Wednesday, July 30, 2008

And, in the end, the love you take...

Ashley Gilbertson Fallujah (Australian 2005)

Give Me Love: Songs of the Broken Hearted-Baghdad 1925-29 (Honest Jon's 2008)

I considered posting this with the Tragic Magician, but he's been so prolific lately that I was sort of worried it might get lost in the shuffle. That and, incongruous with his statement of purpose, this doesn't really qualify as the "excavated, unheard history of music".

Well, strictly speaking, it is precisely that. But the deeper realty is that Give Me Love is a postcard of Hipsterville, 2008, first and foremost, and a reflection of early 20th century Iraqi folk music second.

It's hard to believe the folks at Honest Jon's have been playing fast, loose, and global with archival and neo-primitive music for nearly a decade now--might as well make that an anniversary for this boutique lost-sound phenomenon on the whole. Because though labels like Folkways, Rounder, Yazoo, and even Sublime Frequencies have been piping out the old long since (and as many newcomer homages) going back to the early 50's--probably well before, the naturalized indie cool of roots culture is a pretty recent refinement.

Labels like Honest Jon's, Numero, Bo Weevil, Soul Jazz, Buda, Light in the Attic, and Finders Keepers all traffic in a kind of second-pass commodity: music that was largely overlooked in its day, sometimes for good reasons. Not to say there aren't plenty of gems amid these crate-digger assortments; nor for that matter that some labels haven't even reconstituted certain garage/favela/refugee camp sounds into worthy, even classic pastiche. But the genre--if it can even be called one, is at its best cosmetic and lucky, and at worst, parasitic.

Don't get me wrong, there isn't a label in the paragraph above that I do not adore, or haven't at some time. And I'd have to say that--take away Soul Jazz's slightly longer, and as consistent, run, Honest Jon's does it best. Probably because, like co-owner, Damon Albarn's own second-act musical ventures (Gorillaz, Mali Music, Blur's Think Tank and The Good The Bad & The Queen) the label is compelled by a basically singular aesthetic, one that tenaciously grubs at the displaced past and distant, and reconfigures them into new weird things. Albarn has taken his new life with the patient mysticism of Jack Nicholson's David Locke in Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1975 movie, The Passenger. Nominally, Albarn walked away from Blur, keeping the wealth of his creative identity entact, moving, as it were, from country to country, encounter to encounter. He has made a kind of egocentric tour of getting lost in his surroundings, and a shopping spree of all he hopes to become.

Candi Staton, a self-titled singles compilation from the great Alabama gospel and soul singer, is most likely the defining document of this current pop music excavation, raising up something so integral to our western pop DNA, and yet so puzzlingly neglected. It belongs in the select company of Harry Smith's venerable Anthology of American Folk Music and Sam Cooke's The SAR Story. Likewise the ongoing British immigrant music series, which began with fantastic calypso comp(s) London is the Place for Me, captures a musical event so natural and exciting, and again so bafflingly obscure.

Give Me Love for obvious reasons is more like the latter of those two, as it reveals a distant culture as well as a different era. There are moments here that the diverse array of ballads, religious songs, and folk music resembles the chanson of Paris's cafes. That the cover features a patina-washed photo of violinist, Selim Daoud, himself a kind of well-played cross evocation of Stephane Grappelli's gypsy violin, and Harold Lloyd's silent era-type demure dandy appearance, further the very western sensibility being used to peddle the Arab product. It is cultural imperialist window-dressing for a musical platter that might otherwise inspire less enthusiasm. In truth, the entire packaging is lovely and reverent to a lost hour. That's an achievement of mixed merit.

I can't help but feeling sheepish romanticizing the peacetime beauty of Iraq, given the country's current tragic state of affairs and how complicit the West has been in directly producing it. If Give Me Love, with its meshing of religions, styles, and amorous motives, illustrates that Edenic lost world, one can't help but, from a listener's point of view, feeling like the Snake.

One affirming aspect of the recordings, made by traveling producers and record scavengers from the Gramophone label in the mid and late 1920's, is how it reflects a world momentarily connected (and interconnected) in a kind of jubilee: Djivan Gaspayan's reedy hypnotic pipe, Charley Patton's gothic croak, Asha Bhosle's nasal siren song, Ornette Coleman's squonk, Roscoe Holcomb's high lonesome whistle call, and on and on...They're all here. Folks of far-flung origins we know full well never passed this way in this particular magic hour, but whose influences and idiosyncracies seem to belong to it.

In that regard Give Me Love is both history and fantasy, neither to be taken too seriously as as an explanation of world ills, nor so so capricious that amid these antique tunes, one should lose touch with the universal hope. A nice souvenir, er, lesson.

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