If you look around, there are some pretty good stocking stuffer CDs off the beaten track—especially if you’re a fan of strong spoken word and exquisite poetry.
For instance, Rasta bard David Daniels, who consistently packs the house with his performance scripts (Malcolm X Meets Peter Tosh, Black Hippie Chronicles and I, Edgar Hoover) has a pair of impressive discs, Talkin’ Roots and 4:20 Report (buy both and keep one for yourself). Daniels’s extensive body of work resonates, sometimes thunderously, from a maverick spirit calling society to account for its political and social integrity—or lack thereof. Talkin’ Roots, which sold out two printings (hit used-record shops for this one), offers fine prose-poetry delivered in a range that goes from the serene (“David Crosby on the Radio”) to stormy (“Dreams”). 4:20 Report is actually one full-length work, what used to be called a concept album. The concept is a news broadcast including commentary and coverage of a day’s events—not with your conventional TV or radio standards of practice, but from, as it were, stoner-land. The album is laced with tongue-in-cheek reference to the hemp aesthetic, but don’t take it as a joke. Artfully crafted, 4:20 Report slyly reminds you that the character and content of news media is directly related to the sensibilities of those in charge.
Chris Shillock had me worried for a while. I would catch this incredibly gifted cat reading his poetry at a hole in the wall here, at an out-of-the-way place there, and I fretted: Man, I’d think, it oughta be against the law for a poet this hellified not to reach the public at large. I now can sleep nights. Shillock isn’t doing The Tonight Show, but he has stepped in from obscurity with Invisible Jazz, sharing center stage with vocalist-composer Tabatha Predovich. The release event was a sure-fire attention getter. Held at Bedlam Theatre with prominent wordsmith-performers Sha Cage and e.g. bailey on the bill, the evening even rewarded Shillock with a nice taste of mainstream exposure in City Pages. Invisible Jazz finds Shillock and Predovich in superb complement, his pensive, baritone narrative and her sardonic way with a melody blending as naturally as can be. The dark edge they have together is beautifully intriguing. And the album has a nice range of different feelings: with a little Marty Balin-Paul Kantner style on “Ballade,” tangy jazz for “Invisible Jazz,” and the downright eerie ballad “Blue Nile,” the disc is just a fine piece of work.
Shillock also appears on the compilation Streets of Minneapolis with poets Scott Vetch and Larry Havluck and singer-songwriter LeNor Barry, recorded live at the now-defunct spoken word spot Surcumcorda. Shillock’s selection, performed with Colleen and Ed Jirak, is “Testament of Fear.” The overall feel of Streets of Minneapolis is so beatnik that Maynard G. Krebs would be right at home.
I’m throwing in Sha Cage and Dessa as ringers. After all, you can’t call either one anything close to off the beaten track, not with the crowds they consistently draw, but they’re so good, you wonder why they aren’t even more widely known. Each takes her artform—Cage spoken word, Dessa hip-hop—and makes it her own. Cage made quite a few people very happy back in May with her long-awaited Amber People. The piece “My Words” is a dry lament that demands social change—railing against everything from racism to homophobia to abortion to senseless war—in a way that renders done-to-death social issues vital with immediacy. You can also catch Sha Cage, by the way, on monster jazz bassist Yohannes Tona’s brand new Sand From the Desert. Finally, even if you can’t stand hip-hop, there is no resisting Dessa. A siren in every sense of the word, she laces the EP False Hopes from beginning to end with fascinating poetry and alluring song. When she raps, it’s laid-back and wry (“Mineshaft”). When she sings (“Kites”), it’s so sensual you can find yourself forgetting to breathe.
Really want to make a hit with somebody? Splurge and get them the whole shooting match, from David Daniels to Dessa. Then, make sure you have something very good in mind when they say, “Oh, how can I thank you?”