As wave after wave of tracks and albums wash over our cyber-eyes and into our cyber-ears, I become more and more committed to exploring the past, to seeking out releases I learn about from my reading and conversations that sometimes end up barely available on Amazon or Discogs or eBay. Honestly, I find this pursuit more exciting—at least at present—than I do hearing new music, which I do continue to enjoy thoroughly. Though it does make me smack myself upside the head quite frequently: how did I miss 8 Bold Souls, Joe Harriott, and Field Mob—easily my favorite “excavations” of the year, and clearly significant innovators in their fields?
So, continuing to strive to counteract the pull of the dustbin of time, here are my 50 favorite purchases of old stuff from 2015 (the links don’t necessarily take you to tracks from the album, because, contrary to popular belief, “Everything is[n’t] on YouTube!”):
These posts originally appeared on Facebook, where my potential audience is much larger than here. My thinking behind the somewhat-weekly series was to help people sift through albums from the past that might easily be forgotten in the tsunami of information about new reviews–as well as occasionally commenting on significant newer items. That concept is dressed up like simple reportage about what I have actually been listening to, by choice as opposed to in an attempt to stay on top of new thangs. Which I am struggling, like you, to do.
8 BOLD SOULS – 8 – I am hooked on Edward Wilkerson, Jr.’s arrangements for this terribly underrated AACM-sprung unit. They’re always interesting and fun and funky. The otherwise-reliable PENGUIN GUIDE TO JAZZ RECORDINGS doesn’t see fit to even mention them. Bullshit. Every one of their records are good-plus to excellent, and Wilkerson needs to be recognized as a luminary of the past quarter-century. Also: their name fits their musical enterprise.
AFRICAN HERITAGE SYMPHONIC SERIES, VOLUME II (Chicago Sinfonietta, conducted by Paul Freeman): Ulysses Kay/George Walker/Roque Cordero/Adolphus Hailstork/Hale Smith – 10 – I don’t know doodley-squat about classical music, but I can hear majesty, tension, fear, and desire when gathered musicians successfully convey it, as they do here. This was just what I needed this week, cranked to 8 in my truck cab. Pick to click: Smith’s “Ritual and Incantations.”
Laurie Anderson/HEART OF A DOG – 8.5 – A winsome, quirky, and disarmingly deep meditation on mortality, following death of mom, dog, and man. Closed down–and redeemed–by song written and sung by said man.
Erykah Badu/BUT YOU CAIN’T USE MY PHONE – 8.8 – A concept mixtape that shoulda been packaged with Aziz Ansari’s MODERN ROMANCE. Ms. Badu is a bit like The Stones–she has a knack for staying relevant over time, and even if you hate “phone world,” she sings and writes nicely here, and the rhythms are bumpin’.
Billy Bang Quintet Featuring Frank Lowe/ABOVE & BEYOND – 9 – There aren’t that many jazz violinists, and Bang, a Vietnam vet, was one of the best, able to play inventively both “inside” and “outside.” This 2003 record finds him in a Grand Rapids club with his long-time playing partner, tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, dying of cancer, down to a single lung, but playing with scintillating vigor nonetheless–a “horseman, pass by” performance! Bang himself had only eight more years to fiddle on this turf, and his equally stellar playing make this one of the most moving jazz documents of the new millennium.
BeauSoleil/HOT CHILI MAMA – 9 – Like Robert Cray, Dwight Yoakam, The Roots, and Tom Petty, THE Cajun band can seem so consistently good as to be underrated. Don’t fool yourself and ignore them. Michael Doucet’s lively, insouciant fiddle and earthy vocals, bro Michael’s Doc Watson-gone-swamp picking, and the band’s fearlessness in adapting outside material is the recipe for aural orgasm. Yes: I wrote that on purpose.
Don Byas/SAVOY JAM PARTY – 9.0 – This Okie from Muskogee is here the very happy medium between the twin towers of pre-WWII tenor sax, the laggard Pres and the vigorous Bean. Stellar support, too, from Charlie Shavers, Slam Stewart, and Max Roach.
Leonard Cohen/CAN’T FORGET–A SOUVENIR OF THE GRAND TOUR – 8 – One souvenir of three, but this one features a vastly different set of songs, including some worthy newbies. Except for conceptually, he doesn’t get away with “Choices”(Bettye LaVette beat him to that Possum cover in the first place), and his already-threadbare voice has lost a little grain, but from the disarming cover art to a closing where he hugs mortality tighter than ever, you have no choice but to contemplate whether this’ll be his last. Respect your elders!
Elizabeth Cook/GOSPEL PLOW – 8.5 – Spunky-tough C&W singer-songwriter takes on spirituals by Blind Willie Johnson, Lou Reed, and anonymous geniuses and delivers, no small thanks to her (now ex-) husband’s rowdy guitar.
Jacques Coursil (trumpet) & Alan Silva (double bass)/FREE JAZZ ART (SESSIONS FOR BILL DIXON) – 9 – Near-trance-inducing, Asian-tinted, marginally differentiated performances by two crafty veterans. The music doesn’t sound all that free, but that may be the art. A colleague wandered into my office and demanded I email him the recording info so he could get it post-haste. That’s a good recommendation in and of itself. Thanks to Isaac Davila.
The Dead Weather/DODGE & BURN– 7.5 – Moved only to eye-rolling by Jack White, I can’t resist this raving project of his, mainly because of Alison Mosshart’s howling. But despite the abundant riffage, propulsion and attitude, I am not sure it adds up to anything. Docked .5 for a toe-dip into minstrelsy.
Dexateens/LOST & FOUND – 9 – Finally found this literally “lost” (master?)piece of modern Southern rock, and did it please me! From earworm riffs (“Mary”) to caught-me-short details (box fans!) to sly tales (“Altar Blues”) to their oddly Stonesish way with vulnerability, this keeps hitting me where I love, I mean live. For Eric Johnson
DIRTY BOOGIE–THE FORTUNE RECORDS STORY– 9.0 – Though it wisely skimps on flagship geniuses Nolan Strong and Andre Williams, forcing you to pick up their own official compilations (but, wait, where are those, again?), this three-disker ably highlights the lesser-known of the two totally classic Detroit labels of the 1950-1965 Golden Age. Unsurprisingly for a company sprouting up in a Northern industrial hub, it offered r&b, rockabilly, doo wop, country, a touch of jazz, and plenty of the title medicine. Secret hero: Roy Hall, of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” fame.
Jim Dickinson/FISHING WITH CHARLIE – 9 – Running interference for both World Boogie and Mumbo Jumbo, Dickinson nails rumbling readings from such luminaries as Vachel Lindsay, Nick Tosches, and Larry Brown. Best in show: a haunting, vivid, loving cutting from Michael Ondaatje’s COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER. Might be Dickinson’s unintentional epitaph.
Drive-By Truckers/IT’S GREAT TO BE ALIVE – 9 – A theme’s developing here. I didn’t think I needed a three-disc live Truckers set from our current year, but I must bow. A classic career summation, with numerous surprises (“Girls Who Smoke,” “Runaway Train”) and revisions (“Goode’s Field Road”), that lives all the way up to its title, mostly thanks to the irrepressible joy in Patterson Hood’s singing. Need I mention that the guitar is abundant, ragged, and lyrical? And that it’s one HELL of a bargain at $17?
Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards/SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (ASV Living Era Series, for those that love that line like me!) – 8.5 – There’s some extreme corn in tow, but Cliff was an early pop star for good reason. Most will know him as the voice of Jiminy Cricket on “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but I will take his spirited “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “Singin’ in the Rain” over all the other versions I’ve heard, and his “Paper Moon” almost beats Nat King Cole’s. There’s more, including one of the first recorded versions of “California, Here I Come” and some very charming extreme corn (“Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home”).
Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra/FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA, NOVEMBER 7, 1940 (Deluxe Golden Anniversary Edition) – 10 – The impossibly great but short-lived Blanton/Webster band, on a radio broadcast the fidelity of which is stunning for the time. And the band is ON. Hear Duke’s exhortations, steppin’ feet, and the radio broadcaster as part of the music, feel the glory in 29 songs’ worth of prime Ellingtonia, and get stunned by a murderer’s row of genius soloists. Plus: I’ve heard drummer Sonny Greer maligned, but, damn, the engine room is on fire.
Freddy Fender/TELL IT LIKE IT IS–THE BEST OF THE CRAZY CAJUN RECORDINGS – 8.5 – We are still waiting for the ultimate Fender comp, but I really like this memento from his days with fellow eccentric Huey Meaux ’cause it displays his amazing range (and I don’t mean his inimitable singing): from classic r&b to standards to Doug Sahm honky-tonk to chart-rock from The Who (yes, The Who). In a single performance, you can hear in Freddy East Texas, South Texas, West Texas, and, of course, Mexico–I hope that sounds seductive to you, because it sure as hell does to me. Plus he could write a good one, and guitar-sling.
Chico Freeman and Von Freeman/FREEMAN & FREEMAN – 8.3 – The son, Chico, plays like a cocky street kid just dosed with a tab of Trane. Pops sounds like no one else but himself–a sneaky-smart old pro who loves to squeak, creak, and reach into your chest at a moment’s notice, right when you think he’s not going to get out of a chorus intact. And should your attention drift, there’s Jack DeJohnnete to rattle you to attention. Recorded live at the NYC Shakespeare Festival!
Erroll Garner/THE ORIGINAL MISTY and BODY & SOUL– 10 – A weekend of Garner’s magic piano in my ear elevated him above God (aka Art Tatum) in my esteem. I am not a musician, so you can take that for what it’s worth, but for joy, invention, touch, and surprise, I’ll stake my rep on it. Thank you, Whitney Balliett for putting me right.
Roscoe Gordon/LET’S GET HIGH – 8.8 – Memphis weirdo pianist invents ska, only he doesn’t realize it until much later!
GymShorts/NO BACKSIES! – 7.9 – If the idea of the Country Teasers (the only band I’ve ever heard that could CREATE a hangover with its music) fused with The Jesus & Mary Chain (who too quickly abandoned their knack for beautiful feedback overload) appeals to you, you might want to check this Rhode Island combo out. Their noise is VERY adulterated. Live, they are less weird and more together. More weird and more together is the next step. Fingers crossed.
Brian Harnetty/BAREHEAD AND BLOODYBONES – 8 – What could be more fun on a holiday than to listen to old field recordings of country kids telling very damn disturbing stories to piquant electronic instrumentation provided by the credited artist? Pick hit: the title track–it freaked me out a little, and it’s an ooooold story. From those hardworking folks at Dust-to-Digital Records.
Michael Hurley, The Unholy Modal Rounders, and Jeffrey Fredericks and The Clamtones – HAVE MOICY! – 15 – Last week I was scandalized to learn that several of my music-loving pals hadn’t even HEARD of this record–one of those rare ones for which you need a backup copy. It is a lot of things: a guidebook for living dangerously, an inquiry into the nature of things, a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, an outline of sexual adventure. But it’s much more. All that information is delivered with such gusto, drollery, seductiveness, insanity, and–occasionally–menace that you may have whole verses memorized after the first listen, which, if you listen, will be the first of many.
“Yeah, but what kind of music is it?”
Unhinged. But easefully unhinged. As if unhinged is a way of life.
Please go find this and buy it. (Note: the sequel, just released and reviewed here last week, ain’t no slouch.)
HAVE MOICY 2–THE HOODOO BASH – 8.8 – If you don’t have the first volume, make it a priority: whacked-out but subtly philosophical songwriting delivered with insane enthusiasm (alternating with subversive seductiveness) by ’60s freak folk heroes. The sequel is honorable: though two members have since stepped on rainbows and the subversively seductive Michael Hurley passed on the project, it’s full of joy and camaraderie, with Peter Stampfel opening the proceedings with a genius repurposing of a Del Shannon song, Jeffrey Lewis providing a paean to nonsense and tweaking the nose of intelligent design, and Baby Gramps Grampsing around mysteriously and channeling pirates on “Crossbone Scully.” Also, some butts are hilariously on fire on the “projected single.”
Clifford Hayes and the Louisville Jug Bands/VOLUME 1, 1924-1926 – 8.8 – Hayes gets lead billing, but blower Earl McDonald is the true star. I doubted a recently-encountered claim McDonald could get jazz out of a jug, then this made me shut up. Great appearances by Sara Martin and Johnny Dodds, too, and Hayes is mos def no slouch. Now–to the other three volumes!
HERB JEFFRIES: A COLORED LIFE(directed by Kim Clemons and Kimberly Dunn, 2008)– 7.8 – Blue-eyed Sicilian-Irishman from Detroit goes south to Chicago and west to Hollywood, passes for “colored,” sings Duke Ellington to his first mega-hit, and becomes Hollywood’s first “black singing cowboy.” Jeffries: “My father is Portuguese, Spanish, American Indian, and Negro. How in the hell can I identify myself as one race or another?” Indeed.
Lightnin’ Hopkins/THE GOLDSTAR RECORDINGS, VOLUME 1 – 8.8 – I know: how many Lightnin’ albums does one listener need? Frankly, it might just be impossible to track them all down even if you wanted to, but these very early recordings are trance-enducing, trickily differentiated in masterfully marginal ways, and–just when you are in a zone that’s humming through your ears to your brain–he moves to organ for a zany and addictive change of pace that makes you laugh out loud.
The Horribly Wrong/C’MON AND BLEED WITH THE HORRIBLY WRONG– 8.8 – I bought this record out of duty, out of loyalty, out of love for the Nashville band Natural Child, simply because Natty C’s bassist Seth Murray plays and sings on it. Suffice it to say that duty, loyalty, and love have their payoffs, and this is one. One of the BEST punk/trash-rock rekkids I’ve heard in years (it’s a 2010 release), and it’s from Indiana, too (attention #ChuckEddy).
Soundtrack to the film THE HOT SPOT – 8 – I’ve never seen this Dennis Hopper film and somehow hadn’t heard much about the soundtrack until I read Charles Shaar Murray’s John Lee Hooker bio and discovered Miles, Hook, and Earl Palmer, the inventor of the rock and roll beat if anyone was, play together on MOST of the tracks. How bad could it be? Well, if you’re not expecting a masterpiece (super-sessions never are) you will dig it. The trumpeter and guitarist mesh pretty well, and the drummer holds the groove. And that’s what it is: a solid groove album featuring two of the most singular voices in our music. Even the lyrics are no disgrace.
Gregory Isaacs/EXTRA CLASSIC – 9 – First record I’ve ever bought on Keith Richards’ recommendation (see “Desert Island Discs”). Thought I had reggae’s Cool Ruler down cold, but only one of these songs, mixed in his classic lover man/social critic style, was previously known to me, and “Jailer” is the only one that overlaps my favorite Isaacs record, MY NUMBER ONE. He whispers in your eyes, then hips you to Babylon’s racket.
Vijay Iyer/MUTATIONS – 8.7 and rising – My first two spins left me distinctly underwhelmed–I love the man’s piano playing, but there’s a goodly portion of strings and electronics on this. He also runs with excellent drummers–and after three listens I am not sure there IS drumming on it. But before selling it, I tried it again at top volume in my lab (the cab of my truck) and I started getting Hassell/Eno aural mirages from it. I think I’ll keep it.
Joseph Jarman, Glen Horiuchi, and Francis Wong/PACHINKO DREAM TRACK #10 – 8.5 – This is mos def an AACM jazz recording: it ain’t linear, it ain’t prefabbed, it ain’t easy, it ain’t without conch shell and shakuhachi–but it’s very, very live indeed, the lead artist conjures a restless peace regardless of what he’s playing, and the spirit of the artists’ cooperation led me away from yesterday’s outrage for a minute.
Katey Red & Dem Hoes/MELPOMENE BLOCK PARTY – 8.3 – Don’t call it “sissy rap” in her presence, or you might lose an appendage. What it says it is.
Kelela/HALLUCINOGEN – 9 – I am stubbornly resistant to electronica (or whatever this stuff is called), but I try not to give up on any genre. This EP delivers on the exotic promise such music is supposed to regularly extend: rich, expressive vocals, complexly carnal lyrics, and rhythms ‘n’ FX that support each. Three plays in 24 hours, plenty willingly.
KHAT THALETH–THIRD LINE: INITIATIVE FOR THE ELEVATION OF PUBLIC AWARENESS – 9 – Arab Spring rap. The music holds its own, easily, but you can download the translations. Consult Bandcamp–for a 23-song comp, it’s a bargain.
B. B. King/BLUES IS KING – 9 – LIVE AT THE REGAL you probably know about; it’s justly famous. But this ’67 show is a hair from its equal–plus a completely different (and surprising) set list. If you miss him, you owe yourself.
Earl King & Roomful of Blues/GLAZED – 8.5 – King was one of NOLA’s great R&B triple threats, as well as a bit of a griot. He wielded a deceptively mean guitar, he could write a great song (“Big Chief,” anyone?), and he sang with the slyness of a Sonny Boy Williamson. The white boys stay out of his way on this one and lay down the horny bedrock he needs to take off from.
KORLA: A FILM BY JOHN TURNER & ERIC CHRISTENSEN (2014) – 8.5 – Black man from #ColumbiaMissouri goes west to Hollywood, passes for East Indian, and becomes an icon of ’50s musical exotica. And stays in character for the rest of his life. A history lesson if nothing else.
John Kruth/THE DRUNKEN WIND OF LIFE: THE POEM/SONGS OF TIN UJEVIC – 9.5 – Vocalist and mandolinist Kruth, the words of the poet, and the musicians–all clearly glad to be alive. Dylanesque (sorry–it’s better than that augurs) with Croatian flavor. This will cheer you without bullshitting you. How’s that?
Los Lobos/GATES OF GOLD – 9.3 – Title’s kinda meh, cover art looks low budget, album’s only a goddam tour de force. Impassioned singing, outstanding material, and–did I mention they can play just about anything? Touches of bluegrass and bottleneck may even surprise the faithful. In my top 10 for 2015 after a single listen–a single listen that moved me. Ever heard an autumnal bar-band record? That’s kind of whatit is. For Peter Feldstein–thanks for motivating me to get it listened to!
Booker T. Laury/NOTHIN’ BUT THE BLUES – 8.5 – First heard Laury on the soundtrack to the cinematic abomination GREAT BALLS OF FIRE, but was too distracted by Jerry Lee remakes (imagine that!) to notice. If you like rowdy 88-rollin’, partake. And he hollers great, too. Also, let me know if you have his out-of-print BLUES ON THE PROWL, on Wolf Records, because I NEED IT. Been playing this side by side with Otis Spann and, though it’s a case of apples and oranges, Laury holds his own.
Matt Lavelle and John Pietaro/HARMOLODIC MONK – 8.7 – I don’t care whose at the helm: I’ll sample anyone’s run at Thelonious Monk’s catalog. Though I’ve tried mightily, I don’t have a great grip on Ornette Coleman’s theory of harmolodics, but I can say with confidence that Lavelle, on horns, and Pietaro, on percussion, have fun using it to PLAY WITH Monktoons (something Thelonious would appreciate). The duo utilize “the freedom of two” to evoke damn near the whole of jazz in their interactions.
MEANWHILE IN MEMPHIS: THE SOUND OF A REVOLUTION(directed by Nan Hackman and Robert Allen Parker, 2013) – 9 – You might skeptical about the revolutionary claim, but not all revolutions are loud. In sound and style, this film does justice to its subject. Like all great docs, it raises a curtain on folks and moments even experts missed; for me, it’s Alicja Trout and the revelation that Tav Falco ‘s arrival on the scene was filmed. Plus: a terrific bonus disc. Please buy directly from Goner Records!
Jinx Lennon/30 BEACONS OF LIGHT FOR A LAND FULL OF SPITE, THUGS, DRUGS, AND ENERGY VAMPIRES – 9 – Irish force of nature needs just an acoustic guitar to wrestle the world to a draw. Dylanophiles strongly recommended to look into his oeuvre. But he ain’t no saint–even the Twin Towers’ collapse can’t avert him from Internet porn. Plus: a Christmas song for the ages.
Jeffrey Lewis/MANHATTAN – 9.8 – This eccentric, supposedly “anti”- folkie has never reached me, and I’ve only been to Manhattan once (and then I was distracted by 50+ junior high schoolers I was helping manage). However, when a peer from a Facebook forum I am fond of suggested that, with this new release, Lewis had picked up Lou Reed’s mantle if anyone had, I was piqued enough to lay down some cash. The best thing I can say is my peer is correct–if Lewis can keep this up. If you crave something like the “nice,” verbose, pre-TRANSFORMER Lou, or might want to try out a record that could be called a warmer, looser cousin to Reed’s cold-eyed, tight-rhythmed NEW YORK, pony up, I say.
Living Things/AHEAD OF THE LIONS and HABEAS CORPUS – 9 and 8.5 – Sorry to say, few reasons to be proud to be a Missourian these days, politically speaking, but this short-lived St. Louis brother band was one of the few rock units to unabashedly take on effed-up leadership, warmongering, and what I will call Christian hysteria in the heart of the ‘Oughts. These two are like the first two MC5 rekkids: the first explosive and expansive, the second compressed and relatively clean. But neither make apologies, nor take prisoners. Where ARE these boys?
Jerry McGill/AKA JERRY McGILL – 9.0 – Long-scattered and -squirreled-away recordings by an ur-“country outlaw,” including a very early “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” backed by Mudboy and The Neutrons, some raw honky-tonk with Waylon Jennings on lead guitar, and some barely-together end-of-the-line howls from the hills (like “Wild Bill Jones”). Problem is, you gotta buy VERY EXTREMELY DANGEROUS (see below) to get yer hands on it. For me, that was not a problem. Tip: I got mine from Goner Records in Memphis.
Joe McPhee/SOLOS–THE LOST TAPES (1980 – 1981 – 1984)– 8.5 – What makes one blip-bleep-blat free jazz outing any different than the others? Well, imagination, conviction, and the savvy to mix in some great continuous improvisation with the pure sound.
Dan Melchior Broke Revue/LORDS OF THE MANOR– 7 – I’ve always found Melchior underrated in the garage punk pantheon, and he’s been quiet for awhile. At first I thought this was something kinda new: a garage punk GROOVE album. And it might be, but the extra-long cuts combined with the repetitive riffs eventually defeated my attention. Worth a chance, though.
NaturalChild/LIVE AT THE END–FREAKIN’ WEEKEND 5– 8 – The country’s best least-reported-on band gets all their moves together on this $5 live cassette. Not too jammy, not too faux-country, and with a perfect dab of their twisted garage beginnings.
Natural Child/SHAME WALKIN’–THE EARLY AND UNCOLLECTED SINGLES – 10 – This record does not exist other than in my iPod folder (and I suspect a few other folks’). But the erstwhile cannabis-cooled country rockers ought to do the world a favor and make it real. From the, um, unusually reluctant “title” song to the Dad’s nightmare of “Crack Mountain” to the paging-Neil-Young “Mother’s Nature’s Daughter” to the affectionately bleary “Don’t Wake the Baby,” it just might be that Natty C’s best work does not appear on their very entertaining long-players. Petition them on Twitter at @naturalchild420, @naturalchild666, or @NATURALCHILDFAN
Phineas Newborn, Jr./HERE IS PHINEAS – 8.5 – Memphis is known for the raw, but Phineas (pronounced FINE-us or pronounced FEEN-us) demonstrated such pianistic facility as to rank with the late ’50s-late ’60s greats. Phineas is to Bud Powell as Sonny Stitt is to Charlie Parker–think about it, baby….
Herbie Nichols/THE COMPLETE BLUE NOTE RECORDINGS – 10 – The music of the ill-fated pianist and composer Nichols dances. I know you’ve heard that before, but these dances are tricky, witty, and surprising while never failing to swing you. And believe me, the drummers (last names of Roach and Blakey) know the steps.
NUGGETS II: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE BRITISH EMPIRE AND BEYOND (1964-1969) – 9.5 – Lenny Kaye’s original U. S. NUGGETS comp gets most of the press, but the uncommon-even-for-Rhino care put into these four discs bring the set impressively close to its predecessor’s consistency. It’s interesting that the British Invasion giants cast a long shadow over both collections; where it’s the Yardbirds, Stones, and Beatles that haunt the U.S. version, it’s The Who whose presence dominates the British box. Or was it these bands that pushed The Who? It rocks, it trips, it gets a little twee or dotty at times–hey, it’s British!–but, mostly, it rocks. Recommended to seekers after the roots of Van Morrison, ELO, Yes, and many more. Secret weapon: The Creation!
Obnox/WIGLET – 8 – Lamont Thomas‘ music hits you like a runaway gar(b)age truck, like the Jesus and Mary Chain stripped of its candy. To my mind, you need a little of that every day just to feel really American, but Thomas’ reports are more specifically from Cleveland, which in the wake of Tamir Rice makes the medicine even more necessary. Surprise covers, too, from sources as diverse as Andre Williams and The Webs. I’ve said it before: Lamont’s the hardest-working man in punk rock.
Big Chief Juan Pardo and The Golden Comanche/SPIRIT FOOD – 8.8 – We are one day into Mardi Gras season, so let me advise you to buy a Mardi Gras Indian record every January. Currently, there are just about enough to get you to mid-century, and I’ve not heard one that’s bad, nor, despite the tendency for some chants to show up on nearly every tribe’s record, one that isn’t at least subtly distinct from the others. Such is the case here, where we get a vision of a Spy Boy rowing up the bayou in a pirogue and a guitar-touch of what Jelly Roll Morton called “The Spanish Tinge.” Speaking of, strong cases have been made that what we know and love as funk, soul, and r&b came straight out of this tradition, from a well maybe 215 years or more deep.
The Persuasions/SPREAD THE WORD – 8 – This ’72 gospel outing by the renowned a capella group is bookended by two halves of a bad pre-conversion Bob Dylan gospel song, but inside the sandwich are great examples of the irreverence for which they are too little known: a sly dig at a charismatic minister, an angry cry for a son lost to war and dope, a neat juxtaposition of flesh (“The Ten Commandments of Love”) and spirit (“The Lord’s Prayer”), an excavation of a prison song by The Larks, and a skeptical “Heaven Help Us All.” No surprise from a group that in the interim knocked Frank Zappa’s “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing” out of the park. Every home needs a Persuasions rekkid.
Charlie Pickett & The Eggs/LIVE AT THE BUTTON – 8.5 – One very nasty Florida bar band. By nasty, I mean the attitude, the worldview, the guitar, and, sometimes, the sense of humor. 1982–needs a digital reissue.
Public Image Limited/WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS… – 8.0 – Lydon’s grown into a Dutch uncle for the post-punk generation, unsurprisingly, and his new one is lifted by Mekon Lu Edmonds on guit and saz and new bassist Scott Firth. BUT–see ’em live on their current tour, and be astounded at how Edmonds and Firth pull together the wide-ranging sounds of Lydon’s post-Pistols career. Note: what the ellipsis leads to is…NSFW!
Pusha T/DARKEST BEFORE DAWN – 9 – From his thrilling sneer (thanks to Alfred Soto for that) to his lyrical inventiveness to his unerring flow, Norfolk, Virginia’s Terrence Thornton can blow away the most famous MCs like chaff. For the most part, he leaves the coke-rap behind (for the MOST part) and shares his thoughts about many contemporary concerns (my favorites are “F**k Donald and his pledge” and his vision of his mom maxin’ on vacation). And he’s only 38! Docked a point for being–too short.
Otis Rush/I’M SATISFIED: THE 1956-1962 COBRA, CHESS, AND DUKE RECORDINGS – 9.5 – The best collection of classic Rush currently available, though I will also point you to the excellent studio albums leading up to the stroke that’s taken him out. It’s got the annoyingly difficult-to-access “Homework” and (the original) “So Many Roads,” as well as the justifiably ultra-legendary “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” and “I Can’t Quit You.” Thing is, they’re legendary for the string-bending, but Otis could sing out of the top of his head, with almost frightening passion, and his too-too relevant writing on “Double Trouble” might outlast all his tunes: “In this generation of millionaires/I can’t even find decent clothes to wear.”
Boz Scaggs/A FOOL TO CARE – 8 – God BLESS it, these comeback-cover exercises are so EASY even Don Henley can get away with them, especially when it’s the song-not-the-singer and the band’s crack. Boz’s degrees are not as silky as they usedta was, but he gets by on grit and feel, and with additional soul-dollops from women named Bonnie and Lucinda. Oh yeah, and the songs (originated by Mayfield, Green, Huey “Piano” Smith, and more good oles). But can we please call a moratorium on covers of Bobby Charles’ “Small Town Talk”?
Scarface/DEEPLY ROOTED– 8.5 – And he is. He is also a long-time practitioner of street psychoanalysis, and it’s clear from his perspective here that he is feeling the weight of twenty years of breaking down a g’s paranoia. And 2015 hasn’t helped. Get the BestBuy version with three worthy bonus tracks. For Brian Smarr.
Sonny Sharrock/GUITAR – 10 – One man, one guitar, who knows what effects, overwhelming beauty-in-chaos. Really, Hendrix’s inheritor–but his early death robbed our ears. In case you’re wondering, the guitar is PLUGGED IN.
The Sir Douglas Band/TEXAS TORNADO – 8.7 – It’s no secret I worship at Doug Sahm’s altar, and proudly, but somehow I’d overlooked this 1973 item he turned in for Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. This Rhino re-ish bumps the original releases’ 11 tracks up to 20, which, with the addition of a stellar cover of Ned Miller’s “From a Jack to a King,” some T-Bone blues, and the great lost single “I’m Just Tired Of Getting Burned,” turn a solid groove album to an intensely pleasurable really effin’ good one.
A SLICE OF SOUTHERN MUSIC– 9.5 – Never underestimate (or think you’re tired of) comps of Southern stuff. Here we have folks you know and folks you don’t, Booker T. Laury (see below) screwing the top off his hydrant-like piano, Jesse Mae Hemphill working her trance-y, Mississippi Hill Country magic, and Mose Williams demonstrating, what, the roots of Harry Partch?
Tyshawn Sorey/ALLOY – 8.8 – Easily one of the best jazz drummers and composers alive, he’s so committed to Morton Feldman and Zen that he almost (and sometimes literally) disappears from his own peaceful pieces. I mean that as a compliment.
Soulja Slim/THE STREETS MADE ME – 8.5 – Easily one of the best-produced albums ever to come out of NOLA’s Magnolia Projects (courtesy Beats By the Pound), it’s hard to listen to, knowing James Tapp didn’t live long enough to develop his already-unique flow further. Another claim: along with Mystikal, the only act under the Master P tent to hold up after a decade and a half.
Gary Stewart/GARY’S GREATEST – 9 – Forget Wayne Hancock–Stewart’s the closest to Hank we’ve seen in the last 50 years. This collection ain’t quite what’s advertised, but it is one of the few records that can induce me, at 53, to jump up and think I can sing. Then actually try. And fail. Inspirational Verse: “If someone else would tell me/What I already know in my mind/I’m afraid I’d start talkin’/With my fists….”
Sticky Fingaz/BLACK TRASH–THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF KIRK JONES – 8 – One of the most underrated concept albums in rap history, peaking with a desperate and deep conversation with God and featuring an early-career cameo from Eminem.
Cecil Taylor/THE WILLISAU CONCERT – 10 – Taylor dates are certainly not all alike. Here, the fidelity and piano are stellar, the intensity astonishing even for the supernatural then-70-year-old, the dynamic ideas his usual 53-card deck–and melodies that aren’t all micro. Not a bad place to start for the benighted.
Henry Townsend/MULE – 9.5 – In 1979, 50 years after making his first recordings, this blues multi-instrumentalist from Cairo, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri (by way of Mississippi), laid down the album of his life, with his vivacious, surprising, and rowdy piano holding off the staidness that has killed many such recordings over the last 40+ years. Good luck finding it, but, seekers, the quest will be worth it (I advise a browse to Discogs). And remember the words of Keith Richards: “It’s about the roll.” Which this has, in spades. As well as an inspired guest contribution from Yank Rachell.
RIP ALLEN TOUSSAINT: SUGGESTIONS FOR THE BENIGHTED
Allen Toussaint/THE BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI – Toussaint ranges across jazz both from the Crescent City and elsewhere, with a nod to gospel. Great production by Joe Henry and absolutely crack accompaniment, not least by Allen’s own 88s. My only beef is that Henry didn’t include the classic “Tipitina and Me” that he got from Toussaint on the Katrina benefit OUR NEW ORLEANS (also a stone-stone-stone cold classic).
Allen Toussaint/SONGBOOK – It’s just Toussaint alone at the piano, rambling through his songbook, but here you get a great sense of his warm, peculiar, quiet personality, which matches his piano style, especially when he’s accompanying. Pick to click: A “Southern Nights” graced by a reminiscent reverie about his youthful home.
Lee Dorsey/YES WE CAN – Allen’s work with the great Lee Dorsey is fairly consistently amazing, but no release has gathered all the essentials (cross-licensing is a pain) to my satisfaction–Charly has made a good stab, and there’s an out-of-print, single-disc on Music Club that damn near does it. This one ain’t perfect, but it unites the winning singing of Dorsey, the inimitable funk of The Meters, and Toussaint’s marvelous piano, backup singing, some of his best tunes, and great arrangements.
THE MINIT/INSTANT STORY – Toussaint didn’t write, produce, or play on EVERYTHING here, but he was an influence on those he didn’t, and the bulk of the tracks define his seductive, good-humored, and gently soulful approach. The ultimate answer to the ill-considered theory that rock and roll died with Buddy Holly’s crash, Elvis’ enlistment, Chuck’s arrest, Jerry Lee-s black-balling, and Richard’s conversion. (If you can’t afford two discs, go for EMI’s single-disc FINGER-POPPIN’ AND STOMPIN’ FEET.)
The Velvet Underground/THE COMPLETE MATRIX TAPES – 10 – This is why old farts like me are slow to rouse to new rock, punk, indie, or whatever bands. This, young farts, is the gold standard band, playing at the peak of its powers, with one of the greatest songwriters of all-time reveling in the midst of a period of amazing fecundity and making his guitar talk. For a four-disker, cheap. The sound is fabulous for a ’69 document, and even the stage patter is good. Pick a cool niece or nephew and gift ’em. Their lives might be changed by rock and roll.
VERY EXTREMELY DANGEROUS (directed by Paul Duane, 2012) – 8.5 – Sun Records-recorded Memphis reprobate Jerry McGill battles cancer, the director, his fiancee, his pharmaceutical demons and the rest of the world to a finish I can’t report. Difficult, but, like a car wreck, impossible not to watch. A must for fans of producer Robert Gordon’s IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS and William Eggleston’s STRANDED IN CANTON.
Sonny Boy Williamson/KEEP IT TO OURSELVES – 9.3 – The great harmonica player, singer, and bullshitter, not far from gone, recorded these tracks in 1963 in Denmark, with old pals Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Memphis Slim. The spare production pushes his verbal wit and instrumental genius to the fore–in fact, even if you ALREADY thought he could blow the hell out of a harp, you might easily recalibrate your amazement. As I was sharing with my wife the other night as we discussed how newer stuff stacked up to the old pros, if you’re strictly a Wolf/Muddy/Bo/Chuck/Buddy Chess Records listener, you best attend to Mr. Aleck Miller.
Wreckless Eric/AMEricA – 8.5 – The Brit who gave us the eternal “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World” sounds as if little time has passed (instead of almost 40 years) on this wonderfully wry and sometimes troubled American travelogue. If you’re emotionally invested in boy bands or “white bread,” he may hurt your feelings–but has anyone else on the planet written a sad, beautiful song about “Sysco Trucks”?
X_X/ALBERT AYLER’S GHOST LIVE AT THE YELLOW GHETTO – 9.5 – Rude, crude, blunt, and socially unacceptable, this offering is more proof that Ohio is the secret capitol of rock and roll (paraphrasing my friend Ken, who knows). Their irreverent but loving title nod to Cleveland Heights’ own tenor giant makes Marc Ribot’s sound genteel; their farmer’s blows at Dylan and Young breath-takingly segue into unkempt rockers such as we ain’t heard much this year. And, before you know it, just like in the old days, it’s over.
JOE BUSSARD PRESENTS THE YEAR OF JUBILO–78 RPM RECORDINGS OF SONGS FROM THE CIVIL WAR– 9 – The world’s most enthusiastic old-time collector lays a social studies teacher’s dream at our feet. Discover the less-than-sober roots of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”–which also has roots in “John Brown’s Dream”! Celebrate (temporary) Emancipation not once but twice with two versions of “The Year of Jubilo”! Pass a whiskey bottle around and dance uncomfortably around the fire on “Rebel’s Hornpipe”! And thank whom- or whatever for Joe Bussard.