Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"They're never gonna know that I move like hell" (why D'Angelo covering that Zeppelin song makes ridiculously perfect sense)

The story goes that swans are silent their entire lives, then cry out once, only when they are dying.

It’s not a true story, mind you—swans are loud and make grating honk noises—but it’s pretty and sad, and that’s why we hold onto it. In 1974, Led Zeppelin named their sparkling new post-Atlantic label Swan Song in tribute to the (untrue) swan-death myth. The label’s logo, a winged, brolic angel crying in pain, is taken from a painting done in tribute to the swan-death myth. The actual myth is Greek, and says that in ancient times, just before Apollo’s birth, a flock of swans circled overhead exactly seven times, singing. Apollo was the god of music; his birth was a glorious event and swans announcing it seems just right. But at some point the story got flipped. A "swan song" is now a death cry—a wrong, ironic meaning that’s now forever part of the Zeppelin story. D’Angelo emerged a couple weeks ago in Tennessee and covered Zeppelin, a glorious event. Somethingsomething Jesus, resurrection, the people rejoicing. The part in D'Angelo's story where the irony comes in is when he put out an album in 2000 with songs about hair pulling and ass smacking (track 3), and something about wetness and thighs (you know the track). The label that released it: Virgin.

D’Angelo’s set at Bonnaroo contained nothing from Voodoo except for a snippet of "Chicken Grease." But because it's D'Angelo, earnest and sober (I think?) and in front of some keys, the audio from the show is still on daily rotation in my headphones thanks to the download link that’s not too hard to find (GO NOW, if you haven’t already GO GO GET IT GO). The setlist contains nothing surprising—Mayfield, The Time, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Parliament of course. The Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” fits in especially nicely, with its weird words and that great drum break after each bar. But it’s his version of Led Zeppelin’s "What Is and What Should Never Be" that lifts the set into next-levels territory. The track bangs, yes, satisfying my heart's need for grown-man emo and my lower body’s need for bass. But it also satisfies my hungry nerd brain, because its back story makes it such a logical choice for him to cover.

A D’Angelo-Zeppelin meetup was probably bound to happen. Voodoo was recorded at Electric Lady studios; most of Zeppelin’s albums were mixed there. Jimmy Page and D’Angelo are both Rhodes guys, calm and bosslike on the instrument. Robert Plant and D’Angelo each had unpleasant periods involving car crashes and general coke mayhem. And "What Is…," a dreamy little number at its beginning, settles into that mid-tempo BPM that D'Angelo always slays so easily. "Devil's Pie" has a BPM of 90; "Me and Those Dreamin' Eyes of Mine" is 87. "Lady" is 85, and so is the Zeppelin song. "Do do, bop bop a do-oh," wails Plant at the end of it. The part could be lifted from a Soulquarians vamp session and you wouldn't know the difference. "My my my my, my-my yeahhh." You wouldn't know the difference. D'Angelo and Robert Plant are men who are both fluent in Rural Southern--even though the commonwealth of Virginia is a little too close to Yankee territory for it to be taken seriously as a bluesy place, and Plant is from a town in the English midlands famous for its carpets.

D’Angelo is uncomfortable with his burden of sexiness. I know this from reading Questlove interviews. His public persona is almost swaggerless when it comes to sex (almost). Plant is much more comfortable with his aura of steam and lust - he wrote "What Is..." during his Tolkien-obsession phase and somehow managed to inject unsexy hobbit mythology into Sonny Boy Williamson-esque heavy-riffed gut punchers that he'd sing to willing, sexy girls in the third row. Plant became obsessed with Welsh culture in the late '60s, druids and the like, mysticism, paganism. (Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when pagans have historically witnessed the sunrise at places like Stonehendge, marking the event with ceremonies celebrating fertility. So, this post could've just as easily been about D'Angelo and Spinal Tap.) The thing in the song that "was" but that "should never be," according to rumor and speculation and this is as good as the gospel to music dorks, is, hold up now: Plant's relationship with his wife's sister. Well goddamn. The theme of forbidden desires could therefore link Zeppelin's "What Is..." with every D'Angelo-tagged post on MediaTakeout (D'Angelo's own forbidden desires being, of course, narcotics, fatty food and mouthsex). But this is too easy, too shallow. It's more interesting to consider that Tolkien, like D'Angelo, grew tired of the fans who loved his dumbed-down work. He saw himself primarily as a scholar, not a fairy-tale writer, and he hated that The Lord of the Rings was his biggest success. He would not have cared for Robert Plant's great fondness for Mordor.

Written in a Tolkien haze, the thing that makes "What Is and What Should Never Be" so satisfying as a song covered by D'Angelo of all people is the very specific type of alienation shared by the two men. They are both people whose messages get distorted when they try to talk to us. "Everybody I know seems to know me well," goes the closing verse, with the punchline being that nobody who bought their books/albums actually does. For D'Angelo it was his abs, for Tolkien it was his fantasy writings; they both felt a deep resentment for being praised for what they felt were their least important achievements. Tokien's Hobbit and LOTR were his attempt to construct what he referred to as a "body of myth" - which happens to be exactly the same phrase used by ladies in describing D'Angelo's form in the "Untitled" video, much to his dismay.

I am neither a pagan nor a Pentecostal at this point. Things are still cloudy for me, belief-wise. Though if God actually exists he will obviously one day fulfill my dream of hearing D’Angelo do the Ohhhh, oh-oh-ohh-ohh-OHHHH to open "D'yer Mak'er." Its BPM is 90. He'd kill it.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

It’s Funky Nerdy Enough: 5 Beautiful LA-Centric Record Finds from Beat Swap Meets Past

The next Beat Swap Meet will be far enough in the future that I’ll have forgotten about the failures of the 2011-12 Los Angeles Lakers. Until then, to cheer up my sad sad heart, I’m revisiting some of my luckiest finds from the last few BSMs I’ve attended.

1. The D.O.C., No One Can Do It Better (Ruthless, 1989). $8.

The Lakers got swept by the Pistons during the '89 NBA Finals. The city’s self-respect took a beating, but I bet you No One Can Do It Better dropping a few weeks later made LA feel better about itself. There should be no shame for LA’s fans during the ’88-’89 season anyway, since at least the team made it to the final round that year. (This is a situation with which I am unfamiliar when it comes to the 2011-12 squad. SIGH. VAMOOSE, GASOL.)

The D.O.C. was from Texas, but he established his brand here and created an album that was absolutely made for thumping out of an Escort’s subwoofers in stop-and-go traffic, so his LA credentials are strong. No One Can Do It Better is production heaven—not to take anything away from The D.O.C.’s nice rasp or solid flow that I just realized is very KRS-ish, but I have a weak voice and a terrible flow and even I would sound great over a late-80s Dre beat. The album is rarer than its $8 price tag would lead you to believe; the true test of a good find is in how many “OHHHHs” you get from the other attendees when you walk around the swap meet with it under your arm, and I must’ve gotten 10 or 12 the day I got it. It contains the phrases “on the hype tip” and “I don’t fess,” plus an Air Jordan flight jacket on the cover, all of which places it squarely at the tail end of the Reagan era, but it bangs, STILL, now, forever, always. It also contains the words “Ruthless representation: Jerry Heller,” to which I respond Uhhh yeah, no kidding, and then something about Ice Cube and vaseline. These days, The D.O.C.'s songs mostly turn up in skate videos and Radio Los Santos when you're toggling through your weapons in San Andreas. But this at least means you and your 14-year-old cousin have new common ground. And that Kings hat on the cover is pretty prescient since they’re about to maybe win the Stanley Cup.

“The Almighty Father, my family, MC Ren” (??). Ice Cube, Yella, Eazy, and the production guy are fourth, fifth, sixth, and (ouch, Dre!) seventh, respectively.

2. Willie Hutch, The Mark of the Beast (Motown, 1974). $3.

Willie was also from Texas and made his name in LA. His voice wasn’t scratchy like The D.O.C.’s, though—Willie had this powerful, achy sweetness to his instrument. Ask Juicy J or me to describe its beauty sometime, even though you might regret it once we get started. Geeked up off Willie, that's me and J. 

The Mack soundtrack is a guaranteed find at any BSM, though probably in the form of the dreaded reissue. Nobody respects that. The Mark of the Beast, though, was never reissued and is therefore a rare one. And I got it, because that's just how things work out for me. Ha ha. The sleeve was wrinkly on the open end, like bong resin had spilled all over it and someone panicked and tried to flatten it out to dry. But the vinyl itself is incredibly free of scratches, allowing the album’s walking-down-the-street bangers to really shine. “Get Ready for the Get Down” will make you feel like a ‘70s god—Michael Corleone in a nice wool suit—or, ladies where you at, a ‘70s goddess like Cleopatra Jones or Raquel Welch. Or maybe Farrah if that's more your thing. In any case, you have your choice of self-esteem-raising jams here. “Don’t You Let Nobody Tell You How to Do Your Thing,” Willie says, to which I respond You got it, daddy and Don't worry, I would never let anybody do that to me. Plus he’s so closely aligned with Three 6 at this point, the whole first side of The Mark of the Beast sounds like Project Pat’s about to come in with the hook.

3. Cannonball Adderley, The Black Messiah (Capitol, 1972). $9.

Stronnnnngly Los Angeles, this one. It came with a Chevron card and a QP. I adore it. Recorded live at the Troubadour in 1970, produced by David Axelrod from Los Angeles, California, with Mike Deasy (from LA) on guitar (he also played on the The Age of Aquarius and Pet Sounds). I don’t cyber-dig, but I do cyber-lurk, and few things in life are as satisfying as going to online record stores, typing the name of something I already own into the search box, and seeing “Sorry, this selection is currently unavailable” show up. The Black Messiah is one such jewel in my collection. It’s got Tribe’s “Infamous Date Rape” break on it, it’s pleasurable as both background/washing-the-dishes/folding-laundry-in-the-living-room and headphone music, and, because it’s live, you get all the between-song banter that Adderly’s band engaged in, talking to the audience. “We’re gonna not...discuss it,” Adderly says, regarding the band's tightness, “We’re just gonna look at each other and say 'Yeah’.” Or, as you and I know it, "Ain't nuttin to it but to do it," which can be attributed to either MC Eiht or Snoop, depending on who you ask and which neighborhood that person's from. The fact that nobody’s used the piano/drum break that opens “The Chocolate Nuisance” is terribly disheartening. But the fact that there is a song called “The Chocolate Nuisance” immediately cheers me up.

4. Bill Withers, Just As I Am (Sussex, 1971). $2.

Humans! Now THIS is how a man comes out the gate! Debut album, side A, track 1: “Harlem,” a stomping thoroughbred of a song that for some reason has not shown up as a break on a mixtape from a Dipset capo nor A$AP Rocky. Despite the song tribute, Just As I Am is not a Harlem album. It’s universal in its appeal. Bill was from West Virginia and probably wanted the record to remain free from geographic allegiance so that everybody could enjoy it equally. But LA can claim Just As I Am because of its sunshiny feel and the fact that it was recorded at Sunset Sound, which is still in use today—nestled on a block that contains the very, very LA trifecta of a Pizza Hut, a Catholic school, and the Psychiatry: An Industry of Death museum, run by the Scientology Center.

“It’s OK to head out for Wonderful, but on your way to Wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through All Right,” Withers says in the bio-doc Still Bill, “And when you get to All Right, take a good look around and get used to it, ‘cause that may be as far as you’re gonna go.” Description of your daily life is what you put on a Bill Withers record for—getting up, going to work, people messing with your heart, people making your heart leap out of your chest, errands, daydreams, and (cover your eyes, Mom) the moaning and groaning of daily pleasures. He provides the score in the land of All Right With Touches of Wonderful, home to 99% of us. And my dad had a lunchbox just like the one on the cover. Listen, I love hearing “No Church in the Wild” in the car on the way to Trader Joe’s, but when I get to Trader Joe’s, I love knowing that Bill Withers is the kind of guy who I might see in line there. (Kanye ain’t going to Trader Joe’s – he sends his assistant. And besides, he’s definitely a Whole Foods guy).

5. The Miracles, Do It Baby (Tamla, 1974). 99¢.

Recorded at Motown’s LA studio, this was snatched up based on the strength of the back cover, which includes the names Hal Davis, Leon Ware, and most appealing of all, Christine Yarian - lady songwriter in the male-dominated world of songwriting, she gets the utmost respect from this writer (lady record-obsessor in a world dominated by male record-obsessors). Ask me about her sometime, then stand back. Gone off that Yarian, that's me.

“Give Me Just Another Day” is the best song on here, sampled by Phonix Beats in “Phenomenon” by Schoolboy Q, who is currently enjoying his hold on bloggers’ hearts and making your little cousin claim Hoover. The song was also used by Boi-1da and Don Cannon, and its horns-guitar-strings intro has played in my head during numerous walks down the street on hot days. Motown's LA output generally gets very little respect, but Do It Baby is solid and underrated. Smokey Robinson warned Berry Gordy about earthquakes in an attempt to keep him from moving Motown here in ‘72. “Nice try, Smokey,” I’m pretty sure Berry said, “but have you seen the women in LA?”

The next Beat Swap Meet will be June 10, 2012. Buy me a drink.