Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A dish served cold - Rodriguez 'Cold Fact'

If yesterday’s Johnny Cash read like a tribute to a man who had turned his back on a shallow world, but kept a warm heart nonetheless, it is still worth remembering, if you really want to get back at a world that has let you down, that the advice of the famous adage is that revenge is a dish best served cold. No one really knows who first said that, but it could well have been the motto Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the sixth child of poor working class Mexican parents, born in 1942 in Detroit, Michigan, who grew up to become know just as Rodriguez, the man who sang songs about inner urban poverty and emptiness and put them together in a fantastic album, released in 1970, called Cold Fact.

The music of Cold Fact isn’t easy to genreise, even though its style has a kind of familiarity about it that can sometimes mask the originality of the music. Incidentally, I’m not sure if “genereise” a word but, if it’s not, it should be, and that’s usually how words are made, after all.

Ironically, the music’s familiarity probably comes from the very thing that makes it unique – the way it captures a whole host of genres, imbues itself with their spirit, and ends up being all and none of them at once. So we feel it’s a bit like folk, but far too harsh and jagged to really be folk; or a bit like rock, but far too cool and silky to really be rock; or a bit like blues, but not really using many blues notes or blues chord progressions; or a bit like soul, but not really. There are hints of Latin there, but it’s not really Latin.

What it ends up being is an album of smooth, cool flowing music, with Rodriguez’s funky, streetwise tenor voice sauntering along, not so much spitting out its venom and malice at the world, and the women, who have done him wrong, but singing it, nonchalantly, just to show them, and you, that he has been fortified rather than bruised by the blows they have dealt him.

Cold Fact opens, though, not with rage, but with respect – albeit the somewhat sardonic respect for a drug dealer in ‘Sugar Man’, perhaps the most famous, and arguably the most unsettling, song on the album. It’s unsettling because it’s so smooth: a song that craves the “answer that makes my questions disappear”, a song where a snort of coke is one of the only real things in a world where hearts have “turned to dead black coal”, but a song, with its soft sway in its minor key, that finds a kind of dark contentment and rest in its own precarious, perilous life.

I’m not sure if he finds Sugar Man or not, or if Sugar Man gives him some bad drugs, but for the rest of the album Rodriguez is in a pretty bad mood. Whether it’s towards women, like in ‘Only Good for Conversation’ with barbed bluesy electric guitars, almost on the brink of rock, where he sledges “the coldest bitch I know”; and in the cruisy swing of ‘I wonder’, where he seems to already know the answer when he asks “I wonder how many times you had sex and I wonder do you know who’ll be next”; or whether it’s at the empty, heartless world of modern urban living, like in the monotone, rhythmic mantra, almost hip hop, of ‘This is not a song, it’s an outburst: or the Establishment Blues’, where he wryly observes “Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected/Politicians using, people they’re abusing/The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river/And you tell me that this is where it’s at”; and in the bitterly ironic ‘Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme)’, singing of “A story of pure hate/With pictures between/A tale for your kids/To help them to dream”, complete with children’s chorus.

These songs might take you through some of life’s and love’s darkest alleyways, but they do it an easy stroll because this is their home after all – a hated home, but a home nonetheless. And it’s a hatred fuelled not by the fire in their belly so much as by the ice in their veins. Maybe the music has grown out of the dislocated 60s, but they are not dislocated songs – rather, they are songs that know only too well how located they are. And it’s not in a good place.

And yet, to mosey through such bleak territory and to still keep its cool, maybe this music got the goods from Sugar Man after all. It’s music that sounds almost too good to be true – music that always has a bit of a smile on its face: it’s just that you’re never entirely sure what the smile means or where it comes from. Cold Fact is a very tempting, and very delicious dish – but just know that you eat it at your own risk.

Many overdue thanks to Lucas for the recommendation.

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