Monday, August 20, 2012

...and Love

Gigigigigi... I don't know the language, but the music sure is pretty.

The opening moments of this record offer a subtle compositional exploration: it starts with them chanting this one thing over a mid-tempo groove, then we get released into a faster free-fall. The groove returns with them chanting the same thing but shifted over a beat. Or wait maybe it's on the same beat but the tempo is a little slower? Something disorients. Then the free-fall again.

(Little emphasis-shifts occur throughout this album: "Ou Mam' Avem" zips along serenely and in the middle we get this tiny punctuation, a bar with a barely-accented strong beat at the end gets repeated a few too many times, to where you subconsciously think the record might be skipping - but before it hits your awake brain it's gone.)

Back to "Map Di". The band fades into the background and Coupé's vocals come up. He's talking or going off or something in I guess Creole. No idea what he's saying, the tone light but firm; I'm picturing a half-smile and an occasional raised eyebrow. Not understanding the words is a drawback sure but I console myself by hearing the voice as an instrument. He's a master sure and certain and he woofs through an everlasting warp. The bulk of this fifteen-minute track is the quiet free-fall bed and Coupé's persistent rant; he hits a percussive "Map Di. Map Di. Map Di." about twelve minutes in, after his second incredibly understated five-second raspy howl "Ooooooooohhhhhh!" (the first came a minute before). The band comes back up, he gives us another sung chorus, the mid-tempo evanesces and drops off a cliff, leaving us with a few spoken words - is their effect chilling or hilarious if I knew the language? I'm certain it's one or the other.

Everything about this music is so confident. Emphasis is embedded deep within. It barely breaks the surface.

It sounds more like soukous than the music of the islands, but there's always a Caribbean lilt, especially in the slow croons. I looked up the music of Haiti on this handy peer-edited online encyclopedia I like to use, hoping to find a little background on Coupé Cloué. I didn't find that, but I did find this incredible paragraph whose jumble somehow echoes the raspy rant I'm hearing:

Starting in the late 1970s (with discontent surrounding the increasing oppulence of the Duvalier dictatorship), youth from Port-au-Prince (and to a lesser extent Cap-Haïtien and other urban areas) began experimenting with new types of life. François Duvalier's appropriation of Vodou images as a terror technique, the increase in US assembly and large-scale export agriculture, the popularity of disco, and Jean-Claude Duvalier's appreciation of konpa and chanson française disillusioned many youth and love.

So like, some kind of messed-up political situation, tough times, weird vodou stuff mixing with the politics, some disco. I guess that's about right. I think maybe the thing that puts it off-kilter is just the "and love" at the end: without that it all makes grammatical sense. It echoes the subtly but confidently shifting grooves on the record.

Bad politics, new types of life, and love. The framework barely breaking the surface, subtle emphasis. Life lived. And love.

But back to Coupé Cloué.

The song "En Ba Banane Nan" has an amazing title, no? I picked up this snatch from it: Why. Why. Why. Why. C'est par example...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools

I'm lazy but I want stuff. I have a value for hugs (even if I'm a little ambivalent to the actual action); I've experienced the redemption of love in my life, and I'm better for it. I love happy endings. I am free to be me, a child of the parents of peace and love (my folks were square, but I saw Sesame Street). O insipid, privileged America, I want to be you.

But: I look at the entitlement, selfishness, superficiality that defines the media landscape and it just makes me sad. I think the Disney/rom-com version of love (which is all any of us came up on) is a dangerous, violent fiction. My concept of freedom is inseparable from responsibility. I want to be just, responsible America too.

(Also, I can't eat hamburgers. Also, I don't get dogs.)

The Cowsills were legit superstars forty-four years ago. Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools, their third album, packed solid with brilliant songs, engaging arrangements, warm lead vocals, and gilded harmonies, came out less than a year after their first. Stunning! Every song is an original, and four of them were written by Cowsills (one track, the out-of-place "You Can't Measure the Cost of a Woman Lost", is by David Gates, who recorded it with Bread a year later - it seems the less-successful Cowsills version was a trial run). It's an accomplishment that's hard to wrap your head around: six kids, teen and younger, plus a mom, writing and recording three albums in a year, releasing them on a major label, and charting hit singles from each one - including a #1.

Pop comes, pop goes. In 2012, the Cowsills qualify as obscure. Their star faded for sure. How come? Performing maybe wasn't a good career option for them as they got further on, what with all those kids hitting college and wanting other stuff. That shouldn't have kept their awesome material from enduring the way the Monkees and the Papas have.

I dig this band though. They're like, this American, white-bread family; as Michael Zwerin's liner notes note, "the America of Andy Hardy now, the corner drug store and apple pie, freckle-faced 1968 America with a turned-up nose." They've got their feel-good numbers, sure, but check out the album cover! SAD CLOWN.

Zwerin continues:

Like that America, they are much more than some of our critics would have it. America is too often underestimated by people who judge things from a superficial resemblance to their preconceived cliches and prejudices. I thank the Cowsills for reminding me of that.

True: they're a pop group that engages with real, honest emotion (emotion beyond just romance). Their subject matter on this record includes homelessness, depression, and unfulfilled existential longing.

To be clear: the songs aren't quite as awesome as "Daydream Believer" or "Monday, Monday". So there's that. Also, the hit is a real problem: "Indian Lake". The chorus, complete with "bwabwabwabwabwabwabwa" hand-to-mouth war cries:

Indian Lake is a scene
You should make with your little one
Keep it in mind if you're lookin' to find
A place in the summer sun
Swim in the cove have a snack in the grove
Or you can rent a canoe at Indian Lake
You'll be able to make the way the Indians do

Ah yes. Making light of a genocide that left you on top and let your people name stuff after the ones who were here first. What's more American than that? Nothing. The dark side indeed. Another thing I thank the Cowsills for reminding me of.