“What’s a corridor anyway?” Diaz defined for the audience that a corrido is simply a ballad. “A Mexican folk ballad. Songs that tell a story. Often with a tragedy in the middle and a moral at the end.” An epic song form introduced by Spanish colonizers—whose lyrical themes range from battles of the Mexican Revolution, the Cristero Rebellion, bandidos and generals, heroes, villains and horses, along with modern themes of drug-running, the immigration nightmares and losing loved ones to the north—that initially came to popularity during Mexico’s struggle for independence during the early 19th century. Diaz’s presentation provided an abridged history of corridos from Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s composition “Maria La Bandida” sung by Lola Beltran in the 1963 motion picture La Bandida to the narco-corridos of Los Tigres del Norte. Songs like “Contrabando y Traicion” which pay homage to the sharp vicissitudes of fortune encountered in the drug trade.
The evening could have ended disastrously. After Diaz’s presentation, the audience was crestfallen when he announced that the featured performer, Juan Aguilar, for reasons unknown was unable to perform. Grasping, Diaz queried, “Who are our musicians in the audience? Do we have anyone willing to sing?”
TIffany Alvarez—who occasionally performs with Tucson’s Mariachi Luz de Luna and erstwhile member of Los Angeles based all-female Mariachi Mujer 2000—and longtime Tucson musician Bobby Benton valiantly answered the call of duty, improvised a set of corridos, provided insightful anecdotes and saved the show.
Donning their guitarras, led by Alvarez’s confident vocals, together they performed a handful of songs with classic themes from the Mexican Revolution and folk hero Pancho Villa, including “El Siete Leguas.”
Highlight came when Benton, accompanied by Alvarez on guitar, sang “El Corrido de Nogales.” A song which commemorates an incident that allegedly took place in the ’20s towards the end of World War I, of a battle between “the Mexicans and the gringos,” along the border. “El Corrido de Nogales” appears on Heroes and Horses (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2002) music of the borderlands featuring Benton and kickass Tucson folklorist Big Jim Griffith, (Ph,D,, musician, co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself and producer of the album).
An informative evening of history and music enough to inspire this writer to toss an imaginary sombrero aside, to dig a riding heel into the loam and shout skyward, “Viva La Revolucion!”
Songs by this Echo Park quartet often brim with a kind of ache that suggests something intoxicating or sad or life-changing is up around the bend, good or bad, and that it can be frightening. There’s ache too in Valley Queen singer Natalie Carol’s voice, which lifts with gentle power and grace over the band’s often languid country-rockish soundscapes. Its sound suggests top-down drives late-night down into Laurel Canyon, if you can imagine what it would’ve been like back in ’68—guys like Gene Clark and Papa John Phillips plucking guitars on Mama Cass’s porch, David Crosby scoring acid off failing screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, and song goddess Judee Sill maybe strolling about barefoot, just discovering her songwriting legs.
That sound comes together effortlessly on Valley Queen’s recently released “My Man.” The song’s a bitter truth about how scary realities reveal themselves in new loves. Arkansas-born Carol’s tone and phrasing makes lines like “Show me how your lightning strikes/Did it burn your eyes/I want to see the scars” resonate in weird little profound ways; words that’d no doubt be lost in lesser hands. Her melancholic tilt builds to gutsy peaks, and it's perfectly matched by percolating guitars and pianos, which rise up from an “Everyday People”-ish groove to the ending psych payout. It’s beautifully wrought. Listen.
Go see the Valley Queen Oct. 8, at 7:30 p.m. playing Tucson’s 2nd Saturdays, on Scott between Broadway and Congress. It’s free.
By the end of the ’70s, Harry Nilsson (like his drinkin' bud Alice Cooper) was becoming a sort of swollen-livered Norma Desmond, lost to mainstream tastes that mostly favored sellout soul, corporate rock, and, to a lesser degree, some good post-punk shit.
More, conventional music-critic wisdom (yawn) has long said that Nilsson’s famously blown voice ruined his post-1973 albums. That just ain’t true.
Sure, Nilsson hedonistically trashed for good his buttery tone and soaring range while making ’74’s Pussy Cats with John Lennon, but that record and every one of his non-soundtrack albums, were incredible in some way—even ’76’s wrongly maligned, crooner-gone-mad Sandman (dig the killer “Jesus Christ You’re Tall”!). Each is musically diverse, pregnant with Nilsson’s scathing wit and pathos, and his rasped vocals add an extra layer of implied narrative (if not a darker hue).
Hence, 1980’s Flash Harry. The L.A. sessions for this overlooked Steve Cropper(!)-produced album were rife with Nilsson misadventures and party favors, and, so, there’s lots to love, even beyond the soothing nods to reggae, R&B and pop, and co-writes with Ringo, Lennon and Van Dyke Parks.
The best might be “It’s So Easy.” Album engineer Larold Rebhun said Nilsson was drinking hard and did mescaline before recording the song’s lead vocal. Nilsson sang the lyrics he’d scribbled on a napkin at dinner earlier in the night, hilariously singing his name, which he’d signed on the napkin beneath the words.
Yet no one has ever pointed out that this inspired Nilsson/Stallworth tune is so close melodically to Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to my Nightmare” it’s practically an homage, replete with a sinister-tender tone, airy arrangement, creepy sway and groove. Stolen, and just a footnote, but still.
Flash Harry was Nilsson’s last proper studio album, only saw a UK and Japanese release. It was finally reissued stateside a few years ago. (There is an unreleased album produced by Mark Hudson that Nilsson recorded shortly before his ’94 death, called, aptly, Papa’s Got a Brand New Robe. You can give that a whirl on YouTube.)
Tucson’s own human siren song was already an itchy-palmed dream for boys (and girls) by this ’78 single—a household name really, no doubt helped by a fetching Time Magazine cover story that featured a shot of a scantly-clothed Ronstadt sipping steaming sauce over a stove, sexualized for the American mass consciousness.
This version of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” didn’t top songwriter Warren Zevon’s godhead version, but damn if it ain’t peerless in a ’70s radio-rock, sterile production, hit-single sorta way. Golden-eared producer (and Ronstadt manager) Peter Asher kept the spirits alive in a way that transcended said sterility because the man understood songs. Hear that.
A sweet acoustic drone and cowbell opens to Ronstadt’s hip-swinging sexuality and Waddy Wachtel's anthemic four-on-floor riff, and you can visualize coke-gacked grins on faces of the post-Laurel Canyon mellow mafia all over this—a weirdly beautiful thing in hindsight. And god love fright-haired Wachtel and his bong-smoke-clearing power chords that bestow the tune with indelible weight and oomph.
Zevon’s version, with all the suicide and domination in the lyrics etc., was ironic self-mockery passed off jokingly as narcissism yet still narcissistic as hell, on purpose. But Zevon knew that—that’s how fucking smart he was, and his had the requisite weatherbeaten vocal tone to match the literate and deceptively simple sentiment. But Ronstadt’s slightly cleaned up version had real sexual verve, and her unstoppable voice, which gave the song staying power.
Still, it’s really too bad Ronstadt switched the song’s gender here because that changes the male/female power dynamic in the worst way (a woman-pummeling dude ain’t no “credit to his gender”). Had she kept the gender as written, the tune would’ve been wickedly subversive in its time, but no Top 40 hit. Also dropped “West” from “West Hollywood.” Another meaning-changer. Shame.
The song’s music is far less mixed-up. Trading Lenguas Largas’ usual inscrutability for a compositional straight line of build, explode and repeat; second verse, same as the first. “Yardsale Heart” fuses a cyclical two-chord frame to an arrangement of near-orchestral grandeur, recalling nothing as much as the early-’60s productions of Phil Spector. The band seemed to not be unaware of the song's anthemic overtones; both Reyes’ lead vocal and the tracks of percussion are significantly louder than those of other songs on the album, bringing the accessibility of “Yardsale Heart” to the forefront and rendering its melodies timeless and indelible. Again, Spector’s influence looms large—if the sweeping introduction of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” bypassed subsequent verses and skipped directly to its climactic conclusion, the result would be quite similar in tune and spirit to “Yardsale Heart.”
But despite its lyrical clarity of confusion, the track is essentially a blank slate. It's a rallying of ecstasy and a breached dam of romantic anguish. A song of unbridled connection and one of broken convictions. But in its unending waves of sighs, it's unquestionably a triumph of the human comedy.
Who can resist the allure of a band festooned in black masquerade ball masks and biohazard red protective face shields? Or hold out against the seductiveness of spirited singers/rappers, who resemble the anarchic cheerleaders on Nirvana's “Smells LIke Teen Spirit” video, dressed in red and black skirts, tank tops and just below-the-knee triple striped tube socks who at times, when they aren't dancing au-go-go as if to satisfy their satanic majesties requests, whirl nunchucks haphazardly about then bounce frenziedly on trampolines?
Enter B4Skin, on special show benefiting Downtown Radio (KTDT 99.1 FM) last Saturday at the Lathe Cave art space on Stone Ave. They kicked alongside local support Deschtuco and New York City’s Sound of Urchin. B4Skin’s appeal is more than aesthetic. Described by one of its members as “high school musical inspired by Satan,” B4Skin are a pop band, for real.
Beneath layers of vocals, their core instrumental sound is generated by just two musicians. The face-shield wearing guitarist—whose sharp-cut guitar lines sometimes recall rhythm-master Keith Strickland work with the B-52s, then it shifts into high-gain propulsion where the tone is
aggressive, metallic and driving, like riffs nipped from a Fast and the Furious soundtrack—is all the while triggering loops and samples, laying down a foundation for B4Skin’s hard-hitting drummer to play on top of, fattening the sound and creating infectious grooves that’d
do Dr. Dre proud. The kind of ass-clapping, in-the-pocket grooves in which the use of anything more than the most bare-bones of kits—snare drum, kick drum, hi-hat, cymbal—would be superfluous.
My fave among faves here is “The Jones’.” In the album’s notes, Loudermilk writes that he penned the tune “for those who fall for Madison Avenue ‘truth,’ Haight-Ashbury ‘freedom’ and Washington D.C., 'advice and assistance.'” He nailed it too. The song's a perfect little pop parable that Tim Hardin could’ve written, with sweet dynamic shifts, panning backup vocals, and a gentle acoustic guitar that builds to a chorus that’s as a sugary a protest as you’ll likely ever hear.
In honor of J.D. Loudermilk, we say goodnight, brilliant sir, and sweet dreams.
Tucson Botanical Gardens and Etherton Gallery are collaborating to bring the photography show Frida: Portraits by Nickolas… More