“One time years back, when she was sitting on the porch hooking a rug and singing one of these mournful old hymns, as she frequently did, little Ezekiel asked her, ‘Aunt Dot, how come you to sing that old song? How come you don’t sing something pretty?’ For he knew full well how pretty his Aunt Dot could sing if she took a mind to, and how many songs she knew. She turned to look at him, pursing her mouth, and said, ‘Honey, they is pretty singing, and then they is true singing.'” The Devil’s Dream is about true singing. It’s a spell-caster of a novel, with a family ghost wending its way from the 1830s into the present, from a hollow in Virginia to Nashville, from a young woman destroyed by God’s curse on her fiddle to her great-great-great-granddaughter with a Ph.D. in deconstruction from Duke, along the way making country music history, tossing up a rockabilly singer (“that dark dangerous look the women like, that’s what Johnny’s going for, kind of a cross between Porter Wagoner and an undertaker”), expecting no peace and finding none. Always, whatever music is found is framed by “The Cuckoo Song,” an ancient, mystical tune about not being at home in the world, and “Blackjack Davey,” an even older fable about a wife and mother who abandons her home to fuck a faithless lover—and the lives of Smith’s men and women are framed by these songs, too. They can’t get out of them—not because they are weak, or uneducated, or trapped in the prison of fundamentalist religion, but because the songs are so deep.
2. PJ Harvey: 4-Track Demos (Island)
There’s more freedom on these one-woman overdubs than on Harvey’s group albums—more freedom as wish and realization, on guitar and in the voice. What sounded like contrived effects on Dry and especially Rid of Me are events here. “Oh, she fucked my memory,” Harvey sings on the demo for “Yuri-G”; I can’t make out what she’s saying on the Rid of Me version, but it isn’t that.
3. Muddy Waters: licensed music in TV ads for Timberland waterproof clothing (W.L. Gore & Associates, Newark, Delaware)
Beginning in a simple verbal/visual pun, these spots—people slogging through mud and rain while the late Chicago bluesman thunders on like a South Side Jeremiah—are weirdly unstable. It’s media shock: you’re not prepared for something this powerful in a television commercial. Uncontextualized, or miscontextualized, the music may for a fleeting moment seem stronger here than it ever has elsewhere. What were they selling again?
4./5. Ted Levin and Ankica Petrovic (recording, compilation, annotation): Bosnia: Echoes From an Endangered World—Music and Chant of the Bosnian Muslims (Smithsonian Folkways), and Ammiel Alcalay et al.: Lusitania no. 5 (Fall 1993)—For/Za Sarajevo (104-108 Reade St., NYC, NY 10013, $10).
At the Miss Besieged Sarajevo pageant last May, it wasn’t traditional Bosnian music that was played but “Eve of Destruction.” On Bosnia, an anthology of 1984-85 field recordings plus a few popularized folk numbers, you don’t hear desperation; most intensely you hear serenity (“Ezan,” a Muslim call to prayer) or strength. PJ Harvey fans will have no problem with “Ganga: Odkad seke nismo zapjevale” (How long we sisters haven’t sung), even if, in Ankica Petrovic’s words, “Urban dwellers tend to dismiss ganga as simply unorganized (or disorganized) sound.” Here three women from the village of Podorasac in northern Herzegovina fill Levin and Petrovic’s tape less with voices than with hearts, lungs, stomachs—whole bodies. In Herzegovinian fact or Appalachian-American analogy, this is mountain music: melisma and flattened tones twist themes until the individual and the community, the present and the past, are both complete and indistinguishable. As Petrovic writes, “Singers and their active listeners achieve maximal harmony through dissonance.”
Though Serbs and Croats as well as Muslims practice ganga, Petrovic’s comment is obviously no metaphor for politics, and the Bosnia collection doesn’t work as background music to For/Za Sarajevo, a living tombstone of essays and classic texts running in both English and Serbo-Croatian. The CD is from what was a country, the journal number is a cemetery map. There are no atrocity photos, just a few pictures of people, artworks, objects, architecture. Entries open with an almost biblical incantation from Mesa Selimovic’s 1966 “The Dervish and Death” (“I begin this, my story, for naught—with no benefit to myself nor to others, from a need that is stronger than profit or reason, that my record remain”) and move toward Tomaz Mastnak’s enraged, incisive “A Journal of the Plague Years: Notes on European Anti-Nationalism,” where the legacy of fascism meets the unfinished business of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, on Muslims: “It is not enough to humiliate them, they should be destroyed”). “I would not call this a conspiracy,” Mastnak says of Europe’s acquiescence in the Bosnian genocide. “It is more like a dream coming true.”
“DON’T LET THEM KILL US,” read the banner, in English, carried by the 13 swimsuited contestants in the Miss Besieged Sarajevo contest. In a way, you can find them all in the most striking art in For/Za Sarajevo, Mustafa Skopljak’s 1993 Sarajevo 91′ 92′ 93′ 94′, from the OBALA Gallery’s Witness of Existence project. Little terracotta faces with odd expressions are placed in holes on a bed of dirt; it’s a graveyard, but all the graves are open and everybody, from whatever century or religion, is still alive and looking right at you.
6. 7. 8. Mekons: “Millionaire” and I Love Mekons (both Quarterstick) and The Mekons Story, 1977-1982 (Feel Good All Over reissue, $12 postpaid, P.O. Box 148428, Chicago, IL 60614)
I love Mekons, which has been wandering in the desert of the music business since at least 1991, is muscular, confident, anguished—perhaps just right for a group that currently rotates on a Chicago-New York-London axis. Yet “Millionaire” (with three live tracks appended) all but floats over the rest of the music, Sally Timms’ rich country vocal so soulful and Tom Greenhalgh’s guitar such an upheaval the tune deserves its own disc. As for The Mekons Story (originally led by the pre-title it falleth like the gentle rain from heaven), it’s a strange assemblage of scraps and shouts, broken promises and drunken regret: a stirring would-be suicide note from a time, now more than ten years gone, when the already-old band first tried to give up the ghost.
9. Al Kooper: Rekooperation (MusicMasters/BMG)
Blues and soul instrumentals—a jam on Richard Thompson’s “When the Spell Is Broken” keeping company with “Soul Twisted” and “Honky Tonk”—but after hours, with the doors locked, somebody stealing the tape that wasn’t supposed to be running anyway.
10. CBS-TV: Philadelphia Phillies/Toronto Blue Jays, game two, World Series (Toronto, October 17)
Lest we forget: with the Phillies’ John Kruk, the coolest guy what is what am this night, at bat, a camera panning the stands for celebrities zoomed in on the only man in the place whose hair could make Kruk’s look good. In a just world this is what Michael Bolton would be remembered for.
Artforum, April 1993