Good To My Earhole, June 17-July 3: “Masque of the Red Def”

Highlights of my last weeks’ listening, scored on a 10-point scale based on how hard it was for me to read while each record was playing (the harder the higher).

I’VE ALWAYS KEPT A UNICORN–THE ACOUSTIC SANDY DENNY – 8.5 – That title, plus the prospect of a folkie (albiet a rowdy one) knocking out mostly demos unadulterated by musical support that often enhanced, rather than limited, her performance, would seem a red flag. Not so. Across two discs, the too-soon-departed Ms. Denny demonstrates that her just-impure-enough timbre (gentle whiskey smoke), her way of thinking through phrasing based on a line’s meaning, and her attraction to the theme of mortality are enough to keep one’s attention rapt. A great complement to her performances with Fairport Convention and an insightful look into her development as a singer and writer–I eagerly await the book this accompanies.

Diamanda Galas/MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH TRILOGY – 8.4 – Based on one observation of her live performance (on NBC’s much-missed Night Music) and a few listens to a comp prepared by a friend, I, at 25 or so, judged Ms. Galas hilariously and unbearably pretentious–but I was so much older then. My ear has since become less guarded; my musical desires more extreme in this time of relative artistic timidity. A Kyle Gann review piqued my curiosity about this haunted, spell-casting, spirit-calling item, and damned if it didn’t kick my ass this morning (as they say). The frightening intensity I was prepared for; the dynamics and wit and conceptual skill, not so much. I even laughed when (I think) she was wanting me to. If you’re familiar with the wicked Poe story and love it madly (as you should, students), you’re going to want to hear it. I am saving my second exploration of it for ballast against an appropriate time I’d prefer does not come. A voice for the ages, if not all ages.

JD Allen/AMERICANA–MUSINGS ON JAZZ AND BLUES – 9.3 – Imagine a classic Rollins trio crossed with the dark, earthy intensity of a deep pre-Meditations Coltrane session, and you’ve got this. Yep, it’s that good. Detroit native Allen has honed this group (Gregg August on bass, Rudy Royston on drums) across several excellent albums, resulting in one I’d definitely recommend to anyone missing the days when those two forebears ruled the tenor world. That’s not to say it’s a throwback. Hard to believe, but, as Allen argues, there’s a need for those musings in 2016. A nice musical way to, say, treat that reeling feeling you may have had after watching the Roots remake or the O. J. 30 for 30.

**JOHNNY BURNETTE’S ROCK AND ROLL TRIO AND THEIR ROCKIN’ FRIENDS FROM MEMPHIS – 8.8 – Well, since both Burnettes had gone to meet Elvis by the time of this 1980 release on Rock-A-Billy Records, the billing’s confusing: the rhythm section is the one which backed the original slashing unit on its best recordings, the guitarist is indeed fellow original Paul Burlison, who still strikes lightning, but the vocalists are the deceased brothers’ pals, most notably the unflappable Charlie Feathers. Against the odds (have you heard of Robert Geisley, Glenn Honeycutt, or Marcus Van Story, three of the other lead vocalists?), the project works. There’s something about Memphis, about rockabilly, and about locals who don’t stop believing. Secret weapon: Jim Dickinson on piano and vocals.

EARL HINES PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON – 9.5 – Hines recorded these between his 68th and 72nd birthday, and that fact plus a peek at the man’s toup and glasses on the cover might warn you away. But one of jazz’s first pianistic avant-gardists–maybe the first instrumental match for Armstrong, as he proved in their recordings together–still had plenty tricks up his sleeve. My favorites are sly runs where he takes off with the rhythm and/or melody like a cat burglar clambering up a roof or rappelling down a wall; even recording in the wake of Cecil Taylor, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell (who’d all have been lesser without his influence), he’s flat-out exciting. The Ellington selections mix time-honored classics with forgotten gems. Note: look for Hines’ equally dazzling tributes to Louis and W. C. Handy, from the same period.

**JOHNNY GIMBLE’S TEXAS DANCE PARTY – 9.0 – “PRODUCED IN TEXAS BY TEXANS,” the credits boast; master fiddler Gimble’s bandmates–The Bosque Bandits!– are listed by their Texas homes (Waco, Dallas, Austin–and Gimble’s been everywhere, man). And the music, recorded live on August 29, 1975 at Austin’s Chaparral Club, is indeed pure, lively Texas dance hall swing–but don’t think you’ll be treated by old warhorse tunes. When’s the last time you heard “La Zinda Waltz,” “Under the ‘X’ in Texas,” “Bosque Bandit,” or “Blues for Joe Tee”? An irresistibly warm and surprising half-hour, and like I said but don’t trust me, Gimble is a flat-out master.

**I recently scored both of these from European sellers, and, as a result, I have no more musical grails to seek. I guess that means I can sit back and just wait for new stuff….

Heart of the Midwest: Money for Guns’ 21st Century Life

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“When Pierre started this city
He set the streets just for you and me
But he never could have had all this in mind
And if you’ve got the time, I’ve got the time….”

“I’m Your Mark,” (Will Saulsbery)

From his early days in the Frustrated Bachelors, through his days doing dirty work as a substitute high school teacher, to his current work in St. Louis’ Money for Guns, Will Saulsbery, the band’s principal writer and lead singer, has never yearned to get the hell out. As a nearly lifelong Missourian (like Will), I can testify that that is, in fact, a yearning one hears frequently, particularly from artistic types. I can definitely understand such a yearning; often, particularly when my mind drifts to our state’s legislature, I feel the state name should be spelled “M-I-S-E-R-Y.” What I like about Saulsbery and his band is that, in their music and words, they capture fairly vividly what it’s like to live here, without condescending, which, for all our growing resemblance to dubious states that shall remain nameless, would be a dick move.

Paradoxically, though, part of what makes one a Missourian is the desire to escape, however temporary that desire might burn. The album begins with “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty”‘s persona lost in a dream of New Orleans (are the referenced “gutter punks” from the dream, or on St. Louis streets?), and ends with a drawn-out, dope-sprung dream of El Dorado, in which a lover uncomfortably comforts his junkie paramour with the likely-doomed idea of cutting and running from St. Louis’ radiating gateway. It’s hard not to notice, though, the telling, unifying details that evince an admirable rootedness: of interstates out of Kansas, of hawks’ eyes, of trains (three references, not sure if one is a MetroLink), of the founding father Pierre Laclede, of cold-eyed live burials, and of straight-out declarations like “I can’t wait to see St. Louis again”–without its “TV or the gunmen.” I wonder if all of this is all that Missourian, or if it’s U.S.A. circa 2015. I think it’s Missouri. “The Catholic kids drowning this town” of “I’m Your Mark”–which, by the way, lead into another suggestion of leaving–might be the tip-off.

I don’t trust labels as far as music goes. They usually sell the creators short. 21st century Missouri seems most known for Nelly, Tech9 (sp?) and, vaguely, Americana. The former two rappers couldn’t be more different, though they are underrated in how of this place they are; the latter genre has to stretch a little to incorporate The Ben Miller Band, whatever Mark Bilyeu’s up to, Kentucky Knife Fight, and this group of ne’er-do-wells–just to name a few I know well. Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia all have their bohemias, but, from my experience, they don’t seem rooted in this place. What feels Missourian about Money for Guns is the touches of Americana, especially Dr. Todd Jones-Farrand’s mandolin, which doesn’t always do the usual things (check out his runs and comping on the at-times-punk-jazzy “Red High Heels”!), without the abandoning of a straight-ahead Midwestern kid’s love of straight-ahead rock and roll. Epitomizing this strategy (that seems like a cynical word, and I do not mean it that way) are the album’s two lead cuts, the title track, and the flat-out beauty quoted twice already, “I’m Your Mark.” I wouldn’t call a daringly extended piano-fueled coda “Americana”; I’d call it guts and growth. And vocals are sure enough music, as well; Saulsbery’s tenor has matured considerably from American Trash, where at times he seemed to be trying to catch the elusive (but fading) tail of Conor Oberst’s hyper-emotive star. On 21st Century Life, he’s content to let the natural tears (rhymes with “bears”) in his singing convey the matters of his Midwestern heart. I find that Kyle Kelley’s baritone changes of pace need a little work, a little nuance. But I don’t remember him taking verses or leads on the debut, so perhaps all he needs is time.

I really like this album. I can tell you from three listens that “Dead, Drunk, and Pretty” (the production of which shows up the rest of the album a shade), “Red High Heels,” and, especially, “I’m Your Mark”–a definition of the heart of the Midwest if anything I’ve heard is–are worthy of your downloading if you are just wanting to tire-kick or dip your toe in the Money for Guns pool. I would lay down a Jackson that the album will grow a layer of intensity performed live, so look for them in your town. And, thinking about the band’s (and the, um, auteur‘s) future, I will also wager that the opening out of this record into the wild air of the state’s streets, highways, and rails, from American Waste‘s dank and dangerous club interiors, indicates creative minds focused on more than just the song at hand. That is the sign of artistic endurance, folks.