart to Eminem, without bringing up that joke about him and Tiger Woods.
One reason that AOR heads must have hated Disco in the ’70s is that it wasn’t segregated — audience segments surely had their preference, but it was all Disco. White-led integrated Miami-based KC & the Sunshine Band were as authentic as black-fronted German/Italian-produced Donna Summer, and Chic and even the Bee Gees did significant work there, too.
So I consider it news when suddenly five of the seven or eight albums I’ve gotten into in the last six weeks play against racial type. In order of when I got into them, there’s Black Kids’s Partie Traumatic, Stew’s Passing Strange Original Cast Recording, Kimya Dawson’s Alphabutt, Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals and TV on the Radio’s Dear Science.
This is a significant groundswell, even if it portends nothing, even for my own listening. A coincidental surge in the midst of a long-brewing tendency, maybe. But it’s still weird, especially given how far-flung their genres are.
Stew has been melding singer-songwriter and cabaret in an indie-rock context (highly white-identified tendencies all) for over a decade (first album, leading group The Negro Problem, in 1997: Post-Minstrel Syndrome), although that he’s hit Broadway I guess the indie-rock part is history — like Stephin Merritt, it always seemed to me that he came up in that world because that’s who would have him, which is one great thing you can say about indie-rock since Nirvana. Because both labels and audiences are willing to some risks, and because the stakes start out tiny, there’s generally room for weirdos who need it.
Kimya Dawson was the black (and adult, and female) half of the folkish (or at least acoustic-leaning) indie-rock duo Moldy Peaches, whose years of home recordings culminated in one oustanding eponymous album in 2001 before she and Adam Green parted ways. She’s since made several solo albums that prove she was both the brains and heart of the outfit. And apparently having hit Hollywood hasn’t changed her indie-rock status.
Black Kids are an integrated college-age group from Florida, led by brother-sister black kids. The guy sings like Robert Smith of the Cure, but with, to paraphrase forgotten race transgressors 3rd Base, soul coming out his asshole. The band’s sound comes straight out of mainstream ’80s Brit-inflected synthpop, but with more hooks and verve than any of them could even manage on their best-of’s.
Girl Talk is Greg Gillis, a white DJ who may have now made the two best albums ever to come out of Pittsburgh (please, no letters, Iron City Houserocker fans, and I’m not counting all the jazz greats born there because they all had to get out first, as did Andy Warhol, and I have nothing against the city; it’s the only city I’ve spent significant time in that’s neither on the I-95 DC-Boston corridor, nor on the California coast.) His game is mashing up black rappers (the more distateful the better, apparently) against layers of pop, r&b and even indie-rock classics that you sometimes need a scorecard to ID and sometimes jump right out at you. Actually, I’m not certain Girl Talk belongs here, since turntablism has long leaned white (and Asian) and Girl Talk obviously learned a lot of his shit from Steinski, aka Steve Stein (whose collected works are available on a stellar 2-disc set highly recommended to anyone who thinks they’d like that sort of thing, or anyone who likes to laugh and/or think while shaking ass at the same time.
TV on the Radio are an integrated indie-rock band with prog tendencies all over the place.
So these five albums sound about as different as any five I’ve liked this year, and three of five are also modest departures for the acts themselves.
Kimya Dawson sang a very raw punk “Little Bunny Foo Foo” on The Moldy Peaches, and has often been inspired by and recorded with the clientelle of her family’s cottage-industry day care center (and, quite amusingly, got my then-3-year-old singing along with “Who’s Got the Crack?”) (for more on my daughter’s musical tastes, check out this letter I wrote to NPR., a response to this article.) Plus, Dawson gave birth two years ago. So an all-out children’s album fits in with the rest of her ouvre a lot better than do most rockers’ kiddie moves. And I bet none of them have either dared this many fart jokes (everyone should hear Alphabutt‘s title cut at least once, and I bet most of them make it at least three times). And I’m pretty sure that none of them have dared closing with a Socialism-for-Kidz closer like “Sunbeams and Some Beans.”
I’ve been enthralled by Stew twice on two pretty different stages. Far more than any of the other four artists in this post, he confronts his racial paradoxes and contradictions head-on. In fact, his Passing Strange musical/concept-rock-concert/cabaret-writ-large is largely about his racial identity. His best song, from a previous album, is “Rehab,” which says a lot more than Amy Winehouse’s song, or even Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion,” maybe because it’s entirely third-person, about one of the white bohemians who’ve helped him figure out his personal blackness. But the one that really cracked me up live was one where he confronted his largely white audience’s racial preconceptions head-on. The tone is clear from the title: “Black Men Ski.” But it helps if you can see him pantomiming cross-country. But whether it’s his making the most of his shot at the big time, or just a context that lets him exploit his strong narrative gift and an irony that’s always rooted in a 47-year-old life that’s been filled with confusion, relish and variety, this is easily the best album I’ve heard from him, the first that doesn’t just sow acceptable songs around a few standouts. It tells a story worth telling, and if there are few standouts, nearly every song holds up on its own, which is always the test with big concepts, not to mentions songs conceived more for stage than recording.
TV on the Radio kind of don’t belong on this list anyway, because it’s only by veering away from prog on album three that they’re attracting me for more than a song or two at a time — they’ve taken an interest in and/or mastered funk movement and punk momentum. But since punk momentum is still damn fuckin white-identified, and because few people of any race have figured out how to combine it with funk movement, TVOTR deserve their place in the transgressive pantheon. Their first album, way back in 2005, was challengingly harsh and difficult, making it hard to tell if their murk was worth sloshing through, which it turned out to be at least a third of the time. The followup focused their tendencies into something like real provocation, highlighting their rare great lyrics and injecting passion into their calculation. Now they’re giving what-for. Prog rockers, and classical enthusiasts, always boast about how much has to go into creating and listening to their music. And sometimes they’re even right about that. But I expect my art to be a two-way street. If it doesn’t give me back energy, liveliness, ideas, it’s not worth what I’d need to put into it. So I’m glad that not only is TVotR’s new music a lot more fun as foreground and casual as background, but that it gives their still-prog textures and structures a richness I doubted they were capable of. In fact, my favorite part maybe be at the end of the last track, a lovely two-minute woodwind-fledged coda that’s like “Little Drummer Boy” meets Philip Glass meets some earlier 20th century composer (Britten? Ravel? Stravinsky?). I love me the right Philip Glass at the right moments, but this usually ain’t my kind of thing, so I’m delighted that punk and funk can help TVotR make this stuff signify.
Girl Talk’s Feed the Animals I’m still getting into (I went to label Illegal Art’s site, where you can theoretically download the tracks free, and I paid what they wanted for download+CD, but the download failed several times and three weeks later I haven’t gotten the CD). His music has so many parts it took weeks for me to sort out 2006’s excellent Night Ripper, so I’ll just mention a few so-far favorite parts — Lil Jon shouting “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit” over the organ part from “Whiter Shade of Pale” (“Still Here”), DJ Funk(who?) intoning “pump that shit” over “Gimme Some Lovin'” leading into the intro from “Let Me Love Open the Door” soon getting to Lil Mama egging on Twisted Sister and then Lil Wayne punctuated by Edwin Starr before he’s underpinned by Sinead O’Connor. (“Play Your Part (Pt. 1)” . Rod Stewart’s last rock & roll gasp “Young Turks” over Ahmad’s long-forgotten “Back in the Day.” (“Shut the Club Down”) And that’s all from the first three tracks. This shit ain’t gonna do anything for anyone’s ADD, but anyone who ever thought that someone could create a mesmerizingly associative montage out of the right channel-surfing will get kicks out of this for a long time.
MORE: How about Quad City DJ’s “C’mon Ride It” over first Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” and then ? & the Mysterians’ “96 Tears”? Leading into Kelly Clarkson punctuated by Nine Inch Nails. “Whoomp! There It Is!” over “In a Big Country”, anyone?
And then there’s the Black Kids, the most surprising album here, and having nothing to do with race, although that does add an additional d’yanu twist. Most bands even this young have either been so immersed in indie top-that cool, or have been wrung and processed through a level or two of corporate handlers and filters that if anyone ever thought they sounded innocent they’re half-faking it by the time they make the record gets out. But Reggie Youngblood & friends only formed the band two years ago, and an appearance at a regional festival and then MySpace exposure have accelerated their careers — they sound like they sang the songs before they had any idea how said songs would inevitably change them. In a remarkably, genuinely and probably accidentally Beatlesque way, they sound fresh-faced like so little pop, certainly not like the attenuated, irony-laden ’80s-British-Invasion stuff their music intentionally sounds like. “I’m not gonna teach him how to dance with you,” could sound like a clever, ironic twist on teen romance (which would still leave it a great line), but the way Youngblood sings it, it just feels like an urgently practical matter. Similarly “Love, love, love me already!” could be someone’s admission that they’re not as detached as they pretend, that they know it’s a ridiculous thing to demand. But here it just sounds like raw impassioned exasperation, a last-ditch plea. With hooks that don’t quit and sonics that don’t merely ape the sounds of yesteryear, but teach them new tricks, actually re-creating the pleasure and surprise that made the stuff fresh and fun in the first place. This isn’t entirely unique in late-aughts pop — teen rapper Soulja Boy achieved something similar last year, admitting the two-way nature of relationships with girls he respected enough to admit he needs, and even with teachers he admits he needs enough to try to negotiate with. But as enjoyable as his stripped-down throwback hip-hop is, it’s not half as catchy or tricky as the Black Kids’.
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Tags: Black Kids, Girl Talk, Kimya Dawson, Stew, TV on the Radio