A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: October 2003
by Tom Hull
Running late this month, but not as late as my publisher, who as of this writing still hasn't gotten last month's up yet. While the delay between when things come out and get reviewed seems to be growing, the gap between what's out there and what I'm able to get my hands on is growing too. Or at least my perception of it is. Not that I don't still have backlog: I'm holding the blues records back for next month, but truth be told I still haven't worked my way through all of the reggae. . . . By the way, the 1998 reissue below is included because it's new to me, and chances are it will be new to you too.
King Sunny Adé: Synchro Series (1982-83 , IndigeDisc). Two Nigerian albums, cut around the same time Adé was making his worldwide debut on Island. The surmise that these were intended as quickie throwaways while he had his eyes on the crossover prize is mere guesswork: he cut a great many albums from 1967 on, very few of which are readily available, so it's hard to get a handle on what his typical work might sound like. These two particular albums are lightweight affairs, but that is ultimately their charm: the delicate polyrhythms and glistening sweet guitar of the former is easy listening of the most enchanting kind, while the latter album's remixes of his "Synchro Series" riffs offer a faint echo of Jamaican dub. More reissues are promised. Keeping them straight is likely to be a problem, but enjoying them is easy. A-
Gene Ammons: Fine and Mellow (1972 , Prestige). This starts off with a splash of Ed Bogas strings, sticky if not downright icky, but when Ammons' saxophone rises above the goo, his tone is so pure and robust that the strings have no recourse but to fall in line, in awe. The strings depart after three tracks, leaving us with what Ammons did over and over again in his career: funky sax-capped organ grinds. There is nothing far-out or even particularly innovative in Ammons' playing. He was strictly a melody guy -- his sax runs rarely surprised you because they always made so much sense melodically. He could work up a sweat with his vamps, and he could bleed a ballad, but his calling card was his tone -- what tenor saxophone should sound like. He recorded scads of albums, most barely distinguishable. Fantasy has been reissuing him steadily since the advent of the CD era, and I figured from what I'd heard that he must have declined after 1960 -- drugs hurt, compounded by time in prison -- but these late sessions are as exquisite as anything he ever did. He died two years later, shy of his 50th birthday. If you gotta die young, at least it's nice to leave a beautiful memory. A
Arabesque Tlata 3 (1988-2002 , React). Fourteen cuts of mostly recent and mostly Algerian dance music, this is touted as "the sound of the underground," as "rebel music," but regardless of whatever hackles this raises among the Muslim Brothers, it sounds to me as innocent and naive as '50s rock 'n' roll. The exceptions to "recent" are two stone classics: Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui, "N'Sel Fik" (originally 1983, but here in a Bill Laswell-produced 1996 remake), and Cheb Khaled and Safy Boutella, "Baroud" (1988, from Kutché, an album worth owning whole). The exceptions to "Algerian" hail from Morocco and the Sudan, although it's more to the point that most of these North Africans are Europe-based emigrés these days. Perhaps the best rai comp I've heard yet. A-
Black Uhuru: Red (1981 , Island/Chronicles). On 1984's Anthem, Black Uhuru finally put together a landmark album of songs that were clear and catchy and politically focused, that asked questions like "What Is Life?" and offered answers like "Solidarity" -- an album so accessible that Island tapped eight of its nine cuts for their 2-CD Liberation compilation. Black Uhuru were one of the legions of Rasta-drenched vocal groups that sprang up in the Bob Marley's wake, but they were unusual in having a woman (Puma Jones) singing along with -- as opposed to in front of or behind -- two guys (Michael Rose, Ducky Simpson), and they were fortunate in being the main vehicle for rising studio stars Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass). But before they got to their anthems they cut this fascinating album -- as dense and oblique and heartfelt and grooveful as their land. "What a joy to hear the utterance of a Rasta," one song goes. "For the fear of Jah is the beginning of wisdom," goes another. Yet they weren't local yokels -- they fret about guns in Brixton, and the grooves that Sly & Robbie fashioned for them are marvels to behold -- roots as wizardly effect rather than timeworn artifacts. A
Johnny Cash: The Fabulous Johnny Cash (1958 , Columbia/Legacy). Cash's 1958 move from Sun to Columbia marked his shift from rockabilly to country, and this, his first Columbia album, was transitional. The boom-chicka-boom rhythms of the Tennessee Two were muted by extra studio musicians, and one of the most distinctive voices in America had to contend with echoes from the Jordanaires. And the themes that Columbia used to sum up his oeuvre over 40 years later -- Love, Murder, God -- were all present. "I'd Rather Die Young" was one of his most poignant love songs; "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" was one of many cautionary tales of casual violence. And while the God songs are often filler, "That's Enough" and "Pickin' Time" have more to say about life on earth than in the hereafter. It would have been unfashionable, but Columbia should have gathered together a fourth disc and called it Work -- after all, even the Lord has to "wait for pickin' time." The five bonus cuts are a plus. A-
Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come: Original Soundtrack Recording (Deluxe Edition) (1968-72 , Hip-O/Island, 2CD). America's first real taste of reggae -- way back before Bob Marley & the Wailers toured here -- came from Perry Henzell's film, or more likely from his soundtrack. The film was a vehicle for ska star Jimmy Cliff, and Cliff got four songs onto the album. But with America a blank slate, and all of Jamaica at his disposal, Henzell framed Cliff with some of the greatest songs of the era -- "Rivers of Babylon," "007 (Shanty Town)," "Pressure Drop," "Johnny Too Bad." It's easy to imagine that Cliff's own songs -- from the hopeful "You Can Get It If You Really Want" through "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Sitting in Limbo" to the denouement of "The Harder They Come" -- are so plotful that you hardly need to see the movie to understand them. This expanded "Deluxe Edition" just adds more context: four more Cliff songs make this as good a best-of as he's likely to get, more Maytals, more Melodians, more Desmond Dekker, all the Johnny Nash you really need. As a primer you'll learn more from Tougher Than Tough (Island's 4-CD master lesson), but this fleshes out the moment nicely. A
The Holy Modal Rounders: Good Taste Is Timeless (1971 , Sundazed). The collected works of Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber are slowly making their way back into print -- I think only 1975's Alleged in Their Own Time is still AWOL, although Stampfel's solo catalog is in tatters. And most of the recent reissues come with fresh liner notes by Stampfel, explaining everything and proving that the drug damage wasn't permanent. This one is relatively minor, although anyone who cares about the only '60s folk group who were badder than Hendrix will have to hear about the "Spring of '65," and anyone who ever dropped acid to get closer to nature will want to tune into "Livin' Off the Land." And even Dr. Demento digs "Boobs a Lot." B+
Humphrey Lyttelton and His Band: Snag It! (1948-52 , ASV Living Era). The doyen of England's postwar trad jazz movement, Humph is perhaps as well known for his scholarship as for his trumpet, which unapologetically idolizes Louis Armstrong. Postwar Brits were shameless fans of American music, and by the '60s (and arguably still today) knew it better than than the natives did. These early recordings are anything but tentative gropings into received music: their good cheer is palpable, the polyphony an exultation after shucking off the travails of war and empire. Aside from Lyttelton, who is sterling, Keith Christie's trombone and the clarinets of Wally Fawkes and Ian Christie are delights. As Mike Figgis shows in his Red, White and Blues video, trad jazz paved the way for England's blues embrace, which rebounded to convince an ignorant America that rock and roll had deep roots in America. To explore the parallels, start here. A-
Thelonious Monk: It's Monk's Time (1964 , Columbia/Legacy). Monk has become such a major force in jazz that it's easy to forget how hard it was to merely play his music. His first efforts, on Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1 (1947 , Blue Note), confused his sidemen to no end. His mid-'50s efforts, like Brilliant Corners (1956 , Riverside), were often stitched together from multiple takes, because musicians as redoubtable as Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane had trouble getting whole takes straight. However, by 1962, when Monk started recording for Columbia, his revolution was complete. Monk had by then settled into a routine, mostly playing with a quartet that featured Charlie Rouse on tenor sax and Ben Riley on drums, mostly reworking standards -- which is what his own songbook had become. The albums were anticlimactic -- especially after his streak on Riverside -- but they are curiously satisfying anyway. Much of the credit goes to Rouse, a saxophonist who could not only play Monk but make him seem warm and comfy. This is perhaps the most satisfying of the Columbia albums, with three covers that fit especially well into the canon: solo takes on "Memories of You" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and especially the first-solo-then-group "Lulu's Back in Town." A
The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip-Hop + Underground Dance Classics 1980-1985, Volume 4 (1971-90 , Timber). Disco was so '70s that with the turn of the decade it had to go into occlusion. The 12-inch single was the wedge that split dance club music from the radio, hence from popular music, as dance moved from pop to niche to cult. The cult arena, in turn, became the incubator of electrobeats and nascent hip-hop. The first three volumes of this series mined these trends with diminishing returns, but this conclusion cheats by looking at the bigger picture -- starting with James Brown in 1971 and going as far into retro as a 1990 cut with the Blackbyrds. They also saved "Looking for the Perfect Beat" to close with, capping the strongest and most consistent volume in the series. A
Alexander Von Schlippenbach Trio: Pakistani Pomade (1972 , Atavistic). Anyone who gets serious about jazz will wind up spending a lot of time with the massive opus by Richard Cook and Brian Morton, currently titled The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. One of the many quirks of the Penguin Guides is that they drop records as they go out of print, so I've found it useful to keep all six editions on hand. The rating scheme there goes to four stars with various caveats, but they also anoint a very selective 30-50 albums with a crown to signify unusual merit. I've tried especially hard to track down everything they've crowned, with this record -- out of print since their first edition -- being exceptionally hard to find. Atavistic calls this their "unhead music" series, a rare case of hype as understatement. So I've been aching to hear this for years, but now that I've heard it I'm still aching: this is a knockdown brawl of an album, with Schlippenbach's abstract, fragmentary piano locked between Evan Parker's squawking and Paul Lovens' banging. The clash is exciting -- exhausting over the long haul, but not without the occasional miracle. B+
Trojan Box Set: Nyahbinghi (1968-75 , Sanctuary/Trojan, 3CD). As near as I can tell, Nyahbinghi is a sect or order of Rastafarianism, but for our purposes we can skip the theology and just note that their music is traditionally based on three hand drums and chants. Eschewing commercialism, their influence on reggae has been minor, but the primitivist drums and chants suggest primordial Africa, and the melodies have the simple feel of nursery rhymes. The 50 cuts here are dominated by three artists -- Count Ossie (10), Bongo Herman (11), and Ras Michael (18, including 5 as Dadawah). So this is a narrow niche, but despite many cuts feeling like they were recorded around a campfire, these aren't field recordings. Rather, when Prince Student covers "Rivers of Babylon" you get the flavor deconstructing a standard, and when Jimmy Cliff does "Bongo Man" you get a smartly constructed hymn with drums and flute to evoke the primitive. A-
Copyright © 2003 Tom Hull.