A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: May, 2007

Recycled Goods (#43)

by Tom Hull

No major labels this month, at least in the top section. No household names either, except maybe Todd Snider. But the most unexpected twist this month is the appearance of three albums from figures in the '60s folk scene(s). Folk has never been a particular interest, but Anne Briggs and Karen Dalton are the sort of previously unknown cult figures I've always wanted to discover through this column. On the other hand, Peter Stampfel is a cult figure I've followed closely for 30 years. The top section is rounded out with jazz and world, which also dominate the Briefly Noted. This has been a clean-up month there, with an accumulation of world-jazz fusion of various flavors. But you'll also find six A- records down under. They're worth looking for.

Anne Briggs: The Time Has Come (1971 [2007], Water): Something of a legend in English folk music, and one listen confirms why: her high, lonesome voice renders the cold, bitter music with crystal clarity. That she wrote most of the songs and adds musical depth with two instrumentals just shows the extent of her talent. But her career went nowhere: she quit after her third album was shelved, going unreleased for 24 years. This is her second, and it's so near-perfect it could stand as an archetype. A

Karen Dalton: In My Own Time (1971 [2006], Light in the Attic): A folkie from Oklahoma, she played 12-string and a long-necked banjo, and made her way to Greenwich Village early enough to get photographed singing and playing with a very young Bob Dylan. But she didn't get her own album until 1969, when bass player Harvey Brooks left the tape recorder running after a Fred Neil session. Brooks also produced this, her second (and last) album. Starting with songs picked to show off breadth -- George Jones, Marvin Gaye, Paul Butterfield, Richard Manuel, that old standby Trad. -- Brooks took the tapes to the studio and dubbed them till only her extremely distinct voice held them together. She's a taste I haven't acquired yet, but two old songs with banjo evoke Appalachian hell as effectively as Blind Alfred Reed. Don't know whether that was an act or not, but she died homeless, and I'd have to say she earned her cult. B+

The Microscopic Septet: Seven Men in Neckties: History of the Micros Volume One (1982-90 [2006], Cuneiform, 2CD): Long before Sex Mob, this was the sound of New York's avant-garde yearning to be popular. The Micros matched a sax quartet led by Philip Johnston on alto and soprano with a rhythm section led by pianist Joel Forrester. Both leaders were clever, writing a little and appropriating a lot. Johnston trod on after the Micros' demise with groups like Big Trouble, the Transparent Quartet, and Fast 'N' Bulbous, while making ends meet by hacking film scores. The Penguin Guide sums him up aptly: "the perfect Tzadik artist: intellectual, playful, perverse and generically undefinable." That could also describe Tzadik honcho John Zorn, but Francis Davis adds that Johnston's is "a kinder, gentler postmodernism." Unfortunately, the abundant good humor lacks a killer punch line. B+

The Microscopic Septet: Surrealistic Swing: History of the Micros Volume Two (1981-90 [2006], Cuneiform, 2CD): Comparisons to the Lounge Lizards were inevitable, but Philip Johnston points out: "When the Lounge Lizards wore suits and ties they looked cool and hip and aloof; when the Micros wore suits and ties, we looked like a bunch of unemployed vacuum cleaner salesmen." Volume One's Seven Men in Neckties title reflects the disheveled eclecticism of their first two albums. Volume Two's title, referring to the music rather than the musicians, suggests that they found themselves, and indeed they finally hit their stride in 1986's Off Beat Glory. Postmodernism can mean distance from the past, as with the Lounge Lizards, or it can take a playfully perverse turn by diving back into a past shorn of its historical bindings and context. Still, their limits are literal: you can conjure up a pretty good idea of what surrealistic swing might sound like even before you play this fine example. B+

Papa Noel: Café Noir (2007, Tumi): One thing that made Cuba different from most New World slave colonies was the extent to which blacks were able to retain their original African cultures, including their religions. One consequence is that there is not one Afro-Cuban music but many -- Yoruba, Congo, Likembe, and others. Another is the ease with which Cuban inventions have flowed back to Mother Africa. A case in point is the Cuban invention of the rumba, which became a large part of Congolese music in the 1950s, eventually mutating into soukous. And so it goes: here we find Congolese guitarist Papa Noel playing with a mostly Cuban group and Camerounian saxophonist Manu Dibango, retracing and celebrating their common roots. A-

Todd Snider: Peace, Love and Anarchy (Rarities, B-Sides and Demos, Vol. I) (2000-04 [2007], Oh Boy): He's made a career out of coming from the wrong side of the tracks, or to follow his geography lessons, the wrong side of the river. He's not down and out, but he's far enough out to consort with those who are down, and he's comfortable with their world even if sometimes they rattle his nerves. He doesn't look like he's itching for success, but he's achieved some anyway: since 1994 he has three albums plus a best-of for MCA; four on Oh Boy, counting the live Near Truths and Hotel Rooms -- a good place to start, as it stitches the first five albums together with monologues that add to the songs; and 2006's record of the year, The Devil You Know, on New Door. That's success enough to set his old label off scrounging for scraps, which is what we're served here. The majority are solo demos, only two of which led to album cuts -- not counting "East Nashville Skyline," which turned into an album title. Others are cut with a band, probably album outtakes -- "Old Friends" sounds like the seed for "You Got Away With It" without the ominous overtones. No documentation, no dates, no stories, so I'm only guessing. Most likely "Barbie Doll" and "Combover Blues" were skipped as too obvious, but that makes them pop out here. The other songs are more nuanced, and that makes them stick. I still wonder about more volumes -- there's gotta be gunk at the bottom of the barrel, but they haven't hit it yet. A-

Peter Stampfel: Antonia's 11 (1975-2006 [2006], Blue Navigator): Robert Christgau took me to see Stampfel twice, and both times made a scene ordering up "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown." So I first heard the song around 1978, but it's never been on an album before -- a streak that continues, given that this 11-song tribute is technically no more than a free bonus packaged with issue #9 of Michael Hurley's Blue Navigator magazine. Stampfel led the Holy Modal Rounders out of the '60s folk scene and into the farthest reaches of "Hoodoo Bash" -- the climax of Hurley's Have Moicy!, another song by their mysterious muse, Antonia. Half the book is devoted to her: discography, interview, a memoir by Stampfel, excerpts from Antonia's Digest, photos. The disc is limited to previously unrecorded songs, which tend to be sweet ("Chinatown" included) rather than raunchy, but "Cajun Polka" kicks up its heels. A full-scale all-star tribute album might be a good idea, but having heard Stampfel it's hard to imagine anyone else. A-

Tinariwen: Aman Iman: Water Is Life (2006 [2007], World Village): Tuaregs from the desert of northeast Mali, where the lesson that life depends on water is painfully obvious. Their influences -- from the Sahel to the south, Arabs to the north, American rock from what must seem like outer space -- come from far away and resonate faintly in the vastness of their desolate space. Still, those roots are as imagined as real: they've moved on, out into a world where their music is recognized as universal. A-

Frank Wright: Unity (1974 [2006], ESP-Disk): If it weren't for ESP-Disk's "the artist alone decides what you hear" motto Wright might have passed in total obscurity. Who else would have approved the music he released on two ESP records from 1965-67? He was as rough a tenor saxophonist as the avant-garde produced in the '60s, closer in spirit to the future Charles Gayle than to his contemporary Albert Ayler. Since then an occasional live tape pops up, like Raphe Malik's Last Set (1984 [2004], Boxholder), and now this barnburner from the Moers Festival. The drummer dances and stings like his namesake, Muhammad Ali. Bobby Few's piano and Alan Silva's bass are cranked into overdrive, and Wright really brings the noise. Impulse used to call shit like this by guys like Shepp and Sanders "energy music," but even they would have reached for the plug before this finishes. A-

Briefly Noted

Mario Adnet: Jobim Jazz (2006 [2007], Adventure Music): For the 80th anniversary of Brazil's greatest composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the young guitarist proves himself to be an intriguing big band arranger, a master of small details that bring out the tastes of a subtle but sumptuous feast. B+

Nacho Arimany World-Flamenco Septet: Silence-Light (2006, Fresh Sound World Jazz): Flamenco down to the dance steps, hand claps, and cantaor Antonio Campos' high-pressure vocals -- beyond which this edges into some interesting jazz, with Arimany's percussion, Lionel Loueke's guitar, Pablo Suárez's piano, above all Javier Vercher's snakey sax. B+

Nanny Assis: Double Rainbow (2006, Blue Toucan): A young Brazilian percussionist, from Bahia actually, sings sweetly and sways gently on his nation's heritage from Jorge Ben samba to Carlhinos Brown hip-hop, while sending one from rapper Seal back to the tropics. B

Omer Avital Group: Room to Grow (1997 [2007], Smalls): The second volume of archival tapes from the Israeli bassist's long residence at Smalls, a legendary NYC afterhours club, where he held a long residence riding herd over a bunch of tough young saxophonists: Greg Tardy, Grant Stewart, Charles Owens, Myron Walden, names worth looking out for. B+

Ray Charles/The Count Basie Orchestra: Ray Sings, Basie Swings (2006, Concord/Hear Music): An inspired piece of fraud, constructed from a late-'70s live tape with great vocals on great (old) and lousy (new) songs with new instrumentals from the Basie ghost band, its trademarked brashness preserved in amber 22 years after the Count's death; in defense, it could have happened, and should have happened, and had it happened it probably wouldn't have come off so well. B+

Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie: Stratus (1981 [2006], Inak): Fusion group, with electric keyboards, bass and guitar; Mike Stern plays the latter, but the tone that really dominates is Michal Urbaniak's violin -- electric too, natch. B

DJ Quik: Born and Raised in Compton: The Greatest Hits (1991-2000 [2006], Arista/Profile/Legacy): From Compton indeed, about the only thing credible with this two-bit west coast gangsta, or as he progresses, "ganxta"; can't hold his liquor, can't handle a piece, let alone a bitch, scared shitless of San Antonio, but he made enough off his aural candy to upgrade his samples. B

Edition Pierre Verger: Africa: From Dakar to Johannesburg ([2006], Playa Sound): Verger travelled the world from 1932-46, taking photographs and notes, eventually settling in Brazil and establishing a Foundation to manage his collections; no dates on this traditional folk music -- kora from Mali, drums from Burundi, chorals from South Africa, miscellany from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Congo -- but the 1990s seem probable, and why isn't exactly clear. B

Edition Pierre Verger: Japan: From Kyoto to Tokyo ([2006], Playa Sound): Shakuhachi, koto, shamisen -- the instruments of traditional Japanese folk music take precedence here over whoever it is who plays them, whenever they were recorded, whatever this has to do with the itinerant French photographer who at least, presumably, snapped the cover picture. B

The Essential Gloria Estefan (1984-2003 [2006], Epic/Legacy): The daughter of one of Fulgencio Batista's bodyguards, she was born in Havana but grew up in Miami, appearing with Miami Sound Machine before her spiced up disco breakthrough, Let It Loose; this collects the quasi-Cuban pop on the useful first disc, relegating her Adult Contemporary career to the relatively useless second. B

Explorations: Classic Picante Regrooved, Vol. 1 (2006, Concord Picante): Better than the usual back catalog remix project, probably because most of the originals are so awash in beats they hardly need remixing, but given Picante's over-the-hill gang, maybe we should hand it to the A-list remixers, who sure now how to juice up the clave. B+

Funky Organ: B3 Jazz Grooves (1997-2006 [2007], High Note): Hammond's organ was funkier in the '50s and '60s when the soul jazz connection to r&b was fresh and the electronics were dirtier, but the label doesn't own anything of that vintage, so they make do with what they got: Charles Earland's last gasps, Reuben Wilson past his expiry date, two generations of DeFrancescos, come-latelies like Bill Heid and Mike LeDonne. B

Bebel Gilberto: Momento (2007, Ziriguiboom/Six Degrees): Bossa nova royalty, daughter of Joăo but not Astrud -- mother is another singer, Miúcha, sister of Chico Buarque; where her first album looked forward with electrobeats, this one feels old fashioned, especially on the delicately fractured "Night and Day." B+

Gipsy Kings: Pasajero (2007, Nonesuch): A Spanish flamenco group from France, not really gypsies either, just world travelers likely to toss whatever they find into the pot; the doc describes their guitar and vocals as rumba flamenca, but it reminds me more of cajun minus the dissonance, which works as long as they keep it upbeat and exotic. B+

Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal (1968-81 [2006], The Numero Group): Actually, these 18 obscure gospel artists/songs are closer to Motown than to James Brown, but one thing they do have in common is loud drummers; they're also more into praise than damnation, and more focused on this world than the next, with Trevor Dandy's "Is There Any Love" a good question. B+

Juliette Greco: Le Temps D'Une Chanson (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): French actress, doesn't sing so much as talk her way through songs with genuine dramatic flair; born 1927, associated with Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Vian, Miles Davis; backed here by orchestra and guests -- Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano the best known, accordionist Gil Goldstein the most effective; non-French songs I know, like "Volare," seem hokey, but fare like "Les mains d'or" make an impression. B

Matthew Herbert: Score (1997-2006 [2007], !K7): Soundtracks, ranging from string-driven chamber music to a big band "Singing in the Rain" plus plenty of the usual ambient filler, expertly done, but scrambled without the visual clues. B

Best of Chris Isaak (1998-2006 [2007], Wicked Game/Reprise): He sounded good at first, a guy who played rockabilly with a pop-modernist shine, a bit like Marshall Crenshaw but not that good; also not that smart, as proven by the Roy Orbison cover, and the fact that after two decades he doesn't have a song to call his own. B-

Jazz After Midnight (1998-2006 [2007], High Note): Recycling at its crassest, an arbitrary selection of recent label catalogue ballads marketed to approximate a mood; bookends by Houston Person and Fathead Newman are worthwhile, but two decidedly unfunky organ pieces kill the mood, as does James Spaulding's flute. B-

KCP 5: Many Ways (2005 [2007], Challenge): KCP stands for Karnataka College of Percussion, a trio from Bangalore led by R.A. Ramamani, whose traditional vocals are hurried along by the rhythm; 5 notes the addition of two westerners: pianist Mike Herting, who comps ably, and 82-year-old Charlie Mariano, whose alto sax is positively angelic. B+

Ben Bowen King: Sidewalk Saints: Roots Gospel Guitar (2007, Talking Taco Music): An antidote to the dumbing down of gospel: instrumentals, featuring old songs in old style, plucked out on a metal guitar built for resonant volume; citing Blind Willie Johnson and Dock Boggs as influences, crediting "Amazing Grace" to Fred McDowell and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" to Pops Staples, helped out by Covita Moroney on percussion and the occasional moan. B+

Sofia Koutsovitis: Ojalá (2005, CD Baby): A jazz singer from Argentina working in New York with an admiring group, she surveys the whole hemisphere and adds a few new songs herself, including one with a Jorge Luis Borges text and a deliciously bent piece of broken Latin jazz called "Silence 2"; the one English-language standard is the surest shot, but the learning curve isn't steep. B+

Lura: M'bem di Fora (2006 [2007], Times Square): A young singer from Cape Verde, sounds Brazilian and not just because a giveaway "Choro" but with more weight to her voice and more meat on her bones -- but the same is even more true of Césaria Évora, who paved the way. B+

Mariza: Concerto em Lisboa (2006 [2007], Times Square): Much like tango, Portugal's fado straddles low origins and high ambitions; Mozambique-born, short blond haired Mariza moves to the front ranks of Lisbon's fado singers with this huge concert, her dramatic voice backed by guitars and the strings of the Sonfonietta de Lisboa; includes DVD of Mariza and the Story of Fado. B

Tim McGraw: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1994-2006, Curb): His stardom appears to be based on name recognition and sex appeal, including that of wife Faith Hill, who is even less talented; he at least isn't a complete embarrassment, just a case study in how far country has moved into suburbia. C+

Life of the Infamous: The Best of Mobb Deep (1993-2004 [2006], Loud/Legacy): New York duo, dba Prodigy and Havoc, they got the tedious beats and slack thugism of gangsta down pat; I'd likely have more cavils if I were quicker to pick up on their rhymes. B

New Ghost: Live Upstairs at Nick's (1998 [2006], ESP-Disk): Old tape rescued from one-shot Albert Ayler group, led by Philly saxophonist Elliott Levin; in addition to the expected haunting and squawking, they sing like Beefheart, and dedicate one to Frankie Lymon, a bit surprised that anyone in the audience knows who they're talking about. B+

Lee Scratch Perry: Panic in Babylon (2004 [2006], Narnack): Misunderstanding "Perry's Ballad" as "salad" if anything adds to the effect: he makes songs out of chopped elaborations on phrase concepts, dressing them up with tangy, dubwise echo -- not that he can't take it to Bush et al. when he tries; bonus disc has three remixes, echo raised to a higher power. A-

The Very Best of Peter Paul and Mary (1962-2003 [2005], Warner Brothers/Rhino): A folk group that had a good run in 1962-63 capped by "Puff the Magic Dragon" before you realized that every song you've heard someone else sing you've heard someone else sing better -- Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, even John Denver and Gordon Lightfoot. C+

Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Milt Jackson: What's Up? The Very Tall Band (1998 [2007], Telarc): Leftovers from a three-day stand at the Blue Note that yielded a fine album at the time; nothing special, but it's great to hear Bags one more time, especially in company that accentuates his effervescent swing. B+

Michel Petrucciani: So What: Best Of (1994-99 [2004], Dreyfus): An amazing jazz pianist, even if you have no idea of the physical handicaps he made light of; the solo cuts don't seem lacking, the string quartet hardly gets in the way, the duos with Eddy Louiss on organ double up nicely, the small groups swing like crazy, especially with Stéphane Grappelli. A-

John Pisano's Guitar Night (1997-2006, Mel Bay, 2CD): A little-known guitarist who worked with Chico Hamilton in the '50s and Joe Pass until the latter's death in 1994, Pisano has hosted Guitar Night at various clubs in southern CA since 1997, spotlighting a dozen guest guitarists in this decade-long highlight reel -- a delight for anyone into the intricate inner workings of postbop jazz guitar. B+

Juan Carlos Quintero: Las Cumbias . . . Las Guitarras (1997-2006 [2006], Inner Knot): Colombian guitarist, frames his nation's traditional dance music with the lilt of accordion, the background that sets off his eloquent guitar; selected from a decade's work, with no vocals, no pop moves, no shots at shaking the rafters -- just a slightly folkie groove that never lets up. B+

The Essential Charlie Rich (1959-91 [2007], Epic/Legacy): An Arkansas-bred white soul singer, slotted country because he broke in with Sam Phillips and hit it big in a Nashville deracinated by countrypolitan; his early work shows he knows his blues, gospel, rockabilly and jazz, which he eventually forged into a modestly unassuming pop vein -- I'm reminded of Randy Newman, who unlike Rich made it seem synthesized by playing it for laughs. A-

The Rough Guide to Merengue & Bachata (1994-2001 [2001], World Music Network): A sharp-eared, poorly documented tour of Dominican dance music, missing all the big names but exceptionally well programmed, with the tight, plucky guitar of countryish bachata taking charge. A-

The Rough Guide to Merengue (1992-2005 [2006], World Music Network): A second helping, more modern sounding if not necessarily newer, following the Dominican Republic's signature dance music into the diaspora, with Puerto Ricans spiking salsa, Colombians mixing cumbia; as usual, good ears and sloppy documentation, but at least the new layout makes it readable. A-

Henri Salvador: Révérence (2007, Circular Moves): Born 1917 in French Guiana, still alive and active, no recording dates, but presumably this is recent: French chanson so natural, so lithe, so effortlessly swinging you have to wonder what's up; for one thing Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil make appearances, and there are jazz cats mixed in with the frogs. A-

Yma Sumac: Recital (1961 [2006], ESP-Disk): The Incan diva, famed for her crystalline voice, was an exotic novelty in the '50s, but here takes her folklore on the road, recording this in Bucharest with an orchestra that frequently mistakes her for an opera star. B-

Tammen Harth Rosen Dahlgren: Expedition (2001 [2006], ESP-Disk): Basic avant noisefest with two Germans -- guitarist Hans Tammen and saxophonist Alfred Harth -- live at the Knitting Factory with local bass-drums, posing questions like why torture an endangered guitar, and why is Harth's middle name 23? B+


In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: folk's obscure legends (Anne Briggs, Karen Dalton), unsung heroes (Peter Stampfel, Todd Snider) and goats (Peter Paul & Mary); Africans from lush (Papa Noel) and dry (Tinariwen) lands; jazz obscurities funky (Microscopic Septet) and free (Frank Wright); and much more (48 records).


Copyright © 2007 Tom Hull.