Album: Artist (label, release date) 1-5 stars
Fela Kuti: Best Best Of Fela Kuti (Wrasse, August 8, 2005) *****
Pilot: Two’s A Crowd (BMG Japan, August 8, 2005) ***
The Plimsouls: One Night In America (Oglio, August 8, 2005) *****
Mouse On Mars: Autoditacker (Too Pure/Beggars Banquet, August 8, 2005) *****
Fela Kuti: Best Best of Fela Kuti
In every generation, in every genre of music worldwide, there are the rarified genre-definers; the masters, the popularizers, the spokespersons, the innovators. When one thinks of reggae, one thinks of Bob Marley; when one thinks of modern jazz, one thinks of Miles Davis, when one thinks of Chicago blues, one thinks of Muddy Waters, when one thinks of Tropicalia, one thinks of Caetano Veloso, and so on. Nigerian Fela Kuti, or just Fela as he was usually known, is one such figure. Towering above anyone else on the continent for musical vision, innovation, popularity, notoriety, political stance, and overall influence, Fela is the very definition of Afrobeat, the dominant African musical export of its day, a hardcore funk rhythm with soul overtones applied to indiginous musical tradition. It was embraced by many of the most intelligent and outward looking musicans around the world; in the rock/pop/jazz world his influence can be heard in Miles Davis’ 70’s work, the Police, the Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and many others. Fela was not only a master singer, musician, producer, arranger; he was a radical and an outlaw; an enemy of the state for championing the causes of a free Africa in the face of harsh (and western-supported) military regimes. He was always in-your-face about it too, at risk to his very life. Fela died in 1997 not from an assassin’s or government’s bullet or bomb, but from complications of AIDS at the age of 59;
For those who haven’t heard Fela, essential for anyone who has a serious interest in musical evolution, or those who have no idea where to start among his countless records, Best Best of Fela Kuti is as fine an introduction as any. A career-spanning double-disc, the lion’s share of are lengthy jams from the 1970’s, his greatest era, it represents much of the cream of his work. While three of these jams (which were usually side-long on the original albums) have been edited down to fit, which may disturb purists, it enables the disc to give a broader overview of his different styles and grooves than a single, unedited album would, and even with the edits (imperceptible, unless you’re familiar with the original), the tracks average 13 minutes each. “Shakara” will grab you in seconds with its taut beat and township jazz horn section, “Shuffering and Shmiling Pt. 2” a good primer on his politics, and the surrounding material will enlighten, inspire, and funkify your life. This re-issue of Best Best of Fela Kuti originally appeared in 1999 on Universal (with different artwork) and kick-started an extensive reissue campaign; Wrasse is also re-issuing 7 other albums with this release.
Pilot: Two’s A Crowd
On the opposite side of the spectrum from Fela is Pilot, a very non-funky melodic 70’s soft-rock group from England (the members were Scottish). Often compared to Badfinger, Pilot was actually a good deal lighter-weight, perhaps better thought of as a mid-70’s Air Supply, and their appeal was brief. Their biggest hits were “January”, which reached #1 in the U.K. in 1975 and its predecessor, “Magic”, a top 20 hit in the U.K. The core members of the band, bassist/singer David Paton, guitarist Ian Bairnson, singer/synth player/flutist Billy Lyall and drummer Stuart Tosh were all capable musicians, and Pilot’s records did have little kernals of interesting moments, but their cult today remains very small, particularly in America, where they never had a hit. However, the cult that they do have may be pleased to know that the band’s hard-to-find final album, which appeared on Arista in 1977 after EMI dropped them (and never appeared in the U.S.), is available again in limited release with a cardboard sleeve. Only Paton and Bairnson remain from their debut; both were also simultneously doing session work on I Robot by the Alan Parsons Project and providing backing vocals to Wings’ “Mull of Kintyre”, which led to further fruitful sessionwork for both. The single was “Get Up And Go”, a fine piece of Beatle-esque power pop, and the rest of it is tuneful enough; 70’s soft-rock fans with a sweet tooth will like it. The band’s advance money for this album vanished in a trick of mismanagement, which hastened their breakup.
The Plimsouls: One Night In America
One Night In America, originally released in 1988, has always been a recording of somewhat mysterious origin; even Peter Case isn’t sure exactly where or when it was recorded, although he suggests it was probably recorded in Cleveland, most likely while the band was still with Geffen following their lone Geffen release, Everywhere at Once. The Plimsouls was Case’s second band follwing the breakup of the Nerves, and specialized in a meaty mix of power-pop, Byrdsy roots rock, bar band rock, and British Invasion tunefulness, delivered with an aggressive punch. Their Geffen album was their biggest, and remains the easiest to find, although its glossy production worked to the detriment of the band’s strengths and failed to sell despite a big push. One Night In America is a much better example of how the band really sounded, with swagger to its rhythms, grit in the vocals, and spectacularly honed and inventive vocals from Case, who also gets some good duel guitar action with Eddie Munoz on every track. Not only doesn’t the band sound slick, like the Geffen album does, it sounds dangerous, in the best rock ‘n’ roll tradition. Newcomers may only know “A Million Miles Away”, but the disc is chockablock with great songs, especially “I Want What You Got” and “Hush Hush”, plus an intense cover of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”. Sound quality is what you might expect (although it has been remastered), but it doesn’t get in the way of the music.
Mouse on Mars: Autoditacker
90’s experimental band Mouse on Mars, from Germany, specialize in a sort of revived Kraut-rock mixed with dub, jazz, and hints of jungle and ambient, working the same neighborhood as 90’s tourmates/labelmates Tortoise, although the bands have a very different sound and approach. They are a demanding listen; their albums tand to be busy affairs with a lot of instrumentation and studio inventiveness, but they consistently provide rewards to closer listening. Their music is an organic/studio hybrid; gifted musicians who play well as an ensemble, they also use many of the techniques of electronica, turning their music into something more abstract. Defiantly uncommercial, Mouse on Mars have always followed their own muse, one reason why their cult loves them, and defiantly released much of their work on vinyl only. Autoditacker was one of a trio of 1997 releases, and was contoversial among hardcore fans for being the most programmed and studio-oriented; some were disappointed, others swear this is their best. “Sui Shop” has a great bassline and keyboard playing from Mars, “Scat” features echoed and distorted staccato chords, “Twift Shoeblade” is a masterpiece, vaguely recalling Can’s best work, with a filtered sax over drum ‘n’ bass footing. Autoditacker, despite its controversial position in Mouse on Mars’ pantheon is probably a good album for a newcomer; its alien soundscapes may be disorienting at first, but given a chance, it’ll give you a whole new concept of what a groove can sound like.
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