The Good Foot

A survey of recent roots, funk, R&B and surf releases

Tell 'em We're Surfing
A Washington Post writer whose name I didn't catch was on National Public Radio the other morning talking about hip hype--the inflation of cool. He said one litmus test of with-it-ness was your stand on the Marsalis brothers; time was when Wynton would have been the cooler one, he said, but today it's probably Branford, for the same reason he wouldn't have been before--his mainstream network TV exposure on The Tonight Show. "Now, in the Quentin Tarantino age," he said, "pop is cool."

When I was little, surf music was cracking the Top 40 charts and I'd whack away at my cousin's drum kit in a den far from the sea, trying to replicate the drum solo on "Wipe Out." Then Jimi Hendrix came and went, and things settled down--until now, in the Tarantino age, when culture's in a blender set on high, and surf music is happening all over again. You can tell it's a bona fide movement because Rhino Records, those surfers of hip, has cannily assembled Cowabunga!, a retrospective that surveys the genre from Dick Dale to the present.

Hoosier neobilly Junior Brown does the same a lot quicker, recapitulating the history of breakin' boards in just seven minutes on his new album Semi Crazy (Curb). With his strange but sweet double-necked guit-steel, Junior plucks and riffles through "Pipeline," "Walk Don't Run" and "Secret Agent Man" in a way that makes them cleaner than most contemporary combos can manage. He's got a fine, sturdy bass voice, but his "Surf Medley" clinches it: His instrumentals are better. They're free of ironic hokum, for one thing, and freshened by the same Appalachian sagacity Joe Maphis once possessed. Part of surf's appeal is that almost any kid can do it if she or he puts in the practice. But not all guitarists are created equal, and if you play until your fingers bleed, you may not get more than note-perfect recitation and bloody fingers. Junior brings something besides awesome technique to the party. His sense of humor may not wear well--novelty songs seldom do--but when he shuts his mouth, you can hear someone's kinfolks play. Granted, it's hard to discuss integrity and "Secret Agent Man" on the same page, but Junior's stew is no synthetic movement: It's plumb hillbilly cool.

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