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Monthly Archives: November 2007

After a stint learning the dub craft from innovator King Tubby in the late ’70s, Scientist began mixing his own sessions, coming up with a more wide-ranging and effects-riddled sound than that of his mentor. One of a handful of choice Scientist albums on the Greensleeves label, Rids the World of the Curse of the Vampires (1981) not only ably displays the mix masters varied approach, but clocks in as one of his best outings. While Scientist heeds Tubby’s minimalist call with “strictly drum and bass” cuts like “Night of the Living Dead” — spotlighting tightly wound guitar and organ chords for body — he also expands things with a sunny mix of horns and bubbly keyboards on “The Mummy’s Shroud” (as hard as it is to imagine sunshine with a ghoulish title such as this).

Even without horns, Scientist keeps things lively with plenty of reverb and echo-treated percussion, ghostly piano parts, video game sound effects, and other various wobbly interjections from the mixing board. Pointing to his originality, Scientist doesn’t just apply a few tweaks here and there, but heavily reworks the basic tracks — here laid down by the fine Roots Radics band and produced by Henry “Junjo” Lawes (Don Carlos, Frankie Paul) — then deftly integrates his panoply of effects into the cut-up mix.

And adding to the record’s expert evocation of the Halloween spirit are some fiendishly voiced intros, the cover art’s cartoon potpourri of horror film characters, and the dubious claim made in the liner notes that Scientist mixed it all at midnight on Friday the 13th (reach for the flashlights kids). Along with Keith Hundson’s Pick a Dub and Lee Perry’s Blackboard Jungle Dub, this excellent Scientist release is one of the essential dub albums available.

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SCIENTIST-SCIENTISTS RIDS THE WORLD OF THE EVIL CURSE OF THE VAMPIRES
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The blitzing “Pimp My Pyramid” scheme. The pulsing honeycomb. The tiny metal heads bobbing up and down. The Lite-Brite leather jacket reveal. The dude in front of me who wouldn’t let a pair of crutches stop him from dancing as if the apocalypse were mere minutes away. The sensual explosion that was Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 show is difficult to overstate– or reproduce. Even with the biggest, flattest, sharpest HD set-up, there’s no way to sufficiently recreate the most exuberant LED-laden music blowout ever staged. So Daft Punk didn’t even try: There will be no Alive 2007 DVD.

Commenting on the decision, Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter recently told Pitchfork, “The thousands of clips on the internet are better to us than any DVD that could have been released.” And, in many ways, the Alive tour is a perfect match for YouTube– the ancient Egypt by-way-of “The Jetsons” spectacle barrelling its way through shitty compression quality with blinding force. But still, even the most hectic web clip can’t equal the French duo’s visceral sound-and-vision assault, so the focus of Alive 2007 falls on the reason why Daft Punk were allowed to lug 11 tons of equipment around the world for the last 19 months in the first place: their music. Playing like a flawlessly sequenced and paced greatest hits album, this full-set Paris recording from June finds Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo connecting the booms among their three albums while officially cementing one of the year’s most rewarding and welcomed comebacks.

Lest we forget, before the out-of-nowhere debut of the now-iconic 3D triangle in April 2006, it seemed like Daft Punk lost the plot. The monster riffage and mind-numbing gloom of 2005’s Human After All had our favorite party-starters turning downright nihilistic. And early screenings of their art-house opus, Electroma, evoked (unfortunately accurate) comparisons to Vincent Gallo’s on-the-road/oral sex epic Brown Bunny (except with endless scenes of hunk-o-metal ennui filling in for the graphic oral sex). After the shattering pop breakthrough of 2001’s Discovery, Daft Punk were going through an especially angsty adolescence– their spit-shined heads way up their own asses. But then, amped-up with enough electricity to illuminate a black hole, French house’s masked men upstaged Madonna, previous electronic pioneers Depeche Mode, and (ironically) Kanye West at 2006’s Coachella. And now, they’re everywhere (except Gap ads, thankfully)– getting sampled on no. 1 hip-hop songs, filling magazine spreads, spawning worthy would-be successors and, of course, owning the internet (on Flickr, Daft Punk photos currently outnumber Justin Timberlake snaps 2:1). With a bounty of latent good will on their side thanks to the incredible re-playability of their first two albums, Daft Punk finally gave fans a million flashing reasons to fall in love with them all over again.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Alive 2007 is how well it recontextualizes career nadir Human After All, turning previously leaden songs into ebullient rock’n’roll manifestos; injected with Homework’s air-tight Moroder-style anthems or Discovery’s flamboyant funk, Human After All tracks are constantly improved and born anew. The live set doesn’t simply run through the hits, mindlessly segueing from one smash to another. Instead, well-worn favorites are glued together, cut-up and mashed into pieces. The titular refrains of “Television Rules the Nation” and “Around the World” combine to form the globe’s most dance-friendly TV station theme song before the Black Sabbath crunch of “Television” is sent down upon the impossibly buoyant “Crescendolls”, resulting in the disc’s most unlikely-yet-spectacular roller coaster peak. Meanwhile, the creepy hiss of “Steam Machine” is atomized and given space-age dynamics, turning it from a oddball bore into a fist-pumping celebration of the industrial age. Wisely, the duo also know when to let the bass be, allowing large portions of unfuckwithable classics like “Da Funk” and “Burnin'” to work their magic with little robo-meddling. Even without video, Alive 2007 is an exercise in exacting excess, from the blaring “Robot Rock” intro to a wide-eyed power-booster of a encore that layers “One More Time” atop “Music Sounds Better With You”– a combination so “holy shit” ecstatic it would seem downright cocky if it wasn’t so blissful.

Talking about the relationship between artist and audience, Bangalter told Paper, “Robots don’t make people feel like there’s an idol on stage. It’s more like a rave party where the DJ isn’t important. We are two robots in this pyramid with this light show, but everything is [meant] for you to have fun and enjoy yourself.” He’s absolutely right about the “have fun and enjoy yourself” bit, but the Alive tour separated itself from the millions of DJ parties before it by drawing attention to a fixed point while incorporating everything from KISS-esque pomp to Space Invaders retro-future shock. The results were massive– the myriad “best show ever” kudos deserved. And, just as they hold back their identities at every chance, it makes sense for Daft Punk to hold back the Alive visuals; when more and more mystery is constantly being sucked out of popular music thanks to the insatiable hunger for fresh product and up-to-the-nanosecond information, the duo aren’t about to release an imagination-stifling DVD filled with behind-the-scenes tour bus inanity. It’s a noble choice, especially when the consolation prize happens to be the Ultimate Daft Punk Mixtape.

-Ryan Dombal, November 20, 2007

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DAFT PUNK-ALIVE 2007
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Of the countless New Jersey bands to emerge from the New York City underground during the post-punk era, few if any were as unique and influential as the Feelies; nerdy, nervous, and noisy, even decades later their droning, skittering avant-garde pop remains a key touchstone of the American indie music scene. Named in reference to Aldous Huxley’s paranoid classic Brave New World, the Feelies formed in 1976 in suburban Haledon, NJ, where singers/guitarists Bill Million and Glenn Mercer first met while in high school; bassist John J. and drummer Dave Weckerman rounded out the original lineup, although they were replaced in 1977 by bassist Keith Clayton and drummer Vinny Denunzio. The revamped group soon made its N.Y.C. debut, quickly creating a buzz throughout the city’s new wave circuit — a Village Voice headline even dubbed them “The Best Underground Band in New York.”

Drummer Anton Fier replaced Denunzio in 1978, and a year later the Feelies cut their debut single, “Fa Ce-La,” for the British indie Rough Trade. Their refusal to work with outside producers jeopardized their immediate hopes for a major-label deal, however, and so their brilliant 1980 LP, Crazy Rhythms, instead appeared on another U.K. indie, Stiff; the record’s manic melodies, jittery rhythms, and opaque lyrics made it a huge critical favorite, and although it made little impact outside of underground circles, many latter-day acts — R.E.M. chief among them — cited the album as a major influence. Still, Crazy Rhythms’ commercial failure sat badly with Stiff, which began pressuring the Feelies to produce a hit single; the pressure ultimately forced the group into a kind of suspended animation, with Fier soon exiting to join the Lounge Lizards and later mounting the Golden Palominos.


Deep Fascination

With the Feelies out of action for the better part of the early ’80s, the remaining members turned their focus to a variety of side projects — in 1982, Million and Mercer reunited to compose the score to Susan Seidelman’s film Smithereens, concurrently playing in a series of Jersey-area bands including Weckerman’s new outfit Yung Wu, the Trypes (which issued the 1984 EP The Explorers Hold), and the instrumental Willies. Finally, Million and Mercer reactivated the Feelies banner in 1983, reuniting with Weckerman as well as two of their Willies bandmates, percussionist Stanley Demeski and bassist Brenda Sauter; still, the revitalized group’s performance schedule was sporadic at best, limited primarily to holiday appearances. Finally, they entered the studio with producer Peter Buck of R.E.M., releasing the folky The Good Earth on Coyote in 1986.

That same year, the Feelies appeared in director Jonathan Demme’s film hit Something Wild; combined with critical praise for The Good Earth, the group’s raised media visibility caught the attention of A&M, which released the follow-up, Only Life, in 1988. Time for a Witness followed in 1991, but on July 5 of that year the Feelies played their final show at the Hoboken club Maxwell’s — soon after Million unexpectedly moved to Florida without telling any of his bandmates, not even leaving a forwarding address. In the months to follow Demeski began playing in Luna, Sauter worked with Speed the Plough and Wild Carnation, and Mercer and Weckerman re-teamed in Wake Ooloo; when that band fell apart in 1998 after three LPs for the Pravda label, the duo again joined forces to form another new unit, Sunburst.

Even the cover is a winner, with a washed-out look that screams new wave via horn-rimmed glasses, even more so than contemporaneous pictures of either Elvis Costello or the Embarrassment. But if it was all look and no brain, Crazy Rhythms would long ago have been dismissed as an early-’80s relic. That’s exactly what this album is not, right from the soft, haunting hints of percussion that preface the suddenly energetic jump of the appropriately titled “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness.” From there the band delivers seven more originals plus a striking cover of the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” that rips along even more quickly than the original. The guitar team of Mercer and Million smokes throughout, whether it’s soft, rhythmic chiming with a mysterious, distanced air or blasting, angular solos. But Fier is the band’s secret weapon, able to play straight-up beats but aiming at a rumbling, strange punch that updates Velvet Underground/Krautrock trance into giddier realms. Mercer’s obvious Lou Reed vocal inflections make the VU roots even clearer, but even at this stage of the game there’s something fresh about the work the quartet does, even 20 years on — a good blend of past and present, rave-up and reflection. When the group’s later label, A&M, finally got around to reissuing the album for the first time stateside, a curious bonus was included: a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” recorded by the later lineup of the band in 1990. Mercer’s voice is noticeably different from his decade-old self, but it’s an enthusiastic rendition not too far out of place.

by Ned Raggett, Allmusic.com

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The Feelies-Crazy Rhythms
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The Who performing “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” in the Rolling Stones’ 1968 ROCK N ROLL CIRCUS.

It certainly wasn’t by design that the South Bronx-based group ESG affected post-punk, no wave, hip-hop, and house music. They opened for Public Image Ltd. and A Certain Ratio, they released records on the same label as Liquid Liquid, they had their music sampled countless times, and they became a playlist staple at ’70s dance clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Music Box. The group’s only aspiration was to play their music — simplistic in structure and heavy on rhythm — and sell lots of records.


circa 1981

The Scroggins sisters — Deborah (bass, vocals), Marie (congas, vocals), Renee (vocals, guitar), and Valerie (drums) — formed a group with the support of their mother, who bought instruments to keep her daughters busy and away from trouble; at the time, each sibling was teenaged. Basing their sound on a mutual love for James Brown, Motown, and Latin music, the sisters went through a number of name changes before finally settling on ESG. “E” stood for emerald, Valerie’s birthstone; “S” stood for sapphire, Renee’s birthstone; and as for “G,” well, neither Deborah nor Marie had a birthstone beginning with that letter, but they did want their records to go gold. After permanently adding non-relative Tito Libran to the lineup as a conga player (some male members came and went prior to this), ESG was officially born.


ESG returns in 2006

The group began by learning and playing songs by the likes of Rufus and the Rolling Stones; they also learned from watching music programs like Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and Soul. The Scroggins’ mother had barely scraped up enough cash to buy those instruments, so she didn’t have enough left to get them music lessons. The group entered talent contests and even won a few of them. After performing at one particular New York show that they did not win, a judge named Ed Bahlman, the owner of 99 Records (a record shop and a label that included Y Pants, Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, and Konk on its roster), was impressed enough to take them under his wing as a manager and producer. At this point, ESG had a few of their own songs. Figuring people would know when they screwed up a cover, the group decided to write their own songs in order to sidestep audience knowledge of when mistakes were being made.

Bahlman booked ESG at punk clubs. The group’s sparse, heavily rhythmic, and unpolished sound fit right into the New York scene in which Bahlman’s label was a significant factor. They debuted in 1979 at a place called the Mechanical Hall. A four-song repertoire was all they had to work with, and after those songs were over, the crowd asked for more. The same four songs were played over again. At another early gig, ESG opened for the Factory label’s A Certain Ratio. ESG didn’t know A Certain Ratio from A Tramp Shining, but Factory head Tony Wilson asked the openers if they’d like to record something for his label. This resulted in You’re No Good, a three-song single produced by Martin Hannett. The songs — “You’re No Good,” “UFO,” and “Moody” — remain the group’s best-known material. These three songs are among the best to have come from New York’s no wave scene, a scene that ESG had little business being part of. ESG wasn’t self-consciously arty and they didn’t come from a punk background; they simply wrote and played their music without conceptualization. None of this matched with the no wave bands, but the sound the group made certainly did.

The three songs from the Moody 7″ were issued in the States on 99 with three live songs from a Hurrah’s appearance added. A year later, 99 issued another three-song single in the form of ESG Says Dance to the Beat of Moody. This proved to people too dear to Factory and Hannett that the group had their own sound down and didn’t need any outside influence or manipulation. A good debut LP, Come Away with ESG, came in 1983 and continued in the vein of the previous releases. After that, the group went dormant for several years. One major factor was Bahlman’s decision to shut down 99. A legal battle with Sugarhill over Grandmaster Flash’s sampling of Liquid Liquid’s “Optimo” caused him financial and mental stress, with Sugarhill’s fall into receivership — and inability to award 99 their due settlement — acting as the final straw.


ESG today

ESG would soon become victims of uncleared samples as well. In fact, there was a period during the early ’90s when rap singles using the siren sound from “UFO” seemed more common than ones that sampled James Brown. ESG resurfaced for a number of small-label releases during this period, and a 1993 release was pointedly titled “Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills.” Throughout the ’90s, ESG’s stature as an influential group began to rise, with groups like the Beastie Boys and Luscious Jackson citing them as a profound discovery. The value of the group’s rare early releases responded in kind, which was remedied somewhat by the U.K.’s Soul Jazz label. A South Bronx Story, a compilation that included all the group’s best material, was released in 2000. The renewed interest helped lead to another resurfacing that culminated in a 2002 album, Step Off, for Soul Jazz. With a revamped lineup that included Renee Scroggins’ daughters, Nicole and Chistelle, Step Off was met with the consensus that the group had picked up exactly where it left off.

-Andy Kellman, Allmusic.com

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ESG-A SOUTH BRONX STORY VOL. 1
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