Sun Ra and NRBQ
Sun Ra—-Singles—The Definitive 45s Collection 1952-1991: 63 tracks, a lot more than the one on the Evidence label (this is on Strut), and from the original masters, while at least some of the Evidence collection was from the low-budget 7″ vinyls. Sounds great, and while the guest singers (who gradually disappear, as Ra and the Arkestra speak and sing up, occasionally but very assertively), are uneven, they all shine sometimes. My favorite is Yochanan, AKA The Space Age Vocalist and The Man From The Sun, who belts 50s novelty free r&b numbers “M uck M uck (Matt Matt)” and “Skillet Mama” and also delivers the word from further afield. Hattye Randolph presents Sun Ra & His Astro-Infinity Arkestra with a seemingly unlikely gift, “Back In Your Own Backyard”, and they return the favor, simultaneously: this little blue mirrorverse is singing after supper, totally at home, knowing we travel even sitting back, and everywhere is outer space, and vice-versa, like/in music maybe especially.
the two opening songpoems by Mr. Ra are instant grabbers.”I Am An Instrument” is very sweet and humble, waiting for the player; “I Am Strange” begins in the midst of a man’s amazed and somewhat apprehensive self-awareness, his vibrations, then moves through the window to the wind’s imploring, perhaps lamenting regard of the man, whom the wind cannot approach too closely; can only wait and call for the man’s contact, must submit to this desire, for windy powers are too great for initiative (this seems like the genesis of My Brother The Wind).
The early rock ‘n’ roll/r&b appeal of some vocals and more instrumentals, including the original Sun Ra single versions of “Rocket No. 9” and “Love On Outer Space” ( both of which are covered on NRBQ’s 2016 monster box High Noon—about which more presently—thus reminding us that Q-pilot Terry Adams long ago declared that his band was the child of Sun Ra and Sun Records) can also come across kinda Latinoid, in a way that could attract the soul jazz club-goers, Chicago electric bluesters—all of it fitting into what some older customers of my Deep South music store in the 90s meant by “blues”, sometimes. And, early on, some straight-up swing—nice, sometimes a little neat for my taste–and some tentacles extended, but soon assimilated, though not forgotten—this is Disc I, on II things def get out, though “The Bridge”, which is cosmic and must be walked after “fire is poured on dry leaves” and one way left to go, is immediately followed by “I’m Gonna Unmask Batman” and it keeps zig-zagging like that. And the catchier pop-blues-jazz approaches stuff can pull in darker rays, like on “Nuclear War”: “Radiation breeds mutation” (group singers repeat), “And when they push that button, you can kiss yo’ ass bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye.” (“Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye.”)
After several such appearances by a frequently angry Angel, the aforementioned sweet and humble “I Am An Instrument” returns, now pointing out that man is an instrument too, waiting for the plucking of his heart strings: “The heart can speak more than the mind” (thus providing a reminder of the mind passing the conductor’s bation, as demonstrated recently on “On Jupiter/Cosmo Drama (Prophetika 1)” by the Angel, who may be Fate and certainly sounds in a pleasant mood, on this occasion, with good news:”Something is, but nothing is too”,and while positives include “The life you liiive, and the thoughts you think, and the death you die”, negatives include immortality, because that’s impossible—”Election Day is coming, which one will you vote for? If you care to reach for thee impossible, that’s my department.”)
NRBQ—High Noon–A 50 Year Retrospective: in 1969, co-founder and sole constant of all line-ups Terry Adams was quoted by the New York Times as declaring that NRBQ was based on “the Sun—Sun Ra and Sun Records.” It’s a good hook, and basically true—and would be, in the sense of an adventurous, driven and canny spirit shared, whatever the stylistic differences—-even if, as he recounts in this set’s booklet, Adams hadn’t first visited Ra at the end of the 60s, when too much was up in the air; he was given a Saturn Records 45 RPM single of “Rocket Number Nine”—hearing this, Adams realized he had to get NRBQ back together and dedicate his life to music (the reunited combo’s own version of “Rocket…” soon blasted off, sonically if not commercially).
Disc I, from 2005-15, with Adams and an all-new crew, is as consistent as the older material that follows, and makes another point by starting with “Love In Outer Space”, a vintage Sun Ra jazz pop song, and soon provides reminders that Sun Records was a source in orbit through parallel, concentric, eccentric and converging slices of the pie rising from the mid-20th Century after all that extended gestation, World Wars and more money spread around for a while and what-not, so variously tagged music and its consumers all had to get along somehow, and yadda yadda Sun Records— (like canny outlier-unifier Sun Ra, who was already working on the come-all-ye’s, incl. Ra and his Arkestra backing doowop and R&B voyagers from all over (along with much else, even aside from their supposedly Definitive 45’s Collection 1952-1991, mentioned above) was syncretically, reflectively, maybe even reflexively countryoid as hell at times—thinking for instance of Cash‘s more cranked up stuff on Sun, as hep cats may well be reminded by the cranked-up “Get Rhythm” here, also some Jerry Lee and other Out There Down Yonder sprinkles on Adams’ keys at times. Sure, NRBQ can be countryoid too, sometimes in unexpected ways. Sure, sure, Adams often sees to it that the sonic sandwich incl. four-to-the-floor piano driven jalopy and stockcar stomps and twangs and springs and sprongs (rude keyboard elbows, lest the time-honored sounds of upstarts get too tasteful), challenging the passing trash dump, as hydraulic rhythm sections and guitar-dawgs lean way out the window, I knew about all that, like I knew that singer-guitarist Al Anderson had the country-pop-rock songwriting smarts (his “Every Little Thing” gave Carlene Carter the countryoid rave-up hit that Nick Lowe couldn’t, and he became a full-time Nashville Cat, after 22 years of recording and touring with the Q). But I didn’t know about the way long-time vocalist Joey Spampinato’s sometimes weedy (incl. into-the-weeds) vocals and lyrics, both tending to the sing-song, could lead from moony snoozers to jangle to twangle and (as with the more pensive side of Terry Adams, as co- and sole writer) to countryoid to Relatable puzzling through hopes and fears, somes maybe taking a lesson or influence straying from Pet Sounds-associated couples therapy (Joey S. especially seems to like Brian Wilson, also Buddy Holly and Merseyside hopefuls). So, along with the many more vivacious tracks, here are at least a few good used indie-rock-to-country-pop vehicles of unexpected origin, for singers who can sustain more listening interest, hopefully (putting a lot on hope this year, as always).
Speaking of vehicles and car songs, over among the potential Todd Snider bait, somebody squawks ‘bout how you’re “One Big Parking Lot”, but it’s not a complaint, or not an unconflicted one, cause this Adams-written, descendant of 50s car songs stars and fuels and spins the human who sounds like he knows he’s still all caught up in it, well before he gets to ”and whatever else survives, we’ll go see it on a four-wheel drive.” And speaking of “we”, co-founding picker-singer Steve Ferguson (quoted on the booklet, as saying he “has the right hand of a country guitarist and the left hand of a blues guitarist”) is leads and sometimes pushes some barefoot community sings early on, and is at his best with my Vacation Bible School favorite “Down In My Heart”—the VBS Kool-Aid may have a something extra this time, judging by his guitar solo, but also has the totally characteristic Joy down in there too, beyond irony )(not that we don’t get some ace country parodies later).