The Negro Problem—POST MINSTREL SYNDROME (1997)

416ayp3hbclReview by Tim Simard

Assigned by Adrian Evans-Burke

What’s in a name? Those were among my first thoughts about The Negro Problem, an L.A.-based mid-1990s band. Right off the bat, I knew that front man Mark Stewart (better known as Stew to his friends and the world) wanted to grab attention. The Negro Problem gets you noticed, whether one sees the name on the marquee of a club or because the club won’t allow the band’s name in lights for fear that someone might be offended. Either way, they’re talking about you.

Popping in their debut album, “Post Minstrel Syndrome” from 1997, I half expected to hear songs of social justice with calls-to-action, or preachy rock sermons written to make me Aware. The Negro Problem—fronted by an African American guitarist/singer (Stew) backed by three white musicians (Jill Meschke Blair, keyboards; Gwynne Kahn, bass; Charles Pagano, drums)—is as diverse as any rock band you’ll find. They’re hardly the first (Love, the Chamber Brothers, and Booker T. and the MGs spring directly to mind), but the band’s racial and gender make-up suited them perfectly to Make A Statement.

And they certainly do, but not in the expected way. Straying away from the obvious topical song approach, the Negro Problem instead embraces clever, irreverent, sometimes subtle, and oftentimes amusing lyrics to take the listener through Stew’s societal views via a sound reminiscent of mid-1960s southern California. This album pretty much screams L.A. The production reminds you of the Wall of Sound, the jingle-jangle Byrds, the unique ear of Brian Wilson, and so on. All with a sound reminiscent of every 1990s pop band you can think of. From the first notes of “Birdcage,” the album’s opener, “Post Minstrel Syndrome” wants you to feel nostalgia while grooving to the guitar and voice of Stew.

With the band’s sound firmly in place, Stew makes his statement about race in 1990s America with songs like “The Meaning of Everything,” “Ghetto Godot,” and “2 Inch Dick Mobile.” The lyrics are snarky and damn funny at times, even if the songs don’t quite reach their sonic potential (the excellent “The Meaning of Everything” bucks that trend).

“Post Minstrel Syndrome” isn’t all cultural impudence. Some songs breeze along just fine, such as “If You Would Have Traveled on the 93 North Today” and “Omegaville” Others are as instantly forgettable as most mid-90s pop, and you can’t help but notice that Stew sounds really similar to John Popper at times (“Buzzing” and “Great Leap Forward”). Others make you revisit them almost immediately, like time-changing “Miss Jones,” where I can hear a “Good Vibrations” inspiration at work.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the song this album is best known for—the cover of the Jimmy Webb-penned, Richard Harris hit “MacArthur Park.” And it’s a lot of fun, with the gritty organ opening and Stew’s hilarious lyrical change (“Someone left the crack out in the rain…”). The band takes this overblown song and gets you to dance to it. Something I bet would have amused old Richard.

The album ends on a loud and jammy note with “Witch,” a song that reminds one of the Doors noodling around on the beginning of “The End,” but quickly changes approach and ends the album with some serious rock. It’s the perfect ending to a surprisingly good album, except that there’s more. A four-song coda that sounds like a mix of demos and bonus tracks officially ends the CD. Not essential, but it doesn’t take anything away from “Post Minstrel Syndrome” as a whole.

So what happened to this band? Well, it appears the original formation split almost immediately following this album’s release. Stew kept the name going for two more albums, then broke off on his own with some success. Apparently he’s most famous for penning a popular SpongeBob song. Go figure!

The Negro Problem certainly didn’t hit the heights they thought they might achieve. In the end, they are also-rans in the pantheon of 1990s music. The band’s sound and lyrics certainly betray their lack of success, but maybe the band’s name was, for lack of a better description, problematic? Whatever the case, this is an obscure gem well worth checking out.

 

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Massacre–12 NUEVAS PATALOGíAS (2003)

massacre-12_nuevas_patologias-frontalReview by Adrian Evans-Burke

Assigned by Alfredo Duarte

I’m admittedly far too lazy to lean heavily upon Google Translate to understand each of the twelve new pathologies purportedly outlined in this album by Argentinian rock band Massacre. While my grasp of Spanish may be pitiful, I thankfully have enough appreciation for and experience with 80s-90s alternative rock to find joys and layers of influences to unpack in each of these fuzzed-out, colorful tracks. Given the year this was released (2003), Massacre had decades of alt rock, grunge, and post-rock to sort through, and clearly they’ve done their homework. This album is full of surprises, interesting tones and sounds, and seems to represent a band fully confident of their ability to absorb influences from Sunny Day Real Estate, Failure, Stone Roses, Smashing Pumpkins, and Jane’s Addition into something wholly their own.

From the sequencer swells and cheap-casio keyboard claps of the album opener ‘Adios caballo español’, you think you’re in store for some odd late-90s EDM rock. Then drums and fuzzed-out guitars take over and you’re suddenly living in some shoegaze-Jane’s Addiction hybrid; especially on the vocals which, for reasons unknown, call to mind a Perry Farrell with a vocal range of more than four notes. The cyclonic guitars have shades of Dave Navarro, and then suddenly I’m hearing echoes of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Warped’ from their lone Navarro album. This song really sets the stage for the rest of the album: energic, driving, and full of interesting call-backs to classic sounds without being derivative.

‘La nueva amenaza’ is for fans of Sunny Day Real Estate while ‘Ambas estatuas’ is filled with swirling, thick guitars that call to mind a sunnier version of Catherine Wheel. ‘Querida Eugenia’ is reminiscent of early Oasis without the nasal, pugnaciousness of Liam Gallagher. Massacre does run the risk of sounding redundant here, with track after track being drenched in driving, fuzz-faced, phased-out guitars while the vocalist repeatedly relies upon the same “telephone/megaphone” effect on his vocals. This impression is probably enhanced by my poor Spanish, leaving out a large chunk of the album’s performance. That said, there are some welcome breaks in the middle that add diversity, such as ‘Bienvenido al mundo de los confluctuaditos’, an instrumental track with a second-half that recalls the foreboding outro of The Beatles classic ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’; or ‘Ideal para el invierno’, a track that features spoken word over an interesting mish-mash of musical influences, coming off as Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Love’ with dark 80s AOR synth embellishments. All of these observations are intended to be compliments, it’s just without understanding the cultural or lyrical context, these various (assumed) influences are my only anchor for analysing this album.

In the end it is an enthusiastic thumbs up for me. I have no idea what they’re singing, but the music speaks my language. If you’re a fan of any of the artists name-checked above, you probably won’t regret giving this album a shot. As a guitarist, I particularly love all the tones and riffs crammed into each song. Just don’t ask me what they’re singing.

Various Artists—SON OF ROGUES GALLERY: PIRATE BALLADS, SEA SONGS & CHANTEYS

71fspa1nril-_sl1299_Review by Adrian Evans-Burke

Assigned by Alejandro Muñoz G

Ahoy matey, there be troubled waters ahead. At least that was my first thought upon glancing upon this behemoth. An entire album of sea chanties? Nay, an entire DOUBLE album, running 26 tracks, with many stretching past the four minute mark. Even if you are somewhat partial to folksongs, let alone carry some affinity for the odd chanty (even if you deign to spell it with an ‘S’ instead like a landlubber), this is a lot to ask of your ears, for a number of reasons. First, folk-in-general, along with its many subgenres, relies upon an ample if not incredibly diverse library of time-tested, well worn tunes that invite the performer to fully inhabit them. These tales of love and lost and ghosts and greed run the gambit from funny and clever to regretful and melancholy, but unless they are performed by a particular talent, the emotions can fall flat and come off instead like folk-by-numbers or open mic night. With 26 tracks and a host of players from folk-rock veterans to odd classic rockers and a few actors for good measure, this hit-and-miss risk is on full display, though likely less so than similar blues or folk compilations I’ve heard.

Another issue is that, unless you own (or long to own) a boat yourself, or have obsessively played Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, sea chanties in particular are a tough sell. These are intentionally rhythmic, repetitive, if sometimes witty songs meant to accompany redundant, long, and thankless labor at sea over miles and miles featureless ocean. Great for bonding with your mates and passing the monotonous day (at least until the scurvy takes ye!), not so much for listening at the gym or on the commute. Thankfully, while there are plenty of chanties with pirate swagger and rum-soaked tears, there are also so straight-folk ballads, and other sea-themed ditties, as well as whatever the hell Todd Rundgren contributed.

So yes, one one hand Todd makes the track his own, with all his glittery production straight out of a robot disco tavern in Nassau, but god if ‘Rolling Down to Old Maui’ really sticks out like Lady Gaga parody track and just doesn’t fit here. Same for Frank Zappa’s ‘Wedding Dress Song/Handsome Cabin Boy’, though in Frank’s defense, this was one of the few tracks not specifically recorded for this compilation. In this context, it seems Johnny Depp and whomever else worked on this figured that Zappa was kinda pirate-ish, so they should include SOMETHING of his, even if this one also feels way out of place. There are few other true offenders, however. Most of this stuff is great! Indeed, tracks succeed or fail based upon the charisma of the performer. When we’re dealing with faceless indie darlings like Broken Social Scene, whatever is happening in the weird mambo party with Katey Red on ‘Sally Racket’, or even singers who SHOULD work in this setting but just don’t deliver (Iggy Pop), the result is pleasant, maybe even humorous (if the sodomy in Pop’s ‘Asshole Rules the Navy’ is still humorous in 2018); but ultimately forgettable.

While there are plenty of fair-to-good tracks, its the songs where the performers truly inhabit the songs, or bring something different and surprising to the table, that make this compilation worthwhile. When thinking “pirate music”, my first thoughts were the usual suspects: Shane MacGowan, Tom Waits,  Nick Cave. Unsurprisingly, the first two are on here, they’re great, with MacGowan’s swaggering ‘Leaving of Liverpool’ coming off like a Pogues classic, and Waits being his grimmy yet mournful, last-call best on ‘Shenandoah’ — a song that recalls rolling Virginia hills more than barnacles and seafoam, but still. Nick Cave makes an appearance too, but as an understated supporting role, ceeding the spotlight to Shilpa Ray on ‘Pirate Jenny’, who effortly conjures up harbor fog and whalebone corsets.

Meanwhile, my ears tricked me on my first playthrough, as I swore that Marianne Faithfull sang twice. And though she does make her stately presence (and chain smoking croon) felt on the swaying ‘Flandyke Shore’ — halfway through the somewhat weaker second disc — it is in fact the legendary Patti Smith who provides one of my favorite tracks, ‘The Mermaid,’ a chiming yet world-weary, sunbathed song that, at under 3 minutes, could have easily gone on for another 3. And though that second disc does sag a bit in the middle, the mighty Richard Thompson does arrive at just the point where my attention is drifting, kicking the bar stool out from under the scallywags and showing them how it’s done on ‘General Taylor’.

And while there are too many bloody tracks to go through, I’d like to tip my cap to another favorite — the surprising effective ‘Mr. Stormalong’ by one of the lesser (to me anyway) Neville brothers: Ivan Neville. This track is pure New Orleans sweat-stained piano and sazerac. Given New Orleans’ own history of roustabouts, rakes, and caribbean pirates, the track is a fitting inclusion on an album that spends most of its (OH GOD SO LONG) running time in rather safe, traditional (if professional and entertaining) territory. Ultimately it’s thumbs up from me, though I’d probably mix down my favorite 12-15 tracks into a single disc. That said, there’s something here for everyone, be they a cabin boys, a purser, a lady pirate, or a midshipman. And when the song is done well, it’s like unearthing a bit of treasure buried by some of your favorite artists.