While a record
company Big Six have been dominating music industry market space for almost 25 years,
earlier this year Seagram gobbled up Polygram, bringing the major label music biz down to
a Big Five (Bertelsmann, EMI, Sony, Seagram, and Time-Warner). If we can trust music
industry rumors, it also seems likely that sometime in the very near future EMI will be
swallowed by Sony, Time-Warner, or Bertelsmann, reducing the music giants to a Big Four.
Needless to say, on the horizon is a day when virtually all musical entertainment emanates
from one giant corporation.
The effects of
this trend are, of course, all around us. Todays mass hit driven
marketplace is by nature conformist and leery of all those sounds that seem too old, too
new, or too odd to generate massive commercial success. However, for music fans and
musicians unwilling or unable to join in the blockbuster rat race, there is an
alternative. While not necessarily more progressive socially or economically than the
mammoth conglomerates, the independent music industry offers a home for musical expression
unpressured by the demand to be instantly popular with everyone, everywhere.
With that in
mind, a salute to some adventurous music we probably wouldnt hear if it werent
for independent music labels. All releases are from 1998.
The Fire This
Time, Still Dancing On John Waynes Head (Extreme)
Formed in 1988,
The Fire This Time is a loosely affiliated Canadian production collective devoted to
encouraging political activism and solidarity through musical collaborations between
African and First Nations people. Their second full-length album is a stirring, innovative
melding of global sounds and concerns featuring a host of well known activist/musicians
including American Indian singer-poet John Trudell, Public Enemys Chuck D,
Spearheads Michael Franti, political exile Assata Shakur, scholar Angela Davis,
legendary reggae and dub producer Lee Scratch Perry, the militant
England-based Indian dance band Asian Dub Foundation, dub master Adrian Sherwood and
traditional Native American drum/vocal group The Eagleheart Singers. Serious political
messages abound, but the strongest inspiration derives from the throbbing, haunting blend
of beats and voices from around the world. TFTT coordinators Marcela Toro, Pat Andrade,
and Errol Nazareth deserve much credit for convening such a remarkable and visionary sound
John Fahey, America
Breakdowns And Military Waltzes (Tacoma/Fantasy)
Although guitarist/composer John Fahey was a prime
definer of the solo acoustic guitar performer school that emerged from the folk and blues
boom of the 1960s, his legacy seemed all but lost before Fantasy launched its current
reissue series of his landmark Tacoma recordings. America and Death Chants,
Breakdowns And Military Waltzes are two of his masterpieces–sad, crazed, humorous,
tender, lonely, and beautiful sketches of the land and people known as America.
Kirk, Aces Back To Back (32 Jazz)
The extraordinary multi-instrumentalist played all
manner of jazz and other forms of black music, often in one mind-altering composition. A
few years back Rhino brought Kirk back into focus with an excellent two-CD anthology, Does
Your House Have Lions. The four-disc package of 32 Jazz adds a wealth of evidence to
the case for his reappreciation.
Whats That I Hear? The Songs Of Phil Ochs (Sliced Bread)
Billy Bragg, Arlo Guthrie, Katy Moffatt, and
assorted other socially conscious singer-songwriters rework some of the best tunes of the
activist troubadours neglected legacy. A perfect companion to last years
essential Ochs compilation, Farewells & Fantasies (Rhino).
New Bomb Turks, At
Ropes End (Epitaph)
More fast and furious punk leftism from another
powerhouse band on Epitaph. Raging guitars and tough, glorious anthems make this one a
candidate for indie rock album of the year.
Following the overthrow of Chilean President
Salvador Allende in 1973, Inti-Illimani won a wide audience in the United States and
around the world with their unique translations of the indigenous music of Chile, Peru,
Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina. Exiled from Chile until 1988, Inti-Illimani came to
represent the hopes and passions of peoples struggling for freedom and homeland. Three
decades after the group was formed, their new album returns them to their musical roots in
the folk music of the Andes Mountains in South America. Delicate, intimate music, still
fresh and inspiring.
Various Artists, Joyful Noise: Celtic From Green Linnet (Green Linnet)
Green Linnet Records is the premier U.S. label for
a full menu of Celtic music. This recently released two-CD collection pulls together a
wonderful array of songs and styles performed by some of the most revered artists in the
field: Martin Hayes, Altan, Eileen Ivers, Seamus Egan, Dick Gaughan, Tannahill Weavers,
Kevin Burke, to mention a few.
The Harry Smith Connection (Smithsonian Folkways)
Dock Boggs, Dock
Boggs: His Folkways Years 1963-1968 (Smithsonian Folkways)
Recorded last year at a live concert honoring
record collector Harry Smiths Anthology of American Folk Music, The Harry
Smith Connection presents vital contemporary versions of the folk, blues, country, cajun,
and gospel tunes compiled on Smiths indispensable anthology of Southern musical
traditions. Nothing hip or faddish, just different generations of musicians (Lonnie
Pitchford, Dave Van Ronk, Balfa Toujours, Rodger McGuinn, Jeff Tweedy, Toshi Reagon, The
Fugs) demonstrating the profound staying power of our roots heritage.
The success of
the Grammy Award winning Anthology of Folk Music has also reawakened interest in
the intense country blues of Dock Boggs. Though the singer/banjoist only recorded 12 songs
in the 1920s, his fierce, tortured voice made an indelible mark on folk traditions. Lured
back into music by Mike Seeger during the 1960s, Boggs recorded 50 more songs included in
his repertoire. His Folkways Years has them all on a two-CD collection. Not as
frightening as his recordings of the 1920s, but still a powerful and moving working class
voice struggling with the failed promises of America.
Treasures Left Behind: Remembering Kate Wolf (Red House)
When she died of leukemia in 1986 at the age of 44,
singer-songwriter Kate Wolf was little known outside the small circles of the folk music
community. But in her 15 years of performing and writing her life and music planted many
seeds that continue to yield a healing wisdom. Whether you missed her in her time or
youre a veteran fan longing to reconnect with her soulful, honesty, Treasures
Left Behind opens Kate Wolfs artistry to a needed reappreciation. Produced by her
guitarist and friend Nina Gerber, Treasures unfolds 14 Wolf compositions through
consistently acute interpretations by the likes of Dave Alvin, Lucinda Williams, John
Gorka, Greg Brown, Emmylou Harris, Utah Phillips, Nanci Griffith, Ferron, and others. Her
gift, as Utah Phillips put it, was to tell us the truth about her life, but without
complaint or self-pity…in a positive, giving way.
Foundation, Rafis Revenge (Phase 4/London)
This quintet of Pakistani/Indian immigrants is
intent on destroying the notion that dance and groove music has nothing to do with
politics. Unloading fiery rhetoric over deep thumping beats, tense pulsing reggae, and raw
explosions of electric guitar, the group nails the pre-millennium flavor of Britains
class and race divisions through tunes that are angry, confrontational and didactic. Party
music for the new century.
Kimbrough, God Knows I Tried (Fat Possum/Epitaph)
CeDell Davis, The
Horror Of It All (Fat Possum/Epitaph)
There are still a few regional pockets in the south
where the blues seems closer to its African roots than to the slick rock influenced
hybrids dominating the contemporary blues market. The Oxford, Mississippi-based Fat Possum
Records has made a home for these rugged sounds and the late Junior Kimbrough was one of
the labels elder masters. Kimbrough played a brand of trancy, raw blues sustained by
the small raucous juke joints of North Mississippi. When he died earlier this year of a
heart attack at age 67, Kimbrough was beginning to enjoy modest recognition outside Mississippi. God Knows I Tried is likely the final
document of his dark, moaning electric blues. Like his three other Fat Possum
bluesperson CeDell Davis sounds like some long lost link to the rural blues of the early
20th century. Though crippled and wheelchair bound, Davis employs a butter knife for mean
slide guitar noise and with a powerful voice evoking the work song origins of the blues,
creates a sound simultaneously ancient and original. The Horror Of It All is Davis
in his rowdy prime.
Mickey Hart/Planet Drum, Supralingua (The
1991 Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart pulled together a band composed of some of the
greatest drummers from around the world and fashioned a world music classic built entirely
on the rhythms and textures of global percussion. A long time coming, this follow-up to Planet
Drum adds singing and chanting to the formula, but the heart and soul of this
mesmerizing sound remains the worlds first musical instrument. Another enduring gem.