Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rodriguez: the Sugar Man's rarities

If you haven’t yet seen Searching For Sugar Man, the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, I highly recommend it. It tells the story of an American singer-songwriter named Rodriguez (full name: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez), who recorded two critically acclaimed but commercially overlooked albums in the early ‘70’s, then disappeared from the music business. Strangely enough, Rodriguez became a musical and cultural icon in South Africa, where he was believed to be dead. But the gruesome rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated, because Rodriguez is alive and well. For decades, he worked as a carpenter in Detroit, and was completely unaware of his stardom in South Africa until 1997. He has since performed numerous times in that country, but he continued to live a humble life in Detroit. The film is a fascinating true-life story, one that no one would find believable if it was written as a movie script. The film has given Rodriguez long-overdue fame and success in other parts of the world, earning him slots in this year’s Coachella and Glastonbury festivals.

Fortunately, the two proper studio albums recorded by Rodriguez in the early ‘70’s were reissued in the U.S. in the late ‘00’s. As of this writing, both CD’s are among Amazon.com’s Top 100 sellers in Music, and are helping Sixto receive decent royalties for a change. According to the documentary, his 1970 debut album Cold Fact was the soundtrack of youthful revolution among white liberals in Apartheid-era South Africa. No one is certain how the album was discovered or how it caught on there. But, according to one commentator in the film, it is as famous in that country as the Beatles’ Abbey Road. If the album is not a major part of your country’s culture (as it certainly is not a part of America's), then Cold Fact will not quite come across as the buried musical treasure that it is made out to be in the film. It is, however, a respectable and gracefully aged singer-songwriter album of its time, consisting mainly of Dylanesque folk-rock with bits of psychedelia. Rodriguez’s style is similar to that of James Taylor, or Jim Croce, or perhaps Harry Nilsson on downers. But his experiences living in a poverty-ridden area of Detroit give his hippie-era songs a unique perspective all their own. His 1971 sophomore album Coming From Reality (also known as After The Fact in South Africa) did away with the psychedelic touches, but used plenty of strings. It suffered from unevenness; its impressive first side is nearly undone by a lukewarm second side, on which Rodriguez was beginning to sound too much like a clone of James Taylor. However, the CD reissue of Coming From Reality featured three excellent bonus tracks (“Can’t Get Away”, “Street Boy”, “I’ll Slip Away”), suggesting that Rodriguez’s unfinished third album had the potential to be a masterpiece. The 2012 soundtrack to Searching For Sugar Man serves as an efficient single-disc compilation of Rodriguez’s work. It contains most of the essentials, including all three of those standout bonus tracks from Coming From Reality.

One of those bonus tracks, “I’ll Slip Away”, was a re-recording of Rodriguez’s first single. The original single version was released in 1967, a few years before the release of Cold Fact. Oddly, Rodriguez was billed as “Rod Riguez” on the single, a move by producer Harry Balk that understandably displeased the singer. This early version has a more Byrds-like folk-rock style, with a slightly jangly guitar sound and a David Crosby-like harmony vocal. It’s a fine song in any form. The B-side, titled “You’d Like To Admit It”, is a fast-tempo strum that sounds quite unlike Rodriguez’s usual soft-spoken poetry.

There’s a notable fact about Rodriguez which I don’t remember the film ever mentioning: he also had a sizable following in Australia and New Zealand, and he toured those countries at least twice, in 1979 and 1981. That’s right: Australian concert promoters searched for Sugar Man way back in the late ‘70’s -- and they found him. A resulting live Rodriguez album titled Alive was once released Down Under, but it has long been out of print. The title of the album seems a bit funny, considering that Rodriguez was completely forgotten by the American music industry at that time, and his fans in South Africa had literally presumed him to be dead. Alive offered proof that Rodriguez was in fact alive. Alive was recorded in March 1979 at the Regent Theatre in Sydney, Australia, and was released only in Australia and New Zealand in 1981. Rodriguez was backed by a four-piece band, two of them American (flutist José Guadiana and bassist Jake Salazar), one Australian (guitarist/mandolinist Steve Cooney), and a drummer from New Zealand (Doug McDonald). The song selection favors Coming From Reality, and includes all three of that album’s aforementioned bonus tracks (which had been released on a 1977 Australian compilation). Surprisingly, Cold Fact is only represented by three lesser selections. Although there were reportedly about 15,000 people in attendance, Alive has a sound that makes the performances seem more intimate. The performances are gentle, the recording is simple, and the audience does not drown the music out with their applause. Rodriguez is even more soft-spoken live than he comes across as being on record, but he has a surprisingly commanding presence despite his understated tone. The pick-up band adds distinctive flavor to the songs, especially the eight-minute rendition of “To Whom It May Concern”. Minor gripes: “Street Boy” loses some of its emotional urgency in this setting, and on “A Most Disgusting Song”, Rodriguez comes dangerously close to sounding like a rambling Arlo Guthrie. Regardless, Alive is a revealing and satisfying document of an artist whom many people have just discovered, performing during a still-mysterious time in his history. It’s well worth discovering for Rodriguez’s newer fans.

And then there’s the even better Live Fact, a 1998 live album released only in South Africa. It documents a Johannesburg show from the ’98 tour of South Africa that was explained in the documentary film. This was the tour which finally enabled the people of that country to see their living legend, whom they were previously unaware was living. This was certainly a significant cultural event for those people, and Live Fact captures that feeling as well as a CD possibly could. The clear sound quality presents Rodriguez as the Elvis-like figure that the South African audience saw him as. The musical backing by a local band called Big Sky is perfectly sympathetic to the songs, which the musicians undoubtedly grew up listening to. They rock out freely on “Only Good For Conversation” and “Climb Up On My Music” without overwhelming the star of the show. And the 55-year-old Rodriguez sounded remarkably comfortable in his newfound role as a rock icon, as if he was right where he belonged. He still sang in the same basic soft-spoken style, but he sounds far more seasoned and self-assured here than he did on the Australian Alive album. The majority of the songs from Cold Fact were performed, as well as half of the songs from the Coming From Reality sessions; all of the songs were apparently well known to the audience, to whom Rodriguez said, “Thanks for keeping me alive!” The only drawback: this CD would have been even better if Rodriguez had performed “I’ll Slip Away” at this show. No matter. For those of us who are not familiar with South African culture, Live Fact does an incredible job of conveying the excitement that this event generated.

Rodriguez - I'll Slip Away / You'd Like to Admit It

Rod Riguez “I’ll Slip Away” b/w “You’d Like To Admit It” (Impact single #1031) 1967

Track Listing:

a. I’ll Slip Away
b. You’d Like To Admit It

Rodriguez - Alive

Rodriguez “Alive” (Blue Goose Music BGM 003) 1981

Track Listing:

1. Can’t Get Away
2. Street Boy
3. Like Janis
4. I Think of You
5. I’ll Slip Away
6. A Most Disgusting Song
7. Forget It
8. Inner City Blues
9. Halfway Up The Stairs
10. To Whom It May Concern

Rodriguez - Live Fact

Rodriguez “Live Fact” (Columbia CDCOL 5542 H) 1998

Track Listing:

1. I Wonder
2. Only Good For Conversation
3. Can’t Get Away
4. Crucify Your Mind
5. Jane S. Piddy
6. To Whom It May Concern
7. Like Janis
8. Inner City Blues
9. Street Boy
10. A Most Disgusting Song
11. Halfway Up The Stairs
12. I Think Of You
13. Rich Folks Hoax
14. Climb Up On My Music
15. Sugar Man
16. Establishment Blues
17. Forget It

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Whirlwind Heat “Do Rabbits Wonder?” (2003)

In my previous blog post, I mentioned the 2003 album from Whirlwind Heat titled Do Rabbits Wonder?, produced by Jack White and engineered by Brendan Benson. That album is currently out of print, although it is fairly easy to obtain. The album is ten years old as of this month (as is the White Stripes’ Elephant). It was the first non-White Stripes album released on the Third Man imprint.

Whirlwind Heat is an alternative trio from Michigan who tend to be heavily influenced by bands like Sonic Youth; in fact, their name comes from the cover art of Sonic Youth’s Goo album. But Do Rabbits Wonder? doesn’t quite have the same type of loose underground ethos that later Whirlwind Heat releases do. This is undoubtedly due to White’s production, which makes the band sound crisper, cleaner, and harder-hitting than usual.

On this album, Whirlwind Heat are reminiscent of the Pixies in many ways. David Swanson hoots and hollers like Black Francis, and Steve Damstra’s bass playing is sometimes similar to that of Kim Deal. But the bass plays a bigger role in this band, since the trio has no lead or rhythm guitarist. Damstra’s bass and Brad Holland’s drums propel the sound along, while Swanson adds agitated noises with his synthesizer. The band does use Sonic Youth-like distortion on this album, but the fairly straightforward bass and drums manage to pin things down more firmly than usual.

Do Rabbits Wonder? is Whirlwind Heat’s most technically professional album, but it’s arguably not their best. Their insolent post-punk ruckus can often be heard to better effect on their 2004 EP Flamingo Honey (which is literally a ten-track EP that runs for 10 minutes) and their 2006 album Types Of Wood, both of which have less sophisticated presentation. Besides, even with the technical guidance of White and Benson, the band still occasionally goes overboard with cacophonous noise (“Red” is the track that best illustrates this point). Still, Do Rabbits Wonder? is a generally fun entry in the alternative genre.

Note: Two of these songs are currently available on various-artists compilations which were both released in 2001. “Tan” appears under the title “Decal On My Sticker” on the 2001 CD Sympathetic Sounds Of Detroit, which is a Detroit scene compilation assembled by Jack White. “Grey” appears under the title “Disco Dust” on the Friction Records collection Vol. 1 Comp, available on mp3.

2/27/14 Update: Third Man Records has announced that Do Rabbits Wonder? will be reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day 2014. Limited edition colored vinyl versions will be available on Record Store Day, pressed in 12 of the different colors that were used as song titles. A standard black vinyl pressing will be released later in the year.

Whirlwind Heat “Do Rabbits Wonder?” (Third Man/V2 63881-27152-2) 2003

Track Listing:

1. Orange
2. Black
3. Purple
4. Tan
5. Green
6. Blue
7. Yellow
8. Pink
9. Red
10. Brown
11. Silver
12. White
13. Grey