I stumbled across the above album in mint condition from a French vendor on Discogs last month and immediately ordered it. I knew the label, Black & Blue, was reputable, but beyond that–I’m strange this way –I wanted to be surprised. Jessie Mae Hemphill, a member of the famous fife-and-drumboogieing north Mississippi hill country family of that surname, is one of my very favorite blues artists. Hailing from Senatobia, armed with a trance-inducing vocal and guitar style, she made precious few records, and no live ones that I was aware of. Here’s one of the Tate County She-Wolf’s greatest tracks:
I didn’t really care about the other artists. The prospect of hearing Hemphill play to a familiar audience was enough. Plus, I’d heard other Mississippi festival recordings and they were great.
Yesterday the record arrived. Live it was not. Hemphill’s tracks? Studio recordings I already owned. I’d paid a modestly pretty penny for it, considering the shipping, so I was miffed. But I put it on anyway, of course, and was pleased to hear that the mix of Hemphill’s tracks seemed hotter than the ones I owned. Then came sings from drummer/vocalist Hezekiah Early and his band The House Rockers–if you call guitar and trombone a blues band, and I do. Charming isn’t a commonly used word for blues music, but believe me, it fits here and it’s not pejorative:
Then I flipped the was for four tracks by Son Thomas and another couple by Early’s unit. I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Thomas, accompanying himself on guitar and indulging in two unfamiliar covers, but…never underestimate a Mississippian! Just on tempo, tuning, and phrasing alone, he made the tracks his own, and cast a very haunting shadow across the record’s proceedings:
This album? I think I’ll keep it!
Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck: Djam Leelii – Played prior to the above record arriving, it seemed to summon it. There are moments when Maal’s and Seck’s picking slowed down so suddenly that I felt as if I’d been hitting the sizzurp. No surprise: House’s and Hemphill’s playing sounded as if they’d all drunk from the same bottle.
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?
Not that I expect this to become a regular feature–I hope it does, though my small band of followers must have noticed I am casting about a bit–but here are some brisk takes on the ten things that spun most euphoniously around my eardrums this week. Consider them strong recommendations for application to your own soul-ills, whatever they may be.
1) Tin Men: Avocodo Woo Woo (CD Baby). I was skeptical about this NOLA trio (featuring Washboard Chaz, the astonishingly ubiquitous songwriter and guitarist Alex McMurray, and sousaphonist–only in the Crescent City!–Matt Perrine) possibly being a dad-rock cum Parrothead act until I read a notably scrupulous and discerning NYC critic’s glowing notice of this, their new album. It is perfectly frothy and spirited fun, with interestingly dark (“Blood in My Eyes”) and dirty (the title song) turns. And, frankly, I love the sound they get from their three pieces.
2) Como Now: Voices of Panola County (Daptone). I am not sure how this brainstorm by “The Label Sharon Jones Built” came about, but in ’06 their agents found themselves in Como, Mississippi (home/former whereabouts) of Fred McDowell, Otha Turner, and Napolion Strickland), soliciting a capella gospel songs from black Christian locals and recording them in a local church. A moving listening experience, especially Irene Stephenson’s harrowing “If It Had Not Been for Jesus.” I am an atheist, and it transfixed me.
3) The Staples Singers: Freedom Train (Epic). Not to be confused with the relatively recent Columbia best-of of the same title, this live album was cut in a church in the group’s then-hometown of Chicago, and the location and the clarity of engineering make it one of the most powerful gospel records of the ’60s, methinks. It’s out of print; I thought I’d pulled a fast one and snagged a $4 copy on eBay, but it was pretty banged up–not so much so that I did not THOROUGHLY enjoy the almost otherworldly dynamics of the performance, particularly Pops’ always-venomous guitar and Mavis’ almost atavistic pleadings.
4) Jessie Mae Hemphill: Feelin’ Good (Shout Factory). Just a bit north of Como (also north of Winona, where Pops Staples was raised up–can you tell I’ve been to Mississippi recently?) is Senatobia, and the space between is one of the locations where North Mississippi Hill Country blues was born. It’s a different animal than Delta blues: structurally and lyrically, it’s more repetitive, but that’s not necessarily a deficit when it’s played with intensity. That’s when it becomes hypnotic–in some ways, it’s an extreme version of the John Lee Hooker sound. Hemphill was raised in this (and the related fife-and-drum) tradition; she’s not as loud nor does she project as well as R. L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough, but her feminine perspective and toughness often make up for that. Try this:
5) Fu-Schnickens: “Sneakin’ Up On Ya” (from Nervous Breakdown, Jive Records). As Chicago rapper Serengeti’s Tha Grimm Teachaz project suggests, there’s one thing very special about the best rap rekkids of 1990-1995: they don’t date as badly as the prime cuts of other eras. Also, that period seemed stylistically wilder, with seemingly unforgettable (but now pretty much forgotten) MC Chip Fu providing a mind-boggling thrill every other song for this unique group. Other MCs may have been faster, but not more inventive at the same time. By the way, how many current rap GROUPS can you count?
6) D’Angelo: Live at the Jazz Cafe, London, 1996 (Virgin/Universal). This was a Japan-only release back in the day it was recorded, but, as I understand it, even then it wasn’t as expansive as this new reissue, which features ACE covers of The Ohio Players, Mandrill (“Fencewalk”!), Smokey Robinson, and Al Green along with classics from Brown Sugar–principally, a phenomenal performance of the tital track. Weirdly, the artiste often seems to recede into the performances, so he’s no more emphasized than the band or the backup ladies (led by Angie Stone), almost…a Billie Holiday thing. At first I was disappointed he didn’t project more, then I began to suspect it was part of the conception. The link below may be the whole dang thing. Keep your ladies inside the fence….
7) Duke Ellington Orchestra: “Snibor” (from the American Hustle soundtrack or, better advised, And His Mother Called Him Bill on RCA). I finally had a chance to see American Hustle this week, and Nicole and I were surprised and thrilled to hear Johnny Hodges’ alto oozing from this film-opening soundtrack cut. Also, having courted to rekkids ourselves, we were surprised and thrilled to see the protagonists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) do the same thing, to Duke and Jeep’s “Jeep’s Blues.” If you are not familiar with Hodges’ sound, it is the definition of sensuous AND sensual; if you are not familiar with Billy Strayhorn’s compositions for Duke, they are usually designed to highlight that sound. Weirdly, I can’t find a YouTube clip for this tune, but here’s an equally seductive one from the same, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED album (a tribute to the recently-passed Strayhorn):
8) The criminally underrated music of Tyler Keith. As a long-time teacher, I am closely acquainted with the dangers of certainty; in fact, I make it a point to seldom if ever come at students from that angle. Music, as esoteric as our perceptions are, is even more problematic in that regard. But I am certain of this: in a world where the rock and roll impulse is dimming, quite seriously (I think that’s a result of the natural evolution of cultural history, of young musicians, for example, casting off the influence of the blues–although donning the robes of a hipster version of James Taylor, in my view, is a misstep–and not feeling the pressures and releases of a society obsessed with sin and salvation, which I think our society still is but youth circa 2014 may not necessarily be), Tyler Keith of Oxford, Mississippi, may well be the last live-wire link to both the near-insane energy and rhythm of rockabilly and the bugged-eyed gaze into the void of Richard Hell’s strain of punk, which might really have never been fully exploited for its potential. Whew. That was a long one. But goddam I believe it, and the proof is in the best of Tyler’s work with the Neckbones, and three of his rapidly disappearing four “solo” albums (with the current Apostles and the former Preachers’ Kids), in chronologically descending order, Black Highway, Wild Emotions(a fantastic rekkid that MIGHT AS WELL NOT EXIST ON THE INTERWEB!!!), and the perfectly-titled Romeo Hood. Keith’s vocals leap out of his larynx as if propelled by a blood-surge, the music is deeply embued with tough-ass-Stones, sprung-Chuck Berry flavor and Johnny Thunders-styled explosions that are quite unpredictable (!) but perfectly timed in nature, and lyrics that are as obsessed with sin and salvation as The Killer’s favorites, though one suspects with Tyler those are purely existential notions. He can even nail a ballad, even one called “Angora,” about a certain sweater. I have never seen him live, but the intensity of his best recordings cause me to suspect that if I do and he is on, it will be hard to stay in the same room with him. The thing is, I felt this strongly when there was a decent herd he was travelling in; now, he is the burning antithesis not only of the swarms of bearded strummers that play, in critic and musician Allen Lowe’s perfect phrase, as if they have napkins folded in their laps, but also of the depleted strain of rockers who, honestly, usually protest their rockitude too much. With Keith, one feels he’s communicating his wild emotions without artistic calculation, and that’s special. I’ve gone on too long, and I can’t do him justice, but I AM RIGHT: here’s a video of one of the best tunes on his recent rekkid, the BEST rock and roll album of 2013.
9) Public Enemy: “Can’t Truss It” (live on Yo! MTV Raps). Nicole and I were fortunate enough to see the great rap orator Chuck D speak at Columbia’s Missouri Theater Tuesday night, for FREE (not nearly enough folks there, though). He is a hero of both of ours–I’ve even read his books–and we came with high expectations. He delivered grandly, though he talked mostly about critical thinking in the age of extreme technology and devolution of United States popular culture (remember when that two-word phrase was a joy? a reason to live?). I prepped for his appearance by watching this great raw video of one of PE’s greatest songs, one I used to teach in American lit, though I didn’t show it to kids this week (I was thinking about using it to promote the appearance) because I didn’t want to be met with slot mouths.
10) Tommy Boy All-Stars: “Malcolm X: No Sell Out” (Tommy Boy 12″). This, too, was part of my prep for seeing Chuck D, a man who, really, hasn’t sold out, either. I’ve read both the Haley/X “autobiography” and Manning Marable’s corrective bio, and I absolutely love the threading of perfectly chosen soundbites from Malcolm’s speeches (“I was in a house tonight that was bombed…my own. It’s not something the makes me lose confidence in what I’m doing.”) through an ace Keith LeBlanc track. In a perfect world, it woulda been a hit. Still inspiring: “I’m not the kind of person who would come here and say what you like.”
First leg of Southern journey to NOLA and back, spurred by reading of Greg Kot’s Staple Singers book, listened to Staples’ Vee Jay and Epic recordings, which are to today’s music (pick your genre) as Sophocles is to Neil Simon. You think I exaggerate? Listen to this.
‘Tween Cape Girardeau and Blytheville: Cosimo Matassa-engineered ’62 Atlantic recordings of New Orleans jazz bands frequently at Preservation Hall (Paul Barbarin, Punch Miller, Jim Robinson, The Pierces). Amazingly present recording (Cosimo liked to “crowd it” to excellent effect), fantastic musicianship and LISTENING SKILLS, subtle song selection. Example right hyar.
Just outside of Memphis, decided to try the OTHER END of jazz: septuagenarian free jazz veteran Roscoe Mitchell’s new duet album with Hugh Ragin and the amazing Tyshawn Sorey. It didn’t get far, but it inspired a discussion about what the free crowd really expect from its audience, and what to make of free records where the participants don’t listen to each other.
Some time spent with Todd Snider’s new rekkid, HARDWORKING AMERICANS. It’s really about hardworking American songwriters other than Todd, who sounds hoarse and cashed out. Faron Young’s “Blackland Farmer,” Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack’s “I Don’t Have a Gun,” and BR549’s “Run a Mile” are the standouts, but Snider seems stuck.
Hitting Highway 55 South to Jackson, we switched to a “Country Blues Legends” folder on the ol’ iPod, with Geeshie Wiley, Robert Wilkins, Tommy McClellan, Victoria Spivey, and many more. Highlight was William Harris’ “Bullfrog Blues”: “Did you ever dream lucky/Wake up cold in hand?” Check it out yourself: http://youtu.be/JNwzCcTRh0w
Finally, we wended our way down 51 out of Senatobia (after eating smoked sausage and pork BBQ at Coleman’s BBQ) and, halfway to our destination of Como, MS, pulled a right down a country road, then a left up another until we reached the Hammond Hill Baptist Church cemetery (see above photo), the resting place of Mississippi Fred McDowell, to north Mississippi hill country blues what Robert Johnson is to Delta blues, and covered by the Rolling Stones on STICKY FINGERS. He’s buried next to his wife, but some oblivious fuckers had recently sat by his graveside and made a pile of cigarette butts and trash on her mound. We hadn’t thought to get a blue rose for Fred, so we cleaned up Ester’s grave. A pretty moving experience, standing there on a quiet hill of interred corpses in the obscured Mississippi woods. Afterwards, we drove three miles down the road to Como, Mississippi, entering the town with Napoleon Strickland’s fife and drums powering us. Who is Napoleon Strickland? Well, he’s got a sign on Main Street in Como!