Is it possible to be tragically hip? Can you be hip when commenting on and
reflecting large events of a contentious nature? Maybe, when the particular
subject is world-wide (specifically American) social decay.
"Tragically Hip" is an album from New York-based Zenbeatz, who are bassist
Albey Balgochian--also bassist to Cecil Taylor--and spoken word performer and
poet Jane Grenier B. The album comprises poems written and read by Grenier,
while Balgochian's bass (often paired with an over-dubbed track) provides the
musical counter-part and backdrop to the words, the effect resembling Alban
Berg's Three Pieces on the devastation of the first world war. The poems examine
subjects ranging from breakfast diet (the danger of trans fat and sugar-filled
cereals) to the current fad for sections of government to engage in corruption
and psychological warfare against "their" own citizens, often utilising the
resources of the entire government (military, diplomatic and so on) as well as
the media, to further their and their friends' personal agendas. The album is
accompanied by a book of Grenier's poems (including some extra poems not
recorded... one is called "'Nthrax and Bombs", the title almost making anthrax
sound hip), and pen and ink drawings by Balgochian.
Zenbeatz create contemporary art music that they describe as "free-gard"
(free and avant-garde). Balgochian's double bass drives the music in
interstellar fashion, while Grenier pronounces the truth like a Delphic oracle
(though the events described are current reality, not the future). Balgochian is
a virtuosic bassist (he is also leader of the three bass group Bassentric), and
has recently recorded another bass and spoken-voice album, with prominent
Nuyorican poet and academic Miguel Algarin in 2011. On "Tragically Hip",
Balgochian's bass paints a swirling picture, both inspiring conscious thought
and stimulating the senses, his palate scoping from avant-classical arco (bow)
playing to vibratoed and held high-pitched harmonics.
Blgochian and Grenier grew up in the 1960s, and so the incisive
activist-style observations on the album are not surprising. Given the
blandishments that Grenier spots in modern media-led culture, it may be that it
is necessary to have had some experience of that era to even recognize the
current problems for what they are, despite that they are today in your face, in
plain view if you will only look.
The most recently composed poem is the most precise, the excellently observed
"Jimi". It is a powerful statement of what is what in the modern day, and what
is not right about it.
The piece interpolates lyrical quotes from Hendrix himself, such as lines
from his "If 6 Was 9" ("walk on mister business man..."). The phrase is extended
by Grenier: "walk on mister businss man with the army of your choice". They
certainly do choose their armies these days: look at the state of Syria being
assaulted by a mix of cobbled-together drug-fueled lied-to illiterates, and
foreign mercenaries. A further reference from Hendrix (from his "Spanish Castle
Magic") provides an answer: stop being uptight and out of focus on what really
matters in life... take a "magic carpet ride" instead, writes Grenier, or jive
with dragonflies (another poem on the album is entitled "Dragonflies").
Grenier here compares the natural joy of Hendrix, and what can be if you
embrace decency, to a world where dishonesty is suddenly everywhere, and
uppermost. As Hendrix said himself, "When the power of love overcomes the love
of power, then the world will know peace"... in other words, it is psychopaths,
corporate and others, who mess it all up for the rest of the world, again and
again. Their "joy" is power, knowing that they have no accountability.
Grenier also addresses, in the same piece, the way people live day to day,
and how that can be improved. An unavoidable line is a comment on child-care,
the direct "f*** their scheduled play dates". You are supposed to play
naturally, not to a schedule, and you should be able to arrange to live in an
environment where play is easy.
The immediate source of difficulties in the US has of course been the leaving
of the goodies store door open, unlocked by by surreptitiously altered laws, and
by the faulty interpretations of other laws... election campaign rules and the
re-drawn financial regulation. Another example was the designs of the corporate
representative Michael Powell on the FCC. Grenier says, "you gave away your
freedoms to some black robes on a bench, tightening restraints with a legal
wrench". A court bench is not supposed to amount to a wrench... it is a likely
reference to the US Supreme Court bending and extending the campaign
contribution rules. Is not the judiciary supposed to be separate from the
executive? The general population missed this completely, while they were, as
Grenier puts it, "hung up on that white picket fence". While they were pondering
SUVs or Simon Cowell, the "evil-doers" snuck into the legal drafting room and
changed the laws.
"Black Leather And Connies" urges people to wake up, instead of "waiting for
the taxi of reality" to run you down, as the hidden, patient planners of
government and Gesellschaft plot to take over your existence. They need to be
aware, to stand back and see what is happening, is the main theme of the album.
If not, there will be more black uniforms and rubber bullets, as seen at the
"Battle of Seattle" in 1999 (public demonstrations over the first meeting in
America of a 1995 invention of a shadow international corporate government, the
"World Trade Organization"), than black leather and '60s spirit. The axis, if
not taxi, of reality is here. Where will it take you?
In the same light is "The Revolution", an adaption of Gil Scott Heron's "The
Revolution Won't Be Televised". Whereas Heron spoke about television as the main
medium of information, Grenier talks of the internet. Of course, the internet is
for sending communications as well as receiving them, and Grenier points up how
online communications are tapped constantly, the recent Senate blocking of the
CISPA Bill notwithstanding. If there were to be a revolution, it would not be
able to organized online... it would be rumbled, as everything is seen and that
is presumably the point of the privacy invasions.
The poem also speculates whether in the absence of hanging chads (a good name
for a band?) there would not have been the Iraq war, or the Afghan war. But
corruption is now so blatantly on both sides of the supposed political fence
that instead of being "bushwacked", as Grenier puts it, the population may well
have been simply gored through with some other scheme, anyway. And they have, by
the scientists' (Gore-led) gravy train of the non-existent "global warming". The
current "state of the state", such as internet tapping and the "state" media,
makes it clear that agendas run both sides. To quote Amy Goodman, the "picture
(only) changes in an election year, when, for a fleeting moment, the Democrats
try to distinguish themselves from the Republicans". In any event, the absence
of mechanical voting machines in 2000 shows up just one example of how the dark
side now hides things in open sight and, astonishingly, still gets away with it.
A third political party, anyone?
Grenier also notes how Facebook will delete a post or video link if it
offends the interests of some hidden interested party.
All the while, Grenier's spoken word is accompanied by the rollercoaster bass
of Balgochian. He creates a multitude of effects. Balgochian is a master
bassist, and even a maker of basses (just ask the Rolling Stones' Darryl Jones).
His earlier album, with Miguel Algarin, saw very dynamic playing, and this
collection is no departure. Balgochain provides bends and whistles as the answer
to the "bells and whistles" that corporate America has been increasingly
rewarding itself with.
Balgochian describes his bass as "genre-bending". This is certainly apt, and
a spoken voice album gives ample space to hear his intense wizardry.
On "Revolution", for example, there are scratching, energized note clusters
and sustained vibratoed squeaks, in addition to walking triplets and arco
statements. Meanwhile, "Black Leather" sees Balgochian running the gamut of the
fret board, adding vibrato and again arco bass. He includes "talking effects" to
his busy work-out behind the two narrators on the track: the opening voice on
the poem is Balgochian himself, a strong distinctive intonation. He is then
joined by Grenier. The two also duet on a brief track, "Solitary Confinement".
The first track on the album, however, is a reflection on a further danger to
the Amercian people, misguided diet. The track, "Cereal Killer Moms", puns its
way to the conclusion that "there's corporate lies in all them pies... fries and
vats of red die". Don't forget the unnecessarily sweetened "bread" either! It's
akin to putting sugar on your potatoes. Balgochian provides the wholesome
alternative of unadorned yet exotic acoustic bass, making the case for
organicness. No sugar or molasses.
"The Art Of Poetry" employs occasional echo on Grenier's voice, and there is
a brief solo passage for Balgochian in the middle. It is the most strictly
musical track; that is, the combination of mainly arco bass and overdubbed
harmonics, with both echoed and doubled voice, throws sonics to the fore. On the
piece, Grenier says poetry for her is "an excursion down dark rivers of ink".
Balgochian, however, shows here that music can do what words at any given moment
can't: provide an upbeat side though the subject may be serious. Stringed
instruments always show sunlight.
"Solitary Confinement" refers to a
person confined by their own lies, a poetic equivalent of the phrase "honesty is
the best policy"; it is a warning, no doubt, that lies may lead to
"Dragonflies" is the longest piece on the album, and begins with the
exhortation to "open your eyes", the main theme of the album. However, seeing
clearly can be hard, when, as Grenier puts it, someone has been "painting
Manhattan skies with brick". Balgochian's bass provides a lush backdrop of bent
notes, slides and harmonics, something that the maze of buildings certainly
can't do. "As dragons fly, open your eyes", states Grenier towards the end of
the poem, another warning to be alert.
"Flux" is the final track. It
has a collage of wordplay, and reveals another issue for modern concern:
"library" is spelt "lie-brary", referring to the trueism that history is written
by the victors only, and that, as libraries are set up and administered by
governments, there is room for editing of content... just as books are edited.
Grenier describes herself here as a "visitor chasing poems out of the dark".
Meanwhile, "reality blurs the sane". Perhaps accessing "the abstract song of
zenbeatz" out in the universe, providing more priority to spirituality, is the
answer. It is your view of reality that is the true reality.
The album reveals that you can still be hip in a time of challenge.
"Tragically Hip" is an eloquent portrayal of twenty-first century blues, though,
of course, the current situation began in a straight, traceable trendline from
the era of the earliest poem here, the 1960s. The swirling color of organic
music and the power of words to inspire thought, provide an answer.