Originally released in 1974, The Unicorn is one of those obscure enigmas fringe collectors scour the globe for. The only actual LP by Peter Grudzien, a "psychedelic country artist with a gay sensibility," it's an eerily beautiful and flat-out weird listening experience -- truly one man's singular vision. Touching on the universal themes of sex, love, and religion, the home-recording artist melded his cherished country music, Dylanesque folk, and the surreal sounds he absorbed while living in 1960s San Francisco into one twisted, compelling masterpiece.
Highlighted in Re/Search's Incredibly Strange Music Vol. II, original copies of The Unicorn have been nigh-impossible to find. Now, the New York-based label Parallel World has seen fit to re-release Grudzien's masterwork, along with six of his more recent recordings (Grudzien, who once played with his idol Johnny Cash, claims to have taped some 300 songs since the late '50s).
This is simply some of the oddest Nashvillian music you'll ever come across; think of a gay Eugene Chadbourne with a head full of mescaline and some serious Christian guilt, and you're halfway there. Lovely instrumentals switch off with strange sound effects, distorted guitars, and bonkers lyrics like "Our eyes leave our heads, the zombies are dead." Snippets of a Wagnerian chorus and creepy backward vocals embellish haunting religious numbers like "Redemption and Prayer," while homocentric double-entendres lace songs like "White Trash Hillbilly Trick." "Let me ride upon your back tonight," Grudzien croons on "Kentucky Candy."
Grudzien's newer stuff is priceless as well. The peppy "Hunky-Honky" has him passing a joint around the honky-tonk bar where the "fairies and hustlers" all know his name. "Candy-Ass Lover" (about an old S.F. paramour) features a warped chorus which must be heard to be believed. The release concludes with "Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," a gay American anthem of sorts. A penultimately peculiar recording that only gets better with subsequent listenings, this Unicorn is no mere myth, and well worth investing a few bucks in.
-- Mike Rowell
Joshua Redman Quartet
Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard
No news here, but it's noteworthy that Berkeley's own Joshua Redman still racks up prestigious awards -- 16 so far since he made his 1991 debut just after winning the Thelonious Monk Institute's jazz saxophone competition. But the limelight first fell on Redman when he and his father, tenorman Dewey Redman, played the Village Vanguard together. From that point on, a media blitz steered 26-year-old Redman right into the White House, where he jammed with a certain amateur saxophonist.
Graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, as Redman did, undeniably parts some waters, just like recording live at the Village Vanguard offers similar "miracles." Why? In this premiere NYC club, now 60 years old and blessed by telescoped acoustics, tall-in-the-tenor-saddle Sonny Rollins set a high standard with his Night at the Village Vanguard (Vol. 1 & 2) on Blue Note. John Coltrane's "Live" at the Village Vanguard (MCA/Impulse) recordings exalted ballads and detonated whirling sonic vectors that defied the limits of the day. Then there's Joe Henderson, who resumed a heroic stature with The State of the Tenor, Live at the Village Vanguard Vol. 1 & 2 (Blue Note). Redman welcomes the heat from these precedents, because whether he's in the Vanguard's famous "kitchen" (check out the liner photo) or onstage, he delivers.
Redman has said he performs bebop and swing, as well as avant-garde and modal music. It's true: He plays modal on "Second Snow" like Coltrane plays soprano on "My Favorite Things." He indulges in bebop on "Slapstick" and, after an avant articulated preface, speeds up the rendering of Rollins' "St. Thomas." Resourceful as it is, "Count Me Out" stays within bounds set by Joe Henderson.
The most endearing cuts on this double CD draw Redman's rhythm section to the fore, like when Christopher Thomas paces a purred arco solo to intro a piano and sax repartee on "Dialogue." As for drummer Brian Blade, Redman has duly noted that he "sounds like he's singing on the drums." And with Tyneresque chops, pianist Peter Martin adds critical buoyancy throughout, but his solos ("Remember," in particular) are quite remarkable. Redman truly relies on this ace trio, and charmed as ever, he serves the Vanguard reputation well.
-- Zoë Anglesey
Red Hot Chili Peppers
One Hot Minute
Four years ago, Red Hot Chili Peppers broke into the big time when MTV aired the video to the tepid ballad "Under the Bridge" ad nauseam. With their butt-nekkid b-boy-cum-frat-boy energy, L.A.'s maniacal funksters had been vying for pop stardom from day one, even "begging on our knees" for it from behind an ironic mask on "Punk Rock Classic" from Mother's Milk. Though the Peppers got what they wanted when Blood Sugar Sex Magik moved multiplatinum units, the disc was their weakest recording to date.
One Hot Minute packs a bit more meat on the bone with some trademark, muscle-rock/funk tunes punctuated by Flea's monster bass and a healthful dose of psychedelia via guitarist Dave Navarro's (ex of Jane's Addiction) hallucinatory feedback. But with a slow-jam hit under his belt, frontman Anthony Kiedis thinks he's a bona fide singer. Talk about self-deception; one could reasonably argue that Kiedis is tone deaf. A quarter spin of the requisite ballad "Tearjerker" is quick confirmation: Kiedis' melody is unendurable, uncatchy, and nearly laughable, while lyrics like "I wanted badly for you to requite my love" and "Guess now you know I love you so" beg for a yardstick across his knuckles. Anyway, given Kiedis' slutty rep, what woman would buy the clichs and strained vocab? Producer Rick Rubin should've told Kiedis to stick to what he does best: barking bravado and amphetamine raps.
Kiedis is confused, caught up in the melancholy of an identity crisis. What else could account for the Peppers' dippy trips into pop pulp when they've always excelled at slamming fonk rawk? The lyrics further reveal Kiedis' torn psyche: "So hard and lonely, too, when you don't know yourself," he sings on "My Friends" -- an almost verbatim echo of Mother's Milk's "Knock Me Down" ("It's so lonely when you don't even know yourself"). Time has changed little for po' Anthony, but for a better blast of the past, check out the homeboy funk of 1985's Freaky Styley.
-- Sam Prestianni
You might think a producer who's been hired to work for U2, Bob Dylan, and Peter Gabriel is little more than a marionette propped up at the control board, flogged by the whims of hotshot Hall of Famers and their battalions of lawyers. Daniel Lanois' own two records, Acadie and For the Beauty of Wynona, strongly suggest otherwise.
In his solo work, this New Orleans resident has perfected an amalgamation of French-Canadian and Native American folk songs and unstoppable guitar effects that rain like meteor showers. It's a mix that marries natural and supernatural phenomena -- one that the author has imprinted on each of the records he's produced, regardless of the individual artists' stature. Wrecking Ball, really Lanois' third solo outing, just happens to have been made with the estimable help of one of country music's most celebrated figures.
In her adventurous 25-year career, Emmylou Harris has worked extensively with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, scored seven No. 1 hits, and won six Grammy awards. For Wrecking Ball, the master interpreter reworks songs by Dylan, Steve Earle, Jimi Hendrix ("May This Be Love"), and Lucinda Williams (the dazzling "Sweet Old World"), as well as a bushel of Lanois' compositions and Neil Young's wistful title track. On that song, Young backs Harris with his patented falsetto, and the sound of the duo quietly tending to the wounded lyrics ("My life's an open book you read on the radio") is enough to shame the most die-hard stargazers. U2's Larry Mullen drums on the bulk of the tracks, Lanois' longtime multi-instrumental collaborator Malcolm Burn appears throughout, and rebel countryman Earle (fresh out of jail) plays acoustic guitar on several cuts. To Lanois' great credit, the release never sounds like a vanity project or a jumble of egos. Wrecking Ball is an affecting release that deserves as wide an audience as any this year.
-- James Sullivan
Daniel Lanois plays Fri, Sept. 29, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.