A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: June, 2007

Recycled Goods (#44)

by Tom Hull

I have several theories about the 1960s. One is that the generation gap between those who came of age in the mid-'60s and their parents was the most extreme ever. The parents grew up in the scarcity of the Great Depression and endured the hardships and horrors of World War. The children grew up in America's postwar boom and moral triumphalism. The children took their freedom seriously and their wealth for granted. No one was ever more convinced that war, inequity, and poverty were solveable problems, which hid behind the older generation's hypocrisy. Over the course of the decade, the gap turned to tension and finally to revolution. The latter appeared to fail, at least in the political sense, but led to profound cultural changes. The old regime creaked but held onto power, in government and especially in the corporate world. One proof of this revolution is how obsessive the political right still is with discrediting the '60s. I bring this up because the artist clusters below (Leonard Cohen, Sly and the Family Stone) were not just idiosyncratic geniuses -- they fit and formed their times.

James Brown: The Singles, Volume Two: 1960-1963 (1958-63 [2007], Hip-O Select, 2CD): Brown first single in 1956, "Please, Please, Please," hit #6 on the R&B charts, but he struggled after that, with only two more top-ten singles in the '50s, and five -- if anything, less memorable -- more for the period covered here. His breakthrough came in 1965 with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, "I Got You (I Feel Good)," and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," but Live at the Apollo, recorded in 1962, confirms that he was already a showman of the highest order. Before he got that new bag, his repertoire was so spotty that half of these songs could have been Isley Brothers rejects, but he brings such fervor to them that most work anyway -- "Baby, You're Right" shows what he can do. Completism in the service of genius. A-

Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): Older than Elvis Presley, Cohen was established as a poet and novelist before he moved from Canada to the US and a second career as a singer-songwriter. The formality of his task is indicated by the fact that his first three albums had "Songs" in the title. A stiff, remote singer, his voice over spare backing conveyed bleak ennui, which made the frank intimacy of his words all the more shocking. Two decades later those traits had become so exaggerated and hardened that I'm Your Man and The Future became his most compelling albums. But his first album rates with them, mostly due to its gemlike songcraft. A

Funkadelic: By Way of the Drum (1989 [2007], Hip-O Select): George Clinton juggled two great funk bands and many clever side projects in the 1970s before the business mess brought them all crashing down. In 1982 he resorted to doing business under his own name, releasing four good but declining albums on Capitol. He then took a shot at regrouping Funkadelic for MCA, but no album issued, and he wound up dropping a couple of records for Prince's label. This is the first release of the aborted MCA album, with four extra bonus versions of the title track -- by far the hardest rhythm track here, straight or dub or rapped up in fishy vocal samples. The rest is the sort of thing Clinton produces when he's scratching his ass: surefire beats and self-referential jokes, complete with a cover -- Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" -- slinking from absurd to sublime. B+

John Lee Hooker: The Best of Friends (1987-98 [2007], Shout! Factory): Geoffrey Stokes, a marvelous rock critic and sometime folksinger, had a story relevant here. Stokes was sitting at a bar in the Village. Hooker enters, walks up to him, and starts some rap about how he's heard much about the guy and would love to play with him sometime. Stokes is duly flattered, but Hooker realizes his mistake, walks further down the bar, and lays the same rap on a better known folksinger: Bob Dylan. Much later in his career, Hooker's solicitations paid off, delivering a boost for the series of Pointblank albums anthologized here. Hooker's primitivism is surprisingly hard, even on remakes of tough standards. And the friends do help. I might be tempted to dismiss Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, and Los Lobos as easy scores, but in my book Van Morrison is even bigger game than Dylan. A-

Jefferson Airplane: Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Live at the Fillmore East 1969 (1969 [2007], RCA/Legacy): Most '60s hard rock groups sound like dinosaurs these days -- big, awkward, clumsy, a sound that is loud but hollowed out with cavernous echo. Still, few groups sound more primally Jurassic than Jefferson Airplane, with their grinding guitars and the crude assault of the vocals. Live records from the era were invariably miserably recorded, and the musicians were rarely up to any space for improvisation. Still, this document frames them no worse than The Worst of Jefferson Airplane -- same songs, but where the de facto best-of is wrapped in studio grunge, here they thrash about in the wild. B+

Chris Knight: The Trailer Tapes (1996 [2007], Drifter's Church): A country boy from a mining town in eastern Kentucky -- a smart one, with an agriculture degree, a literary knack for turning out economical phrases, and a grasp of music that started with John Prine and Steve Earle then got simpler and tighter. Also an angry one, a bitter one, a stubborn one. His characters are others, but unlike Todd Snider, say, he refuses to judge them, insisting that even they differ from him in no way he considers significant. These demo recordings aren't juvenilia. He wrote his first songs ten years prior, and these are as sharp and hard as nails. Three showed up on his first two albums, but are more intense here, without the Nashville bands smoothing out the rough edges. Others worth seeking out: "Leaving Souvenirs" a broken relationship and a rusted out car; "Rita's Only Fault" was a husband she had to kill; "My Only Prayer" a return to Kentucky. A-

Nils Petter Molvaer: ER (2005 [2006], Thirst Ear): The Norwegian jazztronica trumpeter has made remarkable progress in less than a decade, moving from simple trumpet over machine beats on the striking Khmer (1997-98, ECM) to this complex multiprogrammed tour de force. Molvaer matches Miles Davis's fusion breakthrough it two key respects: he focuses on the getting the rhythm tight, letting it carry the album, and his trumpet adds a bare minimum of human voice without detracting from the machines. Along the way, he finds new opportunities, including chill out and a striking Sidsel Endresen vocal. Originally released by Universal as Europe-only, Thirsty Ear picked this and Live: Streamer up for US release, then previewed them with bits from the still hard to find NP3 and some remix bait as An American Compilation. Regardless of the redundancies, each disc is remarkable, but this one is where the others were heading. A

Oojami: Boom Shinga Ling (2006, CIA): The label is an acronym for Copeland International Arts. Copeland is Miles III, brother of Police drummer Stewart, and son of Miles Jr., who introduced the Copeland brothers to Arabic during his tours of the Middle East working for a more notorious CIA: his resume includes the Iran coup that unleashed the Shah and contacts in Iraq with a then-unknown Saddam Hussein. After retiring, Miles Jr. came out with an article promoting his former boss's political prospects: the title was "Spooks for Bush." Miles III picked up a degree in economics at American University of Beirut, then moved to England and into the music industry. His first label was IRS Records. The new label is long on techno-spiked bellydance beats, with Hakim his most dependable star (the "Elvis Presley of Egypt" hype isn't far off base). Oojami is a London melting pot group -- they claim 8 different cultural backgrounds, but don't elaborate -- led by Turkish expat Necmi Cavli. Previous albums were predictably named Bellydancing Breakbeats and Urban Dervish. Haven't heard them, but this one keeps the flavors dancing without ever settling into a stale aftertaste. The raps aren't deep, but the beats keep coming, and that's what keeps the world spinning. B+

Zoot Sims: Zoot Suite (1973 [2007], High Note): Grew up in a vaudeville family, picked up the tenor sax, and made a name for himself with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, emerging as one of the latter's legendary "four brothers" sax section. On his own, his discography splits into two chunks: he recorded a lot in the late '50s, with 1956 a bellweather year (cf. Zoot! and That Old Feeling), but he faded in the '60s, with nothing between 1966-72. Norman Granz brought him back in 1975 for Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers, where his distinct tone and innate sense of swing reinvigorated the whole songbook, and kicked off a marvelous run until he succumbed to cancer a decade later. This poorly recorded archival tape leads into the latter period, one of the few great second acts in jazz history. The quartet with pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Mousey Alexander is in gear. The songbook looks back to Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Sims' main influence, Lester Young. Sims even unveils his soprano sax "Rocking in Rhythm." Not exactly history being made; more like one of those faint tremors the significance of which emerges later. B+

In Series

For a brief moment in the late '60s, it seemed like a couple of black musicians had transcended race. Both came from liberal enclaves in the relatively unsegregated west coast. Jimi Hendrix was one; Sly Stone was the other. Hendrix was less interesting, at least as a sociocultural phenomenon, if only because what he did was so individual as to be racially transparent. Stone, on the other hand, was part of a commune, his Family, interracial, like the nation, or at least an idealized one rooted in hippie San Francisco. Hendrix also died before Nixon's reactionary Silent Majority settled in, casting a pall over the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Stone lasted a bit longer, giving his career a downward slope as well as an upward one.

Sly & the Family Stone recorded seven albums for Epic, 1967-74, and those have now been remastered with bonus tracks, available in a box or separately. Stone followed with a solo album in 1975, a couple more Family Stone albums after that, but pretty much dropped from sight in the '80s and has rarely returned since. One thing that's missing from this crop is the 1970 Greatest Hits, which combined his title cuts "Dance to the Music" and "Life" with most of Stand and essential songs not found on the reissued albums: "Everybody Is a Star," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," and "Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." It represents the high point of a career that until then was progressively upbeat. Rarely has an artist more clearly changed trajectory than Sly did with Riot, let alone did it more brilliantly. Sly's downslope is customarily blamed on drugs, or maybe success, but it's equally true that the spirit of the times went into occlusion, like the twelfth Shiite imam. Sly's later attempts at recovering an upbeat vibe felt forced, and soon he gave up.

Sly & the Family Stone: A Whole New Thing (1967 [2007], Epic/Legacy): The future was still in Sly's mind, as he had yet to translate his vision into a lyric that makes you care, or a groove that lets you get past caring about the words; even when you think you hear something it's only because you know what's coming. C+

Sly & the Family Stone: Dance to the Music (1968 [2007], Epic/Legacy): The big improvement here is that the music is indeed danceable, although their repertoire is still so thin they wind up plundering the title song and "Higher" several times, even before the bonus tracks. B

Sly & the Family Stone: Life (1968 [2007], Epic/Legacy): The title cut finally puts together the uplifting upbeat anthem they've presumably been aiming at; the rest of the album shows growing professionalism, especially bassist Larry Graham; the bonus cuts dupe "Dynamite!" but not "Life," and add unreleased psychedelia. B+

Sly & the Family Stone: Stand! (1969 [2007], Epic/Legacy): Another great title anthem bringing his funk party mode to a thrilling peak; a hit single, "Everyday People," which pointed the way for the socially conscious soul of the early '70s; a jam called "Sex Machine" that gave James Brown ideas; angst and hope viz. race in an unsettled moment. A

Sly & the Family Stone: There's a Riot Goin' On (1971 [2007], Epic/Legacy): A mysterious masterpiece; an analogy might be to Smile, the unfinished Beach Boys album that thoroughly internalized a vibe you never really noticed before because all the surface glare pointed elsewhere; still sharp enough for a "Family Affair" hit, but "Thank You" picks up new messages presumably from Africa, and "Spaced Cowboy" is as obvious as it is unexpected. A

Sly & the Family Stone: Fresh (1973 [2007], Epic/Legacy): Sly was never more welcome than on "If You Want Me to Stay," but most of this is enigmatic; not sure whether "I Don't Know" represents greater wisdom or a subterfuge of mere confusion; nor whether "Keep On Dancin'" is rote or ironic; that both, indeed most of the songs here, work as pure pop shows he was blessed, or lucky -- probably both. A-

Sly & the Family Stone: Small Talk (1974 [2007], Epic/Legacy): Strange that Sly's Epic run ends not in drug oblivion but the gooey bliss depicted on the cover and in the booklet here; in contrast to the first album, this is skilled enough to pass, but lacks the ambition that makes us care. B-

Sly & the Family Stone: The Collection (1967-74 [2007], Epic/Legacy, 7CD): The box offers nothing extra beyond a more stable wrapper for seven albums -- two historical landmarks, others of more/less marginal historical interest; I tend to grade such things by the bottom rungs, but the service of history deserves a little slack here -- that is, after all, the only reason to want it all; on the other hand, this isn't all, as the missing Greatest Hits attests. B

Briefly Noted

Antonio Adolfo/Carol Saboya: Ao Vivo/Live (2005 [2007], Points South): Adolfo, a noted Brazillian pop composer, plays piano leading a small group; Saboya, his daughter, sings Brazilian standards, including one by dad; the music is typical of what in America would be called cabaret; both are charming, which is what makes cabaret work. B+

Mary J Blige: Reflections (A Retrospective) (1992-2006 [2006], Geffen): No dates, no notes, nothing admitting that the steadiest soul singer of the last decade is a fit subject for history; but are the four new cuts bait for profit taking, or just a relatively thin new album camouflaged with old hits that don't quite add up to a canon? B+

Colin Blunstone: One Year (1971 [2007], Water): First solo album by the Zombies' lead singer, with its tricky shifts, icky strings, and sedate horns a remarkable achievement in the arty-fication of Anglo chamber pop. B-

The Essential Toni Braxton (1992-2006 [2007], LaFace/Legacy, 2CD): The oldest of five sisters who worked as the Braxtons, she went solo with two hit albums, went bankrupt, and reorganized by focusing on skin, at odds with her voice; handlers like Babyface and R. Kelly helped, but not nearly enough to fill two discs from six albums. B

Jaki Byard: Sunshine of My Soul (1978 [2007], High Note): A pianist who could play roots and give it an edge, or play avant and still find his roots -- he reminds us of Mingus with a medley here; this one is solo piano, recorded live at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, a straight, forceful tour of his art. B+

Celebrate! Songs of Praise (1994-2006 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): The problem with modern gospel is simple enough: old-fashioned gospel used to try to compete with secular music in the hope of saving sinners, but the new stuff just tones secular music down, retreating to the safe catchphrases of praise; still, it's nowhere near as dumbed down as CCM, and does keep a beat. B

Celebrate! Songs of Worship (1994-2006 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): The surprising thing here is how many of these pieces fit neatly inside the soul music framework foregoing the raise-the-rafters enthusiasm that marks so much contemporary r&b as gospel-based; such songs make for easy, uneventful listening; exceptions include Tye Tribbett's call and response, Tramaine Jackson's sneaky elevation of "Amazing Grace," and Nancey Jackson, who simply didn't get the memo. B

Leonard Cohen: Songs From a Room (1968-69 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): On his sophomore album, his songs took a political turn, but as a Jewish Quebecois his framework was hardly topical in the US; the arrangements are even sparser, allowing little room for musical development, but he reveals "Bird on a Wire" -- his most memorable early song. B+

Leonard Cohen: Songs of Love and Hate (1970 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): Not consistently satisfying, but his wordcraft is as sharp as ever, his delivery is ever sharper, and he's learning to vary the music, including a couple of pieces that rock -- not so much in terms of beat or volume, but in primal aggressiveness. A-

Graham Collier's Hoarded Dreams (1983 [2007], Cuneiform): A reminder of the heyday of British modern jazz, when abstract compositions, amplified fusion, and explosive improvisation were all in the mix, mostly because they were loud, unruly, often ugly, and at times quite breathtaking. B+

Desert Roses Vol. IV (2002-06, CIA): This sampler series is one step removed from the label's bread-and-butter bellydance products -- a step toward techno and hip-hop, which appears more pronounced in the early going, and even the beats chill out toward the end; short on context as well as roots. B

Ibrahim Ferrer: Mi Sueño (1998-2005 [2007], World Circuit/Nonesuch): The Buena Vista Social Club crooner was working on this when he died in 2005, which has evidently been cleaned up from his demos; the pieces are boleros with elegant, uncomplicated arrangements -- they fit his voice and don't wear him out. B+

Frank Foster: Well Water (1977 [2007], Piadrum): Count Basie's New Testament saxophonist-arranger leads an unruly 20-piece big band monster, something he calls the Loud Minority Band; mostly overkill, but when they break down to a piano trio on the bonus track they rock and roll, and then dissolve to a drum solo, which is pure Elvin Jones. B

Eve Graham: The Mountains Welcome Me Home (2006, Scotdisc): The voice of the New Seekers, returned to Scotland with most of her songbook intact: "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," "Just an Old Fashioned Love Song," "Never Ending Song of Love," "Look What They've Done to My Song Ma," but hey, no "Georgy Girl"! B-

Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard (1966-2005 [2007], Capitol): First 19 cuts are canonical 1966-75 Capitol sides, with "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde" the only misstep; one classic each from MCA and Epic, two duets with Messrs. Nelson and Cash, three post-2001 cuts -- none bad, not even the Toby Keith duet, but this could have been better picked, or offer some surprises, or both. A

John Lee Hooker: Boom Boom (1992 [2007], Shout! Factory): The title song has less snap and less resonance than in the old days, but provides a starting point for an old, ancient even, pro, who walks his talkie blues like he's done for decades. B+

John Lee Hooker: Chill Out (1995 [2007], Shout! Factory): He varies so little that sorting out his records can be an arbitrary exercise, but the concept here doesn't do a man his age any favors; in particular, it leaves his "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" remake a little watered down. B

Hugh Hopper: Hopper Tunity Box (1976 [2007], Cuneiform): The Soft Machine's bassist, content to soft peddle fuzzy fusion grooves on his first solo album, with saxophonists Elton Dean and Gary Windo applying periodic shocks. B+

Niño Josele: Paz (2006, Calle 54): Flamenco guitarist, turned on to jazz when Bronx trumpeter Jerry González recruited Josele for a flamenco-themed album; this one meditates on Bill Evans, whose music, starting with "Peace Piece," comes off even more delicately on solo guitar, occasionally complemented by matching bits of trumpet (González, Tom Harrell), sax (Joe Lovano), or voice (Freddy Cole, Estrella Morente). B+

Listen My Friends! The Best of Moby Grape (1967-69 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): San Francisco band, sometimes credited with inventing country-rock on their much heralded first album -- liner notes suggest "the Byrds with the blues," but in retrospect they're more like Steppenwolf gone to seed, or maybe America's answer to the Move -- a question I can't recall anyone asking. B

Nils Petter Molvaer: Live: Streamer (2002 [2006], Thirsty Ear): Songbook from Khmer, Solid Ether, and NP3, all recommended albums, recycled in open air and real time, showcasing the Norwegian jazztronica trumpeter's ever-growing bag of tricks. A-

Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective: Wátina (2007, Cumbancha): The Garifuna are descendants of Arawak and Carib Indians and shipwrecked or escaped slaves, a distinct culture and language in Belize and Nicaragua and their diaspora; Palacio's music avoids the signatures of the region -- reggae's skank, calypso's wordplay, the idiosyncratic Latin beats -- for a deft pidgin that's hard to place. B+

Putumayo Presents: Women of the World Acoustic (1994-2006 [2007], Putumayo World Music): Album cover draws a thin caucasian woman with long red hair and acoustic guitar, the ideal here even if it doesn't reflect any of the actual women featured here: five from Europe, three from Africa, two from Latin America, a trio from Canada; pleasantly pointless, safe to say that if R. Crumb went to update Hot Women he wouldn't pick anyone here. B-

Secret Oyster: Sea Son (1974 [2006], The Laser's Edge): Danish instrumental group, not sure whether they intended to play fusion or progressive rock, but they're so upbeat they they missed the boat on krautrock -- probably too busy partying. B+

Slavic Soul Party! Technochek Collision (2007, Barbès): Another Gypsy brass band, rooted in the five boroughs of New York, with such atypical slavic names as Endsley, Noriega, and Toriyama; the leader is Claudia Quintet vibraphonist Matt Moran, who limits himself here to drums and composing everything not attributed to Trad. or Toussaint; accordion leads off, but it's the sheer mass of truba that waxes the floor. A-

Turbo Tabla: The Belly and the Beat (2006, CIA): Blurb quote: "an urbo-ethnic fusion of Arabesque grooves and melodies incorporating house, hip-hop and techno in a sensual eastern cocktail"; the bartender here is expat Egyptian drummer Karim Nagi, working behind an alias and title that are little more than clichés. B

Additional Consumer News


In an infinite universe, all the music you'll ever need already exists somewhere. We find more each month: revolutions of the '60s (James Brown, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Sly and the Family Stone) and beyond (Funkadelic), perennial blues (John Lee Hooker), techno jazz (Nils Petter Molvaer), trailer lit (Chris Knight), a world at play (Oojami, Andy Palacio, Slavic Soul Party); many more (43 records).


Copyright © 2007 Tom Hull.