Friday, February 27, 2004

Terrell's Tuneup: Homemade Musical Folk Art

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 27, 2004

Sometimes a music critic can feel jaded just by looking through the galaxy of CD covers that arrive in his mail box every week. The rampant mimicry that creates a tyranny of sameness; the pre-fab attitude the covers attempt to convey, the artists perhaps unaware they are being used as pawns in some cynical marketing scheme … and then you listen to the music and 90 percent of the time its even worse than the cover art tried to warn.

That’s why it’s refreshing to occasionally stumble across musicians who play by their own rules, musicians whose visions are peculiar enough to make them interesting and whose homemade, lo-fi art is so full of sincerity and passion it far outweighs any lack of professional polish.

Here's three such CDs:

*We Can Mate With Rabbits by Julien Aklei . Aklei, who recently moved to Santa Fe, certainly meets these standards. This collection of 20 songs featuring Aklei’s haunting Kentucky soprano soaring over her guitar chords is a unique statement. I’d have been captivated by its strange charms even if her manager, Spiritual John, hadn’t brought a pink plastic Christmas tree to my office at the state Capitol a few weeks ago.

OK, I know some of you are still chewing on the concept of mating with rabbits. Here’s how Julien’s web site explains it on her recently biography. (Uppercase words preserved as written.)

“It wasn't before long that Julien received an Angelic visitation with a message: that she must dedicate her life to the joyous spreading the Almighty's Word and help humanity develop into lifestyles more akin to Life in Heaven.

"'We can mate with Rabbits' is the first idea that you are to disseminate throughout the world." Julien was instructed, and it was also explained that while the rabbit of Easter is commonly understood to be a pagan symbol, the rabbit is actually one of the Virgin Mary's special creatures, a symbol that will introduce a new reality to the human mind.”

So there you go.

Aklei’s personal mythologies pervade the lyrics to her songs. The weird thing is that some of the titles on the album are so raunchy we can’t print them in a “family” newspaper. Like artists such as Marvin Gaye and Prince, Aklei likes to confront her listeners with the underlying unity of the sacred and the salacious.

To get music-criticy here, too many of the songs here are in minor keys and start getting someone monotonous. That’s why a song like “Love Don’t Mean Nothin’” with its simple country melody is so refreshing.

Still, some of those minor-key tunes -- “Run Rabbit, Run,” “Make Love to Yur Horse,” and “I Wanted to Make Love” are pretty addictive.

We Can Mate With Rabbits is a musical manifesto of Aklei’s cosmic, but earthy visions. As her web site says, “Feeling that she is singing for rabbits too, Julien Aklei is determined about reintroducing Easter-Rabbit qualities back into human daily life.”

Who could argue with that?

* Bluegrass and Kentucky Blues by Acie Cargill. Acie is another Kentucky artist, though he’s based out of Illinois these days.

Cargill, who comes from a musical family, creates music rooted in the hills and hollers. But with his world-weary baritone he puts his own individual stamp on what he plays.

His albums don’t sound like your typical modern bluegrass record that emphasize technique and virtuosity. Too much of that stuff sounds like it came off a production line. Acie’s albums sound like the music you’d hear in real Appalachian homes in the days before mass pop culture took over.

Bluegrass and Kentucky Blues consists mainly of old ballads and backhill blues tunes. But my favorites -- as is always the case with Cargill albums -- are his originals. Unfortunately less than half the songs here are Cargill’s.

But there’s some good originals. “What Went Wrong” is a fine love song. “Rust Belt Blues” is a topical number about poverty and displacement.

Cargill might put off left-leaning fans with his patriotic, pro-Iraq-war recitation in “Under the Double Eagle.” But Cargill sings what he thinks. And you won’t find macho, jingoistic Toby Keith/Hank Jr. blather. Agree or disagree, Acie’s a thoughtful guy.

*Troubled by The New Creation. A decade or so before the rise of the Christian Right, there was the Jesus People. Remember Arthur Blessitt, the “hip minister of Sunset Strip” whose followers blanketed the country with those little round orange stickers with psychedelic lettering saying, “Turn on to Jesus” Remember the Children of God and their “flirty fishing” recruiters? (Alas, the only COGers I ever met were stinky hairy guys.)

The music of the Jesus People movement infiltrated the mainstream. There was “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. Even better was “Jesus is Just Alright” (The version by The Byrds, not The Doobie Brothers.)

But far away from fame and from the mainstream was an obscure little Jesus freak band from Vancouver, The New Creation. Their album Troubled somehow reemerged on the tiny Companion Records.

A Bible-soaked cross between The Shaggs and The Partridge Family (there was a mother-son team in the band) The New Creation played like a garage-band apocalypse.

While most of the songs deal with the basic theme of “the world will be saved when the world turns to Jesus,” the New Creation doesn’t blame the evils of the world on liberals, homosexuals and Pagans. True to the Jesus People, preach-to-the-hippies credo, the main villain is The Status Quo (read “The Establishment.”)

But the group saves its best for the first. The opening cut “Countdown to Revolution!” is a sound collage that proves it was possible to produce otherworldly sonic strangeness even in the days before samplers.