The first third of this haunted year is over: list time! I’ve got 35 rekkids so far that could conceivably make my year-end best-of (alphabetized, because I don’t have the energy to rank ’em–except my Top 10, asterisked and bolded for your convenience). That’s complicated by one that I was way behind on (even further than I was on Jazmine Sullivan) that might be argued as impacting 2016, a Brazilian record from a few years back that just came into most of our earlines, an addictive Serengeti EP project, and a documentary that I want to count.
*Angry Angles: Angry Angles
Bajakian, Aram: Music Inspired by “The Color of Pomegranates” *Bombino: Azel *Booker, James: Bayou Maharajah (film)
Bowie, David: Blackstar
Bradley, Charles: Changes
Braxton, Anthony: 3 Compositions [EEMHM] 2011
Childbirth: Women’s Rights
Dalek: Asphault for Eden
Del McCoury Band: Del and Woody
Hemphill, Julius: Julius Hemphill Plays the Songs of Allen Lowe *Hogberg, Anna: Anna Hogberg Attack *Kool and Kass: Barter 7 *Iyer, Vijay, and Wadada Leo Smith: A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke
Lamar, Kendrick: Untitled Unmastered
Lewis, Linda Gail: Heartache Highway
Lynn, Loretta: Full Circle
McPhee, Joe, and Paal Nilssen-Love: Candy *Mexrissey: No Manchester
Open Mike Eagle: Hella Personal Film Festival
Parquet Courts: Human Performance
Perfecto: You Can’t Run from The Rhythm
Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago
Pusha T: Darkness Before Dawn
Reed, Blind Alfred: Blind Alfred Reed–Appalachian Visionary
Rollins, Sonny: Holding Down the Stage—Road Shows, Volume Four
Simpson, Sturgill: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Stetson, Colin: Sorrow—A Reimagining of Gorecki’s Third Symphony
Threadgill, Henry: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs *Various Artists: Music of Morocco–Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959
Various Artists: Original Cast Recording of Hamilton#
Various Artists: Soul Sok Sega–Sega Sounds from Mauritius *Veloso, Caetano, and Gilberto Gil: Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música–Multishow Live *Williams, Saul: Martyr Loser King
Wills, Bob, and the Texas Playboys: Let’s Play, Boys–Rediscovered Songs from Bob Wills’ Personal Transcriptions
Wussy: “Ceremony”/”Days and Nights”
Wussy: Forever Sounds
Ze, Tom: Vira Lata na Via Lactea#
*Top 10 selections—as of now # Complicated by not being 2016 by a long shot.
I can’t shake mortality off my mind. I have been playing the hell out of Hag and Prince; after having recently read a book a piece about Gaye and George Jones, I’ve also been jamming those guys and scoping vids.
I must tell you: if you are a Possum fan and haven’t seen this documentary, which I picked up for $3 at a grocery store VHS sale in the early ’90s, you’re cheating yourself. It’s a very simple production (by Charlie Dick–yeah, that Charlie Dick), with somewhat corny narration, and its packaging does the product no favors. However, it is loaded with treats. Loaded
*Great clips of a happy, healthy George, just hanging out at the hacienda, joyously offering up impromptu versions of gospel (“Lily of the Valley”) and Jones (“No Money in This Deal”!!!–just a couple of lines, but holy shit!) classics on acoustic guit for the director.
*Wizened and oft-hilarious testimony from bizzers like Gabe Tucker and Don Pierce (old Starday hands) and Billy Sherrill (reminiscent of Rip Torn’s Artie on The Larry Sanders Show), and peers like Cash, Jennings, Lynn, Hall, Twitty, and Owens. I was gonna call Cash and Jennings old, but when this video was made they were my age. Or close.
*Fantastic performance clips: Jones knocking “Into My Arms Again” out of the park on The Ozark Jubilee; exchanging Cheshire cat grins with master fiddler Johnny Gimble as he defies mild hoarseness and kills on “Bartender’s Blues” (see below) and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; winding up for a somewhat disturbing mock punch during the “…as they fight their final round…” line while jocularly dueting with Tammy on “Golden Ring; and totally sticking the landing (as he was so often wont to do on last lines) while craftily moseying his way, in deeply loving fashion, through the greatest version of Hag’s “I’ve Always Been Lucky With You” anyone will ever do.
*Sobering and moving testimony from Jones on the trials and tribulations of booze and drugs, as he recalls dropping to 105 pounds (backed up by a shockingly gaunt, diminished Possum desperately working through “Someday My Day Will Come” on a country show in the mid-Eighties) and 72 points of IQ (backed up by the infamous highway patrol arrest footage you may have already seen).
Sorry to run on–but it is that good. I think I’ve watched it 20-some times. Used to do a music documentary series once a month at the high school I used to teach at. When I screened this, the audience consisted solely of me and this young kid with a special ed diagnosis who wrote and sang Hank Williams-styled songs. We sat together on the front row and didn’t speak or blink for an hour.
I dig not dig that Prince left us. Honestly, I played Dirty Mind at least four times (yes, Whitney Shroyer–the best album of the ’80s), 1999 twice, re-watched Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times to my and my wife’s great happiness, and wrote this via an email to a Purple-agnostic friend the morning after he passed:
Having grown up with The Purple One (he was just three years my senior, and part of my life since I was a 17-year-old lifeguard hearing “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on the juke), I find it hard to be too objective. In terms of entertainment value and sheer skill (vocal range, instrumental facility, compositional acumen, dancing) he leaves MJ in the dust. He effectively synthesized JB, Sly, punk ‘n’ new wave, a dab o’ Dylan (the sui generis musical visionary) and other stuff it’s too early for me to pull out into his own totally inimitable blend–a little mind-blowing. He was at the forefront of gender-bend (and lyrical taboo-violation!) in terms of being an AMERICAN artist and being popularly successful–many forget he was called “faggot” relentlessly in the early days (including by Stones fans when they took him on tour in ’81). Tipper Gore had to create the PMRC to deal with his existence in pop music. It’s like Chamberlain and the widening of the lane (that didn’t work any better than the PMRC). Also–so generous in writing songs for other artists and producing their records! PLUS: outside of having a dirty mind, he was one clean motherfucker.
I think one thing that makes him hard to assess at this moment is since the peaking of rap (’89-’95), he’s been foundering–I mean live he would still kick anybody’s ass doing a greatest hits set, but he hadn’t quite figured out how to be post-50 Prince. Finding religion and falling under the influence of a charismatic (Larry Graham, formerly of the Family Stone, OF ALL PEOPLE!!!) did not help. But several artists, Dylan among them, and I’d argue the Stones (less effectively), struggled with the same dilemma. Artists in the wilderness–a trope since Dante. Easily one of the greats–cranked his music for a good three hours with windows open yesterday afternoon, and Nicole and I re-watched both Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times last night.”
I am hyperbolizing a few places in there, but only a few. I would add if I could re-send that he was wonderfully weird and could strike the normal (whoever they are) DEEP. He was dedicated to inclusion (maybe he learned it from Sly). And those Stones fans’ epithets (I heard ’em in my hometown of Carthage, Missouri, too)? Without an iota of protest on his part, he just shut ’em up. And made plenty of them fans, dragging them kicking and screaming in-to the pur-ple rain. I’ll never forget the Lefty Brothers covering that song at a honky tonk in Springfield (aka “Banks and Bibles, Missouri”).
OTHER highlights of my last week’s listening, scored on a mystic 10-point scale for which I am only a medium:
James Booker/GONZO: MORE THAN THE 45s – 8.5 – A collection of The Piano Prince’s early recordings, including “Doing the Hambone,” a regional hit scored when he was a mere 14 (his piano’s under the mix a bit), “Gonzo,” a 1960 #3 R&B smash that allegedly inspired Hunter S. Thompson, its superior flip “Cool Turkey,” a crazed organ workout Garth Hudson must have worn out, and many more wonderful oddities. He shoulda been a contender, and his zany keyboard genius thrills me.
THE SWAN SILVERTONES/SAVIOUR PASS ME NOT – 10 – There is little American gospel music more sublime than what the Swan Silvertones recorded for Vee-Jay. One reason is the transported, flexible, and very sexy vocals of the Reverend Claude Jeter, whom a little kid named Al Green was definitely tuned in to; another is bassman William Conner, whose larynx still beats other folks’ four-strings. This two-fer-one disc includes the definitive version of the classic “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” and a “Lord’s Prayer” the beauty of which will shock you.
Parquet Courts/HUMAN PERFORMANCE – 8.8 – Rock and roll! Or is it? These dudes are intimately familiar with my (and many of your) sweet spots. Every time my attention starts to drift, they poke one (Mo Tucker percussion, Lou Reed drone-solo, deadpan Richman phrasing, rave-ups–not to say they are only masters of VU-and-offshoots moves), to the point where I start to wonder, “Are these pastiches of pastiches, pastiched together?” I guess that’s modern art for you: the poking of sweet spots. At any rate, critics are doing handsprings over the lyrics suddenly meaning things, to which I quietly respond, “And where did that get Michael Stipe?” What they oughtta work on is the vocal attack, which usually projects all of the personality of this album’s title.
The Del McCoury Band/DEL AND WOODY – 8.5 – How deep is the barrel of Woody Guthrie lyrics he didn’t write tunes for? Only daughter Nora knows for sure, but I can vouch that, from the evidence of this collection, the bottom has not been reached. Highlights are hymns to national road building, inexpensive mechanics, and poor folks’ food. Plus, this band can pick and move.
Prince/CHAOS AND DISORDER – 8.8 – You might have missed this ’96 release–because the late great Purple One had lost his grip on the charts and was knee-deep in label-wrangling. But, hey, if you dug his guitar-playing as much as his other 1,000 gifts, this is a nook to go back and explore. Also, if you’re imagining what might emerge from the vault if his estate will ever allow it, this is a fascinating hint.
Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil/DOIS AMIGOS, UM SECULO DE MUSICA – 9.5 – Just two 73-year-old Brazilians, their songs, and their acoustic guitars, performing to the home crowd across two discs. But the rhythms, melodies, and vocal passion, fueled by fifty years of friendship, political commitment, and complicated patriotism, will mesmerize you. I need not remind you today to give men their propers while they are living. Tropicalia fans, you know what to do.
I don’t need to tell you there is not enough time to be able to hear all the great music that is available to you. Nevertheless, I do my level best to at least sample records (across the board, because I am philosophically dedicated, too, to listening broadly) that are either very widely recognized as excellent or that writers whose standards are high and whose opinions I value write paeans to.
But–I missed a masterpiece last year, one I was aware of but for whatever reason (I will admit to being very picky about modern r&b) I kept putting off. FINALLY, yesterday, I got to it, and many of you who know the record already are going to laugh at my tardiness. Had I bought it when it was released, it would have been in my year-end Top 10, and, after four gobsmacked listens, I imagine I might well have slotted it at #1.
As I listened to it again in the truck this morning, I began thinking of many folks my age whose tastes run more completely to radio-friendly music than mine, specifically those who claim (or suspect) that “there’s nothing new that’s good.” No offense, but that is always a ridiculous claim; however, when we experience–along with ever-quickening years–a shift in priorities, when we don’t get out much among more than our private circle, when we forget about our own youth (and the dance floors we were on), when we keep it on just one station, it can happen. I’ve had to fight that battle myself, to be honest (though only occasionally, and I always win).
For an unholily great combination of singing, production, and writing, for a deft ability to shift in and out of recognizable personas that she makes us care about and see differently, for a wonderfully sustained theme of rising above that never goes corny, for the one-two punch of toughness and vulnerability in her singing and writing–if, like me (until just the other day), you don’t know her or this album–you need to listen to Jazmine Sullivan’s REALITY SHOW. My socks are knocked off, my hat’s in the creek. I hope I didn’t bore you; if it’s any consolation, this record WON’T. I could provide specifics to back up that catalog of virtues, but that will only spoil your own discovery.
Highlights from my last five days’ listening, ranked on a 10-point scale approved by former Soviet gymnastics judges:
Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith/A COSMIC RHYTHM WITH EACH STROKE – 8.9 – Like my fellow enthusiastic and actual serious jazz critic Christopher Monsen, I do like drums with my jazz, generally; like my fellow skeptics, I sometimes wonder how cosmic each stroke really is. But considering the intentions of these two gentleman genuises in composing this–to support an exhibit at the Met of the work of the abstract Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi–it is a beautiful thing. With just Smith’s trumpet and Iyer’s piano, Fender Rhodes, and electronics for colors, their own strokes match Mohamedi’s in elegance, simplicity, and coherence. If you don’t truck with art talk, and could care less about intentions, it’s extraordinarily calming without anesthetizing you, primarily owing to Smith’s patented (?) balancing art between Milesian moans of desolation and AACM blats and sputters.
Barbara Lynn/The COMPLETE ATLANTIC RECORDINGS – 8.5 – The notes give up no personnel data, but one can guess that from the label, producers, and mid-to-late ’60s vintage–problem is, I don’t hear her neat lefty guitar in the mix. BUT the soulful husk and smoke of her delivery are in pretty high definition and the material shoots over 80% from the line: some bitter copyrights from Ms. Ozen herself (“This is The Thanks I Get,” “Until Then I’ll Suffer”), some offerings from the house (Penn-Oldham’s “He Ain’t Gonna Do Right” and Donnie Fritts’ too-obscure “People Like Me”), a weirdly addictive one apparently penned by a trio of Cajuns from near Barbara’s Beaumont stompin’ grounds (“Ring Telephone Ring”–it’s Swamp Pop Central calling!), and likely the first version of the late Wayne Thompson’s classic “Soul Deep.” If this hooks you? Move backward to her Jamie recordings with Huey Meaux, and the original “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” and “Oh Baby! We Got a Good Thing Goin’,” which the young Stones saw fit to take a run at.
Various Artists/LOUISIANA SATURDAY NIGHT – 9.0 – A terrific compilation of swamp pop classics, which is saying something since licensing tangles have kept all the great ones from ever winding up in one place (to my knowledge, and I’ve been looking). Swamp pop? Shane Bernard, an expert for a reason, says it’s a balance between white Cajun music moving toward rock and roll and black Creole music moving toward r&b, and that sounds exciting, except that (I’d argue) its virtues are addictively mild, like a perfect cafe au lait. Not to say there’s not in-your-face action here: Rusty and Doug Kershaw are eternally uplifting (remember “Diggy Liggy Lo,” anyone?), the fat slide guitar on Cleveland Crochet’s “Sugar Bee” reaches out and gooses you hard, and Rod Bernard and Clifton Chenier’s symbolic summit meeting on “Jolie Blonde” proves Rod’s boy right. But the ones I keep coming back to are cuts like Van Broussard’s “Feed the Flame”: Van’s not the greatest singer in the world, neither the band or the arrangement will knock your hat in the creek, but his sincerity and belief in the lyrics are…fetching. Like you yourself could sing that one–but you can’t. Quite. Like that. Modest mastery.
Various Artists/SOUL SOK SEGA–SEGA SOUNDS FROM MAURITIUS – 8.7 – Mauritius is an island just east of Madagascar, and its proud musical offering is sega, which initially featured a ravanne (a goatskin stretched across a frame–and later over a drum), a maravann (a box of seeds–like maracas), a triangle (reminiscent of jure, an ancestor of zydeco), and singing, in Kreol (or Creole, if you will). This collection is largely the story of how sega because impure–and more interesting. At its best, it evokes the delirious experiments of Brazilian Tropicalia (something I’m always down for), and, um–the guitar is great! Big props to Strut Records, whose releases have gotten me to the rare point of partaking sight-unseen, sound-unheard, and review-unread.
Highlights of last ten days’ listening, ranked on a highly suspect 10-point scale (but if I’m listing it, I’m liking it!):
Bombino/Azel – 9.8 – A helpless “desert blues” addict, even I questioned whether I needed another record by the man from Agadez. Yep–I did. My favorite new record of any kind of 2016, it displays more variation in rhythm, intensity, and tone than your typical Tuareg release; I like a guy who, in ten songs, can evoke Hendrix, Hooker, Kimbrough, and Spence, and this is easily the best of the four of his five records I’ve heard. Also, he takes a few chances, including a reggae that explodes, and when he locks into one of those inevitable hypnotic phrases, it’s like a downed power line whipping around in your front yard. The ululations of the women who support him are perfectly timed, too.
Anthony Braxton/3 Compositions [EEMHM] 2011 – 8.5 – When I learned that these compositions for septet required each player to carry into the studio an iPod loaded with Braxton’s complete (?) studio and live recordings, ready to be activated at will (or conductor’s nod?) in the midst of each take, I couldn’t resist. Plus it’s cheap for three disks. But: does it sound good? Well, I like free jazz, and though I cannot pretend to understand most of Mr. Braxton’s notes, I think this comment may convince you whether you should try it or not: “What we have here is a ‘state of music’….the friendly experiencer can walk through the ‘parks’ of the music on the way to engage in a sonic tennis match….I am moving towards a kind of action video game paradigm where [the listener] can make internal decisions inside of the greater music space that will affect the particulars of a given sonic fantasy….” In addition, his notes end with this: “[hee hee hee].” I love a giddy visionary septuagenarian.
The Fall/The Fall Box Set1976-2007 – 9.5 – A wise man once said that the test of a great box set is that the last disc sounds as great as the first. I’m not sure that’s true here, but I can say after listening through all five of these discs in a row, I was never bored, and delighted, amused, or ON FIRE 80% of the time. I don’t care whether he’s barking out inscrutable lyrics while riding the same two-chord riff for five minutes; I don’t care whether he’s embarking on a poetry reading, a rockabilly cover, or dance floor throb. I’ll go wherever Mark E. Smith wants to lead, even if he’s only backed by your granny on bongos. I regret it took me 25 years to catch on.
Merle Haggard/If I Could Only Fly – 9.5 – The late master had a tendency to mar his every release with at least two flat-to-bad songs. This 2000 comeback–from health battles, from lethargy, from writer’s block, maybe–might be his best album, end to end, though it includes no single song most aficionados would put in The Hag Top 20. But no dogs, either. The band’s great (of course), and his singing’s as detailed and smart as ever. Picks to click: a look back that’s compassionate rather than judgmental; a paean/envoi to unprotected sex; two nods of gratitude, one to spawn and one to the uncle who taught him “Rubber Dolly”; some strong love songs; and the definitive version of Blaze Foley’s title song, which many have attempted to scale before, including Merle. I guess the pick to click is the whole thing.
George Jones/Live at Dancetown USA– 8.5 – Fired up by Rich Kienzle’s nice new Jones bio, I revisited several Jones holdings squirreled away in the pad. Here’s one Possum fans might not have heard, a ’65 live set in a real honky-tonk, seemingly unedited. Though George doesn’t sing with exquisite care–he seems in a hurry at times–he’s still the greatest singer in country music history. He covers his current hit catalog, takes a pell-mell run at “Boney Moronie,” delivers a couple of classic, corny bon mots (“…a brief liquor–I mean inter–mission” and an apology for “another sad ballard”), and lets his band have a few. Even if we don’t have a DVD to go with it, the ambiance is enough to make you wish you could have been there.
Wussy/Forever Sounds – 8.0 – Yeah yeah, they’re critics’ darlings, but I love them because they sing, write, and play like, for and about grown human beings in the midst of relatively normal middle age. Problem here is that the sonics (dubbed “shoe-gaze” by several folks, but I dunno), which do unify the album, have a tendency to overwhelm their humanity. I get off on the opening trio, “Dropping Houses,” “She’s Killed Hundreds,” and “Donny’s Death Scene,” but a later fave, “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” gets at my quibble–the vocals, especially Lisa Walker’s (who more and more reminds me of a rock version of Lucinda Williams when she was light of spirit), sound disembodied, sometimes even (literally) phoned in from a remote locale. I like embodied voices.
On the off chance one of my blog-followin’ friends hasn’t heard much #MerleHaggard and would like to give him a shot now that he’s stepped on a rainbow, well…we all have our favorites, and he made a slew of albums, but I reach for these most frequently. On these recordings, he is in tip-top voice, his justly-famed band matches him move for move, and the material? I can stand it, but I can’t hardly. And that’s a compliment…
Same Train, Different Time: A tribute album to one of Hag’s idols, Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. It’s got narration, but frankly, I love it, because it’s from deep. The selections reflect Merle’s close study and, with both James Burton and Roy Nichols picking, things even get a little funky. It was a different time, and the singer will make you feel it.
The Way It Was in ’51: I do believe this is tragically out of print, but it’s one side of Hank Sr. covers and another of Frizzell tunes–with a heartfelt pair of Hag bookends. Short, sweet, and sung the hell out of. Sure bet: Merle + Lefty tune = double, triple, or homer. Impossible to get out or pitch around.
Presents His 30th Album/A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today: Two tuff rekkids now on one disc. The Strangers at peak sting-and-swing, with Merle’s pen drawing a little blood. There’s a few clinkers, but the likes of “Old Man From the Mountain,” “Honky-Tonk Night-Time Man,” “Holding Things Together,” “Running Kind,” the title tune, and two gutsy songs about being white will make you forget ’em. Plus, as always: masterful covers of Wills, The Delmore Brothers, Kitty Wells, and The Hillbilly Shakespeare.
The Way I Am: This leads with a moving, autumnal take of Sonny Throckmorton’s title tune, and features a couple of ace originals–but best in show are a set of Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman covers woven together with love–those two pre-and-post-war honky tonkers could have been twins, in a way–and balanced expertly between impression and homage.
The Best of Merle Haggard: This was the first country record I ever bought, for $3, at a Wal-Mart, when I was still in my teens and didn’t know from country. Black cover, Merle in black, too–and, um, “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Lonesome Fugitive,” “Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Threw Away the Rose,” “Strangers.” It ought to be illegal to unleash that learning on a kid all at once. And that ain’t all: for emotional breadth and shifting masks, a great novelty (“Shade-Tree Fix It Man”), a scary spiritual number (“High on a Hilltop”), and a sleeper you don’t hear many folks mention, “My House of Memories,” which was the first time I realized singing required thinking (and listen to the way he sings the last word of its lines!). $3, over in less than 30 minutes, life changed forever. And let’s bring the needle down again, shall we?