Brace for Impact: Finalized Top 10 LP and Singles List, plus the Usual Listenin’ Report

As I have mentioned before, I get to vote in the recently-defunct Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll. However, I’m probably more careful when I vote in a similar poll offered up by Brad Luen for the Facebook music-nut group Expert Witness. I have to live with those motherfuckers on a daily basis! And it’s a tough room! This year, there is some kidding-on-the-square about my albums list (which is different from my Pazz & Jop list; BTW, you get 100 points to distribute across your Top 10, with no more than 30 and no less than 5 for each item), but most telling is I actually submitted a singles ballot. I am an album dude, but this year I really leaned into some smashing songs. For what it’s worth, here’s my lists, and I checked them thrice:

Albums

  1. Tracey Thorn: Record (30)

  2. Rosalía: El Mal Querer (25)

  3. CupcaKe: Ephorize (10)

  4. Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (5)

  5. Elza Soares: Deus É Mulher (5)

  6. Noname: Room 25 (5)

  7. Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel (5)

  8. Tierra Whack: Whack World (5)

  9. Mary Gauthier: Rifles & Rosary Beads (5)

  10. Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (5)

Singles

  1. Rosalía: “Malamente”*

  2. Tracey Thorn: “Sister”

  3. JLin: “The Abyss of Doubt”

  4. CupcakKe: “Duck Duck Goose”

  5. Swamp Dogg: “I’ll Pretend”

  6. John Prine: “When I Get to Heaven”

  7. Pistol Annies: “Got My Name Changed Back”

  8. Parquet Courts: “Almost Had to Start a Fight”

  9. Robyn: “Between the Lines”

  10. Rosalía: “Baghdad”

On to the new year, though it’s included little new music. I’ve been on Louisiana kick.

Travailler, C’est Trop Dur: The Lyrical Legacy of Caesar Vincent

Hadn’t heard of Vincent, whose very lyrical compositions are interpreted here by a range of Cajun all-stars (ex. Zachary Richard, David Doucet, Steve Riley). The songs are in French, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel them, and I’d happily argue this is the best truly country music we have.

Jourdan Thibodeaux et Les Rôdailleurs; Boue, Bocane, Et Bouteilles

This youngster sings in a pleasingly grizzled baritone, plays a killer fiddle (as he must), fronts a racially integrated Cajun band (still a bit rare), and features a Savoy (of the Louisianan royal music family) on guitar dirtying things up a bit. I love it when youngsters mess with folk forms.

Sean Ardoin: Kreole Rock and Soul

Member of another Louisianan royal music family, this time of the zydeco persuasion, Ardoin does some messing around of his own, striving to live up to the title and winning three falls out of five. Winners: “Kick Rocks,” “Abracadabra” (yes, that one). Losers: “Just What I Needed” (yes, that one), and possibly the worst song I have ever heard from a Louisiana artist, “You Complete Me.”

Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band: Black Pot

Chubby plays it safe here, but if he and his band were playing these songs at the Mid-City Rock ‘n’ Bowl, you’d never sit down. The title cut’s a dance-floor killer; the closing cut is the sweetest paean to home in zydeco history; in between is competence-plus, community, and commitment.

Joe McPhee and Mats Gustafsson: Brace for Impact

It took 10 years for this meeting of two free jazz masters to come to light, and it might be one of the best of the year in spite of its vintage. They are master listeners, too, not just in a studio but across decades and an ocean: Poughkeepsian McPhee’s 79 going on 30, Mats, a Swede living in Austria, is 54. If you’d like to hear how a jazz composition can be built out of thin air, quick thinking, and imagination, you might as well start here.

Dabke–Sounds of the Syrian Houran

Dabke, an Arab music played at weddings and other celebrations, has a head-spinning number of variations. According to the Wikipedia entry on the style, there are either 2, 6, or 19 types. This motorvating compilation ranges across several of them–you might even call it a dabke Nuggets. Just trying to sell you on trying it, folks!

Rosalía: El Mal Querer

Let it be understood that the frequency with which this Catalonian-cum-Barcelonan powerhouse has appeared here simply testifies to her power. Her voice is intense, alluring, frightening, multi-faceted–and it brings out the Arabic roots of the music that’s been her life, and with which she happily experiments: flamenco. Producer El Guincho deepens the allure and broadens her appeal with savvy settings; if you want to hear her more sparely adorned, check out her debut (more on that later). She is going to be huge, and I may have to finally learn to at least hear Spanish to keep up.

Wire: Pink Flag

Even they have never recorded (again) anything quite like this 21-song, 37-minute voyage into alienation and paranoia. But again it must be said: sometimes paranoids are right. Drowning in the big swim, discerning strange things that aren’t quite right, witnessing murder, looting, and rape, 1-2 hating you, creating a field day for the Sunday papers, they take a moment to expose their hearts when their shades get broken, along with their fleeting love.

Skulldoggery (May 7th, 2018, Columbia, MO)p

Under the weather and confined somewhat to bed, I needed musical medicine. As happens more and more as I age, I turn to free music, and more and more as I turn to free music, I turn to the work of Joe McPhee. This time, it was his Skullduggery album, recorded with Amsterdam’s Universal Indians (named very appropriately after an Albert Ayler composition) and American saxophonist John Dikeman. I find that McPhee’s performances, where he employs multiple instruments in playing reactively to his fellows but also creates , sustains, and deconstructs themes, often mirror the hops, skips, jumps, and stretches of straight travel by which my mind works. Whether I am listening in dedicated fashion or reading, his work (quite frequently without regard to with whom he’s working–and he has many playmates) calms me. I’ve grown deeply familiar with and fond of his sound, whether he’s wielding sax, pocket trumpet, or something else; I feel confident I could pick him out of any free lineup in a blindfold test. Here–try the title track, and listen for what I mean when I say he doesn’t just react in a free context, but creates and sustains (bass player Jon Rune Strok is great here, too):

McPhee’s music may relax me, but my dog? He became disturbed, as this sequence demonstrates (you can see my little Bluetooth speaker on the window’s ledge):

Enjoy more of McPhee, Dikeman, and Universal Indians live, right here, from a year ago:

Good to My Earhole, July 9-20: What Might a Freetown Sound Like?

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Anna Hogberg and mates attack!

Highlights of my last couple o’ weeks’ listening, ranked on a 10-point scale corresponding to chill bumps each rekkid raised:

MEET YOUR DEATH – 9.7 – Is this album a) the best rock and roll album of the year? b) the best North Mississippi blues album Jim Dickinson never made? c) the wild product of an orgy featuring The Stooges, The Scientists, and Jerry McCain? d) an r&b blowout so drunk on cheap wine it forgot its tenor sax and just blew harder through a handy harp? e) All of the above. If you know the answer–or need the answer–order the record right here from 12XU.

ANNA HOGBERG ATTACK – 10 – Probably reviewed this already (too lazy to check), but it is easily one of my favorite records of the year. Free jazz with form, variation, dynamics, humor, respect for the verities (I hear Ayler in there)–and ENERGY, played by a roving band of Swedish women. Consult Discogs for your best chance at buying.

Blood Orange/FREETOWN SOUND – 8.6 – Maybe it was just what was going on on our turf when I first heard it, but I consider Devonte Hynes’ newest creation an honest, intelligent, hopeful soul-salve delivered from what I hope is our future. It is OK to apply a salve in moderation, folks.

Barbara Lynn/HOT NIGHT TONIGHT 8.7 – 37 years after knocking us dead (well, I’d just been born, to tell you the truth) with “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” the husky-voiced lefty guitar-slinger from Beaumont, Texas, delivered this terrific album that few bought–their loss. Producer Don Smith created a Hi-like atmosphere for Ms. Lynn, keeping her vocals and axe up in the mix and lining up Charley Drayton and apparently unofficial Rolling Stone Daryl Jones as musical bedrock. The songs are very strong as well, Barbara’s own cautionary “Hear from My Daddy,” Eddie Floyd’s “Never Found a Man,” and (especially) former Cowboy Charles Scott Boyer’s “Don’t Hit Me No More” creating a powerful motif. I snapped it up in Louisville for $5; you can get it for less.

Horace Tapscott with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra/LIVE AT IMMANUEL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST (Los Angeles) – 9 – The great community organizer, educator, composer, pianist, and bandleader left precious few recordings behind (he had higher priorities). All I’ve heard are mighty fine, including this two-disc set from ’79. Though he only composed one of the songs here, his arrangements carefully anchor liberated wailing (Sabir Mateen in particular distinguishing himself on tenor) with dark, roiling rhythms that will sound familiar to fans of Sonny Criss’ Sonny’s Dream, which was arranged and written by Tapscott. The venue was most appropriate for the performance, and if the closing “Lift Every Voice” doesn’t moisten your eye, you might check yourself for calcification.

Dobie Gray/FROM WHERE I STAND – 8 – The “In Crowd”/“Drift Away” guy quietly and humbly covered a lot of ground in his career. This ’86 release found him making very mainstream country noises that often take on deeper resonances once you realize he’s black, which some don’t. Examples: the title tune (also the title tune of Warner Brothers’ criminally out-of-print three-disc set covering “The Black Experience in Country Music”), “The Dark Side of Town,” and “A Night in the Life of a Country Boy,” which but for a corny chorus could be Springsteen.

Good to My Earhole, May 20-31: “The Style You Haven’t Done Yet?”

Highlights of my last week’s worth of listening, scored on a whole-numbers-only scale I stole from a Freemason:

Paul Rutherford/THE GENTLE HARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE – 10 – Not just one of the best free jazz records I’ve ever heard, but an all-out fireworks display, all on the ‘bone. With some chuckles and sobs for modulation’s sake.

The Fall/FALL IN A HOLE – 9 – I am still searching for a Fall album I don’t like. I’ll just say it–the best live British punk record I’ve ever heard, if you wanna call ’em punks. They (he) were (is)–and more.

Boogie Down Productions/GHETTO MUSIC: THE BLUEPRINT OF HIP HOP – 9 – Objectively, I know there are better BDP rekkids; heck, The Return of the Boom-Bap is “better.” Scott LaRock is absent. Some of the wisdom isn’t all that wise. But I can’t help it–this is the one I get out when I need KRS-1. I love how he bobs and weaves around the uncharacteristically quirky beat of “The Style You Haven’t Done Yet.” I love in spite of my lack of belief his bars of Biblical genealogy. I love his philosophical interrogations of authority, whether in the classroom, the courtroom, or the squad room. I love his reggae-rap fusion. From the cover art to the oddly murky production to the blunt beauty of Kris’ attack to the beats beats beats, it’s one unified MF. And I’m a gestalt guy.

Johnnie Allan/PROMISED LAND – 8 – Swamp pop just gets me like Western swing: I am moved by the often-homely-but-always-sincere striving of the regular guys who do the singing. As if to match, the music’s just as often warmly soulful–never hot. Multi-artist compilations are generally the way to go, even for the enthusiast, but, loving Allan’s absolutely terrific, accordian-juiced title cover version already, I thought I’d gamble on an overview. Won that bet–nothing as scintillating as “Promised Land,” but nothing duff, either. Even the graduation song brings a smile, as does his Johnny Horton rewrite and his runs at “Sweet Dreams” and “Tonight I Started Loving You Again”–two songs that could have been tailor-written for the genre. Thought: hot’s good, but is warm more durable?

Novos Baianos/ACABOU CHORARE – 10 – Damn, I thought I had Brazilian pop-rock circa ’68-’72 covered! Wrong again! I stumbled on this item (or, um, it was PUT in my path) while buying something else on the Innertubes, and it knocked my hat in the creek. I believe the title translates to “No more crying,” and it’s so effervescent in its rhythms, alternating vocals, and electric-acoustic attack, I’d wager it could pull a guy back from the edge. Player to bend an ear to, though he’ll grab you by that appendage willy-nilly: Pepeu Gomes, on guitar and more. This ain’t tropicalia; it’s too breezy. But you’ll be surprised by the directions the breeze shifts–give the whole record a test-drive above.

Kel Assouf/TIKOUNEN – 9 – Taureg stylings straight from the sand dunes …of Brussels. But don’t you fear. The impurities delightfully mixed in here are the reasons to check it out: big beats, guitar that’s more riff-friendly than your average desert bluesman’s, garage-rock keyboards that add texture, and a movie star (in my mind, anyway) sharing vocals. That would be Ms.Toulou Kiki, of Timbuktu fame; if you haven’t checked that film out yet, you have your homework. A nice counter to the fallacious complaint that all, uh, Northern nomadic music sounds the same. You’re not leaning forward far enough, pal!

Good To My Earhole, April 1-10: “Not Counting Merle–Well, Except for One Rekkid”

Highlights of last ten days’ listening, ranked on a highly suspect 10-point scale (but if I’m listing it, I’m liking it!):

Bombino/Azel – 9.8 – A helpless “desert blues” addict, even I questioned whether I needed another record by the man from Agadez. Yep–I did. My favorite new record of any kind of 2016, it displays more variation in rhythm, intensity, and tone than your typical Tuareg release; I like a guy who, in ten songs, can evoke Hendrix, Hooker, Kimbrough, and Spence, and this is easily the best of the four of his five records I’ve heard. Also, he takes a few chances, including a reggae that explodes, and when he locks into one of those inevitable hypnotic phrases, it’s like a downed power line whipping around in your front yard. The ululations of the women who support him are perfectly timed, too.

Anthony Braxton/3 Compositions [EEMHM] 2011 – 8.5 – When I learned that these compositions for septet required each player to carry into the studio an iPod loaded with Braxton’s complete (?) studio and live recordings, ready to be activated at will (or conductor’s nod?) in the midst of each take, I couldn’t resist. Plus it’s cheap for three disks. But: does it sound good? Well, I like free jazz, and though I cannot pretend to understand most of Mr. Braxton’s notes, I think this comment may convince you whether you should try it or not: “What we have here is a ‘state of music’….the friendly experiencer can walk through the ‘parks’ of the music on the way to engage in a sonic tennis match….I am moving towards a kind of action video game paradigm where [the listener] can make internal decisions inside of the greater music space that will affect the particulars of a given sonic fantasy….” In addition, his notes end with this: “[hee hee hee].” I love a giddy visionary septuagenarian.

The Fall/The Fall Box Set 1976-2007 – 9.5 – A wise man once said that the test of a great box set is that the last disc sounds as great as the first. I’m not sure that’s true here, but I can say after listening through all five of these discs in a row, I was never bored, and delighted, amused, or ON FIRE 80% of the time. I don’t care whether he’s barking out inscrutable lyrics while riding the same two-chord riff for five minutes; I don’t care whether he’s embarking on a poetry reading, a rockabilly cover, or dance floor throb. I’ll go wherever Mark E. Smith wants to lead, even if he’s only backed by your granny on bongos. I regret it took me 25 years to catch on.

Merle Haggard/If I Could Only Fly – 9.5 – The late master had a tendency to mar his every release with at least two flat-to-bad songs. This 2000 comeback–from health battles, from lethargy, from writer’s block, maybe–might be his best album, end to end, though it includes no single song most aficionados would put in The Hag Top 20. But no dogs, either. The band’s great (of course), and his singing’s as detailed and smart as ever. Picks to click: a look back that’s compassionate rather than judgmental; a paean/envoi to unprotected sex; two nods of gratitude, one to spawn and one to the uncle who taught him “Rubber Dolly”; some strong love songs; and the definitive version of Blaze Foley’s title song, which many have attempted to scale before, including Merle. I guess the pick to click is the whole thing.

George Jones/Live at Dancetown USA – 8.5 – Fired up by Rich Kienzle’s nice new Jones bio, I revisited several Jones holdings squirreled away in the pad. Here’s one Possum fans might not have heard, a ’65 live set in a real honky-tonk, seemingly unedited. Though George doesn’t sing with exquisite care–he seems in a hurry at times–he’s still the greatest singer in country music history. He covers his current hit catalog, takes a pell-mell run at “Boney Moronie,” delivers a couple of classic, corny bon mots (“…a brief liquor–I mean inter–mission” and an apology for “another sad ballard”), and lets his band have a few. Even if we don’t have a DVD to go with it, the ambiance is enough to make you wish you could have been there.

Wussy/Forever Sounds – 8.0 – Yeah yeah, they’re critics’ darlings, but I love them because they sing, write, and play like, for and about grown human beings in the midst of relatively normal middle age. Problem here is that the sonics (dubbed “shoe-gaze” by several folks, but I dunno), which do unify the album, have a tendency to overwhelm their humanity. I get off on the opening trio, “Dropping Houses,” “She’s Killed Hundreds,” and “Donny’s Death Scene,” but a later fave, “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” gets at my quibble–the vocals, especially Lisa Walker’s (who more and more reminds me of a rock version of Lucinda Williams when she was light of spirit), sound disembodied, sometimes even (literally) phoned in from a remote locale. I like embodied voices.

Good to My Earhole, March 12-17: “Mi Canto”

Highlights of the last week’s listening and reading, scores plucked out of the air as long as they are no lower than a 7–and, whaddya know, I am reviewing some new stuff (albeit mostly by oldsters):

Aziza Brahim: MI CANTO – 9 – A Sahrawi siren augmented by guitars redolent of desert, Delta, and djinnis. Needless to say, side effects may include euphoric trances.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: LIVE AT HOLLYWOOD HIGH – 8.8 – Live albums: who needs ’em? Well, I treasure this for three reasons. One, it captures MY AIM IS TRUE material punked further up and in pretty high fidelity, with the L. A. teens in the audience seeming to get it–reminded me of a Carthage, Missouri, teen circa ’78-’80 who was definitely getting it. Two, the live setting seems to loosen up EC’s singing, which always seemed just a bit fussy to me when under studio control; he often settles into a bit of roar-and-yell which I find exciting–though I just wanna tell him, “You don’t have to introduce every song.” Three: the definitive recorded version of the film noir compendium “Watching the Detectives,” which he sings as if he’s extemporizing.

Kendrick Lamar: UNTITLED UNMASTERED – 9.2 – At first, I thought these were table scraps, but Kendrick’s rhyming and flow are too carefully honed for that. Then, for some strange reason–I think it was the influence of “untitled 06/06.30.2014”–I began to sense a trip-hop experiment, but it’s too verbally dense for that. Then it became clear, from the welcome intrusion of what I have begun to think of as his community voices–whether they emerge from actual human larynxes or machines–and his subtly morphing vocal inflections that this is of a piece with TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY. Less conceptual, more casual, thus…more pleasurable? If not, pretty close, and, though it’s argued that pure pleasure is counterrevolutionary, even revolutionaries need occasional loose fun to replenish their drive to make it to the mountaintop. I wish he’d have thrown in that “Colbert Report” performance as a bonus track, though!

Loretta Lynn: FULL CIRCLE – 8.5 – The power and clarity of her unmistakable voice, sounding barely touched by eight decades, are miraculous, reason alone to give this album a shot. Because the arrangements are spare and attractive, even the weakest compositions (and a cover of “Fist City” that doesn’t do the impossible) go down easy. And best in show? The first song she ever wrote, prefaced with a great anecdote. Secret missing ingredient? Jack White or someone like him.

Joe McPhee and Paal Nilssen-Love: CANDY – 9.0 – Across seven discs of improv featuring only McPhee’s multiple horns, Nilssen-Love’s percussion, and plenty of deliberate silence (and–oh yeah!–a very appreciative live audience!), I was NEVER bored. Not once. And I listened to the discs consecutively. Joe’s a very young 76, and he sounds happy whether he’s evoking India, honoring Ayler, or turning mouthpiece spittle into music. To paraphrase Tom Waits, not for everyone–maybe, for those seeking sonic adventure.

Alan Warner: MORVERN CALLAR (1995) – 9 – A rock and roll novel for sure. Just when you’re sure that the titular Scottish heroine is being propelled by her boyfriend’s suicide on an working-class odyssey of distinctly existential import–through house-party and hotel room bacchanals, through pubs and raves and and resorts–you’re caught up short by flaming statues of the Virgin and a drunken stagger into church. It’s an odyssey of some sort, that’s for sure, and at the very least, Morvy’s propelled by mixtapes of Last Exit and Can (about whom Warner authored a 33 and 1/3 tome). Figures: the book’s dedicated to Bill Laswell.

GOOD TO MY EARHOLE, First Half of June

Marc Ribot: Two Serenity-Wreckin’ Trios

Ceramic DogRibot at VV

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?