Too Sweet To Die


Introducing a “Richland Woman Blues” that began crude and ended up delivering the lyric at least as strong as Mississippi John Hurt, David Johansen told us the New York Dolls used to rehearse the song. He didn’t recall why they’d canned it, but hey, he wasn’t exactly into mnemonics back then. So assume they figured it would be bad for their image. Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, OK. But folk music was for hippies.

Still, you could see how perfectly its “fashion shop” detail— “With rosy red garter/Pink hose on her feet/Turkey red bloomers/With a rumble seat”— would have worked for the Dolls. And Johansen himself has long since proven a great democrat of song. Proud to cover Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” when he saw an opening, he was just as delighted to celebrate the Bottom Line’s 25th anniversary February 25 by forming the Harry Smiths: longtime potna Brian Koonin on guitar, whiz-bang virtuoso Larry Saltzman on banjo and steel-bodied, and Kermit Driscoll and Joey Barron from Bill Frisell’s band on stand-up bass and brushed snare-and-cymbals. Although he donned an acoustic guitar for the occasion, Johansen didn’t stick as close to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music repertoire as the band name
suggested— the announced songs of “death, retribution, and rounders” included his old Bo and Sonny Boy covers. But if the late show started awkward— three songs in, the quintet seemed inordinately pleased by their ability to hit a stiff all-together-on-the-backbeat groove— it found itself on the Anthology‘s single greatest prize, Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues”: “Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/And another time I think you oughta be buried alive.”

Resisting Jo-yokels who demanded that he stand up, placating them instead with a Jo-oldies encore capped by a mercifully understated “Heart of Gold,” Johansen played the folkie throughout. But of course the once and future Buster Poindexter didn’t project. Performing Dock Boggs like the jaunty party animal the young Boggs actually was, making you hope momentarily that Clarence Ashley would get away with murdering Little Sadie, milking Son House’s “Death Letter” for theatrical gestures that climaxed with the bluesman putting his arms around a memory, he expanded his image yet again. And if someone wants him for a hippie tribute, he’ll find great songs there as well. — Robert Christgau

Scott Free

Raymond Scott “never wrote a note for cartoons.” It’s not surprising that Irwin Chusid harps on this point, striving to separate Scott from the Bugs and Daffy arrangements that conferred his immortality. As founder of the Raymond Scott Archives, Chusid is promoting Scott from pop cult figure to Eccentric American Composer. Last Monday’s Jewish Museum program—
performance, video clips, and biographical slide show— was a step up the cultural ladder from Bottom Line Scott shows put on by the Loser’s Lounge crowd. Charles Ives and Harry Partch didn’t rake it in through licensing arrangements, though. Scott was eccentric, but prosperous, and way popular. Sitting among the alter kockers bobbing to his precision-adjusted syncopations, how’s a cognoscente supposed to feel superior?

By all accounts, Scott’s bandleading was fascistic, so it’s ironic that the Boswellish Chusid asked accordionist Will Holshouser and pianist Wayne Barker to arrange the compositions “any way they want.” Holshouser’s spacious, textural
revamp of “The Penguin” would have rankled the composer, to say the least. Since improving Scott’s intricate mechanics is out of the question, Holshouser idled the vehicle and flipped open the hood to inspect the gears. Scott’s electronic innovations, by contrast, remain esoteric, and five early-’60s commercials (bread, detergent, car parts— “Autolite, the spark plug that cleans itself . . . POW”) showcased the abstract bleeping and squeaking of his homemade synthesizer. The audience giggled uncertainly at the jittery, explosive animations with which the mundane goods were plugged. It’s no wonder the kiddies watching ended up wasted on the Haight.

Other evenings at the museum have included “Hanukkah With Betty” and “Sex in Yiddish,” to wit: this gig was an outing. In the photos, the former Harry Warnow’s boyish face makes his contemporary Benny Goodman look like FDR. The racially liminal status of Jewishness probably helped Goodman channel black music to white America. But Scott dubbed himself echt WASP, made swing that didn’t swing, didn’t give a shit about soul or any other trope of authenticity. His Ellingtonisms stick out their tongue at Wynton Marsalis. Scott enacted a cartoon of honkies playing jazz. It was so hard to pull off that he hired quite a few black musicians to do it. — David Krasnow

Dreaming Out Loud

It’s been 17 years since Blondie disbanded, and we’re still touched by their presence, dear: Luscious Jackson’s street-smart rapture, Madonna’s blond ambition, Shirley Manson’s scowls, and most recently, Harvey Danger’s “Call Me” riffs. WPLJ— the station that sponsored the ticket giveaway to last Tuesday’s Blondie reunion show at Town Hall— would probably play “Flagpole Sitta” right next to Blondie’s brilliant comeback single, “Maria,” a ’90s answer to “Dreaming.”

“Dreaming” is how founding members Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke, and Jimmy Destri fittingly started the proceedings, with beauty and the beat. The Divine Miss H. was dressed in red and black, sunglasses, and the stare from the cover of Parallel Lines, while the boys (including newbies Paul Carbonara on guitar and Lee Fox on bass) were outfitted in leather. Dreaming, dreaming is free.

The band basically stuck to radio hits and some CBGB favorites, with “Shayla” and “Union City Blue” being the surprise selections. Harry’s voice soared heavenly through both as if she were lifting the song’s characters out of their blue-
collar factory worlds and into power, passion. But where the New Wave Queen Bee really ruled was in songs like “Rip Her to Shreds” and “One Way or Another,” where her deeper, wiser lower register added grit and sassiness. Her tenure with the Jazz Passengers paid off with “In the Flesh” and the new album No Exit‘s film noirish “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room,” which went from new wave to no wave when a gold lamé­jacketed James Chance joined them on saxophone. In a bizarre colliding of worlds, imagine Chance on VH-1, which was taping the concert. (“James Chance never won a Grammy but he certainly stirred things up in the Village!”)

This dynamic played itself out in the crowd as well. Headsets, clipboards, and laminates mingled with soccer moms, office clerks, pink-haired drag queens, New York dollbabies, and new wavers with old buttons: “Blondie is a band.” One woman in the audience did a T-shirt striptease, starting with the “No Exit” shirt and ending with AbFab‘s Patsy, which proves that all things fabulous lead back to Blondie. — Sara Sherr

Wait, Wait . . . Now!

Mogwai have never been tunesmiths, exactly, but judging from their preview of their forthcoming album Come On, Die Young last Monday night at Bowery Ballroom, they’ve all but shed the idea of the pop song. Only one piece involved singing, and most of them didn’t attach any other kind of hook to their tourniquet-tight pacing and dynamics— just an articulated chord or two, or a repeating, mutating spiderweb pattern. The obvious model was Slint, a lot of whose virtues they’ve borrowed: patience, spaciousness, and a micro-control of rhythms that gives them extra bite. Without some kind of melodic point hurrying Mogwai up, though, they tended to ramble. It’s nice that young people are interested in the scope of old prog, but God! do we really need to hear flute solos?

Purity of intent and execution is what gives Mogwai a lot of their power, though they’re getting so pure that the new stuff is sometimes arid. Even when they crank up the volume, they usually keep pivoting around the same old drone. And their approaches to their ideal can get kind of hard to tell apart: “Christmas Steps” is the one where the loud part starts with the bass; “May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door” is the one where the loud part isn’t all that loud. “Like Herod,” the one where the loud parts are really loud, has become as much of a routine for them as, for instance, “Blue Line Swinger” is for Yo La Tengo. It’s been in their set longer than anything else: crawling along note-by-note at whispering volume for five or 10 minutes until the audience is leaning forward for every brush of a string or cymbal, then snapping into an unexpected furnace-blast that pastes them to the back wall— twice. That’s the theory, anyway, though longtime fans can count in the kaboom by now. Still, by the time Mogwai segued into their closing cover of the old indie-rock standard “Six Minutes of Feedback,” the exhaustion of waiting had turned into the exhaustion that follows a happy shock. — Douglas Wolk

Carrying Two Babies

Aiha Higurashi, singer and guitarist for Tokyo’s Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, is four months pregnant, but she performed Saturday night at a Mercury Lounge smoky enough to toxify my blue jeans. Rockers can’t always be choosers, and with no American record deal yet and the South by Southwest music convention coming up, the band needed to show its wares. Higurashi got her doctor’s permission so long as she spaced the gigs and went home immediately after each set.

In Japan, SSKHKH record for Trattoria, Cornelius’s label, and sell about 15,000 records each time out. While Higurashi has dabbled in hiphop and loungey flourishes— her single “Pink Soda” begins as a finger-snapping “Fever” variant— she’s an art-punk at heart, for whom the ringing power chords of the Mekons’ “Where Were You” are manna from heaven, a gift she returns on sugar rushes like “Angel,” “Sweet Home,” and “Down to Mexico.” Since U.S. hipsters find the sound outdated, thank God it’s a big world. (PS: The Boredoms have just done a superlong freebopping of “Where Were You”— now give, skeptics.)

Sometimes called Japan’s PJ Harvey, Higurashi doesn’t tap an equivalent rage: even singing, “I cut myself into very little pieces,” she kept an ingratiating grin. But the tension between politeness and outburst, especially sexual release, gives her punk a distinct form; one number begins, “I woke up screaming/I know it’s already morning/I make a cup of coffee/I know he’s already gone/I drink the cup of coffee.” And a previous year and a half in New York has removed most of the typical Japanese cutesy pidgin from her English. Scattered over the inconsistent two albums and three EPs I’ve heard is more than enough for an eye-
opening U.S. long player. There’s an artist coming to term here. — Eric Weisbard