A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: May 2003

Recycled Goods

by Tom Hull

I didn't plan on this month turning into a soul music special, but that's the way the product accumulated. Nor did I plan on turning it into a celebration of amateurism, but sometimes it adds a breath of fresh air. Two minor changes here: I've added the release date in [brackets] to each record, and changed "Additional Consumer News" to "Briefly Noted," since the bullet list there helps cover the surplus.

John Cale: Stainless Gamelan: Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume III (1965-68 [2002], Table of the Elements). Cale is best known for his riotous electric viola in the Velvet Underground; for producing Nico, the Stooges, and the Modern Lovers; and for performing the nastiest version of "Heartbreak Hotel" ever waxed. But before all that he was a classically trained avant-experimentalist, and his mid-'60s exercises have been buried in legend and myth. Some of this material has finally become available [see below], and if you have any interest in such sonic mischief, this is the one to start with. The centerpiece here is 26:27 of electronic sounds and tape recorder noise called "At About This Time Mozart Was Dead and Joseph Conrad Was Sailing the Seven Seas Learning English." A little lighter is "Terry's Cha-Cha," with soprano sax and percussion sounding like you'd imagine Evan Parker and Han Bennink to have sounded like if they were really weird teenagers. And "Big Apple Express" is Cale's viola played for your easy listening pleasure, with an assist from the NYFD. B+

The Clean: Anthology (1981-96 [2003], Merge, 2 CD). The main reason the Velvet Underground has become one of the most influential bands from the 1960s isn't belated appreciation of Lou Reed's lyrics; it's because the Velvets were a fountain of endlessly recyclable guitar grooves. This New Zealand trio figured that out in 1981-82, when they recorded two EPs that sounded like Velvets outtakes, with a little Doug Sahm-ish farfisa thrown in on "Beatnik." Bassist Robert Scott then split to found the Bats, but the group has managed to get back together several times since. This compiles most of the early EPs and some live cuts on the first disc, and about half each of three albums on the second, with some outtakes thrown in. It doesn't amount to much, but that seems to be the idea. B+

Duke Ellington: Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (1940-42 [2003], Bluebird, 3 CD). Jimmy Blanton was a brilliant bassist who joined Ellington's Famous Orchestra in 1940 and fell ill in December 1941, dying a few months later, only 23 years old. Ben Webster's stay with Ellington was longer, from 1935 to 1944. Both were important figures, but the notion that they were the difference that made this Ellington orchestra greater than any other is a myth. One could just as well point to the appearance of Ray Nance, who joined the orchestra just in time for the landmark The Duke at Fargo 1940 (Storyville), or Billy Strayhorn in 1939, or for that matter Johnny Hodges in 1927. The fact is that Ellington produced incomparable music from "Black and Tan Fantasie" in 1927 through Latin American Suite in 1970. But what is special about these recordings is that they represent the heights of Ellington's artistry in the format dictated by 78-rpm singles: 3-minute songs transformed into exquisite little suites. For a lovely sample of Blanton's work, check out his duet on "Sophisticated Lady"; for Webster, tune in to "Cottontail." But for Ellington, wallow in the whole 3-CD set. My only complaint is the packaging: three cheap cardboard slipcases in a box that's unlikely to last until RCA reissues it again. If ever there were music that deserves a jewel box, this is it. A+

The Funky 16 Corners (1969-74 [2001], Stones Throw). One song proposes to fight drugs by introducing a new dance craze, "The Kick." Another, "What About You," is a rap challenge to get your . . . thing together. Some are just instrumentals. The title cut and a feel-good thing called "Dap Walk" are outstanding, but most of this is garden-variety funk, and the bands -- units from non-scene places like Indianapolis and Syracuse and Greenville, SC -- are total unknowns. Yet what separated them from the big leagues is more likely breaks than talent. My guess is that someone with a good ear and lots of patience could put together dozens of worthy comps like this, but it rarely happens. In this case, thank Egon, who cared enough to take Peanut Butter Wolf bowling. A-

Al Green: The Love Songs Collection (1967-2002 [2003], The Right Stuff/Hi). Green's early '70s hits were all love songs, so it's not surprising that this bears so much resemblance to Greatest Hits -- in fact, they share 10 songs, and the five dropped are at least as good as the seven added. Also note that two of the additions are unrepresentative: "Guilty" was a blues from Green's pre-Hi 1967 first album, while on 2002's "Put It on Paper" Green sings backup to flamboyant gospel belter Ann Nesby. Neither of those ringers is bad, but the real idea is to be able to claim that these 17 cuts were "culled from the breadth of Al Green's thirty-five year recording career." Still, 14 of the 17 cuts come from 1972-75, a narrower window than Greatest Hits. Given the consistency of Green's albums from Gets Next to You (1971) through The Belle Album (1977), Greatest Hits has always seemed like a luxury. Which would make this set an extravagance? A-

John Hardee: Hardee's Partee: The Forgotten Texas Tenor (1946-49 [2002], Ocium). One guy who hadn't forgotten was James Carter, who recorded Hardee's "Lunatic" on JC on the Set. It's easy enough to see what attracted Carter: a tone similar to Don Byas, a style that owed Chu Berry and complemented Illinois Jacquet. In 1946, Hardee found himself dumped from the Army into a New York torn between r&b and bebop, and while these cuts are neither they bear witness to the chaos of the times. By 1950 he had returned to Dallas and settled into the obscurity of a regular job, and he died with nothing in print in 1984. But he's back now. A-

Let's Do Rocksteady: The Story of Rocksteady 1966-68 (1966-68 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). Ever since it appeared in 1994, the best introduction to Jamaican music has been Island's superb 4-CD Tougher Than Tough. One big reason for its success was that its compilers were able to go beyond Island's catalogue, especially to cherry pick hits from the Duke Reid's classic Trojan label. So the first thing I noticed when listening to the four recent 2-CD sets of Trojan singles is how the Tougher Than Tough duplicates jump out from the matrix. Which suggests that although these sets are further study, in the end the extra material is full of wonders [the ska set, Rough & Tough, earned an A here last month]. In the evolution of Jamaican music, rocksteady was transitional from ska to reggae: as the name suggests, it was built on a steady rhythm, much simplified from the roiling and pumping of ska. While this made the music duller, it brought out subtler differentiations: primo singers like Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe, sharp producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry, and the best work that Desmond Dekker ever did. A-

Punky Reggae Party: New Wave Jamaica 1975-1980 (1975-80 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2 CD). Bob Marley put reggae on the world map, transforming Jamaican music from a local service industry to a major export. The most immediate impact was in England, where many West Indian immigrants were already ahead of the learning curve, but reggae also had a big impact on punk, not to mention new wave bands like the Police. But that's just incidental confusion in titling here: this chronological survey of Trojan treasures offers plenty of proof that back in Jamaica the opening of the world market led to an explosion of creativity. Marley's "Natural Mystic" stands out, of course, but Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown and Scratch Perry have a field day here. Sure, this ignores the roots movement, but who wants to spoil the party? A

Rhythm Love and Soul: The Sexiest Songs of R&B (1958-81 [2003], Shout!, 3 CD). This is the last thing we needed: a big old-fashioned box set -- three separate jewel cased CDs, set in a plastic insert in a tall box, just like they made 'em in the Long Box Era. But Shout! is a new label, launched by a co-founder of the once-great Rhino Records, and this first step is what they used to do best: full of singles that you've heard dozens or gazillions of times before, nearly half from artists who can sustain whole compilations on their own. Still, this time the set is such good listening I can forgive them: there's nothing obscure here, just sixty ravishing hit singles, impeccably programmed. And it's functional: turn it up for a party, or down for a romantic dinner. A

Archie Shepp: Attica Blues (1972 [2003], Impulse). After years of plotting coups in Latin America and promoting nuclear warfare, the 43 people killed when Nelson Rockefeller put down the Attica prison revolt in 1971 must have seemed like small potatoes. Shepp was a jazz vanguardist who took Black Power as a program to pump up the volume, but in the wake of tragedies like Attica and the prison death of George Jackson, this was one of his most idiosyncratic albums. The title track is a strong gospel-tinged funk rush; "Steam" is a surreal ballad, split into two parts; "Blues for Brother George Jackson" is a more conventional blues; "Quiet Dawn" is curiously uplifting, the vocal by the 7-year-old daughter of lyricist Cal Massey. It makes for a very interesting mélange, with some of the greatest musicians in America -- Jimmy Garrison and Leroy Jenkins stand out, and Shepp is superb -- working hand-in-hand with rank amateurs. And in the end it feels less like tragedy than like freedom. A-

The Essential Sly & the Family Stone (1967-75 [2003], Epic/Legacy, 2 CD): The first expands on Greatest Hits, which concentrated four pathbreaking albums into rhythmic orgy; the second combines most of the extraordinary There's a Riot Goin' On, half of the very good Fresh, and three salvage cuts from Sly's sad decline. The major addition to the first disc is "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," which risked spoiling a party that transcended race, but with the early "Underdog" helps to unify a career that had always seemed to break into pieces -- what made Riot so powerful was that it recognized that in 1971 racism was still inescapable, a major shift from "Dance to the Music." The problem with the second disc is what it leaves out, especially his transcendent "Que Sera Sera." A-

Bill Withers: Still Bill (1972 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). When he moved to Columbia in 1975 they tried to turn him into a modern soul man, and failed miserably. And while Legacy has had access to his early Sussex recordings, two attempts at The Best of Bill Withers (one in 1994, another in 2000) merely document the nosedive. So what's most interesting about this pre-Columbian artifact isn't the big hits, but their foundation: Withers was a singer-songwriter who projected quiet strength and simple decency, a guy you could lean on, a guy you could use without him feeling used up. And not a sap either -- when he asks "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?" he's just looking for an answer as straight as his music. This includes two bonus tracks from Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, which is also in print and recommended highly. A

Briefly Noted

  • John Cale/Tony Conrad/Angus McLise/La Monte Young/Marian Zazeela: Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume I: Day of Niagara (1965 [2000], Table of the Elements): one long drone, like a less funky Metal Machine Music, but only 30:54, if that helps. C-
  • John Cale: Sun Blindness Music (1965 [2002], Table of the Elements): the metallic guitar of "Summer Heat" is interesting, but the title cut's organ drones on for 42:42 and seems much longer than that. B
  • John Cale: Dream Interpretation: Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume II (1965-69 [2002], Table of the Elements): another mixed bag of experiments. B
  • Sam Cooke: Keep Movin' On (1953-64 [2002], Abkco): aside from "Another Saturday Night" and two posthumous overdub jobs, this covers Cooke's last year, raising the eternal puzzle: what more might he have done? But the evidence here is inconclusive, especially if you look past the eight tracks this shares with The Man and His Music. A-
  • Al Green: Green Is Blues (1970 [2003], The Right Stuff/Hi): the first of the first batch of remastered albums, with bonus tracks that neither add nor detract; raw, unpolished talent wasted on overly obvious covers. B+
  • Al Green: Gets Next to You (1970 [2003], The Right Stuff/Hi): "Tired of Being Alone" points to his near future, "God Is Standing By" to his past and far future, but there's a whole lot of presence in the rest, and the bonus cuts here are a plus. A
  • Al Green: Let's Stay Together (1972 [2003], The Right Stuff/Hi): this is where he really finds himself, starting with the totally realized title hit; even the filler is sublime. A
  • Al Green: I'm Still in Love With You (1972 [2003], The Right Stuff/Hi): "Simply Beautiful" is just Al whispering in your ear, and that's all he needed, but he cut "Love and Happiness" anyway; no filler here, not a moment when you feel less than blessed just to hear him. A+
  • The Isley Brothers: 3 + 3 (1973 [2003], Epic/Legacy): Ernie redeems "Summer Breeze" with a guitar solo that sails away from the jasmine-mindedness of the lyric, but that's typical of the Isleys: to turn kitsch into sumptuous fun; still, hits like "Listen to the Music" and especially "That Lady" make this their best early '70s album. A-
  • Caravan of Love: The Best of Isley Jasper Isley (1984-87 [2003], Epic/Legacy): half a load of Isleys, good for a hit but not good enough to redeem the ballads or the politics. B
  • The Manhattans (1977, Epic/Legacy): this has their big hit, "Kiss and Say Goodbye," which makes all the hard work pay off. B+
  • Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes: Wake Up Everybody (1975 [2003], Epic/Legacy): this feels like a battle, with Gamble-Huff trotting out all of their mega-production tricks, and Teddy Pendergrass out-singing them anyway. B+
  • The O'Jays: Ship Ahoy (1973 [2003], Epic/Legacy): like the Four Tops they made great hits (sometimes), but carried too much weight to make good albums. B
  • ?uestlove Presents Babies Makin' Babies (1973-78 [2002], Urban Theory): compared to the avalanche of "Love Songs" comps, this one, from the Roots master, offers some grit beyond the quiet storm, and invokes Stanley Cowell for a timely break from the moaning. B+
  • The Best of Donna Summer (The Millennium Collection) (1975-83 [2003], Mercury): she works hard for the money . . . a lot harder than her record company did in putting together the fifth or sixth comp to share most of these songs. A-
  • Tighten Up: Trojan Reggae Classics 1968-74 (1968-74 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2 CD): the weakest of the series, perhaps because Duke Reid slipped a bit, more likely because Chris Blackwell signed up so many of the good ones. B+
  • Bill Withers: Menagerie (1977 [2003], Columbia/Legacy): minor hit ("Lovely Day"), rote funk ("Get On Down"), nice ballad maimed by strings ("Let Me Be the One You Need"). B

Copyright © 2003 Tom Hull.