Monday, March 31. 2014
Music: Current count 23045  rated (+38), 594  unrated (+1).
Having trouble with this "emeritus" concept, as once again the rated count is in the stratosphere. I thought I'd do a second Rhapsody Streamnotes for March, then remembered I don't have to: why not run it the first week in April, then (maybe) a second one later in the month? The draft file is long enough to run now, but a few days shouldn't make any difference.
Lots of A- records this week, but note that three (of four) jazz albums got to me via Rhapsody, so only one of sixteen CD sets listed below made the grade -- not that I'm unhappy to own the high B+ releases. The Rainey and Russell records came recommended by other reviews, but I wasn't even aware that the Kühn & Kruglov disc existed until I stumbled on it looking for Kühn's 2013 trio, Voodoo Sense, also on ACT but not on Rhapsody.
I'm up to 19 jazz records on this year's A-list, so there's little doubt that this will be another bounteous year for new jazz. I'm having much more trouble with non-jazz: only five finds this year, but the two this week impressed me enough I went out and bought copies. Good chance the Hold Steady will wind up a full A. Don't know whether this is due to me or the world: I'm certainly not listening to as many records this year as last. I have a cribsheet of possible things to check out (there's actually a lot more in the file than you can see, but what you can't is probably of lesser interest). I don't have a metacritic file this year: that would give me a better idea of what other people think, but that's rarely a good guide these days.
In the old records section, I've been sampling John Gill and Chris Tyle. Like the Penguin Guide authors, I have a soft spot for trad jazz, so when I noticed a couple Stomp Off records on Rhapsody, I thought I'd try to round up whatever I had missed (i.e., most of them). Turns out there aren't that many available -- indeed, the Silver Leaf Jazz Band records are mostly on another label -- but I've found a couple and will keep digging. [A second album by Gill is at least as good as the first, and I've found an album by tuba tooter Vince Giordano.]
Rhapsody Streamnotes later this week. Michael Tatum's A Downloader's Diary should be running over at Odyshape sometime this week, and you can already scroll back for the first two installments of his singles column ("Public NME"), and pieces that appreciate Withered Hand and Skrillex more than I do.
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, March 30. 2014
I haven't posted anything since last Monday's Music Week. Not sure where all the time has gone, but after Monday's Music Week I should have a books post and a Rhapsody Streamnotes coming pretty quick. Tried to knock out a links post today and didn't get through nearly everything I wanted to look at. Still, a few things to chew on:
Also, a few links for further study:
Monday, March 24. 2014
Music: Current count 23007  rated (+40), 593  unrated (-6).
Heavy week for records rated, easily sailing past that 23,000 mark. Some of these showed up in last Wednesday's Rhapsody Streamnotes (Iyer, Serengeti), and once that went up I suffered a little "empty nest" syndrome and rushed to repopulate my draft file. I actually had Eric Revis written up by Wednesday, but held it back because I couldn't find a single cover scan anywhere on the web (or at least Google couldn't). I only had an advance, so couldn't help myself either, but I can show the cover now.
Main reason there are so many album covers is that I noticed Rhapsody has most of the early Vijay Iyer I had missed. With a new record out, it seemed like a good time to look back, but I didn't get them written up by Wednesday's post. I split his first five albums into three A- and two near misses, but more time and space could have resulted in a sweep. Clearly a major talent from the very start, even more so than Jason Moran (whose first four albums I have at A-, but nothing that high since). The rest of Iyer's catalog looks like this:
I also note A- side-credits with: Burnt Sugar (Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1); Carlo De Rosa (Brain Dance); Steve Lehman (Demian as Posthuman); Rudresh Mahanthappa (Codebook); Wadada Leo Smith (Spiritual Dimensions). Also 17 others rated lower. Remarkable career, and this just up to age 43.
Main thing I've been working on recently is an interview for rockcritics.com. If you have any questions you'd like to see answered, write me -- or, what the hell, use the underused comments feature -- and I'll see if I can work them in.
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Wednesday, March 19. 2014
Since folding Jazz Prospecting and Recycled Goods into this column, the number of records has increased, with this being the most voluminous Rhapsody Streamnotes ever: 108 records. One might think that's because this covers the longest stretch of time, but that's only marginally true: the last 16 days of February, when I was traveling to and from Florida, produced zilch. They contribute here only in that I played quite a bit of Johnny Cash on the road, which set my mind to thinking about going through his Columbia LPs.
I'm not all that surprised that I didn't find many A-list albums in that list. He only sustained the high level of his Sun records for a couple years -- pills maybe, or it could be that Columbia didn't care about LPs as long as Cash pumped out three per year (which, by the way, almost never hit 30 minutes). More surprising to me was that so few of the albums were bad (in that respect it probably helped that I skipped most of the holiday and gospel records). For a guy with a deep, unique voice, his was remarkably pliable -- a trait he shared with few peers, Louis Armstrong for one -- and that gave him a distinctive edge on damn near any song.
It's tempting to conclude that Cash was a singles artist, and that was true enough for the 1950s, but from 1960 on he wasn't really: I count 8 number one country singles from 1960 on (not bad until you consider Ronnie Milsap had 40), with 22 more cracking the top ten. And those numbers drop dramatically after 1973: only one number one ("One Piece at a Time" -- not his song but perfect for him) and only three more in the top ten (one of those with Waylon). Still, go with compilations to get started. The best is Columbia/Legacy's 1992 3-CD The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983), with 75 songs vs. 36 for the 2002's 2-CD The Essential Johnny Cash. (Both include Sun tracks, 14-8 is my initial count, the dividing line a bit murky without documentation, but the effect is to pull "Ring of Fire" and "Orange Blossom Special" into the shortened first disc.) On the other hand, I've been playing Columbia/Legacy's 2005 4-CD The Legend lately. I don't especially approve of the thematic organization, but find each disc delightful.
After leaving Columbia, Cash recorded a few albums for Mercury, then enjoyed a comeback with Rick Rubin's American Recordings, six volumes 1994-2003, some trickling out after Cash's death, plus the 5-CD box Unearthed, only one of which is redundant. I still have some loose ends in the early and late Cash, something to save for later.
Quite a few good records in the top section, even if most of them are jazz. I still haven't heard much non-jazz I care for this year -- even among Michael Tatum's A Downloader's Diary picks -- seven below, only one A- (New Mendicants, though he was also the one who tipped me to Laura Cantrell). With Christgau MIA, critics like Tatum, Dan Weiss (who's reviewed 9 records below), and Jason Gubbels (10) become all the more important (and I might add Matt Rice, whose tip on Knifefight led me to Serengeti, which, as it turned out, he had already reviewed). Still, none of those critics have weighed in on Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia -- the sort of record which gets a quick high HM here but might rise a notch with prolonged exposure. By the way, Tatum and Gubbels are moving their review columns to the relaunched Odyshape -- sad news for me as it means Tatum won't be gracing my blog in the future, but a useful consolidation for everyone else.
Of course, about half of the new records are jazz, and those marked [cd] are driven by my ever-dwindling mail queue -- whereas I try to only listen to promising non-jazz records, I often have to take what I can get when it comes to jazz. Still, I've spent more time looking for what I didn't get, adding five to the A-list (Halvorson, Hollenbeck, Iyer, Mehldau, Reed). Also found some I had higher hopes for (especially Roscoe Mitchell, who placed in my top ten last year). All documented below, albeit briefly.
These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on February 12. Past reviews and more information are available here (4523 records).
New Releases (More or Less)
Juhani Aaltonen: To Future Memories (2010 , TUM): In recent polls, I've written his name in as best flute player around, and there's plenty here (and elsewhere) to justify those votes, but his main instrument is tenor sax, and I'd be happier if he focused more on it. With pianist Iro Haarla, two bassists, a drummer and a percussionist, this is a bit on the moody side but nearly triumphs anyway. Also has two stretches of exceptional flute. B+(***) [cd]
Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014, Total Treble): Punkish group formed in Florida in 1997 by guitarist-singer Tom Gabel, who has since changed him name (and I know not what else) to Laura Jane Grace, not that those changes have done much for his/her voice, other than to provide something novel to rant about. B+(**)
Ariel Alexander & Jon Bremen: Street Cries (2013 , self-released, EP): Sax and guitar respectively, although both are also credited with programming, and the group includes keyboards, bass, drums, and voice (Sara Leib). An intelligent groove record, its slightness matched by its brevity: 5 cuts, 26:07. B+(*) [cd]
Arild Andersen/Tommy Smith/Paolo Vinaccia: Mira (2012 , ECM): Norwegian bassist, name appears before the title whereas the others come after, so maybe I should demote them, but it would be real foolish not to feature the great Scottish tenor saxophonist, and of course it never hurts to give the drummer some. A little restrained compared to the same trio's Live at Belleville (2008), but very strong in spots. B+(***) [dl]
Katy B: Little Red (2014, Columbia): Kathleen Brien, aka Baby Katy, Brit dance pop phenom, second album, nothing grabs me as special first spin through although every beat is likely to sink in with enough reiteration. Deluxe edition adds five songs, extending 48:11 to 68:31, with little loss (or gain). B+(***)
Jeff Ballard Trio: Time's Tales (2013 , Okeh): Drummer, best known in the Brad Mehldau Trio although he has about 80 credits since 1988. First album with his name up front, an unconventional trio with guitarist Lionel Loueke and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon. They flirt with guitar-driven fusion early on, then slow it down and mix up the beat giving the sax more space. B+(***) [cd]
Bruce Barth: Daybreak (2013 , Savant): Mainstream jazz pianist, more than a dozen albums since 1993, this one gets an extra charge from Terell Stafford on trumpet/flugelhorn and, even more so, from Steve Nelson on vibes. B+(**) [cd]
Matt Bauder and Day in Pictures: Nightshades (2013 , Clean Feed): Tenor saxophonist, protégé of Anthony Braxton, has a handful of records including 2010's Day in Pictures, nearly the same quintet (Kris Davis replaces Angelica Sanchez at piano; on both records: Nate Wooley, Jason Ajemian, Tomas Fujiwara). An explosive mix, especially with Davis, but Bauder manages to stay within postbop bounds (what Jason Gubbels describes as "edgy Blue Note circa 1966"). B+(***) [cd]
Dierks Bentley: Riser (2014, Captiol Nashville): "Pretty Girls" is shallow enough for Luke Bryan. "Drunk on a Plane" isn't, but I wouldn't call that an improvement. Bryan may cause people to be miserable, but he doesn't wallow in it. Bentley may aspire to something more, but as his star dims he's less and less convinced it sells. B-
Tyrone Birkett/Emancipation: Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land (2013 , Araminta Music): Saxophonist, grew up playing gospel and kept the focus, with wife Paula Ralph Birkett singing on most of the tracks -- she has a classic gospel voice if you're into that sort, but never matches the crisp clarity of the leader's alto sax. B+(**) [cd]
Raoul Björkenheim: Ecstasy (2012 , Cuneiform): Quite possible that the packaging treats this as an eponymous group album, but the LA-born Finnish guitarist is the essential name fronting a group with sax (Pauli Lyytinen), bass (Jori Huhtala), and drums (Markku Ounaskari). Phenomenal guitar player, as you should know by now, and the group can make some noise, but a few off spots leaves this short of its title. B+(***) [dl]
Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love Marriage & Divorce (2014, Motown): Stars of the 1990s softening known as neo-soul, Kenny Edmonds an innovator, Braxton a follower happy to add some sex appeal, but old enough to resort to a themed storyline this time -- and not one they'd claim as their own, as the "starring" credit attests. Still, as fiction I wished they'd come up with a more rewarding relationship, not least because as it is all the fun songs are up front. B+(***)
Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here (2013 , Thrift Shop): Country-ish singer-songwriter, got noticed on her 2000 debut Not the Tremlin' Kind, but she did seem a little trembly and a decade's worth of records never quite clicked -- closest was 2011's Kitty Wells tribute, which may have helped her focus, but doesn't explain the easy grace of these melodies. A-
Regina Carter: Southern Comfort (2013 , Sony Masterworks): Violinist, won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2006, the year of her best album to date, I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey, and she has finally topped that with another sentimental journey, looping back around her family tree through a series of mostly trad. pieces and casts her into an old fashioned fiddle role, not that it's ever that straightforward. A- [cd]
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (2014, Smalltown Supersound): Trumpeter Don Cherry's daughter, raised more in Europe than the US, had two sensational hip-hop albums 1989-92, a scattered career given a boost with 2012's The Cherry Thing -- punk anthems backed by a Norwegian avant-jazz trio. That led to an album of remixes, and that led to this collaboration between Cherry and the remixers -- spare electropop that grows on you without ever approximating a hit. B+(***)
Kris Davis Trio: Waiting for You to Grow (2013 , Clean Feed): Pianist, from Canada, got our attention with a series of quartet albums featuring Tony Malaby (2008's Rye Eclipse is the one to seek out), then lately has tried to scale back with intriguing solo and trio albums. This feels like a breakthrough. It helps, of course, to have John Hébert and Tom Rainey on board, but every piece shows us something new, from roughly fractured to delicately melodic. A- [cd]
Michael Dessen Trio: Resonating Abstractions (2013 , Clean Feed): Trombonist, teaches at UC Irvine, third Trio album, with Christopher Tordini on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Sometimes a bit too abstract, but when they slow down Weiss takes off. B+(**) [cd]
DKV + Mats Gustafsson/Paal Nilssen-Love/Massimo Pupillo: Schl8hof (2011 , Trost): DKV is a Ken Vandermark sax trio, with Kent Kessler on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. They recorded quite a bit 1998-2001, nothing for a long while, then a 7-CD Not Two box set in 2012, Past Present (recorded 2008-11). This doubles them up adding two-thirds of the Thing (Gustafsson, Nilssen-Love) and Pupillo on bass (primarily from Italian rock group Zu) and sends them overboard into avant-noise. B+(**)
Henrik Otto Donner & TUMO: And It Happened . . . the Music of Henrik Otto Donner (2012 , TUM): Donner (1939-2013) composed the music and conducted the strings, with the orchestra (TUMO) conducted by Miko Hassinen, and supplemented by Juhani Aaltonen (tenor sax, alto flute) and Johanna Iivanainen (vocals on 4 of 8 tracks). The orchestra enjoys pushing boundaries, and the saxophonist has some fine moments. B+(**) [cd]
Violeta Ferrer/Raymond Boni: Federico García Lorca (2013 , Fou): Boni plays guitar and harmonica, accompanying 80-year-old Ferrer who reads poetry from Lorca -- in Spanish, I presume, because I'm not catching a word edgewise. That may have something to do with the settings, which emphasize the speech as abstract sound. B+(*) [cd]
Jean-Marc Foussat: L'Oiseau (2011-12 , Fou): French keyboard player, or possibly more accurately electronics -- his AKS and VCS3 synthesizers look more like patchboards, and the sound on this solo effort is what's technically known as "noise" with some bird chirps. I have a pile of his records, but this is a tough place to get acquainted. B [cd]
Jean-Marc Foussat, Sylvain Guérineau & Joe McPhee: Quod (2010 , Fou): Synthesizers, tenor sax, and soprano sax respectively. Two 21-24 minute pieces. The soprano is tuned in more to the synths and can compound the nuissance (maybe "noissance" should be a word), but the tenor steadies things and keeps this interesting. B+(*) [cd]
Jean-Marc Foussat & Ramón Lopez: Ça Barbare, Là! (2012 , Fou): López is a drummer, giving the AKS synth tones and processed voice of Foussat a steadying, which isn't necessarily regular, accompaniment, a big plus. B+(**) [cd]
Jean-Marc Foussat/Simon Hénocq: Nopal (2013 , Fou): Foussat's AKS synth and processed voice again, this time matched against Hénocq's guitars, fairly matched and even complementary noise sources. B+(**) [cd]
Get the Blessing: Lope and Antilope (2013 , Naim Jazz): Bristol [UK] jazz-rock group, bassist and drummer previously in Portishead, plus trumpet (Pete Judge) and sax (Jake McMurchie) -- and guest guitarist Adrian Utley (also from Portishead) -- fourth album since 2009. Steady on the beat, with the horns straying although not quite enough to merit the Ornette Coleman hype. B+(*)
Tord Gustavsen Quartet: Extended Circle (2013 , ECM): Norwegian pianist, satisfies ECM's fetish for quiet understatement but consistently plays well above the norm. Quartet adds the tenor sax of Tore Brunborg to his trio with Mats Eilertsen and Jarle Vespestad. Brunborg also fits the ECM model -- quiet and thoughtful, the results broadly atmospheric -- and again raises the bar (a bit). B+(***) [cdr]
Mary Halvorson Trio: Ghost Loop (2012 , ForTune): Jazz guitarist, probably the most notable arrival of the last decade although I've had all sorts of problems trying to get a handle on her work. This is live in Poland with John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums -- should be a good showcase but remains sketchy. B+(**)
Mary Halvorson/Michael Formanek/Tomas Fujiwara: Thumbscrew (2013 , Cuneiform): Another guitar-bass-drums trio, the obvious difference a bassist who gets out in front more although I'd expect the drummer to be the improvement. Maybe it's just chemistry, as Halvorson works within the fractured rhythmic web but makes more out of it. A- [dl]
Scott Hamilton Quartet: Dean Street Nights (2012 , Woodville): Retro-swing tenor saxophonist with an English pick-up group -- John Pearce, Dave Green, and Steve Brown -- doing what he's been doing for decades: standards plus an original dedicated to Zoot Sims -- the ballads exquisite, but "Cherokee" doesn't quite ignite. B+(**)
Craig Handy: Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith (2011 , Okeh): Tenor saxophonist, played Coleman Hawkins in the Lester Young cutting match in Altman's Kansas City -- seemed like a break at the time, but he's had a very spotty recording career. He goes back to R&B here, playing Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Almost Lost My Mind" and "Mojo Workin'" -- Dee Dee Bridgewater and Clarence Spady sing one each, Wynton Marsalis handles the trumpet slot, and Helin Riley plays washboard as well as drums. A- [cdr]
Billy Hart Quartet: One Is the Other (2013 , ECM): Veteran drummer, b. 1940, first appeared with Jimmy Smith in 1964 and must have a couple hundred credits since then, but a very scattered record as a leader, at least until this Quartet appeared in 2006 with major contributors Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson plus Ben Street on bass. Elegant postbop, but I'm finding the sax a bit languid, and the cover ("Some Enchanted Evening") misses every point I can think of. B [dl]
John Hollenbeck/Alban Darche/Sébastien Boisseau/Samuel Blaser: JASS (2013 , Yolk): Group name an acronym from the artists' first names, but also a shout out to the Original Dixieland Jass Band. Two horns -- Darche's sax and Blaser's trombone -- backed by bass (Boisseau) and drums (Hollenbeck), the rhythm fragmented and free, an atmosphere that favors the rougher, funnier instrument -- an opportunity that Blaser runs with. A-
Randy Ingram: Sky/Lift (2012 , Sunnyside): Pianist, second album, trio (Matt Clohesy and Jochen Rueckert) plus guitar by Mike Moreno, a nice for for the album's airiness. B+(**) [cd]
Vijay Iyer: Mutations (2013 , ECM): Two solo piano pieces lead off, then for the ten pieces that make up the title series he's joined by a string quartet (two violins, viola, cello), a chamber jazz move that, like so much he's done, defies expectations. A- [dl]
Stan Kenton Alumni Band: Road Scholars Live (2013 , Summit): Kenton died in 1979, and I don't know him or his legacy well enough to make the connections here, but there's enough gray hair in the picture to suggest that they played the man and not some ghost band. Interesting that none of the compositions or arrangements are credited to Kenton. The vocal track, "Stockholm Sweetnin'," is kinda cute. "America the Beautiful" isn't. B [cd]
Knifefight: Knifefight (2013, Anticon, EP): Beans, formerly of Anti-Pop Consortium, with producer Mux Mool (and guest spots for Cities Aviv, Kool AD, and Sub Con), for six tracks, 19:24. B+(***) [bc]
Jonas Kullhammar/Torbjörn Zetterberg/Espen Aalberg: Basement Sessions Vol. 2 (2012 , Clean Feed): Tenor sax-bass-drums trio, follows up a pretty good Vol. 1 released in 2012, and it's not clear why they held this batch back: it consistently hits the sweet spot in free jazz between chaos and beauty. A- [cd]
James Brandon Lewis: Divine Travels (2011 , Okeh): Tenor saxophonist, from Buffalo, second album, a trio with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, weaving free sax around more traditional patterns. A- [cd]
Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else (2014, Bloodshot): Very alt country singer: first album, 2011's Indestructible Machine, startled me with its fierceness, and there's some of that here too, but you have to look closer because your initial impression is overwhelmed by how much guitar weight she's put on. B+(**)
Made to Break: Cherchez La Femme (2013 , Trost): One of Ken Vandermark's groups, third album since 2011, with Christof Kurzmann manipulating electronics, Devin Hoff on bass, and Tim Daisy on drums. Three 20-minute pieces dedicated, in Vandermark's fashion, to women of the arts. The sax bounces over marvelous rhythms, my only complaint that some of the electronics drops out at moderately low volume, making me wonder what's happening. B+(***)
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Wig Out at Jagbags (2014, Matador): Back in the 1990s I thought he couldn't sing so I counted as miracles the albums he got away with it -- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain probably remains as the greatest rock album of the decade. His vocal lines here are every bit as convoluted but far less miraculous. B+(**)
Brad Mehldau Trio: Where Do You Start (2008-11 , Nonesuch): Along with Ode (which I still haven't heard), one of two 2012 albums by the trio, this all (but one) widely scattered covers (Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, two Brazilian pieces, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, the title cut by Johnny Mandel and the Bergmans). Runs long but as crisp and fresh as their early albums. A-
Brad Mehldau/Mark Guiliana: Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (2013 , Nonesuch): Pianist and drummer, respectively, the former mostly playing synths here, the latter doubling on electronics. Giuliana comes from the group Heernt but has a fair number of jazz credits since 2003. Some spoken word, credited to Mehldau, works across the grain of the electronics. B+(**)
Pat Metheny Unity Group: Kin (2013 , Nonesuch): Rhapsody only has 5 of 9 cuts (including the one that's 0:38, but none of four tracks that top 10:00), so I can't really claim to have listened to this, but what I have heard is so underwhelming I can't imagine the missing scraps make much difference. Expands on 2012's Unity Band by adding jack-of-all-trades Giulio Carmassi. Still, the big question is why hire Chris Potter then not let him play? B-
Roscoe Mitchell: Conversations I (2013 , Wide Hive): The venerable AACM saxophonist is joined by Craig Taborn (keybs) and Kikanju Baku (percussion). First cut is called "Knock and Roll" and is about all the shrillness I can stand. After that they slow it down, open it up, and play off the oblique angles. Remarkable in some ways, but it can get awful rough on your ears. B
Modern Baseball: You're Gonna Miss It All (2014, Run for Cover): Philadelphia group, lo-fi with nasal vocals cutting through some rather fetching melodies. Rather short at 29:30. B+(***)
Jennifer Nettles: That Girl (2014, Mercury Nashville): Country singer, cut an album early then co-founded the group Sugarland, which I've avoided, following the rule that bands with logos are always awful. Her voice has little appeal and she adds little to her numerous co-credits, but manages to channel her inner Janis Joplin on Bob Seger's "Like a Rock." B
The New Mendicants: Into the Lime (2014, Ashmont): Veteran songwriters from Teenage Fanclub and the Pernice Brothers plus a drummer from the Sadies giving them roots, but not very deep ones, in three Anglophone countries. Their soft melodiousness gets compared to the Hollies, not that that's what the Hollies are remembered for, but then who recalls the Insect Trust? A-
Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014, Jagjaguwar): Singer-songwriter, grew up in St. Louis and works out of Chicago, second (or third) album, has a low-budget folkiness to it. B+(*)
The Jim Olsen Ensemble: We See Stars (2013 , OA2): Smallish big band -- two trumpets, one trombone, three reeds, extra percussion, leader plays flute -- the best known musician here Dick Oatts although there are a couple more I'm familiar with. Nice balance, no excess but doesn't seem to be missing anything. B+(**) [cd]
Ark Ovrutski: 44:33 (2013 , Zoho): Bassist, b. 1963 in Kiev, based in NY since 2005; second album, following Sounds of Brasil, postbop quintet with Michael Dease prominent on trombone, Michael Thomas on sax, and David Berkman on piano. B+(*) [cd]
Ulysses Owens Jr.: Onward & Upward (2013 , D Clef): Drummer, has a previous album on Criss Cross, pulls out all the stops here. For me the album goes off the rails with Charles Tuner's vocal on the second track, but a superb clarinet solo on down the line sent me to the credits to find Anat Cohen. B+(*)
Chris Parker: Full Circle (2013 , OA2): Pianist, based in New York, presumably not the same as drummer Chris Parker -- from Chicago, former leader of Toph-E and the Pussycats, released The Chris Parker Trio last year -- nor British bass guitarist Chris Parker, although there's an idea for a group. Second album (as best I can tell), quintet filled out very nicely with John Nastos on alto and soprano sax and Rob Thomas on violin. B+(**) [cd]
Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia: Devil's Tale (2013 , Asphalt Tango): Canadian guitarist, deep enough into Django Reinhardt he arranged this meeting with Romania's leading gypsy brass band, who fill out his contours impressively, lots of flash and muscle. B+(***) [dl]
Mike Reed's People, Places & Things: Second Cities Volume 1 (2013, 482 Music): Chicago drummer, has used this group young avant-gardists to explore the rich legacy of the music in Chicago since the 1950s, but here reveals an Amsterdam connection, joining his core quartet with the cream of the Dutch avant-garde, including Ab Baars, Eric Boeren, Guus Janssen, and US expat Michael Moore -- almost like Sun Ra sitting in with the ICP. A-
Revolutionary Snake Ensemble: Live Snakes (2011-13 , Accurate): Saxophonist Ken Field's Boston group, personnel shifting among six live dates excerpted here but they're all of a piece, tapping into New Orleans tradition, most impressively on an old Albert Brumley song which segues into an avant-Dixieland "Que Sera Sera." A- [cd]
Schoolboy Q: Oxymoron (2014, Interscope): Matthew Hanley, rapper from Los Angeles, started out in Black Hippy collective with Kendrick Lamar, third album here, focusing on pills and blunts and soul food, nothing too heavy. B+(**)
Serengeti: C.A.B. (2013, Anticon, EP): Reportedly cut in Berkeley (2009-11) with Jel and Odd Nosdam, in sessions that also produced C.A.R. and The Kenny Davis EP (both out in 2012) -- seven tracks, 21:25, "not leftovers" they promise as if savoring the best for last, and indeed the ramshackle rhymes and beats offer a satisfying slice of life (pretend life, maybe). A- [bc]
Daniel Smith: Smokin' Hot Bassoon Blues (2013 , Summit): Started out in classical, cutting numerous records with damn near every note in the canon written for bassoon, then moved on to Bebop Bassoon. Aside from two Ray Charles tuns (with vocals by Frank Senior), these are mostly blues-based bop-era standards -- "Night Train," "Better Get Hit in Your Soul," "Back at the Chicken Shack," "Señor Blues," "C Jam Blues," "Moanin'," etc. Still, lead bassoon is at best a novelty. B+(*) [cd]
The Souljazz Orchestra: Inner Fire (2014, Strut): Canadian group, half dozen albums since 2005, fond of Latin and funk rhythms and often get them mixed up for a synthesis that isn't quite comfortable in any genre. B+(*)
St. Vincent: St. Vincent (2014, Loma Vista/Republic): Annie Clark's fourth album -- or fifth counting the duo album I file under David Byrne -- starts off quirky enough to make me wonder if this might be her breakthrough, and perhaps it is. B+(***)
Step Brothers: Lord Steppington (2014, Rhymesayers): MC/producer Evidence teams up with producer/MC Alchemist. Striking example: a repeated bass figure, a vocal fragment "I walked into the casino to see the rich man play," and Roc Marciano's fragmented rap. B+(**)
Ben Stolorow/Ian Carey: Duocracy (2013 , Kabosha): Piano and trumpet duets, a nice contrast on a mix of jazz and pop standards, not least "Cherokee." B+(**) [cd]
Tinariwen: Emmaar (2013 , Anti-): From the desert end of Mali, with several impressive discs since 2002, although this was cut in the relative safety of the US with a few Yankee ringers, and they all play it safe. B+(***)
Tri-Fi: Staring Into the Sun (2013 , self-released): Trio, with Matthew Fries on piano, Phil Palombi on bass, and Keith Hall on drums. Fries has several previous records, including Tri-Fi with this group in 2005. B [cd]
Ken Vandermark/Agustí Fernández: Interacting Fields (2013, Discordian): Sax (or clarinet)-piano duo. One factoid I wonder about is how many times Vandermark has played in duos with a pianist? Damn few: maybe one with Jim Baker, maybe a bit with Misha Mengelberg, but mostly trios with Håvard Wiik, and hardly anyone else. Fernández, based in Barcelona, on the other hand has made a career out of duos: 19 (of 38 at Discogs) albums are duos. The pair are remarkably well matched on the hottest cut ("Clashing Particles"). B+(***) [bc]
Javier Vercher/Ferenc Nemeth: Imaginary Realm (2013, Dreamers Collective): Spanish tenor saxophonist meets Hungarian drummer, both with records I've enjoyed, but actually a trio -- back cover adds "with the collaboration of David Kikoski," the pianist filling out the gaps duos inevitably leave. Choice cut: "Giant Henge." B+(**)
Old Music: Reissues, Compilations, Vault Discoveries
Johnny Cash: Songs of Our Soil (1958-59 , Columbia/Legacy): Not much of the rhythmic crackle of Cash's Sun sides -- at least until you get to the singles-oriented "bonus tracks" -- but his grim sketches ("Five Feet High and Rising," "The Man on the Hill," "Hank and Joe and Me") leave their mark, and no one has ever got more out of "The Great Speckled Bird." A-
Johnny Cash: Ride This Train (1959-60 , Columbia/Legacy): Original just has eight songs but runs 32:20, each song introduced by Cash talking about Indians and coal mining and lumberjacking -- not great "performance art" (as similar efforts would come to be called) but plenty of context and feeling; reissue adds four more songs, no talk. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962-62 , Columbia): Sort of the common denominator for any Johnny Cash album, that sound: the rich, deep voice, the chunky rhythm, the chintzy backup singers. Short on originals, with "In the Jailhouse Now" and "Delia's Gone" the most memorable covers, outlaw fare both. B+(*)
Johnny Cash: Blood, Sweat and Tears (1962 , Columbia): Hard labor, scant rewards, explored in a set of songs that don't quite add up to the concept, the initial confusion evident in stretching "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" out to 9:03, tacking on "Nine Pound Hammer" then letting his mind wander from pounding the rails to riding then ("Waiting for a Train," "Casey Jones"). B+(***)
Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1958-63 , Columbia): Singles and B-sides but nothing from Sun (so forget that "best of"), only one also on a Cash LP, so it's easy to think of this roll up, hot on the heels of his biggest hit to date, as just the next logical album in the Columbia series -- or would be if it flowed better, peaked higher, and gave up on the idiocy that the Alamo had anything to do with freedom. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964, Columbia): Half-written by folksinger Peter La Farge, who like Cash imagined an Indian ancestry and aligned himself with America's ancestors and victims, a sensibility and history that we all should all recognize. Not sure there's no condesenscion here, but the songs are tough-skinned, a favorite ploy to move closer to the drums. Only song you're likely to have heard here is "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," which much later Clint Eastwood turned into a brilliant movie. A-
Johnny Cash: Orange Blossom Special (1964 , Columbia/Legacy): Bob Dylan is a great songwriter but his three songs here fit oddly, as does "Danny Boy" with its torturous introduction, and for that matter "Amen"; on the other hand, Cash's "Long Black Veil" rivals Frizzell's, "The Wall" and "When It's Springtime in Alaska" are memorable stories, and the title cut chugs right along. B+(*)
Johnny Cash: Sings the Ballads of the True West (1959-65 , Columbia/Legacy): Originally a double LP with 20 songs, a real work of scholarship if not archaeology, starting with Hiawatha and going back to when Kentucky was darkest wilderness, nothing singles-worthy (which didn't stop them from releasing "Mr. Garfield"), a somber and often brutal compendium, my main complaint the condescending "Johnny Reb" and an excessive romance with six-shooters -- not that "The Ballad of Boot Hill" is anything but a withering critique of the gun cult. B+(***)
Johnny Cash: Everybody Loves a Nut (1965-66 , Columbia): The obvious move was to lighten up, but neither Jack Clement nor Shel Silverstein can consistently crack a joke -- Clement's "The One on the Right Is on the Left" is by far the best of the bunch -- and while Cash goes along with the mischief he is conflicted, even about playing "Red River Valley" on the harmonica. B-
Johnny Cash: Happiness Is You (1962-65 , Columbia): A throwback to Cash at his most folkloric, almost talking through a batch of songs where only his remake of "Guess Things Happen That Way" and a twangy "Wabash Cannonball" feel natural. B
Johnny Cash & June Carter: Carryin' On With Johnny Cash & June Carter (1967 , Columbia/Legacy): Skipping Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (redundant, although "Jackson" appeared there first). Cash and Carter didn't actually get hitched until after this record, and she only shared the headline on two later Cash albums. This one is very inconsistent, with two Ray Charles songs amplifying the messiness. Disappointing, as she was one of the few members of the human race with a voice that could stand next to his. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: From Sea to Shining Sea (1967 , Columbia): The title tracks, intro and coda, swell with the grandeur of America, but in between it's the ordinary details that matter -- a miner, a cotton picker, a shrimp boat hand, a prisoner, a checker game at a filling station, the unknown crafter of an arrowhead. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: The Johnny Cash Show (1970, Columbia): Recorded live at the Grande Ole Opry, the six cuts include two medleys and Kris Kristofferson's one great song, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," backed by a phalanx of unnecessary strings. B+(*)
Johnny Cash: I Walk the Line [Soundtrack] (1970, Columbia): A John Frankenheimer film named for Cash's 1956 hit, reprised here along with seven more Cash originals (new ones, I think, most notably "Flesh and Blood"), a couple orchestral versions (yuck), and a choral medley with "Amazing Grace." Stars Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld are pictured on the cover, and the whole thing runs 26:29. Not to be confused with the 1964 album of the same name (with its re-recorded Sun material), or the 2005 Walk the Line Cash-Carter biopic soundtrack, performed by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. B
Johnny Cash: Little Fauss and Big Halsy [Soundtrack] (1971, Columbia): A second quick soundtrack, but Cash gets bigger print than the long title or stars Robert Redford and Michael J. Pollard and comparable photo space, although their motorcycle has more shine than his guitar. With Carl Perkins, who wrote four songs, sings one of them, and picks on the instrumentals. B+(*)
Johnny Cash: Man in Black (1971, Columbia): One of the era's most effective antiwar songs ("Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues"), although the hit was the solidarity anthem with the downtrodden, but for filler he begins and ends with Jesus, and too bad guest preacher Billy Graham doesn't have anything worthwhile to offer. B+(***)
Johnny Cash: A Thing Called Love (1972, Columbia): Three singles, "Kate" and "A Thing Called Love" fine but unexceptional, "Papa Was a Good Man" means well but requires too much special pleading, as does "Tear Stained Letter." B
Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash På Österåker (1972 , Columbia/Legacy): Back in jail, performing for the inmates of Sweden's Österåker Prison. The reissue significantly expands and reshuffles the original 12-cut 1973 album to 24 tracks, including a rewrite of "San Quentin" as "Österåker" and some between-song patter in Swedish. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: Any Old Wind That Blows (1973, Columbia): The hit here is "Oney" -- an impulse to violence I've never approved of, not that I'm unfamiliar, let alone sympathetic, with overlings who abuse their power, nor that I can't appreciate the impulse, or Cash's closing cackle. Meanwhile, Cash loosens up on nearly everything, even the Jesus closer, and is downright exuberant on "If I Had a Hammer." A-
Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash: Johnny Cash and His Woman (1973, Columbia): The second of only three widely-spaced duet albums, not much especially considering how much her voice and comic timing could have brought to the deal, and even here she's at best a backing singer on more than half the cuts, so you got to figure it's something with him -- and something oddly personal, given that he met her on stage. B
Johnny Cash: Ragged Old Flag (1974, Columbia): Cash wraps himself up in the flag, and he's entitled, his love of country so deep it survives the embarrassments and follies that have torn it apart. Then he sets to worrying. B
Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash Sings Precious Memories (1975, Columbia): Another gospel album, Cash's fifth (if you're counting), and probably his worst -- obvious fare like "Rock of Ages," "The Old Rugged Cross," "Amazing Grace," and the tile song rendered by a lame orchestra and lots of extra voices. Only tolerable when they pick up the pace (e.g., "In the Sweet By and By"). C-
Johnny Cash: John R. Cash (1975, Columbia): Only one original ("Lonesome to the Bone"), with the covers casting far for inspiration, finding it in such clever turns as Billy Joe Shaver's "Jesus Was Our Savior and Cotton Was Our King" and Randy Newman's "My Old Kentucky Home," but nothing quite fits. B
Johnny Cash: Look at Them Beans (1975, Columbia): Three Cash originals, with "I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs" the most revealing, a point he proves by trying to sing one from Don Williams. The title track comes from Joe Tex, and it's funny that they kept the horns. B+(*)
Johnny Cash: Strawberry Cake (1975 , Columbia): Live, from the London Palladium, starts with three songs from the Sun era, a story about watching chain gang workers, then "I Got Stripes." Then comes June Carter Cash's Carter Family tribute, interrupted by a bomb threat, and Cash's new title song, a Lonnie Donegan tribute, a song about the "Navajo," and a couple more. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: One Piece at a Time (1976, Columbia): The title track is such a perfect working stiff yarn that it comes as a surprise that Cash didn't write it. But seven tracks -- more than any of album of the period -- have Cash's name on them (or eight with the one by Rosanne Cash). B+(***)
Johnny Cash: The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976 , Columbia): The title track is by Guy Clark, but Cash's originals are better than par for the period (especially "City Jail"), June helps lift "Far Side Banks of Jordan," and this ends with a touching Gene Autry tribute, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine." B+(**)
Johnny Cash: The Rambler (1976-77 , Columbia): A concept album, eight original songs with narration between: Cash's character gets dumped by his "lady" and hits the road, picking up a hitchhiker in Indiana with an ex called Calilou, so they drive west, get cold feet in California, and turn around toward New Orleans. Nothing wrong with the songs, nor interesting in the repartee. B
Johnny Cash: I Would Like to See You Again (1976-77 , Columbia): Waylon Jennings helps out on two songs -- "I Wish I Was Crazy Again" is more his line, but "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang" is a lesson Cash learned long ago. Cash's four originals are solid enough -- "Who's Gene Autry?" rings truest -- and his pick of the covers fills the album out nicely, with "I'm Alright Now" an upbeat gospel closer. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: Gone Girl (1978, Columbia): Cash's own "I Will Rock and Roll With You" is pretty ambivalent, even fretting about the weirdos in the wings, but he nails one by Jagger-Richards, rocks "It Comes and Goes," and corrals some catchy covers (including "The Gambler" and "Cajun Born"). The strings aren't fatal, but not a plus either. B+(**)
Johnny Cash: Silver (1979 , Columbia/Legacy): Reissue adds two George Jones duets to the one on the album proper, both remakes as is "Cocaine Blues"; then there's the twisted "I'll Say It's True" -- no idea what to make of that. B+(*)
Johnny Cash: Rockabilly Blues (1979-80 , Columbia): The title song refers back to "Texas 1955," and the album as a whole is a bit more upbeat with a bit more jangle than Cash's norm, but it's not what rockabilly sounded like back then, even when played by the Tennessee Two -- i.e., this sounds less like Cash than usual. Covers from Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Steve Goodman/John Prine, Rodney Crowell, and Nick Lowe don't sound like them either. No wonder he's got the blues. B
Johnny Cash: The Baron (1980-81 , Columbia): Countrypolitan legend Billy Sherrill enters as producer, pretty much killing off the Cash sound, and Cash didn't bother to write a line, but he sings fine, with "Reverend Mr. Black" and "Chattanooga City Limit Sign" the most satisfying songs, and the patriotic swell of "Greatest Love Affair" the yuckiest moment. B
Johnny Cash/Jerry Lee Lewis/Carl Perkins: The Survivors Live (1981 , Columbia): Three-fourths of Sun's circa 1955 "million dollar quartet" -- Elvis Presley had died in 1977 -- reassemble for a live show in Germany, doing some of their old hits ("Get Rhythm," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Blue Suede Shoes") and old favorites ("Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "Peace in the Valley," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I'll Fly Away," "I Saw the Light"). Fast and sloppy, hard to complain, or see the point. B
Johnny Cash: The Adventures of Johnny Cash (1981-82 , Columbia): Cash fell off the country singles list in the 1980s: only "The Baron" (1981) cracked the top-20 (at 10), and only two (of three) singles even charted here. Of course, Billy Joe Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train" sounds fine, as does John Prine's "Paradise" and Merle Haggard's "Good Old American Guest." B+(*)
Johnny Cash: Johnny 99 (1983, Columbia): Where Cash finally covers Springsteen, twice, and I never want to hear "Highway Patrolman" sung by anyone else. Second best song is "I'm Ragged but I'm Right," credited to George Jones but old even when Riley Puckett sung it (and the title of a superb out-of-print RCA comp of "Great Country String Bands of the 1930's." But I've been spared by birth the slightest temptation to join in on "God Bless Robert E. Lee." B+(*)
Johnny Cash: Rainbow (1984-85 , Columbia): Legacy's compilations hardly ever extend beyond 1983's "Highway Patrolman" (even the one titled Columbia Records 1958-1986) making this one of Cash's most forgotten records. Chips Moman produced -- nothing crisp or sharp here, or indeed memorable, but nothing embarrassing either. B-
Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings: Heroes (1984-85 , Columbia): A spinoff, or maybe just outtakes, from the Highwayman project, two desperate artists in black give us more reasons to detest the concept, including the anthem "American by Birth" ("and Southern by the grace of God"). B-
Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson: Highwayman (1984 , Columbia): The quartet's third album, 1995's The Road Goes On Forever, rechristened them as the Highwaymen, but Jimmy Webb's title song is singular, and the artists are listed left-to-right across the front cover as above. Amusing to listen to trademark voices trading lines, but that just makes them pass faster. B
Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson: Highwayman 2 (1989 , Columbia): No names on the cover, just faces, so we'll keep the credit order. Cash's "Songs That Make a Difference" is the odd one out because none of the others do. B-
Budd Johnson & Phil Woods: The Ole Dude & the Fundance Kid (1984 , Uptown): Johnson was one of the swing era's tenor sax greats -- he rarely led sessions but they were often terrific, and he often shows up in the side credits of first-rate albums -- and this seems to have been his final session. Alto saxophonist Woods was a bebopper who grew to respect his elders and he meshes nicely here, with Richard Wyands on piano. A- [dl]
Gene Ludwig-Pat Martino Trio: Young Guns (1968-69 , High Note): Organ-guitar trio, with Randy Gelispie on drums. Martino's career ended with an aneurysm in 1979, then was resurrected, to much hoopla, in 1987, not that (in admittedly light sampling) I've found his work -- mostly soul jazz riffs with a touch of Montgomery -- all that impressive. Organist Ludwig has an even spottier discography with no melodrama explaining the gaps -- a couple mid-1960s albums, one in 1979, a steady stream of retro-soul jazz efforts since he turned 60 in 1997. This, however, is terrific, with the guitar racing so fast that Ludwig never gets to settle into his groove. Previously unreleased, I think. A- [cd]
Additional Consumer News:
Previously rated Johnny Cash albums (Columbia):
Also Columbia/Legacy's compilations (own records 1958-85; before that are cross-licensed from Sun; after from UME, either Mercury or American):
Columbia/Legacy has also started releasing a "bootleg" series, mostly from Cash's personal tapes:
Monday, March 17. 2014
Music: Current count 22967  rated (+33), 599  unrated (-12).
One more week like last and the ratings count will hit 23,000. I doubt that will happen, but 30+ weeks show I haven't made much progress weaning myself off writing about music, although it is starting to happen. The most common path to a 30+ week is a lot of quickies on Rhapsody (like last week's Johnny Cash orgy), but I'm pleased to note that I've knocked a dozen slots off the unrated list, dipping back below 600.
Exceptional number of A- records this week (seven) but only one arrived at my snail mail box (one more came as a download link from a publicist). I have to credit tracking down recommendations from other critics, and I'm actually a bit surprised that I only came up with seven. For instance, three B+ records here come from Chris Monsen's 2014: Favorites (Made to Break, Matt Bauder, and Lydia Loveless) -- Monsen reads my mind so efficiently I sometimes check his lists to see what I'm thinking, but none of those records quite did it for me. Laura Cantrell was recommended by Tatum and Gubbels. Several records showed up in Seth Colter Walls' monthly jazz picks at Rhapsody. The Mehldau I found while looking for the new one. Budd Johnson just fell out of the sky.
You shouldn't have to wait long to get write-ups: I'll run a Rhapsody Streamnotes column later this week -- possibly as early as Tuesday. Maybe I'll catch a break after that.
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:
Sunday, March 16. 2014
It seems like I've written dozens of drafts of sketches of designs for a new music website, with this just one more step in the series. However, events -- admittedly not all that well understood by me -- have conspired to make this a do-or-die proposal. Or more likely, a final, soon-to-be-forgotten, stake in the ground.
In 2001 I built a website for Robert Christgau. By that time he had written three decade-spanning Consumer Guide books based on more than 30 years of more-or-less monthly columns. They totalled over 10,000 short album reviews with letter grades, so the first thing I wanted to do was to collect them into a database that could be queried in various ways: by artist, by title, by label, by release year, by grade, etc. I added to this an archive of Christgau's numerous essays (or "pieces"), grouping them variously by subject or publication. These, too, were indexed in a database, but I never wrote the code for flexible queries of that database, so they were only accessible by browsing directories or using search tools -- one of many unfinished design intents.
As I was working on the Christgau website, I came to recognize various flaws in the design or problematic limits, and started to think about how a Version 2 would address them. One big problem which has confounded me ever since is that my simple artist and label tables were overnormalized: in the real world there were extensive clusters of related artist (and label) names -- just to pick one example, Christgau has reviewed Peter Stampfel records released under eleven different artist name variations. It then becomes very difficult to turn those separate entries back into a coherent listing for Stampfel. (I did eventually come up with a hack for this problem but it isn't a proper solution.)
While I was thinking about the design of a Version 2 of the Christgau website, I was fleshing out a generalization of the same concepts that could be used for other writers to generate websites similar to Christgau's. I called this the Writer's Website Project. If you look at Hullworks.net you'll still see a slogan for the project ("Dedicated to making free content on the web cheaper") and a broken link promising further info. That project foundered on some fairly pedestrian technical problems -- e.g., I never got the user management code worked out, which is a basic piece of every CMS package ever developed. But I also didn't get a lot of writers to work with, some who were sympathetic had already tied themselves up with a paywall outfit called Rock's Back Pages, and I was getting increasingly sucked into my own writing.
Parallel to the above, I had been cobbling together my own website. I started in 1998 when I was working for SCO -- they hosted employee pages under the "ocston" disclaimer -- and I turned them into TomHull.com after I was sacked in 2000. One of the first things I did was to take an old file called "records.txt" which listed most of the records I owned and grades as best as I recalled and turn it into a primitive (flat-file) database. I added both new records as I heard them and recommended records from various references sources (the current totals are 48882 records listed and 22955 rated). I also collected my old rock critic writings into an archive. In 2003 I started adding to them by writing Recycled Goods, in 2005 the floodgates opened with Jazz Consumer Guide (and its spinoff Jazz Prospecting), and in 2007 Rhapsody Streamnotes. In the course of those three columns I've probably written over 10000 short reviews -- enough to stuff into my own Christgau-like database, if only I liked that database.
Several reasons I haven't done that yet. One is that while it would be handy for me personally to have such a database, I've become convinced that what the world needs is a music website where many people can come together to share their knowledge and opinions about music. Rather than doing something personal -- or, as the Writers Website Project proposed, having lots of people do something personal -- I would rather contribute my data as a seed for something other people can build on. One thing that has become clear to me is that while tracking individual critics has a distinct advantage in coherency, no single critic can cover a broad enough range to satisfy many other people.
On the other hand, I'm not looking to cover everything (like All Music Guide) or to take a neutral position (like Wikipedia). I'm looking at least for the coherency of a tribe -- a group of people who approach music in sufficiently similar ways that their opinions are likely to be of interest to each other. Who these people has never seemed like much of a problem -- I know dozens of obvious candidates -- not that getting them to work (and to work together) is easy. But it's long seemed to me that the basic principle of "build it and they will come" applies here. The problem has always been building it.
The following section is a brief sketch of his I imagined doing that:
When I built the Christgau website, I used the basic free software platforms of the time and coded the entire site from scratch. I used PHP as the coding language, and stored the data in a MySQL database (plus the file system). The web server itself was Apache, although I hardly did anything at that level. My first inclination has always been to follow that same approach, which meant expanding the website by developing an increasingly sophisticated data model. Indeed, most large music websites (e.g., All Music Guide, Discogs) are so closely bound to their data models that you practically reverse engineer them by looking at how the pages are organized. The major exception to this is Wikipedia, which has a vast amount of music information without any specialized data structures at all.
I ultimately decided that there are three main problems with the hard-coded "from scratch" development model:
Since I built the Christgau site, a lot of people have written, using the same free software tools, more general "content management systems" that can be used and then customized for a wide range of websites. I've used several such packages over the years, and they vary depending on what sort of interactions they support, how much collaboration, and how easy they are to customize. I did an extensive search and review of these packages 5-7 years ago, picked out a couple, and unfortunately they didn't work very well -- a setback. At this point I'm hopeful that two packages I don't yet have much experience with will work out better: Mediawiki and WordPress.
Mediawiki is the software used to implement Wikipedia, and web's vast online encyclopedia to everything. The main purpose of the music website is to provide a reference resource: an encyclopedic guide to all worthwhile (in the tribe's opinion) music. Mediawiki imposes no fixed structure on this, although it leans toward atomicity: one page per album, one page per artist with links to each album. Index pages can be grouped any way that makes sense: a list of albums under labels, a list of artists under genres, lists by year or period. One feature I regard as particularly important is recommended album lists, which again are just hand-edited lists. Adding a new feature, like a section on music books, is as simple as doing it.
Mediawiki is focused on collaboration, and by default allows anyone to edit pages (although this can be restricted). As protection against sabotage, it provides strong revision control. Each page has a discussion page, so you can keep a running log of notes about proposals for editing pages. It has useful templating features: it's very easy to create "stub" pages (e.g., when you need to add a musician or album) and it's easy to identify stub pages needing further revision. One could, for instance, start by generating stub pages and dumping my review data onto the discussion pages, relatively quickly creating a substantial start.
I have other questions about how to use Mediawiki: in particular, how to extend it. One essential part of the website is a rating system, combining the ratings of dozens or hundreds (or potentially thousands) of contributors. To do this we need a special database which has album information, grader information, and grades. The main complication to album data is release info, which sometimes matters for graders and often doesn't. I'm inclined to limit qualified graders to people who fill out a fairly extensive profile (not all of which need be public) and who are able to grade a substantial number of albums (at least 1000, maybe more). We would need hand-coded pages to maintain the database, and some code which can be embedded on Mediawiki pages to pull out the current grading summary. Also pages of links sorted by ratings data. From a development standpoint, the ratings database could be developed separately and merged at some future point.
We should also give some thought to licensing. I'm inclined to use a license compatible with Wikipedia to make it easy to move data back and forth, helping both websites.
Mediawiki provides fairly minimal tools for identifying recent changes, but they would make for a very dry news source. Accordingly, I suggest using WordPress in a blog mode for providing a news feed -- both about the reference site and on current music news. (I assume this would be more reviews than gossip or download links, but that may just be me. It could also have a non-review focus like Odyshape.) It looks to me like the front page of a WordPress site could present multiple streams (virtual blogs), so these could be blocked out with a reviews stream, one for news, one for reference site change activity, one for new ratings data, and so forth. Several of these may require custom code to be written to create custom plugins. (I haven't looked at the plugin interface, but there are several thousand plugins readily available, so how hard can they be?)
It's not clear to me whether there are any incompatibilities to running two CMS systems on one website: the packages are designed to install each in its own directory, both use MySQL but each picks a distinct table prefix so they can share the same database. The user systems would be distinct, resulting in the inconvenience of having two login names and passwords (but only if you work on both parts). Links from one part to the other may be a bit trickier, but no more so than linking to external websites.
I currently lease a fairly low-end dedicated server, so I assumed this site could be built there. And I own a usable domain name, TerminalZone.net, so there would be very little cost (work is another story) to setting up something. I never tried putting a business plan together, because I've never had a sense of how to raise money off such a website. One could, presumably, beg more money to buy more bandwidth if that becomes an issue, but funding staff (and freelance writers) is not something I personally worry about: while nice for those receiving, I'm not sure that it really helps much.
But then that may be one reason I'm just throwing this out, and expecting nothing to come of it.
After MSN dropped Robert Christgau's Expert Witness blog, I promised to write something about what I thought it would take in a music website for people of similar tastes to move forward in a post-Christgau world. This is (more or less) the post I had expected to write, but much water has passed under the bridge since then, including some things that may (or may not) be confidential (but that I don't understand well enough anyway). The stuff I do best understand is that I've dropped my Jazz Prospecting and Recycled Goods columns, so I've started to back peddle as a music critic, and will before long become as washed up as anyone else. (In the meantime, I have moved part of those efforts into Rhapsody Streamnotes, and have what I think is a very nice and possibly even useful column coming out next week.) So my personal desire to keep the world informed on new music has started to wane.
On the other hand, I am leaning towards doing more technical website work. I'm looking at WordPress for a couple very different applications. I'm also likely to do more programming, so I'm shifting focus a bit, and that's led me to described the website above more in terms of tools than content.
About two years ago several acquaintances asked me to put together some sort of webzine. We had, at the time, a mailing list with about a dozen names on it, but it gradually became inactive through nothing like a conscious decision. That could easily be resurrected to talk about this. As I said, I'd be willing to contribute some technical resources and coding skills (although possibly not up to the entire job) and a lot of data if other people would take it over and drive it forward. Nor am I terribly rigid about any aspect of this -- not that I haven't spent a lot more time thinking about this than the few hours it's taken to throw this post together.
Wednesday, March 12. 2014
Meant to pull one of these together last Sunday, but I got sidetracked on the many horrors of gun mishaps.
Also, a few links for further study:
Monday, March 10. 2014
Music: Current count 22934  rated (+52), 611  unrated (-3).
I can't say that I'm fully recovered from the Florida trip. For one thing, I still have in front of me a large pile of notes, maps, and bills from which I meant to reconstruct an itinerary of the trip. I also meant to finally unpack the CD cases so that next trip, for the first time in five years or so, I can start out fresh. Since I got back the weather has been crazy up and down, ranging from sub-zero to today's 72F. The initial blizzard when I returned made me want to hibernate, but a couple days ago it was warm enough I finally washed the car, then it got cold again, now warm again.
This week's rated count is way over the top, but most of it comes from an in-depth exploration of Johnny Cash's Columbia albums. I've wanted to do Cash for a long time. I put his name on my request list for the New Rolling Stone Album Guide but someone else grabbed him. (I wound up with George Jones and Willie Nelson.) Back in 2012 I begged Legacy for a review copy of Cash's 63-CD Complete Columbia Collection, to no avail. Then last week, while trolling through Rhapsody's "new country" list, I noticed a bunch of reissued Cash, so figured this might be the time to dig in. I had, after all, played quite a bit of Cash on the Florida trip -- including all four discs of The Legend. I tried to take the albums in chronological order, skipping compilations and some of the gospel. And they went fast: aside from the live albums, I doubt that more than five 1958-85 albums cracked 30 minutes, even near the end when the under-2-minute songs of the 1950s had gone extinct. Not everything is on Rhapsody yet, but most of it is there. I didn't bother with the Sun or Mercury albums, or his final act with Rick Rubin -- all of the latter and most of the others are in the ratings database already. Full report in the next Rhapsody Streamnotes (probably mid-month, given how fast they're piling up).
Still not finding many 2014 releases of note, other than among the jazz releases that are still finding me. With no metacritic file this year, I've started a much simpler tracking list to remind myself of what's out there. Thus far it's mostly assembled from AMG and Metacritic, certainly not the most reliable sources out there. Nothing there that I've already rated, so it's not likely to be that useful to you.
One more point worth noting: I keep running into people who recommend WordPress as a web publishing platforms, so I'm finally taking a serious look at it, in the context of several projects, including the currently stalled Terminal Zone and Notes on Everyday Life, and perhaps most urgently for Wichita Peace. Most projects need both a news series (last-in first-out, like a blog) and a cluster of static pages. WordPress is commonly used as a blog, so I need to explore how viable it is for reference pages. (For the music site, my thinking is that Mediawiki is the superior tool, but overkill for a less expansive site.) I'll also need to look into the plugin interface and possibly build something (especially for the music site). I also need to look at the commenting system. I've been using Serendipity for my blog (and several others), and its handling of comments has been pretty close to useless. If anyone has much experience with WordPress, especially going beyond the ordinary, I'd be interested in hearing from you.
New records rated this week:
Old records rated this week:
Sunday, March 9. 2014
I was looking for links for a Weekend Roundup post tomorrow, and came across one in Talking Points Memo about a woman who was killed while doing laundry: a gun fell out of a sock and fired, hitting her. I know TPM has run a number of similar items over the years. I particularly remembered one where a 4-year-old killed his father, a veteran. I linked to that item and quipped that if the father had only had his own gun, he could have defended himself. Of course, that's ridiculous, but the notion that having a gun will let you defend yourself is at best a very slender hope, depending on perceptions and skills that few if any people have, and more than a little good luck. In particular, you can't defend against accidents. All you can really do is to prevent them, which in the case of guns usually means keeping them locked up and/or unloaded -- or not having them around in the first place.
I'm not much interested in making a policy argument regarding gun control, at least not here. But I'm pretty sure there's a lot of faulty thinking on the subject. In particular, many people -- at least on the pro-gun side -- overestimate the utility and underestimate the risks of guns. Looking around I'm finding it impossible to find good statistical data, but TPM has been active -- how thorough cannot be clear without more data -- in noting anecdotal evidence of gun "accidents," especially involving children. I thought it might be useful to compile a few links to TPM articles on gun-related accidents. I limited my search, going back no further than January 2013, and came up with about 50 incidents, as follows:
One more TPM link: I Have No Words, a letter from a reader who at age 15 accidentally shot and killed his best friend.
I'll add a personal note. When I was a teenager, one of my closest friends shot himself in the foot. And one of my first wife's closest friends shot himself in the leg, resulting in permanent disability. That, to say the least, is an eerie coincidence for such an allegedly rare event.
Some notes on my (admittedly brief) efforts to dig up data:
I will note that given how many guns there are in the US, most owners do appear to take responsible precautions against accidents, otherwise we'd be seeing many, many more horrific "accidents" -- although each and every example above cries out for more assessment of the risks and more diligence over safety measures. (I don't see any example above that could not have been prevented by someone acting with due diligence and caution.) The bigger question for me is the positive utility of having those guns. I don't have that question about automobiles or swimming pools: sure, they entail risks that have to be taken very seriously, but on balance they are very worthwhile and desirable things. It's not clear to me that guns are.
Saturday, March 8. 2014
I rarely pay any attention to news when I travel, and my recent trip to Florida was no exception. When I left I was vaguely aware of violently repressed anti-Russian (aka "pro-West") protesters in Ukraine, but when I got back to Wichita the table had flipped with Ukraine's Prime Minister (democratically elected, as best I recall) ousted and exiled to Russia, while a new "caretaker" government had taken over and was, in turn, violently repressing pro-Russian (aka "anti-West") protesters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in turn, had become very upset, and intervened militarily taking control of the Crimean peninsula -- with an invite from the regional government there, and aided by the fact that Russia already had a substantial military presence in Crimea.
As usual, outsiders see events like this through their pre-existing lenses, which in the US mostly means the relics of the "Cold War" -- the anti-Communist ideology that drove America's security state to seek worldwide hegemony. The issue is no longer economic: Russia adopted a particularly brutal form of privatized capitalism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but remained more/less isolated from the neoliberal international system, and after Putin came to power resumed thinking of itself as an autonomous regional (if not world) power. Meanwhile, neocons in the US shifted their focus from economic to military hegemony, seeking to contain and marginalize any nation that had not aligned itself under US military command.
As such, they were more focused in extending NATO -- which with the end of the Cold War seemed to have no reason for continued existence -- through eastern Europe to the former SSRs than they were interested in pushing economic integration. Russia, quite reasonably, regarded such efforts to expand NATO as a challenge to its own autonomy. The Ukraine has turned out to be a focal point in this US-Russia struggle because popular opinion there is closely divided between pro- and anti-Russian factions, with each able to draw in foreign alliances by catering to the prejudices of Moscow and Washington. That, in turn, results in overreactions by all parties.
I was thinking about doing a piece collecting various links, but one article stands out: Anatol Lieven: Why Obama Shouldn't Fall for Putin's Ukrainian Folly [March 2]:
Many Americans are so fond of zero-sum games that they assume any "serious geopolitical defeat for Russia" is a net gain for the US -- a sense reinforced by sixty years of unrelenting Cold War propaganda. That's very foolish: a crippled Russia is more desperate and dangerous, more estranged from international norms, and more likely to provoke worse behavior from the US -- a superpower with a notoriously weak sense of international law, scant appreciation that such law holds the key to a stable future, and none that Americans might actually benefit from some constraints.
The neocon notion that a superpower can impose its vision of how political economies should work on foreign peoples has proven to be a disaster, most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US spent so many billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of soldiers. That lesson hasn't sunk in, least of all for morons like John McCain, who was so eager to send troops to defend Georgia in 2008, but at least those currently in control recognize that American power is limited -- in particular, an army that can't manage a few thousand Taliban has no itch to take on nuclear-armed Russia or China.
Still, the Obama administration hasn't done much to reassure us of its sanity. They've moved token armed forces into position close to Russia. Secretary of State Kerry has pushed for economic sanctions against Russia -- "war by other means" but still hostile with an aim toward crippling -- while his predecessor, probable future president Hillary Clinton, has absent-mindedly likened Putin to Adolph Hitler. (The problem isn't just historical. The US waged total war against Hitler, insisting on nothing short of unconditional surrender. When Bush I painted Saddam Hussein as "just like Hitler" he set up an expectation for victory that his 1991 Gulf War couldn't deliver, a shortsightedness that Bush II felt the need to remedy in 2003.)
One more point: intervention, and its ill effects, didn't start with Putin seizing Crimea. It goes back to when the Ukraine became independent, split off from the Soviet Union, with NATO expansion a particularly aggressive move by the US. Moreover, apprehension and bad blood wasn't inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main ways the US irritated Putin was the program to install a US-controlled anti-missile defense network in Poland during the Bush II years. This should remind us all once again: conflicts don't begin with war; rather, war is the shameful and disastrous failure of parties to solve conflicts before they get out of hand.
Monday, March 3. 2014
Music: Current count 22882  rated (+14), 614  unrated (+18).
Only a couple days since I got back from Florida, so not much here. That the quality level is fairly high owes to Michael Tatum, who found and reviewed most of this week's newly rated albums. Sure, I'm less enthusiastic -- even New Mendicants is marginal for me, but it's the first non-jazz 2014 release to crack my A-list. On the other hand, Revolutionary Snake Ensemble is my sixth A- jazz record this year. Sure, at this pace I'll wind up with barely more than a third as many A- records as last year. I'm not opposed to the notion that 2014 is off to a slow start, but the main factor is that I'm getting to fewer albums this year. The 2014 list currently has 83 records rated, a pace that would leave me shy of 500 -- less than half last year's total. So maybe I am hanging it up -- or at least taking it easy.
Last two weeks I only listened to music in the car, and only played previously rated CDs. Few sounded better to me than the Maria Muldaur album that I decided to bump up. Granted, the line about Obama didn't pan out, but just this week John McCain reminded us again why he would have been the worst president in US history. The difference between Obama and McCain is very similar to McGeorge Bundy's characterization of the foreign policy difference between Kennedy and Johnson: JFK wanted to be viewed as smart, where LBJ insisted on proving he was tough. That impulse was what let the hawks push Johnson into such a disastrous situation in Vietnam. So it shouldn't be surprising that hawks nowadays are preoccupied with challenging Obama's virility. Of course, to win a comparison with McCain, Obama needn't be very smart -- sane suffices.
Unpacking covers two weeks, everything since February 17. Still getting more stuff than I expected, plus a lot of download links I haven't had time to pursue.
New records rated this week:
Unpacking: Found in the mail the past two weeks:
Saturday, March 1. 2014
Got back home last night from my long road trip to south Florida. Got as far out as Islamadora in the Keys, but having been to Key West before I didn't figure it was worth the extra effort. Drove 4,551 miles. Figured I would dally a bit on the way back, but ran into a rainy day that made St. Augustine unpleasant, so I turned inland rather than exploring the Atlantic coast further. Then the weather reports made it advisable to try to get back to Wichita yesterday, when it was 50F and sunny, rather than today -- 24F and threats of frozen whatever, leading to snow tonight and a forecast high of 11F tomorrow. Had the weather not threatened so, I would have spent an extra day or two with relatives in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and maybe more time with a friend in Mississippi. (We wound up having a nice chat as our paths intersected in Hattiesburg.)
Also, I had two more reasons to get back on Feb. 28: Josh Ruebner was in town promoting his book Shattered Hopes: The Failure of Obama's Middle East Process (sponsored by my wife's Palestinian Study Group) -- I missed the book reading but crashed the after-party -- and my wife's cousin, comic and sometime-sportscaster Mike Leiderman, was also in town to do a "shtick sermon" at a local synagogue, so we got a chance to see him. The latter was especially satisfying since one of the main points of the Florida trip was to see his parents -- my wife's aunt and uncle -- in Palm Beach.
Had several challenges when I got back. Both the CD players weren't working, probably the result of a power outage when I was gone. After some work, the main one skipped and stuttered a bit, then settled into what seems to be working order. Still have to fiddle with the upstairs system, so don't know yet whether it's cooked or merely contrary. Seems like we've gone through a lot of component CD changers in the last few years: they've become increasingly fragile whereas my amplifiers and speakers have an average of 30 years' reliable service.
A more annoying problem came when I booted my main computer. It's hooked on a KVM switch which was disconnected, so the software that probes for monitor type and size failed and selected a much coarser resolution (1024x768 as opposed to 1920x1280). I've run into this problem before, but rebooting didn't fix it, and the fixes that I had previously resorted to -- mostly hacking the "xorg.conf" file -- seem to have been closed off by an increasingly opaque configuration process. (The machine is running Ubuntu 12.04.4, which also has the disadvantage of not being the latest release.) I spent hours reading bulletin boards and poking values into something called xrandr to little avail last night, but somehow got it working today. There was a day when lesser resolutions were acceptable, but the 23-inch Samsung is wide enough I can keep a stack of browser windows on the left and my emacs editor on the right with no overlap. I typically keep 50 browser tabs and 50 text files open at once, and find it hard to imagine working otherwise. And that's just my main workspace: I've configured the window manager for six, so I can use another for mail, a third for gimp, yet another just for the Christgau website.
A second machine, which I run Rhapsody and Facebook on, came up fine. I copied the website files I had changed on the antique laptop to the main machine, then did a belated software update there (585 packages -- it's still on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS) and it seems OK, ready to be ignored until the next road trip.
Finally, I started to look at 452 emails, which is likely to take several days, mixed with catching up on old newspapers, unopened mail, and recorded TV -- also getting back into the stream of everyday life, and getting started on some long-considered, long-delayed projects.