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 Set 1976-2007 – 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.