A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: January, 2010

Recycled Goods (#70)

by Tom Hull

I don't plan on going with three album covers indefintely, but stumbled into it last time when I added Loudon Wainwright III late, and stumbled into it again this time. I've had the Coasters comp reviewed for quite a while, and wanted to show the cheap cover and its framing of the older, better edition cover -- besides which, it's a slam dunk pick hit. Then I figured I should do something to recognize the Willie Nelson section below. The obvious pick is the One Hell of a Ride box set, but when I fetched a cover scan, the supplemental packaging had been stripped away so you were left with a featureless tan (i.e., leather-like) tallbox with a little guitar-shaped embossing and no identifying print: not much to look at here. Then I finally got around to writing up a little something on Franco. I didn't want to hold it an extra month since I had already pegged it #2 on my Pazz & Jop ballot. And it's another slam dunk pick hit, at which point I thought of dropping Nelson.

Then I had another bright idea. The reason I held the Coasters back a couple of months is that I was toying with the idea of doing something much broader on Rhino's cheapo Flashback line, but never got into it -- partly because so many of the reissues are crap, but mostly because it proved nearly impossible to find necessary information on them. But it turns out that my favorite Willie Nelson compilation is another cheap Rhino set ($6.08 at cdconnection.com): Nite Life: Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks (1959-1971). I didn't include it in my research below because I had covered it way back when, but figured, what the hell, I'll throw the cover up and plug it here: nineteen early tracks, the songs Nelson built his songwriting reputation on, with every rare track as solid as the hits. That gives us three A+ album covers. Hard to top that.

The Coasters: The Very Best of the Coasters (1954-60 [2009], Rhino Flashback): A cheap copy of a 1993 compilation with 15 Leiber-Stoller classics and the equally brilliant "Shopping for Clothes" -- a set that should be in every rock library, unless you're fortunate to already own 50 Coastin' Classics (or Rhino Handmade's completist 113-track There's a Riot Goin' On: The Coasters on Atco). Part of a 1993-94 series of 16 song samplers that consistently worked both ways -- as introductions to novices and special treats to aficionados -- only a few have gotten the Flashback treatment, which tarnishes the artwork and no doubt kills the useful doc. The Drifters and the Shirelles are missing but equally brilliant. A+

Franco & Le TPOK Jazz: Francophonic, Vol. 2 (1980-89 [2009], Sterns Africa, 2CD): The other shoe drops, after the first Francophonic volume proved the most definitive accounting yet of the 1953-80 rise of the Congo's greatest bandleader. His last decade was chock full of long grooves with sweet and soaring guitar lines, first-rate singers, and irresistible percussion. Booklet helps too, but is unnecessary to get into the music. A+

Nirvana: Live at Reading (1992 [2009], DGC): I might have liked Nirvana more if everyone else liked them less, but more likely I wouldn't have noticed them at all. I never could hear the mudmouth vocals through the guitar din. At most I'd get a barbed word, something about lithium, or something about a gun. Cut the grunge and it was clear that they had some talent: the demos collection Incesticide showed some songcraft, and MTV Unplugged in New York offered them a human scale. But when Kurt Cobain became a poster boy for the NRA, I couldn't care less. A quickie live comp, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, muddied the waters further. This new one has the virtue of being a single set, running at high volume with little to vary or personalize the sound. The only song that caught my ear was something about building a machine and watching the money roll in. B [R]

In Series:

"Briefly Noted" appeared for the first time in the fourth Recycled Goods column, back in May 2003. The idea grew out of a bit of "Additional Consumer News" I tacked onto the April 2003 column. I had been writing a piece on Willie Nelson for The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, and in the process had slogged my way through a bunch of Nelson reissues. I listed those with one-line synopses, paving the way for "Briefly Noted."

This month Rolling Stone came back asking for an update for a new website project. I'm not sure what they're doing with the other 24 pieces I wrote, but combined they may not have more new records and reissues than Nelson has cranked out in the interim. I needed some space to sort out what I found, then thought why not do it here. Some are recycled; others are new but not that new. When I got through the obligatory ones, I looked through Rhapsody to see what else I may have missed, including the first time, and proceeded to note some of those. Admittedly, not all of them: I found no less than five different live records called On the Road Again, and four early comps called Face of a Fighter none matching Nelson's original 1978 release of 1960-vintage demos. Rhapsody lists more than 300 Nelson records, including a lot of redundant compilations and other things of uncertain provenance. (The booklet in Legacy's One Hell of a Ride has a gallery of 92 Nelson album covers. This seems to be the official list, minus at least four albums that have come out since.)

Also worth noting again that I reviewed Willie and the Wheel just last month. For my money it's the best individual album he's released since Stardust.

Willie Nelson: One Hell of a Ride (1954-2007 [2008], Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): The third or fourth "career spanning" box of Nelson's still unfinished career, and definitely not the last given that he's released one great album (Willie and the Wheel in 2009) and several good ones since the cutoff date, but at age 75 this sets the standard. The package is slim but the booklet runs 96 pages, with all the pictures you'll ever need, and more credits than you usually get. The songs pick their way through the years, not an obvious canon but plenty of fond memories, and less obvious ones that get by as Nelson so often does, with charm and a golden voice. A

Willie Nelson: Legends of the Grand Ole Opry (1964-67 [2008], Time/Life): "Nashville was the roughest" not for lack of songs or voice, but maybe charisma, which Nelson found in Austin; nothing here he didn't do better in the studio, often in demos licensed so loosely you can find them in dozens of competing cheapo product. B

Willie Nelson: Naked Willie (1966-70 [2009], RCA Nashville/Legacy): Pooh on Chet Atkins, as Nelson finally gets the chance to offer his own mixes, shorn of the string and choral treacle Atkins so loved; limiting is that they could only work on multitrack masters which appeared in the latter half of Nelson's RCA tenure, so these aren't his best songs, and sometimes he sings too forcefully once the competing dreck is removed; conversely, back on 1965's Country Willie: His Own Songs the songs and singer were so great not even Atkins could ruin them. B+(**)

Willie Nelson: The Party's Over and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs (1967, RCA): Nelson's relationship songs are so devoid of feeling it's not surprising that he ultimately ditched them for a life of crime -- he breaks up so often you wonder how he ever managed to get hitched in the first place; the strings may be meant to soften the blow, but they just turn maudlin. B [R]

Willie Nelson: Texas in My Soul (1968, RCA): Texas-born, you'd think Nelson might have something to say about his home state, but given the chance he opts for 11 covers, mostly dull geography -- "Dallas," "San Antonio," "Streets of Laredo," "The Hill Country Theme" -- and angst over the Alamo; Ernest Tubb provides the only saving grace. B- [R]

Willie Nelson: Good Times (1969, RCA): Loneliness as existential dread, sometimes in songs arranged as sparsely as their sentiments, once or twice in songs gushing with Chet Atkins wrappers. B [R]

Willie Nelson: My Own Peculiar Way (1969, RCA): The title track is wrapped up in the full-blown string treatment and nearly swamped, as is much else here; five covers are hit and miss, but his own songs hold up, and he sings them with subtle flair. B+(*) [R]

Willie Nelson: Both Sides Now (1970, RCA): Joni Mitchell title song picked up fresh, with "Crazy Arms" and "Wabash Cannonball" up front to mark this as country -- not countrypolitan; more covers than usual, but the songwriter works five of his own in, including "I Gotta Get Drunk" and "Bloody Mary Morning." B+(**) [R]

Willie Nelson: Laying My Burdens Down (1970, RCA): Starts promisingly, with a good title original, and survives the Atkins treatment on "Senses"; on the other hand, Nelson's "Where Do You Stand?" is overblown, and a cover called "Minstrel Man" is an atrocity three final originals are hard pressed to overcome. B [R]

Willie Nelson: Willie Nelson & Family (1971, RCA): Without credits, I don't know how this relates to Willie's later Family (i.e., his band); half covers, top drawer stuff -- not that "Fire and Rain" suits him -- but he seems determined to solve the overproduction problem by singing operatically. C+ [R]

Willie Nelson: Yesterday's Wine (1971, RCA): First half follows a concept about a "flawed man" charged by God to deliver the message to his fellows: down to don't dwell on the numerous bad times, and don't try to understand -- that's God's job; fills out with several remarkable songs, including his road anthem "Me and Paul." A- [R]

Willie Nelson: The Words Don't Fit the Picture (1972, RCA): Title song is clunky, and everything else -- all Nelson originals, two with co-credits -- is prety scattered; the one with Waylon Jennings, "Good Hearted Woman," made its first appearance here, but made a bigger impression four years later, on Wanted! The Outlaws. B [R]

Willie Nelson: The Willie Way (1972, RCA): A set of solid but unremarkable Nelson songs, supplemented with one from Kristofferson that's up to snuff, and "Mountain Dew" for its hayseed factor. B+(**) [R]

Willie Nelson: Stardust (Legacy Edition) (1976-90 [2008], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Nelson's 1978 album of venerable Tin Pan Alley standards marked his emergence as a great interpretive singer, and was his bestseller to boot; the first disc doesn't tamper with the short original 10-cut package, so it remains as pristine as ever; the bonus cherry picks 16 similar cuts from 9 albums, a little more scattered, but better as a whole than his occasional more explicit returns to the Stardust formula. A-

Willie Nelson: Pretty Paper (1979, Columbia): A quickie Christmas album, wrapped up in the original title song -- about as secular as you can do in the season -- and a slight little instrumental called "Christmas Blues"; that's all the ideas they had, so for filler they picked ten songs everyone's done, and budgeted two minutes for each -- except for "Silent Night," which as you know tends to drag on and on. B [R]

Willie Nelson: Tougher Than Leather (1983, Columbia): A cowboy-gunfighter-damsel concept album, like Red Headed Stranger but more oblique, which is to say he bothered to write the whole thing -- except for a "Beer Barrel Polka" interlude, that is -- if not necessarily to figure it out; widely trashed when it came out, it actually holds up pretty well, partly because Nelson's loose narrative style has been missing ever since. B+(***) [R]

Willie Nelson: Without a Song (1983, Columbia): Another mild-mannered standards rehash, done with a minimum of fuss and bother, the only thing that breaks with the genteel strum and twang is guest Julio Iglesias on "As Time Goes By," which he dispenses with his bombast. B [R]

Willie Nelson: City of New Orleans (1984, Columbia): Steve Goodman's title song was good for a hit but not for emulation; Nelson prefered mopey ballads with strings, and penned only one song, defensively, "Why Are You Picking on Me?" B- [R]

Willie Nelson: A Horse Called Music (1989, Columbia): A short and slight album, with a worthy Beth Nielsen Chapman hit ("Nothing I Can Do About It Now"), three originals (two recycled, "Mr. Record Man" from back in 1962), some other hit and miss stuff -- I can buy into the title track, but not "If I Were a Painting." B [R]

Willie Nelson: Healing Hands of Time (1994, Liberty): Another standards album -- even if six are by Nelson himself, most are as familiar as "All the Things You Are" and "I'll Be Seeing You"; massive string orchestras aren't my idea of how to do anything, but they offset a truly remarkable voice. B [R]

Willie Nelson: Just One Love (1995 [1996], Justice): Title track is a touching duet with songwriter Kimmie Rhodes; most of the filler is classic honky tonk -- "Cold Cold Heart," "It's a Sin," "This Cold War With You," "Four Walls" -- but there's also the classic novelty "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)," and Grandpa Jones takes over to drive "Eight More Miles to Louisville" straight into the ground. B+(**) [R]

Willie Nelson: Nacogdoches (1997 [2004], Pedernales): Sold exclusive at Texas Roadhouse restaurants, a scrap session, billed as jazz but really old standards including another run through "Stardust"; actually his best such record except for his original Stardust, probably because he enjoys the company and has nothing at stake. A-

Willie Nelson: It Always Will Be (2004, Lost Highway): Three originals, the title song as simple and indelible as Nelson gets; a couple by other Nelsons and some choice filler, including a drinking song that claims "I've been thrown into better places than this"; three duets, with Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams attesting to Nelson's star power. B+(***)

Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws and Angels (2004, Lost Highway): Friends include Al Green, Ben Harper, Rickie Lee Jones, Carole King, Toots Hibbert, Holmes Brothers, Los Lonely Boys, Kid Rock, Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Richards, Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, Toby Keith, and (most important) Merle Haggard; they do what they do, and have a good time doing it. B+(**)

Willie Nelson: Countryman (1995-2004 [2005], Lost Highway): Ganja on the cover, but Nelson's reggae album is played straight, with two Jimmy Cliff songs and one duet with Toots Hibbert the seeds for the usual delightful riddims; the idea seems to be to cross one of Nelson's songs over like Toots did to "Country Roads"; pleasant enough, but none of the songs here catches a fire, much less inhales. B

Willie Nelson: You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker (2006, Lost Highway): Walker wrote some 500 songs, hits for everyone from Bing Crosby to Mickey Gilley, with Bob Wills recording more than 50; if you don't know her, you probably don't know who Fred Rose is either, but you should still recognize the title song, if not from Eddy Arnold then from Ray Charles; I recognize most of the songs, and Nelson sweeps them all. A-

Willie Nelson: Songbird (2006, Lost Highway): A Ryan Adams album with a better singer, but Adams' indistinct rock backdrop provides more grout than structure; Nelson wanders over a soundscape where even his own songs seem like strangers, the sole find being Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," ending as "Sad Songs and Waltzes" turns into a gloomy Adams-arranged "Amazing Grace." B

Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price: Last of the Breed (2007, Lost Highway, 2CD): Price is the senior honky tonker, the guy you don't instantly recognize, but he holds this collection of songs that show his age together, especially the Jesus songs; the other two make it special. A-

Willie Nelson: Moment of Forever (2008, Lost Highway): The guest catalyst this time is Kenny Chesney, who duets on one song, co-wrote another, and co-produced the set, not that he actually adds much; in the end an average Nelson album, with Nelson borrowing more than he writes, his Randy Newman cover welcome and his Bob Dylan all but inevitable. B+(*)

Willie Nelson: Lost Highway (2002-08 [2009], Lost Highway): Nelson's signing to Universal's alt-Nashville label seemed promising, but his seven years there produced a mixed bag, with a couple of superb vintage country sets and a maddening mess of bad ideas -- guest duets, reggae, Ryan Adams; the good albums yield good cuts, the not-so-good ones don't, and four unreleaseds just confuse, from the gender-crossing "Cowboys Are Frequently Fond of Each Other" to the homophobic "Ain't Going Down on Brokeback Mountain"; go figure. B

Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis: Two Men With the Blues (2007 [2008], Blue Note): Neither man has the first damn reason to be blue, but both are such pros they can play along with the concept; Marsalis's band brings a little New Orleans jump to the affair, the brass brightens the room, and the singer is a class act, with songs worth hearing him sing -- not least, Merle Travis's "That's All." B+(***)

Willie Nelson: American Classic (2009, Blue Note): A return to Stardust territory, vintage standards elegantly swung and sung, with Lewis Nash anchoring the mainstream band; Diana Krall and Norah Jones join for duets, the latter warming up "Baby It's Cold Outside." B+(**)

Briefly Noted

William Basinski: 92982 (1982 [2009], 2062): An archive tape of gently oscillating subminimal electronics, sometimes wrapped in a faint halo around a repeated piano figure. B+(**) [R]

Sun Ra: Interplanetary Melodies: Doo Wop From Saturn and Beyond, Vol. One (1950s [2009], Norton): A few doo wop singles from the 1950s, including a Christmas chant anyone could have improved on; a groove track called "Africa" that showed up on a 1966 album, a bunch of previously unissued material, including a fractured "Summertime"; a bit of spoken word -- stuff that kicks back and forth between quirky and too trivial to bother with. B [R]

Sun Ra: The Second Stop Is Jupiter: Doo Wop From Saturn and Beyond, Vol. Two (1950s [2009], Norton): More odds than sods, as they mix a couple more known singles with a lot of tape scraps, all with vocals, though most unreleased for good reasons -- not that he ever did anything completely uninteresting. B- [R]

Sun Ra: Nidhamu/Dark Myth Equation Visitation (1971 [2009], Art Yard): A series of impromptu concerts from a visit to Egypt, with Ra on his Moog and the band on instruments borrowed from the army; some solo keyb, some pieces with drums and backing vocals, a lot of odd constructions, nothing likely to blow you away, but plenty to think about. B+(*) [R]

Sun Ra: The Antique Blacks (1974 [2009], Art Yard): A small group live shot that wound up on Saturn in 1978 and languished in extreme obscurity, distinguished by lots of quirky rockish synth and tuneless vocals with occasional honks and screeches from the horns; by normal people this would be desperate but, of course, there's nothing normal about it. B+(**) [R]

Manfred Schoof: European Echoes (1969 [2002], Atavistic): Two LP-side-long bashes with a 16-piece avant band, distinguished not by teamwork but by blistering solos from the young men who moved the movement: saxophonists Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann, guitarist Derek Bailey, pianists Fred Van Hove and Alexander von Schlippenbach, and ultimately the undersung trumpeter-leader. B+(***) [R]

Tom Waits: Glitter and Doom Live (2008 [2009], Anti-, 2CD): One disc of songs, ground down by a grungy band that generates deep-grounded momentum and growled out by a guy who can't exactly sing but projects so much feeling it hardly matters anyway; second disc is a 35-minute stand-up routine from a guy who marvels over the perversity of the natural as well as the manmade world; it's worth listening to once, maybe again. B+(**) [R]

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 (1968 [2008], Reprise): Transitioning from Buffalo Springfield to his solo career -- here very much alone -- Young talks a lot about songwriting and can get technical about it; his high voice is fresh, his guitar fluffs up his songs rather than plays them. B [R]

Neil Young: Dreamin' Man Live '92 (1992 [2009], Reprise): No band, just just singer with guitar and harmonica -- one cut each on banjo and piano -- unplugging his countryish retreat on Harvest Moon, shortly after he wrecked his amplifiers on Arc-Weld; he can, of course, carry his tunes, and they sink ever deeper, not least the bitter closer, "War of Man." B+(***) [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 © 2010 Tom Hull.