A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: August 2003

Recycled Goods

by Tom Hull

As promised last month, more world music this month. Sure, most of it is reggae -- Universal (Island) and BMG (Trojan) in particular seem to have taken reggae reissues as part of their survive-the-depression strategy, so this hardly exhausts the subject. Much more frustrating has been trying to keep up with African music, which seems to have become even more of a cottage industry than it was 20 years ago.

It's worth noting that reissues tend to come in clusters: two James Browns, three Parliaments, etc. I often split these clusters up, with one review in the main section and notes on the rest under Briefly Noted. And sometimes I note some older records under Briefly Noted where they have something to add to the more current haul.

James Brown: In the Jungle Groove (1969-72 [2003], Polydor). This reissues (with the inevitable bonus track) a 1986 collection of Brown's leftovers, yet it may be the single most definitive record of his peak "Soul Power" period. Six of these nine songs also show up on Brown's Star Time box, but none in the same versions or mixes here. These cuts run long, with Brown barking out directions to the band, calling for stops and restarts, not to mention "take it to the bridge." The effect is not unlike Brown's live albums, but the sound is clearer and less cluttered, so the focus stays squarely on the beats. And the beats have never been so squarely on-the-one as here. A+

Burning Spear: Social Living (1978-80 [2003], Island). Winston Rodney came from the same hometown as Marcus Garvey, and he made the most of the connection. Burning Spear's US debut album was called Marcus Garvey, and their pioneering dub version was Garvey's Ghost. And this album, originally released in Jamaica in 1978 as Marcus' Children, but not much available until UK's Blood & Fire label rescued it in 1994, starts with "Marcus Children Suffer" and ends with "Marcus Say Jah No Dead," and rarely strays off message. But it sticks to its workmanlike groove, neither ebullient nor stressed out, the groove of a truly patient man. Against this background, details stand out, like the little horn rise in the title track, and its message of simple pleasures. This release adds extended mixes of its two least Garveyite tracks, a fitting conclusion. A

Zusaan Kali Fasteau & Donald Rafael Garrett: Memoirs of a Dream (1975-77 [2000], Flying Note, 2CD). Garrett was a minor name in '60s avant-jazz scene: he played clarinet and bass, and recorded with Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, and John Coltrane. Fasteau says she "came from a musical family, and played piano, cello, flute and sang since early childhood in Paris and New York." They met in 1971, married, and set out to travel the world for the next 14 years, hoarding instruments and musical idioms. Garrett died in 1989, but Fasteau carries on, continuing to make music that can be roughly described as transworld music mutated by the free jazz ethos. These tapes, recorded in Holland and Turkey, capture their collaboration in transit. For example, on the very interesting "Dromedary Dance" Garrett plays Turkish flutes while Fasteau drums, very oriental; on the next cut, Garrett plays Coltrane-ish clarinet over Fasteau's cello. It may be eclectic, but it's the sort of eclecticism that comes from folks who fall in love with everything they discover, which in such a big world is a lot. B+

Slim Gaillard: Laughing in Rhythm (1937-52 [2003], Proper, 4CD). Gaillard played guitar, and sang in jive or vout or other pidgins of his own devising, and when language didn't suffice he'd just bark or cluck or guffaw, in rhythm, natch. He constructed whole songs around words that struck his fancy, and seems especially to have had a thing for gefilte fish. His frequent collaborator was bassist Slam Stewart, hence Slim & Slam. Even without the wordplay, they kicked out a sophisticated swing groove, and their sidemen include many notables of the period, including the guy Gaillard introduces as "Charlie Yardbird-o-rooney." But the wordplay is the thing here. When Verve rescued Gaillard from their vault in their own Laughing in Rhythm: The Best of the Verve Years [1994] comp, one wondered how much more there might be. The answer is quite a lot. A-

Ghana Soundz: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70's Ghana (1966-77 [2003], Soundway). Africa is the motherland -- the deep roots of most of the worthwhile more-or-less popular music in the world today. Yet the notion that African music should be more primal than its diaspora is countered by reality -- in fact, one finds as much reflected and reprised Afro-American music spread across Africa as anywhere else in the old world. This collection aims for obscurity, yet most of what it discovers sounds like it could have been recorded in some garage in Watts: long funk tracks with slinky guitar over JB rhythms and extra drums, with lyrics (like "Psychedelic Woman") mostly in English so you don't find yourself wondering how deep they are. Not that there isn't a faint wisp of highlife here -- bread and butter for the African Brothers, Sweet Talks, and Alex Konadu, all of whose work here is atypical -- and sometimes that makes all the difference, as on the closer "Nite Safarie." Bright and light -- and one of the best discographical booklets ever. A-

Globalista: Import-Export ([2002], Trikont). I'm not sure whether this geographically scattered collection of local hits -- not so much underground as unknown beyond their natural borders -- says more about the pervasive influence of American culture throughout the world or the world's stubborn persistence at making what we think of as American culture serve their own needs. So what do have we here? Hip-hop from five continents, electrified bhangra and rai and the inevitable ragga, snarling horn-laced rock from Russia, fake Dylan from China, torch song from Lebanon, things even harder to describe from Poland and France and Mexico and Turkey. The latter frames a talky dancebeat with harpsichord and slips through several time changes, an effect that would be hopelessly arty if it didn't focus the drama of its untranslated lyric so well. There must be hundreds, maybe thousands, of roughly comparable songs out there somewhere, things you will only come across by chance, because no one has a clue how to market such foreign-yet-familiar music. And that is the point to which this collection aspires -- the songs themselves are just evidence. A-

Hillbilly Boogie (1939-51 [2002], Proper, 4CD). Boogie wasn't a style so much as a meme. Rooted in the piano blues of players like Pinetop Smith and Cow Cow Davenport, boogie woogie achieved a sort of apotheosis around 1940 in the virtuoso pianistics of players like Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, but when western swing bands started picking from the boogie woogie songbook, they found something rather different: light-hearted dance music. Boogie was a fad across country music in the late '40s, but how big a fad wasn't clear until this budget box set appeared: 4+ hours, 80+ artists, 100 songs, not just stylistically consistent but every title features the word, from "Travelling Boogie" to "I'm Too Old to Boogie Anymore." The meme enlivened minor artists like Arthur Smith and Zeb Turner, and amused major ones like Hank Snow and Merle Travis, but even as it was invented it was being buried by the new seriousness of honky tonk. This budget box brings it all back, and the excess just adds to its charm. A

Reverend Charlie Jackson: God's Got It: The Legendary Booker and Jackson Singles (1970-78 [2003], CaseQuarter). Most of the cuts featuring just Jackson singing over his electric guitar have a disarming simplicity to them, but he's no Mississippi John Hurt: when the occasion arises he can tap into deep reservoirs of power on both instruments, as witnessed both on the rockabilly fast "Morning Train" and on the slow preacherly windup to his "Goodness of God" sermons. The cuts with Jackson playing behind other singers are completist (exception: Laura Davis on "This Old Building"), but also share in the down home feel, with the raw emotion of the vocals framed on by simple, resonant guitar. A-

Lee Konitz: Motion (1961 [2003], Verve). Charles Mingus wrote a song where he claimed that "if Charlie Parker had been a gunslinger, there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats." Maybe so, but Konitz would have emerged unscathed, because he was one alto saxophonist who never sounded like Bird, nor anyone else. Konitz started out in Lennie Tristano's rarefied improvisational universe, but he didn't get stuck there, either -- since 1949's Subconscious-Lee, Konitz has followed his own unique muse. This session -- a trio with bass and drums (Elvin Jones!) -- is one of many high points in a discography that exceeds 100 albums and spans more than 50 years: it's a tour de force of melodic invention, with each note securely rooted in unanticipated logic. But note that this reissue limits itself to the original LP release, so it runs short (37:59), whereas Verve's 1998 (now out of print) reissue rounded up enough related material to stuff three superb CDs to the gills. A

Parliament: Mothership Connection (1976 [2003], Mercury/Chronicles). This album did three things for George Clinton: 1) in adding Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns, it completed Clinton's hijacking of the James Brown juggernaut, giving Clinton an unmatchable arsenal of musical resources; 2) with Bootsy Collins co-writing, Clinton started peddling outlandish concepts as well as funky beats and glorious harmonies; 3) with "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" he got a big enough hit to take his UFO props to the arenas. Admittedly, as a concept album this wanders a bit in the middle, and "Handcuffs" is just slightly kinkier than Clinton's pre-funk barbershop fare. But with chops like these, the conceptualizing was just icing anyway. A

Toots & the Maytals: Funky Kingston/In the Dark (1972-73 [2003], Island): The Maytals go back to the mid-'60s, so they were seasoned veterans when Chris Blackwell decided to promote reggae as the next big thing. Their sound goes back to the glory days of ska, and in Toots Hibbert they had a powerful singer deeply schooled in US soul. But for their US debut Funky Kingston, Blackwell didn't just import their 1972 LP of that name, he substituted freely from their follow-up In the Dark, and he couldn't possibly omit "Pressure Drop" -- their hit from The Harder They Come soundtrack. This reissue puts Humpty Dumpty back together again: the two albums, in original sequence, with "Pressure Drop" tacked on at the end. The filler doesn't suggest that Blackwell didn't know what he was doing, but it does flesh out the broader context, including the limits of this talented group. A-

Trojan Box Set: Jamaican Hits (1960-73 [2000], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD). Since 1998, Sanctuary has released more than 25 of these cheapo "Limited Edition" box sets: for an average single-CD price you get a small box with 50 songs on 3 CDs, each in a sleeve with limited but far from useless documentation. The songs come from the Trojan catalogue, which dominated the Jamaican ska and rocksteady eras, but it things out around 1973, when Chris Blackwell started signing up the local stars for the world market. And the songs are a mix of familiar and obscure -- an arbitrary and almost random selection. I've only heard a half-dozen of the boxes (see below for more), but overall, they strike me as nice stocking stuffers: something you might give to that nephew who digs Bob Marley but doesn't have a clue who Ken Boothe is, but not something for your serious devotee (the kind of person who already has a Boothe comp). This particular box is as loosely themed as any, but it picks from the fat part of Trojan's catalogue, and while they were certifiable hits, I didn't immediately recognize more than ten of them. Still, I'll never tire of "I'm in a Dancing Mood" (Delroy Wilson) or "Intensified 68" (Desmond Dekker). A-

Briefly Noted

  • Africa Raps ([2002], Trikont): from West Africa (Senegal, Mali, Gambia), looped over mbalax and more trad sounds, the French raps sound great, and the one in English isn't full of shit either. A-
  • James Brown: Motherlode (1967-76 [2003], Polydor): this reissues (with the inevitable bonus tracks) a 1988 collection of Brown's leftovers, some live, some remixed, some just cut when Brown was cutting more awesome grooves than his record company could handle. A-
  • Burning Spear: Man in the Hills/Dry & Heavy (1976-77 [2003], Island/Chronicles): two more vintage LPs, the same sure groove, but less pointed as messages, which means less to the point. B+
  • Hillbilly Boogie! (1946-54 [1994], Columbia/Legacy): more stars than the Proper box, but also more polka. A-
  • Bob Marley & the Wailers: Live at the Roxy (1976 [2003], Tuff Gong/Island/Chronicles, 2CD): typical live show with great songs and arena sound on the first disc, much shorter encore on the second. B+
  • Parliament: Up for the Down Stroke (1974 [2003], Mercury/Chronicles): one of many good vocal groups of the period, with a band that veers toward the eclectic, they come up with two hits (one recycled) and energetic filler. B+
  • Parliament: Chocolate City (1975 [2003], Mercury/Chronicles): the title cut is a great leftwing jazz vamp, but everything else is forgetable, even though close listening confirms that this is both more tuneful and funkier than its predecessor. B+
  • Funked Up: The Very Best of Parliament (1974-80 [2002], Mercury/Chronicles): Clinton's early records were cut so fast they never cohered, while later on the funk became so automatic that coherence no longer mattered, so this should be a band that makes more sense on a compilation, but the comps (this is the 5th) are full of wonders, they are also massively redundant -- and of the three still in print (the more extensive 2CD Tear the Roof Off and the cheaper 67-minute Millennium Collection), this is the least cost-effective. A-
  • Songs Produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry: The Ultimate Collection (1970-79 [2000], Hip-O): more hyperbole, but works as a leftwing sampler, and you get the Max Romeo and Junior Murvin classics without having to buy their (pretty good, actually) comps. A-
  • The Rough Guide to Highlife ([2003], World Music Network): I found the lack of competent discography so annoying that it took me too long to start enjoying these obscure, elemental melodies. A-
  • 6 Degrees of P-Funk: The Best of George Clinton and His Funk Family (1979-96 [2003], Epic/Legacy): second-rate Bootsy (2 cuts), third-rate Clinton (2 cuts), some minor side-projects and refugees, of which Jerome Brailey's Mutiny is the only one who isn't fakin'; in fact, he's calling Clinton out. B-
  • The Essential Peter Tosh: The Columbia Years (1976-77 [2003], Columbia/Legacy): just two years, two albums, in a post-Wailers career that passed like a daze, perhaps because he never decided whether to be a saint like Bunny ("Equal Rights") or just a badass ("Steppin' Razor"). B+
  • Scrolls of the Prophet: The Best of Peter Tosh (1964-81 [1999], Columbia/Legacy): aside from one early Wailers cut, and three slightly later cuts (1978, 1981) this isn't any broader than The Columbia Years, but the context helps a bit, "Bush Doctor" improves on "Legalize It," and "Don't Look Back" takes Motown to the tropics. A-
  • Trojan Box Set: Bob Marley & Friends ([2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD): note that the "friends" (backup singers, ex-bandmates, ex-producers, and hangers-on) outnumber Marley 47-3. B
  • Trojan Box Set: Calypso (1956-75 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD): while Jamaicans like Tommy McCook and Phyllis Dillon dabbled in this venerable art, the real talent here hails from Trinidad, and Mighty Sparrow's one cut -- the nasty, arrogant "Village Ram" -- puts the rest to shame. B+
  • Trojan Box Set: Dancehall ([2000], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD): dancehall dominated the '80s in Jamaica, merging the sound of dub back into the pop mainstream; this box recycles the sounds and rhythms of dancehall without ever really going over the top, which means that it is functional background but short on star power. B+
  • Trojan Box Set: Dub ([1998], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD): originally the instrumental rhythm tracks on the flipside of singles, scaffolds for aspiring sound system DJs, which thanks to Lee Perry, King Tubby, and many others developed into their own stereotypical, interchangeable aesthetic, of which this is a fair sampling. B+
  • Trojan Box Set: Rocksteady ([1998], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD): rocksteady was a transitional phase from the exuberance of ska to the sufferation of reggae, but while the roster looks exemplary, too many obscurities remain unsurprising. B
  • Trojan Box Set: Upsetter (1968-2001 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD): aka Lee "Scratch" Perry, superproducer, who gives these cuts, credited to a couple of dozen artists, consistent sound and flow; no duplicates from Perry's 3-CD Arkology. A-
  • Trojan Box Set: X-Rated (1966-75 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD): it's not strictly true that these toons are too subtle, but more often than not the rhythm and patois slip on by without registering, the innuendo rarely worth the attention it takes to dig it out. B
  • Ultimate Reggae: 20 Classic Reggae Riddims! (1972-2001 [2003], UTV): the history of Jamaican crossover not as theory (yuck!) but as miraculous fact. A-

Copyright 2003 Tom Hull.