Three for A King

Let me recommend three records that can help you celebrate the life work and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers (upper square, lower right)

This four-disk, Pulitzer Prize-winning set looks back at the titular time period and ahead to the massive work we still have to do. In 19 pieces composed across 35 years, trumpeter Smith, his celebrated Golden Quartet, and Southwest Chamber Music tap into the danger, gravity, turbulence, and intensity and purity of focus that defined the Civil Rights Movement. Almost five hours in length, the set is never less than absorbing. Special props to the dual drummers of the Quartet: Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra.

Click here to sample an excerpt of the composition “Martin Luther King, Jr: Memphis, the Prophecy,” the set’s coda.

Joe McPhee / John Butcher: At the Hill of James Magee (upper square, lower left)

Two hornmen dialogue about oppression, freedom and resistance in the Chihuahuan Desert, at the site of Magee’s mysterious sculpture near Cornudas, Texas. The recording has the character of a religious service and includes the ambient noise of the place. One of the best records of 2019.

Click here to sample the track “Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No” (McPhee is in the left stereo channel, Butcher in the right).

Ustad Saami: God is Not a Terrorist

Saami, a Palestinian, is the last living practitioner of a pre-Islamic music (featuring elements of Farsi, Hindi, Vedic, and Sanskrit) that does not endear him to local extremists. His practice is a testament to courage, belief, and devotion–and it sounds fascinating and moving (and good, to be sure): a kind of Middle Eastern Gregorian chant with tense instrumental backing.

Click here to sample a track and read more about Saami’s background.

Click here for an album “teaser.”

Quick Takes on My Other Listening Adventures

James Brown: Foundations of Funk–A Brand New Bag 1964-1964

Brown at his finest, on tracks that are gripping and propulsive not even considering his vocals, which are punctuated by screams that sound as avant-garde as Ayler’s honks.

Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow

Though I found myself enjoying “Comeback Kid,” I just don’t have patience for whites people miserably moaning right now.

Greg Ward Presents Rogue Parade: Stomping Off from Greenwood

That title’s enticing, and the music’s admirable intense when the guitarist isn’t taking a turn; fortunately, the leader’s sax, Quin Kirchner’s drums and the compositions (!) win the day.

JLin: Black Origami

This landmark of EDM and the style known as footwork has spell-casting power: normally immune to such stuff, I’ve played it 20-25 times since its 2017 release and it mesmerizes and mesmerizes, even though I’m too old and not imaginative enough to dance to it.

Hama: Houmeissa

Synth music is back–even in the Sahara (try it–you’ll like it)!

Room Full of Mirrors

My day was so fraught with unexpected urgencies and aberrant activity that I barely squeezed in a record (I am such a hopeless nerd that “listen to one complete record actively” is one of the three items on my “Habit List” app. And that was done while driving from place to place; fortunately, it’s in the cab of my truck where I most completely commune, and sometimes merge, with the music.

I’ve been on a Hendrix kick lately–his work as much as anybody’s blooms perennially, in different formations and colors as I become an older listener–and I was thinking about my young friend and fellow Jimi fanatic Donnie Harden Jr., who’d been asking about the Rainbow Bridge soundtrack. His queries were to no avail because I hadn’t listened to it in awhile, so I’d brought it out to “The Lab” so I could really focus on it.

It may be crazy to say, but Hendrix is slightly underrated. 48 years in the rear view, he might as well be 48 years beyond. “Room Full of Mirrors” is, for me, the highlight of of Rainbow Bridge. The virtual meteor shower of streaking, sliding guitar lines with which he adorns this song is visceral, a shock to the synapses; I found myself wondering, “Who today can deliver such adornments?” The lyrics, too, confirm that Hendrix was a terrific personal songwriter…though in this case they seem to portend his fate.

On one side of “Room Full of Mirrors” is the slow-building, insinuating, stinging instrumental “Pali Gap” (a bit of a deep cut). On the other, is the all-Jimi studio version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” so stately, so magisterial it’s almost reverent, and thus funny (where–at least I feel this way–his Woodstock version was frequently terrifying). Almost.

The whole record’s pretty good, but its middle, its guts, is truly mesmerizing.

Doors to My Heart

Wayne Shorter: Emanon

A good friend gifted me with, um, a sampling of Ol’ Mr. Weird’s new opus, and on first immersion, I’m happy to report his playing is very powerful and imaginative for a 42-year-old–except he’s 85. The string arrangements create a disembodied aura for the music, but that’s perfectly weird. I’d love to sample the accompanying graphic novel.

The English Beat: Beat This! The Best of The English Beat

With the triumph of streaming, grocery store music ain’t like it used to be. I was piddling around looking for the right cough drop when “Save It for Later” danced out of Gerbes’ soundsystem–stunned, I looked down the aisle and saw another older person bopping his head happily. The soul, intelligence, and movement of the song lit a fire in me, so when I got home, I immediately pulled this and cranked it. They were pegged as ska, and they could nail that, but they grew it into something more personal and unique. With Special Beat Service, they seemed to still be growing–but that was it, after just three great LPs. They’ve reformed, but it’s not quite the same.

The Kampala Sound–1960s Ugandan Dance Music

The warmest and–this is a compliment–cutest sounding African comp I’ve heard. The vocals are mixed way up in the foreground and, along with the ass-tickling guitars, they’re seductive as hell. The whole kit and kaboodle‘s on YouTube, too.

The Flesheaters: A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die

I’ve not had any use for Chris D. except here. Maybe it has to do with the members of The Blasters and X who make up his band. If your mind wanders from the singer’s gaze into the abyss, and it will, it can concentrate on the rhythm section. Booga-booga, boogied.

50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong

And we’re not. This two-cd set’s a great intro to Mark E. Smith, a recently departed genius ranter, poet, eccentric, and curmudgeon the likes of whom we’ll never see again. Backing him, your grandma on bongos sounds great! And for a punk, he was surprisingly adaptable to the pop dance floor: a crank who wasn’t too invested in himself to have fun.

Patato & Totico

Carlos “Patato” Valdes (click that hyperlink, kids) invented the tunable conga drum, and I could swear I read that he also pioneered the three-conga attack, but I can’t locate the source. He’s at his best here, joined by a scintillating cast of Cuban masters, including Arsenio Rodriguez on guitar, Cachao on bass, and Totico on vox. Muy caliente!

Allison Moorer: Show

I received this as a gift from a dear cyber friend, and dug into it yesterday, finally, with great interest. I’d only heard Moorer backing up other artists (notably the much-missed Lonesome Bob) except for her song on The Horse Whisperer soundtrack (don’t ask–well, Dwight Yoakam covers Eddy Arnold on it). This is a superbly recorded, passionately performed live set, featuring Moorer’s sis, Shelby Lynne (their first recorded collab), Mr. Bob, and Kid Rock before he sunk into the pit (it’s a mid-‘Ought rekkid). Dang, she’s got a powerful voice, and she writes a fine, generic-plus country song. But she oversings, and some peculiar mannerisms in her articulation can be distracting; when Lynne takes her verses, the effect is one of mild relief. Still, a heartfelt and boisterous set.

Clifford Brown: The Singer Sessions

Brown’s sound is so burnished, so meticulously dynamic, that, while listening, you can easily get angry (all over again?) that he was taken so young. He’s amazing in a mostly accompanying role on this collection. The singers? Oh, just Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Helen Merrill. And should you be wrinkling your nose, perhaps, at the last, she belongs, at the very least by virtue of her great unsung debut, Brown with her every step of the way. Taste it right here.

CONGRATULATIONS to Ms. Jackie Shane and Numero Records for their Grammy nomination! Best Historical Recording: Any Other Way–get caught up on her story right here.

Also:

Enjoy a YouTube Playlist that samples these records!

Ham and Eggs

Mostly I have been inspired by Mr. McDowell’s birthday (the 12th) and the combined forces of Carnival and the New Orleans Saints (Crescent City longing). A couple punky things snuck in as punky things are wont to do. I put together a YouTube playlist for this installment (sans the punks, for focus’ sake, but I linked those albums below)–I’m still trying to get ahold of rhyme and/or reason!

Fred McDowell: You Gotta Move

If you like slide like I like slide, Fred must be in your top pantheon. This first outing he made for Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie (recorded in ’64-’65) is my favorite–but just by a hair. What the adjective “stinging” was designed for.

Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta 12-String

Nobody did play the blues like McTell, partly because he’s not always playing blues–he’s a swinging songster just as much. I love his singing, too, and this later record communicates some serious wit, accumulated through three itinerant decades.

Jessie Mae Hemphill: Feelin’ Good

The Ramones of the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues, the She-Wolf of Como, Jessie Mae needs to be better known. Besides knocking out some deep late-night trance blues, she socks a Christmas song over the fence and rocks a great church tune with just her tambo. Get hip if you ain’t already, folks.

A Collection of Pop Classics by Reagan Youth

They weren’t ever pushed on me by my hardcore friends in their heyday, but two of their songs leapt off the Mom & Dad soundtrack as we watched it Friday night, and I required more the next morning. See also last post’s blurt on Superchunk.

Betty Harris: The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul

Possessed of a smoky, sultry, and vulnerable voice, Miss Harris linked up with Allen Toussaint and the fledgling Meters for a handful of tracks in the mid-Sixties. That combo should conjure sone desire in your ears.

Paul Barbarin’s Jazz Band / Punch Miller’s Bunch & George Lewis: Jazz at Preservation Hall

Old-time New Orleans jazz, executed by masters, is difficult to beat for sheer high spirits, and the collective improvisation (an influence on Ornette Coleman) can fly under your radar. Atlantic cut three (or four?) of these records in the mid-Sixties in higher-fidelity than the music had ever enjoyed–unless you happened to hear it in person.

Danny Barker: Save the Bones

The New Orleans musical griot, singing pop and blues standards as well as his own songs with exuberance and knowing, making his guitar testify, and spinning tales in between. 79 at the time of the record’s release, he sounds about half that.

IDLES: Joy as an Act of Resistance

This item would have made my “Best of 2018” list had I heard it in time. A yobby, aggressive punk rock crew from Bristol that takes on Trump and Brexit while also applying a scalpel to themselves–and laying hearts bare. And there’s laffs! They’ve been around for a bit, too–I might as well give up trying to keep up!

There was more than one Reagan youth

In brief, L-R, each row:

Little Richard: The Georgia Peach

Don’t forget: wotta band!!! Especially Lee Allen on bulldozing tenor and Earl Palmer inventing rock and roll drumming.

Sacred Flute Music from New Guinea

The thought of “sacred flute music” gives me the fan-tods, but, lo and behold, but this stuff is not only inventive, but also a little catchy and fairly varied (for folk music).

Rosalía: Los Ángeles

A debut album of uncommon vocal intensity and focus, augmented almost solely by acoustic guitar. It isn’t quite flamenco, it’s not really pop, but it means business.

Hamid Drake & Joe McPhee: Keep Going

The highlight is the title opener, inspired and partially written by Harriet Tubman and offered to the growing number of us who are demoralized. I’d accept; it works. Elsewhere the two fond and familiar free masters make joyful racket with their drum and horn, respectively.

X-Ray Spex: Germfree Adolescents

I’ve been asked to present at a local high school’s seminar on identity, and given my choice of topics. I’m doing the whole hour on my favorite record ever written by a teenager. A teenage prophet, for teenagers 40 years later to discover.

Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes

Any day’s a great day to listen to Bird, but The Sound of Redemption, a neat documentary on the art and trials of the Parker-inspired saxophonist Frank Morgan, sent me in his direction. The film’s built around a Morgan tribute concert held at the man’s former home: San Quentin.

Superchunk: What A Time to Be Alive

The best rock and roll album of 2018, partly because it nails the time. I played “Reagan Youth” 5 times today–then I played the very best of Reagan Youth.

Parquet Courts: Stay Awaaake

Instrumentally, these guys know every rock and roll move, sometimes constructing a crazy-quilt out of several in one song. Lyrically, like Superchunk, they seem to be taking a necessary piss (both albums have great songs about fights or fighting). But the “dumb,” affected vocals have built a wall between they and me.

Not so brief after all.

I just listened to this seven times in a row riding in my truck. I am (perhaps oddly) one of the last people who’d argue that music lyrics are poetry, but these verses—these triplets—are close:

“If she walks by, the menfolk get in rows [it also sounds like “engrossed”!]
If she winks her eye, the bread slice turns to toast
She got a lot of what they call ‘The Most’…!

“She mesmerizes every mother’s son
If she smiles, beefsteak becomes well-done
She make Grampa feeeeel like 21!”

The ivory-tower-occupiers, Rex, might call that “demotic poetry.” Whatever.

I also love the shift from “The girl can’t help it” to “I can’t help it.” The mad vocals, Earl Palmer’s razor-sharp and rock-hard drumming, and Lee Allen’s one-man sax section are perfectly fitted to the feeling behind those words.

Man alive.

No wonder Frank Tashlin and John Waters were inspired to create scenes in their films just to use it (I bet):

(Adapted from a Facebook post made by the blogger on 1/10/19.)

Brace for Impact: Finalized Top 10 LP and Singles List, plus the Usual Listenin’ Report

As I have mentioned before, I get to vote in the recently-defunct Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll. However, I’m probably more careful when I vote in a similar poll offered up by Brad Luen for the Facebook music-nut group Expert Witness. I have to live with those motherfuckers on a daily basis! And it’s a tough room! This year, there is some kidding-on-the-square about my albums list (which is different from my Pazz & Jop list; BTW, you get 100 points to distribute across your Top 10, with no more than 30 and no less than 5 for each item), but most telling is I actually submitted a singles ballot. I am an album dude, but this year I really leaned into some smashing songs. For what it’s worth, here’s my lists, and I checked them thrice:

Albums

  1. Tracey Thorn: Record (30)

  2. Rosalía: El Mal Querer (25)

  3. CupcaKe: Ephorize (10)

  4. Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (5)

  5. Elza Soares: Deus É Mulher (5)

  6. Noname: Room 25 (5)

  7. Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel (5)

  8. Tierra Whack: Whack World (5)

  9. Mary Gauthier: Rifles & Rosary Beads (5)

  10. Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (5)

Singles

  1. Rosalía: “Malamente”*

  2. Tracey Thorn: “Sister”

  3. JLin: “The Abyss of Doubt”

  4. CupcakKe: “Duck Duck Goose”

  5. Swamp Dogg: “I’ll Pretend”

  6. John Prine: “When I Get to Heaven”

  7. Pistol Annies: “Got My Name Changed Back”

  8. Parquet Courts: “Almost Had to Start a Fight”

  9. Robyn: “Between the Lines”

  10. Rosalía: “Baghdad”

On to the new year, though it’s included little new music. I’ve been on Louisiana kick.

Travailler, C’est Trop Dur: The Lyrical Legacy of Caesar Vincent

Hadn’t heard of Vincent, whose very lyrical compositions are interpreted here by a range of Cajun all-stars (ex. Zachary Richard, David Doucet, Steve Riley). The songs are in French, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel them, and I’d happily argue this is the best truly country music we have.

Jourdan Thibodeaux et Les Rôdailleurs; Boue, Bocane, Et Bouteilles

This youngster sings in a pleasingly grizzled baritone, plays a killer fiddle (as he must), fronts a racially integrated Cajun band (still a bit rare), and features a Savoy (of the Louisianan royal music family) on guitar dirtying things up a bit. I love it when youngsters mess with folk forms.

Sean Ardoin: Kreole Rock and Soul

Member of another Louisianan royal music family, this time of the zydeco persuasion, Ardoin does some messing around of his own, striving to live up to the title and winning three falls out of five. Winners: “Kick Rocks,” “Abracadabra” (yes, that one). Losers: “Just What I Needed” (yes, that one), and possibly the worst song I have ever heard from a Louisiana artist, “You Complete Me.”

Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band: Black Pot

Chubby plays it safe here, but if he and his band were playing these songs at the Mid-City Rock ‘n’ Bowl, you’d never sit down. The title cut’s a dance-floor killer; the closing cut is the sweetest paean to home in zydeco history; in between is competence-plus, community, and commitment.

Joe McPhee and Mats Gustafsson: Brace for Impact

It took 10 years for this meeting of two free jazz masters to come to light, and it might be one of the best of the year in spite of its vintage. They are master listeners, too, not just in a studio but across decades and an ocean: Poughkeepsian McPhee’s 79 going on 30, Mats, a Swede living in Austria, is 54. If you’d like to hear how a jazz composition can be built out of thin air, quick thinking, and imagination, you might as well start here.

Dabke–Sounds of the Syrian Houran

Dabke, an Arab music played at weddings and other celebrations, has a head-spinning number of variations. According to the Wikipedia entry on the style, there are either 2, 6, or 19 types. This motorvating compilation ranges across several of them–you might even call it a dabke Nuggets. Just trying to sell you on trying it, folks!

Rosalía: El Mal Querer

Let it be understood that the frequency with which this Catalonian-cum-Barcelonan powerhouse has appeared here simply testifies to her power. Her voice is intense, alluring, frightening, multi-faceted–and it brings out the Arabic roots of the music that’s been her life, and with which she happily experiments: flamenco. Producer El Guincho deepens the allure and broadens her appeal with savvy settings; if you want to hear her more sparely adorned, check out her debut (more on that later). She is going to be huge, and I may have to finally learn to at least hear Spanish to keep up.

Wire: Pink Flag

Even they have never recorded (again) anything quite like this 21-song, 37-minute voyage into alienation and paranoia. But again it must be said: sometimes paranoids are right. Drowning in the big swim, discerning strange things that aren’t quite right, witnessing murder, looting, and rape, 1-2 hating you, creating a field day for the Sunday papers, they take a moment to expose their hearts when their shades get broken, along with their fleeting love.