By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Although we sometimes pretend otherwise, most music journalists outside of New York or Los Angeles conduct interviews with national artists over the telephone. A bad connection can play havoc with conversations, as can problems with the equipment reporters use to preserve a performer's wisdom--or lack thereof. (My gear consists of a bottom-of-the-line Radio Shack cassette player and a flimsy suction-cup microphone that attaches to the earpiece of my phone's receiver.) And then there are the quirks of the individuals being quizzed. As an example, consider my chat several years back with Ziggy Marley, which was all but unintelligible because of a static-filled transmission (he was in Jamaica), Marley's Caribbean accent, and his decision to answer questions while chewing an unbelievably crunchy entree. When he said to me, "Yeah, man, the power is in the music, and the music will foment a revolution, understand?" what it actually sounded like was, "Yeh, mon--GRIND! GRIND!--da pow-er is in da mu-sic--GULP! CHOMP! GULP!--and da mu-sic will foment a revo-lu-tion--RIIIIIIIIIIIP!--unnerston'?"
But even this transcription nightmare cannot compare to the time I spent talking with Black. None of the blame could be left at AT&T's door (although Black was in England, his voice came through loud and clear), and my recorder and microphone weren't at fault, either; they functioned up to specifications. The rub was Black's voice--a Scottish brogue so impenetrable that, for the first portion of our interchange, I understood only around 30 percent of his words. Guttural syllables flew at me like shrapnel, and in the span it took me to reassemble his briefest sentence, two more had flown past me. In desperation, I asked him to slow down his speech for a while, but that only made matters worse: He executed so nasal an impression of me that my lame explanation for my tone--I was suffering from a cold--seemed even emptier to me than it no doubt did to him. Confusion reigned supreme. When he asked, "You liked our record, then?" (actually, he asked, "Yeeew lacked rrrrr reckert, thin?"), I failed to respond, because I had no idea what he had said. When he told me that he was a fan of Monte Hellman, director of the 1971 cult movie Two-Lane Blacktop, I thought he was singing the praises of Lillian Hellman. And so on.
In listening back to my tape thirty or forty times, however, I made a couple of interesting discoveries. As it turns out, Black is a bright, articulate fellow, and he knows more about popular culture in these United States than do many natives. The name of his band--A3 is short for Alabama 3--wasn't chosen at random: Black, who's in his late thirties, is fascinated by the place we call home, and the manner in which he filters this affinity through electronic music makes his group one of the more idiosyncratic ensembles making the rounds. And in a scene as bland as this one, that's a very good thing.
A3 has been described as a techno band, but on the two-CD set Exile on Coldharbour Lane (on Geffen Records), Black and his goofily monikered co-conspirators (vocalist Larry Love, harmonicat Mountain of Love, guitarist Mississippi Guitar Love, percussionist Sir Real "Congaman" Love, drummer L.B. Dope and keyboardist Spirit) sound like no techno band you've ever heard. For one thing, the album is filled with actual songs with actual verses, choruses, bridges and lyrics, delivered mainly by the quite understandable Larry. For another, the tunes draw upon sources unknown to most dance mavens--namely blues, rockabilly, gospel and country. John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" is covered, and acts sampled include Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Burnette & the Rock 'N Roll Trio and the Reverend Charles Jackson. Of course, A3's work isn't roots music in the common sense of the term; the prevalence of synthesizers and other gadgetry ensures that. Moreover, selections such as "U Don't Dans 2 Tekno Anymore," a modified C&W stomp delivered with the most comical of Southern accents, can seem sneering and snotty--a novelty put-down--if you're in the wrong mood. But what saves Exile from its own excess is the obvious delight these lunatics take in putting Americana to their own subversive purposes. "Bourgeoisie Blues," which employs a gospel choir to defend old-school socialism, and "Ain't Goin' to Goa," described by a narrator as "sweet, pretty, country, acid-house music," are charmingly daft offerings that brim with equal measures of ridicule and warmth.
Thanks to some strenuous translation, I learned that this balance was one Black intended to strike. "We send up a lot of the economic and political imperialism of the States," he said, more or less. "And our song 'Hypo Full of Love' is a basic satire on the Moral Majority and the pompous attitude that you can change people's lives by taking their money from them. But at the same time, we're completely immersed in American culture. Everyone in Britain is. Britain is America. All the countries of Europe are satellites of America. There isn't any real sort of culture that we can call our own anymore. Everything is from America--everything of importance in pop culture, anyway. We are saturated with America, and that's all there is to it."