Off The Beaten Path


 

After decades of steady expansion the record industry has
finally bottomed out. With record sales at $12.3 billion in 1995, $12.5 in 1996 and only a
mild upswing projected for 1997, industry executives must now figure out where the next
burst of market expansion will be coming from. Part of the problem, from a business
perspective, is that a large portion of the music-buying public has now replaced their old
record collections with CDs and thus one "artificial" source of consumer demand
has been satisfied. However, the most serious problem is market saturation. During the
last five years, the relentless marketing of hip-hop, "alternative" rock, and
"new" country has overexposed and used up artists and music genres that only
recently fueled consumer consumption. And while industry bosses have been throwing obscene
amounts of money at so-called proven superstars and hoped for next-big-thing blockbusters,
new and more challenging musicians have been ignored. As a result, the mainstream
marketplace has become a wasteland of boring copycat "superstars" with short
shelf life and little artistic credibility.

On the far side of the mainstream marketplace, however,
there are musicians and whole genres of music that exist beyond conformist commercial
pressures that drive the trends manipulated by the Big Six (Sony, Time Warner, Sony,
Philips, Seagram, and Bartelsmann). Musical styles such as jazz, bluegrass, folk, cajun
and zydeco, celtic, classical, gospel, and various other "small market" genres
appeal to tastes that owe little to mass market advertising schemes, MTV, television,
radio, and pop journalism. The many musicians who play music for these semi-popular
audiences are motivated by muse, artistic integrity, and community needs rather than a
quest for pop fame and fortune. Increasingly, many of them also are self-consciously
resistant to having their persona or creativity molded and distorted by the forces of mass
market music making.

With this in mind, over the next few months, this column
will be focusing attention on musical forms and performers that follow along less beaten
musical paths. Highlighted this month are a number of "up-and-coming" musicians
whose recent album releases provided some of the freshest sounds of 1997.

 

Kelly Joe Phelps, Roll Away The Stone
(Rykodisc)

Mixing traditions of folk and rural blues, Kelly Joe Phelps
plays music that carries faint echoes of Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Woody Guthrie,
and Doc Watson. Accordingly, his sound conjures up visions of hot muggy Delta nights, flat
desolate landscapes of Texas and Oklahoma, struggle and yearning. But it is through his
smoky, almost ghostly singing and awesome acoustic guitar that Phelps defines a personal
and contemporary voice. Holding to quiet, meditative ballads and spirituals, Phelps moans
and whispers his lyrics against a subtle, intricate weave of finger and slide work. Though
his songs never relinquish their dark, ancient surface, Phelps is probing for salvation in
the here and now.

 

Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)

The Olympia, Washington-based rock trio known as
Sleater-Kinney has all the ingredients of greatness–caustic lyrics, gut-wrenching
emotions, hook-laden song structures and guitar driven fury. Led by
co-vocalists/writers/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, with Janet Weiss on
drums, Sleater-Kinney had their first two albums, 1995’s Sleater-Kinney and Call
The Doctor
in 1996, tagged for the "riot grrrl" and punk crowd. But the
accessible tunes and innovative vocal and guitar interplay between Tucker and Brownstein
on Dig Me Out reveal a potential for a broad popular audience. The rants against
male power and the vagaries of romance remain, but now the group seems to have gained a
sophistication that sacrifices nothing in the way of raw, cathartic power. No contest–Dig
Me Out
is the rock album of the year.

 

Solas, Sunny Spells And Scattered Showers
(Shanachie)

The thing that makes Irish music so wondrous and compelling
is its ability to absorb and reflect so much human experience. History, political
struggle, family and community celebrations, love, lust, joy, sorrow, mortality, and
spiritual yearning flow naturally through the music, reflecting a whole way of life. In
the young Irish-American supergroup, Solas, all the passions and textures of the music are
given an especially vivid display. The quintet is made up of dazzling individual
musicians. Seamus Egan plays an array of instruments including flute, banjo, guitar, tin
whistle, mandolin, and assorted percussion. John Williams is a masterful button
accordionist and winner of the All-Ireland senior concertina competition. Winifred Horan
is a fiddler extraordinaire and John Doyle’s guitar supplies urgent rhythmic drive.
Finally, there is the pure, soaring soprano voice of Karen Casey. It all adds up to
stunning virtuosity and imaginative ensemble play in service to emotions and stories of
real life.

 

Jesus Alemany, Cubanismo! / Malembe
(Hannibal/Rykodisc)

Despite the 36-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and
Jesse Helms best efforts to place even more economic constraints on the island nation,
U.S. record companies have begun licensing Cuban recordings from labels in Europe, Canada,
and Japan for sale in the U.S. In the process doors have also started to open for Cuban
musicians to tour. Thus gradually through the 1990s, a full spectrum of Cuban music (jazz,
folk, rock, pop, and rap) is finding its way to our shores. One of last year’s biggest
commercial hits was a boiling descarga, or jam session, entitled Cubanismo!
(Hannibal/Rykodisc). Recorded in Havana in 1995 by U.S. and British producer Joe Boyd, the
album features London based trumpeter Jesus Alemany leading a brilliant band of Cuban
all-stars playing exploding percussion and intoxicating salsa. The follow-up, Malembe,
is no less exquisite.

 

Sonny Simmons, American Jungle (Quest/Warner
Bros.)

Alto saxophonist Sonny Simmons gained some brief
recognition in the jazz world during the 1960s for his contributions to the avant garde,
free jazz movement. On a handful of recordings as a group leader and supporting work with
Eric Dolphy, Simmons defined a distinctive sound that linked Ornette Coleman’s free style
to a blues and bop-oriented lyricism. Various personal problems then took a toll and
Simmons spent nearly two decades working for spare change on the streets of San Francisco.
In 1994, he finally re-surfaced with an album, Ancient Ritual (Quest/Warner Bros.),
that stirred rave reviews in the jazz press. The recently released American Jungle
offers more proof that Simmons is a provocative and original player who at long last is
coming into his own. With a biting delivery and a hard, blues-tinged tone, Simmons welds
dissonant explosions to bittersweet melody, evoking the pain and anger of the streets he’s
endured. Not for easy listening, American Jungle is a burning, disturbing cry from
the belly of the beast.

 

Laura Love, Octoroon (Mercury)

Laura Love’s unique musical blend of blues, r & b, jazz
and world influences with strains of country and folk has been conveniently dubbed
"Afro-Celtic." Since she also yodels and draws from Native American chanting,
this definition is, at best, only a rough guide to an unusually expansive musical and
social vision. Although introduced to music through her father, Preston Love, who played
alto sax with jazz and blues legends such as Count Basie and Johnny Otis, Love’s overall
vision reflects her experiences of growing up in poverty with a single mother often
institutionalized for bouts of depression. Being shuffled through homeless shelters,
foster homes, and orphanages instilled a deep need to connect across social divisions.
"I write about relationships," she says, "the relationship of people to
each other, people to animals, people to earth, men to women, black to white, gay to
straight, rich to poor, etc." On her major label debut, that mission is encouraged
through a colorful tapestry of fat funk bass lines, slicing steel guitar, weepy fiddle,
acoustic and electric guitars, and churning polyrhythmic percussion. Above it all is the
radiant voice of Love, preaching a gospel of unity to combat those who would, in her
words, "lead us into a blinder, mental-er nation."

 

Richard Buckner, Devotion And Doubt (MCA)

The aptly titled major label debut of Fresno born
singer-songwriter Richard Buckner sustains a quiet, eerie mood of anguish and heartbreak
from start to finish. Each song unfolds a pained remembrance of love fading or gone, with
Buckner’s spare, haunted lyrics and soulful phrasing dredging up bitter tears and regret.
The musical backing is likewise stark and plaintive–mournful pedal steel guitar, light
organ textures, a touch of fiddle, percussive brushes on drums, acoustic guitars.
References to this kind of sound may be heard in traditional folk songs, Appalachian
ballads, the blues of Hank Williams, and the quieter side of Neil Young. But in the end,
what you hear on Devotion And Doubt is a strikingly original poetic voice etching a
dark, unadorned gem.

 

Rudy Cipolla, Portrait Of An American Original
(Acoustic Disc)

Ninetysomething mandolinist and composer Rudy Cipolla is
one of the little appreciated treasures of San Francisco. For years he tutored aspiring
musicians out of his little magazine/comic store in the city’s Sunset District. One of his
students, the renowned David Grisman, now pays homage to his remarkable spirit with this
compilation of ensemble pieces recorded in the years 1989-1995. As producer and label
owner, Grisman presents gorgeously crafted arrangements and Cipolla’s playing and writing
magically fuse an old world Italian-America to the eccentric, romantic spirit of San
Francisco.

 

Dan Bern, Dan Bern (Work/Sony)

Unfortunately, Iowa-bred singer-songwriter Dan Bern has
arrived on the major label music scene with a ton of hype about being "the next
Dylan." With his Dylanesque twang and incisive "protest" tunes, its almost
impossible not to make the comparison. But if one listens closely to the way he puts his
songs together–a complex web of social issues, inner searching, street realism, humor,
and surrealistic satire–you discover the originality of Dan Bern. Though he works with
just an acoustic guitar, Bern charges a stage with ferocious energy and a tough
contemporary attitude. Unlike so many performers of his generation, however, his anger and
cynicism is wedded to social idealism and directed at specific targets. One of his earlier
tunes, "Oklahoma" (found on the EP Dog Boy Van), transforms Woody
Guthrie’s "The Great Dust Storm Disaster" into an extended commentary on the
1995 Oklahoma City bombing that becomes a kind of state of the nation address detailing
the rise of racism and reaction. Other tunes in his repertoire fire plain-spoken barbs at
the insanities of homophobia, market-driven greed and materialism, the delusions of
romance and our country’s rampant moral and spiritual decay. In short, Dan Bern has alot
on his mind and is more than willing to challenge an audience with righteous outrage. He
needs a little more time to find his full personal voice, but even now he is making music
that matters.

 

Spearhead, Chocolate Supa Highway (Capitol)

With their 1994 debut, Home, and this year’s Chocolate
Supa Highway
, Spearhead are plotting ways of building infectious hip-hop, reggae, and
R&B grooves beneath a positive and politically correct message. Frontperson/writer
Michael Franti tried a more broadside approach in the industrial flavored hip-hop of the
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. But in forming Spearhead, which includes vocalists Trinna
Simmons and Ras I Zuli, guitarist David James, drummer James Gray, keyboard player Carl
Young and bassist Oneida James, Franti has found a way to be more musical and more
inspiring. Following in the footsteps of role models such as Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and
Curtis Mayfield, Franti and bandmates push a soothing pulse while laying out rebellious
texts on realities of racism, poverty, police abuse, AIDS, and a whole slew of other urban
ills. And like their mentors, they leave the doors open for a little cooing and wooing.
It’s a recipe that adds some heart and soul to politics, while blowing away the stale
formulas of late-1990s hip-hop.