Miles Davis - On The Corner
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
In film class a few weeks ago we watched Pulp Fiction, and it was sort of a strange experience. On one hand, I was semi-confounded by the fact that the post-film discussion (granted, though, it was the end of the semester) tended, on the intellectual vane, towards the oh-my-god-it-was-his-soul-in-the-briefcase variety, but that could be understandable given the encyclopedic aspect of the film's attitudes towards pop culture, especially of the mid-90s Speed-Racer-T-shirt kitsch variety; it is this that made for the second somewhat goofy aspect of watching the film: it's become a kitsch object in itself. For me—and, perhaps, our nation, if we're going to think in political terms that involve the by-now-ubiquitous turn of phrase "post-September 11"—it's also become part of a more innocent time. I remember watching the film for the first time, being a sophomore in high school or so, thinking many things about it were absolutely criticism-defying, that what remains today a nonetheless intense, entertaining film (if, by my standards, a hollow and sort of smug one) was the absolute pinnacle of cinema. For my own sake, we'll not get into what my musical tastes ran towards at this time in my life.
So it was a bit odd to think of a film so obsessed with the past as a fragment of my own past, just as it is to think that the seventies as a decade have now remained popular for longer than they actually lasted. With the clarity of the present, though, I can't help but feel that our devotion to seventies kitsch—remember wearing a wide-collared shirt to high school on picture day; remember making jokes about Scooby-Doo being a collective drug-induced hallucination of the Mystery Machine gang; remember jokingly buying 8-tracks, which went unlistened? Well, I do—seems hopelessly dilettantish when compared to the essence which we've sought to grasp. Look no further than the case of funk music, once kitschily sampled (these days, much less often, and then only by sub-Crystal-Method dance acts, unless we consider the considerably more amusing and witty appropriation of 1979 French-porn-disco / airbrushed-Nik-Nik-shirt ambiance by, say, Bassment Jaxx) and flogged to death by lifeless, patronizing college-town groove bands. It's especially this watery, dim Afro-wig approximation of funk—to pummel a weak target for a moment—that seems like a tenth-generation Xerox of a faintly remembered source.
Of course, funk music, especially of the Parliament variety, enjoyed a renaissance in the popular consciousness roughly around the time of Pulp Fiction, sampled by West Coast rap artists. Rap has moved into a new corridor of yester-morrow marked by the hybridization of eighties electro and modern electronic influences, but it's sure to come back to the funk idiom, even if it means re-sampling the likes of Warren G. However—unless a hip-hop equivalent of Pere Ubu or The Fall comes about—Miles Davis' funk classic, On The Corner, is unlikely to be sampled.
Actually, now that I think about it, I did sample from this album once, at my "band"'s sole, baffling live show in a downtown Baptist church on the day before Thanksgiving, 1998. My friend and I ran a loop of "Black Satin"—a song that's abrasive and controversial enough on its own, through anSP-202and a borrowed guitar amp, adding enough noise from outside sources (a semi-broken Casio, two extremely cheap turntables) to keep the audience, who were, hindsight reveals, more into pop-punk bands than twenty-minute noise-hop assaults, crowded near the exits.
There are eight tracks on this album, but it is essentially two glosses, each on a theme. Roiling percussion patterns (including some maddening, out-of-place sitars and bells) and dense guitar-and-keyboard figures dominate minimal basslines. If one were to shove all this chaos toward the back of the mix, as Bill Laswell did somewhat disappointingly a few years back (on a somewhat underwhelming remix CD that nevertheless remains an excellent introduction to Davis' electric phase, maligned as ahead-scratching case of drug-induced-burn-out/sell-out—ironic, surely, for such feverishly passionate [witness the copious output of Miles' 70s band, bewilderingly non-commercial music—until the past decade), one might end up with something akin to dub, but the disorienting effects produced by this music are at times far more potent.
Loops create friction, offset against each other; in the midst of the dense rhythmic undertow an occasional phrase leaps out, provided by a keyboard or Miles' trumpet playing, which, though at times obscured by effects, remains economical and haunting as it does on "Sketches of Spain". It's moments like these—even the minimal organ-sitar-and-percussion coda of the album's first side, "On The Corner"—in which the listener seems to grasp the design behind this fierce, complex music. It is said that Miles chose to release this album free of credits so that separate instruments couldn't be identified by listeners; in this sense, On The Corner could be seen, in retrospect, as pointing towards a new, brash jazz esthetic that de-emphasizes the individual soloist (a source of pleasure to traditionalist white listeners, who, in his autobiography, Davis said he couldn't have cared less about alienating at this time) and points towards the collective: at times harshly minimal, at others expansive and dense, it upset quite a few people. You could call it punk.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01