Let’s All Get In The Boat
The title of this CD-R, which I made in Seattle in October 2000 for my girlfriend, comes from one of my favorite quotes. Studs Terkel, writing acerbically (as usual) about Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, was talking about a gross Biblical misquotation Daley had made and suggested some others he might try—for example, when Noah was filling the Ark, Daley might have him shout, “Let’s all get in the boat!”
Angela and I had been going out about a month when I put this together to accompany her monthlong trip to New York, and while there are a few love songs on here I made no conscious attempt to encapsulate my burgeoning feelings for her with these selections. Mostly, I was trying to come up with something playable and surprising, a really good radio playlist that mixed stuff she knew with stuff she didn’t. Flow was paramount. My then-roommate Tom had just moved in, and his CD burner, attached to his giant Mac (he was a graphic designer), was in a small den off the kitchen. My hours then as now are pretty vampiric, so I’d come home around midnight and burn CDs for the sheer fun of it till 5 or 6am, often by grabbing a bunch of random stuff and making it up as I went along. For Let’s All Get in the Boat, I worked in order, and the speed with which I could create the finished product was liberating, since I tended, while making tapes, to overthink and get stuck midway through a side. None of that here.
I open with the Meters’ “Hand Clapping Song”, one of the most dead-simple songs ever written. Listening again, I notice details—the weird little organ swirls on top of the verses, the cowbell—but they’re garnish, like a fennel leaf on top of a piece of sushi. Presentation is all; in a way, this is one of the most elegant New Orleans records, the same way the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” is, so focused on the beat that the extraneous stuff surprises all the more.
Joe Houston’s “Flying Home” is a ’50s R&B saxophone stomp, replacing the slow-moving humidity of the Meters song with fast heat. Houston likes to repeat notes, then move up as far as he can in register; he’s the archetypal honker-shouter, and you can hear where folks like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler got their squawks from here: he really reaches for the rafters here, and is hoarse by the end.
Nirvana’s “Sliver” is festooned with crackling noises that came with that particular (and many an early) CD burner, which is annoying. I wanted something short and fast and loud that had something of the same feel as “Flying Home,” and I think this is a pretty strong choice. I still remember the first time I heard this song, listening to Incesticide on a city bus after buying it on tape at the Mall of America (worked there selling holograms as a teenager; my family still lives across the street from it) and cracking up hard at the “Baba O’Riley” guitars during the last verse. Was very disappointed no one else I knew got or cared much about that particular reference.
It’s not quite fair to say that Sugar’s “Gee Angel” is from the same era as “Sliver,” which was first issued in 1990; “Gee Angel” is ’94, a whole other period entirely. But it’s pretty much true, since both are effectively mid-’90s as far as mass recognition goes. Cause & effect two ways: Bob Mould begat Kurt Cobain, while Nirvana begat Sugar. I realize I’m in a very tiny minority on this, but I think “Gee Angel” is the most monstrous ’90s rock single this side of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the best thing Mould ever did: the sheer roar of the thing beats out even “Eight Miles High.” Right, that’s the production talking. Oh well—I like production.
Baroque contrast time. Gang Starr featuring Nice & Smooth’s “DWYCK” is pretty miraculous in that it’s simultaneously goofy and tough. The beat sounds like it was made in ten minutes and the beat sounds eternal. Same with the rhymes: “I say Muhammad Ali/You say Cassius Clay/I say butter/You say Parkay,” “Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is/I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis,” Smooth B’s pronunciation of “boo-shit.” All the while that bassline just stomps and stomps and stomps and stomps.
So does the beat of Sensational’s “Disco Lights”, though it’s pretty far from “DWYCK” in effect: semi-retarded rather than knowingly stooopid. “Ah! Ah!” he repeats during the chorus and in the background of the verses, while a really cheap synth (standing in for the strings of a typical disco hit) hits two diagonal notes seemingly at random like the title’s namesake: one spotlight at a 15 degree angle, one at 45 degrees. Know how to light a blank set and you can convince the world you’re in an airplane cockpit, right?
Recorded For: Angela Gunn
The Meters: “Hand Clapping Song” (2:54)
Joe Houston: “Flying Home” (2:31)
Nirvana: “Sliver” (2:16)
Sugar: “Gee Angel” (3:56)
Gang Starr featuring Nice & Smooth: “DWYCK” (4:02)
Sensational: “Disco Lights” (3:27)
Crown Heights Affair: “Every Beat of My Heart” (3:51)
Aphex Twin: “Girl/Boy Song” (4:48)
Majalefa a Morena: “Nkosi” (3:36)
Z-Trip: “Rockstar II” (5:33)
UK Apachi/Shy FX: “Original Nuttah” (4:54)
Little Eva: “The Loco-Motion” (2:29)
The Upsetters: “Drugs & Poison” (3:17)
The Police: “Every Breath You Take” (4:14)
Moby: “South Side” (3:49)
Latin Playboys: “Crayon Sun” (3:09)
Dark City Sisters: “Sekusile” (2:34)
Ivy: “Get Out of the City” (3:09)
Lucy Pearl: “LaLa” (3:30)
Prince: “Just My Imagination (Live in Amsterdam 8.18.88)” (7:45)
The 6ths featuring Bob Mould: “He Didn’t” (2:31)
Naturally, I had to follow Sensational with some real disco strings; the ones on Crown Heights Affair’s “Every Beat of My Heart” sound like they’re melting on the tape, and so do the hi-hats and the vocals, though that’s more because the singers have these unbelievably simpering voices; they sound slightly at sea, the way Peter Tork looked on The Monkees. All of which makes this one of the most purely lovable records I know. It’s not a formalist triumph at all; it’s a glorious mess. The strings and horns and clavinet are messy and rococo; they surge and turn pink and pass their sell-by date instantly. Its hair is matted with sweat and there’s lipstick all over their chin, but they doesn’t miss a beat.
Aphex Twin’s “Girl/Boy Song” inverts the process, screwing with classical formalism (pizzicato strings, funk rhythms), but even its mess is still somehow neat, like a destroyed hotel room with immaculately laid-out walking space. The music-box melody and serrated breakbeats during the song’s last minute simultaneously gave birth to and easily outclasses the art-school charlatan likes of Nobukazu Takemura.
I remember getting blocked for about 20 minutes figuring out what to follow “Girl/Boy” with until I saw a Music Club comp of South African gospel featuring Majalefa a Morena’s “Nkosi”, a surging a cappella group piece that evokes mournful ecstasy—funeral music if I’ve ever heard it, though I’m probably totally wrong. It’s incredibly powerful, a hefty, sliding lead tenor (hard to tell if it’s male or female) that never seems to stop for breath over a whole bunch of baritones and basses. In mind’s eye while playing: burning pyres after dark, singing totem poles, the feeling of being surrounded and basking in a wide open space simultaneously.
Made sense to go next with a spoken intro. Thus Z-Trip’s “Rockstar II,” which leads off with a pseudo-Southern-preacher talking about this record “containing the spirit of rock & roll” before going into a hip-hop cut-and-paste of Slayer, AC/DC, Metallica, Zep, etc. It’s a skillful, show-offy piece, and sort of works as relief after the emotional intensity of “Nkosi”—an approach I often rely upon for this type of endeavor.
I’m less satisfied with the next segue, into UK Apachi/Shy FX’s “Original Nuttah”. What I was trying to do (suggest links between different kinds of post-hip-hop electronic music; move from an exciting record in one genre to an exciting record in another) is a common trope here, but I think it would have been better if I’d chosen something else. (Granted, I’m not sure what else.) The fact that “Nuttah” comes off the poorly-mastered Moonshine Music compilation Law of the Jungle (1994) doesn’t help: there’s several seconds of silence at the track’s top, and it’s a few very noticeable decibels quieter than everything else here. Still, as one of the first ragga-MC jungle records I ever heard, “Nuttah” holds a gigantic place in my heart; at the time, I thought it was as exciting as Public Enemy’s best work, but hearing it now I have to say that being 20 had a little bit to do with that judgement.
I have no such reservations about Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” which still sounds as exciting to me now as it did whenever I first really really really noticed it. Even now, the background “oooh-wah-oooh”s are almost atavistic; the drummer sounds like he’s about to burst apart on the rolls, only to compose himself thoroughly on the verses, that surging bass-brass is one of the most exciting intros ever, and Eva’s tuneless little voice just keeps driving the fucker forward. Laugh if you want, but I think this rocks as hard as “Teen Spirit.”
The Upsetters’ “Drugs & Poison” is one of Lee Perry’s most blatant Booker T. & the MG’s ripoffs, and for a while it was my favorite of his records. It’s definitely one of his straight-funkiest; simple organ riff, doubled on saxophone, with some nice hollow-toned snare rolls. It makes a great stepping-stone from funk (I was besotted with James Brown around the time I discovered Scratch) to reggae, though it does sound a lot slighter to me now than it did when I was 22. On this disc, I am especially proud of the fact that I followed it with the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” a well-known song that I won’t bother commenting upon; as segues go, I’ll take it over the “Peter Gunn Theme.” Ditto the Stingster into Moby’s “South Side”, which I am happy to report is not the version with Gwen Stefani on it. I think we all can agree that Gwen only got listenable on Rock Steady; sans her cholesterolic backing vocals, it’s still possible to appreciate “South Side” as a modest little pop-rock tune. Honest.
Modesty is the key to the next segue, into Latin Playboys’ “Crayon Sun.” (So are shiver-picked guitars.) This is circular hypnosis in action, David Hidalgo’s gorgeous near-falsetto refracted from the preserves jar of ancient memory while the cobweb guitars and paddlewheel bass-drum and decaying-gong cymbal splashes add local color. (You want automatic writing, Tom, you get automatic writing.)
Makes sense to follow the dark-night-of-the-soul-down-on-the-old-farm feel of “Crayon Sun” with a song that begins with a rooster crowing. I remember the first time I played Angela the unutterably lovely “Sekusele” by township girl group the Dark City Sisters; she sat looking at the stereo open-mouthed, and when the song finished I said, “That was a number-one hit in South Africa.”
“YOU’RE FUCKING RIGHT IT WAS,” she responded, which sums it up, pretty much.
Hard to keep concentrating while Ivy’s “Get Out of the City” is on, so I’ll cheat and play it again. There, that’s better. This one’s pretty high on my list of alternate-universe number-ones; out of at least a dozen perfect moments, let me cite the way Dominique Durand sings “Everybody’s angry” like it’s the lightest, happiest, frothiest thing anyone could possibly do; the word “angry” is all lilt, like she’s floating away as everybody else in New York loses their temper. Then she comes back to earth with “It’s hard not to be lazy”—sudden recognition of her blitheness as complicit in other folks’ anger, and a little embarrassed about it, and a resigned sense that something needs to be done soon. Plus the guitars are like biting into a chocolate éclair.
The froth goes on. Lucy Pearl’s “LaLa” is pretty insubstantial and pretty great—a combination I’m always a sucker for—and probably the one song on the disc chosen to reflect my giddiness over the early stages of the relationship. One thing I’ve always loved about Raphael Saadiq is how he can sing love-sweet-love clichés without sounding like an idiot; there’s an active, searching intelligence in his singing and writing (and production) that’s rare in R&B, whose frequent assembly-line production methods often seems to bog down into cynicism as a result of aiming for a primarily (imagined) adolescent audience. Saadiq sounds like a grown-up who enjoys feeling like a teenager. Dawn Robinson is a perfect foil here; so is the thick, thuggish beat.
This disc as a whole brings back a lot of good memories of living in Seattle, and none more so than “LaLa” (I used to walk to work, down First Avenue through the warehouse district and in front of Safeco Field, listening to Lucy Pearl on my Discman during the summer) and Prince’s live version of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” recorded in Amsterdam in August 1988. My friend Lisa, a used-bookstore employee, introduced it to me one summer afternoon at her apartment; it was instantly pretty obvious that this is one of the dozen or so best things Prince had ever done. It opens with a blocky, Joy Division-ish synth drone before Prince’s incredibly delicate falsetto comes in: two kinds of soul, white-goth and black-gospel, stirring and unique, strikingly contrasted, almost art-deco. He sings a verse, he sings a chorus, he sings another verse, he sings another chorus, and then he taps the song’s third soul-source: the blues, or at least blues-rock. In English: Prince gets on guitar and Rips. Shit. Apart (referent: Duane Allman and Eric Clapton on the best parts of Layla), including but not confined to your heart.
So does the disc’s finale. The fact that I ended with the 6ths featuring Bob Mould’s “He Didn’t” probably says more than I realized at the time about my own fatalism. Mould is asking a man to dance; he croons like he’s cushioning himself against the certain heartbreak the title indicates. This was first CD I ever made for Angela; I’d just gotten out of a disastrous long-distance relationship and was probably transmitting my cautiousness. It proved short-lived; I moved to New York to be with her five months after making this CD, and we’re still seeing each other. Whatever happened, it’s still hell of an elegant way to end the sequence.
Written by Michaelangelo Matos, May 2002