05/06/13   Albums   By World Music Roundup

"Tragically Hip" ZenBeatz
Spoken word hits out at social wrongs over dynamic bass

Tragically Hip

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 banishment.

"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.