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Slayer, Pixies, Garbage, Insane Clown Posse and more, interviewed by 7th graders


 
Interviews with musicians can be really, really boring. It’s not a defect of the artists or the interviewers, it’s just that their content is so damned predictable because the occasion for an interview is the same most of the time—a new release and/or a tour. The newest album is always “the best we’ve done yet,” and everyone’s invariably “really excited” for the upcoming tour. NO KIDDING. Artists tend to favor their newest work, and even when they know it pales, they’re often obligated by label and PR contracts to hump it for the media. Plus, artists spend all day on the phone with interviewers, repeatedly answering the same questions. That’s got to be a brain-meltingly tedious chore, so moments of refreshing insight can be rare. So I was delighted to get hipped to the untrammeled awesomeness of Kids Interview Bands.

Kids Interview Bands is a video interview series hosted by 7th graders Olivia and Connie.

The site launched in August 2012 and the girls have done over 100 interviews with touring bands passing through the Columbus, Ohio area including some of their favorites (Neon Trees, Imagine Dragons, Phillip Phillips, Walk the Moon, Tegan & Sara, Matt & Kim).

Both girls are active in sports and other activities that typical 7th graders enjoy. They aren’t sure if they want to make a living interviewing bands but they are having a lot of fun getting the chance to talk to all the great artists who have agreed to sit down and chat with them.

If you’re following music that’s Pitchforkishly trendy at the moment, you’ll already know a lot of the bands that Olivia and Connie have spoken with. But while there are a lot of here-today-gone-tomorrow festival circuit hopefuls to be found in the dozens upon dozens of video interviews the pair have posted, they’ve also landed some marquee names. There are some truly wonderful interviews in the bunch, where the musicians don’t merely humor the kids, but let their guard down and have fun along with them. For example, I’ve never been much of a Garbage fan, but I LOVE this:

 
Insane Clown Posse have become a great American cultural punching bag, and for good reason, but they’re natural, forthright and even a bit illuminating here. Shamefully, they blew a huge opportunity when they were asked what subject they should have given more attention in school—staying awake through science might have clued them in on FUCKING MAGNETS.
 

 
Some of the questions lobbed at Queens of the Stone Age are genuinely tough. I harbor serious doubts that if I were put on the spot I could pick a favorite Muppet.
 

 
Here’s the Pixies’ Joey Santiago, probably enjoying the hell out of the one interview in which he doesn’t have to talk about Indie Cindy.
 

 
Mastodon’s drummer Brann Dailor is kinda my new hero. He’s really great here. In two words: headbanging lessons.
 

 
All of these are terrific questions, are they not? I wish the kids had had the chance to ask Lou Reed stuff like this. (Or better still, G.G. Allin., though it probably would have been inadvisable to let 7th grade girls anywhere near him.) But here’s their big coup—the most virally popular of all the kids’ interviews, and justifiably so—a friendly chat with the mild-mannered, upbeat, and almost Santa Claus-ishly genial Tom Araya, lead singer of Slayer.
 

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Discussion
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BASS IN YOUR FACE: Isolated bass parts of Sonic Youth, Rolling Stones, The Police, Rick James & more


 
Poor bass players. In the hierarchy of rockbandland, even the mercenary backup singers get more love. Like a drummer, a crummy one can wreck your band, but unlike a drummer, even a superb bass player can fade into the background, seeming for all the world like a mere utility placeholder while the singer, guitarist and drummer all get laid. Before the ‘80s, the bass player was perceived as the would-be guitarist who couldn’t make the cut and got offered a reduction in strings as a consolation prize. Since the ‘80s, bass has been the “easy” instrument a singer hands off to his girlfriend to get her in the band.

It’s all a crock of utter shit. A good bass player is your band’s spine, and is a gift to be cherished.

An excellent online resource for bassists, notreble.com, has links to an abundance of isolated bass tracks, from celebrated solos to deep cuts to which few casual fans give much thought. There are, of course, song-length showoffs like “YYZ” and “Roundabout,” but there are unassuming gems to be found too. Check out how awesome Tony Butler’s part is in Big Country’s kinda-eponymous debut single. It wanders off into admirable weirdness, but when the time comes to do the job of propelling the song forward, this shit is rocket fuel.
 

 

 
Though Sting has been engaged in a long-running battle with Bono to see who can be the most tedious ass to have released nothing of worth in over 25 years, listening to his playing in the Police serves as an instant reminder of why we even know who he is. The grooves in “Message In A Bottle” are famously inventive and satisfying, but even his work on more straightforward stuff like “Next To You” slays. You can practically hear the dirt on his strings in these.
 

 

 

 
Funny, as much of a trope as “chick bass player” has become, loads of time spent searching yielded almost no isolated tracks from female bassists. Which is ridiculous. The only one I found was Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, heard here on “Teenage Riot.” It takes a bit to work up to speed. Taken on its own, it’s a minimal, meditative, and quite lovely drone piece.
 

 

 
Here’s a gem—a live recording of Billy Cox, from Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, eating “All Along The Watchtower” for breakfast.
 

 

 
This one was a revelation—the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman on “Gimme Shelter.” I knew this was a great bass part, but there’s stuff in here I’ve never heard before, and it’s excellent. I should have been paying more attention.
 

 

 
But is there “Super Freak?” Oh yeah, there’s “Super Freak.”
 

 

 
I searched mightily to find isolated bass tracks from Spinal Tap’s gloriously excessive ode to both low-ends, “Big Bottom,” before I realized there would be absolutely no point in doing that. So I leave you with the unadulterated real thing.
 

 
Previously on DM: The incomparable James Jamerson: isolated

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Discussion
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Fascinating document of a 1996 Portland Riot Grrrl convention, with a very young Miranda July


Little girl interacting with a piece from Miranda July’s outdoor exhibit, Eleven Heavy Things
 
Despite an early interest in both feminism and punk rock, Riot Grrrl never really appealed to me. I was in elementary school in the mid-90s—during the height of the Riot Grrrl zeitgeist—and while the aesthetic and mission statement certainly captured my snarling little heart, music was always my primary interest, and I just never found a Riot Grrrl band that really blew me away. My young ears suffered no dearth of chanteuses, of course. I just got my girl power from Joan Jett, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, and those goddesses of mid-90s top 40 radio,TLC.

Still, I owe a debt to those women, and I can’t deny the legacy, especially when I come across great artifacts like this DIY documentary from a 1996 Riot Grrrl convention in Portland, Oregon. Organized by a smiling mohawked young woman named Geneva, the event was intended to foster a women’s community, make friends, and, she coyly admits, “I also needed a girlfriend.” (Let’s be honest, the prospect of romance has always been half the appeal of a good show.)

Though it boasts the production values of a decomposing home movie, the documentary is artfully edited, recording a wide array of performances, workshops, and interactions. It’s far more than a dredge of amateur bands, and the music line-up is surprisingly diverse—a two-girl group with an upright bass and a cello really stand out. The workshops were not only instructive, they encouraged women to create “out loud.” During a writing class, the teacher self-effacingly admits to a passion for the work of noted misogynist Charles Bukowski—there was clearly little to no pressure to maintain a “feminist cultural purity.” During a “basics” course on starting a band, a woman demonstrates all the instruments and identifies their parts. She even gives some sound advice on how not to get ripped off by music shops who might try and overcharge a woman. There’s poetry and avant garde performance and the introduction of the now legendary Free to Fight, the ambitious double LP concept album themed on violence against women. The record included a 75 page illustrated booklet with poetry, stories and advice—socialist feminist writer bell hooks even contributed.

I think the most impressive part of the event is how much fun everyone is having. Bands joke and banter onstage, making politically incorrect jokes about sexual orientation and gender. There’s self-defense demonstrations where nervous giggles from the audience grow into raucous laughter. The mood feels decidedly warm and easy-going throughout, with none of the humorless gravity one might associate with such serious subjects.

Those familiar with the Riot Grrrl scene might recognize a few of the musicians, but for me, the real Easter Egg is a very young Miranda July, doing a strange short performance piece, and using some of her own interview structure to contribute to the documentary. To be honest, not a lot of July’s work resonates with me—I think on some level I also avoid connecting with it, feeling foolish at the prospect of enjoying something so “dear.” For me, distorted guitars and screaming “fuck you” into a microphone has always been the accessible part of the Riot Grrrl arsenal.

But once in a while I see a Miranda July piece like the sculpture above and I’m floored by such honest vulnerability. And I remember there’s a less bombastic dimension to the Riot Grrrl legacy—something brave, but subtle. And I’m so grateful it happened.

And if that’s too dear for you, well… fuck you.
 

 
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Posted by Amber Frost | Discussion
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X marks the garage sale: Buy Exene Cervenka’s stuff!

exene
 
Donnaland Vintage Variety has announced that an “ECLECTIC 4-day VINTAGE & ANTIQUE sale” will be held in Santa Ana, CA this week. Among the items offered include some fantastic vintage jewelry, a really, really cool old Dutch bicycle, and, interestingly, set lists and posters from the legendary and seminal L.A. punk band X, original artwork by that band’s co-lead singer Exene Cervenka, and even some guitars of hers. And indeed, though this is a multi-family sale, it turns out the majority of the items are Cervenka’s. The sale’s inventory page features this quote from the woman herself:

Calling all Betty Crocker Punk Rockers!!! 100 years of Americana needs good home. Treasured memories of the past can live on in your hands! Like a small inheritance, but without the squabbling with siblings!

I got a good chuckle out of “Betty Crocker Punk Rockers.”

The address of the sale will be made public on Wednesday, February 12, 2014, and the sale itself begins on Thursday the 13th at noon. This Rickenbacker guitar shown below is really making me wish I was in the Santa Ana area. The bike’s not too shabby, either.
 
exene rickenbacker
1955 Rickenbacker Combo 600
 
exene bicycle
Electra bicycle, made in Amsterdam
 
exene silvertone
Early ‘60s amp-in-case Sivertone guitar. RIDICULOUSLY cool.
 
exene posters
Assorted posters, many for X, plus an X set list
 
exene jewelry 1
 
exene jewelry 2
 
exene jewelry 3
A ton of cool vintage jewelry
 
exene painting
”Greek Tragedy,” original artwork by Exene Cervenka
 
exene knives
A metric shitload of knives. Um, OK.
 
A brief and far from complete primer for those who don’t know: X were by far one of the greatest bands to emerge from L.A.’s early punk scene. Their first three LPs, the independent Los Angeles and Wild Gift, plus the major label debut Under the Big Black Sun, all remain essential. Cervenka and the band’s bassist (also her then-husband) John Doe sang gripping harmonic dual leads that are still capable of haunting the dreams of the unsuspecting. The band later took a rootsward turn that, in addition to being pretty damn good musically (see especially See How We Are and its single “4th of July”), foreshadowed the emergence of Alt-Country. They’ve periodically reunited, and continue to tour. The anthemic “Los Angeles,” from their debut LP, is exemplary of their early sound.
 

 
And just because it’s just too damn fun, here’s a 1983 Letterman appearance, wherein they sing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Breathless,” from the Richard Gere remake of the 1960 Jean-Luc Godard film by that title. The interview segment is great, don’t skip ahead to the song!
 

 
A mighty grateful tip of the hat to Swag for alerting me to this.

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Discussion
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Slowdive resurface: Could the shoegaze legends be reuniting?


 
Just the facts: Within the past few days, the Creation Records and Slowdive Facebook pages posted notices to their followers to be sure to engage with the newly created official Slowdive Twitter feed. That Twitter feed’s first four followers were four of the band’s members. Though no tweets have been posted by the band yet, singer Rachel Goswell and other ex-divers have, for the last several days, been posting a countdown that seems to be pointing to January 29.
 

 

 
And so now speculation abounds that Slowdive may be making an announcement on that date—and might that announcement be of a reunion? Given that the band is within the target zone of the standard 20-25 year nostalgia cycle, and that shoegaze godfathers My Bloody Valentine and bro-gaze champs Swervedriver have already taken the reunion plunge, it seems like a tantalizing possibility. Though their hastily recorded 1991 debut LP Just for a Day fell victim to a shoegaze backlash in the UK press, Slowdive proved that they were more than just the sum of their bowl cuts with 1993’s brilliant and luminous Souvlaki, and followed it up with the minimalist experiment Pygmalion in 1995. All these years later, it’s the strange and adventurous (and kind of Talk Talk-ish) Pygmalion that stands as my favorite of their albums, but at the time it was not a fan fave, and the band was dropped from Creation records almost immediately after its release. Three of the band members changed their name to Mojave 3 and continued on the 4AD label, and they’ve remained intermittently active under that name.
 

Slowdive, ”Alison” from Souvlaki
 

Slowdive, ”Blue Skied an’ Clear” from Pygmalion

More Slowdive after the jump…

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Discussion
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Janis Ian is NOT politically correct and brilliantly defends her ‘Howard Stern’ appearance, 1994

Janis Ian
 
My love of “AM Gold” is well-documented on this blog, and I defend the soft-rock/easy listening genres of the 1970s as an artistic movement of intimacy, reflection, and pathos. John Denver? Absolutely! Let’s open the windows, and smell the fresh air! Thank god, I’m a country girl. Bill Withers? Great! I’ll make some chamomile tea and we can wrap ourselves in kaftans! Carol King? Just give me a flowing maxi dress of natural fibers, I think I’m ready for motherhood. And Janis Ian? Do you even have to ask? Janis Ian makes me want to paint my apartment burnt sienna and avocado green, put on “At Seventeen,” and do some fucking macrame.

There’s a lot that’s great about Janis Ian. Yes, “At Seventeen” is a beautiful feminist anthem of isolation and loneliness, but her first hit, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” is also remarkable. Released when Ian was just fifteen (she wrote it at thirteen), “Society’s Child” told the story of an interracial relationship. Despite its “Leader of the Pack” teen-melodrama sound, it was actually banned on the radio. While the lyrics are pretty earnest (she was thirteen, what do you expect?), her subject indicated a serious-minded commitment to social justice. (And that didn’t come out of nowhere. Ian’s family were serious leftists, and often under surveillance for their politics.)

In 1993, at the age of 42, Janis Ian came out as a lesbian. She then immediately shocked her fans by appearing on Howard Stern’s radio show. Below is Ian’s 1994 defense of the appearance, penned for The Advocate. It seems like they have a legitimate friendship, which doesn’t surprise me—Howard always struck me as “the gentleman’s shock jock.” (I don’t really see her being friends with Mancow, right?) After the interview, you can even see video of Ian performing “Seinfeld’s Girl is Seventeen with Double Ds,” a parody of “At Seventeen” with Howard; the lyrics are reworked to mock Jerry Seinfeld’s then relationship with a 17-year-old high schooler.

And this is what’s so great about Janis Ian. For all her humanity and insight and the vulnerable beauty of her music, Janis Ian does not give a fuck about your approval.
 

I did Howard Stern last year, and joined the ranks of the Politically Incorrect.

I love doing Howard. I’ve done his morning radio show, his E! television show, and his disgusting New Year’s Eve special. (Don’t ask.)

I like Howard. He treats me with courtesy, and he recognizes my relationship as valid. In fact, he tried very hard to find an appropriate term for introducing my partner. After rejecting “Mr. Ian”, “Mrs. Ian”, and “Her Better Half”, he finally settled on “Mr. Lesbian”, a term we find appallingly funny and poignantly correct.

Stern is currently running for governor of New York, and I’m betting he’ll get over 50,000 votes. Why? Because he touches people - although by his own admission his penis is too small to touch much. (Another reason to like him: who was the last man you heard admit to that?)

Howard operates from the theater of honesty in a way very few performers dare. He says things I’m afraid to say, and admits to feelings I’ve overheard on tour buses and in mens’ locker rooms when no one thinks I’m listening. He’s thoroughly uncomfortable with gay male sexuality, but he also excoriates anyone who would deny their right to consensual sex.

The fallout of doing Howard has been both educational and frightening. People writing to my “fan club” who identify themselves as politically correct are ‘horrified’ and ‘furious’ that I find any common ground with him. The hate mail contingent seems to mistake theater for reality—and their own bigotry for enlightenment—threatening us both with “dire consequences”.

I’m at a loss as to why they find the friendship so dangerous. Howard’s “Lesbo Dial-A-Date” is one of the hottest shows on radio; during it he treats us exactly like he treats his heterosexual female guests—snidely, with double entendres flailing.

Yet my mail assumes that because many of the guests on Dial-A-Date are women with big hair and harsh rural accents (yes, I consider a heavy Brooklyn accent rural), who strip/spank/tease with gleeful abandon, he’s “victimizing the lower economic strata, who can least defend themselves”.

Excuse me? Do they mean that if you have a sixth grade education, you’re less capable of deciding what to do with your body than if you have a Ph.D? Is someone who makes less money also less capable of choosing their own path? I find that attitude incredibly patronizing, and demeaning to all women.

Political correctness is a form of censorship. I learned about censorship in 1966, when as a 15-year-old singer/songwriter I saw my record “Society’s Child” banned across the United States. Disk jockeys were fired for playing it; a radio station in Georgia was burned to the ground for the same reason. Now that it’s being called a “standard” in the books, everyone forgets that when it was released it was attacked by the politically left-wing as well as the rabid right.

I learned about the dark side of political correctness at the same time. The right-wing hated me for encouraging miscegenation, and my left-wing friends jumped on me because the white girl in the song gave in to peer pressure and stops dating her black boyfriend.

When “At Seventeen”, which I recorded in 1976, received five Grammy nominations—incidentally the most any solo female had received to that date, but who’s counting?—I was accused of selling out to the commercial interests. People said I was “mainstreaming my message” by using strings on the record, “disguising my message with pretty words and music”.

Still later I was attacked for going to South Africa during the apartheid years, though I took an integrated band and played to integrated audiences and (unlike Linda Ronstadt and various black Americans who will go unmentioned here, but couldn’t order dinner there) avoided Sun City. The same English committee that prevented Johnny Clegg, probably the best known white South African artist in the world, from performing at a tribute to Nelson Mandela because he’d performed in his residence country of South Africa, also banned me from playing in England.

And when I came out loudly last year in the media, someone wrote “I find your lesbianism suspect now—where were you in the 80’s when we were fighting for our rights?”

As a matter of fact, I spent a good part of the 80’s trying to get a record deal, because no record company would take a chance on a gay 40-year-old female who’d already had two careers. My partner and I mortgaged our home so I could make the album Breaking Silence. Howard Stern and singer/songwriter John Mellencamp, both dismissed in a recent article I read as “misogynistic breeders”, were the only performers to back me with air-time and money before my record broke and got its Grammy nomination.

 
Janis Ian’s letter continues after the jump…
 
“Society’s Child” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.

 

Posted by Amber Frost | Discussion
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Happy Birthday, Babe in Toyland Kat Bjelland

katguitar
 
There are memes of clueless models awkwardly posed with guitars they have no idea how to hold, let alone play. Very unlike singer-songwriter-guitarist Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland, Crunt, and Katastrophy Wife, who turns fifty this week. She has often looked like a model and really does know how to play her Rickenbacker 425.

Kat is also remembered for her early ‘90s “kinderwhore” look, of which she, Courtney Love, and The Divinyls’ Chrissy Amphlett were co-creatrixes. I’m not prolonging the War of the Schmatte over who invented the look first. It was easy to pull together if you had access to a good but cheap vintage clothing store and wore a single-digit U.S. clothing size. Fabrics like velvet and that one weird thick ‘70s polyester blend were almost indestructible, and if you actively sought out twee infantilizing styles, you could buy a wardrobe of dresses for under $50. Add some maryjanes, MAC Red lipstick, and voila.

The irony-filled look was cute on some girls but made the rest of us look insane. Like a clone of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which a fair number of women did not find to be a drawback. I was old enough to realize that those outfits, outside the bedroom anyway, would have made me resemble a strung-out escaped mental patient with a cosplay fetish the morning after the worst Halloween party ever

katintermenstral
 
Kat said earlier this year:

I was just wearing my clothes—I mean I’m dressing up of course, but I’ve always just bought thrift store vintage clothes, because they used to be less expensive, and pretty. And believe it or not, dresses are really good to wear on stage, they allow you to move your legs and kick and they’re really easy to wear.

Kat actually looked fantastic in kitten heels, tiny plastic barrettes, and Peter Pan collars. More important, however, was how very angry the blonde, fragile-looking china doll with the guitar sounded when she sang, screamed, and snarled. Kat formed Babes in Toyland in Minneapolis in 1987 with drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon (replaced by Maureen Herman), and the band, who had been inspired by Frightwig, in turn inspired girl bands like Bikini Kill and Jack-off Jill, though they never identified themselves as riot grrrls. The band’s energetic performances on the ‘90 Sonic Youth European tour and the ‘93 Lollapalooza tour (with Dinosaur, Jr., Primus, Arrested Development, Rage Against the Machine, Alice in Chains, et al) were remarkable. Kat’s delivery was intense and atonal, with her lyrics referencing fairytales (“Handsome and Gretel”), pain, rage, beauty, betrayal, and abusive parents, not sung with sweet, breathy, unsure vocals, but with a gut-wrenching maenad’s growl. But then there would be a joyful cover like “We Are Family.” You got the feeling she had a dog-eared copy of Anne Sexton’s complete works in her vintage handbag. NME called them “the true heirs of The Stooges’ unvarnished tumult.” 

Kat described to journalist Andrea Swensson the influence her band had on other female musicians:

...bands would come up and say, like Jack-off Jill, “You inspired us to play.” And it’s really nice. It makes me kind of shy when they say that, but I mean I saw a lot of girl bands, because they would inevitably stick us with all the girl bands in every town, good or bad.

—snip—

Sometimes they were pretty bad, but I don’t care. It was good to have women play. Now there’s tons of women bands! It’s amazing. I mean—I just want to make this point—I didn’t really think about purposefully making it all girls in a band. I wanted musicians who didn’t know how to play very well so then you could create a sound together, you know, all together at once. I played in bands with guys and stuff in Portland, and never really thought about it, but boy, other people sure make you aware of it.

Babes in Toyland were championed by John Peel and Neal Karlen, the author of Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band, but they barely lasted the entire ‘90s. Their break-up was long and drawn-out, with closure finally arriving in 2002 following legal wrangling over the use of the band’s name. Kat’s band Katastrophy Wife released two albums before Kat decided to take a break from music, concentrating on raising her son, recovering from mental health problems, and taking herbology classes. She says she is ready to get back into music, with at least an EP’s worth of material ready. There have been rumors of reunions in the past, but according to bassist Maureen Herman’s recent Facebook posts, Babes in Toyland will finally reunite in 2014.

Babes in Toyland, “Bruise Violet”:

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright | Discussion
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Destroy All Monsters: Niagara’s femme fatale pop art paintings

Niagara
Niagara during an early Destroy All Monsters show
 
I’m never quite sure how familiar folks outside the midwest are with Destroy All Monsters, but if you haven’t given them a listen yet, I highly suggest you do. There are no “real” albums, but in 1994 Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore released everything they recorded on a three-disc set called 1974-1976. Unfortunately, the Detroit punk outfit is most often mentioned in passing, usually as a reference to a more famous band; guitarist Ron Asheton of The Stooges and bassist Michael Davis of the MC5 were also members of Destroy All Monsters. The late Mike Kelley did his time in the band as well. Jim Shaw, too. Destroy All Monsters were an art/rock supergroup of sorts, albeit an awfully obscure one.

But not only did they produce some really interesting music, DAM boasted one of the great punk frontwomen in Niagara, who still performs in various projects. The only Punk Magazine centerfold besides Debbie Harry, Niagara has an incredibly compelling, raw presence, and she’s a total fox. It makes perfect sense that her paintings depict beautiful, brazen, dangerous women. In a 2010 interview, she said her work was a response to “women in art being treated like still life,” going on to say, “I wanted them to start saying what they are thinking, I wanted to see that mix of beauty and hardness in incredibly caustic women. And there is humor, you can see the humor.”

Niagara’s first exhibit was in 1996, with the fabulously misandrist title, “All Men Are Cremated Equal.” While her noir femme fatales are her most popular work, her most recent stuff evokes more of a “dreamy, druggy ladies in absinthe ads” kind of vibe. Still, the super-saturated colors, campy, menacing femininity, and an old school sign-painter’s instincts give Niagara’s canvases the same exciting and distinctive edge she brings to the stage.
 
painting
 
painting
 
painting
 
More after the jump…
 

Posted by Amber Frost | Discussion
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Chavela Vargas: Mexico’s great sapphic chanteuse

Chavela Varges
An early photo of Vargas, focusing on her beautiful face, and cropping out whatever masculine clothes she might have been wearing at the time.
 
A word of comfort to non-Spanish speakers: Mexican toddlers have a stronger command of the language than I do, but the first time I heard Chavela Vargas’ “Paloma Negra,” I knew exactly what she was saying. There are some artists that convey such an intense pathos without the benefit of a common language, even attempting to write about them leaves one feeling a little hackneyed, but I’ll do my best.

Chavela Vargas was born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica in 1919. In the midst of an unstable childhood, she moved to Mexico at the tender ago of 14 to pursue a singing career in the burgeoning Mexican arts scene. For years she busked, wearing men’s clothing and smoking cigars. She carried a gun and embodied the machismo of her artistic idiom. Though she covered quite a bit of ground stylistically, Vargas was mainly known for her rancheras- traditional Mexican music performed with a single voice and Spanish guitar. Rancheras are often mournful torch songs sung by drunken men; alcohol provided a socially acceptable loophole for Mexican machismo to be shrugged aside for emotional and vulnerable performances. On the more rare occasion that rancheras were performed by women, gender pronouns were obviously switched to keep everything tidily heterosexual. Vargas simply sang to the girls.
 
Chavela Vargas
Vargas in full poncho
 
It wasn’t until her 30s that her career began to flourish, kick-started by a brief but successful visit to pre-Castro Cuba. By the time she became popular in Mexico, she was as much known for her bombastic persona and unapologetic sexuality as she was for her powerful voice and intense performances. She would come to shows on motorcycles, smoke cigars onstage, imbibe heavily, and openly flirt with men’s wives during performances (many swear she took a few home with her). All of this was during a time when even wearing pants was scandalous behavior for a woman in Mexico. While she had a rich sense of humor, one of her stylistic trademarks was slowing down cheeky tunes, transforming what were originally dirty little ditties into something intensely erotic. The scandals cost her a lot of work, but Vargas had no interest in catering to anyone’s notion of respectability.

Much of her life is shrouded in rumor and half-truths. It’s said that Vargas walked with a limp due to an injury incurred while attempting to climb in the second story window of an ex-lover. (Given Vargas’ difficulties with alcoholism, this isn’t particularly difficult to believe.) It’s known that she was incredibly close to Frida Kahlo, even living with her and her husband, Diego Rivera, for a time. I’ve never found absolute confirmation that they were lovers, but it’s largely accepted as fact by fans of both artists. Vargas even made an appearance in the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, singing a ghostly version of one of her signature songs, “”La Llorona,” (“The Weeping Woman”). I urge you to listen to both versions back to back; Vargas’ age and alcoholism seasoned her voice with a quality I can only describe as post-beautiful.

While Vargas’ career was fraught with ups and downs, she virtually disappeared for about 15 years starting in the late 70s. Intense depression and alcoholism finally sent her into a long seclusion, but in 1991 she returned to the stage, happy, healthy and transformed. With her famed trademark innuendo, the 74-year-old butch lesbian declared her never-ending commitment to music at a concert in Madrid, saying, “When you like something, you should do it all night long.” She officially came out in 2000, at age 81, and played Carnegie Hall three years later. She continued singing and recording up until her death in 2012, at age 93.
 
Chavela Vargas and Frida Kahlo
Vargas and Frida Kahlo
 
Below is some rare early footage of Vargas performing her famous rendition of “Macorina,” a poem that she set to music of her own composition. During the refrain, “Put your hand here, Macorina,” Vargas’ own hand would wander between her thighs. It was her first hit, and it was originally banned in Mexico, a country that now reveres here as one of its great daughters. The lyrics:

Put your hand here, Macorina
Put your hand here.
Put your hand here, Macorina
Put your hand here.

Your feet left the mat
And your skirt escaped
Seeking the boundary
On seeing your slender waist
The sugar canes threw
Themselves down along the way
For you to grind
As if you were a mill.
Put your hand ...

Your breasts, soursop fruit
Your mouth a blessing
Of ripe guanabana
And your slender waist
Was the same as that dance
Put your hand ...

Then the dawn
That takes you from my arms
And I not knowing what to do
With that woman scent
Like mango and new cane
With which you filled me at
The hot sound of that dance.
Put your hand ...


 

Posted by Amber Frost | Discussion
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The Shaggs’ Dot Wiggin returns after four decades with a new band and album

dot wiggin band lp cover
 
It’s outsider music’s Greatest Story Ever Told: at a visit to a palm reader, the mother of Austin Wiggin, Jr. was told that her son would someday marry a woman with strawberry blonde hair, have two sons after she (the mother herself, not the strawberry blonde) died, and that his daughters would form a celebrated band. Once the first two things actually came to pass, Austin hustled (or strong-armed, to hear some tell it) his teenaged girls Dot, Betty, and Helen into a band called The Shaggs, despite their showing little prior interest in or aptitude for music performance. Much money was spent on instrument lessons, voice coaching, recording studio fees, and pressing, all to realize The Shaggs’ wholly incompetent 1969 debut album, Philosophy Of The World.

This doesn’t happen very often, so when it does, it’s a thing to cherish. Sometimes, artists who have no idea what they’re doing and no conventional artistic gifts can still make profound, enduring and enchanting work, simply by being themselves.

Thanks to the cheerleading of folks like NRBQ, Frank Zappa, and Dr. Demento, Philosophy became a phenomenon years after its very quiet release (the label owner absconded with all but 100 copies). If you’ve somehow missed out on it, understand that this great album is in no typically understood sense a good album. Instruments and lyrics careen around each other, lurch into each other, fracture each other, and generally do everything except sync up. And yet, the Wiggin sisters’ ineffable and completely unaffected cheer and charm elevate it tremendously. Certainly, plenty of people listen to it and hear nothing more than the clatter of inept kids, and I will not deign here to invalidate that viewpoint. But those of us who hear magic in it - myself ardently included - swear by that album. Zappa famously hailed The Shaggs as “Better Than the Beatles,” and one can hardly imagine most of the K Records roster existing without them. The entire album is here:
 

 
Or if you don’t have a half hour to spare, just check out the representative (and legendary) single that launched a thousand ‘90s emo-chick tattoos, “My Pal Foot Foot.”
 

 
When their father died in 1975, The Shaggs called it quits, but now, 38 years later, The Dot Wiggin Band has emerged with a new album, Ready! Get! Go!, on the Alternative Tentacles label. The musicianship - to answer what must surely be the first question to cross a lot of minds - is perfectly competent. Seasoned players like Jesse Krakow and Laura Cromwell appear throughout, but they keep things much, much simpler here than in the work they’re otherwise known for, allowing Wiggin’s undiminished charm to show through. The album includes previously unrecorded Shaggs songs “Banana Bike” and “The Fella With A Happy Heart” along with new material, and culminates with a fantastic cover of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World.”
 

 

 

 
The long and the short of it all is that maybe The Shaggs weren’t just some flukey accident of naive dumb luck; if you liked them, there is so much to enjoy in Ready! Get! Go! that one has to be open to the likelihood that this is simply what Dot Wiggin sounds like, that she essentially possesses a tremendous uncontrived appeal. As she’s been a relatively anonymous wife and mother for decades now, this is not a comeback anyone would have expected, but it is most welcome.

This too-brief promotional documentary has some great clips and sound bites from the people involved in bringing Ready! Get! Go! to fruition. Enjoy.
 

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Discussion
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