A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: September 2003
by Tom Hull
What does it mean that two of the A records below supersede items that I had previously rated A+? One thing it means is that the industry figures you'll buy extra tracks on top of something you already know and love -- the Ben Webster under Briefly Noted is another example. The fact is that very few bonus cuts are actually worth the trouble. . . . Taking a bit of a breather on reggae this month: just three albums under Briefly Noted, whereas I have a dozen or more items waiting in the queue. But I had other things to catch up on -- now I know why all those GIs in WWII movies referred to the Germans as "Charlie" -- and the highlife albums (two up top and an older one down below) took the cake.
Mildred Bailey: Mrs. Swing (1929-42 , Proper, 4CD). Born near the Washington/Idaho border, she left home to sing in speakeasies while her brother teamed up with Bing Crosby and landed a job with Paul Whiteman. She joined Whiteman's orchestra after an audition in L.A. and had her signature hit with "Rockin' Chair," but she made her mark as a jazz singer on records with Eddie Lang, the Dorsey Brothers, and Red Norvo -- the Mr. to her Mrs. Swing. It seems inevitable to talk about her in terms of race, but it also seems archaic. Sure, she thought of herself as white (although she was part Coeur d'Alene Indian), but aside from her voice -- small and girlish, but remarkably clear and succinct -- she took all of her cues from black singers: most obviously, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. She often recorded with black musicians, including a jive duet with Roy Eldridge. It also seems inevitable to contrast her with Billie Holiday, but for my money they have much more in common than not: neither improvised, but both had exquisite phrasing, timing, and rapport with their musicians -- most of all their common denominator, Teddy Wilson. Both had devoted fans, but stardom eluded them, in no small part due to popular prejudices. And both had tough lives from childhood to premature deaths, which were precipitated by self-destructive tendencies. But one difference is that virtually everything Holiday ever cut has been kept in print, while Bailey's work up to 1942, when she left Columbia for Decca, has until recently been hard-to-impossible to find. Mosaic now has a 10-CD box set, but this 4-CD box is smartly chosen, more useful, and a lot cheaper. A
Black & Proud: The Soul of the Black Panther Era, Vol. 1 (1969-97 , Trikont). When the Black Panthers appeared at the Sacramento Capitol in 1967, they put forth a new image of black power. They carried guns -- a threat perhaps, but more so an assertion of their rights: the same rights that whites presumed to enjoy. The FBI made sure that they paid for that image, but the image itself was indelible proof that something deep had changed. The music here isn't really about the Panthers -- not their message, which went beyond guns to community service, nor their history, which proved fleeting; rather, it seeks to capture the moment when soul music assumed political consciousness. We see this here in new uses, in the emergence of funk, and especially in the first incarnation of rap -- at this point just poets declaiming over funk beats: the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Camille Yarbrough. This comp ranges from Sam Dees on the heritage of slavery to the Staple Singers proclaiming a "Brand New Day," from Curtis Mayfield's "Ghetto Child" to Grady Tate's "Be Black" to George Soule's "Get Involved": this is flawed, messy, obscure, ambitious, hopeful, a panorama so mixed-up it looks like history. A-
Black & Proud: The Soul of the Black Panther Era, Vol. 2 (1957-98 , Trikont). Like most volume twos, this is more obscure and less consistent. Like many, this also stretches its parameters: in this case, reaching back to 1957 for one song, forward to 1997 and 1998 for two more -- not counting a rap by Cipher Jewels so underground I can't even date it. Still, Larry Williams' "Wake Up" and Hank Ballard's "Blackenized" sound as 1970 as Syl Johnson's "I'm Talkin' Bout Freedom." Nor does Chuck D's 1997 meeting with the Last Poets budge them from their primitivism. And "Reluctant Warrior" wraps up a spiel from a genuine Black Panther refugee in Asian Dub Foundation's unassuming beats, almost as if the Black Panther Era hasn't ended yet. B+
Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (1951-64 , Abkco). Cooke sauntered from gospel as graceful as "Touch the Hem of His Garment" to teen-pop as trifling as "Only Sixteen" and "Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha" to easy-going pop like "Twistin' the Night Away" and "Having a Party" to prophecy as profound as "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- then got killed and left everyone guessing. Cooke's canon, which includes these songs and maybe a dozen others, is as glorious as any in the history of popular music. His voice was smooth and rich, his rhythm loose and natural. He could prevail over ridiculous arrangements, but he couldn't sing just anything: his r&b covers were often lame, and he fared even worse with blues. This new comp covers his career nicely: it replaces the definitive but out-of-print The Man and His Music (1957-64 , RCA), with better sound and real liner notes, but the song selection is a bit of a disappointment: it drops six cuts, including "Rome (Wasn't Built in a Day)" and "Somebody Have Mercy," replacing them with eight cuts, of which only "Sugar Dumpling" and "Tennessee Waltz" are up to snuff. But only finicky comparison shoppers will complain. A
F/i: The Past Darkly/The Future Lightly: Rare & Unreleased 1983-1989 (1983-89 , Lexicon Devil, 2CD). This is a group from Milwaukee who make mostly instrumental music loosely related to the genre known as Industrial. Built mostly with electronics, but also with guitar and drums, it does on occasion set up the sort of rhythmic din that one associates with factory machinery chugging along. But it doesn't stoop to the bolts-in-a-blender racket that one associates with the genre: there is something more primitive to it, as if their background had channeled the Velvet Underground and Eno, as well as the usual Krautrock and Hawkwind. The first disc is long on electronic waves and atmospherics; the second rocks a bit. Rescued from utter obscurity by an Australian label, but it's still hard to find. B+
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Ella and Louis Again (1957 , Verve, 2CD). When Norman Granz signed Ella Fitzgerald in 1956, he took a first-rate jazz singer known for her sass and scat and put her on a strict diet of Great American Songwriters. The three duet albums she recorded with Louis Armstrong followed suit: the interesting thing about them isn't that Fitzgerald would sing them superbly, but that Armstrong's own vocals turned out to be so perfectly crafted. No one doubted by then that Armstrong was a truly great singer, but his usual fare was coarser fare, which fit his gruff and gravelly voice and penchant for comedy. When Armstrong cut two tribute albums in 1954-55, the songwriters he chose were W.C. Handy and Fats Waller, not the fancy Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths Granz fed to Ella. But here he's singing "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They All Laughed" and "A Fine Romance" and "Stompin' at the Savoy" and it's just marvelous how deftly he maneuvers his voice around those songs' sinuous twists. People may quibble: there isn't much chemistry here -- compare this to Armstrong's trysts with Velma Middleton on The California Concerts (1951-55 , Decca, 4CD) -- and there could be more trumpet like the clarion intro to "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" But even if this is mere professionalism, it's still amazing. The previous CD release was squeezed onto one CD by omitting seven songs where only one or the other sung; this version restores the original 2-LP order. That may not be an improvement, but Ella's features are typically superb ("Comes Love"), and Armstrong's are exceptional ("Makin' Whoopee," "Let's Do It," a little trumpet on "Willow Weep for Me"). A
Ella Fitzgerald: Ella at Juan-Les-Pins (1964 , Verve, 2CD). This chronicles two days at a jazz festival in France, with Ella and trumpet great Roy Eldridge backed by Tommy Flanagan's trio. Both days run through much the same songlist, so you get two takes of "Hello Dolly," "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'," "People," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Mack the Knife," and so forth, plus extra material at the end brings the "A-Tisket, A Tasket" count up to four. "People" is way too reverent, and not even Ella can swing the Beatles, although she puts a lot of effort into it. But the payoff comes with her warhorses, where she rips through the likes of "The Lady Is a Tramp" with scat flying every which way. There's a lot of live Ella on the available now -- Ella and Duke at the Côte D'Azur (1966 , Verve) is my favorite, and Pablo's 4-CD The Concert Years never fails to please -- but at its peaks this is as stratospheric as any. A-
The Guitar and Gun: Highlife Music From Ghana (1981-84 , Stern's/Earthworks). John Collins' Bokoor Studios was one of only two working recording studios in Ghana during the 1980's, a tumultuous period wracked by revolution and civil war. These pieces were cut near the front lines -- the guitarist on the cover was a working soldier taking a pleasant break. The music here for the most part eschews the horn-laced dance bands of the big cities -- Wolfa Rockson is the mild-mannered exception. Rather, it rides on sweet guitar lines and lifts off with gospel-powered vocals: Francis Kenya's Guitar Band is sublime, while the Baptist Disciple Singers, Genesis Gospel Singers, and Cavalry Bells Supreme Christian Singers are exalted. A
The Kings of Highlife: The Vibrant Music of West Africa (, Wrasse). This doesn't dig very deep for its material, and it doesn't take much in the way of chances: it shares four songs with The Rough Guide to Highlife, and doubles up on five key artists who have been showcased in virtually every highlife comp since Vertigo released its classic African Music back in 1983. And the documentation is shabby, so it fails as an educational tract. But the music itself is richly detailed and magnificent. A
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Organisation (1980 , Virgin). "Enola Gay, is mother proud of Little Boy today?/aha this kiss you give, it's never ever gonna fade away." I've heard the song perhaps a hundred times, never quite catching the words, but never unclear on the concept: no matter how coy you try to be, the fact of the bomb over Hiroshima is inescapable. OMD -- their name was too descriptive not to wind up buried under an acronym -- was a clever little synth-based dance band. They allotted their albums no more than one dance hit per, usually a second song somewhat evocative of the hit, then they filled out the remainder with wistful little sketches. After "Enola Gay," the best piece here is "VCLXI," which forces a little noise into the equation. Well, except for the bonus track mix of "Electricity" -- the single from their first album, so their best album can go out on a high. A-
Swing Tanzen Verboten! Swing Music and Nazi Propaganda Swing During World War II (1933-44 , Proper, 4CD): Much of Europe fell in love with jazz during the '30s: Americans like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Sidney Bechet toured Europe and were treated like royalty, in stark contrast to the racism back home. They in turn inspired European musicians, some like Sven Asmussen, Spike Hughes, and Django Reinhardt developing into notable jazz artists. But Europe also fell under the pall of the Nazis. This box explores the strange history of jazz under Nazi hegemony: one disc of mediocre German swing bands after the "non-aryan" purge; a much snazzier disc of Charlie & His Orchestra rescripting jazz standards for propaganda broadcasts ("got the blackout blues/blue as I can be" -- the non-non-aryan tunesmiths make all the difference); and two discs of West European jazz under Nazi occupation, an excuse to pad out the box with work by Asmussen and Reinhardt and lesser-knowns. The latter discs are lighter and more pleasing than the German bands, probably because they come from a period when the Nazis were preoccupied with the East, but they're unexceptional compared to the same artists pre- and post-war work. The interest here is at best historical, but in such a brutal context not only does the music pale -- the story itself seems trite. B-
Merle Travis: Hot Pickin' (1943-52 , Proper, 2CD). In 1946, with WWII behind it and WWIII -- James Woolsey's new-fashioned term for the Cold War -- still over the horizon, Americans were feeling mighty good about themselves. It was that fleeting fit of generosity that let a refugee from the Kentucky hills, with a knack for novelty wordplay and an irrepressibly bouncy beat, to break a string of hits from "Cincinnati Lou" to "Sioux City Sue." The hits trailed off as the cold war heated up and the nation got uptight, the rule-proving exception being Tennessee Ernie Ford's reworking of Merle's matter-of-fact "Sixteen Tons" as pure, safe Americana. The first disc here throws you a curve when it dives from "Divorce Me C.O.D." into Folk Songs From the Hills, including Merle's own definitive "Dark as a Dungeon": "There's many a man I've seen in my day/who lived just to labor his whole life away/like a fiend with his dope or a drunkard his wine/a man will have lust for the lure of the mines/I hope when I'm gone and the ages shall roll/my body will blacken and turn into coal/then I'll look from the door of my heavenly home/and pity the miner that's digging my bones." Travis was lucky to get his break in country music; had he come along later he might have been pigeonholed as a folkie, which would have been tough, because he didn't have a sentimental bone in his body. But he also never denied who he was or where he came from -- never even thought it possible to be otherwise. This set fleshes out two good best-ofs (1990's Rhino, and 2000's Razor & Tie), omitting "Re-Enlistment Blues," but at least it includes both of his fried chicken songs. A-
Copyright © 2003 Tom Hull.