Just for the record: The little guy from Kenya knockin’ on Dylan’s door
A fortnightly review of music on vinyl
As a teenager kicking his heels around Nairobi, JS Ondara fell under the sway of the swagger of Guns N’ Roses. He was in particular thrall of their rock ballad take on Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. So much so that he took a bet with someone who told him the band didn’t actually write the song. He lost, naturally, but it was the first time he’d heard of Bob Dylan.
That discovery, in 2009, led him down the rabbit hole of what critic Greil Marcus has described as “the old weird America” and folk’s tangled history. “I dove deep and fell hard,” Ondara told Rolling Stone. “The music was so strange that I felt this attachment to it.”
Ten years later, the 26-year-old Kenyan has just released one of the best American folk records of 2019, Tales of America (Verve Forecast), a powerful collection offering a young immigrant’s take on 21st century America with songs that reflect on the widening gap between the American dream and its harsh reality.
Ondara moved to the US in 2013 after winning a green card in a lottery, and settled in Minnesota, because that’s where Dylan was from. He had always imagined that he’d just arrive, form a band, and hit the road. But he knew no one, and so settled on his solo performing style, one man and his acoustic guitar, out of necessity. Like the 20-year-old Dylan before him, Ondara was able to soak up songs like a sponge, and quickly built a vast repertoire of material by his musical heroes which he’d perform at open mic gigs around Minneapolis. Once he’d honed his act, he began downloading videos of himself on YouTube.
One of these caught the attention of a DJ at a local radio station who began playing him regularly on his show. Ondara’s rich tenor, much like a hybrid of the Senegalese star Ismaël Lô’s and Joan Armatrading’s, attracted the interest of several record labels, largely because he sounded like nothing they’d heard before, and before long he was in Los Angeles, writing and recording his own emotionally tender and timeless material.
The album that followed has stunned critics. Oliver Crook, writing in Atwood Magazine, has praised Ondara’s ability to tackle current issues by exploring a decades-old past. “And this is where its alluring beauty lies,” Crook said. “Since it doesn’t sound like any one particular artist it takes on the quality of representing American music as a whole: It’s as much Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and Neil Young’s Harvest as it is Beck’s Mellow Gold, Etta James’ At Last!, and Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. By sounding like no one, he’s channelling everyone.”
Ondara’s website still has autographed copies of his debut LP for sale. These are going to be worth a fortune very soon.
Another African artist channeling the past is Benin’s Angelique Kidjo. Her daring reconstruction last year of the Talking Heads masterpiece, Remain in Light (Kravenworks), was regarded by many critics as one of the records of the year. (There’s a limited edition on yellow vinyl that is highly collectible.) Kidjo has now focused her attention on the work of another artist closely associated with chief Talking Head David Byrne’s solo work, and that is the legendary Cuban salsa star, the late Celia Cruz.
Kidjo first heard Cruz in 1974. The latter had always acknowledged Africa’s influence on the music of the Caribbean, salsa in particular, and had drawn attention to it throughout her long career, particularly after her exile from Cuba in 1959 when she began singing the Yoruban songs that were brought to the Americas during the slave trade. Kidjo’s affinity for Cruz deepened after she herself went into exile in the 1980s following Benin’s collapse into turmoil under a Marxist-Leninist government.
With her new album, Celia (Verve), Kidjo serves up 10 Cruz classics, mainly from the 1950s, all rebored and refitted with an Afrobeat that takes in some jiving SA brasswork, some Senegalese funk, a bit of Ethiopian jazz, and with a dash of Nigerian highlife on top, all of which complements the Latin buzz of the Cuban material. It’s a stunning record, and my only gripe is that it’s not yet available on vinyl.
For those wishing to explore the source, there are hundreds of Celia Cruz compilations out there, mainly shoddily produced CDs. Dig around and you may get to find some of those classic records on vinyl, like her cha-cha and merengue-steeped 1956 US breakthrough, Canta Celia Cruz. It was originally released on the Seeco label, but has been repressed by various other record companies across Latin American and Europe. Lashings of rum will complete the experience.
THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
Has Bigmouth run out of puff? The new Morrissey album, California Son (BMG), due in May, is an all-cover version affair, with songs from Jobriath, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs, Roy Orbison, Laura Nyro, Dionne Warwick, Carly Simon and Melanie, among others. The record comes at a time when attempts by the singer to apparently sabotage his own career have moved into overdrive. In July 2014 he released the fearlessly eccentric World Peace Is None Of Your Business (EMI/Harvest), only to withdraw it three weeks later following a row with his record company. Next outing, 2017’s Low In High School (BMG), was a mediocre affair that relied on interviews in which Morrissey came out batting for Islamophobia and other right-wing tropes to attract attention.
Now comes a collection of “American artful folk from the 1960s and 1970s”, as Uncut magazine put it, “an artfully framed album of cosmic protest songs, not so much an apology for his increasingly eccentric geopolitical turn as a contextualising of it”. Perhaps further sense can be made of California Son if one considers it in the light of Morrissey’s forthcoming Broadway residency. We shall see.
In the meantime, I can’t help but wonder what the Morrissey who fronted fiercely independent Manchester outfit The Smiths some 35 years ago would have made of his current preoccupation with the US mainstream. The group was the definitive British rock act of the 1980s, and their startling and unique 1984 debut, The Smiths (Rough Trade), signaled the end of a synth-driven pop new wave and the return to guitar-driven rock that would dominate the UK scene until well into the 1990s. Core members Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr may have been obsessive rock fans inspired by punk’s DIY ethos, but they were also united by a fondness for girl groups, rockabilly and, more importantly, the melodic three-minute pop single.
As songwriters and collaborators go, the Morrissey-Marr axis was one of the oddest in pop. The latter was a superb musician and rock traditionalist, a more elegant version, it’s been said, of guitar heroes like Keith Richards or Mick Jones. Morrissey, on the other hand, was as far removed from the form as possible; singing in a self-absorbed keening style, he publicly declared his celibacy while embracing the lovelorn poetry of Oscar Wilde and openly expressed a revulsion for most of his peers.
The debut may have been a little too polished for some, but several months later the Smiths released Hatful of Hollow (Rough Trade), a singles and rarities collection, including recordings of BBC live sessions, that perfectly captured the group’s raw nervy energy. Like the 1960s British acts before them, the Smiths treated singles as individual entities – and not merely ways to promote albums. As a result many of their best songs were never issued on studio albums. The inclusion of early singles like the masterpiece How Soon is Now? and the sardonic Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now make Hatful a terrific, must-have collection.
The group’s masterpiece is 1986’s The Queen is Dead (Rough Trade), a harder-rocking, smarter record than anything the group had yet attempted, and a great leap forward from the previous year’s Meat Is Murder (Rough Trade). Where that record tended to misery and sanctimony, this one shattered the myth that Morrissey was a self-pitying whiner, and his lyrics here were devastatingly satirical takes on British social mores and class. Despite the rocking rush of the opening title track and self-lacerating Bigmouth Strikes Again, it is the more wistful songs, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out and The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, that lay the foundation for this wonderful record.
After The Queen is Dead, so were the Smiths, sadly. The relationship between Marr and Morrissey was beginning to splinter by the time work began on 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come (Rough Trade) began. While not a patch on any of the above (save Meat Is Murder) it is not altogether without merit, but hardly an essential release. They’d already broken up by the time their last album was released – 1988’s Rank (Rough Trade) was a live recording of a 1986 London concert.
All the Smiths albums have been reissued on vinyl by Rhino. Morrissey’s best solo album is 1992’s Your Arsenal (HMV), described by one critic as “a dynamic, invigorating fusion of glam rock and rockabilly”. Johnny Marr, meanwhile, beat a retreat of sorts following the Smiths’ breakup, and turned up as a session player on albums by, among others, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Billy Bragg and the Pet Shop Boys and effectively sat out the 1990s Britpop explosion. His first album as a solo artist, 2013’s The Messenger (Warner Bros), is perhaps his best, and has been lauded as the record that fans of the Smiths have been waiting for since 1988.
Neil Young has a bit of a reputation for being difficult, not one to submit to or empathise with the aesthetic vision of others. Which is probably why one of cinema’s more enigmatic independent directors, Jim Jarmusch, approached him to score his 1995 black and white Western, Dead Man, a surreal postmodern take on the genre starring Johnny Depp. So far, so good.
Jarmusch had this idea, though, which Young initially rejected, but then agreed to: record the soundtrack music in real time as the movie played out on giant screens around him. The result is the most radical album of Young’s career: massive squalls of solo electric guitar as Young responded emotionally to what he saw in the film, a blasted avant garde ambient desert rock that somehow perfectly complements the wide open spaces of Jarmusch’s revisionist Western. Young has just rereleased Dead Man (Vapor), which features some dialogue from the movie as well as Depp reciting the poetry of William Blake alongside the guitar instrumentals, as part of his ongoing archival reissue project. It is available as a double LP vinyl set. “An unsung treasure,” Mojo magazine declared, “ready to be rescued at last from the wilderness.” Here’s a sample:
The medieval lovers soaring through the heavens on the cover of Leonard Cohen’s 1974 release, New Skin For The Old Ceremony (Columbia), offer some indication, for the hard of thinking, of exactly what the songwriter and poet had in mind when he came up with the title.
The censors had some problem with this. SA was one of several territories where an altered cover was issued: a specially altered “wing” was introduced into the artwork to cover the groins of the pair. In Australia and Cohen’s homeland, Canada, they scrapped the cover altogether, and issued the album with a black and white portrait of the artist.
All of which was odd, considering one of LP’s most popular tracks is Chelsea Hotel No 2, in which Cohen recalls being fellated by Janis Joplin in an unmade bed in said hotel. Leaving absolutely nowt to the imagination of what was going on here. Happily, common sense has prevailed, and the reissued vinyl has the original, unsanitised cover. The album, it goes without saying, is one of Cohen’s best.