A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: September 2004

Recycled Goods

by Tom Hull

This is the first time in the almost two years I've been writing this column where I have any hip hop albums. (Well, except for that early Buck 65 compilation, if you remember back that far.) It's a bit surprising that it's worked out this way. My new album year-end lists feature quite a bit of hip hop -- mostly underground, but I've been known to praise Nelly and Ludacris, as well as more critic-certified names like OutKast and Public Enemy and Jay-Z and De La Soul and the Roots. On the other hand, it's relatively new music and the reissues are relatively few and far between. Also, I don't get much in the mail, and I'm much more likely to buy new albums to try to keep up than compilations to evaluate. Expect more in the future: it's the most vital popular music of the last twenty years.

Expect more world music too -- long promised, but I'm broadening the net. Anything to not think about the dreary state of this union, as revealed in electoral victory of a party that is anti-peace, anti-equality, anti-freedom, anti-future, anti-music, and even anti-every decent impulse I remember from Bible School -- guess we were too young then to talk about sex, but now I gather they're anti-that too. With four more years of bad vibrations promised from Washington, listen to all the good music you can.

Arild Andersen: Rarum XIX: Selected Recordings (1975-99 [2004], ECM). Jazz in Scandinavia took a fateful turn when George Russell arrived, putting aside earlier bebop influences to evolve into something more avant yet distinctively nordic. The most directly influenced were Jan Garbarek (saxophones), Terje Rypdal (guitar), Arild Andersen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums), and to a huge extent Manfred Eicher built ECM -- easily the most prodigious European jazz label of the last 30 years -- and its trademark freeze-dried sound around their work. Andersen has recorded over a dozen albums under his own name or that of his late '80s band Masqualero, which featured pianist Jon Balke and introduced trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer. The Rarum series often runs into trouble trying to mix and match pieces that don't fit well, but by focusing sharply on the bass, this one manages the shifts between quiet and dynamic, simple and complex. A-

The Hip Hop Box (1979-2003 [2004], Hip-O, 4CD). The fifty years after Brown vs. Board of Education were bisected by "Rapper's Delight" -- the anchor for this four-disc, 25th anniversary set. Much has been achieved along the path to integration, but distinctly Afro-American culture has, if anything, gathered strength. None of the songs on the now canonical first disc here were big hits -- their invention shrouded in obscurity during the Dark Age of Ronald Reagan. But by Eric B. & Rakim's 1988's "Follow the Leader," which opens disc two, rap was poised to bust down doors. The second disc spans just two years, but that's all it took to spin out everything from Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest to 2 Live Crew to Ice-T to Biz Markie. Genre comps are usually meant to introduce wary outsiders to a music they don't much know, and the first two discs here do the job without watering anything down. But genre comps also tend to impose the compiler's concept onto a genre, which brings us to the last two discs. Hip-hop expanded and evolved and mutated from 1991 on, so that if you turned twenty serious fans loose to summarize the past 13 years on two CDs, it's doubtful that any two would share more than four songs. It's tempting to attribute this particular set to the licensing budget: Only about a third of what's here comes from labels owned by Hip-O's corporate parents, the Universal megalith, and they're increasingly concentrated on the latter discs, including the final five songs. But most of what the fourth disc does is to spotlight the era's major commercial producers -- Dr. Dre, Timbaland, the Neptunes -- and it's more consistently listenable than I would have expected. That's another thing comps are for: salvaging good tracks from albums you wouldn't bother with. A-

George Lewis: Ice Cream (1953 [2004], Delmark). Among ancient New Orleans trumpeters, Buddy Bolden was an unrecorded legend and Freddie Keppard barely got his cup of coffee, but once Bunk Johnson got a new set of teeth in 1942, his comeback kicked off a revival of classic New Orleans jazz. The chief beneficiary of the revival was Johnson's clarinet player, the thin, unassuming George Lewis. Never more than a sideman in the old days, Lewis toured the world and recorded dozens of albums from the mid-'40s to his death in 1968. His was a music that had been frozen in time since Louis Armstrong's revolution, but that hardly detracts from the eloquence of his clarinet or the rousing good cheer of his band. With so many records so fundamentally similar distinctions are subtle. This one was cut by Lewis' most typical group, and is a fine introduction to their art. Better still is The Beverly Caverns Sessions (Good Time Jazz), cut a month earlier with the same group: the clarinet a bit lighter, the trombone a bit heavier, the trumpet a bit more shiny, fewer vocals, marginal distinctions that somehow add up. B+

Jimmy Lyons: The Box Set (1972-85 [2003], Ayler, 5CD). The Cecil Taylor Unit was led and dominated by the explosive pianist, but the melodic core of their work came from alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who played with Taylor from 1961 until shortly before he died in 1986. Lyons was a shy perfectionist who took Charlie Parker's idea (or was that Chairman Mao's) of perpetual revolution into realms Parker never imagined, but he recorded so rarely on his own that the only people who have ever heard of him are Cecil Taylor fanatics. This box won't change that, but five packed CDs of solos, trios, and quartets led by Lyons puts the man into much clearer focus than he's ever enjoyed before. The first disc, where he shares the front line with trumpeter Raphé Malik, is terrific fun. The last two spotlight Karen Borca's jazz bassoon, a sharp edged bottom to Lyons' alto. The rest is more educational: a deliberately paced solo session, a blisteringly fast trio, a revealing snatch of interview. Also, the booklet is invaluable. A-

Oumou Sangare: Oumou (1989-2000 [2004], World Circuit/Nonesuch, 2CD). Robert Christgau called her first album "a Sahel version of early Dolly Parton--with a deeper groove." Good groove is often reason enough to listen to African music, but the most striking thing about Sangare was her natural feminism. Indeed, the booklet to this comp -- six recent songs from a Mali-only cassette mixed with thick slices from her three U.S. albums to sum up her career-to-date -- is worth reading for her explanations of her songs. But the music holds up fine without explication: groove, grit, soul. A

Shrimp Boat: Something Grand (1985-93 [2004], Aum Fidelity, 3CD). Just as flowers yearn for sunlight, rock groups seek popularity. The aesthetics of rock have always been grounded in giving the people what they want. Even bands that never had the slightest commercial success sounded like they were trying. But eventually some bands, like this one from Chicago, figured the odds against superstardom and kept to obscurity with all eyes open. The effect is even more exaggerated because superfan Stephen Joerg didn't do the obvious thing and re-release Shrimp Boat's actual albums or cherry pick them to make an appealing best-of. No, he filled up three CDs with marginalia. (Early adopters also get a bonus live CD.) The early band specialized in post-Velvets alt-country grooves, sometimes with banjo. The later band picked up a couple of sax players and dabbled in free jazz over fixed beats. In between they experiment, sometimes wonderfully: "Ollie's Song" is built around a sample of Oliver North's Iran-Contra perjury; "Limerick Dub" just flows and flows amidst little blips of horns and guitar and electronics; "Rocks Are Oil" and "Honeyside" have grooves that bear comparison to the Feelies (or, for newbies, the Strokes). But they also thrash and squeal and fart around -- as appealing to fans as mischievous children are to grandparents. A-

Tomasz Stanko: Rarum XVII: Selected Recordings (1975-98 [2004], ECM). One of the great trumpet players of our era comes from Poland. Back in the bad old days of Communism he cut his teeth working with Roman Polanski's favorite composer, Kryzystof Komeda; even before the Cold War melted, he could slip into the free world, perhaps becuase his jazz was already free. His ECM records run slower, darker, more atmospheric than the records he recorded in Poland, but that's par for the course with ECM. The sampler, like the rest of the Rarum series, jumps around, losing the continuity of masterpieces like Leosia and Litania, in order to bring in a wider range of experiences. One thing to look out for is the contrast in the drummers, especially between Tony Oxley (a dazzlingly swift improviser with a light touch) and Edward Vesala (a guy who plays heavy and moves the world with him). A-

Steinski's Burning Out of Control: The Sugarhill Mix (1972-2003, Antidote). Sugarhill Records may have put rap on the map, but in their heyday I usually found their beats square and their rhymes soporific, and my kneejerk reaction kept me away from the excitement for much too long. Steinski had been an underground legend for over a decade before I scored his uncleared and presumably illegal Nothing to Fear: A Rough Mix -- an astonishingly original work of art even if every note and syllable on it has been pilfered from somewhere else. This meeting is more obvious: set against the backdrop of a fire destroying Sugarhill's tapes, Steinski narrates his love of the music, and makes much of his case. A-

Hound Dog Taylor: Release the Hound (1971-75 [2004], Alligator). Taylor's concept was that if Elmore James had rocked harder and fretted less he would have had more fun. Taylor sure did. He called his band the Houserockers because that's what they did, and that all anyone needed to know. Bruce Iglauer fell so hard for Taylor that he founded Alligator Records just to record him, and cut three genuinely houserocking albums before Taylor's death in 1975. Alligator went on to become one of the most important blues labels of the last 30 years, but the urge to go back to their roots finally sent them back to the vaults to round up this passel of live scraps. It's loose, sloppy even, not all that well recorded, and, surprise, even more fun than his rock solid studio albums. A-

The Vulgar Boatmen: Wide Awake (1989-95 [2003], No Nostalgia). Robert Ray taught English and Film Studies in Florida. Dale Lawrence, 14 years younger, lived in Indiana. They wrote songs via long distance mail, rehearsed them with parallel bands, and got together to record three albums. It's not clear whether their methodology drove them to simplicity or merely rewarded it, but they came up with the archetypal expression of the Velvets-inspired Amerindie rhythm, and they built song after song around it. The Feelies were fancier rhythmically. The Go-Betweens were more fertile lyrically. The Silos and the Blake Babies and dozens if not hundreds of other bands were comparable, if only briefly, but none were so consistent, perhaps because none did more with less. A-

Briefly Noted

  • Carla Bley: Rarum Vol. 15: Selected Recordings (1961-99 [2004], ECM): working backwards, listen as she regains her impish sense of humor while losing her intricate command of big band dynamics, finally arriving at the point where she fed her then-husband a tune and let him play the piano. B+
  • The Very Best of Brand Nubian (1990-98 [2001], Elektra/Rhino): black muslims with slinky, bouncy, sociable beats; half from their excellent first album, One for All (Elektra), the other half from three later albums that benefit from the best-of treatment. A-
  • De La Soul: Live at Tramps, NYC, 1996 ([2004], Tommy Boy/Rhino): proves that rap is a studio art, the sound often canned and compressed on the road, the rappers itchy too, the crowd confused, the songs stripped to bare bones, which still haunt. B
  • Anders Gahnold Trio: Flowers for Johnny (1983-85 [2003], Ayler, 2CD): Dyani, that is, the South African bassist who hooked up with the little known Swedish alto saxophonist for these sparkling postbop club dates. A-
  • Jan Garbarek: Rarum II: Selected Recordings (1974-95 [2002], ECM, 2CD): ECM's flagship artist, 24 cuts from 23 albums from 22 years, a smorgasbord progressing from Keith Jarrett's European quartet through globe-straddling ragas and sagas and back again to his engagement with mediaeval choir Hilliard Ensemble. A-
  • Hello Central: The Best of Lightnin' Hopkins (1950-51 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): actually just a narrow slice, mostly acoustic, country blues that sounded old even when he made them up on the spot; he returned to this vein a decade later, sounding even more weathered. B+
  • Hip Hop 101 (2000, Tommy Boy): nothing historical, not a primer in the usual sense, just a reduction to fundamentals, every beat on the one; De La Soul exec produced, too sharp for underground, too obscure for MTV. A-
  • Dave Holland: Rarum X: Selected Recordings (1972-2000 [2004], ECM): interesting that his own groups feature higher pitched horns (usually alto or soprano sax; one cut here even has Sam Rivers on flute) to contrast better with his bass, on which he's one of the all-time greats. B+
  • The Essential Isley Brothers (1959-96 [2004], Epic/Legacy, 2CD): this shortchanges their idiosyncrasies in favor of their grooves -- eleven songs are labeled "Parts 1 & 2," and none go on too long -- but when all is said and done, isn't it the weird ones that you treasure most from their inconsistent albums? A-
  • Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II (1936-37 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): a "sonic upgrade" to the second of two 1961 LPs that were most people's first introduction to the Delta blues legend; these are the leftovers, a few worthy enough that they should have been tacked onto the short first volume. B+
  • George Jones: Jones by George! (1965-71 [2003], Proper, 2CD): selected from the tail end of Pappy Daily's control over the erratic but brilliant singer, sprinkled with recuts of earlier hits and chunks of the Leon Payne songbook, dishonestly packaged with a good general bio but no discographical details. B
  • The L.A. Carnival: Pose a Question (1969-71 [2003], Now-Again): from Omaha, not L.A., formerly known as the Lester Smith Soul Band, led by drummer Lester, uh, Abrams; yet another worthwhile excavation into the funk underground. B+
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Raise Your Spirit Higher (Wenyukela) (2003 [2004], Heads Up): after thirty-some years their multitude of albums all sound alike, yet each new one surprises you with the intricacy and delicacy of its vocal play; this one sounds as fresh and light as ever. B+
  • Man of Constant Sorrow and Other Timeless Mountain Ballads ([2002], Yazoo): one of the best of the dozens of quickies thrown out to cash in on the O Brother soundtrack smash, I might rate it higher if they had bothered to document the history and justify their selections, but only "He Rambled" and "Wreck of the Old 97" are obvious, and nothing is unworthy. B+
  • Branford Marsalis: The Steep Anthology (1983-98 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): hipper, less ambitious, more fun than his famous little brother, perhaps because the legacy of respected sax is broader and more adventurous than for trumpet, and because he gets a distinct sound on soprano when he invokes Bechet; still, not an especially well chosen or programmed comp. B
  • The Essential Johnny Mathis (1956-2000 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): as pure a crooner as ever was, his early hits like "Wonderful! Wonderful!" and "Chances Are" are beyond category, but from 1960 on, two-thirds here, he was nothing but category, a sublime voice for a tired genre, although "Unbreak My Heart" (1998) is an exception. B
  • Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy (1969 [2004], Light in the Attic): funk archaeology, a young Jamaican in Toronto covers country songs and writes his own soul ballads and funk toons, a little bit of everything, but nothing distinct enough to make his name; it went nowhere, and McGhie never cut another, but Kevin Howes loved it enough to track him down, perhaps because history still matters. B+
  • Paul Motian: Rarum XVI: Selected Recordings (1972-87 [2004], ECM): best known as the drummer of choice for pianists from Bill Evans to Marilyn Crispell, Motian's own groups eschew piano in favor of saxophonists from Charles Brackeen to Joe Lovano, playing his own loose-limbed compositions; an appetizing platter of his work before he moved on to JMT, including pieces with pianists Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley. B+
  • Willie Nelson: The Troublemaker (1973-74 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): gospel album, cut for Arif Mardin at Atlantic but unreleased until Nelson took it with to Columbia; about what you'd expect from a great singer (although not yet a great interpretive singer) and a crack band, although nothing but "In the Garden" and "Uncloudy Day" is what you'd pray for. B+
  • Michel Petrucciani: 100 Hearts (1983 [2002], Blue Note): a freak, with stubby legs and arms that straddled the whole keyboard, he was built like an airplane, but close your eyes and see how sensitively this solo album is constructed, how elegantly it develops. A-
  • The Michel Petrucciani Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (1984 [2002], Blue Note): framed with bass and drums, and the crowd, the piano still center, the concentration intense, the interaction welcome. A-
  • Pulp: Hits (1992-2002 [2003], Island/Chronicles): choice cut: "Common People"; choice album: Different Class, featuring "Common People." B
  • Run-DMC: Greatest Hits (1983-93 [2002], Arista/BMG Heritage): with Jam Master Jay shot down, the sentiments of their previous best-of, 1991's Together Forever, buried with him, so why not concentrate on their prime, when they had the hardest beats and the hippest hop in town; Aerosmith owes them big time. A
  • The Essential Earl Scruggs (1946-84 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): released for his 80th birthday, the first disc focuses on bluegrass banjo so relentless it should convince punk rockers; the second disc slumps with the overexposed "Ballad of Jed Clampett" and his divorce from Lester Flatt, but guest stars come to the rescue, especially one named Cash. A-
  • Byther Smith: Hold That Train (1981 [2004], Delmark): an early, previously unreleased Chicago blues album, but Smith was no spring chicken: he plays like a pro, every song tight, no stretching out, no wah wah, no crying in his beer. B+
  • The Stanley Brothers: The Complete Mercury Recordings (1953-58 [2003], Mercury/Chronicles, 2CD): as a first approximation, all the bluegrass you really need was recorded by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley and their extended families (wording to sneak Jimmy Martin in, as well as Flatt & Scruggs), and this completism doesn't shrink a bit from an earlier single CD best-of the same. A-
  • The Stanley Brothers: An Evening Long Ago (1956 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): a radio shot from their prime, once through their usual repertoire, as high and lonesome as their oldtime music gets. B+
  • The Sundowners: Chicago Country Legends (1960-71 [2003], Bloodshot): best experienced sloppy drunk, especially given that their few transcendent moments occur on British Invasion ditties; closest thing we might ever want to Ernest Tubb Sings the Beatles. B
  • John Surman: Rarum XIII: Selected Recordings (1976-99 [2004], ECM): the prime example of ECM's taming of the avant-garde, the earliest piece here the most robust, the latest the most genteel, in between almost clinical exercises on his three main reeds, often dubbed over his own minimalist synths. B+
  • The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip Hop 1979-1983 (1979-83 [2004], Stones Throw): hot on the heels of the Bronx breakout, too early to find much of a market beyond Mr. Magic's New Haven disco, this is old style from the crucible, spry beats, deft samples, lots of first person, fun and fresh. A-
  • Eberhard Weber: Rarum XVIII: Selected Recordings (1974-2000 [2004], ECM): essentially a watercolorist, his bass dabbing pale pastels onto airy canvases, here and there livened up by a streak of Jan Garbarek. B
  • Wheedle's Groove: Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-1975 (1965-2003 [2004], Light in the Attic): marginal scene, more enthusiastic than accomplished, pumped up organs, a few soul jazz instrumentals, vocal overkill, two ringers from the modern era, the booklet a labor of scholarship and love. B
  • Bobby Womack: Anthology (1967-76 [2003], Capitol/The Right Stuff, 2CD): hard working second tier r&b singer, he could preach, woo, raise the rafters, get down on the dancefloor, but he couldn't make you forget Wilson Pickett; but then who could? B+


Introduction written on Nov. 7, 2004. This was originally supposed to be the August column, but delays in posting, and further delays in writing, caused August to be renumbered September and September to be renumbered November. The latter should be done later in the month, then we'll try to get back on monthly schedule.


Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.