Story of Junk


Taking a primitive tack that’s more DIY than any punk band’s, Skip La Plante’s collective Music for Homemade Instruments recycles the city’s garbage for its annual concert series, which has been held in La Plante’s Bowery loft since 1976. An eight-piece group of middle-agers banging on pans and boards and blowing on tubes and bottles fresh from the dumpster— seems like a damn farce, and it is. But there’s also a landfill of know-how behind it, all in the lowbrow/highbrow tradition of P.D.Q. Bach and Spike Jones.

Fresh from an Avery Fisher Hall exhibit, MFHI bucked the usual “here’s our art, eat it up” attitude for the crowd of 40 or so (including many precocious tykes), with each of the composers explaining their pieces and the instruments. David Simons’s Harry Partch tribute (“This Hoary Perch”) featured “string stretchers” (hinged wood strung with wire) and sounded like a crazed ukulele troop playing Sousa. His “The Collective Chok” had a chorus of label-intact soda and juice bottles tooting. John Bertles’s solo barrage, “Critical Mess,” deployed turntable chimes, a toy car equipped with microphone, and alarm clocks. His other piece, “The Camel’s Back,” was introduced as “the first virtuoso piece for soda straws.” For Jody Kruskal’s “Latex,” huge balloons were scraped and deflated, and later distributed for audience participation. Lisa Karrer’s “My Cousin Paula,” a spoken-word account of a nightmarish boating accident, was punctuated by spinning, droning windwands (wood strung with rubber bands). La Plante contributed “Cycle for Blown Instruments” with plastic tubes played as trumpets and bagpipes, climaxing in dissonance. The centerpiece was La Plante’s “Themes and Variations,” a childlike 13-part arrangement executed with table-leg marimba, broiler pans, and humidor panpipes, as intricately played as a gamelan piece (half of MFHI moonlight in gamelan ensembles). The show was at once laughable, educational, ridiculous, and inspiring. Kids, try this at home. — Jason Gross


Charlie Musselwhite began recording in 1966 after apprenticeships in Memphis and Chicago perfected his nuanced approach to both harmonica and guitar. As a songwriter, his style is steeped in dry wit and genteel melancholy. His vocals shade somewhere between the countrified rasp of Johnny Cash and the sensual lilt of a Cajun dandy. On his new album, Continental Drifter (Pointblank/Virgin), this Mississippi native does indeed drift pretty far from his Delta roots. Like Ry Cooder before him, Musselwhite experiments here with Afro-Latin root music. His performance last Thursday at the Mercury Lounge found him laying long, mournful harmonica riffs against the syncopated rhythms of Cuba and Brazil, playing langorously flattened chords against keyboard montunos and duende-drenched guitar solos.

Charlie opened with two original acoustic blues numbers, “Blues up the River” and “Please Remember Me.” Then with his band, he segued into richly hybridized pieces like “Que Te Parece, Cholita” and “Sabroso.” The purpose of this abrupt transition was to prove how easily one can slide from Delta slur into Cuban clave. The tunes, which were a bilingual blend of Cuban son and American blues, were surprisingly Tex-Mex in flavor— “border” music in the deepest sense of the term. Material which mixed blues with baiâo or bossa nova beats were similarly fresh to the ear yet oddly familiar— as tantalizingly cryptic as a rhythmic Rosetta stone.

That Musselwhite’s current tour coincides with the release of Wim Wenders’s documentary on Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club is both risky and serendipitous. The comparison is instructive. Continental Drifter even contains Musselwhite’s version of that film’s signature tune, Francisco Repilado’s “Chan Chan.” But unlike the Buena Vista ensemble, Musselwhite wants to absorb and recontextualize this stuff, not revive its original purity. —Carol Cooper

Austerity Drives

Doyen of pure techno, Jeff Mills is famed and
feted for DJing with three turntables. His virtuosity involves taking ultraminimal tracks (often just a beat and a two-bar loop) and montaging them together until the result sounds like… a marginally less minimal techno track. “DJ tools” rather than stuff to listen to, these records only really become music when Mills is crosshatching their most urgent passages together.

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Mills played a rare New York gig, thrilling a Twilo crowd evenly split between club kids buzzed to have an extra night to party hard and techno purists for whom this former member of Underground Resistance is the very definition of “subcultural capital.” It would require a DJ’s familiarity with the mixer to really detect when his three-turntables-at-once mode was operating full tilt. But what came across (very) loud ‘n’ clear was the ferocious physicality of Mills’s aesthetic, and the expertise with which he simultaneously
sustained and modulated the intensity, avoiding the usual diminishing-returns syndrome of shellshocked numbness.

As the model of an “educational DJ,” Mills avoids the obviously crowd-pleasing— not just rave dynamics, but anything that might connect techno to “normal” pop. So the first human voice (barking “Work that body!”) came 90 minutes into his set; for melody, you had to wait another half hour. Yet the fervent crowd seemed perfectly pleased with Mills’s austerity. The listener becomes engrossed by the different densities of abrasion, tantalized by the harsh sensuousness of brushed-steel hi-hats snares that dwell somewhere in the interzone between squelchy and scratchy. Above all, the Mills experience is about energy, the exaltation and deployment of pure dynamic forces. At its frequent peaks, it feels like your veins are infused with liquid lightning. —Simon Reynolds

Sister Action

Memorial Day weekend at Jones Beach, Cree Summer seemed to be aspiring to superstardom as her divine right, like decades of cock rockers before her. At least in performance, her spirited boogaloo wrote another heart-stopping chapter in the excruciatingly short lineage stretching from Janis Joplin to cult band Big Sister.

“Live ’99” was Lenny Kravitz’s medicine show (and the Black Crowes’ backyard barbecue), yet it was Kravitz’s protégée Summer who delivered the sensuality and organic proselytization crucial to interstellar funk. This concert, in a sense a bid for control of rock’s legacy, was pretty much the exclusive triumph of the Sisters. Witnessed: the tattooed mad maenad Summer with her
dreamcatcher-adorned backing vocalist and sharp-dressed bassist copping outlaw style in a Sly Stone–inspired white chapeau; Kravitz’s Kali-esque drummer, Cindy Blackmon, who can thunder where Sheila E. floats, red sequins and hot pants illuminating her in a sea of male band mates resembling pallbearers.

This diva daring was crystallized in what may well become Summer’s signature anthem, “Curious White Boy.” Oddly dissonant on the album Street Faerie, it spiced her two short sets as an inexorable battle cry, a gender and race critique that nonetheless compelled her targets to head-bang. As Summer spun and sprung and sweated with Bantu grace, menacing skull-and-crossbones on her mike stand, the backup singer spat out the song’s haunting indictment: “I met your Daddy already.” Neither Everlast’s posing (alas, he didn’t jump around) nor the Crowes’ explosive set nor even Kravitz’s Nosferatu soul revue could detract from Summer’s script-
flipping faerie tales. —Kandia Crazy Horse

Someone Else’s Blues

Any sufficiently obscure garage-rock song is functionally indistinguishable from a Billy Childish original. Playing at an overstuffed Coney Island High with his band Thee Headcoats (and their ladies’ auxiliary Thee Headcoatees) last Friday night, he blurted out almost two hours’ worth of mutilated but recognizable turbo-variations on 12-bar blues, drawn from the 80 or so albums he’s recorded with his various projects and the breadth of other people’s material that squeezes into his seemingly narrow aesthetic. In Childish’s vision, garage is a statement of class consciousness, the music of the despised, which is why his conception of it includes songs he learned from both Son House and the Undertones. He waves his Chatham, Kent, accent loud and proud; his songs are crammed full of loathing, mostly self-loathing (“What’s wrong with maaay!” goes the hook of one). As on his records, the microphones sounded like shredded castoffs, though that evidently wasn’t the idea: the band adapted to persistent equipment problems with some instrumentals and a cappella stuff, including a way more convincing “John the Revelator” than you’d expect from a gangly English Shambhala meditator.

The centerpiece of the set, though, was the New York debut of Thee Headcoatees, who are both a straight-up girl group and a wicked parody of one: three grown women (like Ginger, Bongo Debbie left last year), none of them especially pretty-voiced, backed up by the Headcoats’ mortar-and-pestle riffing and chirping away about Childish’s usual embittered fixations, alternating with even nastier covers— they opened with “Strychnine,” for Bo’s sake. They switched off who got to sing lead and who did the background aaaahs every song or two, with great big grins on their faces. Best in show: Kyra LaRubia, whose histrionic, guttural take on Childish’s “When You Stop Loving Me” went from goofball dramatics to real savagery. Their best stuff, like their brother band’s, is cheap, mean, and hungry, but the distance their pop-princess attitude affords them from their songs leavens their desperation with giddy fun. —Douglas Wolk

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 8, 1999

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