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:

moseallison

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…

destruck624

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?