Album review: Marvin Pontiac – Greatest Hits (Northern Spy)

A sonic gem now available on vinyl

The story goes that ‘The legendary Marvin Pontiac’ was born in 1932 to a Malian father and a white Jewish mother and moved to Bamako, Mali after his mother was institutionalised when he was four. At fifteen he went to Chicago and became a blues harmonica player, but after being humiliated by Little Walter he fled to Lubbock, Texas to become a plumber’s assistant. At least that’s what it says in the sleeve notes to an album that has only the foggiest pictures of the artist alongside quotes from some unusual sources including David Bowie’s “A dazzling collection! It strikes me that Pontiac was so uncontainably prescient that one might think that these tracks had been assembled today.” And Iggy Pop’s “Marvin would kick your ass for nothing. A true genius, Marvin was a pure original.”. There’s only one clue to the real origin of this music and that’s the qutoe “This record changed my life” by John Lurie.

Lurie was the leader of New York jazz ensemble the Lounge Lizards in the eighties and nineties and made his name as an actor and composer of film and TV scores, more recently he has done a Beefheart and sticks to painting. On Greatest Hits it’s his rich, deep voice that takes centre stage as he sings often wacky songs about there being too many molecules to see on TV, and a lovely girl who seemed perfect except she didn’t make him pancakes. The main appeal of the album is the music which is performed by a who’s who of the New York scene in the late nineties – the album was originally released in 1999. Key figures include guitarist Marc Ribot (John Zorn, Tom Waits), keyboard player John Medeski (Medeski, Martin and Wood, John Zorn) and singer Angelique Kidjo, who is also quoted with one of the backing vocal lyrics “Marvin is good”.

The music is a mix of jazz, blues and funk in an imaginative but ultimately fairly straightforward arrangement, despite the avant garde tendencies of many of the musicians there’s not an art noise in sight. Opener I’m A Doggy features ‘Pontiac’ playing rasping blues harp over Medeski’s organ and piano to great effect. A gaggle of backing vocalists turn up on a few tracks including Small Car with its reference to “Armadillos, just like the ones in Switzerland” in a quaint story of mild adventure. Once you have got used the lyrics its possible to appreciate what the various instruments are doing, of which there are often quite a few, 11 in one case and that’s not counting the singers. The cogency with which they play makes it sound as if the pieces were scored and recorded live, the way they slot together is fabulous yet the music has an energy to it that is hard to achieve in a multitracked production.

Greatest Hits was originally released solely on CD and disappeared not long after, Lurie’s choice of an alter ego combined with his own relative obscurity meaning it failed to find an audience. But Northern Spy have put it out on vinyl, CD and download so that more of us can enjoy this artfully produced gem, I sincerely hope it does better this time around.

Jason Kennedy

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