Timbuktu Woman Sings Her Mind
Khaira Arby: Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music)
Although she's too unreconstructed to inspire much loose talk about feminism, this cousin of Ali Farka Toure's‑-one of many, I bet‑-has the gravity and the drive to replace the effectively emeritus Oumou Sangare as Mali's female musical ambassador. Problem is, while this 2010 album is arresting, it's also fatiguing. Of course she's singing in her sand-blasted power contralto, but over 12 tracks it's often more like she's holding forth‑-after all that hectoring you crave some lilt, the sense that maybe she'll dance a few steps when she does this one live. Nice theory, only the two liltiest concern "the anguish of women" and "workers returning from the salt mines." She's not getting ready to dance. She's just giving herself time to think. B PLUS
Khaira Arby: Tchini Tchini (Clermont Music)
Conceived as new merch to sell on an American tour that ended before the pressing was ready, this three-track EP doubles as an economical introduction. Its near-frantic four-and-half-minute opener is guitar-driven. Its trickier five-minute closer is drum-driven. And for the seven-minute wedding song in between she relaxes a little with her ngoni guy before the guitar guy has his say. Not fatiguing, that's for sure. A MINUS
Mick is great but Keith, espec. at 1:34 and 1:49, is, what was that word, . . . , canonical.
p.s. to Nate: Sorry I missed your reference to that epic guitar anthem that Smallwood and I played on. I was watching "Around and Around" from 1964 for about eight times in a row and lost track of the postings. It can now be told, the sound I got on that twin lead was because my beard - the one Chuck Cleaver borrowed his style from - got caught in the strings and the solo is what happened when I was trying to untangle myself. John's part was a mystical takeoff on the rarely played Nordstrom theme song.
But enough context. We eat context for breakfast around here. Alexander/Subconscious/Dead Dad wanted me to listen to/understand/gather-unto-me this crawdad, not contextualize it, so how does it sound in this day and age? First off, I’m not about to drag the vinyl up from the basement; I’m checking it out on my iPod, which means no lyric sheet (not a problem--if there was ever a sound-over-sense album this is it--but I have to ask: are the first words on this record really “Some walk out winners/Of those who floss”? Can’t be).
The best analogy I can up with for the sound of No Other--its precise, machine-like layering of guitar over guitar over guitar over steel guitar over country vocals, all in the service of a perfect abstraction (or gibberish, depending on how kind you’re feeling)--is Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s Spinning Round The Sun, another over-blown masterpiece that’s too slick by half and isn’t as deep as it pretends to be, with a comparably eccentric vocalist on top, but still a really great record, both in theory and in practice: easy on the ear, plus it stretches you some. No Other has the added bonus of some astounding guitar work--loud and free, and tasty in the jazz sense--played by...well, I don’t have the credits with me either, so let’s just say John Smallwood plays the guitar (and he’s joined by Greg Morton for some stunning twin lead work on “Lady Of The North”: good show, guys).
The songs? Tuneful, hooky, all that, but so abstract (or gibberishy) that they’re no fun to sing along with, which translates as sub-standard in pop music. Still, about a million times smarter and richer than anything Gene’s old bandmate David Crosby has ever come up with, which is why listening to this album is a bittersweet experience: Gene Clark deserved better than the obscurity that dogged him since 1966--he beat not only David Crosby but also Don Henley and Glenn Frey all to hell.
Oh, and Gene Clark’s dead by the way. Died in 1991. Thomas Jefferson Kaye died three years later. Maybe my dad was right about the neglected things of this world--he died in 1997.
The next few years brought a few half-hearted attempts to rejoin the Byrds, a semi-celebrated hook-up with Doug Dillard, follow-up albums even I’ve never heard, and in 1973 a disastrous Byrds reunion for Geffen Records (maybe it wasn’t exactly a disaster, maybe it sold really well, I don’t know, but it was torture to listen to). And because Gene was the only Byrd who brought even one decent song to that piece of crap David Geffen signed him to a solo contract, saying “Here’s a truckload of cocaine and over 100,000 1974 dollars--make me a masterpiece” (I’m guessing). First thing Gene did was hire Thomas Jefferson Kaye as producer.
Kaye had been around--he’d produced fine records for Michael Bloomfield, John Hammond Jr., Loudon Wainwright (the “Dead Skunk” album!) and, rumor has it, “96 Tears” by ? And The Mysterians. He had a knack for softening (and sometimes highlighting) harsh and nasty material with a shmear of bright and happy country-rock pleasantness, which usually meant lots of overdubbed guitars. This mellow/depressing dynamic endeared him to the Steely Dan crowd--when Kaye made his own albums they were overseen by Dan producer Gary Katz--and helped popularize Irony as a West Coast specialty in the 70s (Don Henley and Linda Ronstadt never got it, but Warren Zevon did, and Randy Newman practically invented it). Kaye’s first order of business on behalf of Gene Clark was to hire more or less everyone west of the Rocky Mountains to play on No Other (I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find that Greg Morton and John Smallwood had cameos on this record).
To Be Continued
Woke up in the middle of the night from a troubled and restless sleep. Took a troubled and restless trip to the can and then checked the board to see who was up. Not really much of anybody, except to my surprise there was a post from Alexander Nevermind praising Gene Clark’s 1974 album No Other, an old favorite I haven’t thought about in years. Did I read that right? Did I dare respond in my troubled and restless state? It would have to wait. I hopped back aboard the toss-and-turn express.
Got up a few hours later, made breakfast and rechecked the board. No Alexander Nevermind post. No Gene Clark. No No Other. Just vanished. Had I dreamt it? Was this a call from my subconscious to revisit a moment from my past? Or a message from my late father in the great beyond to gather to me the neglected things of this world? Whatever it was, it demanded to be taken seriously. I would consider No Other.
So what is No Other, and why would Alexander Nevermind, my subconscious, and my dead father all want me to revisit it? “An exercise in studio and financial excess...pop music’s Heaven’s Gate,” avers Allmusic’s Thom Jurek, who adds that it’s “one of the more coked-out records to come from L.A. during the era”, that era being the mid-seventies, when Los Angeles was operating an almost entirely cocaine-based economy (and this is all in a Five-Star review!). “If it’s rock and not included, my implicit advice is to forget it” thunders Robert Christgau, who never reviewed it and didn’t include it, so forget it. “The one where he looked like a fairy,” sighs my nostalgic cousin Mac, fondly conjuring a time when it was possible to be shocked by the sight of a guy in mascara and lipstick wearing a silk blouse unbuttoned and tied at the midriff and what looks like a pair of Katherine Hepburn’s most billowy lounging pants. Tom Hull has no entry for Gene Clark in his database.
So No Other is not terribly promising then. Add in production costs rumored to be above $100,000 (which is like, what, over a billion in today’s dollars, right?) and the fact that that paragon of taste and discretion David Geffen hated it (and refused to spend a dime promoting it) and this must be a disaster of geological proportions, a true dog for the ages, wouldn’t you think? But it’s not. In fact, it’s kind of a masterpiece, one of those very rare works of art that not only justifies bloat and excess but actually makes something of them.
To Be Continued
about the blogger
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.