A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: Apr. 2003

Recycled Goods

by Tom Hull

When I started this column two months ago I had to reach back to scrounge up worthy records, but they're starting to pile up now. Now I have a backlog of records, but that isn't really surplus; I've just about spent every waking hour working on a batch of entries for a new edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, and that's what's directed so much attention to Willie Nelson this month.


The Rough Guide to Ali Hassan Kuban (1989-2001, World Music Network). Born in Egypt in 1929, up the Nile towards Aswan, in the heart of the ancient Nubia which he took to not just as his homeland but as his muse, Kuban's music suggests deep African rather than Arabic roots. But he wasn't folkloric -- his groups featured accordion and saxophone, and much of the omnipresent rhythm comes from congas. But the vocals have a workmanlike quality of someone who's been doing this a long time, which he has for all we know -- he was sixty when he was "discovered" and invited to Germany to record. This set adds two previously unreleased live recordings to its digest of four albums, and one, "Henna," is an eye-opener: a lot of things going on there, and some sound like jazz. A-

London Is the Place for Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London (1950-56, Honest Jon's). Calypso developed in Trinidad well before it was first recorded in the 1910s, honed in competitions at Carnival where singers vied mainly with their deft wordplay. As West Indians migrated to London, they brought Calypso with them, including a major Carnival star known as Lord Kitchener. Kitch is featured on half the cuts in this fine set, arriving with the wide-eyed title cut, but ready to go home by the the last cut, "Sweet Jamaica." In between it provides a nifty documentary, with reports on news events (Queen Elizabeth's coronation, Ghana's independence), a review of Charlie Parker, and critiques of everyday life: "one of the things that's been bugging me/is the food control in London city/they say you must have a ration book/before you could put on something to cook/and friends believe me the rations are so small/in a day or two you can eat it all." A-

Jackie McLean: Jacknife (1965, Blue Note). Judging from Ken Burns' jazz documentary, you might be under the impression that Jackie McLean was little more than Charlie Parker's go-fer. The fact is that McLean is an all-time alto sax great, and while he started out in thrall to Parker, he really emerged on his own around 1960 when hearing Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane loosened him up. Albums like New Soil (1959) and Let Freedom Ring (1962) were landmarks, and this album is a welcome addition. McLean alternates two trumpets here, little known Charles Tolliver and hard bop legend Lee Morgan. By far the most interesting piece here is Toliver's "On the Nile," where a stately middle eastern theme is chopped up and stretched out, the rhythm offset, making way for magnificent solos. But the rest could use more McLean and less trumpet, even though Morgan is spectacular on "Climax." B+

Willie Nelson: Crazy: The Demo Sessions (1960-66, Sugar Hill). The face on the cover is old bearded Willie, but all that's old inside are the song demos: half done solo or with a little steel guitar, half with studio band. The former are rough and tentative -- "Opportunity to Cry" is sketched out so deliberately it's almost like he's writing it on the fly. But the latter have all the finish they need, and include a couple of wonders: "Something to Think About" is one of his most eloquent ballads ever, and this "Crazy" might even make you think Patsy Cline's version is expendable. These demos were cut when Nelson was on contract to Pamper, and while the notes claim most to be first issues, Nelson's Pamper Demos have been cropping up on poorly documented releases for years now. While the booklet here is better than most, it doesn't date these recordings more precisely than a six-year window, and doesn't explain the final three song medley (including a lovely "Half a Man"). Nelson always claimed that "Nashville was the roughest," but in his decade there he emerged as one of our most astonishing singer-songwriters. What this collection shows is that there's much more precious material from this period than Rhino showcased in their superb Nite Life: Greatest Hits & Rare Tracks (1959-1971) (1990), but nobody yet has put it together right. B+

Willie Nelson: RCA Country Legends (1965-72, RCA/BMG Heritage). The rest of the titles in this series cherry pick hits, but this one boasts 12 songs "previously unissued in the U.S.," and only one of the other four was on RCA's 1995 The Essential Willie Nelson. Most were unreleased because they were cut in 1972, just before Nelson left RCA and Nashville, but also because they're just not that good. The exceptions are the most minimal: "Who'll Buy My Memories" and "Pretend I Never Happened" are worthy ballads with little more than guitar. B

Oh-OK: The Complete Recordings (1982-84, Collector's Choice). Linda Hopper sang, "I am a person/I am a person/and that is enough," over a Lynda Stipe bass line that never quite stretched into a song. A typical moment, revealing only in its modesty, from an Athens, GA teenage band that released two EPs in the early '80s before getting on with their lives. They played simple rock and roll, perhaps because it was easier that way, but also because they evidently didn't feel the need to project -- they were just themselves, which is why this music still feels fresh two decades later. This rediscovery project adds 13 live tracks, in some ways even better: unvarnished, they leave more to the imagination. A-

William Parker Quartet: O'Neal's Porch (2000, Aum Fidelity). This happens a lot in the back waters of the industry: a record first comes out on the artist's own label, builds up some recognition, then gets picked up by a bigger, better distributed label. So we'll call it a reissue, even though Aum Fidelity has only committed to running off 2000 copies. Parker, best known for his work with Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, and Matthew Shipp, is possibly the most important jazz bassist to come down the pike since Charles Mingus. His quartet here consists of drummer Hamid Drake (think Spaceways, Inc.) and two horns: Rob Brown (alto sax) and Lewis Barnes (trumpet). While Parker can make for some very difficult music, this launches off with three magnificent cuts where the horns soar and swoop over propulsive rhythm. It gets dicier after that, but the gospel theme to "Song for Jesus" is an attractive backdrop for Drake, and when the horns spar they're are all the shock and awe I'll ever need. A-

Rough & Tough: The Story of Ska 1960-1966 (Sanctuary/Trojan, 2 CD). The brightest of all Jamaican music came from the '60s, at the dawn of Jamaican independence, before bad times set in and Rastafarianism had something worthy to suffer. This set duplicates much of the brilliant first CD from the Tougher Than Tough box, the standard introduction to Jamaican music -- classics like "Forward March" and "Miss Jamaica" and "Guns of Navarone" and "Phoenix City" and "Dancing Mood" and "007 (Shanty Town)" -- but over two CDs it's also a case of more is more, and it actually rolls a lot harder. For example, there's a Roy Richards instrumental called "Contact" which is pure essence of ska: the classic pumping rhythm topped with nothing more than an impromptu melody on what sounds like an accordion. And Jimmy Cliff's "King of Kings" belongs in the list of classics. Sanctuary has released a lot of classic Jamaican music lately, and I'm only slowly working my way through it, but this is as good a place to start as any. A

When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 3: That's Chicago's South Side (1931-42, Bluebird). All four volumes in this series are loosely themed, eclectic samplers from RCA's blues catalogue. All four have a mix of well-known classics and fascinating obscurities, but this one is the most focused and consistently listenable. Chicago's postwar blues scene is legendary, but back in the '30s the Windy City was home to songsters Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, pianists Leroy Carr and Roosevelt Sykes, and more fanciful names like Washboard Sam and Memphis Minnie. One indication that we're not in the Delta anymore is that 20 of 25 songs use piano, even Peetie Wheatstraw (aka the Devil's Son-In-Law), even though most of the names are guitarists. A-

When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 4: That's All Right (1939-55, Bluebird). Less consistent than Vol. 3, and less focused, but this moves closer to its "Secret History of Rock & Roll" subtext, and more of the diverse set of songs stand out: Lil Green's strong "Why Don't You Do Right," Red Allen's hopping "Get the Mop," Washboard Sam's nasty "Soap and Water Blues," Piano Red's sharp "Right String, But the Wrong Yo-Yo." And you get to glimpse the future, as Tampa Red primes the pump for Elmore James, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup gives Elvis all the help he ever needed, and Little Richard cuts his first record. A-

Hank Williams: The Ultimate Collection (1947-52, Mercury, 2CD). One measure of his importance is that he's the only country artist who has virtually all of his work still in print on a major U.S. label -- you have to go to Germany to get anything comparable by Ernest Tubb or Hank Thompson or even Lefty Frizzell, and not even Bear Family bothers to stock Floyd Tillman. Another measure is that he cut 36 top-ten hits in a career that barely stretched six years. Another is that his songs have been covered thousands of times, but nobody would discount his originals, for Williams had an extraordinary ability to convey naked emotion. He could be exuberant, but more often he played sad, lonesome, dejected, defeated, down right miserable. For every "Hey, Good Lookin'" there was a whole mess of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Moanin' the Blues" and "Alone and Forsaken" and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." And of course he didn't: dead at 29. The 10-CD Complete Hank Williams is too much, which doesn't make it not worthwhile. I still think that the 3-CD Original Singles Collection is just right, but this newer 2-CD set comes close, and has a broader subset of the big box in a cheaper package, featuring more of the stripped down song demos and live cuts, as well as many classic singles. A+

X-Ray Spex: The Anthology (1977-78, Sanctuary/Castle, 2 CD). Aside from the Yankees' August blowout of the Red Sox, my fondest memory of 1978 was snapping up X-Ray Spex as they unveiled themselves single-by-single: "Oh Bondage Up Yours!," "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo," "Identity," "Germ Free Adolescents." They evolved from howling punk yelp to shrink-wrapped plastic anthem, from "I'm a poseur and I don't care/I like to make people stare" to "I wanna be instamatic/I wanna be a frozen pea/I wanna be dehydrated/in a consumer society." Poly Styrene declaimed, Lora Logic wailed on sax, and the blokes banged on things. Johnny Rotten was an aesthete compared to them. This collects everything they ever did: their one studio album expanded to 16 cuts, 10 more rough mixes of the same, and the trashy sounding live tape from their second gig. Maybe you had to be there to love every moment of it, but I do. A

Additional Consumer News

As long as I have Willie Nelson on my mind, here's some more compilations or recently reissued albums:

  • Willie Nelson: I Let My Mind Wander (1961, Kingfisher): the most consistent set of Pamper demos I've heard, but don't expect the booklet to tell you jack. A-
  • Willie Nelson: Country Willie -- His Own Songs (1965, Buddha): Nelson's first assignment at RCA: re-record all those great songs other folks had hits with; producer Chet Atkins was so awestruck he didn't even mess it up. A
  • Oh Boy Classics Presents Willie Nelson (1960-66, Oh Boy): the cheapest Nelson you can license, which means more Pamper demos, only this one favors the famous songs. B+
  • Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger (1975, Columbia/Legacy): best to let this rough sketch of a killer pass, lest he kill you too. B+
  • Willie Nelson: Stardust (1978, Columbia/Legacy): wherein Nelson reveals a greater debt to Hoagy Carmichael than to Hank Williams (if not necessarily Lefty Frizzell). A
  • Willie Nelson: Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be) (1975-81, Columbia): never trust a best-of that claims to predict the future. B+
  • Willie Nelson: In the Jailhouse Now/Brand on My Heart (1982-85, DCC): the best of Nelson's honky tonk duets, a real good one with Webb Pierce and a flat-out great one with Hank Snow. A
  • Willie Nelson: Old Friends/Funny How Time Slips Away (1982-85, Koch): Nelson sings Roger Miller, and Faron Young sings Nelson, surprises and delights all around. A-
  • The Very Best of Willie Nelson (1974-89, Columbia/Legacy, 2 CD): Nelson's work on Columbia is so scattered that the parts inevitably cancel out the whole; still, the first CD here flows nicely, perhaps because they put the junk on the second. B+
  • Willie Nelson: Revolutions of Time (1975-93, Columbia/Legacy, 3 CD): the box set treatment, sags in the middle with a whole disc of collaborations picked more for names than songs, but the first is pretty much the Columbia canon, and the third is just odd enough to keep you off guard. B+
  • Willie Nelson: 16 Biggest Hits (1975-89, Columbia/Legacy): I'm told that this budget item is only meant for the truck stops, but maybe truckers know something about country music. A-
  • Willie Nelson: Love Songs (1978-88, Columbia/Legacy): sure, he's done some, but most are tentative, nervous, uneasy, and one ("Red Headed Stranger") was downright murderous; but none of those are here, just a lot of schlock swamped by strings. D+
  • The Essential Willie Nelson (1961-2003, Columbia/Legacy, 2 CD): in 41 songs, this spans his 42 years from 1961's "Night Life" to a riotous new cut with Aerosmith, missing a lot of what I consider essential, but hitting often enough to remind us what a wonder Willie is. A

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Copyright 2003 Tom Hull.