Eugene Weekly : Music : 3.8.07

Too $hort Not Too Bad
Shaw’s persona on display

The Too $hort story is the embodiment of the American capitalist dream. He constructed one of the earliest blueprints for success in the hip hop industry, which has since been emulated by countless mainstream and underground rappers both on the West Coast and also down South. In fact, this godfather of Bay Area hip hop trailblazed a distinct path for the dirty South’s crunk music as well as the Bay Area’s current zeitgeist, the hyphy movement.

Too $hort, Luni Coleone and Cool Nutz, Maniac Lok and DJ Chill, Kane, Cousin Fik, Mr D.O.G., Chris Ray. 7 pm Wednesday, 3/14 • Taboo. $20 adv, $25 door • 21+ show.

But at the core of Too $hort’s success story is a library of 16 albums, all of which tell some of the most lewd and misogynistic tales ever committed to tape. To shed some light on this controversial oeuvre, and to begin to glean an understanding of the successes of Todd Shaw (aka Too $hort) one must first differentiate between the two personalities. Shaw, now a month short of turning 41 years old, started his rap career in Oakland, Calif., where he nurtured the Too $hort persona through through 20 years of diligent hustling and shrewd self-management. A consummate businessman, Shaw, with the help of his high school buddy Freddie B, jumpstarted his rap career by crafting customized raps for anyone who would pay a small fee. Eventually, Shaw drafted the Too $hort character, a lascivious, no-nonsense pimp, and began recording his tawdry tales and peddling these mixtapes out of the trunk of his car. Through it all, according to Shaw, the $hort Dog has always been just a character.

“I don’t think there’s one popular rapper who describes grimy things and goes home and does grimy things,” Shaw says. “It’s just like watching a gangster movie — it’s entertainment and people want to hear about it. It is explicit entertainment and we love it.”

Looking back on his 16 albums, most of which ended up going either gold or platinum, Shaw feels that his career has tapped into an indomitable market for sex and violence which predates the birth of hip hop by thousands of years.

“It’s all human nature. Back in the day, people wanted to go to the orgies, and in the Roman days, people would go to the coliseum to see lions eat people,” he says with fervent conviction. “Sex and violence is really entertaining to people; you can’t escape it. I just choose not to tap into the violence — that’s not the world I want to portray.”

And while he says he’s made a living off the Too $hort character, at the end of the business day, he says he’s Todd Shaw again, and Too $hort is laid to rest until resurrected on another album.



All of the Joy, None of the Jesus
Susan Werner sings a different kind of gospel

What if you love gospel but aren’t into Jesus? Susan Werner’s got your back.

Susan Werner. 7 pm Friday, March 9. Luna • $14.50 adv., $16 door.

“I got a roof over my head; what do I do?” sings Werner in her second song on her new album, The Gospel Truth. A gospel choir echoes her: “What do I do?” The call and response ends with Werner saying, “I go out and help somebody get a roof over their head, too.” Not that Werner’s a believer, despite her background: She grew up Catholic in a rural area near Dubuque, Iowa, and majored in opera vocal performance at the University of Iowa. Werner moved east, became a singer-songwriter and wowed the folk circuits with her classically trained voice and songs that ranged from heartbreak to sweet relief. But she returned to the Midwest and eventually drifted away from folk with 2004’s charming, lively album of “new standards,” a Cole Porter-ish appreciation of the Great American Songbook showcasing original pieces by Werner. Now, she’s changed styles again.

“It’s like language immersion,” Werner says. “I’ll immerse myself in the music for several months, and it will show up in songs that bear the markings of that genre.” This genre began when she happened into the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, and then she started “doing her homework” — attending churches all over the country to hear the music, listening to Hazel Dickens and Ralph Stanley and the Bluegrass Cardinals. And much of the music on the new album shows off her new language skills, ones that don’t come with a concomitant belief system.

In the rollicking banjo-holler piece “Our Father (The New, Revised Edition),” her trademark humor comes into play when she sings about preachers “with narrow minds and wide lapels.” And in the gentle call-and-response of “Probably Not,” which she likes to call her “gnostic gospel song,” Werner sings, “Is there a god above? Is there eternal love?” and the gospel choir joyfully responds, “Probably not!”

Will the audience play the choir in Werner’s Eugene show? “Yeah! It’s too much fun,” she says. “If there weren’t humor in this, I couldn’t do it, and it wouldn’t be worth doing. We don’t need more sermonizing on these topics; we really don’t.”

On the other hand, Werner’s not averse to pushing certain ideas, as in “Help Somebody” and the final track, “Together.” She explains that figuring out what to keep from a religious upbringing is “like going through your late parents’ things.” For people who grew up in conservative religious traditions but aren’t conservative now, Werner says, “It’s been as if we’ve had to drive off beyond the horizon and never look back, call all of it ignorant, medieval and backwards. But there are parts of it that I do want to claim now. It’s important to be of service to community and other people.” She mentions Bruce Springsteen championing the working class and Rosie O’Donnell working for children as other recovering Catholics who believe in taking action and doing good work without religious backing.

Gospel Truth is most successful when Werner’s music reflects her immersion and her words simply state her own beliefs. “This is a project that’s safe for agnostics to listen to,” Werner says. “The music is about hope, positive anticipation. … My life has a meaning and a purpose, my life is of use to others, and I want it to be so. But I don’t have to resort to God or Jesus to get there.”



Eclectic Reggae From Local Legend
Norma Fraser celebrates release of new CD

There’s a reggae revival going on, and our own Norma Fraser is at the forefront. Fraser is celebrating the release of her new CD, and because she was a pioneer of Studio One’s early reggae sound, there’s a resurgence of interest in her past work. She’s writing jingles, licensing her music and booking shows throughout Jamaica, Japan, Turkey, Portugal and Croatia.

Norma Fraser CD release show. 9:30 pm Saturday, 3/10. Sam Bond’s • $5 • 21+ show.

Fraser titled her CD One More Chance for a few reasons. She strayed from her usual rootsy reggae just a bit on this recording, producing a sound that’s more eclectic. “I wanted to show people that there are different sides to me,” says the Jamaican-born Fraser, who recorded with Bob Marley and many other reggae legends. “This may be the last chance to hear me in this format.” It’s also a message to politicians that we may have only one more chance to make a difference in our world. “The opening track, ‘Sinking Ship,’ that’s my message to tell the people, ‘Hey, take care of each other, let’s love each other or if you don’t, your ship is going down,” she says.

“Dreams Come True,” which also happens to be the name of Fraser’s publishing company, is a smooth, soulful ballad. Fraser wrote it in 1972, but it sounds more like a ’50s love song. The next song, “Slow Hand,” has a driving, funky beat that would definitely set the dance floor on fire.

“There’s a song called ‘Japaica.’ I play the keyboards on that,” says Fraser. “I’m very, very popular in Japan. I go there every year to perform and they love me so much they call me a ‘Japaican,’ so this is my tribute to them.” The instrumental recalls the music of pre-toaster dancehall.

Why this foreign reggae resurgence? “They’ve embraced Rastafarianism,” says Fraser, “and because they’ve embraced Bob Marley and his philosophy, they’ve also embraced Studio One.”

Fraser is booking tours for this year, including Italy in October, Portugal in July and Jamaica in July to celebrate Studio One’s 54th anniversary. The singer who was once ambivalent about the music biz has found that it’s a lot easier to handle the fame now that she’s more experienced.

“I’m picking quality things to do because I could be busy every day, but I don’t want to do that anymore. I can do my own management now, and I’m negotiating my own terms. That makes me feel good.”



Don’t Judge an Album by Its Cover

Walking through rows upon rows of CD racks, you stop at the letter S. S is a good letter; lots of bands in that category. Toward the back is an album with the band’s name placed discreetly in the lower left corner. It’s an earthy album cover, full of rich sunlight, overgrown foliage and tall, slender trees. But before you pass the band off as another indie-folk duo, consider what’s happening on the inside.

The Swallows

Me With Trees Towering is The Swallows‘ first full-length album, released on Cherchez La Femme Projects. On it the Portland-based duo melds a little of every type of rock: indie, surf, riot grrrl, punk and even in places some pop punk. Em Brownlowe (vocals, guitar, keys) and Jon Miller’s (drums, melodic) 12 track album begins with a slow but steady drum beat that compels your head to nod along with it. By mid-album the tempo has changed and the mood has changed. Miller, who got his first drum set in the 6th grade, picks up the pace to stay in time with the surf-rock organ. As Miller screams in the background mid-song, The Swallows recall the ska-rock band The Gadgets. By the last track, “The Lonesome Cowboy,” the duo is fusing blues and indie rock. While the song begins moody with help from a slide guitar, halfway through the band uses thumping kick drums and heavy electric guitar to create the kind of suspense-building found in so many emo songs. Fortunately, there are no whiny prepubescent vocals here. The Swallows play with The Ol’ Howl and Smash and others at 8 pm Saturday, March 10 at Shady Pines, 552 W. Broadway. — Amanda Burhop

Spaced Out

Psychedelia never died — it just went global and high-tech. Bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9 have taken the colorful, trippy mid-’60s vibe and enhanced it with modern influences, particularly electronica and music from other cultures. This Friday, one of the most far-ranging neo-psychedelic ensembles, Boston-based Enuma Elish (Enuma Elish is a Sumerian creation myth), plays the UO, supplying a live soundtrack to the 1973 animated cult film Fantastic Planet. It should be a visual and aural trip.

In college, the band’s woodwind wizard, Warren Jones, studied jazz and then ethnomusicology, and he traveled and recorded musicians in Morocco, India, Egypt, China, Spain and others. His co-conspirator, percussionist Yuri Zbitnoff, played in various rock and improv bands. They bring all those influences to bear in Enuma Elish, Zbitnoff using the drums to trigger loops from their field recordings and other electronic and acoustic sources while Jones blows freely on various wind instruments. The sound evokes fusion jazz like Weather Report and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew period or prog rockers like Can and Soft Machine but with a percussive, Eastern tinge — Sun Ra meets Aphex Twin, in Casablanca.

The music, drawn from their two CDs and new work, should provide an apt score for a movie with a plot that involves the liberation of far future humans from alien enslavement via direct transmission of knowledge into the renegades’ brains. Fans of progressive jazz, world music and trippy sounds and visions should find liberation from musical boundaries. Enuma Elish plays at 7 pm Friday, March 9 in 100 Willamette, UO. Free. — Brett Campbell


Operation Good Times

Smile Brigade
The Fast Computers

Have you ever been to a show and thought the lineup didn’t make any sense? Or maybe you were just so eager to see the headlining band that the others seemed bothersome. There’s no denying that some shows (not to name names, but the Maria Taylor show; what was going on, seriously?) are better than others. That said, Luckey’s offers Eugene a solid night Saturday, lining up one hell of an indie rock show that’s guaranteed to induce perfectly timed claps.

Seattle-based Smile Brigade is the result of two years’ devotion to song writing and rehearsals. Geared towards pop tendencies, the band ranges from cutesy acoustic songs to full-force distorted rock. The one thing consistent in each of their songs is J. Hiram Bogg’s grizzly-yet-quiet vocals. According to the band bio, “They gave in to early influences and pop song tendencies for a sound that’s catchy and melodic with dark undertones and has more hooks than a fisherman’s tackle box.”

Pat Kearns of Blue Skies for Black Hearts has a lot to write about. In the midst of writing songs for his first album, he was dealing with two sorts of breakups: one with his girlfriend and the other with a bandmate. The painful, albeit mysterious, breakups resulted in the Portland band’s first album, Love is Not Enough, where Kearns throws out lines like “When your heart breaks it makes no sound.” While I’d never wish a breakup on anyone, I’m glad he used music as a cathartic vehicle.

And of course there’s The Fast Computers. You know them, you love them. Well, I do, even though their songs sometimes remind me of that scene in Silence of the Lambs where the creepy dude dances for the camera. Gross. Smile Brigade, Blue Skies for Black Hearts and The Fast Computers play at 10 pm Saturday, March 10 at Luckey’s. 21+ show. $3-$5. — Amanda Burhop