Despite having sunk deeper than the Atlantean groves often depicted in its album art, progressive rock still has its apologists. Liner notes for Supernatural Fairy Tales, an impressively thorough compilation of bygone silliness, declaim prog as "European-based" rock that aimed for the mind, whereas "blues-based rock is aimed at, well, another much-beloved organ." (So quoth L.A. Times pop scribe Steve Hochman.) Fascinating, these faster-than-light associations of "blues-based" (read: black) with dumb, hungry dick, and "European-based" (read: white) with intellect. Especially considering that so much of this "intellectual" catalog was written with the aesthetic mercy of LSD.
Supernatural Fairy Tales may be crawling with frying Europeans, but its best content is far from brainy. Skim the clots of overplayed acts and holding-pattern indulgence from these five CDs, and a worthwhile artifact that would fit on about two remains. Many have already heard Yes, ELP, Roxy Music, and Genesis; why give them two cuts apiece on a retrospective? True, they (along with Electric Light Orchestra, Van Der Graaf Generator, and the Moody Blues, who were included, and Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson, who weren't, due to licensing restrictions) define prog, but that's the whole problem. These days, the blistering bass work, searing fretmanship, and superduper-keyboarditure (yawn) of Squire, Hackett, Howe, Emerson, and their ilk are often regarded as the musical pinnacle to which all other musicians can only aspire -- usually in collegiate engineering departments, where technical specifications and wiring schematics are the stuff of estrus. A far cry from acid. More material should have been dredged up representing those participants whose minimalism, meatheadedness, or LSD-damaged motor skills didn't define prog, but should have. Cuts by Can, Focus, Lard Free, and Faust dare to be dull by having fewer parts and dynamics shifts; they were better bands for their lack of trouble. (Or retardation; take your pick.) And while the noodling and multiple structure changes in selections by Gong, Henry Cow/Slapp Happy, and Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention are indistinguishable from those heard in less redeemable prog, at least they were kidding. The rest of the series is good only for laughs of the unintentional variety. One need only see album-cover print crediting a band called Seventh Wave with a ditty titled "Star Palace of the Sombre Warrior" to suspect a joke -- but on whom? They, and most of their contemporaries, were serious. More to the point: They were high. Being stoned was a vital component not only in the manufacture of this genre, but in tolerating it. Anything can be interesting on hallucinogens -- a tabletop, a pencil, even rock that thinks it's smart.
-- Michael Batty
The Jon Jang Sextet
Two Flowers on a Stem
Pianist/composer Jon Jang's most recent albums with his 12-member Pan-Asian Arkestra -- Tiananmen!, Self Defense!, and Never Give Up! -- set effusive politics to an organic musical hybrid. Jang's pioneering vision -- infusing Chinese folk traditions into classic jazz frameworks -- echoes the meditative and explorative spirit of John Coltrane, even as his compositional elegance recalls the work of Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus. But despite numerous achievements in the past, none of the composer's previous works matches the artistic triumph of his latest effort, Two Flowers on a Stem. Leaving aside an expansive adaptation of Mingus' "Meditations on Integration," Jang substitutes metaphorical African-Asian harmony for any overt political messages, and in the process delivers one of the great jazz records of the season -- if not of the year. In a master stroke for his eighth full-length recording, the leader scaled down his ensemble by half and enlisted some of the most reliable and inventive cats in the business: flutist James Newton, tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Murray, bassist Santi Debriano, and drummer Jabali Billy Hart. But it's Chen Jiebing on the bowed erhu who drives the tunes. The shimmering beauty of her weepy melodies impels Newton and Murray to propulsive solo flights and pulls the band into the extraordinary vortex of a one-world groove.
The Jon Jang Sextet plays Sunday, Sept. 22, at the Monterey Jazz Festival; call (800) 307-3378.
-- Sam Prestianni
The Louvin Brothers
Tragic Songs of Life
Listening to the Louvin Brothers sing "Knoxville Girl" is about as implausible as watching the Kray brothers buy matching cat calendars. How can two of the most wholesome, pure-voiced country singers who ever shared a bunk bed recount -- in first person -- that oldest of Appalachian love legends (boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy kills girl brutally in the woods)? According to Charles Wolfe's new liner notes to a reissue of their 1956 album Tragic Songs of Life, the grisly story uses such mercilessly frank language that Capitol Records originally refused to release it as a single, calling it "morbid." Not until the Kingston Trio hit it big with the death ditty "Tom Dooley" in 1959 (and you thought the Louvins looked square) did the disc see the light of day as a 45. The narrator of the song, gloriously speaking through the brothers' Dr. Jeckyl-Dr. Jeckyl harmonies, describes his usual Sunday evening visit to his beloved and their evening river walk in which he grabs a stick and lashes her to the ground. She pleads that he stop, but, "She never spoke another word/ I only beat her more." Then he drags her by the hair and tosses her into the river.
The thing is, the Louvins' sweet elocution makes listening to downer ("I'll Be All Smiles Tonight") after further-downer ("Mary of the Wild Moor") downright lovely, pleasant even; not trivialized or watered down, merely lacking in melodrama. Their version of "In the Pines," for instance, has a plaintive aching, but it's still bearable, unlike at least one other rendition of the song I'm thinking of, which I've seen clear a room in 10 seconds flat. You won't find that kind of piercing pain here, only dulcet melancholy. Still, the album's title is a little too optimistic -- Tragic Songs of Death is a little closer to the truth.
-- Sarah Vowell