Good to My Earhole: September Songs

It may seem that I have been neglecting my responsibilities here (such as they are), but, though I am retired, I am actually working two part-time jobs and they have been keeping me preoccupied. But, as always, music has provided much-needed fuel. What follow are some highlights of the past month:

John Coltrane: Offering–Live at Temple University (November 11, 1966) (Resonance Records)

As a devoted though sometimes fatigued fan of Trane, I greeted the news of this excavation/restoration with some skepticism. One must admit that a goodly portion of the jazz audience has gotten–and will continue to get–off the bus after A Love Supreme, and, having listened to the man’s entire output after that record, I know they have good reason. I love the churning, searching, two-men-becoming of Interstellar Space, the roiling, blistering, crying record-long prayer of Meditations, the daring transformations of Live at the Village Vanguard Again; on the other hand, I am not sure I will ever put on the hammering, hectoring live records from Japan and Seattle again. I like Ascension better in theory than reality (though it’s a better realized experiment in freedom than Free Jazz, for sure); I’m likely to keep Om shelved. Of course I am leaving a few records out, but, to get to the heart of it, I wasn’t sure I or anyone else needed an imperfectly recorded concert record that might well be more painful than enjoyable. If you have the same misgivings, set them aside. This is a document worthy of your time. Coltrane is in great form, though he was nine months from passing–in fact, some of his most focused and coherent free playing ever is here, in very good fidelity, and the legendary singing and chest-beating he did at this gig are not freakish. It works; it’s even moving. Some Philly locals (on saxes, the very brave Arnold Joyner and Steve Knoblauch) showed up to pitch in, and they prove equal to the ’66 group’s concept. I would go so far as to say that they at least equal Pharoah Sanders, who on first appearance sounds like he’s taking a box cutter to the sheets of the night. Actually, the fidelity issues–you can’t really hear the bass other than one solo (and it’s a shaky one–Jimmy Garrison is not on hand), and the drums, when not in solo mode, are very quiet in the mix–enhanced the listening experience for me, even if they break the democratic contract. Honestly, I like hearing Trane when he’s not fighting for space, and, even if he was at the actual event, he is the show here. Highly recommended.

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Classical ain’t my usual bag, but reading David Toop‘s Ocean of Sound loosened me up for this, which a good friend foisted upon me on a lazy, cool Sunday. Rolling off a throbbing, multiply-manifested minimalist pulse like waves, the voices of more than 100 join to sing John Donne’s “Negative Love” and two Emily Dickinson poems, the well-known “Because I could not stop for Death” and the more obscure (and uncharacteristic) “Wild Nights,” texts that, as passionately interpreted here, seem to trail off the final line of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” The massed voices blur the words, producing a roar that, paradoxically, sounds heard from afar, or in a dream–but which is true to the lines of the poems. Hard to write about this stuff when you’re a sub-neophyte, but I think I am right about this one.

Leo Welch: Sabougla Voices (Fat Possum)

One by one, the giants of North Mississippi Hill Country blues have fallen: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford. Others, like Robert Belfour and Paul Wine Jones, have quieted. All the more welcome, then, is this document of the non-secular side of the tradition that does not sound all that much like Fred McDowell, its aesthetic fountainhead. Raw, hypnotic, crying Holy unto the Lord, and together, Welch’s music is the gem you’re looking for in this blues world of…well, it ain’t even fiberglass anymore, is it? As Digital Underground once advised us: “Heartbeat props/Don’t wait ’til the heartbeat stops/Give the man props while he’s livin’….”

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The Fugs: “Refuse to Be Burnt Out” (from Refuse to Be Burnt Out, New Rose, 1985)

I wish I had the audio track for this song–see: everything isn’t on YouTube, children!–which I have listened at least 50 times through many travails over the last 18 months. You need to hear it, and, like us, print the core of the lyrics out and slap them on your fridge. Here they are:

Refuse to be burnt out:
The answer is–
Not to be laid back
Not to be cynical
Not to be hesitant
Not to be shy
Not to be uninformed
Not to be beaten down
Not to be isolated
Not to be frightened
Not to be threatened
Not to be co-opted
AND
Not to be lied to….”

(Edward Sanders)

If you do get a chance to hear the track, you will enjoy the ageless Mr. Sanders’ razor-sharp delivery of this line: “Bitterly bickering bitter-shitters/Cursing fate when lunch is late….” My wife and I recite that one every time we are frustrated because we can’t find a parking spot.

The Minutemen: Three-Way Tie for Last (SST)

I wish two things:

1) That this album was not still utterly relevant.

2) That I would have seen this band in person before its life was snuffed out by a stupid broken axle.

If you are, say, a young fan who’s just begun to explore this group and headed straight for Double Nickels on the Dime or Buzz or Howl or What Makes a Man Start Fires? (or all three, and good for you!), it is time to catch up. It grows on you–hard–and absorbing it fully only makes their tragedy deeper, because, like all truly great bands, they were growing so quickly, both musically and mentally, and the results don’t sound like growing pains.

Good to My Earhole (and Other Music-Related Phenomena): Last Half of July–and I got my month right!

Feet in Street

“I bet I know how many kids your dad had…”

For those few of you who may have wondered where I’ve been, it’s been to the Land of the Uninspired as well as to the opposite–the American South, specifically New Orleans (again!). I am trying to get the hang of regular blogging; my life-energy is too variously diffused, I think, to write every day, but I am a creature of routine. If I am IN a routine–I mean IN–you can count on me like the sunrise. But if what I am involved in has an irregular pulse, I am likely to fade. So I am fighting this. I would also like to clarify that this is a music blog that, really, is aimed at people like me (life-energy variously diffused) who don’t have time to be music-obsessed (though I find time because I am helpless). So, for example, if I mention Mr. Quintron, to whom many would now react with a gargantu-yawn…well, I am not writing at you. OK, enough. My life does revolve around music, so here’s what has happened since I last made contact.

1. I saw Johnny Winter with a colleague whose mother taught him English in high school in Beaumont, Texas, and who had Johnny’s brother Edgar (I am sure you have heard of him) as a–wait for it!–but it should not be a surprise!–Sunday school teacher. My buddy got to say hi at an otherwise depressing meet-and-greet (where to hold one these days? in a store specializing in video games!), then we went to the show, where either the sound guys at the venue-that-shall-not-be-named fucked up the mix, or the mix was designed to disguise Johnny’s age-and-illness-related struggles. It was not a bad show, but you couldn’t tell what Johnny was singing (“Bill Haley preaching Armageddon,” Lester Bangs once wrote of his performance on 1969’s Second Winter), and you had to watch his fingers (we were in the balcony) to tell if he was soloing. Barely a week later, he was a gone dead (silver) train. Did he matter? Listen to this:

Also, below, is a great picture of my friend, looking perfectly Sunday-school-defiant, standing in front of the teenaged Edgar “Frankenstein” Winter:

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2. I adore Western Swing–Bob Wills’ 1946-7 version of the Texas Playboys is as close as I think that products of Western civilization have ever gotten to fully realized–and, if you don’t count the late, ineffably great Canuck Ray Condo and his Ricochets, I had never seen or danced to such a band live. It materialized that I got a chance to see Asleep at the Wheel, to my mind the world’s best and maybe last Western Swing band. Well, they only had one fiddle, they didn’t play a song from their great early records The Wheel and Comin’ At Ya, and they didn’t play either of their classic Kinky Friedman covers, which are important since a) Kinky cannot sing, and b) he is a cowboy-hatted Jewish Texas country-singer, crime fictionalist, animal-lover and channeler of Mark Twain. ASSIGNMENT: look up Asleep at the Wheel’s beautiful run at “Before All Hell Breaks Loose,” in which Kinky advises resigning from the human race, and “Homo Erectus,” in which Kinky gets wood for a teacher. They played OK, but we didn’t dance. That’s the measure.

3. We did not make a second visit to Fred and Annie Mae McDowell’s grave on Tate-Panola County Road between Senatobia and Como in Mississippi. We had hoped to make a practice of keeping them clean–on our first visit, Annie Mae’s grave was littered with butts and other detritus–but we realized only three months had transpired since our first visit. We are going to make it practice, but instead we went to the Como, Mississippi, library and saw some great North Mississippi Hill Country photos on the wall. If you’re ever in Como, stay in the Como Inn and go to their library.

4. Nicole, my wife, who is gamely, heroically, and intelligently struggling with the recent passing of her mother (and, really, she has no other) from brain cancer, loves New Orleans even more than I do–and people, I was born to love it–so we booked about a week at the highly recommended Frenchmen Hotel in the heart of the Marigny on Frenchmen Street, which, if you don’t know, is where you end up if you keep walking east past the French Market and out of the Quarter. I had a nice conversation with Jan Ramsey, the editor of Off Beat!, the guide to avoiding tourist shit and having fun local-style (it’s free in NOLA, but we pay to subscribe here in Misery), whose office is above the great Louisiana Music Factory, which was right next door to our hotel, and she was concerned with our experience on Frenchmen Street: “Was it just a touristy extension of the Quarter?” is what her concern was. Yeah, tourists find their way there, BUT, first, Frenchmen Street and the Marigny is the bohemian version of the Quarter (think about that), and it is virtually all music venues that are devoted to local acts, which, in New Orleans, deliver.

5. When in New Orleans, you must see and hear music. Every genre is represented, and not as a passing-through thing. We had a series of literally (in other words, I am not writing figuratively) mesmerizing live experiences:

Ellis Marsalis, one of the city’s first modernists, slyly guiding us through a mixture of Tin Pan Alley, bebop, post-bop, and modernistic pieces at Snug Harbor (go! go!), with his youngest Jason drumming and exchanging wry looks and strangely autistic rhythmic responses throughout.

Heavy Lids

Heavy Lids (above)

Siberia, an old-school punk dive that we revelled in–no summer scarves, no beards, no preciousness, lots of smoking!–featured an amazing four-band bill: Planchettes and Heavy Lids, who must be among the best punk bands in New Orleans, the  former anorexic teenage sex-god trash, the latter a casually fierce, “I don’t give a shit” unit with a great Mr. Quintron-produced 45 which we found at the stern but awesome Domino Sound, supporting the Nashville duo of Pujol, who must be the shortest band in rock and roll history but whose guitar tone drilled a hole through my brain, and–honestly, we didn’t know they were going to be in NOLA–Natural Child, whose new album Dancin’ with Wolves is their worst (they’re tryin’ to go country–why?) but who remain totally unpretentious, fun, and offer the best t-shirts in indie-dom. I count myself as easily in their Top 10 biggest fans, but they don’t give a shit–as it should be! We went in dreading enduring the huge bill, and left elated at how consistently exciting and fun the band–and, largely, the crowd–was. Props to a dude I met there named Ronin, who immediately made us feel welcome (my ancient Husker Du shirt helped).

John Boutte plays almost every Saturday night at dba’s on Frenchmen. The lay(wo)men would know him as the singer of the theme to HBO’s Treme. While not quite Sam Cooke risen to walk amongst us (as some claim), the little sprite has a very similar, though drier, delivery, and–honestly–better taste. We had suffered through douchebags standing directly behind us talking about their BMWs and cocktails when we’d seen him at Tipitina’s in NOLA in March, but dba’s insists on decorum during Boutte’s sets, and it made all the difference. He swung smoothly from anti-war song to Tin Pan Alley standard to trad-jazz NOLA to Iris DeMent’s “My Life” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” backed by acoustic guitar, piano, trombone, sax, and his own tambos. The man really would be a star if he chose to step out of the Crescent City, which he has no plans of doing. Respek.

We were, unaccountably, on a Marsalis kick. I find Wynton’s musical politics a sad and misguided distraction, but the family can play, and we bought tickets to see the trumpeter lead the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra at the beautiful Saenger Theater in a benefit for the Tipitina’s Foundation, which gets instruments in the hands of NOLA youth. I expected a dry performance, but the set list was inspired (nice onscure Brubeck and Silver, plus some Marsalis originals), and Wynton, really getting off on his mute and vocalizations, came off as a true and proud and funky son of the city. Two nights later, we found ourselves at the Royal Sonesta, watching Jason Marsalis’ vibes group nail a bunch of Monk tunes and being blown away by Justin Faulkner, one of the best young jazz drummers (along with New Orleans’ own Joe Dyson) that I’ve seen–look for him in the upcoming film about Buddy Bolden. He is the son of Art Blakey and Roy Haynes, if that means anything to you.

Records: four blew me away. Two 45s: a limited edition split-single where local boho-community booster-weirdo-organist Quintron does nouveaux-zydeco Keith Frank’s awesome and inspirational “Haterz” on the “B,” and Cajun heroes Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys do Quintron’s addictive “Chatterbox” on the “A”; and a great 1971 single by eccentric Lousiana bluesman/ex-con Robert Pete Williams, where, on the “A,” he says goodbye to Slim Harpo with stinging and unusual slide-playing, and, on the “B,” addresses our involvement in “Viet Nam.” I casually snapped it up for $10, only to find it was going for $30-40 in the collectors’ market. That shit makes no difference unless the music wails–which, here, it does. One LP I scarfed up collected the great NOLA trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen’s accompaniments of ’30s blues singers. Allen wasn’t Satchmo, but he had plenty of subtle and ecstatic moves. Finally, I got a 300-copies-only cassette comp of the best of the aforementioned Mr. Quintron, which, to my ears, is a) perfectly selected, and b) perfectly timed, since I just bought a new Denon dual cassette deck for $25 on eBay.

Finally, I met a small passel of locals at the Envie Cafe on Decatur–one of which had previosuly just been a cyberfriend, but who, in physical space, was even more interesting: a former stud wrestler, a master geneologist, and stellar record collector (I suspect him of being former CIA). He introduced me to his morning band of caffeinated reprobates, and I learned very, very much–about James Booker, Wynton Marsalis, Algiers Point, 504 Records, much, much more.

If you ain’t been, you really ought to go.

6. There are only two records that matter this year: Wussy’s Attica!, which is passionate and mysterious as rock and roll has not been for a long time, and Allen Lowe’s Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4. I’d like to say one thing about the latter (well, maybe more than one): read Lowe’s great book American Pop: From Minstrels to Mojos, which explains better than anything our tangled musical legacy, listen to the nine-disc audio companion, then load up his new four-disc set, lean forward, and revel in how he and his mutating jazz units (featuring players like Matthew Shipp, J. D. Allen, Lewis Porter, and the raw, ebullient-toned Lowe himself, on alto sax) try with all their might to live up to that legacy. All that’s missing, Allen, is a fiddle. Props are also extended to Bo Dollis, Jr’s A New Kind of Funk and the Jenny Lewis single “Just One of the Guys,” which transcends the too-polished album it’s attached to with real live commentary about being a rock and roll woman.

Good to My Earhole: The Last Half of June, 2014

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I absolutely love storming guitars. That’s why I love these two rekkids.

Something old, something new. Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins two-volume Herald Recordings (mine are on Collectables; I think they are available on other labels as well), recorded in that very significant year of 1954 (not ’55), make the Houston blueman’s claim to being a father of rock and roll–that’s how much steam he works up on classics like “Blues for My Cookie,” “My Little Kewpie Doll,” and “Lightnin’ Don’t Feel Well.” Though there are no late-night changes of paces, there are some rather amazing instrumentals, like “Hopkins’ Sky Hop.”  On Obnox’s Louder Space (on Austin’s perfectly named 12XU label), guitarist/drummer/vocalist Lamont Thomas (formerly of that unjustly obscure band of Ohioan ravers, This Moment in Black History) continues his assault on all things genteel–hey! it’s freaking taken over beyond neighborhoods, can’t you see?–with 12 hard-charging, fuzz-layered, no-let-up toons that conjure memories of prime Stooges, Big Black, and Dirtbombs. There’s a fonk-bomb called “How to Rob (The Punk Years)” (my personal favorite), there’s a redefinition of “Riding Dirty,” and the rekkid closes with a great dirge, titled, with perfect justification, “Feeling Real Black Today.” I just played the whole thing thing three times in a row. I think Lightnin’ would have loved it.

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Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings (Reprise)

I am half-deep in Will Friedwald’s Sinatra: The Song is You, which veers from near hagiography–I have never seen so many absolutes (“always,” “never”) from such an esteemed writer–to glowing, revelatory descriptions of classic sessions that argue that, in contrast to, say, Elvis, Ol’ Blue Eyes was in near-total control of his art, from modulating his justly-legendary voice to stopping sessions to make astute suggestions to producers, conductors, and musicians. When he got his own label, he went a little nuts, recording way too often with too few heads to butt against, resulting, with the help of the normal hell aging wreaks on a singer, in many records you could skip (can’t say that about his previous Capitol output). This one, though, is a real beauty. Sinatra comes to bossa nova a little late (1967–Getz got there in ’64), but I would argue this is the most fully realized statesize stab at the genre, and if you take umbrage with the claim Sinatra was a jazz singer–that his instrument was flexible to the degree of experimentation–well, gather yourself for this aural rebuttal. He’s close-miked, his every exhalation–no common matter with bossa nova!–sustained sibilance, and register-dives part of the music, and Jobim’s lighter vocal accompaniment and nimble guitar surround and respond to him just like those Nelson Riddle arrangements used to on Capitol. It’s a masterpiece. I am not sure I don’t like it better than In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. On a vocal level alone, no self-respecting George Jones fan should be without it.

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Heartless Bastards: “Got Down Last Saturday Night” b/w Wussy: “Breakfast in Bed” (Shake It Records)

This is the third in a four-45 tribute to the Muscle Shoals guitarist Eddie Hinton. I am not a huge fan of the Heartless Bastards, but the only thing they do wrong here is wind up too early; right as you are loving it, it’s over. Actually, though, I bought this as a gamble: the original “Breakfast in Bed,” which Hinton played on but did not write, was one of the many highlights of Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and Springfield sings it so exquisitely, with such a lethal combination of compassion, soul, and delicate raunch, that no singer in his or her right mind should ever go near it. Lucinda Williams, the Americana Joan Baez, tried, and had her limitations ripped out and shown to her the second before she–figuratively, of course–fell dead on the studio floor. How would Wussy’s Lisa Walker, whose imprecise pitch strikes one as either extremely fetching (if you are me) or a deal-breaker (if you are just mean), fare against the memory of a singer so ethereal, hip, Southern, and, it’s true, geisha-like–at least on that one album–that many listeners didn’t realize she was white and British? Like her band (“our people,” as partner-singer/songwriter Chuck Cleaver calls them), up against similarly daunting and virtuosic predecessors in Memphis’ American Studios session men, she puts her head down and attacks the song like it’s happening to her. Ragged and passionate, she and the band do justice. An essential pickup for Wussy fans, and a victory against the insidious musical creep of technophilia and gentility.

The original, to hear what they were up against:

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The American Song-Poem Anthology (Bar/None Records)

Once upon a time, you could scribble down your song lyrics, send ’em off with a check, and professional musicians would create a song around them–even if, in your song, you thought tangerines were yellow (and your song was called “I Like Yellow Things”). I am late to the party on this strange, strange compilation, but it is oddly unsettling, and infernally catchy. Example: the title song, which at first struck me as surreal and unhinged, then earwormed me for a few days, then had its mystery revealed by my wife Nicole, who matter-of-factly stated what the difference was. I will leave it to you as an enducement to try this very American, very weird record. Do you know the difference between big wood and brush? And do you know musical geniuses killed themselves trying to make these records for people like you?

GOOD TO MY EARHOLE, First Half of June 2014

Marc Ribot: Two Serenity-Wreckin’ Trios

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Good to My Earhole: May 17-30 (Hey! I Work for a Living!)

I have been quiet here for a while–but I have been listening diligently, and that diligence has been quite pleasurable. To wit, three aural adventures:

“Mr. O, What’s ‘The Golden Age’ of Rap?'” 

This was a question posed to me by a couple of my young Science Olympiad competitors after, as is my year-end ritual, I offered to custom-assemble an MP3 disk of music for each student on the team. Counting graduates who returned for our celebratory banquet, I knocked out 22 disks, but the one that was the most fun to put together was the one that answered that query. My definition of rap’s Golden Age is loose (1988-1994?) and arguable, and I stepped outside of it for a few selections, but I wanted them to taste some stuff that they might well have overlooked in the flood of possible Spotify/YouTube/iTunes choices, and here are my personal favorites of what I fed the kidz:

The Goats: “Typical American”

This Philly trio had one great album in them, and it’s still one of a kind. a) It’s a concept album about the traps of ’90s USA that works; b) the skits are as great as the songs; and c) it delivers an anthem–this song–that still, unfortunately, resonates.

Busta Rhymes with Old Dirty Bastard: “Woo-Hah” (Remix)

The original is just fine, but, to my ear, the remix is outta sight. One might argue that the two MCs’ styles are too close for a great team-up, but the Dirt Dog’s improvs, associations, and even-crazier-than-usual vocal stylizations mean there’s no mistaking who’s who. And ODB just steals the track.

Fu-Schnickens: “Sneakin’ Up On Ya”

Speaking of insane vocal stylizations, what the heck happened to Chip Fu, the only real reason to listen to this group? Yeah, he was fast, but that was far from all: on the Fu-Schnicks’ best tracks, he came closer than anyone to justifying the shaky claim that rap is simply verbal be-bop. That sells be-bop short, but Charlie Parker was grinning in jazz heaven when he heard Chip explode on his mind- and ear-bending verse here.

Ahmad, Ras Kass, and Saafir: “Come Widdit”

My man Alex Fleming from the Windy City tells me this trio was actually a short-lived GROUP called the Golden State Warriors; at the time, I only knew ’em from singles, and Ahmad’s killer debut. Listening to this now, it’s shocking that none of the three ever really blew up: their flows are fresh (especially Saafir’s, lingering just behind the beat), their rhymes and vocab are stunning, their personas as distinct as almost any rapper’s at the time you might want to name. This track’s from the great soundtrack of a horrible movie, Streetfighter. Lend a special ear to Ras Kass’ figurative language!

The Coup: “Dig It”

“Gunned us, gunned us/They raped us and they hung us/I’d like to take a moment to say/’Fuck Columbus!'” Thus The Coup and their mighty-mouthed MC Boots Riley ushered in their career, carried by a killer drums ‘n’ keys track that still sounds freshed. If you had bet on any of the writers featured in this list NOT to make it, you might have put your chips here, not because the skillz aren’t in play, but the confrontational style might have even scared off the hardcore. It’s a tribute to Riley’s commitment, brains, and talent that the best was yet to come, and that they are still in play almost two decades later. Note: if this track appeals to you, please read Ta-nehesi Coates’ recent related piece in The Atlantic.

Diamond D: “Best-Kept Secret”

For a moment, Diamond D was both a rising MC and an assassinatin’ producer. This track from the classic Stunts, Blunts, and Hip Hop demonstrates exactly why.

Showbiz and A.G.: “Fat Pockets”

Another shining Diamond D production moment, but the duo themselves showed every sign of stardom, and this tune was on almost every mix tape I made ’92.

Natural Resource: “Negro League Baseball”

Don’t be fooled by the video image; it’s the uploader’s way around a copyright dispute. However, the group did indeed feature a young woman, here not quite out of her teens, who’s long been my choice for “Queen of Hip Hop”: Ms. Jean Grae. Her verse is the standout, to my ears.

Heavy D and Friends: “Don’t Curse”

My all-time favorite posse cut, a hilarious idea that the gathered MCs actual pull off–barely!!!–and the best use ever of Booker T and the MGs’ classic “Hip Hug Her” outside of the original (and maybe the intro to Barfly). Heavy D, R.I.P.!

Ricky B: “Shake For Ya Hood”

The proof of the brilliance of this NOLA classic is, after a few plays, you’ll adopt it as your own anthem, no matter how pristine your own ‘hood is. And as raw as it is, it’s also innocent in its own special way (as many of the above tracks are): it’s hard to be outraged at a rap track that uses a zylophone (playing a cagey clip from The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”) for its hook, and, for once, an MC other than Chuck D really does live up to the “Black CNN” label. Ricky scans the scene, describes it in mournful detail, reveals his fear, but claims his turf anyway.

Oh, Anita!

On a recent trip to our old stomping grounds in Springfield, Missouri, my wife and I forced one of our favorite artists down the throats of two of our friends. You ever do that? I thought you had! If you see me on the street and you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, whatever you do, DON’T mention Anita O’Day, or you’ll have to drag me wherever you’re going. Graduate of the school of hard knocks, protofeminist in the manly world of jazz, fashion pioneer, author of an unapologetic memoir that earns it title (High Times, Hard Times), survivor of not only an accidental uvula-ectomy and nearly two decades of heroin abuse but also neglect during her senior years, but–most important–a vocal stylist on par with Billie, Sarah, and Ella, she’s a jazz legend and inspirational icon you’re very unlikely to know. In my mind and ear, she has no other peers. Since we’re not on the street, I’m writing, and I do have places to go, here’s my quick attempt to hook you:

From the superb jazz documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day:

From a Sixties appearance in Tokyo:

And the trailer for what we forced down Rex Harris’ and Heather Phipps’ throats (it went down smoothly, they would say–and they will be forcing it down others’ throats all too soon):

OK…you say you’re hooked? I knew you would be. Since YouTube so nicely offers COMPLETE ALBUMS (a development about which I am not sure), here’s my fave Anita album–bend a special ear to her album-long duel with accompanying pianist Oscar Peterson, and ask yourself what other vocalist could keep pace.

Appreciating the latter studio recordings of the Sinatra of Jazz, Sonny Rollins

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If you are reading this blog, you no doubt know that Sonny Rollins, one of the last living jazz titans and surely one of three greatest tenor saxophonists ever, has just released the third in a series of live albums, called Road Shows, that document the outstanding playing of his seventh and eighth decade swinging on this mortal coil (I will plug the first as so far the most mind-blowing, but they are all excellent). Also, if you have been reading this blog since its recent inception, you no doubt know it’s mostly dedicated to keeping rekkids that might be destined to be lost in the torrent in your eye- and ear-lines. Well, if you’ve heard or are simply very interested in the Road Shows volumes, I would also encourage you to sample Rollins’ last four studio albums. The proper albums of Rollins’ post-1970 career have often been maligned as 1) too stiff; 2) too clean; 3) too boring; 4) too generous to too-pedestrian sidemen and, perhaps that’s true (Gary Giddins’ Silver City compilation argues very effectively otherwise for 1970-1990), but Sonny Rollins +3 (1995), Global Warming (1998), This Is What I Do (2000), and Sonny, Please (2006), none of which are represented on the Giddins comp, have many, many things to recommend them. Primary is–big surprise!–Rollins’ playing. Though the man’s never been shy of experimenting, and though the complexity and abstration of some of his greatest solos are pretty danged challenging, on these records he lets loose his huge, confident, sly sound on the melodies and just rides them. In a recent NPR, Sonny claimed that it’s impossible for him to think and play at the same time, but you’ll doubt that claim as he bends, twists, savors, exclaims, questions, scolds, and dances with these numbers, many of which are calypsos, which he typically blasts into the upper deck. Another underappreciated aspect of these records are the number of outstanding compositions by Rollins himself. He does have a few pieces of jazz repertory to his credit (“St. Thomas,” “Oleo,” “Doxy,” to name a few), and it seems he’s best known for his miraculous interpretations (“I’m An Old Cowhand,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Isn’t She Lovely?”), but he has given future jazzmen and jazzwomen plenty to dig their teeth into with “Biji” (from +3), “Island Lady” (from Global), “Salvador” (from This), and “Nishi” (from Please). There’s a great compilation lurking in just the originals alone. Finally, the players? I am not sure Al Foster, Jack DeJohnette, Tommy Flanagan, Idris Muhammad, and Steve Jordan strike you as pedestrian, but I guarantee you they didn’t strike Sonny that way, and, though they mostly stay out of the way and let the man blow, that isn’t all that easy to do well, really. Here’s my main pitch: if you’re familiar with the best of Sinatra’s Capitol and Reprise recordings, what you’ll be getting out of Rollins’ horn is equal to what Ol’ Blue Eyes was intoning into the mic: warm, intelligent, intimate sound, created by a brain that knows its material inside and out. I do not proffer that comparison lightly.

Poor ol’ YouTube has very few tracks from these albums up; Spotify, however will help you out. But here’s a live track of Sonny blowing on “Salvador” that, if it speaks to you, should send you on to the rekkids I’ve rekkamended above.

Good to My Earhole: Listening Top 10, April 12 – April 18, 2014

I blew off the Drive-By Truckers, who were in town (the new one isn’t moving me yet). But it wasn’t all bad.

1) Lazy Lester: I’m a Lover Not a Fighter (Ace/Excello). God bless the Excello label and Jay Miller. The R&B, blues, and soul they released was distinctly country-flavored, with no small dose of Louisiana mixed in. The great Slim Harpo is their gold standard, but if you haven’t sampled Lester deeply, he’s callin’ your name. Drawling, behind the beat and taking his time, he waxed nearly as many memorable tunes as his label mate, prime among them “Sugar-Coated Love,” “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter,”  and “Take Me in Your Arms” (all here). He also backed numerous other Excello artists, and is still out there on the road.

2) Chuck Carbo: “Second Line on Monday” and “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On”: Carbo was one of the finest and versatile but most underrated of NOLA’s r&b kings of the ’50s (when, primarily, he was the lead vocalist in The Spiders). My wife Nicole and I have been plotting a move to New Orleans (a surprise I am sure is not big to careful observers of these Top 10s), I’ve been reading Jeff “Almost Slim” Hannush‘s The Soul of New Orleans, and my research has happily turned up these two examples of Carbo’s longevity from the 1980s, when he put these songs on the permanent ‘OZ Mardi Gras playlist.

3) Khaira Arby: “La Liberty,” from Festival Au Desert: If you are a completely unabashed appreciator of beauty and passion in all musics, you NEED a chanteuse of Saharan desert blues sand-blasting through your speakers. Mariem Hassan would seem to rule the roost in this category, but this live track from one of Timbuktu’s last (pre-revolution) festivals shows Arby’s right on her heels. The whole rekkid’s amazing but hard to find; if you want to dip into the genre, a better starting point you cannot find.

Watch an entire Arby concert on NPR:

4) Big Star: Third/Sister Lovers (Rykodisc): It takes a special occasion for me to put this on in my ma-toor-ity, but Holly George-Warren’s excellent Alex Chilton bio caused me to pull it from the shelves, and it made for a weirdly pleasant lava-flow afternoon. Definitely as sui generis as anything this sui generis artist ever produced, and it’s got “codeine” stamped all over it. Jim Dickinson was at the controls, and that just made it worse/better. Enjoy the full damn album, courtesy of You Tube (I paid for mine):

5) Dead Moon: “Poor Born,” “40 Miles of Bad Road,” “54/40 or Fight”: The great Fred Cole, who’s hardcore commitment to DIY–in music, in life, in romance, in child-rearing–has spanned right on 50 years, has been recuperating from heart surgery over the past week, and I can’t get him off my mind. Mastermind behind The Weeds, Zipper, The Rats, The Range Rats, Dead Moon (THE ultimate cult punk band), and (currently) The Pierced Arrows, so down-to-earth he appeared at my high school for a free show, he deserves as much support as the cognoscenti can muster–so I played these three faves over and over. You should, too.

A vintage performance of “54/40 or Fight”:

6) Earl King with The Meters: Street Parade (Fuel): Perfect title for this pairing of two Crescent City institutions, one an influential guitarist (are you familiar with Jimi Hendrix, who covered one of his tunes?) and songwriter (did you know he wrote this?), the other an R&B instro act that often makes Booker T and the MGs sound…stiff. When your drummer is Ziggy Modeliste, a street parade will be in the mix.

7) Johnny Adams: There is Always One More Time (Rounder Heritage): They don’t call him “The Tan Canary” for nothing. Possessed of both a penetrating yet silky baritone as well as a shocking falsetto, Adams laid down stunning tracks on a fairly consistent basis from the late ’50s all the way into the lower reaches of the ’90s. This collects the best of his late phase. If you dig Sinatra, you have no excuse to ignore an exploration:

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8) Mose Allison: Way of the World (Anti-): “An old man/Don’t get nuthin’ in the world these days.” Well, he didn’t write that, but he wrote the very similar line (and song) The Who made famous at Woodstock and on Live at Leeds. Too many folks slept on his last release, exquisitely produced by Joe Henry (who’s never done a job I haven’t admired), and are un-American for doing so. Mose is all precision on the keys and, as always, brainy on the lyrics, one of the best of which lauds his octogenarian brain–as long as there’s coffee available. A national treasure–give him his props, before the heartbeat stops.

9) Beausoleil: “Bessie’s Blues”/”I’ll Go Crazy”/”You Got to Move,” from From Bamako to Carencro: Not sure anything like this has been done in Cajun music, or any kind of Americana–a cover sequence moving  through nuggets originally composed by surprising guiding lights John Coltrane, JB, and Mississippi Fred that doesn’t stumble once. The twin genius axes of Michael (fiddle) and David (guitar) Doucet are at peak levels of invention, passion, and dexterity. I’d try to link it, but, trust me: just buy it.

10) Sisyphus (Secretly Canadian): It’s tempting to dismiss this as sissy fuss, with Sufjan Stevens on hand and Serengeti continuing to threaten to waft away into the indie-sphere. But, at least to my ears, there’s something original and even encouraging in this almost-formula: Stevens (often) provides a plaintive frame for a more substantial and (at least relatively) gritty narrative/inner monologue/confession by ‘Geti. Son Lux lays down the beats, that last word one that gatekeepers would put in quotes. Just gotta say, it gets to me in a near-prophetic way: the ‘burbs and the urbs joining forces to try to communicate a complicated reality.

Good to My Earhole: Listening Top 10, April 5 – April 11, 2014

I guess it is going to become regular…

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1) Holly George-Warren: A Man Called Destruction–The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (Viking) I am a mass devourer of pop music tomes, but also a bit of a Chilton skeptic: even the brilliance of the best Big Star material is largely attributable to Chris Bell, and too much of the man’s notoreity is connected to things other than music. But George-Warren not only makes a great case here, taking the reader behind the scenes to bedroom rehearsals, bent late-night studio experiments, eccentric apprenticeships, and a long, disciplined, sober road to demonstrate Chilton’s hands were on the wheel more often than reported–even when he was barely conscious. More important, she shapes meticulous research (oh, to have grown up in the Chilton home!) into breezy and fascinating narrative, and balances that with insight into the making of the music. Plus, she passes my first test of good music books: her book sends you racing back to the music (the proof of which you will see in this week’s entry). In fact, my Brit Lit class enjoyed a Big Star block party today while they worked on their writing portfolios. Note: it does share something significant with a recent Zevon tome— this was a guy who, despite his charisma and multiple connections, was very, very lonely.

2) “Every night I tell myself, ‘I am the Cosmos, I am the wind’/But that won’t bring you back again….” Easily one of my favorite rock and roll couplets. Chilton didn’t write it; his partner Chris Bell did, though the sound of his post-Big Star productions (captured on the Rykodisc release I Am the Cosmos) revealed that band’s sonic architecture might well have sprung initially from Bell’s mind. I love the combination of metaphysics and heartbreak, and, really, the whole “record” (Bell died before he could complete a solo album) is fascinating:

3) Doris Duke: I’m a Loser–The Swamp Dogg Sessions (Kent) Jerry Williams, Jr., is one hell of a producer, songwriter, and bandleader, but seldom did he oversee someone else’s record that topped his own eccentric and piquant output. Working with luminaries like Irma Thomas and Gary U. S. Bonds, he wrote nice material and created solid settings, but somehow the artists didn’t catch fire. Not true on these 1969 recordings with one of soul’s great lost treasures, Miss Duke from Sandersville, Georgia. She rises to the occasion of great Dogg titles like “Ghost of Myself,” “Divorce Decree,” and “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman,” selling them with a smoky, soulful, very country authenticity that’ll make you wonder why she didn’t become a star (I’d argue, a late start in the soul game).

4) Jessie Mae Hemphill: The George Mitchell Collection, Volume 45 (Fat Possum) I can’t get enough of one of Senatobia, Mississippi’s finest citizens. Hemphill, “The She-Wolf,” plays in the distinctive, trancy, north Mississippi style, and these are her first recordings (her mother and aunt often turn up accompanying Fred McDowell on his records). Along with two fetching cuts comes an interview with Miss Hemphill. Hear the whole thing right hyar:

5) Wussy: Attica! (Damnably) Sometimes I feel like arguing, “You either love Wussy or you don’t know they exist.” Living as we do in a world of fiberglass hoods, erotic teens, calendar cowboys/girls, and Mensa-folk conformists, it seems impossible not to support, encourage, and listen to (if not lionize) rockin’ and writin’ marrieds whose personae as well as music is as entrancingly homely and evocative of lived lives as Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker’s. On this brand-spankin’ new rekkid, the musical attack’s a little richer (helped by a member of Cleaver’s former band, The Ass Ponys) and the tart harmonies and wry words (the opener finds Walker lost in a corn maze) show absolutely no loss of concentration. Even their best records are a little uneven, but, on second listen, I feel safe dubbing this one their most consistent. Fans of George and Tammy (sorry), John and Exene (sorry), Thurston and Kim (sorry), Bruce and Patti (well, OK), Ira and Georgia (righteous), Fred and Toody (the MOST righteous), and Cecil and Linda (wait….) need to do the right thing and take this band for a ride. If I were in a band with my wife, I would want it to sound this honest and unique: “Attica, baby/Call it LOVE!” Also, I can relate to Chuck’s observation that, twenty years ago, he was more beautiful, but also more monstrous. For the benighted, an alternate version of a Wussy classic:

6) Guided By Voices: Bootlegged live, ’94. I don’t know much about this recording, though it seems to be made in Ohio from the apparent presence of Ron House in the audience; the recording was passed along to me by a long-time rock and roll compatriot. I’ve never been a fan, and I don’t know why, because in many ways they seem to have been made to hit my musical pleasure points: swift, concise, raw, literate, and tuneful. I think I thought Robert Pollard’s approach was too cute, that his writing and concept was, weirdly, too facile. Anyway, this changed all of that. Pollard and very likely the band are blasted (which was their rep, I guess), but as they rip through tunes from the just-issued Bee Thousand and before, they sound perfect to me, in all the previously enumerated ways. And it’s valuable to keep in mind that the Replacements, predecessors with much the same ethic, never left a live document this alive. Thanks to Mark Anthony of the much-missed website The Rawk. From the same time period:

7) Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound) 20 years after she knocked the world on its ear as a young mother and avant garde progeny in a buffalo stance (that single STILL sounds marvelous), Ms. Cherry, fresh from fronting a free jazz record–not an easy VOCAL task–has issued this equally challenging project, where her still free-inflected vocals dart and linger in and around extremely crisp and deep trip-hop inflected tracks. It’s hard to judge it, because I haven’t heard much like it, but I have been encountering some age-ism lately, and Cherry’s work is argument against it.

8) Dry Wood (directed by Les Blank) and Bury the Hatchet (directed by Aaron Walker) One old, one new doc out of Louisiana, the former about Creole culture (specifically, music and food) in Mamou, the latter about NOLA Mardi Gras Indians (specifically, Big Chiefs Alfred Doucette, Victor Harris, and Monk Boudreaux). Both films are beautiful and do what they set out to do and more. But they are most striking in capturing Americans making and building (also, unfortunately, rebuilding) things themselves–they will strike you across the face with what you are missing out on. VERY, VERY highly recommended.

Dry Wood trailer:

Bury the Hatchet trailer:

9) Allen Toussaint: Life, Love, and Faith (Four Men with Beards Reissue) Toussaint’s mild, almost shy singing causes some listeners’ minds to wander, but here it’s backed by the original version of The Meters (notably including the drumming of Ziggy Modeliste, which is always interesting by itself) and some of the best tunes and arrangements Allen ever wrote for himself. Quietly and seductively funky, in the New Orleans way.

10) Fats Waller, 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Scrambling to get it together to meet my Science Olympiad crew at 6:30 at the local university, my stressors were vanquished when my wife Nicole got the right medicine out of the cabinet. If the world is too much with you, if you can’t pry your mind from lost planes, corporate control of your country, the frustrations of your job (if you even have one), or absent friends or family, let the mischievous Mr. Waller remind you that life is too important to be taken seriously. His deft command of the 88s, his phrasing-with-a-wink, his jaunty rhythm, his raffish charm–what more can you ask for to lift your tension?

 

 

Good to My Earhole: Listening Top 10, March 30 – April 4, 2014

Not that I expect this to become a regular feature–I hope it does, though my small band of followers must have noticed I am casting about a bit–but here are some brisk takes on the ten things that spun most euphoniously around my eardrums this week. Consider them strong recommendations for application to your own soul-ills, whatever they may be.

1) Tin Men: Avocodo Woo Woo (CD Baby). I was skeptical about this NOLA trio (featuring Washboard Chaz, the astonishingly ubiquitous songwriter and guitarist Alex McMurray, and sousaphonist–only in the Crescent City!–Matt Perrine) possibly being a dad-rock cum Parrothead act until I read a notably scrupulous and discerning NYC critic’s glowing notice of this, their new album. It is perfectly frothy and spirited fun, with interestingly dark (“Blood in My Eyes”) and dirty (the title song) turns. And, frankly, I love the sound they get from their three pieces.

2) Como Now: Voices of Panola County (Daptone). I am not sure how this brainstorm by “The Label Sharon Jones Built” came about, but in ’06 their agents found themselves in Como, Mississippi (home/former whereabouts) of Fred McDowell, Otha Turner, and Napolion Strickland), soliciting a capella gospel songs from black Christian locals and recording them in a local church. A moving listening experience, especially Irene Stephenson’s harrowing “If It Had Not Been for Jesus.” I am an atheist, and it transfixed me.

3) The Staples Singers: Freedom Train (Epic). Not to be confused with the relatively recent Columbia best-of of the same title, this live album was cut in a church in the group’s then-hometown of Chicago, and the location and the clarity of engineering make it one of the most powerful gospel records of the ’60s, methinks. It’s out of print; I thought I’d pulled a fast one and snagged a $4 copy on eBay, but it was pretty banged up–not so much so that I did not THOROUGHLY enjoy the almost otherworldly dynamics of the performance, particularly Pops’ always-venomous guitar and Mavis’ almost atavistic pleadings.

4) Jessie Mae Hemphill: Feelin’ Good (Shout Factory). Just a bit north of Como (also north of Winona, where Pops Staples was raised up–can you tell I’ve been to Mississippi recently?) is Senatobia, and the space between is one of the locations where North Mississippi Hill Country blues was born. It’s a different animal than Delta blues: structurally and lyrically, it’s more repetitive, but that’s not necessarily a deficit when it’s played with intensity. That’s when it becomes hypnotic–in some ways, it’s an extreme version of the John Lee Hooker sound. Hemphill was raised in this (and the related fife-and-drum) tradition; she’s not as loud nor does she project as well as R. L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, but her feminine perspective and toughness often make up for that. Try this:

5) Fu-Schnickens: “Sneakin’ Up On Ya” (from Nervous Breakdown, Jive Records). As Chicago rapper Serengeti’s Tha Grimm Teachaz project suggests, there’s one thing very special about the best rap rekkids of 1990-1995: they don’t date as badly as the prime cuts of other eras. Also, that period seemed stylistically wilder, with seemingly unforgettable (but now pretty much forgotten) MC Chip Fu providing a mind-boggling thrill every other song for this unique group. Other MCs may have been faster, but not more inventive at the same time. By the way, how many current rap GROUPS can you count?

6) D’Angelo: Live at the Jazz Cafe, London, 1996 (Virgin/Universal). This was a Japan-only release back in the day it was recorded, but, as I understand it, even then it wasn’t as expansive as this new reissue, which features ACE covers of The Ohio Players, Mandrill (“Fencewalk”!), Smokey Robinson, and Al Green along with classics from Brown Sugar–principally, a phenomenal performance of the tital track. Weirdly, the artiste often seems to recede into the performances, so he’s no more emphasized than the band or the backup ladies (led by Angie Stone), almost…a Billie Holiday thing. At first I was disappointed he didn’t project more, then I began to suspect it was part of the conception. The link below may be the whole dang thing. Keep your ladies inside the fence….

7) Duke Ellington Orchestra: “Snibor” (from the American Hustle soundtrack or, better advised, And His Mother Called Him Bill on RCA). I finally had a chance to see American Hustle this week, and Nicole and I were surprised and thrilled to hear Johnny Hodges’ alto oozing from this film-opening soundtrack cut. Also, having courted to rekkids ourselves, we were surprised and thrilled to see the protagonists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) do the same thing, to Duke and Jeep’s “Jeep’s Blues.” If you are not familiar with Hodges’ sound, it is the definition of sensuous AND sensual; if you are not familiar with Billy Strayhorn’s compositions for Duke, they are usually designed to highlight that sound. Weirdly, I can’t find a YouTube clip for this tune, but here’s an equally seductive one from the same, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED album (a tribute to the recently-passed Strayhorn):

8) The criminally underrated music of Tyler Keith. As a long-time teacher, I am closely acquainted with the dangers of certainty; in fact, I make it a point to seldom if ever come at students from that angle. Music, as esoteric as our perceptions are, is even more problematic in that regard. But I am certain of this: in a world where the rock and roll impulse is dimming, quite seriously (I think that’s a result of the natural evolution of cultural history, of young musicians, for example, casting off the influence of the blues–although donning the robes of a hipster version of James Taylor, in my view, is a misstep–and not feeling the pressures and releases of a society obsessed with sin and salvation, which I think our society still is but youth circa 2014 may not necessarily be), Tyler Keith of Oxford, Mississippi, may well be the  last live-wire link to both the near-insane energy and rhythm of rockabilly and the bugged-eyed gaze into the void of Richard Hell’s strain of punk, which might really have never been fully exploited for its potential. Whew. That was a long one. But goddam I believe it, and the proof is in the best of Tyler’s work with the Neckbones, and three of his rapidly disappearing four “solo” albums (with the current Apostles and the former Preachers’ Kids), in chronologically descending order, Black Highway, Wild Emotions (a fantastic rekkid that MIGHT AS WELL NOT EXIST ON THE INTERWEB!!!), and the perfectly-titled Romeo Hood. Keith’s vocals leap out of his larynx as if propelled by a blood-surge, the music is deeply embued with tough-ass-Stones, sprung-Chuck Berry flavor and Johnny Thunders-styled explosions that are quite unpredictable (!) but perfectly timed in nature, and lyrics that are as obsessed with sin and salvation as The Killer’s favorites, though one suspects with Tyler those are purely existential notions. He can even nail a ballad, even one called “Angora,” about a certain sweater. I have never seen him live, but the intensity of his best recordings cause me to suspect that if I do and he is on, it will be hard to stay in the same room with him. The thing is, I felt this strongly when there was a decent herd he was travelling in; now, he is the burning antithesis not only of the swarms of bearded strummers that play, in critic and musician Allen Lowe’s perfect phrase, as if they have napkins folded in their laps, but also of the depleted strain of rockers who, honestly, usually protest their rockitude too much. With Keith, one feels he’s communicating his wild emotions without artistic calculation, and that’s special. I’ve gone on too long, and I can’t do him justice, but I AM RIGHT: here’s a video of one of the best tunes on his recent rekkid, the BEST rock and roll album of 2013.

Chuck

9) Public Enemy: “Can’t Truss It” (live on Yo! MTV Raps). Nicole and I were fortunate enough to see the great rap orator Chuck D speak at Columbia’s Missouri Theater Tuesday night, for FREE (not nearly enough folks there, though). He is a hero of both of ours–I’ve even read his books–and we came with high expectations. He delivered grandly, though he talked mostly about critical thinking in the age of extreme technology and devolution of United States popular culture (remember when that two-word phrase was a joy? a reason to live?). I prepped for his appearance by watching this great raw video of one of PE’s greatest songs, one I used to teach in American lit, though I didn’t show it to kids this week (I was thinking about using it to promote the appearance) because I didn’t want to be met with slot mouths.

10) Tommy Boy All-Stars: “Malcolm X: No Sell Out” (Tommy Boy 12″). This, too, was part of my prep for seeing Chuck D, a man who, really, hasn’t sold out, either. I’ve read both the Haley/X “autobiography” and Manning Marable’s corrective bio, and I absolutely love the threading of perfectly chosen soundbites from Malcolm’s speeches (“I was in a house tonight that was bombed…my own. It’s not something the makes me lose confidence in what I’m doing.”) through an ace Keith LeBlanc track. In a perfect world, it woulda been a hit. Still inspiring: “I’m not the kind of person who would come here and say what you like.”