Happy Thanksgiving, turkeys!
This month I’m giving thanks and paying respect to my favorite bassists flying under-the-radar. Reference this handy guide at dinner when your drunk uncle starts talking politics so you can drop some bass knowledge and change the subject just long enough to plan your escape.
Though he’s mostly known for his vocal prowess and recording some of the most terrifying avant-garde music in recent history, former 60s teen idol (and Hamilton, Ohio native) Scott Walker is an absolute monster on the bass guitar.
The album credits are cryptic, but chances are that Scott, a former LA session player, brought the funk on “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” from 1969’s Scott 4. Here Walker channels his inner Carol Kaye over a baroque Ennio Morricone-meets-Lee Hazelwood string arrangement on what is perhaps the funkiest tune ever penned about Josef Stalin.
Whether he’s performing a musical reenactment of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, collaborating with Drone-Doom wizards Sunn O))), or making spooky music with fart sounds, there’s an argument to be made that the old man never left.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, just 38 miles from Scott Walker, the Pixies’ Kim Deal makes me think there might be something in the water down in Southwestern Ohio. Her propulsive eighth-note basslines drive the Pixies’ steam-engine indie rock, which takes the scenic route by way of her and drummer David Lovering’s idiosyncratic sense of timing. (Frank Black provides the hot air; in case you were wondering.) The way she anticipates the downbeat in the intro of “Bone Machine” only to flip the script during the verse is an example of the kind of subtle, deceptively simple playing that makes her one of my favorites. [See also: “Gigantic.”]
As if that weren’t enough, she’s a prolific songwriter, penning songs for the Pixies, the Breeders, the Amps, and under her own name.
Also, this video for “The Root” is the most Ohioian thing I’ve ever seen.
His intro to “Waiting Room” introduced Fugazi to the world, but Joe Lally spent most of his career outside the spotlight, tucked between an SVT 8x10 cabinet and Brendan Canty’s hi-hats.
Lally’s growling Music Man Stingray tone lays the foundation for Dub Reggae-inspired Post-Hardcore barnburners like “Margin Walker,” and his busy playing on “Repeater” wraps itself around Canty’s knotty drum pattern like a boa constrictor, but my favorite Joe Lally moments in the Fugazi discography are his lead vocal spots on the Red Medicine track “By You,” and “Recap Modotti,” from the End Hits album.
The latter is a subdued, dreamy take on the old Fugazi formula – another dub bassline is featured prominently, while the squalls of distorted guitars are replaced with timidly reverberating echoes, and Lally’s detached, deadpan vocal delivers a critique of American immigration policy (in 1998!) that’s more relevant than ever.
His music became more political (if you can imagine that) following Fugazi’s hiatus, as his solo albums There to Here, Nothing is Underrated, and Why Should I Get Used to It combine sparse, earthy arrangements with spoken word pieces and protest music to paint a murky picture of America in the years following the Great Recession.
In addition to his solo work, Lally is a frequent collaborator with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer. In 2004, the trio released an album called Automatic Writing under the name Ataxia. Lally also collaborated with Frodus’ Shelby Cinca on The Black Sea EP and full-length Disconnection_Imminent in the band Decahedron.
The most recent Grammy-Award winner on this list, Esperanza Spalding won’t be unsung for long. Her 2016 album Emily’s D+Evolution is a sprawling prog-jazz epic with hints of Parliament/Funkadelic and Prince sprinkled throughout, but Spalding’s voice is entirely her own.
Spalding’s Berklee School of Music chops are on display on the King Crimson by way of P-Funk track “Funk The Fear,” and her voice takes center stage on the folk-rock tune “Unconditional Love,” with a bassline recalling Jaco Pastorius’ stint in Joni Mitchell’s backing band.
She puts on a clinic on album opener “Good Lava,” piloting her fretless bass through some dense and choppy chord changes that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place on albums by the Jesus Lizard, or even mid-period Dillinger Escape Plan before sticking the landing onto a deep funk groove that ain’t nothin’ but nasty.
No matter the style - prog, jazz, blues, fusion, rock, whatever – Esperanza Spalding nails it and I can’t wait to hear what she does next. Her elevated chops and willingness to experiment with musical forms make her a force to be reckoned with.
You can lean more about Esperanza Spalding in her interview with She Shreds Magazine.
Liberation Music Orchestra (1970), the first album on which Ornette Coleman bassist Charlie Haden acts as bandleader, sits alongside Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain and John Coltrane’s Olé as one of the great Spanish-influenced Jazz albums of the 60s and 70s.
Inspired by the folk songs of the Spanish Civil War, this album features arrangements of three Spanish protest songs, two Charlie Haden compositions, and three songs by Carla Bey, who did most of the arranging.
There’s none of the harmolodic skronking you might expect from the pioneering free-jazz bassist who built the harmonic exoskeleton for much of Ornette Coleman’s work without the aid of a chordal instrument. Even at its wildest, the album’s centerpiece “El Quinto Regimiento / Los Cuatro Generales / Viva la Quince Brigada” stands on solid ground, anchored by alternating brass harmonies and melodic classical guitar lines.
Being an album of Spanish protest songs released at the height of the Vietnam war with a title like Liberation Music Orchestra, there’s no doubt this is political music. Though overshadowed in popular culture by Woodstock and the Summer of Love, Haden’s message resonated enough that in 1984 he performed with polemic San Pedro punk rockers the Minutemen, whose bassist Mike Watt names Haden as an influence.
Let me tell you about Mike Watt. Inspiring everything from the blues-scale runs of Rancid’s Matt Freeman, to Les Claypool’s slap-and-pop fretboard pyrotechnics, Mike Watt is the heart which pumps bass blood to the extremities of rock and roll.
Whether he’s playing melodic “lead” basslines on a song like “Joe McCarthy’s Ghost,” or laying down fractured, abstract slap-and-pop and/or fingerstyle lines, (just about any song on Double Nickels on the Dime) Mike Watt isn’t only playing deep in the pocket, he’s bursting at the seams. The musical telepathy within the Minutemen is as unrivaled as Watt’s barely contained exuberance - not a single note is wasted, and yet it sounds like the dude’s about to explode.
The second band to record for SST, (the first being Black Flag) Mike Watt and the Minutemen blew punk rock wide open, breaking all the rules only a few years after they’d been established. Despite drawing comparisons to Hüsker Dü, CCR, Steely Dan, Captain Beefheart, and Blue Öyster Cult, there isn’t a box large enough to contain the Minutemen, and their influence can be felt in every underground rock club and DIY performance space in America.
Oh, and they provided the theme music to MTV’s Jackass. The royalties were paid to the late Minutemen guitarist D. Boon’s father.
Jam Econo, friends.
Who's your favorite unsung bassist? Leave a comment and let us know!