A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: February, 2006

Recycled Goods (#28)

by Tom Hull

Back to the usual grind. I had hoped to get to some box sets this month. The industry thinks of them as seasonal items, either as presents or self-indulgences. But the big problem critics have with box sets is that they take so much longer to sort out. So I'll get to them when I can. But this month I thought I'd tackle another of the industry's seasonal fetishes: Valentine's Day comps. And I spent the rest of my time catching up with odds and ends. By the way, the reasons the Art Pepper classic wasn't tabbed for the pick hit artwork were two: the reissue's album cover shrinks down to postage stamp size, and the two I picked instead just underscore that this has been a scruffy, folkie kind of month.

Harry Belafonte: The Essential Harry Belafonte (1952-77 [2005], RCA/Legacy, 2CD): Born in Harlem, raised in Jamaica, proclaimed the "king of calypso" before anything we now recognize as Jamaican music had even been recorded -- and any real calypso was readily available -- Belafonte was unique among folk artists in his '50s heyday, and unclassifiable today -- except perhaps as the world's first world music star. He combined Leadbelly's penchant for crowd pleasing with the political rigor of the Lomaxes, could croon a ballad to suit the Cole-Mathis fans, and enjoyed something of an acting career. All this made him a success, but as an outsider his folk songs were meant to break down barriers. If some like "Cotton Fields," "Danny Boy," and "Hava Nageela" seem too obvious today, that's because they worked. And if "Abraham, Martin & John" seems sappy, remember that he was on the lines with MLK. I use the past tense here because his musical form is dépassé, but the man himself is still here, recently in the news for political comments easily dismissed as outrageous, but give his passion a fair listen and you'll hear sense as well as rage. A-

Willie Egan: Wow Wow/Rockin' the Blues: The Complete Vita/Mambo Sessions (1955-56 [2005], Empire Musicwerks): A jump blues pianist from rural Louisiana, Egan's main problem is that he sounds like lots of other people. On the other hand, the people he sounds like -- Amos Milburn, Floyd Dixon, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Otis Spann -- are the greats, and he does them well enough to have developed a cult. In 1984 a fan tracked him down -- he was working as a hospital orderly in LA -- and got him to cut an album I've yet to hear. But these thirteen songs and three outtakes are his canon. Once you've worked you way through the greats, if you're still not sated he's the kind of obscurity who can get your pulse hopping. A-

All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra (1973-2001 [2005], Epic/Legacy): Forget "Evil Woman" -- or better still, imagine it was prophetically about Thatcher, and don't sweat the details, since the whiney lyrics are belied by the music anyway. The concept here is a rock band with dancing cellos and falsetto vocals, but it wouldn't work if ex-Move songwriter Jeff Lynne didn't have a knack for cheap hooks as well as flagrantly over-the-top arrangements. It all comes together in the exuberant popcraft of "Don't Bring Me Down." Nothing else works so completely, but half-baked genius follows -- the proto-disco "Turn to Stone," the post-Pepper "Diary of Horace Wimp," the Move-to-Queen missing link "Rockaria!," the trademarkable "Strange Magic." Lynne's a rock and roller -- the strings are an extravagance -- but curiously, when he indulges them he sounds most like Dave Edmunds. Their songbook runs out before the disc does, but this is more fun than any other '70s prog band. A-

Go Contrary, Go Sing: Heroes and Zeroes of the North American Underground (1999-2004 [2005], Brooklyn Towne): If Dylan sold folk music out by going electric, these punks -- resumes include D.O.A., M.D.C., Dead Boys, Dead Kennedys, Stiff Little Fingers -- buy it back by going acoustic. Most are nothing more than angry young men declaiming over taut acoustic guitar -- Edward Abbey patriots and Wobbly agitators, some who celebrate drink, others resigned to die by it. Just a coincidence, I'm sure, that the two most memorable songs are called "Long Way Home" and "Long Time Gone." Anthologies of non-entities are messy. This one reminds me of two early-'80s semi-legends: Wanna Buy a Bridge? and Let Them Eat Jellybeans! A-

Art Pepper: Winter Moon (1980 [2005], Galaxy): Saxophone-with-strings has been a holy grail, sought by many but rarely with any success. The problem has usually been the strings. Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins played majestically against mediocre semiclassical string arrangements. One major exception is Stan Getz's Focus, where Eddie Sauter's arch-modernist strings actually steal the show. But no album combines the lush texturing of strings with saxophone more organically than this one. A+

Julian Priester Pepo Mtoto: Love, Love (1974 [2005], ECM): A Chicago-born trombonist, Priester played on over 200 albums since 1954 until health problems recently slowed him down, but has few albums under his own name. He started with Sun Ra and Max Roach, backed Dinah Washington and Ray Charles, worked with Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane in the early '60s, did a short stretch with Duke Ellington at the end of the decade. He's played everything from his hometown blues to avant-garde, including a foray into fusion in the early-'70s with Herbie Hancock. The two LP-side medleys here fuse synths, guitar, bass and percussion into long riddim romps, with smears of trombone adding depth and personality. A-

Louis Prima & Keely Smith: Live From Las Vegas (1958 [2005], Capitol): Like Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima hailed from New Orleans, played hot trumpet, and sang superbly despite having a uniquely unmusical voice, but for most critics he was one of those second comings as farce. His early recordings go back to 1934, but he never amounted to much until he hit Las Vegas in the '50s with a hot Sam Butera band featuring his child bride Keely Smith. The buzz from Las Vegas got him a contract at Capitol, where from 1956-62 he recorded the songs he's remembered for: a mix of jump blues and pasta fazool with hot peppers and shameless clowning. This live show does the job of capturing Prima and Butera in action, but focus on Smith, who knows that the real reason no appliance can replace her man is that her disdain would be wasted on a machine. And count how many times she works "hot damn!" into her songs. A-

Ike Quebec: The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions (1959-62 [2005], Blue Note, 2CD): A mainstream tenor saxophonist with a large tone and graceful swing, Quebec recorded a bit in the '40s -- his work on Thelonious Monk's early records was almost comically inept, but he had a jukebox hit in "Blue Harlem." After a hiatus -- drugs, the common cold of the bebop era -- he hooked up again with Blue Note in the late '50s, recording a series of blues and ballads albums that framed him well before he died at age 44 in 1963 -- Blue and Sentimental is a good example. Aside from the albums, Quebec cut singles aimed at recapitulating his early jukebox success. The 26 cuts here are all small groups with organ, sometimes guitar and/or bass, and drums. The sidemen are little known and mostly inconspicuous, but he sticks closely to what he does best: blues, simple romps, beautifully articulated ballads. A-

Todd Snider: That Was Me (1994-98 [2005], Hip-O): Snider is a singer-songwriter who can perform credibly with just his guitar for accompaniment, which these days makes him a folk singer. Any doubts about that were dispelled by his live album, Near Truths and Hotel Rooms (2003, Oh Boy), where his patter improves songs that were pretty funny in the first place. Those songs came from three albums on MCA and two more on John Prine's Oh Boy label, and this usefully condenses the former. He works in familiar grooves -- the first album's hidden track, "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," is straight out of Dylan; "I Can't Complain" does Prine like Strayhorn did Ellington -- so he has to get by on his wit and wisdom. Among his most memorable is his critique of "Easy Money": "you get a man strung out on green/he'll give up everything he's got/for just one shot at havin' it all." A-

Turn Back the Years: The Essential Hank Williams Collection (1947-52 [2005], Mercury/Chronicles, 3CD): The world's supply of Hank Williams recordings is finite, regardless of how many times they are recycled. Mercury pretty much shot their wad in 1998 when they released their ten-CD box, The Complete Hank Williams. While the box is excessive -- inflated with live scraps and studio outtakes -- it completed a long struggle to restore the recordings to their original form. After Hank died his demos were overdubbed and hawked as shamelessly as 2Pac, and those adulterated singles were routinely compiled into sets like 24 Greatest Hits (1976) and 40 Greatest Hits (1978). The restoration effort led to a series of eight 2-LP chronological sets released in 1985-87 -- a fascinating series which briefly appeared on CD. It continued with the The Original Singles Collection (1990), padded to 3-CD with the original demos that were turned into posthumous singles. That's still my favorite compilation, perhaps because it skips over the less consistent Luke the Drifter recordings -- Beyond the Sunset (2001) collects those in one place, where their deadly prudishness matches their inadvertent comedy. The other choice comp is The Ultimate Collection (2002), a well-programmed 2-CD set that dependably hits the high points, although it slips in a couple of live versions where studio takes would have been better. Still, Mercury couldn't bear to take "ultimate" at its word. So here's another deal: 3-CD -- at 20 songs per disc, not exactly packed -- organized thematically. The obvious problem is that Williams didn't have three themes. He only had one theme: that he was the most miserable sonuvabitch who ever walked the earth. He wasn't really, but no one ever worked that theme more convincingly. So they split hairs, organizing two discs as "Honky Tonkin'" and "Cold, Cold Heart" -- the perverse effect is that the former concentrates his misogyny to a toxic degree. The third theme is "I Saw the Light" -- presumably his redemption in Christ, but that's like expecting "Honky Tonkin'" to be his party-happy side. Like most country stars, Williams sang about God every now and then -- half or more of this side was scraped off his shows -- but if you listen these songs they're pretty dreary if not downright gory -- "A Tramp on the Street," "Angel of Death," and the most chilling song he ever recorded, "Alone and Forsaken." This is, of course, amazing music. It's just not very useful packaging. B+

In Series

Christmas records, to use the politically incorrect term, are the main seasonal items on most record company schedules, but Valentine's day attracts at least some of the majors. Sony/BMG has been issuing their Love Songs series since 1999, starting with obvious choices like Billie Holiday and seven years later getting to the crop below. Verve has a similar For Lovers series, also starting with Holiday. I'm sure there are other series, but I haven't sought them out, and I'm rather suspicious of the concept: are they looking for romance, or realism, or just something suitable as make out music? And how would such a prism focus an artist's work? I've noticed that any such concept fits uncomfortably on some, like Willie Nelson and Nina Simone. But then my idea of a great love song is the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog"; yours is likely to be different.

  • Regina Belle: Love Songs (1989-95 [2006], Columbia/Legacy): An old fashioned soul singer, with the usual church roots and big voice, but she doesn't have much of a groove, and her duets -- Johnny Mathis, Peabo Bryson, Barry White, J.T. Taylor -- are a little scattered. B-
  • Miles Davis: Love Songs (1957-64 [1999], Columbia/Legacy): One of the first items in this series, a rather predictable collection of early Miles ballads, with two restrained Gil Evans big band arrangements and various quintets; although saxophonists are present, the focus is squarely on Miles' trumpet, which has rarely sounded dryer. B+
  • John Denver: Love Songs (1969-95 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Sweet voiced, soft brained, club footed folksinger, slips in a couple of hooks and some warm sentiments, but if the strings don't spoil the mood, that's probably because you weren't listening in the first place. C-
  • Heart: Love Songs (1977-2005 [2006], Epic/Legacy): Love songs are stock fodder for rock groups, but until now Sony's Valentine's Day series focused on r&b, country, jazz, crooners, and Ray Conniff, with Toto the exception that proves the rule; one possible reason for this breakthrough is that a hard rock group led by women is still a soft touch; another is that, like Toto, they're not much good; the songlist is greatest hits (skewed toward the slow ones), many redone live to emphasize the emptiness of their arena sound. C+
  • Phyllis Hyman: Love Songs (1978-91 [2006], Arista/Legacy): The early cuts are straight disco, while the later ones gravitate towards quiet storm; the latter are less annoying -- the producers are better, and the schlock penalty is less. C
  • Etta James: Love Songs (1960-2001 [2006], RCA/Legacy): Aside from one Chess cut, this starts in 1994 with her Billie Holiday tribute, compiling her jazz standards plus a couple of Otis Redding ballads; she doesn't have the fine touch that distinguishes most great jazz singers, but songs like "Body and Soul" and "The Man I Love" are as solid as she needs, and Red Holloway provides major support. B+
  • Dolly Parton: Love Songs (1974-85 [2006], RCA/Legacy): This concentrates on her oft-maligned -- not least by me -- pop period, where there are more strings than guitar, two Kenny Rogers duets to one Porter Wagoner, and only 5 of 14 songs are her own; nonetheless, it does well by the period, if only because the vein it taps is a fat one. B+
  • New York for Lovers (1953-95 [2005], Verve): The things you can do with a back catalog, like marketing ballad compilations as Valentines, and wrapping up a great city with the occasional mention of its place names; not that "Chelsea Bridge" is in New York, but the city has a Chelsea neighborhood and several bridges, and the only thing this series has proved so far is you can't go wrong with Ben Webster. B
  • Paris for Lovers (1950-92 [2005], Verve): Titles either mention Paris or are in French; extra points for vocals (8 of 11), especially in French (6); even more points if song is dead-ass slow (11 of 11); doesn't matter if song is actually about breaking up, since it's in French anyway, and who groks that? B-

Briefly Noted

  • Afro-Celt Sound System: Anatomic (2005, RealWorld): This group always seemed like a bad idea, but I can't quarrel with grooves as powerful as "Mojave," even if the fiddle seems somewhat out of place; the best results here are neither Afro not Celt, but transglobal. B+
  • The Omer Avital Group: Asking No Permission (1996 [2006], Smalls): The first of several archival projects featuring a mainstay of New York's Smalls after-hours club, Israeli bassist Omer Avital, with a group of four young saxophonists working out their bebop moves. B+
  • Kenny Barron Trio: The Perfect Set: Live at Bradley's II (1996 [2005], Sunnyside): With Ray Drummond and Ben Riley, as perfect a modern jazz piano trio as you can find; as befits Riley, this closes with two Monk tunes, and one of Barron's originals is decidedly Monkish as well; just what you'd expect, ergo my faint complaint: no surprises. B+
  • Johnny Cash: The Legend of Johnny Cash (1955-2003 [2005], Island): Numbers for accountants: 21 songs, 7 from Sun (1956-58), 7 from Columbia (1963-85), 1 from U2 on Island (1993), 6 from American for Rick Rubin (1994-2003); as an overview, the split is skewed, but the three-decade Columbia period has several good samplers, and the two ends are worth exploring in detail; so this is unnecessary, useful only to open the eyes of the totally benighted. A-
  • Bobby Darin: Live From Las Vegas (1963 [2005], Capitol): Three things stand out: he disposes of his Atlantic hits, excepting "Mack the Knife," in a 2:53 medley -- standard practice, but rarely so perfunctory; he murders Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" for cheap laughs; finally he spends 9:32 on his Hollywood impersonations backed by "One for My Baby" -- Bogart and Cagney were staples of every two-bit comic, but now they're just dated clichés. B
  • Dead Can Dance: Momento (1985-96 [2005], Rhino): As far as I can tell, this Australian group roots its dreary chamber music in mediaeval and/or renaissance Euroclassics, leaning toward the high church end of the spectrum; like its roots, it's best when it has a beat, which happens rarely, and worst when the high priest incants. C-
  • A Dream Come True: The Best of Trudy Desmond (1988-98 [2005], Just a Memory): A cabaret singer with a sharp taste in repertoire, a clear voice, and a light touch; her take on standards was always respectful but grew more adventurous over time, with a sparse "I Got Rhythm" a highlight here; she died young in 1999, and this compresses four well-regarded albums into a useful career summary. B+
  • Kenny Drew Trio (1956 [2005], Riverside): Bright, sharply etched bebop piano trio with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, buoyed with standards that always stand out, notably "Caravan," "Taking a Chance on Love," "It's Only a Paper Moon." B+
  • Booker Ervin: Tex Book Tenor (1968 [2005], Blue Note): I think this was Ervin's last album before he died at 39 of kidney failure; in any case, it sums him up nicely, the big Texas tone in the middle of a barnburning hard bop quintet, joined by two youngsters -- under 25 at the time -- who demand and deserve attention: Woody Shaw and Kenny Barron. B+
  • Bill Evans Trio: At Shelly's Manne Hole (1963 [2005], Riverside): The end of Evans' run at Riverside, with Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker balancing out the trio; understated but clever how they inch around standards as well worn as "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and "'Round Midnight" without getting predictable. B+
  • Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It? (1968-77 [2005], Stax, 2CD): The hot buttered soulman reminds me that hot buttered rum topped a list of things that sound better than they taste; Hayes had an imposing physical presence, but his preferred spread was proto-disco, and his gravelly rapping only paved the way for the more convincing Barry White; graded leniently for historical value, his skill behind the nobs, and "Shaft." B
  • The Frank Hewitt Quintet: Four Hundred Saturdays (1999 [2005], Smalls): An unsung pianist, long a fixture at New York's Smalls after hours joint, inspired Luke Kaven to found a record label, then died before his first record was released; this is one of hundreds of sets Hewitt played at Smalls, with his trio augmented by saxophonists Chris Byars and Mike Mullins; fine latterday bebop, long solos, plenty of atmosphere. B+
  • High Rollers! From Las Vegas ([2005], Capitol): Spare parts in this series, including two songs each by three Vegas standbys without standalone comps: Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole; all singers are backed by smashing big bands, plus Nelson Riddle and Billy May get their own features; no real surprises, but would be nice to hear more from Lee. B+
  • David Holland/Barre Phillips: Music From Two Basses (1971 [2005], ECM): Just what the title says, with two of the great masters of the postbop era plucking and plying a versatile but difficult instrument. B+
  • Jefferson Starship: Octopus (1975 [2005], RCA/Legacy): The escalation from Airplane to Starship was little more than rhetorical fiat -- the acid-folkie roots still show through, but they had a hit single, which means that in the bonus tracks era you get to hear it twice; the most miraculous thing about "Miracles" is that it makes "white soul" seem like something to aspire to, rather than a skin defect. B
  • Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against the Empire (1970 [2005], RCA/Legacy): "Young people hijack a starship and establish a brave new world in some distant galaxy, light-years away from the earthbound reality of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War" -- escapist jingoism re-released for George Bush and his Iraq War, where it's likely to prove even less effective. C-
  • Steve Kuhn: Trance (1974 [2005], ECM): Kuhn's electric piano on top of Steve Swallow's electric bass gives us several delightful exercises in light and sprightly rhythm; on the other hand, Kuhn's acoustic piano is more complex, labored, and conventional, at least in the sense that thoughtful, probing experimentation was avant-jazz's conventional mode. B+
  • The Last Poets: When the Revolution Comes (1970-71 [2005], Rev-Ola): In retrospect, the first rappers; the beats made the old fashioned way, on congas; the lyrics rants typified by "White Man's Got a God Complex" and "Niggers Are Scared of Revolution"; dated by the certainty that when they say "black man" they mean "black males"; this concatenates their first two albums, wearing at this length, but this is essential history. B+
  • Hank Mobley: Reach Out! (1968 [2005], Blue Note): Woody Shaw complements Mobley nicely, especially on the typical blues fare, but the instrumentals of the hits du jour -- title anthem from the Four Tops and the infectious "Goin' Out of My Head" -- are mere echoes, despite George Benson's slinky guitar. B
  • Wayne Newton: Mr. Las Vegas (1963-67 [2005], Capitol): Aside from his signature hit "Danke Schoen," every song here on this thinly disguised best-of has been done better by someone else -- someone with a name like Sinatra, Cole, Darin, Martin, Bennett, Armstrong; the surprise is how good these second-tier performances sound; at first it seemed like he came too late to cash in as a big band crooner, but he got in on Las Vegas early enough to make a fortune, and never left. B+
  • Luis Mario Ochoa & Friends: Cimarrón (2005, Cuban Music Productions): Cuban guitarist stretches out with a jazz/pop band rich in brass and percussion; sings some too. B+
  • Les Paul With Mary Ford: The Best of the Capitol Masters: 90th Birthday Edition (1948-57 [2005], Capitol): Judging from his 1944 Jazz at the Philharmonic performance, he could have become a major jazz guitarist, but he broke through as a novelty artist instead, playing mad scientist against the light, sweet voice of his straight lady. A-
  • Sonny Rollins: The Essential Sonny Rollins: The RCA Years (1962-64 [2005], RCA/Legacy): A problematic period in Rollins' discography, a series of quickie album experiments that can raise more questions than they answer -- quartets with Jim Hall, meetings with Don Cherry and Coleman Hawkins; between the inconclusive albums and the 6-CD complete box, this strikes a balance which bypasses the big questions -- where does Rollins fit in the avant-garde? -- in favor of his timelessness. A
  • Soweto Gospel Choir: Voices From Heaven (2005, Shanachie): 32 voices, more than enough to elaborate a mixed bag of South African and American gospel themes, but such obvious fare as "Amazing Grace" and "Many Rivers to Cross" benefits little from such care. B
  • Soweto Gospel Choir: Blessed (2005, Shanachie): Better, as if they took their Ladysmith Black Mambazo comparisons to heart and did some homework; more African, which is the point; still too much English -- the more camouflage the better, I figure, but I'm always willing to make an exception for "Oh Happy Day." B+
  • Nancy Wilson: Live From Las Vegas (1968 [2005], Capitol): What a classy singer! not a compliment -- she reaches so desperately sometimes you can hear her affecting a proper English accent; after all the drama, it's curious that she closes with "Black Is Beautiful" -- is she hedging her bets? or just playing her cards? B-


In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: folk heroes (Harry Belafonte, Todd Snider, the punks from Brooklyn Towne), honky tonkers (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash), Vegas rollers (Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Bobby Darin), jazzbos (Art Pepper, Julian Priester, Ike Quebec, Sonny Rollins), and Valentine's Day treats (or tricks); many more (45 records).

Copyright © 2006 Tom Hull.