A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: May 2004
by Tom Hull
The world music drought continues: part of the problem is that not much is released here, part of the problem is that the publicists for much of what does get released don't see me as publicity, and part of the problem is that I still haven't figured out what I think of Hedningarna. Meanwhile, I can report that world jazz and/or jazz around the world -- not the same things, despite some overlap -- are popping up everywhere. Meanwhile, I'm still in catch-up mode: most of the records below were released in 2003, including the Ellingtons. This year Legacy has six more Ellington reissues, maybe next time.
Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson (1926-36 , Yazoo). Few creation myths are further off base than the notion that Robert Johnson invented the blues. Johnson's complete works were recorded on two days in June, 1937, by which time blues had been recorded by literally hundreds of others, from all over the south and a few points north. In the 1980s, Yazoo put out dozens of LPs of pre-WWII blues, establishing itself as America's premier old blues label. So when Robert Johnson's Complete Recordings turned into a million seller, Yazoo responded with The Roots of Robert Johnson -- fourteen songs of no particular relationship to Johnson other than that they came earlier. When the CD era came, Yazoo copied their LPs onto the new medium. Lately, they've started to replace their early comps with new versions, expanded but also missing a few items, leading to debate about, say, which Memphis Jug Band comp is the better. This new one follows suit, keeping 11 and dropping 3 cuts from the original release, while adding 12 more songs to give us a broader portrait of the pre-Johnson blues period. Johnson's stature is such that the booklet tries to justify the songs through their influence on him, but that's more marketing than anything else. This music stands on its own. A
Cabaret Voltaire: Conform to Deform '82/'90: Archive (1982-90 , Virgin, 3CD). One of the luxuries of writing about reissues is that I usually know the music already, and know quite a bit about the context it took shape in. That's not true in this case -- before getting acquainted with this set I had only heard (and dismissed) one of their early albums. The usual lists of roots and influences (Throbbing Gristle, Suicide, Can), similar artists (Chrome, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Durutti Column), and followers (A Certain Ratio, Front 242, KMFDM) don't help much. On hearing this I could suggest others (Wire, New Order, Pet Shop Boys), but compared to those referents this seems determinedly obscure. Yet the booklet here is full of praise from sources I do recognize (Meat Beat Manifesto, Chemical Brothers, and Kraftwerk, whose Ralf Hütter describes them as "Brüder [brethren] der industriellen Volksmusik!" -- pardon the German, but it suggests a tantalizing range of meanings, from "industrial folk music" to "the industrial people's music"). The consensus is that Cabaret Voltaire were pioneers on the path from raw electronics to a vast array of contemporary electronica, from hip hop to trip hop, from techno to noise, from industrial to ambient. As with most pioneers what I hear here is neither fully formed or ghettoized. The surplus of three discs helps: "Conform" finds them on their best behavior, a disc that anyone with a fondness for the Pet Shop Boys, say, can take pleasure in; "Deform" is tougher going, a set of techniques for deconstruction; "Liveform" is a synthesis in its necessarily more limited (ergo simpler) world. Whereas any single disc would have been partial, the whole set starts to make sense. And reminds us that even today's avant-garde is likely to become tomorrow's folk music. A-
Paul Desmond/Gerry Mulligan: Two of a Mind (1962 , Bluebird). Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker were perhaps the biggest stars to come out of the west coast cool jazz scene in the '50s, but their most successful quartets were anchored by two less obvious musicians who managed to make their stars shine by fleshing out their music. Desmond's alto saxophone was a thing of light and beauty, and his ability to spin out long melodic lines was peerless; Mulligan was as sympathetic an accompanist as you could wish for, able on baritone to add harmonic depth to any soloist, or to dance away on his own improvisations. Mulligan's late-'50s stint on Verve led to a series of "Mulligan Meets" albums, including a 1957 quartet with Desmond that is sheer delight. Desmond, in turn, recorded a series of Brubeck-less albums for RCA in the early '60s, including this gem. Rarely has jazz so polite been so engaging, in large part because the tones of the two instruments fit so nicely, and because these two world class supporting musicians have such good feel for the other's work. This edition adds five bonus tracks -- adding superb unedited takes to the highly-edited original album; in this case, more is more, stretching the pleasure out to 75 minutes. A
Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard's Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s (1926-37 , Old Hat). This is not merely a paean to old-time music -- string bands, blues songsters, jug bands, yodellers, hot jazz combos. Above all else this is a celebration of record collecting. Bussard has some 25,000 vintage 78s in his famous basement, and these 24 cuts have been selected not just for their exceptional musical value -- they range from rare to the only copy known to exist. Half of the artists are now well known, though Bussard insists on keeping the original credits for the likes of Big Bill [Broonzy], Blind Gary [Davis], and Gitfiddle Jim [Kokomo Arnold]. But he also finds obscurities like the Corley Family's singalong, Bessie Brown's race-wise "Song From a Cotton Field," and the Grinnell Giggers' "Plow Boy Hop." The booklet (indeed the whole package) is lavish -- as much on Bussard as on the music. And if the scholarship doesn't quite match Harry Smith, that's because Bussard ain't no scholar -- he's a fan (as in fanatic). A
From Small Things: The Best of Dave Edmunds (1970-2002 , Columbia/Legacy). Edmunds came along too late for the British Invasion -- the great work of introducing America's teens to the hard rocking music of their forefolks had already been done. But he did manage to cop an asterisk: a hard rocking version of "I Hear You Rockin'." And he was so devoted to old fashioned rock and roll and had so little artistic ambition that he became the favored producer of England's pub rockers. His new pals were prolific enough that he got a shot at songs like "I Knew the Bride" (Nick Lowe), "Girl's Talk" (Elvis Costello), and "Crawling From the Wreckage" (Graham Parker), and he parlayed them into a sharp series of albums, peaking with Repeat When Necessary. Then he collapsed: a spat with Rockpile bandmate Nick Lowe left him with a severe shortfall in the songwriting department. But he finally worked his way back to his true sound -- fans are advised to check out A Pile of Rock Live (1999 , Castle). Better still is this comp, which sticks close to the classic-sounding hard rockers that he did best. A
Duke Ellington: The Bubber Miley Era: 1924-1929 (, Jazz Legends). Miley was Ellington's first star trumpet player, and his voice is the one you most associate with Duke's Jungle Band -- you've heard "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and "Black and Tan Fantasy," which got him writing credits and feature his muted trumpet. At the time Ellington recorded for three companies -- Bluebird, Okeh, and Brunswick -- and many of his major songs were cut for all three. Nowadays those catalogs belong to BMG, Sony, and Universal, respectively, and none of those companies have done a good job of keeping them in print. (Sony still seems to have a few copies of the 2-CD The Okeh Ellington left from their c. 1990 reissue series; Universal picked up the Brunswick catalog when they bought up MCA, which had released a 3-CD Early Ellington; BMG remastered the records for their $300 box set, but never followed through on promises to release them separately, which is especially shameful given that they generally have the best masters.) The only blemishes here are a couple of rough starts early on, and the sound is better than the Okehs and Brunswicks (if not necessarily the Bluebirds). I haven't tried to track down just where Jazz Legends got these versions, but this is finally a first-rate budget package of some of the greatest music in American history. We tend to associate Ellington with the sophisticated swing music of the '40s, but from almost the very day he moved from Washington to New York he fronted the hottest band in Harlem. A+
Duke Ellington's Far East Suite (1966 , Bluebird). Despite the title "Ad Lib on Nippon," the Ellington tour that inspired these loosely linked pieces started in Amman and strayed no further east than Calcutta. Names like "Mount Harissa" and "Isfahan" suggest that it's more like a Near East Suite, but that's nitpicking. Ellington's "jungle music" of the late '20s was based on only the faintest idea of primordial Africa; this at least picks up some of the sounds and smells of an Asia far east of Harlem, and the inspiration helps to lift this above the usual run of Ellington masterpieces. But this is also the final flowering of Ellington's magnificent orchestra, which from the high trumpet on "Tourist Point of View" to the trilling clarinet on "Ad Lib on Nippon" never sounded better. A year later Billy Strayhorn died; soon Johnny Hodges, and Ellington himself, passed on. The only problem with the latest reissue is that by stuffing it full of extra takes it loses track of the perfect flow of the original album. On the other hand, you won't want to miss a single note. A+
Michael Jackson: Number Ones (1979-2001 , Epic). In the long run, which is the subject of career compilations, he will be viewed as the founder of a distinct stream of raceless dance rock that seems likely to be vital and very popular for decades. Sure, much of what we've heard from that stream lately has come in the form of teen pop, but those teens are growing up (e.g. Justin Timberlake), and his most immediate follower, Madonna, has her own followers, for much the same reasons. By "raceless" I mean that, as he put it in his most anthemic song, "it don't matter whether you're black or white." That is the ideal of integration -- not the paling down of Black American music, but its triumph in the free marketplace of monster beats. This tails off a bit toward the end, as the criteria start to get sloppy, but not as much as you'd expect. And given the market's tendency to lag, this favors Bad over his breakthrough albums, Off the Wall and Thriller. But the point here is he wasn't a freak success -- he broke new ground, and he kept pushing it past his obvious peak. A-
The Essential Simon & Garfunkel (1964-75 , Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). They've reunited so frequently and so opportunistically (albeit never for long) that it's clear that they speak to a sizable market niche, which I would estimate is mid-upper 50s, middle class, college educated, liberal arts, liberal in most things, yet also quietly conformist. I just missed being part of that niche on almost every count, but not by such a margin that I could ignore it. Like Simon, I could have said that "I've got my books and my poetry to protect me." But the only time my books actually protected me was then I used them as shields to block rocks from neighborhood bullies. And poetry? Well, my brother got expelled from school over a poetry notebook I helped him assemble. (I guess Wichita just wasn't ready for Wichita Vortex Sutra.) I grew up hating "I Am a Rock" -- more precisely, I felt like one, and hated that. And there are other pieces from Simon's songbook that provoke the same visceral reaction in me -- "My Little Town" is the most obvious one here. So I'm not a fair judge here, but I'll tell you what I think I would say if I was one: First, they have nothing to do with folk-rock; Simon was born too late for Tin Pan Alley, but that's where he came from and always belonged, and like many of the greats there he was best when he was stealing ideas from other genres (as he notably did on his two good solo albums: Paul Simon and Graceland). Garfinkel was at best a foil, but his harmony was deployed brilliantly on a few occasions, and rarely is the problem even when he's helpless (which is most of the time). There are something like 9-10 good songs among the 33 here, and the good songs are often upbeat and almost always marked by undeniable pop hooks, which Simon has a knack for. On the other hand, at least that many of these songs are just plain lame. B-
Candi Staton (1969-73 , Honest Jons). She's got the gospel background, and after working her way through soul and disco that's where she wound up. Her mid-'70s disco work for Warner Bros. has been intermittently in print, but the three albums she cut for Rick Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals are really obscure: all The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings has to say on the subject is that the first two "are worth searching out." The search still isn't easy, but this Dutch import helps a lot. And is it worth it? Well, this sounds like about 75% of the best album Aretha Franklin ever cut in Muscle Shoals, tempered by a healthy dollop of Ann Peebles and a little Etta James. Maybe it is too easy to compare her to others, but she gets the sound right, and delivers it with sass. A
Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.