Other Voices, Other Countries

This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

I've never heard a piece of reggae, ska, or rock-steady I didn't like at least a little. The off-beat of Jamaican pop can make anything sound good – even the tribute album. Most tributes are a waste of time, and from the Hollies' late-'60s effort to the 30th anniversary concert held at Madison Square Garden in 1992, the many extended encomia to the music of Bob Dylan have been particularly sucky. Too much tribute, not enough pleasure. Is it Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan, Vol. 1 (Sanctuary/Ras) breaks the rule. Here pleasure is continuous, tribute all but incidental. It says nothing bad about Dylan, and everything good about this double-disc collection, that you can listen to the whole thing and devote perhaps ten seconds of thought to the artist whose work inspired it.

The best performances are either uncomplicated bliss (the Mighty Diamonds contribute the 300th satisfying version of "Lay Lady Lay") or left-field revision (rapper Sizzla reinvents "Subterranean Homesick Blues" merely by reaccenting its rhythm). Billy Mystic turns the biblical nightmare of "Hard Rain" into a jaunty reel through Armageddon, accompanied by lovely flutes and wide-eyed awe. Mostly performed by a band led by drummer and Dylan collaborator Sly Dunbar, there is nothing raw to this music. But the relative absence of horror and harshness from these versions does not lessen the songs; it makes them work as joyful noise with a plush beat. Not everything has to hurt: "When it hits, you feel no pain," Bob Marley once said of reggae. Positivity was always the mandate of this music.

Disc 2, featuring dub versions of several songs ("dub" meaning instrumental tracks remixed for richer echo, heavier bass, wider stereo) opens sonic funnels in the tracks, unexpected cylinders of sound. And this is not to mention the cover design, a witty derangement of the Bringing it All Back Home tableau that has Dylan rolling a Rasta-licious joint amid the familiar iconic droppings – except that Robert Johnson has been replaced by Jimmy Cliff, and LBJ by Haile Selassie. For those looking to renew their love of reggae, Is it Rolling Bob? is among the nicest things to happen since Musical Youth didn't become the next Jackson 5.

Björk can be as difficult as reggae is easy. The Icelandic pixie-freak has both garnered her cult and staved off mass appeal by creating albums that are exercises in creative perversity. Her voice is lemon-tart and knife-sharp, her production a spare Nordic electro that subjugates both rhythm and melody to an overall aesthetic of fractured, cubist pop. She doesn't make hits. She feasts on deconstruction, distrusts whatever sounds "natural" or conventionally beautiful. Yet who hasn't been turned on by her at least once over the course of her stubborn, experimental career – scintillated by "Big Time Sensuality," or tickled by "It's Oh So Quiet," or chilled by "Satisfaction," her demonic 1994 duet with PJ Harvey?

Medulla (Elektra) is Björk's toughest sell yet: an album constructed almost entirely of vocal parts – parts sometimes layered for a resonant, churchly effect, elsewhere splintered and syncopated in an approximation of hip-hop. Among the singer's guests are The Icelandic Choir, Inuit throat singer Tagaq, and human beatbox Rahzel. Save a bit of piano, unaccompanied vox provides all melody and percussion, main line and counterpoint, washing over the words in tides of human hum and sigh. Song titles like "Mivikudags" and "Sonnets/Unrealities XI" discourage ordinary textual comprehension, and even the liner booklet is hard to use: The lyrics and titles are printed black on black – you need night-vision goggles to read them.

The album sounds like a liturgical mass sung by a parish of helium-huffers, and it drives you to imagine the pictures that might animate its sounds. The opener, "Pleasure is All Mine," folds a sinister cathedral of melting voices around the singer's orgasmic rasps, while the congregated choristers of "Oceania" whoop and swoop as if goosed by a dirty-minded Holy Spirit. The explosive "Where is the Line" features machine-gun mouth percussion, the whistling of evil children, and bursts from a diabolical whoopie cushion. The whole album is like this: Over and around Björk's leads runs a gamut of oral ecstasy – panic-attack grunts, and the glug-glug absurdities of Spike Jones' records.

It's a strong mix, catchy and creepy. From one track to the next, there is no telling whether Björk's tonsil-testing escapades will be euphonious or dissonant, a mattress of echo or grid of crisscrossing cries. That's the album's dark wonder, and it's what makes Björk interesting. She whispers you near, then shrieks you back; finds your pleasure center, then sticks a poker in it. Would that more artists had such robust contradictions, as much sense of nefarious play and focused adventure; not since David Bowie first visited Berlin has an ostensibly mainstream artist so voraciously pursued an alienating course while retaining a sense of pop's gut thrills.

Spinning the globe like a record album, melting cultural difference into a hot and spicy ball of sound are Thievery Corporation – the collective name of Eric Hilton and Rob Garza, two District of Columbia DJ/remixers. They fashion extended musical montages from existing recordings, boosting bass and layering effects, occasionally overdubbing voices or instruments. Their latest, The Outernational Sound (ESL Music),is an uninterrupted hour-long matrix of integrated excerpts from a host of culturally and musically diverse sources – many old enough to retain the blessed crackle of vinyl, almost all so obscure that they will visit most listeners as modest revelations. "Slow Hot Wind" spirals atmospherically outward from the base of an old Sergio Mendes record; Big Boss Man's "Sea Groove" chugs like classic garage rock; "Cramp Your Style" hauls in James Brown funk; "Cookin'" is a hard-Latin, post-Tito Puente butt-shake. All are made to groove like mad, and everything feeds into and emerges naturally from everything else.

Through selection and sampling, with deft fingers and avid ears, Hilton and Garza construct an imaginative terrain fed equally by pop music, splashy movies, and romantic fantasies of global intrigue. Their best albums – see also Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi (1996) and The Mirror Conspiracy (2001) – are delirious, pulsating head movies. The mix is hypnotic and beat-driven, with incantatory chants and riffs pounded raw.

At their least, Thievery are monotonously hip and lacking in ideas, as if they've located a groovy beat only to fall asleep at the console; and like many second-generation fans, they have an uncritical weakness for kitsch. But at their most, they mutate the flash of '60s Britpop with the dramatic clarity of '70s neoclassical soul with the mystery of Middle Eastern vocal wailings with the thump of house music with the bounce of French ye-ye vocalists with – whatever else is at hand. Simply by finding, and sometimes creating, the beat that runs through all popular genres, Thievery Corporation prove the unwritten theory behind pop as a whole: that there is no reason one style shouldn't fit with any other.

From mind movies to the real thing: The spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone rate with the most grandiose, hubristic, and emotionally exhilarating music ever recorded. Between 1964 and 1969, Morricone scored roughly 100 Italian films, from the lowest cowboy dreck to some of the decade's most vaunted art-house hits; but he was always most inspired when scoring the violent, operatic epics of Sergio Leone, under whom he slammed together a style that was easy for others to parody and impossible for them to surpass. Film critic Richard T. Jameson once described the shock of American audiences upon first hearing this "idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock. ... [It was] startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur."

Every essence of the Morricone dementia is present in his score for Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, lately reissued by Capitol in an extended version incorporating incidental themes and filler tunes not on the original album. From the legendary title track, still shockingly raw and alive, to the showdown apocalypse of the final theme, it is simply amazing, a key unsung work of its time. Morricone takes for granted a palette of tonal and emotional expression of which most film composers today are either too modest or too banal to even conceive. Symphonic sweep battles grunge distortion, a tragically beautiful Spanish guitar announces the arrival of death in the afternoon, and the Western's countless brutalities are mourned by a wailing chorus of male drama queens.

Morricone loved the archetypes of American pop and Hollywood movies, but he was too blasphemous and original to ever replicate them in earnest. If The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is Dmitri Tiomkin on hallucinogens, other work from the period is even more inexplicable, if less epochal. For some of that, see another inexpensive recent release, Ennio Morricone: The Legendary Italian Westerns (BMG/RCA), which compiles the best of his themes for the other Leone films, plus his campier work for lesser chefs in the spaghetti genre. Therein, you will experience such brief sorties into the land of the extremely unlikely as an Italian ballad singer impersonating Frankie Laine; thriller-type tunes that would like to place James Bond on horseback; and a theme for 1965's A Gun for Ringo, which sounds, I swear, like an outtake From The Beach Boys Today.

And if nothing about that strikes you as amusing, enticing, or even the least bit strange, may I recommend the latest emissions from, say, Dave Matthews or Norah Jones – the musical equivalent of sensible shoes?

This article is available on The American Prospect website.

Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Devin McKinney, "Other Voices, Other Countries", The American Prospect Online, Dec 17, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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