Various Artists: Country Funk 1969-1975 (Light in the Attic)
This writer remembers a few years ago when he first heard fingerstyle guitarist Leo Kottke’s 1971 album Mudlark—in particular, the tracks “June Bug” and his take on the blues standard “Poor Boy.” Kottke’s playing is impressive, as expected, but what was particularly striking was the use of arrangements that were unusual for folk/blues numbers with a clearly funk-based rhythm section. The distinct thought was, “Why isn’t there more stuff like this?”
There is, but it’s not so easy to find. Luckily, the kind people at Light in the Attic have served up the compilation Country Funk 1969-1975 to scratch that itch that just doesn’t get scratched enough. These tunes are not simply some kind of Johnny Cash meets James Brown Frankenstein’s monster; for the most part, they offer subtle, natural-sounding blends of electric country-rock with the key funk element of head-nod-inducing drumbeats.
On a conceptual level, these seem like novelties, but rarely do they sound like them. Also, all the artists involved seem to have a self-awareness about the seldom-trod territory into which they venture, and they play off the humor of the situation, like Jim Ford singing “I’m gonna make her love me ‘til the cows come home.” Another play on the “women are maneaters” trope of country music comes in “Piledriver” by Dennis The Fox, with the chuckle-worthy line “She’s a truck-driving, piledriving mean mother trucker of a girl.” Even more self-aware is the track “Lucas Was a Redneck,” infusing soul into country as a sort of musical revenge against the song’s subject, an alcoholic, racist hippie-hater.
A good amount of variety is found here, even when considering the “country funk” label bestowed upon this material, from the gospel influences on “Georgia Morning Dew” by Johnny Adams, to slide-guitar blues, all-out horn accents and unexpected moments like the harpsichord intro to “Hello L.A., Bye-Bye Birmingham” by John Randolph Marr. The rhythmic momentum of the album carries it, with certain tracks being overshadowed by bolder standouts, but it’s an entertaining compilation that transcends novelty more often than expected.
Loren Connors & Suzanne Langille: I Wish I Didn’t Dream (Northern Spy)
Fifteen years ago, the Chelsea space that served as the home of the Brecht Forum found a convergence of four people, key to the creation of the new album I Wish I Didn’t Dream on Northern Spy Records. Experimental guitarist Loren Connors became acquainted with Kurt Gottschalk, a notable DJ for the freeform New York City radio station WFMU, and Tom Abbs, now president of Northern Spy Records, would curate festivals at the location, occasionally employing artist M P Landis to create paintings while musical performances unfolded. Years after the convergence, the cycle of inspiration continues with Connors and his partner, vocalist Suzanne Langille, making an improvised soundtrack that was recorded as the duo viewed slides of Landis’s artwork to be presented in a book with accompanying text by Gottschalk. Beginning with some of her own lyrics, plus those by poets including Keats and Denis McCarthy, Langille uses a combination of spoken words and gently sung verses delivered starkly.
Soundtracks for paintings … spoken word pieces … improvised music ... already, some of you are likely rolling your eyes. Although it sounds like the makings of an art school student’s senior project, I Wish I Didn’t Dream actually avoids being distant and incomprehensible. Its emotions are entirely clear and articulated, and while Connors’s freely flowing, ghostly, phaser-effect-laden guitar abstractions may take some getting used to, it’s an album that makes an honest attempt to engage the listener.
“Come On, Come On” has an ominous child-like playfulness, with Langille imploring, “Let’s check it out, come on, we’ll have fun,” and “Just Find Your Shoes” peaks with an outburst of “Now ... now now ... now!” Other selections are more despairing, like the title track in which Langille reveals, “Dreams make me feel so cold. I’m always lost.” The exhausted resignation of “Gotta Work” lets its spare lyrics resonate, allowing the guitar to carrying the haunting, dread-ridden feeling for most of the song’s six minutes. Eerie, unsettling and minimal, there’s nothing hidden. Intellectually, there’s nothing to “get”—it’s pure mood and emotion at work here.