A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: June 2004
by Tom Hull
Back in January 2004 I started writing a second reissues column called "Rearview Mirror" for Seattle Weekly. That column ended in May, but contributed to messing up the schedule here. At the time I figured I'd review some records first there, then recap here. As it turns out, about half of what I reviewed there hasn't been covered here, so I've gone through the archives and rewritten a bit. Meanwhile, reviewables have been piling up, so I've gone into crunch mode, trying to catch up with as much backlog as I could handle. The result is that I wound up writing almost two columns worth of material. Rather than dump it all out here, I've split it up into two columns worth -- nice to know for once that the next column will come together on time. The split is rather arbitrary, but this one is bracketed by two legendary singers who, dumped by their longterm labels, launched comebacks after age 60 with the help of friends they didn't know they had.
Johnny Cash: Unearthed (1994-2003, American/Lost Highway, 5CD). The last phase of Johnny Cash's career was built around nothing but the singular authority of his voice. Rick Rubin pitched him songs, and he whacked them around like batting practice. There's never been another voice like his: not just instantly recognizable, it evokes a rich set of values and attitudes, the stuff of American myth. Early on there was more to Cash: his Sun records are powered by his uncanny sense of rhythm, while his more conventional country records for Columbia were built around class consciousness and American pride. But as he became famous, he wrote less, and slowly faded from the spotlight until Rubin rescued him. What Rubin understood was that Cash was so unique that he could take damn near any song and make it distinctive, as a novelty if nothing else. And that there was a market, both for novelties and for myths. The four albums they released before Cash died were all over the place, and the outtakes and best-of packaged here are even more so. Two problems I see here: one is that the material is so hit-and-miss, with most of the group exercises on the second and third discs missing (the duet with Joe Strummer on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" is a much commented on exception); the other is economic: you're paying top dollar for surplus and often redundant product. On the other hand, it's easy to understand the allure this box holds: you don't miss your water till your well runs dry. There'll never be another Johnny Cash. B+
Hedningarna: 1989-2003 (1989-2003, NorthSide). Not that I know jack about Scandinavian folk music, but despite the trad. songs they've arranged and the trad. instruments they usually play -- fiddles and flutes, lutes and bagpipes -- they strike me as no more folkloric than Z.Z. Top: the roots just give them something simple to riff on. But as roots rockers they're more into density, compression, pressure -- one new song twists as tightly as Talking Heads. The band name is Swedish for "the heathens" -- a subversive self-concept taken to heart. Still they feel uptight -- which I realize is something stereotypical to say about the antitropics. B+
30 Years of Maria Muldaur: I'm a Woman (1973-2001 , Shout Factory). A warm and sexy singer, with good taste in old songs and good fortune in friends who have helped her along, she's put together a lovely career, including a hit song on her delightful first album and, in Richland Woman Blues, an even better album 28 years down the road. This compilation takes 8 of 19 songs from those two albums, going deep into the first album while merely introducing the latter. In between she recorded a dozen albums, sparsely picked for songs that hold up to the bookends, including a superb "Rockin' Chair" with Benny Carter arranging and Hoagy Carmichael chiming in, a duet with Charles Brown on "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," and the gorgeous "Louisiana Love Call" with just a hint of Aaron Neville. A-
Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo (2004, World Music Network). The cover explains: "Zulu guitars dance: Maskanda from South Africa." Maskanda is rooted in traditional music played by migrant workers, starting with an instrumental lead-in on acoustic guitar, followed by Zulu praisesong, but it has expanded through competitions to larger groups with more elaborate instrumentation. Shiyani has played maskanda for thirty-some years, reportedly the winner of many competitions and "something of a maskanda guru" -- although I have yet to find any evidence that anyone in our part of the world had heard of him (or for that matter maskanda) until the Rough Guide folks decided to introduce him. The signal sound is Shiyani's tautly picked guitar, sometimes accompanied by violin and concertina, often with mbaqanga-like vocals. Tethered to the narrow line of the guitar, it is far simpler than most South African pop, the sort of roots move that Amerindie made to slough off the excesses of arena rock. A-
Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970 (1946-69 , CMF/Lost Highway, 2CD). Whereas the Country Music Foundation's previous From Where I Stand  tried to plot the confluence of country music and its black neighbors, this one just takes a look at what was happening on the other side of Nashville's tracks. But this is a little more than a regional r&b compilation: as the country music business expanded, Nashville's studios often did double duty, which leads to the presence here of singers not normally identified with Nashville, like Etta James and Ruth Brown. But the obscurities keep the old music fresh, especially on the first disc, which starts with a Cecil Gant boogie, skips through a lot of jump blues, and closes on an instrumental, Jimmy Beck's "Pipe Dreams." The second disc is '60s soul, not far removed from the more influential Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios, but inspired enough to give us "Soul Shake" and "Everlasting Love." A-
Augustus Pablo: King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown (Deluxe Edition) (1976 , Shanachie). Instrumentals were common in Jamaica in the '60s, but around 1970, thanks to the kind of remixing King Tubby was doing (extreme drop-outs, constantly shifting instrumental focus, foregrounding the bassline till it dominated the mix), they became a distinctive stream within the music: dub. The most interesting musician to come out of dub, Augustus Pablo started playing organ, but he also took up the melodica -- a toy wind instrument with a small keyboard -- and got out of it an eerie, flighty, dreamlike tonality often referred to as his "far east sound." Pablo's genius was how he wove his simple melodies into utterly beguiling tapestries of sound; while this is clearest on the pre-dub East of the River Nile, the full impact comes through here, in what is justly touted as the greatest dub album ever. A
Teddy Pendergrass: Anthology (1977-82 , Philadelphia International/The Right Stuff, 2CD). One thing I've noticed but never figured out is that mainstream soul music -- now known under the older and never more inappropriate term "rhythm & blues" -- all but vanished from rockcritical purview in the late '70s, never to return. In the early '70s artists like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder were central: both hugely popular and critically acclaimed. In the mid-'70s disco and funk split off, and in the '80s hip hop exploded, but mainstream soul never left -- never even left the charts. Pendergrass was the first major soulman to fall through the cracks: buried for five years under Gamble-Huff's production and Harold Melvin's marquee, he didn't emerge until the tide had turned. Plus he had his limits, which were becoming the parameters of mainstream soul: a worldview focused on seduction, sex, and nothing else. Still, he has a protean spirit and hard edge that his successors lack, which leaves him sounding like the last giant of '70s soul. Skeptics might prefer to start with single-CD Greatest Hits , but I can't detect any real dilution here. A-
The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll 1946-1954 (1946-54 , Hip-O, 3CD). Before Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley there was already an exciting ferment of rocking, rolling music that even today sounds accomplished and vital -- not so much a precursor to rock and roll but a fountain of ideas that has repeatedly been tapped to reinvigorate rock and roll every time it threatens to go stale. The real roots go back further, through many strands like small-group swing, boogie woogie, western swing, electrified blues, honky-tonk and the legacies of Jimmie Rodgers, Cab Calloway and the Mills Brothers. By 1946 those strands were coming together and cross-pollinating, especially in the vital ghetto of rhythm and blues, but a half-dozen songs from still segregated white America are mixed in -- mostly country songs with "Boogie" in the title. Rock and roll emerged from these threads to change the world. A
Art Tatum: The Best of the Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces (1954-56 , Pablo). Tatum was the ultimate dazzling pianist, playing so fast and with such complete control that he could harmonize with himself and tack on little decorative flourishes to boot. In the mid-'50s Norman Granz recorded Tatum extensively -- eventually filling eight CDs solo and eight more of Tatum in small groups. Tatum's solo recordings are justly acclaimed, but solo piano always seems a bit underdressed, so the group sessions are more immediately appealing. The only problem with this sampler is that the individual sessions hold up so well on their own: especially Vol. 8 with Ben Webster, although Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, and Buddy DeFranco aren't far behind. A
Muddy Waters: Hard Again (1976 , Epic/Legacy). Waters had just crossed age 60, cut loose from his heyday at Chess. Johnny Winter was half his age and like most blues-rockers in awe of his less popular elders. Then they teamed up for the album of their lives: no nostalgia trip, Hard Again was the hardest rocking album of the year, a nonstop party that left Waters as satisfied as he looks on the cover. Nobody noticed when the blues had that baby named rock and roll, until the baby grew up and paid its respects. A
Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.