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Higher Sources

By Marc Weidenbaum

Christopher Walken is dancing on Saturday Night Live. The date is May 19 of this year, the musical guest is the band Weezer, but it’s Christopher Walken doing the dancing. He’s been dancing on TV a lot lately, most often in a heavily rotated video promoting a song by Fatboy Slim, one of electronic music’s few stars. The song is “Weapon of Choice,” off last year’s album Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks). The video starts off silently with the Walken we know, the suicide poster-boy of The Deer Hunter, the spooky Middle American of Pulp Fiction: a gaunt figure, slumped over in a chair in a hotel lobby, nursing a hangover or waiting for an airport shuttle, or both.

As the music starts up, he wakes from his everyman slumber like an animated Disney character cast under a spell. He rises from the chair and proceeds to twirl and prance and, with the aid of a lightly disguised stuntman, cartwheel through the otherwise vacant lobby. At the video’s most fantastic moment, he dives from the second floor into the atrium, where he proceeds to hover in midair, as if Fred Astaire had happened upon the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundstage.

The “Weapon of Choice” video was directed by Spike Jonze, who provided the ’70s-TV setting for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” investigated the surreal details of Being John Malkovich and previously worked with Fatboy Slim on the video to his song “Praise You” — and, it’s worth noting, beamed Walken’s SNL costars, Weezer, back to the ’50s for their career-making “Buddy Holly” video.

Such transformations are Jonze’s trademark. The “Praise You” video, you might recall, featured Jonze himself, disguised in plain sight as the dorky leader of the “Torrance Community Dance Group,” whose awkward moves parodied and paid tribute to the choreographed ensembles that defined early MTV videos, as epitomized by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Transformations are also the trademark of Fatboy Slim (born Norman Cook), though he often works his magic with more obscure materials. Cook’s music is, like much electronica, the product of sampling. An early Cook single, “Going Out of My Head” (off Better Living Through Chemistry, 1996) was built largely on the Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” although Cook minimized royalty issues by accessing a cover version of the song by Yvonne Elliman. “Praise You” (off You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, 1998) featured a bit of vocal by the unfamiliar folk singer Camille Yarbrough. Her earnest, half-spoken lyric no doubt inspired the nonprofit vibe of Jonze’s video.

How Jonze and Cook moved from the funk of “Weapon of Choice” to depicting Christopher Walken as a high-stepping dandy is their business, but the result is magical. And seeing Walken on SNL depicts just how powerful that magic is. What we see on SNL is an unfamiliar version/vision of Walken. It’s Walken transformed in the public consciousness by the video image; think of how a generation reared in the wake of Star Wars knew Alec Guinness not as a comic actor in his autumn years, but as the solemn Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Dancing on SNL, in front of an audience, Walken is a sample made flesh. In the video he floats in the lobby, like a sampled musical element in stereospace: a riff suspended in a new musical realm. On SNL, released from the Jonze/Fatboy lab, Walken still carries the odor of their delightful conceit. Cook’s Fatboy tunes are nothing without their source material, but such dependence doesn’t diminish Cook’s unique transformative powers.

A new album, A Break From the Norm (Restless), collects 15 songs that Cook has uploaded into his hard drive. It starts with Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise,” which features spare drums and bass (no, not drum ‘n’ bass) instead of Cook’s big beat. Elliman’s “I Can’t Explain,” heard here, sounds more distinct (think Pat Benatar) from the Who’s. Also in cover mode, Ellen McIlwaine intones Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and shares Yarbrough’s proto-Ani DiFranco feel. Other Fatboy favorites with sources exposed are “The Rockafeller Skank” (lifted from the John Barry Seven) and “Ya Mama” (two sources: Doug Lazy and Colosseum).

Hearing these samples in their original settings is enlightening and anticlimactic. The history lesson is more ambiguous than the one made in, say, Led Zeppelin’s Sources of Inspiration, a collection of the blues songs that “inspired” the classic-rock band, which reminds us that the juice ran down someone else’s leg before it pooled in Robert Plant’s cuffs. Listening to the material that inspired Cook brings to mind Rumpelstiltskin’s skills; if anything, the record affirms Cook’s powers.

A new boxed set sheds considerably more light on the habits of the Prince of Darkness, the late trumpeter Miles Davis. The box presents the ambient jazz of In a Silent Way, plus two CDs of contemporaneous recordings. Taped in the last two years of the ’60s, this music shows how Davis folded rock into jazz. What’s often emphasized about that transition is Davis’ flirtation with a strong beat. But the breakthrough implicit in In a Silent Way was rock’s studio process (in contrast with straight live-in-the-studio recordings). The album’s producer, Teo Macero, edited tapes recorded by Davis and his band, which included three electric keyboards. Bob Belden’s liner notes to The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Columbia/Legacy) explain how Macero whittled down improvisations to make a controlled impression. In his Davis biography, author Ian Carr quotes Macero on why he made copies of the tapes before proceeding with the edits: “So whoever doesn’t like what I did, 20 years from now they can go back and redo it.”

Macero’s spirit informs much of today’s music, though bands are likely to not even wait until their albums are released before handing them over to remixers. String Cheese Incident is one of the leading jam bands, a bluegrass analogue to Les Claypool’s hard rock and Dave Matthews’ pop. They provided studio tapes to DJ Harry and the result is The String Cheese Remix Project (Instinct), a love letter straight from techno’s hippie heart. The album is a strange beast; hearing the heavy beat of rave music with a mandolin in place of a synthesizer is like seeing a car made out of straw, or a spaceship built from dandelions.

String Cheese isn’t alone in this cross-fertile territory. Billy Martin, drummer for Medeski Martin & Wood, has released Groove, Bang and Jive Around on his Amulet label (credited to “illy B,” perhaps inspired by the pig Latin habits of MP3 traders). It’s a breakbeat album, 13 tracks of sample-ready drum patterns, lightly augmented with effects. Martin says he plans to release a subsequent album of songs that make use of his raw material.

Martin should heed Morricone Rmx (CineSoundz/Reprise), 13 pedestrian remixes of Ennio Morricone soundtracks. The source material is prime-Morricone, a fabulist, mixed melodica and electric guitar into his orchestras — as are the contributors, who include Nightmares on Wax and Thievery Corporation. But there isn’t much here that lends insight or excitement to the original.

It seems like only yesterday that sampling was a cultural scourge, assailed in newspaper editorials by people to whom the phrase “Public Enemy” meant a James Cagney movie. Today, source material is becoming a thoughtful component of album-release schedules. National Public Radio has debuted a CD of songs from which it culled the interludes that roll between story segments. Generally speaking, these interludes consist of a given song’s “money shot,” the most intoxicating moment. What’s left for the listener to decide is whether the parcel is as enticing as the part.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, August 2001.

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