Marc Ribot: Two Serenity-Wreckin’ Trios
Ceramic Dog: Your Turn (Northern Spy)
The Marc Ribot Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi Recordings)
Best known as an accompanist for The Lounge Lizards and Tom Waits, Ribot’s never put out a boring solo record. He plays guitar as if a jagged tin can and ropes of barbed wire are being employed, but, like Jimi Hendrix, he is able to control and channel his sound to produce frequently quite beautiful works. Also, Ribot’s smart and well-versed enough that he can adapt his sound to Cuban rhythm (check out his Los Cubanos Postizos records), rhythm and blues (he used to play in Solomon Burke’s band), punk (he’s the star on the recent and controversial re-recording of Richard Hell’s Destiny Street, filling the shoes and tracks of the legendary Bob Quine), pop (accompanying Marianne Faithfull), and jazz (his Albert Ayler-dedicated Spiritual Unity Trio). Being someone who believes that inventive electric guitar noise–loud electric guitar noise–is receding into our pop music’s background, I am thrilled to recommend to you two very different recent trio recordings Ribot’s made–that only Ribot could have made. Ceramic Dog is his rock project, and 2013’s Your Turn should have been in many, many critics’ year-end Top 10s. Besides offering the listener a truckload of skronky, intense six-string wailing and riffing (including the raging title cut, which sounds like a tribute to chainsaw jazz inventor Sonny Sharrock), it features the greatest lyric yet recorded about illegal downloading (“Masters of the Internet”) and one of the only songs based on materialist philosophy I have ever heard. As well, it takes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” five ways from Sunday, and astutely adapts a turn-of-the-twentieth-century poem by James Oppenheim to our modern use. The fact that Ribot can’t sing but only yells matters not a whit. The Vanguard trio has gone under multiple names; because it’s a) largely dedicated to Ayler recordings; and b) lured legendary avant-jazz bassist Henry Grimes (an important Ayler sideman) out of what seemed like permanent retirement, it’s often called Spiritual Unity, after one of Ayler’s greatest albums. Let’s sweep nomenclatural confusion out of the way, though, because the band’s 2012 live performance (Grimes’ first in almost 50 years) is stunning. The set list includes two relatively obscure Coltranes (“Dearly Beloved” and “Sun Ship”), two normally corny standards (“Ol’ Man River” and “I’m Confessin'”) and, of course, two Aylers (“The Wizard” and the ol’ New Thing chestnut “Bells”), and the trio digs into them with great intensity, invention, and interaction. If you haven’t heard Ribot before, but know Trane and Ayler, you might well ask, “How does a guitar deal with the huge noise of those horns?” Well, for the most part, he sidesteps the “bigness” issue and invests in ritual repetition, melody, vocal emulations, and, especially, the questing nature of those great men’s styles. The big triumph, to me, is that Ribot’s audacious decision to mount those corny standards alongside free compositions many jazz experts still wouldn’t think of allowing into the canon pays off in spades: the set sounds unified and the compositions of a piece. If you’ve never thought you’d like free jazz, you might take this one for a spin.
Haiti Direct! (Strut Records)
I know doodly-squat about Haitian music–other than that its traditions have flowed to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, Mexico, and, especially, Africa, and that it’s a country where slave-chains were thrown off in a revolution and the river of freedom drunken from deeply (though in some ways the worst was yet to come). If you happen to be in a music store when this is playing, you might very well mistake it for a Congolese release, if you know your Franco and Rochereau. But, if you buy one international release this year, make it this one. Of course, the rhythms are bewitching and various and compelling–most of them are designed to bring the dancer to the point of frenzy. But the tensile guitars cut through the mix like serrated knives, the horns are played as if to wake the dead (which takes on multiple dimensions in Haiti), and the vocals, though not everpresent, range from demented screaming to–yes–meowing. If you’re a scholar, the record surveys multiple styles and is festooned with thorough notes. But if your heart, mind, ass, and feet like to move, you can save the reading for later and slap this on the turntable Saturday night once the drinks start to kick in.
Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace of Sin (4 Men w/Beards reissue)
A good friend who I loaned this to as he was recovering from a breakup begged me, “Don’t ever give this to anyone who’s heartbroke again! It’s unbearable.” I’d been aware of that possibility before I loaned it; I’d used it myself for the same purpose, but, personally, I like to be taken to the very bottom before I start heading back up to the surface. Parson’s yearning, soulful, precisely imprecise vocals–the bane of multiple producers trying to get great records out of him during his comet-streak of a career–are at their peak here; even if you’re in a blissfully bounteous relationship, if you can listen to him sing, “He may be/Sweet and nice/But that won’t keep you warm at night/’Cause I’m the one/Who let you in/I was right beside you then….” without feeling the knife twist, you ain’t human. And the songs. The heartbreak songs are extraordinarily painful and indelible, mainly by virtue of splendid dabs of specific detail, but the others, especially “Sin City,” “Christine’s Tune,” “Wheels,” and the International Submarine Band chestnut “Do You Know How It Feels,” pull off that near-impossible trick of wedding the personal with the political, with no sign of strain or pretention. Elsewhere, Gram re-genders and tweaks “Do Right Woman,” matching Aretha (did I stutter?), and closes each side (I’m talking about vinyl here, folks) with marvelous comic relief: the draft-dodging “My Uncle,” trailing echoes of Merle Haggard, on Side A, and the droll Staples Singers/Hank Williams send-up “Hippie Boy” on Side B. The band was ace, especially Sneaky Pete Kleinow on steel, who cranks and fuzzes up his notes, the ultimate instrumental collision of city and country. This release corrects a very crappy remix foisted upon consumers by Edsel’s CD version, which quiets down Kleinow’s contribution slightly and bungles the balance–it’s one of the clearest, cleanest, richest sounding vinyl reissues of the current landslide, and that’s especially relevant since the rights to the album seem in questionable territory, and the last vinyl version I owned (A&M’s) sounded half as bright. Safe at Home (International Submarine Band), Sweetheart of the Rodeo (The Byrds), and Grievous Angel (solo) confirm Parsons’ genius. By now, most of us know he picked up country music second-hand, enjoyed trust-fund status, and treated friends, family, fellow musicians, and the ladies with imperfect consideration. But, in classic artist-as-martyr fashion, he died to capture the end of an era and birth an entire genre on this magnificent album, and I’m almost OK with that.
The Sweet Inspirations (Collectors’ Classics/Atlantic)
Familiar with this go-to group of backup singers from their subtle work on Dusty in Memphis, I stumbled across a reference to their 1967 debut album while plumbing the darkened corners a famous critic’s archives. I hadn’t known they’d recorded albums of their own, and generally backup groups’ records are a little plain. Not so this one. Led by Cissy “Whitney’s Mama” Houston, the ladies deliver a very, very effective and emotionally powerful performance in the heat of the spotlight. The tersely pain-filled opener, Darryl Carter’s “Oh! What A Fool I’ve Been,” should be a Northern Soul classic if it isn’t already; the ace cover of Pop Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” opens them out into the real world of the Civil Rights Movement and lends the record gravitas. In between, they’re professionals-plus, especially on the already oft-recorded “Let It Be Me,” the title tune, and the knockout hillbilly-boogie cover “Blues Stay Away from Me” (you’ll never need to listen to the Delmore Brothers’ original again). They can’t quite chase the memory of Eddie Floyd on “Knock On Wood,” and they are too put-together to handle the Ikettes’ lettin’-it-loose “I’m Blue,” but with the studio aces of Memphis’ American Sound Studio shoring them up (especially Reggie Young on guitar) when they (only) occasionally flag, the Sweet Inspirations turn in what I’ll confidently call a minor masterpiece.
Serge Chaloff: Blue Serge (Capitol)
A flat-out beautiful record, one that should be among Kind of Blue, Time Out, and A Love Supreme as “starter” records offered to neophytes wanting to test the unpredictable and varied waters of jazz. The ill-starred Chaloff, a veteran of the great Woody Herman “Thundering Herd” band that also featured Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, plays his baritone with seductive lightness and ease (and a hint of bebop), the tunes, standards and newly-minted soon-to-be classics are unbeatable, and the combo is stunning, especially the fleet, inventive and equally ill-starred Sonny Clark on piano and the unflappable and star-defying Philly Joe Jones and drums. Seductive, engaging, and well-nigh perfect.
Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (What’s Your Rupture?)
Almost every review of I’ve read of this band’s music leans very heavily on comparisons (no surprise there–it’s easier than thinking), but, if you’ll excuse me for being guilty of the same vice, I have been pleasantly surprised that I’ve mostly been reminded of none of the bands referenced therein. What Sunbathing Animals puts me in mind of most is The Libertines’ Up the Bracket: unpredictable explosions, careening forward momentum, drunken shifts, a healthy helping of ‘I don’t give a fuck”–all in all, a great rock and roll rush. I also appreciate that the lyrics don’t seem assembled from a magnetic poetry kit. Only things I haven’t liked is the grating outro of Side A–I love shitty noise, normally–and the ground-out of Side B. Good show, kids, and please stay in love with your guitars.
Stooges Brass Band: Street Music (Sinking City)
I like this tiny New Orleans-based vinyl-only label: its first release was the charming and historic compilation of Ricky “Shake Fa Ya Hood” B. singles, B is for Bounce, and though the Stooges’ record is only its third offering in a year in business, it’s a step in the right direction. The Crescent City is full of excellent brass bands, but The Stooges are my favorite because they seem most comfortable stepping out of the tradition. On this six-song record, they play with great exuberance, but they also deliver two powerful lyrics, the opening “Why They Had to Kill Him” and the closing “I Gotta Eat,” that deal unflinchingly and unsentimentally with the problems of 21st century poverty in the USA–a topic few musical acts in the USA go within a ten-foot pole of. Did I mention that they play with great exuberance?