Picking up a recording you've never heard of, let alone one by a group you've never heard of, can be an iffy proposition. On occasion you will strike it rich and find an unexpected treasure, but just as often you'll end up striking out so badly you wonder what could have caused the momentary madness that inspired you to select that particular recording.
Sometimes it's the enticement of the inclusion of performers who you know and respect, if not by first hand experience, then at least by reputation. When a few of them are combined into one project, sometimes the temptation is too hard to resist. When the words “underground,” “experimental,” and “innovative” are added to the mix, well I defy anyone not to take that leap in the dark and reach for the completely unknown.
The inclusion of these same performers, and promises of being something different, can also cause the disappointment to be that much greater when things don't pan out the way you had hoped. The higher the expectation, the greater the let down (a saying so old, it’s cliché, but clichés are at their most annoying when they are accurate).
All the above can be applied to my reaction to the disc One Down by the New York City band, Material. Maybe because it was originally recorded in 1983, its announced experimental hybrid of funk, jazz, punk and hip hop sounded more tired then innovative to my ears. Even the inclusion of the power of Nona Hendrix on vocals and the eccentricity of Fred Frith on guitar can't lift this album out of anything beyond ordinary, commercial-sounding music that wouldn't sound out of place on top-40 radio today.
But, I hear you ask, aren't you judging this by ears attuned to sounds that are twenty years further along, and they could have been innovative for their time. That's fair enough, except for the fact that 1983 was a time when I was still paying a lot of attention to contemporary music. The same components that they supposedly experimented with were an envelope being pushed a lot further and with more interesting results by a lot of people.
In 1980, the Talking Heads expanded their four-piece outfit, played stripped down punk and pop into a nine-piece band, and blew the doors off auditoriums the world over with funk/world beats propelling David Byrne's lyrics. The Gang of Four added new base player, Sara Lee, fresh from her sojourn in the League of Gentlemen with Robert Fripp. She smoothed out their hard-edged punk sound into the best punk funk recorded. "I Love A Man In A Uniform," in spite of its provocative lyrics, quickly became a dance floor favourite with both punks and others.
Laurie Anderson scored a bizarre hit with her song "Oh Superman," but her real work became evident on collections like United States and other albums. She combined elements of performance art, jazz, hip-hop, funk, and story telling in ways that have still not been equaled. One of her collaborators at the time was Peter Gabriel, who had stripped down the inflated progressive rock of Genesis into his own unique blending of world music, funk, and rock and roll as he progressed his solo career.
The British punk band The Clash always had a distinct reggae undercurrent to some of their music, as well as their harder edged sound. With the release of their triple disc set, Sandanista, they utilized everything from Motown to surf music in exploring different ways of achieving their ends.
Compared to any of these projects, One Down by Material is decidedly safe and commercially acceptable. Their supposed jazz elements seem to be the occasional saxophone solo, sounding like it's been stuck on as an afterthought, some extra fuzz on a guitar solo, and a voice run through a voc-coder: things that might have been interesting if used properly, but here are just wasted on music that's mainstream and bland.
I should have known better when I saw they were excited about being home to Whitney Houston's first ever recording and the inclusion of Niles Rodgers of Chic fame. Avant garde means to be in the forefront, leading the way into new territory. Material's album One Down is in the back of the pack, where risks are few and experimentation is rare.