A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: Feb. 2003
by Tom Hull
The years from 1987 to 1992 were the golden age of CD reissues, a period when almost every indubitably great piece of popular music was first etched onto shiny little discs. The music biz was hellbent on cajoling customers into buying all of their favorite music again, and there were easy profits in product that didn't cost studio time and that practically sold itself. But the stream of reissues and newfound vault material never let up, and the success of media events like Ken Burns Jazz and O Brother Where Art Thou? have only reinvigorated it.
In this column, I want to monitor the stream of recycled and recovered music and fish out a few special items -- some classics, some specialized, some downright obscure. Most will be gems, since life is too short to waste on mediocrity, but every now and then I'll knock something. I'll spotlight recently released records that contain older music, which could be anything from a few years old to ancient. I expect that these records will split into four broad categories, in rougly equal numbers: rock (including r&b, hip-hop, and most electronica), jazz (and pre-rock vocal pop), roots (folk, blues, country), and world (anything yanks consider exotic).
I started writing about music in 1974, and since then I've always counted myself as a rock critic, even though my musical tastes and interests are far more diverse. Over the years, I've built up a file that rates and comments on some 8,000 records -- actually a small fragment of what's been released, but one which, by scouring guides and histories, has been carefully chosen. The fact is, no one has the time or patience to check everything out. But in this column I should be able to steer inquisitive readers to a handful of interesting choices each month.
A quick note on format: The records are listed in alphabetic order by artist, or title in case of multiartist sets. Following that, in parens, are the recording dates (if known), label, and a CD count (if more than one). Following the review is a grade. The grades are just a shorthand notation for how good and/or useful I think a record is. Roughly: a B is a record that I don't mind hearing but would never buy; a B+ is a record that I enjoy hearing but recommend only if you're really into that kind of music; an A- is recommended if you're at all into that kind of music; I'd like to think that anyone who hears an A record would like it; and I'd hate to think that anyone who hears an A+ record wouldn't like it. Anything below B is not worth dealing with.
James Brown: The Best of James Brown Volume 2: The '70s (1970-76, Polydor 20th Century Masters). In Uni's cheapo series, this measures out a respectable 50+ minutes: singles and alternate versions of funk classics from the primest of his many prime periods. Redundant if you have the definitive Star Time box, but a fine introduction to the fount of all things funky. A
Buck 65: Weirdo Magnet (1988-96, Warner Music Canada). This collects early works from a Halifax rapper so underground that his works (now six albums) were all but impossible to find until he inked a deal with Warner's Canadian subsidiary in 2002. The beats and samples are minimal, just enough to set up the words, which catch your ear and make you think. One piece intones uncliched platitudes: "the most expensive indulgence is hate/the most dangerous man is the liar." Another warns: "he who plunders to embellish his techno style/should be the object of desire in the dreams of necrophiles." He even rhymes equations. A-
A Cellarful of Motown! (1962-70, Motown, 2CD). The notion that there are diamonds buried in that Motown cellar is seductive, especially since the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown staked a claim for Motown's anonymous studio musicians as an organic dynamo dubbed the Funk Brothers. But Motown's exploitation of its legacy has been so thorough that what's left is little more than this pile of trailings. Sure, these songs sound like hits, but they weren't hits -- they couldn't even pass Motown's Quality Control. Compare this set against UTV's Motown: The Classic Years (or any front-line Motown artist comp) and you won't have any trouble distinguishing real diamonds from all this cubic zirconium. B
Don Gibson: RCA Country Legends (1958-66, Buddha). He played lonesome, blue, heartbroke, and parlayed that shtick into a dozen or more country hits; yet he never conveyed the sort of pain or pathos that came natural to Hank Williams and Otis Redding. In part that's due to his modest ambitions ("if loneliness meant world acclaim/then everyone would know my name/I'd be a legend in my time"), but also to his easy striding rhythms. The only real problem with this comp is that I miss all eight songs dropped from 1990's All-Time Greatest Hits without relishing any of the four songs it adds. A-
Billie Holiday + Lester Young: A Musical Romance (1937-57, Columbia/Legacy). They were joined forever by a pair of nicknames -- Lester, who had his own argot for everything, called her Lady Day, and Billie anointed him as Prez -- but their romance was never palpable. For one thing, she was so self-destructive; for another, he was so vulnerable. But while they were two unwinding tragedies, their encounters in the studio were magical. The standard image of Lester is the one where his saxophone seems to be floating off into space, like his music is transporting him to a zone of zero gravity. Lester's levity lifts everyone, but especially Billie, who has never sounded sweeter. A+
Illinois Jacquet: Jumpin' at Apollo (1945-47, Delmark). He came from Louisiana, but with his blues roots and exuberant honking, Jacquet virtually defined what it meant to be a Texas Tenor. While his fancy contemporaries were steering jazz into bebop's turbid waters, Jacquet swung the juke joints. He was one of the missing links between the swing groups of the '30s and the r&b of the '50s, and this set is a good example of his fire and fury. A-
Bill Monroe: RCA Country Legends (1940-41, RCA/BMG Heritage). BMG only owns a tiny slice of Monroe's pre-bluegrass mountain music -- sixteen cuts from 1940-41, a mixed bag of gospel pieces, hoedowns, blues, a yodel, and a droll novelty called "The Coupon Song." This is the third time they've released those sixteen cuts on CD, with this package matching 1991's out-of-print Mule Skinner Blues and providing the bulk of still-in-print 1997's The Essential Bill Monroe and the Monroe Brothers. The latter title, of course, is hype -- Columbia's The Essential Bill Monroe (2CD) and 16 Gems are valid claims. But its highlights do complement Monroe's canon. B+
Niney and Friends: Blood and Fire (1971-72, Trojan). The title song is such a classic that they can do three or more variations on it and make it sound like a gift. But the filler is uncommonly fulfilling: spare, slow, repetitive, haunting. None of the clutter of great harmony groups, no soul stylizations, no dub toasts. This is the bedrock of reggae, as simple and sublime as Jah. A
Pachuco Boogie Featuring Don Tosti (1948-54, Arhoolie). The boogie theme spread from jazz through country and western, becoming a staple in the '40s, and bassist Don Tosti carried it with him from El Paso to Los Angeles. Tosti was but one key figure in a scene which freely transformed boogie, jump blues, Mexican brass and accordion, and a little bebop into this Chicano dance music sampler. A-
The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour and Etoile de Dakar (1979-82, World Music Network). N'Dour gets the billing because he's the star, but this compilation sticks to his breakthrough band and earliest solo work, which kicked Senegal's typical Cuban-influenced rumba into a higher orbit of rhythm and volume. These cuts are very rough -- the guitars and horns driven to the edge of distortion, the rhythms among the most complex ever recorded, the vocals gymnastic in negotiating such rugged terrain. It can be rough going, but N'Dour takes charge here much like the equally young Sam Cooke did in the Soul Stirrers. And this is just a sampler: the source records are worth owning whole, especially Absa Gueye and Khaley Etoile (Stern's Africa Classics). A
Jimmie Rodgers: RCA Country Legends (1927-33, RCA/BMG Heritage). This only duplicates two cuts from 1997's The Essential Jimmie Rodgers, which enshrined Rodgers as the father of country music. This time he's just the hobo songster, adapting to everyone from A.P. Carter to Louis Armstrong, leaving the Depression and Jim Crow to eat his dust. And for once, the sound is bright and clean. A
The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (1958-98, World Music Network). South African jazz refers to the local pop music as surely as American jazz leans on Gershwin and Porter, but even more than American jazz it was crafted by cosmopolitan exiles yearning for home. This compilation surveys the music broadly, and the most striking things about it are the resilience of the pop themes and the delicacy of their embellishments. A-
Additional Consumer News
In the future I'll write less introduction and more notes here. And if the volume of reviewable material exceeds my monthly quota I'll start briefly noting the overflow here.
Copyright © 2003 Tom Hull.