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Avant-Funk

Can today's true experimental acts thrive?

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Even before rock & roll took over when I was young, the "art life" seemed very attractive to me due to maverick artists. Although the Web's global, instant access renders the avant-garde quaint, the very same immediate dissemination of information also lessens the impact of fringe folk. Even if margins cannot cleanly be attested anymore, I still wonder what becomes a postmodern vanguard artist most.

So it was inevitable that I'd begin by reviewing New York rock musician/arts impresario Vernon Reid's latest CD, Other True Self (Favored Nations; ***1/2). Reid, co-founder of the era's foremost black rock entities -- Living Colour and the Black Rock Coalition -- has been a fixture in NYC arts since the early '80s. He was involved with the era's avant-garde loft jazz scene through his membership in Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society and other social relations. However -- perhaps due to Reid's having been born and bred in '60s England -- his cultural aesthetic usually has been ahead of the post-deseg black arts curve.

Performed with his group Masque, Other True Self sees Reid continuing to crest the waves of wilder sonic shores, unafraid of the trend against sophisticated instrumental music in the mainstream. The youth who held Santana, Eddie Hazel and Rush as equivalent is in evidence here, as the mature artist Reid covers Radiohead ("National Anthem") and channels Herbie Hancock's Headhunters on opener "Game is Rigged" and especially "Mind of My Mind." He addresses the African diaspora with the lilting Sahelian guitar of "Prof. Bebey" and cuts referring to a vodun deity ("Oxossi") and Black American icon (Kunta Kinte's daughter "Kizzy"). Rigorously theorizing the sound of amped Africa, the disc ought to be required listening.

Another sonic explorer is Jason Lytle who, since he has disbanded Grandaddy, might consider emerging from his California desert lair to throw his hat in the ring with Reid. Lytle's vanguard Americana definitely can be classed in the elite of such artists operating today. His new Just Like the Fambly Cat (V2; ***) is inferior to its predecessors, Sophtware Slump and Excerpts From the Diary of Todd Zilla. Paradoxical mix of vulnerable (a la Neil Young and Jimmy Scott) and robotic vocals, cosmic synths, ELO electro, grunge grit -- all appear, making Fambly Cat more intriguing than most pop product. Yet Lytle's forward-thinking pop, with its stylistic left turns and hallmarks of paranoia about the future and sprawl, has not resolved his primal hopes for security. Assorted interviews reveal his anxieties about survival as an independent musician and how his shotgun marriages to Modesto and the indie ceiling have taken a toll on his psyche.

The Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O decamped from New York City in thrall to California Dreaming rather than to Lytle's sunshine-girt dystopian nightmares. The result is that, post-Hollyweird, the YYY's often echo the Motels' limpid pop on Show Your Bones (Interscope; **). Karen O's travelogue dramas are embellished with sonic furbelows that diminish intensity. Time will tell whether their urban edge is restored; meanwhile, they might as well cede their cool to Oakland's the Coup.

Oaktown's raptivist duo returns to the forefront of sonic montage with Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph; ***1/2), their first official release since 2001's controversial Party Music. Guests range from the Coup's label head Jello Biafra to the Roots' Black Thought, and the disc samples blaxploitation symphonics, Funkadelia and early '80s electro pop overall. MC Boots Riley and his ace, DJ Pam the Funkstress, remain among Public Enemy's best heirs, fusing bootylicious art with sharp gazes at the world. Riley's flow is provocative, whether affecting Brit-speak on "We Are the Ones," fomenting sly revolt on "Laugh/Love/Fuck" or making toilet funnies on "Ass-Breath Killers." With some of the most rubbery funk beats in history, "Head (of State)" lustily lampoons the President and Saddam Hussein's relations.

Most intriguing is Weapon's final third, featuring brilliance like Millie Jackson-worthy slow jam "BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin'Crazy." (Dylan should cover it directly). Then, Ole Boots' "The Stand" performs a sonic leap towards his Bay Area forebear Sly Stone's "Stand!" The Coup's party-hearty approach to a difficult aesthetic may be the best solution to avoiding the margins. And they'll indeed "make the revolution come quicker."

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