Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Post-Modern P-Funk

Preface: This is a final paper i wrote for my English 120 class, which is Critical Methods/Theory. It's normally a terribly boring class, but Professor Antonio Lopez is just insane enough to make it fascinating (also just insane enough to be my adviser). Evidence, i got to write my final paper about the post-modernistic tendencies of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. As my big friend Bruce once said, "P-Funk is proof that more black people should take acid." Anyway, i'll try to add some relevant pictures and lyrics to go with the essay (which i warn you, is long, and sometimes technical). My source citations didn't copy and paste with the text, so you'll have to trust me, unless you want to pay $1.35 to print it out at Gelman and see the footnotes for yourself, that is also fine.
The word 'essay' is derived from the French 'essayer', which means 'to try'. As such, here is my attempt at an explanation.

Music is truly the universal language. The same melody is a personal experience for every individual, yet it can serve to unite strangers and break down boundaries of race, ethnicity, language, politics, class, education, religion and whatever else. The right music, especially live music, easily bridges gaps no other medium can touch. Something ethereal, beyond definition, is expressed that could never be spoken or seen, evoking deep and pure emotions spanning the spectrum from unabashed joy to painful rage. Music is as old as humanity, and this primal nature speaks to its universality.
“If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, George Clinton is the Crown Prince of Funk. He’s the ringleader of Parliament and Funkadelic.” George Clinton and P-Funk pioneered funk into a new era with a series of albums in the 1970’s. Beginning with the release of “Mothership Connection” in 1975, followed by “The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein” (1976) and “Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome” (1977), P-Funk announced their social and political message through the...
"Starchild Allegory. Starchild represented life, freedom, sex and positive energy. His opponent, Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, represented hypocrisy, constriction, repression of emotions and actions, and death. The true message was that everyone had a choice; everyone could move towards maximum [F]unk in their life."

The Allegory was established through song lyrics, album art and liner notes, but most especially live in concert, when:
guitarist Gary Shider flew over the crowd, wearing diapers of course, blasting at the crowd with a strobe light attached to a space-age rifle, "Chasing the Noses away," which forces Sir Nose to "give up the funk" and dance.

I will attempt to summarize the Allegory as succinctly as possible. Funk is the cosmic ooze, the most basic, underlying force in the universe. “Funk doesn't have to be heard because the aural music is only a physical manifestation of the yet deeper, noumenal galactic vibe, which is always felt by one whose receptors are tuned to Channel One.”4 (Channel One refers both to the accentuated first beat in their music, as well as the Cosmic One). Earth, as evidenced by our constant wars, political power mongering and consumerist greed, has become “devoid of Funk”. Luckily, “the secret of Funk was placed inside the [Egyptian] pyramids 5,000 years ago.”3 Now, the Starchild (represented by George Clinton) and his band of cosmic Funkateers have come down from the Mothership (a silver flying saucer from which George Clinton would descend onto stage) to battle our collective nemesis, Sir Nose, D’Void of Funk, who is constantly trying to keep everyone quiet and still, under control, maintaining the status quo. But with the help of the Starchild, we can defeat Sir Nose, because even he is not immune to the galactic power of Funk, and in the end, in the song “Flashlight”, even Sir Nose gives in and gets down.
George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars sought to shift the paradigm of the Other in modern society. With the creation of the Starchild Allegory, they took ownership of their status as Other in America, essentially saying, ‘We’re so Other, we’re not even from this planet. But while we’re here, we might as well share the secret to salvation.’ There are two meanings at work in this Allegory, the first being black empowerment, shifting the paradigm of the Other and claiming it in a positive way. The second is the message of human peace and unity evident in the conclusion that everyone has the Funk in them and can join the new ‘us’ if they free their minds from the unFunky ‘them’.
I will use the social theories of authors such as Louis Althusser, Stuart Hall and Bell Hooks to frame my argument on the postmodern sensibilities of P-Funk. Their self-consciousness as the Other leads them to a transcendental philosophy of life that they transmit through their lyrics and musical stylings, as well as the artwork accompanying and inspired by their albums. I intend to use lyrical evidence in conjunction with some of George Clinton’s artwork to support the creation of the Starchild Allegory as an empowering postmodern narrative.

I will allow Louis Althusser to begin building the structure of my arguments. In his essay “Ideology”, Althusser observes that, “the ultimate condition of production is…the reproduction of the conditions of production” (p. 1483)5. So in order for a culture to perpetuate itself, there must be some mechanism(s) in place that continually create(s) the conditions for the status quo to be reinforced. These are understood to be the institutions that constitute the structure of society. Althusser explains,
"I shall call Ideological State Apparatuses a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions. I propose an empirical list… the religious ISA, the educational ISA, the family ISA, the legal ISA, the political ISA, the trade-union ISA, the communications ISA, the cultural ISA…" (p.1489)

These ISA’s are essentially eternal. That is to say, the content of culture is in constant flux, but it always fits into the overarching structure created by the ISA’s. The result is that, “individuals are always-already subjects” (p. 1505). Meaning that the ISA’s are acting on every individual from the second they are conceived. There are certain expectations of a person created solely by the ISA, regardless of who that person may turn out to be as an individual. The ISA’s are self-perpetuating because they seek to control the thought process and scope of an individual’s perspective. By influencing the family structure, the system of education (know-how) and the political system, most individuals will be born, live and die while serving to maintain the system. I wish to be clear; this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it is an enlightened individual who can transcend the knowledge structure imposed by the ISA’s. It is this person who can act to change, rearrange or break down ISA’s (in theory, for the better). Using the Starchild Allegory, George Clinton and P-Funk were trying to raise consciousness and open minds to the oppressive nature of the racial structure imposed by existing ISA’s. Awareness is, of course, the first step to resolving any problem.

Bell Hooks’ work also has crucial relevance to the discourse on P-Funk and their Allegory. She provides the black, female perspective on the socio-cultural theory known as Postmodernism. She says,
"I find myself on the outside of the discourse looking in. As a discursive practice, [postmodernism] is dominated by the voices of the white male intellectuals and/or academic elites who speak to and about one another with coded familiarity." (p. 2478)5

Though Hooks grasps the concepts of Postmodernism and is not necessarily opposed to what they are saying, as a black woman, she is wary of who is saying it and how, and why. It is a discourse that recognizes her as a crucial piece of culture, but in the role of Other. That is, not a part of the mainstream. As Edward Said describes in his essay “Orientalism”, mainstream culture (here, referring to our ‘Postmodern’ condition) is defined, in part, by the Other, meaning that the two are co-dependent, and can never be understood independently from one another. This ‘binary opposition’ (Stuart Hall, to be discussed next) is a societal obstacle, an ISA that must be broken down, not just altered, in order to make serious progress toward peaceful and cooperative human cultures. Hooks elaborates from her perspective:

It has become necessary to find new avenues to transmit the messages of black liberation struggle, new ways to talk about racism and other politics of domination. Radical postmodernist practice, most powerfully conceptualized as a ‘politics of difference,’ should incorporate the voices of displaced, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed black people. It is sadly ironic that the contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of Otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it clams to challenge. If radical postmodernist thinking is to have a transformative impact, then a critical break with the notion of ‘authority’ as ‘mastery over’ must not simply be a rhetorical device. It must be reflected in habits of being, including styles of writing as well as chosen subject matter.” (p. 2479-80)5

In this passage, she is speaking directly about me, and the topic of this paper. Self-conscious of myself as a white male (quasi- / aspiring) intellectual, I do my best to make my ‘habits of being’, and in this case, my ‘chosen subject matter’ reflect my awareness of this heterogeneity. In the Postmodern world, with information and ideas flying everywhere faster than ever, it is crucial, and frankly impossible not to recognize the diversity of voices making meaningful contributions. P-Funk was effective in proposing their perspective to the degree that they were because as Hooks says, “Music is the cultural product created by African-Americans that has most attracted postmodern theorists. It is rarely acknowledged that there is far greater censorship and restriction of other forms of cultural production by black folks” (p. 2483). I will deal more directly with this issue later, but the medium of expression is an important aspect of the whole Allegory.
Hooks continues, asserting that, “part of our struggle for radical black subjectivity is the quest to find ways to construct self and identity that are oppositional and liberatory”(p. 2482). This is precisely what the Starchild Allegory is all about; oppositional in that it is claiming the role of Other and using it as empowerment; liberatory because it attempts to escape the common understanding of black experience, literally representing themselves as ‘out of this world’, beyond what humanity has been ready for to this point.
Hooks goes on to point out that, “postmodern culture with its decentered subject can be the space where ties are severed, or it can provide the occasion for new and varied forms of bonding” (p. 2484). I would argue that the Starchild Allegory attempts to accomplish both of these things all at once. P-Funk severs ties by distinguishing itself from the typical, earthly view of the black man. They claim a new identity for themselves, cosmic and divine. It is appropriate that they trace back to Africa, from where they were abducted, for the hidden gem that will unite us all (the Funk in the Egyptian pyramids). At the same time, by removing themselves from the common discourse, they create a space for ‘new and varied forms of bonding’. They are encouraging us (of all races) to free our minds and accept the Funk and become a part of this intergalactic clan of loving Funkateers. They are creating a new ‘us’, which of course creates a brand new ‘Other’ as well. No longer the black man, or whatever other decentered subject, this new Other is anyone who denies the Funk, who can’t or refuses to boogie and is therefore on the outside looking in. It is an empowering paradigm shift that, in theory, removes race from the equation, and focuses on the content of one’s soul.
At the same time, we are dealing with distinctly black music. Every member of Parliament and Funkadelic was black. Funk evolved from jazz and soul, bebop and rock and roll, all of which was originally black music (stolen by the white mainstream, of course). And it continues today in hip-hop culture; a culture dominated by blacks that samples P-Funk beats and licks left and right.
This leads us into Stuart Hall’s work on “Representation”. He claims that, “meaning ‘floats’. It cannot be finally fixed. However, attempting to ‘fix’ it is the work of representational practice…” (p. 228). So, in this ‘practice’, I am attempting to ‘fix’ the meaning of the Starchild Allegory as it ‘floats’ back and forth between black uprising and world peace. In the end, it is always both:
"…in light of the ‘preferred meaning’, hasn’t the meaning with respect to ‘race’ and ‘otherness’ changed as well? Isn’t it more something like, ‘even when black people are shown at the summit of their achievement, they often fail to carry it off’? This having-it-both-ways is important because…people who are in any way significantly different from the majority – ‘them’ rather than ‘us’ – are frequently exposed to this binary form of representation. They seem to be represented through sharply opposed, polarized, binary extremes – good/bad, civilized/primitive, ugly/excessively attractive, repelling-because-different/compelling-because-strange-and-exotic. And they are often required to be both things at the same time!" (p. 228)6

A critical flaw in the Starchild Allegory is that it maintains this binary definition, those who Funk and those who don’t. Even though it attempts to reframe the debate to include everybody in ‘us’, it necessarily creates an ‘Other’. It is a paradigm shift, yet it is still a paradigm, dig? The difference here it seems, is that according to the Allegory, no one is necessarily excluded. Everyone has the chance to dance and become one with the Funk, whereas, it seems, an African-, Mexican-, Chinese-, whatever-else-American could never become one of the ‘us’ that is the dominant Caucasian culture.
One of the many problems with the binary point of view is that it conflicts with the issue of ‘inter-textuality’. “[The] accumulation of meanings across different texts, where one image refers to another, or has its meaning altered by being ‘read’ in the context of other images is called inter-textuality” (p. 232). Individuals are undeniably inter-textual. Every person can and must be ‘read’ in relation to the circumstances of their existence, the multitude of their experiences and the vast variety of thoughts and opinions that result. This is in direct conflict with the oversimplified binary representation the mainstream gives to the ‘Other’. As is evident in George Clinton’s artwork (to be discussed later), he was well aware of the restricting nature of the binary understanding. P-Funk’s Allegory attempts to flip the script on this simple duality, asserting themselves as the more powerful participants, looking down on the supposedly ‘dominant’ culture.
Hall quotes Frederickson saying, “as portrayed in pro-slavery writing, Africa was and always has been the scene of unmitigated savagery, cannibalism, devil worship, and licentiousness” (p. 243). It is not surprising then, that in the empowering Allegory, the powerful liberating force of Funk has been hidden in Africa, the motherland, the home of the very first humans. This is part of the paradigm shift P-Funk was trying to enact. As opposed to Africa being the source of savagery, it in fact holds the key to salvation. It is important to understand that they were not advocating a physical repatriation the way a Zionist would, but insisting on a spiritual movement that would dig towards our common roots and lead a revival of human unity.
Reversing the standard understanding like this inevitably requires the actor to claim a great deal of power:
"We often think of power in terms of direct physical coercion or constraint. However, we have also spoken…of power in representation; power to mark, assign and classify; of symbolic power; of ritualized expulsion. Power, it seems, has to be understood here, not only in terms of economic exploitation and physical coercion, but also in broader cultural or symbolic terms, including the power to represent someone or something in a certain way – within a certain ‘regime of representation’. It includes the exercise of symbolic power through representational practices." (p. 259)6

By choosing to create a counter-image, creating an alternative representation of themselves, P-Funk is seizing this power. They are denying the way history and the dominant culture has represented them by establishing an alternate narrative. Hall makes reference to “Foucault’s power/knowledge argument”, which states that,
"Through different practices of representation (scholarship, exhibition, literature, painting, [music]), [a discourse produces] a form of racialized knowledge of the Other deeply implicated in the operation of power" (p. 260).6

So traditionally, knowledge of blacks has been produced through the way in which the dominant white culture has chosen to portray them, and the cultural contributions of blacks, whether they, in reality, fit that mold or not, have been considered strictly under those definitions, under that structure of knowledge (ISA’s). That is the power. What P-Funk is doing, is grabbing some of that power for themselves, trying to move up and away from the traditional representations of blacks to something beyond. But at the same time, they are doing it in the ‘traditional’, ‘stereotypical’ way, through music. It is perfectly in line with the usual white representation of black culture that they would be pot-smoking musicians, playing new and somewhat crazy sounding music that is eventually adopted and loved and copied by the same white culture that is stereotyping them in the first place. In this way, “’victims’ can be trapped by the stereotype, unconsciously confirming it by the very terms in which they try to oppose and resist it…The problem is that blacks are trapped by the binary structure of the stereotype”(p. 263). In this case, the ‘victims’ are P-Funk, who are ‘trapped’ by the fact that they have done everything possible to break the mold and in the end have done just as much to reinforce it as they have to tear it apart. To really drive the point home, Hall goes back to Foucault as he insists that,
"Power circulates. The circularity of power is especially important in the context of representation. The argument is that everyone – the powerful and the powerless – is caught up, thought not on equal terms, in power’s circulation. No one – neither its apparent victims nor its agents – can stand wholly outside its field of operation" (p. 261).

P-Funk is very much caught up in this game of power. It is trying to seize the power to represent themselves (the black man in America) in a certain way, but doing it in a way that conforms to the way they are already (repressively) represented. This is somewhat paradoxical because if they had chosen any other medium besides music (critical theory, for example), they would, as Hooks pointed out, have been more or less ignored. This is the effect of the binary power structure. The dominant white culture is allowing them a certain amount of power, a way to express themselves, a way to represent themselves, only it is entirely on the terms of the dominant culture. They are allowed only as much power as the mainstream is willing to give, usually just enough for the mainstream to reap the benefits without giving up too much in exchange. Even when the new representation P-Funk presents is attempting to move beyond racialized divisions, it still falls victim to the stereotypes already in place.
So where do we go from here? Gloria Anzaldúa, a lesbian Mexican American writer, explains how we must transcend this restrictive duality in her essay “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza:
"But it is not enough to stand on the opposite riverbank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority—outer as well as inner—it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave he opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react." (p. 2213)

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. Anzaldúa acknowledges what we already established with Hall, that the binary structure is a dead end. She takes it a metaphorical step further though, in suggesting that we find a way to stand “on both shores at once”. What does this mean? Anzaldúa gets a little more specific:
Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures. By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness. (p. 2214)

It seems that this is the same ideal that the Allegory is aiming for, to create a new consciousness that transcends any and all cultures. P-Funk is crying out for “a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave”. That is the message! Granted they are not breaking down any paradigms through their choice of medium, but at the same time, part of what they are doing is one of the possibilities Anzaldúa suggested. That is, to disengage from the dominant culture altogether and go a different route. (Representing yourself as an outer space alien is certainly a strong move towards disengagement). And the message is one of love and unity, as there is no exclusion based on anything but one’s personal actions. And that is really what it comes down to, words and action. Because there can be no paradigm destruction unless people, individuals that is, begin to break them down one step at a time. This is a tremendous goal, an unthinkably monstrous task, but that does not mean it is impossible. It takes small, positive choices, repeated over and over again to begin to create meaningful effect, and if enough people start moving in the right direction, anything is possible. Of course the opposite is also true. If enough people start moving in any direction, anything can happen, be it heroic or disastrous.
In any case, George Clinton’s idealistic perspective becomes painfully clear when examining his artwork. Far from a technical master,
There is no formal structure to the works. The exploded doodles reminiscent of ‘outsider art’ portray a narrative of raceless, universal harmony and acceptance… Often incorporating characters from his conceptual recordings and productions, the protagonists are quite definitely "people of color". Characters of all colors -- white, black, orange, green, blue -- appear in attitudes of cooperation and loving interaction.7

Clinton’s artwork is another physical manifestation of the Funk, interpreted through a different medium. A brief interpretation of the over-arching theme of the works is that everything kind of mish-mashes together anyway, so why not celebrate it, as opposed to insisting on ‘difference’, or ‘binary opposition’, in the terms of this paper.
Like P-Funk and [Clinton]'s performance art, the images clash and meld into each other without any perceived reason. Their juxtaposition is merely serendipitous -- a matter of chance and allotted space. A negative space created by one image becomes an upside-down face, tacitly observing the antics of the major players.7

The artwork, much of which is “Untitled”, is created in the same spirit as his music, in that it is a different experience for every individual. Spontaneous interpretation by both artist and observer, blurring the lines between the two, making them both participants:
P-Funk seemed to believe that music wasn't so much something that you made with your instruments as it was something that you caught with them, as if [F]unk was out there in the form of an ambient residual energy left over from the big bang. It was as if their basses and horns were finely tuned, specialized antennae dialing into cosmic leftovers. Funk became a unifying presence -- the godhead as manifest to anyone willing to laugh and boogie at the same time. "One nation under a groove, gettin' down just for the funk of it.
Being "On The One" means never having to call your choreographer, because he would only mess things up. The unity of the dance is given unto the is not their responsibility to keep in step, but their privilege to have "The One" channeled through the band's antennae and onto the dance floor. But "The One" is of course also the cosmic one, the unified field of awareness, or in Hindu terminology, Shiva, the dance itself.

We have leapt into the realm of deep spirituality at this point. Music as religion, the unifying force. It is idealism with built-in practical application. It seems to me, that the Starchild Allegory is proposing the same idea as Anzaldúa; that the utopia, the ideal, will be when we all jump in the middle of the river, ‘see through serpent and eagle eyes’, and create a world based on a keen awareness of reality as it is, beyond any paradigm. Admittedly this is all very idealistic, a criticism to which I respond with a hearty, “Why not?” My argument is that Music (and accompanying Art) is the only medium available when you are trying to convey a message of this magnitude. Because there is endless observational and experiential evidence proving that Music truly is a unifying force, it makes sense to tap into that energy and amplify it (no pun intended). 8

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Create a soundscape and expand within it.

A multi-dimensional rhythm-machine slash noise-box, articulated as throbbing, spherical strobes of light, combining and weaving easily. Exploring nooks and crannies in the scales and changes.

A flowing, amorphous entity of sound synergy.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


* * * *

EOTO (End Of Time Observatory) is the new side project from String Cheese drummers Michael Travis and Jason Hann. The two of them have been touring in support of their album Elephants Only Talk Occasionally, and i caught them at the ever comfortable Cabooze in Minneapolis on that historic night when LeBron James dropped 48 on the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The most recent member of SCI, Jason Hann was brought on board two winters ago to play percussion, complimenting Travis in the rhythm section. In this new outfit, Hann takes his seat with the kit and shows his versatility as a drummer.

Travis on the other hand, stands amidst a veritable playhouse of music-making machines. He has a keyboard and some bongos, bass and electric guitars and a variety of creative-noise makers, not to mention the two Apple laptops he uses to sync and loop all the sounds together.

As a two-man gig, the looping is key, as Travis controls the recording to create layers of sounds that build and build and breakdown and blow up and drop back in, right on time. The show at the Cabooze was 2+ hours of non-stop electro-funk. My shirt was well soaked with sweat after less than an hour and i was drenched head-to-toe by the time they made us leave. Tom and i got lucky because, for whatever reason, there were more than the usual proportion of good-looking girls there, and they kind of, well, they surrounded us, which of course always makes it more fun.

But listen, this shit is funky. Travis laid it down on the bass and picked out clever licks on the piano, laying down a tonal base over Jason's original rhythms. But most surprising was Travis' skills on the guitar. His sound was reminiscent of Kang's (Michael Kang, SCI guitar/mando) high-pitched twang, but Travis kept his discipline and avoided the at-times-pointless noodling Kang gets caught up in. His riffs were generally rather simple, but well-timed and on point, adding to the hysteria of the improvised party beats.

Oh right, it will be important to mention that everything EOTO does is improvised. You would never know it just by listening, but apparently they don't write a thing, and just make it up as they go along. We had a chance to talk to Jason after the show, and Tom was conscious enough to ask him how they communicate, and he explained a series of simple hand signals he and Travis exchange: a thumb up or down for a jump in key, some head movements indicating a change in tempo, and a lot of eye contact and careful listening.

Though most of the show was high-energy, the two musicians are intelligent enough to manage a show and provide some variety. I'm thinking specifically of the encore, though there were other slower paced moments throughout the evening. The encore, which lasted no less than 15 minutes, grew smoothly into some slow-rolling funk; low-down throbbing and blues-y cadences, so deep and slow you could barely move but had to.

Although it's sad that the stinky Cheese will be the cause of no more Incidents, it's exciting to see how easily this side project has sprung up. This combo pumped out a rockin' dance party and appeared to be having (almost) as much fun as we were. If this is the only consequence of String Cheese leaving, then i think we're all gonna get by fine, just fine.

Saturday, June 2, 2007


. . . .

My mother insisted that we see this movie. She said it was about music and Dublin, and that was all the coaxing i needed to stumble out of bed on this heavy wet Saturday.

"Once" is a simple film, filled with the organic romantic folk-rock of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The two musicians, who also happen to portray the two main characters in the movie, collaborate to create soul-full songs with love-struck lyrics while director John Carney employs them perfectly in a heart-felt tale that even managed to avoid the traditional, painfully self-aware, corny sensationalism inherent in most musicals.
In the press packet .pdf, Carney describes Hansard's songwriting style, saying he is "a good lyricist because his songs are never literal...They're quite vague, in a very good way that good songs are...very open to interpretation, they're like a good poem, which is meaningless one day and then suddenly has real meaning when you've been there, or when you've had that experience."
The songs provide the vague framework for the various love situations strewn between "the guy" and "the girl" (names are never mentioned). Hansard, "the guy", has rather recently lost his girlfriend to other temptations she found in London. Markéta, "the girl", is a Czech immigrant living in Dublin with her non-English speaking mother and young daughter, having left her husband behind in the Republic. With that in mind, the two artists orbit around and towards each other, drawn ever closer by their musical center of gravity.
Hansard plays the guitar and sings with pleasing versatility. His original songs tend to start soft, building in intensity until a tingling plateau explodes in honest emotion, complete with slammed strumming and tonal yells. I'm thinking specifically of the song, "When Your Mind's Made Up" in this case.
Ms. Markéta, who is still only 18 years old, adds crucial depth with instinctive piano playing, and her smooth vocal range beautifully complements Hansard's gritty nature. Her voice is somehow soft and lovely and loud and powerful all at once. She is usually singing the harmony in support of Hansard, but her subtle grace is impossible to miss. This was her first foray into acting, and her inexperience is more than compensated for by her natural energy.
The film is shot from a grainy, camcorder-style perspective. The low-budget feel creates an intimacy, a low-key atmosphere in which the music takes over much of the story-telling duties.
Discussing how the film took shape, Carney says, "I'd write a scene, or come up with a character note based on a song. Then, occasionally, it would be the opposite situation where I would ask Glen (Hansard) to write, not a tailor-made song, but I would give him some ideas about a scene and he would come back to me with a song. A lot of the material that Glen brought in, he had already written. They're not tailor-made songs for the film. Nor is the film tailor-made around a bunch of songs; but they meet somewhere in the middle, and I like that idea."
In the end, "Once" succeeds as a modern-day musical love story. The characters are real and likeable and the music soars throughout. The aural and visual beauty of bare-bones artistry is brought to life in this simple and pleasing film.

Glen Hansard was born in Dublin in 1970. He is the lead singer, guitarist and founding member of the Irish rock group The Frames. Their latest album is 2006's, "The Cost", and they are currently touring Europe and the US. Hansard recently released his first solo album (with Markéta Irglová), "The Swell Season".

Markéta Irglová was born in Monravia in 1988, and currently resides in Prague in the Czech Republic. She is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who began playing music at the age of 7. "The Swell Season" is her first release.

Director John Carney (On The Edge, Bachelors Walk) was the original bass player in Hansard's group, The Frames.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Zappa - "Them Or Us"

Frank Zappa's 1984 release, Them Or Us, is a perfectly diverse and flowing compilation of Zappa and The Mothers of Invention's very own genre of mock-rock. With an academic and adventurous state of mind, this seamless album flows in and out and in between genres from start to finish, leaving lines blurred and heads melted.

The first track, "The Closer You Are" is simple and brilliant in its satire of every corny rock' n ' love ballad you've ever heard. Both the musical structure (it's in 6, it seems to me) of the song and the corny, cliché-ridden lyrics serve as evidence of Zappa's vastly superior compositional skills, as compared to most anyone else making new music in 1984.

The second track, "In France", is a funky number built from some filthy bass blues. Zappa's southern-twanged guitar riff fills the mid-section of this song, while a heavy tenor sax and flashing harmonica color in the top. This perfectly produced track is a response to the opening antics in "Closer You Are". "In France" displays The Mothers mastery of the Blues; a song so fully-composed and intricately layered and still so simple and groovy. As the title suggests, the lyrics are no less satirical and even slightly more overt in their sarcasm. Quick hint, the final line of the song is, "Ne-ver try-to get-your pee-nis su-ucked in FrAnce!"

By this time, we (the listener(s)) have settled in and are comfortably eager to hear whatever kind of crazy shit is coming next. "Ya Hozna" keeps pushing deeper as we slip quickly into this six-and-a-half minute, incoherent, background rock epic. A driving guitar riff and a steady, bouncing bass beat keep this track rolling under a heavy-toned chant. You can zone out, just nod your head, get all lost in thought while the pulse moves and subtly grooves your subconscious.

Falling back to reality, you splash-down in the pool of pleasantly veiled sarcasm that is "Sharleena". This is another comic love tune about a stalker, excellent of course, but the fifth track demands that i skip quickly over the fourth.

Somebody playing a late-night set somewhere needs to cover "Sinister Footwear II" soon (MMW comes to mind, but they would need help...Cyro Baptista, Kimock or Scofield, and the Antibalas horns, is all they'd need). This track runs so damn deep; just achingly ambitious in exploring its every dark corner of potential. Around the 2:30 mark, the song slips into another world. Led by the glockenspiel slash xylophone, the space-y and subtly thundering middle section will warp your mind (in a good way) if you're care-full. The crazy glockenspiel riff continues throughout most of the rest of the almost 9 minute track, expanded upon with Zappa's searing guitar solo stylings. This is by far the most impressive track on the album in terms of both musicality (composition) and performance (immaculate, as expected).

"Truck Driver Divorce, [is] very saa-ad," and transitions neatly out of "Sinister Footwear". It is also about 9 minutes, the fat back end of which is possessed by virtuosic improvisation from the whole band. I suppose it could be rehearsed and written, it doesn't really matter. Gnarly, is a good word for Zappa's style of effects-pedal funkified, fuck-show air-sculpture soloing techniques.

"Stevie's Spanking" is possibly the most pleasing, head-banging rock and/or roll song i've ever heard. Oh, it's all so simple, but something about the way they manipulate the layers of rhythm around the basic 4/4 drum-beat just makes you want to jump and convulse and wish that your amps went all the way to '11'. The expertly placed guitar fills in amongst the endlessly appealing bass line, that is, until it's time once again for Zappa to stop complimenting and fly off into his own world, dragging you along by his boot-lace. But not to worry, he always brings us back safely, landing right back in the thick, awesome muck where we started.

"Baby, Take Your Teeth Out..." is about old people and oral sex. "...there ain't nothin' left to talk about."

"Marqueson's Chicken" is more exploratory, instrumental rock. Amidst all the silliness on this album, the originality of Zappa's composing is always plain to see (or hear, i guess), as is the cohesive brilliance of his band.

"Planet Of My Dreams" is a brief, Broadway-inspired, almost Vaudeville piano number about how the Earth is "rotting at the seams". This is just another seemingly effortless and successful foray into yet another different genre for Zappa, complete with politically sadistic, yet somehow accurate poetry supporting the clever tune.

"Be In My Video" is a staple in the long line of The Mothers sarcastic songs about women. "Valley Girl", "Dirty Love" and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" are all classic Zappa tracks that mercilessly tease silly girls and all their situations in need of teasing. This particular track is obviously a comment on the burgeoning music video market in the 80's (which Zappa participated in, in his own way) and all the resulting ridiculousness (i.e. purple spandex, hip-exposing one-pieces, whorish and impossibly awkward dancing from women with big perms or little, stringy mullets). This song is still funny ('cuz it's still true) more than 20 years later, (except that pop-rap videos seem to have lost any sense of humor about the whole thing. I find a palpable sense of violence inherent in the half-naked women on (m)TV today).

The second to last track on the album is called "Frogs with Dirty Little Lips." This is suspiciously congruent to the second track, "In France", especially in it's blues-oriented, supremely funky disposition. The bass line is all you need to hear in order to enjoy this song. At this point there is little left to say, all you can do is smile and shake your head, and turn it up.

The fin-alley is a most excellent cover of the Allman Bros. classic, "Whipping Post". Naturally, Zappa's interpretation is cut-throat, exposing the innards of a song that could have almost been written by him in the first place. The precise percussion stands out, filling the song with the swinging rage contained in its natural state. The singing (not Zappa this time, the black bass player, if i'm not mistaken) is soul-fully on point as well.

One of the things this album shows me, is just how much Zappa influenced Phish. Zappa's songwriting sensibilities, expansive soloing and adventurous spontaneity obviously left a heavy impression on all four members of Phish. A quirky sense of humor combined with an obsessive passion for perfection in the music are defining traits of both groups of artists. After close listening of any Zappa, he can be instantly discovered in most Trey solo's (Trey Anastasio, lead guitar, Phish). And to this i say, Good for Trey for being a smart enough musician to emulate this wizard.

But Trey wasn't the only one, as Zappa's compositions have been interpreted by indie, emo, jam and every kind of rock bands, all alike, not to mention important symphony orchestra's and a cappella groups, who easily translate his complete-ly composed music.

Another short example of Zappa's style of mind, in 1982, he released the three-disc, all instrumental box set called, "Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar." The idea behind it being that, by taking immediate advantage of recent evolutions in recording technology, Zappa had spliced guitar solo's captured from live performances and isolated them on the track. From there, he composed entirely new music around the existing guitar line. So the resulting three (3!) albums feature completely out-of-context guitar work, except that you'd never know it because the music is still so cool and coherent.

Turning back to "Them Or Us", the album is an excellent representative of the prescient, anti-establishment parody present in most all Zappa art. His thematic tracks show the sharp-witted versatility of a smart-aleck stand-up comedian, often provoking out-loud laughter, even if you only catch half his verse. This sense of humor emanates out of all Zappa's work. More than 60 studio and live album releases in addition to various other multi-media endeavors (books, feature-length movies, music video's, etc) beg exploration, because love it or hate it, it's at the very least interesting, and always some thing different. I will be forced to paraphrase this quote because i left my copy in a box in D.C., but in the middle of The Phish Book, there is a full spread about Zappa, and somewhere at the end of that short biography, the point is made that Zappa's work was so vast, so far-reaching and diverse, that the only person who could properly comprehend and appreciate the full measure of it was Zappa himself.

Zappa was one of the most creative men in a generation (or two). And he never took drugs, believe it or not. He was just a naturally prolific music man with a bigfancy mustache.

The last issue I would like to address here is a grammatical matter. My friend Riemer once pondered aloud, "Is 'Them Or Us' correct grammar?" The answer is yes. Most commonly, we hear it in reverse, as in, "It's us or them bub, what'll it be...etc", but there is in fact nothing grammatically wrong with flipping and reversing it. It's clever, see? see what he did there? Shift your paradigm, ma-aan.
Anyway, listen carefully. If you don't immediately need to hear it again after hearing it once, maybe you should listen again anyway, just in case you missed something the first time.

For the record, Frank Zappa was born December 21st, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. After about age 12 grew up in southern California. His first release was he and The Mothers 1966, "Freak Out!", a double-disc set (considered the second-ever such release in rock music history, only narrowly pre-empted by Bob Dylan's, "Blonde on Blonde", released earlier that same year). He died December 4, 1993 at the age of 52, from prostate cancer.

Album Recommendations (so much to choose from, where to start?)

Freak Out! (try it, buy it)
Joe's Garage (any/every Act)
Hot Rats
Them Or Us (obviously)
Jazz From Hell

One last thing. As accompaniment to "Them Or Us", Zappa published a short book of the same name. This is the Foreword to that book, taken from Zappa's official website (link below).


This cheesy little home-made book was prepared for the amusement of people who already enjoy Zappa music. It is not for intellectuals or other dead people. It is designed to answer one of the more troubling questions related to conceptual continuity: 'How do all of these things that don't have anything to do with each other fit together, forming a larger absurdity?' Your enjoyment of the contents could be enhanced by hearing some of the music described in the text. The albums shown on the back cover contain some of these songs. Other songs derive from 'Joe's Garage' and "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch'. This is a story book. It is not a rock & roll biography. This is the only REAL & OFFICIAL FRANK ZAPPA BOOK. All other books attempting to trade on my name are unauthorized and full of misinformation. This book is dedicated to all of the fans who have made the last 20 years of large-scale absurdities possible. This book used to be called 'Christmas In New Jersey'."

dey oo go.