By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
By Michele Eve Sandberg
By Abel Folgar
By Ashley Zimmerman
I Want Some
Exchanging pith for pizzazz, three former members of the clever hard-core-renaissance quintet Nation of Ulysses joined with ex-Frumpies bassist Michelle Mae in 1995 to create the shtick-laden soul of the Make-Up. Considering the rudimentary R&B of the band's early singles, few could expect what seemed like a novelty act to last as long and actually develop solid soul chops.
Since its inception the Make-Up has been, er, smeared for its sloppy articulation and gospel gimmickry, while remaining fiercely loyal to its DIY punk pedigree. Nonetheless, over the course of four albums (three of which were released by indie stalwarts Dischord Records) and several national tours, the Make-Up has learned to blend and accentuate disparate styles while remaining faithful to its aesthetic.
Although it's not entirely capable of capturing the rapt jab of soul, the Washington, D.C.-based foursome's intentions are similar to Gang of Four's "funk," which transforms the genre it mocks into a whole new musical form.
I Want Some is a loaded exhibit of the group's musical growth. The 70-minute CD compiles 23 tracks from the Make-Up's scattered discography riddled with numerous out-of-print singles. Vocalist/ ex-Sassy magazine pinup Ian Svenonius delivers frantic James Brown-esque jostles and Prince-ly falsetto yelps, earning him the moniker the-Artist-Formerly-Known-as-the-Sassiest-Boy-in-America.
The rigid Memphis-soul rhythms of Mae and drummer Steve Gamboa sound fluid on recent recordings like "Born on the Floor," while increasingly resourceful guitarist-organist James Canty juices funk-laced melodies. The postpunk protofunk of "Pow! to the People" features slowly flanged electric piano syncopations craftily borrowed from Funkadelic's "Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow."
Svenonius' noncommittal squeals and overzealous communist rantifesto liner notes ("we shall invert the traditional relationship between producer and consumer, and inject spirituality and communism into the depressed pantomime"), along with the band's primitive R&B, abandon the sniveling reactionary gestures of its hardcore origins to opt for a movement of its own.
By adapting a culture's signs and forms in order to transform the culture's rules -- just as Southern gospel alters Christianity to a religious form all its own -- the Make-Up aims to express the implicit meaning of gospel music: escape. In doing so the band presents the indie underground as a religion unto itself. When Svenonius coos, "R U A Believer?" he beckons initiates into the congregation.
Through a Glass Darkly
David Olney would be the first to agree with the observation that success lies with the song and not the singer. And what is striking about Olney's songs is that they are songs only in the strictest sense of the word. First and foremost, they are stories. Stories about people just like us, and stories about people nothing like us.
Olney has been offering up these musical slices of life for almost 20 years. His band, the X-Rays, recorded its only album for the then-relatively new Rounder label in 1982, and promptly broke up. Four years later saw the release of Olney's first solo album, Eye of the Storm. Four more titles followed at erratic intervals as Olney moved to Rounder's folky imprint Philo, culminating in 1997's Real Lies, an album that found its way onto a significant number of Top 10 lists for the year.
Through a Glass Darkly is Olney's sixth album for Philo/Rounder, and it represents a number of interesting and ironic firsts. Glass is the first album that Olney has self-produced, and it's also his first attempt to put together an album with a thematic thread. His recent interest in World War I led him to create an atmosphere that is reminiscent of the string bands and pure country flavor of that heady yet innocent period, resulting in an oddly satisfying concept piece.
As it turned out, the songs Olney wrote before the sessions that produced Glass were already leaning in that early-20th-century direction. He had in hand "1917," the story of a French prostitute during WWI, and "Dillinger," an intimate and all-too-human look at the infamous gangster. The songs that followed either related to a similar time frame or were retrofitted to sound as though they did. Many of Olney's songs on Glass sound authentic enough to pass for actual 78s from the era ("Race Track Blues," "Lilly of the Valley"), while others are contemporary but still fit within the context of the album ("The Suicide Kid," "That's All I Need to Know"). The one wild card is sadly appropriate: a cover that serves as a tribute to his good friend and fellow songwriting storyteller, the late Townes Van Zandt ("Snowin' on Raton").
Perhaps the biggest irony on Through a Glass Darkly is the fact that Olney has produced a sterling album at the very end of this century that uses as its sonic and lyrical reference points the very beginning of this century. At a time when most people are looking to the untarnished promise of the 21st Century, Olney and the bittersweet cast of flawed characters that inhabit his literary songs are partying like it's 1919.
-- Brian Baker