A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: December, 2009

Recycled Goods (#69)

by Tom Hull

After two months of working overtime I came up short this month, which is liable to happen with schedules but no plans. One reason was the need to spend time on year-end lists, so it seemed fitting that I might fill this column out with some of the year's best new records. Needing to draw the line somewhere, I restricted myself to tributes and live albums -- new albums of old songs. That left out my year's rave -- Lily Allen's It's Not Me, It's You -- and plenty more, but it gives you plenty to chew on.

Karrin Allyson: By Request: The Best of Karrin Allyson (1993-2007 [2009], Concord): Kansas girl, started out with a clean, wholesome take on songbook standards, and wrote a bit -- her sole original here, "Sweet Home Cookin' Man," fairly stands out. I'm not sure that I like her 1996 "Cherokee," but her scat and Kim Park's slurred alto sax show her trying to do something interesting with the jazz tradition. Same can be said for her efforts to play off Coltrane. On the other hand, her early and recurring interest in Brazilian pop yields little -- she identifies "O Pato" as one of her signature songs, which makes it all the harder to put aside. Sort this chronologically and and it becomes clear that her career has been tailing off. After eleven albums, good time to catch her breath and take stock. B+(*)

Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (1970 [2009], Columbia/Legacy): Seems like an afterthought appearing after Cohen's marvelous Live in London (2009), where he has songs -- especially from his 1988-92 albums I'm Your Man and The Future -- that project to full stadium weight. This shows many of the same tactics, such as starting a song off by reciting a verse. His songbook was much slimmer then, and far less familiar to me, but there was far more to it than the now canonical trio of "Bird on a Wire," "Goodbye Marianne," and "Suzanne" -- all present and account for here. So this is intriguing more in retrospect than it ever was momentous -- a rough diamond whose matter of fact sexuality and self-amusing turn of phrase are still striking. B+(***) [R]

Warne Marsh & Lee Konitz: Two Not One (1975 [2009], Storyville, 4CD): Lennie Tristano's two most famous disciples on their first visit to Denmark, playing three nights at Montmartre in Copenhagen in early December and a fourth just after Christmas, plus a couple of studio sessions. Some feature tenor saxophonist Marsh in trio and quartet settings, but most add Konitz's slippery alto sax for a quintet. Storyville has been dipping into these tapes for years, but the effect of piling them up is cumulative, especially as they plot their own paths through well worn standards. A- [R]

Big Jay McNeely: Nervous (1949-59 [1995], Saxophile): A tenor saxman with a honking bold sound but not much finesse and no interest in bebop filigree, McNeely blasted the jukeboxes in the 1950s, with occasional hits but no real albums to speak of. Someone with access to the scattered scraps could put a terrific 2-CD sampler together, maybe even a Proper 4-CD Box. Rhapsody has six reissues up dated 2009, labelled Jay McNeely Masters, but I haven't found them anywhere for sale. In any case, I picked this one because it matches a compilation I could find a little discographical information on, and it turns out to be a fair sample of his work: 19 cuts, 6 live, a couple alternates. A few have vocals and "Roadhouse Boogie" turns on inspired wicked sharp jive. The live "Body and Soul" was so uninteresting that McNeely wandered into another melody, but his jump blues are really acrobatic, and most of the album burns white hot. B+(***) [R]

Briefly Noted

Maria de Barros: Morabeza (2009, Sheer Group): Born in Senegal, grew up in Mauritania, and has lived and moved all over, but she maintains allegiance to the Cape Verdean music of her parents, and of Cesaria Evora; lithe Portuguese soul music, familiar from Brazil but just a shade different. B+(**)

Chris Knight: Trailer II (1996 [2009], Drifter's Church): Carries on from The Trailer Tapes, more demos from just before Knight's debut album; just voice and guitar, focusing straight on the sharply observed songs -- most good enough they're on his first two albums. B+(***) [R]

Kottarashky: Opa Hey! (2009, Asphalt Tango): Bulgarian techno, sampling trad instruments paced through gypsy grooves, steadied with more conventional electronics and served up as if the future looks bright. B+(***)

Roscoe Mitchell: The Solo Concert (1973, AECO): Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist goes solo, with squeaky soprano, thudding bass, several weights in between; he moves cautiously, picking out logical paths and sonics, nothing too straight or all that crooked, just raw thought. B+(*) [R]

Panama! 2: Latin Sounds, Cumbia Tropical and Calypso Funk on the Isthmus 1967-77 (1967-77 [2009], Soundway): Rough, upbeat singles soaking up the main currents of the region, drawing on Cuba, Trinidad, Colombia, maybe even some gringo rock and soul, or maybe just digging deeper into the worldview of a country torn in half due to a geologic fluke and the yankee boot. A- [R]

Year-End Bonus: Old Wine, New Bottles

Not that nothing new struck my fancy this year, but a lot of the year's better records recycled old songs in one form or another.

Leonard Cohen: Live in London (2008 [2009], Columbia, 2CD): The songbook leans heavy on two 1988-92 albums that thrust the Canadian poet-turned-chansonnier back into the limelight as an aging rake with a whiff of revolution: I'm Your Man and The Future, the latter noting events in Tianamen Square and promising that democracy will come to the USA. It's repertoire now, along with three survivors from his early songbook and a few latecomers, all things that anyone who's paid the least attention knows by heart. Cohen presides gracefully, modestly introducing his band and his chorus (Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters) time and again, and situating himself some 100 floors below Hank Williams in the "tower of song" -- no doubt in one of the more comfortable circles of hell. And he draws his loudest reaction to an offhand remark about his "golden voice" -- a rare case of irony remade into prophecy. A+

Willie Nelson/Alseep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel (2009, Bismeaux): Ray Benson's band started in 1969 in the bluegrass hills of West Virginia, but found western swing when they landed in Austin, and have been dallying with it ever since. Their 1993 Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was too respectful, but their 1999 Ride With Bob caught the spirit, with no small amount of help from guests like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson -- although they were outnumbered by by the Vince Gills and Tim McGraws, the Dixie Chicks and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Here they just settle on Willie, who's a lot more comfortable in the saddle here than he's been in years. A

Loudon Wainwright III: High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project (2009, 161, 2CD): Poole was a banjo playing songster who lived fast and died young, cutting enough singles from 1925-30 to fill three (County) or four (JSP) CDs. He never wrote a song, but he owned plenty of them, drawing on trad. and W.C. Handy and anyone else who caught his fancy. Columbia/Legacy released a 3-CD box in 2005 (You Ain't Talkin' to Me) that attempted to discern his magic by mixing in other singer's versions, a scholarly trick that, like everything Poole touches, turned out to be endlessly listenable. Wainwright's approach is to not only remake old Poole songs but write a few new ones hoping Poole would have taken them. Certainly the title cut was the anthem Poole never had. The spouse-ready "The Man in the Moon," sung by Maggie Roche, might have taken him aback. A

Jonatha Brooke: The Works (2008, BDR): Mostly Woody Guthrie lyrics, plucked from the hundreds he never found melodies for; she rises to the occasion, braving the wilds, displaying a surprising appetite for danger, and not necessarily just to the heart. A

Ralph Carney's Serious Jass Project (2009, Akron Cracker): Nouveau trad jazz, which means not only do they merge old Dixieland with Ellingtonian swing, and for good measure they tap into r&b honker Big Jay McNeely, who was never considered serious or jass in his heyday, but sixty years on is one of the good ol' good 'uns. A-

Rosanne Cash: The List (2009, Manhattan): Selections from a list dad jotted down of songs everyone should know; she's so used to writing her own you might be surprised how authoritative her renderings are. A-

Marianne Faithfull: Easy Come Easy Go (2009, Decca): Hal Wilner's jazz buddies fit right in, and his taste in songs helps out, especially the pairing of Dolly Parton's "Down From Dover" with an English accent that never suggests Tennessee; I would have pared back the guest list, but Keith can stay. A-

The Hold Steady: A Positive Rage (2009, Vagrant): Does what a live album should do: distills a remarkable four-album catalog into a superb show, cranks up the energy a notch, adds a little personal touch, especially at the end. A- [R]

Nellie McKay: Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (2009, Verve): Day was always an icon to normalcy, starting at a time when a return to normalcy was something most Americans desired; McKay turns that normalcy into something strangely hip, partly by uncovering the jazz roots behind the big blands, partly because normalcy is its own reward. A-

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2008 [2009], Listen to the Lion): A faithful rendition, except for a voice wisened through forty years wear, and a growing sense that what was once mysterious is now just miraculous. A-

Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy: Good Time Music for Hard Times (2009, Stony Plain): Two new Dan Hicks songs fit in with the Depression-era oldies, about failing banks and two-timing preachers, but while she recognizes that "the panic is on," she's two steps ahead of the mob, fighting to pick herself up, and have a good time in the process. A-

Tanya Tucker: My Turn (2009, Saguaro Road): Starting out as Nashville jailbait, she's always sung songs over her age, but past 50 leaves her with timeless classics -- Hank Williams, Lefty Frizell, Faron Young, George Jones, Don Gibson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard -- nailing them all. A- [R]

Legend: B+ records are divided into three levels, where more * is better. [R] indicates record was reviewed using a stream from Rhapsody. The biggest caveat there is that the packaging and documentation hasn't been inspected or considered.

Copyright 2009 Tom Hull.