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Ashes to Ashes

The flickering flame of a beach campfire, the dull orange at the end of an urban cigarette – both stand as synecdoche to our own timed ends, if one would read it that way. The kids still listening to Rage Against the Machine might vibe the heaviness behind a grainy b&w of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk mid-auto da fe (who got licensing for that shirt, anyway?) but otherwise, immolation is low on the radar these days. Still, it lingers on the edges of our consciousness, occasionally surfacing in disturbing reminders (i.e., Moussaui's rendition of "Burn in the USA").

“Ashes and Dust” locates a post-breakdown Lee Perry at Channel One, not so much rising from his recently-burned Black Ark studio as sifting through the cinders. “Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is ashes and dust,” the chant begins, expanding into a paranoiac’s bad dream about conspiracies both high and low, leavened with its fair share of pointed humor: “I don’ wan’ be baldhead like Bob Marley.” All this on top of a dub of Augustus Pablo’s infectious “Vibrate On,” made more ominous by dissociated outbursts from other Perry productions (the spoken-word intro to “Water More Than Flour” gaining a particularly surreal edge in its new context).

Scott Walker’s luridly lush 4 holds more smoldering gems than any other release in his back catalog. “Boy Child,” which I’m not posting, has to be the best song of 1969 that doesn’t sound like 1969 (please, soulseek 1 through 3, but this album is worth every import penny). Taking some time off from his Jacques Brel worship, “Angels of Ashes” hitches its train to Leonard Cohen’s tin star, easily fitting with that troubadour’s “Sisters of Mercy.” Singing that “the angels of ashes will give back your passions again … and again,” Walker’s battlefield of love (apologies to Benatar) takes on poignantly cosmic overtones. Phoenix-like, the lover renews himself from romantic disappointment, only to perish in another, suffering both the burden of failing agape’s high standards and the shame of settling for mere eros. Walker insightfully imagines a middle way -- “There’s no starting or stopping where there is no right or no wrong” -- that is to say, devoid of genuine standards, one has no honest choice but to wander, practicing discernment while suspending judgment (“If your humbleness shows, then I’m sure that they’ll take you along”). There is no coming in under the shadow of any steadfast Rock here (sorry, Eliot). A handful of dust is ultimately just that, and nothing more (forget the early 90’s New Zealand free noise band – I have). Even the religious threat shrivels from this light, where there is nothing to fear more than fear itself.


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